Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Adventures in Time and Space

(Lynne Hardy)

On Saturday 23rd November, 1963 at around 5.15pm, a new television series aired for the very first time. Its remit was to entertain and educate Britain’s children. It was to become the longest running and most successful science fiction television series of all time: Doctor Who.

One of the Doctor’s first assistants was Ian Chesterton, a science teacher. Intrigued by the advanced scientific knowledge displayed by one of his pupils, a strange girl called Susan, Ian and his colleague Barbara (a history teacher) follow the girl to a junkyard. They wander into a blue police box in their search for her, only to be whisked away on a series of adventures by Susan’s grandfather, the Doctor (played by William Hartnell). Throughout their travels, Ian uses his scientific knowledge to solve many of the problems they encounter. In fact, due to William Hartnell’s age, Ian is very much the heroic man of action on the show, which doesn’t happen very often on TV until the advent of the glossy police procedural scientists in the 00s.

Not all scientists are portrayed in such a favourable light, though, even by fellow scientists! In the later 60s one producer, Innes Lloyd, wanted to introduce more hard science to the stories and brought Dr Christopher (Kit) Pedler on board as an unofficial scientific advisor. An expert in ophthalmology and electron microscopy, Dr Pedler went on to become a writer for the series, co-creating the Cybermen with Gerry Davis. These emotionless, cybernetically enhanced beings from the planet Mondas made their first appearance on our screens in October 1966. They re-appeared, with a slightly different origin story, during the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant’s) tenure in 2006.

The Doctor’s greatest arch-nemeses are the Daleks, created by writer Terry Nation and designer Raymond Cusick, who first appear in the Doctor’s second ever adventure. Although their origin story has also undergone many different iterations over the course of the series’ history (that’s time travel for you), their creator Davros is probably the ultimate mad, bad and dangerous to know scientist on the show. He was first introduced in 1975 during the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) story “Genesis of the Daleks”, where his ruthless experimentation leads to the creation of the brutal Dalek race. Like the Cybermen before him, he was reintroduced to the new series in 2008.

No one could really argue the effect that Doctor Who has had on the imaginations of generations of children; you just have to look at the popularity of the new series and the numerous Blue Peter competitions over the years for evidence of that. In his article, Mike Wiggett talks about children not having their curiosity engaged in science classes. However dodgy the science might be, the Doctor is always curious and always trying to use that science (and his imagination) to solve his dilemmas. He sees beauty in everything, like Feynman’s artist, but also understands fundamentally how things work, so marvels even more. That’s a powerful role-model for science if ever there was one.

Between 1973 and 1991, Target books published a series of Doctor Who novelisations. These books were cheap, allowed children access to the back catalogue of the Doctor’s travels in the days before video recorders and endless repeat showings and included those stories that the BBC (in their infinite wisdom) had wiped from their archives. Nev Fountain, co-writer of Dead Ringers, was accused by one of his schoolteachers of reading “too much Doctor Who” as a child. He found the books exciting, but more importantly, he found them accessible, leading to a love of reading in general. In Nev’s case, it also inspired his love of telling stories. And he’s not the only one; many of the writers involved with the show’s revival were inspired as children by the Doctor’s adventures, people such as Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and Robert Shearman (an award winning playwright and short-story author who trained under Alan Ayckbourn).

At a school in Teeside, one teacher often uses the Doctor to introduce historical topics, thereby taking the character all the way back to his very roots. This gives the children someone familiar to identify with and an excuse as to why someone in costume claiming to be from a different time period can show up in their classroom (the Doctor brought them). A friend is using his collection of Target books to help improve his son’s reading. His son is a big fan of the current show, so his interest was already piqued. They sit together and read a chapter, then watch the old television episode it’s based on and discuss the differences.

So if the Doctor can be used to inspire reading, writing and an interest in history, why aren’t we using him more to inspire budding scientists? Yes, the science in the show can be a bit far-fetched - this is science fiction after all – but so what? It’s the sense of wonder and enthusiasm, the sense of exploration and discovery, the joy of solving a problem based on what you’ve observed that we should be exploiting. Because, let’s face it, everything is more exciting when the Doctor comes to town…

1 comment:

  1. As an addendum to the above post, the BBC today announced the winners of the episode writing competition for Doctor Who aimed at primary school children. Teaching resources were provided and feedback indicates that many teachers found them very useful for building literacy and writing skills.

    The full article can be found here:

    Can we have one for a scientific gadget now, please?