All good acts deliver an encore, right? And what better way to close out 2021 than by giving you guys my inaugural EXCLUSIVE podcast review of Brett Neichen & John Scott Dryden’s latest audio drama ‘SteelHeads’. Are you ready for another healthy round of sci-fi thriller, no chaser required? I know I am!
Quick rewind back to December 2020 when I reviewed The Cipher podcast, which in part helped launch my scripted podcast reviewing writing career. In an ever so nostalgic and incredibly fitting way, exactly one year later as I put pen to paper (or laptop) with a follow on review of SteelHeads written & created by Brett Neichen & John Scott Dryden.
Throughout the year, on & off, I have kept in contact with both Brett and John and was proud as punch when they contacted me to write an independent review of SteelHeads giving my readers a very first scoop of my thoughts on this epic new podcast.
Fellas, thank you both for entrusting me with early drafts of the show, and for allowing me free reign to write this review. If I could score my humbleness right now it would easily be a 10/10.
SteelHeads will officially be released on the 31st December on BBC 4 & BBC Sounds.
The crux of SteelHeads follows lead character Joleen Kenzie (Jessica Barden, End of the F***ing World), a British ex-professional tennis player whose promising fairy-tale career comes to an abrupt halt when she is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. Far from throwing in the towel, Joleen decides to travel to Seattle hoping to be cryogenically frozen only to be brought out of the freezer once a miraculous cure has been created.
Joleen awakes from her slumber in Alaska, puzzled by her new surroundings after being asleep for five years. The world’s population in which she wakes is split into SteelHeads, folks that have been chipped, and ClearHeads who oppose being chipped.
Those chipped by the government live out syrupy sickening happy-happy, joy-joy lives completely oblivious to anything remotely negative. Joleen is joined by Remi (Khalid Laith), part of the resistance against the SteelHeads, and an ex-military man called Luther (Bruce Lester Johnson).
It is at this point where we join Joleen on her quest to establish what the hell has happened in those few short years when she was frozen in time. Why is society made up of two rival factions? Who, if anyone in this brave new world can Joleen truthfully trust?
Brett shared with me that the inspiration for the centralised storyline came from an actual case of a UK teenager winning the right in court to be cryogenically frozen in the desperate hope that future advancements within medicine would cure her of cancer.
All of this means we are not dealing with a PG-rated podcast that shies away from posing the moral question of how far would you go to escape a terminal condition. It is this type of disruptive, avant-garde writing that sets SteelHeads apart from other audio dramas by asking difficult questions about morality, whilst positioning the theory of future nations microchipped. Remember intentionally or not this fiction based drama also coincides in a very real-time that we are currently living through with vaccine-hesitant people reluctant to have Covid jabs for fear of government foul play.
The chaps wanted the podcast’s vibe to be gritty, but also adds an element of humility through humour. This means that the fictitious world of SteelHeads is not all doom & gloom. Sure there is a surface veneer hiding a darker underbelly within society however, there is always time for a quick quip, or sarcastic retort to inject a touch of humour with lines like “another great day in Seattle?”
Having Jessica Barden as the lead character is fantastic, all feisty and inquisitive. And like The Cipher having an awesomely talented female lead really sets out the podcasts stall, and intent for delivering award-winning acting. Joleen’s character part narrates the podcast with popular culture references like Blade Runner, and even Bill Gates getting a cheeky nod. With Brett & John’s writing I always feel like I learn something new, and enjoy being educated with factoids like Alaskan Wood frog’s, and red snow (watermelon), apparently a natural phenomenon which is ace!
SteelHeads also has a unique way of leaving you in part with more inquisitive questions than answers, giving the listener their own part to play by filling in some blanks and drawing their own conclusions. And knowing Brett it wouldn’t surprise me if the barcode numbers within the show’s artwork has a potential hidden Easter egg hidden within the digits!
I admire the writing within SteelHeads as it deals with the complexities of life & medical rights head on. Topics that could be seen as a political hot potato. The creative writing team of Neichen & Dryden is back in full effect with another lightning in a bottle, futuristic sci-fi podcast that literally engulfed my brain (pun not intended!)
I dig the fact that in this supposed portrayal of the future there isn’t the super cool flying cars & hoverboard utopia of the future most of us envision. In my opinion, what is dished up for the listener is a plot where society is split into two sets amongst an immersive outlook that makes you question modern medical ethics whilst pushing boundaries. Kudos to the BBC who took on this revolutionary podcast, as pushing the envelope should not be something we are afraid of, it actually needs to be embraced!
When chatting with Brett on the writing of the show he said that SteelHeads was indeed a writing collaboration, as was The Cipher. Our process of writing is similar to that of a band; there is so much that goes into making a show, the script keeps evolving through production and editing, so our voices blend together. As a director, John is very encouraging of improvisation and creative collaboration from actors, so the end result is truly a group effort.
So to the million-dollar question, should you invest your time into listening to SteelHeads?
In short, the answer is a strong yes! A more nuanced balanced answer would be – those who delight in ultramodern storytelling, relish podcasts with innovative sci-fi running through its DNA, this podcast will naturally appeal to you. If you were a fan of The Cipher then you will equally go a bundle on SteelHeads.
Although I will say I enjoyed both podcasts thoroughly, SteelHeads did take me just a fraction longer to fully appreciate and get into, however, once fully absorbed boy was I all in! I would also like to add that throughout the listening of this podcast one theme that I constantly thought about was the film Demolition Man where they freeze Sylvester Stallone’s character. Let me know if you drew the same weird analogy?
With John Scott Dryden at the directing & co-writing helm you always know you are in safe hands, and in my humble opinion, his production team Goldhawk Productions sets the standard of which other production companies should follow.
SteelHeads launches on the 31st of December and will be going out on the BBC weekly however, the podcast will also be dropping as an entire box set for you to listen to. So trust in old Kev, and start 2022 wisely and download this pioneering podcast on BBC Sounds, or from wherever you get your podcasts from.
And that is it for 2021 guys! Another massive thank you to Brett & John for allowing me first-hand early access to this remarkable podcast. I wish you all the success that you both rightly deserve as I know you definitely will create a buzz with this podcast.
Are you are a writer or creator keen to have your podcast given the once over by an independent podcast critic? Have you enjoyed the previous Q&A blogs that I have done, and are thinking I’ve gotta get me one of them?! If that is the case, then maybe (just maybe), I am the chap for you. For all podcast submissions, you can reach me on my contacts page, or email me directly firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s the thing guys, Tea in the Sahara is my hobby and creative outlet that I am able to commit say 30% of my time to because like most people I have a full-time job. My dream would be to move my creative writing from a part-time hobby, and to a full-time gig. This year has been a massive learning curve for me, meeting new like-minded folk passionate about scripted audio drama. 2022 I have a few new plans and will be kicking on aiming to make Tea in the Sahara the critic writer of choice.
Final plug! Under the new fetching picture of me, there is a small box where you can follow my newsletter to keep up to date with Tea in the Sahara. For all of my other reviews please check out podcast & audio-book, and until the next review podcast people Happy New Year! Cheers, Kev.
Co-creator/Writer: Brett Neichin is the author of the upcoming Warner Bros. horror film, SWIPE RIGHT, as well as the Audible Original Series, YOUNG BLOOD and the fiction podcast for the BBC Sounds, THE CIPHER.
Co-creator/Writer/Director/EP: John Scott Dryden is the creator and director of the fiction podcast PASSENGER LIST starring Kelly Marie Tran, and the historical epic audio podcast TUMANBAY. He also co-created and executive produced THE CIPHER. Goldhawk Productions is one of the world’s leading producers of audio fiction.
Producer – Emma Hearn
Assistant Producer – Eleanor Mein
Sound Designer – Steve Bond and Adam Woodhams
Music – Pascal Wise
Script Consultant – Mike Walker
Joleen – Jessica Barden
Remi – Khalid Laith
Kit – Symera Jackson
Luther – Bruce Lester Johnson
Andrei – Andrew Byron
Padma – Jennifer Armour
Richard – Eric Meyers
Earl – Kerry Shale
Izzy – Lizzie Stables
Wayne – Daniel Ryan
Esmerelda – Annabelle Dowler
Summer – Gianna Kiehl
Dre – Earl R Perkins
Jamar – Jason Forbes
Sue – Laurel Lefkow
Greg – Christopher Ragland
Stolya – Yanina Hope