Terry Pratchett vs Who

SFX magazine’s guest editor, Sir Terry Pratchett himself, explains why Doctor Who is questionable SF

Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett guest edits issue 196 of SFX.

I wish I could hate Doctor Who.

I was there at the beginning, chums, the very beginning, when the world was monochrome, and pretty grainy monochrome at that. I remember arguing at school about the tune, particularly how long you should go bumdy bum bumdy bum bumdy bum bumdy bum before you got on to the woooooooeeeeeee bumdidy bum bit.

It was all new in those days. In fact I was there twice. It was talked about so much in the following week that the BBC had to air it again on the next Saturday before showing the second episode. There was a huge amount of interest even though the Daleks hadn’t turned up yet. It suffered, of course, from early Star Trek syndrome, where you find yourself either in a room with a few flashing lights in it, or a gravel pit. But it was fun while it lasted. The world filled up with other things, up to and including getting an education, a job and a girlfriend – in that order. I saw the occasional episode in which, generally speaking, the world was attacked by teapots. Various Doctors came and went while I had to live in the big world which didn’t wobble, but had far more reasons for hiding under the sofa.

I was vaguely aware of the arrival of K-9, a hilariously dreadful prop in the Doctor Who tradition, and I saw enough to realise that the Doctor was beginning to engage more with the planet, possibly because Earth is cheaper.

And then suddenly it all changed. We had a couple of Doctors who were “street”, at least by BBC standards, and what looked like very good, very well-thought-out sets and effects. I still preferred Torchwood, though, which tried so hard and came up with some memorable episodes, of which “Small Worlds” (the one about fairies) sticks most in the mind. It was clever.

So once again I became a believer and have been watching right up to the most recent episode. Regrettably I’m an older believer and noticed something. It’s this; Doctor Who is ludicrous and it breaks most of the laws of narrative.

It’s a law – well at least a guideline – in writing plays that if somebody is going to be killed with an axe in the third act, then the axe should be visible hanging on the wall in the first act, and, for the hard of thinking, should be the subject of a line of dialogue that would go something like “you shouldn’t leave that around, it could do someone a mischief.” On planet Earth it’s generally taken for granted that it’s a bad thing to introduce into a narrative some last-minute solution that was totally unexpected and unheralded. At least in the old westerns you did know that there was such a thing as the cavalry and so the cavalry turning up was likely. Indeed, if the cavalry were on their way in your average western movie you were generally given a few cutaway shots of them galloping, just to remind you what was happening.

The unexpected, unadvertised solution which kisses it all better is known as a deus ex machina – literally, a god from the machine. And a god from the machine is what the Doctor now is. A decent detective story provides you with enough tantalising information to allow you to make a stab at a solution before the famous detective struts his stuff in the library. Doctor Who replaces this with speed, fast talking, and what appears to be that wonderful element “makeitupasyougalongeum”. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I would dare try to jump-start a spaceship that looks like the Titanic by diving it into the atmosphere… but I have to forgive the Doctor that, because it was hilariously funny.

Adipose

The Adipose from 'Partners In Crime'.

People say Doctor Who is science fiction. At least people who don’t know what science fiction is, say that Doctor Who is science fiction. Star Trek approaches science fiction. The horribly titled Star Cops which ran all too briefly on the BBC in the 1980s was the genuine pure quill of science fiction, unbelievable in some aspects but nevertheless pretty much about the possible. Indeed, several of its episodes relied on the laws of physics for their effect (I’m particularly thinking of the episode “Conversations With The Dead”). It had a following, but never caught on in a big way. It was clever, and well thought out. Doctor Who on the other hand had an episode wherein people’s surplus body fat turns into little waddling creatures. I’m not sure how old you have to be to come up with an idea like that. The Doctor himself has in recent years been built up into an amalgam of Mother Teresa, Jesus Christ (I laughed my socks off during the Titanic episode when two golden angels lifted the Doctor heavenwards) and Tinkerbell. There is nothing he doesn’t know, and nothing he can’t do. He is now becoming God, given that the position is vacant. Earth is protected, we are told, and not by Torchwood, who are human and therefore not very competent. Perhaps they should start transmitting the programme on Sundays.

And yet, I will watch again next week because it is pure professionally-written entertainment, even if it helps sometimes if you leave your brain on a hook by the door. It’s funny, light-hearted, knows when to use pathos and capable of wonderful moments; I remember the face of David Tennant as the Doctor watching some public schoolboys machine-gunning a bunch of walking scarecrows (a reversion to the cheaper monsters of earlier incarnations) and we know that he knows that the First World War is only just around the corner where the scarecrows are for real. And I remember too, “The Empty Child” – I never once hid from the Daleks but the Empty Child was almost a back of the sofa moment.

Family Of Blood

'Human Nature' and 'Family Of Blood' featuring the Tenth Doctor.

It’s no good, I’ll go with the Doctor, even if those Ood look as if they should have been confronted by Tom Baker. After all, when you’ve had your moan you have to admit that it is very, very entertaining, with its heart in the right place, even if its head is often in orbit around Jupiter. I just wish that it was not classified as science fiction. Much has been written about the plausibility or otherwise of the Star Trek universe, but it is possible to imagine at least some of the concepts becoming real. But the sonic screwdriver? I don’t think so. Doctor Who‘s science is pixel thin. I’m sorry about this, but I just don’t think that you can instantly transport a whole hospital onto the moon without all of the windows blowing out. Oh! You use a force field, do you?! And there’s the trouble; one sentence makes it all okay. But it’s fun and occasionally wonderful, as in the episodes “Blink”, “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood”.

It’s too late for me. I might shout at the screen again, but I will be watching on Saturday. Besides he now has a kissogram girl for his sidekick, so things can only get better.

Terry Pratchett

You can read an interview with top author Terry Pratchett about his heroes and inspirations in issue 196 of SFX, an edition he helped us plan and assemble – his comments and suggestions can be glimpsed throughout the mag. His official web site can be found here.

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