Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Cosmos: Hiding in the Light

The fourth part of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Spacetime Odyssey is the most thematically coherent so far, as he takes us through the development of humanity's understanding of light and, hand-in-hand with this, the progress towards the Scientific Method as it is used today.

It begins with the story of Mo-Tzu, an early Chinese scientist - he invented the Camera Obscura, which made use of his discoveries about light, and had come up with a forerunner of the Scientific Method.

Unfortunately the rise of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, and his totalitarian philosophy of Legalism, destroyed much of Mo-Tzu's learning in great book burnings. This illustrates Tyson's point that freedom of expression is required for science to survive, and it was a thousand years before humans recovered what was lost.

The animation of the China section is really good, capturing the Qin and pre-Qin era very well.

Ibn al-Haytham, in Baghdad during the Islamic golden age of science, is the next subject of discussion. He rediscovered the Camera Obscura and made advances of his own, such as discovering that light moved in straight lines. He laid down another early version of the Scientific Method.

Isaac Newton's work on visible light makes for only a small part of the episode - the real focus is on those who came after him. Perhaps this is because Newton is focused upon in other programmes in the series, or perhaps they just thought that putting the spotlight on some less well known scientists would be more interesting?

150 years after Newton, William Herschel discovered infra-red by accident (it came out of the control part of another experiment he was doing) and, at about the same time, Joseph Fraunhofer rose from poverty to become the leading lensmaker in Bavaria, also discovering the absorption spectra of light - although he didn't know what they were.

This section is my favourite of this episode, for two reasons. First, the visual effects are put to good use to make sound waves appear as if visible (as part of Tyson's explanation of light waves by comparison and contrast with sound waves).

Secondly, Tyson allows himself to become emotional as he explains how the discovery of the absorption spectra from the sun and stars became the foundation of astrophysics - his field. This moment manages to be touching and personal, and if those emotions weren't genuine then Tyson must be a great actor.

As the episode draws to a close, the Ship of the Imagination goes inside a hydrogen atom to show us electrons absorbing and emitting energy and light, and then Tyson takes us through the more modern discoveries of the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum: as well as visible light and infra-red, there are X-rays, radio-waves, gamma rays, and microwaves.

Finally, there are still mysteries about light yet to be uncovered (illuminated?) by science: while spectroscopy allowed the discovery that the universe is expanding, we can't see Dark Matter with any kind of light, so we only know about it because of the effects of gravity.

All in all, this is a fascinating look at the subjects covered.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Bleak's 7

According to legend, Terminal was intended to be not just the last episode of Blakes 7's third season, but the last ever episode of Blakes 7. It was not until after it had been written, produced, filmed, edited and, by some accounts, broadcast, that the BBC decided to make season 4.

So if you look at Terminal with this in mind, that Terry Nation wrote it and the cast performed it all intending it to be the grand finale of the series, you can get a somewhat different take on the story. Today I am going to look at Terminal with this in mind.

For a start, Paul Darrow seems to be using it as an audition for whatever he is going to do next if he can't be playing Avon. He is very theatrical here, especially in the scenes (and there are several of these) where he is the only actor on screen.

The Liberator is doomed from early on in the episode, the first sign that this Terry Nation story is, in contrast to almost the entirety of the rest of season 3, a return to the bleak, uncaring universe we saw in the early part of season 1. A return to its origins in a way.

Would they have chosen to destroy the iconic Liberator spaceship if they had known they were going to do another season after this? I doubt it. As good as Scorpio! is in its own way, there is nothing that could possibly have stood comparison to the Liberator - both the spaceship model and interior sets - as the fixed central location for Blakes 7.

Arguably foreshadowed throughout this season (though not constantly), Terminal sees Avon and Tarrant wrestle - only metaphorically, sadly - for dominance of the Liberator.

Rather than risk literally wrestling with Tarrant (the very idea makes me go purr), Avon pulls a gun from his pocket.

If there hadn't been a season 4 then this would have been the climax of their relationship, with no way back from this development to the dynamic they had previously. In reality, the dramatic, game-changing events of Terminal and then Rescue create a new dynamic between Avon, Tarrant, and the other survivors from the Liberator.

Blake cast his shadow over the whole of season 3 even in his absence, not least because his name stayed in the title. He was mentioned in around half the episodes, usually by guest stars who had heard of the regular characters or the Liberator because of Blake's reputation. But it is not since Volcano (10 episodes earlier) that they had been actively searching for Blake.

(I have read that 'the search for Blake' was supposedly the story arc for season 3, but as it only happens in 2 out of 13 parts, I have to conclude that they were getting season 3 of Blakes 7 mixed up with Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock.)

Nevertheless, the one scene with Blake is crucial because it provides closure on this aspect of the series, as well as justifying them having kept the show's title. The fact that it is not the real Blake but a "drug-induced and electronic dream" of Avon's is a clever twist. When Servalan later says that Blake is dead we might take it for the truth since, if there had never been a season 4, there would be nothing to contradict her.

The death of Zen is one of the most moving moments in the whole of Blakes 7, even if Terry Nation has borrowed some of the style from the film 2001: A Spacetime Odyssey. (The presence of the monkey-like "links" in the same episode makes the connection more blatant.)

Vila and Dayna don't get much to do in Terminal, but the scenes they do have when the Liberator is disintegrating and Zen is dying are important to the plot as well as building on the apocalyptic mood of the finale. Vila gets a rare opportunity to be explicitly clever when dealing as best they can with the crisis, as though Terry Nation wanted to confirm that he was supposed to be clever really before the end.

There is a second such moment of cleverness later on when Vila tricks the baddys into letting him take Orac with him to the planet.

The links don't serve much purpose in the plot of Terminal, but thematically they fit very well with the bleak tone that comes together in Servalan's final confrontation with Avon: she has won. The baddys have won. And to rub the bleakness in the faces of the mannys watching she adds:
"The planet's evolution was massively accelerated. It developed through millions of years in a very short time. The creature you saw is not what Man developed from. It is what Man will become."

However, just when you think the bleakness is so much that the show will end with Servalan stamping on Avon's face forever, we get the last clever twist in Terminal. It is one that has been set up in advance: Servalan thinks she has won because she has the Liberator at last.


And we know that all she has is a dead ship about to explode the moment they try to make it go.

Nothing the crew of the Liberator did stopped Servalan, only blind chance.

(Here we have one moment suggesting they might have been preparing for a season 4, or at least hedging on the possibility, when they made this, because Servalan runs to the teleport to try and escape rather than us seeing her die on the bridge of the Liberator.)

Just this once, nobody wins. The former crew of the Liberator may be alive, but they are stranded on a dangerous planet without any spaceship (let alone the most powerful ship in the galaxy) with which to get off. So how does Avon react to this?

Of course. The purrfect ending: Avon smiles.

The Two Tarrants

In Death-Watch Steven Pacey plays both Tarrant and Tarrant's brother Deeta Tarrant. The wig he wears as Deeta allows us to tell which is which, but it is also a distraction away from the subtle but clever way in which he plays the two characters differently.

I have watched Death-Watch a few times now, so it is easy for me to forget that it is not obvious from the start that Deeta is Tarrant's brother - he could be Tarrant in disguise. It is not until Tarrant sees his brother on the main screen and confirms it to both the other characters and the audience that we know for sure.

Avon is wearing large shoulder pads today. Maybe because he thinks he is in a different kind of Deathwatch
or maybe it is just because of the 1980s.

Avon hasn't kiffed anyone since Sarcophagus (a whole three episodes ago!) so he pays a visit to Servalan while they are both in neutral territory and aren't allowed to kill each other.

This somewhat mirrors the situation in Aftermath when they last kiffed, even though a lot has happened in season 3 since then. Servalan doesn't try to persuade Avon to join her side, she just says:
"I don't think of you as an enemy, Avon. I think of you as a future friend."

And after he teleports away Servalan looks very happy. As you would if you had just had kiffs with Avon. Purr.

Playing an important role in this episode is Stewart Bevan as Max. He is called upon to give a lot of exposition so the Liberator crew, and us, can understand what is going on, but he is also the character who interacts most with Deeta and, through him, we get to see the similarities and differences between the two Tarrants.

The action centrepiece of Death-Watch is the duel between Deeta Tarrant and Vinni. It is filmed on location and excellently directed, walking the fine line between camp (because of the contrast between the fabulous, shiny costumes and the grimy, industrial location) and dramatic perfectly, culminating in the slow-motion shootout.

Deeta gives up his chance of winning easily to go for an honourable shootout, but in that situation the fact that Vinni is really an android means he has no chance so he loses.

There is then a poignant moment that makes good use of the sci-fi setup, as the dying Deeta's last words (thoughts) to his brother are being overheard by millions of mannys when they should have been private between the two of them.

While Vinni is a small part (and his name isn't exactly very dramatically appropriate, seeming oddly out of place in Blakes 7), his actor Mark Elliott makes good use of his scenes to convey that there is something not quite right about him - backed up by other characters' dialogue - before he is revealed to be an android.

Death-Watch belongs to Steven Pacey, with him playing both Tarrants really well; his best performance in Blakes 7 except for Powerplay. As Del Tarrant, his reaction to Deeta's death (not just having seen it, but felt and experienced it too thanks to the sci-fi death-watch device) is wonderfully underplayed, showing the grief in his face and in the simple line:
"He should have killed him when he had the chance. Deeta never was very practical."

But later we see that Tarrant can't just shoot Vinni in the back either.

The direction in this story really is very good overall, not just in the location scenes. Here we see Avon from Orac's point of view.

Avon smiles when he comes up with a plan to defeat Servalan. Purr.

Death-Watch is a very good episode. Written by Chris Boucher, he once again demonstrates that he understands the characters and the universe of Blakes 7 better than anybody, perhaps even Terry Nation.

As well as the good points I have already mentioned, there is also a subversion of Star Trek present here. Not just from the line
"Space, the final frontier... as it was once called."
but the Teal-Vandor war being fought by proxy champions is a variation on the computer-simulated war in the episode A Taste of Armageddon. That story is an allegory for the Cold War in which Captain Kirk interferes in the status quo between two planets, forcing them to either fight a real war or make a real peace. Here the crew of the Liberator leave the Teal/Vandor situation as it was before they arrived, only having stopped the Federation interference.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Cosmos: When Knowledge Conquered Fear

The majority of this episode is about comets, with a central theme of the transition at one point in history between comets being seen as omens of disaster, which is how they were perceived in every culture when there was no explanation for what they were or why they appeared when they did, and comets being explained - scientifically - as another part of the rational cosmos.

Neil deGrasse Tyson spends a little time talking about Jan Oort and the Oort Cloud explanation of comets, but the real focus is on the 17th century and the work, interactions and relationships of four men: Edmund Halley, Robert Hooke, Christoper Wren, and Isaac Newton.

I have read and seen on TV other accounts of Newton's life and work, but - with the focus here specifically on his work on gravitation in the context of comets - here he takes second billing to Halley. Tyson gives an account of Edmund Halley's achievements in his own right - mapping the stars of the southern hemisphere, mapping the Earth's magnetic field, inventing the diving bell - so he is not just Newton's sidekick in this story.

Robert Hooke is portrayed as something of the villain of the piece. Even though Tyson does mention some of his not unimpressive achievements, his decade-spanning feud with (undisputed genius and therefore in the right) Newton, combined with the artistic decision that - because no portrait of Hooke survives from his time but the unflattering descriptions of him do - he should be a shadowy, hunchbacked figure with, to top it all, an evil voice.

Newton's life is gone into, without glossing over his unscientific obsessions of alchemy and bible codes, and then the story comes together when Halley met Newton in 1684 to persude him to publish a book on his laws of universal gravitation.

The history lesson is never allowed to get dull. In addition to the presence of panto villain Hooke, Tyson tells us about "The History of Fish", the book that the Royal Society used up its annual budget publishing, leaving them unable to finance Newton's revolutionary Principia. In fact they even had to pay Halley with copies of the unsold fish book. Halley backed Newton's book himself, saving the day.

Halley applied Newton's mathematical laws to known comets and deduced that three comets were really one and the same, regularly returning with a gap of 76 years between each visit. He was able to predict its return in 1758, which was still over 50 years in the future, as well as its path across the sky. Tyson makes an unflattering comparison between "mystic prophecies" which are purposefully vague and open to interpretation, and this scientific prediction.

There is a return to the earlier pantomime with a scene showing an older Newton, now head of the Royal Society following the death of Hooke, burning Hooke's portrait. The implication being that the reason there are no portraits of Hooke is that Newton had them all destroyed as a form of revenge.

I'm in two minds over these scenes - on the one hand they are a distraction from the strong central message of the episode - that science has saved mankind from the kind of superstitions such as perceiving comets a heralds of doom, but on the other hand they are both entertaining and illustrative of the characters of these real human beings from the past, however theatrical and speculative. Ultimately I'd say they are a distraction, but they don't dominate the episode or drown out the message, they are used with moderation. The central message remains strong and powerful.

The episode ends with a spectacular computer simulation, made using Newton's laws, of the merging of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies in billions of years from now.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Cosmos: Some of the Things that Molecules do

Neil deGrasse Tyson begins the second episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey with the claim that
"This is a story about you, and me, and your dog."
But really this entire programme is about evolution; it's about taking on those that deny evolution is true and essentially calling them out for being the cunts they are. It's just that Tyson takes an hour to do it in a reasoned, eloquent way.

Before talking about evolution by natural selection he shows an example of artificial selection - the breeding of dogs from wolves. This took place over 10-15,000 years, as opposed to the hundreds of millions of years that evolution operates over.

The first example of evolution by natural selection that Tyson chooses is the brown bear becoming the polar bear during the ice age. This occurs by random mutation in the DNA during cell division, which happens to create a bear that is better fitted to the icy environment with a white coat than a brown one.

Tyson then moves on to debunking the classic claim of the anti-evolution, pro-Intelligent Design believers that the human eye is too complicated to have evolved therefore must have been Intelligently Designed.

Big Gay Longcat's eyes definitely were Intelligently Designed, thus proving the existence of the Maker of Cats.

Tyson takes us through the development of the eye as life itself evolved, from light-sensitive bacteria to flatworms to fish. A fascinating insight - one that I was not previously aware of - is that, because eyes evolved to see in water, no eyes since animals evolved to live on dry land have been as good.

That subject dealt with, Tyson introduces the concepts of the Tree of Life and the Halls of Extinction, ways of portraying (respectively) the metaphors of the descent of all life by way of evolution from common ancestors, and the huge number of species that have lived and then become extinct over the history of the Earth.

The Halls of Extinction will be revisited later in the series, but in this episode Tyson uses them to explain about the five mass extinctions that have taken place in the last 500 million years, each of which is represented by a Hall. The worst of these was the Permian extinction, about 250 million years ago, when c.90% of all species died out and it took life 10 million years to recover.

As the end of the programme approaches, Tyson takes the Ship of the Imagination to Saturn's moon Titan - the only world in the Solar System (aside from Earth) to have rain, rivers, lakes and seas... but of ethane and methane. He speculates about what kind of life might evolve there. It is a short and inessential part of the episode, a tangent from the main theme although still on the topic of life and evolution. The graphics of the Ship diving into the Titan sea are beautiful, though.

The last words in the episode come from Carl Sagan, repeating the 40-second animation of the evolution of life on Earth from the original Cosmos series.

I suppose that they considered this short piece to be strong enough to not need updating.

The highlights of this episode are definitely the initial section on dogs and the piece on the eye. As I mentioned, towards the end it gets a little fragmented and the strong theme is diluted a little. But the central argument has already been made by this point (natural selection = true, Intelligent Design = bollocks), so you could see these later sections as just interesting tangents or supporting side-themes.

Moloch is Rubbish

I don't know why Avon looks so happy here, this is Moloch, Ben Steed's second sexist script for the series.

I think Avon has just realised how bad it is.

Tarrant isn't too happy either.

Servalan is annoyed too. And just like in Harvest of Kairos she is on the receiving end of the sexism. Every time we cats hear Moloch say "Give her to your men" we are like this:

It is unpleasant. We know it is supposed to be, because Moloch and Section Leader Grose are baddys, but it is very uncomfortable because it exists alongside all the other sexist things Ben Steed puts in his stories - not just in both of his other scripts, but in Moloch there is the character of sexist, woman-hating Doran, who we are in some strange way meant to sympathise with because he teams up with Vila and, by the end of the story, with the others in time to get killed off (in a manner not too dissimilar from the way Jarvik is killed off).

If you can get past the sexism that permeates to the core of the episode (which you can't, not really, but let's pretend), there are some good scenes. The bit where Vila and Servalan unwillingly work together to escape is well played, with both Michael Keating and Jacqueline Pearce doing the comedy moments well.

Michael Keating in particular is on good form throughout Moloch and almost, almost manages to redeem Vila's scenes with Doran by way of his reactions to Doran's lines.

It's an episode of Thriller!

I also like the scene where Avon works out what is going on. Once again, as with Harvest of Kairos, there is a decent science fiction buried somewhere in Moloch. But the execution of the reveal of Moloch is shockingly bad.

"I am Moloch."
"Yes, that is how I reasoned you would look."

Avon gets the best line of the episode there.

For the anticlimax of the episode Moloch teleports up to the Liberator and then immediately goes

So much for Moloch.

"Zen. Course: 011. Speed: Standard by six. Get us out of here."

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Cosmos: Standing up in the Milky Way

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is going to be very tough to beat as my favourite TV series of 2014.

The original series of Cosmos, subtitled A Personal Voyage, presented by Carl Sagan and first broadcast in 1980, was a magnificent documentary series covering many subjects under the umbrella of science. I first saw it, on DVD, only a few years ago, and it sits with the likes of Civilisation and The Ascent of Man as one of the best factual TV series I have ever seen.

The new series of Cosmos is an attempt to update the series, keeping the same broad format - 13 hour-long episodes on science topics, accessible to non-scientists of all ages, with a single presenter giving their personal take on the subjects being discussed. The presenter this time is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who makes no secret of his following in the footsteps of Carl Sagan, and at times he seems honoured and humbled to be doing so.

While there is a lot of overlap between the subjects covered by the old and new series, the emphasis is different, reflecting the fact that both science and the medium of television have moved on so much in the over-30-year gap that separates them. Visually, this is most obvious in the quality of the special effects - no matter how impressive the 1980 series would have looked in its time, the new series is stunning. In the choice of subject matter, the differences are most obvious when each series tackles subjects that are topical, even political, for their respective times.

Tyson begins the first episode, titled Standing up in the Milky Way, by introducing us to his Ship of the Imagination. This is also carried over from the original Cosmos, and is a bold, breathtaking departure from the typical documentary format. Instead of just moving from subject matter to subject matter, Sagan - and now Tyson - travel there in a spaceship that can go anywhere in time and space.

Hmm, a scientist with a ship that can go anywhere in time and space... where have I seen something like that before?

The only limit to this ship's capabilities is the limit of the human imagination.

Well, that and the series budget, I suppose.

It may be the realm of science fiction rather than science fact, but it illustrates the ideas on display perfectly and really helps draw you in to the stories Tyson is telling. Later in the series he uses the ship to show us the Earth's past and possible future, as well as going inside an atom and to the event horizon of a black hole.

But to return to this episode, the first thing the Ship of the Imagination is used for is to show us where we are in the universe, our "cosmic address." Travelling out from the Earth we see the Milky Way galaxy, the "local group" of galaxies, the whole of the known universe, before speculating that the universe we know is just a - metaphorical - single drop of water in a waterfall.

And no sign of the series budget being limited here.

Tyson then tells the story of Giordano Bruno as the man who, more than any other, helped enlarge mankind's imagination of the scale of the universe - the first man to propose that the universe is infinite (or unbounded) in size. He also stands for knowledge against ignorance in the way he comes up against the dogmatic church of his time, with the result that he was burned as a heretic.

This section, as with most of the historical-set narratives throughout the series, is done as an animation with a distinctive style. I don't know if this was because animation was cheaper than doing a series of mini costume dramas, or if it was purely a stylistic choice. This one works well in that format (perhaps better than some of the later ones), since the pseudo-reality of the animation allows Bruno to escape his prison cell by flying beyond the limits of the world in his imagination, an act that parallels Tyson in his Ship of the Imagination.

A direct lift from the original Cosmos is the idea of the "Cosmic Calendar" as a way of demonstrating the immense age and scale of the universe - the entirety of time from the Big Bang to the present is imagined as one single year, with every event in between compressed accordingly. Tyson uses the Cosmic Calendar concept to show where the creation of the sun and the Earth fall in this 'year', and the beginning of life on Earth, and finally how late the dawn of recorded human history comes relative to the history of the entire universe.

Finally for the first episode, Tyson pays a tribute to Carl Sagan, with a brief biography of Sagan's life and work as a scientist, and touches on how he was inspired by Sagan as a young man. This is quite touching, but also serves to show they are not attempting to ignore or replace the original Cosmos series. By acknowledging their debt to it, the makers of the new series confirm that this is a companion piece to Sagan's series.

Standing up in the Milky Way is a great prologue for the series, although - Giordano Bruno section aside - it is little more than an extended introduction to Cosmos. The best is yet to come.