June 15th, 2008

#1114: Doctor Who stuff

I've watched Doctor Who for 27 years. The only time I stopped watching it was when it wasn't being shown where I lived; otherwise I was in front of the TV set when it was on, barring responsibilities such as work, and thanks to the VCR I've taped it for later viewing when I couldn't watch it. I'm a dedicated fan of the show.

I was thinking about the new version of DW and how it's different from the original.

One of the great things about DW is that it was science fiction with a hint of magic--the technology the Doctor mucked around with frequently flirted with the Clarke limit, and sometimes surpassed it. The Time Lords' technology in particular.

The new DW series has had a lot of that systematically removed. Why the Time War? Why did the Time Lords have to be eradicated? It doesn't make any sense to me--from a writing standpoint, I mean. Sure, I can see how a gigantic war could have led to a pyrrhic victory for the Time Lords, and all, but why do it? By doing that, the writers hacked away a great big raft of potential. Plenty of great classic DW stories happened when the Doctor returned to Gallifrey, either willingly or by force. The last ep with Leela, for example--when the Doctor seemed to be a traitor who was helping bad guys invade, only to find out that he was playing them...and then the Sontarans show up. It was awesome.

The Daleks--they were the other side in the Time War, but they've been brought back. (Killed off, and brought back again.) The Cybermen--what's with the alternate universe Cybermen, anyway? What's wrong with the Cybermen from this universe? Were they also wiped out in the Time War? I was glad to see that the Sontarans, at least, still exist, largely unchanged--and the changes that have been made were for the better.

But all of that is acceptable, really, because DW has always been a serial, and things change. I may be more upset because a lot of the changes happened "off screen". Okay.

So what is the deal with the sexual tension?

That's the worst part of it. In classic DW, there were never any romantic entanglements between the Doctor and his assistants. That was never supposed to be a factor.

The first time you read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, you may be surprised that Watson--not Holmes--appears to be the main character of the story. In fact, that's not so; Holmes is the main character, but he's too damn smart for there to be any suspense in the story. The suspense comes from Watson not knowing what Holmes is thinking, why he's doing what he's doing, how he's solving the case before him. Watson only knows what he sees, and he's not omniscient, so Doyle had plenty of opportunity for Holmes to explain to the reader, via Watson, what was going on.

The Doctor's assistants are his "Watsons". When you write a story or series about someone like Holmes or the Doctor, you need an "everyman", because the central figure of the story is too much of a demigod for the reader/viewer to readily relate to. We have seen occasional glimpses of the Doctor's true power, and the implications of it can be scary because we don't really know his limits. The same is true of Holmes: this is a man who mainlines cocaine because he's bored.

DW was originally positioned as a kids' show. Besides providing a highly necessary expositional function, the attractive assistant was a paean to the fact that adults frequently watch TV with the kids, and middle-aged dads don't mind the trashy show so much if there's a cute girl involved.

Notice, please, that the Doctor has never had a solitary male assistant, not without some woman or women around. Ever. (Maybe for the space of one episode, which was half an hour in the classic series. Not longer.) And I can name them for you:

1) Barbara's teacher, what's his name, from the first season
2) Jamie
3) Dr. Harry What's-his-face
4) Adric
5) Turlow
6) Captain Jack

....and that's it. But Barbara--the Doctor's granddaughter--was there, and her other teacher, a woman. Every episode with Jamie had Zoe in it. Dr. Harry So-and-so was during the Tom Baker-Sarah-Jane-Smith years. Adric started with Tom Baker and ended with Peter Davison, but Romana, Nyssa, and Tegan were along for the ride. Turlow started and ended with Peter Davison, but (again) Nyssa and Tegan and Peri were there. And then there was Captain Jack, but Rose Tyler was also there.

Okay: this is not an exhaustive list; there may be others that I just plain don't remember. But I think it makes my point, anyway, that the assistants on Doctor Who are like contestants on Wheel of Fortune: they may be all women, or there may be some men, but there is always at least one woman.

But for all of that, there has never been sexual tension. The Doctor has never been romantically interested in any of his friends; it's not part of the story and was never meant to be. The Doctor wasn't passing through the universe in search of a good shag; he was an adventurer, a kind of cosmic troubleshooter who never had any difficulty finding trouble or correcting it.

It's a dimension the series didn't need. When Sarah Jane Smith started waxing rhapsodic about the Doctor, that was a serious departure from the original series, and I think it was a bad move.

It's safe to say there's nothing actually happening "off screen"; at least, I am pretty certain the Doctor wasn't boffing Sarah Jane on those long trips between spatio-temporal coordinates. And if you consider the whole issue a misunderstanding on the assistant's part (such as the issues alluded to re: Martha) it's even more unnecessary.

Well, WTF. It's not going to keep me from watching the show; it's going to make me roll my eyes whenever I see it, but it's not a show-stopper for me. It's more unfortunate than anything.

Besides all that, I also miss the longer episodes. The old version chopped each episode up into half-hour segments, with each arc taking three to six episodes to complete. There was plenty of time for plot development and intricate stories.

What we have now is an hour-format show with most stories completed within that time frame--and it actually comes to about 48 minutes, all told, including opening and closing credits.

How good would the classic Doctor Who have been if it had the kind of budget the latest series has? I never minded the cheesy special effects because the writing was so good; if they'd had a budget to match, what could it have been?


One might as well wish for the moon, I suppose.

1115: For the 50,000th time JUST RECYCLE THE STUFF!

Oh, the storage of nuclear waste is such a problem how will we ever solve it? This article is why I take a lot of science stuff on Ars Technica with a grain of salt: those guys parrot the econazi party line without a second--without a first--thought. They uncritically treat "global warming=man-made=apocalypse" as proven.

And they obviously know nothing whatsoever about the history of nuclear power. The opening paragraph of the article contains more bullshit-per-syllable than anything I've seen from those douchebags yet. It's about the Yucca Mountain storage facility, and it raises the usual shibboleths:

1) Nuclear power is unsafe.
2) Nuclear power means nuclear weapons.
3) Nuclear power generates a lot of high-level waste.
4) Nuclear waste is hazardous for millions of years.

I've dealt with all of this before, in other posts, so I'm not going to deal with thoroughly obliterating those ignorant assertions as I normally do. Instead I will merely make counter-assertions.

1) Nuclear power is not unsafe, certianly no more hazardous than other forms. If you add all the casualties from coal mining in the 20th century--even just 1945-2000!--you will find that it's killed more people than nuclear power has. The incident at Three Mile Island is considered the worst nuclear accident in the United States, and all the safety systems at the plant worked. There was a controlled release of radioactive hydrogen, but no one working in the plant at the time of the incident was exposed to any unusual radioactivity. The maximum theoretical dose of radioactivity one could have received from the 3MI partial meltdown would have been 1,500 millirem; in order to get that dose, you would have had to camp out atop the containment vessel of the reactor for the duration of the crisis--several days. And certain medical diagnostic procedures routinely expose people to far more radiation than that; in 1979, an angiogram exposed you to 25,000 millirem.

2) Nuclear power does not mean nuclear weapons. Particularly in the context of the United States--remember, the article in question discusses the Yucca Mountain storage facility--since the US already has a huge nuclear arsenal.

I've dealt before with the problems faced by someone who wants to steal plutonium from a processing facility. Plutonium, by itself, isn't a problem in the right kind of nuclear reactor; it could be left in the fuel rods. But if someone wanted to steal plutonium, in order to make a bomb, there would be a lot of other dangerously radioactive stuff around the plutonium.

There would be security around the reprocessing site. Getting in and out unnoticed would be difficult; and if you tried the "frontal assault" method, you would find that it's not very easy to get out of the country with an APB out for X many men in a large truck that's increasingly radioactive.

And besides all that, the plutonium would be a mixture of isotopes, some of which would make building a bomb with the stuff impossible. Either it would spontaneously go off, or it would fail to explode properly--either way, it wouldn't produce an optimum yield.

Yes you need a nuclear reactor in order to make weapons-grade plutonium. No, having a reactor does not automatically mean you're going to be making nuclear bombs. If you already have both reactors and bombs--as the US does--"proliferation" is a non-issue.

3) Nuclear power plants do, yes, generate high-level waste. Yes, it's hazardous.

For a couple of years.

By definition, any substance which emits a lot of radioactivity has a short half-life. It loses its potency quickly. The less radioactive it is, the longer its half-life is. This is basic physics.

The fuel rods which are removed from a reactor go into a "cool down" pool where they sit for many months. The shortest-lived isotopes rapidly decay; once they have done so, the fuel elements can be reprocessed safely. The various elements which "poison" the nuclear reaction can then be chemically removed, and the recycled fuel can be put back into service.

It'll leave you with a small amount of nuclear waste, much smaller than the fuel load it came from. Recycling nuclear fuel would vastly reduce the amount of nuclear waste we have to deal with. The article says "60,000 metric tons"; how much of that could be reprocessed and reused?

4) "Radioactive waste is dangerous for millions of years"? It depends on what you mean by "dangerous". Uranium 238 has a half-life of four billion years--but "dangerous" it is not, unless you inhale some of it. U-238 emits alpha particles--helium nuclei; if you want to protect yourself from it, you must obtain an esoteric and high-tech shielding material called PAPER. (Latex paint works very well, too. In fact, stay about ten feet away from an alpha emitter, and you're probably safe, just because of the air between you and the substance.)

Any radioactive substance with a half-life of "millions of years" is not going to be as dangerous as the stuff that comes right from the reactor. Yes, you can get sick or die if you spend too much time near too much of the stuff, and it really ought to be stored somewhere--not just left out in the open--but "dangerous" is relative.

If you want to worry about nuclear waste being "dangerous", though, worry about the stuff with the short half-lives, because that is the stuff that'll kill you the quickest, that needs the most shielding between you and it to keep you safe.

I'd rather live next to a ton of U-238 for a year than stand next to a gram of Strontium 90 for an hour.

* * *

Besides all that, though, there's another point the article makes in that first paragraph: that nuclear power is non-renewable.

Sure, if you treat uranium ore as the source of nuclear power, then yes--it's not renewable. Technically. We have a finite amount of exploitable uranium ore in the Earth's crust.

But the funny thing about a nuclear reactor: if you put something in there, where the neutrons are flying around, some things get their nuclei rearranged. We've known how to build breeder reactors since the 1940s; there are plenty of ways to build a nuclear reactor that allow you to both extract power and make more fuel at the same time.

Uranium is just one useful power metal, though. Plutonium can be used. Thorium can be used. Anything that makes neutrons can, one way or another, be used to generate power.

A single charge of enriched uranium could be used over and over and over again until all the uranium in it has been converted into other elements. We don't know how long that would take because we've never tried it, but as the fuel is used, the U-238 is converted into other elements; eventually, if the fuel is run through enough times, all the "original" U-238 will be turned into something else.

Right now, we use a fuel rod until it's "poisoned"; then we stick it in storage and plan to entomb it in Yucca Mountain.

And it doesn't have to be like this.

The article does not mention--as such articles never do--that the entire reason we don't reprocess nuclear fuel is that Jimmy Carter signed an executive order making it illegal to process spent nuclear fuel--which means it's been not less than 28 years since we've been able to recycle spent nuclear fuel.

It was made illegal through executive order--by fiat--and a simple stroke of a pen or a law passed by Congress could make it legal again. No President since Carter has bothered to rescind that executive order, though.

So what do we have? A stupid decision made by one man has led us to having to build a multi-billion dollar facility which--so far--has not stored so much as one pound of nuclear waste, while for the last thirty years slightly-used nuclear fuel has been piling up.

When all we have to do to resolve 90% of the problem is simply to recycle the stuff.