In the first episode of Tanis, our host, Nic Silver, wonders if the Internet age might contain one last great mystery, an ancient myth known as “Tanis.” His exploration into the enigmatic Tanis begins by asking the seemingly simple question, what is it? The answers, he soon discovers, are far more complicated.
I was very excited last week to see a special announcement in the feed of The Black Tapes Podcast. The special announcement was the first episode of Pacific Northwest Stories’ new podcast, Tanis. As you might know, I’m a huge fan of The Black Tapes, so I was eager to find out if they’d duplicated the magic of The Black Tapes (which itself had duplicated some of the magic of Serial, by This American Life).
One of the things about The Black Tapes that makes my imagination so happy is that the entire structure of their organization follows the pattern of fictional texts, and might itself be an example of spookypasta. The Black Tapes claimed to be a spinoff from Pacific Northwest Stories, mimicking Serial as a spinoff from This American Life. Pacific Northwest Stories did not exist before The Black Tapes, nor did Minnow Beats Whale. But, by acting as if they had, the shows give the sense that they have a long history that constitutes the false past that characterizes spookypasta. These added layers weave a complicated texture throughout, and gives people like me (and you) a reward for digging into the clues to sort out what is real and what is only pretending to be real–and sometimes, what is both.
Here’s how Tanis bills itself:
“Tanis is a bi-weekly podcast from the creators of Pacific Northwest Stories, and is hosted by Nic Silver. Tanis is a serialized docudrama about a fascinating and surprising mystery: the myth of Tanis. Tanis is an exploration of the nature of truth, conspiracy, and information. Tanis is what happens when the lines of science and fiction start to blur…”
All of that is right up my alley, so I was pretty excited to get started. So, how does Tanis stack up against expectations and hopes?
Unfortunately, not so well.
The Black Tapes works because it follows the storytelling format of This American Life, which alternates anecdote, explanation, and reflection. Tanis tries to do this, but the anecdotes are not specific enough to ground the audience, which leaves them drifting. Ultimately, I spent the first several minutes of Tanis trying to figure out what Tanis is.
The Matrix worked because it grabbed us from the very beginning with the question “what is the Matrix?” But it didn’t simply drop the question on us; we felt its tendrils touching everything we were presented, and we knew, as did Neo, that there was something wrong with the world. We couldn’t see it or touch it, but we knew it was there. The question drove us. Along the way, the universe we were presented with gave us the breadcrumbs we needed to believe that the Matrix wasn’t being pulled out of nowhere; we really did believe that it existed in Neo’s world. We also weren’t left wondering for too long.
Tanis doesn’t do that. Any of it. All Nic gives us is vague mention that Tanis was the name of an old city in Egypt, but that the city itself is possibly named after the myth of Tanis. He says it dramatically, like it should mean something to us, but it doesn’t, because he hasn’t given us any reason to. It takes him nearly ten minutes through the first episode to even begin talking about how his search is going to take him into the Deep Web, in search of secrets not normally accessible.
Alright, cool, I dig that. But why didn’t you open with “I’m going to talk about Tanis, a myth that’s been around since before the beginning of time, one that you can’t read about, or search for, because it flits through time and history with barely any notice. Don’t bother looking for it on your own, because there aren’t any records and only a few people on the Deep Web even know it exists. I talked to them. Here’s what they said.” That would have been great. But Nic doesn’t open with that. In fact, Nic never says that at all. He just keeps telling us that Tanis is really important without giving us anything to go on that doesn’t sound like random conjecture, which isn’t interesting.
Nic’s opening is promising. This is how he opens the first episode:
“Some stories have layers, history, detailed recorded mass sightings, grainy videos, blurry photographs and countless witnesses. Are these stories with their multiple firsthand accounts years decades and sometimes centuries of collected evidence more likely to be true? Sometimes we come across something different: a genuine mystery. Something that appears to have no recorded history, no website, and no public record at all. Something uniquely strange and mysterious. This is one of those stories.”
But does Nic deliver on this promise? Sadly, no.
What Nic needs to do next is give us a piece of this mystery to hold onto, to pique our curiosity, to convince us that there were strands of the possible woven through this text that is fictional. He does attempt this, but the bits he adds for credibility seek to add by accumulation, not by connection.
This is where he needs to go narrow, to give us an anecdote. Instead, he goes vague. He starts telling us about Pasadena, which itself has nothing to do with what he’s talking about. He tells us that a rocket scientist named Jack Parsons lived in a house there. Apparently Parsons was a member of Aleister Crowley’s new religion, and L. Ron Hubbard lived in the house with him. All of these details seek to ground our tale in real history, but the details don’t seem to have any relevance to the mystery at hand (which was what again? By this point I’d forgotten).
And all of this serves only as introduction to the fact that Jack Parsons’ part in this mystery of Tanis wasn’t discovered until decades after his death. So now we’ve spent two minutes hearing about something that, for the moment, led us nowhere.
The only reason Nic told us this meandering tale is because Parsons wrote a story called “Where is Tanis,” which was “the only reason [he] created the podcast.” Why didn’t he tell us that information first? Hearing that there was an obscure short story published in an obscure magazine decades ago that is the key to everything is crazy interesting, especially when the story is called something provocative like “Where is Tanis?” If you want to convince me that there’s something to this Tanis, you should open with that. Then the long pointless thread we followed him along would have meant something to us.
As I’ve mentioned many times, spookypasta lives or dies on the believability of its claim that its fictional texts exist. Nic tried to give us that believability by giving us all this information about where the text comes from, but the podcast hasn’t built the necessary ethos for us to hang on every word just waiting for the big reveal. We needed to hear about this fictional text before we heard the explanation of its history. Which is a shame, because the content they chose to use is excellent: Strange Worlds was a real magazine. The real magazine wasn’t exactly what this fictional version of it was, but it did exist. This is the stuff of which good spookypasta is made, but the execution here isn’t great.
These narrative mistakes are the difference between something I want to listen to and something I only finished because I wanted to finish it before I felt I had the right to review it. I get the sense that what the show’s producers are going for is something slippery and difficult to comprehend, like Neal Stephenson’s meta virus, but they did not successfully capture the mystery. The meta virus Tanis is not.
I got to the end of the first episode, and still didn’t really feel like I understood what the question is, which doesn’t really make me want to spend my time diving into the rabbit hole. I’ll do it, for at least one more episode, just because I want this concept to be amazing, but I’m not getting my hopes up. If things improve significantly in the second episode I’ll let you know, otherwise feel free to wait for Season 2 of The Black Tapes.