Friday, November 16, 2007

OLD-TIME RADIO: Dimension X & X Minus One

By the 1950s, storytelling on the radio had hit a creative peak. Expert writers, directors and actors were putting several decades of experience to good use, turning out superb stories in a number of different genres. Westerns, hard-boiled detectives, adventure—all were being represented by intelligent, entertaining shows such as Gunsmoke, The Adventures of Sam Spade and Escape.

Science fiction was well-represented as well, especially by Dimension X and later by X Minus One.

Dimension X ran from 1950 to 1951, adapting stories from Astounding Science Fiction magazine. In 1956, the same producers and writers revived the show as X Minus One, still doing adaptations of stories by some of the best science fiction authors active at that time. One of the things that made these shows so good was that they never wrote down to their audience. If the show dealt with a difficult concept, it still expected the listeners to be bright enough to follow along. Also, they adapted the stories very faithfully, usually making only those changes necessary to make it work dramatically on radio. They did a lot of Ray Bradbury stories, but also did Asimov, Heinlein, Jack Vance and others.
One of my favorites is "A Gun for Dinosaur," based on a L. Sprague de Camp story and broadcast on March 6, 1957. It's about a big game hunter who leads safaris back in time to hunt dinosaurs. But if you take someone back to hunt a T-Rex, make sure he's big enough to handle the high-caliber gun he'll need to use.
The original story is constructed around the lead character, Reginald Rivers, telling the story of the hunt to someone at a bar. This is a perfect way to realistically introduce him as narrator and the radio adaptation keeps the same structure. Also, all the little bits of characterizations that make the finale so effective are kept in place. Even little bits of dialogue that don't relate to the main plot, like a campfire conversation about how a museum once set back a team to catch a brontosaurus, are kept in the radio play and manage to add to the overall verisimilitude of the story. It's great stuff—a prime example of just how good old-time radio could be.

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