Fantastic Voyage

120604_r22252_p233Emily Nussbaum on Community, Doctor Who, and fan cults, in the New Yorker (h/t: Amanda Marcotte):

The NBC series “Community” was created by Dan Harmon, a mad scientist of sitcoms—so divisive a figure that he was just run out of town by his own studio. (The show was re-upped for a fourth season, but Harmon was replaced with new showrunners.) Even amid the brutality of network TV production, this was a pretty shocking event, since “Community” is Dan Harmon, the way “Mad Men” is Matt Weiner. Set at a community college that is really a stage for wildly inventive genre experiments, it’s a comedy that’s at once alienating and warm, a sitcom lover’s sitcom that attracts the kind of fans that the media scholar Henry Jenkins once described, with admiration, as “frighteningly ‘out of control,’ undisciplined and unrepentant, rogue readers.”

In other words, not everyone. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that “Community” ’s excellent third season, which ended two weeks ago, featured a season-long meditation on the pains and pleasures of cult fanhood, structured around an homage to one of the greatest science-fiction shows: “Doctor Who.” The key to this exploration was the character of Abed Nadir, played by Danny Pudi with the gaze of an amused basilisk. Abed, who has Asperger’s syndrome and dreams of making documentaries, is in one sense a familiar sitcom character, the gentle alien observer—like Latka, in “Taxi.” But with each season he has drifted closer to the show’s center, replacing its ostensible hero, the smart-ass Jeff, and injecting “Community” with his super-fan enthusiasms, which range from Batman to “My Dinner with André.”

As Abed emerged, “Community” became a bit of a science-fiction show itself, the kind of series in which, in the season’s signature moment, a tossed die splits a dinner party into six alternate realities. In another plot this season, Abed and his best friend, Troy, constructed a Holodeck-like space in their apartment, which they called the Dreamatorium. Inside that green-and-yellow grid, Abed and Troy played out imaginary plots of their favorite show, “Inspector Spacetime,” which stars an “infinity knight” in a bowler hat, and his associate, Constable Reginald (Reggie) Wigglesworth. “Inspector Spacetime” is, of course, an affectionate tribute to “Doctor Who,” the long-running series that helped create our modern breed of Abeds and Dan Harmons—the sort of difficult obsessives who make original things and then get fired. “Doctor Who” débuted on the BBC in 1963, three years before “Star Trek” (and the day after Kennedy was assassinated). The show’s eponymous hero was (and is) a Time Lord, capable of jumping through time and space. He does so in the whirling TARDIS, which looks like a bright-blue phone booth but is as large as a mansion once you step inside. When near death, he generates a new body, conveniently played by a new actor (something NBC surely wishes were a tradition for showrunners). There have also been many “companions,” often plucky females—most famously Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen)—as well as enemies, like those Nazi-ish pepper pots the Daleks. The show used the shabbiest possible effects, plus a fly-by-night attitude toward narrative logic, although its low budget was as much a feature as a bug: it made something out of nothing, much the way Abed and Troy constructed their Dreamatorium engine out of cardboard tubes and a funnel.