Thursday 30 May 2013

Doctor by Doctor #5

Captain of the Team

Peter Davison, 1981-84

By now, we know the Doctor. A force of nature, storming through the universe, filled with the arrogance of a man who knows that he is the most intelligent person in any room where he might find himself. An old rogue, gruff but charming, a man with effortless authority and gravitas. So far, at least. The fifth Doctor is different.

In 1981, with Tom Baker ready to depart after a record TARDIS tenure, John Nathan-Turner and his production team faced the difficult challenge of continuing Doctor Who without the man who had become synonymous with the lead role. The only solution was to do things completely differently. The transformation of Doctor Who from late seventies camp to, well, early eighties camp, had already begun in Baker’s glossy final year. Now the transformation would be completed with the recasting of the central role. The Doctor would be played by an already well-known face, a younger, more skilled actor, already a household name for the role of Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small. The difference between Baker’s sweeping, dominant performance and Davison’s more subdued approach couldn’t be greater. Davison’s naysayers often accuse him of being a boring Doctor, and he’s been saddled with the nickname ‘the wet vet.’ They couldn’t be more wrong. Davison’s performance as the Doctor perfectly embodies a subtler take on the character that was exactly what the series required after years of Tom Baker’s excesses.

The fifth Doctor is a unique version of the character, more sharply defined against the generic characterisation of the Doctor than any of the other incarnations, even the northern ninth. He does, of course, share many of the Doctor’s perennial traits: curiosity, intelligence, compassion, humour. On the other hand, many Doctorish personality traits are absent or greatly reduced. He is very rarely arrogant; his description of himself as “Pretty, sort-of, marvellous,” in Time Crash is about as full of himself as he gets. While he is frequently ratty, with a sarcastic streak to his humour, he is slow to anger, and when he does lose his temper it is for the most serious of reasons.

From the outset, the fifth Doctor seems weaker than his predecessor, it’s true. Left damaged by a traumatic ‘death,’ the Doctor is still regenerating during the opening few episodes of his debut serial, Castrovalva. It’s unsettling to see the Doctor like this, so vulnerable, relying on his new companions to help him back to the TARDIS. Once there, he comes apart, the unravelling of his costume symbolising the deconstruction of his character. Slowly, he pieces himself together, cycling through his earlier personae as he seeks to establish his own, new self. He is damaged, it’s true, and it’s a long time before this version of the Doctor ever seems quite comfortable with himself. He looks in horror at his reflection, aghast at the young, handsome man he has become. After centuries of dominating events with easy authority, to appear fresh-faced and inexperienced must be a terrible setback. It certainly affects his relationships with his companions, as we’ll see later.

"Well, it wouldn't be cricket!"

One of the first things he comes across, as he searches the TARDIS for the zero room in which to recover, is the Ship’s cricket pavilion. He probably installed it in his fourth incarnation (in which he often mentioned a preference for cricket), but it provides his fifth self with a vital lifeline in his time of need. The very moment his personality is forming, he finds something with which to identify and define himself. In reality, the fifth Doctor’s costume, which remains barely changed throughout his tenure, was a product of branding concerns. In terms of the fiction however, it perfectly matches this Doctor’s character. It’s not an outfit that a real Edwardian cricketer would ever have worn; rather an eccentric mixture of period and modern elements, but the dominant element is the cricket jumper. Cricket symbolises everything that is most important to this Doctor: team-playing, sportsmanship, good manners and grace. The beige frockcoat with its red-piping and the Panama hat lend a more sartorially striking air, the garish striped trousers a showier element, reduced by the muted colours of the overall ensemble. The celery, worn where another well-dressed gent might wear a rose, adds an eccentric touch, later given the most spurious justification in Davison’s final story. Quite how it sticks on, though, is anyone’s guess, as is its astonishing ever-freshness (perhaps he replaces it in-between stories?)

His first delicate moments aren’t helped by the fact that the Master – seemingly completely mad following his unnatural rebirth – has set up another contrived trap for the Doctor and his friends. The Doctor solves the riddle of Castrovalva, of course, and it seems to be the strength required to face up to the Master that finally pulls him back to together. He certainly doesn’t seem to care about his former ‘best enemy,’ though; from now on, any mercy on the Doctor’s part towards his foe is down to nothing more than his usual decency and compassion. The Master hounds the Doctor from now on, through this life and into the next, but the cat-and-mouse playfulness between them is over. The Doctor, quite understandably, would happily be rid of the lunatic.

Arguably, though, he feels the same way about several of his companions. While he praises the team that has formed around him, and thanks them for their help in his time of need, he has a difficult relationship with both Tegan and Adric, with only Nyssa sharing any real friendship with him. This is hardly surprising, though; the Doctor chose none of these people as companions, and suddenly he’s found himself responsible for them. With a younger Doctor came a younger set of travelling companions, and an altogether different dynamic. Davison was only twenty-nine when he was cast, almost twenty years younger than his predecessor and the youngest Doctor ever until Matt Smith was cast in 2010. This youth sets him apart from all his predecessors, and is characterised in different ways. There’s a youthful physicality to him, a sort of breathless enthusiasm that manifests unexpectedly. Witness his immediate response to a mission accomplished in Castrovalva: a brisk running race back to the TARDIS for him and his team. On the other hand, there’s very much the sense of great age trapped within a young body, a steady-headedness that belies his physical nature. Despite his apparent sportiness, this Doctor rarely engages in any physical activity in the course of his adventures, preferring a more cerebral, diplomatic approach.

"For some people, small beautiful events is what life is all about!"

The Doctor’s apparent youth does affect his attitude, however, and this is most apparent in his relationship with Adric. Now, we all know that Adric is rubbish, a gawky, geeky character played by one of the most hopeless regular actors in the series. However, alongside Tom Baker, his character worked. Adric makes sense as a young protégé for the high-minded fourth Doctor. Next to the fifth Doctor, however, the relationship is different. As an awkward, wilful adolescent, Adric needed a firm hand, someone he respected. The fifth Doctor could never offer that, and so this aspect of the characters’ relationship was more or less dropped. Their dealings with each other are more like that of a man and his petulant kid brother. Adric was an accident waiting to happen in this sort of setup, and soon enough, the little twerp got himself killed, running back into a doomed situation to try to prove himself to the Doctor when he could have got out. The Doctor, for his part, suppresses his reaction to this, burying his guilt and urging the others to move on. However, he continues to punish himself for ‘failing’ Adric; indeed, this incarnation’s final word is ‘Adric.’ (On the other hand, I don’t think the Doctor’s nights are constantly plagued by guilty dreams of Adric, unlike some of the spin-off writers.)

Tegan is another headache for the Doctor. Again, it’s easy to imagine that the fourth Doctor would have had an easier time with her, his more dominant personality winning the battle of wills. The fifth Doctor, quieter and more restrained, finds is harder to stand up to ‘the mouth on legs,’ her brash Ozzie charm the antithesis of his restrained manner. While none of his initial companions are there by his choice, at least Adric wanted to be there, and Nyssa has nowhere else to go. Tegan, on the other hand, actively wants to be anywhere but in the TARDIS. Much like Ian and Barbara, she just wants to get back to Earth, and has no qualms in making this very clear to the Doctor. About the only thing they have in common is liking cricket. In fairness, the Doctor has no excuse for not getting her back to Heathrow, having somehow developed the ability to fly the TARDIS perfectly except when this airport is involved. Tegan’s heart is in the right place, however. She puts her all into helping the Doctor during his regeneration, and while she goes to pieces during the first attempt to take her home (Four to Doomsday, which lands them on a starship in orbit by mistake), she then survives a particularly horrific experience at the hands of the Mara. Tegan slowly comes to terms with her life in the TARDIS, and the Doctor gradually develops some respect for her.

Adric’s death threatens to drive a wedge between them once again. Tegan didn’t like Adric at all, but she is left shocked by his sudden death, and even more so by the Doctor’s absolute refusal to go back and save him. The Doctor’s objection to rescuing him isn’t on the grounds that it can’t be done; he flat out refuses to even discuss it, as if altering this event is morally repugnant to him. Staunchly moral, this Doctor will not even entertain the idea of changing history for personal reasons. Once the TARDIS finally reaches Heathrow, the Doctor dumps Tegan back where she belongs, just as she had come to value her opportunity to travel in space and time. The Doctor carries on with Nyssa, a far more suitable companion for him in this incarnation. Quiet and bookish, thoughtful and highly intelligent, Nyssa is the perfect companion for a more reserved Doctor. Sadly, with three companions to take care of, she is often sidelined in the stories, left to get on with the technical stuff while the Doctor keeps the other, unreliable sidekicks out of trouble. Their extended series of adventures together in audio format illustrate their suitability to one another rather better, but on television, Tegan is drawn into the Doctor’s world again almost immediately in the strange series of coincidences that is Arc of Infinity. Nyssa certainly seems pleased to have some female company again, while the Doctor takes a little longer to appreciate Tegan’s return.

"Brave heart, Tegan."

There’s a good-naturedness to the fifth Doctor that his immediate predecessor lacked. While he is sometimes irritable he is always pleasant company, polite and well-mannered to the end. He is astonishingly patient with his companions, and often with others he meets in his travels. There’s the sense that this Doctor would rather take things slowly, holidaying through the universe and maybe settling down once he has found somewhere to his liking. Trips to Deva Loka begin well, only for local matters to intervene, forcing the Doctor to take action; he is still incapable of ignoring an injustice or the threat to an innocent. In spite of his more ordinary, human demeanour, he is open-minded when it comes to other cultures and alien life, only stepping in when he is certain it is the right thing to do. He graciously accepts being called an ‘idiot’ by Panna of the Kinda – can you imagine any of the other Doctors taking that lying down? – and listens patiently to the Monarch of Urbanka before standing up to hid madness. Probably the happiest we see him is at the Crowley’s cricket match and fancy dress party, and he still gets ensnared in a family disgrace, pulled in by his curiosity. He may be looking for a quiet life, but he is still the Doctor, and this is the lifestyle he has created for himself.

The fifth Doctor comes across as far more straightforward than his predecessors, but he does have a devious side. He lets the Time Lords throw him to the wolves in Arc of Infinity, confident that the real threat behind the scenes needs him alive; and he carefully judges Turlough, that most mysterious of companions, steering the young man onto the right path. It’s this desire to see the best in people that marks him out; he remains optimistic in the face of the constant darkness he encounters in his travels. His trust in Turlough proves correct, even though this alien orphan has been press-ganged into assassinating the Doctor by the Black Guardian. Even when he has discovered the Guardian’s involvement, the Doctor remains confident that Turlough will come through. It’s only during his last trip in the TARDIS, on the Planet of Fire, that Turlough angers the Doctor; having extended his trust, the Doctor is not welcome to having it betrayed.

There are many times when this Doctor seems less formidable than his former selves. He no longer seems quite as sharp, having to expend great concentration when planning moves against the Master and getting Adric and Nyssa to take care of much of the theoretical side of things. He uses glasses for the first time since losing his elderly first body (although his tenth incarnation will suggest that these are merely ‘brainy specs’ used for effect). Events often resolve themselves more by luck than by judgment, with the Doctor occasionally seeming like a bystander in his own show. All the time, though, he is observing events, learning, questioning, staying one step ahead. This is a Doctor who prefers to work on the periphery of events, only to have to get involved once the danger becomes too great. He also rushes to help people in immediate danger, with no thought to himself; it’s this straight-up compassion that shows the Doctor at his best.

"Sweet? Effete!"

It’s interesting to look at the other Doctors’ attitudes to this incarnation. While the fifth Doctor often seems frustrated with himself – ‘I should have realised!’ being a common complaint on his part – it’s his immediate successor who criticises him the most. Admittedly, the sixth Doctor is appallingly vain and full of himself, but his disparaging take on the ‘effete’ fifth isn’t so incredible. When he meets his other selves, changes in attitude become apparent. (Indeed, this version of the Doctor suffers from crossed timestreams particularly seriously, not only meeting three of his earlier selves in The Five Doctors, but later version on screen (Time Crash), on audio (The Sirens of Time) and in print (Cold Fusion, The Eight Doctors.) His first self argues with him, eventually conceding that he did ‘Quite well,’ while his seventh self dismisses him as ‘Not even one of the good ones.’ It’s only much later that his tenth self reveals how much he has come to appreciate life in his fifth incarnation. OK, so this was a fourth-wall break, allowing both Stephen Moffat and David Tennant to praise their favourite Doctor, but it nonetheless stands as a reappraisal of the fifth Doctor in the show itself. Davison himself considered that he was too young for the part. Possibly he is right, although I feel the sudden injection of youth did the series the world of good. Still, it’s interesting to hear him play the part now, in his fifties, for Big Finish’s audio productions. His more mature performance, more measured than even his subdued take in the eighties, is impeccable. Unlike the later Doctors, there is simply no room for extra exploits in his storyline, and so the audioplays create a sort of parallel timeline, in which new adventures, and new companions, are retroactively inserted into the Doctor’s life. A lost world in which an older fifth Doctor led a different set of adventures, shining a new light on his character.

Also illuminating is his attitude to his enemies. There’s a sense of frustration, more than anything, to the Doctor when he is confronted by his perennial foes. His exasperated dealings with the Master I’ve already commented on. Equally, when he encounters the Cybermen, in their new beefy guise for the eighties, he seems frustrated at their inability to appreciate the universe for what it is. For a man who has come to appreciate the simpler things in life, the need to conquer and destroy is merely baffling. It’s equally true of his dealings with the Mara, a malign, sexual intelligence that perverts Tegan into its instrument. The dark desires the Mara represents are the antithesis of this virtuous hero. (That said, I disagree with the analysis that the fifth Doctor is entirely sexless. His interactions with Professor Todd in Kinda, and to a degree with Kari in Terminus and even Jane Hampden in The Awakening are mildly flirtatious, and indicate that this youthful looking Doctor is attracted to more mature women.)

This quiet, non-confrontational Doctor is a strange fit in the series at this time. It was all change at the televisual level, with the Saturday night slot that had served Doctor Who so well for so long replaced with a Monday-Tuesday double bill. This altered the structure of the stories, no mostly comprised of four-part serials which would play out essentially as two-parters, changing direction after episode two for a new approach in the concluding third and fourth instalments the following week. High concept stories abounded, but for every thoughtful exploration of the universe, such as Castrovalva, Kinda or Terminus, there was a militaristic actioner, including Earthshock, Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks. While the former story type seems tailored to Davison’s performance, the latter throws it into sharp relief. The real reason for the existence of these gung-ho stories is the presence of Eric Saward as script editor and occasional scriptwriter. His view of the science fiction was very much in the more action-oriented, violent future war mode – even comparatively sedate stories in this period frequently had high body counts and copious amounts of kid-friendly green gore.

Yet throwing our good Doctor into this environment forces him to act in ways he is not comfortable with, showing him in both his best and worst light. Rarely (although not never) had the Doctor picked up a weapon before the Davison era. By the end of his first season, the fifth Doctor was gunning down Cybermen, and would later engage in the slaughter of his perennial enemies, the Daleks. Revelation really is the story that shows this dichotomy. The Doctor goes off to face Davros, determined to execute him and finally put a stop to the Daleks’ latest campaign of destruction. Tellingly, the vindictive scientist talks him into sparing his life, at least long enough to get the upper hand once again. It’s a shocking turn of events; not only does the Doctor mow down Daleks and then decree that their creator must die, when he finally faces him he cannot pull the trigger. Following this, Tegan leaves the Doctor’s company, appalled by the carnage around her. The Doctor vows to mend his ways, but what he really means here is questionable. I agree with Gareth Roberts’s interpretation: the Doctor is vowing to toughen up.

"There should have been another way..."

The following story, Planet of Fire (first episode broadcast on February 23rd 1984, the day of my birth, fact fans!) shows this newfound resolve in action. Once more ensnared in the Master’s intrigues, the Doctor allows his onetime friend to burn to death, looking on impotently but resolutely. Sure, the Master returns, as he always does, but this doesn’t lessen the power of this moment. The Doctor also destroys Kamelion, the occasional companion who has been hiding away in the TARDIS for several episodes. Once more turned into a puppet by the Master, Kamelion begs for destruction, and the Doctor grants it. For all the ‘wet vet’ nonsense, the fifth Doctor can prove to be single-mindedly callous if the situation calls for it.

Finally, with a new companion, Peri Brown, by his side, the Doctor makes the fateful decision to visit the Sirius system. Caught up in the machinations of various power-hungry individuals on the planets Androzani Major and Minor, the Doctor is swept up in an orgy or warfare and violence that leads inevitably to his own death. The Caves of Androzani is rightly lauded as a classic of Doctor Who, and was voted as the greatest story of all time in the most recent DWM story poll. A triumph of writing, direction and acting, it’s a thrilling and claustrophobic affair that shows the fifth Doctor in his finest light. The seedy, malicious world of Androzani is everything this Doctor is not; selfish, greedy and violent for its own sake. Thrown in there, he is swept along impotently, but his very presence is the catalyst for the entire corrupt system to collapse at last. The source of all the greed and corruption is spectrox, a life-extending substance that, in a nice example of symmetry, is fatally toxic in its raw form. Unfortunately, the Doctor and Peri are both exposed. What follows is four episodes of the Doctor doing everything he can to get Peri out of this hellhole he’s inadvertently brought her to, in an effort to save both their lives. He even fights off his impending regeneration in order to keep moving forward (check out the effect in episode three as he regains consciousness, and compare it to the effect used for his eventual transformation.)

Finally, he manages to escape with the barely vital Peri, with just enough of the fabled spectrox antidote for one. This he gives to his companion, before collapsing to the floor. ‘I might regenerate,’ he mutters. ‘Feels different this time…’ Although for the first time here, the series presents a regeneration as simply what happens to the Doctor when his life is threatened, it is also presented as very nearly failing altogether. ‘Is this death?’ he murmurs, as Peri tends to him. No, this is no mere change for the Doctor; this is very possibly the end of his life altogether. Of course, he regenerates, in crescendo of sound and colour, but that does not reduce the sacrifice he makes. The fifth Doctor dies to save a single innocent life, and this is quite right. Anything grander would not do his character justice.

DINO SORE: The Dawn Bird

There's a bit of news going around the interwebz today regarding the phylogenetic positioning of Archaeopteryx and its recently discovered relative, Aurornis, the 'dawn bird.' The basic problem boils down to this: is Archaeopteryx a bird or not?

I'm still a bit on the fence here, but I'm mainly with the 'not quite a bird' camp. When Archie was first discovered in Germany in the nineteenth century, it was clearly the most birdlike fossil ever seen (disregarding those that were straightforward, clear cut modern birds). It had beautifully preserved feathers, including what were clearly flight feathers forming broad wings. Yet it was, skeletally, very much like a small theropod dinosaur. It was clear cut: this was the first bird, and its closest relatives were small, predatory dinosaurs like Compsognathus.

Archaeopteryx lithographica

Later discoveries complicated matters. Indisputable bird fossils kept being found that pushed their lineage further back, encroaching on the 'first bird's' territory. The dinosaur renaissance helped bolster the idea that birds are specialised dinosaurs, particularly Bakker's studies on the Deinonychosauria. Sickle-clawed predators like Deinonychus, Velociraptor and Troodon became clear as the most birdlike of all non-avian dinosaurs. That birds are dinosaurs is no longer really in question, except for some iconoclastic paleos with funny ideas. It's the exact structure of the family tree that's the problem. Archaeopteryx is in danger of losing its crown as first bird; indeed, it may not be a bird at all.

I'm pretty much in agreement with Xu Xing, whose 2011 analysis removed Archie from the direct line to birds and placed it elsewhere in the paravian lineage. To me, just looking at the fossil with an amateur's eye, Archaeopteryx looks for all the world like a troodontid: small, slender, feathered and with a sickle-claw on each foot. While the exact positioning is questionable, it looks like it belongs somewhere in the Deinonychosauria, outside of the Avialae, which is to say, birds (the exact definition of bird is always a bugger anyway).

It's possible to retain this positioning and keep Archie as a bird, but that would require expanding the Avialae  to include the Deinonychosaurs. It's easy to keep pushing back like this, but with more and more birdlike features becoming apparent in theropods, it risks making theropod and bird mere synonyms, and therefore pretty useless as terms in the argument. There are some issues with this, including that it implies that powered flight evolved twice; alternatively, it was secondarily lost in some Deinonychosaurs. There are shades of the anti-dinobird argument here, in that Deinonychosaurs are essentially being referred to as flightless birds; however, there is no claim that they don't belong in the Dinosauria.

Aurornis xui

This year's analysis of the recently found Aurornis fossil muddies the waters again. Pascale Godefroit and his group find Aurornis to be earlier in the bird lineage than Archie, in a phylogenetic analysis that restores it to true birdhood.  It removes Archaeopteryx from the Deinonychosauria, bu makes Troodontidae a sister group to the Avialae. I'm not entirely convinced, but it is compelling. A good reshuffling could allow the best of both worlds regarding Archie. In this new phylogeny, Archie is not the first bird. That honour, presuming we accept that Avialae=birds, goes to Aurornis. This system avoids the need for two origins of powered flight, and tidies up the temporal spread of the Paraves.

There are some issues. Luis Chiappe disagrees with the analysis of Aurornis, suggesting that its features are not birdlike enough to support its positioning as a true bird. It also buggers about with the epidendrosaurs (Scansoriopterygidae), but they are an unusual group whose position in the Avialae is debatable. Nonetheless, it's a compelling argument, if not wholly convincing.


BBC News article
Nature article preview
Wiki entry on Aurornis

Monday 27 May 2013

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: Star Trek Into Darkness

It's time. We've all seen it now. A Captain's Blog entry for Star Trek Into Darkness.

Star Trek Into Darkness
Trek Movies: The Greatest Hits Collection

The Mission: Observation of planet Nibiru; manhunt for wanted terrorist John Harrison following attack on London; five-year mission of exploration.

Period: 2259-60 (alternative reality)

Planets visited:
Earth: Much as we’ve seen in the previous movie, only this time we don’t only see the American future, we see London. There are recognisable landmarks still present as well as plenty of the futuristic skyscrapers that appear so popular in San Francisco in the 23rd century. New landmarks include the Kelvin Memorial Library, named, presumably, in honour of the lost USS Kelvin, and in reality a secret Starfleet Intelligence HQ. References to a Royal Hospital and sightings of the Union flag indicate the United Kingdom must still exist, in some form.

Kronos: The Klingon Homeworld is a complete no-go area for humans. Khan decides to use it as his hideout. He takes refuge in a dingy industrial area in an underpopulated province. Orbiting Kronos is a fragmenting moon, so mining work on Praxis is going ahead just as destructively in this reality as in the Prime timeline. The spelling ‘Kronos’ is used throughout.

Nibiru: A Class-M planet with a native species of preindustrial humanoids. The oceans are as blue as Earth’s, but the vegetation is red, and there are various large, nasty beasts roaming the rouge jungles. A supervolcano is on the verge of erupting, threatening the entire planet with destruction. Kirk and Spock step in.

Jupiter: Admiral Marcus is hiding his pet warship at a spacedock in orbit of the gas giant.

Unnamed planetoid: McCoy and Dr. Marcus beam down to a remote planetoid to try to open one of Marcus’s mystery torpedoes. It has a breathable atmosphere, but the surface is barren, composed of black, volcanic rock.

Captain James T: Breaks the Prime Directive massively on Nibiru, although he does save the entire planet so that seems pretty reasonable. He almost gets busted back to cadet for this, but Pike intervenes to have him made first officer instead. Nonetheless, he stops Khan from killing quite the entire senior staff of Starfleet and gets his wish to go after Harrison/Khan. It’s totally a vengeance thing for him since Pike is killed, and he tries pummelling Khan when he catches him (this doesn’t work). He calms down enough not to execute him on the spot. He’s canny enough to suss out Marcus’s plans and ballsy enough to face him down.
                He’s got a reputation with the women of Starfleet. He sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise which cements his bromance with Spock. Luckily, there’s a well-signposted cure for death available. Claims to have not lost anyone during his command of the Enterprise (guess that means the comics aren’t canon after all). He’s reinstated as full captain of the Enterprise and assigned a five-year mission of exploration.

Green-blooded Hobgoblin: Still playing by the rules, more or less. Follows Kirk’s orders when they breach regulations, beaming down to Nibiru to use his ‘cold fusion’ device but insisting he be left to die when it appears he’s trapped in the volcano. Files a report on himself and Kirk after the rescue. Gives Pike lip in a terribly logical way. He’s been risking himself unnecessarily (following developments in the comic series) since the destruction of Vulcan, something which is putting strain on his relationship with Uhura. Doesn’t seem too perturbed at the prospect of being shifted to the USS Bradbury away from Kirk, but later goes mental when Kirk is killed. He’s the voice of reason during the manhunt, but goes into a blood-rage for Khan after Kirk’s death. It takes a lot to piss of a Vulcan, but when you do, you’ll regret it.

Spock Prime: Living on New Vulcan. Handily, young Spock has his phone number in case he ever needs to quiz him about terrible threats from previous movies.

Hailing Frequencies Open: Uhura is still being sent on missions with Spock, in spite of the obvious problems this may pose regarding emotional conflicts. She speaks Klingon, so is sent on the Kronos mission, and stands up to the big lead Klingon. Helps Spock take down Khan (phaser rather fists on her part).

The Real McCoy: Is as awesome as ever. Has the steadiest hands in Starfleet, flirts with Dr Marcus way more smoothly than Kirk ever could, and manages to foul it up by getting his hand trapped in a detonating torpedo. Once delivered Gorn octuplets (they bite).

Great Scott: Still not Scotty as I remember him, but pretty amazing in this movie, refusing to betray his principles and allow Marcus’s torpedoes aboard without seeing what’s inside and expressing the doubts about the manhunt that many of the crew share. Threatens to quit and Kirk calls him on it. He goes on a binge with Keenser, until Kirk phones him and gets him to go on a side mission to locate Marcus’s secret project – the Vengeance. Infiltrates the warship like it’s the sort of thing he does every day (he was very good at starship sabotage in the original timeline though).

Punch it: Sulu gets to try out the captain’s chair. He’s nervous at first but he takes to it well. He’ll be running the Excelsior in no time.

Boy Wonder: Poor wee panicky Chekov gets bumped up to chief engineer in Scotty’s absence. He’s not really up to it, bless him, and is nervous about changing to a red shirt, but he comes through and saves Kirk and Scotty from falling to their deaths when the gravity goes awry. He’s back where he belongs by the time the ship flies again.

Captain Christopher Pike: They killed Pike! How dare they?! Before this heinous act, Pike is ranked as Vice Admiral but is returned to the captaincy of the Enterprise with Kirk as his first officer, something which took some negotiation. He’s still wheelchair bound, but can walk with a cane. Spock melds with him during his last moments.

Posh Totty: Dr Carol Marcus arrives on the Enterprise unannounced and under an assumed name. Her father is Admiral Marcus. Evidently in this reality she was raised in England and decided to specialise in weapons technology rather than biophysics. She’s highly intelligent, extremely composed and knows all about Kirk’s reputation. She joins the crew permanently for the five-year mission, as science officer.

Khaaaaaaaaaan! Shock! John Harrison is Khan Noonien Singh! Who’da thunk it? Yes, he’s played by an Englishman this time, which has offended a lot of people, because Khan is supposed to be Indian. Well, yes, it’s a bit stupid, and the name doesn’t make much sense (who knows, maybe he was raised by a Sikh family/scientist). However, I think it’s important to remember that Ricardo Montalban, who played the original Khan, was also white.
                Anyway, Khan is a vaguely defined superhuman bad dude this time round. There’s some mention of his being a genocidal warlord back in the day, but mainly he’s on a vengeance trip against Marcus for his betrayal and because he believes him to have killed his kin. He was found in a sleeper ship drifting in space (the Botany Bay, natch). He has superhuman strength and speed, enhanced intelligence, and supreme regenerative abilities. His blood can cure terminal illnesses and even death by radiation poisoning when injected into another human. He takes down a bunch of Klingons with little effort. He’s cunning, manipulative, but prone to violent anger and utterly untrustworthy.

Bad Admiral: Admiral Alexander Marcus is the current commander-in-chief of Starfleet. He’s gone bad, convinced that war with the Klingons is coming (he’s probably not wrong) and determined to be prepared. Basically he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get Starfleet onto a more military footing and ready to take the war to the Empire. The attacks on Earth and Vulcan by Nero have galvanised him and those who support him. He’s part of Section 31, the secret “dirty tricks” department of Starfleet Intelligence. In the film’s most violent moment, he gets his head crushed to pulp by Khan (mercifully, we don’t see it).
                According to the Countdown to Darkness prequel comic, he was Robert April’s XO on the previous Enterprise (the mysterious one between NX-01 and NCC-1701 in this reality). He may even have been captain of the ship between April and Pike. He also implies that he was the one who persuaded Pike to join Starfleet.

Alien Life Forms:
Klingons: Proper big, mean bastards, although they still have a thing for honour. The Klingons we see are mostly wearing the ridged hoods that kept their features a secret in the cut scenes from Star Trek, but their leader takes his off to reveal a face with a broad, ridged nose and pronounced skull ridges. Which are pierced. It’s kind of a super-Klingon look. Cool as they look, the Klingons are mostly there to get beaten up and show how hard Khan is.

Nibirans: Humanoids with deepset black eyes and stark white skin (probably painted white, by the looks of it). They have a primitive tribal culture, worshipping the volcano that dominates their world along with a sacred scroll (which Kirk nicks to get them out from under said volcano). They’re fast runners. After seeing the Enterprise, their belief system shifts somewhat.

Vulcans: The survivors of the Vulcan genocide are building a new home on the New Vulcan colony. This is the setting for much of the new Star Trek video game.

Tribbles: Bones has one in his sickbay, just in case he needs to inject something with some superhuman blood samples for fun. (This is actually left over from the IDW comics, but is still stupid.)

Starfleet aliens: Among the Enterprise crew are a Monchezke native (like K’Bentayr from the Kelvin crew in Star Trek), the reptilian female generally known as ‘Madeline,’ a Lobot-like cyborg science officer nicknamed GATT-5000, and of course Keenser, the crusty wee alien who we now know, thanks to the comics, is a Roylan. Starfleet still includes Orions, and we see various other cool looking new aliens in and around the Academy. Some say Kirk’s ladyfriends in San Francisco are Caitians; they look way too human-like to be Caitian to me.

Future History: Kirk states that Khan is three hundred years out of his native time; I thnk we can assume he’s rounding up a fair bit there, unless Khan went to sleep in 1959. Still, the film is sticking with the twentieth century background for Khan and his rise to power. Which is odd, considering this is a film made in 2013 about a future in which Nokia exists.
                It’s implied that the Klingons have only recently been contacted, which flies in the face of the events of Enterprise pretty heavily. Perhaps they’re just getting rowdy recently.

Future Treknology:
Transwarp beaming: No need for starships anymore! Not now that Starfleet has Scott’s equation for transwarp beaming. It’s classified of course. Still, Khan has acquired a personal transwarp beamer.
Cold fusion: Someone on scriptwriting duties seems to have taken the phrase ‘cold fusion’ rather literally, and thinks it’s something that can actually be used to make things colder, rather than fusion under reasonable temperatures and conditions. Spock’s cold fusion device is capable of freezing a volcano and rendering it inert, although it has no remote control.
Explosives: Khan gives Mickey from Doctor Who a ring which dissolves in water to form an explosive substance, powerful enough to level the Kelvin Archive and kill a large number of people. This is just to get the heads of Starfleet in one room to address the threat, of course, so he can attack them in a jumpship.
Cryo-torpedos: Not only are they supremely powerful new photon torpedoes, they also contain a 20th century cryogenic capsule with a frozen superman inside. How this works, I do not know, but like Bones says, “I’m a doctor, not a torpedo technician.” (Sadly, I’m not a doctor either.)

USS Enterprise: We see a bit more of her this time. The warp core’s been tidied up, although engineering still looks like a brewery. For no reason whatsoever, Kirk hides her under the sea of Nibiru, in spite of the obvious danger posed by saltwater to delicate components and the fact that she’s not designed to travel through an atmosphere at all. More plausibly, the shuttles are damaged by volcanic ash, which clogs and corrodes their systems. She gets her ass handed to her by the Vengeance, but gets a nice refit at the end of the film, all spruced up with new thrusters and sleek new warp nacelles.

USS Vengeance: A dreadnought-class warship, twice the size of the Enterprise and three times the speed (given the size of the Enterprise in this reality, that’s pretty enormous). It is darker than the Enterprise with a skeletal structure, but retains the standard relationship of saucer to engineering hull, with two warp nacelles. Despite its size, it has been designed to be operated by a reduced crew. Its warp drive is advanced enough to allow it to catch up with another vessel fleeing at warp, penetrate its warp field and attack it. Marcus has had it constructed in secret and commands it as his personal flagship.

USS Bradbury: Starship commanded by Captain Abbott, to which Spock is due to be transferred as first officer prior to the attack on Starfleet HQ. It is clearly named for the late author Ray Bradbury, although it may also be a reference to a USS Bradbury mentioned a couple of times in TNG.

Khan’s jumpship: A one-man sublight ship capable of flight within in atmosphere and in space, well-armed for its size and seemingly a standard Federation design. Vulnerable to a hose in the engine turbine.

D-4 class: Small Klingon vessels, similar to the classic Bird-of-Prey, which operate in a planetary atmosphere. Heavily armed and highly manoeuvrable, and wicked cool.

K’Normian Trader ship: This is actually Mudd’s ship from the prequel comic, which they refused to give back to her.

Future Fashion: There’s an array of new uniform variants on display, from the militaristic grey Starfleet Command uniforms (with spiffy hats) to the shiny blue and red wetsuits. Plus there are puffy flight suits, white medical uniforms with a hint of Motion Picture about them, environmental suits and the classic red/gold/blue starship uniforms. Presumably crewmen spend a great deal of time getting changed for different missions.

Gratuitous? Really?
Sexy Trek: Naughtiness that the original series could only dream of. Kirk bangs two hot alien twins (with tails) while on leave in San Francisco. Alice Eve gets down to her underwear in an entirely gratuitous sequence in which Dr Marcus gets changed. There’s a junior bridge officer with white-blonde hair who is absolutely gorgeous.
                On the other hand, if you like men, there’s plenty of eye candy here for you too. Personally, I’m a Karl Urban man, although I also have a soft spot for Bruce Greenwood. A scene with Khan in the shower was cut from the theatrical release.

Shirtless Kirk Alert: During the aforementioned hot alien twin action.

Funny Bits: Most of Scotty’s scenes, and any time McCoy says anything.

Space Bilge: Here goes… Why the hell did Kirk decide to hide the Enterprise beneath the sea on Nibiru, instead of leaving her in orbit? How was this in any way an aid to the mission, and how did he get the ship under there without a single native seeing her in the first place?  Why does Khan choose Kronos as a hiding place? He must realise Marcus will send someone after him, and unless he wants war with the Klingons as well, it’s a bit of a stupid place for him to hide. Why did he put his brethren in the torpedoes? Surely a less explosive option would have been sensible.
                Starship travel is now so rapid that the Enterprise can get from Earth to Kronos in what seems like hours (although this might just be sloppy editing and a lack of clarity in the storytelling). Along with the super-fast trip between Earth and Vulcan in Star Trek, you have to wonder why anyone is bothered with transwarp beaming.
                Khan’s blood can bring people back to life, as can a synthesised substitute, even after major radiation exposure. Somehow I don’t think we’ll hear about this again, regardless of its capacity to alter the life of every human being in the Galaxy. Khan is also introduced with little in the way of explanation of his origins, so anyone who doesn’t know him from the original series and films is going to be confused as to why everyone’s making such a big deal of the guy. Also, why does the blood have to be Khan's, and not any of the other superhumans they have in handy cryogenic storage?
                McCoy keeps a tribble on hand in case he needs to experiment on anything. The heads of Starfleet convene to discuss a terrorist attack against Starfleet in one big room that is a well-known location. Apparently, in Starfleet you can go from cadet to captain to cadet to first officer to captain again in days.

Links and references: Admiral Marcus has models of earlier air and space vehicles on his desk, both real-life craft and Star Trek  ships including the Phoenix, the NX-Alpha, the Enterprise XCV-330 and NX-01 and the USS Kelvin. Section 31 originally featured in Deep Space 9 and later was retroactively set up in Enterprise. Christine Chapel is mentioned, having transferred “to the frontier”, seemingly to get away from Kirk (has she moved to Exo-III?) Dr Boyce (from ‘The Cage’) is listed as Kirk’s Doctor on his recovery bed at the end of the film. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is pillaged for material, particularly in the climactic scenes.

Title Tattle: There’s been a surprising amount of discussion about the lack of a colon in Star Trek Into Darkness, even though it’s not the first Trek movie to do without. Star Trek Generations and Star Trek Nemesis don’t have colons either. Not that it matters, really.

The Verdict: Great fun and easy on the eye, but frequently nonsensical and highly derivative, and lacking in emotional punch. See the main review for more.

Thursday 23 May 2013

WHO REVIEW: 2013-8: The Name of the Doctor

A bit of a late one this week. I’ve been busy and ill, which do not make for a good combination. What’s more, several of my friends still haven’t caught up with the episodes (you know who you are). I’ve also been taking the time to gather some opinions of this finale episode, and it’s certainly generated some discussion. Altogether, this half-season has been extremely divisive; almost every episode has polarised opinion. While several episodes have, for me, been rather below par, others have impressed me greatly. This is true for most of the fans, it seems; however, what no one seems to agree on is which episodes are the winners and which are the duffs. The only episode that seems to have come through mostly positively is Hide, without anyone taking a particularly vocal stance against it (that I’ve read, at any rate). Season finales always generate some discussion, of course, and with so much riding on it, it’s unsurprising that The Name of the Doctor has generated so much discourse. Pleasantly, most of this has been positive, with fans taking exception at certain elements but enjoying the whole.

One thing The Name of the Doctor won’t do is win over Moffat’s haters. It showcases many of the storytelling flaws that have become crept in during his time as showrunner. The long-running plot threads with unsatisfying conclusions; the inconsistent use of time travel as a sort of magic “get out of jail free” card; the fetishism of the Doctor as the central figure of the narrative. The “Moffat must go!” brigade won’t be swayed by this episode. I made the mistake of checking back on Gallifrey Base to see the opinions of the people who post there, and the incoherent screaming vitriol has made me give up on that forum for good. Of course, we all, as fans, take this show too seriously, when it is most decidedly not a serious show. However, even those fans who have felt that this latest run has been a drop in quality mostly came away from the finale with a huge grin on their faces, looking forward to the anniversary special in six months’ time.

Now, I do wonder how “normal” people took this episode. Inevitably, discussion online is limited to fans, who will view an episode so steeped in the series’ lore in a different way than the majority of the audience. The more casual fans – those of my friends and family who love the show, but don’t take it apart for discussion after every broadcast – seemed to enjoy it. My flatmate certainly did, raising many of the same points and asking the same questions as the Whoheads, and loving the retro flashbacks, despite having not seen more than a handful of classic serials. (I’m sure it was my incessant fangirlish squeeling that really made the episode for her though.) But how would an occasional viewer of Doctor Who take this episode, which was hung up not only on the series’ distant past but the events of the previous dozen or so episodes?

All I can do is view it as a fan, and, as a fan, I loved it. From that opening shot on “Gallifrey... a very long time ago…” to that blinding cliffhanger. Really, The Name of the Doctor was an extended prelude to the upcoming anniversary special, existing merely to bridge the gap between the ongoing series (and the Clara mystery) and the big birthday knees-up. There was little in the way of actual event for much of the episode, with almost all of the dialogue being exposition and explanation. Yet, if there’s one thing Moffat can do with style, it’s exposition, somehow made entertaining beyond its normal means. Take the “conference call,” a fun setup which sees our contemporary companion meet up with the recurring team of Victorian oddities, the Paternoster gang, in a subconscious dreamspace. It’s a great way of bringing the characters together to chat about the Doctor, without actually involving him, setting up the principle purpose of the episode in an entertaining way. It’s all explained away with a handwave – “Time travel has always been possible in dreams” – the sort of lyrical throwaway line we’d expect more from a Gaiman episode. While the Great Intelligence (hereafter GI, for laziness) may demand less poetry from the Doctor, a little poetry helps make absurd contrivances more palatable.

While the continual recurrence of the Paternoster gang and the nanny-ish living setup for Clara makes me wonder why Moffat didn’t stick with Victorian Clara and make the 1890s the base era for this run of the show, it’s great, as always, to have the Victorian trio back. They’ve settled into their roles nicely by now, enough that a little more fun can be had with them. As always, it’s Strax who’s the greatest delight. He only really has two jokes – not recognising genders and a desperate need to become violent – but they keep being funny, so who cares. It’s also nice to see he’s found an outlet for his violent tendencies at last, with Moffat poking fun at his native Scotland (as a Paisley man, he would have grown up just outside Glasgow proper). As things spiral out of control, we see things take a turn for the worse for our favourite semi-regs; Strax loses his civilised behaviour, Jenny is murdered, and Vastra loses all semblance of leadership. It’s only Jenny’s continued death/resurrection cycle that blunts the impact of these scenes.

Of course, there’s a fifth character who joins Clara and the gang for the conference call. I wasn’t too keen to have River back, thinking that there was little left to be done with the character. However, by setting this appearance after her death in the Library (her first appearance in the series, in fact) Moffat let’s us see a different side to the character. This is a more melancholy River, still with a touch of her old facetious charm but predominantly a lonely character. She’s a ghost, whatever pseudo-scientific explanation we have for her presence. While at times, perhaps, Alex Kingston seems a trifle bored with the more subdued version of her character, she comes into her own once there’s some real interaction with the Doctor.

Ah, yes. The Doctor. After a run of episodes in which he’s had few chances to be anything other than zany and quirky, Matt Smith finally gets the chance to get his teeth into some genuine meaty acting. Not only is this post-Library for River, it is seemingly after their final meeting from the Doctor’s point of view, meaning that finally, the two characters are meeting on something of equal terms. Smith portrays tangible grief throughout the episode, from the moment he learns that he must visit his own grave (a fantastic, powerful scene between just him and Coleman), to his emotional goodbye to River. For once, there’s a genuine sense of love between the two of them. There’s also no shillishallying on the Doctor’s part about their relationship; after a moment trying to pass River off as an old friend, he gives up, accepting Clara’s description of her as an ex and then confirming that she was his wife. The inescapable feeling is that Smith’s Doctor is growing up.

When it comes down to Clara, the impossible girl, and the ongoing mysteries at the heart of the series, this episode delivers well in some quarters, less so in others. The final revelation that Clara has been scattered through the Doctor’s timeline in order to save him (“born to save the Doctor,” just as River was born to kill him) is a brilliantly effective way of wrapping up this thread. She chooses to go into the Doctor’s timeline to save him. There’s a sense of free will against the universe, even with the predestination that has brought Clara to this point. Events earlier in the decaying TARDIS, with Clara’s memories being freed up, also rather acquits the troublesome reset-button ending of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. In fact, the entire run is rescued somewhat by this episode, making it feel that it mattered in a way that was previously missing. Hopefully now that the mystery of her life has been dealt with, Clara will be allowed to develop some real personality in the next series. With both Smith and Coleman signed up for 2014, and knowing what they’re both capable of given the right material, there’s plenty of hope for the future.

Monday 20 May 2013

Flesh and Blood

This was my entry for the 2013 World Nomads travel writing scholarship contest. I made the shortlist - twenty-five people out of 1150. Would have preferred to win and get the trip to Beijing of course, but still, I'm pretty damned pleased at that. 

It's well worth reading the winning entry (he also wrote about the Maasai) and the other shortlisters. Here's my entry though, under the topic heading "Understanding a Culture Through Its Food." And yes, it's completely true - this was part of a three-week stay in Tanzania in 2006.

The blood wasn’t the problem. I was prepared for the blood.

We’d spent a day and half in the company of the Maasai. Most of the time had involved walking tremendous distances, embarrassing our poor white selves as we struggled in the heat of the dry season. That said, there had been a brief wet spell the previous weekend, for which we had been thanked. Clearly, being British, it was we who had brought the rains to Tanzania.

I’d expected blood. That the Maasai drank goat’s blood was common knowledge, and I was ready for it. Indeed, I was looking forward to it, eager to taste something well outside my comfort zone. Never again would a rare steak be seen as a mark of manliness – I would forever be able to counter it with my guzzling of goat’s blood. It would demand respect, a visceral experience of tribal life.

The evening drew in and we gathered round, as a group of warriors began preparations for the slaughter. The goat was killed by the slow but reasonably humane method of suffocation, although I wonder if this was a sop for our delicate western eyes. All the while, the tallest of the warriors sharpened his knife. There was an almost tangible sense of time bearing down on the procedure, an ancient historical rite that had been performed again and again in this very spot, for thousands of years. The effect was, admittedly, somewhat spoiled when the knife-wielding Maasai had to pause to answer his mobile phone. “No, I can’t talk, I’m slaughtering a goat…”

It was the kidney that took me aback. Usually, there would have been at least one elder present for this custom, but tonight they were all otherwise engaged, and the prized kidneys were free to go to the warriors. Being one of only two men present in the tourist group, and the only one who had expressed a desire to taste the blood, I was singled out for the honour of taking a bite from the steaming kidney. I was ready for blood; the raw, gristly kidney was something else. I’m told I went rather pale.

Nonetheless, I recovered with, I feel, commendable speed, and happily scooped the rapidly clotting blood from the goat’s carcass. It’s difficult to sup still warm blood without spilling it down ones face and front.  I’d become quite close to one of the young ladies of the group during that trip. For some reason, she wasn’t so eager to kiss me that night.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

WHO REVIEW: 2013-7: Nightmare in Silver

Overhyping is killing me this year. The penultimate episode of season seven/eight/7-b/33/whatever, Nightmare in Silver was bigged up ridiculously in the lead-up to its broadcast. Well, so has every episode this year, it’s part and parcel of the Doctor Who publicity engine. Even so, this time it really promised something. Neil Gaiman, fantasy author extraordinaire, vowed to make the Cybermen scary again. This was even described as the Cybermen’s equivalent of Dalek, the episode that redefined the pepperpots as unstoppable monsters to be truly feared and yet pitied. I’m not going to get into the current debate regarding how much of the final script was Gaiman’s work, as opposed to Moffatt’s. I don’t know the ins-and-outs of what happens behind the scenes at Cardiff, all I can go on is the credits on screen and the information on the official site and in the official magazine. Whoever wrote it, though, Nightmare in Silver is a drastically flawed episode, and Gaiman is the name pinned to it. I really, really don’t want to attack his work. He’s one of my favourite authors. But that just means my expectations were particularly high this week. The Doctor’s Wife was Neil Gaiman’s tour de force debut as Doctor Who author, and I guess Nightmare in Silver was his difficult second album. I fully accept that even the greatest writers can’t knock the ball out of the park with every single piece of work they write, but even so, Nightmare in Silver was a disappointment. It’s entertaining throughout, and we shouldn’t turn our noses up at that, but this is Neil Gaiman, for crying out loud. He’s better than this.

After last week’s clumsy linking scene bringing Clara’s young wards into the Doctor’s world, we knew we were getting two kids aboard the TARDIS. I’m fine with that. It’s a kids’ show. The problem is with the kids in question. Both the actors are fine, but aren’t really up to the calibre of some of the child actors we’ve had over the last couple of years, and haven’t the skill to make anything more of the material. Which would be fine if this was Gaiman’s usual grade of material. Instead we’ve got one boring young boy who doesn’t really say much, and one sulky cow who remains distinctly unimpressed by travelling through time and space because, you know, she’s a teenager and all teenagers on telly are like that.

Then you’ve got Clara, who, despite the best efforts of Jenna-Louise, still lacks much in the way of character. In fact, she seems to be rapidly losing character as the series progresses. Perhaps this will all be part of her mysterious backstory that is due to be revealed next week, in which case I shall reconsider her, but for now she’s feeling very sketched in. In this episode the Doctor installs her as commanding officer of some military idiots (who, in fact, follow her because the Emperor tells them to, but more on that later), a task she takes to with aplomb. Essentially, Clara playacts at being a soldier, spouting unconvincing commander dialogue, which might work if she had a character of her own. Instead, she’s simply an unconvincing character, for almost the whole episode. Only her reactions to the children’s assimilation seems real.

So, those soldiers. It’s a punishment platoon, a group of incompetents sent to this isolated planetoid to keep them out of trouble. Fine, if this episode were a comedy. Perhaps it was supposed to be, in an earlier draft, and the idiot soldiers are a remnant, after having had any actual humour removed. I can see no other explanation for this bunch of characterless morons. The only marginally successful character among them is Tamzin Outhwaite’s Captain, and she’s a blandly drawn cypher portrayed by a bland actress. Still, at least she’s canny enough to recognise her Emperor, and to try to deal with the Cybermen in the only sensible way: by blowing the bastards up. However, she’s shot dead whilst trying to do so, in one of the most ineptly directed sequences in recent Doctor Who.

Two actors do their utmost to redeem the episode. One is Jason Watkins, for once getting to play a pleasant character instead of a complete bastard, as Webley. Sadly, he gets little to do before he’s assimilated by the Cybermen, but nonetheless he’s very entertaining to watch. Shame we’ll never see him as the Doctor – I could really see him pulling that off. The second notable actor, and the most impressive in this episode, is Warwick Davis as Porridge, the abdicated Emperor. I confess I wasn’t expecting him to be terribly good, based on previous experience of him outside of monster costumes. I was very pleasantly surprised; Davis gives a subtle, measured and very likeable performance.

There are other niggling problems. The scenes on the Spacey Zoomer ride are cute, but look very shoddy. I realise that they’re supposed to look shoddy, what with this being a rundown park (and possibly as a cheeky wink at the old Cybermen serial The Moonbase), but viewers flicking over to that initial landing would be likely to think Doctor Who had returned to being cheap and cheerful and flicked over to ITV’s Saturday night nonsense. The imperial starship throne room is Cardiff’s Temple of Peace, again, fast becoming the most overused location on BBC drama television.

It’s the plot holes that bother the most, though. Doctor Who has almost had more plot holes than plot this year, but this episode is a particularly bad offender. The Cybermen have been extinct for a thousand years, but are so dangerous that the platoon still has some anti-Cyber technology around. Fine, got that, no problem. I just don’t understand how that millennium of Cyber inactivity fits in with everything else we hear about. Porridge talks about the Cyberwar as if he took part. OK, maybe he is a thousand years old, but a little mention of that wouldn’t go amiss. Webley has been waiting to get off Hedgewick’s World for six months, having arrived unaware that it had closed down. Yet the Cybermen have been holed up there for a thousand years, waiting for a child to arrive so that they could turn him or her into a Cyber Planner. How long has the place been closed? Did it struggle along with no under-18s arriving for ten centuries, the empty Cyberman shell sitting patiently? Did the Cybermen never think to try another planet, where children actually lived?

The Cybermen need children to act as Cyber Planners. I’ll buy that; the Daleks did it once already, so it can work. Yet, once they finally have some kids, they don’t use them, and turn the Doctor into the Planner instead. What a waste. The Cybermen as child-snatchers – that’s a horrible idea, and one with some real mileage, and it gives us a chance to use those kids effectively. As it is, it feels like something left over from an earlier draft, since there really doesn’t seem to be any need for the kids to be in the episode as it is.

It’s also a rare weak episode for Matt Smith, in his dual role as the Doctor and ‘Mr Clever’ the Cyber Planner. Turning the Doctor into a Cyberman isn’t a bad idea, but the way it’s portrayed here is woeful. While part of me balks at the terribly emotional Planner, I can forgive that; the Cybermen are forever going on about how logical they are and dismissing emotions while clearly displaying them themselves. The Doctor’s alter ego is, in fact, a rather damning indictment of the Doctor’s own character. There’s not so much difference between them; Mr Clever is the Doctor with the safeties off, with all the humanity drawn out so that there’s nothing left but the manipulative bastard we all know he really is. In practice, though, what we get is several scenes of Matt Smith arguing with himself. It works reasonably effectively in the Cyberspace of the network, but in the real world it involves an extremely over the top Smith pretending to be two people. SFX likened it to that old sketch in which the drag act sings the male and female parts of a song, with different makeup on either side. It’s not that bad, but it’s not dissimilar.

The Cybermen then. They’re what the episode is all about. The new design is very effective, not vastly different to the one they’ve been using, with some modifications, since 2006, but different enough to feel new. It’s less clunky, simultaneously less robotic and less human looking, which is a feat. The faces, harking back to the Troughton era looks, are very effective. It’s also fantastic to see them really move, sweeping through throngs of people at superspeed.  The Cybermites are a great addition to the mythology, a miniature variation on the Cybermats that crawl inside people’s bodies and convert them to the Cyber cause. A brilliant idea, nicely realised onscreen. There’s more than a hint of the Borg to these new Cybermen, of course, and that’s something a lot of people have picked up on. But why not? The Borg are the Cybermen done better anyway, so why not nick their best bits? The implants that grow across the faces of the Doctor and Webley are very Borg-ish, and the Cyber network is the collective consciousness that marked the Borg out as inhumanly enmeshed with each other back in their debut. Like the Borg, these new Cybermen can adapt rapidly to attack, ‘upgrading’ in moments. They sound unstoppable.

Unfortunately, they’re not. In spite of their superhuman speed, the three million strong Cyber army slowly stomps towards the castle like they did back in 2006, taking an age to attack the platoon. This army, so deadly that it warranted the destruction of an entire galaxy, kills what, two people? The useless squad stand up to them without much bother. While the Doctor’s plan of tricking the Cyber Planner into using all the Cybermen’s processing power to play chess is a very clever one, it does rather reduce the threat that they’ve spent all episode building up. That’s kind of inevitable, I suppose, since they can’t actually be unstoppable, but… damn it, they’re still vulnerable to gold, for crying out loud. That was crap at the in the eighties, can’t we leave it there?

 Of course, they are finally defeated by blowing up the planet. Which is fine, because it turns out the imperial throneship will turn up instantly when it is activated, and beam everyone to safety. Only Porridge didn’t activate it earlier because he doesn’t like being Emperor. Good thing only a couple of people died fighting the Cybermen, then, or he’d really have felt guilty. I’m not surprised Clara didn’t marry him. Although, after the danger he put her young friends in, I am surprised she didn’t tell the Doctor she’s see him next Tuesday.

The big problem is that this episode fails in its stated mission. It was supposed to make the Cybermen scary. Perhaps it did, for a few young viewers. But for most of us, creepy detachable body parts and all, the new Cybermen are an improvement, but still a long, long way from terrifying. Much as Nightmare in Silver was fun, but still a long, long way from quality.

Doctor Data: In Cyberspace, the Doctor teaches the Cyber Planner about regeneration, showing him his previous incarnations (no sign of John Hurt) and threatening to force a regeneration to kill the Planner and knock out his network. When speaking through the Doctor’s mouth, the Cyber Planner cycles through some regenerations, shouting “Allons-y!” in the manner of the tenth Doctor, and affecting a northern accent that, I can only assume, is Matt Smith’s attempt at impersonating Christopher Eccleston. The Cyber Planner says the Doctor’s brain has had “ten complete rejigs.”

Monster, Monster, Monster: We see three Cybermen initially, one of which is one of the Cybus Industries parallel universe models, and two of which are the Matt Smith era version that has been subtly redesigned. Gaiman is of the school of thought (as am I) that these are a hybridised version of the Cybus-men and the Telosian Cybermen. The new version, sleeping in tombs beneath the surface of Hedgewick’s World, are superior upgrades, and can now convert non-human species to Cybermen. Their network/collective consciousness, and their empire, is called the Cyberiad.

Future History: The Cyberwar was fought a thousand years prior to this episode, which is set around 250,000 years in our future. A new human empire (the Fifth?) spans several galaxies. The Tiberian spiral galaxy was destroyed to end the war (so must be no more than a thousand light years from Hedgewick’s World in order for the devastation to be visible).

Links and references: The waxworks in Webley’s museum include a Blowfish alien (from Torchwood), an Uvodni (from The Sarah Jane Adventures), several background aliens from The End of Time and The Rings of Akhaten and a puppet from The God Complex.

Best Line: “Please stand by. You will be upgraded.”

Monday 13 May 2013

The Evolution of Feathers

Here's a great little video from briefly outlining the current understanding of the evolution of feathers, from early theropods to modern birds.

Sunday 12 May 2013

TREK REVIEW: Star Trek Into Darkness (Spoiler-lite!)

Four years is a fairly long time to wait for a sequel. The 2009 movie Star Trek revived the franchise and brought it bang up to date, but the wait has been long enough to risk squandering a lot of the goodwill it generated. Star Trek Into Darkness had a hell of a lot to live up to, generating an enormous amount of hype as the publicity machine justified the lengthy development time. Perhaps Into Darkness could never live up to its promise. Certainly, while it is an exhilarating, technically brilliant film, it fails to live up to the promise of its predecessor or its own hype.

All of which is damning with faint praise. But I’m a Trekkie, I’ve invested a lot of excitement in this. (I understand that it was really, really difficult sitting next to me while I fidgeted and complained through the twenty minutes of adverts and trailers before the film started. I have waited four years, you’d think another few minutes would be easy, but no.) I think, inevitably, that being such a fan of Star Trek, I am going to be very hard to please. Yet, for all its flaws, I adored the 2009 reboot. It did everything that it had to do to bridge the old and new phases of the franchise and revive it for a new generation. It was a damned fine blockbuster movie. So I’m trying really hard to not be like the hardcore geeks who dismissed that film because the Enterprise nacelles were the wrong colour, or for equally spurious reasons.

The thing is, Into Darkness is clearly aimed very much at the fans, in spite of also being designed as a standalone blockbuster, palatable to ‘normal’ people. It’s a tough balancing act, and it doesn’t quite land on the right side of the homage/pastiche divide this time. But that’s as a fan. There will be people coming to this film whose only exposure to Trek is the previous movie, or who have no experience of it at all. Into Darkness copies some beats directly from its ancestors in the eighties, and new eyes won’t spot that. For me, though, there were some moments that strayed too close to ripping off the greats.

Still, I’m being too harsh here.  Into Darkness is a thrilling action movie, better than most by far, combining a breathless pace filled with constant incident with a great deal of heart and humour. This, in itself, is hard to do, making sure that a film that hangs on its, admittedly spectacular, setpieces doesn’t feel hollow. As with the previous film, Into Darkness is all about its characters, primarily the relationship between Kirk and Spock, but also their relationships with the other core cast. It follows on from its predecessor faultlessly, even answering one its niggling faults, that of Kirk being promoted to captain on such desperate and impulsive actions. In spite of the gap between film releases, the period between the events is only a matter of months, with the crew of the Enterprise still learning how to function as a team and in themselves. Kirk, in particular, is having to justify his newfound lofty position, and is having a tough time doing so.

The film begins with what should have been a routine mission, but has developed, under Kirk’s aegis, into a chaotic situation that has endangered the lives of the crew and broken the Prime Directive. That old bugbear was quite correctly left out of the previous film, but is here wheeled out as an example of Kirk’s inability to follow the rules of Starfleet. Rather than get bogged down in the sort of cod-philosophical debate that often plagued the TNG-era shows, the Prime Directive is used to contrast the conflicting attitudes of Spock and Kirk (we’re also given a simple, believable reason for why following the directive is important.) The bromance between captain and first officer is still developing, but not without some hiccups on the way.

Added to this is the substitute father figure of Rear Admiral Pike, who once again provides both a motivating and disciplinary influence on Kirk. Then there’s the difficult romantic relationship between Spock and Uhura, more believable here than in the first film in spite of having less screentime than I expected. Yet all the main characters have their moments to shine, and I feel none of the core cast would have anything to complain about regarding their time on camera. Of particular note are the performances by Bruce Greenwood as Pike, who I really could watch command his own series; Karl Urban, who livens up any scene he appears in as McCoy; and Simon Pegg as Scotty, who, while following a rather different path than others in the crew, is vital to events and gets all the best laughs.

There’s a great deal to enjoy in the setup, with more of Starfleet’s operations explored and an excursion to 23rd century London. (While I am pleased by the British presence in this movie, and it’s great to see somewhere other than America in this trip to the future, what about other parts of the world? What’s happening in 23rd century Riyadh?) Events lead the crew to an encounter with the Klingons, (cut from the first film), rocking a new look that is consistent with their forebears but more aggressively in your face. Although nipping from planet to planet seems ridiculously quick and easy in this version of the future, there’s also the sense that the universe is a very dangerous place.

Like the first film, Into Darkness is about terrorism. Unlike the first film, it actually takes a little time to dwell on the ethics of the war on terror, in only quite briefly. Star Trek was at its best when dealing with contemporary issues through a sci-fi settings, and it’s an approach that should be embraced today. After the attack on London, Kirk proceeds on a manhunt, pursuing the perpetrator across space with a payload of devastating weaponry. There’s something of a commentary on the USA’s use of strike forces and tactical drones against wanted individuals on foreign soil, and the inevitable international repurcussions of such actions. It’s a little lost in all the fireworks, but it’s there.

Many a movie hangs on its villain, of course, and Into Darkness is no different. There has been an exhaustive amount of speculation on the true nature of John Harrison, Benedict Cumberbatch’s super-terrorist, and inevitably, the reveal is a let-down. Not because it’s poorly done, or because the truth is ineffective, but there was never going to be a satisfying result to a four-year-long puzzle with a handful of clues. If he turned out to be Khan, it would have been a disappointment because that’s exactly what we were all expecting; however, if he turned out be someone else, no matter no impressive, it would have been a poor substitute for Khan. It’s lose-lose.

Thankfully, Cumberbatch is excellent in the role. The trailers made it look like there was just going to be a lot of intense glares and a scary voice, and though that’s all part of it, his performance is far better than that. Harrison is snidely arrogant, powerful confident and seething with barely repressed anger, tempered only by his intelligence. Cumberbatch’s performance isn’t subtle, but it is powerful, even if he is yet another British baddie in an American film. He’s certainly far more convincing and effective a villain than Eric Bana’s Nero in the previous movie.

The other two guest stars impress too. Alice Eve is a strong, intelligent, sexy Carol Marcus, who holds her own against the dominant males, although the expected romance with Kirk is barely touched upon, surely to be followed up in the next instalment. As her father, senior Admiral Alexander Marcus, Peter Weller provides a strong secondary focus for the machinations in Starfleet. He’s a hawkish, intense force of nature, with a single-minded sense of purpose.

As events unfold, and the protagonists make and break alliances, a continual wham-bam barrage of action stops the viewer from focussing on the howling plotholes. Some moments are clearly included purely for their visual impact – even Scotty remarks that hiding a starship underwater is ridiculous – while some feel little more than rejigged favourites from the preceding film. On the other hand, there is a devastating starship battle and a truly brutal fight involving none other than Spock. There are some gratuitous sexy moments too, but hey, Gene Roddenberry was keen on that kind of thing, and if he could have had Alice Eve in her pants, he would have. Michael Giachino once again provides a stirring score, and thankfully, the constraints of 3D have demanded that the bloody lens flare be reduced. There’s no arguing against the fact that Star Trek now looks and sounds better than ever.

By the end of the movie, both Kirk and Spock have developed as officers and men, their bond stronger and their understanding of one another greater. So much hangs on the performances of Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, but not once do either disappoint. With these two in command, the Enterprise can continue to fly for many more excursions. Yet, so much in those final scenes, emotionally charged as they are, feels stale, a bad cover version. It’s here that the film steps over that line, and homage becomes pastiche, veering dangerously close to parody. (And you need to be careful, Star Trek is very easy to parody.)

Engaging on a new, five-year mission of exploration, the Enterprise needs to find something new out in the Galaxy. Star Trek needs to boldly go forward.