A criticism I often hear for science fiction is that it doesn’t lean on science enough–that in order to work well within the genre, you need to have some true scientific edge. There’s been a rise of this in film and literature recently: The Martian, for instance, was praised for its combination of scientific accuracy but also a compelling narrative. In audio drama, we’ve had science fiction as more of an aesthetic and a way to open up a narrative (take, for instance, the alien-based hijinks in EOS 10) . . . until Tides premiered.
Tides is a science-forward science fiction audio drama about a scientist’s observations of a previously unexplored planet:
Dr. Winifred Eurus is a member of the first manned expedition to Fons, an Earth-like moon wracked by extreme tidal waves due to its orbit around a nearby gas giant. When surveying ocean life her submarine is destroyed, leaving her alone to walk to higher ground before the wave comes back. Along the way, she makes notes about what she finds in the intertidal zone, and gradually realizes that some of the life there is more than what it seems.
As one could anticipate with a name like Tides, Fons is established as being largely covered by oceans. Dr. Winifred Eurus, or “Fred”, is a xenobiologist tasked with sending audio logs of her discoveries back to colleagues. This is where the science of it all largely comes into play: writer/director Jesse Schuschu says he knows “just enough biology to get by,” but it’s plenty for what the show needs to accomplish. Take, for instance, this moment of observation from “The Village on the Sand Flats – Season 1 Episode 3”:
They are very much shaped like birds, which isn’t all that surprising to me. Unlike the water, the air is a pretty unforgiving medium. Only a few very specific shapes will allow something heavier than air to leave the ground. That said – the lower gravity, a little more than half of Earth’s, allows them to be pretty big.
These have maybe a ten- to twelve-foot wingspan, frankly not that far off from the largest species of terrestrial birds. My best description for now is a black or darkish thing shaped a little like a pterodactyl, similar to the older kinds of paleoart but without the sagittal crest. Their posture reminds me of vultures as well, and I’ll call them “birds” for now. They have two distinct back legs, a third – possibly vestigial – tail or limb on the back, in addition to two forelimbs modified to be batlike wings. Their torsos – there’s something just wrong about them. God, I wonder what their skeletal structure looks like.
While many listeners will be excited by the idea of science-heavy science fiction, I’ve always cared much more about the story than the science. Usually, I worry that if there’s too much jargon happening, I’ll just tune out and miss much of what’s going on. In Tides, though, I never have. This is largely due to Julia Schifini’s performance as Fred: Schifini wholly embodies the role, switching easily between the scientific jargon, excited wonder, dry sarcasm, and panic. She’s incredibly dynamic, bringing a captivating energy to the narration that keeps the listener hooked through terms they may be unfamiliar with, and usually without the aid of other voices to help catch the listener’s ear. It’s clear that Schifini has been given room to improvise–often, it seems, to make Fred more foul-mouthed–and it absolutely pays off. The dialogue consistently sounds organic and engaging.
Schifini makes great use of the writing, and the writing, too, seems to make great use of Schifini. The writing for Tides is science-forward, yes, but it’s also often hilarious. The sharp descriptions and analysis are often paired with Fred’s commentary on how awful she smells or her ongoing fury that someone mixed oatmeal raisin cookies in with chocolate chip cookies. Even the science is played with comedically: at the end of each episode, Fred delivers an “Ocean Fact,” the first being that oceans are “really fucking big.” The current fan favorite ocean fact comes from episode 3, as linked above:
Ocean fact #3: The ocean contains a multitude of plant and animal life. And also your car keys. You know what you did, Deborah.
Tides is also not strictly a single-narrator project. Occasionally, other voices are added in when the signal between Fred and her colleagues doesn’t go haywire. The longest interaction between Fred and another character to date is with Montague, the primary recipient of her audio logs. Montague is played by James Oliva, who’s worked with Schifini closely on What’s the Frequency and Greater Boston, an it shows: the dynamic between the two is energetic and casual, but also laced with the concerns, frustrations, and worries that neither of them want to be too direct about. The performances are already natural, but the editing in this conversation is also some of the best I’ve heard. Fred and Montague are allowed to speak over each other, interrupt each other, deliver minimal responses like “mmhm” and “uh huh” as the other talks, the same way actual conversations happen. This conversation (which comes from “Invasion of the Sea – Season 1 Episode 4”) is a masterclass in how dialogue should sound in an audio drama that strives for realism. The acting is organic and loose; the writing is funny, natural, and touches on different emotions without allowing itself to dive in more than a colleague-like relationship would allow at this point; and the editing is the perfect subversion of the Love and Fear of Silence Podcast Problem.
Tides does have a contemplative pacing inasmuch as plotting goes. So far, the plot is primarily just exploration, and at five episodes in, I can see listeners who prefer a more heavily plotted story being frustrated. I’m a fan of a slower pace when it comes to an overarching narrative and find Tides refreshing in this way. Still, Tides should be approached with a level of patience (think of it as paced closer to Girl in Space than to, for instance, Marsfall).
Tides is released monthly, meaning you’ll have plenty of time to catch up between the release of each episode. It’s a fantastic addition to the sci-fi genre in audio drama, bringing actual science, engaging dialogue, and fantastic performances from both Julia Schifni and the supporting cast.