Original image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Coffin Cure
Author: Alan E. Nourse
Originally aired: 21 November 1957
Plot synopsis: A team of scientists, led by a Dr. Coffin, discovers a cure for the common cold - but they begin distributing the vaccine they have created before fully investigating its side effects. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in April 1957; and later in Alan E. Nourse's short-story collection Tiger by the Tail and Other Science Fiction Stories, in 1961.
Favourite line: 'And you have no idea what a truckload of monkeys smells like magnified ten thousand times.'
Review: Lightweight and insubstantial, this episode is passably entertaining, but there's not much here that will stay in the memory for long. There's precious little in the way of characterization, and no very deep themes are explored, so all there is the plot. This is fine, but not exactly innovative or groundbreaking. It follows the well-worn formula frequently employed by science-fiction writers in which a new scientific discovery promises great things, but is then found to have unfortunate drawbacks that hadn't been foreseen. This makes the episode an adequate, inoffensive one, with nothing particularly to object to, but nothing either to get very excited about. The episode's most promising aspect is probably its evocative title, which suggests a much more interesting story - something, perhaps, to do with exploiting death as a cure for humanity's afflictions? - than is actually presented.
Rating: * *
Author: Tom Godwin
Originally aired: 25 August 1955
Plot synopsis: The pilot of an 'Emergency Dispatch Ship' delivering vital medical supplies to a colony world in urgent need of them to treat a potentially fatal sickness discovers that he has a stowaway on board - a young woman whose added weight means that the ship lacks sufficient fuel to reach its destination. Based on a short story, 'The Cold Equations', first published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, in August 1954; and later in Tom Godwin's short-story collection The Cold Equations & Other Stories, in 2003.
Favourite line: 'There is no margin of safety along the rim of a frontier … the penalty for mistakes is a grim one. The laws of physical nature operate with irrevocable certainty - with no room for mercy, kindness or sentimentality. In space, life becomes a cold equation - and the equal sign is often followed by death.'
Review: This is one of the most emotionally powerful, and poignant, episodes X Minus One produced throughout its entire run. I won't give away the story's resolution, but I will still offer a SPOILER ALERT! at the outset, as however one discusses this episode, it is very difficult not to reveal clues to its ending. The ethical dilemma at the story's heart - whether it is morally justifiable to sacrifice the life of a single innocent (the female stowaway) in order to save the lives of many more (the colonists facing certain death if the ship does not reach them in time) - is one that has been dramatized before in fiction, but rarely in so stark and uncompromising a way, and even more infrequently in genre fiction like this. In science fiction - especially 'traditional', pre-1960s SF - we are much more used to set-ups that allow for easy moral solutions (kill the evil aliens!) and if sacrifice is necessary, it is heroic and noble. Yet none of that applies here, and many may well find the episode shocking and difficult to listen to - which is as it should be, given the nature of the plot. Critics of the original short story have pointed out that the ship's engineers would surely have allowed a larger margin of error in the amount of fuel it carries, so that a single stowaway's extra weight would not create the predicament that it does; furthermore, various possible solutions (such as ripping out non-essential equipment, like the radio, and jettisoning it, or giving the girl a crash course in piloting the ship so that the pilot could sacrifice himself instead) are not really considered in the episode. However, while such criticisms may have validity if this were a real-life situation, they miss the point somewhat in terms of the drama: this is not a 'hard' SF story in the conventional sense - centred on the search for a technical/scientific solution to a clearly defined problem - but one designed specifically to explore a moral conundrum. It's worth noting as well an interesting change that the X Minus One adaptation makes to the original's plot, changing the person the young woman is stowing away to meet from her brother to her estranged husband. This adds an extra emotional dimension to the story's dilemma, strengthening it considerably. One of the best, most affecting of all OTR episodes. (A similar dilemma to the one explored here also features in the Dimension X episode Destination Moon, though it is dealt with by the latter in a much less compelling way.)
Rating: * * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Exploring Tomorrow, as 'The Stowaway' (1958), Future Tense (1974), Sci-Fi Radio (1989), Audio Theatre (1990), Faster Than Light (2002); TV - Out of This World (1962), The New Twilight Zone (1989); TV movie - The Cold Equations (1996)]
Author: Philip K. Dick
Originally aired: 10 October 1956
Plot synopsis: A survey team from Earth arrives on an alien planet to determine whether it is suitable for colonization, but soon comes under attack from a life form that is capable of mimicking any inanimate object. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in June 1953; and later in Philip K. Dick's short-story collection A Handful of Darkness, in 1955.
Favourite line: 'I'm sorry, Stella, the readings show no electrical brain activity whatsoever, and that covers life down to the level of invertebrates. There may be a few worms turning out there; unless they're thinking awfully hard about something, we wouldn't pick them up.'
Review: A quirky and unusual episode, this story illustrates well what a strange and fertile imagination Philip K. Dick, the writer from whose work it was adapted, possessed. The episode follows Dick's original story relatively closely, including making the commander of the space vessel a woman, uncommon as this was in science fiction of the period. However, whereas in Dick's story the characters don't make a big deal out of the commander's gender, in this adaptation there is an extra scene at the start in which she is subjected to extremely blatant sexual harassment and disrespect from one of her subordinate officers (who calls her by her first name, rather than using her rank, as well as 'my dear'). It's difficult to understand why this aspect was added when it isn't in the original, as it is entirely superfluous to the plot, and all it does is undermine the commander's authority (and leaves the listener wondering why she doesn't just throw the chauvinist officer into the brig). Perhaps, at the time, it was believed that the commander's humiliation at the hands of a male character would be viewed as humorous; it isn't. This aside, the episode retains much that is strong in Dick's story, like the deliciously absurd central premise, and many of its set pieces - such as a scene in which a man appears to be attacked by a microscope! There's also a surprisingly risqué final act, in which the entire crew is forced to strip completely naked - men and women alike - which one would imagine would have been quite controversial in the 1950s. It also keeps the story's memorable conclusion, which shows once again the series' willingness not always to have happy endings. (Two other episodes about survey expeditions on alien planets that encounter strange indigenous life forms are Drop Dead and Student Body; the latter also features nudity among its ship's crew!)
Rating: * * * *
Author: Clifford D. Simak
Originally aired: 18 August 1955
Plot synopsis: When the members of an Earth expedition on an alien planet are faced with a deadly plague their only hope for a cure lies with the planet's indigenous inhabitants. Based on a short story first published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, in August 1951; and later in Clifford D. Simak's short-story collection The Autumn Land and Other Stories, in 1990.
Favourite line: 'They ain't made very good, these little grey people - they come apart too easy.'
Review: This is quite a peculiar episode, and your view of it will very much depend on your tolerance for mixing elements traditionally associated with 'hard' SF (space exploration, alien worlds and extraterrestrial beings), with highly unscientific, fantastical/allegorical ones. The story's set-up neatly inverts the history of Native Americans' first encounters with European explorers - in which the latter brought with them deadly diseases that had a devastating effect upon the former - by presenting a story in which it is the 'advanced' race that is threatened by a plague, to which the 'primitive' beings of the world they are exploring have largely become immune. Perhaps, too, it can be viewed as a different take on H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, in which it is humans who are the invaders and whose downfall is brought about by microscopic bacteria. Regardless, this is a story about racism and prejudice, as the human characters display a deep contempt for the alien beings of the planet - most only consider any need to communicate with them when they are seen as the only hope for a cure. Why, though, do I describe this as a peculiar tale? This is down to the explanation that is ultimately given as to why only one of the humans (one who is not so disdainful of the aliens) survives the plague, which is likely to leave listeners expecting any kind of logical, rational account scratching their heads. Indeed, some may find it frustratingly absurd and nonsensical; if you want a clue, consider the episode's title! (Also of note about this story is that one of its characters - the bizarrely named 'Bat Ears' Brady - reappears in a later X Minus One episode, Junkyard, adapted from another Clifford D. Simak tale, though it's not clear if the spaceship or the rest of the crew is the same. Given what happens in 'Courtesy', if the later episode is part of the same continuity, it must be a prequel.)
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1951)]