Andrew’s Doctor Who

Well…

Unlike the last one, I could kind of see that, a little bit.

But once again it’s one of these.

Okay, so one of my favourite moments in the entire original series is right out of “An Unearthly Child”…when Susan wonderingly tells her teachers that the fourth dimension is Space.

I love that.  It’s a wonderful example of how SF stories, especially SF stories for kids, can hand you a bit of a science-koan and leave you to work it out for yourself.  There’s even a time-honoured mechanism here:  putting the cart before the horse.  Warren Ellis did it in Planetary/JLA when he introduced the “loop of light” time machine — certainly a possible idea given the almighty E=mc2, but the hilarious thing about it is:  what in this universe can make light go in a loop, anyway, eh?  So, CART BEFORE HORSE, for sure, but it’s brilliant anyhow…it gave me that same shiver I got as a child, seeing Reed Richards explain “sub-space” by drawing a dotted line through a circle…he might as well have shoved a pencil through a tennis ball…I mean it presupposes so much, but it’s so beautifully Einsteinian:  here’s what the picture looks like, now make up what it means please, attentive children…

I mean, for example:  the Tardis is “dimensionally-transcendent”, right?

But another way of saying this is that the police box is really a three-dimensional door, to another locale outside of three-dimensional space.  And that’s called a wormhole, folks:  a spherical defect in spacetime, whose centre is a translation-point to Elsewhere.  Of course wormholes are evanescent, and they don’t look like police boxes…at least not to us they don’t.  But this is what it means to be a Time Lord, I suppose:  you can make stable wormholes just to use them as the welcome mat to your house of super-science.

And this is what comes of putting the cart before the horse, you see?

But, hmm, did not expect to make that digression…

So anyway:  Susan in the classroom.  It’s an absolutely gorgeous possibilistic moment.

Why give it up?

Here’s what I might do with Doctor Who:  just start from the beginning, but go in a completely different direction — a direction in which everybody gets to have a really interesting “main-ness” about their character.  Susan and the man she calls her grandfather…and there’s something funny about that, there’s something wrong with him it seems…have left the home she describes, somewhat mysteriously, as “Gallifrey”.

But why?

And where is it?

And what is up with that old coot, anyway?

And that’s the show, but now here are the background details:  “Gallifrey” is less a world than a condition — we are putting the “mau” back in gallimaufry, here — and it lies in the far future…or at least, as possibly Susan will one day say, “what you would call the far future”.  It seems evident that it is a planet, her ellipsis notwithstanding…

…But whatever Gallifrey is, it’s ruled by the Time Lords, of whom the Doctor is one — and it seems the Doctor was being inducted into a prestigious order that the Time Lords spend all their very long lives waiting to get into, when abruptly he ran out on it and got Susan and commandeered the Tardis and took off into time and space.  Eventually, you and I would probably recognize that what the Doctor was being inducted into was the Matrix, being connected to the total stored knowledge of the Time Lords…and yet this Matrix wouldn’t be very much like the one we know, just enough that the following proposition makes sense:  that once having begun to join with it, the additional knowledge he received gave him the impetus to break off the process and go and escape with Susan.  But he both left behind part of himself in the Matrix, and took something of the Matrix with him, and so this is Doctor Who by way of Vernor Vinge — modules of the Doctor’s personality and memory were swapped out with informational modules of the Matrix, whether purposely by him or accidentally as part of the process (which, maybe, at some point someone might refer to as “Regeneration”…which who knows why they would call it that, but let’s not make things sound too cut-and-dried, here!  Maybe there’s a good reason!), and so he’s not the man he was…and a partly-amnesiac Doctor is just too interesting not to have right away, so pausing just long enough to thank Andrew for the idea I’ll now jump all over it…which is to say, he’s not quite the man Susan remembers.

Nor the man we remember, because this Doctor has an overriding purpose that we don’t understand, and perhaps neither does he:  except it’s something to do with getting Susan away from Gallifrey.  And I won’t say what that is, because the possibility doesn’t need collapsing:  after all, why must Susan be less mysterious than the Doctor himself?  The Doctor we know has been absolutely loaded with secrets and mysteries for over a quarter-century, and they’re still not all out, and people don’t seem to mind…they seem to like it, in fact, so let’s not be in such a hurry to get to boring conclusions about Rassilon or The Other, because what makes all this more interesting is that there’s nothing wrong with Susan’s memory…she’s just not telling what she knows, though she knows less than the Doctor what she knows has the advantage of being all in one piece.  So, her grandfather is the only one who can pilot the Tardis, but he’s been both handicapped and augmented and generally changed-around…which makes Susan a necessary component of the show, because she is a young girl who is caring for her aged relative, at one and the same time that she is being protected by him and led by him…because as a family story, wrapped in a mystery, buried underneath science fiction, Doctor Who necessarily must enjoy multiple character viewpoints for us to identify with:  Ian and Barbara in some sense stand in loco parentis to Susan in this strange situation (as do we, in a way!), and provide us with a sense of wonder at it all as well as a sense of wondering-what-to-do about it all…not to mention representing to us a certain issue of affection and forced romance that can be made much of but not necessarily too much…rather like the way it was handled between the Ninth Doctor and Rose.  Which is all perfectly fine stuff, but additionally Susan is the show’s emotional centre, and her occasionally-fraught relationship with her grandfather is what carries our sympathies most powerfully…so we can switch our viewpoint-allegiance to her just as easily.  As for the Doctor himself, he doesn’t need to change much from the Hartnell performance:  just changing the relationship dynamics around him will be sufficient to bring in a faint suggestion of Lear, at the same time bringing a faint suggestion of the posthuman boddhisatva (or in this case: post-Gallifreyan), and of course at the same time maintaining about him all that is Who.  Again borrowing from Andrew, I should say that the adventures through time and space represent an occupational therapy for him, after his episode of cognitive damage…even as he undertakes them only for Susan’s sake.

As to the general question of Tardises, the overwhelming question of just what in the hell it is that the Time Lords do all day…I would propose that the Tardises are used pretty much exclusively to bring people to Gallifrey, and never for gallivanting around the cosmos, so I think if at any point a marooned-on-Earth Doctor is desired, it can be accomplished…with the caveat that it might go down a bit differently.  Possibly the Time Lords are ignorant of Susan’s existence/importance, and only want the Doctor…possibly there is something in the Doctor’s head now which ought to be in the Matrix but now isn’t, and that’s why they don’t know…you could do a whole bunch of Gallifrey-based revelations after you give it about fifteen years or so, that could be quite different from the revelations the series itself actually delivered…

And if you kept it going on that long, by all means change actors at some point, and even use the word “regeneration”…especially since that word’s been somewhat subverted or compromised, from having already been used in a different context.  We just don’t know anything about these Time Lords.  The Doctor’s physical regeneration may be very strange, it may be that he is growing younger.  He may not actually be “him” at all, but manifestations of other Time Lords whose essences he’d stolen from the Matrix…who contributed to it the knowledge of whatever mysterious imperative it is that involves Susan in all this in the first place.  It might be that.  It might not be.  The door’s open.

I would want to use the Mad Monk as a bit of a trickster-figure.

And that’s all I’m prepared to reveal just now:  because I hope it all does seem possibilistic.  In my head, this thing is writing itself on its own fairly well, even as we speak — so if somehow I’ve been lucky enough that it’s doing the same in your head, I can’t think of a good reason to get in the way of that.

Whoooo, I really did not think I would be able to come up with the slightest idea for a revamped Doctor Who!  But happily, in the end…

…That seems to be exactly what I’ve come up with.

Time to open the champagne!

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16 responses to “Andrew’s Doctor Who

  1. I like this. My love for Lear asks that you press on that.

    Lear’s descent into madness/alzheimer’s is a pre-requisite for his salvation (or as close as he can get) in the face of what he’s done to Cordelia. Do you mean to suggest in part that the Doctor is in some way responsible for whatever has or will happen to Susan?

  2. I have long maintained that “Doctor Who” needs a nemesis named “Mister Howe.”

    I stand by this idea still.

  3. …when Susan wonderingly tells her teachers that the fourth dimension is Space.

    Lemme wax poetic for a moment. A little technobabble for the benefit of anyone who feels the yen to make up a sc-fi mystery series, somewhere between P.K. Dick and Ionescu, with cosmic eeriness seeping through the cracks, but resolving in happy endings thanks to a couple of appealing Strangers from Beyond.

    There is nothing more stable than a black hole. One jump in the total entropy of the universe, and there it sits practically forever. Its inception is predictable: chaotic perhaps, but predetermined by a a mass of classical, Newtonian dynamic information. Any junk that falls into it is erased from further history, the only trace a minuscule increase in the single variable of its mass-area-entropy.

    To the Transfinite Powers who navigate their realities (and ours) through the shoals of the multiverse (that is, the whole Linde-Susskind landscape of 10^248 ways of compactifying the primordial dimensions), a black hole is lighthouse, comsat and GPS. Once they’ve spotted one, they’ve homed in on a fact that will remain true across a whole superposition of future histories. They can rely upon it utterly. And we may believe that this is how they keep their multiversal affairs together.

    There is nothing more random than the transient black holes created by multi-TeV cosmic ray impacts. Where and when they occur is calculable only in principle from information about myriads of fast-moving particles. Fortunately, their very randomness makes them subject to ordinary thermodynamics, and they evaporate in a few Planck Times; and if the Powers cannot employ them, neither can anyone else.

    What does give them headaches, however, is artificial black holes created by intelligent life just getting their knees skinned on real technology. Because they appear consistently in certain places, and when they evaporate, their information is correlated with that place. Novice engineering species have no idea that each time they produce a transient black hole in an accelerator, it’s like putting all your secrets on a server and opening a port to the internet. Give your existence away like that, and in a millisecond you’ll be drowned in worms and spam.

    The LHC has just achieved its first particle collisions at a few hundred GeV.

    Soon we will be visited by the mirrors that talk back, the cameras that really do steal your soul, and the smart drugs which aren’t just smart in themselves, they’re full of amazing ideas about how to get themselves distributed. The whole Fortean gazoo. Such are the bugs in the bilges of the Transfinites’ stately vessels, and the sharks in their wake.

    Our generation has seen a lot of clever ideas presented both as pop science and rigorous. Language is a virus, memes have strategies, you act and only then construct a theory of your deliberation, there are quantum encryptions for which there can only be one physical key, there’s the Fine Tuning fact which I’m using here, and more. They’re the equivalent of thought-provokers like, all matter is energy (and therefore …), we only use 10% of our brains, mutation is a driving factor in evolution (and therefore …). All of them are story-fodder: use them freely! Grant Morrison does. Anyway …

    There’s sort of a Prime Directive in force. You just don’t let vermin like that hijack a potentially universe-spanning civilization; you might as well distribute cats through the Galapagos. Fumigating the place won’t cut it; your obvious mechanisms are too obtrusive. You’ll have to download agents.

    Agents who are Fortean, or Dickian, in themselves. You could think of them as like Piers Anthony or Terry Pratchett’s metaphysical characters. They’re counterfeit human identities, who may or may not have their own human needs. That’s for them to worry about. They certainly have human personalities, but if they look too closely into their memories they find they don’t exist. They can keep their stuff together as long as they concentrate on their detective work; but there may be more monkey-business going on than they were detailed to handle, and so they may be subject to well-founded paranoid doubts about what is real. And then like any good Dick detective, they actually have to solve the riddle of what is real.

    They prefer to operate by confronting the right people or blowing the right things up. Their modus operandi is fairly standard spycraft. But their trump card is to mess with the laws of nature.

    This is tricky to do. Even more stable than black holes are the physical constants. The exact settings of the constants are the foundation of the Periodic Table, and the Transfinite navigational staff have whole departments devoted to guaranteeing that each and every element and isotope of the table is eighty decimal places accurate. Allowing the constants to change even minutely would be disastrous to the vessel or the universe.

    But there are more constants. In our universe they are below the practical threshold of measurement; in others, they are significant; and so in other universes the Periodic Table is different. Color charges and magnetic moments, different half-lives, masses, chemistry. Agents for download are supplied by departments for elements existing in universes nearby on the Linde landscape, involving constants they control which can be fiddled with minimal effect on our version of the Table. The two agents deemed most capable while being compatible with our universe are dispatched by the departments for the elements Sapphire and Steel.

    If you were a human detective investigating them, you would be disturbed that they pop up between two frames from a security camera in Brussels; but you would be really puzzled if you ever discovered this was 0.01 second after a 100-TeV shot at the LHC.

    There! That gloriously goofy intro has bugged me for years. And it only took String Theory to no-prize it!

  4. I’ve read all the meme virus doctor Who re-imaginings so far and I like yours best Andrew. I too get a frisson of combined excitement/sinking feeling every time Susan says those words and even when I first watched it all those years ago when I was a mere unearthly child myself I wanted to shout – ‘The Fourth Dimension is ‘Time’ you dipstick not ‘Space’, The other three dimensions are Space – up, down in and out remember?’ Anyway there’s nothing we can do, every time the episode is played she says the same thing. It’s a fixed point in time which even the Time Lord Victorious can’t change.

    I liked your version though because it’s like an idea I had myself about 15 years ago and got very close to pitching to the BBC. In mine we first see the The Doctor as a Hartnellesque old man in a care home/sanitorium. An old man plagued by dreams of monsters and other worlds. He’s actually been kept gently locked up and under surveillence since Edwardian times (hence his retro clothes stylings). Every now and then he draws the attentions of investigators of the strange and paranormal or the CIA and similar. He appears to have hardly aged in a hundred years and X-Rays show his physiognimy to be somewhat alien. On a certain day in 1963, which he has been waiting for, he slips away to a rendezvous in an abandoned junk yard in Totters Lane where his grandaughter Susan arrives in the Tardis which, a hundred years previously to save her from some unnamed danger, he had programmed to jump forward in time with Susan on board. He has had no choice but to wait out the hundred years in real time. from there the writers could take it where they will, but I would hope some of the potential to explore the dark and mysterious nooks and crannies of British SF not explored in the last 46 years would be realised.

  5. Pingback: Linkblogging For 26/11/09 « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!·

  6. Jonathan: HA!!! You know I didn’t even know I wanted that, ’til suddenly it appeared. An exceptionally pleasant surprise…and damn it, that would work, wouldn’t it?

    Also, Jherek: you’re too kind, especially when you call me Andrew…yeah, Susan saying crrr-razy things, it’s great, isn’t it? How in the hell can the fourth dimension be “space”, it doesn’t parse, it’s just nuts. So what could Susan possibly know that we don’t, is the question…

    Something tells me if we turned Janathan on it we might get an answer!

    • It would work as well as it ever did, given the same breathtaking ability by the actors to mime suspense and engagement with the Unknown, while staring at a couple of glowing patches on a wall.

      There’s a lesson here. The audience’s suspension of belief scraped through on such amazingly shonky visual effects, but they were specific, intentionally crafted effects which pressed the limits of contemporary video technology and studio illusions. Video in itself was still residually exciting, and viewers were keen to find out what it could make them believe; so they wound up doing most of the work.

      What would be cool, is if an SF show implicitly promised to intrigue and discombooble the viewer by pushing the boundary of video – not CG but camera work – together with calculated misdirection and conjuring tricks, so as to hook him by the imagination. Say as if it were Primer staged by David Lynch.

      I never followed X-Files, but I took in Twin Peaks and Wild Palms avidly.

    • Sussed me out, you devil. Yep, U. Jane Ionescu, the bald pre-Madonna, and her celebrated New Wave diatribe on the inadequacy of Man. Oh you’re in a bad way when you’re back-filling for your own typos, let me tell you. Sinjiz, pass the brandy!

      The connection is the Theatre of the Absurd, of course. Flip the card and it’s the sense of wonder; but how rare that talent is.

  7. I have to take some small exception with the phrase “there is nothing more stable than a black hole” because astronomers now believe it is possible for black holes to orbit each other and eventually merge, such as when galaxies collide.

    I apologize for my pedantry.

    • Touche`!

      Even black hole mergers are predictable to high precision per unit mass, though, I have to think. Not very much mass is involved aside from the holes themselves during the episode.

      On the other hand, the non-linearity of the Einstein equation is really significant here. Something in the outcome has to be chaotic.

      For Pedantry!

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