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Saturday, 16 March 2013 - 3:27pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 16/03/2013 - 3:27pm

I don't know if there are that many smokers who don't realise that quitting would be a good idea. How about getting these kids to educate people about what many don't know, like the ineffectiveness of the quack remedies, unnecessary dietary supplements, and allegedly miraculous weight loss products sold in practically every pharmacy alongside real medicines.

I've even had the manager of my local pharmacy forcefully try to up-sell me a bottle of herbal placebos based on the knowledge of my ailments she'd aquired from my prescriptions! Any pharmacist who permits the hawking of snake oil cures from their establishment ought to be defrocked, or whatever it is that's done to disgraced pharmacists; ceremonially stripped of their little label printer perhaps.

Monday, 11 March 2013 - 12:54am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 11/03/2013 - 12:54am

I can't wait to see the rebuttal to this proposal by the other Jetty Action Group, a.k.a. Singo's three stooges. Geoff, John, and Melanie were such a wellspring of visionary ideas that it was almost hard to believe that they were totally independant of the the "brains trust" that provided the first round of strikingly similar visionary ideas.

As the leaders of a vital, completely genuine grassroots community group, I can't imagine they've been sitting on their hands all this time. This is a troika that knows that what's good for "key stakeholders" is good for Coffs Harbour. Of course in our united, inclusive community, all of us are stakeholders and all of us are key, but what the real Jetty Action Group fails to appreciate is that some of us are more key than others.

Guns

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 10/03/2013 - 10:30pm

If I had a 100% reliable way to end the pain right at this moment I would use it. No messy and unpredectable wrist-slashing, drug-taking, or gas-ingesting that might just worsen the problem.

I know for (almost) certain that I will feel better eventually. I don't know for certain that I would be happy to wait, if I had the Hemmingway Solution available to me.

For this reason alone, I feel confident in saying that if you share a house with anybody, and you choose to keep a gun in that house, you are an unforgivable dick of the highest order. In fact, come to think of it, I don't feel quite so bad about myself now, compared to you utter shits who store human-killing machinery in close proximity to your (presumed) loved ones for no other reason than to buttress your sagging sense of manliness.

Sunday, 10 March 2013 - 12:17pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 10/03/2013 - 12:17pm

You fools! 3D printed skulls means the end of the infallibility of phrenology as a detector of thought crimes in an individual before they are acted upon, or perhaps before too long even as a reliable measure of the inferiority of the lesser races.

Fortunately there are so many rich new fields of neurobollocks that rigorous scientific measurement of Alimentiveness, Concentrativeness, Philoprogenitiveness, etc. is still possible, if more expensive. Despite occasional setbacks, scientism marches onwards to it's inevitable triumph over reality.

Friday, 8 March 2013 - 6:06pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 08/03/2013 - 6:06pm

I don't see how a chaotic Italian parliament "would destabilize not just Italy but Europe as a whole".

The joke that any disagreement between two Italians results in the formation of three new political parties is decades, if not centuries, old. Berlusconi's mystifyingly long and absolute grip on high office was the exception, not the rule.

Stability is in any case a peculiar attribute for any democrat to consider a virtue. There's nothing more stable than a dictatorship, while it lasts.

What I think about council's skate park decision

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 04/03/2013 - 11:48am

Words cannot begin to express how little I care about this issue. The very term "skate park", whenever raised as a miraculous panacea for the scourge of alienated youth, which is at least daily, stirs within me a veritable tempest of furious indifference.

Adolescence is a time for masturbation and shoplifting. Later on, alcohol and drug abuse, despair, hopelessness, and finally marriage. Young people need a skate park like they need a zeppelin. Doubtless a small percentage will think it pretty cool, at least for a while, but not enough to make it worth the investment.

Persistance can be a fine virtue, provided it's directed towards a worthwhile end. Otherwise it's just bone-headed idiocy. You know that skateboard trick you succesfully executed once and have ever since - day after day, week after week, month after month - been striving to duplicate, often on the footpath out in front of my house in the middle of the day while I'm trying to sleep? Chances are you will never do it again, and if you do I can guarantee nobody worth impressing will be impressed. Then there will be nothing to do except try to repeat it again. Day after day, week after week, month after month.

Seize the day, alienated young person! Go to the mall, steal something you don't need or even particularly want, then go home and have a wank. There will be plenty of time for pointless, repetitive activity when you get a job and/or a drug habit.

Memory Cheats: Spearhead From Space

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 03/03/2013 - 4:59pm in

In the previous story (the War Games), the Time Lords (so named for the first time) have finally caught up with the Doctor, and as punishment for meddling in the affairs of lesser species he's exiled to an insignificant little planet (Sol 3 in Mutter's Spiral, or "Earth" to it's inhabitants), had his TARDIS driver's licence revoked, and been forced to "change his appearance". (No mention of "regeneration" here; the term will be introduced in five years time.) From here on in, it's all change.

The first thing you'll notice about Spearhead From Space is that it's in colour. The second is that, compared to earlier (and unfortunately also later) stories, it looks like a million bucks.

Industrial action by studio staff at the BBC meant that the studios at Television Centre and Lime Grove were effectively closed, and the only way to shoot this story was 100% on location and therefore 100% on film. Until the mid-70s video cameras were too bulky to use on location, so what little location work there was on most television drama productions was done on film before being transferred to video tape. This was no bad thing, as video cameras were very bad at picking up lighting subtleties, resulting in a flat, plastic-looking finished product. Of course, you then get a rather jarring aesthetic jump when you cut from a location scene to a studio scene, but film was also horrendously expensive compared to video, so outside of exceptional circumstances, you just had to live with that.

Having said that, it's still not quite cinema standard, even for the time. There are quite a lot of rather clumsy edits, maybe because the ad-hoc, emergency nature of the production didn't leave a lot of time for planning for all the needed footage. The acoustics in some locations are pretty dreadful (mainly echo), which I quite like because it lends a kind of cinéma vérité quality, though I can imagine it drove the BBC engineers barmy: You may complain studio recordings look and sound unrealistic, but it's controlled, standardised, professional unrealism, dammit!

Not only was Spearhead in Space Jon Pertwee's first story but it was also coming after the longest break between consecutive series in the show's history to date. So it was particularly cheeky to keep the Doctor drifting in and out of consciousness in his pajamas for the first episode and a half, but I imagine it got the frustrated viewer coming back week after week for their first proper look at the new Doctor. I suspect it's not a coincidence that David Tennant spent his first episode in a similarly prone and stripey-flannelette-clad state.

If, with the benefit of already having seen him in action, you're not waiting for Pertwee's Doctor, you will barely miss him because the cast are almost without exception quite splendid. Returning character and new regular Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (the ever-lovable Nick Courtney) is wry, no-nonsense and smart as a whip - a far cry from the military buffoon he occasionally ended up as in the hands of writers who should have known better (looking at you, Terrance Dicks; "he can wear what face he likes" and "pretty sure that's Cromer", indeed!). I'm also in the minority that believes Caroline John as Liz Shaw can do no wrong. A more grown-up and educated female companion for the Doctor (a species not seen since Barbara left in series two) is a blessed relief, and as for her all-too-soon replacement by Jo Grant... well, we'll come to that in due course.

Pertwee is on record as bemoaning the fact that outgoing script editor / producer Derrick Sherwin (seen in a cameo as UNIT's carpark attendant) didn't let him play the part in this first story as straight as he would have liked, Pertwee being known exclusively as a comic actor up to that point. I think with one exception the comic moments are quite appropriate, and in fact have become part of a tradition of post-regeneration eccentricity that persists to this day (eg. fish fingers and custard). However no review of this story is complete without mention of that one exception.

It comes quite late in episode four, so to avoid spoilers I'll just say it's the bit involving big green tentacles. The fact that there are tentacles is not particularly crucial to the plot. Other kinds of appendages would have sufficed, dramatically speaking, so revealing the presence of tentacles is not strictly speaking a spoiler. Likewise their dimensions and hue are not the subject of conjecture or suspense elsewhere in the story. There are tentacles in the story; they are big and green; knowing these things in advance of watching the story will not diminish your enjoyment. Conversely, nor should their presence be your sole reason for deciding the watch this story. If big green tentacles are your thing, I feel obliged to warn you that you may be disappointed.

Now I can quite see how a director or producer, on arriving at the location and getting their first good look at said tentacles, might conclude "Look, there's only one thing for it. Jon, you're going to have to play this for laughs." I am not at all unsympathetic to that view; I just think it's wrong. As evidence, I present a very similar scene used as a cliffhanger in Genesis of the Daleks, where Tom Baker's Doctor is being strangled by a few small, gaily-coloured bits of wet plastic which are so deadly that Baker is having to hold them to his own throat to stop them falling to the ground with a plop. But because Baker treats the situation totally seriously (I know! Tom Baker! It was still his first year.) it works. If you edit tightly, cutting around the naff monster as much as possible, and focus on the actor's performance, some proportion of the audience - maybe most - will suspend their disbelief. I maintain the tentacles could have worked, or at least not failed so badly, if presented sparingly. Not just flopping about all over the place.

As I say, the acting throughout is exceptional, possibly because the extraordinary conditions made for more spontaneous (i.e. not rehearsed-to-death) performances. Nevertheless, consumate professional Nicholas Courtney seems able to memorise every word of a script by smell alone, and his unflappability in the face of other artists' improvisations by necessity, inspiration, or whimsy has been the subject of many an amusing anecdote. Pertwee is clearly departing from the script for all of the above reasons at one time or another, and watching Caroline Johns react while Courtney doesn't is delicious. They're such a great trio. The closest thing we get to a villian, Hugh Burden is memorably inhuman as Channing, and if only we'd had John Breslin's Captain Munro for the next five years instead of Captain Yates! It's amazing how many members of the supporting cast don't merit a Wikipedia page, as there's not a dud among them.

This was the third script Robert Holmes wrote for Doctor Who. I would say that it was his first proper Doctor Who script. He had by now got a handle on the series and would write a few more for Pertwee, all of which we'll cover here. This story alone is enough to earn him a place in television history. Manequins breaking through shop windows is almost as vital a cultural touchstone as the moon landings, for at least some proportion of the Anglophone world. In a few years Holmes would be trailing script editor Terrance Dicks on Pertwee's last series, where his presence can certainly be felt, before taking over as script editor for Tom Baker's first three series, in which capacity I would venture to say he did probably as much uncredited writing as the rest of his substantial credited contributions before or since.

If anybody can be credited as the creator of Doctor Who, I would say it was Robert Holmes. That he started to invent the programme seven years after it had begun is I think entirely appropriate for a story about a time traveller.

Hindsight About Getting Caught is Always 20/20

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 02/03/2013 - 4:19pm

Interviewed by CNN in 2005, after his three years as Secretary of State Powell’s chief of staff, Wilkerson described his key role in preparing that speech as “the lowest point in my life.” Last week, in our debate, he called the U.N. presentation “the lowest point in my professional and personal life.”

As for Colin Powell, guess what? That U.N. speech was “a low point in my otherwise remarkable career,” he told AARP’s magazine in 2006. Yet the U.N. speech gave powerful propaganda support for the invasion that began the Iraq war -- a war that was also part of Powell’s “otherwise remarkable career.”

Norman Solomon

I've always thought the most remarkable thing about Powell's Iraq lies to the Security Council was the "I'm going to hell for this" expression on his face the whole way through. As we move back into "the express lane in the Möbius loop of history", this time with illegal-sanctions-battered Iran as the imminent existential threat, we should be demanding a higher standard of accountability than "I know you're lying, you know you're lying, but I can't prove you know you're lying, so carry on".

If, say, a Prime Minister makes a decision with predictably serious consequences based on false information, they should not be able to absolve themselves of all responsibility for those consequences by saying "I trusted the people who gave me this dossier of information. Yes, I paid them to give me the information, and it turned out to be pretty much exactly the kind of information I wanted to receive, but why should anybody find that suspicious? By the way, isn't 'dossier' a great word? Ooh! I should have said 'intelligence' instead of 'information'! Can you change that to read 'intelligence'? That sounds so much cooler."

I suppose this time round the highly sophisticated mobile chemical weapons factories will be highly sophisticated mobile nuclear weapons factories, and again the most ludicrous claims will be greeted with earnest concern rather than laughter, despite the fact that the grainy CIA photographs presented will be of a rickety wooden cart, with several chickens and a goat clearly visible inside.

Update: Oh! Oh! Juan Cole reminds us of the terrifying aluminium tubes!

Humility

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 28/02/2013 - 1:06am

The first step on the road to humility is being able to say "I don't know."

The second step on the road to humility is being able to politely tolerate the people who haven't made the first step.

Memory Cheats: The Tomb of the Cybermen

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 23/02/2013 - 5:53pm in

Poor Pat Troughton, the Doctor to suffer most from the BBC's archive purge. When the ABC repeated all of the complete surviving Doctor Who stories in the mid-eighties, they could only get their hands on (I think) the Dominators, the Mind Robber, and the Krotons; not the most fondly-remembered stories from his era. When the extent of the tape destruction was revealed in the late 70's fans mourned the loss of such classics as the Ice Warriers, the Web of Fear, the Invasion, and - perhaps most of all - the Tomb of the Cybermen.

Miraculously, a copy of Tomb eventually emerged from the archives of a Hong Kong TV company in 1991, and was promptly released on VHS. A friend sent me a copy, which I recall sat unwatched for some time before I felt ready to commit to it. I was well aware of the high esteem in which this story was held, it's much-lauded memorable set-pieces, and in fact I thourougly enjoyed the novelisation by co-writer Gerry Davis through multiple readings. I think I had probably been persuaded by the rather ropey Troughton stories I had already seen that indeed "the memory cheats", and that the story as it was would be a terrible disappointment compared to the story as it should have been.

So, armed with low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised. There's a bit of location filming in episode one, in the ubiquitious alien-planet-quarry that was to become so familiar in 70's Doctor Who, putting me at ease right away. Overall, it's a rollicking tale of overweening hubris, intemperate curiosity, and good old Platonic lust for justly warranted philosopher-king power.

The sets are well-designed, making the tomb and it's ante-chambers look as if they really were built by and for soulless giants. On the downside the bloody great knobs and levers haven't aged so well, the creaky cyber-rejuvenator is a bit naff, and the less said about the realisation of the first-gen cybermats, the better.

The guest cast are generally very good. Villians Kleig and Kaftan (Of course they're villians; everyone in space who's not British is a villian, unless they're American, in which case they're gung-ho men of action) occasionally veer close to Boris and Natasha territory, but generally manage to keep the manic staring into the middle distance, hand-wringing, and sinister grins to a minimum. The character of Toberman, Kaftan's hulking monosyllabic black manservant, is a bit more of a worry to a modern viewer, but to be as charitable as possible, perhaps it's just a coincidence that Kaftan's hired muscle happens to be black, and frankly it's remarkable to even see a black actor on television in the 60's.

The archaelogists that form the core of the mission are quite well-rounded characters; special mention must go to the splendidly cowardly turn by Cyril Shaps, which he would reprise as similar characters in a number of later Doctor Who stories. The aforementioned gung-ho American crew of the mission's spaceship are tolerable plot widgets, and even the usually insufferable Clive Merrison (of whom more later) isn't given the opportunity to chew too much scenery, though he appears to have based his accent on somebody's bad impersonation of John Wayne.

The regular cast are splendid. Patrick Troughton is just brilliant. He was one of the first British actors to consciously decide to specialise in television, not being much inclined towards "all that shouting in the evening" that comes with stage work. Consequently his performance is tailored for the small screen and beautifully nuanced. Frazer Hines, who played Jamie for all but the first of Troughton's stories, is not quite in the same class, but the pair make a charming comic double act. Deborah Watling, in her second story as Victoria, proves herself to be more than just a good-looking screamer. She's capable of holding her own when the bullets (and the equivalent weird popping, flashing, burning, smoking cyber-things) are flying. And there's a lovely little scene between Victoria and the Doctor where they talk about memories of their families; his shrouded in ancient mystery, and hers just recently murdered by the Daleks. A nice reminder that the emotional content in Doctor Who wasn't an invention of Russell T. Davies in 2005.

Speaking of which, if there's one critical flaw in the story, it's the rather perfunctory denouement. To avoid spoilers, all I'll say is that a certain character redeems himself by doing a certain quite heroic thing, then a certain terribly heroic thing. If the same scene was done post-2005 there'd be tears and a generous helping of Murray Gold's thickest syrup laid on with a trowl for a good ten minutes (so I suppose you can over-do it). Instead it's all a bit "well, that's that, then". That aside, it's a little gem, with the third appearance of the Cybermen, and Troughton really hitting his stride in the first episodes of his second series in a classic story for "the monster Doctor".

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