“Who cares about rain when profound humiliation’s on the line?”
“And death. Don’t forget about death.”
What would you get if you took the Fallout series, added Phil Hartman (or perhaps John Laroquette) and skewed decidedly comedic?
Now, when I think “sci-fi” and “comedy” in the same sentence, my mind instantly skews British: Douglas Adams with strong elements of not necessarily SF, but similarly oriented quirkiness: the non-sequitur humour of Monty Python, perhaps a touch of The Comedy Store (think The Young Ones or Bad News). Maybe even the lighter moments of Isaac Asimov (think the Azazel stories), but you see the common thread here: it’s all rather dry, with a snarky bite tempered by an intrinsic British (or in the case of old Isaac, polymath) preciousness.
So it’s a bit of an eyebrow raising experience to encounter Radiation World, a New Mexico-based serial audio drama authored by Hari Rai Khalsa and engineered by her sister Sahib Simran Khalsa.
The inhabitants of “the Ritz Carlton” (who include the Hartman meets Laroquettelike President Tank (Fernando Gonzales), the nervously earnest, quite whiny nebbish Yolo (Isaac Christie), his sleazy pal Crackerjack (Melissa Chambers, who also portrays the butch Thumbelina, who has designs on Tank) and the doofy, lisping Hammersmith (Shiloh Hunter…until he changes and Melissa Chambers takes the role. Don’t ask.) are dead set on perpetuating their stagnating numbers by initiating “Operation Babymaker”.
When a group of strangers debark just outside the Ritz’ bunker, they believe they’ve found salvation. But the newcomers have a mission, and some very different ideas…
While Captain Thompson (Dylan Norman), Barnaby (Stephen Zamora) and Scarborough (Jamie Jung) ingratiate themselves into bunker society, the unfortunate Yolo and pragmatic Thompson crewman Piper (Zoey Reese) find themselves sent off into The Wild.
Then in a grand scheme to get rid of some undesirables, Tank and Thompson send Thumbelina and Scarborough on after them…except through a red tape mixup, the crew’s most useful member Barnaby gets sent off instead. Oh, and then ditzy tourguide Hellastella Jones (Mara Anderson) and Scarborough get sent out after them, when it’s discovered that Thumbelina sabotaged the Ritz Carlton’s only food machines…
As you can imagine, plenty of oddball comedy ensues, albeit very much in the Seinfeld vein – despite a lot of sound and fury, not a hell of a lot actually happens to our heroes. Unless you count some mutated, third rail worshipping rats. And immortal “bird men”, sentient trees and talking mist. And the Ritz Carlton’s collapse. And a terrifying AI.
Who ever imagined the apocalypse would be so damn silly?
“There was this cloud of mist, and it was bothering some trees, and they said it was a plague from the mountain, and we thought it was just a metaphor, and then it talked to us and took us here and it made us go see its room…”
“Did you say this mist was talking to you?”
“It won’t shut up!”
“And it brought you to its room?”
“It’s the worst room!”
If there are any heroes, “role models” or even characters to be…shall we say, less the figure of fun than the rest to be found herein, it rests with Reese’s capable, levelheaded to the point of absurdity Piper and perhaps surprisingly, with the bubbleheaded but still better in a difficult situation than any of the males here Hellastella Jones of Anderson.
The guys vary between pompous, scheming asses (Tank, Thompson), terrified Shaggy types (Yolo) and useless, metrosexual hipster types (Scarborough, the “bird man”, the male Hammersmith and yes, Yolo) more inclined to snipe about decor and coiffure or whine about any measure of physical activity than the worst 50’s-style female arm candy. Yolo’s even more of a screamer than the ladies of that era’s SF and horror films, which is really saying something. Not a lot of testosterone floating around the gene pool of this postulative apocalpyse…
There are some obvious signposts being touched upon here: Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with its subterranean dwelling cultists and their odd, incestuous culture, Survivors, in their intended abduction of their visitors to bring fertility to their sterile society, even an oblique nod to Lovecraft (the new arrivals sail in on The White Ship), but in the end, it comes off more like an ersatz Douglas Adams-era episode of Doctor Who, without the loveable heroic leads…or perhaps even an Americanized take on Red Dwarf (a series I really never understood the appeal of).
But even that’s somewhat of a stretch as a mark of comparison, as Adams’ brand of humor, however absurdist and satirical, was never quite so broad. That this is an American production isn’t just noticeable, it more or less smacks you in the face, daring you not to respond, New York style.
Go ahead. Don’t laugh. Not like that was a joke, there. You’re supposed to laugh, right? So what’s a’matter wit’choo, huh? You got a problem with slapstick or somethin’?
That level of broad.
Yet and still, it’s more satire than sitcom, more well-scripted (and performed) than your usual Magazine of SF&F-level fanfic. While sounding professional enough, the gravitas brought by established veterans of stage and screen you find with companies like Bafflegab or a certain late, lamented Doctor Who-oriented agency who shall no longer be named herein are necessarily absent: this is a more homegrown, indie level production.
It’s definitely more accomplished and professional than your average summerstock production, but bears the feel of a band of earnest up and comers, presumably all of one mind and sharing a few laughs with each other (and hopefully the listener).
Several of the characters…well, it’s generally the girls who get the best parts here…are likeable enough*, and there’s more than enough comic mugging to wipe the serious off your face. However broad the humor tends to be, I dare you to sit through a few episodes without at least cracking a grin at a well-crafted bit of repartee or ridiculous line delivery or two.
* in addition to the aforementioned putative heroines of the story Piper and Jones, even the “new and improved” Hammersmith of the rather Mary Jo Pehl-like Chambers are the real standouts in likeability, with only the self-satisfied Tank as a so-absurd-as-to-be-loveable male analogue thereto. It’s truly a ladies night here.
The episodes are up for grabs at radiation.world or via iTunes and Soundcloud, but if you like what you hear and want to keep ’em coming, they do have a Patreon for funding and consider themselves 100% listener supported. Besides, there are a few snarky laughs to be had just reading the site FAQ, so it’s a win-win for those interested.
For a listener sponsored, free to the general public production, Radiation World is surprisingly well written (albeit distinctly silly and broadly comedic) and performed (if you can handle your characterizations leaning far closer to caricature than nuanced and multilayered), and I certainly got a kick out of it.
If your sensibilities skew similar, you should as well.
Bring on season two…