Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Thursday 25 October 2012

The Best Phone Call IN THE WORLD !

Most readers will be aware that I recently went on one of my necessary-for-sanity trips back to Britain. I returned via a Star Trek conference in London, of which I expect I'll have more to say at some point. Unfortunately, the journey did not quite go according to plan.

The last trip I went on was an epic expedition to Socorro and Anchorage, and I've already related the horrors of that particular journey. Travel wise, things weren't anywhere near that bad this time. I got on a train from Horsahm to London and then Heathrow without incident. The plane to JFK wasn't much fun - it was full and the seats were unusually small, so I was literally elbow to elbow with my fellow cattle (I mean, passengers) for 7 hours. On the other hand, that's an hour less than I was expecting, which was nice.

I arrived in JFK on time with 4.5 hours until the flight to San Juan. Even so, since I had a connecting flight, I was able to skip the huge immigration line and go to this new-fangled "Quick Connect" thing that no-one else has ever heard of, and I was inside the airport in about 10 minutes. If you've ever been through US customs and immigration, you'll know that this is no small achievement.

Then I remembered that the spaceship Enterprise had been moved to JFK - literally, a real-life spaceship called Enterprise. The first space shuttle. It even features in the opening credits of the Star Trek series of the same name, which may well be the coolest possible way to break the fourth wall.

So, this is a spaceschip named Enterprise in a show of the same name which is derived from a previous show featuring a fictional spaceship named Enterprise which led to the naming of the real Enterprise which is seen in the credits of the fictional show called Enterprise. Just to be clear.

Since I now had several unexpectedly free hours, I wandered around the airport for a while hoping to find it. I didn't, because (as I half-suspected) it was quickly moved from the airport to a museum. Which is a pity, because riding atop a space shuttle called Enterprise would have been the perfect way to outdo my friend's efforts to fondle Kate Mulgrew while the Star Trek convention continued without me.

Be afraid, Kate. Be very afraid.

No matter. I got on the next plane, wherein being awake for over 20 hours began to take its toll. It wasn't as squashed as the first one, thankfully. So a little under 4 hours later I staggered off the plane and collapsed into a pre-arranged taxi. About 2 hours later I found myself back at my little orange concrete bunker, and only then did I realise I was now devoid of such essentials as my coat and wallet.

This turn of events caused me some level of distress. Normally, I'm so ultra-paranoid about checking I have all my belongings that losing any just can't happen. I check the pocket on the back of the seat in front of me at least 5 times. Even when I know full well I never put anything in it. I check for the essentials of keys, wallet and mp3 player in such a repetitive fashion that an anthropologist once wrote a paper on my ritualistic habits*.

* This isn't literally true. In fact, it isn't true at all.

This time the paranoia must have created a peculiar brand of self-confidence. Knowing that I'm too unsure of myself, I knew I must have already checked that I'd got all my stuff, because that's what I always do. So I proceeded from the airport safe in the knowledge that I was far too worried about leaving my stuff behind to have left any of my stuff behind.

Fortunately, though one rather major thing had gone horribly wrong, absolutely everything else was going right. The taxi driver is familiar with the observatory and nice enough to defer payment, knowing that I'm not attempting any scam. But I did have a thoroughly miserable 30 minutes while I struggled with second-guessing myself as to how I could have lost it. I concluded that it was probably on the last aircraft, but I wasn't sure.

Then I got a phone call.

"Hello, is this Rice Taylor ?"
"Err... yes."
"Hi, this is XXXXX from American Airlines -"
"Oh, hello, have you found my wallet ?"
"Yes - "
"Ah, wonderful. We should have dinner sometime, as I would like to father your children."

Even better, I had indeed left it on the plane to Puerto Rico, and it sounded like (from the remainder of the conversation, after we'd sorted out the family planning) everything was intact. Though I'd have to pay to get it Fed-Exed to me, this wasn't necessary, as by an extraordinarily unlikely coincidence I was planning to be back in San Juan anyway two days later (for a mini-conference I will describe later).

And indeed, I was back in San Juan two days later, where I retrieved my wallet which contained absolutely everything it was supposed to contain. Then everyone was happy and there were rainbows and kittens and sunshine and lollipops and all other wonderful things.

Rainbows are produced by vomiting unicorns, obviously.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Myths of Star Trek (I)

I've just finished watching the first series of the original Star Trek. I've seen all of the others, of course, but until now I've only seen a handful of the original. I always had the impression that it was a much more primitive show, laughable by modern standards. And of course I was certain that every episode, Kirk would make out with a hot alien babe and a dozen men in red shirts would be brutally slaughtered.

Well, I was wrong on all counts. Yes, it is a lot more primitive, but once you swallow the cheap '60's styling, it isn't all that bad. The modern remastered version has replaced most of the effects shots with CGI, so the ship isn't made of stickyback plastic covered in tissue paper and PVA glue any more. Not all of them though - in "The Alternative Factor", the ship still gets attacked by the Triffid Nebula and (for some reason) a whirling newspaper. And yes, I mean that literally.

The Triffid Nebula will not stand for your shenanigans.

Watching the original series 40 years late is a little weird, sociologically. It's at once ground-breakingly politically correct (probably more than any show, ever), what with a black female officer and a Russian flying the ship, yet it's also quite bizarrely anti-feminist. So while most of the women are intelligent and professional (Uhura not only deals with communications but also takes the helm when required), the minute they find a pretty dress they become useless baubles who are totally incapable of doing anything. Not to mention the immortal line by Captain Pike in the pilot episode : "I just can't get used to having a woman on the bridge."

The characters may be identical but at least one of them is now ironic.
I already knew that Kirk never says, "Beam me up Scotty", but I was still expecting him to be a gung-ho womaniser. He isn't. He spends a great deal of time signing forms (seemingly without ever reading them) and often restrains his crew from violence rather than the other way round. And although he does sometimes order the hand phasers to be set on kill, when stun isn't working, he doesn't even use the ships phasers until episode 10. I contest that he's no more trigger-happy than Picard, and probably a lot less than Sisko and Janeway.

On the other hand, Janeway becomes very angry when she's drunk, which is all of the time.

There's also another aspect to Kirk (and Pike even more so) that we don't see in any of the other Trek captains : they're worriers. Picard wouldn't know self-doubt if it punched him in the kidneys and bit off his nose, and Sisko doesn't face more than occasional misgivings. Janeway admittedly does wrestle with her conscience that blowing up the only thing that could get the ship home might have been a bad idea, but that's the only thing she ever really questions. Whereas Kirk and Pike confess to doubts about being a starship captain at all, and admit to not enjoying the responsibility of trying to keep hundreds of people alive every day.

What of the famous Kirk the ladies man ? Lies and slander. He has many female admirers, it's true, but he could hardly be called a womaniser. In fact he usually stalwartly resists the flirtations of alien seductresses while his crew go instantly weak at the knees ("How'd you like to have her as your own personal yeoman, hur hur hur..."). He has one very brief, demure kiss with an old flame, but that's about it. Admittedly he does try quite forcefully (and utterly unsuccessfully)  to seduce a sexy android in "What Are Little Girls Made Of ?". but in context this incident is really quite bizarre and actually out of character. I'm going to give Kirk the benefit of the doubt and put this down to bad writing.

Then there's the famous guarantee that wearing a red shirt is a death sentence. It isn't. To prove this, I'm keep a tally of all the casualties reported during each episode, including what colour shirt they were wearing (when possible). Now, it's true that the average death rate is about 16,000 per episode in series 1, which, quite wonderfully, is because 500,000 people walk into actual freakin' suicide booths in "A Taste Of Armageddon".

It's also true that the first few episodes are particularly bloody for the crew of the Enterprise. In fact the rate of attrition is so high that a five-year mission is off the cards, because everyone would be dead in about three years. But these too are anomalies. The total number of on-screen permanent (i.e. not brought back to life by aliens / gods / McCoy / sheer luck) crew deaths is 4 red shirts, 3 blue and 4 gold. There are also reported casualties that we don't see, but these only total about a dozen. So, sadly, there's absolutely no basis for the idea that wearing a red shirt shortens life expectancy.

All in all, season 1 leads me to conclude that the good name of Captain James R / T Kirk (it's R in an early episode, then changes to T later on) has been sullied by later parodies. A violent womaniser happy to see his men fall in the line of duty ? Hardly. He's a worrying bureaucratic gentleman, devoted to his crew and mission of peaceful exploration. Ensign Ricky need not fear for his insurance premiums in season 1. Of course, whether all this lasts into season 2 remains to be seen...