Saturday, December 16, 2006


What do artificial intelligence experiments, strange legends of New Zealand's Maori people, corporate hit men, and morphine-addicted real estate developers have in common?

They're all elements of Claybourne, an original radio drama broadcast in New Zealand in the 1990s and now resurrected on The Podcast Network. I've previously blogged about how much I've come to enjoy podcasts in general and podcast dramas in particular, and Claybourne is definitely one of the most original, entertaining, and at times, downright bizarre podcast dramas I've come across--despite a few flaws I'll get to in a minute. This story should appeal to fans of The X-Files, Lost, and Heroes, and with the latter two shows on hiatus until after the first of the year, Claybourne might serve as a substitute for those seeking entertainment that's chock full of paranormally weird goodness.

While on vacation in New Zealand, Thompson, an employee of an American telecommunications firm, is summoned to the remote village of Claybourne, where one of his company's transmitting and receiving stations seems to be malfunctioning. From the moment he arrives, strange things start to happen. His cell phone goes dead and none of his faxes to the home office go through. The local Maori shaman warns of a terrifying dragon-like creature lurking outside the village at night--a creature Thompson seems destined to confront. The manager of the station turns up dead under very suspicious circumstances, and the local constable seems only too happy to sweep the whole matter under the rug. The local landlord, a brash arrogant entrepreneur named Frank Buchanan, confronts Thompson with a gun. Everyone in town seems to have a secret, but no one seems to want Thompson to leave. Romantic sparks fly between Thompson and Karen the hotel manager, but even she has a troubled past. The deeper he digs into the mystery the weirder it gets.

The dead station manager was an expert in behavioral psychology, and the manager before that, who mysteriously disappeared, was a disgraced former military officer. For some reason, the station is equipped with an elaborate state of the art security system, far more sophisticated than anything a telephone company would need. The company is willing to pay any price, including a million dollars in cash to a local landowner, to keep the station running. People in town are receiving unexplained phone calls and faxes. Just what is going on up there? It seems Thompson's company and the U. S. government have been conducting experiments in artificial intelligence using the station as a laborotory and the people of the town as guinea pigs. Things have gotten way out of hand, and the company has sent in Thompson, and later, a thuggish expert in "risk management" to clean up the mess.

Claybourne is part whodunit, part sci-fi thriller, part travelogue, and part soap opera, but it's all entertaining and all delivered with a distinctive Kiwi accent. The contrast and sometimes tension between the dominant white or European culture and the distinctly different native Maori subculture provides an important subplot and adds color and texture to the story. The two flaws I mentioned have to do with the length of the episodes and a maddeningly inconclusive end to the series. The episodes are short, averaging less than seven minutes each. This means that just about the time the story takes an interesting or provocative turn, the listener has to stop and download the next episode. The alternative, of course, is to download several episodes at a time, but this can be time-consuming, specially for listeners like me with a dial-up connection.

The other weakness to the show is a maddeningly inconclusive end to the series. Just as it seems our hero and heroine, Thompson and Karen, can safely declare their love for one another, Thompson's ex-wife Monica, for whom he's still carrying a torch, arrives on the scene. Will Thompson and Monica reconcile? If so, where does that leave Karen? The series ends as she decides to leave Claybourne with Mike, a young Maori man who had been Thompson's ally, and with the million dollars Thompson's company provided, unaware that the money is counterfeit. Meanwhile, up at the station, in a truly bizarre twist, "Delilah," the artificial intelligence behind much of the mischief in Claybourne, and the strange dragon-like entity known as the taniwha enter into an unholy alliance.

More on Claybourne in my next post.

No comments: