Doctor Who: Scratchman is a story that’s been gestating for a long time. Beginning life as an idea for a film by the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, himself, Scratchman never resulted in an actual film, and the idea gathered a lot of dust as Baker moved onto other things. Until now, that is. Aided by prolific Doctor Who novelist, James Goss, Tom Baker returned to his Scratchman idea and turned it into the newest Doctor Who novel from BBC Books. So, is the novel worth the long wait? More or less, yeah.
In his first-ever Doctor Who novel, Tom Baker’s incredible imagination is given free rein. A story so epic it was originally intended for the big screen, Scratchman is a gripping, white-knuckle thriller almost forty years in the making.
The Doctor, Harry and Sarah Jane Smith arrive at a remote Scottish island, when their holiday is cut short by the appearance of strange creatures – hideous scarecrows, who are preying on the local population. The islanders are living in fear, and the Doctor vows to save them all. But it doesn’t go to plan – the time travelers have fallen into a trap, and Scratchman is coming for them.
With the fate of the universe hanging in the balance, the Doctor must battle an ancient force from another dimension, one who claims to be the Devil. Scratchman wants to know what the Doctor is most afraid of. And the Doctor’s worst nightmares are coming out to play…
I’ll be blatantly honest, here. I can’t imagine Scratchman as a film. Certainly not one that could have been made in the 1970s/1980s with the budget and technology that would have been available to it. There are just so many images in the novel that would require a great deal of special effects work – particularly in the second half of the story – and I just don’t think it could have been believably accomplished in those days. I say that as a way of saying that I love this novel. It’s brilliantly creative, often very spooky, and all around enjoyable. The story is split pretty neatly into two parts – similar to the way serials from the classic era of Doctor Who were split into distinct parts. This works very well as the first part focuses primarily on the setup while the second part delivers on the promised confrontation between the Doctor and Scratchman.
It’s very unique for a Doctor Who novel, too, as it’s primarily told in the first-person from the Doctor’s point of view. Most Doctor Who novels are told in a third-person point of view, so it’s always a lot of fun when we get to jump into the Doctor’s mind like this and truly experience a story through his eyes. Scratchman uses a framing device much like the one used in The Trial of a Time Lord season; the Time Lords have called the Doctor back to Gallifrey in order to prosecute him for his actions taken during this adventure. The bulk of the story is the Doctor explaining all that happened to the Time Lords, and it works brilliantly. Occasionally, we cut back to the trial and hear from some of the Time Lords present at the trial, but it’s mainly just an excuse for the story to be told from the Doctor’s point of view. And, boy, does this novel capture the Fourth Doctor’s voice perfectly. It surely helps that Tom Baker wrote the novel, and wrote it in his own voice, but it’s just amazing how perfectly the narration sounds like it’s coming from the Fourth Doctor. I listened to an excerpt of the audiobook – narrated by Baker, himself – and the prose flows so naturally from his voice.
The narrative of Scratchman – and its pacing – is also superb. The book starts out very strong, immediately building a very spooky and ominous atmosphere, and things quickly get kicked into gear as the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah Jane encounter these scarecrows that come to life. Spooky scarecrows aren’t exactly an original idea for Doctor Who – nor is the twist related to who’s behind the scarecrows, either – but they’re still very effective here, and the design of them – or, at least, the description of their design – is perfectly nightmarish. It’s the kind of design that would really upset some of those watchdog groups. The first half of the story introduces a lot of side characters, all of whom are very well written and feel well-defined and well-rounded. Some of them even reappear in the second part of the book, but to say any more than that would be too spoilery. The second part of the book trades in the nightmarish atmosphere for some truly hellish imagery – pun intended. Scratchman is definitely a formidable foe for the Doctor, and the entirety of the second half of the story – including Scratchman’s ultimate defeat – is brilliant.
All in all, this is a very good Doctor Who novel. As weird as this might sound, I’m kind of glad the original film version of this story never got made because it allowed us to experience this story in a medium that works really well for it. Baker’s writing is immensely enjoyable. He perfectly captures the sound of the Fourth Doctor – though, you’d expect nothing less from the actor who’s played him all these years – as well as capturing the voices of Harry and Sarah Jane. The plot is well constructed, well-paced, and full of scares and excellent payoff. Scratchman is the kind of novel that you won’t want to put down once you’ve started it. It’s a brilliant addition to the Fourth Doctor’s adventures and a book that any Doctor Who fan should read.
5 out of 5 wands.