(Note: this post contains spoilers for the finale of Second Star to the Left. This post deals with isolation, romantic relationships, and the pandemic.)
Envisioning new futures is a big theme in indie audio fiction; and especially more recently, more shows have appeared which imagine a future after humans have left Earth. Second Star to the Left, which is co-written by Aysha U. Farah and E. Jade Lomax, is one of these; but one of the reasons why I fell in love with it right from episode one was how it approaches the exploration and colonisation of new worlds – specifically, how only one person is sent to each new planet to prepare and map it, one person who will live on this planet on their own for years.
In episode one, we meet Scout Gwen Hartley (played by Ishani Kanetkar, of The Strange Case of Starship Iris fame, as well as many other podcasts), who’s descending towards an uninhabited planet, which will be her new home. It’s her responsibility to prepare and map the planet for the settlers who will arrive in five years. Until then, she’ll be completely alone, apart from her control robot, Boots (who speaks in beeps and boops that Gwen understands) and some other robots who will help her map and explore the planet. That is, she’s alone, until a voice interrupts her.
Her scout-minder, Bell Summers (played by Jorin Baas), has been trying to contact her for three months. The thing is, Gwen didn’t know that she was going to have an actual human minder, and she’s been blocking their communication up until now, thinking that she was blocking a robot. But Bell is very much human, and not impressed at how Gwen has been stopping them from communicating with her. Bell isn’t a constant form of company, however – they’ll only be communicating with Gwen for four hours every other day. It’s definitely better than nothing, and better than the robot Gwen was expecting, but still, it’s not a lot of human company.
Right from the first episode we’re led to ask, what kind of person would willingly sign up to live on their own on an uninhabited planet for five years? Gwen is far from alone in doing this too, as we soon discover that there’s a whole training programme for scouts, and that she has friends who have been sent to other planets. This kind of loneliness only hits harder after the isolation we’ve been through for nearly two years. We now have a deeper understanding of what it can do to you psychologically, how difficult it is being apart from those you love, unable to physically see them. But Gwen and countless others over the years have chosen this willingly. At 27 years old, she is now the first human to set foot on a brand new planet, knowing that there is no return journey home.
But even with these unusual circumstances, another one of the reasons as to why I was so instantly taken by this show was the hopeful vibe in the first episode. Gwen immediately sets to work – after bickering with Bell, that is – and is excited to be on her new planet. Even in the letters home that she transcribes, there isn’t any obvious regret for the choice she made – but between the lines, it feels like there’s a certain amount of Gwen avoiding the obvious. Her first day is not without its incidents, though, as she has a run-in with the local fauna; but for the most part, Gwen’s full of enthusiasm and energy, and determination. Well, determination or stubbornness.
One constant feature of the show is the bedtime story that Gwen reads in each episode. Episode one closes with Gwen telling Boots a short story, about a cosmonaut who lived on a space station, who was one day hailed by a prince. Sounds a little familiar, right? In the second episode, the bedtime story features a city that’s split in two, and how two girls from different sides of the city meet up in the river. Even though Gwen starts by only telling these stories to Boots, as the series progresses, it basically becomes her way of trying to tell Bell through fairytales and made-up characters how she felt about them. I didn’t realise what the deeper meaning of the bedtime stories was until it was almost too late, and pretty much just always took them at face value. When I was reading through the transcripts to prepare for this post, I saw how the penny should’ve started falling right from episode one, but it had gone straight over my head when I first listened to the episode. I’d never been in a situation where I’d needed to learn how to flirt or how to read those kinds of signs until late in life (and honestly, I’m still terrible at it), and I didn’t see them for what they were – until someone pointed it out on a Discord server I’m in. So the story’s ending was even more of a surprise for me, as I hadn’t picked up most of the seeds that had been sown over the five years that Gwen and Bell had been talking to each other.
And how I cried at that ending. Very few pieces of media have moved me in the way that Second Star to the Left’s series finale did. The time jumps over the course of the ten episodes take us from Gwen’s first day on the planet, right up to her last day alone on the planet. In the final episode, a series of letters go back and forward between Gwen and Bell – as well as from Gwen to other people, such as her friends – and time skips forward quickly. A year and a half until the settlers arrive, nine months, six months…. And the letters keep going back and forward, back and forward, and Gwen and Bell keep holding on to each other… And they finally confess their feelings for each other. That’s when I properly started bawling my eyes out. The impossibility of the distance between them, made even more impossible by the fact that Bell had been sentenced to 20 years in prison. But they still vow to not let go of each other. All the while, Gwen is busy pulling strings. Until Bell suddenly goes quiet.
After some time, Bell’s voice appears from the sky again. Gwen’s string-pulling has got them a place on the ship carrying settlers to her planet. Like a fairy tale, their story has a happy ending. And nobody’s more surprised than Bell.
To me, Second Star from the Left is very much a story of the pandemic, and the show touched me as much as it did because of my own experiences during 2020-21. When the show started, in February 2021, I had been in a long distance relationship for the best part of a year. By the time the show ended, and Gwen and Bell were starting the rest of their lives together, my relationship was no more. It was a very bittersweet feeling for me, but even so, it was still a hopeful ending. These two, in a hypothetical future, and against the most impossible of odds, had made it. Even though I hadn’t made it, others would be reunited in the present, once the world had recovered enough for them to be able to travel safely. Like with Gwen and Bell, there would be a happy ending for others who had been separated for so long. Eventually they would be together, no longer isolated and alone on a lonely planet.