Novel Review: Scratchman

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Stepping out of the New Adventures series for a moment, today we’re looking at a more recent, and more unique, novel: 2019’s Scratchman, written by Tom Baker himself!

…Well, not exactly. Baker is certainly credited as the author; and along with Ian Marter, he wrote the original movie treatment from which the novel is adapted. (In some sources, Marter gets a credit on the novel as well.) But the actual writing was handled by James Goss, and he deserves credit as well, so I’m acknowledging him here.

Cover of the print novel

However, Baker did do the reading of the novel; and it’s for that reason that this time, I chose the Audible audiobook version. I’ll go ahead and say, you should too; if you want to experience this novel, do yourself a favor and pick up the audio. Tom is clearly having the time of his life, and it shows; you won’t be disappointed.

This novel features the Fourth Doctor, along with companions Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan (placing it sometime early in the Fourth Doctor’s era—we’ll try to get a better placement later). Further, it’s told in the first person perspective, by the Doctor himself. And so, let’s get started!

Novel print back cover

SPOILERS AHEAD! A brief summary begins here, and contains spoilers. If you want to avoid them, skip down to the line divider, below. However, be aware that some minor spoilers may happen in the later remarks as well.

The Fourth Doctor is on trial. The Time Lords have summoned him to Gallifrey to account for his recent actions; and this time, they aren’t playing around. He is accused of interfering in universal affairs—a rather broad charge, and that’s the point, isn’t it? The penalty, should they find him guilty, is to be wiped from existence—but the Doctor isn’t going to roll over and die. Instead, he’s come to teach the Time Lords a lesson in fear—and to do that, he’s going to tell them the story of his recent encounter with the Devil himself: Scratchman.

The Doctor, Sarah, and Harry arrive on an island somewhere off the coast of Scotland (or is it? It’s suggested, but not confirmed), in a recent but unconfirmed year. It seems like a nice place for a break; but as usual, something is very wrong here. It doesn’t take long for the Doctor and his friends to find that strange living scarecrows have infested the island, and are slowly killing the villagers. Or…are they? It soon becomes apparent that they aren’t killing the locals; they’re transforming them into more scarecrows!

The travelers gather the remaining locals into the village church. The Doctor deduces that a virus is the vector for this strange plague, and that the scarecrows spread the virus by touch; but if he can keep them from getting infected, and can destroy the scarecrows, he can stop it. To the latter end, he constructs a machine that will create an evolutionarily targeted breed of moths, which will devour the scarecrows’ outer shells, killing them. He sends Harry out for parts, and sends Sarah to the TARDIS to retrieve an Artron power pack for the device. Harry is infected while out, though he doesn’t realize it. Sarah accidentally allows a scarecrow into the TARDIS; she confronts and defeats it, but not before it infects her—and what’s more, it infects the TARDIS itself. Along the way, the Doctor himself is infected, though he is able to resist it longer.

A battle in the churchyard leads to the deaths of the remaining locals; although the moths do the job, it’s too late, and the scarecrows capture the Doctor and his friends. They take them to the beach, where they are confronted by the power behind the scarecrows: The Cybermen. However, the Doctor figures out that the Cybermen aren’t the problem here; they, too, are tools. Some other power has gifted them with the scarecrow virus, promising them an easy army; that power now has what it truly wants: The Doctor. It appears on the beach in the form of a humanoid at a distance, as the Cybermen leave the scene and walk into the ocean. The figure tells the Doctor to come to him, and turns Harry and Sarah into scarecrows.

The Doctor lands the TARDIS in a strange volcanic world; as soon as he exits, the TARDIS is consumed by vines. He meets a taxi driver named Charon, who takes him on a drive to meet the ruler of this land. The Doctor has already forgotten much, including his own identity and mission; Charon says this is normal here in the land of the dead, and that it will come back to him eventually. Along the way they suffer an attack from the Cyberleader from the island, who apparently is now also dead. Charon drops him near a castle floating in the sky, which the Doctor enters. He suffers another attack on his identity, but refuses to believe he is dead; the memory of Sarah and Harry returns to him and strengthens him. He finds them in a strange ballroom, dancing among a crowd; but this all serves to try to convince him he is dead, and therefore no longer the Doctor. He sees Harry and Sarah leave with a young man, purportedly his next self; and he begins to lose heart. However he meets a young blonde woman—his Thirteenth self, though he doesn’t know it—who distracts and frees him from the influence of the place.

The Doctor then meets the local ruler, Scratchman, who is ostensibly the Devil himself—which makes this place Hell. Scratchman offers to return the Doctor to his own universe and place, if the Doctor will open the way for Scratch to follow—after all, he claims he has made this a better realm, and claims that, much like the Doctor, he would like to do the same in the Doctor’s universe. The Doctor refuses, leaving a battle between them as the only alternative. He recovers Harry and Sarah, but they find themselves battling Scratchman on a huge game board, which is defined by Harry’s memories and thoughts. The Doctor forces a stalemate before Scratchman tries to change the rules. He loses Harry; but Harry makes his way inside the castle, and sabotages the engines that keep it afloat. The Doctor nearly dies in the crash, but is rescued by the Cyberleader; it tells him that its own form of Hell is being forced to do good deeds, and feel the emotions thereof. It states it will not do so again, and then disappears.

The Doctor now knows Scratch’s secret: He feeds on dreams and feelings and memories. The engines were powered by the consumption of the dreams of those trapped in this world; but that source of power is running out. Scratch begins to consume the world itself in an effort to destroy the Doctor; he creates replicas of many creatures the Doctor has faced and defeated, and sends them after the Doctor. He also creates scarecrow replicas of the Doctor’s previous three incarnations, to judge and dishearten the Doctor. The Doctor and his friends meet up with the islanders who died as scarecrows; the islanders know they’re doomed, but they choose to go down fighting, and stand against the army of monsters, allowing the Doctor to make it back to Scratch’s office in the ruins. Scratch reveals that what he really wants—the thing he believes will give him true power over the Doctor—is to know what the Doctor is afraid of. The Doctor tells him (although we, the readers, are not told). Whatever it is, Scratch is overwhelmed by it, and falls into fear himself. He flees from the remains of the monster army, before falling into a chasm to escape them. Quiet falls over the remains of Hell, and the three travelers—the only survivors—find the TARDIS, now restored, and return to their own universe.

Back at the trial, the Time Lords are unhappy with the outcome; but as the Doctor did save the universe again, and sealed the rift to Scratchman’s universe, they have no grounds to convict him. The Doctor concludes his lesson to them by telling them that what Scratchman wanted was not truly the Doctor’s fear, but rather, the Time Lords’ fear. He tells them they are afraid of change; and tells them to take action when the universe is under threat. He then walks out of the courtroom.

Later, while taking a much-belated break, the Doctor talks with Sarah about her experiences in the infected TARDIS, and about the future, and the knowledge of it. He meets briefly with the Thirteenth Doctor again, and talks about their own mutual future. He ends, much later, with a reading of a note from Sarah Jane, who is no longer with him.

I’m going to change up my usual order of things, and list continuity references now, rather than at the end. There’s a method to my madness, so bear with me:

Continuity references: The Doctor has previously been tried (The War Games), and will be again, several times. He mentions the Master’s doomsday weapon (Colony in Space). He mentions several recent encounters: professors (Robot), giant wasps (The Ark in Space), “militant potatoes” i.e. Sontarans (The Sontaran Experiment), mad scientists (Genesis of the Daleks), shapeshifters i.e. Zygons (Terror of the Zygons), and androids (The Android Invasion). Sarah Jane has her own mentions: her aunt Lavinia (The Time Warrior, later in A Girl’s Best Friend), a space station (The Ark in Space), a minefield (Genesis of the Daleks), a mummy (Pyramids of Mars), an android duplicate (The Android Invasion), a stuffed owl (The Hand of Fear), a garden centre (A Girl’s Best Friend–Sarah is seeing possible futures at this point), an exploding school (School Reunion) and a young boy (Luke, Invasion of the Bane et al.). She believes, erroneously, that the Jigsaw Room floor is a tile trap (Death to the DaleksThe Pyramids of Mars). The Doctor mentions the Loch Ness Monster (Terror of the Zygons) and thinks about the Daemons (The Daemons). Scratchman pulls several monsters from the Doctor’s memories: Giant spiders (Planet of the Spiders), Macra (The Macra Terror), Mechonoids (described but not named; The Chase), a giant robot (Robot), giant maggots (The Green Death), brains in jars (The Keys of Marinus), and a metal city of Daleks (described but not named; The Daleks).

Audiobook cover

How many times has the Doctor met the devil?

It’s a good question! And admittedly, one that’s difficult to pin down. A statement that repeatedly comes up in Doctor Who is that Earth’s history of belief in the devil has been greatly influenced by outsiders. The Daemons from the planet Daemos are once source (The Daemons), as were the Demoniacs (Mean Streets). The Greek immortal Hades called himself Satan (Deadly Reunion), as did Sutekh (Pyramids of Mars). The Beast claimed to be Satan, and certainly looked the part (The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit). (This information taken from the TARDIS wiki, not assembled by me.)

And here we meet another candidate, Scratchman. This being comes from outside our universe, from a related realm that poses itself as the Land of the Dead. It’s actually unclear whether Scratchman originated there, or whether he came from somewhere else; the Doctor makes it clear that Scratchman’s rule had a definite beginning, and Scratch himself doesn’t deny it.

Scratch’s claim to being the devil is pretty good, as compared to some of the others. The dead really do appear to go to his realm (or at least some of them; this isn’t the only afterlife we’ve ever seen); while there, the Doctor meets the dead villagers that he previously encountered in life, and both he and they seem convinced that the villagers are both real and dead. Even more convincingly to me, the Doctor never denies that Scratch is exactly what he says he is; in fact the Doctor supports that claim, treats him as though he is in fact the Devil, and even later warns the Time Lords that they should fear Scratchman. When the Time Lords mock him for this, he doubles down. Is Scratch truly the devil? It’s up to the reader in the end; but the Doctor himself seems to think so, at least to the limit that he acknowledges that the devil could be real at all.

The Doctor purports to give the Time Lords a lesson in fear; indeed, all the interludes set during the trial are themed around various aspects of fear. The overall lesson seems to be that fear is a tool, and if you can’t overcome it, someone will use it. That lesson cuts in two directions; the Doctor urges the Time Lords to overcome their own fear of change and inactivity so that it can’t be used against them, and so that they don’t fail in their responsibilities to the universe; but at the same time, it’s clear that he overcomes his own fear. He does this not by denying it, but by embracing it and using it to motivate himself. We’re never told exactly what the Doctor fears, but it must be something great indeed, if in the end it drives even his enemy to extremity. (The novel doesn’t take the easy way out here; it would be so simple to say that “The Doctor fears losing his friends” or something sentimental like that, but the book explicitly avoids that option—rather, he makes it clear that he loves his friends, and that love is a potent force for good.)

Now, a bit of theorizing. Let’s think about when this story takes place. Based on the list of continuity references above, it’s clear that this story happens near the end of Harry’s travels with the Doctor. In fact, his last televised adventure, The Android Invasion, has already taken place; but the next story, The Brain of Morbius, does not feature Harry, and gets no mention here, implying this story takes place immediately between those two adventures. (There are mentions of later episodes, but they are explicitly images of possible futures, not memories of things already past.) I think that the Doctor’s “lesson” to the Time Lords here is specifically a reaction to the events of Genesis of the Daleks. The Doctor has always considered the Time Lords to be stagnant, standoffish, and set in their ways, qualities he abhors. I think that when they began to interfere by proxy, during his third life, he grew frustrated with their efforts to use him to do things they themselves considered beneath them; and I think this came to a head in Genesis, where he finally refused to comply. Thus he comes here and lectures them about their habit of ignoring their responsibility to the universe, because even in sending him out to do their dirty work, they’ve been refusing to get involved themselves—using him as an “out”, as it were.

But: remember that there’s also a popular theory that the events of Genesis constituted the opening blow of the Time War. My addition: What if the reason the Time Lords began to fight the war directly, is because of the Doctor’s speech here? What if he prompted them to take direct action—and in typical Time Lord fashion, they screwed it up, and started a war they couldn’t win? Essentially, the Doctor called them cowards and dared them to do it. A lesson in fear, indeed! Or at least it’s frightening to think of in hindsight.

The highlight of the story is the perspective. The first person perspective is a unique addition to this story; and with the Fourth Doctor as a narrator, it becomes an interesting look into his thoughts. He’s conceited, there’s no doubt about that; but when coupled with his obvious love for life and sense of humor, it comes across as charming rather than arrogant. This is the Doctor in his youth; I’ve long suggested that given Time Lord lifespans, the fourth incarnation is the Doctor’s adolescent period, where he’s rebellious and wild, but also still has much to learn. This story seems to bear that out. He’s not the jaded and cunning Doctor of future incarnations; he’s sarcastic but not cynical, and even in some ways naïve. It’s refreshing, but it’s not the view of the Doctor that we would get through companion eyes.

Overall: What a fun story! It’s not the most serious adventure out there, though neither is it absurd, despite the premise; it’s just serious enough. And that’s a good place for a Fourth Doctor adventure to be. It’s also highly sentimental; one gets the impression it’s Tom Baker’s memorial to Ian Marter and Elizabeth Sladen, both of whom are referenced fondly, both in and out of character. If you have the opportunity, check it out, and enjoy the trip.

Next time: Well, this isn’t part of a series, and standalone novels are rare among my reviews, so…we’ll see? I may cover the Nest Cottage trilogy; for anyone interested, you can obtain the entire set for one price on Audible, or if you have an Audible membership, for one credit. Regardless, whatever we cover, see you there!

Doctor Who: Scratchman may be purchased in print form from Amazon and other booksellers, and in audio form from Audible and other audio distributors.

The TARDIS wiki’s treatment of the novel may be found here.

Audio Drama Review: …Ish

I skipped over the previous entry, Spare Parts, having already reviewed it; you can read my review here.

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! In this week’s Main Range entry, we reconnect with the Sixth Doctor and Peri Brown in …Ish, the thirty-fifth entry in the range. Written by Phil Pascoe, and released in August 2002, the story explores a specialty of the Sixth Doctor: the realm of words. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

Ish 1

An obsessive voice contemplates the word “-sh”, which is almost, but not quite, a full word.

The most comprehensive English language dictionary in history, the Lexicon, is nearly complete, and will soon be unveiled before a gathering of delegates.  The Doctor and Peri have come to meet an old friend, Professor Osefa, the head of the project and compiler of the Lexicon.  Meanwhile the conference’s Symposiarch, Robert Cawdrey, has brought in new investors; but this necessitates a change to the Lexicon’s preamble.  Osefa locks herself into her office to finish this last bit of work; it is doubly frustrating to her, as her hologlyphic amanuensis, or scribe, Book, is stuck on contemplation of a word.  The TARDIS arrives in the midst of the preparations, and the Sixth Doctor and Peri emerge; as the Doctor is a great lover of words, the conference is a perfect occasion for him.  Nevertheless, he continues to be confounded by Peri’s American dialect, and the two bicker over it until they are intercepted by Cawdrey.  Cawdrey recognizes the Doctor from Osefa’s descriptions, and admits them to the conference; Peri goes off alone, tired of the argument, while the Doctor goes with Cawdrey to find Osefa.  He has brought her a gift—an original text regarding obscure and preposterous words—which Cawdrey acknowledges as a Time Lord gift.  However, upon arrival at the office, they find Osefa dead, apparently by suicide.

Peri goes in search of lunch, and ends up at the campus refectory, where she meets a logophile—a word lover or enthusiast—named Warren.  The two hit it off, and play word games, which Peri wins; Warren loses gracefully, and then explains that their game has paid for their meal.  Here in the Articulate Worlds, information is currency, and words have value.  However, Warren expresses some doubt about the Lexicon project, and indeed all dictionaries; he believes language should be free to evolve naturally, and should not be pinned down to precise definitions.  Words, he insists, are alive, and speak through their users—and maybe even speak people into existence.  Meanwhile, Book continues to struggle with the confounding word: the word “-ish”, indicating imprecision, which to his mind leads to a reduction in meaning—and making things worse, it is even found in the name of the language, English.

Cawdrey scrambles to rearrange the conference schedule and conceal Osefa’s death as long as possible.  The Doctor examines the crime scene, noting that the room was locked from the inside until Cawdrey unlocked it.  However, Osefa’s suicide note is unlike her, riddled with errors and a faulty version of her penmanship.  Perhaps someone else wrote it—but, who?  Suspicion instantly falls on Book, who would have been the last person to see her alive, inasmuch as he is a person—and as a hologlyph, he could materialize inside a locked room.  The Doctor sets the computers to locating Book for questioning.  Cawdrey questions the idea of foul play, but the Doctor realizes he has a personal stake in the matter: an investigation might expose some dubious investments in the project, for which Cawdrey was responsible.  Therefore he agrees to investigate without police involvement, on condition that any findings be presented to the authorities; after all, the murderer is still at large.

Warren tells Peri his own designs for Book.  He wants the amanuensis to rebel against the Lexicon faculty, whom he feels are using Book to restrict the development of the language.  He and Peri go to Book’s tiny office—as a hologlyph, he requires little space—and Warren meddles with Book’s recent work in order to attract his attention.  When Book arrives, he is angry, and locks them in, threatening that they may not escape alive.

The Doctor fails to locate Book, but finds that the campus’s ordinateurs, or computers, have experienced systems failure due to internal corruption.  This has the side effect of allowing him to look into Book’s virtual workspace, in which he finds and corrects Warren’s alterations.  He is able to identify Warren from the work, which disturbs Cawdrey; Cawdrey is familiar with Warren, and claims the young man is devoted to disrupting linguistic endeavours.  This is neither the first nor the largest example of his sabotage, and it may bring down the entire symposium.  To stave off disaster, the Doctor goes to entertain the delegates, sending Cawdrey to locate Warren.  Cawdrey, meanwhile, is growing more stressed, as the first information lost included necessary financial data on the investors.  Once the delegates are pacified, the Doctor turns his attention to the missing Book, and to Osefa’s body.  Her race has a hippocampus that retains some function even after death, and therefore the Doctor is able to cobble together a device which scans her brain and creates a hologlyphic duplicate of the woman.  He intends to ask her what happened.

Book draws back from harming Peri and Warren, and recognizes that his behavior is bizarre.  Warren challenges Book to provide definitions for obscure words, hoping to break the hologlyph’s rigid thinking patterns, but is cut off by a broadcast from Cawdrey.  Cawdrey insists that anyone without a symposium invitation report to the faculty.  Warren goes to check out the situation, leaving Peri behind with Book; but she suspects that Warren is hiding something.  Peri talks to Book about his work, and begins to worry that he is, in fact, stressed; perhaps he is overworked, which could strain even a complex computer.  He admits that his recent memories are no longer reliable.  He agrees with Peri that his task—to accumulate all words and definitions—will never end, nor will it ever be fully accepted by everyone; words, after all, represent knowledge and power.  However, this is his purpose; and he never questioned it, until he visited Xenocubis with Osefa.  The inhabitants of that world believe that the echoes of the Big Bang created the concept of language itself—an original Word, if you will.  As they believe that other languages are fragments of the original word, they collect and preserve them…but one word there was completely inexplicable to Book, and changed him.  Peri realizes that Book’s pursuit of words has left him no time to interact with the users of the Lexicon; he explains that he has created a Lexisphere, a virtual interface between the real world and the meaning found in the Lexicon.  Its opening was to have been the height of the symposium, but now that may not happen; and Peri realizes that the uncertainty that plagues Book may also be in the Lexicon, spelling trouble.

The Doctor learns from the Osefa hologlyph of the Xenocubis expedition, but is unable to ask about Osefa’s death, as the hologlyph can’t accept it.  He switches her off.  The Xenocubis notes contain references to L.T., or Lexical Transcendence—a superstition, perhaps, but one that would appeal to Osefa.  From this he deduces the existence of the Lexisphere, and realizes that Book is probably there.  Meanwhile, Book takes Peri to the Lexisphere, which breaks words into their basic phonemes and analyzes their meaning; but he detects a presence inside it.  He notes that words in the Lexicon are changing meanings as they speak; Peri realizes she is trapped in the Lexisphere as things begin to shake.  The rumbling stops, but Book begins repeating a strange syllable: “ish…”  Meanwhile, Cawdrey denies the Doctor access to the Lexisphere, claiming it will further disturb the conference.  However, something is already disturbing it: as they watch, the crowd begins repeating the strange syllable: “Ish…Ish…”

Warren saves Peri from the Lexisphere while Book continues to chant; but his exposure to it changes him, and he claims to feel at home inside its world constructed of words.  Peri warns him about the presence inside, and wants to find the Doctor; but when Warren finds that the Doctor and Cawdrey are together, he leaves, unwilling to deal with Cawdrey.  Meanwhile, the Doctor and Cawdrey are unaffected; their speech remains normal.  Cawdrey identifies Book—who can travel by projection—as the first speaker of the word; but how has this condition spread?  For now, at least, the delegates are physically unharmed.  Cawdrey searches for Warren, whom he blames for  the situation; everyone else on the campus is infected with the Ish, and all communications are jammed, preventing him from summoning help.  Moreover, the text in the books in the library is changing, as are the words in Osefa’s note.  Peri, meanwhile, locates the Doctor, who claims credit for her resistance to the condition; nevertheless he is happy to see her.  He theorizes that the delegates are trying to puzzle out the meaning of the word, but are becoming more disconnected from all meaning the longer they work at it.

Book continues to be obsessed.  He focuses on Osefa’s death, and her keynote adress, and the word “-ish”.  Osefa had planned the address to deal with “word killers”, individuals in history who were forced to remove old words from dictionaries due to limited space—a futile pursuit, as words never really die.  Stuck in this obsession, Book deflects Warren’s attempts to recruit him; Warren wants access to the Lexisphere.  Osefa materializes before Book, in hologlyhic form; the hologlyph continues work on the address, touching the topic of lexical transcendentalism.  She starts from the idea of pi, which is a transcendental number, not rigidly definable; so what, then, would be a transcendental word?

Peri updates the Doctor on her adventures, but stops when the sound of birdsong outside stops, then returns.  The Doctor realizes the contamination is spreading to other forms of language—such as birdsong—but only those which suit it; languages such as architecture are unaffected thus far.  He traces the situation back to the idea of lexical transcendence; short words can have many meanings, longer words only a few—so what about the longest possible word?  Such a word, the Omniverbum, would have such dense meaning that it could warp reality around it.  While Osefa and Book have clearly not found the Omniverbum, perhaps they found a fragment of it: a sentient word of sorts, eating meaning—the “ish”.  Cawdrey returns and reports the spread of the infection; the Doctor tells him to shut down the Lexisphere, as the ish can use it to spread.  For their protection, he gives Peri and Cawdrey in-ear translation devices, Babel Masters, which will censor the “ish” syllable in their hearing.  Cawdrey refuses to consider that the Doctor could be right, leaving Peri to work alone on the Lexisphere; however, the ish begins to manipulate words on the screen, trying to get to them in a non-verbal manner.

The Doctor meets Book in Osefa’s office.  Book tells him that Osefa’s search for the ultimate, transcendent meaning revealed only hollowness.  Warren arrives in a state of rapture, and forces Book to explain what happened here: Book infected Osefa with the ish, and she killed herself rather than watch all her knowledge degrade into babble.  Warren plans to use Book to spread the ish across the Articulate worlds—and once babble is given power over the minds that it infects, he will reveal the Omniverbum and destroy all language forever.

Osefa appears and distracts Warren long enough for the Doctor and Book to escape.  He lets them go, and explains his plan to Osefa—who then gives him a revelation about himself.  Meanwhile Book takes the Doctor to his office, and reveals his remote projectors, which are necessary for Book to leave the campus.  The Doctor reluctantly destroys them to hinder Warren’s efforts.  Book reveals that he is in fact infected, but that he has the ability to disassociate himself from portions of the Lexisphere’s content; he has been combining this ability with a focus on the widely-varying meanings of ish in order to keep himself sane.  The Doctor realizes that Warren and the ish have different agendas; Warren wants to spread it everywhere, but the ish has voluntarily confined itself to the campus thus far.  It most likely wants the Lexicon.  Book blames himself, but the Doctor assures him that he is not to blame; he was doing his job, and was taken advantage of.  They confirm that they ish is a fragment of the Omniverbum, a living syllable that consumes meaning until only babble is left.  The Lexicon gave it a wealth of sustenance, but it bided its time until the various delegates—linguists, all—arrived, ready to be consumed.  Now it can only be fought in the Lexisphere.

Realizing they are already infected, Peri and Cawdrey remove their Babel Masters.  Knowing time is short, Cawdrey explains that Warren—unknown to himself—is a hologlyph, which was programmed by Cawdrey and connected to the Lexisphere just as Book is.  With his built-in love of words, he was designed to sabotage the efforts of the Lexicon’s competitors; but Warren’s capacity for destruction was too great, and he has harmed the Lexicon as well.  However, he must be prevented from knowing the truth about himself; if he learns it, he will not need Book to spread the ish.  However, it’s too late; as Cawdrey shuts down the Lexisphere, Warren materializes, having learned the truth from the Osefa hologlyph.  He cannot be reasoned with, and Peri begins to fall to the ish.  Warren reveals that Osefa knew the truth all along, but allowed it as a mark of pity toward Cawdrey, whom she considered incompetent; this breaks Cawdrey’s sanity, and he succumbs fully to the ish.  However, the Docotr arrives and draws Peri back to Sanity.  The Doctor bluffs Warren into believing he is having a seizure, temporarily destabilizing him and giving Peri time to explain what has happened.  Warren recovers, and panics when he realizes the ish is deserting him.

The Doctor offers himself as a new host to the ish, in the process defending English as the most powerful language in the Universe.  The ish reveals it wants to return home, as it were—to the Omniverbum.  The Doctor offers to help it do so if it will release the delegates, but it expels him from the Lexisphere.  He finds Peri repeating the syllable and Cawdrey raving madly while Warren begs the ish to return; it seems all is lost.

Osefa’s hologlyph appears and addresses the delegates; but instead of its planned speech, it talks about the Doctor, a man who uses speech as his primary defense against evil.  But, what if that man could not talk himself out of a threat?  What if words were the enemy?  She uses this to defend the necessity of language, for without it, there is nothing.  She then vanishes, leaving Book despairing.

The Doctor despairs as well…until Peri begins to spout her American idioms.  He realises this may be a key; if they can give the ish conflicting words for the same meaning, it will become confused.  With Peri, he begins shouting out English words, while Peri shouts their American counterparts.  Unable to bear it, the ish retreats to the Lexisphere, and the Doctor and Peri escape it as the Omniverbum—with the rumbling they heard before—approaches.  Warren remains behind, and the ish chooses him as its host in order to return home.  However, he intends instead to pull the Omniverbum into the real world, completing his plan to destroy language and meaning and, by extension, reality.  To drive the Omniverbum back, the Doctor knows they must strike it with the full force of the English language, which—due to its durability and evolution—is more powerful than even the longest world.  Book disassociates himself from the full mass of the Lexicon, which overloads the Lexisphere with meaning, forcing the Omniverbum back to the conceptual space from which it came.  It takes the ish, and Warren, with it.

In the aftermath, the delegates recover; but Cawdrey never will, for his capacity for language is gone.  The Lexicon, too, is gone, and the Lexisphere is destroyed, but the faculty have retained Book and Osefa to create a new dictionary…on paper.  The Doctor encourages them, and warns them about other sentient words, and promises to return and check on them.  With Peri, he returns to the TARDIS, and makes an exit.

Ish 2

The Sixth Doctor’s moment has arrived! This story is utterly suited to him. It’s a story about words in all their complexity; and no one is ever more intoxicated with the exuberance of his own verbosity than the Sixth Doctor. This story feels like the payoff on every joke and gag there has ever been regarding the Sixth Doctor’s choice of words. Surprisingly, Peri gets most of the good lines, and all of the good puns; but maybe that makes sense, given that a theme here is that sometimes the Doctor—who fights his battles with words more than anything else—can be beaten at his own game.

It’s an audacious concept: That a villain can be a simple word. We’ve already explored the concept of sound being both intelligent and malevolent, all the way back in Whispers of Terror; now we expand on the idea, and reveal that a word—or even a fraction of a word—can be sentient, and can devour. -Ish is a fragment of a word even in English, signifying an incomplete similarity; many times in these reviews, I’ve used it in the word “Doctorish”. Within the context of the story, it’s a fragment of a far greater and more destructive word, and as such it can’t be trusted; but in the end, all it wants—like E.T.—is to go home. It may sound like a silly idea; but consider how words shape our thoughts, and how our thoughts in turn shape our actions and even our reality, and it becomes powerful. At the same time, the format embraces the silliness of the idea and runs with it; in addition to the aforementioned puns, there are some clever audio tricks here. For one example, Peri and a fellow character are fitted with in-ear devices that prevent them from hearing the -ish syllable by censoring it if it is spoken in their vicinity; we, the audience, get to hear the censoring as well. It would be routine if the syllable was always a discrete entity, but the censoring also includes words that incorporate the syllable; at one point Peri sneezes, which comes out similar to the word “tissue”, and the middle of her sneeze is beeped out.

The setting is unique here, and has not yet featured in any other story. The story takes place in the Articulate Worlds, a group of human worlds with a common economy which is based not on money, but on information in the form of words. Words, therefore, have literal value, and can be used as currency. At one point Peri unwittingly pays for her lunch and drinks with a word game. It’s an interesting take on a post-scarcity economy, although I suspect it’s untenable in the real world. We know the worlds are human, because of the prevalence of the English language, but it is acknowledged that non-humans live there as well; in fact, a major character, Osefa, is revealed to be non-human. (It’s not directly stated, but references to, and descriptions of, her species would indicate she is not human.) The story concentrates more on describing the Articulate Worlds than on tying them into the overall history of the galaxy; we know they must be in the future, but that’s really all we know, and no date is given.

This is the first time in a while that we’ve seen the Sixth Doctor or Peri (or anyone other than Eight and Charley, for that matter), but they haven’t suffered for the gap; both performances are on point. The supporting performances are decent, given that every character at some point undergoes a major change: Book, the hologlyphic scribe, wavers between coherence and insanity; Osefa dies and returns in an altered form; Warren, Peri’s first contact in the story, experiences a major revelation that leaves him unhinged; Cawdrey, the organizer of the conference at which the story occurs, loses his mind completely. With insanity being such a common thread, the roles could not have been easy, but they are all handled well.

My only complaint is that this story is difficult to follow. With all the excess verbiage, it’s a strain on the vocabulary; and it doesn’t help that the Sixth Doctor is always a fast speaker. It’s worth it to listen more than once, although—at two hours of running time—that’s purely a judgment call.

Continuity references: With our return to the normal cycle of the Main Range, references are reduced, but still present. Peri makes reference to her stepfather, Howard Foster, and his archaeological endeavours (Planet of Fire) and also to her botany studies from the same episode. The Doctor uses a bit of the Delphon eyebrow language introduced in Spearhead from Space, where his newly-regenerated third incarnation used it on Liz Shaw. The phrase “A Time Lord gift?” appeared previously in The Masque of Mandragora, and the phrase “The birth-cry of the Universe” occurred in The Curse of Fenric (although admittedly, that one is still in the Doctor’s future). There are a few meta-references as well; an encyclopedia volume is referenced, which begins with DAL, referring to the apocryphal story that Terry Nation named the Daleks by looking at an encyclopedia volume (DAL to LEK). Also, the Doctor mentions, as another sentient word, “The Adjective of Noun”, which is how common Classic Series titles are usually formatted (e.g. The Keeper of Traken).

Overall: A fun return to the Sixth Doctor, though perhaps more fun for Peri than anyone else. It’s a bit complicated, and makes much of a very tiny partial word, but in doing so it’s very clever. Not a bad way to resume the normal routine.

Ish 3

Next time: On Thursday we will continue the Fourth Doctor Adventures, Series One; and next week we’ll return to the Main Range and the Seventh Doctor with The Rapture. See you there!

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below.  This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.