The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Science Friction

Bad science. It’s a criticism often levelled against Doctor Who, and sometimes, bits of Doctor Who that I’ve written. Sometimes people have even been so harsh as to mark me down for it, the ultimate sanction!

The thing is, I kind of agree. I can see where people coming from. It bugs me when Doctor Who gets science wrong. Particularly when it’s needless; when you have a character who’s a genius scientist who gets basic terminology wrong, or when some pseudoscience is pulled out of the Doctor’s capacious pockets to solve the story, or when a story hinges on something happening in defiance to physical laws (i.e. The Twin Dilemma’s peculiar interpretation of gravity).

But on the other hand, Doctor Who itself hinges on bad science. Time travel is almost by definition impossible. Dimensional transcendentalism is pure whimsy. And on top of that, there’s all the various bits of made-up science like the time vortex and psychic energy and the Blinovitch Limitation Effect and how Terry Nation and David Whitaker thought static electricity worked. Where do you draw the line?

Where I draw the line is like this: bad science is okay if it makes a story more interesting, exciting and imaginative. It’s okay if it generates drama and creates problems for the characters. And, where possible, you should avoid saying anything which is obviously wrong. So, for example, it’s okay to have a story where gravity is inverted because of an anti-matter warp inversion field (because we don’t know how they work) but it’s not okay to have a story where gravity is inverted because there's too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (because we know gravity doesn’t work like that).

And that’s kind of the same rule I take in writing stories. I try to get everything scientifically right, except where it would compromise the story, in which case I am prepared to - quite deliberately – fudge the science for the sake of a better, clearer, more exciting and more dramatic tale.

But I think it’s very important to know when you are getting stuff wrong and that you are only doing it where necessary, and not to get it wrong out of carelessness. The same applies to historical accuracy; make the effort to get it right, except where you have to get it wrong in order to tell the best possible story.

The other thing is, of course, to be consistent. So when I wrote a sequel to The Invisible Enemy a year or so ago, and brought back the villainous virus, I thought it was vitally important to make sure I didn’t contradict that story. In The Invisible Enemy the organic virus can take over computers, so – even though I know how absurd that is – I knew it would have to have the same ability in the sequel. Even with fake science, it’s important to apply it consistently – as with all the other bits of Doctor Who science, if something’s established in one story, you have to stick with it.

So that’s why I did what I did. I weighed up the two options – writing something which was scientifically inaccurate and writing something which contradicted another story – and decided that being scientifically inaccurate was the lesser of the two evils. I didn’t do so glibly, it wasn’t out of laziness, I thought about it a great deal, and went with what was most important to me as a fan. But I made sure my story was scientifically inaccurate in exactly the same way that the earlier story had been scientifically inaccurate – I was meticulously accurate in my inaccuracy. Revenge of the Swarm uses precisely the same terminology for things as The Invisible Enemy, even when it’s not scientifically accurate. It is more important to capture the spirit. I mean, I still tried to be as accurate as possible – within the inherent limitations of Doctor Who – but I trusted to listeners to go with the flow, and even to enjoy the bad science for what it was – a very faithful and  affectionate recreation of the TV show.

But the story which inspired me to write this blog is one called Last of the Colophon, or rather, the criticism of it. If you haven’t heard it, stop reading now, go and buy it, download it, listen to it, and don’t you dare come back until you have.

You’ve heard it? Right. I shall continue. As you have heard, Last of the Colophon is a bit of a riff on The Invisible Man, the villain, Morax, being invisible. Now, invisibility is scientific nonsense, more or less. You can have very, very good camouflage but changing your physical nature so that light can pass through you is probably pure fantasy. And even if you could, it raises all sorts of odd questions – if you are invisible, presumably all your internal organs would have to be too, and whatever you had for lunch, and the contents of your bladder and colon and so on. Because otherwise people would be able to see that stuff floating around in mid-air and you wouldn’t really be invisible at all.

The other problem with invisibility is that if light is passing through you, then it’s also passing through your retina and you are, therefore, blind. I had a bit of fun with this in Last of the Colophon by making the villain blind except when he inserts a pair of artificial eyes (which become invisible whenever he closes his eyelids, because otherwise people would be able to see a pair of artificial eyeballs levitating in mid-air!)

As I said, it was a homage to The Invisible Man. I explained his invisibility with some pseudo-scientific technobabble – he "altered the harmonics of the standing waves of his constituent atoms". I was using technobabble as a short-cut, because the story wasn’t about the science, it was about the psychological effects of being invisible, whether it is only the fact that you can get caught which stops you doing wrong.

But an invisible villain left me with a problem. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver! Presumably he would be able to use it to detect the villain’s presence, which would mean that he would effectively not be invisible at all, and would render the whole story moot. It would basically scupper the whole thing. So I had a choice. I could contrive a way for the Doctor to leave the sonic in the TARDIS – for it to be conveniently inconvenienced – but I thought that was a bit crap, that listeners would see through it. Alternatively, I could have the sonic screwdriver damaged in some way, but again, that struck me as far too convenient – and a waste of time, to spend half a page putting the sonic out of action.

So I thought – and the thought made me laugh – to include a line saying that "If light waves pass right through him, so will sound waves!" Complete nonsense, yes, I know. But I trusted the listener to go with it, for two reasons. One, because the listener would know what I was doing, I was explaining why the Doctor couldn’t use the sonic screwdriver to detect Morax, they’d know I’d done this to avoid a long, boring explanation or detour. And secondly, I trusted the listener to take it in the spirit it was intended; as a bit of fun, a knowing bit of silliness, very, very much in the spirit of Doctor Who.

I’d thought "What would Robert Holmes do?" and concluded that he would do the same. After all, that era of Doctor Who has anti-matter being carried around in a tobacco tin, it has people thinking they can survive a nuclear explosion by hiding behind a land rover and so on. He wouldn’t let a bit of scientific implausibility get in the way of a good story, and he wouldn’t waste time trying to explain it. So "If light waves pass through him, so will sound waves" was my little tribute to Robert Holmes. It made me laugh, and I hoped that the listeners would find it funny too.

But, mea culpa, if it took people out of the story, I’m sorry. There is a line with these things, and not everybody draws it in the same place. Some stories are more scientifically accurate than others, your mileage may vary. But – while I have made one or two scientific blunders – I’d say that in the case of these two stories, I’d like the fact that they were intentional and intended to amuse to be taken into consideration.

Of course, now, three or four years later, I realise that I should’ve had the Doctor say that the presence of ‘photon radiation’ was playing havoc with the sonic screwdriver and rendering it ineffective. That would’ve helped set up the ‘photon radiation’ bit at the end, and solved the problem even more neatly. But it’s too late now!