Rise of the Cybermen

After two storming episodes of Doctor Who I was expecting great things of the episode tonight, but to some extent they weren’t really met.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think Rise of the Cybermen was dreadful, it’s just that the last few episodes have raised the bar rather, and it didn’t quite make it.

The episode kicked off with a pretty spectacular explosion in the TARDIS that sent it into the parallel universe, leaving the Doctor and his companions potentially stranded. Oddly enough for such a catastrophic explosion, the solution was found pretty quickly, with a window of 24 hours for the TARDIS to recharge giving an opportunity for Rose to go and meet her parents in this universe, leading to the encounter with the Cybermen.

This leads me on to one point about the show that has bothered me somewhat – unless we find out something to the contrary in next weeks episode, and I know this is me being really picky – these aren’t the Cybermen. In the parallel universe they are ‘upgraded’ humans created by a wheelchair bound genius who is sick and looking to extend his life, whereas in the original universe although they are again upgraded humanoid, they are not from Earth, but instead come from Mondas, as detailed in their first encounter with the Doctor in the Tenth Planet. Having said that, I could be jumping ahead, and in next weeks episode we find out that in this universe Lumic has salvaged Cybermen technology from the destruction of Mondas in 1986. Interestingly a similar example of things being different could have been used to provide a more interesting way to get back from this parallel universe by having the TARDIS unable to be repaired save for parts from a parallel version of itself stranded on Earth, although it’s been used before, for example in the book Blood Heat where similarly the seventh Doctor finds himself trapped in a parallel universe where his third incarnation had been killed during his battle with the Silurians. Without going in to too much detail, he can’t use his own TARDIS to leave, so instead departs in the parallel TARDIS left by the death of his parallel self – incidentally he does eventually regain his own TARDIS in a subsequent book.

This discussion of similar plot-lines does highlight one thing that struck me, which is the number of derivative plot elements that turned up in the episode tonight. Wheelchair bound nut-case looking to extend his life, and that of his race by augmenting them as emotionless creatures – remind you of Davros? Certainly the whole mind control thing has been done to death as well, for example in The Invasion where having allied themselves with a wealthy industrialist, the Cybermen install mind control equipment in electrical appliances. True it was given a bit of a more modern spin tonight, but it wasn’t really new.

The new Cybermen looked good, especially when they smashed their way into the house at the climax of the episode, however why show teases of them all the way through the episode when the episode title – Rise of the Cybermen – gives away who they are from the start. Teases like that only really work when, like in Earthshock for example where the Cybermen make a surprise appearance at the cliff-hanger ending.

Having said all of that, I still quite enjoyed the episode – and it will be interesting to see how it goes next week.

Filling You With Confidence

You may have spotted on the news at the weekend that Shell have suspended the use of Chip and Pin following discovery of a £1,000,000 fraud where money was being syphoned out of customer accounts. Of course, the report is pretty non-specific as to what the problem was, with only a statement from a spokeswoman at APACS, who are behind Chip and Pin, about how the pin pads are supposed to be tamper resistant.

However, today the BBC News site posted an item containing advice from Frank Abagnale, whose exploits were immortalised in the film Catch Me If You Can, on how to avoid ID theft. Alongside his advice to not use cheques – they have all the information on them that an ID thief needs, he also laughs at Chip and Pin, highlighting that the fraudsters at Shell got their information from the un-protected magnetic strip on the back of the card. As I mentioned way back in January last year, whilst APACS will tell you how wonderfully secure the chip is, they always skip over the fact that in order to remain compatible with older terminals and cash points, all the relevant information is still in the magnetic strip on the back. I’m just surprised that it’s taken someone this long to pull off a big scam in that way.

The Abagnale article also highlights some other security loopholes with the new system. Take those snazzy wireless terminals that you often see in restaurants, those helpfully decode the information off your card, and then send it over an unencrypted radio connection back to base. Not surprisingly he has little confidence in the governments supposed foolproof ID card system – he gives it six months before someone replicates it perfectly, and with that, everything you need to pretend to be someone else is in the one place. Fills you with confidence really.

Standing By for a Fan Backlash?

Now after Doctor Who tonight, I’m half expecting a bit of a fan backlash. It happened for the same reason with the Paul McGann movie, as tonight the Doctor has somewhat of a romantic entanglement, indeed he is even willing to trap himself more than 3000 years in the past, leaving his two companions just as stranded in order to save the woman in question.

Having said that, the script writer for the episode tonight was Steven Moffat, who made a joke of the movie backlash in his Comic Relief Doctor Who Spoof, and did the same in an interview in Doctor Who Confidential tonight. Tonight he said that he was sure that there would be a number of Madame de Pompadour fans who would object to the canonicity of the episode because there was no documentary evidence of Madame de Pompadour ever having had an affair with an alien.

Putting aside the potential complaints, what did I think of the episode? After the high point last week, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect this week. Whilst Moffat produced one of the best regarded episodes of the last season with the Empty Child, there had already been a bit of lowering of expectations in pre-season interviews from Moffat, him saying to expect something a bit different. Certainly, placed as it was between the return of Sarah Jane Smith, and the equally eagerly awaited return of the Cybermen, it wasn’t an episode that attracted that much attention.

Something different is what we got. The story opens in the court of Louis XV of France with the court being chased by strange robotic creatures, their faces hidden behind masks. However, the camera moves to a woman who is staring expectantly at a fireplace, saying that she is expecting a visit from the Doctor, who has promised to protect her. Following the opening credits, we then see the Doctor and his companions land on a deserted spaceship 3000 years, and millions of miles away from the first scene.

As the time travellers explore the spaceship, we then start to see the connection, as they discover an identical fireplace looking rather out of place in the ship, more than that, the Doctor is even able to have a conversation with a young girl, who can be seen in the fireplace, hence the title of the episode, The Girl in the Fireplace.

As an episode, it again explored the themes of the Doctor’s loneliness that were explored last week in School Reunion, but in a different way. As the time travellers discover other portals in addition to the fireplace, the Doctor makes regular appearances in the woman’s life, as it transpires that she is Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV of France. However quite why the maintenance robots have gone to the trouble of creating the portals, and are so specific in their requirement to kidnap Madame de Pompadour is a mystery, the solution to which is not revealed until the final scene.

The trigger to the relationship between the Doctor and Madame de Pompadour comes midway through the episode. In an earlier encounter, she has been decidedly forward, grabbing the Doctor for a passionate embrace – but at that point, she still only knows him as the man from the fireplace. However in order to try and find out what the robots want, the Doctor mind links with Madame de Pompadour, however in doing so, she then finds out a lot more about the Doctor – referring to him as ‘my lonely Doctor’ – and the two make a connection.

This ultimately leads to the the Doctor being willing to trap himself in the past, and leave his companions and the TARDIS on the spaceship in order to save her, leading to a touching and tragic conclusion, where again the Doctor is treated as a real character with real emotion – much more than the character was ever allowed to show in the past.

For very different reasons to last week, we thoroughly enjoyed this episode. Again Steven Moffat has produced a brilliant episode, mixing an original idea, good plot, with great writing. The bizarre idea of the clockwork robots opening portals into the past isn’t forgotten, and although it primarily is a vehicle to bring the Doctor into the life of Madame de Pompadour over a number of time periods, with the neat and believable conclusion to the mystery, certainly doesn’t feel like it is purely a plot device. Also the relationship between the Doctor and Madame de Pompadour is well handled, with the knowledge she gains about the Doctor – which of course we as the audience are left to guess – being the thing that brings them together. Certainly, having watched this mornings ‘classic’ episode on UK Gold, the comparison of ‘classic’ Doctor Who in decline, with the new series becomes more and more stark with every episode. Finally Doctor Who seems to be becoming a series that can compete with some of the best TV sci-fi from across the pond, whilst still retaining the elements that made it unique in the first place.

Hopefully the series will be able to keep up the pace with next weeks much anticipated Rise of the Cybermen.

Vonage Doesn’t Impress

Today we both gave Vonage a first go with the Wi-Fi phone that turned up last week. During the week I’d set the phone up, which despite it being pre-programmed to our Vonage account, took a good hour of fiddling with the router, so I guess the promised ability to make calls from any wi-fi network are a little optimistic, especially as the problems I had were not due to the access security I have on the box. The problems came from the fact that for obvious reasons I run a firewall on the router, and to work, the phone needs certain UDP ports opened. This adds another problem, which is that the handset then needs to remain on one IP address on the router – if it ever were to change I’d have to change the port forwarding.

Also, as Garry pointed out, unless you’re phoning another Vonage user it’s really not that cheap – certainly there are regular providers, who work with our existing number and wiring, who are cheaper for calls to Canada.

Anyway, after sorting out the handset, today both Beth and myself tried them out for calls, Beth for a relatively short call, and myself for about 30 minutes when I phoned my parents. Firstly, we both noticed the effects of the compression, with periods of total silence when the person on the other end wasn’t talking. Whilst you can often hear something similar with transatlantic calls, it’s not usually noticeable on inland calls – indeed talking to my parents I can usually hear things like their cats coming in and starting to purr on the other end. Whilst I guess it would be something we would get used to, and may well just be the effect of the Wi-Fi handset, it is still sounds a bit odd. The other feature I noticed, which is definitely a handset issue, was quite how warm the handset actually got. It wasn’t burning hot like some laptops get, but definitely warm.

It has to be said that one of the main attractions for getting it was the local Canadian number, so we’ll have to see how that goes down, and what use people make of it. Certainly if Vonage UK goes the way of their US operation in waiving their calls to other Vonage countries the whole service will become more attractive. However with the significant disadvantages of not working with our existing wiring, or working in a power cut, or working properly for 999 calls, if we’re not going to be getting a much better quality call for our monthly fee, it certainly doesn’t seem like an attractive proposition.

New Apple Mac Advertising

Apple have always had a reputation for memorable advertising, with campaigns such as the iPod campaigns being almost instantly recognisable.

Recently they’ve started a new campaign, with these two characters, one of whom is a Mac, the other of whom is a PC. Now if you are a PC user, especially one without much of a sense of humour, then I suspect you won’t find the adverts funny in the slightest, and I guess if you’ve seen them are even now working up a list of the ways in which you think that the adverts are wrong and misleading. However if you are a Mac user, then I suspect you’ll find them really quite amusing, certainly Beth and myself had a good few laughs watching them through.

It is also worth noting that as well as being amusing, I also think the adverts hit several of the right buttons with regards to points which should be made, but have been missed in the past. For example the fact that Microsoft Office is available (indeed started life) on a Mac is made in two of them. It also makes the point that iTunes and the iPod – familiar to many on the PC, integrate into the larger iLife suite on the Mac.

Anyway, the blurb that goes with the adverts can be found on the ‘Get a Mac‘ page on the Apple site, or alternatively you can cut straight to all the ads on this page where they are available to view right up to HD quality.

Thoughts from, and the lives of a Canadian and a Brit living in Southern England.