[The following contains spoilers.]
Janus Descending is a single-season audiodrama from No Such Thing Productions that concluded this February. It is written by Jordan Cobb, who also plays one of the show’s two characters (along with Anthony Olivieri). Cobb has an increasingly familiar story to tell about a first man, a first woman, and a snake rustling out there in the grass. Peter (Olivieri) and Chel are space archaeologists who have travelled to “an untouched alien world,” essentially to conduct an audit of its stuff. Sci-fi, horror, and romantic comedy jostle for a time in their story, but with a resultant texture that is glossy and luxurious rather than stodgy. There are equally moments of a psychological drama that is keen enough to stand by itself, without the aid of the sci-fi and horror’s glamour. But the richest element to emerge from this mix is a dramatic irony and one of a quite arresting scope.
The xenoarchaeologists find evidence of one of the oldest myths in the world, but it lies within their own behaviour rather than amongst the time-eaten artefacts. They paradoxically journey to the end of the universe and to the very beginning of Judeo-Christian culture. Their spacecraft is indeed named the Adamantine. Peter and Chel initially look like a miscued Adam and Eve who have appeared amongst the ashes of some city of the plain that has fallen out of God’s favour. There is something dreamlike to how their resemblance to Adam and Eve never once occurs to them. Genesis is howling all around them but they cannot perceive it in an alien setting.
Of course, as with the events in Eden we might feel that the Adamantine’s mission was set up for a clean disaster from the word “go.” Surely it could have only ever been a disaster. That the planet looks like a “lilac ball” and “a purple dot,” and that it thus brings to mind a fig hanging in space, posits that it is itself a forbidden fruit even before the ship has landed on it. On the Adamantine’s approach, Chel spends a long time staring at the planet, enrapt in contemplation like Eve at the foot of the tree, whilst Peter is, like Adam, busy elsewhere.
Peter and Chel generally seem to be as innocent and platonic as the first twosome amidst the virgin fronds. The inattentive listener might assume them to be brother and sister. The snake is authentically a nasty little slitherer, but as with the first time around, it is more of a lubricant than the wholesale cause of the catastrophe. Peter and Chel are always happier chatting into their mission logs than they are speaking openly with each other. They have not equipped themselves with enough to cling on to once the quicksand of paranoia is swallowing them up. Like with Adam and Eve, Peter and Chel are never once depicted in sexual terms, though Chel does plunge into a dark fissure that is somewhat obviously vaginal. Their Fall is one from a dippy, chaste love into a bleak knowledge of the other’s unknowability. Chel fatally weakens in the fissure when despairing that “I am completely alone” and that “you are not coming to save me.” She believes that Peter had let go of her hand, after he had calculated that this would save his own life.
Peter first spots the serpent on some cave murals: “an amorphous snake-like being… always recognisable amongst the other images.” These pictures show an entire civilisation being eaten by snakes, rather like a giant cheese that is riddled with maggots. Maybe God had banished the original serpent to this planet. Maybe the serpent rules this planet as Satan does the inferno. Or maybe the Adamantine has travelled to an unredeemed Old Testament world, one in which the Fall has always held sway.
Then there is Janus as well. I’m in debt here to the podcast critic Wil Williams, who reveals that Janus Descending has embarked upon a narrative waltz pattern that is used in the musical The Last Five Years. In this, one lover had told the story going forwards in time whilst the other had gone backwards. In Janus Descending, we alternately advance with Chel and reverse with Peter (Janus was a double-visaged Roman god who had looked both forwards and backwards.) This format is everything to the podcast, rather than being merely a quirk, so it is worth interrogating why the story has been stacked in such a potentially clunky way.
It is not an active puzzle. It is not as though we have been handed a pile of tapes and we have to pick through them, in order to crack the meaning. There is still a payoff, however, in that we neatly waltz to the heart of the paranoia one step forward, one step back. We might feel alienated from the story due to the contrivance of this format, but it will eventually help us to become better reconciled with it. We experience the same remoteness that we would if surveying an unreconstructed museum exhibit that is frozen under dusty glass. Just as these archaeologists descend all the way down to Genesis, their story is sent back to us as a ruined artefact, a collection of fragments, some shattered terracotta that can be never rebuilt again.
What else is there to say? There is a humorous contrast between the austerity of deploying only two actors and the sixty-four piece orchestra that is ostensibly responsible for the score. At first, the stirring cinematic music sounds agreeably retro or like some theme tune from the golden age of sci-fi. Once horror has consumed the story, we might suspect that the orchestra is sneering at the characters with its inspirational overtures.
Janus Descending is admirably spacious for an audiodrama with only two actors. On many occasions the narrative is decanted almost as poetry, but the performances can be realistically harrowing when they wish to be. Although one might be disturbed by some of Chel’s later heavy-breathing suffering, it is worth noting that Janus Descending ably brushes around the notorious misogyny of the Eve myth, instead presenting a nuanced and fair-minded account of a woman in trouble.
In the end, two astronauts have perished in a botched, underfunded corporate project. The delight of Janus Descending comes from how it seamlessly synchronises this story with an ancient myth about the mother and father of all disastrous start-ups.