In 1996 Leonard Nimoy and John de Lancie created Alien Voices, Inc., "a company that single-handedly is updating the all-but-lost art form of the radio drama for a twenty-first century audience," Revolution Science Fiction called it in their review of Alien Voices productions (5) The company was born out of the experience of doing War of the Worlds as a radio drama for Simon & Shuster that had already employed the voice talents of many Star Trek actors.
LN: About two years ago, I was contacted by some friends who were doing a revival of the original Orson Welles production of The War of the Worlds. They asked me to do the Welles role, which I did. It was directed by John de Lancie, who is a very good actor/director who played Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation. We had never worked together before and we got on very well. We decided to form this company and took the idea to Simon & Schuster’s audiobook division. They agreed to finance several productions. (3)
Leonard Nimoy, John de Lancie and his wife read a considerable number of stories in preparation for choosing one for production. They were on the lookout for material that would provide the audience with "visual" cues to engage their imagination.
JdL: We love radio because sound is a pathway straight to the imagination. In an age of dazzling visual effects, the mind still has the power to conjure the best scenery, the fastest space ships, and the prettiest women. It also has another power: it's personal. Each listener becomes his or her own director, designer, cinematographer and conductor. You, the listener, help make the story come alive -- and that's what makes our work so enjoyable. Why, then, do video? Because we think (and we've been told) that it's fascinating to watch and still the story still comes through loud and clear. (2)
Actors were chosen on the basis of having appeared on Star Trek (except for one, Richard Doyle, hired for his talent to do many different voices) as Nimoy and de Lancie wanted to work with people again with whom they had become friends. Sometimes, de Lancie says, they even worked on characters to make them fit a particular actor, whom they then contacted telling him that he was the only one considered for the part and can he make room for it in his schedule. One more requirement was that their actors had not only worked in television but on stage, too, and preferably had also done radio. The televised plays, in particular, required them to exercise all three talents. (6)
LN: I don’t think we’ve made a lot of changes. The one major casting change we made was in The Lost World where Conan Doyle had written a character called Summersby. We had it played by a woman, [Voyager’s] Roxann Biggs-Dawson. That was the one major departure that we’ve done. Otherwise I think we’ve stayed close to the original intentions of the writers. (3)
Typically, it took them a day and a half to two days to record a play. The scenes were not recorded in order and not all the actors were present all the time:
LN: We have some scenes with all the actors together working in ensemble; for some of the material, where only one or two of the actors were needed for a lengthy period of time, it was easier to do that before the other actors arrived, or after they had gone. There was no point having them all sitting around. (3)
After producing two audio only dramas, Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and H.G. Well's The Time Machine, both actors decided the time was right to take their productions to the next level.
H.G. Wells' First Men in the Moon (1997) was performed and taped live in front of an audience for broadcast on the SciFi Channel. To this end the story had to be abridged to fit into a mould with the climax of a sequence timed to allow for breaks for commercials. The play was announced as having a top-secret-until-the-last-moment mystery guest, who turned out to be William Shatner, playing the addlebrained leader of the moon-dwellers. Originally, the SciFi Channel only called because they wanted them to produce a radio drama for them, but this was considered an unwise business decision, since they were already doing this under their own Alien Voices lable. But, John de Lancie suggested, they might be interested in having one of their productions filmed. Within a few days the SciFi Channel had not only agreed to the proposal but also suggested they make it into a live event. Suddenly they had a project on their hands that hadn't initially crossed their minds. (6)
LN: What the audience saw was us in a legitimate theatre, with an audience of about a thousand people, doing this on-stage production: actors with scripts in hand, sound effects artists on stage, musicians on stage with us. (3)
First Men in the Moon was a success and two more productions followed, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, and A Halloween Triology (1998) featuring short stories from Rudyard Kipling (Mark of the Beast), Oscar Wilde (The Canterville Ghost) and Edgar Allan Poe (The Cask of Amontillado). The Lost World was an immediate success with the audience, who got a chance to participate in the production by booing and whistling on cue in the roles of members of the university board. There were more than 250 music and audio effects plus audience participation to take care of during the course of the play and when watching it on tape one can only be amazed how perfectly it all worked out. Especially since, as John de Lancie remembers, they at first had trouble finding people able to produce instant sound effects with a plethora of constantly changing objects in front of a live audience. In this age of sythesisers, theirs was a dying art. No one before them had tried anything like this and they all were quite a bit nervous about it prior to getting out on stage for the first time. What had previously been no more than a normal ingredient of producing a radio drama here became another level of thrill for the audience who could watch sound effects produced in the making, sometimes by maltreating everyday objects or using them in very unusual ways.(6)
Dreamwatch: Have you found, when casting the parts, that you have been affected by the way people have been known, and tried to cast against type?
LN: No - that’s an interesting question, because we’ve given the actors a licence to play characters other than those they would typically play. In some cases, they’re playing characters similar to what they have done before, but in many cases, they’re not, and I think that’s one of the attractions for them. On some of these tapes, some of us are doing more than one voice - those that have that sort of vocal range can change age, or ethnic origin, or whatever - and it’s fun for the actors because they do get to step outside the usual things they are identified with.
Dreamwatch: Has that created any sort of negative feedback from the audiences - they’ve seen familiar names, and found it’s not been what they expected?
LN: No, not at all. On the contrary, I think that what the audiences are getting, which is very positive, is that the actors are enjoying themselves. There’s a sense of fun in the work, and audiences really respond to that. (3)
With that much popularity under their belt, the National Public Radio became interested in Alien Voices, and they added ten hours of programming to their Halloween and Christimas schedule in 1998. For Alien Voices' last foray into classic Science Fiction literature, The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells, it was back to the roots as it was produced as an audio book only. According to de Lancie they also considered doing I, Robot and delving into Scandinavian mythology with the Snowqueen, or doing the Brothers Grimm (but only the really scary stuff) or Treasure Iland. The problem with these ideas was the difficulty of negotiating rights. (4) Leonard Nimoy added Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Dracula or Frankenstein to their list of possible projects when discussing what they were planning for the Halloween special for the SciFi Channel. (3)
LN: We’re starting out with the classics for as long as we can stay with them. These are much loved pieces of science fiction. They were all written in the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds; they are sort of the roots of all the great science fiction ideas: interplanetary travel, lost civilisations, time travel, all of that.
I don’t know how long we’ll be able to continue with the classics - we may move into something more contemporary in the future, but at least for the time being that was the mandate we gave ourselves.
The thing that we find so challenging, and so exciting, is when you go back to the roots, you discover what these authors were really thinking about, and what the social context is of some of these projects, which perhaps has been lost over the years when people have done derivative versions. To go back and rediscover what was the original intent of these was a lot of fun for us. (3)
JdL: Going back to the original stories, we realized how much the genre had changed over the years. We also realized how much the original works had been altered by people trying to "modernize" them. I hate to tell you but there is no goose named Gertrude in "A Journey to the Center of the Earth", nor is there an evil scientist who challenges Professor Lidenbrock's expedition. In Jules Verne's novel "Mysterious Island" there are no giant lizards, menacing bumble bees or overgrown chickens. Instead, there is a gripping adventure set in a threatening wilderness about men who believe that science and industry will make the world a better place for us all. (2)
Unfortunately, there were no more TV productions in store for Alien Voices. The SciFi Channel was sold and the new owners did not pic them up. (4) But by then interest had reached a point where the company was recieving request from schools and universities for their scripts to help them mount productions of their own. These requests were met by producing a short tutorial video that shows Leonard Nimoy and John de Lancie working with a group of students, capturing "important lessons and techniques directors will want to employ, including the creation of special effects, sound and original music", "covering the creative process of staging an alien voices drama from conception to production" as stated by Dramatic Publishing, where the video is still available.
The blurp on the backside of the video reads: This video was created by Leonard Nimoy and John de Lancie during a staging of a new Alien Voices play created expressly for students, The Wright Brothers' First Flight.
This new play was performed for the first time at the California Superintendents Convention in August 1999. Nimoy and de Lancie worked with a group of students whom they had never met before and who had never seen an Alien Voices production. After only 12 hours of rehearsal, the students performed this 15 minute play, earning a standing ovation and critical acclaim.
Leonard Nimoy said in an interview that they were talking to the California School Board at the time to produce material based on their work which would be suitable for the classroom environment. They wanted to create a medium that put children in touch with classic works of literature from the science fiction genre and beyond. The idea of encouraging them to do their own radio shows by setting an example appealed to him. Staging an Alien Voices production could be done without much fuss since neither costumes nor sets were needed, nor were there lines to be learned. It could be an exciting, fast and easy way for children to put on a play. Added to that was the challenge to come up with ways to produce sound effects with whatever was available: pots, pans, drinking glasses, sticks, water, wood, boxes, brooms and so on. Dramatic Publishing included a number of Alien Voices scripts in their catalogue that went out to 70.000 schools, amateur theater companies, acting coaces, and semi-professional troupes, putting a whole new group of people in touch with what they were doing. (4)
Next came Spock vs. Q and Spock vs. Q: The Sequel which Leonard Nimoy and John de Lancie performed a number of times at conventions. While written by Cecilia Fannon, it was Leonard Nimoy's idea to have Q and Spock - chaos and order - meet. What they were looking for in the author was the ability to provide an hour of entertainment without just producing one Star Trek joke after another. There was also a deal with New Line Television to produce movies and series for television that never came to fruitition. Asked whether they had considered touring with Alien Voices productions, de Lancie said no, remarking that he didn't think Leonard Nimoy would want to take long trips upon himself anymore. There was a demand for it, but doing the shows cost the SciFi Channel half a million Dollars each and that was for the production and actors only. While it amounted to one realtively cheap hour of television for the SciFi Channel, he doubted that anyone would take on the risk of investing in a road show with cost for transportation and lodging added and all kinds of potential logistical problems looming ahead, with no gurantee of recouping their money. (6)
After a run of four years, Alien Voices closed its doors. According to an interview John de Lancie gave to AMC in 2009, one of the reasons was that after a time it became all about profit on their distributers side:
The problem with Alien Voices was we had four really terrific years. 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. (1)
One gets even more of an idea of what took the fun out of it for them even further when de Lancie describes what Disney wanted them to do with the material when they tried to develop it into a movie:
We tried with The First Men in the Moon, which is old H.G. Wells. It all takes place on a countryside in England in 1910. We took it to Disney and they said, “Yeah we want to do this, but we have two requirements: We want an 18 year old girl.” Is that a joke? Am I supposed to say “Who doesn’t?” So I go, “Okay, what’s the other requirement?” They say, “We don’t want to do it as a period piece.” Then they go, “Why the sour face?” I said, “We’ve been to the moon! We’ve already been there.” “Well, go to Mars.” At that point it’s so far off of what my notion was. These stories were really good in themselves, and we were doing them because nobody had done them that way. (1)
That was the moment, he said, where he and Leonard Nimoy decided to move on:
So I just thought, it’s now First Men and an 18 Year-Old-Girl on the Moon, and it’s not about the quaintness of those laboratories that were in peoples’ farmhouses any more. It’s all the other s–t we’ve seen before. So all of that stuff was beginning to happen at the same time, and that’s when Leonard and I looked at each other and said enough with this. (1)
The Alien Voices connection lasted long enough for Signet Classic to ask Leonard Nimoy to write an afterword for their 2003 publication of Jules Verne's A Journey to the Center of the Earth.
In 2011 John de Lancie and Leonard Nimoy launched their own website, offering Alien Voices productions for purchase and ownload at http://www.alienvoices.net/
Dear Friends and Fans,
So many have asked about our AlienVoices productions that we've decide to offer them to you as a direct download for $9.99 each.
Our website is growing and in the very near future we will also be offering videos of some of our other titles: Canterville Ghost, Cask of Amontillado, Mark of the Beast, First Men in the Moon and The Lost World.
We had a great time making these shows and we hope you enjoy them - be sure to tell us what you think.
Best, Leonard and John
(1) Actor John De Lancie Discusses Alien Voices and Rebooting Trek. http://blogs.amctv.com/scifi-scanner/2009/08/john-de-lancie-interview.php.
Jensen, Mary. Alien Voices Unofficial Website. http://maryjensen.tripod.com/alienvoices/index.html. Here you can find behind the scenes photos from the recording sessions.
(2) John de Lancie and Leonard Nimoy. Alien Voices: A Letter to Our Fans! http://johndelancie.tripod.com/helpav.html.
(3) Simpson, Paul. Leonard Nimoy on Alien Voices. "Dreamwatch", Issue 50, 1998. http://totalscifionline.com/dreamwatch-archive/3279-leonard-nimoy-on-alien-voices.
(4) Spelling, Ian. Nimoy spricht "Alien Voices". http://trekzone.de/content/cc/darsteller/tos/leonard-nimoy/leonard-nimoy-spricht-alien-voices.htm. Originally published in Star Trek Monthly, translation by Trekzone.
(5) Sturgis, Amy H. Alien Voices (I hear Alien Voices - and they sound a lot like Spock and Q). Revolution Science Fiction, http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=202.
(6) Vogel, Robert. ALIEN VOICES: Zwei Star Trek-Ikonen als Hörspiel-Pioniere. 1999, http://www.robertvogel.net/artikel/alienvoices.html.
More Interviews about Alien Voices:
Beyond Spock (Jul. 1998)
Spock vs. Q - Sparring for the 24th Century (Dez 1999)