One of the quotes The Scientific Secrets Of Doctor Who chooses to open with is said by the Fourth Doctor’s sidekick Leela in 1977’s Horror Of Fang Rock: “I, too, used to believe in magic, but the Doctor has taught me about science. It is better to believe in science”. And while it is fundamentally true, it doesn’t quite hold water when you look at Doctor Who‘s relationship with science over the years.
The earlier seasons, particularly the Hartnell/Troughton monochrome years, tried to root explanations in science – or the closest thing to it – while the more recent series starring Peter Capaldi’s cantankerous incarnation asked us to suspend disbelief most of the time (In The Forest Of The Night, though underappreciated, defied basic science). Lately, Doctor Who has become more fantastical and magical (go back further and you’ll find numerous Eleventh Doctor adventures solved by love, singing and even womb-magic) so seasoned Who scribe Simon Guerrier and astronomer Dr Marek Kukula set themselves a mighty task of unpicking it all in their collaborative book, The Scientific Secrets Of Doctor Who.
At first glance The Scientific Secrets Of Doctor Who looks like the kind of tedious volume that you would flick through once and then banish to the coffee table for all of eternity (even if this was the case, the cover is a beauty so it would certainly brighten up your coffee table). This is not the case. In fact, it’s everything you want in a book analysing the ins and outs of the science behind the escapades of a rogue time traveller who traverses the universe in a 1960s police box. Professor Brian Cox attempted this in a somewhat patchy lecture for the show’s fiftieth anniversary, and Guerrier and Kukula are undoubtedly more successful in picking where he left off. The writers weave in direct references to stories, analyse the science behind particular episodes and exemplify without condescending. The prose is straightforward but it needs to be, some of Guerrier and Kukula’s examples are difficult (but never impossible) to follow.
To sweeten the deal, The Scientific Secrets Of Doctor Who comes complete with fifteen bite-sized stories that bookend every science-packed chapter. These adventures are written by noted Who authors – Justin Richards, James Goss and Jonathan Morris are all present – and each Doctor gets his own ten-or-so pages to shine. However, the stories are lamentably short with most of them wrapping things up in a line or two but, overall, these little tales are a great addition to the book. A few highlights include Jenny T. Colgan’s rollicking Twelfth Doctor and Clara adventure, a superbly written Fourth Doctor/Sarah Jane Smith tale from the brilliant mind of George Mann, and a smart Ninth Doctor yarn by Jonathan Morris.
Each story is there to act as the basis for the next science section but also to appeal to those who know everything Guerrier and Kukula have to say or to those for whom science simply isn’t their bag. The Scientific Secrets Of Doctor Who is constructed so that those who want the science can skip the stories and vice versa: it’s a winning set-up.
Your appreciation of The Scientific Secrets Of Doctor Who may hinge on whether you disregard the stories or the factual portion of the book. The stories are slight in themselves but they amount to just under half of the book. If you read just them then you might feel as if you haven’t gotten your money’s worth but, in that case, why buy a book about science and skip all the science parts? Compared to Brian Cox, Simon Guerrier and Dr Marek Kukula do a far better job of unravelling the recurring science fictional tropes of Doctor Who (AI, parallel universes, the future of Earth and, of course, Regeneration) but, personally, it became a little ponderous after a while. The zippy stories that follow each chapter often revitalize the book, exciting things with a healthy bout of action.
The Scientific Secrets Of Doctor Who isn’t as broadly accessible as you would suspect and, as such, it may lose some readers early on. Similarly, if you’re not interested in science, it takes a little willpower to continue reading but some of the chapters are truly fascinating whilst the short stories, written by some of Doctor Who‘s best authors, work as short and sweet rewards. Simon Guerrier and Dr Marek Kukula’s The Scientific Secrets Of Doctor Who is probably the best non-fiction Who book you’ll pick up this year (the majority of them are skewed at younger readers), packed with relatively engaging science, fifteen fun shorts and a satisfying tone that respects the reader’s intelligence.
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