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The White Vault? More like the Fright Vault

Oh The White Vault. It starts so strong in Season 1, with a premise that nearly reaches out and grabs you with a clawed hand (you’ll get that later). But suddenly you come upon the end of Season 1 and you realize that it’s all rise, with no actual pay-off.

This is, fortunately, made up for in Season 2 with a conclusion that rushes at you like a polar bear (you’ll get that reference later, too). Even still, I can’t imagine the frustration of those that were listening as the show was releasing Season 1, only to come to the ending and realize that they had months more to wait in order to see what happens to the main characters. That being said, the ending of Season 2 does not wrap up the story. On the contrary: it leaves yet more questions and very few answers. After all, gotta keep the listeners hooked and eager for more.

But we’ll get into all of that and more a bit further in the review. For now, let’s start with the premise and the cast of the show.

The White Vault starts off simply enough: there’s a weather/geological monitoring station on the archipelago of Svalbard that is malfunctioning. The company that owns and operates the station dispatches a technician, along with several others, to repair it. There’s Walter Heath as the IT and repair technician. Jonas Porisson comes along as a representative of “the company.” We have Drs. Rosa De La Torre (medical) and Karina Schumacher-Weiss (geological). Finally, we have Graham Casner as the survival expert.

While on their grand repair adventure, the team very quickly stumbles upon a mysterious tunnel beneath one of their research bunkers. And if Scooby-Doo taught us anything, it’s that mysteries need to be solved and gosh darn-it this team is gonna be the ones to solve it!

Each character is well written, with their own unique personalities, wants, desires, and mannerisms. You can’t help but appreciate the quality of voice acting that went into this audio drama and to feel like you get to know these characters as people. They bond. They share laughs. They talk about their families. It’s an almost intimate look into their lives. So when they’re excited, you’re excited. When they’re curious, you share in their curiosity. And when they’re scared, you get scared as well.

In fact, there comes a moment in Season 1 where the characters hear something. And while they’re not sure what exactly it is, the fear in their voices is palpable. In fact, I had chills. Fortunately, I’m delighted to say that the quality of the voice work remains joyfully consistent throughout both seasons, which is a testament to both the editing and the voice actors. I loved hearing them begin to set upon one another and panic when the gravity of their situation begins to weigh on them.

In fact, while we’re singing praises, let’s talk about the audio work in general. But before we do, I’m going to drag us all down a rabbit trail. For those that don’t know where exactly Svalbard is (and didn’t bother to Google it when I mentioned it), to say that it sits “way too close to the North Pole for comfort” is an understatement. In fact, when researching for this review, I learned that Svalbard is roughly 650 miles from the North Pole (TIL). That’s roughly the driving distance from Cincinnati, OH to New York, NY!

Back to Svalbard, you can imagine that it’s pretty cold there. And windy. And snowy. Especially in the winter. All this, you learn pretty quickly, plays a part in The White Vault because the repair team is dispatched to the monitoring station in the middle of winter.

You can almost picture each of the characters wrapped up in their layers of clothes, with the large jackets, their full finger gloves, with their faces wrapped up, exposing just the slits of their eyes anytime they need to go outside where the wind positively howls. Gives me the shivers just thinking about it.

Whenever someone enters or exits the research bunker and the heavy metal door closes behind them, you can almost feel the impact of it shutting. It’s a solid, hefty, metallic thud. What I’m trying to say is that the audio work here is fantastic. And creepy at times. Oh so creepy. In fact, part way through Season 1 and in the latter half of Season 2, there’s times when the characters are in a series of caves. You can tell, because firstly they’ve established their presence in the caves by saying so. But you can also hear fair echoes as they’re talking. It’s an effect that’s present only during their time in the caves, but it’s such a small, subtle, and significant effect that it really drove home how lovingly the audio work was put together.

I can hear you now. You’re wondering what the repair team is doing in caves. Plus, there is that little teaser I dropped in the first paragraph. Well, I’ll tell you. As I mentioned before, the repair team finds a tunnel beneath a trap door in one of the bunkers. (Minor spoilers ahead)

As they explore, they discover that the tunnel leads to an enormous cave full of dilapidated stone huts, with the hut in the largest being arranged like an “anatomical theater.” Think of one of those theaters doctors hang out in when they’re watching a surgery being done. Yes, it’s creepy. But what’s even creepier is that in the center of this large hut is the operating table, and in turn this table is sitting on a vast number of stone boxes. The team takes one of these boxes back to their bunker and, after some trouble, manages to get it open. What they find inside really ups the creepiness level: several human teeth and a heart. A human heart. Super gross. That’s when things begin to go awry.

From that point on, the team is essentially being stalked by some creature. It had previously attacked Dr. Schumacher-Weiss, and now is determined to get not just the stolen box, but all of them. It’s described as having long, thing arms, clawed hands and black, almost oily looking skin. There comes a point in an episode where it’s outside the bunker that the team is huddled in, in the middle of the night, in a blizzard, and hears scratching at the concrete exterior of the bunker. The next morning, the team ventures out to discover a series of inch deep claw marks in the concrete. So you could say it’s strong.

However, the creature isn’t the only villain the team is contending with. The monitoring station is roughly 35 miles away from the nearest village, and the team is stuck where they are due to a freak blizzard that’s stranding them there for weeks. It almost feels like the creature and the blizzard are in cahoots to ensure the repair team can’t get back to civilization alive. See? I told you the premise was interesting!

With all this being said, though, The White Vault is not without its faults. You see, the story of the repair team is told through recovered audio clips, emails, and notes that the team wrote. So for 2 of those 3 items, we’re talking about things that the characters wrote. But in the episode, everything is spoken through the characters voice. So it’s like they were talking as they wrote, which is kind of odd as a story-telling medium. One additional complaint I had was that the first 5-10 seconds of each of the written records is actually narrated in a foreign language (the team is comprised of several nationalities) before transitioning to English. Except that there are some instances where the original language and the English translation occur quite close to one another, so that if you’re not paying attention, you may miss the first few spoken words of whatever is being said. Not a huge deal, but it occurred often enough that I couldn’t help but note it.

Really, the only potential negative that could be said about The White Vault isn’t even an issue, and that was the pacing of Season 1. It takes a long time to get to the end, only for it to end up being a nothing-burger, with a side of suspense fries, and an 8-month wait to see what happens. Both seasons could have been combined and had some trimming done. Rather than two 10-episode seasons, it could have been a knockout one-season, 12-episode show. But as it stands, since you can binge both seasons inside of a couple hours it turns out to be a non-issue.

Which is just a long winded way of saying that The White Vault is pretty great. Season 2 does a really good job of wrapping up Season 1. The characters actually feel like people. The mysteries that the repair team encounters are intriguing before quickly descending (like into a cave) into suspense. Overall, I would highly recommend giving this a listen. Preferably with headphones, so you can really immerse yourself in the top tier audio work.

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