An Unearthly Child

“We are not of this race. We are not of this earth. Susan and I are wanderers in the fourth dimension of space and time, cut off from our own people by distances beyond the reach of your most advanced science.”

Doctor Who

Yes, it’s Thursday again, and that means…another trip in the TARDIS! This week, we go right back to where it all started: An Unearthly Child, the very first episode of Doctor Who. I’ve been wanting to watch this for a while, so it was interesting to see where everything began…

SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. (Surely this isn’t necessary for a programme that went out 50 years ago…)

First thing: it’s all in black and white, because this is 1963, when they hadn’t invented colours yet. (I did actually think this when I was little – that everyone saw things in black and white in 1963. Silly, I know, but it made sense when I was three.) This makes the time vortex in the opening credits look a little, well, un-time-vortexy. OK, I’ll be honest, it looked like some black and white tie-dyed cloth swirling around in front of the camera.

Never mind, we have to make allowances for the primitive age of television in the ’60s. What about the plot?

Well, it’s very like Spearheads from Space, which I reviewed last Thursday, in that nothing really happens. Where it’s different from Spearheads from Space is that nothing happens in a calm and controlled way, and everything is explained carefully. Which can only be a good thing, given that it is the very first episode.

The basic plot runs thusly: Ian and Barbara, a pair of teachers, follow one of their students, Susan, who’s been behaving oddly. (Surprise, surprise.) They meet the Doctor, who is characteristically rude and shuts them in the TARDIS, where it transpires that Susan is the Doctor’s granddaughter, which is why she’s been behaving like an insufferable know-it-all.

(If you’ve only seen the new Doctor Who, you might be saying at this point, “Wait, the Doctor has a granddaughter?” The answer is yes, the Doctor had a granddaughter. Had is the operative word here.)

Er…the TARDIS dematerialises (in order to prevent Ian and Barbara from disclosing the Doctor’s secret, apparently. Motive is a little thin on the ground here.) and the actors do an odd dance apparently designed to suggest that the TARDIS is lurching around. Then they all collapse. We see what must be the worst animation ever, anywhere, of an alien landscape – it’s literally just a pen-and-ink drawing. And…the credits roll. The End. No clever plans, no Saving the World, just a lot of talking and arguing. Obviously, we have to make allowances for the fact that it is the first ever episode, and therefore will be rubbish. And overall, I did enjoy it, for reasons unknown – I suppose it was just interesting to see what the ’60s audience saw, for the very first time. It was, at any rate, better than Spearheads from Space. Which is worth something, surely.

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New Tricks: Part of a Whole

“We walk without fear because we are the law, you understand? And the law can go everywhere in pursuit of its inquiries.”

Terry Pratchett

Sorry to use a Terry Pratchett quote two days running, but this one is just perfect for this episode of New Tricks. Can you guess why?

SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Yes, that’s right. British Intelligence, again. Except this week, the stakes are much higher. We have explosions, mysterious meetings in car parks, guns and safe houses. And an out-of-the-way police department staffed by ex-coppers, by way of light relief.

From what I could gather, it seems that Strickland went on an intelligence-gathering raid for MI5 once, in the dim and distant past, of course, which makes it an “unsolved crime and open case”. Now, someone is targeting the people involved in that raid – which means Strickland, along with our old friend Steven Fisher (remember that deeply smug person from the first episode of the series?) are in mortal danger. UCOS is on hand to solve the crime and uncover corruption at the very heart of the government…

Now, hang on a second. As has previously been observed, UCOS is a minor police department operating out of a basement consisting of three old codgers who aren’t policemen any more and one woman whose police career has stalled. They have no firearms training, no security clearance and no cool gadgets. And they’re terrible at keeping secrets. Exhibit A:

“What kind of person could make a bomb in a flat in Pimlico look like a gas explosion?”

This is a question addressed to a notorious criminal, you understand. Good procedure. Secure. If the fact that UCOS were on the case wasn’t common knowledge before, it certainly is now. Good grief.

Another thing. Mr. Fisher goes to all the trouble of making a coded telephone call (using the patented Look, I’m Speaking In Code Voice) and then explains the secret details out loud. Why? What’s the point? If anyone was listening to the phone call, they’re probably still listening now, so not only do they know what you didn’t want them to know, they also know what the secret code is!

This is why UCOS should never get involved with British Intelligence. The script-writers just can’t handle it. It’s not exactly fair on them. They thought they were working on a Agatha Christie-type murder mystery where all the suspects were in the same room, and suddenly they’re supposed to be writing a James Bond storyline!

They also don’t know how to end a James Bond storyline. See, what happens on New Tricks is, when you’ve arrested the assassin, “it’s over”. MI5 is apparently incapable of hiring another assassin. (All right, yes, I know the MI5 people got arrested in the end, but still. Strickland didn’t know that was going to happen when he said “it’s over”.)

Well, I suppose it was quite exciting. And we had the “corruption in high places” theme again. (I’m beginning to think the BBC is trying to tell us something.) But, next week, can we just have some normal murders, please?

Timeshift: The British Army of the Rhine

“History unravels gently, like an old sweater. It has been patched and darned many times, reknitted to suit different people, shoved in a box under the sink of censorship to be cut up for the dusters of propaganda, yet it always – eventually – manages to spring back into its old familiar shape. History has a habit of changing the people who think they are changing it. History always has a few tricks up its frayed sleeve. It’s been around a long time.”

Terry Pratchett

Yes, Constant Reader, another documentary. Mainly because I’m sure you’re tired of reading interminable posts about comedy, and there’s no proper telly on the books till TARDIS Thursday (which may or may not happen). So: The British Army of the Rhine it is.

A brief summary of the background is required if you want to understand this review. I’ll try and make it interesting.

Basically, ever since WWII, there’s been a British army presence in Germany: at first to prevent fascism (or, as one of the commentators in a radio clip from about 1950 called it, a “disease of the mind” – I jest not) from ever arising again, and to get Germany to “put their house in order” (incidentally, it occurred to me that Germany is surprisingly well-organised given that the entire country was completely smashed only seventy years ago – in fact, it’s proverbial for organisation and efficiency). Although I don’t think British tanks blowing up villages for target practice helped much with this. Then, of course, the Cold War came along (announced by a clip of JFK appearing, apparently a propos of nothing) and we are told the shocking fact that “the British army would only be able to withstand an attack [of the Russians] for 48 hours before capitulating”. 48 hours? Really? And was this common knowledge in Britain? That one fact has totally realigned my perspective on the Cold War.

Well, as we all know, the Cold War ended happily (i.e. no one killed each other) and then…why did the British presence in Germany persist again? I don’t think this was really explained very well, apart from a reference to an agreement with the German government that they could stay. It’s only now that the big bases over there are starting to shut down, on the basis, I suspect, that they are massively expensive to run and apparently serve no real purpose.

Thus endeth the history lesson for today. As to the actual programme: it was filled with fascinating tit-bits of information about army life – did you know they used to have special army money to spend on the bases? Like Monopoly money? Well, neither did I. And there’s the testimony from actual army people who were there: my favourite part was when one of these said, “The three German phrases we learnt were: “One beer”; “another beer”; and “he pays”.” That does tell you something about army people’s priorities.

A slightly quirky note was the soundtrack – all golden oldies like the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Downtown” (which is not by the Beatles, by the way) but sung in German. That was slightly surreal.

The ubiquitous black-and-white film clips in which everyone speaks RP: “Yerss, well, one joins the army because…” Sentimental moments like the bit describing the immensely popular radio programme “Two Way Family Favourites” in which people at home could request songs for family members serving abroad and vice versa. Of course, immediately following this lovely idea is a reminder of how prescriptive 1950s Britain could be in these matters: a soldier couldn’t request a song for his girlfriend or fiance, only for his family.

It’s all narrated by Denis Lawson (you know, the new Irish copper on New Tricks), who’s very unobtrusive and neutral – it’s a straight documentary in that respect, no melodramatic tales of distressed Germans or anything. The facts and the clips and the people who were there are allowed to speak for themselves instead of being forced into a narrative. That’s always good.

Oh, and I’ll leave you with this observation: when the British Forces Broadcasting Service launched their new TV station, drink-driving offences among Rhine soldiers dropped to almost zero. Who said television was bad for you?

Have I Got News For You

“That’s why we have a revenue system. It’s to say, “That’s an obvious scam, can you please grow up and give us the money now?””

Ian Hislop

OK, I will own up: Have I Got News For You is basically the place where I learn all my news. Yes, really. I would not have known that Rebekah Brooks got a £7m payout if I hadn’t seen it on this programme.

And that is the first point in favour of HIGNFY. It is educational.

The second point in favour of HIGNFY is that it plays roughly the same role as The Revolution Will Be Televised – it allows the public to laugh at the government. As I have said before, this is a vital component in democracy. The kind of cynicism and sarcasm practised on HIGNFY is catching; it allows you to see through propaganda and think about what you’re being told. And, of course, it’s very funny: a British institution in its own right.

Perhaps I should explain. HIGNFY is a comedy panel show like Mock the Week only funnier. Editor of Private Eye Ian Hislop and general comedian/BBC presenter Paul Merton appear every week with two guest panelists – usually comedians and, hilariously, politicians – and a guest host. And they answer questions about the week’s news and generally make fun of politicians, propaganda, public figures and propositions – anything that’s been in the news is fair game. It’s clever, incisive, witty and definitely worthy of a place in your TV schedule. Fridays, at 9pm, on BBC1 – clear a space in your diary.

Secret Universe: The Hidden Life of the Cell

“You’ve got to be stronger than the story/Don’t let it blind you.”

The Killers

OK, so the title sounds stupendously boring in an “oh-look-the-BBC-is-trying-to-make-science-relevant” kind of way. (Isn’t everything called “The Secret/Hidden Life of Something” nowadays?) But really, The Hidden Life of Cells is well worth a look, even if only for the graphics.

Ah, yes, the graphics. The graphics are wonderful. Of course, it’s all CGI, since colour probably doesn’t even exist at scales smaller than the wavelength of light, and even if it did we couldn’t see it. And this programme’s USP is probably that it is conducted almost entirely in CGI. (Apart from about ten minutes’ worth of film of scientists standing in random places totally unconnected to what they’re talking about. Like a beach. Or the top of a very tall building.) God knows how much it cost to produce. But it really is very beautiful. That sounds hyperbolic, but once you see the images of DNA, constantly in a state of low-level movement, or the vast skeletal structures holding the cell together, or the virus particles with the spikes, set to a sublime orchestral soundtrack, you’ll know what I mean. Hopefully.

Basically, the premise of the programme is “Attack of the Adenovirus: From the Cell’s Point of View”. Narrated by David Tennant, talking about a “four billion year old struggle”, it’s described by one of the talking heads as an “amazing epic science fiction movie”.

And that, in my opinion, is where it falls down. All the science is made to fit neatly into the typical science fiction narrative: evil invader threatens peace and harmony. No. That’s not how it works. Viruses are not good, not evil; cells are not evil, not good. They just are. Not every battle has to have goodies and baddies. And there, I just fell into the same trap, calling it a “battle”. Perhaps there just isn’t a way to visualise the way the cell works without using human, narrative terms like “war” and “machine”. Which makes it a semantics problem, rather than a problem with the programme itself.

What is a fault with the programme is the deliberate simplification of the science to fit the narrative. Now, I’m not saying I’m a scientific expert, because I’m not, but I do know a bit about cells, all right, and the molecules on the surface of a virus that allow it into the cell are not called “keys”, they are called “antigens”. It does not take that much effort to explain that to an audience. Also, “security molecules”? Really? Is there no proper word for them? Like “recognition molecules”, for instance?

This may sound like nitpicking, and I do accept that it must be hard to strike a balance between oversimplification and total incomprehensibility, but it’s important to remember that the public is in all probability a lot more intelligent than programme-makers give them credit for. And science affects everyone, not just scientists and academics. It ought to be approached properly, and not in a condescending way.

All of this is not to say that the amazing epic science fiction movie wasn’t exciting, because it was. And, like I said, the graphics are wonderful. And anything that makes science more accessible is always a good thing. Just – be careful you’re not making the facts fit the story. Because that happens more often than you’d think.

The Death Song of Uther Pendragon

“In the Land of Memory the time is always Now.

In the Kingdom of Ago, the clocks tick…but their hands never move.

There is an Unfound Door

(O lost)

and memory is the key which opens it.”

Stephen King

A rather odd title for this week’s episode of Merlin, don’t you think? Ominous somehow. Spooky.

Well, actually it was quite appropriate, given that this episode was surprisingly scary for a family show. Do you remember the one with the little ghost-boy from the well who kept appearing suddenly? It wasn’t quite as scary as that, but more scary than, say, Morgana. And it was funny as well, laugh-out-loud funny, or at least there were moments when I laughed out loud.

Time for a plot synopsis. Merlin and Arthur are out riding in the woods one day (as you do) when they hear a piercing scream. It turns out a sorceress is about to be burnt at the stake. She is duly rescued by the brave duo, but, for unexplained reasons, she promptly dies after bequeathing to Arthur as a reward a Strange and Unearthly Secret. Apparently Arthur cannot go anywhere without meeting a dying old person with an arcane secret. He’s obviously a public health hazard.

Anyway, the Strange and Unearthly Secret turns out to be (possible SPOILER? I don’t think so, this is what it says in the programme description) the Horn of Cuthband (whoever he was. If I wanted to be really geeky I could connect it with Cuthbert’s horn in the Dark Tower series. But I won’t.) which has the power to summon dead spirits. For some unknown reason Arthur thinks the person he would most like to see again is his father, Uther, apparently forgetting that he was a nasty old man who didn’t care about common people and servants very much.

So they traipse off to somewhere called the Great Stones of Nematon, which look suspiciously like Stonehenge. And here we have Star Wars Reference of the Week: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Yes, really. Now you know something bad’s going to happen.

Arthur summons his father using the fabled Horn. Now, we know it’s never a good idea to play with Death. The brothers who invented the Deathly Hallows in Harry Potter came to a bad end. Orpheus who tried to rescue his wife from the Underworld lost her rather carelessly. When Mort in Terry Pratchett’s novel of the same name rescued the princess from death he caused the fabric of reality to roll up on itself. So when Arthur summons Uther’s ghost we know the outcome is not going to be good.

It isn’t. Uther’s final message to his son is basically, “Arthur, you’re a terrible king.” Which reminds us all exactly why we never liked him. And then he says, rather cringingly, as Arthur leaves: “I will always love you, Arthur.” I half expected him to burst into song, Miranda-style.

Back at the castle, strange and mysterious happenings are happening. Scary axes flying out of mid-air. Storage jars hitting people on the head. That sort of thing. From this point on, I spent at least 50% of the time hiding my eyes. It was scary, OK? And someone foolishly said, “Is someone there?” Which, as everyone knows, is about the stupidest question in the English language. What would you do if a voice said, “No”?

So Merlin and Arthur go ghost-hunting. With a torch. What, you think a torch is going to help you when you’re looking for a ghost? I don’t think so. Anyway, when they eventually find the ghost, it is genuinely scary. The thing is, it appears suddenly and disappears suddenly, so you don’t get a proper look at it at first; you just get a general impression of, well, scaryness. More hiding eyes. And probably some nightmares, too.

I won’t tell you any more. I’m trying not to include as many spoilers in my reviews, because I know how annoying it is finding out what’s going to happen before it does. (Lord Foul’s Bane got ruined for me because some stupid person on Goodreads forgot to press the spoiler button in their review.) But this was a particularly strong episode, I thought, for a number of reasons: scaryness, humour, and Climactic Confrontation. Nearly as good as Star Wars.

99 Seconds

“Aragorn sits on his throne/Middle-earth is saved by the smallest of things/In The Lord of the Rings.”

Paint

Well, hello there, Constant Reader. Only a quick post today, I’m afraid.

You know when you get a song into your head and nothing you do will get it out again? Including listening to it over and over again? Well, I’ve got that with this. And this. If you haven’t clicked on the link (you definitely should) let me explain: they are, respectively, entitled “Lord of the Rings in 99 Seconds” and “Harry Potter in 99 Seconds”. The plots of the stories are set to the film music, a capella style. That’s a terrible description. You have to watch them to understand. For once, words fail me.