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.


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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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