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Sunday, May 18, 2008
  Who owns 'Who?', or how scientific is science-fiction meant to be anyway?: Critical responses to The New Doctor Who
So I'm talking to this theatrical sorta guy the other day, and I tell him how I just bought this old 60s wildlife record called "Bird Sounds In Close Up". Turns out this guy is a real sound effects nut, so we get to talking and his real super-geek specialist subject is "telephone rings and dial tones". The guy says that there's this whole community of people who are really into telephone rings and dial tones throughout telecommunication history, and if any of these cats are watching a period drama on TV, they totally know how historically accurate the telephone sound effects are. If they consider any of the telephone sound effects to be historically inaccurate, they write to the BBC or whoever and draw the mistake to their attention. This guy says - real serious - "oh, yeah, when they get the sounds right it's really great, but when they get them wrong it's kind of annoying. Audiences wouldn't put up with an actress wearing a 1960s mini-skirt in a World War 2 epic, so why should we put up with a 1960s dial tone? It doesn't spoil the whole show for me or anything, but you wish they'd just make an effort to be accurate." He actually quoted an "infamous" example of this from 'Schindlers List'. I mean, this was really an issue for this guy. Like "Yeah, Apocalypse Now was pretty good, but a standard-issue Tel-380 1968 US army field telephone which rings like a standard-issue Tel-381 1976 US army field telephone? Yeah, nice one, Coppola! You must think we're a bunch of idiots trying to get that blunder past us! Why doncha go the whole hog and use a Tel-382 model next time, huh?!"

The point of the story is, people are weird. When this guy sits down to watch a show, one of his criteria for judging it is how accurate the telephone sound effects are. Of course, historical accuracy is a criteria used by everybody to judge the quality of a period drama, and that includes telephone sound effects. If Mr Darcy's mobile goes off and fills the room with the sound of Rhianna's 'Umbrella', most people would consider this a major blunder. A standard period drama implicitly asks to be judged on it's historical accuracy. The difference between a regular joe's assessment of historical accuracy and the Telephone Guy's assessment is that the the regular joe is satisfied with a broad accuracy that avoids any major blunders, and the Telephone Guy is demanding precision from the position of a (self-appointed) expert in this particular field.

Similarly, Science Fiction, or at least a particular type of Science Fiction, can reasonably be judged on the scientific accuracy of the narrative, and similarly there will be regular joes who are satisfied with what appears to be a basic adherence to the fiction's internal logic, and those more seriously science-minded individuals who demand actual scientific accuracy. Over the past few months my mind has become increasingly frazzled by the number of reviewers who criticise Doctor Who on the basis of perceived minor scientific inaccuracies or inconsistencies. I will attempt to outline why I find this critical approach difficult to understand.

On a broad, fundamental level, Doctor Who is daft. Gloriously, magically daft, but daft nonetheless. It's about a guy who travels through time and space in a police box. Whatever theoretical science one chooses to apply to the show, it's still plain silly. Does this mean that the show should not adhere to it's own internal logic, however silly, once established? Of course it does not. But then attacking the shows failure to adhere to it's own internal logic is different to picking holes in the shows scientific accuracy. It would be a problem, or at the very least a head spinning left-turn, if the Doctor suddenly developed the ability to transform into a Volkswagen Beetle, because this would contradict 40 years of Who history. What wouldn't be a problem would be whatever pseudo-scientific explanation the writers gave for this ability, because no scientific explanation, however smart, could account for something so bonkers, and it would be ridiculous to base your criticism of this plot device on the quality of the explanation for it, rather than the plot device itself. "What? 'Synchro-DNA-Transformalisation?' Forget it. 'Trans-DNA Voltswagonalism' I mighta bought, but not this nonsense.' The problem would not be the science, but the fiction.

Sentences in Who reviews like "Are we really supposed to believe a giant man-wasp could hold some lead piping?" boggle the mind. You've successfully suspended your disbelief to the extent that you're willing to get on board with the giant man-wasp. But you're drawing the line at the giant man-wasp being able to hold a piece of metal? Clearly an audience should not be expected to accept incomprehensible, senseless plot twists, but criticisms like this, where the perceived 'problem' is based on the reviewers arbitrary decision about where they draw the line of believability, is sheer insanity. "I stopped believing this situation at the point the shadow of the giant man-wasp could be seen holding lead piping" is not valid criticism.

Doctor Who is famously the scary TV show which has children hiding behind the sofa. Children. Too many reviews I read just plain ignore the fact that this is a show built to some extent to be enjoyed by families and children, and that it is on the level of quality family / kids adventure telly that Who excels most consistently. While this does not mean older, bloggy types should disconnect their scientific critical faculties for the duration of the show, it does need to be factored into their criticism of it. I've always sort of thought if Doctor Who is owned by any demographic, then it is The Kids, not bloggers and sci-fi nuts, to whom it is ultimately answerable.
Brilliant piece - I also read the comment about the lead piping and it was, indeed, shockingly arbitrary.
Brilliant! i know what you mean about accuracy nerds. It's not that you should never apply your own knowledge to things, its just recognising that what irritates you will by-pass most people...

And yeah, I saw the lead piping remark and just howled with laughter! WTF?!
The problem for many with Who, at least in it's current incarnation, is it's not *really* science-fiction. At least not in that traditional sense that demands a grounding in science. Books have been published by Star Trek's creators on the scientific principles of warp travel, for Doctor Who fans have got together to attempt to explain everything in the absense of this. So the show really is more just an adventure/drama with a high concept.
Though even I get annoyed at times, so many uses for the sonic screwdriver, but it can't break a car windshield, when even most laymen know that certain sounds can shatter glass.
The internal logic thing is interesting too: 40 years of a TV show, if at some point it comes down to contradicting a scientific principle set up in an obscure episode 25 years ago, or telling a better story, I'd go with the latter.
In many ways it's a shame the show didn't have the guts to do a full-on reboot of the universe...
Much as I agree with you about the important parts of criticism (remembering it's for kids, that it's inherently daft, etc), I can't help but wonder what the point of actually taking the time to blog it is? It feels a touch like intellectual, analytical willy waving: "my tiger-style criticism is strong, but your dragon-style is weak! Ha ha ha ha!" Without lip sync.

The thing is that for the people who worry about the wrong kind of angling line being used to catch a lesser-spotted stickleback in episode 5 of The Cazalets or whatever, that's what it ruined it for them. They were doing fine until then.

Going up to them and saying "You've missed the point" is tantamount to saying "No, you're wrong. That's not what ruined it for you. You should have had it ruined by this. You have no right to have a problem with this bit." Which is all very New Labour, so therefore something to be avoided.

Maybe you want to laugh at them for being different, for being geekier - and we're geeks about our own areas of interest and knowledge so let he or she who is without sin here cast the first stone - for 'missing the point'. Hell, I do. And maybe they do lack intellectual rigour.

If so, my wise and ancient advice is to ignore them. Move along. Nothing to see here. Let them go on about it and how the show they were enjoying was ruined. There's probably 10 times as many people out there who felt the same thing and they have a right to feel it.

Unless they're actually stopping you from watching the show or enjoying it, what's the point of knocking them? It's just an opinion and the delightful thing about the Internet, etc, is that people get to express opinions, no matter how worthless and wrong they are. It's close to 'fan bullying' to decide to slag them off. "Ha, ha, look at the freaks who think this."

Interesting piece, though, but probably best left unsaid, I'd have said, IMHO.

And my crane style is far, far the strongest... ;-)
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Cheers everybody. And Mr Mediumrob...I don't suppose there's any more of a 'point' to what I wrote than there is to anything anybody writes, other than I wanted to write it. I mean, jeez. People are entitled to criticise Doctor Who how they want, sure, and I'm just as entitled to criticise how they criticise it, and you're entitled to criticise how I've criticised their criticism, and I'm entitled to criticise how you've criticised my criticism of their criticism. As well you know. Interesting comment, but probably best left unsaid, IMHO. ;-) (Sorry - couldn't resist).
Everyone's entitled to their opinion. You might want to call someone a cock: it's whether you should or not that's the question. You might say you have the right to insult someone and you do; I'm saying maybe you shouldn't avail yourself of that right. Think of me as the screaming girl outside the pub shouting "It's not worth it, Gary. Walk away!" ;-)
I found it interesting anyways.
I'm actually not entirely sure I buy the 'this inaccuracy ruined it for me' thing anyways.

I'm a self confessed computer geek and historian and I often spot mistakes and errors in computers and how they are used, it was especially bad in the late 90s when people wanted to use the internet in fiction but didn't really understand it.

Sometimes it hits me and I go "that's wrong" and I'm taken out of the story for a moment. But my mind then adapts and I get on with it. I don't think innacuracies have ever spoiled a show for me, to the point where I was enjoying it, and then can't anymore.

I think the issue is that for some people spotting these errors has become half the fun. When they see one they can't wait to log on to and post their brilliant catch, the point where they spend the rest of the episode thinking about what they're going to post.

Rob does have a point though, it's just when the same complaints about realism come up every episode one feels they should respectfully suggest they watch something else instead... if they don't they're clearly getting something out of it...
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