Doctor Who: We're Catching Up to "The Future" Rapidly, and It's Not That Wrong
George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1948, giving humanity almost four decades to make his dystopia come true. That's sort of the sweet spot of science fiction a lot of the time. You want to set your story far enough in the future to make fantastic new elements not seem out of place, but not so far as to alienate the readers of today.
The nice folks who were writing for Doctor Who 50 years ago surely thought that they had reached that sweet spot when they were setting stories half a century later. After all, who was still going to be paying attention to this silly show in 2014? Well, as it turns out more people than ever are, and that means that stories once considered far off in the future are starting to become just around the corner. The question is, how does the vision of the near-future Earth compare with the Earth envisioned by Doctor Who in the 1960s?
Actually, it's not that far off.
For the purposes of this article we're looking at the recently rediscovered "The Enemy of the World", a Second Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria adventure from 1967 that's set just four years from now in 2018. Despite the re-release of the previously incomplete story on iTunes, I've only seen the Loose Cannon reconstructions because I'm waiting for what I'm sure will be an excellent DVD release in May and I don't want to buy it twice. I also have the wonderful novelization of the story by Ian Marter (Yep, Harry Sullivan himself) for easy reference. The book jacket purposely shifts the action to 2030 to keep up the "50 years in the future" theme (Marter wrote it in 1981), but television trumps everything on establishing canon for The Doctor.
In "Enemy of the World" the Tardis crew lands in Australia for a beach vacation, but through dark happenstance The Doctor is an exact double for a scientific genius named Ramon Salamander. Salamandar is using fantastic new weather technology to feed the world and eliminate hunger, but it's all a ruse to seize power. The Doctor agrees to aid the resistance against the threat, ultimately battling his doppelganger to the death as the Tardis careens out of control. It's a great look at the villainous side of Patrick Troughton, who eats every inch of the scenery.
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In 2018 the Earth is divided into political zones instead of outright countries. There is a World President who oversees cooperation between these zones, with each zone being headed by a leader. Salamandar is the leader of the Central European Zone, more or less the modern equivalent of the European Union.
While it's clearly a much more homogenized and powerful version of the current United Nations, the overall structure is still well-within the framework of current world government norms. It's also important to note that while Salamandar's ultimate goal may well be to crown himself World President, his tactics are instead to work more behind the scenes leveraging his technology for favorable influence. This too is a much more likely scenario that a powerful, Big Brother-style figure.
Hovercrafts play a small but influential role in the story, which is not surprising considering Doctor Who got started roughly around the time hovercrafts were being really perfected for practical use (It was in the late '60s that England was actually toying with the idea of hovertrains).
What would any good science fiction story be without video phones? Well, "Enemy of the World" doesn't let that staple pass, but never have videophones been more common in real life. Practically every smart phone these days offers a video feature provided you're near a Wi Fi network, and Skype is currently used for everything from translation services to live skin-care counseling to personal training. It's almost getting to the point where we would think it was weird in a technological setting if the characters weren't using some form of video communication.
The real test comes from Salamandar's technology. He manages to store and use sunlight to help grow crops in otherwise inhospitable environments. Is that possible? Maybe. A pair of University of Cincinnati researchers have already been perfecting something called SmartLight, which is intended to store sunlight that hits the outside of a building and transfer it through electrofluidic cells into the interior as light. The main problem with solar energy is that much of the power is lost converting light into electricity, but SmartLight has none of that since it's using the light as is. On a massive scale Salamandar's invention isn't unfeasible.
Of course, Salamandar also used a weapon to trigger volcanic eruptions and earthquakes specifically to create disasters he could use to appear as the hero in. Despite what Hugo Chavez believed, there is currently no actually working tectonic weapon in the hands of any world power.
Though it's not from lack of trying. The Soviets were reported by Nature of attempting to perfect an electromagnetic device in Kyrgyzstan in the '90s that would set off volcanoes, project codename: Mercury. New Zealand went a different route a little later with Project Seal, designed to control and use tsunamis as weapons. Neither endeavor was ever meaningfully successful, just as Nikola Tesla's experiments with harmonic resonance proved ineffectual when it came to mimicking the damaging effect of earthquakes on buildings (Though he did make them vibrate, which is still pretty cool).
So for all intents and purposes you could drop Peter Capaldi into an exact remake of "Enemy of the World" later this year and David Whitaker's script would still hold up as a pretty accurate prediction of modern day Earth. It makes you wonder if we'll actually have that Moonbase Doctor Who promised us by 2070.
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