When you watch a Mac Rogers play or listen to a Mac Rogers podcast, you’re putting an extra level of trust into his storytelling: Often you don’t actually see the pivotal science fiction element around which the narrative revolves. Rogers is the only playwright who could write a three-play, miniseries-long alien invasion epic where the most the audience ever glimpses of the giant extraterrestrial bugs is one (chillingly massive) leg. It’s fitting, then, that Steal the Stars, Rogers’ latest audio drama presented by Gideon Media and Tor Labs, centers on a seven-foot-tall gray alien nicknamed Moss that the characters spend every day with but listeners will never lay eyes (or ears) on.
But here’s the secret: It’s not about the alien. In classic Mac fashion, the high-security Quill Marine compound and its incredible extraterrestrial find are the sci-fi backdrop for Steal the Stars’ true heart: the human desire for forbidden connection and the extreme lengths people will go to to hold on to it.
You know how the Jedi aren’t allowed to love? Imagine if the Jedi weren’t even allowed to have friends—which means no wonderfully sassy Anakin Skywalker/Obi-Wan Kenobi banter—and that the entire galaxy couldn’t even know what they do. That’s close to the conflict for Dakota Prentiss (Ashlie Atkinson) and the rest of the staff at Hangar 11: Chosen because they’re the ones who “can’t go home again” after various tours of duty or service to the government, they are barred from all forms of fraternization. Not just messy hookups and their inevitable breakups, but after-work drinks or any sort of solidarity that distracts from their possibly world-changing mission.
This emphasis on anti-fraternization is so crucial that entry to Hangar 11 brings with it a half-dozen different checkpoints in which these rules are repeated ad nauseum, drilled into these former soldiers. Which makes it so shocking for Dak—wry, rough, self-preserving Dak—when she is immediately drawn to new recruit Matt Salem (Neimah Djourabchi). It’s the zing of love at first sight coupled with the immediate, crushing realization that it can never happen. But rather than avoid this sudden and debilitating distraction, Dak must be tortured by close proximity to Matt, because he’s one of the few who truly gets the significance of their alien artifact.
Therein lies the double-edged sword: Because of its strict criteria—and stoic willingness to remove potential issues—Quill Marine’s crew is made up of the very best people to protect and study Moss, his crash-landed ship, and the inscrutable technology it holds in the form of the mysterious “Harp.” The people that Dak would most want to take out for a beer, if only to release some of the pressure of sharing this secret, must remain at arm’s length; any personal connections could bring the entire operation crashing down around them.
The aforementioned checkpoints make for an excellent opportunity to show off the ensemble: Rosh (Brian Silliman), who pretends not to recognize his colleagues until their information checks out; Lauren (Kelley Rae O’Donnell), who recites the anti-fraternization terms with almost robotic accuracy; Patty (Rebecca Comtois), Dak’s deputy and mentee, not that either would ever acknowledge their closeness; eccentric xenobiologist Lloyd (Nat Cassidy); and more. In addition to their shared backgrounds, these are all people who wouldn’t quite “fit in” in regular society; adherence to structure is a comfort and a focal point for their lives. These moments also make for great treats in that listeners get to experience the talents of Gideon Media’s many collaborators, many from the New York City independent theater scene, many of whom have originated memorable roles in Rogers’ Honeycomb Trilogy alien play cycle and other productions.
Dak would have you believe that she’s just as committed to the mission as her colleagues, but we know that she yearns for more—due in no small part to the time we spend in her head. Deciding how to present a fiction podcast is tricky; not all of them have the built-in radio show conceit of Welcome to Night Vale. Rogers’ first sci-fi audio drama, The Message, got meta from the start, with its narrator presenting the events through her podcast-within-a-podcast. LifeAfter’s framing was a little murkier, a mix of voice notes and non-diegetic scenes. Steal the Stars goes full audio drama, trusting audiences to engage with the material the way they would a play, just removing the visual component. It’s a mix of action and narration, as Dak provides a window into her innermost thoughts. Considering the hyper-secretive nature of every Hangar 11 interaction, it feels almost like spying, adding an extra thrill to the mounting action.
It is a slow burn, especially for those not familiar with Rogers’ style. If you’ve read the synopsis, you know where the series is headed, but there’s so much ground to cover before then. It takes all of the first episode (each runs about a half hour, give or take) to actually meet Moss, and things don’t really ramp up until the end of episode 2. But by then, you’ll be hooked. The irony is that a podcast frees up the audience to enjoy it on their own terms—any time of day, anywhere from the morning commute to cleaning the house—but Rogers’ story is so gripping, and Jordana Williams’ direction so masterful, that you will find yourself holding deathly still, breath bated, afraid to move as key moments unfold. I’m intentionally avoiding spoilers because it’s better to go in learning information on a need-to-know basis, but what makes the second episode so captivating is the narrative bait-and-switch: Fed on sci-fi (and a fair bit of horror-thriller) tropes, you’re so sure of the outcome, only for the human dimension of the story to be what guts you.
Steal the Stars will hold your attention and imagination captive; it will stop your heart and then set it beating again.
Steal the Stars is a noir science fiction thriller in 14 episodes, airing weekly from August 2 – November 1, 2017, and available worldwide on all major podcast distributors through the Macmillan Podcast Network. Listen to the first episode here, and subscribe to Steal the Stars at any of the following links:
Natalie Zutter got early access to the first five episodes of Steal the Stars and is now kicking herself that she’s going to have to wait for the rest. Talk fiction podcasts, sci-fi and otherwise, with her on Twitter! Not Your (Final) Girl, her first radio play, will be broadcast by dtc radio this fall.