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BBC/David Venni

Doctor Who vs real world science: who comes up trumps?

The new series of Doctor Who is just about upon us. You’ll either be resolutely uninterested, or jittering with anticipation at the thought. For those who adore it (such as myself), it’s an intrinsic part of Christmas, a long lost friend, a world in which anything might happen. But for everyone else, the Doctor seems to invoke feelings of naffness, as something slightly embarrassing that your younger brother once watched.

The same could once be said of science fiction in general. But recently, sci-fi seems to have gone mainstream. A host of films, from Gravity to Interstellar and the upcoming The Martian, are garnering widespread attention. Space is no longer dorky.

So what real-world concerns does Doctor Who address? The making of Interstellar led to the publication of a scientific paper. The Martian (which features Matt Damon stranded on Mars for four years) has prompted interest in space survival.

Elsewhere, I sketched how much science might underlie the Doctor’s time-travelling exploits (more than you might think but a Tardis is not on the cards, physically speaking). But time travel is only part of the package.


The Doctor’s two most enduring adversarial species, the Daleks and Cybermen, are both biological/cybernetic syntheses – creatures with organic ancestors who’ve gradually replaced their biological organs until they cannot function as organic beings alone. (If you want to make an old Who fan’s blood boil, try referring to Daleks or Cybermen as robots.)

No, these aren’t robots. Johnson Cameraface/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

For both, subsuming biology with machinery sprang from harsh selective pressure. Both fictional races sprang from very real (and enduring) contemporary concerns – the Daleks got that way after a brutalising thousand-year war had distorted their genome beyond recovery. The Cybermen on the other hand felt forced to augment themselves as their parent world lost heat and atmosphere.

Although real cyborgs may still be in the future – I fear sticking a chip up your nose does not make you a cyborg, any more than does gluing a GPS set to your head – the idea of technology encroaching on biology is far from alien. While the Daleks grew out of fears of mutation following on nuclear war and the Cybermen seem a nightmare of spare-part surgery run riot, real plans for “cyborging” human beings on the grand scale tend not to aim at enhancing our Earthly survival prospects but at letting us survive on other worlds.

Here, Doctor Who is a very unreliable guide to reality – not least because virtually all its near-future spacecraft are British, in a hangover perhaps from Who’s great BBC ancestor Quatermass. While American, Russia and China (to name but three) have made triumphant forays to Earth orbit and beyond, a British space-programme looked very unlikely when Quatermass appeared in 1953 and was looking ludicrous by the time Jon Pertwee travelled in a British capsule to rendezvous with three stranded astronauts kidnapped by Martians.

Slightly perfunctory references to space drives notwithstanding, Doctor Who is often vague as to just how interplanetary (still more interstellar) travel might be managed. The Whoniverse also boasts mind-projecting and telekinetic travellers who cross space in non-physical ways we can scarcely imagine. As with time, the Time Lord relationship to space is so lofty as to be beyond our comprehension – not even wormholes or warp bubbles get so much as a nod from them. Again though, the programme sets the pace and reality stumbles along in its wake.

We haven’t built a TARDIS quite yet. BBC/Simon Ridgway


Doctor Who has featured many robots (of varying menace) – ranging from lethal bewigged androids to the late-1970s penchant for laser-packing robot pets, notably K9 (the punningly-named robo-dog) and the Polyphase Avatron (a space pirate’s artificial parrot).

In terms of mechanical pets, reality has only given us Tamagotchi – thankfully devoid of lasers. But robot soldiers are here – they’re called drones, flying missile-dispensers remotely controlled by people in bunkers (rather than chunky trundlers with machine guns like the Hartnell-era “War Machines”).

Here the world of the Doctor and reality seem about even: killer machines are rather unsettling regardless of their overall form or whose finger is on the trigger.

Biological upgrades

It was an inspired stroke to let the Doctor change bodies as time and age (or more often career-changes) demanded. Just what regeneration involves is still rather mysterious but it seems to be nothing less than a complete bodily return to factory settings, wiping away the effects of injuries and ageing inflicted on the old body.

In reality medical science marches on; tissue regrowth and artificially-nurtured organs are getting closer to entering our homes. I wouldn’t, however, hold your breath in hopes of lying down a dignified Pertwee and leaping up a dramatic Baker.

But there is one respect where the programme has lagged behind reality. While successful gender-reassignment has been a fact for decades, only comparatively recently has Time Lord regeneration included gender-reboot too. And apropos the Master’s recent transformation into Missy, where the Master’s/Mistress’s regenerative cycle leads, the Doctor’s has tended to follow.

She used to look like John Simm. Jack Barnes/BBC


Making due allowance for the dearth of non-humanoid actors available to the BBC, Who’s bestiary has been diverse: anthropomorphic butterflies, disembodied intelligences, sentient seaweeds and plastics, six-eyed dragons, monocular hexapods, infectious plants, vampiric rocks, polymorphic jellyfish, intelligent suns and even a giant spider’s egg masquerading as our Moon.

Of course, reality is (to our knowledge) a tad thinner than the Whoniverse here. There may (just) have been something bacterial on Mars before the dinosaurs evolved on Earth but that’s about it so far. We keep finding exoplanets with an ever-greater range of environments and yet nary a sign of intelligence like our own do we seem to see.

Even the phenomenons that have received serious scientific attention have come to nought – no Dyson sphere infrared signatures, no broadcasts of the first fifty prime numbers. (I am also sceptical about any Roswell crash/alien abductions reports to date.)

So over five great sci-fi tropes, only with robots and biological reboots has reality yet learned to catch up with Who. And maybe reality is the poorer for that. But don’t dismiss it all just yet. In this new age of space science fervour, the Doctor might be your new best friend.

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