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Sci-Fi Television United Kingdom Technology

Computers and Doctor Who 93

Esther Schindler writes "We all know that the arts reflect the technology of their times. So let's look at The Doctor ('the definite article,' as Tom Baker said in December 1974) and his use of computers. Actually, for a show so closely associated with the Slashdot-techie lifestyle, Doctor Who didn't have much to do with computers early on. This article by Peter Salus traces the formative years: 'In January 1970, Jon Pertwee (Doctor #3) acquired a Cambridge scientist (Caroline John as Liz Shaw) as his companion, which might lead the unsuspecting viewer to think that a firmer computer science basis might ensue. But only in April did Liz exhibit her technical knowledge (by recognizing a Geiger counter reading).' And then we get to K-9....."
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Computers and Doctor Who

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  • by intermodal ( 534361 ) on Friday October 25, 2013 @11:43AM (#45235289) Homepage Journal

    I know people think of Doctor Who as SF, but it's really a fantasy series. The SF elements are only a mechanism for allowing the fantasy.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Yeah: the Doctor is just a wizard/trickster renamed, who carries a Magic Wand ("Sonic Screwdriver") and gets enmeshed in a lot of storybook tropes bashed into fantastic plots set in outer space or the future.

      • I'm not Dr. Who apologist, but the "Magic Wand" was pretty minimally used for the 1st and 2nd Doctors, almost forbidden for use by the 3rd Doctor, and has been almost written out of existence.

        There's a section in the middle where the Magic Wand gets used every week, but it's mostly a non-thing.

        • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

          yeah well you don't need the magic wand if you just timetravel shenigans to save yourself from falling into a cliff.

        • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Friday October 25, 2013 @01:17PM (#45236749)
          The point of Doctor Who in the time that I've seen it (eighties through current) is adventure with cleverness driving the story. Every thing in the story that serves to drive it is a MacGuffin, and computers and other tools fit into that category.

          Even the TARDIS itself is generally a MacGuffin. Despite people's attempts to render what the TARDIS looks like in its pocket universe within the time stream, we really don't know what it looks like or how it truly functions. Things get made up as they're needed for the story, and over-explaining may hamper storytelling in the future.

          Terry Pratchett's choice to not make detailed maps of the Discworld is for the same reason, he doesn't want to tie himself down with factoids that will later hamper future story telling.
          • by mikael ( 484 ) on Friday October 25, 2013 @04:19PM (#45239305)

            The best Tom Baker stories were when they could see the world in an entirely new perspective such as dropping down to miniature size to fight a virus, or taking advantage of iconic technology of the time; Jodrell Bank, BT telephone tower. The excuse about the TARDIS was that it's chameleon device broke down while trying to imitate a police box.

            Though the scariest parts were when they used jelly for the daleks eye-stalks. That had kids having nightmares. There there was the Seeds of Doom where people slowly turned into giant walking trees larger than manor houses.

            • by TWX ( 665546 )
              They've continued to do this, using the London Eye as an alien control transmitter in the 2005 pilot.
              • I know I'll never look at the Statue of Liberty [] quite the same way ever again.
                • That was really the weakest point of that story and really completely unnecessary. Considering that Doctor Who established that a Weeping Angel is a -stone statue- that can't move at all if anybody is looking at it, it makes no sense at all. First, the Statue of Liberty is not stone, and second, is there actually any point in time where -nobody- at all is looking at it?
                  • Ya gotta love Slashdot... a lecture on the unreality of one trivial but effective plot detail in a clearly admitted pseudo-SF fantasy series involving immortal time travelers and neverending existential threats to (fictional) life throughout the (fictional) multidimensional multiverse.

                    I find your selective lack of suspension of disbelief amusing.

                • I have Fringe to blame for that.

    • by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Friday October 25, 2013 @11:58AM (#45235565) Homepage Journal

      Well, no, not entirely. Sometimes you get occasional "high science fiction" type elements raising interesting questions about time-travel and its implications or the ethics of dealing with other forms of intelligence. But monster-of-the-week adventures, or battling the daleks again tends to be very fantastical and short on the interesting considerations.

      • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

        Soon you're going to be trying to explain how quantum leap is actually scientific and "high science fiction"(wtf is that? is that some kind of codeword for "what if" stories? which are usually put into the fantasy category).

        the thing about who is that it doesn't have any rules, so there can't be any exploration of what certain rules would mean, no speculation of what could be - just fantasy.

        the only science in it is how they managed to do the effects on small budgets. ..and ethics. lol. if dr who is about e

    • Same can be said of Star Trek...
      • In the original series, certainly. In some of the later series episodes and films, less so. TOS pretty much used the setting as a backdrop to create unusual situations, whereas some later series seem to exist to let LeVar Burton make up pseudo-sciency explanations ot things without reading the script.

    • Huh, I thought it was a horror show.

      • by TWX ( 665546 )
        No, that would star Tim Curry...
        • by JustOK ( 667959 )

          Wasn't he the guy Lister was always talking about in Red Dwarf, and that other guy from the Triple X movies Vin De Loo or whatever?

          • Wasn't he the guy Lister was always talking about in Red Dwarf, and that other guy from the Triple X movies Vin De Loo or whatever?

            for those that don't know... Lister, in Red Dwarf, talked about Vindaloo curry, an Indian food dish popular in Goa. The guy in the triple-X movies was the actor Vin Diesel. They don't look anything alike... (grin)

      • by invid ( 163714 )
        That's real horrorshow, droog.
    • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
    • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Friday October 25, 2013 @01:54PM (#45237363) Journal

      I think this gets into the philosophical debate as to where fantasy begins and SF ends. In the end, I tend to think it's all pretty fuzzy, and that most SF in the movies and on TV tends to straddle the line. There are a few films that I would consider SF, even if the physics is dicey or even outrageous; Metropolis, The Day The Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Alien franchise, Blade Runner are all what I'd view as science fiction. Star Trek, despite the technobabble, is still SF. Dr. Who sits in the same category as Star Trek; a lot of technobabble and mumbo jumbo, but still presented as essentially scientific and realistic.

      The science fictionesque shows that I consider fail the test are the Star Wars saga and the X Files, that while they have the veneer of science fiction, are thematically fantastical/supernatural in nature. Any "sciency" aspects are very thin veneer over mystical and mythical themes. Sure Star Trek has its Vulcan mindmelds and other telepaths, but the show still tried to portray itself with some level of faux realism.

    • We could start up the discussion/argument about how science fiction is a subset of the Fantasy genre. The Doctor might approve of the inclusiveness, but many fans will probably get offended by the idea.

      With so much of the series happening before the PC revolution, it's not surprising that the use of computers was limited to abstract devices. Adding to that, the way that the writers make a lot of the 'computerized' items to be living technology. (e.g. The Tardis itself.)

      • Aren't daleks computers? What about cybermen?
        • by Anonymous Coward

          Daleks are pretty much a tank controlled by a Kaled inside it, and cybermen are humanoid with much of their bodies replaced.

    • by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Friday October 25, 2013 @03:35PM (#45238801)

      However... With Dr. Who Smaller on the inside/Time traveling technology why would you need Digital Electronics?
      So you get yourself a mechanical differential engine, the size of room. Have it in a time bubble a few million years in the past, in a room bigger on the inside. You don't need to worry about all those details about digital computing. You have a simple calculator which is easy to fix and maintain. Start the processing a millions of years ago, when it is done it sends the message to your current time, So no wait.

      The biggest advantages of Digital Technology is Speed and Size. If you master space and time, These advantages mean little to you.

      • However... With Dr. Who Smaller on the inside/Time traveling technology why would you need Digital Electronics?
        So you get yourself a mechanical differential engine, the size of room. Have it in a time bubble a few million years in the past, in a room bigger on the inside. You don't need to worry about all those details about digital computing. You have a simple calculator which is easy to fix and maintain. Start the processing a millions of years ago, when it is done it sends the message to your current time, So no wait.

        The biggest advantages of Digital Technology is Speed and Size. If you master space and time, These advantages mean little to you.;

        Computers are bigger on the inside than the outside and I can prove it... Ever try to print all of the data on your hard drive... (grin)

    • They're all the same really, science fiction, fantasy, romance novels, mysteries, and so forth. Alternative reality backdrop as a tool for story telling.

  • News for nerds (Score:4, Insightful)

    by OglinTatas ( 710589 ) on Friday October 25, 2013 @11:45AM (#45235345)

    For nerds? Definitely.
    Stuff that matters? Unquestionably.
    News? Not so much /Tom Baker was my first Doctor.

  • what was the point? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 25, 2013 @11:50AM (#45235425)

    This read like a middle school student's book report. WTF was the point of cataloging the interactions of a tv series and a piece of technology? I thought maybe they would point out how the changes in technology affected the show, but that only got a final paragraph that seems unfinished.

    In other news, Two and a half Men's coverage of stem cell research is, frankly, appalling. Had they know that in 2032 stem cells would cure alcoholism, they could have made heavier use of the subject. amirite?

  • by MickyTheIdiot ( 1032226 ) on Friday October 25, 2013 @11:53AM (#45235493) Homepage Journal []

    Obviously not canon, but these commercials are mentioned quite a lot.

  • oh come on (Score:4, Interesting)

    by rubycodez ( 864176 ) on Friday October 25, 2013 @11:56AM (#45235537)

    the computers are always there but to Doctors are like the oodles of controllers we have in cars, microwave ovens and elevators. too ubiquitous to even merit notice or much thought.

    yes kiddies, for our controllers I'm using the old definition of digital computer was device having processor, memory, input, output

  • by themushroom ( 197365 ) on Friday October 25, 2013 @12:02PM (#45235647) Homepage

    was that in programming the TARDIS in some Who iteration (I'm not a Whovian so know zilch about which) he typed coordinants on a 1940s typewriter. Who knew the TARDIS was an analogue device?

    • in one series there was a bridge with bbc micro pc and 1960s teletype.

      but the Tardis can re-arrange and change its interior. some doctors just went to retro or scrapped-from-junkyard look.

      • by sandytaru ( 1158959 ) on Friday October 25, 2013 @12:20PM (#45235883) Journal
        This. The Doctor was always adjusting the control room to suit his personality and mood. The TARDIS (which is actually the size of a large building if I remember right from the books) had chameleon circuits on both the inside and the outside that let it appear as whatever was needed. The outside circuit got stuck as the police box early on in the series (maybe even mentioned in the first episode) but the interior one is mostly functional.

        Hence, any appearance of a teletype was there because the Doctor liked it. The actual function of it was something different. It'd be like hooking up a monochrome VGA monitor to a Core i7 with command line jury-rigging in place.
        • by zzottt ( 629458 )
          it was my understanding that the inside of the Tardis was basically another dimension and therefor infinite in time and space
          • Indefinite. The interior of the ship has many bubbles the size of the Death Stars all over the place. It is basically smart matter that can be rearranged by computer at will.

            "Journey to the center of the TARDIS" would take months on foot without shortcuts, which the computer can provide.

            There's a diagram online of its size. It dwarfs the Death Stars in size and power.

        • The chameleon circuit was just for the outside. For the inside you just remodel it in the same way as you're remodel your kitchen. There was one episode (in the Peter Davison era) where he'd lost something in the TARDIS, so they were going through all the rooms it had. He still had the old control rooms from previous series as back-ups.

      • in one series there was a bridge with bbc micro pc and 1960s teletype.

        I'm not sure that it was actually *meant* to be a BBC Micro so much as they'd used it as a prop rather obviously to anyone who knows its graphical style. :-)

  • Creates a semi-sentient (tiny bit alive) virus that takes over the global information infrastructure to display zeros on every kind of display and system in existence... written on a smartphone. In less than a minute.

    • by jedidiah ( 1196 )

      Nah, it's just something he remembered from some old computing magazine.

    • And then there was the season opener when Wi-Fi started killing people. God that one still hurts...I could tell literally 15 seconds into the episode that it was going to be horrible.

  • Obligatory: (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 25, 2013 @12:06PM (#45235717)

    Dammit, he's a Doctor, not an Engineer!

    • Dammit, he's a Doctor, not an Engineer!

      And a time-traveling Doctor who has visited the future and knows all about future-technology. Why would such a being have anything more than mild bemusement over our current day tech, when his sonic-screwdriver likely holds all of the universes technology in one compact device?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        He's a future hipster?

    • Funny enough, River Song was a better driver of the TARDIS than the Doctor. (She read the instruction book, apparently.)
      • My kids recently caught up to watch the episode where River drives the TARDIS. (It's fun re-watching these and seeing what points will be brought up later. Like the museum they start out in being the final resting place of the headless monks... who make an appearance next season.)

        River comments how she was taught by the best, the Doctor thinks that means him, but River adds "too bad you weren't available that day" (or words to that effect). Next season, we find out that he "wasn't available" because he w

  • by Anonymous Coward

    almost two years ago:

  • The fourth Doctor and his companion, Romana, did advertising my former employer, Prime Computer. []
    • I learnt to program on an Prime 750. My Polytechnic bought it in 1982 to replace their old Univac.
    • Oh how wonderful! I did contract work at Prime circa 1990 (designing a test suite management system for the 15 compilers they supported), so I got a major hoot out of this. I have to wonder: Where did they show these ads? To whom?
      • by mark0 ( 750639 )
        IIRC, they aired in Australia and New Zealand.
        • On general TV?

          I have to wonder about the demographics of the marketing campaign. Still, that's better than most computer ads of the time.

          • by mark0 ( 750639 )
            BTW... I remember you. I was working in the compiler department when you were building that test suite management system. You had a minor run-in with a very young and somewhat dickish engineer. That would be me. In the ~25 years since I can certainly say I'm older and I hope I can say I'm less dickish.
            • Oh how delightful! Since I don't remember any developer being dick-ish, your memory may be faulty. (Well, one guy briefly was dickish, but I don't think that was you, since he was rather an old fart.) I wish I remembered the name of the guy who gave me his copy of Steven Brust's Yendi, because I've had fond thoughts of that dude for a long time; it led to a lot of enjoyable reading time.

              In any case, feel free to connect with me (and Bill!) on LinkedIn or whatnot. We can share gossip about the people we knew

          • by dbIII ( 701233 )

            On general TV?

            Cleverly at Prime time.
            They were shown on a different network to Dr Who and a bit later, 7-8pm.

  • by TheRealHocusLocus ( 2319802 ) on Friday October 25, 2013 @03:06PM (#45238447)

    Everything he does is by the seat of his pants. To do seat of the pants things you need to grasp handles that are connected to levers which control valves and apertures that gloop glop into gloping chambers. Every button is a Frankenstein switch that tosses a relay accross the room, and for every relay there is an Override Lever.

    You need steam driven technology to propel your contrivances, with beefy pistons, moving fluids and rotating coils. You need planetary gears and axles and rocket assisted rotation (NOTE: replace rockets after each use). You need self destruct device timers with real gears so you can save yourself with a piece of chewing gum.

    If you have a computer companion on board you cannot stoop so low as to conduit everything, make yourself into a helpless git by relying on digital to analog circuits to (hopefully) permit you to ask the computer to fly what is actually YOUR own goddamned ship.

    Your computer must consist of a hybrid electro-mechanical system that is mobile and pot-bellied, that loco-motes where it is needed and drives multiple robotic arms (with Mickey Mouse gloves) to grasp aforesaid mechanical controls just as you would. In case of a virus or malfunction you can then just kick the stupid thing out of the way and take control of your own destiny, rather than whimper and die like some horrid little clam trapped inside a malfunctioning shell.

    Every control system on your ship must be able to operate with a kick, or be disabled by kicking harder.

    There must be lots of blinking lights, but they must be operated by relays and stepper contacts.

    And if your computer plays chess, it is because there is an actual dwarf hidden in the console.

    Dr. Who did not spend his time debugging arcane API incompatibilities after version control branches incorrectly and legacy memory-mapped data type formats change after a compiler and library upgrade, forcing some off-by-one read of noble structs to ignoble garbage that makes pointers overflow and underflow, careening wantonly through memory structures like spiders on LSD. All of this causing nothing to happen in the real world, it just sits there inoperative.

    Dr. Who has no need for do-lotsa-think-first Object Oriented threaded systems either, he is impulsive, violently productive and has visited three Universes in the time it takes you to decide on whether to capitalize or encapsulate or do whatever the hell you do, or not.

    And he does it all with levers and dials.

    And girls. He does it with girls.

    Case closed.

  • Is the man. I think that's what this thread is about anyway, and I agree wholeheartedly even if it isn't! What? yes!

"Remember, extremism in the nondefense of moderation is not a virtue." -- Peter Neumann, about usenet