Original image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Native Problem
Author: Robert Sheckley
Originally aired: 26 September 1957
Plot synopsis: A man who feels like a misfit on Earth leaves to start a new life alone on a distant uninhabited world - but when another ship of human settlers arrives, he struggles to persuade its crew that he is not a primitive native. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in December 1956; and later in Robert Sheckley's short-story collection Notions: Unlimited, in 1960.
Favourite line: 'No one can tell what goes on in a savage heart. Their standards are not ours. Their morals are not ours. We cannot trust them. We must be forever on guard. And if in doubt, we must shoot first.'
Review: This is a clever and original satire by the master of humorous science fiction, Robert Sheckley. Centred on an amusing - if not entirely believable - misunderstanding, it neatly sends up colonial views of native peoples. The settlers who turn up on the protagonist's isolated planet are shown to be both arrogant and ignorant, but the exposing of their misguided attitudes is handled with a light, comical touch. As is also typical with Sheckley stories, the episode is packed with smart ideas, including an adroit use of the SF staple of the generation ship (a spacecraft that has multiple generations of crew living and dying aboard so as to allow travel over vast distances). The story has an ingenious resolution as well, which brings the episode to a satisfying conclusion. It's only a pity that, like all later X Minus One episodes, its meagre running time amounts to not even twenty minutes (not including commercials). This means that it feels a little rushed, with too much of the original novelette on which it is based unfortunately having to be left out.
Rating: * * * *
Author: Isaac Asimov
Originally aired: 7 December 1955
Plot synopsis: A planet that exists in permanent daylight, owing to its having multiple suns, is about to experience its first night for two thousand years, thanks to an imminent eclipse - and this appears to portend catastrophic upheaval for a world that has forgotten what nightfall is like. Based on a short story first published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, in September 1941; and later in Isaac Asimov's short-story collection Nightfall and Other Stories, in 1969.
Favourite line: 'The stars! The stars!'
Review: Isaac Asimov was responsible for a prodigious body of writings, and of his impressive output this relatively early story remains one of his best (and is often voted very highly in polls of all-time great SF stories). This adaptation follows the original quite closely, with many of its key scenes and ideas presented. One of the most interesting themes that survives into the episode is Asimov's exploration of the tension between science and religion, with Asimov as ever displaying an admirably humanistic perspective, committed to logic and reason over blind superstition. Although the scientists in the story are shown to be far from infallible, they are nonetheless the most sympathetic characters - by contrast, the religious 'cultists' are portrayed as irrational and ignorant, failing to understand the significance and meaning of the coming nightfall (though their depiction can be criticized for being somewhat one-dimensional). Nonetheless, while the story may be a classic, this adaptation is not as good as it might be. For example, it fumbles a key scene where the main character, a reporter, is shown what it is like to experience complete darkness (accomplished by the simple expediency of drawing the curtains!) While in the written story this scene is crucial in conveying how complete terror is induced in the people of this world by the darkness to which they are not used - thus showing how people living in a different environment would develop very different emotional and psychological make-ups to our own - here the experience is passed over too quickly, and does not seems to be the traumatic event it should be. The ending, too, lacks some of the power of the written version. Even so, the boldness and inventiveness of Asimov's ideas still shine through (pun, for those who know how the story ends, intended).
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1951); Podcast - Escape Pod (2007); Film - Nightfall (1988), Nightfall (2000)]
Author: Stephen Vincent Benét
Originally aired: 21 July 1955
Plot synopsis: Machines conspire to take over the world. Based on a poem, 'The Revolt of the Machines' (also known as 'Nightmare No. 3'), first published in Selected Works of Stephen Vincent Benét, in 1935.
Favourite line: 'The female machines will be the worst of all, in the beauty parlors. They're more high-strung, you know.'
Review: It was rare for an OTR story to be based on a poem, so this episode at least deserves credit for its unusual source material, if nothing else. Moreover, the dramatization remains very faithful to the spirit of the original, with many of its ideas and images surviving the translation. There are, though, at least a couple of significant problems with the episode. First, for today's audience, the basic premise won't seem very novel - the Terminator franchise offers just one example of a modern take on the theme of 'the revolt of the machines', so most listeners will probably be more than familiar with its central conceit. Indeed, even when the poem upon which the episode was based was first published, in 1935, it was far from a wholly original idea, never mind the 1950s, when the script of this adaptation was written. For example, the notion that humanity's technological creations might rise up and rebel is similarly posited in Karel Čapek's play Rossum's Universal Robots, written in 1920, as well as in various other works penned prior to the poem. Second, the tone of the episode is quite peculiar. In many places, it seems as if the story is being played for laughs (as is evident, for example, in the line I quote above), which is fairly bizarre when one considers that its theme is the fall of human civilization and its title is 'Nightmare'. So, although there are a few interesting ideas here, the episode can't really be described as very successful overall.
Rating: * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1951)]
Original radio play: George Lefferts
Originally aired: 22 April 1955
Plot synopsis: The sixth spaceship from Earth to attempt to break through an invisible barrier in space - known as the Great Galactic Barrier - discovers the surprising secret behind its existence.
Favourite line: 'It was in the year of 1982 that spacemen first discovered the Great Galactic Barrier. In the past ten years, rocket travel to the moon and the nearer planets had become commonplace, and then men fixed their sights on a more distant star.'
Review: This episode is set in 1987, and it's somewhat depressing to think that when it was written - in the 1950s - it was possible to imagine that space travel around the solar system would be an ordinary, everyday occurrence by the 1980s; yet even now, in the twenty first century, we are still waiting for this to be true! As for the actual story, it's a mixed bag. The idea of an invisible barrier that spaceships cannot pass through (predating the appearance of a similar Galactic Barrier in the original 1960s Star Trek) is certainly an intriguing one. However, the episode's script is quite stodgy, the characters mostly bland, and the episode feels very long, with nothing of any real significance happening for great stretches, as if there isn't enough plot to fill the running time. Still, there is quite a good payoff at the end. As with much science fiction of the period, it is possible - SPOILER ALERT! - to interpret the story as a thinly veiled allegory for the Cold War (see, similarly, The Embassy and The Last Martian), with its malevolent aliens covertly infiltrating human society representing Soviet spies and fifth columnists, and the invisible barrier the Iron Curtain. Yet what is most striking, and memorable, about the episode is the fact that it ends on a decidedly bleak note, notable because this is so rare in modern film and television SF.
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1950 x2), The Chase (1952)]