I often find myself hating the new Doctor Who. Also a lot of other sci-fi media, but the Doctor has been guilty of some pretty blatant offenses lately, and because I really liked the show growing up, the violations are all the more offensive.
Now I'm an old school Dr. Who fan, having grown up with Tom Baker's long scarf as a fundamental cultural anchor, and I really did appreciate the new Doctor in a lot of ways. The New Doctor was new, and I was willing to grant it space to really be different. And hey, it's basically a kid's show anyway, nothing to get worked up over, even if they did waste some amazing talent on some pretty vapid scripts.
But oh, the Disbelief.
Suspension of Disbelief is often seen as a thing the audience is responsible for, something that you have to be able to do if you want to enjoy the fantastical situation of your favorite characters. "Just relax, it's sci-fi, can't you just suspend your disbelief for a minute and enjoy it?"
But Suspension of Disbelief isn't just the audience's responsibility. It is a contract between a creator and an audience, and like all contracts, it involves responsibilities on both sides.
On my side, as the audience, I accept that there has to be some creative license in order to tell a story. You say you need sounds in space to create a physical feeling of the motion of the space ship, sure, whatever, fine, fine. You don't have the budget to show me a truly realistic eight foot tall alien costume? I understand, I'm okay that you just painted some brow ridges on a guy.
That last bit, the low-budget special effects, was actually an advantage to the old Doctor in a lot of ways. When the effects are so unconvincing, you accept them more easily, knowing that they are meant to stand in for a thing, not look exactly like that thing really would. It's the near side of the uncanny valley of TV alien makeup, and you easily imagine what the creators mean you to imagine, even if all they have to show you is a sheet of aluminum foil with a green-screen effect. It's a matter of trust, they try to tell the story as best they can, and you agree not to disbelieve so hard so that they can get on with the job. Back in the day, you'd see the shadow of a boom microphone on the wall behind Tom Baker, and it was okay - you saw him on an alien planet because the director was asking you so politely and sheepishly to please just cut him some slack, the BBC barely gave them enough money to even have the boom microphone, so can you just, you know, just accept for the sake of the story that's he's on Skaro for a minute. Please, for Tom's sake.
But I digress.
The other side of the Suspension of Disbelief contract is the creator's side. The bulk of the contract, in my opinion. It's the creator's responsibility first to make you want to believe the Doctor is on Skaro, to care enough about the story that you accept as given that he is in fact there so that you can experience the story and find out what happens next. Second, it is the creator's job to not reach through the screen, grab you by your shirt collar, yank you out of your chair and slap you across the face, shouting "this is a bunch of fake bullshit!" at you. This last part seems especially difficult for modern directors.
Let's say, for the sake of an illustrative example, that I am making a sci-fi show. My character in this show I've created reaches a pivotal moment in the story where they are hurtling at enormous speeds through a forest on their hoverbike, chased by bad guys. The hero reaches the alien portal and steps lightly off the hoverbike, which continues on at enormous speed, crashing into an enemy clone transport with a beautiful CGI explosion.
Wait, how fast was that bike going? How did the hero get off, did the bike slow down? Then how did it slam into the clone transport? What is going on here?
What we're talking about is physical intuition. We know, from long experience being physical beings, that Inertia is a thing. We know, intuitively, that you can't be going very fast, and then not be going very fast, without transition. It doesn't look right, and more importantly it doesn't feel right, especially if I've done a good job making you feel like that hoverbike was really moving. What I've done is violate your physical intuition, I've reached through the screen and slapped you in the face with the unreality of my vision. The world I've created no longer feels real.
How could I possibly repair such a situation? It's going to be very hard for you to suspend your disbelief after I've shown my sci-fi world to be an un-physical sham. Like that time the Doctor opened a hole under the Thames, and in a few seconds drained the entire river completely dry. Or that time the moon broke open and a giant space dragon hatched out, and then laid another moon-sized egg before flying away into space. Things like this are hard to come back from.
I could probably have prevented it, though. Maybe by constructing a perfectly accurate representation of Newtonian physics in the scene. Or, maybe just by having our hero put on an inertia belt earlier in the story, and have the belt flash some colored lights at the critical hoverbike dismount.
What's this inertia belt thing? I have no idea, but it sounds like it might let the hero jump off a hurtling hoverbike without slowing down, and that's all we really need to know. Yes, it's technobabble, a cheap gimmick, but it serves a vital purpose - it gives the audience a hook to suspend their disbelief from. It says to the audience, "hey, look, we know it doesn't work, but we need to get to the sexy alien on the other side of that portal, what do you say, let it go? Please?". That acknowledgment, as thin as the gimmick is, actually does the job a lot of the time. The audience is usually happy to latch on to anything that will keep them in the story - we're not talking about being convincing, remember, all we have to do is not slap people in the face. They aren't going to praise the writing after, but they'll at least stay immersed while they watch.
Genuinely good writing usually doesn't need the gimmicks, because the reality of the world it creates is more consistent, but that doesn't mean Suspension of Disbelief is just about writing a good story. Take the movie Pacific Rim as an example - the whole movie was a series of battles between monsters and robots with just enough plot to rationalize why and provide some kind of climactic finale. All the work that didn't go into crafting a sophisticated story went instead into keeping our physical intuition happy - the monsters had an enormous fleshy weight, the robots moved as if they were solid objects made of real metal, and every square millimeter of CGI was engineered to make sure it looked like a real thing, in a real world, with real, familiar physics. It worked.
The fact that Suspension of Disbelief can be easily maintained is what makes watching the new Doctor, and a large swatch of all sci-fi, heartbreaking. Frequently a trivial dialog change would have been sufficient to excuse something counterintuitive, but often I feel like I am being challenged by a director who went out of their way to choose the least believable, least scientifically sound, least intuitive, least intelligent approach to every scene.
Look, you don't have to do correct physics. (Though it's not as hard as you'd think, hire a scientist and listen to what they say.) Just watch what you've made and ask yourself, "does that look right? Does it feel right?" And stop slapping me out of your story.