Life, the Universe, and the Murf

Let’s talk about music videos.

This is a medium that I have sort of mixed feelings about. On one hand, music videos are very much an art form unto themselves: little packets of the craft of merging music and visuals into a cohesive experience or narrative, or at least complementing each other thematically (or you could be like OK Go and show off how mind-bendingly good you are at prop-based one-take choreography). On the other hand, I’m a rather literal-minded individual and I like to come up with my own mental images of what should accompany the music and/or lyrics of a song. In other words, I tend to pass up most music videos because I’ve learned that they likely won’t conform to my preconceived notions of what the visuals should be like. For instance, I’m pretty convinced that “Judas” is my favorite Lady Gaga video specifically because it’s about what’s actually happening in the song.

One of these days I may do a post about the bones I have to pick with Lady Gaga’s music videos, but not today.

Today I’m going to talk about one of those rare music videos that takes such wonderful advantage of music as a mode of storytelling that you’d almost think the music was made for the video and not the other way around. It’s a little track from 2011 called “The Murf” by Rendezvous and its video is a fantastic gem of the Internet by illustrator and animator Scott Benson (who did the curious a wonderful courtesy by writing a “Making Of” blog). It’s epic and intimate, not about humans but all about life, beautifully designed with remarkable attention to detail, and my personal gold standard for how one person can turn a wordless melody into a complete and fitting story.

“The Murf” starts at the beginning. The very beginning. The opening riff of escalating choral huffing sounds could easily be taken as the labor gasps of this planet about to give birth to life. With the start of the actual music we meet this world’s first single-celled organisms, which quickly merge and evolve into ocean life, which in turn lead to the dinosaurs. Their swift destruction at the hands of the obligatory meteor give way just as swiftly to the early developments of the humanoids which will become the planet’s next dominant life form. Benson explicitly states in his blog that these people are not humans (even explaining that they are a unisex race) but never names them, although I guess we can deduce from the title that they are called the Murf. Regardless, we get to see their world as a direct parallel to our own as the Murf progress through basic hunting tools and cave paintings to civilizations and revolutions and advanced science and eventually space travel. Throughout this sequence the music runs in a basic loop that becomes gradually more layered with each “verse,” creating a build of hope and positive advancement occasionally punctuated by a simpler but more striking dip to minor chords that the video pairs with significant moments in the Murf’s timeline, such their first look under a microscope at the microorganisms we saw at the very beginning. The final act follows the last of these “dips,” which accompanies the discovery of a giant incoming comet, and creates a strong sense of foreboding and urgency but also highlights the determination of these people to survive.

As I mentioned before, one of my favorite things about this video is Benson’s attention to detail. Each major advancement of the Murf (discovering fire, inventing the wheel, landing on another planet, etc.) is symbolized by a Level-Up burst around their head, a Destruction of Life chart cleverly singles out cockroaches as the sole survivors of the apocalypse, and the images of hunting always feature a deer-like creature, just to name a few. The most notable detail is Benson’s use of the images of a squid and a whale as a recurring motif throughout Murf history. The squid and the whale are their first constellations, which continue to live on as iconic images in their culture. They form the basis of their art, their religions (note how the dances the primitives do in front of the statues are the same ones used by the futuristic preachers near the end), their scientific progress, and eventually become the heralds of their impending destruction. Considering the chunk of space where the constellations are found is the first and final image in the video, they’re almost like the Murf’s guides. They watch from afar as life begins on the Murf’s world, form the outline of the star map that helps them locate the deadly comet, and watch even closer as the Murf sail past them in their hundreds of pod-ships to repopulate on a neighboring Mars-like planet.

Scott Benson’s “Making Of” blog entry can be found here.

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Tales from Chicago TARDIS: A Little Story About Fandom (and Colin Baker)

This is actually only partly my story, but it’s still one worth telling. Back after my very first Doctor Who convention, I wrote about what a family the Whofolk are and what an amazing experience it was for me to (albeit accidentally) be in the same room as that off-screen love, even if only for 30 minutes or so. At this year’s Chicago TARDIS, I got another glimpse of the amazing relationship that Doctor Who has with its fans, even decades after the actors have left the show.

A couple years ago, I listened to a lot of The Happiness Patrol podcast. Easily my favorite episodes were the ones where TARDIS Tara and Dale would regale us with stories of fandom in the ’80s and the Wilderness Years: stories of early conventions, misadventures, new friends made, and other such tales. I encountered Tara briefly at last year’s CT, but this year I actually got to hang out with her a little. A good chunk of that was helping to disassembling her TARDIS on the last day, but first there was The Book. I was chilling with my friend Sarah in mid-afternoon Friday Lobbycon as I showed off my art that I was bringing for people to sign, while she showed me the TARDIS embroidery where she kept all her Who signatures. While I certainly understand the appeal of keeping up a single fandom item for autographing, I’m not personally keen on putting all my eggs in one basket like that. But then Tara came over and offered to show us hers.

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Chicago TARDIS and Twitter Who Volume 2

This weekend I’ll be partaking in a quick Thanksgiving dinner with my parents before breezing off to the Windy City for my second Chicago TARDIS. I was there last year for the launch of Outside In, which featured a piece by me about the last Troughton story “The Macra Terror” (a commentary which will also be included in Twitter Who Volume 2).

Who 2 draftAnd speaking of Volume 2…

I’m hoping I can get that out by the end of year (just in time for Christmas!) At the moment I’m finishing up an exclusive feature for Volume 2: an Oh My God They Found The Thing revisited commentary for Enemy of the World, in light of its miraculous recovery and subsequent availability on iTunes. Then I get to spend a lot of time doing formatting (it’s an intensive process, trust me). But rest assured, it is in progress and nearing completion.

Happy Thanksgiving to my American followers, and to everyone else: have a great weekend!

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Getting Off on the Right Hoof: How “My Little Pony” Figured Out the Right Way to do a Great Children’s Cartoon with “Friendship is Magic”

Originally posted at Studio AE on April 24th, 2012.

Mane SixThe Advent of Ponydom

Let me begin this piece with a confession: I was never into the My Little Pony franchise in any way, shape, or form as a child. I didn’t collect the toys or watch any of the cartoons or play games with them at my friends’ houses. If I wanted to collect and watch and play with fictional creatures, 9-year-old me would take Pokémon over ponies any day. Being of the female persuasion, however, I was obligated by society to at least know that My Little Pony existed. Before 2011 my only two interactions (in the loosest sense of the word) with the franchise were the “Apocalypse Pony” sketch on Robot Chicken and the Nostalgia Chick’s review of My Little Pony: The Movie on ThatGuyWithTheGlasses.com. While the former was a clever comedy bit parodying the toy commercials with Ponies representing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the latter was an honest critique of why the franchise, particular the cartoon, was rather weak and mindless entertainment whose primary goal was making money off of gullible little girls. It more or less confirmed every generalization I’d had about the franchise up to that point. But, as with many things in life, that was about to change…

In late 2010, one of my typical rounds of bouncing aimlessly around the Internet landed me on a certain page of one of my favorite websites, TV Tropes. It was a show page for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I sighed internally. “They made another one? Really?” I thought to myself and, without bothering to read the blurb on the side, departed for websites that made me slightly less worried for the fate of humanity. It wasn’t much later that I discovered a curious phenomenon that, to put it mildly, left me rather perplexed: Friendship is Magic had become popular on the Internet. Very popular. As in, scads-of-fanart-and-macros-and-music-videos-all-over-the-place popular. Then I realized just how many fans this new series had. Male fans. Adult male fans. And from what I could see, they loved Friendship is Magic honestly and un-ironically. Seeing this, I was more than willing to start applauding this magical new show that was getting grown men to throw their hands up in the air and go, “screw you, gender roles! I’m a grown man and I love ponies!” But I still didn’t understand why or how this new iteration of an iconic but bland cash cow was so…good. It wasn’t until one of my best guy-friends started watching it and raving to me about it in person that I finally conceded, “okay, I should probably start watching this show eventually.” Sure enough, one day over summer break I decided that animated ponies would probably be a great antidote to the crushingly dark and depressing current season of Doctor Who and I sat down to watch the first several episodes. Within a week I’d finished the entire first season and had to know when the second one would start.

What Went Right?

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Short Fiction: Red Moon

Originally written in 2008, a short companion piece to my live-action role-play The Five Moons of Japan for The Wayfinder Experience.

I never really noticed before that day just how red blood is. I’ve dealt with fire my whole life, so I should have been well accustomed to the color red. I guess it depends on the context. When I think of the color red, I think of fire and the clothing that Red Moon wears to respect fire. We do so much fighting that red has become the color of victory. But in the back of my mind, I also knew of it as the color of death. How does one learn this, firsthand, at the tender age of 10? Simple: you watch someone die.

It always comes back to something red.

My mother’s death is the one in question. Death from childbirth, life’s ultimate moment of irony, I suppose. Or would that be an oxymoron? It doesn’t really matter what you call it, all that matters is what happened. Even 14 years later I can still remember the sensory molestation I suffered but somehow endured from the screaming and the sight and smell of blood. The smell of blood…before that day I had no idea that blood even had a smell. It was quite alarming for me to discover that the one primary fluid that keeps us alive smells so much like molten metal. Yes, I am familiar with that smell too, after my father took me with him on a visit to the Samurai’s steel forge. They needed our fire.

It always comes back to something red or fire.

Indeed, if there was any fire in the room where my mother was drained of life to bring forth another, it would have been in her face and my father’s heart. I saw the blood spilled on the floor and looked up at my mother and could hardly tell the difference. I looked into my father’s eyes and saw fire there, desperation to keep his wife alive. They say that eyes are windows to the soul, and “heart” and “soul” are traditionally written the same. So, fire in the eyes must mean fire in the soul which must mean fire in the heart. The heart…isn’t that where blood comes from? Red fire, red blood, red heart, red soul…

It always comes back to something red or fire or blood.

The baby finally came out, covered in my mother’s blood. It didn’t look like new life, it looks like death. Murder. A massacre, even. My mother was already weak and now that baby had killed her more. I could almost see the reflection in my father’s face of the moment earlier that very day when my mother was stricken down by that woman from Blue Moon. Water. Blue. The exact opposites of fire and red. In this, my father noticeably hesitated to send the nursemaid for water. At the time, I had trouble grasping that my mother had truly fallen to water. I was blaming the baby. After all, I could see the blood and hear the screaming from the birth, but I had not seen that lethal strike of blue. My father had, so he understood that this fast-approaching death was not entirely the baby’s fault. The nursemaid returned with the water. No, I thought, not water. Water is water. Water is blue. There must be nothing blue in here. There must only be red. Even through the horror I felt and this strengthened association of the color red with death, I still wished it to be uninterrupted in that room. It was the only color that felt…right. Appropriate. It was red, the only color that I allowed myself to respect.

It always comes back to something red or fire or blood or death.

Amidst all the red and that accursed blue that wiped the red from the newborn, my mother died. The nursemaid began to cry silently. More water. More blue. Stop it, I thought, you’re insulting my mother’s spirit. Besides, wasn’t fire also the element of strength and nobility? Be strong! Fight! I’ve really never been more of a hypocrite in my life than I was at that moment, embracing red and fire and blood when my heart of hearts…hah, hearts again…was begging for my mother back. After all, she was the only woman I ever respected and ever would respect. And she was my mother. Regardless, I keep my red, hot, fiery emotions concealed behind a wall of grey. My father is doing the same, though I can still sense the presence of boiling grief within him, I being his son. He makes a lesser effort to control the chink in his voice as he tells the nursemaid to leave the two…three…four of us alone for a moment before turning slowly to me and saying:

“Akai, meet your new baby brother.”

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Theta Stigma Part 2: The Companions

This article was originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of The Terrible Zodin.

Theta Stigma: A New-Whovian’s Journey of Preconceptions, First Impressions, and Watching Classic Who Out of Order

Part 2: The Companions

Companions: like the Doctor they come, stay for a bit, we love them or don’t, and then they inevitably leave to be replaced by fresh faces. Coming from New Who to the Classic series, there was a pretty significant trade-off where these faithful friends of the Doctor were concerned. Under the wings of RTD and Moffat, companions were fully developed characters with families, friends, homes, hopes, and dreams, but the primary companions (Rose, Martha, Donna, and Amy; not counting those who were only in specials or traveled for less than a season) were all generally the same “type:” modern-day British young women. In the Classics, companions had virtually no lives beyond their TARDIS travels (with the notable exception of the JNT-era companions, most of whom had at least one family member appear at some point) but there were so much more of them and they were so much more varied. They didn’t have to be girls, they didn’t have to be English, they didn’t have to be from modern-day Earth. Heck, they didn’t even have to be human! Fan-received wisdom about this crop is nearly as conclusive as it is for the Doctors: there are the champions of justice and there are those the Doctor should never have let onboard the TARDIS. Well, what makes a good companion? What makes a likeable companion? What makes a bad companion? These questions and many others convulsed themselves into an intricate, complex, and often contradictory web in my mind that lead me to conclude that maybe there isn’t a concrete way to judge a companion: you just take them as they come and see who tickles your fancy. If one doesn’t, there’s plenty more to choose from.

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Theta Stigma Part 1: The Doctors

This article was originally published in the Winter 2010 issue of The Terrible Zodin:

Theta Stigma: A New-Whovian’s Journey of Preconceptions, First Impressions, and Watching Classic Who Out of Order

Part 1: The Doctors

As far as being a Whovian goes, I’m a late bloomer. A very late bloomer. By the time I realized that I was officially a fan, David Tennant only had days left. Around that time, I started doing more lurking around the more Who-oriented places of my favorite websites (DeviantART and TV Tropes, mostly) and started to get a general feel for what the Classic series was like. I also got the gist for certain characters that had a very distinct level of popularity or unpopularity, as is to be expected from such a long-running series with such a devoted fanbase. As I swam through the wading pool of the Netflix Instant Watch offering of Classic Who, I had to wonder: how did the glitter and the grit hold up? Were these characters really as amazing or terrible as everyone said they were? Approaching the cream of the crop with high expectations and the runts with an open mind, I slowly began to learn that nobody’s perfect and that no principle Who character deserves my scorn, it’s just a matter of how they grow on me.

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Featurette on Jeanne DuPrau’s Books of Ember

This article originally appeared on nypl.org on August 1, 2011:

Sci-Fi Summer: Light Up the Darkness with the Books of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

Books of Ember

Any child growing up knows that change is a difficult thing, but what if those changes included evacuating your dark city and the only home you’ve ever known? Taking refuge a struggling town that gets by on the artifacts of a long-lost world? A radical group taking away your rights to sing or even keep a dog? These and more are the challenges faced by the young protagonists of Jeanne DuPrau’s tetralogy, the Books of Ember. In these four books, children and young adults alike can be engaged and enthralled by the adventures and mysteries of Lina Mayfleet, her best friend Doon Harrow, and their efforts to save their people.

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Rare and Missing Doctor Who at NYPL

This article originally appeared on nypl.org on July 26, 2011:

Buried Treasure and Lost Adventure: Rare Doctor Who Stories at the Library

The phrase “lost episode” can evoke a number of different emotions in TV viewers. To some, it could be the excitement of lost treasure. To others, it could be the sadness of at adventure they may never see. For Doctor Who fans, it’s a reminder of one of the less fondly remembered parts of the show’s legacy. In the early 1970’s, tapes for storing old television programs were very expensive in the UK and the advent of home video was still a few years off. Figuring that most of the old black-and-white Doctor Who serials from the 60’s (along with numerous other shows) had officially been milked for all their commercial value, the old tapes were wiped to make room for new shows. Some time later, when home video releases began, the BBC put out a call to relocate the episodes missing from their archive. A wide number of responses came in ranging from private film collectors to overseas televisions studios that had aired episodes abroad and many of them were recovered. However, there are currently still 108 individual episodes of Doctor Who missing from the BBC archive, leaving some serials from the First and Second Doctor eras incomplete and others missing completely. Most of the “orphan” episodes and other surviving clips are collected in the Lost in Time DVD boxset, but what of the rest of the lost episodes?

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Classic Who for Starters at NYPL

This article first appeared on nypl.org on July 18, 2011:

Sci-Fi Summer: Climb Aboard the TARDIS: A Classic Doctor Who Starter Kit

Since 1963, the BBC’s sci-fi epic Doctor Who has followed the adventurous and enigmatic alien time traveler known only as the Doctor as he races through space and time and our TV screens solving problems, saving worlds, and making new friends who join him on his travels. Unfortunately, the current season is on break and won’t be back until this fall (with an episode curiously titled “Let’s Kill Hitler.”) Let’s say you’re a newer fan: someone who’s only recently gotten into the show through the 2005 revival, be it with Matt Smith, David Tennant, or Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor. You’ve worn out all your DVDs, commentaries and all, and the tie-in novels just aren’t coming in fast enough. Fall still isn’t here yet but you need your fix. What’s a Whovian to do?

Well, remember that bit about “since 1963?” Continue reading

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