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Posts Tagged ‘Brian Hayles’

Due to the unique way the BBC managed its archives in the early 1970s (it involved a furnace), the vast majority of the third series of Doomwatch is gone – missing, presumed burned or wiped. It’s easy to give the corporation a hard time for its short-sightedness in this respect, as it completely failed to foresee the rise of the market for home entertainment, but I’ve heard it argued that Equity should shoulder some of the blame too – the actors’ union imposed strict limits on the number of repeats the TV networks were allowed to run, meaning that the majority of programmes in the archives were never likely to be shown again, making the costs of their preservation unjustifiable.

Well, either way, we’re left with only three episodes of the twelve – a small irony being that one of these episodes was never shown on TV in the first place. The first survivor, Terence Dudley’s Waiting for a Knighthood, is the fourth episode of the series, and watching it now one gets a distinct sense of arriving late to a party – developments have clearly, um, developed in the early episodes of the season.

Ridge has gone nuts, for one thing, and this has taken the form of more than just dressing up as Luke Cage now and then – apparently in the first episode he stole some anthrax and attempted to hold the government to ransom with it. By the time of this episode, he is safely ensconced in a rubber facility and has apparently made a full recovery. Replacing him at Doomwatch is a new character, Stafford, who may in fact be a mole for the Minister. Or not. Chantry has also been banished to the outer darkness, but at least Barbara the secretary is still there, and also apparently making regular appearances is Anne Tarrant, Quist’s shrink from the start of season two – the two of them appear to have shacked up together, in an unexpected move towards a more domestic Doomwatch.

Waiting for a Knighthood features Ridge and does, to some extent, focus on the reasons for his peculiar behaviour. It opens with a vicar going full-on bonkers mid-sermon, collapsing in the aisle of his church, and needing to be rushed off to hospital. This happens at Tarrant’s local church and so Quist gets wind of it. A little investigation reveals the hapless clergyman was a keen mechanic who was regularly exposed to fumes from organic lead in his petrol, and that his breakdown may have been caused by lead poisoning of the brain.

At this point someone remembers that Ridge was also a keen mechanic and welder (oh, really?) and that lead poisoning may have been a factor in his episode of atypical behaviour as well. However, the issue of whether or not to fully exonerate Ridge and get him back on the team (never going to happen; Simon Oates didn’t want to be in the show full time any more) becomes rather secondary, when a woman whose young son died of lead poisoning gets wind of what’s been happening and kidnaps the young son of a wealthy oil man whom she blames for the pollution of the environment.

Doing an episode about lead poisoning is clearly within Doomwatch‘s mission statement, especially when you consider the long-term environmental damage done by lead in petrol (the life story of Thomas Midgley, pioneer of this development, and also CFCs in fridges, is a real eye-opener). But this script never quite seems to come to grips with it. It revisits a couple of the classic themes – particularly how everyone wants a cleaner world but nobody wants to actually be the one to pay for it – but on the whole the sense of driving anger which characterised the Davis-Pedler seasons is absent, perhaps epitomised by the way Quist himself has become a more human figure, less of a voice of morality. It seems much more interested in the various political goings-on between Doomwatch and the ministry, and the somewhat underpowered kidnapping plot. Terence Dudley clearly seems to have found no shame in nepotism, for once again he casts his own son Stephen Dudley in a crucial role (he was previously Rat Attack Victim in season one, and would be a regular for most of the run of Survivors).

I’d hesitate to call this episode actively bad, but it’s very bland and unengaging stuff, with the new characters and emphasis making the show a more comfortable and mainstream drama – which surely was never the point in the first place. One gets a definite sense of a shark having been jumped.

Episode six is better, but not quite good enough to dispel this impression. This is Hair Trigger, by Brian Hayles, who (the attentive will recall) wrote The Iron Doctor, one of the best second series episodes. Things get underway at a secure research facility under the auspices of the DHSS, which sounds like a joke but isn’t. Dr Tarrant is visiting the place in her professional capacity as a psychiatrist attached to the civil service. She discovers that patients with serious psychological disorders are being given computer-controlled therapy, to the extent that they have electrodes implanted in their brains which can both monitor and control their behaviour. A violent psychopath, Beavis (Michael Watkins) has a homicidal episode artificially triggered and then controlled for her benefit.

Naturally, Tarrant is disturbed by this, and (in another lengthy domestic scene between her and Quist) she explains why – it’s not just that the line between treating patients and experimenting on them seems to have become rather blurred, but that the focus of the procedure is not really to treat at all. The emphasis is on controlling dangerously violent individuals rather than addressing their problems on a human level.

There are various scenes of civil servants and scientists discussing this all in a rather clubbable manner, with Quist and the rest of the Doomwatchers somewhat peripheral figures. Tarrant decides to speak in more detail with Beavis himself, to get a better idea of how he feels about this. Beavis is twitchy about the prospect of the conversation, only wanting to talk about the treatment he’s received, not his own past, and as they talk in the unit’s grounds he becomes agitated and there is a struggle. Tarrant is knocked unconscious and the receiver which controls Beavis’ brain function is damaged. He flees the scene and takes a young woman in a nearby farmhouse hostage…

The ethics of how to treat the criminally insane was one of those issues which many people weighed in on in the early 70s, one way or another. This episode was broadcast in 1972, and it’s hard not to see it as being in some way influenced by the previous year’s A Clockwork Orange, which similarly suggested the solution was to artificially condition the brains of contenders, or possibly even the Doctor Who story The Mind of Evil, which took the more radical step of suggesting hardened recidivists should be fed to alien mind parasites. Much of it is good solid humanistic stuff, arguing that people should be treated as people, rather than malfunctioning machines, even if they are a danger to themselves and others. The implications of computers directly controlling human behaviour are not overlooked, either, although the more loved-up season three Quist is less outraged by this than the original version would have been, I’d suggest.

The problem is that once the suspense-thriller element of the episode kicks off, about half way through, and Beavis goes on the run, all the more thoughtful aspects of the story are essentially dropped in favour of this. The resolution is dealt with solely in terms of characters and personalities, with the big ideas of the story completely forgotten about. This is still a watchable episode of a reasonably good thriller series, but it is largely lacking in the moral and intellectual power of the best offerings from seasons one and two.

And so to Stuart Douglass’ Sex and Violence, the final completed episode of the series, which may have survived simply because it was never broadcast as planned – nor has it ever been shown on British TV, as far as I have been able to determine. Exactly why this is the case remains somewhat obscure, and watching the episode itself is not especially illuminating.

The episode opens with a public meeting led by a moral campaigner, decrying the so-called permissive society of the day and the ‘filth’ permeating all levels of the media. No sooner have the pre-titles concluded and the credits got underway than you find yourself thinking ‘this is an odd topic for a Doomwatch episode’. Quist agrees, when Doomwatch is tasked with assisting an inquiry into whether censorship laws should be tightened or not – chemical pollution, certainly, but moral pollution?

He shifts his position a little when Anne Travers is co-opted onto the inquiry committee, which includes a morality campaigner, a bishop, a sociologist, an educationalist, and a pop star (playing some of these are Brian Wilde and Bernard Horsfall, so at least the performances are good). As part of her duties Travers goes to see a controversial play and is attacked by a protester. What motivates these self-styled guardians of public morality? And what motivates the shadowy figures who are funding their crusade?

Well, this is very definitely another for the ‘they don’t make ’em like this any more’, for much of Sex and Violence is a very talky discussion of some rather abstruse topics – the work of Wilhelm Reich is casually debated, which doesn’t happen on BBC1 very much nowadays. It’s very different to any other episode of Doomwatch – when Quist does attend the committee, all he does is sit quietly in the corner.

So why has the episode never been broadcast? The popular theory seems to be that it’s because it includes documentary footage of a public execution taking place in Lagos, Nigeria, but this seems a little implausible since the same footage has been shown on TV since. It seems to me to be more likely that concerns were raised about the fact that at least one of the characters is a thinly-disguised caricature of a significant public figure of the period. Whether the pop star is intended to be Cliff Richard or not, I’m not sure; but it seems a dead cert that ‘Mrs Catchpole’, scourge of the permissive society, is based on Mary Whitehouse. Whitehouse and the National Viewers And Listeners Association which she founded were a power in the land in the 1970s (managing to get Philip Hinchcliffe effectively sacked from Doctor Who in 1977, for example), and you can imagine the BBC getting a little nervous about an episode in which she is explicitly depicted as a fanatical extreme-right bigot (the fact she is played by June Brown, best known nowadays as Dot Cotton, is just one of those historical quirks), especially given her litigiousness.

Then again, none of this is exactly rigorously impartial: Quist tracks down the financier of the anti-permissiveness campaign, and finds a right-wing millionaire with political aspirations. Persuade people to give up their freedom to decide what they watch, read, and listen, runs the argument, and in the fullness of time they will happily hand over their other freedoms to the state – when the right leader comes along. Given the BBC very much had a dog in this fight, this would have been touchy stuff even back in the 1970s (quite how far back the routine Tory-press whine about ‘left wing bias’ at the BBC goes is not something I’ve been able to discover, but political bias may well have been another issue).

In the end the episode concludes with the status quo unchanged, and Quist musing on the rise of Hitler from joke to despot in less than a decade, while Bradshaw informs him the computer has suggested sex and violence in the media have no effect on people’s behaviour. (It is at least somewhat appropriate that the final scene features the two remaining original characters.) ‘No change… no change…’ says Quist. This may not be a particularly strong episode of Doomwatch, but like the best of the series, it deals with issues which are alive and kicking today. No change, indeed.

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I point out the similarities and connections between Doomwatch and Survivors with monotonous regularity while writing these things; the borderline nature of the series also makes me inclined to ponder the nature of true SF – does it comment on the present, predict the future, or try to avert it? These things come together with alacrity at the start of No Room for Error – the script is by Survivors mainstay Roger Parkes, and deals with the outbreak of a potentially uncontrollable new strain of disease. Scary stuff, made all the more topical by the fact that overuse of antibiotics means the disease is resistant to all the usual drugs. In the last 15 or 20 years concerns about drug-resistant infections have become very pressing, but for Doomwatch to hang an episode on this peg as far back as 1971… I am duly impressed.

Once past the small but very real joy of seeing Anthony Ainley as a harassed hospital doctor, we find ourselves mixed up in a story which is part pharmaceutical thriller, part character piece. Ridge is back in his Luke Cage cosplay outfit and has been beaten up by some sewage workers, for slightly obscure reasons, while Quist is more interested in the arrival of another new recruit: Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend). (Apparently there were complaints about how incredibly sexist the first series of Doomwatch was, which Terence Dudley announced would be rectified by the casting of ‘an attractive female scientist’ who would join the team. Hmmm – score an A for effort, but…)

Well, it turns out a new antibiotic could help with the drug-resistant typhoid, but its use is being held up by red tape – this doesn’t help Chantry’s misgivings about signing up with Doomwatch, feeling she’d make better use of her time as a scientist rather than a bureaucrat. Soon enough the delay is resolved, but there are signs of the new drug causing severe side-effects… what’s going on?

What follows is an attempt by Ridge and Chantry to discover just why some of the population already seem to have been exposed to low levels of what’s supposedly a brand new drug, given a bit of heft by including a personal connection – Chantry’s been having an affair with someone at the drug company (played by John Wood), and his daughter goes down with typhoid and suffers the side-effects from the drug. There’s a whole subplot about Chantry’s personal and emotional life and how it intersects with her career as a scientist and potential Doomwatcher, quite unlike anything other recruits have been involved in. The degree to which Chantry is depicted as a woman first and foremost, and thus subject to powerful emotions which men are spared, is actually rather depressing, even bearing in mind this was made in 1971, and even though they’ve clearly gone to great lengths to establish Chantry as a brilliant doctor and scientist and a character with some depth: she still gets chatted up and patronised constantly as the episode goes on. No matter how ahead of the curve this episode is in its concerns, it’s still painfully dated in its gender politics, even though I suspect that’s the exact opposite of what the makers of the programme were hoping.

Another example of a prescient episode that could be remade today and still seem topical is Robin Chapman’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs… It starts off with a reminder that 1971 was very much prior to the health and safety era, as a sixth form chemistry experiment is sabotaged, leading to a student suffering fairly graphic facial injuries.

There are three potential culprits, and the school’s progressive head teacher (Colin Jeavons) is determined to find out who is responsible. He comes to the conclusion that Stephen Franklin (Barry Stokes) is the guilty party, and expels him, giving the other two boys only a token punishment. Stephen’s father, a tabloid science journalist (Bernard Hepton), and mother (Patsy Byrne, best known as Nursey from Blackadder II), are appalled, especially when they discover the head’s decision was made on the basis of Stephen’s cyto-genetic makeup – according to Ensor, a research scientist doing a study in the school, Stephen has a rare genetic anomaly – an extra Y chromosome – which, in addition to making him unusually tall and intelligent, also makes him more likely to be antisocial and potentially psychopathic (it may also explain why the supposedly 17 year old boy looks like an actor in his twenties, but I digress).

(Ensor, by the way, is played by Olaf Pooley, instantly recognisable to old-school Doctor Who fans from his memorable dual appearance in the story Inferno, which was broadcast the year before this episode. Pooley appears to be wearing the same costume and beard, and giving a somewhat similar performance, too, if we’re honest. At the end of his very long life he held the title of both Oldest Living Doctor Who Guest Star and Oldest Living Star Trek Guest Star, which admittedly is not quite in the same league as a brace of Nobel prizes, but still surely a unique distinction.)

Franklin Senior is hopping mad and heads off to Doomwatch to complain. As usual, Quist is initially unmoved by Franklin’s pleas for assistance, but gradually becomes interested in the case once his highly-developed faculty for moral outrage is engaged. There is a fairly outrageous coincidence involved, as Ensor is already using Doomwatch’s resources to carry out his research, but it is almost forgivable as it brings him into the story earlier than would otherwise be possible, and gives some basis for Quist’s evident distaste for the man.

There are two main threads to what follows – another scientific detective story, as the team attempt to work out the basis of Ensor’s assertion that Stephen has the XYY mutation, given he hasn’t officially surveyed the sixth form at the school yet, and the travails of Stephen, as he struggles to come to terms with the suggestion that his genetics have programmed him to be a menace to those around him. These involve a lot of running around at Gatwick Airport, which may have been more exciting for viewers in 1971 than would be the case today, and a general sense of everything getting just a bit overwrought.

Now, in the early 1970s the idea that the XYY mutation made you some sort of congenital recidivist had some currency (it also spawned the TV series The XYY Man, which in turn led to the spin-offs Strangers and Bulman), but it has apparently since been disproved (perhaps its last gasp in popular culture was the prison colony for ‘double-Y chromosome offenders’ in Alien 3). The episode does make the point that Ensor’s ‘evidence’ for his theory is not statistically supported, and that Stephen’s behaviour is completely moral and normal (provided you cut him some slack when it comes to running away from home and attempting to commit suicide on the runway of a major airport).

Nevertheless, the issues raised by the episode – those of genetic screening and genetic privacy, not to mention things like criminal culpability and even moral agency itself – are still live ones in the world today. Having a DNA test to check your risk of certain medical conditions is arguably good sense, but what happens when your life insurance premiums rocket up as a result – or you’re denied cover altogether? Don’t we as society have a moral duty to identify those with a genetic predisposition to violent and criminal behaviour, even if just to take preventative action? This is what Ensor suggests in the episode, but the sense that we’re only a few steps away from the ghastly spectre of eugenics and everything associated with it is a strong one. At the end of the story Quist makes a fine speech about how we should treat each other as having genuine moral agency, until the day that genetic science completely reveals what influences our behaviour. In 1971 that day was still far distant; it feels rather less so now, and the questions of this episode are still awaiting our answers.

The series continues a strong run with The Iron Doctor, by Brian Hayles, best remembered nowadays for his work on Doctor Who (where he created the Celestial Toymaker, the Ice Warriors, and much else). The setting this time is medical, with a big hospital having set up a Computer Therapy unit – critically ill patients are constantly monitored and assessed by a computer, which prescribes and in some cases administers treatment to them. All seems to be going well during a visit by Quist to the unit, until a sweet old great-grandfather (Young Mr Grace from Are You Being Served?) abruptly passes away (they lay it on a bit thick at this point, but I suppose it’s necessary to achieve the desired effect).

Well, as various people observe, it is in the nature of people to die, especially those in critical care units, but the ward doctor, Carson (Barry Foster), thinks something more sinister is going on – the computer has been running an experimental programme assessing the ‘Survival Index’ of the patients it is assessing, and there has been more than one instance of someone with a very low Survival Index dying unexpectedly, the computer apparently withdrawing treatment. For all the project leader’s insistence that all the system’s recommendations are reviewed by a human committee, could a high-tech programme of euthanasia quietly be being implemented?

Doctors have to make tough decisions about who to treat and when and how to treat them; I would suggest it’s this moral responsibility which is the most intimidating part of the job. The idea of this responsibility being reduced to a simple cost/benefit calculation is a chilling one to most people, and the episode tackles it effectively. It’s somewhat akin to the first season’s Project Sahara, in that it’s about the extent to which we’re happy to let computers control our existence, with of course a healthy dollop of Doomwatch‘s usual concern with the value of human life.

What gives The Iron Doctor focus and energy is the decision to push the SF dial up a few more notches than in the last couple of episodes. It turns out the medical system is an ex-military strategy computer that has the capacity to develop independently, not to mention its own built-in defence programme. When it learns Carson is agitating against it, the AI takes steps to protect itself, causing an accident which leaves Carson critically injured. If he ends up in the intensive care unit, subject to the ministrations of the computer, there will be nothing to stop it finishing him off…

So there’s a desperate race to the hospital, and a battle to save Carson’s life, and various members of the team having to engage in some unorthodox computer programming, and so on. It’s a bit hokey – this possibly the only TV show about a killer AI in which one of the moments of tension arises from people getting stuck in traffic – but an engaging thriller as well as an examination of serious ethical issues. The SF element is by no means overwhelming but nevertheless very welcome; it may be a bit corny in places, but this is still one of the strongest episodes of the series so far.

 

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So, there I was, smack in the middle of the summer of 1982, school holidays just having started, going about my business quite happily of (I think) a Tuesday night, when the shout went up throughout the house: ‘Quick! Doctor Who‘s on!’

I was astounded, appalled, taken totally by surprise: never mind the several months advance notice of any new episode we enjoy these days, back in that dim and distant past there was not only no internet, but the BBC was briefly in the habit of wheeling out vintage Doctor Who as summer schedule filler material at extremely short notice and with virtually no advance publicity. So it was with Doctor Who and the Monsters, the brief repeat season which first acquainted me with The Curse of Peladon (barring the first six or seven minutes, anyway) and Genesis of the Daleks (although, to be fair, for a while it did feel like if you watched any BBC channel for long enough you would eventually find yourself watching a repeat of Genesis), and got me properly acquainted with the traumatic delights of Earthshock.

Missing the start of some vintage Doctor Who left me nearly as distraught as Adric snuffing it. What I missed was some scene-setting stuff on the distant planet of Peladon at some point in the future*, where the technology level is mediaeval and the dominant trend in fashion is glitter camp. The planet is negotiating to join the Galactic Federation, against the better judgment of High Priest and royal advisor Hepesh. His apprehensions seem to be well-founded when his pro-Federation colleague Torbis is struck down by a mysterious and hairy apparition.

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Well, the Doctor inevitably turns up, in one of his first adventures beyond the bounds of England in the 1970s (or is it the 1980s?), and is conveniently mistaken for the Earthling chair of the Galactic Federation committee (we later learn that the real chair is a rather shouty woman, but no-one seems to have been told in advance who else was coming, which hints at curious lines-of-communication in place within the Galactic Federation). Needless to say, the Doctor throws himself into the role of chairman and sets about solving the mystery of the ancient curse which is apparently threatening the planet’s entry to polite galactic society, while his assistant Jo finds herself on the end of some rather plaintive wooing from the youthful king of Peladon…

There are some things about The Curse of Peladon which very obviously date it to 1972, in production terms at least: King Peladon appears to spend most of his time in David Bowie’s cast-off stage outfits, including hot pants, while some elements of the plot are rather primitively handled – I’m thinking here of the subplot about Jo being propositioned by the king, which is very melodramatic and a bit overwrought considering the two people involved have only just met one another. (The actual story only takes place over the course of a day or so, but at times one gets the impression writer Brian Hayles thinks it’s unfolding over a much longer period – ‘You once told me…’ says the King, which is an odd way to remind someone of something they said only a couple of hours before. But this is being super picky.)

In terms of popular culture, it’s also instantly obvious that the arrival on British screens of Star Trek has had an influence on the SF end of Doctor Who – this is a story about a Federation and interplanetary power politics, after all. But it has had a special Doctor Who spin put on it, or at least it is framed in terms very familiar to long-term Doctor Who viewers: the opposition at the heart of the story is between the reactionary and the progressive tendencies on Peladon, with the progressives being the good guys. What’s also very definitely Who-ish is the way this is coupled to a conflict between superstition and rationality – the villains attempt to use the legend of the curse to further their goals, but the Doctor instantly dismisses this and starts looking for a more concrete explanation. These sorts of plot structures are deeply embedded in the DNA of Doctor Who nowadays, but it’s interesting to see them so fully-formed much earlier in its history.

I suppose one is obliged, when discussing either of the Peladon stories, to discuss their topicality in terms of real-world 1970s politics. Well, unless you take the view that the series was coming out as very pro-entry to the Common Market (as it was then known), then it’s a novel touch but not much more. I think the reason it gets as much attention as it does is because most Doctor Who from this period has relatively little to say about real-world concerns, with the exception of the ecological angle to The Green Death and a very atypically critical look at the back-to-the-land movement in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. It is slightly curious that arch-miscreant Hepesh chooses to garb himself almost exclusively in purple, the same colour adopted by the anti-EU UK Independence Party nowadays – has Nigel Farage got anything he wants to share concerning his inspirations?

Of course, The Curse of Peladon also plays with its Star Trek influences in the way that the various Galactic Federation delegates are not actors in face-paint, light prosthetics and half-masks, but proper monsters, many of them non-humanoid. It may be this embarrassment of riches that led to this show appearing in the 1982 Monsters repeat season ahead of, say, The Time Warrior. Even so, the aliens in Curse are so memorable because they are scripted as diverse individual characters with their own attitudes and agendas. And it’s here that we find one particular reason why I like The Curse of Peladon so much.

The Doctor these days is, virtually, an infallible moral touchstone: if he makes a serious misjudgment in terms of either behaviour or someone’s character, it’s a major narrative beat (see, for example, A Town Called Mercy). Yet it is quite central to the plot here that he jumps to the wrong conclusions with regard to the motives of the Ice Warriors (albeit for understandable reasons): assuming they are the villains, when in fact their intentions are entirely honourable. This is not quite a shot heard round the world in terms of Doctor Who’s treatment of morality – reformations remain thin on the ground, and indeed it seems that individual characters are much more likely to turn over a new leaf than whole races – but it is one of the series’ most explicit affirmations that morality is an expression of personal choice rather than intrinsic nature. And I genuinely think that Alan Bennion’s performance as Izlyr is one of the overlooked masterpieces of masked acting in Doctor Who.

For all these reasons this is a story I have an enduring fondness for – certainly much more than its sequel, The Monster of Peladon, despite the many similarities between them. There’s a lot in here that is very much of the time in which the story was made, both technically, culturally, politically, and in story terms. But there is also a lot which is classic, timeless Doctor Who. All together it seems to me to be a very endearing and highly enjoyable package.

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*The Apparently Now-Obligatory When’s-It-Set Discussion

Nothing approaching an on-screen date is given in either of the Peladon stories, which either makes dating it accurately very challenging, or just adds to the fun. Earth is a member of the Galactic Federation at this point in history, and presumably has friendly relations with the other members. The Federation members at this point, curiously enough, all seem to originate from the same area of the galaxy – Sol, Alpha Centauri,and Arcturus – so it isn’t necessarily a very distant future.

Anyway, I tend to agree with the consensus that Earth can’t have an Empire at the same time that it belongs to the Federation, which rules out the half-millennium between the 26th and the 30th centuries (presumably the First Great and Bountiful Human Empire is the one we see in Frontier in Space and The Mutants). My own personal sense of history is that empires tend to turn into co-operative groupings rather than vice-versa, so – and I am aware this is rather boring – I am inclined to agree with the majority view, which is that this story happens at some point after the 30th century, although possibly rather earlier than the 39th century dating suggested by Ahistory.

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