12 Days of Audio Dramas 2018
It took me quite a while to discover the modern world of audio dramas, and at this point, I can’t recall the google search that brought me to Darker Projects. I credit them with opening a Great Big Door of possibility for me.
I’ve always loved to read, but when I was in college between working multiple jobs, a full course load, and several medical issues it became really hard to focus on a page for more than a few minutes. Most of my free time was spent on the bus staring out the window at the grey wetness that was my hometown. It didn’t do wonders for my mood.
Then I discovered podcasts. A way I could still have stories, fun, and fantasy in my life as I mucked my way through completing a degree. Darker Projects was my first exposure to indie works. That had been around for a while so they had a nice library of fan and original works.
There was one that hooked me right away.
The Falcon Banner was probably the largest influence in my decision to try and tell my own story in the medium of audio dramas. Based on the first book in a series by Christopher Lydon, this science fiction story follows Darien Taine, a man on the run who gathers a crew and ends up in search of a lost fleet of ships that might be the key to freeing Earth from its current subjugation. I was actually excited for the trip to school or work because I would get to hear more!
Then it ended. Quite abruptly. Even now it remains unfinished.
As sad as that was I decided I wasn’t ready to wonder forever how the story was going to end. So I went and found the book and I read it. The first book I managed to read front to back in over a year. Then I read the sequel and after that, I ended up coming home one day with a book I had been wanting to read for a few years.
I’m not sure what it was that opened me up so much. This story in a genre I love so much being told in a medium I had never considered.
So, everyone, who worked on the series. It was short, it was sweet, and it lead me to a creative place and community I never could have imagined.
On the Eleventh Day: @IAmSayer. This show is a perfect example of embracing the medium of podcasting/audio storytelling to create a story that is almost an experience unto itself. That sounds like an absolutely batty statement, but consider the first episode of Sayer. The first line is: “Can you hear me?” The show essentially makes you a participant in the episode as Sayer welcomes you to your new home on Typhon.
The gentle pads in the background, the soft-spoken Sayer whose voice occasionally dips and glitches, gives you this odd feeling of calm. Like you are listening to a self-help book. The ones that urge you to lie still and embrace calm. It often gives me the sense of moving through molasses. Slow and heavy.
The longer Sayer speaks, the more that slow, heavy sense of calm starts to feel a bit… Off. When Sayer brings up the fact you might be having trouble moving, I wanted to fidget so bad. There was an unnerving itch under my skin. There might be no bees on Typhon, but they were buzzing under my skin.
It’s claustrophobic. It’s unnerving. I feel like I’ve taken a tranquilizer and I can’t quite get my thoughts in order.
The fact this is a work very different from my usual listening choices is probably what makes it such an intriguing diversion. It’s another one of the podcasts where I can’t be doing anything else, I have to sit or lie there and listen.
Tip: Don’t listen to it at night as you fall asleep. Your dreams will be… Strange.
On the Tenth Day: @TitaniumTemplar (Cyberscape Neo). Frankly, they had me with the synthwave.
The evolution of cyberpunk-style stories is one that gets increasingly eerie and… Relatable. Like a lot of science fiction, these kinds of stories are starting to feel just around the corner rather than a far off warning. Blade Runner was a dream that, while familiar, was also very alien. Cyberscape Neo sounds almost too real.
Beyond being extremely slick and well-polished on the production side, the characters talk like gamers. If you’ve ever gotten involved in any sort of gaming, from video games to tabletop, you’ve probably sounded or heard a friend talk like at least one of these characters. The character of Rapture was eerily familiar to an old friend of mine, and I’m pretty sure I dated a Daxxis at one point.
Settings that are just this side of our reality, especially when technology is a key component, there is always this huge risk that dialogue will fall into the dreaded “dated” category. Fortunately for now, speaking from a place of experience and from listening to angry rants in the next room, this dialogue is pretty spot-on.
There are familiar elements to the story, but a lot of that is due to our conventions about the genre. Which, if you’re coming for a cyberpunk story, is what you want. The eternal questions that always haunt these stories are front and centre. What is the line between man and A.I.? Do we lose a piece of ourselves as we become more dependant on technology to ease the tensions, stress and frustrations of the “real” world? What happens when the fantasy world becomes more real to people?
There aren’t a lot of episodes yet, which makes for a very short binge if you’re wanting to dip your toes in. I’m invested though, the characters are compelling and I am eager to see how the plot plays out.
I’m gonna go jam to that opening track just one more time.
On the Ninth Day: @exoplanetarypod. I wonder if growing up an only child gave me a weird fascination for stories that focus on unusual family dynamics. Exoplanetary opens with two brothers having a casual chat about seducing each other’s wives. That certainly sets a tone.
The dialogue flies by with character banter, and most characters are sharp and witty. It reminds me a little of Asimov’s Lucky Starr books.
One of my favourite, and fairly unique aspects of Exoplanetary, are the occasions when the protagonist will reference something “in universe” and we get a cut to hearing exactly what is being referenced, from a jingle to a commercial to propaganda. It’s so much richer than just giving a description and is a really fun way to add flavour to the galaxy.
The show strikes a good balance between keeping the universe familiar enough that we can imagine it as a possible future (oh no, cola wars are still a thing), and showcasing enough fantastical technology that it feels faraway and distant.
The first protagonist we meet is Alice, an “everywoman”. Alice is presented with an interesting offer: get paid to travel further than any human ever has and see things no one has ever seen. The only thing is, will it still be her when she reaches the end of her journey? Can you truly store a person in a machine? Make a copy? Questions like this continue through the series as the story stretches to include Alice’s siblings.
Exoplanetary is a good scifi meal. Listening to it give me the same feeling I get in the used bookstore pulling dog-eared older works out of a bin. It’s like a lost gem.
On the Eighth Day: @RedWingPod. Old Time Radio had a wide selection of superheroes to choose from. From the eternal Batman and Superman, to old classics like the Falcon, and the Shadow. A superhero-based audio drama has a rich history to build on.
I came to superhero comics well out of childhood. My first comics were actually moldly Gold Key Tarzans that had belonged to my dad when he was a kid. I can’t recall my first superhero comic, but I suspect it might have been “Spider-Girl” with May Parker. Why her? Why that particular comic? Honestly, it was because there was a girl on the cover. I knew nothing about superhero comics when I was pre-teen, and I was in high school before Marvel Studios took over the planet. The amount of works out there to sift through is really overwhelming when you have no idea where to start. So what do you do? You look for someone you can see yourself in.
Which brings us to Red Wing. A superhero story for people who often struggle to find their own heroic mirror. Like a lot of the other audios I’ve talked about, Red Wing is a story that offers a voice to people who are often ignored in mainstream media. The main character, and our titular superhero, is a queer black man. Jordan Redfield-Wade is a hero we need to hear from, and a reminder that everyone deserves a chance to play dress up and kick evil-doers straight in the teeth.
As another hero said recently: “Anyone can wear the mask.”
The audio is narrator heavy, which works for me because it evokes a sort of “noir” style that RedWing shines in. Much like another bat-inspired hero. Jordan is likeable and relatable, which can be tough to pull off when you’re listening to a character who comes from wealth while you’re eating your third pack of ramen in as many days. He’s someone you want to see rise to his challenges, and you feel proud of every hurdle he crosses.
Red Wing really is a wonderful modern spin on the old radio dramas. Supes and Bats are still out there, and they can rest easy knowing another hero is here to help.
On the Seventh Day: @HereBDragonsPod. There’s a scifi film that opens with a line I adore: “When I was a kid, whenever I'd feel small or lonely, I'd look up at the stars. Wondered if there was life up there. Turns out I was looking in the wrong direction.” We have as much to fear beneath our waves as we do from the darkness above us. It’s a danger sandwich we live in.
The watery setting, much like Tides, allows for all the alien strangeness you might run into in a space setting, but from the comfort of your own planet. Where Tides plays with a beautiful sense of wonder about the flora and fauna of oceans, Here Be Dragons immediately lets you know this is firmly in the camp of “Oooooh no thank you, I will never go to the beach again.” The creature they showcase in the first episode, even dead, sounds stunning and terrible. Much like the ocean itself.
The first episode introduces us to our main cast, a mysterious monster from the depths, and the submarine they will be travelling in. It’s a neat setup with enough character beats to keep you curious, and who doesn’t like a monster hunt? I latched onto a favourite character pretty quickly with Pip “I LOVE fun facts” Campbell. I’m a sucker for people who are just pleased to be included on an adventure, even when there’s weird and creepy things going on. Danger is lurking around a corner? Well geez! Let me have a gander!
You could draw some similarities to ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’, only with characters that are a lot more fun and a lot less navel gazing. I’m pretty sure the Nautilus didn’t have a gift shop either. One of the greatest strengths in this show is the dialogue as it keeps the overall tone fairly light, but there is a real humanity to the characters. Having a large cast of women is also a rare treat to listen to. Female characters in adventure stories like this usually stagger under the weight of being “every woman”. Here they get to be actual characters, with flaws, fits and strengths, each unique to themselves.
So, the crew is green and while there is definitely something strange lurking in the water outside, there might also be something lurking in the pipes on board.
You’ve got your adventure, your mystery, your fun. Anchors aweigh!
On the Sixth Day: @LoveLuckPodcast. Look ma, I’m listening to something that isn’t set in space! Love and Luck is a podcast about a romance told through voice mails that eventually become digital love letters. If Love and Luck were a candy it would be pop rocks. Simple, sweet, fun and so very endearing.
I often have trouble with romance stories, especially the ones we usually see on the big screen. You know, tough but easily flustered career woman suddenly realizes what she really needed in her life was this shubbly guy who worked on the farm back home. Or was trying to make it as a musician/artist/whatever. Meg Ryan was probably in it. It’s a very specific story for a very specific audience and if you don’t fit that audience it can be hard to be swept up in the romance. A horror story should make you gasp in fright and a romance should make you squeal with delight.
Oh, how I squeal while listening to Jason and Kane.
Hearing these characters talk like your own friends. Seeing their romance blossom how you see romances begin around you. It feels like you’re home among friends, listening to them tell you about this girl they just met. If this show was just two sweet guys dealing with the trials of new romance, queer life and the big wide world it would have been great. Then it starts to get a little… Magical.
I don’t want to spoil much beyond that. The magic unfolds in a cute and playful way that feels natural between Jason and Kane.
I think this is an audio drama that is important to listen to simply because genre fiction and happy queer romances are still so hard to find. Everyone deserves to find someone special, and everyone deserves the chance to imagine a little magic in their life.
On the Fifth Day: @WeFixSpaceJunk. Comedy in a science fiction story can be tough. You already have a lot of heavy lifting to do with world-building, and other than a fart joke among five-year-olds, humour is often very specific to culture, people or situations. For We Fix Space Junk, a sci-fi show with a lot of humour, the dialogue between characters elevates it beyond “telling jokes in space.” It’s extremely witty, and does a fantastic job balancing character and amusement.
The main characters, Kilner and Samantha, are both excellent to listen to. The banter between them, a tough and dry cyborg clashing against a social media savvy socialite, gives the show a wonderfully unique sense of fun. The ship computer Dax is also a delightful listen, and warmly human for someone who spends months playing sudoku with no one but the fridge to keep them company.
The sound design is creative and gives the show the vibe of a radio play that has fallen through time. FX are clear and easy to understand, and the music sets the tone of the show well.
The show is just so much gosh darn fun. Feeling down in the dumps? This will cheer you right up.
If you’re someone who has spent a lot of time listening to Big Finish audios, and have been worried about dipping your toe into the indie world, We Fix Space Junk is a great place to start.
On the Fourth Day: @StationBluePod. I've noticed that with each passing year I become a bigger baby about spooky stuff. I made the mistake of falling asleep while listening to this audio one night and woke up in an uneasy sweat. And that's the best way I have of describing the atmosphere of this work. Uneasy. The character is confined to an isolating setting, and if you've ever gone outside after a snowstorm you know how... Empty the world can sound. This is another show where you get the most out of it just sitting and listening maybe with a blanket and a mug of something warm. Lights off if you're feeling brave.
The show also makes excellent use of 'space' during episodes. Sometimes audio dramas fill up every minute with dialogue because it is an aural medium and speech is the easiest and and fast way to communicate what is going on to the audience. The soundscaping in the episodes (my favourite being Episode 6: Silent) adds a lot to the uneasy and rather dream-like situation the lead character Matthew finds himself in. Just the crafting and shaping of the sounds give this work a texture that is quite an experience.
It’s a work that I often don't get to right away because I like to carve out space and time in my schedule to listen. On occasion, it has left me emotionally exhausted, but it's the kind of exhaustion I'm grateful for. The kind where you take a shower and go outside and remember that you made it.
On the Third Day: @OrphansAudio. Styled like a radio play from the days when... Well, my grandparents would have sat around listening with rapt attention to "radio plays", The Orphans is a quickly-paced adventure story. One of those shows where you put on an episode and suddenly it's over. Also, there's a robot named Geoffrey who might be one of my favourite sassy robots ever.
The brisk nature of the story makes it really great to listen to while being stuck on a bus, but lousy if you're trying to get anything else done. I kept having to scroll back and re-listen because I would miss some sort of action. It's a great listen if you're in the mood for something with a lot of energy. The cast is big, but the characters are fun and identifiable. My favourite being Geoffrey, who is a bit like C-3PO if he were more of an intolerable ass. The characters have crashed on a world where they've got several large problems 1) figuring out what happened 2) surviving on the planet/each other, and 3) not getting munched by alien dog-things.
This is definitely a "binge-listen" series that is the perfect length and still much too short. It's a good reminder that audio dramas are just as good at telling fun plots as developing characters.
On the Second Day: @TidesPodcast. You ever experience a story that feels like it was created from a stack of your own interests? That's what Tides is for me.
The protagonist, Dr. Winifred Eurus, makes for an interesting voice to follow. The fact she is a scientist means she gives very detailed and elaborate descriptions of the alien world around her. It makes for some very satisfying, detailed and beautiful world building. Many audio dramas leave most physical surroundings up to suggestion which is equal parts strength and struggle for the medium. Tides pulls off being an audio drama where surroundings are very concrete and real.
I grew up next to the ocean and spent a lot of time on the beach growing up. Following the surf, chasing fish, and watching dogs in the waves. Now that I live far from home Tides helps make me feel closer to it. Love for the ocean isn't something that ever really leaves you, and Winifred's enthusiasm and curiosity about her surroundings is infectious. Also, how can you not love the fact she named a little sea-friend Bob?
Tides is beautiful and interesting. Fans of seas and sci-fi should check it out.
On the First Day: @StarshipIris. Stories like this are my jam. I will never be satisfied and my hunger is insatiable. Violet Liu (Cindy Chu) is very fun to listen to and a likeable character. She's clever, sassy and I immediately wanted her to not blow up in the explosion that sets off the plot.
As Violet tries to figure out a solution to the mess she finds herself in she's contacted by Kay (Ishani Kanetkar), the captain of the Philadelphia. Kay wrestles with figuring out a solution to the disaster, but Violet has grimly accepted her end. There's some fun banter between Violet and Kay that slowly starts to escalate to flirting. We get some hints at a narrowly won human vs. alien war and a suggestion that Kay saw action.
The first episode is mostly a long conversation between two characters, touches of world-building, a ticking plot clock, and a twist that made me mutter "oh snap" on the bus. It's well paced, well acted, well written and very compelling. It makes you very excited for more and as Violet says: "Step into the goddamn unknown." I love this show and every episode drop reminds me why. If you crave space adventure stories this is one of the best to experience right now. In any medium.