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.

Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology, and “The Sparks” by Kara Dennison

Recently I had an unusual experience. I had the pleasant surprise of being approached through this site’s email link by a woman named Mary Norris (professionally M.H. Norris). Mary indicated that she was the editor of a then-upcoming charity anthology, which was raising money for the Cancer Research Institute, an organization researching methods to use the body’s immune system against various forms of cancer. The anthology in question centers around the character of Sarah Jane Smith, and is titled Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection. Mary inquired as to whether I’d be willing to review the stories in the collection (and perhaps publicize the cause), as I did a year or two ago with the Seasons of War anthology.

Defending Earth (Cover)

Cover art by Sophie Iles

I was intrigued for several reasons. First, no one has ever requested this service before, so I’ll admit to being flattered to some degree; full disclosure, if that’s a character flaw, I’ll own up to it. I reviewed Seasons of War on my own initiative, after discovering it through references on the /r/Gallifrey subreddit; but I was unaware of Defending Earth until I was approached. Second, this anthology—and indeed, most of the material surrounding Sarah Jane Smith—represents a corner of the Whoniverse that I’ve somehow neglected so far. For my own curiosity, I want to dig into those materials, and this seems like a fantastic place to jump on. (I should mention here that I’m going to try to supplement by checking out some of the already-extant Sarah Jane stories, such as The Sarah Jane Adventures, which I missed in first run. I’ll post reviews of those as well.) Third, and perhaps most important, the charity involved is a good cause, and deserves some support. You can find their website at the link above, and should you wish to support the charity by buying the anthology, you can purchase it here. The book became available (digital for immediate purchase, physical preorders) on 1 February; I’m a little behind schedule getting started with this project, but you can still purchase at the above link.

One more bit of disclosure: I was asked to review the book; I am not being paid to do it. With a charity project that should be obvious; but there are a lot of dishonest people in the world today, and so I feel like I need to make this clear. Therefore, although I’ll link to the store page and mention the charity in each post, I won’t be making sales pitches. If the book is to succeed, it will do so on its own merits, and that is what I’ll try to document. I have no stake in that, other than to wish it well. Also, I made it clear to Mary—and I’ll make it clear to you—that I’ll give my honest opinions of each story. If I find flaws with a story, I’ll say so. I tend to be very optimistic about stories—I rarely do find problems—but I’m not going to artificially praise them, either.

You should also be aware that there will be spoilers here. I cleared this with Mary ahead of time, and explained my reasoning: Charity anthologies don’t get the wide readership of licensed materials, nor do they get the kind of support documentation that you find in, say, the TARDIS wiki. If you don’t buy the anthology, those stories are essentially lost to you. To that end, I include brief plot summaries of each story so that others can at least participate in the discussion. Of course, no summary will ever fully substitute for the experience of reading a good story; and so I don’t think this approach will hinder sales of the book.

A little structural explanation, and then we’ll jump in: The anthology is arranged in chronological order, covering five periods of Sarah Jane’s life. There are a total of fifteen stories in the anthology, so this project won’t be so lengthy as the Seasons of War coverage. We’ll start with the Childhood section, with Kara Dennison’s contribution, The Sparks. Let’s get started!

Dennison Title Card

Sarah Jane Smith is six years old, and already curious. That’s a good combination on an ordinary day; but it’s not an ordinary day, as Sarah lies in bed with a cold. Resenting this inconvenient imprisonment, she makes several attempts to sneak outside; and finally, she is successful. Which is odd, as she sneaks right past her oblivious Aunt Lavinia in the process—Aunt Lavinia, who is never oblivious.

It’s not for boredom that she sneaks out, though. It’s curiosity; for Sarah has heard a strange noise, and more, seen a strange, pale, blue light, arcing into the sky from a nearby hill. Sarah makes her way toward it, gathering evidence as she goes; and she encounters a woman, a stranger in her little village, who speaks nicely to her, but then nearly runs Sarah down with her car—blindly, it seems, but no less dangerously for that. Things grow stranger when she discovers that she and the woman are the only things moving in town; people, candle flames, even the air itself, all stand perfectly still, insensate.

But Sarah Jane is already the girl who will one day be the journalist, and she is far more excited than afraid. She makes her way toward the hill, and catches a glimpse of a shield of blue light…

…And she is captured by the strange woman. The woman picks her up and takes her home, and puts her back to bed; Sarah’s cold, it seems, has grown much worse, and she needs to rest. But even here, Sarah’s curiosity is strong, and she demands an explanation. The woman explains that the stabilization field—that which has frozen her town—will soon dissipate, and no one will be the wiser. She explains that it is Sarah’s illness, and her resultant heightened immune system, which made her resistant to the field. She tells Sarah what sounds like a fairy tale, of a wondrous, ancient beast, supremely friendly—but supremely dangerous for those that befriend it. She hints that it is her job to protect such people from their own curiosity and keep them away from the beast. She starts to tell Sarah the story of how the beast was slain—or one day will be—but Sarah dozes off.

The woman, whose name is Lola, quietly lets herself out of the house, and returns to her car, which is of course not a car at all, but a cramped and badly-disguised ship, capable of traveling in both space and time. As she prepares to leave, she thinks of what she has done; and she looks ahead to her next mission. There are, after all, others to protect.

line break 1

I mentioned earlier that there are many parts of Sarah Jane Smith’s life that have been documented, but that I have not encountered. Her childhood is one such time. We learn of her birth and early life in The Sarah Jane Adventures, which I am watching alongside this series (and hopefully will complete before I reach that stage of the anthology!). Other details appear in various prose works and audio dramas, none of which I have read (yet!). Thus, for me, Kara Dennison gets first crack at this part of Sarah Jane’s life—and not a bad start, it is.

To be clear, it’s not a particularly momentous story—more of a hint of things to come in Sarah’s life. She’s thwarted in her investigatory efforts here, and comes to no harm; we don’t even know the full truth of the strange phenomenon she was investigating. However, we don’t need to know; because the story isn’t about the light in the sky, or the strange blue dome on the hilltop, or even the woman in the car-shaped time machine. The story is about Sarah Jane, and how she begins to grow into the person she will later be.

That’s not to say that this is the defining moment in young Sarah Jane’s life. Rather, it’s one of several such moments, because Sarah Jane has been stumbling into trouble since her infancy. Her path isn’t set here; she’s already on it. She’s advanced for a six-year-old: she thinks quite scientifically about cause-and-effect; and she clearly knows how to both read and write, as she wishes for a notepad to record the clues she’s discovering. She already has the first stirrings of an investigative mindset. Therefore this moment isn’t definitive; but it is formative.

The “beast” of Lola’s story—presumably synonymous with the thing on the hilltop—is never identified. However, there are hints to suggest that this may be the Doctor. She describes the beast as “very old, and very wise…but also very friendly and very foolish.” She indicates that most people avoid befriending the beast, but that some few would react with curiosity instead of fear, because they have experienced “sparks”, moments in their lives that taught them not to be careful or fearful. The beast, in turn, sees the sparks, and knows they will be its friends. She goes on to say that some such friends would learn the error of their ways and return home; some returned, but forever changed; and some never returned. All of that together constitutes a compelling description of the relationship between the Doctor and his companions. As well, the light on the hilltop is described as pale blue, possibly indicating the TARDIS.

More curious, though, are Lola’s thoughts after she returns to her ship. She muses over past individuals whom she has prevented from having strange encounters: a pair of twins named Elise and Arthur Banning, steered away from a sentient meteorite; a priestess named Patrexi, lulled to sleep while an ancient astronaut passed by her temple; and someone named Corazón, whom she stopped “with prejudice”, a task she always hates. None of those names were familiar to me, even after research (please elaborate in the comments if I’ve missed anything!). However, she then thinks about her next mission: two individuals named Chesterton and Wright, some nine years in the future, and an unexpected meteor shower. This, of course, could be none other than Ian and Barbara, the Doctor’s first earthly companions. The “nine years” would place that event in 1966; if Sarah was born in 1951, and is six years old here, then this story takes place in 1957, and “nine years later” would be 1966. That would certainly place it after Ian and Barbara’s return home in 1965 in The Chase, making this meteor shower an encounter we have not had documented elsewhere.

And so, we’re left with a greater mystery. Who is Lola? What is her mission? It can’t simply be the matter of the Doctor; these other encounters don’t seem to connect directly with him. Is she trying to snuff out the “sparks” that will eventually lead those individuals to the Doctor? If so, she has clearly failed with Sarah Jane; and she’s two years too late for Ian and Barbara. Further, was it the TARDIS on the hilltop? And if her mission is not always to interfere with the Doctor’s acquisition of companions, then why tell Sarah Jane the beast tale in the first place? Or perhaps I’m reading it all wrong, and this is a string of coincidences. But I hope not; that would be boring. One thing is sure: I would love to see these threads be picked up again later, and I hope that Ms. Dennison finds opportunity to do so.

In the meantime, we’re left with a fun story, one that bodes well for the rest of the anthology. I look forward to what lies ahead!

Next time: We move on to Sarah’s UNIT years in Jon Black’s Swinging Londons. See you there!

Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection may be purchased here. Ebook editions are currently available for download; physical editions are available for preorder.

To support the Cancer Research Institute, you may purchase the book, or you may visit their website here.