Sunday, April 18, 2010

Doctor Who: Science Fiction or Fantasy?

The following post contains spoilers for the newest episode of Doctor Who, 5x03: Victory of the Daleks, so if you do not wish to be spoiled, please refrain from reading. If you do not watch the show, however, you can still understand this post.

In "Victory of the Daleks," the Doctor's nemeses, the Daleks, show up during the London Blitz. Now that part I am entirely okay with, because Doctor Who is all about time and space and the crazy juxtaposition that could arise from someone like the Doctor being able to travel through and interfere with both. What I am not okay with is having WWII planes in space, attacking a space ship, with technology stolen from aliens. I feel like that crosses the line between science fiction and fantasy.

Within the genre of fantasy a reader can find hidden worlds, magic, and impossibilities; in science fiction the reader can find the same aura of wonder and amazement, but also a sense of truth and a million possibilities. Science fiction examines the world, where humanity stands, and all of the potential roads we could travel, and where they would take us. This genre stretches the imagination as far as the edge of space and approaches every "what if," all the while staying within the immense realm of possibility.

And that's the thing: science fiction has limits, regulations, guidelines. Sure, they're very loose sometimes, but they are there. In fantasy you can explain something by calling it "magic" and that's enough. In science fiction, you reveal the process or the machinations, you are forced to give an actual explanation. And, to an extent, this explanation must be somewhat realistic, or rather, scientific. Science fiction is a blend between the "science" of reality and the "fiction" of fantasy.

Philip K. Dick argues that "The real origin of science fiction lay in the seventeenth-century novels of exploration in fabulous lands. Therefore Jules Verne’s story of travel to the moon is not science fiction because they go by rocket but because of where they go. It would be as much science fiction if they went by rubber band."

While I agree with him, I have to point out that while spaceships are real and entirely plausible today, they were not in WWII. My suspension of disbelief lets me believe that The Doctor's TARDIS can exist then because it is a time machine. I cannot, however, extend that to cover RAF planes from that era suddenly being upgraded in a matter of minutes and then flying into space, armed with alien technology. I would have believed it, if they had gone by rubber band. The truth of history here is that the space race would not occur for another 20 years. Furthermore, are we supposed to believe that those planes could make it through Earth's atmosphere without burning? Or that the laughable gas masks worn by the pilots would allow them to breathe in space? I don't buy it. Come on, Moffat, you can do better than that.

Doctor Who has, for many decades, been seen as wholly science fiction, but when it begins to cast off the limits and rules of reality, I'd argue that it's crossed over into fantasy. And I like fantasy, but don't try to pass it off as science fiction, because there is a world of difference there. Fantasy approaches the impossible, science fiction approaches the possible, but not yet probable. If you want me to believe that mannequins can come to live or that someday humans will be living out our years on a space station while the sun burns away our beloved planet, that's fine. I accept that these are possible. When you want me to believe that a time before space travel had aircrafts more advanced than the ones we have now, 60 years later? That I cannot do.

So dear Stephen Moffat, please check your facts when reporting on history, and give us something fantastical, but believable. Give us the science fiction we've come to expect from Doctor Who. Oh, but for the record? I'm totally digging Matt Smith as The Doctor and I can't wait for the next episode.


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