Award-winning audio-drama specialists Radio Static are offering up what they boldly describe as some “ground breaking existential sci-fi” in their latest online adventure The Light of September. This is a high-concept serial (from the makers of Minister of Chance and Death Comes to Time) set aboard the oceanographic research ship Venus; whose crew find themselves “all at sea” in the midst of a global crisis, when an experiment in faster-than-light-speed travel in deep space appears to tear holes in the fabric of time back on Earth.
Radio Static describe The Light of September as an “audio movie”, stressing how the production uses filmic techniques (immersive sound effects; and rich musical motifs, backing the work of a talented vocal cast) to “create film-quality drama using sound alone.” The company has been able to make use of an impressive range of recording facilities around the globe: including The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London; and studios in Los Angeles, Oslo and New Orleans; calling on the skills of half-a-dozen separate recording engineers. Across the multiple studios, continuity is provided by writer-director Dan Freeman (who has penned all the episodes to date); dedicated production co-ordinator Deb Waters and sound engineer Dan Logan.
Four episodes of this entirely crowdfunded adventure have been released since February, and are available for download from the Radio Static site. Supporters of The Light of September can avail themselves of an array of funding awards (including some genuinely inventive treats) or choose to be recognised online or in the show’s credits. The well-designed funding drive for episode five recently reached its target.
The producers have been able to populate the drama with an impressive (and sizeable) international cast, with some Radio Static regulars being joined by some new voices. Rising star Tuppence Middleton (War & Peace) plays incoming crew member and feisty science student May Sutherland; Tamsin Greig (Black Books, Green Wing) appears as unflappable ship’s captain Dalton; Silvester McCoy shines as a potty-mouthed and bad-tempered engineer Allen; while Thorbjørn Harr brings the necessary gravitas to the role of the ship’s highly-driven chief science officer.
There is a great sense of energy to the proceedings, some well-judged moments of humour (mostly courtesy of McCoy’s character’s stream of expletives) and an effective sense of place is conjured up through Freeman’s scripts: both that of the tight, tense claustrophobia below decks aboard the vessel, and of the sense of openness that comes from gazing into the night sky from aboard a solitary ship at sea. In the early episodes, the crew find themselves separated by the impact of the breakdown of linear time; beset with technical problems aboard the RSS Venus; and then subject to a raid by the most unexpected sort of high-seas’ brigands. Despite the brevity of each instalment (around 10-11 minutes) a great deal of storyline is crammed into each episode, ahead of some well-crafted cliff-hangers (from episode two onwards, in any case).
The Light of September is strong on atmosphere and bursting with ideas, but its sense of ambition is not without its drawbacks. With so large a cast, and so compact a running time, it is difficult to give sufficient air-time to flesh-out characters and allow the audience to connect with them. Some of the ways in which the unravelling of time are explored are also a difficult sell: having some characters become invisible to others is not the easiest conceit to pull off on audio; and (with so little time available) having characters disagree about which earlier events actually took place risks being more confusing than exciting.
The events of the latest instalment, which sees the vessel raided by some scenery-chewing pirates (the cue for lots of full-on ‘ah-ha me hearties’ emoting), the female members of the crew taken hostage aboard the raiders’ boat, and a second ship answering the Venus’ distress call, see the tension ratcheting up – all of which makes the prospect of future episodes increasingly enticing.
There is a lot to recommend in this fast-paced, sea bound, sci-fi tale, and the refusal to explain too much too soon in the story’s narrative is to be commended for its dramatic restraint. But there’s something of a tension in evidence here between the scale of the production, the size of its cast, the wealth of technology at its disposal, and the economy and simplicity of the show’s short, episodic audio serial format. The results are good; but a little dense. The producers might consider taking the time to let a little more light in.
THE LIGHT OF SEPTEMBER: EPISODES 1-4 / COMPANY: RADIO STATIC / AUTHOR: DAN FREEMAN / PRODUCTION CO-ORDINATOR: DEB WATERS / SOUND ENGINEER: DAN LOGAN / PRODUCTION ASSISTANT: EMILY COPLEY-MOORBY / CAST: LAURA CAYOUETTE / TAMSIN GREIG / THORBJØRN HARR / SYLVESTER MCCOY / TUPPENCE MIDDLETON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (FOR FREE DOWNLOAD)