Timestamp #TW32: The New World

Torchwood: The New World
(1 episode, s04e01, 2011)

Timestamp TW32 The New World

Who are they? Torchwood.

Early in the morning, absolutely despicable child rapist/killer Oswald Danes is scheduled for execution by lethal injection. He refuses to make a final statement and the injections begin. Danes convulses violently.

At the CIA, Esther Drummond is seeing several references to Torchwood as she talks with Rex Matheson on the phone. The institute’s name has been sent all over the UK, but as Drummond starts digging into it the entire system crashes. On the other end of the line, Matheson gets into a car accident and ends up taking a piece of rebar to the chest. He is taken to the emergency room.

Meanwhile, Gwen Cooper wakes up from a nightmare about Torchwood. Gwen, Rhys, and their daughter Anwen are living in middle-of-nowhere Wales. Gwen tells Anwen a story about aliens while feeding her. Helicopters have been flying overhead so tensions are high. There’s also a knock at the door – Gwen and Rhys pull out an arsenal of weapons just in case – but it’s just two lost hikers.

Or at least they seem to be until the hikers exchange knowing glances as they leave.

Matheson survives his surgery in a modern-day miracle. Turns out that no one has died in the hospital over the last twenty-four hours, and it’s not limited to this location. It’s worldwide. It also means that Oswald Danes survived, and he’s gearing up for a Fifth and Eighth Amendment defense so he can be set free. Matheson has a hard time wrapping his head around this Miracle Day.

Gwen and Rhys are busy painting the walls when a mobile phone rings. Andy Davidson bears the bad news that Gwen’s father is in the hospital. Gwen apologizes to Rhys because this means that they have to go back.

Further investigation into Torchwood reveals that every reference has been scrubbed under the 456 Regulations. Drummond crawls through the archives to find any physical reference to Torchwood. She finds the 456 files and photos of the Torchwood Three team, and then she meets Captain Jack Harkness. Jack asks her to accompany him but Drummond runs. She finds that the man in charge of the archives has been murdered and Jack saves her from being shot as well. To avoid being killed by suicide vest, Jack and Esther take a dive through a window into a fountain in the courtyard.

Jack tells her about the history of the Torchwood Institute while he mulls over the fact that he was injured. His intent is to keep Torchwood buried to maintain Gwen’s safety. He wiped the traces of Torchwood using malware. He secretly gives Esther a dose of Retcon and then poses as FBI agent “Owen Harper” to witness the suicide bomber’s autopsy.

Rex is able to watch the proceedings through the hospital’s security cameras. The bomber is an exploded mass of burned tissue and bone, but he’s still conscious and alive. Jack suggests severing the head to put the man out of his misery, but that doesn’t work.

Gwen and Rhys return to Cardiff with Anwen and meet up with Andy. Gwen is perplexed by the mass of people paying honor to the Miracle. They go inside and reunite with Gwen’s father despite her mother’s protests. Gwen later gets a briefing on the Miracle Day from Andy – Jack simultaneously hunkers down in an abandoned building and reads while he eats – and they discover that the human race has four months to live if no one else dies. Rhys is understandably angry about Gwen getting involved and she relents.

Esther wakes up in her apartment. The only evidence of the previous night’s adventure is a large bruise, but she doesn’t remember a thing. Jack has a bruise as well, so his healing factor has apparently stalled. When Esther goes to work, she finds the last remaining physical Torchwood file but she dismisses it due to the Retcon. Rex calls her and they discuss Torchwood and the Miracle, discovering that Torchwood resurfacing coordinates with the last time that a human died on Earth. Rex checks himself out of the hospital and takes a taxi to the airport. He’s headed to the United Kingdom despite the severe amount of pain that he’s in.

When Rex arrives, he gets a handgun from UK officials and drives to Wales while Esther gathers intel about Gwen. He eventually arrives at Gwen’s doorstep and collapses at gunpoint. When he wakes up, he’s tied to a radiator as Gwen and Rhys try to escape. Rex escapes easily, but the group of them are interrupted by a rocket that passes through the entire house and explodes in the hillside behind.

Gwen kills the shooter with a pistol – Anwen, babe in arms, smiles as her mother goes to work – and Jack arrives in a Land Rover to take everyone down the beach at high speed. Gwen finds a rocket launcher in the backseat and destroys the helicopter. When Rex asks who Gwen and Jack are, she defiantly replies, “Torchwood.”

The team regroups in Cardiff at Roald Dahl Plass. Gwen instructs Rhys to take Anwen to Gwen’s mother’s house. Gwen still has the Eye-5 lenses, but the rest of Torchwood’s technology was lost in the Hub’s destruction. Jack reveals that he can no longer heal himself and is a mortal man. Rex greets an arriving cavalcade of police cars with open eyes.

Rex has ordered a rendition. Torchwood is being handed over to the United States.


Torchwood covers new ground with this series. This was the first episode of Torchwood to be principally filmed in the United States (and the third episode of the Doctor Who universe after The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon) and the first episode in the larger franchise to film in California. It was also broadcast in the United States (and Canada and Australia) before the UK, which was another first.

The big narrative ground that Torchwood ventures into is swapping roles for Jack and the rest of the world. By removing his powers of resurrection and giving them to everyone else, Jack is placed in a position of extreme vulnerability and weakness. It’s a great starting point for the heroes as they set out to figure out what’s going on.

I appreciate how this episode also explored concepts like the force majeure (unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract, such as an “Act of God”), the Fifth Amendment (no “person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb”), and the Eighth Amendment (“cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted”).

I love how downright creepy and despicable Bill Pullman is as Oswald Danes. I mean, come on, this is the magnetic lead from Independence Day and Spaceballs, and here we find him just oozing with malice and soullessness.

More than that, I enjoy how this episode placed our team in the post-Torchwood world and forced them back together in rather explosive circumstances. As much as they don’t want to get the team back together, they absolutely have to in order to save the world from certain destruction.

Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”


UP NEXT – Torchwood: Rendition

cc-break

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 #225: A Good Man Goes to War

Doctor Who: A Good Man Goes to War
(1 episode, s06e07, 2011)

Timestamp 225 A Good Man Goes to War

Demons run when a good man goes to war.

Prequel: Brain Trafficking

Dorium Maldovar meets with three cloaked figures. He tells them that his agents have procured the exact security software they have requested, extracted from memory – the literal brain – of a Judoon trooper. He exchanges it for a bag of sentient money.

Dorium doesn’t understand why they are doing all this to imprison one child, and he’s astonished at the child’s identity and relationship to the Doctor. He warns them: “God help us if you’ve made him angry”.

A Good Man Goes to Wars

On the Demons Run base, Amy consoles her new daughter, Melody Pond. She promises that help is on the way and is distraught that she has been unable to care for Melody since she was born.

Elsewhere in the cosmos, Rory and the Doctor have been hunting for Amy. They lay waste to an entire Cyberman fleet, news of which reaches the troops on Demons Run. Soldiers “The Fat One” and “The Thin One” – together, the Thin-Fat Gay-Married Anglican Marines – converse briefly with Cleric Lorna Bucket, a woman who has once met the Doctor in the Gamma Forests. Lorna sews to pass the time and was the only Cleric to show empathy for Amy’s plight. While The Thin One and Lorna discuss the Doctor, The Fat One is led away by the Headless Monks, the cloaked figures who met with Maldovar, and asked to make a donation into an appropriately head-sized box.

In London, circa 1888 AD, a Silurian named Vastra returns home after dispatching Jack the Ripper by her blade. Her maid Jenny informs her that the TARDIS has appeared in the drawing room, and Vastra knows that it is time to repay an old debt.

At the Battle of Zaruthstra in 4037 AD, Command Harcourt and Madame President Eleanor are ready to leave an infirm child as they retreat, but the child is saved by an unlikely nurse. A Sontaran named Strax tends to the child, then leaves as the TARDIS arrives.

At Stormcage, as River is breaking back into her cell, she meets Rory in his Centurion garb. She’s just returned from a birthday celebration with the Doctor in 1814 and Rory is summoning her to Demons Run. River explains that the Battle of Demons Run is when the Doctor will finally know who she is and that she cannot be there until the very end. During this event, the Doctor will rise higher than ever before, but will fall so much further.

At the Maldovarium, the Eyepatch Lady confronts Maldovar. She is known as Madame Kovarian, and Maldovar explains that the Doctor is raising an army. He also explains the origin of her base’s name: “Demons run when a good man goes to war.” When Kovarian leaves, the TARDIS arrives for Maldovar.

Back on Demons Run, while Colonel Manton rallies his troops, Lorna tries to present Amy with a prayer leaf. It’s a fabric token embroidered with Melody’s name in Lorna’s native language. They discuss the Doctor’s status as a legend and how each of them met the Time Lord. Amy accepts the gift and the apology.

Lorna returns to the colonel’s rally just in time for Manton to reveal the true face of the Headless Monks. Of course, the Doctor is masquerading as one of the monks, and as everyone in the crowd draws arms against him, the lights go out and the Doctor vanishes. The Clerics and the monks start shooting each other until Manton reestablishes control over the assembly by having all of the Clerics disarm themselves. Meanwhile, Vastra and Jenny have taken the control room in order to monitor the situation.

The assembled troops are suddenly surrounded as an army of Silurians and Judoon materialize. Commander Strax holds Manton at gunpoint. Manton claims that his fleet will come to help if Demons Run falls, but the Doctor counters: The fleet won’t know to come if Demons Run can’t call for help. The Doctor uses the Dalek-upgraded Spitfires, courtesy of Winston Churchill, to disable the communications tower.

Madame Kovarian readies her ship with young Melody in tow, but she’s thwarted by Rory with help from Henry and Toby Avery. Kovarian and Manton are brought before a barely restrained Doctor. He wants Manton to order his troops to “run away” so that he’ll be remembered by it for all time. Kovarian eventually yields and orders Manton to give the word.

Rory, with help from a sonic screwdriver, frees Amy from her cell. They both weep over their baby and the reunion. The Doctor soon joins them and their reunion is complete with a bout of humor. The Doctor speaks baby after all, and Melody has a lot to say.

Madame Vastra reports that the Clerics are leaving without any bloodshed. When she gloats that the Doctor has never risen higher, Rory remembers River’s warning.

The group gathers in the hangar. The Doctor doesn’t want to leave until he figures out why the base was used in the first place. The Doctor also produces his baby cot so Melody can settle down for a nap. Vastra calls the Doctor away, but before he goes he explains how Amy was split between the Ganger avatar and Demons Run. As the Doctor leaves, Strax brings in Lorna as a prisoner.

In the control room, the Doctor finds out that Melody has a mixture of human and Time Lord DNA. Presumably, it happened as a result of conception while exposed to the Untempered Schism, just like how the Time Lords began. Vastra is concerned that their victory was too easy.

In the hangar, Lorna claims that she’s a friend who only wanted to meet the Doctor. She also claims that he’s a great warrior, hence his name. Unfortunately, they soon fall under siege from the Headless Monks. While Vastra and Maldovar return to the hangar, Kovarian contacts the Doctor as he thinks back to the child in the astronaut suit from 1969. Kovarian explains that the child represents hope in their endless, bitter war against the Doctor.

A force field snaps into existence around the TARDIS and the hangar is sealed. The Headless Monks advance with their attack prayer and Amy retreats to safety while everyone else prepares for battle. Maldovar tries to reason with the monks, but he is cut down.

As the battle is met, the Doctor connects the dots. Kovarian has replaced Melody with a Ganger. The child is still lost. The Doctor arrives moments too late. The monks have been defeated, but Lorna and Strax have paid the price. The Doctor and Jenny try to comfort Amy. He also speaks briefly with Lorna before she dies, promising that he remembers her just like he remembers everyone he meets.

The Doctor is ready to give up on his quest against the Silence, but channels his anger toward the newly-arrived River Song. He wants to know where she was, but River says that she could not have turned the tide of the battle. She warns him that his name, which means healer across the universe, could become just like the people of the Gamma Forests know him: Mighty Warrior.

Demons run when a good man goes to war
Night will fall and drown the sun
When a good man goes to war

Friendship dies and true love lies
Night will fall and the dark will rise
When a good man goes to war

Demons run, but count the cost
The battle’s won, but the child is lost

The Doctor demands to know who she is and she leads him to the baby cot. The answer is inscribed on the cot in Gallifreyan and the Doctor’s mood shifts dramatically. He rushes to the TARDIS, asking River to get everyone home safely, before flying away to find Melody.

Amy demands to know where he’s gone and who she is. River shows her the prayer leaf and explains that Melody Pond in the language of the Gamma Forests translates to River Song. “The only water in the forest is the river.”

River Song is Amy and Rory’s daughter.

The Battle of Demons Run: Two Days Later

Strax awakens two days after the Battle of Demons Run, having been healed by alien technology. Vastra and Jenny tell him that they are the last to leave and invite him to join them in London. After all, Jenny has been ostracized from her family for her sexual orientation, Vastra is presumably the last of her kind, and Strax is all alone. There could be a future for them all together.

Strax refuses at first, but once he learns that London will involve crime-solving and plenty of adventure, he agrees to accompany them.


This story serves multiple purposes and it serves them well. Primarily, it ties off the thread of Amy’s abduction and opens the story of a war against the Doctor with Melody at its core. Second, it presents a cliffhanger to close out the first half of the season and tease the direction of the second half. Third, it offers a springboard for the team of Vastra, Jenny, and Strax.

That team is an intriguing combination of a Silurian, a human servant, and the unlikely Sontaran nurse. All three are outcasts of some sort, and that characteristic provides the glue to bind them. Strax provides a wonderful parallel to Rory through their mutual professions and Vastra offers a connection to the Doctor, the man who saved her at some point in his on-again-off-again guardianship of her species.

We get a beautiful inadvertent tie back to The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang with the Cybermen. In that Timestamp, I mused about the status of the Cybus and Mondasian Cybermen at this point in the franchise. The Cybermen in that story were Cybus models, survivors of the Battle of Canary Wharf, and had either built or assimilated into a fleet. The Mondasian Cybermen, last seen in Silver Nemesis, still had to exist but I had wondered if the two could co-exist.

Obviously, they can to some degree, as the Cybermen seen in this story were obviously Mondasian – they didn’t have the Cybus C on their chests – but have evolved (or assimilated into) the more bulky Cybus body time. I’m excited to see their return.

The other blink-and-you’ll-miss-it note surrounds River Song. On the surface, it seems like the River that Rory visits in Stormcage is the same River that arrives after the Battle of Demons Run, but the context clues point in a different direction. River at Stormcage had to consult her diary, which means that Demons Run has already happened for her. The River at Stormcage was from a later point in her timeline and she knows what happens to the Doctor. A minor addition is a reminder that River once remarked how the Doctor could make whole armies turn and run.

In a smaller callback, we see the Church again, previously met in The Time of Angels.

All told, this was a great story, a wonderful springboard, and a terrific cliffhanger.

Since the Timestamps Project is proceeding (for the most part) in airdate order, the next stop on this journey is a return to Torchwood. At some point, the streams will cross for a brief period as Doctor Who continues Series Six.

Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”


UP NEXT – Torchwood: The New World

cc-break

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 #224: The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People

Doctor Who: The Rebel Flesh
Doctor Who: The Almost People
(2 episodes, s06e05-06, 2011)

Timestamp 224 The Rebel Flesh The Almost People

Send in the clones.

The Rebel Flesh

In a dark and creepy island fortress, workers Jennifer, Buzzer, and Jimmy enter a room with a large vat. While wearing protective suits, they analyze the acid within. Buzzer teases Jennifer who knocks him into the vat. They seem nonplussed as Buzzer melts away, but moments later they encounter him in the corridor.

Buzzer claims that he could file for worker’s compensation for the accident. After all, these bodies cost money.

On the TARDIS, Amy and Rory play darts while the Doctor obsesses over Amy’s ambiguous scan. The Doctor offers to drop the duo for fish and chips, but they refuse to go without him. The TARDIS takes a hit from a solar tsunami, and while they think they’re about to crash, the time capsule lands with a soft thud. They’ve arrived at the mysterious island, which turns out to be a 13th-century monastery. However, it’s in a more modern era since the tones of Dusty Springfield are echoing through the complex.

They spot some mysterious piping and some old acid on the handrails. The Doctor sets off an intruder alarm and the trio runs into a chamber where they meet the security team. Duplicates of the same team are resting in harnesses on the wall. The Doctor convinces the foreman, Miranda Cleaves, that he’s a meteorological supervisor and requests to see their most critical system.

Enter the Flesh. It’s a fully programmable matter that can replicate any living organism. The workers’ duplicates are called Gangers, and they are controlled by the minds in the harnesses. The Doctor analyzes the vat of Flesh, noting that it’s scanning him. Meanwhile, Miranda orders Jennifer into the empty harness as a new Ganger is to be made of her. Within moments, a fully functioning clone is made. All the while, another powerful solar storm is bearing down on the island.

Since the facility runs on solar power, the storm will potentially overload and destroy the island. The Doctor attempts to protect everyone but is knocked unconscious along with everyone on the island. The TARDIS is trapped in the wash from a broken acid pipe and sinks into the ground.

As everyone recovers, Rory finds Jennifer in a state of shock and comforts her. Miranda claims that the Gangers should have disincorporated when the power went out, but the group soon discovers that the storm has given them independence and self-sustaining power. The team is shocked, but the Doctor suggests that they’ve given birth to a new form of life.

During the discussion, Jennifer falls ill and rushes to the restroom. Rory joins her, but they both soon discover that Jennifer is a Ganger. The Doctor also discovers that Miranda is a Ganger when she handles a hot bowl but isn’t burned. These Gangers are in flux, not quite Flesh and not quite formed.

As Miranda runs from the room, the Doctor, Amy, and Dicken run out to find Rory. The Doctor looks at Amy before insisting that the Gangers aren’t violent, but rather scared and angry, and he needs to talk to them. Many of the paths through the monastery are blocked by leaking acid puddles. The Doctor goes to retrieve the TARDIS, Amy goes off alone to find Rory, and Jimmy returns to the dining hall before sending Buzzer and Dicken off to retrieve the acid suits. Unfortunately, the Gangers have gotten to them first.

Rory and Jennifer share a moment as she claims to be just as real as the human who created her, phasing into human form as she emphatically states it. Rory comforts her and gains her trust.

The Doctor finds the TARDIS mostly submerged in the acid-soaked ground, losing his boots in the process. He also scans the vat of Flesh, and when he leaves a mouth forms that says, “Trust me…”

Amy finds herself in a dead-end corridor filled with gas. She sees the Eye-Patch Lady again, then runs into Rory and Jennifer. Rory declares that no one will touch Jennifer. Elsewhere, the Doctor finds the Gangers and the acid suits, and he tries to convince them that they should work with the humans. The discussion is watched from afar by the real Miranda.

Everyone comes together in an attempt to heal the rift, but Miranda has other plans. She crashes the discussion and the Buzzer Ganger ends up dead. The Gangers return to the acid room and both sides declare war. The Doctor suggests that the humans take refuge in the chapel with the Flesh vat since it is highly defensible. Meanwhile, the real Jennifer is trying to find everyone but is attacked. Rory follows her screams as the chapel is sealed.

As the Gangers advance on the chapel, Amy and the Doctor meets someone they did not expect: The Doctor’s Ganger.

The Almost People

The Doctor’s Ganger starts trying to adapt to the Time Lord’s previous regenerations. It shifts through various voices of previous incarnations before settling down as the humans try to barricade the door against the Gangers. The twin Doctors spring into action as Amy notes that the real Doctor has replacement boots from the human workers. The Doctors remind Amy (once again) to breathe before finding an escape route just as the Gangers melt the door.

The Doctors’ team moves through the tunnels but are soon assaulted by a “chokey gas” produced by the interaction of the acid and the monastery’s stone construction. Miranda leads everyone to an evacuation tunnel to escape the gas, eventually reaching the top of the evac tower.

The Gangers muse about their existence and revolution while the Ganger Miranda nurses a growing headache. Reluctantly, Ganger Miranda signs on to Ganger Jennifer’s idea that will finish off the humans.

In the evac tower, Amy questions which Doctor is real, but they both claim to be. Amy definitely sides with the non-Ganger Doctor and the Ganger Doctor wonders if he should be called “John Smith” instead. The Doctors restore power to the evac transmitter and Miranda tries to make contact with the mainland. The Gangers overhear the message, including the request that the Gangers are destroyed when the rescue craft arrive. The Doctors are not pleased by this request.

The Doctor books a phone call for the morning but doesn’t explain why. Meanwhile, Amy spots the Eyepatch Lady again but doesn’t understand why. She finally tells the Doctor about her visions, but the Doctor dismisses it. The Ganger Doctor leaves the room and Amy follows with an apology for questioning his existence. She admits to seeing the Doctor’s death, and the Ganger Doctor snaps, assaulting Amy in the process, because he can hear the single question that Gangers ask when they die: “Why?”

The now-calmed Ganger tries to apologize to Amy but she wants no part of it. The Ganger Doctor explains that the Flesh is growing and wants revenge for all the Gangers that have been decommissioned. The Doctor also heard this, but less faintly than his doppelgänger. Miranda asks the Ganger Doctor to sit down away from Amy.

Rory encounters two Jennifers and tries to distinguish between them. The two women fight and one falls into acid, melting away. Rory presumes that the human Jennifer won the battle because she’s limping and has an acid burn. The pair are spotted on the security cameras and the Doctor sends the Ganger Doctor (with Buzzer) to retrieve them, asking Amy to trust them. Meanwhile, Jennifer uses Rory to turn off the acid cooling systems – something she couldn’t do because it wouldn’t recognize her as human – which will destroy the tower when the acid erupts.

As Jennifer shows Rory a pile of discarded, melted, but still living Gangers, the Ganger Doctor is ambushed by his escort when they find Jennifer’s corpse. Buzzer then finds the Jennifer who was accompanying Rory, herself a Ganger who kills Buzzer.

The human Miranda suffers the same headache as her Ganger, which is likely a blood clot that will slowly kill her. As the humans try to find a way out, the Gangers intercept a message from the rescue team and redirect them, correctly guessing the code word. The humans find Rory and follow him to what he believes is an evacuation route. When Jennifer traps the humans in the acid vat room, the Gangers (including the Ganger Doctor) take a furious Rory away with them.

And then the phone rings.

The Doctor has booked a holo-call with Jimmy’s son. It’s the boy’s birthday, and the Doctor wants Jimmy to experience humanity. When Jimmy runs from the room, overwhelmed by emotion, the other Gangers begin to have a change of heart as well. Jimmy races to save the humans, but he’s too late to save the real Jimmy from being killed by the acid. As Jimmy dies, he asks his Ganger to become him and go home.

Everyone returns to the dining hall where Ganger Jimmy talks to his new son. The Doctor promises that Jimmy is coming home today, then puts a plan in motion to get everyone out. They are pursued by the Ganger Jennifer as she takes a monstrous form, and Dicken sacrifices himself to lock the Ganger out.

The Doctor accurately guessed where the TARDIS will fall through the soil. The survivors pile into the ship, and the Doctor reveals that he and his Ganger swapped shoes to prove that the two were not so different. Amy is shocked and ashamed, and she tells the Doctor that she didn’t think he could be twice the man she thought he was. He replies with a whispered message to Amy, telling her to push, but “only when she tells you to”.

The Doctor gives his Ganger the sonic screwdriver, a device that will destabilize the Flesh. The Gangers Miranda and Doctor open the door and defeat Jennifer at the cost of their own lives.

The survivors board the TARDIS. Exposure to the engines stabilizes the remaining Gangers so they’ll remain true human beings. The Doctor also gives Miranda a cure for her blood clot. Jimmy returns home to his son, and the other survivors are taken to the company’s headquarters to lobby for rights for the Flesh.

The Doctor tells Amy to breathe.

Amy goes into labor. Rory is obviously confused since Amy’s not pregnant.

Back inside the TARDIS, the Doctor orders Rory to stand away from Amy. He does so, and the Doctor explains that the trip to the monastery was not unintentional. He needed to see how the Flesh worked so he could stop the signal…

…to Amy.

He promises her that they will find her. Then he uses the sonic screwdriver to disincorporate her. Amy was Flesh all along.

The real Amy wakes up in a medical capsule, obviously pregnant and dressed in a white hospital gown. A panel slides away above her to reveal the Eyepatch Lady, who tells her to push. Amy screams as her contractions begin.


The return to the creature feature style of Doctor Who is welcome, particularly when it takes on elements of The Thing. I mean, how do you fight a bad guy when the bad guy can look like any of the good guys? More importantly, what distinguishes the bad guys from the good guys when they’re fighting what is essentially a war over race? I absolutely love the allegories, some of which are painfully relevant today, especially when Amy is set back on her heels for problematic viewpoints by the Doctor’s trickery. It’s also important to note the details: Someone you care about can have problematic views, and it is a conscious decision to help them overcome them and forgive them for not seeing the bigger picture beyond their privileges.

The key here is that they have to want to change. The humans wanted to grow and evolve when confronted with their wrongheadedness.

The whole thing is both subtle and beautiful.

The other beautifully played element here is how the Doctor orchestrated the entire trip. He offers to leave the companions behind, gently lands the TARDIS during a brutal storm, analyzes the Flesh as the Gangers are conceived, and repeatedly tells Amy to breathe. Amy’s status as a Ganger was a surprise, but everything leading up to that revelation was telegraphed in minute details. In contrast to other stories where the Doctor has the solution but the story has offered none of it to the viewer, this is a well-crafted tale that provides threads and weaves them along the way without pointing at them with a giant neon sign.

The Doctor has displayed an uncanny knowledge of when his companions aren’t quite right in the past, particularly Rose in New Earth and Martha in The Poison Sky.

The callbacks to franchise mythology were nice touches, from the use of John Smith and a discussion on Cybermats to the Ganger Doctor channeling previous regenerations to stabilize himself. We got bits from An Unearthly ChildThe Sea DevilsThe Robots of Death, and The Girl in the Fireplace before the Ganger short-circuited a bit and spat out “Reverse the jelly baby of the neutron flow” and “Would you like a Doctor?”.

All told, this was a wonderful monster/base defense story with some notable twists. It was also a lot of fun.

Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”


UP NEXT – Doctor Who: A Good Man Goes to War

cc-break

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 #223: The Doctor’s Wife

Doctor Who: The Doctor’s Wife
(1 episode, s06e04, 2011)

Timestamp 223 The Doctors Wife

“Where’s my thief!?”

A woman named Idris is led to a platform by “Auntie”, “Uncle”, and “Nephew”, the last of which is an Ood who drains her mind in preparation for a Time Lord’s arrival.

On the TARDIS, the Doctor, Amy, and Rory are surprised by a knock on the door. Even though they are in deep space, the shave-and-a-haircut routine reveals an emergency hypercube message for the Doctor, presumably sent by another Time Lord named the Corsair. They follow the signal contained within, dumping excess TARDIS rooms for fuel, and break through to another universe.

Almost immediately, the TARDIS goes dark. The matrix – the heart and soul of the TARDIS – has vanished. While the Doctor puzzles over where it would go, Idris awakens with an exhale of golden regeneration energy.

The travelers exit the TARDIS into a junkyard. Luckily, there’s plenty of rift energy so refueling should be easy. On the other hand, the Doctor is accosted by Idris, who presents as an insane woman calling the Time Lord her “thief”. After taking care of Idris, the Doctor turns his attention to the green-eyed Ood. After fixing the Ood’s sphere, it broadcasts a series of interwoven distress messages from various Time Lords. As Auntie and Uncle take Idris back to the House, the Doctor expresses his intrigue at the possible presence of his own people.

In the House, the asteroid is revealed to be sentient. The asteroid tells the Doctor that many TARDISes and Time Lords have come and gone, but there are no others now. The travelers explore a bit. Amy points out that the Doctor is seeking forgiveness from his people. The Doctor sends the companions back to the TARDIS in search of his sonic screwdriver. Once they arrive, the doors lock as a green mist swirls about the phone box. Meanwhile, the Doctor had his sonic the entire time. Cheeky devil.

The Doctor discovers a collection of Time Lord distress signal cubes. He realizes that Auntie and Uncle have been mended over time by the asteroid with parts of the various Time Lords, including the ouroboros-tattooed arm of the Corsair.

Knowing that Idris foretold the Doctor’s discovery, he confronts her. There he finds out that she holds the matrix. She is the personification of the TARDIS. The Doctor releases her and together they determine that House feeds on TARDISes, which it can only do if it removes the matrices first. The Doctor tries to retrieve Amy and Rory from the TARDIS, but the phone box dematerializes with the chiming of the Cloister Bell and heads back to N-Space. Unfortunately for the companions, the House has hijacked the TARDIS.

In the junkyard, Uncle and Auntie collapse as they lose their source of life. Idris herself only has a short time to live but encourages the Doctor to explore the TARDIS junkyard for a way home. When the Doctor asks what he should call her, Idris tells him (much to his chagrin) that he named her “Sexy”.

House asks why he shouldn’t just kill the humans. Rory stalls for time by suggesting that they could provide entertainment. House agrees, prompting them to run for their lives through the corridors in a series of nightmare scenarios.

As the Doctor assembles a TARDIS from spare parts, he and Idris argue. The discussion ranges from how police box doors open outward (“Pull to Open”, which actually refers to the phone compartment), how the TARDIS always takes the Doctor where he needs to go, the Time Lord’s fascination with “strays”, and how the TARDIS wanted to travel so she stole the Doctor to take her on an adventure.

With a kiss to the time rotor, the patchwork TARDIS console room dematerializes and gives chase. Idris sends “the pretty one” a set of telepathic directions to one of her old console rooms. Rory leads Amy to the archived desktop of the Ninth and Tenth Doctor’s console room. There they lower the TARDIS’s shields but are pursued by Nephew. Just in time, the patchwork console materializes in the archived console room and vaporizes the Ood, marking another one that the Doctor failed to save.

After introductions are made, Idris collapses and House muses about ways to kill the Doctor and his companions. The Doctor gives House instructions on how to get the TARDIS back to N-Space, but when House starts deleting rooms for the journey, it inadvertently invokes a failsafe that protects living things from being deleted with the rooms. As the travelers materialize in the real console room, House suggests that they should fear him since he’s killed Time Lords before and won’t hesitate to do it again.

The Doctor replies that House should fear him. He’s killed all of them.

The Doctor stalls for time as he points out the concept of trapping the matrix in a human body. The goal was to get the matrix as far as possible from the console room, but House has brought the matrix home. With her last breath, Idris releases the matrix. It swirls about and reintegrates with the TARDIS, overriding and consuming House.

As a last gift, the TARDIS speaks through Idris. She remembers the word that she’s been searching for – “alive” – and tells him the one thing she’s never been able to say: “Hello, Doctor. It’s so very very nice to meet you.” In a bright flash of light, Idris disappears, offering her final words of “I love you” to her companion.

Some time later, the Doctor installs a firewall around the matrix. Rory tells him that Idris’s final words to him were, “The only water in the forest is the river,” which she believed that they needed to know for the future. Amy and Rory ask for a new bedroom – preferably one with a double bed instead of bunk beds – since theirs was deleted. He tells them how to get there, then spends some time with the TARDIS console. He asks the ship where she wants to go, even if it’s the Eye of Orion for a little rest and relaxation.

The levers flip on their own accord. The TARDIS sets a course. Adventure awaits.


What a beautiful ride.

When I first saw this episode back in 2011, I was confused by it. The fast pace coupled with rapid-fire references lost me. This time around, however, I relished the experience. The story is well-written and plays off of each of the main characters so nicely, from the Doctor’s desire to be forgiven for his actions in the Last Great Time War to Amy and Rory’s love. The latter of which was actually sold quite well here despite my skepticism of it last season.

The core of this story is the Doctor’s relationship to the TARDIS, which is played beautifully by giving a voice to a consciousness that exists simultaneously across all time and space. The relationship is pretty much that of a married couple, and the TARDIS’s finally expressed love for her companion is one born of their mutual adventures. I love that the TARDIS has archived past console rooms – which presumably means that a blank room is simply formatted with the “desktop” file from previous iterations – and that the TARDIS already knows what rooms are coming up next.

Amusingly, Neil Gaiman has requested that the archive scene feature a classic-era console room, but the budget wasn’t available for that. So, the production team left the coral console room standing for this story. This episode was supposed to air during Series Five but was pushed to this point in time so there was quite a long production lead for it.

The Doctor’s TARDIS also is pretty explicit about the nature of other time capsules. The Time Lords have previously treated them as nothing more than machines or vehicles, but Idris refers to her dead siblings as sisters. That matches well with nautical traditions of referring to all ships as female, but also gives us insight into the culture of the TARDISes overall.

This story featured the Doctor piloting a TARDIS other than his own for the first time on screen – at this point in time, Shada had not yet been completed – and that patchwork ship was the creation of 12-year-old Susannah Leah for a Blue Peter contest, complete with safety straps on the console (hello, Timelash!). The Doctor previously traveled with only the TARDIS console in Inferno. This story was also the first one since Horror of Fang Rock to kill every character except the Doctor and the companions.

Neil Gaiman reached way back for some of the elements here. We first (and last) saw the hypercube in The War Games, last saw the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits used to mess with the companions in The Edge of Destruction, and found the Doctor rebuilding the TARDIS in both The Claws of Axos and The Horns of Nimon. Lest we forget the concept of jettisoning rooms on the TARDIS, which we’ve seen on at least three occasions (Logopolis, Castrovalva, and Paradise Towers), or the idea of tricking the villain into fixing the TARDIS (ala Frontios).

It’s obvious that he’s a fan of the show and has done his homework.

He also deliberately provided the first confirmation in the franchise mythology that Time Lords can change gender during regeneration. I covered many of the reasons why this was a brilliant and easily defensible concept when Jodie Whittaker was announced as the Thirteenth Doctor, and I still stand by it. Gaiman’s choice of the ouroboros – the snake eating its own tail, a symbol for eternity – for the Corsair’s personal emblem was a great representation of both Time Lord culture and the nature of Doctor Who.

This story is just amazing as a franchise game-changer and ode to the show’s history. To call it fantastic is an understatement, but it’s the highest choice I have.

Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”


UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Rebel Flesh and Doctor Who: The Almost People

cc-break

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 – The IDIC Podcast Festival

Culture on My Mind

Culture on My Mind
The IDIC Podcast Festival

May 14, 2021

This week, I’m promoting a Star Trek-themed podcasting festival helmed by Women at Warp: A Roddenberry Star Trek Podcast.

IDIC Podcast Festival - 1920x1080

The Women at Warp crew will be hosting a virtual podcast festival on July 17-18, 2021. The weekend event will honor the Star Trek principle of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC) by celebrating and amplifying the diverse voices in Trek fandom through a series of live podcasts.

The general announcement, call for programming and contributors, and important dates leading up to the event can be found on the event page at the Women at Warp website.

The IDIC principle is something that I believe in and the Women at Warp team is a champion of the cause. I’m more than happy to spread the word.

Today’s press release follows.


Women at Warp Launches the IDIC Podcast Festival

Women at Warp: A Roddenberry Star Trek Podcast is pleased to launch our call for applications for the first IDIC Podcast Festival, set to run July 17-18, 2021. This weekend-long virtual event honors the Star Trek principle of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC) by celebrating and amplifying the diverse voices of our fandom through a series of live podcasts.

Over the past year, COVID-19 has taken away so many opportunities to connect with diverse creators and audiences in person. At the same time, we’ve seen fans taking to social media to seek out and share podcasts that approach Trek from diverse perspectives. As an intersectional podcast we know that women’s issues are inextricably connected to issues of race and class, LGBTQIAP2S+ issues, disability issues, and more. The transformative period that we are in gives us an opportunity to truly center voices from all these diverse communities in our fandom.

Any podcast that showcases diversity in its hosting lineup is welcome to apply for the IDIC Podcast Festival, whether newly-launched or well-established. We welcome shows that do not exclusively cover Star Trek in their regular episode lineup, but ask that panel submissions for this event be Trek-related.

Admission to this virtual event is free. Podcasts will be streamed live on Women at Warp’s Facebook and YouTube pages and podcasts will be welcome to share recordings in their own feeds after the event.

The deadline for podcasters to submit applications is Friday, June 18. Click here to apply.

For more information, visit out event page at womenatwarp.com/IDIC-fest or contact us at crew@womenatwarp.com.

-30-

About Women at Warp

Women at Warp is a groundbreaking bi-weekly podcast committed to examining Star Trek from a feminist perspective, exploring Intersectional Diversity in Infinite Combinations with a rotating crew of seven hosts. Tune in for everything from episode and character analysis to history of women behind the scenes and in fan culture to discussion of larger themes and messages throughout the franchise. Women at Warp is part of Roddenberry Podcasts. For more information, please visit womenatwarp.com.

About Roddenberry Podcasts

Roddenberry Podcasts is a network of audio shows that deliver thought-provoking, insightful entertainment wherever you are. Podcasts that dig deep into Star Trek, social commentary, science and critical thinking – all ready to download in one place for you to enjoy on your commute or whenever you need a little lively discussion. For more information, please visit podcasts.roddenberry.com.

cc-break

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 #222: The Curse of the Black Spot

Doctor Who: The Curse of the Black Spot
(1 episode, s06e03, 2011)

Timestamp 222 The Curse of the Black Spot

Yo ho ho… or does nobody actually say that?

Prequel

Captain Henry Avery writes in his journal onboard the seagoing vessel Fancy. The ship has been stranded for eight days due to a lack of wind, so all they can do is wait for the wind to return. Unfortunately, they are tasked by an enemy who comes from the still ocean and takes members of the fearful crew. Captain Avery feels an evil presence watching him and longs for the wind to return, but he fears that they are all doomed to die.

The Curse of the Black Spot

On a bleak ocean, sailors quietly return to their ship. A man with a minor cut is taken to Captain Henry Avery, who declares that the man is doomed based on the black spot on his palm. As a song rises outside the captain’s cabin, the doomed man is sent out. He screams and vanishes.

When the crew investigate, noting that the disappearance is the same as all the others, they discover some stowaways: The Doctor, Amy, and Rory. They picked up a distress call from the Fancy, but decide to dispose of the new arrivals. After all, this ship has been stranded in the doldrums for eight days.

Amy is sent below while Rory and the Doctor are prepared to walk the plank. Amy finds a sword and basic pirate garb which she uses to come to the rescue. A battle ensues and Amy nicks one of the crewmen. The captain explains that one drop of blood marks a man for death as Rory tries to catch a wayward sword and gets injured.

The song rises again and Rory begins to act strangely. The ocean glows as a spectral woman rises from the water and glides across the deck. He song beckons the wounded crewman, but when he touches the woman he disintegrates. Amy tries to stop her from taking Rory and is blasted across the deck, and everyone takes refuge below decks.

The captain calls the being a siren, declaring the Fancy to be cursed. Another crewman is injured, this time by a leech, and the siren manifests and takes the crewman. The Doctor analyzes the remains with his sonic screwdriver and concludes that the siren travels by using water as a portal.

The survivors takes refuge in the gunroom, away from the water, where they discover another stowaway. This one is the captain’s son, who wanted to join the crew and be a sailor like his father. Toby also has the black spot despite not being injured, but he is ill. The captain drapes his protective medallion around Toby’s neck and sets off with the Doctor to visit the TARDIS.

The remaining crewman decide to mutiny. In the process, they reveal their true nature as pirates to Toby. Toby demands that they stay loyal to Captain Avery, wounding the boatswain in the process. Mulligan, the other rebellious sailor, takes off on his own.

In the TARDIS, things go awry and the time capsule ends up taking off on its own, shrouded in a similar light as the siren’s portals. The Doctor and the captain encounter Mulligan during their escape. Mulligan burns his hand and is taken by the siren, but there is no water in the room. The Doctor determines that water is not the key, but treasure is. Specifically, the reflection on polished metal.

The Doctor and the captain rush back to the gunroom to retrieve the medallion. The Doctor then sets to breaking every reflective surface on the ship, including throwing the treasure overboard. Everyone hides out in the gunroom to wait out the doldrums.

Captain Avery and Toby have a heart to heart discussion while Amy has another vision of the mysterious woman with the eyepatch. The captain joins the Doctor on deck for a muse. The Doctor then returns to the cabin where Amy almost breaks the news of her visions but is interrupted by a sudden storm.

While the group prepares to get underway, Toby inadvertently sends the remaining treasure to the deck. The reflection summons the siren which then takes Toby. In the confusion, Rory falls overboard and the Doctor deliberately releases the siren to take him. The Doctor then persuades the captain, Amy, and Rory to prick their fingers and summon the siren. In short order, they all vanish.

They awaken on the deck of an alien spacecraft. It is trapped in a temporal rift intersecting with the Fancy. The reflections are the portals bridging the two vessels, and the alien spacecraft was the source of the distress call. The trio explores the ship and determine that the crew was killed by human bacteria. They discover the taken crewmen, Rory, and the TARDIS in the sickbay. The humans are all attached to life support systems and are being monitored by the siren. The Doctor figures out that the siren is a virtual doctor that has been looking after the injured.

Amy pleads with the program to release Rory and the intelligence signs him over to her care. Unfortunately, this leaves Rory in a precarious position. If he doesn’t leave, he will spend eternity on the ship, but if he goes with Amy he will die from drowning. The Doctor tells Avery that the same holds true for Toby. The boy has typhoid fever and will die within months of leaving the ship.

Rory tells Amy how to perform CPR, which she uses to resuscitate him after disconnecting him from the machines. Meanwhile, Captain Avery decides to take command of the spacecraft and look after his son and crew among the stars.

The TARDIS flies through the vortex. Amy and Rory go to bed after their harrowing adventure. The Doctor still puzzles over Amy’s medical scan.

Is she pregnant or is she not?


On the one hand, this story reaches back to the origins of the franchise. Back in The Smugglers, Captain Samuel Pike and a band of former Fancy crewmen were searching for Captain Avery’s treasure when they encountered the First Doctor. The humorous part is the coincidence of it all. Episode writer Steve Thompson had no idea of the character’s history. He merely looked through his son’s book about pirates, found the story of the real-world Henry Avery, and went to work.

The episode is also notable for its low body count. In fact, none of the guest roles were killed off and there was no real villain of the story. I also enjoyed the War of the Worlds twist with the ship being stranded because the crew was killed by exposure to human microbes. Science fiction doesn’t use that plot device very often even though it should be a real concern between alien biomes.

There’s another nod to the classic era in this story, specifically Inferno and the green mark that preceded mutation.

It was quite fun to see Hugh Bonneville in a different role than what I’m used to from him (Downton Abbey, Paddington, and Tomorrow Never Dies, specifically) and while I thought that I recognized Lily Cole, the only thing on her IMDb profile that I’ve seen is Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

On the other hand, the story itself was not particularly engaging. While the frantic storytelling nature worked well in the previous story, it felt like it was merely connecting the dots because the pacing just wasn’t right for a monster thriller. Worse, the ending in the TARDIS felt tacked on, giving the story the impression of a filler episode. A good part of that may be due to moving this episode and The Doctor’s Wife (next up) from the season’s back half, a decision that was made before this episode’s production was completed in order to serve the mid-season finale.

Which is really a shame because the atmosphere was otherwise perfect for a monster thriller with the claustrophobic nature of being trapped in a sailing ship’s tight quarters and on dead calm waters in the dead of night. Add that to the true magic of the narrative, which evolved from suspense to wonder upon the revelation of the alien ship.

I just wish that the pacing hadn’t killed it.

Rating: 3/5 – “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”


UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Doctor’s Wife

cc-break

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 #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

cc-break

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 #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

cc-break

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.

cc-break

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

cc-break

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.