19 November: The short, happy life of Dimension X

Ernest Kinoy, showing the Emmy he would win in 1964. (Photo: Museum of Broadcast Communications.)

Ernest Kinoy, showing the Emmy he would win in 1964. (Photo: Museum of Broadcast Communications.)

Science fiction and horror author John Stanley once spoke of the former genre on old-time radio somewhat disdainfully. He had little use for the like of Space Patrol, Tom Corbett Space Cadet, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, or Flash Gordon. He dismissed one and all of those as “kiddie sci-fi.”

But he may have had in mind a kind of implicit limitation to bringing the genre to the thinking box: “When you talk about radio sci-fi,” he once said, “you’re talking about a very limited number of shows. Most of them were just mysteries with some sort of fantasy tacked on.”

Which may explain a good deal about why such thrillers as Suspense and Escape could dip into the sci-fi genre with comparative maturity now and then. Likewise for Quiet, Please, though that show stayed focused first and foremost (and brilliantly) on psychological fantasy no matter what planet.

It may seem surprising to many that it took until 1950 before someone developed anything resembling adult sci-fi for network radio. But that is when Dimension X premieres. Although it lasts a single season only, it will come to be considered the best of its very limited breed.

Small wonder. Ernest Kinoy* and George Lefferts adapt stories by the formative sci-fi greats—including Isaac Asimov, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Graham Doar, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, and others. The New York version of Radio Row—Inge Adams, Denise Alexander, Joan Alexander, Joseph Curtin, Joseph De Santis, Leon Janney, Raymond Edward Johnson, Joseph Julian, Jan Miner, Bill Quinn, Alexander Scourby, Les Tremayne, and others—provide the bulk fo the talent.

The production, direction, and sound will be taut, and the performances will be likewise. But the very thing that makes Dimension X so memorable is the thing that will also ensure its short life: it can’t break beyond its too-obvious niche, or overcome its loss-leader scheduling, to the broader audience the genre would enjoy a decade and a half later on television, through The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek.

Dimenson X will have a successor series in 1955, X Minus One, with the same writers and many of the same performers, even if the writers are hobbled by being limited to stories published in Galaxy. Somehow, X Minus One will live for three years in original production.

The further problem both shows prove to have in common: 21st Century sci-fi buffs might not recognise the shows as sci-fi entries. Like the psychological thrillers that inform them to a small extent, both shows focus on characters and plot over bizarro, suffocating sound effects. The periodic echo, theramin cooings, and clankingly ethereal sound punctuations (even die hard fans must admit Dimension X‘s opening is classic sci-fi corn) are merely accents, not the thing itself.

But perhaps the real problem with Dimension X and its eventual successor will prove to be as Gerald Nachman (in Raised on Radio) will eulogise:

Radio really wasn’t as good a medium for science fiction as movie serials, comic books, and TV. Futuristic, high-tech wizardry has to be seen to be thrilled to. Inventive as they were, sound effects men were unable to make you “see” the flashy paraphernalia . . . that created 1940s sci-fi appeal. It sure wasn’t the stories.

Given that, even a show as intelligently written by the standard of the day as Dimension X didn’t stand a prayer.

 

TUNE IN TONIGHT:

Dimension X: Competition (NBC, 1950)

Colonists traveling from earth to various new worlds in the Red Star Quadrant receive unexpected notice that they now must choose a single world on which to live, unnerving most of the travelers—including a woman (Elaine Ross) determined to reunite with her sister on a world other than the one to which she’s been assigned—and leading to subterfuge involving competing interests in a technology by which the original plan might have been kept intact.

Arthur: Les Tremayne. Additional cast: Unidentified. Host: Norman Rose. Announcer: Robert Warren. Music: Bert Berman. Director: Ed King. Writer: Ernest Kinoy, based on the story by E.M. Hull and A.E. van Vogt.

 

Further Channel Surfing . . .

The Abbott & Costello Show: Knights in Shining Armor (comedy; NBC, 1942)
The Great Gildersleeve: A Reception for Miss Del Rey (comedy; NBC, 1944)
The Life of Riley: Turkey Hunt (ABC, 1944)
The Old Gold Comedy Theater: Vivacious Lady (NBC, 1944)
The Whistler: Coincidence (crime drama; CBS, 1945)
Escape: Casting the Runes (adventure; CBS, 1947)
Broadway is My Beat: The Eugene Bullock Murder Case (crime drama; CBS; AFRTS rebroadcast, 1949)
The Mel Blanc Show: The Astrologer (comedy; CBS, 1949)
The Jack Benny Program: Jack and Dinah in London (comedy; CBS, 1950)
Escape: Journey Into Fear (adventure; CBS, 1950)
Our Miss Brooks: Thanksgiving Turkey (comedy; CBS, 1950)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Goes to Bed at Seven O’Clock (comedy; NBC, 1953)
Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: Wally Ballou on the Coming World’s Fair (improvisational comedy; trick question, 1959)
Suspense: The Black Door (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1961)
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: The Guide to Murder Matter (crime drama; CBS, 1961)

* — Ernest Kinoy would go on to a distinguished writing career in radio and television, including an Emmy for writing “Blacklist,” an episode of The Defenders in 1964. His further credits would include writing for Rocky Fortune (Frank Sinatra’s single-season radio crime drama), Naked City, Route 66, Dr. Kildare, Shane, Roots, Victory at Entebbe, and Murrow. He dies of pneumonia 10 November 2014, at 89.

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