I was excited to listen to this episode because it was a production of the classic Sci-Fi Radio show, X-Minus-One, which had the coolest opening ever. Turns out, the intro was the best part of this episode, and nearly longer than this short, rather odd story.
Broadcast the day after Christmas, 1957 and based on a story by acclaimed science fiction author Frederik Pohl, Target One hinges on a classic time travel trope: a man sent back in time to kill an important historical figure to keep a terrible future thing from happening. What’s different is who our time-traveling assassin is sent into the past to kill.
First, the X-Minus-One opening. A whine and high-pitched beeps, followed by a rocket blasting off with a roar play under announcer Fred Collins’s voice:
Count down for blastoff! X minus five…four…three…two…one – fire. From the far horizons of the unknown come tales of a new dimension in time and space. These are stories of the future; adventures in which you’ll live in a million could be years, on a thousand maybe worlds…
You can listen to the full intro here:
I’m so in for what comes next, and kind of pissed that we slide immediately into a promo for NBC’s lineup of shows (including Fibber McGee & Molly, a genuinely funny sit-com which graced the airwaves for eleventy-billion years back in the radio days).
Finally, the show. We open with a pleasant-voiced guy delivering the not-so-pleasant news that he’s been summoned to the World Council HQ, in the rubbled remains of the UN building, to meet with the council’s president, former Russian scientist Melkov (Frank Silvera, actor, director, & Civil Rights activist). Whew! That’s a lot of info to unpack in one sentence.
It’s 1990-ish, and an atomic war has left the world in smoldering ruins. Pleasant-voice guy is Dr. Marin (Joseph Bell). He apologizes to President Melkov for being late, the only working airport he could land at was Boston. Wicked funny to think Logan Airport, which barely works now, will improve service after a nuclear war.
Melkov get all exposition-y about the Great War of 1960 having killed 2 billion people, left cities unlivable, and the usual post-apocalyptic scenario. Then he launches into more detail about mutations caused by the atomic blasts. “I believe you have children who could scarcely be called human,” Melkov says. “Hey, it’s just a phase. They’re teenagers,” Marin shoots back. “Now get to the point. Why did you send for me?”
“How’d you like to prevent the destruction that happened in the war?” Melkov asks and Marin says if it means I don’t have to fly into Logan again, count me in. Haha, not really, but I wish! “You mean stop an atomic war?” Marin breathes. “But how?”
Melkov decides it’s a fine time for a quiz and asks Marin to tell him the most important scientific discovery of the 20th century. No brainer—Einstein’s theory, E=mc2, without which the secrets of the atom would never have been unlocked. No bomb, no war.
Einstein was a fine human being, Marin insists, it’s not his fault his science was used for such a terrible thing. “That’s what will make your task so abhorrent,” Melkov says. “I want you to kill him.”
Marin’s all, wait, what? Einstein? Marin has a hundred questions and a thousand objections. Melkov’s answers and justifications all boil down to one thing—Einstein’s got to go, and before he can think up the formula. Specifically, at his graduation from Zurich Polytechnic Institute.
Marin demands to know why he has to do the dirty deed and not, say, some pathological murderer. Melkov says he needs someone like Marin, “a man of high integrity who fully realizes his responsibility. To do otherwise would be to degrade ourselves and our victim.” Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but sure, let’s roll with it.
Through a window, Melkov shows Marin a huge barge in the river, where scientists have assembled what is essentially a floating time machine. “Well, Doctor, what is your answer?” Melkov asks. Marin mulls it over a long time. A trip to the past sounds nice, fixing the world for his teenage mutant ninja children sounds even better, but with murder the price of the ticket…
Finally, Marin verbally slumps his shoulders and says yes.
A dramatic drum roll and blatting trumpets segues us into… a commercial!
The show is sponsored by something called Bromo Quinine, which apparently cured just about everything, thanks to the product’s high dosage of toxic bromide. Seriously, the things you learn from old time radio!
We’re back with Marin climbing on board the barge, where he meets his travelling companions, Prof. Waxman (Dean Almquist), the physicist who knows how to operate the time travel barge’s “chromosphere,” and a sinister guy named John, played by Al “Jazzbo” Collins, who’s notable in so many interesting ways he deserves his own paragraph.
Collins was a radio deejay who spun an eclectic mix of disks and once got fired from a gig because he played “Mr. Sandman” over and over for nearly two hours straight. As a TV talk show host, Collins specialized in comic bits, including demanding his guests dress up as characters from the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and delivering the “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges” line (who knows, he may possibly have turned the line into a catchphrase). In 1957, he briefly hosted The Tonight Show between Steve Allen and Jack Parr. And he recorded several “Grimm tales for hip kids” nursery rhymes using beatnik slang and jazzy background music.
Anyhoo… Sinister John is security, Prof. Waxman explains. “To see there’s no mistake,” Marin grits. He’s become quite the cynic since he agreed to become a murderer. Waxman hands Marin a bundle of era-appropriate clothes. While our erstwhile killer gets dressed, John reads a thumbnail bio of Einstein that hits on all the key points, until Marin growls at him to can it. I guess he’s nervous.
The trio strap into the accelerator seats. Waxman flips a switch and the time travel barge kicks into action with whistling and whirligig sounds. Marin describes the sensations of weightlessness and his consciousness floating free. Half an hour later they “vector in” on their destination—Lake Zurich in the year 1900.
They have one hour to accomplish their mission. The time machine’s door open and Marin surveys their surroundings with wonder, until John sticks a gun in his hand with a terse, “You’ll need this.” Talk about keeping a man on task.
The three men make their way to the Zurich Polytechnic Institute, where the graduation ceremony is already in progress. They’re not too late, they’ve only missed the salutatorian’s speech, but that’s when everyone gets up to go to the bathroom anyway.
John orders Doc to take a seat, and proceeds to badger him about being ready to do the job. Marin is sweating, not ready at all, but he knows he has to do it. Glad he knows, because I don’t. I mean, why can’t John do it? He seems like a cold customer capable of committing a capital crime.
The announcer calls out the graduating students’ names until… “Albert Einstein.” I’m wishing absent-minded Einstein has forgotten the grad ceremony and Marin ends up shooting someone else, maybe Hitler, who thought he was in line for Kenny Chesney tickets or something and suddenly finds himself having a diploma in theoretical physics shoved into his hand. Wouldn’t that be a twist?
But no, the story colors inside the lines quite neatly. Einstein crosses the stage, Marin aims… but can’t pull the trigger. Who could? “Give me that gun!” John snaps then *bang* chaos. Dramatic music, shouting, cries of “They killed Einstein ring out until the sound fades out and…
Not much else. Marin and team go back to the future, speculating on what the world will be like when they return. Buildings in one piece, trees and vegetation growing in abundance, Logan Airport still a Hellmouth. They land, and Waxman orders John to open the hatch.
“Look at that,” Doc Marin breathes. “New York is whole again. No rubble. Look at the trees and the parks… We did it!”
Wailing sirens bring them up short and in the next scene, Marin wraps things up. Their barge appearing out of nowhere aroused suspicion and they were arrested then drugged, tortured, and questioned for days. Finally, they were led into a courtroom to face a “beetle-browed man” who tells them they’re going to be “disposed of.”
“Why?” Marin demands. Because they know too much, of course. Apparently, killing Einstein only delayed the equation’s discovery and subsequent development of nuclear weapons through the super-secret Manhattan Project (clearly it’s not that secret if Beetle-Browed Man feels free to blab all about it).
Marin delivers the coda as he’s led to his execution cell, which is basically the conundrum of all time travel drama: You can change the past, but it screws up the future in unexpected and sometimes disastrous ways. Mother Time and Father Fate will make sure of it.
So, with the exception of the barge-as-time-machine, this was a standard time travel plot that didn’t quite work. It didn’t have a lot of tension and played out in a predictable way. Of the thousand maybe worlds promised by the X-Minus-One intro, this wasn’t the most uniquely maybe it could’ve been, that’s for sure. Maybe next time.