Rhube’s Music for the Apocalypse, No. 7: Who’s Next?, by Tom Lehrer

Everything was a bit bleak last week with Barry MacGuire’s protest song, ‘Eve of Destruction‘, so here’s the wonderful Tom Lehrer to brighten up the nuclear bunker.

Released the same year as ‘Eve of Destruction’, 1965, ‘Who’s Next?’ makes for an interesting contrast in terms of ways to respond to tragedy and impending doom. Where MacGuire’s song looked on nuclear proliferation and the state of global politics with bitter anger at the inevitability of destruction, Lehrer’s laughs at the morbid ridiculousness of the escalating arm’s race. Each country that gets the bomb has it’s own justifications – that their possession of the bomb will somehow make the world a better place:

First we got the bomb and that was good
‘Cause we love peace and motherhood!

Each verse brings a shift in key as new countries ‘up the ante’ by getting the bomb, increasing the sense of things spiralling out of control. Tom Lehrer’s warm-but-slightly-nervous laughter forms the perfect accompaniment to his lyrics. He captures both the fear at watching events you can’t control and the humourous absurdity – laughing because, well, what else is there to do?

The atomic bomb is not the present threat that it seemed to be in the Cold War. Arms reduction treaties have seen a dramatic fall in the number of nuclear weapons possessed by both the USA and Russia. But they still each have about 5,000 nuclear warheads currently, and seven other states are known or believed to have nuclear weapons. It’s estimated that it would take less than 100 – maybe as little as ten – atom bombs to destroy the world. It’s estimated that there are currently 16,000.

You have to laugh.


Rather frustratingly, I haven’t been able to find a legal digital download for this. You can buy it from US Amazon on the Tom Lehrer Collection CD, but that’s it. If anyone knows a way to legally obtain this as an mp3, please do provide links in the comments!

Otherwise… you can always listen to it as a part of the Rhube’s Music for the Apocalypse playlist on YouTube.

Review: Night Vale

Night Vale NRA bumper stickers

Night Vale NRA bumper stickers

That’s not Night Vale, that’s just one of the incredible fanworks created for Night Vale. People are trying to manufacture viral marketing left, right, and centre, but you can’t bottle what Night Vale has got. I’ve seen Tumblr fandoms create audiences before – I’m not the only person who got into Hannibal because I Just. Couldn’t. Resist. The. Memes. Anymore. But Night Vale? Night Vale is something else.

Maybe it was the bumper stickers (right). I think they were the first Night Vale art I saw on Tumblr, and they are actually official merchandise, unlike the vast majority of Night Vale art you’ll find on the Internet. These are the bumper stickers created by the local branch of the NRA in Night Vale. I saw these for the first time maybe three weeks ago – no more than four. And since then  Tumblr has basically exploded with fanworks. If you’re on Tumblr and you’re not seeing at least a couple of Night Vale fanworks every day, then you are following the wrong people.

‘But what is Night Vale?’ The question inevitably asked by everyone at some point after sufficient exposure to other people’s squee. The description that persuaded me to look it up was this:

The moment they had meI’d say it’s more like if Veridian Dynamics ran the radio station in a town designed by H P Lovecraft and Douglas Adams, but you get the overall sense.

Warning sign for the Night Vale Dog ParkWhat it actually is is a podcast, written by Joseph Fink, as the broadcasts of ‘Welcome to Night Vale’, a radio show hosted by Cecil Baldwin, with local news and weather for the small desert town of Night Vale. Night Vale is a strange place, with local amenities such as the Dog Park – DO NOT THINK ABOUT THE DOG PARK – the waterfront (there is no water at the waterfront), the library (peopled by terrifying Librarians), and Night Vale Community College. The residents seem mostly human, although there was an outbreak of people growing extra eyes, which has led many fans to picture Cecil with a third eye (although there is no indication in the show itself that he has one). There also seem to be some angels, who hang out with Old Woman Josie, although the Town Council has advised that angels do not exist and it is illegal to know anything about the hierarchy of angels. There’s a neighbouring town of Desert Bluffs, with which there seems to be some rivalry, and which, if anything, seems even stranger and more terrifying, although it makes a more concerted effort to affect that everything is normal and FINE.

Carlos tries to explain to Cecil that time is slowing down, whilst Cecil looks on adoringlyAnd there is Carlos. Perfect Carlos. With his Perfect Hair. Carlos is a scientist who comes to Night Vale as a stranger in the first episode, to study the town and its unusual properties. Like the fact that the sun sets at the wrong time, and seismic activity is being recorded, but no earthquakes are felt.

Cecil is in love with Carlos, and his Perfect Hair. And Cecil’s love for Carlos might be the sweetest and most heart-warming thing I have ever listened to.

Listening to the podcast itself is a pleasure. It’s just like listening to a radio show, which makes it easy to digest. Unlike podcasts which tell a story, you can drift in and out and not worry about losing the thread of plot. There is plot, but it evolves slowly. Typically there is some specific event which forms the backbone of the specific episode, but there are also longer arcs, like Cecil’s love for Carlos, and what exactly is going on with the man in the tan jacket, or time slowing down, which evolve more slowly. Perfect listening fodder for walking to work or going on long car journeys.

But beyond that, there is the fandom, which is so full of joy. In addition to the miles of direct fan art, Night Vale has insinuated itself into a kind of vocabulary of joke-making such that you don’t even need to be in the fandom yourself to understand its references, or for people to relate random unconnected statements to Night Vale itself. As one Tumblr post reads: ‘It’s not so much that the Night Vale fandom makes posts about themselves as people don’t realize the posts they’re making are about Night Vale.’

A post about Night Vale fandom on TumblrMoreover, Night Vale is wonderfully inclusive. It directly calls out racism via the character of the ApachFan art of Cecil and Carlose Tracker, a white man who dresses up in what Cecil describes as an ‘offensively racist’ costume and talks about ‘ancient indian magics’. In a world where most white people still do not realise how problematic the appropriation of other cultures (like Native American culture) is, it’s refreshing to hear stuff like this called out directly. And this continues on into the fandom, where many artists delight in imagining a less white-dominant cast for Night Vale. As in the video above, where Pamela Winchell is imagined to be played by Gina Torres, Cecil by Richard Ayoade, Old Woman Jose by Loretta Devine, Grace Park as Cactus June. Or in other images where Cecil is imagined as Indian or Native American. A lot of fans really seem to enjoy the fact that no direct race has been indicated for Cecil, and it is therefore entirely open to fan headcanon.

confusedtree posing for reference photos

confusedtree on tumblr was delighted to find that many had fancast Cecil as him

Not that there hasn’t been some controversy over this. Many Tumblrites are annoyed that so many people default to seeing a white Cecil despite the opportunity to imagine something different. Whilst I do think it’s great that lots of people have imagined Cecil as something other than white, I do also get why people are frustrated with there not being more. It’s kinda a hella fraught issue, so I won’t venture any more opinions on the matter than that. As a white woman I’m aware that my privilege may be affecting my impressions. Whatever your view on the matter, Night Vale itself seems pretty progressive.

For a while I was frustrated that there were so few female characters. However, as time has gone on, the cast has become much more varied, and I’m less concerned on that front. Yes, it’s annoying that the protagonist is yet another man, and Carlos, as chief secondary character, is also a man; but I love that they have a gay relationship as the love story with absolutely no sense that there’s anything unusual about another man being the object of Cecil’s affections, so I don’t feel like I can complain too much on that front.

I also love the Weather section. The ‘Weather’ to be clear, is always a piece of music, and not an actual weather report. The styles of music presented are incredibly varied. I can’t say that I like all of them, but I have been introduced to a whole bunch of stuff I would never have listened to otherwise and which I am now thinking about buying. How cool is that? Not that there’s anything new about having a random music section in a comedy show. The Young Ones included a musical segment, and other hip young shows have done so since. There seems to be a general tendency for scrappy alternative programmes to support other scrappy enterprises, and I imagine there’s a fair amount of overlap in musical and comedy circuits simply due to the performance aspect. In any case: it’s cool, it’s great, I enjoy it.

Get on board the Night Vale train, ladies, gents, and others. You won’t be sorry.

Welcome to Night Vale can be downloaded from iTunes, podbay, Stitcher or Libsyn or Feedburner or Soundcloud. It is produced by Common Place Books, and has exciting merchandise available from Topatoco. And it’s entirely free.

Review: The Guild, Season 5

The Guild cast in the costumes of their avatars

The Guild cast dressed in the costumes of their in-game avatars

If you’ve somehow missed the phenomenon of The Guild, the brilliant thing is that there is no bad time to get into it. All five seasons and their extras are available online at www.watchtheguild.com.

The Guild is the epitome of geek-indie. It’s a webseries consisting in short (typically 3-8min) episodes about a group of online gamers known as the ‘Knights of Good’. Our window into their lives is a video-blog by Codex (Felicia Day), who chats about her insecurities and game-centric life, but the series also follows her ‘off-camera’ interactions with other guild members and their lives.

The Guild started out on good will and imagination, funded via donations and filmed in what is visibly someone’s bedroom – which works perfectly for the set-up, of course. It quickly gained a following, but its popularity exploded following Felicia Day’s starring role in Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, rumoured to have been inspired by The Guild‘s video-blog format. (Day has denied this, but the story has a ring of truth and its denial the ring of modesty.) Its success garnered a deal with X-Box for early streaming of episodes, but The Guild can’t be said to have ‘sold out’ (although, I’m not sure what would be wrong with it if they had). Episodes still appear online for free, available worldwide. I can’t say I mind waiting a day or two for my free, funny, geeky content.

Day has built on her fame and moved beyond Dr Horrible. Few would deny that she’s now known for The Guild (which she writes, as well as stars in) much more than her role as the love interest in Joss Whedon’s cult hit. As well as many cameos across geek-favoured shows like Lie to Me* and Dollhouse, she also makes regular appearances in Eureka, is a voice-actor for several computer RPGs, and (as mentioned last week) is working on a new webseries based on the game Dragon Age. In short, she’s a geek hero, living the geeky-dream. What’s more, she’s a geek lady who not only produced a popular show aimed at dispelling the idea that all geeks are unwashed Worf-T-shirt-wearing obese men who live in their parents’ basements*, but is actually making a success of her life in a number of male-dominated arenas.

Beyond Day’s individual success as a person and as an icon for geek guys and ladies alike, the show itself has much to be admired for. Day’s quick wit and obvious thorough knowledge of geek-interests make the short episodes wonderful bites of sunshine on days when the ordinary world is getting you down. When I first got into The Guild it was the perfect punctuation for late-night studying. But as well as being light-hearted fun, the range of the cast is a wonderful thing to be admired. I love The Big Bang Theory, but it took them a good while to fully integrate some geek-ladies into the regular cast, and they still tend towards stereotypically ‘girly’ behaviour; even the wonderful Amy Farrah Fowler yearns to emulate girl-stereotypes of being ‘besties’ with Penny, and has not been allowed to be quite as emotionally and sexually aloof as the iconic Sheldon**. Whereas Codex leads a cast split evenly between men and women, where each character is rich, believable, and different to the others, not defined by their gender, yet also identifiably geek. I’m also pleased to see that a third of the cast is non-white, including Codex’s sometimes love-interest, Zaboo. The show has also addressed disability issues with the wonderful introduction of the beautiful and bitchy Venom – wheelchair-bound member of rival guild the Axis of Anarchy. And all in a series whose total runtime would equal one normal TV episode per season.

It’s like visual haiku, or something.

Season Five

Anyway, that’s the general geek-squee over with. How was season five?

Awesome, that’s how it was. One might expect a certain rockiness over the course of five seasons, but I honestly can’t detect one. I struggle to think whether any of the seasons come out as my favourite or least favourite. They’re all sufficiently varied and engaging to make it very difficult to judge. Season five differentiates itself by launching the Guildies off to a new kind of setting: a convention. This seems particularly appropriate in a year that has seen a strong presence of the Guild cast at many real conventions. This also offered the opportunity for what must have been a record-breaking number of cameos. Never have so many geek idols been brought together in one show. If I tried to name them all I’m sure I’d miss someone’s favourite, but highlights include Neil Gaimon, Stan Lee, Nathan Fillion, and, my personal favourite, Erin Gray.

Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma DeeringWho’s Erin Gray, you say? Hand back your geek-pass at the door! Erin Gray played Colonel Wilma Deering in the classic sci-fi series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Yes, I have it on DVD, why do you ask? If your memory is still itching you on this one, http://www.wilmadeering.com/ may help. Anyway, in The Guild Erin Gray has the grace to play aging actor Madeleine Twain, who played ‘Charity Maddox’ in fictional televison cult classic Time Rings. Madeleine is overlooked by most younger fans, but not by Vork. Vork is the oldest member of the group, a middle-aged man with an aversion to spending money on anything he doesn’t have to who was obssessed with Charity in his youth. Pleased by his attention, she invites him and Blades (who has gained minor celebrity as the ‘Cheesy Pirate Kid’ advertising a local fast food restaurant) to a star-filled party, jam-packed with famous geek-stars. Cameos are always a delight, but it’s particularly pleasing to see that so many famous people are clearly fans of The Guild themselves (or at least, have agents who recognise its popularity) and have been willing to (one presumes) donate their time. Madeleine and Vork’s up-and-down relationship is sweet and a real highlight of the season.

Clara and Steam PunkersOther highlights include Zaboo’s invention of a seat-saving scheme for convention panels and the over-plot in which Codex accidentally says something negative about The Game (the MMORPG they play) in the presence of its creator, Floyd Patrovski, unwittingly prompting him to consider selling The Game. Codex’s plot is then largely concerned with trying to convince him not to sell. Floyd himself is a delight, turning out to be every bit as neurotic and insecure as Codex herself, leading me to the fan theory that romance may be in there somewhere down the line. I also adored Clara’s sub-plot discovering steam-punk, which simultaneously presents its exquisite appeal and satirises the slight air of ludicrous pomposity that can occur in any genre where fans become a bit too serious… especially where beautiful costumes are involved.

It’s not all perfect. There was a higher quotient of embarrassment-comedy, which I, personally, find difficult to watch. The sub-plot with Tinks’ family was somewhat predictable, and not especially engaging in itself. Still, when any scene is unlikely to last more than a minute or two, it’s easy to move past the weaker elements and enjoy what is otherwise simply enormous fun.

If you haven’t yet caught up with this season’s Guild, or if you’ve never seen it at all, do yourself a favour and high-tail it over to their website. You will not regret it.

*Not that these men don’t exist. They do, and in my experience most of them are really nice guys, they’re just nothing like the whole picture, and the predominance of negative presentations of geekdom that focus on this image is both unfair to these guys and a big challenge for people like me who don’t fit that description and want to get invited to LAN-parties.

**Not that I’m demanding she be a Sheldon-clone with girl parts, that would be incredibly dull and token in and of itself. The Big Bang Theory is wonderful in many ways, but I did feel it took a long while to admit the existence of girl-geeks properly. They’ve come along leaps and bounds from the original set-up, with Penny as the alien girl-creature looking in from the outside from atop her fashionable shoes. I’m just saying that at first my initial response of ‘Oh hey, a show about my people!’ was undermined by the fact that the makers didn’t seem to think I was the type of person (the type of gender) to be part of such a group.

Reviewing Through the Time Machine: Pushing Daisies

Ned and Chuck - Pushing DaisiesTitle: Pushing Daisies
Original Run: 2007-2009
Starring: Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Chi McBride and Kristin Chenoweth
Created By: Bryan Fuller
Genre: Comedy-drama, Fantasy, Mystery, Quirky/Odd-ball
Awards: Nominated for 57 awards, including 17 Emmy Awards; Won 18 Awards, including 7 Emmy Awards
Price: Season 1: £5.99; Season 2: £9.99 (Amazon prices at time of posting)

The most beautiful, funny, poignant, stylish, and original television show ever to get axed.

Premise: Ned has an unusual gift: he can touch dead things and bring them back to life… but only for a minute. If he touches them again, they go back to being dead, but if he leaves them alive for more than a minute then something else has to die in their place. Ned discovered his power as a child when his dog Digby was run-over, and learned the limitations on his power when his mother died, suddenly. He restored her to life, but at the cost of his childhood sweetheart’s father, who died in her place. He grows up to become a pie-maker who avoids close personal attachments, for fear of what he might do if someone he loved were to die. A private detective named Emerson Cod discovered his power, and now Ned works with Emerson to solve mysteries by waking the dead (but only for a minute!) and asking them who killed them.

But when Chuck (aka Charlotte Charles), dies in mysterious circumstances, Ned cannot stop himself from bringing her back, for good. As Chuck helps Ned and Emerson investigate her own murder, she and Ned renew their affections for one another; the only trouble is… they can never touch. Or Chuck will die again, this time, forever.

Why you should love it

Pushing Daisies achieves an unlikely, but perfect balance. Its bright colours, cartoonishly surreal style, and impossibly sweet hopeless romance could very easily be sickeningly saccharine, and yet it is not. Similarly, the morbid subject matter could just as easily be too grim and depressing for a light-hearted comedy. However, together, each provides a perfect counter-balance to the other, producing something so quirky and wonderful and dark and heart-warming that it is like no other show I have ever seen.

Every element is in harmony. The casting could not be more spot on. Lee Pace is an inspired choice for the sweet, physically awkward Ned. Anna Friel positively glows off the screen as Chuck, effusing exactly the renewed zest for life needed for a woman who spent most of her life cooped up looking after her shut-in aunts before being killed on the cruise that was her first independent venture into the world. Kristin Chenoweth deserves every bit of her two Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Olive, the diminutive waitress who has long pined for Ned, and the foot and a half difference in height between them provides the perfect opportunity for some sweet and well-played physical comedy. Chi McBride’s sarcastic but good-hearted Emerson Cod grounds the show with a dash of practicality.

Much credit should be given to the costume and visual design, which perfectly complements the vibrant surreality of the show. This is probably the most stylish television programme I have ever seen (although Mad Men offers some stiff competition from a different genre). Accents of 1950s and 60s fashion are mixed with something thoroughly modern in joyfully bright colours that speak of the fairytale undertones whilst lightening the darker elements of the show.

Most of all, the fast-paced and snappy script is both witty and poignant as it brings the characters to life, exploring their unusual issues and unveiling the weekly mystery they must solve.

This show was always going to hit a sweet spot for me. The Ned/Chuck romance with its associated angst is just exactly the sort of thing I like to curl up with, and you guys know how I adore someone with superpowers who is forced to hide his ability. But Pushing Daisies is never weighed down by its angsty elements; it soars with them to new heights, and somehow always leaves you at the end of the episode somehow feeling better about the world. Because even if their world is not our world, wonderful men and women alive in our world dreamt it up.

Moreover, it’s a wonderful programme for race and gender, for the most part because it doesn’t make a fuss of them. Although the two leads are white, it is otherwise unusually racially diverse for an American TV show, Emerson Cod being just one of several black men and women, and although he’s the only non-white show regular, many of the guest stars are Asian or latino. There are also more female regulars than men, which is very unusual, and although there are romantic plotlines, Pushing Daisies passes the Bechdel Test so well it’s not even an issue. Yet this is not a show with any overt feminist themes, it’s just a show that thinks about people in terms of their characters first, not their genders.

It is a true loss to the world that this show was cut short. Its ample awards demonstrate that the brevity of its run is not a reflection of its quality or critical reception. It was just a victim of the writer’s strike. Its first season was cut in half, and it wasn’t able to build on its early success to develop the following that would ensure viewing figures to satisfy the networks in its second season. This is nothing but an act of short-sightedness on the part of executives who dismissed the shows clear potential for future growth on the basis of present figures at a very difficult time. Not that I’m bitter, or anything.

Anyway. If there’s one new TV show you want to try this year, make it this one. Just get it. £6 will get you the whole first season. You could spend more at the cinema getting a headache from a poorly made 3D film. And if you’re worried about the inevitable lack of resolution for a show cut short: Bryan Fuller has been working on a comic to tie up the story.

Besides, Lee Pace is very pretty.