Let’s Go Back to ars PARADOXICA is a relisten and recap series for season one of ars PARADOXICA released every Tuesday and Thursday. You can see the full series here.
Written by: Daniel Manning and Mischa Stanton
So, what happens in this episode?
After its theme music (which immediately sent my heart back to the time I first listened), the first episode of ars PARADOXICA open with Dr. Sally Virginia Grissom, played by Kristen DiMercurio, opening her first audio diary on October 29th, 1943. Dr. Grissom explains that this date, for her, directly follows August 14th, 20XX–a year redacted in its last two digits by a censorship bleep, the first of many throughout the series. We’re introduced to a few key facts about Dr. Grissom throughout the episode:
- At the start of the series, she’s 27 years old.
- She was born in Iowa.
- She received her doctorate in theoretical physics from MIT in 2014.
- She’s been working as the resident physicist at the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Waxahachie, Texas for the last two years.
At the SSC, Dr. Grissom, along with a team, was working on an array of generators built to cancel out the Higgs Mechanism. The array took a year of tireless work and hundreds of thousands of dollars to make, which means its first test run was especially nerve-wracking. When the piece of platinum placed on it for testing gets knocked off, Dr. Grissom goes to put it back on. When her team asks if they should stop the test, Dr. Grissom replies, “It won’t do any harm!”
But, of course, this is what sends Dr. Grissom back to 1943. The testing of the generator array somehow connected with Project RAINBOW, or the Philadelphia Experiment–a phenomenon allegedly caused by testing to make a cloaking device that, instead, produced a bright light. The list, Dr. Grissom explains, wasn’t the cloaking device functioning or malfunctioning. It was her. As Dr. Grissom puts it,
“What I’m guessing is that their weird science plus my weird science equals . . . time travel?”
When the world around her stops blurring, Dr. Grissom is on a massive aircraft carrier, the USS Eldridge, off the coast of Philadelphia, lying next to her own vomit. She’s dizzy and has trouble focusing and standing. Found by a “swearing of sailors,” she’s initially almost sent to the brig (or equivalent–Dr. Grissom, proving herself already an unreliable narrator, admits she’s paraphrasing), but one sailor, Chet Whickman, insists that she’s sent to the sick bay instead. She gets up to the best of her ability, vomits again, and gets carried to a small holding cell.
As Dr. Grissom remembers visiting the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York as a child, making the connection between the USS Intrepid and the ship she was on at the time. As she explains, her narration becomes increasingly more distorted with interference until she switches subject.
Eventually, Dr. Grissom is greeted by Chet Whickman, who she describes as “quiet and calm, like the sea after a storm.” With radio static and interference, the structure of the show shifts out of first-person narration and into the third-person scene itself, placing the listener in the conversation between Dr. Grissom and Whickman as it happened. Whickman tells Dr. Grissom that the director is on the way, and explains where she is. He says they usually carry supplies to the Allied Fronts, but they’re currently working on something different–Project RAINBOW. Whickman thinks she’s here because of the project, and he assumes she’s lying when she says she’s a physicist. Dr. Grissom is too woozy to get through an explanation, but the two introduce themselves. Dr. Grissom makes sure Whickman uses her correct title, “Dr.,” the first of many corrections she will give. Whickman confirms that she appeared seemingly out of thin air.
After much waiting, Dr. Grissom is visited by the director, Bill Donovan, who she describes as a “cigar-chomping army general.” Their first sentences to each other perfectly summarize their relationship:
Donovan: What’s your name, little girl?
Grissom: Fuck you. That’s my name.
Donovan is immediately hostile in response to Dr. Grissom’s curtness, threatening her with means of torture in response to her lack of cooperation. Donovan calls her “honey,” and Dr. Grissom says she won’t be condescended to. Dr. Grissom goes into her work and her background, and eventually, she asks for the date. When Donovan tells her, she’s understandably left shaken.
Donovan takes Dr. Grissom to land, and then drives her for several hours in silence to the desert, eventually arriving in Polvo, New Mexico–Dr. Grissom’s new home, the size and population of which are both redacted by censorship bleeps. Funded by the government, Polvo is a top-secret town of scientists and researchers focusing on innovations to aid in the war. Whether or not she wants to, Dr. Grissom is told she’ll live there and, aided by a small team, work on new scientific discoveries. Dr. Grissom will be working with the Office of Developed Anomalous Resources (ODAR).
Dr. Grissom is introduced to her team–Esther Roberts, mathematician, and Jack Wyatt, engineer, both of whom work under Anthony Partridge. Dr. Grissom voices her concerns about changing the future by actions she makes in the past, and the audience is introduced to Partridge, an eager-to-please manager who’s devastated to hear his budget–and staff–is being gutted by Donovan, who wants to place ODAR’s priorities on Dr. Grissom. Partridge is not pleased by his team being usurped by a woman, but Donovan instructs Partridge to let his staff know about the layoffs of all nonessential personnel nonetheless.
The episode shifts back to Dr. Grissom’s narration. Speaking of herself like a test subject, she starts laughing, and then panicking about her situation and her lack of agency. She realizes that if she’s ever going to get back to her own time, she might have to take “the long way.” Her voices waivers in and out of distortion and interference.
Key facts and characters
- Dr. Sally Grissom: The protagonist of ars PARADOXICA, Dr. Grissom is a brilliant, direct, and confident physicist who accidentally invents time travel while working on an array of generators to stop the Higgs Mechanism. Dr. Grissom is played by Kristen DiMercurio.
- The SSC: Dr. Grissom’s original workplace, the Superconducting Super Collider in Waxahachie, Texas.
- Project RAINBOW: Also called the Philadelphia Experiment, Project RAINBOW was rumored to be an attempt at making a cloaking device or method of invisibility–but wound up resulting in a bright flash, and the appearance of Dr. Grissom.
- Chet Whickman: A sailor aboard the USS Eldridge who finds Dr. Grissom. Chet Whickman is played by Reyn Beeler.
- The USS Eldridge: The aircraft carrier Dr. Grissom wakes up on after time traveling to 1943.
- Bill Donovan: Director of Project RAINBOW and ODAR, Bill Donovan is a curt, threatening, imposing man who forces Dr. Grissom to work for him. Bill Donovan is played by Rob Slotnick.
- Polvo, New Mexico: A top-secret government-funded town where ODAR operates, and where Dr. Grissom now lives.
- Esther Robers: Dr. Grissom’s mathematician in the Predictive Mechanics Division, a brilliant and unassuming woman who went to grad school with Jack Wyatt. Esther Roberts is played by Katie Speed.
- Jack Wyatt: Dr. Grissom’s mechanical engineer, who insists on Esther Roberts being brought onto the team. Jack Wyatt is played by Zach Ehrlich.
- Anthony Partridge: Recruiter for ODAR, a high-energy optimist whose programs have just been gutted in funding and personnel in favor of Dr. Grissom’s work. Anthony Partridge is played by Robin Gabrielli.
How does it hold up?
While it should be noted that I listened to the remastered version of this episode–the original version of which can be found here–what stuck out to me in this episode was how much I still loved the writing, and how much I still loved DiMercurio’s performance of Dr. Grissom.
Especially in 2014, ars PARADOXCIA‘s structure was so novel and exciting. Many pieces of audio fiction used the conceit of an audio diary of some sort to tell a story, and still do. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but ars PARADOXICA‘s notable departure from the classic format–interspersing it with full-cast scenes to help contextualize the narration and make the narrative more present and active–immediately gives the podcast such a unique feel.
The writing for each character is solid–even for the ones who have little voice time in the episode–but none more than Dr. Grissom. Similarly, Kristen DiMercurio’s performance even this early on feels so immersed and honest in the role. I can’t imagine a Dr. Grissom who isn’t DiMercurio, and I can’t imagine Dr. Grissom would have been even close to the same with a different actor. Robin Gabrielli, similarly, slips easily into the role of Anthony Partridge, his timbre and candence both sounding a natural fit for the character and the setting.
That said, the other performances a a little stiff, specifically Rob Slotnick’s Bill Donovan. Slotnick does ease into this role, but it does make his introduction, which is meant to be menacing, a little harder to buy.
Luckily, the conflict and stakes of the episode aren’t actually on Donovan’s shoulders, as much as he’d love for them to be. Instead, we’re more worried about Dr. Grissom’s situation: her lack of agency, the misogyny she’s already had to face, the struggles to get back to her own time, her forced anonymity, the funding being moved to her from Partridge’s department. Because the writing and acting for Dr. Grissom is so immediately solid, all of this comes through perfectly.
It’s a brilliant first episode of a brilliant piece of audio fiction. It’s what got me hooked not only on ars PARADOXICA, but the world of audio fiction past Limetown, and I fully believe it would do the same for me if I were listening for the first time today.
The Butterfly Effect
So far, here’s what we know about Dr. Grissom’s timeline:
- Starting time: Dr. Grissom is from a modern-day alternate timeline (see ODAR & You! for more on that) that she is pulled out of on August 14th, 20XX.
- 20XX is sometime after 2014, a year that has not been redacted; 2014 is when Dr. Grissom received her PhD from MIT. If she started working at the SSC directly after graduating, 20XX would be 2016.
- Jump back: On August 14th, 20XX, Dr. Grissom lands back in October 29th, 1943.
- On Ocb 29th, 1943, Dr. Grissom is brought to her new home of Polvo, New Mexico.
ODAR & You!
- I tried to learn about the Higgs Mechanism to explain it here, but then I remembered I only have a bachelor’s degree in English education, and the last science class I took was Biology 101 in 2010. Luckily, there’s a PBS Digital Studios video that is much smarter than I am.
- The same goes for the Superconducting Super Collider–but I did find out that it’s been abandoned since 1993, 11 years before Dr. Grissom even received her PhD. Already, we know that even Dr. Grissom’s initial timeline deviated from our own.
- Dr. Grissom was born on February 19th, making her a Pisces–not that I think Dr. Grissom especially reflects the typical characteristics of a Pisces, and not that I think Dr. Grissom would value astrology in the slightest.
- The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum is still open today in New York City, one of its exhibits being City at Sea: USS Intrepid, which “explores life and work on board an aircraft carrier within the very spaces where crew members lived and worked.”
- Dr. Grissom mentions Project RAINBOW/The Philadelphia Experiment, though this is largely understood to be a hoax. In Dr. Grissom’s timeline, though, the experiment was actually conducted.
- Dr. Grissom compares Polvo to Los Alamos, a remote area n New Mexico where over 6000 scientists worked on the Manhattan Project to create the first nuclear bomb. The site is can still be visited, protected as a National Historical Park.
- Dr. Grissom brings up her concern about changing the future by doing things in the past–a very common time travel trope, probably most famously depicted in Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder.”
- This is also often called The Butterfly Effect, specifically in regards to Chaos Theory, something ars PARADOXICA plays with in interesting ways later in its run.
- For a full list of works that utilize discussions or depictions of the Butterfly Effect, TV Tropes classifies the concept as the trope “For Want of a Nail.” The trope was named for the Benjamin Franklin poem as written in Poor Richard’s Almanac:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of a horse, the rider was lost;
For want of a rider, the message was lost;
For want of the message, the battle was lost;
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
- Each episode ends with a color, a set of numbers, and an identification of the “weather in Tulsa.” Each of these is a Vigenere cipher, all of which have been solved on the podcast’s Wikia.
- The weather in Tulsa today is: CLOUDY