Adam J Purcell

Lockdown

Lockdown

Published: 2020-04-06

What a few weeks it's been. The world feels very different right now and not in a good way (for the most part, at any rate). In the UK, as in many other countries around the world, we are in lockdown against this Covid 19 Coronavirus - the government has ordered everyone to stay at home, with the current exceptions of to go to work (where you cannot work from home and your place of work hasn't been closed down for the duration), essential shopping and for exercise. In my case I can work from home and work is continuing, so I am back to doing what I did in the last couple of years of my previous job - working in physical isolation, though with interaction with colleagues via the likes of Slack, email, Google Hangouts and so forth. The difference is that I cannot go anywhere in the evenings or weekends.

The cinema has closed and I have now cancelled my Cineworld Unlimited card. I was on the edge of doing that already but then this happened and all of the major films have been delayed until the autumn, six months away. Even though Cineworld are promising to somehow extend my membership to cover the period that their cinemas are closed, there's still little incentive to have a card over the summer now. How would that extension even work - they said they would be taking at least one more monthly payment from everyone during the lockdown - do you only get the extended time after you cancel your card? Not my concern anymore.

The supermarkets remain open, though on reduced hours. They are only letting so many people inside at a time and only one person per household (though they'd never know if you queued up separately). As with everywhere now, at least outside of the home, we have to keep at least two metres from everyone else, leading to long but generally sparsely populated queues outside of the likes of Sainsbury's and Tesco. At least most of the panic buying has now subsised - for a couple of weeks there you could not buy toilet roll! Fortunately I didn't need to, as I tend to buy the big packs every few months and was only part way through the last one.

Restaurants are closed, though a few takeaways remain open, notably a subset of the Crawley fish and chip shops. For a brief time places like McDonalds and Burger King remained open for takeaway only, apparently having roped off their seating. They've since shut down completely, for the duration. This has the sad side effect of meaning I am not being able to get a decent milkshake anywhere (Frijj aside)! Yes, Baskin-Robbins and Five Guys are also shut. As are places like WHSmith and Game. If your shop isn't selling essentials (i.e. food and toiletries) then it's closed. The same goes for any cultural venue or tourist attraction - museums, theatres, escape rooms, castles, crazy golf, so on and so on. So many people are now out of work. The economic damage will last a decade, if not more. Currently I am very fortunate in that regard.

I do have some bad fortune as a couple of days before the lockdown became mandatory (though I'd already been working from home for a week by then), on Saturday the 21st of March 2020, I picked up my new car. That was a little over three weeks ago now and, despite driving it back from Brighton (well, Pyecombe) and various shopping trips for myself and others, I still have over 60% battery charge left. At this rate I won't have to charge it for another month or more! Of course it isn't good to leave it at a high state of charge for days on end, so I have been driving it pretty hard to get that percentage down as much as I can but it's taking a lot to make it edge down at all. I still have my previous lease car sat blocking my charger. They were due to pick that up on the 25th of March but I had an email saying that they'd suspended pick ups the day before! I've cancelled my Direct Debit on that as I am not paying for a car they had already agreed to pick up. I won't be using it, though it is sitting at 100%, which will be damaging the battery. I feel sorry for the next owner. Perhaps I should somehow drain it, though I am not insured to drive it now and it's on 14,499 miles and I said it would be on no more than 14,500 when they picked it up.

I really want to take my new ~280 mile range car on a long trip to see how it performs, somewhere like Cardiff, Cambridge or someplace beginning with C. But even if I did defy the lockdown (and I'd be asking to be stopped by the police if I did), there's nothing much to do right now anyway. I still have the first week of May booked off as holiday, though haven't decided what I am going to do. We'll see if the lockdown is still in place by then. They are sure to extend it as this is the third week of three and it's clear from the reports that we are still a few weeks away from being clear (maybe more). My gut tells me they'll extend it to the end of April. If they do and if it isn't extended beyond that, then my birthday weekend may well be the first after the lockdown. We'll see. It may be phased out so even though the lockdown is over there may still be a limit on mass gatherings, such as at museums, castles, cinemas and so forth.

There have been some benefits to all of the country being stuck at home, such as the series of mass 'watch-alongs' people have been organising for programmes such as Doctor Who, Torchwood and Life on Mars. These have included, writers, producers, directors and actors providing live commentaries via Twitter or Instagram. In the most recent case, with Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour (my favourite Doctor Who story) there were about six people all providing their own commentaries (including Moffat, Darvill, Smith and Gillan) so keeping up with all of their feeds on different web pages was quite a challenge!

Another challenge has been trying to record one of our own podcasts over the Internet. There wasn't time to really prepare, for example I could have lent Jean one of my laptops for the purpose. I did manage to drop off a Zoom recorder to Karen and Keith, although in the end that oddly created more problems! We did have various trials the week before we were due to record and did get something that seemed to work, using the website/service Ringr. That records everyone's audio locally and uploads them all to a central location for me to edit together. Unfortunately Jean's audio was in a very bad way, missing many random chunks of audio making her track significantly shorter than the others and a nightmare to patch it all together. A week tonight should be our next effort. I believe Jean has a new laptop, one which can hopefully keep up. I think we'll also try to locally record with Audacity, perhaps also using Ringr or Zencastr to record their local versions too. More experimentation this week, I feel...

Another thing to stave off the cabin fever has been a return to playing VR. In this case mostly the new (and wonderfully timed) Half-Life: Alyx. Virtual reality is still the most immersive type of gaming but I do find I can only play for a couple of hours at a time, it's oddly draining! I've also been flat-screen gaming with the newish Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. All good fun, as has been catching up with some Netflix now that I've resubbed (especially the Witcher) but it doesn't completely eliminate the solitary confinement aspects of this lockdown for me. That and no clear end in sight (how can there be, the government has to play it by ear) and therefore nothing concrete to look forward to, it does make it tough. I don't have a basketball about the place but a few more weeks of this and I may well start making an imaginary friend out of a cardboard cutout..!

Timeless Questions

Timeless Questions

Published: 2020-03-16

It's just a television programme, we all know. Nonetheless Doctor Who is also more than that to many people. It's an escape, a modern myth, a good old-fashioned good vs. evil tale and then there's the social aspect to it. That sounds almost like a religion to me and in some ways it is to some (perhaps even myself). Some take the sacred scripts of the past as off limits - nothing must change the basic history of the programme. Thoust shall not meddle with thyne owne childhood! (And other cod nonsense!)

That brings us onto 'New Who' series 12, the 2020 season of Doctor Who. The history was changed, or at least added to, and nothing will ever be the same again. Except it will, of course, because essentially nothing important has changed from an episode to episode perspective. Apparently some people are nonetheless losing their cool over these revelations/changes/heresies. I haven't seen much in the way of push back myself but then I tend not to read anything on Twitter anymore!

Spoilers ahead for the end of Series 12 but there cannot be many people left that have any interest in Doctor Who who don't know what's happened. If that's you, perhaps leave now!

The Timeless Child was briefly hinted at as a general mystery back in 2018's Series 11. The Doctor didn't seem to know what that phrase meant and wasn't too worried about finding out more - why would you take the word of a piece of floating cloth? Well, she should have done, even if it is very unclear how these odd creatures could know anything (some deep telepathic ability into the Doctor's unconscious?) It's probably besides the point though may hint, if head-canonned in the right way, towards the Doctor knowing more than she consciously realised. That in turn may help to explain the mysteries of the Sylvester McCoy era. Before we get onto that, what I am actually talking about..?

According to the Master he discovered a dark secret to do with the creation of the Time Lords. The first great space explorer from Gallifrey, a woman named Tecteun, discovered a lone child below a great rift to another dimension or reality. This unnamed child was taken back to Gallifrey and adopted by Tecteun as her daughter. Then, one fateful day this child had a fatal accident. Instead of dying she regenerated, the first person on Gallifrey to do so. The Timeless Child was born. Eventually the polymath Tecteun was able to isolate the genetic code that allowed this regeneration (after causing her child to regenerate at least another half dozen times in the process). She spliced that into her own genes and, when that worked, also into all of the inhabitants of the Capitol on Gallifrey. A regeneration limit of twelve times was either imposed or found to exist after the copying (perhaps it can be extended via technology, that's now unclear again). These Gallifreyans went on to discover time travel and everything we already knew about Rassilon, Omega and so forth is unchanged.

Back when the Timeless Child was first mentioned it seemed like a fair bet that this was either the Doctor herself or in some way related to her. Sure enough, it was the Doctor all along. What does this mean? She's probably not actually Gallifreyan (at least by birth) and she probably has unlimited regenerations. There is now also a whole hidden lifetime before what we've up until now called the First Doctor (William Hartnell's Doctor). Matters are complicated by the fact that the Jo Martin Doctor (or Doctor Ruth as many are calling her, for want of something better) calls herself the Doctor and has a Police Box shaped TARDIS. How is that possible? Likely it is the same TARDIS and it either got stuck in that shape before Hartnell (with it being successfully, albeit temporarily, reset when it returned to Gallifrey) or the pre-Hartnell Doctor(s) just liked that shape and forced it somehow. Personally I prefer the idea of the dodgy chameleon circuit that was only briefly fixed when the TARDIS was returned to Gallifrey, when the Doctor's time with the mysterious 'Division' can to an end and her memories were erased. That TARDIS was probably considered obsolete by that point and/or too imprinted on the Doctor to be put back into general circulation. Presumably it then sat for decades or perhaps a couple of centuries in the decommissioned TARDIS scrapyard, before the Doctor stole it (perhaps drawn to it by an unconscious telepathic calling - the TARDIS did once claim to have stolen the Doctor rather than the other way around!) Was the TARDIS drawn to a scrapyard on Earth because that's where it had been for so long on Gallifrey? At the first reasonable opportunity for it to appear as a Police Box it did and perhaps sabotaged its own chameleon circuit, maybe in an attempt to reopen the Doctor's lost memories of his former life? I'd like to think so!

We don't know much about the Doctor's life between growing up with Tecteun and Hartnell's Doctor leaving Earth in 1963. The Doctor worked for the Division, with an implication that they are a dirty tricks outfit through time and space. At the end of her tenure with them had a mindwipe and a forced regeneration back to childhood, where he grew up with his classmate later known as the Master and so forth. There's a lingering plot thread about the Doctor having committed some crime, likely in the eyes of the Division given that Gatt, a Division operative, had hired the Judoon to track the Doctor down (and the Doctor was clearly on the run at the time). A faction within a faction of the Division? Infighting? Perhaps the Doctor had had enough and was trying to bring them down from within? Did she succeed in ousting the villains? Her reward was to be reset (maybe as the last act before the Division was dissolved) or was that a punishment by people who knew the truth of the Doctor's Timeless Child past and dared not attempt to kill or even imprison her? The Judoon obviously didn't get the memo that the Doctor's case was likely closed by the mindwipe/regression.

If the TARDIS survived the two time periods of the Doctor's life then it would appear that the Doctor's basic personality did the same. Jo Martin's Doctor is perhaps a little harsher than New Who Doctors tend to be but is in many ways more Doctorish than Hartnell's Doctor appeared to be initially. Perhaps that was to do with his state of mind when he left Gallifrey? I'm glad they haven't said anything much about that though perhaps there is some innate need to travel after his days with the Division and/or some inherent distrust in the Time Lords that manifested in some way? Perhaps he clashed with the High Council, some or all of whom may have known the truth that he was really a founding father/mother of their entire civilisation? Lots of interesting things to speculate about there and hopefully we'll only get more questions rather than answers, as I believe Chibnall has done here - questions in abundance. Of the Doctor's basic personality, which doesn't really change regeneration to regeneration (even the War Doctor, especially as we discover in the Big Finish plays, is basically a moral crusader for justice and the underdog, despite his low opinion of himself). Where did that come from? It's very unclear how old the Timeless Child was meant to be when first discovered. Clearly not that young of a child and we don't even know how many regenerations they may have had before. Perhaps they were mind wiped and left there as a child, not unlike the Doctor after the Division. Yes, that even brings up the possibility that the Doctor was never born but is a stable timeloop, eventually ending up as a child by the rift, living the same life over and over again. I also cannot help but feel that Chibnall was planting the seed into some people's minds that maybe the Doctor is literally the daughter of God, put into the world to do good works. The Doctor has been likened to a god before and now that she's (potentially) functionally immortal, that certainly adds to the messianic thing! I really hope they don't go down that road but leave it open so that people can decide for themselves. Could the Doctor have been put there by a Guardian or celestial power? The lone survivor of the previous universe? Is the Doctor nature or nurture? Did all of that torture at the hands of Tecteun's experiments set into motion her hatred of evil, injustice, greed, violence and everything else she stands against? Is this now a similar story to Superman, another pseudo-messianic character?

If the Doctor is some kind of force of nature, is there an equal and opposite out there? The Master is the obvious one but we've never seen him succeed at very much. Despite what we've been told, at least until the very end of Series 12, he really isn't her equal and never has been. Was there another rift (or the same one at a different time) that the anti-Doctor was born from? I don't think you can ever describe the Doctor as an Agent of Order - order doesn't have a moral dimension and actually often has a rather sinister connotation. Perhaps an Agent of Harmony? What's the opposite of that - discord? We'll have to see where future stories go with this idea but right now I rather hope they don't try to come up with a new 'equal and opposite' villain to the Timeless Child.

Back in the final couple of years or so of the original series there was famously the 'Cartmel Masterplan' to add mystery back into the character of the Doctor. We simply knew too much about the Doctor's people and homeworld and I've always felt like they appeared rather mundane, certainly ever since The Three Doctors and even more so since The Deadly Assassin. Their world and way of life should literally be beyond our imagination, incomprehensible to us. That boat had already sailed but there was room to hint that the Doctor was more than just another boring Time Lord. In Sylvester McCoy's time hints were laid that the Doctor was involved (and knew that he was involved) with the creation of Time Lord society. The idea of a triumvirate - Rassilon, Omega and 'the Other', the Doctor being that mysterious third person, of course. This was explored and, unwisely, outright explained in some of the Virgin New Adventures novels. I would suggest to any future writers who want to add extra mystery that they don't have any answers in mind when they write it or certainly never share them. Hopefully Chibnall has no idea where the Timeless Child comes from. I'm sure he has multiple ideas but he shouldn't favour any of them or be closed to alternatives and certainly never tell anyone any of them! The Other isn't directly contradicted by these new revelations of the Doctor's past but we can certainly discount aspects of it, such as the looms but otherwise it could still track. Maybe the Doctor was instrumental in the creation of Time Lord society - there were some solid suggestions in The Timeless Children that Tecteun was involved. Perhaps the Doctor and Tecteun were really responsible for the early days, with Rassilon and Omega coming along potentially millennia later (it is unclear if Tecteun had limited regenerations or what might have become of her/him - perhaps she is Rassilon?!) For me the real question is how much did the Doctor know back in McCoy's time and had she forgotten about it by Whittaker's Doctor's era? This Doctor appeared utterly shell shocked by the revelation that they predated Hartnell's incarnation but I cannot help but feel that McCoy's Doctor almost knew already. Past memories bleeding through, perhaps incorrectly and impossibly merged into the memories of the 'first' Doctor's youth on Gallifrey? Then forgotten or dismissed by later regenerations? That is one thing that I would like an explanation for. Will that be left to Big Finish?

What about Susan? Did the Doctor have a family before the mindwipe and regression to childhood? Did she have children with the man we know of as Lee in Fugitive of the Judoon? Presumably Susan is the product of a family after that, after the regression, or were there some complicated allowances made that somehow brought the Doctor's pre-wipe family along for the ride? Would Susan have to have been on ice until the Doctor reached the right age to be a grandfather? What about that middle generation? Now I'm just overcomplicating it, though it might explain how Susan coined the name TARDIS (if she really did) - I'm pretty sure Doctor Ruth knew the term...

And one last thing about the Eleventh Doctor's regeneration into Twelve - it seems likely now that he didn't need any help, he could have regenerated at any time. Clearly he didn't believe so and therefore held off, no matter how thin his body was wearing! Did the Time Lords really give extra regenerations or did they know a light show would be enough? Did the High Council know the forbidden truth of the Doctor? Maybe or maybe not. Perhaps that really was extra regeneration energy but it wasn't needed and just went straight into the extra powerful explosion and killing all of those Daleks.

I lied - the real last thing - River Song. How did she get her regenerations? The Doctor's supposition of 'from the Time Vortex' appears unlikely now, the stories he'd been told of Gallifreyans getting regeneration from the Vortex are clearly untrue. Could it have been as simple as the same way that Tecteun got her regenerations, namely from the Doctor's DNA (or whatever passes for the Doctor's genetic encoding?) I could quite believe that the Doctor is the only reliable source of that genetic code in the universe, even from other Time Lords it may be fragile and corrupted. The Silence could have grabbed his DNA from various times and places, you just need some hair or a skin cell, and engineered it into Melody. That's how I'm rationalising it anyway! Oh, and that business with the Master thinking the Doctor was 'half Human' in the TV movie, perhaps he was wrong about the species but right that the Doctor isn't entirely Gallifreyan (or not at all Gallifreyan but apparently Time Lords are all slightly Doctor!)

I am far from upset over the 'changes' that Chibnall and co have brought to the series and the backstory of the Doctor. I like that it's added more questions and mystery. Here's hoping nobody will attempt any hamfisted answers to any of this. Never answer a question on the Doctor and Gallifrey's backstory unless you have ten more to pose with it.

Surviving Gallifrey

Surviving Gallifrey

Published: 2020-03-13

Gallifrey One is many things - the biggest and longest running Doctor Who convention in the world, a place where you'll find a wide selection of cast and crew telling their stories and more fans than you can reasonably cram into one of the largest hotels in Los Angeles.

With something like 4,000 attendees it easily dwarfs anything in the UK, perhaps with the exception of the official BBC run events around the time of the Fifthtieth anniversary. This is a fan run convention, though given this was the thirty-first year of the annual event, it does feel like a well oiled machine.

Jean, Karen, Keith and myself jumped to sign up the moment that Christopher Eccleston was announced as a guest. We'd never seen him at a convention, in fact he'd done a lot to distance himself from Doctor Who in general since he left in 2005. In recent years that has been softening but still, this could have been a rare opportunity to hear him talk about his time on the programme and meet him in general.

We had been to Gallifrey One before, this was our third visit, after first going in 2011 and then again in 2013. Besides the guests (with some exceptions), little had really changed in the seven years since our second visit. It was still vast. At any one time there were at least six official things going on and countless other activities spontaneously or otherwise happening somewhere else around the Los Angeles International Airport Marriott hotel.

Program (sic) A kicked things off at 10am on Friday the 14th of February 2020 with popular podcasters (unlike us!) Radio Free Skaro doing a two hour stint of interviewing various guests. I really should have taken photos as I cannot recall most of the people they spoke to but it certainly included Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor! They did a great job and it was a fantastic (no pun intended, given the headline guest of Eccleston) start to the convention. Straight after that, at midday, I dived off to Program D. That was a much smaller room than the massive main stage and was playing host to the panel Blake's 7: The Way Back. This was a general discussion of the programme by fans, some Big Finish writers and the legendary BBC director Michael E. Bryant. Gallifrey, though being primarily a Doctor Who convention, does have the occasional panel for other series. I particularly remember a wonderful Babylon 5 panel from probably 2013. I stayed in Program D for The Future of Flight. Rather than being about science fiction this was about the upcoming reality of flight, talking mostly about the single host's current venture of electrically powered little air taxis. Fascinating stuff. It could be a fun future!

With a couple of exceptions later in the weekend, that was pretty much the last time I saw anything outside of Program A. That's the problem with Gally (as people call it), if anything there is just too much to do. You need a time machine to come back and attend it at least three or four times in parallel. Also lunch breaks don't exist in the schedule, it's up to you to decide what you want to miss if you need food or drink. Funnily enough I felt I was missing enough already and never took a lunch break for any of the three days of the event. Having said that, I do feel I missed out there too, as I gather a good time was had just hanging out with people during lunch. It is by far my biggest regret of the weekend that I didn't spend much time with anyone during those three days, not even the friends I travelled to the US with! There were a lot of people I know or suspect were there somewhere that I either only saw across a crowded room or didn't spot at all. There may be an even more fun version of Gally where I went to little or no panels. Likewise there are a lot of organised evening activities and then the famous but officially unofficial Lobbycon. I didn't get to any of those at all. In previous years the jetlag had prevented us doing anything much in the evening but this time I was fine by the Friday, so I really have no excuses. We did tend to go out to dinner with a few friends, which was always good but there was certainly time to return to the Marriott for more but we never did.

Getting back to that Friday afternoon, there was a pretty amazing series of panels in Program A. Big Finish always put on a fun panel, this time with the revelation that Tom Baker is reprising the role of The Curator for a Paul McGann boxset. That was quite a surprise! Then we had another tried and true panel featuring most of the Fifth Doctor's era regular cast, namely Peter Davison, Sarah Sutton, Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson. They are always great fun, especially the way that Davison and Fielding wind each other up, with the others trying to keep things on track! After that we had a panel featuring a current companion - Tosin Cole, AKA Ryan Sinclair. Naturally he couldn't give away spoilers (and I'm very glad he didn't). As of this point we'd seen up to Series 12 episode 7 (with The Haunting of Villa Diodati set to broadcast a couple of days later). It was an incredible coup and highly unusual to get a current cast member. Though he was careful not to drop any hints about whether he'd left the series or not (I did think there was one moment when he seemed to be talking in the past tense but you could read it either way) he nonetheless was great fun. One of the funnier stories involved Bradley Walsh's party piece of pretending to fall down stairs in front of guest stars, naturally to their horror. Apparently Brad has become quite an adept stuntman, as least for this one stunt! Tosin was great value and I look forward to seeing him in a panel when he can really talk freely. Finishing up the day was the companion before Ryan, who certainly could talk freely. That person being Pearl Mackie, AKA AsBill Potts. She's a force of nature and every bit as fun and full of beans as you'd probably expect given her character. For me she was the definite highlight of that first day, so it was appropriate that it should end on her. The main hall, Program A, was full to capacity (if not technically a bit beyond) by this point. I was surprised that Mackie seemed to get an even bigger audience than Cole. Then, as mentioned, it was to dinner. On this evening, as with the next, it was to the unparalleled restaurant of exquisite delights known as Denny's! To be fair, this was something of a tradition on our last two visits, though mainly for breakfast. This time we weren't staying at the Marriott or the next door Hilton, so breakfast was catered for by ourselves at the Airbnb.

Things quickly rolled around to day two at Gally 2020. Saturday the 15th of February. Karen wasn't feeling too well (perhaps a bit of dodgy seafood at Denny's?) so Jean, Keith and myself ventured to the Marriott without her (she did join us a little later in the day). The 10am start saw Keith and myself go to Program F for the Podcasters Meet-Up. Bit of a weird one with about three podcasters (who I must admit I didn't know) up on the stage trying to hold a two way conversation with the rest of the room, all sat in our rows of chairs and who were also mainly podcasters. It did eventually settle down when they left the stage and their elevated 'top table', we all got out of our chairs and mingled (which was what I was expecting from the off). Quite a few of the podcasters weren't doing podcasts about Doctor Who or even science fiction, to my surprise. I had fully expected to know a good few people but in the end the only two I did know were Chris and Steven from Radio Free Skaro. I was hoping for lots of mutual recognition, like at the first Whooverville, but besides those two I think we were all strangers to one another. I have to say that was a little disappointing and perhaps says more about me these days and my lack of podcast listening (hey, I spend half my life prepping or editing a podcast, I need to do other things!) The room was less than ideal, mostly just rows of chairs and little room to move about, totally wrong for mingling. Still, next was something I was looking forward to - getting a photo with Christopher Eccleston. Really it was getting a photo with him and The Head of Pertwee but I'd hoped to get the four of us in it, too. Sadly Karen was still missing at this point and Jean couldn't be dragged away from a genuinely fascinating sounding panel with Mark Strickson in Program B, so it was just Keith, myself and the HoP. It was barely organised chaos. The rest of the convention ran like clockwork. Panels didn't overrun (though did occasionally start a little late due to people not arriving on time) and everything was generally orderly. Then there was trying to wrangle hundreds of people wanting photos. Looking at the downloads page for the photos that were eventually taken, Eccleston had 709 photographs that morning. For comparison Pearl Mackie had 201 taken that day and Tosin Cole 102. Eccleston's photoshoot was nothing less than massive, even by Gally standards. We were split up into groups but it was very unclear at what time our group would be called (it was a lot later than advertised!) so there was a lot of hanging around, whilst trying not to get in everyone's way. Eventually we did get called (via someone attempting to shout over the extensive background noise), then progressed up the queue. As we got to the very front of the queue we were preempted by a sudden surge of VIP ticket holders for a few more minutes and finally had our photo taken. As ever with such things we had only a few seconds with Eccleston but he was in great humour, though a little baffled by the HoP!

We then caught the tail end of Guest Starring on Doctor Who, featuring guest actors such as those who played Babbage (Spyfall), Willa (The Witchfinders), Queen Skithra (Tesla's Night of Terror, not to mention Rani from The Sarah Jane Adventures), Friday (Empress of Mars). Good fun, once again but as ever this panels are very 'of the moment' and it's hard to recall the details (especially nearly a month later - I really should hurry up with these blog entries!) Interestingly Gally does allow people to audio record (though not video record) the panels, if only for personal use. I had my recorder on me, as you never know when you might want to capture a random conversation with someone for the podcast, but never thought to record the panels. Maybe next time!

There we two live commentaries that afternoon in the big room, Kerblam! and Demons of the Punjab. Neither were all that great, unfortunately. These featured cast and crew and were potentially fascinating. In practice it was hard to hear them a lot of the time and, as they were sat in the audience front row rather than on stage (so they could view the big screen) we couldn't see them, either. A big shame as a good commentary can be equal measure enlightening and entertaining.

Still desperately hanging on to my prime seat in Program A (hungry and dehydrated as I may have been!) next it was the curiously titled This or That panel. This turned out to be a fun game where three New Who companions (Michelle Ryan, Pearl Mackie and Tosin Cole) were all given a series of choices (such as travel to the past or the future) and they each had to choose, preferably with a fun explanation. The three of them worked very well together on stage and definitely got into the spirit of it.

Free from the mutually (though hilariously) bad influence of Janet Fielding, Peter Davison's panel was next. Any other year he would probably have been the headline guest (he certainly was back in 2013) but this time we also had the very much lesser spotted Eccleston. At no point did they share a stage, which is a shame. In fact at no point did Eccleston share a stage with anyone but his interviewers, now that I think about it.

This lead into the aforementioned Demons of the Punjab commentary and then to the last but far from least panel of the day - Christopher Eccleston. Radio Free Skaro's Steven Schapansky acted as the sole interviewer for this one, a role that he excels at and they were both in fine form indeed. I had the feeling (perhaps unfairly) that Eccleston might default to guarded and distant but this was anything but. He was in great humour and seemingly open to talk and even joke about pretty much anything. Inevitably there was talk about the problems on set and the reasons why he left Doctor Who but these came up naturally in conversation and offered by Eccleston rather than prompted, let alone forced, out of him. It was nothing we didn't either outright know or had already concluded. That very first recording block was a nightmare, nobody knew how to make a programme like that anymore and they dropped more and more behind schedule. Eccleston never said the name of that block's director (it was Keith Boak) but he made it very clear that he was less than impressed by him and they clashed massively. It was in that first block where the stress everyone was under destroyed the relationship Eccleston had with not just Boak (I get the feeling that was pretty much from day one) but, more crucially, with the production team, Russell, Julie and Phil (who he did specifically name). There was no going back. Nonetheless Eccleston continues to praise Russell T. Davies' writing and is all too happy to say that Russell (and their existing working relationship) was the reason he was interested in doing Doctor Who in the first place. Eccleston decided quite early, certainly by the middle of the filming, that he had no interest in doing a second series and, the way he tells it, there was never any discussion about it - the production team were equally happy for him to not return. Though later blocks became much more calm and professional that rift was never healed, even to this day. He still seems particularly bitter about the way many of the crew were treated during those fraught times. Nonetheless the fact that he is starting to appear at conventions now is an indication that he is at least somewhat able to separate those negative aspects from the experience and legacy as a whole. He seemed genuinely moved that people even wanted to hear him talk about Doctor Who or invite him to a convention. I think, for a time, he really did think the fans all hated him. There's no doubt that he will have gone away from that panel with a very different view indeed. For me, as it seems with most people who were there, this panel was the highlight of the convention.

What a way to end the day! Well, besides us returning to the nearby Denny's for dinner again. If I recall correctly, back at our dining companion's hotel (the next door Hilton), we then recorded our podcast review of the previous weekend's Doctor Who episode - Can you Hear Me? Again, a big thank you to Kathryn, Bernie and American Karen for joining us for that recording and the one on the Sunday evening. Again, we missed all of the evening activities at the convention hotel, which I do continue to regret but with a day as great and exhausting as that it's hard to get too upset about one's own choices!

The final day of the convention , Sunday the 16th of February 2020, started off with another Christopher Eccleston panel, at 10am in Program A. Given that main hall could hold only a little less than half of the attendees at once, it was asked if people who had seen Eccleston the afternoon before could refrain from attending the not-quite-repeat panel in the morning, unless there were seats left. Being 10am on a Sunday morning, after a night of heavy partying for many, it turned out there were a few seats left. The room was opened up half an hour early for those who hadn't managed to get into the Saturday Eccleston panel (though there was no official mechanism for this, it was very trust based). A couple of minutes before it was due to start I looked in and saw a good number of seats still free at the very back of the room, so availed myself of the opportunity. This time they had two interviewers. For me that didn't work quite so well as it somewhat reduced the conversational flow that the one-on-one of the previous day had and I feel that Eccleston wasn't quite so at ease during the entire thing (no doubt the 10am timing didn't help!) Nevertheless it was still a great panel, if necessarily somewhat of a rehash, though the change of interviewers certainly helped distance it from the previous panel and gave it a fresh angle.

Given my poor seating position I wasn't so desperate to save my spot as I had been the afternoon before. That gave me a little freedom to break out of Program A and try something a little different, Program D. The Legendary Soundtracks of Science Fiction and Fantasy. As was common with these 'lower ranking' rooms, the panel mostly comprised of fans but there was a professional composer with them, who had worked on The Sarah Jane Adventures amongst other things. I've always liked soundtracks, music on its own has so far failed to mean much to me but if I already have a connection to it for some other reason then I can enjoy it. It was an interesting panel, with the occasional bit of example music played in, and was very interactive with the audience. It was a welcome break from the massive scale of Program A. The break was brief, as it turned out, with me then returning to the biggest of rooms for the 12:15pm panel of Daleks Masterplan 2 in Color (sic). A very dedicated (not to mention talented) group of fans had, over many years, gotten together and colourised the second episode of The Daleks' Masterplan. This was played on the big screen. Not relevant here but it does remind me that I must comment on the video quality of that main screen - namely it was terrible whenever playing live footage (i.e. relaying the events on the stage) but perfectly acceptable with pre-recorded material. Presumably this was more down to the camera? It didn't ruin anything but it felt like I was stuck in a 1980s convention a lot of the time! But back to Daleks' Masterplan in colour - it was a massively impressive feat. When I think of colourised efforts from the past (such as early attempts some twenty years ago or more with Laurel and Hardy) they looked artificial, like some kind of weird cartoony live-action monstrosity. This was in another league. It looked natural, even slightly vintage, as you might imagine a colour programme from that era (before the BBC had colour video). It seems to be doing the rounds at a few conventions and is worth catching if you can.

By now it was into the final afternoon of the convention. I was firmly camped, in a pretty good spot, in Program A and we were given two slightly shorter interviews, back to back, with Michelle Ryan (for 45 minutes) and then Anjli Mohindra (for 30 minutes). For Michelle Ryan in particular, it had been over a decade since she appeared in Doctor Who but she looked completely unchanged, somehow! Good panels both. Occasionally you get a panel with someone that doesn't seem to want to be there or for whatever reason isn't able to respond to questions beyond a simple yes or no answer. Part of that may be down to closed questions that don't encourage the interviewee to open up but the best guests will volunteer more anyway. As I think back on this Gally not a single interview went that way. That's very much a testament to everyone involved, there was nobody that didn't seem at ease, even when sitting in front of nearly two thousand people on the main stage. That was as true with these two fun and well natured interviews as it was for the entire weekend. I may not be able to recall many details but I do remember being entertained and informed at the time and that's why I go!

With the afternoon slipping away in a very agreeable fashion it was then back to another live commentary, this time on The Witchfinders. Sadly Tosin Cole had already left the building, presumably on his journey home (if not there already) as he was only a Friday and Saturday guest. We still had a few people who were involved in the creation of this story, though the problems with this particular live commentary setup hadn't been solved since the previous day, unfortunately.

The final proper panel of the weekend, at least in Program A, was entitled The Enduring Magic of Classic Doctor Who. This was an excuse, not that one was needed, to bring back Davison and gang plus a few other Classic Who cast and crew. It was a little more restrained, due to those extra guests broadening it out, and there was a very fine attempt made to include everyone in the discussions. That's often a difficult task when you've got a large number of guests from different eras and each having very different jobs.

The next event, at 4pm, was uncontested, as was the closing ceremony at 5pm. The other rooms were now going unused, all eyes were on Program A. What could this mystery Special Video Presentation be? I had a pretty good idea, having bemoaned the fact that there wasn't an evening screening of the new Doctor Who episode due that day. I happened to be saying this to Chris from RFS who immediately pointed out this Special Video Presentation in a very nudge, nudge, wink, wink sort of way! Sure enough the veteran Gally visitor, who also happened to be very close to the organisers (perhaps even one of them, I'm not 100% sure), was onto something. Given the 8 hour time difference, the UK started screening The Haunting of Villa Diodati at about 11am our time and no doubt copies were already circulating by about midday. I can only assume that some official arrangement had been made with BBC America to screen the episode early for the convention as I don't think they get it until 7-8pm. Or maybe not, hence the coy entry in the programme! Whatever the case, my prime location had paid off! Time to watch Doctor Who with the biggest group ever, at least for me. I won't lie, that was a mixed bag. Great though it is to be in a crowd of nearly 2,000 people, all so enthusiastic - laughing and gasping at al the right moments. That did mean that I missed quite a lot of dialogue, particularly when people randomly whooped, often for reasons that were totally lost on me and probably everyone else. What is it with Americans and whooping?! They certainly are an exuberant people at times. Despite those impediments I really did enjoy watching it with them, even if when it came to reviewing the episode, in a hotel room later that evening, I found myself unable to fathom some of the finer points of the plot! Some of that may have been dehydration, too. I have found my cognitive abilities, such as they are, definitely take a major dive when I'm dehydrated (and I must remember that before trying another escape room but that's another story!)

After that very satisfying special video, it was to the closing ceremony. This usually comprises of those guests that are still in the building lining up and saying a few words of thanks to the fans. There are a lot, even with the likes of Eccleston and Tosin Cole having already gone, they still barely all fitted on the large stage. Many of them I hadn't seen all weekend, highlighting once again just how much is happening at once at Gally - you cannot hope to even see all the guests, let alone experience it all. There was another special video, this time from a small group of people who couldn't be there this year but wanted to send their well wishes. Clearly recorded on somebody's mobile phone, the portrait video started off with a bearded Steven Moffat before Chris Chibnall grabbed the phone from him. Then, also oddly something of a highlight for the weekend, Jodie Whittaker came into view. It was only a short message but I think it meant a lot to all of us, especially as we'd just seen her in a brand new episode only minutes before. Even though she was seen via a slightly rubbish video phone she still managed to exude that natural radiance she has. A great end to a great convention.

Breaking a different sort of convention about eight of us gathered at the Marriott's sport restaurant/bar for dinner. I think I had nothing but a steak and a glass of apple juice (and I do mean just a steak - nothing with it, a steak on a plate, and no starter or desert) and it was over $40! I think for the others this was effectively the end of the holiday but for me, I still had six more days but more on San Francisco in another blog entry. I needed to conserve my funds!

Having at least somewhat satisfied our hunger, at least for food, it was time to get to a hotel room! For we had a brand new episode of Doctor Who to talk about, into an audio recorder. I think all eight of us from dinner were there, crowded around the little 360° Zoom H6, which was put on a little bedside table that was shifted down between the two single beds. A row of three people sat on each bed, the groups facing each other, with two people on chairs in between the beds, making a very rough circle of us. Earlier that day Jean had wandered off with the recorder to solicit opinions of the convention from attendees (and a couple of guests). Now it was our turn, though we didn't talk too much about the convention itself (that would come, at least to a small extent, in the podcast after we returned home). With our roundtable discussions on The Haunting of Villa Diodati behind us, it was time to bid farewell to those not staying with us and return to our Airbnb, for we all had a long day of travelling ahead on the Monday. No doubt the post-convention Lobbycon partying continued long into the early hours, it always does. For us it was an Uber, some packing and bed.

The blur of the '31 Flavours of Gallifrey One', or any Gally, cannot really be explained, only lived. There's always that nagging regret of all those great things that you missed but (for the most part) you wouldn't trade what you did experience for it. Good people and great memories, both of which are a little fuzzy by the end! Will I go again? Probably. I wouldn't want to go without my friends and I'd definitely want to make a full holiday of it but I can see myself being drawn there again. That goes doubly if they manage to get the likes of Gillan or Whittaker along as guests. Hopefully they won't be announced for 2021 as I think we all need at least a year to financially recover. How about 2022..?

At the Galaxy's Edge

At the Galaxy's Edge

Published: 2020-03-03

Our third full day in Los Angeles took two separate paths. The others had decided they already needed a quiet day to catch their breath before the madness of the three day Doctor Who convention that was about to begin. Personally I'd rather cram every day full of action, adventure and really wild things (at least while I'm paying to be somewhere on holiday). So, on this particular Thursday (the 13th of February 2020), I woke up extra early and paid the best part of $50 USD for an Uber to Disneyland.

Whilst I'd have preferred to share the experience with my friends it did leave me free to rush around the Disneyland park at my own frenetic pace, regularly walking at top speed between opposite sides to get to the next Fastpass or to the ride with the current lowest wait time. I must have literally walked several miles and I certainly didn't come away without blisters.

My original plan was to be there for gates opening at 8am. The night before it seemed like 35 minutes should be enough, so I pre-booked the Uber for 07:15 and also pre-bought my ticket via the Disneyland app ($144 for the ticket that gave me unlimited Fastpasses). The Uber ended up costing me $48.42, including tip. A very expensive day already. Unfortunately I hadn't considered the legendary LA rush hour traffic. That mistake meant that I wasn't into the park until 08:15. Perhaps that doesn't sound too bad, 15 minutes after opening, but unfortunately it meant that I didn't get to do the one ride that I most wanted to experience - Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. You needed to join a 'Boarding Group' via the app, once your park ticket has been activated on entry. The first 83 groups were guaranteed access. I forget my exact number but it was just over 130. Soon after me they stopped accepting any more groups at all. My first thought was that I will just have to stay late but that was okay, I was planning on staying until they closed the park anyway. It was around midday that I had a message, via the app, that I wouldn't be getting on the ride at all. That was a blow, as was the realisation that the other ride I really wanted to do, Guardians of the Galaxy - Mission: Breakout!, was actually at the adjoining Disney California Adventure Park and I didn't have a Park Hopper ticket (despite how much I'd already paid). All in all, a lot of poor planning on my part but that's what happens when I only decide the night before to go somewhere! I'll know for next time.

Despite failing to get into the two things that I was most looking forward to, I nonetheless had a great time. Up until the end of the day, with that one final ride, I was never waiting for more than 15 minutes to get on anything, usually only three or four minutes and sometimes literally straight on. That was a combination of Fastpass tickets, using the single rider lanes (where available) and generally just keeping an eye on the queue times via the app (which tended to be pessimistic, sometimes significantly so). This did mean, as I said, that I was rushing from one part of the park to another rather than doing all the rides in a given area together. That may sound like a waste of time but I think it did pay off. For one thing I'd rather be moving than stuck in a queue! Having said that, after about midday it did become noticeably busier, all those slow people milling around and randomly stopping in front of me. That slowed me up at times. I'd hate to think what it would be like on their most popular weekends of the year, rather than a mid-February weekday.

My first ride was Star Wars related, the venerable Star Tours. I rode the first iteration of this ride back in 1991 in Florida. It's basically a pretty simple large flight sim - you sit in a box with thirty-nine other people and hydraulics move you all about in time with a prerecorded view out of the front 'window'. It's much better than I make it sound! The original had just one prerecorded video and movement pattern. When I returned to Disney's Hollywood Studios last year (May 2019), some 28 years later, I saw that they'd completely revamped the ride. Now C-3P0 was the pilot (rather than a specially created droid) and the video had been replaced with a rather clever setup with a selection of random segments, all now in 3D. Where you take off from, places you hyperspace to and where you end up were all seemingly randomly assigned each ride from quite a few choices. Last year I went on that ride several times and whilst I did see the odd segment a second time, I never saw the exact same sequence repeated and each time was was at least one new bit. Every ride (for me, at least) was unique. This time, in Los Angeles, I did go on Star Tours twice (maybe three times) and it was back to be exactly the same each time around. Admittedly it had been updated from the original/prequel trilogy era fare of last year to a sequel trilogy based adventure but it is a shame that they have apparently dispensed with the surprise and variety of different experiences.

After the shock of Star Tours' latest regeneration it was time to blitz the park. Autopia was next - drive a solo little go-kart around a basically on-rails track. It was a little petrol engine thing, to my surprise and slight disgust. That's the first fossil fuel 'car' I've driven in nearly six years. Why aren't these electric, Disney?! Perhaps it was the fumes but things get a little fuzzy after that. Splash Mountain, like the previous two, was another single rider boost to the front of the queue. That's a very traditional but fun log flume. I also did the venerable, if sickeningly twee, It's a Small World water ride through tableaux of animatronic cartoon stereotypes, representing different peoples of the world. There was also a quick trip on a section of the park railway, which took a brief turn of the Jurassic.

Getting impatient to visit the Star Wars area of the park (which Star Tours isn't in), around 10:30 I decided to find my way to the planet Batuu, also known as Galaxy's Edge. I might not be able to get into Rise of the Resistance but there was a whole Star Wars themed section of the park to wander around and the Smuggler's Run ride, too. It's an impressive place. It has a feel much like Mos Eisley except you are actually there. Stormtroopers and the Resistance seem to have claimed opposing parts of the city and you'll see actors dressed up as such, often interacting with members of the public or performing little pre-scripted shows. Then you turn a corner and find yourself approaching a life size Millennium Falcon. It was almost jaw dropping. That's where the Smuggler's Run ride is. This has you as one of the six people in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon (two pilots, two gunners and two engineers - I was an engineer) who have to take it on a smuggling run for the Resistance, naturally with some exciting space battles and encounters along the way. It is essentially a smaller version of Star Tours but with an added interactive bit bolted on in the form of flashing lights, toggles and levers that need to be used as instructed by individual screens on our panels. Wonderful though it is being in the Millennium Falcon cockpit and playing a own minigame on your control panel (with a personal score at the end) it does mean that you don't spend much time actually looking out into space to see the story properly unfold. As an experience it's not as good as I'd hoped, especially being at the back of the cockpit and looking at the sidewall panels for most of it. Worth doing but nothing to get excited about.

Wandering around Batuu was a much more satisfying time, the theme oozed out of every crevice of the place. It was like waking up in Star Wars. There's the food establishments with their odd fare, not to mention nods to the iconic cantina, or the food carts which look like little anti-grav cargo pods piloted by Astromech droids. Then there's several shops where you can buy all manner of often unique items, from expensive metal replica lightsabers, Jedi and Sith holocrons, build your own custom droids (though disappointingly plastic looking), various ornaments, costumes, t-shirts, toys, cuddly creatures and, well, you name it! Don't expect cheap, oh no, I saw a rather fun looking t-shirt of 'the Child' (baby Yoda outside of Lucas/Disney) but it was $37.50 + ~10% sales tax! $40 USD for a perfectly normal t-shirt?! I did not end up buying myself anything, though I did buy three things for our absent friend Steven, who had put in an order. A Salacious B. Crumb puppet ($60!) and two exclusive Funko Pops ($20 each), all plus sales tax. As I said, not a cheap place!

For that morning visit I spent a good hour and a half in Galaxy's Edge. By that point I knew I wasn't getting into Rise of the Resistance and was worried that the queues were increasing elsewhere in the park, so I reluctantly left (though did end up returning for a last stint at the end of the day).

Then back to more traditional Disneyland options with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Space Mountain (the 'real' one, not the one that isn't in Blackpool Pleasure Beach), Pirates of the Caribbean (pleasingly with little obvious change compared to 1991 and only the odd Captain Jack Sparrow reference here and there), Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin, Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage (another one I remember from 1991 Florida, though this time with a significant overhaul to include Finding Nemo), Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye ride (that I incorrectly assumed was the stunt show rather than an 'enhanced motion vehicle') and probably more attractions besides that I forgot to check into via the Swarm app at the time. That Indiana Jones ride was the only one I spend any appreciable time queueing for, probably about 40 minutes.

It's not often that I get recognised, for one thing being a podcaster people tend not to know my face and it's not like we're a massive podcast but, as I returned to Batuu around 5pm, I did hear my name being called and a friendly listener said hi. As if it wasn't overwhelming enough being in a Star Wars location (even a new one created specifically for the Disney parks), for a brief second there I felt like a minor celebrity! Of course there were a lot of Doctor Who fans in town for the Gallifrey One convention, so the odds were a lot higher but still! Oddly, I don't recall the same happening at the convention itself on the next three days!

My feet were causing very real pain, mostly where my boots were now rubbing after a day of sweaty rushing about. Expecting a two hour journey home I decided to call it quits. An exhausting day of both fun and disappointment, which probably sums up Disneyland pretty well in general. Nonetheless I vowed to return, armed with my new knowledge on how to work it. Someday I will return to Batuu and I'll be at Disney before opening (perhaps even staying on site to get early access).

Rather than spend another $50 on getting home I instead searched for a bus or coach to LAX airport, with the intention of getting a local bus from there. Unbelievably I couldn't find any public transport that was going direct to that most major (and local) of airports. Instead I jumped on the first bus going to Downtown LA (using my TAP card this time!) and jumping off at the nearest point to our Airbnb. That place was a rather odd bus stop in the middle of the Harbor Freeway, the high speed traffic flowing either side. Steps to below this section of elevated motorway led me down to West Manchester Avenue, by Winchell's Donut House. This was 20:30 by this point and the neighbourhood wasn't the most appealing, I have to say! At this point, after over an hour and a half on the last bus, I decided I was close enough that Uber was my best bet. At $7.93 plus a $3 tip, after the effectively free bus, that was a lot cheaper than my ride to Disneyland in the morning.

During my absence the others had apparently been over to Hollywood Boulevard (which we'd done back in 2011 and I can't say I was all that impressed back then, save for the Oscars setup that was being done at the time). The Airbnb was empty not due to the others still being in Hollywood but because they were out getting supplies from Target as I returned by 20:45. There's me missing another opportunity for a Baskin-Robbins chocolate milkshake!

The next day was to see the beginning of the Gallifrey One convention, so it was time for a decent night's sleep!

Four Brits in Los Angeles

Four Brits in Los Angeles

Published: 2020-02-27

The second full day of our trip to Los Angeles, Wednesday the 12th of February 2020, began with us walking to the nearest bus stop, for a trip to the La Brea tar pits. Back in 2011, the last time we were in LA for more than just the weekend of the Gallifrey One Doctor Who convention, a subset of us briefly visited the tar pits. That was about an hour before they were due to close. It was a very rushed visit and Karen had headed back to our hotel instead of joining us. The plans for that day had gone awry when we were turned away from being in the audience for The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson due to numbers (despite the fact that The Head of Pertwee and Keith's body were due to appear in a pre-recorded segment from Gally!) This time all four of us were in attendance and well before closing time, at around 10:45am.

It had taken two buses and a combined travel time of about an hour to get there. Due to the grid system the routes are very predictable, if somewhat long and boring. So many stops, about one a minute, which really slows things down but then at $1.75 a bus trip it's much better value than buses around Crawley. Unfortunately this day, the day we made the greatest use of public transport, was the day I'd forgotten to bring along my TAP card. Also buses don't give change, so I was actually spending $2 per bus journey. I think in all I was about $12 out of pocket and given the TAP card had only cost $25 for the week, that wasn't so good! Still, it was a lot cheaper than Uber would have been for all of that.

The La Brea tar pits (and especially the museum) is a fascinating and slightly creepy place. So many animals have died in the sticky black pits over the millennia, their bodies slowly sinking down into the inky abyss. I would have assumed it was like quicksand (or at least how quicksand's portrayed in films) with anyone or anything stepping into the tar pit quickly being swallowed up, drowning as their head finally goes under. The truth of the tar pits is that the thick sticky gloop acts like a non-Newtonian fluid, getting thicker the more effort you put into getting out. Not only that but you don't sink very fast - it's more like getting stuck in thick mud, with most of your body well above the surface but you cannot move. You're more likely to die of the exhaustion from the effort of fighting your way out, thirst or by having chunks ripped off you by adventurous carnivores. The museum has a huge wall with literally hundreds of wolf skulls that they've pulled from the tar pits. The temptation of an easy meal was clearly too much for them, though I suspect many survived by jumping onto a large tarred victim from the edge, grabbing some meat off the top and jumping back to safety. Not a pleasant way to go for the victim!

The pits are still there, though unsurprisingly fenced off. They might catch the odd bird or small mammal still but the days of the pit claiming something like a horse or even a mammoth are long gone. The museum is full of impressive skeletons, preserved by the tar. They are still pulling out bones even to this day, in fact a fair bit of the free-to-visit park that contains the pits is boarded off whilst they continue their work. I highly recommend a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits, especially the paid-for museum.

A quarter of an hour's walk (about one mile) took us to the nearby 'The Original Farmer's Market', which is mostly a place full of small restaurants. In my case a massively overpriced gluten-free pizza more than filled me up, along with a decent enough chocolate milkshake. We visited this place back in 2011 and then, as now, I have to say I was a little underwhelmed. There were some great looking fresh steaks and burgers but without a car and a trip directly back to our Airbnb they were of little use this time, unfortunately! Otherwise it was fine as a lunch food hall but that's as far as it went for me.

Then it was time for something a little more interesting, a little more geeky - a bus to downtime LA took us to the Bradbury Building. The where? Known to many as a major location for the original Blade Runner, the Bradbury Building is a famous and historic place in its own right. For us it was mostly about being in that Blade Runner location (looking a lot less run down in real life!) They get plenty of tourists but as a working office building they only let the likes of us wander around the ground floor. Still, it's a stunning looking place on the inside, with its walkways, cage lifts and glass roof. It's not somewhere you'd stay long but take a visit if you are in the area.

On our whirlwind tour of downtown LA we popped over the road from the Bradbury to another apparently famous place (that I'd never heard of in this case) - Grand Central Market. In many ways it was like a smaller version of the Farmers Market, if perhaps trying to be a little more trendy. We grabbed some drinks and I settled for a simple off-menu apple juice, perhaps to the disappointment of the stall owner who had all manner of odd fruit juice based offerings.

The subway and a bus took us to my personal highlight of the day - the Griffith Observatory. Another familiar place that Karen and I had virtually menaced as desperate gun-toting criminals in Grand Theft Auto. Not only is it an iconic looking building but it houses an impressive museum and planetarium. I don't think I've ever been to a 'proper' planetarium before (the ones I've been to have all been projecting specially formatted but otherwise pretty normal videos onto their domed ceilings rather than stars from the night sky). That was worth it alone (and I should say it's free to visit the observatory but you need to buy a ticket for the planetarium part). Add to that their Tesla coil demonstrations and the chance to look through their massive telescope and you have a very memorable visit indeed. We were also very lucky that we happened to arrive there around 5:30pm, just before sunset. The weather was perfect for an impressive display of the sun setting on the Hollywood sign and downtown LA. The incredible oranges made the white Observatory look all the more incredible. We were there for nearly four hours, thanks to their late night closing but I could easily have spent at least as much time there again.

One surprise at the Griffith Observatory was finding Proxima Centauri by the canteen. Not the real star, despite it being our nearest stellar neighbour but instead a scale model that was 5,400 miles from the scale model of our solar system in Otford, Kent (just about 30 miles up the road from my home). So very random but I must visit the playing field in Otford to see the rest of the scale model!

Given it was 9:15pm or so by then we again cheated and grabbed an Uber back to our Airbnb. Another very enjoyable, exhausting and unforgettable day.

Four Staggering to Venice Beach

Four Staggering to Venice Beach

Published: 2020-02-26

Now that we were settled into our Airbnb in Los Angeles, not too far from the LAX Marriott where we'd be attending the Gallifrey One Doctor Who convention, it was time to venture out. By popular demand Jean's suggestion of visiting the beach was top of our priority list. The four of us crammed into an Uber, on the assumption that it was about as cheap between us and a lot less hassle than public transport. Braving the rush 'hour' traffic around the LA area we were at the world famous Santa Monica Pier by 09:20, which wasn't bad going.

As we approached the pier itself we immediately fell into the trap of a tour guide, there at his pop-up stall by the entrance. He tried to convince us to get onto his 10am tour of Hollywood, pretty much back from where we'd just come! Minorly tempting as it was, we'd made the trip down to Santa Monica quite deliberately so opted to stay, no doubt much to his disappointment. Finally, it was onto the pier. It was oddly deserted, with many of the little kiosks, shops and even the funfair area still closed. We were clearly up earlier than most, even as we approached that 10am.

First off, a group photo below the sign (again, apparently famous) designating the end of Route 66. Jean knew about it but I think she was the only one of us. A quick drink from about the only place open and a walk to the end of the pier and back (with some silly video being shot on the way). We know how to party! Then it was time for something more adventurous - down onto the wide, sandy beach itself. Karen and I had been here before, committing crime and mayhem on this famous beachfront and pier alike. We'd both stolen cars and driven on the beach, mowing down innocent holidaymakers, commandeered small boats and jet-skies, and evaded (mostly) the police. This time we weren't playing Grand Theft Auto, we were there for real, though the place was eerily familiar from our virtual sprees!

I'd had foresight enough when packing for this holiday, and my backpack for this day in particular, to bring along my beach footwear - a pair of Crocs from South Africa. Not stylish but at least The Colin Baker would be proud! They are really good for sandy beaches, though I could have gone barefoot without worry here, as the others mostly did. The sea was cold, very cold. Okay, we were mid-February here so perhaps not so surprising but it was such a hot and sunny day already it was easy to forget it was still technically the winter.

Jean had been given an insider tip about a British themed pub just up from the beachfront. After that sandy exertion, we decided a nice British pub lunch would fit the bill. To be honest I think we'd pretty much forgotten about the rumour of this pub whilst we wandered the copious shopping streets just inland from the pier but then we stumbled across it - The Britannia Pub. The 'pub grub' was distinctly more American than British but what was on offer tasted good and the place was still very quiet. Exactly what we needed before the madness that we'd be walking into shortly after...

Then it was a roughly two mile walk along the beach-side footpath to the equally famous Venice Beach. We stopped off at the first beach cafe we found (a Perry's) for a nice cool drink and watched some young athletic types playing a bit of volleyball (Karen took a lot of photos!) When we got into Venice Beach proper I have to say I was surprised by quite how overrun the place was with homelessness and drugs. It was good natured rather than intimidating, at least by late morning but was almost like walking through a shanty town, albeit one that was hadn't realised that the swinging '60s was fast approaching 60 years ago now. A lot of the unfortunates (or perhaps fortunates, if this was their chosen lifestyle) were trying to sell their amateurish art to passing by tourists - buy a unique piece of Venice Beach life for your wall or mantelpiece. I don't think any of us indulged. Talking of which, cannabis may be legal in LA but it was clear the police left these dropouts to indulge in much more than that. My sense of smell is terrible but even I detected something and Karen, Keith and Jean all made reference to it being very pungent in places!

We cheated and got a ride back to Santa Monica. Only a couple of miles away but a totally different place to Venice Beach, thank goodness! After this overload of Americana and probably a slight high from the hippies' fumes, it was time for something altogether calmer - a visit to the surprisingly tiny but nonetheless wonderful Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. Again, it probably helped that we were very much out of the normal tourist season but like the pier itself earlier, this place was pretty quiet. We all had the chance to give a starfish (or sea star as they call them) a good feel. They are quite rough, unlike the staff and volunteers who were very welcoming. By the time we'd finished our aquatic investigations it was about 4:40pm and apparently time for more food (perhaps we had the munchies!) This time is was back onto the pier to the upper balcony of a restaurant matter-of-factly named Seaside on the Pier, with a decent view of the impending sunset. I shall have to put together a public gallery of my photos as it was indeed a stunning sight and a great end to our excursion to Santa Monica.

Naturally we still had to get back to our accommodation in Inglewood. This was finally the time to properly brave the public transport (the short bus hop from Venice Beach back to Santa Monica Pier not really counting, due to its simplicity). Fortunately we'd already wandered across the Downtown Santa Monica train station earlier so, with some help from Google Maps we knew the train and then bus that we need. Add in a kindly staff member to help us buying our seven day unlimited Transit Access Pass (TAP) cards and we were on our way. Despite our constant confusion with which side of the road we needed to be on for a particular bus we made it back without any dramas, finally getting back around 7:30pm.

All of that was just our first full day. The next day had tar pits, the Farmers Market and a certain building from Blade Runner in store for us...

Westward Bound

Westward Bound

Published: 2020-02-24

Back in the grey, cold and windy UK. That's after two weeks in sunny California, eight timezones away. Having just arrived back home yesterday afternoon, it remains to be seen just how bad my jetlag will be but, so far, it's not been too bad. Before we get to that, how about some thoughts on the past two weeks?

It all began minutes after Doctor Who finished broadcasting on BBC One, on Sunday the 9th of February 2020, around 8pm. A drive across town to Karen and Keith's house where a taxi then picked the three of us up and delivered us to Heathrow. We were spending the night at the Heathrow Easy Hotel, meeting Jean there, to save having to rise stupidly early to travel up there for 6am from Crawley. £23.40 for a night at an airport hotel is something of a steal but the rooms were certainly basic, verging on the prison cell! Still, I slept reasonably well and the taxi from there to Terminal 3 was quick and cheap.

Storm Ciara nearly put paid to our flight out (that's Ciara rather than Clara, though it certainly did blow, cause a lot of grief and generally outstayed its welcome!) The equivalent flight to ours the day before, Virgin Atlantic VS007, along with with most flights on that Sunday were cancelled outright due to the high winds. Things had calmed somewhat by the early hours of the Monday morning that we flew out, with us taking to the air roughly on time. Despite the winds it was actually a very smooth flight. For me it was probably helped by the fact that I had all three seats in my block to myself, so I could really stretch out. It was a daytime flight so I wasn't intending to sleep, though I did briefly nod off! My three companions were much further back in the plane, nearly in the last row. I'd splashed out (most via air-miles) for 'Economy Delight'. The extra legroom probably wouldn't have been worth it if I had used real money, given my short 29 inch inside leg measurement. Nonetheless the additional cost of the seats had seemingly dissuaded enough people that I had those three seats to myself on an otherwise rather full plane, so it was well worth it from that point of view! It wasn't Upper Class (at least on the way out) but it was getting close in this particular case - being able to lie down makes all the difference on a ten hour flight.

Due to California being eight hours behind the UK we arrived early afternoon. I was out of passport control and baggage collection by 1:30pm. With Karen, Keith and Jean being right at the back of the plane (I was probably about a third of the way up, with that front third being a lot less dense than the back two thirds) I found myself waiting the best part of half an hour for them to meet me at groundside arrivals. I was beginning to get worried that they'd fallen foul of cavity searching! No, they'd just found themselves behind a joint stag/hen party group that had taken full advantage of the free drinks aboard the flight and gotten an extra grilling from the TSA!

Los Angeles International airport (LAX) had what seemed to be a temporary solution for taxis which involved us getting a LAXit bus (which apparently, against all logic, is pronounced Lexit) to a special area full of more Uber, Lyft and regular taxis than I'd ever seen. Though I was keen to start using Uber, as I suspected we'd be making a lot of use of them over the holiday, there was some added complication of having to obtain a special pincode to be able to jump into the first one in the queue. We quickly opted to use a regular taxi instead. Then it was off to our Airbnb for the week, well ahead of the 4pm check-in time but the owner messaged us that it was already cleaned and we were welcome to go in earlier. I've yet to be disappointed by an Airbnb and this place was no exception, its listing can be found at https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/28047843 . A great sized house, with four bedrooms (one more than we needed), three bathrooms, five big screen TVs and a wonderful kitchen (including a fridge/freezer with integrated crushed ice dispenser). We didn't spend a great deal of time there but it was a great base of operations and I wholehearted recommend the place.

Aeroplane food is never great (even in Upper class but more on that in a future blog post) so I think we were all quite hungry by this time, therefore we ventured out to a nearby shopping area. Priority one - a cheap restaurant. It was just coming up to 5pm by this point and we found an In-N-Out Burger joint. I'd never been to one of these , though had heard great things. It was fine, good even. Needing gluten-free their 'secret menu' item of the Flying Dutchman (two beef burger 'patties' with two slices of cheese inbetween and no bun or anything else) was just the ticket. Then we ventured off to the nearby Target to pick up some groceries that we needed, particularly for upcoming breakfasts. For me that included a two pack of Beyond Meat burgers, which I'd never had before. Being a full on carnivore, these meat free burgers were actually pretty good, if expensive at two burgers for $6 (plus the sales tax that they don't include in the advertised price). I would definitely eat them again based on taste and the fact that they should be a lot better for the environment.

We needed an 'early night' (bearing in mind that this was effectively a 32 hour day for us, due to the timezone change) but there's always time to stop off at Baskin-Robbins. Perhaps rashly I ordered a large chocolate milkshake, thinking this would be the same size as the large Baskin-Robbins milkshakes in the Crawley Cineworld cinema. No, this was an American sized large! As ever, it was delicious. I never did manage to get back to that Baskin-Robbins during the holiday, despite wanting to on several days - there was never the time. My later search of San Francisco for a Baskin-Robbins came up empty, there wasn't one for many miles, surprisingly (or even a Five Guys for that matter) but that's for another blog post.

Our day ended with the exciting experience of using Uber for the first time (we had a lot of groceries and were tired - don't judge us!) Besides some complication of it not accepting my credit card because I couldn't enter my postcode (it only accepted numbers in that field, like a zipcode, even though it was labelled postcode), I did eventually get it going using Google Pay. We would indeed use Uber a lot more over the coming days, so it was good to get it working.

That was us, arrived in Los Angeles. Tales of our antics there will appear next time...

Masters of our own Domain

Masters of our own Domain

Published: 2020-01-31

Back in August 2001, some eighteen and a half years ago now, I registered the Internet domain name of staggeringstories.net. Of course I first tried staggeringstories.com but found it owned by cybersquatters. I cannot remember how much they wanted for it at the time but it was at least several hundred US Dollars and more recently it was up to about $3,000!

I've kept an eye on it on and off and, unsurprisingly, nobody was interested in paying them anything like that sort of money for it. Finally, a couple of days ago, they let it lapse. Thanks to that, Staggering Stories now owns staggeringstories.com and it didn't cost any more than a brand new domain name, $51.94 USD for six years if you're curious. I was very worried that another cybersquatting company would quickly and automatically register it when it became available. I knew it was about to expire some time soon (and it's pretty murky exactly how long after they expire that .com domains become generally available, to give the previous owners time to reclaim it for cases where they'd forgotten to renew) but I didn't remember to check on it until a day or two after it became free. Luckily nobody had grabbed it in the meantime.

Personally I prefer the staggeringstories.net address. We plug it several times on every podcast, both shamelessly begging for feedback and also mention it in the outro. That final 'dot net' is part of our identity and, more than that, it just seems right - we are an Internet based thing and are in no way commercial! Nonetheless it has always niggled me that anyone accidentally going to the 'dot com' version of our address would find a dead 'for sale' sign of a webpage. Well, no more. All being well the new staggeringstories.com should point to exactly the same place as the original staggeringstories.net (and that goes for the blog, the comatose forum and any emails, too).

It's taken the best part of twenty years but I am glad I never gave into the temptation to pay the extortionate fees the underhanded cybersquatters wanted. Some domain names exchange hands for literally millions of Dollars but in reality we are all just leasing them, paying the administrators of the Top Level Domain (.com, in this case) the same few Dollars a year, no matter what people are willing to pay each other for temporary 'ownership'.

Looking Back in Leicester

Looking Back in Leicester

Published: 2020-01-27

What a weekend that was, having driven up to Leicester on Friday afternoon/evening and back home just in time for Doctor Who on Sunday (more on the latter in the next podcast!)

Saturday saw me at the Science of the Time Lords event at the National Space Centre. The guests were The Colin Baker, Paul McGann and David Bradley. That's a little down on last year where they had four Doctors but the panel with McGann and Bradley was actually a little more entertaining than the epic four Doctor one from the year before. Sadly The Colin Baker was set to do his panel on the Sunday, so I didn't get to see him other than in passing, as I didn't go for a photo or an autograph this time.

All in all it was another good event, though it was noticeably down on attendees over last year (not surprisingly perhaps) and apparently the Saturday (the only day of the weekend I did there) was the busier of the two days. As it was, I was the only one from the 'Staggering Stories team' in attendance this year and it's never quite as much fun without the others. Still, I am glad I went, even if the convention itself is getting a little formulaic with their panels - there are only so many times you want to listen to six people sitting in Daleks attempt off-the-cuff humour as wrangled by Second and Third Doctor impersonators (good as they all are).

The one advantage of travelling to Leicester on my own was that I can do my own thing, without compromise. Every cloud has a silver lining, so they say! Another perk was an upgrade of my hotel room to an 'Executive Suite', which is far less likely to happen if there's a group of you. More importantly being alone meant that I could spend most of the day at the Retro Computer Museum in Leicester on the Sunday without worrying that the others might be getting bored!

I could have spent hours, maybe days, just leafing through their incredible collection of vintage computer magazines, particularly the Atari magazines from the 1980s and early 1990s. I instantly recognised several front covers, read through a good few articles and was reminded of several companies and products through the old adverts. It was a different time, before the World Wide Web, and those magazines taught me so much back then. Without them I almost certainly wouldn't be where I am today.

The Retro Computer Museum has an even more impressive collection of old software, be that cartridges, tapes or discs. The numerous shelves are packed three or four deep in many places and you can rummage to your heart's content. Again, so many memories. Elite, Jet Set Willy, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy adventure game, the infamous ET game for the Atari 2600, I even found the hefty tome for the Atari ST desktop publishing application Calligrapher there. I spent so many hours creating roleplaying documents in that application back in what must have been the very late 1980s and into the very early 1990s (before I transitioned to Papyrus, which I didn't spot there by did find a review of it in a magazine). It was an overload of memories and nostalgia.

It's not just a library of old magazines and games, however. No, it's also full of old systems that you can not only touch but sit down and properly play about with. Old consoles, 8-bit and 16-bit computers. Tables and tables of them, ready to go. They have half a dozen PCs set up for LAN gaming, particularly Quake. Arcade cabinets that can run pretty much any arcade game that you may remember. They even have some massive 1990s arcade VR units from Virtuality. Only a few items, some especially rare and interesting artefacts, are behind glass. Otherwise this has got to be the most hands-on museum I've ever seen. It's not a massive place but it is stuffed to the gills with interesting things and, at least on the day I was there, very well attended - both by oldies such as myself looking for that nostalgia hit and probably even more 'young people' playing on the old systems.

It's very clearly a labour of love for the volunteers who run the place. Not only are they there to help people and talk through the histories but they also maintain the systems, build things like the arcade cabinets and special electronics required for the emulators. On top of that they are also playing a role in digital conservation. One particularly fascinating project they are currently working on is digitising the 1980s BBC Domesday Project, including sampling the raw analogue video streams (at a ridiculously high sampling rate) straight off of the decaying videodiscs. We're talking dozens, if not hundreds of terabytes. I just wish it wasn't an eight hour drive return trip or I'd visit there a lot more often (and maybe even get involved).

If you lived through the 1980s-1990s microcomputer revolution then I'm sure you'll also get a lot out of a visit to the Retro Computer Museum in Leicester. I highly recommend it. I must now get to the slightly closer The Museum of Computing in Swindon, to see how it compares. We need more places like this.

I didn't take many photos but here are a few: Retro Computer Museum, January 2020

Gunslinger Getaways

Gunslinger Getaways

Published: 2020-01-13

The year 2020 is upon us, fast leaving Christmas and New Year in the rear view mirror.

What a busy time it has been. Bleary eyed back to work after getting used to waking up about three hours later. Then there's the big news of Doctor Who finally being back on our screens. As I write this we've seen the first three episodes, namely Spyfall parts one and two, and Orphan 55. They deserve another blog entry on their own, so I'll save that for another day.

Additional holidays/short breaks are in the process of being arranged. I am firmly of the belief that you need such things to look forward to or the daily and weekly routines of normal life will quickly grind you down. To that end, in a couple of weeks, I shall be spending the weekend in Leicester. The National Space Centre up there is hosting Science of the Time Lords and my current plan is to go along to that on the Saturday and then on the Sunday pay a visit to the Retro Computer Museum.

Further off, something to look forward to in the autumn, is a visit to New York. The flights and the Airbnb are all booked and paid for. Now we just need to work out what we're going to do out there but there's plenty of time for that.

Another form of getaway has been happening on and off since the Christmas break, namely computer games. In particular I have been drawn into the Wild West thanks to Red Dead Redemption 2 on the PC. Yes, for a change I have temporarily put aside the virtual reality headsets for something a little less intense - as immersive as VR is, it is also surprisingly draining and the full roomscale set up means a lot of upheaval for my living room. It is good to be able to jump into a more 'traditional' game without those drawbacks from time to time.

The great thing about Red Dead Redemption 2 is the open world nature of it. You can jump on your horse and ride pretty much anywhere you want to on the game's very large map. Go up north into the mountains and you'll find yourself trudging through the snow or go south into the open plains, with all manner of wildlife to be seen around you. You can forage for crafting supplies like herbs or hunt animals for hides and meat. The vast countryside can be searched for fossils, rare animals, abandoned settlements and even hidden treasure (you will occasionally come across a treasure map). Then you could mosey on into town to sell your goods and maybe head into the Sheriff's office and take at look at the wanted posters, before heading back out to hunt down a wanted criminal.

From time to time you might venture back into your own encampment, shared with a motley crew of people on the fringes of the rapidly expanding civilisation. They may want you to join them on quests, ask you to fetch them things from the world or in some way forward the main plot. That main plot is surprisingly rich, though I am deliberately trying to drag it out by avoiding triggering it, where I can! We also have a rival gang, the despicable O'Driscolls. They shoot at us on sight. A group of them ambushed my character by a bridge a few days back. They were no match for me, of course! A couple of days later I got to repay them when I came across a group of six O'Driscolls camping out in the wilderness. The first they knew of me was a well thrown stick of dynamite smacking down into the middle of their encampment. Turns out that our deadly enemies are a good source of loot!

Though the scripted quests are great it is often the unscripted happenings that are the most memorable. This game is full of AI systems and procedurally generated events. The aforementioned time I wiped out an encampment of O'Driscolls is an example, as is the time I was set upon (and killed!) by a pack of wolves. Another time I found someone by the side of the road asking for help, only for it to be a trap - their attempt to rob me only ended up robbing them of life. Then there are the times when things go horribly wrong - like that time I accidentally pointed a gun in someone's face when I had intended to talk to them (all too easily done with the buttons in question) and they, understandably, attacked me. That poor NPC didn't survive my blundered attempt at discussion! Or that time I took a mountain road corner at full gallop and misjudged it. The ragdoll physics of my character and his horse both independently bouncing off rocks all the way down was not so much horrific as outright hilarious.

If you want a walk on the wild side then there's nothing stopping you from robbing passers by, banks, shops, stage coaches or even entire trains. How about stealing a wagon (potentially at high speed by jumping from your horse) and mowing down random strangers in the street with it? All manner of mayhem is open to you, so long as you don't mind the reputation hit and the inevitable posse of lawmen coming at you (or at the very least a sizeable bounty on your head). Personally I am avoiding such interest from the law right now as I have plenty to keep me occupied but I may relax that in time!

Virtual reality it may not be but on my ultrawide monitor you can imagine it's a Spaghetti Western in CinemaScope and how can it not be fun to be the star of one of those?

Of Jumanji and Jedi

Of Jumanji and Jedi

Published: 2019-12-29

What a busy time it is at the cinema this Christmas! Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is either the second, third or fourth film in the series, depending on how you want to count them (the Robin Williams Jumanji from 1995, arguably Zathura: A Space Adventure form 2005, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle from 2017 and Jumanji: The Next Level from this very year). Then there's the little known film called Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which is either the second, third, ninth or eleventh film (depending on if you're one of those revisionists who has blocked out The Last Jedi from 2017, if you want to count it only within the current trilogy, accept it as Episode IX or want to also add in Rogue One and Solo). Busy and confusing, all at the same time it would seem!

Both of these recent entries to their respective franchises are nothing short of great. Neither are groundbreaking or take any real risks but instead give people what the producers think they want. For the most part they are correct and I enjoyed them both immensely.

Spoilers from here on out.

Let's start with Jumanji: The Next Level as it was both out first and is probably quicker and easier to talk about. It takes the wonderful premise and cast from Welcome to the Jungle and effectively just rehashes the whole thing. That sounds bad but actually they do more than enough to keep it fresh by bringing in a couple of new characters and having the existing characters play different avatars for the majority of the film. The one exception being that Karen Gillan remains as Martha playing Ruby Roundhouse (though she does get a brief moment to be inhabited by a male player, as it were). Jack Black's Professor Oberon is no longer a teenage girl but instead playing 'Fridge', the other veteran of the primary four characters. This effectively makes Gillan and Black the main characters of the film this time, as the old hands. Kevin Hart and Dwayne 'the Dibbley' Johnson take the bulk of the comedy and emotional arc as two old friends, new to the game, who squabble and need to make up.

As the name suggests The Next Level is, like a computer game sequel, taking the basics of the previous and providing a new villain, quest and locales. Great set pieces, fun characters and, probably most importantly, it's funny (which seems not to be a given in Hollywood comedies anymore). If you enjoyed the previous film (and how could you not?) then this is a sure fire hit, too. Enjoy the wild ride!

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker had an altogether tougher mission, it needed to put behind it any controversy (for right or wrong) of the previous film (or two, if you include Solo) and provide closure not only to the current trilogy but to the Skywalker trilogy of trilogies as a whole. That's a 'big ask' as they say in Hollwoodland. For my money it did give sufficient closure and was as fitting an end as could reasonably be expected given the characters (and actors) they had to play with.

Star Wars is a film series that has been with me pretty much my entire life. I was three, going on four, when it first hit general release in the UK. I had a big (but not quite complete) set of the Palitoy/Kenner Star Wars figures and ships. It was a massive part of my childhood, before Doctor Who started to take over around 1983, particularly after Return of the Jedi. Star Wars never really went away and was especially rekindled by the West End Games roleplaying game and the original Timothy Zahn trilogy of Thrawn books in the early 90s, perhaps not coincidentally after Doctor Who disappeared from our screens. The Star Wars prequels were okay but were pretty neutral in my personal appreciation of the Galaxy far, far away. The sequels were better but can never replicate the effect that Star Wars of the late 70s/early 80s had on my young mind. Nonetheless the conclusion of the saga that I grew up with must have some deep meaning to me? I'm not sure it has, perhaps because it doesn't actually feel like the end of anything. The stories will continue, though maybe not with anyone named Skywalker but then I was always more interested in the world, the technology and, frankly, the bad guys than I ever was in Luke or Leia. I remember being upset that they killed off Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi (yes, there are some spoilers somewhere in here!) but I feel no upset or mourning for the franchise or anything/anyone in it this time.

The Rise of Skywalker was, for me, a very good film. I liked the redemption of Ben Solo, it felt earned in a way that Vader's never did. I was impressed by how well they managed to integrate Leia into the story, considering their wise decision not to attempt another CGI version of her. Lando's inclusion was distinctly less well done, almost a box ticking exercise of having an original trilogy main actor there as the screenwriters or life itself had killed off the other characters and/or actors (save for C-3P0's Anthony Daniels, of course). I was a tad disappointed by Hux's treatment in the film, I'd hoped he'd get some kind of even limited victory, though Richard E Grant was superb as his effective replacement.

Former emperor Palpatine's return was well handled, I thought. The retconning of him having been the mastermind behind this trilogy basically means that these nine films should be called the Palpatine saga rather than the Skywalker saga, I feel, especially with the slightly left-field revelation of Rey Palpatine. Though I have nothing against The Last Jedi, I do wish J.J. Abrams had overseen the entire trilogy, in the hope that these plot points could have been better seeded in (not that the original trilogy was great at that, either!) The prequel trilogy is the only one that doesn't feel completely made up as they went along.

The McGuffin searches in the first half of the film - get the dagger to get the wayfinder to get to the hidden Sith world - were a newish addition to the cinematic side of the franchise (not counting the Death Star plans in Rogue One) but I am unconvinced that was a great use of the limited screen time, though I don't know what would have been better, so I cannot really complain! This first half also has the fake out of two deaths, Chewie and C-3P0 (a kind of death) which to me shows how they were struggling with that half of the film.

On a rather more positive note, I did find myself properly moved by several scenes later on. Yes, Chewie finding out about Leia's death, dead Luke catching the lightsabre, all of those ships coming to their aid (including Wedge!) and Han appearing to Kylo/Ben. The second half of the film was wonderful. Palpatine was yet again hoist on his own force lightning (will that guy never learn?!) but that seemed fitting, especially that this showdown somehow appeared to be the final one-on-one between the Sith and the Jedi. In many ways this whole sequel trilogy has been an extended epilogue, the last ragtag elements of the Empire attempting to regain control, along with the remnants of the Sith and Jedi squaring up, after already having both been beaten to a pulp, for that final killer blow. I think it might take generations, maybe even a thousand years, for something like the Old Republic to reunite anything more than the core worlds. A multitude of competing regional governments should make for a more interesting galaxy going forwards. I look forward to what's to come.

The Podcast Treadmill

The Podcast Treadmill

Published: 2019-12-17

A few days ago the Christmas episode of the Staggering Stories podcast was unleashed on the world. We had a lot of fun recording it, as ever. Perhaps even a little more fun than usual, thanks to the games and the general festive feeling.

As with any podcast, the recording isn't the first stage (that's watching or listening to whatever we're going to talk about and then writing the news) but it is the most fun, what really makes it worthwhile for us (that and the kind and insightful feedback, of course).

For those interested in the technical details of the recording, the basics are as follows. Yes, we are all in the same room for the recording. If we have a secret sauce it's that, knowing each other for decades (for the most part) and getting all of those non-verbal cues and the general group dynamic that's hard to get remotely, even with only slightly laggy video! Tech-wise things are much simpler now than in the early days (as documented in Podcasting Setup) as now there is no recording computer but instead a standalone device in the form of a 6 mic input Zoom H6. The mics are the same Shure PG48 XLR ones with mic stands, as in our original setup (not counting the very first podcast).

That fun bit of recording is followed by the most laborious part, the edit. I've edited the majority of the past 330 podcast episodes in their entirety. Siobhan Gallichan edited the first few, Karen has edited perhaps a quarter of the others, which has always been a very welcome respite to say the least! More recently we've been splitting the edit, usually with Karen doing roughly the first half and myself the second half and final assembly.

For the sake of simplicity I'll explain what's involved in cases where it's a solo edit by myself. We record (with very few exceptions) on a Monday night. That usually results in a pre-edit audio file of between 1.5 to 2 hours (strictly speaking one mono audio file per mic, up to six, all in perfect sync). Tuesday and Wednesday evenings are devoted to editing (3-4 hours of work a night), resulting in 20-30 minutes of edited material a night. I quickly discovered that three nights of editing in a row made me very unhappy, so Thursday nights I take off (usually a cinema night) and return to it on Friday. Hopefully that will see the main edit finished, though often without the outtakes at that stage. Another 3-4 hours on Saturday will see the outtakes trimmed down (any candidate bit is chucked into another audio project during the main edit and then that's separately trimmed at the end), plus a final automated levelating of the voice tracks, the downmix from multi-track 48kHz to stereo 32kHz MP3, the segment timings gathered, links gathered, web pages written, the graphical ident created and announcements written. Generally this is finished on Saturday afternoon, with the podcast set to publish automatically at 9am on Sunday.

Back to an editing evening, why do I only manage to get 20-30 minutes of material finished in 3-4 hours? So many little ums, ars, pauses, sentences that fizzle out, a multitude of "as I say"s and similar. Then nearly every piece of dialogue needs to be manually sound level adjusted (we're all terrible at keeping our sound levels anything like, well, level - one minute nearly whispering and the next shouting!) If the speaker is too quiet then the final automated 'levelating' will bring up the tracks of everyone, so it will amplify background breathing, shuffling and the like of the non-speakers. In those frequent cases where we're speaking over one another, I try to adjust the volumes of the speakers to put the 'most important' of them as the loudest, slightly dropping the failed interruptions or interjected remark so they are still there but aren't drowning out the primary voice of the moment. It's a lot of work!

Burnout is a very real risk with my ridiculous attempts at perfection (an impossible dream, I know), especially when doing these every fortnight. Basically half of my life is devoted to the podcast and some editing nights I really cannot face it but just have to force myself anyway. The problem is my contingency time is limited, especially if I am going to be busy on a Saturday or an editing weeknight. Those are particularly tough weeks with very late nights.

It's a lot more work than I am sure most people realise. Is it worth it? Every two weeks another podcast will come along, so are they a bit throwaway? Maybe but to me these are almost historical documents, a snapshot of our thoughts and a record of a fun evening. I want to honour those good times and hope to share them in the strongest way I can. The best that I can do in the time that I have.

Fortunately this burden is shared but it's not something I'd wish on anyone (though I'd never refuse an offer of help!)

Updates, updates, updates

Updates, updates, updates

Published: 2019-12-06

A decision on the Los Angeles to San Francisco journey, some additional thoughts on the whole house extension idea and some news on the car situation.

The decision has been made and a ticket booked for the LA to San Fran journey. I was debating if I should take the quicker and cheaper option of a plane journey or go the whole hog and take the reputedly scenic train trip up the coast. The train was potentially half the ~$130 plane fare cost (including hold luggage) or, if I went for a 'roomette' then actually more at $201. I went expensive but scenic. It was one of those things that I would probably have regretted if I took the quicker and easier aeroplane route. I won't be lacking time sitting on a plane during the entire trip as it is in any event. Yes, this way I am stuck on a train with strangers for eleven or more hours but I will have my own room (with bed) to retreat to. I am not looking forward to the dining car experience, being on a table with up to three people I don't know and having to try to make 'small talk'. Hopefully a price worth paying overall.

Talking of paying for my own space, I have already booked my flight into LA and the return flight from San Francisco. So called 'Economy Delight', after Virgin Atlantic split their basic economy class into three - Light, Classic and Delight. On top of that is their Premium Economy and Upper Class. It's all very confusing. The others are flying Economy Light, the most inexpensive but they do have to pay £45 each way for hold luggage and cannot choose their seats until they get to the airport. Economy Classic gets you one 'free' checked baggage and you can choose your seat ahead of time. The oddly named Economy Delight gets you that plus an extra three inches (I don't know why it's not metric by now) of leg room, plus priority boarding. It cost me a bit more but mostly air miles and I've already booked my aisle row seats. Will it be worth it over Economy Classic? Time will tell.

That's all well and good but I must admit to being stupidly (and it probably is stupid) tempted to upgrade all the way to Upper Class for the way home. Unlike the flight to LA this will be overnight. I can never sleep on planes, mostly (I think) due to being sat up and generally cramped. What if I could have a bed, would that help? With Upper Class that's what you get. Well, it's more of a chair that folds totally flat but perhaps it will help? Also I would get access to the Upper Class Lounge at SFO airport and given I need to be out of the hotel by 11am and the flight isn't until 5pm, a few hours in there would certainly be more comfortable than out in the main departures cattle holding. I should even be able to get a table with power and Internet to finish off the podcast that is due out the next morning. As I say, very tempting but at just over £2,000 perhaps a wasteful use of funds?

On that subject, I am getting cold feet over the house extension idea. Of the two quotes I have so far, one was for £41,688 and the other £45,180. The lower quote doesn't include a few bits that the other does, most notably the bi-fold patio doors. Neither includes the extra expenses for additional kitchen cupboards and working tops. I expect the final cost to in reality exceed £50k. Great though it'd be to have a games room and an additional shower room, are they really worth that much to me? The lack of interest in games evenings of late doesn't help the cause. Right now these are rooms that would get little use. Would I be better spending that money on travelling and generally having fun? Okay, that won't add value to the property but that value will only be realised if (when?) I ever sell. Second thoughts are very much settling in. Given it's nearly Christmas, it's not the time to start a building project anyway, so perhaps I should let it ruminate a little.

The car conundrum continues. It has been months since I originally spoke to the Kia dealership to put down my fully refundable deposit for the new Soul EV, with it's ~280 mile all electric range. Out of nowhere I received an email from them saying that the new cars will start to arrive for customers somewhere in the April-May range. The lease on my current car ends sometime in July, so May would be better for me. Still my mind hasn't been made up on if I go for this new car or look for a second hand clone of my current car. The idea of travelling around Europe by car is certainly compelling but I'd only do that with a car that'll comfortably do over 200 miles, with contingency. Is that reason enough for the new car? If so, maybe I also need to sort out that potential Irish passport but that's a thought for another day and to see what comes of the election!

The Maclunkeyan

The Maclunkeyan

Published: 2019-12-02

So, the bounty hunter of the moment, Dyn Jarren, AKA The Mandalorian. I don't believe he's been named on screen as of yet, though Pedro Pascal has rather freely name dropped his character in interviews. Not hearing his name certainly adds to the mysterious nature of the character. It makes it that bit easier to allow your childhood fantasy of putting yourself in their place. I am impressed that, four episodes of eight in so far, they haven't shown his face either. That feels true to what I imagined the character, or at least what I imagined of Boba Fett during my childhood (and indeed my old Star Wars roleplaying game bounty hunter character, who also never removed his helmet). Let's all pretend the Fett stuff in the prequels never happened as that total demystified the character of Boba Fett. Not that I am expecting them to never to show the Mandalorian's face but it will be earned.

Of course all of this talk of The Mandalorian is entirely hearsay. For reasons that can only make sense to Disney, they have chosen not to launch Disney+ in all the major territories at once, or even just all the English speaking ones. It launched in Canada, the United States and, rather curiously, the Netherlands. A week later they added Australia, New Zealand and Puerto Rico. That was all in November 2019. In the UK we won't be able to give them our money until a few hours before April 2020. Given the damaged state of the Star Wars brand (for right or wrong) and the almost universal praise and general reigniting of the love that this series has generated, it already seems foolish not to have launched it everywhere before Rise of the Skywalker. That's not even taking into account that they are retraining the disenfranchised to obtain episodes through less than legal means, exactly what the likes of Netflix were making redundant.

Fortunately with everyone talking about it, there isn't a need to actually obtain the episodes in an underhand way to known everything about it. Vicarious viewing is a real thing in the Internet age! What I know about it has me very impressed. Favreau has said something along the lines of writing it felt like taking his old toys out of their box and playing with them. Others have said that it feels like a big budget (around $5M per episode, I hear) fan film and I don't think they mean that in derisory way. This is certainly the sort of Star Wars that I would want to make. Favreau, along with Dave Filoni and co, has really captured that simple childish wish fulfilment that is at the centre of Star Wars, at least for me and probably most others who grew up with the original trilogy in the 70s and into the 80s.

The series feels like a western, which for my money (eventually!) is absolutely the correct tone and influence for a Star Wars bounty hunter series. Others have noted the inspirations taken from Japanese samurai films, which were themselves inspired by American westerns. There's a lot of cross pollination going on here. There have been minor complaints that the series is taking Star Wars trappings and transplanting them elsewhere in the world just for added Star Wars flavour. Such things might be the Jawas and their sandcrawler on a world that isn't Tatooine or the more general cases of another desert or frozen world. Personally I'm okay with that, these inhospitable worlds are the places you'll less likely to find much civilisation (as it called for) and do we really know for sure that Jawas, for example, originated on Tatooine rather than spread to it and similar worlds from elsewhere? It's not like there seems to be much of an ecosystem to support the evolution of the Jawas on these worlds.

Little in jokes and references are also aplenty, such as that powerful forked gun Dyn Jarren owns is from Fett's original appearance in the Holiday Special, the mention of Life Day and even the infamous 'ice cream maker' (now named a camtono) from The Empire Strikes Back. There are many more besides, including quite a few from the modern animated series that I haven't spotted.

I have tried to avoid spoilers in here, given that most of the world cannot see it and may be desperately trying to avoid spoilers until they can (good luck!) but I cannot end without mentioning, if only obliquely, the character that appears at the end of the first episode. I am impressed that they have used what appears to me to be a lot of practical effects and where CGI has been used you usually cannot tell the difference. They are clearly trying to keep that original trilogy aesthetic (prior to the Special Editions!) where they simply didn't have CGI. I, for one, certainly appreciate that.

Finally, I want to say a word or several about the staggered release strategy. Netflix has rather defined the streaming release model of dumping an entire season in one fell swoop. That's great for bingeing over a weekend and when you cannot wait for the next episode you just don't have to. Disney+ are taking a more traditional approach of releasing an episode a week (give or take a couple of exceptions towards the beginning and end of the run). That does have the benefit of everyone getting time to digest (and produce copious reviews and discussions) for each episode, in step with everyone else. Much as I want to binge and almost hate to say that waiting is superior, in this case I think it is. Four more episodes to go and I am very much looking forward to hearing all about them but let's not rush for it to be over.

California Pondering

California Pondering

Published: 2019-11-29

Planning is well underway for the next holiday, or perhaps I should say 'vacation' as it will be in the United States. No, let's stick with holiday!

It will be a two city break, starting with a week in Los Angeles and then just under a week in somewhere new for me - San Francisco. The LA part was prompted by an annual Doctor Who convention that we've been to twice before, the first time back in 2011 and then again in 2013. Gallifrey One, or Gally as it's generally known, had gotten too big, too noisy. Much as we enjoyed it, we vowed not to return. Then the lesser spotted Christopher Eccleston was announced as a guest for 2020 and, almost without thinking, we all jumped at the chance to face those crowds again, seven years after the last time.

Given the brutal eight hour time difference between home and LA, I really didn't want to fly in just for the convention, as we did in 2013. Even in 2011 we had scheduled the convention weekend as the first days of our LA holiday, then doing the touristy stuff for the week after. That was a mistake. Jetlag meant we were waking up at 3am and being unable to keep our eyes open by 8pm. That's no fun for a convention known for its nightlife! This time the holiday part comes first, so hopefully we shall experience a bit more of the convention, even if it means we'll be at LA tourist spots by dawn!

Sadly I was unable to persuade any of the others to stay on after the convention, they are flying back the next day. I do like to visit new places and it seemed a shame to fly eight timezones and only visit LA, again. Another Californian city I've always wanted to see is San Francisco, so that's what I am doing. We're all flying out of Heathrow together but as they fly home I will travel north. I have still to decide on if I will take the Amtrak Coast Starlight train or take a considerably shorter flight.

The flight is a little over one and a half hours but add in the faffage at the airports either end (check-in, security, waiting to board, boarding, waiting to taxi, waiting to get off the plane, waiting for luggage, etc) then realistically it's more like four hours. On the other hand the train is about eleven hours and that's not counting waiting to leave or any (apparently not unusual) delays on the line. The one-a-day train should arrive in Oakland at around 9:30pm and then it's another three quarters of an hour on a local train or bus to San Francisco city centre. A little late to be dragging my luggage around the streets to the hotel. Then there's the fact that I'll be stuck on a train with total strangers for the majority of a waking day, even forced to share a table at dinner with some of them. I could get a sleeper 'roomette' for the non-overnight trip, to get a little respite from the other passengers, though it would cost a fair bit more than the roughly $130 for a flight.

On the face of it the train doesn't have much going for it. That's until you take into account some reputedly stunning scenery along the Californian coast. It's so tempting just for those views. If I had a travelling companion or two then it would be a 'no brainer' as they say over there. As it is I am still torn. Train or plane..?

Doctor Who: The Edge of Time Itself

Doctor Who: The Edge of Time Itself

Published: 2019-11-26

There's a new(ish) VR game on the block and it's one of those rare beasts - a Doctor Who game! It sports the rather generic sounding name of Doctor Who: The Edge of Time.

I've been playing this on my HTC Vive, which offers full 'room scale' virtual reality, i.e. you can not only look around you, crouch and jump but you can also walk around, at least within the roughly 2.5m by 2.5m area I have to work with. When you need to go farther within the game you can either teleport a short distance or use your handheld controllers to glide about within the game world. I prefer teleport as it doesn't make me feel motion sick.

This is all besides the point. What about finally having a Doctor Who VR game? It's not the most incredible game ever but it does have quite a few wonderful moments. The best of those is every time you stand outside the TARDIS looking in. Being stereoscopic 3D everything you see has a real sense of depth. You can see it is computer graphics of course but you are inside them and you quickly accept the world around you as real. Never is that more impressive than when you can see just how impossibly large the inside of the TARDIS is, when outside looking in you can see that the police box is so much smaller. You can lean around the side of the police box, still being able to see inside (the perspectives changing as they would in real life) but also seeing where the back of the outside box starts. It doesn't get old. The writers of Doctor Who need to experience this because the companions only ever mention it once and then forget about it. That's not how it would be.

Other highlights include Jodie Whittaker's voice work. Sadly it's all scripted so you cannot have a conversation with her but this is the next best thing. Then there's the locations and naturally you travel to a few places in the TARDIS. This game quickly get genuinely scary is almost every location. You don't know scary until you've experienced it in VR and this game likes to put the frighteners on. I won't spoil too much but I will say that if you find Blink unsettling then prepare to be a character in it - it's terrifying! Even the Daleks will get the heart pumping. This has shades of a psychological horror and it's a wonder companions aren't traumatised for life.

The downsides are the duration of the game. Not rushing through it I completed the game in what must have been about four hours. At its core it is a puzzle game. Nothing wrong with that, in fact it's probably a perfect fit for Doctor Who. Some of the puzzles aren't the greatest, however. This isn't Portal, it's not puzzles first, flavour second. It's definitely the other way around, as it should be, so it's hard to complain too much.

Only in VR can a bigger box fit inside a smaller one and you can experience that as if real. Assuming you have a suitable setup and you like Doctor Who then this is a must. If not and you know someone with a HTC Vive, an Oculus Rift, a Valve Index or whatever else is compatible then badger them to get Doctor Who: The Edge of Time and let you have a go. It's the closest you can (so far) get to travelling in the TARDIS.

Packages of Delay

Packages of Delay

Published: 2019-11-20

Two deliveries today, both of which should have arrived yesterday. That doesn't matter too much for the Staggering Stories Christmas cards (hopefully we'll get those signed on Sunday) but the lack of the new graphics card yesterday evening was unfortunate.

Yesterevening we had a mini-gathering. Mainly it was to buy flights to Los Angeles for the Gallifrey One convention in February (more on that in upcoming posts) but also to have a play on the new Doctor Who VR game The Edge of Time. Technically my venerable old graphics card, an Nvidia GTX 970, was below minimum spec (apparently an Nvidia GTX 1050Ti or better is required, thanks to its new VR friendly Simultaneous Multi-Projection tech). Nonetheless my old card did okay in the circumstances but I had put in a rush order the day before for a shiny new Nvidia RTX 2070 Super. Next day delivery was stated, just in time for yesterday evening's gaming. It finally appeared today, a day too late. Thanks Amazon. Still, I look forward to installing that and playing a bit more of The Edge of Time. More on that game in a future post, too.

As for the Christmas cards, those haven't turned out too badly. The 'photoshoot' (if we can even call it that) was very hastily thrown together at the end of our last podcast recording session. The lighting is particularly poor. Still, these are cards that we are sending out to interested listeners for nothing (mostly funded by myself and custom printed cards aren't cheap even when bought in 'bulk' of about 100) so hopefully we won't have too many complaints! Each year I vow to arrange this earlier but it always ends up as a last minute thing. Nevertheless it's a fun picture that I hope people will enjoy seeing on their festive mantelpiece. Next year I hope to commission an artist again, as we did last year, but that requires timely planning... Could someone remind me in August, please?

Podcast 238

Podcast 238

Published: 2019-11-15

Back when I restarted this blog, only a couple of weeks ago or so now, I expressed a desire to expand upon or clarify some of my ideas. Podcast 238 (which should, by the end of the weekend, end up at Staggering Stories Podcast 238) perhaps didn't have the meatiest of topics but I shall put down some of my thoughts, if only for future me (I find it fascinating to read my 2005 thoughts on the Eccleston era as it happened, for example).

Let's start with the 1987 film, Robocop. It was not my first viewing, though it has been a long time and even then only once or twice before. I was surprised how incomplete it felt. It just ended, with basically no epilogue or coda. The villain falls to his death, potentially killing an innocent or two who happen to be at the bottom of the skyscraper. The end. Robocop has, despite his slaughtering, regained something of his humanity. I expected him to then attempt to contact his family and progress in that way. Clearly I am thinking of the sequel and/or the remake from a few years ago.

For a film full of satire and social commentary it seemed to me that they were playing Robocop himself, Murphy, as an entirely unironic unstoppable, uncompromising killing machine. The Judge Dredd influence is palpable (now that I am much more familiar with Dredd than I was in the 1990s or whenever I first saw Robocop). Dredd also inhabits a distopian future of satire and social commentary but there they make no bones that Dredd is an anti-hero, in a world devoid of truly heroic characters. Robocop is treated like a superhero, like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner - one day something happens to him to bestow strength and power, no longer to be put upon. Robocop is that with an added dose of the Terminator or Rambo. He feels like the ultimate American gun toting fantasy. It perhaps shouldn't be a surprise that he later became a childrens' character in cartoons! It will be interesting to see where they take this proto-Cyberman character in the sequel. My vague recollection is that much more time was spent on what it was like to be that cyborg-as-property. The first film needed more of that.

As for Doctor Who: The Time Monster... I don't know that I have much to add. This was the first time I'd ever seen it, oddly. I don't think I was missing much. Not a stellar Jon Pertwee story, though it was absolutely typical of the era - the Master, some scientific research gone either awry or (as in this case) used for evil. An establishment figure enthralled to the villain. Lots of boring looking lab and office sets. Pertwee was rarely showing any flair, warmth or really any interesting character traits here, sadly. When he's on form he can be great but he often feels like he's just going through the motions, at least so it seems to me. The Time Monster is not totally without merit or fun, however. Benton gets to do a fair bit, including falling for the oldest trick in the book. Speaking of which, Delgado is on fine form, as ever. The titular monster looks ridiculous in action but I was always intrigued by it since seeing a photo in the Radio Times 20th anniversary special. Another story crossed off the list and my nine year old self's imagination slightly let down by the reality of the monster!

Next time on the Staggering Stories podcast... His Dark Materials episode 1-4 on BBC One, the BFI event for the now delayed Doctor Who Season 26 Blu-ray boxset and just maybe a review of the new Doctor Who VR game - The Edge of Time.

Rear Expansion

Rear Expansion

Published: 2019-11-06

As I write this I have lived in my current home for just over twenty years. I bought the house on the 3rd of September 1999 and moved in exactly a month later, after a total redecoration, on the 3rd of October 1999.

Over those twenty years I've replaced the old single glazed windows and doors, all of the radiators and the boiler, had a new bathroom put in and recently a new kitchen, had solar panels and home battery storage fitted, plus an electric car charging point, of course.

Houses are money pits but then the value of my place has at least trebled since I bought it (though the value of all homes have gone up by a similar amount, so I've not really gained anything unless I move into a cardboard box!) That makes moving to a bigger place prohibitively expensive but there is another upgrade that I can do to my place - an extension.

My back garden is quite small (this being a 1985-1986 built house) and, for me, something of a waste of space. I've spent considerably more time out there cutting the grass and otherwise maintaining the garden than actually making use of it. I would, however, make use of an extended kitchen (reshaped into a galley style kitchen), a downstairs shower room and a games room.

I am hoping the cost would be somewhere between £35k and £45k. So far, despite having had two out of three potential builders over to look at the place, I've not had any kind of quote or even a rough indication. If it's going to be more than about £50k then I'll probably think again. A conservatory instead? Wouldn't give me an extra shower, which my four bedroom place would really benefit from, especially when I have two or three friends staying. I also hear horror stories about keeping conservatories warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Then there's their shortish life of 20-30 years, making them a liability after a couple of decades. Not so keen on that idea.

We'll have to see what the various companies come back with for the extension. The chattier of the two chaps to take a look did mention an expected works duration of about twenty weeks! That doesn't make it sound like it'll be cheap and it will be a big disruption for nearly half a year. Ouch.

Car Conundrums

Car Conundrums

Published: 2019-11-04

Electric cars are my thing. I've been driving pure electric for almost five and a half years now. Four years in a first generation (24kWh) Nissan LEAF and nearly one and a half years in a Kia Soul EV (30kWh). If I can at all help it, I'd never go back to an old fashioned combustion car.

Good for me and all that. So what? Well, I have just over six months before my current lease expires. What's my next car? I may or may not be able to extend my lease. If I can it will almost certainly include a significant price hike as the residual value in a two year old car is considerably better than that on a three or four year old one, especially given the new longer range cars that are starting to appear.

I do have a deposit down on the next generation Kia Soul EV. My current one has a rough range of 130-140 miles. The new one is literally double that (officially 280, I believe). Sounds great but I've recently found myself wondering if I actually need that. I can drive to Cambridge without recharging en route. Cardiff is one (20-30 minute) midpoint stop, which is actually welcome on such a long journey. How about I try to buy this car or an identical one and keep it a few more years?

The original plan was to outright buy the next car as a long term keeper. That's the only way I can really justify to myself the cost of a new longer range EV (about £34k in this case). With a 7 year warranty that would be about £5k a year or just over £400 a month (assuming zero value at the end, which shouldn't be the case!) Hardly cheap motoring, even if the 'fuel' should cost me peanuts, especially in the summer thanks to my solar panels.

A second hand version of my current car is apparently going for about £16k right now. That's still with 5 years warranty left. With a whole slew of longer range EVs due on the market in mid to late 2020, due to EU emissions, perhaps I should buy something like my current car and keep that a few years. In three or four years the EV market should look a lot different, hopefully with more reasonably priced cars. But what about the new features such as partial self driving, heads up display, longer range and so forth?

The new and shiny calls but perhaps I should resist this time?

Unlimited Cinema, Limited Films?

Unlimited Cinema, Limited Films?

Published: 2019-11-01

Is it just me or has this been a particularly poor year for cinema? I pay the recently inflated price of £18.40 a month for 'unlimited' cinema, where I can see as many films as I like for that one fixed monthly price (upgrade fees are added to tickets for their digital IMAX screen, the 270° ScreenX, 4DX, non-film screenings such as stageplays, etc.) Given that a regular screening now appears to cost £12.90, watching two films a month makes the Unlimited card pay for itself. That's based on their prices but what's it worth to me?

This year I have been struggling to find motivation to go to the cinema. The more I go the better value for money the Unlimited card becomes but my time is more precious than ever. How many of the films that I've sat through this year were really worth my time? This year more than any previous (and I have been an Unlimited member since July 2012, coming up to 7.5 years now) on many weeks I've struggled to see any films in the listings that I've wanted to see. Looking back on the year there were a few highlights but not as many as I would expect. Has cinema generally become bland or am I just a bit burnt out? A bit of both perhaps?

Whatever the case, I am seriously considering cancelling my Unlimited card in January, after I've had my fill of Rise of the Skywalker and Jumanji: The Next Level. It would be quite a change, for so many years now I've been spending an evening at the cinema every week (give or take), it is part of my routine.

Return of the Blog

Return of the Blog

Published: 2019-10-25

It's been a while now, in part because I did not want to pollute the Staggering Stories Blog with my own personal entries, as I used to back when the podcast was young (actually even before it started). I do want to put my thoughts down somewhere, so let's do it here, on my own website.

The podcast is great fun but often not the best way to get my thoughts and opinions out in a coherent fashion - there's just too much back and forth and tangenting going on there. I wouldn't have it any other way, the Staggering Stories podcast is supposed to be us just chatting and having fun. That does mean that I often find myself wanting to sit down a give a more considered review or take on whatever we've been discussing. Hopefully those will, occasionally, end up here.

Also I worry about relying on Facebook for my own personal history. What have I been watching, reading, playing or otherwise doing? A lot of that goes on Facebook. It's not private and nor will anything here be. Facebook is more about the now. If you want to see what you were doing three months ago or what your fast take was on a particular thing, well good luck finding it!

My first task - somehow integrate the Nextcloud instance I am using to write this with my website. How hard can it be?