In a world that ends at your doormat, virtual reality seems even more like nirvana. The virtual stadium gigs you don’t have to risk your ribcage down the front of. The tropical holidays, skydives and space walks enjoyed from the comfort of your own beanbag. The Ancient Greek epics right there in your shed. We’ve long pined for it even before lockdown, but now we’re all boxed into our individual Matrix pods anyway, the desire to guzzle down the blue pill and escape into some unimaginable otherworld is becoming desperate.
Enter The Midnight Gospel. Having realised that a whole lot more people are stuck at home getting stoned off their breadboxes right now, Netflix have dropped an animated series which captures both the existential discussions and retina-frying visuals of a hardcore psychedelic trip. If you haven’t seen it yet, roll up a fat one and strap in.
In some far distant future where VR isn’t just reality, it’s pretty much all there is, Clancy Gilroy is delving into old universe simulations to interview their inhabitants for his video space cast (the podcast of the future) with eighteen viewers. He sticks his head in the VR simulator in his trailer and gets fired onto some surrealist planet straight out of Noel Fielding’s maddest nightmare where, as a variety of insane avatars (rainbows; snake-legged birdmen; himself, but made out of cream) he has sprawling philosophical and spiritual discussions with a cast of cartoon freaks and weirdos. He talks magic and enlightenment with the fishbowl-headed captain of a pirate ship crewed by cats. Or chats Buddhism and the nature of reality with a soul-bird during a monster prison riot. That sort of thing.
If it sounds like exactly the sort of Dali-esque craziness you’ve been waiting to blow open the lockdown escape hatch inside your brain with, and you plan to neck twelve tabs of acid and binge it from start to finish in what will feel like just seventeen seconds of karmic mind-gasm, hold your ice-cream-vomiting unicorns. Be warned: this is one seriously bad trip of a show.
Firstly, the writer and the animator appear to be working on completely different projects. Clancy will be casually chatting away about the dangers of prescription drugs while escaping from a giant zombie eating the White House, or having a touching debate about grief while being mulched into raw meat by evil clown spiders. It’s the result of the series being mashed together from pre-existing interviews lifted from comedian Duncan Trussell’s podcast The Duncan Trussell Family Hour and the dollar-eyeballed idea of creating a more psychotropic Rick and Morty. The result is so incongruous that the deranged visuals cease to matter a few episodes in and you only stick with it for the brief moments of revelation. What if our reality really is just a flimsy psychological facade? What if zombies are actually living in a state of perpetual bliss?
And secondly, it paints our VR future as a terrifying hellhole. Now we’re used to our VR experiences involving peril – this writer is usually battling off some undead horde or other, or being stalked through a deserted space station by some sharp-toothed acid-spitter. But I’ve always imagined far more idyllic possibilities for it as a source of retreat, entertainment and adventure that might be beyond the everyman budget. For the sake of its comedy though – and, to be honest, it’s only really funny in the bit when Clancy gets knocked off course en route to an orgy planet with a ten-dicked avatar and ends up in a virtual Mordor where child-eating witches milk crow’s tits for potions – The Midnight Gospel’s virtual worlds are self-destructing nightmare planets that suggest a gateway to Hades has opened up in No Man’s Sky. What is, on paper, a wondrous trip inside a Flaming Lips album is actually, on screen, a showcase for what virtual reality might become if Slipknot ever get their hands on it.
It’s not just that The Midnight Gospel is out to fuck with our hopes of a glorious VR future life – it is, after all, out to fuck with most things. It’s that it inadvertently exposes some of the real dangers of immersive tech. By bombarding you relentlessly with grotesque and violent imagery – eyeball sucking demon fish, minced deer-dogs, demonic arses – until it becomes almost meaningless, the show achieves a kind of dull-senses hypnosis that helps its nonsensical background psychobabble and crackpot philosophies sink in unnoticed until, at key trigger moments, you start to believe you’ve found existential meaning in amongst all the quasi-spiritual bullshit. It’s a technique that advertisers, no doubt, will quickly master once they’ve got control of our every sensory input. The Midnight Gospel is almost a showcase and trial run for VR brainwashing.
So a few hours hanging out on The Midnight Gospel’s “Chromatic Ribbon” has made NME appreciate being stuck in the good old real world, no matter how shut-in, cut-off and short on Quavers it feels. VR? The spacecasters can keep it.