Monday, May 9, 2011

Dr.Who, Hugh Bonneville, and realism in science fiction

After an ambitious two-part opener in which both the entire series budget and the audience’s minds were comprehensively blown, Doctor Who settled down to a more traditional ‘freak of the week’ format on Saturday.

Hugh Bonneville turned up as a pirate with a heart (and cache) of gold. So far so good. Everybody likes a pirate.

Anyway, when his son improbably pitched up as a stowaway halfway through the episode we were encouraged to think of Hugh’s career choice as somehow shameful. As if anyone could ever think ill of dear old Hugh.

Actors don’t like to think of themselves as being typecast, they tend to think of themselves as being less ‘actor-y’ if they play the same rôle over and over again.

That is, though, what most really successful actors do. Why bother spending half a movie establishing that your hero is an irascible cop/cowboy with a poorly-concealed heart of gold when you can just hire Clint Eastwood and get on with the exciting part of the film?

Hugh Bonneville became a national star as the somewhat implausibly decent Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey, which my few regular readers will know I rather like. He has since appeared on our screens as the unreasonably put-upon Head of Deliverance of the Olympic Deliverance Commission in Twenty Twelve.

We’re never going to believe him as some sort of bloodthirsty villain, no matter what he does. No, I know what you’re thinking and not even that

Luckily, the notional redemption of this cutthroat via the agency of his son’s innocent faith wasn’t a major plot point and the fact that it didn’t work at all in no way harmed the flow of the episode.

The principal action concerned a mysterious phantasm that kept appearing on the kindly buccaneer’s ship and spiriting away injured members of the crew.

The otherworldly visitor was played by model turned actress Lily Cole, who always looks a bit CGI at the best of times . She didn’t say much, just appeared through the medium of reflective surfaces,  pinched any pirate with a paper-cut and was on her way. Why? Well there was the moral. Don’t assume the worst of people. Don’t condemn until you’ve got the whole story and perhaps not even then.

Now there’s a message I bet Hugh can get behind.

The difficult thing with writing science fiction is that the rules have to be established firmly, and early, without slowing the plot down too much. Most of the mechanical rules of the Doctor Who universe have been so long established that we can’t quite remember when we first heard about a timetravelling ship that was bigger on the inside.

The Doctor has changed his own rules of engagement a bit since 1963, and even over the course of this more recent reboot of the show. Where once the Last Of The Time Lords had a policy of non-interference except in (regular) dire emergency he’s lately become prone to inviting pirates, presidents and pioneers of Martian colonisation aboard the Tardis with scarcely a second thought.

When Bonneville is invited, for no particular reason, aboard the decidedly non-Euclidean vessel he takes it all in his stride. He boldly strides up to the bewildering array of controls and identifies them in 17th Century terms.

He doesn't do what any right-thinking 17th or 18th Century sailor might reasonably expected to do, viz curl up in a ball on the Tardis's shiny floor and repeatedly soil himself.

Further, at the conclusion of the episode, rather than restoring the pirates to their brigantine The Doctor makes a gift to them of the abandoned starship that was causing all the trouble in the first place.

Ignoring for a moment the moral implications setting a crew of bloodthirsty ne’er-do-wells off on a voyage of plunder across multiple universes there’s a science problem here.

Now I know questioning the scientific underpinnings of a show that features time travel and countless humanoid aliens may seem a trifle ridiculous, but bear with me.

For science fiction to work, we need to suspend disbelief to a greater or lesser degree. Faster than light travel may or may not be impossible but for the purposes of a good story it’s essential so we’ll allow it.

Alien life forms that are recognisably living creatures and can communicate with us are currently unknown and statistically unlikely but it’s difficult to craft a good sci-fi yarn without them so we’ll allow them too.


17th Century seafarers with no knowledge of cosmology navigating across the trackless voids of space ? Possibly even in a parallel universe with unknown new physical laws? In a ship based on alien science? With all the switches and control panels labelled, if at all, in an unknown language? And surviving for more than about an hour?

To hell with finding an earthlike planet - how will they find the larder? Or the toilets?

Well Pirate Hugh, you can say “a ship’s a ship” all you like: I’m sorry but – as they say on that there television you’ll never have heard of – I’m out.

Still here? Want more pirates?

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