Protected: We can take this theater and turn it into an old barn!

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

The Science of Doctor Who: s01e01, “Rose”

In 2005, Russell T. Davies brought Doctor Who back to television screens, and he did a wonderful job. The show’s ratings reached unprecedented heights, and our favorite Time Lord gained fans he’d never have been able to reach in the old days. Whovians never had it so good.

But one thing hadn’t changed in the years since the old show went off the air. Back then, most of the science in this classic work of British science fiction came from the magazine articles and the uncommon TV special on new discoveries in astrophysics. And that was okay, really. But this is the 21st century: there are science cable channels, science blogs, science celebrities, and the fairly accurate and up-to-date Wikipedia. Anyone writing for TV should be able to get at least the freshman science right, if only to give it lip service before violating it.

So here, I’m going to look at the science of individual episodes of the new Doctor Who. I’ll not spend a great deal of time on character or plot concepts in an episode unless, you know, I feel like it. And I may not worry too much about core concepts of the show like the TARDIS: like warp drive in Star Trek, if it’s BS, it’s BS upon which the series is built, so it gets a pass. And just because some science may be dubious doesn’t mean it’s a bad episode… unless the plot depends on the science in question…

So, “Rose”. The main science-fictional concept here is that a giant plastic alien brain is animating shop-window mannequins to terrorize the shopping malls of London. The episode doesn’t make this clear, but the Nestene Intelligence has been to Earth twice before in older episodes. In those attempts, it uses a ‘realistic’ puppet (like Mickey this time) to take over a plastics factory (Auto Plastics the first time), which it uses to make the dummies and ship them around the city; we have no reason to assume the M.O. is different this time.

This explains how a mannequin would have a gun hidden in its hand: the Autons have them built in when they are made in the factory. But the dummies seem to be otherwise just like ones used today, perhaps with different plastics that make them easier to animate. Based on the antics of the loose arm in “Rose”, we gather that the dummies don’t need any other sort of special organs – brain, individual muscles, consumption/storage – to do their jobs.

This suggests that the main Nestene consciousness is doing all the work remotely, controlling them telepathically and physically moving them with transmitted telekinetic force, like a child playing with hundreds of action figures at once. This fits in perfectly with the episode’s plot: the Nestene needed an amplifier array to blanket the city, and once it was defeated, the entire army collapsed like abandoned fashion dolls. Plastic’s a good choice, by the way, for animated puppets. Since plastic is composed of long chains of molecules, called polymers, one can imagine the chains coiling and relaxing like animal muscle to move the puppet around.

Telekinesis is a great science-fiction tool: since we have no evidence of anything like it existing in reality, a writer can have it function however convenient. We can use the laws of physics and biology to say a few things about telekinesis and telepathy: no one has yet suggested a method for such forces to be generated and received that has held up to experiment. Also, animals do not evolve the ability to generate directed radiation in the forms we do understand, since it’s always more energy-efficient to do your work in other ways: for example, communication by sound waves, or by color and motion, takes far far less energy than producing radio waves. There isn’t an organism on Earth that doesn’t have a limited energy budget. On the other hand, an advanced organism may find a way to add those abilities artificially to itself, so we’ll let the Nestenes have that one.

Finally, I do want to touch on a new attribute of the TARDIS: the outside doors. In the past, it was often implied that the TARDIS had inner and outer doors, with a mysterious discontinuity between them – mainly due to limitations on television effects technology. And the interior doors were generally portrayed as comfortingly massive. Now, the TARDIS appears to have a simple set of flimsy wooden doors between the console room and the universe, which would concern me quite a lot as a traveler. I think we must assume, based on the Doctor’s assurance that they’d resist “the hordes of Genghis Khan”, that either those doors are far more solid than they look, or that there’s plenty of super-science reinforcing and protecting them – or both. It’s fun to now be able to look into and out of the TARDIS whenever we want, so that’s good enough.

Next time: blah blah blah… and I feel fine.

Protected: Using my skills for evil

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

We’re leaving Mother Earth…

This is NOT from the upcoming movie, but from a Japanese tie-in game. It rules anyway. If possible, click through and watch the HD version instead of the embedded one!

Starr, who’s currently unfamiliar with the Yamato franchise, said that the ship looked like the ether flyer Thunderchild to her. I took that as quite the compliment 🙂