The Energy of Doctor Who (a rant)

One thing that bothers me about Doctor Who is deciding if the show is science fiction or fantasy. If pushed I know it’s really a fantasy, but I’d like it to be science fiction; it’s the physicist in me wanting it all to make sense in something close to our universe. Back in the  day, in the time of Kit Pedler, science adviser and Cyberman creator, the show tried to be as scientific as possible. Really those days have gone, leaving fans like me wincing a bit at stories like Kill the Moon and Forest of the Night. Deal with it;-)

I’d like to set out why the show is fantasy, and talk about how it treats science as magic. In my mind this is dumbing down and failing the audience, but until I get taken on as scientific adviser, it matters to nobody. Even so, I’d like to get if off my chest.

What is science fiction?

Now there’s a question (which I also answer here). Writer Orson Scott Card has a simple rule: if it’s set in a city or has rivets, it’s science fiction; if it’s set in a forest it’s a fantasy. Not a bad stab at a definition, but with many hundreds / thousands of stories, Doctor Who is more complex than that.

I’m old school. I remember once reading a description my memory attributes to Arthur C Clarke: science fiction can take on idea and twist it to make the story, but no more. In the 50s / 60s / even 70s that meant warp drive or time travel or supercomputers or intelligent robots. Doctor Who has everything, including such fantasy staples as:

  • Translation circuits (something Star Trek ignored and The Hitchhiker’s Guide had it’s own take on)
  • Telepathy
  • Magic Wands (OK the Sonic isn’t technically a magic wand, but see my thoughts on Battlefield / Rings of Akhaten)
  • Merlin
  • Other psychic powers.

Doctor Who has lots of pseudo-science, and while some of these are just MacGuffins for various stories. It also abuses science in many ways, and one of these is the glib use of the term energy. Let me go all exposition.


Let’s point at the wiki definition of energy, and let me give my summary:

Energy can transform but really it’s about doing work. When it has labels such as potential / kinetic, these are about where the energy came from. There is no intrinsic ‘kinetic’ ness about kinetic energy. If I want something to happen in the universe, I add energy. If I (to make a silly example) want to make something explode, I might cause an explosion and release lots of energy in the form of heat or sound.

There is no particular explosive energy. You don’t have special kinds of energy to make special things happen.

So what? Well, let’s look at some energies in Doctor Who, with links to TARDIS wikia and short summaries:

  • Artron Energy: ambient energy in the Vortex. I don’t have a problem with the definition, but is it used as a magic fluid, and able to power time travel technology (eg the TARDIS). I don’t mind the idea of a special mineral (eg Artronite) and it having special properties that lead to time travel, but these are post hoc. The energy is making the time travel
  • Chronon (or Time) Energy: a classic who version of Artron Energy in some ways, and able to be collected during time travel or to indicate temporal anomalies. I don’t mind the idea of chronon radiation, that being a property of a new thingy called a chronon but let’s keep the cart and horse the right way round, shall we?
  • Regeneration Energy: the worst of them all, is it energy emitted during regeneration (which is fine, it’s all heat and light) or does it make the regeneration happen? If so it’s just magic.

Let’s have a picture (see left). Taken from Time of the Doctorit’s the moment Gallifrey intervenes and grants the Doctor a whole new regeneration cycle. It looks like a bolt of something making the regeneration happen. The Eleventh Doctor is granted more lives, and presto, enter Peter Capaldi. What just happened? If regeneration energy is arriving, it’s all disappointing and just magic. If the beam is re-keying DNA previously only capable of a certain number of regenerations, then I’m happier. It it’s a radiation beam of some particle needed to trigger regeneration I’m also happier.

Maybe I need to stop over-thinking and accept it’s really magic pretending to be science. Who knows, I might even be happier!

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