Fiction is among the last genres to capitalise on the podcasting boom. While the medium is already awash with documentaries, political discussion programmes, culture and comedy shows, fiction has been slower to make its mark, perhaps viewed as a tall order for podcasters with slim budgets and for whom dramatised audio brings to mind old-school BBC plays and their loudly creaking doors. Still, inroads have been made by the likes of Welcome to Night Vale, a spooky fictional series that has become a successful live show, and by Gimlet’s Homecoming, the US series about a shady government programme that is soon to reappear as an Amazon TV series with Julia Roberts. More recently, Radiotopia’s The Polybius Conspiracy, about a mythical arcade game from the 1980s, has been making waves with its merging of fact and fiction.
Now there’s a new pod on the block hoping to break the audio fiction mould, in this case by providing heightened levels of listener interaction. The Walk, from the Panoply network, comes with excellent credentials, having been written by Naomi Alderman, the British author and game designer whose dystopian novel The Power won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction last year. Sadly, though, her transition to audio drama isn’t without its problems.
Set in Scotland, The Walk is designed to be heard while on the move and makes you, the listener, the hero of the story. This means that while you can’t influence events, the action revolves entirely around you. That, at least, is the idea. It begins at a café at a railway station in Inverness where a stranger hands you a package. The future of the world, you are told, depends on the package getting to its destination. As both of you move towards the train platform there is an explosion. A terrorist group called The Burn has set off a device. “They did it,” exclaims your new companion, climbing out from under some rubble. “The bastards really did. Set off an EMP — an electromagnetic pulse that’s designed to kill anything that [runs] on electricity. Cars, computers, street lights. All that just to stop a train.”
This is just the first of many instances where the exposition lands like a wrecking ball, its impact demolishing all credibility and tension. The ambition of this series is seemingly to bridge the gap between audio and gaming, while prising us from our armchairs and giving us a physical workout. But the reality is a frustratingly damp thriller that finds the listener marooned and mute in their own storyline, forever surrounded by people explaining the plot. It’s a shame because the idea is an appealing one and, applied to a different, perhaps non-fiction narrative, could further expand the possibilities of podcasting. In the event The Walk is, at best, a noble failure.
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