In which The Author might be riding the range again
My regular readers will undoubtedly have come across references to Dodge This scattered throughout this blog. My friends from Aberdare (virtually and otherwise) might remember this bizarre experiment in collaborative fiction. For the rest of you, let me explain…
Back in the good old days of Aberdare Online, a gang of the regulars had started writing a ‘Magnificent Seven’ story. It was a novel by committee, almost the literary equivalent of the old Exquisite Corpse exercise, where one person draws a head, someone else draws a torso, a third person draws the legs, and then unfold the paper to see the grotesque results.
I was a relative latecomer to Aberdare Online. By the time I got involved, M7 was pretty well established. I think I got mentioned in passing a couple of times, but there was no chance that I’d be able to join the original gang. When the server crashed in the summer of 2005, the entire saga was lost. It seemed like the end of an era.
Instead, it was the start of a whole new era. In the September of 2005, I was on the phone to my friend Angela R. She asked me if I’d seen that week’s Cynon Valley Leader, and drew my attention to the front page. A former Woolworths manager had been appointed to head the Cynon Valley Crime Prevention Committee, and the paper had run his photo under a headline which said something like, ‘I’m going to clean up this town.’ We realised that we had a new Sheriff.
Angela said it would be a good time to revive the M7 story – by which time I was halfway through typing the first episode. It was a very basic scene-setter, with a handful of stereotyped characters in a clichéd Western scenario. I posted it immediately, and told Angela to check out the site. It appeared under the title Wanted – Alive and Preferably Thinking. Angela loved it immediately. The following day, I wrote a second episode, introducing one of the mysterious characters who would play a key role in the story.
After a few days, one of the other site regulars asked if it was open to other people. I replied that I’d been wondering what was keeping the rest of them. Then the fun really started. Angela dived straight in. So did Binx and Nancy F. (from Canada), who’d been part of the original M7. It didn’t take much arm-twisting for Vicki F. to jump onto the stagecoach as well. Thus, the scene was set for what Vix later described (on the dedicated Dodge This forum) as ‘the wittiest, wackiest, weirdest Western on the World Wide Web.’
Aberdare itself was an obvious target for satire, with its struggling town centre shops, overwhelmed police force, ‘interesting’ pubs, pisspoor public transport, ropey council, laughable newspaper, and a host of bizarre characters who pretty much wrote themselves into the story. Even if our friends didn’t want to get involved directly, some of them had no choice. If you’re at all familiar with Aberdare, you’d probably have recognised some of the recurring characters: Benny, the politician-turned-actor-turned-comedy singer; Michal, the pissed Polish ex-boxer; the Scissorhands Kid, the town barber; Freddie ‘Smiler’ Goode, the grouchy saloon-keeper; Nick Garrison (aka ‘Dozes On Trains’), who could usually be found sleeping on pretty much any horizontal surface; Jeremiah Allan, the guitar-playing prophet of Doom; Theresa of the Sierra Madhouse; the time-travelling Banjo Man – all these (and more) bear more than a passing resemblance to friends of ours.
About six weeks into the story, I was at the wedding reception of my friends James T. and Vicky. James’ father Elwyn and his brother Andrew administered Aberdare Online between them, so there was no way they didn’t know about the story. During a lull in the proceedings, Elwyn took me to one side.
‘I wanted to have a quick word about the site,’ he began.
‘Oh yes? What’s up?’
‘This Wild West story that you and the others are writing…’
My heart sank. Surely he wasn’t going to pull the plug on it?
‘What the fuck are you lot on?’
It turned out that he didn’t want us to stop writing. Far from it – by the end of Season 1, we’d notched up over two thousand hits. Once people were on Andrew’s site, they tended to stay and look around. Within a couple of months, people from across the world were ‘tuning in’ to catch with the latest goings-on in Dodge This.
[A digression: You’ve probably noticed that we pinched the title from that great line in The Matrix, where Trinity kills one of the agents by blowing his head off. That wasn’t the only external influence on the story, mind you. We cribbed bits from sources as diverse as NCIS, James Joyce (Vix’s personal favourite), Robert Anton Wilson, Doctor Who and Torchwood, Round the Horne, Dylan Thomas, and many others. We quoted song lyrics, we robbed catchphrases from films, we experimented with HTML (to Andrew’s horror, as he usually had to repair the damage afterwards), and took the story off into unexpected and inexplicable avenues.]
Occasionally Angela and I would get pissed together and sketch out an outline for the next episode; other times, Vix and I would get pissed together and write an episode between us. (I’ve already shown you the result of one Steve/Vix collaboration, in An Excerpt from Dodge This.) Every so often, friends of ours would offer to contribute an episode, but they hardly ever did. I wrote the Painted Lady in at one point, because Sam B. had promised to come in on the story. In spite of several opportunities, she never did. I once had a long conversation with Rob C. (see Death of a Clown), during which he told me that he’d love to get involved, but he was afraid of spoiling it:
‘The problem is, Steve, it’s just too well-written for me to come in and play fuck with it.’
Even though Big Bob turned up on the edge of the action in several episodes, the Real World version always bottled out. We’ll never know what sort of fuck Rob would have played, unfortunately.
I didn’t realise just how big a following we had until I met Lorna Prichard, who had come to work as a junior reporter on the Leader. Through a series of convoluted circumstances, we’d arranged to meet up on a Friday evening so that I could lend her a mobile phone charger (don’t even ask – the full story is in here somewhere!) Anyway, I was in the Conway when Lorna came in with Catherine Evans, another Leader reporter who’d just landed a job with the Wales On Sunday in Cardiff. Lorna introduced us, and after a while Catherine realised that we’d had a very brief email exchange some months before.
‘Lorna,’ she gasped, ‘this is the man who writes Dodge This!’
This was an awkward moment: after all, we’d taken the piss out of the ‘Calamity Valley Courier’ pretty much since the start of the story.
‘Oh, you know about that, do you?’ I asked, rather shamefaced.
‘Yes!’ Catherine said. ‘We’re all huge fans in the office – we can’t wait for the next episode.’
I asked the girls what the editor, Gary Marsh, asked about our relentless piss-taking of the typo-prone ‘Courier’ editor, Garfield Moss. They told me that he was rather flattered, and couldn’t believe that anyone would take the time to satirise the paper. As a result, Lorna found her way into the story, thinly disguised as the eager young journalist ‘Miss Print.’
Apart from the occasional collaborations, most of the time we flew solo. As you can imagine, this gave rise to a host of continuity errors, some of which we were able to resolve by contrived means, and others which…
In our defence, I’d refer you to the Q&A with Steven Moffat in the current edition of Doctor Who Magazine, where he’s asked why the TARDIS no longer throws its occupants about mid-flight. Mr Moffat comes up with a suitably well-reasoned and convoluted in-story explanation, and then says: ‘In Cardiff, we just forgot.’
Well, if it’s good enough for this multiple award-winning screenwriter, it was good enough for us!
After five years or so, it seemed as though, like the cancelled train in Season 10, Dodge This had run out of steam. Even though Vix’s sister Julie and Doz the Noisy Bugger had come on board, we were starting to run out of ideas. More importantly, it seemed as though the fun had gone out of Aberdare.
We’d had to transfer operations to a new site after Season 7, when Aberdare Online had shut down with only a thirty-minute period to save everything for the archives. The new forum didn’t attract as many readers as the old site – and most of the new member registrations were spambots originating from dubious Russian web domains. Eventually, reluctantly, and with heavy hearts, we let Angela post the very last episode. Unfortunately, she resorted to Primary School Emergency Protocol One (‘Oh, it was all a dream…), and left everyone feeling totally unfulfilled.
That was about four years ago. I’ve often wondered about trying to revive the story. After all, just because the author says the story has ended, do the characters have to accept that? I’ve been reading Jasper Fforde’s novels, where the characters really do exist independently of the books they feature in. Over the past five years, I’ve often toyed with the idea of bringing some of our characters back, and picking them up for a new scenario.
When I was in Cardiff for my Fifteen to One audition, I had a few pints in a gay pub and looked at the posters for the forthcoming attractions. One of them was a drag queen called ‘Tanya Hyde.’ I texted Sam B. and said, ‘That’s a name we could have used in Dodge This!’ Straight away, she texted back, wanting to know why I didn’t get the story going again.
I explained that time had gone on; Angela and I no longer bother with each other; Vix is somewhere in the Middle East, teaching English; it would be very difficult to pull the old team together. Nance and I are friends on Facebook; I still see Doz every so often; Sam turns up once in a blue moon.
The problem is that Aberdare’s a very different place now. The pubs have changed. The people have changed. Aberdare Online – which used to provide much of the source material and a lot of the gossip – isn’t what it used to be. The Cynon Valley Leader isn’t fit to wrap your chips in. I honestly thought the time of Dodge This had been and gone.
Sam asked me if I could send her the whole text, so that she could read it at her leisure. I emailed it to her a couple of weeks ago, then realised that it still needed to be thoroughly proofed and knocked into shape before it was ready for publication. Now that Geoff’s book is out of the way, I’ve had the time to go and look at it again in detail. I know it’s full of clichés and stereotypes, but we really did write some quite good stuff between us.
And the coincidences are piling up again. Yesterday, at home, I was working my through the complete typescript and listening to music on Shuffle, when this piece of corny old 1950s pop came up for no reason:
As if that wasn’t bad enough, I listened to Radio 4 and Radio 4Extra into the night. In no particular order, the words ‘Nemesis’, ‘fugitive’, ‘cowboy’ and ‘sheriff’ all turned up in short order. To cap it all, the Radio 4 Classic Serial last night was the final episode of The Searchers. At the Remembrance service in Aberdare this morning, I caught sight of Angela sheltering from the downpour. Andrew was there as well, taking photos for the site. You know that sometimes all the pieces just fall into place?
I’ve got a feeling that it might be time to get back into the saddle. I don’t know how I’ll manage to set the whole thing up again. As far as I know, the forum is still active. Can I be arsed to go through the palaver of moderating everthing else, though? I might set it up as a subsidiary blog here instead. Sam B. and Rebecca C. have already expressed an interest in writing the revived story. Doz would probably enjoy stepping back into character. It’s very tempting…
That just leaves the original saga, of course. The first seven ‘seasons’ vanished when Aberdare Online crashed, but the rest still exists in Cyberspace. New readers would have to start somewhere. Even the Wix site I set up seems to have developed a lot of technical problems. I might have a look at it tomorrow.
There’s another avenue which might be worth exploring, of course. Once the typescript is ready for publication, I’d need to find a way of putting it ‘out there’ for everyone to enjoy. Could there even be a market for an e-book, I wonder? Watch this space…