Singularity

Sam reviews: Minister of Chance Episode 4 – The Tiger

Mar.22, 2013, filed under Reviews

avatarAs a MoC supporter, I’ve had my talons on a copy of episode 4 for a while now (by which I mean a couple of weeks) but other projects have kept me from listening.

Sorry, Dan. Hope this makes up for it.

It has been a while since we last visited Tanto, and those of you who have already been swept up by the series might want to go back and listen again to previous episodes. Those of you who haven’t — this isn’t the best place to start. They’re all free, so there’s no excuse for not downloading all of them and catching up. I’ve tried to keep this review spoiler-free, but comments on the story will make more sense if you have some idea of the context. You can also check out my reviews of previous episodes using the MoC tag.

MoC banner

Episode 3 left us in the middle of diverging story arcs and with a number of questions. Episode 4 set about weaving those story arcs back together and answering some of those questions.

It started with a scene of high action, in which a major character (spoilers!) hijacked a vehicle that shall forever in my head be called War Rocket Ajax. We were then given a nice portrayal of Professor Cantha in her new role as Science Advocate for the Resistance — no Ben Goldacre, the Professor; Jenny Agutter did a good job of showing the hesitancy and discomfort of a science hermit pressurised into the role of rationalist preacher. There were shades of Monty Python — when Cantha spoke of a man finding an apple tree, a heckler called, “And he made cider!”

She’s not the Messiah…

We finally discovered the Horseman’s goal, and a little more about him. Maybe a little more is enough, given that the role he performs is somewhere between Judge Dredd and the Predator, measured into a blender with a dose of Time Lord and pulsed until smooth. From his conversations with Kitty, stilted as they were, we are left with the question of whether every Time Lord considers himself and his fellows to be walking weapons of mass destruction, and, again, what was it that brought them here — not to Tanto, specifically, but this particular set of worlds.

There was also the big reveal, of course, although I’ve been bound not to give away any major plot details, so you’ll have to listen to find out that one for yourself.

The immersive quality of the production hasn’t diminished, although I found the mix levels a bit off in places in this particular episode. It was especially noticeable during the first scene with the Minister and the Horseman — the sound effects and music combined to make speech a little hard to hear and you might find it useful to fiddle with the sound settings on whatever device you’re using to give priority to vocals. I also wonder if a brief guide page would be useful, and perhaps one of the Minister Moguls with more time on his or her hands than I have might oblige with a page listing the major characters and locations. Jura and Durian, for instance, look very different on paper, but don’t sound that different. Personal preference, perhaps, but a crib page would help with things like that and also assist with the inevitable fade from memory that happens in the gaps between episodes — not a problem if you listen to them back to back, of course.

The characterisation, as always, is superb. There were some great one-liners and exchanges, particularly where Kitty is involved:

“Give us some food.”
“It don’t grow on trees, you know.”
“Yes it does!”

Then there was the Witch Prime’s (Sylvester McCoy) comment to Durian (Paul McGann):

“Charm only carries you forward. It won’t let you stand still.”

Given Professor Cantha’s apparent faith in the idea of linear cause and effect, the notion that the soon-to-be Witch Prime Emeritus was referring to the quark rather than the personal attribute amused me.

Dan Freeman should be proud of what he’s accomplished with this series. The writing balances satisfying complexity with an awareness of the limitations of the medium. He’s not afraid to expect the listener to pay attention and use his or her grey matter, and it’s a relief to be trusted to work it out for myself. At the same time, he has given us enough information, whether in dialogue or soundscape, to be able to work it out for ourselves, thus avoiding frustration. Hindsight is, after all 20:20. He also devotes effort to character interaction, something of which we don’t get to see (or hear) enough these days. MoC is an oasis in a desert of writing aimed at short attention spans requiring high drama and plot-driven storytelling. Freeman shows it is possible to have excitement and pace without foregoing sophistication.

Episode 5 is in production at the moment and I have high expectations. I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

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Sam reviews: Vibram Fivefingers Lontra

Jan.08, 2013, filed under gear

avatarAnyone who has spent enough time in my presence to notice my shoes will know that I’m a committed user of Vibram Fivefingers (VFFs), and have been for the last three years. I am rarely found in anything else when travelling on foot. Initially I started wearing them because they allowed me to walk properly and run again after a serious foot injury. Now I wear them because normal shoes feel weird and wrong, not to mention resurrecting the problems that made me turn to barefoot living in the first place. I have KSOs for work and Bikilas for running.

The problem is, of course, that I live in a maritime climate at a similar latitude to Gothenburg, Yekaterinburg and Fort McMurray. That means that most of the year it is wet, and in the winter it is wet and cold. Outdoor pursuits that involve walking or running in VFFs are out for a large chunk of the year. My damaged foot does not tolerate being cold and wet and VFFs are neither warm nor waterproof.

Or rather, they weren’t.

December 2012 saw the long-awaited release of Vibram’s new insulated and/or waterproof models, the Lontra (and its LS variant) and the Speed XC. To say that I’d been champing at the bit to get hold of a pair is something of an understatement. I’d heard about their coming release back in September and my race season generally starts in March. Losing an entire winter’s training could have scuppered my comeback so I went as far as emailing the UK distributors of Vibram, as well as Vibram Europe and Vibram US.

I think I must have been one of the first UK residents to order a pair, direct from Italy just before Christmas. As I’ve got on so well with the Bikila and the KSO I went for the Lontra as the strap fastening and the neoprene cuff appealed. The shoes arrived on Hogmanay, and our trip down to Fife to see my parents was delayed as I refused to go without them.

They had their first outing on New Year’s Day, on a walk that took us across muddy farmland, along the beach, and back up a muddy path.

On the beach

First off, this should not be your first pair of VFFs. If you do not already own a pair, this review is of no use to you. Go and try a pair of Classics or KSOs or Treks first. Then you can come back. The reason I say this is because the laminated, water-resistant fabric is very stiff and the fit is snug. I spent 15 minutes getting these on the first time and if my toes didn’t already know what to do I think I might have failed.

If you already own a pair and the fit is on the tolerable side of small, get a size up from your usual. These are tight. The thicker material and overall stiffer shoe affects how your foot sits inside. I have quite small toes — my big toe is indeed my biggest, my little toe is tiny — and the fit is bearably small rather than comfortable. My other VFFs have a tiny gap at the end of the toes and using socks is not a problem. If you live in a very cold climate and want to wear socks then you may find the recommended size too snug for comfort.

The Lontra

You’ll notice from that image that there is a neoprene cuff and an extra loop at the front. If you try putting these on the way you put on KSOs you’ll be there for a while. The instructions are no different, but I would suggest pulling the neoprene up over the heel far enough that the rear loop is accessible and the heel is up against the main body of the shoe, then working the toes into place with the aid of the front loop, and only then pulling the heel up and settling into the heel cup. These are not shoes to use in an offroad triathlon if you want a fast T2.

On the foot

This may also not be the model for you if you have moderate to high arches. I don’t consider myself to have a particularly high instep, but as you can see from the picture the fastening strap only just reaches the fluff for the velcro. It pops off repeatedly, to the point of irritation. I don’t understand why the shoe has been designed like this, as all it would take is another inch or two of strap and it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s not as if they are worried about putting velcro on the strap — there is plenty of it, but the strap itself is too short. Out of curiosity, I decided to see how compressed the shoe got if I attached the strap near the start of the velcro. Below you can see the shoe done up this way and done up without any compression.

Compressed

Normal

Done up to give a proper foot shape, any flex pops the strap. If I do it up tightly enough for the strap to remain attached, I get painful compression over the top of the foot and my right big toe goes numb. All for the want of an inch or so of strap. It’s mind-boggling.

20130108_7

Performance-wise, these more than live up to expectations. They are warm and cosy, and, although billed as water-resistant rather than water-proof, kept my feet dry through mud, shallow rockpools and even a brief foray into the sea to retrieve a ball a toddler had lost. They let in a spot of wet when I used a jet of water from a hose to wash off the mud, and I can’t complain about that.

Some feedback is lost as the footbed is well constructed to protect against rocks and give traction on slippy surfaces. I had no problems walking over pebbles and rocks, and felt sure-footed over mud. The fleecy liner is comfortable against bare skin — I have not worn them often enough to judge what the infamous funk is like.

All in all these shoes do what I hoped they would do in terms of letting me get out and about in the cold and wet. I am mystified by the strap design, and wish I’d known about the tight fit before I bought them. I would probably have gone for the next size up. I would also have given serious consideration to getting the LS variant, which offers more room for high arches, although I suspect I would still have chosen this model because it has the neoprene cuff. In an ideal world Vibram would offer an LS model with elastic laces and a neoprene cuff, or add a couple of inches to the strap on the Lontra.

For summer walking in the wet these will most likely be too warm and the Speed XC might be the better option.

If you feel the same way about ‘normal’ shoes as I do, then Vibram’s new water-resistant range perform brilliantly in terms of keeping out the wet and the cold. Assuming they are all like the Lontras, they are sized ever-so slightly on the small side; and the Lontras have a serious issue when it comes to the strap design. They aren’t cheap, but there’s not much to choose from when it comes to waterproof, insulated, barefoot shoes.

They are definitely a shoe for the enthusiast, and I hope Vibram will improve on the design to make them a more comfortable, forgiving winter option.

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Sam reviews: WOTW 2012

Jan.04, 2013, filed under music, Reviews

avatarNo one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinized as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets. And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us.

The Original and Best

Thus speaks Richard Burton’s inimitable, mellifluous voice at the start of the 1978 Musical War of the Worlds, Jeff Wayne’s most famous creation. My mother has eclectic musical traits (a trait I am endlessly grateful to have either inherited or had inculcated) and a copy of this has been in her music collection for as long as I can remember. It may be a dreadful thing to confess, but this was my introduction to H G Wells and was one of my formative speculative fiction experiences. As a girl of primary school age, my initial reaction was one of awe: never would I consider bacteria the in the same way as I had. My mum has been known to tell family friends that my first comment was, “I’ll never put bleach down the toilet again.”

That’s what good speculative fiction should do. Change the way you think.

The sound effects, chilling in isolation and fed through the score until the guitars became gibbering Martian voices while the synthesisers spat blistering heat rays and spread shivering fronds of red weed across the soundscape, remain as effective now as they ever were. The actors and musicians, used to working live in front of theatre audiences and minus the visual extravaganzas now employed, conveyed their roles with conviction and feeling. The depiction of the Thunderchild crew sacrificing themselves and their ship to save the passenger liner is something I can clearly visualise to this day, despite never having physically seen more than an artist’s impression in the album’s accompanying booklet.

I can see an Ironclad warship going down under the irresistible assault of a Martian heatray, because Jeff Wayne’s composition utterly nails it.

Many years later I picked up an album called Ulludubulla Volume 2, which I reviewed at the time. There I said I didn’t see any reason not to update a musical, but overall the album didn’t really work for me. It was not, however, a remake of the original, but a series of tracks inspired by it.

The 2012 reboot

2012 saw a brand new version of this iconic album hit musical theatres and CD/MP3. Richard Burton’s part is now played by Liam Neeson and David Essex’s artilleryman has been given to Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs. Justin Hayward’s part is sung by Gary Barlow, who manages to sound like he’s mostly asleep and only doing it for the paycheque. Phil Lynott’s throaty, gargly Parson Nathaniel is now Maverick Sabre with some weird mishmash accent and the beautiful, emotive voice of Julie Covington has been replaced by that of Joss Stone, which is more operatic JCB than concerned but fatally optimistic angel.

The original score has been “updated” with some odd little riffs of electronica and bass, which serve no purpose other than to indicate that this is New! Improved! Hip! and On Trend!

“Hey kids! We know you like dubstep and psytrance these days, so we put in some tweaks just for you!”

Then there’s the script, which has also been altered. There’s an entire additional passage of exposition-heavy dialogue, in which the Journalist explains how the Martians gave up sex and got rid of bacteria. This is, obviously, based on the original work, but part of the joy of the original is that it stands on its own — there is no need to have read the book. When I heard this, I stopped what I was doing and stared at my player. “How in the hell did he find that out? He’s been trudging round a red-weed infested London trying to survive, not conducting scientific research into the mating habits and pathology of the alien invaders!”

I haven’t seen this in the theatre, where they have introduced whizzy special effects. I don’t especially want to now that I’ve heard it. The original didn’t need them, as it was carefully crafted to do without. The 2012 version has suffered from revision and, possibly, part of that is because there are whizzy special effects in the show.

Only one thing stood out as remarkable. Remember I was talking about Ulludubulla Vol. 2? That album starts with an interesting spoken word piece by Papa Ootzie, looking at the Eve of the War from the point of view of the Martians.

“The problem is, of course, the humans,” are the last words spoken in the epilogue, and they sounds suspiciously like a straight lift from the above track.

Unless you are the sort of person who buys things just to have them in the collection, I wouldn’t recommend this version. The original is by far superior in every way, from score to script to performance. Get a copy of that, instead.

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Winter sun

Dec.27, 2012, filed under Photography, rambling

avatarWe’ve had a quiet Christmas at home, the first one we’ve ever not spent with other people. We’ve avoided the traditional festive excess, although I did buy a tree, which is currently festooned with various plush animals, scented pine cones, tinsel and blue lights that resemble tiny aliens or deep sea bioluminescence more than they do fairies. As we’ve both been suffering from the plague that suddenly descended upon Aberdeen, it was quite nice to have the time to recover.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s triathlon season, and contemplating camping destinations for the summer. My new, water-resistant Vibrams should arrive in time for New Year so maybe we’ll be able to resurrect our Hogmanay Chain Walk tradition — winter adventuring has been out of the question for the last couple of years because of my dodgy foot, as the existing Vibram Fivefinger models are neither waterproof nor especially warm. Not ideal for Scottish weather in the cold months.

I have been restricted to short walks in big boots, but there are still beautiful things to be seen even then. One of the joys of this time of year is the low sun in crisp, clear skies.

Balmedie Sunset

I have a particular love for the interactions of sun, sea, sand and sky, and in winter they can be especially glorious. My skill with the camera not being sufficient to do them justice doesn’t stop me trying.

Winter reflections

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Experiment 626

Nov.29, 2012, filed under gaming, Geekery

avatarA couple of Christmases ago, my beloved brother bought us a Mindflex, knowing that I like that sort of thing.

For those who find clicking on links and watching videos too much tl;dr, the basic premise is that you wear a headband sensor that registers brain activity. If there’s a lot, power is increased to a fan, causing a foam ball to rise in the air (like balancing a ping pong ball on an air dryer — what do you mean you’ve never tried that?) and the player twiddles a knob to send the fan around the course. There are a variety of obstacles one can place around the course, with varying levels of ‘control’ needed to make it through them.

You’ll notice I put ‘control’ in scare quotes. The thing is, there is a reasonable amount of argument as to whether this thing genuinely reads brain activity or whether it offers the illusion of control. I’ve been playing with it for a couple of years, off and on, and I honestly couldn’t say. I know how powerful that illusion can be, and I don’t fall for the “lots of people think it’s real so it must be real” argument. If I did, I’d be scared of the giant sky pixie.

So we decided to do an experiment.

This is Stitch. Some of you will have met him.

Is sad

This is not the Stitch who ate all the pies, or travelling Stitch, or Warpig Stitch (don’t ask). This Stitch is relatively well behaved and not known for having high levels of brain activity. This is Emo Stitch (Sad Stitch Is Sad).

One of the games available on Original Mindflex is a time trial arrangement called, melodramatically, Danger Zone. This involves setting up an obstacle course and taking it in turns to try to get past all four lights within the time limit.

On this occasion, the players were:

Me (incidentally, MoC is seeking funding for Episode 5, so go and look at the cool stuff you could get for supporting them and lob a few quid their way): Minister of Chance is currently in need of funding. Go and donate.
Frood: Frood
Munky: Munky's game face
Emo Stitch: Stitch in a tinfoil hat

You will notice that Stitch is wearing a tinfoil hat. The Mindflex requires the player to have a crocodile clip attached to each earlobe and a small metal disc pressed against the forehead.

No, we’re not sure how that’s supposed to work, either. Hence the experiment.

Stitch needed the tinfoil hat for the various alleged electrodes to form a circuit and the game to accept him as a biological entity. Note that the game didn’t need any verifiable brainwave activity, merely a circuit. Plush gets in the way of circuit forming.

Our null hypothesis was that the Mindflex system was not designed to read genuine brainwave activity as the hardware supplied does not seem capable of measuring genuine brainwave activity; and that the apparent relationship between ball height and concentration was entirely a result of the illusion of control. Thus, to disprove the null hypothesis, our control Stitch would have to perform significantly worse than our human players, on the basis that he doesn’t have any brain activity.

Because he’s plush.

This was our experimental method.

We chose the Danger Zone game, as this would give us a quantitative measure of each player’s performance. A number of obstacles were used, including a maze cage with trap level and several hoop obstacles, to ensure a requirement for the player to vary the ball’s height (which, as explained earlier, is a measure of brainwave activity, APPARENTLY). I went first, then Frood, then Munky, then Stitch.

Experiment 626

The obvious flaw with this is that Stitch is plush and could not operate the twiddle knob by himself. Therefore I did it for him. Please also see notes below for future experimental proposals.

I completed 4 zones in 1 minute 49 seconds. Frood completed 4 zones in 2 minutes and 15 seconds. Munky completed 3 zones in 2 minutes and 48 seconds while Stitch completed 3 zones in 2 minutes and 20 seconds.

Yes. That is correct. Stitch beat Munky.

Sad Sackmunky Are Sad

There are some obvious problems with the experimental protocol. Ideally, an experiment would involve at least three repetitions (it was late, we’d been drinking, it was time to go to bed). Also, another round needs to be added, in which a neutral observer operates the twiddle knob for all of the players, to remove that factor from the timing. It would also be worthwhile checking some of the other games, to see if Stitch is better or worse at any particular type of game compared to a human, to at least identify the possibility of an inherent bias in the system.

And maybe give Pooh a go, and see if he’s as good as Stitch.

I think what we can definitely say, however, is that how well you do at Danger Zone isn’t necessarily related to how much control you have over your brainwave activity. As a biofeedback training tool, it’s not much use.

I’m obviously not the only one to want to test this, either:

What I like best about that are the people getting really upset in the comments because they believe it REALLY DOES WORK UR JUST DOIN IT RONG.

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You just get better…

Nov.04, 2012, filed under Cycling, Geekery, transport

avatarBecause I’ve got several deadlines coming up, as well as NaNoWriMo, I am spending a lot of time at my desk. I’ve had a few days off work, to concentrate on writing, and haven’t been getting out much. Our house is a little on the tepid side, and it has been quite cold sitting here scribbling or tapping away. Today’s weather was glorious sunshine, and I thought I’d spend half an hour cleaning Fingal and getting Shackleton all wintrified with his new rack and lights etc. As you do on a sunny day when you want to be riding but can’t spare the time.

Fingal at PaddingtonFingal has been standing in as commuter since my knee went a bit dodgy and Shackleton ate his Carradice Trax, leaving him incapable of carrying luggage. Both Shackleton and Fingal are quite bitey (like the TARDIS), which I’ve always put down to them being commuter bikes and needing to defend themselves against reprobates. Fingal tends to bite people — Shackleton tends to bite his own kit.

Shackleton et his mudguard!Half an hour or so in the sunshine. That’s all I wanted.

But no. As is the way of bikes, as soon as you do any maintenance, you discover a whole host of things that need sorting.

Shackleton seems to have taken a bath in salt at some point. I don’t know when, or how, or where it came from, but in the time he has been snuggling against the other bikes he has become afflicted with rust. The new 135mm double-fixed rear hub I spent months looking for has bearings that feel like they are made of sand and grit, despite having a grand total of 200km on it. The offside rear brake arm has completely seized. The bottom bracket is clunking and, to top it all off, the self-extractor for the Truvativ crank has mysteriously vanished, so I can’t even take the transmission apart to see what size bottom bracket I need.

At one point I might have thought I needed a new bike. I certainly wouldn’t have known what was causing all the grinding and I’d probably have panicked. But these days I know what I’m doing with bikes and so I can make a neat little list of what needs to happen to sort it out.

  • Have bath to wash off assorted bicycle gunk;
  • Ignore brake as the rear brake is just a handy place for keeping spare brake blocks anyway (it’s a fixed gear);
  • Order new M12 self-extracting crank bolt (about 10 quid);
  • Take rear wheel and old hub to shop, ask them to change cartridge bearings (I don’t have flat spanners that can do the job). This will fix my wheel and give me a spare hub, yay;
  • Buy new chain to replace rusty one;
  • Get cranks off, remove bottom bracket, check size, buy and fit new bottom bracket;
  • Find somewhere that will shot-blast and repaint my Pompino for a decent price.

All of this is relatively easy, bar the last one. I got Fingal resprayed by Argos Cycles about 10 years ago and they did a splendid job but it wasn’t cheap. Well worth it, I just can’t afford it right now.

So it’s not the end of the world, just a pain in the backside. Which is about how I used to feel about punctures — these I no longer consider as repairs. They’re just a hazard of riding a bike a lot.

What was supposed to be a half an hour in the sunshine turned into 3 hours of cursing as I tried to fix as much as I could to figure out what needed replacing. And I didn’t get Fingal washed, so he’ll be especially bitey this week.

There’s a saying that cycling doesn’t get any easier, you just get faster. Well bike maintenance is sort of similar: you should always support your local bike shop because no matter how good you are at maintenance, you will always come up against something for which you haven’t the tools, haven’t the parts or haven’t the time to sort out yourself.

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Summer’s End

Nov.01, 2012, filed under Writing

avatarIt’s November. I love autumn, and the November weather is always an exciting mix of cold, sharp, crisp sunny days filled with spectacular colour; wet, dismal weeks of heavy mists, mizzle and downpours; and the odd freeze bringing snow, ice and cold-hurty fingers and knees because I’ve stupidly opted for cycling mitts and shorts. The changeable weather traditionally has matched how I feel about this time of year. Much as I love the season, and birthdays, and the way the cooler temperatures mean I can train harder, for some reason life usually chooses this time of year to throw various crises at me, so I don’t get to enjoy it as much as I’d like to.

I’ve attempted NaNoWriMo twice, and failed each time as life has got in the way. I didn’t bother in 2010 because things got squirelly before I got as far as making the commitment. I didn’t bother last year, either. I had just changed job and packed up to move a couple of hundred miles north. I did not have time or mental space to think about trying to write 50,000 words in a month.

It has, however, been a pretty good year. It has had its ups and downs, as all years do, but the positives outweigh the negatives and we’re in a reasonably good place. As superstitious as I am about my birth month, I think I’m going to be brave.

Writing a book in a month isn’t brave. No. A little crazy, maybe, but not brave. No, I’m going to be brave by assuming I can make it this year: that whatever life chooses to throw at me I can get through it without it throwing me completely off track.

And I actually like my working title, which is a first. So this month, as well as the short stories I’m working on with deadlines in the next few weeks, I’ll be attempting to complete NaNoWriMo. If you want to add me as a writing buddy my name there is (as always) Ravenbait.

Here’s to November.

NaNoWriMo

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Bad Fan Sam

Oct.28, 2012, filed under Reviews, television

avatarI want to talk Who.

But first I want to remind everyone that I am a Bad fan. I don’t just love the things I love: I hold them to high standards, and am willing to express my disapproval when they fail to meet them, because the high standards are what made me fall in love with them in the first place. I don’t like falling out of love with things. It makes me sad.

You see, there are three kinds of writing that I class as good. There is the writing that makes me want to read more by that author. I enjoy it, it entertains me, it serves its purpose of allowing me to escape for a while. Some of those works become old friends, and it doesn’t matter that I could practically quote them word for word: I still derive pleasure from reading them. Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin are authors in this category. Then there is work that I admire for its prose or its bravery, its experimentation or poetry, its language or ideas. I will read it, admire it, then put it away and probably never come back to it. Flann O’Brien, James Joyce and Iain M Banks all write like this.

Then there is the really good stuff. Writing that inspires me. Writing that inspires me not only to read but to write. Roger Zelazny, Alfred Bester, Margaret Atwood, Octavia E Butler, Tim Powers, Iain Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson have written works that I have read and re-read and dreamed secret and not-so-secret dreams about being able to write that well — not like them, but as well as them. Kim Stanley Robinson inspired me not only to write but to pursue environmental science. Alfred Bester made me think that it’s possible to turn synaesthesia into literature. Zelazny showed me how to make literary science fiction exciting. Atwood and Butler demonstrated that it’s possible to write about otherness without losing the connection with humanity. Powers taught me that a writer can repeat a plot without writing the same story (to be fair, so did Moorcock, but he didn’t have the prose of Powers). Iain Banks showed how to pack oodles of story into sparse text.

These writers inspired me, and I don’t care what genre or medium in which someone writes, part of a writer’s job is to inspire others to write. Part of a writer’s job is to do it properly. Someone who is being given a huge platform for his or her work has a responsibility to write to a high standard, because it’s on show, and it’s going to demonstrate to a new generation of content-producers what makes good work.

And I’m sorry, but recent Who has fallen down very badly in that regard. If I had written any one of those stories and submitted it to either of my crit groups, I fully expect they would, quite rightly, have ripped it to shreds.

Plenty of people have had a go at Asylum of the Daleks — just typing out the title makes me laugh in a sad, despairing way. I can’t bring myself to go over the awfulness that was this episode. It had two lines, only two, that were of any value:

“You think hatred is beautiful?”
“Perhaps that is why we have never been able to kill you.”

The rest of it, short of a decent performance from Jenna Louise Coleman, was a mass of plot holes and hand-waving that we’re supposed to forgive because it’s Doctor Who and it was bombastic and full of SPECIAL EFFECTS and DRAMA.

So they put the self-destruct INSIDE impenetrable defences?

Chris Chibnall picked up the baton and managed to make me like Pond for a whole episode. He does pull it out of the bag every so often — I also liked 42, from back when RTD was at the helm, although I didn’t rate the Silurian episodes from Series 5 all that much. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was probably the best of the recent episodes: rampant silliness that didn’t take itself too seriously and had enormous amounts of fun without trying too hard.

I haven’t liked any of the Toby Whithouse episodes, and A Town Called Mercy was no exception. A big deal was made out of the Doctor picking up a gun, but only in interviews about the episode. In the episode itself it was hardly a big deal. Yet I think back to The End of Time and the Doctor refusing to pick up a gun for anything. He is the ultimate paradoxical pacifist, and the watering-down of this absolute stance has given rise to endless frustration of late. Is this what happens when writers of a British series try to tailor their output to a more American market? I don’t know, but I don’t like it.

Sentimentality took hold for the next couple of episodes. I’ll skip The Power of Three because Chibnall didn’t fulfil the brief of “life with the Doctor” nearly as well as Gareth Roberts did in The Lodger and it was all a bit… Meh, really.

Angels Take Manhattan was the final episode and it committed what for me is a cardinal sin. It broke the previously-stated rules.

This is the problem I have with Moffat and the episodes he writes. If he wants something to happen in the plot then it happens, regardless of whether existing canon would allow it to or not. As an example, the Weeping Angels. Anyone remember why they were weeping? Because they had to hide their eyes so as not to look at each other. If they looked at each other they were stuck. THAT’S HOW THE DOCTOR SAVED SALLY SPARROW.

Ring a ring a roses...

Blink was one of the best episodes of the 10th Doctor’s run, but Moffat has ruined it by changing how the Angels work. He did this way back, when he covered the inside of a massive spaceship with Angels and had them attacking en masse without so much as a blindfold to share between them. In this most recent episode he had our heroes trapped in a corridor by an Angel at either end — by earlier rules those Angels should have been trapped by each other, but no. And it got worse:

Who you gonna call?

Am I supposed to believe that no one saw the Statue of Liberty get up and walk? Or maybe the automatic quantum lock doesn’t work on anything over 3m tall. Who the fuck knows?

And there was all that nonsense about how reading something written down fixes it in time. Time can be re-written, except if you read about it, apparently. But canon established, in The Waters of Mars, that text can rewrite itself if the Doctor interferes. He did it already. We watched the words change.

Moffat obviously has some over-arching concept of how the written word affects the Doctor’s timeline and his ability to change his past, his future, his present. River Song’s catchphrase —”Spoilers!”— has a whole other significance if reading something means it can’t not happen. But this is new. This is not how it worked before. And I’m sorry, but you can’t just rewrite the rules of how a world works to suit yourself; not without some form of justification or explanation. It’s unprofessional, in my opinion. If you are given the job of working with an established set of characters and the universe they live in, you work with those characters and that universe — you don’t go changing things because the rules make the stories too hard to tell. It’s the writer’s job to come up with ways to make the stories work within the rules of that world, or accept that the story needs to be told in a different world, with different characters.

Doctor Who has a huge audience. There are kids out there learning how to tell stories by watching it. I want them to learn how to tell good ones, and not to expect to get by on the cult of celebrity. Being famous and successful shouldn’t mean getting away with work that isn’t as good as that being produced by people still trying to make it. Those who are least successful have to work the hardest at being good in order to achieve success: it’s kind of insulting to think that success means forgetting all about plot structure, character motivation and consistency.

I am falling out of love with Doctor Who.

Sadface.

I see a frowny face

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Bumper Stickers on Planet Sam

Sep.09, 2012, filed under Planet Sam

avatarI had one of those WTF moments the other day. This particular one happened in Tesco’s car park at Danestone and involved a bumper sticker on the rear offside wing of a shiny red Ka.

Furious Angel

As someone with a lifelong interest in things to be found outside the set of stuff most consider to comprise the rational world, this struck me as being, well, to paraphrase Pauli, not even wrong.

The first thing I think of when I hear the word ‘angel’ isn’t one of these:
Your stereotypical guardian angel

Nor is it any of these:

Anime Angel

David Boreanaz

Weeping Angel

In fact, when I hear the word “angel”, the first thing I think of is something like this:

Monty Python's Holy Beast

Now I don’t know if something like that can fly, but I’m pretty damn sure that if I saw one hovering behind me in my rear view mirror, I’d be putting my foot down. Or possibly screeching to a halt at the side of the road and running for it, in the hope it was the car it wanted rather than me.

The King James Version (not the album by Harvey Danger, do pay attention at the back), describes the Angel of Revelation as being:

…clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire

This sounds more like Katamari’s King of the Cosmos, and I can’t think of anyone I’d less like to have my back in the event of a road traffic accident.

Naaaaaa na na na na na na na

Have you played the racetrack level? In Drive mode?

Ezekiel has a bit to say about angels:

I looked, and I saw beside the cherubim four wheels, one beside each of the cherubim; the wheels sparkled like topaz. As for their appearance, the four of them looked alike; each was like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the cherubim faced; the wheels did not turn about as the cherubim went. The cherubim went in whatever direction the head faced, without turning as they went. Their entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes, as were their four wheels. I heard the wheels being called ‘the whirling wheels’. Each of the cherubim had four faces: One face was that of a cherub, the second the face of a human being, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.

Let’s be honest. That sounds more like a bad acid trip. If you had one of those following your car you’d be calling BUFORA, not feeling reassured about your personal safety.

For me one of the best depictions of angels is in the 1995 film the Prophecy, starring Christopher Walken and Elias Koteas. The film depicts them with a modern imagery, all wings and trenchcoats, but the characterisation is what I enjoyed.

“Did you ever notice how in the Bible, when ever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?” — Thomas Daggett

“I can lay you out and fill your mouth with your mother’s faeces, or we can talk.” — Lucifer

Let’s forget, for a moment, the arrogance of assuming that God’s messengers have nothing better to do than compensate for poor driving technique. If all that’s preventing someone speeding is the worry that a supernatural entity of indeterminate appearance — a six-winged sphinx, a semi-precious flying saucer with more eyes than a scallop, a burning bush or Christopher Walken with bad hair — can’t keep up, then that person does not belong behind the wheel of a moving car in a shared public space.

If that person is advising other people the most important reason for watching their speed is the concern that said supernatural sphinx/UFO/bush/Walken won’t be able to match the pace, then he or she probably shouldn’t be allowed out unless in the company of a responsible adult.

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Sam doesn’t like Sinbad

Aug.26, 2012, filed under Reviews, television

avatarThis week Frood and I finally gave up on Sinbad, the new fantasy series being broadcast on Sky 1. Halfway through episode 7 we realised we actually couldn’t give a stuff about any of them and so went in search of something else to watch.

I had been looking forward to it despite the cringe-worthy CGI in the trailers. It was made by Impossible Pictures, who brought us Primeval — a series I enjoyed, for the first 2 seasons anyway. The premise seemed decent enough: young man in the prime of youthful folly is cursed by his Grandmother so that he has to spend the rest of his life at sea, hooks up with a bunch of people who are also on the run for one reason or another, adventures ensue.

Let’s face it. It’s basically Blake’s 7 meets Prince of Persia.

The programme starts off with Sinbad (Elliot Knight) —who wears as much eyeliner as a Sisters of Mercy fan for no reason that has been made clear— in a bare-knuckle fist-fight with another young man. It’s the sort of competition-fighting-for-money used as shorthand for “can handle himself and is a bit bad and dangerous” in numerous other works. In this instance, like so many others, the need for the star to have beautiful bone structure and saucy sex appeal means that he doesn’t get to suffer the usual thickening of facial features and scarring concomitant with the sport.

His opponent dies, in a manner suggestive of evil machinations and political intrigue. Said opponent then turns out to be the son of local bigwig Lord Akbari (Naveen Andrews), of course, who promptly goes completely ballistic and kills Sinbad’s brother in revenge. BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT ALWAYS HAPPENS. Sinbad escapes from jail and returns to his Grandmother, who, upon finding out what he has done, curses him so that he cannot spend more than a cycle of the sun on dry land hereinafter. AS YOU DO. Meanwhile Akbari is still frothing at the mouth and insisting that murdering Sinbad’s brother is insufficient payment for the loss of his son, because his son was a high status person and Sinbad’s brother was no better than the dirt under his feet. He employs the evil sorceress Taryn to find Sinbad for the purposes of torture and death. AGAIN, THE OBVIOUS RESPONSE.

It took me a while to work out how they managed to make something so ridiculously melodramatic so dull, and it comes down to the characters.

Take a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey trip back to the 80s and consider the aforementioned Blake’s 7. Stripped to the fundamentals, the premise was pretty much the same. A ragtag bunch of people on the run find themselves a ship, form an unlikely crew and head off to have adventures while pursued by a powerful entity. The effects were terrible, the budget next to nothing, and it was absolutely brilliant. The characters had depth and vitality, and were played by the actors in a way that made them believable. The plots were there to serve the characters and give them a stage in which to express: never were the characters shoe-horned into some implausible behaviour because it made the plot work. Avon’s constant deadpan snark didn’t let up for a minute, whether he was having an argument with Orac, insulting Villa or flirting with Servalan. Villa was never forced to turn heroic (although he was occasionally the hero) in order to give him a more palatable character.

Servalan had depth, character, motivation and was both admirable and admired.

Sinbad, on the other hand, introduced us to Sirens, Death, tattooed ladies, a magic gambling den, CGI monsters and black magic chicken sacrifices, but by the end of episode 6 had failed to explain why Taryn was such evil bitch. There was nothing to explain why Sinbad’s grandmother would take the frankly bizarre step of forcing her only surviving grandson to risk dying a painful, horrible death every day — especially considering that he didn’t have access to a boat when she cursed him. Cook was still little more than a fat, bald bloke obsessed with spices who occasionally dispensed nuggets of wisdom in the manner of a fortune cookie. The nerd was still a nerd, and a hopelessly naive one at that.

The different way the story handled male and female characters made me faintly uncomfortable. All of them had something awful in their past which informed their current behaviour. The Viking, along with his Viking chums, apparently raped, pillaged and slaughtered in the manner of a badly-researched Berkserker. But he was a changed man, and prepared to give himself up to a gang of warriors for justice if they let him save his friend, so actually all that raping and slaughtering was completely forgiven.

Nala was once promised to Death by her people as a sacrifice, and that left her cold and stand-offish. She turned Death down, even though it might kill her new friends, and she was still cold and stand-offish and, really, didn’t change at all except that somehow that made it rain. Kind of. What?

Rina was a thief, who kept stealing stuff, even to the point of stealing everyone else’s valuables when they needed them most. But she was sold into slavery as a child by her parents, and used that memory to defeat a (female) demon, so everyone liked her after that. She hadn’t changed, it was just that she used her degradation in the service of saving the menfolk, so that made it worthwhile having her around.

And Taryn, arguably the most potent of the female characters. Evil for the sake of evil. Compare with Lord Akbari, whose insane, murderous intent could at least be hand-waved as the effect of extreme grief.

I don’t like Sinbad. There’s this weird, corner-of-the-eye disparity between the handling of the male characters and the female ones, and not in a good or justifiable way. Plus it’s another instance of the plot being the over-riding driver, resulting in characters doing implausible things because the plot requires that they do so.

I think it’s time to buy the Blake’s 7 box set to remind myself of how such a show should be done, before they ruin it with a remake.

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