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On “seeming like a scientist”

24 Jan

So, I finally watched the Doctor Who Christmas special the other day. Yes, I know, I’m about a month late here – but the part of the special that I want to talk about isn’t exactly Christmas-specific, so I’m going to talk about it anyway. If you’re similarly behind on Doctor-Who-viewing, be warned that this post contains spoilers for the 2014 Christmas special (but not for any other episodes or ongoing plot-lines).

What I want to talk about is the odd ideas the episode seems to have about what scientists are like. So, first a quick recap: much of the episode centres on a group of scientists at a polar research base. Since this is Doctor Who, the scientists and the Doctor are fighting the Monster of the Week; since it’s the Christmas special, Santa Claus is helping too. Shortly after the Doctor arrives, we get the following scene:

(Shona, one of the scientists, is talking to Santa Claus; questioning how the stories about him can possibly be true. As she walks away from Santa, writing in her notebook, the Doctor enters the room)
Doctor: “You alright?”
Shona: “Yeah, yeah yeah. I’m trying to talk sense into beardy-weirdy” (gesturing at Santa)
Doctor: “You don’t seem much like a scientist.”
Shona: “Well that’s a bit rude, coming from a magician.”

This begs the question of what a scientist is supposed to seem like, and how Shona apparently fails to meet these criteria. So, let’s review her actions in the episode up to this point and see if we can figure out where she failed the “seems like a scientist” test.

What does Shona do?     Is it something a scientist would do?
Expresses fear at the prospect of going into a genuinely-frightening-and-dangerous situation (facing the monster of the week) and tries to get out of having to do it. Yes. Scientists are not emotionless robots; we’re allowed to have fears and not want to do scary things.
Admits that she hasn’t paid attention to the whole of the mission briefing (to be specific, she states that she remembers the briefing “until he put his hand on my knee; then I was just grossing”) Yup! You don’t need a superhuman attention span to be a scientist (there’s a reason we write things down in lab books). The only person failing here is the male scientist who jeopardises the mission by choosing to sexually harass Shona instead of giving a decent professional briefing.
Dances to a cheesy Christmas song Again, yes. Scientists are allowed to have (a) personalities and (b) fun. See above about not being emotionless robots.
Is revealed to have liked “My Little Pony” when younger, a revelation that Santa uses to humiliate her. Possibly-related: is female. Yes on both counts. While women are still rarer than they should be in science, being female doesn’t prevent you from being a scientist, and neither does liking stereotypically girly things. (I’m female, a fan of My Little Pony, and a scientist. So far this combination of circumstances has not caused any world-ending paradoxes).
Expresses disbelief and scepticism when Santa shows up, saying “This is totally not happening” and asking “Am I dreaming?” [Spoiler: she is] Very much so, and in most stories this would be treated as proof that Shona does seem like a scientist – she won’t believe in extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence, and instead correctly applies Occam’s razor to deduce that this is a dream.
Asks questions of Santa, probing his apparent impossibilities, and records his answers in her notebook Absolutely! Science is allowed – in fact encouraged – to investigate strange and improbable happenings that it encounters. Shona’s questioning instinct in this situation makes her seem more like a scientist, not less like one.

It’s while Shona is asking questions of Santa that the Doctor strolls in and tells her she doesn’t seem like a scientist. Which is odd, to say the least: he interrupts her in a situation where she’s behaving like a scientist in order to tell her that she can’t be a scientist! I wonder what criteria for “scientist” he’s using; what set of traits someone would need to have before the Doctor and his scriptwriters would recognise them as a proper scientist. I highly doubt that I’d fit their stereotype.

Now, you could argue that we’re not meant to agree with the Doctor here – that he’s a fallible character and this is one of the times when he’s wrong. Unfortunately, the remainder of the episode really doesn’t seem to back up this interpretation. After all the characters come to the realisation that they’re dreaming, they also realise that they are not, in fact, scientists. As they wake up, Shona has this exchange with two of the other dreamers:

Shona: “I work in a shop.”
Ashley: “I’m sorry?”
Shona: “I thought I was a scientist. That’s rubbish.”
Bellows: “Finally, something that makes sense.”

But it doesn’t make sense. There’s absolutely no reason why Shona couldn’t or shouldn’t be a scientist.[1] Or almost no reason, anyway. The main possible reason I can see is that Shona may have been kept out of science by people telling her she doesn’t seem like a scientist.

It’s time to get rid of the ridiculous notion that there’s a certain strict formula for “seeming like a scientist”, and that anyone who doesn’t fit this formula can’t truly do science. In the real world, all sorts of people can and do perform science. The more we acknowledge this, the more talented potential-scientists will end up feeling as though it’s okay for them to pursue science. And if we want more innovation, that can only be a good thing.


[1] In fact, I’d like to believe that she is one. In my personal headcanon, Shona works in a shop in order to help with her living costs while she studies for a PhD. The memories just came back to her in the wrong order – shop first, science later.

Thoughts on the Twelfth Doctor

4 Aug

(Ware! Doctor Who spoilers ahead!)

So the makers of Doctor Who have announced who’ll be playing the Twelfth Doctor. There’s been a lot of lead-up to this, and a lot of speculation about who it might be. Since the series has established on-screen that regeneration can change a Time Lord’s skin colour or even their gender*, the pool of possible actors for the next Doctor was a lot larger than it would be for many roles. There’s even examples of a Time Lord being able to control their regeneration and choose a specific appearance, which may be the appearance of someone they’ve previously met – meaning an actor who’d already had a major role in Doctor Who would still theoretically be able to play the Doctor. It could have been anyone.

So I’m a little disappointed (albeit not particularly surprised) that after all the hype about how it might finally be time for the Doctor to be played by someone other than a white guy, they’ve chosen… yet another white guy. For the twelfth time. (Well, technically for the thirteenth). Nothing against the guy they’ve chosen – I’m not familiar with his work, but I’m sure he’s a great actor who’ll do a wonderful job with the role, and I do like the fact that he’s apparently a longstanding fan of the series. But I’ve talked before on this blog about how problematic it is for the vast majority of protagonists to be white guys, as though nobody else deserves the role of “hero”. This isn’t the 1960s any more, and there are plenty of talented people out there who are non-white and/or female, fans of the show, and more than capable of being an excellent Doctor. Why not give the role to one of them?**

Steven Moffat, executive producer of Doctor Who, was kind enough to address the “why not a woman?” question during the show in which the next Doctor’s identity was announced. No wait, just kidding, he didn’t address it at all. Instead he made a joke about how he “thinks it’s time the Queen was played by a man”. Because obviously there’s no difference between a real person with an established gender and a fictional character with an established ability to change gender! More gallingly still, he made this joke literally fifteen seconds after reminding the audience of this established ability to change gender. So not only does he seem to consider the “why not a woman?” question unworthy of an answer, he also seems to believe that his audience aren’t paying any attention.

(Incidentally, Stephen Hawking’s contribution – yes, they had Stephen Hawking on the show, a fact which I found totally awesome – was “it would make a change if the next Doctor was a woman with a male assistant”, accompanied by a great little smile. You tell them, Hawking.)

One argument I’ve heard is that having a female Doctor would “change the dynamic of the show too much”. This argument makes little sense to me, as the dynamic of the show already changes whenever the actor does. Every incarnation of the Doctor has a different personality and style from previous Doctors, but once we’ve watched them step out of the TARDIS and save the planet a couple of times, we’re perfectly willing to accept them as the Doctor. Why should it be any different with a woman? We may tend to have slightly different proportions, but we have the same range of possible personalities. We’re not a different species.

Another argument is that a female Doctor would “have to be a lesbian”, and that the writers don’t want to include that. Which is an odd assumption to make, because the writers have shown themselves perfectly willing to include lesbians elsewhere in the show. But say they didn’t want to write a lesbian Doctor. They wouldn’t have to. The most recent episode felt like a clear farewell to River Song, the Doctor’s wife, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we never saw her character again. Many of the previous Doctors have been apparently asexual. And let’s face it, the Doctor’s sexuality and love life are among the least interesting facets of their character. It’s a kids’ show about an alien who saves the universe; we don’t need to know who they want to kiss.

I haven’t seen or heard any arguments about why the Doctor has to be white, presumably because such arguments would be obviously horribly racist. And yet apparently 23% of people still consider the Doctor’s whiteness to be important. I strongly hope that the makers of Doctor Who aren’t among them, but I’d like to see more evidence, and today’s announcement hasn’t given me any.


* Indeed, the last time the Doctor regenerated, he briefly thought he had regenerated as “a girl”. So the series hasn’t just established that gender-changing-on-regeneration happens for a few rare Time Lords: it’s established that it’s a possibility for the Doctor.

** In addition to not getting the role, these people weren’t even given a chance at the role – there was no audition held. Instead, the writers picked someone they liked and asked them to be the Doctor. Given that the last Doctor was played, and played well, by a previously-unknown actor, I feel like they’ve risked missing out on some great potential talent by taking this approach. Plus it’s an approach that exacerbates the white-male-protagonist problem, because the majority of actors who the writers already know to make good protagonists will be white males, because see above about how we have a white-male-protagonist problem. It’s perpetuating a vicious cycle.