Film review: Ammonite

Well, I certainly hadn’t expected that by mid-October, I would have seen a grand total of six films at the cinema. I’m not even sure I’ll see another one this year: new releases continue to be put back, and my usual cinema has closed again. The film I’ve just been to see, Ammonite, was only airing yesterday, to close out the BFI London Film Festival. To see it, I visited another, smaller cinema I’d never actually been to before, which provided a little extra comfort and homeliness with sofas rather than seats.

Ammonite is a period piece about the 19th-century fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), who discovered some of the earliest examples of prehistoric reptiles like ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. I was certainly very interested to see any sort of film about Mary: I’ve previously visited her hometown of Lyme Regis and gone on a fossil walk along the beach. However, as made clear in the trailer, this film isn’t really about the fossils. Instead, it focusses on Mary’s relationship with Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), who comes to Lyme Regis with her geologist husband while suffering badly from “melancholia”. When Charlotte remains in the town to convalesce while her husband goes to Europe, Mary becomes her reluctant companion, with their relationship becoming increasingly intimate and complicated as time passes.

This is definitely one of those films where less is more. Dialogue is kept to a minimum – there are a lot of scenes with none at all – so every word counts, and Winslet and Ronan do an excellent job in conveying their inner thoughts through facial expression alone. There’s not much background music either, so it has a larger impact when it is used, such as when it gradually becomes loud and overwhelming in a scene where Mary is feeling isolated at a social gathering. The time period, the rough and windy seaside setting, and the poverty that Mary has to endure, are all captured very well.

While Mary and Charlotte may not have many extensive conversations, watching their relationship progress is still very engaging. They both start out as distant characters, for differing reasons that are ultimately linked to being a woman in a man’s world: Mary has had a hard life and is resigned to not getting the credit she deserves for her fossil discoveries, while Charlotte is stuck in a joyless marriage. Gradually, they bring each other out of their shells, but additional conflict is generated by the class difference between them: Charlotte feels useless while staying in Mary’s little house, and Mary is out of place in the social circle Charlotte is used to.

The biggest artistic licence that the film takes – and the main element of it that I didn’t like – was the lesbian romance between Mary and Charlotte. That’s a big thing to invent for people who existed in real life, when there is no actual evidence for it. And honestly, if you’re going to make a film about Mary Anning, there are plenty of interesting things you can focus on that aren’t made up – like the struggles she faced because of her gender, and the impact that her discoveries made on the scientific community – as Tracy Chevalier does in her novel Remarkable Creatures. As I said, there’s not much focus on the fossils and the science; this film isn’t great in terms of telling Mary Anning’s story – in fact, it would probably have worked fine with fictional (or historically inspired) characters. Yet simply taken as a film, it’s really good.

Outside of the context of historical accuracy, if you enjoy more artsy films, Ammonite is a highly worthwhile watch, very atmospheric with great performances. Rating: 4.5/5.

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Holidaying in England: The S.S. Great Britain

After the wet weather in Southampton, the sun was thankfully shining in Bristol, and walking along the picturesque River Avon was a very pleasant experience. As with Southampton, my visit was primarily motivated by my interest in maritime history, and I was about to see an icon of oceanic travel: the S.S. Great Britain.

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In 1838, the S.S. Great Western entered service and began a new age on the seas; sailing between Bristol and New York, it was the first ever steamship specifically built to cross the Atlantic. The Great Western was the brainchild of the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who soon turned his attention to designing another, even more innovative ship. Whereas the Great Western had a wooden hull, this ship would be made of iron, and would also adopt screw propulsion, which was just starting to prove itself as superior to paddle wheels. The end result was the S.S. Great Britain, the biggest ship in the world at the time. Launched in 1843, it set off on its maiden voyage to New York in 1845. In the words of Jeremy Clarkson, “It was Genesis. A ship 50 years ahead of its time.”

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The Great Britain was to have a varied and turbulent career. She only made a few voyages across the Atlantic before she ran aground on the Irish coast in 1846, and the cost of the salvage forced her owners to sell her. She then spent 23 years carrying emigrants to Australia, taking around 60 days to travel from Liverpool to Melbourne. In 1886, after she had been sold again and converted into a cargo ship, the Great Britain was damaged in a storm and sought shelter in the Falkland Islands. The current owners decided that it wasn’t worth the cost of repairing the ship, so she stayed where she was. Used as a floating warehouse for many years, she was eventually scuttled in a cove and left to rot. There, the story might have ended – but instead, in 1970, a salvage team refloated the Great Britain (a process that included plugging a crack in the hull with donated mattresses), placed her on a pontoon, and carried her back to Bristol. Placed in the dry dock where she was originally built, she was fully restored, and remains there today for visitors to enjoy.

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Social distancing restrictions didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the Great Britain: there was only a one-way system when exploring the ship itself, and there was still enough room to both maintain distance from others and see everything there was to see. The ship’s interiors have been restored to how she was when on the Britain-Australia run: there was a big contrast between the accommodation for steerage passengers, with tightly packed bunks and only staple foods to eat, and first-class, with a lavish dining saloon and an indoor promenade to walk around in. One could appreciate how it must have felt to have been stuck in such limited space for two months at sea, particularly with what everyone in the country has been through this year.

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There was a separate area dedicated to Brunel himself, with lots of artefacts and information about his other projects – including Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, which I went to take a look at later in the day. The last thing that I did was to descend into the dry dock itself, beneath the ship; this area is kept warm and dry to slow corrosion. While the Great Britain looked proud and untouchable on the surface, from beneath she looked more fragile, the bottom of her hull pockmarked and scarred. It was a clear reminder of just how old the ship is, and how fortunate she is to still survive.

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Holidaying in England: Southampton

Readers of this blog will already be familiar with my interest in maritime history in general, and the Titanic in particular. Having visited the museum dedicated to the Titanic in Belfast, and seen a piece of the wreck in Las Vegas, the natural next place to go was Southampton. The city’s connection to Titanic goes beyond the fact that this is where, on 10th April 1912, the ship departed England on its first and last voyage. 724 members of the Titanic‘s crew lived in Southampton – obviously a natural place to reside between jobs when one worked at sea – and 549 of them died in the sinking, leaving a devastating impact on the community.

My first stop upon arrival was the SeaCity Museum. It happened to be pouring with rain, but thankfully I was allowed into the shelter of the museum a little earlier than my reservation time. The museum contains exhibits dedicated to the history of Southampton itself, but the Titanic exhibit is the highlight. A wide variety of objects from 1912 were on display, including Titanic menus which also functioned as postcards. There were interactive displays (accompanied with hand sanitiser dispensers, of course), where you could try sending a message in Morse code or steering the Titanic out of port. There were also films featuring oral accounts of the sinking by survivors, and describing the topics discussed at the disaster inquiry, from whether the Titanic was travelling too fast to whether binoculars would have aided the lookouts.

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After the museum, when the rain had eased off, I had a walk around Southampton, looking at points of interest relating to the Titanic. This memorial is dedicated to the ship’s eight musicians, all of whom perished; it is actually a replica of the original memorial, which was destroyed when Southampton was bombed in 1940.

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This memorial is dedicated to the Titanic‘s engineers; as with the musicians, all of them were lost.

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This was a fountain “erected in memory of the crew, stewards, sailors and firemen”, which was eventually moved from Southampton Common to Holyrood Church.

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This is South Western House: currently an apartment building, it used to be a hotel, where some of the Titanic‘s passengers stayed overnight before sailing. South Western House can actually be seen in the background of photographs of the Titanic at its berth, as below.

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There is no public access to Berth 44, the place where the Titanic left Southampton, since it is still in use for ships. I could, however, get a look at the general area from an accessible view point.

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From that point, there was something else I was able to see that I hadn’t known about before arriving in Southampton: the Queen Mary 2. Due to the pandemic, Cunard’s fleet are currently not in service, but the QM2 had briefly come into Southampton for provisioning. A quick look at Southampton’s online ship schedule indicated when the ship would be leaving, so I stuck around to watch it. With a tug at its bow, the QM2 moved away from the dock so slowly that you could only perceive it by comparing its position to the nearby cranes; then it made its way down Southampton Water, right past where I was, an impressive sight indeed.

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It’s always nice to see something you weren’t expecting on a sightseeing trip. Who knows, maybe I’ll actually sail on the QM2 someday.

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Film review: Tenet

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The last time I went to the cinema was when I saw Parasite on 17th February. The following month, the Covid-19 lockdown forced the closure of cinemas nationwide, and almost all of the big releases planned for the summer – including the one I was most looking forward to, Top Gun: Maverick – were necessarily put back. Now, with restrictions being eased, we can at last to return to the cinema, albeit wearing face coverings and following social distancing instructions. This hardly mattered in my case, as I went at what would have been a quiet time under normal circumstances, and there were only two other people in the screening. The film I went to see was director Christopher Nolan’s latest mindbender, Tenet.

Following an attack on an opera house in Kiev, a secret agent known only as the Protagonist (John David Washington) is introduced to a phenonemon known as “inversion”, whereby the personal time direction of objects is reversed; inverted bullets, for instance, fire into a gun instead of from it, and jump into someone’s hand instead of falling. Inverted weapons appear to have travelled back to the present day from the future and are now being distributed, and the Protagonist is charged with tracing their origin. Accompanied by a handler, Neil (Robert Pattinson), he follows a long trail around the world, only to discover that the threat posed by the future is greater than he realised.

This science-fiction thriller has many similarities to Nolan’s earlier film Inception, one of which is action sequences that enjoy some freedom from the laws of physics. A fist fight between two people certainly becomes unique when one of them is moving backwards through time compared to the other. There are plenty such sequences involving inversion, many of which will make you wonder just what was involved in filming them. Even the relatively straightforward action sequences are raised above the average by Nolan’s appreciation for practical effects, such as a scene that involved crashing a real Boeing 747 into a building.

Also like Inception, while the principles behind the science fiction are complex, the important stuff sticks and you ultimately don’t need to know all the nitty-gritty details to understand what’s happening. Unfortunately, understanding the main story outside of the science fiction is more difficult, as it’s rather complicated with a few too many intertwining threads. This is not helped by the fact that you can’t always hear what the characters are saying over the background; the sound mixing isn’t as bad as Interstellar, but still irritatingly flawed. I wasn’t a fan of the score, which was composed by Ludwig Goransson instead of Nolan’s usual choice, Hans Zimmer; the film blasts you with thunderous, grating noise for enough of its length that quieter scenes come as a relief.

While Tenet is far from Christopher Nolan’s best, it’s still a decent thriller that keeps you engaged, and the action and visuals are definitely worth a look. If you liked Inception, you’ll probably get something out of it. Rating: 3.5/5.

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Holidaying in England: The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

Like a great many people, my original holiday plans this year were scuppered by Covid-19. Even when travel restrictions were relaxed later in the summer, going overseas felt too risky; some people I knew booked holidays to Spain and then still couldn’t go due to quarantine rules. Instead, I decided to stay in England, and go see some places in the south that I’d wanted to see but hadn’t gotten round to. Among these was an attraction well known to dinosaur nerds: the dinosaur sculptures in Crystal Palace Park, London.

Following the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Crystal Palace glasshouse used for the event was moved from Hyde Park to what is now Crystal Palace Park, in South London. A number of attractions were set up in the park alongside the Palace – among them, life-sized sculptures of prehistoric animals, created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and unveiled in 1854. As you walk among these sculptures from the south-east entrance to the park, the further back in time you go, and the less accurate the depictions become.

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First, there is the Quaternary Island, featuring a group of Megaloceros, the giant deer. As these deer only became extinct around 7,700 years ago, there was already enough fossil evidence available in the 1850s for relatively accurate reconstructions. Further along is Tertiary Island, featuring examples of prehistoric mammals that lived after the Age of Dinosaurs. The Palaeotherium and Anoplotherium were easy to find, but it took a few circuits around the island before I finally spotted the giant ground sloth, Megatherium, hidden between the trees and the lake. It must be easier to view in the winter.

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The highlight, of course, is the islands representing the Primary and Secondary geological periods, as they were known at the time, when giant amphibians and reptiles roamed the land. The term “dinosaur” had only been coined in 1842, grouping together three species of large prehistoric reptile: Megalosaurus, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus, all of which are represented among the models. The mould for one of the Iguanodon models was actually used to host a dinner on New Year’s Eve 1853. However, these reconstructions were based on both limited fossil evidence and assumptions from studying living reptiles; we now know that the actual animals looked very different. What was originally thought to be a horn on the Iguanodon‘s nose was actually a spike on its thumb. The Hylaeosaurus – which, a little frustratingly, is facing away from the viewer – was more of a squat, armoured animal than a spiny-backed iguana. The predatory Megalosaurus – which wasn’t looking its best, having lost part of its jaw earlier in the year – walked on two legs rather than four.

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Also occupying the island are some of the marine reptiles that were known by the 1850s: a Mosasaurus, long-necked plesiosaurs, and ichthyosaurs, which looked more like graceful dolphins than the sluggish, freaky-eyed belly-draggers on display. At the far end of the island are some labyrinthodonts and dicynodonts, the oldest animals in the collection, dating back to around 250 million years ago. Appropriately, a modern-day dinosaur – a heron – happened to be treading through the water, close to the reconstructions of its ancient relatives.

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There were plenty of other places where you can see models of dinosaurs, but this one has true historical significance – a fascinating reflection of the early days of palaeontology, and the novelty of these amazing animals to their original Victorian audiences. Having known about the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs from the books and documentaries of my childhood, I am very glad that I’ve finally been able to see them in person!

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Camp NaNoWriMo 2020: Going Better Than I Thought

I don’t have the best record when it comes to Camp NaNoWriMo. In recent years, I’ve been saving new projects for NaNoWriMo in November, and trying to use Camp to edit existing drafts. But I haven’t tended to get very far before running out of steam. This July, however, has been different. I chose to do another edit – the Titanic-based novel I wrote for Camp NaNo 2012 – and while I am technically behind my goal due to a slow start, I’ve been making steady progress and only need to do a couple of extra hours this weekend to get back on track.

I think there’s a few different factors in this. While my NaNo regional group can’t meet up in real life, we have been regularly chatting online, which gives some motivation and accountability, and allows sharing of useful ideas. Plus, I know that when writing the first draft of a novel for NaNoWriMo, the approach that works for me is planning – it’s harder to apply that to editing, but I’ve given it a go. I used OneNote to organise my notes, went back to the themes I originally wanted to explore, and tried to plan out each of the different plotlines, focussing on the most important things that I felt needed amending.

Given that this project is historical fiction, I was thinking a lot about the historical accuracy of what I was writing about and feeling like I’d have to change a great deal to make it work. But then I would be moving further away from the story I wanted to tell in the first place. A friend in the regional group pointed out that the most important thing is strong characters that the reader is interested in – if you have that, some artistic licence is acceptable. Once I’d accepted this, I felt like I could comfortably stick with a lot of the concepts I already had, so long as they were at least plausible.

From there, I was able to lay down my new outlines and re-profile my characters. This month, there’s been a lot of spontaneous scribbling in notebooks and on Post-Its as new ideas occur to me, as well as reading more Titanic reference books to get an even better feel for the setting. I’ve also started reading the writing guidebook Save The Cat Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody, which has been very useful and illuminating so far, as I find I can apply the plot and character concepts it raises, to my own draft.

As I hadn’t been sure I could turn the chaos of my notes and half-done plans into order, successfully doing so served as a confidence booster. Knowing that I was on the right path also gave me something that’s been crucial: an endpoint, at least for this stage in the process. I’m focusing on one plotline at a time, and I’ve got a good idea of what I need to either polish or re-write at each point. Once I’ve done that, the second draft will be complete. The project will still not be finished by then; there will be at least a few more drafts to come, each one focusing on a different area of improvement, like descriptions. But the proper foundations of the story will be in place, and shouldn’t need as much substantial re-working in subsequent drafts.

With a plan in place, and a goal that I can actually visualise, I’m feeling much more motivated than in previous Camps. And once this month is done, I fully intend to carry on into August!

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The Mid-Year Book Freakout Tag

My friend Angela completed this tag on her blog, and I wanted to try it out myself. One benefit of the lockdown has been plenty of time for reading and listening to audiobooks; I have completed 39 books so far this year, my Goodreads Reading Challenge target for 2020 being 60. I think that’s certainly enough books to complete a tag about! The original #midyearbookfreakout tag is from Chami and Ely at Earl Grey Books.

1. Best book you’ve read so far in 2020

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. While it took me a few chapters to really get into it, I was loving it by the halfway point, and I definitely see why it’s so highly regarded. It’s full of rich atmosphere, emotional power, some surprisingly funny moments, and encourages self-reflection in the reader.

2. Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2020

The best book I’ve read this year that’s part of a series (and isn’t the first instalment) is Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett, the second book in the Lymond Chronicles. I’d found the first book enjoyable and witty, if a bit hard to comprehend sometimes, and Queens’ Play is more of the same, with a little more intrigue in the plot.

3. New release you haven’t read yet, but want to

Devolution, by Max Brooks. I enjoyed World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, so I’m keen to see what he does with Bigfoot.

4. Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

Troy, by Stephen Fry. This is the next in his series on Greek mythology, continuing from Mythos and Heroes. I’m not so familiar with the story of the Trojan War, so I’m looking forward to hearing about it from Mr Fry – though it’s currently unclear whether this book will include the Odyssey or not.

5. Biggest disappointment

The Sunbird, by Wilbur Smith. When I read A Time to Die earlier in the year, it was the first time in years I’d read anything by Wilbur Smith; I liked the book a lot and wanted to go through his work some more. However, while The Sunbird isn’t really a bad book, I didn’t like it nearly as much. The worst thing about it was the romance: there’s a love triangle between the three main characters in which none of them come out looking too good or deserving of much sympathy. (The romance had been the weakest part of A Time to Die as well.)

6. Biggest surprise

The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. I was unsure about this one as it appeared to have mixed reviews, but it was recommended by a friend who’s into personal development. It’s intended to help motivate struggling writers, and I found myself feeling very motivated by it. Pressfield talks about the mental forces of resistance that hold amateur writers back, and how to adjust your mindset to be more professional, all in a very positive and encouraging way. It’s only a short book, so if you’re having a hard time getting words on the page, check it out.

7. Favourite new author (debut or new to you)

In terms of someone whose work I was just introduced to this year and want to read more of, I’ll say Travis Langley. I found his book Batman & Psychology – examining Batman and the characters associated with him through a psychological lens – very interesting, and I’d like to check out the similar books he’s written and co-written on other properties, like Doctor Who.

8. Newest fictional crush

No crushes, but in terms of fictional characters I’d most like to meet, I do wish I could own Einstein the super-intelligent golden retriever from Watchers (by Dean Koontz).

9. Newest favourite character

Thrawn, after reading Star Wars: Thrawn (by Timothy Zahn) – while the character has been part of the Star Wars universe for a while, this was my own first encounter with him. While Thrawn technically works for the bad guys, one can’t help but admire him; he’s always in control, never does anything without a good reason, gives everyone the respect they deserve, and part of the fun with him is trying to figure out what solution he’s got in mind for a seemingly impossible problem.

10. Book that made you cry

I don’t actually cry at books, but the ending of A Prayer for Owen Meany certainly made me very sad, even though the book foreshadows it for some time beforehand.

11. Book that made you happy

Sunny Side Up, by Susan Calman – well, the whole point of this book is to encourage kindness and positivity.

12. Most beautiful book you’ve bought (or received) so far this year

I’m not sure I’d call any book I’ve bought or received this year beautiful, but On a Sea of Glass certainly has a good cover and some excellent pictures inside.

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13. What books do you need to read by the end of the year?

I’ve got a few new books about the Titanic that I need to read as research for my WIP. I’m also partway through The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula le Guin and want to finish that, and I told myself I’d read The Victorians by A.N. Wilson after having it on my shelf for years.

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Classic Who: The Seventh Doctor Era (1987-1989)

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44-year-old Sylvester McCoy made his onscreen debut as the Seventh Doctor on 7th September 1987, initially donning a blonde wig to depict the regeneration of the Sixth Doctor, with Colin Baker having been dismissed in-between seasons. Soon, however, he shed his predecessor’s amazing technicolour dreamcoat, in favour of a more beige but respectable costume, with a Panama hat and an umbrella with a question-mark-shaped handle. The Seventh Doctor inherited the Sixth’s latest companion, Mel Bush (Bonnie Langford), and they adventured together for the duration of that four-story season. At the season’s conclusion, Mel left the Doctor almost as abruptly as she had arrived, and he took on a new companion named Ace (Sophie Aldred), a teenager fond of explosives and language such as “brill” and “wicked”, as well as calling the Doctor “Professor”.

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Over the next two seasons, the Doctor and Ace would face Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, and plenty of original enemies, while also teaming up with UNIT and exploring Ace’s troubled backstory on Earth. Unfortunately, none of this was enough to improve the show’s already poor ratings or make BBC executives more kindly disposed towards it; putting it on at the same time as the ITV soap opera Coronation Street certainly didn’t help. By the time production of the twenty-sixth season – McCoy’s third – wrapped up in 1989, it had been decided that Doctor Who would be cancelled – and this time, the BBC meant it.

On 23rd November 1989, twenty-six years to the day since the first episode of Doctor Who aired, McCoy recorded a concluding voiceover, which was played at the end of Survival on 6th December. And that was it for Doctor Who.

Except not, of course. In the 1990s, following a co-production deal between the BBC and American studios, an attempt was made to revive Doctor Who with a made-for-television movie, which was broadcast in May 1996. Paul McGann starred as the Eighth Doctor (unlike Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy did return for an on-screen regeneration), alongside Eric Roberts as the Master. It was hoped that the film would serve as a pilot for a new series, but it failed to attract high enough ratings in the United States for this to materialise.

Then, in 2003, it was announced that the BBC was working on a new series of Doctor Who for the twenty-first century, with Russell T Davies as executive producer and chief writer. Production began in the summer of 2004, with Christopher Eccleston taking on the role of the Ninth Doctor, and Billie Piper playing his companion, Rose Tyler. The first episode of the revival aired on Saturday 26th March 2005….and the rest is history.

My Thoughts

It’s a real shame that the classic series of Doctor Who was cancelled when it was; I personally think that the Seventh Doctor’s era is a big improvement overall on those of the Fifth and Sixth Doctors. Of the twelve stories that make up Sylvester McCoy’s tenure, there are a few less-than-memorable ones, but none that are truly bad. It’s an interesting reflection of the zeitgeist of the time: the Doctor would venture into some grim, industrial, heavily-policed environments (Paradise Towers, The Happiness Patrol), while also ending up in a holiday camp at one point (Delta and the Bannermen). There’s some really great, dynamic action in these stories; this is, for instance, the era where we see the Doctor’s companion smash up a Dalek with a baseball bat.

The Doctor himself has a lot to do with the improved quality: Sylvester McCoy is my third-favourite classic Doctor behind Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, and I would have liked to see him in more adventures. He has a dignified, gentlemanly air that goes well with his outfit; he can be eccentric, mischievous and mysterious as the Doctor should be; but when things get serious, he’s forceful enough to take control of a situation, and has no small amount of cunning. Ace, meanwhile, is easily my favourite classic-series companion. She was really fun, endearing and energetic, acting like the classic 80s/90s teenager without taking it to annoying levels, loving to blow things up, and always getting stuck in with the action (see the aforementioned Dalek-baseball bat scene). Plus, anybody who wears a jacket with Space Shuttle mission patches on it is alright by me.

My Favourite Seventh Doctor Stories: Delta and the Bannermen, Remembrance of the Daleks

My Least Favourite Seventh Doctor Story: As with the Third Doctor, I don’t feel that there are any real stinkers in the Seventh Doctor’s era. The one I personally liked least was The Curse of Fenric, as I found it rather confusing with regards to Ace’s backstory (I first watched it out of order) and the Doctor referring to past engagements with an enemy whom the audience had never actually met before. There are good things about it, but it’s not a story that lends itself well to jumping straight in.

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Crew Dragon Demo-2!

On 21st July 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down at the Kennedy Space Centre, bringing the 135th and final Space Shuttle mission to a close, and leaving the United States with no way to send astronauts into orbit aside from purchasing seats on the Russian Soyuz. This Wednesday, if all goes well, that is finally going to change. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will be taking off from Launch Complex 39A in Florida, carrying human beings for the first time.

The Crew Dragon’s development is part of the Commercial Crew Program, whereby private companies – specifically SpaceX and Boeing – have developed spacecraft to carry US astronauts to the International Space Station on NASA’s behalf. Boeing’s spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, made its first test flight in December 2019: it both reached space and returned to Earth safely, but failed to enter the correct orbit to rendezvous with the ISS. SpaceX, meanwhile, has been successfully sending unmanned cargo vessels to the ISS since 2012. In March 2019, the Crew Dragon made its first orbital test flight, Demo-1, which couldn’t have gone more smoothly: the spacecraft, carrying a dummy named Ripley and a plush toy Earth, docked with the ISS and then splashed down in one piece.

Unfortunately, the already-delayed program suffered a major setback the following month, when the Demo-1 spacecraft was destroyed in an explosion while testing its abort system. There would be no crewed launch in 2019, but following a successful in-flight abort test in January, SpaceX is at last ready to go. Onboard the Crew Dragon will be astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, both of whom have two Space Shuttle missions under their belts. (Hurley, incidentally, was the pilot of the last Space Shuttle mission, STS-135.) Hurley and Behnken are expected to reach the ISS the day after launch, and remain there for up to three months.

This is obviously very exciting: it marks another big step forward in space development, and it’s the first time within my own lifetime that the United States are launching a new crewed spacecraft. But I expect I’ll be feeling nervous watching the launch too. The safety systems have undergone plenty of tests, and the Falcon 9 rocket has an excellent reliability record – but spacecraft always carries an element of risk, and watching this launch with the knowledge that lives are on the line is going to be a little tense.

Launch is scheduled for 4:33pm EDT – that’s 9:33pm in the UK. Shortly after launch, it may be possible to see the Crew Dragon passing overhead from the UK, west to east – I’m not sure if it’ll be too light at my own latitude, but you never know.

Good luck to SpaceX and Crew Dragon Demo-2!

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Apollo 13: 50 Years On

Last month marked the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 13, which launched on 11th April 1970, intended as the third manned mission to land on the Moon. Its commander, Jim Lovell, would be the first man to fly in space four times and the first to go to the Moon twice. Accompanying him were rookie astronauts Jack Swigert and Fred Haise; Swigert was a last-minute replacement for the original command module pilot, Ken Mattingly, who had been grounded after being exposed to German measles. After two successful lunar landings in 1969, public interest in the Apollo program had diminished all too quickly, and a TV broadcast by the crew did not appear on any networks.

That would abruptly change 55 hours and 54 minutes into the flight, when Apollo 13 was 210,000 miles from Earth. A simple maintenance procedure – turning on a fan to stir the contents of the service module’s Oxygen Tank No. 2 – caused the tank to explode, crippling the command and service module and depriving the spacecraft of both oxygen and electricity. Now fighting for their lives, the astronauts powered down the command module and moved into the lunar module, using its engine to put them on a trajectory to loop around the Moon and return to Earth. For four days, through the efforts and improvisation of thousands of people on the ground, the resources of the lunar module – intended to support two men for two days – were stretched to their limit. And in the end, it all worked out: on 17th April, Lovell, Swigert and Haise splashed down in their command module, at the end of what would become known as “a successful failure”.

Apollo 13 remains one of the most enduring space-related stories in history; indeed, twenty-five years later, it became the subject of a successful film, which remains my second-favourite film of all time. It’s simply a great story that lends itself very well to a structured re-telling: starting out with a journey viewed by the public as routine, and the number 13 providing a little ominous foreshadowing in hindsight, it leads into stirring themes of survival and overcoming adversity through spectacular ingenuity and team effort. The film, which is largely faithful to the real events, contains many lines which can be applied to problem-solving situations, such as “Let’s work the problem, people – let’s not make things worse by guessing” and “I don’t care about what anything was designed to do – I care about what it can do!

A lot of improvisation based on engineering knowledge went into bringing Lovell, Swigert and Haise back to Earth alive, as well as the skills, experience and cool heads of the astronauts themselves. It’s interesting to note, however, that some of the ideas applied had been experimented with well before Apollo 13, not necessarily with this exact scenario in mind, but just in case – as detailed in this article,“Apollo 13, We Have A Solution”. There was some useful information that had only been acquired by chance: for example, in his lecture in Pontefract in 2015, Jim Lovell mentioned that the best prior indication that the command module’s guidance unit would still work after a period of cold exposure, had come from one such unit still working after an engineer accidentally left it in his car during a freezing night.

I also find it interesting how the actual oxygen tank explosion itself was caused by a series of small and apparently insignificant errors all coming together to create a serious problem. First, Oxygen Tank No. 2 was dropped a short distance before it was installed in the service module, causing just enough of a shift in the tubing that when oxygen was later pumped into the tank for a test, it couldn’t be drained away again. Second, a thermostat inside the tank was out of date, built to operate at a lower voltage than the rest of the Apollo spacecraft. When the tank was heated to boil the oxygen inside away following the test, the thermostat should have kept the temperature from rising above 80 degrees Fahrenheit; instead, the high voltage caused it to fail, and the unchecked heaters brought the temperature up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. Third, the temperature gauge for the tank only went up to 85 degrees, so nobody knew what was happening at the time. Teflon insulation covering electrical wires inside the tank was damaged by the heating, leading to the explosion on the actual flight. It was a perfect demonstration of why Chris Hadfield’s book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, contains a chapter called “Sweat the Small Stuff”.

If you would like to learn more, I strongly recommend the book Apollo 13 (formerly titled Lost Moon) by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, which provides plenty of details and extra moments of tension that the film had to leave out. The second series of the BBC podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon has also been covering Apollo 13, including interviews with the people involved.

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