Doctor Who vs the Devil: A Review of Doctor Who: Scratchman, by Tom Baker

The first episode of Doctor Who aired on November 23rd, 1963.  William Hartnell starred as The First Doctor, although he would not known to be only the first until a couple years later when, as part of a plot device, the Doctor regenerated into another body played by another actor.  This is a character who travels through time with their companions, solving problems and resolving conflicts.  There have been Thirteen doctors to date, with a few unnumbered appearing in small roles.  The latest episode aired on January 1st, 2019.  Like the title character, Doctor Who transforms itself for newer generations while maintaining a place in the heart of pop culture.  This is a show that means so much to so many and the world is better for it.

Every fan of the show remembers their first doctor.  It may have been William Hartnell, who first introduced England to the time traveling hero, or Christopher Eccleston, who reintroduced the character to the world in 2005 when the show was finally brought back after nearly twenty years off the air.  For me, my Doctor will always be Matt Smith.  His episodes were the first I ever watched, and I have not stopped watching since.  For many people, however, their Doctor is the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker.  Doctor Who was always popular, but Tom Baker’s portrayal turned it into a real world-wide phenomenon, to the point where he even penned a movie script with Ian Marter.  Doctor Who Meets Scratchman was supposed to a be a Doctor Who film wherein the Doctor fought the Devil, or Scratchman.  The movie was never made, but, 44 years later, Baker teamed up with James Goss to pen and publish the novelization of this tale.  The story has evolved over the years, but it is a welcome return to the Fourth Doctor.

Doctor Who: Scratchman is a frame narrative.  The novel assumes you are somewhat familiar with the character and his companions at this point in the show.  The Doctor is a member of an alien race called the Time Lords and, yes, they area as pompous as the name implies.  The novel opens with the Time Lords summing the Doctor back to their home planet, Gallifrey, to answer for a crime.  The crime, in the eyes of the Time Lords, was meddling in the affairs of Earth and getting saving the planet at the potential cost of the universe.  The entire novel is told from the first-person point-of-view of the Doctor, and we can feel his anxiety in this moment.  The Time Lords dislike him, his eccentricities, and his constant need to save everyone he can.  The Doctor, as his defense, promises to tell a story and provide a lesson to the Time Lords on fear.  The novel returns to this frame several times, both to bask in the absurdity of the Time Lords and to analyze their relationship with the rest of the universe.

The Doctor’s story begins on a small, unnamed Scottish isle.  The Doctor and his two companions arrive in the middle of a field rather on accident.  The Doctor’s time machine, the TARDIS, is temperamental and does not always bring the Doctor where he wants to go, but she always knows where they need to go.  The group tries to enjoy their time, despite a growing unease that something is wrong.  It does not take long for them to discover that the nearby village is under assault by animated scarecrows made of the transformed corpses of other villagers.  This first half of the novel leans into the gothic horror that Tom Baker’s doctor was initially known for.  The story follows the Doctor trying to save this village while alluding to larger power manipulating events from behind the scenes.  Soon enough, the master intelligence reveals himself.  Scratchman, the devil himself, appears and kidnaps the Doctor’s companions.  Knowing the Doctor will do whatever it takes to save them, regardless of the consequences, Scratchman invites the Doctor to his universe on a rescue mission.  The Doctor knowingly springs the trap, and the rest of the novel follows his adventure through Scratchman’s dimension of fear.

The Fourth Doctor is joined by two companions in this adventure, Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan, originally played by the late Elizabeth Sladen and Ian Marter.  Ian Marter also cowrote the original Scratchman film script with Tom Baker and his presence can be felt in the pages.  Harry Sullivan was originally introduced to fill the role of the action hero on the show before Tom Baker was cast as the new Doctor.  Sullivan is clumsy and accident prone, often escaping certain doom or foiling enemy plans by sheer luck.  He is stereotypically English and very old school, often referring to Sarah Jane Smith as “old girl,” never taken as an insult by Smith.  Smarter than he appears, Sullivan often provides comic relief, but is more than capable of saving the day when necessary.

Sarah Jane Smith was played by Elizabeth Sladen from the character’s debut in 1973 to the actress’ passing in 2011.  One of the most popular Doctor Who characters ever crafted, Sarah Jane Smith began as a journalist infiltrating the government organization where the Third Doctor worked at the time.  Highly intelligent, courageous, and an ardent feminist, Sarah Jane Smith quickly became a fan favorite and carried over when Tom Baker took over as the Doctor.  Sarah Jane Smith was the one coming up with plans, improving on plans, or holding people together until the Doctor could execute the plan.  Even after leaving the main cast, the character returned time and time again, even heading her own show, The Sarah Jane Adventures from 2007 to 2011.  Doctor Who: Scratchman shows the character in her early days of traveling with the Doctor.  The novel makes sure readers know exactly why she is such a beloved character.

Tom Baker both wrote the novel and played the character.  Nobody knows this version of the Doctor better than the very actor who crafted his onscreen persona.  Tom Baker’s Doctor began as a very serious character, but over time revealed himself to have a heart of humor.  Mischievous and a fan of playing he buffoon, the Fourth Doctor always had one last trick up his sleeve.  Or was confident enough to convince his enemies that he still had tricks up his sleeve.  The Fourth Doctor could be considered the first modern Doctor, and it was Tom Baker’s time on the show that turned the British phenomenon into a world-wide must-watch television show.  At one point, even Douglas Adams worked on the show, editing many scripts and writing a few episodes of his own.  To this day, Tom Baker is the most recognizable Doctor.  Known for his wife hat, ridiculous scarf, and quick wit, Tom Baker’s deep voice introduced the world to this timeless character.

Doctor Who is a show with as many ups and downs as it has years on the air.  But the has lasted for a reason.  It can be science-fiction or a fairy tale.  It is adventure, it is comedy, and it is horror.  The show is funny, optimistic, shows us worlds and time periods we can only dream of and is constantly adapting.  The show is not afraid to confront fear, such as the episode Rosa from last year, but the show has a fundamental belief in the goodness of people.  With the character now in the capable hands Jodie Whittaker, the Thirteenth Doctor, a new generation has the chance to discover Doctor Who.

Doctor Who: Scratchman can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 6 days

Next on the List: The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

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