I, Robot on the BBC: this is how good radio SF could be

I, Robot shows how well suited radio is to science fiction

BBC Radio 4 recently devoted five episodes of its 15 Minute Drama strand to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. There are still a few days for you to catch up with the omnibus edition online and I’d recommend it. Even if you’re outside the UK, you can listen for free – it’s one of the British taxpayer’s gifts to the world.

I suspect anyone listening to Richard Kurti’s dramatisation will have come away with a much better insight into the ethical conundrums that concerned Asimov than they would have gleaned from watching the 2004 Will Smith movie. Maybe that’s a given. But they would also have heard five taught dramas, with a compelling central performance from Hermione Norris as Stevie Byerley.

This made me wonder: Isn’t radio close to being the perfect medium for science fiction? And haven’t radio and SF been guilty of neglecting each other, to the impoverishment of both?

The radio cast of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

In the UK, we’re lucky enough to have publicly funded radio drama. I listen to a lot of radio, but I can still only recall a few memorable experiences of SF. There was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, of course – the seminal SF Comedy which pretty much started my own interest in spoken word radio. There was Earth Search and Earth Search II, a pair of pretty slow (as I recall) 1980s dramas based on the same premise as Battlestar Galactica: humans in space looking for their planet of origin. Some years ago, there was a pretty good adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. But most of my radio listening has had nothing to do with SF. Even a regular genre strand on the digital channel BBC Radio 4 Extra had to be cut back because of the limited amount of archive material.

In fact, the most impressive genre radio I heard after Hitchhiker’s Guide  was the UK broadcast of National Public Radio’s Star Wars series, which had the considerable advantage of drawing on the film’s Oscar-winning music and sound effects.

Of course, if you go further back than my own personal memory, you can see how much enjoyment people used to get from SF on the radio. American youngsters enjoyed Buck Rogers in the 25th Century as early as 1932. Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds for Mercury Theatre on the Air in 1938 was, of course, just about the most famous radio drama ever broadcast in the US – and even today, listening to it in a darkened room can be a pretty unsettling experience.

In the UK, Journey Into Space (1953-55) was the last radio show to attract a bigger evening audience than was watching television, while the adventures of Dan Dare were transmitted in English from Radio Luxembourg from 1951-56. Neither were exactly hard SF, but after television eclipsed radio, there was little genre output of any kind to be found on the airwaves.

Yet, listening to I, Robot, it struck me that radio is ideally suited to the full potential of science fiction.  If there’s a criticism we’ve all heard made of filmed SF, it’s that it tends to produce spectacular travesties of the genre’s literary origins. And if there’s an equally sweeping criticism we’ve heard about written SF, it’s that it can be lifeless as prose, lacking in human drama. Yet I , Robot  shows how  radio can avoid those twin pitfalls. It can convey spectacular imaginary environments with just a change in acoustic or a well deployed sound effect, without overwhelming the human content. It can present personal conflict, intellectual ideas and epic futuristic visions almost simultaneously.

Not many people seem interested in producing SF on the radio, I, Robot notwithstanding. The BBC runs a Classic Drama slot which has pretty much been a stranger to SF. But maybe the world of fandom could be part of the solution.

A search of Stitcher or iTunes shows that there are  people presenting short fiction and paying homage to old time radio in podcasts – but might there be the  talent around to produce new drama reflecting the full richness of the genre?

With recording and distributing audio content now easier than ever before, perhaps we might one day see enterprising fans create a new golden age of science fiction radio.



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