Tag: audio drama

Audio Drama Review: Mutual Radio Theater, Volume 1: Week 1

During my recent series on the American Audio Drama Tradition, I was intrigued enough to check out Radio Archives Mutural Radio Theater, Volume 1 set through the Hoopla App.

Mutual Radio Theater was a 1980 series that continued the Sears Radio Theater only on a different network and with a multitude of sponsors so Sears could still advertise on him but not have to foot the whole bill. The series was an anthology with five formats. Mondays were for drama and were hosted by Lorne Greene of Bonanza, Tuesdays were for Comedy and were hosted by Andy Griffith, Wednesdays were for Mystery and were hosted by Vincent Price, Thursday was about love and human relations and it was hosted by Cicely Tyson, and Fridays were for Adventure and were hosted by Leonard Nimoy (a replacement for Richard Widmark from the Sears series.)

The set collects the first four weeks of the series or twenty episodes of about 45 minutes in length. As an overall review of the set quality, let’s just say I doubt these recordings sounded quite as good to people listening to it in 1980. The sound quality is pristine, it’s top-notch. Any complaints you have with the set can’t be due to Radio Archives.

The commercials are a real time capsule. The AT&T “Reach out and Touch Someone” commercials encouraging people to call their friends on long distance were prominent, but there were so many sponsors. Probably my favorite commercials were the country-music-style commercials for Motorcraft Parts. The Agree Shampoo commercials also aged hilariously.

But what about the stories themselves? When you’re talking about twenty stories across five genres, you get variable quality. Some are good, some are not so good. But I don’t think that does the production justice. Over the next five weeks (we’ll take Christmas off), we’re going to look at each of the twenty episodes, starting with the stories from the first week. I also note Golden Age radio stars involved in each production.

The Shopkeeper: A shopkeeper keeps two outlaws from robbing his store by using a gun hidden under his apron. The sheriff suspects he might be part of an outlaw gang about to rob a mining payroll. Golden Age Stars: Vic Perrin and Mary Jane Croft.  

Review: This is a somewhat average Western story, helped by a nice bit of Suspense over who the protagonist is and what decision he’ll make. I had an inkling early on but the story does a good job throwing up red herrings. Grade: B 

Our Man on Omega: A sci-fi comedy imagining a celebration of the man who made first contact with aliens, a somewhat dimwitted computer tech who connected with aliens who experienced time backward and forwards and were shaped like U.S. mailboxes. Golden Age Star: Richard Krenna 

Review: This story has potential, but is mostly told through narration by our unnamed Master of Ceremonies.  The story tries to get political and offers up some dull one-note villains. It’s unengaging and comes off as just a bit of silly fluff and not all that good. Grade: D

Long Distance:  A man about to fly to St. Louis on business receives a warning from his aunt that it’s not safe to fly. He ignores her because she has a fear of flying. However, her call makes him late, he misses the plane, and it crashes. But that’s just the start of her warnings of doom that keep coming true. Golden Age Stars: Janet Waldo, Jerry Hausner, Bill Zuckert 

Review: This is a pretty standard spooky mystery setup. The solution was obvious early on, but I think the story did a good job taking us on the journey. I also liked the main characters. This is enjoyable if somewhat predictable outing. Grade: C+ 

Love Conquers All: A modern British teenager falls in love with her teacher and begins to read romantic literature on how to snare him. Golden Age Stars: None 

Review: I enjoyed this. The story starts off slow but develops over the course of the running. I like Cicily Tyson as the host/narrator and she’s given some good material to work with. While I initially found the teenage girl characters over-the-top, the main character became more realistic, even though she’d embraced a lot of silly ideas. I also liked the teacher. He had chastened a fellow teacher for marrying an ex-pupil but has a fondness for this teen girl. Will he hold onto his ethics or discard them? It’s an interesting story, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. I was nervous it was going to go off the rails, but it didn’t.. It’s actually a lovely story that found a good way to resolve it’s issues ethically. Grade; B+   

The Ship: One of the world’s biggest oil platforms is hijacked. A member of the gang convinces a naïve provisioner to supply the tanker with food in exchange for his life and a cut of the takings. Golden Age Star: John Dehner. The play stars Brock Peters, who was best known for playing Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. Mr. Peters is best known in the audio drama world for being the radio voice of Darth Vader in NPR’s Star Wars adaptations.

Review: So far, this is  the story that most easily could have been told during the golden age of radio, although probably not with an actual African character as a protagonist. Otherwise, this would have been an average episode of the radio anthology series Escape. Peters performance makes it worth listening to. Grade: C+ 

 

To be continued…next week.

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Audio Drama Review: The Seamstress of Peckham Rye

This story is set several months after Big Finish’s previous Holmes release, The Master of Blackstone Grange (review: here). Watson (Richard Earl) has moved into a gender-segregated rooming house to be near the American actress he met in the previous story while they continue the task of obtaining a divorce from the lady’s estranged husband. At the same time, Holmes (Nicholas Briggs) has sunk deeper into melancholy and drug use. The two are brought back together when a young Inspector Silas Fisher (played by James Joyce) enlists Watson’s help to get Holmes to investigate a baffling murder.

The Seamstress of Peckham Rye continues a couple of major threads from the Master of Blackstone Grange, but otherwise stands on its own. The previous work felt Doylesque in its overall plot and structure. This story is a different beast. It feels like a modern-day mystery in its structure, while still being true to its Victorian setting and characters. It does work. It’s an intriguing and engrossing three-hour story. The mystery has a lot of turns and the story is given a lot of space to breathe. However, it never feels padded. It’s engaging from the beginning of the story until the final rendition of the closing themes.

The casting and acting performances are impeccable. Mark Elstobb and Lucy Briggs-Owens turn in flawless performances as Americans. India Fisher offers one of her most vocally unique performances. Briggs and Earl know their characters well and turn in a superb performance that highlights the strength and the complexities of the relationship between Holmes and Watson. The characters are well-drawn and engaging from start to finish.

There’s at least one major mystery that’s left unresolved at the end of the set and a few plot points that remain open questions. All of which should be resolved in next year’s release. I can only help that story is as superb as this one.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Audio Drama Review: The Red Panda Adventures, Season Ten

The War is over and young Harry Kelly is back, although his absence during his time in the military is still unexplained. The Red Panda and Flying Squirrel are now parents. With the Red Panda well into his middle-aged years, he’s looking for an exit. Could the new superhero emerging be the key to giving Toronto’s Terrific Twosome a chance to ride into the sunset?

The Tenth Season of the Red Panda Adventures (unlike the previous nine) is only six episodes long. The season deals out another run of pulp fiction adventures as the Red Panda takes on old foes and new and also manages some clean-up of all the mad science and magic running about in his world during the War. There are some really solid battles and fun adventures to be had.

Yet, the series overall theme is of transition. There’s a sense that at this stage, our heroes are being pressed to the limit of their abilities and dealing with threats that might begin to get beyond them. Emotionally, they’re ready for the exit, they just need the confidence to know the city is left in good hands. The finale of Season Ten is satisfying and makes for a good chronological close for the adventures of the Red Panda.

The season is a cumulation of years of work. Writer and star Gregg Taylor to take his characters on a journey through a heroic career from close to the start of their career to finish. The Red Panda and Flying Squirrel began their careers during the Depression at a time in real life where mystery men like the Shadow, the Green Hornet, Doc Savage, the Spider, and the Black Bat captured the public imagination. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, they began to be supplanted by the cape and costume crowd: Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. The Red Panda and Flying Squirrel clearly fit into that former tradition, stayed around during the War, and chose to give way to the new generation of heroes at the end. It’s a really imaginative way to do the arc, and Taylor did a tremendous job plotting this out and also helping the characters to grow and change over the series without becoming unrecognized for who they were at the start.

While this marks the end of their chronology, with 114 half-hour episodes over the course of a career that spanned fourteen or fifteen years, there are plenty of lost opportunities for “lost stories.” And we’ll get around to reviewing many of them here eventually.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

The Red Panda Adventures Season Ten is available for free from the Decoder Ring Theatre Website

Audio Drama Review: Black Jack Justice, Season Ten

The Tenth Season of Black Jack Justice saw Jack Justice (Christopher Mott) and Trixie Dixon, Girl Detective (Andrea Lyons) engage in six more episodes set in the 1950s and featuring the regular cast of characters as they navigate a world of mobsters, lying clients, and even a disappearing mummy.

At this point in the series, Black Jack Justice had settled into its reliable mix of hard-boiled narration, philosophical musings on well-worn adages, caustic banter, and occasional gunplay. If you’ve listened to and loved the first nine seasons, there’d be nothing to make you say, “Stop this ride, I want to get off!” It continues to be excellent at what it does.

The fifth episode of the season did push up against the limits of the series. “The One that Got Away,” was about a murder attempt on a man Trixie had toyed with earlier in the series, an operative for the Brakewait insurance agency who’s getting married. The episode is a fun one as Trixie is at the office working late and one by one, Jack and other male supporting characters show up with the man following an attempt on his life after the party. The story has fun twists and crazy dialogue. Yet, it also strives to be more focused on Trixie dealing with someone she’d dated getting married. There, it doesn’t quite work. Trixie as she’s been played for ten seasons is completely self-assured and self-contained with no interest and perhaps no ability to form long-term relationship and no inkling of any further depth. The episode doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of her character as there’s not much further it can be pushed after ten seasons. She works as a superb homage to the dime novel detective but that’s about it.

Overall, the tenth season works, particularly when it sticks to what it does and knows best. If you enjoy noir stories, with witty dialogue and a dose of comedy, Black Jack Justice continues to be a worthy listen.

The Tenth Season of Black Jack Justice is available for free on the Decoder Ring Theatre website.

Rate: 4 out of 5

Audio Drama Review: The Avengers: The Comic Strip Adaptations, Volume 5

Big Finish released its fifth volume of Avengers Comic Strip Adaptations based on four 1960s Avengers comic strip stories featuring John Steed and Tara King. In this recast version, Julian Wadham and Emily Woodward play Steed and King with their superior Mother played by veteran British Actor Christopher Benjamin (Jago & Litefoot.) 

The box set opens with “Whatever Next.” Steed and King are summoned to headquarters by Mother to witness a heroic saving of the world through Soviet and US Cooperation. The reason for the cooperation? An eerily correct prediction from a man who claims he got the information from aliens. Steed and King are on the case and quickly find themselves marked for murder.

This story is clever, fun, and moves at a solid place. At it’s core is an entertaining mystery that introduced a lot of twists and red herrings before turning in an unexpected solution. Overall, this is a solid opening story for the set.

In the second story, “How Does Your Garden Grow,” Steed and King are called into investigate when giant plants endanger the operation of a British Airbase.

As a story, this is a superb vehicle for Tara King, as we learn she’s an expert pilot. She gets to shine and show her stuff several times. We get a decent enough mystery that has a nice twist and sets the stage for some lovely aerial dog fights, which are well-realized over audio.

In, “A Very Civil War,” An armored van is robbed carrying new Bank of England notes. However, both the van and the stolen money is recovered or is it? Steed senses something’s wrong and sets off to find the truth.

This story has a  good mystery as to what happened. But it’s much more of a hook. Once Steed begins to look into it (as Steed himself observes), the solution becomes rather obvious. It’s all a lead in to the classic Avengers situation of infiltrating a quirky group of people (in this case re-enactors of the English Civil War) to find out what’s going on.

This is very much a standard Avengers story but realized well. It makes for a breezy fifty minutes of entertainment and does out a good measure of mystery, swashbuckling action, and more than a bit of humor, with just a touch of light flirting. Overall, a thoroughly satisfying listen.

The sets concludes with “Mother’s Day.” Mother is set to go back to her old school for sports day as the guest of honor after the first honoree had to drop out. However, Steed and King look into it and find a string of mysterious deaths and disappearances surrounding all the other members of Mother’s Sports Day championship back in the 1930s.

This is a good old-fashioned romp. The story gives us a big mystery to be solved, but also there’s plenty of fun cases of impersonation and trying to maintain cover, wacky motives, insane murder attempts, and then there’s Mother’s Aunt with her constant pronouncements of doom.

This episode also sees the return of Linda Thorson (the original Tara King) to the Avengers franchise in another part and she turns in an absolutely superb performance in an interesting part.

This is the last announced Avengers project from Big Finish as of this writing. While I hope there will be more, if this is the last Avengers story they do, this is a wonderful release to go out on.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Twelve: The Twenty-First Century

Continued from Part Twelve

The Twenty-first Century has been a boon for audio drama. The software and equipment required to record audio dramas has become far less expensive and easier to use. In addition, it’s possible to record audio dramas with an entirely remote cast using sound mixing software.  The distribution has also become easier. While commercial radio stations remain as reluctant as ever to air audio dramas, there are options, many of which are free, to release audio dramas as podcasts.

We won’t even try to recount all the programs that have emerged on podcasts or produced a CD distributed through Blackstone Audio. There are just too many. But there are a couple of individual productions that merit some discussion.

Twilight Zone Radio Dramas:

The Twilight Zone is one of the most iconic American television programs of all time. Carl Amari and the Falcon Picture Group received a license from CBS and Rod Serling’s estate to bring the series to audio and the series went to air in 2002. The radio series mostly adapted scripts that had been performed on television. Featured actors included some older actors such as Adam West, Beverly Garland, and Stan Freberg, along with some actors who’d appeared on the TV series playing different roles over radio such as Orson Bean and Morgan Brittany. In addition, there were also fairly well-known performers cast such as Jason Alexander, Adam Baldwin, Sean Astin, and John Rhys-Davies who starred in several different episodes of the series.

The scripts would stay faithful to the main thrust of the original stories but tended to add additional details or dialogue to expand on some of the ideas as well as to make them work for radio. At the peak of the series popularity, The Twilight Zone was syndicated on more than 200 radio stations, appeared on BBC Radio 4 extra, and was broadcast on Satellite radio. The last episode was released in 2012 and the website disappeared a few years later. The series continues to be sold on CDs and as digital downloads.

GraphicAudio:

GraphicAudio came into existence in 2004. It has released more than 1,600 releases. Most of their output is a hybrid between traditional audiobooks and audio dramas. Releases tend to feature a narrator and we get to learn characters’ thoughts, but releases feature a full cast to play the characters and immersive sound design.

GraphicAudio is known for the action-packed nature of their releases. They began selling CDs, but are offering more MP3 download and App options. Their original CD plan had a clear target audience. Early CDs reference the presence of the CDs in truck stops and other roadside locations. They tended to sell six CD sets which worked great for long-haul truckers and others who had to be on the road a long time, particularly if they had CD changers. Load the six CD sets in and enjoy non-stop entertainment through a drive, Of course, more and more of their listeners are moving to app and download options which can work the same way while also serving an audience that’s not carrying a CD changer everywhere.

Graphic Audio adapted science fiction, adventure, and western stories among others. In recent years, it’s begun to adapt stories for major comic book publishers, having worked with DC, Marvel, and other comic companies including Dark Horse. With many of their DC adaptations, they adapted novels and even when doing comic book stories, they’d often perform the novel adaptation of the comic book as opposed to try to adapt the comic to the audio medium. While they haven’t done any comic adaptions for “the big two” in a while, they’ve got onto other projects that have a built-in fan base such as the anti-hero series The Boys and Mark Waid’s re-imaging of Archie comics.

GraphicAudio was acquired by RBMedia last year, but that’s not changed direction of the company. It continues to make productions with a very different feel. It’s not just the full-cast audiobook approach. They’re neither nostalgic, nor avante-garde. They’re unabashed action and adventures that offer listeners hours upon hours of escape.

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Eleven: The Nineties, Part Two

Continued from Part Ten

Colonial Radio Theater:

Colonial Radio Theater began operating out of Boston in 1995. Of all American radio producers, they may have the greatest range of offerings. I could boil down others to a simple sentence that could boil down what they do. Jim French Productions thrived on producing mysteries. LA Theatre Works operates like a typical playhouse only performing their plays for audio. While these aren’t complete, they give you a gist of what the company does and specializes in.  There are more than hundreds of productions put out by the Colonial Radio Theater and I can’t really boil down their output that neatly. The closest I could come to is saying that they mostly put out period pieces, but that feels more incidental than essential to what they’ve been doing for the past quarter century.

Powder River and Other Original Series:  Powder River is their flagship series. They just released their thirteenth season chock full of half-hour Western adventures. In addition, they’ve also done some feature-length audio “movies.” In addition to that, they’ve also done other original series such as the Revolutionary War era series Ticonderoga. They also produced a series called Beacon Hill. following a wealthy family in Boston in 1898. The series was produced about the time that Downton Abbey was quite popular and played into that sort of story. They also produced comedy series such as The New Dibble Show and The Adventures of Sergeant Billy and Corporal Sam. 

History:  They did a lot of plays based on incidents from history, particularly American history. Notable among them are The Plimoth Adventure, the Alamo, Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Little Big Horn. These historic stories were known for their dedication to historical accuracy.

Public Domain Adaptations: The public domain has served Colonial Radio Theater well and vice versa. They’ve adapted productions that have been obvious choices for many radio theaters including Dickens’s The Christmas Carol. L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. However, they’ve also gone for some less obvious choices such as adapting Dickens’s other Christmas works, public domain sequels to the Wizard of Oz, as well as adapting a couple of the original Tom Swift novels from the early 20th Century.

Other adapted words included all the Jeeves and Wooster stories that were in the public domain at the time, all the stories in the first two Father Brown books, King Solomon’s Mine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Prince and the Pauper. 

Licensed Adaptations: Colonial has produced work for a many licensed properties including Zorro and Perry Mason.  They’ve also licensed some science fiction programs including Tom Corbett and Logan’s Run.

Perhaps, their most noted adaptations have been of the work of author Ray Bradbury, adapting four different novels. Their five-and-a-half-hour adaptation of the Martian Chronicles is one of their standouts.

Christmas Musical: In 2016, under the Family Audio Theater imprint, they also released Jimmy and the Star Angel, a children’s fantasy musical about two children who recently lost their father and find themselves shrunk down to ornament size and needing to journey to the top of the Christmas tree in order to be restored to normal.

Colonial was on Satellite radio for many years, and several of their productions were featured on Imagination Theater. Currently they feature on a few terrestrial and online radio stations while also selling their productions on CD and digital download through Audible.

Seeing Ear Theater

All the other productions from the 1990s I’ve talked about have carried on in one former or another. Seeing Ear Theater was different, but it was also an important trailblazer.

Seeing Ear Theater was released on the website of the SyFy channel (back when it was the Sci-Fi Channel) and featured original audio Science Fiction dramas. The dramas included obvious classics like Alice in Wonderland and The Time Machine as well as stories based on the work of more recent science fiction authors such as Octavia Butler, Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker. Babylon Five creator J. Michael Straczynski wrote an eight-episode serialized story for the series. The series also paid its respects to the golden age of radio with an adaptation of the most popular old-time radio story of all time, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” While a lot of lesser known actors appeared, there were some more notable talent, including Mark Hamill, Lou Diamond Phillips, Bronson Pinchot, Tony Danza, and Stanley Tucci. They even had one comedy episode featuring the stars of Mystery Science Theater  (the eighth-tenth seasons of the show aired on the Sci-Fi Channel.)

The series didn’t seem to have any major commercial agenda despite a few stories being released on audio cassette. It seemed to be an effort out of love for radio drama as well as a desire to promote the Sci-Fi channel website.

I remember being interested in it, but one word summarized my experience with the series…”buffering.” Seeing Ear Theatre released its episodes from 1997-2001, at the peak of dial-up internet popularity, before broadband connections became more common. In that era, a long-form video series on the Internet was impossible, but audio wasn’t much easier. This limited the reach of the series.

Yet, in retrospect, Seeing Ear Theater deserves credit for pointing to the Internet as the home for audio dramas. Since that series’ original release, Internet connections have gotten faster and hard drives have increased storage capacities. This has allowed greater distribution of audio dramas over the Internet. The Internet would become home to many original audio dramas, either downloaded off individual websites or available as podcasts. Few of these would have the star power that Seeing Ear Theater commanded, but these successor Internet audio dramas have the benefit of mobile devices and not having to deal with the headaches of dial-up.