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maryann johanson | #BlackLivesMatter

‘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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