Daily Archives: Sunday, 27th February 2011

A common complaint…

Anyone who grew up reading sf, seeing all the usual movies and TV shows, and maybe reading serious stuff like Arthur C Clarke’s Profiles of the Future[1], will more than likely have developed certain expectations about future technology. Like this guy:

Living in the future

Living in the future

Assuming you’ve clicked through[2] to see the whole thing in its native environment, you’ll have seen that he’s soon put right on that…

But, as often happens with xkcd, it does raise some interesting thoughts – most predictions of the future tend to assume that it’ll be like now, only more so[3]. This isn’t surprising, because predicting technological and social changes is pretty much a matter of guesswork.

But here we are, living in the future as Wil Wheaton likes to say[6], and we got most of it wrong.

[1] I’ve still got that somewhere. I think. Possibly in a box.
[2] Or already seen it anyway
[3] Like the alleged[4] nineteenth century projection that if London traffic continued to increase, then by the mid-twentieth century, the city would be knee-deep[5] in horse manure. This was a perfectly reasonable prediction based on known technology.
[4] I haven’t looked it up, so it may be one of those things that gets repeated a lot, but doesn’t have a genuine source
[5] Or thereabouts
[6] Not to be confused with Evil Wil Wheaton, who appears on Big Bang Theory. He mostly likes to say things that make Sheldon cry.

Doctor Who – The Caves of Androzani


This is the final DVD from that Revisitations set, and like the last one I mentioned, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, it was written by the excellent Robert Holmes. There may be other similarities, which I’ll come to…

This is a four-part story, starring Peter Davison in his last regular appearance as the Doctor, and Nicola Bryant as new companion Peri. It was first shown in March 1984, and has the reputation of being one of the best Doctor Who stories ever, including those from the revived series.

The Doctor and Peri become involved in a serious mess between a military force and androids made by Sharaz Jek, a masked madman (or so we’re told) living in some caverns[1]. The cause of the trouble is spectrox, a drug whose supply is controlled by Jek, and which is in great demand given its property of greatly extending human life. With the military trying to execute them, both of them poisoned by the quite lethal raw form of spectrox, Jek drooling over Peri in a blatant Phantom of the Opera tribute and a suitably evil business leader on the main planet, things are complicated and nasty…

And talking of nasty, this is one of those stories where pretty much everyone dies. The Doctor takes an enormous risk to get the antidote for the poison that’s slowly killing both Peri and him, but only has enough for one dose, and so he sacrifices himself to save someone he’s only just met, before regenerating into someone quite different. But that’s a different story altogether.

I’ve skated over the actual story here, because it’s one of those you actually need to see to make sense of – any summary wouldn’t do it justice, and I’d hate to do that. It is indeed seriously good, and provides a fitting send-off to the Fifth Doctor.

Once again, there’s a good selection of special features:

  • Behind the Scenes – the Regeneration Nice bit of in the studio stuff showing the recording of the regeneration, with a commentary from Peter Davison, Nicola Bryant and director Graeme Harper, which is good fun
  • Behind the Scenes – Creating Sharaz Jek Examining the motivations of Jek, who’s less of a villain and more of a victim than he appears. Includes audio recordings of Christopher Gable talking about playing Jek, and images from the recording.
  • Extended Scenes – Minor things, as always, but one does have a narration from Graeme Harper
  • News Reports – TV clips from when Peter Davison announced he was leaving the series
  • Chain Reaction – A very detailed look back at making the story, featuring Peter Davison, Nicola Bryant, Graeme Harper and many more.
  • Directing Who – Then and Now The only person to have directed both “classic” and “new” Who, Graeme Harper talks about how techniques have changed. Good stuff, he should write a book on it. Oh, wait – he did!
  • Russell Harty – A March 1984 clip with Peter Davison and Colin Baker talking about changing Doctors

So that’s another good selection. There’s another Revisitations box coming later in the year. I’ll try to witter about that one a little more promptly.

[1] Watching this after Weng-Chiang made the connection a wee bit obvious

Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng-Chiang


Now this one had, for some reason or other, been sitting on my “to watch” pile for ages – it was one of the three stories in the Revisitations Box Set 1 that I mentioned in October last year, and like Doctor Who – The Movie, it’s a new version of a previously released classic story, with a pile of extra features. And this is classic classic Doctor Who at its finest.

This six-part story was first shown between February and April 1977, and starts Tom Baker as the Doctor, and Louise Jameson as Leela, but you probably knew that already. The Doctor decides that it’s time to try to civilise Leela a bit, and takes her to Victorian England. And in a refreshing change, both of the travellers dress for the location – Leela in moderately respectable clothing, and the Doctor in an only slightly exaggerated version of the outfit that people think Sherlock Holmes wore (cape, deerstalker, that kind of thing).

Bad Things are happening. Young women are disappearing, and people worry that Jack the Ripper may be back at work. And in a quite deliberate nod towards the Fu Manchu books and movies, the centre of the trouble seems to be a very suspicious Chinese stage magician, Li H’sen Chang[1], who’s got some great tricks and a seriously strange ventriloquist’s dummy.

But that would be far too simple. Li H’sen Chang is merely the servant of the real villain of the piece, a masked man in the sewers[2] who claims to be a Chinese god called Weng-Chiang. As it turns out, he’s actually Magnus Griel, a war criminal from the 51st century[3], who’s keeping himself alive by extracting life energy (or some such thing) from young women’s bodies, with generally fatal results. And he’s got some giant rats in the sewers. And that dummy turns out to be an artificial life form with homicidal tendencies.

Weaving in and out of the story are a couple of excellent guest characters – theatrical promoter Henry Gordon Jago and accidental holder of the Time Cabinet that Griel needs, Professor Litefoot. Separately, they’re beautifully realised characters. Together, they’re a sublime double-act of the kind writer Robert Holmes often created[4]. Indeed, they’ve been brought back for a series of original audio plays in the last year or two.

There’s a lot of fun all round, Tom being quite superb, Leela making it quite clear that while she’s not educated, she is still very intelligent, lots of foggy late Victorian atmosphere, and some nice scenery chewing from Michael Spice as Weng-Chiang/Greel, who gets very upset when Leela rips his mask off to reveal his horribly distorted face[5], which was an unfortunate side-effect of his journey through time.

OK, so what we have is as near perfect an example of classic Doctor Who as you’re going to get, but there’s more, much more. There are two DVDs of extras this time, and there are some Good Things to enjoy, quite apart from all the usual bits. First, there’s the DVD that was included with the original release:

  • Whose Doctor Who – A 1977 documentary, presented by Melvyn Bragg, and including some behind the scenes stuff on this story. Interesting stuff, well worth watching
  • Blue Peter Theatre – Seriously, that’s enough bits of Blue Peter for a while. In this series of clips, the presenters make a puppet theatre and add Doctor Who creatures to it. Apparently you can cut out a picture of the Doctor from Radio Times and colour it in…
  • Behind the Scenes – raw video footage of the recording of some bits. Historical interest only, and a wee bit dull..
  • Philip Hinchcliffe Interview – the producer at the time is interviewed on the BBC lunchtime show Pebble Mill at One, with the inevitable bit about the perceived level of violence in the show. Err, Doctor Who, that is, not Pebble Mill.
  • Tardis-Cam No 6 – one of a series of badly dated bits of animation made for the BBC website in 2003
  • Photo Gallery
  • Easter Egg – Press something or other in the right order, and you can see a version of the opening titles…

And that was the state of extras back in 2003. All archive material, nothing specially made for the DVD. So what’s on the new, additional disc, then? Lots:

  • The Last Hurrah - Producer Philip Hinchcliffe pays a visit to Tom Baker for a chat about this, the last story Philip worked on. As with anything involving Tom, it’s a lot of fun, with further contributions from Louise Jameson, Trevor Baxter (Litefoot), Christopher Benjamin (Jago) and others. Nicely entertaining.
  • Moving on – About what Philip Hinchcliffe might have done if he hadn’t been taken off Doctor Who and moved to another show
  • The Foe From the Future – Originally, this slot was going to be filled by a story written by Robert Banks Stewart, which would have been very different from the one Robert Holmes was drafted in to write after Stewart had to drop out. Find out about it here.
  • Now and Then – One of the always worthwhile looks at how locations have changed
  • Look East – the theatre scenes used the Northampton Repertory Theatre, which at the time had most of its original Victorian bits and bobs intact. This is a local news item about the location shooting, with a Tom Baker interview for added fun
  • Victoriana and Chinoiserie – Philip Hinchcliffe and Anne Witchard of the University of Westminster talk about the literary roots of The Talons of Weng-Chiang
  • Music Hall - the past, and quite remarkably, the present of music hall are examined.
  • Limehouse – A Victorian Chinatown – A fascinating documentary on the reality and myths surrounding the area of London involved in the story. Matthew Sweet, who’s been on a few extras lately, is our guide, with other expert contributions.

Now that’s a lot of extras. Quite excellent.

[1] A prime example of a white actor in make up that was mentioned in the Race Against Time documentary on The Mutants. Times have changed…
[2] Remember that. You might see something similar soon…
[3] Continuity nod: that’s where when Captain Jack came from. And reference is made to “time agents”.
[4] Though apparently he didn’t realise he was doing it
[5] Which is oddly like another masked character in a Robert Holmes story which I may mention later

Doctor Who – The Mutants


And so the catching up continues, with this six-parter from April/May 1972, with Jon Pertwee as the Doctor, and Katy Manning as Jo Grant. Despite having officially exiled the Doctor to Earth, from time to time the Time Lords liked to send him on missions, and this is one of those. The Doctor’s job is to deliver a message sphere to somebody. They don’t give him any hints, of course. That would be too easy. Instead, they direct the TARDIS to a planet which Earth “colonised”[1] centuries earlier. Earth’s government has decided that it can no longer afford to run an empire, so the Solonians are going to be given their independence. The local military leader isn’t keen on this, which leads to lots of brutality, a wee bit of assassination, and all manner of trouble.

The big bit of trouble is that some of the locals are beginning to mutate into a strange new form – all claws and exoskeleton.

Then there’s a scientist hiding in the caverns, who claims to know more about what’s going on.

And there’s the recipient of the message from the Time Lords.

And finally, the realisation that the planet’s very long orbit means it has very long seasons, and some very interesting life cycles…

Yes, it all gets sorted out, the nasty military leader gets zapped, and the Doctor and Jo are taken back to Earth…

The whole thing is a clear commentary on the Apartheid policy of the then government of South Africa (lots of stuff about the natives not being capable of looking after themselves, segregation on the orbiting space station, you know the kind of thing), which adds a certain something, but I’m not sure what…

Anyway, on to the special features. Apart from the usual, etc, etc, there is:

  • Mutt Mad – one of the usual cast and crew looking back on the production thingies
  • Race Against Time – Noel Clarke, who you will remember as Mickey in the 21st century version of the show, narrates a documentary on the lack of non-white actors in Doctor Who in particular, and British TV in general. Lots of talking heads, and old clips of quite evidently white actors being made up to look distinctly non-white, with varying degrees of believability. Good, thought-provoking work.
  • Dressing Doctor Who – In the early 1970s, James Acheson was a costume designer for the BBC. These days, he’s an Oscar-winning costume designer for movies. And he’s a lot of fun, with lots of stories and a lot of laughs.
  • A slightly naff bit from Blue Peter – A quick clip of Peter Purves looking at some monsters which were about to be put in an exhibition. Could easily have been omitted…

[1] Invaded

Doctor Who – The Ark


Ooooh, nice. This is a gem from March 1966 with William Hartnell as the Doctor, Jackie Lane as Dodo, who had just joined the series at the end of the previous story, and future Blue Peter presenter Peter Purves as Steven. All in glorious restored black and white, of course.

The TARDIS materialises on what turns out to be a massive ark ship, taking the surviving population of Earth to a distant planet. Unfortunately, Dodo has a bit of a cold, which is a bit of a problem, as the people of this time have no immunity to it, and lots of the crew – both humans and their alien servants, called Monoids, start to die. In the usual way, there’s a threat to execute the travellers, but this is averted as the Doctor manages to find a cure. But all that just took two episodes, so what’s going on here? It’s worth knowing that at the time, each episode had its own title rather than being billed as part of a story, so for all the audience knew, this could have been a shorter than usual story. But the TARDIS returns to the ark ship to find that a lot of time has passed, and much has changed. The Monoids are now the masters, and the ship’s destination is growing close. And the Monoids are planning to leave the humans on the ship and take the planet for themselves…

Of course, the Doctor sorts it all out with some help from the invisible natives of the planet Refusis, and off everyone goes again.

I enjoyed this one – it’s a bit creaky in places, with the Monoids suffering a bit from dodgy costume syndrome and excess hand gestureitis, but overall it works well, with a good performance from Peter Purves in particular.

Just a small selection of extras this time. In addition to the usual bits, we have:

  • All’s Wells That Ends Wells – assorted talking heads talk about the influence of HG Wells on Doctor Who. Mildly pointless, but Kim Newman’s in it, and he’s always fun.
  • One Hit Wonder – a short piece which tries to work out why some monsters are strictly one-offs, while others keep coming back, hanging off the idea of the Monoids being intended as a recurring foe. Oh dear. But hey, there’s more of Kim Newman, so it’s not a complete waste.
  • Riverside Story – Peter Purves is taken back to the BBC’s Riverside studios, where a lot of the 1960s episodes were recorded. Nice bit of nostalgia.

Doctor Who – Meglos


Having managed to catch up with those exciting[1] weight reports, it’s well past time for me to catch up on the pile of classic Doctor Who DVDs that I’ve seen recently. First up is this one from September/October 1980, with Tom Baker as the Doctor and Lalla Ward as the second Romana.

Having managed to escape from a chronic hysteresis[2], the Doctor and Romana get caught up in one of those classic plots. You know the sort of thing, two factions, one religious (lots of robes and chanting) and one scientific (bad haircuts), disagreeing over their civilisation’s source of power, the unimaginatively named Dodecahedron. This is made more complex by the intervention of a mad space cactus called Meglos, who has occupied the body of an unnamed “Earthling”, then transformed himself into a replica of the Doctor. Meglos, for the usual barking mad reasons, strolls off with the Dodecahedron, which is bad for the people who depend on it for power, and even worse for the Doctor, as the religious faction, headed by a woman called Lexa, who looks remarkably like the first Doctor’s companion Barbara, but the Doctor never mentions this[3].

Tom has lots of fun playing two of himself, especially when Meglos starts to lose control of the Earthling, and he turns slightly green and spiky.

It’s an entertaining enough story, a bit silly in places, but works well enough on repeated viewing. Fun.

Special features include the usual commentary[4], the subtitles with loads of background information, a photo gallery and:

  • Meglos Men - John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch, who wrote the story, have a tour around their old haunts and chat about developing the story. They also visit the gloriously opinionated Christopher H Bidmead, script editor at the time
  • The Scene Sync Story – a nice historical item on a clever technique used in Meglos. This allowed two camera to have their movements synchronised, so that tracking shots could be used when combining full-size and model shots. Quite impressive for the time
  • Jacqueline Hill – A Life in Pictures – A tribute to the actress. Nicely done.
  • Entropy Explained – Dr Philip Trowga explains a wee bit of thermodynamics, which is quite relevant to the story.

[1] For the easily excited
[2] That’s a “time loop” for anyone who isn’t a pair of Gallifreyans trying to impress each other
[3] Yes, yes, both played by Jacqueline Hill, but you’d think the Doctor might have said something about her looking like an old friend. Or not.
[4] One of these years I’ll catch up on all the commentaries on these things. But not yet.

Olympus Trip 35

My name is Les, and I’m a camera addict. Or something.

You might recall that when I bought my lovely little Olympus EP-1 Pen, that I mentioned its resemblance to the classic Olympus Trip 35, which my addled memory made me think had been a rangefinder thingy, and that I recalled adverts for the Trip which I’d seen, well, probably in the late 1970s or very early 1980s. Having mentioned it at the time, I mostly forgot about it, and carried on having fun with the Pen. It’s the camera that lives in the bag that goes with me to work every day, and it’s been a Good Thing to have. I still prefer my big Canon for when I’m deliberately going out to take pictures, but it’s good to have a decent camera with me nearly all the time.

Anyway, I was reading a photography magazine the other day, and an article mentioned in passing that if you fancied playing with film cameras, it was possible to get an Olympus Trip 35 on eBay for not very much. So I had a look, and found a nicely refurbished one with a quite acceptable “Buy it now” price, which is what I did.

And here it is:

Enjoy your Trip

Enjoy your Trip

What we have here is a fully-functional, moderately small camera with a minimum of controls, and which needs no batteries to work.

The lens is a nice bit of glass – 40mm (no zooming here, if you want to change your composition, you’ll have to move), with a useful maximum aperture of f/2.8. For those not familiar with older cameras, the shiny bit around the lens is the light meter.

All the controls are set around the lens barrel:

  • There’s a simple zone focus setting – basically, you can tell the camera to focus quite close, a bit less close, not very close and oooh, way over there
  • You can set the aperture dial on A for automatic, or set it at any stop from f/2.8 to f/22
  • Finally, this being a non-electronic camera, there’s a dial for setting the film speed from ISO 25 to ISO 400

It couldn’t be much simpler to use – load the film, wind it on, point it in the right direction and press the shutter release. If you leave the aperture ring on A, then if it’s too dark for a proper exposure, when you try to press the shutter release, a red flag pops up in the viewfinder and the button locks. On the other hand, if you manually set the aperture, the camera assumes that you know what you’re doing and lets you take your picture however dark it may be.

One other nice feature is that if you look through the viewfinder, you’ll see a small window that lets you see the aperture and focus setting that you’ve selected.

I’ve taken one roll of film, and once I’ve got that processed, I’ll report back on the results.

Weight and Stuff Report – 27 February 2011

Weight: 226.2 pounds (16 stone 2.2 pounds, 102.6 kg)

Back up again today, mutter.

Now I had planned a nice afternoon out, with a walk and some photography. When I checked the weather forecast yesterday, it suggested that today would be clear and sunny, so I mentally planned a destination or two.

So naturally, it turned out grey, overcast with patchy rain. I did get as far as Newcastle, took a few pictures which I can’t show you yet for reasons to be made clear in another post, then gave up and came home.

Mutter.