Tea in the Sahara
Kev – Fiction Podcast Critic
Let’s start this review by stating that Santa came a day late on Boxing Day gifting us the first five episodes of the totally addictive podcast ‘The Cipher’ to gorge ourselves on during the festive break. And I for one couldn’t wait to dive into another immersive fiction-based podcast drama that was apparently a year in the making.
Written & created by Brett Neichin with support writing by Janina Matthewson, produced by Emma Hearn, directed & executively produced by John Scott Dryden. The Cipher is a Goldhawk Production commissioned by BBC Sounds, the very same production company that brought us the magnificent Tumanbay that I reviewed earlier on in the year. If you haven’t already listened to it, should totally be on your ‘listen to next’ podcast playlist.
The plot moves with a serious pace covering multiple geographical locations, so strap yourself in folks for some heavy reviewing pre-context as the writers introduce us to characters galore whilst falling further down the sci-fi thriller rabbit hole. Oh and spoiler warning apologies if you haven’t already listened to the podcast yet.
The Cipher centres around lead protagonist Sabrina, an orphaned 16-year-old uber-intelligent schoolgirl played by Anya Chalota of Witcher Netflix series fame. I like to think of Sabrina as a switched-on millennial safecracker combination of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, & Indiana Jones with bucket loads of sass thrown in for good measures.
Sabrina has a recurring dream of black rain which culminates when she awakes with the words “Kasamar Debon Kouru” which I am probably butchering and no doubt spelling incorrectly. Originally born in Afghanistan, Sabrina now lives in Wolverhampton with her adoptive father Harry a supposedly humble bespoke umbrella salesman; more on Harry later as it seems the dad definitely has something to hide.
We have established that Sabrina has incredible smarts with easily an IQ level far above someone three times her age. With this intellect and bad insomnia, Sabrina solves an impossible online puzzle cipher called the Parallax which no one else across the globe has managed to unlock. The way Sabrina solves the door element of the Parallax puzzle by using Indian takeaway boxes gives you a tiny porthole into the way her brain solves complex problems seamlessly with everyday objects.
With the Parallax unlocked Sabrina unknowingly makes a phone call to an American policeman as the creator of the Parallax scientist Dr Usman has recently been murdered. Our puzzle solver unwittingly gets swept up with a mysterious international agency called Arrow headed up by Efrat, and voiced by the talented Olivia Popica. It transpires that the Parallax was used as a recruiting tool by Arrow in order to seek out the world’s best codebreakers to crack the mystery of the deceased scientist. Certainly trumps a recruitment drive by Google for creativity! On her reluctant travels, Sabrina is also introduced to an Illuminati-style group that claims to hold the answers to why/how she became to be orphaned and the true identity of who her secretive dad really is (hopefully still with me?)
The characters within The Cipher are outstanding with a truly stellar cast of talent on display. You already should have a good handle on Sabrina’s character deftly brought to life by Anya Chalota. The other main character within the show is Benny, an American lad (also 16) who is the second person to defy the odds and crack the enigma grade Parallax puzzle. Benny, played by British/American actor Chance Perdomo does an amazing job of rounding out Benny’s inner geek and introverted nature as the podcast advances.
Sabrina meets Benny within her local bookshop at the beginning of episode one as he tries to impress her with his photographic memory of a book she wants to read titled ‘A Girls Guide To The Galaxy’. Although Benny comes across as innocent, there is something that does not quite sit right with me about what his true motives are. Let’s just say it is a niggling feeling that all is not well in Denmark! That said I do like the smart scene between Sabrina & Benny when held captive to hold a non-verbal conversation using the unique lettering found within the black & white squares of a chessboard (a clever bit of writing guys!)
As this is a Goldhawk Production we are reintroduced to some quality actors last heard within Tumanbay in the shape of Nabil Elouhabi as Sabrina’s teacher, and a genius piece of the casting of badass Arrow agent Efrat played by Olivia Popica. Another quick mention goes to The Ciphers getaway driver Fergus played by actor/director Samuel Adewunmi who has the whole modern Huggy-Bear (ears to the street vibe) coupled with a soft heart down to a tee.
Early doors into a new podcast I usually like to play Magnum PI and offer up my own thoughts on where the story may take us, however, the writers of this particular audio drama have me completely stumped. The story already includes murdered scientists, alien plots, and what appears to be an international cloning syndicate thrown into the mix, four episodes in. So my guess is as good as yours as to where it is heading, which is also half the fun!
So who is this podcast for? Well off the bat if you are someone that loves a sci-fi thriller this podcast is a must. But that would be doing the show an injustice as it is much more than that and can reach a much wider audience. The plot taps into the relevance of modern-day technology angling the show slightly towards the internet generation with cultural references such as Uber, Skype, Deepfakes, Reddit, and social media sites like Tiktok, and Facebook, with even Justin Bieber getting a nod. The geographical locations the show takes your eardrums on reads like a hipster’s passport full of stamps from destinations like Boston, Iceland’s Sólheimasandur, & even London’s trendy Brixton.
So to summarise if you are seeking a fresh exciting podcast that is gripping, yet rich with astounding content produced to premium quality with a stunning roster of actors, written by writers that clearly have their fingers firmly on the pulse of what is ‘current & fresh’ to kick on with your new year The Cipher could be right up your alley. That and the fact that this podcast was commissioned by BBC Sounds means zero annoying adverts, which in my eyes is a massive plus point perfect for any tier of lockdown!
I hope you have enjoyed reading this podcast review for ‘The Cipher’ which is definitely worth checking out naturally on BBC Sounds and Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts from. Someone kindly left me a message to say that they checked out ‘Tumanbay’ off the back of my review of the show. I would like to thank you for all your kind words of support, this is exactly the reason why I blog.
For any budding podcaster/writers out there that are looking to have your audiobook or podcast reviewed by Tea in the Sahara, whatever your genre please do get in touch via any of the below methods or through my contacts page. Happy new year to all and here’s to a better 2021! Cheers, Kev.