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3 more wake ups to go…

As I sit here, typing this, listening to the 5 Live coverage of the Man U v Bayern Munich match, with rain pattering against the window just behind my monitor, I’m as excited as a kid a few days before Christmas. Why? Could it be because I’m expecting some stunning new images from one of the Mars rovers, or Cassini, or MRO? No. Could it be, then, that I’m awaiting some new results from Kepler, the telescope searching for extra-solar planets? Um, no. Am I meowing on this hot tin roof because someone’s spotted a comet Way Out There, and we’ll know by weekend if it’s going to reach naked eye visibility?!?

Ah. No.

What is it then? What’s got me impatiently looking at the calendar, and checking my watch to see if it really is still just Tuesday?


Yes, the new season of DR WHO begins on Saturday night!!! 🙂 🙂

Now, I can almost hear some of you sighing “Oh, grow up…” but I’m going to ignore you, a) because this is my blog and I don’t force you to come here, and b) because I LOVE Dr Who, I’ve grown up with it, it’s one of my very favourite things, and Saturday evening truly can’t come soon enough for me.

( I’m not prepared to either confirm or deny the rumour that I’ve taken Saturday off work, so I can watch it ‘live’ and don’t have to hide for an hour from all the TVs on where I work so I don’t catch glimpses of the show and have it ruined… 😉 )

“Why do you love Dr Who?” so much, I’m often asked, usually right after my inquisitor has let out a deep, long, exasperated/disapproving/bemused sigh. To answer that question I’d need to make a list that would run to dozens, maybe even hundreds of reasons, but I’m not going to do that, don’t worry. But basically it comes down to two very simple, and important, things: great stories, and memories.

A lot – tho, I’m the first to admit, not all! – the writing in Dr Who is amazing. Great characters, great plots, convincing relationships, drama and mystery… Many people point to modern episodes like “Blink” and “Girl In The Fireplace” when asked why Dr Who is so good, but older, classic episodes stand up well, too. “Genesis of The Daleks” takes some beating, as does “Terror of the Zygons”.

As a writer myself, I love the writing in Dr Who, it can be, at its best, a masterclass in writing. Russell T Davies got a lot of stick for being sentimental, and fanboyish, but some of his episodes for David Tennant’s Doctor were sensational. The two part final episodes, the farewell to David Tennant’s Doctor, literally reduced me to tears at the end, it was just awful, horrible… but brilliant at the same time.

But for me, Dr Who is all about memories… memories of my childhood…

I never watched Dr Who from behind the settee, but I do remember, very clearly, being absolutely **** scared of the Sea Devils when they walked out of the sea in “Dr Who and The Sea Devils”, all covered in netting …

…and carrying their scary ray guns…

For some reason the Sea Devils really gave me the heebie geebies. Maybe it’s because I’ve always had this fear of water. Maybe it’s because they were so silent and arrogant, and deep. Maybe it’s because they were so believable –

Well, at the time they were. Now, of course, I can see that their ray gun looks suspiciously like an iron, and that the Sea Devils bore a remarkable resemblance to a certain Brummie stand up comedian…

…but at the time, they really freaked me out, ok?!

Then I had a very, very uncomfortable trip to “The Planet of The Spiders”…

(Ha! And Donna thought she had something on HER back!!!)

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I hate spiders. No, that’s not even close to how I feel about them. I loathe them with every cell of my body. If I could click my fingers now and make every arachnid on the planet vanish, I’d do it, in an instant, and I wouldn’t care about the repercussions that would have for the number of flies, I’d never have to look at another spider again. So those epiosdes of Who were horrendous viewing for me. In fact, I’ve often wondered if they are what put this fear of spiders in me, though I think there was An Incident with a spider of some sort when I was very very young that did it. Guess I’ll never know. All I know is that “Planet of The Spiders” gave me nightmares.

And I wasn’t a huge fan either, I have to say, of the giant, pulsating, green-slime trailing maggots seen in “Dr Who and The Green Death”. They were just… wrong…

My worst memory during a lifetime of watching Dr Who isn’t of a monster or enemy tho, it’s of the Doctor himself – or at least one of the Doctors. Sylvestyer McCoy… what the **** were they thinking??!?!? He made the character a laughing stock, a clown, absolutely unbelievable. I wanted to reach into the screen, grab his stupid umbrella and batter him to death with it, I really did.

That would have been bad enough, but oh, it was worse than that; much, much worse…

I’m shuddering at the memories now, I really am.

But I have happy memories too, of course: sitting in my mum’s car, on a blazing hot summer’s day, licking a “Dalek Death Ray” ice lolly and reading the “Dr Who Summer Special”… Feeling the Doctor’s agony as he wrestles with the dilemma of whether to wipe out ALL the daleks or not… Developing a huge crush on Sarah Jane Smith in her flappy flared jeans and flowery tops…

And who didn’t fall for this fine fellow as he staggered and clomped across the screen like Todd Carthy on an ice rink..?

Then Who vanished for a while, and the world seemed a little darker, a little less colourful. Who came back for a visit briefly, when one of the (many) McGann Bros played the Doctor in a TV movie – that I’m still, to this day, undecided about. I really need to see it again – then vanished again…

Dr Who was dead.

Then RTD pushed his way through the crowd, dropped melodramatically to his knees beside the body, and, pumping its chest , shouted “Regenerate! Regenarate, damn you!” The Doctor coughed, retched, gasped for air… then sat up, and, looking a lot like a hard northerner in a leather jacket, went on to conquer the 21st century, as we always knew he would if he was just given a chance…

What followed is history. We were given Rose Tyler, her brassy mum, and Mickey… we were given new, kick-ass daleks and new much more believable Sontarans (even with Mike from “The Young Ones” playing one of them)… we were given The Lady Cassandra, the Face of Boe and, of course, Captain Jack Harkness, the man who made Capt Kirk look like a bumbling, blushing schoolboy when it came to seducing other lifeforms, regardless of their sex.

We were given Martha Jones, who I fell for in a very, very big way, and am still fiercely loyal to, and always will be…

Martha left (sniff) and we were given Donna Noble as a Companion, who, I’ll admit, I made up my mind to absolutely HATE before she’d even appeared on screen, after her fish wife shrieky chavvy debut in that Christmas special. She won me over, absolutely and completely, and she went on to become one of the best Companions, and finest actors, ever seen on Who…

We were given Sally Sparrow and the Weeping Angels, and told not to “Blink”…

…and we were given a farewell story for the tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, that was as heartbreaking as it was epic. Every time I replay the scene where he says “I don’t want to go…!” I feel a black hole open up inside of me. You shouldn’t go! You’re MY Doctor!!!!

But then, he went, in a volcano of gushing golden flame, and when the light had faded in his place was…

What??! A floppy-haired, big chinned, gurning boy band reject…?!?!?!

Well, that’s what many people thought. Such was the devotion to David Tennant’s Doctor that his replacement was always going to have a hard time, and yes, knives were sharpened. Me? I just knew that the people behind Who wouldn’t give the role to anyone they thought unworthy of it, so I just thought “Fine, I’ll trust you, let’s see…”

And then the trailers started appearing, and the buzz began. The new Conpanion, Amy Pond, is feisty and, let’s not beat about the Tardis here, absolutely gorgeous…

…and with responsibility for the show given to Stephen Moffat – the writer responsible for some of “New Who”‘s most popular and succesful stories – a lot of people began to get very excited about the new series.

Then the trailers started to appear…

It’s now very clear that Matt Smith’s Doctor will be very different to David Tennant’s. He is going to be more scatty, more “Mad Professory” and probably more playful too. But there’s a definite hard edge to him, he’s not going to be Mr Fun Guy all the time, and the daleks, Silurians, Smilers and Weeping Angels and all the other season 5 baddies are in for a severe butt kicking I reckon. There’s an intensity behind those big, sunken eyes that will convince us all, within moments, that we really are looking at a 900 year old man, and not a kid in a tweed jacket. I can’t wait.

And we have a new TARDIS, too! With a new control panel! And stairs, leading to different floors, with lots of different rooms! I. Can’t. Wait!

So… here we are… just three more wake ups to go until Dr Who is back. I’m honestly looking forward to it as much as I look forward to a planetary encounter by a spaceprobe, or the opening of an epic new SF blockbuster. Matt Smith is going to be incredible, I just know he is, I feel it in my guts and in my bones. Karen Gillan, as Amy Pond, is going to shine on the screen with an almost Ready Brek glow. The camera will love her, and so too will a whole new generation of Who fans – young boys and their fathers alike…

Saturday is going to be a long, long day, but eventually I’ll settle down in front of the TV, flick BBC1 one, and the music will start playing, and a huge cheshire cat grin will spread across my face –

“But it’s silly…” some will say.

Yeah? Maybe. Maybe it is. Maybe robots shaped like salt and pepper shakers are “silly”. Maybe a time machine shaped like a blue police box is “silly”. Maybe clunky, matt-finish Cybermen are “silly”.

But on Saturday night, for an hour, I’ll step into that blue box and, with a moan and a groan of its mighty, ancient engines, I’ll be whisked away from this real world, of arguing, corrupt politicians, budget deficits, terrorist atrocities, paedophiles and murderers and for an hour or so I’ll be a young kid again, lost in a fantastic, fantasy world of aliens and monsters, giant robots and giant spiders, and a hero who loves the universe and everything in it and travels through Time and Space with a beautiful girl at his side…

I can’t wait! 🙂

“Freeing Spirit”

I’ve written a just-for-fun short story, looking at how Spirit might get free from her martian dust trap… with a little other-worldly help…

“Freeing Spirit”

It’s sci-fi, so if you’re not a fan of that genre, well, maybe best not to go and read it. Especially if you’re not a fan of a certain blue police box… 🙂

More martian poetry…

Take a look…


New Dr Who trailer…!!

If you have any emails to send, videos to download or blogs to catch up, do it as soon as you can, because the internet is about to melt: the BBC has released a new trailer for the next season of Dr Who, and it looks… stunning!!!

The closer we get to the launch of this new series, featuring – as if you didn’t know – Matt Smith as The Doctor, the more excited I’m becoming about it. The trailers make it clear that there’s a new, darker look and feel to the show, and Matt Smith’s Dr is definitely going to have a harder edge to him. Don’t let that dickie bow tie and floppy, foppish fringe fool you; this Doctor is a serious action man. Read this snatch of dialogue from the trailer:

“This is what I do, every time, every day, every second – this. There’s one thing you never put in a trap if you’re smart. If you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there’s something you never ever put in a trap. Me.”

I almost feel sorry for the daleks and cybermen and – if rumours are true – Silurians that are going to get their alien backsides well and truly kicked by him…

One image in the new trailer just reaches out of the screen and slaps you across the face when it appears:

That’s a dalek… you probably spotted that… but it looks like a World War 2 dalek, with that matt green finish, and all the sandbags piled up around and the webbing draped across it. That’s intriguing enough, but look more closely… what’s that on its dome, just beneath the eyestalk… that’s a union jack!!!! A British dalek?!?!?!

Why isn’t it April the 3rd? WHY?!?!?!?!?!?!?! 🙂

You can find the new trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kT_j2uw4b3w

Spirit shivering…

Poor Spirit. Not only is she stuck in that ghastly dust-filled crater, she’s now having to deal with a body temperature of minus 41 deg C…

Hearing this inspired me to write a new astropoem about Spirit. Hope some of you like it…

Minus 41 Degrees


I am cold. So cold.

Once I felt young; now – as old

As the chipped, frost-nipped rocks surrounding

Me. Hard to believe I once climbed the Mountains

Of Mars, gazed down on Gusev’s Big Country Plain

To watch dust devils whirling again and again

‘cross the landscape beneath my strong wheels…

Now I feel… oh, so weary; the weight of the rusty crust

Lying on my back stoops me like an old man

And I cannot feel a thing, can merely flick

My dry, itching electronic eyes this way and that,

Wondering if each picture I take will be my last…


Current flows through me grudgingly now.

I am hungry for power, starved of it,

As thirsty for it as a vampire gone weeks without

A kill. The thrill of basking in prickly summer

Sunshine is just a memory; the low winter sun

Is sorbet-cold, hanging in the sky like a skull,

A single vulture circling Homeplate

In oh-so-slow motion.


But I am still alive! Mars, Great God of War,

Declared war on me the very moment I arrived,

And every struggle-filled sol since has tried its best

To snuff out the guttering candle flame of my life –

But failed. And tho winter’s ice-encrusted fingers dig deep

Into me now, searching for my heart, desperate to pluck it free

And cast it to the whispering wind I will not give in!

Mars – do your worst; Spirit, of Earth, will not yield!


© Stuart Atkinson 2010

Note: there’s an illustrated version of this available here… http://twitpic.com/19kl3m

Welcome to Mars’ “landslide alley”

This morning I was messing about with carefully studying Mars with Google Mars. I started off with flying around Olympus Mons, as you do, then headed east up the huge Mariner Valley, you know, just looking for interesting scenery. Eventually I kind of lost interest in that, so decided to hunt for what has now officially become My Favourite Crater On Mars – this half-eroded, multi-walled beauty that overlooks Ganges Chasma from the north side…

I mean, come on, what’s not to love? It’s gorgeous! Well, to a geology enthusiast and Mars nut, anyway! 😉

After a little bit of searching I eventually found My Crater (wish I knew its real name… if it doesn’t have one, it’s about time it did!) with Google Mars…

Of course, the really cool thing about Google Mars is the way it lets you explore the red planet in glorious tiltable, pannable, “ooh!”able 3D. So I started playing about with the view…

Hang on – what the ??? is that, down on the valley floor? That looks like a landslide – a huge landslide…

Click… click… click…

Wow… look at that… there’s another enormous landslide on the opposite side of the canyon too – and it has to be a younger one, because it has flowed over and partially covered the leading edge of the fan of material that fell into the canyon and spread across it from just beneath My Crater…! And there, further along the canyon floor, to the west, it looks like there are other landslides too… Time to gain some altitude…

Just look at that… landslides everywhere! I can count nine separate ones. Just imagine the violence that has occurred in this part of the great Marineris Valley, again and again, over and over. Here’s an image of a “frost and dust” avalanche caught by HiRISE near Mars’ north pole recently…

…which is pretty impressive! But look again at those Ganges landslides…

How many hundreds or thousands of tonnes of rock, dirt and dust fell from those canyon walls, smashed into the canyon floor then spread across it in tsunamis of shattered stone? Obviously, unlike the avalanche seen in the image above, the Ganges landslides happened a long, long time ago. But what would it have been like to have stood here…

…on the edge of the canyon as they happened?

Now, those pictures are pretty amazing, but they don’t really give a sense of scale, do they? Thankfully, Google Mars can fix that… I hope you’re sitting down, these next two pics are pretty stunning, but unless you’re reading this on a ridiculously-large monitor you’ll probably need to click on them to enlarge them enough to be able to read what’s on them…

In years to come, explorers, then pioneers and eventually settlers will come to this place and gaze upon it with eyes wide with wonder, and they’ll wonder what it would have been like to see those great columns and shelves of ancient martian rock just fall away and slam into the canyon floor, with a great “WHUMPFFF!” that sent vibrations and shock waves shuddering through you as you watched? What would it have been like to stand on the canyon floor itself, and see those great tidal waves of pulverised rock and stone and dirt boiling towards you..?

I think I’ve just found a new ‘favourite place’ on Mars… 🙂

Explore the Wonders of the Solar System – on the BBC!

There’s no shortage of “science programmes” on the telly, but generally they’re pretty poor. They’re either dull and boring (mentioning no names… cough… Horizon… ) or wacky and “woo-hoo! science is cool kids!” over the top (mentioning no names… cough… Bang Goes The Theory). Finally, FINALLY, there’s a science program on TV that is Just Right.

The BBC’s new series “Wonders of the Solar System“, which airs on Sunday evenings on BBC2, and is repeated later in the week.

The presenter of the series is Professor Brian Cox, who is rapidly becoming known as “the cool, good looking scientist”. Magnus Pike he ain’t; ex pop star he is (remember D:REAM? “Things Can Only Get Better?” yep, he was one of them). Brian is the new Face Of Science – passionate about his subject but not preachy; knowledgeable but not arrogant; good-looking (my female friends tell me) but not too pretty to be taken seriously. In fact, if Harry Potter and his friends had a cauldron and poured into it all the ingredients for the perfect TV science presenter, Brian Cox is what would take shape in the brew after a good stir.

The first program of the 5 part series aired last Sunday night, and was like a breath of fresh air blowing through the BBC’s science schedule. Within a couple of minutes of it starting it was pretty clear that, unlike sooooo many science programs that profile the solar system by just lazily taking the viewer on a planet by planet trip around the planets, it’s treating the topic in a much more thoughtful and thought-provoking way. It ticks all the 21st century “science programme” boxes – yes, the visual effects are beautiful and very well done, and yes there are lots of zoom-outs and bright flashes – but there’s a lot of frankly beautiful, almost poetic description in there too. Brian Cox is desperately in love with the universe, and with physics, and it shows. He could, I swear, make the physics of cleaning a toilet sound fascinating and magical and wondrous. The guy feels absolute and genuine joy when he’s talking about the universe, he revels in being a part of it, and if you’re an astronomy or space enthusiast it’s impossible to watch this program, and listen to him, and not feel like you’re suddenly a seven year old again, reading your first astronomy book and learning about the wonders of the universe for the first time.

( If I had one criticism – which is nothing to do with the content of the show, or its presenter – it would be that, again, the BBC is trying its hardest to drown out the narration with the background music. This is becoming increasingly common with BBC programs, both factual and entertainment, and seriously, someone at Auntie needs a slap, because it’s getting to the point where it’s distracting at best and ********** annoying at worst. There’s no point in having someone as knowledgeable as Prof Cox narrating so wonderfully if you can’t hear what he’s saying because THE MUSIC IS SO LOUD!!!!!!! )

Reaction to “Wonders” has beeb overwhelmingly positive – the comments on Twitter on Sunday evening and Monday morning were so gushing in their praise that Brian Cox must have blushed. I have personally found that it has fired the imagination of people who usually have no interest in the subject; people I know who wouldn’t normally look at a “spacey” program on TV are excited by it. For example, people at work who usually make fun (kindly!) of my passion for astronomy and space exploration have told me “I can see why you love it so much now!” and “That program was really interesting!”, etc etc.

I don’t think it’s aimed primarily at people like me who already know a lot about the wonders to be found Out There; it’s more for a general if not absolute beginners audience. I think “Wonders” will open the eyes of a lot of people to the wonders of the universe. It will also make Brian Cox a household name, which is no bad thing.

If anything it was a bit too good; I’m giving one of my Outreach talks this afternoon in Kendal Museum – “Earth”, for National Science and Engineering Week – and I now feel more than a little “Ha! Follow that!” pressure, to be honest! It’s bad enough that Brian Cox is knowledgeable and likeable, but he’s suddenly made people think that scientists can be sexy. Guess I’ll shatter that illusion for them!  🙂

Hmmm. This might be a problem, actually. I have literally been stopped in the street half a dozen times this week, since “”Wonders” aired, by people I know who just wanted to tell me (Universe knows why!) how much they’d enjoyed it. So now, knowing that many of the people in the Museum today will have seen “Wonders” I’m going to have to stand there knowing that the bar has been raised. Oh great, thanks Brian… 😉

The BBC’s generations-old flagship science program, Horizon, looks seriously dated and dour compared to “Wonders”. With its boring stock footage, droning narration and poor production values it is very definitely yesterday’s show. “Wonders” has the potential to inspire and excite a huge number of people. I think this could be quite a moment, to be honest.

It’s a shame Horizon has gone that way. A lot of space- and science enthusiasts grew up with Horizon being a regular ‘science fix’, and we looked forward to the specials after a probe’s planetary encounter. They were THE science documentaries to watch. I remember playing video-taped V2 and Magellan Horizons and photographing the screen to make slides for using in my talks (pre Net and Powerpoint and USB sticks and Smartboards and digital projectors… cripes, how did we manage?!). Following the slow death of Horizon has been quite sad. I think Brian Cox just gave it an injection to put it out of its misery.

So, if you haven’t caught up with this series, seriously, you have to go to the BBC’s iPlayer (sorry, US readers, obviously that doesn’t apply to you, but the series will be airing on BBC America I believe later in the year) and watch episode 1. Episode 2 is on BBC2 on Sunday evening, and it promises to be as good as, if not better than, ep 1.

Has the UK finally got its own Carl Sagan? Time will tell, but the signs are promising. But there’s definitely a new science sheriff in town, and his name is Professor Brian Cox.

It’s space station spotting time again..

The INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION will be visible in the sky again soon, and this time it’s going to be visible in the evening sky, after dark! If you look at the top of the page you’ll see a tab with” space station” on it. Just click on that and you’ll find all the info you need to spot the ISS in the sky. Let me know what you see! 🙂