The 85th birthday of the legendary Tom Baker seems like a good time to talk about his debut Doctor Who novel, which hits shelves on Thursday – Scratchman.
The first officially-licensed Doctor Who story to be written by an actor to play the Doctor, Scratchman is the culmination of an idea almost forty-five years in the making. But we’ll get to that later. For now, let’s talk about Scratchman in its own right.
Unusually for a Doctor Who novel, Scratchman uses a first-person form with the Doctor as the narrator. Many writers I’ve spoken to over the years have said they dislike going inside the Doctor’s head. But if anyone’s going to do it, then Tom Baker seems like the best person. This also means a very sweet insight into how the Doctor regards his companions, which could easily be interpreted as Baker reminiscing fondly about his two co-stars. Ian Marter, who played Harry Sullivan, passed away in 1986 while Lis Sladen, known to Doctor Who fans young and old as Sarah Jane Smith, died in 2011.
When asked how he felt revisiting Sarah and Harry, Baker said:
It was fun and very poignant. It was marvellous to be with them again…I missed her terribly – she was legendary, wasn’t she? I loved her and she loved me and there was a wonderful relationship, a confident relationship that comes out in Scratchman, I hope. The tenderness that I feel for her, and she for me, and her for Harry.
Of course, the transfer from script to novel means there’s scope for huge changes in the story. Perhaps understandably, Baker appears to stuck closely to the original treatment. Albeit with the concession of an unexpected framing device. However, the opportunity to render the story without the budget concerns that permeated (and ultimately doomed) the development of the original screenplay has been embraced in some aspects but not in others.
Scratchman wasn’t given any real description in the treatment so there’s room for his novel counterpart, Scratch, to be a monstrous fire-being that late-Seventies B-movie budgets couldn’t have hoped for. However, a large chunk of the first act is a pretty slow and it feels like the setting could have been changed to heighten the stakes.
But that’s just the 2019 version. Doctor Who: Scratchman is the realisation of a story with a long and elaborate past. And it all began with a single casting decision…
When Tom Baker took over the role of The Doctor from Jon Pertwee in 1974, he inherited a co-star in the form of Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. Since the departing producer Barry Letts had intended to cast an older actor to play the Fourth Doctor, they decided to add a male companion to the roster to do all the exciting action stuff that a more grandfatherly main character wouldn’t. Enter Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan, a Royal Navy medical officer seconded to UNIT.
Marter and Baker’s easy friendship, not to mention plenty of spare time during filming, proved to be the perfect conditions to work on a creative project of their own. Especially when the Doctor was defeated by a crossword puzzle. Eventually, Baker mentioned an idea he’d had, rooted in his religious upbringing and his own personal fascination with the Devil and the notion of Sin.
As Marter told Doctor Who Magazine in 1986…
There were times when even Tom wasn’t needed in rehearsals. He and I used to sometimes go and do The Times crossword puzzle. We never used to complete more than about three clues, because we could never do it. And one day, we were doing this and Tom suddenly said, ‘I’m fed up with this. Why don’t we write a story to do on the series?’ And he had a lovely idea for one.
Baker’s idea, which he and Marter continued to develop into the informally-titled Doctor Who Meets Scratchman, involved the titular Scratchman as a thinly-veiled representation of Satan, scarecrows coming to life and an epic final battle inside a giant pinball machine.
However, when they took the idea to the Doctor Who production office they received short shrift. Though Marter notes that the crew were busy with getting season thirteen ready and probably didn’t have time to give their script more than a passing look.
Undeterred, Baker and Marter set out to turn Doctor Who Meets Scratchman into a movie.
Barely a decade had passed since the two Amicus Productions movies starring Peter Cushing had found reasonable box-office success. The idea of putting the Time Lord back on the big screen was something the BBC was open to. Not to mention a revival in British cinema that had seen enormous success with film versions of TV shows, such as Dad’s Army and Are You Being Served? However, it was clear that the scope of a new Doctor Who project would require a much bigger budget. If they wanted to attract that level of funding, they needed a strong script.
Though Marter would later go on to write novelisations of movies and TV shows, including seven Doctor Who stories, he and Baker knew they lacked the experience necessary to develop a movie script. But they knew someone who did, as Tom Baker noted in his autobiography, the director of the critically-acclaimed Born Free, James Hill…
Somehow the director James Hill became interested. The arrangement was that Ian and I would prepare the storyline for Doctor Who Meets Scratchman and write the dialogue, and that James would shape it into a screenplay.
After Harry was written out of the show, Marter devoted his newfound free time to developing the project. He and Baker embarked on a memorable writing retreat to Italy in which Tom nearly drowned. After some further development in London, the team of Baker, Marter and Hill had what they felt was a finished screenplay.
Charles Norton, in his 2013 book Now on the Big Screen, said of the final treatment…
Highly surreal, it had touches of Dali and art-house expressionism about some of its grander set-pieces. The plot wasn’t entirely clear, at least in any traditional way. The evil Scratchman protagonist was never explicitly stated to be the Devil, but neither was there ever any alternative explanation for his motivations. In all fairness, perhaps there didn’t need to be one.
But that was the easy bit. Now they had to court the BBC for the movie rights, acquire the funding and…well, make the movie.
What happened next involves a lot of contracts and negotiations and rights ownership and brand management. It’s long, complicated and a bit dry. Suffice to say that while securing the rights to make the movie was eventually granted, the money proved much harder to come by.
Baker and Hill took the lead in trying to attract the capital needed to at least cover costs. Even when American horror legend Vincent Price expressed interest in playing the Scratchman and glamour model Twiggy was attached to the companion role following Sladen’s departure from the TV series. The closest they came was “promising” interest from Universal. But the team were keen to keep the production a thoroughly British one. As Tom Baker opined to the Daily Mail…
It has been a saddening and frustrating experience. The British film industry seems to be closing down, yet here is a film which entails absolutely no risk. With millions of viewers on television each week, we have a guaranteed cinema box-office, and you would have thought the British film industry would have snapped it up. But I couldn’t get a single studio interested. We did have an approach from Hollywood, but I wanted this to be a British film.
After several more attempts to get the scratch, including one incident where Baker inadvertently prompted 8000 Doctor Who fans to send him money (which he hastily returned) things were bleak. By mid-1977, the Scratchman trio had only just about scraped together half of the estimated £500,000 they needed.
The Devil’s Hour
In October 1978, Hill’s production company acquired the exclusive rights to make a Doctor Who movie. Despite Hill’s best efforts, the BBC hadn’t budged on their decision to only grant the option for one year. The Time Lord now faced a ticking clock. Production had to start by the end of 1979 or they would lose the rights.
After continued failure to secure funding, Baker and Hill accepted that Doctor Who Meets Scratchman would never see the big screen. In July 1979, a letter from then-current producer Graham Williams described the project as “postponed indefinitely”. The rights expired and Scratchman died at the hands of the almighty dollar.
Nothing gets wasted when it comes to Doctor Who ideas. Practically any story that reaches more than the pitching stage is scrutinised and picked apart by fans. In some cases, they’ll even be given a retroactive adaptation courtesy of the books, comics or audios. Big Finish has an entire range dedicated to that very idea. But, unusually, one of the few stories to languish in obscurity was Doctor Who Meets Scratchman. Whereas the aborted production of Shada has been reimagined every which way, Scratchman remained a footnote for a long time. This novel adaptation is the first and only official release of Tom Baker and Ian Marter’s original concept.
Many thanks to The Sisterhood of Karn for their help and DWM scans.