Thursday, 16 March 2006

The Science of Doctor Who – Paul Parsons ****

Science fiction is the flirty, flighty, naughty cousin of popular science. Although purists will tell you the only decent SF is in books, there have been some exceptions on TV, and two shows stand out like beacons. One is Star Trek, for the way it has become an integral part of modern culture. The other is Doctor Who. This British programme has driven its way ahead of the rest both because of its longevity – in 2006 it was about to start a new season 43 years after the first episode, which was broadcast the day after Kennedy’s assassination – and because of its refreshing originality. This hasn’t always been evident in its long run, but was clearly there when it captured audiences back in 1963 as something new and different, and has been evident again in its latest incarnation, started in 2005, where it took on not only modern production values, but has also inherited the slick wit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – as is obvious from the delightful quotes in Paul Parson’s book.
I have to take the risky step of arguing with science fiction’s very own sage, Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the introduction to the book. He suggests that Dr Who might really be considered fantasy rather science fiction, as some of the “science” is very far fetched. I think this misses the point – much science fiction, particularly TV science fiction, rather skimps over elements of the science: in the end, important though the science is, the plot must generally come first. (James Blish famously wrote some SF that was purely idea driven, such as his short story Beep, and wasn’t alone in this, but most popular SF needs a good plot.) The distinction between SF and fantasy can’t really be “is it likely?” or you rule out faster than light travel, matter transmitters, time travel, interstellar travel – practically everything that makes SF interesting. Instead the distinction has to be something like “are any special capabilities intended to be based on science and techology or something else?” – and on the whole Dr Who remains firmly in science fiction.
This is born out when you get into Parsons’ book proper. He may occasionally have to stretch the improbables a long way, but it’s only rarely that he has to announce something is out-and-out wrong rather than very, very unlikely. Whether it’s time travel itself, the Tardis being bigger on the inside than the outside, or the Doctor’s two hearts, Parsons can deliver an answer. Along the way as we meet wild aliens, strange robots and even a virtual reality world called the Matrix (years before the feature film of the same name), Parsons keeps the reader intrigued and entertained. You do have to have seen Doctor Who to get the most out of this book, but certainly don’t have to be a fan. If you haven’t come across the most recent incarnation of the show (at the time of writing, those featuring Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant), it’s worth trying to catch an episode or two, as the book makes frequent reference to the newer episodes (with good reason).
This isn’t the first “science of Doctor Who” book. Michael White got there first with his much more intriguingly titled A Teaspoon and An Open Mind. But White’s book had significant flaws. In particular, it failed to tie in closely enough to Dr Who itself. It took a basic concept from the show – time travel, say – then went off on a long riff on time travel. This misses the point of the “Science of” genre. We don’t want to know all there is to know about time travel, we want to know how the Tardis, the Doctor’s travel device, could work. Where Michael White failed, Paul Parsons delivers much more effectively. Although he may just occasionally go too far, going into the details of too many obscure aliens for all but the most ardent fan, mostly he gets the balance right. The science is good, the fit to Doctor Who is good and the writing is good – the result is one of the better ventures into the concept of “Science of”. If you like Doctor Who (whether a traditionalist or one of the army of new fans from the latest version) or just want to explore some weird and wonderful science, this is a must-have.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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