Category Archives: Television

Hooked on Science

Even if what you believe in is a cranky dead white guy.
Sometimes you just gotta stand up for what you believe in.

I’m an inveterate fan of the underdog, but sometimes the underdog gets squished. As an example, take Robert Hooke—something of a scientific underdog, despite being an inventor and polymath described as “England’s Leonardo”. It was Hooke’s misfortune that he picked a fight with one of the smartest men in history: master mathematician Isaac Newton, Mister Gravity himself.

Not that picking a fight was something that Hooke was shy about in his later years. In addition to his multifarious talents, he gained a reputation for being cantankerous, vindictive and petty. Once again, Hooke’s problem was that the man he picked a fight with was a spectacular example of cantankerousness, vindictiveness and pettiness.

The third episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spactime Odyssey retells the story of Hooke and Newton as part of Tyson’s celebration of Edmond Halley of Halley’s Comet fame, a contemporary of both men and a notable polymath in his own right. However, as the story is told from Halley and Newton’s point of view, Hooke is shown as Newton saw him: a hunchbacked, dwarfish figure, with lank, greasy hair and a face always in shadow (the lack of a contemporary portrait of Hooke is often blamed on either neglect or deliberate destruction on Newton’s part).

It’s a fascinating story*, to be sure, replete with accusations of plagiarism, a vendetta lasting beyond the grave and some of the most important scientific discoveries of this or any era. Nor does Tyson shy away from Newton’s own strangeness: not only was he far more of a recluse than Hooke, but he also focused much of his time and intellectual energy on alchemy and the search for hidden messages from God in the bible. It’s hard not to feel that Hooke is a bit hard done by in Tyson’s portrayal—his many achievements are mentioned, albeit more briefly than accusations of plagiarism and credit claimed for other scientists’ work that could just as easily be levelled at Newton.

The feud with Newton was to sink Hooke’s place in scientific history for centuries. Although the two men had very different areas of expertise—Newton was the master mathematician and theoretician, whereas Hooke was an experimenter and thinker in almost every field available—they ended up quarrelling wherever their interests intersected. Famously, his “standing on the shoulders of giants” comments is often thought not to refer to his illustrious predecessor but to be a pointed jibe at Hooke, who was shorter even than Newton.

When Newton became president of the Royal Society shortly after Hooke’s death, he did much to conceal his predecessor’s achievements. In more recent years, scholars have rescued Hooke’s reputation somewhat, but only those with an interest in the history of science or the Regency era in England are likely to know much about him. Newton, by contrast, is generally reckoned one of the finest minds in history and gets his face plastered across banknotes.

It’s a pity that Cosmos doesn’t even the scales a little more, because otherwise it’s a great show, striking a fine balance between entertainment and education. Tyson conveys the march of our understanding of the universe around us in unapologetically positive tones, and if he doesn’t always match the quasi-mystical sense of wonder of Carl Sagan (to whose Cosmos: A Personal Journey series Tyson’s namesake show is a sequel/remake), he may yet be delivering something that could inspire a new generation of scientists.

*Told in much more detail, and to my mind more even-handedly, in Neil Stephenson’s massive-yet-fascinating Baroque Cycle of novels.

Doctor Why

...rather unlike a Hollywood movie, really.
Featuring an old man walking slowly away from an explosion…

Doctor Who is a funny phenomenon. (It’s often a funny TV show too, but let’s look at the phenomenon first.) Fifty years old as of this weekend, it’s enjoying a heavily promoted anniversary period, and while a lot of the current level of publicity has been driven by the BBC, it’s a show that inspires a degree of devotion from its adherents that’s unusual even in the world of science fiction.

Part of that is down to its two-part history: the original show, which ran for over three decades before petering out into low-budget irrelevance and a misguided attempt at a U.S.-led revival, and the new show, which launched in a blaze of glory in 2005 and is still going strong, despite sometimes iffy quality (something the show has always endured). Fans of the former are mostly fans of the latter, but fans of the latter aren’t always aware of the former.

Befitting its status as a celebration of all 50 years of the show, the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, does its damndest to bridge that gap.

When the show was relaunched, one key element was altered: rather than being one of a race of time travellers, the Doctor instead became the last of them. More than that, it was revealed that he was responsible for their doom, together with that of their archenemies. This had the double effect of making the Doctor unique and adding a melancholy tone to his character that quality actors like Christopher Ecclestone and David Tennant were able to mine to good effect.

So for writer Steven Moffat to not only reveal this hinted-at element of the Doctor’s history in detail but also to effectively rewrite it during The Day of the Doctor was suitably ambitious. For him to succeed so thoroughly was a delight. Inevitably for a show with as convoluted a timeline as Doctor Who, there are some very visible plot holes and seams, but on the whole it makes for a thrilling adventure.

If The Day of the Doctor manages to bridge the gap between old and new though, it does so using the materials of the new. There are plenty of hat-tips and Easter Eggs relating to the old show embedded in the episode, but with the exception of a rather odd cameo towards the end, none of the actors who played the role in the old series make a showing (they did, however, get a cameo-filled anniversary special of their own).

Despite the hopes of some of the old-time fans, this was clearly the best choice. The old actors look nothing like they did when they played the role, and Moffat makes the absolute most of the three Doctors he has to play with (Tennant, Matt Smith and a war-weary John Hurt), making their commonalities and differences central to the unfolding of the plot.

The result is a special that’s all about the show itself, and all the more satisfying for that. I was lucky enough to see it in the cinema, where I was able to enjoy some very decent 3D effects and the reaction of the crowd around me to every grace note of the script and special effects. So many people there were not only dressed for the event but also knew all the show lore, resulting in laughter and applause in all the right places.

Those cinema showings may have been a gift to those fans whose love of the show extended back beyond the 2005 revival, but they weren’t solely enjoyed by them. The show is now bigger and deeper than it used to be, and the fan base is global in a way that only the Internet could allow.

With The Day of the Doctor, Steven Moffat not only celebrates the first 50 years of the show, tying together all of its constituent parts, he also ties a bow on the show as it has been since the relaunch. With a new Doctor in the form of Peter Capaldi incoming at Christmas, The Day of the Doctor strikes the right note: a celebration of all that has come before together with an opportunity to enjoy something new.

Personally Interested

Star of the show.
Jim Caviezel at ComicCon (via Genevieve719)

This Monday, RTE starts showing crime drama Person of Interest. The CBS show is one of the better recent offerings from a U.S. broadcast television industry that has mostly been left in the dust for quality by cable.

Fitting questions about surveillance, paranoia, vigilantism and computer sentience into its case-of-the-week structure, it’s cleverer than it has any right to be and digs into its themes without losing the qualities that make it appealing right from the off. But as much as I like it for the thought that’s gone into its creation, what really impressed me was its approach to its female characters.

The two leads are both male, fitting into the brain/brawn categories, with plenty of psychological damage in their makeup. There’s a supporting female cop, who follows a fairly standard antagonist-to-support role, well played by Taraji P. Henson. With her as with the rest of the female characters, a simple rule seems to be followed: the women are as capable and intelligent as the men. Moreover, they’re just as likely to be the bad guys as good guys.

It seems like a simple thing, but it’s rare. Our culture is rife with female stereotypes that writers have to work hard to avoid. One in particular, never far away when a female villain is involved, is the femme fatale. Pleasingly, right through its first season, Person of Interest stays well away from that one.

Why is this a good thing? After all, literature and film are full of femme fatales. The problem is that when you have a female villain, it’s too easy an option to reach for. The link between women, sexual allure and power over men is an unbalanced one: no male character is so defined by his ability to manipulate women. James Bond may be a lothario, but he’s much more besides.

That’s why femme fatales, while memorable, are not long-enduring characters. They’re expressions of a trope, one that states that a women who uses her sexual desirability as a weapon is dangerous, even evil. In contrast, culture tends to view men who seduce women as admirable.

I wonder how much of the show’s avoidance of the femme fatale is down to Jim Caviezel (who plays the brawn side of the central equation in an appealingly deadpan manner). Famously religious, he avoided naked scenes with his romantic interest in The Count of Monte Cristo out of respect for his wife. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to think that the show’s avoidance of overt sexual themes is something that might have appealed to him. (There’s plenty of flirtation, but it’s underplayed.)

Of course, it’s possible to go too far the other way and be completely puritan in avoiding sex altogether. Person of Interest doesn’t go that far, and the point to all of this is that its female characters play on the same board as the men: matching wits with them and often winning. It’s good to see.