February 10, 2023
How often in Doctor Who does science fiction meet science FACT?
Over the 60 years Doctor Who has been on our screens, it’s fair to say the show has introduced us to a multitude of science, both fiction and fact. Aside from bio-electric dampening fields and reversing polarities, today we ask: What are some of the key bits of Doctor Who science that are relevant to life on earth today? What is the real science of Doctor Who?
The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
"A black hole's a dead star. It collapses in on itself, in and in and in until the matter's so dense and tight it starts to pull everything else in too. Nothing in the universe can escape it. Light, mavity, time. Everything just gets pulled inside and crushed."
Okay, so we said "relevant to life on earth today". And black holes are! Only a few years ago, NASA unveiled the first proper image of a supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy; and it looked eerily similar to the one that the Doctor and Rose encountered on Krop Tor in the year 43K2.1 (4221 for those unfamiliar with the 43rd century dating system).
Black holes are points in space that are so dense that they pull everything around them in. Even light! The planet Krop Tor was an oddity because it was somehow able to exist in geostationary orbit of a black hole, which is impossible. The Doctor discovered that the planet was a perfect prison designed by an ancient civilisation to hold the corporeal form of the Beast. Were the mavity field keeping the planet in orbit to be broken, the planet would be sucked into the black hole, the Beast along with it. So what did the Doctor do…?
The Doctor’s Daughter
"Progenation. Reproduction from a single organism. Means one parent is biological mother and father. You take a sample of diploid cells, split them into haploids, then recombine them in a different arrangement and grow. Very quickly, apparently."
Cloning is the process of producing individuals with virtually indistinguishable DNA. It happens in the natural world with plants and fungi, and humans have made it happen with animals. In the Doctor Who universe, the Sontarans are notable for being a clone race; millions of individuals born from the same genetic template. However, on the planet Messaline, the Doctor, Martha and Donna encountered something a little different.
Within minutes of stepping out of the TARDIS, the Doctor was forcibly escorted to a machine which took a tissue sample from his hand. The machine whirred away and seconds later, a girl dressed in combat gear appeared in a cloud of smoke! The Doctor’s very own daughter, created by rearranging his genetic template into an entirely new person! Turns out, the Human/Hath war was advancing so quickly, both sides needed a fast way of making new troops and turned to alternative reproductive methods as a result. Twenty generations of soldiers, born and killed in a day! Unlike the other clones though, Jenny inherited her father’s regenerative abilities. Having survived a supposedly fatal shot at the hands of General Cobb, she could still be out there somewhere…
(It’s important to note that in the present day, reproductive science hasn’t advanced this far. We tend to favour the traditional method).
The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky
"They're converting the atmosphere, changing the planet into a clone world. Earth becomes a great big hatchery. Because the Sontarans are clones, that's how they reproduce. Give them a planet this big, they'll create billions of new soldiers. The gas isn't poison, it's food."
We hear about it all the time. Cars and busses, boats and planes, industry, fossil fuels, burning and chemicals and power, slopping their sludge and debris up into the atmosphere. Our systems and infrastructure keep ticking away but quite often, the price is the health of our environment. Emitting gas into the air can change the characteristics of the world around us and the Sontarans (who we admit were ungraciously snubbed in our cloning section) knew this better than anyone.
Planning to convert the Earth into a breeding planet to produce their armies, the Sontaran stratagem was to pollute the atmosphere with gas, terraforming (or Sontarforming!) the planet through the use of 400,000 Atmos devices, installed in cars worldwide. On their command, the devices activated, spewing their gas into the atmosphere; poisonous for humans, but nutritious for fledgling Sontarans. Thankfully, the Doctor constructed an atmospheric converter, setting the earth’s atmosphere alight and burning the Sontarans’ gas away. An environmental activist to the last!
In the Forest of the Night
"Trees. Whenever there's a planet-threatening, extra-terrestrial impact, trees. Massive forest, filling the atmosphere with oxygen. Pumping it up like a massive, highly inflammable airbag, so that when trouble hits…"
Trees, one of earth’s most abundant resources (although this is quickly changing) are not only valuable for their wood; they remove carbon from the atmosphere and put oxygen in its place. Deforestation is the process of clearing forested land, to use the trees as a resource, though too much of this could be damaging for the planet.
It’s funny then, in the Doctor Who universe, that when the entire earth rapidly sprouted into a forest, everyone reacted in panic, with the authorities planning to burn it all down! Maebh, a student at Coal Hill School, was able to psychically communicate with the trees, who told her that they had sprouted in order to protect the planet from a solar flare. With the help of the Doctor, she and her fellow students delivered this message to the peoples of Earth, convincing them not to destroy the trees.
Thus, the flare hit the earth, burning the trees away and reverting the planet back to the way it had existed before, barely a feather ruffled. We’re not entirely sure something like that could happen in our world, but never rule it out! Thanks, trees.
"Unless people face facts and change, catastrophe is coming. But it's not decided. You know that. The future is not fixed. It depends on billions of decisions, and actions, and people stepping up. Humans. I think you forget how powerful you are. Lives change worlds. People can save planets, or wreck them. That's the choice. Be the best of humanity."
We touched on it before, but our relationship with the planet today will absolutely dictate the quality of life left to future generations. When the Doctor and friends landed on the Tranquillity Spa on the planet designated Orphan 55, they didn’t receive the ‘fake-cation’ package advertised by the resort. Instead, they faced persecution by the carnivorous mutant Dregs, who used the spa as a hunting ground.
When the Doctor uncovered a Russian sign on the planet, she realised that Orphan 55 was in fact a future version of Earth, ravaged from the effects of war and the collapse of the food chain. The Dregs must be future humans, who adapted to breathe the carbon dioxide that made up the atmosphere. Catastrophic scenes indeed, but let’s find solace in the fact that this is only a possible future. Whether it comes true or not will depend on the actions of today…
The Ark in Space
"Corpse? These people aren't dead, Harry, they're asleep. The entire human race awaiting the trumpet blast."
Cryostatis, or Cryopreservation, is the freezing of biological material to preserve it. Speculatively, it could be used to preserve rare or endangered species, or keep people on the brink of death around long enough until a time comes when they can be cured. While there are people out there who have been “preserved”, there currently aren’t any success stories, or “resurrections.” Unless you live in the Doctor Who universe!
We know that according to the Doctor’s adventures, the human race survives far into the future, either surviving as clouds of gas or downloads or skin trampolines - but there were also those that cryogenically froze themselves and their art and culture, in order to defy their natural lifespans and persist into the future. When the Doctor, Harry and Sarah-Jane landed on Space Station Nerva, they uncovered a band of indomitable humans who did just that!
Unfortunately, due to a Wirrn infestation, the humans overslept by 10,000 years (imagine waking up after all that time and then having to fight a load of massive parasitic insects!). With the Doctor’s help, they were able to defeat the Wirrn and start re-inhabiting the earth. Not too sure about the guy whose pod Harry opened, though. Reckon he’s a goner!
"So, all of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will. Where do you want to start?"
And now, what you’ve all been waiting for… Let’s talk about time travel! You’ll notice we didn’t pick an episode for this one. Surely, it’d be easier to list the Doctor Who stories that don’t feature time travel! (5 points to whoever does that first).
Instead, check out this video of Professor Brian Cox explaining how time travel is in fact, something that happens in our everyday lives. We’re not saying that you can hop in a telephone box or end up in pre-historic times, or in the year five billion, but you might be surprised!