Tag Archives: Doctor Who

Thoughts on “Oxygen” and the perils of space

So it’s been nearly a week since the last episode of “Doctor Who”, and before we go headlong into the trilogy that awaits us, I’ve got a few thoughts on “Oxygen”.  I loved it!  It reminded me of the classic serial “Sunmakers” but also had a bit of  “2001” vibe, with the machines deciding to dispose of the humans, and starting right out with two spinning dead astronauts, reminiscent of Frank Poole.  But the underlying theme, as laid out so clearly in the Doctor’s opening lecture, was this: space is an unbelievably hostile environment.  It is always trying to kill you.

And he’s right.  An Apollo astronaut was once asked in an interview whether or not they carried suicide pills, in case of a mishap that prevented them coming back to Earth — a cyanide tablet could give them a quicker death rather than lingering on until they starved.  But the astronaut pointed out that there was no need — in space, dying is actually very easy to accomplish.  If they’d wanted to commit suicide, all they’d have to do is open a valve, and they’d be dead in a couple of minutes flat.


Another perspective comes to us from Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design.  In every version of his list of laws, the last one is always this: “Space is a completely unforgiving environment. If you screw up the engineering, somebody dies (and there’s no partial credit because most of the analysis was right…)”  It’s something to soberly consider if you ever find yourself working on a human spaceflight program, since after all, there were engineering decisions that played directly into each of the fatal spaceflight accidents to date.  Apollo 1 was pressurized to greater than 1PSI of pure oxygen on the ground while miles of poorly secured wiring was just waiting to short out and start a fire, and a door designed primarily to keep pressure in also prevented escape.  Apollo 13 was caused by wiring that had worn out due to heavy stress testing, wiring that could not easily be reinspected.  Challenger was caused by a deficiency in the design of the SRB joints, complicated by an overly optimistic engineering analysis which said it should be okay to launch on a day that was below the freezing point.  Columbia was caused by the design of the foam combined with the unexpectedly fragile nature of the RCC carrier panels, which had never been tested for their ability to withstand a strike, since they were believed to be stronger than the tiles; this turned out to be badly mistaken.  Soyuz 1 was struck down by a litany of defects, in a spacecraft whose design really wasn’t complete yet, although the final and fatal insult was a fouled parachute.  And then there’s Soyuz 11.

Soyuz 11 is an accident that definitely bears a relationship to this episode.  It even involves a space station, the only fatal spacecraft accident ever to do so.

It was 1971.  A series of rigorous tests and qualification work following the horrific Soyuz 1 mishap had produced a vehicle that controllers felt very confident about.  So confident, in fact, that they declared they did not have to wear pressure suits for launch and entry.  This would allow the original series Soyuz to carry three crewmen, a feature that was seen as highly desirable for a manned space station program.  For now that Russia had lost the Moon race, Soyuz was being repurposed from a lunar orbiting spacecraft to a space station ferry vehicle, a task at which it ultimately excelled.  In April of 1971, the first DOS (Durable Orbital Station) was launched and dubbed Salyut 1.

Two days later, a crew launched aboard Soyuz 10, but they were unable to dock.  Salyut 1 used the first cone-and-drogue docking system in the Russian space program, a system they continue to use (with refinements) to this day, and there were some growing pains.  Eventually, after completing observations of the station, the crew returned home.  In early June, another crew was launched: Georgy Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov.  They were able to dock and carried out a fully successful 23 day stay on the station, setting a bar that the Americans would not clear until Skylab, two years later.  Their work completed, they departed on June 30, 1971.

They never saw Earth again.

During reentry, controllers lost contact with the vehicle.  This was not unusual, but the duration of the blackout was.  Even after the spacecraft was observed descending under parachute — on target, following a nominal reentry profile — there was still complete silence on the radio.  Perhaps some had already anticipated that something was badly wrong, but they wouldn’t know what until they were able to open the hatch and look inside.  Mission controllers waited anxiously, much longer than they expected to wait, before a simple code was transmitted: 1-1-1.  These three numbers indicated the health status of each crew.  5 meant healthy.  1 meant dead.

It is from this mission that we know precisely what happens when a person is exposed to the vacuum of space, for they had died of decompression.  All had been dead for at least several minutes by the time the spacecraft touched down; one of them was still warm to the touch, but it was still too late to resuscitate.  They had blue patches on their faces and blood running from their ears and noses, the result of eardrums and capillaries bursting.  Crew vainly attempted to resuscitate them, but it was far too late.  They had died shortly after retrofire, when the orbital module had separated and a valve remained open that should have been closed.  Autopsies revealed hemorrhaging in the brain, lots of bleeding just under the skin, and evidence that catastrophic bubbles had formed in their blood, causing fatal aeroembolisms — their blood did not literally boil, in the sense that the water did not turn to vapor, but the dissolved gasses (nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide) had come out of solution.

One thing that’s interesting from their case is that the Doctor isn’t quite right about how one would fare, exposed to space.  He says that you’d pass out in 15 seconds.  This doesn’t turn out to quite accurate — you have about fifteen seconds of useful consciousness, but that’s followed by nearly a minute of confusion before you succumb completely.  The Doctor says you’ll be dead in 90 seconds; perhaps some last longer than others, but we only have three examples to draw from, and they actually lasted twenty seconds longer than that.  Perhaps humans are a little more resilient than the Doctor gives us credit!  He also says you would die due to oxygen bubbles in the brain; actually, nitrogen bubbles are a bigger worry (ask any diver), but that wasn’t what killed the Soyuz 11 crew.  You could get a rapidly fatal aeroembolism, and that might be a mercy.  It’s also total chance where the bubbles end up going first, so don’t count on it.  The Soyuz 11 crew died due to lack of oxygen; they did suffer aeroembolisms, but it seems they weren’t fatal.  What really killed them was the fact that with the oxygen now out of solution, it couldn’t get where it needed to be in order to fuel the brain and other organs.

So how’d the Doctor survive?  Well, obviously it’s some kind of Time Lord biology thing.  It’s also not the first time he’s spacewalked without adequate protection.  (Last time, in “Four to Doomsday”, it didn’t seem to have any lasting ill effects.)  So what happened to his eyes?

There are a few possibilities.  They depict frost forming on Bill’s cheeks as the pressure drops; I am not convinced this would happen, since human body temperature should be plenty high to keep the frost away. Water should be converting to vapor, not solid.  So did his eyes freeze?  Maybe.  What about excessive drying?  People who have survived decompression accidents and felt the water evaporating off of them did not suffer harm to their vision, but it’s theoretically possible, especially if enough moisture evaporated out from the corneas themselves.  This is more likely what the scriptwriter intended, since the Doctor mentions fluids boiling away from the eyes in his opening lecture.  Bear in mind, it’s not a hot boiling — as pressure decreases, so does the boiling point, until you get a situation like dry ice here on Earth — it goes straight from solid to liquid without ever being a liquid in the middle.  But it would be rather harsh.  With this in mind, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke had David Bowman scrunch his eyes closed as hard as possible before his very quick helmetless emergency spacewalk in “2001”:

In summary, while there were some minor quibbles with what would happen to you in a real spacing situation, they actually got it pretty good.  Space is extremely hostile, and in the future, oxygen may well become a commodity.  In the meantime, wear your spacesuit for launch and entry and docking, and for gosh sakes, don’t lose your helmet.

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New Doctor Who is just around the corner!  And, naturally, that corner is at the end of a corridor filled with Daleks.  Mind you, the Daleks are apparently not the big bad of the first episode; they’ll basically have just a cameo this season.  So, a real quick rundown of what we can expect:

New companion Bill Potts!

Two Masters, face to face — John Simm and Melissa Gomez!

Way more Ice Warriors than we’ve ever seen before!

Smiling emoji bots!

Perfectly ordinary things made terrifying — apparently to include puddles and creaks in the floor!

A three-parter!  (Also, it’s the one with two Masters!  SQUEE!)

Creepy monks!

Cybermen — all the Cybermen!  REALLY all the Cybermen, including the originals!

And, sadly….

…the finale for #12.


But fear not . . . this is the Doctor.  He changes, he goes on, and that means soon we get the joy of meeting a new Doctor all over again.  Possibly sooner than we think; although we were told Capaldi would be staying through the Christmas special, that may not be the case after all; he’s filmed his final scene…..  (Not necessarily his last scene to be filmed, but the last scene we’ll get to see of his Doctor.  I say possibly not the last because we know the next Doctor isn’t yet cast.  Hmmm…..something is up, and I wonder what?)

In any case, strap in, because tomorrow it all starts with The Pilot…..

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We’re Finally Getting a Multi-Master story!

Steven Moffat has teased us with the exciting news that John Simm will be returning this season – and yes, he’ll still be playing the Master!  And there will definitely be a face-to-face scene between his Master and Melissa Gomez’s Missy.  That should be interesting!
In all these years, we have never had a multi-Master story.  Honestly, it’s about time.

Permission to squee?


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Waiting for Series 10: What are the monks?

Series 10, set to be the finale for both Peter Capaldi and showrunner Steven Moffatt, is shaping up to be epic.  So epic, in fact, that they’re doing a three-parter!  Well, sort of.  Scriptwriter Toby Whithouse has described episodes 6 through 8 as a “trilogy”.  6 is written by Steven Moffatt, 7 by Peter Harness, and 8 by Toby Whithouse.  It will be set in the present day and will feature Missy — as well as some extremely creepy looking Monks.  (Creepier than the Headless Monks?  Time will tell.)

At any rate, they do seem to have heads.  Maybe it’d be better if they didn’t….  But are they villains?  Victims?  Plot devices?  Massive misdirection?  I guess we’ll find out!  😉

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Yes, it’s true: Peter Capaldi is moving on

It’s never easy, letting a Doctor go . . . whether they’re in for a year (Eccleston), two seasons (Colin Baker), the typical three, or the marathon seven that Tom Baker had, it’s still not easy to see them go.  But!  At least we get to find out while we still have a whole new season of Capaldi ahead of us!  That makes it a bit easier.  And he’s getting a new companion, who I hope can stick around to bridge into the new Doctor and the new showrunner for Series 11.

So what do we have to look forward to, in Capaldi’s final season as “Doctor Eyebrows”, as my youngest daughter calls him?

  • the new companion, a girl named Bill
  • Bill, who is apparently a Prince fan
  • And we have two companions!  Nardole is staying on after the last Christmas special, which means we have the first male companion since Rory, and the first non-human companion (unless you stretch and count River Song) since Turlough in the early 80s.
  • the Movellans appear to be back! for the first time since “Destiny of the Daleks”, featuring Tom Baker and Lalla Ward in 1979 — if you’re not a classic Who fan, they’re beautiful androids who are completely opposed to the Daleks — and everybody else.
  • there have been rumors (sparked by a teasing remark by Peter Capaldi) that Clara is back in some form — however, Jenna Coleman says she did not record anything as Clara, and ruled out a cameo as well, so it sounds like something more oblique
  • Missy is back, however!  The latest deliciously evil incarnation of the Doctor’s Time Lord nemesis will return.
  • The Ice Warriors are also back, again written by Mark Gatiss, and apparently featuring a new type of Ice Warrior — intriguing!
  • Alas, Peter Jackson directing still appears to be a pipe dream, unless they’ve managed to really shock us all with some amazing secret shooting

So, there are some nice juicy hints in there!  What more may be waiting for us?


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Today, I’m sharing a sketch I wrote a while back.  At the end of the two-part episode “Human Nature”, back in season 3, the Family of Blood was trapped as punishment for what they did when they pursued the Doctor.  Decades later, how might Son of Mine be feeling about it?  Did he ever come to understand the horrible mistakes they made?

I am alone.
It’s such a strange sensation.
I have been alone ever so long, and yet I am still not used to it.  I miss my family.  All of mine.  I’ve been trapped here for nearly a hundred years — the mere beginnings of the long lives we yearned for — yet I still do not grow used to it.
I became a schoolboy once, ever so long ago, when I was young, when my family was searching for immortality.  Our lives are short, so we must steal the lives of others.  And it doesn’t last.  We scented a Time Lord, though all of them were meant to be dead, and we hunted him.  We wanted his power, his lives, his age.
He hid in the form of a human being, and we were deceived.  We took human lives as well, the better to hunt him, but we were out of our depth.  He was being kind by hiding, and we didn’t realize that.  We tried to force him out, and so he was forced to end us.  Yet instead of allowing us to live out our natural lifespans and die, he trapped us all.
Father of Mine.
Mother of Mine.
Sister of Mine.
And I.
We’re all trapped in different places, for this is the Time Lord’s punishment.  My prison is one of my molecular fringe scarecrows.  They’re ever so clever, but I find they are not fulfilling to inhabit, even if it does make me immortal.
I don’t think I like this immortality that the Time Lord gave us.
I wish I could move.  Sister of Mine is trapped in mirrors.  All mirrors.  If I could just find a mirror, I could see her again.  Maybe help her feel less alone.
Father of Mine, Mother of Mine, I think there is nothing I can do for you, not where you’ve gone.
I watch over Britain, and I wonder how long this field will remain.  No one ever comes to change the scarecrow out, and they plow around me every spring, but surely that cannot last.  I cannot leave my post, yet I hear and I *smell*, for I am one of the Family of Blood.  I am trapped, but I can sense things that others cannot.
Humans have been busy in the past century.  The Great war came and went, as we knew it would, and the boys who were sent to fight us as we marched on their wretched school went off to war and mostly died as well, cursing the old men who had told them it was glorious, just as we had said they would.
That boy, that small boy.  The one the other boys taunted and made to do their schoolwork.  Latimer.  He came and visited after the war.  He looked me right in the eye, and he knew I wasn’t a scarecrow.  I could still smell a little of the Time Lord on him, even after all these years.
Yes.  A little schoolboy with no idea what he was doing found the Doctor while we hunted him across time and space.  I suppose it’s what they call poetry.
Then there was war again.  I heard the airplanes and the buzz bombs and the humans’ first primitive rockets, and in my weakness, hoped one might hit me, but I was not so lucky.  And the British drove the Germans away, and they rebuilt, and kept plowing and planting around me every year as if I wasn’t even here.
I think that was when I realized the Doctor had put a perception filter on me.  Latimer could see through it, but most of them cannot, though subconciously they know enough to go around me.
Ever so lonely….
It was Cold War next, a very human concept where you pretend you are not at war even though you are very much at war and different little wars pop up here and there and other people fight and die for a cause that isn’t theirs.  And the rockets became slightly less primitive, they launched satellites, they launched nuclear weapons, they prepared to annhiliate one another.
I rather regret they did not.  The conflagration would surely have finished me.
Across the Continent, the Soviets launched men into space.  Across the Ocean, the Americans did the same.  Cold War; they said it was exploration but of course it was not.  It was the continuation of war by other means.  For once they had their little pride by planting flags on Earth’s ridiculous Moon, they stopped.
More proxy wars, more dying for the pride of others, violence exploding again and again on the other island, humans killing now not for pride but for fear.  Ah, they do begin to understand, don’t they?  They are such a violent race.
And the Soviets fell and everybody said the Cold War was over, but of course it wasn’t and now the humans fought other people for other reasons except really those reasons were the same.  The century turned, new enemies were conjured to replace the old, and the killing went on, the old story with new faces, even as they pretended they’d gotten better.
There have been alien invasions too, and I’ve scented the Time Lord again and again, as he saves this planet over and over.  He sometimes stops by, makes sure I’m still frozen, makes sure I still suffer.  I no longer wish for his death, though.  I am no longer angry.
I’m just tired.
Ever so tired.
I want to sleep.

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FANFIC FRIDAY: Missy and Methos

I hope you liked “Masque of the Baron”, “Resurrection of Evil”, and “Shadow of the Daleks”, because I’m finally bringing it into the NuWho era; and as I work on the next one, this little sketch came out.  I really love the character of Missy, and I think she’s brilliantly played by Michelle Gomez, so I thought it might be fun to have her bump into Methos again.  If you haven’t read “Resurrection of Evil”, definitely do so before reading this.  This takes place sometime in Series 8 of Doctor Who, and of course long after the end of “Highlander: the Series”, in the year 2014.

Missy and Methos

A Doctor Who/Highlander Crossover

London was exactly as Methos remembered it — simultaneously exciting and dull. The sky was its usual uniform gray, the Thames reflecting it back as the tide receeded, and the streets were full of people walking to and from work and appointments, studiously ignoring one another. It really was the perfect place to blend in for a bit. As much as he talked about fleeing to exotic South Pacific islands, it was much easier to hide in a city. So much more camouflage, and of course the utilities were generally a good deal more reliable. More expensive as well, alas, but after five thousand years, he had no real worry about money, especially as he had long since grown out of the concept of material acquisition.

Today found Methos strolling along the Embankment, feeling the breeze on his face, and wondering how long he’d stay here. Perhaps it was time to return to Paris, or maybe cross the Atlantic and live in America for a while. Berlin could be fun. Asia might be a nice change of pace, except that he wanted to blend, and his European features would be a little too conspicuous. Or he could get a big city and the tropics at once, and spend a little time in Rio.

There was plenty of time to consider his options. Today he would simply pass the time, with no obligations to pull him one way or the other.

He sat down on a bench and watched the passers by. A street vendor was setting up a bookstand just down the way, unfolding tables and methodically laying out his wares with smooth, calm, practiced movements. He had clearly done this every day for a long time, and Methos wondered how many of the books had been making the same trip out of their boxes and onto the table and back again every time.

“Mind if I sit here?” asked a woman.

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