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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

‘Doctor Who’ thing of the day: Terry Pratchett doesn’t understand the essential whatsit of ‘Doctor Who’

Or he does, but he doesn’t realize he does.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while but kept putting it off because I couldn’t quite put my finger on what’s wrong with it. But I’ve just figured it out.

See, back in May, fantasy author Terry Pratchett wrote an essay for SFX about why Doctor Who is “questionable SF.” I guess I never really thought about whether people think of Doctor Who as actual, genuine, hard-science science fiction, because how can you? Who does? It has pepperpots as its ultimate scary robot monsters… ultimate scary robot monsters that, for 25 years, you could escape by running up a flight of stairs.

I mean, seriously.

But because Pratchett has somehow convinced himself that people think Doctor Who is real, proper science fiction — “at least people who don’t know what science fiction is, say that Doctor Who is science fiction” — he begins his essay thusly:

I wish I could hate Doctor Who.

Well, geez: harsh, man. That’s like saying that because some people think your husband is fat, at least some people who don’t understand the difference between an athletic build and porkiness, you should divorce him. Who cares what other people think?

But Pratchett goes on and on about how scientifically implausible Doctor Who is:

Much has been written about the plausibility or otherwise of the Star Trek universe, but it is possible to imagine at least some of the concepts becoming real. But the sonic screwdriver? I don’t think so. Doctor Who’s science is pixel thin. I’m sorry about this, but I just don’t think that you can instantly transport a whole hospital onto the moon without all of the windows blowing out. Oh! You use a force field, do you?! And there’s the trouble; one sentence makes it all okay.

This is where Pratchett seems to be missing the point of Doctor Who. Where he sees the essential hooey-ness, he should be seeing the essential Who-iness. Instead of focusing on whether a hospital could be transported to the moon, he should be focusing on the fact that in a hospital transported to the moon and surrounded by a force field, you could stand on a balcony with the Doctor and bask in the Earthlight.


Doctor Who isn’t science fiction (except when it is). Doctor Who is a romance. Doctor Who is a love affair with adventure, escape, saving the universe, not having to worry about money, drinking frothy drinks in alien marketplaces… just hopping into the TARDIS and going anywhere, anywhen.

I think Pratchett is dimly aware of this, as when he writes:

The unexpected, unadvertised solution which kisses it all better is known as a deus ex machina – literally, a god from the machine. And a god from the machine is what the Doctor now is. A decent detective story provides you with enough tantalising information to allow you to make a stab at a solution before the famous detective struts his stuff in the library. Doctor Who replaces this with speed, fast talking, and what appears to be that wonderful element “makeitupasyougalongeum”. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I would dare try to jump-start a spaceship that looks like the Titanic by diving it into the atmosphere… but I have to forgive the Doctor that, because it was hilariously funny.

See? The Doctor is audacious and scary and exciting as hell. We like that about him. That’s much more what Doctor Who is about than whether a starship would get rebooted by strafing Buckingham Palace.

Pratchett is so close to getting it, without realizing that:

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.

In fact, there are things the Doctor doesn’t know, and there are things the Doctor can’t do, and if he’s a god, he’s absolutely a flawed one, and a dangerous one. But Doctor Who as religion? Now Pratchett understands… and he doesn’t want to. He wants to hate Doctor Who precisely because the Doctor is so wonderful and so terrifying?

How can he so entirely misunderstand why he loves the show in the first place?

(If you stumble across a cool Doctor Who thing, feel free to email me with a link.)

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  • Vanessa

    A decent detective story provides you with enough tantalising information to allow you to make a stab at a solution before the famous detective struts his stuff in the library.

    He wouldn’t like Sherlock Holmes either then — the groundwork for Holmes’ astonishing deductions is never laid in clues given to the reader, it is only explained after the fact.

  • Vanessa

    I do think he has a point though about the Doctor being built up too much. That is coming up in a lot of blogs deconstructing Series 5. The tendency to ask enemies to “look him up” in the library/their cyberchips|databanks etc. is a deus-ex-reputation (be scared, be very scared).

  • I think that if I can suspend disbelief just to watch Fox News, I can certainly muster the same courtesy for Doctor Who.

  • I think the Doctor wishes he was God sometimes, like it was said in “Rose” where the Doctor goes death and danger always follows.

    Of all people you would think Pratchett would get Doctor Who the most, his style is fantasy with a dash of laughs, while the Doctor is Sci-Fi Fantasy with some humor thrown in as well.

  • Martin

    Wierdly enough, I agree with Terry on most of those points. Doctor Who isn’t sci fi, it’s fantasy adventure.

    The problem lies in the fact that people think it’s sci fi when it isn’t, like star trek and star wars.
    “if it’s set in space and has aliens and robots it’s sci fi” is a mantra I’m kinda sick of. You’re right, it doesn’t really matter but it is annoying.

  • Alas, Martin: Star Wars is more fantasy than the other two put together. Magic is a cornerstone of that space opera, and science is simply a thin veneer over made-up technobabble.

    It’s also worth mentioning that Doctor Who has not been consistently the same show over its long tenure. During the Tom Baker era you would never see some of the things you’d see in the Eccelston, Tennant or Smith eras. Even Matt Smith’s Who seems to feel very different from Eccelston’s. Each puts science and magic into play in different measures and each asks us to suspend our disbelief in varying amounts.

  • Jane, if you need a good divorce lawyer with good reviews check out http://bit.ly/bluYTI sorry to hear about your situation but good luck.

  • Chris

    Poirot doesn’t reveal the key fact until the end, either (at least most of the time).

    Does Pratchett consider The HHGTTG to be science fiction? It often makes less sense than DW, but is still, IMHO, sci-fi.

  • Martin

    Hithhiker’s is sci fi parody. Whilst it does have some clever sci fi stuff in it, at it’s heart it’s sending it up so it gets away with the weirder stuff.

    The IID isn’t sci fi. Neither is the Babel Fish. Those are clever narrative devices that allows incredible coincidences to happen and everyone to understand each other.

  • Chris

    I think the point is that the genre has simply changed. The definition, even in my mind, isn’t the same as it once was. Fantasy=dragon, sci-fi = space ships. That’s oversimplification, of course, but that’s the consensus among most readers, I would say.

    And really, what is “true” sci-fi? Asimov and Heinlein? Clarke? Even they involved “fantasy” elements in some of their stories.

  • Lynn

    I agree with him about the Tinkerbell thing…the mini-me and that moment of the season 3 finale really broke my suspension of disbelief.

    And I do think it is a failing of reboots in general to have a level of awe of the hero that wasn’t present in the original. In the Doctor’s case, it just seems a little more appropriate.

    What I do find odd is, if anyone should understand over-the-top world building and characters, it should be Pratchett. I think the actual problem these last few seasons is that the over-the-top became more important than the characters, which is why this last finale was so wonderful.

  • RogerBW

    I think that part of what Pratchett is getting at is consistency and dramatic tension. If a problem can always be solved by magic doubletalk, then any tension is entirely synthetic. If that magic doubletalk isn’t used next time, there’s inconsistency.

    Good fantasy is consistent. The majority, bad fantasy, generally isn’t. When science fiction is inconsistent, it turns into bad fantasy. (Not the only sort of bad science fiction, obviously. But I think this correlation is core to understanding Pratchett’s objection.)

    You can argue that the tech is secondary to stories about people… but in that case why use the tech at all?

    The latest series of Doctor Who, to my mind, has been a series of trailers: great if you look up for ten seconds and say “hey, neat scene”, nonsensical if you’re actually paying attention.

  • Lioness

    Your comments pretty much summed up what I was thinking when I first read the article.

    So what if it isn’t ‘real’ sci-fi? It’s an excellent show. I don’t really care if, oh I dunno, making a giant forcefield around the earth is scientifically plausible. It works in the moment, and can be wonderfully explained away with “It’s technology we haven’t invented yet. Can’t explain it. Too wibbly-wobbly”

    And the Doctor is by no means perfect. He has weaknesses; he has strengths. His just tend to be more intense than a normal person’s. I mean, how many people do you know that are absolutely brilliant but yet have an overpowering compassion for humans?

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    I really like Pratchett’s work, but this is the second time he’s appointed himself the Guardian of Genre against a popular work, the other being against Harry Potter as not really Fantasy.

    Most popular science fiction is fantasy with the pretense of a naturalistic explanation for the fantasy elements. Even much of the hard speculative fiction built upon a sound understanding of modern science has a tendency to wander into the real of the nonsensical when it expands on modern knowledge. Even Michael Crichton’s works, like “Andromeda Strain” and “Jurassic Park” wander well into the realm of the mystical when dealing with the state of technology and the tendency of science towards hubris.

  • drewryce

    Why must the genre catagories be exclusive? Putting “High Noon” on a futuristic mining colony on a moon of Saturn creates sci fi that is also a western.

    2001 is “hard” sci fi to be sure. However, Pratchettes best work is no more “hard” sci fi than is Gullivers Travels. Disc World and Lilliputia are mirrors on selected aspects of the “real” world. Why does observing that they, and Dr Who, are fantasy and satire eliminate them from the sci fi umbrella?

  • History of Bubbles

    @Vanessa: Your observation about Sherlock Holmes was actually something that bothered me a bit upon first reading the books. But it was pointed out to me that Holmes’s deductions wouldn’t seem all that astonishing if they were possible for the audiences to figure out. (Also I soon realized that the stories were really more about the adventure and the characters than the mysteries.)

    And back to Doctor Who—I think Doctor Who and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are very much sci-fi. They’re just “conceptual” sci-fi or “theoretical physics” sci-fi rather than “technology” sci-fi.

    And I must admit—while I’m catching up on classic Who during the revival series hiatus, I’m struggling a bit to grasp the essential whatsit myself. The revival series clicked with me instantly. I mean from the first moment it was like a light went on and I think I literally subvocalized “Ohhh!” in my head.

    But the classic series doesn’t seem as much to be ABOUT the romance of adventure. I don’t see in it the same sense of wonder as the revival has. . . . Or I suppose it’s there, just in the more understated way of its era. Like Star Trek: TOS versus Star Trek: TNG. The revival punches up the sense of wonder, because it’s partly a commentary ON the original series and how the creators felt viewing it. But . . . well, maybe I have it there. But still, even after watching 15 or 16 different serials, and enjoying most of them, I don’t feel entirely like I “get it.” I’m still kind of “what’s the show’s ‘thesis’?'” You know? What’s its angle? What IS it?

  • tinwatchman

    Just read this, and it seems to me that 90% of what Pratchett is complaining about here is that Doctor Who isn’t what you’d call “hard” science fiction — that it’s “soft,” escapist science fiction that often blends into what might be called more “science-influenced fantasy.” (Like, say, Discworld.) Meh. I’ll allow him his quibbles, so long as he admits that he’s still having fun.

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