Marsfall Audio Drama Returns with a Punch in the Gut

The second half of Season One has begun and it is a heart-wrenching experience.

The science-fiction audio drama Marsfall is back from its mid-season break with the punch-in-the-gut that is episode 6, “AN(D)I”, which releases for the general public on February 2. If you’re new here, you still have time to catch up before this Friday! Here is a short description of what Marsfall is about taken from their website:

“Welcome to Marsfall, a new science-fiction series that follows the first colonists settling on the planet Mars. Led by their fearless commander Jacki O’Rania, and assisted by the colonial artificial intelligence unit ANDI, our colonists strive to make a home on the Red Planet while exploring its deeper mysteries.”

When we last left our planet-colonizing heroes, they had found formations that needed to be studied, plants that needed to be studied, diseases that needed to be studied — you get the idea. The enormous list of “Things We Need to Do in order to Not Die on Mars” is long and daunting and the colonists are trying their best to prioritize. The following is a spoiler-free advance review for which I received the episode at the same time as the Patreon supporters.

The commander, the chief archaeologist, the medical officer, and the financial director all go out on a trip to Mars, and while this sounds like the start of a joke, I assure you Mars is no joke. Every character’s voice actor is bringing their best to the table this episode and have even improved now that the cast has settled into their roles and personalities. Dan Lovley, the voice of ANDI, is a particular stand-out, as well as the editing that went into ANDI’s voice modulation. It’s difficult to have an AI character that is human enough to tug at your heartstrings yet mechanical enough to make you pause in worry. It’s harder still to retain the tone and feeling necessary to play that balancing act after electronically modifying the voice. It’s no secret on Twitter that ANDI is my favorite character and I’m looking forward to more of Dan’s acting.

The music across the season so far has been gloriously composed, with each character having their own theme and a unifying thread throughout. This episode had a few issues during one scene with the volume levels between the music and the voices, which was not a problem I ever had during the first 5 episodes. However, considering what they’ve been doing with their music involving codes and secret messages, this may be intentional, especially since their production and editing choices have been stellar since the start. The sound of footsteps plays when someone is leaving or exiting or transitioning spaces, but if it’s a long transition, that sound is appropriately faded out. There is a trip in the rover with muted sound, but everyone is wearing helmets and on Mars, which means sound dies more quickly. The sound choice in this section is additionally appropriate since the point-of-view of this episode is ANDI, who would possibly modify the levels of his input on purpose.

Which bring me to the true genius of the show: the script design. There are not many current audio dramas that switch character point-of-view with every episode and even fewer that do it with the grace and seamless quality that the Marsfall script writers have done. There is no stagnation in the plot, there is no repetition of scenes or ideas, and there is none of that “repeating an entire event through the eyes of another character” nonsense that happens semi-frequently in fantasy literature. According to co-creator Erik Saras, the reason for this decision is so that listeners can feel exactly what that character is feeling. This pays off in spades in this episode in particular, because the character discovery and development has been so personal that it is impossible to remove yourself from the emotions and reactions of the POV character, even though ANDI is not human.

This tightly-woven plot and structure necessites similar scriptwriting and while some may fear that plot threads left dangling between breaks will not be addressed until much later or ever again, Marsfall neatly handles all of them with at least a cursory mention in the episode. It is apparent from the beginning the writers know that giving listeners the level of information that matches the viewpoint of the POV character is necessary for the best development. This becomes complicated with ANDI, as he is a colony-level AI that is everywhere at once, but the writers have handled this so well that it feels natural and not like an info dump. To my delight, this episode even feels unscriped and relaxed in its dialogue, something that they occasionally stumbled on in the first half of the season as a result from the intricate script.

Marsfall’s return is packed with laughs, tears, and furious swearing at certain characters. It hit the ground running and did not pause for breath, and I suspect none of our characters are going to get that pause either. If you want to hear the newest episode before Friday, February 2, Patreon supporters donating $2 or more get early access to all the episodes. Be more prepared than I was and bring tissues, and stay to the end of the credits for a special new ANDI’s Thoughts segment.

This review was originally published on Medium, January 31st 2018.