By Matthew Kresel
Alternate history truly has it's main home on the printed page. True, there have been AH movies and TV shows, but such works are often books first which are then brought from page to screen. Or, indeed, given new life as an audio drama. A rare example of the latter came in 1999 when Dirk Maggs, master of bringing a cinematic approach to audio drama, adapted Stephen Baxter's alternate history novel Voyage for BBC Radio 4. Frequently re-broadcast on Radio 4 Extra and now available on download through Audible and Amazon, it presents a journey both to the red planet and through an alternate history.
For those unfamiliar with either the audio drama or Baxter's novel, a quick summation may be necessary. In 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination attempt left JFK in a wheelchair (though Jackie died instead), and though succeeded by LBJ and then Nixon, he lived to see Apollo 11's success. Invited to the White House by Nixon and having the phone passed to him during Nixon's phone call from the Oval Office, Kennedy issues a new challenge: a human mission to Mars. Voyage is the story of what happens next, told for the most part via "Mars nut" geologist turned astronaut Natalie York, through the highs and lows and missions of the decade and a half that follows.
In adapting the novel into a drama without pictures, perhaps the most significant change Maggs made was to have the plot unfold linearly. Baxter's book intercut between the Ares mission on its way to Mars and the long road from 1969 to 1985 to get it off the ground, sometimes for dramatic contrast, but more often than not to have something occur on the long (and potentially dull) voyage to Mars. For the dramatization, which unfolds across five half-hour episodes, Maggs abandoned that structure entirely. Instead, the first episode opens with the Apollo 11 Moon landing, with the final episode depicting the Ares mission. It also means that some of the "hard science" details get streamlined, and there are subplots that are likewise either cut down or lost entirely (including one about the long development of the MEM, the Mars Excursion Module). Though, if you've never read the book, you'll likely never notice they're gone.
Because what Maggs, as director, created was an alternate history miniseries, an aural equivalent of HBO's acclaimed Apollo-centric TV miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. Three of its episodes (one, two, and four) focus on the relationships, politics, and technological developments that flesh out the alternate history, one which perhaps doesn't diverge as wildly from our history as one might expect. There are no dramatic changes to the political landscape, the war in Vietnam, or the Cold War (in stark contrast to Apple TV's more recent series For All Mankind), though there are subtle and notable changes in places to catch the listeners attention. What Maggs (as well as his first-rate cast and crew) do is put flesh, blood, and sound on this world, from the halls of power in Washington to Houston's Mission Control and the Kazakh Steppe. In doing so, they highlight why audio drama is an overlooked medium for this genre: it can go anywhere and do almost anything at a fraction of the budget.
That's especially true of the third and fifth episodes, centered on two crucial missions. The first is Apollo-N, the test of a nuclear rocket stage based on the NERVA project. Though this series is about the eventual Mars mission, the Apollo-N episode is the highlight of the whole series, which turns into high drama in the style of Apollo 13. The final episode presents the Ares mission, from lift-off at Cape Kennedy to its arrival at the red planet. Both of them combine Baxter's novel, Maggs direction with its ear for aural detail (including having actors in spacesuit stand-ins with matching headsets in a car about the size of an Apollo command module, as revealed in an interview on the Audible release), and an impressive cast. It's a fine piece of dramatic storytelling, no matter the medium.
What it also does is highlight why alternate history is a good fit for audio drama. They do all of that, an expansive narrative with a sizable cast, without having to do expensive costume and set reconstruction, or spending the equivalent of the GDP of a small country on CGI effects. Voyage, as adapted by Maggs, is a fine piece of alternate history, especially for those with an ear for NASA and the missions that might have been, and one that might, with its latest release, perhaps inspire others to consider a new approach to telling such stories.
After all, there's an adage that the visuals are better on audio. Why? Because the listener does all the hard work for you.