Is that shock on your face, my dear nerdlings?
OK, I'll let it wash over you, and then I'll continue. Done? OK.
Last week I was hanging with a nerdly lady friend for dinner at a rather cool place that serves food and runs a little movie theater in the adjoining room. We thought they were showing silent films that night, but it turned out that they switched for Doctor Who night.
So we had to decide: Would we brave the wild universe of everyone's favorite Time Lord?
And so we did, because it still meant we were watching movies on a high-res digital projector while munching on garlic parmesan popcorn, fresh churros and summer ale.
As we settled in with members of a local Doctor Who fan club to watch the final parts of “Genesis of the Daleks” (1975) with the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, I did my usual people watching.
There was a large, tall man in glasses handing out club material. A trivia contest with my bespectacled folks, perhaps a few years out of college. The chubby male-female couple with matching short haircuts and jeans. The skinny lesbian girlfriends with asymmetrical bobs and punky clothes.
Or the costume contest featuring: a woman in shoulder-length hair, glasses and dressed up David Tennant-style; and a curvy, Katy Perry-looking woman pressed into a Dalek get-up while holding a plunger in one hand and a whisk in the other.
Oh damn, I thought. I'm with some real serious nerds!
It really was a sight to behold, this little gathering. I don't find myself in heavy nerdland so much anymore, and then suddenly I was back. I hadn't felt nerdland this strongly since I went to the comic book convention last year.
Even the midnight screening of The Avengers felt less nerdy than this.
Even though I don't watch Doctor Who, I have been a nerd for 30 years.
You pick things up, over time. (Even Community's spoof, Inspector Spacetime, has a lot of real Who stuff in it.)
So I knew to have a laugh at the cheap BBC sets and effects, but look past them as well. I knew about the improbable get-out-of-jail-free plot devices (comic books are full of them too – hello, Ultimate Nullifier), the sometimes stitched-together plotting, and wacky clothes.
So even as we riffed on the episodes MST3K-style, they also had their moments. The Daleks can be genuinely scary; that voice is forever unnerving. I can see why Daleks would be forever linked to fear if you saw them as a child. V held that spot for me as a kid, when they'd rip away the Visitors' human faces to show the reptile creatures underneath.
And Baker, as the Doctor, was conflicted yet unflappable in that rather British way. Quite charming, really.
So, I enjoyed both my first episode of Doctor Who, and my time in deep nerdland.
And it got me thinking: How much stuff out there still has a mostly deep-nerd audience? Doctor Who may be one of the few ones left. He's never been mainstreamed in America, ever. In fact, Who is so underground that I bet more people would think Who ripped off the time-traveling phonebooth idea from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure at first glance. (I have a cartoon by Our Valued Customers creator Tim Chamberlain depicting it.)
I like a lot of nerd stuff.
Most of it lived in outcast territory until the past 10 years.
Superheroes? Hollywood's been mining them hardcore for a decade, with no signs of stopping. Used to be that anyone past age 10 who said they liked superheroes was considered a juvenile lame-o.
Like it was my fault Jim Balent drew giant boobs, or the ridiculously-muscled men wore underpants on the outside.
There were some good adventure stories to be read, but anyone over 25 knows the comic book store was a sanctuary to escape all the crap you got for liking this stuff.
Now superheroes are everywhere, in quality films, cartoons and TV shows. They probably haven't been this big in mainstream pop culture since before World War II. Kids read comics, while graphic novels such as Watchmen and Sandman get touted to adults.
And everyone goes to the movies. In the all-time top-grossing movies in the U.S., superheroes are about half of them.
The other half? Mostly fantasy and science fiction.
After the Peter Jackson films, The Lord of the Rings became a gift to everyone.
Before then, we were dealing with ultimate hardcore nerds in Tolkien fans. Lucky for them, that included Led Zeppelin, so even Tolkienites had some cool cred. But I sat next to construction workers at the premiere of Return of the King. My dad has figurines of Gandalf and Saruman.
It's that widespread.
Before this current age, book series following Harry Potter, Bella Swan, Artemis Fowl and Katniss Everdeen would have been popular with certain kids and nerdy adults, and basically stayed there. But now The Hunger Games is a blockbuster movie, the Potter films were packed with a pantheon of respected British actors, the Twilight series is out of control, and Fowl has a movie in the works.
I wonder if the same magic will drag Orson Scott Card out of deep nerdland ghetto with a film that will make Ender Wiggin a household name. The studio behind the in-production Ender's Game sure as hell will try.
Even George R.R. Martin – whose fan base had a pretty heavy contingent of people who study early music – got the Nerdywood bump thanks to HBO.
Heavy tech is leaving nerdland too, when every bar-hopping douchebag can watch Game of Thrones on their smartphones. Deep tech knowledge and engineering still lives in nerdland, at least.
What's still in the nerd closet?
Role-players? I think RPGs may be the final frontier. But multiplayer video games, Xbox Live, and World of Warcraft have jumped into the same headspace as Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer. The LARP scene, however, may be impenetrable no matter how many times it shows up in a movie or TV show.
So how do I really hold onto my nerd identity now, when everyone else knows my nerd stuff?
It's getting harder. But there's one part of the nerdland that's sinking back into the underground; it's intellectualism, sadly. Our great public thinkers can't hold a candle to a Kardashian these days. The Kardashians are “relatable.”
|"Does this mean I can launch my new perfume at Comic-Con? Nerds need it; they smell!"|
Our politics have embraced anti-intellectualism and even willful ignorance on everything from science and technology to simple biology and economics. Is it intelligent to say you'll fix the economy by lowering taxes and increasing spending on your biggest parts of the budget, which is defense and defense-related?
These days, intellectuals, you have to play the game too. Less Cornel West, more Stephen Colbert. I prefer a world with both. Sadly, the mainstreaming of nerdland doesn't always equal acceptance.
Maybe the Doctor will descend in his TARDIS and help us better bridge nerdland and the mainstream. Someone hand me that sonic screwdriver so I can fix this situation.
How would that work?
I'll explain later.