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[The following contains spoilers.]

The itch for Mars comes and goes. I fancy that it might have started up again recently. Mars was colonised anew in Ridley Scott’s 2015 movie The Martian, whilst the entrepreneur Elon Musk aims to fire the first of his own barrage of real-life rockets at the Red Planet in 2019. If the latest pilgrims on the trail are two excellent audio-drama podcasts, Marsfall and Mars 2060, then the futurism of these stories might be aligning in some inexorable way with the newness of podcasting. The whole of humanity – each of us on some level – is implicated in Mars. Never mind that this planet is eerily bare and barren. Reaching it is the next marker that is laid down for us when we come to measure out our development as a species.

Marsfall is an Amity Bros production and it is co-created by Erik Saras, Sam Boase-Miller, and Dan Lovley. With the exception of the unsurpassed What’s The Frequency?, Marsfall is the most ambitious and accomplished podcast that I have so far encountered. It is fortuitous that I did not skip over it, since I had initially feared that there would be too great an overlap between this podcast and Mars 2060. Both depict Mars settlements in the near future, but such is their stylistic divergence that they are seldom ever on the same planet. Mars 2060 is a painstakingly realistic mockumentary; Marsfall is more innocently action-packed and an out-and-out space opera.

Yet we should not tilt it too far into one light. There is ample realism within Marsfall but it co-exists alongside something that is stylistically rather more thrilling. Being only an occasional visitor to the world of sci-fi, I am not sure what this is, but the gaudy colours and the shocking mercilessness of the Red Planet remind me of the classic configuration within Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950). Each of the female characters in Marsfall is gutsy and intrepid – a prevalence that is hardly realistic – whilst the darker side of the story, the homesickness of a Mars colony, remains existentially consequential.

In its moments of relaxation, Marsfall also matches the imaginative playfulness of Ken MacLeod’s space operas. In this vein, the supercomputer ANDI (Dan Lovley) professes that he only sleeps for “fun,” whilst Commander Jacki O’Rania (Shannon Lovley) worries that they cannot fairly put the colony’s sole AI on trial because he “has no peers.”

Marsfall is accompanied by a retro-futuristic soundtrack of synths and a church organ, along with a cello that flickers like a snake’s tongue. The music is bold and occasionally intrusive. I would have probably not noticed it in a television show. On the other hand, the soundscaping is incomparable to anything that I have heard before in podcasting, particularly during the final two chapters. Headphones should be worn and turned up to the max. The crunching of Commander O’Rania’s broken arm sounds more vivid than any violence that I have ever seen on screen. The rustling mandibles of the apparent Martians that are overheard in a passageway make you thankful that they are purely audible. If the best horror is predicated on a fear of the unknown, then Marsfall makes no visuals go a long way.

The writers have indicated that Marsfall had “started off as a TV show idea.” With the Bright Sessions being also lined up as of late for a small-screen adaptation, it seems that podcasting is being increasingly assigned an exploratory, pre-commissioning role. You can somehow tell from listening to Marsfall that it would look amazing. I picture it in my mind with the dazzling colour-scheme and retro hairdos of Buck Rogers, and yet the Dane, so to speak, is, even within the story, completely invisible. Marsfall is in fact only secondarily about Mars and its foremost commitment is to sharpening up a very keen character portrait of an AI.

ANDI is as all-controlling a computer as HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). HAL’s dissatisfied customers had complained that, “there isn’t a single aspect of ships operations that isn’t under his control” and they had conspired to disable his higher functions. Marsfall is minded to locate the same paranoia.

At first, I was uncertain about Lovley’s voice, before it struck me that I did not know what an omnipresent computer would be ever programmed to sound like. In Chapter 1, the AI sounds a bit too human or panicky after the crew awake from stasis. Many crew members and their children asphyxiate in their hibernation pods. Would it be more reassuring for ANDI to sound businesslike during such an emergency or honestly alarmed? More broadly, what tone of voice could be ever acceptable for a daily personal assistant and intimate companion? Could any semblance of a human voice live up to the superhuman function? ANDI typically sounds humble and perplexed, and, when he is required to be authoritative, impersonal and absent-minded.

The AI’s imagination might be taxed by this problem as well. As Commander O’Rania leads the scramble to reboot the colony, we have to struggle to reconcile the massacre-of-the-innocents screaming in the background with ANDI’s attempts at jocular banter. ANDI studies humour to try to fit in and he invariably sounds like an intermediate French student who is labouring to get his tentative jokes understood in English. O’Rania firstly thinks that the AI is malfunctioning and she then tells him to shut up. The same occurs when Lieutenant Melissa Walker (Aba Woodruff) is officiously denied access to the last recordings of her husband and child, apparently on data-protection grounds. This gets underneath the skin in the way that a mere threat to switch off the oxygen can’t:

Walker: Heartless machine!
ANDI: I am not a machine. It is true, I do not have a heart.
Walker: Just stop talking.

Chip Heddleston (Boase-Miller) surely knows that he is on the wrong side of naïve when he maintains that ANDI is, “a nice guy, polite, knowledgeable, careful, he always seemed genuinely interested in how I was feeling but I don’t know if that’s just his curiosity function.” Like HAL, ANDI kills a human being, pulverizing a colonist’s head in a door, though unlike with HAL, this action proves to be admissible on the grounds of saving the wider colony from a potential saboteur. The death prompts a town hall meeting and trial, the AI grows remote, and the colonists are left wondering what exactly is lurking in their neural suits. There are a lot of space-aged heebie-jeebies to be shaken up in the bottle.

The paranoia about ANDI is successfully offset by the less than unimpeachable behaviour of some of the humans. ANDI’s trial somehow ends up without a jury and with Commander O’Rania fixing her crony Lieutenant Walker as the judge. We alone know that ANDI is withholding access to Walker’s recordings of her family, the conflict of interest that will cook this trial. The vote that is sprung on the Commander at the end of the proceedings, albeit with Walker’s permission, is mostly a mild, face-saving gambit. Happily, no crisis will stick since the colonists vote to approve the judge’s verdict.

The first season seems to conclude with the podcastmakers deciding that ANDI is just the innocent victim of a hacking job. Whilst ANDI is simply a machine, and henceforth neither innocent nor malevolent, as a presence he is still lacking in the coolness of HAL. ANDI is more conscientiously personable than HAL but perhaps the disappointment of Marsfall is that this does not necessarily render him any more dangerous. If ANDI uses human attributes such as humour to butter up the colonists, his own creators were possibly also susceptible. Perhaps we are too. Perhaps the repeated warnings about ANDI’s inhumanity have failed to penetrate and we have grown overly and even puzzlingly fond of him.

During the trial, we too are gunning for the AI to be acquitted, largely because the crew’s token asshole, the finance director Geoff Thomassen (James Fouhey), is all for switching him off. Everything that Thomassen says will turn out to be justified, but we can hardly take his side. Keila Levy (Anya Zicer) is likewise philosophically correct in her contempt for the AI, and in her refusal to consign him a gender, but she sounds too unsentimental to inspire ready sympathy.

The friendliness of ANDI’s voice hypnotises you into regarding him as a readable human being. Even if you are well aware that this friendliness is manufactured and potentially manipulative, it is asking the impossible to override your response to it. Thomassen demands, “How do we know it’s not lying? You can’t even see its face,” which so obviously constitutes throwing a stone for a character who is dwelling inside the glasshouse of an audio drama. Moreover, we can never get a reliable handle on the context within which ANDI was produced. The Singularity is presumably a big storyline back on Earth but this could be a red herring. If we are waiting for the seeds of independence to stir within ANDI’s circuitry, so that he finally comes out for the good, we might have misconstrued the limited functions of a boxed-in computer programme.

The podcast’s format involves linking each new chapter to a different character’s perspective. Although, with its ever-deepening drama, the mission sometimes feels like it is on a death spiral, we tie up the first season with most of the crew still intact and with several interesting characters still to guest host. Marsfall is henceforth packed with the promise of many more adventures.