Marsfall, a science-fiction podcast following a group of colonizers after they have landed on Mars, grapples with the subsequent horrors they have to face, both from within and from outside. The season two finale, “Chapter 17 – Chip”, witnesses an epic showdown with artificial intelligence and the continued grappling with the question about what makes us human. They do not wade into philosophical quandaries lightly, and there’s always another facet of this idea to be explored; notably, in Marsfall’s design, one of those is music.
Marsfall‘s music has always been out of this world. Composer Sam Boase-Miller has a talent for giving life to a desolate wasteland like Mars, and it gives the music its proper place in this story, as its own character. At the surface level, music is a core component of the plot and world-building, especially when it comes to Commander O’Rania and her backstory, and even some of the solutions she brings to the table. Boase-Miller, along with co-creators Dan Lovely and Erik Sarah, have commendably woven key symbolism into certain compositions with only a very few salient instances (I’m certainly never listening to Bach the same way again). While it sounds simplistic at the outset, reliably and effectively coordinating musical composition in a story to trigger certain emotions without beating an audience over the head with it takes skill and patience. Music stands in Marsfall as one of the ways into the question of what makes humans human, as a counterpoint to the other story-central creation of humanity: artificial intelligence.
The writing wades into the often-treacherous waters that are the interlacing between science, philosophy, and art, a common theme that crops up whenever artificial intelligence is front-and-center in science-fiction. This focus isn’t ever a pointless argument or to proselytize a perspective or belief, but instead always integral to the next move of the plot, completed in a comprehensible fashion. It can be easy to get lost in the weeds of the question of “what makes us human”; anyone who has taken an undergraduate philosophy course can tell you that. Marsfall doesn’t ever lose sight of how complex a question it really is, while keying into one aspect that can help save the colonizers from immediate destruction and do so in a way that feels narratively triumphant, correct, and consistent.
Coupled with the cast’s incredible acting and the writers’ skill at dropping breadcrumbs for future seasons, Marsfall‘s season finale provides answers without the bows tied around them, triumph and defeat in balanced measure, and pinnacle moments of dearly loved character relationships. This is a remarkable understanding of sound and story packaged inside forty minutes, and a respectful, realistic look at the horrors of space travel and uncharted worlds and the dangers intrinsic to seeking your utmost potential without regard for consequence.
This review was originally published, and edited from, Audio Dramatic issue #29, May 13, 2019.