Thursday, 17 February 2011

Alien Voices

A number of times, I have waxed nostalgic on the phase of popularity that Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances went through in the waning years of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. There was a cornucopia of media, from comics to feature films to role-playing games to television; names like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Dinotopia, Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Tarzan, Wild Wild West, Sakura Wars, City of Lost Children, the Steampunk comic, GURPS Steampunk and Castle Falkenstein, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, Forgotten Futures, Escaflowne... That list includes audio-dramas that had an incredible potential to expose modern fans of Sci-Fi to the classics, using the cachet of actors from one of the genre's greatest franchises.

In 1994, LA Theatreworks put on an audio recreation of the classic Orson Welles version of War of the Worlds with a certain novel kick: the entire cast was composed of Star Trek alumni. These included Leonard "Spock" Nimoy, John "Q" de Lancie, Dwight "Barclay" Schultz, Wil "Wesley Crusher" Wheaton, Gates "Dr. Crusher" McFadden, Brent "Data" Spiner and Armin "Quark" Shimerman, with de Lancie directing. Two years later, Nimoy and de Lancie joined with writer Nat Segaloff to form Alien Voices, an audio-drama company specializing in the Scientific Romances of a bygone age.

In an interview with Starlog magazine, de Lancie described their rationale:
Leonard, Nat and I have talked quite a bit about what we want to accomplish with Alien Voices, and much of our discussion is motivated by our feeling that modern SF has gotten away from the philosophy that attracted people to the genre in the first place. Most classic SF holds great hope for technology and humanity. Both Wells and Verne were visionaries. Verne, in particular, conceived a wide range of inventions he felt would help resolve the world's problems.

Whether or not de Lancie was expressing a certain rose-tinted view of Scientific Romances and Verne in particular, Alien Voices was well-poised for renewing interest in the genre. The strategy of employing the voices of Star Trek was brilliant, bridging the gap between the most popular and topical Science Fiction space opera of all time and the foundational works of the genre, drawing enthusiastic Trekkers along with them.

The first two releases were The Time Machine and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, followed by The Lost World, The Invisible Man and, finally, The First Men in the Moon. Along the way, they not only produced the audio-dramas, but were tapped by The Sci-Fi Channel to bring their audio performances to cable as a television event. The First Men in the Moon was recorded as one of these, and The Lost World was recorded live at the Grand Slam V Star Trek convention in 1997.

A scene from The First Men in the Moon.

The next strength that Alien Voices brought to the adaptation of Scientific Romances, after name recognition, was that of audio-dramatization. These were not adaptations in the strictest sense, like unabridged audio-books. These were full cast recordings, each clocking in a tight two-hour length. De Lancie again describes the process:
The original story is always the key factor. Do we like it? Does it have enough characters, does it have too many? Is it commercial-recognizable? And, most of all, do we want to "live" with it for the time it takes to produce? Nat then begins the arduous and time-consuming task of adapting the book into dramatic form, translating the work from silent prose into spoken dialogue. I don't get involved until he's finished with the first draft. We developed this relationship while working on our first play together and have found it successful. Nat is very fast, very prolific and has great stylistic appreciation of the material. I then add my director/actor's eyes and ears to make sure that the scenes have a playability. We might have two or three revisions toward that end. Leonard will then review the material and give his notes, all with the same eye toward making it dramatic and fun.

Dramatic and fun they are, even amidst the liberties. For example, The Lost World's Professor Summerlee receives a sex-change operation so that he can be played by Roxanne "Torres" Dawson, a liberated female making palatable my favorite but admittedly dated "boy's own adventure" (as well as providing a love interest for Malone as played by Dwight Schultz). Armin Shimmerman is spot on as Challenger and de Lancie joins the performance as Roxton.

To their credit, they retained the feature almost always expunged from adaptations of The Lost World: the genocidal war on the plateau's race of ape-men. Courageously, Alien Voices did not flinch from the controversial matter, nor sermonize it. They simply let it stand alongside the characters' reactions, as testament to their commitment to the integrity of the original works even as they tweaked and nudged various story elements.

The Time Machine, which is primarily narrated by Leonard Nimoy's Time Traveller to Shimmerman, de Lancie and Andrew "Garak" Robinson, follows the basic line of H.G. Wells' novel. Unlike cinematic editions, it very effectively conveys the the alienness of future Earth. De Lancie's own children excellently portray the creepy, childlike Eloi. Nimoy passionately channels the horror of our evolutionary destiny.

Journey to the Center of the Earth did not diverge from the text by much. All the classic elements are present and accounted for, and an epilogue narrated by de Lancie charted the career of Verne and Journey. He remarks on the shock many feel upon reading the novel when they discover that there is no duck named Gertrude. Adding animal actors to Scientific Romances was an invention of Walt Disney in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, saddling poor James Mason with them twice and David Tomlinson once.

There are no funny animals in Alien Voices recordings, but the tone is very much in keeping with that of the mid-century, Atomic Age Scientific Romance movies. Perhaps that is from whence de Lancie developed his sentimentality over the writings of Verne and Wells, as those films did tend to reflect (and some may argue, originate) that utopian technofetishist interpretation. It may be revealing that, of the five published Alien Voices dramas and the one planned, only The Invisible Man was not made into a film in the 1950's or 60's.

The last Scientific Romance released by Alien Voices was The First Men in the Moon, which recapitulated a film starring Ray Harryhausen's animation. Nimoy plays the bumbling Cavor with de Lancie as Bedford. The Grand Lunar, voice for the insect-like collective of Selenites, is portrayed in a typically over-the-top fashion by none other than William Shatner.

Alien Voices had immense potential and a nearly limitless library to exploit. In addition to Verne and Wells, there is also Edward Ellis, George Griffith, Garrett P. Serviss, Edward Hale, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain. Who would pass on The Steam Man of the Prairies, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court? I recall thinking that a sensitively rewritten version of King Solomon's Mines would have been perfect. Star Trek has had a long, proud history of African-American involvement and it would have been delightful to have had the roles of H. Rider Haggard's novel filled by Michael "Worf" Dorn, Nichelle "Uhura" Nicholls, Tim "Tuvok" Russ and Avery "Sisko" Brooks. De Lancie voiced his own ambitions for a dramatization of The Mysterious Island. Unfortunately these were not to be. Four years after it began, Alien Voices sputtered out with the altogether too obvious Star Trek: Spock vs. Q and its sequel.

"The problem with Alien Voices was we had four really terrific years," de Lancie said in a more recent interview,
And then it began to be about selling: Simon & Schuster wanted whatever, 40,000 units sold a year. And what we wanted to do was create really well-produced shows and have a library so that people in the future will simply know to come to an Alien Voices production that will always be good. And they didn't see it that way, and I thought, 'Oh my God, what am I doing? I'm going around peddling audio books! This is not what I want to do.' I loved writing them and directing them and doing them live, but I just didn't want to get involved any more.

Perhaps, if Misters de Lancie, Segaloff or Nimoy somehow happen to come across this weblog, I can place a bug in their ear about online distribution. The Internet would be a perfect medium for a project like Alien Voices, by which fans could subscribe to direct downloads or purchase via iTunes, bypassing these picky publishing houses. Already, The Time Machine and Journey to the Center of the Earth (sold without the Alien Voices branding) can be found in the iTunes store.

1 comment:

baralier said...

Thanks for posting this. I wasn't aware of the Alien Voices recordings until now.

Time to visit iTunes.