Sacrificing Science for Story

When you’re a science fiction fan, you’re used to seeing some of the rules that govern the universe broken from time to time. You know that, turning on any sci-fi show or movie, some laws of physics are probably going to get a little, well, bent.  Spaceships travel faster than the speed of light.  A human body can be disassembled, transmuted into an energy stream, and reassembled somewhere else –with no ill effects.  Magic is possible. So is time travel.

Over the last *mumblemumble*cough* years (or thereabouts), I’ve admittedly watched probably more than my fair share of television. And I’ve concluded that I can stomach almost any amount of bad acting, bad costuming/make-up, bad directing, bad accents… even bad science, as long as the story is good.  Let me tell you, as an engineer I am a stickler for science, so this is saying something.  But the instance of bad science must be integral to the story in some way.  Let me give you an example.

The Doctor Who Christmas Special in 2009, otherwise known as “The End of Time,” or the one where David Tennant (aka the 10th Doctor) regenerated into Matt Smith.

**Spoiler alert! Stop reading now if you don’t want to know key plot points, and skip down a paragraph or three to the next set of asterisks. That’ll let you know when it’s okay to look… Good. So. Here’s the scenario: At one point in the episode, the Master – the Doctor’s longtime frenemy and another Timelord – un-time-locks the planet of Gallifrey, not realizing that as he does so, the entire planet is going to suddenly appear next door to poor planet Earth and start moving in on a collision course (that is, he called the planet to himself, but he was standing in the middle of London at the time, so …. you get the idea). So now the Doctor has to find a way to stop Earth from getting rammed by a planet twice its size. Never mind the fact that he wants his home planet un-time-locked just as much as the Master – they’re the last two of their race.  He’s a very lonely Timelord at this point in the series, and he blames himself for time-locking his own home planet away for reasons I won’t go into here.  But he can’t permit the destruction of Earth and all of humanity – taking out a good-sized chunk of Gallifrey and the Timelords along with it.  And so he must act, no matter his personal wants or needs, and re-lock his home away from the rest of the universe for all time.

So that’s the scenario. It’s a pretty good plot. The problem, scientifically speaking, is that as soon as Gallifrey appeared in the solar system, every living thing on the Earth was doomed. Several times over. It didn’t matter what the Doctor did.  The gravitational forces of a planet twice the size of the Earth, suddenly appearing directly next to it would immediately tear this planet apart. We’re talking massive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, huge tectonic shifts all over the world.  Basically the entire planet ripping itself to pieces from the inside out.

And even if we assume, just for the sake of argument, that the Earth can withstand the sudden arrival of Gallifrey in the sky, simply having another planet – especially one that size – in the solar system would throw all the other planets’ orbits completely out of whack. In fact, since Gallifrey is so much bigger than the Earth, our moon is drawn to it, as are all our satellites (there go our cell phones, GPS, missile guidance, etc.!), and, uh-oh!  so is planet Earth. By Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, the Earth would actually move toward the planet moving toward it!  Putting the Earth out of its rather precarious orbit.  Plus, it’s probably no longer tilted on its axis at the same angle anymore.  So now when the Doctor sends Gallifrey packing – as of course he does (hooray!)– the Earth is no longer where it used to be.  It doesn’t rotate the same way. The moon is no longer where it was. All the seasons have changed drastically because of both the position and tilt differences – places all over the world are suddenly either far too hot or far too cold.  The oceans and tides are all way off, flooding some places and leaving others unusually dry. Everything – plants, animals – starts to die off, either immediately or gradually.  And while the moon and Earth’s general rotations would eventually go back to normal, there’s no guarantee that the axis tilt would restore itself, or that anything would be left alive by that time.

**It’s okay, spoilers are over, you can look again! … Now, my point in all that (yes, I did have a point!), was that the science was bad. Bad?! It was atrocious! It broke all the rules of physics, astrophysics, geology, orbital mechanics, etc., etc.  But.  Big, big BUT!  The story was well and beautifully written, and the writers had to ignore the science to make the story work. There was no other way to do it. The plot, the crises and personal conflicts faced by the Doctor – all were made possible by this one instance of really, really bad science.  The acting, by the way, was incredible as well.  David Tennant, John Simm, Bernard Cribbins, Timothy Dalton (yes, as in James Bond)… all amazing! If you haven’t seen it, it’s on Netflix – watch it! (Update:  All Doctor Who is now available for streaming via Amazon Prime only). And do you know, I didn’t even really start to think about the lousy physics until after I’d turned off the tv, I was so wrapped up in what the Doctor and the Master were doing. Now that’s a good story!

Again, but. If the bad science weren’t integral to the story, if the writers could have gotten the same amount of drama and crisis and pathos some other way and maintained the integrity of the laws of planetary motion, I wouldn’t have been able to go along with it.  For example, there is another episode of Doctor Who (“Journey’s End”), where I was literally rolling on the floor laughing.  I don’t mean figuratively; I mean literally on the floor, knees tucked into my chest, laughing.

**Spoilers! You might want to look away again here.

… At the end of that episode, having won the day against the Daleks, the Doctor somehow rigs up the TARDIS (the blue police callbox) to pull the Earth all the way back from the other side of the universe.  Did you catch that?  A spaceship the size of a police call-box is going to pull a planet.  (Using what, I’d like to know! – A tractor beam?)  And not just any planet – one that has a delicate magnetic shell holding in the atmosphere (supposedly an “atmospheric shell” was created to hold the air & heat in during transit) and water (did the moon come with us? If not, shouldn’t there be tidal waves, or at least some major flooding?), and people. Lots and lots of people. None of which was apparently affected by this faster-than-light journey through space. Just a few shots of everyone on Earth holding on and bouncing up and down like they could feel it.  Now, I’m not going to say it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen on a science fiction show, but it’s up there.

Notice this: just like in my first example, they broke all the rules of science – including Einstein’s famous E = mc^2 – but this time I just couldn’t get past it.  Simply couldn’t accept it. There had to have been another way to get Earth back to where it belonged. The writers – brilliant as they obviously are – should have been able to come up with some alternative.  The rest of the episode was great – just the one-minute or so sequence of the police box dragging the Earth was unnecessary show-boating.

**You can look again! I promise I’m done with spoilers and rambling on about Doctor Who.  I’m not trying to limit this conflict between science and story to that one series – I just happened to have seen both of those episodes recently and my reactions were so different I just had to take notice. There have been plenty of examples that pop up in other shows or movies (Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica… the Sandra Bullock movie Gravity comes to mind) that also prove my point, which is simply this:

Story is all important.

I can forgive almost any other flaw. I can suspend disbelief as long as it makes for a good plot.  So if science must be sacrificed, let it be for the sake of story and for no other reason.


If you know of an example where this is reversed – good science, bad story – that worked well, I would love to hear about it! (And I know I have a problem with parentheses – I’m working on it, really!)


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