Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.
Harlan Ellison writes stories with words that I find require the use of a dictionary. And even when I understand the words, I often find that his sentences take a moment of reflection in order for me to understand who the subject is, what action the subject is performing, and who or what is receiving the action. And when I finish a paragraph, I often don’t understand the connection between the sentences. Perhaps after reading several paragraphs, I would be able to understand what a story is about. But after I read the last sentence of one of his stories, I am always left scratching my head, which is an unimaginative English clichÃ© that Mr. Ellison would shake his head at, another clichÃ©.
More likely, Mr. Ellison would scorn my ineptness at writing, and utter a scathing remark to belittle my existence. In reality, though, he wouldn’t waste his time on a peon like me. Despite my inability to understand his writing, he is considered to be an excellent writer by science fiction readers. He writes stories with social relevance and contemporary issues, but in the mainstream, I don’t think he has managed to escape the ghetto reputation of being a science fiction writer. If this article was about his writing, I would randomly choose one of his stories and perform a deconstruction to illustrate what I said in the opening paragraph, but this article isn’t about his writing.
Mr. Ellison is in the news again because he is suing Paramount and CBS for royalties he believes are owed him from the use of characters and ideas that he created for an episode of the Original Series of Star Trek. This episode, â€œThe City on the Edge of Forever,â€ just happens to be my favorite episode of Star Trek of all series. This legal fracas has been going on for some time, mainly because that single episode of Star Trek keeps on being the source of more Star Trek product as time goes on. Mr. Ellison is even suing the Writers Guild for not providing support and reneging with regards to this issue. (Perhaps Adam can provide more information about how the Writers Guild has fared in previous lawsuits.)
There are two recent products cited by Mr. Ellison for which he believes a portion of the profits are due to him. A set of three novels referred to as the Crucible Series explores the ramifications of what happened at the end of his Star Trek episode. A Hallmark Christmas ornament depicts the scene where Kirk and Spock return from the past through The Guardian of Forever, a time travel device. This time travel device was rumored to be used in the new Star Trek movie, but I believe the writers chose not to use it because of the threats from Mr. Ellison that he would seek compensation if his device was used. With the new Star Trek movie about to be released, Mr. Ellison’s lawsuit seems well-timed. If there are any hints that ideas from his episode are used in the new movie, then you can be sure that his lawyers will make use of this fuel for the fire.
Mr. Ellison has successfully sued a production in the past for using an idea that he originated on a television episode that he wrote. The television episode was a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits called â€œDemon with a Glass Hand,â€ starring Robert Culp. There’s a twist at the end of this episode. If you don’t want to be spoiled, please skip to the next paragraph. In the future, the human race is being conquered. In order to save the human race, a man is sent back in time with a computer hand. The conquerors send some of themselves back in time in order to find the man. Does this sound vaguely familiar to you? I’ll give you a hint. The franchise that â€œstoleâ€ this idea currently has a television series on a major network, and an upcoming movie sequel starring Christian Bale. You got it! The Terminator. The twist of The Outer Limits’ episode is that the man is actually an android that contains the DNA of the remaining members of the human race. The conquerors are an alien race, a fact that is not concealed in the episode. The episode is kind of stupid. To make an alien disintegrate, all you have to do is remove a necklace it’s wearing. The ending is kind of bittersweet because the man / android will have to wait thousands of years alone for the future to arrive in order to fulfill its purpose. The episode did win a Writers Guild Award for Outstanding Script for a Television Anthology. A bit of Star Trek trivia is that the featured guest actress, Arlene Martel, was later to play Spock’s betrothed.
Frankly, I don’t think Mr. Ellison deserved to get credit for that idea. I don’t know if Mr. Ellison got paid anything, but I expect he did. I believe James Cameron acknowledged that he had seen that episode of The Outer Limits. When The Terminator was released on VHS, Mr. Ellison got a credit added at the end. His credit is displayed as the second end credit of the end credit sequence after the â€œProduction Manager and Post Production Supervisorâ€ credit: Acknowledgment to the works of Harlan Ellison. This was one of those lawsuits where the participants agreed not to discuss details as a part of the settlement.
Based on the wording of the credit, I suspect that there may have been other stories that The Terminator cribbed from, but I’m not aware of them. Because Mr. Ellison used time travel in The Outer Limits and Star Trek, I used to misattribute to him a time travel episode of the television series, â€œLogan’s Run.â€ This time travel story was written by David Gerrold, who wrote the popular Tribbles episode of the Original Series. There’s a twist at the end of this episode. If you don’t want to be spoiled, please skip to the next paragraph. Even though this has nothing to do with Harlan Ellison, I wanted to mention it because it’s one of my favorites even though some people think this idea is hackneyed like the human who goes out into space and lands on a planet and then in the end, discovers that he has landed on Earth. Yeah, Rod Serling used that idea in Planet of the Apes. It wasn’t part of the original novel. Okay, so the Logan’s Run episode is about time travelers from a future where war has been going on for so long that the people involved in the war have forgotten why they are fighting in the first place. So these time travelers were sent back to find out what started the war. The twist is that the people began the war as a result of fighting over the invention of the time machine!
The reason why I like â€œThe City on the Edge of Foreverâ€ episode so much is that it makes me question how far I would go in the name of love. There’s a twist at the end of this episode. If you don’t want to be spoiled, please skip to the next paragraph. Even being a selfish misanthrope, I find myself going back and forth on the issue of whether or not I would save Edith Keeler. This episode established that there is only one timeline for our universe. Even though there can be parallel universes, Star Trek didn’t go into how those parallel universes are established. Anyway, if I saved Edith Keeler, I could be wiping out the existence of my parents and my brother and his family. If I could know that they would go on in a separate timeline, then I wouldn’t hesitate to save Edith Keeler and live out my life with her. It’s interesting to note that in Harlan Ellison’s original screenplay, Kirk sacrifices the universe for Edith Keeler! Kirk allows a drug-dealing â€œbad guyâ€ to attempt to save her, and it is Spock who must intervene and allow her to die. In the televised episode, Kirk with much anguish stops himself from saving her and even has to intervene in stopping McCoy from saving her. Mr. Ellison said that he was attempting to show that Captain Kirk was in a sense flawed while Gene Roddenberry wanted to maintain the heroic nature of Captain Kirk. I can see the merits of both viewpoints.
In Star Trek lore, Mr. Ellison’s hate relationship with Star Trek began when Gene Roddenberry rewrote his original screenplay. Originally, Mr. Ellison had admired Star Trek for hiring science fiction writers to write for television, and even got involved in trying to save Star Trek. I’m wondering if Gene Roddenberry had aired his teleplay as written if he would have been more kind to Star Trek over the years. I’ve attributed the statement that â€œStar Trek aspires to mediocrityâ€ to Harlan Ellison. Even if Mr. Ellison didn’t say those words, I would have to agree.
There is a book called Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay that Became the Classic Star Trek Episode that goes into the feud between Mr. Ellison and Mr. Roddenberry and also offers viewpoints from various Star Trek actors and writers. The following gracious quote from William Shatner is on the back of the paperback cover: â€œHarlan Ellison is a surly young man who has spent years saying awful things about me, while I find him admirable. In fact, ‘Cityâ€¦’ is my favorite of the original Star Trek series because of the fact that it is a beautiful love story, well told.â€ The televised episode won a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the original teleplay won a Writers Guild Award. Both are equally deserved in my opinion.
Harlan Ellison is also an admired movie critic and has several books of movie reviews. His movie reviews are considerably easier to understand than his fiction. His review of the first Star Trek movie was scathing. His criticisms were valid, I think, except for one piece of continuity nitpicking that he resorted to. In the scene with Doctor Chapel where Ilia has a headband on, standing in front of a mirror, Mr. Ellison comments that in one shot, the headband is tilted the wrong way. But I think the camera is shooting at the mirror, so of course the headband would be reversed.
Harlan Ellison despises Hollywood despite his many credits. After years of being mistreated, at least in his mind, by television and filmmakers, and of dealing with the stupidity, at least in his mind, of the people in these industries, he constantly swears off any further involvement. Although he has a certain degree of artistic integrity, I find his work still being sold to others to adapt. He’s probably selective of the people who write the adaptations. He had a short story adapted for the short lived series, Masters of Science Fiction. He only got involved with Babylon 5 because of his friendship with the creator, J. Michael Straczynski. He quit from the staff of the ’80s revival of The Twilight Zone, because the television network wouldn’t air his story about an evil Santa Claus. He used the pseudonym Cordwainer Bird on an embarrassing Canadian science fiction television series Starlost that he created. He wrote an I, Robot screenplay that bears absolutely no resemblance to the Will Smith movie. I read the screenplay and didn’t understand it. I guess I’m as stupid as all the Hollywood executives.
Harlan Ellison should write screenplays for independent movies. But because there’s no money in it, he probably won’t. I’m kidding. With Mr. Ellison abetting, news stories are currently exaggerating his preoccupation with money. Mr. Ellison is reportedly saying that this current lawsuit has nothing to do with matters of principle or recognition of writer contributions. All he wants is the money that he believes he’s contractually obligated to receive.
If Mr. Ellison does manage to get money, then this would set a bad precedent for Star Trek mythology. Many others would deserve reparations. One of the awesome things about Star Trek is that its stories build upon previous stories. Like great literature, new stories are retellings of older stories, disguised and told in a way that makes them feel fresh. For me, having the Guardian of Forever used in the new movie would be awesome.
Since television and filmmaking is a collaborative process, screenplays are only blueprints for what gets shown on the screen. The granting of authorship to an idea could set off an enormous amount of legal wrangling. And how do you possibly divvy up percentages for the ideas and characters in a script? I suppose that copyright lawsuits already abound, and that this latest lawsuit is only making news because of the principals involved.
Harlan Ellison has long been a proponent of getting writers adequate recognition and compensation. He wrote an essay, â€œThe Words in Spock’s Mouth: An Essay,â€ basically because a fan had incorrectly attributed to Leonard Nimoy something Spock had said. He does make a distinction between amateurs and professionals. I think he thinks unpaid blog writers are cutting into his livelihood because people are reading free pablum rather than paying for informed opinion pieces that he writes. He even dislikes the habit of people allowing interviews to be used as DVD extras without being paid.
As I sit here playing with my Edith Keeler action figure, I wonder if I should be paying Mr. Ellison a residual. There is something that probably doesn’t need to be pondered. I would even bet my life-savings on this. Harlan Ellison will find the new Star Trek movie mindless (unless Kirk sacrifices the universe for the love of Uhura).
Note: The title of this Treknobabble is a not-so-clever allusion to Mr. Ellison’s famous short story, â€œI Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.â€ I recommend that you find and read this story. And for Harlan’s sake, please pay for it.