If you’re not a regular podcast listener, you might have missed the booming resurgence of audio dramas over the past few years. Once the purview of terrestrial radio—and all but dead in the United States—iTunes has given the narration-driven medium a brand-new outlet. Welcome to Night Vale, The Magnus Archives, Limetown, and Archive 81 are just a few of my personal favorites, now bringing science fiction, fantasy, and horror to our ears through the power of podcasts.
In some respects, Steal the Stars may not seem very unusual. The podcast works in the same sci-fi and fantasy genres that dominate the modernized medium: one part X-Files and one part office romance, set against a secretive government compound. Which isn’t surprising, given that Steal the Stars was created by Tor Labs—an offshoot of sci fi/fantasy-focused publisher Tor Books—in conjunction with production company Gideon Media.
But beneath the surface of its two-sentence iTunes summary, Steal the Stars has something unique going for it. The show brings back a style of radio drama that’s still uncommon, even among the wave of popular new series.
The cast makes the difference
The current audio-drama resurgence is mostly made of shows that are extremely focused in scope. The wildly popular Night Vale, for example, presents itself as a public newscast for the comically eerie, titular town. It rarely needs more than one voice actor (its fictional newscaster) to present its biweekly tales.
Tor Labs’ show, by contrast, is more akin to audio shows of yesteryear (or those in countries like the United Kingdom, where the medium never died). I’m reminded of The War of the Worlds or The Lone Ranger. Steal the Stars sports a 24-actor cast who interact scene-by-scene.
That number is more than just a bullet point, too. Despite centering squarely on the UFO-guarding protagonist and security chief Dakota Prentiss, the series makes use of its full cast in the first scene of the first episode. Prentiss demonstrates her ex-Army Ranger combat training early and naturally by “defusing” a nasty altercation between an abusive couple. The characters are introduced and disappear just as quickly.
The lack of of plural voices on Night Vale means everyone that isn’t the show’s regular broadcaster stands out—and typically plays an important role in many stories to come.
On STS, the couple serves only to characterize Prentiss. The wider roster lets these unique voices be temporary, and they fill out the series’ fictional government operation to hide the existence of a crashed alien spaceship.
It’s a subtle distinction, but one that already opens up new storytelling opportunities for STS over other series. The series functions more like a TV show, or a “traditional” radio play, in scope and structure, than most modern podcast fiction.
STS makes me think about The Shadow, a 1930s radio show I inherited on CD from my grandfather. As a kid, I’d listen to the so-named superhero describe the ways he dismantled his opponents with wits or mystical powers. Prentiss’ internal monologue similarly dissects a situation. Like other classic audio shows, this approach describes the basics but lets the imagination fill in the speed, size, and style of combat.
Newer sci fi/fantasy shows typically employ a structural hook to justify self-contained, week-to-week episodes and singular actors: the town of Night Vale has its fictional broadcast in Night Vale. The Magnus Archives sports a lone archivist recording hundreds of years of supernatural reports.
“We’re looking for a more radio-theater thing than what you get from podcasts right now,” Tor Editor Jen Gunnels explains. “We’re looking for discrete storytelling in an arc that is complete unto itself.”
Tor tries audio R&D
Part of why STS doesn’t use a weekly-episode gimmick is because it’s not meant to last forever. The 14-episode series was written in advance with a beginning, middle, and end in mind. When it’s done, Tor Senior Editor Marco Palmieri insists Tor Labs’ next project won’t be a second season. It might not even be an audio drama. The book publisher’s offshoot is “R&D,” according to Gunnels—something to expand the ways the company produces stories, in whatever different forms those might take.
Which isn’t to say either of them is against more audio dramas. Palmieri expresses interest in a new fantasy or horror series. Gunnels mentions steampunk and space operas as possible points of inspiration.
In its first few episodes, at least, STS is considerably more down to Earth than those. The alien artifacts take a backseat to the office politics of the people guarding them. STS playwright Mac Rogers explains the discrepancy. He sought to let the series’ most bizarre moments “grow out of a series of grounded, real-feeling moments.” That way, his show isn’t just grounded in actual reality but an “emotional reality” as well.
“It’s the old joke British radio actors tell: ‘The pictures are better on radio,’” Rogers says. “That specifically benefits science fiction and horror, as those are the two genres that most need to conjure images of the impossible in your imagination.”
Artistic director Sean Williams goes a step further. He gives an example of a scene, set in an elevator. Most of us know what an elevator looks and sounds like. We can imagine the basic idea of the imaginary setting. Now picture that elevator “with no buttons and a single camera.” It’s odd, but still easy to picture after a short description, thanks to our existing context. From there, the show can get even more otherworldly. It can include seven-foot aliens and UFO-powered harps, all without needing to build the props.
Outlandish or not, independently produced or published, STS has one major thing in common with its counterpart programs: convenience.
“With audio drama, we’re able to tell our stories to people and they get to be in charge of when and where,” Williams says. “The only cost is for them to listen to a minute or so of advertisements.”
iTunes and the rest of the Internet haven’t just made audio dramas easy to distribute. They’re easier to listen to than ever. We can play them on phones and laptops, while we do dishes or commute to work. Steal the Stars isn’t the first show to notice that trend, but it is adding its own share of spins to audio storytelling. As just a first experiment from Tor Labs, it could easily open up the door to many more to come.
Listing image by Tor Labs
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