Paul Fuzz Presents: Flew In From Miami Beach BOAC
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.
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