John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Dr Who

The new series of Dr Who started last night on BBC1, and I thought it was a decent episode, although it had a few flaws. I also enjoyed the Christmas episode, which I never got round to commenting on: I was quite surprised to see a trailer for that in the cinema last year, and I do like the new theme tune.

Generally, I'm trying to be a bit more selective about what I watch: I didn't bother with series 2 of Torchwood, since the first series was so bad; I've heard a few people saying that the second series was better, but I don't miss it. I also gave up on The Sarah Jane Adventures part-way through; there's nothing wrong with it, but it is really aimed at a younger audience, which is fair enough. Anyway, I'm sticking with Dr Who; even though I may nitpick a bit, I still look forward to watching it each week. I particularly liked seeing Bernard Cribbins in both episodes, so hopefully he'll be appearing again.

In the episode "The Doctor Dances" (with the 9th Doctor), he said "Just this once, everybody lives!" In order for that to be significant, you need to have other episodes where characters die, and I think Dr Who has racked up quite a death-toll over the years in the supporting cast. This certainly happened in "Voyage of the Damned" (the Christmas episode), although a couple of those deaths could have been avoided.

In one scene, the group of survivors were crossing a narrow bridge over a huge chasm (inside a space-ship), and there was a robot angel that had temporarily been deactivated. As soon as it unfroze it would attack them, so Foon (the fat woman) tied a rope around it and jumped off the bridge, pulling the robot after her. This was very noble and all that, but it was also a bit stupid; a few analogies may be useful here.

In the Star Trek novel "Metamorphosis" (set during season 2 of TNG), Data gets turned into a human and it takes him a while to adjust to the change. In chapter 11 he's in Sickbay when there's an accident and a heavy box falls towards Dr Pulaski: he jumps in front of her to catch it, but without android strength it knocks him flat and he's lucky to get away with a few cracked ribs. Pulaski tells him that he was stupid, but he can't think of what else he could have done, since he wasn't willing to just stand back and let it hit her instead. She then reprases the question, asking what Geordi would have done. "I should not have attempted to catch the equipment. I should have moved you out of its way."

When I was at school, I did bell ringing for a while: that's church bells rather than hand bells. I took it up again when I first moved to London, and I broke a couple of stays. For those of you who aren't campanologists, you may find this video useful; the relevant bit starts at about 2:45. Basically, each bell is mounted on a wheel, with a piece of wood sticking out at the back, like a huge handle. The stay is another piece of wood which is perpendicular to the wheel and runs across the bottom. While you're ringing, the actual metal bell starts out at the top of the wheel and the "handle" rests against one side of the stay. You then pull the rope so that the wheel turns, the bell swings down and goes back up the other side, so you wind up with the handle on the other side of the stay, then you pull the rope again to bring it back to where it started, and you repeat this process. You need to pull the rope hard enough to get the bell moving, but you also want to slow it to a halt before it hits the stay at the top; I heard someone describe bell ringing as "controlling a ton of metal on the end of a flexible rope, accurate to a fraction of second".

The problem comes if you pull a bit too hard at the start, so the handle smashes through the stay when it gets back to the bottom and then the bell wheel keeps going round and round in the same direction. When that happens, the rope gets wound around the wheel (like a yo-yo), so the end that you're holding will travel upwards at high speed. As I say, that happened to me a couple of times; I didn't get carried upwards, but I also didn't react quickly enough to let go in time, so instead the rope got ripped out of my hands, leaving friction burns across my palms. That's not a serious injury, but it is a predictable one; the bell weighs a lot more than I do, so it's going to win any tug of war. As with Data vs the falling object, you have to think about the basic physics involved (relative mass).

In the film Beowulf, they handled a similar situation quite well. There's a scene where Beowulf is on a dragon's back, holding one end of a chain; the other end of this chain is somehow attached to the dragon. He gets thrown off, still holding the chain, and a wave passes along that chain (a bit like cracking a whip). When I saw that, I thought "He's not going to be able to keep his grip - once he reaches the end of his fall, it will just get yanked out of his hand." He apparently realised this, because he wrapped the chain around his arm a few times (while falling); that would hurt, and possibly dislocate his shoulder, but it served the desired purpose by keeping him airborne.

So, coming back to Foon vs the robot angel, I see a slight flaw in her strategy: it would be rather embarrassing to leap to your doom, then lose your grip on the rope and leave the robot up there to kill all your friends. What could she have done differently? Well, tying the rope around her own waist might have been a good idea. She could also have charged straight at the robot, to push it over the edge; this would have the fringe benefit that she might have been able to stay on the bridge herself, while it fell. Ah well, never mind.

Another character who bit the dust was Astrid (played by Kylie Minogue). On one of the Scrubs DVDs, they refer to "stunt casting": this is when you bring in a guest actor who will attract their own fans. I think that description would apply here, and it's hard to say how much of that character was Astrid rather than Kylie. In other words, if you didn't recognise Kylie Minogue, would you think that Astrid was a well-developed character? The related problem here is meta-knowledge: when the Doctor chose her as his new companion, I figured that this wouldn't actually happen because it would already have been reported in several places. I try to avoid spoilers, but I haven't been able to block them out altogether, and "helpful" friends often tell me about the news they've heard. Anyway, the point is that I figured she was dead meat after that, which spoilt the suspense a bit; I think it would have worked better if he'd just promised to give her a free trip home (to save her buying a ticket). As for her death, it involved her sitting in a fork-lift truck while she pushed Max (the villain) into another big pit. She wasn't exactly travelling at high speed, so why couldn't she jump out once the vehicle was moving? If she had to keep her foot on the accelerator then that would make some sense, but she said that the brake wires were cut; why would the brakes be significant in that case?

Then there was Bannakaffalatta, the spiky red alien who turned out to be a cyborg; this led to a rather odd sub-plot about equal rights. Star Trek has done some stories about android/hologram rights, and that's a valid premise; I like the characters involved, although the more I learn about AI, the less valid their claims seem to be. In this case, I thought of "The Bicentennial Man" (the Asimov book, not the film), where a legal firm refuses to pay someone on the grounds that he has an artificial heart and is therefore not human. They do this deliberately to provoke a ruling, and keep appealing against the verdict in order to establish a series of precedents saying that however many prosthetic body parts someone has, they are still human. In the case of Dr Who, Banana-whatsit said that he'd been in an accident, i.e. he started out as fully organic rather than being created in a lab, so this would involve him losing his original rights. (I think something similar happened to Max, but I'm not sure about that.) So, how does that work? I think there could be scope for a decent story there, but it would need to be more fully developed, e.g. saying that the person had temporarily died and therefore their former spouse is now a widow(er) and inherits all their money. However, when it was thrown in as an aside like this, it just seemed like a rather feeble analogy to real-world civil rights movements that doesn't really make sense.

I mentioned the trailer, and the Doctor's speech sounded quite impressive there: "I'm the Doctor, I'm a timelord, I'm 903 years old." However, it didn't seem to fit very well into the context of the episode, so I get the impression that they wrote it for the trailer and then had to shoe-horn it into the story somewhere. (I remember people making similar comments about the doctor's speech in Unbreakable.)

Ending on a positive note, I did like the idea of London being deserted: apparently the residents of Earth-DW are becoming Genre Savvy.

Moving on to "Partners in Crime" (the first episode of series 10.3), the basic premise was that a group of aliens were selling diet pills which cause your fat to literally separate from your body in 1kg chunks and form living creatures. They didn't mention this to their customers, which seems like a slightly flawed strategy:

a) Don't they have clinical trials on Earth-DW for new drugs? This is a subject I know a bit about (based on where I work), so it stood out to me. I'm willing to suspend disbelief, but it would be nice if they clarified what's supposed to be different. Did they give fake pills out during the trial? Did they skip the trials altogether and come up with fake results? Do people in that world routinely take (and sell) drugs on a wide scale that have never been tested?

b) Why not be honest about it? The little baby things looked quite cute, a bit like owls, and they were harmless enough. There's an old Sluggy strip about people getting more attractive when they become vampires, and I could see a similar attitude working here. Given that the general public now know about the existence of aliens, I reckon they could get plenty of volunteers, and they wouldn't have to kill anyone; I'd be quite tempted, particularly if it was free. Also, if they got people to stay overnight then they could claim the babies directly, which would avoid the risk of them getting squashed by cars.

c) Miss Foster (the woman in charge of the company) said that it took her a while to find a country as suitable as England. Really? I'd have thought that obesity levels were higher in the USA.

At one point, Donna (the companion) was dangling outside the building, so the Doctor opened a window from inside and grabbed her ankles so that he could help her inside. How exactly did that work? They didn't show her climbing in, and just "blinked" the camera to when she was back in the building, which implies that the production team didn't know how it would work either. In that situation, I don't think that she could just drop down and land inside, because her centre of gravity was further out; I think he'd wind up holding her ankles while she dangled upside-down. There are ways around that, e.g. sticking a chair/desk out of the window for her to stand on, or to pull her up when he was outside, but this seemed like a cheat. I'll accept the magic powers of the sonic screwdriver (and it was a shame he threw Foster's pen away), but it does reduce the sense of danger if people can apparently fly.

A similar thing happened at the end of the episode, when Foster was being levitated up to the alien ship. The beam turned off, but she didn't fall until she'd had a couple of seconds to realise that there was nothing holding her up anymore. This seems like cartoon physics, by way of Wile E. Coyote. (I'm also not sure how shooting holes in the middle of a door with a machine gun will affect the hinges.)

As I say, I do enjoy the series; I just think that there's some room for improvement.
Tags: bell ringing, dr who, drug trials, star trek, tv

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