Enlightenment was the choice: 'Doctor Who' and the democratisation of science

A scene from Doctor Who

In this PhD project, Lindy Orthia researched the way science was represented in the BBC television series Doctor Who with respect to science's social, cultural, political and economic significance. The abstract of the resultant PhD thesis is reproduced below. A digital copy of the thesis is publically available for viewing via the ANU Digital Thesis Collection.

 

Abstract

The democratisation of science — shifting science governance, work opportunities and ideologies away from the exclusive domains of elite minorities and into the hands of the people — is an important aim of science communication. If communication products such as television series can influence people’s relationships with science in terms of their career choices, belief systems and feelings of ownership over science, then it is important for science communicators to understand what television series are saying about science.
In this thesis I examine representations of science in the long-running science fiction television series, Doctor Who. In particular I analyse the social, cultural, political and economic aspects of this representation to assess its consistency with four goals for the democratisation of science: goals that I name franchise (lay empowerment in science governance), equality (equal access to opportunities in science workplaces and careers), progress (democratic choice about the role of technology in our lives and our societies) and enlightenment (democratic freedom to choose our beliefs and worldviews about the universe).
Analysing the more than 200 Doctor Who serials broadcast between 1963 and 2008, I first give an overview of broad trends in the way the program has dealt with science themes and characters across four decades (1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 2000s), finding significant changes over that period.
I then analyse in greater theoretical depth three ways that debates about the democratisation of science manifest within Doctor Who. I show that the program varies in the degree to which it is consistent with the goals for the democratisation of science. 
First, I investigate plotlines that depict struggles for science governance within societies and that show people trying to achieve democratic outcomes by renegotiating their relationship to science. Within that discussion I show that the literary construct of ‘the hero’ can obstruct democratic outcomes in the struggles for science governance that disenfranchised characters face. In this regard, I link ‘the hero’ to the social construct of ‘the expert’ in real world science, which has also been critiqued as obstructive to democratisation ends.
Second, I investigate real-world public dissent to ideologies of science as they are expressed allegorically in the program. Such expressions manifest through themes that counterpose one ideological position on science (such as liberal humanism) to another ideological position (such as technorationalism) in the form of a battle between archetypal characters who embody these principles. Responding to the work of scholars who have elaborated this point, I show that such expressions of dissent to science can be twisted and undermined to serve scientistic ideals through the clever manipulation of the literary imagery that is generally associated with antiscience protest.
Third and finally, I investigate the role-modelling function of scientist and non-scientist characters in Doctor Who: do they role-model empowered or disempowered positions for audiences within the institution of science? In concert with the literature I show that some structural elements of fiction — including the presence of a fallible scientist hero or an ensemble cast — can contribute positively to the capacity of characters to fulfil a positive role-modelling function that encourages equality in the science workplace and open access to science for all.

Updated:  31 October 2014/Responsible Officer:  CPAS web officer/Page Contact:  CPAS webmaster