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?

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?

The film is The Terminator, which includes in its credits the phrase "Acknowledgment to the works of Harlan Ellison." That's because James Cameron's highly successful, influential, and thrice-sequeled time-traveling cyborg assassin flick shares some notable similarities with two episodes of The Outer Limits that were written by Ellison: "Soldier" and "Demon with the Glass Hand," both of which aired in 1964.

In "Demon," Robert Culp plays a fugitive from 1,000 years in the future, a time when an alien race has conquered the Earth, and the only way to save humanity is to render the planet radioactively uninhabitable. Culp is revealed to be an android built to store humanity's genetic legacy and restart the human race once the alien invaders have died out. A radioactive apocalypse, unkillable robots, a time-traveling hero, and the inhuman hunters that follow him are comprehensibly similar to freedom fighter Kyle Reese and the cyborg Terminator that jaunt to a 1984 Los Angeles from a post-nuclear-holocaust future.

In "Soldier," Michael Ansara plays a soldier from 1,000 years in the future who is thrown back in time — along with his enemy — by a sky-based laser weapon. Ansara's character is adopted by a human family, the Tanners, whom he must protect when his fellow combatant arrives from the future. The notion of a future soldier sacrificing himself to save a contemporary civilian is key to both the original Terminator and its first sequel.

While the themes and plot elements found in of Ellison's Outer Limits teleplays are found in an untold number of science fiction works, Hemdale, the production company that produced The Terminator, and Orion Pictures, which distributed it, both felt Ellison would sue for plagiarism. (Given that Ellison is famously lawsuit happy and is willing to argue about such trivial points as the difference between sci-fi and science fiction, they were probably right.) The filmmakers preemptively awarded Ellison the acknowledgement to avoid the issue, in effect rewriting the origins of the film to be based on Ellison's works. In some respects, the film about a war waged through time had its history rewritten to avoid conflict.

That's not just a curious chrononautic conundrum, it's some litigiously logic-looped Geek Trivia.

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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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