Monday, 27 April 2015

Electing to renew

In the run up to the UK general election some noise was made about the renewing of the nation’s ‘independent nuclear deterrent’. Conservative Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, accused the Labour party of using the Trident replacement project as a bargaining chip with the SNP. Labour responded by saying they remained "committed to retaining an independent nuclear deterrent" but would be looking at "value for money".

The row, such as it was, almost immediately fizzled out. In an election which already feels like the most feeble and cynical of my lifetime, the mud-slinging about nuclear weapons was by far the most depressing development. There was no debate about the efficacy, meaning or morality of the UK’s nukes - just a little half-hearted point-scoring, and a desire to have a cheaper apocalypse solution.

Immigration and house prices dominate our election discussion. Strange, when one of those Trident missiles has the potential to end human civilization in an afternoon.

We should only maintain nuclear weapons if there is broad agreement based on an informed, inclusive debate. There are arguments for it: it could be said that nukes have helped put an end to the relentless cycle of state-on-state wars, and actually saved lives.

Still, it is fair enough to ask for some kind of debate considering that a replacement system will cost (very conservatively) £20bn. It is at least a little curious that both major parties plan to axe programmes that help people to pay for one that incinerates them.

Crucial to a successful debate would be agreement to frame the discussion in realistic, appropriate terms. Let’s not hide behind language like:

Independent nuclear deterrent.

Let’s split that phrase up:

How independent is it? If the missiles are American designed and built, and if Aldermaston, where we build the bombs, is privately managed by American firms Lockheed Martin and Jacobs Engineering, how can we claim to have ownership? At best it’s a kind of lease.

Nuclear deterrent – that is an awfully nice description for what is, let’s face it, a monstrous weapon of mass destruction. Trident is designed to indiscriminately kill hundreds of thousands of civilians and render large areas of the planet uninhabitable.

Further, any use of the weapon is almost guaranteed to create a panic in which a response by the USA, Russia, China, India, Pakistan or Israel would follow, setting off a chain reaction that ends our civilization.

If we are to have a useful debate shouldn't we drop the term ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ and replace it with the term ‘Doomsday Device'? It's a more accurate description.

Nuclear Blackmail

This is a post-Cold War construction which began to rear its head in the aftermath of 9/11, as people began to ask: what use is Trident against such an enemy?

The scenario, such as it is, goes that a ‘rogue’ nation like Iran threatens the UK with a nuclear weapon, and poor old nuke-free Blighty is compelled to do their evil bidding.

The idea is idiotic, and should be dismissed as irrelevant out of hand. It is particularly galling to hear the term used so often by politicians who either know better or are too plum stupid to question it.

No nation can threaten another with a nuclear weapon in isolation. The very nature of the Doomsday Device dictates that to threaten one country with it, no matter how relatively low the yield, is to threaten the entire world.

Playing fast and loose.

Defence secretaries love belting each other over the head with this phrase whenever the Doomsday Device is discussed – to consider reducing or scrapping Trident, they argue, is to ‘play fast and loose with this country’s defences’.

This is the most extraordinary claim when you consider the savage, poorly planned cuts which successive governments continue to make to armed forces personnel and equipment  – ie the stuff which we might actually use one day. We are currently planning to have our smallest standing army in centuries. Now that the nuclear deterrent is paid for out of the defence budget we can expect things to get considerably worse.

If we wish to be properly defended, switching Trident funding to improve our conventional kit would be a more practical use of the money.

A seat at the top table

This is the central fallacy of the deterrent. Newspapers will often talk about Trident giving us ‘a seat at the top table’. That is a say in world affairs, a seat on the UN Security Council etc. By virtue of what? The threat of our planet-killing wrath?

Britain’s Security Council seat, like our nuclear weapons, is a legacy of the settlement left by the Second World War. It was a time when the British Empire still existed, and we sought to cement a position as a reduced but still formidable global player.

That time has passed: Suez happened. Iraq happened.

Other nations like Brazil and India already have a better claim to a Security Council seat purely by virtue of demographics. Our possession of nuclear weapons will not prevent movement for change, if and when it comes.


You, me and every other taxpayer knows that nuclear weapons are morally indefensible. Yet we seem happy to pay for them. Can it really be that most of us are content ignoring the issue, thinking ‘better strong than weak, better status than change?’

We cannot shield our eyes and wave through a decision this big. If we discussed it even half as much as we do immigration, we’d soon recognise a far greater threat to our way of life than someone speaking Polish on a bus.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Star Trek: The Original Series. Season Two.

Bored one evening last winter, I plunged into Star Trek: The Original Series. All three seasons are free on Amazon at the moment, and as my knowledge of the show was patchy it seemed foolish not to take advantage.

I began viewing with the second season (I don’t know why, it made sense at the time) and worked through all 26 episodes over Christmas and New Year.

The experience has been, in the most part, a wonderful surprise. Presented here, for what my latecomer perspective is worth, are a few thoughts.


Each episode fair hums with the most brilliant, zesty energy. I guess it’s because TV was still in its infancy, prone to mistakes but with a capacity for wonder. It had no expectations to meet and it was feeling its way, enthusiastic but tripping up occasionally. That quality makes the show easy to forgive.

Another endearing characteristic is its wonderful optimism about technology. Even living under the spectre of thermonuclear war, TOS has faith: in our ability to leap beyond nation and race, to be unified by access to the stars, to find more meaning in life than the accumulation of property. And despite all that, to keep our sense of humour.


Still, most of that remarkable energy derives from a conscious choice made by writers, cast and crew: to make their show cool.

This, I think, was forgotten on the TNG Enterprise. That ship was too often a sort of traveling debate society, where beige alien ambassadors exchanged speeches with Picard’s Lycra-stiff crew.

Kirk’s ship still tries to ask difficult questions, but it never forfeits its commitment to adventure and, most importantly, to its characters. People on the Enterprise are humourous, brave, and importantly, flawed. Spock is a ticking bomb. McCoy teases him for sport. Kirk thinks any problem can be solved with his fist or his dick.


That triumvirate is given colour by great casting. They had real charisma, these guys, and amazing faces to match (Spock’s granite sneer and McCoy’s wild, wet eyes). In fact probably the nicest surprise of the show was Shatner.

I expected horrible, screen-quaking camp from Kirk, so it was a real stun-at-close-range to find that in most situations, his performance is actually pretty understated. When he flips up that communicator and grumbles “Kirk to Enterprise” it’s generally a laid back sort of hail, like McQueen or Connery might deliver it - not the stentorian stuff of Picard.

Oh he’s a strange screen presence all right, with his (often exposed/ ripped-shirt) barrel chest, his curious spread gait and occasional explosion of madness. But generally speaking any embarrassment is outweighed by entertainment value. There's no denying that the man is extremely watchable.

Some of the other characters are less successful. Chekov’s mop-top comedy routine can get a bit tiresome, the ‘everything was invented by Russians’ gag wearing thin fast.

Scotty, a character I’ve never gotten along with, is painted as a bit of a creepy idiot: In Who Mourns for Addonais? he’s obsessive about an Ensign, in Friday’s Child he falls for a trick Mr. Ed would have spotted, and he’s Jack the Ripper in Wolf at the Door. I almost felt sorry for James Doohan as the series went on. He never had a good story.

Uhura doesn't have a picnic either: I can’t remember her having a good line in the entire series (although to be fair she does have a few in Season 1). Mostly she’s made to look sort of ridiculous, which bothered me after a while. Still, you have to credit it for putting a black woman on that bridge in the first place. Nichelle Nichols certainly does.

What else is there to say? Well, the budget limitations don’t bother me. I like the way they never lose gravity on the Enterprise. I like the way so much is shot in close up, to obscure the same old sets. I like that Spock pulls away a panel on the bridge to fiddle with wires ripped from an old radio. 

Yes, occasionally the cheapness provokes a cheap laugh (Snake head!) or rattles the nerves (that damn computer voice) but overall I had no trouble suspending my disbelief.  I was just having too much damn fun.

Snake Head!

Best Lines:


On imminent peril:
“To the logical mind the outlook is somewhat gloomy”

On the Vulcan coma:
“We find it more restful for the body than your ‘vacation.’”

To McCoy:
“I find your arguments drilled with gaping defects in logic.”

To McCoy again, on volunteering for a dangerous mission:
“You have a martyr complex that disqualifies you.”


To Kirk, on starting an arms race:
“It’s not bad enough there’s one serpent in Eden teaching gun-powder, you’re gonna make sure they all know about it!”


On humans and sex:
“Yes, we do think a great deal about it.”

Best Episodes:

The Doomsday Machine: Planet eating worm!

Friday’s Child: Klingons!

A Piece Of The Action: Kirk and Spock as mobsters!

The Immunity Syndrome: Space amoeba!

Poorest Episodes:

Wolf in The Fold: Sit and listen to the computer episode

The Deadly Years: Hilarious elderly crew make-up

Cat’s Paw: Worst. Episode. Ever.