The Return of Professor Who
Since the new series of Doctor Who is to start this evening on BBC1, I thought I’d mark the occasion by posting this old blog item again:
As a Professor of Astrophysics I am often asked “Why on Earth did you take up such a crazy subject?”
I guess many astronomers, physicists and other scientists have to answer this sort of question. For many of them there is probably a romantic reason, such as seeing the rings of Saturn or the majesty of the Milky Way on a dark night. Others will probably have been inspired by TV documentary series such as The Sky at Night, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos or even Horizon which, believe it or not, actually used to be quite good but which is nowadays uniformly dire. Or it could have been something a bit more mundane but no less stimulating such as a very good science teacher at school.
When I’m asked this question I’d love to be able to put my hand on my heart and give an answer of that sort but the truth is really quite a long way from those possibilities. The thing that probably did more than anything else to get me interested in science was a Science Fiction TV series or rather not exactly the series but the opening titles.
The first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast in the year of my birth, so I don’t remember it at all, but I do remember the astonishing effect the credits had on my imagination when I saw later episodes as a small child. Here is the opening title sequence as it appeared in the very first series featuring William Hartnell as the first Doctor.
To a younger audience it probably all seems quite tame, but I think there’s a haunting, unearthly beauty to the shapes conjured up by Bernard Lodge. Having virtually no budget for graphics, he experimented in a darkened studio with an old-fashioned TV camera and a piece of black card with Doctor Who written on it in white. He created the spooky kaleidoscopic patterns you see by simply pointing the camera so it could see into its own monitor, thus producing a sort of electronic hall of mirrors.
What is so fascinating to me is how a relatively simple underlying concept could produce a rich assortment of patterns, particularly how they seem to take on an almost organic aspect as they merge and transform. I’ve continued to be struck by the idea that complexity could be produced by relatively simple natural laws which is one of the essential features of astrophysics and cosmology. As a practical demonstration of the universality of physics this sequence takes some beating.
As well as these strange and wonderful images, the titles also featured a pioneering piece of electronic music. Officially the composer was Ron Grainer, but he wasn’t very interested in the commission and simply scribbled the theme down and left it to the BBC to turn it into something useable. In stepped the wonderful Delia Derbyshire, unsung heroine of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop who, with only the crudest electronic equipment available, turned it into a little masterpiece. Ethereal yet propulsive, the original theme from Doctor Who is definitely one of my absolute favourite pieces of music and I’m glad to see that Delia Derbyshire is now receiving the acclaim she deserves from serious music critics.
It’s ironic that I’ve now moved to Cardiff where new programmes of Doctor Who and its spin-off, the anagrammatic Torchwood, are made. One of the great things about the early episodes of Doctor Who was that the technology simply didn’t exist to do very good special effects. The scripts were consequently very careful to let the viewers’ imagination do all the work. That’s what made it so good. I’m pleased that the more recent incarnations of this show also don’t go overboard on the visuals. Perhaps thats a conscious attempt to appeal to people who saw the old ones as well as those too young to have done so. It’s just a pity the modern opening title music is so bad…
Anyway, I still love Doctor Who after all these years. It must sound daft to say that it inspired me to take up astrophysics, but it’s truer than any other explanation I can think of. Of course the career path is slightly different from a Timelord, but only slightly.
At any rate I think The Doctor is overdue for promotion. How about Professor Who?Follow @telescoper