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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Science Fiction on the Radio

January 18th, 2011 at 12:06

After years of flirtation, I have descended into a full blown love affair with Big Finish audio plays. I’m completely crazed about them, and acquiring one hell of a collection. Naturally, me being me, I also feel the need to analyse this new obsession to within an inch of its life.

I’ve always enjoyed listening to really good audio books. I spent large chunks of my teens performing the more dull tasks in life to the soundtrack of Tony Robinson reading Discworld novels, Jon Pertwee and Leslie Phillips in the Navy Lark, or the pre-Goodies in I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again. I still remember the deep and abiding joy of receiving a Christmas gift that I had requested but not quite expected to get – a lovely shiny box set of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy original radio series, glossy cassettes wrapped in cellophane. I still don’t have digital versions of those, though I love them beyond all reason (far more than the TV series or bleh, the books) because I am so personally attached to my pretty cassette box set.

There was Doctor Who, too. My mum had got hold of Slipback, and Doctor Who and the Pescatons, and Tom Baker reading “his own” adventures in audio versions of Genesis of the Daleks, and State of Decay. I also first experienced Asimov’s Foundation as an audio presentation which I found by accident on the radio – and, like Hitchhiker’s Guide, the books came as a disappointment in comparison. Later, my honey introduced me to Earthsearch, a truly marvellous original SF radio play. Still later, when I was pregnant with Raeli, he took me on a very memorable birthday date: we drove up to the top of the hill where we lived, sat in the backseat of his car, and had a picnic while listening to the original Orson Welles War of the Worlds.

There’s something really special about science fiction on the radio. The easy explanation for this is the one about how the imagination provides the best special effects, and that’s absolutely true. But there are other reasons, too. The claustrophobia of space can be expressed marvellously through sound. Also, as Sylvester McCoy said in an ‘Extras’ interview I heard recently, audio allows for us to hear what the characters are thinking, which gives it an advantage over television for the actors. It’s a very enjoyable medium between the book, which is all words, and TV or film, which is all visuals and performance. Writing matters in audio – every word counts – and yet it’s a very collaborative medium, and quite a theatrical one.

I do wonder if the success of the form in the case of Big Finish is because I’m already highly invested in the Doctor Who universe and characters. On the other hand, many of my favourite characters (Charley, Hex, Evelyn) are original to Big Finish, and there are many others (Nyssa, Peri, Benny) whom I like much better in audio than I did in their original media. The Doctor Who format combined with audio is just magic, as it allows for so many different kinds of stories: space opera, mystery, pure historical, war, adventure.

Something else that interests me, and which only occurred to me recently, is that Doctor who is predominantly a universe written and created by men. There are less than a handful of women writing for the new series or the audio range. This is of note because of the high hit rate for me in enjoying the stories – in books and stories I usually gravitate towards work written by women and I have a higher success rate when I include gender in my filters. In science fiction in particular, I struggle to enjoy or even access so many stories by men.

So there’s something about Doctor Who, or audio plays, or both, which transcends my normal filters. Or there’s something that the (male) Doctor Who writers are doing right, and so many ‘straight’ (male) science fiction writers are doing wrong. Or I’m generally not finding the stuff I love when it’s written by men in the literary side of SF, and tripping over all this brilliant audio stuff because of the Doctor Who brand.

Or something. But for whatever reason, Big Finish is hitting all my fictional buttons right now, to the point where I am neglecting books. It’s giving me intense, interesting characterisation, plenty of strong and complex female characters, lots of crunchy science fictional and historical backgrounds, and… let’s face it…

It’s all about the dialogue. And I’m a dialogue junkie. It’s difficult to convey quite how much of a dialogue junkie I am. I’m a total slut for banter, and repartee, and conversation, and chat. Audio is all about people talking to each other in interesting, clever revealing ways, while running away from monsters. I’m in heaven.

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5 Responses to “Science Fiction on the Radio”

  1. Ariaflame Says:

    Have you listened to any of the Ruby the galactic gumshoe radio series? SF / noir / philosophy and I think very entertaining.

  2. tansyrr Says:

    I haven’t no. Sounds cool. Where do I find it?

  3. Alex Says:

    I really enjoyed the BBC radio play of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (one of the hobbits, either Merry or Pippin, is Richard Macbeth).

  4. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    I was wondering what you thought of the Torchwood Audiobooks, I have Border Princes, not sure I like Eve Myles reading it though.

  5. tansyrr Says:

    Hey Sean. I haven’t listened to any of them – I’ve been wary of the New Who spin off material, and haven’t yet dipped my toe in.

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