Transience

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.

Comments

rabbit wrote:

You guys ill enjoy this weeks podcast methinks.

Ohhhhh, you weren't kidding. (Assuming you meant 'will', of course. )

Feddex: I think you nail it here. One of the big attractions to MMOs is that there are interpersonal experiences that are totally unique, in a gaming landscape that's otherwise monotonous. My fondest MMO memories are all very much "firsts" or odd happenstance. Being near death in the middle of nowhere in WoW and having three random Goodjers (OK, not so random, Feyd) ride over the hill, litterally cavalry, to my rescue. Rounding the corner with a group of guildies to see a big boss for the first time.

By far the best implementation of this kind of thing is in The Matrix Online, where major plot elements are rendered in real time by real "actors" with combats and interactions directly related to the players. Honestly, they can get away with it because there are a handful of servers and a small, extraordinarily dedicated group of committed role-players - and a serious commitment to writing. No, you're not playing it, neither am I, but I have witnessed it, and it's pretty damned awesome.

In the single player world, I think we're limited to the blushcast of greatness that is the launch week. Picking up Portal now and discovering it's awesome just feels different than picking it up the day the orange box dropped.

Will this net us a new Firefly?

FeddEx - I'm right there with you. I still very fondly remember the end of the Asheron's Call beta when Turbine literally brought down an apocalypse upon the beta tester player base. For several days the skies rained fire, ultra powerful monsters appeared, towns became graveyards...and eventually it all went dark.

It was AMAZING...and it will never happen again (I'm assuming).

AUs_TBirD: Heheh that does sound quite awesome

@Rabbit (and everyone else) :
Now that there are rumors going 'round that there is more and may be a sequel.. It occurred to me, perhaps this is just either a smart pilot, or a prequel to an already planned series.. If so, would that change anything to you in the way this feels?

I mean, to me, it would kinda feel like being taken for a ride, and them selling out. This, what we now praise as something awesome and memorable, when it's succesful, would be followed up with a series to cash in on the potential?
Kick me in the shins, why won't you?

I hate to suggest it, really, because I think those involved seem honest enough, at least in the 'I want to make something cool and creative' sense, but Felicia Day's answer on your question in the interview on if there was no future for their characters, was more than suggestive, and if you have comments from others such as these from Neil Patrick Harris himself too... that kinda makes me feel awkward about it. :\

On the other hand.. hey... this IS an industry. It can't run without an income, so maybe we shouldn't be too surprised about that..?

FeddEx wrote:

@Rabbit (and everyone else) :
Now that there are rumors going 'round that there is more and may be a sequel.. It occurred to me, perhaps this is just either a smart pilot, or a prequel to an already planned series.. If so, would that change anything to you in the way this feels?

Not particularly. Dr. Horrible in webisode format is (to me) really about showing that the delivery system isn't crazy important provided you have something engaging. LonelyGirl16 was semi-earnest in appearance and puzzling enough in plot to cause people to follow the series/look into the character. Dr. H was about providing a very well-executed, quirky idea in a limited, free, flavor, leading up to a bigger release (either on iTunes or on a physical medium). All that talk about Digital Delivery being unproven or shaky? Dr. H proved that this concept may not entirely be true. It's not a crapshoot if you put some effort into it.

This, what we now praise as something awesome and memorable, when it's successful, would be followed up with a series to cash in on the potential?

An eventual series may have been in mind when this was put together. That doesn't taint it for me. Unless they start to compromise their artistic ideal for the universe at least.
I imagine the converse. What if Wheadon had gone to NBC, CBS, the CN and pitched Dr. Horrible. He says "It's a blog-style look at a Jr. villain's life: his conflicts with a superhero, his personal failures, his romantic ideals. There's also a strong element of comedy and musical numbers involving the characters". The studios reject the idea. It's not relateable. "Blog" won't connect to anyone older that 25. A villain won't make a good central character. The project is dead.
Instead, he puts it on the web this way, gets tons of press attention. He's got the leverage to bring the project to life. He may even have enough support for the network to honor his vision-- to not muck around with airing orders and whatnot.

Like you said, smart pilot.

There may very well be internet-based shows that have a set reach. 2 episodes, contained, no follow-up. And there are surely more internet-aimed pilots and experimental outings to be found. But this is really what the internet is about, isn't it? Giving creative folks the ability to democratize their output, not relying on huge studio backing to create entertainment.

I think this all overlooks that, just as thunder only happens when it's raining, players only love you when they're playing.

Spaz wrote:

I imagine the converse. What if Wheadon had gone to NBC, CBS, the CN and pitched Dr. Horrible. He says "It's a blog-style look at a Jr. villain's life: his conflicts with a superhero, his personal failures, his romantic ideals. There's also a strong element of comedy and musical numbers involving the characters".

A tv series would be difficult if it follows the release schedule of broadcast television. 22-26 episodes of 22-44 minutes length with new songs each week? I'd love it but the quality may not be up there with Once More With Feeling or Dr. Horrible. As a counterpoint to myself, I offer up Flight of the Conchords which has at least one new song each week (though it's a shorter season). Ah, yeah. It's business time.

wordsmythe wrote:

I think this all overlooks that, just as thunder only happens when it's raining, players only love you when they're playing.

In my life I've never seen a gamer taken by the wind...

Nice reference word man.

Spaz wrote:

Dr. Horrible in webisode format is (to me) really about showing that the delivery system isn't crazy important provided you have something engaging. LonelyGirl16 was semi-earnest in appearance and puzzling enough in plot to cause people to follow the series/look into the character. Dr. H was about providing a very well-executed, quirky idea in a limited, free, flavor, leading up to a bigger release (either on iTunes or on a physical medium). All that talk about Digital Delivery being unproven or shaky? Dr. H proved that this concept may not entirely be true. It's not a crapshoot if you put some effort into it.

Really? I think the webisode thing is part of why it is so amazing and could potentially change things. There's just so much cruft associated with network television.

1. You're beholden to Nielsen ratings and other antiquated methods of quantitating viewership and advertising eyeballs.
2. You have to do focus groups and attempt to hit a broad audience with everything, rather than appealing to a select few.
3. You have to adhere to the calendar schedule of TV seasons
4. You have to worry about time slots and whether a slot is good for a show or whether a competing show is stealing viewers.
5. The content producers (writers, actors, directors, crew) essentially have no ownership over their content. They are dependent on the network for budget, and can be yanked in an instant.
6. Web viewers and digital purchasers have to wait, as if their medium is second class to live TV watchers.
7. There's a very large distance between fans and content creators; perhaps it's just me, but Dr. Horrible seemed to convey a sense of intimacy, like Joss and the others involved were communicating with us without so much other stuff in the way.

What positives are there to traditional TV dissemination methods other than potential for a bigger budget, and convenient big screen viewing? I don't know. I'm not the first to say this, but I hope Dr. Horrible is a sign of things to come. I really don't WANT it to become a television show; my earnest hope is that they earn enough through iTunes and DVD that it can continue more or less in the same format.

Also, this makes me a bit more curious about the shows that Microsoft has commissioned for Xbox . I'd hope that things are closer to Dr. Horrible than a traditional TV show that just happens to be owned by microsoft, but I'm not getting my hopes up.