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 . . .
X MINUS ONE.”
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
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 their knowledge of the ship to try and recapture it. This one resonates with me in the portrayal of the "Chloros"—utterly alien and yet somehow more compassionate than many of the Earthmen.
Robert Heinlein’s "The Green Hills of Earth," about a Kentucky-born rocketship "jetman" who is blinded while preventing a catastrophe aboard his ship and spends the rest of his days hitching rides around the solar system and writing songs about his experiences. It’s a favorite for me because of the musical element, as they flesh out the fragments of songs that Heinlein wrote for the original story.
Robert Sheckley’s "Skulking Permit," which tells the tale of a human settlement long cut off from Earth and leading a pastoral and utterly peaceful existence; only they suddenly find themselves in desperate need of a criminal—a murderer, to be exact. So one of them must figure out how to do the dastardly deed . . . Sheckley was one of science fiction’s great humorists, and both this one and "The Lightboat Mutiny" are rollicking good fun.
Frederik Pohl’s "The Map Makers," which concerns the intricacies of how humans pilot ships through "hyperspace," and what happens when a ship’s living hyperspace "map" is killed in a freak accident. This one is a standout for me because of the way in which the hyperspace travel experience is presented—memorably surreal.
Clifford D. Smimak’s "Junkyard," in which a survey spaceship finds itself trapped on a nondescript planetoid because the crew begins forgetting things; and their only hope lies with a crewman who has a substantial stash of contraband alcohol. An episode that straddles serious and silly throughout much of its length, only to take a chilling sharp turn at the very end.
Theodore Sturgeon’s "Saucer of Loneliness," the story of a young woman who has a close encounter with a tiny alien craft that communicates with her—only she refuses to tell anyone what the message was. The ending is absolutely heart-wrenching in a lovely way.
L. Sprague de Camp’s "A Gun for Dinosaur," in which a pair of experienced big-game hunters lead time-traveling expeditions back millions of years for those well-heeled folks who have a yen to stalk the biggest game of all. I dig this one because it’s so visual, which I know sounds funny in reference to a radio show, but it is.
Thomas Godwin’s "The Cold Equations," about a space pilot who finds himself faced with the most unenviable task imaginable when he discovers a young stowaway on his ship. One of the very first episodes of X Minus One and one that was later adapted for the 1980’s Twilight Zone; it’s a favorite of mine because of how it illustrated the harsh realities of what space travel would be like.
X Minus One did reasonably well, ratings-wise, but by the late Fifties radio drama in general was on its last legs. X Minus One was canceled on January 9, 1958, after a 126-episode run. It returned briefly in the early 1970’s during the brief, nostalgia-driven radio drama renaissance that produced the CBS Radio Mystery Theater; a new pilot episode, based on Robert Silverberg’s "The Iron Chancellor," was produced in 1973, but no further episodes were created and X Minus One was officially finished.
Was X Minus One the greatest science fiction radio series of its type? Quite possibly. But it wasn’t the first. Next time, we’ll be talking about the show that was: 2000 Plus. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado, John C. Alsedek, shares the history of radio and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.