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The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who

From inventive storylines to theoretical thinking

By Mark Diston, 5 Jul 2015

Page File The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who is what you might call a publication with a rather bastardised nature, being both a new anthology of Doctor Who short stories with quotations included from the TV series, and short essays about the relevant attached science.

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who book cover

Extracting the science from the fiction

The model for this book, the authors confess, are the four volumes of The Science of Discworld by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. Of the two authors of this book, Simon Guerrier is the literary half, Dr Marek Kukula the boffin, and they begin with a disclaimer:

"This isn't a book about what bits of science Doctor Who might have got right or wrong," they announce. It is designed, like the TARDIS, to be a "book in fact that's bigger on the inside".

And there is no denying this is a substantial read. The first question I am forced to ask is: "How desperate must they be to peddle science to engage a fictional character?" The answer is that this is a respectable sub-genre of two decades duration since Lawrence M. Krauss's The Physics of Star Trek. These books must sell well (nerds like sci-fi) but science fact and science fiction sandwiched together? I'm not so sure.

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This is the second book to deal with Doctor Who and science, though the first to include new fiction. Brian Cox recently televised a lecture about the same subject, and it appears that fact needs fiction like never before.

There seems to be a conscious effort to lull veteran Whovians into a state of complacency as the 1960s and 1970s references come at you thick and fast at the beginning of the book. For instance, astronaut James Lovell and Steppenwolf's Magic Carpet Ride are both referenced early on.

As is this rather glib remark: "People in history weren't stupid." Well, maybe only in recent history, at least not this guy Aristarchus who invented Heliocentrism.

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These elements are then interspersed with a few vintage Doctor Who soundbites and some brand new short fiction. You get the picture? You can almost hear the publishing exec reasoning: "That way we get these ignorant slab fondlers into science and reading, it's a win/win situation”.

There are some scientific secrets hidden here in plain sight, such as the entire population of Mars being robots. The short story seems to suit the literary Doctor Who format well, with no original author to emulate, the only thing which the multiple authors of these stories seem to capture consistently well are the Doctor's speech patterns.

Any hope that a literary format may be able to enlighten us as to the Doctor's thought processes are dashed early on. We are allowed carte blanche inside the brains of his human sidekicks, but the Doctor, like the universe it seems, must remain inscrutable.

The standard of the short stories is above average, with one or two, particularly James Goss's Multiverse analogy The Room With All The Doors being very good indeed. We progress spookily from, "One room had been so short we had to crawl through it. Another had clouds, we liked that one” to "The room where thinking changed the colour of the walls, the room where speaking hurt”.

The question remains: Do I need interesting nuggets of science advertising themselves in my literature or vice-versa?

Making history

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who is divided into sections entitled, Space, Time and Humanity, more to categorise the science than the fiction. The pre-1989 classic era is castigated for its crap monsters, generic quarry planets and some historical blips including a fifteenth century castle used in a twelfth century storyline.

It appears, however that the 21st Century series are still regarded as sacrosanct, even the abysmal sub Lloyd Webber soundtrack which soaks all of Space, Time and Humanity in sentimental slush.

The fact that Murray Gold is entirely absent from this publication can only be a positive thing.

A hypothetical question occurs: Should the BBC just offer the job of the next doctor to Brian Cox? And if not, why not give him the soundtrack? After Murray, things can only get better. Should K-9 be presenting Pet Rescue?

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Anyway back to the fray, The Three Doctors storyline is presented as an object lesson in the nature of singularities and black holes. There is a strong dose of the ecological dispersed amongst these stories, particularly All The Empty Towers where the Doctor delivers his withering verdict: "It's 2089, it's climate change ... looks like all those bags for life you bought didn't quite do the trick”.

But sooner or later the text reverts to the lowest comic book denominator, like here in Rewriting History: "Plasmatic flame throwers and bone-seeking microdarts”. Other stories such as The Girl Who Stole the Stars seem to be little more than transcribed video games.

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who book cover

Though sci-fi cliches are generally understated in the fictional sections, the old device of moving present dilemmas into the near future is well utilised in Una McCor's In Search of Lost Time: "Her troubles have turned into a puzzle to be solved with quick thinking and clever widgets”. There is also a thinly disguised Siri clone called ZOE who features in Jacqueline Rayner's Potential Energy.

As well as educating us in the matter of time, space and our not-so-horrible history, we can also detect the BBC DNA running throughout this publication, and towards the end we get a quotation from another doctor, in Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man: "Certainty is the opposite of scientific knowledge. Science as we have seen, is a provisional series of statements based on evidence and testing, with tests that can be repeated. These tests depend on doubt."

Herein lies the main problem with this book; getting a pan-dimensional mega-being to front such a flawed human concept as science is like Iggy Pop selling car insurance, it may grab your attention, but won't improve your driving.

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who is nonetheless a good anthology of sci-fi short stories, most suitable for young adults, and it is also a passable introduction to current theories of time and space. However, including both of these books in one volume does tend to bloat it and I feel adding Time Lord yarns over scientific theories seems to confuse as much as enlighten the reader.

Simon Guerrier and Dr. Marek Kukula, The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who book coverAuthor Simon Guerrier and Dr. Marek Kukula
Title The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who
Publisher Ebury
Price £16.99 (Hardback), £9.99 (eBook)
More info Publication web site

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