"Late 20s, they’re the worst. Some say your teenage years are scary and your 40s are boring; nah-ha mate! Your 20s beat them outright because they’re scary and boring at the same time."
That's Pan. She's great. Voiced by Pearl Mackie (Doctor Who), Pan is the young heroine leading us through BBC Sounds' new scripted podcast Forest 404. It's a sci-fi thriller meets ecological drama. It crosses genres and stretches to unfamiliar formats but in this instance, we're going with it being a good thing. Forest 404 sounds complex, but bear with us. It's meant to be.
Pan is 28 years old and works as a sound archivist, which here describes someone who goes through catalogues upon catalogues of audio and deletes anything that's not useful. She describes it as a bit like being a librarian. Pan lives far in the future (the 24th century to be precise) in a period known as the Fast Times. She spends her days tirelessly listening to audio clips from the Slow Times – our present day – deciding whether to wipe each one from the world as she knows it or allow it to exist in the finite space available for data. Clearly, we took the digital abyss for granted in the early 2000s; the period of time otherwise referred to in the podcast as the total "pits of history".
Obama's speeches? Sounds boring to Pan, so off you go. Classic Mozart? Nope, delete. Beyoncé's "Crazy In Love" – that doesn't survive this dystopian future either, sorry. We're given a multitude of reasons for the mass erasure. "We can't afford to keep it." "Data costs." "No time for the excesses of history." In short, there's no space for the sounds of our lifetime in Pan's future. But then she comes across something wildly unfamiliar. To us in the audience it'll sound like birds, wind blowing through trees, running water and pretty much any soundtrack playing in the background of any rainforest-centric David Attenborough documentary. Pan doesn't recognise it, though. It has a strange effect on her. She finds it calming but invigorating at the same time, despite having no frame of reference for these noises, which she assumes to be strange and disjointed music.
In the 24th century, forests don't exist. No one knows how today's world ended but in their world, which towers high into the sky away from the raw earth as we understand it, nature isn't a thing. Terrifying, right? Well, Pan's concerned too. Unable to connect these mysterious sounds to anything within her knowledge – this is the woman who spends an unthinkable number of hours literally categorising audio, remember – Pan takes it upon herself to discover what happened.
Needless to say, her pursuit to uncover the truth ruffles a few feathers. Namely, The Hands, who I can only describe as a 24th century equivalent of The Matrix's Mr Smith or the Eyes in The Handmaid's Tale. Pan is also pursued by Daria (played by Pippa Haywood), her boss with whom she has a complicated relationship that's as friendly as it is at times cold and confused. The story unfolds through both of their perspectives as Pan attempts to get to the bottom of what went wrong so many years ago, and why she's the only one willing – or perhaps capable – of finding out.
If the thrill of the story isn't enough for you, there's bonus material alongside the podcast narrative. On top of Forest 404's suitably chilling theme music by Bonobo, you can listen to the beautifully crafted rainforest soundscape that Pan stumbles upon too. Want to delve deeper into the themes behind the story? There are accompanying bitesize episodes between each chapter that talk you through the different themes (for example, Pan's response to hearing the sounds of the natural world for the first time is linked to those IRL mental health benefits that we already know a little bit about). It's a threefold experience that's as interesting as it is entertaining. If we had to boil it down, though, you'll be sucked in by the cool but terrifying story of our future, and you'll stay for our funny, determined and spirited woman in the middle of it all.