Almost Doctor Who: Outcasts

TV Well of course Outcasts. Outcasts goes without saying. You remember Outcasts, Party Animals creator Ben Richards’s sci-fi opus about a colony in space in 2060, scraping an existence on a dirt-ball whilst dealing with attacks from the mutant remnants of the failed experiments which led to them being healthy enough to survive (or something). Richards said he wasn’t a fan of the genre, that he was really interested in the human story. And it showed, as he managed to replicate many of the genre’s old clichés (see above), without any sign of a modern twist. The show’s self-defeating agenda was sci-fi for people who don’t like sci-fi and such divisiveness wasn't well received and it was quickly shunted from its prestige Monday night at nine to the graveyard 10:30pm Sunday night shift (and reruns on BBC HD where it presently is).

What didn’t help it, at least for Doctor Who fans, is that we really have seen it all before. Apart from the dozens of novels and audios on the same theme, there have been countless television stories in which colonists have faced comparable dangers in similar environments. The clearest analogues are Colony in Space from the Pertwee years and later Frontios, both of which saw similar colonies ransacked by the Doctor for their dark secrets and although Outcasts didn’t have the opportunity to reveal its alien hand, that’s obviously where the Solaris-lite supernatural forces were heading to. Of course, Star Trek fans can make much the same accusation. But note that Forthaven isn’t just a human colony. It’s a British colony of the kind which only Doctor Who, especially in the 70s and 80s, seems to produce.

In fact, there’s nothing in these episodes which disavows it from occurring the Whoniverse, really, especially if you glance at Lance Parkin’s Ahistory, that bonkers attempt to consolidate the entire chronology of the franchise with all its contradictions. Lance at one point ruminates that even Blake’s 7 fits if you squint enough and Outcasts doesn’t even require that level of ocular contortion. According to Ahistory by 2060, the Whoniverse’s Earth is conveniently experiencing nuclear wars with colonisation missions launched to other solar systems of the kind Outcasts might as well be dramatising thanks to some interpolation from spin-off novels mainly by Lawrence Miles (which are as about as canonical to me at least as anything else since they were the proper continuation of Who for many of us until its return to television).

And like Torchwood, (which is also canon sadly), Outcasts demonstrates what Doctor Who is like when the Time Lord doesn’t materialise. Many Who stories begin with a scene which sets up the world and the mystery before the blue box arrives and the entire duration of every episode of Outcasts feels like one of those set up scenes. As an ensemble show, it’s desperate for a more vital protagonist and if this had been Doctor Who, all of the revelations in episode eight would have been portioned out carefully across six episodes in classic Who or about half an hour in nuWho. At times it is frustrating to watch because the Doctor isn’t gadding about asking all the vital questions, putting two and two together, even though we know the writer would have used the usual narrative delaying tactic of locking him in Cass's (Daniel Mays) cell for the duration.

Equally frustratingly, all of the characters are precisely the kinds of archetypes Doctor Who writers include to become friends and enemies of the Doctor. Who is President Richard Tate (Liam Cunningham) but the kind of figure the Time Lord would have to butt up against until he worked out what his secret was?  Isn’t Stella (Hermione Norris) the grudging ally in the mould of Adelaide Brooke from Waters of Mars or Fleur (Amy Manson) the fast if cynical friend who turns out be not all she seems ala Cleaves in The Rebel Flesh? That leaves Cass or Lily (Jeanne Kietzmann) or both to make friends with the companion and presumably die horribly and we’re left with the creeping suspicion that Richards was stretching the truth on how much he likes the genre and he had in fact got every story in broadcast order on a shelf in his bedroom, ready to whip out when he’s desperate for inspiration.

As the story plays out, and this is were the spoilers really begin if any of this has led you to Amazon to buy the thing, the planet even has enough environments to lend themselves to a perfect Who structure in which the Doctor hangs about sharing grumpy scenes with Liam Cunningham because his companion, let’s say Charley Pollard, has been kidnapped by ACs and he’s trying to discover why and what’s special about them. Meanwhile such things as the whiteout and AC attacks are available for cliffhangers. If you have seen the show or when you do see it, see if you can decide when would have been the optimal moment for the TARDIS to appear. As things played out, if I’d been the BBC, it would have been seconds in. Then the whole story could have been knocked off in an hour.

[Almost Doctor Who is an occasional series which previously studied the films Happy Accidents and Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium just in case you thought this was tenuous.]

Dominic Sandbrook’s superb series The People’s Post

Radio When I was an undergraduate in the mid-90s, before the proliferation of the web, before mobile phones were a luxury, the postal service was still a vital lifeline home. Away from the nest for the first time and dealing with the personal autonomy implications, I couldn’t wait for the letters and parcels mainly sent by Mum, envelopes littered with newspaper cuttings from the Liverpool Echo (the old school equivalent of email attachments), boxes brimming with provisions, biscuits, noodles, knitwear, sometimes tins. Goodness knows how much the postage was.

A decade and a half later, when food’s even cheaper and communication is ubiquitous, I doubt there are many students looking forward as much as I did to the daily visit to the campus sorting office to pick up the mail. We rather take the service for granted now. There when we need it, not really understanding that without our support it’ll be gone in its present form. Perhaps that’s one reason not to be so guilty about using Lovefilm, or doggedly sticking to paper bills. Hopefully they’re supplementing those moments when it’s still vital.

Not that it would necessarily be at such risk if it had retained the public service imperative, if it had remained a monopoly. But as Dominic Sandbrook’s superb series The People’s Post demonstrates, the Royal Mail and its predecessors have always been closely interlinked with the markets imperative, for much of its life defending itself against commercial operators when it hasn’t otherwise been absorbing its methods, users and employees forever seeking ways to cope or take advantage of its ever changing services.

Little did I realise until listening to these three hours, that the service had its origins in Henry VIII’s power struggle, when in 1516 he wanted a more regular way of sending royal communications whilst simultaneously strengthening his intelligence service. Or that the first penny post was a private service begun in and around London as early as the 1580s until the official office had it shut down for being unlicensed, then utilising its infrastructure for itself. Or did I remember that postcodes didn’t come into widespread usage until the 1980s when they became a vital part of the new speedy sorting machines.

As is often the case when these epic Radio 4 series are transferred to cd, the fifteen daily chunks which were presumably perfectly formed bursts of narrative become quite a dense listening experience. Fortunately, Sandbrook and his producer Joby Waldman pace their story by often focusing on the Royal Mail’s inherent social history, with actors like John Sessions reading extracts from secret missives between loves or reviews of such things as the passenger mail carriage and explanations of the cunning ways in which various users sought to circumvent having to pay what was often a quite expensive price.

My favourite story is from the period of the carriages, when it was noticed that a loophole meant newspapers could be sent at a fraction of the cost of a letter. Suddenly old copies become a communication currency, with pages covered in message written in lemon juice readable by candle at destination or codes produced using pinpricks. One ingenious fellow convalescing at the sea side kept his city dwelling son up-to-date on his health by changing the addressee to that of a politician – a liberal meant he was in perfect health, a Tory that he was at death’s door.

Sandbrook ends his series on a gloomy note, pointing to the various replacement services that will inevitably see to the Royal Mail’s demise, post office functions transferred to other commercial services like newsagents (a trend we’re already close to seeing in Liverpool whose main office is now upstairs in a tiny WH Smiths). If and when that happens, it’s important that we still remember the hard work of the hundreds of thousands of employees who kept the country functioning across the centuries. Even if it just means leaving a tip for the postman at Christmas.

"this Starbucks is somehow characteristic"

Architecture Architects Kengo Kuma and Associates have designed a Starbucks coffee shop to complement a Shinto shrine in Dazaifu, Japan. The results can be seen at Dezeen:
"Location of this Starbucks is somehow characteristic, as it stands on the main approach to the Dazaifu Tenmangu, one of the most major shrines in Japan. Established in 919 A.D., the shrine has been worshiped as “the God for Examination,” and receives about 2 million visitors a year who wish their success."
One of the more impressive elements of most coffee chains is their ability to fit within the architecture of wherever they've decided to leave their footprint, from a mezzanine in bookshop to what amounts to a massive art project.

But staff obviously have to deal with the consequences of that and there are clearly some outlets that are more conducive to a decent work day than others.  This seems like it could be quite oppressive, especially since it looks like a massive stack of wooden coffee stirrers.

"records all of TV and radio programmes"

TV Radio and Telly UK brings news of ...
"... a PVR that records every channel, all of the time. The Promise Seven PVR plugs into your telly aerial and records all of TV and radio programmes from the 60 or so Freeview channels, and keeps them for 7 days. Imagine. Every single TV show for the last week, recorded, browseable and available on demand."
As the price of home broadband reduces and streaming services become the norm rather than an extra this will seem a bit technologically old hat. But what about as an addition to the addition? 

Perhaps at some point when prices come down (this unit is currently just under two thousand pounds) we'll have a Spotify-like situation where the iPlayer or whatever brand of streaming will check the hard disk to see if something's been recorded there before allowing the web to take the strain.

Someone's about to tell me that's already happening, aren't they?

"200 kilometers per hour"

Architecture Construction firm aims at space elevator in 2050:
"In Obayashi's project, a cable would be stretched up to 96,000 kilometers, or about one-fourth of the distance between the Earth and the moon. One end of the cable would be anchored at a spaceport on the ground, while the other would be fitted with a counterweight.

The terminal station would house laboratories and living space. The car could carry up to 30 people to the station at 200 kilometers per hour, which would mean a 7-1/2 day trip to reach the station. Magnetic linear motors are one possible means of propulsion for the car, according to Obayashi."
Well, that's something to look forward to. The diagram in the linked article is amazing having all the plausibility of a warp drive [via].

Breaking the fourth wall: 50/50

During a scene which was improvised three times, star Joseph Gordon-Levitt inadvertently glances into the lens as he turns to address his older co-stars. It's not referred to on the director's commentary so it wasn't noticed during the editing process. Hey, Joe.

The Titlebar Archive: You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

Film  A shot of Naomi Watts in the recently reviewed You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger.

"The 3,000 paintings from National Museums Liverpool"

Art The latest update to the BBC's Your Paintings online art collection brings news of the addition of three thousand works from National Museums Liverpool. As their blog explains:
"The 3,000 paintings from National Museums Liverpool are located across seven Merseyside museum sites, including the Lady Lever Art Gallery, the Walker Art Gallery and The Museum of Liverpool.

The Merseyside collections include works by Rembrandt and Rubens, along with later pieces by artists including Cézanne, Degas, Lucian Freud and Monet."
The Sacramento Bee has a much longer press release with greater detail about the project and some of the works which have been added, including Holman Hunt's The Scapegoat, whose vivid pastels are presented in epic detail at Art Daily's version of the story.

When I was working a documentation assistant at the Walker at the turn of the millennium cataloguing/databasing the collection, this kind of digitisation project was always mentioned as a long term aspiration and would even appear in my action plan for the following six months or year during appraisals.

Inevitably technology was the main obstacle.  There simply wasn't the ability to photograph or scan and then store the images in any great detail and even the high end equipment we had at the time is dwarfed in ability by the average smart phone.  Certainly the office scanner which we initially experimented with wasn't up to the task.

I hope some of the data I entered all those years ago helped a bit.  Certainly it's surprising to be able to finally look at works I only previously saw on screen or glimpsed in tiny shots in a black and white catalogue of works.  Like this copy of the Mona Lisa which is unsurprisingly similar to the Prado.

Most of the paintings are concentrated at the three art galleries, but there are also eight at World Museum Liverpool (former Liverpool Museum) and fifty odd at the new  Museum of Liverpool of local scenes.  This is going to take some exploration.

"it was economic, really"

Film For the September 1974 issue of Interview Magazine, Andy Warhol chatted with Alfred Hitchcock. The topic's inevitable, especially considering what was then recent history for the artist:
"Andy Warhol: Since you know all these cases, did you ever figure out why people really murder? It’s always bothered me. Why.

Alfred Hitchcock: Well I’ll tell you. Years ago, it was economic, really. Especially in England. First of all, divorce was very hard to get, and it cost a lot of money."
The link also includes example of Warhol trying to capture Hitch's iconic shape through drawing.

"carrying it around as a prop for months"

People Another legendary Elizabeth Day interview, on this occasion with George Lamb. Everything is as you'd expect until ...
Which book are you currently reading?

I'm just finishing Charles Bukowski's Post Office.

Did you pick that because you knew you were being interviewed?

[Grins] There was a little bit of that, yeah. I had almost been carrying it around as a prop for months. Then I thought: "What the hell, I'm going to read it" and I quite liked it. My focus this year is I want to read more books. I want to start using my head again.
Is he joking?  Did he have it in his hand?  Peaking out of his jacket pocket?  Just sort of in his bag?  Was it an ebook?  The commenters are perplexed.  Insulting.  Sweary. 

Except, I do have some sympathy with him. As you know, in the past year, I've been trying to read more books for much the same reason, hence this, amongst other things.

Plus it took me months to read Elizabeth Wurtzel's Bitch way back when.  On this occasion, I don't think it fair of me to judge.  For a change.

Elsewhere in today's Observer Day (who's had a busy week it seems) reveals the following remarkable nugget in an article about ... well, you'll see ...
"Welcome to "Londres". In a closely fought race, the French residents of the capital are being courted as never before. Legislation passed by the French parliament in 2008 gave citizens who live abroad the right to elect their own politicians, in constituencies created specifically for expatriates. For the first time this year, national assembly elections – to be held in June – will effectively return an MP for Britain. No wonder, then, that interest in London in the presidential race, held a month earlier, has spiked."
Clearly the "effectively" is important in that sentence.  Does every French ex-pat everywhere have that privelidge? 

Apparently so.  As this other Guardian piece by Angelique Chrisafis explains, the voting law carves the world up into thirteen massive constituencies each with their own MP, "an MP for the US and Canada and an MP for north and east Africa."  I love this paragraph which explains some of the background:
The MP for "northern Europe" will represent French people in the UK, Ireland, Scandinavia and the Baltic states. But London is the heart of it, home to around 300,000 of the 400,000 French people in Britain, with so many French expats that it is considered France's sixth biggest city. Nicolas Sarkozy cemented the political importance of "Paris-on-Thames" during his presidential election campaign in 2007, staging an unprecedented London rally urging people to come home, saying: "France is still your country even if you're disappointed by it." To some it seemed as extraordinary as David Cameron taking a campaign battle bus through the villages of expat Brits in western France.
This whole thing makes ongoing discussions about the "West Lothian Question" seem very silly indeed.