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4 More 'Doctor Who' Stories Ripped From the History Books

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We barely scratched the surface of historical Doctor Who in our previous post. Today, we'll look at a few of the historical adventures transmitted in the 1960s.

1. The Aztec Empire

In History: The Aztecs were a group of Mesoamericans who dominated much of what is now Mexico when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the 16th century. Although the Conquistadors emphasized the brutality of their customs (particularly human sacrifice) in order to justify their conquest, they weren't mere butchers and had a complex society, advanced architecture, and a rich mythological structure. But the human sacrifice thing was very real. Unlike most ancient cultures, they didn't perform sacrifice to appease their gods; they felt the gods could not be controlled, but that sacrifice at the appropriate times would nourish the right gods at the right times to achieve particular effects, such as bringing the rain. The empire reached its zenith in 1519 -- shortly before Cortes arrived and ended it all.

On Doctor Who: The four-part serial "The Aztecs" aired in season one. The TARDIS materializes in the tomb of a legendary high priest named Yetaxa. Intrigued by the grave goods, Barbara puts on a bracelet -- and is promptly mistaken for a reincarnation of Yetaxa when some of the locals catch her in the tomb. She is immediately lavished with praise and honor, which she enjoys up until she discovers that the priests are planning a sacrifice to restore the rains. In accordance with Aztec custom, a Perfect Sacrifice has been groomed and will be killed in front of her. Although the young man in question is content with his fate, and even considers it a high honor, Barbara is horrified and resolves to use her new position to ban human sacrifice, believing that ending the practice might enable the Aztecs to survive the arrival of the Spaniards. The Doctor tries to warn her that she cannot be successful, but she has to try anyway.

2. The Emperor Nero

In History: Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was born December 15, 37 AD. Though related to the Emperor, he was not considered a major contender for the throne until Claudius adopted him and made him his heir. At this time, he changed his name to Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus, and in 54 AD, he became the Emperor Nero. He quickly worked to consolidate his power, using poison and other means to eliminate rivals, ultimately including even his mother. He was a very busy emperor, but of mixed popularity; on one hand, he was responsible for considerable tax reform, but he scandalized conservative Romans by bringing in Greek-inspired theater and even performing the lyre himself, which the more tradition-minded felt was an invitation to immorality.

But the event for which he is best known occurred on July 18, 64: the Great Fire of Rome. Though the cause of the fire is unknown, many ancient historians blamed Nero, saying that he had the city burned to clear the way for massive public works projects. This may not be true, since Nero contributed enormous personal time and money and even the use of his palaces to care for the survivors. As rumor started to paint Nero the villain, he used the ever-popular strategy of blaming an unpopular minority -- he blamed it on Christians, having them tortured and burned publicly to appease the public. His reign continued another four years, and then, facing a revolt, he committed suicide. His death ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

On Doctor Who: "The Romans" aired in January of 1965. The TARDIS delivers the Doctor, Barbara, Ian, and new companion Vicki to ancient Rome, 64 AD. It gets stuck at the bottom of a cliff, so the travelers move into an empty villa for the duration. Barbara and Ian are captured by slave traders, while the Doctor and Vicki find themselves mistaken for an accomplished lyre player and his companion. The Doctor accepts the mistaken identity, and is brought to the court of Emperor Nero. The serial favors the incompetent, vain, and arrogant depiction of Nero, and while the Doctor tries to deflect Nero's requests for a concert, Barbara and Ian have their own adventures in slavery, with Ian going the full "Ben Hur" route, from galley slave to gladiator. Nero eventually works out that the Doctor can't play the lyre to save his life, and becomes furious. He's about to order the Doctor thrown to the lions when the Doctor's glasses accidentally set a map of the city on fire. This gives Nero the inspiration to have the city burned deliberately so that he can rebuild it to his liking. Our heroes still have to escape their various perils, which they do with the help of a friendly Roman who turns out to be an early Christian, leaving one to wonder how things will go for him after our heroes have departed.

(Skip ahead about 30 seconds, where "The Romans" starts.)

3. The Third Crusade

In History: Lasting just three years, from 1189 to 1192, the Third Crusade attempted to retake the Holy Land from Saladin, who had conquered them in 1187 as part of an effort to reduce Christian influence in the region. In western Europe, King Henry II of England and King Philip II of France made a pact to end their long war and join together against Saladin, and obtained the full support of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa (and then his successor, Leopold V). Henry II died before he could go far, but Richard I "the Lionheart" enthusiastically took up the task. A combined English, French, and German/Austrian force drove the Saracens out of Acre, and both Philip II and the Emperor returned to Europe.

Richard I wasn't done, though. He took additional cities, remaining undefeated during his stay in the Holy Land. The Crusade was not fully successful, and Richard I signed a treaty with Saladin in 1192, leaving Jerusalem under Muslim control but allowing pilgrims and merchants access to the city while a Christian presence remained in Cyprus and Syria. Richard returned home in October of 1192.

On Doctor Who: Transmitted in 1965, this four-part serial is set in the middle of the Third Crusade. The TARDIS materializes in the middle of an ambush, and our heroes are thrown promptly into the thick of things. Barbara is captured by Saracens along with a friend of King Richard, and the First Doctor, Vicki, and Ian head for King Richard's court. Saladin's brother, Saphadin, believes Barbara and the Englishman to be King Richard and his sister Joanna, and is about to kill them when he realizes they aren't as valuable as he thought -- and then Saladin emerges and saves them, asking Barbara to become his Scheherazade. Meanwhile, King Richard is persuaded by our heroes to lend some assistance in retrieving Barbara and his friend, and grants Ian a knighthood, telling him to offer his sister's hand in marriage in exchange for the two hostages -- because that's what Saphadin had really been after all along. The real Joanna refuses this plan, and Ian has to go rescue Barbara the old fashioned way. By this time, some of the English nobles have begun to suspect the Doctor as a spy for Saladin; he, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki manage to return to the TARDIS and flee at the last moment.

This serial was destroyed during the archive purge, but episodes 1 and 3 have since been recovered, as has the complete soundtrack. A version of it, with linking narration by William Russell ("Ian") to explain the missing episodes, was released on VHS and DVD.

4. The Battle of Culloden

In History: In 1745, the Jacobites rebelled, seeking to overthrow the House of Hanover and restore the House of Stuart to the British throne. This uprising sought to place James III back on the thrones of England and Scotland, and was led primarily by Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) with heavy support from Highland clans in Scotland, and also the backing of the French king, who probably preferred a Catholic on the English throne and the ending of hostilities between England and France. The process began well, but soon faltered, and in under a year was a disaster. The Jacobites staged their final land battle at Culloden Moor, a valiantly fought effort on bad ground where thousands died. The government troops pursued the Jacobites vigorously, hunting them down and committing many acts which today would be considered war crimes in their ardor. Charles managed to flee, wandering the Highlands for a while before escaping to France, and the English government began a brutal crackdown to retaliate, attempting to wipe Gaelic culture and the clan system off the map and prevent a recurrence. He spent most of the rest of his life in France and Rome (apart from a brief visit to London), in exile.

On Doctor Who: Transmitted between December of 1966 and January of 1967, "The Highlanders" was the last "pure historical" serial until the 1980s; that is, a story set entirely in period with no alien monsters or similarly fantastical problems to contend with. The TARDIS arrives near the field of Culloden, and the Second Doctor, Ben, and Polly are promptly taken prisoner by a group of escaping Jacobites belonging to the clan McLaren: a laird, his two adult children, and a piper named Jamie McCrimmon. Government troops catch up with them, kill one of the Jacobites, and take the rest prisoner, while the two girls manage to escape. The Doctor, Ben, and the Jacobites narrowly escape hanging, and wind up dragged off to Inverness in an illegal transportation scheme being worked for profit by one of the government men, the Royal Commissioner of Prisons, who intends to ship them off to the colonies to be sold into servitude. The Doctor escapes, reunites with Polly, and aids in a mutiny that enables the captured Highlanders to take a ship to head for France. Jamie McCrimmon stays behind to help our heroes find their way back, and ends up joining them in the TARDIS.

This is another one of the destroyed serials, but in this case, only the audio has been recovered, and released on CD with narration by Frazer Hines ("Jamie McCrimmon"). There have been a number of efforts to create reconstructions based on the audio and telesnaps recorded at the time.

Tune in next week for more!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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