Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: X Minus One

Posted by Maximum Fun on 20th December 2009

Though you’ve no doubt guessed as much, your Podthinker spent much of his childhood utterly fixated on old time radio, which Wikipedia defines as “a period of radio programming in the United States lasting from the proliferation of radio broadcasting in the early 1920s until television’s replacement of radio as the dominant home entertainment medium in the 1950s.” And of all the old time radio that survives, what form could be finer than the venerable radio drama, which hung in there all the way until 1962?

For a kid growing up in the early 90s, though, getting ahold of the stuff wasn’t easy. While obviously long absent from the airwaves, it hadn’t yet found the glorious freedom of the internet, either. (Pre-MP3 and with a 14.4k modem, one faced down the barrel of an all-day download even if the shows were available on the web, which they weren’t.) This meant either scraping together enough allowance to buy sketchy cassettes from collector shops or, more doably, waiting until the next gift-receiving holiday and wishing for OTR by the boxful.

Hence your Podthinker’s deep-seated association of the Holiday SeasonTM with shows like Suspense, Captain Midnight, The Great Gildersleeve, Amos & Andy — which, legally, we’re probably not allowed to mention — and X Minus One. While most or all of these favorites are now up for the download in a variety of spots across the internet, including the astounding archive.org, many are out there as podcasts, and it’s the last of that list [iTunes] [RSS] we’ll examine this week.

Originally aired from 1955 to 1958 by NBC, X Minus One dramatized prose pieces ripped from the pages of Galaxy Science Fiction and Astounding Science Fiction, magazines featuring breathless prose, vivid cover paintings and stories with titles like “Saucer of Loneliness”, “Tunnel Under the World” and “Dr. Grimshaw’s Sanatorium”. Some episodes kind of phone it in by simply assigning one actor the “narrator” role and the rest the lines of dialogue given their characters in the original text, but others are downright elaborate productions, constructing a detailed sonic environment that, given the technology of the era, must have commanded the skills of every professional wood-block-clapping, metal-sheet-wobbling, short-sleeve-dress-shirt-clad middle-aged foley artist within a five-mile radius.

Some episodes are captivating, some hokey, but hey, both qualities entertain! It’s entirely possible to guffaw at X Minus One‘s more outmoded, 50s-y elements while simultaneously appreciating all that’s dramatically and aesthetically interesting about it. (In fact, the experience is arguably uncommonly enriched by that dynamic.) And strikingly unlike commercial radio today, even the ads are fun to listen to through the historical sound-prism, though modern hipsters will doubtlessly be crestfallen to hear that, yes, at one time, their beloved Pabst Blue Ribbon did advertise.

Though meant, shouts its announcer, to deliver us to “a million could be years in a thousand maybe worlds,” the series adheres to the old observation about sci-fi: it’s not about the future, it’s about the present in terms of the future. Of course, since X Minus One‘s present is our past, its short plays are about the mid-to-late 50s in terms of the future, which, in the mid-to-late 50s, looked a lot different than it does now. [YOGI BERRA QUOTE TO BE INSERTED HERE] Thus these lurid tales of interstellar flight, extraplanetary colonies, video phones, space aliens and robots — or, in the parlance of the time, “robuts” — reflect all manner of anxieties about incomprehensible foreigners, technology’s rapid advance, mutually assured destruction and the scourge of abstract modern art.

The show has been converted into podcast form by an outfit called “Humphrey Camardella Productions”, who stay mostly out of the way but occasionally toss in spots for their complete box set of old time radio favorites, whose spines, their pitchman claims, line up on your shelf to form one big image, “like a jigsaw puzzle.” What’s more, he calls this gimmick “the neatest idea imaginable,” which is just about the gravest failure of imagination your Podthinker has witnessed. Still, OTR is OTR, and now that it’s this convenient to obtain, the next step can only be mainlining it straight into one’s veins. Your Podthinker ties off as we speak.

Vital stats:
Format: old-time sci-fi adaptations
Duration: ~20m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]