After Hours

Geek Trivia: Works of speculative friction

What iconic science fiction film was retroactively acknowledged to have been based on the works of Harlan Ellison, despite the fact that Ellison did no direct work on the movie, and the film does not share a title, plot, or characters with any story Ellison ever wrote?

Harlan Ellison is different from most iconic science fiction and fantasy writers, and not just because of his stunning number of award-winning books, stories, scripts, and critical works. Perhaps nothing illustrates this difference better than Ellison's pseudonym, Cordwainer Bird. Bird, you see, is the pen name Ellison uses for his published works that he feels have been editorially mangled beyond his tolerance. It's sort of Ellison's personal equivalent to Alan Smithee, the infamous directors' pseudonym for works that movie and TV studios edited or meddled with beyond repair.

Ellison is credited as Cordwainer Bird — at his own insistence — for at least 19 different Hollywood works, including the entire run of The Starlost, a series Ellison himself created and for which he wrote every episode. This figure does not include the various literary works that were published under the Bird pseudonym, but does serve to illustrate just how often Ellison has been known to clash with his employers and collaborators.

Additionally, there are still more works that Ellison wanted branded with the Bird pseudonym but did not prevail. The most famous such case involved "The City on the Edge of Forever" which is arguably the best episode of the original Star Trek ever put to the airwaves. Trek creator Gene Roddenberry refused to credit Ellison as Cordwainer Bird in the credits for "City," and Ellison has held something of a grudge about their disagreement to this day, going so far as to publish his unaltered version of the teleplay. Despite Ellison's disapproval of the final product, "City" won the 1968 Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation in science fiction, and the teleplay won a Writer's Guild of America Award for best hour-long drama script.

The "City" controversy has sprung up again in recent months, as the new J.J. Abrams-directed film reboot of Star Trek will have time travel as a central plot element, and it was widely rumored that the Guardian of Forever, a plot device from "The City on the Edge of Forever," would provide the chrononautics. Ellison went on record saying that Abrams and Paramount Studios would owe him money if the Guardian appeared in the new Star Trek film.

While no one appears to have taken Ellison's Trek threat seriously, his litigious past and confrontational nature did earn him at least some acknowledgement — and, reportedly, some cash — when another iconic science fiction film appeared to have been at least partially based on some of Ellison's works.

WHAT FAMOUS SCI-FI MOVIE WAS RETROACTIVELY "BASED" ON THE WORKS OF HARLAN ELLISON TO PREVENT A LAWSUIT?

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About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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