Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Panda 'nother thing

Observe Books have announced I've got a story in their forthcoming Panda Book of Horror, which will be out next month. Which is nice. Or, rather, nasty.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Leaving out Muffit

Watched the Battlestar Galactica mini-series in one sitting last night, and have the series to follow. Yes, I am several years behind. And yes, Scott thinks I'm wasting my time because of how much he hates the final episode. But anyway.

It's a rather dour re-fit of the 1970s TV show which so incurred the wrath of George Lucas. It's odd: the original was clearly a show for the whole family, with the adventures of a kid and his robot dog as key to proceedings as the brave space pilots fighting evil robots. Boxey appears briefly in this new version, but barely gets a word in.

Instead, its dark and violent and girls take their clothes off. As I found writing Doctor Who stuff myself, trying so hard to be darker and more adult can just seem adolescent. That's not to say I don't like a bit of angsty, angry sci-fi hokum. There's an effort to make it more morally complex, but I'm not sure the mini-series is nearly as clever as it thinks.

The opening scene is immediately odd. On a spaceship filled with densely info-dumping captions, a guy falls asleep waiting for Cylons not to show up. And then – blimey – one does. And it's not a Cylon like we used to know them (though there's a nice glimpse of the old-skool versions). This one's a slinky, snoggy blonde. Who snogs him and blows up the spaceship.

This is apparently a declaration of war. Which is odd, since no mention of it is made again. The twelve colonies and one ancient old battleship all react in total surprise later on when the Cylons attack. So what was that introductory explosion all about? Or did they just think the opening was a bit dull without it?

Because a lot of the opening 45 minutes is pretty dull. It's got a lot of characters and planets to set up, but mostly it does that through earnest conversations in corridors. Though there's a multi-racial cast, it doesn't seem very multi-cultural – the soldiers, the civilians, a whole dozen planets, and there's little to suggest richness and contrast. It has the same bland feel as a Next Generation planet. Nice people living rather tidy lives and being very earnest.

There seems to be one, all-encompassing religion and one, all-encompassing and democratic government. It all might have rung more true with reference to internal disputes and wars, so that where you come from is important – even (perhaps more so) when it no longer exists.

When the Cylons do attack, the series rather pulls its punches. We see explosions as reported on the news, or in the distance or even from space. In the first wave of attacks, we see very few people die – and certainly none we've been given a chance to know. The emphasis is very much on the survivors – on that shared experience of not being the ones who died. I guess that's tapping into most people's experience of 9/11, but it creates a distance from the events. I didn't feel any great loss for these worlds and people.

Things hot up when some plucky human pilots take on the Cylons in dogfights. That was the exciting bit of the old show, and the first Really Cool Bit here is when the humans realise they're completely outmatched. The Cylons can just turn off the human's computers, leaving them dead weights in space. A character with lines realises he's going to die – and we see him burning up in the explosion. It's a shocking, vivid and unsettling. And just the right kind of thing to do.

As the scale of the attack starts getting felt, and we realise how few humans have survived, the tension really mounts. The Cylons attack the remaining, weak communities, and more people we've met start to die. As the humans squabble about who's in charge and whether they should fight or run, I found myself getting more and more involved. I stayed up till 1 a.m. to watch the whole thing, which must count for something.

There's a certain amount of clunky dialogue and character. There's not a lot of jokes. There's a tedious interest in duty and the chain of command. But there's some knotty, not-easy moral stuff about sacrificing people for the greater good. And I like the general wheeze that Commander Adama, ready for war for 50 years, must learn not to fight.

Making Starbuck a girl – but still a rough-and-tumble, cigar-chomping one – is a neat move, and the hastily elected President – a minor politician until the attack, and also dying of cancer – means, I hope, there'll be less of the tiresome military swagger of so many warships-in-space TV shows. We'll see. The mini-series worked best, I think, when it played against the Top Gun stuff, and went weirder and more morally complex than just Soldiers Being Brave.

I like how they're using the old-fashioned, chunky designs and computers of the old show as a plot point. The Cylons can sabotage anything more modern and networked. Nice cameo by the old TV theme tune, too, though I'd have then brought that back as an anthem later on, if only for the closing credits.

And I like what they've done with the Cylons themselves. They're tricksy and clever and pretty and cool. The final scene is a world of Woah Cool. I hope we'll learn more about why they're so cross with humanity. And I worry that the Bodysnatcher thing, with the baddies hidden amongst the goodies, will wear off pretty quickly. Was getting bored of Baltar's invisible friend towards the end – it didn't seem to lead anywhere.

So I'm keen to see more – and will report back – but not exactly wowed out of my brain. It seemed pretty run-of-the-mill hokey sci-fi most of the time, with flashes of something much better and more involving just under the surface. Glad I've finally seen it, and can see why it appeals, but it needs to improve if I'm going stick it to the end.

Friday, October 16, 2009

No handlebars and no brakes!

This week I have mostly been feeling like the eponymous Mark of Mark and his Monocycle, the classic work by David McKee, which no one else seems to have heard of. Basically, Mark finds a monocycle and antics ensue. I had a stripy top just like that, too.

My own freewheeling escapades began on Saturday with a trip down to Winchester. Had my picture taken by Joe Low, along with the two young winners of the Doctor Who story-writing competition set up by the Winchester Festival in the summer. Tried not to look too nervous or awkward. Bet they use the ones of me thumbs aloft.

It's odd being an authority on Doctor Who books at the library Discovery Centre; 25 years ago, that's where I borrowed Doctor Who books myself. They also had a swap-box for comics which was very heaven.

Then up to Manchester on Sunday for Novelcon in the award-winning Lass O'Gowrie. Met a whole bunch of splendid people I'd not met before – including Ade Salmon, who I employed for two years. The afternoon passed in a blur. Nicely had the steak-and-Black-Sheep pie with a pint of Black Sheep – which is a bit like having your pants and socks match. Saw the brother-in-law and his new new squeeze, and an old schoolmate of mine from pre-history. Wittered on about Dr Who books to anyone who'd listen, then dashed back home again.

Spent the next couple of days trying to finish a piece of writing, but the Dr did take me out to the launch of Science Fact, Science Fiction, Camden's Black history season. Maggie Aderin-Pocock gave a funny, lively talk about her desire to get out into space, and suggested something not so dissimilar to an idea I had rejected by CBBC earlier this year.

Then on Wednesday I shlepped up to Leeds to take part in the Morley Literature Festival, where me, Robert Shearman, Mark Morris and Mark Michalowski wrestled for the public's amused. Got back in time yesterday to make a talk on the uber-racist Robert Knox at the Petrie Museum. Big Finish had Knox played by Leslie Philips; I wonder who they'll get for the Pegg-Tennant movie?

Finished a draft of the writing thing this morning, and already got rewrites on something else. Am on Gold Usher duties for a wedding from this evening, and got three days of recording next week. So plenty to get on with, and then off to Orlando on Monday week for what might even be a bit of a holiday.

Friday, October 09, 2009

"In European countries this use of boys is scarcely possible"

To the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology last night for a sneaky peek at the "Framing the Archaeologist" exhibition. It's a series of photographs and related notes and diary extracts from Flinders Petrie's excavations in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century, with the emphasis on the workers who lived locally.

The photographs and notes are also handily available on the Framing the Archaeologist blog, where you're invited to leave comments.

Some of the photos might have been taken this week, others - and the accompanying notes - are from another world. They reveal attitudes to race, to child labour, to archaeological practice which seem startling from our lofty position looking backward.

But they also change our sense of the ancient relics on display in the museum, around which the photographs are displayed. They are not just art objects behind glass with puzzling, technical descriptions typed beside them. They are the possessions of people, unearthed and pieced together by diligent, long-dead hands.

I was surprised by Image 5 - Muhd es Said, Muhd Jafur, Muhd Timras, the notes explaining how Petrie chose his child labour - over 20 years-old, he explains, the workers get "stupid" and "lazy". He also laments that boys aren't available to work in England because in the school holidays they must collect the harvest.

Image 6 - Ahmed Hafnawi and Muhd Hassan describes a girl who gave her name as "Muhammad" (her father's name), thinking Petrie employed only boys. No, he was an equal opportunities sort of guy.

Another favourite is Image 18 - Amy (Petrie's sister-in-law) buying antiquities.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

It's cold outside

“'A fool always wants to shorten space and time; a wise man wants to lengthen both.'
John Ruskin – who had never tried to walk to the South Pole – quoted with some irony in Wilson's sledging journal, 11 December 1902”

David Crane, Scott of the Antarctic, p. 217

I bought David Crane's Scott of the Antarctic three years ago, when I visited Scott's ship Discovery in Dundee. Have finally got round to reading it.

Robert Falcon Scott's two trips to the Antarctic – first in 1901-04, then in 1910-12 – are remarkable Boy's Own adventures from an age of imperial confidence and conquest just a breath before the First World War. Constantly we're reminded that those who survived the trips South were then to face the trenches. Scott, like the Titanic which sank a month after his death, seems to prefigure the Great War as a bookend to the triumphant Victorian era. For Scott's sometime-friend JM Barrie, Scott seemed to embody the heroism of the day. Why, though, does he still resonate today?

Crane has access to diaries, letters and naval accounts, as well as the slew of books written by Scott himself and those who knew him. He provides an authoritative account that strives to paint Scott neither as hero nor villain, and addresses criticisms from those that have.

It's full of choice details, too. We know, for example, that in 1891, Nelson's Victory was moored on the Thames (p. 47). Or there's the way Scott's party adapted Mrs Beeton's Cookery Book.
“Recipes for the cooking of beef were used for the seal and those for duck and goose for skua and penguin.”

Ibid., p. 197n.

A letter from Scott's wife Kathleen while he's out stumbling toward the South Pole shows that tabloid tactics have not changed in the last 98 years.
“19 November [1911], Kathleen's [letter]:I worked all morning. Then a 'Daily Mirror' man came to see me and upset my greatly. He said if I would allow a photograph of the infant writing a letter asking for money for you to appear in the 'Mirror' he was convinced he could get four thousand pounds ... My dear, I do humbly beg your pardon if I have done wrong, but I said no. Not only can I not bear my weeny being bandied about in the half-penny press, but also I doubt greatly that any sum approaching four thousand pounds would be got. Dearest, I do hope you approve. I couldn't bear it, though.”

Ibid., p. 516.

That letter is given in an eerie, three-page sequence intercutting Scott's last diary entries with the letters his wife was still sending from England. The domestic worries contrast with the ordeal out in the snow, and Kathleen natters about friends she's had dinner with, no suggestion that Scott's not coming back. Scott himself, as Crane says, seems to have written himself out of the future of their son.

We, of course, know Scott's not going to make it; even if we didn't, Crane makes the reaction to Scott's death the subject of his first chapter. It's the same trick as in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia; the legend first, then the real man. (Lawrence and Scott were near contemporaries and might well a good comparative study.)

There is, then, a peculiar, morbid tone to Scott's story, counting down the days to that last diary entry where Scott signs off, “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.”

A decade before that penultimate sentence, Scott made his first journey to the Antarctic on Discovery, the people of Cape Town came out to see them.
“'Heard an amusing yarn of lady being asked why she was coming on board this ship,' Royds [Scott's First Lieutentant] noted, 'replied that in case of any disaster think how interesting it would be to know that she had actually spoken to and seen the officers!! Nice way of looking at things and not very bright for us.'”

Ibid., p. 128.

It's as if every move that Scott makes is moving him closer to death, as if it's all been destined. That's a danger with biography; in retrospect, where we end up is out starting point so of course the route to it makes perfect sense. But living through it, we're faced with choices and chances whose outcomes we cannot predict.

There are still plenty of gaps in our knowledge about Scott. Little is known about his early life. There are a few instances of his name in school registers and log books, some surviving notes to his mother. Crane assumes this means young Scott did little good or bad to distinguish himself from his generation – otherwise there'd be a record. Instead, Crane explains what's known of a typical life in the navy as a rough guide to the molding of Scott.

We've an insight into the Scott of 22 when he writes home in 1890, on the Amphion as it makes its way back from Honolulu. Scott and his bored shipmates have had a race to grow beards:
“'I was a bad last – a brilliant idea struck me that checking my hair proper, would help to “force” the beard, so I had my back cut with one of those patent horse-clipping arrangements; it didn't seem to do the least much good, but it gave me a very weird appearance.'”

Ibid., pp. 43-44.

There's something telling here in the bold plan, the fearless of embarrassment or failure, and the plan then not working. Later, there's little but teasing rumours about Scott's love life prior to his meeting his wife. Crane holds back from theorising, and admits:
“Biography can confidently offer profounder insights [into any life] only by pretending to a knowledge that it does not possess.”

Ibid., p. 348.

Again there are telling details in what we do know. Scott wanted a simple wedding, not in naval uniform. He seems to have feared any kind of bother on the day; a simple, straight-forward marriage attended by “enough admirals to stock the world's fleets” (p. 374) and a telegram from the king.Scott's letters to Kathleen – before and after the marriage – seem desperate to assure her of his feelings. This, I thought, suggested he either came across as cold or that she needed constant assurance. Kathleen's character is not the subject of the book, but I found the moments Crane devotes to her fascinating. She's tough, resourceful and independent. Other explorers – like Nansen – take her for dinner in Paris. And other women cannot stand her.

Scott himself says little in his diaries of the squabbles between the explorer's wives on their second journey south – the wives making the trip as far as New Zealand. Perhaps he's too polite to mention such things, perhaps he didn't even notice. There's a sense of a bullishly single-minded leader, striking out to his doom.

He had to be single-minded. The book reminded my of the Dr's study of archaeological adventures, where egos, national politics and luck are all as important reasons for going as the scientific needs. Scott's constantly weighed down by his own personal circumstances, and the need to provide for his mother, sisters and wife. Perhaps that explains his need to escape into an icy cold but all-male endeavour.

In fact, for trip two, the scientific needs get chucked over the shoulder as Scott discovers midway to the south that his old rival Amundsen is heading for the ice as well. You can practically hear the fiendish Norwegian twirling his moustache.

I can't help feeling that if Scott had been the one to suddenly announce he was also heading South that Crane and history would remember him for his wily pluck. Amundsen was better equipped, experienced and knows how to use his skis. I'm hardly betraying my country to say so.

In fact, the paucity of knowledge about what Scott was facing comes as quite a shock.
“On the eve of Discovery's voyage it was a commonplace that the world knew more of Mars than it did of Antarctica.”

Ibid., p. 315.

It's not just the cartography. Scott is woefully, dangerously ignorant of the value of dogs and mules in pulling sledges. The motorised equipped has not been properly tested, and the English don't know how to ski. Their knowledge of nutrition ultimately ruins the second expedition, and greatly imperils the first. Crane is good at explaining exactly what the cold did to the explorer's bodies. It's not for the squeamish.

Even for those in the crew not attempting the Pole, the rations were not adequate. Scott's diaries from the first trip South include his anguish at the “evil” of scurvy. As Crane explains:
“Behind this prickliness lay centuries of ignorant prejudice and an association in the popular and scientific mind with venereal diseases that time had done little to lessen. The irony of it was that for all practical purposes, science had left Scott in a worse position for combating scurvy than it had his predecessors a hundred years earlier. As early as the 1740s the young Scottish surgeon James Lind had demonstrated the curative powers of lemon juice, but after the virtual elimination of scurvy from Royal Navy ships, a shift from the use of lemon to the less effective West Indian lime had combined with the confusing evidence of polar expeditions to leave Lind and his remedy discredited.

The cause of scurvy is, in fact, a vitamin C deficiency, resulting in an inability of the body to produce collagen, a connective tissue that binds muscle and other structures together. Three years after Discovery's return Alex Holst and Theodor Frolich were close enough to an understanding to demonstrate that scurvy was a dietary problem with a dietary solution, and yet even then prejudice, professional jealousies and institutional resistance – those classic symptoms of scurvy's medical history – meant that there was still nothing like a consensus on its causes. 'I understand that scurvy is now believed to be ptomaine poisoning,' Scott could still write in 1905.”

Ibid., pp. 195-6.

Despite – perhaps because of – these fearsome shortcomings, this is a story of great heroism. Scott and Crane are both keen to underline the good qualities of the men, over any petty squabbles in their own accounts.
“It is a measure of the man that Royds – and Cherry, too – go on with it in spite of his fears, but the age that gave us the White Feather and shot men with shell shock had little time for such sensitivities.”

Ibid., p. 169.

There have also been criticisms of Scott's ultimate achievement, and though the second trip might have been overshadowed by Amundsen reaching the pole first, and then Scott's death, Crane is keen to bolster Scott's scientific achievements. Yes, science was secondary to the race for the pole, but Scott died with important rock samples on him, and he'd kept notes and observations till the end. His first journey is also of massive importance to Crane's case:
“The massive volumes of results and observations that came out under the auspices of the British Museum and the Royal Society over the next nine years are the unarguable legacy of Discovery's scientific work.”

Ibid., p. 308.

But none of this is what makes Scott such a hero, that makes him still a hero today when all the attitudes and world-view he was part of and stood for have long since gone their way. What makes Scott a hero is his death – and the way he and his men met it. The death of Oates, walking out into a blizzard with a dryly delivered quip worthy of James Bond, is all the more moving in context.

More than that, Scott's a hero because he failed. That, as George Orwell argued, is a uniquely British kind of heroism.
“English literature, like other literatures, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity are always a tale of disasters and retreats. There is no popular poem about Trafalgar or Waterloo, for instance. Sir John Moore’s army at Corunna, fighting a desperate rearguard action before escaping overseas (just like Dunkirk!) has more appeal than a brilliant victory. The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction. And of the last war, the four names which have really engraved themselves on the popular memory are Mons, Ypres, Gallipoli and Passchendaele, every time a disaster. The names of the great battles that finally broke the German armies are simply unknown to the general public.”

George Orwell, “The Lion and the Unicorn”, Essays, pp. 142-143.

Scott might be a Victorian explorer, but what his adventures most made me think of were the Apollo missions to the Moon, just a half-century later. At least after reading this account, the lunar landings seem so much less risky compared to the journey's south, where the ice tore through the crew and their equipment and ship, slowly eating them away.

I've seen President Nixon's pre-recorded TV address had Armstrong and Aldrin not made it back off the lunar surface. Would they have been bigger heroes in the national and global consciousness for that failure? Or would they have quietly brushed under the carpet?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Now the science bit...

Here's my talk at the Royal Observatory from Tuesday night, which seemed to go down okay.

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."

Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, p.98.

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.

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.