Monday, April 19, 2010

Space Casey

Space Casey is written and produced by Christiana Ellis. Ms. Ellis is also famous for writing the podcast novel Nina Kimberly the Merciless and podcasting "Christiana's Shallow Thoughts", "Hey, Wanna Watch a Movie?"and "Talking about Survivor". Ms. Ellis is also one of those early adopter folks who got in under the wire along with J.C. Hutchins, Scott Sigler, and Tee Morris as some of the first folks to create fiction content for podcasts- some of who still make fiction, others do not. From everything that I can tell, Ms. Ellis has not made any fiction since 2008.

And why should she? Her novel NKTM is now in hard copy by Dragon Moon Press and "Casey" won the Gold Mark Time Award in 2007.

But this is part of my criticism about Awards. Looking at the list of past winners, I'm a little surprised at the Mark Time Awards. I can stand by their choices for the Ogle Awards in the past, there's a solid crop of shows including productions made by Crazy Dog Audio, Ollin Productions, Colonial Radio Theatre and Chatterbox Theater. I've heard most of these shows, but recognize all of these companies for high production standards and great acting. Perhaps it is the nature of "too many fish in the sea to choose from" when it comes to Horror audio drama productions but far less when it comes to Science Fiction? Or maybe the companies just didn't pony up the 25 dollar entry fee needed to have their works adjudicated? Perhaps it is the judges who appear not to have a whole lot of experience with modern audio drama. Great Northern Audio certainly appears to sell their wares, but outside of an early episode of The Sonic Society with a strange show called "Martian Trombones" I can't find their other works. Certainly everyone in America has heard of Firesign Theatre but they would hardly qualify as modern audio drama practitioners, and The Society of Audio Addicts has neither been updated since 2008, nor appears to be strictly interested in audio drama at all but rather podcasting.
So you can understand why I feel a little underwhelmed when I listened to "Space Casey" and discovered it was a gold winner. Not that "Casey" is a bad series. It is even a fairly decent audio drama, but certainly not a great one.
Production
Considering that I'm reviewing this as a winner, I would have to say that the production is fairly weak for gold place. Looking at shows like "After Hell" which create rich and detailed sound landscapes, multiple tracks and sound effects with a clear understanding towards "space" and panning. "Casey" on the other hand provides almost no panning (there was maybe one moment with the spider in the vent but I wasn't sure if I imagined it) and almost all of its story takes place in a single spaceship with little interaction with the environment. Even the voice of the computer has no effects on it to let us know it's anything but another person. I can appreciate how effective A.I. can be in the future, but with audio drama even the slightest voice modification helps set the tenor for a character that's not human and needs to be seriously considered.
Now, I enjoy minimalist sound effects approaches as much as anyone. But in a judgement for the best produced audio with powerhouse production companies like CDT and CRT, I expect an elevated criteria. "Space Casey" comes across as a well produced podcast audio play, but nothing more.

Acting
The acting is passable with the weakest link being Ms. Ellis herself. Not everyone who writes should consider being an actor, just as the reverse is true. As "Space Casey", Ms. Ellis' portrayal of the character sounds more like a reading from "Nina Kimberly" than an actual performance. While her voice is unique, as a casting choice it doesn't captivate my expectation of the character of "Casey". The Computer voice on the other hand is an excellent pick. Wesley Clifford most lamentably from the late Planet Retcon series has an excellent sense of comic timing. Some direction choices which bewilder me as a listener are taken, but that is more of a problem with the writing. Good audio drama shouldn't have too many characters, but using no more than two for entire episodes alone would seem - in this reviewers' mind at least- would not make it in the running for a Best Science Fiction of the Year award. Once imagines more involved characterization for that honor.

Writing
"Casey" comes across like a modern podcasters sci-fi manifesto. It contains cliched popular culture memes that virge on "Don't go there" style phrases at times that make it almost painful. If you can get past the "chic-geek" lingo the characters have some fun quips and interesting banter. But that is one of its fatal flaws. From the first of the ten episodes, "Casey" comes out with a strong plot.
Space Casey is a confidence hustler.
Space Casey goes on the wrong ship.
Space Casey has been discovered and will probably die.
After that, the series takes all kinds of slowdowns and turns and the straight forward plot starts looping into conversations about fashion with the computer, spiders on the ship that will kill you if you scream, and transsexual xenomorphic masturbation. No, that was not a typo. Episode number four ends with the spine tingling cliffhanger of Casey needing "private" time once she finds out the computer has transformed her for a short time into an alien "he". A "he" with tentacles, face sensors and who knows what else. I just kept shaking my head, and thinking "No, no, no. This is not entertaining."
And in case you think that was an "off" ending, the episode before ends with Space Casey the great criminal mastermind stuck in the ship's duct work, and unfortunately it wasn't played for ironic effect. And the next episode? She uses her incredible con abilities to do- Cry like a woman. That's right. Casey cries like a woman to get the spaceship to change it's mind and programming. Again, not for ironic effect. This is a plan for her.
I apologize for the continual use of "that's right", but it's important to understand I'm deadly serious about these plot points.
So, what exactly is Space Casey about anyway? As a hustler she's not doing a lot of hustling stuck on a ship.  The way she steals money from a passing couple of bugs who are salvaging a wreck comes across as uninspired and unbelievable, but that being said, the plot is not entirely uninteresting, and the characters are engaging enough for a podcast. I just can't imagine this series ever being known as anything more than a sidestep from Ms. Ellis' writing prose. But it's a gold Mark Time winner. Not to bring up Mr. Clifford again, but his Stargate Cafe was far better written, far funnier in its best episodes, and had more characters involved and developed.

Rating: 3/5
So, what happened? How did Mark Time award a good but not great show as a "gold" entry?
One has to wonder if the cult of personality that has followed Ms. Ellis  from her early successes with "Nina Kimberly" and somehow influenced the results?
I've noticed a decided "cold shouldering" of many audio drama production companies by those who produce regular podcast fiction or simple podcast talk shows. Perhaps I'm wrong, but consider how many times some of those previously mentioned early podshow hosts have cross-promoted their own works compared to how many times they have mentioned someone like "Gregg Taylor" from Decoder Ring Theatre, Jeffrey Adams from Icebox Radio or Jack Ward from The Sonic Society all of which have been at this certainly as long as they and have made as much of a lasting impact. But perhaps Audio Drama isn't a brand that crackles geekery as much as "podcast", "podnovel", "Web 2.0" and "Social Media".
Maybe it's true. The geek really will inherit the Earth.

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