Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Who are you?

I've been watching the new Who and - for the most part - enjoying it rather a lot. Matt Smith is excellent in the role; as we were promised, he inhabits the character from the off, and within a few scenes of the first episode he simply was the Doctor. I felt exactly the same way when Tom Baker took over from Jon Pertwee. That sense of fluid continuity is one of the great strengths of the show. I'm still wondering where they're going with the Amy Pond character, but for now I'll be glad if she turns out to be just a companion, rather than someone with secret powers or some mysterious connection to Time. As for the differences between Moffat and RTD-era Who, maybe I'm thick, but I'm not seeing some huge step-change in style and approach. It's still New Who, still a very different beast to the old shows before the cancellation. And I like it, generally. I like the way the writers haven't been afraid to put their own stamp on things, even at the expense of irritating long-term fans such as myself - see, for instance, the rebooted cybermen. At the same time, there's a willingness to dig deep back into Who history and toss in references to things we haven't heard of since the Troughton earlier, or even further back. It's all good and I sit there on saturday evenings like I'm eight again. All I'd need is a plate of bangers and mash and I could be sitting down to watch Invasion of the Dinosaurs or the Monster of Peladon.

But ... and this matters, I think - there's something I'm not seeing nearly enough of. Terry Pratchett touches on something similar in this SFX piece but my complaint isn't precisely the same. It's not that the science in Doctor Who is especially ropey now, as compared to before. It always was ropey, from day one - a point I made in my review of "The Science of Doctor Who" book a few years ago. Having the Tardis drag Planet Earth across the universe may have been a low point but I could point to scores of similar absurdities in Old Who, and not just from the bad old days when the show was unloved and near its end.

What's lacking, I think - or not being handled in the right way - is the Doctor's attitude to science. This came up in a conversation I had last year with one of the UK's top public astronomers, like me a lifelong fan of Who and willing to take the new version on its own terms. What we agreed on was that - for us, growing up in the sixties, seventies and so on - the Doctor had been an important role model, one of the few scientists portrayed on television in a remotely flattering light. Beyond the Doctor, there was Mister Spock ... possibly Brains from Thunderbirds ... and that was your lot, basically. The Doctor was the only one you'd conceivably want to be, though. He was the only one who wasn't emotionless or nerdy - and he had a Tardis, groovy companions, and a universe to explore. And he was a scientist - maybe not by profession, but by training and inclination, and through all the adventures, what shone through was that the Doctor always fell down on the side of reason and enlightenment. He had no truck with magic, superstition, religion (although he conducted his affairs with a basic sense of tolerance and fairmindedness) - and he wasn't afraid to parade his own intelligence. Look at the aforementioned Monster of Peladon, for instance. It's the Doctor's insistence that the Aggedor apparitions can't be real - that there must be some technology behind the hocus pocus - that eventually leads to the resolution of the story (it was the Ice Warriors wot dunnit). Yes, the science might be ludicrous - but it was the Doctor's respect for science and rationality that mattered, and ultimately carried the day. This, to me, was as important a strand in his character as his pacifism and decency - not more important, but equally so.

I get flashes of this in New Who but not nearly enough to reinforce this as an essential element of his personality. Nothing could sum this up better than the "timey-wimey" line from the Tennant era. Yes, it was a good bit of dialogue, and raised a smile at the time. But this is The Doctor, for pity's sake - when has he ever felt the need to be so vague, or so apparently ashamed of his own intellect? I was disappointed with that, as I've been disappointed with the questions the Doctor doesn't ask. The Weeping Angels, for instance. They're a brilliant and scary creation, hats off to Moffat. But why doesn't it ever occur to anyone to wonder why they look like stone statues? What's that all about? Are they stone all the way through? Entirely stone? I know the show has to work to a much tighter format than it ever did in the past, and there simply isn't room for every last bit of dialogue - but still, surely there's room for just one or two hints that the Doctor is a questioning man, a scientist at heart.

Anyway, as I said at the start - I'm still enjoying it. But I'd like to see just a bit more of a sense of where our man stands. Is he for the enlightenment, or against it?

(As an addendum, here's a quote from one of the comments in the SFX thread, which says it better than I just have:

"In the old days, of course, the approach, the attitude, was always fairly rationalist. Whatever fantastic events were going on, the Doctor always regarded the universe as ultimately logical and explicable, and would never do anything really nonsensical. Nowadays that’s out of the window and anything goes.")


  1. I blame Russell T Davies for loading the show up with antiscientific sentiment, at least Moffat pays lip service to quantum physics. The Buffyesque embodiment of Death in the episode of Torchwood, and the demon down the black hole all happened while on Davies stint. And whatever happened to those Charged Vacuum Emboitements?

    Adam Fleury;)

  2. Emboitement's a jolly good word, though, isn't it? But yes, you're right. It's not the absence or the wrongness of the science I'm decrying, it's the sentiment. The science can be as loopy as it likes as long as the Doctor priveleges science over superstition, reasoned action over intuitive leaps.

    In case I sound humourless, I thought the "comfy chairs" bits in the recent ep was one of the best laugh out loud lines in all of New Who, and nailed the Doctor's essential playfulness to a tee. But I'd still like to see some flashes of skepticism and bracing scientific rigour.

  3. I'm finding Matt Smith extremely Troughtonesque and loving it. One of Moffat's strengths is his way of thinking through the logic of his sf - true, he wrote the timey-wimey line, but that episode was also rigorously logical about the cause and effect of time travel, and see also his use of artificial gravity last Saturday. The crack in time seems to exist to erase the depredations of the RTD era, one flaw at a time, so I live in hope.

    But yes, more pure science moments certainly couldn't hurt.

  4. Ben: the Troughton thing came across incredibly strongly in the last ep, didn't it? And I'm saying this as someone who has only seen one or two Troughton adventures.

  5. What does it is his mild, gentle way of stating even harsh truths, with a surgically applied loss of temper from time to time. The UK-in-space episode (hmm, not a remotely familiar concept) was the first time I noticed it.

  6. Alastair

    I agree with this very strongly. I have gone further and see the displacement of science fiction by fantasy as a real problem. Back in the golden age circa the first few series of the Twilight Zone, sci-fi was a highly respected genre, commenting as it did on a fantastic new era of space flight and scientific development.

    Today it is on the periphery, marginalised by vampires and old men in pointy hats with stars on them. Where years ago young people would read sci-fi and see how constructive analysis and invention could solve problems, now they think they just have to wave a magic wand, swamped as they are with Potterama. The bizarre rise of teenagers attacking people and actually drinking their blood must surely be linked to the expansive vampire genre.

    My personal "fantasy" if you excuse the pun, is that science fiction will rise again and take its traditionally more dominant role over fantasy. I think this is certain to happen at some point as young people look for something new to take the place of fantasy. Fantasy is easy, it demands no input from the reader, no thought, just passive attention. I enjoy fantasy but its total domination of the SFF genre is all wrong, and I think highly reflective of our self-doubt as a people at this point in time.

    Regards, R

  7. Andrew Breitenbach13 May 2010 at 14:01

    Al, you nailed on the head what's been bugging me about the new Who. I haven't been able to put my finger on it until now, but you're exactly right. The original Who was what made me want to be an astrophysicist, which lead me into my mainlining Larry Niven at age twelve and then onward to hard sf in general. I owe a great deal of my artistic and scientific development and leanings to that show, as well as my outlook on life. The new Who, though he has the same playfulness, doesn't strive to get to the bottom of what's going on in the same rational manner, and that annoys the hell out of me. Maybe Moffat will run this aspect of the show differently, but I can't see those episodes yet in the States, so I can't judge.

  8. It's difficult, isn't it? My two very young children are old enough to enjoy being scared by the Weeping Angels (especially now that - thanks to some pseudoscientific tosh! - they can emerge from the TV), but the older, aged 6, can ask hard questions about them being made of stone (ie. how vulnerable are they when they are being observed?). But then I've always hated the writers' insistence on dreaming up some SF excuse or other for spooky phenomena, like ghosts and werewolves.

  9. Having an SF excuse for the monsters in Dr Who is part of the fun, and keeps Dr Who in the realms of science fantasy rather than just pure fantasy. I hated the acceptance of supernatural elements without some scientific sounding rationlization in the Russell T Davies produced episodes.
    Bring back those charged vacuum emboitements and Logopolis!

    Adam Fleury;)