Tipping Point

A few days ago (May the Fourth) was Star Wars Day, as I wrote about a couple of years ago.

Star Wars Day is an annual event. Today, however, sees a once-in-the-lifetime-of-the-universe event… the Star Wars Tipping Point.

This was defined (or at least brought to my attention) in an instalment of the wonderful XKCD webcomic back at the end of January (hopefully still available here) and is the point after which the release of The Phantom Menace (i.e. part one of the Star Wars saga and the first film in the prequel trilogy) is closer to the release of Return of the Jedi (part six and the final film of the original trilogy) than to the present day.

I haven’t actually verified the exact dates (which, I assume, are based on the screenings of the world premieres) but the years certainly seem to fit – RotJ came out in 1983 and tPM in 1999 (respectively 32 and 16 years ago).

Incidentally, Return of the Jedi was the second Star Wars film that I saw during its original run at the cinema and the first one I remember fairly clearly – I was too young to catch Star Wars itself (later retitled A New Hope), as I was only a year or so old when it came out, and I have vague memories of seeing The Empire Strikes Back in the cinema.  By the time of RoTJ I’d seen the first film several times on TV as it used to be a staple of British Christmas television.

Actually, after Return of the Jedi there was quite a long gap (until Judge Dredd came out, apparently in 1995) when I didn’t go to the cinema at all.  I then caught the rerelease of the entire (remastered) original trilogy when they where shown at the cinema in the year or two leading up to the Phantom Menace, and I saw the whole prequel trilogy at the cinema as they came out (mostly within a few days of the local premiere, I think).

When the new trilogy (episodes 7 – 9) come out over the next few years, I fully intend to watch them at the cinema too.  Episode 7 (The Force Awakens) is due out this December, though I may not get a chance to see it until early next year.  I’m not sure when episode 9 is due out, though I’d guess it should be around 2019.  I suppose the next big Star Wars Tipping Point will be when the time between releases of the first and last films (which will be roughly 42 years) is less than the time from the last one to the present moment (i.e. it will be sometime around 2061).

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Not quite nigh!

It’s now two years since I started my Doctor Who read-through project (Executive Summary: I’m (re)reading my entire (and now complete) collection of classic Doctor Who novelisations, together with (an incomplete set of) original novels/ audio-books set in the same era, in (internal) chronological order (more-or-less)). I purposely started this on 23rd November to coincide with the anniversary of the first episode broadcast.

By now I have reached the last few stories of the Peter Davison era.  That means I’m fairly well into the stories which I actually watched when they were first broadcast on TV (throughout most of the 1980s).  I’ve previously read quite a few of the novelisations of these stories, and watched a few of them on video/DVD, but my last attempted at a systematic read-through fizzled out mid-Tom Baker and I had many gaps in my collection (which I’ve subsequently filled – for the novelisations of TV stories at any rate) so for many of these, this is my first reacquaintance with them since I watched them the first time (and I’m sure I missed some episodes at the time).  This gives an extra sense of nostalgia to my reading from now on, although in general I actually prefer many of the earlier stories (Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton are my favourite Doctors).

The story I’m currently reading is Warriors of the Deep.  This is far from being one of the best stories in classic Doctor Who, or even within its own season, but it is quite an interesting story for me to revisit for two main reasons.

One is that it’s a story where I can fairly vividly remember at least one scene from the TV broadcast over 30 years ago.  The particular scene that’s etched in my memory is one of the episode cliffhangers, in which the Doctor appears to drown in a pool of water (supposed to be something to do with a nuclear reactor’s cooling system, I think).  Of course, the Doctor didn’t drown and I think that even watching it for the first time, at the tender age of about 7, I was aware that he wasn’t going to but it was still tense and exciting.

The other reason it’s interesting is that the story was written and broadcast at a time when the Cold War was, if not at its height, still pretty much in full swing and the story extrapolates from the then-present to a future (2084 to be exact – 100 years after the story was broadcast) in which the world is divided into two political blocs (East and West, who’d have thought it!) that are at war with each other.

Obviously, history followed a different course; the Cold War came to an end within less than 10 years and it doesn’t currently look like the future is going to be divided quite so clearly along those particular lines (any more than it’s likely that daleks will be invading the Earth in 2064 or any of the other futures posited by Doctor Who).  Still, the purpose of most (if not all) speculative fiction (including any Doctor Who story set in the future) is arguably, if not obviously, more to comment on (some aspect of) the world as it now is (at the time of writing) rather than to actually suggest that this is what the future will look like, so this story serves as in interesting reminder (for those of us who were there) or lesson (for those who weren’t) of how the Cold War affected our thinking in the early 1980s.

If Doctor Who from back then gives me a sense of nostalgia (i.e. warm fuzzy feelings about the past and how generally nice it was, or a desire to relive it), thinking about the Cold War gives me what can probably best be described as a sense of anti-nostalgia (a profound sense of gratitude that things aren’t like that any more).

I was too young at the time to have a very firm handle on the details of the world situation but I do remember an unpleasant sense of dread that everything was about to end in nuclear winter.  I remember on at least one occasion being particularly upset when I heard a plane flying overhead and thought it must be bringing a Soviet nuke to drop on our heads.

Perhaps more disturbing than the prospect of imminent Armageddon was the fact that, as tends to be the case in wars of any temperature, there was a strong tendency to think in terms of of “us” and “them” and, in particular, to view “them” (since they were safely hidden away behind the Iron Curtain and most of us didn’t come into any real contact with them to provide counterexamples to the idea) as all the same as one another and all evil, when in fact there was just as much difference among them as among us and most of them, like most of us, were just ordinary people trying to get on with their lives.

That is, of course, a huge simplification and very much a young child’s perspective on the Cold War (and one filtered by 30 years’ temporal fog to boot).  Still, to return to the Doctor Who story, this sensation of what it was like to live in a Cold War society (as well, perhaps, as the limitations of such thinking) is well conveyed, at least in the novelisation (another one by “Uncle Terrance”).

The story is also quite interesting, at least in hindsight, as it contains echoes of cyberpunk (a genre which was taking off at the time) in a tactical computer that is controlled by a specially-trained human operative interfacing it directly with his brain.  This turns out to be a definite weak point of the system, since the whizziest computer is useless if you disable the only person around who can operate it.

By the way, the story (as you might guess from the name) is set deep under the sea, on a top-secret West Bloc nuclear missile base (this is, incidentally, the first Doctor Who story for quite a long time to return to the classic base-under-siege formula that was a staple of the Troughton era) and the real enemy turn out not to be the East Bloc but a reptilian race who ruled the world before humans were on the scene and have now awoken from long hibernation and would like their planet back, if you please.  Though, if memory serves me, not to mention the Pertwee era stories – both of which I re-read last year – The Silurians (novelised as The Cave Monsters) and The Sea Devils, they will also not turn out to be the enemy so much as the inbuilt human (and silurian) tendency to be somewhat territorial and to shoot before thinking.

According to the spreadsheet in which I’m recording my progress, I have 249 items of classic Doctor Who material in my collection and Warriors of the Deep is number 176 on the list.  Therefore I’m about 70% of the way through my collection by now and fairly well on course for finishing by next November.  If I can time it right, perhaps I’ll be able to finish the last book (“The Infinity Doctors” by Lance Parkin) on 23rd November 2015.

Back to Babylon

My Doctor Who read-through project has now restarted following a 3 month break which occurred in a fairly unlikely place – namely the middle of the Key To Time season.  I would usually aim to have my breaks in between seasons, and certainly not in the middle of one of the most cohesive story-arc seasons of the entire run of classic Who, but for various reasons I felt (mostly subconsciously, I think) that it would be good to go away and read/do other stuff for a while before coming back to the books.  I’m now hoping to get at least to the end of Tom Baker’s stories (only about 2 more seasons to go) before I have another break.

As well as this, I’ve just started another sci-fi related project that’s been on the cards for sometime, namely a re-watch of my Babylon 5 DVD collection, which encompasses the whole 5 season run of the original TV series as well as most (though, I think probably not quite all) of the spin-offs.

I first encountered B5, as the series is usually known for short, when it was first aired in the UK in the mid 1990s.  My attention was grabbed mainly by the fact that much, if not all the graphics work, was done on the Amiga, which was my computer of choice at the time (although they used rather higher-spec ones than my basic A500+).  As far as I can recall, I watched the first episode or two but wasn’t greatly impressed by it at the time.  I think it was probably being shown at a time that was awkward for me to watch it and I was busy doing my A-levels and getting ready to go off to university (where I was without access to a TV for most of the time), so I didn’t pay it much further attention at the time (a very similar story to what happened with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another series that I’ve subsequently come to appreciate greatly).

Fast forward a few years, to around 10 years ago, and I was invited by one of my friends who, like me, was a bit of an SF geek but, unlike me at that point, was also a fairly big fan of B5, to join him in watching the entire series which he had on a combination of VHS tapes and DVDs (actually, he may only have had the first couple of seasons when we started watching but I think he planned to collect them all and eventually did).  His enthusiasm was sufficient to get me to agree to watch a few episodes and pretty soon I was hooked.  We didn’t have a particularly regular B5 viewing schedule but I think we managed to get through the first 2 or 3 seasons fairly quickly, often watching several episodes at a time.

Unfortunately (or perhaps not) our plans were interrupted as life got in the way – mainly because he got married and then fairly soon moved away to the other end of the country (in fairness to his wife, who was (and is) also quite a close friend of mine, we did keep watching B5 together until they left North Wales, just not as frequently as before), which left me stranded somewhere around the end of season 3, just when the main story arc was picking up towards its exciting denouement.

My solution to this tragedy was to get myself a box set of the entire series as soon as I managed to find one at a reasonable price.  It didn’t take me too long after that to finish watching it and since then I’ve been waiting for a good time to start again from the beginning.  I have decided that the time has now come and, over the past couple of days I’ve watched the first few episodes of the TV series (forgetting that there was a prequel film and a pilot episode in my collection that I had intended to watch in the correct chronological order this time round).

It’s quite interesting to revisit the early episodes with a knowledge of where the story is heading and who the main characters are, in contrast to the blissful ignorance with which I approached the series last time round.  I don’t know how long it will take to get through the whole series, and I’m not in a particular rush to do so.

One notable feature of B5 is that it has one big story arc running through the whole thing and the creator (J. Michael Straczynski) knew where he was finally aiming for when he started, even if many of the actual details were fleshed out later.  That said, most of the episodes would actually work reasonably well as stand-alones (though some would probably be quite confusing without knowing the back-story; as I recall there are quite a few episodes which give sufficient exposition that you could catch up reasonably well without seeing everything from the beginning).  Actually, the story was apparently originally intended to run for 5 seasons but it looked likely it would be cancelled at the end of the fourth season so they had to cram two seasons’ worth of material into a single season in order to get to the intended finishing point by the season 4 finale, only to find that they did get a fifth season after all and therefore had to bolt a whole bunch of extra stuff on.  Certainly the fourth season feels a bit rushed and the final season is quite different from the earlier ones (with my favourite character – Ivanova – sadly absent and several other fairly major line-up changes).

If I had to make a shortlist of my favourite SF TV series, I’m sure that Babylon 5 would be somewhere very near the top (alongside Doctor Who and Firefly).