My interest in “old time radio” started in 7th grade. (I think. It might have been 8th.)
At any rate, during my school’s fairly-marginal Gifted & Talented program, our teacher would occasionally have days where we would put our heads on our desks and listen to an episode or two of “X-1”. These breaks were rare, but they inspired me to discover that X-1 was being played on KBEM late at night. I found it on my radio and enjoyed it for as long as I could. As I soon learned, radio is fleeting – the replays ended shortly.
Thanks to the power of the Internet, I can revisit many of the shows without waiting for a rebroadcast. I’ve subscribed to several podcasts and have renewed my appreciation for these productions. Many of them have the pulp style I enjoyed in comics such as Tales from the Crypt or Weird Fantasy, but there are often more subtle themes present in radio plays than could be written into shorter comic-book stories. Some of these shows are very forward-looking while at the same time being terribly retrograde in inclination. We are living in the chronological future to which these science-fiction shows looked, and things turned out very differently than most people expected. Those shows are examples of our past possibles – in other words, our possible past.
The episode in today’s review is Adam and The Darkest Day as presented by Quiet, Please. The episode aired in 1948 on Mutual Broadcasting Network (a for-profit network similar to NPR). The show begins with an older male voice, Adam, describing a city he remembers that was called Chicago. He describes Chicago, then Lake Michigan, and the pleasure he used to feel walking along its shoreline.
He transitions into describing the modern state of the lake after the Dark Days. Now the lake is a swamp inhibited by strange mutations: things that used to be fish, but “aren’t fish anymore”.
(There are some spoilers to follow, so if you want to listen to the show yourself, check it out on Relic Radio.)
The narrator introduces Doc, a former physicist who has found his way into Adam’s refuge. Doc explains that eventually humanity developed bombs large enough to knock the Earth out of its normal orbit. In a war that happened two wars after World War II, these bombs were used to totally incinerate entire cities. (Listeners in the time of the premiere would know that nuclear bombs of the 40s left rubble, as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were only three years past.) This future war was so devastating that citizens fought with their own militaries, purging soldiers from their midst to reduce the risk of being targeted for annihilation. (Minneapolis is name-dropped as one of the notable cities leveled in this war. Yay for us!)
A woman named Emily enters the story as it shifts back to the present. The Earth’s orbit has been destabilized and it’s slowly moving further and further from the sun. Days are getting darker and colder. Doc explains that there will be a day without any light, and that will be the Darkest Day. That will be a good day, in fact, because it means the orbit has reached aphelion. The Earth will then slowly drift back to its original stable orbit. (This part of the story is obviously more “fiction” than “science”.) Doc takes it upon himself to educate Adam and Emily, the new Adam and Eve, in the ways of the now-destroyed world. In his wisdom, he omits teaching any of the science that led to the creation of the doomsday bombs. Any future needs to exist without the weapons men like Doc created.
Doc dies of old age, and Earth resumes its former orbit. As the Earth returns to its normal cycles, Adam emerges from the refuge to discover the mutant fish have evolved into something strange, fearsome, and formidable. Because of them, Adam and Emily produce no children. The days are all dark now.
Downer endings like this aren’t uncommon. What I found interesting is that the destruction of humanity in this story comes not from the weapons of war, but from the environmental damage they cause. This was almost ten years before public discussion of “nuclear winter” would occur in the scientific circles. This show was also years ahead of the atomic-monster explosion in Hollywood movies. Unlike those later films, the radio program chose to keep the monsters “in the shadows” by not detailing the fish-mutants. The audience was left to imagine the nature of the terrors that extinguished the survivors’ last hopes.
Given the scientific solidity of the theme (if not the details), it’s fascinating and infuriating that the story has such an anti-science edge. Post-war fiction was full of science heroes and their beneficial achievements – this story’s science-abetted apocalypse contrasts sharply with the dominant narrative of the day. That’s the fascinating part; the fury is derived from the reactionary nature of the story’s message. Doc isn’t a religious man, but his science apostasy aligns well with latter-day “creation science”, anti-vaxxers and Tea Party economic theory. Using the radio play’s Adam-and-Eve trope, science is the apple of knowledge that brings the fall of humanity.
The performances are solid and the production is accomplished, but the heroine isn’t. Emily avoids the damsel-in-distress trap, but she mostly asks questions to move the plot forward. She doesn’t do anything; she exists to be the potential Mother of Humanity. The story doesn’t care about her thoughts or feelings – while typical of its era, the story’s treatment of Emily is another notable lapse in imagining a truly different future.
By the way, this wasn’t an adaptation of an existing short story. The show was written and produced by Wyllis Cooper, who also had a hand in the remarkable horror series Lights Out. He wrote the majority of the episodes for both Quiet, Please and Lights Out and is worthy of greater recognition in the history of genre media. I’ll visit his work again in this series.