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About the Story
The psychedelic science fantasy series Excalibur was wiped by the BBC. It lives on, in the memories of its fans.
Nominee, Best Story; Winner - Tie, Best Use of Innovation - 2021 XYZZY Awards
Audience Choice--Deepest Rabbit-Hole, Most Memorable, Most Original Concept, Main Festival - Spring Thing 2021
Excalibur is a fan wiki for the best ’70s TV show that never existed
Does anybody else remember Excalibur? You know, Excalibur: the British TV show that ran for two seasons in the mid-1970s, mixing Arthurian legend with Aleister Crowley mysticism, interplanetary exploration, an undead (sorry, spoilers!) villain named Poseidon, and a deeply troubled production history? If so, that’s a little weird because it never existed — but if enough people remember it, maybe that could change.
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Excalibur and the Search for Lost Media
If you have any interest in lost media, internet fandom, cheesy old sci-fi shows, or just good interactive fiction in general, I highly recommend taking at least a little bit of time to see what the Excalibur wiki has in store.
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Don't let it be forgot
So... you're a fan of obscure, not-very-successful SF TV series, huh? Never mind your Star Treks, your Farscapes, even your Red Dwarves or Blake's Sevens, we're talking about series that are so lost to time and syndication that they sound like parodies of the space opera genre. Well, have you ever even heard of, let alone seen, Excalibur?
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Number of Reviews: 5
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Excalibur is somewhere between odd duck and rara avis. Created by a murder’s row of talent, it’s a Twine game built as a fan-wiki for a low-budget BBC space opera from the 70s. There’s some dynamism to it, with a few additional links and comments opening up as you read through the entries, and a sequence that’s more or less an ending. But there’s no puzzle-solving beyond what’s happening in the player’s own head, as they browse through the wiki and mentally assemble each individual jigsaw piece into a mental model of what was going on with the show.
Excalibur’s success, then, is all down to how enjoyable it is to read each of its pages and engage with the questions it raises. Happily, it is a success. There’s an enormous amount of craft on display in how the authors’ have conjured up this two-season wonder, spanning not just plot summaries and character bios, but also backstage drama like writer/director clashes, special-effects mishaps, and more. My upbringing was about 15 years too late and 3,500 miles too occidental to fully appreciate all the references, but I know enough about Windrush and the coal miner’s strike to tell that the story is cannily situated in its time and isn’t just a classic Dr. Who send-up (though I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of that here too).
Of course, just methodically clicking through cast and crew listings for a nonexistent show could get a little dull, no matter how many finely-crafted details and in-jokes there are to find (the Russian-language poster for Terrovator – or “Death Lift” – made me laugh). In a well-considered move, there’s an element of creepypasta to proceedings too, which provides some of the most immediately engaging stuff. As you browse the entries, you come across hints that there could be something odd about the fact that no recordings of the show still exist, or that some of the accidents that plagued the cast and crew had to do with the incorporation of a ritual in the series one finale.
I’ll say that little of this struck me as super original – perhaps I’m biased because I live about three miles from Jack Parson’s old house – and I thought the way the “trivia” and “fan theory” pages spelled out many of the mysteries was less effective than it would have been to just let the player notice this stuff and come up with their own ideas. But overall, this element definitely does the job of providing the sugar-coating that entices the reader to do a comprehensive dive through the wiki (I especially enjoyed figuring out what was up with the crossing-guard and tracking down his comments).
What’s ultimately more compelling is that in amongst all the speculation about whether the show is a (Spoiler - click to show)tulpa and what exactly happened to Old Alfie, Excalibur engages intelligently with the role nostalgia plays in our culture and interrogates the impulses that give rise to these kinds of massive fan-projects. One key perspective comes from the writings of a French existentialist who consulted and wrote a few of the show’s scripts, including one where the character’s experiences seem to presage future developments and even mirror those of their off-screen counterparts ((Spoiler - click to show)Bleak Planet):
"Vaillant defines ‘haunting’ as the ineluctable repetitions of immaterial, atavistic terror birthed by the machinations of human consciousness. In this view, humankind is doomed to face a ceaseless mockery at the hands of its own creations."
He ultimately espouses a radical ethic of forgetting, and in the cast interviews that are some of the last pieces to open up, you can see some of them coming round to this approach too (there’s some in-show mirroring of these ideas too in how the Lethe Ray is used in the final episodes). And the game doesn’t shy away from portraying the negative side of obsessive fandom, largely through the gatekeeping, nerd-raging character of Ian Newell. At the same time, this pro-oblivion theme doesn’t exhaust what’s in Excalibur, not just because of the obvious love and dedication that went into making it, but also in the experiences of the less-crazy fans and the positive connections they’ve developed out of their devotion to this deeply weird (Spoiler - click to show)and possibly made up show. The urge to reify our memories through a shared cataloguing has taken on the very specific form of the fan-wiki at this particular moment in late-stage capitalism – and yes, there’s politics in Excalibur too – but it’s also recognizably the same urge as leads to story-telling at a funeral. The game cues up the difficulty of finding the balance between remembrance and forgetting, a very human dilemma, even as it comes down more strongly on one side than the other.
I noticed a few technical niggles with the game (the “Television Series” category link at the bottom of the “Excalibur (TV Series)” link doesn’t work, nor do any to the character page of Chanticleer) and some typos and inconsistencies (the audio archive page mistakenly lists series two episode 13 as a second episode 11, the Lodestar One page says it should be included in the “Derivative Works” category but it’s not actually listed, and one of the trivia entries for the episode Oneironaut says it was directed by Goulding, when obviously it was really LaGomme). I was also able to sequence-break by accessing the series two episode summaries before they officially unlocked (via the wiki-maintainer’s profile page). Though given that this is meant to be an amateur, fan-driven effort, perhaps all these errors are diegetic! Again, there’s a smart alignment of form and function that means even mistakes help draw the player in rather than drive them away. Excalibur’s great accomplishment is to conjure up a richly realized alternate world in which to get lost, while raising more than enough interesting reflections for when we return to the real one.
When I had heard that JJ and Grim had been working on a huge Twine project, this isn't what I expected, but I enjoyed this nonetheless.
This is a fake wiki, a sprawling website with links to tons of different actors, directors, characters, episodes, and even fan theories. It reminds me of the wiki game Neurocracy, although I believe they're gated differently. In this game, the wiki is being updated as you go, with new links appearing after you explore others.
The beginning was, as another reviewer mentioned, a bit difficult; with so much information at once, I just sort of lawnmowered through it, saving the fun stuff for last. So I ended up reading the 'people' page, then 'characters', then 'planets' and then the episodes.
It was slow going, with no real plot beats in those first segments because they were order independent.
But it was fun for different reasons. This project seems to have several different goals: to be a sort of 'lost episode' creepypasta-type story, to be funny, to provide a window into 70's culture, to honor and parody Dr. Who and original Star Trek (among others), and to impersonate and parody fan wiki culture.
That's a lot to deal with. One interview snippet from the wiki is an apt description of the wiki itself (mild spoilers):
(Spoiler - click to show)"In the end, I think we were all just pulling in different directions. Carson and I wanted this quite serious Space Opera, if you like, edgy, with political undercurrents and elements of folklore. Jerry (Newbaum) wanted a children's show to compete with Doctor Who, and Derek Farland, well, he really should have been writing kitchen sink dramas. In the end, the show just sort of tore itself apart."
One issue with writing 'creepy' or 'weird' TV shows is that a lot of TV shows are both intentionally and unintentionally weird, and you run into Poe's Law.
There were three threads in the wiki about its own origins, of which I found two pretty compelling (heavy spoilers from here on out):
(Spoiler - click to show)I enjoyed the 'curse' aspect, where the crew enacted an unholy Crowley-based ritual in Glastonbury Tor, invoking the 'thelema' of the producer to enact his will, and thereby dooming the entire show to obscurity.
I also enjoyed the 'Tulpa' idea whereby the whole show (and possibly all of human existence, according to 'Hantises') is a form of haunting or mass delusion or collaborative psychic projection which, once disrupted, fades away forever. If you're a fan of this idea, I recommend this game itself (of course) and also SCP-3930 (http://www.scpwiki.com/scp-3930), a similarly masterful telling of this idea.
The least compelling to me was the idea that it was just a lie.
There's a lot of humor in the game. My favorite line was "It was later found that a fried lentil from a packet of Bombay Mix (Newell's favourite snack) had become lodged in the cavity left by the write-protect tab."
Like I mentioned earlier, there's a lot of insights about the 70's. I liked this line about that (spoilers for ending)(Spoiler - click to show)Strikes, shortages, sexism, and the Black and White Minstrel Show. Yet the way people talk now, anyone would think they were Britain's glorious heyday. And that's the point, you see. You can't go back to the way things were, because they never were like that in the first place. We create our own past, we invent it. We make it whatever we want it to be. But the reality of it is, there is only now. The eternal now.
The final theme of the wiki seems to be around (Spoiler - click to show)loss and the past, as that last quote describes. For me, the real 'ending' was when I read (Spoiler - click to show)about how the documentary-writer's friend had had an 'incident' and pulled away, in conjunction with the final episode summary about saving the world but no one remembering you. The actual ending itself was less satisfying, but I see its purpose as (Spoiler - click to show)you need an anchor point for people to say 'okay', I've seen the whole game. Perhaps I just didn't understand it. In any case, I enjoyed my own gradual realizations of the themes shortly before the true ending.
I initially was going to give this 4 stars, with a point taken off for the overly spread out info at the beginning, then 5 stars as I approached the end, then 4 again for the mild letdown I had with the actual ending. So I'll just go with my formula:
+Polished: Immensely polished. It doesn't really get better than this. Also appreciated the art, which I hadn't mentioned before.
+Descriptiveness: Incredibly detailed. More detailed than some real wikis I've tried to use to look up shows before.
+Interactivity: At first, not so much, but as it went on I enjoyed it more. A real wiki dive.
+Emotional impact: Left me quite thoughtful at the end.
+Would I play again? It doesn't really lend itself to replay. I was planning on making this a '-', but I love the story of Excalibur, and maybe one day I might (with the author's permission' do some fan fiction in the world, as it's truly delightful. But that would be far in the future.
Excalibur takes the form of a fan wiki for a fictional ’70s science fiction TV show. The show itself is now completely lost to the BBC’s tape-erasing practices, but the fans have come together to assemble what information they can from their own memories and whatever ancillary materials they can get their hands on, documenting the content of the show and the behind-the-scenes dramas of the cast and crew.
I found this premise intriguing, given my own experiences with fandom. The relationship of a fandom to its source material is often less straightforward than one might think (especially if that fandom has been going for decades). Theories about a show or interpretations of ambiguous elements can become widely agreed upon as fact even though the actual contents of the show support multiple possibilities, and the popular theory/interpretation may not even be the best supported. Small details are given disproportionate importance—a joke that appeared two or three times becomes, in the minds of the fans, a running joke in practically every episode; something a character does or mentions once becomes a prominent character trait. Popular fan writers invent characterization and worldbuilding details that other fan writers adopt, and eventually everyone forgets those details weren’t in the show. In a very real sense, a fandom is not so much about the actual source material as it is about a version of it that lives in the collective imagination of the fans.
The concept of a fandom whose source material doesn’t exist anymore provides a great opportunity to explore this phenomenon: the fans are trying to reconstruct the show as accurately as possible, but does it really matter what was or wasn’t actually in there? Are these fans sticking around due to love of the show, as they profess, or is it more that they’re getting something out of the social aspects of the fandom? If Excalibur had been more focused on the dynamics between a work of fiction, its creators, and its audience (and among that audience), I would have loved it. Instead, however, it was trying for some grander themes (Do we place undue importance on memorializing things—or people—that are gone? At what point does “remembering” turn into “being stuck in the past”?), which didn’t quite work for me.
This may be a matter of taste; in general, I prefer exploring themes like this through characters rather than as philosophical abstracts. In this case, I would have liked to see either different characters grappling with the comforts of memory versus the benefits of moving on, with different results, or one particularly richly textured, well-drawn character’s personal journey. Instead, Excalibur mostly offers philosophical musings alongside characters who are caricatures of common fan types—including the central character, Ian, who is that guy who loves being a big fish in a small pond, and is perhaps so high on his own self-importance that he’s forgotten how small the pond actually is. The caricatures are well-done, and in a game that was more parodic in tone I would have no faults to find with them, but they sit somewhat oddly alongside the game's high-minded thematic concerns.
One section of the story that did work for me was the portion of the game focusing on VerdantKnight and HandOfBedivere, who, having met through Excalibur fandom, are working together to make a fan documentary and are also in a long-distance relationship. Then, after a visit to the main filming location, Bedi disappears from the internet. Did he fall victim to the show’s supposed curse, or has VK just been ghosted? Either way, it’s a tale of an obsession with the past that is at best relationship-destroying and at worst deadly, and VK, in his grief, reacts by clinging even harder to that obsession, insisting that he will finish the documentary on his own. And in that moment, I cared about how destructive that obsession was, because VK felt like a real person, not A Certain Type of Fan.
But then, “felt like a real person” is a slightly ironic thing to say here. On several occasions, Excalibur brings up the idea that the show never existed and no one involved in creating it ever existed. That’s all very well and good, but then it suggests that (Spoiler - click to show)the fans never existed, or at least that many/most of them are sockpuppets (that is, fake accounts) made by Ian. So if the show isn’t real, and the people making the show aren’t real, and their on-set drama and the mysteries surrounding the making of the show aren’t real, and the fans aren’t real, and their interpersonal dramas aren’t real… what’s the point of any of this? (You might, if you were being a smart aleck, point out that this game is fiction, so of course none of it is real. But emotional investment in a work of fiction requires some amount of suspension of disbelief, so it’s hard to make that investment in a work that doesn’t believe in many aspects of its own created world and doesn’t want the player to get too comfortable doing so either.)
The point, in fact, seems to largely be Ian’s personal psychodrama, (Spoiler - click to show)but that actually makes less sense to me under the “sockpuppeting” interpretation. If the other fans are real, then the reasons for his obsession with the fandom are obvious, but if this is all a one-man puppet show, then he’s not actually getting any attention or respect, so what is he getting? But perhaps the bigger problem here is that I don’t quite care enough to come up with interpretations of his motivations, because for most of the game he’s presented as an exaggerated, two-dimensional stereotype, which was funny, but didn’t really prime me to be interested in dissecting his psychology.
Despite this wall of text, I really did like Excalibur overall; the reason I’ve written this whole long review of it is that I almost loved it, but the “is this fake? Is that fake? Is it all fake?” kept distracting me from (what I felt was) the good stuff.
The visual design of the game is fantastic, and it does a mostly good job of wrangling Twine into the shape of a wiki despite Twine’s protests (although I did feel the lack of a proper back button). And I did think that the first two layers of the narrative, the descriptions of the show and the mysterious goings-on behind the scenes, were well-executed, with a nicely unsettling atmosphere, when leaving aside the repeated suggestions that they might never have existed. But with those suggestions in place, these two layers rely on the third layer, the goings-on in the fandom, to give them meaning, and Ian’s story didn’t do that for me.
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