Sunday, February 8, 2004

”Adventures in time and space…told in future tense!”

Before 1950, science fiction had never been fully realized on radio; the genre was usually relegated to kiddie fare like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, or an occasional production on Escape or Suspense. Even the success of Orson Welles’ classic “War of the Worlds” in 1938 couldn’t help the genre get a toehold (though NBC did take a stab at it in 1941 with a hybrid series, Latitude Zero). With the release of Universal-International’s Destination Moon (1950), a boom in sci-fi finally made radio sit up and take notice—three series debuted within a single month in 1950: Two-Thousand Plus (on Mutual), Beyond Tomorrow (CBS) and the most successful of the three, NBC’s Dimension X.

Although Dimension X’s radio run was relatively brief (April 8, 1950-September 29, 1951), the series was a breath of fresh air for audio drama, at a time when radio was watching its audience slowly wane. D-X’s scripts were adapted from the finest writers in the field of science fiction: Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others who wrote for the premiere magazine Astounding Science Fiction. As the show’s producer, Van Woodward, explained matter-of-factly: “We went the ‘adaptation route’ simply because that’s where the best stories are.”

Dimension X distinguished itself by making enormous strides in the field of special effects, with two and sometimes three SFX artists working per show. The programs were produced in a massive studio two stories high, ideal for “tremendous echo effects” that no equipment at that point in time could effectively record. Albert Berman composed both the show’s memorable opening theme (which combined organ, cymbals, and tympanic rolls) and futuristic musical scores which made liberal use of the Theremin. The series also had the luxury of some of the finest New York acting talent participating in its productions, Joseph Julian, Santos Ortega, Alexander Scourby, Lawson Zerbe, Joan Alexander, Jan Miner, Les Damon, and Joseph Curtin.

The series’ premiere episode, “The Outer Limit,” got things off to a good start, though the fact that it had been dramatized previously on both Suspense and Escape tempered the enthusiasm somewhat. Before long, however, D-X began churning out an endless number of classic sci-fi tales: “No Contact,” “Knock,” “The Green Hills of Earth,” “Universe” (a particular fave of mine), and “The Martian Death March,” to name but only a few.

Last night, I killed an hour of what I laughingly refer to as my job by listening to “Nightmare” (originally broadcast June 10, 1951), which is another favorite of mine. The program stars John Gibson (best remembered as the sardonic bartender Ethelbert on Casey, Crime Photographer) as Samson Gurney, a statistician who is working with a super computer at a construction company and discovers that what appears to be a series of random accidents is in fact a plot by machines to destroy humanity. This tale, based on Stephen Vincent Benet’s “Revolt of the Machines,” was adapted for D-X by future Emmy winner George Lefferts (who, along with fellow NBC staffer Ernest Kinoy, scripted many of the show’s adaptations). Lefferts also adapted the second show I listened to, William Tenn’s “Child’s Play” (6/24/51), with features Leon Janney, Karl Weber, and Patsy Campbell in a tale about an attorney who receives a “Build-a-Man” kit, a child’s toy from the future. This is a good, semi-humorous story with a slightly chilling ending reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s “Marionettes, Inc.”

Like Escape and its 1955-58 offspring, X-Minus One, Dimension X was handicapped by frequent timeslot shuffling (the show once disappeared from NBC’s schedule for nineteen weeks during 1951) and its status as a sustained series (it was briefly sponsored by General Mills-Wheaties for two months beginning in July 1950) to achieve any long-lasting success. But the quality of its drama remained first-rate, and it continues to be—along with X-1—radio’s premier science fiction series. OTR fans are fortunate in that D-X’s fifty shows still exist today in excellent sound, so that future generations can listen to the magic and wonderment of “DIMENSION X…X…x…x…x…x…”

No comments:

Post a Comment