Thursday, October 20, 2016

Flower power

Issue 505 of Doctor Who Magazine is out today, and includes my preview of the forthcoming animation of otherwise-missing 1966 story The Power of the Daleks.

I was lucky enough to speak to Anneke Wills, who played Dr. Who's companion Polly in the story, and Charles Norton, who produced and directed the new version. Next issue, there'll be a longer feature talking to more of the team. But the animation is all very exciting, and I can't wait to see the episodes at the BFI event in a couple of weeks.

The new issue of DWM also includes a review of Whographica, my book of Doctor Who inforgraphics,  co-written with Steve O'Brien and illustrated by Ben Morris. The three of us will be signing copies at ComicCon in London on Friday 27 October.

And I get a mention in Alan Barnes' typically incisive exploration of the 1966 story The Savages. I found that feature a bit distracting, but can't imagine why.

Flower (Kay Patrick)
in 1966 Doctor Who story
The Savages.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Ada Lovelace and clock time

It is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate women in science and technology. The Guardian has a great piece by Rebekah Higgitt on 19th century astronomer Agnes Mary Clerke (1842-1907). The idea it not just to focus on Ada Lovelace...


I've been reading up on 19th century science for my forthcoming book on The Evil of the Daleks, and also digging into the life of Ada Lovelace anyway.

Sydney Padua's The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage with Interesting Anecdotes of Celebrated and Distinguished Characters Fully Illustrating a Variety of Instructive and Amusing Scenes; as Performed within and without the remarkable Difference Engine is a gleefully silly and clever book, and the footnotes have endnotes with footnotes. Just look at how lovely it is:

The first page of
The Thrilling Adventures of
Lovelace and Babbage

by Sydney Padua
Benjamin Woolley's Ada Lovelace - Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron's Daughter (1999) is a lucid biography full of fascinating detail. Particularly brilliant is his explanation on pp. 148-155 of the invention of the metre in revolutionary France, the need to generate logarithmic tables for this new metric system, and Gaspard Riche de Prony's spark of genius, breaking the job down into simple units that could be handled by a production line carried out by three tiers of people: a small number of professional mathematicans, a larger section of "calculators", and some 60 to 80 non-mathematicians,
"the outcasts of the post-Revolutionary era with minimal artithmetical skills and economic power: hairdressers."
Benjamin Woolley, Ada Lovelace - Bride of Science, p. 151.
Woolley then goes on to explain, so simply even I could understand it, how Charles Babbage was inspired by this idea to create his difference engine - effectively, automating the hairdresser part of the process.

It was this difference engine that caught the imagination of Ada Lovelace, who collaborated with Babbage on his efforts to building a more complicated machine - a project that Babbage never realised, as both Woolley and Padua explain. But Lovelace, thinking it all through in a footnote about something else, wrote what many regard as the first computer programme, 100 years before the invention of the computer.

Also of great fascination in Woolley's book is Lovelace's relationship with her mentor, Mary Somerville - of whom the word "scientist" was first used. And I also loved this description of the difference between the clocks in churchs - measuring local time - and the new railways clocks based on standardised, Greenwich timekeeping:
"The station clock also came to serve a symbolic purpose. Where the church clock oversaw communal events, a gathering of people who lived with each other and knew each other's affairs, the station clock was the meeting point for strangers, for people trying to escape their localities - for breif encounters of a sort Ada herself would soon experience."
Ibid., p. 275.
Incidentally, I wrote a short story about Ada Lovelace and dinosaurs, "An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought", included in Irregularity (Jurassic London: 2014).

Saturday, October 08, 2016

50 years of the Cybermen

It's 50 years today since the broadcast of The Tenth Planet episode 1, in which a startling new monster was introduced to Doctor Who.

I'm not alone in adoring the original versions of the Cybermen, designed by Sandra Reid with skew-whiff cloth faces and still-human hands (painted silver). Clunky and awkward and each one with a name - Krang, Jarl, Gern, Krail, Talon and Shav - they're not simply robots but people who've willingly disfigured themselves to survive in the cold of space.

Researching my book The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who, I read the "Cyborgs and Space" by Manfred E Clynes and Nathan S Kline, a 1960 article Astronautics that first coined the term cybernetic organism or "cyborg". Although that word wasn't used in Doctor Who until Terror of the Zygons in 1975, there are lots of parallels between the article and the first incarnation of the Cybermen. Here it's suggested that for long-term space exploration to be practical, people will need to be surgically fitted with air conditioning units and then psychologically conditioned not to care...

The cold, stark proposal is utterly terrifying. No wonder the Cybermen struck such a chord.

Today is also 50 years since the studio recording of episode 4 of the same story. Between 6.30 and 7 pm, an effects shot was recorded in which a close-up of lead actor William Hartnell morphed into a close-up of Patrick Troughton, the new Doctor...

The episode was broadcast three weeks later, and I shall have more to say about it in three weeks' time.

Saturday, October 01, 2016


50 years ago today, Jack Bligh appeared as Gaptooth in episode 4 of the Doctor Who story The Smugglers

Born on 31 December 1889, Bligh is the earliest born person in Doctor Who. (Some online sources say he was born in 1890, but that's the year his birth was registered; he's listed in the registrations for the Thanet area for the first quarter of 1890.)

Sadly, the four episodes of The Smugglers are among the 97 episodes of Doctor Who missing from the BBC archive. But here are three off-air images ("tele-snaps") showing Gaptooth - from the "photonovel" on the official Doctor Who website:

Thursday, September 29, 2016

On MR James for the Lancet

The new issue of the Lancet Psychiatry - vol. 3, no. 10 (October 2016) - is out today, and includes my article on the mind of ghost story writer MR James, who died 80 years ago this year. To read more than the first paragraph you need to pay money.

Also in the issue is Laura Thomas's typically erudite look at Star Trek (2009) and the mindset of leadership.

Here's a helpful link to all my articles for the Lancet.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Gravity Fields and the Cosmic Shed

I had an amazing time last week at the Gravity Fields science festival in Grantham and Stamford, where m'colleague Dr Marek Kukula and I were talking about The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who.

In between our talks, we got to float about in the gravity box, and also took part in a special episode of the Cosmic Shed podcast (our bit starts about eight minutes in). Other guests include Simon Singh, Dallas Campbell, Mara Menzies, Marcus du Sautoy and Tom Adams - it's quite a thrill to be included in such distinguished company. Thanks to Andrew Glester for having us.
I was also utterly blown away by the exhibition of Kelly Barfoot's amazing solargraphs, and generally by everyone's excitement and enthusiasm. Also, Stamford is very pretty, and it's the first time I've performed in a Georgian ballroom.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

We Are Cult

Exciting new website We Are Cult interiewed me, Steve O'Brien and Ben Morris about our exciting new book of Doctor Who infographics, Whographica.

Whographica is out this week. But I'll be talking about my last book, The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who, with co-author Marek Kukula at the Gravity Fields festival this Thurday (in Grantham) and Friday (in Stamford).

To promote the festival, I was a guest on the 6 September edition of Chris Berrow's show on BBC Radio Lincolnshire - which you can still listen to on iPlayer for another 18 days. My bit begins at is 02:06:45, just after the 2pm news.