Doctor Who at Newton's laws of television


The Appliance of Science

by Matthew Newton

Not what a scientist means by axons
It has often been observed that there are a disproportionally high number of degrees in Doctor Who fandom, especially it seems of the English Literature variety.  In recent years this has resulted in many fanzine articles analysing Doctor Who as if it were a compulsory text and we frequently read the views of arts educated fans. However, we rarely hear from the diametrically opposite viewpoint  - scientists looking at the show using knowledge resulting  from education in their area. Why is this? After all, Doctor Who is a science fiction programme and the main character is a self-proclaimed scientist. Some people would say that the reason is that most scientists or science educated people have difficulty in stringing two words together. However, as a mathematics graduate this is my attempt to set the  record straight. But first some reassurances. This article isn't intended to be a turgid account of all the scientific inaccuracies in the programme, as after all Doctor Who is science fiction with the emphasis on fiction. In what follows I just want to look at the show with a scientific eye.

Using typical scientific logic it is sensible to start at the beginning and the whole concept behind Doctor Who - time travel. In Peter Haining's  book  "A Celebration" he looked at possible theories behind time travel - a contentious issue  amongst modern theoretical physicists. However, in displaying the dream that is free travel in time, Doctor Who does use a few known ground rules. The main one of these is that time is often thought of as the fourth dimension (as Susan tells Ian in "An Unearthly Child"); furthermore a physicist named Minkowski described a theoretical union of these four dimensions into the space-time continuum. A familiar name? Well, it is certainly a surprise to hear one of the main concepts behind something as obviously fictional as Doctor Who crop up in a physics lecture, but it is nice that back in 1963 the show's originators decided to start their flights of  fancy  from something  which does (theoretically at least) exist.

Many words havebeen written previously about Sydney Newman's original intentions for Doctor Who, using the time travel format to educate young viewers about history and science (I suspect that the fact that these were the subjects taught by Ian and Barbara is not a coincidence) until the arrival of the Daleks scuppered the latter half of the plan. However, what is not often described is the inherent difficulties in using fiction to inform about science. As David Whitaker and John Lucarotti ably demonstrated, by setting a story in or against a historical backdrop and/or events it is a relatively simple matter to inform the viewer about the period. Indeed as someone who only studied history until the age of fourteen, most of what I know about the subject originates from those black and white episodes. But science education in a narrative setting is less straightforward; the setting itself is no good at imparting the information so the writer must use one of the characters to explain the chosen scientific concept and here there is a great danger of appearing to lecture the audience. Also for a show like Doctor Who whose very basis is something as fantastical as time travel, there is a real danger of confusing the viewer as to what is science and what is fiction. So it appears fortuitous that the arrival of Sydney Newman's dreaded BEMs in the shape of the Daleks prevented Verity Lambert's production team from following this course, although the story which was displaced by "The Daleks", Anthony Coburn's "The Masters of Luxor", hardly seems more scientifically informative, perhaps indicating that the producer had already rejected this philosophy.

Dehumanising medicine! A more sensible approach to science is to use it as a starting point for a story or concept. This was the direction that Innes Lloyd later chose to take Doctor Who, partly as a response to what he saw as the excessive whimsy in the show. To this end he and Gerry Davis sought to employ a scientific advisor and a number of eminent scientists were interviewed, reputedly including Patrick Moore. However, virtually all the candidates were found to have no imagination - a criticism often levelled at scientists. The exception was Kit Pedlar, a biologist whose influence soon became clear with his ideas for "The War Machines", a response to increasing dependence on computers, and of course the Cybermen, whose creation was the result of Pedlar's fears of "dehumanising  medicine". But this science was just a starting point and the detail within was often neglected; one of my favourite unscientific moments in Doctor Who occurs in a Pedlar/Davis script when in "The Tomb of the Cybermen" the Doctor spouts the most ridiculous gobbledygook, seemingly obtained by the writers painfullly gluing together every piece of mathematical jargon they have heard. The line makes entertaining listening to informed ears and clearly shows that Kit Pedlar's expertise did not extend to maths! Yes, I know that I said that I wasn't going to go on about scientific inacuuracies, please indulge me here!

When Doctor Who moved into colour it also found itself with its feet firmly on the ground and realism came in the form of the military. The Doctor himself became a scientific  advisor with a Cambridge scientist as his assistant. However, Liz was soon replaced and action seemed more successful than science in repelling alien invaders. However, "The Daemons" saw the Doctor keeping his faith in science, showing what appeared to be magic could be explained away. "The Claws of Axos" earlier in the season contained what would seem to be a wonderful mathematical in-joke; when the Doctor is being forced into revealing the secrets of time travel to Axos one of the formulae which we see is in fact the formula for solving quadratic equations, a simple type of equation studied by virtually all schoolchildren. Perhaps that's what human physicists have been missing...

"The Three Doctors" a couple of seasons later saw Doctor Who's first excursion into the world anti-matter (literally here), which would be repeated in "Planet of Evil" and "Earthshock". Anti-matter is one of those ideas that crops up in all types of science-fiction, and not surprisingly is actually based on another theoretical concept.

The Pedlar/Davis/Lloyd situation was repeated considerably later in Doctor Who's istory when it acquired a new production team in the shape of Christopher H Bidmead and John Nathan-Turner. Bidmead in particular was keen to bring in more science in place of what he saw as the silliness of the preceding  few seasons. The new approach of Bidmead, who had a scientific background and now writes for computer magazines, appeared as early as "The Leisure Hive", and the Argolin use of tachyons (a real scientific concept). But it is in Bidmead's first two scripts where this approach is clearest; "Castrovalva" dealt with recursion but it is the preceding story which is most interesting from our point of view here. The plot of "Logopolis" dealt with entropy and thermodynamics, but more importantly it features a society of mathematicians. The Logopolitans are portrayed as old men with flowing beards quietly going about their mathematical business with little regard for anything else, a common image of mathematicians. But the plot ultimately reveals mathematics was responsible for the continued existence of the universe, and as someone who has spent three years studying the subject I developed the theory that this was a clever parody as this does seem to be the attitude of many mathematicians. However, when I asked Mr Bidmead about this it became clear that I had been reading too much into the situation (perhaps there are similarities between scientists like myself and English Literature  graduates!) and the opposite was in fact true. The plot had arisen from Bidmead being in awe of the power of mathematics. This knowledge also explains the idea  of block transfer computation, a concept used in "Logopolis" and "Castrovalva" where matter is created from pure mathematics - again showing the power of the subject. All of this use of mathematics in "Logopolis" could also be read as a response to a common criticism of the subject, by showing that it is actually useful!

Of course it should be remembered that most of the science in Doctor Who is not at all scientific, as Caroline John reputedly found out when she read up on Physics on learning that she had won the part of Liz Shaw so that she could have some idea of what she was talking about. However, it is  pleasantly surprising to be sitting in a lecture which suddenly mentions something familiar from Doctor Who, be it a theoretical method of space travel through black holes (as used by the Nimon and more subsequently the wormhole in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) or mention of names borrowed by writers, such as Quarks and Axons.

To conclude, it is easy to see that Sydney Newman's intentions of using Doctor Who to inform about science has never been carried out, and I can't imagine that any arts-educated student has ever learnt much about science from the programme. However, I find it encouraging that scientists can analyse the show and find extras details, much in the same way as the literature experts, so there is at least some science in Doctor Who.

Originally published in Think Tank issue 28 (Summer 1995).



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