Who @ 50: The Science Behind the Scenes

Posted on November 18, 2013


Guest scribe David MacGowan follows in Brian Cox’s footsteps in a look behind the science of Doctor Who at a special event! 

One of the original aims of Doctor Who was to educate its young audience. This used to be purely through real science in the stories or by dramatising historical events and figures. Nowadays the programme educates covertly – few kids in the audience would have believed Cleopatra really did fight dinosaurs on spaceships, but they might well have had pause to consider who Cleopatra was, why gender stereotypes exist, and how the BBC were able to animate a dinosaur that looked suspiciously more real than any CGI previously seen in the programme. It is this spirit of inquiry and thirst for knowledge that makes fans, and it is the same spirit celebrated by an event last weekend at the University of Central Lancashire.

Obligingly, the event covered a range of academic disciplines – not just science as in ‘space and stuff’, but public medicine, psychology, television art, physics and the natural world.

In case anyone feared this would be a series of dry lectures that whisked us all back to the classroom, Professor Paola Dey’s opening lecture ‘Is Dr Who a Modern Doctor?’ began by mentioning that modern Doctors have to have their file resubmitted to a governing body every 5 years. Would Doctor Who pass the test? Yes, he has excellent knowledge of what to do in the outbreak of a Silurian epidemic, and he has expert testimony from a qualified practitioner (one Martha Jones), but he has problems with bureaucracy, seems to lie about his age, and has a worrying tendency to kiss his assistants…. With brilliantly timed use of PowerPoint, the subject of modern NHS methods was thus made hilarious and interesting.

The next lecture by Dr Andrew Ireland studied how the evolution of TV technology has helped (and hindered) the makers of Doctor Who tell their stories. 405 lines, CSO, Scene Sync, CGI, Radiophonics, quarries… all were mentioned in an engaging lecture that wasn’t afraid to poke affectionate fun at the series’ imaginative cost-cutting techniques – Dr Ireland’s imitation of a sink plunger-wielding technician fair brought the house down.

I skipped the third lecture in order to explore the dealer’s table, watch an episode of Warrior’s Gate on the big screen, chat to Hyde Fundraisers about their props and to get photos of me being strangled by an impressively realistic Davros. A true family day out, the faces on the children present when confronted by Cybermen, Sontarans, Sycorax, Scarecrows etc were wide with joy (as were those of not a few adults too).

A rare appearance by TV writer Stephen Gallagher (Warrior’s Gate, Terminus) followed – cramming in a LOT in the short time allotted, he gave virtually a one-man show interspersed with questions from the audience during the rare moments he paused for breath. There is always a real buzz when a writer of Doctor Who gives a talk – Gallagher’s firsthand impressions of the BBC, Tom Baker (and his horrifying cheese sandwich), visual effects and props men etc were wonderful to listen to. He also had one of the best responses to the (quite shockingly dull) question “Where do you get your ideas?” that I’ve ever heard!

Dr Sarita Robinson asked us psychology questions such as what might the Doctor’s brain be like (partial answer: wide bridge connecting the two hemispheres and a prominent pre-frontal cortex), what happens to him when he regenerates, and how does he choose his companions? Dr Robinson’s research in stressful occupations came in extremely handy here! But again, the lecture hall was impressed with not only the knowledge but the humour, meaning a lot more people will be thinking about neuroscience after this than they would have done if it had been a straight lecture. MY favourite moment: she asks us “so what characteristics does the Dr first see in potential companions?”, followed by pictures flashing onscreen of a skimpy Leela, Peri in her swimming costume, and a naked Captain Jack… Well, come on, she has a point…!

Sadly, the final lecture ‘Is Time Travel Possible?’ forgot, or was ignorant of, the needs to not only be scientific, but to include humour and specific Who references. Despite James Davies’ wonderful Welsh voice, the scientific jargon sadly put off many. Which is a shame. He mentioned entropy at one point, which was crying out for clips from Logopolis to illustrate what he meant. Oh well.

With excellent service from helpful staff and stewards, the always reliable Hyde Fundraisers and their fantastic replica costumes, and a wide mix of fandom today (young, old, male, female, hardcore fan, Jo Public) the UCLAN event was absolutely superb. Fun, exciting and yes, educational.  Sydney Newman would be proud.

Hyde Fundriasers continue to host and support events supporting the BBC’s Children in Need appeal. You can read more about their work here.

Posted in: Events