Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Teaspoon and an Open Mind - Michael White

Michael White's A Teaspoon and An Open Mind is lengthily subtitled "The Science of Doctor Who: From Cybernetics and Regeneration to Teleportation and Time Travel" and it uses the renewal of the long-running BBC series "Doctor Who" as a jumping off point to discuss and analyse some of the things that The Doctor takes for granted. Based on the Time Lord’s abilities (time travel; regeneration) or other implications of the show (super-civilisations and robots) it briefly surveys the contemporary frontiers of science. It is an enthusiastic if sceptical look at the cherished fantasies, not just of "Doctor Who" fans, but of science fiction writers from Mary Shelley to Issac Asimov and onwards. Many of the things that the Doctor takes for granted are mankind's oldest longings: to live forever; to see into the future or revisit the past; to travel to the stars and beyond; or to believe that, somewhere out there, are other beings.

White reports that most of these things will remain unfulfilled and he sets out the universal laws which mean that much science fiction will never progress to become science fact. But he also shows that technology has repeatedly outstripped the human imagination throughout history. For example, he quotes the respected scientist Lord Kelvin's claim (made in 1892) that "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible" and notes that a mere 11 years later the Wright brothers took their first flight.

Readers looking for analysis of the Doctor's abilities will probably be disappointed by this book. For much of it, apart from a final summary chapter, the Doctor is scarcely mentioned, which means that some of the SF phenomena he tackles have little to do with the show. His chapter on teleportation for example, begins by admitting that the TARDIS hardly ever teleports - and in fact this chapter has far more to do with "Star Trek" than "Doctor Who". The chapter on telepathy and telekinesis, whilst very interesting to me, seemed just as tenuous.

As science books go (and I've read a few "Science Of" books now: on Terry Pratchett's Discworld, The Lord of the Rings, Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials", to name just a few), it's actually quite readable, but as a "Science of Doctor Who" title, it's more of a disappointment. Luckily, I've also got the library copy of the first edition of Paul Parsons' The Science of Doctor Who (which apparently does a much better job of covering the subject) on my TBR pile. It will be interesting to compare the two books. (There's a new edition of Parsons' book out in April.)

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