28 February 2014

The Crimea situation

Today the situation in Ukraine has gone several stretches up the escalation scale. The movements of the Russian forces and the actions of very organised pro-Russian militia are starting to look an awful lot like a seizure of power in Crimea, with the possible aim of that territory returning to Russia.

Kyiv must make sure that it does not provide the Russians with a valid pretext for full-scale military action; while they have capable armed forces, they are no much for those of Russia and a war would merely kill a lot of people. The NATO governments have made no commitment to join in and I doubt that they would want to.

Everyone needs to stay calm and not do anything stupid.

25 February 2014

James Bond: Quantum of Solace

Daniel Craig's second movie shows the impact of the 2007-8 WGA Strike clearly; the film comes in at just over 100 minutes and yet it drags badly. My immediate comparison was to sticking your hand in a bowl of ice, although that might be a bit harsh.

There are some good elements in this. Craig does the best he can with the script and Dame Judi Dench shows why she gets Oscar nominations. The plane sequence is well done and the scene at the opera does have some of the films best lines. The plot is decent and definitely contemporary, even if it lacks some of the more Bondian elements.

Criticisms are big ones: weak villain, mediocre leading lady and a rather rushed ending. I'm not involved in this like the films before and after; it really does feel like a chore to do this for the third time.

One final thought; Kazan does not come to my mind as a romantic holiday destination. Quantum are cheap as well as evil


It's not "Quantum of So-Lame" as much as "Quantum of So-What". This is distinctly average and a weak Bond.


Single and not Single (Review: 'Doctor Who: Keeping Up With The Joneses' by Nick Harkaway, 2014)

I'm getting near to concluding the Eleven Faces series and to be honest, I don't want to spend a massive amount of money wrapping this up. Fortunately, the BBC have come to my assistance, with the Time Trips series. These novellas are coming out at one a month, each with a different Doctor; I've got the second and third. Each are stand alone and self-contained.

In this case, very self-contained.

Towards the end of his life, the Tenth Doctor is piloting his TARDIS when it hits a temporal mine left over from the Time War. As the Doctor tries to repair it, he finds himself in a Welsh town, with a strangely familiar looking barmaid and a dangerous alien intelligence.

The plot
This is basically a bottle episode, only the bottle is very ornate and facility-filled, rather like "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" from last year. The town of Jonestown, which has been subject to some serious temporal anomalies, is an interesting one, but lacks any huge depth to it in what is a pretty short book.

The prose is rather zany - on occasion, too much so. The style invokes that of the late Douglas Adams, the not-late-yet Sir Terry Pratchett and other fantasy authors of that ilk; sentences go on for multiple clauses, metaphors get a major work out and there is a general air of whimsy about the piece. It's pacy and doesn't waste time, so that's a good thing, although one might argue it doesn't develop things enough. I tend to prefer brevity in my wit.

The main 'monster' a relic from the Time War that has completely forgotten what side of the thing it was on is an innovative one, but I again was not hugely impressed. The author manages to use the altered-ish canon of the show post "The Day of the Doctor" to good advantage in his story. I was also non-plussed about the 'companion' here; she's not bad, but she's not brilliant either. This might have worked better with someone like Donna.

The regular
The Doctor is the only regular character in this, apart from the TARDIS, who acts in a very TARDIS-like way, especially when you consider how she has acted in recent years. Ten's dialogue is extremely convincing; he is known for going on long unplanned detours in his sentences and is a very different sounding guy to either Doctor before or after him.

An enjoyable read and the novella format means that it doesn't go on for too long. It's good, but lacks a strong enough plot to be great.


22 February 2014

Orange Revolution II: The Empire Gets Struck Again

When members of the public are freely strolling around the residence of a country's now former President, it is safe to say that a revolution has occurred.

It's happened in Ukraine.

Viktor Yanukovych is gone. His reign is over and with reports that his attempts to flee the country have been stopped, I would not be surprised if he was formally indicted in the next couple of days.

It has not been a bloodless revolution - and it could still get bloody - but the people of Ukraine now have a second chance to develop a genuine, effective democracy in their country after the failure of the 2004 Orange Revolution to deliver on its hopes let Yanukovych back in the first place.

Tomorrow we see the closing of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Today, Russia's playing of the geopolitical game saw them get a penalty... and this is speed skating.

14 February 2014

To the Mun, Silent! To the Mun!

It may have been an un-Kerballed vessel, I may have lost nearly all of it on landing (in fact, the module was thrown clear by the explosion)... and it won't be coming back...

But I've managed to get a spacecraft on the Mun in Kerbal Space Program.

This is what the lander originally looked like:

13 February 2014

Too sexy for this show? ('Doctor Who' Season 31/Series 5, 2010)

Doctor Who Magazine has now announced another all-story poll to mark the first fifty years of the show; it remains to be seen what will change, but I expect significant moves up for "Enemy of the World" and "The Web of Fear" - the reviews for the rediscovered episodes have been highly positive.


I was in Aldi in Romford when I saw the picture on the front page of the Daily Express, a British tabloid newspaper with an obsession with house prices, immigrants and the death of Princess Diana. I saw the location photo of Karen Gillan in that policewoman outfit and thought "Yep, Gallifrey Base is going to go wild over this one".

The kissogram get-up and Amy's generally short skirts/shorts all round this season (there were a couple of exceptions) led to complaints/coverage that the character was too sexualised for the show... typically linked with a photo, just so the readers could get an idea and I'm sure not for the purpose of cheap titillation. Ah, sorry, my sarcasm mode is engaged.

So, who was this redhead?

Amy Pond - Crazy, Sexy, Scottish
Amelia "Amy" Williams (nee Pond), born in Scotland but spending much of her life in Leadworth, Gloucestershire as an orphan after her parents got accidentally erased from existence, was an adventurous girl from a young age - when she was 8, the Doctor crash landed in her front garden and she was fully ready to leave with him, but he didn't turn up after de-materialising. Twelve years (and four psychiatrists - she kept biting them when they insisted the Doctor wasn't real) later, he turned up again and two years after that, the night before her wedding to Rory Williams, she went off with him on adventures. Witty, stubborn and at times reckless, she was certainly a forceful personality. Comparisons to Daphne Blake from Scooby Doo, mainly because of the hair colour, are perhaps inevitable, but Amy never got called Danger-Prone.

Karen Gillan (1987-) was born in Inverness, Scotland and decided to become a professional actor at 16, attending the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in London. Before she'd graduated, she got her first television role in Rebus, a series of adaptations of Ian Rankin's novels for STV/ITV and had also been recruited by a modelling agency; her 5'10 height undoubtedly helped in the latter department, although she no longer models. Her first really noticeable role was appearing in several skits on Channel 4's The Kevin Bishop Show from 2008-2009, where she dressed like Lara Croft, Katy Perry and other celebs, among other things in an at times controversial show, while her role in BBC interactive thriller The Well, despite airing after her announcement as Amy Pond, slipped under most people's radar. During the 2008 season of Doctor Who, she had a small role as a Soothsayer in "The Fires of Pompeii"... alongside a certain fellow Scot who recently found he didn't like the colour of his kidneys.

During her tenure as Amy, she also appeared in a production of Inadmissible Evidence and a drama called We'll Take Manhattan about supermodel Jean Shrimpton.

One of her next and arguably her biggest role to date will be in Guardians of the Galaxy as super villain Nebula, a role that required her to be painted purple and shave her hair off. She got a wig made from said hair and when she took it off at Comic Con last year to reveal the hairless head underneath, it caused a fair bit of a stir. Few women have been willing to lose all that for a role - Natalie Portman (who had hers shaved off on camera in V for Vendetta) is a famous example. She is also appearing as Kerry Newblood in the third instalment of spoof cop drama (think a NC-17 version of The Naked Gun; they go very far with some jokes) A Touch of Cloth; this is in the can, but no TX date has been announced.

The younger Amelia, seen in a number of episodes in this run, was played by Caitlin Blackwood, a real-life (and previous never actually met) cousin of Karen Gillan.


This was also the first year that there was no Torchwood in production at Upper Boat studios; combined with the economic situation, this resulted in a number of crew members either leaving the show or having to take demotions to stay on it as budgets got squeezed.

The positive benefit of that spin-off not being here however was the freeing up of the stage used for the Torchwood Hub (destroyed in "Children of Earth") - this allowed BBC Wales to build a new TARDIS interior in the location; with a retro theme to the console and incorporating multiple levels for the first time. This was matched with a new TARDIS exterior prop, inspired by the one used in the two Peter Cushing movies, with a lighter shade of blue and the return of the St. John's Ambulance logo not seen since the Hartnell days. The Doctor got a new sonic screwdriver; this one with a green light - and Matt Smith managed to break one of the props before Steven Moffat could set up a book on how long it would take him.

Yet more changes followed to the in other areas: A new title sequence, a new (and controversial) arrangement of the theme by Murray Gold and a new logo with a TARDIS-shaped DW in the centre[1]:


The stories themselves also changed in tone; the Moffat era is one more of a "dark fairly tale" as opposed to the epic space adventure of RTD. The family connection while still there is largely eliminated - indeed we only see Amy's parents once in this and that's pretty much all for that. There were also far more references to the past - indeed Smith's first episode sees a montage of Doctors as he symbolically takes his place among the eleven known to exist at that point.

This first run is a very good one; it suffers from the problem that first seasons of any new Doctor suffer from i.e. the lead writer knows more of the Doctor's character than those doing other stories.

(Please note that we will not be covering non-transmitted-on-television episodes unless they are of particular significance to the show... the DVD extra ones aren't)

The Eleventh Hour (65 minutes)
The newly regenerated Doctor crash lands on Earth, where he has to deal with a mysterious crack, a young Scottish girl and an escaped alien prisoner... with the Earth's time running out.

A very strong opener for the new Doctor - who nails it pretty much from the get-go, what with the fish fingers and custard[2]. It's not perfect... it's possibly a bit over-long in fact, but this is a highly recommended starting point for a new fan. Notable guest cast include the late TV astronomer Sir Patrick Moore (who hosted the monthly The Sky at Night until his death in 2012, one of the few still-active shows on British TV older than Doctor Who) and Olivia Colman, whose ubiquity in British TV these days, especially post-Broadchurch, was referenced in her appearance in the later 50th anniversary comedy extended skit The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot.

The Beast Below
The Doctor takes Amy (who hasn't even had time to change out of her nightie) to Starship UK in 3295, home of the remaining British population as look for a new home among the stars, where they discover something is seriously amiss.

Guest starring well known actor Sophie Okonedo (who had been Oscar-nominated for Hotel Rwanda and played Alison in "Scream of the Shalka"), this is a very enjoyable episode with a lot of humorous moments and an interesting story. One particular funny bit involves the Doctor and Amy's reaction to an approaching tidal wave.

Victory of the Daleks
The Doctor is summoned to London in 1941 by his old friend Winston Churchill, who has a new secret weapon in the fight against the Nazis... which looks an awful lot like a Dalek.

The one that introduced the very controversial New Dalek Paradigm aka the Teletubby Daleks, a bulked up redesign with versions in multiple colours cynically felt to be a merchandising ploy, although partly due to the "old" Daleks being built for Billie Piper's eyeline and not for the taller Gillan. They are a bad part of a generally poor episode - a rare misfire by Mark Gatiss - and have not lasted. Ian McNeice does a good job as Churchill (he'd played him on stage previously) within the limitations of the time to explore a very complex individual[].

The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone
River Song returns to the life of the Doctor as do the Weeping Angels... and Amy is in danger of turning to stone.

The first story filmed for the season, this has a superb opening episode, but things suffer a little in the second half; this is still a  This one was particularly notable for a rather unwelcome appearance of Graham Norton during the dramatic cliffhanger to episode one[4] and for Game of Thrones fans, Iain Glen is in it.

The Vampires of Venice
After Amy tries to make out with the Doctor, he decides to take her and her fiancé to Venice in 1580 to resolve the issue. Things don't go to plan as they have to deal with some alien vampires that look like attractive young women.

Filmed in Croatia (the real Venice is of course a very busy city), this is an above average episode with a number of good bits - including the Doctor's gate crashing of a stag do for his own father in law and whipping out a photo ID featuring the first Doctor.

Shaggy to her Daphne - Rory Williams

Joining the TARDIS crew proper at this point is Amy's fiancé and later husband, Rory Williams. The fact that the Doctor can merrily call him "Pond" made it rather clear of his views as to who (metaphorically) dominated that relationship - Rory was initially timid, less assertive but as a nurse, highly compassionate and caring. He is also known for having so many death or near-death experiences that people started to compare him to Dr Daniel Jackson in Stargate SG-1.

Arthur Darvill (1982-) was a relative newcomer at this point, making his TV debut in He Kills Coppers and seven episodes of an adaptation of Little Dorrit that also featured Freema Agyeman, also writing a soul/funk musical called Been So Long for the 2009 Edinburgh Festival. Since his casting as Rory, he has appeared in a production of Doctor Faustus and in 2013 was a vicar in hit drama Broadchurch.

Amy's Choice
It's five years since Amy travelled with the Doctor and she is expecting her first child with Rory. When the Doctor shows up, however, she starts to question what is real.

A well-crafted and highly thoughtful episode guest starring Toby Jones as the sinister Dream Lord, this firmly establishes the Amy/Rory relationship and includes one of my favourite lines of this era (the one about the ponchos). This is also one clearly made with an eye on the budget (as is common in any sci-fi show - you have a few cheap ones to save money for the bigger stuff); it has a guest cast of precisely four and makes extensive use of the standing TARDIS set.
The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (2nd episode 50 minutes)
They aimed for Rio (even if Amy is a bit overdressed even for that)... but ended up in Wales in 2020. In the small village of Cwmtaff, a drilling project is causing people to disappear - and has awoken some ancient Terran residents.

Not one of my personal favourites, the return of the Silurians (heavily redesigned) after a 25 year absence from the show was written by Chris Chibnall, who had gained a degree of unpopularity among fans for some of his work on Torchwood as head writer, but this isn't that bad, even if it retreads some familiar ground. The final bit, where something particularly unpleasant happens to Rory, was a major surprise and is the best bit of this two-parter.

This story had to under go major changes in development due to lack of money to realise all its ideas (and in one case, being deemed too adult) - and in editing due to badly overrunning; it still needed to have a 50-minute slot for "Cold Blood".

Vincent and the Doctor (50 minutes)
When the Doctor sees a creepy face in a Vincent van Gogh painting he sees in a Paris museum, there's only one thing to do... go to 1890 to find out what is and meet the troubled artist himself.

A brilliant episode, funny and deeply moving in turn - it does not attempt to soften the mental health problems the artist suffered; indeed they are a big part of the plot (a helpline number was listed at the end on the UK transmission, as is common with BBC dramas that explore these sorts of issues). While Richard Curtis is best known for his comedy writing, this character based tale is much more than that - indeed, it was nominated for the Hugo. One also has to credit Bill Nighy who declined a credit for his appearance as Dr Black.

The Lodger
When the TARDIS is prevented from landing, the Doctor must face his most difficult test to date - passing himself off as an ordinary human lodger.

A loose adaptation of a story from Doctor Who Magazine's long-running comic strip (although that one featured Ten and the established character Mickey) guest starring well known comic actor James Corden[5], this Amy-lite tale has some pretty good moments in and some good comedy on Matt Smith's part, but there are better stories in this run. It also contains the possible first appearance of the Silents.

The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (50 minute first episode, 55 minute second episode)
A message transmitted through history brings the Doctor and Amy to Stonehenge in 102 AD, where River Song and a big trap are waiting... the very universe's existence is in peril.

A tale so timey-wimey that actually needs a diagram (Warning, spoilers) to fully understand, this epic season finale has a lot of very good moments, including the Doctor's speech at Stonehenge as well as the short-lived début of the famous fez.

Steven Moffat collected his fourth and so far last Hugo award for this - the following year it went to Neil Gaiman for "The Doctor's Wife" and 2013 saw all three Moffat nominees lose out to the Game of Thrones episode "Blackwater" - I would not be surprised if Doctor Who won in 2014 for something from the anniversary year, but Game of Thrones will have a shot for "The Rains of Castermere"[6].

The average ratings for this run (which did not of course include a Christmas special) fell to 7.2 million; only "The Eleventh Hour" cleared 10 million. However, these figures did not include iPlayer views, which generally cleared a million and a half for each episode[7]. In addition, this season, which was extensively promoted in the US - resulting in Moffat, Smith and Gillan getting an unplanned extension to their holiday when Eyjafjallajökull erupted and shut down European airspace for a week - got record ratings on BBC America and with references later turning up in various other US shows, such as Criminal Minds and Castle, it was clear that the good Doctor had finally broken into the US.

During the course of this run, a British general election took place. The Labour government of Gordon Brown was roundly defeated after the worst global recession since the 1930s... but the Conservatives under David Cameron failed to gain an overall majority after a strong performance in the first televised election debates in the UK by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg[8]. After a few days, a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition formed, which remains in power at present albeit with a good few tensions. The key result of this for the BBC was a freeze in the licence fee... which meant a real term cut in its budget over the next few years.

The corporation would have to cut services and programming budgets... and Doctor Who would not be immune.

[1]This would later be slightly modified to incorporate the BBC logo at the bottom; the BBC requires this to appear somewhere in the beginning of the programme and this allows to do so without being distracting.
[2]The 'fish fingers' were actually coconut cakes... but this didn't stop fans from trying out the recipe themselves.
[3]A long-time sufferer of depression, an accomplished artist, an opponent of Indian Home Rule (the reason he ended up in the political wilderness in the 1930s) in the first place and someone who could be thunderously rude... he reads like someone with Asperger's syndrome, but I'm no mental health professional. Whatever your view of him, he was certainly of huge influence.
[4]By no means his first appearance; an audio bleed from Strictly Dance Fever popped up in the first couple of minutes of the transmission of "Rose".
[5]Best known for Gavin & Stacey (which featured Sheridan Smith aka audio companion Lucie Miller), but also the comedy-thriller The Wrong Mans and more notoriously, the comedy horror Lesbian Vampire Killers.
[6]That is, the one with "The Red Wedding" in.
[7]Getting accurate iPlayer stats is difficult; unlike the official BARB ratings, it is difficult to identify re-watches and viewings by multiple people from the same screen. In addition, as the episodes appear on iPlayer every time they get repeated on BBC3, the opportunity for further growth is considerable.
[8]Not for want of trying... various challenges had been made previously, but one or other leader had sufficient political reason to say no i.e. they were too far ahead.

09 February 2014

Saga Master System (Grand Review: 'The Bridge' Season 2)

BBC4's airing of foreign shows has been a huge success for them - although The Killing and Borgen have now both concluded their runs in Denmark, they've been able to find worthy successors both in the Nordic lands and elsewhere. After this series, they'll be airing VRT's Salamander; the first Belgian show I've seen - it will be getting a review - and also have the Israeli version of Hostages lined up.

So, having watched the not-quite-as good-but-still-good Anglo-French remake of this, it's now time to head back to the Øresund region to hang around with a woman who wears leather trousers and thinks it is appropriate to compare the size of her boyfriend's pleasure equipment to that of a dead gigolo.

Yep, Saga Norén (Länskrim Malmö) is back and being as unofficially Asperger's as ever.

This review contains some spoilers

It's been 13 months since the events of the first season; these had a particularly devastating impact on Martin, who has had his marriage break up as a result. He's now on a desk job, helping with security for an upcoming EU climate summit (yes, this is very relevant to the plot). Then a cargo ship carrying five people crashes into the bridge; they've been infected with pneumonic plague (the deadlier version of bubonic... but you can stop it with antibiotics as it's a bacterial disease) and he teams up with Saga as the Malmö police investigate a string of attacks by a group of eco-terrorists who wear animal masks in their videos. In answer to the question recently posed by some Norwegians... the fox says nothing, he just holds cue cards like the other three.

Martin, who seems to have attracted a bit of a female following, is visibly tense at the beginning of this - he pulls a gun on some teenagers who are demanding parking charges for an abandoned warehouse (I suppose he wouldn't be alone in doing that). A loveable character who is definitely softened by his interactions with Saga, he comes close to recovering his family situation... but in the end does something (possibly) very rash to the incarcerated Truth Terrorist. Possibly. I would personally not be surprised if Kim Bodnia ends up appearing, like a number of other actors from DR shows, in an English-language show before too long.

Saga (or as the Danes pronounce her name, Sega) is wonderful in this. She gets a boyfriend in this and her attempts to handle a relationship provide a considerable amount of occasionally cringeworthy humour. Yet, she is far more than a comedy character; we learn more about her background including the death of her sister and she is genuinely trying to fit in a world that she doesn't understand. Sofia Helin's confused look is one of the best things in this show and my comments about Kim Bodnia equally apply to her. Her relationship with Martin has strong chemistry without taking us into the "will they or won't they" area.

The plot of this is another typically Scandi one; full of twists and side plots that may or may not have some resemblance to the overall story. The big one involves a group of people connected with the climate conference and a big pharma company called Medisonus; this also allows Borgen-spotters to notch one up, as a character in this appeared as an Environment Minister. In fact, here he's caught in an embarrassing position with an environment minister... Saga's "Oh" as she realises why one guy is naked and the other is in boxers is a great moment made better by the fact we immediately cut to another scene. The writer makes the interesting and effective decision to kill off the animal mask wearers in episode four - they're merely henchman for a bigger (and creepier) bad guy. I will admit, however, to being frequently confused as to what country we were in.

The guest characters in this are certainly interesting - the Medisonus CEO is a terminally ill woman who is ticking off a few things on her bucket list, including killing her own food... by going into a farm and shooting a hen in a cage. I think that's called poaching. The Länskrim Malmö team (most of this is set in Malmö) are a mixed bunch and by no means paragons of virtue - one character ends up being kicked off the case for faking a report to hide his own incompetence. The last was a bit unconvincing - wouldn't he have been suspended?

The story seems to have wrapped up as we approach the the end of episode 9... until Saga realises there is another killer. What I thought initially was a bit of a padding move turned out to be a far better conclusion than what we would have otherwise got; the final scenes seem to cause a major problem for the Martin-Saga relationship... but I think it will be sorted out. Eventually.

Further thoughts; BBC4 seemed to be pretty inconsistent between a version of the credits in English and between those Danish/Swedish, the theme tune remains great and I see that ZDF (who have their fingers in a lot of foreign TV pie) part funded this. Also, Swedish police hats are awesome.


Another high quality series from Scandinavia that doesn't dip in its second run. I'd say roll The Bridge III, but it appears that we won't get this until later in 2015.

In the meantime, great work. Skol!


03 February 2014

Tube strikes

The RMT and TSSA have called two 48-hour Tube strikes in protest over staff cuts and closing all the station ticket offices.

While a strike is going to be highly inconvenient for a lot of people (myself included), the rhetoric from TfL needs further scrutiny:

Despite two poorly-supported ballots for industrial action, which saw only around 30 per cent of RMT and TSSA members balloted voting for strike action, and around 70 per cent either not voting or voting no, the union leaderships have nonetheless instructed their members to carry out four days of strike action in February. 

The turnout was about 40% - higher than the last Mayoral election... and only about 24% of all Londoners voted for Boris even when second preferences are added in!

  • Every Tube station will be visibly staffed and controlled by LU staff during operating hours;
  • There will be a job for everyone who wants to continue to be part of our organisation and who is ready to be flexible;
  • Any operational changes will be done without compulsory redundancies where we can collaborate to make change happen.
 However, will there be less staff at each station? What if people can't be "flexible" for whatever reason? They've mentioned no compulsory redundancies, but there will almost certainly be voluntary ones.

"All Tube stations will remain staffed and controlled at all times when services are operating, and we'll be introducing a 24-hour service at weekends during 2015."

There will be job cuts on the Tube... and they want to run more trains with less people?

"In future, there will be more staff in ticket halls and on platforms to help customers buy the right ticket, plan their journeys and to keep them safe and secure."

One hopes that the staff will be able to be safe and secure, especially late on Saturday nights.

The trend of ticket sales away from ticket offices has surged over recent years and today less than three per cent of all Tube journeys involve a visit to a ticket office. 

That's true - but less than 3% is still a noticeable proportion. Less than 3% of school pupils need Special Education Needs staff and no-one is proposing to get rid of those.

I don't like Bob Crow (it's worth remembering Labour ended their affiliation with the RMT in 2004), but Boris Johnson isn't much better.