Film review – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

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I admit that, thanks to my dinosaur-loving inner child, I do have some bias towards the Jurassic Park franchise and am therefore more likely to forgive any flaws that turn up in the films. I enjoyed Jurassic World, and I was looking forward to seeing what Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom would bring to the table. Even if you can’t recapture the magic of the first film, there is surely plenty of material you can come up with for a world where dinosaurs have been brought back to life. Fallen Kingdom does surpass Jurassic Park III, the weakest of the previous installments, in that the story has a point and is a proper continuation of what came immediately beforehand. Unfortunately, it feels like it could have offered the audience much more than what it ultimately delivers. If you weren’t a fan of Jurassic World, I don’t think Fallen Kingdom will win you over.

Three years after the events of Jurassic World, the dinosaurs roaming free on Isla Nublar are being threatened by an impending volcanic eruption, and there is fierce debate as to whether action should be taken, or the resurrected and ultimately unnatural animals should be allowed to become extinct once again. (No mention is made of Isla Sorna from the second and third films, where it may be assumed that the dinosaurs have already died out.) Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the former operations manager of Jurassic World, is recruited by John Hammond’s old business partner for an unsanctioned operation to rescue and re-locate as many dinosaurs as possible – with fellow former employee Owen (Chris Pratt) tagging along as only he can capture Blue, the one remaining Velociraptor. However, when the team arrives on Isla Nublar, it’s not just the volcano they have to worry about – something more nefarious is going on.

If you’re looking for dinosaur action, you’ve come to the right place with this film. It kicks off right away with some hapless mercenaries falling foul of the T-Rex and Mosasaurus, and goes from there. The whole thing is well-paced, and I never felt bored. The volcanic eruption sequence – which looked like it might be the climax following the first trailer – is suitably exciting and frantic, even if there is some application of ‘movie physics’ regarding how close you can get to molten lava without burning. Several new dinosaurs are thrown into the mix for some variety, including Baryonyx, Carnotaurus and Stygimoloch – even if the dinosaurs still don’t look as good as in the 90s, the visuals are satisfactory at least. The genetically-engineered Indominus rex from Jurassic World gets a successor in the Indoraptor, which is only really used in the third act; as it turns out, less is more.

Once you’ve calmed down from the excitement of the first half, however, the film ultimately turns out to be generic, predictable, and lacking in layers, besides the old story of man suffering the consequences for greed and being too careless with scientific progress. The characters, both old and new, are unmemorable – though at least the obligatory child isn’t an annoyance. The villains are a two-dimensional crew, consisting of two greedy businessmen and one great white hunter; they make some incredibly stupid decisions just to ensure that the plot goes in the direction it needs to, and they’re so obviously going to end up as dinosaur food that they might as well be sprinkling themselves with salt and pepper every now and then. Sadly, Jeff Goldblum’s much-anticipated return to the role of Ian Malcolm is wasted; he only appears in two brief scenes at the beginning and end, with barely any opportunity to show off his classic Goldblum-ness.

My advice is to take Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom as a basic dinosaur-themed action adventure – on that level, it manages to be an entertaining experience in spite of its flaws. Rating: 3.5/5.

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Prehistoric Profiles: Velociraptor

Time to talk dinosaurs – and what better dinosaur to talk about than the source of my blog’s web address, the Velociraptor?

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The Jurassic Park franchise created an image of Velociraptor as a merciless supreme predator, which combined lightning speed, high intelligence and teamwork to hunt and take down its prey. This image was eagerly picked up by other sources: one video game from my childhood, 3D Dinosaur Adventure, stated, “A human being could have been torn apart in 30 seconds by a pack of Velociraptors.” But while the real Velociraptor was probably not to be trifled with, it was very different from its familiar cinematic representation.

Velociraptor – whose name comes from the Latin words velox, meaning “swift”, and raptor, meaning “thief” or “plunderer” – was first discovered in 1923, on an expedition in the Gobi Desert, Outer Mongolia, by the American Museum of Natural History. Multiple good-quality fossils have been found since, and two species are recognised: Velociraptor mongoliensis, the type species, and Velociraptor osmolskae, discovered in Inner Mongolia, China, and described in 2008. Like other members of its family, the Dromaeosauridae, Velociraptor was an agile, bird-like carnivore, with large three-fingered hands, a stiffened tail, and a sickle-shaped claw on the second toe of each foot. It lived around 75 million years ago, in the Late Cretaceous Period, roaming a sandy, arid habitat similar to how the Gobi Desert is today.

A clear difference between the Jurassic Park incarnation of Velociraptor, and the real animal, is that the latter was significantly smaller, growing up to two metres long and not quite reaching up to a grown man’s waist. But that’s not all: in 2007, it was announced that the real Velociraptor had feathers! A forearm bone was found to feature a line of raised quill knobs, indicating that Velociraptor had fourteen feathers extending from each arm, and almost certainly additional feathers covering the rest of its body. Since Velociraptor would certainly not have been able to fly, it may have used the feathers for display, or for assistance when running up inclines. So when, in Jurassic Park, the little boy at Alan Grant’s digsite described Velociraptor as a “six-foot turkey”, he really wasn’t far off the mark. Velociraptor‘s older relative Deinonychus is a better match for the fictional “raptors” in terms of size and American locality; the original novel by Michael Crichton appears to use “velociraptor” in the same way that palaeontologists technically say “velociraptorine” to group Velociraptor and its closest relatives (palaeontologists disagree as to whether Deinonychus belongs in this group.) But in fairness, Velociraptor rolls off the tongue a little better than Deinonychus.

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Smaller animals, like the lizards and mammals sharing its habitat, would have been welcome snacks for Velociraptor – but did it ever go after anything larger? Three particular fossils have given us more knowledge about Velociraptor‘s eating habits than we possess for most other theropod dinosaurs. The first and most famous, the “Fighting Dinosaurs” fossil, was discovered in 1971; a Velociraptor that died while locked together with a similar-sized herbivore, Protoceratops. By all appearances, the two animals were in a furious struggle before they were possibly buried in sand without warning; the Protoceratops is grasping the Velociraptor‘s right arm in its beak, while the Velociraptor grapples its opponent’s head with its left hand, and raises one of its foot claws towards the throat.

Not everyone agrees that this was a predator-prey confrontation – but another fossil, described in 2010, provides proof that Velociraptor did eat Protoceratops: a jawbone, believed to belong to Protoceratops, with teethmarks matching Velociraptor‘s upon it. However, since the jaw would hardly have provided the best-quality flesh, it is speculated that the Velociraptor was feeding on a carcass which had already been mostly eaten. In addition, a 2012 paper describes a sub-adult Velociraptor that had ingested a pterosaur bone; the pterosaur in question would have been large enough to be a challenging prospect if it were alive, so this is also thought to have been a result of scavenging.

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A 2005 BBC documentary, The Truth About Killer Dinosaurs, featured an experiment to see if Velociraptor‘s famous sickle claw could actually disembowel large prey, as popularly believed. A claw on a mechanical leg was used to slash a pork belly, but couldn’t fully penetrate the flesh. The documentary concluded that the claw was a precision instrument, used to kill prey by cutting its throat, as apparently demonstrated in the aforementioned “Fighting Dinosaurs” fossil. And did Velociraptor hunt in packs? We don’t know: fossils of Deinonychus have been found together in what might have been a pack, but in his encyclopedia Dinosaurs, palaeontologist Thomas R. Holtz Jr suggests that pack-hunting wouldn’t have been an optimal strategy for Velociraptor since it lived in the desert where there wouldn’t have been much prey to share. As for intelligence, that’s hard to judge from bones, but figuring out how to operate door handles – had there been any doors to open in the Late Cretaceous – was probably beyond a Velociraptor‘s brain.

So, if you did actually go on a time-travelling expedition to observe Velociraptors, you would be most likely to find a solitary, feathered creature, no bigger than a golden retriever. Would it still attack you? Probably best not to attract its attention unnecessarily, just in case.

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R.I.P. Alan Bean

Alan Bean

Yesterday, it was announced that another Apollo moonwalker has sadly passed away: Apollo 12 lunar module pilot, Alan LaVern Bean.

Born in Wheeler, Texas in 1932, Bean was a US Navy test pilot when he was selected for NASA’s third group of astronauts in 1963. In Michael Collins’ autobiography, Carrying the Fire, he describes Bean as a “very pleasant fellow to be around, especially if you like spaghetti, which is all he eats on a trip.” In 1966, Bean was assigned to the Apollo Applications Program, focussing on plans for the first American space station. It looked like he would be denied the chance to fly to the Moon – but that changed in October 1967, when fellow astronaut C.C. Williams was killed in a jet crash. Bean was called to take Williams’ place as lunar module pilot on what would ultimately be the backup crew for Apollo 9; the commander was Charles “Pete” Conrad, who had been an instructor of Bean’s at the Patuxent River Naval Test Pilot School, and the command module pilot was Dick Gordon, another Navy pilot who had already flown with Conrad on Gemini 11.

Conrad, Gordon and Bean – one of the most closely-knit of all Apollo crews – headed into space together on Apollo 12, the second lunar landing mission, on 14th November 1969. When the Saturn V was struck by lightning shortly after liftoff, throwing off the spacecraft’s telemetry to Mission Control, the crew was instructed to try “SCE to Aux” – and it was Bean who knew the location of the switch which restored data flow. Five days later, Bean became the fourth man to walk on the Moon after he and Conrad touched down in the Ocean of Storms; they carried out two EVAs, during which they visited and recovered parts from the unmanned lunar probe Surveyor 3.

In 1973, Bean commanded Skylab 3, the second mission to Skylab, the space station conceived as part of the Apollo Applications Program. Launching on 28th July and returning on 25th September, Bean and his crew – Jack Lousma and Owen Garriott – spent 59 days in Earth orbit, studying the effects of long-term weightlessness on their own bodies, and performing other experiments, including one to see if spiders could spin webs in zero-gravity. They also pulled a prank on Mission Control by playing them a voice recording of Garriott’s wife, saying that she had gone up to the station to bring the crew a home-cooked meal. The Skylab 3 crew were so productive that they ended up exceeding their pre-set goals for the mission.

When Bean retired from NASA in 1981, it was to make a career of one of his long-time hobbies: painting. Bean spent the rest of his life as an artist, using his unique memories to paint scenes from the Apollo program, to which he would add genuine moondust obtained from his old mission patches. His paintings can be seen at www.alanbean.com.

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Nature Profiles: The Chinese Giant Salamander

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I said at the beginning of the New Year that I wanted to write about more of the factual subjects that I’m interested in on this blog; so I’m planning on writing some posts on interesting animals, both living and extinct. Let’s start with an amphibian that you may have seen mentioned in the news this week: the Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus) – or, as it is sometimes known in China, “baby fish”, as its vocalisations are thought to sound like a crying baby.

As you can see in the picture (taken by myself at ZSL London Zoo in 2015), the Chinese giant salamander is both very odd-looking, and far bigger than the average salamander. In fact, it’s the biggest amphibian in the world today, capable of growing up to 1.8 metres long. It belongs to a family called the Cryptobranchidae, whose history in the fossil record dates all the way back to the Jurassic Period, 170 million years ago – the only other cryptobranchids still alive today are the Japanese giant salamander, and the hellbender from the eastern United States.

Chinese giant salamanders are completely aquatic, and like to live in rocky streams in mountainous, forested areas. Adults breathe underwater through their skin; the folds along their sides are to increase the available surface area for respiration. Primarily sensing their prey through vibration due to having poor eyesight, they will eat just about anything they can catch, including smaller members of their own species. These salamanders do have a softer side, however: after a female lays her eggs – hundreds at a time – the male takes responsibility for guarding them until they hatch.

Unfortunately, this fascinating amphibian is Critically Endangered in the wild. Not only is its habitat being destroyed and polluted, but giant salamanders are also harvested to eat, and for use in Chinese medicine. Farms in China raise millions of salamanders for their meat; some of these will be released into the wild, but captive animals can both spread disease to wild populations and compromise their genetic integrity. Recently, a genetic analysis of giant salamander populations confirmed the existence at least five genetically distinct lineages; lack of knowledge about this could lead to the extinction of unique genetic diversity, if it hasn’t already. Many challenges remain – preserving suitable habitat and genetic lineages, stopping illegal poaching, and improving farming practices – if Chinese giant salamanders are to be saved from existing only on farms, destined for Chinese dinner plates.

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_giant_salamander

https://chinesegiantsalamanders.org/

Yan et al. (2018), The Chinese giant salamander exemplifies the hidden extinction of cryptic species. Current Biology 28 (10), pR590-R592.

 

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Film review: Deadpool 2

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Produced as a result of leaked test footage, and delivering a far more comic-loyal version of the character than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first Deadpool film was a huge success. On a budget of $58 million, it was not only the highest grossing film in Fox’s X-Men franchise, but the highest grossing R-rated film ever – that’s music to a studio’s ears, so a sequel was inevitable. As before, the marketing has been both hilarious and relentless – and they even got Celine Dion to record a single for the film! As for the film itself, despite there being a new director – David Leitch in place of Tim Miller – the general approach seems to have been that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Deadpool, a.k.a. Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is continuing his career as a mercenary and assassin, while still sporting his red-and-black costume and super-healing ability – but the beginning of the film sees his life abruptly and painfully falling apart. This leads to Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) dragging the despondent Deadpool to the X-Mansion, offering him friendly support, and a new direction in life as an X-Man. Unfortunately, Deadpool’s first mission ends with him being imprisoned along with a volatile young mutant named Russell (Julian Dennison) – and if that wasn’t bad enough, a time-travelling cyborg named Cable (Josh Brolin) turns up, intent on killing Russell and changing the future. From there, Deadpool is left to build his own mutant team, save his new friend, and hopefully become a better person in the process.

The main positive about this sequel is that the story is much meatier than the first film. With Deadpool’s origins out of the way, there’s more room for character development, and a more complex framework to support all the action and humour that the audience is expecting. The amount of overall content is escalated, including a surprise appearance by a major X-Men character (who is much more loyal to the comics than they were when they last appeared in the franchise). The main negative is that it takes a while for the film to settle into a rhythm: in the first act, the tone is all over the place, bouncing from the extremes of seriousness to tongue-in-cheek, before it becomes more stable. Aside from that, everything else is basically the same as what came before. The jokes – ranging from fourth-wall breaking, to pop culture references from a wide range of sources, to taking shots at other superhero films – are still funny and relatively fresh. Ryan Reynolds’s performance is still brilliant, and of the new cast, Zazie Beetz as Domino – who boasts good luck as a superpower – is the highlight.

So this is only a short review, but there’s not that much to say. What it boils down to is, whatever you thought of the first Deadpool film, Deadpool 2 gives you more in the same vibe. Rating: 3.5/5.

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Moby Dick: Shut Up and Get to the Whale!

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With Moby Dick being free to download on Kindle, I’ve already tried twice to read it in text format. The first time, I gave up about a third of the way through. A few years later, I tried again, thinking that with some extra maturity and experience on my part, this time it wouldn’t be quite so boring and the dense prose not so much of a struggle to fight my way through. I was wrong. Yet I was still reluctant to abandon the book altogether. This may be because I had read an illustrated version of Moby Dick in high school, which I assumed was simply abridged, and thought that was pretty good. Looking up that version online, however, I found that it wasn’t just abridged but “retold” – it technically hadn’t reproduced the original text. Anyway, I decided to turn to Audible; listening to the audio version had worked pretty well for Ulysses, so why not Moby Dick?

Well, I’ve now reached the end, and I was indeed able to take more of the prose in, though it is still difficult and overly eloquent. Outside of that, it was….okay.

Moby Dick actually reminded me of Ulysses in that it has an overall style all of its own – and there’s also a lot of rambling. Most people know that the main story is about a whaling voyage where the captain, Ahab, is obsessed with hunting down Moby Dick, the white sperm whale who took off his leg. While it’s a basic quest story at its heart, Herman Melville gets as much as he can out of it, inserting lots of not-very-subtle symbolism about the hubris of man and the power of nature/God that he has no hope of ultimately conquering.

Yet of the one-hundred-and-thirty-five chapters in this nearly twenty-five-hour audiobook, only somewhere between half and two-thirds of them actually concern this story. For the rest, Melville – or rather, his narrator, Ishmael – wishes to teach the reader all about whales and whaling. Just about every little detail is covered, from whether whaling is an honourable profession, to whales in the fossil record (as of 1851, when the book was published), to the best and worst illustrations of whales, to why white is a frightening colour. In a chapter entitled ‘Cetology’, Ishmael lays down his own classification of whales, which makes for confusing reading over one-and-a-half centuries later as you try to match Ishmael’s species with those recognised today. In another, he has the foresight to speculate on whether there is a risk that whales will be hunted to extinction; he concludes not, as whalers don’t kill that many whales and they can always find safe regions to shelter. (Sadly, of course, he underestimated the persistence of human hunters and the slow rate at which whales replenish their numbers.) There is even a reference to the real-life event that served as inspiration for the story: the sinking of the whaling ship Essex by a sperm whale in 1820.

A lot of this information is certainly interesting on its own, but in this case, it’s mixed in with a fictional adventure – and that created frustration because often, when Ishmael stopped to deliver another info-dump, I was often more eager to find out what would happen next in the story. It becomes more difficult to focus: sometimes even the object of the quest, Moby Dick himself – who only shows up in the flesh for the final three chapters – feels less important than the cetology lesson. It’s also more difficult to connect with the characters this way, though there are some good individual chapters which get inside their heads. Ishmael being overly dramatic is sometimes amusing – after tripping over an ash-box, he jokingly wonders to himself if they are the ashes of Gomorrah – but we generally don’t get a strong feel for his relationships with other characters, even his friend Queequeg. Nor does he seem especially affected by the ordeal that he is telling the reader about. I recall the aforementioned retold version handling this better.

Moby Dick is certainly a unique book, and by all appearances, a strong case of the author producing just the sort of book he wanted to write. I am glad that I finally finished it, but unlike with Ulysses, I don’t think I’ll get anything more out of it if I return.

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Childhood Memories of Nature

In the May 2018 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine, there’s a thought-provoking article by zoologist and TV presenter Jess French, in which she comments on how many children these days are not encouraged to get involved with nature, their parents being happy to let them be entertained via digital means. Though I don’t have any children of my own, it’s all too easy to see this as the case today, and it’s a real shame. As Jess points out, early experiences are very important – I know that my own exposure to nature in childhood made a lasting impression and ensured that I would always retain that interest.

In the early-to-mid 1990s, even before the Internet provided easy information access, there were plenty of books and television programmes which could expand my knowledge beyond what was on the doorstep. Probably the one that made the biggest impression on me was the animated series The Animals of Farthing Wood, which covered the adventures of a diverse cast of talking British animals. Looking back, it was a pretty brutal show for a child to watch: it didn’t shy away from addressing the havoc that humans wreak on the environment, or what animals themselves do to each other. One memorable episode involved some cute little baby fieldmice getting picked off by a shrike – or “butcher bird” – which, true to reality, impaled their bleeding bodies on a thornbush, to serve as its larder. In fact, it was probably this cartoon that got me interested in reptiles in particular, since my favourite character was the adder. She was a bit of an anti-hero, often acting sinister but still helping out her companions from time to time; in fiction, it’s rare to find any snakes who are portrayed as the least bit virtuous. I also subscribed to a magazine series based on the show, which was even better, as it contained lots of animal facts, and ideas for exploring by yourself. However, in the suburban neighbourhood where I grew up, opportunities to go wandering about in wild areas seemed limited.

But even a little bit of nature can go a long way, and it’s not difficult to find interesting things if you look hard enough. I remember one day, noticing a group of aphids clustered on the hedge outside our house, accompanied by a few ants scuttling about them. “I’ve read about this!” I thought – the ants must be collecting honeydew from the aphids. Looking about elsewhere on the hedge, I found a ladybird, and transferred it closer to the aphids. It quickly began munching on one – and almost immediately, the ants attacked, driving it off. I had read about that behaviour too! Books – and, in this day and age, YouTube videos – provide a good basis for learning about nature, but there’s a real thrill that comes from seeing it actually demonstrated before your eyes.

My primary school also encouraged nature studies on occasion. We were once asked to collect something interesting from the greenery outside the school – I found a slug, and another pupil provided an apple to feed it with. The sight of the slug gradually leaving a trail of bitemarks along the apple as it happily chewed away attracted more attention in the class than anything else. Another year, we constructed a “caterpillar hotel” with a cardboard box, which we populated with peacock butterfly caterpillars collected from nettles. Most of the caterpillars mysteriously died – looking back, I suspect that they killed each other – but four survived to turn into chrysalises, hanging from the roof of the box, until the exciting day when the butterflies emerged and we set them free. Sometimes, being the young animal expert that I was, I was even able to take the lead: we were talking about earthworms one day, and after I mentioned reading somewhere that you could bring worms out of the ground by jumping up and down – because the worms would think it was raining – the class went outside to try it out. One or two worms did indeed appear, or maybe it was just a coincidence.

It’s great how little things like this stick in your mind even after decades, and it would be wonderful if all children could get the same opportunities and encouragement to make similar memories.

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Bank Holiday Beetling

Normally, you can expect Bank Holidays in the UK to be as wet and windy as the rest of the year, if not more so. But on this particular Bank Holiday weekend, Britain is experiencing a heatwave. It’s been so hot and sunny that I found myself getting that feeling of pleasure and contentment associated with being on holiday in happy foreign climes. And such weather shouldn’t be wasted, so these past two days, I’ve been spending plenty of time outdoors!

On Saturday, I went down to Warton Hall outside Lytham St Annes, which was opening its garden to the public for a few days. Wildlife TV presenter Nigel Marven – whom I had last encountered in the Philippines – was there, giving a talk on his reptilian pets and allowing the delighted children in the audience to handle them. These included two blue-tongued skinks and a ball python; as well as saying hello to Nigel, I was able to hold the python for a bit, and it made itself comfortable using my arm as a substitute for a tree branch!

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I also had a walk through the woodland area, which was full of bluebells and extremely pleasant. Various pieces that symbolised the spiritual side of nature, and the feeling of safety and escape it can give you, had been placed around the woodland. The pictured window, for instance, came from a house in the Loire Valley where pilgrims used to stop.

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This morning, I went on another little nature excursion, to the Ainsdale Sand Dunes National Nature Reserve on the Sefton Coast. Finding my way about these sand dunes proved tricky, even with waymarks; the paths were narrow and uneven, and often with vegetation growing across them. Although I got there relatively early, before the crowds arrived to enjoy themselves on Ainsdale Beach, there were no lizards to be seen. Contrary to what you might expect, you are actually less likely to see cold-blooded reptiles when the weather is especially warm and sunny. In these conditions, they can spend less time basking, before getting back under cover rather than unnecessarily exposing themselves to predators. Plus, once fully warmed up, they are more able to disappear when they sense your footsteps.

However, there are other creatures on the dunes which are more active under the sun. There were large clusters of insects hovering around the vegetation; and on the ground, I spotted a species that I’d been told to look out for – the northern dune tiger beetle (Cicindela hybrida). Tiger beetles are among my favourite insects: there are about 2,600 species worldwide, and they are all voracious predators of other insects. They are also among the fastest running insects: some tiger beetles run so fast that it temporarily blinds them, as their brains cannot process the visual input quickly enough. Although the northern dune tiger beetle is widespread in Europe, it only occurs at a few sites in the UK, so it felt quite special to see one.

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As for Bank Holiday Monday, after all this activity, I think I may enjoy the sunshine a bit closer to home!

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Doctor Who: The First Doctor Era (1963-1966)

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A few years since I began, I am still gradually working my way through all the episodes of classic Doctor Who. For the most part, I’ve been watching them out of order, partly basing my choices on recommendations from the Gallifrey Base online community, and Graeme Burk and Robert Smith’s book Who’s 50: The 50 Doctor Who Stories to Watch Before You Die. Then at the beginning of this year, I looked over my list – having passed the halfway mark in terms of the total number of stories – and decided to be neat from now on, and fill in the gaps in order. So since January, I’ve been checking out all the stories from the era of the First Doctor – 1963 to 1966 – which I hadn’t yet watched. (This has included reconstructions and audio of the First Doctor’s forty-four “lost episodes” which were purged from the BBC archives and have not been recovered in full from anywhere else.) Now I’ve finally finished, and I’m in a position to talk about what I thought!

A Little History Lesson

In 1963, Sydney Newman, the BBC’s new Head of Drama, was given the task of coming up with a new show for the Saturday early evening slot. Something geared toward younger audiences was desired, and Newman was interested in the idea of a science-fiction show involving time travel, which could include some mildly educational historical content. Gradually, the now-familiar concept of Doctor Who came together, and a 55-year-old actor named William Hartnell was persuaded to take on the role of the titular grandfatherly scientist. The Doctor would be accompanied on his travels through time and space by his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford), and her teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill).

First Doctor Companions

At 5:16pm on Saturday 23rd November 1963, ‘An Unearthly Child’, the first episode of Doctor Who, aired on the BBC. The date is significant: President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated the day before, and with this event absorbing the public’s attention, Doctor Who attracted a relatively disappointing 4.4 million viewers. However, by the time the second serial – The Daleks – reached its conclusion, ratings were up to over 10 million. From there, Doctor Who went from strength to strength. The Daleks, the first aliens introduced on the show, quickly became especially popular. A few years later, The Tenth Planet would see the introduction of the Cybermen, another villainous race that would become familiar to fans.

If you haven’t watched any classic Doctor Who, the stories worked rather differently to the modern day series. It was a serial format: each episode lasted about 25 minutes, and most stories were spread over either four or six episodes (though one, The Daleks’ Master Plan, lasted no less than twelve). Also, each episode was given its own individual title until the third season’s The Savages, whereupon they were given numbers (i.e. Part 1, Part 2, etc) under the overall story’s title. Throughout this era, the Doctor couldn’t actually control the TARDIS properly; it moved through space and time randomly when activated.

The First Doctor’s era featured a total of 29 stories and 134 episodes. Several of these were purely adventures in historical settings – e.g. Ancient Rome, the Aztec Empire, the Crusades – without a single alien to be found. In one episode, Mission to the Unknown, the Doctor and his companions don’t appear at all, the focus being entirely on a group of human agents gathering information on the Daleks. And while we now expect to see a Doctor Who special on Christmas Day each year, that only happened once with the classic series, in 1965; the episode in question ends with the Doctor breaking the fourth wall to say, “Incidentally, a happy Christmas to all of you at home!”

As the years passed, the Doctor’s companions came and went – but by 1966, the Doctor himself had problems. William Hartnell was suffering from arteriosclerosis; he had trouble remembering his lines and was increasingly difficult for other cast and crew to work with. But if Hartnell could no longer play the Doctor, could the role simply be recast? It was proposed that since the character was an alien, he could be given the ability to transform himself into a different person, though this would not be officially referred to as ‘regeneration’ until it happened to the Third Doctor. On 29th October 1966, in the final episode of The Tenth Planet, the First Doctor transformed into the Second, played by Patrick Troughton, and a new era began.

Hartnell returned to the role of the First Doctor for the tenth anniversary special The Three Doctors, broadcast in 1972-73. However, he was in such poor health by then that he could not perform alongside Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee (the Third Doctor). Instead, the script had the First Doctor becoming trapped in a time eddy and only appearing on a viewing screen, so all Hartnell needed to do was sit down and read his lines. William Hartnell died two years later in 1975, aged 67.

My Thoughts

When I first watched the beginning of the First Doctor’s era, it was fascinating to see where one of my favourite TV series began. Granted, the first story – set in the Stone Age – is a bit dull in terms of entertainment value; but the next one, The Daleks, is much better, and you can see how both the story and the Daleks themselves would have grabbed people’s attention in 1963. Regarding all the subsequent stories, I found something to like in most of them – they are largely just simple fun. Obviously, given the time and the budget, the special effects are not exactly spectacular, and there are many noticeable instances of actors stumbling with their lines. Once in The Daleks’ Master Plan, the Doctor declares, “The Daleks will stop at anything to prevent us!” Those must be some pretty weak-willed Daleks, then. The monsters often look pretty silly, though many of the sci-fi sets and historical production designs look good.

What’s curious about Hartnell’s First Doctor is that I generally liked him, and yet sometimes felt like I shouldn’t. He can certainly get impatient and snappish with his companions, and even displays dubious morals from time to time – in The Daleks, he tells a lie to the others so he can continue exploring the alien city against their inclinations – yet somehow, this isn’t all that grating, and he remains a likeable character. Perhaps it’s because this behaviour fits his image, or maybe it’s just balanced out by his more positive moments: his cunning, his childish chuckling when excited, and his refusal to suffer fools gladly.

As far as companions go, I really loved Ian and Barbara, who are surely among the best companions in the show’s history. Being middle-aged, they were appropriately level-headed, but they remained curious and enthusiastic, and had a pleasant family dynamic with the Doctor and Susan. They were also relatively competent in crisis situations: Barbara was intelligent and not afraid to speak her mind, while Ian was a surprisingly handy action man for a science teacher, regularly having to fight for his life and often coming off better. Over the years, the Doctor hasn’t had many companions in Ian and Barbara’s age group, so it will be interesting to see how the Thirteenth Doctor gets on with Bradley Walsh.

Unfortunately, none of the other companions really did much for me. Susan spent too much time screaming, crying or getting captured. Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) was fairly likeable but generic. Steven’s (Peter Purves) more heroic qualities were let down by his short temper. Dodo (Jackie Lane) was a brainless liability. I’ll need to see more of the two companions at the end of the era, Polly (Anneke Wills) and Ben (Michael Craze), but they’re not proving to be as much fun as they seemed to be when introduced in The War Machines.

My Favourite Stories

Marco Polo / The Romans / The Gunfighters: These were my favourites of the aforementioned historical adventures. Marco Polo – one of the lost stories – is an exciting adventure with a great exotic feel; while The Romans and The Gunfighters have a lot of fun playing around in their respective historical eras, with some random narrative singing included in the case of The Gunfighters.

The Keys of Marinus: This story is basically a fetch quest in which the Doctor and co must hop from place to place to collect a series of keys for a world-saving machine. As a result, the story is several adventures in one, involving mind-controlling brains in jars, man-eating plants, Ice Knights, and Ian being framed for murder with the Doctor as his defence lawyer. The variety, the tension (particularly in the latter story), and everybody getting their moment to shine, makes this an enjoyable one.

The Daleks’ Master Plan: Given the sheer length of this story, I felt a bit daunted going into it. But it’s far from a chore to watch; in fact, the twelve episodes go by very quickly. As in The Keys of Marinus, there’s a lot of moving about to add variety; and it ends up being surprisingly grim, with two short-term companions getting killed.

My Least Favourite Stories

The Web Planet: The story is slow and the monsters are men shuffling around awkwardly in giant ant costumes – but probably the biggest reason I didn’t like this one is because the “good” aliens are giant moths, and moths are among my least favourite animals on Earth.

The Celestial Toymaker: While The Daleks’ Master Plan felt shorter than its twelve episodes, this one felt far longer than its four episodes. Nothing much happens except for Steven and Dodo being forced to play a series of inane games against various cringeworthy characters; while the Doctor barely features, having been rendered invisible and mute as he plays a trilogic puzzle. Interestingly, the Celestial Toymaker himself is played by Michael Gough, who went on to play Alfred Pennyworth in the Batman films from the 80s and 90s.

Recommendations for Newcomers

Obviously, start with An Unearthly Child and The Daleks to get a feel for the setup. Of the adventures which survive in full, I’d recommend The Keys of Marinus, plus The Aztecs and The Romans to give a feel for the historical adventures. The stories involving Ian and Barbara are generally the best, but The Time Meddler – which has Steven and Vicki – is another good one.

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Film review – Avengers: Infinity War

avengers-infinity-war

(Spoiler-free)

It’s been nearly six years since the first Avengers film was released, and three-and-a-half years since Avengers: Infinity War – which would be released in two parts – was announced. And as more and more pieces of the MCU have come together in the meantime, the prospect has looked more and more exciting. The Avengers was radical enough in bringing six heroes from five films together, but now there are so many more players in this universe, and in Avengers: Infinity War, they were all going to meet each other! Unless they were an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Or a Defender. Or the Punisher. Or Hawkeye.

Meanwhile, Thanos (Josh Brolin), who was teased at the end of The Avengers and made a few small appearances in subsequent films, finally steps up properly to establish himself as this universe’s ultimate bad guy. His goal is to extinguish half of all life in the entire universe, thus creating his idea of perfect balance. To achieve the power he needs, Thanos must acquire the six Infinity Stones: two he already has by the time the introductory scene is over, two are hidden in space, and two are on Earth. And so, most of the heroes we’ve come to know – from Iron Man to Doctor Strange, from Spider-Man to Black Panther, from Thor to the Guardians of the Galaxy – find themselves coming together to stop Thanos before he gets every Stone and becomes invincible.

Is the film fun? Most certainly: Marvel Studios know how to satisfy their audience by now. The action is enjoyable, as is the experience of watching meetings between characters who have never interacted before. The Guardians of the Galaxy provide most of the comic relief, from Peter Quill trying to sound as manly as Thor, to Teenage Groot making “I am Groot” sound as snarky and petulant as he can. The almost-infinite cast ends up dividing into several groups, and sometimes when one group’s current scene is over, it’s a long time before we see them again; the film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime is a little draining. But good use is made of the time: of all the characters who actually appear in the film, nobody gets noticeably shafted and everybody gets something cool to do. Thanos, now that he’s fully in the spotlight, is an excellent villain: not only is he very intimidating, but he’s not just a generic evil force like, say, Ronan the Accuser – he’s made to feel like a person, who sees himself as the good guy and is sometimes even a little emotionally vulnerable, especially in his scenes with his foster daughter Gamora.

Yet there is something a bit dissatisfying about Avengers: Infinity War. Yes, there are a few surprises here and there: a character who last appeared years ago makes a cameo, as well as a certain actor whose presence surprised me. (Hint: he’s appeared in a Marvel film before, but not an MCU one.) And as far as killing off recognisable characters goes, it’s a bit of a bloodbath. But the novelty of this sort of crossover has worn off to a degree, and even though it’s raising the scale compared to The Avengers, it doesn’t feel nearly as special as that film did. Certainly the action is nothing you haven’t seen before. Nor is this a film for interesting character development: these characters had their previous films to talk about their feelings. Mostly, it’s action scenes interspersed with the characters talking about what they need to do next. And that’s not bad – the action always has a purpose and no single scene feels like it goes on too long. It’s just nothing new.

So don’t expect anything revolutionary when you watch Avengers: Infinity War. You should, however, get another good time at the cinema; Marvel Studios are a safe pair of hands at this point. Rating: 4/5.

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