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Review of The Encounter: Season 1 from Liberty University

"The Encounter is a serialized radio drama that is written, performed, scored and produced by the students and faculty of Liberty Unive...

"The Encounter is a serialized radio drama that is written, performed, scored and produced by the students and faculty of Liberty University ... The Encounter is a mystery set in the future where characters experience circumstances that cause them to question what they have been taught in their respective societies, setting them on a journey to uncover the truth."
 - From The Encounter Series website



What made me first want to listen to The Encounter was the premise behind it: two isolated mountain cities separated by a mysterious mist. But it was also this: in two cities full of deluded and brainwashed individuals, a few were brave enough to challenge the dominant paradigm. And brave enough to face the consequences of doing so.

The technical offering is an impressive debut from these students! The sound design put me where I needed to be. There were a few times when a sound or voice did not sound natural, and this arrested me. These sound design aspects are a bit jarring. But they are not overly common, and, what is more, there is usually a lot of good sound design that is easy to miss and yet still works on us subconsciously. It's more of an old-timey radio drama style (I want to emphasize that I simply mean style in the sense of design choices, rather than to suggest that it sounds canned or that it was imitating old radio dramas) so the sound design isn't game-changing. However, it did its job, which is to set the scene for the story to unfold in your mind. The score, composed by Preeda Thaiwatcharamas, also reminded me somewhat of classical radio dramas, but also of a modern epic. It delivers sweeping scope to the story. As a side note, the series is comprised of fifteen 15 minute episodes, totaling a little under four hours for the whole season.

What didn't work
The writing was at times on the nose. This is not to say that it was preachy, (I will talk about the message of the show later, which I think the scriptwriters handled well) rather, the characters spoke in construed phraseology. Speech sounds more natural when it leaves room for sound design to do its work and actors to bring it to life. So, unfortunately, scriptwriting is one of those things which when done well, few people ever notice.

There is another issue that is related to character writing; which I have many good things to say about forthcoming, but I think it only fair to mention the shortcomings. This allows me to truly praise what was done with excellence. A few times throughout the radio drama a character made plot-driven decisions that did were not internally consistent for the characters. What I mean is that we, as the listeners, give the character the benefit of the doubt. We assume that they possess a healthy skepticism (of many things) and will see subtly and subtext themselves, just as real humans do, unless otherwise justified. Instead, when a story is not fully fleshed out, characters are apt to become chess pieces that go through the motions of what real life might feasibly look like, without actually proving that they are authentic.
Christie Osterhus, one of the series' writers

Unfortunately, there is one case in the first act of the season which trivializes a major character (Violet) because we know she should be smarter. Or, at least, if she is supposed to be deluded, we don't fully buy into the reason for why she is. Either way, the result is that the proceeding disaster does not shock us: we rather expected it. And, for myself at least, I thought it was almost what the character deserved. Listeners almost always give stories a fair chance; they are willing to believe in it. If you, as the listener, were Violet or Roy or Sam, would you react the same way that they did? The balance between distinguishing personalities and keeping someone believable is sometimes a little rough in The Encounter, but outside of a few cases, it actually did work. The mistakes are more common in the first episodes and become ironed out as the season draws to a dramatic finale.

One minor addition
The odd narratory bits at the end of the episodes did not add anything and sometimes sabotaged episode cliffhangers. They explain what happens in the next episode. I don't need to know. I'll find out when I listen. If you are binge-listening, they detract from the flow of the story and the impulse to continue. This is something that I hope the producers do not continue to do. Either the story will speak for itself (instinctively you will want to keep listening), or a teaser will not help and just gets in the way.

Yes, there is room for improvement in Season 2; in the technical department and in scriptwriting - as the students hone their skills - but none of this is to say the show is not well worth a listen right now. I think it is quite entertaining and philosophically stimulating. More simply, it's a good radio drama.

 And I'll tell you why...

What set it apart
Firstly, a simple format choice. It's a bit unusual for narrative radio dramas. I liked the fact that the episodes were short (15 minutes) and were written so that I could binge-listen. This kept the pace rolling all the time. No episode felt bloated. Neither did they feel too short to become engaged in. If I only had a bit of time to listen in the evenings, I could listen to a full episode and not be interrupted, which would break up the episodic arc. If I wanted to hear more, it was easy just to keep listening.

LU student Corinn Keene in studio for The Encounter

Season 1 ends in a cliffhanger sure to make you ready for Season 2 (coming "Early 2018" according to the official website). I will not spoil it. But suffice it to say, if you love twists and grand reveals (and perilous disasters!) you will be joining me in eager anticipation of Season 2.

A big motivator for the show was the exploration of philosophy. In a behind-the-scenes interview with one of the producers of the show, we hear the philosophy of truth explored in different ways. Because this is a radio drama made at a Christian college, it certainly has a Christian worldview. Specifically, The Encounter addresses the questions of truth. Is morality objective? If so, how does that (or how should it) affect people and society? The two isolated peaks are societies which address this question in diametrically opposed ways. But the valley that separates these philosophies is not so wide after all. The show exposes the corruption of a society that has gone past the notion of truth and a society that has mistaken their rituals for the truth. Both of them take opposite approaches, but in the end neither are looking for truth as it is, but as they wish it.

The Encounter Season 1 does not put much emphasis on what the truth actually is. For now, we are only presented with the grimly stark reality that man's own search has failed. We need to know that. It needs to be as solid as a rock if there is to be a rational conclusion. I hope and expect that Season 2 and beyond may explore an answer to this question. (This expectation may be warranted by some of the great concept art you can find at encounterseries.com/art-1/ if you want to see the visual conception of the series.)
Bryan Bulebush

Played by Bryan Bulebush, the character of Roy (who acts like the older brother of the twins) is the highlight of the story. More than any other character he is faced with real dilemma. This is where the writers excelled in putting a good character in harsh circumstances, which makes a great story arc and beguiling drama. I loved to see him faced with challenges that force me to step back and wonder what I might have done in his situation. As I mentioned earlier, listeners are willing to relate to the characters. They want to find a gem. And here is where The Encounter paid off. Roy is perhaps the most relatable of all of the main four (or at least he acts the most real, whether you necessarily are the "wiser, older sibling" type or not). When he is met with difficulties we see him change. We see that his inner character is consistent. These tough decisions make the story real, and they make the listener love the characters.

In sum, The Encounter is an enjoyable and well rounded first season. There is much of interest in Season 1 and much promise for Season 2. The few missteps are hiccups that become largely overshadowed by the interesting premise, unique philosophical presentation, strong character arc, and dramatic third act. If those things appeal to you, you will want to give a listen to The Encounter.




This review is a post by ATC contributor Robert Thacker. Robert loves all storytelling mediums; especially audio drama because it's so overlooked. He wrote the audio drama script titled "A Search for Truth," which was produced by the creators of Jonathan Park. You can check it out at ThackerPress.com.

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