The Bloody Jack Adventures: Books 1 to 5

It’s not often you find a book series that you fall so in love with, you just can’t stop reading and you jump straight from one instalment to the next. But that’s how I’m feeling right now. The book series in question is the Bloody Jack Adventures by the late L.A. Meyer, a series of twelve books published between 2002 and 2014. I find myself wishing I’d started reading these books sooner, when the author was still alive and the fanbase was more active, as not many people seem to be talking about this series these days. Well, I’m going to talk about it now.

The series has many things that I enjoy in fiction. First, these are historical novels, set in the early 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars, obviously an exciting time; indeed, the Battle of Trafalgar is depicted at the end of the third book. Historical details are used to enrich the narrative without bogging it down, and Meyer doesn’t shy away from less savoury aspects of the time such as slavery. They are adventure stories, though the first five books at least have very different settings and contexts. Although there are some very dark moments (including attempted rape), there are plenty of very funny ones too. And then there’s the protagonist herself, Jacky Faber.

Jacky is a beautifully complex character, believable in her thoughts and traits, and easy to get behind. She is intelligent and funny, with a charming Cockney voice, though she certainly has her share of flaws, being impulsive and occasionally outright mean. While she sometimes suffers from bouts of what we would recognise as depression and PTSD, she is generally a very positive and proactive character. She is extremely adaptable, able to make the best of just about any situation, even if some of her accomplishments require some suspension of disbelief. We also see her change a great deal as the books progress, experiencing a clear development from a child into a young woman.

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When we are introduced to Jacky – or Mary, as she is originally known – in Bloody Jack, her entire family has died from an illness and she is turned out into the streets of London, where she spends several years as part of a gang. After the leader of the gang is murdered, Mary decides to leave and pursue a new life; changing her name to Jack and pretending to be a boy, she is hired as a ship’s boy onboard HMS Dolphin, which goes on patrol for pirates in the Mediterranean (later heading to the Caribbean). Bloody Jack is a fairly straightforward adventure, with the occasional nautical battle and plenty for problems for Jacky to deal with onboard ship, not least maintaining her deception as she starts going through puberty. The book also sees the beginnings of Jacky’s romance with shipmate Jaimy Fletcher, who remains her primary love interest in the books to come (though Jacky gets several secondary ones in the meantime – she’s very popular with the lads). It’s a will-they-won’t-they romance, as they are repeatedly torn apart by misunderstandings, the machinations of others, and plain bad luck, and while it certainly keeps you reading, it’s getting a bit wearing by the fifth book.

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In Curse of the Blue Tattoo, having been exposed as a girl, Jacky is placed at a high-class girls’ school in Boston. While the story of a crude commoner being dropped into a group of prim and proper snobs has been done plenty of times before, Curse of the Blue Tattoo manages to be much more than what you might expect. There’s a lot more to the story than how Jacky survives at the school; we see her trying to acquire some financial independence, helping her friend Amy with her own problems, and investigating a sinister preacher. There are plenty of twists and turns, with Jacky going from highs to lows repeatedly. In ths book, I became even more invested in Jacky as a character than in the first one, and concerned about what was going to happen to her, despite logic dictating that since this was the second book in a series of twelve, she would probably come out alright.

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Under the Jolly Roger was the first instalment where I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Katherine Kellgren, rather than reading – unfortunately, only half of the series is currently available on Audible. Many of the reviews and comments I’d read talked about how brilliant the audio versions of the books were, and Under the Jolly Roger certainly didn’t disappoint. Kellgren’s performance as Jacky sounds exactly as you’d imagine from the prose, and she also does a beautiful job with the other characters, who require her to perform a wide range of social classes and accents (Irish, Scottish, etc). She puts all the right emotion into the more intense scenes, making them even more gripping than they would be ordinarily, and captures the humour and light-heartedness as well; the scene where Jacky and another character pretend to be drunk is a highlight of Kellgren’s performance. This is a definite example of the story being enhanced by the audio format.

As the title suggests, Jacky is back at sea in this book, though initially not by choice; after returning to England, she is press-ganged and forced into service aboard HMS Wolverine, which is blockading the northern coast of France. (An interesting plot element by this time is that Jacky’s friend Amy has written and published Bloody Jack in-universe, earning Jacky a level of fame and noteriety for her previous service in the Royal Navy.) It is at this point that the suspension of disbelief starts to become necessary, as Jacky, a fifteen-year-old girl living in 1804, actually ends up in command of the ship. But to Meyer’s credit, he makes the situation as plausible as he possibly can, through various technicalities and plenty of cunning on Jacky’s part. Under the Jolly Roger feels like two books combined into one, with the first focussing on Jacky’s time aboard the Wolverine; the second sees her acquiring her own ship and becoming a privateer. It’s a delight to see Jacky happy and in her element, though of course, it can’t last forever.

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In the Belly of the Bloodhound sees Jacky returning to Boston and finally sorting out her unresolved issues with the characters she left behind in Curse of the Blue Tattoo. But trouble soon rears its head again, as she and her schoolmates are kidnapped, imprisoned onboard a slave ship, and begin sailing toward Africa to be sold into slavery. Once again, this is a very different sort of adventure from what we have seen before: we have a large cast of characters who all react to their situation in different ways and inevitably come into conflict with each other; they have to make do with limited powers and resources; and they are facing a time limit to escape. It’s grim and very tense, but as thrilling as ever.

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In Mississippi Jack, Jacky – who has rubbed quite a few people up the wrong way at this point – is forced to flee west to the American frontier; acquiring a riverboat, she and her companions begin a long journey down to New Orleans, figuring out how to get by and attracting more trouble along the way. This is the most flawed book in the series so far: some parts are dragged out a little too long, and of the many new characters who are introduced, not all feel especially relevant to the story. But the good parts more than make up for that: the setting – along the Allegheny, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers – is presented in rich and colourful detail, with multiple opportunities and conflicts presenting themselves, and Jacky gets to learn new skills and have some fun once again. Meanwhile, Jaimy – who doesn’t get a great deal to do in Books 2 to 4 – gets to have an adventure and some character development of his own, as he pursues Jacky into the wilderness; well out of his comfort zone, he has a rougher time of it than she does, and the frustrating but engrossing romantic subplot continues as he and Jacky continue to get so close and yet so far.

So far, the books have seen Jacky leaping from one adventure straight into the next, which is one reason for the urge to keep going as soon as each book is finished. However, since Mississippi Jack ends on less of a cliffhanger than the previous books, I feel able to take a short break and read something else – though I intend to return to the Bloody Jack Adventures soon!

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Jack Lousma, Skylab Astronaut

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This Saturday, my granddad and I attended a talk by former U.S. astronaut Colonel Jack Lousma, organised by Space Lectures in Pontefract – they were also the organisers for previous talks I’ve attended by Ken Mattingly and Jim Lovell.

Originally a pilot with the Marine Corps, Jack Lousma made two spaceflights in his NASA career. In 1973, he was on the second of three flights to the Skylab space station, spending 59 days onboard with his crewmates Alan Bean and Owen Garriott. Almost nine years later, in 1982, he commanded STS-3, the third orbital test flight of the Space Shuttle; he and pilot Gordon Fullerton spent eight days testing the orbiter Columbia, including the first use of its robotic arm. Another of Lousma’s claims to fame is that he was acting as CAPCOM (capsule communicator) for the Apollo 13 mission when an oxygen tank exploded on the spacecraft, so it was he who received Jim Lovell’s famous report, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

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Lousma opened his lecture with a video of highlights from STS-3, set to Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”. He briefly talked about the flight, primarily on how they had to delay their landing and come down in New Mexico, due to bad weather at the planned landing area in California – it was an example of astronauts always having to be prepared for whatever problems might arise. The majority of the lecture focussed on Skylab, with Lousma covering the design of the space station, its use as a scientific platform for observing the Sun and the Earth’s surface, and what daily life was like for himself and his crewmates. This included such details as food preparation, sleeping, and exercise; the astronauts had to use their exercise bike for up to an hour and a half each day just to maintain good condition. With the longest pre-Skylab American spaceflight having lasted for just two weeks, far less was known then about the long-term effects of weightlessness on the human body than today, and medical experiments were an important part of the mission. The astronauts also needed to be versed in basic medical procedures, so that the mission wouldn’t need to be aborted if one of them came down with a toothache.

A Q&A followed the lecture, where my granddad was able to get a question in, asking Colonel Lousma whether he would do anything different if he had his time over again. Lousma replied that he would have liked to have walked on the Moon – though that was outside his control – and to have spent more time observing the Earth while he was in space.

Thank you to Jack Lousma and Space Lectures for another great event!

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Film review: Ad Astra

Ad Astra

There’s no question that flying in space has the potential to be scary. It involves heading into an incredibly hostile environment, cocooned in technology, a long way from any sort of practial help; and both real-life disasters and works of fiction (Gravity, The Martian) have demonstrated that if the technology fails, the possibility of never coming home is very real. But there is another side of spaceflight – at least, future prospects of spaceflight – which is no less frightening. Space is very big and very empty. Neptune, the outermost planet in the Solar System, is thirty times further away from the Sun than we are. The furthest we’ve ever gone from home is the Moon, a three-day journey – what psychological effect would a manned interplanetary voyage into the abyss have? And what if it truly is an abyss? What if we don’t even find whatever we’re looking for? It’s questions like this that Ad Astra leaves you reflecting upon.

In the near future, when a space elevator stands above the Earth’s surface and settlements have been established on the Moon and Mars, Earth starts experiencing dangerous power surges, which are linked to cosmic ray bursts in the vicinity of Neptune. Officials conclude that this activity is linked to the Lima Project, a mission to the outer Solar System, commanded by legendary astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), which vanished years before. Clifford’s son Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), now an astronaut himself, is assigned the mission of travelling to Mars and trying to establish contact with his father – and so Roy sets out on a journey, not only into the depths of space, but the depths of his own soul.

It took some time for me to get into this film; in fact, until about the halfway mark, I was finding it slow and even a bit dull. Any conflict and action in the first half comes from a couple of isolated incidents that are unrelated to Roy’s central mission. The main thing I liked at this point was the high-definition visuals; first looking down on Earth from the International Space Antenna, then the excellent views of the Moon and Mars, both from orbit and down on their respective surfaces. Eventually, however, once I could grasp the central themes of the film, I was able to appreciate it a lot more, and I expect I’ll get more overall enjoyment out of it on a second viewing.

While the plot is essentially Heart of Darkness in space, Ad Astra uses the concept to give food for thought about both space travel and life on Earth. Roy, the protagonist, is a man who is alone before he even leaves Earth; he is focussed and emotionally closed off, which has caused his relationship with his wife (Liv Tyler) to break down, and he is forced to reflect upon his own characteristics – and those of his father – as he heads out into the tangible loneliness of space. The film demonstrates the potential consequences of focussing too much on what might be out there beyond the here and now, and neglecting what is real and true and already right next to you. The idea of going to the Moon may sound like a great adventure right now, but in this film, all that’s there is what people brought with them, from conflict and piracy to Subway sandwiches. The final message promotes a better appreciation of what we have on Earth, along the lines of what astronaut Rusty Schweickart called the “cosmic birth” inspired by the Apollo astronauts, who were able to look back on their home planet like a newborn baby looking back at its mother.

Ad Astra is a thoughtful, visually beautiful, sometimes unnerving film – it may not have universal appeal, but if you get restless during the first half, stick with it and see what you think of the second. Rating: 4.5/5.

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Film review: Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

In 2015, after six seasons and a few Christmas specials, Downton Abbey came to an end, with Victoria subsequently replacing it as ITV’s big period drama. But of course, we have a real difficulty letting things go in this day and age – and so the original cast, writer Julian Fellowes, and the filming location of Highclere Castle have all been brought back for a feature film. So how is it?

Long story short: in every way, from the music to the cinematography to the scale, it’s a two-hour episode of the show. In fact, sometimes you could pinpoint the moments where the commercial breaks would probably have been if this were on TV. So whether you’ll enjoy the film depends very much on whether you enjoyed the show. I did, so I found the film to be a very pleasant experience and certainly worth the price of a cinema ticket. And if you’ve never watched the show but are seeing the film anyway for whatever reason, it’s not hard to grasp all the characters’ roles and relationships, and there’s enough of a good story to get some pleasure out of it, though obviously not as much as long-time fans.

The film takes place in 1927, a year or so after the show ended. Since we last saw them, not much has changed for the Crawley family and their diligent downstairs staff, except that the children are a little older. But then comes the announcement that the King and Queen are coming to stay at Downton Abbey during their tour of Yorkshire, and all the usual drama ensues: tricky social engagements, misunderstandings, romantic problems and a struggle to make sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible. As far as conflict goes, everything is kept relatively light; there’s certainly nothing on the scale of the show’s darker moments, like rape or death by childbirth or vomiting blood at the dinner table. And to be honest, I didn’t mind that; it’s nice to have something simple.

All the wit and charm from the show at its best is on offer here; there are some hilarious moments, many of them involving painfully awkward situations, and Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is on top form as usual. The many different subplots are blended together well for the most part; I particularly liked watching how the servants deal with having their positions usurped by the royal staff, before finally mounting a surreptitious rebellion. It’s not perfect, however. The film does its best to handle such a large cast, but two hours isn’t enough to give everybody their due: Mr Bates, for instance, hardly has anything to do, and Thomas practically disappears in the second act before getting a tacked-on subplot in the third. Also, subtlety and unpredictability were never hallmarks of the show, and the film is no exception; the directions where each little story will go are clearly signposted. When a new character played by Tuppence Middleton appears on the scene, every indication is given that she’s meant as a love interest for one of the regulars; and when pointed references are made to things going missing around the house, it’s not hard to guess who is responsible.

Ultimately, the film adaptation of Downton Abbey is fluff – and very agreeable fluff it is too. While the ending does give enough closure to be satisfying, there’s still certainly room for a continuation if both the fans and the cast are up for it. Rating: 4/5.

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An Evening with Alice Roberts

Alice Roberts Talk

On Friday evening, I went down to Sale in Greater Manchester for another lecture – this one by the fascinating Professor Alice Roberts.

Professor Roberts’s career has branched in many different directions, and she began her lecture by talking about that: she originally studied medicine and anatomy, eventually moving from medical practice to academia. Meanwhile, she also started getting involved in archaeological excavations, which led to her appearing on the TV series Time Team. After that, she became a co-presenter of the BBC series Coast, and has continued to present many different scientific and historical documentaries ever since. She has also published several books; earlier this year, I read her book Tamed: Ten Species that Changed Our World, which talks about the histories of nine domesticated animal and plant species, with humans themselves being the tenth species covered. It was certainly very inspiring to learn about the unexpected directions that a person’s career can end up going in when they have enthusiasm and seek out the right opportunities; and how someone can become an authority on a range of subjects, when the educational system generally tries to keep those subjects in separate boxes.

For the rest of the lecture, Roberts talked about the history of humans in Britain – starting with the presence of Homo antecessor in England 900,000 years ago, all the way to the Normans – and gave examples of the most relevant and curious archaeological finds within the various eras and ages. I found all this very interesting, particularly the earlier finds from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic, and felt encouraged to learn more about it. The evening concluded with a Q&A, where Roberts talked about such things as the different hominid species found in Britain, hopes for the future, and bringing different subject areas like science and art together, noting that science requires an element of creativity for the development of hypotheses.

More details about Professor Roberts’s lecture tour can be found at her website here. Thank you to Alice Roberts and Waterside for a brilliant evening!

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In Edinburgh: Snakes in the City and Harry Potter

My mum and I are both fans of the Nat Geo Wild series Snakes In The City, which follows snake-catchers Simon Keys and Siouxsie Gillett as they carry out their work in Durban, South Africa. Their job is to catch and remove snakes that have gotten into populated places, ensuring the safety of both the resident humans and the snake – species commonly featured on the show include highly venomous black mambas and Mozambique spitting cobras. What makes the show even more personally interesting to me is that after finishing my degree, I spent a month volunteering at a reptile park in South Africa, where I had been able to work with many of the snake species that Simon and Siouxsie have to capture (though not the park’s mambas, as they were considered too dangerous for volunteers).

When Simon and Siouxsie announced they were going on a live tour in the UK, my mum and I were both eager to see them – so last weekend, we took the train up to their nearest stop to us, in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. Neither of us have visited Scotland many times; it was only my second time in this particular city.

The event was being held at Gorgie City Farm, a small city farm close to Haymarket railway station. It was a charming little place with a range of traditional, friendly farm animals, including chickens, pigs and goats.

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The room in which Simon and Siouxsie gave their talk was also relatively small, making the experience feel more intimate. The talk was just as enjoyable and interesting as we had hoped, with Simon and Siouxsie taking turns: they covered Simon’s early interest in reptiles, how both the snake-catching business and the show got started, behind-the-scenes details, and how the show has helped to educate people who originally believed that the only good snake was a dead one. Afterwards, we were able to get our pictures taken with Simon, Siouxsie, and a reticulated python named Fluffy. Two other snakes, a radiated rat snake and a milk snake, were also passed around the audience. While my mum enjoys watching the show, she isn’t as fond of the snakes themselves as I am, but she very bravely handled the rat snake and touched Fluffy, commenting that they felt surprisingly soft.

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After we’d had a walk around the farm, we took a bus into the city centre, with a few hours to kill before our train home. My idea was to look around some of the Harry Potter-related landmarks; Edinburgh is an important place for Potter fans, as J.K. Rowling lived there for many years, including when she was actually writing the books. There are a few organised Harry Potter walking tours in the city, but their timings didn’t line up with ours, so we did it ourselves, heading for some of the locations highlighted in this useful post.

First, we went to Greyfriars Kirkyard, making sure to pass the statue of Greyfriars Bobby on the way. One of the graves in this churchyard is for a father and son who were both named Thomas Riddell; apparently Rowling has never actually confirmed that this grave inspired the name of Tom Riddle, a.k.a. Lord Voldemort, but it would be quite a coincidence if not, particularly as Voldemort also shares his name with his father.

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A short way north is a cafe called The Elephant House, advertised as the “birthplace of Harry Potter”, where Rowling spent time doing some of her earlier writing.

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Further north still is Victoria Street, a curving, cobbled street with multi-coloured buildings, which – according to text painted outside an antique store – may have been the inspiration for Diagon Alley. This is where you can find the local Harry Potter shop, The Boy Wizard.

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Lastly, we headed up to the City Chambers on the Royal Mile. On the ground here are the handprints of notable residents of Edinburgh who have won the annual Edinburgh Award – including J.K. Rowling herself, who received the award in 2008. It turns out her hands are quite a bit smaller than mine.

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Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor Era (1974-1981)

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In 1974, 40-year-old Tom Baker was between acting jobs and working as a bricklayer, when he landed the role of a lifetime: succeeding Jon Pertwee in Doctor Who. He would stay in the role for seven seasons, longer than any Doctor before or since. As such, the Fourth Doctor, with his long overcoat, multi-coloured scarf, curly hair and fondness for Jelly Babies, represented probably the most well-known image of Doctor Who until the show’s 2005 revival. The Fourth Doctor’s tenure consisted of 41 stories and 172 episodes, not including Shada, which was only partially filmed due to strike action and never aired on television.

The Fourth Doctor made his first full appearance when the show’s twelfth season began on 28th December 1974: after defeating an insane robot in the imaginatively-titled story Robot, he was soon off and away in the TARDIS, accompanied by his existing companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and UNIT medical officer Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter). Harry wasn’t around for long: he was simply returned to Earth at the beginning of the following season. The Doctor continued to travel with Sarah Jane until he was ordered to return to Gallifrey; unable to take Sarah Jane to his home planet, he reluctantly dropped her off (in Aberdeen instead of the intended Croydon). The story that followed, The Deadly Assassin, was the Doctor’s first adventure without a companion, and also saw a return for his nemesis the Master: now played by Peter Pratt in lieu of the late Roger Delgado, he had run out of regenerations and had been reduced to a rotting, walking corpse, desperately searching for a way to prolong his life.

The Doctor soon picked up some new companions, however. Leela (Louise Jameson), not to be confused with the Futurama character, had grown up on an unforgiving jungle planet, giving her habits such as being more violent than the Doctor would like, and running around in skimpy outfits. Then there was the robot dog K-9, much adored by children but not by the show’s technical team, due to his unreliability, and how he struggled to traverse any surface that wasn’t completely flat.

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The sixteenth season – Baker’s fifth – saw the show make its first attempt at a season-long arc: accompanied by a younger Time Lady named Romana (Mary Tamm), the Doctor is given the task of assembling the Key to Time, divided into six pieces which have been hidden across the universe. The final story of that season featured a character named Princess Astra, played by Lalla Ward, who must have made an impression. In Season 17, after Tamm had decided not to come back, Ward became the new Romana; this involved the character voluntarily regenerating, rather more casually than other Time Lords would. Ward and Tom Baker also got married around this time, but sadly the marriage did not last long.

When Tom Baker finally decided to move on from Doctor Who, his last two stories – The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis, marking the end of Season 18 – would see him tangling with the Master once more. The villainous Time Lord initially appeared in his decaying form again – now played by Geoffrey Beevers – before gaining a new body more similar to his original bearded appearance; the new actor in the role, Anthony Ainley, would continue to play the Master right up to the show’s cancellation in 1989. On 21st March 1981, the Fourth Doctor’s era finally came to an end; viewers watched as he was mortally injured after falling from a radio telescope, and regenerated for the first time in nearly seven years. By this time, he had acquired a trio of companions – teenage mathematics prodigy Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), Traken native Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), and airline stewardess Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) – who would see the Fifth Doctor into the start of his own era.

Baker elected not to return for the 1983 special The Five Doctors; the Fourth Doctor briefly featured in the episode via a clip from the unfinished Shada, before becoming trapped in the time vortex and remaining absent from the main story. In 2013, however, he made a well-received surprise appearance in the fiftieth anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, playing a mysterious museum curator who speaks with Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor at the end of the episode.

My Thoughts

Now that I’ve finally watched all of the Fourth Doctor’s episodes and can write this post, I find myself wishing that I’d watched them all in order, regardless of the sheer numbers involved. Instead, the first stories I watched were the best ones that everyone talks about, and that raised my expectations a little too high. Certainly, the Fourth Doctor’s era starts off strongly; the overall solid and reliable feel of the Third Doctor’s latter adventures continues into the first few seasons, resulting in a healthy dose of sci-fi fun. However, as time went on, the majority of stories became increasingly unengaging and unmemorable, and even Tom Baker didn’t seem to be enjoying himself as much. The Key to Time arc in Season 16 had some very good individual stories but a weak conclusion, and City of Death and State of Decay were the only stories I especially enjoyed from Seasons 17 and 18 respectively.

The Fourth Doctor is certainly very distinctive – it’s clear to see how his image has persisted so long in the public consciousness – and easy to like. Tom Baker’s voice and intense facial expressions serve the character’s more eccentric, detached and alien nature very well; he can be very jolly when he wants to be, while still handling more grim situations appropriately, and coming across as suitably old and wise despite being the youngest Doctor up to this point. Previously, I considered him my joint favourite classic Doctor alongside the Third Doctor, though now I have to give Three the edge for his superior consistency; perhaps Baker was just in the role a little too long.

Of all the Fourth Doctor’s companions, my favourite has to be Leela, who was a long way from the traditional audience-surrogate: not only was she very capable and possessing a firey attitude, her wild nature led to some amusing interactions with the Doctor and other characters. It’s just a shame that she gets such a lousy sendoff (see below). With Romana, we got to see the Doctor travel with someone who was on more equal terms with him in an intellectual sense; and K-9 was good fun too, at least when he actually got things to do and was voiced by John Leeson – being voiced by David Brierley for one season was just distracting. With regards to Sarah Jane Smith, the first I knew of the character was when she appeared in the revived series in 2006, and subsequently got her own spinoff, The Sarah Jane Adventures; having now seen Sarah Jane in her original role as the Doctor’s companion, I honestly prefer the older version who gets to take the lead. Few celebrity deaths have made me feel as sad as I did in 2011 when the news broke that Elisabeth Sladen had died of cancer, partway through filming the fifth series of The Sarah Jane Adventures.

My Favourite Fourth Doctor Stories (honourable mentions: Terror of the Zygons, Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius, The Ribos Operation, The Androids of Tara, State of Decay)

Genesis of the Daleks: There’s a reason why this is consistently voted as one of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time. The Doctor’s oldest and most famous enemies are given a full origin story, retconning the more basic one from all the way back in Season 1. However, the true villain of the piece is not the Daleks themselves, but their mad-scientist creator Davros, who refuses to let any obstacle prevent him from creating what he considers to be the supreme life form. The story goes back and forth with the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry trying to carry out their assigned mission of preventing the Daleks’ creation, and stay alive long enough to do so; mixed in with all the twists and tension are some of the most memorable moments in the show’s history, from Davros’s insane rant on the idea of wiping out all life in the universe, to the Doctor debating whether he even has the right to erase the Daleks from existence.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang: If, as a modern viewer, you can look past the racism – there are some unfortunate stereotypes, along with a white actor in makeup playing a Chinese character – this story is simply a great adventure. The smog-filled streets of Victorian London make the perfect setting for a Sherlock Holmes-esque thriller, as the Doctor and Leela contend with a time-travelling megalomaniac, a living doll, and even giant rats.

City of Death: Not only did this story mark the first time that Doctor Who filmed abroad (in Paris), but it set a ratings record for the show that stands to this day. On 20th October 1979, 16.1 million people tuned in to watch the fourth episode of City of Death – and while that wasn’t simply due to the story’s quality (the rival channel, ITV, was off the air at the time due to a strike), there’s no doubt that this one deserved to have lots of people watching it. It’s as fun and quirky as you’d expect from a script with Douglas Adams as a co-writer, with a plot that escalates from the Doctor and Romana investigating the theft of the Mona Lisa, to the very origin of all terrestrial life being put at risk.

My Least Favourite Fourth Doctor Story

The Invasion of Time: This story, which alternates between being boring and ridiculous throughout, sees the Doctor handing over Gallifrey to aliens that take the form of floating foilwrap and have voices about as threatening as Graham Norton. It also sees Leela leaving the Doctor for the sake of a romantic relationship; to see Leela, of all companions, leave the Doctor in such a fashion is insulting enough, never mind that she’s barely interacted with or shown any interest in her new boyfriend, who happens to be a total drip anyway.

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Book review: 50 Dinosaur Tales

50 Dinosaur Tales

Note: I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I Know Dino is a weekly podcast – hosted by Garret Kruger and Sabrina Ricci – which features dinosaur-related news items, interviews, and facts on the ‘dinosaur of the day’. Sabrina has written several books on dinosaurs, the most recent of which is 50 Dinosaur Tales, to be released later this year.

50 Dinosaur Tales consists of a series of fact profiles for new dinosaurs – most of which have also been mentioned on the podcast – described between 2014 and 2018; you can learn what their scientific names mean, when and where they were found, and anything especially noteworthy about their remains. Fifty of these dinosaurs are given short stories depicting them in their natural environment, going about their everyday business, whether it be foraging, hunting, socialising, escaping a predator, or looking for a mate; each story is followed by the dinosaur’s fact profile to provide context.

These stories are a very effective way of helping the reader appreciate and remember the dinosaurs being described; I think children will particularly like them. They give a satisfactory idea of what each dinosaur looks like (though most of them have an accompanying image as well), and the scenarios taking place are varied enough that the stories never feel repetitive. They neatly incorporate what evidence is available from the fossils, as specified in the fact profiles: say, if a dinosaur bone was found bearing signs of injury, the dinosaur will be shown sustaining a corresponding injury in the story. Some parts I particularly liked involved different species of dinosaur interacting with each other in ways other than predation, which adds more dimension and is something that can easily get left out of writing like this: for example, a Heterodontosaurus watching a feeding Ledumahadi in the hopes that the larger dinosaur will dislodge some tree leaves for it. One thing I wasn’t so sure about was the minor anthropomorphising in some of the stories, such as a dinosaur feeling “amused”, which takes away some of the realism.

Also, not every fact profile has a story associated with it; each of the geographically-organised story sections of the book is followed by a collection of alphabetical profiles covering dinosaurs from the same continent. Naturally, these sections don’t grab the reader’s attention in the same way as the stories. They still provide interesting information, however, and an opportunity for dinosaur buffs to get up to date with more recent discoveries. With these species not having had much time to appear in other sources yet, 50 Dinosaur Tales is likely to provide fresh knowledge to a reader of any age who is interested in the subject.

50 Dinosaur Tales will be launched on 8th October 2019 – and in the meantime, check out the I Know Dino podcast!

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Apollo 11: 50 Years On

Apollo_11_Crew

Credit: NASA

On 16th July 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin blasted off in a Saturn V rocket from Cape Kennedy in Florida, headed for the Moon. Four days later, Armstrong and Aldrin – in their lunar module Eagle – became the first human beings to touch down on the surface of a world other than the Earth, fulfilling President John F Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this momentous achievement, here are ten things you may not have known about the Apollo 11 mission:

  1. The Apollo 11 mission patch depicts a bald eagle – symbolising the United States – descending to the Moon, carrying an olive branch to symbolise peaceful intent. The patch was designed by Michael Collins, who traced the eagle out of a National Geographic book. He originally had the eagle holding the branch in its beak, but the outstretched talons in that design were thought to look too threatening; in the final design, the branch was placed in the talons instead.
Apollo_11_insignia

Credit: NASA

2. A few different reasons have been given for Neil Armstrong being chosen to step onto the Moon ahead of Buzz Aldrin, such as that it was more appropriate given that Armstrong was the mission commander, or that his reserved and modest personality made him better suited to handle the celebrity that would inevitably come from being the first man on the Moon. Officially, at least, the deciding factor was that the lunar module hatch opened inward towards Aldrin, meaning he could only get out first if he and Armstrong switched places in the cabin, which would be very difficult in bulky spacesuits.

3. The crew of Apollo 11 did technically see a UFO while they were on their way to the Moon – or at least, an object that they couldn’t identify for certain. It looked vaguely L-shaped, and appeared to be flashing; the crew held off reporting it openly in case an overexcited public got any ideas about aliens. The most likely explanation is that the object was a panel from the Saturn V rocket’s third stage, which was rotating as it went, and thus intermittently exposing its most reflective side to the Sun.

4. As Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the Moon, they overshot their intended landing site in the Sea of Tranquility; taking manual control in the final stages, Armstrong had to steer the lunar module away from a field of boulders, almost running out of fuel in the process. The reason for the overshoot was that the tunnel between the command module and lunar module hadn’t been completely vented before the two spacecraft undocked; the residual air gave Eagle an unexpected little nudge, which put it slightly ahead of where it was supposed to be when the descent began.

5. Another problem that occurred during the landing were that program alarms repeatedly went off; coded 1202 and 1201, the alarms indicated that the spacecraft’s computer was overloaded. This was later determined to be because the rendezvous radar had been left in automatic mode, in case Armstrong and Aldrin needed to abort and rendezvous with the command module; this was giving the computer extra data to process, while it was already handling all the data related to the descent. Fortunately, these particular alarms had previously come up during a simulation for the Mission Control team, so guidance officer Steve Bales could advise Flight Director Gene Kranz that the computer could handle the issue and an abort wouldn’t be necessary.

6. The first ever walk on the Moon was quite conservative, in terms of time and distance. There were only 2 hours and 31 minutes between opening the lunar module’s hatch and closing it again; Armstrong and Aldrin spent their short time on the surface collecting rock samples, setting up experiments and the American flag, and receiving a congratulatory call from President Richard Nixon. The furthest that either man went away from the lunar module was when Armstrong spent a few minutes investigating a crater about sixty metres away.

aldrin_apollo_11_original

Credit: NASA

7. According to Neil Armstrong’s biography First Man by James R Hansen, there are only five still photographs of Armstrong himself on the lunar surface, including one where he can be seen reflected in Buzz Aldrin’s visor. For most of the moonwalk, Armstrong was holding the single Hasselblad camera, and on the occasions when Aldrin had the camera, he was preoccupied with scheduled tasks.

8. Shortly after the moonwalk, Aldrin noticed that a switch on the control panel had been inadvertently broken off; this switch happened to be the one which armed the lunar module’s ascent engine, used to lift off from the Moon. Fortunately, when it was time to lift off, Aldrin was able to operate the switch anyway by sticking a felt-tip pen into the socket.

9. Armstrong and Aldrin didn’t sleep well during their rest period on the Moon. For one thing, there wasn’t much space to get comfortable in the cramped lunar module cabin; Armstrong lay on the engine cover, his head resting on a shelf and his legs in a sling, while Aldrin curled up on the floor. As well as that, the cabin was cold, the life support systems made noise, and they couldn’t take their spacesuits off. From Apollo 12 onwards, astronauts on the Moon slept in hammocks, and from Apollo 15 onwards, they were able to remove their spacesuits when going to bed.

10. The Apollo 11 mission brought 21.6 kilograms of moon rock back to Earth, from which three new minerals were discovered. One was named tranquillityite after the landing site, the Sea of Tranquility; another was named armalcolite, after Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.

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My Third 10K – With Ice Cream Bonus!

Garstang 10K

Today, I took on my third official 10K event: the Garstang Ice Cream 10K, recommended by a friend at work, and being held in support of the Garstang Ice Cream Festival next weekend. Having run 10K in two of the three weekends leading up to the event, and maintained the same pace as the Blackpool 10K in April, I was feeling reasonably confident. Arriving in Garstang early (parking was limited and I didn’t know how many people would be participating), I had time for a walk around the small market town. I hadn’t known until today that Garstang used to have a castle, which was mostly dismantled after the English Civil War; only part of a single tower remains today, standing on top of a hill.

The course went south out of Garstang before turning east into the countryside, circling north and west to arrive back in the town. The weather and the quiet country lanes were both very pleasant, and while it certainly wasn’t completely flat, the downhill stretches were longer and steeper than the uphill ones.

I did make one mistake: accepting a water bottle at the halfway point, then drinking too fast and too quickly. Probably as a result, I felt a cramp twice during the second half and had to slow down. Still, that’s a lesson learned for next time.

My official time was 53:46, not as good as the Blackpool 10K – where the course was probably more favourable – but still well ahead of my first one. Once I’d got my breath back, I went to collect the prize for completion: a free ice cream! I chose blackcurrant cheesecake flavour.

I don’t know yet what my next event will be, though I’ll certainly be having a second go at the Preston 10K later this year. My aim at the moment is to get used to running 10Ks, then gradually increasing my distance, in the hope of trying a half marathon next year.

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