Friday, May 17, 2013

6-Star Reviews Part 142: The Vinyl Scratch Tapes (Season Two)

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

Since I'd already used the actual cover art for my review of the first story (which you can read at the link above, or read my review of here; this review may contain spoilers for the original story, so use your discretion), I took a look at the handful of pony images I liked enough to save.  This is the most closely related thing I have.  I would also like to submit that Octavia playing a theremin is awesome.

On an unrelated note, the capcha stuff seems to be doing a pretty good job filtering out the spam; I can still see it, but the messages don't seem to be making it through and onto the blog proper.  I think the spambots may have noticed, though.  Where the messages used to all be positive things like "Wow! You're post is informative &helful!"--when they weren't obscene, anyway--now they're things like "my God, i thought you were going to chip in with some decisive insght at the end there, not leave it with ‘we leave it to you to decide’."  I guess the honeymoon is over.

Click below the break for my review of Corey W. Williams' The Vinyl Scratch Tapes.

[EDIT:  For posterity's sake, let it be known that this post originally went up without the actual review attached--hence the first twenty or so comments.  All fixed now, obviously.]

Impressions before reading:  Well, I liked the original story well enough; that's always a good sign going in.  I'm mostly hoping that Season Two doesn't rely to heavily on the shipping angle from the last chapter of Season One, and aims more towards the comedy which pervades the original.

As I always do when reviewing sequels, I'm taking the first story as a given going in.  In other words, don't expect me to spend a lot of time talking about the script format, characterizations which carry over from that story, or the like.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Following the events at the end of the first story, Octavia and Vinyl take a brief hiatus.  When they resume their show, they find they have a new competitor in the still-young field of radio broadcasting: Prince Blueblood and his station, National Pony Radio.

Thoughts after reading:  Since I was pretty unhappy with the seeming inconsistency of Blueblood's characterization in the first story, let's start there.  Season Two's Blueblood is comically inept and revenge-fueled, but unlike the cartoonishly villainous role he was assigned in the last chapter of the original story, an attempt is made here to flesh him out as a character.  This meets with mixed results--while the conversation between him and Luna is genuinely touching, the entire ending (which, for the sake of not spoiling, I will simply say revolves around a very cliche and predictable revenge/redemption decision) is disappointingly melodramatic and uninspired.  On the whole, however, this story is a welcome step up for Blueblood's characterization.

Most of the high- and lowlights from the original story are repeated here.  As in Season One, there is some goofy low-key humor (one of Octavia's bandmates habitually shouting everything she says is hardly highbrow, but the incongruously punctuated ALL CAPS dialogue gives her lines a Kate Beaton-eque whimsy which I enjoyed), coupled with plenty of in-character quipping and engaging banter.  As in Season One, there are some lovely bits of drama scattered throughout, such as the Luna scene I mentioned above.  And, as in Season One, these two story elements don't always fuse cleanly.  A plot thread that has Vinyl questioning herself, for example, might be interesting territory in and of itself, but it takes on an unfortunate air of melodrama when much of the dramatic "action" is sandwiched between two much more lighthearted, silly scenes.  On the plus side, the romantic angle in this story is mostly a backlight against which the story is set; while I don't have anything against the two protagonists being together in principal, I can't imagine a way a serious shipping angle could have been executed here without exacerbating the mood swings of the fic even further.  Although it still has its issues, Season Two does improve somewhat on that aspect of the original.

Another problem which carries over from the original story is inconsistent use of the framing device.  Since the conceit of the story is that it's a series of radio transcripts, stage direction-like descriptors such as "Harpo: [Says nothing. Nods.]" are a serious disappointment, and are a regular barrier to immersion.  To be fair, I should note that the last three chapters are much better than the first two in this regard, but the problem never entirely goes away.  Likewise, the backstory-filled introduction and transitions which fill the story remain a weak point, both conceptually and tone-wise, but these are thankfully kept short, allowing the story to spend the majority of its time on its greatest strength: character interactions.

Although the tone may still waffle between absurdist and earnest, character dialogue remains strong throughout the story--a good thing, too, since character dialogue is most of the story.  Among the major characters, at least, vocal mannerisms and personality come through clearly in word choice and speaking style.  Moreover, these characters are engaging, even when the story itself occasionally traps them into cliche and predictable scenarios.  There's plenty of entertainment to be had in simply watching the ponies interact.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

Although this is the same rating I gave to the original, Season Two does show some improvement on several fronts.  For the record, this is a "high three," or at least, a higher three than Season One.

Recommendation:  Anyone who read the original and enjoyed it will probably also enjoy this continuation: it offers much of the same humor and stylings, does improve on the use of Blueblood significantly, and is all-around engaging and entertaining.  Readers put off by script format will obviously want to give this a pass, though, and anyone unimpressed by the mood swings of the original will find them repeated (albeit somewhat less dramatically) here.

Next time:  Heart of Gold, Feathers of Steel, by NickNack


  1. Replies
    1. I'm guessing it was so bad that Chris was rendered speechless.

  2. My God, i thought Chris was going to chip in with some decisive insght there, not leave it with half a blank page!


    1. Maybe it's another one of his Harrison-esque tricks. What he doesn't say is just as important as what he does. So profound

      I still want a real review though, dammit!

    2. I for one agree with Chris. I thought the fic was very

    3. Finally, a review which matches my knowledge of the fic!

      For once, I can say you could have said it better, Chris.

  3. Well, I guess I'll post my thoughts as a bargin-basement replacement for the actual review until it shows up.

    I haven’t read the first season in over a year, so unfortunately, I suspect that I’ve forgotten a few specifics (such as details in terms of characterization), but I did read my thoughts and notes for it. So, I’m going by those for this when making comparisons.

    I still found “Medium Misplacement” to be a problem here at times. Not only are there are a number of parts that describe action that clearly would not make a sound (“Clearly Grinning” comes to mind at one point) or worse, add a description that I felt was either pointless or something that no real transcript (as opposed to script) would have (I have no issue with writing “Chuckles” or “Whispers” at times to describe how a character is talking, but something like “Sincere” or “Sarcastic” is not something that should be included, even more so when we should be to tell the character was being so from what they say). These bits make me think this would work better as an actual radio show as opposed to the written format.

    Still, I found the first chapter to be highly enjoyable. I don’t think I’ve laughed as hard at a pony fanfict when Vinyl and Octavia constantly hang up the phone when Blueblood calls them since I last read something by Skywriter, and there are a other moments that provide laughter (although there are some misses, like with Berry). In short, it contains a lot of what I enjoyed about the first season. I’ll also admit that I’ve warmed up to the characters more. I still see them as your common jokester and straight man, but Vinyl and Octavia seemed to work better for me. Maybe it was because they’re clearly friends this time, or because Octavia was making more cracks herself. Or maybe it’s just an overall change in who I am as a person.

    Unfortunately, I found others parts to be less than enjoyable. The main arc of this story is that both Vinyl and Blueblood are supposed to mature from their actions and it doesn’t necessarily work for me entirely. More so from Blueblood because he is by far a more one-note character (he is less interesting than Vinyl or Octavia), and not too mention I kept getting mixed signals whether I supposed to laugh or feel sorry for the guy at parts, such as when he reads his “fan mail”. The reason for I found this growth to be an issue is a) the shift it caused on the serious-silliness scale (the earlier chapters were usually sillier), b) it got sappy at parts (such as when Vinyl gets really mopey, you’d swear she’d gone emo), and c) it was rushed (usually a character was changed in less than one chapter (each represents on day, and they come the day after the previous one) after a speech or two). It’s not terrible or even bad, you can still see some of Blueblood’s original personality peering through (such as his refusal to admit he’s warmed up to Vinyl), for example, but it could have been better.

    The other main character is harder for me to judge. I can’t really remember a time found myself enjoying Trixie (well besides when she hide in the trash or was insulted), I found her to be an obnoxious and annoying character that I wanted to leave as quickly as possible, tantamount to Antigonus (I suspect that her behavior was suppose to supply a great deal of the laughs for later on, something that I couldn’t go along with). However, that’s precisely how I react to the character on the show itself, so even if I didn’t like the fact she was here, I can’t really hold it against the story because she is in character, which is always more important. Everyone else is pretty much one-note as far as characters go. I didn’t care much to learn about the past of Octavia’s ensemble members (it’s not bad per say, so much as it moves away from what I liked the first season, the comedy, and into syrup country).

    I’ll be honest, I don’t enjoy this one as much as the first season, but to be honest, I still like this quite a bit. It’s still funny at times, and that’s what counts.

    1. "I have no issue with writing “Chuckles” or “Whispers” at times to describe how a character is talking, but something like “Sincere” or “Sarcastic” is not something that should be included, even more so when we should be to tell the character was being so from what they say."

      I'm going to have to disagree like a mofo here. While you can definitely whisper something, even lots of somethings, you can't chuckle more than a few syllables. While, "'Yeah,' he chuckled." or "'Oh shucks," he chuckled." are fine, "'I went to the garage and got a screwdriver and then realised I was out of vodka,' he chuckled." is not. If you don't believe me, try it. "Notice how forcing yourself to laugh out an entire sentence makes you sound like you're criminally insane?" Sessalisk, the criminally insane, laughed.

      Ditto for speech tags like "sighed", "laughed", "giggled", "barked", yadda yadda.

      I'd also have to say that sometimes it can be absolutely necessary to indicate the tone of a particular line in some way. The very nature of it being written means that you don't get to hear the delivery. Just think of all the times people've attacked satire on the internet because they didn't understand that none of it was serious. Even for sources or characters that are always facetious—facetious to point of being ABSURD—a deadpan delivery can fool people who should really know better. Like, really.

      "If it wouldn't be a bother, might you help me fit a few dresses?" Rarity asked.
      "Sure," said Rainbow Dash. "Not like I have anything better to do."

      Now is Rainbow being sarcastic there? Or is she being sincere.

      Sure you can add a line afterwards where Rarity says "Oh thank you, Rainbow! You have the perfect figure for this gown!" or "Fine then, spend the whole afternoon napping on a cloud if that's all that matters to you.", but that means you have to go back and retroactively change the tone of Rainbow's prior dialogue in your head once you read that line (if you did not read it as intended), breaking the flow.

      Or, I guess you could give Rainbow an eyeroll or something, but then that wouldn't be giving the tone through the dialogue on its own.

    2. This has become of my semi-educated pitfalls. Once upon a time I didn't care, but now, poor attribution and forced dialogue will kill most fics dead for me on sight.

      I say it's a pitfall because in many ways I'm the one losing out on otherwise readable fics. Still, once I learned it and understood the principal, it's not something I can go back on. Now, I take an even harder line on it that Sessalisk implies above: I don't think that 'chuckled' is valid attribution ever. Use it as a beat or description or not at all.

    3. I can appreciate why they make the error, at least in part. You know those times when people speak, but seem to be suppressing a chuckle or talking in a giggly tone as though at some private joke or absurdity they're watching? I can imagine that this is what the writers are trying to capture, so I don't blame them for the effort, at least.

      Surprisingly, it's very easy to fix. Instead of writing:

      "Hello," he chuckled.

      You could change but two pieces of punctuation to get a respectable replacement that conveys the same idea:

      "Hello." He chuckled.

      Accompanying action colours a lot of speech that would otherwise be ambiguous. A lot of nonverbal communication plays a huge role in shaping how the same sentence is delivered, and a mere change in the way something is said can alter the entire message.

      If you really want to make things interesting, think of an inventive way of describing how someone's tone seems to be struggling against an urge to chuckle.

    4. Umm, no, you misunderstand me. This is story was in script form, not prose, so the guidelines (because there are no rules), so this is an example of its use:

      "DJ-P0n3: Nope. [Chuckles.] Seriously though, it’s good to be back. Isn’t it, Octy?"

      "Octavia: Well not to me! I’m not a bad cook! If you want to know the truth, it’s just that I spent half the night wracking my brain, trying to think of something, anything, to make that wouldn’t be completely plain or mediocre! And when I finally did, everything fell apart because I was so nervous, when all I really wanted to do was make something special for our first night in our new home!


      DJ-P0n3: [Sincere.] I’m ... sorry, Octy."

      Chuckles is clearly an indication that Vinyl is chuckling at that moment, so it is acceptable. However, there is no reason for the word sincere to appear like that. You could remove it and we'd probably figure out that Vinyl truly meant it (after all, I thought one is supposed to let the reader figure it.)

      I've done transcription work as well, you might indicate that someone laughs at a certain time, but you would never indicate they were being sarcastic.

      And Chris, hurry up. What do you think we're paying you for?

    5. Actually, even I have to agree on that point. I really did over-do it with the descriptors on quite a few of those lines. It works fine as a script for an audio play (which, admittedly, was always the mindset I wrote the whole series in, especially season 2 since around the time the audio adaptation of TVST was being released by MidnightMagicProductions and became the way most people enjoyed experiencing the series, myself included), but it does not work as well when read.

      So absolutely, I think the idea of the series being an actual transcription of a recorded radio show could have been way better executed. In the context of the series, it almost comes across like the fictional character who transcribed the show had a tendency to overwrite (and that's not even getting into the fact he apparently must also have latent psychic powers since he's able to tell when Harpo is there and making facial expressions even though he's only transcribing an audio recording).

      Those points are 100% fair and if I try to do something with that concept again, I will be sure to keep that in mind so I can execute it better.

  4. This is sublime. I see Chris is going dadaist on us. I welcome this turn toward reviewing with an artistic eye.

  5. Vinyl Scratch Tapes Season 2 was...hmm...

    The main thrust this time was Blueblood's attempts to start his own radio show just to get revenge on Vinyl, and teamed up with Trixie. That pairing has never made any sense to me and probably never will, but people seem to want to push it as much as possible so...whatever.

    Really, that's my reaction to most of the story. It just kind of happened. It just didn't feel as strong as the first season, especially since the dynamic between Octavia and Vinyl was now downplayed and altered to be more domestic. Blueblood, meanwhile, was so hated that it bordered on comical, which would be great if it wasn't meant to be played rather seriously. It also doesn't help that his development feels rather forced.

    And then there's the Luna scene, where Corey does one of the most annoying things a writer can do and invalidates an earlier scene. Did you laugh or feel good when Vinyl tore down Celestia and made her apologize for banishing Luna to the moon? Well, you're a bastard, because Vinyl had no idea what she was talking about and made an innocent mare blame herself for something that wasn't her fault. In theory, it's fine, but the way it forces itself out there and more or less punishes you for laughing was off-putting. Compare that to a stronger scene in the next chapter, where Trixie calls out Vinyl's friends over trying to say she's wonderful when she's basically turned every carbon-based life form in Equestria against Blueblood out of spite; that one actually feels organic, does not take away from an earlier chapter, and moves to a positive goal.

    ...Also, drunk Trixie is best Trixie.

    Overall, Season 2 was a bit of a letdown. I'm actually fine with the series ending here, though, since it wraps up in a rather conclusive way.

    ...Okay, your review was better.

  6. Looks like Chris is going for a Thumper-styled review today.

  7. So, THAT'S the sound of one hand clapping.

  8. I'm gonna guess someone forgot to turn their automatic update off.

  9. Nah. Chris was just left speechless. Now we only need a [gobsmacked] or [urge to kill rising] in there with our emo-tags to know what kind of silence it is.

    "..." Chris said. [urge to kill rising]

  10. OK, I know I just left a comment on an old post saying that I shouldn't be allowed to correct you anymore, but this is seriously bugging me. In the Impressions before reading section, that should be "... doesn't rely too heavily..."

  11. I rather enjoyed the review. Like the last one, I thought all the points made were fair, especially about the strange uses of stage direction in a transcript, as well as the issues with the ending (admittedly it did come out seeming a little corny to say the least).

    I am glad you enjoyed the character interactions, since it is my favorite part of writing the story. The characterization was something I put a lot of work into for season 2, especially for Vinyl and Blueblood. I had held off of writing a second season until I could think of something different and interesting to do with the characters, rather than rehashing the same story in season one, and I am glad that it came across well for the most part.

    I was very happy and also surprised to learn you liked it a little better than the first season, since I often hear people believe the first season is superior, mostly due to a lot of readers disliking the drama aspects in season two. I completely understand that many readers disliked the slightly darker turn season two took (honestly, even though I still really like the episode with Luna, I can understand why many would be taken aback by the mood whiplash of it and I can see how many would feel it kinda came out of left field), but I am glad you were able to enjoy it despite that.

    It was a very good review. I am a big fan of reading your posts. I hope you still continue to do reviews even after you run out of six-star stories to review since I really enjoy reading your insight on fanfics.

    1. I can see why the somewhat darker turn you took with Luna was controversial; after a half-dozen chapters of funny and/or schmaltzy, it's only natural that readers would come into the continuing story expecting more of the same. Not giving them that, whether or not it's a good choice from a story perspective (and it often isn't, but that's a whole other can of worms), is bound to be divisive. InsertAuthorHere had a good point about "invalidating an earlier scene" above; for myself, I liked the more nuanced re-examination of that first chapter, but... well, he said it all already.

      Glad you liked the review, and thanks for the comments (and warm fuzzies; I like those too)!



    Also, fuck yes HOGFOS. Are you going to read the sequels? The third is finishing up posting as we speak!

  13. Oh my goodness, I'm so excited that Heart of Gold is getting reviewed next! Not to belittle your other work, but HoGFoS is one of those fics that I've been dying to see reviewed by you, if only to reassure myself that my emotional attachment to its Gilda isn't entirely irrational.