Maybe Video Didn’t Kill the Radio Star
By Derek May:
The plethora of entertainment at our fingertips today is actually astounding in its immensity. While we naturally gravitate to movies, television, concerts, and sports, we also have video games, satellite radio, and internet webstreams. But strangely enough, some of the old, tried-and-true methods are still going strong. Board games are making a huge comeback. We still like to sit around and play cards, be it poker or Against Humanity. We like to read and write and paint and listen to music in our homes. We never seem to stray too distant from the basics that have carried humanity thus far. And as Flapper Press contributor John Alsedek reminds us in his blog series, we haven’t completely abandoned the joy of listening to good-old-fashioned radio dramas either. While we may have traded vacuum-tube Zeniths for ITunes mp3s, the content really hasn’t changed all that much, and nor should it.
Honestly, I never thought too much about radio/audio plays. It seemed like the sort of thing that belonged to a distant generation that didn’t have the advantage of proper moving pictures on the silver or household screen. Why listen to people doing things when you could just watch them, am I right? Plus, they didn’t even make them anymore, so isn’t it sort of moot point?
But like a few things in my life, Highlander ended up introducing me to a world I never knew. Back in 2009, one of the premiere audio drama companies, Big Finish Productions, released a series of four stories set in the Highlander: The Series universe continuing the adventures of Duncan Macleod. Adrian Paul reprised his role—and everyone else’s; it was more of a narration, with Adrian playing each character, reading more like a novel recitation than a play. They were a cute extension for hardcore fans, but the writing wasn’t particularly stellar, the deviations from continuity ranged from odd to aggravating, and while Adrian is a wonderful actor, hearing him do Joe or Connor or some of the female voices was just . . . strange. Occasionally, another actor would be thrown in, but it was mostly a one-man show. As such, it hardly changed my mind as to what this medium could offer me in the land of 1080p visual splendor.
A few years later, Big Finish seemed to have realized what didn’t work and switched to one of their other formats: the full-cast audio play. This time round, they released four stories, each focusing on an individual member of the infamous Four Horsemen from the series. They brought back Valentine Pelka, Richard Ridings, Marcus Testory, and Peter Wingfield to reprise their iconic roles, and surrounded them not only with a complete and exquisite cast, but some amazing writers who crafted beautiful background stories for each character, as well as a satisfying overarching story that tied them all together. It was the first time that I’d been truly blown away by what this medium could accomplish, and really excited me to learn more about what else might be offered.
Around that same time I was just starting to get into another classic property: Doctor Who. Catching up on 50 years of stories was incredibly daunting, and a decade later I still haven’t come close. But I have seen all the modern era, and most of the major milestones of each of the previous Doctors, enough to have a strong sense of who each of them are . . .
. . . or so I thought.
Fellow Highlander super-fan and good friend Alexander Chatzipantelis was probably even more excited than I was that I was getting into Doctor Who, as he’s equally knowledgeable about that. I mentioned some of my impressions about the various Doctors—Three seemed like a frilly James Bond. Six seemed like a jerk. Eight was hardly given the chance to even be the Doctor—and Al mentioned that the company that did the Highlander audios has also been doing the same for Doctor Who for years. Decades even!
He said the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) had a complete, rich history of adventures, and offered to send me a few to try out. I said sure, I’ll give it a shot, but with a 50/50 track record thus far, I didn’t have high hopes.
Well, long story short, Eight is my absolute all-time favorite Doctor (though Ten is VERY close second). Six isn’t at all the jerk I thought he was. And Three is just freakin’ cool. I could not believe the quality of these stories, from the writing to the execution by the remarkable cast—including the actual Doctors and companions going back to the beginning! You really feel like you are there, the environments and the characters fully realizing themselves in your inner mind in such glorious detail. Sure, part of that is the inclusion of certain sound effects—footsteps alighting, clothes ruffling, hands typing, sonics sonicing—but what I discovered more than that was the unique ability of the actors themselves to draw you into their experience.
And if you’re thinking it’s simply a case of being enamored with a familiar property, there are amazing original works out there equally rich in their creative world-building. My girlfriend, Anne Trominski (also a Flapper Press contributor), is hooked on Podcasts, which have been ridiculously popular over the last several years. I’d originally always thought of them as mere modern extensions of ham radio operators, commentators espousing their opinions or offering interviews to a far broader audience than AM radio could ever reach. But there is an incredible and talented variety of podcasts out there, including dramas. Anne introduced me to Welcome to Nightvale, an utterly original madcap serial following the often-hilariously surreal supernatural events in a small desert town. The show is not only brilliantly written with layers of subversive, satirical insights, it’s just plain fun (and features amazing indie music during its weather reports). The show has proven so popular that the creators have taken it literally on the road. Anne and I have been to two live shows now, and seeing the actors in person performing a special episode is a unique thrill. But even more amazing is how minimal, yet equally enthralling, these live performances are. It’s a testament to the talent of the performers to engage with nothing more than the power of speech.
As time has gone on and I’ve dug deeper and listened to more, it has become quite clear that acting for “live-action” and for audio are often very different skillsets, and those who can do one cannot necessarily do the other. At a recent comic convention, veteran actor Kevin Conroy (the voice of the animated Batman for 20+ years) recounted anecdotes about very famous, well-respected actors who came in to the booth and gave what they thought were spot on performances, only to see everyone else in the studio cringing. A voice actor, whether for audio dramas or animated series, is exactly that: an actor who uses only their voice. They do not have the luxury of hand or facial gestures; instead, those cues must be related through the timber and tone of the voice. It’s extremely subtle, and requires a deep understanding of the craft. And those who can do both are a breed above, for sure.
I don’t mean this as a plug, but when I started creating my own stop-motion animated series in Highlander: Veritas, I discovered these realities for myself. Each actor who graciously worked on the project gave wonderful readings, but it often took multiple takes to get right not because of any issue with the performances, but because it had to be just so in order to bring the lifeless animation truly to life—especially when each actor is being recorded separately!
I discovered for myself just how thin the line can be, and in turn gained a new respect for those actors who can bring us into their world with such apparent effortlessness.
I’m sure John Alsedek can speak far more to these point than I ever could. Or likewise our magnificent leader, Elizabeth Gracen, who is no stranger to the craft as she’s worked on both John’s Suspense series as well as the upcoming season of Veritas. What I think both Lizzie and John have in common—and I can now count myself among them—is our respect for the medium and what it can do, and our desire to spread the word so that the rest of the world understands that audio is not a lesser than, but an equal to. Even the creatives behind Doctor Who often credit some of their favorite works of the franchise to those audios (check out the Eighth Doctor’s audio episode “The Chimes Of Midnight,” you will NOT be disappointed).
We never got a third Highlander audio series, and I know why. It had nothing to do with quality and everything to do with exposure. To this day, on the various pages and message boards, even hardcore fans are just now discovering that those audios even exist! It’s not their fault any more than it was mine back in the day: it’s just something we didn’t realize was still very much a part of our varied recreational options. We just need someone to tell us it’s still there!
All I can say is, my ears and mind have been opened to a universe of entertainment I likely never would have even considered 10 years ago. Thanks to the likes of John and Al, I have a seemingly endless supply of amazing stories to amuse (and calm) me on my long commutes. I’m as excited for a new entry as I am for any of my favorite live-action shows or films. I’ve found a new old form of entertainment, and if my experience here has been worth anything, I hope that it encourages you to try it too.