Timestamp #221: The Impossible Astronaut & Day of the Moon

Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut
Doctor Who: Day of the Moon
(2 episodes, s06e01-02, 2011)

Timestamp 221 The Impossible Astronaut

Welcome to the Silence.

Prequel

In the White House, President Nixon answers the telephone in the Oval Office. The line only clicks until he asks, “Is it you again?” A child’s voice tells him to look behind him for a threat that is everywhere but no one can see. When asked, the child says that the spaceman told her about them. President Nixon refuses to believe them.

He hangs up the phone and leans back. A mysterious alien stares at him, but neither the President nor his aide seem to notice.

The Impossible Astronaut

In the 17th century, Charles II storms into the painter Matilda’s room and demands to see the Doctor. Standing before a painting of the Time Lord, who is depicted wearing nothing but a strategically placed red cloth, Matilda replies, “Doctor who?”

She nearly gets away with it except for a sneeze from her skirts. The Doctor is naked, hiding under Matilda, with the explanation that the situation is really not as bad as it looks.

In 2011, Amy tells Rory about the incident as detailed in a history book. It, along with other incidents such as a World War II POW camp and a Laurel and Hardy film, seem to be signals to the Ponds. A TARDIS-blue envelope containing unsigned invitation arrives in the mail and they follow it to Utah.

They are greeted by the Doctor, wearing a Stetson that is soon shot off by River Song (who also got an invitation). They convene in a roadside diner and catch up. The Doctor tells them that he’s been running faster than ever before, but that it’s time to stop. They’re going to have a picnic and then he’s headed to space in 1969.

On the shores of Lake Silencio, the team shares wine, cheese, and fruit. Rory spots one of the creatures from the White House but after she looks away, she forgets about it. The discussion is interrupted by an old man arriving in a truck and waving to the Doctor. The Doctor looks to the lake and spots an astronaut in a full Apollo spacesuit. He tells his companions that, whatever happens, they are not to interfere, then walks to meet the astronaut.

He seems to know what is coming, but his companions are shocked when the astronaut shoots him with an energy weapon. The Doctor begins to regenerate, but the astronaut takes aim and fires again. The mysterious visitor retreats into the lake as the companions mourn the Doctor’s death. The old man brings a gas can, confirming the Time Lord’s identity and death, and River knows that they have to cremate the body.

After the service, the man introduces himself as Canton Everett Delaware III. He received an envelope as well, and he tells the assembled that he won’t see them again but that they will see him. Delaware leaves and the companions return to the diner. River notes that the envelopes are numbered so this was all planned in advance. The Doctor arrives shortly afterward, having held the first envelope, and it is determined that he is an earlier version of himself. He was invited the same as the others.

They all take a trip in the TARDIS to 1969. The team is upset with the Doctor and the companions try to reason through the puzzle, but they have no idea why the future Doctor recruited them all. They also cannot ask the Doctor himself, who nearly turns the TARDIS around when they won’t tell him the truth. After all, River is a convicted murderer and the Doctor does not trust mysterious summonses. Amy asks him to trust the team, swearing that she’s not lying about being under duress. The Doctor places his life in her hands.

Delaware is a former FBI agent who is summoned to the White House by President Nixon. The two men are in a meeting about the mysterious phone calls when the TARDIS materializes in stealth mode. The Doctor pops out of the phone box just in time to hear the recording and is spotted by the men. The President calls the Secret Service as the Doctor demands that River make the TARDIS visible.

In short order, the travelers are held at gunpoint but the Doctor persuades Delaware and Nixon to give him five minutes. As the Doctor helps the Americans to track the call to Florida – home of NASA and the spacemen – Amy spots the alien again. When she looks away, she forgets. She visits the restroom and spots the alien again. While she keeps an eye on it, another woman emerges from a toilet cubicle and is eventually killed after spotting it. Amy snaps a picture of the alien and rushes out to her Secret Service companion, promptly forgetting the encounter.

The phone rings again. On the other end, the child says that the spaceman is there and that she needs help. The travelers jet off in the TARDIS – Delaware tags along by accident – and find the call’s origin at the intersections of Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton Streets, clues provided by the child.

The travelers find stolen NASA technology and alien residue leading into a tunnel network. River investigates and finds a group of the aliens. She rushes out, forgets the encounter, and decides to take another look. The Doctor asks Rory to follow her. As they investigate, they find a maintenance hatch that River picks open while they discuss her relationship with the Doctor. The two are a traveling different directions in time: Her past is his future.

They open the hatch and find a control room similar to the one hidden away in the house with Craig Owens. It sounds an alarm and Rory spots the creatures but forgets them. River learns that there are tunnels like the one they’re in all over Earth and that they’ve been here for thousands of years. Behind Rory, electricity crackles and something approaches.

Amy, Delaware, and Amy hear the child cry for help and they pursue. Amy reveals that she’s pregnant, Delaware is knocked unconscious, and the astronaut approaches them. Amy draws Delaware’s gun and shoots the astronaut, intent on saving the Doctor’s life, only realizing too late that the suit contains the young girl from the telephone.

Day of the Moon

Three months later, Amy is being chased through the Utah desert. Her pursuers, including Delaware, corner her on a cliff. Amy tries to help him remember their escape from the aliens in the warehouse, but he shoots her. She has a series of hashmarks on her arms.

Delaware travels to Area 51 to ask the Doctor, now his prisoner, about the marks. Meanwhile, River is in New York City with a similar set marks. When she spots one of the aliens, she adds a mark to her arm. Delaware arrives shortly thereafter and corners her, but she dives off the building.

Rory is also cornered and shot at the Glen Canyon Dam, and he and Amy are taken to Area 51 in body bags and placed with the Doctor in a cell constructed of dwarf star alloy. The room is impervious to signals and, once sealed, provides the perfect opportunity for Amy, Rory, and the Doctor to stage their escape. To seal the deal, the TARDIS is parked directly behind the Doctor in stealth mode. The travelers and Delaware board the TARDIS, catch River in mid-air, and materialize at Cape Kennedy and the site of Apollo 11’s historic launch.

The Doctor injects everyone with nano-recorders while they discuss the last three months. The marks were from each time one of the creatures were spotted, and it should be easier to find them with the recording devices. They test it with a holographic image extrapolated from Amy’s photograph, and also discover that even the image of the creatures induces the memory loss.

Later, Delaware and Amy arrive at Graystark Hall. They meet Dr. Renfrew and learn that the facility will close in 1967. Oddly, it is now 1969. The walls are also covered in messages to get out, but Renfrew has no idea how they keep appearing. Amy investigates the facility while Delaware meets with Renfrew. She discovers a message she left on her nano-recorder demanding that she get out. She sees her reflection, noting that her arms and face are covered in hashmarks. She looks up to see a bunch of the creatures hanging like bats, but moments later she’s leaving the room without any recollection.

The Doctor installs some type of transmitter in the Apollo spacecraft. He’s taken into custody but soon released under orders from Nixon in a rather humorous exchange. The Doctor asks Nixon to record everything that happens in the Oval Office.

Amy continues on, soon spotting a door with a sliding observation port. A woman with an eyepatch spots her through the slot, but the room beyond is a child’s bedroom. The woman is nowhere to be found. Amy finds photos of herself holding a newborn, then is met by the child in the spacesuit and two of the creatures.

Delaware and Renfrew are interrupted by one of the creatures. Delaware records a brief exchange with it then shoots the creature before running toward the sound of Amy’s screams. Rory, River, and the Doctor join him to find an empty spacesuit and Amy’s recorder. It’s a live transmission from wherever Amy is being held.

Renfrew summons the group to his office to tend to the wounded creature. It identifies itself as the Silence, which the Doctor recalls from the events of last year. They have been on the planet since the Stone Age. The travelers return to the warehouse while Delaware emerges from the dwarf star box after several days with President Nixon. The spacesuit is a perfect life support capsule, which explains how the child survived a gunshot. The Doctor also speculates that Apollo 11 traveled to the Moon because the Silence needed a spacesuit. After all, they don’t make their own technology.

Delaware tends to the wounded Silence in the dwarf star box and uses Amy’s phone to record a threatening message from the being. He transmits it to the Doctor. Meanwhile, the Doctor traces the nano-recorder signal to the console room in the tunnel system. Inside that room, Amy awakens to a room full of Silence, and the TARDIS arrives soon after. The Doctor recognizes the room as he brings a television in and orders River to keep the Silence covered while Rory frees Amy.

Here’s the twist: The Doctor has rigged Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit to transmit a message as soon as he touches the lunar surface. It is the threat from the wounded Silence, telling everyone in the sound of its voice to kill the Silence on site.

The whole planet is watching. The whole planet responds. Today is the day that the human race throws the Silence off the planet.

The Silence respond by attacking the travelers. Everyone runs for the TARDIS as River covers their escape, successfully killing every one of the creatures. The TARDIS takes off as Amy and Rory share an intimate moment, landing in the Oval Office so the Doctor can say farewell to Nixon and Delaware.

The Doctor evades Nixon’s queries about his future with the promise that the president will never be forgotten. After the Doctor leaves, Nixon almost grants Delaware’s request to be married… until he figures out that Delaware is homosexual.

The Doctor leaves River at Stormcage. He offers to take her along, but she declines. They share a passionate kiss, which ends up being the first for the Doctor… which makes it the last for her. As the TARDIS takes flight again, the Doctor asks about Amy’s pregnancy, which is news to Rory.

Amy assures her husband that she’s not pregnant. The Doctor runs a scan on Amy without her knowledge, but is concerned since the Amy is simultaneously pregnant and not pregnant.

Six months later, a homeless man on the streets of New York City finds the child from the spacesuit. The child coughs repeatedly, claiming that she’s dying. She soon solves that problem, however, as she begins to regenerate.


This story’s power comes from its frantic and almost disordered plot. It has the potential to confuse the viewer because it requires nearly complete concentration to keep track of the various narrative threads. That frenetic pace ties in beautifully with the nature of the Silence, from missing large pieces of the plot to having them filled in only when it was necessary.

Another potential pitfall is the Steven Moffat habit of being super clever for the sake of being so. This story could have easily done that, but the rewards were substantial enough to make it feel like a significant return on investment. We have a few threads laid down for the season, including eyepatch lady, the yes/no pregnancy, and the regenerating child.

(Of course, having seen all of this before, I know what’s coming. I’ll take a River Song approach and avoid spoilers for anyone reading this who hasn’t seen it.)

And, you know, the parallels with 1988’s They Live just make me smile. I do love that film.

I still have reservations about Amy and her treatment of Rory. She’s open with the Doctor about her pregnancy, but she’s willing to hide it from Rory while still claiming to love him. Her actions speak more of abuse than love. On the other hand, we see the tragedy of the Doctor/River relationship. They work so well together, but the crossing paths nature is heartbreaking at times.

The stories take time out to pay tribute to Elisabeth Sladen. She died four days before the initial broadcast of the first part of this story, and I’d expect nothing less from Doctor Who for one the most popular companions ever.

I loved the symmetry in casting the Delawares. William Morgan Sheppard, the older Delaware, is the real-life father of Mark Sheppard, the younger Delaware. This isn’t the first time that they’ve played older and younger versions of a character, and they have also portrayed father and son pairs. I love seeing both of them on screen from their copious amount of work in film and television.

I also loved seeing the Valley of the Gods and Lake Powell (“Lake Silencio”) on screen again. I grew up in Utah, so the landscape is easily recognizable. The Southern Utah deserts have been popular filming locations for decades. In terms of internal mythology, we last visited Utah in Dalek, though we didn’t see anything of the world outside at that point.

One thing that really intrigues me is the idea that multiple Doctors are in the same location at the same time. The Eleventh Doctor’s three-month-long incarceration at Area 51 coincides with the Tenth Doctor being stranded in Blink and the Second and Third Doctor’s adventures with UNIT (for reference, The Invasion, Spearhead from Space, Doctor Who and the Silurians, and The Ambassadors of Death). Neil Armstrong’s historic moonwalk also coincides with Blink and The Ambassadors of Death. It adds credence to the idea that we saw in Rose that the Doctor can be in so many places and times at once.

Last but not least, I laughed about River chastising the Doctor about using his sonic screwdriver in battle. The callback to The Doctor Dances was great, as was hanging a lampshade on the tendency to use the sonic as a magic wand instead of a scientific instrument.

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”


UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Curse of the Black Spot

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The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

Rabbit Rabbit – May 2021

Rabbit Rabbit
May 2021

Rabbit, rabbit!

Since at least 1909, a superstition has lived in North American and the United Kingdom that if a person says or repeats the word “rabbit” upon waking up on the first day of the month, good luck will follow for the remainder of that month.

Elements of the tradition exist in the United Kingdom, New England, and even in various First Nation cultures.

While I’m not necessarily endorsing the superstition, it provides a way to look in depth at each month of the year, from history and observances to miscellaneous trivia. The topic this month is May.

History

May was named for the Greek goddess Maia, identified with the Roman goddess of fertility Bona Dea. The festival celebrating the Roman goddess was held in the same month. The late Russian Empire also used the term for a picnic held early in the month. This picnic, mayovka, evolved into an illegal celebration of May 1st (a day of worker revolution).

In the ancient Roman calendar, the month is a big one for festivals. Bona Dea fell on May 1, Argei fell on May 14 or May 15, Agonalia fell on May 21, and Ambarvalia on May 29. Floralia, which began on April 27, carried on until May 3. Lemuria (festival) fell on 9,11, and 13 May under the Julian calendar. The College of Aesculapius and Hygia celebrated two festivals of Rosalia on May 11 and May 22. Rosalia was also celebrated at Pergamon on May 24–26. A military Rosalia festival, Rosaliae signorum, also occurred on May 31. 

Ludi Fabarici was celebrated between May 29 and June 1. Mercury would receive a sacrifice on the Ides of May (May 15). Tubilustrium took place on May 23 as well as in March. These dates do not correspond to the modern Gregorian calendar.

May also holds several special devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Catholic circles.

Observances

Further observances are plentiful, including Celiac Awareness Month, Cystic Fibrosis Awareness Month, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Awareness month, International Mediterranean Diet Month, the Season of Emancipation (spanning April 14 to August 23 in Barbados), Better Hearing and Speech Month, the Kaamatan harvest festival in Labuan and Sabah, Flores de Mayo in the Philippines, Garden for Wildlife month, New Zealand Music Month, National Pet Month in the United Kingdom, Skin Cancer Awareness Month, National Smile Month in the UK, South Asian Heritage Month, World Trade Month, and Huntington’s Disease Awareness Month.

The United States adds another batch, including Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, National ALS Awareness Month, Bicycle Month, National Brain Tumor Awareness Month, National Burger Month, Community Action Awareness Month (in North Dakota), National Electrical Safety Month, National Foster Care Month, National Golf Month, Jewish American Heritage Month, Haitian Heritage Month, Hepatitis Awareness Month, Mental Health Awareness Month, National Military Appreciation Month, National Moving Month, Older Americans Month, National Osteoporosis Month, National Stroke Awareness Month, and National Water Safety Month.

It makes a lot of sense in the Northern Hemisphere since May is the gateway to the summer months.

Trivia

  • May’s birthstone is the emerald. It is emblematic of love and success.
  • The western zodiac signs of May are Taurus (until May 19) and Gemini (May 20 and beyond).
  • The month’s birth flowers are the Lily of the Valley and the Crataegus monogyna. They are both native the cool and temperate climates of Asia and Europe, as well as the southern Appalachian Mountains in the United States.
  • Another significant flower is the Mayflower (Epigaea repens), a North American harbinger of the month and the floral emblem of both Nova Scotia and Massachusetts.

Rabbit Rabbit is a project designed to look at each month of the year with respect to history, observances, and more.

For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.

Culture on My Mind – Sci-Fi Metal of Death and Rock

Culture on My Mind

Culture on My Mind
Sci-Fi Metal of Death and Rock
April 30, 2021

It’s time for another round of discussions and mayhem about classic science fiction, brought to you by the fine folks at the Dragon Con American Sci-Fi Classics Track.

On April 15th, Chad Shonk, Jonathan Williams, Jeff Burns, and Amy Splitt stopped by to take your clothes, your boots, and your motorcyle. It has been three decades since T2: Judgment Day graced theater screens, and the classics cast was eager to talk about it.

On April 22nd, a different kind of metal was on the table. Heavy metal music and sci-fi and fantasy are inextricably connected, from album covers to Tolkien references and beyond. Metal experts Mark Finn, Sean Reid, Kevin Cafferty, and Tom Morris took the stage to explain how GWAR, KISS, Steinman, Frazetta, and more influenced the genre was love.

 


We’re all caught up for now. Fun times lay ahead, and if you want to play along at home, get thee hence to the YouTube channel and the group on Facebook. If you join in live, you can also leave comments and participate in the discussion using StreamYard connected through Facebook, YouTube, and Twitch.

The episode art each week is generously provided by the talented Sue Kisenwether. You can find her (among other places) on Women at Warp – A Roddenberry Star Trek Podcast.

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Culture on My Mind is inspired by the weekly Can’t Let It Go segment on the NPR Politics Podcast where each host brings one thing to the table that they just can’t stop thinking about.

For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.

Timestamp #220: A Christmas Carol

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol
(Christmas Special, 2010)

Timestamp 220 A Christmas Carol

Three spirits, a Christmas miracle, and a sonic shark.

A passenger liner is plummeting toward the surface of an unknown turbulent planet. The captain cancels Christmas as she attempts to save the ship, and as she detects a distress signal from the honeymoon suite, Amy and Rory race in wearing their fun costumes of a kiss-o-gram cop and a centurion.

The distress signal they sent summons the Doctor who signals the ship with a simple text: “Come along, Pond.”

On the surface is a village in the throes of a Christmas Eve celebration. The planet and the artificial storm when the cruiseliner is trapped are owned by Karzan Sardick, a wealthy and heartless man who acts as a loanshark through a business he inherited. To secure the the loans, he cryogenically freezes family members of the borrowers as collateral.

As one family begs for their family to be thawed for a day, the Doctor arrives via chimney. Sardick has denied the cruiseliner permission to be rescued, and the Doctor’s attention bounces from the poor family to the storm machine and the frozen girl. Sardick says that the girl is not important, but the Doctor replies that he has never met anyone who wasn’t important.

The machine’s controls are isomorphic and coded to Sardick alone. The Doctor tries to appeal to his better nature, but Sardick ejects the family and the Doctor with a bout of violence. When Sardick refrains from striking the young boy as the family leaves, the Doctor sees a crack in Sardick’s façade.

The Doctor touches base with the Ponds before being warned to seek cover for the night. After all, the fish that swim through the clouds are particularly fervent tonight. The Doctor is inspired by a Christmas carol playing on the loudspeakers and launches a plan to save the cruiseliner.

Sardick awakens to find his dream projected on the wall of his study. When he was twelve, he wanted to film one of the sky fish, but his father punished him by striking the boy and sealing his window. The Doctor plumbs the depths of this memory, then boards the TARDIS and travels back in time to Sardick’s boyhood, right into the film being projected.

Acting as young Sardick’s babysitter, the Doctor decides to make the boy’s dream come true. Using the sonic screwdriver, the Doctor lures a sky fish in through the window while he and Sardick hide in the wardrobe. The boy is interested in seeing the fish because he missed his chance by being sick at school on the day his class got to see them. When the sky fish nibbles on the line, the Doctor leaves the wardrobe to investigate. He surmises that the fish travels on electrical currents generated in the atmosphere’s high water content. His investigation is cut short by a large shark that eats the little fish and chases the Doctor back into the wardrobe.

On the one hand, the Doctor is pleased because he has a better understanding of the clouds and can analyze the readings (once he retrieves his sonic screwdriver from the shark). On the other hand, the shark rams the wardrobe and pins its occupants against the wall. The Doctor bravely dives into the shark and retrieves half the sonic, but he and young Sardick lament the fact that the shark is dying after being out of the clouds for so long.

As a life support measure, the boy takes the Doctor to the vault where all of the collateral is kept. He travels forward briefly to get the code to the door from the older Sardick, then enters the vault with the boy in the past. The shark has followed them, lured by the fog emanating from the open vault. After a brief chase, the shark is lulled to sleep by the song of Abigail Pettigrew, one of the frozen who has been freed.

The Doctor realizes that singing induces a sympathetic harmonic that the fish like, which is the same principle that drives the cloud machine in the future. The Doctor puts the shark in Abigail’s box and takes his new companions on a ride in the TARDIS. Meanwhile, in the future, Abigail’s portrait has appeared on the elder Sardick’s wall. The shark is set free and Abigail is returned to her box with a promise that they will return every Christmas.

Sure enough, the Doctor and Sardick awaken Abigail one year later, unaware of the countdown on her box. They call the shark with the sonic and take a sleigh ride. The tradition continues as Sardick ages and his future self marvels over the new memories, ranging from New York to the Pyramids.

One year, Abigail asks to see her family again. She weeps as she watches her family have the life she can never have, and Sardick consoles her. The Doctor arranges a small celebration with Abigail’s family. Abigail explains her situation and vouches for Sardick’s character, and the group shares a holiday dinner before Abigail returns to her box with a kiss for Sardick.

The next year brings a Hollywood party for the trio. Abigail nearly reveals the truth about her life to Sardick, but they are forced to leave early since the Doctor has inadvertently become engaged to Marilyn Monroe. Abigail knows that there is nothing to be done, and as Sardick returns Abigail to her box, he tells the Doctor that he’d like to break the tradition in favor of working on the cloud machine.

The Doctor is sad that Sardick hasn’t evolved from his future attitudes, but gives the man his broken sonic screwdriver as he leaves. In the future, the portrait reverts from Abigail’s to Sardick’s father. One year later, the Sardicks complete work on the machine, and while the younger man considers calling the Doctor and resuming the tradition, he turns away.

The future Sardick digs the abandoned sonic out of his drawer, rejects another plea from the cruiseliner, and then meets the Ghost of Christmas Present… or rather, Amy’s hologram. She projects the crew and passengers into the vault, singing Silent Night as a further plea for their lives. The Doctor has told Amy about Abigail and Sardick tells her about Abigail’s terminal illness. The countdown has been tracking the number of days Abigail has to leave.

Amy and Rory reverse the transmission to bring Sardick’s hologram to the ship’s bridge. When Sardick is not swayed, he’s returned to the vault to face the Doctor. The Time Lord apologizes, but then brings the cruel man face to face with his twelve-year-old self. The elder’s heart is broken and he apologizes to his younger self.

The elder Sardick attempts to save the ship but the machine no longer recognizes him since he’s changed so much. Sardick flashes the sonic screwdriver and the Doctor realizes that the other half is still in the shark. Unfortunately, to lure the shark, they need Abigail’s song. The Sardicks release her, knowing that her death is imminent, but Abigail is overjoyed to spend one last Christmas with the man she loves.

Abigail’s song is broadcast into the clouds through the sonic screwdriver, drawing the two halves together. The resonance induces a Christmas snow to fall. High above, the cruiseliner stabilizes and everyone aboard celebrates. As the Christmas mood spreads through the village, the Doctor takes the younger Sardick home.

Some time later, the Ponds reunite with the Doctor. The Time Lord rejects a phone call from Marilyn Monroe, absolutely convinced that it wasn’t a real chapel after all. As the travelers depart for their next adventure, Sardick and Abigail sail the skies in a shark-drawn sleigh.


Steven Moffat promised that this holiday story would be the most “Christmassy Christmas special ever” and “all your favourite Christmas movies at once, in an hour, with monsters and the Doctor and a honeymoon.”

Mission accomplished.

There have been countless adaptations of Charles Dickens’s famous novel, and this one adds a Doctor Who flair to the timeless tale. Karzan Sardick takes the Scrooge journey courtesy of the Christmas Ghosts:  The Doctor takes the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past, Amy is the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Sardick himself becomes the Ghost of Christmas Future (or Christmas Yet to Come). In a sense, Abigail fills the roles of Jacob Marley and “Tiny Tim” Cratchit.

The redemption story is touching and drew me in because of the unique take. We get to watch Scrooge evolve and grow as the Doctor brings the trademark love and compassion to bear. The tragedy of the love affair is heartbreaking, played so well by both Michael Gambon and Danny Horn as both versions of Sardick live through the memories. Katherine Jenkins absolutely sells the empathetic Abigail.

I love the nods throughout this celebration. We’ve heard about the Doctor’s friendship with Albert Einstein before (Time and the Rani), the sonic screwdriver gets destroyed (The VisitationSmith and JonesThe Eleventh Hour), the psychic paper once again proves not to be infallible (Army of GhostsThe Shakespeare CodeThe Vampires of Venice), and the Fourth Doctor gets a beautiful yet subtle tribute with long scarves as Abigail’s clock ticks to 004.

I could have sworn that Silent Night had been in Doctor Who before now, but research says that I was wrong.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to note Dumbledore. Okay, okay, not quite the wizard, but definitely Michael Gambon, who was far more sinister here than in his five appearances in the Harry Potter films. I love seeing actors I know in productions and roles that are so different than what I’ve seen from them before, and this was no exception.

Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”


UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut & Doctor Who: Day of the Moon

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The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

Culture on My Mind – Super Follies and Nuclear Power

Culture on My Mind

Culture on My Mind
Super Follies and Nuclear Power

April 23, 2021

This week, I have nuclear power technology on my mind. While pop culture and public perception get this wrong all the time, I’m looking at the pilot episode of Superman & Lois in particular since it was one of the most recent offenders.

People who know me might be surprised that I’m not harping on the “reactor is critical” trope again. “Give me time. I’ll get back to that,” he said with a wink.

The premiere episode of Superman & Lois – creatively titled “Pilot” in a long-standing television tradition – debuted on February 23, 2021. (Aside: It’s been two months, and that’s long enough that I’m not including a spoiler warning.) After a quick series of flashbacks to tell this version’s origin story, we spring into action as Superman saves the day by stopping a meltdown at a nuclear reactor near Metropolis. Apparently, someone has sabotaged the site by breaching the reactor, so Superman welds the hold and then drops a giant ice block into the cooling tower. The temperatures immediately plummet, everyone cheers, Superman smiles, end scene.

The show nearly lost me at this point. Less than five minutes into the pilot episode.

I have nearly twenty years of experience in nuclear power between the Navy and the civilian industry (both domestic and international). I’m registered with The Science & Entertainment Exchange through the National Academy of Science. Seriously, Hollywood, I’m available to consult for times like this.

I’ll explain why this scene struck me as wrong and why public perception gets it wrong all the time, with the caveat that I’m approaching this from the United States perspective since (a) it comprises the majority of my nuclear experience, and (b) Metropolis is an American city in the Superman & Lois universe.

I’ll also touch on why I think it matters.

The Story

First, let’s highlight the scene. It’s set at night and punctuated by helicopters, spotlights, and alarms. General Sam Lane arrives, has a discussion with someone who looks all Hollywood-nuclear-official in a hard hat and lab coat, and pages Superman to the casualty.

“How long we got before this thing pops its top?”

“A few minutes, tops.”

“The fallout?”

“As far as Metropolis.”

After Superman hears the page and changes course, we get this:

“The heat exchanger’s offline.”

“Where’s the damn water tanker?”

Superman arrives at the site and dives into the cooling tower. He lands on a walkway which visibly buckles it so it cannot be used until it is fixed. Hopefully it wasn’t important. The heat is noticeable in the wavering air and flying embers reminiscent of last decade’s movie posters as Kal-El surveys the damage. He spots a crack in a large circular component. Inside, something glows orange with heat.

“His cold breath isn’t gonna fix it.”

“We need water back in the reactor vessel, or we’re gonna have a meltdown the size of Fukushima.”

“It’s out of water!”

“Tanks!”

Superman seals the rupture with his heat vision, then rockets off. As he flies toward the nearby body of water, we get a view down the cooling tower. Under a blossom of catwalks, it is glowing like a pool of magma. Superman uses his cold breath to freeze a giant chunk of ice, hoists it up, and drops it into the cooling tower. The temperature drops and the reactor is safe.

Later, we get some dialogue that points to a crack in the cooling tower as the main problem.

That’s the foundation of the story. Now, let’s take a look at the foundation of reality.

Nuclear Plant Design

In general, there are two types of nuclear reactors in the United States: Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) and Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs). The operating principles are effectively the same in both types and can be differentiated by when water changes into steam.

Fission of fuel generates heat. That heat is transferred into the reactor coolant, which is water with a specific chemical makeup. That water eventually generates steam – In a BWR, the coolant boils in the reactor vessel, but in a PWR, the coolant transfers its energy to another system in the steam generator – which spins a turbine before being cooled, condensed, and returned to its starting point. The spinning turbine generates electricity which is transmitted to the electric grid.

PWR
PWR Diagram – Tennessee Valley Authority (Public Domain)

The advantage of the PWR is that the steam does not come into contact with the reactor coolant, which is potentially contaminated by fission products. The BWR exchanges this advantage by being more simple.

Regardless, the reactor core – fissionable fuel wrapped in metal sheets (cladding) and arranged into assemblies where the reaction is controlled by the reactor coolant and control rods – is separate from the turbines and the cooling towers.

The cooling towers deal with the steam it spins the turbine. To condense the steam, it is passed over tubes containing cool water. The heat is transferred from the steam to the water, which is then sent out to the cooling towers to transmit that energy to the atmosphere.

The trope and public perception are that the large hyperboloid towers immediately indicate the existence of a nuclear plant. That’s simply not true. In fact, Duke Energy noted in 2013 that there are 250 cooling towers on plants across the United States, and fewer than 100 of those belong to nuclear stations. For context, there are 94 commercial reactor units in the United States. That comprises 63 PWRs and 31 BWRs, and approximately 20% of the country’s electrical generating capacity. Some sites have multiple reactors.

Some towers are the hyperboloid style (which rely on natural draft to reject the excess heat) and some are forced air style (relying on fans to push air across the water to extract the excess heat).

Not all sites use cooling towers, either. Some pull the cooling water directly from nearby water sources and return it with a slight increase in temperature. Extensive studies are performed to ensure that the temperature increase does not negatively impact the environment, including wildlife. In order to protect the aquatic life in the water source, the use of cooling towers for new power plants larger than 100 megawatts (MW) was mandated by the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Since these heat sinks, be they cooling towers or bodies of water, are separated from the reactor coolant by several layers of metal, the probability of contaminating those heat sinks with fission products is very small.

ANO
Arkansas Nuclear One (ANO) – NRC File Photo (non-copyrighted)

Hyperboloid Cooling Towers

Focusing on the hyperboloid towers, their operation is pretty simple. The distinctive shape comes from rotating a hyperbola – a graph that looks like two infinite bows reflected on each other, reminiscent of an hourglass – around an axis. This shape presents high structural strength, minimum usage of material, and efficient upward convective air flow.

The heated water travels into the cooling tower and is sprayed from a set of nozzles. The hot mist drifts downward, giving up heat to air that is pulled in naturally through large vents at the bottom of the tower. The cooled water pools in a collection reservoir to be pumped back into the plant while the hot, moist air rises out through the top of the tower as a plume of steam.

Despite claims to the contrary, the exhaust is not smoke, does not carry fission products, and does not alter the weather (no matter what weathermen in large markets claim on Twitter).

Any losses to water inventory can be made up from external sources such as reservoirs, lakes, or local make up tanks.

The Science of Superman

The first thing that Superman & Lois got wrong was placing the reactor inside the cooling tower.

The reactor vessels in these light-water thermoelectric power plants are kept inside containment buildings with layers of protection between the public and the nuclear fuel. That’s a lot of metal and concrete designed to keep the public safe. The Superman & Lois power plant appears to have a single layer of metal between the fuel and the atmosphere, and at the bottom of the tower, any release of fission products would vent right out through the top. Right into the communities nearby.

Also consider that hyperboloid towers can be up to 200 meters (660 feet) tall and 100 meters (330 feet) in diameter. With the reactor we see on screen in mind, any bad actor has a nice size target to bomb.

The second thing that Superman & Lois got wrong has to do with Fukushima.

The dialogue clearly shows that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster happened in this fictional universe. In our reality, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and the ensuing tsunami led to a partial nuclear meltdown. The active reactors automatically shut down (as designed) upon detecting the earthquake. Because of the shutdowns and electrical grid supply problems, the emergency diesel generators automatically started (again, as designed) to keep circulating the coolant through the cores.

The reason to keep the coolant circulating after shutdown is residual decay heat. Even after fission has ceased, the fission products will continue to naturally decay and produce heat for several hours. In these reactors, that decay heat needs to be removed before it boils the coolant away. Water cools better than steam and air, and overheated fuel can melt the cladding, resulting in a meltdown.

Although the term is not officially defined International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), that’s all a meltdown really is: At least one nuclear fuel element exceeds its melting point.

The Fukushima plant was designed to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis based on historic events. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami exceeded this design basis. It was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, and the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900. The waves swept over the seawall and the flooding caused the failure of the emergency generators and loss of power to the circulating pumps. The loss of decay heat removal led to three nuclear meltdowns, three hydrogen explosions, and the release of radioactive contamination.

In response to the Fukushima accident, the NRC issued order EA-12-049, requiring nuclear facilities to implement mitigation strategies (known in the industry as FLEX) for a beyond-design-basis external event using a three-phase approach. The first phase relies on installed equipment and resources to maintain or restore cooling capabilities. The second phase uses portable on-site equipment and consumables kept in storage for this purpose, and the third phase relies on off-site resources that are trucked or flown in to sustain those functions indefinitely.

Back to Superman & Lois, while a meltdown (and fission product release) was inferred by all the glowing orange magma, the operators clearly failed to implement the FLEX strategies to contain it. I can forgive the first phase since they mentioned that heat exchangers were “offline”, so obviously the installed equipment had failed. However, the second phase equipment is hooked up during the emergency and patches in around failed components. Unless the emergency equipment was sabotaged in some manner, it should have been able to supply water directly from the nearby lake/ocean to keep the core cooled.

Aside: It should also be noted that heat exchangers are passive components, so they can’t go offline. The pumps that supply water to the heat exchangers can go offline since they are powered active components. There is a fundamental difference. Further, there are a ton of heat exchangers in a nuclear power plant, so specificity matters in an emergency.

The third thing that Superman & Lois got wrong was thermodynamics.

Normal water freezes at 32°F (0°C) and salt water freezes at about 28.4°F (−2°C). Interior temperatures of the largest known iceberg in the North Atlantic were estimated between 5°F and −4°F (−15°C and −20°C), and that was for the equivalent of a 55-story building.

During a meltdown, the fuel assembly cladding deforms between 1,292°F and 1,652°F (700°C and 900°C). The cladding melts at 3,270°F (1,800°C) and the uranium oxide fuel melts between 4,890°F and 5,070°F (2,700°C and 2,800°C).

I know, that’s a lot of numbers. But, the point is that a 300-foot wide ice cube would likely have melted long before dropping those kind of temperatures to a reasonable level. In fact, it would have probably created an explosive steam cloud that would carry the already exposed fission products into the atmosphere.

There’s an even larger danger, however. In the event of a meltdown, a lava-like mass of fuel-containing material colloquially called corium is formed. Adding water to this mass, either by flooding or dropping it into a pool, can result in damage to containment and a spread of fission products. The reaction would cause a temperature spike and the production of a large amount of hydrogen. That immediate gas formation can result in a pressure spike inside the containment, and the steam explosion that I mentioned earlier could send projectiles and shrapnel flying. The same gas could also combust causing further pressure spikes.

Simply put, I don’t think Superman’s solution would have worked. In fact, it would have only made the problem worse.

CW-SPL-101
Screencap from Superman & Lois: “Pilot” – The CW Television Network

Wrap-Up

I’ve been around science-fiction and fantasy long enough to understand creative license and suspension of disbelief. I also understand that the general television watching public is not going to dive into this level of detail about a program based on a comic book hero. It’s supposed to be fun escapism, right?

In the twenty-first century, there should be no excuse for scientifically lazy storytelling in this genre, particularly when the bar has been set so high by Marvel Studios in superhero entertainment and by other properties like Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, and The Expanse.

The problem could have been solved in so many other ways that would have maintained at least the illusion of technical integrity. Really, the crux of the matter is having a scientific advisor or consultant available. If IMDb is any indication, Superman & Lois hasn’t used that expertise. At a minimum, they haven’t credited their consultants.

It’s 2021. Geeks are smart. We’ve seen the potential in sharply written entertainment that doesn’t patronize us or insult our intellects. We’ve also seen the power of science and the rise of STEM education opportunities.

By tapping proven science-in-entertainment experts – André Bormanis, Dr. Erin Macdonald, Mika McKinnon, Dr. Kevin Grazier, Dr. Naren Shankar, and Dr. David Saltzberg come to mind right away – or other technical experts through a resource like The Science & Entertainment Exchange, producers and writers can avoid making scientific mistakes and fans worldwide can get smarter stories for their time and money.

It’s a return on investment in which everyone wins.


This post was inspired by Michael Bailey, Bethany Kesler, and Alison Richards, the hosts of The Superman & Lois Tapes, a weekly podcast about The CW’s television series Superman & Lois. Thanks to you, BAM Crew, for the spark and the read-through.

You can find their show and all things Superman on The Fortress of Baileytude Podcasting Network.

Special thanks also go to Gary Mitchel for his keen eye and advice in proofing this work.

This group of awesome people made sure that I didn’t get too technical for the average reader. Nuclear power can be complex, but the science and engineering concepts behind it are simple. One of my goals is to make all of it easier to understand.

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Culture on My Mind is inspired by the weekly Can’t Let It Go segment on the NPR Politics Podcast where each host brings one thing to the table that they just can’t stop thinking about.

For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.

Timestamp: Sarah Jane Adventures Series Four Summary

Sarah Jane Adventures: Series Four Summary

Series Four was a strong showing for a season of change.

The series started with the departure of another series regular, Tommy Knight as Luke, leaving Elisabeth Sladen as the only remaining member of the cast that started with the show. As it progressed, the chemistry between Sladen, Daniel Anthony (Clyde), and Anjli Mohindra (Rani) carried this block of adventures even when the gaps in the writing were evident.

In a great set of stories, the strongest focused on the most established Doctor Who characters associated with The Sarah Jane Adventures: Death of the Doctor introduced Sarah Jane to the Eleventh Doctor and brought Jo Grant… rather, Jo Jones back to the screen, and Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith focused on Sarah Jane and the natural ravages of time while giving her young co-stars the chance to really shine.

Death of the Doctor also brought Russell T. Davies back to the writing desk for the Doctor, and that was a tour de force that we never quite got from Steven Moffat.

I can’t speak highly enough of this series.

Series Four comes in at an average of 4.3. That’s on par with the first series of The Sarah Jane Adventures and tied for the top spot. In comparison to Doctor Who, that’s equivalent to the revival era seasons One, Three, and Five, which are at fifth place in the Timestamps Project.


The Nightmare Man – 4
The Vault of Secrets – 4
Death of the Doctor – 5
The Empty Planet – 4
Lost in Time – 4
Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith – 5

Sarah Jane Adventures Series Four Average Rating: 4.3/5


The Timestamps Project is moving into Series Six with Matt Smith. As that series comes to its halfway point, Torchwood will return with Miracle Day. The two will merge for a bit until Torchwood ends, and then we’ll finish off Series Six around the first part of October.

That plan kicks off with a taste of Christmas in April.

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

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The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

Culture on My Mind – Brawn, Bands, and Bunnies… Oh, My!

Culture on My Mind
April 16, 2021

It’s time for another round of discussions and mayhem about classic science fiction, brought to you by the fine folks at the Dragon Con American Sci-Fi Classics Track.

On March 25th, the pah-nelists went to bah-tle over which Ah-nold was the best. That’s right, it’s an Arnold Schwarzen-Off. Featuring commandos Jeff Burns, Denise Lhamon, and Darin Bush, this panel won’t give you a raw deal. Getch-yo-ass to YouTube!

On April 1st – no foolin’! – it was time for the championship round of the Battle of the (Fictional) Bands!

So, here’s the story: The winners of the previous three encounters – The Soggy Bottom Boys, Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers, and DethKlok – were joined by a fourth competitor determined by a tournament of 16 non-winners from the previous rounds. The final three non-winners in the other rounds got automatic second chances, consisting of Spinal Tap, The Archies, Wyld Stallyns, Larry Underwood from The Stand, Mouse Rat, The Oneders, The Blues Brothers, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and The Misfits.

The remaining entrants were chosen from a pool of bands that didn’t make it to the finals, and the whole lot was judged by Kevin Cafferty, Chris Cummins, Shaun Rosado, Leigh Tyberg, ToniAnn Marini, Keith DeCandido, and Wrenn Simms.

On April 8th, the track celebrated the rabbit-themed holiday with a discussion of bunnies in pop culture. Kevin Eldridge joins the mayhem as some things lepus in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror were celebrated. 


We’re all caught up for now. Fun times lay ahead, including a couple of anniversary celebrations. If you want to play along at home, get thee hence to the YouTube channel and the group on Facebook. If you join in live, you can also leave comments and participate in the discussion using StreamYard connected through Facebook, YouTube, and Twitch.

The episode art each week is generously provided by the talented Sue Kisenwether. You can find her (among other places) on Women at Warp – A Roddenberry Star Trek Podcast.

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Culture on My Mind is inspired by the weekly Can’t Let It Go segment on the NPR Politics Podcast where each host brings one thing to the table that they just can’t stop thinking about.

For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.

Timestamp #SJA25: Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith

Sarah Jane Adventures: Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith
(2 episodes, s04e06, 2010)

Timestamp SJA25 Goodbye Sarah Jane Smith

Who could ever replace Sarah Jane Smith?

A meteor hurtles toward Earth. Mr. Smith redirects the threat into the forest and the Bannerman Road Gang rushes to the scene to deal with a potential pathogen. When they arrive, they find the pathogen neutralized by a stranger who dresses and acts like Sarah Jane Smith.

The team returns to Sarah Jane’s house to discover that the woman has moved in across the street. Clyde sets the car’s hand brake (which Sarah Jane apparently forgot) and the gang confronts the new arrival. She doesn’t receive them well, but we find out that her name is Ruby White. She came to Ealing after hearing about the alien activity, including the Trueman incident, the Bubble Shock! factoryrhinos driving police cars, and alien plant life. Sarah Jane tries diplomacy, but Ruby shows her the door.

Sarah Jane mentally drifts as the team discusses Ruby. She also forgets that Luke is away at university, leaves the front door open, and forgets K9’s name upon calling Luke only two hours after the last time. Rani stops by to check on her friend and suggests Sarah Jane take a break to visit Luke. A red alert interrupts their discussion as the Dark Horde fleet heads for Earth.

Mr. Smith redirects their teleport beam to an uninhabited area. Since transmissions are jammed and UNIT is unreachable, Sarah Jane hands weapons to her teammates and they confront the intruders. Unfortunately, Sarah Jane forgot her sonic lipstick so the weapons are useless. Just before the Horde kills the group, Ruby arrives and saves the day with alien technology and her own AI supercomputer. Sarah Jane and Ruby reconcile from their first meeting and the new arrival joins the gang in the attic.

Clyde and Rani depart as Sarah Jane and Ruby express their pleasure at having adult friends to share alien encounters with. Sarah Jane recalls meeting the Doctor when she was 23, but had trouble with the Time Lord’s name. She later thinks about the memory lapse and asks Mr. Smith for a full medical scan. He determines that she has brain tissue deterioration. She believes that she’s finally too old to defend the Earth, and Ruby slowly moves into her position on the team.

Sarah Jane offers leadership of the Bannerman Road Gang, along with the house and its contents, to Ruby. Ruby accepts and Sarah Jane transfers Mr. Smith’s command to Ruby. Once it is done, Ruby reveals that she is responsible for Sarah Jane’s condition. Sarah Jane is teleported to a secret cellar which houses Ruby’s stomach, since the new arrival is a Qetesh, a creature that devours peoples’ thrills and emotions. Ruby was fascinated by Sarah Jane’s exciting and adventurous life.

Ruby has her AI spoof a farewell message from Sarah Jane while the Qetesh’s stomach begins devouring our hero. Ruby gloats as the planet is undefended. It will make an excellent feast for alien species across the universe.

Clyde and Rani watch the spoofed video and lament the news. Clyde storms out and calls Luke after blaming Rani for putting the idea of a vacation in Sarah Jane’s head. Later, Mr. Smith tries to warn Clyde, but Ruby shuts down the computer and teleports Clyde to her orbiting ship. The ship was her prison until she reprogrammed the game console what was her only entertainment. That console took her from planet to planet as she consumed each one. She decides that Clyde is too smart for his own good and leaves him to suffocate in her prison cell.

After talking to her mother, Rani tries to call Clyde. She opens her door to find Luke (with K9 on video conference). K9 tracks Clyde to the orbiting ship and analyzes the Qetesh. Together, they discover that the Dark Horde invasion and the meteor strike were holographic simulations and they devise a plan to reboot Mr. Smith.

Meanwhile, in orbit, Clyde records a goodbye message.

Rani distracts Ruby as she puts the plan into motion. Ruby realizes that it is a ruse, but she’s too late. Mr. Smith is restored, Clyde is teleported to the attic, and Ruby is trapped in a containment vortex. The team locates Sarah Jane and as Clyde and Rani rush to the rescue, Luke arranges for Ruby to be trapped on Earth. Ruby breaks free of containment and confronts the team as they release Sarah Jane.

Luke enters the cellar and warns Ruby to leave Earth. When Ruby refuses, Luke tells her console to initiate his own custom distraction. The console broadcasts a simulation of meteor strikes to the entire world, overwhelming the Qetesh with a meal she cannot handle. The stomach overloads, restoring Sarah Jane’s mind and splurting Clyde in the process (as is customary).

Sarah Jane returns Ruby to her prison cell. The Qetesh vows revenge as the ship rockets into the deep dark. Back in the attic, the team finds that Mr. Smith and K9 have finally become friends. Sarah Jane cherishes her friends and treats them all to a night off in celebration of their victory.


This story is bittersweet. It was the last serial of the series to air before Elisabeth Sladen passed away from cancer, making the title and the plot ironically poetic. The question presented in this story – “Can Sarah Jane Smith be replaced?” – is answered by the giant hole Elisabeth Sladen’s absence has left in the Doctor Who universe. She’s still sorely missed.

I understand that her daughter, Sadie Miller, has taken up her character in the recent Big Finish line. I may need to track down that story.

As far as this story is concerned, I really enjoyed it. I love stories where the companions get a chance to shine, and the Rani-Clyde team did not disappoint. I especially loved how Luke and K9 came back as well to help save Sarah Jane. If there is a fault to be found, it would be the overdramatic scenery-chewing from Ruby’s side of the house, but there is a certain charm in an over-the-top melodramatic performance in an otherwise solid story with a fun villainous twist.

The two big franchise mythology ties that I loved in this serial were Clyde’s anger and anxiety over Sarah Jane abandoning him like his father did and the use of “Contact!” when K9 and Mr. Smith link up, echoing back to The Three Doctors.

All told, this was a great way to end Series Four, and a fitting episode to mark Elisabeth Sladen’s departure from this plane.

Travel well, Sarah Jane.

Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”


UP NEXT – Sarah Jane Adventures: Series Four Summary

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The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

Timestamp #SJA24: Lost in Time

Sarah Jane Adventures: Lost in Time
(2 episodes, s04e05, 2010)

Timestamp SJA24 Lost in Time

It’s a good core with poor wrapping.

The Bannerman Road Gang is chasing a report of aliens in a local shop. While looking around, the team meets a parrot and finds both a music box and a bloodstained arrow. They also encounter Mr. Smalley, the shop’s proprietor. He tells Sarah Jane that the news article was a ruse to draw her team into a quest for three pieces of chronosteel, metal forged in the time vortex.

You see, the Shopkeeper is a guardian of time, the chronosteel can reshape Earth’s destiny, and the Bannerman Road Gang has no choice. They have until the Shopkeeper’s hourglass runs out to save the world.

Clyde awakens in a grassy field, Sarah Jane in a box, and Rani in a candlelit chamber with Mistress Ellen, all of them in unknown times. Rani is the Tower of London’s royal chambers and has assumed the role of lady-in-waiting for Queen Jane Grey. Clyde finds himself on a beach in 1941 with a boy named George Woods as they watch Nazi spies land a short distance away. Sarah Jane, released from her box in a spooky mansion, meets a ghost hunter named Emily Morris in 1889.

As each traveler makes way through their respective time periods, the Shopkeeper observes them through a crystal ball.

Rani changes into period-specific clothing and makes a good impression on Queen Jane by speaking to her as a person, not as a royal. Rani presents the queen with the music box from the Shopkeeper’s establishment. Rani also hints again at her budding relationship with Clyde. The mood is broken as Mistress Ellen brings word of Lady Mary and her armies arriving in London to claim the crown. Queen Jane is ready to relinquish her crown as an unlawful claimant.

Clyde and George confirm that the spies are Nazis – the uniforms are a dead giveaway – and scurry off to warn the Home Guard. The phone in the nearby church is dead, and the boys are forced to hide as the Nazis arrive and start setting up a base of operations. They’re discovered and taken prisoner in short order. The Nazis set up a device with a core they call Thor’s Hammer, which Clyde recognizes as the chronosteel object he needs to secure.

Sarah Jane scans the mansion with her wrist scanner. There’s a lot of energy in the house, and while Emily believes that the house is haunted, Sarah Jane remains skeptical. As the clock strikes eight, the haunting begins with howls, rattles, and voices from events gone by. Well, the events seem to be linked to the past at first, but Sarah Jane determines that the voices are actually from the future. Sarah Jane explains that she’s a time traveler as they approach a room where the voices have converged. The room is warm, which Sarah Jane determines is due to an inferno in the future as the children accidentally set a fire with a candle.

As the first half comes to a close, Rani overhears Lady Matilda plotting to kill Queen Jane, Clyde and George escape the church, and Sarah and Emily decide to save the children trapped in the burning room. The Shopkeeper worries that they are taking too long and if they do not get back soon, they will all be trapped in the past forever. As the hourglass runs out, the Shopkeeper and Captain the parrot believe that all is lost. They are buoyed up by the fact that the time portal has not yet closed. Unfortunately, the planet now runs the risk of being torn apart by the time window.

Rani saves Lady Jane from assassination. Lady Matilda claims that the queen’s death would have inspired thousands as a martyr, but now Lady Jane will be condemned to die forgotten and alone. Rani recognizes the dagger as the chronosteel MacGuffin. Matilda is confined, but the castle is surrounded by Mary’s forces. Lady Jane offers Rani the chance to return home, but Rani decides to stay behind in friendship. Queen Mary assumes the crown and Lady Jane is taken into custody. Rani promises that Lady Jane is never forgotten, then picks up the dagger as she bids the lady farewell. As Rani vanishes, Mistress Ellen believes it to be witchcraft but Lady Jane claims that she is an angel.

Clyde and George escape the Nazis. They encounter Miss Wyckham, George’s schoolteacher, who brings news that the village is under siege. She also has a handgun amongst her parcels. As they storm the church, Clyde and George find out that Miss Wyckham is really a Nazi double agent and that an invasion of the British isles is underway. Clyde stages a diversion by pretending that his mobile phone is a bomb, opening the way for George to grab Thor’s Hammer. They sound the church bells to alert the Home Guard. As the Nazis run, George wants to give chase and fight, but Clyde encourages him to stay behind. Clyde grabs the Hammer and returns to the Shopkeeper.

Sarah Jane consoles Emily, who is experiencing a bout of PTSD since her mother also died in a fire. As they leave the room, Emily laments that they will have to wait until 8 pm the next day, but Sarah Jane dials the grandfather clock back and starts the events all over. This time, however, the events are stronger and include a visual component. They discover that the woman they were following decided to lock the children in their room for the night, but continue upstairs to look for the chronosteel. The door to the children’s bedroom changes shape as the time fields begin to merge, revealing the key as the quest item. The children briefly detect the women as Emily’s fear rises, and Sarah Jane convinces Emily to harness that power to grab the key and unlock the door in the future. The children are saved and Sarah Jane takes the key, but Emily grabs it as well. Sarah Jane vanishes but the key does not follow.

With everyone back in the right time, the Shopkeeper places the first two objects into perfectly sculpted slots in a suitcase. As the room rumbles, a woman enters the shop and hands Sarah Jane the key. The Shopkeeper adds it to the collection, scoops up the Captain (who apparently was in charge the whole time), and vanishes.

The woman explains that she is Angela Price, Emily’s granddaughter, who told Angela to pass on the key. She and Sarah go for a cup of tea and a chat about her family. Later on, Clyde researches George and discovers the man was recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and Rani reads about Lady Jane and finds she was happy in her final moments, assured of immortality.


On the one hand, each quest and story are well played between the writing and acting, focusing on the core strengths of each character. The pacing is good, though Rani’s quest seems to run out of steam well before Clyde’s and Sarah Jane’s. Clyde’s story also has a rather quick twist with the treacherous schoolteacher.

On the other hand, the framing story is lacking. It’s obvious that the Shopkeeper and the Captain know what items to look for, but they refuse to disclose that information or even explain the details of the overall adventure. They literally abduct the team and throw them into a life and death scenario with scant data.

Even the Doctor eventually explains the situation to keep the companions on track.

I initially wondered if the Shopkeeper and the Captain were Time Lords – or maybe even a Time Lord and companion, ala Frobisher – but the rules of the universe at this point are pretty clear: The Doctor is the last of the Time Lords. So, this pair remains a rogue but powerful duo with vague motivations.

Overall, the whole framing story is frustrating but the individual quests more than make up for it.

In trivial matters, this story links up with two classic Seventh Doctor adventures. First, Clyde’s quest included Norse mythology and Nazis, which echoes The Curse of Fenric. Second, the grandfather clock reset to make the “haunting” start again hearkens back to events at Gabriel Chase in Ghost Light.

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”


UP NEXT – Sarah Jane Adventures: Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith

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The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

Rabbit Rabbit – April 2021

Rabbit Rabbit
April 2021

Rabbit, rabbit!

Since at least 1909, a superstition has lived in North American and the United Kingdom that if a person says or repeats the word “rabbit” upon waking up on the first day of the month, good luck will follow for the remainder of that month.

Elements of the tradition exist in the United Kingdom, New England, and even in various First Nation cultures.

While I’m not necessarily endorsing the superstition, it provides a way to look in depth at each month of the year, from history and observances to miscellaneous trivia. The topic this month is April.

History

April started as a Roman month with the Latin name Aprilis. The origin of the name is uncertain, but the Romans believed that it derived from the verbs aperio, aperire, and/or apertus, which each mean “to open”. In modern day, that’s where we get the word aperture. The the famous grammarian Verrius Flaccus expanded on these thoughts, writing that “fruits and flowers and animals and seas and lands do open” in this season.

Ironically, my sinuses close up as the pollen starts flying.

Since the Romans had a tradition of tying months to honor of divinities, and since April was sacred to the goddess Venus – her Veneralia festival was held on the first day – some have suggested that Aprilis was originally the goddess’s month of Aphrilis, stemming from her equivalent Greek goddess name Aphrodite of the Etruscan equivalent Apru.

April was originally the second month of the earliest Roman calendar, but the addition of Ianuarius and Februarius by King Numa Pompilius circa 700 BC knocked it to third. It became the fourth month of the calendar year during the time of the decemvirs circa 450 BC. Julius Caesar gave the month 30 days during his reforms in the 40s BC.

The Anglo-Saxons called April ēastre-monaþ, which led the Venerable Bede to conclude in The Reckoning of Time that the month was the root of the word Easter. He also believed that the month was named after a goddess Eostre, a Western Germanic spring goddess whose feast was in that month.

In China, the third month brought the symbolic ploughing of the earth by the emperor and princes of the blood, and that month frequently corresponds to April. In Finnish, April is huhtikuu, meaning slash-and-burn moon, when gymnosperms (seed-producing plants) for beat and burn clearing of farmland were felled. Equivalently in Slovene, the most established traditional name is mali traven, meaning the month when plants start growing.

Observances

In Ancient Rome, the festival of Cerealia was held for seven days from mid-to-late April, but exact dates are uncertain. Feriae Latinae was also held in April with the varying dates. The Romans also observed Veneralia (April 1), Megalesia (April 10–16), Fordicidia (April 15), Parilia (April 21), and Vinalia Urbana, Robigalia, and Serapia, which were celebrated on April 25. Floralia was held April 27 during the Republican era, or April 28 on the Julian calendar, and lasted until May 3. However, these dates do not correspond to the modern Gregorian calendar.

The Lyrids meteor shower appears on April 16 – April 26 each year, with the peak generally occurring on April 22. The Eta Aquariids meteor shower also appears in April, typically between April 21 and May 20 each year with peak activity on or around May 6. The Pi Puppids appear on April 23, but only in years around the parent comet’s perihelion date. The Virginids also shower at various dates in April.

In Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions, April is the Month of the Resurrection of the Lord. April and March are the months in which is celebrated the moveable feast of Easter Sunday. In the Jewish faith, Passover tends to fall around the same time.

In the United Kingdom, April is National Pet Month. The United States once again takes the lion’s share of observances, including Arab American Heritage Month, Autism Awareness Month, Cancer Control Month, Community College Awareness Month, Donate Life Month (which boosts awareness for organ donation), Financial Literacy Month, Jazz Appreciation Month, Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month, National Poetry Month, National Poetry Writing Month, Occupational Therapy Month, National Prevent Child Abuse Month, National Volunteer Month, Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month, and Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Considering food, April is also Fresh Florida Tomato Month, National Food Month, National Grilled Cheese Month, National Pecan Month, National Soft Pretzel Month, and National Soyfoods Month.

It sounds like a great month for a grilled cheese and tomato soup combo.

Trivia

  • April’s birthstone is the diamond, which comes with a boatload of mythology, symbolism, and lore.
  • The western zodiac signs of April are Aries (until April 19) and Taurus (April 20 and beyond).
  • The month’s birth flowers are the daisy and the sweet pea.

Rabbit Rabbit is a project designed to look at each month of the year with respect to history, observances, and more.

For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.