Like Charlie Brooker, giving his Seven Ridiculous Film Plots, I get really irritated by lazy implausibility in movies.  Of Star Trek, he writes:

Harder to swallow was the bit when Kirk was exiled to a barren, snowy planet, but luckily landed right outside the cave of Leonard Nimoy. Or the fact that Kirk and Spock could two-handedly overpower a 24th-century Romulan spaceship like it was a 60s Bond movie. Didn’t those guys invent security cameras yet?

CB finds something the baddies failed to do.  But what irks me most is how writers use Sci Fi for imagining a world without constraints – and constraints are what makes economics interesting.  In SciFi, anything whatsover can be done. Space ships the size of towns glide around effortlessly.  Ever larger, more powerful and energetic things are produced,  despite us now knowing that it takes the GDP sacrifice of a small, no make that large, African country just to put five bozos or so onto the Moon.

This is one reason this attempt to imagine space fighting is so refreshing (ht Marginal Revolution)

But not just economists should be bothered by this –  any writer with integrity uses his creativity around the constraints.  SciFi as we tend to get it in the cinema is like the outpouring of a 10 year hold boy obsessed with tanks and guns. It is not ‘imaginative’ to start with the premise ‘anything can happen’. Like with Harry Potter, there’s always a magic spell to get someone out of something.

The other failing is that SciFi often imagines that people will always be the same, following the same mushy mid-Atlantic ethics and patterns of behaviour, despite their worlds changing unimaginably. Whereas I think some of the most profound changes can happen in what people think is acceptable or ‘right’. Consider:

  • 200 years ago slavery was widely accepted.
  • 140 years ago Mill could be mocked for writing of the Subjection of Women
  • 95 years ago Churchill might call himself a Liberal and yet have a huge retinue of servants;
  • just 65 years ago an American army could try to liberate Europe while trying to retain segregation within its army.
  • 40 years ago the Americans could conscript hundreds of thousands of young men to fight in Vietnam.

All of these boggle the mind now.

SciFi beggars belief in two ways: it assumes we will fall for any technical vision whatsoever, yet despite this that our world outlook will remain the same.   Think of what higher life expectancy, easier travel and widespread literacy have done to our fundamental beliefs.  I suspect that in 500 years, we will still inhabit planet Earth, but the standards will have changed so much that a time traveller would look upon us with frank disgust, and vice versa.

But that suburban American family is the target audience.  Ho Hum

Which is just one of the reasons I loathe (what I see of) Doctor Who.  It exemplifies these failings, and draws weekly attention to the British inability to do really imaginative drama of the quality of the Americans.  It was dismaying to see Caitlin Moran put this in the top 10 TV shows of the Noughties. Her other picks were things like Big Brother, so perhaps it was no surprise.

At least the execrable Merlin was not there, which to a five-minute view looks like Hollyoaks with robes.  Maybe it is unfair to blame people for not being able to imagine the year 2500 mindset; I doubt even Shakespeare could have contemplated the twentieth century.  But for the past we have no such excuse.**

*I think this must come from the genre taking off around mid C20, when the past 150 years’ mechanical achievements must have seemed likely to head off exponentially

** this ability to present the interior thoughts of an eighteenth century opium addict is  one of the many many reasons that Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey Maturin novels are the finest historical fiction ever.


20 thoughts on “Off-topic: hating Doctor Who

  1. 1. Of course the best fiction acknowledges constraints. But we don’t always want to read dostoevsky or watch Shakespeare, or even The Wire. And that’s what constraints-free Dr Who is for.

    2. people’s immediate ethical judgments may well change over time, but I’m not sure it follows that they fundamentally change all that much. David Hume thought that people were pretty much unchanging regarding the basics (want to know what a roman was like? Meet your neighbour). I tend to agree.

    3. some the best sci fi acknowledges constraints and creates the most powerful drama. See: Blade Runner.

  2. Constraints are what make art great. Look at 12 bar blues, some of the greatest music in the world and yet it’s constraints are incredibly tight.

    I was tempted to see the world like Paul Sagar and Hume do, that people are basically just people wherever and whenever they are.

    But if you look at something as fundamental as sexuality its is mind blowing how much its changed. A sort of binary sexuality we’re used to know has only existed for about 150 years. You go back to ancient Greece and it wasn’t defined by gender so much as who was doing what, and who was having what done to them.

    The future is going to be utterly mental, and some of all of our deeply held beliefs will be looked on as vile, or even criminal.

  3. While I appreciate there are some perennials, I’m with LO not Paul on this one. THe changeable matter that fascinates me most is the value placed on human life. If I’d had the time I would have linked to the story about the last two survivors of WWI who died this year (the Economist). People scream ‘war criminal’ at Blair for Iraq, and abuse Brown for mis-writing the name of one soldier, but there we had a war that by Christmas 1914 had killed 90,000 British soldiers alone. In terms of international relations and what the developed nations are able to achieve, this is such a profound shift that it overwhelmns all sorts of technical changes.

    Given the way things are going, the most unrealistic thing about future space fighting etc as portrayed in the cinema is that it assumes we would risk any human life at all, particularly in the haphazard way normally portrayed.

    I like Hume, but remember Aristotle – a genius but with amazingly different views on fundamentals

    I still don’t find the constraint-free Doctor Who any more relaxing or fun than listening to the proverbial 10 year old boy describing a space battle. Maybe if the effects were better? I should learn to relax

  4. Sci-fi doesn’t have NO constraints. It says “imagine what the world would be like with DIFFERENT constraints..”

    I agree with you that new Who has been a bit pants, and for more reasons than those you have given, but look at original series Trek. Far from adhering to the norms of the time, it portrayed a world of gender and racial equality.

    Good sci-fi is about imagining how technological advances will change things.

  5. Popular ‘SciFi’ is adventure/light entertainment stuff, especially on TV. This is not news to any science fiction fans. Might I suggest reading a book?

  6. “…but look at original series Trek. Far from adhering to the norms of the time, it portrayed a world of gender and racial equality…” Sure it did and by doing so against the backdrop of a galaxy with a bi-polar power structure (the egalitarian, inclusive Federation on the one hand and the secretive, malevolent empires of the Romulans and the Klingons on the other) made Star Trek one of the most innovative pieces of pro-American Cold War propaganda ever.

    Check out the ethno-topology of the new one; the Brit Scotty playing a small but vital role, Chekov reduced to a cartoonish figure of fun, Sulu safely Americanised and Uhuru getting together with the half-caste Spock rather than the alpha-caucasian Kirk, a man who is never once shown to be in the wrong about anything. All the while they battle a small, unpredictable group of non-state fanatics who hope to use their massively destructive weapons to right a grievance that, in the Federation’s eyes simply does not exist. Forget about uniting against the Reds, these days the West is worried about sedition from within and weird others from without.

    Star Trek was always about our world, never about the future. (And the new film is gash.)

    Giles, I think you dragged me off-topic with you.

  7. James, thanks for perhaps the best comment to appear on my blog yet.

    And how true: scifi just reflects current concerns. As does fantasy: much as enjoyed Tolkein as a kid, it is about JRT’s ethnic stereotyping and hatred of industrialision in my book.

    You’re missing Top 50 programmes of the Noughties on the telly tonight. If Doctor Who is in there I shall blush for the whole of britain.

  8. “Which is just one of the reasons I loathe (what I see of) Doctor Who. It exemplifies these failings, and draws weekly attention to the British inability to do really imaginative drama of the quality of the Americans. ”

    I’m at a loss to think of which American SciFi series you are thinking of: could you give an example of a US Science Fiction show that satisfies your criteria of (1) realistic compliance with known physical/energy constraints and (2) imaginatively postulates how human culture/ethics/behaviour will be altered by the assumed technological advancement?

    SF has always been a distorting mirror on the present day more than a true prediction of a possible future: HG Wells “War of the Worlds” is a satire on Imperialism, and “The Time Machine” is about class more than time travel; Asimov’s “Robot” series – written in 50’s America – are about racial discrimination just with Robots instead of Black people; “Battlestar Galactica” is nakedly commenting on the War on Terror (even if strictly speaking no one in the series is human in the born on Earth sense – so why should their society even remotely resemble ours, or at least modern America).

    Jennie has an excellent piece on the moral failings of the Tennant-era Doctor Who (in short, the Doctor’s developing a god complex and the series is on the verge of institutionalised xenophobia, which it never used to be) but a criticism founded on the idea that either physical constraints or speculative psychology are central to a series that is at heart about the 21st Century human experience is fundamentally flawed. Doctor Who – in fact most SF – is about the situation you find yourself in, not about the workings of the spaceship that got you there (though there are a few too many Star Trek fans who might disagree with that last remark 😉 )

  9. Maybe I just don’t like SF full stop! I have no US example to think of. I am thinking of the big US shows like Sopranos, Wire, West Wing, Mad Men, hugely imaginative works that dont need the funny costumes.

    Perhaps this is why no SF is ever taken seriously as art. Perhaps someone has an example of otherwise?

    1. My two favourite programmes ever are Doctor Who and The Wire. The two are entirely different things, and only an idiot or someone making a silly argument would try to claim that one was proof of the inferiority of the other and the entire televisual industry of the country that produced it.

      Also: You get to decide what’s taken seriously as art now? Many of us have been taking SF just as seriously as other forms of art for many years now, we’re quite happy talking amongst ourselves while the rest of you get hung up on the “funny costumes”, thanks.

      SF has, as Richard F suggests, always been as much a way to explore contemporary issues and attitudes under a different light to the everyday one, than it has been to portray a genuine attempt at a consistent future world. Hard SF does that, and like Andrew Suffield suggests, you do better to read some books if that’s what you want.

      1. Wow Andy, you really are passionate about this Saturday pantomime, to the point of losing your temper about it. Amazing how much more attention a post about this British perennial attracts than something on monetary policy.

        I was not saying the Wire proves Doctor Who is bad. I find Doctor Who bad, over the top, cliched, but perhaps I don’t have the patience or cut it the slack that all those Saturday evening addicts do. I think the Wire is wonderful. This leads me to reflect on the differences. Given our lead in creative arts in this country this makes me a bit sad, but clearly given the passion of the scifi adherents, who don’t have the concerns I have about realism and creativity and, yes, silly costumes and everyone looking humanoid and soapopera emotions and all the nonsense, I may just be being a bit elitist.

        So carry on talking seriously about it as art. Perhaps you could give me an example? Or don’t, I think it would just get bad tempered. Sorry if I was rude about something that you are clearly so passionate about! It is hard to be an expert in something you find so annoying, so I won’t attempt to engage in a “this is why Doctor Who is brilliant” argument. The reasons I have are given in the post: about technological and moral limits not being appreciated.

        Do you think it

  10. “But not just economists should be bothered by this – any writer with integrity uses his creativity around the constraints. SciFi as we tend to get it in the cinema is like the outpouring of a 10 year hold boy obsessed with tanks and guns. It is not ‘imaginative’ to start with the premise ‘anything can happen’.”

    But the interesting sci fi is always the stuff that changes the limits which are faced and then explores the implications of that. Sure, there’s lots of rubbish, just like there’s lost of appalling Romance shite. But change the limits and then see how behaviour changes….the very essence of sci fi and something which should be of interest to every economist.

    As, of course, it was to Krugman back when he was still an economist, not a party political shill. The economics of trade and interest rates in an interstellar economy…..

    1. Now now, just because you don’t like Keynesianism.

      Yeah, that is a brilliant example of imaginative work on SciFi. And can you remember the game Elite? circa 1985, best game for 10 years. But, still, I maintain that these are not typical. I am no scifi expert, but I suspect that if they did it realistically, it would have to strike the reader as really weird and offensive. As it would be for Samuel Johnson to watch the Wire, say.

      It ought to be much more difficult than current life drama – but they try to make it more easy

  11. I fear that you’re rather confusing Space Opera (Who, Trek, Star Wars, etc.) with Sci-Fi (Phil Dick, Harlan Elliison, Alfred Bester, William Gibson).

    Its worth noting that the SF that plays well in popular mass markets is a very different kettle of fish to the SF that’s held in high esteem by aficionados, which is why, in open public polls, the original Star Wars movies tend to get voted as the best/favourite films of all time, while amongst SF readers/viewers you’ll find that 2001 invariably tops the list, with films like Bladerunner and Tarkovsky’s version of Solaris making the top ten.

    Yes, the Star Wars franchise still gets rated highly for its entertainment value, but even there the film of choice amongst the SF crowd is ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, which is much darker than the other films in the original trilogy.

  12. Ok bit of confusion: I didn’t mean to deny that people’s ethical valuations and tolerations change (obviously they do – though LO seems to be implying that sexuality has drastically changed wheras it seems obvious to me that all that’s changed are attitudes towards sexuality.

    What I meant was that the basic building blocks of Hunan conprehension and understanding don’t seen to change.

    Now,sci fi could play around by presenting you with a world of radically different value systems. But in that respect, it could equally be set in ancient Greece, excpet needing a lot more difficult to introduce backgound explanation as to why the values of characters are so different.

    But why do this? It seems much more interesting to put people like us in strange situations in order to explore what it means to be people like us</.

    A helpful analogy: when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet his aim wasn’t to inform you of the history of Denmark, but to explore themes of humanity. Similarly, good sci fi doesn’t aim to pass on the banal fact that value systems change, but rather to tease out the underlying continuities in human life and experience regardless of those changes.

    After all, I must be right about these underlying constancies. Hamlet, written over 400 years ago still resonates. Even the Theban Plays, penned in a time of radically different valuations, speak to us about themes of humanity (and they telll us a lot more than: the Greeks were different).

    That’s what I mean by saying human beings don’t change all that much.

  13. I am going to sign out of this soon, as Christmas threatens.

    There are obviously fine judgements to make on how far to stretch the perennial features of human nature, and how much technological impossibility to ask the viewer to wear. I am not so philiistine as to hold realism as the only possible standard for aesthetics; though what really bothers me is bad judgement of psychological realism. How people behave would really be changed by new possibilities.

    (in fact, the combination of surrealism with realistic portrayal of people is why I loved Green Wing so much this decade. That and the music of course)

    So, by all means let Doctor Who invent its castles in the air, but then the way it is back to the old action movie cliches, the running around and dodging and coming up with solutions just in time, and thwarting baddies and all that, with clumsy alegories all over it:

    and yet the characters are out there like a Famous Five adventure. None of the trauma or bewilderment you’d expect from physical impossibilities. Contrast with the shock and misery when a pohleece goes down end of series 1, the Wire. Which shows the greater imagination? Conjuring up a Master who has a – wait for it – thirst for Universal Domination – or that portrayal of shock in a hospital?

    Perhaps the real afficionados will be outraged. But I think space-opera – or pantomine – is the right analogy. Sure, it may be good light entertainment, but it can’t be taken seriously. And as for putting it in the top ten of programmes made this decade? I would be amazed if people sat down to watch it in 10 years time – it is meant to be candy.

  14. What I hate is those action films where they have some incredibly lucky escape from what seems like certain death. Then it happens again. And again. And again. And again. And when there’s a lull in the action they’re sitting down calmly as if it was nothing much, chatting to each other. Which I do not think I would be able to do if I had some incredibly lucky escape from seemingly certain death. Then it sparks up again, and there’s a few more incredibly lucky escapes from certain death, before it all ends and they’re calmly chatting again.

    I don’t watch much films and television anyway, but over Christmas it’s sometimes expected of you, so I sat through a couple of these things this year and last. Doesn’t it spoil things by making it ridiculous when they do that? I can see the point of drama where there’s one incredibly lucky escape from seemingly certain death, and it’s some amazingly life-changing moment. But to me, as you say, there’s a degree of plausibility which once lost means I lose interest in the film because it’s no longer about people, it’s just about silly special effects.

  15. Matthew, I totally agree, and in fact it is not SciFi alone that suffers from this, of course – just the test of quality, in my view, is how they manage to deal with violence. This is why I cited the police reaction to the shooting in series 1 of the Wire as so excellent – a real shock, anger, unreality.

    It is the way they deal in makebelieve personalities as much as technologies that bugs me. OAPs piloting spaceships, I saw in some trailer for Doctor Who. Real reactions are so much more interesting.

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