Doctor Who – New Year’s Day Special 2019: “Resolution”

  • Following our expository introduction, we open in the middle of a ‘romantic comedy’ moment between Lin and Mitch, which makes it pretty obvious that something bad’s about to happen to one or both of them. At least they’re both still alive by the end of the episode, which is more than I expected.
  • That’s a nice little shot of Team TARDIS all watching the cosmic fireworks together.
  • So Sheffield has replaced London and Cardiff as the centre of weird activity in Britain now?
  • Lin, the presumably well-educated archaeologist, upon seeing a horrifying squid-like creature on a wall in a sewer, decides to go right up to it and touch it. Okay.
  • Yep, Chris Chibnall brings back the Daleks for this New Year’s special – and after a whole season of no classic Doctor Who monsters whatsoever, it actually feels quite nice to see them again. Maybe they should continue to use the classic monsters sparingly for a few seasons.
  • The Dalek’s possession of Lin feels like a blatant rip-off of Venom (and it takes a hint from Terminator 2 as well by stealing a police car and uniform), but it still works pretty well; this Dalek is a competent enemy, has a little more personality than the average member of its kind, and puts poor Lin through a lot of torment.
  • The scenes with Ryan’s dad Aaron are interesting in their own way, as we learn a little more about both Ryan and Graham, and Aaron tries to explain away his actions without really defending them. On the other hand, these scenes feel out of place as they contrast too much with everything else that’s going on.
  • I think one slight issue with Team TARDIS is that while Graham, Ryan and Yasmin work well with each other and the Doctor, they don’t have specialised roles – they all just apply themselves to whatever is required, which makes them a bit interchangeable when the action kicks off.
  • Apparently UNIT has been suspended due to “financial disputes” and “funding withdrawal by international partners“. In other words, it’s been killed by Brexit. In fact, I was surprised that none of the characters went so far as to use the B-word. As much as I sympathise, this is the sort of reference to an agenda that I can understand people complaining about – something that’s just a little too pointed. The same goes for the completely random scene later on, when a family reacts with horror at the thought of having a conversation when their Wi-Fi and Netflix go down.
  • I quite like the junkyard Dalek’s look. As new Dalek designs go, it’s certainly much better than Moffat’s colour-coded ones.
  • And so the Dalek is defeated, first by some manhandling reminscent of the classic series, and then by the power of love!
  • The Doctor will return” – yeah, in over a year’s time. How come they could make a 13-episode series every year in the Russell T Davies era, but apparently that’s too much for the BBC now?

I really enjoyed this special; as much as I enjoyed Series 11 and how its style differed from the Davies and Moffat eras, it was still nice to get a simple, exciting adventure with a classic monster again. Rating: 4/5.

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Happy New Year – 2019!

Happy New Year to everybody! So, have you been working on those resolutions?

Some of my own resolutions simply focus on maintaining my best habits from 2018 – for example:

  • I’ve set this year’s reading challenge at 50 books, which I think is high without being unrealistic.
  • I will continue to run, and at least enter another 10K. I’m hoping to try for longer distances – it will depend how I get on.
  • I’m keeping with my current routine of watching a film I haven’t seen before (outside of those I see at the cinema) and a classic Doctor Who adventure on alternating weeks. There are still 38 Classic Who stories I haven’t seen; if I don’t finish them this year, then certainly in 2020.

As for new goals:

  • I will look for ways to reduce my carbon footprint and my usage of plastic, and I also want to make my garden more wildlife-friendly. At a recent work event, I was given a packet of wildflower seeds; I can start by planting those in the spring to attract bees!
  • I want to try checking some species off my bucket list of British wildlife which I haven’t yet seen (e.g. grass snake, basking shark), as well as some which I have technically seen before but not for a long time (e.g. cuckoo, slow worm).
  • I want to blog more about my experiences with having Asperger’s Syndrome this year – perhaps somebody will find it useful. I’ll also be continuing to work on my nature blog and trying out different content there.

I hope you have some great resolutions for this year! I find it helps to treat them like SMART targets: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely.

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My Favourite Things in 2018

In the News

  • The royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on 19th May was, if anything, even more of a pleasure to watch than that of William and Kate in 2011. With such features as a very eloquent sermon by American reverend Michael Curry, and a choir singing ‘Stand By Me’, there was a bit more of a light-hearted feel to it. And as my dad said, the British do pomp and ceremony like nobody else.
  • In terms of sports, the Winter Olympics was good fun, with Great Britain winning five medals (though sadly none in the curling). But the obvious highlight was the FIFA World Cup in Russia, in which the England football team reached the semi-finals for only the third time ever, won a penalty shootout for the first time at a World Cup, and saw Harry Kane win the Golden Boot for the most goals scored. After the debacle of Euro 2016, the team exceeded practically everyone’s expectations, and made the country love them again. And England haven’t stopped there: they will be playing in the Nations League semi-finals next year.
  • Watching to see if the InSight lander would safely touch down on Mars on 26th November made for a tense few minutes and a happy conclusion, but easily the space-related highlight of the year was the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket on 6th February. I was so excited watching that, I couldn’t sit still. Just remember: at this very moment, there is a car, with a spacesuit in the driver’s seat, orbiting the Sun.

Favourite Books (Fiction)
One thing I’m especially proud of this year is reading or listening to 69 books, well above my target of 45. With the number of books I still want to read, I need to keep this pace up.

10. Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (print)
The fourth instalment of the Cormoran Strike series has what is certainly the most complex mystery of the series so far, with so many tangled threads that you can’t imagine how they can possibly all link together, yet Galbraith (or rather, JK Rowling) skilfully brings it all to a satisfactory and unpredictable conclusion. The characters are again handled well, as fleshed out and fascinatingly scarred as ever. If only Rowling could have done such a good job with writing The Crimes of Grindelwald.

09. Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton (print)
This is exactly my kind of book: historically-based (though taking some artistic licence, as the afterword admits) and with a good helping of action. It manages to be both a picture of 19th century palaeontology, based around the fascinating rivalry between Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh (great material for a novel), and a satisfying Wild West adventure into the bargain. A straightforward, easy read.

08. The Beach by Alex Garland (print)
A deep, atmospheric, very readable story, with a compelling narrator and an exploration of just what people are looking for when they go travelling.

07. The Terror by Dan Simmons (audio)
I would recommend this to just about any fan of historical fiction; it brings the setting and the characters to life vividly, as well as having plenty of interesting details. The story also blends what is known historically about Franklin’s lost expedition with a supernatural/horror element, having the crew being hunted by an unknown monster, without seeming too awkward. It’s very grim and atmospheric; you can feel the suffering that the characters go through.

06. The Dark Tower Part III (The Waste Lands) and Part IV (Wizard and Glass) by Stephen King (print)
With the first two books essentially setting the pieces on the board, I liked how there was proper forward movement on the journey in Part III, plus the world-building; Roland’s universe keeps getting more fascinating and mysterious with the details that are revealed. Part IV mostly consists of a flashback to events that took place shortly after Roland became a gunslinger: this story proceeded slowly sometimes, and I wasn’t sure why this was the story that had to be told as opposed to anything else that happened to Roland before the beginning of Book 1, but it was worth it in the end: the ending was one of the most powerful and painful things I’ve read in a while. I intend to get through the last three instalments in 2019.

05. Christine by Stephen King (audio)
This is probably as good a story about a haunted car as it’s possible to write. The segments where the car – the titular Christine – plays the part of the horror-movie monster, coming to life and attacking people, are indeed a bit wacky at first. More compelling is the rest of the story, where we see the gradual effect that the car has on its new owner Arnie, and how events gradually escalate out-of-control, as well as some general observations about teenagers making the transition to adulthood along the way. This was a story that I thought worked especially well in audio format – for example, the slow change in Arnie’s voice as he falls more under the influence of the car.

04. Raptor Red by Robert Bakker (print)
This book, written from a dinosaur’s point of view (specifically a Utahraptor), was a really wonderful read. Bakker puts a lot of detail into the dinosaurs’ behaviour, the biological justification behind it, and the world around them. For most of it, there isn’t a plot as such – it’s just raptors living their lives – but that hardly matters when the content is so interesting. For the same reason, any artistic licence can be forgiven, like perhaps anthropomorphising the animals a little too much (which succeeds in getting the reader more invested). Plus, given that the book was published in 1995, it’s a little out of date now; for one thing, the raptors should have feathers! A must-read for dinosaur fans.

03. Middlemarch by George Eliot (audio)
This book reads like a 19th century soap opera with such a vast web of flawed but still sympathetic characters, and I became more and more engaged and eager to see what would happen next as it went on.

02. The Humans by Matt Haig (audio)
This story, told from the perspective of an alien masquerading as a human, is a brilliant portrait – both funny and sobering – of the good and bad in humanity. You really feel like this is how an advanced alien race would perceive us; specifically, how ridiculous and illogical most of our culture is. I also liked how the main character learned and developed over the course of the story, and his relationships with the humans around him. I feel pleased that I happened to listen to this audiobook within a few months of reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari; both books, in different ways, give much food for thought on the human condition.

01. Mythos and Heroes by Stephen Fry (audio)
These two books contain many detailed and wonderful retellings of stories from Greek mythology, some of which I had heard before and some I hadn’t. They even include such information as how the Greek influence has bled into later art and language (e.g. uranium being named after Ouranos, who was imprisoned underground). The narration by the ever-reliable Stephen Fry makes the stories even better. Mythos covers the origins of the mythical Greek world and the beings within it, as well as an assortment of more miscellaneous tales; Heroes, meanwhile, covers the adventures of important individuals like Perseus, Heracles and Theseus. It is strongly implied in Heroes that a third instalment, covering the Trojan War and the Odyssey, is coming – I look forward to it.

Favourite Books (Non-Fiction)
(Honourable mentions: Cuckoos: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies; Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths by Darren Naish)

05. DisneyWar by James B Stewart (audio)
A really detailed and candid look at the astonishingly brutal boardroom politics of Michael Eisner’s tenure at Disney – highly recommended if you enjoy behind-the-scenes stories for how movies and television programmes end up getting made.

04. Cosmos by Carl Sagan (audio)
While the primary focus of this popular science book is astronomy, it covers a wide range of interesting points and questions, from the value of our ability to store knowledge outside our own brains, to just how likely it is that there is life beyond this star system.

03. Choose Yourself by James Altucher (print)
The overall message of this book is about finding success as an entrepreneur – in whatever form that might take – outside of the standard cubicle-based corporation jobs. But the advice given (and accompanying examples) can be applied in all sorts of ways and fields, and I think just about anyone who reads this book will find something that they can get hold of to improve their wellbeing and figure out what they can contribute to the world. This is also helped by Altucher’s engaging, conversational writing style. While I didn’t agree with everything he said (though some points I appreciated more after thinking about), this is definitely one of the better self-help books I’ve read.

02. The Unexpected Truth About Animals by Lucy Cooke (print)
This is a really wonderful popular science book which explores both historic and more recent misconceptions about a range of intriguing and mysterious animals, from eels to frogs to pandas. I learned a great deal of new information from it, and it frequently made me chuckle too. I certainly wouldn’t mind a sequel which covers even more misunderstood species!

01. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (print)
This book has so many excellent explanations of just how humans have turned out the way they are today, and raises lots of interesting ideas that are ultimately basic logic you just never think about – like the fact that companies only exist because we say they do, and the use and exchange of money is based on trust. Plus I now understand capitalism much better than I ever did before.

Favourite Films Watched In The Cinema
(Honourable mentions: Darkest Hour, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War)

05. Incredibles 2
A worthy sequel to one of Pixar’s best films.

04. Ralph Breaks The Internet
Containing as much fun and heart as Disney can deliver, this one gets the edge over Incredibles 2 by actually improving upon the first film (and not having a predictable twist villain).

03. Ready Player One
This film is enjoyable indulgence, and while it does deviate from the book in many ways, that generally serves to make the story work better in this particular medium.

02. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse
By far the best Spider-Man film since Spider-Man 2, with a wonderful visual style, and a host of characters with emotional journeys that it’s easy to get invested in.

01. First Man
What could have been a generic, straightforward Neil Armstrong biopic instead has a great deal of effort put into it, and a style all of its own. It’s an intense experience that places you right in the pilot’s seat, and it left me feeling that if I were a filmmaker, I’d like to make something along those lines.

Favourite Films Watched Outside The Cinema (That I Hadn’t Seen Before)
10. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
09. Capricorn One (1978)
08. The Disaster Artist (2017)
07. The Invisible Man (1933)
06. The Lodger (1927)
05. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
04. Gorillas in the Mist (1988)
03. The Prestige (2006)
02. The Blues Brothers (1980)
01. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Favourite Television Programmes
While I’m still not a big television watcher, there were some things I especially enjoyed.

  • As well as Season 11 of Doctor Who (which I’ll talk about in more detail after New Year’s Day), there was Season 5 of Agents of SHIELD – while I thought Season 4 got off to a slow start then became really good, this one was great all the way through. It was a tense and often traumatic season, with the characters first going forward in time to a future where Earth has been destroyed, then returning to the present and trying to prevent that future from happening, without knowing exactly how it happened in the first place.
  • BBC gave us another great wildlife documentary narrated by David Attenborough, Dynasties, presenting the struggles of various animals – chimpanzee, emperor penguin, lion, painted wolf and tiger – on a personal level as they try to preserve their bloodline, whether by clinging to their territory and status or just ensuring the next generation reaches adulthood. My mum and I have also been watching a lot of Snakes in the City, a National Geographic documentary covering the work of Simon Keys and Siouxsie Gillett, snake-catchers in Durban, South Africa.
  • American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace wasn’t praised by everybody, but I liked it a lot. It isn’t so much Gianni Versace’s story as that of his killer, Andrew Cunanan (played superbly by Darren Criss), portrayed as a charismatic but fascinatingly disagreeable human being who lies compulsively and believes he is entitled to the best of everything. After opening with Versace’s murder, the series runs chronologically backwards until the final episode, covering Cunanan’s life bit by bit, which I felt served to make it more interesting as a more complete picture of him is built up.
  • Killing Eve is a drama series about a Russian assassin named Villanelle (Jodie Comer), and Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), the MI5 officer tasked with tracking her down. While it’s certainly thrilling and darkly humorous, the complex relationship between the two main characters is what really makes this show, as Eve becomes increasingly obsessed with trying to understand and capture Villanelle, who in turn wants to make friends with Eve in her own twisted way. I’m eagerly awaiting the second series.

Favourite Podcasts
Finally, I thought I should mention some of my favourite podcasts that I’ve been listening to regularly; I somehow neglected to do this last year even though that was when I got properly into listening to podcasts.

  • Herpetological Highlights covers recent scientific studies of reptiles and amphibians in a fun and casual way, with each fortnightly episode focussing on a particular topic.
  • The Secret History of Hollywood covers stories about the olden days of Hollywood, from Universal Studios’s horror movies, to the career of Alfred Hitchcock, to the history of Warner Bros. Full of interesting anecdotes, it’s wonderfully produced and narrated by Adam Roche. Most of the series are currently available as audio shows on Audible.
  • The Trail Went Cold is a true crime podcast, where the producer Robin Warder first presents details of unsolved crimes and disappearances, then presents his own theories and logical deductions as to what may have happened.
  • Casefile is another well-produced true crime podcast, going into detail on crimes both solved and unsolved.
  • I’ve recently started getting into 1800 Seconds on Autism, where autistic hosts Jamie Knight and Robyn Steward discuss different aspects of this subject.

Are there any books, films, TV series, podcasts or news items you’ve particularly enjoyed this year? Let me know in the comments!

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Looking Back on 2018

We are now approaching the end of 2018 – and I’ve personally found it to be a stimulating year where I was able to do all sorts of interesting things.

Of my fourteen New Year’s resolutions, I have completed or stuck to ten – these included meeting my reading goals, going on another volunteer trip overseas, expanding my computer skills, and trying to do more scicomm; to that latter end, I’ve been sharing more scientific tweets on Twitter, and created a new blog to focus on zoology and experiences in the natural world. A few of my resolutions ended up mutating a little or going in unexpected directions; for example, I wanted to create more opportunities to get out and socialise, and at the moment, a lot of that comes from joining a local running club which was only formed a few months ago.

This year, I’ve also been paying more attention to how my mind works and what motivates me most effectively, as well as re-thinking what I want to achieve right now and what I believe I can feasibly do. In the last month or so, a lot of this has come from reading James Altucher’s book Choose Yourself, which I strongly recommend. Here are some of the things I’ve taken away from this year which I want to carry into 2019.

  • When I set myself a goal, it has to be something I really want (as well as appreciating why I want it), not something I have to force myself to do. Lifestyle changes have worked best when I ease into them on my own terms, and persisted for so long that they become the norm. A good example for me has been eating more vegetarian meals each week; more recently, I’ve also been trying to cut beef out of my diet, since beef has a bigger carbon footprint than other types of meat.
  • When you have a reason to be truly interested in a subject, even one you might not have paid much attention to before, learning more about it comes naturally. I’ve never been especially invested in politics, but I’ve been gradually absorbing more relevant information while following the progress (or lack thereof) of Brexit and whether there is any chance of it not happening in the end.
  • Following more science communicators on social media has also been a great source of knowledge, particularly regarding climate change. That’s the thing about social media: you get out of it as much as you put in.
  • You need to accept and embrace how your own mind works in order to use it most effectively. For example, I’ve accepted this year that I function best concentrating on one thing at once, so if I’m listening to a podcast whilst working on the computer, I’m not going to take it all in. Also, for whatever reason, I absorb non-fiction books better when they’re in print than when they’re audiobooks, so I’m going to be sticking to audio-novels in 2019 while reading more non-fiction in printed format.
  • There are so many things I want to do and so little time that I need to be selective about what I devote my time to. I’ve recently been participating in a book club but I’m not sure it’s for me; the books are usually selected from the Richard & Judy Book Club and I don’t tend to especially like them, and there are already too many books that I know I want to read.
  • More than in 2017, I’ve been finding real pleasure in exercise and keeping my physical body in good shape. The mental rewards of this are really worth it; I’m certain that it has contributed – among other things – to me being generally happier right now than I was two years ago.

Sometimes, looking at the news this year, it’s been feeling like the world is going backwards. The British government is pushing ahead with Brexit despite all the indications that it’s going to turn out poorly, insisting it’s “the will of the people” (or very slightly more than half of them) because apparently there’s no way the people might have changed their minds after two years of being presented with more complete information. Meanwhile, biodiversity continues to fall and the climate change situation continues to worsen, with various examples of extreme weather around the world, and not enough currently being done to prevent a rise in global temperatures of more than 1.5 degrees Centigrade: Brazil alone have elected a new president who wants to increase agricultural usage of Amazon rainforest land.

There are a lot of problems in the world, but there’s no chance at all of things getting better if you just give up and accept it. So that’s one of my aims going into 2019: to continue to expand my knowledge, and think about what kind of contributions I can make to the world, however small they may be.

I will be going over my favourite books, films, etc of 2018 in a later blog post.

What have you achieved in 2018? Are there any particular life lessons you will be taking into 2019? Let me know in the comments!

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Apollo 8: 50 Years On

Earthrise

Earthrise from Apollo 8 (NASA)

Fifty years ago, the Apollo 8 mission gave the world an especially exciting Christmas, as it became the first ever manned space flight to leave Earth orbit and travel to the Moon.

The crew of Apollo 8 consisted of commander Frank Borman, command module pilot Jim Lovell, and lunar module pilot Bill Anders. Borman and Lovell had previously flown together on the two-week Gemini 7 mission in December 1965, the longest spaceflight up to that point. Lovell had flown once more after that as commander of Gemini 12, giving him the distinction of having spent more time in space than any other astronaut or cosmonaut, which he would retain until 1973. For Bill Anders, on the other hand, Apollo 8 was his first and only spaceflight.

Originally, Borman and Anders had Michael Collins as their command module pilot; but earlier in 1968, Collins developed a bone spur in his spine, which required surgery to correct, and put him out of action for several months. As a result, Jim Lovell joined the crew instead, while Collins was given what would have been Lovell’s spot alongside Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the eventual Apollo 11 crew.

Apollo 8 wasn’t originally intended to fly to the Moon, either. The plan for the first manned Apollo missions was to have a C-mission, testing the command and service module (CSM) in Earth orbit; then a D-mission, testing the CSM and lunar module together in low Earth orbit; then an E-mission, repeating the D-mission in high Earth orbit, to practice for the high-speed re-entries that would be necessary when returning from the Moon. Apollo 8 was to be the D-mission, crewed by Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott and Rusty Schweickart; Frank Borman’s crew had been assigned to Apollo 9, the E-mission. However, the D-mission’s lunar module experienced delays in its construction, and was not forecast to be ready until the spring of 1969, throwing the whole schedule back. George Low, manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, came up with an idea: cancel the E-mission, and replace it with a CSM-only flight around the Moon in December 1968, before the D-mission. Apollo 9 subsequently became the D-mission, and as McDivitt’s crew had already spent so much time training for that particular flight, they switched places with Borman’s crew, who would fly on the new Apollo 8. This meant that Borman’s crew had less than four months to train for their mission.

An important factor in the decision to send Apollo 8 to the Moon was the risk that the Soviet Union might get a manned mission there first. Indeed, in September 1968, a Soviet spacecraft named Zond 5 – which carried various biological specimens, including a couple of tortoises, but no cosmonauts – successfully passed once around the Moon and returned to Earth.

Apollo 8 launched from Cape Kennedy, Florida at 7:51am local time on 21st December 1968. Borman, Lovell and Anders were the first astronauts to ride the massive Saturn V rocket, which had only had two unmanned test launches. Two hours and 47 minutes after launch, the crew performed their Trans-Lunar Injection burn, which propelled them towards the Moon. As a safety measure, the spacecraft initially travelled on a free-return trajectory, which meant that if left to its own devices, it would swing around the Moon and straight back to Earth in a figure 8, as Zond 5 had done. This inspired the design of the Apollo 8 mission patch, which was drafted by Lovell. On the outbound flight, no significant problems were encountered with the spacecraft, but Borman did experience a short bout of space-sickness, which was rather unpleasant for everybody in the cramped command module.

On 24th December, after travelling across the trans-lunar void for 2 days and 18 hours, Apollo 8 passed behind the far side of the Moon and fired its main engine, slowing down enough to enter lunar orbit. It would stay there for 20 hours, completing ten orbits, while the crew took photographs and observed landmarks, reconnoitring potential landing sites for future missions. From an altitude of 70 miles, Lovell described the Moon’s surface as resembling “plaster of Paris or…a greyish beach sand“.

As Apollo 8 began its fourth orbit, the astronauts managed to get a view out of their windows of Earth, rising above the bleak lunar surface. Bill Anders took the Earthrise photo that would be one of Apollo 8’s greatest legacies, an image perfectly encapsulating the beauty and isolation of our planet and everything on it. Later, during the ninth orbit, the crew made a television broadcast back to Earth, presenting live images of the Moon, and rounding off by reading the beginning of the Book of Genesis. Frank Borman ended by saying, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

A few hours later, Apollo 8 passed behind the Moon for the final time, out of contact with Mission Control; on the far side, the crew would perform the Trans-Earth Injection burn that would propel them out of lunar orbit. 37 minutes later, to the relief of Mission Control, signals from the spacecraft were re-acquired exactly when expected, indicating that the burn had been fine. Soon after, Jim Lovell reported, “Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus.” On the journey home, the crew enjoyed a surprise Christmas dinner of turkey, gravy and cranberry sauce, a pleasant change from their usual freeze-dried food. Apollo 8 landed in the Pacific Ocean on 27th December, bringing the six-day mission to an end, and bringing NASA significantly closer to achieving President John F Kennedy’s challenge of landing a man on the Moon by the end of 1969.

If you would like to know more, check out the Apollo 8 Flight Journal, or Andrew Chaikin’s book A Man on the Moon.

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It’s Christmas!

Xmas Tree

We are just a few days away from another Christmas, and I am feeling happy. I always love Christmas. Once the first of December rolls around, I feel I can start celebrating without embarrassment, so I put up my little Christmas tree and some tinsel around the house, buy the first box of mince pies, and open the advent calendar. I eat one chocolate a day like you’re supposed to, of course. I’m a good boy.

Just doing these things – indeed, just thinking about Christmas – is enough to make me feel good. I can’t pinpoint one single aspect of the holiday: really, it’s a combination of lovely things. There’s the giving and receiving of gifts, and being allowed to overindulge a little on food without feeling guilty. There’s the whole family making an effort to do things together for a whole day. And there’s a sense of goodwill and unity that goes beyond your own household. I look forward to simply taking the dogs out on Christmas Day and saying “Merry Christmas” to everyone we meet.

I also wonder if the routine of Christmas appeals to the Asperger’s Syndrome side of my mind. Different members of my family alternate hosting Christmas from year to year, but there are still predictable rituals associated with the day: open presents in the morning once everybody’s up, receive other family members, eat Christmas dinner (always the same ingredients) in the early afternoon, and then just relax. It certainly feels comfortable in that way.

My general approach to a happy Christmas is to keep things simple; though one thing that can get a bit complicated is the shopping, which I always try to get out of the way early, sometimes before November is over. I tend to spend a lot of time overthinking what I’m going to get for my family and whether it’s something they’ll really enjoy, and ideas don’t always come easily. Granted, that’s not quite on the same level of difficulty as queuing for hours at Toys R’ Us to get a Thunderbirds Tracy Island playset, as my dad did for me once upon a time. (Thank you, Dad.) When I played the host and made Christmas dinner last year, that felt complicated too, until I was able to break it down into the different steps; I don’t think I’d have any problems doing it again, and I’ll be doing my best to help out with dinner this year.

The buildup to Christmas is fun too. I enjoy office Christmas parties; if we go out to a restaurant, I will always have the turkey option – nothing else will do for Christmas. Some years, I’ll go to a carol service, though the last one I attended had some annoying children running around, and almost caused me to miss the bus home as the singers kept carrying on just as they looked like they were bringing things to a close. I have a personal tradition of finding time to watch my four favourite Christmas films: Home Alone 1 and 2, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and the Patrick Stewart adaptation of A Christmas Carol. I usually save the latter till last, as the scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Present serve to remind me what Christmas is really about, first with the Cratchit family enjoying their goose and pudding, then with the spirit showing Ebenezer Scrooge how other people manage to take pleasure in each other’s company at Christmas, even if they’re stuck in a lighthouse or onboard a ship.

Wherever you are, I hope you have a merry Christmas and a happy new year! Is there anything in particular you enjoy about Christmas? Let me know in the comments!

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Film review – Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

spider-verse_poster

It’s been a mixed year for Spider-Man. On the one hand, his much beloved co-creator Stan Lee has passed away; the conclusion of Avengers: Infinity War was less than desirable for him, to put it mildly; and the financial success of Venom makes it more likely that Sony will eventually yank him out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, he did also get his own critically acclaimed PS4 game – and Sony Pictures Animation’s Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is also very much a positive. Quite simply, it is easily the best Spider-Man film since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

Our main hero is Miles Morales, a young man struggling with classic teenage problems like embarrassing parents, fitting in at a new school, and just not being sure what he wants out of life. One night, while painting some graffiti in the New York underground, Miles is bitten by a peculiar spider – and the next morning, he’s gained new athletic abilities and his hands stick to whatever he touches. In the process of trying to investigate what the heck has happened to him, Miles discovers that Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, is building an underground collider to open portals to alternate dimensions. As a result, Miles is soon confronted with a resident of one of these dimensions: a middle-aged Peter Parker. Teaming up with Peter, and other Spider-People who have been thrown into his universe, Miles must learn what it means to be Spider-Man, and stop Fisk before he destroys New York City.

The aesthetic style of this film is really unique. While the animation is CGI, it’s made to look as much like hand-drawn art as it can while still being three-dimensional, and the fast, jerky movements of the characters appear closer to stop-motion. The aim is to really make the film look like a comic book, and it succeeds, with lots of colour, and captions appearing on screen every now and then. The continuum-cracking effects of the interdimensional technology give the animators opportunity to get really crazy, and some of the alternate Spider-People bring alternate animation styles with them, like anime and monochrome. There are a few curious choices, like making Wilson Fisk a square with limbs and a head while practically everyone else looks like a normal human being; and the lights and colour that are thrown at you can be a bit overwhelming at times; but still, it’s a wonderful film just to look at. And the animation is perfect for the action scenes, which are bursting with energy, and take you flying through the air in all directions. If any animation style could embody the character of Spider-Man, it’s this.

The thing I loved most about the story itself is how much heart it has. There are so many different character relationships to get invested in. We see Miles finding it hard to gel with his loving but strict father; wanting to maintain a relationship with his Uncle Aaron, who has a questionable background but seems to understand him better than anyone else; and looking to Peter Parker as a mentor. Peter comes with his own emotional baggage; his personal life is at a low point and he’s rather lost his way. Even Wilson Fisk is motivated by something more than power or money this time round. As for the other Spider-People – Spider-Gwen, Spider-Noir, Peni Parker and Spider-Hamm – we get to know them well enough to care about them, and they can be very funny too: Spider-Noir, a 1930s private eye, is voiced with a tongue-in-cheek brooding tone by Nicolas Cage; and Spider-Hamm brings some Looney Tunes-style moves and jokes to the table. (Unlike Spider-Pig in The Simpsons Movie, I can actually understand the appeal of this porcine.) In case you’re wondering, the late Stan Lee does have a cameo, and a soberingly appropriate one.

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse has something for everyone – a great look, a great story, great action and great characters. It’s everything you could want from a Spider-Man film, or just a film in general for that matter. Rating: 5/5!

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Doctor Who – Series 11, Episode 10: “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”

  • I was expecting it to either be the Doctor or a companion teleporting in front of the Ux at the beginning, and the story then rewinding to tell us how they got there, rather than jumping forward 3407 years. But no, that’s just what would have happened if Steven Moffat was still in charge.
  • The Doctor mentioning psychotrophic waves, and emphasising the need for neural balancers, makes you think this episode will be full of weird hallucinations and characters not being able to tell what’s real. But in fact, this doesn’t play much of a role in the episode; even when the Doctor and Yasmin have to take their neural balancers off, the Doctor is just a little disorientated for a while and barely slowed down.
  • So Tim Shaw is back, in the closest thing that Series 11 has to an arc. I’ve gotten so used to series-long arcs, but after the spaghetti-like arcs of the Moffat era, I can’t say I’m sorry to take a break from them. (Wow, I must really be in the mood for having a go at Moffat today.)
  • The subplot about Graham wanting to kill Tim Shaw to avenge Grace is handled really well, in terms of both acting and writing. When Graham says quietly and calmly that they have “unfinished business with that monster” and the Doctor pointedly asks if he’s OK, you know what’s coming. Thirteen tells Graham that she’ll expel him from the TARDIS if he does kill Tim Shaw, which feels true to the Doctor; she may have killed plenty of times before in previous incarnations, but she doesn’t want to see her companions cross that line. (Saying later that her “rules change all the time” feels like an acknowledgement of her personal moral flexibility.) Some great scenes between Graham and Ryan ensue: while we didn’t get a chance to know Grace that well, Graham makes a halfway-convincing argument for her wanting him to avenge her (calling her tough, and imagining her saying “You send that blue piece of rubbish to kingdom come”), and he also demonstrates that Ryan’s previously cool attitude towards him still hurts a bit. When we finally get to the showdown between Graham and Tim Shaw, I genuinely wasn’t sure if Graham would do it or not.
  • Ah, a pleasant stroll through the good old Doctor Who quarry.
  • It’s easy to look down on the Ux for committing terrible deeds in the name of blind faith in a false god, but you can’t help but feel sorry for them too.
  • At least Tim Shaw gives a proper reason for why he’s chosen to target Earth, as the site of his first confrontation with the Doctor.
  • And at least the show emphasises how incredibly difficult stealing an entire planet should be, as with the Season 4 finale (which the Doctor references later on!)
  • “Yippee-ki-yay” – Graham, you are awesome. Though of course, he can’t swear before the watershed.
  • I think we can safely assume that Tim Shaw will be back again at some point.

This one may not be a grand climax that we’ve been building towards all season, but it still manages to feel like a proper season finale, and a decent one at that. It’s another slow, gradual story that needs to be consciously grasped onto, but unlike some other episodes like that, it never feels dull. The stakes are high, and the Doctor’s parting words feel like an appropriate closing statement as Team TARDIS continue on their travels. With these qualities, and the great ways that the characters are used this time round, Series 11 saves the best for last. Rating: 4.5/5.

As you’ve probably already heard, there is a Doctor Who-shaped hole in the Christmas Day television lineup, which feels strange and disappointing after the past thirteen Christmases. Still, the New Year’s Day special is only a few weeks away, and I’m going to wait until after that episode airs before giving my final thoughts on Series 11. See you then!

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Doctor Who – Series 11, Episode 9: “It Takes You Away”

  • My first impression of this episode was that it was going to be a minimalist, localised, haunted house story. And while the episode does try to maintain a primarily creepy vibe even when the characters venture into the antizone, it’s to the story’s credit that it ends up developing things well beyond initial impressions. It’s quite a jump from a haunted house to a conscious universe that creates illusions of dead people, but the story makes it work, letting the weirdness and intensity escalate quickly from the discovery of the portal, and handling things gradually from there.
  • I’m not sure why this episode needed to be set in Norway. Yes, it allowed the use of the bear traps as a red herring, but that was hardly necessary.
  • Graham always carrying a sandwich in case of emergencies? Paddington Bear nods in approval.
  • Good show casting blind actress Eleanor Wallwork as Hanne – she delivers a very good performance. And the story has her blindness factor properly into the plot, both by making it possible for her dad to keep her in the house and by allowing her to recognise that the Solitract construct is not her mum.
  • When we first heard the monster roaring, I initially thought that it couldn’t be a very good predator if it likes to announce its presence to its prey, and that there was probably more to it. And sure enough, the monster was nothing more than recordings from a speaker.
  • I know the flesh moths are technically aliens, but the zoologist in me says it doesn’t make much sense for moths to be like flying piranhas. It’s moth caterpillars that do all the eating, including clothes; adult moths focus on reproducing and living off their reserves. Some adult moths don’t even have mouths! There’s your fun fact for the day.
  • Unfortunately, the story becomes less interesting in the second half when the characters arrive in the Solitract universe and the mystery is mostly solved. The trouble with both Erik and Graham wrestling with the difficulty of leaving their fake loved ones behind is that you know they’ve ultimately got to do it – this scenario is nothing new for Doctor Who – so while the emotional acting is fine, I was just waiting impatiently for the inevitable conclusion.
  • Typical Thirteen, talking the Solitract round by focussing on the positives, calling it beautiful and saying they will be friends forever. Ten, say, would probably have browbeaten the Solitract into submission, while making sure to mention that he was the Doctor and 906 years old and from the planet Gallifrey and all that.
  • That frog puppet is pretty awful. Kermit the Frog does a better job of syncing his mouth to his voice than that thing.
  • So, no awkward conversation between Hanne and Erik about how he was willing to abandon her in favour of a fake wife? Or are they saving that for Oslo?
  • Hey, Ryan calls Graham ‘Grandad’ now – character development! Except now I’m worried that something bad will happen to one of them.

This episode had some good ideas and good performances, but the predictability of the emotional payoff in the second half made it less interesting for me. Rating: 3/5.

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Why I Love Running

10K 3

If you had told me two years ago that by the end of 2018, I would be writing a blog post with that title, I would have thought you were mad.

My whole life, I’ve primarily gone swimming for exercise, as well as occasional cycling. So last year, I decided to try a triathlon as I was already familiar with two out of the three necessary disciplines, but that meant I would have to get into running. I couldn’t see myself really enjoying it, but I reckoned it was doable. I started following a Couch to 5K program, which would get me out three times a week, increasing my running distance from zero to 5K in nine weeks.

The starting point was to run for one minute, do a recovery walk for one minute, then repeat nine times. It started off easy, but I was definitely feeling the burn by the end – still, I managed it. Gradually, the distance increased while the walking time decreased; the running itself didn’t feel any less tiring, but I noticed a definite decrease in my recovery time when I finished. The goals were always achievable, even on the days that weren’t so good, and I finished the program on schedule. Since then, I’ve increased my best distance to 10K.

I still try to go out three times a week; going without running even for a week or two can impact your performance. Even after a year and a half, it’s always enough to work up a sweat. When I set out, I know that by the end I’m going to be tired out and desperate to stop and rest. And yet I actively look forward to running on my scheduled days – there rarely comes a day when I’m “not feeling it”. (When that happens, the weather is usually responsible.) In contrast, while I do like swimming, I don’t find myself actually looking forward to it in the same way. So what is so great about running?

There are some obvious pros. Following an initial payment for decent shoes, running is free. There’s the change in scenery as you go. It’s an opportunity to listen to music while doing something productive, if you’re like me and usually find it hard to focus on two things at once – I usually have my headphones on when I’m running alone. But for me, there are reasons beyond that.

When I run, I feel more of an awareness of how I’m pushing my body than with other forms of exercise. I feel in control. I’m able to judge my own muscle power. This, combined with the rush of endorphins that accompanies exercise, makes me feel good. Yes, after a while, the breathing gets heavy, the calves get sore and sometimes there’s a stitch in the chest, which counteracts the pleasure somewhat. But even that tends to diminish if I run for longer than half an hour, so I’m properly warmed up and have hit my stride. And no matter how much pain I may be in, the finish always brings deep satisfaction. I recently read a self-help book called Choose Yourself by James Altucher, which emphasises that we actually have four different bodies we need to take care of in order to stay happy: the physical, the emotional, the mental and the spiritual. During and after running, I feel very strongly that I’m doing my physical body some good; I certainly tend to feel very healthy these days in-between runs.

There’s also an element of pride. Since primary school, I never took naturally to sports, so I take pleasure in being able to run regularly now – even if I’m not going to be winning any races – and continuing to challenge myself. Keeping a log of your times and distances is an excellent motivator; you can see yourself improving with time, and recording a personal best to beat. I’ve been finding myself gradually going faster, even when I’m not consciously trying to do so – it just happens naturally with more experience.

Recently, I’ve also been enjoying more of a social aspect to running. So much of running is mental: when I had the opportunity to go on runs with my sister, it felt much easier than when I was running alone. Talking to people takes your mind off the pain. When a running club started near me, I was able to go out with several people, allowing us all to try out new routes, make new friends and motivate each other. (This is especially useful in the winter months when the weather often makes you less willing to leave the house.) At the suggestion of two other members, I tried out a local park run for the first time recently, which was fun.

So if you think you might like to give running a try, I urge you to go for it! It really does bring a host of benefits. Try a Couch to 5K program to gradually break into it. Obviously keep well hydrated, remember to warm up before you run, and warm down/stretch when you’re done. In the current season, with the temperature dropping, bear in mind you’ll be warming up as you go and try not to wear so many layers that overheating might become a problem. If you live in the UK, see if you can find a park run near you once you’re able to do 5K – they’re free!

Do you like to run? Do you think you might try it some time? Let me know in the comments!

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