written by David Steffen
In my constant quest to find new sources of short audio fiction, I’ve listened to quite a few episodes of Decoder Ring Theater who describe themselves as the “home of all-new audio adventures in the tradition of the classic programs of Radio’s Golden Age. Here you will find full-length, full-cast tales of mystery and adventure to fire your imagination”. Their two main recurring features are The Red Panda and Black Jack Justice, but every summer they have different features that aren’t in those two main series.
Normally I would do a Best Of list, but the format of this show made the usual format a little bit awkward. Namely, that the vast majority of their shows are within two continuities, and so there aren’t a lot of distinct stories to pick out from the rest. So I decided I would just do a spotlight and talk briefly about the things I liked and things I didn’t like about the show.
What’s to like?
The folks at Decoder Ring Theater have succeeded in their mission statement of giving a feel of the Golden Age of radio. The voice actors are great, each one with a variety of voices, some of them over the top but always in the right way. The voice acting is the best part of the show.
Some of the segments of the show are great. The ones I liked the best were the humor series. My favorites were:
Before they launched The Red Panda Adventures, they ran six episodes of Red Panda. These episodes take place during WWII, following Red Panda, an agent of the Canadian government in the war. The people on all sides of the conflict are cartoonish, over the top. The Canadian Prime Minister, for instance, has been hit by an enemy weapon that turns him into simpleminded and the one who’s really running the war effort is the Prime Minister’s dog. Despite the wartime setting, I never really felt the stakes, but the humor made it well worth it.
Another great comedy series they ran was Slick Bracer, PI, a parody of classical noir tales. Slick isn’t shy about breaking the fourth wall at any point, talking to the audience, pointing out his own cliches. The mysteries didn’t get my mind racing by any means, but there were a lot of laugh out loud moments
They’ve run quite a few good one-off short stories that are well worth listening to, definitely worth digging through their backlog of summer stories.
What’s not to like?
The folks at Decoder Ring Theater have succeeded in their mission statement of giving a feel of the Golden Age of radio. But, well, Golden Age radio wasn’t without its flaws. The over-the-top acting and writing works well for comedy, but I find it hard to take seriously when it’s trying to be dramatic. The macho attitudes of the lead male characters and the generally short shrift most of the female characters get got on my nerves. I mean, yes both of the main shows have a female main character but at least in the episodes I listened to they’re both securely in the role of sidekick.
The two main series of the show are The Red Panda Adventures and Black Jack Justice. The Red Panda Adventures follows the Red Panda, who is kind of the same Red Panda as the one in the Red Panda series that I liked, but basically from a different continuity. This one takes place in 1930s Toronto where he is a masked (not-super) crime fighting hero accompanied by his sidekick the Flying Squirrel. Between the crimes and the mysteries that they pursure, most of the time is spent with her in her cover identity as his limo driver making advances on him at every opportunity to which he always responds with the phrase “Kit Baxter, behave.” I wanted to punch him right in the teeth and slap her upside the head every time I heard that phrase. It seemed to meant to be cute and endearing how he never quite rejected her straight out but never quite acknowledge her come-ons either. But she needs to get some self-respect and find a different employer rather than wasting her life chasing that un-super schmuck, and he needs to stop being such a jerk. I never felt the writing really respected her as a person, and turned me off. If the stories had been great, maybe I’d get over it, but I guess I don’t go for classical unpowered heroes nor the mystery stories they sometimes get into.
Black Jack Justice is their other main series with Jack Justice and Trixie Dixon girl detective (their words not mine). I at least didn’t want to hit either of them, and she wasn’t fawning after his every word like the Flying Squirrel was in the other series. But that’s about the best praise I can give it.
One of the side series was very hard to listen to: Deck Gibson. The title character is an earthling who survived a space wreck and was taken in by an alien civilization for whom he has worked ever since. This series is like a object lesson in most of the bad writing tropes you’ll ever come across. Especially “As you know, Bob” dialog. Deck has constant contact over radio with a maybe-AI (they never totally make it clear what she is) who provides the recipient for most of his dialog in the story. At times she seems able to use the sensors in his suit to tell what’s going on around him, and at other times he can. They take turns explaining to each other what they are seeing on his sensors as if only one of them can somehow use them at a time. Really it’s just a bad writing technique to get the information to the listener, but there are better ways to pull that off in an audio drama–at the very least if it were consistent about which way the information flowed it would do a lot to increase its credibility.
I’ve given up on the Red Panda Adventures and Black Jack Justice main series. Which is most of what they publish most of the year. I’ll check back in the summers to try out their summer showcase series since they have had some really fun ones there. I think this’ll be my last post about them, since the summer showcase stories only come out at a rate of six per year, that’s not enough to do regular Best Of lists.
If you like Golden Age radio, warts and all, tune in and give it a try. If you don’t, you still might want to check out the showcase series. Try the two main series while you’re at it too, just don’t feel like you have stick with them forever if you don’t care for them.