Original image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Original radio play: Ernest Kinoy
Originally aired: 1 September 1955
Plot synopsis: On the eve of his wedding day, a man is press-ganged into the crew of a spaceship about to embark on a fifteen-year journey to Alpha Centauri.
Favourite line: 'She said to tell you that she didn't object to a bachelor party in principle, but she did think six months was stretching it a bit.'
Review: Absurd. This is all that really needs to be said to describe this episode, which attempts to transpose a plot straight out of a nineteenth-century seafaring tale into a futuristic setting, and as a result makes almost absolutely no sense. The story asks us to believe that a spaceship's crew can be made up of simply anyone - regardless of qualifications - who can be pressed into service, against their will, as if a space vessel were no different to a traditional seagoing one. It's hard to get beyond the inherent ridiculousness of this idea, especially when many of the characters even speak as if they are from the nineteenth century. It feels almost as if the episode were based on a script left over from some historical adventure series, with just a few words changed here and there - 'space' for 'sea' etc. - though, in truth, it was not. I would also advise anyone intending to listen to this story not even to think about trying the Dimension X version - it's more than five minutes longer, which is definitely not a plus, since all this means is even more nonsensical rubbish. Dire.
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1950)]
Author: Daniel F. Galouye
Originally aired: 28 November 1957
Plot synopsis: An advance party of microscopic aliens invades a human body to prepare it for full colonization - yet a major surprise awaits them. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in June 1957.
Favourite line: 'I wish we knew the speech code. Well, another few days and we'll have it broken. Then, total victory will be ours! Total victory!'
Review: There's a very inventive, not to say bizarre, premise behind this episode, which offers a very unusual take on one of science fiction's most familiar subgenres, the alien invasion tale. Instead of Earth coming under attack from mile-wide alien battle cruisers, this invasion occurs at the microscopic level, meaning that humanity is not even aware it is happening. Upon this basis, it's an ingenious story. On the downside, the script is a little weak, with generally bland, purely functional dialogue, and neither of the two main characters is very interesting. Still, it's the ending that makes the story, and even though it's easy to work out what the twist is going to be a fair while before it arrives, it remains a good one. At any rate, the word 'shock' in the title comes to take on a very different significance to what it had seemed to at the start ...
Rating: * * *
Author: Robert Sheckley
Originally aired: 15 February 1956
[Another version of this story was broadcast 4 July 1957]
Plot synopsis: When a colony world that has been out of contact with Earth for two hundred years is informed that they are to be visited by an inspector from the Earth Empire, its inhabitants have to modify their ways to prove that they do not deviate from Earth norms, including trying to persuade a member of their crime-free society to become a criminal. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in December 1954; and later in Robert Sheckley's short-story collection Citizen in Space, in 1955.
Favourite line: 'Now, look, Tom, criminals on Earth commit dozens of murders a day and think nothing of it. All this village wants of you is one little killing. Is that too much to ask?'
Review: This is one of X Minus One's smartest, and most entertaining, episodes. The plot centres on a small colony world that appears to be close to an anarchist Utopia: although it has a mayor, it has no laws, no police and no crime. In many respects, it therefore seems like an almost ideal society, where everyone lives in cosy harmony. Yet its major weakness is that it also seems to have no ability to defend itself, or the way of life its citizens have created, since as soon as it comes into contact with a more rigid, militaristic society - that of Imperial Earth - its inhabitants simply cave in to the demand that they conform to the Earth model of behaviour and organization, to the extent that they even try to make one of their own become a criminal, just because they believe this will please the Earth authorities. As such, the episode satirizes both authoritarianism and conformity, and the sort of pacifistic anarchism that has no answer to the question of how to stand up to a more organized aggressor. Political philosophy aside, the episode is also just plain funny, filled with clever and witty lines of dialogue. There are, too, many neat touches, such as when the colonists put up a sign reading 'No Aliens Allowed Within City Limits', and mix up the ‘correct’ colours to paint the church and school house, all arising from their confused attempts to placate the inspector from Earth. As so often with X Minus One's humorous episodes, the incidental music detracts a little - being of the unsubtle 'comedy' music variety - but otherwise, this is an excellent production, and the episode one that bears repeat listens.
Rating: * * * * *
The Snowball Effect
Author: Katherine MacLean
Originally aired: 14 August 1956
Plot synopsis: A sociologist who has developed a formula to explain how any institution can grow in size tests it out by applying it to a women's sewing circle, but his experiment rapidly leads to highly unexpected consequences. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in September 1952; and later in Katherine MacLean's short-story collection The Diploids, in 1962.
Favourite line: 'Now, look, Caswell, to the Board of Trustees, sociology sounds like socialism - and nothing can sound worse than that. Come on now, what are you doing that's worth anything?'
Review: I may have over-rated this episode, simply because I work in a university, and recognize all too well the pressures placed on departments to prove their 'value', just as the fictional sociology department is forced to here. Those less familiar with - or uninterested in - the world of academia may not find the story so compelling (or amusing), though anyone who works in a large organization may find aspects with which to relate, such as the over-riding concern of managers for the bottom line. At any rate, I found much in the episode's depiction of higher education, such as its suggestion that to university authorities 'academic freedom' means nothing more than the freedom of academic departments to be free from debt, sadly ringing only too true. In terms of the actual plot, one of its most striking features is the confidence it displays in the power of the social sciences, not only to predict but also to shape the future, an optimistic belief that was probably more widespread at the time than it is today (consider also, for example, Isaac Asimov's 'psychohistory', an imaginary discipline he originated in the 1940s, which he presented as capable of predicting events thousands of years into the future). What is disappointing, though, is that - despite the fact that the story upon which this episode was based was written by a woman - it offers quite stereotypical views of the genders. Thus, while the sociologist who devises the episode's scheme is a man (as is the university president who is also in on the experiment), the women in the story are little more than easily manipulated dupes. Nonetheless, there's a good payoff at the end, with a conclusion that flows logically from the initial premise, and which is both funny and clever.
Rating: * * * *
Author: Michael Shaara
Originally aired: 17 October 1956
Plot synopsis: After half a millennium of peace, humanity finds itself under attack from an unknown alien enemy that begins targeting the colony worlds humans have settled, and it falls to a military that has long since become unprepared for war to deal with the threat. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in July 1953; and later in Michael Shaara's short-story collection Soldier Boy, in 1982.
Favourite line: 'An army does what it has to, and ours is weak and filled with men like me. But even so, there comes a time when you have to make a stand.'
Review: I liked this episode more than I thought I would at the start. It begins slowly and the main characters - a group of dissolute, undisciplined soldiers - seem neither sympathetic nor very interesting. Moreover, initially, the plot doesn't appear particularly promising. The story belongs to the subgenre of military science fiction, which doesn't always produce the most subtle or imaginative works, and the basic premise, about the outbreak of intergalactic war, is hardly original. However, as the plot develops, it becomes more absorbing, in its depiction of a future in which humanity has become so used to peace that the military has become almost redundant, and soldiers command little in the way of respect. Yet when hostilities with a mysterious alien foe begin, the colonists of the worlds that are at the frontline suddenly realize that they desperately need these soldiers. One such soldier, the episode's protagonist, therefore has to rediscover what being a soldier means, and the story becomes a tale of personal redemption, as well as an exploration of themes such as honour and duty. The whole business about fail-safe bombs being planted on the colony worlds - to be used in the event of invasion, to prevent their technology being captured by alien forces - seems like a contrived plot device, but there is still enough here to make it an intriguing episode.
Rating: * * *
Something for Nothing
Author: Robert Sheckley
Originally aired: 10 April 1957
Plot synopsis: A man wakes up one morning to discover that a strange machine has mysteriously appeared in his room, which turns out be a 'Utilizer', a device from the future that is capable of granting his every wish. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in June 1954; and later in Robert Sheckley's short-story collection Citizen in Space, in 1955.
Favourite line: 'I can't take any more chances. I better do some big wishing now, while I still have the chance. All right, pay attention here, machine! I'll have five million dollars, three functioning oil wells, a motion-picture studio, perfect health, twenty-five more dancing girls, uh ... immortality, a sports car and a herd of pedigreed cattle.'
Review: Be careful what you wish for is the message of this clever, and very funny, episode, based on a short story from the bountiful imagination of Robert Sheckley (as my Authors section shows, Sheckley was the most frequently adapted writer on X Minus One, and many of the episodes drawn from his work are among the series' finest). The episode has a running time of around only twenty minutes, but in that short space, it manages to pack in a dizzying number of ideas. The set-up presents a science-fictional spin on a plot that is probably as old as storytelling: a man is given the means to have all his wishes come true (in this case, thanks to a technological device, rather than the traditional genie in a bottle), but as hinted at by the title, does this incredible good fortune come for free? Most listeners will doubtless guess that, no, there is bound to be a price to be paid, but I for one did not predict the nature of the surprise twist at the end, which is one of the best of any X Minus One episode. The payoff is both amusing and ingenious, providing a satisfying conclusion to an excellent story. And on a final note, if there were any justice in the world, Sheckley would be as well-remembered today as any of the more famous SF writers of the period.
Rating: * * * * *
[Other adaptations: Film short - The Utilizer (1996)]
Author: Mark Clifton
Originally aired: 10 April 1956
Plot synopsis: A young child starts to display signs of extreme intelligence, which enables her to develop some amazing abilities. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in July 1952; and later in Mark Clifton's short-story collection The Science Fiction of Mark Clifton, in 1980.
Favourite line: 'It isn't easy to be exceptional in a world which regards mediocrity as the only behavior above suspicion.'
Review: Time travel, parallel dimensions, Möbius strips and tesseracts are just some of the elements in this thoughtful and intelligent episode, which mixes mind-bending physics with some interesting commentary on being different and fitting in. Even if, like me, you do not fully understand the science, it is undoubtedly intriguing, playing with a variety of ingenious ideas. Yet as striking as the scientific notions the story explores is what it has to say about the mindsets of the two children it features who possess 'evolved' abilities (including telepathy). In terms of this, the episode makes some fair points about conformity and mediocrity, yet at the same time, demonstrates the dark side of coming to regard oneself as a superior being. Thus, the child at the story's centre - the eponymous Star - devises a highly elitist and contemptuous way of categorizing people into three groups: those like her, with greatly advanced intelligence, she terms 'Brights'; those who are reasonably, but not exceptionally, clever she calls 'Tweens' ('in betweens'); while the vast majority of humans are disdainfully dismissed as 'Stupids'. In other words, there is quite a troubling aspect to the story, which isn't very fully addressed by the episode itself. Still, the performances of both the adult and child actors are very good, and I liked the fact that the conclusion is left ambiguous and open-ended. (For a very different story about young people with out-of-the-ordinary abilities, try the Suspense episode The Juvenile Rebellion.)
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Future Tense (1976), The Grip of Terror (1977), Audion Theatre (1990)]