Taking on the role of a previously-unknown Doctor for the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who, John Hurt complained that what he struggled with most was the ‘quasi-scientific nonsense’ he was forced to spout.
With the story of a man that travels about time and space, fighting outsized pepper pots and saving alien worlds a single reversed polarity at a time, this might be considered fair comment.
But, in defence of the world’s longest-running science fiction TV show, we take a look at five classic episodes in which the science in the story actually had a (sort of) real-life basis.
Episode: The Tenth Planet (1966)
Presiding Doctor: William Hartnell
Kit Pedler was acting as Doctor Who’s scientific advisor when he penned the episode that introduced the Cybermen.
The Tenth Planet is a quite unusual because, for the first time, the show’s villains actually succeed in killing the Doctor.
Fortunately, he then ‘regenerates’ – though it wasn’t actually called that then – into a spritely, Beatle-wigged younger Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton. So the universe got a lucky break there.
One of Pedler’s key scientific interests was the then-pioneering science of organ transplantation.
The first kidney transplant had taken place the decade before – and this was quickly followed by liver and lung transplants in the early ’60s.
Being a sci-fi writer, Pedler naturally envisaged a time when transplant surgery would become normal practice and humans would have mainly artificial bodies. From this, he quickly developed the Cybermen – a once-humanoid race that have ‘upgraded’ their organic tissue with machine parts.
As a consequence – and obviously to make them a bit scarier – when they replaced their brains with machines, they lost their emotions. Though why they have handlebars on their heads is perhaps less easily explained…
Episode: The Deadly Assassin (1976)
Presiding Doctor: Tom Baker
Black holes are regions of space-time in which matter is so dense that the gravitational field is too strong for anything to escape from it – even light. At the centre of a black hole lies a gravitational singularity.
They turn up in classic Doctor Who episodes with worrying regularity and in the modern series it transpires that the Time Lords (the Doctor’s people) invented them, so maybe that’s why.
In The Deadly Assassin it is revealed that the Time Lords have been using the immense power at the nucleus of a black hole to power their home-world of Gallifrey – and control their time travel technology.
Later, it transpires that the TARDIS (the Doctor’s ship) is similarly powered – but at this point, he seems to have forgotten that.
(The tautology in The Deadly Assassin’s title means the episode gets laughed at quite a lot by fans – since, clearly, an undeadly assassin would be a very poor assassin indeed.)
Episode: Arc of Infinity (1983)
Presiding Doctor: Peter Davison
As every schoolchild can tell you, a quark star is a hypothetical stellar body composed of ‘quark matter’ – a strange substance that might have existed at the beginning of the universe and could, theoretically, still exist in the cores of neuron stars.
In this episode, the Doctor is put on alert when a strange anti-matter being enters normal space using ‘the Arc of Infinity’ – a region of space that used to be the location of a collapsed quark star and which has now created a curve between dimensions.
If that wasn’t bad enough, it’s also spitting out ‘quad magnetism’. Not good.
A somewhat convoluted Doctor Who story, it finally culminates – rather bizarrely – in everyone legging it off to Amsterdam.
Episode: The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances (2005)
Presiding Doctor: Christopher Eccleston
Though it’s not clear until the end, these episodes involve ‘nanotechnology’ – science and engineering conducted at the (very small) ‘nanoscale’. And, in particular, on nanotechnology being used for medical purposes.
Following a strange space craft to the war-ravaged London of 1941, the Doctor lands the TARDIS and encounters a mysterious boy wearing a gas mask, who seems very concerned with finding his mummy.
Unfortunately, everyone that goes near him ends up in a vegetative state and then grows a gas mask out of their nose. As such, he’s not very popular.
Finally discovering that the strange vessel is a malfunctioning medical ship, the Doctor realises that the two things are connected. The ship was filled with medical ‘nanogenes’ – tiny robots designed to heal at a molecular level.
Having not seen a human before, they’ve got a bit confused and turned everyone into the first person they had chanced upon – who just happened to be an injured boy in a gas mask.
It could’ve been worse – if the spaceship had crashed two miles away, the nanogenes might’ve turned everyone into John Barrowman.
Episode: Blink (2007)
Presiding Doctor: David Tennant
You might’ve thought that this award-winning episode from 2007 was mainly about Carey Mulligan being chased around by some scary statues – but, of course, there’s much more to it than that.
The Weeping Angels – the villains in the episode – are unable to move when being observed – and this is based on a concept called the ‘Quantum Zeno Effect’. (Which takes its name from Zeno’s Arrow Paradox, but you probably knew that already…)
According to Zeno, at any single moment that you look at an arrow in flight, it will appear motionless for that instant. It is occupying a single point in space that is not changing. So, for that moment, the arrow is both ‘in flight’ and ‘stationary’ at the same moment.
To humans, who base everything in life on movement, it seems absurd – but, at a quantum level, this is what’s happening. And since observing a quantum system changes the system, when the Weeping Angels are being watched they become – ahem – ‘quantum locked’ in order to protect themselves.
This is good science, kids.
The bit about the ’Angels sending you back in time with a single touch of their hand and then living off your potential energy is, however, nonsense.
Don’t let that put you off though, for Blink is a good episode – and, as I’ve previously indicated, involves Carey Mulligan being chased around by some scary statues.
If you would like to know more baffling theories about space and time, refer immediately to The Bluffer’s Guide to the Quantum Universe ® – now only £3.99!