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Who's the doctor? - John C. Kirk

Apr. 7th, 2007

09:57 pm - Who's the doctor?

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I've just been watching the second episode of the new Doctor Who series ("The Shakespeare Code"); it was ok, but it also had a few dodgy points. In particular, following up on my post last week, it had some rather dubious first aid by the alleged doctor. (I did have some concerns about her disappearing off when she had commitments at her hospital, but I'm now inclined to say that they're better off without her.)

So, the premise of this week's episode is that the Doctor and Martha travel back in time to 1599, to meet Shakespeare and watch his plays. In the process, they bump into alien witches.

One of the themes of this episode was that Shakespeare was a genius. I remember coming to the same conclusion at about 3am one day when I was sitting in the school library writing an esay on one of his plays and digging through various study guides that discussed the hidden meanings, so I'm happy to go along with this. Mind you, the running joke of "I like that phrase, I'll have to use it" was getting a bit tedious by the end of the episode. More generally, I think that Gaiman covered similar ground in his Sandman comics, and did it much better.

Speaking of running jokes, I was glad that they didn't mention "Saxon" in this episode (or that I missed it if they did); hopefully this means that this series will be a bit different to the last two. In the 9th Doctor's series, we saw the phrase "Bad Wolf" showing up in various places (e.g. graffiti), and it struck me as being a bit of an obtrusive indulgence, since it would be odd to have different people using the same phrase in their graffiti 50 years apart. However, that turned out to have an in-story explanation, rather than just being an inside joke by the production crew to amuse themselves; not a great explanation, admittedly, but I can live with that. In the 10th Doctor's first series, they kept referring to "Torchwood" (presumably as advertising for the spin-off series), and it became blatantly obvious that they were having to shoehorn it in where it didn't belong. If they want to establish a new Prime Minister, that's fine by me, but I'd prefer them to just get on with it rather than having to do a conscious name-check every episode.

There was a bit of a meta-level discussion in the episode, where Martha raised questions about the way they did things. For instance, she was concerned that they'd stand out with their clothing, but the Doctor brushed this aside by saying that they should just act as if they belonged there. Personally, I think they should make more of an effort to blend in, and it's a bit silly for each incarnation of the Doctor to always wear the exact same set of clothes every day. On the other hand, he's been using this tactic for a long time, and clearly it works for him, so in that sense there's no need for him to change.

This reminds me of a scene from Alan Moore's Supreme (a thinly veiled counterpart to Superman), where a journalist is wandering around his museum/souvenir hall. The general objection to huge creatures like King Kong or Godzilla is the square/cube principle. Basically, if you double the length of everything (so that a gorilla is twice as tall), each area will now be 22 times the original, i.e. 4 times the size. However, each volume will now be 23 times the original, i.e. 8 times as much. That means that the pressure on the gorilla's legs/feet will be twice as much, and if you keep scaling up then you'll eventually reach a point where he can no longer support his own weight. So, when the journalist sees a giant gorilla, he claims that this is impossible, and that the creature couldn't possibly exist. Supreme just says: "Well, I'm sorry, but he did!" (Quoting from memory.)

This ties into the wider theme of time travel logic. I can accept that they're fairly relaxed about potential world changing consequences; Quantum Leap had a similar approach, by assuming that anything Sam changed would be fairly localised. I'd also say that the Doctor is pretty much the opposite of Starfleet, since the whole point of his travels is that he's following the anti-Prime Directive ("butt in as much as possible!"). I'm also willing to accept that the Doctor is less casual than he seems: he's been doing this for a long time, so he makes it look easy, but he actually knows what's safe and what isn't. (This has been alluded to in previous episodes.) Similarly, if he has to explain temporal physics by analogy then those analogies will probably be flawed - the whole "lies to children" principle.

Having said all that, I was a bit dubious about his reference to Back to the Future. I liked that trilogy, and I think its internal logic holds together pretty well. However, the key point of the first film is that Marty changes his own history by screwing around in the past, almost erasing himself from existence. In the context of this episode, the alien witches were threatening to destroy the world, but Martha said that she knew they didn't succeed, otherwise she wouldn't have been born in the 20th century. The Doctor referred to BTTF, by saying that their actions would ripple forward, causing her (and everyone she knew) to be erased from existence. Surely that only works if she'd actually done something to help the witches' plan? Basically, I'm thinking about multiple laps of the timeline here.

Lap 1: The witches make a plan to destroy the world, but fail on their own (or are thwarted by the locals). 400 years later (give or take), the Earth is still around, Martha meets the Doctor, and they hop into the TARDIS.
Lap 2: Martha and the Doctor meet the witches, and the plan succeeds. This then means that Martha no longer exists.

That can be a decent story, but it's not particularly encouraging, especially since the Doctor had previously told her not to worry about changing anything! I think a better explanation would go like this:

Lap 1: The witches try to destroy the world, and succeed. Gallifrey is unscathed, but the Doctor never visits 20th century Earth to meet any of his companions.
Lap 2: The Doctor happens to come across 16th century Earth on his travels, and stops the witches' plan. This changes the timeline, so 20th century Earth is now populated, and the Doctor's younger self (that's important!) meets friends there.
Lap 3: The Doctor and Martha travel back to 1599, and meet the witches. The Doctor may or may not remember the previous version of events - he never experienced them, but he's also a TimeLord, and he may just be keeping quiet about why he picked this "random" destination. He needs to stop them again, but this time he has Martha tagging along, so things are different; if she screws things up then her world will die.

The first aid came when someone came staggering towards Martha and the Doctor, vomiting large quantities of water, and then collapsed in front of them. (The reason for this was that a witch had been dunking a voodoo doll of him into a barrel of water.) Martha knelt down to check on him, and she did get into the correct position to check his breathing. However, she did this out of sequence (before she'd checked for a response), and she didn't check for 10 seconds. Once she'd decided that he wasn't breathing, she announced that she needed to get his heart beating again, and she then attempted to do a rescue breath before she was interrupted. (Meanwhile, the witch stuck a needle through the doll's chest, causing the heart to stop.) At this point, I would say that the casualty had effectively drowned; this is unusual on dry land (!), but that's the situation that they were presented with. Bearing that in mind, I don't think there was any reason for Martha to believe that his heart had stopped beating (even though it actually had). Still, being positive I will point out that she was correct to start with rescue breaths; normally you'd do 30 chest compressions, then 2 rescue breaths, then 30 more compressions, etc., but for drowning you start out with 5 rescue breaths.

As I said last week, the reason I'm flagging these points is that I'm trying to counter disinformation. I did a quick websearch for other reactions to the previous episode, and I found The Very Fluffy Diary of Millennium Dome, Elephant. To quote from that blog post: "Like Rose, she saves the Doctor's life in her first story; unlike Rose, she uses her skill and intelligence instead of instinct – as a trainee doctor herself she knows the technique of CPR, but she is also smart enough to adapt immediately to a patient with two hearts." In other words, the person who wrote that is impressed by how well Martha did CPR! So, if you think that it's ok for a character to make mistakes, or you're willing to overlook dodgy first aid because it would slow the episode down, that's fair enough; my concern is that other people do take what they see on TV at face value. (I'm not trying to pick on that blogger in particular, that was just the first relevant page I came across.)

When I did a post about Lost last week, I jokingly said that I could use these mistakes as scenarios for an SJA class night. Now that I've thought about it a bit more, I actually think that this could work quite well. We do have some videos in our course materials, but they tend to be a bit cheesy. Tonight's episode of Doctor Who and last week's episode of Lost are both repeated tomorrow, so I'll record them and see if I can transfer them onto my computer (I think the capture card for my webcam should work for the VCR too), then yank out the relevant clip. While I'm generally anti-piracy, I think this falls into the category of "fair use", and it's all for a good cause. So, if anyone does happen to have last week's Doctor Who episode in digital form already, and you could bung me a copy (or excerpt), I won't ask too many questions about where you got it from :)

More generally, I'll try to build up a collection of clips like this. I've heard that Casualty tends to have people doing CPR at arms' length (although I don't watch it myself); this would theoretically work, but it would also be very tiring. When I did my AED requal, I had to do CPR on the mannequin for 2 minutes; I could have carried on for longer, but my arms were starting to get tired. The idea of leaning over the person is that you're just pushing down, so you can let gravity do some of the work with your body weight. Someone else told me about a TV episode where the first aider did CPR with their fingers interlaced (the position you'd be in if you wanted to stretch your arms and crack your knuckles); this may be good if you don't want to hurt the actor playing casualty, but it's less good if you actually want to provide basic life support.

So, if you've come across any dodgy clips in TV episodes or films, let me know, and I'll try to track them down. It doesn't have to be just CPR; putting a broken arm in an elevation sling or yanking a big piece of broken glass out of a wound would be relevant too. (Speaking of which, the Angel episode "First Impressions" gets an honourable mention for Cordelia mentioning this: "A piece of broken glass went into her neck. She pulled it out before I could stop her.") Technically, Short Circuit 2 should probably be flagged as a dodgy entry (jump starting a robot with a defibrillator), but I'm giving that an exception on the grounds that it was a good film, and the technique deserved to work; besides, I'm not training people to do first aid on robots.

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Comments:

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From:elvum
Date:April 7th, 2007 10:33 pm (UTC)
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I think the scene at the beginning of tonight's episode where Martha asks all the obvious questions and gets told to shut up and enjoy the experience is aimed directly at the skeptical/scientific viewer. :-)

I'm not qualified to comment on the medical aspects, but the physics aspects are all entirely ridiculous, and if I wasn't sufficiently charmed by all the other aspects of the production I'd probably be as irritated as I am by thoughtless Hollywood producers bending reality for the sake of drama. I'm sure the historians and Shakespeare scholars had an equal number of factual inaccuracies to deal with too.

Another series where factual inaccuracies have utterly failed to annoy me is Samurai Champloo, which plays fast and loose with Japanese history, mostly for humour's sake. You probably haven't even heard of it, but the reason I mention it is that right at the start of the series they say on-screen, "Some of this is historically wrong. History didn't happen like this. So shut up and watch!" And I think that's *why* I don't care - it's not that the producers aren't aware of the myriad holes and errors, and it's not that they *couldn't* have talked to an expert and come up with something completely accurate; it's that they choose to prioritise other things. In the case of Doctor Who, those other things are drama, relationships, humanity, quips, visual spectacle and a little bit of fantasy horror to scare the seven-year-olds. And as long as they keep poking fun at me personally for being the kind of person who gets tempted to be pedantic, I'm perfectly willing to keep suspending disbelief.

After all, Doctor Who is hardly hard SF.
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From:johnckirk
Date:April 7th, 2007 10:48 pm (UTC)
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I'm sure the historians and Shakespeare scholars had an equal number of factual inaccuracies to deal with too.

I'm not sure about the Shakespeare aspects - I'm not sufficiently familiar with his plays to know which order they were written in, but I'm willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt there.

"Some of this is historically wrong. History didn't happen like this. So shut up and watch!"

That's fair enough; "Xena: Warrior Princess" wasn't exactly faithful to history, given that she was supposedly present at the fall of Troy but also met Caesar and Cleopatra, but that didn't bother me. There's a character in the novel "Einstein's Bridge" (a hard SF novel about wormholes between alternate realities) who is writing a trashy novel about giant ants created by radiation, or something along those lines. She feels a bit guilty about it, because it couldn't really happen that way, but she basically tells herself that it's ok, because the target audience just want something to read on a plane, not a textbook. The present day equivalent would be someone like Dan Brown :)

With the first aid, my main concern is that people will get the wrong idea, and that this could have fatal consequences (e.g. if you think that someone's dead when they're actually still breathing, so you don't call for an ambulance). For something like Shakespearean history, it's less significant, because by the time it's relevant you'll know better.

Having said that, there's also an episode of "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" (the Dean Cain/Teri Hatcher series) that's stuck in my mind. Basically, Lex Luthor has set up a nuclear power plant, but Superman realises that it's going to go into meltdown, so he has to stop it from becoming operational. When he arrives at the plant, the rods are starting to descend, and the computers can't stop them, so he dashes into the chamber and braces himself underneath, to hold them out of the holes in the floor. When I came to study Physics at A level, I learnt that it actually worked the opposite way round, i.e. you'd want to keep the rods in to stop the reaction, but it did make it harder for me to understand that when I was so familiar with the wrong version. I don't know whether it was a simple mistake by the TV writers, or whether they thought that the way they did it was more dramatic, but I'd prefer them to have done it the correct way.

Anyway, I do enjoy "Doctor Who", so I'm not planning to stop watching it, but I'll keep mining it's mistakes for blog material :)
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From:elvum
Date:April 7th, 2007 10:58 pm (UTC)
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If we're going to bring Superman into this, didn't he reverse time in one of the films by spinning the world backwards on its axis? By flying into space and orbiting really really fast? :-)

Anyways, here's hoping that more people will at least stop to check for breathing before assuming someone's dead. ;-)
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From:johnckirk
Date:April 7th, 2007 11:02 pm (UTC)
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Well, technically, yes, but let's not be too picky :)

The best explanation I heard for that was that he wasn't actually changing the Earth's rotation, that was just a visual aid to illustrate his time travel (the equivalent of pages flying off a calendar or the hands of a clock whizzing round). I'm not sure whether that theory quite works, but I'll stick with it for now.
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From:johnckirk
Date:April 7th, 2007 11:12 pm (UTC)
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Speaking of disclaimers, the Sci Fi channel do something similar for the series "Medium":

"The following programme contains views, opinions and practices of a paranormal nature and is intended for entertainment only"

The odd thing is that it's based on a real person, and from the (brief) interviews I've seen with her she seems to want people to believe that she does have psychic powers. (I don't know whether she actually believes that herself.) So, roughly translated, the disclaimer seems to be:

"The following programme is based on real life. She claims to be telling the truth, but we don't believe a word of it. Still, it makes good TV, so enjoy!"

I'm not sure whether I'd want to see those kind of disclaimers everywhere, but they might be helpful in some cases. Alternately, I'm thinking about the old 80s cartoons I used to watch, e.g. "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" and "Inspector Gadget". They'd have the main story, then a short safety segment tacked onto the end, e.g. one of He-Man's friends getting thrown out of his flying machine because he wasn't wearing a seatbelt. (As I recall, some of these were related to the main story, and others weren't.) They were a bit cringe-worthy, but maybe there is an equivalent you could do for TV episodes? For instance, I don't normally watch the "Doctor Who Confidential" programs (I only saw one, which wasn't very interesting), but that might be a good place to say "Here are the bits that we had to change because the real life version would be boring." If nothing else, it would be an extra feature to pad out the DVD release :)
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From:shuripentu
Date:April 8th, 2007 09:05 pm (UTC)
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The "entertainment only" disclaimer is a common one amongst psychic types. It doesn't actually mean "we're just putting on a good show"; it means "we believe in this and we want you to believe in this but we don't want you to be able to sue our butts in the rare cases where cosmic forces don't quite align and we get it wrong".
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From:johnckirk
Date:April 8th, 2007 09:17 pm (UTC)
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That would make sense for something like John Edward's shows; mind you, I only know of him from PvP and the South Park episode "The Biggest Douche in the Universe", so I may have a slightly one-sided view :)

In the case of Medium, though, I'd say it's more like "X-Men" or "Doctor Who", i.e. it's stories about someone with special abilities, and I wouldn't have thought that anyone could sue them (unless they were in the events that inspired the episode and felt that they were misrepresented).
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From:shuripentu
Date:April 9th, 2007 10:27 am (UTC)
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Ahh, okay. I thought "Medium" was (yet another) real show about real people who go around being psychic, talking to dead people, clearing out haunted houses, and the like.

If it's just based on a real person and not actually taking place in real life, then I'm not sure what the disclaimer is for. I mean, nobody puts disclaimers on SF shows saying "this isn't really what the future is going to be like, honest". gaspodog suggested that the disclaimer was essentially a "we do not directly endorse any paranormal beliefs that may be presented in this programme; we're not Satanists, honest".
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From:totherme
Date:April 16th, 2007 10:18 am (UTC)
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The disclaimer could be a bluff, intended to make the whole thing feel less like sci-fi and more like cutting edge documentary.
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From:earlybird42
Date:April 10th, 2007 12:07 am (UTC)
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"There was a bit of a meta-level discussion in the episode, where Martha raised questions about the way they did things. For instance, she was concerned that they'd stand out with their clothing, but the Doctor brushed this aside by saying that they should just act as if they belonged there. Personally, I think they should make more of an effort to blend in, and it's a bit silly for each incarnation of the Doctor to always wear the exact same set of clothes every day. On the other hand, he's been using this tactic for a long time, and clearly it works for him, so in that sense there's no need for him to change."

I thought this a bit weird when I saw it, as when Rose went back to ancient Cardiff in the Unquiet Dead the Doctor told her to dress appropriately or she would create a scandal. What was so different with Martha? I also found the Harry Potter references a bit silly, but I suppose it is at least current and therefore appropriate.

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