BBS: The Documentary (Movie)

In order to pad stats, and make it seem like the relaunch of Caltrops is something to be excited about, I am reprinting my review of The BBS Documentary.

The BBS Documentary by Jason Scott

Good evening, and welcome to another exciting episode of… Ask The Reviewer!! Tonight we’re lucky enough to be joined by a man who definitely has to be considered a failure in his field, given a handful of half-assed reviews and meager, unwelcome additions to the annals of bulletin boarding. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s give a warm, “ATR” welcome to… Ice Cream Jonsey!


ATR: Hi, ICJ! How are you doing?

ICJ: Fine, yeah… fine.

ATR: Before we start, can you tell us about any new bulletin boards you’re currently working on?

ICJ: I’m trying to relaunch mine one last time before giving up and selling it to an Eastern Island handcuff pornographer.

ATR: Ohh… ka–

ICJ: It’s actually really hot stuff, and we’ll all think less of you for judging it. It’s how Jimbo Wales got started.

ATR: Jonsey, are there any misconceptions you’d like to clear up regarding Jason Scott’s BBS: The Documentary?

ICJ: I would, but much in the same way I yell at Caltrops forum poster Wittgenstein for acronyming soon-to-be-forgotten on-line role playing games, I would like to define a term. A BBS (bulletin board system) was (according to Wikipedia) a computer system running software that allows users to connect using a terminal program. I’d like to note that in most cases, a regular household landline was used. I’d add the previous bit directly to the Wikipedia, except I can’t attach gravy as Unicode to ensure it my revision would stick around. Anyway.


BBS: The Documentary is a three-disc DVD set that explores, for the first time, what we nerds were doing with our crappy 386s, 286s and even more hilariously, Apple IIGS computers back before there was much of a world wide web. The misconception that you might have is that you know all this shit already because you were there , man. Or that the thing couldn’t possibly be that good because the chronicler didn’t go to Buttmump, CO and interview your buddies Lord Aeriebringer, Raistlin Majere and the Warezwolf, three guys who you were convinced was at the forefront of the movement and whose opinions were absolutely critical for any sort of historical perspective.

I’m happy to say that it’s all nonsense. BBS: The Documentary doesn’t have to concern itself with what went on in your miserable whitebread suburb because the director went out and got a hold of people who built the actual hardware, wrote the actual software and cracked the actual games that the rest of us sponged from. There’s something to be said for authority.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When you receive the package you’ll open it to find a professionally-designed DVD kit that opens and closes in on itself. (Unless you happened to have shot your snot-nosed mouth off about the project on the Internet, in which case the box looks something like this.) I have no idea what that packaging format is actually called, because all of the ratty movies I buy (or more accurately, get sent in the mail to me from Columbia House and then don’t quite get around to returning) use sleeves inferior to what this set comes in. If the guy who put out the Saw DVD, for instance, ever even so much as just looked at the packaging to this thing his eyes would catch fire and burst into lacrymotic slag. BBS: The Documentary is better presented than Half-Life II and Civ 4 for chrissakes.

Popping the first disc into the drive brings up a neat opening menu where you hear the banshee’s tele-keen of somebody trying to connect to a BBS. Perusing the director’s blog indicates that the phone number dialed is of the BBS that the director himself used to run, which is the sort of neat little effect that must have taken forever to do and demonstrates that more time and effort was spent on the opening of this documentary than of, say, the entire bugfix cycle of the phpBB project. Links to the first three episodes come up and I’m telling you, I was sitting there with my +2 bag of popcorn and Ebert’s Sinister Thumb just waiting for the first batch of losers to show up that couldn’t possibly be funnier and more important than my own gang and… we see the guy who made the first BBS. The guy who invented Fidonet. The guy who published a monthly magazine about BBSes. Okay, yeah… these guys are pretty important. Five minutes into the first episode it was obvious that real research done and real care was taken and hey, I was charmed.

I don’t know if this is the first movie that Jason Scott has made — I’m guessing that he has done a lo-fi slasher feature, a Bar Mitzfah, a student film in black & white — but it simply reeks of professionalism. You could totally see an episode of this being on PBS or free Canadian TV. The interviews have a great flow to them and when a specific segue is needed, the text appears on the screen in a big, friendly font. There’s maybe a couple such breaks in each episode, but they’re well-placed. The backgrounds that the interviewees are in front of are all different — you’ve got the guy in front of his pinball machines, the guy on top of his drum kit, the dude in front of an arcade-style Atari Jaguar machine and then a couple guys who seem to be in the hallway of a seedy motel. I’m convinced that at least one guy — the dude at the bowling alley — was cut and pasted in front of a matte painting due to the fact that he was truly homeless. (Which no doubt made it tough to buy a specific plane ticket for that interview session.) Scott consistently displays the name of who is speaking, the lack of which is common gripe I have with the genre. If I’m trying to identify the pinball game in the background the first time I see it, I appreciate seeing the interviewee’s name up on the screen later.

The most interesting of the 8 episodes was the one on FidoNet, that is… if you are a huge, hopeless tool. I had no idea that there was so much political in-fighting, anarchy, desire for less anarchy, tax problems and overhead with the system. I just completely took it for granted. It never once occurred to me that someone was calling up the hubs for mail each night and racking up enormous extensions in the process. That’s a true credit to FidoNet — it just worked. I can hardly send an e-mail to the cellphone of the guy the next cube over reliably, but FidoNet never dropped shit on me. If I wanted to troll WWIV bulletin boards from all over the world, I could absolutely do so through FidoNet and it never failed. Ha ha, I’m just kidding, you couldn’t interface WWIV with shit . You couldn’t specify someone for a “To:” field; you certainly weren’t getting ill-directed messages from outside the cul de sac with it. But FidoNet was a multiheaded cobra, with tails not knowing what the head and torso was up to. Great stuff, great insight, and only available on this disc.

If you’re not actually a social leper, well, then I highly recommend the episode about warez. It’s a real blast from the past to recognize that kids and twenty-somethings used to break copy protection without the benefit of a logic analyzer and then insert their own names on the introductory & load screens. This contrasts nicely from how things are done today — due to the fact that the feds will raid any group that gets too mouthy, everything is done without tying specific handles to specific releases. Not so in 1985. A cracker would put their handle on the screen in full lights, right next to Lord British and distanced nicely from his manservant Chuckles.

Unfortunately, it’s not all good. It’s my understanding that the warezed version sucks ass and is missing a bunch of stuff. I don’t hold the ripped version against the director, though, which sets me apart from most of the inane miscreants that had an inexplicable bug up their ass about it. I’m wearing really nice shades and smirking as I type this.

BBS: The Documentary is a fantastic DVD set and THE final word on bulletin board systems. I can’t recommend it strongly enough, especially to the kind of person likely to skulk about this website. I’m enough of a man to admit I wrong when I was discussing its price point on the BBS. But it hardly matters, as it’s now going for $40. You can buy yourself a copy by following this link.

***** out of five.



ATR: So… there you have it folks! I think we all learned a little something tonight, and maybe we’ve gone a long way towards explaining a few things. Join us next time, when you’ll hear Benjamin “Pinback” Parrish pray for the cancerous death of anyone who’s ever come to this site.

Ice Cream Jonsey