The Implausible Made Pleasurable

PrintE-mail Written by J.R. Southall Thursday, 14 July 2011

Doctor Who: A Fan’s Eye View - By J.R. Southall

After having last time discussed whether Doctor Who is or was (or should be, even) a children’s show, I thought I’d turn my attention this time to that other great bone of contention among fans of a certain persuasion: whether or not Doctor Who constitutes science fiction. The simple answer, of course, is yes. It’s a programme about robots and spaceships and alien planets, so of course it’s science fiction. Duh!

But the more complicated answer, the truer answer, is not nearly as black and white.

Doctor Who began in 1963 with two precepts (to which a third was later added). Firstly, the TARDIS, which was bigger on the inside than the outside. The first Doctor, in the very first episode, explains away the TARDIS’ dimensional transcendentalism by alluding to the way in which television itself works: by making much larger spaces fit inside the small box in your living room; a very clever inside joke at the programme’s own expense, perhaps, but no kind of an explanation whatsoever for how an object itself – rather than an image or scale reproduction of it – can be made to fit inside a much smaller space. Fourteen years later, in The Robots of Death, the fourth Doctor makes a similar joke at Leela’s expense, demonstrating how a larger box can seem smaller when it is further away, and suggesting that the interior of the TARDIS is, therefore, much further away than the exterior – and thus can be fitted inside it. It’s a little bit of gobbledygook that seems to make sense only if you don’t really think about it.

Dimensional transcendentalism, then, is a nonsense. An idiosyncrasy of the show, perhaps, and one that makes it special and unique. But nevertheless, not an extrapolation of science as it currently then stood (nor stands even now); make-believe, but make-believe given the superficial appearance of rationality. It’s wonderful stuff, and very David Whitaker (Doctor Who’s then story editor), who took most of the science of the show rather more from Jules Verne than from The New Scientist.

The other big concept, upon which the programme was based, was the TARDIS’ ability to travel through both time and space. Putting aside the dematerialisation effect (and every other instance since, of people and objects’ magical ability to disappear from one location and reappear in another: the very Star Trek idea of teleportation is bunkum, without any scientific rationale behind the dispersal and subsequent re-composition of an object’s atoms, an effect which would surely end up rendering the participant dead), time travel itself is a fantasy notion, very fondly used by sf writers, but that takes no inspiration from science but instead from the romance of the fantasies conjured up by these writers. It’s telling that the term “science fiction” itself developed from the expression “scientific romance”, which is how the early sf novels of Verne and H.G. Wells were often categorised.

The show’s third major precept is regeneration, an idea that first appeared in 1966 in its most infant form, and that eventually became a natural part of the programme’s armoury in 1974, when the final episode of Planet of the Spiders spelled it out in a way that hadn’t previously been attempted. Once again, the idea of the Doctor’s kind – human beings, essentially – “dying” and being reborn through a process of complete cellular regeneration, is a scientific nonsense that was created more to explain the process of the leading actor’s replacement than for any greater scientific or aesthetic reasons. It’s a brilliant conceit, but one born of necessity rather than on the grounds of artistry.

There’s no scientific plausibility then, behind the notion of time travel, nor of instantaneous travel through space (nor indeed of regeneration). Doctor Who was founded upon two ideas that were entirely fantastical in nature. It’s what the programme did with those ideas that’s of a greater interest to us here.

In the programme’s very early days, the stories were divided almost equally between those set in history (in which the TARDIS merely acted as a kind of temporal taxi service – and which therefore needn’t bother us here), and those set in the future, or in outer space. As I’ve pointed out, David Whitaker’s idea of “science fiction” was very much a smoke and mirrors affair, in which you’d skate over the science with a little Double Dutch, in order to more expediently get on with telling your story. It’s a future created out of food machines and mercury filaments and very little sense of what’s actually plausible. If it sounded vaguely “futuristic” and “spacey”, then it was enough to establish the milieu of your particular story and you could quickly get to the moral dilemma – which was the element Doctor Who’s creator Sydney Wilson most wanted to emphasise. Even such early stories as Terry Nation’s The Daleks, and The Space Museum, by Glyn Jones – each of which began with ostensibly a relatively sensible science fiction concept – very soon devolved into moralistic narratives concerning the difference between right and wrong, and of choosing the right course of action. Louis Marks’ Planet of Giants, while centred on a highly improbable notion, at least went a step further by examining the logical extrapolations inherent in that conceit.

Sydney Wilson’s concept of Doctor Who, back in the very beginning, wasn’t of a show about the ideas, but simply of a show concerned with using those ideas to get to the heart of its stories. Although Wilson said of Doctor Who, “All the stories were to be based on scientific or historical facts as we knew them at the time,” the original background notes for the creation of the series beg to differ. “We are not writing science fiction,” they boldly state. “We shall not bend over backwards ... to provide scientific explanation.” Following the success of the Daleks, after Wilson had specifically instructed producer Verity Lambert “no Bug-Eyed Monsters”, Wilson took a back seat and let the production team get on with making the show. Doctor Who under Lambert and Whitaker (and subsequently Dennis Spooner) continued to be a programme about the characters’ journey, rather than about the specifics of how that journey worked.

The first major change came with the production team, comprising Innes Lloyd and story editor Gerry Davis. Not entirely happy with the kinds of stories they were inheriting (particularly outright fantasies like The Celestial Toymaker), Lloyd and Davis sought to angle the series more towards the kind of harder, more factually-inspired science fiction that would soon become the series’ stock-in-trade. The historically-based stories were quickly phased out entirely, and Lloyd and Davis soon hit upon the idea of establishing for the series a scientific advisor, somebody who would keep the scripts in check and ensure a level of reality behind the fantasy. Kit Pedlar was the man they appointed, and the first fruit of his engagement was The War Machines, a story about the Post Office Tower that effectively predicted the development of the internet. For every wise notion that Pedlar developed, however, an equally loopy idea would play counter-balance, and stories in which planets go wandering around the galaxy of their own accord or societies exist by “draining the life essence” of their lower classes soon became the norm.

In actuality, it was a system that would stand Doctor Who in good stead for the next decade and a half. For although early 1970s producer Barry Letts was adamant that his version of the show would demonstrate how that which appeared to be magic was simply nothing more than science beyond the level of current understanding, in truth the Doctor Who of 1967 and beyond was only concerned with telling good stories with nothing more than lip service being paid to the necessary scientific rationales. By the time Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes replaced Letts and Terrance Dicks at the decade’s mid-point, the science fiction justifications for the plots were all but forgotten about completely – The Brain of Morbius being a famous case in point. Dicks’ original script was rewritten by Holmes to such an extent that, as far as Dicks saw it, all of the reason was excised from the story entirely, the resulting teleplay being a lurid tale of brains in jars and magpie-fashioned monsters. Even Letts’ earlier story The Dæmons, ostensibly a rebuke to those who saw Doctor Who as a fantasy programme and featuring a prologue in which the Doctor demonstrates the science-magic dichotomy for all to see, is based around an aeons-old creature that sleeps for centuries at a time and grows and shrinks at will, with the power to decide the fate of entire planets in its hands.

By 1979, and the end of Graham Williams’ tenure as producer (which had latterly included a year with Douglas Adams as script editor), the “science fiction” content in Doctor Who had sunk to, as incoming script editor Christopher Bidmead put it, “the Doctor effectively waving a magic wand.” Which is, to say the least, a little disingenuous, given that Bidmead’s three stories as script writer involved scenarios such as giant cockroaches plucking rocks out of the sky by the power of “gravity”, a fully-formed society created out of nothing more than the power of a young boy’s mind and the universe being held together by an assembly of old men saying numbers out loud. Indeed, although the combined minds of Bidmead, producer John Nathan Turner and executive producer Barry Letts, envisaged a back-to-basics Doctor Who in which science (fiction) would once again hold sway over “magic” (or fantasy, perhaps), the early 1980s was no different to the mid-1960s insofar as for every science-based idea present in any particular script, there would still be episodes in which arachnids were seen to evolve into reptiles and then mammals (Full Circle echoing Letts’ earlier production The Mutants in that respect), or Kinda, possibly the most successfully-received story of the period (retrospectively at least), in which the Mara monster emerges from where it is hidden in the mind. Nice philosophical conceit; very little to do with scientific extrapolation.

But while the majority of stories throughout the previous decade had at least looked like science fiction (albeit a far cheaper version than the Americans eventually began to produce), the early years of John Nathan Turner’s stewardship produced a number of stories – The Leisure Hive, his debut, being a prime example – in which the visuals were all over the place, the gritty realism of films like Blade Runner eschewed in favour of something more akin to the BBC’s flagship period dramas. Logopolis less resembles a genre-mate of 2001: A Space Odyssey than it does something like The Last Emperor.

Succeeding script editor Eric Saward then dreamed up his own vision of the show, a very pulp fictional sci-fi extravaganza, which had everything to do with guns and robots (and macho posturing) – and mirrored what was currently happening in cinematic sf (with films like Alien and The Terminator proving immensely successful) – but made little attempt to postulate how any of this had anything to do with the way in which science itself might develop. There’s a huge difference between sci-fi (a very low-brow genre using the trappings of its parent, without the basic rules attached) and science fiction.

Rod Serling, of The Twilight Zone fame, said, “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.” To be honest, as much as Doctor Who has ever been seen by the general public as “a science fiction programme”, it has very rarely – if ever, really – thoroughly made an attempt to ground its scientific concepts in the world of plausibility. Barry Letts put great store in the fact that Doctor Who should encourage children to believe in scientific explanations for what might otherwise appear simply as magic, but it wasn’t often that the show provided those rational rationales. At the end of the 1980s, and therefore Doctor Who’s original run, final script editor Andrew Cartmel ditched the science from the fiction altogether, and gave us three glorious series in which Gods and Devils battled our hero across time itself and the Doctor became a Merlin from an alternative dimension, not to mention “more than just a Time Lord”. It was a version of the programme inspired by comics more than it was literature or the silver screen (as previous runs of the show had often been), and even the evolution-themed story Ghost Light (which had a very “scientific” inspiration) made a total fantasy of its most factually-based elements.

Modern Doctor Who has drawn the better part of its thinking from the Doctor Who of the 1970s, couching its ideas in the kind of scientific rationale wherein a little jargon belies the fundamentally fantastic nature of its concepts. Where the third Doctor might rely on “reversing the polarity” to cure any number of technological ills, the ninth, tenth and eleventh Doctors use the ubiquitous sonic screwdriver as a tool to relieve the plots of their more mundane “get out of that!” moments, the scriptwriters preferring instead to rely on character and imagination to the detriment of what might seem theoretically possible.

In fact, what has often been seen as Russell T Davies’ deus ex machina approach to resolving his plots, is actually a case of the resolutions coming out of the characters rather than the props, with the “explanation” given as to their plausibility being no different from the rationalisations of many a Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker story’s conclusion. Steven Moffat is going one further: his first series in charge was resolved almost literally by the companion clicking her heels together three times, clapping her hands and wishing for the Doctor to appear, and I’ve no doubt that the resolution to this year’s story arc will not be a great deal different. It’s funny, how those who decry the fact that Doctor Who is no longer “proper” science fiction (as if it ever was), will happily accept Moffat’s Doctor coming back from the future in order to save his present self from a tricky situation.

When the BBC approached America’s SciFi channel in 2005, with a view to selling them the new version of the programme, it’s notable that they declined, citing the fact that Doctor Who “wasn’t science fiction enough”.

It’s fair to say that Doctor Who is and can be anything it wants to be – after all, that was the very statement of intent it was first drawn up to have – and that broadly speaking, it has a generally science fictional nature (on the surface, at least). But it’s far closer to George Lucas than it is to Isaac Asimov (particularly at present; and thank goodness), and for every time it wanders near to actually living up to its original intent of giving “a scientific or technical explanation” to “ the wonder of fairytale”, there are as many times when it gives that scientific or technical explanation the boot in favour of that fairytale wonder. This is the show, after all, in which The Mind Robber can rub shoulders with The Invasion, or The Doctor’s Wife with The Rebel Flesh.

As much as we might like to mentally compartmentalise, Doctor Who was built not to fit, and the beauty of it is that for every fan who looks upon it as part of the same gender as I, Robot or Brave New World, there’s another that loves it for its proximity to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz. But it has as broad a compass in its appeal as it does in its fictional universe and we can all benefit by enjoying Doctor Who for what it is, rather than what we want it to be. It’s not science fiction, it’s just fiction. And that, in all its multiversal glory, is something to celebrate.

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+1 #10 J. R. Southall 2011-08-01 16:58
I'd ask you to actually read the article, Andrew (or re-read it, if you made it all the way through the first time), with particular reference to the last paragraph.

And for what it's worth, I certainly don't see "superheroes" as science fiction; it's another genre entirely. In fact, the idea that an infusion of radioactivity might cause the host to suddenly develop super-natural powers puts the whole concept firmly into the realms of fantasy, I'd say. As for Transformers, I'm not acquainted enough with the concept to comment.

I wouldn't describe myself as "narrow-minded", though. If anything, the ability to enjoy series regardless of the genre boundaries employed makes me rather more open-minded, I'd have thought. In other words, I don't need to think of something as fulfilling certain specific requirements in order to appreciate it; except for those of quality, I suppose.

But still, comments duly noted!
0 #9 Andrew David Potts 2011-08-01 00:24
Would you say that Transformers is not science fiction just because there is no scientific basis for energon which powers these giant robots?

Would you say there that Superheroes who were given their powers through radiation e.g. Hulk, Spider-Man, Daredevil were not science fiction because there is no basis for radioactivity making you super-powered?

In many Sci-Fi shows like Stargate SG-1 it's often noted that primitive peoples will often see technology we take for granted, e.g. touch screen tablets, as a magical device which they, themselves, would never understand. Is it not conceivable that this is how we are meant to view Gallefrian technology?

In conclusion, in my opinion, you sir have a very narrow-minded view of Sci-Fi writing.
0 #8 Mr Cheese 2011-07-22 17:40
Whilst both arguments here have merit I've got to say I agree with JR on this. If you look at the greats in the field of Science Fiction you'll see that their extrapolations of scientific principles have often shown an uncanny level of prescience. It may well be that Science Fiction has come to mean something different to what it originally did, but I do believe that whilst Dr Who does contain elements of Sci-Fi it also contains elements of Science Fantasy where there are no underlying priciples of plausible science in play.
+1 #7 Claudia Whitehouse 2011-07-22 16:59
stephen hawking has said several times that he believes time travel to be possible. you can't really argue with that guy about science.

If you're saying that anything at all might possibly happen if we describe it as having "alien" origins, then I guess that makes Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland and Mickey Mouse science fiction - if we're to assume they take place in alternative earths that aliens have somehow massaged into a different verision of reality.[/quote[

but those are really terrible examples. they don't take place in alternative earths made by aliens, and we're never for a second supposed to assume that they do.

it's established in the show that the doctor is an alien from an alien planet, and so therefore it's reasonable to assume that he would have access to alien scientific advances. it is a staple of pretty much all science fiction ever that aliens are better at science than we are.
-1 #6 J. R. Southall 2011-07-22 16:00
Stephen Hawking's from the future...?

Claudia, in order for fantasy to be "science fiction", rather than just plain and simple fantasy, it has to be derived from some kind of plausible basis. I'm not confusing science "fact" with science "fiction", I'm saying that the SCIENCE part of science fiction is just as important as the FICTION part...

If you're saying that anything at all might possibly happen if we describe it as having "alien" origins, then I guess that makes Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland and Mickey Mouse science fiction - if we're to assume they take place in alternative earths that aliens have somehow massaged into a different verision of reality.

I'll stick to the old definition of science fiction myself; fiction, that is, that is extrapolated from a genuine scientific prognosis.

I did wonder if an article like this might bring the Bidmeads out of the bookcase...
+1 #5 Claudia Whitehouse 2011-07-22 15:12
(gred. gred is right, that is gred's name, not gren. i retract the gren. sorry gred.)
+1 #4 Claudia Whitehouse 2011-07-22 15:10
gren's right, you are confusing science fiction with actual science. science fiction is there to entertain you with the possibilities of what science could do if it was way more awesome. you seem to be looking at doctor who and going 'pff. that would never happen'.


There’s no scientific plausibility then, behind the notion of time travel

tell that to stephen hawking
+1 #3 Claudia Whitehouse 2011-07-22 14:59
Quoting J. R. Southall:

A time travelling police box which is bigger on the inside than the out, whose occupant is reborn into a new body whenever he dies.

You'll have to show me the scientific basis for those elements of Doctor Who.

he's a time travelling alien, with alien technologies and alien physiology? he also has access to every technology that has ever been invented or ever will be invented anywhere in the universe. sounds totally plausible that the tardis would be roomier than it looks to me.
-1 #2 J. R. Southall 2011-07-22 10:38
Quoting Gred:
I'm afraid you've attempted to redefine science fiction as science fact

Science fiction has never been about hard science, merely fiction based on science, regardless of whether or not that science is, or will one day be plausible.

Doctor Who is a de facto Science Fiction show. When it comes across as fantasy, it's merely because a specific is not very good science fiction. You can't use "oh it's fantasy" as an excuse for unconvincing science fiction. Simples.

A time travelling police box which is bigger on the inside than the out, whose occupant is reborn into a new body whenever he dies.

You'll have to show me the scientific basis for those elements of Doctor Who.

Science fiction is fiction extrapolated from scientific plausibilities. You can't say something is "science", "regardless of whether or not that science is, or will ever be, plausible."

And while we're on the subject, how about a scientific basis for a species of creature that cannot move while it is being observed (even by other members of its own species), and that feeds on the energy left behind when the victim it has sent back to an arbitrary point in time is no longer alive in the here and now (although is still living the life they would have lived now somewhere and somewhen else).

Need more...?
+2 #1 Gred 2011-07-21 22:49
I'm afraid you've attempted to redefine science fiction as science fact

Science fiction has never been about hard science, merely fiction based on science, regardless of whether or not that science is, or will one day be plausible.

Doctor Who is a de facto Science Fiction show. When it comes across as fantasy, it's merely because a specific is not very good science fiction. You can't use "oh it's fantasy" as an excuse for unconvincing science fiction. Simples.

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The Doctor of the Future 14 December 2011

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