November 23, 1963: a television programme like no other premiered in the United Kingdom. So today, Doctor Who is 45, and it’s an exciting time to be a fan, as David Tennant finishes up his run in the title role over the next year, ushering in both a new Doctor (who at the moment would seem to be all but confirmed as Paterson Joseph) and a new show runner, perennial best-episode-of-the-season author Stephen Moffat.
This is a science-themed blog, though, so it’s worth me taking a moment to reflect on the sometimes rocky history between two of my great loves: science and Doctor Who. Things started out well: the first episode, An Unearthlty Child – justly lauded as one of the series’ greatest – includes a couple of brief classroom scenes in which the Doctor’s granddaughter shows her vastly superior science knowledge. Over the years the Doctor has generally championed science; during John Pertwee’s tenure in the seventies, and despite the fairly blatant Buddhist overtones of that era and various seemingly supernatural foes, he always insisted that magic was merely advanced science not understood by humans. This stretched a bit, including such unobserved phenomena as psychic abilities and so on, but by and large it was clear that the Doctor is a scientist.
Mind you, it was also John Pertwee who famously called on a suffering UNIT technician to “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” and perpetuated the myth that “classical aerondynamics” suggests bumblebees can’t fly… And these were signs of the trend to follow. In the late seventies, scientific concepts and terms were tossed into scripts where they bore no resemblance to their re-world counterparts; during the eighties a tendency to mix real world science with nonsense escalated to the insane psuedo-science of Time and the Rani.
These days, science and the good Doctor might seem estranged. The show has become a member of that quite specific genre of science fantasy: fantasy with the trappings of science (a niche occupied also by Star Wars). Since Russell T. Davies took over, the only real-world grounding for Doctor Who has been a social one: the famliy and context of the current companion, which during his series has always been contemporary (though, as sharp readers will know, set one year in the future).
It’s easy to get caught up in arguments about this sort of thing; time “paradoxes” (they usually aren’t, and if they are…well, they’re paradoxes, and by definition cannot exist) and black holes are particular bugbears, with the former almost unknown in the series until recently (surprisingly, for a show about a Time Lord!) and the latter ascribed any and all peculiar abilities. But really it’s the Doctor’s attitude that makes the show still one of science’s greatest allies.
He’s not a two-fisted adventurer or a soldier or even a policeman; the sonic screwdriver might be a magic wand and is occasionally wielded as if it were a gun, but even so the Doctor’s main weapon continues to be his mind. He’s a thinking hero, a man of action whose first action is always to analyse his foe, to outwit rather than outgun. It’s true these days this sometimes gets lost in the emotional drama, which Davies rightly put first when reestablishing the show, and sometimes the Doctor’s solution relies almost entirely on information never established in advance (the void matter being attracted to the void in Doomsday, for example), but the Doctor is still the thinking man’s hero. Science is about asking questions, examining the observed facts, establishing patterns…
There are few finer examples of a science hero than Eccleston’s Doctor, trapped in 10 Downing Street, marshalling the facts about the Slitheen in order to discover their identity and weaknesses.