Techno! Techno! Tech-NO! Future Technology Predictions in Doctor Who

A feature in the Doctor Who Annual 1974 predicted that, by 2003, we would have ‘miniature pocket computers’, and be able to ‘send Christmas greetings by video message’ while cooking meals using ‘cold heat’ microwave technology. Plastic Christmas trees also seem to trouble the writers, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s an article of a lot of foresight, still grounded in the ideas of the time- for instance the video message will be on tape, but the ‘tapes will… be a lot thinner than the ones we have today’. They’d be about the only thing that’s thinner now, thanks to all the microwave meals.

But I digress: Doctor Who is a series that came of age in what Harold Wilson called ‘the white heat of technology’. As a self-confessed gadget fiend, I wanted to look at not only the technological advances the show predicted but how close the Who versions are to what eventually became reality…

The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964)


Stumbling across a ‘dead’ Roboman (the actor makes heavy weather of falling out of a box before making an even worse fist of staying still), the Doctor and Ian examine the lash-up on his head before the Doctor deduces that humanity has developed a form of portable communication. Technology-wise, this example of ‘wearable tech’ will be quite a retrograde step. Even my first mobile wasn’t that cumbersome. The ‘office bin-and-bean cans’ arrangement is endearingly post-war British and suggests that the current penchant for ‘vintage’ will still be going in 2167.

Replaced by: any mobile phone you’ve ever owned.

The War Machines (1966)

Predicting the rise of supercomputers and self-governing automated devices by decades, not to mention the link-up of all world computers (granted, more than the six in the story), Ian Stuart Black’s The War Machines is as relevant now as it was then. The War Machines themselves would probably be more drone-like in a modern take on the idea. Importantly, Stuart Black and uncredited co-writer Kit Pedler’s glimpse of the future redeems the former from having invented the ‘reacting vibrator’ in the story previous, though its name alone presages the business model of Ann Summers decades later. Truly visionary.

Replaced by: network computing, the ‘Internet of things’ (remote control of things with no obvious requirement to be hooked up to the ‘net- in this case Dodo), drones and/or driverless vehicles. Few, if any, of them have been designed with a comedy face a la WOTAN, though.

See also: BOSS in The Green Death, The Robots of Death

The Invasion (1968) & The Deadly Assassin (1976)

Returning to wearable tech, Castellan Spandrell and his guards stay in touch via communicators on their gloves. Likewise, Packer and his heavies at International Electromatics are linked by wristwatch-sized two-way radios that you speak into and then hold to your ear to listen. The common theme is that both appear remarkably silly, a look currently being replicated by people with more money than sense who are finding out that spending the best part of a grand on an Apple Watch isn’t going to stop people down the pub or at work making “KITT, I need you” jokes.

Replaced by: Respectively, the Apple Watch and derision.

The Deadly Assassin (1976)

Part Three of the same story sees the Doctor plugged into the APC Net, the sum total of the knowledge of the Time Lords, living or dead, as he battles Chancellor Goth who is hiding in the Matrix. Fortunately, Tim Berners-Lee’s take on ‘the Matrix’ doesn’t require us to physically plug into it to access a world of knowledge contained therein, but some of the weirdness the Doctor finds once he’s in there is redolent of either a MMORG or at least those fan sites run by people who claim to have seen release schedules for all those episodes they didn’t find in 2013.

Replaced by: Take your pick: t’ interweb (the APC Net), online gaming (the Master’s ‘world’) and the Oculus Rift (Goth’s nifty headset).

See also: Warriors of the Deep’s sync operator Maddox, Omega in Arc of Infinity, The Master of the Land of Fiction in The Mind Robber, and The Trial of a Time Lord‘s final two episodes.

K9 (1977-81, 1983, 2006)

No article of this sort would be complete without mention of the Doctor’s very own supercomputer. A repository of considerable knowledge, wrapped in a metal body with a slightly condescending electronic voice, K9 was one of the ‘three brains’, alongside the Doctor and Romana, whose reliance on facing down danger with undergraduate wit and know-all attitude was instrumental in the decision to replace that humour with postgraduate physics and know-all script editors in Season 18. Of the ‘three brains’, K9 was the only one that could fire lasers from his nose.

Replaced by: The Aibo (remember them?), by way of Cortana/Siri/OK Google (delete according to personal OS fealty), smartphones, and that taser attachment some lunatic developed for the iPhone. Yes, really.

See also: Either Kamelion or the irate-sounding computer in The Seeds of Death

Robot (1974/5)

The Turing Test and the Singularity are two of key tenets of computing: the former is a means of gauging whether artificial intelligence has developed to the extent that it could pass for human. The latter is the idea that artificial intelligence will eventually become ‘self-improving’ and no longer require us. The film Ex Machina tackles these ideas through the protagonist’s interaction with an artificial intelligence.

Robot takes a different tack: Professor Kettlewell creates a massive robot with the personality of a stroppy teenager and then makes the mistake of letting it hang around with bad influences (the SRS). Things just gets worse when it discovers girls. The ensuing lovelorn sulk nearly sparks World War Three, as well as seeing a toy tank getting smashed in a fit of hormonal rage. The day is saved when the Doctor throws a bucket of something cold over the grubby metal blighter in a move that doubtless gained the approval of parents up and down the nation.

Replaced by: Hopefully nothing, as the prospect of annihilation by an enormous angsty-yet-horny robot as it stomps around leaving pretty, plucky journalists on roofs is not one I particularly relish.

As with anything like this, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Look at the modern series- Clara, and Rose before her, stays in touch with the Doctor by mobile. Things are always being rebooted, the Doctor has referred to the console room being ‘reskinned’. Which stories from the modern run do you think are particularly products of their time, visions of the future embedded in the here and now? Which episodes will we be revisiting years from now and commenting on ‘how 2010s’ they were? Are there any faves of yours from the classic series that I’ve missed?

Answers on a postcard, please – but only if you’re feeling particularly analogue…

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2 Responses

  1. Doctor Moo says:

    How about a TARDIS that can actually fly?

  2. bar says:

    The War Games surveillance, the transmat for 3D printing (Moonbase – though the airtight sealant teatray hasn’t been invented yet…) See also the anti-tech stuff versus the quorn and environmentalism in
    Green Death. Of its era yes, but some of it proved permanent. Can we count Torchwood’s lenses as ahead of google glass?

    It’s not just the tech that’s sometimes prescient, but the mixture of responses to it. The suspicion of takeover is never far behind autons, axons, mobiles or t’interweb, let alone anyone who profits by it: ‘underneath all that charm there was something odd, sinister, almost inhuman…’ (how great is Pat T in that story?)
    The fear of control by the Other, especially if it’s advanced tech. The Tenth Doctor complaining that humans aren’t sceptical enough, & love being taken over (Army of Ghosts) is the newer take on Robomen, conditioning a few could resist, even from the start.

    I’d love to see a realistic robot in Who, much as I adore the art nouveau Robots of Death they’re no more prescient than K9, Gadget or Kamelion. Humans is having a look at human/AI – best since Blade Runner? We have computer-created digital avatars interracting with those created by real people online, an angle not often tackled in SF.

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