But the gravity of Doctor Who at 50 is now so great that not even the light of telegenic TV scientists can escape it. And so it is that Prof. Cox finds himself in the TARDIS as the straight man to Matt Smith’s Doctor, before appearing in front of an audience of celebrities, scientists, celebrity scientists, and sci-lebrities to drop some knowledge on them, like a certain Italian scientist standing atop the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
A lucky few of the famous faces have been pre-screened to act as three minute companions to The Coxtor, and so to illustrate Cox’s teachings we’re treated to Charles Dance gleefully squirting chemicals at a Bunsen burner flame while Cox forces a smile like a substitute chemistry teacher who feels he’s on the edge of losing control of the class; Rufus Hound has a giant clock strapped to him and is made to walk toward a picture; Dallas Campbell thrusts a rod through a perspex tube in a manner that’s apparently phallic enough to make scientists titter. All this and more, and all in the name of ‘SCIENCE!’
But don’t be fooled by the fun. This is less an exploration of the wibbly-wobbly physics of Doctor Who, and more an introductory physics lecture with phrases such as ‘like The Doctor’ or ‘if we had a TARDIS’ bolted on to every other sentence. With the exception of an entertaining section where the science behind the Eye of Harmony is examined, it doesn’t deviate to peer at the Whoniverse too closely. Instead it gawps at the grand themes of science fiction such as time travel and the possibility life on other worlds.
Perhaps it’s best that it doesn’t try to attempt an explanation of why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside: scientific rules tend to dissolve when immersed in the a universe where all of creation can be rebooted by some magic light from a box, and Cox is a man of science-fact, not science-fantasy.
Like The Doctor, Cox has an enthusiasm for physics that sweeps the viewer along, while crucially never letting his boyish passion for the subject get in the way of clarity. He’s not the Johnny Ball of quantum physics that TV execs would clearly like him to be, but he does have that valuable ability to cogently explain complex principles without making viewers feel he’s giving his lectures in crayon.
So, Time’s all relative and The Science of Doctor Who is not a waste of yours. And who knows; beyond the fun vignettes in the TARDIS, and the gnawing anticipation for 23 November, you might just learn something. Except what’ll happen on 23 November.
Airs at 9pm on Thursday 14 November 2013 on BBC Two.
Watch the 50th anniversary trailer…