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‘The Magnus Protocol’ Season 1 Act 1 review

In 2021, the cult classic horror fiction podcast, “The Magnus Archives,” written by Jonathan Sims and Alexander J. Newall and distributed under the podcast network Rusty Quill, aired its final season amidst the real life horror of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The Magnus Archives” was a five season horror anthology, presenting 15-minute spooky stories in Sims’ dulcet British tones, which gradually evolved and connected into a Lovecraft-esque cosmic horror audio serial, exploring themes of choice, free will and the ways that we all suffer under capitalism. Now, almost three years after the series finale, its continuation, “The Magnus Protocol,” has finished its first “act”; a collection of 10 episodes making up a third of its first season and first major story beat.

“Protocol” is not a direct continuation from the ambiguous ending of Archives. It picks up in an entirely new universe, following Samama Khalid (Shahan Hamza), the new hire at a drab low level government office job with the Office of Institute Assessment and Response (OIAR). There, the work environment is absolutely terrible; his coworkers are either too grumpy, too secretive or just straight up leaving the job on his first day. Said job supposedly involves innocuous data entry and categorization, but the data he is supposed to file ends up being quite disturbing—first hand accounts of supernatural incidents found all over the internet, all rife with grotesque descriptions of the horrors the writer has experienced. A case in the first episode about the ruins of the esoteric Magnus Institute piques Sam’s interest, turning this paper-pushing night shift into something much more personal. It sends him headfirst into investigating the horrors, much to his best friend Alice’s dismay.

The format of “Protocol” stays very true to the Magnus horror anthology form of plot—standalone horror story—plot, the only difference being the format of the stories themselves. While in “Archives” we heard stories being read out by the human characters into the diegetic tape recorders, here we hear them recited by text-to-speech voices in the OIAR’s definitely-not-haunted Windows NT 4.0 computer operating system, voiced by Newall and Sims themselves. However, unlike “Archives,” the stories aren’t always structured like a campfire story. Here, we see a man watch his own most traumatic memory in a movie theater via entries on his old cinema blog, or hear about a man’s experiences getting eaten by cannibals through his senior thesis. The shifts in format are a refreshing change of pace from the series, though I have sometimes found that I miss the whole statement structure from “Archives,” for nostalgia’s sake. Newel and Sims have said that the formats will get even weirder for future acts, something I am very excited for. I cannot wait for the insurance claim and mukbang horrors that Newall teased.

My favorite format of case, though, are the diegetic ones. Replacing the “statements taken live from subject” of “Archives” are found-footage style voice recordings the computer presents on the Internet as audio already. We’ve heard emergency services calls, Zoom therapy sessions and a late night TV talk show interview. Because of the one-off nature of these pieces, they have been casting voice actors from other Rusty Quill podcasts, leading to a fun celebration of all the non-Magnus works the company has created. We’ve heard voice actors from their ancient Roman comedy, “Cry Havoc! Ask Questions Later,” space horror “Of That Colossal Wreck” and sci-fi improv “Stellar Firma”and I have an ongoing list of voice actors from my favorite RQ shows that I would love to see.

One of these diegetic incidents happens to be my favorite episode of the ten, and might be a contender for one of my favorite podcast episodes in general. I don’t get scared by much, but this episode stuck with me for days. The case of episode two, “Making Adjustments”, follows Daria (Kate Sketchley), a visual artist struggling with body dysmorphia, in the court ordered Zoom therapy appointment. After a slightly traumatic experience with getting a mystery tattoo, Daria begins painting her first self portrait in years: and reality blends into her art as she begins fixing not just the painting, but her own body. A loose allusion to “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Daria’s story is one that both hits close to home and carries with it some gorgeous prose that paints striking mental images. As reality shifts while she paints, the language in the case shifts as well, becoming more poetic and graphic. “I began to take a pallet knife to the left eye. Just a small tweak. It was a subtle change, barely noticeable, but I knew I was making progress, because I could feel when the knife scraped bone,” Daria describes, blending the two “canvases” in a wonderfully visceral way. This left the best kind of bad taste in my mouth that only really good horror can do. The rest of the case continued like this; ending on the equally haunting “If I wanted to clear the canvas, I would have used turpentine,” almost as confusing in context as it is out of it – but one of the best ending beats of a “Magnus” story that I have ever heard. My favorite “Archives” episodes are the ones that play around with language and poetry; and I’m so happy that we are getting some of that in “Protocol” as well.

In terms of the metaplot, “Protocol” starts very strong right off the bat. The cast is amazing and grabbed me from the first few scenes, immediately setting up the terrible workplace drama that will inevitably get even more messy as the horror ramps up. The voice actors have so much chemistry together. There are stand out performances from Billie Hindle as the sardonic Alice Dyer, and Anusia Battersby as her ambitious and self-important work frenemy, Gwendolyn Bouchard. The vitriolic banter between the two is entertainingly nostalgic, harkening back to the catty girl fights of old Disney Channel shows. Alice and Gwen’s dynamic has grabbed the attention of the community as a whole; and many people have begun to hypothesize that this is the beginning of a sapphic relationship between them, a la Luz and Amity from “The Owl House.

The rest of the cast is equally as amazing, but we don’t have a lot of time establishing the dynamics between all of them, and a few of the more “mysterious” characters are sidelined. We barely hear anything from the stoic middle manager Lena (Sarah Lambie), and paranoid IT guy Colin (Ryan Hopevere-Anderson) has been present for only a handful of episodes.

With six main characters and around ten minutes of dialogue per episode; some character development happens off-audio in order to establish the building blocks needed for future acts. There is a lot of time spent discussing the important lore that the audience needs to know, but not a lot of time spent establishing character dynamics. We get a bit of that in the first few episodes; but by episode six, and the introduction of kind but secretive new hire Celia, (Lowri Ann Davies), the season is so deep in lore drops that we barely seem to get any time to see how she settles into the office dynamic. This is not a problem with “Protocol” specifically. It was present in “Archives,” as the Magnus podcasts are in universe sporadic recordings over a period of time that someone is taping for a reason, so it makes sense that we are only really hearing the juiciest bits. This format makes the shorter “Protocol” story feel much faster in pace, with all of the development of the relationships happening off screen. I understand why this is structured that way, but as a lover of character dynamics, it makes me a little sad that we don’t hear more.

The last episode of the first act leaves us with some interesting plot hooks for the future. Through Alice and Sam’s first explorations of the Magnus Institute’s ruins, we are introduced to one of the first iconic “Magnus” monsters of this seriesending on a wonderfully soundscaped shuddering breath as someone we don’t know opens a trap door. This, and the first appearance of hilarious in concept and horrifying in execution, Five Nights at Freddy’s-esque, TV mascot Mr. Bonzo leaves us with much to look forward to and will make the month-long wait incredibly painful. 

All and all, I loved the first act of “The Magnus Protocol,” and I urge you to give it a listen! If you are a fan of horror, 1990searly 2000s nostalgia, epistolary fiction or just generally dysfunctional character dynamics, I would definitely recommend giving this podcast a try!

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