Radio drama is making a big comeback in the form of podcasts, with plenty of high quality science fiction to choose from. Here are some of my favourites.
I’ve been a science fiction fan since I first read John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids as a kid. I quickly graduated to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books (I’m proudly sporting a “Vote Zaphod Beeblebrox 2016” t-shirt as I write this), Red Dwarf, and countless other books, TV shows, and films – some of them great, some of them terrible, some of them (my favourites, if I’m honest) somehow managing to be both.
I’ve also been a podcast fan for many years. Ironically, however, given the origins of my beloved Hitchhiker series as a radio programme, I’d never combined the two interests until very recently; my phone’s playlist was full of documentary series. But then CBC Vancouver ran a story on a locally made paranormal mockumentary podcast, The Black Tapes (The X-Files meets Serial), and I suddenly found myself in a whole new world of audio drama – and discovered some phenomenal new science fiction.
The podcast format is ideal for old-time radio drama-style productions, which are making a big comeback. There seem to be new shows launching every week, and unfortunately many of them just don’t work – even when the story’s decent the characters’ voices sometimes all sound too similar, the actors haven’t rehearsed properly and are obviously reading from a script, or it’s not clear what’s going on in the big action sequences (apart from an awful lot of banging and shouting, usually). But when it’s done well, it’s a truly immersive experience and a wonderful way to enjoy some quality sci-fi while you commute, exercise, or plot galactic domination at the head of an army of evil robots.
My all-time favourite sci-fi podcast has to be Sayer (miraculously resurrected recently for a fourth season). The story of a colony established by a private company on an artificial moon is told almost entirely in one voice, that of the eponymous AI entity who runs the operation. The first few episodes focused largely on a single new member of the colony, and were fairly light in tone. However, the series got darker, more thoughtful (downright philosophical at times), and a lot more intricate as it went on to explore the origins and likely fate of the colony, and I was completely absorbed by the extremely clever use of sound and music (I almost missed my bus stop several times). They even managed to pull off an extremely satisfying ending to the original three-season arc, which is all too rare for a much beloved series. Very cleverly done, and highly recommended. I shall be listening to the whole thing all over again in anticipation of the new episodes.
Back on Earth, The Bright Sessions is also excellent. Imagine if Professor X ran a psychiatry practice instead of a school for gifted youngsters, and you’ve got the premise – Dr. Bright specializes in counselling young people with extraordinary powers, including time travel and telepathy. The early episodes each comprise a single session with seemingly unconnected patients, but as the story progresses the dots begin to connect into a larger conspiracy.
To The Manor Borne (By Robots) rounds out my top three. This utterly charming podcast consists of stand-alone stories, as told to placate a Beast, Destroyer of Worlds. The episodes are held together by an ongoing swashbuckling, time-travelling, body-swapping tale about the quest for the Beast’s origins and the means to its downfall. It’s enormously good fun, and I only wish the episodes came out more frequently.
I also enjoy ars PARADOXICA (time travel shenanigans), Limetown, (mockumentary about a mysterious town and its scientific shenanigans), and The Message (another mockumentary – the format works well on audio podcasts – about scientists figuring out a mysterious signal). Away from the strictly sci-fi genre, I highly recommend Greater Boston (if you like Wes Anderson movies, you will like this), Hello from the Magic Tavern (silly), The Lift (spooky), The Magnus Archive (creepy), and Uncanny County (quirky). If you’re still looking for more radio drama content, there’s a good list of paranormal and sci-fi podcasts on Reddit, and you can find additional shows on Twitter via the #audiodramasunday hashtag.
Whole new worlds are waiting for you on your phone!