Return to Dimension X
Over the last week, I’ve been listening to a lot of classic radio programs from the fifties, including Dimension X, X Minus One, Stroke of Fate, and Exploring Tomorrow. They’re all science fiction shows, and although they suffered from the shifting time slots and unreliable scheduling that always seem to plague the genre, they attracted devoted followings and laid the groundwork for shows like The Twilight Zone. (Stroke of Fate was an alternate history series, and I’ll confess that I couldn’t resist starting with the episode that imagines what would have happened if Aaron Burr, rather than Alexander Hamilton, had died in that duel.) Given the growing popularity of science fiction in podcast form, it’s worth asking what writers and producers can learn from these older shows, many of which are available for streaming, and it turns out that they have a lot in common with modern efforts in the same line. Just as podcasts often benefit from sponsorships from existing media, many of these programs partnered with science fiction magazines, usually Astounding or Galaxy, both as a source of content and to take advantage of a known brand. If I were trying to start a science fiction podcast, I’d do the same thing. An established magazine would serve as a conduit for talent and ideas, and adapting, say, one story per issue could provide another way of building an audience. It couldn’t be done for free, and it can be challenging to adapt science fiction—which can be hard to follow even in print—to a radio format. But it’s because the genre is so hard to pull off that we remember the few shows that have taken the trouble to do it well. And the example of old-time radio provides a few useful guidelines here, too.
For instance, in these classic shows, we rarely hear more than two voices at once. This might seem like too obvious a point to even mention: even on the page, it’s difficult for the reader to keep track of more than two new characters at a time, and without any visual cues, it makes sense to restrict the speakers to a number that the listener can easily follow. This was also a function of budget: many of these shows were limited to casts of three actors per episode, usually two men and one woman, the latter of whom was also pressed into service for any children’s parts. But it’s worth keeping in mind as a basic structural tool, particularly when it comes to adaptations. Dimension X did a very satisfying job of presenting Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in less than half an hour, focusing on the high points of a few stories—“Rocket Summer,” “Ylla,” “And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” “There Will Come Soft Rains,” “The Off Season,” and “The Million-Year Picnic”—and reworking them as a series of two-handers. (They did much the same in an earlier episode with Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven!”, which Stephen King later recalled in Danse Macabre as his first encounter with horror.) A scene between two characters, particularly a man and a woman, is immediately more engaging than one in which we have to work hard to follow three male voices. It buys you breathing room that you can use to advance the story, rather than wasting time playing defense. And if I were trying to adapt a story for radio and didn’t know where to begin, I’d start by asking myself if it could be structured as five two-person dialogue scenes, ideally for one actor and one actress.
Another strategy that many of these episodes share is an unapologetic reliance on narration. In the movies, voiceover is often a crutch, and it’s particularly irritating in literary adaptations that read whole chunks of the original prose over the action. But there’s a good case to be made for it in radio. It saves time, for one thing, and it can provide transitional material to bridge the gaps between narrative units. Building on the rule of thumb that I mentioned above, if there’s a piece of important action that can’t be boiled down to a two-person dialogue scene, you might just want to insert some narration and be done with it. It should be used sparingly, and only after the writer has done everything possible to convey this information in some other fashion. But it’s an important part of the radio playwright’s bag of tricks, and it would be pointless to ignore it. There’s a reason why narration plays such a central role in radio journalism and podcasting: as I’ve noted elsewhere, it deliberately usurps the role of the listener’s inner monologue, telling us what the action means so that we’re freed up to pay attention to what comes next. It’s very hard for anyone to follow along on two levels of thought at once, and most of the listener’s attention should rightly be devoted to what is happening at this moment, rather than to figuring out what has happened already. Narration is a great way of doing this, and it doesn’t need to be used throughout the episode. (An excellent example is X Minus One’s adaptation of Frederik Pohl’s “The Tunnel Under the World,” which still works like gangbusters.)
But it’s also possible to take these rules too far. Of all the radio shows I’ve heard, the most frustrating is Exploring Tomorrow, which was hosted for about half a year by none other than John W. Campbell, with stories drawn from the pages of Astounding. Campbell would speak before, during, and after each episode, commenting on the action and providing transitional or expository material, and his role as an identifiable host anticipates the persona that Rod Serling would later assume. Yet the show was a flop. Why? Campbell wasn’t a natural radio presence, which didn’t help, but his narration also detracted far more than it added: it spelled out themes that should have been implicit in the action, and it ended up undermining the drama in the process. A story like “The Cold Equations,” for instance, should have been perfect for the format—it’s already a gripping two-hander with one male and one female character, and it had been adapted successfully by previous shows. Yet the version on Exploring Tomorrow just sort of sits there, because Campbell insists on telling us what has happened and what it means. (He also spoon-feeds us a lot of exposition that should have been conveyed through dialogue, if only because it would have forced the writers to work harder.) In theory, it isn’t so far from Ira Glass’s description of radio as “anecdote then reflection, over and over,” but it doesn’t work here. Campbell was a born lecturer, both in his magazine and in the office, but people didn’t want to invite him into their homes. And if a show can’t manage that, all the craft in the world won’t save it.