Archives on TV: Archive 81
[BEWARE OF SPOILERS FOR ARCHIVE 81 TV SHOW AND PODCAST]
Archive 81 is a podcast created by Dan Powell and Marc Sollinger about the supernatural, the horrific, and the esoteric connections behind art, magic, and sound. It is a podcast very much centered on the beautifully weird and illogically unnerving interdimensional dealings of people and beings caught up in events beyond their control. Each of the three full seasons and two mini-arcs has a different genre focus, but all of them are connected through music created both artificially and organically.
I do plan on writing an article with a more in depth focus on the use of archives within audio dramas, Archive 81 among them, so this will only include a brief recap of the first season of the podcast as a setup for its Netflix adaptation.
The plot of the podcast's first season focuses on Dan Turner (Daniel Powell), a present day temp archivist hired to listen to tapes created by Melody Pendras (Amelia Kidd) as she uncovers the otherworldly activities within the Visser building in the 1990s. Over the course of the first season, Dan discovers there's more to the Visser and to the tapes as his curiosity turns to obsession in the midst of his isolation.
The Netflix adaptation follows a similar thread with Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), a present day media restoration specialist at the Museum of the Moving Image, hired to restore and digitize the tapes created by Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) as she uncovers the otherworldly activities of the Visser building in the 1990s. Isolated (mostly), Dan must come to terms with his own tragic past while trying to save Melody and stop a demonic presence from re-emerging.
As adaptations go, I wasn't as wowed or awed by the changes. There are a lot of tired horror tropes inserted into a narrative that didn't need them: psychological gaslighting, religious backstory, witchcraft bloodlines, tarot readings featuring the Death card, etc. The character motivations were significantly altered as well, which I'm fully aware is part of the whole adaptation process, but it takes something away when your main characters were originally pulled into the otherworldly by natural curiosity or their own ambitions versus having a lot of convoluted personal connections in order to justify the plot. Don't get me started on the straightwashing of Melody! I think the only change that really worked - for me - was making Dan an active participant. He's a passive character in the podcast, reacting to events because that's basically his job. The tv show gives Dan more agency and some "hero" moments as well, which is nice. Dan deserves nice things sometimes. But we're not here to discuss the adaptation in depth. That's for some other website or a Twitter thread. We're here to talk about how Archive 81 depicts that stuff what's in the title.
As I said previously, Dan's profession within the tv show is a media restoration specialist. The show synopsis says he's an archivist, but I can assure you he's not. Archivists come with a very specific set of skills, some of which can be expanded upon should they choose to specialize in conservation and preservation. Your standard, run-of-the-mill archivist, however, is not trained in what Dan Turner does in Archive 81. Don't get me wrong, Dan's still part of the archival community, but calling him an archivist glosses over a lot of skills and processes that Dan simply doesn't display within the show. I'm also pretty sure the show doesn't exactly know the ins and outs of what Dan does either.
The first episode, "Mystery Signals," gives us the most drawn out display of Dan's work when he receives a damaged reel of film from a museum donor. Dropping any and all other work he may be doing, Dan lovingly goes about the process of restoring the film. The camera lingers on everything in the first of many restoration sequences throughout the series. It's meant to show the care Dan puts into his work, though it's scant on indicating how long the process takes. Thanks to the power of editing, it seems as though Dan has restored the film within less than 24 hours, which I'm pretty sure isn't how that works. There's also the matter of how he restores the film.
The first thing Dan puts on when working? Cotton gloves. I've mentioned the use of gloves in other articles, specifically Wonder Woman touching a glass plate with her potentially oily fingers without wearing gloves, but cotton gloves are a whole other issue within archival spaces. Cotton gloves, typically, aren't necessary to handle most archival materials. One reason is they dampen the sensation in your fingers, which makes it harder for archivists to notice tactile issues. They can also create problems if the glove catches on tears or other protrusions in the material. Another reason is cotton gloves, even lint-free gloves, still leave lint and fibers behind, which can further damage paper or film. If you're going to use gloves your best option is nitrile gloves. They're stronger than latex, so they don't break as easily, and retain a certain amount of grip and sensation when handling damaged items.
Thankfully, Dan uses nitrile gloves later on when he finds mold in the equipment, but you know what he doesn't use? A mask! Come on, Dan, even you should know to wear a mask once you even get the idea that mold is anywhere near your collection! That's preservation 101 from any kind of archives program.
Sticking with the first restoration sequence, it was pointed out by a Photography Museum Director on Twitter that Dan uses a bone folder to scrape off grime from the damaged film. A bone folder is a tool used to make creases and folds in paper or cardstock; not your average go-to scraping tool. And, correct me if I'm wrong, preservation/restoration specialists, but I'm pretty sure scraping a bone folder along damaged film the way Dan does in the episode would cause more harm.
So, if we're keeping score, Dan isn't using the right tools and seems to be able to restore heavily damaged materials in less than 24 hours. He pulls the same turnaround when supplied with the first of Melody's tapes. He's simply given the burnt video cassette with a note to have it restored by tomorrow and seemingly does it overnight at home with his own personal restoration corner. And I'm going to say this knowing full well that movies and tv rely on the suspension of disbelief, but the fact that those tapes were salvageable after fire damage and 20 plus years of none ideal storage is a miracle. Fire damage is rough on everything and magnetic tape is especially vulnerable given the chemicals and binders used to make it in the first place. That Dan even managed to get something worth watching that wasn't just static makes him a superhero in my professional circles.
But it was probably held together by dark magics and cultish collective will, so what do I know?
I will say that we get a decent look of some actual digitization and processing when Dan finds the video logs of Thomas Bellows, the previous occupant of the Brutalist compound where Dan is restoring the tapes. Bellows was hired to digitize roughly 30 years of soap operas recorded on everything from Betamax to VHS - by another resident of the Visser building - and through the logs we see him slowly lose his mind while properly labeling the tapes and re-housing them in new cases. I would've preferred acid free boxes, but it's still putting in the work and Bellows seemed to be enjoying himself. And I got to see a brief clip from an old episode of General Hospital that may or may not have had a demonic figure hiding in the background, so day made! I'm sure it was on the Quartermaines' payroll.
And, finally, we come to the Ratty in the room. Look, I loved Ratty in the podcast's first season. He was Dan's companion and often the only interaction he had with anything for long stretches of time. But that was when Dan was simply hired to listen to tapes, not restore them. The Dan of the Netflix show keeps a rat with him in the room where he is actively working on damaged materials. In one scene he even leaves Ratty, in a box, on the table where he's been working on a tape. Dan! Daniel! That's not okay! I don't care how cute Ratty is, he's still a rat and he's not just going to stay in the box. Are you cleaning up after him, Dan? Do you know where his droppings are, Dan? The fact that Ratty didn't just bite into one of the tapes is the least believable thing in this series that includes transdimensional mold paint and 1920s spiritualism!
There is something I can relate to, however, regarding Dan and his isolation within the narrative. There's a reason the archival profession has the term lone arranger - because, more often than not, archivists are a staff of one. Being underpaid and understaffed goes with the territory, no matter where you work, but archivists get saddled with extraordinary amounts of work on top of justifying their existence while also making themselves as relevant as possible. There's never enough time, money, or help and most companies and institutions don't care enough to change that. We work in isolation, hoping for those moments of connection at conferences or in forums, but there's a lot of loneliness that comes with a job where your existence is conditional to the needs of your userbase.
Dan's personal quest to repair broken things, to give back something of importance to people is also a relatable trait that many archivists share. I can tell you from personal experience, you don't become an archivist for the mountains of cash they drive up to your doorstep. You become an archivist because you have an attachment to the historical or the community or even the unknown. The profession isn't magical, but it can open doors and provide access to people who've been previously denied. It's a lot of work, but it's rewarding in and of itself and watching Dan derive even a small amount of satisfaction and pleasure from what he does is enjoyable to watch.
So, yes, the Archive 81 tv show didn't exactly work for me, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't watch it and make your own conclusions. A lot of work still went into it from writers, directors, and the production team, plus the score and soundtrack are absolutely worth a listen. But, if you're an archivist, cover your eyes when the cotton gloves go on.