“A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.”
The pilot to Welcome to Night Vale is one of the most solid show-starters I’ve ever seen, er, heard. Right away we get a very solid sense of just what sort of a world we’re dealing with. It’s in a desert, the landscape is simple but beautiful, and everyone knows that things are not as they seem. That’s a powerful sentiment to get across in one sentence, made even better by our mysterious narrator’s absolutely mesmerizing voice. We don’t find out very much about Welcome to Night Vale’s narrator in this episode. He and his hypnotic voice come across as being just another part of Night Vale’s vaguely ominous atmosphere. Honestly, it’s a bit of an entrancing experience to listen to.
We soon realize that Welcome to Night Vale takes the structure of a news radio show. Our narrator (okay, slight spoiler, his name is Cecil) begins by announcing the opening of a new town dog park. He then goes on to emphasize that no one should go anywhere near this dog park, let alone with their dogs. Instead the dog park seems to be a home to mysterious hooded figures that one should not go near or even look at. But don’t worry. The dog park won’t harm you.
The bit about the dog park is then immediately dropped to move on to the next story. The thing about Night Vale, particularly in the first few episodes is that it’s always throwing a lot of small stories at you that may or may not become important later on. With two weeks between each episode, it can be easy to lose track of plotlines that might take months to come up again. Of course, that’s why it’s great to do recaps on the whole thing! I also think that it makes Night Vale feel more real. Everything there keeps happening even when we’re not hearing about it. Will the dog park ever be important again? Probably! Should we stop thinking about it for now? Yes.
The next story is about someone named Old Woman Josie. She lives in the car lot and was recently visited by angels. They were ten feet tall and radiant. Also, one of them was black. Apparently their main reason for appearing was to help Joise with her household chores. Now she’s selling a light bulb that one of them changed out for her. “It was the black angel, if that sweetens the pot of anyone.” It’s another brief story that illustrates Night Vale’s knack for combining the bizarre with the mundane.
But enough stalling. I know what you’re all waiting for.
“A new man came into town today. Who is he? What does he want from us? Why his perfect and beautiful haircut? Why his perfect and beautiful coat? He says he is a scientist. Well, we have all been scientists at one point or another in our lives. But why now? Why here?”
It’s Caaaaaaaaaaaaaarloooooooooooos! For everyone who’s reading this as an introduction to Night Vale, I’m guessing you know at least three things about the show. 1. Night Vale is weird. 2. Cecil has a beautiful voice. And 3. Cecil and Carlos are one of the best ships to come to geekdom in years. Carlos is the second most important character of the show and his introduction here is as delightful and mysterious as every other part of Night Vale. He’s a scientist, but what does he study? Why has he come to Night Vale? What does his presence as an outsider mean there?
Carlos’ arrival also signals the beginning of the on-going storyline of this episode. Generally in an episode of Welcome to Night Vale there are a lot of stand-alone news items and one central plot that will be updated throughout the episode. Carlos is assumed from the start to be a very intelligent and attractive man, but it’s also clear that he’s not well understood. Night Vale is a town that thrives on secrets. As a result of that, it’s also a town that’s full of ignorance. Its people don’t understand how their government works or what causes the constant horrors they’re exposed to. They also don’t understand scientific concepts like earthquakes, gravity, and the moon. In some ways, Night Vale might see Carlos as their strangest resident.
But enough about Carlos for the moment. Did you know that Night Vale’s skies are full of helicopters? Cecil gives a quick reminder to parents to watch out for the colors of local helicopters when taking children to play in the local sand wastes. Black helicopters represent the World Government, blue are for the sheriff’s secret police, and the ones with complex murals of birds of prey diving are even more secretive than that, as no one knows who they work for. Just know that it’s probably not a good idea to let your children play near any of them. (Even if the sheriff’s secret police will hardly ever take one of your kids.) This blurb serves as a nice introduction to the ridiculous complexities of Night Vale’s governing bodies. All of these groups and more will be relevant down the line.
The next news item is about a commercial airliner that suddenly appeared in the gym of Night Vale Elementary during basketball practice. The plane was only there for a few seconds and injured no one, but the fact that it was there obviously deserves comment. Namely, was this the work of Night Vale’s long-time rival Desert Bluffs?! Were they shamefully trying to interrupt basketball practice so they would have an edge over Night Vale in the upcoming season? As we’ll see throughout the course of the show, there are things Desert Bluffs will do, but there is nothing Cecil won’t accuse them of.
Now we return to Carlos and learn a bit more about how perfect he is.
“He has a square jaw and teeth like a military cemetery. His hair is perfect, and we all hate and despair and love that perfect hair in equal measure.”
Carlos has called a press conference to explain that he and his team of scientists have come to Night Vale to study all of its bizarre and scientifically fascinating attributes. His speech gets the attention of some government agents in the back of the room. It’s clear that Carlos has no idea how much trouble his curiosity could get him into in this cheerfully dystopic town.
The press release about the meeting also contains this bit:
“He grinned, and everything about him was perfect, and I fell in love instantly.”
Interestingly, when I first heard this episode I didn’t think that Cecil was romantically interested in Carlos. That’s pretty impressive considered Cecil straight-up says that he fell in love with Carlos. But instead I saw it more as a strange aesthetic fixation Cecil had on a person with perfect hair, a great jaw, cemetery-like teeth, and a nice coat. Granted, Night Vale is a weird place, but it’s also normal enough to have people fall in love. I think the larger reason for my mistake was that, in my experience, no one writes queer characters like this. I’ve been taught again and again that same-sex love hardly ever happens for main characters. If it does, it’s only after the show or storyline has been well established. Queer love is something writers take a chance on, but only when it feels like a safe risk.
Welcome to Night Vale is a great show on many levels, but one of my favorite parts about it, ironically, is that it makes me feel safe. The creators obviously care about keeping their world diverse in a setting where it would be easy to ignore. Same-sex couples come up regularly, women make up a large portion of the cast, people of color are explicitly included rather than just implied, there are characters with handicaps, and (as of this writing) one known transgender character and one known agender character. This inclusiveness shouldn’t make me want to cry, but it does because it’s just so rare. And I find it so refreshing to be a fan of a show that explicitly cares about including all kinds of people in the beautiful, terrifying world they’ve built.
Moving on, the Night Vale Business Association is proud to announce the new Night Vale Harbor and Waterfront Recreation Area. It sounds like a wonderful place for businesses to open and families to visit, with only the slight inconvenience of being located in the middle of a desert and having no actual waterfront. Cecil suggests waiting for a flashflood to get the full experience.
There’s a brief announcement about the NRA and the new bumper stickers they’re selling, (“Guns Don’t Kill People; It’s Impossible To Be Killed By A Gun; We Are All Invincible To Bullets And It’s A Miracle.) Then we’re back to Carlos and his scientific team. They’ve discovered a house in Desert Creek (apparently a district of Night Vale) that doesn’t actually exist. It looks like it should exist, as it’s right between two identical and real houses, but we’re assured it doesn’t. They should know. They’re scientists. Who are now daring each other to knock on the door.
Next there seems to be some sort of evil magic happening at the Night Vale post office. Horrifying howls were heard there yesterday. A man called the Indian Tracker (who will later be called the Apache Tracker) was on the scene and promised to get to the bottom of things. The Apache Tracker is another great character of Night Vale. He’s a racist joke. He is explicitly called a racist joke. He’s a white man who wears a plastic, Native American headdress and “claims to be able to be able to read tracks on asphalt”. Even in his first appearance, Cecil is quick to point out that the Apache Tracker is insulting and ridiculous. No one seems to take him seriously and no one in Night Vale apologizes for his behavior. It’s refreshing to see such blatantly called-out racism in a story for once.
There are lights above the Arby’s in Night Vale. Like everything else, they seem quite mysterious but Cecil is onto their game. Apparently the lights are signs of invaders from another world. You should probably know about that. Moving on.
Carlos is apparently an extremely efficient scientist. It’s only been a few minutes and he’s already discovered another mystery of Night Vale. (Though, granted, you could probably trip over a dozen of them walking down the block.) He and his team have been watching seismic monitors that suggest Night Vale should be experiencing catastrophic earthquakes. However, no one can feel them. “[T]he ground has been as still as the crust of a tiny globe rocketing through an endless void could be.” Cecil suggests filing insurance claims anyway, just to see what residents can get.
During the traffic report Cecil gives a brief warning about the ghost cars regularly seen on the highway. The police warn drivers not to set their speeds by the ghost cars, as they go recklessly fast. Instead, try matching the speeds set by the mysterious lights in the sky (different than the ones above the Arby’s). They seem to be responsible drivers.
And then we have the weather…
The weather is section of the show is the one least relevant to its section title. It’s actually a musical interlude that usually serves as a bridge for characters to resolve the central drama of the episode. It’s also a great way to hear some cool new music. This episode’s weather is “These and More Than These” by Night Vale’s co-creator, Joseph Fink.
As there is little in the way of an ongoing story in the pilot, Cecil simply welcomes us back and continues reporting the news. Carlos, that busy bee, has made another discovery. He claims that the sun didn’t set at the correct time that day. As usual, Cecil seems unbothered, but this is actually an important point about Night Vale in general. Time is weird there. It seems to go at random paces that change without warning. This comes up as a plot point several times, but it’s also helpful for the listener’s suspension of disbelief. If you’re ever listening to Night Vale and wonder, “How did they do all that in just a few minutes?” just remember TIME IS WEIRD IN NIGHT VALE.
Next, the city council puts in an announcement about the tiered heavens and the hierarchy of angels. Namely, they want to remind the town that no one should know anything about them. Citizens are encouraged to report any angels they might see in town. But don’t talk to them, as they only tell lies and don’t exist. The city council is perhaps one of the most sinister aspects of Night Vale. It’s interesting that this early on their announcement comes in an episode that has already blatantly contradicted what they say. Of course, narratively, this isn’t an accident. Night Vale is full of conspiracies, but some of the best humor of the show comes from how poorly hidden those conspiracies are.
And then…Well, I’ll let this part speak for itself.
“And now for a brief public service announcement. Alligators. Can they kill your children? Yes.
Along those lines, to get personal for a moment, I think the best way to die would be swallowed by a giant snake. Going feet first and whole into a slimy maw would give your life perfect symmetry.”
Another habit in Night Vale seems to be picking exact turns of phrase or names and then only using those exact same words to describe a thing or person the same way every time. Incidentally, make sure to remember the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex. The owner of the DFBAAFC, Teddy Williams, has just discovered an enormous cavern under lane five. Inside is a distant, but large underground city that he accidentally sent a bowling ball crashing and echoing toward. In one of the spookiest moments of the episode, Cecil notes that whoever lives there must know about Night Vale now. We may be hearing from them soon…
Finally, we end with one last story about Carlos. He burst into the radio studio with a Blinking Scientific Device, got some disturbing readings, and urged Cecil to leave right away. Cecil seems to feel some slight concern, at least for doing that Carlos wants. But of course Cecil’s job comes first. He won’t leave while there’s news to tell his listeners. He closes out the show by commenting on how lovely the night is and hoping that we all have someone special to enjoy it with “or, at least, good memories of when you did.” Character development is a little minimal in this first episode, but this may be our first hint of how lonely of a person our beloved Cecil is.
Last of all, we have credits and this episode’s proverb: “Look to the north. Keep looking. There’s nothing coming from the south.”
Welcome to Night Vale’s pilot episode is a fantastic, strong opening, introducing us to a lot of core characters and concepts of the series. It’s also a bit disjointed early on. I think this episode is more of a straight-forward news report than later episodes that will have more solid, continuous story to them. Both styles work well, but this one is a little odd considering how different the later episodes will be.
Anyway, here’s our current conspiracy tracker!
- Angels are living with Old Woman Josie and the city council doesn’t like them.
- There’s a house that doesn’t exist.
- The Apache Tracker is investigating something evil at the post office.
- Time is weird in Night Vale.
- Cecil wants to be swallowed by a giant snake.
- There’s a city underneath the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex.
Just some things to keep in mind…
And until next time, good night readers, good night.
Alex Townsend is freelance writer, a cool person, and really into gender studies and superheroes. It’s a magical day when all these things come together. You can follow her on her tumblr and see her comments on silver age comics. Happy reading!
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