A version of this review appeared in 2012.
I’ve written before about the rarity of having a half-hour show with multiple-part episodes in the Golden Age of radio. However, one show is a notable exception to this rule, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen. The 1947-48 Mutual Radio Series was unusual in many respects. It was a sea drama, but its story-telling style bore a striking resemblance to the hard-boiled detective stories dominating the airwaves at the time. In addition to this, the first 20 episodes were interlinked.
The program follows Philip Karney (Elliot Lewis), Captain of the ketch (sailboat) the Scarlet Queen as he tries to deliver a cargo for Kang and Sons. He’s opposed at every turn by henchmen for a competing exporter, determined to steal the cargo and willing to stop at nothing, even multiple murders. He’s aided by his first mate Gallagher (played by Ed Max) who began working for the bad guys but switched to become Karney’s first mate.
The show features a recurring sophisticated and polite villain named Ah Sin as well as a returning love interest (played by Lewis’s then-wife Cathy) from one episode to the next. While some stories happen at sea, most often Karney and/or Gallagher get in trouble when the Scarlet Queen comes to port. Each episode ended with a ship’s log and the first twenty concluded with Karney announcing how many miles the Scarlet Queen had traveled from its San Francisco port of call.
The show’s exciting situations, colorful characters, and dangers around every corner make Voyage of the Scarlet Queen one of the more unique radio programs I’ve found. The relationship between Karney and Gallagher is also a fascinating aspect of the show. They grow from unease at distrust at the beginning to a loyal camaraderie. With one exception, each episode ends with Karney and Gallagher talking on the deck of the Scarlet Queen and Gallagher offering Karney a drink. Karney smiles and responds, “After you, Mate, after you.”
The show lost a little bit of focus after episode 20, but remained one of radio’s greatest adventures throughout its run.
One myth that has made it on to Wikipedia is that Voyage of the Scarlet Queen provided some inspiration to Star Trek based on the fact, “Each episode opens with an entry from the ship’s log.” Given Sam Spade had been giving reports to Effie for more than a year and that in another year Johnny Dollar would start handing in expense accounts, the log was just another in a long line of devices for characters to provide narration for their stories. George Raft’s Mr. Ace paid a visit to a psychologist to fill that purpose. It’s possible Gene Roddenberry heard the show, but it’s a stretch to say that played a role. The Star Trek theory also cites the fact they became embroiled in trouble with “local authorities, agents of rival merchants, or desperate women in need of rescue.” If they didn’t run into trouble, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure story. While its possible, I wouldn’t consider this a probable inspiration for anything other than audience amazement.
The series finished in 1948, but Lewis wasn’t finished with the concept. In 1950, he recorded a pilot for Log of the Black Parrot which brought Ed Max back as Gallagher and renamed his role to Matthew Kinkaid. The audition recording was far more moody and less action filled than the original series and was not picked up for a run.
Currently in circulation are 33 of the 35 broadcast episodes, with Episodes 7 and 10 being missing. In addition, the audition for Voyage of the Scarlet Queen recorded in February 1947 with Lewis as Gallagher and Howard Duff as Karney and the audition for Log of the Black Parrot are available.
Fans of great radio adventure owes it to themselves to check this series out.
Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0 stars.