REVIEW: Welcome to Night Vale @ Oran Mor – 22/10/14

NB: This review will attempt to remain as spoiler-free as possible, though there may be a couple of snippets.

I came to Welcome to Night Vale a little over a year ago. This was late for someone who keeps an eye on fandom, mostly because I didn’t think it would be my kind of thing. I find I can’t listen to fiction podcasts, much as I try (a shame, as I really liked audiobooks as a kid), and I’ve also never really been much of one for Lovecraftian style horror, so I thought I’d give it a pass.

As it happened, around that time, I was hard up for podcasts to listen to in the gym. I’d given up on Radiolab, the last straw being their appalling treatment of the Hmong community1 (though I’d previously found their story on Henrietta Lacks to be cringeworthy, and that among other things). That had been my go-to for drowning out the terrible music or television options in the gym I go to, and nothing else was quite right. So I gave WTNV a try.

It takes some getting into–I would say one needs to give it five or six episodes at least, if not ten–and to be fair, I don’t think I could just sit and listen to it all, which has been the barrier for several people I know. But for me, WTNV is a perfect storm, engaged storytelling in a radio style format while being both funny and poignant, diverse in a lily-white genre, and relatively limited on fail–or at the very least, a general commitment to doing better than the usual crap one gets in spec fic media.

I’m hooked on this little town, Lake Wobegon meets Derry meets Gravity Falls. It fills the Prairie Home Companion niche for this generation, who watch the fall of world they cannot control, struggle not to fully succumb to corporate interests and marketing, keep tongue firmly in cheek while making dark in-jokes, and fail miserably when it comes to being entirely jaded about life.

I love that. I love Night Vale, I love hearing about everyone in it, not just Cecil and Carlos. I love that it’s touching and sweet in places, that there is always deeper meaning; that it’s our world, to borrow a turn of phrase, as seen through a glass (or perhaps an old oak doorframe), darkly.  And I love that it actually makes me laugh aloud in public places wearing headphones, causing other gym patrons to give me looks of concern.

So, long introduction over? It wasn’t really much of a choice when I found out the Night Vale crew were bringing their live show over, not only to Europe, but to Glasgow.2 The live shows had been doing ridiculously well in the US, and one never does know if this option will come up again. Therefore I plunked down my £18.50 moments after the sale opened, then promptly remembered/forgot/remembered again over the past couple of months that I was actually going, before having a moment of anxiety about going to a gig mid-week, and getting past that and dragging myself to the West End on a weeknight.

In retrospect, I’m not quite sure what I expected, but I was not in the slightest way disappointed.

Oran Mor is a deconsecrated church turned venue/restaurant/bar, and I knew it’d be atmospheric. I’d been past it plenty of times in my old days in Hillhead. But the interiors are something else, particularly in the Auditorium where the gig was held–the bare bones of a church, with walls and steeple covered in paintings and slogans and busts of thinkers, stylistic modernist outsider art with a spiritual twist meeting 60s-style countercultural murals. Musical guest Mary Epworth noted it was the ‘most Night Vale venue’ they’d performed in yet, and that really does sum it up. If you’re in Glasgow, it’s worth a nosy.

The crowd was receptive and 100% behind the performers, though not quite as rowdy as I’ve heard ones in the US have been, which suits me, particularly as I was on my own. Though I hadn’t been in queue since 4:30, I didn’t have any trouble getting a good seat due to being a single ticket. Huge relief that, as I get very frustrated in theatres and cinemas when I have a rubbish view.3

Mary Epworth was a delightful musical guest–though I wasn’t certain the audience was with her initially, people soon picked up and cheered her on. Epworth is a stylistic heir to the British electric folk and progressive folk genres, and I can appreciate that taking a song or two to get used to (one never knows what the weather will be in Night Vale). If I had to pick a word to describe her work, it’d be ‘liminal’, somewhere between the real world and the supernatural, at once both grounded and ethereal. This made her a perfect match for the show, in retrospect, and one of the unobtrusive ways that the  performance was tailored to fit local audiences.4

By now the WTNV crew have long since ironed out any growing pains in doing live shows, and while I admit to being a bit sceptical at hearing about the first ones, I shouldn’t have been (more on this in a bit), and I certainly enjoyed the hell out of this one. As when listening to the podcast, time flew by and the performance was laugh-out-loud funny as well as just insightful and poignant enough to get to the heart; but in this case, the visual dimension really did add to the narrative.

Nowhere else was this more obvious than that all of the performers walked the thin line between remaining perfectly in character and completely smashing the fourth wall, even when it came to audience participation elements. The narrative, in fact, demanded this same liminality5, and it was a good reminder of just how talented the cast and creators of WTNV are, particularly fandom’s beloved Cecil Baldwin. I’ll admit here that he really is a joy to watch, and if you have the opportunity to see him in anything, do so.

What’s also testament to the talent of Fink, Cranor, et al, isn’t just that they pulled together an engaging, cohesive story that fits into the current plotline of the podcast6 without being plot-critical. It’s that ‘The Librarian’ is so engaging and so cohesive while incorporating so many call-backs to beloved elements throughout the series.

After all, any live performance generates certain expectations in the fan who turns up; they need some surprises but aren’t going to be satisfied with everything being new, and you better play the goddamn greatest hits while you’re at it. Avoiding spoilers, this show hit every single necessary note, as well as an unexpected one or two (a return from waaaaay back in the day). But above all, it’s proof of the solid writing and the belief and charisma of the talent that this came off without being clunky and overly obvious. When you add in the fact that this is a skeleton cast and crew working frantically under the burdens of international performance (travel and visas and show after show after show), the level of artistry here was pretty much stunning.

If you’re a WTNV fan7 –regardless of whether or not you’re just a faithful listener, a massive shipper, or the biggest analytical fangeek on the Tumblr dash–and you have the resources and ability, get thee hence to a live show. It enhances the immersive part of the fannish experience rather than revealing any backstage secrets, but I, for one, am more than okay with that. Night Vale needs to retain its mythos to fully function; it remains, even in live performance, snippets from another world just around the corner which tells us so very much about our own.

For more info with less rambling introspection:
Welcome to Night Vale
Mary Epworth
Òran Mór

  1. What do I mean? Interviewee and translator Kao Kalia Yang tells her and her uncle’s story here

  2. One learns to do grabby hands with this kind of thing, both when living in a flyover city in the US and off the beaten track…uh, really anywhere outside London…in the UK. 

  3. When possible, I must sit in the near-exact centre of a movie theater. It’s A Thing. 

  4. MINOR SPOILER: Though to be honest, I see Tamika Flynn and her reader posse as being as keen on the poetry of Jackie Kay and Liz Lochhead as they are on Carol Ann Duffy’s, my friends. 

  5. Yes, that word again, shut up, I like it. 

  6. That is, ‘bonus material’ of the sort we’re apparently due to get for the month of November, as they recover from non-stop trekking over most of Western and Central Europe over three weeks’ time. Can’t really blame ’em. 

  7. If you’re not, consider becoming one. 

time bomb town: on not watching Doctor Who

I feel rather guilty about not watching this series of Doctor Who, to be perfectly honest. Admittedly I feel guilty about a lot of things, it’s one of my default states, but still, fannish guilt is as valid as anything else.

It’s frustrating, as for several years my identity was pretty wrapped up in Being A Doctor Who Fan. As part of that, I’m at least partially responsible for several people either starting to watch the show or renewing their interest in it. These days I have easy access to it, being UK-based, and the shine didn’t entirely come off the penny by my learning what goes into the media industry sausage.1

I know what it’s not: while I’ve been critical of Steven Moffat, it didn’t stop me from watching Eleven; I actually find Clara to be an okay companion, though the Special Girl stuff does wear on me; and I said quite firmly that if they absolutely had to go with a white dude for Twelve, Peter Capaldi would be the only one I’d want. Hell, he’s even allowed the right accent, and if he’s riffing off Seven, I’m entirely cool with that. I like Seven.

But apparently I can’t be bothered. Some of this is anxiety around watching things I like2 and some of it is the fact that I simply don’t have the energy these days to face the potential crap. I have an overly analytical brain, and DW has never been a show I can watch where I know, or even can be fairly confident, that nothing big is going to bother me in a fail kind of way. Usually this wouldn’t be quite as much of a problem, admittedly–as many others have said before, marginalised people tend to elide a lot of bullshit when consuming media, or we would never consume anything ever again. Sometimes it ends up being beyond the pale or reaching critical mass.

The problem with DW is that I care too damn much. I want it not to fail, to be as interesting and nuanced as it is in the best fanworks. And because it’s ongoing, every new episode is another hope that falls apart into, inevitably, another utter disappointment.

This is not, by the way, me strictly going off at Moffat for fail, though I notice the overall fannish and critical tide is changing towards that, in an interesting development. (If you asked me, and you didn’t, I suspect this is due to recent shifts in SFF around awareness of social justice; it doesn’t matter if one likes it or buys it, one at least knows about it.) RTD was as guilty, in my book, of certain kinds of screwup.

Lightbulb moment: in my opinion, the tone of the Moffat-run show is currently one where the viewer anticipates nuance and complexity. The cues are there, the settings, the narratives–and then things just don’t pan out. RTD had a problem of building up far too much drama to ever be remotely resolved, but to me, it was forgivable in the sense that it was not to be taken as high art telly.

It works better explained in the metaphor of animal vids. No, seriously.

For me, RTD’s show is like one of a puppy that runs about the kitchen, tripping over its paws, bonking its snout into things and careening off them. RTD’s Who was at heart, even when dark, even when failing3, a big camp romp.

Moffat’s Who is like one of a cat that prowls the edge of the sofa, contemplating the jump to the top of the nearest piece of furniture. There’s a lot of wandering back and forth and pondering about it, possibly a brief nap in an odd position, and then finally, when you least expect it, it jumps, misses

And then shakes itself and walks off across the floor like Nothing Just Happened, Nothing To See Here.

And to be honest, I can really only put up with so much of that. I’ll store the Twelfth Doctor for some time when I have more of myself to spare, when things aren’t getting far too real and complex and problematic in the real world.

Or when the cat sticks the jump. Whichever comes first.

  1. Even the coolest-looking things are held together by spit and duct tape and a lot of hard poorly-compensated labour. 

  2. I’ve been fighting anticipatory anxiety around fandom and real life interaction for several years and I hate it SO MUCH

  3. Let’s not talk about Donna: mentally insert gif here of stick figure flipping off the heavens, going f uuuuuuuu

in the gyre (always coming home)

Hey, kids, I’m back, for my sins–a new theme, a tidy blogroll, and a different outlook on life.

Okay, maybe not that different. After all, I’m still generally grumpy and snarky and a bit of a cynic, but I’ll endeavour to be entertaining while I blether on.

Check out the about page for what passes for my mission statement, and I’ll get some content to you soon.  (e.g. when it’s not near to midnight on a Friday.)

but seas between us braid hae roared

I was going to do an epic post about the best classic rock Christmas songs, but life…okay, lazing around at the in-laws during the holiday season…got the better of me.

In lieu of that, here’s a sample from the list that’s appropriate today yet–James Taylor’s version of Auld Lang Syne.

Personally, I (heresy, I know) am not that big a fan of Robert Burns, sort of take him or leave him. I’m sure as hell not fond of Hogmanay, the Scottish take on New Year’s Eve, though it’s perhaps a bit more genuine than the Times Square Rockin’ New Years Whatever US version (both have too large of drunk crowds for my liking). And while I do love James Taylor, the rest of his holiday album is also take it or leave it, in my opinion.

But this suitably pensive limited-production take on Auld Lang Syne is far and away the best version of the song or poem I’ve ever heard. And with that–a happy new year to those on the Gregorian calendar.

So many people I know have had lousy times of it in 2012. In light of that, I hope that 2013 will be better for us all and for the world.

still singing Galway Bay

It’s taken me a few years, but I think I’ve finally mostly sorted Christmas in Britain in my brain.

Christmas, as Christmas, though not necessarily of much religious connotation, is a big deal in and of itself in Britain. This has taken some getting used to. Possibly the weirdest thing for me to swallow, aside from not being wished ‘happy holidays’ on a regular basis, is the fact that nativity plays are de rigueur in primary schools, but overall it’s the sheer assumption of celebrating Christmas that gets to me. (By the way, thanks to the Life in the UK Test–which I passed–I can now tell you with 2001-statistic accuracy what percentage of the population is Christian and which percentage is not. In 2001, that is.)

But I’ve learned to adjust–a paradigm shift with a slightly jammed clutch, but adjust none the less. There are some key points to remember and understand; admittedly this is mostly for my benefit and amusement, but this could be handy to anyone writing a themed fanfic in a UK-based fandom. Maybe. I suppose. Get a Britpicker, even if you don’t think you need one.
– Christmas takes on a bunch of aspects that in the US and Canada are assigned to Thanksgiving–bigass traditional meal of turkey and stuffing and veg sides with family, and specific television viewing (coughdoctorwhocough) thereafter. I’ve had people ask me what the heck US people eat for Christmas if they just had turkey a month earlier. The answer I’ve given is ‘sometimes turkey sometimes other things’.
– Christmas crackers are a small but crucial concept. These are tiny explosive devices with paper crowns inside, a joke that is appalling, and an item of the Cracker Jack box variety back when you actually got something okay in a Cracker Jack box. Those from elsewhere, think a Kinder Egg toy.
– One will be getting drunk lots as part of this holiday process, with family (potentially as coping mechanism) or on work nights out, or both. With regards to the latter, office Christmas party, yes, and then likely another night of pub and food with one’s department, and getting hammered on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day because it’s a bank holiday and one has nothing else to do save eat leftovers and drink all the things. See: coping with family.
– Remarkably little eggnog is quaffed, though. Except at Starbucks.
– Fake Christmas trees are far more common. If you asked me to surmise as to why, I would say ‘way less open land to grow Norfolk pines’, but I may be off-base here.

And…well, this is more than a point. Christmas music here is just slightly different, which gets me to what was going to be the point of this post until I went on a tangent.
I’ve gotten used to what I will hear in stores and malls and offices in the US for the holidays, that continuous piped stream of not-exactly-cheer-inducing sound. Unfortunately, the stuff I can handle most as background noise (and this may be because of upbringing) is almost non-existent over here, stuff like Mannheim Steamroller and Canadian Brass and even the darn Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Fortunately, some of the big band stuff’s crossed the big pond, but Britain has this unique concept of the Christmas Number 1. This is the lucky track on the top of the pop charts for Christmas week, which is often a Christmas pop song. So many try and fail to gain this spot. (Christmas doesn’t always win out, though. Gary Jules’ cover of Tears for Fears’ Mad World from Donnie Darko was #1 one year, which makes me grin in misanthropic and anti-pop glee.)

And there are a few tolerable things you’ll hear constantly over here that have never made it stateside–Slade’s Merry Christmas, Everybody, for a start. Let’s not talk about how I didn’t initially believe Noddy Holder was a real name for a rock musician as compared to a name JK Rowling dismissed for a houseelf. It’s just that no one here has heard Must Be Santa! It’s a damn shame.

With regards to things I’ve heard on both sides of the Atlantic, I’m going to take this opportunity to say that Wham!’s Last Christmas is the most ridiculous Christmas song ever, except for possibly Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime, which is purely insipid. I mean, seriously, how is a song about having your heart broken and telling that person ‘screw you, you’re not special’ full of the spirit of the season?

At least Fairytale of New York, which I love, is unapologetic about its catchy bleakness. It’s got just the right kind of self-aware attitude problem to be the ultimate in UK Christmas tracks…which, fortunately, is what it is.

Even if there’s no such thing as the NYPD Choir.