On Saturday June 17th at Awesome Con I attended one of the most popular and crowded panels of the event, “David Tennant Explores Time and Space”. Two scientists from the Smithsonian, Astrophysicist and NASA Einstein Fellow at Yale University Dr. Grant Trembley, and science historian and curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum Dr. Matt Shindell joined David Tennant as the celebrity guest. This was part of Future Con that brought real science and science fiction together. For the David Tennant panel it was focused on the science behind time travel and what we see in Doctor Who.
David Tennant is best known for his role as the tenth Doctor on the long running BBC series Doctor Who. He is also a Shakespearean actor and played both Hamlet and Richard II. The TV movie Hamlet aired in 2009, also starring Sir Patrick Stewart, was set in modern times. Beyond the Doctor and Shakespeare, Tennant also starred in Broadchurch, Blackpool, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Jessica Jones. For the upcoming remake of DuckTales he will be voicing Scrooge McDuck.
We first saw him in Doctor Who when the ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Ecceleston, regenerates after absorbing the time vortex from Rose. He regenerates into David Tennant’s tenth Doctor. In Doctor Who the Doctor, real name unknown, is a Timelord from the planet Gallifrey. Timelords posses the ability through a machine known as the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), and its bigger on the inside, to explore all of time and space. They are also able to live a very long life by regenerating new bodies when mortality injured or dying. As for biology they are remarkably like humans except for two hearts, long life, and regeneration. So far in the show we are on our 12th incarnation of the millennia old Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi. Come this year’s Christmas Special a 13th Doctor will be revealed when Capaldi leaves the show.
On that note, the show is about traveling time and space we get to the first dialogue of the panel and the existence of time and the possibility of time travel.
Science of Time and Space
Time does not exist, was the opening by Dr. Trembley, it is a human construct, and we have never viewed our world in the present. This is because light travels at 186,000 miles per second or one foot every Nano second. Therefore light from an object does not reach a person instantly. We see the past, though mere nano seconds in the past but nothing we see is in the present moment. However, because we as organic beings perceive a change in space as a change in time all our experiences are different from everyone else. Time is still linear, we age because of a set course in our biological makeup, the seasons still happen, the Earth rotates, and day becomes night. However, how time is viewed is based on each individual and we are essentially living in our own time frames. The notion of years, days, hours, and minutes help us keep track of life and daily activities making time a human and cultural construct.
Space is also perceived the same as time. Known in special relativity as the four-dimensional Minkowski space where time is one dimension and space three dimensions where a change in space is a change in time. From a mathematical perspective time travel is plausible as it is a natural phenomena as moving through space is the same as moving through time. One example given was if the universe was cylindrical you could leave your house and arrive at your destination before you depart. Also the concept of wormhole travel where space is folded to create near instantaneous travel between star systems or galaxies. In Doctor Who the TARDIS travels through both time and space and the Doctor can end up on a planet millions of light years and 500 years from his previous time and place. If that is too much of an explanation to give to non time travelers then just use the famous line of the tenth Doctor as a “wibbley woobley timey wimey thing”. Time travel is not a crazy concept, though real time machines will probably always be a product of science fiction.
Doctor Who and Science
This is what Doctor Who gives to the audience, a relationship between science and science fiction. However, it isn’t given the seriousness as it was in the United States. Dr. Shindell brought up the point and I remember this growing up that Doctor Who was shown in the United States on PBS. Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s we had a variety of science and math shows on PBS like 321 Contact and Square One, but also Nature and NOVA. Having Doctor Who on this channel melded that knowledge of science with a science fiction show that delved into real science concepts. David Tennant said he didn’t think it had that seriousness in England but he went on to talk about how this relationship works best in Doctor Who when it is credible and can be seen as something that people can get to one day.
As for how much science is considered in Doctor Who, David Tennant wasn’t sure because he was not involved in the development of the episodes but there was inspiration taken from science. The episode “Water on Mars” drew inspiration from the news of possible water on mars and the current unmanned mars expeditions. As for the Cybermen, cybernetic enhanced people, they were inspired from real life prosthetics to replace lost limbs.
In the show we see an alien who explores all the reaches of time and space while gaining vast amounts of knowledge. He is essentially an explorer though the Doctor will stop to save humans and aliens from those that would do harm. This gives him a what Tennant says “a baseline morality”. Past science fiction works also have explored this concept of time travellers and a thirst for knowledge. A good example is HG Wells.
First published in 1895, The Time Machine by HG Wells explored time travel and the future of Earth by traveling over 800,000 years into the future. The time traveller was on a science mission to learn everything. This brings us back to the Doctor who lived for hundreds and maybe thousand or more years collecting knowledge on everything. He essentially knows more than everyone else in the universe.
When asked what it was like to play this character knowing how much he has lived Tennant said, “Its lovely to play the cleverest person in the room and get the best lines and knowing stuff”. This is what makes the character great and “has entranced generations” with an enthusiasm, brilliance, and an intellect. It is because of this, though Tennant says he liked the Hulk, he could never have inspired to be the Hulk but the Doctor is “quite inspirational”.
Though most of the panel was on the role of the Doctor we did get to hear about another of Tennant’s roles as Arthur Eddington. Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington was an English astronomer, physicist, and mathematician who first confirmed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. They may have been from two different worlds but were similar in a way. Tennant was also filming Einstein and Eddington at the same time as Doctor Who and had both roles in mind as he portrayed two different people connected by one theory. One man was a real Earth scientist who proved relativity the other man uses the concepts from the Theory of Relativity to travel through time and space.
From this portion of the panel we learned more about time and space and that time as we know it doesn’t exist. People live in their own realities and time travel is feasible because it is naturally occurring. Will we ever have a TARDIS, HG Wells’s time machine, or DeLorean, as of now no but what happens in the future is anyone’s guess. Many technological advances were inspired by science fiction and even though Doctor Who may have been inspired by real science, it can also inspire real science.
More About David Tennant
The morning wasn’t all about the science of time and space and the role Doctor Who plays but also about David Tennant and some very interesting questions from the audience. We also get a story about David’s old shoes. An audience member asked about a character he relates to the most and he decided to tell the story of his shoes. Apparently he was going to buy new shoes at Heathrow to wear in DC. No vendor had shoes his size and then he came Saturday morning with fifteen-year old shoes that were falling apart. Getting back to the difficult to answer question, Tennant told the audience that he relates to the character that has the oldest shoes. In the first story of the tenth Doctor, Tennant wore his old pair of Converses. This was until the costuming department got disgusted and switched them out for a new pair then dirtied them up for the show, and “it was never the same”.
If picking the character he most relates to was a challenge, David Tennant went on to say that in acting the biggest challenge is getting and holding a job. Also to make acting a professional career and making it a life rather then just a paycheck.
As David Tennant has done Shakespeare an audience member asked what a Shakespearean play would be about if he wrote it. First David Tennant was focused on if he could write that good it would be about everything including his shoes. However, because he can’t be Shakespeare, he would do the Shakespearean take on the Marvel Universe.
Continuing the topic of Shakespeare his most challenging role was Hamlet. Hamlet is the biggest of Shakespeare’s plays, it has “lots of words” but also the easiest because there is so much going on and he does everything. However, it still makes people nervous to do it. Though once an actor surrenders to the role they can become Hamlet. The challenge is in having the confidence to take on the role in the first place.
David Tennant finished the panel and Q&A to do photo-ops and sign autographs. Right after talking about the penguin documentary he narrated. Unfortunately, he never went to the spectacular places in Antarctica they filmed, just narrated over the film. It was a memorable talk and experience to hear from a brilliant actor and one of the best Doctors on everything from the science of Doctor Who, to his career, and Shakespeare. Even Stan Lee on Sunday said that he thought the greatest writer of all time was Shakespeare. Science and Shakespeare give a new dimension to the pop-culture convention.
Looking back at the weekend the best part, besides the celebrities and cosplay, was the learning experience. Those of us that attended the science talks or met with real scientists got an experience that you might not get just visiting a museum. Also having a celebrity like David Tennant to be there and interact with scientists bringing this knowledge to the general public was special. Making science entertaining is a good thing.
Thanks to David Tennant and the Smithsonian for an entertaining and educational morning.