Doctor Who – Series 11, Episode 6: “Demons of the Punjab”

I did mention last week that Series 11 as a whole is being a bit preachy – and having an episode focussed on the partition of India, and the accompanying issue of religious division, certainly doesn’t deviate from that theme. I can’t see this sort of historical setting ever being used for an episode in the Davies or Moffat eras, or at least not handled in this way. Are these attempts to be relevant to present-day issues going to make these episodes dated? I suppose only time will really answer that question. But then, the adventures from the classic era weren’t exactly timeless, and they’re still very watchable – and as with Rosa, maybe these really are lessons we could stand to bear in mind right now. Yes, the preaching can be a bit distracting, but so long as it’s not all-consuming and the stories themselves remain interesting, I won’t have a serious problem with it.

Plus the historical setting is an interesting one to examine anyway, in the same fashion as the historical adventures from William Hartnell’s day. Unlike most of those stories, there are technically aliens present; but they are less important than the human characters, who are the ones that generate the real conflict. The issues involved are handled respectfully and effectively, with the pro-division antagonists being handled better than in Rosa; we may not agree with Manish, but we can understand why he feels the way he does better than Krasko. Having most of the violence be far away gives the episode a more low-key feel, and provides an appreciation of the impact on ordinary people.

This episode was written by Vinay Patel, making it the first this season not to be written or co-written by Chris Chibnall. But I have to confess, the dialogue felt a bit stilted on occasion. Still, the direction is good, along with the music and scenery. Admittedly, the filming took place in Spain, not India; maybe that’s why the characters could go running through fields without any concern for getting bitten by snakes!

The overall tone feels bleak and grim, the atmosphere more reminiscent of Torchwood than the average episode of Doctor Who (minus the sex and swearing, obviously). It’s certainly not an episode that one can call ‘fun’. But it is at least very compelling.

Smaller Points

  • The Doctor is presumably thinking of Father’s Day from Season 1 when she expresses concern about mixing family history with time travel – and some aspects of the third act do feel very reminscent of that episode.
  • Plenty of opportunity for Thirteen to express both her unique and typical-Doctor qualities here: saying she’s being too nice for letting Yasmin see her grandma but following her into the house anyway; babbling to hide her worry when she materialises in the Thijarian ship; and showing off her practical scientist side again. Previous Doctors obviously cared deeply about their companions, yet Thirteen’s line “We can’t have a universe with no Yaz!” still feels more personal and empathetic than most of them. Maybe the speech about love at the wedding was going a bit over-the-top, though.
  • The Thijarians have a classic monster design: sort of a cross between bats, spiders and hogs. You’d think that the (former) deadliest assassins in the universe would appear a bit more athletic, though. The twist about them changing their mission was a very good one; their explanation about watching over those who die alone gave me goosebumps.
  • I liked the scene between Graham and Yasmin, a pair we haven’t seen alone together much, if at all.
  • The ending is certainly emotional, but I felt it dragged out too long given that we’d already been told what was going to happen.

While this episode had some minor flaws that prevented me from giving it a higher rating, I’d say it narrowly beats Rosa as the strongest episode of the season so far. And they’re both episodes focussed on real-life history – how about that? Rating: 4/5.

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Doctor Who – Series 11, Episode 5: “The Tsuranga Conundrum”

  • Thirteen has been a pretty friendly, cheerful and purely heroic Doctor thus far, but it’s good how this episode shows she’s still not perfect, with Astos pointing out how selfish she’s being for wanting to turn the hospital ship around.
  • Considering how feared it’s supposed to be, the Pting doesn’t exactly have a intimidating design. It would be quite cute and cuddly if it wasn’t trying to bite everything in sight. Maybe that’s the point, as the Doctor eventually deduces that it’s not malevolent, just hungry.
  • Good job of piling on the pressure: as if the indestructible alien destroying the ship isn’t bad enough, let’s throw a bomb in there too!
  • I wasn’t sure of the purposes of all the side characters at first, but there ends up being some sort of character arc and meaningful role in the story for everybody, even if it’s just an emotional one for Yoss the pregnant man.
  • As for the human members of Team TARDIS, I like how our knowledge of them is being built upon episode by episode. It’s good how the scene between Ryan and Yasmin, when Ryan explains about his mostly absent dad, ties into him calming Yoss’s fears about fatherhood later on.
  • I like the Doctor’s enthusiastic explanation of the antimatter drive (“the iPhone version of CERN”), and I also love this line from Graham on watching Call The Midwife: “While you’ve been mucking around on YouTube, I’ve been learning useful life skills!”
  • Next episode is set in India! This should be good.

We’re halfway through this series, and it’s been remarkably stable so far in terms of quality. Nothing spectacular, but every episode has been either good or very good, if a little preachy at times. This one was certainly better than most of the adventures confined to the samey environment of a space station. It has a lot to work with – from the main plot, to the quieter emotional scenes, to the large number of characters and their different arcs – but it all fits together very well without feeling jarring or swollen. Rating: 4/5.

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Talking First Man

Last Friday, Rachel Wagner and I recorded a video together again – our twentieth video together, in fact – to discuss the recent Neil Armstrong biopic First Man. Though we agreed on some aspects, our overall opinions of the film were quite different; and I enjoyed being able to elaborate upon some of the technical details and parts of space history that were depicted in the film.

Rachel also has a sound-only version here, and her personal review of First Man can be read here.

Rachel and I will be having another video discussion before long, alongside Jeremy and Abby Kidd, to talk about Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald once we’ve all seen it!

 

 

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Doctor Who – Series 11, Episode 4: “Arachnids in the UK”

  • According to Wikipedia, there’s only four episodes this season that aren’t written or co-written by Chris Chibnall. Fortunately, he’s been producing good work so far.
  • So there’s more focus on Yasmin this episode – we’re introduced to her family and she gets a significant share of the dialogue. The amount of exposure that each member of Team TARDIS has gotten is now pretty well balanced.
  • The facial acting by Bradley Walsh when Graham’s back in his house is heartbreaking. I like how you don’t get a clear look at Grace the first two times that he imagines her – just at the end.
  • The CGI spiders look good, but I didn’t find them especially scary somehow, certainly no scarier than the average Doctor Who monster.
  • Jack Robertson’s overall character – the ruthless, selfish businessman who refuses to accept responsibility when things go wrong – may not be a new one, but Chris Noth certainly handles it convincingly. Also I like Ryan and Graham’s reactions when they first meet and recognise him.
  • Even with a new showrunner, Doctor Who can’t resist making an anti-Trump comment or two. If anything, it’s even more blatant in sending a political message here, with Robertson’s attitudes and Graham saying “God help us all” when he gets away at the end. I was actually quite surprised that Robertson survives and gets away with his actions instead of suffering a karmic death of some description. Maybe he’s another one who’s going to come back later on.
  • And there’s an anti-pollution message too – but as with last week, it’s still a message that needs to go out.
  • Jade is a pretty terrible zoologist. She says that she’s studying “arachnids and arthropods” when arachnids are arthropods – it’s like saying that you’re studying mice and rodents. She anthropomorphises by wondering if the spiders are “confused or angry or scared” – they’re spiders, their brains aren’t quite at that level! And she commits the ultimate sin of referring to spiders as “poisonous” when they are in fact venomous. Try referring to “poisonous snakes” in a room full of herpetologists and see where it gets you.
  • When Jade was giving her spider exposition in the laboratory, I was half-expecting to see Peter Parker taking pictures to one side.
  • When the Doctor brought up the idea of using vibrations to attract the spiders, my immediate thought was, “Turn on some Barry White, like in that Whacking Day episode of The Simpsons!” And then it was, “Hang on – they are actually doing something along those lines!”
  • Only at the end does the episode decide to address the physical limitations that would actually prevent a terrestrial spider from growing to the size of a bear – if that mother spider was going to suffocate, surely she should have done it well before she reached that size.
  • Just because the Doctor doesn’t like guns, she would rather let the mother spider suffocate slowly than die quickly from a gunshot? Despite his primary motivations being far from benevolent, Robertson was right – it’s a mercy killing; but because he’s the antagonist of the episode, it’s treated as a bad thing.
  • So Graham, Ryan and Yasmin all want to continue travelling with the Doctor to escape from something – not sure how emotionally healthy that is, but they’ve done a good job of delving into these characters’ minds so far.

With the characters returning to Earth, this episode felt like The Woman Who Fell To Earth in that it was about as grounded as a show of this nature can be, in spite of the flimsy science involved. The story was interesting, and the relatively large group of characters was used well, with a reasonable amount of mystery about what was going on and how much each character knew. Rating: 4/5.

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National Novel Writing Month 2018: Number Ten!

NaNo-2018-Writer-Badge

Another National Novel Writing Month is just around the corner. At this point, I’ve gotten so used to this annual ritual that it would feel wrong if I wasn’t spending November trying to write at least 1,667 words per day. I started all the way back in 2009, so this is my tenth year doing the November NaNoWriMo – and I’m looking to maintain my 100% completion record!

Since this is my tenth NaNoWriMo, I decided early on that I wanted to do something a bit out of the ordinary. Inspiration came from the notebook in which I jot down potential ideas and topics that might make interesting stories one day – but this time I wasn’t sticking to just one idea. I picked out all of my favourite ideas which I hadn’t done full stories for yet, and wondered if I could somehow pile them all into a single piece of work. For a little while, I played with somehow making a cohesive novel-length story out of the material, but soon lost enthusiasm for that idea. Instead, I decided to do a collection of short stories.

Right now, I’ve got a list of the story concepts I’m going to work with, and varying levels of planning for each one. I also want to try and link the stories; one idea I had was inspired by Tom Hanks’ short story collection Uncommon Type, in which he features a typewriter in each of his tales. My aim is to fit snakes into each of my stories, being the snake-lover that I am; maybe not always a living, physical snake, but at least some sort of ophidian reference.

Here’s to another fun and frantic November. Please let me know in the comments if you are also doing NaNoWriMo, and check out the videos about NaNoWriMo that I made last year!

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Film review: First Man

First Man

Directed by La La Land‘s Damien Chazelle, First Man is a biopic of test pilot and astronaut Neil Armstrong, based on the biography of the same name written by James R. Hansen. I’d read the book, and I love anything to do with space travel, so I was always going to be excited for this film. Still, I was expecting a pretty basic approach to the source material, which is the approach most filmmakers would probably have taken. And First Man proved to be a long way from those expectations. As I watched it, I found myself reflecting on Apollo 13, and how that film – which begins with Armstrong’s moon landing, and covers events that happened shortly afterwards in the American space programme – is designed more for mass appeal, with its neat structure, James Horner-composed score, and awe-inspiring story of triumph in the face of adversity. First Man, on the other hand, is not the sort of film that will appeal to everyone. But while I can’t say I liked it better than Apollo 13, I thought it was amazing, and the best film I’ve seen this year. Hopefully its quality will carry over to success at the Oscars, which it certainly deserves.

Hansen’s book, and other sources I’ve looked at, paint a picture of Neil Armstrong as reserved, analytical, and unknowable – and that’s exactly how he is portrayed here by Ryan Gosling. But when making a biopic about such a man, keeping the audience invested in who he is and not just the things he did is potentially challenging. The film takes a few different approaches to maintain an appropriate level of drama. It starts off with Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) losing their baby daughter Karen to a brain tumour in 1962; Neil is deeply affected, but doesn’t express his grief to others, and his memories of Karen continue to impact him inwardly in the years that follow, even as he focuses all his effort and talent on his astronaut career. While at NASA, he loses friends and co-workers in tragic accidents, and has to deal with that too. Interspersed throughout are snapshots of his family life, and what Janet herself goes through, not just having a husband performing a very risky job, but one who doesn’t even open up to her very much. As you can probably tell, the overall tone is rather more sombre than that of similar films and TV productions about the early days of NASA.

Watching the film, I was invested in and fascinated by both Neil and Janet, completely seeing the characters and not the actors. Enigmatic as he is, Gosling’s Neil is still human – though I would have liked the film to demonstrate the lighter side of his personality a bit more than it does. Missing from the film, for example, is Michael Collins’s comment on Apollo 11 after the lunar module undocking: “You’ve got a fine-looking machine there, Eagle, despite the fact you’re upside down.” To which Neil replied, “Somebody’s upside down.”

The script itself seems to reflect Neil’s mind and personality in how focussed it is. Any time spent building the big picture of America’s effort to put a man on the Moon is limited – the centre is Neil, and that approach in itself makes this film feel different from what has come before. A lot of what’s going on in the background has to be pieced together from snippets; sometimes this works, but other times it makes the film feel incomplete – the buildup to the Apollo 11 mission feels quite rushed, for example. The focus on Neil and Janet comes at the expense of most of the other real-life characters, many of whom only get named in passing, and then just their first names. Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) gets a couple of moments to establish himself as outspoken and brutally honest; but poor Michael Collins, the third man of Apollo 11, is barely even there. There is also material which gets left out that I would have liked to see included, such as the argument over whether Neil and Buzz would be first to step onto the Moon, or the bombardment of public attention that Neil faced after becoming the titular First Man.

With so many potential aspects of Neil’s life to work with from the book, the film has to be selective – but it knows how it wants to do things, and sticks to the relevant bits. The end result is very well paced, and very emotional, especially by the end; and any historical inaccuracies I noticed were few and minor, which is always a plus. There was controversy before the film’s release, when it was revealed that there would be no scene of Neil and Buzz planting the American flag on the Moon; some suggested that its absence was in the name of modern political correctness. Once it was established that the flag was at least still visible next to the Lunar Module and hadn’t been removed altogether, I felt it was no big deal. (Then again, I’m not American.) Having seen the film, though, I can say that the absence of the flag-planting is not merely excusable, but appropriate. This film isn’t telling the audience about a great American achievement – that’s been done. This is the story of a man’s personal journey, which coincided with that great American achievement; and for him, there are more important things than planting a flag.

The cinematography in First Man feels personal too, with lots of intimate close-up shots, as well as camera movements and a grainy colour palette that resemble old home video. This style is used to its greatest effect in the flying and spaceflight sequences, where the film aims to put the audience themselves in the cockpit, or at least very close to it. During the opening scene of Neil flying the X-15 aircraft, for example, the shots are either inside the cockpit, or from the perspective of an imaginary camera attached to the fuselage; we don’t get a proper external view of the X-15 until after Neil has landed it. I was particularly blown away by the scene where Neil is launched on his first spaceflight, Gemini 8, which uses POV shots to bring us right up to the waiting Gemini spacecraft and show us how crude and claustrophobic it looks. Then comes the noise and violence of the launch itself from the astronauts’ perspective, with no triumphant instrumental score accompanying them on their way, and a rare example of ‘shaky cam’ being used effectively.

The more intense scenes like this – which manage to generate serious tension even if you know how things turn out – are overwhelming to the senses: I never felt motion-sick trying to follow the shaky cam, but the bombardment of sound was something else. This is a very loud film when it wants to be. And yet it knows when to be quiet, too: there are many important and powerful scenes which have no background music. And whenever the score by Justin Hurwitz does make an appearance, it’s simple and hits all the right emotional chords.

Even though First Man is not a perfect or traditional telling of the story of Neil Armstrong and the space programme, Damien Chazelle clearly knew what he wanted to achieve, and the end product works. Everything this film does well, it does especially well. It is an incredible, immersive, hard-hitting and unique experience. And ‘experience’ is definitely the right word. Rating: 5/5!

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Real Space Voyages at Destination Star Trek

When I went to the Destination Star Trek convention at the National Exhbition Centre in Birmingham last Saturday, it was as a casual Star Trek fan. I was pleased to say hello to and get autographs from some of the guests, such as Gates McFadden (Dr Beverly Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager). There was also Alice Krige, who played the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact, but who I mainly knew from Chariots of Fire, a film I love. The things that I enjoyed most about the event, however, related to less fictional space exploration.

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In attendance was real-life astronaut Fred Haise, the lunar module pilot of Apollo 13. Having already met Ken Mattingly and Jim Lovell at Space Lectures in Pontefract, getting to see Fred meant that I had now met the entire original Apollo 13 crew! (Jack Swigert, the command module pilot who ended up replacing Mattingly on the flight, is sadly no longer with us.) Fred gave a lecture later in the day, where he talked about not only Apollo 13 – his only spaceflight – but the work he did flying approach and landing tests of the prototype Space Shuttle Orbiter, which was (appropriately for the occasion) named Enterprise. He mentioned that he felt more pressure flying Enterprise than he had when working on Apollo; after all, if anything went wrong, there was no replacement Orbiter and only so much funding! Haise ultimately left NASA in 1979, before the Shuttle was ready for space; despite the disappointment of not getting to walk on the Moon, he said that today he looks back and feels happy with his career. I couldn’t help but note that he still has a cheeky smile exactly like that in his astronaut pictures.

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There was a small Science and Education Area being manned by various scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA). Also in that area was Mat Irvine, who worked as a technical consultant and visual effects designer on such BBC shows as Doctor Who and Blake’s 7; he was there with his models of real-life spacecraft, most of which had been used for demonstrative purposes in programmes like Stargazing Live. His models of Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project were being used back in the 1970s when those missions actually flew.

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The ESA scientists also gave lectures on the projects they had been working on. The one I found most interesting was by Richard Moissl, who talked about BepiColombo, a mission which had successfully launched at 2:45am British time that very morning – Moissl’s explanation for why he might have looked a little bleary-eyed. A joint venture between the ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, BepiColombo will be only the third space mission to visit the planet Mercury, after Mariner 10 and MESSENGER. Moissl went into detail about BepiColombo’s components, its flight path, and what it will do when it arrives at its destination. As anyone who has tried to get to Moho on Kerbal Space Program can appreciate, going into orbit around Mercury is difficult due to the incredibly high speeds created by the Sun’s gravitational pull, and Mercury’s low gravitational force. That is why it will take BepiColombo seven years to reach that point, using flybys of Earth, Venus and Mercury itself to burn off speed with minimum fuel expenditure, until it slows down enough to enter orbit in December 2025.

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Upon arrival, the spacecraft will split into two orbiters: Japan’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter and Europe’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter. The wide range of instruments on both spacecraft will study Mercury’s terrain, its very thin atmosphere, its magnetic field, local radiation, any dust rising from the surface, and the irregular gravitational forces. One objective is to learn more about Mercury’s interior, which features an especially large iron core; later, when Moissl was in the Science Area, I asked him about how BepiColombo would study this. He explained that by measuring the effects of gravity on the spacecraft with its spring accelerometer, and recording anomalies, inferences can be made on the density of the interior, and it can be determined which of the various theoretical models best match reality. These measurements can also be used to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity with extra precision; when Albert Einstein came up with this theory of how gravity works and applied it to high-gravity environments (e.g. the orbit of Mercury), he was able to account for small shifts in Mercury’s orbit more accurately than Isaac Newton’s older theories of gravity and motion.

It’s really fascinating to learn more about exactly how space scientists draw conclusions from the experiments they send into space, sometimes through inferences rather than direct observations. The lecture on BepiColombo contained an appropriate quote from Mr Spock, worth bearing in mind when thinking about space probes: “Instruments register only those things they are designed to register. Space still contains infinite unknowns.” There is so much more to learn, hence why we have BepiColombo, and many more ESA spacecraft which have received less media attention.

Conventions usually leave me feeling cheerful and refreshed, and this one was no exception.

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Doctor Who – Series 11, Episode 3: “Rosa”

  • When I saw the preview for this week’s episode at the end of last week’s, my first thought was whether the promotion of diversity this series was going a bit overboard. My second thought was, “Can we honestly say the world doesn’t need a reminder like this right now?”
  • I can’t recall seeing a shot like that before where the camera moves through the scene to the spot where the TARDIS materialises – certainly not in the Russell T Davies era, at least. We also don’t tend to get people around the Doctor reacting with eagerness when s/he namedrops famous people, as with Graham here when he clearly wants to give Elvis a ring.
  • The depiction of 1950s American segregation here is really disturbing. There’s a constant sense of danger, but it’s not coming from any aliens this time round, just from ordinary human beings. It’s certainly a painful culture shock for 21st-century boy Ryan.
  • The whole concept of this episode is a good one: taking a critical point in history and bringing the butterfly effect into play, threatening to derail it with small changes – no aliens trying to take over the world or anything like that. It’s almost like the historical adventures of the William Hartnell era; indeed, one adventure from those days, ‘The Time Meddler’, utilised a similar idea, with the antagonist trying to help Harold Godwinson win the Battle of Hastings. We get to learn a lot about Rosa Parks (played excellently by Vinette Robinson) and I like all the investigating and planning that the TARDIS team have to do, as well as the initiative they have to take in countering the villain’s responses. It’s not flawless, though: some of the education feels forced, and the episode drags a little in the middle.
  • It’s good how Graham, Ryan and Yasmin all get involved in the hard work this episode, with an even division of labour – definitely an improvement from last week.
  • I would have liked the villain Krasko to have some motivation beyond “evil racist white man who wants blacks to be put in their place”. And he doesn’t even get any proper comeuppance, unless he returns later in the series, which seems likely given how open-ended his fate is. He also manages to work awfully quickly once the Doctor and co start spoiling his plans, like getting those notices about the bus cancellations printed and distributing them appropriately.
  • So with all this emphasis on how tiny changes can alter the course of history, is there no risk that Elias Griffin Jr making an unplanned trip to Las Vegas and meeting Frank Sinatra will change anything? Or maybe the Doctor’s playing the Time Lord card and just knows that it’s okay.

Although the execution wasn’t flawless, this was still a strong episode which recreates and utilises real-life history in an effective and relevant way. As TV Tropes says, Some Anvils Need To Be Dropped. Rating: 4/5.

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Doctor Who – Series 11, Episode 2: “The Ghost Monument”

  • I like the setup in this episode – the idea of a rally across planets – and how the Doctor and co are motivated to stick with the competitors by having the Ghost Monument actually be the TARDIS.
  • Hey, Ilin is the bad guy from True Lies.
  • Thirteen is still great, with such gems as commenting that her new friends, having been abruptly transported into space and landed on an alien planet, are “being very good not going on about it.”
  • Maybe it’s still too early for Graham, Ryan and Yasmin to have proper roles in the TARDIS, given that in this episode, they were quite literally just along for the ride. But while Graham and Ryan at least contributed to fixing the boat, and Ryan made an unsuccessful attempt to defeat the Sniperbots, Yasmin didn’t really get to do anything this episode. Hopefully having three companions will be properly justified in time. Plus there were also hints of continuing development in Graham and Ryan’s relationship.
  • It’s also good how Epzo and Angstrom get developed a bit beyond the hard, cynical survivor characters we’ve seen plenty of times before in Doctor Who. The quiet talking scenes on and around the boat journey work well.
  • Graham calls the Doctor “Doc”. I like that.
  • The bit where Yasmin tells Ryan that climbing ladders despite his dyspraxia is “second nature” now, and he replies, “No, not really,” is very good. A subtle reminder that disabilities don’t just disappear with enough willpower – it can get easier, but not effortless.
  • So the Stenza have been seen or mentioned in both episodes we’ve had so far – are they going to represent an arc for this season, like Bad Wolf or Mr Saxon? The scene where the Doctor is referred to as the “Timeless Child” also hints at something unresolved.
  • That ending felt a bit too neat for me.
  • I have mixed feelings about the new TARDIS interior. I like how cavernous it feels, and the background underwater-style noises, but I didn’t like those incomplete hexagonal frames surrounding the central control panel.

This was a simple, minimalist episode, and for the most part, it was solid. I would have given it an extra half-mark had the ending been more satisfying. Rating: 3.5/5.

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Announcement – a new blog!

I’ve been working on this blog for nearly five years now; I’ve talked about all sorts of things, and it’s been great fun. But now I’ve decided to bring a little more organisation to my blogging.

I’ve set up a new blog at https://richardsnatureblog.wordpress.com which I intend to reserve for my posts focussed on nature and wildlife. Of course, I’ll still be updating this blog, which will continue to be used for reviews and personal thoughts.

I’m currently blogging about my recent volunteer trip to India on my new blog, so check it out if you’re interested!

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