Tuesday 24 May 2011

Doctor Who: The Rebel Flesh

The Rebel Flesh brought an unusual element of hard SF into Doctor Who. Programmable matter is an idea that nanotechnologists are actively working on. It's role in the story was to explore the familiar idea of artificial people - here, the "Gangers" (short for Doppelgangers were being used to undertake hazardous work (mining deadly acid) as a safety precuation for their human operators. The opening scene brought home how this could dehumanize the operators - when a Ganger falls into a vat of acid, his colleagues are more concerned about the loss of his protective suit than him - and at this point, we don't know that he's a Ganger.

The Doctor is clearly up to something - he's planning to drop Amy and Rory off for chips and deal with this one himself. It also becomes apparent later in the episode that he already knows something about The Flesh, and isn't telling anyone what. Having bluffed his way into the facility with the Psychic Paper (a device that's being used more sparingly of late), the Dcotor inspects The Flesh in its vat, and it inspects him. After the rather creepy sight of a Ganger being created, we get the solar storm that knocks everybody out, ruptures the acid pipes, and makes the Gangers independent of their originals. The Frankenstein reference is obvious, but it reminded me more closely of Short Circuit.

The Gangers now have all the memories of their human originals. As Rory gets to know Jen, we find that they are frightened and confused. So are the humans, who at first think of the free Gangers as nothing but a threat. The Doctor introduces the Gangers to their originals, and at first it seems that there's some sort of understanding developing between the Gangers and the humans. But as in The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood, somebody has to go and ruin everything - in this case it's Cleeve, the leader, who electrocutes one of the Gangers - I think. Since the Gangers look identical to the Humans at this point, it could easily have been a Ganger killing a Human, a Ganger killing a Ganger or a Human killing a Human. At this point, our sympathies lie very much with the Gangers, but as Ganger Jen, the one that we have most empathy with, encourages her fellows to rise up in revolt, the waters become considerably muddier. The humans try to barricade themselves into the safest part of the base, but Rory is left outside, and in with them is a Ganger... of The Doctor.

All the ingredients in this story are familiar - artificial humans, a base under siege, a conflict that The Doctor tries to prevent but can't, sympathetic monsters and unsympathetic humans, The Doctor being cut off from the Tardis, the duplicate of The Doctor. It's the way they've been mixed that comes off really well in this story.

One last detail... Amy saw the weird woman with the eyepatch again.

Monday 23 May 2011

Fortieth post Wordle

Wordle: Fantastical Devices 4

Well, we can see what I've been writing about recently, can't we?
Two interesting things to note - one is that The Doctor's Wife seems to dominate the Doctor Who related writing - I ended up writing quite a big post about that one. However, I'm glad to see that Doctor Who isn't sqeezing everything else out.

Guess what my next post's going to be about?

Friday 20 May 2011

Robots invent a language

IEEE Spectrum describes an interesting experiment in artificial intelligence and linguistics. Two robots, equipped with microphones and loudspeakers to talk to each other, managed to create a set of words useful for navigating their environment.

I think it would be interesting to extend this experiment to see if it could give insight into how language evolves. Starting with a larger population of robots, you could give them time to make up a language, and then start deleting the memories of individual robots at intervals. In real life, languages have to be continually relearned by sucessive generations of speakers, and this is probably part of the reason why the undergo changes. It would be possible to vary the size of the population and the rate of deletions to see what influence these might have, and also to add varying amounts of background noise.

Mind you, to give a real insight into the development of human language, you might want to give the robots more complex tasks to do than simply finding their way around, so that they would have to invent a grammar to express their meaning. Then you would be seeing how language might develop in a mind fundamentally unlike a humans. There's been considerable debate amongst linguists about how many of the constraints on human languages are hard-wired into the human brain, and how many are simply a result of circumstance, and what can evolve from what already exists.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Doctor Who: The Doctor's Wife

The titleThe Doctor's Wife turned out to be a metaphor, but it was an apt one. You can well imagine hardcore fans debating who might be the greatest love of The Doctor's life. Was it Susan's grandmother? Was it Sarah Jane Smith? (RIP Lis Sladen) Was it Romana? Was it Rose Mary Sue Tyler? Was it Madame de Pompadour? Is it River Song?

No, it's the Tardis. Obvious when you think about it.

The episode has a sinister opening, with Uncle, Auntie and Nephew (an Ood) preparing Idris to have her soul sucked out and replaced with another one. Cut to The Doctor, Amy and Rory in the Tardis, bantering about past adventures. There's a knock on the door. They're in space. The Doctor opens the door and finds a message capsule from another Time Lord, "The Corsair". The message leads them to a junkyard world in a pocket universe, where the Matrix is sucked out of the Tardis.

It turns out to be a trap of course - while The Doctor searches for other survivors of the Time War, he sends Amy and Rory back to the Tardis and locks them in. He then discovers that House, the planet they are on, is a sentient planet that eats Tardises, and that The Corsair has been killed and his body parts used in House's patchwork servants. Meanwhile, House having heard from The Doctor that his Tardis is the last one left, has decided to hijack it and head for our universe in search of more food. But The Doctor has an ally - Idris, who has become a personification of the Tardis.

Neil Gaiman makes good use of Doctor Who's past in this story, pulling off the trick of using references to previous adventures in such a way that they add something if you know the reference, but don't take anything away if you don't. The Tardis comes across as pleasingly barmy, and the idea that she wanted to see the universe, so she stole a Time Lord and ran away is a neat symmetry. Best quote of the episode has to be the following exchange-

I just want to say, you know, you have never been very reliable.
And you have?
You didn't always take me where I wanted to go.
No, but I always took you where you needed to go.
You did!

Of course, we always knew that was how it worked, but now it's been said on screen.

But despite focussing on The Doctor's relationship with his Tardis, the episode didn't neglect Amy and Rory, and showed some real insights into their relationship too. Amy, who's normally full of mad bravado, was allowed to let the mask slip and be vulnerable. The quote "Hold my hand, Rory," when the Tardis took off under House's control was touching, and she was bought face to face with her greatest possible fear - losing Rory not only physically, but emotionally too. Then the real Rory turn up, and show us what she needs him to be - the reliable one, the one sane person in a mad universe. Rory had had a wonderful Genre Savvy moment earlier, when House asked, "Why shouldn't I just kill you now?" and he replied, "Because it wouldn't be any fun." Interesting that the Tardis thought that he was "the pretty one".

This week's cryptic bit - The river is the only water in your forest. River Song, perhaps? she did appear in Forest of the Dead, and also appeared in a forest in Flesh and Stone.

Note to Steven Moffat- ask Neil Gaiman back.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Protecting my birdbox

A few years ago, I put up a birdbox in my garden. This year, for the first time, a pair of bluetits has moved in and are bringing up chicks there. This evening, after I got home from work, I noticed a cat climbing onto the birdbox - either trying to get at the chicks inside or catch the parents. After chasing the cat off, I decided to set up a more permanent deterrent.

Have you ever wondered why chillis contain capsaicin, the substance that creates the burning sensation when you eat them? In the wild, their seeds are spread by birds pecking at the fruit. If mammals ate them, they'd grind up the seeds with their teeth. The capsaicin acts as a deterrent to mammals, which, with the exception of one mad species of ape, finds the burning sensation produced extremely unpleasant. Birds, however, aren't sensitive to it.

So, I've put some chilli on top of my birdbox. Hopefully the next time the cat tries to get up there will be the last. As a bonus, while I was doing it I managed to look into the box and get a glimpse of the chicks

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Doctor Who: The Curse of the Black Spot

Yo ho ho! Or does nobody actually say that?

Pirates, becalmed on the high seas, in fear of an unearthly power. It's a good setup, and one that this week's Doctor Who made good use of. The Doctor had to walk the plank (another thing that nobody's sure real pirates actually did), and did his usual trick of talking nonsense to stall for time while trying to think up a way out, giving Amy the opportunity not only to rescue him, but to dress for the part as well. The lines
What do you think you're doing?

Saving your life!
recurred, and we even had a bit of fun with the Gilbert and Sullivan idea of silly, non-threatening pirates, with the pirates being afraid of even the slightest scratch.

Most of the episode focussed on Captain Avery, and so Amy and Rory had a bit less to do than usual after Amy's swashbuckling. Rory, who'd been a bit left out of the action for most of the episode, did get a star turn at the end when, told that he was drowning, told Amy how to save his life. There was a wonderful running joke thoughout the episode of The Doctor realising every five minutes that he'd been wrong about everything so far.

The were two interesing bits of Moffatian weirdness in this episode. First off, who was the woman in the eyepatch, who appeared to Amy as if on a videoscreen and said "You're doing well"? Secondly, what's going on with Amy's pregnancy? Last week, I thought I knew what had happened, but now even the Tardis can't work out what's going on. It reminds me of the bit in The Beast Below where a computer couldn't work out her marital status. All will be revealed, eventually, but it's likely to get a lot stranger first!

Friday 6 May 2011

Doctor Who: Day of the Moon

A bit later than I'd hoped (it's been a busy week) here are my thoughts about last Saturday's Doctor Who.

We found out the answers to some of the questions asked last week, but by no means all. We know who the Silence are and what they want, but the question of whether Amy can save the Doctor is another matter. It seems that Amy and Rory had left the Tardis because Amy was pregnant, but she hadn't told Rory because she was worried about what effect being conceived in the Tardis would have on the baby. However, it seems that at some point in the three months between the two episodes she was captured by The Silence and taken back in time a few years. While captive, she gave birth and her daughter was brought up in the creepy orphanage. I don't think she was in the astronaut suit when it assasinated The Doctor, though. The Doctor's plan to defeat the Silence, while a classic Hoist By Their Own Petard (The Avengers used to be particularly fond of that tactic) was one of the most chillingly ruthless things I've seen him do. The assasination at the beginning of The Impossible Astronaut was probably The Silence's revenge. Still don't know why they were trying to blow up the Universe last season though.

My favourite bit, however, was this conversation between The Doctor and Rory.
This is their empire. It would be like kicking the Romans out of Rome.

Rome fell.

I know. I was there.

So was I.

The Doctor's already got everything in place for his plan at this point, but he's turning to Rory for reassurance before going through with it. I often think that Rory is the bravest of the current Tardis crew - The Doctor's used to a life of adventure, and Amy enjoys the danger - in Flesh and Stone it appears that she enjoys it a little too much.

There's a big surprise at the end - it turns out that Amy was right that being conceived in the Tardis might have affected her baby. It's apparently turned her into a Time Lord.