Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Slaying Ouroboros

An integral part of my pathetic attempt to reclaim my lost youth is re-watching a lot of the old TV shows and movies that I loved as a younger person. I do this to see if my memories of them are faulty, for good or for ill. What's interesting is that there's no clear trend: some things I liked way back when simply don't hold up over time, while others are in fact every bit as good as I remembered -- or better.

Star Trek clearly falls into the latter camp. I've been systematically working my way through the series from Season 1 on, thanks to the DVDs' finally being priced reasonably. I'm nearly done Season 2 now and my overwhelming feeling is that Star Trek truly was awesome. I could go on at great length about its virtues but I'll save that for some other time. What I wanted to talk about today was the format and content of the series, because I think it has some relevance for discussions we often have here.

What people forget, over forty years later, is that Star Trek was, for all intents and purposes, an anthology series. There were continuing characters certainly and there was an extremely vague persistent setting, but, by and large, each episode is self-contained and makes few, if any, references to what came before. Consequently, you can watch the series in pretty much any order and it still makes sense. There's no "canon" to internalize or setting details to understand beyond the most basic ones that you can pick up within five minutes of watching any given episode. This is the exact opposite of its brandified offspring series, all of which depend, to varying degrees, on your already being invested in "Star Trek," a vast mythology constructed by mining the original 79 episodes for names and ideas that others can then elaborately build upon.

Watching Star Trek, I am continually struck by the fact that it's never about itself. Each episode is simply a science fiction adventure story, with little or no connection to anything that comes before or after. These stories are not exercises in IP mining or brand building or any of the other practices we nowadays associate with popular entertainment. I find this frankly refreshing and indeed inspiring. Perhaps this is why so many episodes of Star Trek were written by or based upon the work of genuine science fiction writers rather than professional screenwriters -- Robert Bloch, Frederic Brown, Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, Theodore Sturgeon, to name a few.

It's a really remarkable thing and it probably explains why, despite having been a Star Trek fan for most of my life, I can go back and find the original series far less dated than I'd expected it to be. I hesitate to use the word "timeless" to describe these episodes -- though a few of them merit it -- but the fact that the show isn't self-referential and self-absorbed does make it far more enjoyable to me than does re-watching The Next Generation, which I loved at the time of its first broadcast. There's a simplicity and directness to Star Trek that seems utterly missing from so much genre work these days, where dreams of establishing a profitable franchise overwhelm the primal desire to tell good stories. Re-watching Star Trek has reminded me that this wasn't always the case and I'm very glad of that.

36 comments:

  1. Have you read Shatner's autobiography? He talks a bit about Star Trek, and provides some interesting context for the original show. One of the things I never knew was that it was basically a flop when it first aired. They sold the syndication rights so cheaply that many stations bought them up just to have something to use as time filler. So Star Trek was being aired all over the place with great frequency, and it was only after the show was canceled that it developed a big fan base. Then they did the animated series to take advantage of the popularity. If you haven't seen that, you should pick it up. It's cheap to buy, and kind of cool in a crusty way. They had the original actors do the voices.

    Anyway, yeah, the original series is my favorite.

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  2. "Each episode is simply a science fiction adventure story, with little or no connection to anything that comes before or after."

    A science fiction show couldn't do that nowadays...the demands for "fanservice" and endless loops of self-referentia are too great.

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  3. A few years ago I introduced my father to Babylon 5. Despite the fact that a series-spanning plot arc developed, each episode was self-contained and could stand on its own. Almost none of them had a "previously on B5" segment at the beginning of episodes.

    Shortly after being introduced to B5, I introduced my father to the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. Even though BSG was well-written and my dad was hooked on it, he was a bit annoyed that it was serialized in a manner similar to soap operas. He has said many times that he preferred the self-contained episodes of B5.

    There is a virtue to this that can (and should) be applied to old school D&D. The development of world-building and campaign arcs in the 80s was to D&D detriment.

    There is an advantage to having short adventures and one-shot encounters that do not have interconnections planned by the DM. The players will fill in the connection for you in a manner that pleases them. Thus future adventure and dungeon ideas are born. And those dungeon ideas should be loosely planned like the ones before. The players again fill in the plot holes on their own, thus giving you even more ideas.

    And so on.

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  4. I was just watching "Balance of Terror" on my ipod this morning. (which I find pretty cool that I can watch Star Trek on something slimmer than a communicator!)
    Old Trek was just plain good TV. The last movie really jumpstarted my thinking about the original series, as well as making bust thru all my old FASA Trek material. Plus, I have an image in my head that will have to get expressed on my blog within the week or so that is very Trek related.

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  5. I'm not a big Trekky by any means (no merch, no conventions, haven't seen most of the movies including the most recent one). I did watch the Next Generation halfway regularly with guys in my college dorm.

    That said, I find the original series Season 1 to be truly, surprisingly impressive. You can almost palpably feel the excitement springing out of those episodes starting back in the 60's.

    Later seasons not so much (when they started using the backlot for "now we're on Western/WWII/Gangster planet" episodes). It's a fundamental problem that SF can't succeed for long on TV because by nature it's too expensive.

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  6. "I'm nearly done Season 2 now and my overwhelming feeling is that Star Trek truly was awesome."

    STOP NOW!!! j/k

    Wonderful post, James. If anyone is interested in some of the less told tales of *why* the original Star Trek was and still is such a good series, I highly recommend picking up a used copy of "Inside Star Trek: The Real Story" by producers Herb Solow and Bob Justman. I just finished it and it was a truly "fascinating" look at the production and business side of Trek (and TV as a whole) at the time, and the creativity that came from those constraints.

    It's a little less idealistic and philosophical story than told by Roddenberry himself (your perception of him may be diminished somewhat by this book), but it really shines a light on the unsung heroes of the production and makes it all the more clear why it turned out as good as it did.

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  7. I forget who, but someone once described Star Trek as "Horatio Hornblower in space." That pretty much summed it up for me.

    Call me a grognard, but for me the only genuine Trek is the original series. While the later series had good or great individual episodes, I could never buy into them the way I can still by into the original. In the later shows, the universe becomes too crowded, and there's little sense of being out there on the edge of the unknown.

    I need to get these DVDs.

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  8. Thank you for writing this particularly.

    I have been searching for a way to verbalize my feelings on the original Trek, regarding its episodic nature, and you have done it better than I could have.

    Trek more or less WAS an anthology show, simply featuring the same characters who were, more or less, broad archetypes.

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  9. One of the things that really bothers me about the series after the original is all the aliens with weird foreheads. I mean, it wasn't too bad at the start of the next generation, but as the series went on through the seasons, and then all the spin off series, the wacky foreheads just got more and more tiresome and ridiculous. Every time a new alien humanoid species was introduced there had to be a new forehead pattern. In some of the later series I could almost see the writers and designers scratching their heads over what the next variation in bumps or face prostheses should be.

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  10. Each episode is simply a science fiction adventure story, with little or no connection to anything that comes before or after.

    That has good and back,especially in reference to RPGs and especially in reference to D&D and other early RPGs.

    You've covered the good but now the bad:

    1. Experience is meaningless...in Turn About Intruder (the final first run episode) Kirk is still the same level Starship Captain as before. In fact, very rarely does the crew apply knowledge from prior events. RPGs, especially level based RPGs don't do this. Even at the old AD&D "I took a year to make 4th level" mindset Kirk should have gone up about 6 levels (79 episodes vs 52 weekly games for 1-4 level). The problems with everyone getting promoted in the movies shows up here. The D&D endgame covers this problem.

    2. Disconnection...in three seasons only once did something come back to "haunt" Kirk: Harry Mudd (and what a brilliant choice of "villians" to bring back). Family, friends, etc are all passing because the adventure is key. In RPGs we are attached to the characters and want that kind of thing to persist.

    Right now I think the early seasons of X-Files, especially Season 1 before they committed to a meta-plot, are a better example. Most are just monster of the week shows but occassionally they tie together (the original alien shows) or outright connect (the two Tooms episodes in season one). Plus, there are hints of a constant world in Deep Throat, Skinner, and the Cigarette man.

    That said, learning from anthology shows (which were the norm until the 80s) isn't a bad idea.

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  11. I think a good example of the good episodic story telling turning into self-reference and self-destructive happened with the X-Files series.

    X-Files started mostly as stand alone paranormal adventure episodes but every so often the "main" plot would tag the characters with baggage. This was interesting at first but over time it consumed the show. Over the 9 seasons it seemed like it became harder and harder for the writers to justify "side" episodes and were stuck with an increasingly bloated and often boring main plot.

    Naturally the quality of the episodes faded and the show lost popularity and wide viewership over time.

    Modern shows are inpenetrable soap-operas half way through the 1st season.

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  12. Modern shows are inpenetrable soap-operas half way through the 1st season.

    Phrased this way it makes it sound bad, but nearly all critical reaction in the last decade or so has concluded that this is, in fact, a mode of storytelling that makes television respectable art. Today is the golden age of television because consistent interconnected storytelling in the long timespan allowed by a tv show (vis-a-vis a film) allows for deep character development and engaging multi-year plots.

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  13. X-Files was the show I immediately thought of as the counter-example to James' comments on Star Trek as an anthology. But, actually, it really mixed things up to begin with, and only later began to focus more and more on the "meta-plot" to the series' great detriment.

    Lost is probably more the true counter-example. It's an excellent show. But I got "lost" in the middle of the season before last, and am only now getting "caught up" on DVD to only being a season behind.

    A couple thoughts... Both X-Files and Lost show the perils of rigid meta-plots in rpgs... What if one of your "actors" doesn't re-up for the next season? You have to shoe-horn new characters into your story. More episodic/flexible campaign arcs don't have this problem.

    Second, syndication and replay technology (DVD, itunes, etc.) allows for more complex story-telling on TV, and it's nice to be able to do things like Lost. But is it really necessary. Are anthologies even possible anymore, or does the public demand even more?

    Does a sitcom, albeit a very sharp, funny one like the Office, really need to have such a layered plot that requires the audience to keep up like that? Will the Simpsons be the last anthology series on broadcast TV?

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  14. "Phrased this way it makes it sound bad, but nearly all critical reaction in the last decade or so has concluded that this is, in fact, a mode of storytelling that makes television respectable art."

    Critics just happen to get off on how "respectable" whatever it is they can collect a paycheck blabbing about it. Maybe because they're then more "respectable" by association.

    I want my tv shows to be exciting and fun and accessable to non-fanatics, and the soap approach just doesn't cut it.

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  15. I like Chris' comments above. I loved (and so did my girlfriend) the 1st season of Lost. Loved it, loved it. You could see a concrete plot from start to end in that first season. The individual episodes highlighting each character were fascinating.

    But the start of the 2nd season was insufferable. We've tuned in to spot-check since, and it just gets more intolerable to us -- can't even watch 5 minutes of a current episode.

    My sense is that multi-year plot arcs are simply impossible; I haven't seen one yet that didn't feel like like I was being fundamentally lied to. But the weakness of TV economics is that you can't invest in one awesome season of a show.

    Consider the following TV series that would have been the best of all time if they'd ended after 1 season: Lost. Twin Peaks. Maybe X-Files (I don't know). Battlestar Galactica. Murder One. And now I'll add Star Trek.

    (P.S. Watch Murder One on Fancast.com or something, Season One, and be amazed.)

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  16. Discussing all these shows brings up another model: Buffy and Angel.

    Both had season long running plots and as the seasons came to a close the episodes more and more were tied to it but early on the seasons each episode was self-contained. In fact often the main plot was advanced by a tiny bit of baggage added in an otherwise unrelated episode.

    I think between early X-Files and Buffy/Angel we have something we could adopt as a working model. X-Files with its mostly anthology nature is a good model. However, Buffy did what X-Files didn't: the meta-plots resolve. In an RPG a DM can throw pieces of plot out there every week and after a while resolve them off stage if they are somewhat time bounded and the players aren't interested.

    The real excitement will be when the players decide to resolve one themselves. Then the GM can go over his notes and make connections (assuming the players don't for him).

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  17. I think if people are going to discuss X-Files they need to be clear here -

    The 1st and 2nd seasons of the show were good (the second moreso than the first), but the show EMPHATICALLY did not peak until the 3rd-5th seasons, when the Mytharc and MOTW episodes became more consistently and cleverly written.

    Some of the first and second season episodes were outright painful.

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  18. "Some of the first and second season episodes were outright painful."

    True, but even the painful ones are fun enough in the "Spock's Brain" sort of way.

    In contrast, I deliberately bought seasons 1 and 2 of X-Files on DVD and then stopped because they're the only two that still hold up for me.

    Takes all kinds, I guess.

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  19. I agree the the metaphor you've constructed, James. Star Trek is to early D&D as The Next Generation is to modern storyteller games. I think you're largely right.

    The original Trek wasn't about generating an IP or marketing gewgaws (though the IDIC was created specifically by Roddenberry so he'd have something to sell the fans). They were just great stories.

    TNG and its ilk became all about creating a franchise and coherent setting. Oddly, whenever Berman and Co. wrote an episode that contradicted something in an earlier episode, they're answer was "we're not beholden to canon." I find that ironic.

    When Last Unicorn started to design the TNG RPG, we were specifically asked to fill in the details that would build their IP further.

    This is what defines the difference between grognard games and contemporary games, IMHO. The latter were about giving you the tools to have fun. The latter was about selling novels and movies.

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  20. Translating this to gaming, I can definitely see the appeal of an anthology format. I have made the assumption in the past that for any long-term campaign, a mythology will be created. That there will be a thread of common knowledge about the setting, characters, and events that is woven into the game, starting from the very first session to the current one.

    But what if there was a long-term campaign that was largely divorced from those ideas? What does it look like if we took a group engaged in years worth of steady play, with as little as possible being carried over between games?

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  21. I think the randomness of an "anthology" campaign would create its own kind of rewards.

    Take Kirk from Star Trek, or Fox Mulder from the X-Files - part of what makes their characters heroic and impressive is the variety of non-related threats they have faced and survived.

    Kirk bested omnipotent aliens, traitor crewmen, treacherous enemies like the Romulans, and his own inner desires. Likewise for Mulder with his satanic cults, alien conspiracies, and monsters.

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  22. I started out my new Mutant Future campaign planning to make each session an "episode" more or less unrelated to the others, in part because I have a large crew of people playing in the game that revolve in and out and I didn't want to have to explain how all of a sudden person x was there and y was gone. I have succeeded in starting and ending every session so far in the home base, so at least the players that didn't play last session can jump in easily, but I have totally failed at making the sessions episodic, because stuff is happening in the world and the players just won't let it happen with involving themselves in it. It is cool watching them try to figure out what the Knights of Genetic Purity are up to, or why the burning mist started pouring out of the ruins that the cephalapoids disturbed while foraging for tubers to trade with the player's community, but already some overarching plot stuff is taking shape without me having really willed it or done much but provide some little bits here and there. Of course, this is not a bad thing, but I think that it would be really hard to make a truly episodic campaign without getting the players 100% on board with the idea, because otherwise they will soon get wrapped up in the things that are happening in the world and before you know it you are knee deep in a multi-session plot arc.

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  23. Good post, James. I also like the fact that Star Trek is not "about itself", but about telling interesting science fiction stories. Granted it has a stable cast and certain basic assumptions, but from that the content is basically external... it's not about navel-gazing, it's about going out into the unknown and dealing with what we find there.

    Which is to say, original Trek does what it says on the tin. "To boldly go...." Whereas Next Gen should have said something like "To Pompously Mince...." Oh, and men in TOS are allowed to have cojones.

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  25. The person who mentioned Babylon 5 made an interesting point. You can have layers and an overarching plot, but you have to make each episode interesting in and of itself. I was able to get "caught up" on Babylon 5 starting shortly after Season 2 began. When I missed six months of Deep Space Nine I ended up missing so much I dropped the show.

    JMS said he also had a rule where he would not leave a mystery hanging more than one season--we didn't have to wait 5 seasons to find out the truth about the shadows, for instance. Two x-franchises, The X-Men titles of the 90s and X-Files introduced what I call "lazy writing", where the "secret backstory" doesn't ever get resolved and introduces contradictions as more writers are added. Mysteries only work well when there is some definitive payoff.

    B5 taught me the "human element" was more important. They explained things, but I felt Trek fell into so-called technobabble too much--they got into too much discussion. If they had spent more time on creating interesting standalone episodes instead of building a realistic Klingon language I think things would have been better. I liked TNG, but as more Trek was released I got a bit tired of it, as there are only so many tropes you can dig out year after year.

    I gave up on a lot of SF in the late 90s, for instance watching The West Wing instead of Voyager because the former had very interesting characters, plots, and sharp writing opposed to Voyager.

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  26. "I gave up on a lot of SF in the late 90s, for instance watching The West Wing instead of Voyager because the former had very interesting characters, plots, and sharp writing opposed to Voyager."

    Amen! Right now, my favorite thing on TV is HBO's "In Therapy." Each day of the week, the therapist (played by Gabriel Byrne) sees a different patient. And while there is a strong sense of continuity (in that we get to know these patients better and better as the show progresses), each "session" is a perfectly self-contained episode.

    That, and the writing is superb, and the actors are brilliant. Go see it now. ;)

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  27. I've tried doing the same thing too awhile ago, but with respect to the music I listened to when I was younger. I grew up listening to a lot of heavy metal stuff like Iron Maiden, Metallica, Judas Priest, Slayer, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, etc ...

    What has come up in my mind over and over after listening to this stuff again these days is, "how the hell did I ever find this music fascinating?!?!?!".

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  28. Good post.

    I'm a big fan of Buffy/Angel, and I think its approach is instructive. Individual episodes are mostly episodic. To the extent that a metaplot develops, it is resolved at the end of each season.

    I think this isn't much different from how many "old school" referees approach their games: A referee runs unconnected scenarios or a sandbox. As the "season" progresses and players find a target of attention (however quickly or slowly that may happen), the referee introduces that target into her sessions more and more. At some point, the situation involving the target is resolved, ending the "season", and the process repeats.

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  29. Television shows which are literally like an anthology of self-contained episodes done to the extreme, is shows like Law and Order and CSI to a lesser extent. Just about every episode is like hitting the "reset" button.

    In the case of Law and Order, it's a huge revolving door of different actors/actresses changing almost every season for the last 20 years. At least one main character leaves, gets shot/killed, or is fired almost every season. Awhile ago I was watching some episodes from the first season (1990-1991) of Law and Order, where literally these episodes are as fresh as today's episodes in the 19th season. (That is, other than the cheesy hairstyles and early 1990's style of clothing). Canon is almost literally zero.

    I suppose in a show with the main cast members being fired or leaving after a season or two (or three or four), there isn't much point in having highly involved plot lines and deep backgrounds. Canon is almost zero.

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  30. *Sigh*
    Now we've done it.
    Now there's a TOS-vs. everybody else debate.
    I swear, James, if you and a few others weren't so damned brilliant I would avoid this whole movement like the plague.

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  31. Well put, Mr. M. I hadn't really picked up on the anthology angle, mostly because I'd been brainwashed by the illusion of the continuing cast. And yet, I know from personal experience in two Trek RPG campaigns that the flexibility inherent in the cast and roles mean you could easily shift PCs between sessions.

    My great revelation from revisiting these DVDs (ADORE the Remastered work) is that William Shatner was a much more credible actor then. Yes, he's a little over-the-top -- that's the leading man's job -- but only a little and much less than the parodists have accepted.

    I'm looking even more forward now to hearing your thoughts on the text I sent you. When you get time.

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  32. Well put, Mr. M. I hadn't really picked up on the anthology angle, mostly because I'd been brainwashed by the illusion of the continuing cast. And yet, I know from personal experience in two Trek RPG campaigns that the flexibility inherent in the cast and roles mean you could easily shift PCs between sessions.

    My great revelation from revisiting these DVDs (ADORE the Remastered work) is that William Shatner was a much more credible actor then. Yes, he's a little over-the-top -- that's the leading man's job -- but only a little and much less than the parodists have accepted.

    I'm looking even more forward now to hearing your thoughts on the text I sent you. When you get time.

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  33. If you follow old-school gaming, it was very anthology as well. People got together to play with characters they had, with continuity probably being as important as the continuity of a CCG players' deck.

    "I just bought this cool 5th level Dragonlance module. Who wants to play?"

    "Excellent! I just made 5th level over in Bob's Greyhawk campaign. Count me in!"

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  34. I recommend The Making of Star Trek if you can find a copy.

    One of the things that struck me about the “rules” Roddenbury laid down for TOS is how much they have in common with similar rules I’ve seen for other great TV series regardless of genre. (Such as: Action is important but an episode should be about the characters.)

    When TNG first aired and I’d bring up some of these points about what I liked better about TOS, people would always dismiss me saying that I was just “romanticizing” it. (And I liked TNG, I just think that each series has its pros and cons rather than thinking that TNG was a clear improvement.) Exactly the same reaction I got from some quarters years later when I started discovering that I preferred older edition of D&D to the newer ones.

    I think an anthology TV series can still be successful. In fact, the fact that so many series today aren’t anthologies probably means viewers would find it refreshing. They do tend to be more expensive, which is a challenge, but it doesn’t make them a non-starter.

    I’ve had much the same experience when it comes to revisiting the things I loved as a child. Some hold up; some don’t.

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  35. I dunno. There have been some recent "soap operas" with continuity that I really dug, and the feel of which I have tried to go for in my rpgs.

    Deadwood. Rome. The Wire.

    I find continuity very important for verisimilitude.

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  36. I think it's worth mentioning that Star Trek has the feel of an anthology show because it was inspired by one.

    I always felt Trek was very heavily influenced by X-Minus One, which in turn was radio dramas of golden age sci-fi short stories.

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