Putting the sci in sci-fi: An interview with Simon Guerrier

Image Credit: Matthew Kilburn

Image Description: Simon Guerrier in conversation with Matthew Kilburn at WhoSoc in 2019

By James Ashworth

Back in 2015, I was having a bit of a dilemma. Having signed up to do an EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) at my school, I had no idea what the subject matter should be , with a deadline for deciding fast approaching. As I struggled to come up with something, I started thinking about what I enjoyed – science, and Doctor Who. Suddenly, the thought hit me – why don’t I combine both my passions, and discuss the realism of biology in Doctor Who? This became my project, leading  to an A*, and a variety of Tides articles further down the line. Little did I know that in the same year, a book would be released looking at some of those very issues – The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who. As part of my Masters project this year, I revisited some of these topics as I discussed the importance of scientific realism in the media, which led me to sit down with one of the book’s authors, Simon Guerrier.

Simon first started to write for Doctor Who in 2002 with short story The Switching, where the Doctor and the Master switch bodies for a time. For him, the aim is not to predict the future with science, but find something to build a story from.

“It might be a particular kind of character, a particular plot, or something somebody said, and you build up your story from this basis,” he said.

However, that doesn’t mean that it’s  completely impossible to predict what’s going to happen. He mentions the Short Trips anthology Time Signature as an example, where the Doctor struggles to identify an earworm in short story An Overture Too Early

“I’d had that myself and found I couldn’t get this little phrase of music out of my head,” Simon said. “I just thought it was really interesting. I was talking with one of the sound engineers at Big Finish, and he said that there are scientists working on what we would now call an app, with the idea that you’d be able to hum or sing a bit of a tune and the system would be able to tell you what it is. So I thought: ‘I’m having that!’”

He put the idea into DS Al Fine, the story he used to wrap up the anthology, which at the time, he thought was a “neat sci-fi thing.” However, shortly afterwards, the idea would become reality, with Shazam releasing its music identifying app in 2008.

Simon would subsequently be paired up with an expert on a more regular basis when he was put in touch with the then public astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, following a personal connection to the institution.

“My wife used to work there,” he said, “and one of her former colleagues had been to a meeting where they were doing outreach. Literally, they said: ‘Do we know anyone with a connection to Doctor Who?’ and the manager said: ‘the husband one of our former staff members does that kind of thing’.”

As a result, Simon went and talked with the astronomer; a contact which soon bore fruit when he was commissioned to write a Companion Chronicle for Big Finish, Shadows of the Past. In the story, Liz returns to a UNIT vault, containing the remains of a crashed Mim spaceship in the Pennines. 

“I realised that I didn’t know what she would be looking for,” he said. “What tests would she do? How would she approach it?”

After getting a reply, which Simon says he could “pretty much… just copy and paste” into the script, he would continue to “pester him” for more help with other scripts. However, this changed after a few months.

“The problem, from his point of view, was that some of the questions I was asking were quite complicated and profound scientific questions that he didn’t know the answer to… but some were embarrassingly basic,” Simon said. “I thought: ‘oh, this is the end of the gravy train then.’”

Heading down to the pub, Simon consoled himself with one of his friends, mentioning the astronomer’s suggestion of taking a night class in GCSE astronomy at the observatory. Expecting an unenthusiastic response, Simon was surprised when his friend said that he’d love to do it.

“So, a bit to my horror, we both signed up to it and went together, and I found it really hard,” he said. “I was determined to get through it, and so I did, through sheer pig-headed stubbornness.”

Having earned his GCSE, Simon was set on a path which would eventually produce The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who. In the book, short stories are interspersed with the explanation of concepts such as space, the multiverse and the practicalities of time travel. 

“When we did the short stories, I gave all the writers the beginnings of an idea, the theme that they had to write about, and in about half the cases, I also said: ‘what about doing this?’”

For instance, the first story, Sunset Over Venus, sees the Twelfth Doctor and Clara join a mission to a probe in the planet’s upper atmosphere. Simon said he was inspired by an article he had read about the potential of life in the atmosphere. 

“It would be very difficult to live on but the cloud layer might be sustainable, and you could live in dirigibles or balloons,” he said. “I just thought that was really fun and cool and weird, so I gave that to Mark Wright, the writer, and he went away and looked at that.”

Though there were a few edits to be made, Simon says he was keen on not being too much of a dictator when it came to the editing process.

“I was partly aware, while doing the research for the book, that there’s a kind of mentality that if the science is right, then the story is good, but if the science is wrong, then the story must be bad,” he said.

“I don’t hold with that, and the example that I give is Planet of the Daleks. When that was written in the 70s, that was just a bit of nonsense that was scientifically unlikely.”

Previously, Terry Nation had referred to the concept of ‘icecanos’ in The Dalek World, but 16 years later Voyager 2 would take images of ice volcanoes on Triton, one of the moons of Neptune. Cryovolcanism has now been observed on  a variety of dwarf planets and moons in the Solar System.

Planet of the Daleks hasn’t changed, there’s nothing in it that’s any different,” he said, “but if you have this idea that only good science can make a good story, if that’s how you view the quality of fiction, it would completely transform your view of that story.”

Simon compared the approach of the production team on Doctor Who to other sci-fi programs, such as Star Trek. In particular, he refers to the Season Three finale of The Next Generation, ‘The Best of Both Worlds’, and the proposed use of nanites to fight the Borg.

“Even now, that sounds kind of pedestrian and backwards, so fixing yourself to contemporary science, and the latest developments, dates very quickly, so I think that you should take an interest in science, but not let it limit what you do in terms of storytelling,” he said. “I don’t mean it as a criticism, but I merely make it as an observation that this very close pairing between the latest developments and storytelling isn’t always futureproofing your product.”

Simon also noted that sci-fi isn’t just limited to discussing scientific topics, saying that it can “normalise an awful lot”.

“When Doctor Who came back in 2005, it was dealing with issues of sexuality that were radical at the time, in terms of putting gay and bisexual people front and centre on prime time family television drama, that now doesn’t feel so radical,” he said. “We’ve just got used to that.” 

“I suspect that the fact that Doctor Who was sci-fi, and set in a slightly mad world of adventure and explosions, made that easier to do than if you were doing a contemporary drama for prime time family viewing. It gives you a remove where you can play around with the usual rules, and a level of distance at which you can play a bit more. That’s true of the scientific concepts, but also the social ones.”

As we head into a decade whose watchwords seem to be misinformation, suspicion and oppression, it brings some hope that fictional works and the writers behind them can help bring respect for science and for humanity into the homes of millions. And with a character such as the Doctor, who is equally at home behind a lab bench in UNIT or outwitting the characters of The Land of Fiction, it can only be hoped that Doctor Who can do just that.

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