Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Radio: Courtesy & Universe (Dimension X)

You may remember, eighteen months or so ago, I was teasing something coming up on what was then Friday Radio.  Well, here it is (with the logo I designed at the time):

NBC Radio's classic science fiction anthology, Dimension X premiered April 8, 1950.  For the sixtieth anniversary, I was hoping not just to present all 46 episodes, but perhaps release an anthology of stories used in the series, and maybe interview Ernest Kinoy, who wrote about half the scripts.

Well, I never got around to it.

Then, last week, after referring to Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains," and the radio adaptations thereof, I was going to post the versions from Dimension X and the later, longer-running X Minus One.  I checked the episode list on Wikipedia, and found that Dimension X ran longer than I'd remembered: all the way until October 29, 1951.  We've still got about three months of the sixtieth anniversary to go.

So, every week, I'll present the episode that aired that week, and maybe an extra... like this week.  And I'll write a little about the original story and the adaptation.  There are some spoilers for the original stories, so watch out.

First, "Universe," based on the story by Robert A. Heinlein, re-broadcast sixty years ago today, August 2, 1951.

The more stories I read, the more I'm getting to think that the early '40s were Heinlein's best period-- vibrant with new ideas tempered with rationality, and without so much of the general cynicism about humanity that seemed to color his work later on.  This is the period of his primal causal-loop story "By His Own Bootstraps," his consideration in "Blowups Happen" of the possible dangers of nuclear power, and "Solution Unsatisfactory," in which, before the United States had even entered World War II in real life, he pictured our defeating Germany with a uranium-based weapon (although it's what we would now call a "dirty bomb" rather than an atom bomb), and went on to consider the political consequences of the possession of such a dangerous weapon.

In "Universe," Heinlein originates an idea so good that, in many other, later hands, it became something of a clich√©: the generational mission on which the descendants have forgotten that they're on a spaceship,  and that they're headed somewhere.  The storytelling is still exciting-- crisp, fast, believable, and ground-level --and must have been more so for readers who'd had to slog through the florid, slow, detached prose style that dominated the '20s and '30s.

I like that both points of view on Jordan and the Journey-- what could be called the spiritual and the materialistic --are each right and wrong in different ways.  The former believes the surviving science and history which suggest a wider world beyond the Ship are purely metaphorical; the latter accepts the science on face value, but dismisses Jordan and the Journey as legend.  Similarly, the mutants are neither heroes nor villains, but people with different abilities and characters: catalysts in Hugh's growth.

The only downside to the story is that, having set a goal-- the re-education of the populace to the truth about the Ship --it abruptly slams to a close well short of there.  I know Heinlein wrote a sequel (although I haven't read it yet), but this is less like setting up a sequel than it is like reaching the end of an installment of a serial.

The radio adaptation has its good and bad points.  For some reason, scriptwriter George Lefferts changed the mutation of the "mutie" leader.  (No, Marvel's X-Men did not introduce that pejorative.)  Here, it's something unspecified wrong with his leg.  In the story, he's Joe-Jim, two independent, sometimes bickering, heads on one body.  Why not have a two-headed character?  It's not like it costs any more on radio than two normal people.  I suppose it was the need to condense a novella to half an hour: losing a head is essentially losing a spare character who takes up time but doesn't really add anything to the plot.

For similar reasons, the details of Hugh's time with the mutants, and his return to his own people-- something which took long enough in the story for Hugh's hair to turn grey --are compressed to the point where they seem to take hours.  Most damaging is that we don't hear about Hugh gradually educating himself via Joe-Jim's library.  In the episode, everyone already seems to know enough that their unawareness of the greater world seems a little unlikely.  It doesn't help that we also get nothing of how the significance of science and history has been lost.

On the upside, the episode does come to a more definite conclusion than the story, if perhaps not as realistic.  However abruptly Heinlein leaves off there, it does make sense that, in a world so set in its ways, Hugh is going to have to depend on a slow cascade: convincing a few open-minded people, who will convince others, and so on.  But the Dimension X ending is far more satisfying on an emotional level.  Perhaps the best ending would be one with Heinlein's logic, but better prepared for, and giving more of a sense of completion with the vision of gradual enlightenment.  But that may be too much to accomplish in a half-hour adaptation of a story that probably runs a little under 20,000 words.

Second up, "Courtesy," broadcast sixty years ago last week, July 26, 1951.  The story by Clifford D. Simak was originally published in the August 1951 of Astounding Science Fiction.  "Wait," you may say, "a story from the August 1951 issue, broadcast on July 26, 1951?"  You'll notice that Astounding publisher Street & Smith was the show's sponsor. And while adapting classic stories from past issues (like "Universe") showed how good the magazine could be, wouldn't it be an even better advertisement to adapt a story from the very issue then on the newsstand?  Hear it tonight, read it tomorrow!

What if you already read Astounding, but didn't listen to Dimension X?  Well, they've got you then, too.  The August issue carried a full-page advertisement for Dimension X, noting its upcoming adaptation of that very issue's "Courtesy."  Read it today, hear it tonight!

(The ad also, by the way, gives the date of broadcast as Sunday, July 29.  Apparently, NBC changed the  show's timeslot sometime after the issue went to press.  Up to June 17, Dimension X aired on Sundays, before switching to Thursdays with the June 21 episode, according to Wikipedia.)

It sounds like this recording was an off-air of the broadcast, by someone who couldn't quite get a clear signal.  You'll notice occasional music and crooning intruding from some other program.

This is a much less successful adaptation than "Universe."  Although, to be fair, the story itself is only good, where it could have been much more powerful.  At his height, Simak was a master of mood.  The palpable sense of isolation and detachment is what makes his Way Station one of my favorite novels, for instance.  In "Courtesy," he sets a tone of impotent anticipation of inevitable doom.  I particularly liked the description of the graves getting more shallow and makeshift with time as there are fewer, weaker hands to make them.  The doctor kills himself right after the commander rakes him over the coals, unable to face the responsibility for condemning the expedition to destruction by not checking the labels on the serum until it was too late to recall the ship.

The problem is, he doesn't do nearly so good a job setting up the most important element of the story: that the expedition dies, essentially, from its own pride and dignity, which earned the natives' enmity by putting them automatically in the role of inferiors.  Although we get a couple of mentions of forcibly keeping the natives out of the camp, the story shows little concern, though, for pride and dignity, per se.  And the natives' concern for protocol is spoken of at one point, but never seen.  So when we learn that the junior crewman unknowingly saved himself by showing deference to a native, the revelation has little impact.  To have a really effective tragedy, it's necessary to be well aware of what turns out to be the fatal flaw.  The burial scene, otherwise so effective, shows the missed opportunity.  Simak could have used this as a more overt demonstration of the crew's dignity, how they feel the need to give their fellows a "decent" burial, even when their ability effectively to do so is gone.  Touches like this would have made it crushing when we find that the commander is himself dying.  We'd know emotionally that this is a man who, even when he knows what the answer is, can't bring himself to beg the natives for help.

Ernest Kinoy's adaptation doesn't help matters.  Simak's mood of doom is all but gone.  He inserts an odd and pointless foray into the natives' village.  And what's worst, he thoroughly botches the ending.  In the story, the disease is a real disease, a virus.  Literalizing the problem by making pride and arrogance into some sort of morality-borne disease, pretty much destroys suspension of disbelief.  (It also begs the question of how humans came up with a serum for it in the first place, if there's no physical disease agent.)  Kinoy also changes the way in which the junior crewman is saved.  In the story, the reason why he steps aside and lets the native pass is that he was momentarily startled.  The alien then sneaks into camp and cures the ailing crewman with a laying-on of hands.  Kinoy probably thought he was improving on Simak by making the crewman deliberately step aside, making him his own savior through his more democratic worldview.  But really, it undermines the sense of tragedy, as does eliminating the captain's knowing refusal to save himself.  In Simak's story, the cured crewman is no better than the others, just luckier.  Simak emphasizes the flaw in the humans by making his salvation purely accidental: something that, under ordinary circumstances, he would unwittingly have prevented by his ingrained behavior.

Incidentally, Kinoy also adds the specific distance (a million light years, which would put it in intergalactic space) and date (1997!!).

Next week: Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt," broadcast August 9, 1951... and maybe an extra.

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