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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Doctor Who – Series 11, Episode 1: “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”

Finally, finally, Doctor Who is back! New showrunner, new Doctor, new gender. So, what’s the verdict?

Big Things

  • To my relief and pleasure, I really, really like Jodie Whittaker here. After all that concern, it’s no trouble at all to accept her as the Doctor. Almost as soon as she appeared on the train, I got a slight David Tennant vibe from how energetic she was; and her talk with Yasmin, where she brought brutally honest sense to the situation, was very Doctor-esque. I like her gestures, from touching her tongue on the train, to seeing her with her sleeves rolled up after making the sonic screwdriver, to her “Eureka!” expression where she opens her mouth and throws up her hands. Thirteen also seems to be friendlier, more empathic and more of a typical hero than Twelve, like when she apologises for not being able to resolve the situation yet – and as much as I appreciate complex protagonists, I do love a hero who’s just a nice person.
  • Having four people running around after the Doctor in this episode did feel like a bit too much. It’s going to take some time to know them properly, but Ryan, Yasmin and Graham all seem a decent bunch, and we do get glimpses that make us admire them, like Ryan’s decision to climb up the crane despite his dyspraxia. Since we already knew Grace wouldn’t be travelling with them, I predicted to myself that she was going to die, but I was still sad when it happened.
  • I absolutely love the musical score by Segun Akinola, especially in the Doctor’s building-the-sonic-screwdriver montage. The latest version of the theme tune that plays over the end credits is very good – after ten series of getting further and further away from the theme styles of Classic Who, this one is closer to the 60s and 70s version than New Who has ever been.
  • I’m not a fan of that new sonic screwdriver, though. It looks like the Doctor made it out of a Cyberman’s finger.
  • I can see the difference in atmosphere and direction under showrunner/writer Chris Chibnall and director Jamie Childs. Outside of the sci-fi elements, it feels darker and more real, from the spooky sequence on the train, to Graham revealing that he’s in remission from cancer, to the guy picking vegetables out of his takeaway. I’ve never actually watched Broadchurch, but this does feel appropriate for someone who previously worked on a crime drama.

Little Things

  • 19 people viewed Ryan’s YouTube video, and 13 of them bothered to give it a thumbs up or down? Pull the other one. If those 11 thumbs up and 2 thumbs down are meant to represent 13 Doctors, which two are the thumbs down? (I bet one is Colin Baker.)
  • I feel cheated that we didn’t get to see a new title sequence in this first episode.
  • A police officer who’s just starting out and feels she’s not being challenged enough – so Yasmin is basically Judy Hopps?
  • Graham thinks there’s no such thing as aliens? Did he seriously miss everything that happened in the last ten series, plus the more high-profile stuff in Torchwood? Or is it just that with a new showrunner, they’re starting from scratch and putting a block on references to the past, except for Thirteen saying “Half an hour ago, I was a white-haired Scotsman.”
  • The climactic crane scene is very well done, with a real sense of danger and the height involved.

So this was a very promising first episode. It took a while for a proper sense of the story to emerge, but it was simple and coherent once it came together. As I said, Jodie Whittaker has made an excellent start, though she couldn’t help but draw attention away from the less interesting side characters in the process – hopefully they’ll be handled better in episodes to come. Rating: 3.5/5.

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Film review: Venom

Venom Poster

When I published my pre-Venom thoughts a few days ago, I was feeling optimistic for the film. Then I started seeing the critical reviews and the reactions on Twitter, and most of them were not favourable, with a couple comparing it to 2004’s Catwoman in terms of atrociousness. Damning, indeed. But I don’t always agree with the critics – I found merit in Terminator: Genisys, for instance – and besides, if Venom really was that bad, it might even be fun. There’s a difference between being bad like Catwoman, and being bad like Batman v Superman, and I will take the former any day of the week.

Tonight, I saw the film. Verdict: my optimism was sadly misplaced. It’s bad, and despite some tentative knocking at the door, not quite bad enough to be fun.

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative journalist who, when given the chance to interview space-tech entrepreneur Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), tries to confront him with accusations of dangerous experimentation. This proves a mistake, as Eddie loses both his job and his fiancee Anne (Michelle Williams). Six months later, struggling to make ends meet, Eddie is reluctantly persuaded to investigate Drake again; it turns out that Drake has obtained alien organisms called symbiotes, and is trying to bond them to human hosts, in the hopes of allowing humans to colonise other planets. After infiltrating Drake’s facility, Eddie ends up becoming host himself to a symbiote named Venom, granting him super-powers, a sinister voice inside his head, and a strong desire to eat living flesh.

The beginning of the film is painfully dull; Eddie only bonds with the symbiote around the 40 minute mark, and it takes another 20 minutes for him to make a full transformation into Venom. From there, the film is certainly better, but still can’t be called good. Most of it feels very generic, less like a Venom film and more like the pilot for a Venom TV series. There is little effort put in: from Michelle Williams’s reluctantly supportive love interest; to Riz Ahmed’s corrupt villain, claiming that his work will save the world; to the action scenes where everything seemed to blend together and there was no real sense of time passing. The story and characters were so underdeveloped that I sometimes felt more like I was watching puppets going through the motions than living, breathing human characters. The script has such amazing examples of dialogue as the symbiote telling Eddie, “On my planet, I am kind of a loser, like you,” and wanting to convert some vanquished goons into a “pile of bodies, pile of heads.”

What makes it worse is that the potential was clearly there, and being squandered in favour of a rushed and lazy approach. Venom himself looks and sounds great – I especially liked the liquid movements and watery sound effects when the symbiote comes out to speak face-to-face with Eddie – and he gets some decent moments, hurling himself up the sides of buildings and single-handedly decimating an entire SWAT team. It should be noted that in spite of the promises of the trailers, which place emphasis on Venom threatening to eat people, the carnage is very much bloodless – and thus, disappointingly stale.

Eddie and Venom’s interactions are easily a highlight of the film, providing a laugh here and there, with Eddie trying desperately to keep his new buddy’s urges in check and the symbiote considering Eddie to be a “pussy”. But again, there was much more that could have been done with this; instead, alongside the back-and-forth banter, we get Venom giving a vague warning that more symbiotes are coming to destroy the planet, and then in the third act, he suddenly decides he’s enjoying living on Earth and is going to stop the threat. Tom Hardy recently revealed that his favourite parts of the film – 30-40 minutes’ worth – ended up on the cutting room floor; I have no difficulty in believing that from watching the final product. As for Hardy’s performance, maybe it’s the effect of the cuts, but I don’t know how he’s trying to approach things a lot of the time, and I’m not sure that even he does; he stumbles awkwardly from scene to scene, sometimes manic enough to be uncomfortable but not enough to be amusing.

If you watch the trailers and pre-released clips of Venom, you’re essentially seeing the best parts; beyond that, the film has little to offer but wasted potential. If a Venom film isn’t going to have him fighting Spider-Man, it should at least put some effort into playing with the character, and this film just doesn’t invest enough. If this is what we can expect from Morbius and any other stand-alone films Sony is making with Marvel characters (assuming they go ahead at all now), it’s going to take a lot to get me into my seat at the cinema. Rating: 2/5.

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My First 10K!

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This morning, three weeks after completing my second triathlon, it was time for the first 10K event I’ve ever attempted: the City of Preston 10K. Happily, I wasn’t alone; my sister Jade, who has previously completed two marathons, would be running with me. Last weekend, we ran 10.16km together in 54 minutes 52 seconds, and I found it was easier to do it with a partner; the talking often kept me distracted from the exertion.

It was very crowded as we took our positions at the start, around the Preston Flag Market; around 1800 people were taking part, according to the announcer. Having never taken part in a running event like this before, I wasn’t sure what effect the surrounding people would have. By the time we crossed the start line, however, there was plenty of space to work with – though on some of the paths later on, it was necessary to run on the verge to overtake people.

The run took us south, through Avenham Park, to the River Ribble, which we followed east before crossing over and heading back west again. Congestion did slow us down on some of these narrow paths, as we were forced to go in single-file. Meanwhile, whether it was the inclines or navigating through the other runners, the run felt much harder than it had the previous weekend. On that occasion, I had gotten more into my stride for the second half; but by the time we crossed the river again, just short of the 8km mark, I felt knackered, and it was becoming more and more tempting to join the competitors who had slowed to a walking pace. When we came back to Avenham Park, there was one more punishing uphill climb before we could get back to the Flag Market.

Still, Jade and I both forced ourselves to keep going, and we were still running when we crossed the finish line! My personal target had been to finish in less than an hour – and I just made it, with a time of 59:08. Not bad for a first attempt! Next year, I’m going to try a half marathon if I can manage it.

I’ve been completing these events to raise money for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, on this JustGiving page – donations can still be made and are much appreciated!

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Venom: My Thoughts Before Seeing The Film

I was first introduced to the character of Venom in Spider-Man: The Animated Series in the 1990s, where he became one of my favourite villains despite only appearing in a few episodes. Since then, I’ve experienced more of Venom through comics, video games and various other sources, and I still think he’s great. He’s one of those villains who sees himself as the good guy, motivated by his hatred of Spider-Man rather than a desire for power or money; he has a devilish sense of humour; and he has a very strong coolness factor, in both his look, and the fact that he’s a fusion between a human being and a symbiotic alien that was previously bonded to Spider-Man.

The trouble with bringing Venom to the big screen – at least if you’re taking the traditional route – is that he has such a long and complicated backstory compared to most comic-book villains. You have to introduce the symbiote, have it bond to Spider-Man, have Spider-Man use it for a while, gradually realise the negative consequences and reject it. At the same time, you have to introduce Eddie Brock and how he comes to hate Spider-Man. Then you bring Brock and the symbiote together, and have them go to war against Spider-Man.

With the benefit of hindsight, it feels like it should have been obvious back in 2007 that Spider-Man 3‘s inclusion of Venom would be less than satisfying. Maybe you could pull it off in a single movie if it were entirely devoted to the symbiote storyline, but Spider-Man 3 was going to have Sandman and Harry Osborn as villains as well. Nor did it help that director Sam Raimi wasn’t really interested in Venom and only included the symbiote because the studio pressured him into it. But in the buildup to the film, I wasn’t thinking about the practicalities; I just thought it was great that Venom was going to be there, and judging by the message boards I read, there was plenty of excitement about it among other fans.

And then the film came out.

SM3 Venom

To be fair, Topher Grace, who played Eddie Brock/Venom, did his best with the material he had to work with. But physically, he was a far cry from the muscle-bound Venom of the comics. With the sheer number of subplots in the two-and-a-half hour film, there was limited time to properly develop Eddie as a character. Once he became Venom (a moniker which only appeared in the end credits), he kept peeling back his symbiote-face for conversations, and tended to shriek rather than talk when he had it on. He barely got to trade any punches with Spider-Man, given that he was sharing the climactic action scene with Sandman. And on top of that, the final battle ended with both Eddie and the symbiote getting blown up, removing them from the franchise. I was disappointed, to put it mildly.

There was a lot of denial online afterwards, with some fans suggesting that Eddie and/or the symbiote had actually survived and could therefore come back in a sequel – even though you could momentarily see the silhouette of Eddie’s skeleton in the explosion, which made the odds of his survival pretty low. Of course, as it turned out, that particular franchise ended with Spider-Man 3 anyway. But it wasn’t long after the film’s release when Sony began talking about a Venom solo project. Maybe this could do the character justice, even in the absence of Spider-Man?

Years went by, and nothing solid actually materialised. It wasn’t until 2017, when it was announced that Tom Hardy was going to be playing Venom in a solo film, that it really looked like something was happening – but I was older, wiser and a bit more cynical, so I didn’t get my hopes up. The casting of Hardy, who is both a fine actor, and considerably bulkier and more imposing than Topher Grace, was obviously an improvement. However, the fact that the film wasn’t going to be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe made me uncertain about how good it would actually be. Sony could easily make a hash of it.

It seemed to take ages for any promotional material to come out; and when a teaser did appear, my worst fears seemed to be confirmed, as it offered nothing to get excited about. Then came the first proper trailer; at the end, we see the symbiote’s jaws slide over Eddie’s face and, with a toothy grin and a cheerfully malevolent twitch of his eyes, he declares, “We….are Venom.” With just three words, he improves upon the Spider-Man 3 version in two separate ways. Suddenly, this film looked far more concrete and interesting. The second trailer, and the clips that have been released, look even better: Venom looks big, slimy and mean, with his sense of humour intact, and hopefully the final film isn’t going to skimp on his appearances. One recently released clip which features the symbiote talking telepathically to Eddie during an action scene actually made me laugh.

In an ideal world, Venom would be incorporated into the juggernaut that is the MCU and we could see him going toe-to-toe with Spider-Man, this time done right. Still, I’m feeling optimistic about this solo film right now. Even if Spider-Man is taken out of the equation, it’s still perfectly possible to just make a good story about a man who gets superpowers from becoming host to an alien symbiote who wants to eat people.

So, I’ll let you know what I think when I see the film next week!

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What’s All The Fuss About Nagini?

When re-reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what kind of snake Voldemort’s companion, Nagini, was supposed to be. Like the deadly swamp adder in the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, Nagini’s characteristics – she is ‘diamond-patterned’, venomous, and as demonstrated in the opening chapter of Deathly Hallows, big enough to swallow a human – cannot be properly matched to any real species of snake. Nor is she a match for any magical serpent mentioned in the Harry Potter mythology, like the Basilisk or the Runespoor. The CGI Nagini in the films is modelled on a reticulated python, but real reticulated pythons are not venomous. My best guess until this week was that Nagini was a European adder (Vipera berus), magically enlarged by Voldemort: this particular snake has a zigzag pattern which looks vaguely diamond-ish in at least some individuals; it can be found in Albania (where Voldemort presumably first encountered Nagini); and it is also the only venomous snake in Britain, so could potentially have been what JK Rowling was picturing in her mind.

However, the most recent trailer for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has confirmed a different theory: that Nagini used to be a human, played by South Korean actress Claudia Kim. As explained by Rowling, the character is a Maledictus, a woman who carries a blood curse which dooms her to eventually transform into an animal permanently.

There have been many people on social media who have not been happy with this revelation. Some Harry Potter fans consider it another example of Rowling messing with her own canon again, pulling another significant ‘fact’ about the wizarding world out of thin air, like when she outed Dumbledore as gay. Even louder, however, have been the declarations that casting an Asian woman as Nagini is racist, the argument being that there are relatively few minority characters in Rowling’s canon, and this particular example ends up becoming a “slave” to the main villain (who happens to be a white male) and is eventually decapitated by one of the heroes.

Regarding the first criticism, I am well aware that there are plenty of flaws in Rowling’s writing and world-building. And some of the new facts she dishes out about her canon can feel a little random and jarring. It even happens in the books themselves sometimes; was there ever any hint of Metamorphmagi before Order of the Phoenix? But then, Rowling has every right to continue building on the world she created, or use what notes she has kept in reserve, not least because the books are told from the limited point of view of a teenager who knows nothing about magic until he is eleven and never sets foot outside Britain through the course of the series. A new element of the wizarding world is not a problem if it’s something Harry would not necessarily have learned about, only if it violates what Rowling has already laid down.

And maybe this is indeed what Rowling intended all along. I don’t see how it openly contradicts canon. Assuming that Claudia Kim’s character really is the Nagini we know and not an ancestor with the same name, she has been a snake for several decades by the time she meets Voldemort. We don’t know the details of the Maledictus curse and how much humanity she can retain in her mind once transformed, though she must at least remember her name for Voldemort to know it. And even if Voldemort does know what she is, why would he bring it up in front of Harry or anyone else? While Nagini’s origin was never a gap that was essential to fill, it was still a gap, and I’m personally pleased that it’s being filled in The Crimes of Grindelwald, in a way that we still have little information about until we see the film. With no other explanation for Nagini’s existence having been given, the Maledictus concept is at least satisfactory at first glance, and potentially fascinating; it could even add an element of tragedy to the character.

(As a side note, I’ve seen some tweets making reference to Voldemort and Wormtail “milking” Nagini, apparently under the impression that this means something more unpleasant than it actually does. “Milking” a snake means extracting the venom, via the fangs. One would hope that not even a Maledictus in snake form produces milk in the familiar sense of the word.)

So what about the allegations of racism? Rowling pointed out on Twitter that an Asian origin for Nagini is not inappropriate; the word ‘nagini’ is the female version of Naga, the name for an Asian snake deity. However, she also referred to the Naga as creatures from Indonesian mythology, leading many people to point out that a) the word comes from Sanskrit, which is Indian, and b) Claudia Kim is Korean – so yes, Rowling could have handled that better. But we don’t know what the character’s ethnic background is actually being presented as in the film, and different cultures do influence one another; surely the name Nagini can be used by people outside its country of origin, especially considering what an appropriate name it is in-universe for somebody cursed to become a snake. Describing Nagini as becoming Voldemort’s “slave” is an oversimplification, and again, we don’t know what’s going on inside her head. Also, we don’t know about the decisions which resulted in Kim getting the part. Could it be that she was considered the most talented person for it?

The more I write of this article, the more it feels like people are making a mountain out of a molehill. In this age of heightened sensitivity, people are ready to complain about anything. If Nagini were being played by a white actress, someone might point out the Asian origins of the name and still accuse the filmmakers of being racist.

To sum up, the film hasn’t come out yet, and I feel we should calm down and wait to find out more about Nagini’s exact role in it before we draw any conclusions. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing Claudia Kim’s performance and discovering more about the Harry Potter series’ most prominent ophidian.

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Doctor Who: The Third Doctor Era (1970-1974)

Third Doctor

When the seventh season of Doctor Who began on 3rd January 1970, there were notable differences from what had come just six months earlier. First, following Patrick Troughton’s departure, there was a new Doctor, played by 50-year-old Jon Pertwee. Second, the show was now broadcast in colour. Third, since the Doctor had been sent into exile by the Time Lords at the end of the sixth season, all of the seventh season’s stories took place on Earth, with the Doctor facing either invading aliens (Spearhead from Space, The Ambassadors of Death) or terrestrial sci-fi threats (Doctor Who and the Silurians, Inferno). But the Third Doctor did not face these problems alone: following his arrival on Earth post-regeneration, he was quickly reunited with his old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), who would now become a regular during Pertwee’s tenure. The Doctor joined United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) as a scientific advisor, with scientist Dr Liz Shaw (Caroline John) as his assistant.

The character of Liz was dropped after just one season, and when the eighth season rolled around, the Doctor was given a new assistant, the perky and innocent Jo Grant (Katy Manning). That season also saw the Doctor gaining a proper arch-nemesis: a nefarious fellow Time Lord named the Master, played by Roger Delgado, a close friend of Jon Pertwee. The Master would turn up to conduct an evil scheme or two in all five stories that season, and then three more across the next two seasons. After simply slipping away at the end of 1973’s Frontier in Space, the Master was supposed to come back for one last adventure (also intended to be the Third Doctor’s final story) which would give the character a proper send-off. But that plan evaporated when, in June 1973, Delgado was tragically killed in a car accident in Turkey.

Third Doctor Group

As well as the Master, the Third Doctor encountered other new villains that would reappear in years to come: the living plastic Autons, the reptilian Silurians and their amphibious cousins the Sea Devils, and the war-hungry Sontarans. At the beginning of 1973 – Doctor Who’s tenth anniversary year – he got to meet his previous incarnations, portrayed once again by William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, in the special The Three Doctors. That same story saw the Time Lords ending the Doctor’s exile and returning control of the TARDIS to him, enabling him to go wandering the universe once more. (The Third Doctor had already left Earth a few times before this, but at the behest of the Time Lords.) The following season, following the departure of Jo Grant, another new companion was introduced: journalist Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen, who would go on to become one of the Doctor’s most popular and distinguished companions.

Third Doctor SJ

On 8th June 1974, at the end of his fifth season playing the Doctor, Jon Pertwee made his final regular appearance on the show in Planet of the Spiders, where the Doctor was forced to regenerate after suffering fatal radiation poisoning. Pertwee would play the Third Doctor again in the 1983 special The Five Doctors, as well as a stage show in 1989 and a Children in Need special in 1993. He died in May 1996, aged 76.

My Thoughts

I found the Third Doctor’s era to be better overall than those of the First and Second Doctors. Certainly the story quality was more consistent, even over the span of five seasons; practically every story is entertaining to at least some degree, and none stand out as being absolutely atrocious. A reduction in numbers of episodes – an average of 26 per season, compared to 42 for the First and Second Doctors combined – may have contributed to this.

After years of seeing the Doctor travelling freely through time and space, temporarily limiting his adventures to 1970s Earth would seem to be a recipe for boredom at first glance, but that’s definitely not the case. It was pleasant to have a relatively grounded setting surrounding the more imaginative sci-fi elements, as well as an excuse for introducing a little military action into the stories, which is directed well and enhanced by the introduction of colour. During the period where the Doctor cannot use his TARDIS, he is sent off-world by other means just enough times for his UNIT surroundings to not get stale. And even when he goes back to freely travelling through space and time, the presentation of each story – from the direction to the music – still feels more stable than in the black-and-white days, like the show has hit its stride.

Jon Pertwee is my joint favourite classic Doctor, alongside Tom Baker; in fact, if I were forced to choose one, I would go with Pertwee. The Third Doctor is very much a gentleman, in both his looks and his disposition. He can be arrogant and crabby, like most Doctors; but he can also be kind and fatherly, which Pertwee handles especially well. He is also a very active and energetic Doctor, sometimes using Venusian martial arts to get out of a difficult situation, and participating in chase sequences with a variety of vehicles.

I was disappointed that Liz Shaw only got one season and four stories, as I would have liked to see her developed further. She was very different from most of the Doctor’s other sidekicks up to this point: more mature, closer to the Doctor’s intellectual level, and not standing for any nonsense. Indeed, that was part of the reason why the character was dropped (in addition to Caroline John becoming pregnant); the producers preferred companions who could serve as audience surrogates. Thus, Jo and Sarah Jane (at least, what we see of her alongside Pertwee) are not much different from the other young ladies who have accompanied the Doctor in the past: screaming and having to be rescued a lot of the time, but still bright, pleasant and capable. Nicholas Courtney, in the now expanded role of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, has a great on-screen presence as the classic British military man who is generally friendly with the Doctor but still butts heads with him at times. And Roger Delgado, in my opinion, remains the best incarnation of the Master: he has a refined air which is a good match for Pertwee, and is unapologetically dastardly enough to be fun without having to resort to chewing the scenery. (Omega, the villain of The Three Doctors, has that base covered.)

Third Doctor Master

My Favourite Third Doctor Stories

Inferno: During a project to drill down to the Earth’s core, the Doctor ends up being transported to an alternate, more dystopian universe, where the same project is in its later stages and ends up dooming the entire planet. There’s grim and compelling drama as the Doctor gets to grips with more hostile versions of the people he knows, followed by a tense race against time as he tries to get back to his own universe before the same fatal mistakes are made.

The Sea Devils: This was the first Third Doctor adventure that I ever watched, and I found it especially good fun. It has a great deal to offer: there’s some enjoyably daft-looking monsters, plenty of evil-doing from the Master, and the story moves rapidly between many different situations; from the Doctor and the Master having a swordfight, to Jo trying to break the Doctor out of prison, to a firefight on a naval base.

The Green Death: Another classic adventure, involving giant maggots, an evil computer, some pro-environmentalism, and the most bittersweet departure of a companion in Doctor Who up to this point.

My Least Favourite Third Doctor Story

Invasion of the Dinosaurs: As I stated above, I don’t consider any stories from the Third Doctor’s era to be really bad, but one still has to go at the bottom – and sadly, it happens to be the one with dinosaurs in it. While it’s still watchable, the special effects are laughably awful even by Classic Who’s standards; and the bad guys’ plan and reasoning are bizarre and nonsensical, such as Mike Yates being unwilling to see the Doctor harmed while also willingly taking part in a scheme that will kill most of the world’s population.

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