Thursday, 27 February 2014

Made it to the end of Battlestar Galactica (Part 1)

I started watching the reimagined Battlestar Galactica in July 2013 on a whim on Netflix; I’d seen the odd episode on TV (don’t ask me which) quite a few years ago and remembering some of the comments on the conclusion of the series I decided to take on watching the entire thing.

It’s been quite an epic journey and a much more satisfying saga than the sub-Star Wars nonsense of the original. Without a single exception the actors and scripts were superior in everyway. The original was a seriously derivative bit of work with some diabolical ideas in it but the central theme of humanity being hunted to extinction has resonance and written during mankind’s genocidal century was clearly a reflection of our own history, whether conscious or not.

But like so many programmes with such a big idea at it’s heart, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica also ended up with many deficiencies. It’s like being a juggler with too many balls in the air and too many questions it raises and potentially forgets to answer. Writers seem to get lost in the grain of an idea and then struggle to work their way back out of their own narrative maze. Battlestar had many such mazes and unanswered questions that after 70-odd episodes really do tax your ability to suspend belief beyond tolerance.

As a fairly uncertain atheist I have to admit finding many of the repeated religious threads not entirely convincing; if man really does make God in his own image then the Cylons were clearly in for one hell of a disappointment. If Battlestar genuinely is science fiction then religious explanations just don’t work for me. Not that I believe it to be literally incredible as it seems highly improbably life across the galaxy will be anything like us but because it is simply bad story telling. Humans love narratives, even if we don’t have one, we’ll make one up. We’re literally born making up stories. We’re told stories from infancy and we develop incredibly sophisticated mechanisms to identify, digest and understand stories.

Our developed senses for what makes good stories turns into an Achilles Heal for writers and audience alike. Developing a central premise [humans fleeing destruction] is a much simpler structure to set up than explaining how they escaped it. We’ve been telling stories of the threat from without for decades from the earliest days of science fiction; HG Wells set the bar almost impossibly high in 1898 with The War of the Worlds, on one hand it was a precursor to Battlestar, Wells’ wrote a tale of the destruction of decadent and complacent Victorian society with a parallel with the fall of the Twelve Colonies in Battlestar. Wells had a secret weapon for his story though, a weapon so powerful it really made the story a seminal work: he had an ending. Wells worked out an ending that was fundamentally satisfying even if viewed in atheistic or theological terms.

Loose Threads

Battlestar started to come apart because it ended up with too many plot threads that either it couldn’t or wouldn’t explain. A rational explanation for certain plot points is essential if the story is to have narrative credibility. So many different elements ran through the show like fractures. If you introduce any question or threads I would argue that as a story teller you have an obligation to your audience to answer it in a satisfactory. Doing otherwise tends to look like you’ve bit off more than you can chew or you really don’t know how things are meant to be resolved.

You really can’t start a show off with a premise which says the Cylons are destroying mankind because of a preordained “plan” without going into detail of what that is. On the surface their plan is the genocide of all humans which isn’t really much of a plan and so self-evident it’s not really much of a reveal. So, what was their plan? After 70+ episodes do we really know? Was it anything more nuanced that hunting man to extinction? If it wasn’t more philosophical than that than our bill of goods is looking a bit shoddy.

More to come…

Monday, 27 January 2014

"The New Prospectors" - COI, 1976

This film from 1976, The New Prospectors 1, looks at efforts to recycle household waste in a documentary showing ideas years before they became common. With the oil shock of 1973 and the general economic stagnation of the UK it is not altogether surprising why the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research's Warren Spring Laboratory was looking at ways of reclaiming valuable resources from household waste such as metals, paper and glass. The film shows many surprisingly simple mechanisms to reclaim these materials that should have been straightforward to implement on an industrial scale. Unfortunately it took decades before recycling approached anything like what was suggested in this film, even as recently as 1991 nearly all of Britain's household waste ended up in landfill [PDF - see page 46].

This is an interesting and well made film that clearly shows the concern for the environment that was growing in the 1970s and how government was attempting to respond to them; it was clear as far back as the mid 1970s that putting household waste into landfill could not go on forever. The film is one of many produced by the COI/various government departments on the environment, both human and natural and how we choose to use it. Although this film covers recycling exclusively, other films on the same theme examine urban planning, traffic and even electric powered buses decades before they would be seen on Britain's streets. Clearly much of this momentum on caring for the environment slipped down governmental priorities into the 1980s but by then the environmental agenda had long become a mainstream concern and films such as this help illuminate its origins.

  1. Needs an Academic login such as Shibboleth to view

Thursday, 16 January 2014

DHSS Film "A Leak in the System"

Not a literal Public Information Film, this 27 minute staff training film "A Leak in the System*" from 1983, made by the DHSS, is a look at how official confidentiality/secrecy is maintained (or not as the case may be).

Very much of its time, this film implores managers in the DHSS to consider the issue of confidentiality and how information is easily leaked. This is an almost completely pre-digital era, endless rafts of government paper are laboriously typed up and circulated, a blizzard of manual typewriters, carbon paper and photocopiers. The film is interesting from several angles, not least the incredibly low-tech environment of governments of the time.

A near-obsession with secrecy and maintaining control of government paper pervades the culture of the department. This backward looking age seems to be the antithesis of freedom of information but is absolutely of its time; in the 1987 series "Secret Society" the then Peter Hennessy relates an anecdote from a minister that the Prime Minister didn't even believe in open government for them, let alone anyone else.

I think its important to note that the secrecy in this film seemed largely directed at policy and not people; the interest here wasn't insomuch as keeping details of NHS patients and benefit claimants secret, but keeping policy secret, adding to the endless democratic deficit in ensuring the government would always be ahead of its opponents in only releasing the information that suited it via press releases, white papers, speeches and, as has been claimed, selective leaks. There is no hint that the public actually have a right to know, despite being the ones who elect the government and fund most it via taxation.

In terms of the film's cinematic qualities, even for a training film, it's low quality stuff. This is not the kind of calibre of film made by British Transport Films or the better COI films; it's extremely basic and very crudely made overall. Perhaps given that it is a training film this may be forgivable but was unlikely to live long in the memory of the audience.

* Unfortunately this film is only available from the BFI via academic login through Shibboleth - it does not seem to be in the public domain.

Monday, 13 May 2013

The Costs of Shaving

One of my pet obsessions is the cost of getting shaved. This is something I'd say most men have to do at least 3 or 4 times a week. It's not the greatest of things to do but better than the alternative.

For years I've bought expensive razors with replaceable cartridge heads on the assumption that the give the best shave. My skin is pretty sensitive and razor burns, nicks and cuts are all something I can live without. There is no pleasure to be had with a sore face.

From memory the first cartridge razor I ever had was the Gillette Sensor Excel which had two blades and a moveable head; prior to this I'd really only used the original Bic Disposable razor which had a single blade and no moving parts. With quite a sensntive face, we never got on terribly well. I'm fairly sure I bought the Sensor Excel in 1990 and back then it was was really quite dear but the step-up in the shave was well worth the money.

Fast forward 23 years and having gone though just about every incarnation from the likes of Gillette and Wilkinson Sword I finally admitted defeat. With the blades costing anything up to £2.37 each and a pack of 8 nearing 20 quid I decided something had to change. I was tacitly admitting something that really everyone knows: that the "Razor and blades business model" is for me a really poor deal.

Changing the shavers I prefer meant some degree of compromise but it was still important to get the most comfortable shave I can at the best price. For me this meant buying disposable shavers and an interesting thing happens when you do this. It seems likely to me that brand loyalty counts for less than cartridge shavers; you might only be a good as your last shave. You haven't invested in an expensive system so you're more inclined to go elsewhere if the razor lets you down.

What I found pretty quickly is that although there are many different kinds of disposable shavers, many retailers only seem to stock a fairly small range giving over the Lion's share of the space to the cartridge types. I eventually narrowed my choice down to the Bic Comfort 4 which is a great shave - it must about 35% of the cost of cartridge razors, shaves pretty much as well and I feel a bit better not contributing to a business model that I really don't think works in the interests of consumers.

There are some obvious pitfalls and tips I picked up: the first is any shavers sold in a bag are generally not good. At least for me. Big packs of shavers in cellophane bags are generally pretty much the budget end of the scale and certainly don't do my face any favours. Also to try and offset the environmental impact of disposable shavers I've given up any canned shaving cream and switched told fashioned shaving cream and a brush. I find this actually treats my face more kindly giving a richer and thicker lather. Another thing to watch are the premium cartridge blades being put into a disposable format which really aren't good value.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Immigration: Romanian or Bulgarian? You won't like it here | UK news | The Guardian

Immigration: Romanian or Bulgarian? You won't like it here | UK news | The Guardian:

Possibly the most muddle-headed government policy of all time. How do you do this without inferring the country you're trying to enter is a load of shit?

Steel: A Century of Steelmaking on Film from BFI

New DVD set from BFI on steel making in the UK:

Steel was one of the backbone industries of the UK with enormous works all over the country. At one point the UK produced some 40% of the world's steel before complacency, lack of investment, political and industrial strife set in.

The story of steel is a key story in the history of industrialised Britain - it was one of the prime motivators of the industrial revolution and its slow decline is also the story of British imperial, political and economic decline. Steel also marked, in my eyes, the final destruction of industrial Britain whether through the closing and demolition of the Consett Steel Works or the Battle of Ongreave.
This DVD set is due to be released 18/1/2013.

A slideshow of Consett Steelworks under demolition, 1981 (YouTube).

Thursday, 22 March 2012

COI Collection Vol 7: The Queen on Tour

I suppose in the Diamond Jubilee year "COI Collection Vol 7: The Queen on Tour" was inevitable if a little disappointing. Even on a documentary level a COI collection about the Queen doesn't seem particularly interesting (there can be no shortage of this material) and the shame to me is that BFI releases of COI films seem to have slowed down to a trickle of about one a year.

The six releases so far have, on the whole been very good with Vol 6 being about the best so far. Here's hoping to a more interesting release with Vol. 8 when it comes around.