Original image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Author: Frederik Pohl
Originally aired: 26 December 1957
Plot synopsis: A trio of time travellers goes back in time to try to prevent the nuclear apocalypse that has ravaged the planet, which they believe can be achieved by assassinating just one man - Albert Einstein. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in April 1955; and later in Frederik Pohl's short-story collection Alternating Currents, in 1956.
Favourite line: 'The world will be as it would have been if Einstein had never existed.'
Review: This story explores one of the classic 'what if' questions of science fiction: 'if you could go back in time and kill one person (a significant historical figure, like Hitler or Stalin) before they have done anything wrong, in order to save the lives of millions, would you do it?' What's interesting about the set-up for this episode, and which makes the moral conundrum more difficult to resolve than in the case, say, of an 'evil' dictator, is that the person to be killed - Albert Einstein - is not himself 'evil', even if it is believed that his actions are (indirectly) responsible for terrible consequences. Thus, we are asked to consider how we would feel, even if we wouldn't mind pulling the trigger to kill a Hitler or a Stalin, about killing someone who did nothing intentionally wrong, if this were for the greater good. This is the quandary that occupies the first half of the episode. In the second half, it then addresses the follow-up question: leaving aside its morality, would killing someone in the past actually work - would it truly change the future? After all, kill Hitler, and wouldn't someone else simply take his place? The story thus also addresses the question of how much history is determined by the actions of particular individuals, and how much it is the product of broader (political, economic and social) forces, beyond the control of any one person. I won't reveal the answers the episode gives to the questions it raises, but suffice to say, they are satisfying ones, and the story maintains a consistent internal logic throughout. The problem, though, for modern listeners is that of over-familiarity with the ideas the story deals with, thanks to numerous examples from television and cinema since this episode was made - with everything from the Back to the Future trilogy to the Terminator films having explored the idea of whether it is possible to change the present/future by altering the past. This means that few today will find anything particularly surprising or startling about any of the story's main plot developments. So, an enjoyable episode as far as it goes, but not one that leaves much of a lasting impression. (A superior take on the idea of trying to change the future by travelling into the past is explored in the episode 'Time and Time Again', which I have reviewed below.)
Rating: * * *
There Will Come Soft Rains
Author: Ray Bradbury
Originally aired: 5 December 1956
[This story formed part of a double bill with Zero Hour. Another version aired 23 November 1955]
Plot synopsis: A fully automated house continues carrying out its duties - cooking, cleaning and managing its owners' affairs - even after the family living there has been wiped out in a nuclear war. Based on a short story first published in Collier's magazine, on 6 May 1950; and later as a chapter in Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, in 1950.
Favourite line: 'There were ten thousand explosions, and the world shook, and red fire and ashes and radioactivity fell from the sky. The happy time was over.'
Review: This episode was adapted from one of the stories that forms part of Ray Bradbury's composite novel The Martian Chronicles (for other episodes based on stories in this sequence see under Bradbury in my Authors list). Prior to being published as part of this novel, it was originally a standalone short story (with its title taken from a poem by Sara Teasdale), so works fine as a separate tale. It's a clever idea to imagine the aftermath of a nuclear war not from the perspective of human survivors, but from that of the creations humanity leaves behind - specifically, a house and all its mechanical labour-saving devices. This is a wistful, sorrowful tale that seems to be saying that all of mankind's technological marvels are of little value when humanity has yet to overcome its appetite for war and destruction. Ineed, the episode offers a very critical view of man's place in the universe, seeking to emphasize that the world - even a devastated, war-torn one - will still continue even after humanity has gone. There is also some quite grim imagery, such as the imprints of people's shadows burned into walls by the nuclear blasts, which serve as some of the only evidence that they even existed. Overall, this is a haunting, affecting collection of ideas and images - almost a poem rather than a story in the conventional sense (there are no named characters, for example) - though it might well outstay its welcome if it lasted much longer than the ten minutes or so of its running time. Yet as a mood piece it is undoubtedly very effective. (Although there is no explicit connection, another episode adapted from a Bradbury story, The Veldt, features a similar automated home, though set in what seems to be an earlier time frame - could it, perhaps, be the same house?)
Rating: * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1950), NBC Experiment in Drama (1964), BBC Radio (1962, 1971, 1974 and 1977); Animation - Russian-language short (1984)]
A Thousand Dollars a Plate
Author: Jack McKenty
Originally aired: 21 March 1956
Plot synopsis: A group of scientists at an observatory based on Mars try to find a way to force the nearby casinos to stop setting off the fireworks that keep ruining their photographic plates. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in October 1954.
Favourite line: 'You put a hole in my pocket like I haven't had since I once ran into an honest police lieutenant in Cincinnati.'
Review: On the plus side, this is a light and breezy episode that moves along at a fair pace. It's also played well, with enjoyable performances from the cast. However, this attempt at comedy SF provides only limited amusement for a modern audience, as the humour is both very tame and quite dated. There is a certain charm to its innocent portrayal of the casino boss the scientists attempt to blackmail, who comes to see them for a cosy chat, rather than to break their legs; this definitely isn't a Martin Scorsese story! Ultimately, though, this is a very slight tale, which won't linger in the memory for long.
Rating: * *
Time and Time Again
Author: H. Beam Piper
Originally aired: 11 January 1956
Plot synopsis: The mind of a dying soldier is transported back thirty years to the body of his thirteen-year-old self, and he begins to wonder whether it might be possible to change not only his own but the whole world's future. Based on a short story first published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, in April 1947; and later in H. Beam Piper's short-story collection The Worlds of H. Beam Piper, in 1983.
Favourite line: 'I'll submit that any man that holds intimate conversations with disembodied spirits isn't to be trusted with a gun.'
Review: This episode is based on H. Beam Piper's very first published story, and it is an excellent one. The question of whether by travelling into the past it is possible to alter the future has been addressed numerous times in science fiction - indeed, it is also tackled by another X Minus One episode, 'Target One', which I have reviewed above. Yet this episode is remarkable for a couple of reasons. First, the way in which the main character aims to change the course of history is much more interesting than in many stories that explore this idea - e.g. in 'Target One' (and many others, including the Terminator films), the method employed is simply to try to kill someone. I won't reveal what the alternative idea is here, but it is a more ambitious, long-term proposal, that is much more thought-provoking. Second, the episode has a real emotional impact. It is not just about a relatively anonymous time traveller; instead, at the core of the story is a well-drawn, affecting relationship between a father and son. So, an intelligent and even, in places, moving tale. Still, I wish I had as good a memory as the protagonist of this story - he remembers precise historical dates (including times) and the names of every winner of the Kentucky Derby for over twenty years, when I struggle to remember what happened only last week!
Rating: * * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1951)]
To the Future
Author: Ray Bradbury
Originally aired: 14 December 1955
Plot synopsis: A scientist and his wife, who have travelled back in time from the year 2155, try to elude a 'searcher' sent to return them to the war-torn future from which they have fled. Based on a short story first published in Collier's Weekly, on 13 May 1950; and later, as 'The Fox and the Forest', in Ray Bradbury's short-story collection The Illustrated Man, in 1951.
Favourite line: 'I just wanted to remind you: the rabbits may hide in the forest, but a fox can always find them.'
Review: A personal favourite, this episode retains its power to thrill and surprise even decades later. Modern listeners may be reminded of films like The Terminator and Twelve Monkeys, as it similarly deals with time travellers from a bleak dystopian future journeying back in time to the present. In this case, we learn very little about the future world left behind, other than that it is one devastated by war, but the episode is probably all the more effective for leaving the details to the audience's imagination. One way to interpret the story is as a Cold War parable, as it would be easy to imagine the protagonists not as time travellers but as dissidents fleeing the Soviet bloc, yet its central theme, the conflict between the demands of an oppressive state and individual freedom, has a resonance beyond just the tensions of this era. In any case, the episode also works well simply as a tense, exciting thriller, with a fine script, an interesting setting (a vibrantly depicted small town in Mexico) and a pair of sympathetic main characters. A memorable ending, too, which packs a real punch.
Rating: * * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1950), Thirty Minute Theatre, as 'The Fox and the Forest' (1959), The Unknown World (1973), Bradbury 13 (1984); TV - Out of the Unknown (1965)]
Author: Robert Sheckley (writing as Finn O'Donnevan)
Originally aired: 13 February 1957
Plot synopsis: While on a hunting weekend in the woods, a pair of hunters receives a mysterious gift of a new type of trap, but when they set it, they are greatly surprised by what they catch. Based on a short story, 'Trap', first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in February 1956; and later in Robert Sheckley's short-story collection Pilgrimage to Earth, in 1957.
Favourite line: 'Now, that's the trouble with you, Ed, you're always cluttering up a hunting trip with hunting.'
Review: A flimsy plot and a very dated view of marital relations make this episode far from a classic, but it is gently amusing, with some fun dialogue and one or two nifty ideas. I won't spoil the ending, but it leaves listeners in no doubt that this is based on a story from the 1950s, not the twenty first century, as it depends on a decidedly less than progressive view of gender politics, to put it mildly. Still, what I did enjoy was that the two main characters spend most of the episode completely drunk!
Rating: * * *
Author: James E. Gunn
Originally aired: 19 September 1957
Plot synopsis: In a perfectly ordered and harmonious society, the surprise occurrence of a theft causes the statistician who detects it to go into psychoanalysis to aid him in catching the perpetrator, to help him understand the workings of the criminal mind. Based on a short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in March 1956; and later in James E. Gunn's short-story collection Future Imperfect, in 1964.
Favourite line: 'By the time the annual status examinations were due, I was a complete wreck. I hated Andrew Rednik with a passion. I was ambitious and jealous. I had even sunk to that basest of all passions - I had fallen in love with my own wife!'
Review: This is a fair episode, but not a terribly electrifying one. There is potential in an episode that explores the idea of a society in which order and harmony have been achieved through social engineering and by applying the techniques of psychoanalysis, but it just doesn't amount to much as a story. As with many tales about supposed utopias, the crux of the episode is exposing the flaws beneath the apparently perfect surface, and in this case it is that the well-ordered society that has been engineered has created a dull conformity that stifles change and innovation. This may well be an insight possessing some value, but with none of the characters being very sympathetic, and with little time for anything to be properly developed (this is one of those late-period X Minus One episodes which, minus commercials, is less than twenty minutes long), there simply isn't enough here to get really excited about.
Rating: * *
Tunnel Under the World
Author: Frederik Pohl
Originally aired: 14 March 1956
[Another version of this story aired 4 September 1956]
Plot synopsis: After waking from a nightmare, a man finds himself living the same day over and over again. Based on a short story, 'The Tunnel Under the World', first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, in January 1955; and later in Frederik Pohl's short-story collection Alternating Currents, in 1956.
Favourite line: 'On the morning of June 15th, Guy Burckhardt woke up screaming.'
Review: Groundhog Day meets The Truman Show meets The Matrix is a description that may give some indication of this episode's mind-bending plot. What the story shares in common with all these examples is that it raises the question of what is reality. As such, it feels as if it might have come from the febrile imagination of Philip K. Dick (though it is in fact based on a short story by another master of science fiction, Frederik Pohl). Many listeners will also be reminded of The Twilight Zone, as the story could very easily have been adapted for this series. In any case, this ranks as one of the very best X Minus One episodes of all. What is most striking at the beginning - when we first meet the protagonist and learn that he keeps reliving the same day, yet no one else seems aware that the day is repeating - is how modern its central idea feels; after all, Groundhog Day didn't bring a similar conceit to a wider audience until over thirty-five years later. It's difficult to discuss any more about the plot without giving too much away, but one reason this is such a strong episode is that just when you think you have the story figured out, there is a twist that sends it veering off in a new, unexpected direction. Furthermore, with so many twists and turns in the plot, this means there are enough ideas here for two or three different stories. Another reason this ranks so highly is that it is almost the archetypal X Minus One episode, in that it touches on a great many of the fears and concerns of the era that were explored throughout the series' run, including about the atomic bomb, consumerism, the advertising industry, electronic surveillance and secret conspiracies; it even manages to reference both Martians and Russians, the two major 'bad guys' of 1950s American science fiction. Finally, the ending is bold and jaw-dropping, and packs a real punch. A classic among OTR episodes.
Rating: * * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Future Tense (1974), BBC Radio (2000); TV - Out of the Unknown (1966); Film - Italian-language Il tunnel sotto il mondo (1969)]