Category: Audio Drama Review

Audio Drama Review: Black Jack Justice Season 1

Black Jack Justice was produced by Decoder Ring Theatre in Canada. Like the Red Panda, it’s a period series. Black Jack Justice is set after World War II and is a detective series in the style of hard-boiled detective shows like Philip Marlowe and That Hammer Guy.

Unlike most narrated private eye series, Black Jack Justice features two detectives and each takes turns narrating the story. The series stars Christopher Mott as Jack Justice and Andrea Lyons as Trixie Dixon: Girl Detective, his partner. Writer Gregg Taylor plays their recurring police foil Lieutenant Sabien.

The format of the series works well. Both characters are hard boiled, but their styles vary. Justice’s narration tends to be a bit more world-weary and sarcastic, while Dixon is lighter and more smart alecky in her approach. It makes for interesting narration and also good banter between the characters.

There’s definition friction between them, and lots of sniping back and forth. Still, there’s a great amount of professional respect as well as a shared sense of right and wrong.

The first season features twelve episodes, unlike future seasons which would included only six. The episode titles in this first season employed many puns on Justice’s name, such as, “Justice Served Cold,” “Justice Delayed,” “Justice be Done,” and “Hammer of Justice.”

Almost every episode has a good mystery plot. The stories are intellectually engaging and often offer surprising solutions. Most have a tone and style that would fit into the golden age of radio. On some issues, particularly the role of women and domestic violence, it feels a bit more modern, but it doesn’t go overboard.

The music is great, particularly what’s used during the narration. It establishes the mood well.

The only episode that left me a bit cold was the series finale, “Justice and the Happy Ending.” The mystery was not challenging and the plot ultimately came down to how Justice would handle a temptation. However, it was somewhat predictable the way it played out.

Still, the season is overall quite strong. If you love golden age detective shows, it’s definitely worth a listen.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Season 1 of Black Jack Justice is available on the Decoder Ring Theatre website.

Audio Drama Review: Four by L’Amour


As I’ve mentioned before, Random House adapted several stories by the great Western Author Louie L’Amour to audio. Most of these are available as single releases, but some are available as collections, particularly those who have the same lead character. However, this collection of four audio dramas only has the irresistible rhyming title with four different heroes (all but one a one-shot character.)

In “No Man’s Man,” Gunslinger Lou Morgan is hired to get rid of a suitor to a woman he was madly in love with. However, he arrives to violence and so many complications.

I like this story. Even though it’s in the Old West, it reminds me of a classic hard-boiled detective novel: There’s a lying client, dangerous hoods, a mysterious woman who captures our hard-bitten hero’s heart. It has great action and a solid story.

In “Get Out of Town,” fourteen-year-old Tom Fairchild is the man of the house at his farm after his father dies and he goes to town to findhelp. He chooses to hire an ex-convict, Riley, against the advice older men in town. Tom’s an interesting character and this is a coming of age story for him. In the course of the hour audio drama, we see how he changes, in his relationship to Riley especially, as there’s a romantic spark between Riley and Tom’s mother. The story’s ending isn’t quite what you expect, particularly if you’re looking for big western action, but it’s still good drama.

In “McQueen of the Tumbling K”, Ward McQueen, the foreman of a ranch, sees a wounded man fleeing through the Tumbling’s K spread. In town, he learns a gambler is setting up a town and making advances towards the female owner of the ranch. In the middle of this, McQueen is waylaid and left for dead.

This story’s not horrible, but it’s the weakest story of the collection. The villain is painfully obvious, but McQueen is also too strong a hero. Once his physical survival is assured, there’s  not much of a question of the outcome. Everyone in town knows him and no one knows the villainous gambler. The earlier stories worked because you had established lone strangers in Morgan and Riley facing off against local bad guys without any locals having a reason to back them up. Here it’s reversed and doesn’t work as well.

Finally, we have “Booty for a Badman,” featuring one of L’Amour’s well known Sackett characters, Tell Sackett. Tell has had little luck as a miner, which makes him the logical choice to transport the other miners’ gold. Every miner who has left the camp as a known success ended up dead. If they send out someone who everyone knows has a failing mine, he shouldn’t get stopped–in theory.

Carrying $40,000 worth of gold is a risky proposition and it becomes even riskier when Tell encounters an Army wife who has had a breakdown and runaway as she can’t take the strain of living in the West.

This is a good story with a great sense of drama as well as a strong action scene. While we only get to spend an hour with Tell, we get a strong idea of his character. The resolution was one I could have seen coming a mile away, but it’s still a fun story.

Overall, while I liked some stories more than others, this is a nice sampling of stories from one of the most beloved best-selling authors of all time.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

 

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A Look at the Alan Young Show

Baby Boomers will remember Alan Young as a mild-mannered Wilbur Post on Mr. Ed. Generation X and Millennials are more likely to have encountered his work as Scrooge McDuck in Duck Tales and as Jack Allen on Adventures in Odyssey.

Before all that, he was a young comedian who held a spot on radio, first as a 1944 Summer replacement over NBC, then with an ongoing series over ABC from 1944-46, and then back to NBC from 1946-47, and returning again to NBC for six months 1949.

What was the series? Was it any good? I’ll offer my answers based on the existing episodes. We don’t have any surviving episodes from the 1944 Summer Run or the 1949 series. We do have more than 20 episodes from 1944-46 run, and we have the entire 1946-47 series and that’s what this review will be about.

Concept

The concept of this series is fluid. Consistently, Alan Young plays Alan Young, a young man living in Van Nuys, California. Throughout much of the series, he’s trying to win the favor of his girlfriend Betty’s father. The week after he finally seemed to succeed, both Betty and her father were written out of the series. While some episodes of the second season of the ABC run reference Alan running a sign painting business, there are relatively few references to his work, or what Betty’s father did for that matter, which is quite odd.

The plots are superficial, the continuity inconsistent, with characters occasionally behaving in ways and saying things that make no sense to justify a joke. Like many other programs, it has characters whose performances center on one joke: the department store salesman who will mirror what a customer says even at the point of reversing himself, a newspaperman who is frantically busy and confused. Most of more significant characters have multiple catchphrases which are delivered often for comedic effect.

In many ways, the show resembles the Mel Blanc Show (which I reviewed several years back.) Both are somewhat born loser characters, and Mel Blanc also had a girlfriend named Betty who had a father who didn’t like him. Blanc’s show also copied so many of the tropes of Young, but not nearly as effectively. It’s disappointingly bad given the voice talent on it, but it serves as a helpful comparison in showing how Young’s show was different.

The Alan Young show benefited from better written stories. Alan could win some and he could lose some, and the endings of the episodes were usually wonderfully zany and surprising in how things turned out.

The Performances

While Alan Young’s character could feel a bit like a loser, I don’t think the character ever felt pathetic. Young played his character with a great sense of charm, charisma, and good humor. His delivery got laughs for jokes that probably wouldn’t have worked otherwise. His performance was likable, and did a good job running up and down the comedic scale of emotions. He was twenty-five when he got his own sitcom and brought a lot of youthful energy that you just didn’t hear from the middle-aged leads on most other programs.

The supporting players were mostly okay. Again, we get a lot of one note characters who provide the same sort of material week after week. The only character I thought was probably a waste of time was Lulabell. Lulabell shows interest in Alan during the post-Betty shows but never becomes his girl. She’s a Southern Belle meant to deliver Southern stereotypes and say a version of, “ya’ll” and allow Alan a chance to mock her for it. It’s probably the most tedious part of the series.

The characterization of Betty as well as Alan’s later girlfriends is weak. Essentially, they want kissed, they want to get married, and they want Alan to act in ways that are attractive to them and get offended when he doesn’t. That’s pretty much the whole part.

Other than that, all the characters were okay.I laughed at some more than others, but most were well-conceived and worked. Plus, the show rotated the characters and the writers had a good sense of how not to overplay a joke and they rotated many of these characters on and off the program so they didn’t get tiresome. My favorite of these side characters is Mr. Busby, the newspaper editor. He’s just an incredibly manic character and I always laugh during his scenes.

However, the best thing about the Alan Young show is the show’s primary antagonist, Hubert Updike III, played by Jim Backus. Updike is the insanely rich scion of a family with extreme amounts of wealth which Updike boasts about, such as claiming to own entire states, among other constant exaggerations. Updike has an exalted opinion of himself as the most beautiful creature on Earth, and is constantly trying to foil Alan’s plans. Initially, this is because Updike is Alan’s rival for Betty’s affection, but he continues this after Betty’s disappearance. Add to Updike’s other qualities a tendency towards childish petulance when he doesn’t get his way, and you’ve got the makings of comedy gold with the right man in the role.

Backus is definitely the right man. His delivery and timing is superb. The most wonderful part of nearly every episode is the times that Hubert Updike’s on. He was a superb foil for Young, playing beautifully off him. No one has more catchphrases than Backus and somehow he managed to make most of them funny every time he said them, and Young borrows a few of the lines and gets plenty of laughs himself.

It’s worth noting the co-writer of the series was Sherwood Schwartz, who created Gilligan’s Island. Not coincidentally, Backus was cast to play the millionaire, Thurston Howell III. In many ways, what you get to hear on the Alan Show is a younger, more over the top version of Thurston Howell.

Other Factors

It was a post-War program from the era when it wasn’t enough to give you a sitcom, you also got a number or two from the orchestra in most episodes. These are enjoyable,were popular hits, and are mostly well-performed with just a slip up or two in the process to keep things interests. The commercials don’t stand out, but they’re not annoying either.

Overall

Is this one of the great old time radio comedies? No. It’s too formulaic and other than Hubert Updike, there’s not a whole lot outstanding about the series, but it’s also not a comedic dud like the Harold Perry or Mel Blanc programs. Obviously, if you’re a fan of Mr. Young or of Gilligan’s Island, it’s worth a listen. It’s also not a bad choice if you just want to listen to a comedy program. There are better programs, but there are far worst things you could listen to both golden age and modern entertainment.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

Episodes of the Alan Young show can be found at the OTRR Library 

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A Look at the Red Panda Adventures, Season 1

The Red Panda Adventures by Decoder Ring Theater was one of the earliest of the new podcast audio dramas to be released in recent years. It launched for the first time in October 2005 with a new episode airing every two weeks until December with the second half of the series airing every two weeks beginning in April 2006.

The Red Panda Adventures is set in the 1930s in Canada (where the series was produced.) The series is a mash up between the Green Hornet and the Shadow radio series, while adding its own unique improvements.

It’s like the both series in that the hero is a wealthy young man, though it leans more towards the Shadow in that the Red Panda (Greg Taylor) has no active business concerns in his dual identity that we’re told about.

The Red Panda is like the Shadow in that he has strange hypnotic powers. However, unlike the Shadow, he doesn’t limit his mind-control powers to a single trick of invisibility. He creates all manner of elaborate mental illusions, such as making the villain see multiple versions of himself. It’s a much more imaginative take on the idea. The villains also bare a strong resemblance to the Shadow’s big, over the top megalomaniacs.

The Green Hornet influences can be seen in the hero’s super-fast car and crime-fighting gadgets as well as the suspicious attitude by which he’s viewed by police. However, unlike the Green Hornet, the Red Panda doesn’t try to pass himself off as a criminal mastermind.

Of course, the Red Panda goes beyond what the original mystery men of the 1930s did on radio with a greater sense of superheroics and the series intro actually references him as Canada’s greatest superhero.

Perhaps the most unique thing about the Red Panda is his sidekick Kit Baxter (aka. The Flying Squirrel) played by Clarissa Der Nederlanden Taylor. She’s a very well-written and well-rounded character. She’s a tough character and more prone to using physical violence than the Red Panda, occasionally getting carried away with it.

Her relationship with the Red Panda is complicated. Like the female assistants of many golden age heroes, she pines for him, while he feigns cluelessness about her feelings in this first season. Yet you also get a strong sense of the Red Panda being a mentor figure to her and also being protective of her without being smothering. The dynamic between the two is probably the strength of the series.

In terms of the plots, this first series has a lot of standard boilerplate stories. There’s the episode with someone impersonating the Red Panda, there’s the episode with a mysterious ghost ship, and the episode with the cursed house, and the one where a hunter decides to hunt the most deadly game of all: The Red Panda. Probably the most interesting and original episode was, “The Devil’s Due,” where the Red Panda investigates a series of deaths where the victims sold their soul to the Devil and he’s here to collect…or is he?  Even though most of the plots are well-worn, they’re also well-executed and the strength of the characterization helps the stories to work. While later seasons would be more innovative, this season really serves to establishes the characters and their world.

The tone of this first season is relatively light. While there are some scary moments, as well as a few violent ones, the series doesn’t try for the constant dark and foreboding feel of The Shadow. It also isn’t designed in such way that you’re likely to forget that you’re listening to a production made in the twenty-first century rather than one in the 1930s like many of the early episodes of Harry Nile. It’s a clear homage to the Golden Age of Radio, but it is also a modern production. At the same time, it’s not goofy or a parody like the original Red Panda Universe (a topic for another time.)

If the first season had any weakness, it was the sound design which on occasion didn’t support the show, though, the epic scale of the adventures was portrayed. Further, it doesn’t detract too much from the series because of the strong characterization and also because it played off Golden Age Radio Dramas where the quality of sound effects and sound design really could vary.

Overall, this is a very strong start to a much beloved Internet series.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

The first season of the Red Panda Adventures is available for free on the Decoder Ring Theatre website.

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The Top Ten Jago and Litefoot Episodes

Having given an overview of Jago and Litefoot, I wanted to do one last post quickly summarizing what I think are the top 10 episodes.

This a hard list and it’s one of those franchises where there are so many great episodes to choose from. For the purposes of this list, I’m using the episodes of any show in which they were primary stars or co-stars for that episode.. So I considered the entire run of Jago and Litefoot, the Jago, Litefoot and Strax Specials, their Doctor Who Short Trips and Companion Chronicles appearances, their appearance in the Worlds of Doctor Who, and the two stories where they were the co-stars of a Doctor Who story as the Sixth Doctor’s Companion. I didn’t consider their guest appearances in either the Fourth Doctor Adventures or the Sixth Doctor: While there were some great stories, they were truly secondary characters.

10) Swan Song (Series 3, Episode 3)

This story finds Jago and Litefoot joining Leela in her quest to address some dangerous time anomalies that have our heroes dealing with ghosts–from the future. The story has a clever Science Fiction/Fantasy plot, but it doesn’t become lost in it. It’s also a beautifully emotional story and you don’t see that combination often.

9) The Hourglass Killers (Series 4, Episode 4):

Series 4 has big reveals, and brings a character arc for Jago to a very satisfactory conclusion. It’s an exciting, fun ride, and one of the best closing stories for a Jago and Litefoot box set.

8) How the Other Half Lives (Series 13, Episode 3):

This alternate universe tale examines what might have been for our two heroes. I appreciated the thoughtfulness the author put into the choices. That this is one of the last stories they did is a testament to the fact Jago and Litefoot really never lost steam as a great series.

7) Voyage to the New World (Doctor Who story set between Series 4 and 5);

A bit underrated. It takes a great historical mystery (What happened to the lost colony of Roanoke) and adds in some great sci fi and time travel elements. There’s also a great bit of poetry to the way the story plays out and the ending is beautiful.

6) Encore of the Scorchies (Series 8, Episode 1):

This Jago and Litefoot musical episode features insane alien killer puppets with an evil plan. The music’s great, the story has some great comedic moments but doesn’t become a farce in the process. It sets up a different structure for the Eighth series as this doesn’t tie to any of the other stories, but as this episode proves, different can be good.

5) The Man at the End of the Garden (Series 3, Episode 2):

Jago and Litefoot investigate the disappearance of a fantasy author and find themselves involved in a fantasy story of their own as a daughter holds the key to her mother’s disappearance. A solid child acting performance is a highlight of this along with a superb conclusion.

4) The Monstrous Menagerie (Series 7, Episode 1):

This absolute best beginning to a Jago and Litefoot box set finds them on the run, falsely accused of attempting to assassinate Queen Victoria, and hiding out on Baker Street. They’re hired by Arthur Conan Doyle to impersonate Holmes and Watson to a fan who believes the detectives are real. This is an amazing premise and it pays off with an exciting story stuffed with references to Holmes, as well as Doyle’s other work. An absolute delight.

3) Museum of Curiosities (Series 10, Episode 4)

The conclusion of Series 10 finds Jago and Litefoot working through the case in their own way to find the solution of the series mystery and they end up in a unique museum set up to record their exploits but with a sinister purpose behind it. It’s a wonderful story that also becomes a celebration of their first ten series.

2) The Mahogany Murderers (Companion Chronicles):

Listening to it, you wouldn’t know these people haven’t worked together or seen each other in the past thirty years. They pick up as if they never left. The episode launched the entire Jago and Litefoot franchise because it showed how marvelous they were working together while at the same time whetting listeners’ appetite for a series about strange goings on in Victorian London.

1) The Similarity Engine (Series 1, Episode 4):

Their first series of investigations comes to a brilliant conclusion as we learn the mad plan and methods of the villain they’ve been fighting throughout the box set. It’s a truly mad plot but well thought-out. This solution cements the strength of the Jago and Litefoot as a team. This isn’t a case of a smart character and a dumb character, or a strong character and a weak character. Rather Jago and Litefoot are two strong characters whose strengths are very different. Both show their methods and what each contributes to the team and it sets the tone for all the episodes ahead.

Honorable mentions: Too many to list. There are dozens of great Jago and Litefoot stories. You could make a list with an entirely different set of episodes and I wouldn’t argue much.

If you’re curious about the series, there are many ways to listen. You can listen for free on Spotify where the first Five Series are available for streaming. If you’re an Audible member, you can get the first Eight Series there. You can also check out the Big Finish website for all released Jago and Litefoot material.