Wolf 359: The First Half

I’ve listened to a lot of audio drama podcasts, but none of them has impressed me as much as Wolf 359. Created, co-written and co-produced by Gabriel Urbina, the science fiction adventure-comedy ran for 61 episodes (plus a number of mostly-shorter bonus episodes) between 2014 and 2017 and is – as far as I can tell – one of the most acclaimed audio dramas around. I’m not sure I’ve listened to any other audio dramas as old as this, but it feels as fresh and new and polished as any of the new releases in 2018 and 2019.

I enjoyed the first 25 episodes so much that I stopped there, and went back and started listening again with my wife, who has also been enjoying them. Conveniently, episodes 31 is the halfway point in the show and is also a great point to pause and reflect on the series up to that point, and speculate on where it’s going. And maybe this will encourage a few more people to listen, and perhaps amuse people who have already listened to the whole thing and can chuckle at some of my observations.

I’m going to talk in general terms about the series and its story, and will have a few spoilers from the first season which I think are useful to know since the first season is regarded by some as “something you have to get through to get to the good stuff”. Then I’ll have some more spoilery discussion later a cut.

Wolf 359 takes place aboard the U.S.S. Hephaestus research station, which orbits the red dwarf star of the same name. Said star is 7.9 light-years from Earth, and might be best known on pop culture for being the site of an off-screen space battle in one of the most disappointing stories in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The show’s protagonist is Communications Officer Doug Eiffel (voiced by Zach Valente, who also co-produces), a lazy, ne’er-do-well who nominally is checking for unusual transmissions from deep space, but who spends a lot of his time trying to smoke cigerettes and avoid work. The station’s commander is RenĂ©e Minkowski (Emma Sherr-Ziarko), a by-the-book military officer who is constantly locked in battle trying to get Eiffel to do his job. The station’s science and medical officer is Dr. Alexander Hilbert (also Valente), a Russion mad scientist whose bumbling experiments also threaten everyone’s lives on a regular basis. The station is overseen by an artificial intelligence, Hera (Michaela Swee), who is a little sensitive whenever anything goes wrong around the place.

The show opens about a year and a half into the crew’s 2-year mission, and the first ten episodes are a collection of mostly-humorous vignettes about the crew’s mishaps: Eiffel getting cigarettes from Hilbert, Eiffel staging a revolt to hoard the last tube of toothpaste on the station, the terrifying annual physical exam, and so forth. But there is also real danger, as the station gets rocked by solar radiation, the power goes out and Hera goes down, and a mysterious extra room is found bolted onto the side of the station.

I feel like Wolf 359 has a lot in common with Babylon 5. While it’s common (and sometimes frustrating) for audio dramas to have a slow burn, Wolf 359‘s arc is a lot like B5’s: The first season provides background into how things on the station work (or, often, don’t work), raises several interesting questions and suggests several others, and lets the listener get the lay of the land before things get rolling. While the characters are not without depth, they start out as caricatures, with just a few glimpses of what’s beneath the surface. And that’s the point, because it makes what comes later that much more powerful.

And again like B5, the end of the first season shakes up the status quo and raises a whole bunch of new questions. More crucially, it takes the story from a light comedy to a serious drama with a heavy dollop of suspense and significant character development. Eiffel and Hilbert both turn out to be much more capable than you would have guessed, while Minkowski and Hera are both a lot more fallible than they’d appeared. And the story becomes a series of crises and developments, each time bringing us back to a slightly different status quo than we had before.

Most importantly, the show becomes one of understanding motivations and teasing out background. Eiffel is the perfect character for this, because he’s a big loudmouth and not a very deep thinker by nature, but he also has a sharp sarcastic streak which makes him seem profound when he does figure out what’s going on. As the second season progresses, a number of key questions are suggested:

  • What exactly is the Hephaestus’ mission? It’s pretty clearly more than “sit around and see if anything happens”.
  • Why was the station staffed with this collection of buffoons?
  • Why does the station seem so unreliable?
  • What else are their superiors hiding?

There’s one other point, which might turn out to be nothing, or it might not. Let me get into it this way:

It’s been said that restrictions breed creativity, and the audio medium has its own peculiar set of restrictions. First, there are no images, so the story has to be conveyed through audio. Unlike prose, however, there are sounds as well as words. But there’s a lot less space for words than in prose, so economy of words is valuable. (Consequently, I tend to find most audio dramas which substantial narration to be tedious.) Wolf 359 is outstanding at conveying the action without having long bits of exposition, and even when it does have exposition it feels meaningful and dramatic. But the show also has a terrific array of sound effects, with a very distinct style: They’re generally overly dramatic, and very retro: Mechanical keyboards, bells and whistles, a communications system that signals with a loud buzz, and so forth. It’s wacky.

Or, I thought it was wacky, but there’s something missing from the setting: When exactly does this show take place? The station is 7.9 light years from Earth, but they are able to travel between the two in a few months. And there are loads os pop culture references, but they’re all… contemporary. Entirely from the 20th and early 21st century. Lastly, while I couldn’t easily find the quote, there’s a suggestion at some point that some of the music they listen to is from within the past century by the crew’s time.

Does Wolf 359 take place… in the 2010s? Is this a parallel universe to ours? And does that matter?

Maybe it’s just part of the show’s wacky background, but so much of the story seems carefully assembled, with many deliberate set-ups and payoffs, that it feels like this could be something.

I hope it is.

Anyway, if you enjoy audio dramas, science fiction, comedy, character development, suspense, surprises, or people showing they’re capable of more than you thought they were, I highly recommend Wolf 359. If the second half is as good as the first half, then it’s gonna be fantastic.

A few more comments spoiling season 2 and the beginning of season 3 after the cut:

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