Science Fiction

The Peace-Loving Military Robots' Plot

Friday A/V Club: That time NBC broadcast a radical Philip K. Dick fable to a 1950s audience

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Today Hollywood regularly turns Philip K. Dick's stories into movies, but no motion pictures based on his work existed when the novelist was alive. He did get to see some incomplete excerpts from Blade Runner, but that film wasn't finished until after Dick's death in 1982.

That's not to say he never witnessed any other adaptations of his work, though. As early as 1956, the NBC radio series X Minus One, a science fiction anthology, aired episodes based on two Dick short stories, "Colony" and "The Defenders."

Below I've embedded the show's version of "The Defenders." It isn't the most artful radio drama you'll ever hear, but it's a pretty interesting artifact—a take on the Cold War that doesn't exactly fit the stereotype of 1950s network fare. I'll save any spoilery discussion until after the embed:

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Dick's original story was about a war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Here the countries' names are different—they're the "Western Confederation" and the "Asian Confederation"—but that's a pretty thin disguise. The citizens of both countries have moved underground to avoid the radiation on the surface, letting military robots do the actual fighting. Almost all production is geared toward the war effort, and the media are filled with reports of the terrible atrocities being conducted above the Earth's crust.

Eventually—spoiler alert!—we learn that the whole war is a fraud. The surface isn't radioactive at all, the robots aren't actually fighting, and the masses huddled underground are being fed propaganda. ("We have a full-time division of a-class robots who do nothing but photograph the progress of a fictitious war using scale models. The entire destruction of San Francisco…took place on a tabletop.") Interestingly, the rival superpowers' governments aren't behind the conspiracy. In fact, they're being fooled too. The fraud is being maintained by the robots.

That might suggest that the story is a critique of the military-industrial complex—an argument that a runaway war production machine is operating on its own logic and keeping everyone else in the dark. But in another twist, the robots turn out to be quasi-benevolent. They believe the war is irrational, but they don't think they can convince the human race of that. So they've appointed themselves the caretakers of humanity's old cities and farmland. They've been destroying our munitions as soon as the weapons are sent to the surface, and they plan to reopen the world to us once we've outgrown "the need to direct your hatred of yourself away from you and on to others." It's as though the false world in The Matrix is being run by the supercomputer from WarGames, which has started reading Jung and lecturing everyone about shadow projection.

When a Western military leader finds out the truth, his first thought is that the other side's underground settlements are unprotected, making this the perfect time to nuke the Asians into oblivion. He's stopped when one of his own soldiers shoots him.

That's right: Fragging saves the day. Probably not what you expected from a network show in 1956.

(To hear X Minus One's other Philip K. Dick adaption, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)