Original image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Author: Robert Sheckley (writing as Ned Lang)
Originally aired: 10 October 1957
Plot synopsis: When a spaceship journeying to Mars experiences an engine malfunction, its three-man crew has to work out how to reach their destination with limited fuel and navigational capabilities. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in June 1956.
Favourite line: 'Any engineer will tell you that a complex machine has a personality all its own. Do you know what that personality is like? It's cold, withdrawn, uncaring, unfeeling. A machine's only purpose is to frustrate desire and produce two problems for every one it solves.'
Review: The first act of this episode is pretty dull, and doesn't offer much hope that matters are likely to improve. It presents a fairly humdrum account of a spaceship suffering some sort of engine failure, and the efforts of its crew to overcome the problem, which is neither very original nor very interesting. As the plot develops, the story does perk up a little, especially when the ship's computer is brought into play, as this provokes an entertaining, if somewhat bizarre, 'anti-machine' rant by the ship's engineer. Yet surely, one wonders, if the latter really feels as hostile towards machines as he seems to, becoming a spaceship engineer was not the best career choice! At any rate, what finally sinks the episode is a quite preposterous deus ex machina, involving a miraculous solution that the ship's computer conjures up out of nowhere. Yes, this does set up a reasonably effective, and ironic, ending for the bickering trio of characters, but it is still absurd. (For a far better episode about a spaceship marooned in space, try The Mapmakers.)
Rating: * *
Author: Philip K. Dick
Originally aired: 22 May 1956
Plot synopsis: After the Earth's surface has been ravaged by nuclear war, humanity has been forced to retreat underground, yet the conflict between the two main combatants - the Western Confederation and the Asian Confederation - continues to be fought above ground by the two sides' robots. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in January 1953; and later in Philip K. Dick's short-story collection The Book of Philip K. Dick, in 1973.
Favourite line: 'Eventually, man will grow up enough so that he can face his own dislike of himself with humility.'
Review: This episode is based on what may best be described as a middle-ranking Philip K. Dick short story: not bad, but far from his best. The central idea is a good one - even though human beings have been forced to live below ground because of a devastating nuclear war, this doesn't stop them carrying on the fight on the Earth's surface, using robots known as 'leadies'. As such, the story serves as a neat commentary on the Cold War conflict that was raging at the time the episode was produced, suggesting that even a full-scale nuclear war might not prevent hostilities from continuing afterwards. However, of interest to Dick fans in particular is that the episode makes some significant alterations to the source story, including changing the enemy being fought from the Soviet Union to 'the Asian Confederation' (for no obvious reason, and slightly diminishing the episode's effectiveness as a Cold War parable). It also adds a love story not found in the original. Still, the basics remain the same and the story has a typically Dickian ending, in that the truth - about the war being waged above ground - turns out to be very different to what it initially seems. Unfortunately, though, both the characters and script are fairly flat, and the love story isn't very compelling. Even so, an enjoyable episode, thanks to the intriguing central conceit. (What may also be of interest is that two other episodes centre on the idea of humanity living underground in the aftermath of nuclear war, Hello, Tomorrow and the Dimension X episode The Last Objective.)
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Future Tense (1974)]
The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway
Author: William Tenn
Originally aired: 17 April 1957
Plot synopsis: An art historian from the year 2487 travels back in time to the present day to meet an artist celebrated in the twenty-fifth century as one of the greatest of his age, only to discover that he is a talentless egomaniac. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in October 1955; and later in William Tenn's short-story collection The Human Angle, in 1956.
Favourite line: 'I can't wait for the day when some dealer, some critic with an ounce of brains sees my work. I can't miss, Dave, I know I can't miss - I'm just too good. Sometimes I get frightened at how good I am. Why, it's almost too much talent for one man.'
Review: Everyone (well, every SF fan at least) enjoys a good time paradox story, and this is a very clever, entertaining one. It's a novel idea to centre such a tale on an artist, and even though the episode has only sound rather than images to tell the story, it does a good job of conveying the impression that the works of art upon which the plot turns are as great as is claimed. Still, it's the paradox at the episode's heart that is most memorable. This boils down to the fact that - SPOILER ALERT! - the paintings in the story appear to have no original artist, being created in the present by a time traveller from the future working from memories of them from when they already existed. Who, then, actually originated the pictures? The episode does have an answer to this paradox, though it isn't very convincing. The story suggests that the art historian from the twenty-fifth century who paints the pictures isn't, in fact, making copies from memory, because he has made himself forget them - so he is creating original pieces. However, at least subconsciously, he nonetheless remains steeped in the artistic style he is emulating, so it still has to be asked, where did this style come from? Perhaps the most interesting element of the episode, though, is the idea that the art historian in a sense becomes the artist he reveres - after it has turned out that the person who has always been his hero is far less talented than he had always believed - suggesting all sorts of fascinating implications about the nature of identity. This aspect also makes the episode reminiscent of another, very famous, science-fiction story, Michael Moorcock's Behold The Man, though this was published some years later (in 1966 as a novella, and in 1969, in an expanded version, as a novel). In this, a time traveller journeys back in time to 28 AD to meet Jesus - but when the latter turns out not to be the figure depicted in the Bible, the former ends up adopting the role of the Messiah himself. This episode is much less controversial than that, and by contrast is played mainly for humour, but it is an inventive, thought-provoking one all the same.
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Future Tense (1976), Audion Theatre (1990)]
Dr. Grimshaw's Sanitarium
Author: Fletcher Pratt
Originally aired: 14 July 1955
Plot synopsis: A private detective investigates an exclusive sanitorium, where a sinister doctor is conducting strange experiments on the patients. Based on a short story first published in Amazing Stories magazine, in May 1934.
Favourite line: 'The pieces were there all right - a crazy old doctor, a brutal assistant, a private sanitorium, and a midget with a dead man's face.'
Review: The mad scientist performing illegal and immoral experiments was a staple villain of post-war science fiction, as the reputation of scientists as a group had been severely damaged by the experiences of World War II - as a result of the crimes committed by Nazi doctors in the death camps, and the development of the atom bomb by scientists working for the Allies. Tapping into this climate of suspicion, this episode makes the evil doctor at its heart a former Nazi, continuing research he had begun during the war. As the basis for a story, this might well make for an interesting episode - the problem here is that the experiments the doctor is conducting are just plain daft. It is disclosed relatively early on, so it doesn't constitute much of a spoiler to reveal, that he is working on a procedure to shrink human beings to miniature size. The science behind this, something to do with manipulating enzymes, sounds pretty dubious, but a more important problem with the episode is that no answer is given to the question, why? It may be that this is explained in the original story, but in this radio version no reason at all is given, leaving the listener wondering why on earth the doctor is carrying out his bizarre experiments. Towards the end, the story also starts to descend into the laughable, thanks to the silly high-pitched voices the production uses for the men who have been shrunk (making them sound unfortunately like Disney's Chipmunks). All in all, what starts out as a reasonably promising episode, ultimately disappoints. (What may also be of interest is that there is a Dimension X story that similarly deals with shrinking people to miniature size, Beyond Infinity, though this is not a very good episode either. For a far superior story about someone shrinking - which manages, impressively, to avoid making the idea come across as ridiculous - try instead the film The Incredible Shrinking Man, based on a novel by the great genre writer Richard Matheson.)
Rating: * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1950), Future Tense (1976)]
Author: Robert Silverberg
Originally aired: 19 December 1957
Plot synopsis: To prove humanity's scientific and technological prowess, two engineers agree to a bet with representatives of an alien race that they can reverse engineer any device the aliens present them. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in November 1956; and later in Robert Silverberg's short-story collection To Worlds Beyond, in 1965.
Favourite line: 'Our heads reeled with the enormity of the ideas.'
Review: A very silly episode this, but quite fun even so. The whole set-up is ridiculous, with an absolutely absurd plot - the very idea of humans and aliens arranging the bet that they do is pure nonsense, never mind what happens later. Particularly mad is the way the two human characters manage to invent a machine that is completely impossible, and in a matter of only weeks at that, just because they are spurred on by the incentive of trying to prove humanity's superiority. This is the kind of story that probably wouldn't get published or produced today, so contrived and unlikely is it, but perhaps because it is so ludicrous, I found it strangely enjoyable.
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Future Tense (1976)]
Author: Clifford D. Simak
Originally aired: 22 August 1957
Plot synopsis: A survey ship lands on an unknown planet populated by 'critters', bizarre hybrid animals that upon approaching the vessel's explorers inexplicably drop dead. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in July 1956; and later in Clifford D. Simak's short-story collection All the Traps of Earth and Other Stories, in 1962.
Favourite line: 'Their hides were splashed with large squares of pastel colors - the kind of color one never finds on any self-respecting animal: violet, pink, orange, chartreuse. The overall effect was of a checkerboard, made by an old lady who did crazy quilts.'
Review: This is a story that will not be to everyone's taste (a pun for those who have heard the episode), but what it lacks in logic it makes up for in oddness. The nature of the strange creatures encountered by the episode's explorers is never fully explained - the how and why of their evolution - and there probably isn't much scientific sense behind their design. Nor is it entirely clear why they simply drop dead in front of the astonished survey team. Yet these issues can be viewed as strengths: the 'critters' are truly alien animals, which do not appear to conform to known Earth laws of biology. For this reason, there is something compelling about this unusual tale, right through to its quirky ending. Probably the best way to approach this one is to treat it as a blackly humorous story that expects us to laugh along with its absurdities. (Two other episodes about survey expeditions on alien planets that discover strange indigenous life forms are Colony and Student Body.)
Rating: * * *
Dwellers in Silence
Author: Ray Bradbury
Originally aired: 10 November 1955
Plot synopsis: Explorers from the human Mars colonies return to Earth many years after its devastation by atomic war, and discover that there is more to what appears to be the last surviving family on the planet than there initially seems. Based on a short story first published in Planet Stories magazine, in Spring 1949; and later, as 'The Long Years', as a chapter in Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, in 1950.
Favourite line: 'Time is nothing to me. I was born out of time.'
Review: This episode was adapted from one of the stories that forms part of Ray Bradbury's composite novel The Martian Chronicles, appearing there as the chapter 'The Long Years' (for other episodes based on stories in this sequence see under Bradbury in my Authors list). Prior to being published as part of this novel, it was originally a standalone short story, so works fine as a separate tale. It did, though, undergo some significant changes for the radio version. Most notable is that whereas the original story takes place on Mars, this adaptation is set on a post-apocalyptic Earth. However, like many Bradbury stories, it is more about mood, emotion and character than plot, and the change of setting doesn't fundamentally alter the underlying ideas and themes that are explored. Any half-awake listener will likely guess quite quickly the explanation for the unlikely youthfulness of the wife and son of the last remaining Earth family, but this is not really a problem. The episode is about the natures of identity, memory, family and, above all, what it means to be human, and not simply its 'surprise' revelation. In the final act, there is also some unexpectedly hard-nosed, some might even say brutal, discussion about the fates of the surviving Earth characters, though I won't give away any more about the ending than this. Suffice to say, the episode leaves the listener with a sense of sadness and melancholy, and this is what makes it a powerful, effective one.
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1951); TV - The Ray Bradbury Theater, as 'The Long Years' (1990)]