Regenerate your disbelief

At the moment we're at a beautiful spot in West Wales enjoying ,what all Easter holidays of my fondest childhood consisted of, lashings and lashings of rain. Fortunately we are not in a damp caravan site or miserable tent, but instead are looking out across the rolling welsh landscape, enjoying the rain with a gin and tonic and the comfort of a wood burning stove, in a rather decadent hotel. On our travels down here, we caught up on the News Quizzes and Now Shows from the last month.

As topical comedy programmes are wont to do, they satirised a news story about science. I don't usual have a problem with this, unless the science is clearly misrepresented. In this case it was, exposing the otherwise erudite Sandi Toksvig (News Quiz host) and  John Holmes (Now Show), to falling short (did you see what I did there) in their reading of the article. I shouldn't be surprised, I know. Seldom is science reported well in the press. My astrophysicist wife was called an 'astrologer' on national television by a TV presenter (what do you expect from ITV, her BBC counterpart fully researched the story and did a much better job).

The story was that a researcher was complaining that  science fiction should only contain one major suspension of disbelief to be credible. I whole heartedly support this. Nothing irritates me more than a drama, which has had millions poured into it, that has major plot holes. This is very easy to accomplish with sci-fi because most script writers will not be scientists, and most directors don't want a science advisor getting in the way of the action. These are the sort of people who allow Henry VIII to only have one sister (he had 2) , who marries the King of Portugal (WTF! She married various members of the Scottish Royal family) in the HBO raunchy series, The Tudors.

It happens all the time in sci-fi, its just sloppiness. The jokes about the outspoken scientist (whose name I can't remember and can't find), ranged from "Well, its called science fiction not science fact" to sketches about Ikea wardrobes, and all centered around: sci-fi which had lots of real science in is going to be boring. This is like saying you would make stew with the cheapest beef available because, well who really notices. Utter bollocks. You feed people bland, crap for food and they might not care, but the majority of people will be able to tell a really well made meal from one with the cheapest, nastiest ingredients.

The same is true of a script. I'm not saying that you have to stick to facts as we know them now (and the wonderful thing about science is there are very few indisputable facts), in fact much of science fiction has informed the way that engineering and technology has evolved; mobile phones, geostationary satellites, rockets to the moon. Very little fundamental science has been advanced by sci-fi, partly because fundamental science can be quite abstract and not easily incorporated into a narrative, whereas a new gadget can. Real science if often far crazier than fiction, take Quantum Mechanics or Evolution for example.

Science is central to sci-fi. If the science is not even partially justified then what makes it any different from fantasy? Much of modern science fiction is more like science fantasy, involving routine hyper-spatial travel and inter-speciel naughtiness. This is domain of Star Wars and Avatar.

Good sci-fi is like Doctor Who, where your main suspension of disbelief is time-travel. The Doctor is a time-lord, quite literally a Lord of Time. He can not only travel anywhere in space, and to any time, but is lord over it; he has mystical, almost religious dominion over it. From that point almost anything is possible. With long running series like Doctor Who and Star Trek, the writers can introduce an extra suspension of disbelief because the audience is comfortable with the concept that, for example, the TARDIS is a time machine, so the Doctor can also change his appearance and be reborn, or regenerate, and it actually strengthens the narrative. If a writer suddenly decided that he could fly, shoot x-rays out of his bum and read people's minds the public would feel cheated because that writer had been lazy and threw in these abilities to ease them out of a sticky situation.

"By the way Ace" said The Doctor "my left pinkie shoots flames, and I can dispense milkshakes from my nose". I don't think so.

In other news, I am very excited that the Matt Smith era of Doctor Who is beginning today. It is so exciting, and slightly terrifying, will he be as good David Tennant or dare I say Tom Baker. Would you like a jelly baby?