Original image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Last Martian
Author: Fredric Brown
Originally aired: 7 August 1956
Plot synopsis: A newspaper reporter encounters a man who believes himself to be the last surviving Martian, claiming that his mind was teleported from Mars into the body of an Earthman. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in October 1950; and later in Fredric Brown's short-story collection Honeymoon in Hell, in 1958.
Favourite line: 'Every place, it was the same. Hundreds of thousands of bodies, lying in the fields, the streets. As if - as if everyone had died at the exact same instant.'
Review: There is quite an effective scene near the start of this episode in which the man purporting to be a Martian describes the desolation he witnessed on Mars just prior to being transported to Earth, with the landscape littered with thousands of lifeless bodies. This is why he believes he is the last surviving member of his race. However, after this evocative opening the rest of the episode is something of a letdown, as when the main plot kicks in, it is very ordinary and pedestrian. I won't reveal the plot's exact details, but in common with much American SF of the period, it's a tale steeped in Cold War paranoia, with Martians featuring as proxies for communist subversives (for other examples, see the episodes The Embassy and The Parade). All in all, a bit dull.
Rating: * *
[Other adaptations: TV - Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as 'Human Interest Story' (1959)]
The Lifeboat Mutiny
Author: Robert Sheckley
Originally aired: 11 September 1956
Plot synopsis: A pair of planetary surveyors purchases a used spaceship originally built as a lifeboat by an ancient alien race, but the shipboard computer's inability to tell that its new owners are from a different species leads to serious repercussions for the two humans. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in April 1955; and later in Robert Sheckley's short-story collection Pilgrimage to Earth, in 1957.
Favourite line: 'Joe exudes faith the way trees drip sap in the spring - and if you get too close, a little rubs off on you.'
Review: Technology is frequently treated with great suspicion in episodes based on Robert Sheckley stories (see, for example, Bad Medicine, Death Wish and Early Model), and so it is here. A supposedly intelligent computer is shown to be anything but by the way it is unable to think outside of its programming, trying to continue fighting a war that finished over five hundred years before. Even more worrying for our heroes, it cannot comprehend that its occupants are humans rather than part of the 'Drome' race that built it, and so have very different physical needs. For example, it believes that water is poisonous to them, and that the two protagonists require extreme cold to survive. So, this is a smart, entertaining episode, in which the fun comes from both the computer's misunderstandings, and the main characters' attempts to outwit the not-very-bright artificial intelligence. There are also some satirical elements to the story, most notably concerning the idea of paternalism, as the ship's misguided efforts to protect its crew are derived from the 'prime directive' with which it has been programmed, which forbids it from allowing occupants to come to any harm (showing, perhaps, the influence of Isaac Asimov's 'Three Laws of Robotics' - which include the injunction that a robot may not cause harm to humans - as appeared widespread in the science fiction of the era; other episodes that invoke or reference similar ideas are the Dimension X episode With Folded Hands and the X Minus One episodes 'Lulu' [see below] and The Seventh Order.) Finally, mention must be made of the hilarious Drome national anthem that the computer plays - a bizarre, discordant cacophony - which should raise a smile from most listeners.
Rating: * * * *
Author: Poul Anderson
Originally aired: 24 October 1957
Plot synopsis: The first astronauts to land on the moon find evidence to suggest that they may not be the first humans to have stood upon its surface. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in March 1957; and later in Anderson's Poul short-story collection Past Times, in 1984.
Favourite line: 'A million suns wheeled and glittered above me.'
Review: In many respects, the main interest in listening to this episode today derives from its historical curiosity value: set during the Cold War, it recalls a time when the space race was a major battleground in the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Predating by over a decade the first Apollo moon landing, the story clearly articulates the sense of unease many Americans felt in the late 1950s that the Soviets had stolen a march over them in space exploration (indeed, the Russian satellite Sputnik, the first man-made object to go beyond the Earth's atmosphere, had been launched only weeks before this episode was broadcast). The story may, perhaps, have offered its contemporary American audience hope that they would nonetheless go on to win the race to the moon. For modern listeners, these aspects of the tale remain fascinating, providing revealing insights into the mindset of the time. The actual plot, though, is of somewhat less interest, and the fantastical ending means that the episode amounts to not much more than a piece of whimsy - enjoyable enough, but not a little ridiculous.
Rating: * * *
The Lights on Precipice Peak
Author: Stephen Tall
Originally aired: 13 March 1957
Plot synopsis: A pair of climbers makes a surprising discovery about the nature of the strange lights playing atop Colorado's Precipice Peak mountain. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in October 1955.
Favourite line: 'Actually, I came to say that tomorrow I leave this miserable place and go home. I've endured all the health I can stand.'
Review: A real 'meh' kind of episode. The story has a certain amount of likeability - for example, the characters are largely sympathetic - but it just doesn't really go anywhere, or at least, nowhere very interesting. Even after the reveal of what is causing the lights upon the mountain, it remains frustratingly vague and unclear as to what is the story's point. When the source of the lights is disclosed, there is almost no follow-up, no further investigation or explanation of why they have appeared. There isn't even much to the mountain climbing side of the story, which may be disappointing to mountaineering enthusiasts. All in all, most listeners will probably be left at the end simply thinking, so what? Still, the sound effect of rocks being eaten is fun!
Rating: * *
A Logic Named Joe
Author: Murray Leinster
Originally aired: 28 December 1955
Plot synopsis: Computers known as 'logics' cause chaos when they begin to over-ride their censorship safeguards and start to provide users with absolutely any information they request, from others' personal details to how to commit murder. Based on a short story first published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, in March 1946; and later in Murray Leinster's short-story collection Sidewise in Time, in 1950.
Favourite line: 'You can't let this happen to me! They're asking everybody's name, and when you tell your name, it reels off your whole history!'
Review: More often than not, the predictions of science fiction turn out to be wildly inaccurate (consider, for example, the absurd idea of 'rolling roads' postulated in the episode broadcast immediately after this one, The Roads Must Roll). However, this episode is quite astonishing in its prescience. Bearing in mind that it is based on a short story published in 1946, many of its ideas seem way ahead of their time. To start with, there is the technology of the 'logics' - essentially, networked personal computers linking users to something akin to the world wide web. This is impressive enough, but equally remarkable are the social implications that are explored. For example, there is the fear that people will misuse the technology, including using the logics to find out how to commit murder, prefiguring contemporary anxieties about, say, terrorists going online to discover how to make bombs. Similarly, there are fears about privacy, with the concern that people will be able to look up anybody else's personal history, just as many worry about this today. If there's a criticism to be made of all this it's that only the negatives, and none of the positives, of this amazing world of interlinked computers are emphasized (in other words, all the many benefits of the internet), suggesting a pretty dismal view of human nature. Nonetheless, one has to give great credit to the story's author, Murray Leinster, for engaging with such issues fifty or sixty years before virtually anyone else. It's disappointing, then, that the thought-provoking ideas that are raised are married to a very so-so plot. This amounts to little more than a 'computers gone awry' story, which isn't very exciting. Furthermore, the episode plays up the humour angle too much - for example, a subplot about a woman who uses a logic to track down one of the main characters, whom she had known many years before, in order to persuade him to marry her isn't, as intended, particularly amusing. It may also be quite surprising for modern listeners that - SPOILER ALERT! - the way the protagonist saves the day involves striking a young child! Even so, a fascinating listen.
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1950)]
Author: Clifford D. Simak
Originally aired: 31 October 1957
Plot synopsis: The three members of a spaceship's crew have to find a way to outsmart the ship's computer after it declares that is in love with them, to prevent it forcing them to 'elope'. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in June 1957; and later in Clifford D. Simak's short-story collection The Worlds of Clifford Simak, in 1960.
Favourite line: 'I don't know about you fellas, but I'm getting drunk.'
Review: This is a very silly episode. The author of the short story upon which it is based, Clifford D. Simak, wrote many quirky tales (consider, for example, other X Minus One episodes based on his writings, such as Courtesy and Drop Dead), but this one enters the realms of the plain nonsensical. The spaceship computer at the centre of the plot is like the inverse of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey - rather than wanting to kill its crew, it wants to form romantic relationships with them! Moreover, instead of talking in a menacing monotone, it speaks in a sultry, seductive voice. Also unlike HAL, the AI computer in this story is supposedly governed by a command that it may not harm humans, even if trying to force the crew to elope seems pretty clearly against the spirit of such a directive. (Though it does show, perhaps, the influence of Isaac Asimov's 'Three Laws of Robotics' - which include the injunction that a robot may not cause harm to humans - as was widespread in the science fiction of the period; other episodes that invoke or reference similar ideas are the Dimension X episode With Folded Hands and the X Minus One episodes 'The Lifeboat Mutiny' [see above] and The Seventh Order.) The main problem with the episode is that the explanation of why the computer falls in love with the three human spacemen is beyond unbelievable: it's because one of them has been reading it love poetry! What? Equally odd is the means by which the crew attempt to disabuse the AI of its infatuation. I won't reveal what this is, but it is also pretty ridiculous. In truth, this isn't a terrible episode, but nor is it a very good one; a much better episode about a spaceship crew that has to outwit their ship's computer is 'The Lifeboat Mutiny'.
Rating: * *
Author: Gordon R. Dickson
Originally aired: 29 May 1956
Plot synopsis: A group of characters aboard a space station debates whether Lulungomeena is the most beautiful and wonderful place in the universe. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in January 1954; and later in Gordon R. Dickson's short-story collection Danger - Human, in 1970.
Favourite line: 'Nobody knew better than I did that Clay was burned out inside, like a used up rocket.'
Review: This episode is set in the same fictional universe that its author, Gordon R. Dickson, used for a number of short stories and novels belonging to his 'Dorsai' series, named after a splinter group of humanity who specialize as mercenaries for hire. However, although the main character in this episode is identified as a Dorsai - the short story upon which it is based in fact being the first in which they are mentioned - it doesn't have much connection to the wider mythology Dickson created, and those who listen to this episode because they have read his other works may be disappointed for this reason. Everyone else, though, will likely be disappointed simply because the episode isn't very good. The setting, despite being located in deep space, has the feel of a frontier town in the Old West, with its collection of prospectors, gamblers and those living on the edge of the law. This is fine, but the problem is that most of the story's build-up, in which the motley assortment of characters and their problems are described, feels rather pointless and irrelevant when towards the end the actual point of the story is made apparent. The climax concerns the nature of 'Lulungomeena', and turns on issues of translation and interpretation, but isn't as clever as the story seems to think it is; yet more to the point, it doesn't have a great deal to do with most of what had preceded, leaving the listener wondering what the purpose was of the first twenty minutes or so.
Rating: * *