The power of the spoken word and audio have incredible effects on our senses and is still one of the greatest ways to tell a story. But something that’s been lost in the world of the moving picture is art form of the elaborate radio dramas, complete with commanding voice actors, composed music scores, and even sound effects, these productions captivated audiences and their imaginations long before the television was invented.
Director and writer Neal Hallford is trying to bring it all back with Uncharted Regions, a series currently in production of its first season that will have some help from the final frontier.
John Billingsley, better known as Dr. Phlox to Star Trek: Enterprise fans is joining the voice cast, SYFY WIRE exclusively confirms — and he’s being joined by Gigi Edgely (Farscape), Fedra Ramirez, and Randy Davison.
Billingsley appears in the episode titled “Haven” as Dr. Jacobson, a dying man seeking peace on a remote alien world, but who finds himself pursued by a relentless agent of revenge. Uncharted Regions is designed as an anthology series of weird tales spanning several genres. In a press statement, Jacobson is described by Hallford as one of the most complex characters developed for the series and Billingsley was a first choice pick to add a “mixture of gravitas, great intelligence and vulnerability to the role.”
Listen to this audio clip intro of the episode:
SYFY WIRE spoke with director, writer and producer Neal Hallford, producer Jana Hallford and actor John Billingsley about Uncharted Regions.
Having grown up in the 70s, Billingsley spent countless hours in a darkened room at home listening to local New York radio broadcasts of old radio dramas. He loved dusty detective novels from the 1930s and 1940s like Ellery Queen and S.S. Van Dine. Billingsley even thumbing endlessly through pulp magazines edited by Anthony Boucher (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) and John Campbell (Astounding Science Fiction). Nostalgia was in the air when Uncharted Regions came across his desk.
“Our family had one of those big old-fashioned speakers, so it felt like I was really entering a time tunnel," Billingsley reminisced. "The Shadow, Fibber McGee and Molly, Easy Aces, Doc Savage, etc. I always loved the format and the era generally. Oh, how I wish I could rock a fedora.”
For Hallford though, Unchartered Regions has even loftier inspiration.
“I fell in love with them back in the 1980s when there was this kind of mini "golden age" of radio dramas. I'm looking at those 80's productions of Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Star Wars, and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy all playing on public radio. What really turned me into an audio drama nut was a fantastic series called Bradbury 13 which was based on the short stories of Ray Bradbury. They were absolutely amazing.”
From age 17 during high school and into college, Hallford and a friend sporadically worked on an audio drama, an early version of Uncharted Regions while working at a radio station. Two of those scripts were never produced and became the foundation for this new series. Long after Hallford moved to California, got married and learned the skills as a writer, producer, sound engineer and musician.
Hallford’s wife, Jana is the co-showrunner of the anthology series, which starts off with 13 episodes, which broadly span out beyond the science fiction genre. The first episode is horror, another is a contemporary Western set on Mars, there’s Billingsley’s episode which is the psychological space drama, and some stories that cross multiple genres including a young adult story set in the projects of Detroit in the 1960s, a fairy tale set in a Japanese relocation camp during World War II, and an Arsenic and Old Lace-ish comedy. Based out of San Diego and their production company Swords & Circuitry Studios, the Hallfords are devoted to achieving a return to classics.
“Both Neal and I have wide-ranging interests, and that includes history, classic films, and speculative fiction,” Jana Hallford said. “Uncharted Regions does owe a lot to the past – to the Twilight Zone, and radio dramas such as Bradbury 13 and the wonderful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy audio dramas. Something we are NOT doing is the tongue-in-cheek imitations of radio shows from the pre-television eras. No hokey sound effects, just good stories that are well-presented.”
The timing for Uncharted Regions is ripe. With the evolution of podcasting and to see the new life that books on tape have gotten on platforms like Audible, producing a prestige radio drama is simply taking it one step further. Neal Hallford sums it up plainly to what he connected to as a child.
“It all boils down to the power of the human voice and of audio,” A lot of people take for granted how much it influences you. I grew up in a generation where my parents and my brother all took turns reading to me when I was a little kid. I grew up as a voracious reader and a lover of books in general, and I think in part it was because I associated stories and reading with a human voice.”
“Now that everybody on the planet has an audio player with them at all times, and that audio player can remember where they were on their last device, it's lowered the bar on the whole experience. People who might have been too intimidated to read some books are okay with listening to them. And young folks are starting to discover some of those old radio dramas and are enjoying them in a non-ironic sort of way."
"I think again it might come to that human connection thing. When you've got a society which has encouraged us to push away from one another, being able to enjoy the kind of one-on-one relationship that reading and listening to an author provides a kind of non-threatening comfort. You get to be a kid again and relive that feeling of an intimate relationship with another human being.”
They’ve assembled an impressive writing and producing staff across the county that includes Geoffrey Thorne (Marvel’s Avengers: Black Panther Quest showrunner), Jimmy DIggs (writer for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager), Marc Laidlaw (Half-Life video game writer), Haris Orkin (Call of Juarez, Tom Clancy’s The Division), Hannibal Tabu (The Crown: Ascension), E.M. Knowles (Diary of Mimosa Creek, Iona) and Alison Winter (Divine White’s Introduction to Hollywood).
Billingsley has voiced many video games, many of the superhero variety, but he doesn’t do much voice work as television provides him with the stability and plenty of meaty content for a character actor. Uncharted Regions provided Billingsley the opportunity to dip his toe back into voice acting.
“I thought this would be a terrific chance to do something that one rarely gets a chance to do anymore.”
“We fat guys ain’t wanted on camera so much,” Billingsley joked, “and of course, the script itself appealed because of what it had to say about the nature of personal responsibility, dealing with a guilty conscience–yadda, yadda, yadda. I wish more people these days had guilty consciences or just… consciences.”
Uncharted Regions does not currently have a release date but once the production on Season 1 is completed, the Hallfords are hoping to partner with a provider such as PBS or NPR for an over-the-air broadcast and with an audiobook/audio drama publisher to reach a broader audience.