Thursday, January 29, 2004

”These are stories of the future, adventures in which you’ll live in a million could-be years on a thousand may-be worlds…”

In the entry for the classic science fiction series X-Minus One in John Dunning’s invaluable On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, the radio historian writes that “the most interesting dramatic radio of the 1955 season was produced by two genre series, Gunsmoke, a western, and this space opera.” I’m inclined to agree with Dunning’s assertion, and I’ve often found it interesting that I discovered the delights of “this space opera” and—well, “this horse opera,” at the same time.

Let’s take the WABAC machine to 1983, when a young college student (that would be me, by the way) discovers that the library at Marshall University has a small collection of old-time radio shows on reel-to-reel tape. Still being an OTR novice at the time (I had a small—very small—collection), I did what anyone in my position would do—I went at those tapes like the kid in the proverbial candy store. As production director at the campus radio station, I was allowed access to the production studios on the weekend and I took every one of those tapes and dubbed off copies for myself—I just wish I had managed to hang onto them. A March 14, 1956 episode of X-Minus One, “Tunnel Under the World,” still continues to resonate with me today. Based on a story by Frederick Pohl, it’s about an experiment conducted by an ad agency that it so monstrous it…well, I can’t do the program justice by describing it. I heartily recommend that you seek that particular one out, because the ending will knock your socks off.

Since radio is often referred to as “the theater of the mind,” I’ve always believed that both it and the genre of science fiction are a match made in heaven. Both depend heavily on the power of the individual’s imagination; indeed, when sci-fi is presented either on television or the silver screen, I’m in awe for maybe five seconds, and then I start wondering what kind of special effects or, as Arch Oboler once humorously described such visual trickery, “paper mache” it took to put the production together. My imagination makes anything more frightening than the efforts of a special effects wizard. I suppose you could attempt something like “Tunnel Under the World” on TV or in the movies with an assist from George Lucas’ bankbook—but why would you want to?

X-Minus One, which debuted over NBC Radio on April 24, 1955, was an extension of an equally fine NBC science fiction anthology, Dimension X (1950-51). X-1’s first 15 broadcasts were adapted from this earlier series, after which it blazed trails with newer “transcribed tales of new dimensions in time and space.” Two highly respected sci-fi magazines, Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy, supplied the material for the series’ stories, with an occasional original—usually penned by either George Lefferts or Ernest Kinoy, two NBC staffers—tossed in for good measure. X-Minus One transcended the usual radio kiddie fare like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in favor of adult, literate tales from the likes of the finest science fiction writers: Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, etc. Happy endings were often nudged out by meatier wrap-ups that allowed the “bad guys” to emerge triumphant, like the unforgettable “Mars is Heaven,” an adaptation of Bradbury’s classic short story.

As with Gunsmoke, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a really bad X-1; even the weaker entries manage to avoid the pitfall of being dull. The series maintained a consistently high batting average, with classics like “The Cold Equation,” “Junkyard,” “Hallucination Orbit,” and “The Seventh Victim.” “A Gun For Dinosaur,” “The Skulking Permit,” and “Lulungameena” are also among my personal favorites. I treated myself to a triple helping of 1957 shows last night at work—since the length of X-1 shrank during its later run to accommodate a five-minute network newscast, it was possible to squeeze in three programs on one CD. First, “Volpa” (8/29/57), a bizarre comic entry about a scientist (Nelson Olmsted) who creates a species of flying mutants and convinces them that they hail from another planet in order to play an elaborate practical joke on the world.

Following that was “Saucer of Loneliness” (9/5/57), a quiet, understated piece based on a story by Theodore Sturgeon, in which a woman (Lydia Bruce) finds herself badgered and harassed by government officials and the press after coming into contact with a flying saucer. (I had previously heard this one on Victor Ives’ syndicated The Golden Age of Radio Theater, so it was kind of like “old home week.”) The final show, and my favorite of the three, is “Death Wish” (10/10/57), in which the crew of a spaceship that has been shot out of the solar system tries to solve its problem by computer—which provides them an ingenious (and deliciously ironic) solution.

Like its predecessor, Dimension X, X-1 suffered from an extensive shuffling of its timeslot while on NBC’s schedule, which made it difficult to secure an audience beyond that of its devoted cult following. Yet in the tradition of shows like Escape, it overcame this handicap by showcasing some of the finest radio drama ever broadcast. The program ended its run on January 9. 1958, but the radio renaissance of the 1970s allowed X-Minus One a reprieve: transcriptions from the 1955-58 series were brought back in a test run beginning June 24, 1973. Alas, a resurgence in radio drama was not to be—its scheduling was even more erratic (once a month, sometimes on Saturdays, sometimes Sundays), proving that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. It came to a sad end on March 22, 1975, but fortunately for both sci-fi and OTR fans, X-1’s entire run has been preserved today—to give a generation of new listeners an opportunity to start another “countdown for blast-off…”

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