Terry Pratchett on Doctor Who

Terry Pratchett has written an interesting guest blog post about Doctor Who, and I have to say that I pretty much agree with him. And not just because I think Night Watch is an amazing book because it both made me laugh out loud and made me cry.

I tend to be more liberal with my definition of what science fiction happens to be, probably because I grew up reading fantasy and then moved over to science fiction when I got sick of unicorns. All I really want out of my science fiction is an element of scientific plausibility and some sort of logic to the laws of physics. I’m not that demanding. And in fact, I prefer my scifi almost unforgivably loosey-goosey compared to what hard science fiction fans like. I think long explanations about how faster than light travel could work incredibly boring. Really. Just tell me “It’s something to do with wormholes,” and I’m good to go1.

That said, even by my own incredibly forgiving definitions, Doctor Who really isn’t scifi. It’s magic cleverly tarted up with machinery. I don’t think even whipping out Clarke’s third law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) helps the case all that much when, as Pratchett cites, there’s an alien using pills to transform body fat into little baby aliens. And you know what? That’s totally okay. It’s a fun show, and I actually don’t think it matters all that much if people want to call it scifi or fantasy or superhero adventures, though I’m sure whoever feels that their genre is being abused will disagree with me. And I suppose it is something of a culture shock to people who have watched Doctor Who if they go to the local store and pick up some scifi and discover that it doesn’t go quite like that.

What I actually think is more interesting about what Mr. Pratchett had to say were his comments on how the Doctor has become increasingly god-like, particularly in these new episodes.

The Doctor himself has in recent years been built up into an amalgam of Mother Teresa, Jesus Christ (I laughed my socks off during the Titanic episode when two golden angels lifted the Doctor heavenwards) and Tinkerbell. There is nothing he doesn’t know, and nothing he can’t do. He is now becoming God, given that the position is vacant. Earth is protected, we are told, and not by Torchwood, who are human and therefore not very competent. Perhaps they should start transmitting the programme on Sundays.

I think here, he’s hit on a bigger narrative issue than the tissue-thin science of the supposedly (winkwink) science fiction show, and something that I think really ruins some episodes that could have otherwise been interesting. I tend to think that the Doctor’s increasingly god-like tendencies are probably connected to the need the show feels to threaten to blow up bigger and bigger things, which I’ve already complained about at length.

During The Waters of Mars I felt like the writers at least recognized the problem and did something quite dramatically fantastic with it. The Doctor buys in to his own image for a moment, believing in his god-like powers, and then at the end of the episode he gets a good metaphorical gut-punch to show him that no, he’s not everyone’s savior. It was lovely, and unfortunately ruined by what followed it. Here’s hoping that the new season will let the Doctor go back to being very smart and inventive, but not some sort of deity.

1 – I actually have another reason for this beyond my own intellectual laziness. I don’t think that those sorts of explanations make for good narrative or believable characters. For example, unless your character is the guy that invented the FTL engine, or someone intimately involved in its maintenance, it just doesn’t seem all that plausible that they’d be that detailed about how it functions. Just think about people today and cars. If you ask someone who isn’t the sort of person that changes their own oil how a car functions, you’d probably get something along the lines of “well, it burns gas and that makes the car go.” At the risk of generalizing too much, I don’t think most people give a crap about how their car functions so long as it gets them from home to the ice cream shop without exploding. And I bet that some day, when we’re zipping around faster than light in shiny space ships, most people on those space ships will feel pretty much the same.

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