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Science Fiction Sounds as Good as it Looks

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With the availability of hi-tech special effects, television and film might seem to be the ideal media for dramatising science fiction stories. Once upon a time, however, there was only radio. In the age of computer graphics radio has become an under-appreciated source of fantastic entertainment. Yet, radio drama in that genre has a long history and a bright future.

The pre-television days of the 1930s were the Golden Age of radio drama. The so-called Old Time Radio Shows of that period were many and varied.  Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon are fondly remembered as heroes of campy movie serials, but before appearing on film they were extremely popular on radio. Their early audio adventures, which began in 1932 and 1935, respectively, were cheesy by today's standards. Their casts and crews, however, were pioneers of radio.

From the same period, the genre also produced perhaps the most famous radio event in history: Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre production of War of the Worlds. Aired in 1938 under the title Invasion From Mars, the show played on the fears of Americans jittery about an impending war in Europe. Welles presented the story in the form of news bulletins that interrupted "regular" programming to keep audiences up to date with the fictional Martian invasion. Evidently it was too convincing for some people, who took to the streets in panic.

Two years after the fake Martian landings, Superman arrived to save the world. Beginning in 1940, the Mutual Broadcasting Company's The Adventures of Superman went on to establish some of the mythology surrounding the character, including the famous exclamation, "It's a giant bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!" The series also introduced Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, and photographer Jimmy Olsen. Later episodes were notable as morality plays, some of them aimed at the Klu Klux Klan. The series ended in 1951.

By the end of the Second World War people knew how effectively advances in science and technology could produce massive death and destruction. Military needs had driven advances in rockets, though, revving up the space race. People began to believe that other worlds might be within reach. It was probably no coincidence that serious science fiction radio drama was at its most popular during the late 1940s and 1950s.

Although not exclusively science fiction, the anthology series Escape, broadcast by CBS from 1947-1954, included adaptations of stories by H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury. NBC's renowned series Dimension X, which ran from 1950 to 1951, also featured a Bradbury tale, "The Martian Chronicles." X Minus One (1955-58), meanwhile, included adaptations of stories by Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, L. Ron Hubbard, Isaac Asimov, James Blish and Robert Heinlen.

Other adult-oriented shows from this period included Mutual's 2000 Plus (1950-1952) and Exploring Tomorrow (1957-1958). The latter was hosted by John W. Campbell, Jr., whose short story "Who Goes There?" inspired the film The Thing. Younger listeners had their shows, too. Space Patrol (1950-1955) and Tom Corbett: Space Cadet (1952) fulfilled the fantasies of many children who dreamed of intergalactic adventure. The British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) Journey Into Space (1953 to 1958) was also popular family fare.

The public's reliance on the radio as its main source of broadcast entertainment began to wane in the late 1950s, and with it went the attention of American network sponsors and the networks themselves. Science fiction radio drama seemed to have had its heyday. It didn't go away, though.

Among those leading the line for the genre in more recent years has been the BBC. The British broadcaster's productions of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy have become modern radio classics. The creation of BBC7, an online channel, has given genre fans further reason to celebrate the network's commitment to quality radio drama; BBC7 has frequently broadcast adaptations of The Twilight Zone and Doctor Who and has a dedicated a period in its schedule, called "The 7th Dimension," to science fiction and fantasy plays and readings.

It is not just in the U.K. that fantastic tales have received serious attention. The Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) presented several sophisticated plays under the Seeing Ear Theatre banner, including The Kindred, a time-travel story starring Alfre Woodard (Star Trek: First Contact); Poul Anderson's "The Martian Crown Jewels"; H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine"; and "City of Dreams," an anthology series produced by J. Michael Straczynski, creator or Babylon 5. Tim Curry and Steve Buscemi have been among the featured actors. (These plays were once accessible from the Sci-Fi Channel website, but don't appear to be available since the cable channel's rebranding to Syfy.)

America's National Public Radio has played its part, too. From 1999 to 2000 it commissioned and distributed a series of 40 plays under the title 2000X. The show was hosted by Harlan Ellison and featured adaptations of stories by Vonnegut, Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin.

L.A. Theatre Works' extensive collection of audio plays includes a version of War of the Worlds performed by several Star Trek alumni, including Leonard Nimoy, Brent Spiner, Gates McFadden, Wil Wheaton, Dwight Schultz and Armin Shimerman. Nimoy and John DeLancie (Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation) also formed the company "Alien Voices" with the specific purpose of producing plays based on classic science fiction stories. Their output included The Lost World, First Men in the Moon, The Invisible Man and The Time Machine.

Another genre favourite, Claudia Christian, (Ivanova in Babylon 5), has won acclaim in science fiction audio as the title character in a series of plays featuring interplanetary private eye Anne Manx. Produced by The Radio Repertory Company of America, these productions have been nominated for numerous awards. In 2002 Anne Manx and the Trouble on Chromius won the Mark Time Gold Award, which was created specifically to recognise the best in science fiction audio.

Other independent production companies that have undertaken science fiction audio projects include "Alien Worlds," which made action-adventure space dramas for CD featuring music by the London Symphony Orchestra. The archives of Great Northern Audio Theatre, which specialises in weird tales with a comic twist, also includes some science fiction.

Ironically, the popularity of certain science fiction film and television franchises has meant that they, too, have been translated into audio adventures. British company Big Finish has been producing adaptations of Doctor Who stories featuring the original actors for several years. These have been released on CD and BBC7 has broadcast several starring Paul McGann as the Doctor. Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis adventures voiced by the franchise's principal actors are among the other TV and film properties adapted by Big Finish. Other companies, meanwhile, have produced LucasFilm-approved full cast dramatisations of Star Wars stories and this has become a popular franchise in the audio book market.

Science fiction fans have, themselves, discovered that radio is the perfect medium through which they can contribute to the mythology of their favourite films and shows. Among the most professional are Shaven Wookie Productions' Star Wars series, and The Furry Conflict, which the makers describe as "a creative and critical take-off of Star Trek and Star Wars…set in a cartoon-like world."

In this article I have focused on audio productions made in Britain and America, but many other countries have played their part in the history of science fiction radio. A quick search of the Internet will turn up several sites dedicated to the contribution this medium has made to the history of the genre. And the existence of these sites isn't all that Web access has done to keep science fiction audio drama alive.

For would-be producers, audio has one big advantage over visual media. It's cheap. All you need is a good microphone, actors who can enunciate and a sound effects collection. The availability of e-mail and web-hosting options means that you don't even need a license to broadcast your efforts. Simply save your play as an MP3 and anyone can download it. Who said it was hard to get into broadcasting?

Radio also has unique virtues for science fiction fans. Many plays are available as Internet downloads and players are easily portable. The spread of high-speed Internet access and the advent of podcasting mean that potential listeners can also get material wherever there is an Internet connection. Moreover, access to Internet radio is less restricted by copyright considerations or the range of television and radio transmitters.

With science fiction film and television blockbusters capturing the headlines, it is easy to forget that radio is out there. If you are a science fiction fan, though, don't dismiss audio drama as a thing of the past. It may rely on old technology, but it still has much to offer those of us who love tales of the future.

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