I usually recommend and review books on this blog, but story telling can come in many forms and I wanted to talk about some audio dramas that I would recommend.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy
This is an old series, the original incarnation of this amazing collection of things. Many people are aware of the book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (UK link, US link), but not all of them know that there was a radio play first. The radio play and the book (and the film and the TV series and the game) start off basically the same way, but then head off in different directions, so if you’ve read the book and its sequels you will still get a new story by listening to this radio play.
My dad had the whole original series recorded on cassette tapes when I was a kid, taped from the radio as it was broadcast, but the series is now available on CD (UK link, US link) as well as places like audible. The first two “phases” of the radio play are the original drama written specifically to be heard as an audio drama, the third and fourth are adaptations of the books which don’t work quite as well because what works on a page and what works in audio format are not quite the same.
The story follows the adventures of Arthur Dent, rescued from Earth moments before its destruction by his friend Ford Prefect, who turns out to be an alien. What follows is a romp of humour and silliness through time and space, with the characters ending up in utterly bizarre situations. It’s completely ridiculous and amazing. If you’ve read any of Douglas Adams’ books and enjoyed them, you will love the radio play.
The Confessions of Dorian Gray
I’ve talked about this before and I’ve listed the series on my queer reading list even though it’s an audio drama rather than a traditional book. The premise of the series is that Oscar Wilde wrote his book based on a real person, who didn’t die at the end but continued living on as an unaging immortal. Dorian lives on through the decades, encountering (and often fighting) supernatural creatures while just trying to have a good time.
This series is a mix of humour and horror, made up of half hour episodes. There is some ongoing story between episodes, with some recurring characters as well as some plotlines that span multiple episodes (especially in series 3) but for the most part each episode works on its own so it’s easy to dip in and out of. Some of the episodes veer more to the horror side of things, some to the comedy side, with others feeling like fantasy adventures. Even the stories that are written like horror stories still have plenty of humour in them to keep them from being too dark. This series is a lot of fun, with some great characters and a lot of depth even for a character who is largely in it for his own pleasure.
I put it on the queer reading list because Dorian, the protagonist, is either pansexual or bisexual, as well as there being a number of other queer characters who show up, including the recurring character of Simon (canonically gay) and Toby (“the love of Dorian’s life”). One story has Oscar Wilde as a character, another has a character clearly based on Alan Turing.
Juno Steel (The Penumbra Podcast)
The Penumbra Podcast produce audio dramas and make them available over the internet for free. There are some standalone stories, but most of the stories they write fall into one of two series – The Second Citadel (a fantasy series involving knights fighting monsters, including a disabled knight and a female knight both desperate to proof themselves) and Juno Steel.
The Juno Steel stories are my favourite of their work, which is why I’ve highlighted them specifically here. Juno Steel is a detective written in the style and using many of the tropes of a noir detective – but set on Mars. The stories are a lot of fun, with great humour (especially in the interactions between Juno and the thief Peter Nureyev) and an interesting plotline. Most of the stories are two parters, with each part being between 30 minutes and 50 minutes long. These two part stories tell a tale which feels complete in itself – with beginning, middle, and end – but which tie into longer plotlines that span across the series. The plots themselves are interesting and engaging, but it’s the humour that brings me back to the series.
There are some fun characters. I’ve mentioned Peter Nureyev, a thief and conman with a dry sense of humour who has amazing chemistry with Juno, but there’s also Rita, a secretary who can seem utterly stupid in some ways but then show utter genius in others. She cares for Juno deeply and will make decisions to protect him whether he likes it or not (like locking him in his apartment when he’s ill).
Welcome to Night Vale
This is a podcast that went viral and became a model for podcast drama success. The series is based around the community radio of a fictional town called Night Vale and each episode has Cecil, the local radio presenter, talking about recent events, upcoming community activities, local issues, and similar. This all sounds perfectly normal for a local radio show – except that the town is strange in every conceivable way. Monsters run city hall, librarians are horrific creatures that eat stray readers, there’s a dog park no one can enter patrolled by robed figures, blood sacrifices are a part of everyday life, there’s a teenage girl whose entire body consists of a single hand, another teenager who changes shape every few minutes, angels who no one is allowed to acknowledge, an underground city beneath the bowling alley, strange lights in the sky, a glowing cloud on the school board, the list goes on an on, getting stranger with each episode.
Although many of the things that the episodes focus on could be seen as horrific, there is a lot of humour in this series. There is still the horror element (the Faceless Old Woman is incredibly creepy) but also romance between Cecil and the beautiful scientist Carlos, as well as some moments of drama (the scene where Cecil’s portrait of Carlos gets broken is heart-breaking) and some instances of excitement and triumph.
Each episode has a focus or plot, but there are also longer plot threads that flow through several episodes, as well as running gags and recurring characters, not to mention running gags and recurring characters that turn into important plotlines. There are a lot of episodes now, more than a hundred, so catching up on the back catalogue will take some time.
The show has also spawned two novels and a series of live shows that tour the world. The live shows have their own storylines so they can be listened to separately from the podcast and so that listeners of the podcast won’t be missing anything critical if they can’t attend the live shows. I’m excited to say that I have a ticket to the live show in London in October.