In the dimensions of Doctor Who there are as many possibilities unexplored as adventures taken, and while some events and locations echo in repeating divergent iterations, the submerged continent of Atlantis and the Time Lord prison planet Shada, for example, one which has remained largely veiled was the abandoned feature film script written by Ian Marter and Tom Baker in the mid-seventies, Doctor Who meets Scratchman.
Now emerging from the space time vortex in the form of a novel credited to Baker with the assistance of James Goss and published to coincide with the former Doctor’s eighty-fifth birthday, it reunites the classic 1975 TARDIS lineup of the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan as they arrive on a Scottish island at an unspecified time in the mid-twentieth century, with a framing story of the Doctor explaining the events to a Time Lord tribunal on Gallifrey.
With little prelude to establish the setting, the supporting characters or generate an atmosphere of mystery or dread, the trio are attacked by scarecrows whose touch acts almost as an infection, the villagers becoming scarecrows in turn and spreading the affliction still further. Barricading themselves in a church, the Doctor attempts to devise a defence, but this is only the first stage in an incursion by a far more powerful threat from another dimension.
Baker and Marter having sought finance for the film over an extended period through the seventies before the project was abandoned, one possible reason that Scratchman was never produced might be that it simply isn’t very good, and while Baker and Goss’ prose version does play to the few strengths it had, namely the Doctor and Sarah Jane, it fails to address the innumerable shortcomings in the underdeveloped premise.
The attack constant rather than coming in waves, the scarecrows endlessly battering at the front doors of the church without ever actually gaining ground or changing tactic while the villagers trapped inside bickering and sniping without developing personality beyond the superficial, the opening chapters are a breathless holding pattern which generates no tension, the Grim Reaper defeated by Harry’s bumbling without him even noticing, any threat reduced to farce.
Written as short scenes, many of the paragraphs only a single sentence, the prose style is no more sophisticated than might be expected of a Terrance Dicks novelisation of a (re)generation past rather than the promised novel, and while it is unusual to have it written in the omniscient first person of the Doctor that choice is a misguided disservice. If anyone could have rendered that insight satisfactorily it would have been the endlessly eccentric Baker, but too often he is flippant and shallow, a facile rendering of what should remain unknown and unknowable to the reader.
Where Scratchman does succeed is in the presence of the endlessly kind Sarah Jane, ready for anything and with absolute faith in the Doctor, and even Harry, more cautious and uncertain of the shifting rules of the game he has found himself in, their characters presented authentically and the dialogue capturing the voices of the much-missed Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter, the book as much a tribute to them as anything else.
Although Scratchman acknowledges the history of the show, both previous and subsequent, and it is moving and effective when it does so, it is also overshadowed by what has happened since the story was conceived, the revived series having menaced with scarecrows in Human Nature and the beast below in The Satan Pit as well as having offered monster team-ups and sympathetic Cybermen.
This not to say there are not gems within the barren fields, the Doctor’s scenes with his peers making good points which could have been better still had his challengers not been as much straw men as the scarecrows but those interludes still unable to avoid the awareness that such scenes are largely a replay of The Trial of a Timelord.
The Doctor too often coming across as a show-off who is impatient with those around him and who lacks empathy, his comments and musing only occasionally capturing the wonderful absurdity and knack for deflating a pompous adversary which made Baker’s era of the show an enduring delight, those moments too few all the more frustrating for what they hint might have been, and as the professional writer in the pairing it is with Goss rather than Baker that the responsibility for this jumbled disappointment lies.