Roguemaker: Big World, Big Heart

This review contains spoilers through Episode 6 of Roguemaker.

If time has one constant, it’s probably that, no matter the year, there will never be a shortage of science fiction audio dramas set in space. Today’s subject is no exception: Roguemaker, which follows the passengers of an unlucky commercial spaceflight, is a new offering from astronomer and first-time podcaster Emma Johanna Puranen. At the time of this review, the first six episodes have been released, placing it halfway through its first season.

Roguemaker is a science-fiction lover’s paradise, lush with classic hallmarks of the genre: there's a cheerily programmed AI, a mysterious spaceship sabotage, and at least one original alien species, the Ǵnonw [G'-KNOW-noo]. The story begins on a commercial starship en route to the star system Sirius. Its passengers are a motley bunch; a random sample might turn up a musical duo on their way to a battle of the bands, a Ǵnonw on a coming-of-age journey, a tourist with something to hide, an extremely patient flight attendant and their captain, nearly exact opposite in temperament.

All is fine and dandy—until, of course, it isn’t. Around halfway through Episode 1, there’s an unspecified malfunction. The ship is evacuated, passengers shunted into individual escape pods. Amidst the general panic, there’s hints that it might be sabotage. And the passengers are the only ones around for miles.

It’s like the script knows it’s heading towards opening up the ensemble, but something’s holding it back.

Despite this seemingly clear premise, the show initially suffers from a common affliction among young indie audio dramas: it doesn’t quite yet know what it wants to be. Three compelling directions are set up: First, a character-driven piece on the isolation and horror of a collectively traumatizing event, which slowly gravitates towards finding solace in community, no matter how physically far apart. Second, a locked-room mystery, featuring a colorful ensemble cast, tensions between species, and a militant, determined (and disliked) captain willing to risk everyone’s life to try to save them all—though they might have their own skeletons. Third, a conspiracy-thriller set on a rogue planet where the goals are twofold: survive, and try to trust each other enough to make it through freshly unraveling secrets.

Any one of these makes for an incredible story on its own, but as Roguemaker feels itself out in its first episodes, the general effect is disjoint confusion. Part of this is the show’s scope—an ensemble that starts with eleven characters and then grows would be hard for any audio production to manage. But part of it is also the structural shift that takes place within the first few episodes.

Roguemaker isn’t the first audio drama to start out with one-on-one conversations before expanding to more ensemble scenes—in the specific subgenre of ‘space sci-fi where the plot kicks off with survivors of a ship’ alone, examples like The Strange Case of Starship Iris abound. Iris and others, however, have advantages in their smaller cast sizes and willingness to unite the group earlier on. Here, the first three episodes dwell on the aftermath of the evacuation, with no visible forward motion. And unlike works of art that purposefully make their audiences slow down and sink into the moment and emotion, here the show has an undercurrent of dancing around itself. Pairings begin to feel forced. The matchups fall back on a repeating setup of anxious passenger-soothing passenger. Backstory flows plenty, but haltingly without a larger context to situate itself in. There’s a general sense of struggle for appropriate pacing; even through slower moments, I felt like I was playing catch-up from the who’s who of the opening scenes. It’s like the script knows it’s heading towards opening up the ensemble, but something’s holding it back.

This isn’t a single-minded criticism, nor is it a dismissal of unconventional structure as a whole. In fact, even within Roguemaker, the willingness to experiment occasionally creates moments that are better than if the show had relied on structural consistency instead: Episode 2’s flip back and forth between Alyss Obelus (Nhea Durousseau)’s audio logs and the surprising camaraderie between soft-hearted flight attendant Malachi (Alisdair Stuart) and a young stowaway (Rook Mogavero) introduces a rising tension that’s pervasive beyond the end of the episode. The setup for murder mystery-style interrogation and distrust in Episode 4 is delightfully subverted when the passengers refuse to fall in line with their captain’s desire to play detective—despite the sense it makes at a logical level. And once Episode 4 opens up, boy does the show take off. just two sentences Puranen exotifies the human race through a lense that’s almost tender.

It’s in episode 6, “Shattered Visage,” that Roguemaker really hits its stride. Now that settings and conflicts have been established and the audience is firmly situated, characters can be cordoned off for slower moments that no longer feel like they’re hanging out until they’re allowed to move on to something else. There’s a lovely exchange between married couple Trip (Axandre Oge), a mechanic who’s never before been off his home station, and Pascal (Bonnie Calderwood Aspinwall), the group’s resident astronomer, as they go out onto the surface; their relationship as a whole is refreshing as an established couple where both halves live out their anxieties to the fullest. Malachi’s established soft spot for Ship (Puranen), the aptly named ship AI, too, gets a more intimate moment, as the two play chess in a scene that plays homage to many a spacefaring script before it. Puranen has written at length about the intricacies of writing her ship’s AI, and the effort pays off here.

Meanwhile, Alyss gets a chance to play plucky protagonist from inside the escape pod in which she’s trapped. VA Durousseau—who consistently gives one of the best performances of the half-season—shines in these last moments, and the setup of Alyss bouncing her ideas off of Ship makes for the most natural-sounding narration of a character’s physical actions in the show so far. The sound design in this scene, too, feels sharper, more in tune with the motions of the moment—though the show is consistently impressive on this front, particularly for a debut designer.

The show is also extensive in its worldbuilding: Tiny details, like in-built disability accommodations on the escape pods, provide a sense of scale that’s simultaneously towering and cozy. Malachi and our stowaway bond over TV shows made centuries after 2022. This universe is lived in, emphasized again in the commercials and audio that cut in and out of the escape pods’ communications. A particularly memorable interjection is a snippet of children’s programming that follows a young Ǵnonw on their first visit to Earth. Not only is the child meeting a friend in person for the first time, they’re experiencing a new society, an alien world; there’s a beautiful line that succinctly relays the overwhelm: “The sun, Sol, is bright and yellow, and it moves across the sky during the ball game. Ȟasklonw has the strange feeling that they should be dizzy.” It’s poignant and alienating in turn; in just two sentences Puranen exotifies the human race through a lense that’s almost tender.

And speaking of—you can tell that Puranen has a background in and love for astrophysics, even when Pascal isn't referring to graduate-level atmospheric dynamics. The settings are grounded in modern exoplanet knowledge. Ship makes recurring references to famous historical poems with space-y themes, including a proper credit to Sarah Williams’ “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil,” whose final line, “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night,” is often misattributed to Galileo.

There are a couple of risks I hope the show will take in its upcoming episodes. By cordoning off the captain and refusing to work to their plan of interrogations and constant suspicion, the show seems to make a point about the type of gung-ho my-way-or-the-highway heroes that tend to star in box office thrillers—but there’s no demonstration that the crew is doing that much better by refusing to go Hercule Poirot. I would love to see an alternative take on community response and justice that goes outside the rogue captain or police officer; it remains to be seen whether that’s the direction Roguemaker is going for.

Overall, Roguemaker has created a story brimming with potential and is operating on a learning curve that outpaces any I’ve seen. It may still be finding the last of its legs when it comes to balancing its main ensemble of twelve (12!), but with multiple mysteries afoot and a universe that’s constantly getting bigger, I’m excited to see where it takes us next.

Roguemaker returns with the second half of Season 1 on August 24th, 2022. You can find their website here and their transcripts here.


Rashika Rao

Rashika Rao

Rashika Rao is a freelance podcast journalist from the American Midwest specializing in indie audio fiction.