Terry Pratchett: Doctor Who isn't science fiction

Writing in SFX Terry Pratchett explains why Doctor Who, whatever its other merits, isn't very good science fiction. A provocative hypothesis, but it's hard to argue with his reasoning:
The unexpected, unadvertised solution which kisses it all better is known as a deus ex machina - literally, a god from the machine. And a god from the machine is what the Doctor now is. A decent detective story provides you with enough tantalising information to allow you to make a stab at a solution before the famous detective struts his stuff in the library. Doctor Who replaces this with speed, fast talking, and what appears to be that wonderful element "makeitupasyougalongeum". I don't know about you, but I don't think I would dare try to jump-start a spaceship that looks like the Titanic by diving it into the atmosphere... but I have to forgive the Doctor that, because it was hilariously funny.

People say Doctor Who is science fiction. At least people who don't know what science fiction is, say that Doctor Who is science fiction. Star Trek approaches science fiction. The horribly titled Star Cops which ran all too briefly on the BBC in the 1980s was the genuine pure quill of science fiction, unbelievable in some aspects but nevertheless pretty much about the possible. Indeed, several of its episodes relied on the laws of physics for their effect (I'm particularly thinking of the episode "Conversations With The Dead"). It had a following, but never caught on in a big way. It was clever, and well thought out. Doctor Who on the other hand had an episode wherein people's surplus body fat turns into little waddling creatures. I'm not sure how old you have to be to come up with an idea like that. The Doctor himself has in recent years been built up into an amalgam of Mother Teresa, Jesus Christ (I laughed my socks off during the Titanic episode when two golden angels lifted the Doctor heavenwards) and Tinkerbell. There is nothing he doesn't know, and nothing he can't do. He is now becoming God, given that the position is vacant. Earth is protected, we are told, and not by Torchwood, who are human and therefore not very competent. Perhaps they should start transmitting the programme on Sundays.

Terry Pratchett vs Who (via IO9)

(Image: Doctor Who Exhibition, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 33124746@N04's photostream)


  1. This is pretty much what my boyfriend and I have been saying about the show. At least the return of the weeping angels was not nearly as bad as the technicolour Daleks episode.

  2. This story does have some truths to it but I’m just laughing my bum off right now because I was playing Second Life. A friend was showing me how to use their Tardis & as we were calling it back we accidentally walked into the wrong Tardis. Ok, I did. The conversation was this:

    me “where am I?

    person: “You’re in the Tardis”

    me: “Crap. Wrong Tardis….. Have you seen my friend walk in here?”

    Sorry I just had to share. How often does someone get to say “wrong Tardis”?

  3. Yup – one of the things I liked about the latest episode was the lack of a deus ex ending, or at least a much watered down one. The story actually managed to mention all of the elements that would come into play at the end.

  4. Over the years I’ve heard many arguments as to what is/is not _proper_ ‘Science Fiction’.
    I guess it depends on how you define the term..
    But you know what?
    *I don’t care!*
    Whether Doctor Who is ‘Proper Science Fiction’ or not is irrelevant to me.
    At it’s best, it engages me both mentally, and emotionally…
    ..so I really don’t want it to be anything else, other than what it is.


  5. I don’t think Sci-fi necessarily precludes a Dues ex machina ending? It just, like in any other genre, makes it weaker. It’s a literary convention, not literary treason. I can think of a Shakespearian play that uses it. Does that make Shakespeare a bad sci-fi writer?

  6. Why does it have to be science fiction? Star Wars isn’t really science fiction either, but that doesn’t keep it from being considered a genre classic.

    Even pterry recognizes that not being science fiction doesn’t mean it’s (always) bad. What he puts it down for, in full context, is not being “not science fiction” (which would really be odd, given that pterry writes what is probably England’s best-known fantasy series after, or possibly before, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter), but rather for (occasionally) playing fast and loose with the conventions of narrative storytelling, and (occasionally) just being downright bad.

    He does say he wishes that it wasn’t classified as “science fiction”, but he’s a few decades too late for that. It’s just as much “science fiction” as Star Wars—or, for that matter, Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars.

    But even then he admits that when it’s not sucking, it’s downright awesome—the paragraph after the ones BoingBoing quotes says:

    And yet, I will watch again next week because it is pure professionally-written entertainment, even if it helps sometimes if you leave your brain on a hook by the door. It’s funny, light-hearted, knows when to use pathos and capable of wonderful moments; I remember the face of David Tennant as the Doctor watching some public schoolboys machine-gunning a bunch of walking scarecrows (a reversion to the cheaper monsters of earlier incarnations) and we know that he knows that the First World War is only just around the corner where the scarecrows are for real. And I remember too, “The Empty Child” – I never once hid from the Daleks but the Empty Child was almost a back of the sofa moment.

    Which is pretty much just how I feel about it too. :)

  7. As a series, it has the trappings of sci-fi without much of the ‘core’ of sci-fi.

    However, some individual episodes are very much science-fiction, perhaps despite the rest of the series. The obvious example of when they do a more sci-fi story is Silence In the Library/Forest of the Dead.

  8. My main complaint is that isn’t nearly enough running up and down corridors in the new season so far. At least the sets still look cheap.

  9. I just wish they’d try *harder* to be science fiction.

    Weird-advanced Time Lord tech that allows FTL (and quite frankly, why not time travel at that point? It’s the same thing) is something I can buy. A ‘Sonic Screwdriver’ device which – presumably after years of training – can ‘interface’ with devices in more manners than the sum total of my tool box is also semi-plausible…

    *But keep it as a scredriver!*

    The problem arises when it becomes a magic wand. The Eccleston series even had some instance where there was nothing the screwdriver could do, but in the latest episode it was functioning as a tricorder – a function which makes no sense given that it doesn’t have a monitor.

    And while it’s one thing to have super-advanced alien tech, stuff that presumably exploits loopholes in Thermodynamics and Causality, it’s a whole other thing to blatantly piss on the concepts the way Weeping Angel’s ‘Observer Effect’ nonsense does.

    And don’t even get me started on the recurring enemies, cheap ‘third way out’ solutions, and the constant technobabble excuses. Dr Who is going from Star Trek TNG to Voyager.

    1. “The problem arises when it becomes a magic wand. The Eccleston series even had some instance where there was nothing the screwdriver could do, but in the latest episode it was functioning as a tricorder – a function which makes no sense given that it doesn’t have a monitor.”

      I actually assumed it was somehow beaming the information directly into his mind- why bother wasting space for a monitor when you can just KNOW what the monitor would be telling you? It makes the device more compact and elegant. I do agree that it does way too much, though… it should be like a high-tech swiss army knife at best.

      1. That’s a fair assumption; and I think we’re in the same boat.

        Occasionally the Doctor creates a Deus ex Machina ending because he’s just that brilliant – and these ones I like. I like seeing his Brains win over the Dalek Brawn.

        But the problem arises when his ‘idea’ is sheer nonsense, and not a justified assumption based upon the situation (his advanced knowledge being part of that situ, of course).

        This season’s been very hit-and-miss. The ‘third way out’ in the space whale episode was great; I love seeing the Doctor being forced into a hard moral decision, not some sort of namby-pamby peace and love solution. A reminder of his grim background.

        The Go-Go-Power Daleks episode, however, was such utter bull that I can’t even think about it.

        2005 had a lot of great scifi in it, even if it was scifi lite – but as the series continues, I find more and more of it to be repetetive, enemy-of-the-week BS drama. It’s severely dissapointing.

  10. I love Doctor Who, but I would never argue that it’s actually science fiction. Shows like Buck Rogers or any of the recent Star Trek series aren’t really science fiction. They’re space adventure which occasionally dabbles in science fiction. Doctor Who is very much the same way except that it’s time and space adventure with a dash of horror thrown in from time to time, and every once in a while some science fiction. For example, the episode a couple of seasons back when they’re on a planet where there’s a war going on between two groups who replenish their armies using cloning, that was science fiction. The basic setting and plot wouldn’t have looked out of place in Asimov or the like. So, it does veer that way every now and again, but it’s primarily just a time and space adventure, albeit a good one.

    Now, I should point out that for something to be science fiction doesn’t require that it be oriented around the hard sciences (astrophysics, physics, chemistry, etc.). You can have science fiction which is based on the soft sciences: psychology, sociology, political science, medicine, etc. For example, the movie Serenity was definitely science fiction (even though Firefly mostly was not), but the science in question was soft sciences, not hard sciences. When Doctor Who does actually get at some real science, that’s the sort of science it gets at, not physics.

    1. Yes, I was just thinking the same thing. There’s a reason it’s called “space opera” after all. Doctor Who is an adventure series with science fiction motifs.
      But then again, Terry Pratchett doesn’t write fantasy either. I guess for a lot of people it’s easier to just put blunt categories on things rather than trying to explain.

  11. My personal definition of ‘true’ science fiction is a description of a possible future or alternate reality in which fantastic, yet somewhat plausible, things happen. ‘Dune’ is a great example of a pure science fiction premise blown to the proportions of a fantasy series, as are the long works of Asimov. But although the Doctor Who franchise is full of comedy, nonsense, and unscientific elements, the premise of the show is still pretty sci-fi. There is an ancient race of beings so advanced their technology cannot be explained by humans at all. They guard against rogue powerful races and beings who threaten the advancement of normal planets and civilizations. It’s not always executed with scientific precision like the aforementioned works, but I think that one of my favorites ‘Stargate SG-1’ is also a good example of a really entertaining show with a solid ‘ancient beings’ sci-fi core to it.

  12. I love Pratchett but he is confusing the clumsy but general term Sci-fi with the sub-genre of Hard Sci-fi, which is based on specific scientific theories or potential technologies with a rooted base in current possibilities. As it is the overwhelming majority of sci-fi is not hard sci-fi, and never has been. sci-fi is very broadly where there is technological and scientic (however absurd and ficticious) behind the plot devices rather than say a magic one in fantasy. This is rather simplistic however.

    I am actually of the opinion that the sci-fi and fantasy (and other areas of fiction, alternative reality, much postmodern fiction, basically anything where the fiction relies on a concept that does not exist in the world or never has done etc) moniker should be dropped, and replaced (as is happening in academic circles more often to get around such problems) with conceptual fiction, there are a couple of alternatives also used, but i argue this is the best one.

    it is a better and far more accurate term while being significantly broader and one that is less culturally loaded than fantasy or sci-fi etc

    .It also significantly is a term mot associated with a specific genre but an approach to fiction, a lot of ‘serious’ authors write conceptual fiction but would never admit to writing sci-fi or fantasy because of the stigma of genre and their books stay on the contemporary fiction shelves and get separated off in the minds of people and critics from potential related works. As it is i also am against genre shelving in bookstores, for personal experience i know it encourages limited breadth of reading, people need to read more broadly. Specifically those who just read sci-fi and more specifically fantasy, sci-fi has been very creative throughout the 20thC fantasy hasnt and which has for so long after lotr and until recently been largely a dearth of good writing or inventiveness, although nice to see that changing somewhat, even if bland lotr rip offs still dominate.

  13. I think in its most popular meaning, “science fiction” is fiction where the made up stuff is meant to sound like advanced science. “Fantasy” is where it is meant to sound mystical, “drama” is where it is meant to sound commonplace, and so on.

    Sometimes they don’t do very well: TV crime dramas usually use very advanced science or just plain magic, but you’re not supposed to notice it’s not realistic.

  14. Well, given the fact that Steven Moffat has repeatedly said that he sees Doctor Who as a fairytale rather than as sci-fi, the point that Pratchett is making would seem to be moot.

    Personally, I’m not entirely convinced by Pratchett’s argument (or Moffat’s assertion). It all really hinges on how we define “science fiction”. Clearly, Doctor Who has to count as “speculative fiction” — an umbrella term for all the different genres of fiction that ask, “What would things be like if …?” This includes sci-fi, fantasy, horror, superhero stories, fairytales, etc. The question is, what distinguishes science fiction from other forms of speculative fiction? Obviously, it has to have something to do with “science”. But what?

    Is the defining characteristic of science fiction that everything that happens in the story is scientifically plausible (given our current understanding of what is scientifically plausible)? If so, then very little of what we typically count as sci-fi would qualify. Doctor Who certainly wouldn’t; but neither would most other TV shows and movies that bill themselves as sci-fi.

    Is the defining characteristic of science fiction that the entire story is about some groundbreaking new scientific discovery or technological breakthrough, or perhaps about some mystery that can be solved only by the application of the scientific method? If so, then we once again have to conclude that there are few actual works of science fiction on television and in the movies. So why single out Doctor Who?

    Is the defining characteristic of science fiction that it explores the implications of advances in science and technology? That it forces us to face up to the consequences (both positive and negative) of our ever-expanding knowledge and power? In other words, is the defining characteristic of science fiction that it’s “deep”? If so, then there have been a few genuine sci-fi shows on television (Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse immediately comes to mind); but not really all that many. Doctor Who does occasionally touch on the implications of science and technology; but, for the most part, Doctor Who tries to be fun rather than trying to be deep.

    But suppose that the defining characteristic of science fiction that it asks the question, “What would things be like if we really had the scientific knowledge and technological capability to do things we can only dream of doing today?” If that’s what science fiction is really all about, the Doctor Who would certainly qualify.

    But I get the impression that this isn’t how Pratchett defines “science fiction”. I may be misreading him; but he seems to be making the claim that, in a genuine work of science fiction, problems that arise in the story have to be solved via the use of actual principles from the natural sciences. If that’s his definition of science fiction, then I’m hard pressed to think of any movie or TV show that really fits the bill, except perhaps MacGyver (and even MacGyver cheated, since many of the clever things that MacGyver did on the show wouldn’t actually work in the real world — as the good folks at Mythbusters have demonstrated). Plus, MacGyver never billed itself as sci-fi. Anyway, I think this is far too narrow of a definition of “science fiction”.

    Nonetheless, regardless of whether you call it “sci-fi”, “fantasy”, “fairytale”, or “Bob”, Doctor Who is a fun show that’s definitely worth watching. So why the debate over labels?

  15. Well, Terry Pratchett is of course completely entitled to his opinion, but he’s saying this as if it’s news. Any Doctor Who fan with half a brain knows that Who has never really been ‘proper’ science fiction, and quite right too. It’s a gigantic, sprawling, improvised fictional world that’s been growing for over forty years now, and plays far more like a dark fairy tale with sci-fi trimmings (something current exec Steven Moffat seems to have sensibly realised). Indeed, on the few occasions where it’s tried to be ‘genuine’ sci-fi (particularly Tom Baker’s last season, supervised by script editor Christopher H. Bidmead), it’s never quite worked. Who is naturally eccentric and off-the-wall – you can play with genuine sci-fi tropes within it, but it’s far too whimsical to ever say “Yes! Let’s play Doctor Who as Greg Bear-style hard sci-fi! That’ll go down a storm on Saturday evenings on BBC1!”

    Really, this is just a repeat of the argument that’s been going on for ages – “Why can’t the general public recognise REAL sci-fi when they see it?” The science fiction that gets mass popularity does tend to be sci-fi adventure, and does tend to have a somewhat loose attitude to the laws of physics (Witness the recent Star Trek film, which went down a storm and made a ton of money, despite having a plot that made my brain start leaking out of my ears at one point). Star Wars is the same – that’s essentially a fairy tale in space. There are very few examples I can think of of genuine hard sci-fi since the seventies that have achieved anything more than cult success (the point that sapere_aude makes about Dollhouse is very good). Doctor Who is fast-paced, inventively odd space adventure that can be frustratingly ridiculous at times, but is also capable of being truly awesome.

    Yes, the criticisms of the Deux Ex Machina and the Doctor-as-Jesus/Tinkerbell are completely justified, but a lot of those were thanks to Russell T. Davies’ habit for emotional overload, and to anyone who’s watched the show for the past five years, it’s hardly news. Frankly, I was more boggled by the fact that Pratchett prefers Torchwood, which committed far worse crimes against storytelling than the majority of New Who (and turned its lead character into just as much of a suffering Christ figure). And bringing up Star Cops… well, let’s just say that Star Cops does have some very good moments, but it hasn’t aged very well at all (and was quite capable of bending the laws of physics in order to, say, cut down on the amount of annoying zero-g effects they were having to do).

    Sorry, but the whole thing did feel a bit like a Grumpy Old Man grumble, and does feel like Pratchett has a very narrow idea of what sci-fi is. And the whole “Oh yes, wasn’t old Doctor Who hilariously cheap with its invading teapots ha ha ha” was, to be honest, rather mean-spirited and not worthy of him. (I grew up with Classic Who, and still have an extreme soft spot for the level of insane imagination that went into that show – it has its dreadful moments, but it also has plenty of points where it produces some wonderful stuff.) And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Who can also be a fantastic gateway drug to science fiction in general – it certainly was for me. It’s always been a rollercoaster of quality and sense, but I can forgive its excesses for the moments where it gets it truly right.

  16. I can’t stand genre arguments. As in music, it’s simply about putting artists in boxes, which is no place to put an artist really.

    Davies resurrection of “Doctor Who” took a creaky and cheap tea-time serial and made it into global appointment television. It’s a very rare example of family tv that doesn’t bore parents into a coma or completely lose the kids.

    Sure, it borrows liberally from science fiction and fantasy as well, but really it’s an adventure show. Lots of daring-do, running about, wit in the face of peril, good-hearted heroes, vile rogues, scares and laughs and an ending that leaves you wanting more.

    I’d disagree that the Doctor is becoming the Dues in his own Machina (or TARDIS if you will). Davies went to lengths to show that the Doctor’s adventures came at a great cost, both to him and those around him. He’s a dangerous creature, and for all his knowledge he still loses the people he loves time and time again.

    It’s great guns popular fiction. Does it fit neatly in the sci-fi box? No. And nor should it.

    1. “Red Dwarf has more sci-fi cred, …and it’s funny”

      To you, maybe, but not to me. Red Dwarf is predictable, repetitive, derivative situation comedy. Ha ha. Yawn.

      Dr Who, for all its wobbly scenery and implausible plots, has been entertaining people since the sixties, I hope the doctor continues to do so. Whereas the second episode I saw of Red Dwarf was one too many. Sadly, my brother, who I shared a house with at the time, thought it was hilarious. Yawn.

  17. I really hate arguments over if something is “fill-in-some-broad-ill-defined-category” (art, sci-fi, liberal, whatever). Pick a definition for your word. Does object fit definition? If yes, it is that thing as you define it. If no, it isn’t. How hard is that? So, if your definition of sci-fi demands believable technology and no deus ex machina plots, then clearly Dr Who isn’t sci-fi. If your definition just requires the future and technology no matter how absurd it is, it is.

    The more interesting way to deal with this is to define what you are talking about by what it actually is, rather than arguing about the “right” definition of some word and if what you are talking about fits that definition.

    Dr. Who clearly sucks if you are looking for a hardcore look at humanity, technology, or speculation on the future. If you are looking for a funny dialog, adventure, fun plots, and absurdity all around, Dr. Who will probably do you well. If you want a coherent universe that takes a deeper look at how technology will change humanity, look elsewhere. I don’t think anyone disagrees, so who exactly is Terry Pratchett arguing against?

    That said, I personally would like to see more “hard sci-fi” on TV. Stories placed in well thought out settings that make a real attempt to build a coherent and consistent universe are pretty rare. I don’t mind your FTL drives or other fantastic pieces of technology, I just want all of the implications really mulled over.

    Star Trek is a pretty good example of a universe that isn’t terribly internally consistent. Clearly, the AIs in Star Trek are horrifically powerful. The holodeck AIs can pretty easily crush the shit out of a Turning test. So why isn’t there an AI running the ship? Why does Picard have to scream “shields up!” instead of the ship AI going “oh shit!” when it sees the Klingons decloak and power up weapons and throwing the shields up itself? Why bother sending an away team to a hostile planet when a robot would do? Hell, why do they have humans fight hand to hand in boarding actions when a battle robot and a few wall mounted laser turrets would do it better without risking lives? You don’t have to follow the laws of physics, you just need to be consistent. Dune explains away strong AI with cultural taboos. Red Mars explains it by declaring AI incapable of being as smarts as humans for physical reasons.

    Personally, I think if you want to see good fun hard sci-fi done right, Niven is your man. He doesn’t sacrifice fun, and he doesn’t turn his universe over to robots, but he does build universes with clear and consistent rules that could conceivably be true and runs with it.

  18. Anyone else think he’s just annoyed that he wasn’t given credit when they ripped off his idea for the episode “The Beast Below”?

  19. I find it very easy to argue with his statement, actually.

    Whether the science is good or bad has no bearing… science fiction is a setting as much as it is anything else. Space opera is just as much sf as hard sf is. And it’s not “bad sf” either, it’s just not to the tastes of hard sf fans.

    Deal with it, and move on.

  20. Of course it’s “sci fi”! The aesthetic definition of sci fi (ie, “it has a space ship in it therefore it’s sci fi”) has as much a claim on the term as the fruitier notions about stories about technology and so on.

    Both defintions have their place in the context of different discussions. However, my experience as an SF fan for thirty odd years suggests to me that the “wheee! robots!” defintion carries just as much, if not more, weight with the core audience than the heavier definitions based on the type of story.

  21. Heh heh.

    Yes, I can see plenty of room for healthy debate on whether or not we can apply the classification “Science Fiction”. Infinite room.

    The devastating, pin point accurate, critique of the quality of recent series, however, stands firm regardless.

  22. Well, maybe I’m just hearing what I want to hear in Pratchett’s piece, but I thought the genre issue wasn’t really his main point. His biggest critique seemed to be that DW has had some sloppy plotting recently, which has left its universe unbelievable and transformed its main character into Space Jesus. Which is pretty true, as far as I can tell. I mean, I still really like a lot about the show (and Pratchett seems to, too). But I think it’s fair to say that this sloppy writing undercuts the show in a way that low budget or goofy villains still don’t.

  23. The delightful irony of the piece is that I’ve had more than enough pointless head-desk debates that Pratchet’s books aren’t “really” fantasy at all — not least because his books are as full of utterly ridiculous dei ex machina, wince-inducing puns and a profound lack of “seriousness” as chocolate chips in a batch of toll house cookies baked by a choco-holic. If I was really that interested in doctrinal turf-wars, I’d be a theology grad student right about now.

  24. At the risk of angering Mr Pratchett again (long story, don’t ask) I’d like to humbly submit that he is very wrong indeed.
    Lets have a quick look at the checklist for science fiction.
    Fictive Neology? Check.
    Novum? Big blue police box shaped check.
    The sublime? Check, the doctor is soooo old.
    The grotesque? Check.
    Etc etc.
    Doctor Who conforms almost exactly to current academic science fictional thought. It may not always be very good, but it is undoubtedly SF. I think that what Terry dislikes is the way it is written.
    Would be interesting to find out what he thinks of Neil Gaimans episode when it is broadcast.

  25. “Why does Picard have to scream “shields up!” instead of the ship AI going “oh shit!””

    I believe Isaac Asimov covered that argument in a series of books, but to sum his argument up. It mostly relates to that humans will be inheritable soft if they are looked after constantly. So the solution is to leave out the robotic servants and give the humans an opportunity to fail. Perhaps I should say, the freedom to fail.

  26. ::sigh::

    Why does there have to be only one definition of SF? Pratchett is simply saying that it doesn’t agree with his definition, surely? No need for anyone to get pissed.

    My personal definition of SF excludes almost everything that has ever been on TV or in the cinema. The old Who was really Space Opera, I think, which skirts the borders between SF and fantasy. The new Who is melodrama.

    Which does not mean that it can’t be good — although I’m not sure about the new Doctor.

  27. Hmmm. StarCops. I remember that fondly. A good, if flawed attempt at doing hard SF on TV.

    Doctor Who isn’t science fiction; it is fantasy. And it does it well. My definition of science fiction is a story that sets rules for a universe and sticks to them. No cheating. I love the Doctor, but he cheats too much.

  28. I read Terry’s comments in the voice of that guy from Party Down. “Oh, and this is hard sci-fi, no dragons or magic or any of that bullshit.”

  29. You know that game where you modify a song by adding “without my pants on” at the end of every line or “in bed” to the end of your fortune cookie?

    Read this essay and all comments with the addition of “for some values of ‘science fiction.'”

  30. See also Neal Stephenson’s claims that his “Baroque Cycle” counts as science fiction, if only because he thinks about and touches on topics that are enjoyed by most fans of sci-fi.

    I wouldn’t even say “for some values of science fiction” in that case. I’d say he’s using non-euclidean science fiction that he exhumed from R’lyeh.

  31. “Writing in SFX Terry Pratchett explains why Doctor Who, whatever its other merits, isn’t very good science fiction. A provocative hypothesis, but it’s hard to argue with his reasoning.”

    What do you mean it’s hard to argue with his reasoning, he barely advanced his thesis at all! He just rambled all over the place, about this and that, without getting anywhere. The *only* relevant point that he made was that things like sonic screwdrivers or the Adapose don’t seem very likely technologically. To which I say: Clarke’s Third Law. (You’ll notice that the science fiction tends to be more down to earth when they’re actually on contemporary Earth.)

    Of course, that’s assuming that what he meant to argue was that Dr. Who doesn’t belong in the science fiction genre. If he meant that Dr. Who simply isn’t well written, then why go on and on about other scifi shows? But, again, if he DID want to talk about scifi exclusively, why talk about detective stories?

    Either way, the thing that’s not well written isn’t Dr. Who so much as it is *Pratchett’s article*.

  32. The fallacy here is expecting sharp lines between fantasy, science fantasy, and science fiction. Star Wars isn’t really SF either; I would put it squarely in the Science Fantasy camp, since it’s fairly pure sword and sorcery in SF drag.

    To which I say: Nothing wrong with that. It’s _fun_. And it may serve as a gateway to more serious work. So leave it alone and left folks enjoy their guilty pleasures.

  33. Ir’s still science fiction. Star Trek is way more guilty of this.

    What’s the deal with his hatred of Doctor Who? There is alot more targets he should complain about first. Twilight being first.

    DoomKitten just stop watching. If good episodes are bad to you you’ll never be happy

    1. He’s British, he watches television, there’s no Star Trek series on now and Twilight isn’t even claiming to be SciFi, why would you think that they are?

  34. I’ve never watched Doctor Who, but it doesn’t need to be validated through membership in sf or any other genre. It is itself, with its own virtues and flaws, whatever they are, no matter how you classify it. So for Pratchett to say that it’s not sf is a technical point and nothing more.

    Which is not to say that there’s no point in talking about whether it’s sf or not. If you’re interested in sf then it may be worth discussing for you.

    Anyway, Pratchett clearly likes the show, regardless of genre. Let’s not start any more arguments than we have to.

    I’ve never heard it said before that Pratchett doesn’t write fantasy. If it isn’t fantasy, what is it? It’s always seemed pretty squarely within the fantasy genre to me. (Especially given Pratchett’s comments about how Harry Potter was, despite J.K. Rowling’s statements to the contrary, fantasy.)

    1. I’ve never heard it said before that Pratchett doesn’t write fantasy. If it isn’t fantasy, what is it? It’s always seemed pretty squarely within the fantasy genre to me.

      I think that’s directed at me. There’s alsways going to be people who hold to the Castor Oil School of Literature: Jokes are to treated with suspicion. And where’s the pages of family trees, historical time lines and fake religious texts to memorise? :) And I think you could argue that Pratchet’s world-building only extends as far as is strictly necessary to satirise whatever aspects of modern society are grilling his cheese at any given moment.

      Now, if that’s not “real” fantasy to some so be it — I’m not their mothers, or their lovers, and I’m most definitely not running the Reading Inquisition. I just don’t know whether asserting genre purity adds anything to my reading life.

      1. > Castor Oil School of Literature: Jokes are to treated
        > with suspicion. And where’s the pages of family trees,
        > historical time lines and fake religious texts to
        > memorise? :)


        Does that mean that David Weber counts has high literature? If so I’m sticking with DW and Pterry.

        1. Heh… you’re asking a question not only waaay above my pay grade, but not covered by my health insurance. (Military SF geeks are not people I want to angry up.) Though, to be fair, I’ve got an unhealthy amount of Discworld (and Dr Who) trivia clogging up the meat-drive.

  35. Terry? Really? This is the best use of your limited remaining time?

    Maybe a bit more time proof-reading Unseen Academicals instead?

    I wonder who he pictured as his audience as he wrote this? I imagine most SF fans got this argument out of their system (“what is SF”?) by middle school.

    Oh, and it helps to define what “SF” is before arguing what “DW” isn’t. As near as I can figure his argument is “SF worships Chekov’s Gun”.

    Besides, as others have pointed out writing an essay on how DW isn’t (hard) SF is like writing an essay saying that fire is hot, ice is cold and water is wet.

    I am glad he’s enjoying the show, whatever genre he thinks it is.

    1. “Terry? Really? This is the best use of your limited remaining time?”

      Is that the best use of yours? I think you should check your compiler settings, I think you’ve inadvertently set the “sociopath” flag…

      Criticising someone by making reference to their cronic medical condition isn’t normally considered in good taste where I come from. You?

      1. > inadvertently set the “sociopath” flag…

        Wow, you’d think I’d opined that the essay was poorly written and meandering because of his medical condition rather than simply stating that I’d rather he spent his time on something well written and entertaining.

        As to “where I come from”, it’s a place where words have meanings. I suggest you look up the definition of “sociopath” before using it again. You may also want to lookup “self-righteous prig” while you’re at it.

        1. Sociopathy: “a personality disorder characterized by an abnormal lack of empathy combined with strongly amoral conduct […]” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociopath

          Since I said I was of the opinion that citing Pratchett’s condition wasn’t a nice thing to do, the term was correctly used.

          Note that I haven’t actually called you any names yet. I didn’t even call you a sociopath — look up “inadvertently”…

          1. shadowfirebird, I think you mean you haven’t admitted to it yet. Still, your posited advertent versus inadvertent sociopath dichotomy intrigues me. Is that a real thing or just a sci-fi premise?

          2. Stooge:

            On further reflection I feel that I should cut “shadowvirebird” some slack. (1) he’s not really good at this. and (2) he may simply be understandbly upset about Pterry’s incipent mortality.

            And who wouldn’t agree that a world without another Discworld novel will be a poorer place?

            Perhaps someday SFB will find the serenity that Pterry apparently has (cf http://www.boingboing.net/2009/08/07/terry-pratchett-on-t.html)

          3. “shadowfirebird, I think you mean you haven’t admitted to it yet.”

            No, I genuinely meant what I said. I thought that he had inadvertently made a comment that made him sound like a sociopath. I doubt that he is one, although anything is possible, I suppose — the odds are about 100 to 1.

            Everyone has had the experience of making a comment or sending an email and then realising that they have said something horrible without meaning it.

            I suppose I was a little shorter than I should have been because I thought it was an especially unpleasant thing to say.

          4. For what it’s worth, this anonymous internet person agrees with you. It definitely borders on the sociopathic to so offhandedly dictate to someone with a life-shortening illness how they should or shouldn’t utilize their remaining time. What kind of mono-maniacal mindset do you have to be in to have the temerity to state what a dying man should or shouldn’t do? If Terry Pratchett decides to write books with his remaining time on earth, I will be escstatic. If he doesn’t, then I hope he’s happy in whatever he chooses.

  36. Two things. First, it’s science FICTION. Not Science Believable. Second, I don’t think people have been paying attention this year if deus ex machina is what they think is going on right now. Amy Pond has done most of the saving. 3/5 of the time so far.
    And Bringing Torchwood in just to diss it? The Doctor thinks of himself as the protector(and he is), but so does Torchwood(and they are), and so does Sarah Jane(and she is).

  37. The surprising part about the new Dr Who series is not that it isn’t SF, but that it’s usually watchable. That’s a refreshing change from the Tom Baker run I remember falling asleep to. It even has a few brilliant episodes, like Blink (I think that was the name).

  38. I think we illustrated the distinction last year at Dragon*Con with this video …

  39. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I would dare try to jump-start a spaceship that looks like the Titanic by diving it into the atmosphere…”

    Weirdly enough, this tactic has some real-world precedent to it, and has been used at least twice as a last-resort option to clear and restart a clogged jet engine on a commercial airliner.

  40. The show has pretty explicitly admitted that the “science” behind it doesn’t actually make any kind of traditional sense. It was summed up perfectly with the Doctor’s speech about the nature of time from “Blink” (a Stephen Moffat-written episode, as it happens):

    “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.”

  41. If Doctor Who is not science-fiction what is it? To me, science-fiction is interesting not because it rigorously based on science, but because it makes statements about society at the time it is written, rather like fairy stories used to do. I found the episode with cats keeping humans to make medicine interesting because it made me think about the ethics of animal testing, for instance. Being rigorously scientific, but not having a message is less interesting. It’s called “suspension of disbelief.” I don’t think it is up to any one person to define the limits of a genre.

  42. ‘pure’ or ‘hard’ sci-fi is usually totally boring, nerdy and not entertaining TV. There I said it.

    Pratchett should know that – if he wrote ‘straight’ fantasy books they’d be a lot less good, and hell of a lot less funnier…although even he only manages 1/3 good ones, which is why I tuned out of Discworld et al when I was a lot younger.

  43. All Science Fiction is to me is a thesis gently blanketed in fantasy. It is a vital part of science in general not because it adheres to the scientific rules we already have, but because it encourages us to have imagination and think that anything is possible. Because if we think something is possible, as a scientist we will go out of our way trying to find a way to make it happen.

    PS Discworld is awesome!

  44. Dr. Who isn’t Science Fiction. It’s a system for efficiently disrupting the sleep patterns of young children with only a crap BBC effects and art budget.

    Or at least it was in my day.

  45. I find it revealing that all of the episodes that PTerry listed as his favourites (Blink, Human Nature/Family of Blood and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances) were written by new EP Steven Moffat. Here’s hoping that whatever the hell the show is, he will enjoy the new season more that ever (and not just because of the kiss-o-gram girl)

  46. Huh, I think a series that can be *pretty much anything* from one week to the next is rather more interesting than one that conforms to Pterry’s restrictive definition of sci-fi. Doctor Who has tried to be hard SF once or twice, notably under the script editorship of Christopher H Bidmead in the early 80’s, but generally it just does whatever the hell it wants. And 47 years later, it still hasn’t exhausted its potential.

  47. And in next month’s exciting column, Terry Pratchett disses yoghurt for not being a very good type of cheese.

  48. River Song gives me a migraine, but one of the first things she said to the Doctor in the library episode nailed this whole issue (quoting from imperfect memory):

    “The TARDIS. Next stop anywhere.”

    thesunneversets @54 says it: Doctor Who can be anything it wants to be, which is precisely the reason it’s interesting, despite a litany of flaws we can all recite with our eyes closed. If memory serves, Kim Newman touches on this point in his excellent little book, as well as on the “improvised” aspect (well noted, Saxon Bullock @22).

    One nitpick. Pratchett says, more or less, that it’s a principle of dramatic writing that if you’re going to kill somebody in the third act you put the gun on the wall in the first act. In fact, the principle known as “Chekhov’s Gun” goes the other way around: if you show a gun on the wall in the first act, you’d better fire it in the third. The meaning is completely different, as even Wikipedia notes:


  49. I think the problem here is with the BB headline. I read Pratchett’s blog then came back here and had to reread what he said because I didn’t remember him actually saying that Who wasn’t sci-fi. I wouldn’t call that the thesis of his article at all. The thesis of his article is that Dr. Who is hit-or-miss and lovably bad.

    But basically when he said he preferred Torchwood the idea that his opinion on what is good could be taken seriously by anyone went out the window.

  50. Terry Pratchett, nice chap, very successful, writes books that sell well, amongst a certain audience.
    But I’m not sure that it really matters to me what he thinks Doctor Who is. What it is, is a series that has scored high in entertainment value since 1963, and no matter how you want to categorise it, that’s pretty good going.
    I started reading Sc-fi around then, and still do. The genre regarded as, or published as sci-fi is a broad one, many writers who, in the past, were giants of their field, would be equally dismissed by the criteria Terry Pratchett seems to hold.
    I’d maintain that the most relevant criterion for sci-fi is simply starting with the premise, “What if?”.
    Dr Who does that, without feeling any need to explain everything or defeat the challenges.
    The Weeping Angels was an episode where scenery and effects tried to make up for a very weak plot. But hey, Terry, it’s just a story, it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

  51. Terry is right of course stuff like Doctor Who is not science fiction BUT it is science fantasy.

    Science fiction can be defined as made up but plausible science i.e. confirms to the laws and knowledge and theories of are current understanding of the universe.

    Science Fantasy is made up science that is not plausible. Such as stuff that breaks the laws of thermodynamics, or uses forces that do not exist in reality basically anything that does not coincide with are current understanding of the laws of the universe.

    Both science fiction and science fantasy can be fun and enjoyable but it is good to know the difference between them.

  52. When your big deus ex machina comes down to “have a lot of people thing positive thoughts at the same time to defeat the enemy” you cannot be sci-fi. It’s even an insult to fantasy.

    1. I guess you’ve never read Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos — where love really does make the universe go round, and much all besides. :)

  53. Doctor Who is my cross to bear.

    Every boyfriend I’ve ever had loves it, and one made me watch them all. (in a few weeks, in the late eighties — anyone would get sick of that level of immersion)

    I liked Pertwee and oddly, McCoy (who seemed appropriately silly to me) and I resemble Ace.

    Hard scifi makes for lousy TV, as a domain primarily of the mind. If you think about it, even the moon landing is more space adventure than scifi proper, and it actually happened!

    Nevertheless, there’s some great early-70s TV movies that deal with real scientific possibility.

    Pratchett is a cranky old man, yes. And that is his right. And he’s right. And in the end it doesn’t matter.

    What if….? is all that matters.

  54. I also had to giggle slightly at Pratchet’s “”There is nothing he doesn’t know, and nothing he can’t do. He is now becoming God, given that the position is vacant … Perhaps they should start transmitting the programme on Sundays.”

    Um… did he bother watching The Waters of Mars and The End of Time? The blaring neon text of those three episode is that there most definitely are things The Doctor should never ever do, and when the arrogant know-it-all does the unintended consequences come back to bite him in the arse. Hard.

  55. I see science fiction mentioned a lot, and fantasy mentioned a lot, but why hasn’t any else ended up with the same term I have for Doctor Who? It is Science Fantasy.

  56. Oh my, we’re now discussing “science fiction” vs. “science fantasy”. It’s a short trip from there to “”SF” is the polite term, “Sci-Fi” is insulting, it’s the sort of stuff Hugo Gernsback published.”

    Which, btw, is a line I am not making up.

  57. An internet argument about how something should be classified, with no real relevance or application to anything useful?

    TvTropes to the rescue!

    Note that both Doctor Who and Space Cops are on here, in just about wehre pterry places them. I’d also recommend nearly all the anime on the hard end of the scale; scientific realism tends to dampen the… wackiness? of the genre that turns off so many other people.

    If your reaction to tvtropes is the same as mine, you probably won’t read anything else for the next few days. It’s like wikipedia squared.

    1. Oh, I like that.

      I’m going to stick my neck out and claim that Who is a 0 on that scale. Not that that necessarily makes it bad, of course — although I like to think it ran to a 1 when I was younger…

  58. Is it Science Fiction? Well, I suppose it depends on your definition. But last time I checked, there weren’t any Sci-Fi Police about, getting to decide what is and what isn’t Science Fiction. Is it brilliant writing? Heh. Have you seen the show? But it’s entertainment. Nobody watches because they wonder if the Doctor will win in the end. They watch to see what fun and exciting and ridiculous way he’ll save the world in This Time. If you’re looking for Blade Runner, you’ve come to the wrong place.

  59. Well, I’d have to agree, by my own judgment of what SF is, at least. Much of what is commonly called SF is merely a futuristic setting – it might have a more advanced technology than the real world, but that’s cosmetic, just a matter of flavour. To actually count as SF in my mind, the science has to actually be significant to the story, not just background to it.

  60. Why is it important that Doctor Who be considered sci-fi?

    My purely subjective, non-academic viewpoint is that science fiction maintains an internally consistent world. It follows something like the rules of Fair Play in detective fiction.

    The characters’ abilities must be mentioned early on.
    Supernatural acts (for the fictional world’s definition of “natural”) are ruled out.
    Only one deus ex machina is allowed.
    No undiscovered superpowers are permitted.
    No angels or other metaphysical beings shall appear in the story.
    Characters’ problems must not be solved by lucky accidents or intuitions.
    The protagonist must not have absolute control over the world.
    Nor must he conceal his knowledge and abilities from the audience.
    The nature of the focal characters must not be concealed.
    There must be special warning of actions that defy current real-world scientific knowledge.

    You get the idea. All sci-fi breaks a few of its own rules now and then, but on the whole, the sci-fi world is defined and predictable. Sci-fi fans can reasonably expect that the fictional world will not contradict itself and that rules, once set, will not be broken. If objects at rest are shown to stay at rest, they had BETTER not move until an outside force shows up.

    Doctor Who, in contrast, never tells us quite what the Doctor or his toys can do. Hey, they never told us the sonic screwdriver WASN’T also a medical scanner! It’s the equivalent of a detective novel that doesn’t tell the reader about critical clues until the big reveal at the end.

    If Doctor Who pretended to be interested in playing by the rules, it would merely be bad sci-fi. Thing is, part of the Doctor’s charm is that we never understand him well enough to predict what he can do next. He’s a super hero, a fantasy wizard, never bound by anything resembling science. Causality doesn’t have to be explained any more sensibly than “it’s in the script,” and that’s okay.

    If I watched Doctor Who with the expectation that it was sci-fi, I would feel insulted and misled. As a sequence of unrelated fantasy vignettes, it’s just good clean fun.

  61. Pratchett is talking rubbish. Whilst many different definitions for science fiction can be proffered, most people would agree that a story set in a world made possible by advanced technology that is not available to us today definitely qualifies as SF. Doctor Who absolutely qualifies. It may often be bad science fiction but that is another matter entirely.

  62. When Doctor Who was revived in 2005 there seemed to me to be a specific attempt to appeal to children. Something of an “isn’t that amazing?” quality. I had no problem with that in that it wasn’t condescending and still appealed to adults. But the recent years seemed to descend into crap and maybe worse, lazy writing. There were ever present multiple silly chase scenes, both out of place and moronic. I thought it must even have been insulting to the actors. I certainly felt insulted. It made FOX sports ‘keep the camera moving’ and the viewpoint shifting seem brilliant. It was a view of “action” where there was little basis for any in the plot.

    Certainly I’ve seen some of the deus ex machina quality where the Doctor seems to do something superhuman (rather than super clever) to get himself and earth out of some dire situation. That doesn’t engage the viewer’s imagination, often leaving an empty feeling on the level of ‘that was too easy.’ It’s a cheap writer’s trick, whether science fiction or other. I’m reminded of my English 100 prof describing a course in creative writing she had taken where killing off characters was not permitted.

    I’m not opposed to something approaching the absurd. Doctor Who is certainly campy. I remember watching reruns of the original Doctor Who and that was the reverse of the brilliant and super powered Doctor. He was a doddering old man. The science teacher companion was usually the one to come up with a solution to a problem. That never made much sense even on the basic level of wanting to retain viewer attention. Regeneration at that point was probably an inevitable writer’s deus ex machina.

    Still, anyone who wrote “Girl in the Fireplace” has some leeway with me in developing a quality series.

    Speaking of writing I was always amazed at the concept of the holodeck in Star Trek. What? The fantastic space pioneer future wasn’t enough to work with? They had to invent a machine to enable imaginary character’s imaginary story lines brought to life? It was occasionally clever – the Moriarty virtual character claiming the right to exist outside of someone else’s boredom. But that too degenerated into lazy story lines.

    1. PLEASE don’t get me started on “Girl in the Fireplace.” The moment she goes to the spaceship in the future and things continue as normal in the past, we know it’s an immutable timeline and that kills the suspense. Although the bit about the banana really was funny. :D

      Disclosure: I wrote the chapter on the philosophy of time travel for the upcoming SF Foundation book on the first five series of the New Doctor Who :D Coming out at the end of the summer!

  63. “Has Harlan Ellison posted yet?”

    …No, but no doubt he’s got a lawsuit in the works, claiming Prachett stole his snark from him.

  64. Is there a syndrome describing feeble minded people’s outrage when experts suggest that popular subject should be reclassified?

    “Pluto Syndrome” maybe?

  65. With all due respect Mr. Pratchett, it’s called suspension of disbelief. You should try it every now and then. It’s fun and relaxing.

    Does he really think the viewers think there is sound science behind Dr. Who?

  66. @crashgrab:
    Suspension of disbelief isn’t enough. To be science fiction it has to meet certain things… it doesn’t… its fantasy with aliens.

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