Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Bow Ties Are Cool"

"Bow ties are cool" the 11th Doctor is forced to say on a number of occasions to those who wince at his fashion choice. Well, I happen to agree and as proof here are several important figures who have donned the bow-tie:

1.) A.J.P. Taylor- A favorite historian of mine. In fact Taylor is largely responsible for my intellectual turn from biblical studies to history proper. He was an old style diplomatic historian writing the kind of history that is largely disparaged today. While there is much to fault in Taylor's works he is a pleasure to read having written with a style and wit that I have yet to find matched by any other historian.

2.) Alfred Kinsey- Pioneer sex researcher. Wrote two of the first comprehensive studies concerning male and female sexuality. Had the habit of shagging his own students (both female and male) and so quite rightly some of his studies were, umm, tainted.

3.) George Washington Carver- Gave the world peanut butter and thus the greatest candy ever, Peanut Butter M&M's. No more need be said.

4.) Bill Nye- Science promoter extraordinaire; educates the young about the joys of science while tackling asinine pseudo-scientific ideas.

5.) Mark Twain- One of America's greatest authors. Though he is primarily known for the characters of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Twain was also a witty and funny fella penning such famous sayings as "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics" and "A lie can travel half way round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

6.) Louis Pasteur- It could be argued that Pasteur has saved more lives than any individual in history with his compelling experiments proving the validity of the germ theory of disease. Also gave us a safer way of drinking milk. Ever had a glass of milk after eating some peanut butter m&m's? It's a heavenly experience.

7.) Erwin Schrodinger- Contributed a ton to the advancement of physics, particularly quantum physics, but best known for tempting us all to test whether our cats can be both alive and dead at the same time. Don't worry I never gave in to this temptation. My two cats are definitively alive in their present quantum state.

8.) Winston Churchill- Led Britain in WWII; simply one of the greatest leaders of our time. Told Hitler to bugger off...while drinking his flat...eating fish and chips....and humming "Rule Britannia."

9.)  Albert Einstein- Known for his great hair of course.

10. Abraham Lincoln- Just freed the slaves; that's all. No biggie.

11. Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Jr. aka Indiana Jones- Battled Nazis, bedded broads, fought a Hindu god, passed on immortality, and met some aliens, uh, I mean, inter-dimensional beings. And taught us all that X never marks the spot...while wearing a bow tie.

Yeah, bow ties are cool.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

My Top 26 (Complete) Classic Doctor Who Stories

So my long project of watching classic Doctor Who stories has unfortunately come to an end. It took me close to a year and a half to accomplish this goal but what a wonderful experience it has been. What I want to do now is to lay out the 26 episodes I would save if forced to ever part with my own classic Doctor Who collection. Why 26? Well, I'm taking my cue from Loren Rosson's blog, The Busybody, whose list of the best classic Who stories has inspired me to compile my own, and as he did 26 because there were originally 26 seasons of the classic show I shall do likewise. I should note that in many ways this list is incomplete as I have not seen all of the lost/missing episodes that have been reconstructed to one degree or another. (For those who do not know there are many episodes, mostly from the 2nd Doctor's era, that have been lost or at least partially missing.) I have seen some of them but not all of them. Thus I'm restricting this to my favorite 26 complete stories from this great era of Doctor Who. Moreover, I'm simply going to list mine chronologically based on when they first appeared as I found it quite difficult to actually rank them. Ok, here we go:

1. The Beginning [An Unearthly Child, The Daleks, Edge of Destruction] (Season 1- Stories 1,2,3: 1963/4)- So I'm cheating here because technically these are three separate stories. But I choose to see them as one long story that's fundamentally about getting the companions Barbara and Ian and The (First) Doctor and his granddaughter Susan to overcome their initial suspicions of one another and ultimately to come together as Doctor Who's first ever TARDIS "team", and this isn't something that is achieved until the end of the third story, "Edge of Destruction." There are no doubt plenty of better DW stories out there, but this is where it all began and for this reason alone I would save it. I suspect that many new Who fans will find the pacing of these original episodes slow, as I initially did, but one eventually gets used to this format, and I actually came to prefer it over the quick 45 minute episodes that now characterize the show.

2. The Aztecs (S1-6, 1964): When I first started watching New Who one of the things that became immediately clear to me is that I didn't particularly care for any of their "historicals." I expected to have the same reaction to the historicals in Classic Who as well. Instead I ended up really enjoying the historicals. Perhaps these kinds of stories just play better in black and white or perhaps it's because one of the things that the BBC was particularly good at then was producing historical period pieces. Whatever the reason this particular DW historical, "The Aztecs", is a solid one. Yes, it has some silly moments, especially companion Ian's fight scene. But at least this story has the nerve to do what some of the new Who episodes with similar themes fail to do. A good comparison to make here would be with the 10th Doctor (David Tennent) story "The Waters of Mars." In this particular story the Doctor finds himself in a situation of not being able to help the first Mars colony from being overrun because it is supposedly a "fixed point in time." So we see the Doctor waffle a bit, even going to his TARDIS but ultimately is unable to standby and watch everyone be killed and so intervenes. (Yes, I realize this particular incarnation of the Doctor is supposed to be  a bit arrogant and this is part of his motivation here and that his actions are important in terms of his upcoming regeneration. Even so I still think it would have been a better story had it ended with him just leaving the crew of Bowie to their fate.) Contrast this with how the first Doctor operates in this story. Through a series of events his companion Barbara winds up in the position of High Priest over the Aztec empire and one of the things she immediately wants to do with her new found power is to abolish human sacrifice because it's such an offense to her modern sensibilities. But the Doctor berates her for this high minded moral attitude and eventually convinces her not to exercise her power in such a matter. This first incarnation of the Doctor is a realist and NOT the crusading moralist/savior figure that he would later become. For my own part, I've come to prefer this form of the Doctor and for this reason I cherish William Hartnell's Doctor.

3. The Sensorites (S1-7, 1964): Most DW fans I think have mixed feelings about this one, but I adore it. Yes, it has lots of problems, most notably some dodgy special effects and a few plots holes. Even so this story is a significant one in that it's the first adventure in which the Doctor and his companions meet another alien race that isn't simply out to kill them. The result is a story with some political intrigue and since that's right up my alley, I enjoyed this one. But, yes, not for everyone.

4. The Romans (S2-12, 1965): Another really good historical. It's clear everyone had a great time with this one. William Hartnell is in fine form here as the Doctor. Also, a great Nero.

5. The Chase (S2-16, 1965): Now here I know I'm in the minority. The reason I think many are dismissive of "The Chase" is because it plays the Daleks up for laughs, and I suspect most DW fans prefer to have their Daleks frightening or, at the least, menacing. For my part I've never just been a huge fan of the Daleks and so had no problem with the comedic role they often have in this story. Also, people have rightly complained that there isn't much of a plot here and that the other aliens used in this story are a bit rubbish. And yet I still really enjoyed this one. More importantly though it sees the departure of the Doctor's first set of companions (if we are not counting his granddaughter Susan who left in an earlier story), and it's a tear jerking moment. My own emotional reaction to their departure (they remain my favorite set of companions) was the key moment when I realized that I was beginning to really fall for classic Who.

6. Enemy of the World (S5-40, 1967/8): I mentioned briefly above that there are many missing episodes of classic DW from its first six seasons. The second Doctor's era suffered the most which is a shame because Patrick Troughton's depiction of the Doctor is quite enjoyable. From time to time one of the "lost" stories is found and one of the more recent to be discovered was "The Enemy of the World." This is another story with a good deal of political intrigue which might turn many away from it. But it really is a fine one and Troughton is really given the chance to shine as he plays both the Doctor and the main villain of the story, Salamander. I think he pulls this off well even if his Spanish accent is a bit off. Also, this serial was the first to involve Barry Letts (the director of the story) who would later become one of Doctor Who's more well known producers.

7. The Mind Robber (S6-45, 1968): A unique one up until this point in DW's history. Much more esoteric than other stories at that time most of which during Troughton's time were heavy on the "base under attack" trope. No outlandish monsters or anything of that nature here. Just a good cerebral story. Marred only by a less than satisfactory ending.

8. The War Games (S6-50, 1969): The last black and white DW as well as Troughton's swan song. At ten episodes this one is bloated (lots of running around, being captured, escaping, running around, being captured again, etc) to say the least and the master plan of the villains (one of whom is a fellow Time Lord) is silly. Still, this last 2nd Doctor serial is notable for being the first time that "Time Lord" is used as a description of the Doctor's race. But that's not the reason this story is on my list. The reason I am very fond of this one is because the resolution of the plot is one that pivots on the rare instance of the Doctor being unable to fix the problems that the villains have created. In short, the Doctor fails and is forced to call on his own people to handle the situation. Here the Doctor comes to the limit of what he is capable o,f and it's so refreshing to see after new Who got me used to a Doctor who pretty much solves every problem that comes his way.

9. Inferno (S7-54, 1970): Jon Pertwee's time as Doctor 3 is a conflicting one for me. On the one hand I really like Pertwee's Bond like take on the Doctor but on the other hand this is also a frustrating period because the production team decided to basically ground the Doctor (he is exiled by the Time Lords as part of his punishment) on Earth which means instead of having adventures in Time and Space he's mostly left helping a military group called UNIT fend off various alien invasions of one kind or another. The motivation to make this change (they even at one point considered getting rid of the TARDIS!) was partly based on budgetary concerns but also because they were trying to imitate the success of a previous set of sci fi stories known as Quatermass. This is also the period when the Doctor's arch nemesis the Master is introduced which is a character I never warmed to (I didn't warm to him in the new series either) though I very much liked Roger Delgado in the role. But the other exasperating feature of the so called UNIT era are the multiple 6 and 7 part stories. Again, this was mainly a budgetary issue (less sets to be made throughout the season and so forth) but the result is that for the first few seasons you get very little variety in the stories being told. And yet despite all of this "Inferno" is not just one of the better stories from Pertwee's era but is one of the best of any DW story I have seen. This story is a bit ahead of its time in the sci fi genre as it deals with parallel realities which also means our principal actors get to play multiple parts and, in particular, Nicholas Courtney as the "evil" version of his Brigadier character really stands out. Also, this is another story in which the Doctor doesn't really succeed. At least, the destruction of a planet, even in a parallel reality, goes down in my book as a failure. And even at staggering 7 episodes at no time is it ever slow or boring. Simply one of the best.

10. The Curse of Peladon (S9-71, 1972): A rather under appreciated story in my judgment. Maybe because it too deals heavily in political matters. In fact, this story is a reflection of the then current negotiations the British were having with the EEC (precursor to EU) concerning future membership. Unlike its later, and, awful, sequel, "Monster of Peladon", "The Curse of Peladon" uses this geopolitical backdrop to good storytelling effect. I'm also partial to this story because it's the first time I realized that, even if I wasn't too keen on her as a companion, Katy Manning as Jo Grant did at least have good chemistry with Jon Pertwee. But in the final analysis it could be that I just really like this story because after so many earthbound tales it was a relief to see the Doctor back in his TARDIS and travelling to an alien planet.

11. Carnival of Monsters (S10-66, 1973): Robert Holmes is the best writer DW has ever had. Though he had penned a few stories prior to this one, including Pertwee's opener, with "Carnival of Monsters" Holmes really began to hit his stride. A story full of wit and proof that DW can be entertainingly high brow. Also, some decent monsters.

12. Robot (S12-75, 1974/5): As a story not a terrible one nor a particularly good one. But it goes on my list for one reason: it is the debut story of Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor, my favorite incarnation of the Time Lord.

13. The Ark in Space (S12-76, 1975): Truly the beginning of a new (and the best) era of DW with producer Philip Hinchcliffe taking over control as well as Robert Holmes becoming the new script editor. This story is the first of this era and a near perfect one if you can overlook some dodgy special effects. More importantly, Tom Baker finally starts to settle into his character, and it's a pleasure to watch unfold.

14. Genesis of the Daleks (S12-78): So before I went back and started my project to watch all of classic DW, this was one of the few classic stories I had managed to see, and I loved it then. I must confess that the new show burned me out on the Daleks pretty quickly, and so I was thrilled to see an "original" story concerning them. Although in some respects this isn't really a Dalek story. Its concerns are more broad than that. Chiefly, it sees the inaugural appearance of Dalek creator, Davros. Later on this character would become a one dimensional and cartoonish (though "Revelation of the Daleks" just about gets it right) but here he is multifaceted and so one of the more interesting antagonists the Doctor has ever encountered. Lastly, this is the story in which Tom Baker fully becomes the Doctor.

15. The Pyramids of Mars (S13-82, 1975): On  a ranked list this one would be easily in my top 5. Another Robert Holmes script (though penned under a pseudonym) and a good example of the horror/gothic turn that came to mark the Hinchcliffe era. Some notable features: (1) on display is the excellent chemistry between Baker's Doctor and Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, (2) the "villain" Sutek is unlike most other DW antagonists in that he's not really evil simply a nihilist and as a true nihilist he thinks all forms of life are meaningless and should therefore it does not make sense for any life to exist, well, apart from himself of course, and (3) The Doctor obstructs Sutek's plan in a plausible manner that avoids the all too common use of non-sensical technobabble. I don't normally go for the "Doctor saving the universe" thing but it works great in this story.

16. The Brain of Morbius (S13-84, 1975): A character obsessed with getting the Doctor's head so he can complete a new body for his master? That's the premise and so, yes, while derivative of the Frankenstein mythos the story is done in such a clever manner that it nevertheless seems fresh. Interesting also for introducing some more key Time Lord mythology. Sladen is probably at her finest here.

17. The Face of Evil (S14-89, 1977): There is a recurring story motif in both new and classic Who that goes something like this: the Doctor travels to some planet, sees that the people are being oppressed, helps them to over throw the existing regime, then gets back in his TARDIS and promptly leaves. Time Lords are evidently not into nation (or world?)-building. (Late 60's Who especially made use of this motif as revolutionary fervor was very much a part of the global scene then. Also, it's repeated acts of the Doctor such as these which indicates for me that if he is politically anything it would be "anarchist") Anyhow seeing this kind of story again and again provoked the idea in me of a DW story in which the Doctor returns to a planet that he helped initiate a revolution only to see that the resulting political vacuum left behind in his wake has actually made things worse than they were before his intervention. Then I watched this story "The Face of Evil" in which something similar to the idea I had occurs though stripped of the political dimension of my idea would have had. In other words this is a story in which the Doctor's prior actions of getting himself involved in the affairs of a group proved to have devastating consequences. And so he is forced to fix a problem of his own making. (To be fair the first series of new Who did something similar to this in the episode Bad Wolf, but it was a minor feature and not done to as good effect.) Moreover, this is also one of the more intelligent stories as it deals with questions concerning the nature of religion and how religious thinking can evolve. High brow stuff: no farting aliens here. Two other things worth mentioning, namely, this story is Louise Jameson's debut as the savage companion, Leela (ultimately one of my faves), and also has one of the greatest Tom Baker ad libs when the Doctor threatens someone with the chilling words, "Don't move or I will kill you with this deadly jelly baby!"

18. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (S14-91, 1977): Again, though it would be near impossible to rank my favorite DW stories there's no question where this one would go: at the top. Yes, this is my favorite DW story that I've seen to date. Since I could gush about it all day I will just mention a few things about it. For starters, I was primed to like this one because I'm a big Sherlock Holmes fan. By that I mean this is basically a Sherlock Holmes story. It is set in Victorian England, there are a series of mysterious disappearances that need solving, and the Doctor wears a deerstalker cap! This story was also written by the great Robert Holmes and features some of the best onscreen dialogue in TV (or film for that matter) which is exhibited best in the great rapport that the characters Henry Jago and Professor George Lightfoote have with one another. All in all a perfect story with just two minor flaws: a rubbish rat that looks more cuddly than threatening and a Westerner playing a Chinese man wearing less than convincing eye prosthetic reminding one of Mickey Rooney's outrageous character in Breakfast at Tiffany's. No matter: still the best DW story of all.

19. Horror of Fang Rock (S15-92, 1977): Though producer Phillip Hinchcliffe had been pressured to leave by this point this story in many ways still bears his mark and can be rightly thought of as the capstone to this remarkable period in DW's history. Terrance Dicks, the writer of this story, had long been a stabilizing presence in DW having been script editor for all of the Pertwee years and penning Baker's opener. Here Dicks provides one of the best structured and paced stories in the DW canon. This one is best experienced so I won't say any more except that it is worth owning simply to see Leela slap a hysterical Victorian woman.

20. The Pirate Planet (S16-99, 1978): I have a sense that fans are divided by this one because it is played largely for laughs which is not surprising as it is the first DW story by the writer of the famous Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. Since I'm a fan of Adams' work I really enjoyed this one and think Adams' style of humor fits well with Baker's characterization of the Doctor. I can understand why many might find the excess humor problematic though. In fact I'm open to the possibility that I have inflated the quality of this story given that it shines so brightly in an otherwise dull season of DW. (This is the Key to Time season.) Even so when I want to introduce Baker's Doctor to those who haven't seen him this is the story I'll usually expose them to first.

21. City of Death (S17-105, 1979): Another story penned by Douglas Adams but unlike "Pirate Planet" is generally considered one of the best all time DW stories. And I agree. This story is the first time the DW team were able to go on location outside of the UK and in this case, Paris. Features great guest appearances by such notable names as Julian Glover and Catherine Schell as well as just an all around interesting story which was a remarkable feat given that Adams and then producer Graham Williams cracked this story out in a weekend that itself was based on a story idea by another DW writer, David Fisher. Unlike Adams prior story this one does manage to achieve a proper balance between drama and comedy. Unfortunately the last great DW story with Tom Baker as the marvelous Fourth Doctor.

22. New Beginnings [Keeper of the Traken, Logopolist, Castrovalva] (S18-114/115/116, 1981): Ok, so I am cheating here again by including three stories. But even more so than the three I treated as one above this set of stories really is one long serial. While the quality of this one is not on par with the other stories on this list I just wouldn't be able to give this one up as it features Baker's last story as the Doctor. I would have wished Baker's swang song could have been a bit better, but we still get treated to what is in my mind one of the better regeneration scenes that itself is set up with great dread and foreboding. Moreover, though I never quite took to Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor I do think that his first story "Castrovalva" is actually one of the better opening stories for a new Doctor.

23. The Five Doctors (Special 20th Anniversary story, 129, 1983): This is another one not likely to be found on most other lists of this kind, but I had lots of fun watching this anniversary story. Yeah, it's plot is a bit lame and it would have been better if Baker had agreed to come back but, again, I just enjoyed the hell out of this one. Stays on my list.

24. The Caves of Androzani (S21-135, 1984): As I noted above I simply never took to Peter Davison's characterization of the Doctor. He was just too, well, normal. Not alien enough for my tastes. And yet his swan song is truly one of the greats. Indeed most fans, at least according to the lists I've seen from Doctor Who Magazine regularly rank this story very high and it used to be at number one before the new series came along even now it usually lies at least in the top five. I don't think it's the greatest DW story ever, but it does deserve the acclaim it has received. After a long period off veteran DW writer Robert Holmes was asked back to write Davison's final story. And one of the things he noticed about this version of the Doctor's previous stories was how easy he seemed to have it. Thus, Holmes decided to put him through hell in this story. Davison's Doctor gets slapped, shot at, shoved into mud, and more. But perhaps the best thing about this story is the fact that the plot doesn't hinge on the Doctor saving the universe or even this particular planet. No, the Doctor and his companion, Peri, simply get caught up in a shitty situation, a power struggle between at least three competing factions, neither group really better or worse than the other. For this reason the story has a remarkably real feeling to it. I wonder if this is why so many consider it to be the best DW story. As great as it is though it is simply a little too derivative of some of Holmes' previous stories for me to rank it as the best.

25. Vengeance on Varos (S22-138, 1985):  In my opinion Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor is quite under appreciated. I really liked his take on the Doctor partly because I could envision him as a sort of younger version of the First Doctor. But coming on the heels of the extremely nice Fifth Doctor, Baker's initial characterization of the Doctor as a bit violent and unstable (e.g., he attempts to strangle his own companion in his first story because he mistakes her for a spy) I can see why many fans had a hard time warming to this incarnation. However, again, since I prefer my Doctors tetchy and unhinged I immediately took to Baker as the Doctor. And I would argue that his first full season as the Doctor is overall a really strong one, apart from "Timelash." perhaps. For instance "Revelation of the Daleks" just missed being on my list. The standout story from this season though is "Vengeance on Varos" which up until that time really was one of the more original DW stories. Prescient too since it partly anticipates what would become reality TV as the story pivots on a population encouraged to watch state punishments on their monitors at home. Additionally, this story includes one of the more memorable villains from DW history since Davros' first appearance, a slug like creature named Sil and played wonderfully by Nabil Shaban, a dwarf actor. After such a strong season Baker would then get saddled with a fairly forgetful season with a story arc called "Trial of a Time Lord" which would prove to be his undoing as he would become the only Doctor ever "fired" from the role. A terrible shame in my opinion.

26. Remembrance of the Daleks (S25-148, 1988): The last story on my list and, sadly, the only one I have featuring Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor because he was the best one since Tom Baker played the role. Unfortunately, he just didn't get very many good stories though his last season was overall good with stories such as "Ghost Light."  But this particular story is another of those that I can say with confidence would be in my top 5. It is also my favorite Dalek story. One of the things I really liked about McCoy's Doctor was that underneath his bubbly exterior he was really dark and manipulative. You see his manipulative side more clearly in the later stories "Ghost Light" and "Curse of Fenric." But here it's more subtle and so for me works to better effect than in those stories. One appealing thing about this more manipulative take on the Doctor is that it gets him more involved in the stories in that he's almost directing the events himself instead of just sort of being swept up in them which by this point had become standard fare for 80's DW. So just on this level it was refreshing to have this kind of Doctor. In this particular story the Doctor immediately takes charge, knowing exactly what he wants to do and how he's going to do it from the outset. But ultimately why I like this story is because where as the Fourth Doctor couldn't bring himself to commit genocide of the Daleks (or the later 9th Doctor in "Parting of the Ways" for that matter) the Seventh Doctor has no moral hangups on this score and, better, apparently no guilt for his actions at the end either. It is a shame that classic DW was cancelled while McCoy's Doctor was just hitting its stride, and it would have been fascinating to see this darker form of the Time Lord unfold.

Whew! Well, that's my list. These are the 26 classic Doctor Who stories I simply couldn't live without.  

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Elementary Musings

Recently I finished the original 60 Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and now I find myself watching many of the TV and film interpretations of this timeless character in a perhaps foolish effort to determine who was the best to play Holmes (and Watson), a project that might last as long as my current one to watch all of Classic Doctor Who. (That particular project is sadly almost at its end.)

So why does this character resonate with me so much as he does and has with countless numbers of readers and viewers since Doyle published the first story back in 1887? Well, for my own part it is quite evident. Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate rational actor, homo rationalis par exemplar. He is not, at least in his original depictions by Doyle, a slave to his passions. It is reason alone that guides his thinking and actions. As Watson puts it Holmes is the perfect "calculating machine." The idea that somewhere, in some individual, reason can conquer emotion is appealing to me, especially as I now realize that much of my own past life has been mired in irrational thinking and behavior. To be completely rational is to be totally in control of one's self.

Of course this is a fool's hope as such a state of being is impossible to achieve. Nevertheless, there the Great Detective stands beckoning me, encouraging me with these words: do not merely see but observe, when observing take note of the trifles as the least detail can be of the most importance, refrain from theorizing ahead of the facts, never guess as guessing is destructive to the logical faculties, learn to reason back from effects to causes, employ imagination, deduce, and when you find yourself bored alleviate the tedium with...cocaine. Ok, perhaps not that last one.

The great irony here is that Doyle who created the most rational being in literature became quite irrational himself when he developed a zealous obsession with the spiritualist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Note: he was married to a psychic.) In fact so strident did Doyle's spiritualism become that he ruined a life long friendship with Harry Houdini who of course aside from being a talented stage magician was a well known skeptic of spiritualism even going so far as to expose many fraudulent practitioners of the movement.

It is then no wonder that based on this apparent contradiction, rational Holmes and irrational Doyle, that there arose a movement which promoted the gentle fiction that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson were real figures of history. The trouble is that the 60 stories are choke full of inconsistencies, contradictions, and silence on important matters (such as where Holmes went to school, his childhood, the development of his skills, etc.) that this same movement has devoted much time to solving these problems. This accepted fiction that Holmes and Watson were real and the attempts to resolve many of the issues that arise from the canon based on such an assumption has become known as "The Great Game."

Perhaps when I am done figuring out who in my opinion is the best Holmes I too shall attempt to play the game. After all much of the game parallels what I used to do in my biblical studies days, namely, trying to reconstruct the historical Jesus from the gospel sources. Anyhow, even if I never play the game I'm quite glad that I have taken the time to read the original stories (yes, even the rubbish ones like "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" in which, spoiler alert, the culprit turns out to be [cue dramatic music]...a jelly fish!) and to now be watching some great cinematic interpretations and elaborations on these stories. Thus far it has been an enjoyable experience.

Credit should always be given where credit is due. In this case I would probably never had read the original stories had it not been for Steven Moffat and Mark Gatis' excellent Sherlock from the BBC. I'll never likely have the opportunity to meet this remarkable duo of writers (Note: they also write for new Doctor Who, Moffat is the current head writer) but if I ever did I would be sure to let them know how grateful I am. However, special mention should be made of a friend of mine who gave me the first season of that excellent show in the first place. I suppose it was really him that started me on this wonderful journey. The final irony though is that this friend has never watched, indeed refuses to watch, Sherlock.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dispensing with "That" Hypothesis

It is fashionable to declare that one shouldn't have regrets. Bollocks. I have many of them. One of these is that I didn't date in my teens and for much of my twenties. Granted, I'm not the handsomest of the lot and so it's not as if I would have had opportunities bursting at the seam, but there were a handful of times when I could have pursued a few females and likely have been successful that I ultimately passed on. Why? Well, during that phase of my life I was quite religious holding fast to such notions that God, because he was so sovereign, would bring me a wife and I wouldn't have to lift a finger. As a result I gobbled up ridiculous literature like I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

Now I did sincerely believe this tripe, but looking back I can also see that this view aligned quite well with my general approach to girls well before my religious period. When it comes to females I have always been a passive male. Thus, in a meaningful way a high view of God's sovereignty functioned as a suitable excuse to cover this (faulty?) nature of mine. I'm sure that many use their god(s) in such a manner: invoking the deity to excuse and/or explain. This is problematic as it hinders us from probing and investigating our own faults which is necessary if we truly wish to correct them.

Our personal lives aren't the only things at risk of stagnation by summoning God as the answer to our problems but the advancement of knowledge itself. Okay, so I'm being bombastic here and the connection I'm about to make is quite dubious. Nevertheless, indulge me. (Note: some of the following I learned from the great astrophysicist and science communicator Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.)

Everyone knows of Isaac Newton and his revolutionary impact on science. The man gave us the laws of motion and gravitation, invented calculus, engaged in the first serious examination of the properties of light, and more (including dabbling in alchemy!). But Newton was also a deeply religious individual and wrote more on theology than he did on natural philosophy, as "science" was dubbed back then (Much cooler sounding in my opinion. Let's move to bring it back).

And unfortunately this personal theology slipped into his great tome Principia Mathematica. Among other things one of the chief aims of that book was to work out the calculations for the force of gravity between celestial objects. Now the calculations worked just fine when only two bodies were concerned like the earth and moon for example. But when Newton tried to calculate the forces of all of the then known planets of the solar system, the equations kept failing meaning they predicted that all the orbits would be unstable. But a quick observation of course showed that the solar system was not flying apart so Newton suggested that every now and then God stepped in to keep the solar system in balance. In short, Newton's recourse to a "God of the gaps" as an explanation resulted in him giving up on the problem.

It would be a century later before this problem would be solved. The Frenchman Pierre-Simon Laplace would be the one to do it. He did so by developing something called perturbation theory that enabled one to mathematically show that in fact the solar system was quite stable. Laplace argued and laid out this theory in his mammoth five volume Mechanique Celeste. Eventually, another famous Frenchman, one Napoleon Bonaparte, who was a voracious reader of works on natural philosophy, read through the entire work and being quite impressed summoned Laplace for a discussion. But something troubled Napoleon about the work, namely, that there was no mention of God or a designer and when queried about this Laplace simply replied, "Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis."

Perhaps we too would be better off by dispensing with that hypothesis. Our continued understanding of the universe certainly has benefited from such. So the moral of the story? Be a Laplace and not a Newton. Oh, and I guess: date.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Three Hurrahs for Inspector Morse

Oh, geez. I've discovered yet another great British show called Inspector Morse. It's a detective crime drama with a setting in the community of Oxford. Originally the show ran from 1987-95 with a few specials thereafter until 2000. Now there was a spinoff of this show called Inspector Lewis which I had actually discovered prior sometime last year after the amazing quality of BBC's Sherlock sent me scurrying to find similar British shows (Foyle's War is another good one I found). The one episode that I watched from Inspector Lewis impressed me enough to compel me to look further into that show. And when I discovered that Inspector Lewis was actually a spinoff/continuation of an earlier, highly acclaimed series of which this blog post is about I decided to table Inspector Lewis and watch its predecessor first. But I forgot it about this as I took up the ambitious task of watching ALL of the classic Doctor Who episodes ( a subject for a future post as this is still an ongoing project). Thankfully, last month Netflix reminded me that it had the first four series of Inspector Morse available for streaming and so I duly began partaking.

And what a great decision. This is a remarkably good show. One of the best that I have had the pleasure (so far at any rate) of experiencing. There are a great many things which set this show apart from other detective based dramas. But the key difference is the title character himself, Morse, played by John Thaw. Morse has some interesting character traits: he drinks on the job, suffers from bouts of melancholy, is a crossword fanatic, enjoys high brow culture (classical music, opera, poetry, etc), has terrible luck with women (a bachelor in his late 40's having never married), and, most importantly I would say, often gets things quite wrong, an attribute one would not normally expect let alone praise in a detective.

But this crucial fact is what makes the show quite unique in the bewildering world of countless TV shows based in one way or another on detecting/solving criminal cases. Now of course even the great Sherlock Holmes in the original 56 stories turned out to be wrong a few times, but those were exceptions that proved the rule that Holmes was a genius. But for Morse frequently coming to the wrong conclusions is absolutely central to his character and it is quite a refreshing take on the genre. (and it predates the majority that have since come out!) Moreover, when Morse does solve a case it's often the result of inadvertently stumbling his way to the solution. The bottom line is that though Morse is quite clever he's clearly no genius something he himself implies when responding to a question of why he chose to become a policeman instead of a scholar: "I have a good memory, but a prosaic mind," he mournfully admits.

My favorite episode to date (a bit of a spoiler alert here) is called the "Wolvercote Tongue" because it emphasizes an important aspect of the world that I've only recently begun to appreciate by accepting the fact that we probably live in a sovereignless universe, namely, sometimes there is no connection between events that seem, compellingly so, to be related. Without going into specifics concerning the plot suffice it say that it revolves around two deaths and a theft and throughout the episode Morse is dogmatically certain that there is a connection among these events. But in the end it turns out not to be so...simply coincidence. Though Morse does ultimately solve the case this can't erase the disappointment he feels at having been wrong yet again: "I was so sure, Lewis. So sure there was a connection," he dejectedly states. And though he uttered the following earlier in the episode it expresses how he must have felt at that moment: "If you need me, Lewis. I'll be looking at fish...through the bottom of a beer glass."

But it's not just the character of Morse that makes this a great show. Most of the stories are quite good only rarely being too contrived and are structured in such a way as to allow the viewer to piece together the clues and form their own conclusions along with Morse and Lewis, something few modern, especially US, detective shows are able to do because of their constrictive 45 minute format (Most of the Morse episodes are at least 90 minutes). Furthermore, the relationship between Morse and Lewis is just as stimulating as that between, say, Holmes and Watson. And on top of this the show is full of sharp and witty dialogue such as the following:

Morse: "They say sex can be very good for the over sixty-fives."
Lewis: "Oh, do they?
Morse: "Especially if you didn't get much before sixty-five."
And so I would highly recommend this show to anyone who likes British TV and detective crime drama. However, a bit of a warning. The pace of these episodes is deliberately slow. Some won't be able to handle such. But if you have the patience I guarantee you will be handsomely rewarded.

"I don't think, Lewis. I deduce. I only ever deduce." Chief Inspector Morse

Friday, May 10, 2013

World War II, Ideology, International Relations, and Iran

*Well, the other day was V-E Day which usually prompts me to write about something pertaining to WWII on that day in my journal and lacking anything else to write about at the moment I'll just share those thoughts here:

There is a tendency, usually on the left but not always, to minimize or eliminate altogether the part ideology can play in the origins of international conflicts. A typical move is to reduce the set of grievances down to purely socio-eonomic factors. For example, there are many who argue that the state of poverty that many Muslims are born into is what leads some of them to become suicide bombers rather than any prior adherence to a radical belief system. So the thought here is that if you raise the economic status of these groups of people, they will then eventually become satisfied to such a degree that they will no longer seek destructive means of airing their problems. Realists will also often downplay ideological factors but for other reasons. Their emphasis is that most state actors are rational practitioners of power politics so that the problems that arise between states are not usually the result of a clash in the respective ideologies of these states but rather owing to each state pursuing its own national self-interests which of course often conflict with one another.

The importance of WWII concerning this matter lies in the unequivocally ideological nature of Hitler and the Nazi regime.  Hitler's own worldview as put forward in Mein Kamp is what powered German foreign policy before and during WWII. Hitler believed in Aryan racial supremacy and a twisted form of Darwinism (Social Darwinism) and sought to implement these twin beliefs by ridding Europe of what he considered undesirables and almost succeeded at this. Hitler desired Lebensraum (living room) for Germany and believed in a Grossdeutche (a greater Germany) both of which he accomplished by the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland and the Anschluss with Austria. Hitler considered Russia to be Germany's true, eternal enemy and so invaded that country in 1941. In other words every movement of Nazi German foreign policy corresponded with the ideological beliefs and goals of Adolf Hitler. Now of course Germany before and during Hitler's rule had harbored certain concrete geopolitical objectives that weren't necessarily ideological, but these become incorporated into the behemoth that was Nazi ideology so that one can still confidently say that it was the totality of Nazi ideology that formed the basis for German foreign policy in the 1930's and 40's. So then WWII offers the clearest example of ideological factors playing an important role in the outbreak of an international conflict.

The "ideology" question is not a moot one. For example, it has relevance to something going on today, namely, the negotiations with Iran concerning its nuclear ambitions. The question about how much ideology may be influencing the Iranian regime's actions is a pertinent one given its vitriolic rhetoric towards states like Israel. Now the realists could be right that Iran is just a normal, rational thinking state and if this is the case then allowing them to have nuclear weapons capability wouldn't pose a major risk to the region. (See for example Kenneth Waltz's article for a recent articulation of this view.) But the problem here is that we know so little about the true nature of the Iranian regime. For example, how much actual influence does the President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have over foreign policy? How much does the Supreme Ayotollah have? Or the Revolutionary Council? The danger is that if it's
essentially one person (like Hitler in Nazi Germany) running foreign policy then the likelihood of Iran pursuing a rational foreign policy is significantly reduced. And the fear is that it is actually Khamenei, the Supreme Ayotollah, who wields all the power in Iran. This is a major concern because of the apocalyptic nature of some of Shia Muslim belief that Khamenei seems to hold. And so if this is indeed the case, then allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons capability would be extremely risky. But on the other hand if power is spread amongst several players then the possibility that Iran is acting quite rationally, by IR theory standards anyway, is high. To clarify, if it's ideology that's driving Iranian foreign policy then letting them have "the bomb" would be a huge risk for the region; but if it's traditional, "rational" power politics determining their foreign policy then there is little to worry about. At this point we simply don't know.

Now, I usually count myself among the Realists in that I tend to assume that states typically act out of a "rational" calculation of national self-interests when conducting foreign policy. But there are clear cases in history when ideology has driven a country's foreign policy and so one shouldn't be too quick to dismiss ideological factors in explaining state behavior. To do so could be to invite disaster as the European countries did on the eve of WWII by assuming that Hitler was a rational state actor, merely  pursuing traditional German foreign policy objectives. Thus, current efforts at diplomacy with Iran should heed this lesson.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Origins of the Iraq War


We recently passed the ten year mark since the start of the Iraq War. And so it seems appropriate for me to finally comment on the origins of that controversial event. The general consensus among political scientists and the rest of the foreign policy elite is that the war was a major US blunder, misguided both in origin and execution. Basically, I agree with this fundamental assessment but differ in how I understand the origins of this war from many of these thinkers, many of whom seem content merely to explain US actions as stemming from an arrogant imperialistic mindset or as due to an ideological crusade on the part of a Republican administration. In other words, much of the analysis has been, well, not really analysis but instead has struck me as a sort of "competition of condemnation."

The passionate and partisan nature of this debate about the origins of the Iraq War is a major reason why I’ve been reticent about giving my opinion on the matter. Again, I agree with most in declaring this a huge misstep in US foreign policy that has had many adverse consequences. But I’m not merely satisfied running around self-righteously berating the policy makers involved. Instead I’m much more interested in a level headed analysis of the origins of the war. It is certainly a much more fruitful exercise to determine why and how this ill-advised war began than to simply prattle on about how bad and wrong it was.

At any rate, there are, in addition to the imperialist and ideological motivations mentioned above, many theories about the origins of the Iraq War. One of the more popular is that the war was started by a group of well-placed neoconservative advisers (who are supposedly by disposition quite hawkish) who deftly and sinisterly steered the various policy makers in the administration to war. Sometimes linked with this view is that the neo-cons teamed up with AIPAC (the Israeli Lobby) and some members of the Israeli policy making body to create a war as  a means of diverting the world from the rapidly deteriorating situation then occurring in the West Bank (the second Intifada was by this point in full swing). Closer to the conspiracy theory sphere are those that assert that Bush ’43 personally engineered the war as a means of vengeance against Saddam Hussein for his actions against his father, Bush ’41 (or something inane like that) or that the war was started by a military cabal or that it was begun to secure Middle Eastern oil (Desert Shield/Storm was actually more about oil than the Iraq War) or whatever.

Besides being rubbish what all of these theories have in common is the attribution of a pernicious and malevolent element to US geopolitical actions that I don't think existed. However, I’m not going to spend this blog post addressing this matter or any of these other theories. Rather, I want to put forth my own theory. Well, not my own per se since there are a few academics who share a similar viewpoint to mine such as Melvin P. Leffler of the University of Virginia.

The first thing that I need to point out is something that often gets downplayed or outright ignored in much of the discussion surrounding the origin of the Iraq War, namely the place of Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the national security policy of the United States before 9/11. This is crucial because many act as if after the 1991 Gulf War Saddam was of little to no concern in the making of American national security policy, that after the US “whipped” Saddam he basically minded his own business thereafter until the son of his adversary decided out of nowhere to peremptorily finish the job. But the reality is that Hussein remained a major problem, still continuing to top the list of threats that are given in the President’s daily national security brief. What to do about Saddam, who repeatedly was in violation of the no-fly zones, blocked UN weapon inspectors, circumvented the Oil for Food Program, continued to viciously crackdown on the minorities of his country (the Shia and Kurds especially), and more, was of principal concern to the Clinton administration which actually fired ballistic missiles at Iraq in 1998 and continually considered regime change as a proper course of action worth pursuing. The point here is that right up until 9/11 Iraq featured prominently in the discussions and concerns of United States national security policy.

Then 9/11 happened. Now I’ve suggested before that at least in the long term calculus I don’t think 9/11 was all that transformative. But for a brief moment it certainly had a profound effect on American foreign policy in that the paranoia created by the 9/11 attacks caused the US to magnify and exaggerate all other threats, especially those that had been brewing for quite some time. Moreover, 9/11 sent policy makers into such a panic that these major threats which were previously considered contained to one degree or another were instantly transformed into threats that urgently needed to be extinguished. And topping this list was Iraq.

So my thesis is as follows:

1.)   Iraq continued to be a major national security concern of the United States after the Gulf War and up to the 9/11 attacks.
2.)   The sudden 9/11 attacks created a state of paranoia that caused the US to egregiously augment prior threats from containment to necessary extinction.
3.)  Saddam Hussein was considered chief among these threats
4.)   Therefore, the United States invaded Iraq to eliminate what it perceived as an immediate threat to its national security.

My position then is that the origins of the Iraq War can be found in legitimate national security concerns that were unfortunately blown out of proportion because of the 9/11 attacks. The sense of urgency that this paranoia created caused policy makers to see connections that did not exist such as the dubious linking of Hussein with Al Qaeda. (The same could be said of the case made for Saddam having WMDs though what often gets overlooked here is the fact that just about EVERYONE, including most of the UN member nations, even France, as well as UN weapon inspectors, believed Saddam did possess WMDs before the war so I find much of the discussion surrounding the WMDs to be quite disingenuous.)

Now I don’t normally dabble in counterfactual history, but a further view of mine is that had Gore been elected I believe it is highly likely that the Iraq War would still have occurred. There are two key assumptions that I’m making here: 

1.)    Though the rhetoric may be different between Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy issues, when it comes to actually making foreign policy both parties act similarly. Therefore, I think a Gore administration would have fell victim to the same paranoia that the 9/11 attacks caused.

2.)   The personality of decision makers may matter a lot less than I used to previously believe. The more and more I have studied the history of foreign policy the closer I’ve come to a sort of fatalistic viewpoint. And so in this sense the Iraq War, because of 9/11, might have ultimately been inevitable. 

Topics worth pursuing more fully at a later time perhaps.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Grab Bag Thoughts: Evolutionary Psychology, Human Nature, and Predestination/Determinism

Every so often I seem to make my way round back to the question of human nature. This time it has been prompted by my recent interest in evolutionary psychology. Essentially, this paradigm asserts that current human behavior can best be understood by inference from our ( mostly primate) evolutionary past or ancestral environment. To give just one example, which happens to be one of the more controversial ones, the basic differences between males and females when it comes to sex is made sense of by evolutionary psychologists through positing that in the ancestral environment parental investment was a much greater affair for a woman since she incurred the many risks associated with pregnancy (such as death), but also because she had the lion's share of the burden of caring for a child over a lengthy period of time. By contrast, male parental investment probably rarely went beyond providing the sperm for conception and bringing back food for the tribe. Consequently, males could be quite free in their choice of mates because of the low reproductive and rearing costs to themselves. This is then extrapolated into modern times to explain why it seems that (most) women are much choosier than (most) men when it comes to sexual partners, i.e., because the risks associated with the consequences of sexual intercourse were far greater for the female than the male in the ancestral environment and which is still ingrained in human sexual behavior today.

The implications of many of the conclusions of evolutionary psychology for human nature are what got me thinking about this subject again. Of course the most basic question to ask about this long standing problem in philosophy is does such a thing as human nature even exist? (Modern day Lockeans and Behaviorists are among those who deny that it does). And if there is such an entity how contingent is it? Or to put a finer point on it, is human nature simply the result of millions of years of evolution in which our ancestral environment "produced" it (this is of course where evolutionary psychology lands)? Or is it rather something that's inviolate and so independent of factors such as evolution and/or culture?

Of course how one answers these questions will depend a great deal on whether or not one's worldview includes the metaphysical or supernatural. Those who believe in a deity or deities of some kind will generally affirm a human nature that is divinely created and immutable while naturalists, quite naturally, will tend to deny that such a thing exists or to assert that human nature is a product of various historical processes (e.g., evolution plus culture). Additionally, one's political leanings can also influence how one thinks about human nature. Conservatives will usually favor a view of human nature that is static whereas liberals will be more likely to see human nature as something more malleable. To use sex differences as an example again, conservatives will tend to stress that differences between the sexes are considerable and an inherent part of humankind; liberals on the other hand, in the interest of egalitarianism, will normally assert either a total lack of distinctiveness between the sexes or will only acknowledge a few basic, inconsequential ones.

For my part the first time I engaged to any degree of seriousness with the problem of human nature was indirectly during my former pious Christian days and my anxiety over Calvinism/Reformed belief, specifically over the pernicious doctrine of predestination. In fact, this theological problem was probably the first real rigorous intellectual topic that I had ever undertaken up to that point in my life (I believe I was around 16 or 17 then). The role that human nature takes in that debate has to do with the slippery Christian concept of "original sin." For Reformed Christians Adam and Eve's transgression in the garden of Eden implicated the entire human race to such a degree that man's nature became utterly corrupt and always predisposed toward evil. Because of this man is unable to save himself and so depends entirely on the grace of God for his salvation. Furthermore not only is man unable to achieve his own salvation, he is unable to freely choose to receive it. Therefore, God must enable a person to accept salvation by changing his sinful and corrupt nature. But of course in these Reformed systems of thought God only elects a certain number for salvation, i.e., he predestines those he has chosen to salvation aside from anything they have done or that is in them. The rest are consigned to damnation.

At that time this theological problem vexed me considerably. I eventually settled into a comfortable skepticism over the issue. But oddly it has come to rear its ugly head again but this time with a distinct naturalist coating: causal determinism.  One of the more uncomfortable potential implications of evolutionary psychology (with a bit of neuroscience thrown in) is that all of human behavior is causally determined such that the feeling of free will we have is merely an illusion fostered by evolution. (I should note that behaviorists usually also adopt some kind of causal determinism.) Of course there are all sorts of philosophical distinctions that have been made here to try and make this view more palatable (e.g., distinguishing between hard and soft determinism), but they all effectively say the same thing, namely, that man is “free” only in the sense that he can “freely” choose to act in accordance with his desires (or intentions) even if these desires themselves have been causally determined.

This implication causes me great discomfort for many of the same reasons predestination did so long ago principally because it seems to leave no room for any genuine notion of justice or responsibility except as merely social constructs intended to maintain order. And it’s not just this paradigm’s implications in regards to determinism that has made me feel considerable angst but much of its conclusions regarding other issues such as morality to name just one. Though I haven’t completely bought into this system of explaining human behavior (e.g., I doubt that the differences between males and females are as significant as does this view) it has immense explanatory power. Furthermore, my considerable discomfort over some of these implications may be a clue that much of this stuff is true. Often the discovery of truth is presented as refreshingly liberating and it certainly can be at times. However, at other times the process of uncovering the truth can be an extraordinarily painful one. Perhaps, at least for me, that is the case here. Further exploration of these issues is in order.