I fell in love with radio plays when I picked up a box set of old Orson Wells episodes of The Shadow. You know, the weed of crime bears bitter fruit and whatnot? The set contained 20 cassettes, each containing an episode on each side, and I wore them out over the next few months. It was my first experience with the so-called “Theater of the Mind” and I ran full steam ahead into just about anything I could get my grubby paws on after… The Lone Ranger, Superman, CBS Radio Mystery Theater, even an episode or two of Abbot and Costello. These were incredible because the story was conveyed entirely in audio, complete with sound effects and music, not simply a narrator reading you a story like an audiobook. The sets were only held back by the limits of your imagination.
Then…it seemed like everything dried up. This wonderful medium completely fell off the radar for what felt like an eternity to me. I couldn’t find anything. I would come to find out later that I wasn’t looking in the right direction, and podcasts would quickly emerge to fill the void and bring back the audio play in all its glory. I will admit it took me a while to find out Big Finish audio was pumping out stellar Doctor Who audio adventures (and I’ve been slowly amassing a collection of the 8th Doctor’s adventures on cd ever since). What all this boils down to is that I love audio dramas and I was excited to give Cerberus Rex a listen since it promised to provide an experience the press release claimed was inspired by John Carpenter and H.P. Lovecraft.
That’s some big shoes to fill…and Jason Hardcastle (the creator) and crew manage to pull it off. Cerberus Rex is one hell of an adventure and the production value is through the roof for the 85 minute long show.
The story begins by throwing us into a lecture being given by our heroine, Ana, to her astrophysics class about the time travel inaccuracies of Back to the Future and what actually being in space without a space suit would do to you. It’s an incredibly clever set up to prepare the audience for the large amounts of scientific jargon about to be thrown at us, and frankly, I don’t know if it’s actually factually correct, but it’s delivered with authority so it’s good enough for the story. She’s quickly conscripted to investigate what’s presented to her as a “mystery of physics’ known as ‘The Well’ which is pretty much a big hole. The plot moves forward fairly quickly until the last act when Ana finds herself alone and deep inside The Well and that’s when things slow down and the tension starts to increase.
The story itself is very good and would have been excellent in any medium presented, but being conveyed through words and noise only really allows you to picture the scope of the narrative without constraints like bad CGI or fake sets. Overall the audio production is outstanding but I do have a nitpick or two… nothing that’s a dealbreaker but what kind of critic would I be if I didn’t find fault somewhere? The pre-title scene does an excellent job of introducing us to Ana and telling us why she’s the astrophysicist chosen to move our plot forward, but every character’s footsteps are audible. Instead of conveying movement between two people by say, increasing one characters’ voice as they spoke, the heavy clump and clicks of shoes on the tile is a little distracting. Thankfully, this isn’t a problem during the rest of the program.
For the first twenty minutes or so as the structure and characters are introduced the score is playing along for almost the entire time, giving it a very Stargate kind of feel to the whole thing (even Ana comments on how Stargate the whole thing is, which is the crux of another point I’ll make shortly). It’s an excellent score and does what it should do, which is add emotion and vibrancy to the story, but it was playing so often as to be noticeable and attention-grabbing. Giving credit where credit is due, Hardcastle does know when to kill the music to convey more of a sense of isolation, such as the latter part of the tale when Ana is alone in The Well.
Ana is also a very likable and fleshed out protagonist. But one thing that really did grind my gears were the pop culture references sprinkled throughout. I get that she was supposed to be hip, maybe a little dorky, and going back to the opening scene using the Back to the Future references was an amazing example of how this can be done and used to push the story forward. On the opposite end of that, later Ana described another character (Ben) as looking like an Alex Ross painting of Superman. It’s a line designed to let the listener know he’s a hunky dude, but because another character two seconds later refers to him as ‘beefcake’ (or some other general term for attractive male, forgive me for not remembering and failing to find the exact word, it’s midnight as of this writing) renders the line redundant, and therefore just shoehorning in the reference just to mention Alex Ross. I get the not-so-subtle meta-commentary of speaking the influences of a work aloud, but the work is already strong enough that there isn’t a need for that and the influences are present how the story is being presented to the listener. It just felt masturbatory at times.
Though I’ll admit to grinning and digging the Nightbreed reference.
You can find Cerberus Rex on sci-fi.com. It’s a solid and fun science fiction romp and definitely worth checking out. I listened on headphones and found the whole experience immersive and fun. The actors and production quality were all top notch, and Uncle Manhammer wouldn’t steer you wrong, nieces and nephews.