The Fiction of Science
“Doctor Who. Who are? What do? And why?” Tom Baker may well have asked that at some point in his narration duties for Little Britain. Probably. What is Doctor Who though and how would you describe it without getting all existential or using naughty words? It’s pretty straightforward really: science-fiction drama. Perhaps not.
Recently I saw a description of the show on the BBC America website promoting it as a “sci-fi action comedy.” That doesn’t sound right somehow. Action is a word rarely associated with the show and yet it’s hard to deny because, as Donna Noble once said, “there’s an awful lot of running to do”. The early serials in the 1960s were filled with rounds of escape and capture with most having MacGyver-like solutions, indeed two stories in a row saw Barbara lose her cardigan to help the team get out of a jam. Of course, the most action-packed years were the Pertwee ones with UNIT always on the scene and always trying to blow the hell out of whichever alien race was invading that week, and who would more often than not be impervious to bullets. In the 1970s action was, as any fan knows, provided by stunt team HAVOC. Certainly these days Doctor Who is a fast and action-packed show but an action comedy? It’s definitely a lot funnier these days especially with Steven Moffat in charge and the episodes are full of quotable dialogue; but a comedy is played strictly for laughs and Doctor Who can hardly be called that, especially when it deals with big themes like genocide on such a regular basis. Shows like Red Dwarf and The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy are a more comic take on sci-fi and although the series veers a little towards comedy at times, some of it unintentional, you can hardly call monsters like the Daleks, Cybermen, Vashta Nerada and Drashigs comic creations.
So that just leaves science fiction right? Doctor Who may not be hard sci-fi but surely a show about an alien know-all with a time machine falls under the category? Well not according to the Lord of Discworld, Sir Terry Pratchett. The author ruffled a few fan feathers, even though he confessed to liking the show, when he guest edited SFX magazine issue 196 in July 2010 and commented on the show. He said: “People say Doctor Who is science fiction. At least people who don’t know what science fiction is, say that Doctor Who is science fiction. Star Trek approaches science fiction. The horribly titled Star Cops which ran all too briefly on the BBC in the 1980s was the genuine pure quill of science fiction, unbelievable in some aspects but nevertheless pretty much about the possible... I just wish that it (Doctor Who) was not classified as science fiction. Much has been written about the plausibility or otherwise of the Star Trek universe, but it is possible to imagine at least some of the concepts becoming real. But the sonic screwdriver? I don’t think so. Doctor Who‘s science is pixel thin.” He has a point; real science has never been the show’s strongest feature. Perhaps back in the 1960s it was, or when Christopher H Bidmead took over as script editor in 1980 and tried introducing more hard science and concepts such as physical mathematics into the mix, but certainly not these days.
The character of the Doctor may have been partially inspired by television’s first hero scientist, Professor Bernard Quatermass, back in the 1950s but he’s a man of the ages and as such knows more about science and physics than we understand right now, plus he’s the only other person than GeekPlanetOnline’s Dr Ric Crossman who indulges in recreational mathematics. Perhaps the show’s science is closer to science fantasy than fiction. Take, for example, the Doctor’s idea of creating a delta wave to defeat the Daleks in The Parting of the Ways. This at least made a bit of scientific sense, and even if it was a fantasy concept it at least sounded do-able - a machine the Doctor could whip up - and more believable than the eventual solution of Rose Tyler being granted mastery over all time and space by looking into the heart of the TARDIS. So many of the show’s concepts and ideas - especially in the new series - are somewhat improbable, for example, a hospital on the moon, Spitfires in space or the TARDIS towing the Earth back to its orbit. Does this mean that the makers should respect science more and give us stories more along the lines of Logopolis and Castrovalva? Should the show stay away from more fantastical concepts in order for the science to make sense? Where’s the fun in that though? Sci-fi and fantasy should be the place where your imagination can run riot.
Through the years Doctor Who has been many things. When it first started it was conceived as a partly educational programme. The historical stories in particular were meant to teach kids about the past, and in fact an early idea was that the TARDIS could go anywhere and into anything, with proposed adventures exploring the interior of materials such as oil, water or even a brick. The tag of children’s television has been one that the show has been saddled with throughout most of its life, even as the audience grew older with it and it leapt into darker territory. The Second Doctor’s era took the show away from its educational roots, whereas the UNIT years gave us a different alien invasion drama every few weeks. With Tom Baker at the helm it explored gothic horror and more ongoing stories which lead into the Davison years. Recently the show has moved into family drama and one that has proven it has what it takes to go up against some of the big hitters, and while everyone else is going darker and grittier it appears to be a beacon of fun and adventure. Within the first three episodes of the 2005 series we had a fast and furious alien invasion, a slower future-set murder mystery with the destruction of Earth a mere footnote, and a Victorian ghost story. Doctor Who has proven that it can exist in a number of forms and still tell intriguing tales with its basic elements of the Doctor, companion and TARDIS still remaining the same throughout. You don’t always need to have monsters sliming around in the background waiting to strike.
Recently, the documentary All's Well's That Ends Wells on The Ark DVD threw up some interesting comments regarding what exactly the show is. Matthew Sweet called it a “melodrama with nonsense science, but who cares?” I agree with him: I would rather see Spitfires in space than something that is technically accurate, but might be deadly dull. Tony Keen said it “uses sci-fi as a hook to pull you in” which is also true. The best genre shows use their fantasy elements to hold a mirror up to the society we’re living in now or to inform us about the past. Back in the 1970s the two Peladon serials used another world to comment on Britain’s entry into the EEC and the miners’ strike and just last year the episode Vincent and the Doctor sparked an interest for many people in the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Dominic Sandbrook added “Doctor Who is a sort of popular adventure programme with elements of sci-fi, with a massive dose of horror, with elements of fantasy and whatnot - but I don’t think it's science fiction”. The best answer may be to look back at the early years and in fact two of the 1960s annuals used the slogan “fascinating journeys into the unknown” although that sounds a little antiquated now. I would prefer “adventures in time and space” a slogan which has been attached to the show since its earliest days, although it seems to have been pinched from the title of a 1946 science fiction anthology. To me, this is the show boiled down into its simplest sense and it would do us fans good to remind ourselves from time to time that this is all it’s meant to be, although within that brief it manages to take in different genres. I’m sure even Terry Pratchett would agree with that.