tv programmes

<lj-cut text=”Dr Who (spoilers for that but not the trailer for next week)”>Cybermen and Daleks, oh my! There was some real sci-fi, what with the void ship and the ghosts. The Doctor was a bit too whimsical and mad on occasion, but also made me laugh. So much better than last week’s nonsense. More free advertising for Bluetooth headsets is always welcome, too.

In other news, Engerland lost on penalties and are out of the World Cup, it’s hot, and it’s Saturday night. So now we can all just sit back and wait for news of the first stabbings to come in.

If you need cheering up, though, I’d recommend Bill Maher on abstinence.

Channel 4 recently screened a documentary called God’s Next Army about Patrick Henry College, an evangelical Christian college in America. You can watch it over at Google Video. Why not download it using the Google Video Player thingy so you can still watch it when Channel 4 finds out?

Channel 4 also brought us Richard Dawkins and the Root of all Evil (why not get part 1 and part 2?) God’s Next Army lacks the pugnacious presenter, preferring instead to give the ropefloor to the college’s staff and students. The college aims to produce people who will take part in some sort of Christian version of The West Wing, where the staff of the White House will successfully battle to prevent gay marriage while engaging in snappy but incomprehensible dialogue. Luckily, it seems that evil contains the seeds of its own undoing.

While I was reading Rilstone on Dr Who (I am firmly in the “Fear Her was crap, less soap and more science fiction, please” camp), I ran across Helen Louise, a Christian wrestling with the idea of Hell. She’d linked to The Gobbledygook Gospel, which pretty well describes the dissonance at the heart of the evangelical gospel (but which then goes on to argue that God is like a big friendly dog: it takes all sorts, I suppose).

I also found The Shock of Your Life and downloaded the first chapter, which is about what non-Christians can expect when we die, told in the first person by a non-Christian who is about to be unpleasantly surprised. It’s sort of really bad Christian fan-fiction. The author gets special extra bonus points for juxtaposing a partial quote of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats with an assertion from the narrator’s angelic guide that it’s not what you do that gets you into heaven; unfortunately the partial quote is one that leaves out the bit where Jesus says that it is what you do that gets you into heaven. It’s a good thing that Revelation 22:19 strictly only applies to the Book of Revelation itself, I suppose. One cannot judge the canon (geddit?) by the fan fiction, but I find myself slightly worried that this sort of stuff is being marketed to teenagers. Why can’t they read more wholesome stories about Snape having sex with Hermione instead?

Apparently (as in, I read on some blog somewhere), one of Channel 4‘s newspaper adverts for Richard Dawkins‘s Root of all Evil? programmes was a picture of the New York skyline with the Twin Towers intact. It was captioned “A world without religion”.

From this you can tell that the UK’s most famous atheist meant business. Watching the introduction to the first programme, The God Delusion, it’s obvious Dawkins is worried by the apparent resurgence of militant religious faith, both Islamic and Christian, and has decided to draw his own line in the sand. Over the course of the two programmes, he outlines his case against religion.

<lj-cut text=”1: The God Delusion”>His argument in The God Delusion is that the methods of science and religion are totally incompatible. Religion is about accepting things on authority, and believing them on faith. Science is about setting up models and constantly trying to disprove them. Dawkins makes the point that something which has been accepted for a long time gains a certain religious weight, regardless of whether there’s any evidence for it, citing the Assumption of Mary as a doctrine which is not even in the Bible, but which grew in popularity over time until it received papal approval.

Dawkins’s field of expertise is evolution, so it’s not surprising that he uses it as an example of a subject where science is under threat from religion. He takes us to Colorado Springs, home of New Life Church, which Harpers called America’s most powerful megachurch. In conversation with Ted Haggard, the pastor, Dawkins seems adversarial from the start, comparing his service to a Nuremberg rally. Dawkins seems particularly angered when Haggard claims that evolution teaches that the eye evolved “by accident”, telling him that he obviously knows nothing about the subject. Haggard calls Dawkins intellectually arrogant, and later throws him off the mega-church’s compound for “calling my children animals”.

For all his fearsome reputation, with the exception of his reaction to Haggard, Dawkins is pretty polite to his interviewees. He visits Jerusalem, and listens to both Jewish and Islamic people talking about the Dome of the Rock site. When talking to Yusuf Al-Khattab, a Jewish convert to Islam, Dawkins remains polite until Al-Khattab’s most outrageous statements. When the theist tells Dawkins “You dress your women like whores”, Dawkins snaps back “I don’t dress women, they dress themselves”.

After hearing the Jerusalem theists, Dawkins seems to despair. Each side is implacable, committed to their holy book and their truth.

In the second programme, The Virus of Faith, Dawkins is concerned with how religion is spread to children, and with the morality taught by the religious scriptures.

<lj-cut text=”2: The Virus of Faith”>Dawkins points out that assigning children to a religion seems bizarre: we do not label children as “Marxist” children or “Conservative” children. He compares sectarian education to speciation: information stops flowing between populations, and eventually they see themselves as totally different.

Dawkins visits the rabbi of some Hassidic Jews in London who school their children themselves, and a private school using the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum. I’ve written about ACE schools before: I think they come into the “mad, but probably harmless” category, as they’re privately funded schools which only a few parents would care enough to send their kids to. However, if Dawkins’s statement that the Blair government is making it easier for religious schools to get public money is true, that’s slightly more concerning.

Dawkins then moves on to his meme theory, although he doesn’t use the word meme, but rather, the much stronger “virus”. He points out that children are predisposed to believe what they’re told by their parents: this is necessary for survival. Religion piggy-backs on this, the cuckoo in the nest.

Dawkins talks to a psychologist who counsels people who have had an abusive religious up-bringing, and then visits a pastor in the US who organises Hell Houses, who tells him that the best age for children to visit such a performance is 12. Dawkins is unfailingly polite, while in the background the pastor’s peformer prances about pretending to the the Devil officiating at a lesbian wedding.

Dawkins moves on to the morality preached by the religious texts, and notes that “the God of the Old Testament has got to be the most unpleasant character in all fiction”, before quoting examples like Deuteronomy 13 and Numbers 31. He does allow that Jesus was a good bloke, but considers Paul to have made up the doctrine of original sin and substitutionary atonement, calling it sado-masochistic (and not in a good way, either).

To illustrate just what going to the Bible for morality leads to, Dawkins then visits Michael Bray, a supporter of Paul Hill, a pastor who murdered a doctor for performing abortions.

Dawkins knows, and says, that not all Christians agree with Bray and Hill, but points out that people like them are a problem for Christians, since the alternative is a selective interpretation of the Bible, which leads to the question of whose selection is correct. He turns to the ructions in the Church of England caused by the debate over homosexuality. Dawkins talks to Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, who gives the standard liberal rationalisation of the Bible passages on homosexuality.

Dawkins argument against liberal Christianity is that it is redundant: if we can pick and choose from the Bible, why do we need it at all? Our picking and choosing implies that there is a higher standard than the Bible, so why not just use that?

Dawkins goes on to say that altruistic behaviour arises out of our genetic predisposition to co-operate. We have an idea of the sort of society we’d like to live in, and an empathy towards others. He cites attitudes to racism and homosexuality as examples of how a modern morality is better than the Biblical one.

Finally, Dawkins plays up atheism as life-affirming: if the here and now is all we have, we’d better make the most of it.

As a post-script, over the credits, the announcer said: “Turn over to More 4 now, where historian Michael Burley argues that a faithless world has lead of a collapse in the fabric of society: A Dark Enlightenment. On Channel 4 next: Celebrity Big Brother“. Well, I laughed.

So, what did I make of it all? I’m in broad agreement with Dawkins, in that I’m worried about playing the Netherlands (a handy bit of flat ground where generations of Europeans have staged wars) in a battle between two armies of crazy people.

I don’t think his ambition to stop the religious indoctrination of children is a realistic one: while public money should not be going into religious schools, the right of parents to bring up their kids as they like is not something the government should mess with, except in extreme cases. It’s sad that some kids end up scared to death of hellfire and need the services of the counsellor he talked to, but there’s not much a government can do about that.

Some reviewers have accused Dawkins of attacking extremist straw-men. Since many of his targets in the programme were Americans, I’m not sure how true that is: the perception on this side of the pond is that America is 51% populated (and 100% governed) by people who think they have an invisible friend who likes laser-guided munitions but doesn’t like the gays. The fact that the atheists in Colorado Springs had formed a support group speaks volumes.

Dawkins’s interviewees might be unrepresentative in another sense. We might place the religious on two axes: how crazy are they, and how much do they think about stuff? All of Dawkins’s religious interviewees were people who had thought about stuff and were crazy anyway. In that sense, they’re the dangerous sort: the people who will tell other, simpler souls, to, say, vote against gay marriage, or in extreme cases, to fly airplanes into buildings. The religious people I know in Cambridge are largely not crazy and have thought about it. In that sense, they too are unrepresentative.

Most theists haven’t thought about it very much, and are varying degrees of crazy. Dawkins’s argument about them seemed to be that they’re the soil in which the real nutters grow. I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason to condemn all religion, especially when Dawkins has given us plenty of other good reasons. As an acknowledged Internet expert on kooky religious groups, I can tell you that to my knowledge, none of CICCU‘s alumni have ever flown an airplane into a building. Something else is going on, as I’ve said before. I wish I understood what it was.

In any case, the selection pressure on variant strains of theism seems to favour craziness at the moment, although I’d concede that some of those pressures are coming from sources external to the religion in itself, such as politics. Some of the pressure is merely from the fact that being crazy means you’re more enthusiastic (check the etymology), excited and exciting. You make converts, you stand on street corners, you write threatening letters to the BBC, and so on. The Bishop of Oxford is right: liberals should be more outspoken about their liberalism. And rationalist atheists, it seems, should start forming support groups. The Root of All Evil was part of an attempt to turn the tide, and despite its flaws, I welcome it for that alone.

Dawkins’ reaction as he walked back from his talk with Michael Bray was that he’d quite liked Bray, who didn’t seem to be an evil person. He quoted the physicist Steven Weinberg: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”. I think that’s my take-home verse.

Those of you who missed the programmes or who are Foreign may obtain the videos of both programmes by waiting for them to fall from the back of a passing lorry or by fishing them from the torrent of information that is available on the Internet. Verbum sap., as E.E. “Doc” Smith used to say.

I went to see Serenity the other day. Here’s a spoilerific review, in which I won’t tell you exactly what happens, but I will mention stuff which people who’d like to see it totally fresh probably don’t want to know. It’s cut for those on LJ, and there’s a bit of spoiler space for my literally 1’s of readers using RSS.


I liked it. I liked Firefly, as I’ve mentioned before. In some ways I liked Firefly better than Buffy, as I somehow found it a more convincing world.

According to the couple of members of our party who hadn’t seen the series, Serenity does stand up well on its own, but I suspect a lot of the geekier viewers will be going because they’ve seen Firefly and want more. As a continuation of Firefly, it’s satisfying: we finally find out what exactly it is about River that makes the Alliance want her so badly (hint: it’s not that she’s made of chocolate), and the backstory of the Reavers is revealed as well.

The film is darker than most of the episodes (with the possible exception of the pilot, also entitled Serenity). Mal’s ruthless and more obviously damaged by the war. Major characters die without much warning. The villain is a total sociopath. Luckily, there is still the by-play between the characters which made the series funny, but it’s much more graveyard humour than it was before.

The special effects work well without being intrusive. Whedon finally gets his huge space battle, which is worth seeing on the big screen. Serenity (the ship) has lost some of her friendly lighting in favour of cooler blues, in keeping with a more high tech, less Old West feel to the film as a whole: you can see it in the costumes too.

My only complaint about the film is that it’s rushed (actually, that’s not my only complaint: the crew’s inability to get the Super Secret Info off the ship using a marvelous technology we call radio was slightly grating, but necessary for the plot, I suppose). We get what in TV land would be at least a season’s worth of exposition about River, and the resolution of the Alliance’s hunt for her, in a couple of hours. There’s not a lot of time for anything else. Characters other than Mal and River don’t see much development; and River herself magically transforms from Bipolar Girl into Buffy (that silhouetted shot with the axe, eh?) with barely a pause for breath.

That said, I write as someone who’d seen the original series. Totally satisfying the existing fans might have meant making an over-long film which would be of no interest to people who didn’t already care about these characters. I think Whedon’s done the best he could with the constraints that the evil Fox TV executives handed him, curse them.

In summary, it’s a good action adventure for people who’ve not seen the series, and it’s finally some more Firefly for people who have.

By the way, anyone who wants to be throughly spoiled might enjoy Serenity in 2000 Words or Less.

scribb1e and I went to Cornwall, where we stayed in a cottage with a sea view.

We saw the Eden Project. I’d been before, and not thought much of the place, but it’s much more fun when it’s not raining and you can do the outdoor parts as well as go in the huge geodesic domes. We found the Lost Gardens of Heligan, which were pretty and, considering the amount of work and though which had gone into them, downright impressive. Their farm shop also sold us some fine rump steak.

Continuing the gardens theme, we visited some Japanese Gardens, which were very tranquil until a coachload of white-haired old ladies went on the rampage through the place. We’d already looked around by then, and had settled down to have lunch, so their calls of “Cooeee! Deirdre!” did not disturb us too much. After that, we went to St Michael’s Mount on foot, and, as you can see from the photograph, had to return by boat.

We also found a tiny beach you could only reach on foot, and imitated Jack Vettriano paintings.

The weather was pretty warm most of the time, so I borrowed scribb1e‘s Tilley hat.

Holiday viewing was Buffy season 5, which we felt was tightly plotted and much better than the previous season. I got started on re-reading Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver. On my second pass, unrushed because now I know how it ends, I’m savouring the expansiveness of the writing rather than just wishing he’d get on with it. The Diary of a Manhattan Callgirl, which we found in Tescos, failed to either titillate or to arouse much other emotion: it’s sort of Brigit Jones with hookers.

Danced on Friday. Went to a fellow Churchillian’s wedding on Saturday. There are photos, but they were taken with a digital SLR, so you can tell exactly which hairs I missed when I shaved. I don’t think anyone needs to see that, so I won’t link to them. A good time was had by all.

Today, I bought the DVD of the first season of Scrubs and showed a couple to scribb1e, who pronounced them hilarious and worryingly close to the mark (although thankfully the stuff about booting people who don’t have insurance isn’t true here).

Just finished my reply to nlj21 on the “God Hates Long Hair” thread. I found the MP3 of a sermon on the passage in question (which I remember hearing live, as it was preached at my old church several years ago). Though the preacher is not quite as hard line about hair as I am in my posting, he does sugges that God Hates Androgyny (which I recall was an evangelical bugbear at the time, no idea whether it still is) and reminds us that women were created as helpers for men and not vice versa. I felt sorry for the guy lumbered with preaching it, in fact, as I remember him being a nice person. Much like here, I’m amazed at how easy it is to get nice people to believe outrageous things about themselves.

In recognition of her recent elevation, S will now be known as Dr S. While on the way in to town to celebrate this the other night, we saw an unusual busker:
<lj-cut text=”Cut for image”>

It’s a good way of drawing attention to yourself, although it’s probably a bit hot and smelly, and I wasn’t too sure about the acoustics. He was singing an Oasis song, but we gave him some money anyway. There also seemed to be any number of hen parties out on Riverside last night. Never thought of Cambridge as a hen party destination before.

Last night, the BBC screened Parting of the Ways, the final episode in the new series of Doctor Who. <lj-cut text=”Cut for spoilers”>I liked it for the spectacle of lots and lots of Daleks doing their thing. I also liked the way future humans (as personified by Captain Jack) have turned into the Culture and are happily unrestrained in their affections (the loony Christians who were protesting about Jerry Springer must be absolutely steaming). Alas, the plot made no sense.

The current fad for deus ex machina endings is getting a bit tired, especially after Boom Town (arguably, that might be seen setting the stage for the latest one, I suppose). If all the TARDIS’s can do that, why did the Time Lords ever feel remotely threatened by the Daleks? Rose as Time Goddess made it look a bit too like Buffy for me (the earlier Rose/TARDIS effects were more like Lyta Alexander in Babylon 5), though if it had been written by Joss Whedon, Jack would have stayed dead, and the episode would have been better for it. Possibly the BBC would get more complaints from parents of kids who were distraught about dead Jack than they will about a gay kiss on Saturday night “family” TV.

Nobody explained why the massive TARDIS energy didn’t kill Rose as well as the Doctor. “Bad Wolf” turned out to be a meaningless phrase which might just as well have been “Arthritic Hamster”. And the bit about opening the TARDIS console with a recovery truck was just silly.

But there were lots of Daleks, and everyone lived happily every after (except the ones who Rose didn’t resurrect). Did I mention that there were lots of Daleks?

Charlie Stross (known as autopope in these parts) has released his latest novel, Accelerando, on his website. I’ve been reading it on and off all weekend. My opinions might be skewed by that peculiar disassociation which sets in when you’re reading about the Singularity at 3 am in the middle of a heatwave, but I rather liked it. I found the earlier, near future, chapters more fun than the software iiiin spaaace stuff. The bits about cats were always good. The software iiin spaaace parts reminded me of Greg Egan’s Diaspora, though Stross’s characters aren’t as clinical as Egan’s, which makes them more bearable.

The book shows signs of an SF writing singularity, whereby books become incomprehensible to people from primitive cultures where they don’t know what slashdot is (perhaps a better description would be “unsullied”, rather than “primitive”, in that case). I’m not quite sure what someone who hadn’t spent most of their life in geekdom would make of it. Perhaps someone who meets that description could read it and tell me?

In any case, it’s a wonderfully exuberant book, and worth a read.

I’ve discovered an exciting new thing while perusing LiveJournal. No, not the goth bisexual polyamourous bondage furries: I knew about them already. Rather, it seems, not content with all that fan fiction, people have started making fan videos. With the advent of stupidly fast Internet connections and cheap video editing software, it’s become possible to devote large amounts of time to producing cuts from your favourite TV programmes set to appropriate music.

sdwolfpup has a large collection of videos from Joss Whedon’s work. My particular favourites are the funny settings of scenes from the final season of Buffy to La Resistance (from the South Park film) and scenes about Spike and Buffy to ABBA’s Take a Chance on Me. On a more serious note, I liked the scenes about the redemption of Spike and Faith set to Tracy Chapman’s At This Point in My Life.

I also liked sol_se‘s setting of the Ariel episode of Firefly to Great Escape, which you can find on their site. It seems you score points in this game by matching the video to the lyrics of the song, something which this one does very well.

It’s not all Joss Whedon, though. Over on doctorwho, they’re all getting very excited about whether the Doctor and Rose’s relationship is entirely platonic (the hardcore, largely male, fans from way back want it to be, the new crowd don’t, so there’s some amusing friction if you’re into fandom wank). I thought _projectgalem‘s take on it was quite sweet. Those two do hold hands a lot, don’t they?

I do wonder whether the people who own the copyrights on this stuff might look a bit less favourably on people using video than they do on people just writing text about their work, and may chose to pwn them, but we can hope that the TV companies will recognise the value of a fanbase.

It’s been a geeky evening, where I’ve watched both the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film, and the latest Doctor Who.

<lj-cut text=”HHGTG – contains spoilers”> I thought the film was entertaining, but I can see why some of the fans are annoyed. First, the bad things.

  • The language has been simplified, which spoils the rhythm of some of phrases and makes them less funny. For example, in the book, Paula Nancy Millstone Jenning’s poetry “perished with its creator in the destruction of the Earth”, whereas the film says it “was destroyed when the Earth was”. Ouch. Some of the extended sequences which play with language have been cut (Arthur’s rant ending with “Beware of the Leopard”, for example). The film is less erudite than previous incarnations of HHGTG.

  • I didn’t object to the Arthur/Trillian love interest in itself, since we’ve always known he fancied her. But it was overplayed in places, especially in Arthur’s speech about what the important questions were. The speech was American self-help babble, not the sort of thing a nervous Englishman would come out with. (Weren’t you glad when the mice interrupted him to continue their attempt to cut out his brain?)

  • I wonder what someone who had never seen any other members of the mighty HHGTG franchise would make of the film. There were several unexplained nods to the earlier works (such as the jewelled crabs on the planet Vogosphere). Not a bad thing if you’re a fan, though.

  • The sub-plot about Zaphod’s rival for the presidency was irrelevant and largely unfunny. They could have ditched that and had some of the actually good bits from earlier versions, and set up for the Point of View gun (which was funny) some other way.

  • Similarly, what was the vice-president actually for, other than to distract Zaphod from Trillian so that everyone (except Ford) gets the girl at the end?

There were good things.

  • The film made good use of visual gags which weren’t in the previous works but which fitted with the tone: how the dolphins left earth, for example, or the people in the pub lying down with paper bags over their heads just before the Earth was blown up, or the visual effect for the effect for the Improbability Drive jumps.

  • Stephen Fry is a good Book.

  • The factory floor scenes on Magrathea were really pretty.

  • Trillian was a cipher in the radio series, TV series and first book, a product of Adams’s self-confessed inability to write women. It was good to see more being made of the character in the film. Some people have complained that it wasn’t made clear in the film that Trillian is an astrophysicist, so she just looks like a thrill-seeker, but there are hints that she’s educated (dressing as Charles Darwin at a fancy dress party and carrying a beagle, muttering “so much for the laws of physics” as the Heart of Gold does an improbability jump).
  • The film is energetic and good natured and, silly speeches aside, very English.

Overall, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an enjoyable adaption. While I still liked the other incarnations more, and can think of ways it could have been better, it is certainly not deserving of the OMG! sacrilege! stuff which was coming from some of the fans. It’s worth seeing.

<lj-cut text=”Doctor Who – likewise contains spoilers”> So to Doctor Who. This week’s episode was the first one where I’ve felt that the programme was being made for grown-ups. The Doctor, who we now know is probably the last surviving Time Lord, encounters the last surviving Dalek. Both are refugees from a cataclysmic battle which destroyed their races. The story played with the the idea that we become like our enemies, with the Dalek starting to show compassion, and the Doctor determined to exterminate it.

There’s still room for some humour. Line of the show: “It’s downloaded the Internet. It knows everything.” Haw!

Further to my last posting, Penny Arcade has Serenity spoilers (or rather, not).

Well, I’m back. Here’s what I did on my holidays (note laptop in background, and Firefly and Battlestar Galactica DVDs, and Chronicles of Amber in my lap). Oh, all right, there was also swimming and scenery, but most of the time was reserved for the important things in life. It was fun.

You lot all seem to have been busy, so I’m queuing up open tabs in Firefox as I accumulate stuff I’m replying to. So far, we have:

So, Battlestar Galactica eh? Unlike Firefly, it’s not getting cancelled as it’s apparently very successful. There are certain similarities. Both have the same cinema verite, handheld look (in both the filmed and CGI shots: not surprising as the same CGI company did both BSG and Firefly). Both focus on people rather than on the particle of the week, both are serial rather than episodic, allowing character and story arcs to develop. (I’m curious about the way the BSG’s makers try to distance it from science fiction: they seem to assume that SF means Star Trek, which as far as I’m concerned is an occasionally fun but weak example of the genre).

What are the differences that might explain BSG’s success? BSG is a big story: an entire civilisation in danger, a Biblical exodus, and characters who are political and military leaders. We rarely see the underdogs in the BSG universe, but since they have so little freedom of action, that’s not very surprising. BSG is darker: no snappy comebacks and laugh out loud moments. Oh, and let’s not overestimate our demographic: while Inara is pretty, we see rather more of Number 6 in BSG, and BSG is generally sexier.

I like them both, although I think it’ll be interesting to see whether BSG can keep up its early promise now it has become such a hit.