Doctor Who – old, new, and tangential

Yay, bank holiday!

Apropos of nothing in particular, I indulged in a bit more nostalgic Doctor Who watching recently.

‘Battlefield’ starring Sylvester McCoy was the extended DVD version. While it’s one of the Seventh Doctor’s better outings (i.e. it’s not utterly unwatchable), it’s very stilted. In general it feels like it was shot on a shoestring budget in approximately two days with no time to rehearse. (Which knowing Who is probably exactly how it was shot.) McCoy does his best to appear, by turns, mysterious, impish and brooding, but I remain utterly unconvinced that he’s any of those things. Worse, I can’t help feeling that the Doctor is written significantly better than he’s played, which is never a good feeling to have about the lead character. Likewise Sophie Aldred as Ace gets a lot of gushing teenage behaviour for which the actress seems too old. There are a few decent scenes and likeable supporting characters, and a welcome return for Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier. Oh and a cool blue demon. But overall: meh. Sorry, Tim!

‘Image of the Fendahl’ starring Tom Baker is better. Okay, it feels like it was shot on a shoestring budget in approximately two days with no time to rehearse, but at least Tom Baker is convincing. The story is an odd pastiche of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, involving ancient aliens from Time Lord mythology who have somehow influenced human evolution. The plot is woefully illogical and under-explained, to the point where it feels like key scenes must be missing. On the plus side it has Chris Boucher’s usual crackling dialogue and pin-sharp characterisation, and a very decent supporting cast. I have no recollection of watching it my youth so I can’t lean on nostalgia with this one, but I do remember the novelisation which probably helps.

On a related-ish note, here are a couple of BBC News videos:

An interview with Russell T Davies about completing filming on his (and David Tennant’s) era on Doctor Who. (It includes the trailer for ‘The Waters of Mars’ special that aired after the Easter special.)

A five minute interview with Richard Dawkins that barrels through all the questions you’d expect, against a ticking clock, and gets Dawkins’s usual precise answers.1

1 Dawkins is of course best known for his cameo in last season’s Doctor Who finale (not to mention being married to Romana mk II), but has probably done a few non Who-related things in his life.

Footprints

Footprints uncovered in Kenya show that as early as 1.5 million years ago an ancestral species, almost certainly Homo erectus, had already evolved the feet and walking gait of modern humans.”

This is truly fascinating, particularly with the accompanying photograph. I love little glimpses like this into the distant past, and a footprint is such a vivid and relatable image (and a ready-made metaphor of course.) 1.5 million years ago someone who was not yet fully human but with a foot essentially the same as ours walked upright, and we can see their footprint. For some reason this really touched me.

The only earlier prints are apparently more than twice as ancient, and much more apelike.

Politicking

Interesting juxtaposition in the US Presidential Election of Sarah Palin’s derogatory statements about science vs. Obama getting the endorsement of high profile scientists.

Palin, in that ‘loveable’ folksy way of hers (see also: George W Bush), decided to ridicule ‘wasteful’ scientific research on things like fruit flies: “You’ve heard about some of these pet projects – they really don’t make a whole lot of sense – and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit-fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” Since my own wife’s degree project focused on drosophila melanogaster, I’m well-versed in how incredibly useful these little insects are to science, but here’s a fairly scathing rebuttal to Palin.

Meanwhile 76 Nobel prize winners have written a letter endorsing Obama as “a visionary leader” and condemning Bush’s policies.

Also, as if Obama could become any more like Jed Bartlet, here’s a really fascinating speech of his about the role of religion in modern America. I hadn’t previously been aware of this speech but it looks like it was made back in 2006. I can’t help but be reminded of President Bartlet’s rant from The West Wing episode The Midterms (itself gacked from the interwebs) about selective adherence to the Bible to support bigotry. Obama’s speech (in selectively edited form) been seized on to argue that Obama ‘hates’ God, but it’s actually a very even-handed and astonishingly brave thing for a US politician to do. Brave even though he’s not claiming to be an atheist, merely arguing very cogently for separation of Church and State; a fairy uncontroversial view, you’d think1.

Speaking of YouTube, this video of Palin set to piano improv is deeply unfair, but very funny.

1 Bartlet is of course portrayed as a devout Catholic and his rant is not seen as coming into conflict with his beliefs, and there’s no reason Obama could not be a Christian and still make this speech.

Earth: The Climate Wars

When I discussed Prof Richard Dawkins’s three-part series The Genius of Darwin I was puzzled as to why it merited the word “polemic” in my TV guide, noting that “creationism attempts to refute geological wisdom as surely as it does biological wisdom, but we don’t go around calling [TV geologist] Dr Iain Stewart a polemicist.”

Inevitably, Dr Iain Stewart immediately launched a three-part series (apocalyptically titled Earth: The Climate Wars) that’s as likely to be labelled a polemic as anything Dawkins has produced. Global Warming is, after all, as likely as Evolution to be described in the media as “controversial”. Interestingly, the polemic word doesn’t seem to have been attached to this one. It’s an “investigation”.

To be clear, I don’t regard either series as a polemic. Both are written and presented by individuals who hold a clear view as to the truth of the matter, and both include passionate advocacy of the importance of the issues being debated, but crucially both discuss the relevant ‘controversy’ in some detail and arrive at their determination through dispassionate and thorough (as thorough as the format allows, anyway) examination of the evidence.

Earth: The Climate Wars tackles its subject in three parts: the first details the gradual development of climate theories in the 1960s and 70s, including the now disproven prediction of a “big freeze” and the gradual rise of global warming as a theory. The second deals with the controversy that arose around global warming in the 1990s, examining the changing and contradictory evidence and the opposing arguments before ultimately disproving the objections fairly categorically. The third programme examines attempts to model the Earth’s future climate, and to incorporate increasing evidence that climate change is, if anything, occurring faster than expected.

I found it fascinating. Iain Stewart is an engaging enough presenter and the programmes move at just about the right pace, focussing mainly on the science but to a lesser extent on the personalities and historical account of the discoveries. I knew a lot of the background, but there’s plenty here that I hadn’t heard before, or hadn’t heard in detail. In some respects it’s surprising how long ago the theory of global warming caused by human activity was first proposed, and how readily it was initially accepted. Fascinating, for example, to see Margaret Thatcher talking about the need for urgent action.

I was also aware of the notorious C4 programme The Great Global Warming Swindle (a “polemic” if ever there was one) for which the channel was censured by Ofcom for misrepresenting the views of its contributers (although since it had caused no “harm” to its viewers Ofcom refused to rule on its scientific accuracy). Dr Stewart briefly touches on that programme and the shockingly inaccurate graphs used to make its case. I’ve read other rebuttals, e.g. badscience.com but it’s still nice to see a belated televised rebuttal. Indeed, this series of programmes, careful, thorough and engaging as they are, make a pleasingly level-headed counterpoint to the very propagandist and even ad hominem nature of the C4 programme. Dr Stewart also used extensive clips from a much earlier 1990 programme from C4 called The Greenhouse Conspiracy which makes you wonder what exactly C4 has against the theory of global warming.

The final programme includes some rather scary evidence of very sudden — in the everyday rather than geological meaning of the word — shifts in global climate in the past. These are sudden “tipping point” temperature shifts of several degrees centigrade occurring within a period of 2 to 5 years, calculated by examining both the thickness and chemical composition of Greenland ice cores1. Coupled with recent evidence about the unprecedented summer retreat of arctic sea ice during the summer, it does make you wonder — although thankfully 2008 didn’t break the record retreat in 20072.

In an age in which (as repeats of Horizon on BBC4 will attest) TV science has been lobotomised to a few health programmes and the occasional theory that Yellowstone park may explode and DOOM US ALL, it’s always welcome to have some real, solid science. Hot on the heels of Dawkins and the recent coverage of the Large Hadron Collider it almost feels like a mini-Renaissance in science programming, even if in each case it was probably the underlying sense of “controversy” driving things forward. I strongly doubt if Earth: The Climate Consensus would have made it to air.

All three episodes are available on BBC iPlayer. The third was probably the weakest, but all are worth a look.

1 The process of dating ice cores back 50,000 years by simply ‘counting the rings’ that represent each winter and summer snowfall is surely as common sense a refutation of creationist dating of the Earth to 6,000 years old as you’re likely to find. That’s assuming geological dating using the precisely known decay rate of multiple radioactive isotopes is wrong — which, wearyingly, is exactly what creationists argue. In fact, that very creationist web page states: “Ultimately, the age of the earth cannot be proven”, a relativist bombshell which makes you wonder why they’re bothering to contest the science at all.

2 I sometimes find myself feeling an unworthy (and criminally stupid) desire to see the Earth meet a spectacular demise. Not just to prove the doubters wrong — although, y’know, that would be some slight consolation for me as the human race faced extinction — but because disasters are cool. That’s why Iain Stewart’s earlier series Earth: The Power of the Planet was interesting: because vast climactic and geological changes have a certain spectacular appeal. Catastrophes and disasters are strangely compelling, like that sensation climbers sometimes report of feeling an urge to hurl themselves into the void. I don’t for a second suggest that I actually want the Earth to be destroyed, but the childish part of me does seem to revel in the concept. People are strange creatures. Or maybe that’s just me.

Here is the News

1,800-year-old Roman stone sarcophagi found in Newcastle. That’s not far from us! I learn from this story that they’re apparently building a Great North Museum in Newcastle including antiquities, a planetarium, an interactive model of Hadrian’s Wall, a life-size T-Rex dinosaur skeleton, and special exhibitions from London. This could be very nice for us as it’s not always convenient for us to get down to the British Museum. I’m only amazed that my wife’s normally excellent Archaeology Radar hasn’t tipped us off to this sooner. The website banner appears to feature Egyptians on chariots hunting Dinosaurs, but I’ll assume there’s some artistic licence involved…

Of course if that recent bonkers think tank report was listened to there’d be no point in doing any of this because everyone in the North should just give up on their cities, which are beyond all hope of revival, and move south. This is so patently absurd that it probably isn’t worth getting upset about, but Exhibit A would surely be the fact that any number of Northern cities have already succeeded in transforming themselves and their fortunes into thriving centres of business and culture. Like Newcastle & Gateshead, for example. Sunderland is one of those named by the think tank as “beyond revival” yet — although it’s hardly the largest or most cosmopolitan of cities — in the relatively short time I’ve known it Sunderland has transformed itself from a shipbuilding town to one with a beautiful riverside and coastal area and a strong service industry base (including the University), not to mention the famous Nissan plant. The fact that anyone could seriously suggest otherwise reflects blinkered attitudes to the ‘North’ of England (i.e. anywhere north of the M25) that are quite surreal. It’s the equivalent of saying that the London Dockland area was beyond revival prior to Canary Wharf being built.

And finally…

A sensible, evidence-based story about the British Summer. Will wonders never cease.