There’s a lot of babble today in the news about Google’s initiative to create self-driving cars, without even the necessary controls to permit manual override — no steering wheel, no pedals, nothing. Push a button, and the car will do the work.

As a great big nerd with a love of gimmicky gadgets and a love of trains, you might think that I would think self-driving cars would be awesome with awesomesauce. I mean, think about it: all the advantages of a car combined with many of the advantages of a train. and it’s a gimmicky gadget!

But really? Fuck no.

Why not? Because I write software for a living!

I could go on for hours about what writing software is really like, but instead, I’m just going to refer you to this article that was posted last month, which pretty well covers all the bases, and then add my own, slightly less hyperbolic spin.

You see, a lot of people have the idea that software engineering is a precise science. It’s really just math, right?

Wrong. Utterly wrong. Anyone who tells you that software is really just an expression of mathematics is selling you something. Or else has never actually written software beyond the safe confines of a computer science class.

Software is an expression of instructions to a machine to accomplish an action. Instructions written by fallible human beings, with all their foibles, to a machine which can only take things literally and must believe everything you tell it, even when you’re wrong.

The machine can’t guess at what you really meant if you left something out, or used the wrong word. It won’t ask you for clarification. It will do what you told it to do, not what you intended it for it to do.

Despite everything we do to reduce the risk — test driven development, code reviews, clean code initiatives, design meetings, black box testing, prayer, virgin sacrifice — programs have bugs. Simple programs have bugs; complicated programs have bugs. Every software engineer writes code that has bugs in it. Not all code, not every day, but every coder. I have worked with some fairly smart people, and none of them has ever had a perfect track record.

A self-driving car is going to be an incredibly complex piece of machinery, and the software to make it work is going to be complex on a level I don’t really want to think about. Which means that, despite every effort its engineers make, despite every good intention, it’s going to have more bugs on the day of its first sale than there are people living in Minneapolis.

And when it goes wrong — when, not if — people are going to get hurt, and it’s not going to be enough for Google to say, “Oh, yeah, we’ll push out an update tomorrow.”

It’s a mess. A great big Christmas-pudding mess.

For once…I don’t care. Maybe I’ve finally just stopped worrying and learned to love the bom…er…Stephen Moffat’s crazy, timey-wimey convoluted plots. Maybe I just think Matt Smith was bloody brilliant from the beginning of his tenure to the very final moment, and never more brilliant than here. I don’t know.

I loved it. I probably shouldn’t, but I do anyway.

More details after at least one more viewing.

WARNING: Potential Spoilers for this year’s Christmas special, “Time of the Doctor”, if they’re doing what I think they’re about to do…

So, one of the controversies that immediately sprang up when John Hurt was first introduced as “The Doctor” was about numbering. Do we have to renumber Eccleston through Smith now?

Well, no, not really. I mean, yes, strictly speaking, Smith is now the 12th Doctor in sequence, but I think we’ll all just wind up being happy to call Hurt’s Doctor “The War Doctor” and keep the rest of the numbering intact. The War is a special case, after all, in a lot of ways.

However, there’s a more important consideration. Way back in the classic story The Deadly Assassin, writers shortsightedly introduced the idea that a Time Lord can only regenerate 12 times and have 13 “bodies”. It was a plot device to bring back The Master in a way that would allow the actor stepping into the shoes of the late Roger Delgado to not feel pressured to mimic that actor in any way. The Master showed up either superannuated to the point of rotting off his own bones or else horribly injured—we never learn which—and unable to regenerate. It was here that The Master’s obsession with prolonging his life at any cost began.

At that point, there were only four Doctors, and the series was 13 years old. Everyone figured that, at that rate, 13 Doctors would be more than enough, because there was no way the series would actually last that long. Everyone was still continually amazed it had lasted longer than its first year!

But now…we have a problem. Because Matt Smith is not the 10th Regeneration (11th body) of the Doctor…and he’s not even the 11th Regeneration. He’s the 12th. The last. Which means that “Time of the Doctor” will also be “Time we Pull a New Rabbit Out of the Hat!”

“Now…wait a minute, Mikey. How can he be the 12th Regeneration?!”

Because the Tenth Doctor—that is, David Tennant—regenerated twice.

The second time, of course, was in “The End of Time”, and he became the man we’ve been calling The Eleventh Doctor.

But before that…in “The Stolen Earth”, he began to regenerate, and in “Journey’s End”, he aborted that regeneration, by diverting the regenerative energy into his handy-dandy severed hand in a jar. In the context of the story, it seems reasonable to speculate that he intended to reabsorb that energy at some point when he needed it, thus preserving at least part of that regeneration cycle for later healing, if not full regeneration later.

But instead, Donna precipitated the Human-Time Lord Techno-babble Crisis, triggering the generation of a duplicate 10th Doctor and using up that regeneration energy.

Which means that, regeneration-wise, with the War Doctor actually being the result of the 8th Regeneration, when Tennant became Smith, that was actually the end of the road.

So now, we reach a moment the Revived Series was always, eventually, going to have to cope with. Do they acknowledge the limit, and find a way around it? Or do they simply ignore it entirely?

Under Russel Davies, it was always my belief that he would simply have ignored the limit had it come up during his tenure. He was quite sanguine about saying, “Well, Time War. Changed everything, really. The rules are different now.”

But Moffat? He’s already hinted in interviews that this whole numbering thing is going to be an issue, and one he plans to deal with. I’m not sure how.

I just hope it doesn’t suck!

I was not expecting to like “The Day of the Doctor”. Not at all. Nearly everything we knew about the story ahead of time made me cringe a bit: a multi-Doctor story; Billie Piper back; a “new”, stunt-cast Doctor whose place in continuity was uncertain; Zygons; the Time War. Add to all this the fact that Steven Moffat has not been at his best the last season or so, and I was just sort of dreading what would become of the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who.

Thing is, every single thing I was dreading defied my expectations by turning out surprisingly well; which meant that, when the end-credits rolled, I found myself surprisingly in love with the damned thing, and jazzed to see what the next 50 years bring!

Before I continue, there’s one key point I want to call out very early on — I originally had it later in the review, but this has gotten long and I don’t want it to get buried.

Moffat’s gotten a lot of flak in the last two years—most of it earned—for what seems to be rather sexist writing. It was one more reason I wasn’t entirely looking forward to this story. Moffat doesn’t really seem to be treating women very well in these stories, and as a result the Doctor himself seems not to be very good to the women in his life.

But in “The Day of the Doctor”, it’s entirely the women who actually save the day! The Conscience, Clara, Kate, Osgood, Elizabeth…it’s their insights and actions that actually drive the plot and allow the Doctors to function. The Doctor literally could not have done any of what he does in this story without all of them. Both of the “older” Doctors acknowledge this explicitly about Clara, in particular, toward the end. It doesn’t fix or excuse some of Moffat’s past sins, but it does demonstrate that he is capable of doing better!

That done, let’s start with each of my “dread” points and talk about them.

A Multi-Doctor Story

I know lots of people disagree with me on this point, but it’s my firm opinion that all three previous televised multi-Doctor stories kinda sucked, really. Oh, they were all fun in their own ways, but as stories they were all really pretty weak. The Five Doctors, for example, gets mired in setting up the gathering of all the Doctors and Companions, and then tries to track too many people through a plot that’s unoriginal and  paper-thin. So, while I was expecting it to be fun to see David Tennant in the saddle again, I wasn’t expecting having multiple Doctors to do anything really positive for the overall story.

What I didn’t reckon with was the degree to which the modern series has become about the Doctor. The classic series never was. The classic series was about the things that happened when the Doctor showed up places, but it was very, very rarely about the Doctor himself.

By making “The Day of the Doctor” a story actually about the Doctor, in particular about the Doctor’s troubled conscience about the Time War, and making it a story that might finally resolve that, once and for all, they gave us a truly good reason to involve multiple Doctors, each at a different stage in processing those events. We all go through that sort of processing, of course, and you could tell a story that simply showed each one dealing with it in turn.

But Moffat has always exploited the fact that he’s telling a story about time travel, sometimes to the detriment of coherent plots. One great way to exploit that is to set up the Christmas Carol scenario, but actually have the Scrooge-figure—in this case, The Doctor—directly interact with, and react to, himself.

Which leads us to the Ghost of Doctors Future…

Billie Piper Back

I loved Rose. I was sorry to see Rose go. But I really, really hated the way she returned in “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End”, because frankly, she spent most of the story being a whiny, self-centered little snot. Of all the many things about “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End” that made no sense whatsoever, her return was easily the most nonsensical and gratuitous feature. I was expecting this to be more of the same.

Brother, was I ever wrong.

First of all, Billie Piper herself was on the absolute top of her game, here, and clearly having a blast. She delivered a nuanced performance that often said as much with a look or a gesture as with dialogue.

Second of all, it made perfect sense that the Conscience of the Moment would chose the form of the Conscience of the Doctor. That was Rose’s role, after all. It’s arguably been the role of all the Doctor’s new-series companions, but Rose was the first, and set the pattern. Forget about the almost-love-affair between the two; Rose’s value was always that she humanized the Doctor even at his most PTSD-fucked-up.

Stunt-cast Doctor Whose Place in Continuity Was Uncertain

I won’t say that I hated the idea of John Hurt as the mysterious not-Doctor introduced at the end of “The Name of the Doctor”, but I was deeply skeptical of it, for certain. The last real stunt-casting the series did—Timothy Dalton—was largely wasted, I felt, on a one-dimensional scenery-chewing baddie. I simply didn’t trust them make it worthwhile to have attached such a Big Name as John Hurt and, oh by the way, probably mess with continuity in the process.

The short episode, “The Night of the Doctor”, that pushed to YouTube a week before the anniversary, helped a bit, even though John Hurt himself barely appeared, by at least solidifying the continuity question. This would be the War Doctor, coming between McGann and Eccleston. Moffat argued in interviews afterward that he simply could never see McGann’s Doctor actively fighting in a war, and we know Eccleston’s Doctor was newly regenerated at the beginning of “Rose”. That provided a perfect opening to add a Doctor, and the hell with the numbering scheme!

But in the end, of course, it was John Hurt himself that sold it, in the first few minutes of his appearance in “The Day of the Doctor”.

Whenever a new actor to play the Doctor is announced, people flail about whether he’s really the right man for the job. I always take the same attitude: as long as his first full story convinces me he’s really the Doctor, that’s all I really care about. Up until this point, they were 11 for 11, so, for example, I had no qualms about Peter Capaldi. Because while there are Doctors I like better than others, they’ve never actually gotten it wrong.

This is no exception. John Hurt convinced me, not so much with carving “NO MORE” into the wall with a blaster as by his interactions early on with The Conscience of the Moment, and then his first interactions with his other selves. The former was all gravitas, as we might expect from the Warrior-Doctor; but the latter showed signs of the mischief and humour that all other incarnations of the character have shown as well. There wasn’t much Troughton to be found in the War Doctor, but quite a lot of Hartnell and Pertwee, and of course, that additional touch that every new actor to the role brings himself.

Now, I’m only sad that we probably won’t see any more of Hurt in his days as the War Doctor.


Maybe I’m in the minority, but I never much cared for the Zygons or for the one story they featured in classically, so I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to seeing them return.

Their shape-shifting capabilities, however, provide an interesting counterpoint to the multiple Doctors. While a Zygon retains its own personality and memories, it also absorbs the memories and some of the personalities of the person it’s duplicating, which is what allows for the near-perfect mimicry. When used maliciously, this allows the Zygon to exploit both physical and emotional weaknesses of their victim—for example, taunting Osgood about her “pretty” sister[*]. However, the Doctor is able to turn that around when he makes the Zygons and UNIT personnel forget which one’s which. Now, they’re just different aspects of the same people, working together…

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

[*] This is clearly the character’s own insecurity talking, since I found Osgood to be a perfectly attractive Geek Girl type!

The Time War

When the Time War was first introduced, I thought it was bloody brilliant. It was a perfect way to put both Old School Fans and new viewers on an even footing, with neither side having a real advantage. Yes, Old School viewers knew the character’s convoluted history, but the Time War sort of invalidated a lot of it, leaving everyone learning about who the Doctor was now at the same time.

Once you’ve decided that your hero is also a double-genocide, you can’t just drop that on the floor or sweep it under the rug. No matter how triumphantly the Doctor saves the day going forward, no matter how justified it seems in the face of things like Rassilon’s clear psychosis in “The End of Time”, it’s almost impossible to completely redeem such an act. And so, it’s never really stopped haunting the Doctor, and really shouldn’t.

The trouble is…it’s all gotten sort of boring. It’s not that we really expect the Doctor to just get over it and get on with life (at least, I didn’t). It’s just that the actually having to deal with it periodically in stories was getting dull. The Lonely God thing got old around Series 3. In short: while a brilliant idea at the outset, the Time War has now become the corner that Doctor Who is painted into.

I was honestly not expecting that this would be the story that would find a way to get out of that corner! Going into it, I assumed that this was simply going to be the story where we saw what actually happened, and got to witness the flaming wreckage first hand.

One aspect that I hadn’t really thought about before, though, was the distinction between “The Time Lords”, who are glossed to have become as bad as the Daleks in the end, and “the people of Gallifrey”. There’s always been strong hints that not every Gallifreyan is a Time Lord, but all previous talk of the Time War justifies the Doctor’s actions by implying that there were no innocents. This story started out by shifting that ground, and from that moment forward made it almost imperative that a better answer be found before the end of the story!

Then, about two-thirds of the way through my first viewing, I actually entertained a notion that was even more audacious than the one they actually pulled off, but probably not as good for the series long-term. For one brief moment, I was convinced that the War Doctor was not going to press the Big Red Button, but that he was going to be alone when he changed his mind. Under those circumstances, the entire continuity from “Rose” forward would have been erased! The War Doctor would have regenerated into someone other than Christopher Eccleston and the Regeneration Limit would have been circumvented by rewinding three incarnations!

The end-game they did come up with does almost as much to change the game as that would have, but without as much damage to existing continuity. The War Doctor becomes Eccleston (you can see Eccleston’s brow and eyes in the last seconds of the regeneration), and between anomalously synchronized time streams and regenerative amnesia (which we’ve seen before), he comes to believe that he pressed the button and Gallifrey burned.

What’s interesting, though, is that, intentional or not, there’s been one hint of the actual outcome for years, now. In “The Sound of Drums”, The Master does not ask The Doctor what happened to Gallifrey. He asks him where Gallifrey is! If Gallfrey really had burnt, then its crispy remains should be orbiting its sun, but apparently it wasn’t!

Now, at last, we can move on past the Time War in good conscience, with hope that some day, somewhere, the Doctor will rediscover Gallifrey. They may not be very happy with him, but they’ll still be alive!

And Now, On to Other Fun Stuff

Involving UNIT, with which the Doctor has long been associated, was a smart move, especially having introduced the character of Kate Stewart last season. I really hope we get to see more of this character in the future, because I really enjoy her — she was easily the highlight of the otherwise questionable “Power of 3″, and here she shows that she may be a scientist, but she lacks none of her father’s resolve in the face of danger.

Osgood (named, presumably, for Sergeant Osgood from The Dæmons) is another character I’d like to see again. When I first saw the press photos of her in the Tom Baker scarf, I assumed she was more or less just a “gimmick” character. Instead, she’s a Real Geek Girl, a fangirl of the Doctor, clearly, but also a scientist in her own right, and quite a clever one, too. The capper, for me, was her last scene, in which she and her Zygon duplicate figure out which one’s which (because the real Osgood had retrieved the inhaler before escaping), and both choose to keep quiet and continue the charade, recognizing that it’s really the best for everyone concerned.

I haven’t mentioned Clara, yet, and that seems like an odd omission now that I’m this far along in the review, because she’s the current companion, and it seems like I ought to have more to say about her. But really, the main thing I have to say about her is that she is finally fulfilling the promise the character showed from the beginning. Having her be a person and not a mystery is a huge win, because Jenna-Louise Coleman really is very good at her job and deserves a character that’s more than just a cypher. If this trend continues, we’ll all be much, much happier.

I’m somewhat more mixed on the role of Elizabeth I, and the performance by Joanna Page, which was a little over the top. I did like the fact that Elizabeth proves clever enough to be a foil for the Zygons, herself, though. I’m less sanguine about the fact that this sub-plot is more typical of Moffat’s treatment of the women in the Doctor’s life, but on the other hand, it was already established as far back as “The Shakespeare Code” that the Doctor and Elizabeth I had history and it wasn’t all good

And, oh, yeah…the Doctors

As I said earlier, this story is in many ways a play on the Christmas Carol scenario: a man who has become somewhat lost to his own conscience being forced to face the consequences of who he’s been. The fun part, though, is the way the scenario plays out when “Scrooge” is actually three different aspects of the same man. The Conscience fulfills the role of the ghosts in Dickens’ story really only in as much as she facilitates the meeting. Once together, the three Doctors are each the ghosts to one another! Given that the non-Time War plot with the Zygons begins in 1562 with Tennant’s Doctor’s efforts to foil the scheme, Ten is really the Present Doctor; Eleven the Future Doctor; and the War Doctor is the Past.

This is actually a bit of a risky structure—after all, Eleven is our “current” Doctor and we don’t want him upstaged. Fortunately, he really isn’t. The script manages somehow to keep all three aspects in balance, giving them each just enough screen time to be meaningful without overshadowing or overpowering the others. Together, the three of them really have two problems to solve, but for the most part, the War Doctor hangs back from the Zygon problem, letting Ten and Eleven be fabulous together and ultimately concluding that both are at least still trying to be The Good Man.

And this is, in my opinion, one of the more brilliant parts of the story. The Conscience has set out to convince the War Doctor not to press the Big Red Button. Her plan comes within millimeters of backfiring, and that’s fantastic. No, not because I think the Doctor should have pressed the button, but because the series all too often does not give us a realistic possibility that things will go wrong! But here, the danger is real, and what’s more, since we’ve already been convinced for the last eight years that the Doctor did the only thing he could do to end the madness, we’re not even sure we want him to change his mind!

And then the other two show up, with Clara in tow. And Clara does what New Series companions do best: reminds the Doctor to be who he wants to be: the man who makes things better.

And here, once again, Moffat shows that he does occasionally, really understand the implications of the way the Doctor lives. We all have regrets. We all have things where we think later on, “If only I’d done THIS instead of THAT, it all would have gone much better!”. Only here, with time travel and a willingness to violate causality a bit, that’s actually possible! Something different can be done, and a new future be made!

In the end, of course, continuity is preserved by a somewhat flimsy, timey-wimey premise that their unsynchronized timelines will cause them to forget. But going forward, now, we can do something different, and something much more hopeful and positive.

And I honestly can’t wait to find out how it turns out! I’m excited about Doctor Who again. If that’s not reason enough to have fallen in love with “The Day of the Doctor”, I don’t know what is!

(A version of this post originally appeared in my LiveJournal on 6 November 2007)

Today is 5 November 2013. On this day in 1605, an English Catholic veteran and explosives expert named Guy Fawkes was caught in a cellar underneath the House of Lords at the Palace at Westminster. The chamber was filled with approximately 1,800 pounds of gunpowder—enough, even in terms of the relatively crude chemistry of the time, to render most of the Westminster complex a ruin.

If all you know about the Gunpowder Plot is what you learned from reading or watching V for Vendetta, then three things must be understood at the outset.

  1. The plot would not merely have blown up the Palace as some kind of symbolic act. It would have been an act of mass murder that would have left England without crown, parliament, or judiciary
  2. The plot was not the act of a single man wishing to strike a blow for freedom, but a piece of a conspiracy that would have replaced Anglican religious tyranny with Catholic religious tyranny
  3. The poem, “Remember, remember the Fifth of November…” is not a reminder to lovers of freedom to fight for their liberties, but a reminder to patriots to guard against treason and show no mercy to traitors.

When James inherited Elizabeth’s throne in 1603, there had been hopes that a new king and a new parliament might lead to a new era of toleration for Catholics and other dissenters from the Church of England. A full restoration of Catholicism, as had happened under Mary I, was more than anyone hoped for. But toleration for Catholics seemed a reasonable thing to expect, since James’ own mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been staunchly Catholic.

Catholics and Puritans alike found their hopes dashed by 1604. Really, they’d never had any hope. Aside from Parliament’s lack of interest at the time in upsetting the status quo, there was never any chance that James would significantly alter a religious settlement that so empowered the Crown.

James was a firm believer in the divine right of kings and that all authority in a state emanated from the person of the monarch. Catholicism, which included the notion that the Pope was the supreme temporal authority on Earth, was distasteful to him because it meant someone in the world held greater authority over his lands than he did. On the flip-side, less “high-church” Protestant ideas, including the Presbyterianism he’d grown up with in Scotland, were anathema to him because they eliminated the hierarchy of archbishops, bishops, and priests that were ultimately responsible to a single supreme head–in England’s case, the monarch! If anything, he would have liked to have imposed a settlement upon Scotland with himself as the Supreme Head of an episcopal hierarchy, just as he’d inherited from Elizabeth in England.

With domestic hopes dashed and no apparent help in the offing from foreign powers, Robert Catesby drew together a band of conspirators to take matters into their own hands. The hope was to abduct the royal children (who would not be present at the State Opening), destroy the Crown in Parliament during the State Opening, create an uprising in the Midlands, set the Princess Elizabeth on the throne, and restore Catholicism as the primary faith of England. The settlement they had in mind, had they succeeded, would have been no more tolerant than the one they were supplanting. The only difference would have been the return of allegiance to the Pope.

The original plan for the destruction of the English government called for tunneling through under the palace from nearby lodgings. The work went far more slowly than expected, so the plotters considered it a stroke of good luck when the State Opening had to be delayed from summer 1604 to sometime in 1605 due to plague in London, and then again to autumn 1605. By the time the Opening was actually looking like it might happen soon, the plotters found their tunnel was still well short of its goal.

The plotters had another stroke of luck shortly thereafter, however. There were spaces in the undercroft of the palace that were leased out regularly, and the lease came up on one right under Lords. The conspiracy successfully secured the lease, and began moving their store of powder into the cellar.

It was the last stroke of luck the conspiracy was due to have.

As the plot moved toward its culmination, someone sent a letter to a prominent Catholic baron, William Parker, Baron Monteagle. The letter was fairly vague, but warned him to avoid the State Opening to which he had been summoned. Monteagle had been a conspirator against the Crown in the past, having encouraged Phillip III of Spain to invade on behalf of the Catholic faith as recently as 1602. Despite this, he had been at some pains to reconcile with the new king, and thus had received a summons to Parliament as Lord Monteagle.

Indeed, since Monteagle was already acquainted with many of the conspirators, it’s not out of the question that he was already acquainted with the conspiracy. Some say that Monteagle concocted the letter himself as a way to notify the government and curry favour without implicating himself. Others say that one of the conspirators, likely Francis Tresham, who was related to Monteagle by marriage, and had been vocally opposed to the Gunpowder Plot, wrote the letter in hopes of saving Monteagle’s life. Still others suggest that Tresham may have been an agent for Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, and the letter was his way of bringing the plot out into the open. If so, he was poorly rewarded, since he died in prison.

At any rate, Monteagle apparently wanted nothing to do with the plot. He first made a point of sharing the letter with a gentleman named Ward, who was an intimate of one of the conspirators. He then proceeded to London, where he shared the letter with Cecil, who was James’ chief minister in much the same way his father had been Elizabeth’s. Through Ward and his friend Winter, the conspirators knew the beans had been spilt, but chose to continue the plot when Guy Fawkes inspected the cellar and found that nothing had been touched.

5 November 1605 finally marked the State Opening of Parliament, commencing the second session of the first parliament elected under James I. In attendance in the chamber of the House of Lords were King James, much of the royal family, all the officers of state, most of the English nobility (tho’ not the Scots nobles, since they still had a separate parliament), and the elected knights of the shires and boroughs.

Had the plot succeeded, in one swift stroke, England’s government would have been entirely decapitated.

Cecil and his men, however, apparently had more detailed information about the plot than just the veiled letter Monteagle shared with them, and had left the cellar untouched in hopes of snaring a conspirator and not merely preventing the plot’s success. Guy Fawkes was apprehended in the cellar, torch in hand, just before he could set off the pile. He was arrested and put to the torment. His confessions yielded little the government had not discovered by other means.

Meanwhile, the rest of the conspirators fled London. Those that escaped arrest actually attempted the second phase of the plot, an uprising in the Midlands. It failed utterly, and Catesby was killed in the shoot-out.

In the end, Fawkes and several others who had been captured were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Guy Fawkes managed to jump off the platform, breaking his neck, and thus was not forced to endure the full procedure. By contrast, Robert Keyes tried the same trick only to have the rope break, and thus had the dubious joy of being drawn and quartered fully conscious.

In the end, the plot was entirely counterproductive. Anti-Catholic sentiment hardened and increased, putting off any chance of Catholic emancipation for 200 years. Even had it succeeded, English Catholic rebels consistently overestimated the number of English Catholics, and more importantly, the number of them that would join a rebellion. Chances are fairly strong that, even had Gunpowder Plot succeeded in the destruction of the government, England would have become more violently anti-Catholic, rather than becoming reconciled to Rome.

There can be no question but that the government of James and his parliament was, by modern standards oppressive, particularly on the question of religion. There can also be little question that James aspired to a kind of benign tyranny, believing in divine right and absolute monarchy, and resenting the deep-seated traditions in England that made it impossible for him to govern effectively without Parliament. From that standpoint, the success of the Plot would have meant the destruction of a tyrant and his works.

However, there can also be no question that Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby, and their fellows were in no way sons of liberty. The government they would have established in place of James and Cecil would have been just as tyrannical against Protestants and Puritans as James and Cecil were against Catholics and Puritans. Having murdered the King, Queen, the Lords and Commons, they would have set the abducted, nine-year-old daughter of the King up as a puppet in her father’s place, and invited in agents of Rome and the Inquisition. The destruction of everyone who actually knew how to govern would have left England wide open for civil unrest within and invasion from without.

Later writers, frustrated with the weaknesses of parliamentary government, looked wistfully upon Fawkes and his ilk’s failure, thinking that if only he had succeeded, perhaps something better would have arisen in its stead. But these writers, who include some fairly intelligent people appear to have ignored both Fawkes intent, and the most likely outcomes of success. Success in full would have simply been the substitution of one tyranny for another; and any partial success would have yielded an era of chaos as factions contended for the explosively vacated throne, unlikely to end in a regime any of us would consider an improvement.

This is not really an in-depth review of the Nexus 7; more my impressions of both the 2012 and 2013 editions of this particular piece of technology. I always meant to write one for the original Nexus 7 and never quite got around to it.

Why a 7-inch Tablet is Cool

I’ll admit that I was originally skeptical of the “mini” tablet format, and more to the point whether I personally needed one. I love my full-size iPad, and since the original iPad arrived on the scene it’s replaced a lot of what I used to carry a laptop around for, and also, for a time, replaced my dedicated e-reader.

Most of my skepticism has revolved around the fact that I am somewhat obsessed with screen real-estate. Despite finding the Macbook Airs sexy, for example, the idea of a laptop with less than a 15″ screen and a 1680×1050 resolution leaves me thinking it won’t be very useful. The original Nexus 7 didn’t just have a small screen compared to an iPad, but a significantly lower resolution screen than the iPad 3. At first blush, therefore, it just didn’t seem like it could be nearly as useful!

So I bought the Nexus 7 (2012) a few months ago entirely as an impulse purchase. I reasoned that it would either prove truly useful, or if it didn’t it would provide me a platform on which to experiment a bit more with Android or maybe even Ubuntu’s fledgling tablet OS, which is currently targeting the Nexus devices.

To my surprise, however, the Nexus 7 almost immediately became my “go-to” device for about 70% of the things I use a tablet for!

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No real spoilers here. I don’t really have to talk about the plot to talk about my thoughts about this one.

In terms of Franchise Films this summer, we’ve had three major franchises represented: the Avengersverse in the form of Iron Man 3, JJTrek in the form of Star Trek Into Darkness, and DC’s Superman in the form of Zack Snyder’s franchise-rebooting Man of Steel.

Iron Man 3 was bloody brilliant. I really ought to be reviewing that first, both because it was released earlier and because some of what I have to say about Man of Steel is a comparison. But that’s not what’s happening just now.

Star Trek Into Darkness was…well, you’ve already heard me tell you what I thought it was. My initial review gave it 7 of 10. It got worse on a second viewing and reviewing, going down to 6 of 10, and frankly, the more I think about it, the madder I get, so expect it to get very little mercy in the future.

Man of Steel was…better than that. It wasn’t fantastic. It wasn’t bad. But most crucially…it wasn’t magic. Despite solid performances, beautiful effects, and a script that had no more plot holes than the average comic book film, it just lacked something.

While it’s probably an oversimplification, I think the main thing it was missing was humor!

So, Here’s the Thing: I know that audiences want a certain amount of realism in their Big Explosive Action Films these days. Grittiness is still the going fashion, and nobody’s really happy with easy answers and easy victories. It has to be difficult, there have to be consequences, even if the Good Guys Win Big.

However… Iron Man 3 managed to hit those marks and still be funny. In fact, one friend described Iron Man 3 as something like “a domestic comedy with superheroes” and that’s not really wrong. Iron Man 3 is a hilarious film that also manages to be as realistic film as you can manage when your protagonist is a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist with 42 different suits of semi-autonomous flying armor and the antagonist is pumped full of nanotech. It’s realistic in how events affect the protagonist and the people around him and in the consequences he’s still processing since Avengers. In fact, the theme of the entire piece can be summarized as, “Actions have consequences, dummy!”

Man of Steel…has none of those qualities. There’s very little humor in it, in keeping with Christopher Nolan’s apparently very grim outlook in the universe. There’s very little warmth to it, as if somehow the production never quite left the North Pole even when it’s summertime in Kansas. It’s a film that’s trying so very hard to take Superman as a concept seriously that it forgets almost entirely to have fun!

Now, that said, Man of Steel gets some things right. Thanks to modern special effects, the battle sequences between Kryptonian characters on Earth finally give us a sense of the destructive scope of multiple demigods pounding on each other. The backstory for Krypton’s history and ultimate destruction is more fleshed out than in the Richard Donner Superman and Superman II from the 1970s, and Jor-El is much more than a cypher (although Lara, sadly, fares no better). The crises of young Clark’s childhood are more fully fleshed out and realistically portrayed than the Donner films, as well, I think, and of course, brought into a more modern time, since the adult Kal-El is meant to be our contemporary.

Kal-El’s other father, Jonathan Kent, played by Kevin Costner, is also surprisingly well portrayed. Which is not to say that the viewer is likely to agree with a lot of what he has to say, necessarily — a lot of the criticism the film has received so far revolves around Jonathan Kent’s willingness to let people die — and ultimately to die himself — to keep Clark’s secret safe. But Costner, for once, is actually acting!

The main reason I even went to see this movie — I didn’t really feel we needed another Superman film just now — was the starring role of Henry Cavill as Kal-El/Clark Kent. I had seen a lot of Mr Cavill in The Tudors, where he portrayed Henry VIII’s best friend and only real confidant, Charles Brandon, eventual Duke of Suffolk, and played him note perfect. I found him an odd choice for the role of Kal-El and wanted to see how he would do.

The answer is…pretty well, if you’re OK with the subdued, introspective personality the script bestows upon its titular character. This Clark Kent is not a bumbling fool, thank heaven, but even when he’s in Hero Mode, he’s a very troubled man with a lot to think about and not a lot of reason to be outgoing. Cavill plays the character, as written, spot on…but that’s almost the problem. This Clark Kent is a little bit cold, a little aloof. Only Diane Lane’s Martha Kent and Amy Adams’ Lois Lane really crack his shell at all, leaving it somewhat ambiguous just what sort of hero he will ultimately be.

I wish I had more to say about Ms Adams’ turn as Lois, but…i find I don’t. In fact, I think she, more than any other single character, exemplifies my issue with this movie. There’s nothing really wrong with how she plays the character, but there’s just no real magic, no spark to it, either. There are one or two moments where you can see a hint of magic, but it never actually takes root in the story.

And lastly, we come to Michael Shannon’s turn as General Zod. Here, in my opinion, the script actually does some real justice to a character, although others might disagree. The Richard Donner era Zod was simply an egomaniac, as nearly as we could ever tell, whose sole motivation was power. The Zod we see here is a much more interesting character who honestly believes that he is the hero of the piece! He is the one who will save Krypton, one way or the other, or die trying. Other than Jor-El, he is the only character in the entire film whose motivation is clear both to himself and to the audience from the very beginning.

In fact…maybe that’s part of this film’s problem. To some degree, the battle throughout the film is not really between Zod and Kal-El, but between Zod and Jor-El, with Kal-El as something of a proxy and even pawn of plans laid by the holographic ghost of his father. Kal-El doesn’t even fully appreciate what the fight is about a good chunk of the way through the film.

Still, for all its flaws, this film is a visual treat. I am deeply enamored of the unique visualization technology the special effects people came up with for Kryptonian technology, and how consistently it’s used throughout. Of particular note is the nearly art-deco sequence in which Jor-El’s hologram quickly sketches in for his son the history of their doomed world. These visuals are simultaneously alien and yet a beautiful homage to the artistic styles of 30s, when Superman first appeared.

The good news is that Man of Steel held up reasonably well to a second viewing. The bad news is that it still only gets a 7/10.

So, I’ve been a little remiss in getting this review put together, mainly because I really had to think about how I felt about this film, and its implications for the future of the franchise. Also, I guess, I wanted to wait until I could feel 100% safe discussing spoilers, and really, when a movie’s been out for a month, if you really wanted to see it and haven’t yet, I can’t help you.

Let’s start with this: I saw Star Trek (2009) 13 times in the theaters, including at least two IMAX viewings (at a time when those were less common). I have never regretted the repeated expenditure (which included a second ticket every single time, since I always saw it with someone) or the degree to which it branded me a monumental nerd, because I liked the movie a great deal as well as enjoying it. Yes, it had its problems, which repeated viewing of course only highlight, but by and large I was happy with the result.

I have seen Star Trek Into Darkness twice. At this time, I expect I may see it in the theater once more, possibly when it starts to hit the cheap seats, but beyond that, I intend to wait for the iTunes release for re-watches, and I doubt it will ever go into the kind of heavy rotation in my play list its predecessor has. In the end, I did enjoy the movie, but I didn’t ultimately like it, nor was I happy with it.

No, that’s not entirely accurate. I like, and am happy, with about 90% of the movie. But the 10% I don’t like comes very close to ruining the whole thing.

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I will likely have a more spoiler-filled discussion of my thoughts about this movie after the weekend, when everyone has had a chance to see it (and I’ve probably seen it at least one more time). But for now, here are my initial thoughts.

First thing to know is, I enjoyed it immensely. I will be seeing it again, probably many times. There is a lot to like in this movie, and most of it comes down to character. For good or ill, we’re in an era where bringing strong characters to life is overriding crafting strong plots (Doctor Who is suffering from this as well), and this movie shines at bringing its characters to life. Even Sulu and Chekov, who, as always, are not given as much screen time as we might like, get some excellent moments, and the actors make the most of them. Uhura shines in a way that might actually make Nichelle Nichols a little envious, and Simon Pegg’s Scotty goes well beyond the comic relief character he was in most of Star Trek (2009). He’s still funny; it’s just that now, there’s more to him than that.

Kirk and Spock? To say too much about them would delve into spoilerville. Suffice it to say for now that Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto thoroughly own their parts.

I have one character complaint, but it’s the Big Spoiler, so I won’t delve too deeply. Suffice it to say that my complaint is with whom the character turns out to be, not how he’s portrayed. The actor does an amazing job with the material. It’s just the exact direction I did not want this character to go, and I’m still processing my disappointment that they went there anyway. However, I will say that, in the end, they contrived a way for it to make sense.

The plot, as I say, suffers. It’s not terrible, and some of its holes can be be explained by saying, “Yes, the writers probably know this; the actor probably knows this; we know it; that doesn’t mean the characters know this or are thinking about it right now, and hence, they just did something really ill advised.” And some — like the rapid travel time between two very distant star systems — can be excused, as travel time in Star Trek is always excused — by dramatic necessity.

As with the best Star Trek, the themes are actually contemporary rather than futuristic. I’ll admit I might be starting to get tired, or at least jaded, of 9/11 / terrorism related themes, but it’s certainly going to play in Peoria.

The film is peppered — almost overly so — with references that long time fans of not just Classic Trek but the entire Trek sub-genre will catch. Surprisingly, almost all of these actually make sense in context, although some of them require you to remember (and may well be there to specifically remind us) that this is a different timeline, that the arrival of Narada in the 2009 film was a butterfly’s jet engine, and a lot of things will not happen the way we expect. There’s a Gorn reference, for example, that would be impossible for the same year in the Original time line…

There are lots of implications in this story for the future of the franchise; lots of hooks on which one could hang the next movie. There are situations brewing, and technology that’s been unleashed, that are completely different from the same period of time in the original timeline, now, and there’s a lot of story that could be mined from that. I just hope that they pick up the pace of how often they make these films…or else, find some way to make a new television series with this cast. It will be frustrating to have so much potential wasted by too slow a movie-making cycle!

All in all, 7 out of 10.



I’m reviving an attempt at a semi-regular feature I did last year. Mainly because this week is an extraordinarily good week to be a geek.

Let’s review…

Last Saturday/Sunday: Doctor Who: “Nightmare in Silver” by Neil Gaiman

Bringing the Cybermen back in an anniversary year doesn’t always work out so well. The classic story Silver Nemesis, for example, was a jumbled mess of a story. Worse, it’s basic beats and themes were almost identical to the same season’s much better Remembrance of the Daleks.

“Nightmare in Silver” isn’t quite the piece of brilliance it could have been, but it’s a much better return to the Cyber-mythos than almost anything the New Series has produced since the “Age of Steel”. I find myself wishing for a copy of Mr Gaiman’s actual, submitted script. I have a great deal of respect for his writing, so I find myself wondering how many of the things that marred “Nightmare in Silver” were insertions or deletions at production time…

But frankly, I want to talk about what worked more than what didn’t. Once again, Doctor Who proves it’s general ability to world-build in a matter of seconds. We know almost nothing about this particular iteration of the Earth Empire (although diehard fans know there have been several), for example, but in a very short time we learn enough. One gets the impression that this Empire is almost-but-not-quite entirely a defense agreement against threats like the Cybermen, for example, in very short order.

The series also proves its ability to reinvent its villains as easily, and as successfully, as it reinvents its main character.  Gaiman manages to capture the two essential elements of the Cybermen: patience and opportunism. Their way is to wait for the right moment — for centuries if necessary — and then pounce. It doesn’t always work out for them, but only because the Doctor so often turns up at the moment they pounce!

From there, however, he spins an entirely new, deadlier iteration of the race. One that can move like lightning when it needs to, and that adapts continually. One might complain about the similarity to the Borg, but of course, the Cybermen originally predate the Borg, and this development is only natural in a cybernetic organism. When the Cybermen were invented in 1966, nobody really knew anything about computer networking or the mania for upgrading that the modern electronic age would create. Now that we know, it’s foolish to expect a truly modern iteration of the Cybermen not to include those features, no matter who else it makes them similar to.

So, yeah, that was a good place to start.

Last Sunday: Commander Hadfield’s Serenade

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has become an Internet Celebrity by staying in touch with Earth via social media. Sunday, as he prepared to leave the International Space Station, he regaled us with a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (actually…more filk than cover, to be honest). He’s pretty good, too!

Tuesday: Agents of SHIELD trailers pop up

I feel a little bit dirty admitting this, but I think I’m going to have to watch a network television show this fall. Because from both the 30-second and 3-minute trailers that are now circulating, I would say that this series has at least some potential to Not Suck.

Of course, there’s more than a little pressure on this project to Not Suck.

First of all, show-runner Joss Whedon is not exactly Midas, but he does seem to have some idea how to tell a story, most of the time. People expect a lot from him, and now he has to deliver.

Second of all, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in general, has raised the bar for telling interesting stories about comic book characters on screen. Until now, they only had to deliver once a year, or so, and they had lots of time and money to spend on making it all look spiffy and exciting. Now, they’ll be subject to the exigencies of weekly television. People will be expecting a certain level of “blockbuster” awesomeness that may be very hard to deliver.

And lastly…Coulson Lives. OK, that’s great. I really have no issue with it whatsoever, for the same reason most people don’t: Clark Gregg is a solid actor, Agent Coulson is a great character, and except for the fact that he looked pretty dead in Avengers, he’s the perfect character to lead a team of agents at this point. I don’t really even care how he’s still alive. I don’t care if he’s a robot, a clone, or just secretly has Wolverine’s healing factor.

All I care about is that they don’t waste him with crap scripts. They’ve gone out on this limb, and now it needs to pay off!

Tuesday: Confirmation of Doctor Who Season 8

At the BAFTA awards, Stephen Moffat confirmed there will be an eighth season of the revived series. Internet speculation is rampant about how long he, Matt Smith, or Jenna-Louise Coleman will continue to be involved, but regardless of who’s writing it or who’s starring in it, the series will be back in 2014.

Thursday: Star Trek Into Darkness

I was deeply skeptical of Star Trek (2009) when it was released.

I wound up seeing it no fewer than 13 times in the theaters. So obviously, I’m mostly OK with JJ-Trek, so far.

But the skepticism is still there, honestly. I don’t really like the main rumor of who Benedict Cumberbatch’s character really is (no, no spoiler — you can Google for it yourself if you really want the spoiler). I think it represents a failure of imagination, a missed opportunity, and something of an attempt to one-up the Original Series and OS films by creating a direct point of comparison. I think that’s a huge mistake, and no matter how much I like the film itself once I see it, that disappointment won’t change if the bad guy is who I now think it is.

That said, I am past the point I was at when the rumor first started flying, when I declared that I wouldn’t even see the film once if it turned out to be true. I will see the film. I am prepared to enjoy the film for what it is, even if I wind up criticizing it for what it could have been. I will do everything I can to leave the chip on my shoulder at home, because honestly, in the end, I want to like this movie, and I want them to keep making them — ideally more often than once every four years!

Saturday/Sunday: Doctor Who: “The Name of the Doctor”

Speaking of skepticism…this week’s Season 7 Finale is itching me a bit. No, I haven’t seen it yet. No, I don’t have any problem with its stated premise, nor even if they actually pay it off and tell us some of his Deep Dark Secrets. It’s just that I don’t trust Doctor Who finales to not suck any more!

First of all, I think the New Series has at best a mixed track record with its finales. All too often, the impulse to be “bigger and bolder and better” than the year before results in something that’s just absurdly broken. For example, “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End” comes across like questionable fan-fiction — the sort where you find excuses to mash all your favorite characters together even if they have no reason to even know about each other. The difference, of course, is that the fan writing this fiction was also the show-runner, Russell T. Davies, and he could get away with it.

And then, there’s Stephen Moffat. When he first took over, I was truly looking forward to his tenure, because other things I’d seen him write, I’d enjoyed.

But Mr. Moffat has come to rely entirely too much on the fairy-tale/fantasy aspects of Doctor Who. “Timey Wimey” has become code for “Inexplicable Magic with no rhyme or reason to it.”

Combine these two trends together, and I’m left with some severe trepidation about this Moffat-penned finale, in an anniversary year when he knows he needs to deliver something more than average.

This entire season has marked a second serious attempt to explore the mystery of the Doctor — his past, his name, what makes him who he is. The last time they did it, the series was cancelled before they could pay it off! At the very least, at least this time, we know the series will get to pay it off, and will continue on afterward and have to actually live with the consequences of what it reveals!

And that, even in Moffat’s hands, could be exciting. If they don’t pull back from the brink, if they actually reveal Important Things, then it could mark the same sort of “reinvention” moment that the Time War did for the Revived Series in the first place, a chance to shift the game in such a way that new viewers can come on board at the beginning of Series 8 and have almost a level playing field with old hands. That, in turn, could maybe shake it loose from some of the ruts it’s fallen into!

So I guess, in the end, I’m willing to put up with even a bit of Moffaty incoherence and series-finale bombast if the result is something new and interesting!