There’s a moment, quite early on, in Steal The Stars that completely brought me up short. Actually made me stop on the pavement (over to the side, obviously—I’m not a monster) and just think about what I’d heard. This happens with really good podcast fiction for me, and it’s something I watch for—the moment when a story’s implications hit you right between the eyes, where a dramatic twist is perfectly landed. An early episode of Tanis did this for me. Likewise The Black Tapes and The Magnus Archives. It happens in my day job at Pseudopod regularly, too.
But Steal The Stars is the first time in a long time a full cast audio drama has achieved this effect. And it managed to do so not with any of the vast revelations at the heart of the story, but with a pair of character beats.
Steal the Stars is the story of Dakota Prentiss and Matt Salem, both employees of Sierra, a military contractor. Sierra are Blackwater with better press—which is to say they’re Blackwater with no press at all. Private defence contractors, they run their installations like the Foreign Legion crossed with every dystopian regime. You do your job, you show up on time, you do NOT fraternize off base, and you never get personally involved with your colleagues. Those that do get sentenced and transferred to very, very bad places.
Dak is the chief of security at Quill Marine, one of Sierra’s most secret facilities. Matt is the new transfer.
Quill Marine is home to a downed UFO, the corpse of its pilot, and the fungal mass growing on his chest.
For years, the scientists at QM have been studying the body, nicknamed Moss. And for years, they’ve been making gradual, inch-worm progress towards the truth. But when it becomes clear that the moss on Moss’ chest is dying, Trip Haydon, the company’s owner, sets an ultimatum—one vastly complicated by the fact that, against all orders, Dak and Matt have fallen in love…
What Mac Rogers has created here is a stack of different stories that feed off of and into one another. Dak and Matt’s romance drives the show, but so does the commoditization of extra-terrestrial life. The sinister monolithic actions of Sierra are a constant threat, but so are the reactions of their co-workers, most of whom are antagonists only because of the rules that trap them all. It’s a vastly complex, interrelated web of stories that drive each other along while dealing with the fantastic in resolutely normal, pragmatic ways. This is The X-Files shorn of any pre-millennial conspiracy romance. This is 24 without the cheerful willingness to torture anyone or anything. This is a thriller about love, and a love story about the last alien corpse.
And what truly makes the show is that both those stories are presented with the same, grounded, laconic realism. Quill Marine is a workplace, shot through with rivalries and friendships and office romance (despite the forbiddingly high price to be paid for such relationships). It’s the real world turned 25 degrees to the left, and the show uses Dak’s inner monologue and external speech to demonstrate just how fine a line she has to walk at all times. Director Jordana Williams is extraordinarily gifted and gives her actors exactly the space they need but no more. Every word matters, every silence matters. Everything is observed. Nothing is missed.
With a script this good and direction this intelligent, Steal the Stars is clearly in good hands—but the cast puts it over the top. They’re all incredibly strong performers but four actors in particular really shine: Nat Cassidy brings a Denis O’Hare-like joie de vivre to the role of Lloyd, QM’s brilliant, troubled lead scientist. Rebecca Comtois is excellent as Patty, Dak’s 2IC and in a kinder world, her best friend.
And then there’s Matt and Dak, played by Neimah Djourabchi and Ashlie Atkinson. Djourabchi has one of the hardest jobs here, playing a man who’s dutiful, kind, broken, and acutely aware of all three of those things. He nails the slightly-clenched attentiveness of the new guy while also capturing the deep reservoir of kindness and decency that’s somehow managed to remain intact inside his character. In doing so, he does the near impossible and makes a good man both interesting and complicated.
And Dak? Dak is the best lead character I’ve met this year, and easily the best audio performance.
Atkinson’s laconic, seen-it-all-before delivery invites you in before you’re even fully aware of what’s going on. Dak is an old hand, a veteran—she’s impossible to surprise and she’s impossible to shake. And Matt Salem does both. The way Atkinson lets us in on Dak’s secrets, the way we see her slowly wake up is sweet and utterly heartbreaking. Dak is a woman who has learned to live with and ignore the layers of mental and emotional scar tissue she carries, but when Matt arrives, she sees it all clearly and decides she’s had quite enough of it. The things she risks by changing and opening herself up are horrifying. And she knows that. And she does it anyway.
Dak’s struggle not just with emotion, but with realizing that she’s allowed to have positive emotions and experiences is one I know very well. She’s a survivor, and when you survive certain things you turn off parts of your personality, parts of your hopes, because you need that power elsewhere.
And when you realize that isn’t necessary anymore, it’s terrifying and amazing and like no other feeling on Earth.
That’s the moment that brought me up short, listening to the podcast. It’s the moment Dak describes herself as a “hearty gal,” spitting the words and everything they signify with enough venom to get them as far away as possible. The combination of bad self-image, self-loathing, and bitterness at how much you feel trapped in your own skin is note-perfect, visceral, and real. This is a reaction (albeit as someone of a different gender) I’ve had. It’s a reaction it’s taken years, and an extraordinary partner, to work through.
This is why Steal The Stars is so extraordinary. It’s a show aware of its characters’ damage and it uses that to deepen and further every level of the story. Dak and Matt’s romance, the office politics, and the battle for the soul of Quill Marine and Moss’ corpse are all driven by the need to be better and the very real possibility that they might not be able to be, and do, better. Dak and Matt are trying, anyway—and, for all their battered veteran mindset, it’s the hardest, and bravest, thing they could do. An extraordinary show in every way, Steal the Stars is a high-water mark for audio drama and podcasting. Go check it out.
The final episode of Steal the Stars is available on Wednesday from Tor Labs. Get caught up on the entire podcast here!
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.