Dr Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, describes how the BBC drama Doctor Who uses science to inform its unique style of storytelling – and just how close it has come to predicting future scientific discoveries.
Alongside Simon Guerrier, science fiction author and dramatist, Dr Kukula explains more during the event The scientific secrets of Doctor Who.
CSF: Doctor Who has been going for over 50 years. What do you think is its timeless appeal?
MK: The show’s format is so flexible – the TARDIS can go anywhere in time and space so the possibility for stories is limitless. Also, I think there’s something very appealing about a hero who is basically a scientist, and who saves the universe using wit and intelligence rather than brute force. Ultimately, it’s a show about having amazing adventures with a crazy alien who’s also your best friend… in a police box. We can all relate to that!
CSF: Over the past half century, which scientific discoveries has it come closest to predicting?
MK: I don’t think it’s really the job of science fiction to predict the future – instead it uses futuristic settings to extrapolate and explore present day trends and concerns. So in the 70s, when people were starting to worry about the environment, we see stories like The Green Death and Inferno concerned with the effects of industrial pollution. While in the 21st century, we have stories like The Rise of the Cybermen and The Bells of Saint John that look at the negative side of technologies like WiFi and the internet. Having said that, the series has occasionally got things spectacularly right. The example we use in the book is the 1973 story Planet of the Daleks, which featured ‘ice-canoes’ – volcanoes that spew out freezing cold ice rather than molten lava. At the time, this was sheer fantasy, but we now know that ‘cryovolcanism’ really does exist, on several moons of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune as well as, possibly, on Pluto.
CSF: Which have been the most outlandish?
MK: The 1966 story The War Machines featured a computer that could communicate with other computers through the telephone network – an outrageous idea that could obviously never happen in real life!
CSF: Does the series work closely with scientists?
MK: I think this has varied over the years depending on who’s running the show. In the 60s, the production team worked closely with medical scientist Kit Pedler, who came up with the idea of the Cybermen – living beings who have progressively replaced their organic tissues with mechanical ‘improvements’. In the early 80s, the story Earthshock featured the brand new idea (at the time) that an asteroid impact caused the extinction of the dinosaurs – something that the production team had maybe read about in New Scientist magazine. Now that the show is made in Wales, I think they sometimes pick the brains of scientists at Cardiff University, such as astronomer Dr Ed Gomez.
CSF: The series was originally developed to teach science to children. Is this still the case? And how much ‘real’ science is actually contained within the series?
MK: Yes, Doctor Who originally had a remit to educate as well as to entertain, with the sci-fi stories exploring scientific ideas, while time travel stories into the past would teach the audience about history. The Doctor’s first two human companions, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, were even a science teacher and a history teacher (they worked at Coal Hill School, where two more recent companions, Clara Oswald and Danny Pink, were also teachers, this time of English and maths). I think it’s fair to say that teaching science isn’t the main goal of the show today but, as Simon and I show in the book, there is still a surprising amount of science threading through the series – and the Doctor himself is a good example of what a scientist should be: curious, passionate and humane.
CSF: Many of the scientific concepts showcased in Dr Who, ie Cybermen, Daleks, networked computers, etc, are negative. Why is this?
MK: Not all technology in Doctor Who is shown in a negative light – the sonic screwdriver often gets the Doctor out of a difficult scrape, while sometimes the TARDIS almost seems to be a friendly character in its own right. But from its earliest beginnings one of the main roles of science fiction has been to remind us that science and technology need to be used responsibly and humanely or terrible consequences can result. The negative effects of technology in Doctor Who are usually due to the way that the technology is (mis)used, not because it’s intrinsically bad. And of course, doom and disaster always make for a better story – it would be pretty dull if the Daleks arrived on Earth and began handing out flowers while chanting messages of peace and love.
CSF: On the positive, the series does value biological upgrades, aka regeneration of the Doctor. Do you think this is because of societal obsessions with staying forever young?
MK: Regeneration as shown in Doctor Who is an interesting thing because it’s not just the Doctor’s appearance that changes but his whole personality. He has the same memories but to a degree he becomes a new person and I think that’s quite challenging for our own sense of who we are. As for staying forever young, one of the things that I loved about Matt Smith’s Doctor was that he often seemed like an old man in a young man’s body. And now we have Peter Capaldi, who’s actually one of the oldest actors to play the Doctor! Perhaps the message of all of the Doctor’s various regenerations is that it’s really your curiosity about the universe and your passion for learning and discovering that keeps you young, not your actual age.
CSF: In the latest series, which scientific concepts are fictionalised?
MK: It seems to me that the recent stories have focussed a lot on ideas about perception, memory and our sense of who we are. These aren’t my areas of science but I find them fascinating as they go right to the heart of questions about the nature of identity and consciousness and what it means to be human. I really like the new character of Ashildr. She’s a human who becomes immortal, but her brain can’t store hundreds of years’ worth of memories so she has a library full of diaries in which she writes everything down – a bit like buying an external hard drive for your laptop.
CSF: Do you think Doctor Who will still be around in another 50 years? Or will the Daleks eventually get him?
MK: The format of Doctor Who is so flexible that, like the Doctor himself, it can always be regenerated for a new era. Even if it goes off the air for a few years, I’m sure someone will always come up with a great new idea for bringing it back. Doctor Who was definitely one of the things that inspired me to become a scientist and I like to think that the next Charles Darwin or Marie Curie might be watching the show today from behind the sofa. As for the Daleks, I don’t think they’ll ever win, but they are my favourite monsters so I hope they keep coming back!