The Cambridge Geek

The Black Tapes

Alex Reagan is interested in unusual characters. She's decided to make a podcast series about these people, with each episode looking at a different type of person. Or at least, that was the plan.

The first episode looks at paranormal investigators, following a few people around to various "haunted" sites in order to try and experience something that will make an exciting show. In order to chase a certain amount of balance, Alex also talks to a sceptic, Dr. Richard Strand, a professional debunker, who has spent his career working out how people have been faking, fooled or just daft.

Richard collects all of these solved cases in white VHS tape boxes, in his archive of smug, or "The White Tapes". You may have noted, that's not what the podcast is called. Next to the archive of smug is the shelf of shame, which contains a collection of black VHS tape boxes, which contain all the cases he can't debunk. Yet. (The "yet" is important. He's just waiting for technology to catch up.)

Like the real-life debunker James Randi, Richard has set a million dollar prize, which he's willing to give out to anyone who brings him proof of the supernatural. He's still waiting. He's an avowed skeptic, and doesn't believe that any of the cases on his Black Tapes are actually caused by the supernatural. However, Alex is sufficiently interested in them that she swivels the whole planned series away from biopics to start following up on all of the Black Tapes.

There's a fair few different cases. One has a child being followed by a Slender Man-like figure, another has a town haunted by a ghost with an upside-down face. There's "The Unsound", a creepy noise which results in death a year after hearing it, and a mysterious clerical agency who might be trying to summon the devil.

And since this is one of those long-arc series, pretty much everything in it is connected, both to each other and Richard Strand's unfortunate past. That did begin to get a trifle annoying after a while, with each episode reaching a point at which the constant thought was "so how are you going to relate this to the big mystery?" I get that that's the idea, but it got a little tiresome.

I had a couple of other problems with it as well. Richard is positioned as the skeptic, and holds to it strongly, but Alex jumps in almost immediately and believes every single one of the possibly supernatural things are real. It's Mulder and Scully turned up to 11, with the nuance lost.

The style also bugged me slightly in that it was trying to hold the idea of a hosted radio programme with built in ad breaks and so on, but it felt vagule patronising. Each episode came with a recap and a "coming soon" which tended to assume an audience only half paying attention. I've enjoyed too many shows now that just drop you straight into the action and don't feel the need to hold your hand.

I listened through the first series, but it didn't wrap up in a particularly fulfilling way. It looks like cliff-hangers are the order of the day here. The skipping back and forth over the line of ambiguity about whether the monsters are real or not also bugs me more than I expected. It feels a bit like a creepypasta that's outstayed its welcome. The series is well put together in terms of production values (though again, ads are irritating), but the meat of the story isn't enough to have me come back for season two.

Score 3

Tagged: Audio fiction Horror Cast Fictional show Urban fantasy Serial