Actress Elisabeth Sladen passes away at 63

Sladen as "Sarah Jane Smith."

I couldn’t believe it when I saw the headline in my Facebook feed. British actress Elisabeth Sladen, best known for her role as The Doctor’s intrepid companion, Sarah Jane Smith, on Doctor Who, passed away today at the age of 63. Sladen had been battling cancer for quite some time, but had managed to keep her condition private. She leaves behind a husband, actor Brian Miller, and her daughter, Sadie.

Sladen made her debut on Doctor Who in 1973 as Sarah Jane Smith, a journalist and companion for the Third Doctor, played by Ron Pertwee. She went on to star in three and a half seasons of Doctor Who, working with Pertwee and his successor, the illustrious Tom Baker.

Sarah Jane and the Third Doctor (Ron Pertwee).

Sarah Jane is arguably the most popular companion in Doctor Who cannon, so popular that when Doctor Who was revived by Russell T. Davies in 2005, Davies not only elected to bring back Sarah Jane for a reunion with the Tenth Doctor during David Tennant’s inaugural season, he ended up producing a series centered around Sarah Jane as well.

The cast of “The Sarah Jane Adventures” in 2008.

The Sarah Jane Adventures aired for four seasons, from 2007-2010 and was a more light-hearted spin-off geared toward younger viewers in which Sarah Jane, aided by a trio of teenagers, foiled extraterrestrial attempts to take over the Earth. The series crossed paths with Doctor Who on several occasions, with both Tennant and Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith, making appearances on TSJA. The show was honored with the 2010 RTS Award for best children’s drama.

News of Sladen’s passing comes just as the premiere of Doctor Who: Series 6 is mere days away on both the BBC and BBC America. I hope that the producers will take a moment to acknowledge the loss of Sladen and all that she’s meant to Doctor Who and her fans.

Doctor Who holds a very special place in my heart because an episode of Doctor Who meant time spent with my father, no matter that the show came on at 11pm, way past my bedtime. The first episode I truly remember was Pertwee’s swansong, “Planet of the Spiders,” where Sarah Jane became possessed by spiders of Metebelis III. At a point where positive female role models on science fiction/action-oriented shows were in short supply, her intelligence, courage and devotion to the Doctor made a lasting impression. Sladen played Sarah Jane with grace and wit, portraying a wonder and vulnerability that never degraded to dependence in her travels with The Doctor. When she returned to the role after more than 20 years, she brought a maturity and wry resignation about her age that couldn’t quite hide the fact that she clearly relished being back in Sarah Jane’s skin.

Sladen returned to Doctor Who in the Series 2 episode, "School Reunion."

And age be damned – Sladen had Sarah Jane running circles around Rose Tyler without breaking a sweat and had Capt. Jack panting after her like the shameless omnisexual he was (and rightly so). All while protecting the planet and raising a genius teenaged son on her own.

So thank you, Elisabeth Sladen, for the years you devoted to Sarah Jane and the example that you set for women like me. Your portrayal of Sarah Jane showed us that women could be more than mere tag-along sidekicks and that women can admit to fear without being weak. By giving life to Sarah Jane after her journey with the Doctor ended, she demonstrated life doesn’t have to end when you lose the man of your dreams – sometimes that’s just the beginning.

For those of us who love Doctor Who, we can usually pinpoint which Doctor is “our Doctor,” the one who cemented our obsession with the series, but we don’t often mention who we think of as “our companion.” Perhaps it’s because there have been so many of them – since the series premiered in 1963, there have been over 35 companions to 11 Doctors, some more memorable than others. After nearly 20 years as an avid Doctor Who fan, I can say this with absolute certainty: Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith will always be “my companion.”

If you’ve ever been curious about Burning Man but aren’t up for a week in the desert, how about a weekend in the Michigan woods?

Tickets for the second annual Great Lakes Regional Burning Man event, Lakes of Fire, have just been released. You can read about it here on Wildfire Weaver, the website for my fire dancing performance/industry news.

If you’ve never heard of fire dancing, take a look around the site. You might be surprised to find that Chicago’s home to one of the largest fire performing communities in the country, outside of the West Coast. Fire spinning season is on its way – as soon as the weather gods comply – so come out this summer and check out one of the Full Moon Jams. It’s arguably one of Chicago’s most unique events. And who knows, you just might get a glimpse of yours truly.

WANT: ABCs for raising future geek/nerds


It’s never to early to bring out the geek in children and as several close friends have been or are moving to the realm of parenthood, I’m always on the lookout for the perfect gift to start their kid on the road to sci-fi geekdom and cafeteria wedgies.

One should always start with the basics and wouldn’t you know, there’s a plethora of geektastic “learn your ABCs” paraphernalia:

ABC Superheroes (via Society6)



This is pretty clever, although it did take me quite some time to work out all the superheroes aside from the obvious ones. See if you can guess them all! (Thanks to David for posting this on Facebook and starting the whole thing off).

A to Z of Awesomeness (via Neill Cameron)

These would make for a great mural. And it wouldn’t have to be for a child’s room – in fact, I think I’ll make this my wall art project once I finally get my own study.



Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies

If you’re looking to raise more of a little Goth geek, the Gashleycrumb Tinies ABCs, as with all things Gorey, are delightfully morbid. Starting with “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs,” and ending with “Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin,” it’s the perfect way to teach your kid about the myriad of ways life can kill you.


Young Mad Scientist Blocks (via Think Geek)

Last but not least, give your kids the [BAD PUN ALERT!] basic building blocks to start his or her way to becoming the next Dr. Colossus or Lex Luthor. Although be warned – the kid’s future science teachers may not appreciate your kid using her unsuspecting classmates as guinea pigs for her Shrink Ray.

You know, I may not want to have kids, but the prospect of buying stuff like this almost is enough to make me change my mind.

Luckily I’ve got lots of “nieces and nephews” to spoil.

Today’s moment in nerd: Are they mages or warlocks?

If you think that’s nerdy, go here and check out the comment thread. It’s worth it for the discussion as to whether Gandalf and Saruman are mages or warlocks alone.

(via i Can Has Cheezburger)

Adapt or die: A film review of Hanna

Hanna (Focus Features) is one of those rare action thrillers that doesn’t require you to check your brain at the door. In fact, I hesitate to classify it as an action film at all, because despite the modern setting and high tech fight sequences, Hanna is more of a dark fairy tale about the perils of becoming an adult and how the past will always catch up with you.

On the surface, the premise is fairly basic: Twelve-year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is the only surviving proof of a super-secret US government program to create the perfect soldier through in utero genetic manipulation, so naturally she’s been targeted for elimination by the program’s former director, CIA agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett). Marissa succeeded in killing Hanna’s mother, so Hanna’s spent the last ten years hiding in the woods somewhere in northern Europe with her father, Erik (Eric Bana), who is Marissa’s ex-associate and has trained Hanna as a formidable living weapon with encyclopedic knowledge of the world. Hanna’s given a choice: either remain hidden in the woods with her father, leading a safe and quiet life on the margins of society; or rejoin the world and experience all life has to offer – which also means going to war with Marissa. What follows is a two-fold chase as Marissa hunts both Hanna and her father across international boundaries, in which Hanna learns that life is not as cut-and-dry as facts in a book, and uncovers disturbing questions about her own humanity.

[WARNING: Minor spoilers ahead]

While Hanna doesn’t get points for plot originality, the film gets full credit for its execution of what could easily have been another Bourne Identity clone. Director Joe Wright’s (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) decision to focus on character development, rather than action sequences, as the driving force in the plot, makes Hanna a solidly enjoyable action-thriller. All too often, films in this genre are awash in stylized violence that exists merely for titillation and shock value rather than enhancing the story. Wright has a deft narrative touch, playing up the fairy tale elements that touch upon the most basic of human experiences: the search for meaning and for one’s place in the world. Hanna is a walking contradiction. She can pull a 200-pound deer home through the snow, fight a person twice her size and tell you exactly how many facial muscles are needed to engage in a kiss, but she’s never heard music, experienced electricity or flirted with a kiss. She’s on the cusp of adulthood and yet she’s never been a normal child. No one, save for her father or Marissa, knows who she is, and so she is free to choose her own identity.

And when I say fairy tale, I don’t mean the sugary-sweet Disney variety – Grimm’s fairy tales are referenced heavily in the film (complete with scene in an actual life-sized “gingerbread house”) and to good effect. Marissa is arguably the wicked stepmother attempting to eliminate the threat to her superiority posed by Hanna; considering the hand she had in Hanna’s creation and her admission that she had made “certain choices” that prevented her from ever having children, there’s the implication that she could possibly be connected biologically to Hanna as well. She’s the evil witch that Hanna has to slay in order for Hanna to reclaim her own life.

Their rivalry makes Hanna rather unique in the world of action films: This is, in fact, the only action-thriller film I’ve seen with not just one, but two female leads, that has very little to do with sex. Neither Hanna nor Marissa utilize sex as a means to an end nor are they dressed in what would be considered sexually provocative clothing (depending on how one feels about power suits). The female leads are not in conflict over a desired relationship or sexual partner, nor are they the object of sexual desire of any of the male leads. Which is not to say that the film is devoid of any sexual tension. For all the threat that Erik supposedly presents to national security, the familiarity he and Marissa seem to share with one another makes you wonder if she might have been more than a little put out that he decided to side with Hanna’s mother to keep Hanna from Marissa’s clutches. Then there’s Hanna – not quite a woman but decidedly not a child, who in the course of one evening goes from nearly receiving her first kiss from a boy to giving her first kiss to her “first real friend” Sophie (Jessica Barden), in scene that is both emotionally charged and laden with innuendo. Everything about Hanna’s identity is a blank slate, even her sexuality.

Given Wright’s background in drama period pieces, he’s an odd choice to direct a modern action-thriller, but Wright, along with script writers Seth Lochhead and David Farr, manage the trick of balancing just enough realism with the inherent fantasy of the film’s premise to make it believable. The fight choreography is both visceral and gorgeous – a chase scene where Hanna attempts to evade her pursuers through a maze of shipping crates is almost a ballet of flesh and steel – but the violence never goes beyond the point in which the audience is jerked into realizing it’s sheer fantasy. The characters are people for whom killing is a grim necessity, not a fetish, and their interactions are correspondingly calculated and efficient in their brutality. The film’s crisply shot fight scenes are a refreshing change of pace from the “shaky-camera” effect, which has it’s place, but I enjoyed actually being able to follow what the combatants in each scene were doing for once. However, there are a few moments where you might find yourself wondering if Wright might have been occasionally enticed to hand over the cinematography reins to the Chemical Brothers (their film score work for Hanna is arguably the best they’ve sounded in years).

The injection of a British family on holiday who take Hanna under their wing also serve as an anchor for the audience, as well as a stark example of all that Hanna has never experienced: the warmth of camaraderie, family and never having to worry about anything more pressing than where the road will take you next or the reoccurring fungal infection on your toe. The film manages to convey the things we take for granted – electric fans, television, friends our own age – as utterly alien as they must seem to Hanna.

Hanna’s success is due in large part to the stellar work of the cast. Young Ronan is a preternatural chameleon in the title role. Her Hanna is at turns feral, vulnerable and a cold-blooded killer. There’s a moment shared between Hanna and the British mother (Olivia Williams), where Hanna leans out the passenger side window of the van, closing her eye as the wind and sun brush over her face. For a moment, she’s just like any other 12-year-old on holiday, until she glances in the sideview mirror and realizes they’re being followed. In a blink, Ronan shifts Hanna from ordinary kid to calculated mercenary with impressive subtlety. Blanchett oozes villainy with her steel-gray power suits, honeyed southern accent and a “I’ll knife you as soon as you turn your back” smile. Bana portrays Hanna’s father as appropriately world-weary and resigned and Tom Hollander continues to be the go-to-guy for hair-raising creepy, playing Marissa’s right-hand man who’s willing to do the things the CIA won’t let her do.

Like most fairy tales, what Hanna amounts to is a parable about growing up and the inevitable pain that results in the push-and-pull nature of parent-child relationships. For all that Erik has put into training Hanna as a living instrument of vengeance, you get the distinct impression that he’d much rather they remain in their quiet, secluded lives in the Scandinavian wilds, while within minutes of being introduced to Hanna, we’re given scene after scene in which she argues she is ready to take on her mission. Ultimately, Erik acquiesces to the reality that he can’t keep her under his wing forever. It’s telling that rather than flipping the switch himself, he presents the choice to Hanna and leaves her alone to make her decision. It’s the ultimate gesture of trust between parent and child. If Hanna has any message at all, it’s in Erik’s reply to Marissa’s question as to why he’s re-emerged after over a decade spent in hiding: “They have to grow up sometime.”

The Zodiac: New and improved with more geek

Introducing the Geek Zodiac, a spoof on Chinese zodiac, which is assigns “birth signs” by year.

According to the Chinese zodiac, since the Chinese calendar turns over in February and I was born at the end of January, I’m on the cusp between being a Horse and a Snake. Great, so I’m either a flibberty-gibbet, attention-span-challenged spotlight hog, or an overly-serious, silent-but-deadly, power-mad sneak.

It just goes to show that adding geek makes anything better. According to this, I’m a Daikaiju – a “giant monster.” Illustrious daikaiju include Tokyo-stompers such as Rodan, Mothra and Gamera; their modern cousin, the nameless “Cloverfield Monster;” and the grand-daddy of them all, Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Personality pros include: scientific, big-hearted and the center of attention; cons include: misunderstood, lonely, destructive.

Being one of the King of Monsters’ own isn’t a bad deal, but I’m not sure I’m all THAT destructive. I mean, sure, I spin fire as a hobby and I’ve very occasionally exploded things in the kitchen as part of an ill-conceived cooking experiment or a desire to see if adding Mentos to soda pop really does result in a geyser (it does), but I don’t think I like that quality. In fact, who decided how to assign the years to the signs anyway? Sounds suspiciously arbitrary to me. I mean, I could easily be an “intelligent, diplomatic technophile who’s suspicious, secretive and inscrutable” (Alien) or a “transcendental soul who knows the value of all life and is yet haunted and tormented with difficulty connecting to humanity” (Zombie).

To hell with this. I’m going to go and find some hapless city to stomp on. But only because I want the attention and I’m secretly hurt that no one loves me because I’m so horribly misunderstood and lonely. *STOMP STOMP STOMP*

(Via Pharyngula via Geeks Are Sexy)

24 hours until Baconfest and my shot at the Golden Rascher award for best amateur bacon cook

Come Saturday afternoon, some 2000+ Chicago bacon enthusiasts (including yours truly) will descend upon the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavillion to spend three hours wandering a smokey, salty, porktastic wonderland, featuring bacon-themed dishes by 50 of Chicago’s best restaurants, a bacon booze bar and exhibition hall of purveyors of all things bacon.

I’m beyond excited (and rather nervous!) to compete against my talented and creative would-be chef competitors in the Nueske’s Baconfest Amateur Cook-Off. Bacon Du Jour interviewed all six of us, providing an interesting look at the bacon creations vying for the coveted Golden Rascher award.

This is the first time I’ve ever entered my cooking in a competition. The torte’s been through several rounds of taste-testing, with the final tweaks noted last weekend. I’ll be spending my Friday night baking two tortes, since I need 20 servings for the judges. Hopefully, I’ll have good news to report when I post my write up of the ‘fest after Saturday!

Oh, and for those of you in Chicago, check out this week’s edition of The Chicago Reader and go to page 47. I’ve been informed that the Reader did a write up of the competition and my name’s in print!

The Antikythera Mechanism. In Lego form.

Chalk this up as another reason why Legos are the coolest toy anyone can ever have: You can build a working replica of an ancient Greek computing device, The Antikythera Mechanism.

The Antikythera Mechanism in Lego from Small Mammal on Vimeo.

The actual device is a 2000-year-old calculation machine that was recovered in 1901 from the Antikythera shipwreck, which went down off the northwest coast of Crete in the 2nd century. It apparently took scientists nearly a century to figure out just what the mechanism did. Astonishingly enough, turns out that somewhere around 150-100 BC, some enterprising, gizmo-curious Greek had created a machine that would calculate astronomical positions used to predict phenomena such as solar and lunar eclipses. This is one of those rare instances where the Wikipedia entry is actually a fascinating read.

Two thousand years later, we get a working replica made from thousands of Lego Technic parts. The video was shot in stop-action over the course of 40 days. This plastic-geared analog computer accurately predicts, within a span of two hours, the year, date, and time of future solar and lunar eclipses. Credit for the idea goes to Adam Rutherford, of Nature, who convinced tinker extraordinaire Andrew Carol to build it, and enlisted writer and filmmaker John Pavlus, (Small Mammal) to shoot the film. The entire project was underwritten by a new website and operation called Digital Science. (Tip for Digital Science – more of this, please!).

I doff my cap to you, gentlemen, this is amazing. Although now I feel like a complete slacker for never doing anything more complicated than a crudely-built Deathstar with my Legos (and this was before all the “themed” playsets with specific parts came out).

Want to know more? Go here:

(via Wired)

Want some techno with your film music?

Hybrid: Mike Truman, Charlotte James and Chris Healings (left-right)

The Welsh techno group, Hybrid, announced on their Facebook fan page today that they will be working on the film score for Cowboys and Aliens, with composer Harry Gregson-Williams (Chronicles of Narnia, Kingdom of Heaven, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time). The film looks like your standard summer action blockbuster, in which Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde attempt to fight off an alien invasion of Arizona in 1873. It’s based on a 2006 graphic novel of the same name by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. Jon Favreau has the director’s reins, with Steven Spielberg as executive director and Brian Grazer and Ron Howard as producers. Favreau’s done a bang up job with the Iron Man franchise, so I’m expecting at least a fun ride of a film with a rollicking good action score. Having Craig and Ford as the leads doesn’t hurt, either (although I suspect Ford’s going to have to do a few more straight up fun action flicks in order to wash the taste of the last Indiana Jones movie out of everyone’s mouth, including his own).

Harry Gregson Williams

This is the latest in what seems to be a growing trend of techno/industrial musicians getting into the film score business. Over the past year, Daft Punk wrote the score for Tron: Legacy (and it’s obvious they consulted with Hans Zimmer and John Powell, as their fingerprints are all over those notes, especially Zimmer’s); Trent Reznor, the former 90s industrial god of Nine Inch Nails, won an Oscar for his work on The Social Network; and Focus Feature’s upcoming Hanna features a film score written by the Chemical Brothers.

Honestly, I can’t say that I’m upset about it. Film scoring is a music medium like any other – without innovation, it withers and gets predictable and dull. Nor is this anything completely new. Film scores have been flirting with electronic music for decades. Toto collaborated with Brian Eno to create the iconic theme for David Lynch’s Dune, The Dust Brothers wrote the sharp-edged, pulsing music for Fight Club and let’s not forget the late 90s flirtation with techno remixes of classic action themes, such as U2′s Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen’s remix of the Mission: Impossible theme, Moby’s play with the theme for James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies and Orbital’s interpretation of The Saint. Techno music is richer, fuller and more complex than ever, so the potential in blending electronic music elements into the traditionally more orchestral form of film scoring is exciting.

I’ve been a fan of Hybrid for years because they were one of the few techno artists I’d heard who experimented with mixing orchestral elements, especially string music, and did it well. Their debut, Wide Angle, held a lot of promise and their Morning Sci-Fi album delivered on that promise. Which is why I was disappointed when their latest album, Disappear Here, indicated that they were moving away from orchestral work and more toward incorporating vocals, which wasn’t badly done so much as predictable and unexciting.

So I’m excited to see that they’re getting back to orchestral work and can’t wait to hear what they’ll churn out in collaboration with Gregson-Williams, whose work I’ve also begun to appreciate. His progression on the Narnia films has been a pleasure to hear, creating continuity between the three films (thus far) while managing to give each one a distinct feel.

Gregson-Williams strength is in scoring for epic adventure films, which makes him a natural pick , but having him work with Hybrid is the perfect pairing for a sci-fi western. And according to Wikipedia, this isn’t the first time they’ve worked together – apparently they collaborated on the score for Wolverine: Origins. Which I’ll confess to not having seen, since after being burned by what Fox Studios and “The Rat” Ratner did to the X-Men film franchise, I’ve been giving those films a wide berth. The film could stink for all I know (and likely does), but that doesn’t mean that the music is correspondingly bad. Waterworld remains a nadir for the epic sci-fi genre, but James Newton Howard’s score manages to transcend that expensive waste of celluloid as a rousing aural adventure. Interesting note – much of Waterworld’s score was used for the special fan preview viewing of the Firefly film, Serenity, when I saw it in Boston, because David Newman’s score hadn’t been completed at the time of the viewing, and it worked surprisingly well.

(The preview I’ve seen of X-Men: First Class looks encouraging and they have strong leads in James McAvoy as young Prof. X and Michael Fassbender as young Magneto, but I’m a cannon-snob, so I’m rather leery of the concept. Plus, I’m getting tired of the “turn every comic book ever into a movie” trend since nine times out of ten, it’s been a shitty movie that was obviously churned out without any other consideration than “Nerd fans will flock to this and make us money so who cares about compelling plot/script/characters?!” As an unrepentant nerd/geek girl, I find that assumption to be highly insulting. But that’s a rant for another time.)

Cowboys and Aliens lands in theaters on July 29, 2011. And yes, I’ll quite likely be in the theater to see it. Until then, here’s the trailer:

Stetsons are cool

Less than 3 weeks until the premiere of Doctor Who Series 6 and I can’t wait! I’ll always love David Tennant’s suit-wearing, faux-hawked, hipsterish Tenth Doctor, but Matt Smith’s gobsmacked, gangly, bow-tie-wearing Eleventh Doctor has lodged himself firmly in my geeky affections. Smith most definitely deserves to be among his illustrious TARDIS dwelling forebearers and I look forward to watching him mature further in the role.

After what Steven Moffat did with Series 5, I’m excited to see what direction he’ll take Matt Smith’s Doctor in now. Series 5 left the question of “Who or what hijacked control of the TARDIS to crack the Universe so that ‘Silence will fall’” as a tantalizing dangling end. Something tells me this means that the honeymoon is over for The Doctor and Co.

Check out this snippet from the latest installment of Doctor Who: Insider, that showed at WonderCon:

Looks like things are about to get darker for The Doctor, Amy and Rory. Series 6 promises more monsters, more running, and of course, more River Song (*excited squee!*). Oh yes, and an episode written by Neil Gamain [spoiler alert!] that just may involve Time Lords, which, considering that their initial reappearance nearly resulted in the destruction of the Earth and the Doctor’s eleventh regeneration, isn’t necessarily a good thing (double geek squee!!). Also, the Series 6 premiere will be the first Doctor Who episode to have been filmed in the U.S.

The premiere airs in both the UK and US on Saturday, April 23. Here’s the episode teaser:

Damn you, Moffat! The Weeping Angels episodes were creepy enough but oh, no. You just had to up the creep factor and now the hairs are standing on the back of my neck after that snippet. Monsters in the White House, River Song, and the Doctor in a stetson, all in the first hour? If that’s what we’re starting with, I can’t imagine what we’re going to end the season with.

Two and a half weeks until the TARDIS materializes on your local BBC affiliate. Geronimo!