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Doctor Who: Scratchman – Book Review

“‘Ah, Doctor, come in,’ said the Devil.”

Back in the 1970s, British cinemas were awash with big screen adaptations of TV shows. Are You Being Served?On The BusesSteptoe And SonMan About The House, and The Likely Lads are just a few such examples amongst many. With it being one of the BBC’s hottest properties in the mid-’70s, it’s understandable that another Doctor Who movie would be on the cards at some point (after the Peter Cushing films which were released back in the previous decade). What was not so expected, however, was just where the proposal and story would actually come from: the show’s then-current leading man, Tom Baker.

Baker teamed up with co-star Ian Marter (who played companion Harry Sullivan) to write a script called Doctor Who Meets Scratchman (and later Doctor Who And The Big Game). A number of attempts to obtain funding came and went over the years, but Baker and Marter persisted in pursuing their pet project, teaming up with director James Hill (later known for the Worzel Gummidge TV series). Their efforts continued into the late 1970s, but a trip to a press preview of Star Wars ended up knocking the wind out of their sails somewhat, as they came to realise just how small the scale of their proposed movie was, compared to the grand and epic nature of the Hollywood blockbuster they’d just seen. Despite all their work, Baker and Marter’s dream never came to fruition. We were denied the spectacle of Tom Baker and Twiggy (yes, she would have been a companion in the movie at one point) facing off against the Devil (to have been played by no less than Vincent Price), as well as animated scarecrows, cybernetic creatures the Cybors (which absolutely weren’t at all meant to be the Cybermen, oh no), and a climactic final battle involving the Daleks which would have taken place inside a giant pinball machine in Hell.

The aborted film vanished (appropriately enough) into the mists of time, until one of the scripts resurfaced in 2011, and it sparked a resurgence of interest in the lost adventure. Ian Marter had briefly considered novelising the script back in 1986, but nothing ultimately came of it. However, Baker recently teamed up with established writer James Goss to adapt his script into book form, so now – about 40 or so years late (which, to a Time Lord would be a handful of double heartbeats) – we can at long last get to experience the Doctor’s deadly struggle with a being who may or may not be Satan. Baker himself is no stranger to writing, having released his hilarious autobiography ‘Who On Earth Is Tom Baker?’ in 1997, and his later dark and funny novella ‘The Boy Who Kicked Pigs’.

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Both these earlier writings and his public persona have demonstrated Baker’s love for the macabre and grotesque, and more than a touch of the Grand Guignol. Doctor Who: Scratchman is perhaps the clearest demonstration of his tastes, a culmination of his fascination with the horrific and disturbing, mixed with a dose of religion for good measure. Baker’s love of Dickens is also in evidence here, quoting a passage within the text, and demonstrated clearly it seems with his taste for more florid and deliciously grandiloquent, archaic turns of phrase peppered throughout the book. It also comes through in giving one of his characters the wonderfully grand name of Sophonisba Mowat, and Baker also gives us a wonderful battleaxe in the form of one Mavis Tulloch, feared matriarch of the small Scottish village in which the Doctor and companions find themselves during the first half of the book.

Bearing in mind the period of the show’s history when Scratchman takes place, it was just starting to embrace a halcyon era of gothic horror, with deadly Egyptian-style alien mummies, brains floating in lab tanks, giant rats in Victorian sewers, and animated disembodied hands. The isolated setting of the book’s action at the start – being a remote rural community – brings more to mind folk horror, such as The Wicker Man and even The League Of Gentlemen (as it also features a rather mistrustful owner of a local village shop).

The rather brutal and visceral nature of the transformations of villagers into the scarecrows evokes a strong body horror reaction, and seems more in the Hammer vein. Baker also seems keen to establish the tone firmly – in case it somehow failed to come across from everything else that takes place – by directly using the phrase “eldritch horror” at one point, which is beautifully evocative, and lets us know Baker’s intentions when it comes to the overall mood and feel of the piece.

Over the years, Doctor Who has touched on the area of religion in various ways, as it has featured the Egyptian god Sutekh in 1975’s ‘Pyramids Of Mars’ (which featured Baker), as well as looking at the notion of an afterlife in 2014’s ‘Dark Water’/’Death In Heaven’). We’ve seen a wartime vicar (in the form of Nicholas Parsons) going through a crisis of faith in 1989’s ‘The Curse Of Fenric’, and an abandoned story from the 1960s was to have been called ‘The Face Of God’. The show has also given us depictions of aliens who may or may not actually be the Devil, in 1971’s tale ‘The Dæmons’ as well as in 2006’s ‘The Impossible Planet’/’The Satan Pit’.

Baker is known for coming from a Catholic background, and he nearly entered the priesthood when he was a young man, so it’s therefore unsurprising to see him using religious and theological themes centrally in his writing. He also uses established mythology like the Land Of The Dead, and the character of Charon, who – in a wonderful bit of Baker whimsy – is portrayed as the driver of a London black cab, ferrying souls to their eternal rest while sharing typical cabbie small talk.

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The novel faithfully follows much of what was already publicly known of the script for the planned movie, and features the first two of Baker’s companions from the series – Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). Baker was immensely fond of both actors in real life, and this shows in the way that he writes both characters, as even the sometimes faintly ridiculous Harry gets an integral part of the action at the climax, and both companions get plenty to do throughout. However, what breaks the authenticity of it being a straight adaptation comes in the form of the various continuity references which are dotted about, and end up being rather jarring.

Baker’s co-writer on the novelisation – James Goss – has distinguished himself with various adaptations of Doctor Who material into book form over the years, including Douglas Adams’ mooted film script from the late 1970s, Doctor Who And The Krikkitmen (which later ended up being used as the basis of Life, The Universe And Everything). As such, he’s a safe pair of hands to make sure that all the references to things such as Artron energy are present and correct, in much the same way that William Shatner had Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens as co-pilots on several Star Trek novels.

The book uses the framing device of having the Doctor on trial yet again by the Time Lords, as he tells them the story. This is maybe acceptable enough (even though it’s becoming an overused trope), but it really starts to go off-piste when you get a ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ appearance by the Tenth Doctor, as well as sort-of cameos by versions of the first three incarnations, and a role for the Thirteenth Doctor too. It all seems to have been done as fan service and adds little to the story, so it just ends up being an exercise in superfluousness, which is an awful shame.

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That being said, it was nice to see a fully-fledged appearance by the Cybermen proper (not Baker’s mooted Cybors), but the Daleks are sadly excised, presumably due to legal wrangling with the estate of their creator, Terry Nation. Ç’est la guerre.

The book actually moves along at a rather cracking pace, and breathlessly moves us from one location to the next. You can also see how very different it would have been as a movie, with some fairly lengthy fantasy sequences which would have set it apart from what had been seen – up to the point it was first mooted, at least – in the TV series, and it certainly has an epic scale. There are very few times that it’s been possible for this reader to devour a book in just a single evening, so it’s rather a testament to the unfussy nature of the prose that it carries you along at a brisk clip, and before you even know it, you’re staring at the inside rear cover. On the whole, Doctor Who: Scratchman is rather a curate’s egg, a look into what never was but could have been, but it’s no poorer for that, and is a welcome addition to the BBC Books range.

If nothing else, it’s a tantalising look into the mind and imagination of one Thomas Stewart Baker, teatime hero to many, and one of our genuine national treasures. And who wouldn’t welcome having that opportunity?

Doctor Who: Scratchman is now available from all good booksellers.

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