The Mike Splane Question… in Doctor Who?

by admin on November 30, 2015

This weekend the British science fiction show Doctor Who, of which I am an avid fan (though not a rabid fan), had an episode that can only be described as an instant classic. Over the weekend its user rating on IMDb was 9.7 stars out of 10, which would make it the second most popular episode ever of that show.

Brief synopsis (with spoilers, so skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know them): The show’s main character, the Doctor, has just lost his traveling companion Clara in the previous week’s episode. However, he has no time to grieve because he is immediately teleported to a mysterious place that looks like a medieval castle completely surrounded by water. Here he is hunted by a very implacable, very slow creature called the Veil, which is basically a representation of Death.

Over the course of the episode we come to learn that the Doctor is caught in a prison of his own mind, surrounded by his own worst nightmares. The only exit appears to be blocked by a 20-meter thick (or 20-foot thick? I’m not quite sure) wall of diamond. Over the next two billion years (you read right: two billion years in one hour of TV) the Doctor pounds the wall with his fists, while being killed over and over again by the Veil, presumably 20 million times. Each time he dies, he comes back in the transporter as good as new, to continue the same cycle of figuring out the clues and banging away at the wall.

Here is the one thing about the episode with special meaning for readers of this blog. Throughout the episode, the Doctor keeps seeing Clara in his mind. In his visions, she communicates by writing questions on the blackboard. And the third question is:

How are you going to win? (with the word “win” underlined several times).

It’s the Mike Splane Question! If we are to believe the show, this question is what leads the Doctor to concoct his plan of breaking down the wall with his bare fists and allowing himself to be killed over and over so that he can be revived again.

This episode might be an apt metaphor for a chess game, although thankfully I’ve never played a game yet that lasted two billion years. The next time I face a position where I seem to be banging my fists against a stone wall, perhaps I will think about this episode of Doctor Who. I will remind myself to stick to the plan… and if I don’t have a plan, try to find one by asking the Mike Splane Question (which is now the Clara Question too).

P.S. I’m surely not the only viewer who wondered, “Would it really be possible to break down a diamond wall with your bare fists if you had two billion years?” From my understanding of hardness, you can’t even scratch a diamond a little bit with a material that is softer than diamond. Not a teeny weeny bit.

But maybe it’s not quite so all-or-nothing as that. If one hundred punches wear away one micron of diamond, then 2 billion punches would wear away 20 meters, and that would be enough to get the Doctor through the wall.

Does anyone know if it is plausible to abrade off a micron of diamond with a hundred punches?

There are certain other plausibility issues with this plot. As this article points out, it’s easier to cleave diamond than to scratch it. Presumably the Doctor, with his super-intelligent alien mind, could figure out where the cleavage planes are and try to chip off little fragments. Also, a super-intelligent being should have figured out that he could make quicker progress with a spade (which is shown twice in this episode) rather than his bare fists. Finally, as the millennia went by and he battered his way through the diamond wall, either by cleaving or abrading, there should have been some debris left on the floor: diamond dust or diamond chips. With the diamond dust he should have been able to make some kind of abrading tool, a drill bit or sandpaper or something, that would have done the job much, much faster. He’s the Doctor, after all. He comes up with this sort of solution in most episodes. Why did he turn off his brain in this episode and only use his fists?

Well, the answer is (as it always is in fiction) because the writers wanted it that way. They liked the image of breaking down the diamond wall with his bare hands. It was more epic. Or as my wife says, “It’s all metaphorical.”


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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

paul B. November 30, 2015 at 10:06 am

He should have made fire. A diamond can be ablated by fire, layer by layer. You can prove this to yourself by applying a blowtorch to your wife’s wedding ring (you can always replace it with a cubic zirconia – she’ll never notice). Another strategy is to build a fire against the diamond wall, then douse the wall with cold water – the diamond should crack because it has a poor coefficient of expansion ; you can test this on your wife’s ring as well.

To my mind, this story is a metaphor for my chess progress. I play billions of 10-minute blitz games at but my play has not improved one iota as a result. Even a stupid dog can learn new tricks, but not I when it comes to chess.


Mike Splane December 3, 2015 at 2:16 am

Well, the truth has finally come out. I admit it. I am actually Doctor Who, posing as Mike Splane. I killed and disposed of the real Mike several years ago.


Gjon December 6, 2015 at 8:39 pm

It’s about time that You came clean about your true identity Mike.
I always wondered how you could successfully answering the question ” How will I win this game ” each and every game you play, as early as move 10?
Now it all makes sense….. You’re not human!

Love you Mike. See you soon.


deckerD February 11, 2016 at 12:02 am

the real Mike was from Flint and I’ve seen him in action. We all knew right away he was not ordinary !


Mike Splane February 20, 2016 at 9:40 pm

Dale, If you read this, shoot me an email, I’ve lost yours.


Matt December 8, 2015 at 10:30 am

I literally asked myself (in my head) the Mike Splane question in my club game last night in a bishop + knight vs rook endgame, with pawns on both sides of the board. I think it’s the first time I have ever mentally asked myself the question, at least in those words: “How am I going to win?” I came up with a plan and, although the plan never fully came to pass (my opponent miscalculated and blundered when trying to prevent it), I still feel the Mike Splane question won the day!


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