16 September 2015

The book chapter you’ll never get to read

A while ago, I wrote about the importance of talking about failures. I thought I’d share this failure, because the release of the newest series of Doctor Who this weekend makes it kind of timely.

I submitted this proposal for a planned academic book titled Doctor Who & History. Even though I keep swearing off writing book chapters, I submitted it because I thought this might feel more like fun than work.

They wanted fifteen chapters, and got 50 proposals. This was one of them. It wasn’t selected. I have to commend the editors, who gave me one of the nicer rejection letters I’ve gotten.

The history of science in Doctor Who

The character of The Doctor is a scientist. Doctor Who was originally created with the goal of teaching history and science, but the show rarely mixed the two in its plotlines. This chapter will examine how the scientific history is treated in, and reflected by, Doctor Who. When set in the past, the show usually features social and cultural leaders than scientific ones. For example, Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens have both appeared in Doctor Who, but Charles Darwin, their contemporary, has not. The real history of science has rarely warranted more than The Doctor dropping the name of a famous scientist into a conversation. The show’s portrayal of its fictional scientists (other than The Doctor) is often suspicious and critical, with several stories centering on ambitious scientists overreaching, with disastrous consequences. But in their search for new plot material, writers often looked to emerging scientific ideas and worked them into their scripts. The most famous example of this was the creation of the Cybermen, which was inspired by research on organ replacement. Sometimes, the show’s scientific and technological elements would be familiar to any contemporary viewer. The many 1960s stories that incorporated crewed spaceflight would be completely familiar to people living in the middle of the space race. Less often, but more interestingly, Doctor Who sometimes used scientific ideas before they were well incorporated into popular culture. The supercomputer WOTAN threatened the world by joining a network of computers long before most people had even seen a pocket calculator let alone a computer, or that computers would eventually be connected by the Internet. “Earthshock” featured the dinosaurs being wiped out by a crashing spaceship just two years after the suggestion that an extraterrestrial impact first appeared in scientific journals. Since the show’s revival, living scientists, like physicist Brian Cox, have appeared with The Doctor. Therefore, Doctor Who provides insights into the history of science over the last half century and how those scientific discoveries percolate into popular awareness.

Update, 21 July 2017: The book is out now!

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Low points

External links

Doctor Who and history 
Publisher’s site 

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