The Science of Doctor Who review

BBC Two’s The Science of Doctor Who was more of the former than the latter, but still an entertaining celebration of ideas…

Can you imagine Rufus Hound as a long line of disassociated atoms? Professor Brian Cox can. He can imagine lots of things: diagrams drawn from the perspective of a black hole (how does it hold the pen?), bits of card as “pieces of space-time”, and the concept of looping energy and matter around so that your future light cone touches your past light cone (I think I did that once in yoga).

Armed with just a candle, a blackboard, and a handful of TV’s most innocuous celebrities, Professor Cox set out to explore the science of Doctor Who. What, about the world of the Doctor, was really possible, and what was science-y bunkum? Could regeneration ever happen? Can something really be bigger on the inside? Could you, you know, actually reverse the polarity of the neutron flow?

Except, he didn’t quite get to any of that. The Science of Doctor Who, not that it matters, turned out to have a fairly cursory relationship with the second half of its title. Though Bang Goes The Theory’s Liz Bonnin was hoping he would, Professor Cox didn’t tell us all how to make our own TARDIS. What he did do was to point at graphs, stage demonstrations, and whip up an atmosphere of slightly forced bonhomie between he and his celeb mates.

Entertaining Matt Smith interludes aside (how we’ll miss him), the hour’s Who links were a somewhat tenuous way of feeding non-scientists an hour of edifying physics, delivered by the nation’s groovy uncle. It may have been a stealth science lesson piggybacking on Doctor Who’s anniversary, but like a dog who’s unknowingly swallowed a worming tablet stuffed into a bit of sausage, the audience was still largely left happy and all the better for it.  

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If it was beginners’ stuff, then I happily admit to being a few evolutionary stages behind a beginner (a pre-pre-beginner, or whatever the word is for someone who spent her school science lessons enthusiastically dissolving lumps of jelly in hot water and playing with iron filings, but never being inquisitive enough to ask why). The stuff about black holes and how the TARDIS’ Eye of Harmony is actually a bonafide concept was the real danger spot for leaving dumbos like me behind. Luckily, a lifetime of watching sci-fi provided me with some useful footholds. Professor Cox would say something impressive about singularities and my brain would nod knowingly and reply, “Ah yes. Like in Fringe”. He’d carefully explain how time moves at a different rate the closer we come to an event horizon, and I’d think “Quite right. Sam Neill was in that. Do continue, good Prof”.

Professor Cox’s script had some real poetry to it: Einstein’s theory of relativity was “an obituary for the simple tick tock of the clock”, and atmospheric halos were “the fingerprints of the elements”. Though Cox’s assertion that we’re all time travellers had more than a little of that Thought For The Day ‘and in many ways, isn’t that a bit like Jesus’ crow-bar about it (all credit to Mark Steel), his enthusiasm and our good will skated it over the bumps.

The famous faces in the (almost entirely white adult) audience did their best to look alert, amused and like they wouldn’t rather be checking their phones whenever the camera cut to them. Richard Bacon was the best at this, adopting a steely ‘I’m appreciating science’ face throughout. Rufus Hound was so delighted with it all he had to suppress a near-constant giggle. Jon Culshaw provided admiring contemplation (but not his Fourth Doctor impression). Dr Christian Jessen – with the look of a Ken Doll who’d been left on a radiator – was concentrating so hard that he looked a little bit angry. All that contact with genital warts probably does that to a person.

I can’t say I now have a perfect grasp of Maxwell’s wave equations, nor a significantly increased understanding of Who’s scientific mysteries. What I can say is that the Royal Institution and Professor Brian Cox managed to take this science thicko back in time, blowing the dust off the forgotten world of Bunsen burners, chalk boards and electro-magnetic coils (tucked away for decades along with pommel horses, the nit nurse, and pink custard). For that burst of nostalgia, I’m grateful.

I’ll tell you who’s really grateful though: secondary school Science teachers. Buy in a few boxes of Aldi mince pies, wheel in a TV, press play, and hey presto, instant end-of-term lesson plan.

The Science of Doctor Who is available on BBC iPlayer until Thursday the 21st of November.

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