Image Credit: James Ashworth
Rory Salt reviews the adaptation of the Scratchman script, by Tom Baker
‘You see, even the Time Lords are afraid of something. And tonight, I’m going to show you what that is. Are you sitting comfortably? Of course you are. And I’m rather afraid that’s the problem…’
Amongst the library of unfinished Doctor Who projects, from The Dark Dimension to the cancelled, Fox-produced, Eighth Doctor series, Scratchman has always stood out. Originally created by Tom Baker and Ian Marter in their free time while filming 1974’s Season 12, the adventure was pitched first as a script for the next season, and later as a feature film. Despite Baker’s continued presence on the show, and Marter’s own role in Target novelisations, the project never proceeded much further than the planning stage. Yet, the involvement of some of the shows’ most popular actors has inevitably led to sustained interest in the project, leading now to its release as a book.
Novelised by Baker himself, with the help of James Goss, the novel is unique, not just for the history of its production, but in its style. The book has two separate and distinct parts – ‘The Long Night’ and ‘Scratchman’, while a discussion between the Doctor and some Time Lords frames the main story as the Doctor reminisces to the group. This set up allows for some interesting foreshadowing, and moments which very nearly break the fourth wall. This is only heightened by the perspective with which the doctor addresses the group – first person – and with the whole book written in this style, it is certainly the book’s most controversial element, with some justification. While this perspective can offer some endearing qualities, such as the Doctor’s personal feelings towards Sarah and Harry, it doesn’t necessarily match up to what we might imagine he would be thinking. Herein lies the problem. The character of the Doctor on TV is purposefully surrounded by mystery, and dependent on our own interpretation. Whether it’s the Cartmel masterplan, or the hiding of an entire regeneration in the wake of the time war, the character is shrouded in mystery. If we knew the Doctor intimately, and saw exactly what he saw, then there would be no point in the companion. They are our gateway, not only into the universe at hand but into the character of the Doctor himself. In the absence of this role for either Sarah or Harry, they serve little purpose in the narrative. While difficult to adjust to at first, the perspective grew tolerable, especially in such a story whereby the Doctor’s own thoughts and feelings are so critical. The knowledge that the story is penned by an author more intimately related to the character than perhaps anyone else also helps, but I firmly believe this style should not become the norm.
The story does succeed, however, in shrouding the titular villain, the Scratchman, in mystery. He serves as an excellent opponent to the Doctor, and a genuine challenge. The themes the novel touches upon – faith, fear and sin – are reminiscent of The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, and similar to that story, Scratchman would have benefitted from being visualised on-screen. Some of the imagery is striking; from scarecrows dancing in fertilized air to the later hellish setting, the novel lives up to the expectations of a motion picture. This is tempered somewhat by some spoilery elements, which do edge the story towards fan service for the sake of it. Familiar friends and foes make appearances which, while entertaining to see through Baker’s eyes, almost make the book seem like glorified fan-fiction at times. Yet, in an age where one-time companion Katarina returns to Big Finish, and the villainous Salamander battles the Third doctor in Titan comics, this does not seem out of place; quite the contrary in fact! It is also worth saying that while I dwell on this more derivative content, the novel is full of fascinating imagery and ideas that are deeply personal to Baker’s own history. As a one-time novice monk, Baker’s themes of faith and fear conjure up much more than mere fan service, though it does sometimes threaten to spill over.
Overall, while there are some issues with this much anticipated novel, most notably its narrative perspective, it should not overshadow the real achievements within. The villain in particular is memorable, and succeeds in standing out amongst the quagmire of Doctor Who foes. It moves at a brisk and foreboding pace, while dealing with some genuinely challenging concepts that further develop the characters. In addition, it has the oddball factor of being penned by the actor of the character, not seen since Harry Sullivan’s War in 1986, and Baker’s input is clear throughout. What I find most satisfying about Doctor Who is that moment after the adventure is over, when the characters and audience get time to consider what has just occurred. Just like the characters, you breathe a sigh of relief at the long journey you have just witnessed, and the events that have occurred. Scratchman features such a moment when the characters return to what they were doing just before the adventure began, playing rounders on the beach. As such, the novel moves beyond the confines of an oddity, a footnote in the history of the show, to become its very own, impressive, tale that engages with the core philosophy of the character of the Doctor; told by perhaps the most qualified man for the job.