Non-Fiction Reviews

The Science of Dr Who

(2006) Paul Parsons, Icon Books, 12.99, hrdbk, 336pp, ISBN (10) 1-840-46737-1


Now that Dr Who has been resurrected (2005), and renewed (2006), it has attracted a vast amount of interest from both established fans and new, and it was virtually inevitable that this would be accompanied by tie-ins and merchandising in every way shape and form. On the face of it this book, which is billed as an unofficial guide, seems to fall into that category; though but upon reading it that label would sell it short. This book is written by Paul Parsons, who is the editor of BBC Focus, a monthly science and technology magazine and he is, by his own confession, a life long Doctor Who fan. With the subject matter in the book focussing on areas such as time and space, it is unsurprising to know that the author possesses a DPhil in cosmology, as his interest in this area is evident.

What he sets out to do in the book is to examine the science behind the most noteable aspects of Dr Who - for example, how exactly could a ship like the TARDIS exist? Are the Slitheen, with their unique way of disguising themselves, a feasible race? And how exactly would it be possible to travel in time? Subjects such as these tend to be quite complex and hard to understand if you are approaching them with very little familiarity. Bearing this in mind, the author has used a conversational style of writing to keep the narration of the book fresh and lively. With subjects such as the physics behind the creation of the universe and the theories surrounding it, this works well, although there are parts where the explanations of the 'hard science' the book covers might for some demand a second read through - however the diagrams that are used are helpful and straightforward.

A nice aspect to the book is that the author not only sets the scene with the aspect of Dr Who he is referring to for specific scientific examples, he has also backed up the theory with examples of how matters such as teleportation have been researched and what the results were, as well as how advanced, or not, are developments in each particular field. An example is the research that is taking place regarding intelligent plant life and why, or why not, plant life like the Krynoid would be possible and how scientists are drawing their conclusions. In this respect a well-known example of reactive plant life, the Venus flytrap, is used to illustrate the principles behind the research in question.

At times the twists of humour provided by the author seem a little overdone, but the writing style lends itself well to this type of book. I don't have an in depth knowledge of Dr Who and was glad of the scene-setting the author uses in terms of the aspects of the show he is describing (for example, the Silurians and whether or not their place in the era of history they are supposed to be from is actually possible) and relates this well to the real-life science that would or would not make such specific elements in Dr Who actually possible.

The diverse subject matter works in the books favour as it provides an insight into physiological studies and theories, maters of time and space and advances in weaponry and technology. I found this book a brilliant way to gain an overview to some of the technobabble that is often heard in sci fi shows, and also found the book to be a challenging read as it takes some real concentration to follow some of what the author is describing. I do not consider this to be a bad thing as the reader is likely to come away feeling that they have learned something.

Given the timescale of its release, it is hardly surprising that the later Dr Who episodes are referred to on a regular basis, but there is a comprehensive mix of references to the entire timeline of the show itself, from the first Doctor and his subsequent regenerations, complete with appropriate quotes to add a finishing touch. There is a quote from the Seventh Doctor, which leads nicely into a section about alien words, and an ominous snippet of conversation from Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in Battlefield which starts off a chapter on the Cybermen. Another nice touch the book possesses is an episode list by Doctor which is also useful to enable to reader to gain an idea of when in the series specific alien races and events take place.

This book is likely, by it's nature, to appeal to Dr Who fans with an interest in science but even if you have just a passing interest in the show, it is a brilliant introduction to themes that appear widely within the science fiction genre. It is also a rewarding read as it is likely to inspire the reader to find out more about the themes described and provides further sources of reading material relating to topics such as human aging, a realistic view of alien life and in depth literature relating to Mars and the cosmos in general. Overall I found it to be an inspiring read as it enabled me to relate to familiar themes in a show I have grown up with and use them to familiarise myself with the facts behind their possibilities.

While potentially it could have been a hard book to plough through, I found that it laid out what are essentially complex subject matters in an accessible and approachable way with its use of their place in the universe of Dr Who, which enables the reader to relate to well known examples. It should also be noted that you do not have to be familiar with every single episode of Dr Who in order to do this, which makes it an interesting and informative read for anyone who has a long standing appreciation for the show, or simply a passing curiosity.

Sue Griffiths

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