Thursday 31 May 2012

SpaceX Dragon

I've been following the progress of the new Dragon space capsule on its mission to the ISS, and it looks like, after a shaky start, everything is going smoothly. The mission has been a success, and according to this article, the Dragon is set to come home on Thursday. (Scroll down for a cool video of the capture of the capsule!)

This inaugural mission was designed to see if the Dragon was up to the job of servicing NASA in its space programme. Now that it's all been completed to satisfaction, SpaceX are set to service NASA with future cargo runs, and should be transporting astronauts by the end of the decade, assuming its life support systems are refined in time. The next few months will see Orbital Sciences Corp join the party with its Antares-class rocket and Cygnus-class capsule set to service the ISS as well. Not only that, but Alliant Techsystems plan to be providing their Liberty spacecraft to NASA for crew transport by 2015. Liberty is a marriage of the reliable European Araine-5 launcher, the faithful booster rockets used for decades in Space Shuttle missions and ATK's own newly-developed Liberty-type crew capsule.

With these systems servicing NASA, and Virgin Galactic edging towards the launch of the Enterprise, it looks like private corporations are the future of space travel.

Tuesday 22 May 2012


TOS 1.10: Dagger of the Mind


Captain Kirk vs. Psychiatric Treatment

The Mission:
Find out what sent Dr Simon van Gelder insane on Tantalus.

Planets visited: Tantalus V, a desolate ringed planet that is home to the Tantalus Penal Colony.

Space Bilge: Sorry, I just have to get this out of the way: how the hell does van Gelder manage to hide in a box in order to beam aboard the Enterprise and not get discovered? Surely the transporter would detect a human presence in a cargo box? If not, how the hell does it put him back together again on arrival? Think these things through, writer S. Bar-David (if that is your real name)!

Captain James T: An especially good performance by Shatner in this episode. He’s torn between the opinion of his trusted friend Dr McCoy, and his respect for Tantalus administrator Dr Tristan Adams. Nonetheless, he heeds McCoy’s warning that things don’t “ring true” about van Gelder’s accident, and makes up a spurious regulation that means he has to beam down to the penal colony to investigate. He has a history with psychiatrist Dr. Helen Noel, and is clearly uncomfortable to find her on his staff (evidently he doesn’t usually have to meet his conquests again). He takes the incredibly foolhardy step of trying out Adams’s neural neutraliser himself, almost getting his mind wiped and ending up conditioned to be madly in love with Helen. He displays incredible force of will when fighting the process (Adams is suitably impressed). At the end of the episode, he is clearly haunted by his experience - and as far as we know, still infatuated with Helen Noel.

Sexy Trek: So, just what happened between Kirk and Helen? We never find out the extent of their fling at the science lab Christmas party, but knowing Kirk… Helen’s clearly still smitten with the Captain, and takes the opportunity to play with his head a bit when he’s in the chair. She’s still appalled when Adams makes him fall in love with her. Not that it’s such a terrible thing - she’s gorgeous. She also wears the shortest Starfleet minidress ever, nicely showing off her uniform blue knickers.

The Real McCoy: Clearly distrusts these new-fangled penal colonies and their mind-altering techniques. He displays real compassion for van Gelder, who has just snuck onboard and attacked a crewman in a violent craze.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: Spock’s hilarious in this one - Nimoy gives the cattiest, most withering looks to Shatner every time Kirk says something awkward. As well as a nerve pinch, Spock gives us the first Vulcan mind meld. He specifically says he’s never melded with a human before, let alone a clearly disturbed individual like van Gelder. It’s clearly a big deal for him, an incredibly intimate sharing of minds. Compare this with Spock in later years, who’s just melding willy-nilly with anyone.

Future Treknology: Adams’s neural neutraliser is capable of emptying a subject’s mind of all thoughts, making them susceptible to suggestion. Prolonged exposure at high intensity can permanently erase memories and leave the subject insane. When left alone in the neutraliser room, Adams’s mind is completely wiped, and he dies (of loneliness, McCoy says).

Future History: So, they’re still celebrating Christmas in the 23rd century, at least in science departments.

Trek Stars: Morgan Woodward puts in an incredibly intense (some might say OTT) performance as van Gelder.

Cliché Count: This is the first episode to take its title from a Shakespeare play. It certainly won’t be the last.

Verdict: An excellent episode, often forgotten amongst the more memorable stories around it. Lacking an alien presence, it focuses on humanity’s ongoing struggle with crime, punishment and insanity.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Why I love 'The Gunfighters'

I wish to go on record declaring my love for The Gunfighters. If ever there were a misjudged, unjustly maligned story, then The Gunfighters is it. Common knowledge paints it as the worst of the Hartnells, a misfire in his desperate final year cursed with crushingly poor ratings. In truth, the audience for The Gunfighters was no worse than any serial of 1966, and far better than some; and although it may not be to everyone's taste, it is a far better story than most will accept. The reason why? Because it's funny.

So many people seem to miss the point with this story. So many critics view The Gunfighters as if it were intended as a serious historical drama. Its comedy credentials are clear from the off. The Doctor, having just defeated the godlike powers of the Celestial Toymaker, is defeated by nothing more unearthly than a toothache. Mistaken for Doc Holliday, Seth Harper informs him that he won't be leaving Tombstone. The Clantons, all four of them, lean forward and intone, as one man, "Alive, that is!" Why aren't fans performing these routines at conventions?

It's William Hartnell that makes it. Nowhere is his unerring talent for verbal and physical comedy more apparent than here. Witness him, locked up and smuggled a gun for his escape. He spins the gun on his finger, chuckling as he amuses himself. "I say, Mister Werp, can you do that?" I fail to understand how anyone can watch Hartnell in this scene and not laugh.

"I say, Mister Werp!"

It's silly, it's childish, it's dated, but so what? That's what makes it so enjoyable. Back in the sixties Westerns were a staple American export. Doctor Who, in one its most experimental seasons, was subverting a genre prevalent in the public mind. Peter Purves is almost as good as Hartnell in the comedy stakes, playing a time traveller wearing a flagrantly camp fancy dress cowboy outfit, a quarter of a century before Back to the Future III did the same joke.

I accept, the ongoing Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon stretches the patience. Yes, the accents travel everywhere from Birmingham to British Columbia, not once intersecting with Arizona. There's too much to love here to let these quibbles bring you down. Anthony Jacobs is a brilliantly likeable rogue as Doc Holliday. Kate's charms are a good deal more... frontal than we might expect from the time. It takes the mick throughout, yet ends in a truly tense and well-shot gunfight. There's a genuinely witty script there from Donald Cotton. If you really can't stick Lynda Baron's singing, at least read Cotton's novelisation. Then maybe you'll realise what you're missing.

This wee article was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Panic Moon fanzine.

Geek/Cute Overload

Saturday 12 May 2012


Some interesting stuff has lately been reported about the asteroid Vesta. The spaceprobe Dawn has entered orbit of the rock and sent back its first set of data, confirming the long-held theory that Vesta has a layered, planet-like structure. The BBC , Nature and New Scientist articles go into more detail, but essentially it's been confirmed that Vesta is a remnant protoplanet, although why it never absorbed more of the matter around it to reach full planet-hood is unknown. Also pretty cool is further confirmation that most of the meteorites that have landed on Earth over the millennia have been chunks of Vesta, knocked out by some pretty whopping collisions early in its devlopment. If it hadn't been for its molten core, it would have shattered into many smaller fragments, instead of retaining its structure.

Vesta is the second largest body in the Belt (at least by mass - Pallas might be broader). It's nowhere near the size of the largest, Ceres; while Vesta makes up approximately 9% of the mass of the Belt, Ceres makes up over 30%. Ceres is considered both the largest Main Belt asteroid and the smallest dwarf planet. Considering its size, structure and spheroid shape, Vesta makes a good candidate for an upgrade to dwarf planet status. There's clearly plenty more to learn about our Solar System. I look forward to more telemetry reports concerning Vesta, and for some new info on Ceres when Dawn proceeds there in the near future.

Friday 11 May 2012


TOS 1.8: Balance of Terror


Captain Kirk vs. the Romulans

The Mission: Investigate the attacks on  Earth outposts along the Romulan Neutral Zone.

Planets visited: None. We do get visual contact with Earth Outpost 4, one of seven such outposts built into asteroids along the Federation side of the Neutral Zone.

Looking at the chart we see in the episode, we can get an idea of the layout of this region of space. Strangely enough, although the crew talk of the planets Romulus and Remus, we see points on the map labelled as Romulus and Romii. Some fans have suggested that Romii must be the native Romulan name for Remus, or that it simply represents another designation, maybe ‘Rom II.’ However, the Neutral Zone is later established as being a light year across, and the Romulan homeworlds as being sister planets in the same system. The chart therefore shows that Romulus and Romii are about a light year apart, so they must be neighbouring star systems. So Romii is just another system, very near to the one containing Romulus (and also Remus).

Famous Firsts: First appearance of the Romulans. First role for Mark Lenard in the series.

Future History: Over a century before this episode, Earth forces fought a war with the Romulans. Spock describes it thus: “This conflict was fought, by our standards today, with primitive atomic weapons and in primitive space vessels which allowed no quarter, no captives. Nor was there even ship-to-ship, visual communication; therefore, no human, Romulan, or ally has ever seen the other.”

A lot of this has been retconned into submission by the Enterprise series, which is set during the lead-up to the war (and presumably would have shown it, if it hadn’t been cancelled). The technology we see in Archer’s time is more advanced than that which Spock describes; however, the series sticks to continuity by not having any human or Romulan force see each other face to face. Some Vulcans, however, were in contact with the Romulans, although this was part of a conspiracy so presumably wouldn’t be common historical knowledge. Spock mentions allies - Enterprise suggests the Vulcans, Andorians and Tellarites were also involved in the war on the side of Earth, and Star Trek Nemesis informs us that the Romulans used Remans as ground forces, which might also help explain the lack of human-Romulan contact.

Alien Life Forms: The Romulans make their first appearance. The crew are stunned to see that they look like… Mr Spock! (Actually, the first one they see looks like his dad.) Spock recommends attacking the Romulan forces on the basis that “Vulcan, like Earth, had its aggressive, colonising period,” and that any Vulcans who still lived this way would be extremely dangerous. The fact that they look like Vulcans throws some suspicion on Spock, especially from Crewman Stiles, whose family fought in the Romulan War. (Funny how nobody ever becomes suspicious when aliens who look just humans show up and start acting maliciously, isn’t it?)
The Romulan society is clearly loosely based on the Romans: they rule an empire, wear helmets, have ranks like Centurion and names like Dacius, etc. Given how long Vulcans live, some of the older Romulans may have even fought in the war with Earth.

Future Treknology: The Romulans fly a ship called a Bird-of-Prey, which has been painted with an eagle design on its underside. It’s fitted with a cloaking device to allow it to become invisible, something previously thought practically impossible due to the energy requirements (another thing retconned by Enterprise, in which both the Romulans and Suliban use cloaks). It has to de-cloak to fire its new, powerful weapon, a device that fires an extremely powerful ball of plasma. Luckily, this has a limited range. It also carries nuclear warheads for sneak attacks. Scotty says the ship’s power is “simple impulse” and can therefore be outrun. He surely can’t mean it’s limited to an impulse engine, or it would be incapable of travelling interstellar distances.

Captain James T: Rises to the challenge on an extended game of cat-and-mouse with Romulan ship, despite balking at the concept of initiating war with the Empire. Uhura reports that Command will back his decision, so they clearly have a great deal of faith in him. He immediately defends Spock against Stiles’s accusations. The Romulan Commander admires him; in his last moments, he even declares that “In a different reality, I could have called you friend.” (A different reality, eh? Perhaps in a future movie…?)

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: Does little to defend himself against Stiles’s accusations. He considers attack a logical choice of action in these circumstances. He doesn’t hesitate to rescue Stiles from the gas leak in the phaser room at the risk of his own life - although he does make sure to fire the phasers first.

Trek Stars: Mark Lenard, later to be better known as Sarek of Vulcan, plays the Romulan Commander. He’s fantastic as a man worn down by years of military service, sick of seeing his comrades killed in front of him. He gets to say things like “Danger and I are old companions” and genuinely makes it sound serious.

Sexy Trek: Kirk and Rand have a squeeze when it looks like they may be facing destruction at the hands of the Romulans. Kirk acts to marry two of his officers in the opening scene; the wedding is never completed, and it's painfully obvious that the groom will be killed during the course of the episode.

Verdict: Excellent. This is Star Trek as a submarine movie, a tense battle between two captains where phasers are fired like depth charges and war is fought against a silent, hidden enemy. The Romulan bridge evens seems to have a periscope. The episode is made by Kirk and Lenard’s performances as equal yet opposing commanders.


TOS 1.6: The Naked Time
Captain Kirk vs. the Sweat of Madness

The Mission:
Observe the disintegration of planet Psi 2000 at close range, and discover what killed the scientists stationed there.

Planets visited: Psi 2000: Once a planet much like Earth, now frozen due to the dimming of its sun. Now it is breaking up completely, undergoing unpredictable changes in size, mass and other properties. It is also home to a unique polymer of water, which infects humanoids, intoxicating them. This aggravates their emotional responses, and is passed from person to person via perspiration. Or, to put it another way: everyone goes sweaty and crazy.

Space Bilge: OK, I’ve just got to get this one out of the way right now: Crewman Tormolen is entirely to blame for the entire situation here. He beams down to the planet with Spock, both in full-body isolation suits to avoid contamination with whatever killed the scientists. Then, when he’s alone, in a stunning display of idiocy and unprofessionalism, he takes off his glove, touches one of the bodies, then touches his face. Is it any wonder he dies? It’s amazing the ship is even running at all with people like that on the staff.

Why don’t Uhura and Kirk contract the infection when they’re handling sweaty topless Sulu? It’s ages before they show symptoms.

Captain James T: Manfully holds himself together for a good while, before becoming thuggish and angry, before finally sobbing about how much he fancies Yeoman Rand. He gives Spock a good slapping to try to knock some sense into him; one slap from Spock sends him flying across the room.

Shirtless Kirk Alert: Nope, it’s Sulu this time. Kirk does get his sleeve ripped off though.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: Leonard Nimoy is clearly the best actor on this show. He’s amazing here in his portrayal of Spock as he's torn apart by his uncontrollable emotions, both ashamed at showing them and expressing a secret longing to let them show at all times like the rest of the crew.

Spock’s pulse rate and blood pressure are much lower than human normal.

Funny Bits: Sulu goes completely nuts, turning into a swashbuckling fencer, ripping off his shirt and running topless down the corridor. He attempts to ‘rescue’ Uhura. “I’ll protect you, fair maiden,” he exclaims, to which she replies, brilliantly, “Sorry, neither!”

Crewman Riley gets his Irish going, locking himself in engineering and ordering ice cream for the whole crew between bouts of drunken Irish caterwauling.

“Sulu’s been chasing crewmen!” Oh, not again Takei…

Cliché Count: Scotty gets to say “I can’t change the laws of physics!” for the first time.

Time Travel: When escaping from the gravity well of the planet, the Enterprise enters a time warp and is thrown back in time by 71 hours. This is the first example of time travel in the series, but it won’t be the last. This technique will come to be known as the slingshot effect and will be used several times in the future (off the top of my head, in episodes “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and “Assignment: Earth” and the movie Star Trek IV. The journey back in time causes the chronometer to roll backwards, which makes no sense - surely time should be moving in the same direction for the ship and the crew?

Verdict: Awesome. Unlike the later TNG version “The Naked Now,” this shake-up of the crew’s emotions actually lets us get to know their personalities better, brilliantly exploring hidden sides to their characters: Spock is torn between his Vulcan upbringing and his human emotions; Kirk feels cut off by his command; Sulu is stifled by his life in Starfleet; Nurse Chapel is in love with Spock. Not all of these elements will be fully explored in the future, but they set up much needed characterisation early in the series. Plus it’s truly funny in parts, without losing a real sense of jeopardy.

Monday 7 May 2012

Whotopia 23

The latest issue of Whotopia is finally here! It's got stuff by me in it. Also stuff by others, all about Doctor Who. Download it and read it, it's terribly good.