Monday, January 18, 2021

The Alt-Hist File: Red Moon

The world of audio drama is home to all sorts of wonderful productions and great stories. However, as with any medium, there are a few stinkers out there as well. Most times, I'm able to just move along if I encounter one of these. However, there are other times that an audio drama misses the mark so much I have no choice but to talk about it. Regrettably, the show we're looking at today is one of these audio dramas. We're taking a look at Red Moon 


Red Moon takes place in a world where the Soviet Union landed a manned mission on the Moon in 1968. Specifically, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to set foot on the Moon. This is a humiliating defeat for the United States. However, America refuses to give in, and creates a new goal of being the first to establish the permanent lunar base. By 1979, both superpowers have established bases on the Moon. Both bases have nuclear launch capability and the Doomsday Clock has been set to one minute to midnight. Tensions remain high between East and West. 

Also, NASA was folded into a new branch of the American military known as Space Command, or SpaceCom for short. They have command center throughout the world, including in Britain. Meanwhile, in London, a former British spy named Eddie is still morning the loss of his beloved wife. Little does he know, however, that he's about to unravel a conspiracy with major geopolitical ramifications.  


I'd heard about Red Moon before, and I was very happy to finally have an opportunity to listen to it. It seemed like an incredibly promising premise, and I went in with high expectations. Red Moon took its brilliant premise...and promptly bungled it into an incredibly boring story.  


First, let's see how the alternate history checks out. I should note that this is the third work of alternate history I've reviewed that centered around a Soviet moon landing. As such, comparisons to The Soyuz Files and What If? Russians on the Moon! are pretty much inevitable, but we'll get to that soon enough. Alternate histories about the Space Race seem to be on a slight rise as of late. Besides Red Moon and the aforementioned worksthere's also For All Mankind over on Apple TV+. Haven't watch it yet, but it looks excellent, and I really want to, but I don't currently have Apple TV+. Alternate histories about Germany winning World War I have also seen a slight rise, not doubt thanks to the Hearts of Iron mod Kaisereich. It is nice to see more variety than the usual Nazi victory or Confederate victory scenarios. So, how's about some more Aztec Empire never falls scenarios? But I'm getting off track here.  


Overall, the alternate history itself isn't too bad. We learn that Sergey Korolev did not die in 1966 like he did in our world. Korolev was very much the heart of the Soviet space program; and keeping him alive would significantly increase the chances of a successful Soviet moon landing. I also think that moon bases would be the logical next goal for an extended Space Race. The technology for a manned mission to Mars just would not be feasible by 1979.  


I'll also give Red Moon credit that I'm willing to buy that the moon bases have nuclear launch capability. For all the talk of lofty goals of exploration, one of the major driving forces behind the Space Race was "Hmm, I wonder if we can put some nukes up there?" Furthermore, the Apollo missions weren't as popular as you might think. Numerous polls showed that only about fifty-three percent of the American public supported the Apollo program. That number was even lower among racial minorities. Apollo also consistently made the top five programs Americans said they'd eliminate in order to curb government spending.  


The point is, you're going to have to convince a lot of Americans if you want to keep the Space Race going. One good way of doing that is to stoke up fear about the Soviets placing nukes on the Moon, and emphasizing how America needs to get there first. It is even mention that the United States and the Soviet Union have pulled out of the Outer Space Treaty. It was a treaty signed in 1967 where the signatories agreed to ban the use of nuclear weapons in outer space.  


I'll also concede that sound effects were top of the line and very professional. The voice acting was, for the most part, quite excellent as well. The only issue was that I'm not sure I can see Eddie's voice actor as leading man material. There were also a couple minor American characters who sounded more like British people attempting American accents. Otherwise, the actors playing Americans did an excellent job. Well, for all I know they might well have been actual Americans.   


Okay, the alternate history is reasonably solid, the sound effects and acting are great, so where did Red Moon go so wrong? It comes in the execution of the story. Series writer Robert Valentine seemed to be drawing quite a bit of inspiration from Robert Harris' classic alternate history novel Fatherland. Personally, I always found Fatherland to be dreadfully boring, except towards the very end when the action finally picked up. I get that Harris was going for the banality of evil and all that, but you'd think a novel about a victorious Nazi Germany would be more exciting.  


Anyway, novels that take the Fatherland approach to alternate history. Said approach goes as follows: take an average person, usually a detective or reporter, and have them go about their lives. Then something happens where they get drawn into a conspiracy involving the government and they must unravel the conspiracy before it's too late. Problem is that, much like Fatherland, these novels tend to move at the pace of molasses in an igloo, and are incredibly dull to boot. The only book I've seen use this premise, and not turn out dreadfully dull, is Resurrection Day by Brendan DuBois. I may have to put that one on the rotation for review at some point.  


Unsurprisingly, Red Moon suffers from serious pacing issues. Episode one started well enough, but episodes two through four were a complete drag. There were times I wanted to shout "Get to the point already!" Things somewhat picked up by episode five, but it was too little too late. Episode six, the concluding episode, felt incredibly rushed, which is quite a feat given how plodding the proceeding episodes were. It certainly didn't help that I found all the characters to be variously flat, one-dimensional, and overall just not that engaging or memorable. To be perfectly frank, it didn't take long before I simple did not care about what happened to the characters.  


Also, I need to talk about one scene in particular. Eddie meets one of his associates, an American fellow, in the park to discuss what's really going on with SpaceCom. We learn that the American space program has been doing shady things from the start. They even, horror of horrors, hired former Nazi rocket scientist. This is treated like some grand revelation, but it really isn't, not even in-universe. It was common knowledge among the general public, even as far back as the 1950s that NASA employed former German rocket scientists as part of Project Paperclip. Tom Lehrer even pinned a famous song in 1965 making fun of Wernher Von Braun for his ties to the Nazi Party. So, since the audio drama is set in 1979, this wouldn't be a bombshell at all.  


Project Paperclip is also treated as a unique black mark on America's part, but again, not really. The Soviet Union had its own equivalent of Project Paperclip. Curiously, those who wag their fingers at America for Project Paperclip hardly ever bring this up. And that's to say nothing of the Soviet Union's incredibly cavalier attitude towards the safety of its cosmonauts. For example, one out of five possible more, Soviet rocket launches ended in failure.  


It was more of a minor annoyance, but throughout the audio drama we have characters bemoaning how Britain is just an innocent bystander in the fight between the two superpowers. I can kind of understand where they were coming form, but I spot a few flaws with that. Britain is a member of NATO, so it isn't like they were some unaligned nation caught-up in the conflict. Moreover, Britain has a nuclear arsenal, which is a lot better than most nations can claim. In fact, Britain was the third nation to get the atom bomb. They would have been second, but the Soviets beat them to the punch on that one.  


A few of the characters grumble about how they've basically became a colony of America, and how America is imperialistic. The nation that used to own a quarter of the world is really not in a position to be lecturing about imperialism, just saying. Now, too be fair, this was probably meant to be in-universe...probably, but more on that in a bit. The embarrassment of Britain's failure during the Suez Crisis was still very much fresh in everyone's minds in 1979. Furthermore, with decolonization in full swing, Britain had pretty much lost its entire overseas empire by 1979. I'm sure many British people were rather sore about that. There were grumblings all the way back to when India got its independence in 1947. It was also probably rather embarrassing to have a former settler colony overtake Britain as a major world power.  


So, why do I say probably in-universe. Well, by the time the show as over, it was pretty clear to me that Robert Valentine seems to hate the United States quite a bit. Almost all the American characters are completely evil, and with little to no redeeming qualities. The Americans of Red Moon are largely depicted as greedy capitalists, zealous jingos, and blood-thirsty warmongers. It certainly true that America did some screwed up things during the Cold War. The Vietnam War alone contains examples ranging from the My Lai Massacre to the drafting of mental handicapped individuals. 


However, the villains of Red Moon were completely over the top, to the point of coming across as cartoonishly evil. I was half expecting them to eat puppies and kittens at some point. They felt more like James Bond villains than legitimate villains in an alternate history audio drama. This is compounded by the fact that we only ever see one Soviet character, and he's practically a saint compared to the Americans. He waxes about how the Soviets never wanted the Space Race, and it's all because the big bad Americans forced them into. Again, that could have been an in-universe remark, but given the track record thus far, I have my doubts. The Soviets definitely took part in the Space Race of their own volition, and they aimed to win.  


And now let's talk about what the big evil plan is. At first, it seems like it is a rouge general doing it, but it turns out the orders are coming from the president himself. The plot is to blow up the Russian moon base, but that runs the risk of sparking World War III. So, the American moon base will bomb Juneau, Alaska as a false flag. Then, America can destroy the Soviet Union once and for all. See what I meant about the Americans being more like bad James Bond villains?  


Now, this all could have worked as a satirization of Cold War paranoia, but unfortunately, the premise is played completely straight without the slightest hint of irony or humor. Sorry gang, but Dr. Strangelove this is not. For that matter, even playing the premises seriously, showing a potential dark side to a Space Race that never ended, could have worked. It could have, but it would need to be in the hands of a far more competent writer.  


Valentine said that he had the idea for Red Moon for a while, but were galvanized to do it because of the election of Donald Trump and the passing of Brexit. Uh, if Brexit was an inspiration, then why are Americans the villains? Also, why do they care that Trump was, at the time they wrote Red Moon, president of the United States? There is a big blue wobbly thing called the Atlantic Ocean that separates America from Britain.  


So, does this mean Red Moon is loaded with anti-Trump and anti-Brexit moralizing? Surprisingly, no. If fact, had I not known, I wouldn't have suspect that Trump and Brexit were influences on Red Moon. If anything, I'd suspect the Robert Valentine just really hated America and Americans.  


There is a brief scene at the end where the president is ousted from power, and reporters remark on him spending a bunch of time golfing, but that's about it. Don't ask who it was, they never say. In our world, Jimmy Carter was president in 1979, but I can't see him going for something like armed moon bases. That would be more Ronald Reagan's thing, and he didn't become president until 1981. I'd call it lazy writing, but that would be redundant at this point. Of course, the bigger sin of Red Moon is that it's just so boring and poorly paced.  


And I don't think any of this is due to the writer of Red Moon being British. What If? Russians on the Moon! was created by a pair of Frenchmen, and yet it managed to tell a compelling, well-written, excellently paced story with excellent research. It also featured compelling morally complex and engaging characters without demonizing either the Americans or the Soviets. Seriously, go read What If? Russians on the Moon! Likewise, The Soyuz Files also succeeds in all of these categories, and you should absolutely listen to it instead of Red Moon 


The Wireless Theatre Company has some other audio dramas, and perhaps I'll give them a try some time. However, if Red Moon is anything to go off ofI'm won't be setting my expectations too high.  


So, yeah. Red Moon took an excellent premise for an alternate history audio drama. It has terrible pacing, flat characters, anti-American bias that borders on bigotry, and worst of all, it is just so utterly boring. Don't waste your time with this sinker. If you want an actual quality audio that explores the aftermath of a Soviet moon landing, listen to The Soyuz Files. And if you're hungry for more Soviet moon landing alternate history, read What If? Russians on the Moon!  


Well, that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.