Back to Back to the Future

backtofuture390_0Back to the Future
directed by Robert Zemeckis, Universal Pictures, 1985
This review was originally published in COSMOS Magazine.

Most likely, it’s a good thing that time travel hasn’t moved from science fiction to science fact. Any number of things could go wrong, and in Back to the Future they almost do.

Street-smart teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels from 1985 to 1955 when his scientist friend ‘Doc’ Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is interrupted by terrorists (yes, really) just before his planned jump forward in time.

Marty is still finding his bearings when he accidentally disrupts his parents’ meeting, threatening his own existence. Fortunately, he locates the younger Doc and together they plan to reunite Marty’s parents and send him back to his own time.

After 27 years, Back to the Future is a double nostalgia fest – the ’80s music, slang and pop culture are as much of a treat as their ‘50s equivalents. The humour’s still fresh – I especially loved the UFO riffs and theStar Wars and Star Trek mashup.

The improbable relationship between Doc, the stereotypical mad professor, and Marty, the feckless adolescent, is as endearing as ever. And the souped-up DeLorean time machine and its flux capacitor are entrenched pop-culture symbols – because even if time travel might have disastrous consequences, as Doc says, why not do it with some style?

Inner Space: a review

Photo by Rivqa Rafael

In a lovely bit of synchronicity, we took our kids to the aquarium a week or two before I reviewed Inner Space for COSMOS Magazine. So I was delighted to see Ron and Valerie Taylor mentioned in the timeline at the top of the shark enclosure, as it gave me some context before I started my DVD marathon.

The Taylors started their joint career as spearfishing champions in the 1950s before moving to a more conservationist approach, photographing and filming marine life instead of killing it. They contributed a great deal to marine science and species conservation.

The footage for Inner Space was taken from roughly the middle of their career, so it was interesting to see what they were doing right before they advised Spielberg on Jaws. Some of the footage in the doco made my greenie heart cringe a little, but in context it wasn’t that bad. Their positive attitudes more than made up for the slightly grainy footage and all the things we wouldn’t do these days.

My review is up on COSMOS Online now and there’s a competition on the COSMOS Facebook page to win a copy of the DVD.

The beauty of the depths

Valerie Taylor gets up close to a shark. Credit: Madman Entertainment/Ron Taylor Film Productions.

Valerie Taylor gets up close to a shark. Credit: Madman Entertainment/Ron Taylor Film Productions.

Inner Space: The Complete Series
Directed by Robert Walker, Madman Entertainment, 1973, released on DVD 2012
This review was originally published in COSMOS Magazine.

Over Inner Space’s 13 episodes, Ron and Valerie Taylor showcase their impressive knowledge and sheer love of all things marine.

William Shatner’s gorgeous narration (he refers to leopard sharks as “streamlined spaceships of the sea”) and Sven Libaek’s pleasant jazz soundtrack (included on CD) make it easy listening. But the real joy is the Taylors’s boundless curiosity and unfailing bravery. It’s delightful watching them make friends with sea lions and hitch a ride on a giant whale shark.

Produced in 1973, Madman Entertainment pursued Inner Space for many years before managing to secure the rights and release the only commercially available version of the series.

Inner Space is clearly dated, with its slow pace and muted colours. The night diving and close-up camera provide the best-quality footage, and fascinating insights – such as the beauty of tiny hermit crabs and polkadot baby barramundi.

If anything, the series is a little light on facts, tending to give the visuals space to speak for themselves. It may thus appeal more to viewers who know little about marine life. But whether they’re collecting specimens and fossils for scientists or discovering new species, the Taylors’s contribution to science shouldn’t be underestimated.

The footage used in Inner Space was filmed over 10 years, documenting the beginning of the Taylors’s evolution from spearfishing champions to conservation advocates.

The coral-eating crown-of-thorn sea star is demonised as a reef killer – its ecological purpose and causes for its overpopulation are now better known. And I watched in mixed horror and amazement as one of the Taylors colleagues killed a shark (“man’s most-feared, deadliest enemy”) that seemed threatening, then proceeded to deliver her babies when he realised she was pregnant. But the Taylors subsequently endanger themselves to rescue a shark caught in their equipment, even performing shark CPR.

Later, they try to stop divers from killing endangered grey nurse sharks. These small, gentle sharks had a bad rep at the time, and were easy prey for divers looking to kill for sport. Ron and Val were determined to clear their names, and I’m struck by their important role of PR for species conservation.

As Shatner puts it, “it seems like a horrifying debt man is building up against nature”. The series ends by exploring shipwrecks as potential artificial reefs for aquafarming – both for food and as a way to repair the damage people have done to the ocean. It’s clear that the Taylors helped humanity on the road to start paying it back.

Nerdiness, in song and dance

Keira Daley and Mark Chamberlain in Ladynerd. Credit:

Keira Daley and Mark Chamberlain in Ladynerd. Credit:

This review was originally published on COSMOS Online.

For the uninitiated, the opening number of Keira Daley’s Ladynerd neatly defined nerdiness as an enthusiasm for one’s obsessions that often comes at the expense of fashion sense.

Even if you missed the opening number, the mention in the first five minutes of the Venn diagram of nerdiness and negativity, with self-loathing as the intersection, just might give away that this is no ordinary comedy show.

Daley’s definition of nerdiness is broad; it includes science, Shakespeare, video games, tech, pop culture and grammar. But as the name suggests, the focus of the show is the often-disregarded female nerd. To do this, Daley uses song (with back-up and keyboardist Mark Chamberlain), mile-a-minute one-liners and physical comedy to take the audience back in time to meet some famous and not-so-famous lady nerds.

She starts with the easy stuff: Marie Curie’s scientific romance and collaboration with Pierre (and ‘Cornelius’, apparently the name of the large pile of dirt she sifted through to isolate radium).

Nerdy types short of a pick-up line might like to remember and reuse the puns about magnetism – a common interest the Curies bonded over (sorry) – or “Remember my name, you’ll be citing it later!” if you want to get really academic.

Then it gets a little more obscure, with a Chicago-esque ode to Bette Nesmith Graham.

A high-school dropout who ended up a working single mother after World War II, Nesmith Graham invented Liquid Paper to hide her poor typing skills.

And Florence Nightingale might be known for her compassionate nursing, lamp in hand, but her contributions to statistics and hygiene make her the “Chuck Norris of lady nerds”, Daley declares.

A definite highlight was the sketch about Hedy Lamarr, a Hollywood actor who was more than a pretty face. She escaped Austria and her controlling first husband, who was doing business with the Nazis, and developed the concept of frequency hopping, the predecessor of wifi. Disappointingly, the concept wasn’t picked up for the war effort, because (in Daley’s words) “Whenever I choose to be clever, no one pays attention”.

The adage of ‘It’s funny because it’s true’ definitely holds here, with women still fighting to be taken seriously in tech, ‘hard’ sciences and even in geek subculture (if they’re not in a Slave Leia costume, anyway). But Daley’s unflinching enthusiasm, stage presence, impeccable timing and prodigious singing talent are great tools for punching through stereotypes – and for getting some good belly laughs for nerds everywhere, proud or self-loathing.

Unintelligent design, redux

Last Thursday I went along to hear Robyn Williams promote his new book, Unintelligent Design. (I can’t stop myself from feeling pleased with myself for having a post of the same title almost a year ago [I know, it’s pretty obvious].)

It’s a pretty good gamble, going to hear a radio presenter speak. You know he’s not likely to be dry and boring. (Well, unless he was a dry and boring presenter.) And I do love a good English accent.

Superficialities aside, Robyn’s talk was excellent. Like the book itself, he’s very chatty and entertaining. His talk touched on the main points of the book, which goes through the history of the science vs creationism/intelligent design (ID) debate, and unpicks the ID side.

It was interesting to hear the questions at the end. Some of the questions were really comments in disguise, but people did have interesting ideas. There wasn’t as much heckling as I expected. Just one polite, reasonable question from a young man who was most likely part of the campus Bible study group. He asked about whether Robyn thought that believing in evolution precluded one from believing in Jesus, and Robyn gave a suitably (for an atheist) vague, diplomatic answer.

I bought the book afterwards. Robyn was signing them, which was cool. And we had a chance to chat with Mike Archer about the future of science education, which was fun. I think Mike Archer is great and UNSW is lucky to have him.

As for the book itself…

It’s a slim little book and he does rush through topics, but it’s an easy read nonetheless, and not designed (haha) to be comprehensive.

Still, the main arguments are all there, from the flaws in our design (poorly draining sinuses and bad backs are two that I suffer from), to the non-scientific agenda of ID, as detailed in the Wedge document. From the use of religion to justify injustice to the flaws in the statistics that ID proponents put forward (it might be unlikely that we’re here, but we are).

It’s full of references to popular culture and his famous friends, like Richard Dawkins and Douglas Adams. And his rather interesting life. Which is probably what makes it such an enjoyable read. He is a little too harsh with his atheism (nothing like Dawkins, of course) but with the fundamentalists around these days, I can forgive him for that. He does acknowledge that science deals with the “how” and religion tackles the “why”, but is overly critical, in my opinion, of religion in general. Yes, religion has been the root of many terrible things, but it also has a lot of good to offer.

However, that doesn’t mean that religion, Judeo-Christian or otherwise, should be distorted, presented as science, and forced down people’s throats. Which is really the point.