Can Radio Plays be the Future for Science Fiction?

Posted Friday, January 4th, 2013 04:45 pm GMT -4 by 0

Thirty years ago, video killed the radio star, and now I think it’s time that radio had a comeback. Nay, it’s revenge.

Coming to theaters this NEVER.

Yes, The Buggles were right. Video did in fact kill the radio star, and we can’t rewind, we have gone too far. Too far, however, means that we have wonderful devices like MP3 players, which means that the opportunities to listen to audio dramas is increasingly more present than it ever was in the heyday of radio.

But first, let’s talk about how audio dramas really can be the future of science fiction in a very tangible way.

We all know that science fiction has a serious stumbling block when it comes to the media. It even struggles to get shows on its own network (SyFy). Countless SF TV shows are cancelled before the first season fully airs. There are a lot of reasons for this. Sometimes, they don’t get the advertising they deserve. Sometimes they just don’t get the funding they need to actually be good. Most of all, science fiction shows just aren’t made because no one wants to put money into them. Why would they when they have crime shows they can produce cheaper, and are shows that have an established audience no matter how hackneyed those shows tend to be.

Audio, on the other hand, has none of those hang-ups. If we’re going to talk about low production values, there is nothing better than audio drama. In audio dramas you can put a character in India just as easily as the moon. You can have Electronic Circuses that fight robots, and aliens that have four tentacles, three eyes, a thin blue mustache and wearing a red fez all for the cost of hiring a few voice actors. No CGI of questionable quality required.

Very believable claws you have there, sir.

And yes, the Electric Circus and the blue be-fezzed alien, The Tookah, actually exist. They are from Ruby the Galactic Gumshoe , which is written by the estimable Meatball Fulton, the mastermind behind the ZBS radio plays. I know I’m saying that like it’s something everyone should know, but I know the sad truth. Unless you were born the daughter of a broadcast engineer obsessed with radio such as I, the likelihood of you knowing about this wonderful story is pretty low.

So, with audio dramas, you can have any character, and any setting, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Do you remember how, in grade school, teachers were always telling you that your imagination is better than movie or television show in an attempt to make students read more? Well, it’s true. Case and point, the Big Finish audio dramas for Doctor Who.

A lot of old Who fans get a little bitter about how the NuWho fans don’t really respect its roots enough to watch the old stuff, which is sad because a lot of the Tom Baker and Peter Davison episodes are pretty quality. I’m not among the bitter fans because I can see why these new fans don’t want to. It often doesn’t matter how well-written a show is if it looks like it was shot in the eighties on a shoestring budget. Some people find that sort of thing charming. Sadly, even as someone who grew up on it and knows it quite well, I’m not among those who do find it eminently watchable.

Often times I don’t so much as watch Doctor Who, but put it on in the background and just listen just so I don’t have to watch The Doctor battle pantomime sea monsters.

That being said, I love LOVE LOVE the Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas. They are able to do so much more that TV show just wasn’t able to do, and by getting the original actors for Five, Six, Seven, and Eight, they believably fill in the gaps between the episodes, give the companions more depth, and tell more stories because… well… let’s be frank. We always need more Doctor Who.

If you don’t believe how amazing audio dramas are, check out the Zagreus Arc for the eighth Doctor.

For those of you who weren’t around to remember how badly the first Doctor Who relaunch went (we can thank FOX for that), you can be suitably awed by the fact that through these audio dramas alone (okay, and Paul McGann’s oddly sexy voice), Eight became my favorite doctor. He went from the worst to the best, and he did it all through audio.

Now, if you’re British, or anyone who gets to enjoy BBC radio for free, you may be wondering why I’m making a big deal out of this. After all, Britain has amazing shows like Cabin Pressure (starring Benedict Cumberbatch, no less), Bleak Expectations (which, for you Buffy fans, heavily features Anthony Head) and even the Torchwood audio dramas. Unfortunately, I don’t think the rest of the world is so lucky, and North America certainly isn’t. I’m not even sure that 90% of the sci-fi nerds who would listen to audio dramas even know they exist. This is really who this article is for, though I would note that BBC doesn’t do enough science fiction related audio dramas in my opinion, but that is a story for another time.

I may have belabored my point, but I should hope that we are on the same page that audio dramas are a great low cost way to get science fiction out there. Now, let’s go on to what I’m sure is your next question. Why would people listen to them, and when?

Well, let’s do an exercise, shall we? Raise your hand if you have a device that plays MP3s.  Now, think on when you use that device for that specific purpose. Is it when you drive to work? Go on a walk? Go grocery shopping? Clean your house? Do your dishes? Go to sleep?

These are all perfect times to listen to audio dramas. I can’t tell you how much more fun grocery shopping is when I’m listening to Peri and Six face off against the Daleks, or how much more enjoyable going on a run is when I’m trying to figure out where the Fourth Tower of Inverness is with Jack Flanders. Gone are the days when you have to set aside time to sit in front of your radio and listen to an installment of a play. You can simply pause it whenever you want, and continue whenever you need. It’s more convenient than TV really.

So, what’s the point in all this? It’s threefold, really: 1.) This would be good for science fiction. It would produce all sorts of new and important ideas that just are producible in a visual market. 2.) I’m trying to encourage people to find the audio dramas that already exist and enjoy them. And 3.) I’m also trying to encourage people to try their hand at making them. The market is there, it just doesn’t know it is. Let’s get it going, guys!