Original image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A Pail of Air
Author: Fritz Leiber
Originally aired: 28 March 1956
Plot synopsis: After a comet has pulled the Earth from its orbit about the sun, a family struggles to survive in a world so cold that even the air has frozen. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in December 1951; and later in Fritz Leiber's short-story collection A Pail of Air, in 1964.
Favourite line: 'I want the sun! I want the sun back!'
Review: The power of this story derives from its attention to detail, with the grimness of its post-apocalyptic scenario effectively conveyed through the day-to-day struggle for survival of a single family: from the 'nest' in which the four characters are forced to live, insulated from the external world by layers of blankets, to the necessary ventures outside to collect the titular pail of (frozen) air, the only source of air to breathe. Also notable is that the episode is told from the viewpoint of the family's son, rather than - as might be expected - the father; as a young teenager who has known no other life than that of the nest, and for whom the sun is something only heard about in stories, he provides an interesting perspective. What also makes this a strong story is that there is some very striking and evocative imagery, particularly the frozen figures encountered in the building outside the family's sanctuary, unfortunate people fixed in time when the sun's warmth vanished. A weakness of the episode, though, is that the female characters are very stereotypically of the time in which it was produced - thus, despite the nightmarish nature of the world in which they find themselves, the overriding concerns of the mother and daughter are frequently depicted as being simply the trivia supposed to obsess their gender, such as hair, clothes and lipstick. Even so, a memorable, highly atmospheric story.
Rating: * * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Future Tense (1974), Audion Theatre (1990)]
Original radio play: George Lefferts
Originally aired: 1 May 1955
[Another version of this story aired 25 January 1956]
Plot synopsis: An advertising agency is hired by a man claiming to be a Martian, to organize publicity and a parade to herald the arrival on Earth of invaders from Mars.
Favourite line: 'It has been my observation that advertising and publicity are the very backbone of Earthly civilization.'
Review: What is most interesting about this episode is that many of the concerns of the decade in which it was produced, the 1950s, can be detected in its script. This includes memories of the recently fought World War II, as the marching Martians are compared to Nazi stormtroopers, and a fascination with the increasingly important mass media and advertising industries. Furthermore, the central focus of the plot, the prospect of imminent invasion, reflects contemporary Cold War anxieties about the possibility of communist takeover - represented here by the threat of conquest by Martians, as was common in the science fiction of the period (for other examples, see the episodes The Embassy and The Last Martian). The story is presented in a light-hearted way for most of its running time, though it does become more serious later on, and is generally quite effective. Still, the basic problem is that it is all very predictable. Although the characters in the episode take quite some time to figure out what is going on, most listeners will realize from the very beginning that the parade is not just a publicity stunt, but something more sinister, and when the soldiers start marching through the streets of New York, that they really are Martians. This means that there isn't much in the way of suspense, and there are no real surprises. Even so, although it is hardly Mad Men, the story does offer a gently amusing commentary on Madison Avenue and the absurdities of the advertising industry. (For another, more acerbic, science-fictional satire of the advertising world, try the CBS Radio Workshop story The Space Merchants.)
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1950), Future Tense (1974)]
Perigi's Wonderful Dolls
Original radio play: George Lefferts
Originally aired: 5 June 1955
[Another version of this story aired 18 January 1956]
Plot synopsis: A little girl takes home a life-like talking doll from a store run by a mysterious owner, but it soon becomes apparent that it is not the harmless, inanimate toy it at first appears to be.
Favourite line: 'Men are big and tall / Dolls are very small / When men begin to fall / The dolls will rule them all!'
Review: Listening to this story, I was reminded of the classic Twilight Zone episode 'Living Doll', as well as various - generally poor - horror movies, such as those in the Puppet Master and Chucky franchises. The popularity of tales in which dolls appear to come to life can perhaps be explained by the fact that they play upon the childhood desire for toys to be real, twisting this innocent wish into nightmarish scenarios based on how terrifying it would be if they really did become sentient. Whatever the explanation, there is something very creepy and disturbing about the idea of living toys (the Toy Story films notwithstanding), and this episode offers some effective chills as a result. However, when dealing with such a fundamentally absurd premise, it is probably best to leave the explanation for a doll's animation vague or ambiguous - something arcane or supernatural - whereas this episode gives a much more concrete one, which when revealed adds one too many outlandish ideas into the mix. Even so, an entertaining story overall, with some good moments.
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1950)]
Pictures Don't Lie
Author: Katherine MacLean
Originally aired: 24 October 1956
Plot synopsis: Transmissions from space turn out to be from an intelligent alien species, and when communications are received from one of their spaceships heading towards Earth, humanity prepares to meet the visitors they have so far seen only on the extraterrestrials' television pictures. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in August 1951; and later in Katherine MacLean's short-story collection The Diploids, in 1962.
Favourite line: 'They had a monitor set up with the automatic translator hooked up on the audio channel so the alien operator looked as if he was talking English, but the lip movement didn't quite match, like a bad foreign film with English dialogue.'
Review: This is an agreeable sort of episode, the kind that is enjoyable to listen to for thirty minutes, but which doesn't really set the pulse racing or the imagination firing. Essentially a series of exchanges between two characters, a scientist and a newspaper reporter, the story unfolds at a measured pace, and I liked the way that the episode respects the laws of physics enough that years have to pass between the sending and receiving of messages across the stars - though it is a little strange that neither of the principals seems overly shocked or amazed by the fact that they have made contact with aliens. The characters themselves are reasonably likable, without having a great deal of depth, while the script is fairly utilitarian, with not much in the way of sparky or memorable dialogue. However, opinions of the episode will mainly be determined by what is thought of its ending. Some may find this clever and imaginative, while others may be less impressed, especially those who find it relatively familiar, since a number of SF stories (including other radio and TV episodes) have used the same idea. Furthermore, the title provides a definite clue to the story's denouement, and some may guess relatively early on what the twist is going to be.
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Future Tense (1974); TV - Out of This World (1962)]
Point of Departure
Author: Vaughn Shelton
Originally aired: 17 October 1957
Plot synopsis: An administrator at a scientific research facility has to account for a missing $300,000 from the budget - which has been used to fund the development of an incredible new power source, from designs found on ancient Egyptian tablets. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in April 1956.
Favourite line: None.
Review: It has been a long-standing conceit in science fiction - from the writings of H. P. Lovecraft to films like Stargate and Prometheus - to imagine that Earth may have been visited by extraterrestrials millennia ago (not to mention in 'non-fiction' works like Eric von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods). However, the discovery of ancient tablets that reveal the secrets of an advanced power source, presumably of alien origin, is the only point of interest in this episode, as the plot itself is immensely dull. For starters, there's not much promise in making the protagonist a bureaucrat - rather than, say, a scientist or a soldier - and trying to wring tension from an investigation into a budget discrepancy was never very likely to work. As for the rest, much of the action takes place 'offstage', so there is little excitement in the story's telling, even as it takes in elements including theft, betrayal and space travel. Nor is the script particularly scintillating, or the performances more than fair. All told, a weak episode, with very little to recommend it.
Author: Alan E. Nourse
Originally aired: 2 January 1958
Plot synopsis: A man married to a hectoring wife purchases an android built to look exactly like him, so that he canpursue an affair with his secretary in secret. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in June 1957.
Favourite line: 'If we'd been living back in the blissful '50s, I might have divorced her, but this was 1974, and what with the Family Togetherness Act of '68, and the Aggrieved Spouse Compensation Act of '69, I'd have been an outcast, and a pauper, for the rest of my life.'
Review: It's quite remarkable that X Minus One broadcast not one, not two, but three different episodes riffing on the idea of a man using an artificial duplicate to impersonate him in front of others, so as to fool the significant woman in his life - as well as this one, the other two are Child's Play and Marionettes, Inc. I'm not entirely sure why this plot was so popular with the series' producers, but all three exhibit, to varying degrees, negative and stereotypical views of women, who are either overbearing wives or superficial sex objects. In each case, the men feel unable to relate openly and honestly to these women, but instead feel the need to try to hoodwink them. The three episodes date from the 1950s, so this was before the post-war women's 'liberation' movement had emerged, yet all seem to display a fear of strong women - the men, it appears, would prefer them to be passive and subservient - so perhaps this was the attraction of the idea to the show's (male) producers. In terms of this episode specifically, although it is set in the 1970s, the characters' behaviour and attitudes belong entirely to the era in which it was made, with very old-fashioned views of marriage and the role of women in evidence. Even so, the tone is light enough that the story can, up to a point, be forgiven, and it is amusing in places. There is also a fair twist at the end, which goes some way to ameliorating the chauvinism apparent in the initial set-up, though - SPOILER ALERT! - it is almost identical to that used in the adaptation of Marionettes, Inc., which is one reason I have rated this episode lower.
Rating: * *
Author: Clifford D. Simak
Originally aired: 5 June 1956
Plot synopsis: A trio of entrepreneurs travels fifty thousand years into the past to establish a new country, which they call 'Mastodonia', so that they can get rich by exploiting the Earth's resources long before any other humans have even been born. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in March 1955; and later in Clifford D. Simak's short-story collection All the Traps of Earth and Other Stories, in 1962.
Favourite line: 'Well, he'd better find it before we get too old to enjoy anything. Unfortunately, there's no Social Security in Mastodonia.'
Review: This is a really fun episode, which explores some very novel ideas about the possible uses of time travel. For example, one of the story's major threads concerns the efforts of its main characters to gain recognition from the US government for the 'country' they have created in the prehistoric past, in order to secure not only diplomatic and trade ties, but foreign aid! The fact that this country exists in the same geographical space as the modern United States, even if separated by thousands of years temporally, raises all sorts of intriguing questions about nationhood and identity - though since the episode is essentially a light-hearted adventure story, it does not explore these in any depth. In terms of the protagonists' plan to make their fortunes, by selling resources extracted from the pre-human past, the obvious question raised is, won't this deplete what is available when human beings do appear on the historical stage? After all, aren't physical resources finite? The episode has a clever answer to this, which is that, since some deposits of lead found in the present were once uranium, it would be much more worthwhile (and profitable) to extract them in the past when they existed in the latter form. From a scientific point of view, this is probably quite dubious - I'm no expert, but I believe it takes millions of years for uranium to decay into lead, so would today's lead deposits really be uranium if mined in 'Mastodonia', when the period to which our time travellers journey is only fifty thousand years ago? Nonetheless, it's an interesting idea. However, an even more serious issue with the scheme is that no account is taken of the wider implications of making changes in the past. In his short story 'A Sound of Thunder', similarly about time travel into prehistory, Ray Bradbury famously conceived of the 'butterfly effect', the notion that even a single, seemingly insignificant action - say, killing a butterfly - can cause a whole chain of far-reaching and unpredictable consequences. Yet the time travellers in this episode give no thought at all to such possibilities, for example, killing not merely a butterfly, but a mastodon! The fact that this could have a ripple effect through time, which might even endanger the future of humanity, is not even considered. Still, leaving these issues aside, in terms of the drama the only real negative here is that the ending is a bit of an anticlimax - there's no final twist or surprise, as one might expect in this sort of story. Otherwise, though, this is a very enjoyable and inventive tale. (Another very good episode about travelling back in time to the prehistoric past - but which also shows scant regard for the butterfly effect - is A Gun for Dinosaur.)
Rating: * * * *