The use and abuse of science in Doctor Who
As Marek said in his introduction, my name is Simon Guerrier and I write Doctor Who novels, short stories, audio plays and comic strips. I’ve also written similar things for Robin Hood, Primeval, Being Human and Blake’s 7. This talk is about some of what goes through my head when I’m writing.
What follows are my own thoughts. I can’t speak for how other writers do things, let alone for my bosses at the BBC or my various publishers. I’ll use examples from other people’s work, but that doesn’t mean I know what they were thinking when they wrote it.
The title is ‘the use and abuse of science in Doctor Who’, but I’m not going to list the times the show gets its physics right or wrong. Paul Parsons’ book The Science of Doctor Who far more ably explores the real scientific ideas behind many of the Doctor’s adventures.
Arthur C Clarke in his introduction to that book says Doctor Who is more 'fantasy' than science fiction; it's not really worried about getting the science right.
I think that's far more true of something like Star Trek, which is full of stuff like tachyon beams, baryon sweeps, quantum fluctuations and event horizons. I don't even know what those things are – they're just listed on the “Physics and Star Trek” page of Wikipedia. There isn't a “Physics and Doctor Who” page. I looked.
That doesn't mean Doctor Who isn't scientifically literate. It just does different things with science – which I'm going to mean real developments in physics, chemistry and biology. My original plan was to arrive here with the latest issue of New Scientist and explain how we could work up each of its headlines into a Doctor Who story.
We would take, for example, the lead feature on the cover. And I'd ask you all, 'How could this threaten the world?' and, 'How could the Doctor stop it?'
But I don't think we can do that. Here's the [then] current issue. There's a picture of a huge meteorite hanging above the earth, and it says in big letters, '72hrs until impact – what can we do?' That's a Doctor Who story right there.
Look, the cover also says, 'Free will – you do have it, after all'. Which will come as no surprise to those of you who've seen recent episodes like Turn Left or Father's Day – where we see what happens when history gets changed. It's also true of the 1970 story Inferno. Or, to be honest, any Doctor Who story where the Doctor encourages an ordinary supporting character to step up and make a difference.
Doctor Who gets its stories from everywhere, by asking the same questions. How could developments in transplant surgery threaten the world? That question gave birth to the Cybermen, way back in 1966, monsters who've volunteered to have their brains and emotions replaced with hard wearing metal and plastic. Ask the same question of new treatments to keep us young and slim and you get the Lazarus Experiment turning Mark Gatiss into some kind of giant scorpion, or the cute little Adipose, where the fat literally walks away.
Even when Doctor Who is stealing from sources that aren't science, it's still underpinned by science. It takes the 1959 Hammer film The Mummy and turns it into the the 1975 story Pyramids of Mars. In Doctor Who the Egyptian God is really an alien and his army of mummies are robots.
It also turned The Mummy into the 1967 story, Tomb of the Cybermen, with the story transposed to an archaeological dig in space. In the Hammer version, George Pastell plays Mehemet Bey, worshipper of Karnak, who pretends to be a friend of the archaeologists then entreats the risen Mummy to kill them. In the Doctor Who story Pastell plays much the same part, but here he's a member of the Brotherhood of Logicians.
It's the same story, but the trappings of superstition have been swapped for the trappings science. They're not walking corpses animated by ancient Egyptian magic, they're cybernetic men who've been in cryogenic sleep. It's a completely different thing. The trappings of science make the story more credible. Science is an authority with which we cannot argue.
This, though, is 'Bad Science', according to page one of the book by Ben Goldacre. He speaks on page 1 of people for whom 'science' – in quotes – is, wrongly, 'a monolith, a mystery, and an authority, rather than a method.'
I'll come back to that definition later.
But the writers of Pyramids of Mars and Tomb of the Cybermen would probably laugh at the criticism that they were guilty of bad science. For one thing, they'd say, they were only interesting in writing a good story.
Before we go any further, it would help to have an idea of what a good story is.
There’s a whole publishing industry on just this topic, which I’m glibly going to boil down to just one sentence:
People we want to spend time with want something they cannot get easily.You can test the hypothesis by applying it to your own favourite stories. We don’t have to find these people heroic or noble, we just want to spend time with them. We might not like them were we to meet them in person, but from a safe distance as readers or viewers, we want to see how they do.
They might want to stop a war or monster. They might want a particular girl to notice them. They might realise the thing that they longed for to begin with isn’t really what they want at the end. But that's the core of your story. You go off and write it up. How do you know if it works?
If you tell a joke, you know it works because people laugh. You can tell the same joke a lot of different ways – which you will, depending on who you are telling. You might use a five-act structure, you might just skip to the punchline. What matters is the laugh. Whatever you've done, whatever technique you've used, if they don't laugh it isn't funny.
Writing stories, we don’t just want to make an audience laugh. We want to shock them, surprise them, make them nod and smile and cry. Good writing contrives to affect the reader. Think again of your favourite stories and how they made you feel.
I don’t mean to be cynical. There are lots of tricks in writing – ways to make the sentences more active and vivid, the sensations more affecting. But to entice and absorb the reader takes more than a few gimmicks; it takes craft and skill. Clever method alone will leave the reader cold.
This has traditionally been a criticism of science-fiction: that the stories hang on a neat scientific idea or a plot twist that makes the reader think but doesn’t make them feel. The ideas might be clever and interesting, they might make for good science, but the execution feels clinical. I know many people who say they don’t read science fiction specifically because that’s what they expect: sf is hard work rather a good story.
The best-loved science fiction stories tend to bridge this gap between the heart and mind. The neat idea might create a 'sense of wonder' – the universe is massive, we’re small and insignificant. Or the neat idea might play to our fears – civilisation crumbles as aliens invade or there’s a nuclear holocaust.
This still often means that the idea comes first in a lot of science fiction. The starting point is not people we want to spend time with want something they cannot get easily. The emphasis seems to be that an exciting thing happens, and here are the people it happens to.
Think of the 'characters' – in quotes – in a lot of big budget movies. Are the heroes of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Twilight people we want to spend time with? Would Bella Swan hold our interest if she didn't hold hands with a vampire? Would Sam Witwicky be worth our time if his car hadn't just blown up the pyramids? Or are they only interesting because of the exciting events in which they get caught up?
Which of these two extremes is Doctor Who – characters we want to spend time with or ciphers to whom these things happen? You might argue that each episode of Doctor Who is based round an exciting thing happening in some new location. The TARDIS lands just in time for an alien invasion or the trial of some gadget that will overturn the laws of physics. We learn about what’s happening from a cross-section of people we’ve not met before, who are mostly killed off over the next 40 minutes.
These people are often well drawn and memorable. And Doctor Who is generally good at avoiding the cliché that we only learn something about a character’s back story if they’re about to die. But these are not generally ‘people we want to spend time with’ in the sense I used before. They’re there to add colour to the exciting thing that’s happening.
Here's a telling thing. In the whole 46-year history of Doctor Who, there are very few supporting characters who I think would support their own series. There’s Jago and Litefoot in the 1977 Tom Baker story, The Talons of Weng-Chiang. There’s Sally Sparrow in the 2007 story, Blink – with David Tennant and the walking statues.
That’s partly down to the quality of those stories. A recent reader survey in Doctor Who Magazine voted Talons the fourth and Blink the second best Doctor Who stories ever – fourth and second out of 200.
The quality of the writing means they're not merely supporting characters. They’re not just there to add colour to what’s going on in the stories; they’re people we want to spend time with. It’s a shame that at the end of Blink Sally Sparrow doesn’t join the Doctor for more adventures – she’s the companion he never quite had. Jago and Litefoot have just been reunited in an audio play for Big Finish; a story of their own, without the Doctor. It's part of Big Finish's ‘Companion Chronicles’ series, usually reserved for the companions who travelled with the Doctor for more than a few stories.
Companions are different from supporting characters. The Doctor and his companions are people we want to spend time with. They want to explore, and when there’s trouble they want to help. They can never do that easily.
The Doctor and his companions are the focus of the stories. Especially in the series as it’s been since 2005, the Exciting Things Happening in each episode tell us more about the Doctor and his companions than the other way round. There’s an alien invasion or some gadget that will overturn the laws of physics, but the hook of the episode is how the Doctor and his companions feel. I think that mix is what's given the recent series such a massive, broad appeal.
It's important to note that this attention on relationships and feelings does not come at the expense of other parts of the story. I've heard it said that while the Doctor's relationships remain difficult in the new series, the Events Happening are dealt with too easily. The Doctor just presses a button, or has some pseudo-science answer where he might as well wave a magic wand. New Doctor Who, I've heard more than one person say, is more interesting in holding hands than the story.
I don't think that's true; at least, it's not something that's new to the series since 2005. The old Doctors would just as often escape danger with a single bound. They would confuse the villain's computer which would blow up the villain's base, or variations on that theme. If you were lucky the villain would be killed by his own killing machine. Just as with the new series, there were a lot of supporting characters ready to sacrifice their lives.
The show has always needed to wrap its stories up neatly, with the Doctor at the heart of the answer. And I don't think that's very different from other shows. Star Trek, for all its credentials on Wikipedia, often wraps up its episodes in the last couple of minutes with the timely invention of some new technology or law of physics. Star Trek's scientific advisers might ensure the words used in the script sound scientifically accurate, but that's just using the trappings of science to validate the ending of the story.
All endings are contrived: a writer chooses if they’re happy or tragic, who lives and who dies. It feels more contrived in Victorian novels when a rich relative dies and leaves our heroine a fortune if we’ve not heard of that relative before. So writers seed clues and props that can be used in the solution. Ideally, the solution comes as a surprise but also seems, in retrospect, inevitable, even obvious.
There's a good example in Blink, second best Doctor Who story ever. The weeping angels look like statues, and we know they can only move if no one is looking at them. Sally and Larry hide from them in the TARDIS, but the TARDIS dematerialises, leaving Sally and Larry behind. They're surrounded by the angels. They can't look at all the angels at once. There's no way they can escape.
Except the angels stand perfectly still. We already know why: they can only move if no one is looking at them. And they're looking at each other.
The story uses only what we already know, it makes the Doctor central – he withdraws the TARDIS – and afterwards the solution seems so obvious. It's a trick, a contrivance, but it's perfectly done.
So what we want in a story is people we want to spend time with who want something they cannot get easily. We want the story to move us, to make us feel differently. And we want an ending that doesn't feel like it cheats.
So – and sorry if you were thinking this as well – where does science come into all that? The next bit is about stuff I've written, so sorry it's all a bit me, me, me.
First, if you're going to have science in your story, you should endeavour to get it right.
In 2005, I wrote my first Doctor Who novel, The Time Travellers, in which the first Doctor and his companions meet some scientists testing a time machine. In accepting my outline for the story, editor Justin Richards said I'd have to make sure I got the physics right.
You'll be sorry to hear I didn't invent time travel for the purposes of the book. I did read some books on quantum theory – including Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. I also got a doctor of particle physics at the University of Manchester to look over my notes. He agreed I should use quantum entanglement. As he said – I love this quote:
The best thing with high energy physics is that you can do very weird things... and they are allowed!He made notes on the book as I wrote it, as did a couple of mates with science degrees, and I hope they helped save me from any too galling mistakes. In return, I borrowed his name for the head of the time travel experiment in the book, and had him blown up by a nuclear bomb.
Trying to get the details right is important. It's not just about using the trappings of science. There are those who argue – the people who wrote the Physics and Star Trek Wikipedia page, for example – that this sort of thing even drives science forward, with well grounded science fiction stories acting as thought-experiments in which to test theories.
I'm not wholly convinced by this boast. A lot of SF ideas and technology would never work in the real world, at least not quite as described in the stories. Star Trek fans make much of how the series showed hand-held communicators in the mid-60s, decades before mobile phones. But you watch those old episodes of Star Trek now and it's striking how people hold their communicators – it's out in front, not up to their ear.
Doctor Who's guesses have been more off-target. The 1966 story The War Machines sees William Hartnell's Doctor battle a new super-computer called WOTAN. What makes WOTAN so utterly evil? He can speak to other computers down the telephone line. This was years before the ARPANET, the first fragile version of the web.
But even if grounding the story in real science does not advance science in itself, it can spread scientific ideas an theories. A 1982 story called Earthshock sees the Cybermen crash a spaceship into the Earth which wipes out the dinosaurs. A lot of Doctor Who fans at the time, including me, grew up thinking this was based on fact: that the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 and a half million years ago was the result of some foreign body hitting the Earth.
This is generally the consensus opinion among scientists now. But this idea, called the Alvarez hypothesis, is a relatively new one and it took time to be accepted. It was first proposed by Luis and Walter Alvarez in 1980, and so would have been a New Scientist headline just when writer Eric Saward would have been pitching the idea what became Earthshock.
A radical new theory and its central to a tea-time family adventure series, the episode with the crash watched by 9.6 million viewers in the UK on first transmission. I think that's probably the nearest Doctor Who's come to Star Trek's communicator. Doctor Who, ahead of the game in cutting edge science. It doesn't happen very often.
And if nothing else, grounding the fiction in real science means you don't break the illusion of reality, so keep the audience caught up in the story. In fact, these details can add a sense of reality to the story, drawing the reader further in. George Orwell once wrote that,
"The outstanding, unmistakable mark of Dickens’s writing is the unnecessary detail."Another benefit to the writer is that getting the science right means you have to consult with other people. Writing generally means lots of lonely hours sat in front of a computer plonking down the words, so finding people who can answer your questions helps to keep you sane.
I'm here today, away from my computer, as a result of asking Marek questions. I've written a story, Shadow of the Past, featuring Liz Shaw, the third Doctor's companion. Liz, we learn in her first TV story, has degrees in medicine and physics and her job is to investigate 'the strange, the unexplained'. I needed to make that part of the story; when a meteorite crashes in the Pennines at the start, she'd want to measure and test it.
I asked Marek what tests she might do. I also asked how much notice her friends at UNIT sometime in the 1970s or 80s might have of a meteorite crashing on Earth. Marek sent me back a long email which I pasted straight into the script. This talk is the least I could do.
Something else I've discovered: a real scientific concept is a great springboard for a monster. An episode of QI gave me an idea for a monster that I've then used several times. Stephen Fry explained that even if you liquidise a living sponge, it can put itself back together. Liquidise two spongers together and they separate themselves out. Imagine a monster like that? You'd never be able to kill it. But, since it's all made of nerve tissue, you could easily hurt it and incur its wrath.
My editor at the time, Gary Russell, suggested that this spongy monster should also have the power to change shape and mimic other people. Shape changers, he explained, are cheap to do on audio because they are not an additional voice. Thus were born the Mim, who feature in lots of my stuff. And when I wanted to destroy their planet, there was plenty of information available by googling on what might make sponges extinct.
Incidentally, QI seems to have got the stuff about the sponges from The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins details HV Wilson's 1907 experiments on sponges on page 500. You could mine Dawkins' book for monsters. It's packed with good stuff. There are the sea squirts that eat their own brains when they mature, or the starfish even Dawkins calls 'Martian' because they're so unlike other life forms on Earth. Doctor Who, incidentally, gets a name check on page 284. Anyway.
Even better, sometimes getting the science right can drive the story that follows. I've written a Blake's 7 audio play due out later this year, about the early life of Blake's friend Jenna Stannis. Jenna has grown up on a space station and thinks planets are a bit backward. My wheeze was to have a teenage Jenna race spaceships with a boy that she fancies.
Script editor Ben Aaronovitch liked the idea, but tossed back my first draft because I had avoided the physics. He explained that his vision for the show didn't include star drives and other made-up convenience. Our heroes can't just press a button to make their spaceships go. At his insistence, I had to go ask my clever friends about orbital mechanics and delta-v.
You can't race space ships in vacuum. If they're both the same shape and have the same thrust they'll be perfectly matched. So my race now takes place through an asteroid field, where the ships get pinged with dust and rocks, and the pilots need skill to keep themselves on a steady course. The dust rattling off the nose cone will also, I'm hoping, make it sound good on audio.
I worried how I'd explain the physics stuff to the listener without bogging down the story in explanation. So I've used the complexity of the physics as a plot point. They race without using their ships' computers, doing all the calculations in their heads. That means they're also trying to put each other off. So I've got an important plot reason for Jenna mentioning off-hand to the guy she's racing that she's not wearing a bra.
It's important, though, that the background research doesn't take over the story. One common complaint from scientists is that we writers are happy to get our science wrong, but would never dream of inaccurately referencing history or literature. We do that all the time.
In the 2005 Doctor Who story The Unquiet Dead, the Doctor meets Charles Dickens. Writer Mark Gatiss has clearly done his research and the Dickens here has a complicated love life and a scepticism for the supernatural. The real Dickens, however, had suffered a stroke about eighth months before the events of this story. The Doctor admittedly says that he'll die in the following year, but this Dickens isn't grey-faced and limping, as the sources suggest - that would be too depressing for a Saturday tea-time. The story fudges the details; it's a recognisable, well-drawn impression of Dickens, but not the man himself.
We could make the same case for the Victorian Cardiff seen in the story: it's an impression of the time, as much to do with the conventions of period drama on television as it is about the history.
Steven Moffat – the new Head Writer of Doctor Who, and the author of Blink – talked about just this issue earlier this month. He was speaking about his forthcoming new version of Sherlock Holmes, set in the present day. He said:
"The moment you do a period piece, you've got one of two approaches. You either funk it up a bit and try and pretend that the Victorian era was just like now, or you lavish detail on it. In either case you make the background the story. Now that is lovely [in] a story that's about Victorian England. The Sherlock Holmes stories are detective stories. The background should stand at the back and, frankly, the foreground, the great heroic stories of detection should be what it's about."It doesn't just apply to period pieces. Think about the physics in a contemporary-set show. EastEnders, for example, doesn't bog itself down in detailing how the beer pumps work at the bar of the Queen Vic. They're just there in the background, and if whoever is serving needs to go change a barrel, we know it's for some important plot reason. They won't be at the bar to hear some piece of information, or they'll have a meeting with someone downstairs that no one else will see.
In a sci-fi show, if you don't explain the beer pumps, some people feel that you're cheating. In EastEnders, they're a background detail. They help us believe that we're watching events in a real pub. They can even play a part in the driving the story. But they're not what the story's about.
Sometimes Doctor Who does foreground the science. The Doctor's had scientific companions – doctors of physics and medicine. He's been up close to black holes and seen the invention of the steam train. In the Curse of Fenric, his companion Ace, who dropped out of school in the 1980s, knows more about logic and programming than the scientists working on the first computers.
But science needs to know its place in the story. We have to accept that Doctor Who is fiction, that for all it might source its monsters from real science, they're grown to suit the needs of the story.
And yet I think there's an important way in which Doctor Who uses and even promotes science. And I think it something Doctor Who has over many other shows and heroes. It's got the Doctor.
His attitude to science is crucial. He explicitly says he's a scientist several times in the first decade of the show. He also describes himself as a pioneer among his own people. He's a horologist and chronometrist – he likes clocks – he took a degree in medicine with Lister and he clearly knows all the loopholes of intergalactic law.
Sometimes that gives him an authority, but more often it explains what he does.
He's interested in everything, and with him, everything is interesting. Every Doctor Who episode grapples with the strange and scary. It loves subverting the normal and everyday. Even when the TARDIS lands in an ordinary, suburban street you know the monsters are lurking. Ipods and Sat Nav and shop window dummys suddenly mean something else.
Wherever he goes, the Doctor asks awkward questions. What's going on? What made it like that? What can we do to help? The core of a Doctor Who story is the surprise reversal of expectations. "It's Not What You Think, Doctor!" Or, "They're Not What They Seem!" Cue end titles.
The Doctor exposes the truth, disproving theories however ancient and guarded. He's not afraid to challenge assumptions. He can make himself unpopular by making people face difficult truths. And he wants us to look for ourselves. He teaches not just his companions but everyone he can to use their brains, to question, to work out what's really going on. That drive and courage is at the very heart of science.
Think of what happened to Galileo for suggesting the Earth circled round the Sun, not the other way round. A lot of science if counter-intuitive. Quantum physics and orbital mechanics defy the way we think the world should work. Ben Goldacre describes the results of the Cochrane Collaboration, a systematic review of medical research.
"This careful sifting of information has revealed huge gaps in knowledge, it has revealed that 'best practices' were sometimes murderously flawed, and simply by sifting methodically through pre-existing data, it has saved more lives than you could possibly imagine."I said I'd return to Goldacre's definition of 'bad science'. He spoke of people for whom 'science' – in quotes – is 'a monolith, a mystery, and an authority, rather than a method.' These are the people caught up in the Doctor's adventures, who he teaches to see things differently. He makes them ask questions.
Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, p.98.
Here's Elton Pope at the end of the episode Love & Monsters, when his world's been turned upside down:"
When you're a kid, they tell you it's all grow up. Get a job. Get married. Get a house. Have a kid, and that's it. But the truth is, the world is so much stranger than that. It's so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better!"Doctor Who might not always get its physics right, it might fudge the details, but it's intrinsically about a delight in the universe, in exploring, in asking questions. And that's why it's good science. Thank you.