News flash: TOM BAKER IS AWESOME. Let’s call a spade a gardening instrument: Tom Baker is 100% the reason I fell in love with Doctor Who as a show. He showed me that it was perfectly acceptable to be quirky and a bit weird and still go about life and make friends and have fun and above all, to be happy to be different. This was an important lesson for a pale, red-headed, Italian kid growing up in Staten Island in the 70’s and 80’s. When he turned up in The Day of the Doctor, I got chills the moment I’d heard his voice. Tom Baker is one of the greatest legends of my childhood. So when I saw that he wrote a Doctor Who book, I wasn’t going to let it slide and on Christmas Day 2019, my wife gave it to me. I just finished reading it and … I may have made a mistake in asking for it as a book and not an audio book!
The thing is, I think if I’d heard Baker’s voice as the Fourth Doctor, I might have been more invested in this actually being a Fourth Doctor story. As it was, the book was broken into two halves called: Book 1: The Long Night and Book 2: Scratchman. Book 1 started off as genuinely creepy. Sort of the way we felt when we were kids watching Terror of the Zygons on that misty Saturday morning? Scarecrows are moving about an island turning villagers into more scarecrows. They really were scary and who doesn’t love that? But it started to degenerate too quickly. The Doctor tries to build a device to accelerate the breeding of moths to eat the scarecrows’ clothing. All the while he and the local villagers are trapped in a church. Sarah has to go back to the TARDIS to get a device but that leads to some very wordy chapters of her running around the TARDIS and seeing a room that has images from her entire life. It’s moderately fun… but felt silly. Especially when she climbed the clock tower in the TARDIS. And I hate saying that, because… well: Tom Baker wrote it. But even the moth accelerator amounts to very little and it felt like a way to keep the page count growing. So by the end of part one, the Doctor has lost Sarah and Harry and has to go to hell to get them back. (I had started to think I was already there!)
Book two: Scratchman does some weird things. First, to get around in hell, there’s a cab ride for which all I could picture was the cab ride in Scrooged with Bill Murray. The cab driver is comical but the whole sequence felt like it belonged in that movie. At this point, the Doctor is a bit vague on who he is. (It’s like waking up on a Monday, you know – happens to me weekly!) Then he encounters Cybermen, because, of course they’d be in hell. I was, at this point, depressed that Tom wrote them in. It seemed like really bad product placement. The Doctor next meets with a reptile of extreme lethargy. The reptile has to torture the Doctor. OK… fair dues, this was funny and brilliantly written. I actually loved this sequence. Alas, then it goes into Ghostbusters territory with Harry thinking of something when he was told to keep his mind blank and he thinks of pinball, which now puts the Doctor, Sarah and Harry into a giant pinball game against Scratchman (Scratch to his friends). This sequence went on for far, far too long and was just not the sort of thing I could imagine. Perhaps if I’d taken drugs…?
We know the Doctor is going to win, so there’s no surprise. Sarah and Harry will survive. But one thing I failed to mention is the other part of the book. This entire story is the Doctor’s testimony while on trial (again) on Gallifrey. He’s teaching the Time Lords about fear. So roughly every 2-4 chapters, there’s a page or two interlude with the Doctor talking to the Time Lords. And there were some great pieces of dialogue here, to be honest, but the Doctor failed to teach me about fear. And part of that is because Tom Baker is a wordsmith.
What? After all I said, you’re boggling over calling him a wordsmith? No, don’t be surprised. He’s brilliant. The problem is he’s funny in the same way Douglas Adams was: he has a way with words that can make you laugh at the most alarming things, but that isn’t the way to handle a scary story. At a certain point, you’re reading more for the euphemisms Tom is creating, not for the scary story that keeps you on the edge of the seat because it really was not keeping me on the edge of anything.
But then the book ends with a note from the Doctor. It felt like a farewell from Tom saying that he will always be the Doctor and it’s beautifully written. Then there’s an acknowledgement section of the book which has the single greatest acknowledgement I’ve ever read! Lastly, there’s a sweet note from Sarah Jane. The irony is that the last 2 chapters of the book was all I needed to read to feel happy and overjoyed because they are beautiful. They made me smile from ear to ear.
The story is, depressingly, a bit lame. The humor is wonderful but the bonus notes made up for a lot. Just don’t go expecting a great horror story from Tom Baker. Instead, be glad we get to spend some more time with him. He absolutely is, and always will be, The Doctor. ML