Revisiting Tom Baker’s original Doctor Who novel: SCRATCHMAN - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Revisiting Tom Baker’s original Doctor Who novel: SCRATCHMAN

Moo gets stuck in with Tom Baker’s original Doctor Who story.

There was a lot of hype through late 2018 for BBC Books’s Scratchman, released in January 2019 fresh off the resounding meh of series eleven. This is understandable of course, considering the context. The story started life back in the 1970s as a planned movie adaptation of Doctor Who that the Fourth Doctor himself, Tom Baker, was to both co-write and star in. His collaborator on writing duties was Ian Marter, also set to reprise his TV role of Harry Sullivan. And yet the story kept not getting made, until now.

Were Ian Marter still with us, no doubt he’d have written this once it got commissioned. He has history here, with a number of Target novelisations to his name. Alas it was not to be, and so Baker is joined instead by regular Big Finish stalwart James Goss, as reliable a pair of hands as you’ll find from those audio dramatists who love stories. In fact, I’m fairly sure that Goss ghost-wrote it.

But that’s enough stalling. Is Scratchman actually any good? I won’t delay any longer, the answer to that is a resounding yes!

The story is narrated by the Doctor, but it’s written (sort of) by Tom Baker, so that’s absolutely fine by me. Surely if anyone is permitted to write “as” the Doctor it’s him. He frames his story between each chapter with a set-up lifted straight out of another Dr. Baker’s repertoire, the Doctor is once again on trial by the Time Lords for something. This in-universe justifies the narration of course, but it also goes deeper than that. One major plot point throughout the story has the Time Lords (and us) asking why he is telling this particular story. The answer, when it comes, is satisfying enough. This is a story that forces the Doctor to confront what he believes and who he is.

But before that, we have opening sequences to deal with. Baker’s Doctor is having a nice time with Harry and Sarah Jane before all hell literally breaks loose. It’s all set on one small island community that gets invaded by scarecrows. The Doctor takes the residents to safety in a church but Sarah Jane is forced into the TARDIS to hide, leading her into a truly horrific exploration into the time machine as the dark evil corrupts it. It’s not a spoiler to say that this is far more interesting than when the show has tried something similar. (Looking at you Mr. Thompson!)

We get loads of horror set pieces as the villagers are picked off one by one through mistrust and oneupmanship, being transformed into the scarecrows themselves by some unknown force, and overall it wouldn’t feel out of place in the 1970s. You could easily see this storyline airing in Season 13 or 14, and it appears to be set in that era, chronologically it seems to be between Revenge of the Cybermen and Terror of the Zygons. It’s after everyone is finished off that the story finally comes to life. Firstly we learn that the transformation was caused by a familiar classic monster. But then it goes deeper. Suddenly the Doctor and his friends are drawn into some parallel hellscape. This is where the story leaves the 70s behind and becomes a very modern Doctor Who story.

As the Doctor is drawn into hell he is driven in a taxi towards the devil, or Scratch as he’s called here. (Well, he claims to be the devil. It’s left ambiguous if that’s actually true.) The taxi scene is beautiful, the Doctor is laid bare here and confronts his own mortality. He wonders whether this is what all his incarnations go through as they give way to the next one. In a particular highlight, the three before him all show up in this hellscape as monsters lifted straight out of a Tim Burton movie. It’s delightfully bonkers and horrific simultaneously, and would definitely send some kids behind their sofas if this was ever filmed. They’re not the only other Doctors in this either, also look out for the woman with rainbows across her hearts.

The final acts of the story are set in Scratch’s castle, hovering over a lake of lava in a very Ganon’s Castle sort of way. The imagery throughout is amazing, and Scratch’s attempt to torture the Doctor is fantastic. His attempts initially fail and are undercut by the Doctor (jelly-babies and all) but it soon turns around and the Doctor is finally forced to admit he is afraid. It’s here we get the scenes with giant pinballs, a black knight, and other increasingly bonkers concepts.

Eventually the castle does come down, as expected, and the Doctor and his friends return to the real world. But the adventure has shaken them. It’s great to see this being acknowledged: Normally the companions move from one traumatic adventure to the next with little consequence in the classic series. The worst offenders are when Nyssa and Tegan mourned Adric for all of two minutes or when Steven randomly gives up on leaving despite seeing everyone massacred for three stories back to back. It’s set in-continuity so this story can only go so far, but the ending scenes do acknowledge this and it’s a great thing to see.

Overall Scratchman is a great story then. It’s the sort of thing that could’ve been a classic of both sci-fi and horror if it had actually been made, but equally I’m not convinced they could’ve done the imagery justice with the budget back in the 70s. With that in mind, I’ll gladly take this book version. But it’s a shame that by necessity it is left in this medium. On screen or even on audio it would’ve been a fan-favourite, though for obvious reasons that wasn’t feasible here. In the book medium, it feels unlikely it can achieve that status. Hopefully it will be able to transcend the overlooked status that modern Doctor Who novels are sadly relegated to.

I suppose only time will tell. But I recommend checking this one out if you can.

“Moo” is the pseudonym used by this Doctor Who fan. He can usually be found procrastinating by thinking about Doctor Who. Follow him on Twitter @z_p_moo for more of his unusual takes, but do so at your own risk.

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