Marigold Breach, the latest offering from audio book turned fiction podcast studio Realm, follows the relationship of Lucan (Manny Jacinto), a space soldier who has crash landed on an alien planet, and Ven (Jameela Jamil), the sentient AI implanted in his head that can both provide him with information and control his neurological functions, like his perception of time and fear. Lucan and Ven wake up 80 years after the crash, with both of their memories gone. What’s more, Ven appears to be the one inhibiting their memories.
The internal dialogue between Lucan and Ven is both the drive and the heart of the show. The narrative focuses on the question of planning a future together in the midst of strange and dire circumstances, and their unique personalities and desires bring interesting angles to this conversation. Lucan is empathic, and keenly aware that, though he was a soldier, he wants to leave that world behind and find a cottage in a meadow to live out his life with Ven. There are even moments where his desire to move on outweighs his desire to get his memory back. Ven on the other hand is logical, tactical, distrustful of every stranger they meet, and caring more for their present safety and concerns. The struggle of pathos and ethos is a fairly well trodden theme in science fiction, but framing it around Lucan and Ven’s story, and the concept of two consciousnesses sharing one body, brings it new life. Not least of all because Lucan and Ven do really truly care for each other.
But a single relationship, no matter how compelling, can’t carry a story; especially a serialized story; especially a serialized audio story. And that’s kind of all Marigold Breach has going for it.
To begin with, the world building is fairly mediocre in execution, and ultimately uncompelling. Elam, the planet Lucan has woken up on, is the home of two rival factions—scrubjacks and homesteaders. I wish I could tell you more about the scrubjacks, but across the first four episodes the extent of what we understand is that they are constantly referred to as dangerous, interested in collecting “wartech”, and are nebulously opposed to the homesteaders. Compared to the homesteaders, their values and motivations are relatively undefined- but that might actually be for the better.
If you haven’t guessed yet, we can’t talk about the homesteaders without talking about colonialism, specifically ecological colonialism- and of course, nary a whisper of decolonization is to be heard in Marigold Breach. At its most innocuous, ecological colonialism is just a part of the backdrop of the narrative. But in more than one place, the show feels compelled to tell the listener that it knows that there is colonialism but, not to worry—it can be justified! I would be critical of these moments if they were nothing more than virtue signaling, but there is one instance that reveals just how misguided this notion is.
In the third episode, Lucan goes to shake the hand of one of the homesteaders, and Ven quickly stops him, telling him that their skin is toxic. When Lucan mentions this, the Homesteader tells him that he needs to be inoculated, citing that “We have let the planet colonize our bodies, just like we’re colonizing it.” Of course, this sentiment is presented unchallenged, without interrogation of the ethics involved, and devoid of any nuance around the historical impact of biological imperialism and ecological colonialism. (Even beyond any meaningful interrogation, the show doesn’t even have the insight to connect this idea to the sentient AI implanted in Lucan’s head and sharing his body.)
And that’s kind of how every element of world building in Marigold Breach is presented. It’s either vague set dressing necessary for the plot, like the scrubjacks, or complicated ideas that are nominally presented but never interrogated, like the homesteaders.
Beyond the worldbuilding, zero consideration has been given for the serialized presentation, with almost no thematic consistency across episodes. And while you won’t find me shying away from a slow moving narrative that focuses on dialogue over action, Marigold Breach is riddled with false starts, dangling threads, and cliffhangers that are resolved within moments of the next episode beginning.
And as is the case with most poorly plotted shows, the characters around Lucan and Ven end up being nothing more than shells, devoid of personality or motivations outside of being vessels for exposition, narrative, and unexplored ideas.
Unfortunately, my criticisms extend to the production of the show as well. If you’ve been privy to the podcast fiction space for any amount of time, you can probably guess word for word what I’m going to say next. Marigold Breach suffers from all of the same problems we’ve seen from the many forays into celebrity headlined podcast fiction, usually from studios like Realm and Q-Code. For those who are unfamiliar, most of these shows start as the hopes and dreams of writers who cannot get their show idea to be picked up by a television network. They switch to the less gate-kept medium of fiction podcasts, and hope for their now somewhat more flushed out idea that might have found an audience to be picked up, trying to be the next Homecoming, Limetown, or Archive 81. It’s impossible to say whether or not that’s the case with Marigold Breach, but it has all the tale tell failures.
Like most stories that were originally meant for television, the differences in medium have not been creatively addressed within the story itself, relying too heavily on descriptive narration and expository dialogue. Many of the performances, which might be heralded as brilliantly subtle in a television show, lack the vocal range to effectively bring more than one emotion out of the dialogue. The sound design is just an unceasing ambient wash of instrumental sound, almost entirely devoid of environmental sound, and incapable of giving any space or weight to the more important moments of story and dialogue. And, as mentioned above, the episodes lack any sort of thematic consistency or internal story structure.
Finally, I can’t finish this review without addressing the celebrities in the room, Manny Jacinto and Jameela Jamil. I can’t claim to know how names get attached to these sorts of projects, but this was not the right script for these two actors. I do think that they are giving these performances everything they’ve got, but the script is giving them nothing in return.
If you’re familiar with their chemistry on The Good Place, it’s probably one of the best things about Marigold Breach and perfectly matches the sentiments of that internal dialogue that this show does so well. But these are actors with an incredible range—again, as clearly demonstrated in The Good Place—which has been wasted on this script. It’s completely devoid of any humor and tonally monotonous. And I don’t think it needs to be a comedy, but it’s clear that this story has room for so much more.
For starters, Jameela Jamil’s Ven suffers from the long known problem of monotony when writing sentient A.I. for audio fiction. Experienced audio fiction writers have come up with clever ways to infuse their A.I.s with more personality, but Marigold Breach gets nowhere close. There’s a few small moments where Jamil finds ways to break out of the mold she’s been written into, but it doesn’t match up to the performance she is capable of.
I was also captivated by Jacinto’s war-weary ex-soldier. But when we hear his internal narration (that is both present tense and somehow separate from his internal conversation with Ven) and the conversations he has with characters in the world outside of his head, the writing and the sound design fail the actor. There is no difference in tone or cadence, or in audio timbre, between these three unique voices, so Jacinto’s performances bleed into one another, making it not only monotonous, but difficult to follow. You don’t even need to have written audio fiction before to know that people don’t speak the way they think.
If you’ve never listened to a fiction podcast before, and the names attached to this one piqued your interest, I’d implore you to give some other shows a go first. In fact, every idea that comprises Marigold Breach has been done with far better writing, far better acting, and far better sound design in a whole slew of other shows. If you’re interested in a really interesting and involved critique of ecological colonialism in the guise of a space horror romance, go listen to Janus Descending. If you’re interested in how we plan for the future amidst despair and hardship, go listen to This Planet Needs a Name. And if you want to hear about people of color thriving in space, go listen to InCo. (I’ve also recommended a few other great science fiction podcasts you could listen to in a previous post for Tor.)
I had really high hopes going into Marigold Breach. I set aside all of my prejudices about these kinds of podcasts because somewhere deep down, I really hoped that the one starring Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto could be different. And it probably could have been. Unfortunately that one really good idea at the heart of the story isn’t enough to overcome the failures in its writing and the same critiques that have been leveled against celebrity led fiction podcasts over and over again. All I can say is that I hope this isn’t anyone’s first fiction podcast, and that I hope it’s not Jamil and Jacinto’s last.
Ponders is a writer and podcaster trying to tell ebullient stories in a rubescent wasteland. They’re helping paintings come to life with Accession, and wandering through a magical forest to save their love in The Wanderer. Proud and user of thesaurus and twitter dots com.