A quick guide to Inspector Spacetime

30 September 2011

So: a new season of Dan Harmon’s marvellous Community has begun in the US. It’s a very, very funny sitcom. It’s also a very funny sitcom that frequently plays on the expectation that the audience is deeply versed in pop culture, with entire episodes that pastiche movies and genres. You should watch it.

In S03E01, which aired last week, Abed – the TV geek inside the show – is distraught that his favourite show (Cougar Town) has been moved to mid-season – “never a good sign“. Afraid it’ll be cancelled, his friends try to find him a new favourite show. And, eventually, they stumble upon “a British sci-fi show that’s been on the air since 1962“:

Inspector Spacetime.

This is already a fairly brilliant joke – the phone box! The reboot-pastiching title card! And, you know, I hope it’ll return to haunt the rest of series.

But: then, the internet worked its magic.

The thing that has been entertaining me beyond all measure this week is Inspector Spacetime Confessions.

This is a tumblr account of a popular format: the “Confessions” format, in which fans of TV shows, books, movies, etc, post “secret” confessions about their take on characters, episodes, or arcs (sometimes, secret crushes) as text written across images. Amateur photoshop at its best. It was huge on Livejournal, and it’s ideally suited to Tumblr.

Except: there are, currently, about fifteen seconds of Inspector Spacetime in existence.

This, of course, does not matter when you’re TV literate. What’s happened is: fans are just making it up. They’re back extrapolating an entire chronology based on fifteen seconds of “tone”, and their entire knowledge of the Doctor Who canon.

So, they’re diving into gags about former Inspectors:

They’re torn about Stephen Fry:

The Steve Carrell TV movie wasn’t well received:

And of course, they’re concerned about pocket fruit:

But there are more sophisticated jokes emerging. Like this one:

This presumes, in the form of a “fan confession”, that: the showrunner of Inspector Spacetime is also running another show – Hercule – which appears to be a modern-day Poirot reboot, and of course, because Benedict Cumberbatch is starring in Hercule, he’ll never be the Inspector.

This is sophisticated on a bunch of levels, but its elegance is in the way that entire gag is contained in one sentence and a photograph.

Or how about this:

which presumes Inspector Spacetime lives in that land of fictional TV shows, and thus a fictional actor (Alexander Dane) who starred in Galaxy Quest really ought, one day, to return to SF as the Inspector.

There’s a slowly emerging canon, thanks in part to the Inspector Spacetime forum. A lot of the canon is useful – the DARSIT feels better than the CHRONO box, everyone’s sold on Fee-Line – but it’s sometimes nice to see people buck it, or introduce new ideas (and Inspectors) in the most throwaway of Confessions. All this, from a fifteen-second joke that we don’t know will continue (or if it’ll introduce continuity we don’t know about yet).

And yes, Dan Harmon knows about it.

In the week between the two most recent episodes of Community, this has given me a vast amount of joy; I’ve been rattling the various configurations of Inspectors and Associates in my head, trying to remember my favourite episodes of a sci-fi show that never existed. And then giggling at the ingenuity and brilliance of some of the other confessions appearing – of the whole fictional history they bring to life, of Liam Neeson’s run in the 80s or the creepiness of the Laughing Buddas.

It’s really hard to explain the joy (especially as someone fascinated by the inner workings of serial drama) that this brings me. It’s a funny kind of magic – it’s unofficial, didn’t happen on TV, and just relies of fans’ understandings of not only TV shows, but how telly itself works. The results are just brilliant.

I’m off to write my own confession now. There’s always room for one more.

Blessed are the Toymakers

22 September 2011

I wish more people were making tools for a specific creative purpose rather than for general consumer adoption. I wish more people were making tools that very intentionally do not scale—tools with users by the dozen. Tools you experience not through a web signup form, but through pathbreaking creative work.

Robin Sloan writes about being frustrated by the startup generation’s love of toolsmithery. Or rather: their recurring commitment to selling services.

Now, I know that I’m a toolsmith – but I only really make tools for myself. Some of them are on github; some are not even there, either because they’re just so bespoke or so useless. Some I use daily; some I barely use at all. Regardless, I wouldn’t sell them to anybody.

But I thought about the article, and ruminated, and my best comeback is: blessed are the toymakers.

If you can make a tool, you can make a toy. The common output of workshop apprenticeships were both tools to be put to use, but also toys or knick-knacks to demonstrate and practice skills.

I love making toys. Little mechanical things, to be fiddled with, to be explored, created with purpose and intent and intended to express an idea. Most of my borderline-nonsense Twitter bots are just that: toys I wanted to play with. One of them lived for an hour before I decided it was so rubbish I wasn’t letting it out in public for a while. Some of them have lasted a very long while and have a great many followers.

The best toys have hidden depths. The best toys are all super-simple on the surface; super-obvious. They let you know exactly what you ought to try doing with them. But as you explore them, you discover they have hidden depths. And: hidden affordances. Spaces for imagination to rush in. Toys allow you to play games, inventing rules that make the toy more fun, not less. Toys allow you to tell the stories you imagine, not that are baked into them.

As Matt Jones said in his his Interesting 2007 talk – “stories are the contrails that toys leave as they roar through our world and our imaginations“. It’s one of my favourite Jones-isms. I’ve been returning to that notion a lot, recently.

Toys demand fiddling with: they invite interrogation through hands and messing around. And they can be disposable: if they’re no good, make another.

The toys my Dad made for me were wooden. The toys I make – for myself, for friends, to make a joke real – are digital. But they’re there, and they all come down to an odd idea I wanted to explore, or a joke I wanted to make real. They are not vague ideas, tweeted and then forgotten about, tossed to the wind in a meeting, or imagined up but never created. They work, they’re real. No smoke and mirrors here – but no Great Purpose either, no business model. Just something fun, something interesting, to scratch an itch, to see if it’s fun in your hand.

I make toys to find out what’s interesting, to explore what’s next.

Reading Robin’s post, I came to agree with him. After all, I’m a staunch believer in the whole “Liberal Arts 2.0” idea; I’m one of those humanities graduates who learned to code.

Why not put technological skills to use making art (as I argued at Culture Hack Day)? Go one step further: rather than putting technology to use serving existing media – the books and films that Robin talks about – why not just invent new forms of media, as Jack Schulze and Timo Arnall describe? The new liberal arts are not on the edge of something big; they are on many edges, all at once. We get to decide where they tip over into; what’s at the bottom of those cliff-faces. Maybe those media will have the tiny audiences Sloan describes; maybe they’ll become huge. But we get to decide, and right now, there is space to play, and a need for those of us with weird skillsets – technological hands and flighty, artistic brains, or vice versa, ‘consecutive or concurrent’ – to go explore.

Inventing media is a big job. We could start by making toys.

  • "It is a sign in a public space displaying dynamic code that is both here and now. Connected devices in this space are looking for this code, so the space can broker authentication and communication more efficiently." Gorgeous, thoughtful work as ever; I completely love the fact the phone app has no visualisation of the camera's input. Timo's point, about how the changing QR code seems to validate it more, seems spot-on, too.
  • Kars' "hypertext remix" of his marvellous dConstruct talk. It was sensitive and well thought-through, and appealed to me as both a designer and game maker. Very much worth your time.
  • "With the full avatar spritesheets available in the API, we dream of Glitch characters overflowing the bounds of the browser —and even the game itself— to find new adventures, anywhere people can take them. To this end, our new developer site is chock-full of resources to enable web/HTML5, iOS, and Android developers to build interesting applications leveraging Glitch APIs." Full spritesheets! Gorgeous. But really: this has the potential to be super-brilliant, and it's nicely designed. Hopefully more conventional developers will get on this sort of thing at some point. Bungie? Valve? Blizzard? Watch out.
  • "In re­cent re­leases, Sa­fari has been re-ar­chi­tected, with some of the work farmed out to a thing called “WebProcess”. This doesn’t seem to be work­ing out that well." Much as I was excited about Safari 5's re-architecting, I must admit: I've seen everything Tim says, and it's driving me nuts.
  • "The Fretless Fader concept involves a cross fader which can move vertically as well as horizontally, allowing an extra parameter to be controlled simultaneously with the traditional fader movement – most notably, pitch. It’s probably best demonstrated in video…" Nice chat about productising this, but seriously, the first video is marvellous – it's "Drunk Trumpet" all over again…
  • "A billion drinks per day of Coca-Cola is an amazing thought, but such uniformity is a symbol of inertia, not dynamism. For the most part world trade still travels at the speed of shipping containers, not data packets." I chatted to Matt at dConstruct about this, and I'm really glad he's written it up: so much good examples and thought, about recognising the difference between pace and impact, of attention versus raw numbers.
  • "I’m aware on some level that a photograph is misleading but at the same time we have to remember that photographs are just a frame in time. By its very nature the medium is misleading. We don’t know what is happening outside the frame, we don’t know what happened before the frame, we don’t know what happened after the frame. So I carry in my head two feelings about the Falling Man. On the one hand he was no different than the other jumpers on the day but at the same time I hold onto the essential truth that the image represents." Sontag's "moment selected at the exclusion of other moments" again.

Links & notes for this month