Monday, 28 February 2011

For a different kind of geek

Okay, so in the intro article I said I'd post about Doctor Who (done that quite a bit), science (yeah, often with the Doctor Who stuff) and also the gym.  Not done that one yet so thought, as today was my first day back there after a week off, I'd do a short gym post. 

Basically, I've been off for a week thanks to a mixture of too busy (yay, a social life for a week), family business (still fun) but mostly due to being a human mucus factory.  Energy is mass, mass is energy. Most of my energy was clearly going in to making mucus. (Woo, gym and science in one go!)  Thanks to copious amounts of medication and hawking up of mucus balls (look, if you're reading this then you probably know me so you KNOW I'm not going to hold back on details) I'm pretty clear of it now.

After tonight's session with my trainer (how does that sound, admitting I have a trainer just for the hell of it?) I've come to three conclusions
a) powerplates are evil.  Sorry but they make me look even more undignified than usual (thankfully there aren't mirrors near them so I don't have to look at myself looking like a constipated tit on the things) and I'm embarrassingly knackered after using them given how "little" you do with them.
b) cardio is now tolerable, but if the person on the machine in front of me has buttocks that look like they're moving with simple harmonic motion (yay, more science) I am really going to struggle not to look, laugh and break my own form   and
c) my trainer has never caused me pain by getting me to lift big weights but boy does he know how to humiliate me with small weights and difficult exercises.

Actually I realised many more things during tonight's session but I'm not admitting them in public.  Oh, and if you were the one trying not to look at me whilst I was working out... MY EYES ARE UP HERE :) Oh I love shallowness.

So yeah, first post about the gym.  Expect more, but they probably won't be quite as bitchy as the Who or science ones.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Delight is in the Detail

Having just written a less than glowing piece on The Moonbase, I thought I would balance things out by posting a (just ever so slightly shorter) piece on "The Feast of Axos" the latest (at the time of writing anyway) release from Big Finish.  Don't worry, no major spoilers ahead.

I am something of a continuity nut but I also like a bigger picture.  Continuity between stories is great and, as I pointed out in my Moonbase piece, it's good to hear Ben reference back to the cybermen's radiation weakness. Doctor Who does this very well at times on television, even if the continuity only lasts the duration of one production team.  However, something that it was pretty poor at was the continuity of the bigger picture.  In the 60s there are a handful of "near-ish" future stories such as Enemy of the World.  In that, there's a big change in the way the world is divided up and who is in charge.  Yet in other stories there's no real indication that this is going on.  Similarly, the building of The Moonbase is a huge project that must have been a global undertaking... yet it seems to be one of those things that takes place silently in the background.  An even better example is The War Machines/The Faceless Ones... stories that take place on exactly the same day but don't feel as though they're even on the same planet.  You'd think that there would be a buzz about WOTAN's robots in The Faceless Ones or there would be stories about thousands of missing teenagers in the papers in The War Machines (rather than a front page piece, with photo, of a missing tramp).  So mainstream Doctor Who doesn't often satisfy my "bigger picture" craving.

Big Finish's "The Feast of Axos", on the other hand, really makes an effort to feel as though it takes place in the same world/universe as the original Axos story.  There are mentions of places and people that really tweak the atmosphere of this story (which, by the way, would be good even without these details) and make you think "yeah, this actually feels as though it's a natural progression".  It's not intrusive.  If you don't know the stories that it's referencing then you probably won't even notice that they are being referenced.  Okay, there's no reference of Salamander yet who should surely, by now, be a big world player* but you can't reference everything in one go, so thank you to Big Finish for at least making the effort and making this Who Geek really happy that other people care.

Attack on the Cybermen 02 - The Moonbase

Okaaaaaaaaaay, it's time for magic tea trays, sound on the moon's surface and a plan so loony that it could only mean it's time for the next cyber story. Whereas in Tenth Planet I could find things to recommend it (the appearance of the cybermen mostly), I might struggle a little on this one.

Episode one opens with one of those moments that will probably end up leading to a blog article all of its own, namely just how on earth does the TARDIS travel?  When I was younger (and didn't think so much about these trivial things) I just assumed that it vanished from point A, travelled in the vortex and only re-appeared at point B. However, this and many other stories, suggests that it must regularly stick its nose out of the vortex from time to time to see where it is.  This means that it can be caught by the animus, or the Intelligence or, in this one, the gravitron. We then get it seemingly hovering above the moon's surface before nipping back into the vortex and out again to do its materialisation trick on the surface.  Which, to me, seems rather a lot of effort but then again I'm sure the Time Lords had a reason for it other than "because it looks good".

My first major problem with this story is the Doctor's lack of knowledge.  I'm not talking about his 1888 medical knowledge, it's more his lack of knowledge of the gravitron.  Last time we found out that the cybermen were significant in Earth's history (and in this one we're told that every kid knows there were cybermen once) and the Doctor seems to have notes on them in his diary (which would suggest they're important enough for him to have read up on them or he's encountered them off screen as well).  The cybermen recognise him from off screen adventures and everything suggests that the Doctor's been in this sort of time period before... yet he doesn't know about the gravitron controlling the weather from the moon.  There's a part of me that desperately wants the TARDIS to have a sense of humour function in its telepathic circuits and have it wipe parts of the Doctor's memory every time it lands so that he doesn't know exactly what's going to happen outside and therefore change it deliberately.  Anyway, the gravitron controls the Earth's weather from the moon.  The story is set in 2070, it seems to be fully up and running (though some bits suggest that it's still relatively new and having teething troubles) but I'd guess that it was probably first mooted at least twenty years previously.

Oh yes, the gravitron itself makes no sense.  I'm not disputing the fact that gravity could, somehow be used to control the weather.  I'm not disputing the fact that it would be very useful to be able to control the weather.  I'm just thinking that putting it on the moon and thus only allowing it to control the weather on the parts of the Earth that are in the direct line of sight from the moon might not have been the best place for it.  Thankfully it'll be relocated to the earth in time for the Ice Warriors to play havoc with it in a season or two's time where we can then think about controlling the weather at night.

Back to the plot but keeping with the bad science aspect of the story, the cybermen gain access to the base by cutting a hole in it and walking in.  At a real push I can imagine some sort of airlock being set up on the outside of the base and them just about getting in without the base being drained of air... but for some reason I find it very difficult to believe that they managed it without anyone noticing.  You would have thought someone would have at least heard it happening or spotted a huge stack of sacks where there hadn't previously been one...  Ah well, we're talking about a base populated by people who think it's a good idea to control the earth's weather from the moon is a good idea.  They've got it coming to them.  They also have exceptionally flimsy looking space suits that look as though they'd tear if you even showed them a jagged boulder on the moon's surface.  THIS bit of the story I think is quite reasonable.  If man kind has been dumb enough to put the vital weather control centre on the moon and leave it without suitable security other than a dozen or so middle aged scientists then it's going to be an ideal way for the cybermen to take over the world with the minimum of effort.  I'm surprised they didn't have to get in line and queue for the right to do it.  Where I don't quite get the cyber plot is the seemingly random way they infect people with the sugar.  Don't they care who or how many they get?  I mean if everyone went on a diet and cut sugar out of their tea then the cyberplan would have been screwed. 

In a nice nod to Tenth Planet, Ben (in his temporary role as science boffin) remembers that the cybermen are vulnerable to radiation.  However, he (and the others) can't think of a suitable source locally to use against the cybermen.  It's a good job then that, say, the cybermen never have to walk across the moon's surface where they're going to be bombarded with radiation almost constantly.  Instead Polly suggests a cocktail of solvents which, if the telesnaps are to be believed, don't just dissolve their chest plates but also seems to completely dissolve the cybermen as well.  I really hope they're using them in a well ventilated area.  Not only do the cybermen not like the cocktails, the Doctor works out that they have a thing about gravity as well, which is why they need "living" humans to work the gravitron controls for them.  This is where my lack of understanding about the cybermen starts to kick in.  They're terrified of radiation, but can walk across the moon's surface without any problem.  They're worried by "gravity" in the gravitron control room yet humans can work in there for 12 hours before the sound levels drive them nuts.  They're REALLY easy to dissolve.  The list of their weaknesses is really starting to grow now.

Having given up on taking over from the inside, they puncture a hole in the side of the dome.  One wind machine in the studio later to artistically blow things around whilst the characters are chatting and trying to find the oxygen masks... the hole gets covered with the world's strongest tea tray.  Seriously, it has atmospheric pressure on one side and a total vacuum on the other.  That thing should have buckled its way through the hole in an instant rather than staying there (presumably till someone needs to deliver a round of drinks).  They're then defeated by being lifted off the moon's surface by the gravitron which strangely leaves the TARDIS in place along with all the rocks and dust...

So the story (once more) sucks.

So what of the cybermen? After all that's the reason I put myself through the four episodes.

No one seems to comment on their re-design.  The Doctor clearly expects it (and just which cybermen was careless enough to have a chunk of material ripped out of its trousers anyway?  Another sign that they're really pretty pathetic) and even Polly calls them cybermen in spite of them really not looking too much like they did last time we saw them.  Was there another cyber story between Power of the Daleks and the Highlanders?  It might explain a lot.  I have to say that I'm not too impressed with their new look and would have liked a little more comment about just how they survived the destruction of Mondas (other than "they just did").  They're sarcastic (the "Clever, clever, clever" line has baffled me for a long time) but don't know about feelings.  Except bemusement when their laser doesn't work.  They've started taking over humans with sonic control (controlled from the vacuum of the moon's surface) and yes they look pretty imposing when they march across the moon's surface (good thing they don't need to breathe or anything) but there's no real fear of being cybertised in this story. They're actually pretty generic thug villains this time around.

It's sexist, it's laughable and it's scientific nonsense.  In the past I've not found The Moonbase too much of a chore to get through but this time around, actually engaging my brain whilst I watch it... well my brain was hunting for the off switch.  How did this crud survive when other, much better episodes, were lost?  Oh well, at least the music's good.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Attack on the Cybermen - 01 - Tenth Planet

My brain is repeatedly telling itself that the reason I've watched Tenth Planet is not because of the story but because I want to understand the popularity of the cybermen.  When I had the idea of doing these articles I also told myself that I was to concentrate on the cyber aspects of the story but that's gone out the window with the viewing of the story.  So I've revised my plan already and I'm going to allow myself to vent about the stories as well.  Just see it as web based therapy. When it comes to Tenth Planet, oh man do I need to vent.  There's going to be a tag on these posts that crops up on a regular basis, badscience, and it's fairly likely that the entries on the cybermen will have quite a high percentage of the tags.  This story REALLY doesn't make sense on the science front.  Planets that move (and either really REALLY quickly or have cloaking devices), planets that suck energy and cybermen that melt when their planet explodes.

All this, and more, from a story written by a scientist.

Okay, in no particular order, here are the things to consider:

Kinetic energy (the energy associated with something due to its motion) is given by multiplying the mass of the object by the square of its velocity (oh yes, then dividing by two but, on the scale of planetary motion that doesn't really seem too vital).  The mass of the earth is 6 times ten to the power 24*.  For those of you not too acquainted with standard form, that's 6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000kg.  I'm not typing that out again.  Ever.  But basically it's a large number.  The planet's arrival seems to take everyone by surprise so it can't have been headed towards us very slowly.  So we're talking about a large mass multiplied by a pretty big speed squared. (Yes, for future ones I'll type it out in equation form). Basically, it's a LOT of kinetic energy. One of the fundamental laws of the universe is that energy isn't ever destroyed, it's just converted to other forms.  So the planet has a LOT of kinetic energy and then parks itself in orbit near us.  So that energy had to go somewhere.  Mondas is lacking energy (otherwise why would it need to pinch it from us) so it can't be internalised.... so major problem number one is that Mondas seems to magically make energy disappear.

Next up, gravity.  If an object has mass (and yes, science thinks there are massless particles out there but, do you know what, I'm not even going there yet) then it creates a gravitational pull.  So put two planets near each other, even separated by a few tens of thousands of kilometers, should exert quite a tug on each other.  Put it this way, the moon is much smaller than Mondas and it's responsible for the tides.  A planet that close to us would probably do more damage to the earth than just cause a few extra news broadcasts.  Still, not like it's Gallifrey appearing in the Earth's atmosphere or anything.

Back to energy.  Mondas is drawing energy from us, to the extent that it eventually goes bang (an event that  doesn't do the earth any harm apparently).  This means that there must be quite a drain of energy.  Except there don't appear to be any effects on the Earth other than the Doctor collapsing and eventually regenerating. Perhaps he's the only source of energy they raid, in which case it's just as well it was Hartnell that turned up rather than the hyper Tennant.  The reality, in my mind, is that there should be a lot of very tired and cold people on the planet.

I'm going to hold back, you'll be pleased to hear, on the radiation in this story.  I'm saving that for a whole other article.

So the planet should have boiled itself when it parked in orbit, it should have pulled away the oceans in doing so and then deep frozen the leftovers.  On the science front, this story... well, it's really not very good in the slightest.  See, I can keep it polite. If I want.

Thinking of my blood pressure and how much damage I do by gritting my teeth, I'll mention a few other things about the story that I really don't like and THEN I'll get onto the cybermen, I promise.  Firstly, the Doctor and friends do very little.  They pretty much turn up, watch things happen, get captured a bit and then leave.  The scientists are concerned about launching the Z bomb as it might turn Mondas supernova, yet it's a weapon the earth never ever mentions again, perhaps they decided it was too risky as it clearly would do more than just wipe out the enemy. The accents are pure pantomime and Cutler's clearly a nutjob who wouldn't have passed the psychoanalysis to get the job.  It's amazing how a short rapid vent can get so much out of the system.

Now, for something rare, there are things about Tenth Planet that I really appreciate.  So much so, that I wish there hadn't been another cyber story to ruin the legacy.  Cybermen are our first contact and deeply significant in Earth's history.  Thinking back to other stories there have been so far, the Doctor didn't know about the dalek invasion in the 22nd century which, you would think, would be a fairly major historical note.  But before the cybermen even turn up, he knows exactly what's going to happen.  I'm betting he even knows that Mondas goes pop.  They land all over the world, they're on the International Television News and we're told that there are reports from all over the world.  There's no escaping it (unless you're a fan author of the 90s onwards), this is first contact.  It's almost confirmed in future stories.  The cybermen are also quite "realistic" in that they're clothed in bandages and still have a few humanoid style traits such as opening their mouths to speak.  They've had emotions removed for some reason though and I think this is where my lack of understanding comes in.  I don't see this as a big advantage.  Not entirely sure why, I think it's because I see the need to survive as a vaguely emotional thing.  If the cybermen are controlled by "logic" (and I don't actually remember the cybermen being described as beings of pure logic in this one) then I don't really see any logic in the need to keep going.  That, to me, is a definite emotional need.  Their massive susceptibility to radiation really should have been sorted (and yes, that's definitely in a future post).

From this story, and this story alone, I can see why the cybermen were memorable.  But then again I can see why Zarbi were and they never came back (outside of the printed page).  My main issue with Tenth Planet is simply that it's a bloody awful story with some utterly abysmal science in it and very little Doctor Who.  It's possibly the first Doctor-lite plot.  I wonder if it's where a certain RTD got the idea.  Anyway, I'll concede that the cybermen ARE impressive in this one.  Just a shame they're about the only memorable thing in the story.  Well, apart from the obvious of course.

Attack on the Cybermen - Intro

I have a weirdly wired brain.  You’ll notice that a lot.  One of the many things I really don’t like (along with chavs, a lot of politicians and reality TV) is not understanding something.  Actually, looking back over the list of things I don’t like then there’s definitely a theme of not understanding in there.  Except dentists.  I hate dentists and understand them perfectly.  They’re sadists who get paid for a living.

I’m waffling, get used to it.

Anyway, something that’s always baffled me is the popularity of the cybermen.  Everyone always gets really excited when they return and everyone constantly raves about them and people always seem to hold them in high regard as monsters.  Yet the thought of them coming back time and time again really isn’t one that gets me going.  I really don’t like this and so I’m going to try and change it.  To do this I’m going to force myself to watch all the cyberman stories (in order) and yes, I’ll be doing recons or soundtracks of the missing ones.  I won’t try and do it as though it’s the first time I’ve seen them, I’ll let my mind wander forward as and when it needs to or wants to, though I don’t pretend that when it wanders forward it’ll do so accurately.  I won’t be referring to the audios or the novels just yet, but I will probably end up looking at the new series episodes.  Even though that would mean watching them again, which is something I’m looking forward to less than sitting through The Wheel in Space.  

So, that’s the plan.  And if you know me, you’ll know what I’m like with plans. 

That gulp of horror you just heard was me realising what the first story I’d have to watch was…

Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Ark

Sorry, you weren't expecting me to post about Who in any sort of order were you?

This also isn't a review of the DVD, more some random comments on the story.  Mostly along the lines of "Well that got written out of continuity pretty damn thoroughly didn't it?"

Oh yes, I'm also not going to claim that these postings are particularly well researched or entirely accurate...

So anyway, having watched the DVD (great restoration) and actually watched it whilst in a vaguely concentrating mood, I've come to the conclusion that at some point this must have been pretty effectively written out of time.  It's supposed to be set far into the future (yet not quite so far as Frontios which is at the limits of how far forward the TARDIS is allowed to allegedly go) yet the implication is that humans haven't ever really settled on other planets as they've not found suitable ones.  The Earth is about to be destroyed by the Sun going bang (though it's not clear whether this is the change from main sequence to red giant* or some other solar activity) and so humanity has hopped into a spaceship (along with their ever so loveable Monoid chums, on which I'll comment in a bit) and is heading off for Refusis Two.  Now, up to this point we hadn't seen loads of other human colonies.  The Sensorites had humans trying to land on other planets but that was only the 28th Century and the planets were already inhabited and The Keys of Marinus had shown us planets that could, quite clearly, support human life but we hadn't had an indication of mankind only settling on one other planet.  However, in future stories we've got things like the Daleks' Master Plan (where we even have penal colonies), Power of the Daleks (near future colonies on other planets) and Colony in Space where we have colonies. Out in space.

As fond as I am of The Ark, it's only really re-watching it this evening that I've realised it doesn't sit particularly well with the rest of the series in terms of what we know about Earth's future.  Then again, very little of the series sits particularly well with the rest of it.  Then along came Eccleston and all continuity went out of the window anyway.

Oh yes, the Monoids.  I knew I was going to mention something else.  One-eyed creatures with a wibbly walk and bad hair.  One day I hope there's a Who story set in some distant space lab where mad scientists are trying to make the ultimate life form.  All their trial runs get discarded and chucked into the time vortex where they get dropped on random planets, that's pretty much the only way something like the Monoid could have come into existance.  You try living and working as a servant with no depth perception.  Not to mention a low enough IQ to come up with the concept of a security kitchen.

So there, The Ark, a story that I am genuinely quite fond of but only when viewed outside of the context of the rest of Doctor Who.  Sometimes I wish I could switch my brain off for the rest of Doctor Who as well.  I'm sure, in coming months, you'll realise that all my brain ever seems to want to do is rip every story to shreds.

Intro (probably best if you read but not compulsory)

Okay, let's get one thing straight.  Don't expect coherence, profound insight into the universe or even non-contradictory postings.  If I were to aim for those three then I wouldn't be honestly reflecting on my world.

Things I plan to post on:
- Doctor Who
- Science
- The gym
- Combinations of the above three
- Anything else that takes my fancy

Yes, I'm a major Who fan (old and new, Big Finish, books, comics, cigarette cards and all) and I'm a scientist, but hopefully there will occasionally be something on here that normal people will want to read about as well.

James H

PS:  All names have been changed to protect the guilty.  And myself.