‘Doctor Who – Scratchman’ by Tom Baker

Scratchman

Tom Baker may well be the greatest author our country never had. His autobiography, Who on Earth is Tom Baker? was quite unlike any other book before or since; reading it was a bit like having Tom tell you his life story over the bar of the Dog and Duck, pint in hand, slightly sozzled. It was a masterpiece. He followed this up with The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, a children’s book… probably. No-one knew quite what to make of it, but I loved it. It ended up in the bargain bins very quickly, which just goes to show how little taste the general public have. That was in 1999… twenty years ago, and Doctor Who – Scratchman is Tom Baker’s first novel since then.

We all know the story, don’t we? Tom Baker and Harry Sullivan actor Ian Marter bashing out ideas for a big-screen Doctor Who adventure over a couple of pints in their lunch break in between takes of the television series. The more you think about it, the more ambitious it is; for Marter to have been filming on the series, it most likely took place during Tom Baker’s first season, or early in the second. He’s only been on the show for one year and already he’s looking to the stars! He got quite close to them too, finishing a script, interesting a director… if only it wasn’t for the pesky matter of money. Nevertheless, the script, long thought lost forever, turned up in the belongings of Baker’s last producer John Nathan-Turner following his death.

It was originally called Doctor Who Meets Scratchman, though the title has been stripped down to just Doctor Who – Scratchman for this novelised version. The plot, however, remains close to that which has been relayed in DWM, DWB and numerous fanzines over the decades: a malevolent force called Scratchman, who may or may not be the devil (‘Old Scratch’ of ‘Mr Scratch’ is an outdated colloquial name for Beelzebub), manifests on a remote island, turning the local townsfolk into living scarecrows. Later, he captures the Doctor’s companions Sarah and Harry and the Time Lord has to follow them to Scratchman’s hellish domain, where the three are forced to fight for survival in a giant pinball machine. And there are some Cybermen in there too, but nobody’s sure why. Maybe Ian and Tom had just filmed Revenge of the Cybermen?

Tom Baker wrote the Scratchman novel with the assistance of James Goss, who has in recent years adapted the Douglas Adams scripts City of Death, The Pirate Planet and Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen into novels. The more cynical commentators have assumed that the book is probably Goss adapting Baker’s script – the fact that it was originally advertised as being by Tom Baker and James Goss didn’t help – but for me there’s a tremendous amount in this book that just rings of Tom Baker’s writing style. There’s a certain old-fashioned, working class turn of phrase that Baker loves to use as a counterpoint to his silky actor-ish vowels. He’s always loved to play the down-at-heel working class actor, fag in hand, one foot in the provinces, cocking a snook at the snobs and luvvies by using phrases like… well, cocking a snook.

This chatty, off-hand style pervades Scratchman, along with other of Tom Baker’s obsessions; old people, particularly old ladies, and different aspects of faith and religion. There’s a lot in this book which represents Tom Baker’s image of the Doctor and, as such, it’s very interesting. Baker has made the choice of presenting the story in the first person, which has its ups and its downs. On the one hand, as I just mentioned, it gives you a very clear picture of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, uncluttered by the concepts and ideals of other writers. On the other hand, it does mean that the Doctor has to convey elements of the story to which he could not possibly be privy. In fairness, this problem is addressed in the narrative, as the Doctor is relaying the story to a tribunal of Time Lords and must, of necessity, tell parts of the story that were told to him by third parties.

This first person narrative which is not restricted to the personal experiences of the narrator gives the story even more of a storybook air. The Doctor is relaying a complete story, not just an account of his experiences and it paints the Doctor as a florid raconteur, presenting his diverting story to the harshest of audiences; a bunch of stuffy, starchy old Time Lords. He does his best to present the story as excitingly, as divertingly as he can and there’s a strong sense that it’s not always a 100% accurate retelling of events. And because this is Tom Baker AS the Doctor, that telling has the same down-the-pub feeling in its casualness. It’s not a storytelling style that all Doctor Who fans will approve of, but then some of them are as stuffy and starchy as the aforementioned Time Lords. If you have a book written by Tom Baker, you want it to sound like Tom Baker; you want it to feel like Tom Baker. If it doesn’t, then it’s just any old Doctor Who novel written by any old author.

There are bits in Scratchman that clearly weren’t in Doctor Who meets Scratchman.  In a hallucinatory ballroom sequence, the Fourth Doctor encounters characters that are quite clearly intended to be the Tenth and Thirteenth Doctors. It’s not made explicit, but you’d have to blind not to catch it. It’s at moments like this – and another which references The Sarah Jane Adventures – that it becomes harder to hear Tom Baker’s voice. It’s not out of the question that Mr Baker could have had the background knowledge to include a minor detail from a spin-off children’s series about his companion, but that seems much more like something James Goss’ has added in the edit. If so, you’d think he’d have known that such details wouldn’t exactly sound as if they were coming from Tom and steered clear. There’s also a sequence featuring Tom’s three predecessors as scarecrows, including a cheeky Worzel Gummidge reference.

Scratchman is a simple book – a lot of the best books are – but one that plays with big ideas. There’s nothing worse than a book crammed full of incident, but badly thought out and awash witch cliché. Scratchman is not a book like that at all; no one could ever accuse it of being clichéd – it’s unlike any Doctor Who book you’ve read before and its simplicity is its masterstroke. Essentially the narrative is composed of two giant set-pieces; one with the scarecrows on the island and the other in the hellish fantasy domain of Scratchman. You could add all kinds of extra bits to it, but what would be the point? This is not a book that takes the easy options storywise; when the Doctor inevitably defeats Stratchman, it isn’t done with an explosion or some bit of outer space technobabble, it’s a clever, witty solution that is, when you think about it, pretty much the only way a mere mortal – even one as long-lived as the Doctor – could defeat the devil himself.

Tom Baker is a character actor, but he’s also a character writer. The beauty of Scratchman lies not in a self-consciously clever twisty-turny plot and deep, deep character exploration, but in its many quirks, its dry wit and is constant capacity to surprise. If you’re picking up this book expecting a dense, angsty New Adventures style tome, you’ll be disappointed – but more fool you, because this is the Doctor Who you fell in love with as a child. This is Saturday tea-time Doctor Who, Crispy Pancakes and chips with a beaker of Quosh Doctor Who; this is the Doctor Who that reached out of your TV with his blue-on-blue eyes and touched your very soul – and you can never replace that, not with all the Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead in the world.

This is nostalgia, 100% pure, straight from the pen of the man who changed your life. What’s evident throughout the book is Tom Baker’s own nostalgia for his time on the series. It won’t be like our nostalgia, of course; it will be the fond remembrances of an actor playing his most celebrated role. There’s a deep love for both Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith evident throughout this book, particularly the latter; Tom was clearly deeply affected by the loss of Liz. But this is a worthy tribute to his friends, and one that I’m sure they’d have both been delighted to read. He’s remembering how much he enjoyed his time on the series, particularly the early years, and that joy emanates from every pore of his novel.

Doctor Who – Scratchman may well be my favourite Doctor Who book ever. I’ve become achingly nostalgic for the Doctor Who that I loved as a small child in recent years and this ticks all the boxes for me. Reading it was like a 1975 teatime in book form and I can’t recommend it enough! Now, does anyone know where I can buy some Crispy Pancakes…?

‘Doctor Who – Scratchman’ by Tom Baker is published in hardback by BBC Books / Penguin Random House (2019).

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