Sometimes you don’t want to listen to depressing news about Donald Trump or a bunch of comedians shoot the shit into a microphone; for those times, try Tor Lab’s STEAL THE STARS. The audio drama is the often forgotten big brother of the podcast. Getting their start on the radio, audio dramas were serialized narratives, TV before TV—essentially, movies for your ears. They’ve since evolved into digital form and are no longer performed live, but they remain just as compelling. STEAL THE STARS stands out for several reason, but the first is its pedigree. The creator/author of the show is Mac Rogers, a playwright whose first podcast projects were two surprisingly good, brand-affiliated GE podcasts: THE MESSAGE, about a mysterious broadcast from space, and LIFEAFTER, about a sentient social network. These were sprawling sci-fi stories with compelling leads and their own fair share of twists. What was more surprising was that they were paid for and produced by GE (that’s right, General Electric). With STEAL THE STARS the production is slightly less sinister (Tor is an independent book publisher and has never caused a nuclear disaster), but the quality of story is no less compelling.
STEAL THE STARS dresses like a neo-noir, but hides far more underneath. The protagonist is Dakota “Dak” Prentiss (Ashlie Atkinson), a gruff, world-weary military veteran and security chief of Quill Marine, a military contractor. The listener is frequently treated to her interior monologue, the dry witticisms and tactical thinking she uses to handle the day-to-day challenges of her job. Secrets abound at Quill Marine and Dak is often at the center of them, even as she exists on the outskirts of normal society. She is the prototypical noir protagonist, working in the dark with and for things that no normal person ever deals with. Namely, a dying alien. Quill Marine is the cover for a research project centered on a seemingly dead or dying alien nicknamed “Moss,” and Dak is charged with protecting it until she meets Matt Salem (Neimah Djourabchi). Matt is Dak’s new hire, but the plot shifts as they strike up romance and things get far more complicated from an “office politics” perspective. The fusion of noir and romance (not an entirely unfamiliar pairing) gives the show a distinct flavor, offering moments of intrigue AND levity.
The pairing is at its heart quite special. Dak is several years Matt’s senior, a woman far closer to the end of her life than the middle, who is overcome with a youthful longing she is not quite sure what to do with. The notion of an older female protagonist taking the time to pursue an intimate and physical relationship stands out in any kind of narrative, not just podcasts. We live in a male-dominated world, one in which female gaze and female sexuality are barely addressed. Any instance of a woman describing what she wants sexually stands out. Additionally, because a majority of the characters are veterans, military professionals with nowhere else to go than the private sector, the tone and and mentality of the story is somber. This is a show where a host of people on their last chance cling to the possibility that a dead alien might still be alive or that a person might still love them or that they might be finally recognized for their hard work. They huddle around something hopeless because it seems like a better option that anything they had on the outside. Not the brightest of outlooks, but surprising in its depths considering the show is about aliens.
The commitment to pulpy genre elements while still delivering on the occasional dollop of seriousness is just the right balance for a weekly podcast and a brief 20-minute-or-so escape somewhere else. I’d say more, but part of the fun is riding along with the mystery from the start. For that reason, the best episode, both for its table setting and representation of the show as a whole, is the first episode, “Warm Bodies,” in which Dak says she won’t fall in love, introduces Matt to the alien, and promptly falls in love. It’s great at establishing the regimented world of STEAL THE STARS, Dak’s methodology, and what the actual focus of the show will be. An excellent pilot.
If there was anything to be lobbed at STEAL THE STARS, it’s that its large ensemble cast is not always delivering as consistent a performance as its lead. But this could iron itself out as the series progresses and the focus narrows. If anything it shouldn’t matter. You’re here for the story, but you’re especially here for Dak. STEAL THE STARS delivers these competently. Try the show and give yourself a break. You’ve earned it.