Wednesday, April 25, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 60: The Vinyl Scratch Tapes

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

Welcome to One Man's Pony Ramblings, the pony fanfic review site so controversial it's banned in China!  Is it bad if this made my day?  Don't bother trying to kill my buzz by telling me that China blocks all blogger and blogspot web addresses; I think it's obvious the PRC fears me and is willing to silence me by any means necessary.  But I will not be cowed!  Behind the break, my review of Corey W. Williams' The Vinyl Scratch Tapes.

Impressions before reading:  This is the first time (though undoubtedly it won't be the last) that I've come across a complete story with an incomplete sequel attached to it.  Rather than reviewing everything written to date (which would be, obviously, incomplete) or leaving the whole thing for later (since the first story/season is finished, why should it wait?) I'm going to go ahead and review the completed first story, and return for the rest whenever it finishes.

This story has codified a lot of the Scratch/Octavia fanon--and as I've mentioned before, I really dislike a lot of the Scratch/Octavia fanon.  But I'm not going to pre-judge Tapes for that.  After all, if I were to form my opinions on works based only on their imitators and derivatives, I would probably come away with very uncharitable opinions of Dracula, The Lord of the Rings, and Beethoven's fifth symphony, among other things.  In point of fact, I remember reading the first chapter of this fic when it was posted, and enjoying it well enough.  So, leaving aside the legion of mediocre shipfics and slice-of-life "dramas" involving these two ponies which have followed in its wake, I have high hopes for The Vinyl Scratch Tapes.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Shortly after the invention of the radio, Equestria's first talk show began broadcasting.  Starring the absurdly mismatched Vinyl Scratch, DJ sensation, and Octavia, a straight-laced classical musician, these are four of the transcripts from the show's first month on the air.

Thoughts after reading:  The first thing that needs to be noted about this story is its format.  Each of the four chapters is presented as a transcription of a radio broadcast, and as such are written entirely in script format.  For the most part, I thought the style was well executed, although the fourth chapter does contain some missteps in the early going, and ends up looking more like a movie treatment than a radio transcript due to overuse of movement and direction commentary.

The tone of the story is inconsistent at best.  The author never seems to decide how seriously to take the radio broadcasts as a story vehicle, and so varies from having the characters be barely aware of the medium (the first two chapters both contain heartfelt asides where the characters forget/fail to mute their microphones, for example, and frequent arguments about finances, sponsors, or general decorum suggest that the framing device is being treated, at best, with great levity) to the radio format being integral to the structuring of the dialogue.  The variable treatment of the setup, and an inability to decide whether it should be primary or subsidiary to the comedy in the story, was a real weak point throughout all four chapters.  This inconsistency of tone crops up in other areas of the story as well--the story's premise is that radio technology is in its infancy, yet houshold microwaves (a shoutout to the Progress series of fanfics, though I found this one less grating than most.  That said, I think I only found it less annoying because of the novelty of it being the microwave instead of the abacus that was referenced), modern sound equipment, and the like make appearances as circumstances dictate.  Again, perfectly fine for a lighthearted comedy; more jarring for a piece with a serious tone.

When the story does focus on its comedy, it really shines.  An interview with Celestia in the first chapter, for example, includes gems such as "Please explain the context of hurling your little sister into the dark reaches of space."  Obviously, this is not a line that belongs in a "serious" story, but it (and other lines throughout) give the piece plenty of humor value.  Yet to try and transition from jokes about mooning Luna to a touching attempt at reconciliation is jarring to say the least.  Likewise, the bits of narration at the end of each chapter, while not poorly written, were so much softer and fuzzier than the transcripts of the shows themselves that they failed to mesh into a coherent unit.

Although each of the four chapters is fairly episodic in nature, and each are capable of standing alone, there is obvious character development between each, as well as a loose narrative which orders them.  Interestingly, Vinyl and Octavia are very well realized characters; both have distinct personalities and goals, and with one glaring exception which I'll mention in the spoilers, both show organic and believable growth throughout the story.  I say this is interesting because one of the hallmarks of far, far too many subsequent fanfics about these two is that they are defined and developed solely as "the cool one" and "the classy one," which is hardly interesting to read about.  Both characters are well rounded and complete in this story, which came as a welcome surprise to me.  Furthermore, the setup provides a fairly reasonable explanation of why these two are together in the first place, which I feel is important; there would seem to be little reason for a DJ and a professional classical musician to be thrown together under normal circumstances, but here I was able to accept the setup.

I had a number of problems with the final chapter, which I don't feel I can fully discuss without resorting to spoilers.  Up here, I'll say that I thought it contained some developments which were not set up by the chapters which led up to it.  For more details (and, you know, spoilers), click below:

But with that said, the quality of the humor throughout the last chapter was consistent with the rest of the story.  Vinyl's gross misinterpretations of concert etiquette remain hilarious to me, if only because I've actually seen similarly clueless behavior at concerts I've attended.   And there are some genuinely sweet moments scattered throughout the story.  I only wish the two had been fused more effectively.

Star rating:    (what does this mean?)

This story is quite touching and funny at turns; it's no mystery why it's so popular.  I only wish that the story connected these elements better.  The characterizations were clear and effective, and despite my dissatisfaction with the final chapter I can clearly see why this version of Vinyl and Octavia's personalities has taken hold among the fandom.

If only other authors would write them as well as Mr. Williams!

Recommendation:  Few stories pull off script format effectively, but this is definitely one of the better ones I've read.  If you're willing to give it a try, and can forgive the occasional (okay, honestly pretty frequent) wild mood swings, there are some excellent elements to this story.  My problems with the final chapter notwithstanding, I have no trouble saying this: I don't read many stories starring these two characters, but this is without a doubt the best one I've read.

Next time:  What Do You Do With a Drunken Unicorn?, by Tumbleweed

...Free Tibet.


  1. What do you think about these?

    1. Hey, thanks for posting this! It made me happy to see that this was the first comment.

    2. Honestly, I don't have much to say about them. I tried listening to the first audio recording (after reading the chapter), and quickly decided it wasn't my thing. Not a knock on the quality or accuracy of the recordings themselves, just not the format I prefer to digest my entertainment in. For folks who do the whole audio book thing, I'm sure it's great.

  2. Free Tibet? Hmmmm... no thanks, I just got a Thailand.

    So THIS is where it comes from. I never understood why people decided these two were a natural comedy duo, for the simple reason that... I never got the impression of a real in show personality for either one. Sure, I used Octavia in Beyond Forever, but that was with me assigning her to being one of Pinkie's sisters. That gave me something to go with. With Vinyl, I was always willing to just leave her in the background. Even that humorous and really well made Epic Wub Time video didn't make her fanon personality stick for me.

    Not that I'm saying this fic is bad. I just didn't read it, so I can't say. In fact, I'm increasingly finding that either I read fewer fics than I thought, or most of the fics I actually did read weren't 6 Star. Considering how out of step with the fandom's opinion I felt even at my most brony-ish, that shouldn't come as a surprise to me.

    1. One of the reasons I wanted to review the 6-star stories was because I realized I'd only read a small fraction of them. Which surprised me, because I too thought I was reading most of the fanfics this fandom produced for a while (and even now, I still keep up on a fair number). It never ceases to astound me, the sheer amount of writing this fandom produces. And hey, some of it's even pretty good!

    2. I'm sure it is. I just had really different criteria for what I felt like reading that everyone else, apparently.

      Well, except you, I guess. Who ARE these mysterious people creating 6 Star Fics?

  3. Ah, yes, the Vinyl Scratch and Octavia fanfict or at least until Allegrezza knocked them off that podium.

    Anyway my take, The Vinyl Scratch Tapes are for the most part rather humorous and amusing, if unoriginal, comedic sketches of the hapless and well-meaning straight man and the wise-cracking and irresponsible joker, and if that’s all they were, I would have no problem with them and just say they were missing some extra sparks. Unfortunately, they try to go beyond that and I think here they are unsuccessful. Every time the writing tried to go for drama or emotion such as when we learn about Vinyl’s backstory or when learn what Octavia named her cat, I kept thinking that the author turned on the “Dawwww” light. Because of that, I didn’t like those parts and it felt sappy. In fact the piece mocks its sappiness at times, which I take as more “insincere” than funny (what I mean is that it asks us to take such moments seriously even after it ridiculed us for doing so, which makes me feel like I’m being talked down to).

    Not a huge fan of the characters, Octavia is just a foil for Vinyl (in my book) and thus I don’t get much from her. Vinyl herself I have to admit is going to vary between from person to person in her level of success. Some people will like her amoral and rebellious behavior and enjoy somepony who isn’t afraid of putting down figures like Celestia or Blueblood and find it funny, others will be repulsed by actions lacking consequences and find her an unappealing jerk. I don’t mind it myself but she isn’t someone I would like to get close to. As for every other character, they’re just there because someone has to fit the role whether it’s Spitfire or Blueblood.

    I should add at times the style irked me, or at least I found it to be a poor job at times. Having done some actually transcription work before (a tedious but rewarding experience), I know full well that this isn’t how you would transcript something that comes purely from audio recordings. You would never write that a character “hugs another” or “stares” in a transcript, and that bothers me. If anything, this is a clear example of “Medium Misplacement”, it demands to be done with good voice-actors and not be read as a script (I know there is an official audio recording but I’m not a fan of it).

    But like I said it is funny (maybe not in my personal top ten funniest MLP fanficts) and even if I don’t think it succeeds at anything but that, it still justifies its existence. In short I do like this piece (well expect for the last chapter).

  4. I call stories like these TaviScratch sitcoms. I swear, I can hear a laugh track to some of them.

    I would have to agree with you, the V-Scratch tapes is the best fic with the two. However, I think the story hit a downward slope once it hit the romance. I think these two are best used together as just friends. Epic Wub Time was good because it got away from all that convuluted shipping nonsense. You are right, the focus should have been on the humor and their development on learning to deal with one another.

    Speaking of TaviScratch, I would like to take my time to mention Allegreza. I remember when this story came out the pairing was all the rage. However, Allegreza like many stories like it, kind of devolve into just short 'sitcoms' where they only seem to be there to play off each other. This could be a good thing, but there is never really an advancement of plot or any major character development other then their 'love'. Feel free to disagree with me.

    1. While I've always enjoyed Vinyl and Octavia's fanon personalities (and I have yet to read Tapes myself), I've always felt like they work better as foils, and thus roommates and friends rather than romantic partners. Totally agreeing with you on EWT; that's precisely the sort of interaction I'm talking about.

  5. Oh, so you're one of the "serious" MLP Fanfic reviewers. I couldn't do that. Good review BTW.

    1. Didn't you know? Fanfics are srs bzns. There is no place for levity in the high-stakes world of ponyfic!

      Joking aside, I'm glad you enjoyed the review. I try to make them interesting to read in their own right, so it's nice to know I've apparently accomplished that.

  6. Hello there. I've actually been following this blog for quite a while (one of the guys behind the audio adaptation of Vinyl Scratch Tapes actually told me about it) and I have been genuinely interested to see what your take on my story would be.

    I thought it was a very good review. It was fair and even handed. Pretty much all the issues you've addressed were completely fair, particularly about the fourth part.

    The fact that I wrote it as an audio transcript yet somehow am able to include stage direction, looking back, certainly scratches right along the line of "artistic license" and "outright cheating." I've noticed this problem crop up earlier in season 2 as well and I'm going to try to go back and fix it wherever possible since that is quite a good point.

    Blueblood's one-dimensional characterization was also something that did kind of bother me looking back, which is something I'm trying to address in season 2.

    Even though I am very proud of Vinyl Scratch Tapes and how popular it's become, it is certainly far from perfect. I am very glad that you gave a fair review of it. It was very well thought out and helps give me a clear idea of what I need to work on. It is probably the smartest review of my story I've seen so far. I am also glad that, for all it's flaws, you did enjoy it. Thank you for the review. Keep up the good work.

    1. How'ya doin' there, Mr. Williams?

      Apologies if this seems like butting in, but I wrote up a response to Chris' review offline and am pretty late to the party as far as posting it goes. Since you've posted, I thought it would be better to redirect it to you in case it held any value for you, which I won't guarantee. . . . Opinions are just that, you know.
      Finally, a review of a story I’ve allowed myself to read! ‘Bout damn time!

      Well . . . there was Jera’s Tomorrow, but I reviewed that myself on Ponychan shortly after it was posted, and the overall tone of yours was very similar, so I had no comments to make. On TVST here? Yeah . . . comments aplenty. Prepare to be thoroughly annoyed. ;-)

      Before digging in, let me state that—regardless of how jaded I’ve become in matters of the heart—I’m a sucker for a good character story with some solid romantic elements. Unfortunately, fanfiction can hardly be described as a repository of solid romantic stories, so I usually approach any “shipping” with my eyes prepared to roll and an exasperated groan on stand-by. I approached TVST no differently, but found that I wasn’t as disappointed with the lead-in to Scratch’s & Octavia’s relationship as set forth by the S1 chapters as I’d thought I’d be, which was a surprise in and of itself.

      Why: I found that Mr. Williams’ use of the passage of time between “episodes” and the characters’ descriptions of off-air events during on-air banter (e.g., Scratch recounting the pair’s “date”) implied a slower and steadier progression toward romance than you seem to have come away with, Chris. Such is the nature of an individual reader’s perception: In my view, the story did build up Octavia’s attraction to Scratch as it progressed, and in a manner that was in no way, shape, or form outside the realm of genuine possibility when it comes to falling for someone who’s initially contrary to one’s own nature.

      Still, it would seem that one simply can’t escape saccharine when it comes to romance in fic, but at least I came away with the impression that the author only sprinkled it on rather than dumping on bucketloads. Well, perhaps the last few lines of Ch.4’s dialog counted as a double-scoop—it was an admittedly abrupt way to solidify the relationship—but I was ultimately “okay with it” as it didn’t feel so far out of place in the overall narrative. These first four chapters are pretty lighthearted fare, after all.

      On the varying tone of the story, I didn’t feel that the shifts between the whimsical snark of the comedic scenes and the serious business of the drama damaged the narrative in any way. Rather, I don’t think that the growth of the main characters could have been illustrated as well as they were without it. Is this type of “dramedy” device a trope? Yep, but consider some of the better episodes of M*A*S*H (probably not the best comparison but the first that comes to mind), and one can see how this tone dynamic can work, and work well. Without these shifts, Scratch probably would have stayed completely mired in the realm of the anti-establishment punk cliché and Octavia would’ve remained nothing more than the straight-laced highbrow, as they seem to be set in so many other S/O fics.

    2. Then . . . there’s Blueblood. I’m going to wholeheartedly agree with you on the way he was introduced, then later expanded and set directly against the protagonists in Ch.4 as going off the rails, and add a little more of my own perspective. The fact that his reactions to Scratch’s shenanigans came across as reasonable until he was fully introduced to the reader is good evidence that each of these early chapters were written individually, before an over-arching plot was fully developed and/or outlined. When it comes to episodic fics such as this one, this kind of “trap” is pretty common and difficult to work through (or around) once a writer’s released subsequent chapters that—from a reader’s perspective—set events in stone. If the author had taken significant portions of Bb’s dialogue from Ch.4 and incorporated them into Scratch’s phone conversation in Ch.3, it would have made his actions in the last chapter make more sense and would have better defined his characterization in this story up front (also, I believe it would have been funnier, but, you know . . . opinions).

      Since you decided to hold off on including the Season 2 chapters in your review, Chris, I’ll do the same, but I will note that my opinion of the overall story changed as it progressed, but it still has my interest and I will be reading more as it’s released. As for Season 1 here, I really liked the way the main characters were defined and presented, both the humor and the drama, and would give the shipping angle a passing grade per my “jaded romantic” standards. Blueblood’s character as introduced didn’t do the story any favors, though, so my rating would be at the 2.5-star level (if fractions were allowed).

    3. Mr. Williams:

      If I only enjoyed works that were unimpeachabley, undeniably perfect, I'd be a very sad, very bored man. I'm glad that you appreciated my review; if you really do find it of any help as you continue writing season 2, then that's really as much as I could hope for. In any case, I'll be looking forward to eventually reviewing that as well! Thank you for writing what you have so far, and good luck with your continuing work.

      WTFHIW: I've noticed that the suitability of a romance's setup seems to be one of the most disagreed-about things among fanfic readers; every time I review a story with a shipping angle, I get comments and e-mails from readers who either feel that I was too generous (if I was okay with the shipping) or too harsh (if I wasn't). In this story, the vibe I got from the early chapters was more of a teasing/taunting one than a pre-romantic one, but I can certainly see how a more straightforward interpretation could be read into Scratch's and Octavia's interactions.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment so thoroughly; I like to think that reading others' commentary helps me improve the quality of my own reviews, but even if that's merely a conceit, you make some good points.