2018 has been a year of interesting new limited releases, especially within the world of fiction. One entry into this medium is Janus Descending, a limited run space horror audio fiction made up of entires from two people: one whose chronology of entries goes forward in time, and the other whose entries go backward.
A limited series, science fiction/horror audio drama podcast, follows the arrival of two xenoarcheologists on a small world orbiting a binary star. But what starts off as an expedition to survey the planet and the remains of a lost alien civilization, turns into a monstrous game of cat and mouse, as the two scientists are left to face the creatures that killed the planet in the first place. Told from two alternating perspectives, Janus Descending is an experience of crossing timelines, as one character describes the nightmare from end to beginning, and the other, from beginning to the end.
Janus Descending is the product of No Such Thing Productions, a new studio started by actor, writer, and director Jordan Cobb as a “way to seek out the new, the dark, the strange, beautiful and unusual.” Janus Descending is certainly all of those things, weaving a beautifully literary writing style with lush sound design, and an innovative form to boot.
It’s difficult to bring up Janus Descending without bringing up its closest connection in form, The Last Five Years. Both have a similar structure: it’s the same story told by two people, one whose scenes go chronologically (here, Chel) and one whose scenes go in reverse-chronological order (here, Peter). The first episode of the podcast is technically episode 1, followed by episode 13, followed by episode 5, followed by episode 11, etc. The structure is initially confusing, but it allows pieces of the greater mystery to come together in ways that invite and encourage close listening and theorizing. What happened to Chel? What is the nature of her relationship with Peter? What part of Peter’s perceived reality really are real? What is the monster hunting him down?
Each entry is told in essentially a monologue style, with Chel and Peter both relaying their experiences and studies into audio logs–more than once, slipping into speaking to each other versus to a record. While there are occasionally other voices–and, at times, the two leads do talk to each other–the single-narrator framework of each episode allows Cobb’s writing to shine. For Chel, each monologue is rich and intimate, blending in a deep love for her work with the sweet interpersonal touches between herself and Peter–mixing with her need to do well and prove herself. Cobb’s performance as the lead shows her range not only as a writer but also as an actress, moving deftly between the heavy emotions and the light banter.
The writing here alone could carry the narrative, but instead, Cobb employs a dramatically different style and voice for Peter, a man who–at least, in the beginning of the podcast–is in the midst of an action-filled horror story. Peter’s narration is not only frightened, but at times, frightening. The sharp difference in tone deepens the story’s sense of mystery and raises the stakes–it becomes an urgent need for the listener to figure out what went wrong and how, and given the season wasn’t released in full, the podcast currently forces the audience to wait for answers. Played by Anthony Olivieri of 2298 and L I M B O, listeners get to hear a different side of this actor, who usually plays roles with a deep sense of tenderness. Peter, too, is tender–but there’s something ominous underneath that sweetness that has yet to be fully explored, and that allows Olivieri to bring something new and interesting to the listener.
In a different role than usual, too, is Julia Schifini–not primarily as a voice actor, but instead, doing the sound design work on the podcast. The sound design in Janus Descending is immersive and unobtrusive–until it absolutely must intrude, specifically in the more horror-filled moments. Horror is something that’s difficult to convey in audio: walking the line between over-explaining and explaining too little is difficult, but in Janus Descending, the design errs on the side of thinking less is more. The instinct here is brilliant, and has led to some truly bone-chilling moments of production. The sense of weight and scale of the monster are so clear, and the sense of isolation and claustrophobia for Peter comes through perfectly.
As the podcast goes on, it will be interesting to see how the two leads interact. So far, the use of monologue has been refreshing and beautiful. This flow might be interrupted by full dialogue episodes, and recent episodes have suggested this may be where the narrative is headed. A structure change in the middle of a podcast’s run is a risky move to take, though it has been scaffolded by some of those conversational moments in the early episodes, as well as the introduction episodes (“Chel” and “Peter,” embedded above).
We have yet to unfold the mysteries of Janus Descending, but so far, the entrance into the mystery has been an intriguing, innovative journey. It uses each part of its cast and crew in new and exciting ways while also weaving together two radically different, but intrinsically tied, narratives, resulting in a project that’s ambitious, mysterious, and absolutely lovely.