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Monday, September 29, 2014

Alex Wheeler on Looking Out For Your Friends

Luke Skywalker takes on a dragon
in the Lego-inspired TV series "The Yoda Chronicles."

In Target, the first novel in Alex Wheeler's Star Wars Rebel Force series, the Rebellion has just struck a crucial blow against the Empire. They not only defended their base on Yavin IV against the Death Star, but also destroyed the moon-sized space station in the process. So Emperor Palpatine issues an executive order: find the fighter pilot whose proton torpedo caused the chain reaction that destroyed the space station. 

While the Rebellion's spy network learn that Imperial assassins are following up leads, the leadership on Yavin IV institute new security procedures to protect what everyone on the jungle moon knows: that Luke Skywalker, the young moisture farmer from Tatooine, fired the final shot. But the leadership faces a greater challenge. Princess Leia's father, Senator Bail Organa, was covertly assisting the Rebellion in many ways, one of which was safeguarding their funds. When the Death Star destroyed his home planet of Alderaan, the bulk of the Rebellion's funds were also destroyed. To protect Luke, and retrieve some money held in banks elsewhere, Rebel leaders pay Han Solo to transport Luke and Leia to the planet Muunilinst, the former home of the InterGalactic Banking Clan.

When the Millennium Falcon exits hyperspace, a TIE fighter attacks them before they can land on Muunilinst. They are assisted by a pilot in a Preybird, but his ship is damaged while driving off the TIE fighter, and he crashes on Muunilinst's moon. Han lands the Falcon to assist him, but it takes a while to track down the bleeding pilot. During their hunt, they hear a rumbling which Luke assumes is a moonquake. Then a great beast named a reek emerged from the brush. It rises three times as tall as the Humans on its four tree-trunk legs. Three razor-sharp, spear-like horns sprout from its head. Bellowing, the beast charges on our heroes.

Obi-wan Kenobi used the Force to offer Luke a few words of wisdom after his died, but the late Jedi Knight only gave Luke one lightsaber training session before Darth Vader ended his life. Even with the aid of the Force, Luke has had trouble mastering his new sword. He's failed to protect himself in training sessions orchestrated by his droid R2-D2 on Yavin IV, and knows he's got a lot to learn before he achieves proficiency with the weapon. Still, when the reek charges, Luke activates his lightsaber, and runs forward to protect his friends. 

Han Solo is one of the most down-to-earth characters in Star Wars. He knows who he is, and is comfortable with his strengths and weaknesses. Han's not sure he believes in the Force, and even if he did, he knows he can't wield it. He worries that his idealistic young friend Luke, lacking proper training with the plasma-sword, is a danger to himself and others. So even before Luke whips out his lightsaber and charges the reek, Han's already lining up a shot with his blaster. When Luke trips over a rock, Han fires, and prevents the reek from goring his friend. 

Even though he's itching to leave the Rebellion after this job, and pay off Jabba the Hutt so he can resume his former easygoing, independent life, Han's still looking out for his friend. His loyalty to his new friends will ultimately cost him, but he's beginning to recognize that there are more important things than simply getting by. The Rebellion may have awarded him a medal for helping Luke destroy the Death Star, but he's earning his status as a hero in small, unremarkable actions such as this. Han Solo's like all of us, when we perform all those little, unremarkable acts designed to help and protect our friends and loved ones, even when they don't recognize our attentiveness, or thank us for protecting them.

Heroes, all.

Dragon Dave

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Day For The Birds

Coulson: What shall we see today, boss?
Fury: It's your day off. Enjoy it. As for me, I most enjoy studying our feathered friends.
Coulson: Is it because you think you can learn something from them that will enhance the flight characteristics or performance of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier?
Fury: Uh, yeah. Sure.

Coulson: Ooh, look sir. This is a pretty little bird. I wonder if I can find it for you.

Coulson: There he is! Look sir, the Paradise Tanager! With his sky-blue under-plumage, I bet he's tough to spot from the ground. Maybe we should paint the Helicarrier sky-blue, what do you think?

Coulson: And look sir, here's a Scarlet Macaw, a type of parrot. I wonder if he can talk? Polly want to exterminate a cracker? Polly want to exterminate a cracker? Hey, sir, how about we make the controls on the Helicarrier more speech-activated? That'd be more efficient than pushing all those buttons, don't you think?

Coulson: Hey sir, look at this guy! Just look at him! He's got such beautiful tail feathers, and I really like the antennas shooting out of his head. You know, maybe we should install more satellite dishes on the Helicarrier? After all, you can never have too many data sources, right? Sir? Sir? Hey, where'd he go? I wonder what he's looking at?

Fury & Coulson Daleks

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Luc Besson on Superhuman Abilities

What superpowers
would you like to possess?

Recently, my wife and I went out to see "Lucy." This movie was written, directed and produced by Luc Besson, a powerhouse of French cinema. In his story, Lucy is a young woman who is kidnapped by drug traffickers in Taiwan. They surgically implant a pouch of an experimental drug into her abdomen, and threaten to kill her family unless she delivers it to their organization overseas. But before she gets on a plane, the pouch breaks, and the drug flows into her system.

This drug, based on a chemical secreted by women during pregnancy, finds in Lucy the perfect host. Her tissues and organs absorb the drug, but the most important effect takes place in her brain. She begins to perceive things that most of us could only hope to see and understand. She can look at her roommate, and tell that she is suffering an undiagnosed health malady, for example. More importantly, the drug transforms her mental powers so that she can absorb information at an astounding rate, and manipulate what she sees. She can peer into people's minds, and put them to sleep. She can control a gunman's muscles, so that he doesn't shoot her. She can get into a car, and judge other drivers' patterns to analyze the quickest way across the packed streets of Paris during rush hour. She can read others' thoughts and see their memories. She can move and alter inanimate objects. She can perceive information streaming through the air, sent by electronic devices like cell phones, and listen in on them. 

In short, she has become a god. 

As we all know, no gift comes without a price. In Lucy's case, her body is operating far beyond a sustainable level, and she recognizes that she only has a day or so of life left. So she makes it her goal to pass on all that she has learned to scientists, in the hope that they can utilize that knowledge to enhance mankind's understanding of how the Human body and brain function, and perhaps increase our capabilities in a sustainable manner. She pours all her energies into building a computer that can compile that information, and delivering it to scientists in the time remaining to her, all the while eluding the drug lords intent on ending her life.

"Lucy" reminded me of other stories as I watched it. Lucy's increased telepathic abilities reminded me of Robert Silverberg's novel Dying Inside, in which a man is born with the ability to read other people's minds, but he pays a heavy price for this extraordinary ability. It reminded me of Roger Zelazny's novels Changling and Madwand, in which a magician perceives links between people and their surroundings, and manipulate them by pulling on these invisible strands of reality that connect them with the rest of their world. It reminded me of Altered States, a novel and film written by Paddy Chayefski, in which a man experiments with sensory deprivation inside a water tank, and the drugs he uses allow him to perceive the whole of Human history and existence. Needless to say, the movie underscored Luc Besson's tremendous talent, and made me want to see more of his movies. Perhaps not all seventy-six of them, but a few. 

Maybe I'll start by watching an old favorite, and the only other one of his I've seen thus far. You might have seen it too. It was a wonderful Sci-fi Space Opera called "The Fifth Element." You know: "Boom. Bada Boom. Big Bada Boom." Luc Besson met his future wife on that one, his beautiful star Milla Jovovich. Well, at least one of his wives...

It could be great to possess superpowers like telepathy and telekinesis. But if I had a choice, my desired superpower would have to be the mental focus to complete the tasks I start, in a reasonable amount of time, without constantly getting distracted, and then getting down on myself for not sticking to my targets and goals. What? That's not a superhuman ability, you say? Then why do I find it such a difficult skill to master?

Dragon Dave

Monday, September 22, 2014

Christopher H Bidmead on How Numbers Define Reality

An early "Digital Computer," built by the Burroughs Corporation
to track rocket and missiles' 
radar and trajectories
in the United States.

In "Logopolis," a Doctor Who story written by Christopher H Bidmead, the Doctor's concern for his aging TARDIS takes him to the planet Logopolis. This planet is populated by mathematicians who live like monks, and the numbers they manipulate hold real power. No computer could process their equations, as the numbers they compute create a physical reality. So the Doctor and his companion Adric give the mathematical monks the measurements they recorded, which attempt to describe the time machine in all thirty-seven dimensions. (Remember, the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than on the outside). Then the monks retire to their alcoves, and each chants his portion of the computations, a type of math the monks of Logopolis call Block Transfer Computation. 

Through their efforts, the Doctor hopes he can restore his TARDIS to operational proficiency. Instead, he discovers that the sluggish performance of his TARDIS is due to the machinations of his archenemy the Master. The Doctor also learns that the universe has long passed the point of breaking down, and only the mathematicians' ongoing efforts have prevented everything--all matter, everywhere--from dissolving. When the Master's schemes to destroy the Doctor, and harness the efforts of the Logopolitans go awry, entropy sweeps through the universe, wiping out planets and solar systems. Entropy even overtakes Logopolis, erasing the monks from existence. So it's up to the Doctor to find a way of stopping the Master, and preventing the complete destruction of the universe.

On the DVD commentary, Christopher H Bidmead explained that the inspiration for how the mathematicians on Logopolis worked out their equations came from Slide Rule, an autobiography by Nevil Shute, in which he recounted the method of three-dimensional stress calculations involved in mid-twentieth century airship design. The conversation about the story's overall theme of entropy then evolved (or devolved?) into a discussion about fellow actors' hair falling out, and I learned that Anthony Ainley, who always sported a full head of hair as the Master, was in fact wearing a wig. Christopher H Bidmead is also losing his hair, so he's entropy in that aspect of his life. But Tom Baker contributed the best story of all, about an actor who was so concerned that others didn't notice he wore a toupee, that every time he went to the bathroom, he sprinkled salt on his shoulders, then emerged complaining about the inadequacy of his anti-dandruff shampoo. "Oh, who will deliver me from this terrible dandruff?"

Mostly though, the two stories reminded me of how terribly important numbers are to us, and how much they define our lives. The automated systems that allow planes to arrive and depart safely, and transfer money all over the world. The software code that runs our computers, tablets, and cellphones, which we couldn't do without in the modern world. The hours of the day that we mark out, that we plan our activities around. They're just numbers, arranged in a circle on the face of our watches, with a dial that spins around, yet they place us under so much pressure and stress. The dates on the calendar, and the passing of the years, and how we fear getting older. How we reassess our lives every 365 days, as well as when we begin a new decade of our lives. 

And then there are the rises and falls in temperature, marked out in Fahrenheit and Celsius degrees. "Oh, the mid-80s aren't hot," my friends who live and work more inland tell me, where they regularly experience triple digit temperatures. "I guess you're right," I respond, my body bathed in sweat.

Best of all are the ratings systems we ascribe to works of art and fiction. Stories interact with us all in completely different ways. Yet we attempt to give them an objective reality by assigning numbers to an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual journey. "Oh, that's only a two-and-a-half star movie, it can't be worth watching," we reason. Or: "Oh, that's a five-star book: I'm sure to enjoy that one!" Numbers, glorious, wonderful numbers.

Dragon Dave

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Dalek Twinkie Challenge

Spider-Dalek: Okay, I'm here. Why have I been summoned?
Artist: You're here to declare that the best Twinkies have blue filling.
Rusty: How dare you put words in his mouth! The best Twinkies are clearly red inside.
Spider-Dalek: So this is what all the fuss is about?
Denim: It's an important determination. After all, part of my job is to assist Pocket in putting together meals and desserts for Master and Mistress. While I'm completely unbiased, it seems to me that the superior Twinkie must have blue filling.
Captain Scarlet: As I'm the only commissioned officer currently serving in the Dalek military, I order you all to accept that the best Twinkies are red inside! Red! Red! Red!
Rex: Blue! Blue! Blue!
Spider-Dalek: Oh, very well. As I have a stake in both arguments, I suppose I should serve as a mediator in this dispute. Pinky, as you're our gentlest, classiest Dalek, perhaps you could state your side's position.

Pinky: Thanks for the complement, dear. Our position is simple. Our Twinkies have a mild and gentle flavor that remind one of the original Twinkie, yet have a flavor all their own. And let's face it: many people don't like the more tart varieties of berries, but everyone likes strawberries.
Red: Yeah, right! And I must add, after a long, hard afternoon assembling Lego kits, strawberries make the perfect afternoon treat.
Spider-Dalek: Well stated, Pinky. And yes, Red, thank you for that too. Blueberry, as you're named after an actual berry, perhaps you should summarize your colleagues' position.

Blueberry: Ah, ahem, thank you for asking my opinion. I must say that you've always struck me as a very astute Dalek. While I would agree with our dear Pinky that the Blue Raspberry filling has a stronger flavor, I must point out that even strawberries can be tart if they're picked too soon. This blue flavor is in no way tart or disagreeable. If anything, it's more of a good thing in each bite.
Blue: Yeah, rock on, Blueberry!
Spider-Dalek: Yes, well…as I found both positions persuasive, I suppose I must now take on the solemn duties of a judge, and examine each side's evidence.

Spider-Dalek: The blue and pink fillings both look and smell wonderful. I think I'll have to sample both, so I can rule on the flavor of each. Hmm. It could take some time for me to reach a determination. It's possible I may even need to taste both halves of each Twinkie.
Blueberry: Uh, excuse me, did you say both halves of each Twinkie?
Pinky: Don't you think that's going a bit far, dear?
Spider-Dalek: Well, you do want me to make an informed decision, and such such important matters should never be rushed, or investigated by half-measures.

Pocket: Hmm, aside from a few cake crumbs, there's no sign of whatever stirred up such a ruckus earlier. Whatever it was, it couldn't have been that important, certainly not in comparison with what Master & Mistress just brought home. I'm looking forward to tasting these new chocolate-covered Twinkies. I'll bet they're the best Twinkies ever!

Spider-Dalek, Pocket, and the red and blue Twinkie-loving Daleks

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Christopher H Bidmead on Entropy & Rebirth

The Doctor and Adric stand on a dock
on a cold winter day on the River Thames,
while the iconic smokestacks of Battersea Power Station
puff along in the background.

In the Doctor Who story "Logopolis," written by Christopher H Bidmead, the Doctor grows convinced that the TARDIS isn't operating properly. Like many of us with our cars, he's taken his time machine all over time and space, and rarely stopped to perform preventative maintenance. Suddenly, he's worried that his trusty old TARDIS is breaking down. At one point, he even asks his companion Adric to help him measure it, as he wonders if it might be shrinking. 

Logopolis is an interesting story for many reasons, not the least of which is that it was Tom Baker's final story playing the Doctor. While the Doctor is concerned that the systems on his TARDIS are breaking down, Tom Baker was contemplating a major life change. After being a national celebrity in England, he was stepping out of the limelight to take on other roles. After seven years of constant employment, it was back to the hustle of auditioning again, and wondering what roles he might be offered. And then there were the worries: he might have gotten tired of playing the Doctor, but he had nearly given up on acting before he got the role. Nothing in life is certain, and for all he knew, he might end up working on a construction crew again. At least that's where he had been working, when Barry Letts, the then-producer of Doctor Who, asked him to audition for the role. Now, several producers later, he was working with John Nathan Turner, and the two weren't getting along. As if all that weren't enough, he was contemplating marrying actress Lalla Ward, who had portrayed his former companion Romana. Lalla was a beautiful, dynamic woman, much younger than Tom. Although they were very much in love, the two continually quarreled during their time in the TARDIS, often to the point where Tom Baker refused to look at her when they were filming a scene together. So it's understandable that the Doctor looks so introspective in this episode, more like an absent-minded professor than the take-charge man he usually is.

I enjoyed walking along the River Thames last November, and touring the nearby Battersea Park. Sure, it would have been nice to have seen the plants and the trees in spring, when everything was in bloom and bursting with vitality, but change is an inevitable part of life. Everything has its proper time and place, and all things in life go in cycles. A few years ago, author (and SFWA Grand Master) Robert Silverberg told a crowd at Condor that he had stopped attending science fiction conventions for several years in the 1970s, when fans lost interest in discussing ideas, science, and literature, and conventions became more about games, dressing up, and media fiction. Recently, I've learned that Condor, which formerly styled itself as a literary convention, is deemphasizing the science and literature to concentrate more on what the fans seem to want, which is Cosplay (dressing up as comic book or movie characters, and acting out those roles), Steampunk (which is dressing up in Victorian-styled costumes, and having tea parties), and Sci-fi and Fantasy movies and TV shows. So, we move with the times, and change with the cycles. We die to one thing, and are reborn to another. When Entropy comes, what had cared about and loved no longer seems important, so we gravitate to what works for us now. Or at least, what we feel we need.

Of course, it's unfair to dismiss Cosplay, Steampunk, and Media Sci-Fi, as if they are inferior creations to literature. All are deeply rooted in literature, and merely finding expression in a new medium. (I should point out that, while I'm writing this blog about a climate shift within popular culture, I am in fact writing about a Sci-fi TV show, and not a book). Still, a few years from now, fans in San Diego may be looking back, and wondering why they're not discussing SF literature any more. Say, whatever happened to all those authors that used to attend science fiction conventions?

It's kind of like Tom Baker and Lalla Ward's marriage. It didn't last for very long, certainly not as long as either would have liked, but then they recognized they weren't right for each other, and parted on amicable terms. Five years later, he was to marry former Doctor Who assistant editor Sue Jerrard, and this marriage would be one that would endure. 

The Doctor and Adric no longer stand on that dock,
but it still serves passengers and ships along the River Thames.

I enjoyed my visit to Battersea Park last November, and seeing the little dock on which the TARDIS landed in "Logopolis." It may have been cold, and the pathways littered with leaves, but Fall possesses its own radiant beauty. Now we're enduring the heat of summer, but soon it will be Fall again, with declining temperatures and falling leaves. Now I'm sweating, but all too soon I'll be shivering again, and looking forward to summer. Oh yes, and wishing once again that, this year, I had finally gotten around to installing insulation in my house. 

Yeah, that would have been smart.

How are the forces of entropy currently affecting your life? What changes are you most looking forward to, and how are you preparing to harness them?

Dragon Dave

Monday, September 15, 2014

Doctor Who on The Weather

Tegan helps her aunt fix a flat tire
beside an English road during winter.

Right now, San Diego is undergoing a heat wave. Temperatures along the coast are expected to rise into the mid-to-high '80s, with temperatures inland rising into triple digits. Our house doesn't have air conditioning. Nor, as it's along the coast, do we even have insulation. So it grows hotter during the day each summer, and retains that heat in the evenings. We've taken measures, like opening the windows at 6 a.m., and turning on the fans, then closing up the windows around midmorning, and then opening them back up again in the late afternoon. During the afternoon, I have to shut the computer and do something else, as my little laptop computer generates enough additional heat to make me sweat. This weekend, we spent much of each day in stores, restaurants, and the cinema, in part to enjoy cooler temperatures. This kept our spirits merry, but gave us headaches from exchanging long periods of air conditioning with the temperature outside.

On the commentary for the Doctor Who story "Logopolis," one of the topics discussed is the weather. Janet Fielding, who played aspiring airline stewardess Tegan, remarks on how bitterly cold she found filming this story. She had recently emigrated from Queensland, Australia, which she described as a tropical climate in comparison to England in winter. You can see the fog streaming out of the actors' mouths when they breathe and speak. Christopher H Bidmead, who wrote the story, contended that she was pretty well covered-up in the scene. Janet Fielding suggested that, next winter, he should dress up as an airline stewardess, with a short skirt and nothing but stockings to cover her legs, and then tell her how warm he was.

Tom Baker, who played the Doctor in this story, enjoyed a much warmer costume, with his long, thick coat and even longer scarf. He, like many older British actors, had since moved to France to escape the English winters. But after living there for a few years, he complained that he had gotten tired of all the heat, and was buying a house in Royal Tunbridge Wells, and looking forward to returning to the cooler temperatures of England.

Last October, when my wife and I attended the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, a storm blew in along the coast, bringing with it rain, fog, and wind. We'd step outside, get wet, hurled about, and have to watch our feet to keep from getting wet or muddy. After that, we spent a week in London. During the first few days, we toured the museums, but even they were cold inside. So we spent the rest of our days outside, enjoying the parks, and other historical sites. After a few hours of shivering, we climbed onto a bus to get out of the wind, or ducked into a store for awhile to escape the wind, or decided to sit down for awhile and enjoy a cup of hot tea and watch the rain pour down outside. Whenever my wife looks back on that trip, she feels kind of sad, as we are always bundled up in our coats and hats in our photos. But at the time we didnt let it get us down, and forced ourselves to get out and enjoy our vacation as much as we could.

Last night, we found an automated call from the power company on our answering machine, asking us to conserve electricity today, especially between the hours of 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Schools are operating on a reduced schedule throughout San Diego, especially those without air conditioning. As for me, I'll be closing up the windows, and keeping the appliances off. Instead of working on the computer, I'll probably be working with pen and paper this afternoon. If the heat exhausts me, then I'll read a book: a real book that is, not an ebook off my laptop. Above all, I'll be thinking of how cold it was in England last October and November. I might have gotten a head cold during that trip, but hey, at least I wasn't sweating, right?

It's interesting how fickle we can be at times, isn't it? But hey, I'm hot

Dragon Dave

Friday, September 12, 2014

Hulk Like Smashburgers

Hulk: Smashburger? Hulk like name of restaurant. Hulk look forward to dinner!

Hulk like philosophy of restaurant. Smashing is better! But Smashfact wrong: Hulk no need sidekick. Hulk smash well on his own!

Hulk: Oh, you again. Hello, Bug Dalek. What you here for?
Spider-Dalek: That's Spider-Dalek, and I thought I'd tag along. You know, be your zany sidekick for the evening.
Hulk: This not your kind of restaurant. Bug Dalek should go home. Not safe for you: might get smashed accidentally.

Spider-Dalek: Again, it's Spider-Dalek, not Bug Dalek. And you don't need to worry about me. I may be zany, and fast with the odd quip, but I can take care of myself. Besides, these fries remind me of swish-swish…you know, what I do.
Hulk: Hulk no understand swish swish, but he no want Bug Dalek to do it near food.
Spider-Dalek: No, that's Spider… Anyway, I'm talkin' about my web shooters, man! You may smash criminals, but with my grace and √©lan, I just go swish swish with my gun, and gift wrap the criminals in my clingy webs, ready for the police to pick up.
Hulk: Hulk say no swish swish around food!
Spider-Dalek: Yeesh! Okay!

Spider-Dalek: Well, that was one great dinner. I must say, I think I did better on my end of the tray. Look at all the fries I'm taking home.
Hulk: Bug Dalek wrong. Hulk like burger so much he demolish it in one sitting. Nothing left to take home.
Spider-Dalek: Hulk, what's wrong? You just said three complete sentences without "smash" in them.
Hulk: Hulk smart. Consult thesaurus. Hulk like to read, maybe write his stories some day. 
Spider-Dalek: I'm impressed. I never guessed at your literary aspirations. That's great! Maybe you could start off with short stories. You know, the kind Master reads. Who knows? You might be the next Robert Silverberg, or Roger Zelazny.
Hulk: Hulk not sure, but think Bug Dalek being complimentary. That good. Hulk sated, not feel like smashing Bug Dalek tonight.

Hulk & Spider-Dalek

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

J K Rowling on Children's Illustrations

Three Witches and a Knight explore an enchanted garden in
"The Fountain of Fair Fortune."

While watching "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" recently, I was struck by "The Tale of the Three Brothers," a fairy tale which the characters in the movie tell Harry at one point. Like Harry, my Muggle upbringing prevented me from reading the stories most magical parents read to their children. Unlike Harry, I lack a wand, as well as the magical capability to wield it. Nevertheless, the way the filmmakers brought "The Tale of Three Brothers" to life through dialogue and images, made me want to read it. Then I realized I had purchased The Tales of Beedle the Bard some time ago, and until now it had been languishing on my bookshelf.

Thankfully, it's not one of those books that behave like monsters, and attempt to bite your hand when you pick it up. Nor did it seem irritated with me, and scold me for ignoring it for so long. So I was charmed as I read "The Tale of the Three Brothers," as well as the other four stories in this slim volume. I found it interesting to read fifteenth century stories whose popularity had ensured not just their survival, but their relevance for contemporary readers. Beedle's writing harkened me back to the Medieval era, when Muggles had reasons to fear magic, as there was no Ministry of Magic to police witches and wizards properly, and warn them of the dangers of indulging in the darker arts. For as J. K. Rowling points out in her Introduction, Magic (regardless of its power or effectiveness) doesn't solve problems. Magic is just another tool that (some) Humans use to solve problems. Unfortunately, time proves most of our decisions wrong, and we often find ourselves working hard to manage or correct problems our choices and actions have created.

In addition to Beedle's prose, Professor Albus Dumbledore also gives us his thoughts on each story. He tells us which ones he enjoyed most, and suggests how each fairy tale may have differed from reality. He explains the reasons why some of these stories may have changed throughout the centuries to address new situations. His commentary provides insight into a world Muggles like me can only dream of inhabiting.

While I enjoyed reading this slim volume, I was shocked to discover that J. K. Rowling actually drew the illustrations. I do a little drawing now and then, and when I'm working on a story, drawing the characters and the setting help me better visualize a scene. Hopefully, this helps me to better convey it through words. Unlike my drawings, J. K. Rowlings illustrations are actually good. It's no wonder her Harry Potter novels have proven so popular, given her ability to visualize scenes through her sketching. Her work inspires me to devote more time to my own drawing, which was the last thing I expected when I picked up this slim volume.

There are lots of reason why you should buy this book. If you love Grimm's Fairy Tales, you'll appreciate the differences in the stories collected within this magical volume. If you've always wanted to read the Harry Potter novels, but worried about committing yourself to seven books, you can start here. If, like me, you'd simply like another glimpse into J.K. Rowling's magical world, this slim volume can provide that for you. But there's a better reason than all of those to pick up The Tales of Beedle the Bard, and that's because proceeds from the book go to fund Lumos, a charity that provides educational, medical, and social benefits to disadvantaged children across Europe. Buying this book will help institutionalized children find loving families, and better prepare them for adulthood. Plus, as I said, it's a safe magical book: it won't bite the hand that buys it, or shriek at you for not reading it sooner. For me, that makes buying The Tales of Beedle the Bard a Win/Win situation for everyone. But then, maybe I'm not seeing the whole picture. After all, I'm only a Muggle.

Dragon Dave

Monday, September 8, 2014

Mat Irvine On Bringing Words to Life

A spaceship waits on its launchpad
outside a lunar penal colony

Special Effects work has always demanded hard work, quick thinking, and ingenuity on the part of their practitioners. The Doctor Who story "Frontier In Space" proved especially so. In Science Fiction terms, author Malcolm Hulke's story occupied the sub-genre known as Space Opera. The events portrayed in "Frontier In Space" may not compare favorably with the interstellar journeys and battles in a novel by Peter F. Hamilton, but the story was pretty fantastic for its time. 

Unsurprisingly, "Frontier In Space" proved one of producer Barry Letts' costliest stories. Over six twenty-five minute episodes, the Doctor and Jo embark on numerous space journeys, get embroiled in several space battles, and encounter an Ogron-eating monster whom the Ogrons worship as a god. There's even a short appearance by the Daleks. Events take our heroes to Earth, the Moon, Draconia, and the Ogron home world. So, even if the Doctor and Jo repeatedly get locked up in cells by Humans, Draconians, Ogrons, and the Master, they also get out of them and have plenty to do to keep us interested and entertained.

The Doctor even stretches his legs in two spacewalks during the course of the story. 

Thousands of people are typically needed to create the special effects for today's blockbuster Sci-Fi movies, many more than would have been involved in the entire production of this 1973 TV serial. Producer Barry Letts had to stretch his budget to the limits to pay for elaborate twenty-sixth century sets, costumes, location filming, and of course, the special effects work. The latter involved an enormous TV wall-screen in the Earth President's office, the Draconians' makeup, battles involving laser pistol and rifle fire, and of course, all the events that take place in space. 

Despite the enormous scope of the story, the Special Effects team only received a fraction of the days they had requested to film the space sequences. Thankfully, the BBC had purchased a lot of spaceship models from Gerry Anderson's Century 21 Productions. While the Special Effects team weren't allowed to film any of the models, as they were too well known from TV shows such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds, they were allowed to cannibalize the models for spare parts. So they built all the spaceships and sets required in the script, and hoped for the best when their short period of filming took place.

On one precious filming day, Mat Irvine realized that the size of the Master's Earth Police ship was too large to work with the set of the lunar penal colony. With only half-an-hour before the scene was due to be filmed, he set to work with a ping pong (table tennis) ball, bits of tubing, balsa wood for the wings, and some of the plastic parts cannibalized from the Century 21 models. He cut, assembled, glued, and painted the required model, and managed to set it down on the lunar set before the camera was ready to roll. It may not be the most impressive model ever built, but it helped draw viewers into the story, and make them believe that the Doctor and Master were really on the Moon.

Hard work, quick-thinking, and ingenuity, such as he demonstrated in "Frontier In Space," is what Special Effects work is about. Isn't it amazing, how an author like Malcolm Hulke can create enormous vistas that Special Effects teams have to spend so much money and time to recreate on the TV or movie screen? It makes me all the more impressed when I read novels such as The Reality Disfunction, and wonder if the aliens, space battles, sentient biospheres, and galaxy-sweeping events Peter F. Hamilton created with a few words could ever be brought to life on movie screens.

But then, we all know that words hold tremendous power, don't we?

Dragon Dave

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Astro Dalek

Rusty: Who are you? And for that matter, where am I?
Astro: I'm Astro Dalek, and I live in your dreams.
Rusty: I was dreaming of the Space Shuttle.
Astro: Yes, and you're disappointed that you'll never get to fly in one.
Rusty: It's not just that. America designed and tested so many different types of space planes. Then we failed to build on the shuttle program's strengths and go on to build more capable models. We'll never know what NASA could have achieved with space planes, had the United States continued to fund that area of research and development.

Astro: Perhaps, but there's still the International Space Station. If you study the right subjects, and get the right training, you might qualify as an astronaut. Then someday you could visit it in an Orion capsule.
RustyThat would be cool, assuming Orion doesn't get cancelled like the Constellation program did.
Astro: If it does, there's always Russia's Soyuz capsules. Or maybe by that time, the American company SpaceX will have developed their Dragon capsule for Dalek use.
Rusty: I suppose it would be cool to travel into space in a spaceship named after Master's favorite mythological creature.

Astro: See, there's so many reasons to be optimistic. A great future of living and working in space awaits us, if we will all work hard to realize it. And who knows? The space shuttle serviced America's needs for more years than anyone would have anticipated. It proved the validity of the space plane concept. In fact, the Sierra Nevada Corporation is currently developing a space plane called the Dream Chaser.
Rusty: An appropriate name, given the realm in which we're having our conversation.
Astro: Indeed. And what better topic to discuss with another person, than that of our fondest dreams?

Rusty: I guess you're right. We may yet see another space plane era, perhaps even one that eclipses the greatest achievements of the shuttle era. Thanks for talking me around, if only in my dreams.
Astro: I'll be with you always, and with every Dalek who aspires to pursue our great destiny in space.

Rusty & Astro Daleks

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Malcolm Hulke on Dragons & Distrust: Part 2

An SM-64 Navajo cruise missile
reminds us of an earlier era in Florida, USA

When Malcolm Hulke wrote "Frontier In Space" for Doctor Who in the early 1970s, war between the world's superpowers, the United States and the USSR, seemed inevitable. Indeed, it was already taking place. As the Cold War progressed, year after year, both sides circled each other like snarling dragons. While they occasionally belched fire on each other, for the most part they "defended" themselves by building huge stockpiles of weapons--including nuclear weapons--for a war they believed was inevitable. A war to end all wars, in which no one on our planet might survive.

As I watched the story last week, "Frontier In Space" reminded me of a more recent war. The United States believed that Iraq had stockpiles of WMDs, or weapons of mass destruction, which they could supply to terrorists. A few officials argued otherwise, but government leaders were swayed by overwhelming "evidence." So in March of 2003, President George W. Bush declared war, and the United States invaded Iraq. Two months later, he declared "Mission Accomplished." The United States had won its war. Unfortunately, it never secured the Peace. After eight years of constant violence, the United States pulled out of Iraq, but the violence and instability in that country continues.

Thankfully, few of us need to decide whether we will declare war on others. Or do we? Life brings conflict, setbacks, and disappointments. Each day we have to assess the statements and actions of others. Can we believe what they say? Can we trust them to act in our best interests? It doesn't help if they've lied to us in the past, or if we gauge their actions as unethical. It's easy to adopt the attitude of the Earth President, or the Draconian Ambassador, and demand proof of what the other person says before we believe them. In other words, judge them guilty until proven innocent. 

Skepticism and cynicism are easy attitudes to adopt, and safe positions to hold. But shutting others out limits our daily actions, and curtails our potential achievements. No "victory" ever comes without cost, and afterward we will face the long term consequences of our actions. The world is still dealing with the aftereffects of the 2003 War in Iraq. Likewise, the world is still affected by the Cold War, as aging weaponry and nuclear material find their way out of Russia. Can we believe that our own little interpersonal wars will not cast similar ripple affects through the ponds of our lives for years to come?

In "Frontier In Space," the Doctor's nemesis, the Master, developed a way of projecting sound that acted on the fear centers of the Human and Draconian brain. This caused crew members of ships on both sides to "see" those they most feared (members of the other superpower) instead of the Ogrons. After the Human and Draconian fleets had pounded each others' planets to rubble, the Master planned to send in the Daleks to conquer the survivors. In his egomaniacal mind, he no doubt believed that, at some point, the Daleks would exhaust their resources, and he would end up ruling the Human, Draconian, and Dalek empires. Until the Doctor and Jo stumbled on his plan, he was succeeding brilliantly. After all, how could any Human ever trust a race of people who looked like Dragons? How could the Draconians ever trust a race of people who looked so different from them? How likely is it to believe that a third party must be initiating or intensifying the conflict between them? 

Thoughts to muse upon, courtesy of the late, great Malcolm Hulke.

Dragon Dave 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Malcolm Hulke on Dragons & Distrust: Part 1

The Draconian Ambassador to Earth

What causes two nations to go to war? Sometimes, the decision may be traced to a clear aggressor, a government that wishes to exploit another country's resources. But often, the reasons are more complicated, and only emerge in the years or decades following the conflict. It is the latter situation that British author Malcolm Hulke explores in his 1970s Doctor Who story "Frontier In Space." 

As the Doctor and his companion Jo travel through the time-space continuum, the TARDIS materializes in the path of a spaceship. By quickly adjusting the controls, the Doctor lands inside the ship's cargo hold instead. He sets about trying to get his bearings: what century they've landed in, and the region of space they are traveling through. He quickly discovers that the freighter belongs to the Earth interstellar empire of the twenty-sixth century. This ship is transporting flour, and other foodstuffs, from colony worlds where it is grown, to feed the hungry population of Earth. 

When Jo hears a strange sound, she looks out a porthole to see another spaceship approaching. She hears clunks against the outer hull as the other ship docks with the Earth vessel. Weapons begin to burn through the door. The Human crew rush into the cargo hold to defend their vessels against the pirates attempting to board their vessel. Then Ogrons, a tall, powerfully-built simian race of mercenaries, burn through the outer door. The Human crew shout "Dragons!" and reach for their guns. Amid the ensuing firefight, the Doctor is shot, and Jo screams as he slumps onto the deck.

When the Doctor recovers, Jo tells him that all the flour and other foodstuffs have been stolen. Oh, and the Ogrons also took the TARDIS. Then the Human crew wake up, and lock the Doctor and Joe in a holding cell.

While the two great empires of Draconia and Earth once fought an interstellar war, they have enjoyed a period of peace. Until recently, that is. This attack on the Earth spaceship is only the latest in a series of raids by "Dragons," an unflattering nickname the Humans apply to Draconians. On Earth, the World President questions the Doctor and Jo, whom she suspects are Draconian agents. The Doctor and Jo claim some third party is trying to set the two empires against each other. Jo describes the hypnotic sound she heard before each attack, which caused the Human crew saw their attackers as Draconians. 

The Earth president has trouble believing their story. She has never heard of the Ogrons, a race whose members hire themselves out as mercenaries. She finds the idea of their tiny spaceship (the TARDIS) materializing inside an Earth vessel preposterous. And then there's the testimony of the Human crew, who saw Dragons invade their ship. She decides that the Doctor and Jo must be Draconian agents, who somehow coordinated the pirate raid on the freighter. She orders for them to be locked up, and wonders what she can do to prevent Earth from entering into another war. Draconian pirate attacks have disrupted the population's food supply. Members of the Senate, responding to worldwide riots and demonstrations, have added their voices to the military. It seems as if every person on Earth, aside from herself, wants her to declare war. She wishes that she could believe the Doctor and Jo's story. 

This growing interstellar conflict is hardly one-sided. Draconian ships have been raided too. When their crews returned to Draconia, they testified that Humans had attacked them and stolen their cargo. The citizens of Draconia also rely on regular grain shipments to supplement their overstretched resources. Given the testimony of those aboard raided Draconian vessels, and lacking any proof of the Doctor's story, the Draconian Ambassador believes that Earth's claims about their own ships being attacked are complete fictions. This places him in a delicate position, as he is not only the Draconian Ambassador to Earth, but also a son of the Draconian Emperor. He knows his citizens back home are demanding his father take action. He fears that if the Draconian Empire doesn't declare war on Earth soon, the nobles of the court and the military may find a way to cast his father off the throne.

It's a situation that neither side can allow to continue. War seems inevitable, unless the Doctor and Jo can find a way to stop it. But how can they? The Doctor and Jo hold no valid credentials, and the President's most trusted advisors point to a mountain of evidence to remind her why she must declare war on the Draconians. The President would like to believe the Doctor and Jo, but how can she? Isn't her desire for Peace merely wishful thinking? 

It's a dilemma no one should have to face. Should she believe her friends and advisors, and declare war on the Draconians? Or should she believe the story of complete strangers, who urge her to believe in Peace a little longer, and investigate their claims? All of us face times when we must decide to believe in friendships or sever them. We must choose between isolating others, or continuing to believe in them, and thus keep them in our lives. What we do in those situations shape our futures. So what do you think the Earth President should do? What would you do in her situation?

Dragon Dave