Trusting Your Story: Solar (a podcast)

A massive solar flare has destroyed all electronics in the Western Hemisphere. But that is not the story. That is just the background. Instead, Solar, an audio-drama/podcast produced by CurtCo Media, focuses on the fate of the Aethon, a manned mission to study the sun, caught by the full blast of the flare.

Only Wren Guerrero (played by Stephanie Beatriz) and pilot Jamal Davis (Jonathon Bangs) survived the devastating flare, along with the ship’s AI A.L.I. (Jenny Curtiz). Wren and Jamal are caught in different sections of the Aethon, with extensive wreckage between them. While Wren is in a larger section with access to supplies and life support, Jamal is trapped with a dwindling supply of oxygen and no access to an airlock, so no hope of escaping over to Wren’s part of the ship. Meanwhile, ALI’s systems suffered severe damage and many components are not working properly. And in all this lies the core of the story – Wren desperately trying to come up with a way to rescue Jamal before his air runs out, while Jamal, accepting his fate, devotes his efforts to repairing the ship’s disrupted systems, like the fusion reactor, communications with Earth, and especially ALI’s impaired functions in the hopes of insuring Wren’s survival until rescue can come from Earth. Woven through-out is the story of the Aethon’s mission and the conflict between the two crews that may have contributed to the disaster (the mission was a joint effort between the North American Space Command and the private, for-profit corporation CimmTech.) This story is told through recordings taken through-out the mission, but, because ALI’s chronometer is among her disrupted systems, the recordings get played out of chronological order, so that as the series unfolds, we work our way closer and closer to the key events.

Everything about this series is excellent. The script is well-written, weaving together the intense emotions of the immediate story of Wren and Jamal’s struggle, along with the bigger story of the over-all mission and the tensions, mysteries, and possible conspiracies running through it. Even though this story is told out of order, the writer’s give us ample guidance as to how everything fits together. The story is given ample support by the high production values. The producers fill in a fully-realized audioscape of background sound and dialogue that enhances the story without distracting from it. And, most essentially, the performances are all well done. Stephanie Beatriz and Jonathon Bangs as Wren and Jamal easily carry the emotional weight of the core story. Beatriz also nicely captures the growth in Wren, from withdrawn, emotionally closed off at the beginning of the mission to open and vulnerable (and guilt-ridden) by the end. I loved her work on Brooklyn 99, and was delighted to discover that is given even more range and depth to play with here. The real discovery, however, is Bangs, whom I had never heard of, and who sounds exactly like a young LeVar Burton. When I checked his IMDB entry I discovered that before this, his biggest part was the supporting role in a minor comedy series on some obscure streaming service, not the background I would expect for someone taking on a role like this, nor for someone who pulls off the role so well. Both Bangs and Beatriz bring a wrenching emotional resonance to the central story and its inevitable conclusion. And it is that conclusion that sets off this story from so many others.

[I am about to discuss the ending of the series, in vague terms, but even so, I can’t avoid giving hints that might allow you to figure out the ending. If you don’t want to risk that, skip the next paragraph.]

Simply put, the story proceeds as it must. Jamal has limited oxygen and no access to an airlock. Wren has an airlock, but only one EVA suit with rapidly declining capabilities. The ship is so close to the sun that any exposure to solar radiation rapidly degrades the protection the suit offers. They can communicate with each other via audio, and they can both communicate with ALI, but they have no way to physically reach each other. They can work together to fix some of the ship’s systems; Jamal can instruct Wren in many operations. The three together can unravel the mystery of what happened on board the ship, but Wren and Jamal cannot physically interact. So how do we save Jamal. Because, of course, the desire for a happy ending dictates that we have to save Jamal. This is the point where Star Trek and its ilk suddenly introduce some sciency/magicy techno-babble about reversing the polarity of the sub-atomic transducer coils and routing the ichthyion particles through a sub-solar plasma ionizer to create a temporary worm-hole linking the two parts of the Aethon. And, at some points, Solar does drop hints about just that sort of solution waiting in the wings (possibly involving time travel.) But in the end, it plays fair with the audience. The story sticks with the existing parameters; events unfold they way they must. The creators trust the story to work as it must. And it does. Indeed, the ending carries much more resonance than any alternative could have done.

In the end, I had only two complaints about the series. First, it ends with a lot of loose ends concerning CimmTech and the mysterious experiments it was running. There are hints that CimmTech’s satellites may have somehow contributed to the massive solar flare. There are more than hints that CimmTech prioritizes profits over the welfare of people and/or is willing to risk the welfare of the planet in a big gamble over a radical new technology. There are enough loose ends, in fact, to justify an whole other story, which leads me to my other complaint. As soon as I reached the end of Solar, I checked out CurtCo Media’s website to see what else they had to offer. A show of this quality must reflect a lot of experience. It does, but not the kind I hoped for. Everything else CurtCo has done has been the standard interview podcasts (particularly focusing on insider stories about the movie business.) Solar is their first, and so far only, venture into audio-drama. However, the final episode is described as the “Season 1 finale”. If a Season 2 does indeed show up, I will happily withdraw both complaints. Unless, of course, Season 2 finds a magicy-techno-babble way to undo the ending the Season 1.

Solar – all 12 episodes, plus Recovered Audio Assets (short, additional pieces that fit between the episodes) and the behind the scenes interviews with cast and crew can all be found at:

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