Are You Afraid of the Shadows?

After having induced an irrational fear of statues amongst the youth of the nation last year, Steven Moffat has certainly had a good go at making them afraid of shadows this time around!

Much as he did with his previous two part story for Doctor Who, the excellent Empty Child, Silence in the Library leaves you with a stack of questions at the end of it’s forty-five minutes. The bemusement comes right from the beginning, with the pre-credits sequence that finds a young girl talking to a psychiatrist about visions she has been having about a giant deserted library, however as she is describing an ongoing vision suddenly her empty library is broken into by the Doctor and Donna. After the opening credits we get a little bit of flashback to bring the time travellers to the same point in the story, so we see the Doctor and Donna landing in the deserted library and looking around, discovering that their arrival is not an accident – the Doctor has received a personal message on his psychic paper summoning him – and that although they are the only two humanoids on the planet there are more than a million million (a long-scale billion, rather than the now more common American billion) life-forms detected – but why can’t they see them?

What is interesting is that when we see the meeting that occurred in the pre-credit sequence from the others side, the Doctor and Donna are merely meeting a security camera. When the girl in shock snaps out of her vision, the security camera fails, but as the Doctor with his sonic screwdriver attempts to reactivate the security camera, the girl feels the effects in the other reality.

the Doctor and Donna are not without people to talk to in the library however. They have been told what has happened to the library thanks to a message delivered by one of the automated nodes, which chillingly are robots with real human faces, apparently donated to the library after death. The first node they meet recounts the last moments of the last people in the library. Later on we discover that whilst nobody lived, the last four thousand people on the planet were ‘saved’ – but what does that mean?

the Doctor and Donna are not alone for long. They are joined by an expedition of archeologists brought in by the family who own the library, coming to find out what has happened. The team is lead by Professor River Song, the woman who sent the message to the Doctor and seems to know him very well. Unfortunately to the Doctor she is a total stranger. River Song is a surprisingly rare thing in the series, especially considering the programme is about a time traveller, someone who the Doctor has yet to meet, but who has certainly met him a number of times before. I suspect largely because of the confusion it induces, and complications for the writers, the Doctor always tends to meet people linearly, certainly this is the first occasion I recall him having not met someone who has met him. It does seem from the trailer for the episode next week that even the Doctor cannot resist finding out about his own future…

Once the exploration team are on the scene, the action kicks off as fairly swiftly one of the team is killed in gruesome fashion, leaving only bones and tattered remains of her clothing. The Doctor describes the cause as being Vashta Nerada, swarm creatures that live in the dark, and strip a creature of it’s flesh. In a typical “terrify the kidsâ€? moment the Doctor says that they exist all over the universe, even on Earth, hiding in shadows, waiting for prey. They appear just as shadows, so when later on one of the exploration team inexplicably gains a second shadow, the Doctor knows something is wrong with him.

As he has done previously, the Doctor gets his companion to safety, transporting her, he thinks, back to the safety of the TARDIS, but unbeknownst to him something goes wrong, and it is not until a few minutes later, being chased by Vashta Nerada, the Doctor finds a node with the face of Donna starring back. The node confirms that Donna too has been ‘saved’, much like the four thousand or so others.

Then there is just the question of the girl. During the episode on a number of occasions the world of the library, and this other reality cross over, with the Doctor and the girl managing to communicate, and her almost robot-like reporting when Donna has been saved. There is certainly something significant going on, as on the wall of the house in which she is are what are obviously the drawings of a child, but is that a wolf in one, and someone that looks rather like Rose in another? Even more intriguing is towards the end of the episode when Doctor Moon, the psychiatrist tells the girl that the library in her visions is real, not her reality, and that she is the key to saving people in the library.

Like all the best first parts, it leaves you with a ton of questions, and wishing you didn’t have to wait a week for part two!

The End of the Road for Michael

After literally begging for another chance, on the Apprentice last night, Michael finally got his marching orders. Once again he had asked for a chance to prove himself, this time being put in charge of the team for a sales task, something that should have been right up his street.

The task was to sell rental packages for super-cars. The teams had a chance to choose their models – Michael and Alpha going for a mid-price tactic, whilst Lee, in charge of Renaissance went for the much more high risk strategy of taking on the top of the range Pagani Zonda S, which could only be sold in packages of a day or above, starting at £2750 for the day. The other cars could be sold in slots as short as an hour, starting at £65.

As was stated several times, to the right customer – city traders with bonuses basically – the packages would sell themselves, certainly this was the experience for the latter part of the task where the teams went head-to-head in the middle of Docklands, however it was also important to make sales early on, and this is where Michael lost it. Whilst Claire and Helene were selling hours on the Spyker in the city, for some inexplicable reason Michael seemed to think he’d be able to sell firstly in a side street in Knightsbridge, and then in the Portobello Road market. Having said that, looking at how things were going on the other team, it looked like he might be in with a chance anyway. Alex and Lee again tried to drop Lucinda in it by sending her off solo despite the fact that she had no sales experience. First off she was sent off on a pointless task to make raffle tickets that were never used, and then she was left on a street corner trying to sell the Aston Martin, but thinking it was the Zonda. She had about as much luck as Michael. But Alex and Lee weren’t doing much better, and by the afternoon with lots of interest but no sales were starting to wonder if the gamble had been worth it. Docklands was the key though, and with bottles of bubbly to ply the punters, they shifted and impressive £11,815 worth of sales, with even Lucinda managing a sale (of £65).

The situation in Renaissance is probably one of the more intriguing aspects of the past couple of weeks. Prior to Alex being swapped over from the other team, Lee and Lucinda had seemed to be working well together. They had operated successfully both as leader and team member. Alex seems to have upset the balance though. Lee and Alex seem to get on really well, but they also gang up on Lucinda. Last night it was claiming the idea of the raffle as their own, last week it was arguments over design. After the problems earlier on in the series Lucinda is obviously keen to gain credit for her contributions, so has been getting decidedly annoyed when she feels she is being pushed into a corner, and has definitely learned to spot when she is being set up to fail. However, having been the only candidate not to be swapped at any time, remaining on Renaissance for the whole ten weeks, her team has only lost twice (although she was in the boardroom on both occasions).

When it became clear that Alpha had lost again, Michael seemed a sure bet to go, but that’s not how things panned out in the boardroom. Sir Alan was really keen to hear from Helene, someone who has tended to keep a low profile, his thought was that she really wasn’t worth keeping, and as she initially didn’t really respond in the boardroom, whilst Michael was in his full scale begging routine once again, it looked like maybe Sir Alan was right. But faced with the challenge, Helene seemed to wake up and fight her corner – something that is a key skill for the task next week, the interviews – and Michael was finally shown the exit. Whilst I’m pleased he’s finally gone, he has produced some great moments, some of which you can see on his highlight reel – worth it just for the expression on the face of Margaret Mountford part way through…

Next week is usually a week of real surprises. Certainly in previous years candidates I’ve thought were sure fire finalists have fallen, unable to handle the tough interviews. Candidates who have performed fantastically on the tasks have crumpled as their credentials are picked to pieces. We have an interesting mix. Lucinda I’d never expected to see get this far, Lee and Alex are no surprise though. Claire has had a bumpy road, but seems to be learning from past mistakes, and is also a good salesperson. Finally we have Helene who has kept her head down, but might yet prove to be able to talk her way through to the final. I doubt we’ll get anything quite as dramatic as the walkout last year, but I’m sure the Apprentice still has a surprise or two to come.

“A Quiet Hum”

I’m thinking that electricity company engineers are a bit like dentists and doctors when they say “it won’t hurt” before doing something that really does. The reason I say that is that our local electricity company is currently doing quite a bit of work around Finchampstead, as a result they have several generators stationed at strategic points to keep the supply running. One of the places they asked to put it was on part of the church grounds as there were relatively few houses close by. When we were asked, we queried how noisy it would be, our concerns being the neighbours we did have, and were told it would only be “a quiet hum”. Going up to the church last night for the first time since they put it in, there was indeed a quiet hum, but unfortunately it was rather hard to hear over the noise of the diesel engine in the generator!

Doctor Who Mid-Season Preview

After the general despondency induced by a whole load of depressing Eurovision voting, there was the main event of the evening (to some people), the Doctor Who mid-season preview, the now traditional special trailer we get to make up for the fact that the programme has been bumped for a week.

First off, no secret of the fact that Rose is definitely coming back, although this is definitely more of a tough gun wielding Rose than before, and the Doctor seems happy she’s there. In terms of other rumoured returning companions there is no sight of Captain Jack or Sarah-Jane Smith.

In terms of plot give-aways, we’re certainly going to have to contend with a generation of kids with an irrational fear of the dark after next week I’m sure – but darkness also seems to figure elsewhere, with stars apparently disappearing in the night sky. Rose refers to a darkness coming from across the stars at one point too. We also get a lot of quick fire clips of explosions, what looks like a fire in the TARDIS, and also the Doctor apparently swimming through the time vortex.

It is also pretty clear from the trailer that the Daleks are back in force, so my guess would be that they are turning up in the finale. You also get a pretty good hint that Davros is going to return, as the trailer includes something that looks very much like an updated version of the character moving out of shadow, but which of course cuts before you get a clear sight.

Much as with all good trailers, it dangles a whole load of stuff in front of you, without really giving that much away…

Playing the Eurovision Game

This year was another Eurovision Song Contest, and another where the ongoing pattern of the UK entry doing spectacularly badly continued, as it ended up in joint last place with 14 points. As is often the case the general opinion is that although the UK entry wasn’t perhaps a winner, “Even Ifâ€? sung by Andy Abraham certainly didn’t deserve the placing it received. Having accurately predicted a win by Russia before the show even started, Sir Terry Wogan is now questioning whether he will commentate in future years, on the basis that in his opinion it has ceased to be a song contest, with his comments being backed by a number of other notable figures.

The UK press is rife with accusations of political voting – an accusation that would maybe hold water if it wasn’t for the fact that all the scores are delivered via a national phone vote. But as the BBC highlighted earlier in the week, there still are some complex patterns at play. For example Doctor Derek Gatherer who correctly predicted a win for Serbia last year using an analysis of previous voting patterns, predicted a win for the Ukraine. Serbia were disadvantaged by only being heard in the final – as the host they do not participate in the semi-finals, a similar situation to the UK, Germany, France and Spain, all of whom were placed in the bottom half of the results. Whilst he didn’t predict the winner correctly – Ukraine came second, he said that Russia, the actual winner would do well, and also said that Turkey and Greece would do well, placed seventh and third respectively.

What actually shapes the voting is decades worth of politics. Whilst the rules stop countries for voting for their own song, there is little they can do about the significant minorities in some countries, particularly significant being the Russian minorities in the former Soviet republics, and the significant minorities in the former Yugoslav republics. Similar voting patterns have been around for years, for example the way Germany always gives a significant vote to Turkey thanks to the large Turkish minority in Germany.

The voting system itself also plays a part. By way of a quick recap (or introduction), the voting works like this. Firstly, each participating country holds a national phone vote. The result of this vote is taken and collated, and this is transferred into points for only the top ten in the phone vote, with twelve points for first place, ten for second, and then eight to one points for the remaining eight places. So for example if a song consistently scores mid-table in most phone votes, this wouldn’t be reflected in the points awarded – the voting system adds weight to songs which are locally very popular, so a song that goes down well in the former Yugoslav republics, but does really badly elsewhere, could easily have more points in the final total than a song that scored consistently, but rarely in the top ten across the whole of Europe. Along similar lines, the UK could probably do somewhat better if it participated as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as the voting system gives more power to voters in smaller countries, with countries such as San Marino, Monaco and Andorra having equal voting power to big countries such as the UK, France and Germany.

However, the UK also doesn’t seem to play the Eurovision game quite as well as some of the new participants. When you look at the top three singers we have Dima Bilan, a big star who has had multiple number one hits in the Russian market, similarly Ani Lorak who sang for Ukraine is a well known artist across a number of European countries. In common with a number of other participants including third placed Kalomoira, they went on promotional tours with their songs around Europe in the run up to the competition. It’s also worth noting that all three of the songs came through the semi-finals so got exposure through those a couple of days before the main event. Compare this to Andy Abraham who came second in X-Factor in 2005, and one top twenty UK hit, and probably has never been heard of across the rest of Europe. Being heard once, very early on in the contest, and without much Europe-wide visibility for either the artist or the song, it’s not really surprising that it lost out as it did. Of course it is perfectly possibly for a Europe-wide unknown to win – just take a look at Lordi who produced a memorable song, along with a memorable performance, and received votes from almost everybody, but by going for an establish artist, and ensuring press coverage in other nations (Lordi made the UK news as arguments about their participation raged) ensures that people are aware of your song before they hear it on the night.

So assuming that the UK doesn’t just give up next year, what should we do? First off it needs to be a good song, and certainly gag John Barrowman when he spouts rubbish about what kind of songs do well – if you look back over UK entrants, the only time we’ve been top ten, indeed top three in the past decade was with a big ballad. But ultimately it’s also about how well it is promoted, about playing the game. Once it is selected by the UK, the people who are going to vote for it are spread across Europe, so it needs to be known there to figure in the minds of the voters.

Needless YouTube gives the opportunity for some comparison. First off, here is a clip of the UK performance:

Then this is the third placed Greek song:

This song came second from Ukraine:

The winning Russian song was this:

If you want to relive the whole set of twenty-five finalists, they have a special playlist just for you…