Hey, you there! Do you like high quality audio drama? Do you like supporting independent artists making original content? Do you like supporting high quality original audio drama made by independent artists? Then I highly recommend you check out Verity Weaver, a new sci fi series produced by the recently launched Audio Hour Productions! Here at DoWntime, we think it’s important to promote original content, and this particular original series is a cracker.
Verity Weaver, starring Alena Van Arendonk in the title role, officially debuts on itunes and spotify on March 8th, and the pilot episode “To Catch a Falling Star” can easily be found by searching for “Verity Weaver” or “Audio Hour Productions” on either app. The episode is written by series creator David McCormack, script edited by Nina Sarkozi, scored by Pat Delia (with the brilliant Seeming contributing a wonderful theme tune), and is executive produced by David Holdsworth. The remaining five episodes of the six part series are set to go up later in the year, with a great deal more exciting talent set to contribute as both writers and actors.
So, with that out of the way, let’s discuss “To Catch a Falling Star”, the show’s pilot episode. The episode follows Verity Weaver, ordinary worker on a mining planet, who uses the experience machine, a virtual reality simulator that taps into a person’s deepest desires, to go on adventures with famous explorer Fable Ashwood for twenty minutes a day, the only good twenty minutes of her daily life. At its core, the episode is an exploration of the tension between the monotonous horror Verity’s real life and the all too brief thrill and excitement of her life in the simulation.
That’s one heck of a premise, and even as it echoes classic sci fi concerns about simulations and what makes an experience real and valid, it’s immediately some of the freshest and most evocative science fiction you could have the joy of listening to. This freshness stems from the fact that, like the best of sci fi, “To Catch a Falling Star” is deeply concerned with the human questions underlying its core concept: it very much has echoes of the best episodes of Black Mirror (especially the wonderful “San Junipero”) in that way. It explores the philosophical and ethical ramifications of the experience machine in a way that genuinely seems fresh, approaching subject matter that is often met with tedious moralising (like the worst episodes of “Black Mirror”, I’m looking at you, “Nosedive”) with a welcome amount of open-mindedness, an open-mindedness that stems from the basic respect shown for the different responses all the characters in the story have to the experience machine. The story is less interested in condemning people for wanting to escape into a simulation, that, from their perspective, would be an entirely real and valid life, and instead asks what situation someone would have to be in for that escape to be their most appealing option.
Because for all its big sci fi ideas, “To Catch a Falling Star” is deeply concerned with people. This is particularly evident in the story’s worldbuilding, which shows us a world rife with class inequality that is all too familiar to the world we live in today. We’re shown a world where the vast majority of people in the Nox System, the galaxy where the series is set, are forced to work backbreaking and tedious manual labour in minds to support the lifestyles of the wealthiest people at the centre of the galaxy, while the people in the middle of the galaxy enjoy lives of comfort that nonetheless are in danger of being snatched away by arbitrary forces beyond their control (in this instance, those forces are planetary movements). It’s a metaphor that’s wonderfully direct and biting. But this metaphor is backed up by human details that depict the horrors of inequality on a smaller scale: a three months pregnant woman is forced to continue mining, a father can only see his family (or a version of them) for twenty minutes a day in the experience machine, and genuinely kind managers can’t do anything to make their workers’ lives more than marginally better because sometimes the system really is the problem.
These big sci fi ideas, philosophical questions, and political commentary on class are held together by a wonderful cast of rounded characters, in particular the title character Verity Weaver, played brilliantly by Alena Van Arendonk. The structure of the episode sees full scenes where the characters interact interspersed with narration from Verity, and the transition between the regular scenes and Verity’s narration is so confidently handled you barely notice it happening. This is helped by the fact that Verity’s narration is wonderfully lyrical and evocative, in a way that echoes the narration of the driver in the brilliant podcast Alice Isn’t Dead. It also helps that the narration is used intelligently, giving background information where the character interaction scenes provide the heart of the story. And Verity is a fascinating lead: someone who is at once charismatic and self doubting. The episode explores how she can be these seemingly contradictory things in interesting ways, using the experience machine to illuminate the ways opportunity can bring out aspects of a someone’s personality that simply cannot thrive in other situations: Verity can be confident and charismatic in the experience machine because she leads a life of adventure free from the worries of her life as a miner. Verity is also a character who looks at her deeply unequal world with compassion and a desire to help others, something that brings out a fascinating dynamic with Fable Ashwood, the galactic explorer whose relationship with Verity forms the backbone of the story. Fable’s background contrasts with Verity’s in fascinating ways, and their dynamic has echoes of a Doctor/ companion relationship, although that dynamic is subverted in a fascinating way. The episode, through Verity and Fable’s relationship, becomes an origin story for Verity, one that’s a delight to listen to on its own, and also sets up an incredibly exciting series to come. I for one highly recommend you listen to “To Catch a Falling Star” as soon as you can, and then join me in desperately waiting for the rest of the first series when it is released this autumn.