Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Naive Avengersthon - 24. White Dwarf

A Shallow-friendly episode opens at Tor Point observatory in Cornwall: six months ago Dr Richter (Keith 'Autloc/the Speedlearning waiter in The General' Pyott) hypothesised that a wandering white dwarf star has entered our solar system to destroy life on Earth. The government made him keep quiet. (They were just as good at doing that in 1962). Now he's just made a crucial observation that disproves his theory.

This is a Malcolm Hulke script, so rather than murdering everyone else to preserve his reputation, Dr R is himself murdered. The government are keenly awaiting the result of a replacement observation, and consequently Steed is busy asking Cathy for exposition about white dwarfs. He then packs her off to Tor Point in the guise of an astronomer. Cue light relief at the vegetarian guesthouse run by Miss Tregarth (Constance 'Gladys Bowman' Chapman). Was this the germ of the idea for the Nut Hatch? George 'some character' Roubicek is also around, as Richter's son.

At Tor Point, Dr Rahim (Paul 'Jacko' Anil) asks permission to make some observations of his own on the dwarf. Prof Cartright (Philip 'Borusa 83' Latham) grants it, and shortly afterwards Rahim is found dead at the eyepiece, just like Richter.

Cathy returns to London to report to Steed and there's rather a good scene where they consider the advantage someone might derive from knowing that the world isn't going to end, but that the government is about to announce that it is.

The plot doesn't conceal this information from us, so neither will I: that 'someone' is crooked financier Maxwell Barker (George A 'Mr Griffiths' Cooper, playing the part like Harold Wilson's evil mirror universe counterpart), who knows about the government's upcoming announcement because his brother, honest civil servant Henry Barker (Peter 'Dr Warlock' Copley) has confided in him. When stocks plunge on the news, he and his associates will be able to make a killing.

Fortunately, Steed and Cathy are able to trick Maxwell Barker's astronomer confederate into revealing himself. One quick shoot-out at the observatory later and we can finish on a comedy astrology/astronomy mixup back at Steed's.

I had to watch this episode four times (the most so far) before I felt I completely understood how Maxwell Barker and his friends could be sure that the dwarf wasn't going to put an end to the Earth. And even then I missed the explanation of how Cathy is able to make his confederate believe in the climactic scene that doom is on its way. (Thanks to the recap at Dissolute for explaining it to me).

It's a clever story though, because most of the villains' plan is shown to us very early on; what really keeps us guessing is how Hulke is going to unmask them without actually having the world come to an end.

Apart from Cathy's exposition about white dwarfs, the astronomy is a bit wobbly - the astronomers use a lot of technical terms in ways that make no sense, and if the white dwarf did have, as shown, about 1/30 the apparent size of the moon, there's no way that no other telescope would have picked it up. I'm not sure in fact that it wouldn't have been visible to the naked eye in daylight.

Also the astrology isn't right either: although Hulke remembers that the astronomers were talking about Mars currently being at opposition, and has the astrology book in the final scene repeat the phrase, astrologers don't talk about Mars being 'at opposition'. They'd say 'Mars is in opposition to the Sun' because astrology uses a system centred on the Earth.

Updated to say that Hulke was probably mistaken in assuming that stocks would plunge on the news that the world was going to end. At the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, markets were rising strongly - it seems that stock prices acquired an implicit qualifier of 'providing civilisation doesn't end' and business continued as usual.

Come to think of it, they always have that qualifier, it just only becomes visible at certain crucial moments.

Updated again to say that another way of looking at it that stock prices are actually an equity/cash ratio. If the world ends, stocks aren't worth anything, and neither is cash. The prospect of the end of the world would only affect stock prices if you expected one to lose value, but not the other. Given the received wisdom that the only things to hold value after the apocalypse will be tinned food, medicine, weapons and ammunition, that seems unlikely.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841) is properly best known for its superb chapters on financial crashes and the Crusades, but there are other interesting bits, particularly 'Popular Follies of Great Cities' on catchphrases, proto-memes if you will.

One of the phrases Mackay mentions is 'Walker!', used derisively to mean 'yeah, right!' He describes it as 'uttered with a peculiar drawl upon the first syllable, and a sharp turn upon the last.' So imagine my pleasure to find it used in A Christmas Carol (1843) by the urchin who Scrooge (post-reformation) orders to go and buy the prize turkey:

'Walk-ER!' exclaimed the boy.

'No, no,' said Scrooge, 'I am in earnest.'