A review by markyon
Doctor Who: Scratchman by Tom Baker, James Goss


So, here’s an unusual arrival for Doctor Who fans.

Scratchman is a novel that, forty years ago, was the outline for a proposed movie when the television series Doctor Who was arguably at its most popular. Written by the Doctor of the time, Tom Baker, with Ian Marter (who played assistant Harry Sullivan at the same time) it sadly never came to be.

Now, Tom Baker (recently 85 years old, unbelievably), with the assistance of Doctor Who novelist James Goss (whose Timelord poetry I reviewed a while back) we can read what once could have been.

As you might expect, the story is set in the era of the Fourth Doctor, with Tom Baker naturally as the Doctor (wearing his iconic scarf on the cover) and companions Harry and Sarah-Jane. They arrive in a quaint isolated Scottish village in contemporary times (well, contemporary for what I assumed was the 1970s) to find the local populace terrified by living scarecrows that appear and kill the population. Obviously, the Doctor gets involved to try and uncover the who’s, why’s and wherefores of their appearance.

The Doctor discovers that the scarecrows are part of a bigger scheme, created by an enemy known as Scratchman, whose purpose in life, as any villain’s should be, is to take over planets and bend them to their will. Having used the Scottish village as a testing ground, Scratchman is determined to take over the Earth and then the Universe, obviously.

This results in the second part of the book being more nightmarish. The Doctor and his friends are put through a series of challenges from Scratchman, based upon what they fear, with Scratchman’s hope that by doing so he will discover the Time Lord’s greatest fear and so gain an advantage.


This book is being publicised as by Tom Baker (see the cover). And as a result, the story takes the somewhat unusual task of telling a Doctor Who story as if told by Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor.

The framing story is that, rather like The Trials of a Time Lord, the Doctor is once again held for trial by his peers, the Time Lords of Gallifrey. There the Doctor is told to explain himself and tell what he knows of this attempt to discover what the Time Lord’s greatest fear is.  The Doctor then begins his tale as if he is narrating what happened to him and his companions.

Some may like this approach, which is quite different from the usual third-person narrative of the traditional stories (such as those in the fondly remembered Target paperbacks or the more recent writings.) For me it was less successful, although undeniably whilst reading the story it felt like Tom Baker was saying it. (An audio book would work wonderfully well, perhaps.*)


The writing echoes the tone and feel of those Seventies stories, jaunty and fast paced with more one-liners than is usual, and the text does read as a logical extension of the Fourth Doctor’s characterisation, if not Tom Baker himself (which was also the case by the end of his television tenure as well, I think.) I found this quite enjoyable, but by the end a little wearying and rather overdone. Less is sometimes more, and, for as good as it is, would have worked better if it did not seem to be every line. But some readers will like it.

I liked the fact that many of the key elements of the Fourth Doctor’s time are present. There’s stiff-upper-lip doctor Harry Sullivan, loyal and true, and enthusiastically energetic Sarah-Jane, determined to find out the truth, who supports the enigmatic Doctor in this mystery. Also throughout there’s the iconography of Britishness that the Doctor was amused by and appreciated – there’s mention of cakes, sandwiches, picnics, cricket and tea, for example – which means that we are clearly reading recognisable signs of the Doctor in his fourth incarnation, for good or ill.

Unfortunately, this attempt to show things in a different way also created difficulties for me. The disparate styles between the Doctor’s own thoughts and the rest of the story lead to the novel struggling to mesh the parts of the story together evenly. Whilst writing the story as if told by the Doctor is a different take to the Doctor Who canon, such a perspective also limits things in that events have to be linked by having “Sarah Jane later told me” rather than the story told naturalistically from an objective third-person perspective.

One of the things I am reminded of whilst reading this is that although Doctor Who is widely recognised for its science-fictional content, it could do horror really well. The creepy bits – part Wicker Man, part Dante’s Inferno – do sometimes work here, especially at the beginning. Scarecrows have appeared in Doctor Who since (see David Tennant’s episodes Human Nature/Family of Blood) but this one I prefer. As with the best books, the pictures created in your head by this novel are better than anything you could see on the television or a movie screen.

The later part, based around the stuff of dreams, is all rather reminiscent of The Celestial Toymaker episodes for me. They are less convincing.

Which leads me to the question – could it have made a good movie? It is sometimes difficult to tell what parts remain from the original script and which parts have been added in this write-up, but I think that the wider concepts might have been a tad difficult to portray on a movie screen with 1970’s effects. I also rather suspect it might have been too scary for children and perhaps too similar, at least at first, to other stories such as The Wicker Man for adults. But as a post-modern novel, where the imagination is unbounded, the cost of the effects are minimal and you can read it in the safety of your own home, it works fine.

Scratchman is, in summary, an oddity, an interesting attempt to bring something unusual to the legend of the Fourth Doctor, from a slightly different direction. It didn’t always work for me, but there will be many who will find this a worthwhile read.

For many of us who are older followers of the series, reading this will generate the thrill of reading an old Tom Baker story that you have never seen before – like the old Target paperbacks, but not based on a television episode!  For relative newcomers it will show them what older incarnations of the Doctor were all about – scary and yet also good fun.

*Update: I have been told that an audio book version, read by Tom Baker, will be available.