Archive for the ‘Space’ Category

Right-Wing Internet Host Belfield Now Pushing for NHS Privatisation

May 7, 2021

It’s now the morning after the council and elected mayoral elections that were being held up and down the country yesterday. And to no-one’s surprise, Labour lost the Hartlepool bye-election to the Tories. The media commenters have identified Brexit as the cause of the defeat. For those of us on the left of the party, Brexit was a major factor, but it was also partly due to the shoddy, ineffectual leadership and arrogance of the current leader, Keir Starmer. Starmer parachuted into Hartlepool his preferred candidate, a Remainer, over the heads of local Labour party members, activists and supporters. Mike on Vox Political predicted that this would lead to defeat, and so it did. Because of this, the right-wingers on the Net were putting up videos stating that Labour was insulting Hartlepool’s working people. This was further compounded by the fact that Starmer has been such an ineffective opposition leader, that some people didn’t know who he was. Mahyar Tousi, one of the Brexiteers with arch-Thatcherite views, included a clip from Sky News on his video about Labour in Hartlepool yesterday. This showed Starmer earnestly talking to people. The presenter then stopped a passing woman and asked her if she knew who that man was over there. She didn’t. The presenter told her it was Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour party. The woman still didn’t know. So much for Starmer’s glittering leadership.

And it was also yesterday that right-wing internet radio host, Alex Belfield, put up a video openly calling for the NHS to be handed over to private management. This isn’t the first time he’s done this, and I doubt that it will be the last. He’s already put up videos with titles like ‘Private NHS Now’. Belfield is vehemently against the lockdown, which he feels is unnecessary and actually harmful, as it has prevented the elderly in nursing homes being visited and comforted by their relatives. It has also created another crisis in the NHS, as the concentration on the Coronavirus has meant routine operations, examinations and treatment have been postponed to the point that waiting times have increased. Highly vulnerable people, like those suffering from cancer, are going untreated.

This is a terrible problem, and much of it, like the grotesque mishandling of the Coronavirus crisis that has seen well over 100,000 die from the disease, can be put down to Boris Johnson’s ineptitude and his cavalier disregard for human life over the economy. Plus the way the NHS has been run down, starved of funds and partially privatised over the past ten years.

But not to Belfield. The ginger-headed man with the tiny man-sausage, as he has described himself, knows better. He put up a rant yesterday claiming that it was all due to increased bureaucracy and ‘box-ticking Celia Imrie types’. Belfield has a feud going with the BBC, and he never fails to include jabs at that organisation. I don’t know whether he has anything against Celia Imrie, or whether it’s just he’s using the kind of parts she’s played as an example of a certain kind of fussy, totally unnecessary management type. You know, the sort of people the Golgafrinchams put into an ark to send into space and crash on Earth on the grounds that they were ‘a bunch of useless bloody loonies’ according to the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The solution, according to Belfield, is for the NHS to be handed over to private management.

This is no solution, as it is private management that has created this situation.

Jacky Davis and Ray Tallis have comprehensively shown in their book, NHS – SOS, that private enterprise is very definitely not as efficient as state healthcare. It’s actually more bureaucratic, as the US private healthcare companies can spend as much as 40-50 per cent of their income on management and legal issues. A book I bought a few years ago discussing the privatisation of healthcare in places like Canada as well as Britain found that the privatisation of parts of the health service over here had actually increased costs by 6 per cent. Parts of the NHS are being handed over to private management, and the effects are not good. Private enterprise is all about profit, not service, and so we’ve seen the private healthcare chains close down doctors surgeries even though they were needed by local people who were then left without a local GP. At the same time, Tory MPs have been demanding the levying of payments for users of certain NHS services, which are supposed to be free at the point of service.

This is all part of the long-time project of privatising the NHS, and turning it into a for-profit healthcare system like the American.

And Belfield is fully behind it.

Belfield likes to present himself as an ordinary working class lad without a degree, who’s despised by the middle class White liberals. His audience seem to be the middle aged, White working class, who feel left behind, excluded from political representation in favour of ethnic minorities. The kind of people, who voted for UKIP.

But these are exactly the people, who will suffer if Belfield’s political aims are realised. If Belfield and the other Tories have their way and privatise the NHS, it will be the working class – and that includes the White working class – who will struggle to pay for healthcare treatment. It’s already happening now, through hospital and GP closures due to private management. And thanks to the privatisation of the dentists, many people have been struggling for a long time to find dentists, who will take NHS patients.

Belfield may well be a working class lad, but his politics are those of the upper classes, who wish to impoverish and exploit working people.

And that means privatising the NHS, even, or especially, if it harms working people’s health.

They won’t care, so long as it turns a profit.

I’m not going to post his video, but if you want to see it, it’s on YouTube at Booze 🇬🇧 Disaster 🍻 Told Ya 🤦‍♂️ Chickens 🐓 Coming 🍺 Home To Roost 🍷 Price Of Last 14 Months – YouTube

Just remember, it is right-wing, pro-privatisation propaganda.

Grim Jim on the Role-Playing Games Based on the Terran Trade Authority Handbooks

May 6, 2021

The Terran Trade Authority handbooks were a series of SF art books by Stuart Cowley published in the late ’70s and early ’80s beginning with Spacecraft 2000-2100. Cowley took various paintings of spacecraft, published originally as covers for paperback SF novels, and turned them into a future history and typology of these fictional spacecraft. I’ve only got the first book, Spacecraft 2000-2100, but I think there were others on space wrecks, star liners and great space battles. The books were the fictional publications of a future governmental organisation, the Terran Trade Authority, and its subsidiary, the Terran Defence Authority, which regulated trade between Earth and the other planets and civilisations, as well as providing for the planet’s defence. In this future, humanity was only just expanding into interstellar space, but had encountered two nearby alien civilisations on Proxima and Alpha Centauri. These aliens were markedly similar to humans, although not so similar that their ships didn’t need modification for human use. These similarities were so strong that there was speculation about a deep kinship or common origin for the three different species.

I came across the book when I was on holiday and was really blown away by the art. This was by such great SF artists as Chris Foss, Angus McKie, Bob Layzell and others. And even now, about forty years later, the books are fondly remembered by SF fans. What I didn’t know is that they also spawned two Role-Playing Games set in their fictional universe, one published by Morrigan Press.

I found this video by Grim Jim, a game designer, who’s also a fan of these great books. Here he talks about the RPGs, which unfortunately failed to make much of an impact. According to him, the Morrigan RPG gamebook has been long out of print. If you want to play it, you’re therefore reduced to either finding a second hand copy somewhere, or pirating it. Normally he wouldn’t recommend the latter, but this is really the only option for people who want to play it. He talks about the mechanisms of the game system used, which seems to have been a generic game system. For some reason the book replaced the awesome paintings of the original TTA handbooks with computer art. This is fine, but doesn’t have the paintings’ quality. G J speculates that Morrigan may have had to use computer art because of problems over the copyright for the paintings. It seems that by the time Morrigan published the book, the copyright had reverted back to Cowley.

I’m not really into games, but a number of my friends are very much into RPGs, like the classic Dungeons and Dragons and so on. One of these is Traveller, an SF game which I think came out in the 1970s a few years before the TTA handbooks and the games based on them. People are still putting up videos on YouTube about the TTA books and their spaceships, including one which recreated them zooming through space through CGI. This isn’t politics, but I thought people would enjoy this video about a great piece of SF art and literature.

1980’s Book Discussing the Future Militarisation of Space

March 16, 2021

One of former president Donald Trump’s controversial decisions has been to propose the establishment of an American military space force. As with just about every stupid decision the orange buffoon made, this caused immediate controversy. It breaks the current international agreement banning the militarisation of space and threatens a new arms race, increasing international tension and the possibility of real war. Which could result in the nuclear annihilation of humanity and the reduction of our beautiful, blue-green planet to a smouldering atomic cinder.

But The Donald’s proposal was hardly new. Congress and the US military discussed the possible establishment of a space force over thirty years previously. These discussions had been accompanied by the publication of a book, Military Space Forces: The Next 50 Years, by John M. Collins (Washington: Pergamon-Brasseys 1989). The book was published to help congressional representatives understand the issues. It also gives a fascinating insight in what American politicians and military staff considered might happen in this new area of human combat over the following half century. The book’s blurb runs

‘The latest from renowned defense authority John M. Collins, Military Space Forces: The Next 50 Years was requested by key U.S. congressmen to help them and the White House evaluate and understand future space issues. This is the foundation document upon which future U.S. space policy will be based.

Concentrating on the Earth-Moon system, Military Space Forces has four purposes:

  • To describe space as a distinctive military medium.
  • To describe military space planning and programming, with particular concern for problems and options.
  • To compare present and projected U.S.-Soviet military space postures.
  • To indicate courses of action that might improve U.S. military space posture at sensible costs.

All appraisals are based on present technologies and predicted improvements during the next 25 to 50 years. Designed as a tool to help Washington blend military space capabilities with land, sea, and air power in ways that best assure U.S. security-without avoidable destabilization or waste of time and resources-Military Space Forces also clarifies the complex technology and issues facing military space planners today. This pathfinding new book provides any citizen an essential frame of reference with the nation’s future role in space.’

Among the issues discussed are military strategies, doctrines and tactics in space, and the development of space forces themselves. This includes their military infrastructure on the High Frontier, military space industries, military space installations, deployable space forces, R&D requirements and contributory science and technologies.

The book includes two sets of recommendations. One is a set of nonprovocative actions intended to strengthen deterrence and improve American combat capability in the event deterrence fails. These are:

  1. Develop comprehensive military space doctrines applicable to the total Earth-Moon system.
  2. Integrate military space more effectively into U.S. national security strategies.
  3. Emphasise verifiable arms control to confine threats.
  4. Reduce Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps dependency on space support by cross-training to preserve traditional skills such as communications and navigation.
  5. Embellish basic research to multiply serendipitous results that might benefit military space programmes.
  6. Employ technological expertise to produce first-class systems at acceptable cost.
  7. Improve passive defences for selected military space installations and vehicles, with particular attention to innovative hardening and deception.

These are all low cost options. Far more expensive are those in the second list, which suggested

  1. Survivable launch, recovery, and C3 infrastructure.
  2. Heavy lift boosters.
  3. National Aerospace Planes (NASP) able to breach the atmospheric barrier easily and maneuver in space.
  4. Reasonable redundancy and reconstitutions capabilities for essential military space systems.
  5. Anti-satellite systems.,
  6. Active onboard defences for military support satellites on a case-by-case-basis.
  7. Land-and space-based SDI systems.

The book concludes with this paragraph

Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, at a March 1974 press conference in Moscow, asked, “What in God’s name is strategic superiority?” It may be unilateral control of space, which overarches Planet Earth, all occupants, and its entire contents. If so, possessors of that vantage position could overpower every opponent. They might, in fact, impose their will without fighting, a feat that Sun Tzu called “the acme of skill” 25 centuries ago. U.S. military space forces therefore need means to forestall strategic surprise from space and respond successfully, unless best case estimates prove correct as events unfold.

The book’s clearly a product of the Reagan era and his wretched ‘Star Wars’ programme. Among the weapons and installations the book discusses is a six-man lunar base, space-based railguns, which use electromagnets to propel missiles to colossal speeds, and space based lasers. I don’t know how dated the book and its predictions are. It considers the threat of electromagnetic pulses generated from nuclear explosions high in the atmosphere above targets disrupting computers and other electronic systems, but I think that threat might have been overcome.

Whatever the reality is today, it shows that Trump’s demand for a space force follows decades of debate within the American military and political establishment.

Model-Maker Bill Pearson Talks About His Work on Blake’s 7

February 25, 2021

This is another video from the film about the work of the talented peeps behind the models and miniatures used in some of the classic SF films and TV shows, A Sense of Scale. In this short video of about 4 mins in length, the late Bill Pearson talks about his work on the Beeb’s cult SF series, Blake’s 7. He describes the series as the Magnificent 7 in space, and says that the heroes were all bad guys, but not as bad as the people they were fighting against. They were anti-heroes. It’s a fair description, as the heroes were nearly all convicted criminals – Vila was a thief, Jenna a smuggler, Avon an embezzler, Gan a murderer, while Blake was a democratic agitator, a political criminal against the totalitarian, fascistic Federation, who were the real bad guys. Cally, a freedom-fighter from the planet Auron, was the only one who hadn’t been arrested, sentenced and convicted by the Federation she was pledged to overthrow.

Pearson says he was persuaded to join the effects team as he was told it was going to be wonderful and big budget, which it never was. He was recruited to the series as he had impressed the Beeb’s head of special effects with what he had been doing at college, and started work at the Corporation with a couple of episodes of Dr. Who. He was on Blake’s 7 from the start and did most of the spaceships in the last series. He says there were very little miniatures. There were a couple of hero ships, but they’d been built by the time he joined the SFX crew. The London, the ship used in the first episode, ‘The Way Back’, to transport Blake and his future crew to the penal colony of Cygnus Alpha, had already been made by an outside company. Other model-makers on the series included Martin Bower, who also worked on Space 1999 and the film Outland, and who worked on a couple of models of the heroes’ ships, the Liberator. There, and I thought the effects were all done by Matt Irvine and Mike Kelt. He only got involved with the miniatures in the final series. Pearson says that he’s notorious on the internet for making the gun that Avon uses to kill Blake in the very last episode. This, he says, is still around and getting more appreciation. I think here he’s referring to the series, rather than the weapon, as it’s just after that he talks of Blake and his crew as being bad guys and anti-heroes.

Pearson states that model-making for the screen isn’t as glamorous people think. One of the downsides is unemployment and there are many special effects firms now going bankrupt. However, it is the closest we’re going to get to immortality at the moment. A century from now someone’s going to pick up a packet of cereal and get a free 4D recording of Alien, put it in their viewer, and see his work and his name on the credits. And that’s pretty cool. The video also includes stills of Pearson working on some of the models used in the series and on Alien along with the interview.

BLAKE´S 7 (TV) miniature effects – YouTube

Pearson gave the interview in 2012, and the state of the effects industry may have changed somewhat since then, but I don’t doubt that CGI has had a devastating effect on the use of practical effects in movies and television, although they’re still used to a certain extent.

Blake’s 7 was made over forty years ago and was low budget SF. Matt Irvine said once that the money spent on one effect in the cinema was far in excess of what they had to spend on the series. But the show had memorable characters, great actors and some excellent stories. The effects work varied in quality, but the main spaceships, the Liberator and the Scorpio, looked good, as did the three sentient computers in the show, Zen, Slave and Orac. Blake’s 7 is, along with Dr. Who, Thunderbirds and Space 1999, a classic of British SF television and still retains a cult following all these decades later.

Dido Harding Didn’t Realise Viruses Mutate – How Did She Get Her Job Again?

February 7, 2021

I realise that it’s an old story, but it’s worth repeating as it shows the level of corruption and plain incompetence surrounding Boris Johnson and his appointments to official post. Mike posted up a piece a little while ago commenting on a statement by Dido Harding, the head of NHS Test and Trace, that no-one could have predicted that the virus would mutate. Really? Doctors and scientists have known for a very long time that viruses mutate. It’s why there are different varieties of the flu vaccine and they haven’t yet been able to find one that will absolutely eradicate it, as they have with smallpox. The disease mutates too rapidly, so that as soon as an effective vaccine against one strain is found, a new variety, immune to it, emerges. It’s also why the world’s scientists are worried about the declining effectiveness of penicillin, as new strains of bacteria are emerging that are immune to it. I also believe that malaria is also changing so that quinine is becoming less effective.

This isn’t some deep medical secret, hidden by the scientific establishment for some nefarious purpose of its own, along with alien bases on the Moon, the Greys, the Face on Mars and the location of Atlantis. It’s widely known, well-publicised fact. One of the peeps on Twitter, Kit Yates, showed that it was actually taught in his seven year old’s science textbook. Which looks a lot more fun and exciting than some of the textbooks we used when I was at school. And scientific concerns about viral immunity to penicillin and quinine has been discussed on several programmes on Radio 4. This is the public service broadcaster the Tories want to defund and abolish in favour of something far more right-wing and owned by Rupert Murdoch or another millionaire like him. The fact that Tory official Harding doesn’t know a fairly basic fact about disease clearly demonstrates that if the Tories have their way, the abolition of the Beeb will leave Britain dumber and much less informed. But that’s obviously the only way the Tories feel they can win in the long term.

Fortunately for Britain, as Dr Julia Grace Patterson pointed out, doctors had been tracking different strains of Covid since last Spring. She also pointed out that viruses mutate, which was why the flu vaccine changed annually, and concluded that Harding’s remark was ‘awful’. This shows that we can count on our scientists diligently researching and doing everything they can to combat the disease. We just can’t count on their bosses knowing much about it.

If Harding was an ordinary member of the public, her ignorance would be excusable. You don’t expect ordinary people to know everything. They don’t have the time, the energy nor often the education. But Harding’s different. She’s in charge of the government body set to monitor and combat the spread of the disease from person to person. Her ignorance says much not just about her suitability for her position, but also about the cavalier attitude Boris’ government seemingly has to putting the right people in charge of such vital work. It has always looked as though Harding got the job, not through any real skill, knowledge or ability on her part, but because she was a friend of Boris and his wretched coterie. She was put in purely because of personal loyalty, as well as an attitude on Johnson’s part that no particular expertise was needed in this area. Anyone could do it, so it was important that that anyone was a personal friend or supporter of his.

This attitude seems to go back to the 90s. Private Eye in its literary column lamented the emergence of an attitude to bookselling and libraries, which saw them as just another product to be marketed. Managing directors were being appointed to publishers, booksellers and libraries, who had no experience of that sector, from industries like catering. One of them was the head of a sandwich firm. The attitude seemed to be that in the new commercial environment, industries, no matter how different, were somehow at some basic level identical. A man, who knew nothing about books or literature but made great sandwiches was just as good a choice as someone who had been in the book trade all his or her life, and appreciated that books were a social good with a distinct ethos and societal and ethical function far beyond their value as a material ‘product’.

And the same cavalier ignorance pertains here. BoJo and his fellow morons clearly regard NHS Test and Trace as just another business. Anyone from any business can therefore run it. They don’t have to have any personal expertise themselves, as they’ve got scientists below them to do that. But virology is not any kind of business, and while you wouldn’t expect Harding to have the same level of expertise as the scientists underneath, you do want her to have a basic understand of the nature of disease and the way its fought. Even if that comes from seven year old’s science text books.

Harding’s ignorance is amusing at one level, as the jokes about her on Twitter have shown. But it’s also dangerous. The Tories have absolute contempt for experts. Boris, Cummings and the rest of the ratbags supported ‘herd immunity’ against the advice of the overwhelming majority of doctors and scientists, because it fitted their prejudices of letting the poor die to protect the rich. I think it was one of them, rather than an American Republican, who said that people are sick of experts. Even if it was a Conservative from across the Pond rather than our own, homegrown rightists, the Tories certainly share that determined, anti-intellectual attitude.

Tory medical ignorance and negligence has cost something like 50,000 lives. And it’s still going on. Harding’s lack of a basic fact about viruses is symptomatic of a wider cavalier attitude to science and protecting people’s health and lives. They’re a disgrace. It’s time Harding was sacked and Johnson and his fellow cronies also forced out of office in favour of people better qualified to run the country and preserve its people.

Anyone got any ideas who that might be, as it surely isn’t Tory Starmer!

For further information, see: ANYBODY could have predicted that Dido Harding would be wrong on Covid-19 mutation. Here are some of the funniest responses | Vox Political (voxpoliticalonline.com)

Fan Plays Dr Who Theme as Different Doctors

February 7, 2021

Before I start on the serious stuff, here’s another fun video I found on YouTube. It was put up by Dan Louisell, who performs a rock version of the Dr. Who theme on various instruments – piano, double bass, electric guitars, drum, mandolin and the Theremin – in costume as the Doctors. They are Christopher Ecclestone’s, David Tennant’s, Matt Smith’s, Peter Capaldi’s, Patrick Troughton’s and, of course, Tom Baker’s incarnations of the Time Lord. In the case of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, the performance is actually completely accurate, as his Doctor was a master of the electric guitar. And of course, lacking a proper BBC radiophonic workshop, the weird quality of Delia Derbyshire’s arrangement has to be played on the Theremin, a suitably weird instrument itself.

Doctor Who Theme cover by Dan Louisell – YouTube

Videos of CGI Recreations of Vehicles and Castle for Jodorowski’s ‘Dune’

January 31, 2021

Alejandro Jodorowski’s Dune is one of the great, unmade films. Jodorowski himself is a Chilean-French film director and comics writer. A Surrealist, he made a series of very bizarre films, such as the western El Topo. In the early ’70s he set about making a film version of Frank Herbert’s classic SF novel, Dune, despite never having read it. This would have starred Mick Jagger as Feyd Rautha, Orson Welles as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and the great, bonkers Surrealist artist Salvador Dali as the Emperor of the Known Universe. Equally impressive were the artists he hired to produce the concept art and designs for the spaceships and other vehicles and settings for the film. These included H.R. Giger, the creator of the infamous Alien, French comics artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, and Chris Fosse, the force behind a thousand SF paperback covers. The film was never made, as the producers cut its funding at the last moment. However, the work on the movie was never wasted, as Jodorowski and Moebius used it as the basis for their comic The Incal and The Metabarons. It has also been immensely influential on later SF movies, including Ridley Scott’s ’80s classic, Bladerunner.

These two videos have been made and put up on YouTube by Monochrome Paris, a group that wishes to recreate in CGI Jodorowski’s aborted film. They have so far managed to recreate Duke Leto Atreides’ car, which was designed by Fosse, and Baron Harkonnen’s castle, which was the suitably horrific work of Giger.

Here’s the link to the car video:

Reviving Jodorowsky’s Dune in Virtual Reality [Chris Foss Vehicle test – Real-time 3D] – YouTube

And this is for Harkonnen’s Castle:

Reviving Jodorowsky’s Dune in Virtual Reality pt II [HR Giger – Real-time 3D] – YouTube

I think the two videos are great, and it would be really superb if they were able to recreate the entire movie in CGI. Unfortunately the videos are from 2019 and so I don’t think their proposed movie will ever be made. It would still be good if they were able to produce more videos of some of the other designs for the movie, such as the space tugs towing the containers of spice through space, a space pirate ship and the Harkonnen’s own spaceship, which were all designed by Chris Fosse. They’re included along with his other art, included concept designs for Bladerunner, Alien and Superman 2 in the book 21st Century Fosse.

Concept Art for the David Lynch ‘Dune’ Movie

January 26, 2021

Unlike many people, I’m actually a fan of the 1980s film version of Dune directed by David Lynch. Dune is a long book and Lynch was left with the impossible task of compressing it into a 2-3 hour movie. People have therefore complained that the film has to move at such a pace, that it left out the deep, complex ideas about religion, politics and the dangers of charismatic leadership that are in the novel, and that there was no time to get to know and develop any sympathy with the characters. Lynch also took some liberties with the plot and characterisation. In the book, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is clever, subtle and cunning, while in Lynch’s movie he’s a raging moron, screaming his anger of the Atreides while the real brains behind his scheme to trap and overthrow them is his mentat, Pitar de Freese, played by Brad Dourif. Despite these faults, I really enjoy it, and do think that while it’s flawed, it’s a greater work than it critics give it credit for. It’s visually impressive – Brian Aldiss loathed it, but says in his history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree, that it should be watched with the sound off and simply enjoyed for its visuals, which are like the art on the covers of Astounding, one of the old SF magazines. ‘This aspect of the film – its glorious pictorial quality – is to be applauded despite all else’. I also think it does a good job of trying to portray melange and the other mind-expanding drug in the film, the juice of Safu used by de Freese as a kind of drug cult, similar that which had developed around LSD and other hallucinogens. I also think it succeeds in creating a convincing, far future world. And the still suits look awesome!

I found the video linked below on Omniviant’s channel on YouTube. It’s a series of photos and production art created for lynch’s movie. According to Omniviant, they were due to appear in a book on the film’s art. This, unfortunately, never came out because the film flopped at the box office. As you can see, the art matches the scenes in Lynch’s film. It’s enjoyable in itself, but also as a piece of film history. At the very least, it shows the great visual imagination of the film’s producers and artists.

DUNE: Production Art – YouTube

Trailer for HBO Series on Heaven’s Gate Suicide Cult

January 12, 2021

The ’90s were a decade marred by the mass deaths of cult members. There was the Order of the Solar Temple, the horrific immolation of the Branch Davidians in their conflict with the FBI and Heaven’s Gate. HBO Max started screening a documentary series about the latter on December 3rd last year. I found this trailer for it on YouTube. Although it’s just over 2 minutes long, it shows the cult’s main beliefs and the background to the tragedy.

The cult was led by a man and woman, here identified as ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’. They died wearing badges announcing that they were an ‘away team’, and believed that after they left their bodies, they would ascend to become aliens of a superior species and take their seats in a spacecraft in or following a visiting comment. Several of the men had been castrated. Their bodies were discovered covered in purple sheets.

The blurb for the series on its YouTube page gives a bit more information. It says

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a thorough examination of the infamous UFO cult through the eyes of its former members and loved ones. What started in 1975 with the disappearance of 20 people from a small town in Oregon ended in 1997 with the largest suicide on US soil and changed the face of modern new age religion forever. This four-part docuseries uses never-before-seen footage and first-person accounts to explore the infamous UFO cult that shocked the nation with their out-of-this-world beliefs.

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a Max Original produced by CNN and Campfire. Directed and executive produced by Clay Tweel (“Gleason”), the docuseries is also executive produced by Campfire CEO Ross Dinerstein (“The Innocent Man”) and Shannon Riggs, with Chris Bannon, Eric Spiegelman, Peter Clowney and Erik Diehn executive producing for the digital media company Stitcher (“Heaven’s Gate” podcast, “Sold in America” podcast).

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults | Official Trailer | HBO Max – YouTube

The Fortean Times did a piece about the cult. As the TV series’ blurb says, the two cult leaders had been knocking around the UFO world for years. I can’t remember their real names, except that they had a couple of nicknames. Apart from ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’, they were also called ‘Him’ and ‘Her’. I think their message had started off claiming that they end was nigh, but that the Space Brothers were coming to help us. It’s a message shared by several UFO religions and Contactees. In the 1950s a Chicago psychic had claimed she had received similar messages telepathically from alien telling her that the world was going to end, but she was to assemble as many followers as she could. These would then be saved by the aliens, who would take them aboard their spacecraft. The psychic and her followers duly assembled on the date of the predicted arrival of the aliens, but the world didn’t end and the aliens didn’t show up. The group had, however, been joined by a group of sociologists from Chicago University, who were studying them. They were particularly interested in how the cult’s members continued to believe in its central message even after it had failed to come true. One of the sociologist’s published a book about it, entitled, When Prophecy Fails, which I think is now a classic of academic studies on UFOs and their believers. The psychic’s group differed from Heaven’s Gate in that none of them, I believe, committed suicide.

The aliens in which Heaven’s Gate believed were bald and asexual, and look very much like one of the stereotypes of UFO aliens taken from SF ‘B’ movies. The bald heads and large craniums show that the aliens are super-intelligent. It ultimately comes from a 19th century evolutionary theory, which held that as humanity evolved, the brain would expand at the expense of the body, and the sensual aspects of humanity would similarly wither. As a result, humans would become smaller, with larger heads and brains. The ultimate endpoint of this evolution are H.G. Wells’ Martians from The War of the Worlds. Astronomers at the time believed that Mars was an older world than Earth, and so Wells’ Martians are similarly far more advanced in their evolution than terrestrial humanity. They consist of large heads with tentacles. As their brains have expanded, their digestive systems have atrophied so that they feed by injecting themselves with blood.

It’s because their supposed aliens were asexual that some of the men in the group had travelled to Mexico to be castrated. It’s also been suggested that it may also have been because the group’s male leader was gay. If he was, and the group’s rejection of gender and sexuality stemmed from his failure to come to terms with his sexuality, then it’s a powerful argument for the acceptance of homosexuality. It’s far better for a gay person to be comfortable with their sexuality than to feel such shame and confusion that they mutilate themselves. This aspect of the Heaven’s Gate ideology also seems to me to be similar to the reason for some families referring their children for treatment as transgender. Opponents of the contemporary transgender movement have claimed that the majority of children referred to clinics like the Tavistock Clinic come from extremely homophobic backgrounds. They’ve argued that they’re seen as transgender by their parents, who have convinced the children of this, because it’s the only way the parents can cope with the child’s sexuality. They can’t accept that their son or daughter is gay, and prefer to believe that they have instead been born in the wrong body. Gay critics of the trans movement and their allies thus see the transitioning of such vulnerable children as a form of gay conversion therapy. That’s certainly how Iran views it. Homosexuality is illegal there, carrying the death penalty. However, gender reassignment surgery is paid for by the state. I got the impression that Iranians gays were offered the choice between death and having a sex change.

The cult’s description of themselves as an ‘Away Team’ was taken from the Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 then on television. The ‘Away Team’ were what had been called in the Original Series the ‘landing party’ – the group that would beam down from the Enterprise to explore that episode’s planet. One of the cult’s members and victims was the brother of actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the Original Series and subsequent films.

Their belief that the world was about to be visited by an alien spaceship was the unfortunate consequence of a misidentification of a known star by a pair of German amateur astronomers. They had been out looking for a comet that was due to come close to Earth. They found it, but with it was an object they couldn’t find on their star maps. They therefore went on the web to inquire what it might be, and the myth developed that it was some kind of alien spacecraft many times bigger than Earth, which was following said comet. Of course, it was no such thing. It was a star that didn’t appear on the maps the pair were using because it was too dim to be visible to the naked eye. It was, however, bright enough for them to see it using binoculars. The Cult’s leaders took the appearance of this supposed alien spacecraft to be the spaceship they had long expected to take them all to a higher plane with tragic consequences. Although the world was shocked by this disaster and the cult’s apparently weird beliefs, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand pointed out that their idea of being taken to heaven in a ship actually came from a strand of American Christianity. There have been a number of hymns written describing Christian believers going to heaven in just such a vessel.

The trailer for the series also says that the cult’s members were intelligent and came from good families. I don’t doubt this. I’ve heard that members of new religious movements are often of above average intelligence. Perhaps it’s because such people are more intellectually curious and less satisfied with conventional religion. However, it also seems, at least according to the Fortean Times article, that many of the cult’s members also had problems functioning independently. They apparently were always contacting somebody to help them solve ordinary, every day problems like how to peel an apple correctly. I wonder if they suffered from a psychological or neurological condition like autism, which left them unable to cope with ordinary life and so vulnerable to being dominated by a charismatic personality with a message that appeared to solve all their problems.

The series looks like a fascinating insight into one of the decade’s apocalyptic, extreme religions with its roots in the UFO milieu. However, the series will be over by now, and if it was on HBO Max, it’s doubtful that very many people will have seen it. But perhaps it’ll be repeated sometime on one of the more popular TV channels. And I hope that events and the landscape of religious and paranormal belief have changed in the meantime, so that there will never be another tragedy like it.

Real Boob Armour from the Middle Ages?

January 3, 2021

There was a bit of controversy a few months ago over an episode of the Star Wars spin-off TV show, The Mandalorian. The Mandalorians are a race of mercenaries, one of whom was the Star Wars film villain, Boba Fett. The show’s titular character roams the Galaxy with a baby clone of Yoda righting wrongs as law and order has broken down in the battle between the Empire and the Rebellion. Or I think that’s what the show’s about. The row erupted over an episode which showed female Mandalorians wearing fitted breastplates shaped for women’s breasts. Feminist critic of video games and the SF/Fantasy genre was not impressed, and posted a tweet expressing her disapproval.

She was then answered by the show’s fans, who certainly did not believe that such armour was sexualising or demeaning women. Many of those rebutting Sarkesian were women. One of them posted an interesting piece by a female veteran of the Iraq invasion, who described how uncomfortable the breastplates worn by American squaddies are, particularly for women. She wanted breastplates shaped for women’s breasts. Others pointed out that women boxers today wear breastplates to protect their boobs.

I found this picture of a set of armour from the later Middle Ages at Churburg in Frederick Wilkinson’s Arms and Armour (London: Hamlyn 1978) p. 66. As you can see, the breastplate really is only a strip across the upper torso, leaving the stomach, throat and shoulders protected by chain mail. I don’t doubt that the armour was made for a man. There are records of women fighting in armour during the Middle Ages, such as Joan of Arc, but they were very much exceptions to the rule. When they did fight, they wore men’s armour. However, looking at the Churburg armour, it does seem to me to be the kind of armour women may have worn if they were a regular part of medieval armies and it was made especially for them.

There’s an awful lot of SF and Fantasy in which the women warriors do indeed wear very little. But I don’t see the female breastplates on the Mandalorian as sexualising the women mercenaries. Indeed, from the above illustration – which is admittedly for a man – it does seem to be the kind of armour fighting women would wear in such a society.