Vast Horizon Review
By Lex Scott
Space. The final frontier for humanity (other than the depths of our own oceans anyway, but that’s a whole other article), but one of the very first frontiers for podcast writers. I mean honestly, you can’t throw a blue yeti without hitting an entertaining, original, scrappy young podcast set in space. Some of them are truly excellent (lookin’ at you Girl in Space), and some are tragically lacking in one or two key areas while still being excellently mixed and produced. Most though, unfortunately, simply fall into the broad category of “pretty good”.
Don’t get me wrong, pretty good is a damn hard target to hit. I would sacrifice a lot to elevate some of my previous work to the level of pretty good (Quest Academy, oh what you could have been if I’d been competent or had experience…), and because my subscription list isn’t very large by most standards pretty good will often keep me thoroughly entertained in lieu of the same 100 songs I’ve got loaded onto my phone.
But pretty good won’t make you stand out. People tend to remember three kinds of things: their favourites, (coloured by personal experience so it’s a different beast), the greats, and the worst. No one ever remembers those movies that were just okay, the ones you went to because it was hot and you needed to kill a few hours. It is to this category unfortunately we have to relegate Vast Horizon, the newest entry from Travis Vengroff and K.A. Statz’ Fool & Scholar Productions.
Vast follows the now standard “Girl in Space + AI” set-up, though of course with it’s own twists: Dr Nolira Eck (an agronomist, not an MD) suddenly and painfully wakes up on The Bifrost, a massive colony ship that is mysteriously deserted but for her, a mysterious and as yet un-”seen” bipedal presence, and a dry AI that has lots of trouble with context clues.
In terms of set-up it’s rather economical. Once the story gets going we establish very quickly Nolira’s position, location, and lack of memory (another well worn but useful trope for easing an audience in: making the main character need just as much hand holding as the audience), while also doing a good job of presenting and explaining what will be one of the shows primary sources of tension: Nolira’s bionic limbs.
We also establish that the AI is unable to provide Nolira with any concrete answers as to why she was unconscious, where everyone is or even what happened to the ship, due to lost or corrupted data. The pair need each other, Nolira to physically go places and manually do things, the AI to provide her with in-the-moment info and a general plan on how to proceed if they’re going to take control of their situation.
Like I said, it’s a pretty solid premise that has a lot of potential. Unfortunately it consistently fails to hit the mark in most areas of production.
The show’s strongest area is definitely the sound design, which for the most part does an excellent job of setting up and presenting an audibly tangible world for us to immerse our ears in. But, it’s lacking in certain cues that would help convey physical action (a character apparently falling, which I didn’t realise until she was struggling to escape a hole), or time passing while an action is taken. Little things that would complete the picture for us and really sell the story and presentation. It’s the kind of thing that would be so easy to miss for anyone not a professional but as a listener is so jarring, and always takes me out of the moment.
The show’s weakest area I hate to say is probably writing, though the issues with the writing are also tightly bound up with similar issues in directing and editing.
Somehow, and I cannot figure out why, the overall pace feels simultaneously both too fast and too slow. Now, this is obviously a problem with the writing, as overall pace is something that’s present in the script from the very first draft: the speed at which plot moments happen one after another will always be right there on the page first (and it’s the hardest thing to manage I think, especially for a new writer), and that’s where you always have the most control to change it.
But, editing together a finished product is essentially doing a final draft of the script, so it’s a problem with editing too. And while directing you need to be aware of what the scene needs and coach that performance out, so it’s also a problem with the directing.
From line to line the dialogue itself is quite flat, though this has to do with delivery as well as actual writing. There are some lines that are just too wordy and clumsy, as though when they were written no one ever said them out loud to test them, and there are several instances where the clearly british-accented actor is pronouncing words with a distinctly american intonation (mom being the most egregious, please let your actors just say words in their native manner).
There are also several instances where Nolira’s actor just doesn’t quite reach the emotional heights required for a scene, though I would be hesitant to put the blame for that on her. It’s the directors job to coax the necessary emotion into a performance, and a good casting director will always be looking for the range an actor is capable of. Then once an actor is cast, a good writer will tailor lines and emotional beats to a performer, leaning into their strengths and being aware of their abilities. When everyone is working in harmony, every moving part compliments the others, and actors will never fail to amaze you with what they’re capable of. But if you don’t take your choices into consideration, if you just plow ahead without fine tuning your team and the new circumstances, it will always ring hollow.
The actual plotting of the narrative, and the “this therefore that” manner in which it proceeds is actually quite well done. The episodes so far have been 38, 38, and 28 minutes respectively, with not too much time taken up by pre and post show housekeeping, and each one makes good use of that time to progress events and throw obstacles in our protagonists path. Which is why it’s so odd that in the moment each episode still manages to feel both too slow and too fast.
Overall, I think this is a lackluster show from a team that should know better. The main actor, Siobhan Lumsden, is clearly skilled but just as obviously miscast in the role, while the writing and directing are well short of what I would expect from a team with at least six other shows under their belts. The story is well-trod territory, the tropes are well established in audiences minds at this point; fertile ground for a more creative team to subvert expectations, here a bland and muddy path for people who just want to rehash what’s gone before, minus the character or charm.
And again, although the sound design is overall pretty good, given the breadth of their experience I would expect them to be able to avoid the pitfalls they’ve fallen prey to here.
So, I would say feel free to skip this one unless your queue is empty and you’re in desperate need of a new show.