Treknobabble #58: I Have a Mouth and I Must Sue

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 cliché that Mr. Ellison would shake his head at, another cliché.

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, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” 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 “Demon with a Glass Hand,” 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 “stole” 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 “Production Manager and Post Production Supervisor” 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, “Logan’s Run.” 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 “The City on the Edge of Forever” 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 “bad guy” 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 “Star Trek aspires to mediocrity” 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: “Harlan Ellison is a surly young man who has spent years saying awful things about me, while I find him admirable. In fact, ‘City…’ is my favorite of the original Star Trek series because of the fact that it is a beautiful love story, well told.” 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, “The Words in Spock’s Mouth: An Essay,” 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, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” I recommend that you find and read this story. And for Harlan’s sake, please pay for it.

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  • Bas

    An interesting read, Farrington! Ellison has obviously had an influence on sci-fi. It’s not unreasonable to seek compensation if you feel that a studio owes you money and I suppose the judge will apply the law as it should be applied. He does sound like a grumpy old dude, though! And if he had a problem with the collaborative nature of television he should have stuck to writing novels.

  • ProjectGenesis

    I always loved the Ellison story “Repent Harlequin Said The Ticktockman”— especially since I read it in High School where there was always a stiff penalty for being ‘late’ to class or to sports practice. If we were late to class, we weren’t allowed to attend and sent to the “holding cell” for the hour. I always thought that was an insane. Reed, I remember a Cantankerous episode where you mentioned buying Joan Collins’ autobiography in the 25 cents bin just read what she said about this episode. Did she say anything interesting?

  • Re: Terminator. It’s actually a combination of episodes, the first being “demon with a glass hand” and “Soldier”, where two soldiers go back in time. Demon is actually a really cool story and they don’t disintegrate when the necklace is pulled off. The necklace keeps them anchored in the past so they return to the hellish future when it’s removed.

    Like him or hate him, Ellison has stood up for writer’s rights and I actually have to agree with a lot of what he has to say. His main argument is that a writer should be paid for their work even if it’s just a little bit.

    “He even dislikes the habit of people allowing interviews to be used as DVD extras without being paid.” When he spoke about this, he made the good point that Warner Brothers isn’t so hard up for cash that they can’t afford to give you a little something for your work.

  • Bas, thx for your comment.

    Project Genesis, I just reread the section in Joan Collins’ book about Star Trek. (The index just lists actors, so the Star Trek stuff is actually under William Shatner.) She’s mistaken on two accounts. In the episode she is in, she thinks her character was on Hitler’s side, but she was involved in a pacifist movement that allowed Hitler to win the war. Her character would have been less sympathetic if the audience had thought she sympathized with Hitler. And she said this episode was the only episode where Kirk fell in love. Kirk fell in love with an android woman in “Requiem for Methuselah.” (Out of compassion at the end, Spock used a mind-meld to wipe the memories of her from his brain.) She said that she had heard rumors that Shatner tried to bed most of the leading ladies, but she said she did not succumb to his charms. She didn’t say anything about a toupee, but she did say that he must have worn 3″ lifts in his boots to make him taller on Star Trek.

    Paul, thx for your correction although technically, they do disintegrate when you remove the necklace so it’s still stupid in my opinion. I’ll have to rewatch Soldier. I think you’re right about that episode being mentioned in the lawsuit. In my opinion, Ellison’s Outer Limits’ episodes were somewhat terrible.

  • Ed M.

    Reed-

    More vitriol! More lambasting! More hyperbole!

    H.G. Wells’ estate should sue Ellison!

    Although I’m surprise Harlan didn’t sue the makers of the most recently filmed version of “The Time Machine” because they used his name, spoken by a computer avatar [in an early scene in the New York City Library] without HE’s permission.

    The man from Painville, Ohio. (A city that should sue him for using part of its name in his story “Paingod” without their permission.)

    Rodenberry improved Ellison’s original “City” script, which was a non-Star Trek-oriented story, and made it an iconic tale instead of the cranky squirt of edginess that Harlan wanted.

    Don’t write for established characters if you don’t respect their perameters.

    It would be as absurd as writing a “The Flying Nun” episode (which Ellison did, under a pseudonym) and making the sister a pole dancer or cat burglar (which he didn’t).

    Harlan has a mouth, and it usually screams.

  • So I take it that you’re not a fan of Mr. Ellison, Ed M.? I don’t think I knew that he wrote for “The Flying Nun.”

    I’ve read some good things about the recent documentary, “Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth,” that I’m eager to watch one day. I didn’t realize that his house is supposedly full of crap like my house, but probably better crap. Film Junk should package some video versions of Cantankerous with “Reed’s House The Video Tour” and call it, “Reed Farrington: Dreams with Dull Mind.” I wonder if Mr. Ellison would sue.

    I’m still waiting to read about what Mr. Ellison thinks of the latest Star Trek movie. And yes, I’m looking for some validation regarding my negative opinion of the movie. Mr. Ellison would no doubt be more incisive in his criticisms. If anyone does come across this, please let me know.