04 June 2015

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who is a great book. That much is certain in my mind, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with at least a passing interest in Doctor Who or science and its history. What Simon Guerrier and Dr Marek Kukula have come up with here is a guide that works as in a variety of ways. For starters, it's a nice anthology of some original Doctor Who fiction. It also serves well as a collection of essays on the relationship between our beloved show and real science and thirdly, it makes a good quick reference guide with its occasional box-outs. It works most successfully when you consider the book as a whole though. With its variance of tone and topic it helps keep the reader engaged even in the more complicated places.

I probably ought to explain what this book actually is. The title is a little ambiguous but the format for each chapter is basically a short story set within the show's fifty-one year history followed by a non-fiction section explaining an area of science covered by the story. These are pleasingly broad and are grouped into three sections: Space, Time and Humanity. If you were approaching this book with the hope of finding out how a Sonic Screwdriver is built or learning the life cycle of a Skarosian giant clam, you won't get what you might be expecting. This takes a completely detached look at how the science included in the fictional side of the show marries up with what we actually know and predict. But, as the authors note on the first page, this equally isn't a guide to which bits Doctor Who got right and wrong. The end product is of course far superior.

Of the fifteen stories included, a third of them star the Twelfth Doctor. By far the strongest of these is David Llewellyn's The Mercy Seats, which is told from the perspective of fourteenth century poet Geoffrey Chaucer. This is an intelligent and witty tale with a perfect balance of character and plot. Consequently it's one of my favourite short stories of all time. Some of the other TARDIS line-ups chosen by the remaining contributors aren't entirely surprising - for example, Marc Platt delivers a pre-An Unearthly Child First Doctor and Susan tale and Andrew Cartmel a Seventh Doctor, Ace and Raine story - but there are also some pleasant billings. 

Rounding out my top three would have to be Una McCormack's In Search of Lost Time, featuring the Eleventh Doctor, and Jonathan Morris' The Hungry Night, starring the Christopher Eccleston incarnation. Both of these are really great little stories, with McCormack's being especially humorous and flawlessly nailing Matt Smith's portrayal. Jacqueline Rayner's Potential Energy narrowly misses out of this grouping, but her story is still excellent and massively humorous and clever. Other things of note for me were a War Doctor story (from Justin Richards) and an entry from James Goss, another of my favourite writers. The only Doctor who doesn't get a story is Paul McGann, which feels like a bit of a shame given the expanse of his era. It's also slightly disappointing that Guerrier himself didn't write a story for this given how good he is at that side of things.

But now to cross to the other half of the book. The subjects discussed by Kukula and Guerrier are extremely broad, ranging from artificial intelligence to the human memory to astronomy and astrology to the Second World War. It's a credit to the author that they make each section just as interpretable and interesting as the next. Speaking personally, I'm much more interested in the science of humans and the world around us than space and what's often referred to as 'hard' science fiction. However, Scientific Secrets makes even the subject matter I'm naturally less inclined towards intriguing. The authors have a writing style perfect for this type of publication; they write with refreshing permeability whilst still including a wealth of facts and figures. It never feels like a burden but this level of education and information is hardly surprising from the man who brought you the mind-bogglingly comprehensive Bernice Summerfield: The Inside Story.

This isn't an especially cheap book at £16.99 for the hardback, but I'd say it's worth every penny. Not all of the stories are top-drawer but overall this is a comprehensive book like Doctor Who fans have never had before. It's also laid out very appealingly inside, which helps sell the potentially opaque content (never a danger in Kukula and Guerrier's hands) even further. This is a unique publication and certainly one of which all contributors ought to be proud. If you're not especially science-minded (bearing in mind a lot of this was at least passingly familiar to me from physics and computing A Levels) you needn't worry as Guerrier himself comes from an arts background. This is written in perfectly approachable - but never patronising - language, making it a good choice for beginners and veterans alike.

It's no surprise that there's an lengthy launch tour lined up for the next few months, including a high profile event at the Royal Greenwich Observatory soon. If you only buy one Doctor Who book this year, make it this one.

Thanks to Sophie Goodfellow and Simon Guerrier.

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