Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Remembering the Nostalgia Critic

[Major spoilers from the start regarding To Boldly Flee and the Nostalgia Critic.]

I was going to write today's post about the night I spent packing to go back to Newcastle and watching To Boldly Flee that was going on over on That Guy With The Glasses all the way through before the finale was posted on line. Except that didn't happen.

Instead I spent the night huddling in bed, glued to my laptop screen while a storm raged outside. The quality of the writing, acting, effects, even the score made me very, very happy. The ending broke my heart. I couldn't write about putting things into bags and boxes when I'd been exposed to something this clever and funny and beautiful and joyous and sad. So this post will be dedicated to those who boldly fled, the living and the dead of them.

For those who don't know, this is the Nostalgia Critic. Comedic persona of Internet reviewer Doug Walker, the Nostalgia Critic has been the flagship of review site That Guy With The Glasses since it started five years ago. He's kind of a big deal. And now he's dead, killed off by his own creator.

Obviously his fans are UPSET. Every other post on Tumblr seemed to end 'I am openly weeping' 'Literally in tears' 'Doug Walker made me cry'. At some point someone quoted a line from Slaughterhouse Five and I was so stunned and overwhelmed I read the whole thing. The majority of fans, while sad, are being supportive of Doug Walker and his decision. The minority... not so much. I've seen people threatening to rage quit, calling the way it was handled an insult to the fans and generally being the douchebags people are on the Internet when the person you're bad mouthing can't physically come over and punch you. Those people aren't just stupid because Doug Walker is a real human being who's entitled to his own life and maybe doesn't want to spend it yelling into a web cam. They're stupid because To Boldly Flee was really, REALLY good.

It absolutely a product of it's time (there's a lot of anxiety about SOPA which shouldn't be outdated as, away from the public eye, the fight for a free Internet is still going on), both the time it was written and the career changing decision it was building up to. Somehow though that makes it better: more ephemeral and evocative, like a fly caught in amber. Like the old political cartoons we used to write whole essays on in History ("Mommy, Wilfred wrote a dirty word!" one read. The word was Roosevelt.) The film was a product of the anxiety on the site (many of the contributers use it as their sole source of income) and the Internet in general and that shouldn't be forgotten.

Rob Walker (Doug's brother and writing partner) made this statement on his facebook:
Those that keep complaining about us referencing SOPA need a reality check. It's not dead. Like a ninja, it just slinked away into the shadows and is waiting for the right time to strike. If you think I'm harping on old news in my script for To Boldly Flee, just know that Doug and I both agreed to keep it in there for a reason, despite SOPA's last minute shelving. We don't WANT people to forget. We want them to remember. Let it be a time capsule and a reminder of what the suits nearly got away with... and STILL are.
He included this link to demonstrate what's still happening.
For those who haven't seen To Boldly Flee (and don't mind being spoilered) the basic plot is that the Nostalgia Critic, who is suffering from survivor's guilt after the death of his friend Ma-Ti*) is put under house arrest pending trial for copyright violations. When he begins to receive messages from Ma-Ti about a mysterious 'Hole' he summons the other critics, turns his house into a spaceship and sets off to Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter to try and atone for taking Ma-Ti for granted. Since in the last two anniversary specials he's been either a power crazed dictator or a money grubbing exploitative boss, the others are naturally sceptical but go along to stop the law and save their careers. There's also a love triangle, psychotic robot doubles, comedy scientists and a plant that really ties the room together. And then General Zod gets involved and just watch it, watch it now.

The Nostalgia Critic has gone from being a 2D caricature to an actually legitimately good person. And this character building is what makes the ending so inevitable and so shocking. After driving a (flying) car straight into the plothole the Nostalgia Critic comes face to face with Doug Walker who explains that he is not a real person but a fictional character. Not only that he was always supposed to be an unlikeable character, intended to be laughed at rather than with. It could so easily be crushing and existential. But the Walker Brothers made it beautiful.

NC: So I'm just a character?

Doug: Well you were at first, but now you're something else.

NC: What?

Doug: Evolved.

NC: What do you mean?

Doug: Think about it. Would the dictator from Kickassia actually give a shit about his friends? Would the money-grubbing egomaniac from Suburban Knights actually give a crap about a dead Indian boy? I didn't expect that when I started writing you long ago, but ever since then, you've changed. You've literally leapt off the page and taken on a life of your own. It became less of me writing you what to do and you telling me what to write. (NC is still confused) And seeing where we are, I guess that leaves us with one last choice.

NC: What's out that door?

Doug: Reality. [Quotes from the Channel Awesome wiki.]
It's especially beautiful to me as a writer because that is how it works. When you write about a character for a long time -at least if you do it right- you fall in love with them. I'm not talking about making them more attractive/powerful/etc but about the way their flaws become good things. Nissa my main protagonist is a prickly ball of barely contained self loathing and rage which is exactly what I love about her. Her younger sister becomes so evil she'll casually kill a man's children to get his attention but I love her unreservedly because I understand the things that have lead her to that point. This is what a character is. This is what being a writer is.

The Critic is given a choice: he can go outside into reality and write his own story but if he leaves the story will collapse without him. All his supporting characters will cease to exist. All his friends. At this point the instrumental version of my old school leavers song, I Vow To Thee My Country, started to play. It was the song I sang to say goodbye to friends who were moving on and the song I sang when I was leaping into the great unknown of secondary education. Eleven years later and I still knew the words. All of them. I'm not a Christian but the song means a lot to me. When I hear it the world goes still. It's sweeping and inspiring and fundamentally it's about caring enough about something -a thing or a person, or a group of people, or a whole world, enough to sacrifice yourself for it. It's about love.

While the other reviewers are pulled into the Plot Hole, reminiscing about their first reviews and complimenting each other, the Critic chooses to save the day. He merges with the plothole, expanding it into a new, contradictory universe where his friends can live, it is implied, with some measure of freewill. It ends, as all things should, with a party, though a bittersweet one. Life went on and people remembered. They were nostalgic for the Nostalgia Critic.

The ending of To Boldly Flee gives me hope on so many levels. As a broke student it gives me hope that it's possible to make a name for yourself with a camera and talent. As a writer it gives me hope that even a caricature who was never intended to be likable can evole over time to the point where (large sections of) the Internet stops to mourn his passing. As a human being it gives me hope because all of us, even those of us made of pen and ink, celluloid and imagination, are redeemable. You may never fly a car through space but within you is the potential to be a hero. It's in everyone, the people you don't like and the people you do. And within every writer is the potential to move and audience to tears, to change the way they think or even just to make some girl with a blog temporarily a little bit nicer to everyone around her.

I was on Tumblr not long after the episode went up and already people were pouring their hearts out. the way the Nostalgia Critic has legitimately changed lives touched me as much as the film itself. There was an English graduate who wrote for the first time since finishing her** degree, a theatre student who found her love of film reawakened, a score of people who'd moved to a new city, or felt unpopular and alone who cited the Nostalgia Critic as the thing that made them laugh again.

There was an extra note of sadness this year as Spoony, one of the most popular contributers on the site left after a disagreement with Obscurus Lupa, another contributer, about whether it was appropriate to joke on Twitter about raping your coworkers (Jesu Otaku). Since he a) has been diagnosed bi-polar, and b) made a freaking rape joke on Twitter, people jumped in to defend or vilify him. I was online as he was suspended and watched the increasingly bitter comments with equal parts horror, concern and that nasty little impulse that makes people look at car crashes. Long story short he left the site permanently and now various sections of the fandom are out for various people's blood. That's the cliff notes version.

The problem was that this guy was playing three separate roles (two of them major roles) without which the film would not make sense. So fans watched an ending where Spoony was resurrected by Santa Christ*** and brought into the brave new world miraculously alive. It was Spoony we saw being hugged by his surviving colleagues, many of whom won't even speak to him anymore. Some people felt that his resurrection should have been cut but I disagree. I disagree because as Spoony the character was resurrected, Spoony the creator began to redeem himself: admitting that watching the film was bittersweet, acknowledging he was at least partly to blame, making a commentary where he explained himself. You can find it here.

It bears mentioning as well that the day after the final part of To Boldly Flee aired, Doug Walker appeared as  himself, announcing that yes the Critic was gone (although he hasn't ruled out cameo apperances) and no, the site was not closing. He was moving onto new projects. The site had bought a studio. Like the Critic he was taking a leap into the unknown. As the person who was so physically afraid of screwing up this year I literally threw up as a kind of rudimentary defence mechanism while packing the car to leave, this resonated with me. It made me want to be better and braver, to take more risks and keep my friends safer. And as a writer, making someone feel that way, that's the dream.

I'm going to end with words truer and more beautiful than mine. I can't credit a source except the place where I found it because it was submitted anonymously. I've included it in full firstly because I think everyone should read it and secondly because you have to follow a few links to find it. But I'm glad I did.

I loved the character of the Nostalgia Critic, I didn't think the show was getting old, and I'm not impressed by the ‘going out before it got stale’ thing. All that said, I loved Doug decision to end the character and the way it was done. Personally, the timing was impeccable. The past month or so, I've been finding myself romanticizing letting go of things, or destroying things one would seem to hold onto 99% of the time. Ending things can be beautifully cathartic, almost to the point where that cathartic experience is enough reason to end things (almost, though). My habit of every Tues night/Wed morn will change. Thoughts like that have become profound and interesting to me. Furthermore, Doug and Rob found a way to end the character in a cathartic way at the end of To Boldly Flee. The way the story was set up, and the selections for the score, I mean, it was beautiful. It truly was.

I saw my ‘Boss’ a couple of weeks ago, and he's someone who has been around a long time, and is starting to see some of his friends and other things fade from existence. He didn't seem sad, though. He seemed, defiant and delighted with the way things have turned out for him personally. He said: 'As you walk on through life, your life is filled with ghosts. Not just people, but old buildings, and old cars you had. They all find some place, and something deeper than memory. They get in your bones and in your blood. And they become a part of who you are. And I think that's a good thing. Cause when we were young, you know, they told us that ghosts were, "ooh, ooh," to be frightened of. But as you grow older, ghosts are the things that walk alongside you and remind you of the preciousness of life. And the value of good things in your life. You know, the presence of love. And how that love and spirit carries on after those things are gone.' My feelings on endings were vague at that point, but they were certainly cemented after that.

After TBF was finished, I couldn't remember when I first ran into the Nostalgia Critic. Luckily, I remembered the blog post, Googled it, and saw it was November 22, 2008. I thought back to what was happening to me at that time. I was finishing college, the best 4 years of my life. Also, the most important building of my cultural existence and childhood, as well as the place of my youngest memory, had an appointment with the wrecking ball. It was a time where I was scared because I was thinking that maybe I ain't so young anymore. Perhaps that's what helped me become a fan of NC (aside from Doug being a talented comedian). Here was Nostalgia being justified. And I think that is something of a common thing for anyone who could identify as a part of the current youth of the world like I do.

In the four years I’ve waited every week for a new NC, though, I’ve acquired more ghosts. The house where I was a baby in was knocked down. I’ve said goodbye to jobs I loved, my hometown, and a place 2,500 miles away that opened itself to me so I could get my MA. I’m only at the quarter-century mark; but when my dad was there, he was changing my diapers; and when my mom was there, I knew how to read. Realizing all this, all of a sudden, I feel old. But unlike four years ago, I know that’s not a bad thing. I’m not afraid of the wrecking ball anymore. In fact, I’ll revel in it should it come. Ghosts are to be celebrated, and I feel lucky now that I have many ghosts ahead.

As an crack amateur scholar of comedy, I feel confident in saying Doug has serious chops. And he’s going to do projects that will absolutely kill. So the end of the Nostalgia Critic isn’t something sad. Because it ended, we know that it happened, and potential for new things are opening up. That’s exciting to the highest degree. And it’s very cathartic, and I love those feelings. It asserts that we are alive, and we have tremendous stories to tell. Bring on those wrecking balls and those ghosts.

And, I’d like to wish anyone reading this (and even those who aren’t) a long life filled with many ghosts.
I wish you all a long life filled with ghosts. May all your films involve love triangles, psychotic robot doubles and mad scientists, except the ones that don't. And may you be changed for the better by the things you watch, no matter how unexpected.
In memory of those who boldly fled.

*Yes, the one from Captain Planet. Kind of. It makes sense in context.

**I assume. Most fanwriters are female so it's the default pronoun in fandom.

***It makes sense in context. See note on Ma-Ti.

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