I’m dreading the bus ride to work tomorrow because I’m worried about Dr. Winifred Eurus. I’m going to listen to the eighth and final episode of Tides, a wildly imaginative and stealthily addictive sci-fi audio drama produced on Capitol Hill. I’ve already spent seven half-hour episodes with Winifred, the show’s protagonist, as she navigates the harsh terrain of an unexplored alien planet, dodging attacks from strange creatures and dealing with her deeply frustrating fellow astronauts as they plot her rescue. I started listening with a critical ear, but now I want Winifred to be OK!
Tides is the creation of friends and audio-drama fans Jesse Schuschu and Ayla Taylor. It’s based on a short story originally written by Schuschu: “[It] began as a fever dream I had involving a very specific alien ecosystem based on the intertidal zone on Earth, but with the environmental hazards—tides, desiccation, birds of prey—ramped up to a much higher degree.”
Taylor, who produces, became hooked on podcasts working a “boring office job” and thought the story would translate well into an audio drama because it was conceived as a series of transcribed audio transmissions.
The pair initially took inspiration from single-narrator shows like Alice Isn’t Dead and The Far Meridian, Taylor says, but once they started adding more actors to the team, full-cast sci-fi audio dramas like Wolf 359 and The Strange Case of Starship Iris became a big influence. “We had no idea what we were doing when we started,” she says, “but we got a lot of support from other creators.” The show is recorded on Google Hangouts so the actors can play off one another live. Each actor also records their own raw audio on their own computers—“Often in their closets,” says Taylor, and the tape is then pooled via Google Drive and edited together by sound engineer Bridge Geene.
As a podcast fan myself, I generally favor talk-a-thon shows like Comedy Bang Bang and Pod Save America. My own podcast is a rambling talk-a-thon. The idea that a podcast can be written, fussed over and perfected is downright radical as far as I’m concerned. Tides goes farther than that, though. It creates an entire world, filled with strange plants and creatures, and it actually makes scientific sense. Dr. Winifred Eurus, a biologist on a corporate-funded space expedition, has crash-landed on Planet Fons, a living world where humans do not belong. She finds herself stuck in what amounts to a massive tidal pool that gets buffeted by gigantic waves every 24 hours or so. Therefore, Eurus is constantly racing against time to get to high ground, hastily describing the alien creatures she witnesses along the way. The story is told through her transmissions to her crewmates, whom she can only hope are listening on the other end.
Veteran voice actor Julia Schifini gives Eurus a strong, relatable personality and a rueful sense of humor. While the terrified scientist was written by Schuschu, Schifini was given leeway to make the character her own. “I brought in more of her frustration,” Schifini says, “I’d say 60 percent of the swearing is ad-libbed by me. Humans, Fred in particular, are flawed, and even as smart as she is, she can’t escape the frustration of her situation.”
Greene’s sound design is minimalist but impeccable. Listeners are essentially stuck in Eurus’ helmet and so mostly hear her voice, but sometimes we can faintly hear things from the outer alien environment—giant, cawing space birds, squishy clam creatures that spray chlorine gas and those implacable waves. As Eurus gradually makes contact with her distant crewmates, we also hear the voices of Jordan Higgs, Emily Wang, Zach Libresco and James Oliva as the hilariously oblivious Dr. Montague. “As a mode of storytelling, [podcasting] creates a sense of intimacy and encourages the imagination in a way that is difficult to capture in any other medium,” Taylor says.
Intimacy is a good word for it. Podcast fans are notoriously intense, which comes from hearing all of your favorite performers talking at length at regular intervals inside your head. The intimacy of podcasting takes on a whole different meaning when that familiar voice is under constant duress. I’ve been with Dr. Eurus for several hours now, hearing her at her best and worst. I like her. And at any moment she could get pummeled by a wave or eaten by a giant sea creature. I’m scared to death for her, but I’ve got to hear what happens next.