This week we – the geekospheroid, blogging cognoscenti of the digital age -- were witness to something unique and wonderful. Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was a rare gem. A musical morality tale wrapped under a meniscus of a superhero tropes. It was a great story, brilliantly realized, completely unique.
But that doesn’t really matter. That's not the point. The reason Dr. Horrible was so good has little to do with the easily reviewable components: the singing, the writing, the acting, the staging, the camp. The reason Dr. Horrible stands out as having been so good is that it’s already gone.
The most memorable experiences of my life have been transient.
When I look back on over 10 years of marriage I'm filled with a subtle warm glow: a knowledge that I am truly loved, a sense of safety. But I'm not overwhelmed by a single sharp memory. There are an endless series of short vignettes that stand out: trips we've taken, moments we've shared, those first few dates of falling in love. But those memories stand out because -- perhaps precisely because -- they were so short lived and so poignant. They can never be recaptured in flesh, and thus reside in a special part of my brain where they are kept close, carefully wrapped in lead foil so as not to degrade over time, carefully reviewable until senility robs them from me once and for all.
It used to be that all media was like this.
Before the advent of the VCR, the annual showing of the Wizard of Oz was a religious observance in my house. My mother, my first pusher of fantasy, would track the next network-TV airing of the Wizard of Oz with red pen on the Audobon calendar magnetized to the fridge. It was usually around Easter, which seems tremendously appropriate. It was a rare special occasion in a household otherwise fairly cold, distant, and TV-phobic.
Those viewings of the Wizard of Oz remain some of my most vivid and emotional memories - a personal unveiling of color in a black and white childhood. But if we’d had it on DVD, I would never have watched it, simply because it would always be there.
When I finished The Lord of the Rings for the first time, I was slipped into a bad, dark place for days. I wasn’t sad for the state of Middle Earth at the end of the Third Age. I was poisoned with the certainty that I would never again read the Lord of the Rings for the first time. I would never again not know how it ends.
Videogames are the cauldron where this sap of transient goodness has been boiled and condensed into pure essence. When a new game comes out – whether anticipated and over-hyped (Bioshock) or completely out of nowhere (Dwarf Fortress) – that first week is like falling in love. When Bioshock descended on my internet village, I was convinced this was the best thing ever. During that week, in the full frontal assault of the experience, it was the best thing ever. That week, at that precise moment in time, the extended community love affair with that game was like being in a cult without the koolaid kicker.
In retrospect, with a calculated eye, I won’t look back at Ken Levine's $100-bill nipple-rubbing hit and think it the best game ever made. Nor will I canonize Portal, Age of Conan, GTA IV or any of the other flavors-of-the-month that burn like bright stars and supernova, leaving dust and echoes.
The genius of Dr. Horrible is that it took this quality of time-compression and transience that we as gamers are intimately familiar with and intentionally exploited it. Even the most diehard Whedon fans had no idea what to expect when the first episode appeared. Instead there was a promise from Whedon: I'm going to drop something on you for a week, and then it will be gone. And as an extended geek culture I think we all bought in. For 6 days, every discussion, inside joke, and spare media moment in my circle of friends and colleagues was dominated by Dr. H. I carried it around in my iPhone, pushing it like crack ontp unsuspecting passersby at the local coffee shop. “What? You haven't seen Dr. Horrible? Sit! Watch! I'll be getting the Splenda."
Of course we all knew it wasn’t really going away. I don't think anybody ever expected it to disappear, even before Whedon confirmed that there would be a DVD, or perpetual iTunes availability. But in creating this lacy, gently wafting curtain of transience, Whedon engendered a sense of “I was there.” The feeling that you are a witness - to anyting - is powerful in any context. I was there when U2 played Red Rocks. I was there when the Red Sox won the World Series. I was there when the tanks rolled into Paris. I was there when the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan.
I was there when Whedon dropped Dr. Horrible on an unsuspecting world.
Was it perfect? Of course not. Two weeks from now pointing out the flaws in Whedon’s strike-project will be the new black. The true gift of Dr. Horrible was not the footage, or the story or the singing. The true gift was creating a transient moment where we can all say “gosh, I remember that week.” And for that, I am truly grateful.