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Review - A Teaspoon and an Open Mind: The Science of Doctor Who - Michael White

 

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The "science of" concept is an excellent one, using a media framework (usually science fiction) to plunge into the science behind the what-ifs and wonders of that particular show or movie. And the subject of this particular "science of", Doctor Who, should be ideal for the format, thanks to the flexibility of the central Doctor Who tenet of having a box that can travel to any point in space and time, owned by a double-hearted alien. For that matter, Michael White has a good track record of making the history of science accessible, so this book should have been superb. (There's even the fresh inspiration of the new series of Doctor Who recently on UK screens, that transformed the TV show from its old low budget shabbiness to a top rate, modern, glossy entertainment.) But somehow it doesn't work.

There are two main problems. The first is the ease of treading on the toes of fans. While books like this aren't specifically aimed at people who buy everything with Doctor Who in the title, they will inevitably be read by the enthusiasts, and though White claims he enjoyed Doctor Who as a youth, he is likely to make the odd slip-up in Whovian lore. I noted a rather suspicious reference by White to the "eponymous doctor", which comes dangerously close to the ultimate Who sin of thinking that the main character is called "Doctor Who" as opposed to "the Doctor" (even the BBC occasionally slipped into this one). More fervent Whospotters have already muttered about White's assertion that the first episode was titled simply "Doctor Who - episode 1", and his slip in calling Jon Pertwee "John". The sensible argument is that A Teaspoon and an Open Mind is not about the trivia of the show, but about the science it reflects: still, not everyone will agree.

The second problem, while conveniently countering the first, is actually a deeper one - the book doesn't get under the show's skin enough. There's too much vanilla science, and not enough Doctor Who. That might seem a strange complaint from a popular science website, but a book like this is supposed to tie strongly into its inspiration, and White instead relentlessly skims the surface without making contact. The approach tends to be "Doctor Who is about time travel" - so how could you do time travel? "Doctor Who has aliens" - so what would aliens be like? And once that jump is made in a chapter, it's simply a chapter about time travel or whatever, not anything that reflects the fictional context of the original. You might as well have a chapter on scarves because Tom Baker wore one, or on eyes, because all the Doctors had eyes... it's fine to use aspects of the show as a springboard, but a book like this needs to tie regularly back into the Doctor Who world.

With those problems put to one side, we get an generally acceptable book, with well worded explorations of the possibilities for time travel, life on other worlds, telepathy and telekinesis, intelligent robots, regenerating life and more. Mostly these cover a fair amount of science in an effective manner, though White unfortunately totally misunderstands and misrepresents the EPR thought experiment that kicked off the possibility of quantum teleportation. Even nanotechnology manages to get its tiny foot into the door.

The book finishes off with an epilogue on "Gallifreyan Magic" that is much closer to a "science of" book than any other section. It is only here, for instance, that White bothers to mention the strange qualities of the Doctor's travel machine the TARDIS, such as being bigger on the inside than on the outside. In fact the epilogue reads like the beginning of a different book that then lost its way and became something else - perhaps this is what happened in the writing process. A Teaspoon and an Open Mind isn't a bad book - not by any means - but it isn't anywhere near as good as it could have been. For a far better balance, see Paul Parsons' The Science of Doctor Who.

Only in hardback

Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007