THE MESSAGE is a sci-fi podcast that has thus far aired two episodes. This raises an issue for anyone attempting to seriously evaluate or critique it. While one can look at what has been presented thus far, it is entirely possible that things will be revealed later that put what we have seen so far in a totally different context. While this issue exists in all serialised media, I feel this to be particularly true for The Message, and as such this review comes with a warning; that it is strictly a review of my early impressions of the series, and I may well have to revisit The Message later when more episodes have been released, if only to give it a truer review.
The central premise of The Message is simple enough; several years ago, the military intercepted a signal of unknown origin. After several years, they were able to conclude that the message probably didn’t come from Earth, but not much else. Eventually, they decide that enough time has passed that they might as well make it public, so they approach a private cryptography consulting firm and agree that any findings can be released on a podcast.
The fact that the show is, like a number of other scripted fictional podcasts, a fictional podcast which is about its own production lends itself to comparisons with other, similar podcasts, like Limetown and The Black Tapes. In comparison to those two, it feels as though The Message uses this technique somewhat less effectively. If the intent is, like in The Black Tapes, to blur the boundary between reality and the fiction, then it utterly fails. As soon as the word “extraterrestrial” is said, it’s very hard to see The Message as anything other than overt fiction set in a fictional world. It also doesn’t create the sense of impact and danger found in Limetown; so far as we know, no one involved in The Message is in immediate danger, and while the existence of the message does have consequences, they feel very remote.
While overall the “Podcast About its Own Fictional Production” aspect seems to be ineffective, it does give us an interesting perspective, as the podcast feels almost like an audio journal of the protagonist. It may be that this sense of perspective is what The Message uses this technique for, rather than for impact or to create a sense of ambiguity.
Because what “action” that does happen is just people in an office talking about their work, the characters become very important. Rather than characters existing more as plot delivery devices in The Black Tapes, or characters as a way of demonstrating human impacts in Limetown, the characters in The Message feel more like they exist for their own sake, that they are the point, rather than existing for some other purpose. This is what the perspective afforded by the “metapodcast” technique excels at. Hearing about characters in The Message makes one much more aware of the effect of the protagonist as narrator, their hero-worship of some characters is very noticeable, as is their discomfort around others.
In this way, not only does our experience of each character become enriched by seeing them through an emotional lens rather than a dry description, but every character tells us more about Nicole (the protagonist and host of the “Cyphercast”) and how she sees the world. While one would think that this would happen in every “metapodcast” style production, The Message is the first time I have noticed it. This could be because so far the series is more character heavy than plot heavy, or it could be that it simply does it better than the other examples I have heard.
Other than that there isn’t a great deal to say about The Message, mainly due to the small number of episodes that currently exist. One thing I will mention, as it seems particularly worthy of note and praise, is that one of the employees at Cypher (the consulting company where the podcast takes place) is named Mod, and has a non-binary gender, and requests that people address them by gender neutral pronouns. I enjoyed this immensely. While I would need to see more of the character to make any sort of commentary in any greater depth than simply mentioning their existence, I am very pleased to see the representation of diverse identities in any media.
Another thing worth mentioning is that because The Message has a fairly large cast – an entire office – telling the difference between characters and keeping track of who is speaking and what name goes with which voice can become quite hard. This doesn’t seem to make the plot harder to understand, but it can be a touch frustrating when you realise that you don’t know the name of the voice who just conveyed an interesting piece of data, and have to rewind the podcast to figure out who they are.
So far there isn’t enough of The Message for me to make a recommendation. But I would certainly give it a listen, and what I have heard so far is interesting, so I will continue to follow it. The Message is available on Podbay, iTunes and at http://themessagepodcast.com/