Sunday, August 31, 2014

Review: Deep Breath

Spoilers ahead. You have been warned.

Deep Breath, the first episode of series 8 of new Doctor Who, starts off with a bad case of Did Not Do The Research by writer Steven Moffat. The story begins in Victorian London, with a ludicrously big Tyrannosaurus Rex having been accidentally transported there after getting the TARDIS caught in its throat like some sort of time-travelling toffee. This ridiculously large dinosaur is shown close to the height of Big Ben, or 315 feet (nearly 16 stories). In reality, T Rex was large, but not anywhere near that size: 13 feet tall, not that much bigger than the TARDIS itself.

The opening credits have been reworked. Gone is the wormhole through space, in its place we now have clockwork gears and a spiral marked with Latin numerals like the face of an old-fashioned clock, rather suggestive of H.G. Wells' Time Machine. I thought that the look of it was quite good, although I haven't made up my mind about the theme music. If this is an indication that the Doctor is going to return to his old-fashioned Hartnell-esque roots (only, you know, better), I look forward to it. Unfortunately there is no sign of it in this episode. The newly-regenerated Doctor, played by the talented Peter Capaldi, spends most of the episode behaving erratically. He's unsure of who or what he is, uncertain why he has the face he has, and confused beyond measure. Even when he recovers he's not quite the Doctor. He's just some guy. Although he does have possibly the best line in the show:

It's spreading! You all sound all...English. No, you've all developed a fault!"

I'm not familiar with Capaldi as an actor, but Mrs Impala has followed his work for many years and thinks very highly of him, which made this performance all the more disappointing. She tells me that this is the first time that a new Doctor has failed to "sell" the role in the opening episode, and considering what the BBC made Colin Baker do, that's saying something. I have to say I agree: whoever Capaldi was playing in Deep Breath, we haven't yet seen him play the Doctor.

It's always fun to watch the Paternoster Gang, Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, and Strax, and it would be awesome if they got their own spin-off. Strax in particular is always good for a few laughs, although I really hope that the writers don't continue to make him nothing but a buffoon. He is, after all, a Sontaran officer, smart, strong and dedicated, and if he's acting like a clown it's almost certainly to lull his foes (i.e. everyone who isn't a Sontaran) into a sense of false security.

Despite the impressive visuals of the opening, the T-Rex plays no real part in the story, existing only to show off Team Who's rather large budget for special effects. There are a few wise-cracks about the dinosaur, and a complete failure to consider what a cranky and hungry tyrannosaur is likely to do in the middle of London (all you can eat buffet comes to mind). There's a brief interlude where the Doctor (who apparently "talks dinosaur") makes a moving translation of the Rex's roars, and for all of five seconds I can almost believe the T Rex is a sentient being. And then it spontaneously combusts, thus neatly providing the hook for the Doctor to begin investigation and solve the problem of what to do with such an unfeasibly large carnivore. Ultimately, the Rex was nothing more than ridiculously implausible and unnecessary plot device.

The main plot of the episode was a weak re-hash of The Girl In The Fireplace, right down to the Doctor rushing off on horseback (although not by crashing through a mirror). Clockwork robots seeking to return to "the Promised Land" rebuild themselves with human body parts. The Girl In The Fireplace was charming and beautifully made, but in Deep Breath Moffat displays one of his major weaknesses: returning to the well after it's dry. He has a real talent for ideas which drip style and imagination, but don't stand up to a second look (e.g. the Weeping Angels), and then returning to them for a second or third look. And so it is here: clockwork robots stealing body parts are cool once but the concept is not strong enough to survive a second look. We're expected to believe that these robots have the knowledge and dexterity to somehow plug human body parts into their clockwork mechanisms and keep them alive and working indefinitely, but that they aren't able to make replacement gears. Oh rly?

There were a few genuinely suspenseful moments, like the restaurant scene, but I felt that the rest of the episode fell flat. The fight scene between the Paternosta Gang was disappointing, Vastra and Jenny seemed stilted and clumsy, as if they hadn't rehearsed their action scenes. The Doctor makes a big production over the "axe of my grandfather" paradox, insisting that it is not the same axe (or in this case, broom). I hope that Moffat intended it as an ironic counterpoint to the episode's theme that this is still the same old Doctor even though he no longer looks like, acts like, or sounds like the previous Doctor, but the cynic in me fears that the writing team simply failed to notice that the Doctor's remarks apply to himself. Or, for that matter, everybody else.

And then we come to the epilogue. In it, we are introduced to "Missy", a mysterious and obnoxiously saccharine Mary Poppins like character. Missy claims to be in heaven, and describes the Doctor as her boyfriend. Presumably she will be the Big Bad antagonist of the series, or at least the red herring to distract us while Moffat sneaks in a completely different Big Bad. Some fans have speculated that Missy is short for Mistress, and she is a new, female, regeneration of the Master. I fear that she will turn out to be some sort of lame-duck character like the Celestial Toymaker or the Master of the Land Of Fiction. Either way, it gives a dark hint that the series 8 story arc is going to be even more cringe-worthy than the "silence will fall" arc turned out to be. I hope to be proven wrong, but the epilogue feels like fan-fic of the worst kind. Overall, despite a few good moments, I think the episode was a failure, and can only give it a single star.

Deep Breath, series 8 episode 1:

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Review: Players

I was late to discover Doctor Who: there was no hiding behind the sofa at age 10 for me, I didn't even know Doctor Who existed until I was 14 or so, but once I did, for the next three or four years I devoured all the novelisations I could get my hands on. I remember coming home from the library with my schoolbag jam-packed with as many books as the library would allow me to check out at one time, eight or ten I think, and given that they were hard covers my bag was overflowing. A few years ago, I tried re-reading a few of my favourites, and found them almost unreadably bad. I also borrowed a more recent Expanded Universe novel from a friend, and simply couldn't get into it. So two weeks ago when Mrs Impala spotted Players by Terrance Dicks at the local library and suggested we borrow it, my expectations weren't terribly high. I'm very glad to say that the novel blew those low expectations away.

Players is a Sixth Doctor Expanded Universe novel first published in 1999. In 2013, it was re-published as one of the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Collection, and it's the first full Doctor Who story I've read since those glory days in my teens. Back in the 1980s, my interest in Doctor Who was already tottering on a knife edge due to the ridiculous stories and obnoxious personality of the early sixth Doctor, and then killed dead by the mess that was The Trial Of A Time Lord. But after seeing Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and the delightfully tipsy Katy Manning (Jo Grant) reminisce live on stage about their time on Doctor Who, I've been a fan of Baker. Both he and McCoy are consummate showmen and raconteurs, and it broke my heart to think of what they could have done as the Doctor had the BBC given them some quality material to work with, instead of childishly bad rubbish. It was a true pleasure to see Dicks take the sixth Doctor out of the ridiculous clown suit and give him some dignity, and Players demonstrates that Dicks can actually write well when he is freed from the shackles of the TV novelisations.

The novel tells of the Doctor meeting Winston Churchill and saving him from an assassination attempt. Not the Churchill of "blood, toil, tears and sweat", but his younger self, during the Boer War. We briefly revisit Patrick Troughton's Doctor, post The War Games, shows us another side of King Edward (Dave to his friends) and Mrs Simpson, and introduces a mysterious group of ageless, jaded time travellers calling themselves "the Players", who meddle in human history as part of some great game. In the latest round of their never-ending Game, the Players have decided to see what will happen with Churchill dead and a pro-Nazi king on the British throne. Players is not great literature, but it is well-written, with Dicks doing justice to both the Sixth Doctor and Peri. He captures their voices perfectly, although the Second Doctor perhaps not quite as well. The characters are engaging, the story interesting, and the villains are believable (if not quite chilling). I don't hesitate to recommend Players and give it a solid, workman-like three stars.

Players by Terrence Dicks:

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Unforgiveable sins

What's the worst thing a person can do? The utterly worst, most despicable, abominable, loathsome, unforgiveable thing? Murder? Rape? Raping a baby? Genocide? Torturing an innocent to death, slowly, over many days?

How about swearing an oath in the name of something or someone other than god?

In Islam, the only unforgiveable sins are "kufr" (disbelief) and "shirk" (ascribing a partner to Allah). Disbelief is obvious: you better believe or you're in trouble. (One wonders why a supposedly all-powerful deity who created the entire universe cares so much about being worshipped by beings who are like ants compared to him.) Shirk is a little more complicated: it encompasses a variety of sins, such as the belief that some other being is an equal or a peer of Allah. There is major shirk, such heinous sins like making fun of religion, belief in other gods, loving anyone as much as you love Allah, or creating laws that take priority over Allah's laws.

There is also minor shirk, such as superstition, or swearing an oath in the name of something other than Allah (although Allah himself is permitted to do such a thing, since he makes the rules and the rules don't apply to him). Unlike major shirk, minor shirk alone doesn't quite put the transgressor beyond the pale, but it's a near thing. It is a major sin to swear a false oath by Allah, a terrible sin, but it is worse by far to swear an honest oath by something else.

This tells us the priorities of the (supposed) all-good, all-loving, all-knowing god (or rather, the priorities of the people who made this stuff up): you can spend a lifetime stealing, murdering, raping little babies and torturing people to death, polluting the world, ruining the lives of all those around you, and still be forgiven. You can be a totally immoral, lying, cheating, despicable monster, and still be forgiven. You can be a blight on the lives of everyone around you, and still be forgiven. But entertain the merest thought that god has a rival or peer? Unforgiveable.

Christians should not feel too superior here. Have you read your Ten Commandments? They too make it obvious that the number one ethical principle of god is the jealous insistence on being worshipped.

Numbering the so-called Ten Commandments is not simple: they are listed three times in the Bible, twice in Exodus and once in Deuteronomy, where they are worded differently, unnumbered, and in no simple or obvious set of ten. Consequently, the major religious groups disagree on what the Ten actually are: Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish and Samaritan sects do not agree on either the wording, numbering or even what the Commandments are. One Mormon sect, the Strangites, includes as one of the Ten something which no other group includes: Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbour As Thyself. The second set from Exodus 34 are especially problematic: although they are stated by god to be the same words as those written on the stone tablets smashed by Moses, they are radically, and obviously, different.

But however you divide them, it is clear that a high priority is not good, ethical behaviour, but protecting Yahwah's monopoly on worship. There is no prohibition on rape, the molestation of children, torture, or despoiling the earth, and especially not genocide (beloved by the god of the Old Testament -- god warns the Israelites that if they aren't successful in his ordered genocide of the Caananites, he will change sides and do to them what he was originally planning to do to the Caananites). There's no nothing about respecting human dignity, justice or mercy, or prohibiting slavery. (There is a minority view among some biblical scholars that Thou Shalt Not Steal refers not to mere theft of property, but to theft of people, that is kidnapping and slavery, but that seems unlikely given that the Israelites were enthusiastic slave holders.) Except for the Strangite Mormon addition, there's nothing even close to the Golden Rule of ethical behaviour, to treat others as you would hope to be treated in their shoes.

Depending on how you count them, Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 might contain as few as 3 out of 10 or as many as 5 out of 11 commandments about protecting Yahweh's monopoly: Thou shalt have no other gods before me, remembering the sabbath, and variations on the same theme. Exodus 34 is even more extreme: all of the commandments relate to worshipping Yahweh, making sacrifices to Yahweh, keeping the sabbath, avoiding worshipping other gods, and then right at the end, almost like an afterthought, a strange comment about not cooking lambs in the milk of their mother. And these are supposed to be the great moral and ethical principles that Christianity rests on.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What have the mining companies done for us?

There's a wonderful scene in Monty Python's "The Life Of Brian" where Reg, the leader of the People's Front of Judea (not to be confused with the Judean People's Front) asks "What have the Romans ever done for us?". To his annoyance, his fellow rebels answer, eventually leading to Reg having to reword his rhetorical question:

All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

What makes this even more brilliant is that the benefits of Roman civilization on conquored people have very likely been enormously exaggerated. Ex-Python Terry Jones' book (and television series) Barbarians makes a very strong case that, whatever benefits Roman conquest had (if any!), they were enormously outweighed by the harm done. The Romans were not benevolent conquorers bringing civilization to the benighted savages, they were rapacious looters who drained the wealth from half of Europe and the Middle East and left the conquered people vastly poorer.

Which brings us to Australia in the 21st century. In the same way that the conventional story of Europe is that the Romans brought civilization to the barbarians, Australia's conventional story is that in the late 20th and early 21st century (that is, right now) the mining boom brought wealth and prosperity to our land. But, like the story of Rome's civilizing influence, the story starts to fall apart when you look a little more closely at it. Australia's mining boom has come with enormous costs, not just environmental and political but economic as well, and the wealth generated has mostly gone to a relatively small number of people.

Compared to the resource curse suffered by many developing nations, Australia has escaped relatively unscathed. We don't have warlords and private armies fighting for control over our gold and coal mines. But our all-but-unshakable belief that we are The Lucky Country blessed with natural resources, together with our cultural cringe that nothing we do is as good as what the Pommy Bastards and Damn Yanks can do (even though we're the best bloody country on earth bar none), has made us complacent. With a tiny handful of exceptions, the national character is not just uninnovative but anti-innovation. We give lip-service to loving our inventors and innovators, but except for medical research we just don't want to know. We celebrate the Aussie inventor who builds a better mousetrap, but won't buy it until it's been sold to the Americans for a fraction of what it's worth, then sold back to us at an enormous profit margin.

We have the scientific know-how and the popular support to lead the world in green energy. If Germany can now generate fifty percent of its peak daytime electrical power from solar and wind, we could surely be doing eighty or ninety percent without even raising a sweat. But we lack the political will. Of our two main political parties, the nominally left-wing (but actually middle-of-the-road centre) ALP is lukewarm about green energy, while the right-wing (and getting more extreme every day) Liberal Party is now actively hostile to it. It's not hard to see why: mining companies are big, big supporters of the Libs. Since 2007, for every dollar the mining companies have given the ALP, they have given $25.75 to the Liberals. No wonder Joe "poor people don't drive cars" Hockey thinks that wind power is utterly offensive. In Queensland, Australia's "Deep North", the even more right-wing National Party are trying desperately to destroy the solar power industry because it is too effective.

So what have the mining companies done for Australia? Apart from making us complacent and corrupting our political process?

  • Not jobs. Mining provides about 1% of Australia's jobs, compared to about 9% employed by the manufacturing sector.
  • They're quick to shed jobs too. If the rest of the country sacked people as quickly as the mining companies did, our unemployment rate would have reached 19.5% during the global financial crisis instead of 5.9%.
  • Not taxes either. Despite record profits, they pay only around 2/3rds the tax rate of other companies: the average company tax rate in Australia is 21% but the mining companies pay only 14%.
  • Not only don't they pay their fair share of taxes, they're quick to demand handouts. Despite all their profits, they receive $500 million in direct subsidies each year, plus another $4000 million in indirect subsidies, freebies, discounts and other handouts.
  • The diesel fuel subsidy alone costs every Australian (at least those who paid taxes) $87 a year.
  • They're not Aussie miners either. 83% of Australia's mining industry is foreign owned, which means that up to 83% of the profits are going overseas.
  • Let's not forget the environmental destruction caused by mining.

All right, but apart from the pollution, the corruption, the lies, the destroyed industries, the sense of entitlement, and the lost opportunities, what have the miners ever done for us?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Forty years ago

Forty years ago today, the Apollo 11 Luna Lander touched down on the surface of the Moon. NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first two people to walk on another astronomical body.

View of the Earth from the Moon

We could do this forty years ago. Today, would we have the passion or the technology?