Space Magic

SFX has Terry Pratchett commenting on Doctor Who.

Pratchett says he wishes he could hate the show, because it’s not science fiction and it discards Chekhov’s rifle. Unsurprising, really: the Doctor doesn’t much like guns.

Pratchett elevates said rifle to a Law of Narrative, which I’m not sure it really is. For all his objection to deus ex machina, it’s a founding technique of literature, and hardly unusual. And anyone who follows the man behind Who, Steve Moffat, knows that he’s an absolute master of that supposed law. Coupling‘s core mechanics were desire, shame, and Chekhov’s rifle.

His predecessor, Russell T. Davies, is also pretty able to plant props in advance.

So on Doctor Who, why don’t they?

Because it’s beside the point, I think. Modern Doctor Who is entirely about the characters and the spectacle and how the characters react to the spectacle. When I sit down to watch the show, I’m not looking to find out how Amy Pond came to be attached to cracks in the universe. I’m watching for that scene where she chases the Doctor around her bedroom.

I’m not there to find out what rules the Doctor will manipulate to stop the plague of gas mask zombies… I’m there to see his reaction when, for just one episode, everyone lives.

The narrative structure of Doctor Who is all about those reactions and interactions along the way. It’s kind of like going on an actual trip, where the point isn’t whether or not you mentioned sunscreen to Mom but how she reacts when you find yourself in Egypt without it.

By the way, this is one reason I basically don’t write Doctor Who fanfic. As a writer, my brain always wants to go back in time and set everything up just right for the events to come. I have to keep myself from building too many rules into my worlds, because I already have a terrible tendency to put things into little quantifiable boxes.1

I’m grateful, honestly, that somebody’s making TV that’s not about that.


  1. I don’t know if roleplaying has helped or hurt in this regard. Ron Edwards would probably say it’s White Wolf baggage, and he might be right. On the other hand, roleplaying’s taught me a lot about screwing around with my plans retroactively.

7 thoughts on “Space Magic”

  1. Interestingly, I know a fair number of gamers who, if things AREN’T in quantifiable boxes, they go “meh” and pass on the game. So there’s that.

  2. I agree, but it seems to go a bit beyond that. Some players seem to get paralyzed by choice if it’s all very open. Having quantifiable boxes allows these players to get a better sense of what’s possible. (Anecdotally, having pre-created templates seems to have a 50/50 effectiveness — some consider that acceptably “boxy,” while others seem to think it’s cheating somehow.)

    I haven’t looked at how simple, very specialized games work in this context (like 3:16 or Dogs in the Vineyard), but I’d be curious if it has the same effect as boxes.

  3. Honestly, I’m a bit surprised at Mr. Pratchett–I’d expect he, of all people, to espouse a more, er, narrative view of SF: something like, futuristic premises and far-out situations are a device for examining issues that have real relevance to us here and now. Handwave-y science can be a detriment to that goal, for sure, but for my money the science is always in service to the meaningful, human element.
    My brother is a huge fan of this book Borderlands of Science ( ) by Charles Sheffield, which is all about how to keep the science in your SF accurate and plausible, and avoid classic pitfalls like giant bugs that couldn’t support their own weight, or alien invaders with no plausible reason to menace us. At first I was excited about learning to write science fiction properly,” but somewhere (in the midst of abandoning my planned epic SF novel) I realized that I don’t really care about that a great deal. I care about it SOME–I don’t necessarily want my stories to be hokey or dumb (though sometimes I do!), but really what I’m passionate about is setting up a situation and, like you said, Russel, seeing how the characters respond and are affected by it. The golden moments where the pressure’s on and someone makes a desperate choice or a touching gesture are the gold; all that physics stuff is just the cart that carries it out of the mine.

  4. (oops, missed an italics tag!)
    Anyway, about the quantifiable boxes: I think there’s two possible phenomena at work when you start sorting into boxes. First, it can be a passion for completeness–a desire to catalog and classify every last detail of a thing, to glory in the whole grand clockwork of it all. Second it can be a creative constraint–You can’t just make up anything, you’ve got to make up something that fits with this.
    I’ve found in roleplaying that when the boxes are presented as (or at least when I’ve approached them as) creative constraints, instead of a canon to be comprehended and adhered to, I’ve enjoyed them quite a bit! For one thing, a creative constraint is also a creative PROMPT–a seed of an idea that can get me rolling without having to pull something out of the air. And the challenge of making something that engages me out of the pieces I’m given is invigorating on its own terms.
    The game that’s got me jazzed about this currently is Apocalypse World ( ). Everything’s sorted into boxes–character types, lists of names, lists of Moves, Fronts on which the MC (GM) develops Threats–and they provide a rich, rich source of inspiration not just for chargen and prep, but every moment of play!

  5. As somene in the broke-down-into-semantic-arguments-and-trolling thread I started on this same piece over on RPGnet noted, Sir Terry was around during the New Worlds era when leading SF thinkers were prodding “science fiction” towards meaning something different from “speculative fiction” or “space opera” or whatever. I generally classify Who as fantasy with spaceships, like Star Wars meself.

    The editorial looks to predate the start of the Moffat run, so the Deus Ex Machina grumbling is mroe directed at the Davies stories, which have included some pretty in-your-face examples of same. Moffat generally seeds and Chekov-guns his tricks a bit more thoroughly.

  6. (Personally I’ve only gone “oh come on” once in the Davies run, and that was indeed Last of The Time Lords where the Doctor clearly spent all his Story Points in one minute.)

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