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).

On The Fine Art of Compromise

This year I have celebrated (and blogged about) both Pi Day and Tau Day.

If you read slightly between the lines of my Tau Day post, you may have correctly got the impression that, in principle, I’m in favour of the idea of  τ, which is the  same as 2π (i.e. the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its radius), as the more fundamental constant (mainly because it gets rid of the factor 2 in quite a few formulas and therefore renders them a little bit more concise and beautiful) but, because I tend to be (or at least think of myself as) quite pragmatic (or maybe it’s because I’m a pessimist), I don’t see any great likelihood of τ replacing π in general usage anytime soon (and, looking on the bright side, at least π gives us the opportunity to make jokes about pumpkins).

With all that in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that I particularly enjoyed today’s installment of the xkcd comic.

Of course, pau isn’t a Greek letter.  According to my favourite fount-of-much-knowledge, however, it is an alternative name for bao (aka baozi), a type of Chinese steamed bun which, co-incidentally cropped up in an episode of Firefly (just to link this into yet another recent post on my blog).  Therefore, if we were to adopt the compromise solution of pau instead of pi or tau, we could celebrate by eating bao (and perhaps watching Firefly, or at least the episode “Our Mrs Reynolds”).  It’s an unfortunate linguistic coincidence that the word bao sounds very much like the Welsh word baw, meaning mud and often used as a euphemism for certain other similarly coloured but somewhat less pleasant substances, as in the phrase baw ci (“ci” being Welsh for “dog”).

There is apparently also an Indian bread, from Goa, called pau, and a Hawaiian feather skirt called a pāʻū.   These could also make an appearance in a celebration of Pau Day.

Old and new friends

I recently came across a cool quote along the lines of:

A new book is like a new friend.  An old book is like an old friend.

I’ve no idea who said it, and I’m not even sure where I found it (though I think it was in a book I was looking at), but I think it’s worth thinking about.  In honour of my former life as a mathematician, I’ll leave that as an excercise for the reader. 🙂

It’s not actually books that I particularly want to talk about today, although my main point applies just as much to narratives of all forms as to the specific TV series that I’m relating it to.

That TV series, which I happen to think is just about the best one ever (possibly even better than Doctor Who, although I’d say they are sufficiently different to defy a straight comparison, and both mighty fine), is Firefly.  It’s one of the works of Joss Whedon, probably best known as the guy who brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and can be roughly summed up as a Western in Space (or a cross between the Western and Sci-Fi genres), although that label doesn’t really do it full justice.  It focuses on the lives of a group of 9 people who fly around between planets and moons (many of them recently terraformed and resembling frontier towns of the American West in the 19th century, with a curious admixture of more modern technology) in a Firefly-class spaceship called Serenity. If you want to know more about Firefly, you can check it out on Wikipedia (in the article linked a couple of sentences back, amongst others) although I’d recommend actually watching it (and the follow-up movie, Serenity – though I’d definitely try to see the series first) if you get a chance.

One thing I particularly like about the Firefly universe (or ‘verse, as they usually refer to it in-universe) is the blending of eastern and western cultures, one manifestation of which is the way that phrases of Chinese liberally pepper the mostly English speech of the characters that we meet (and, although neither language is named within the show, it is fairly clear that both are meant to represent themselves – presumably as they would be spoken in several centuries’ time by the descendents of those from earth-that-was who have settled in the far reaches of the galaxy (or possibly even an entirely different galaxy – the location and timeframe are not specified).  Since I’ve been having a go at learning a bit of Chinese this month, it gave me  a perfect excuse to dig out my Firefly DVDs and watch them again.

This is at least my third, and probably my fourth or fifth, watch-through of Firefly, and the first for at least a couple of years.  As with revisiting an old, familiar and well-loved book (to link tenuously with where I started) it does indeed feel very much like getting back in touch with an old friend.  And that has led to my musing, not for the first and almost certainly not for the last time, on the difference between encountering a story for the first time and re-encountering it on subsequent occasions.

Firefly is quite a good example of this difference because it has quite a few twists and surprises that jump out and catch you on the first viewing in a way that they never can again (assuming you’re not blessed with a sufficiently bad memory to entirely forget what happens by the next time you see it).  I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoilers but, for example, in the pilot episode (called “Serenity” and not to be confused with the later movie) the crew pick up several passengers; it soon becomes evident that one of them is a bad egg but there is plenty of misdirection thrown in so that, until the last possible moment, you don’t know which one it is. There’s also a section in the same episode in which one of the crew members is seriously wounded and it’s not clear whether or not they are going to pull through.  When you watch the episode for the second time, or even if you come to it for the first time after having seen later episodes (as actually was the case for those who watched the original TV broadcast since, for various reasons, the pilot wasn’t actually aired until near the end of the series), you know (or at least have a good idea of) the answers to those questions, since you know who’s going to be flying on Serenity for the rest of the series.

(Incidentally, there was only one series made because the network executives pulled the plug on it after that; given how popular it later became I suspect that a few of them must have come to regret that decision.)

While the genuine surprise of the first encounter can never be repeated (without some form of amnesia), things are not all bad from there on out as (certainly in the case of something as good as Firefly – both in terms of story and production values) there’s a lot of goodness to be had on repeated viewings.  For one  thing, you get to notice cunning foreshadowing of certain events and to appreciate details that previously eluded you.  One small example is in a scene that takes place in an early episode (“Safe”) in which a couple of the characters find themselves at a dance taking place in a field on one of the planets they visit.  There is a small band playing the music for the dance and it was only on my latest viewing I noticed that one of the instruments in the band was a balalaika!

Whereas some books, films, TV series or whatever are things that I start out only marginally impressed (or, in some cases, completely unimpressed) by and only gradually come to appreciate deeply, and others are ones which I enjoy encountering once but wouldn’t want to revisit (or, perhaps, I do revisit them and find the reality failing to live up to my memories), Firefly is a series which I fell in love with pretty much at first sight (and certainly by the time I was halfway through the series for the first time) and which I continue to enjoy and anticipate enjoying for a long time to come.

Short SF poems / science fiction haiku / A bit like this

According to a standard storytelling trope, good things (as well as bad and ugly ones) come in threes. While I don’t usually make any particular effort to follow this rule on my blog, I thought it would be quite a good excuse for following up my last couple of posts with another one on a pairing of my interests.  Today’s theme is SciFaiku (aka scifiku or scifi-ku).

The SciFaiku Manifesto describes SciFaiku as “a distinctive and powerful form of expression for science fiction. It packs all the human insight, technology, and vision of the future into a few poignant lines. SciFaiku is haiku and it is not haiku. It is driven by the inspiration and many of the principles of haiku, but it takes its own direction. It deviates, expands, and frees itself of haiku.”

I first came across the concept of SciFaiku several years ago, doubtless while reading up on haiku (itself an artform combining my interests in Japanese and poetry).  Unlike filk music, I have tried my hand at SciFaiku a few times.  I wrote a couple back in August 2006, which was probably fairly shortly after I first heard of them.

The first one is:

Swimming round my blood

tiny sentinels

keeping me fit and strong

This was written with nanotechnology in mind, but I realised sometime after writing it that it could equally well apply to antibodies (which would, I suppose, make it a something like Mediku or a Biku rather than a SciFaiku; both of those are terms I just made up and I doubt either will catch on).

The second was designed to be a summary of the film Gattaca, which I must have watched fairly shortly before writing it.  It ran:

Imperfect genes;

yet fool the scanners

and reach for the stars.

I can’t remember whether I wrote any more after that, but those are the only two I still have written down apart from one I wrote yesterday (while thinking about this post).  This one is inspired by Firefly, which is probably my favourite TV series ever (so far):

In the black

soar like a leaf on the wind

Serenity

If you read this post when it first went up, you may have noticed that I have subsequently edited the middle line of this SciFaiku.  That’s because I was listening to a bit of Firefly-inspired filk music by the Bedlam Bards which used the line “soar like a leaf on the wind” as a refrain, and this seemed to work better than my original line (“flying free as a bird”).  I’m fairly sure it’s a quote from the film – I think it’s uttered by Wash towards the end.

NB I’m sure you noticed that the title of this post is roughly in haiku format, but it would probably not count as SciFaiku.  If anything, I suppose, it is meta-SciFaiku!?