Audio Drama fan Ely and Immunities creator Bob both loved the just-completed sci-fi podcast from Tor, but from our initial reactions, it seemed like we had two different podcasts in our heads. So we saved our discussion for posterity. Enjoy!
(Click here twice to jump to where the Podknife review ended…)
First of all, SPOILERS. If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, do. It’s great.
Now, I’ll start off with my journey as I listened to the early part of the series. Like the protagonists, I fell in love unexpectedly, and somewhat unthinkingly, during the first episode. The specificity of the different characters at the facility, of the situation with the alien artifacts, and the grim, but bearable, near-future world, were all very intriguing without being over-explained.
Then, we get to what I’ll call the gear-shift, when it turns out we’ve been setting up a noir all along. We got the forbidden love between earnest people who aren’t sure if they can trust each other (very much like the couple in Blood Simple), we’ve got the target who’s rich, hateful, and protected by society, and we’ve got the means and motivation to break the law to get the target.
I probably should have seen it coming, as all sorts of groundwork had been laid (including the title, and the early scene explaining the title), but I didn’t. It rattled me for a bit, as I kind of longed for the story I thought I was listening to, but I was definitely still on-board and as the tension ratcheted up I was 100% hooked.
Then we get to the last two episodes…but before I get into that I’d like to hear your impression of the first 12, so we both know where we stand going into it.
I was pretty much expecting a noir set-up even before I listened, possibly because I had only just recently started listening to Mac Rogers’ LifeAfter. I was ready for forbidden, burning love and law-breaking in the name of that love and all the dangerous barriers in the way. But like you, I fell in love utterly with the characters in that first episode, easy as pie.
Of all things, I hated Grant way more than I hated Trip Haydon. I hated Trip in the way you hate a rich powerful figure you never interact with, who benefits from society and cares not at all about the peons. But I hated Grant the way I’ve hated real people I’ve actually met. I swore at walls and threw pillows when he put Dak into that bind at her house. Like an invasion.
That’s what struck me the most about those first 12 episodes. It was a constant invasion, from all sides, into what Dak wants to keep precious and hers (her love for Matt). And in those 12 episodes, I didn’t just love, but I hated, and that’s what kept me hooked. I wanted to see Dak and Matt overcome those insane odds in whatever shape that took.
Boy, did Steal the Stars deliver. For me, anyway.
[Podknife version ends here.]
The delivery you mention will be one place where we disagree, though it won’t be the crux of my problems with the last two episodes. I see Steal The Stars as the story of Dak’s (and humanity’s) downfall.
Looking back, I can see that this duality of interpretations, plus so much else, is telegraphed in the first few scenes. The very first thing we hear is: “And we ride…”, which supports your version. But the first actual dialog is: “Mind control!” I think it’s a story about how alien mind control uses the human instinct for love to destroy humanity (within a few people at least; possibly everybody eventually).
Yeah, Grant is hard to take, though I hated Trip more. I guess I forgive Grant a little because he fits in with Rosh and Lauren and the rest as slightly broken people whose breaks make them ALMOST perfect for their crazy jobs; he does in fact find people who have broken the rules, twice. His tragic flaw is dissatisfaction with his station. If he had the courage of his convictions, he would have turned Dak in, lived, and possibly saved the world. But instead, like so many in a noir, he tried to look out for #1, and not only hurt other people in the process but got crushed himself.
Trip actually is more like people I’VE encountered, the ones who use unreasonableness as a management tool, trying to get you to over-perform in order to prove their bad opinion of you wrong (at which point they raise the bar farther). Plus a ludicrous amount of entitlement. Maybe a little cartoonish, but still very hate-able.
My big problem with the story starts with Teresa, and I think it starts with her not fitting the mold. Even the non-company people we meet have that same brokenness and desperation, but she’s serene and giving to an extent I found jarring me right out of the story. It could be that that was some part of her point, I’m still trying to figure it out. What was your opinion of her?
Teresa didn’t jar me in a way that was negative, excepting those moments when, like Dak, I didn’t trust her. But Teresa’s lack of desperation didn’t seem to be a problem of not fitting a theme or mold, so much as being the next step of a character who’s been desperate, in the past, and has found something to settle into. Teresa jarred me in the way of: “Did they find someone who is now unbowed and will Dak ever reach that point?” It was the glimmer of hope, of an endpoint that made sense, that might be positive if Teresa actually stayed true to the form she was presenting. Teresa is one of the main reasons, for me, that the final episode was such a shock to my system.
I think that the difference in expectations might be one of the foundations on which our opinions of the finale diverge, actually. I missed out on the entire mind control thing you point out until the finale and saw more a story about humanity’s varying relationships with the concept of aliens. Shoutout to Nat Cassidy for LITERALLY making me cry when Lloyd whispers “Take me…” to Dak. I saw the different ways that the alien body was a payday for different people: a way out for Dak and Matt, a salary for Patty and Harrison, a coup in fame and power for Trip, an intellectual wonder for Lloyd. And in the end, that alien lifeform found ITS payday, you know?
Do we talk about the finale now? I’m ready to talk about Moss and Dak and some of the cool things Mac Rogers did in those scenes. And about how I didn’t see it as a story about a downfall so much as a terrifying uprising.
Yeah, I’ll make a couple counter-points, then it’s Finale City.
I love your analysis about the paydays…yeah, the moss gets the jackpot.
Lloyd was a great creation and the performance was wonderful, though it reminded me so much of Stephen Tobolowsky (of Groundhog Day, Glee, and 254 others as of today) that I’ll always see him as that guy. His final line was perfect.
I guess Teresa does work as a misdirect, in that she seems to signal: “There’s good in the world, this isn’t headed for mutual destruction.” But I felt like she slowed down the pace and threw up a bunch of obstacles that didn’t really matter, or show us much about Dak. Ditto Patty’s reappearance at the end of 13. I feel like without those, and the continuation of Patty in the last ep, we’d have a very tight 13 rather than a stretched-feeling 14. They do give us an opportunity to show how Dak’s emotions are overriding everything else, but I feel like we already get that subtly from earlier things, and vividly in her final confrontation with human Salem, and so by the time we get to that finale I felt more “get it done already” and less tension than I should.
But hey, we’re into the last ep. Talk to me!
Patty’s reintroduction was super surprising, which was the point, but I think without Patty I would have felt like there was a loose end. From Patty, we get the image of what’s happening at Quill Marine since Dak and Matt broke out and we get the crucial destruction of Dak’s closest relationship prior to Matt. Unlike you, I think subtle hints towards the all-encompassing love Dak has is not enough; I think we had to witness it in action against someone else Dak cared for.
Episode 14 was a wild ride, so to speak. Matt betrays Dak because he doesn’t think their love can survive. Dak loses her mind and destroys the HARP and destroys Matt and releases an alien. At last! The alien lives! It’s not quite the alien we’re expecting and the more Moss is on screen, the more horrified I got.
The alien coming to life, that’s what clinched this as a science-fiction horror and not just a noir consideration of what we would do when faced with the probability of aliens. And in this alien that consumes minds and bodies, Dak sees how she can keep Matt forever. “As long as there are new bodies to add to the colony, I can keep him alive”. Remind me how many billions of people live on planet Earth?
When she agrees, and asks for the kiss, I think I started screaming. “Pain, pain, pain”, so that you can recall “Pretend I’m kissing you so hard it hurts”. Well, she doesn’t have to pretend anymore. Rogers probably has several moments like these that I didn’t see the first time through and this is the kind of callback moment I love.
This is a little disjointed but those are my first thoughts, at least, about episode 14.
Okay, I don’t think we’re as far apart as I thought. More a matter of emphasis. The big revelation for me was that the love between Dak & Salem came from the moss; she’s already attracted to him, but their sudden make-out session has to be moss-created, and then that leads to everything else.
I love your observation about pain and love. It’s horribly great how the moss openly values love for its power to make humans hurt other humans, going down the list of all the people it made Dak hurt. If could even be mocking her, for all we know. Bringing it back to noir, as I insist on continuing to do, love is for saps in that world, always turning you into the tool of someone else with their own agenda.
The most depressing moment to me is the one time Dak tries to assert herself over the moss, to have it not absorb Trip, and at the slightest nudging she buckles under and does it anyway. So not really in charge, no matter what was promised.
Of course, humanity wouldn’t have lost if human society hadn’t already failed, or at least failed Dak and a lot of others, putting the worst people and institutions in charge and letting them ruin the world. When the moss exploits Dak’s weak spot, it’s just doing what Trip and Quill Marine were already doing with their employees and recruits (and customers?), just doing it better. Dak didn’t need the moss’s influence to kill other people, she’d already killed the harp victims and of course stood by while a woman who was obviously a prisoner of conscience got her mind destroyed. Weirdly, since this story is so serious, it makes me think of a whole strain of black comedies where human failure destroys humanity, from Dr. Strangelove to Cabin In The Woods.
Matt’s betrayal of Dak is something I find interesting in theory, but strongly disliked in execution. I’m wondering if he was never as into her as she was into him, and therefore wasn’t quite as amenable to the moss exploiting him. I thought his patriotism was going to be the downfall, that he just couldn’t give the Chinese the harp, no matter how much he hated Trip, but I would have accepted a lot of alternatives. But for him to be so overwhelmed by the odds that he buys Trip’s bullshit offer was very disappointing. This is a company that routinely kills employees for being depressed, and he thinks it’s going to let a thief go? I’d hit him with the harp, too. But it also made me turn against the writer for making him end in such an uninteresting way.
I think I get now, on an intellectual level, why Patty and Teresa are in 13 &14, but they still felt like distractions, and ones where we have to buy new ideas just when when I was ready for the story to climax. And circumstances like Teresa being on the way, and Patty beating Trip to find Dak first, weren’t impossible by any means but got me thinking about plausibility and coincidence rather than being entranced by Dak’s predicament, and didn’t give me a big enough payoff to justify it. Maybe I was supposed to get a crucial insight into Matt and his sensitive soul, but if so it didn’t land.
That’s my vent. Anything else you want to talk about, either in response or something new?
(Kooky theory: Did the moss make Matt turn against her, in the desperate hope that by shaking things up the harp would be destroyed? Not sure I like giving the moss that much control but it seems possible.)
Matt’s betrayal of Dak is a bit of a sticking point for me – I love it and I hate it. I love it because it certifies that one thing that I had believed for the entire show, that Dak’s love for Matt (however it got to that point), is so overwhelming, so big, that not even he can keep up. I hate it because I agree that him buying into Trip’s nonsense is a hard stretch for me. In turn, I wonder if that moment of betrayal, and Dak’s further break from sanity in smashing him to pieces with the HARP, was also Moss-pushed at least, if not created. I think this reason for his betrayal made it more awful for Dak than the option of his patriotism getting in the way, for instance. In fact, sometime around episode 10 or 11, I started wondering if Matt was going to betray Dak specifically because of that noir-feel of everything is impossible and nothing is going to end well. I dismissed it as my well-documented paranoia. Mis-take.
(A bit later: Oh, I just saw your kooky theory option. Yes, I thought of this as well! Seems interesting, if not well-evidenced.)
Something I do want to ramble about is the place of humanity against Dak’s love. I am breathless against the image of Dak putting the pieces of Matt she has to hold onto above everything else. That is noir to me, and that is horror to me. That moment of realizing Dak will now be able to “keep him forever” to the detriment of literally everyone else on the planet was so – I’m not even sure what the word is, but I opened my mouth and stared at the wall glassy-eyed. It did not disappoint me; I freaking loved it because it felt like the foregone conclusion after how Dak treated Patty, after how Grant was put in place as the sacrificial lamb, after how Dak left Lloyd on the ground. I mentioned seeing it as a terrifying uprising. In my first listen, I saw Moss as using and filling Dak with the power to keep what she wanted, something she hadn’t been allowed to do before, in a way that was framed as choice (a rigged one, probably, as are the way of things in stories like these).
As a final note about acting and writing, I thought Dak breaking Matt’s head in with the HARP was one of the most well-written and well-acted scenes in the entire script. I literally screamed; I didn’t expect it to go that far. But of course, if it can go that far, it will.
Well, that seems to bring us to the end. I’ll reiterate right here that I LOVED this, and consider it the best new audio drama I’ve heard in forever. Thanks so much Ely for exchanging reactions with me.
And to you, reader, I hope you enjoyed this discussion. If you did, and/or you’d like us to do this kind of thing again, let us know below or at my and Ely’s twitters. Thanks for reading!