Monday, January 26, 2009

Do a Blog. Say it was Horrible.

One of the most enjoyable things for me that happened last year was the release of a small show, (being mentioned now because the DVD recently arrived). It comprised three acts, which together ran for around 40 minutes. I almost missed it, because it was completely outside the standard TV/movie production and screening frameworks. It was released on the net, and the makers relied upon a fan-based campaign to do the advertising. I only found out about it due to a good friend of ours with a similar taste for such viewing pleasures and a lot more internet savvy. However, thanks to that friend, I joined some ridiculous number of people worldwide (yes, fan based advertising can work surprisingly well) who caught the three acts for free over the couple of days that they were up for viewing. What is a ridiculous number in this context? Somewhere around 200 000 downloads per hour (yes, that is the right number of zeroes, one million downloads every five hours--a number sufficient to crash the server hosting it).

The show was written, produced, created, and whatever other verb tends to get added by Joss Whedon and his crew, the guy behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel (not about Angelology so that you don’t completely betray your Whedonisque ignorance), the short-lived Firefly, the movie Serenity (which was apparently the essence of what would have been Season 2 of Firefly had it survived), and most recently Dollhouse (not about dollhouses either).
The name of this little production by Whedon is Dr Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog, the kind of title that only an under 40’s could love, and even then only those under-40’s happy to wear the “geek” title, and not even all of them. The show is a musical (hence the three acts). It is a tragedy, about a romance, and is a comedy (in the modern sense; classically speaking, as I’m sure all Baddelim readers would be aware, tragedy and comedy are mutually exclusive genres, and the latter is not necessarily funny. Just ask the well known medieval comedian Dante). It is also has a supervillian, Dr Horrible (it’s his video blog that we see extracts from) as the protaganist (played by Neil Patrick Harris), and a superhero, Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), as the dramatic foil. It also has geekdom's current icon, Felicia Day, playing the romantic interest. And it was professionally shot to look like it was cheaply done.

It is the kind of genre-busting thing that is nonetheless pure geekdom that Whedon loves to pull off when he can escape from his network handlers (such as this time--it wasn’t financed through any of the TV networks), that ensures that it will leave people whose tastes are firmly mainstream in the deep cold (“a comic musical romantic tragedy about a super-villain that looks like it was put together by amateurs? Let’s watch Neighbours instead, or Australian Idol, that’s always good”) while generating a cult following of geeks (which is a fairly smart business plan when you’re hoping to recoup your production costs through iTunes and DVD sales--cult following is what you’re looking for). It is one of the most niche-audience targeted things I’ve ever seen, and so, all by itself, is a signpost of just how tribalised contemporary western society is in its pop culture. Nonetheless, it was a hugely successful niche-geeky thingie, even rising to the dizzying heights of being mentioned on Penny Arcade, one of the surest pop-culture indicators for at least one big slice of worldwide geekdom.

I, of course, love it. There are several reasons. First, it is about superheroes and super villains. I grew up with DC comics, and even now will dip back into reading comics from either DC or Marvel that I think might be significant. I’ve really enjoyed the big-screen treatments of Spiderman, X-Men, and the most recent iteration of Batman and Superman, as fairly impressive translations of the ‘language’ of the comic genre into that of the big-budget movie. So a treatment of the super genre by an unabashed fan of comics? Sign me up.

Second, it is a musical. A musical. I get obsessed with musicals. I have several Gilbert and Sullivan musicals on the iPod, and DVDs of a few. They all get a regular work out. But that doesn’t really capture the intensity of experiencing musicals for me. When I first encountered the Pirates of Penzance I listened to it so much in a two week period that I knew probably 70% of it off by heart months later. A similar thing happened when I was first exposed to Chess. I find that the combination of words with music allows for something far richer, and capable of generating far more reflection and insight than words on their own can do. (Heck, because it was a musical, even Chicago was able to say something about human existence and be more than just an excuse to wallow around in the muck of the roaring 20s .) Even after multiple listenings to a song from a musical I still find new things--a clever allusion to a previous (or later) song in the musical that gives a new perspective to both songs, a mismatch between the tune and the words (completely absent in Chicago and Chess, where the music basically acts to telegraph the punches the lyrics are throwing out, but almost a shtick in Gilbert and Sullivan). Musicals aren’t exhaustless, but they repay repeated exposure in a way that few non-musical songs, and few prosaic discussions of human experience (whether non-fiction or fiction) do. So Dr Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog scores high here as well.

Third, is the whole genre-breaking thing. Give me something, anything, that breaks out of the fixed genre-conventions, and pat answers that seem to imprison pop culture in stale repetitions of earlier treatments. A musical comedy-tragedy about a romantic triangle involving a super villain and a super hero and where the villain is the protagonist? You simply can’t follow any pre-existing conventions. Succeed or fail, like it or hate it, it is that beast that is sighted almost as rarely in our modern world as a genuine unicorn: something original. It takes well-worn elements of parts of our popular culture that have been around for decades, if not over century, and puts them together in a whole new way.

Finally, it is by Joss Whedon, creator of the shows that I mentioned at the start, and that are virtually a Who’s Who list of my favourite TV shows--it only needs a few additions of non-Whedonisque shows to make a complete set. Almost everything I want in a show to make it worth my time to watch it he consistently gives. And so next week I’m going to try and touch on just a couple of the things that make Dr Horrible something that I have worn out my iPod in listening to, and that our computer’s DVD reader has only been saved from the same fate because it stopped working just before the DVD arrived.

I suspect that for all, except a small minority of our gentle readers, the fact that this was created by the guy behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is most likely the show’s biggest turn off (after the fact that it is a musical about a super villain of course). People, even those (a surprisingly large number) who enjoyed the movie Serenity look askance when they find out that one’s favourite show is about a school girl chosen to save the world from vampires. Go figure. (Apparently if you take the girl out of school, put her in a space ship, give her telepathic powers on top of her credulity-straining martial arts prowess, and say that she gets her ability from science rather than the supernatural that makes it less embarrassing, and less problematic for Christians to watch. But that just confirms what I’ve always thought. People is crazy.) If you are such a person, you have my sympathies. I really do want to hear how good whatever reality TV show is that you watch, or how watching years of cricket has made you a better person. But I’m still going to try and express why I think Whedon’s stuff is something special, school-girl vampire slaying notwithstanding.

As the penultimate song of the musical says, “do a blog,” “say it was Horrible”. And here at Baddelim we’re going to do just that. MDB

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Nation

Welcome back to all those who still swing by this blog from time to time. Where have we been? Pottering about, working, chasing a small boy up the hall with a penguin on wheels, eating Christmas pudding, enjoying one of the best and most relaxed Christmases we've had, being thankful for many mercies, revelling in the very cold weather and lots of other things.

And enjoying Christmas presents, one of which was a book by Terry Prachett called The Nation, recently published. A good friend of ours who knows we've made a habit of reading Prachett to each other sent it to us and we unwrapped it with great pleasure, and shortly after Christmas got down to the serious business of reading it aloud.

Only it's not really that kind of book.

We've long admired and enjoyed Pratchett (recently knighted) for his wry, witty satire, mostly of England and all its institutions. The Church of England comes in for a thumping, along with Oxbridge, the bureaucracy, the monarchy, hatred of Oliver Cromwell (yes, that is actually its own institution over here), and so on. He does all this in a parody of the fantasy genre (thereby increasing the satire), but has believable, lovable characters which are dickensian in their eccentricity, yet somehow familiar. He writes about people in such a way as to remind us of people we know ourselves. And whether it is the solid, dependable Vimes; the utterly sincere Commander Carrot; the overly interested Death or Albert (his butler), or the fearsome Granny Weatherwax.... they bring a smile to one's face as they are recalled. Because Pratchett knows how to pass on his enjoyment of the world he has created.

And it's funny.

Sometimes the jokes build up for chapters and are suddenly unleashed and the unwary reader finds himself laughing too hard to read. Sometimes they are rather awful puns (or a 'pune' - a play on words, don't you know). Sometimes the joke is ironic and has a rather nasty twist.

But all that is past.

It had faded slightly, I thought with the most recent series about the Wee Free Men. Sure, it was funny, but a lot more meaningful and with a much stronger agenda than previously. I could be wrong about this, and only remembering the great fun the other books were without remembering the agenda clearly. He has always had a strong message in each book, but it was possible to nod your head in the direction of the message and still enjoy the book.

But The Nation was different. In that book it is not possible to enjoy the book without the message. The two are interconnected. The humour is barely there. The world is different.

A tidal wave wipes out a boy's entire nation, leaving him with a stranded white girl and some unpleasant gods to recreate his little island world. It starts black and gets blacker. God is critiqued, discarded and replaced by Science. A little girl's rejection of imperialism and etiquette resolve a crisis situation so that a nation's sovereignty is almost preserved, and Pratchett creates his ideal: a place where Science reigns and politics comes second; and religion and God have scuttled away having no place to stand. Dawkins and Einstein interact on his island paradise; the natives have telescopes and all is well with the world.

Except that his basic thesis has a flaw. For some time now Pratchett has peppered his novels with gods. They are mostly quite amusing, if somewhat delusional and basically they are only as powerful as the devotion of their followers. So they keep trying to rustle up followers and most fail and are forgotten, and so grow weaker. If the gods are good for anything, it's amusement value, behaving irrationally in much the same way as the greek gods, which seems to be the model he is working from: he doesn't really attack the Christian God outright (except somewhat obliquely in Small Gods).

All this changes in The Nation. The problem of suffering and evil is raised and used to reject the gods and later God outright. God has no pity and there is no mercy. He is seen as even more malevolent than the impotent gods of the island's nation, who at least only want beer all the time. Pratchett seems to think that God requires slavish obedience, and repays this obedience with only misery, fear and more misery.

The perspective is different to my own, as is probably evident. I liked the fact that he was more or less consistent, but I found it a hard book to read because it was so black and so, so sad. There is no happy ending in this book, unless you count the telescopes and the scientists scrambling all over the place - which could only comfort someone who has an unthinking faith in science as a creed, or perhaps who earns a living from making telescopes. It's a book without hope: the best we have is this life (in which terrible things happen without rhyme or reason and which can destroy the virtuous just as much as the fool) and then we die. Even science isn't attractive, but rather the best you have available to you: it doesn't comfort you or help you make sense of life. There is nothing that can do that.

Terry Pratchett is dying. Hopefully quite slowly. (He is suffering from an uncommon form of Alzheimers.) As he helpfully points out, we might die first. But as he is dying, he is making his message crystal clear: choose Science, not God. It's science as religion. And what is worse, and I think why I was so sad as I finished the book, it isn't because he thinks Science is good and God is bad, but because God is bad and Science is a useful way of stopping him. To get God out of our heads, we need to get Science into it; replace irrational stupidity, which is what he feels faith must be, with rational, reasoned... well, trust in Science really. It's that very British kind of religion, a respectable religion, that one doesn't have to feel ashamed of when listening to Radio 4 or reading The Guardian.

He hasn't won me over. I think there are many reasons to trust God (without rejecting science). The one which comforts me in the empty, lonely coldness life can bring is the death of his Son for us: showing a God who is so much more good than the small category we have for 'good' that our mediocre category must overflow and burst and become something quite different.

But he raises a really good question for us: when the tidal wave comes and takes our 'everything' what will we do? It's a question all of us do well to answer before the wave hits, because it does hit eventually. Even if we sail through life, we all end up where Pratchett is now: staring down death, which ultimately steals all we have from us. Just for the record, when the tidal wave hits, my money is on God's unprompted promise of resurrection from the dead, vouschafed by the resurrection of his own Son. I'll take that over telescopes any day of the week. And twice on Sunday. JMB