July 27, 2006

Silent Universe - A Review

Before television gained dominance, radio shows entertained with all types of audio theater. I still enjoy recorded shows from "the golden age of radio" like The Shadow and Inner Sanctum (hint: available on CD and cassette, or ask Victor for copies he made when they originally aired).

Nowadays, I'm loving the proliferation of podcasts. Much like blogging gave "journalism" to the masses, podcasting is doing the same for talk radio. And now podcasts are appearing which provide a return to that classic era of radio programming.

Recently I was contacted about doing a Rocket Jones review for a podcast called Silent Universe. Like the classic radio serial format, this science fiction offering features suspense and cliffhangers at the end of each episode. Even better, unlike the old days, you don't have to be glued to the radio to enjoy the shows because you can download Silent Universe to your iPod or other .mp3 player and listen at your leisure.

From the email:

The Silent Universe is a sci-fi adventure drama, with writing that has been compared to the intrigue of TV shows like "24" and "Battlestar Galactica."

"[Space opera] is now commonly used to mean a tale of space adventure whose emphasis is on boldly delineated characters, drama, and especially action."

It's understandable that they're going for the "24" comparison since that is television's premier cliffhanger show. In my mind though, Silent Universe more closely captures the spirit of an old fashioned, rip-roaring space opera. You movie going whippersnappers can think "Star Wars", but Flash Gordon is a classic example (from before *my* time, he added pointedly). That said, thereÂ’s an edginess and tension to the Silent Universe episodes that didnÂ’t exist in those early programs.

Silent Universe is set in the not-too-distant future, when humans have spread to the planets of our solar system. Society as a whole hasn't moved much beyond what it is today, in that there are still governments jostling for advantage and using diplomacy, war, and intrigue to gain the upper hand.

"There were those who thought that the dawn of the second space age would unite humanity in a common cause. Dreams of grand utopias fevered the minds of visionaries and futurists, who proclaimed that the stars would save us from ourselves. They couldn't have been more wrong." - from the intro

The story follows Emmeline Kaley, a professional mercenary who finds herself involved with a covert organization after a paying job goes horribly wrong. Things arenÂ’t always what they seem, and allies canÂ’t always be trusted. Through the blur of events, you occasionally get a glimpse of the truth: that someone far more powerful than you has been pulling strings and making events bend to their will.

There's a disclaimer at the start of the podcast for the mature language and themes in the episodes. Despite the humorous slant on free speech, don't let it fool you into believing that everything is one-sided. At one point in the episode, one of the characters makes an impassioned argument for letting the UN handle the situation. The show tries to stay balanced, and the characters are not marching along in idealogical lockstep.

There are a couple of interesting facets to this podcast. First of all, you can download the mono version for free, or you can pay a couple of bucks for the CD-quality stereo version. You can also subscribe to either version and get each episode as it comes out.

Full Disclosure: I was given a reviewer's access code for the stereo version. Was this a blatant bribe to positively influence me, or merely their way of applying pressure to for-God's-sake use a spell checker? I report. You decide.

Actually, I asked the producer to comp me the access so I could contrast the two audio versions. Spoiled the suspense for you there, didnÂ’t I?

These episodes are performed by professional voice actors, complete with nice sound effects and an original soundtrack to go along with the action.

The initial schedule called for episodes to be released about once a month, and eleven episodes were to make up the first "season". As often happens, schedules go straight into the trash when they meet reality. The first two episodes are available now (and the first, Mission 256, is a double episode). The next is due out next month.

Online, Silent Universe has been generating some buzz:

We've been featured in online publications such as Slice of Sci Fi, Sci Fi Crows Nest, PRweb, Spaceship Radio, PodcastingNews and others.

And now of course, the coveted mention in Rocket Jones.

HereÂ’s another unique and exciting aspect to this project:

We also invite our audience to do more than just listen; we encourage them to discuss the podcast with the production staff on our online forums (honesty is preferred to flattery, though a little flattery never hurt anyone, hehe). We welcome feedback and critiques on episodes, suggestions for future plot ideas, and even spec script submissions for hopeful science fiction writers.

IÂ’ve been to the forums, and theyÂ’ve started to build a fan community discussing various aspects of the show. I expect it to grow quite a bit as they work the kinks out of the production process and begin to release new episodes on a more regular basis.

Ok, so that’s all well and good, but I can hear you saying, “Ted, that’s all well and good, but what did *you* think of it?â€�

More importantly, what did Bub think of it?

da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron

Enthralled, IÂ’d say.

The episodes are fast paced and seem logical within the framework of the story. I absolutely love EmmelineÂ’s accent (she claims Scot, but thereÂ’s some debate on that in the forums, which bothers me not).

I also like the bad guys so far. They donÂ’t seem evil just for evilÂ’s sake as there is an underlying rationale for their actions. When they act in a way that you personally wouldnÂ’t, thereÂ’s a tendency, in my mind at least, to attribute that to cultural differences rather than plot inconsistencies (those crafty Asians).

A few of the characters are already on my “please die soonâ€� list. The two sisters, Ritsu and May, are annoying as hell, which isn’t strictly a bad thing as characters go, but their dialogue doesn’t advance the action and they seem to be there only because the group needed to be bigger.

Unlike others on the forums, IÂ’m not put off by the resident computer geek of the crew. A little over the top, yes, but heÂ’s ok in small doses. Giving him more than a sentence or two at a time though might make me reach for the airlock handle.

My favorite line so far was in the second episode, when Emmeline muttered “bloody bastardsâ€� under her breath.

Why those simple words worked so well has to do with my major criticism. In the first episode, many characters used the word “frackâ€� as a futuristic version of the f-bomb. “Frack thisâ€� and “you frackin’…â€� and so on. I’ve since learned that the word might have originated with Battlestar Galactica, but since I was never a fan of that show I don’t remember it myself. In any event, its use here just doesn’t work. Every time someone uses it, the flow of the dialogue stumbles a little bit.

The good news is that episode 2 was almost completely devoid of “frackâ€�, which is why the “bloody bastardsâ€� line was such a pleasant surprise. I found myself mentally cringing in scenes where the word "frack" might be used, and it was a welcome improvement to hear more natural-sounding dialogue.

(mental note: new Rocket Jones tagline – “frackâ€� free since 2003)

Hey, since this is audio theater, I should probably mention the sound quality, eh? I first tried the non-stereo version and IÂ’ve got to tell you that the sound quality is very good. As good as it is, it doesn't come close to the exceptional experience of the stereo version. If you get into the story, I think it's worth it to subscribe. The stereo version eliminates the commercials too, although they're not terribly intrusive.

Bottom line: If you like science fiction or suspense stories, especially the old space opera genre (paging E.E. “Docâ€� Smith!), then you’ll probably enjoy Silent Universe. Even if you don’t, I recommend downloading the free version of the first episode and giving it a listen.

I know IÂ’m hooked. What about you, bub?

give a big ol' Hee-Haw saaaalute!

Thought so.

* The animated Bub graphics were lovingly lifted from I-mockery.com. Hopefully that acknowledgement and link will keep their lawyers off my ass.

Posted by: Ted at 08:13 PM | category: Links
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1 Ha, ha.

Posted by: Victor at July 27, 2006 07:42 PM (l+W8Z)

2 I owed you one for that sculpture comment.

Posted by: Ted at July 27, 2006 08:16 PM (+OVgL)

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