Sunday, 17 May 2009

Episode 6

Episode 6. Everyone is Mostly Naked but It's Integral to the Plot

Earlier today, Pam had left the following message on Biff's answerphone. "Hi sweetie, it's Pam. Since I'm pregnant, I thought I'd better pay a suprise visit to you so we can plan our dream wedding. I don't want to shame Baby Jesus and give birth to a bastard!"

Unfortunately, Biff had been hanging around a public convenience used by the local army base all morning and had not checked his messages.

"What was your name again?"

"Hi Biff! Oh Mary and Joseph! What are you DOING with that man?"

"Please, Pam, I can explain everything!" said Biff. "We were just.... wrestling."

"Oh! Oh! Oh! You're a Uranian!" cried Pam (whose knowledge of homosexuality was somewhat outdated). "I knew something was up when you I saw all those DVDs of past Eurovision Song Contests under your bed!"

"You never loved me!" Pam blubbed. "You were just using me to get your uncle's money. Well bitch, the wedding is off, and I'm going to tell Uncle Alistair everything!"

She flounced out.

"That was awkward," said Biff's trick. "I suppose this isn't a good time to tell you I don't do anal."

Meanwhile, Leela had been showing Switch a new way of life.

"Oh Leela, I've been having such fun since I stopped caring about feminism, politics and the environment! Tell me again, WHO is Jennifer Aniston dating?"

Her rival, Jeremy Moncole appeared. Switch dug in her pocket and handed Jeremy a small piece of paper.

"Hi Jeremy. I want you to know that I'm giving up my PhD. Here's all of my extensive notes and stuff - you can use it for your own PhD. All I care about now are designer labels, celebrity gossip and weight loss."

"No! You can't give up!" said Jeremy Monocle. "You are my inspiration! Who am I going to copy from now?"

"I don't know," said Switch. "See you, Leela's going to give me a makeover."

Pam dramatically knocked on the door to Uncle Alistair's mansion.

"I'm sorry to break the news, but I just found your nephew naked with another man!"

"Filth! I knew it!" spat Uncle Alistair. "Right, I'm going to tell him he's out of my will."

After Pam had gone, Uncle Alistair had another visitor.

"Oh, it's you. What do you want?"

"You!" said Morag. "I haven't been able to stop thinking about you since Episode 5. Let's rut like wild animals!"

"Get away from me you crazy bitch!" shouted Uncle Alistair. "I'm NOT ATTRACTED TO YOU. You smell funny. You're weird. You have nasty hair." He ran inside his house and locked the door.

Morag remained rooted to the spot for a long time. It began to get dark and cold. A wind started to blow. This was not going to be good.

Later that day, Uncle Alistair visited Biff.

"Pam told me about your perverted inclinations! I'm cutting you out of my will. You'll get nothing. You're dead to me!"

"I don't care," said Biff. "I now realise that my own identity is more important than money."

But after Uncle Alistair was gone, Biff let out a big scream. "Oh fuck my identity! I want the money! WAAAAAHHH!"

Switch was in the middle of her makeover.

"I've just burned your lesbian chimney sweep outfit in the garden," said Leela. "Now, let's look at the new Switch!"

Switch gave a twirl.

"Very nice dear, but I'm afraid that while you were wearing it, it went out of fashion. You'll have to try something else."

"But all I've got is this bikini top," said Switch.

"That's better", said Leela. "Yes, wear that."

"But I'm cold and almost naked," Switch complained.

"Fashion doesn't care about your comfort," Leela told her. "No-one said being shallow was easy."

Biff had gone to visit Leela to tell her about his bad day. "That's funnny, the door's open but there's no-one in. Hey, what's that muffled sound from the basement?"

"It's Uncle Alistair! But why is he handcuffed and gagged? What's going on?"

Biff removed the gag.

"Let me free nephew! That crazy cow Morag kidnapped me and is using me as her sex slave."

"Hmmm, I thought I was dead to you," said Biff. "So why should I help you?"

"Oh no!" said Uncle Alistair, "She's back...." He started barking like a dog.

"Hello Biff," said Morag. "As you've discovered my little secret, I'm afraid you'll never leave this basement alive..."

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Episode 5

Shallow Values 1: Switch 0.

Biff and Pam had been having sex all afternoon. "Biff can I take the mask off now?" asked Pam. "It itches."
"You may as well," said Biff sadly, "It's not really working for me anyway."

"I love you Biff," said Pam. "I never thought I'd ever meet a man who likes exactly the same things as me! Your superior beauty skills have done wonders for my dry unmangeable hair, you know all the lyrics to Dreamgirls and have the biggest collection of embroided lace doilies I've ever seen!"

Suddenly Biff's hatrosexual Uncle Alistair came in. "Just checking up on you," he said. "Are you still with that girl? Remember, no heterosexuality, no acknowledgement in my will."

Morag, hearing an unfamilar voice, flew into the room, showing her fangs. "Oh!" she said. "Who are you?"
"It's my Uncle Alistair," said Biff. "I like the way he smells," said Morag. "Hey, why don't you stay for dinner? Pam, go and make a six course meal now!"

Morag then tried to impress Uncle Alistair by reciting a selection of Robbie Burns poems.

"What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an a' that?
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine -
A man's a man for a' that"

"I've never seen her in love before," said Pam. "She's even weirder than usual."

Switch was still trying to follow Leela around, in order to make Leela the subject of her PhD: "Shallow Values".

"Where are you going Leela?" she asked.
"I'm having a decadent Pamper Day at my favourite spa, Indulge Yourself," said Leela.
"Oh, can I come?" asked Switch.

"That's funny, Jeremy Monocle wanted to come with me too, oh here he is."

Switch freaked out. "No! He's trying to steal my idea, I mean, my friend," she said. "Leela, you should go with me, it'll be great, we'll have a girly chat about boys and lipstick and empty consumerism and all that stuff you like!"

"OK then!" said Leela. "That sounds fun! Sorry Jeremy, you can't come."
"Damn you!" cried Jeremy Monocle. "You win this time, but I will get that PhD written first!"

At Morag's dinner party, Morag fired question after question at Uncle Alistair, each one becoming more personal and inappropriate. "Do you like slugs? Who's your favourite political dictator? What do you think of my hair? How much money do you earn? What size underwear do you have?"

"Poor Morag," said Pam. "She's never had any use for social skills before, and she's just embarrassing herself by trying to be like a normal person."

"Shut your flaps!" hissed Morag. "Aren't you supposed to be a goody-two shoes Christian!"

"And by the way, this food you've cooked us is muck!"
"Well I didn't have any help," whined Pam. "I had to do it all by myself. And I don't feel well."
"Not surprised," cackled Morag. "I'm gonna hurl it all up myself..."

"Oh don't!" cried Pam. "I REALLY don't feel well."

And she threw up. All over Morag's clothes.

"AAAARRRRRGGHHH! You fucking bitch!" screamed Morag.

"It's morning sickness!" said Uncle Alistair excitedly. "She's pregnant! Well done Biff!"
"Christ!" said Morag.
"Christ!" said Biff also.

At the Indulge Yourself spa, Switch wasn't pleased.

"Leela, it cost £400 just to get in, and then we have to pay another £500 for a hot stone massage and then £600 to be wrapped in cling film."

"But Switch, it's worth it because I'm worth it," said Leela. "Just like Rachel off Friends says on the advert."

"Look, why do you think I'm happy all the time and you're miserable all the time? It's because I buy myself stuff. While you just sit around complaining and finding fault with society."

"Why not try a seaweed massage, it might help get rid of your orange peel skin and then boys would look at you and you wouldn't feel so unloved and ignored all the time," said Leela.

"Well," said Switch. "I supposed I do have orange peel skin, and I am miserable all the time. Maybe you're right. Maybe I should eschew my critique of consumer capitalism and embrace Shallow Values!"

"That's my girl!" said Leela, "Come with me to the Dark Side. I have such things to show you!

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Playing With Dolls: A brief history of Doll Soup

The first incarnation of Doll Soup began in July 1999 and ran weekly for 35 episodes until May 2000. The text of the episodes (but not the pictures) are available via this internet archive. I was inspired to create my own internet soap opera after reading Jacqueline Suzanne's Valley of the Dolls and enjoying American tv soap operas like Melrose Place, which had become increasingly surreal (could anyone keep track of Kimberly's multiple personalities or Sydney's kitsch costume changes?)

I had initially toyed with using my own friends as actors, but realised that dolls would be much better - they would be constantly available, never throw star tantrums and not mind if I set their hair on fire. The original cast consisted of housemates Switch, Leela and Pam, along with their evil, somewhat magical landlady Morag. Romantic interest was provided by earnest Dr Stefano and grunting cro-magnan Butch. There was a gay couple (Julian and Christian) for a while, and later a nouveau riche couple called Beverly and Ben joined the cast. Various other glamorous characters flitted in and out - the imperious supermodel Hambel Campbell, drug-raddled Lady Sapphire, Cher and Posh Spice. The dolls' grip on reality was often severely challenged, with episodes where they travelled in time and went to (Doll) Hell. Dr Stefano got cloned at one point.

I don't remember that much about the episodes, although a couple of things stand out. One was episode 10 where Pam set Morag's hair on fire (that was a very difficult shot to get right). Another was a complicated storyline involving the characters' obsession with a Faberge egg. I had met a rich Los Angeles gay couple a few years previously, who had been in raptures over a Faberge egg which they had received for Christmas. I couldn't believe how ridiculous it was, and the Faberge egg became a symbol of silly consumerism and the belief that stuff will make you happy (despite all the camp and silliness in Doll Soup - it's really about social messages).

I had decided to use the "interactivity" of this new internet thingie (it was the 1990s!) to allow readers to get involved in the soap. I set up hotmail accounts for the dolls - and people actually sent them emails. They were mainly bizarre disturbing ones in caps-lock, interspersed with German. I guess you would have to be insane to send an email to a doll. There was a chat-room (that nobody ever used to my knowledge), you could send a Doll Soup greeting card and leave a message in the Guest Book (if you were on the internet in the late 1990s, you'll remember how popular all those things were). I also tried to keep up the conceit that the dolls were "alive" and just acting, conducting their own celebrity lives off-stage, by printing interviews with them and bits of celebrity gossip about them.

The series ended with the dolls all condemned to Doll Hell forever. The reason for ending Doll Soup was that the series had become popular enough to attract commercial attention and I was commissioned to create a new soap opera (for what I thought was a ridiculous amount of money per episode), for a gay online website. So I started again with Doll Babylon. This was basically a gay version of Doll Soup - Biff was the "straight-acting" repressed one, Aspen was a queer activist while Poppy was a disco-bunny. I don't remember anything about it, although it lasted for 25 episodes, and then the dot com bubble burst, all the money ran out and that was the end of that.

I decided I'd had enough. Around 2001 not only did the world change hugely, but my life underwent a number of large changes. I stopped being in my 20s, I finished my PhD and got a full-time job. I felt it was about time to put aside my "toys" and concentrate on more important things like doing academic research. In other words, I "grew up".

After almost a decade, why have I started making Doll Soup again? I guess I miss those dolls and their crazy antics. In many ways, the cultural, political and social follies I tried to poke fun of in Doll Soup have become amplified over the last decade - there is still much to write about. Even ten years ago there was actual talk of "the end of history" - then 9.11 happened and all bets were off. We've had eight years of an idiotic Christian fundamentalist right-wing American president (Pam loved George Bush incidentally) and social progress over the last ten years has often been a case of one step forward, two steps back. The world is definitely a scarier and less certain place than it used to be. Selfish capitalism has been embraced whole-heartedly by much of the world, and it's only now starting to cause problems for those who advocated it in the first place. In the UK at least, society seems to have become apolitical - simply because there seems to be less of a real choice. Instead, to distract us we have celebrity culture, reality tv and consumerism (for which Leela is the perfect totem pole). An issue like homophobia - which ten years ago I had hoped would have been a non-issue by now, doesn't seem to be going away any time soon. And liberal types like Switch seem to spend their time tying themselves up knots by not trying to offend anyone while somehow managing to be as patronising as hell.

I sometimes feel I've grown up too much. I don't watch tv any more (except for the news and a few high "quality" American series), I don't buy lifestyle or celebrity magazines. I read The Economist and the Times Higher Education magazine instead. The world makes me depressed and disappointed and angry. So starting Doll Soup again is a release, in that it's a comforting distraction from my personal real world of work and the wider real world of political instability, economic depression, war, famine and global warming. But it's also a way that I can poke fun at my own anxieties about that world. I suspect that there will be more stories about Faberge Eggs and few stories about Doll Hell coming up...

And I miss what happens to my brain when I start thinking up storylines for the characters. I go into a state which psychologists call "flow" - and there's a huge sense of pleasure in realising how a storyline is going to develop and how the characters can even act as proxies for all the things I want to say and do but can't and shouldn't because I'm an adult with responsibilities in the real world. I don't know where the ideas come from - they just pop into my head. I'm all for people doing what they enjoy, and if playing with dolls, even if you're a 36 year old man, makes you happy in some way, then I'm all for it!

Lubin Odana 2009

Monday, 23 February 2009

Episode 4

Episode 4 What A One Night Stand With Disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich Looks Like

Switch was moping around the house. Morag flew in.

"Hey, love the whole new 'lesbian chimney sweep' look," said Morag. "That bin bag you'd been wearing for the last three episodes was starting to stink."

"Oh leave me alone," moped Switch. "I still haven't forgiven you for eating my PhD data."

"I was doing you a favour!" said Morag. "Did you really think you could get a PhD by 'analysing' Virgina Woolf's shopping list? Did you?"

She flew away, cackling.

There was a knock at the door. "Oh what do you want Jeremy Monocle?" Switch asked.

"I've come to apologise for trying to steal your data," said Jeremy. "I want to confess everything. You see, I'm a famous entrepreneur - I invented chairs and the letter W. Every time someone sits on a chair I get paid £1."

"What does that have to do with me though?" asked Switch.

"Well," continued Jeremy Monocle. "I have everything: an enormous house on the artifcial island Palm Jumeriah, I own cloned versions of every Oscar and Grammy Award winner of the last 50 years, I have the largest collection of Faberge eggs in the known universe. The only thing I don't have is that elusive prize - an almost incomprehensible ultra-specific PhD in a social sciences subject... I thought I could steal your idea and the PhD would be mine!"

"Well thanks to you, Morag ate my PhD data and now I'll have to think of a whole new topic!" snapped Switch.

Leela swanned in. "Switch! You're dead clever right, can you help me with this dilemma? I've been slavering my face and body with this self-tanning cream for the last 6 months. However, I'm now reading that girls in Asia are trying to get their faces to look like white people so they've been using this skin-lightening cream. So what colour should I be?"

Switch sighed. "Why not mix the two creams together?" she suggested ironically.

"Perfect!" cried Leela, "Why didn't I think of that? No wonder you're doing a PhD!"

"Leela is like an embodiment of everything that's wrong with today's selfish capitalist, commerical, advertising, people-as-commodities, unfulfilled-wants culture!" cried Switch.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" asked Jeremy Monocle.

"She would make an ideal case study for my PhD!" said Switch. "I could just follow her around and write down everything she says and does, and then critique it, and that's my PhD!"

Meanwhile, Biff was taking his 'girlfriend' Pam to meet his uncle Alistair.

"Oh I do hope your uncle will like me! What a big house!" gushed Pam.

"Hello nephew!" said Uncle Alistair. "Who's this with you? I thought you were a big queer!"

"Certainly not", said Biff. "I'm as straight as Tom Cruise! This is my girlfriend Pam. She's a Christian and a virgin, so you can't get more normal than that can you?"

"Glad to meet you," said Uncle Alistair. "Come on in and let me show you around my enormous house."
"Enchanté" said Pam (pronouncing it "enn-chant").

"Are you sure you're not a queer?" asked Uncle Alistair, while Pam was on the loo.
"I swear on Cher's life!" said Biff.

"Well, it's a bit suspicious that she's still a virgin," said Uncle Alistair. "I want you to fuck her, and then I'll change my will to leave everything to you."
"I can do that!" said Biff. "I'll get it done tonight."

Back at the house, Biff was desperate. "My hatrosexual uncle wants to make me have sex with Pam. How am I going to go through with it?"
"Just pretend she's a man," suggested Leela.
"My imagination has been ruined by years of watching gay porn," said Biff. "I know! I'll make her wear a mask of a man."

"Oh I love crafts! I'll make you one," said Leela. "Who's face should I get?"
"How about Tom Cruise," said Biff. "But not a recent picture. He's got wrinkles now. Get one from his Top Gun days." He went off to write Pam a sexy love letter.

That evening, Biff came back to the house.
"Here's your Tom Cruise mask!" said Leela. "It took me ages to make it."
"That's not Tom Cruise you uninformed little idiot!" said Biff. "Its disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich!"

"You'll have to make me another mask, and quick! I'm meeting Pam in 10 minutes!"
"I don't have time!" cried Leela. "Switch wants to go shopping with me, she's been very pally lately. See you!" And she swept out.

Just then Pam arrived. "Biff, I got your letter. And I think I'm ready to lose my virginity. I'm so excited!"
"Well, to make the event extra special, you should wear this sexy mask," said Biff.
"I don't understand!" said Pam.
"Don't worry," Biff told her. "Everyone wears a mask on their first time. It's normal!"

"Well, OK!" Pam put on the mask.

"Take me Biff! I'm ready!"

Biff closed his eyes and climbed on top of Pam. This was going to be very difficult...