Doctor Who: why care about scientific plausibility?

Doctor Who has long glossed over scientific logic for storytelling reasons, says Andrew. Why complain about implausibility now?

Warning: contains spoilers for series eight episode Kill The Moon.

Doctor Who has gained a reputation for being unrealistic. While the original run is seen as generally striving for, if not accuracy, then at least scientific plausibility, since 2005 it’s ditched this in favour of less rigorous, more fantastical ideas and resolutions. It’s become more impressionistic, favouring symbolism over physics and magic over advanced science.

Way back in Rose, we were treated to Anti-Plastic, a term so simple and free of technobabble that it still causes raised eyebrows and froth expulsion to this day. How simplistic. How dumbed down. Jon Pertwee would be spinning in his grave, and then presumably spinning the other way.

Except that plastic-dissolving solutions exist now, as does flesh-eating bacteria. Is it really so unlikely that the Doctor could devise a solution such as Anti-Plastic? Sure, the name’s a bit basic, but frankly the name probably wasn’t a priority for him, and it does summarise its capabilities in a succinct, Ronseal, easy-for-stupid-ape-creatures-to-understand way. Essentially it, and the Quick-Laying Moon creature, can make sense but the story isn’t interested in explaining how, instead dedicating its running time to what it believes will be more entertaining, interesting or thematically resonant.

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While the original run tried to sound more credible, it was merely an attempt at seeming scientifically valid. It’s not like most of us are scientists anyway. Despite the mathematical concepts, acronyms, recursion and philosophical musings, Logopolis is aware that perhaps it should gesture towards some ostensible explanations (Hello lightspeed overdrive), whereas a story like Listen doesn’t explain explicitly why the TARDIS can land in the Doctor’s childhood. Besides the obvious explanation – Steven Moffat wanted it to, and the most powerful force in the Doctor Who universe is narrative necessity – saying how it happened on screen eats into running time, and is difficult to make interesting. This is probably why Logopolis doesn’t explicitly explain why the recursive TARDIS scenes end with the Doctor and Adric simply stepping out of the back door (I expect it was something to do with maths).

Glossing over scientific logic for storytelling reasons isn’t a recent development by any means. Doctor Who has, since its beginning, happily improvised its way across our screens, using the fantastical to make a point, tell a story, or simply look cool. No one ever really questions the likelihood of the Thals’ mutation going nearly full circle and turning them all into blonde Aryan-like beings, but it does feel intuitively unlikely. It’s a darkly ironic counterpoint to the Daleks’ fate, and it suits that particular story. If the mutant in Revelation Of The Daleks had looked like Jason Connery, that would’ve been jarring.

Great beings of immense power, shouty voices and strangely creased skin can apparently be destroyed by acts of irrational self-sacrifice. It’s a good job the moon wasn’t a baby Daemon, or else Clara would have really screwed things up. There’s also the TARDIS tractor beam towing an aluminium-encased neutron star off course in The Creature From The Pit. If it’s that easy to just fling stars around, the Seventh Doctor’s plans seem even more complex when he could’ve just wanged suns into all the stuff he didn’t like.

Don’t even get me started on the many, many ways to kill Cybermen (‘Radiation kills them!’ ‘What kind?’ ‘…Bad radiation?’). Perhaps the ultimate example of the original run using an implausible idea justified by its place in the story is Carnival Of Monsters. For the miniscope device to work as it does in the story requires a lot of the viewer (or nothing at all beyond acceptance of what they’re seeing). It involves a complex series of miniaturisation, containment fields, temporal loop generators and mood altering equipment presumably requiring enormous power. And yet, people can literally reach into the worlds inside it without coming under its miniaturising influence. It is literally a storytelling device, and it works brilliantly. And yet, I can’t help but imagine the complaints about it if Twitter had existed in 1973.

It’s simultaneously understandable and bizarre to complain about implausibility, especially considering that writers were eschewing realism and embracing symbolism as early as the show’s second story. However, in The Daleks it’s not an important narrative point that the Thals are visually Aryan, but that they are pacifists. Whereas in Kill The Moon it’s important that the planet gains mass, is an egg, and replaces itself almost instantly. The idea that the moon is an egg is an idea you either go with or you don’t. It’s a gut reaction. Most of us are not experts (as if that’s ever stopped anyone) but based on a quick burst of research it is theoretically possible for Kill The Moon to unfold as it does, albeit through a series of unlikely occurrences. However, it’s more likely that Peter Harness didn’t write the episode as a dire warning about extinction via orbiting space ovum.

While there are numerous examples throughout the original run, it’s fair to say that since 2005 the show has been more frequently frivolous in its attitude towards believability. At least it is pretty consistent in this tone. Seven and a half series in, we should really know what to expect. So when it is announced that moon is, in fact, an egg, that’s a cue for a certain amount of leeway regarding verisimilitude. If you’re watching Doctor Who for proper scientific explanations of outlandish concepts, you’re going to be waiting a very long time.

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That the unfeasible happens, and the moon is replaced (and hey, maybe the Doctor used the TARDIS’ surprisingly useful tractor beam to drag another egg back into place and a spare gravitron to manipulate the oceans using the original series’ more plausible science), isn’t done as a token ‘Everything’ll be alright in the end’ gesture, but as a reward for making the difficult choice, the one that leads to optimism and exploration rather than introspection and fear. It’s symbolic rather than logical, and some people simply don’t like that approach in Doctor Who. Plus, as it’s largely a gut reaction and your enjoyment of the episode as a whole can allow you to overlook lesser aspects, it’s highly likely that time will allow more sober reflection on episodes like Kill The Moon.

If the ideas in The Evil Of The Daleks had been broadcast in the past nine years, they would still be pilloried today (that story would, if abridged, make for a great Russell T. Davies’ era series finale), but what ‘The Human Factor’ idea lacks in plausibility, it makes up for in allowing a great climax to the story.