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Book Review: Scratchman by Tom Baker

It sometimes feels that, after 56 years, there’s little left to surprise you about Doctor Who. Thanks to the efforts of your Keith Barnfathers, Andrew Pixleys and Toby Hadokes, there are surely very few stones left unturned in our quest for Who knowledge. And yet, Tom Baker’s new novel Scratchman is one of those rare things, a surprise. Baker’s ability to craft a macabre and magical adventure was never in doubt for anyone who’s read interviews or his previous two books Who on Earth is Tom Baker? and The Boy Who Kicked Pigs.

What catches the reader off guard is that Baker has also managed to give us an emotionally robust Doctor Who story about what it means to be the Doctor in an affectionate and affecting tribute to the character to whom he, and we owe so much.

Jacket artwork for "Scratchman"
Jacket artwork for “Scratchman” by Two Associates

The behind the scenes story of Scratchman is well documented, but we’ll briefly return to it. Back in the 1970s, at the height of Baker’s powers, he and Ian Marter cooked up a Doctor Who feature film script which would pit the Doctor against the Devil. Inspired by Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, there would be evil scarecrows, Daleks, a giant pinball table, and Vincent Price would play the Devil! Whilst the idea found a writer and director in the form of James Hill, and got to the script stage, it was never produced and has remained one of Doctor Who’s few unanswered What If questions.

Until now.

Movie poster design for "Dr Who Meets Scratchman"
Movie poster design for “Dr Who Meets Scratchman” by Stuart Manning

Tom Baker, with the help of prolific Doctor Who author James Goss has finally adapted his movie as a novel from BBC books. Much of Baker and Marter’s original ideas remain, with a sprinkling of nods to a future that would have been inconceivable in the mid-1970s. The Doctor, Sarah and Harry materialise on a sleepy Scottish island where an ancient power is turning the villagers into twisted, terrifying scarecrows. In their attempt to save the villagers, the Doctor and his friends end up in a mind-boggling battle with the Devil himself, the titular Scratchman.

Some concessions are made to the fact that this is a novel rather than a feature film. Instead of unfolding like a traditional adventure, this is a story told to the Time Lords, by the Doctor to delay his execution. The Gallifreyan Nights, if you will. The book is therefore written in the first person, from the perspective of the Doctor himself. Such a narrative device was always a bit of a no-no in Doctor Who books from the Target days onwards. However, if any writer could give their readers an insight into the impossible mind of the Doctor, it’s Tom Baker (and, for good or ill, Steven Moffat).

It’s always been difficult to tell where Baker begins and the Doctor ends, or indeed vice versa and that vein of ambiguity runs through every page of Scratchman. There’s that tone of melancholic, wistful nostalgia that inflects much of Baker’s recent contributions to the Classic Series’ BluRay range. The Doctor’s fondness for his companions Sarah and Harry is clearly rooted in Baker’s own affection for his friends Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter, both of whom are sadly no longer with us.

Baker’s sense of mischief is another thing that leaps off the page. There’s a cheeky reference to Worzel Gummidge that you can picture the Fourth Doctor delivering to camera with a wry grin and glint in the eye. He also deploys some wonderful, evocative turns of phrase which delight and disgust in equal measure.

“…their faces open in what could have been just an ‘oh’ of surprise, but looked like a horrible wooden choir screaming in silent and perpetual agony.”

Passages like that call to mind some of the more grisly moments of an Ian Marter or Gerry Davis penned Target novel as well as evoking the “Hammer horror at teatime” feel of Baker’s early years in the role.

Doctor Who has a decades-long association with novelisations and original stories but Scratchman is something utterly unique. An authentic slice of gothic horror by way of Holmes and Hinchcliffe, and a fascinating insight into both the character of the Fourth Doctor and the actor who played him.

Indeed, the letter from the Doctor that closes the novel is as much a letter from Tom Baker as it is from our titular Timelord. “I hope I’ve been a good Doctor. I hope you’ve enjoyed having me around.” It’s something of an understatement to agree that Tom has been a good Doctor, and it’s been noted time and time again how wonderfully he weaves a yarn. How brilliant it is to have this novel, which is the perfect combination of Tom Baker the storyteller and Tom Baker the Doctor. It may have taken over 40 years but Scratchman has definitely been worth the wait.

Doctor Who: Scratchman by Tom Baker

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: BBC Books (24 Jan. 2019)
  • Available here