The Cambridge Geek

The White Vault

Something is wrong at Outpost Fristed, located on an island in a Norwegian archipelago, Svalbard. The remote monitoring station, which has regularly sent geographical and mining related data from a collection of rovers has suddenly stopped transmitting. As such, a team needs to be assembled to head out to the station, investigate the problem, and fix whatever's gone wrong. Which is where our cast comes in.

And what a handily varied cast it is! We've got the feisty Dr. Rosa De La Torre, the team's medical specialist, and the cynical Walter Heath, electrical technician extraordinaire (played by one of my favourites David Ault). The company's representative on the ground is Jónas Þórirsson, and in a pleasing change from the form, he's not at all evil, being a very jovial character entirely motivated by love of his kids. Dr. Karina Schumacher-Weiß is a geologist hoping to find a new field in which to make her name, and making up the rest of the team is the stereotypically dour Russian, Graham Casner. Refreshing to have such a wide range of accents, as well as non-English languages which receive the "talking over" translation. Adds another level of realism.

It's a found footage format, with a framing story of a documentarian assembling this out of the recordings the team made while performing their task. There's the usual reasons for this, whether audio diaries, videoing interesting finds or just the effect of the transmitting equipment, but the presence of the narrator who describes where all these comes from is a good trick. It eliminates that brain skip when things switch from explicit recordings to incidental.

There's also a slightly unusual approach in that it makes use of written notes and logs, which are ostensibly being read out for the documentary podcast. This does cause a slight disconnect, in that the notes are all read out by the relevant voice actor for the recorded output. It's a sensible method to prevent the listener from getting confused, but it does have me analysing as to whether that means we can assume the entire team make it back safely.

Because, of course, it's not just a broken transmitter up in Svalbard that's the problem. That issue gets resolved more or less in the first episode. However, there are two events that trouble the team. The first is a storm, which hits hard and traps them on site, unable to travel back without risking death via hypothermia, and the second is the discovery of a hatchway that leads to a hidden cavern underground. This cavern contains an ancient village, made of stone and animal hide, and is built around some sort of theatre, containing a massive table and congregational chairs.

Oh yeah, stuff gets ominous. To say more would be a bit spoilery, so let's just say that extreme cold isn't the only danger.

It's got a good atmosphere (very The Thing-like), and the various conversations that drive the plot along are remarkably gripping. I don't think there's anything by way of flabbiness in the script. The seriousness of the situation is well presented, and no-one falls into that mistake of confusing nonsensical screaming with horror. They're professionals in an environment they mostly know a lot about, and their practical mien makes the threat more potent.

The story (up to this point) is spread over ten episodes, but it never feels thin. Partly that's because these are relatively short installments, but the cast of characters allows a lot of different perspectives and insights, which helps fill it out. I'd perhaps have liked a little more progression through the series, but it doesn't end in a bad spot. Will be looking forward to the second series, which should appear October-ish.

(There's also a separate spin-off story called Artifact, which I suggest you look at.)

Score 4

Tagged: Audio fiction Horror Cast Found footage Thriller Serial