Like every other geek on the Internet, I’ve spent the summer and fall getting caught up with surreal horror darling “Welcome to Night Vale”, a podcast that’s ostensibly a community radio show aired in a sleepy little desert town where every conspiracy theory is true. The radio host is local Night Vale journalist Cecil Palmer–voiced by actor Cecil Baldwin as the mathematical average of Ira Glass and Rod Serling–who calmly reports on things like PTA meetings marred by inexplicable rifts opening in local spacetime, in between updating listeners on the community calendar and his love life.
The central conceit of the show is that, in Night Vale, “normal” and “strange” have been inverted: the eerie is ordinary, and the commonplace is suspect. The central joke is that this turns out not to matter very much. People living together even in a place like Night Vale–where a sentient glow cloud not only inexplicably glides over town shedding dead animals but also settles down and joins the school board–have the same pettiness and personal dramas as people anywhere else.
Doctor Who is said to be able to go anywhere and do anything, but here, I think, is one story it can’t do, because its central structure is exactly the opposite. In Doctor Who, a strange superhero comes to an ordinary town to solve a problem that the locals cannot–typically, because the threat is so far beyond their comprehension that the Doctor’s specialized knowledge is required–and then leaves again. In Night Vale, a scientist-hero brings his specialized knowledge to unravel the secrets of a strange town where pretty much everything seems outside his comprehension, but finds out that it’s actually normal underneath, and makes his home there.