I consume a LOT of science fiction and surreal radio plays, mostly Doctor Who stuff out of Big Finish but also things along the Welcome to Nightvale line. So when I heard that there was a homegrown radio play entering its third season right here in Houston, I jumped in as soon as humanly possible!
Caalo Xan is as comfortable as brain-candy pulp novel or that battered leather jacket every geek I’ve ever known has owned at one point or another. To sum it up in the simplest terms it’s the story of the titular character, the leader of a band of rogues and ne’er-do-wells who takes on jobs for the Black Hand Guild. Yes, it’s essentially Firefly, but then again so is a lot of the great sci fi forwards and backwards in time so we’re using that mostly as a fixed point to measure from.
I started out in the series at Season 3, and it’s a very comfortable show to ease into at any point. Jude Vivona and Keith Ruether have crafted a well-built world full of colorful characters, concepts and races. Each episode and season opens with a handy recap that ensures a listener will be able to pick up wherever he left off.
Season 3 opens with an Uber Hawg Race, literally a Ketucky Derby for flying pigs. Of course, there’s more at stake here as it become apparent some powerful criminal interests are involved with the competition. Vivona and Ruether do a masterful job of painting vivid mental picture of the goings-on. You can easily see the action-packed race in your mind thanks to some deft description, and it’s all backed by a hell of an ambient soundtrack that gives the show a lot of weight.
I was surprised how addictive episodes can be. I began my listening with my daughter in the car after dropping my wife off at work (side note: thanks to the team for creating censored versions with swears bleeped out for those of us who like to share with our school-age kids). Each episode typically runs less than 20 minutes, and I found myself going “just one more” until well past my bed time.
There’s a lot going on, but it goes on in short bursts that allow you brief glimpses of the characters as they maneuver the universe. I do highly recommend stopping by the series website to check out the artwork by Scott Henderson. It does help give a visual dimension in your mind to the action. Regardless, Caalo Xan has a soap opera intensity and pacing that effortlessly moves from torture scene to mystery at a strange farm to political intrigue without losing the listener.
It’s also a #HoustonStrong production. Reuther is just now getting back on his feet after having his apartment destroyed in Harvey, and they make a point of including local personalities into the broadcast. Sports radio legend Lance Zierlein has a recurring role as King Banham, for instance, and they’re always seeking more talent from H-Town to apply.
There are a few criticisms. Caalo Xan falls into the same trap a lot of Doctor Who plays do in that they overuse the voice effects to produce their aliens. Silly vocals is often how radio plays compensate for the lack of visuals, and it would work a lot better if the people doing them would dial it down. A little goes a long way. It’s exacerbated by the rather thick sound production, which can make picking out the alien dialogue a little difficult at times. It’s by no means an amateur production, but it’s not as good as Big Finish. Adjust your expectations down a notch and you’ll be fine.
Overall, Caalo Xan is a wonderful way to pass the time, and a solid piece of local art to boot. Nothing makes me happier than the continuation of the radio play art format, and Vivona and Ruether are doing a heck of a job. Here’s hoping they inspire some other artists to step up and follow them in their footsteps.