Science Fiction, Audio Style: Blasting Off With "X Minus One"

Updated: Feb 29, 2020

By John C. Alsedek:

“Countdown for blastoff . . . X minus five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . .

X minus one . . . fire!” (rocket launch sound effect)

“From the far horizons of the unknown come transcribed tales of new dimensions in time and space. These are stories of the future; adventures in which you’ll live in a million could-be years on a thousand may-be worlds. The National Broadcasting Company, in cooperation with Street & Smith, publishers of Astounding Science Fiction, presents . . .


Thus began each thirty-minute episode of what was arguably the best science fiction radio series to ever grace the airwaves. In the early Fifties, when most sci-fi on radio or the new medium of television was of the space opera variety, X Minus One was something out of the ordinary: a legitimate attempt to bring mature, speculative fiction to a national listening audience.

X Minus One premiered on NBC Radio on April 24, 1955; however, the show’s story really begins five years earlier: for X Minus One was a revival of an earlier program, Dimension X. Dimension X had aired for just over a year, from April 8, 1950 to September 29, 1951. Unsponsored for the bulk of its existence (Wheaties was the program’s sponsor for two months in the summer of 1950), Dimension X was perhaps a little ahead of its time. The show adapted the works of a literal who’s who of then-current science fiction writers including Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Kurt Vonnegut; as a result, it received high praise from reviewers. But that never translated into strong ratings, and Dimension X was cancelled after

50 episodes.

However, in 1955 NBC decided to give it another go. The name was changed to X Minus One, but the high production values and scripts from Dimension X remained; in fact, the first 15 episodes were new versions of scripts previously performed on its predecessor series. The voice acting lacked the star power of a show like Suspense, which regularly had Hollywood’s biggest names on as guests. But that doesn’t mean the acting was in any way subpar. On the contrary, the show’s "in-house" actors included some of radio’s finest voices, including Bob Hastings, Norman Rose, Ralph Bell, Mandel Kramer, Luis Van Rooten, and a pre-Wild Wild West Ross Martin. And anyway, if X Minus One lacked star power among its performers, it more than made up for it with its writing, as NBC staff writers Ernest Kinoy and George Lefferts (among others) deftly adapted works by the greatest science fiction writers of the day.

The result was an anthology series that had enough outer space adventure to keep the attention of youngsters but enough nuance and intelligence to capture adult listeners. Some of the standout episodes included:

  • Ray Bradbury’s "Mars is Heaven," in which the first Earthmen to land on Mars find life on the Red Planet—or rather, find their deceased friends and relatives. The ending is, to me, one of the more chilling moments in radio drama history.

  • Isaac Asimov’s "C-Chute," which concerns a small group of humans whose ship is captured by an enemy alien race, and how they use