Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Guilty Pleasures

This year is the year to turn 50, first Mark E. Smith of The Fall on 5 March, and now Stephen Fry, last week, on 24 August. I don't think I realized quite how fond I was of Stephen Fry until I watched a handful of programmes celebrating his life last week on BBC4, Stephen Fry at 50. The documentary on his life made one realize the sheer versatility of the man, as writer, actor, comedian, intellectual. Perhaps the best of the programmes was the one that actually featured Stephen Fry himself, a simple half an hour called Guilty in which Fry discussed several of his "guilty pleasures". Some of them were, to me, incomprehensible, like watching Countdown and Darts, but that was the point of the programme -- these were things that Fry saw as guilty, self-indulgences that may be incomprehensible to others. Fry was so good at enthusing about these things that by the time he had finished, you almost wondered why you had been missing these delights all these years. His first guilty pleasure, though, was one that I very much share, a love of Abba. I've loved them all my life, and have the big Abba collection to prove it, right down to the dolls, the soap and the perfume.

Most of Stephen Fry's guilty pleasures were simply an intellectual's admissions about enjoying different aspects of popular culture. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed the programme so much. Many of the academics I have met don't appear to have any guilty pleasures, and if they do, they won't admit to them, as if participation in what the masses enjoy might sully their reputation as one of the elite. Well, the more fool them. Often, they don't know what they are missing.

Monday, 27 August 2007

I miss . . . .

Bank Holiday Monday.

It's the last Monday in August, and it's always a bank holiday in England, the excuse for a nice weekend away at the seaside, or a long weekend to visit family and friends. Here in the US, the contrast is pretty stark because the last Monday in August is the first Monday of term. So my teaching begins again, and traditional year schools begin their school year, so Emily will be back to school on the same day. It's a strange feeling; no sign of the cool autumn breeze that characterizes the return to school in England. It is still roasting hot here, with daily visits to the pool, and air conditioning on all day.

I am not going to complain, though. I am missing family and friends in England, but it's great to have Viola's mum Lettie with staying with us at the moment, and after a nice long summer, one of my most profitable for writing for a long time, I am looking forward to returning to teaching again.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Busybody's Doctor Who Review

I was going to avoid coming back to Doctor Who again so soon, but Loren Rosson's excellent review of all three seasons of new Doctor Who, Doctor Who: The Complete First, Second, and Third Seasons on his Busybody blog compels me to comment. It's a fine, detailed review from someone with a good knowledge of classic Doctor Who, but who has only recently come to all three seasons of new Doctor Who. I agree with a lot of what Loren says, the celebration of just how good all three seasons are, the admiration for David Tennant, the underlining of the strength of the stories and more. We also agree about several individual episodes, notably anything written by Steven Moffatt and Paul Cornell. More of that below. We also disagree on a huge amount, though; in fact some of the things I most liked about the resurrection of the series are the things Loren dislikes, so reviewing his review is a lot of fun. If his is "an exercise in self-indulgence", it is a worthwhile and enjoyable one, all the more so because it provides the invitation for similar self-indulgence for me.

I should contextualize my own comments by noting that Loren is probably much more to be trusted than I am. John Peel used to say about his favourite band The Fall that "their very presence on stage" was such a thrill to him that he was unable to make critical comments about given performances, or to compare one gig with another. I am a bit like that with the new Doctor Who. I spent the whole of the first series (2005), which we watched in our home in South Birmingham every Saturday night, thinking that I must have died and gone to TV heaven; I just couldn't believe how good it was. A more intense emotional reaction came with Series 2 (2006); we were now in the USA, and watching it week by week on Saturday nights was a strong link with England, which we were missing. By the time Series 3 came round this year, it was already an institution in our house, and then we had the additional thrill of watching Episodes 12 and 13 back in England. So I have watched the three seasons spread out over three years, with waits between each episode, which changes one's appreciation of it. Loren has watched them back to back, without the context or the waits, and I think that leads to a different kind of perspective.

Let's begin with where I agree with Loren. Several of his highest rated episodes are definitely some of the best. Paul Cornell has written three episodes, all brilliant -- "Father's Day" in Season 1, and a two-parter, "Human Nature" and "Family of Blood", in Season 3 (see previous comments on). All of those are five star episodes. Likewise Steven Moffatt's episodes -- these are all superb, with "Blink" in Season 3 one of my favourite episodes ever. I will be delighted if the rumours about Steven Moffatt taking over Doctor Who after Russell T. Davies leaves turn out to be correct.

I disagree with Loren on the Christopher Eccleston, the ninth doctor. I thought he was brilliant -- tragic, lonely, funny, quirky and yet a very twenty-first century doctor. We were very disappointed when it emerged early in his season that he was going to go at the end of that season, even if it gave one the thrill of looking forward to a regeneration, something we did not get at the beginning of that season, from Paul McGann to Christopher Eccleston. One of the things I liked about the Eccleston Doctor was the humour, born from an unlikely optimism that helped him to cope with the tragedy of his lost planet and people. So one is fascinated by his struggle to cope in episodes like "Dalek", but one loves his one-liners throughout the series. "Lots of planets have a north" is a fantastic joke. I suspect that Loren does not enjoy the humour of the first season very much. I loved "Boom Town", for example, a light-hearted episode with lots of jokes, but Loren gives it only 1 Tardis groan, and suggests that it is "an uneventful melodrama that serves no purpose other than to push an anti-capital punishment agenda". I don't agree, and there may be a cultural difference here. In the UK, there is consensus on capital punishment -- it was ended years ago and will never come back (I hope!); as a political issue it is simply not on the agenda in the way that it is in the US; I doubt that Russell T. Davies was trying to push any agenda here, and it certainly did not read that way to me. I thought "Boom Town" was a delightful episode, not the best but funny and clever and poignant. If there is anything wrong with it, it is the typical Russell T. Davies deus ex machina ending, though by now we have got used to that.

A related issue is that Loren does not like Rose's back story, and the more involvement he sees from Mickey and Jacky, the less he seems to like the episode. I don't feel the same way at all. One of the things I like about the resurrection of Doctor Who since 2005 is that it asks all those questions that we were asking ourselves in classic Doctor Who like "What happened to the people who were left behind?" So the Doctor does not simply find Rose in the first episode, and drop her off back on earth two years later, at the end of the second season. Rather, there are agonizing questions about the boyfriend and the Mum who get left behind, and the viewers' interaction with them helps us to understand Rose better too. And I think that adds greatly to the quality of the new Doctor Who. It's more than just science fiction. It's life in all its complexity. That's why we laugh and cry much more with Russell T. Davies in charge than we have ever done in the past.

In fact, the thing that emerges from Loren's review is that he does not actually Russell T. Davies's writing very much. He gives "Love and Monsters", the season 2 "doctor lite" episode, one Tardis groan, which surprises me. I loved that episode, especially first time round. There was something delightfully endearing about a story surrounding a group of geeks meeting together in London on a regular basis, forming friendships and somehow getting involved in a Doctor Who adventure without realizing it. It was the second time that there was some homage to Doctor Who fandom in new Doctor Who (the first being the character in "Rose"), and I think it's played beautifully. I also liked the ongoing relationship in this episode between Doctor Who and Blue Peter -- the monster played by Peter Kay was the winner of a Blue Peter competition. And Peter Kay wasn't wasted in this episode.

Similarly, I think "The Runaway Bride" rates much better than a 1. I wonder whether there are a couple of necessary components for full enjoyment here. First, you need the Christmas Day, 7pm context. This episode is loud, with dramatic special effects (the Tardis on the motorway one of the most enjoyable effects-scenes ever), an orchestral score and lots of brash dialogue. It is clearly trying to shout across the room at the viewers as they eat their turkey sandwiches and worry about whether or not they should be helping out their mum in the kitchen (or is that just me?). And I think one enjoys this episode much more if one knows and loves Catherine Tate, almost as big a comedy figure in England as the previously mentioned Peter Kay. There were little allusions to some of her comedy characters in the episode and I'd recommend a crash course in Catherine Tate for all before they watch this episode, all the more so now given the excellent news that she is coming on board for the whole of the fourth season.

Just time for a couple more disagreements before I finish. I loved "Idiot's Lantern" in Season 2, which Loren also dislikes, commenting that "there's no feeling of period at all, and it could have easily taken place in the present". Nonsense! The evocation of early 1950s Britain was brilliant, and Maureen Lipman's increasingly menacing BBCTV presenter was spot on. This was a fine episode. And a couple of episodes that Loren liked much more than me were The Impossible Planet / Satan Pit. These reminded me too much of classic Who, with lots of tramping around space stations and quarries. Better than virtually all of those, to be sure, but not better than other stories in new Doctor Who.

And it looks like Doug Chaplin, over on Metacatholic shares some of the same views as me. Perhaps it's a British thing?

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Onion Wikipedia Article

Over on the NT Gateway Weblog, I often discuss engaging critically with Wikipedia (over against those academics who would rather turn their backs on it). I particularly enjoyed this piece from The Onion with thanks to Brandon Wason:

Hard To Tell If Wikipedia Entry On Dada Has Been Vandalized Or Not

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND—The Wikipedia entry on Dada—the World War I–era "anti-art" movement characterized by random nonsense words, bizarre photocollage, and the repurposing of pre-existing material to strange and disturbing effect—may or may not have been severely vandalized, sources said Monday.

"This is either totally messed up or completely accurate," said Reed College art history major Ted Brendon . . .

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

The anti-climax of one-day internationals

I was delighted with England's victory today in the first one day international against India. This is a pretty rare thing these days in English cricket. Our one day form has been abysmal. But the delight at seeing such an emphatic win, with centuries from both Cook and Bell, doesn't help to lift that general feeling of anti-climax that hangs around yet another lengthy series of one day internationals, this time bolted on to the end of the British summer. Like most English cricket fans, I like test matches (the old-fashioned five-day form of the game). In the old days, the test matches would start later in the summer (June) and would continue to the end of August. The last test match at the Oval meant that summer was almost over and it was time to go back to school. But now the test matches finish in mid August and we have a whole bunch of one day internationals from now until early September. When a one day series precedes a test series, the one days whet your appetite and help you to look forward to the real action. When they come afterwards, they just feel like afterthoughts.

Several things made the beginning of this series of seven one day-ers feel even more like a damp squib. England's one day side is quite different from the test side, different captain, some different personnel, and it makes it feel less like a continuation of the summer than it would if it were the same side, as it used to be years ago. It was in Southampton, too, and not at a test ground, and under lights. I don't know that floodlit cricket really works in England. I once went to a floodlit match at Edgbaston, Birmingham, England v. Pakistan, the night of the 2001 general election, and the atmosphere feels odd, not least because it is rarely hot enough in England to make one enjoy sitting outside all evening.

Still, if England keep performing like they did today, I might manage to be less grumpy about that anti-climactic feeling that the cricket season is hastening too quickly to an end.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Pepsi Max comes to America

When we lived in the UK, we were fans of Pepsi Max. Since Viola and I were often on diets, it was a good idea to find a soft drink that we really liked. And we really liked Pepsi Max. It was marketed in the UK, where it appeared in the early 90s, especially at men. It avoided the "diet" tag, which apparently put off men, and went with the slogan "maximum taste, no sugar". When we arrived in the USA, we were surprised to see absolutely no sign of it. Every other coca cola under the sun, but no Pepsi Max. And then recently, when we were in Seattle, we saw a product called "Diet Pepsi Max" on the shelves. We concluded that it must be a North Carolinian oddity to be a Pepsi Max free area. But then two or three weeks ago, it appeared in our local Kroger, and at only $1 (50p!) a two litre bottle. We stocked up, and it's been great to be drinking it again.

My curiosity was piqued. America, the home of cola, took fourteen years to catch up with the UK here. How could this be? Well, according to Wikipedia's article on the topic (and who is to say that that is not right?), there is a reasonable explanation:

The product remained unavailable in the United States until only recently (The U.S is PepsiCo's native market, and the largest consumer of carbonated soft drinks), where one of its principal ingredients had not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The ingredient in question—acesulfame potassium—is combined with aspartame to provide the beverage's sweetness. Some people claim that this results in a better taste than that of other diet colas (most of which are sweetened with aspartame alone).
Unfortunately, there is a downside. I had never realized that Pepsi Max is much heavier on caffeine than are traditional cokes. Energy Fiend has the breakdown and notes that "a 12 ounce can of Diet Pepsi Max contains 69 milligrams of caffeine" in comparison with regular Diet Pepsi, which has 36mg per 12oz can.

So we are enjoying our Pepsi Max again, after two years without it, but avoiding the caffeine overdose by drinking plenty of other new favourites like American diet lemonade (a kind of lemon squash) and diet root beer (not drunk at all by Brits, an acquired taste, but very pleasant once you are used to it). And lots of green tea.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Classic Doctor Who in 5 minutes

A correspondent suggested to me yesterday that the primary reason I had set up this blog was to have the chance to go on about Doctor Who as much as I want. This reminds me that it is almost two weeks since I last blogged about it, and I have a nice Youtube clip to share (hat tip: SF Gospel and Paul Cornell's House of Awkwardness). It is a five minute condensation of every single Doctor Who story, from 1963 to 1996 (so called "classic Doctor Who"):

Lots of fun. One thing that struck me was just how many dalek stories there have been across the years.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Bush's new threat

Excellent piece of footage on Youtube from myeverything.com:

Search for Good American Fair Trade Coffee

When we were living in the UK, I liked to buy Fair Trade whenever possible. Here in North Carolina, at least in our corner of it, Fair Trade has made little impact in the shops. But I was delighted recently to discover Yuban Dark Roast. It announces itself as "the world's largest supporter of Rainforest Alliance Certified™ coffee beans" and it tastes fantastic. At $4.65 a tin, it is a bit more expensive than the cheapo varieties in our local Kroger, but much cheaper than the supposed "gourmet" varieties. I am drinking a cup of the dark roast as I write.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Oxford theologians in the news

It's not often that things go so badly for Oxford theologians that they find themselves in the national newspapers. My ears tend to prick up when I hear news about Theology in Oxford because it's where I did all my study. Times religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill's blog links to these two stories. The first, in Saturday's Guardian is about Wycliffe Hall:

Oxford gives warning to theological college
· University steps in to protect liberal values
· Allegations of misogyny and homophobia

Stephen Bates, religious affairs correspondent

. . . Complaints at Wycliffe, traditionally of broad evangelical principles for would-be ordinands in the Church of England, have centred around the management style and views of its new principal, Dr Richard Turnbull, who was criticised in a letter to the hall's governing council by his three immediate predecessors, although he has been supported by some current students. Dr Turnbull admits he has appointed a deputy who opposes women's ordination or leadership, but he rejects allegations of homophobia which surfaced in an anonymous internal document . . . .
I didn't often find myself at Wycliffe Hall when I was in Oxford, though I cycled past it every day, but I had dinner there once, I think I also went to a couple of lectures there, and I knew several of the students through different channels. I am sorry to hear of the recent problems.

The second, in today's Times concerns St Peter's College:

Anger after college chaplain sacked
Patrick Foster
An Oxford college founded by a former bishop on Christian principles is to be investigated after making its chaplain redundant as part of a cost-cutting drive . . . .

Friday, 10 August 2007

Speaking as a feminist myself . . . .

You Are 94% Feminist

You are a total feminist. This doesn't mean you're a man hater (in fact, you may be a man).
You just think that men and women should be treated equally. It's a simple idea but somehow complicated for the world to put into action.

Thursday, 9 August 2007


It's been over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the last few days here in Raleigh, NC. Today there were highs of 103F, which is 39C. This kind of heat takes a bit of getting used to for a Brit. We are used to getting outside, with our shorts on, as soon as there is any sign of sunshine. But a nice summer's day in England is in the late 20sC, 30 if you are lucky. It's pretty rare to get the kind of high temperatures that appear to be the norm here in the summer. So it still feels a bit odd to me to be trying to stay indoors in the summer, but that's what you have to do. Like all Americans around here, we have air conditioning in the house, and we have it whirring away a lot of the time. When you step outside the front door at night, there are the intermingled sounds of everyone's air conditioning whirring away and the crickets and the tree frogs almost as loud. Goodness only knows what kind of impact all this air conditioning has on the environment. Our electricity bill in the summer is a lot higher than it is in the winter.

It feels odd to me not to be able to pop the window open and get a nice through breeze in the house. In our house in Birmingham, we'd just pop the patio doors open if it was a bit warm, or open the back door and a couple of windows. Here, that just makes the place hotter. And our cats are annoyed at the moment because they don't get to sit in the window and watch the world go by. I have stopped trying to sit outside on the decking for the time being at any point in the day because it's too hot. I am now getting used to the phenomenon of being able to sit outside in December, but staying inside in August.

When we were back in England in June, we saw a lot of the flooding that has devastated some areas. And then we got back here and everywhere was dry; our lawn was brown. We have water restrictions here so that we are only allowed to water the lawn on certain days.

There is still something quite exciting and different about being in such a warm climate. And the storms, when they come, are very dramatic and exciting. The thunder storms are like the kind you get in films. We once got caught in a very dramatic one when we were driving back from Durham. We could hardly see two feet in front of us because the rain was so heavy.

One of the major pluses of this kind of climate, though, is that lots of the neighbourhoods around here have their own pool. Ours is great, and only a short walk from our house. It's open from May to September and is "residents only". We try to get down there every day if we can. Some really posh people, including one or two of my colleagues, and some of the kids' friends, have their own pool in their back garden, but that doesn't appeal to me much -- it seems rather a lonely and isolated thing to swim on your own in your own pool with just the lizards and flies for company. But it was interesting that at our pool today, there were only a handful of people, perhaps because the heat was so intense. After the sun had been beating down on it all day, it was like jumping into a hot bath. And the slabs around the pool were very hot underfoot.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

An American Life on Mars?

One of the best British TV series of recent times has been Life on Mars. Viola and I are just finishing the first series on DVD, and looking forward to the second. Digital Spy reports that David Kelley is planning an American version, but that the British stars of the series, John Simm and Philip Glenister, have turned down roles:

. . . . Simm, who played DI Sam Tyler in the cop drama isn't interested, saying: "They wanted us to have US accents. But I don’t know why they have to remake everything.

"Anyway, they have already got their own version of our show — Starsky & Hutch.”
It is interesting to see American attempts at remaking great British TV series. The American Office, in particular, has been a triumph, but there have been many more failures. Part of the difficulty, I think, is that not every series lends itself to the American 20+ episodes a year intensive treatment.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Those Star Trek Red Shirt Casualties

One of Eddie Izzard's many hilarious routines focused on the poor "Stevens" in a red shirt, going down to the planet with Kirk, McCoy and Spock. It was, of course, inevitable that the said Stevens would be the one not to return to the Enterprise. Here he is on YouTube, doing his stuff about Star Trek (Stevens in the red jumper at about 4'50"):

Well, one sometimes wonders if the memory distorts these things. Were there really more red shirt casualties on Star Trek than there were mustard shirt and blue shirt casualties? On Locusts and Honey, Red Shirt Casualty Statistics, John links to a great analysis of this question:

Analytics According to Captain Kirk
By Matt Bailey

. . . We need to segment the overall mortality (conversion) rate in order to gain the specific information that we need:

* Yellow-shirt crewperson deaths: 6 (10%)
* Blue-Shirt crewperson deaths: 5 (8 %)
* Engineering smock crewperson deaths: 4
* Red-Shirt crewperson deaths: 43 (73%)

So, the basic segmentation of factors allows us to confirm that red-shirted crewmembers died more than any other crewmembers on the original Star Trek series.

However, that's only just simple stats reporting - ready for some analysis?
There's lots of it -- and some great tips for avoiding death if you ever find yourself stuck in an episode of Star Trek wearing a red shirt.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Do you have Asperger's Syndrome?

On The Busybody, Loren Rosson points to a test which asks What's Your AQ?. You can take the test and find the answer. I find that I come out with a pretty low score of 13, a long way below the requisite 32-50 that might indicate Asbergers; indeed I appear to score much lower than the average male or female computer scientist (21), and a bit lower than the average man (18) and the average woman (15).

Viola's Work Permit

Several readers of Viola's excellent Americanization of Emily have been reading my new personal blog here, and one of the frequently asked questions is "What has happened to Viola's blog?" Lots of people, including me, have been missing the once regular posts. I can't, of course, answer for Viola except to share the good news that she recently received her work permit, after almost two years of life in North Carolina, and that means that she is now working hard and receiving an income. We petitioned for the work permit as part of our green card application. We don't know yet how long it will be before we receive the green card, but one benefit of the application process is that a spouse is able to petition for a work permit as an element within the application. The work she is doing is some sort of complicated computer stuff. It's great to be a two income family for the first time. But my guess is that there won't be many Americanization of Emily posts for the time being.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Just how good is the new Doctor Who?

Warning: Post contains some minor plot and casting spoilers

According to Loren Rosson on The Busybody, the New Doctor Who is as good as it gets. James McGrath on Exploring our Matrix is enjoying it too. For those unfamiliar with the show, here's a quick summary from an earlier post of mine on the NT Gateway blog:

American readers will be less familiar with Doctor Who than British readers. Very briefly, it is the longest running science fiction TV series of all time, from 1964 to the present; it is produced by the BBC and is about a time-travelling alien from the planet Gallifrey called The Doctor. He travels in a blue 1960s police box called the TARDIS and has a companion, usually female. He is able to change his appearance when he regenerates, and has done this nine times. The series was cancelled by the BBC in 1989; it re-emerged briefly in 1996 for a TVM; it returned triumphantly in 2005 when it had been transformed almost out of recognition from what we were brought up with, under Russell T. Davies. The current series is the third of these new Doctor Whos, with David Tennant playing the tenth doctor.
I was a big fan of Doctor Who as a kid. Jon Pertwee, the third doctor, was "my doctor" and they say that everyone thinks of their first doctor as the doctor. I spent much more time, though, watching the fourth and most famous Doctor, Tom Baker (1974-81), though, and this tends to be the doctor to those Americans who have heard of Doctor Who, apparently because the show was often on PBS at the time. When the Doctor appears briefly in The Simpsons, its Tom Baker's doctor we see.

Doctor Who was something of a Saturday night institution in the UK. I remember sitting down for Saturday night telly, the best of the week; the Midlands sports news used to go on for an age and then, finally, we would get Basil Brush, and then Doctor Who; the cliffhangers used to make you ache for the next week's episode. As I got into adolescence, and as Doctor Who moved from Saturdays to Monday and Tuesday nights, and as Peter Davison took over from Tom Baker, my interest began to drop off, though I kept going with it for most of the time, out of loyalty as much as anything else. I never liked the sixth doctor, Colin Baker, I am afraid, and I was at university by this time and although Doctor Who was back on Saturday nights, I often missed it. I do remember thinking, all the same, how good "Trial of a Time Lord" was when I caught it. I began to tap back into the show again with the seventh doctor, Sylvester McCoy, partly because a new friend called Matthew, a close friend to this day, was something of a Doctor Who geek, who built Daleks, made animated films and so on. By the time it was cancelled, in 1989, I was pretty disappointed to see it go.

The Doctor Who that came back in 2005 was a complete re-imagining of the original, loyal to the show's mythology, in continuity with its story and charm, but brought right into the twenty-first century, with decent budgets, good special effects, great scripts, fine acting, and lots more emotion. I used to say after every episode of the first series of the new Doctor Who, "I think I've died and gone to TV heaven!" Much of the success was due to the appointment of Russell T. Davies as the head script writer, one of the finest TV writers around today. It's alleged that he said to the BBC, over a period of years, that the only think that would lure him to the BBC would be the return of Doctor Who. And that's one of the keys to the success of the re-imagining -- it is done by Doctor Who fans. Paul Cornell, the writer of three of the best episodes of new Doctor Who, "Father's Day" in Season 1 and "Human Nature" and "Family of Blood" in Season 3, graduated from writing fan fiction, to writing Doctor Who novels, and eventually to the new series. Similarly, Steven Moffatt, writer of perhaps the best episode ever, "Blink", in Season 3, as well as earlier gems like "Girl in the Fireplace" in Season 2, was also a Doctor Who fan in his youth, and was responsible for the superb Comic Relief special in 1999, featuring a range of actors playing the Doctor, Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Grant, Joanna Lumley, Richard E. Grant and Jim Broadbent. In the most recent series of Doctor Who Confidential, David Tennant directed an episode that was a celebration of how fans of the show had become its producers, writers and actors, and it included a trip around the old BBC studios where it was filmed.

Unlike Loren, I very much like the way that the new stories, in Seasons 1 and 2, are grounded in a run down estate in present day London, with Rose's Mum Jacky and boyfriend Micky as recurring characters. But if anything, I enjoyed watching the doctor's new companion for the third season, Martha Jones, even more than Rose, though my kids disagree. I enjoyed every minute of this third season. It finished recently in the UK and we were delighted to be in the UK to watch the last two episodes "live", as it were. As soon as it finished in the UK, it began airing in the US, and we are watching them all again each week. Currently, we are on episode 5. The second half of the season, though, is much stronger than the first half. The two dalek episodes (4 and 5, "Daleks in Manhattan" and "Evolotion of the Daleks") were perfectly fine, but easily the weakest in the season. Episode 7, "42", was also not one of my favourites -- I am never a big fan of too much tramping around a space station. But the second half of the season was sublime, all the more so given the casting -- Jessica Hynes, Derek Jacobi, John Simm -- and some great stories.

Just how good is Doctor Who at the moment? It is difficult to imagine how it could get any better, and a huge part of that is down to David Tennant, who is now my favourite doctor by a country mile, and it seems that the majority agree (recent poll). His acting abilities in the role are taken to new heights in "Human Nature" / "Family of Blood". Rumours abound now that he is leaving in the fourth season, but a report that his replacement will be James Nesbitt has been categorically denied by Steven Moffatt, who is tipped to take over from Russell T. Davies as the executive producer / story editor. That would be a fantastic move, and he would be the ideal new head honcho. There is talk that the recent BBC1 series Jekyll, written by Moffatt and starring Nesbitt, is something of a preparation for Moffatt to take on Doctor Who Season 5. We have watched the first episode of Jekyll and are looking forward to the rest. It starts on BBC America tomorrow, good news for us since it is usually a six month wait before things arrive there. And speaking of BBC America, the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood is now scheduled to begin on September 8. Very well worth watching -- we loved it -- and will certainly be watching again now it's arrived here.

I've been gushing about Doctor Who for long enough for the time being. But it won't be the last time. The new Doctor Who has successfully turned me from a part time fan into a proper nerd who buys the magazine, downloads the podcasts (Doctor Who Podshock) and would even buy the t-shirt.

If you haven't watched the new Doctor Who yet, you are much more likely to be one of my American readers than one of my British ones. If that's the case, you can dip into the first season (2005) on PBS channels all over the country at the moment. The second season (2006) has reached the BBC America stage. The third season (2007) is currently showing on SciFi Channel. Or just buy the DVDs. For those of us who are up to date, it's a case of waiting for Christmas Day, and the Doctor and Kylie aboard the Titanic, which should be a lot of fun.

Update (13.49): I have adjusted the text above to alter my comments on The Sun's speculation about James Nesbitt as the new doctor, which has been categorically denied by Steven Moffatt himself over on a forum at Outpost Gallifrey today:
"The James Nesbitt story is a total fabrication. Made up. A fantasy. Just a guy sitting at a desk and just inventing stuff.

I wasn't going to say anything, but I'm getting embarrassed for the deeply wonderful Jimmy Nesbitt. So tell everyone please, cos it's getting very silly."
Of course what this refutation shows is that Moffatt is in a position to be able to deny the story, which suggests that there is some truth to the rumour that he is to take over from Russell T. Davies after Series 4.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Nostalgia for the old Amstrad PCW

BBC News today has a nice piece of nostalgia focusing on the Amstrad PCW, which was my first computer too:

Nostalgia for a techno cul-de-sac
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Today Amstrad is best-known for its charismatic boss, Sir Alan Sugar, and has been sold to broadcaster BSkyB for £125m. But in the 1980s, it was responsible for home computing milestones.

With its monochrome screen, strange-sized disk and off-grey/white plastic, the Amstrad PCW was not a machine built for aesthetic qualities.
I wrote my PhD dissertation on mine, having bought one second hand from an American post-graduate student in Oxford who was about to leave to return to the States (I still remember his name -- Mark Sandy). It was the summer of 1989, and I had been strongly encouraged by Professor Ed Sanders, who was tutoring me that term, at Queen's College, to learn to type since the essay I handed him every week was written in fountain pen. I remember him saying that the two things that American high school graduates had over their British counterparts were (a) that they could drive and (b) that they could type. So I bought the Amstrad for £295, about £100 cheaper than it would have cost me to buy it new from Dixons. I used it for the next six years and had few complaints except that my monitor had a tilt at the top of the screen. It's funny to think back on using a computer that had no internet and no mouse, that was, in fact, as the article above says, "a glorified electric typewriter". Its word processing package was called Locoscript and I remember it being every easy to use, and it had a Greek facility that was very easy to use and did not look at all bad. Hebrew was another issue, and one had to jump through some real hoops, especially to get it to work from right to left.

I think I still have mine somewhere.

No more BBC vodcasts

Where the BBC used to list a number of available vodcasts (= video podcasts, highlights of BBC programmes available for download), we now just have the following summary paragraph:

The video podcasts have been part of a year long trial, to help the BBC find out what people want from services like this and how they use them. This trial has now come to an end, which means that from the end of July the video podcasts will no longer be produced. We are now looking at how the trial went and what we can learn from it, and will decide what happens next later in the year. Thanks for your interest. (Podcasts from BBC News)
So from today, no more BBC vodcasts. And I will miss them. I was a regular downloader of the Panorama, Question Time, PMQs and and Breakfast Takeaway vodcasts and I thought they were a great success. They were especially welcome for us expats without ready access to BBC content. My message to the BBC on this one is: thank you very much for the last year of vodcasts; the trial was a great success with me; please bring them back soon -- I'm missing them!

Kylie, Doctor Who and a cup of tea

After the conclusion of the recent and wonderful third season of the new Doctor Who (see my NT Gateway blog postings on), we are all looking forward to this year's Christmas episode. The Christmas episode of Doctor Who, broadcast at about 7pm on Christmas day, is already establishing itself as something of an institution in the UK, and this year's has the added excitement of a guest starring role for Kylie Minogue. I've always been a bit of a Kylie fan, going right back to watching Neighbours in the late '80s. She's something of a megastar in the UK, so I was surprised recently to discover that she is almost unheard of in the US. While listening to a recent episode of Doctor Who Podshock, it became clear that the American participants in the podcast had no idea who she was and could not even pronounce her surname. I checked in with my girls, Emily and Lauren, who confirmed that none of their friends knew of Kylie.

The occasion for this post is a nice article in today's BBC Wales News:

Kylie is Pensioner's Cup of Tea

Kylie Minogue was mistaken for a real waitress in her role in Doctor Who when a pensioner asked her for a cup of tea.

While filming a one-off Christmas special outside a Swansea hotel, an elderly customer apparently thought the singer was a member of staff.

The 39-year-old star plays a waitress on the Titanic in the BBC Wales show.

An eye-witness said: "It was absolutely comical. Kylie is an international star but obviously this old dear didn't know who she was.

"She said to Kylie: 'Excuse me, love, is it too late for a cup of tea?' . . . .
Perhaps the pensioner was over from North America?

It's nice to think of this all happening in Swansea. We were there just a few weeks ago, in June. To think that we might have run into David Tennant and Kylie.