Original image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Sam, This Is You
Author: Murray Leinster
Originally aired: 31 October 1956
Plot synopsis: A telephone lineman receives a phone call from himself, from a week and a half hence, his future self having invented a device that allows him to make calls to the past, so that he can pass on information about events to come that will make him/them rich. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in May 1955; and later in Murray Leinster's short-story collection Twists in Time, in 1960.
Favourite line: 'Well, how do you like the nerve of me, calling me up and interrupting me at a time like that? Well, it won't take long, honey, I haven't got too much to say to myself this time.'
Review: This is a pleasant, light-hearted episode, though it pretty much goes in one ear and straight out the other. It is definitely better than some other supposedly humorous X Minus One stories, benefiting from appealing characters and a snappy script. The science-fiction conceit at its heart - a device that allows one to communicate across time - is a decent one, and the way in which it is used to make money ingenious. However, the episode is also full of groan-inducing jokes and doesn't, ultimately, amount to very much.
Rating: * * *
A Saucer of Loneliness
Author: Theodore Sturgeon
Originally aired: 9 January 1957
[Another version of this story aired 5 September 1957]
Plot synopsis: A woman receives a secret message from a flying saucer that appears in New York's Central Park, but later, despite great pressure from the government and the media, she refuses to reveal what the message was. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in February 1953; and later in Theodore Sturgeon's short-story collection E Pluribus Unicorn, in 1953.
Favourite line: 'The flying saucer came down one day / And taught her a brand new way to play / And what it was she will not say / But she takes me out of this world!'
Review: Science fiction of the 1950s was not known for its strong female characters - often, if they appeared at all, they were reduced to minor supporting roles - yet this episode not only puts a woman centre stage, but gives her real depth and complexity. At any rate, she is certainly one of the most interesting female characters to be found in an X Minus One episode. The plot, too, is strong. In terms of this, it's worth noting that the short story from which the episode was adapted was given a retrospective Hugo award - one of science fiction's leading awards - in 2004, indicating its classic status. Among the story's most effective aspects are the echoes of McCarthyism that can be detected in the way the heroine is hounded by the authorities - and like those who refused to name names during the communist witch-hunts of the period, she chooses jail over revealing to the authorities the information she possesses. There are also some powerful, and affecting, moments when the story explores its central theme of loneliness, in conversations between the protagonist and the newspaper reporter who investigates her case. Having said this, at times the episode can feel somewhat overwrought, and it hammers home its message a little unsubtly in places. Frankly, as well, the story is not always convincing - for example, to avoid going to prison for five years, and to stop people constantly pestering her to disclose the contents of the message she received from the alien UFO, why doesn't the woman just make something up, if she wishes so much to be left alone? Nonetheless, an unusual, and poignant, episode.
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Future Tense (1974); TV - The New Twilight Zone (1986)]
Author: Richard Maples
Originally aired: 8 August 1957
Plot synopsis: A newspaper reporter saves an old man from being beaten up in the street, but soon discovers that there is more to him than meets the eye. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in June 1956.
Favourite line: 'I slugged him, yet I knew it was useless the instant the blow landed. He fell just like sponge rubber, yet I kept hitting him. I didn't bother listening to his cries ...'
Review: Something of a curiosity, this episode; and by the end, I wasn't entirely sure what I thought of it. It starts out seeming to be a story about juvenile delinquency - a major social fear of the 1950s (see also, for example, the Suspense episode The Empty Chair) - but then veers off in a very different direction. The mysterious old man at the plot's centre is soon revealed to be an extraterrestrial, who has been exiled from his home planet, but even after his identity is disclosed, there remains much more about him to be learned. I won't say anything more about the plot than this, but it all leads to a conclusion that isn't very satisfactory. In particular, the episode ends quite abruptly, without properly resolving many of its plot threads - for example, we never learn what ultimately happens to the protagonist's son, arrested for a crime he didn't commit. Yet there is something intriguing about the story, especially the way the alien visitor's arrival causes the main character's life to unravel. So, although not a great episode, there's enough here to make it worth a listen.
Rating: * * *
Author: Frank Quattrocchi
Originally aired: 1 May 1956
Plot synopsis: A man born in space who has never been to Earth decides to travel there to start a new life - but after arriving, he discovers that the planet is governed by a repressive dictatorship. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in November 1951.
Favourite line: 'Everywhere in the universe, there were such streets. Streets where you could find freedom and anonymity. A compromise between lawlessness and law. They are permitted by the authorities because it is necessary to have a place for those who are not permitted elsewhere.'
Review: A summary of my feelings about this episode would be: a strong first act, but a big disappointment in terms of the rest. There is quite an intriguing introduction - set in the far future, the story takes place in a time when space travel is commonplace, and those who live in space only rarely return to Earth. What is most interesting about this early section is that it offers a refreshingly realistic account of the problems likely to be faced by those who have spent all, or most, of their lives in space in adapting to life on Earth, including having to adjust to Earth's gravity. Thus, when we first meet the protagonist, a man who was not born on humanity's home planet, he has to undergo a 'gravity conditioning course' before he is able to begin his journey to the solar system. So far, so good. However, soon after our hero's arrival on Earth, the main plot kicks in, and this is where the problems start. We quickly discover that Earth is now under some form of authoritarian dictatorship, and it immediately becomes apparent that this is yet another Cold War science-fiction tale in which the future society presented is simply a thinly disguised allegory for the Soviet Union. There's little attempt to hide this, as the episode even explicitly mentions Marxism. What makes this so problematic is that everything from this point on is either dull or trite (or both), and completely lacking in originality - from the secret police to the resistance movement of the 'freedomites', it's all desperately familiar stuff. Perhaps the main reason I found so little positive in the plot was that I could not help reflecting on the fact that probably the greatest novel ever written about the dangers of an authoritarian state - George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four - was published in 1949, only seven years before this episode was broadcast (and only two years before the publication of the short story upon which it was based). In comparison, this story is woefully unimaginative and unsophisticated. It's a pity that the episode didn't stick to focusing on the difficulties humans may experience in adjusting to different environments, rather than turning into a simplistic, and not very engaging, political tract.
Rating: * *
The Sense of Wonder
Author: Milton Lesser
Originally aired: 24 April 1956
Plot synopsis: On a spaceship that has been voyaging for ten thousand years, the descendants of its original crew have come to believe that nothing exists outside the ship, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a heretic. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in September 1951.
Favourite line: 'The ship is all! Praise the ship!'
Review: There's no getting away from the fact that this episode's story owes a substantial debt to - some might even say plagiarizes - the Robert Heinlein short story 'Universe' (also adapted by X Minus One; see here). In particular, the central premise is straight from Heinlein's tale: that is, it uses the same idea of a 'generation' ship that has been journeying through space for thousands of years, the occupants of which have long since forgotten its original purpose, and have instead developed a rigid theology based on the belief that the ship is the entire universe. For this reason, it is hard to rate the story very highly, as it is extremely derivative. Yet at the same time, the episode does have some strengths of its own, and it perhaps has a better ending than the Heinlein one - when the unknowing space travellers finally discover the meaning of the word 'destination'. What lets it down, though, is that the script is pretty hokey, and the acting at best indifferent. Still, an interesting companion piece to the Heinlein episode.
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: TV - Out There (1951)]
The Seventh Order
Author: Jerry Sohl
Originally aired: 8 May 1956
Plot synopsis: A college professor has to work out how to defeat an alien robot with telepathic abilities that has arrived on Earth as the vanguard of a full-scale invasion. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in March 1952; and later in Jerry Sohl's short-story collection Filet of Sohl: The Classic Scripts and Stories of Jerry Sohl, in 2003.
Favourite line: 'A seventh order robot. Or rather, a humanoid. We are the first in which there is not an automatic "No harm to humans" cut off.'
Review: How do you defeat an enemy with the power of telepathy, who can anticipate every move you are about to make? This is the central question raised by this episode. As such, it reminded me of John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, which also deals with the dilemmas involved in fighting telepathic adversaries (in this case, alien children); it should be noted, though, that Wyndham's novel was published a few years later than the short story upon which this episode was based. The episode also alludes to Isaac Asimov's 'Three Laws of Robotics' - specifically, the injunction that a robot may not cause harm to humans - as did many science-fiction stories of the period, though the robot featured in this episode has been deliberately programmed without such restrictions (other episodes that invoke or reference similar laws are the Dimension X episode With Folded Hands and the X Minus One episodes The Lifeboat Mutiny and Lulu.) However, the problem with this story is that, although the central idea is fine - and the solution to the question of how to fight a telepathic enemy that the protagonist devises isn't bad - overall, the episode simply isn't very engaging; in particular, neither the script nor characterization is especially remarkable. Moreover, I was bothered by the tone, which is highly inconsistent. In places, the episode seems quite light-hearted and jokey, while in others, it becomes much more serious, especially when dozens - maybe hundreds - of people are exterminated by the killer robot. Yet the two elements don't sit very comfortably together. For example, moments such as when the main character, a college professor, wryly comments that he must get back to his marking, after just witnessing large-scale death and destruction, seem insensitive and inappropriate. Even so, a reasonable listen.
Rating: * * *
The Seventh Victim
Author: Robert Sheckley
Originally aired: 20 March 1957
Plot synopsis: In an imagined future in which war has been eradicated, the human need for violence is satisfied by legally sanctioned 'hunts', in which volunteers take on the roles of hunters and victims. Based on a short story, 'Seventh Victim', first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in April 1953; and later in Robert Sheckley's short-story collection Untouched by Human Hands, in 1954.
Favourite line: 'Each killing is a new excitement. It's something you just don't tire of ...'
Review: This is a great story, which still has the ability to shock and surprise. It is a clever, darkly satirical tale, with a real bite to it. The power of the central idea is shown by the fact that, as well as having been directly adapted into a film (The 10th Victim), the story upon which the episode is based - along with other works of Robert Sheckley's that explore similar themes, such as 'The Prize of Peril' - has been reused by many other books and films, including The Running Man and Series 7: The Contenders. In terms of this adaption, what remains most striking is the casual way in which the characters treat the hunting and killing of other human beings, as something that is entirely normal and acceptable. As such, none of the main characters can be described as sympathetic - they are all willing murderers, who take pleasure and pride in their killings - yet the story still manages to hold our interest, because it is presented in a (blackly) comic way. True, its vision of the future is not a very believable one, and does not stand up to too much scrutiny, but this is not intended as the sort of science fiction that aims at accurate prognostication. Instead, this is satire in the tradition of writers like Swift, using a fantastical scenario to offer insights into contemporary society - in this case, by pushing to the extremes a callous indifference to, and even schadenfreude towards, others' suffering, with which we are now all-too familiar from reality television. This adaptation has its flaws - for example, its expository scenes are a little heavy-handed and unsubtle. Yet the episode is still a strong one, with the courage to retain the original story's ending. (It is also interesting to compare this episode with a straighter take on the idea of hunting human prey, the Suspense-adapted story The Most Dangerous Game.)
Rating: * * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Future Tense (1974); Film - The 10th Victim (1965)]