Audio & Podcasts

Solar – Podcast Review

There is a long and glorious history of science fiction radio broadcasts. The early 1930s saw the adventure and fun of Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon, which set the tone of stories aimed mostly at children; a trend which continued despite some of the most legendary writers of the time working on shows like Tales of Tomorrow and X Minus One.

There were a few notable exceptions –  Orson Welles’ now legendary version of War of the Worlds leaps out – but it wasn’t until the 1950s that audio dramas started aiming science fiction at adults. But then there was no stopping them. 2000 Plus and Dimension X launched the 1950s and kick-started what is perhaps the greatest decade of science fiction audio drama of all time.

But progress changes tastes, and while video may have killed the radio star, advances in visual and special effects certainly didn’t help the radio space explorer. Audiences were already moving from the radio to television, and how could a foley studio compete with the glorious technicolor of cinema? Yet, ironically, this may have led to the genre being able to continue to move forward.

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It may be a generalisation, but while cinema and television started focusing more and more on effects and visuals – ones that would often draw attention to a lack of budget or creativity, or quickly age  – radio science fiction focused on exploring complex ideas and themes, and did what sci-fi has always done best: stimulate our imaginations.

Often adapting some of the best published stories, shows like Sci-Fi Radio or the BBC’s 7th Dimension carried the torch, and now, with the boom in podcasts, a whole new audience are discovering and enjoying the joys of audio dramas of all types. These days, with the relative affordability of high quality audio and editing equipment, plenty of productions have sprung up to fill the void. Whilst there is a lot of chaff amongst the wheat, it’s very possible we’re living through a new golden age of audio science fiction drama.

Yet even amongst a crowded field, CurtCo Media’s Solar stands out. For a start, it’s not every audio production that can boast Oscar and Tony award winners in its cast, but with Helen Hunt and Alan Cumming lending their talents, Solar already feels like it’s setting out shop to be something special.

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Hunt plays chief scientist Margaret Cohen and Cumming is Commander Alex Tawley, two crew members of the beleaguered space ship Aethon. Perilous mission, stranded in space – you know how well that works out for the astronauts. Joining them in top billing are Stephanie Beatriz and Jonathan Bangs, but with a credited cast of 18 talented actors, this is very much an ensemble piece. Indeed, there are times when that ensemble can confuse. There is a lot going on, and with complex dialogue and narrative switches in time, Solar demands your full attention to keep track of what is happening and who is saying what to whom. A note from a British reviewer: it’s a shame Cumming uses an American accent rather than his natural Scottish. Apart from his having a great voice, the more distinctive tones may have made things easier to track at times, especially in early episodes when listeners are unfamiliar with the characters.

The writing is good, but dense. Rather than relying on easy to recognise stereotypes to move the plot, writer Chris Porter delivers backstory and character development through some pretty intense dialogue. This is not an ‘on in the background’ podcast for anything more taxing than washing the dishes or car. Loyal listeners are rewarded for their work with a full, rich universe populated by believable and nuanced individuals.

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In addition to being the writer and creator, Chris Porter directs alongside Jenny Curtis. Curits is also one of the main voice actors, so Portis isn’t alone in wearing more than one hat. He he also wrote the music, acted as a producer, and occasionally does some of the voice work, so it’s fair to say he was a busy bee. There’s a fair chance he was in charge of the catering and valet parking as well. The pair do a pretty good job of bringing out some excellent performances, and create a well rounded and coherent universe for the action to take place in. Another name in the crew list that stand out is Helen Hunt again, here as an executive producer. All of this gives the production the  feel of being more than a job; this is a project of passion. People believed in what they were creating; you don’t take on that many roles if you don’t. This belief shines through throughout.

Another, much touted aspect of this production is that it is an ‘immersive audio experience’. We’re reminded that this is designed to be listened to with headphones, that the technology used will envelop us. This all feels a little bit gimmicky, the audio equivalent of blue and red lensed glasses alongside Vincent Price’s Mad Magician movie poster promising ‘The most sensational thrills you have ever seen in 3D’. Still, the quality is undeniable, and it’s another element that sets Solar aside from so many other podcasts, making it feel more like ‘event’ broadcasting, which is useful as, despite season one having just been wrapped up, this is a hard series to binge. Think of it as a rich, dark chocolate. You take a small portion and you enjoy it. Cramming the whole thing in your face will just put you off.

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On top of the episodes, there is plenty of additional content available, including full transcripts, ‘lost audio footage’ which further expands the world of Solar, and behind the scenes interviews. More than enough to be going on with for even a hardened fan. The website even has merch. There may not be too much special about that these days, but it’s worth visiting because the canvas shoes are absolutely gorgeous.

Every episode starts with a warning that, due to strong language, it is recommended for people aged 13 and over. Forget the strong language; this production should come with a warning to not drive or operate heavy machinery at the same time. If you’re prepared to put the effort in, this is compelling science fiction with a superb cast and achingly good production values. It’s good to see that radio sci-fi tradition of expecting more from their audience than passive enjoyment alive and well. It may not be an easy introduction to the world of audio drama but, given the chance, Solar could well become one of your ‘must listen to’ podcast choices.

Solar is available to listen to now, on various podcast platforms.



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