DOCTOR WHO: SCRATCHMAN REVIEW
It was these details and this balance that made me fall in love with the Hinchcliffe era as well as Tom Baker as the Doctor. In fact it was this book along with the Pyramids of Mars that ended up making the fourth Doctor my favourite. The second half is still very good but I don’t enjoy it as much due to their being some filler sequences and a particular element which I found to be quite uninteresting to read.
The book is interjected with several chapters that see the Doctor on trial, before Trial of a Time Lord was conceived, where he is defending himself for the events that have taken place. I’m not sure what the purpose of these chapters were other than to explain why the Doctor was narrating the parts of the story he wasn’t there for and when I have re-read this story in the past I sometimes find myself skipping their entries as they don’t add anything other than the Time Lords simply disproving of the Doctor’s actions. They don’t detract from the book and I wouldn’t say they are bad either in fact to begin with they are really fun as I can vividly hear the Doctor’s voice from the pages and it does go to show how well Tom Baker and James Goss can write this character.
The first half of the book sees the Doctor, Harry and Sarah visit the beach for a picnic. The description of the setting and the characters interactions create beautiful images that are almost therapeutic. This is an especially clever trick as you aren’t anticipating the horrors that are about to take place. The first few chapters in this book are just a delight to read. Not much happens as it is just the three of them having a picnic but Tom’s distinct voice manages to convey the tone and characters in an excellent balance. But threaded throughout are small hints of what is really happening in this village. When their cricket ball goes astray the Doctor passes a group of scarecrows dressed like a family and you think nothing of it until they see more and more of them in very peculiar positions across the field. The book is then at its absolute best following their entry of the farm. Something has happened to the people and one man is left alone in his farm terrified of anyone who comes near. The scarecrows slowly begin to move and surround the farm. As the three of them hide being forced to watch the innocent man below be tied down to the ground we learn that these scarecrows used to be people. An unknown force is using fertiliser that is made out of grounded dead people into them. The scene becomes even better when it turns out that the scarecrows holding him down used to be his wife and child who have been physically twisted into these beings and I was in fear and tears when the man slowly began to deteriorate with the body horror in full force as the human life is drained out of him. I was more scared reading this section of the book than I have been during a Doctor Who story for a very long time. The final notes of this book see the church infiltrated in which the scarecrows force the Doctor outside while they infect the surviving members of the village. What is brilliant is the fact that you keep anticipating the Doctor to reveal his grand plan but instead all he can do is watch completely helpless. It is a really great moment for the character development that the Doctor undergoes in the book and it really puts the character of the Doctor overall into a different light as it makes you wonder if there were any times the Doctor acted like he had a plan all along but was in just as much trouble as he is in this one. The book ends with it being revealed that the cybermen released the virus as part of a deal with Scratchman (the devil) to take over the world from the separate dimension he lives in as he is slowly developing a plan to take over the multiverse. This scene is effective and ties up all of the threads that were running throughout the book such as what was causing the scarecrows and why it was happening. Overall the first half of the book is an absolute masterpiece it has some issues such as some of the chase scenes being rather dragged out but luckily it knows where its strengths are. All of the side characters are incredibly well written. I particularly love the annoyed shopkeeper who is so stubborn that she is one of the reasons they all get killed. There is also a great scene where Harry is wandering around a shop looking for supplies, completely unaware of the scarecrow behind him. Normally a scene which translates physical comedy to the page can be quite dull but the Doctor’s narration and the perfect way Ian Marter’s mannerisms are written make it hilarious to read. I would have very much enjoyed it if this was a standalone story and would probably be a 10 if it had a more conclusive ending but nonetheless this is a fantastic half of the book.
While I do really like the second half of the book if it was a solo story rather than the second half of this novel then I probably wouldn’t rate it very highly. It manages to start off very strongly with the Doctor slowly losing his memory as he makes his way through the dimension people go to when they die. While this isn’t a criticism I do find it strange how the story didn’t address the theme that when people die there is nothing in the afterlife as well as the several contradictions involving when the Doctor regenerates if they die and are then replaced or if their personality simply changes. What the story gets right it excels at including a long segment of the Doctor being driven through this new world with the cab driver telling him stories about his replacement. It’s a brilliant piece of writing because it feels like a strange anecdote that you can imagine Tom Baker telling you with odd details and characters. The story moves from set piece to set piece like a series of short stories rather than a cohesive whole like the first book with small details connecting them such as the Doctor searching for Harry and Sarah while trying to retain his memory as he is slowly converted into a scarecrow. This also includes a surprise cameo from the thirteenth Doctor and I think it is one of her best moments. Rather than a motor mouth she is quiet and enigmatic helping people without them even knowing. She also appears at the end of the book to help them back into their own dimension where Tom has several things to say about her TARDIS interior which I found to be hilariously Meta. The story begins to speed up towards the end with a poorly paced fight scene on a giant pinball machine that seems to drag on. There is a nice ending to this scene in which Harry believes he helped to save the day when actually the Doctor admits it was his own doing and he just wanted Harry to think he had actually done something. The story also takes a deep look into what makes the Doctor scared. There have been a lot of these in recent stories with the eleventh and thirteenth Doctor seeing the recurring series motif which makes me wonder if the Doctor’s greatest fear is actually serialised story telling. However this is the one that I believe the most whilst it also feels like something that Tom Baker felt when he was playing the Doctor. His fear is that one day he will no longer be the Doctor anymore; he doesn’t want to see anyone else take the reins of the person he has become. This leads to a cameo from the deceased first three incarnations of the Doctor who have been turned into scarecrows and the story adds another theme onto the pile in which we explore how the Doctor remembers the people he is responsible for the deaths of and I felt such a strong twinge of emotion when he confronts the people who died in the church. I have the same issues with the second half that I did with the first and that is that there are several big bombastic chase sequences which feel like they were written with the film in mind. Luckily there are some strong themes and well told story beats that made them more enjoyable.
The absolute best part of the book however is the final two chapters. Sarah Jane gets a look in which naturally made me cry as this for many, me included, will be the last thing we hear from her character. The Doctor also has his own chapter to explain what the room Sarah Jane stumbled into was and I’m not sure what it was included for but I don’t care as it gave us a final line that completely encapsulates what makes this Doctor and era so special to countless people…
Overall I would absolutely recommend getting this book. I would especially recommend the first half to fans of the Hinchcliffe era but it is still an excellent read for people who want to read an entertaining novel. Emotionally it is an absolute rollercoaster and it knows exactly how to completely terrify you as well which is one of the things that defines Doctor Who for many people.
My overall rating is…