November 2013 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.



“Crewel” Gennifer Albin. A rather disappointing YA dystopia. Library book.

“Enchanted Glass” Diana Wynne Jones. Childrens’ fantasy book about magicians & fairies. Library book.

“Poltergeist” Kat Richardson. Sequel to Greywalker, urban fantasy about a ghost-seeing PI in Seattle. Library book.

Total: 3


Marillion playing at the Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury, 9/11/2013.

Steven Wilson at the Royal Albert Hall, 20/10/2013.

Total: 2


Camera Shy.



Past Glory.


Total: 5


The Book of Common Prayer. In Our Time episode about the history & contents of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Corn Laws. In Our Time episode about the Corn Laws of the early 19th Century.

Galen. In Our Time episode about Galen, the 2nd Century AD Greek physician.

Total: 2


“The Arts of War: Assyrian Narrative Art” Nigel Tallis. Talk at the British Museum Members’ Open Evening in November 2013.

“Ritual and Religion in Egyptian Mines and Quarries” Hannah Pethen. Talk given at the EEG meeting in November, about the rituals and mythology that the Ancient Egyptians had surrounding mining.

Total: 2



Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor.

Total: 1


Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life. David Attenborough talks about Darwin, Darwin’s theory of evolution and Attenborough’s own past.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Film about the Chuavet cave paintings.

Dan Snow’s A History of Congo. Depressing look at the last 150 or so years of the history of Congo & how this has left the country in a state.

David Starkey’s Music and Monarchy. David Starkey tells us all about the influence the English monarchy has had on English music starting from Henry V through to the present day.

Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide. Programme about the 50 year backstory & history of Doctor Who.

Games Britannia. History of games in Britain, we only watched the first episode.

A Hundred Years of Us. Aired to coincide with the 2011 census this is a look at how British culture has changed over the last hundred years.

The King’s War on Witches: Revealed. Rather good Channel 5 documentary about James VI & I’s witchhunts.

Metal: How it Works. Series about the history & use of various materials (only the first episode is about metals).

Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-hole: An Eighteenth Century Navy Graveyard Uncovered. Sam Willis follows an archaeological excavation in Antigua, uncovering 18th Century Navy burials.

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors. Series about the history of the Ottoman Empire presented by Rageh Omaar.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Simon Armitage talks about the poem Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, and his translation of it.

Stories of the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisted. Julian Richards returns to digs that were originally filmed for Meet the Ancestors more than a decade ago & sees what new things have been learnt.

Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy. Cut down version of Ultimate Tut.

The Viking Sagas. Rather weak programme on the Viking sagas presented by Janina Ramirez.

When Coal Was King. Timeshift episode about the culture of coal miners in the 1940s & 50s. Not a full post.

Total: 16

Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide

I recorded Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide before the 50th anniversary special episode aired (post) but we didn’t watch it till afterwards. J’s very spoilerphobic and so we didn’t want to risk it being full of coy “teasers” about the upcoming episode – in retrospect I think they handled it pretty well, there were references to what the story was going to be about but nothing that wasn’t completely obvious from the end of the episode before.

This programme was a look at the whole of the Doctor Who series so far – running through the Doctors, and discussing the iconic companions and monsters. It did this partly with clips from old episodes, and partly by interviewing people who’d been in those episodes … and partly by interviews with “celebrities”. The scare quotes are there because I didn’t actually recognise many if any of the non-Doctor Who people (and in fact I didn’t recognise all the Doctor Who ones, Sophie Aldred no longer looks much like Ace for instance). I’m sure they’re all famous if you’re up on your modern pop culture … There were also a couple of framing vignettes with the 11th Doctor & Clara about the Doctor losing his memory, and there was a voiceover from Russell Tovey pulling the whole thing together. And someone had clearly had a lot of fun assembling clips from a wide range of episodes to have the Doctor respond to or join in with the commentary.

Obviously all the Doctors (including 8, but not the War Doctor) were covered. They had clips from everybody and tried to give some sense of the personality of that particular Doctor and what each actor had brought to the part. That was a bit more fleshed out when you got to the Fifth Doctor and onwards (except for Nine) as the actors were part of the show so could actually say what was in their minds. I’ve watched almost every episode since sometime early in the Fifth Doctor’s run, so a lot of the later stuff was very nostalgia fueled for me. It’s always a little odd for me to see the gushing over the Fourth Doctor, because I didn’t really see many of his episodes (perhaps only one at the time? I’ve watched Genesis of the Daleks since). So I’ve never been as fond of his interpretation as everyone else seems to be – the Seven/Ace era is the best of Old Who as far as I’m concerned. This programme did make me want to seek out the earlier Doctor’s stories though, but I think I’ll look for (library) books. J and I did try & watch through some Old Who serials a few years ago, and I think it’s my fault we gave up – my tolerance for televised fiction is variable and low, and the less modern pacing/story-telling drove me batty.

The companions weren’t as exhaustively covered – and the selection was a little odd, I thought. Like Susan was name-checked (and we had a clip of her departure) but Ian and Barbara weren’t mentioned by name (tho they were in some clips iirc). Obviously Sarah Jane Smith got some attention – and it was suggested that she was the first to have an actual consistent character, rather than being a scream-on-demand-question-asker – partly because she’s the one who returned in New Who, and partly because the actress (Elisabeth Sladen) recently died. Oh, and she was the iconic Fourth Doctor companion, in many ways. And that was also odd – we had SJS and Leela name checked, but not Romana. Tegan completely missed out (except a mention in a clip) and Peri really only talked about for her outfits. And because the Fifth Doctor’s death scene was memorable mostly for the camera angle straight down Peri’s cleavage … Ace did get a few mentions (yay!) and we got to see her beating up a Dalek with a baseball bat, but the Nitro 9 was kinda noted in passing and not dwelt on. Once into the modern era I think everyone got name checked, and a little bit of chat. Not everyone was interviewed, but a fair few were (including the guy who played Adam who I’d almost forgotten about).

Monsters were the obvious ones, really – a lot mentioned in passing, but we dwelt on the Daleks and the Cybermen. And the Master plus sidenotes on the rest of the Time Lords. I was entertained by the clip of the 2nd Doctor holding forth about how the Time Lords’ non-interference policy was immoral, because of course the modern era has had the Time Lords being far too keen to interact with the rest of the universe. And there was some talk about how in the modern era the alien races aren’t as often presented as monolithic – like there’s Strax the Sontaran who isn’t an enemy. There’s more of a sense of every race (short of the Daleks & Cybermen) as having good people and bad people and those that’re in between.

I’ve missed loads of stuff, I think – it was a fairly information dense show, not surprising given it was covering 50 years of back story both from a outside and inside perspective. It was a lot of fun to watch as a Doctor Who fan, and I’d recommend watching it if you are. Although if you’re the sort of person who knows every detail inside out I suspect you’ll find it shallow, and it’s very much focussed on celebration so there’s nothing about why it was cancelled back at the end of the 7th Doctor’s run or anything like that. The closest they get to negative is Colin Baker mentioning that a lot of people didn’t much like his Doctor at the time, and saying the outfit wasn’t what he’d’ve preferred.

Other tv watched this week:

The last episode of A Hundred Years of Us: a superficial look at how British society has changed over the last 100 years.

Timeshift: When Coal Was King: a programme using footage from the Mining Review features in cinemas in the 50s & 60s to look at what the mining community was like during that era.

Editorial note: I’m still trying to find the right way to write up TV from the week without it turning into a chore and taking over the blog. For now I’ll be writing about one or two programmes in depth, and just name checking the rest.

In Our Time: The Corn Laws

In 1815 the British government passed a law fixing the price of grain at a higher than market price. This was the first of the Corn Laws, and it sparked rioting by those most affected – the urban poor. The laws were to last until the late 1840s, when they were finally repealed under pressure from manufacturers concerned about the effect on trade. The three experts who talked about these laws on In Our Time were Lawrence Goldman (Oxford University), Boyd Hilton (University of Cambridge) and Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey (London School of Economics).

They started the programme by giving us a bit of context. Britain in 1815 was at the start of the process of industrialisation and just coming to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. So there was concern about how the economy was going to adjust to the new demands of peace and industry. There was also concern over political instability in Europe, and worries about the spread of revolution to Britain (it’s not that long after the French Revolution after all). And the industrialisation of Britain was also shifting population and the balance of power more towards the growing manufacturing cities of the north, which was generating pressure for reform of Parliament and extension of the franchise.

So against this backdrop the landowners, who were the major interest represented in the Parliament of the time (both in terms of who has the vote and in terms of how many MPs come from which areas of the country) vote through a law that protects their profits from grain growing. During the war it was harder to import grain, so to feed the country more & more marginal land was forced into cultivation. Now that peace has broken out the landowners are worried that grain imports will force down the price of grain and the profits they make & the rents they can get from their tenant farmers will be reduced. The law was openly protectionist in nature and the landowners who passed it felt it was their due for supporting the country during the war.

Right from the start didn’t go as well as they had hoped. Britain wasn’t actually able to be self-sufficient, but the hope was that for the 4 or 5 years out of 6 when the harvest was good enough then British grain would be enough. And for the other 1 or 2 years in this cycle when the harvest failed then grain could be bought in from the Eastern European farmers and prevent famine. But as one might predict (with the benefits of a cursory, but 21st Century, knowledge of economics) without the market always being there the farmers of East Europe turned to other crops or other ways of making their living, rather than growing surplus corn just in case they could sell it to Britain. So further laws were passed trying to sort this situation out whilst still protecting the interests of the British aristocracy.

Into this situation comes the Great Reform Act of 1832. This extended the franchise to men with less property (one now needed land or a house to the value of £10). And the boroughs were redrawn – the system had been kept the same for about 400 years previously, despite changes in population. Previously there were areas (“rotten boroughs”) where there was little population but they had an MP, and places such as Manchester (a new and growing town in this period) had no representation. This reform changed the balance of power, and the industrialists started to campaign against the Corn Laws. From what the experts on the programme were saying this didn’t have much to do with the plight of those poor who couldn’t afford to buy bread. Instead it was about trading the goods that the manufacturers were making. If Britain wasn’t importing grain then it was hard to get other countries to buy Britain’s exports, which hurt the profits of the industrialists and the country’s economy as a whole. And it was about how if food is expensive, then people buy less clothing or other goods, and again less profit for the boss and less economic activity in general.

The Anti-Corn Law League was formed in 1838, and attracted many supporters. They were working towards a plan for repealing the Corn Laws after the planned 1848 election – involving propagandising to the country in general and the electorate in particular, and getting their sympathisers elected. The Anti-Anti Corn Law League (real name the Central Agricultural Protection Society – CAPS) was formed in 1844 to campaign in support of the Corn Laws. Schonhardt-Bailey gave us some figures to demonstrate something of their reach – the Anti-Corn Laws League started off with about £5,000 worth of subscriptions, and grew by 1845 to ~£250,000 worth of subscriptions. The CAPS had about ~£2,000 worth of subscriptions at that point. The CAPS were handicapped in a couple of ways – firstly their senior figures (like the Duke of Richmond) were the sort of people that fit contemporary stereotypes about useless & wasteful aristocrats, whereas the leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League were charismatic and good persuaders. And the CAPS membership and support base was drawn from people who felt it wasn’t appropriate to take politics “out of doors” – i.e. politics was something that happened primarily in Parliament and between the Members of Parliament. So they had an ideological opposition to drumming up support amongst the electorate & the population at large.

Robert Peel, eventually responsible for repeal, properly enters this clash of ideologies in 1841 when he becomes Prime Minister as the leader of the Conservative Party. The programme digressed a bit to talk about Peel’s background here, as he’s the man responsible in the end for driving through repeal. Peel’s father had been a self-made man, who then became a baronet. Peel himself had been educated at Eton & Oxford, so brought up with the members of the elite, and went into politics. He was ideologically a good fit for the Conservative party of the time, but didn’t feel at ease with them – because he wasn’t part of the old aristocracy he was an outsider in some ways. The Conservative Party was generally in favour of the Corn Laws – they represented the old landed interests. Peel himself voted against repeal several times in the early 1840s, although the experts suggested that he’d always been in favour of repealing them. This probably wasn’t for the same sorts of reasons as the industrialists wanted to repeal them. The suggestion is that Peel saw the Corn Laws as protecting the short term interests of the landed aristocracy at the expense of their long term protection. Effectively he was spooked by the rioting and opposition of the general public to these laws, and believed that as long as these laws existed they kept inflamed the possibility of revolt like in France only half a century earlier. You might have hefty bank balances from your grain profits, but will that help you if the mob burn your house down?

The experts were saying that Peel started by introducing legislation to weaken the effects of the Corn Laws – they believed this was an attempt to avoid looking like he was betraying his party. The plan seemed to be to reduce the laws, and then win the 1848 election on the back of these partial repeals which would then give him the mandate to repeal the Corn Laws fully. But this isn’t how it played out, instead in 1846 Peel brought repeal to the table at Parliament, and managed to persuade sufficient of his party to support him to bring it about. The experts were suggesting perhaps he came to believe his party wouldn’t win the planned 1848 election, so wanted to get this done when the Conservatives would reap the political benefits. Apparently the language used around the issue at the time was fairly religious and overblown (with talk of martyrdom and so on), so perhaps Peel was also swept along by a feeling that it would be the right thing to do to politically die for his faith in repeal.

After the Corn Laws were repealed and a Free Trade approach to the economy was now employed. The experts said that the next couple of decades were very prosperous for Britain – with ample harvests, and plenty of growth in the economy. They also said that this didn’t have much to do with the Corn Laws or Free Trade – it was mostly a result of climatic conditions favourable to agriculture. But because of the presumed cause & effect – repeal of the Corn Laws –> prosperous Britain – this shaped the future of Britain. Free Trade was now seen in many circles as proven to lead to a booming economy.

The programme ended quite abruptly, as Bragg realised they were running out of time – one of the problems with this being a live show I guess. I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. I’m not surprised it happened to this one, it was one of those subjects I thought might be a bit dull in advance but turned out to be fascinating once it got going.

“Wise Men from the East: Zoroastrian Traditions in Persia and Beyond” Vesta Curtis (Talk at the British Museum Members’ Open Evening, 11/11/2013)

The second of the two talks we went to at the British Museum Members’ Open Evening the other week was about the small exhibition of Zoroastrian and related pieces that has recently opened at the BM. This is in some ways a related exhibition to the larger Zoroastrian exhibition at SOAS which finishes soon (we went to see it the other day so I shall be writing that up soon). In this post I’m going to talk about both the exhibition and the curator’s talk.rather than split them into separate posts. My photos are up on flickr here.

Exhibition TalkExhibition Door

The curator, Vesta Curtis, started by telling us that she herself is Iranian, and her professional interest is in royal iconography on pre-Islamic Iranian coins. She’s taken advantage of interest generated by the other Zoroastrian exhibition to draw people in to look at her coins. The other strand of the exhibition is to look at how the Zoroastrian iconography has influenced both modern Iran and the Western world (hence the “Wise Men from the East” bit of the exhibition title).

The Zoroastrian religion is named (by outsiders) after its prophet Zoroaster or Zarathustra. He lived somewhere between 1800BC and 600BC (amusingly one of the audience at the talk thought Curtis meant he lived that long, but no she meant the much more plausible fact that his dates are unknown). The primary god is Ahura Mazda, sometimes shown as a winged figure. This same iconography can be used as representation of the concept of Kingly Glory, and it’s not always clear which it is in a given context. The Zoroastrians see the world as a battleground between good and evil forces, and see the role of humanity as working to aid the good force. Curtis said in some ways it’s an eco-friendly religion, as one of it’s precepts is that a good person should not pollute the natural elements (like water, fire, earth).

Cylinder SealCoins of Kusrau IIEmbossed Bowl Showing the Goddess NanaCoins Depicting Mithra

The religion started in Iran and spread to India. Curtis had displayed a selection of coins and seals which depicted Zoroastrian iconography from across the region and across time from c.400BC through to the 1600s AD. In modern Iran the winged figure of Ahura Mazda or the Kingly Glory has become a secular national symbol. Curtis was telling us that a lot of people, in particular the younger generation, in Iran have some piece of jewellery or accessory with this figure on it – even non-Zoroastrians. It’s a symbol that emphasises the long history of Iran, and to go with this theme in the exhibition there were some stamps released in 1970 to celebrate 2500 years of the Persian Empire.

Farvarhah KeyringIranian Stamps

The impact on the Western world is via Christianity. The three Wise Men who bring gifts to the infant Jesus are generally depicted in Persian dress. Even the name we use for them – the Magi – derives from the Persian word for a Zoroastrian priest. From the word Magi we also get “magician” and “magic”. One of the Magi is possibly an Indo-Parthian King called Gondaphares, his name is corrupted to Caspar or Jasper in the Christian texts. I admit I’m not clear if there was more evidence than just the name to link the two or not.

Reliquary CasketTaler from Cologne

This was an interesting talk and exhibition, but I think it was a little unfocused for such a small collection. Coins were clearly Curtis’s thing, and I think in trying to give it a broader appeal it ended up with a few too many only tangentially related things. Still, I likely wouldn’t’ve gone to look if it had all been coins (because they’re not really my thing), so it did the job right in that sense 🙂

“The Arts of War: Assyrian Narrative Art” Nigel Tallis (Talk at the British Museum Members’ Open Evening, 11/11/2013)

A couple of weeks ago we had a day out in London visiting the British Museum. During the day we mainly went to see their El Dorado exhibition (which I’ll write up later) and in the evening we went to two gallery talks at the Members’ Open Evening (one of which is what I’m talking about here, the other one will be tomorrow). My photos related to both these talks are up on flickr here.

The first of the two talks was about the Assyrian reliefs that the museum has on the ground floor. The curator, Nigel Tallis, took us round 3 of the rooms, talking about both the art and what it tells us about the Assyrian Kings (and about their methods of warfare, hence the title of the talk).

Assyrian Relief from the Northwest Palace at Nimrud

The first room has reliefs from the Northwest Palace in Nimrud (in modern Iraq) and is the earliest known example of these types of reliefs from Assyria – previously they had painted reliefs with much the same subject matter. Tallis told us this was an example of how the Assyrian Kings liked to demonstrate their greatness by emphasising their embrace of new technology & arts, they’d seen reliefs in other lands and now they wanted them themselves.

Assyrian Relief from the Northwest Palace at NimrudAssyrian Relief from the Northwest Palace at NimrudAssyrian Relief from the Northwest Palace at NimrudAssyrian Relief from the Northwest Palace at Nimrud

The last two of those photos also illustrate the army, and thus by extension the King embracing new technology. There’s a scene of the army crossing a river, and you can see the soldiers using inflated bladders as float aids. And you can see in the siege scene that the defenders have tried to set the Assyrian army on fire, but the Assyrians are pumping water to put out the flames.

The next room has the reliefs from the Southwest Palace of Sennacherib, which are later in date and more complex in style. In contrast to the Nimrud reliefs the text on these one includes captions explaining what the scenes are showing. The text on the Nimrud ones is several repetitions of a standard text explaining how glorious the king is.

Siege of Lachish

The scenes here tell the story of the siege of Lachish, a city in Judah. Tallis told us this is an unusual situation from the ancient world where we have both sides of the story – these reliefs tell the Assyrian side, and the Bible tells the Jewish side. The reliefs tell the whole story of the siege, and the capture of the citizens of the city (and what happened to those that were punished). In the photo above the King is sitting on a hill overlooking the action. Tallis pointed out several features that suggest that the artists who created the scenes were actually present at the battle, sketching bits for later use. And he said that archaeologists have figured out where the battle took place, by using the relief and matching the landscape up. So it’s partly a realistic representation, but it’s important remember it’s also symbolic. And again it displays the King endorsing & using new technology (and you can see where the artists are stretching their repertoire too).

The last room he took us through was the one with the royal lion hunt reliefs. These are not war per se, but involve a lot of the same sorts of representation and mix of realism and symbolism. The lions as they are shot and die are very realistically depicted, again it looks like the artist has seen this rather than just been told about it. But the King is shown as larger than life – a relatively new development, earlier reliefs had him the same size as other people.

Assyrian Lion Hunt ReliefAssyrian Lion Hunt ReliefRelease the Lions!Assyrian Lion Hunt Relief

Also crossing the boundaries between reality & symbolism is the whole event itself – the lion hunt was a real thing that happened, but it was very much staged. The lions were captured and the whole hunt took place within an enclosed area. One of the photos above shows the lions being released into the arena. There’s also a scene of the King killing a lion with a knife – there’s a series of these scenes, like a cartoon strip, showing a lion feigning death then rearing up to attack a servant before the King bravely steps in and finishes it off. Now this may’ve been a thing that actually happened, but it’s also a propaganda piece for the King – if you look at the pose of the actual kill it’s set up to look exactly like one of the royal symbols, which will not’ve been a coincidence!

This was a fascinating talk, I’ve looked at these reliefs several times but there was a lot I’d not noticed or not realised the significance of.

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor

Whee! 50th anniversary special Doctor Who, and I think they managed to pull off a suitably epic story. Lots of back references to Old Who, and a mainline plot about one of the big things from New Who. As I generally do with Doctor Who episodes this rest of this post is a not-quite-cohesive collection of things I liked 🙂

(Terminology note: I’m keeping the Doctor numbers the same, and calling Hurt’s Doctor “the War Doctor” instead of 8.5.)

SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page:

I liked that the Time War was the focus of the main plot line – it’s been one of the defining characteristics of the Doctor in New Who, he is the man who killed his own people because it was the lesser of two evils. Even 11 isn’t over it, he hasn’t forgotten how many children died on Gallifrey because it “slipped his mind” he’s deliberately chosen not to dwell on it – but that choice still defines him, he’s the Doctor who has decided it’s time to move on from what he did. That’s what the War Doctor and 10 can’t imagine, they’re too close to it. But 11 has had another 400 years on from 10 and he has started to come out of the other side of that grief. Although he’s not all the way there, even if 10 & the War Doctor think he is.

Given it’s such a big difference between the classic episodes & the new ones I think it needed to be in the anniversary story. And it’s also nice to have it tied up, and the Doctor (and the plot lines) can truly move on now. By making this the focus of the special I also think it compartmentalises it in a way – this is not “New Who Is Not Old Who” this is an episode in the whole story of the Doctor’s life. Yes, it’s a third of his life so far, and it’s going to forever colour his life going forward. But it’s just a part of the whole sweep of continuity. (I’m not sure I’ve managed to get that thought out of my head intact, hopefully you can follow what I mean!)

I liked that the Doctor figures out a way to avoid actually having to burn Gallifrey. I didn’t like the actual plan he came up with coz I don’t think it makes sense but I’m willing to not think about it in detail because I like the higher level story. The 4th Doctor couldn’t bring himself to wipe out the Daleks before they began, the War Doctor feels forced into the genocide of both the Daleks and the Gallifreyans, and the 11th Doctor finds a way to be true to his self and avoid it. Just a shame the “and the Daleks will shoot all of each other” bit doesn’t really hold water :/ The time locking the planet thing also fixes that bit at the end of 10’s run where the Gallifreyans break out. Which 11 remembers, incidentally, but 10 hasn’t got there yet.

For all my quibbles I liked the way everything for the climax was set up earlier on. Same software different casing – and we get the immediate pay off with the screwdrivers & the door, but then the real pay off is in the climax. Paintings that are slices of time locked away – and we get the immediate pay off in the Zygon subplot (twice), but again the real pay off is in the climax. I liked the running themes as well, of memory loss (again pays off finally because the War Doctor has to forget he didn’t kill them all), of “which one is the real one” (and in particular the running gag where 10 keeps telling the real Elizabeth she isn’t).

I loved The Moment, both the concept & the execution! The idea of a weapon so complex it became sentient and developed a conscience is really neat. And so of course it was left over at the end of the war – the Time Lords in general were afraid of being judged and found wanting, behind their rhetoric about the war being necessary. But the Doctor will use it because he already judges himself more harshly than even The Moment will. And continues to judge himself for the next 400 years – the last scene of the previous episode where 11 turns away from the War Doctor saying that he didn’t do it “in my name” shows that. So it makes sense to me that there is this spare weapon of mass destruction, and that the Doctor would be the first to use it.

The interface picked from “your past, or is it your future” made sense too – we’ve seen the TARDIS do that to interact with people before, so it’s a Gallifreyan-tech thing. And nice call back to the TARDIS being confused about past/future/causality when she was put in a human body. I thought Billie Piper did a fantastic job of playing the avatar as alien. And in an out-universe sort of way I liked that they had her back to represent the 9 era, given Eccleston didn’t return.

I also liked the way that this weapon with a conscience engineered the situation so that she would not be used. She nudges the War Doctor into seeing his future if he survives this (as punishment – which I also liked, she chose that as the punishment to fit the crime). And she chooses which future selves he meets and when – setting them up to solve the problem, and nudging things along the way to make sure they do figure out a solution.

There was loads of other stuff I liked too, but I think I’ve wittered on for long enough here 🙂 Looking forward to the next one now!

TV This Week Including Cave Paintings, Ceramics and Music

David Starkey’s Music and Monarchy

We watched episodes two and three of David Starkey’s series about music and the English/British monarchy this week. In the second episode he covered the 17th Century and an important theme of this era was the battles between the Puritans and the Royalists – in this context a major one was over the place of music in the church. Church organs, for instance, were a great source of discord between the two camps – with the Puritans firmly on the side of keeping them out of worship. The third episode was mostly about Handel (and I was surprised how much of the music in that one I instantly recognised) – he came to England to write operas, originally, and stayed after the Hanoverians took the throne to write a lot of the ceremonial and public music of the period. Georges I, II and III were fans and he got commissions like the writing of the coronation anthems for George II for this reason. As the role of the monarchy shifted to be more ceremonial & less powerful the music they commissioned stopped being just religious or ceremonial in nature and became entertainment. This episode also covered the development of the national anthem – apparently Britain has the oldest national anthem of any country. Interestingly not imposed from outside, but instead it started as a gesture of support for the monarchy during a troubled time and grew in popularity.

Ceramics: How it Works

The third episode of Mark Miodownik’s materials science series was all about ceramics, how they’re made, what their properties are and how they’re used. I hadn’t realised before watching the programme that glass can be grouped in with pottery. One juxtaposition between this programme and the one about plastics is that ceramics is all “old tech” that we may’ve refined but have known about for millennia. The Romans had enough command of glass making technology to make windows (not just bottles and drinking glasses) – but we’ve developed ways of producing purer and more consistent glass (making things like cheap pint glasses a possibility). And we’ve made closer to perfect glass sheets, which are much stronger than glass made using older technology. For pottery it’s porcelain that’s the developed form – the Chinese got there first, but in the West it took centuries after porcelain was known of to figure out how to make it. And the third material Miodownik discussed was concrete – again the Romans used it extensively, our modern wrinkle was to figure out how to reinforce it to let it carry heavier loads.

This series was really good – Miodownik’s enthusiasm for his subject was infectious, and there was plenty of stuff both historical & modern that I didn’t know in advance 🙂

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

We recorded this film about the Chauvet cave paintings off Film 4, and weren’t quite sure what to expect. It was made by Werner Herzog, and was partly showing us the cave paintings and partly about the cave paintings and the study of them. You could tell it wasn’t a British made programme – not just the accents of all the participants, but also it had a different sensibility to it. I don’t think I could articulate what was different, just that it was. And it had quite an odd epilogue about albino crocodiles which was trying to make some point about how one sees the world, I don’t think I followed what Herzog was doing with that at all. The best bits of the film were the bits where it just showed us the paintings (with suitably atmospheric music), because it’s not somewhere we’ll ever get to go & see – access is controlled and even the people studying it aren’t allowed to stay in the cave for long. The science etc was also interesting, but it’s also an exercise in displaying how little we’ll ever know – we can date them and so on, but we can only speculate about what they meant or why they were made.

In Our Time: The Book of Common Prayer

The Book of Common Prayer was written during the English Reformation as the new reference for the services & ceremonies for the new Church of England, and it’s still in use in many churches today. Discussing it on In Our Time were Diarmaid MacCulloch (University of Oxford), Alexandra Walsham (University of Cambridge) and Martin Palmer (Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education, and Culture).

Prior to the break with the Roman Catholic Church all church services were in Latin, and the forms of the services came from several different books depending on what sort of service it was and so on. Even though the English Church’s break with Rome was driven by Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce from his first wife there were genuine supporters of the European flavour of Reformation involved in the process. A key figure amongst these was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who not only orchestrated the original split from Rome but was also (in Edward VI’s reign) responsible for the original versions of the Book of Common Prayer. This was designed to be the single book that contained all the necessary prayers and ceremonies for the Church of England – each parish church had a copy, and used it for its services. The first version was to some degree a compromise between those who wanted a fully Reformed Church and those who wanted a more traditional Catholic theology (with or without the Pope as the head of the Church). As such a contemporary of Cranmer’s (who wasn’t as keen on Reformation as Cranmer) demonstrated that it could quite easily be interpreted in line with traditional Catholic theology. The second edition, again written by Cranmer, was published in the closing months of Edward VI’s reign and it was more hardline Protestant. Edward’s death & his sister Mary’s ascension to the throne returned the country to the Catholic Church and so the Book of Common Prayer was sidelined for a while. When Elizabeth I came to the throne she had the Book of Common Prayer republished, in much the same form as the second edition, and it was again the official prescribed version of the services.

By the time Elizabeth died the book which had once been regarded as “too Protestant” was regarded as “too Catholic” for hardline reformers. There was hope that Elizabeth’s successor would bring about a proper Reformation of the English church – after all James VI & I had been brought up in the Scottish Kirk. Sadly for the reformers James rather liked the ceremony of the English Church, and wasn’t fond of the dour Scottish Kirk – and in particular he liked the hierarchical nature of the English Church which reinforced his sense of his divinely anointed authority. So the Book of Common Prayer (and the concept of bishops) lived on. After the Civil Wars, while Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector the Book of Common Prayer was again abolished – this time replaced with a much more Puritan form of worship. The Restoration of the Monarchy was also the restoration of the Book of Common Prayer – revised another few times subsequently, but the definitive version is the 1662 revision. This was used throughout the British Empire as it grew, and is still used in some churches today.

As well as the history of the Book of Common Prayer they also talked about the language of it in the programme. Obviously it’s in English – and this was one of the important features of the new service book. An important part of the Reformation was the idea that everyone should understand what was going on – both in having access to a bible in their own language and in having services in their own language. The actual phrasing of the book is also important – it has had a significant impact on the sort of language we use today. They were keen to stress on the programme that it was written with its use in mind – in that the same words are to be used time and time again, so the prayers were constructed to be repeatable. Not florid prose that might sound foolish after a while nor witty or full of punchlines that might sound lame the umpteenth time you heard them. For much of the century or so of the reformation process in England there was a requirement to attended Church of England services that used the Book of Common Prayer. This ensured that the words and their underlying theology sunk in, over time, and that all children were properly indoctrinated.

One thing that they mentioned several times in the programme is something that always strikes me when learning about the Reformation in England – how very odd it was compared to the rest of Europe. The English Church tried (and mostly succeeded) in navigating a third way between catholicism and protestantism. A lot of the theology was reformed as compared to the Catholic church (like transubstantiation), and obviously the Pope is no longer head of the C of E. But the C of E still has bishops and a hierarchy, and even though it’s been austere at various times and places it has also still had ceremony and pomp at various times and places. So it didn’t really make either of the extremes happy – and the way the Book of Common Prayer was discarded once for being too Protestant and once for being too Catholic within the space of a century sort of sums that conflict up.