Tuesday 31 July 2012

The nth Planet

The Planet Hab Lab have made available this very cool infographic displaying all 786 currently confirmed exoplanets. Hover the cursor over any planet and you'll get a readout telling you its relative size, plus its year of discovery and atmospheric type for certain examples (no distances, sadly). The handful of planets known that are Earth-sized and smaller are a little hard to pick out amongst all the super-jovians, but it's a nifty way to browse through the menagerie of worlds that have been discovered over the past few years.

Click on the image to go to the interactive infographic. Also, Douglas Adams fans should highlight the entire image for a fun extra.

Sunday 29 July 2012

Cloud Atlas trailer

The first full official trailer for the upcoming movie of Cloud Atlas is now available to view.

I adore Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell's sprawling, time-shifting novel. It's a truly beautiful work, and while I inevitably gravitate more towards the science fiction segments, all six novellettes are perfectly written and ingeniously intertwined. It's one of those works of fiction that I considered impossible to get right on film; judging by this trailer, I may have been wrong. I'm getting quite excited about this.

Monday 23 July 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises

It’s difficult to review The Dark Knight Rises. Analysing the film in any detail will give away key details that would spoil the enjoyment of anyone yet to see it. Also, there’s the risk of appearing to trivialise the terrible events in Colorado, which have naturally overshadowed the film itself in the media. It’s a film about damaged people engaging in terrible acts, and people are understandably going to draw links between life and art.

Focussing on the movie, reviews I’ve read have varied from the deeply negative to the overwhelmingly positive. I thought it was excellent. Whether it matched the second instalment I’m not sure - I feel I’ll have to rewatch the trilogy to decide that. Inevitably, Rises will suffer from comparisons with its predecessor, and lacks the film-stealing turn of Heath Ledger which garnered so much critical applause. However, this means that instead of showcasing a single, stand-out actor, Rises is made up of several excellent performances by some of Hollywood’s finest.

Christian Bale is perfect here as Bruce Wayne, physically wasted, emotionally exhausted and more damaged than ever. As the depressed, isolated billionaire, he excels, and quite rightly his time in the mask is kept to a minimum. This is Bruce’s journey, not a romp for a man in a cape; if anything, it’s the occasional moment of gravel-voiced Batmannery that pulled me out of the film. It’s the man behind the mask that matters, facing not only his personal demons, but a deeply personal attack on himself and his city. What hurts Gotham hurts Bruce, and he is forced to watch his beloved city torn down around him. He begins the film closed off from those around him; when he finally opens up, letting in his new love interest, wealthy investor Miranda Tate, the Nolans’ script has the guts to punish him for it. Bruce is fighting a war on multiple fronts, from the city streets to the boardroom to his own emotional security, and by the midpoint of the film he has lost on all of them. This only serves to make his painful return all the more triumphant.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Paludin Fields

Episode Three of The Minister of Chance is now available for download, free of charge. All you need to do is click here, and you can get an hour-long audio drama in either iTunes-friendly or basic MP3 format.

What more can I say about The Minister of Chance? Well, it's a crowd-funded professional radiophonic production featuring some truly immersive soundwork and some fabulous concepts. The Minister is a defrocked Time Lord, originally played in the Doctor Who webcast Death Comes to Time by Stephen Fry, now regenerated into the tougher, but no less sardonic form of Julian Wadham. Apparently, these are in fact his third and fourth incarnations, leaving at least two more Ministers unheard. Don't worry, you don't need to be a Who Head to love The Minister of Chance; it takes place very much in its own corner of the universe, but what a fascinating corner that is. Doors access the bridges between worlds; powerful travellers stride across them, interfering in the affairs of lesser civilisations; warrior cultures ruled by witches invade and destroy societies based on rationality and science.

Episode Three, 'Paludin Fields,' sees the political situation of the nation of Tanto become more complex, and sets the Minister further on his path to confront his nemesis, the mysterious Horseman. It also introduces the wonderful Tamsin Greig as the enigmatic and irascible Sage of the Waves, and features an impressive cast of regulars: Jenny Agutter, Paul McGann, Sylvester McCoy, Lauren Crace, Beth Goddard, even Simon out of 'Trev and Simon.'

It's well worth a listen, and it won't cost you a penny.

Monday 16 July 2012

Where No Manx Has Gone Before

It's always a pleasure to read about British efforts to reach space, so I rather enjoyed this little BBC story on the work of Excalibur Almaz, a space tourism company based on the Isle of Man.


For those overseas folk unaware of the Isle of Man, it's a British Crown Dependency - i.e. British, but not technically part of the UK - lying in the Irish Sea, between Great Britain and Ireland. It's not somewhere that immediately springs to mind when asked about space travel.

I love the approach they're taking. With some companies, like Virgin Galactic, spending vast amounts on constructing new spacecraft, Excalibur have taken the more cost-effective step of refitting existing, defunct spaceships. Shame the £100m is a touch beyond my holiday budget.

I also love the little boy at the end of the video. Cool kid. I look forward to seeing him make first contact with intelligent alien life in the future.

Saturday 14 July 2012

Dreams, Doorways, Daleks

Some cool things to view or listen to:

First, today sees the release of episode two of Power of the Daleks, the fan-made re-imagining of the classic Doctor Who story, starring Nick Scovell as the Doctor and Nick Briggs as the Daleks. You cna watch episode two here. Of course, episode one is still available too, and you can read my review of that on this very blog. Part two is great, and I can't wait for the conclusion.

Also up today is the re-released prologue to the magnificent The Minister of Chance, entitled 'The Pointed Hand.' This is a professionally made audio series available for free. 'The Pointed Hand' stars Paul McGann and can be heard on YouTube or downloaded directly from the site. You can also listen to episodes one and two, free of charge, and in one week's time, the third installment, 'Paludin Fields' will be released. The Minister of Chance stars such names as Julian Wadham, Jenny Agutter, Lauren Crace, Tamsin Grieg and a host of others.

And, and, and, truly exciting news: Neil Gaiman has revealed that he is writing a prequel The Sandman, his truly epic, utterly beautiful graphic novel series. You can watch his ComicCon announcement here. I'm very excited about this. Prequels are ten-a-penny these days, and if anyone else were writing this, I'd be very dubious. However, this is Gaiman himself, stepping back to write a lost chapter of the Sandman story. I can't wait.

So, November 2013: the 25th anniversary of The Sandman and the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who: surely it's time for that crossover, Mr G?

Tuesday 10 July 2012

REVIEW: Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully

It's not often that some new broadcast sci-fi comedy comes along, so we skiffy fans tend to get a bit excited and jump on it. Yet, for every Red Dwarf there's a Hyperdrive, so we try not to get our hopes up too much. Nonetheless, I expected something pretty good from Eddie Robson's new radio pilot: Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully. Robson has previously written for radio comedies including That Mitchell and Webb Sound and Newsjack, and has also written some particularly good Doctor Who audio plays, so he's got form. Still, balancing the two sides of the comedy-sci-fi equation isn't easy, especially if you don't want to alienate the casual Radio 2 listener.

Village (I'm not writing that whole title out every time) is a flawed show, but not a bad one. It's hardly riproaringly hilarious, but very few things are. There's a steady rate of jokes, more hits than misses, and a couple of good, laugh-out-loud moments. The concept is a winner: aliens have invaded a small village, erected a force field around it, and have set themselves up as very polite overlords. Seeing that trying to conquer the entire world is always doomed to failure in the films, they've decided to start small. It's all pretty slight, science fiction-wise, focusing more on the middle England village life of Cresden Green. As with any such production, the cast sell it. The always brilliant Katherine Parkinson plays Katrina, who's been stranded in the village having visited to blag some cash off her parents. Katrina attempts to form a resistance against the aliens, but is up against some typically English attitudes. After all, the aliens are just so polite.

Julian Rhind-Tutt is the leader of the alien Geonin, a slick, smooth-talking extraterrestrial presenting himself as a well-bred upper-class Englishman, whose diabolical plans for domination are swallowed by his new human constituency due to his class and good manners. Apparently, this was written before David Cameron came to power, but it's a nicely satirical approach anyway. It's the small-mindedness and pettiness of the villagers that let the Geonin get away with their plans; people are far too worried about being branded as racist for discriminating against the aliens to contemplate joining the Resistance. This is nicely inverted when Katrina points out another place that collaborated with foreign invaders: France. Extraterrestrials are one thing, but to be compared to the French...

Peter Davison is the third big name, and he provides some of the funniest moments, as Katrina's dad, an apparently mild-mannered village council-type hiding a surprisingly bloodthirsty temper. It's not all middle-class knobbery; there are a couple of great moments involving the Geonin's sentient computer, which skirt the more sci-fi side of things. It's not without it's problems, though. It's radio sitcom format is unlikely to set the world alight, and gives the impression that it's less original that it really is, so familiar is the style and tone. Some gags, inevitably, fall flat, and there's a very intrusive laughter track that should really be scrapped from any future installments. Still, Hitchhikers and Red Dwarf started off pretty shakily too, and developed into the standards by which sci-fi comedy is now judged. Village deserves the opportunity of a series; it definitely has potential.

Friday 6 July 2012

Dark Eyes

Absolutely loving this - the promo/cover image for Big Finish's upcoming Doctor Who miniseries Dark Eyes. It's set after the cataclysmic events of the fourth series of 'EDAs' - Eighth Doctor Adventures - when the Doctor pretty much got his Time Lord ass handed to him. I love how Eight's fan-made new costume has now become pretty much official. Not everyone approves of the leather jacketed, Eccleston-esque look, but I like it. It's still natty and quirky enough to fit the eighth Doctor, but more practical and less flamboyant. Makes sense how that he's heading towards a war footing with the Daleks. Plus, it's just great to have some new images of the eighth Doctor, after that handful of shots from the movie have been paraded out time after time for the last ten years. And McGann looks very handsome now that's he's older. A sexy, rugged Doctor.

Then with got the lovely Ruth Bradley, who is on ITV right now playing Emily the Victorian adventuress in Primeval. She really has got very dark eyes. She plays Molly, a voluntary nurse in the First World War. I'm hoping that she'll be using her natural Irish accent for this part. Plus, Toby Jones, who's always great, although I very much doubt he'll be in a familiar role (so fans of the Dream Lord shouldn't get excited). I preordered this way back, before it had even got a title, and I'm very much looking forward to it.

Big Finish have kind of saturated the market for Doctor Who audio these days. Jago and Litefoot is on its fifth series and confirmed for two more, and I've only just got hold of the first - which was rather brilliant. I'm hoping to get Countermeasures, the Remembrance of the Daleks spin off, but that may have to wait. It's not just the expense, it's finding the time to listen to all this...

Wednesday 4 July 2012

DINO SORE: Triceratops

So, I've got a week off work, and not before time. Naturally, I've gone and got myself some grotty bug that's made me feel nauseous, exhausted and generally shoddy. I'm away this weekend for a friend's birthday celebrations, so hopefully I'll have a bit more energy by then. Plus, I've got to fit some Spider-Man time in there somewhere. I'd hoped to make some more writing progress this week, but it turns out that feeling rubbish is not conducive to creativity. I'm so behind on so many things that it's not even appropriate to make a Douglas Adams-style quip about deadlines. If any of you guys are reading this blog, I apologise: I swear I'll get these things done eventually.

Still, between bouts of banging my head against a brick wall, I decided that I needed to write something. So I decided on dinosaurs.

Now, I love dinosaurs. It's common to note that most young children go through a phase of dinosaur fascination; not everyone grows out of that stage. I certainly didn't. Thankfully, I have friends who share my interest, or at least, don't mind me wittering on about it at length. Plus, I can go and watch Dinosaur Train with my best friend's brood of small children. Dinosaurs - I love 'em, kids love 'em, the great browsing majority love 'em. There's some really fascinating stuff being uncovered. I just wish that the papers and news sites could be a little more careful in their reporting of these discoveries.

One of the most stupid claims I've seen recently, in several places, is that Triceratops will soon cease to exist. No such thing as Triceratops! Actually bother reading past the headlines, and you'll discover that no, of course it still exists, it's just being renamed. Actually bother to ditch the newspaper and read a more reputable resource and you'll learn that Triceratops is perfectly safe as a name. This controversy, if it can be called such, has actually been rumbling along for a while. There's been something of a gear change in the way paleontologists classify dinosaur genera. Now, generally speaking, as a dinophile you're either a lumper or a splitter. Splitters tend to want to give a distinct label to new fossils unless they can be proven to be pretty perfect matches to existing ones. This approach leads to bulging books full of fabulous dinosaur names, even though a lot of them look rather similar. Lumpers, on the other hand, take the opposite approach. Lumpers tend to bundle similar fossils together, often as multiple species of the same genus. This approach, historically, led to dozens of very different fossils all being called Megalosaurus, and fell out of favour for a while. I'm more of a lumper myself, and this trend seems to be having a renaissance.

You see, animals don't tend to stay the same all through they're lives. A kitten doesn't look exactly like an adult cat. A baby doesn't look exactly like a fully-grown man or woman. Shapes change, proportions alter. Males and females can mature in very different ways. Elephants grow tusks, stags sprout antlers. Plus, of course, individuals from the same species don't all look the same. So it came as a sudden revelation to many that dinosaurs were very probably the same. The first big name dino that got this treatment was Dracorex, and that was only well known because its specific name is hogwartsia, after the school in Harry Potter. That got it some inevitable press attention. It was suggested that the spiky-headed little Dracorex matured into the still-quite-spiky-but-not-as-much Stygimoloch, which grew up to be big, lumpy, dome-headed Pachycephalosaurus. Not everyone agrees, but it's a neat idea with a lot of support. Now, Triceratops has been the recipient of a similar suggestion. This actually became a talking point two years ago, but it's only now that the press seem interested.

Triceratops lived across what is now North America in the very late Cretaceous period, and its fossils have been found in more-or-less the same places as another, similar dinosaur, Torosaurus. The suggestion has been made that Torosaurus is simply a mature Triceratops. Triceratops does have an unusual skull, in that its closest relatives (the dinosaur subfamily known as ceratopines or chasmosaurines) tended to have tall, broad skull frills with fenestrae (i.e. windows) to make them lighter. Triceratops had a shorter, denser skull frill without these gaps, more like the sister group the centrosaurines. The suggestion is that, as it grew older, the skull got larger and developed fenestrae to take the weight off. Things have got a little more complicated since another ceratopine, Nedoceratops, was brought into the mix. This might be yet another example of a separate stage of Triceratops growth, or an example of sexual dimorphism, or an abnormal example, or a separate genus. Not everyone agrees that Torosaurus was a mature Triceratops, anyway, pointing out that specimens from different growth stages appear for both genera.

io9 has a good article about the various viewpoints, but it still insists on using the tagline that it "may rob you of Triceratops forever!" A quick glance at the facts shows that it won't. Even if all three of the above are determined to be the same genus, Triceratops has priority as the earliest used name. This is how it works - that's the reason that Brontosaurus was scrapped in favour of Apatosaurus (although the defunct name is still cropping up all over the place, even on the BBC website). The name that was first published in a scientific paper has priority, and Triceratops came first. A very good dinosaur blog, Dinosaur Tracking, has something to say on the matter. To the best of my knowledge, the only time dinosaur naming has broken with this convention is with Tyrannosaurus rex, specimens of which were once described as Manospondylus gigas. This name dates back to 1892, with T. rex only as far as 1905, so should have priority. However, it was decided that Manospondylus was a nomen oblitum, or forgotten name, that had gone unused for decades, and that the sheer weight of material for Tyrannosaurus, along with its cultural significance, granted it a protected status in any case. So, Triceratops is safe - it's just gotten more interesting, that's all.

Next time, I think, I'll start on the feathers.