Scratchman is a very unusual Doctor Who story. It’s been the stuff of legends for decades – a script for a movie version of Doctor Who, written by Fourth Doctor actor Tom Baker and Harry Sullivan actor, Ian Marter, in which the Doctor and his friends would encounter the ultimate evil: the Devil.
Now, over four decades and nine Doctors later, with help from author James Goss, Tom Baker has finally brought Scratchman to the world as a novel, and subsequently as an audiobook. It’s Tom Baker, writing his own Doctor, empowered with all the blending of Classic and New Who that you might expect since it comes to us in 2019. And then it’s read by Tom Baker mostly in the Fourth Doctor’s first person, in that voice that could ripen grapes.
In fact, that blending is one of the book’s chief attractions. While Baker and Goss deliver what for some is the absolute apex of Classic Who Tardis teams – the Fourth Doctor, Sarah-Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan – and deliver them faithfully, with, for instance, Harry Sullivan being loyal and decent and not really an imbecile at all, there’s also a very modern vibe about the way things are presented. In the Seventies, Doctor Who Versus The Devil would have been quite a Hammer Horror concept, but this is 2019 – the Doctor met the Beast in the Pit a couple of lifetimes ago, so there’s a rather more scientific atmosphere underpinning the ‘Devil’ of the piece here. Scratchman, or Scratch as the Doctor chummily refers to him, is a being from another universe, who rather thrives on the energy of terror, and who’s in the market for both a bridgehead, to allow him to pop over to our reality and up its fear factor, and an ambassador, for which position he’s more than happy to consider the Doctor, as one agent of chaos to another.
That said, there’s plenty of gothic horror here to keep those who love it happy – there are walking scarecrows (another element that’s been used on screen in New Who – Human Nature), who confer their scarecrowness by touch (as seen in The Empty Child), and the way their scenes are written spares little of the reader’s feelings. In one particular scarecrowifcation, you’ll feel your chest tighten as you positively yeeearn to find out what happens next.
As well as keeping up a solid pseudo-scientific horror plot though, Scratchman is studded with moments that will make you punch the air and a smile a beaming Tom Baker smile. There’s one Classic enemy featured heavily here, and, almost for story-convenient larks, we get to find out what their version of Hell would be. There’s the Doctor on trial by the Time Lords, as it would have been had it happened in the Fourth Doctor’s time. There are brief, pleasing cameos by a horde of other recognisable monsters, and a very cheeky, gorgeously daring not-quite cameo by a race from ‘a giant metal city, its occupants like tanks full of hate…’ – Ahem. Say no more, you might get sued. And there are also name and time-checks from other eras, too – at one point there’s a kind of replay of the bickering of The Three Doctors, only with the judgement of the Fourth thrown in. There’s a flash-forward to ‘the next one’ too, as the Cabbie of the Dead reassures the Doctor that, although he’s dead, life will go on. And oh my life – there’s a room into which Sarah-Jane wanders on board the Tardis that will absolutely break your heart and leave you sniffing.
And after a rollercoaster ride of ups, downs and literally sideways…es, (Did we mention the new look variant on the console room, and the Doctor’s conversation with his ship as he persuades her to go where no Tardis has gone before?), once evil has been revealed, and thwarted, and all in time for tea…there are the epilogues.
Most of all – oh, most of all – there are the epilogues. Three of them, each of which is more perfect than the last. There’s a moment when the Fourth Doctor sees his own future and comes to terms with it, which will make you cheer like a loon. There’s a memo to listeners from the Fourth Doctor, which sounds almost like a love letter from Tom Baker himself, more or less expressing the hope that he’ll be well thought of, not only for this adventure but for the way he lived the Doctor’s life, which will probably have you standing up through a haze of grateful tears, shouting ‘Yes! Oh, Doctor, of course, yes!’ And there’s even an epilogue from someone who’s not the Doctor, but who will have you sniffing into your hankies, or quite possibly bawling your eyes out.
Scratchman is a Doctor Who story that’s been decades coming to fruition. And when you hear it, you’ll be grateful that all the intervening time has allowed Doctor Who to evolve and become the thing it is today, because what you get is a Scratchman born in the Classic Seventies, and almost endlessly enriched by the New Who sensibilities that make the 21st century show as fresh, as relevant and as real as the Seventies version was escapist and magical. Scratchman is literally the best of both eras, skilfully blended to please every palate.
And then of course, it’s read by Tom Baker.
Now that’s both a great thing, and an exhausting thing. It’s great because it’s Tom Baker, and nearly nine hours of Tom Baker in your ears can never be a bad thing. His line readings are utterly unique, and would occur to no other human being alive. There are intakes of breath, there are ad-libs, there are wild madman laughs thrown in like waves, there are ups and down and rolls into the most intense fruitiness, there are great soaring skyscapes of vocal crenellation which belong in the mouth of nobody else.
Perversely, that’s what sometimes makes Scratchman a slightly exhausting listen. But you come to the end knowing nobody else would quite have been good enough. Would have been quite so perfect. Would have been, in a name, Tom Baker.
The audiobook version of Scratchman is guaranteed to make most Doctor Who fans weak at the knees, irrespective of whether they’ve been fans for one series or over fifty years. It’s roaring and sprawling and gothic and dark, with a central opponent who’s half Lord of Darkness, half used car salesman, all totally workable on the TV screen of your imagination. It’s both epic and intimate, both universe-threatening and personal. It’s gorgeously studded with treats all along the way, and it’s quite capable of putting a little something in your eye.
You’re going to want to listen to this one. Take occasional breaks, or the headiness of Tom Baker’s performance will make you drunk like rich red wine, but always come back for more till the very end – like a Marvel movie, it’s worth it down to the very last syllable. Tony Fyler