May 4th, 2010


Terry Pratchett Nerds Out On Doctor Who, Hilariously

Over at the SFX site, Terry Pratchett editorializes in his inimitable way about whether Doctor Who is truly science fiction, and finds it comes up short due to a lack of plausible science:

People say Doctor Who is science fiction. At least people who don’t know what science fiction is, say that Doctor Who is science fiction. Star Trek approaches science fiction....Doctor Who on the other hand had an episode wherein people’s surplus body fat turns into little waddling creatures. I’m not sure how old you have to be to come up with an idea like that.

As funny as the essay is, the thesis is a distinction that, truth be told, only a small--if dedicated--handful of people care much about: the kind of diehard fans who leave angry user comments on SciFiWire news items about fantasy or horror; voracious readers of certain kinds of sf, especially military sf and hard sf; and a large number of sf writers themselves, who just plain love the boundless possibilities of science. In other words, it's a very inside discussion, one that's more trade than consumer, if you will. It may be a conversation perfectly suited to the readers of the SFX site, but I have to admit it's one I have no interest in joining.

See, I'm not of the opinion that science fiction necessarily has to be built upon a foundation of plausible science. I'm perfectly happy to call X-Men science fiction, even though the conceit that the next step in human evolution will allow someone to turn playing cards into deadly, energy-charged weapons strikes me as having about as much plausibility as the waddling fat creatures Pratchett mentions--maybe even less. I'm more than willing to call Planet of the Apes science fiction, too, despite the vast unlikeliness that apes would evolve to wear clothing, learn taxidermy and speak English.

That said, there has always been a strong element of fantasy to Doctor Who. It may be bundled in the extra-long, multicolored scarf of science fiction, but the story has always really been that of an immortal wizard, his magic cabinet that go can anywhere and any time, and the many wondrous spells he casts with his magic wand/sonic screwdriver, all to the delight of the mortal children who accompany him, either directly in his adventures or indirectly from the couches of their living rooms. I don't need the Daleks to be scientifically plausible because, hey, maybe science works differently on their home planet of Skaro anyway. Do the Weeping Angels make scientific sense? No, of course not, but they don't have to anymore than the witch's house made of candy in the story of Hansel and Gretel has to. They both spring from imagination, from the nightmares of childhood and the deep echoes of our culture, rather than from extrapolated science. For me, at least, that's fine. More than fine, really, because I've always seen Doctor Who as much more of a fairy tale than a hard-science adventure.

Pratchett doesn't really seem to disagree. As he concludes, Doctor Who's science may often be nonsensical hand-waving, but "it’s fun and occasionally wonderful." Just like the best fairy tales.