So long, River Song

If this brief interview is any hint, we won’t be seeing the return of two of the most interesting Doctor Who characters—River Song and Captain Jack Harkness—as long as head writer Steven Moffat is around.

I for one am disappointed.

River Song

River Song, as played by Alex Kingston, was a larger-than-life character in a show filled with larger-than-life characters. From the first time we saw her in the Silence in the Library episode way back in season 4, River took control of every scene she was in. She possessed a singular confidence that only grew stronger as she showed up in different points in the Doctor’s timeline. And when we learned of River’s vulnerabilities (as well as her unique origin story), she only became stronger. Rarely has a character’s first appearance been their death scene. Moffat made it—and River—work.

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And then there’s Jack Harkness. As played by John Barrowman, Jack was similar to River in that he was overflowing with vitality. Like River, he pushed the Doctor’s buttons. He was also groundbreaking: Jack Harkness was openly, and actively, bisexual. And he was fearless. The character was spun off into his own show, Torchwood, which was darker and more adult. Torchwood also revealed Harkness’s deep sadness, as a man who could live forever would have to watch his loved ones die.

In this interview, Moffat addresses the possibility of bringing River Song and Jack Harkness back to Doctor Who. To sum it up, never say never. But it would have to be done right, he continues, and that would be hard to pull off.

If you read between the lines, then we won’t be seeing either return to Doctor Who in the near future. That’s disappointing. Both characters brought much vitality to the show. Hopefully we’ll see the introduction of new iconic characters instead.

Time’s arrow and our weird universe

Our universe, and the nature of time, may be much stranger than we ever could have imagined.

Think about this. What is time? It is something that can be measured.Seconds, minutes, hours, years, millennia. But unlike other properties of our physical world, it only goes in one direction. You can’t add or subtract time, not literally. This has left scientists stumped.

Now, scientists have come up with one of the more bizarre theories of the universe and time that I’ve ever heard. To explain the back and forth movement of time, our universe might be just one side of another universe that was formed during the big bang. And since we exist on the opposite side of that universe, we are living in that mirror universe’s distant past.

This all comes courtesy of an article in Scientific American (by Lee Billings, who I work with there, btw). Much of it is over my head, to be honest, and I’m probably not summarizing it correctly. But what intrigues me most is the whole issue of time as a physical property. I always assumed that time flows, consistently, constantly, in one direction. But scientists can’t explain this. I never realized it was an issue.

After reading the article, I didn’t come away with the impression that we’re going to build some sort of time machine. or maybe visit this parallel universe (thought that would really be cool from a sci-fi perspective). What the article shows me is that there’s so much that we don’t know — about the universe, about life, about even ourselves.

Some might be scared by this lack of certainty. I think it’s exhilarating.

Is Peter Pan a villain?

When it comes to storytelling, who is the villain and who is the hero? Sometimes it depends on point of view.

Take Peter Pan. Originally written by J.M. Barrie, the story of the lost boy from Neverland has been popularized by Disney, on Broadway and on television. We all know the story of Peter Pan, the adventurous, valiant boy who refuses to grow up.

But what if Peter Pan as a character is someone much darker than we want to admit?

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Over at Tor.com, Emily Asher-Perrin writes a terrific essay that reassesses this much loved childhood story, and she makes a convincing case that at best, Peter is a scary hero who comes close to being the true villain of the story.

Here’s a summary of her evidence:

–Neverland is a world that caters to his every desire. He’s the dictator of that realm. Whatever he says, goes. That’s a lot of power—maybe too much power—for a hero to possess.

–When Neverland gets too crowded with lost boys, Peter Pan thins out the herd. In her essay, Asher-Perrin uses a single word to describe this: murder. Ouch.

–He cares little for Wendy or her family apart from their ability to amuse him. When bored, he’ll just find another Wendy to take away.

–And then there’s Captain Hook. We’ve always believed he was the villain. But think about it: Peter Pan cut his hand off and fed it to a crocodile. No wonder Hook is pissed.

These are intriguing arguments. But the most compelling piece of evidence (which Asher-Perrin does discuss) is the sum of all this. Peter Pan is basically selfish. He’s a self-involved character who refuses to grow up, and who creates an entire world—Neverland—which is his to rule.

When you look at Peter Pan in this way — as a character whose growth has been stunted — it’s fitting that he loses his shadow. Carl Jung would have a field day with Peter Pan.

Pan myth

And then there’s the fact that in Greek myth, Pan is a hedonistic, wild, goat-like god. He’s all about pleasure, as is our supposed hero, Peter. When you add this all up, you get someone you’d definitely want to keep at arm’s length.

 

 

 

Mars attacked!

Was there once a grand civilization on our neighboring planet that was annihilated by a nuclear attack? One researcher says yes. While it’s impossible to prove (for now), the sci-fi geek in me loves this story.

mars

Mars has gotten some, but not enough, attention in the world of sci-fi. H.G. Wells got the ball rolling with War of the Worlds, where we were attacked by Martians (I loved the Tom Cruise movie as well). There have been sporadic Martian-themed stories, including Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red/Blue/Green Mars trilogy. And there have also been one-off stories, like Doctor Who‘s The Waters of Mars episode.

mars and earth

But these are all fictional. What about the real Mars? The red planet is smaller than ours, colder, and less hospitable to human life (and any life, so far). It’s long been theorized that the Mars of the distant past was a very different planet, one capable of supporting life.

John Brandenburg, a plasma physicist, speculates that Mars once had a civilization as advanced as the ancient Egyptians. But this civilization caught the attention of some nasty aliens, who nuked these Martians, and rendered the planet uninhabitable. His evidence? The large number of nuclear isotopes detected on Mars.

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The takeaway, according to Brandenburg, is that we’d better get our butts (and not just rovers) to Mars ASAP, and figure out exactly what happen, lest it happen to us as well. See, we’re too noisy, blasting our radio signals out into the universe. Eventually, the Martian killers are bound to notice us.

He has a point. If there is a superior civilization out there, they may very well decide to rid themselves of any competition. And we’re pretty much defenseless. But what can I do about a high-tech alien force attacking? Not much of anything, so I’ll file that away in the “Things I cannot control, so therefore I won’t worry about it” drawer.

The idea that there were advanced civilizations on Mars that suffered a nuclear holocaust intrigues the sci-fi fan in me. Was Mars nuked? I don’t know nearly enough about the science to say no, though I think that Brandenburg is taking one too many leaps of logic. Nevertheless, the nuking of Mars makes great sci-fi fodder.

Read this book: Black Moon

Have you ever had a wicked bout of insomnia? It’s near dawn and you haven’t been able to sleep, no matter what you do. The world outside your bedroom is fast asleep, but not you. And slowly, you begin to hate all these lucky sleepers as your mind jumps and skitters.

Imagine if that insomnia lasted not one night, but several days — and then endlessly. What would you do? How much of your sanity would remain?

Black MoonThis is the premise of Kenneth Calhoun’s debut novel Black Moon. An unexplained insomnia plague has struck. People are becoming sleepless zombies, losing their minds as they wander the landscape. A lucky few, however, can still sleep. Only they’re targeted by the angry hordes.

Black Moon is a new take on the zombie craze that refuses to die out. It includes several zombie tropes that we all know so well by now — the ravaged landscape, the plucky heroes targeted, the dystopian gloom. The fact that these “zombies” are still alive is a fresh twist.

This strong premise, and not the characterization or plotting, is what carries this book, and it’s unfortunate. Black Moon is a good book. It could have been a great one.

Time for the breakdown. First, the good:

– As I said, the premise is strong. It taps into a nearly universal experience. Most of us have been frustrated by not being able to fall asleep. And we have also had that spacey, drunk-like feeling of being sleep deprived. Black Moon raises an interesting question: how much of our daily life is simply a valiant effort to hold back the unconscious wildness that streaks through our minds at any given moment? Our dream worlds, like our inner monologues, are free flowing and chaotic. Which is our more natural state?

– Apocalyptic books can take one of two paths: the knowledgeable official (government, scientist, etc), who works to solve the problem, or the ordinary Joe/Jane who struggles to survive. I prefer the latter. Black Moon shifted between several characters — average people all struggling to cope. This book provided no answers, and it didn’t even try to. I appreciated that.

– At around 300 pages, Black Moon is short. It is a quick and thrilling read. And Calhoun can write quality prose.

And the not so good:

– Plotting is not one of the stronger suits of Black Moon. We shift between character viewpoints, which isn’t a problem, except when the shifts jump around, leaving the reader confused as to what happened and why. You may find yourself backtracking several times, and not in a good way. Calhoun had the room to explore several scenes more fully, and for some reason, he chose not to.

– The characters were a mixed bag. Biggs is one of the POV characters. He can sleep, and he searches for his insomniac wife, Carolyn. All the while, we get their back story as a couple. While I could relate to Biggs through his interactions with his dying world, I could not relate to the wife he described. I didn’t like her at all, and didn’t care. Several of the characters seemed like cardboard cut-outs, not flesh-and-blood people.

These drawbacks were not insignificant. Luckily, the premise is strong enough to counterbalance these flaws. Ultimately, Black Moon is a fun book. It’s a new take on the zombie craze that will keep you up at night as you race to finish it.

See this movie: Interstellar

Take a smart director and two of the best actors working today, and add a sweeping sci-fi plot, and you get Interstellar. While not a perfect film, it’s definitely worth the hype, and your time.

Interstellar

I’ve been a fan of writer/director Christopher Nolan since Memento, his time-twisting tale of an amnesiac. Since then, he’s gone on to mainstream success (to put it mildly). He reinvigorated the stale Batman franchise when he brought Christian Bale to play Bruce Wayne, and the final movie in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, with its timely skewering of the over-the-top Occupy Wall Street movement, was phenomenal.  With Inception, he managed to make dreams thrilling. Inception was a riveting spectacle with an ending that’s still debated on the Internet.

With Interstellar, Nolan takes on a staple of Hollywood — space travel. Interstellar is a straight-up sci-fi flick. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former astronaut turned farmer. Cooper lives in a near-future, dying Earth, somewhere in middle America with his 15-year-old son Tom and 10-year-old daughter Murph. Coop is led to a secret NASA site and soon leaves his family on a mission to save mankind by searching for inhabitable planets.

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That’s the plot in a nutshell. And that’s basically all you need to know to get started. Of course there are twists and turns as the quartet of earthlings search for that elusive, habitable world. I won’t tell too much, because part of the fun is going along for the ride. Safe to say, it’s a bumpy ride.

So, now for the breakdown.

The good…

—Matthew McConaughey has never been better. He plays dashing action hero, committed scientist, and distraught father, all without missing a beat. He’s completely believable, and fully relatable, throughout. He’s just jumped high on my list of favorite actors.

McConaughey daughter

—Jessica Chastain plays an adult version of his daughter, Murphy. Both Chastain and the actress who plays her as a child are great. I’m a huge fan of Chastain, and she didn’t disappoint. Both McConaughey and Chastain bring a similar intensity to their roles, which is fitting, because it’s clear that the father/daughter bond they share is deep and intense.

Jessica Chastain

—The special effects are excellent. There are several tense scenes. Thanks to the solid effects, I often felt as if I was there.

—Nolan capably balances several contrasting themes. He brings high emotion with regard to the separated families. He adds humor with the robots (which I loved — you have to see Interstellar to understand), and he also paid homage to one of the greatest sci-fi classics, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey.

—While Interstellar was long — around 3 hours — there was enough movement and momentum to keep me interested the whole time. Not an easy thing.

—Nolan hired an honest-to-goodness scientist to advise him. It shows (as far as my non-physicist brain can tell).

And the not so good…

—Anne Hathaway’s character, Amelia Brand, was probably the biggest disappointment. A fellow scientist, Brand isn’t fleshed out as a three dimensional character. It was most noticeable in a pivotal scene where her emotions—and intentions—seemingly came from left field.

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—The first 30 minutes of Interstellar were confusing. They never explained what exactly was happening on Earth, why the planet was dying. Sometimes a little exposition was helpful. And there was an extended early scene of McConaughey chasing a drone through a cornfield. That scene was long and pointless.

—At a crucial point in Interstellar, Nolan cut back and forth between Cooper out in space and his grown-up daughter on Earth. It was choppy and distracting.

—Poor Tom, Coop’s oldest son. Murphy got all the attention, both from the writers and from Cooper himself. No one really seemed to care about Tom.

interstellar-movie-screenshot-tom

—There was a scene at the very end (I won’t reveal it), but it made no sense for me, considering the history of the two characters, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. All I’ll say is, he wouldn’t have left so quickly.

But these are minor flaws. All in all, Interstellar was a fun and intense sci-fi movie. It may not rise to classic status, but it’s definitely a great way to spend three glorious hours.

When scientists forget what it’s like to be human

I love science. I love the exploration of the natural world around us. I love the step-by-step discovery process. I love the details and wonder. I believe in the scientific method.

But sometimes I wonder if scientists know how to deal with fellow humans.

First let me explain. Humans are often irrational. We have drives and desires that are messy and complicated. Emotion gets the best of us at times. And we have amazing imaginations. I’m on board with all this messiness. I don’t do well in black and white. I thrive in the gray. I’m perfectly fine with ambiguity.

Scientists, I’m coming to learn, are not fine with any of this. Here’s a couple of recent examples.

Ebola was the biggest news story in the past few weeks. There’s a major outbreak raging in Africa, with death rates reported at about 50%. And then there were reports of cases in the US. What was the reaction of most Americans? Fear.

What was the reaction of scientists? To paraphrase: stop being afraid of a disease with a high death rate, you silly, fear-mongering dumb Americans.

Whether they were right or wrong about the threat of Ebola, the scientists’ reaction exposed a major flaw — very few scientists, it seems, know how to communicate with people. And it’s not just scientists, but science writers as well, as I saw from articles and tweets from some of my favorite science writers. Sure, they can write and explain scientific details, but they can’t engage that emotional side of people. And I would argue that it’s not irrational to be afraid of a disease with a high death rate that is also being spread to health care workers, who would know which precautions to take.

Hey scientists (and science journalists): come to grips with the fact that you’re dealing with fellow humans, not robots, if you want to educate and persuade.

The second area is Pope Francis’ recent comment on God and evolution.

For decades, there’s been a battle between religion and science when it comes to evolution. I never understood this battle. I was raised Roman Catholic, and I was taught evolution in Catholic school. I was also taught, in first grade by Sister Jeremiah, that the story of Adam and Eve was just a story.

I’ve always been a person of faith — to me, it’s obvious that creation comes from a higher power, one that we cannot fully understand. Science helps reveal this aspect of my faith.

But for too many, religion and science are opposite. Some religious people disdain science, and a high percentage of scientists reject any possibility of a higher power. I don’t relate to either side.

When Pope Francis reaffirmed commonly held Catholic doctrine, the reaction from the media was one of surprise. They couldn’t fathom how religion could support this. One article I read went further, blasting the Pope for not removing God entirely from the equation. Funny how the leader of one of the world’s major religions would talk of God.

When it comes to the creation of our universe, science is good at exploring the how of it, but they have no answer for why.

Sometimes I wish that scientists—and science writers—would use some of their reasoning powers, and learn to deal with humans as the complicated, contradictory creatures we (and they) are. Maybe they’re just not comfortable in dealing with ambiguity in any form. That’s too bad.

The brilliant failures of Doctor Who

Doctor Who‘s season 8 two-part finale overflowed with action and emotion, but it exposed the flaws consistent with the Steven Moffat era of this classic show.

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All season long I’ve been wondering what the heck was going on with Doctor Who. A hallmark of the show is that it constantly changes its stars while keeping its core: the story of a double-hearted alien who travels through time with a human companion—typically young, female, and pretty.

Last season we learned who Clara, played by Jenna Coleman really was, and then Matt Smith’s Doctor died, to be replaced by Peter Capaldi.

When season 8 began, we had a prickly new Doctor in Capaldi, and an equally cranky companion in Clara. These two never meshed, and they never really tried. In some ways it was a welcome change from the usual template of wise Doctor and awestruck ingenue. Clara was similar to Donna Noble in that she wasn’t as impressed by the Doctor as Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, or Amy Pond were. But Donna Noble’s Doctor was at least vivacious, happy, and wacky. Capaldi was dour and sarcastic.

ClaraConfused

I’m not complaining. It was refreshing to see a different, edgier take on the Doctor/companion dynamic. This year was also a nice change from the past few seasons, with their increasingly complex and convoluted plotlines. This year, any casual viewer could watch any random episode and be able to get 80% of it. The episodes were simpler, more self contained, and frankly, more fun.

But then came the series finale.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved it. Doctor Who at its worst is dazzlingly fun. I grant it a wide berth when it comes to writing and storytelling, which is good, because this show needs it.

The two-part finale was a milestone in one respect: we saw the death of one major character, and the deaths of some minor ones too. In the UK, Doctor Who is billed as a children’s show; it usually shies away from getting too dark. This time it didn’t. The deaths were sudden and vicious.

But in other ways, the finale, though entertaining, exposed the flaws of the Moffat era.

We saw the return of classic Doctor Who villains the Cybermen. We also sat the return of the Doctor’s arch nemesis, the Master, though this time in female form. The Master (or Misi now, short for the Mistress), is written as crazy. Pure crazy. And she was played brilliantly as a deranged Mary Poppins type figure. So far so good.

Missy-Doctor-Who

But here’s where the plotting goes off the rails.

It turns out that the Master/Misi was the one who brought the Doctor and Clara together in the first place. Why? We’re never given a solid enough answer, other than some mumblings about how they bring out the worst in each other or something like that. I don’t know. We’re never given a strong enough reason, other than the Master is nuts. Insanity, like convoluted plotting, does not make for good storytelling.

And then we have UNIT, a UN/paramilitary type organization that comes in and nearly saves the day. It was a thrilling turn of events—especially when the Doctor is named President of Earth—but nothing comes of it. His presidency doesn’t even last a full day. No decisions or plans are made. While riveting, it didn’t amount to much in the end.

And now we come to Clara and her ill-fated love with Danny Pink. This was the strongest part of the whole finale. I felt their frustration and pain over having to lose what they had together. I understood how Clara—and Danny—bitterly resented her habit of lying about the Doctor, and where it had led them. (though her lying skills did save her life when she pretended to be the Doctor)

Clara Danny

Something dawned on me, however. Why was Clara always so hostile to the Doctor this season? She acted as if she couldn’t relate to him just because he was in a different body. But last season we discovered that she had interacted with ALL previous incarnations of the Doctor. His changing bodies was nothing new to her. While I appreciated their tension, in the end, it was out of character for what we knew of Clara.

As I said earlier, this season of Doctor Who was a break with previous seasons in that the complicated mythology took a back seat to simply told stories, and for the most part it was a success. The series finale tried to be slick and complicated when it didn’t need to. What this season was about, at its heart, was the complicated relationship between Clara and the Doctor, and also Clara and Danny. Luckily the finale nailed those elements perfectly.