Nov. 21, 2004
James Cameron was Wobbed
I like to try and figure out where story ideas originated. Sometimes the pedigree of an idea is so oft repeated, it becomes part of the mythos which really famous works of art accumulate. For example, every Star Trek fan knows that Star Trek, as originally described by series creator Gene Roddenberry, was supposed to be "Wagon Train to the Stars." If you're like me, you've never seen an episode of Wagon Train but, darn it, you know Star Trek was based on it, whatever it was!
Similarly, Roddenberry claimed he based Captain Kirk on C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower. In that case, I have read some of the Hornblower books and I'm not sure I see much resemblance between the confident, morally-righteous Kirk and the fretful, self-doubting Hornblower. Now, Captain Pike, on the other hand (who preceded Kirk in the series pilot) -- him I can see the resemblance to Hornblower. But Kirk? Nuh uh.
My brother and co-editor, "Drooling" D.K. Latta, has a theory that you should never believe an author when they claim they were inspired by such and such a source. You can bet that that's just a bit of legerdemain, like a magician waving his left hand so you won't see what's really going on in his right (Yes, thank you, Blair. We do know what legerdemain means.) . If an author tells you he was inspired by such and such a source, sure, that may have been a slight influence on his creative processes... but you can bet the real influence is the one he's carefully not talking about.
Again, to use Star Trek as an example. It doesn't take a genius to recognize where Star Trek really came from. Forget all that Wagon Train crap -- if you've ever seen the 1956 movie, Forbidden Planet, starring Canadian Leslie Nielsen back before he became known for his comedy, you know you don't have to look any farther for a culprit. Understand, I'm not just saying Roddenberry was influenced by Forbidden Planet. Fans have long noted the similarity between Star Trek and Forbidden Planet and Gene Roddenberry himself apparently acknowledged it had been one source of inspiration. But I still think fans fail to appreciate just how much is owed to it.
Forbidden Planet IS Star Trek.
Everything is there -- starting with the concept of a galaxy spanning organization of "United Planets" traveling in faster than light spaceships, continuing with scientific outposts manned by vaguely unstable eggheads and their lovely, if emotionally immature daughters, and including an in-your-face, metaphorical storyline whose central crux is the conflict between reason and emotion. It has been said that Forbidden Planet could have been a Star Trek episode, but I would go a step further and argue that it basically was -- as an episode called "Requiem For Methuselah".
That's the one where Kirk and crew visit a planet where a patrician scientist named Flint lives alone with his emotionally immature daughter. Kirk falls in love with the daughter, only to discover that she is really a robot created by Flint, who is purposely encouraging her to fall in love with Kirk so as to awaken fully human emotions. The similarities between this episode and Forbidden Planet are many, but probably the clincher, for my money, is the presence of Flint's robot assistant, M4. Clearly modeled after Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot, M4 even serves the same function -- as a sort of all purpose manufacturing plant.
Okay, so "Requiem for Methuselah" wasn't about a giant invisible monster like Forbidden Planet, but what is often forgotten is that Forbidden Planet had two storylines: One about the invisible monster and one about how Leslie Nielsen is smitten with the egg-head's daughter, Altaira, and awakens fully human emotions in her breast for the first time. It is this second storyline which was remade as "Requiem for Methuselah". Of course, Altaira isn't a robot, but emotionally she might was well be. Nielsen even seems to be quoting Star Trek when he tells her, in frustration: "Everything is so easy for you...There's no emotion."
Even the character dynamics foreshadow Star Trek. In Forbidden Planet, as in Star Trek, we have three leads: Nielsen's captain in a very Shatner-esque performance (he even punches one fist into the opposite palm when he's frustrated -- just like Kirk); an emotionless but wryly ironic ship's doctor who seems to have served as inspiration for both Dr. McCoy and Spock; and another crewman who...well... did I mention there are three of them?
I think the real evidence for a Forbidden Planet/ Star Trek connection is to be found -- like the Devil -- in the details. Two details in particular. When the spaceship in Forbidden Planet has to slow down from faster than light speed, the crewmembers all stand on circular platforms which apparently turn them into pillars of energy so they won't be injured in the transition. No one can see those pillars of energy and not recognize the origin of the Star Trek transporter beam effect. Then, secondly, there is the use of the word "beam" itself. In Star Trek, of course, engineer Scotty "beamed" crewmen down to a planet using the transporter. "Beam me up, Scotty," has become part of the language. In Forbidden Planet, Robby the Robot says, "You beamed?" and he apparently means, "You rang?" or "You called?". Sure, it's a different meaning but, come on, who's kidding who?
I'm firmly convinced that Forbidden Planet was the main source of inspiration for Star Trek. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that it is dangerously easy to find similarities between two fictional sources and convince yourself that the one was inspired by t'other. It is especially easy when you happen to have been the author of the original source and you feel your idea was ripped off without acknowledgement. The next thing you know, the question ceases to be merely an interesting diversion and you find yourself in a court of law accusing someone of... plagarism!
Case in point...
During the pre-release hype for the movie The Terminator, Canadian director James Cameron made the mistake of stating, in an interview, that he had been inspired by two episodes of the old Outer Limits TV series -- "Demon With a Glass Hand" and "Soldier", both written by famed SF author Harlan Ellison. Now, let me tell you something about Ellison. Ellison is what is charitably called "a character". He first gained prominence in the 1960s for his short story writing, which won him a gazillion prizes, then even more prominence when he wrote the most popular episode of Star Trek, "The City on the Edge of Forever". But over the years, he has cultivated a furiously combative personality, and it is for that that he is best known today. He doesn't suffer fools gladly -- which can be amusing so long as you aren't the "fool" in question.
Needless to say, when Ellison learned of Cameron's admission, he made like Yaphet Kotto at the end of Live and Let Die... (Remember? Remember? Come on, people, keep up with me.) Then he did what any famous writer with a bit too much time on his hands would do -- he sued. Since Cameron had, after all, admitted being inspired by Ellison's scripts, the production company figured it was better to settle out of court than fight a battle they would probably lose. (Some websites claim Ellison sued and "won", but he didn't. They settled out of court, and that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish.) To the credits on the video release of The Terminator were added the words: "Acknowledgement to the works of Harlan Ellison". Which seems fair enough, right?
If I may insert an autobiographical digression -- Growing up, I had two authors which I thought of as worthy of being worshipped like gods. Rod Serling and Harlan Ellison. My admiration for Rod Serling was based on his series The Twilight Zone, and I have never had reason to change that opinion. Harlan Ellison, on the other hand, was my hero solely on the basis of two works: the Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever" and his short SF story, "Life Hutch". I had read other stories by him, and I liked them, but it was those two stories in particular which placed him among the angels in my youthful eyes. Over the years, though, I tried other Ellison stories, some of which I liked, others not so much. Eventually there came a day when I realized -- he simply wasn't as good as I had thought. Don't get me wrong. I like many of his stories and I would highly recommend them. But to compare him to Rod Serling calls for something more than just "good". And that's something he just doesn't have. Not for me, he doesn't. Anyway, I just thought I should let you know where I stand, vis-a-vis Ellison the writer. Good enough?
Anyhoo, to return to The Terminator -- I didn't see Cameron's movie until several years after its intial release. When I did, I enjoyed it, albeit not as much as everyone else apparently did. What I especially liked, though, was how "traditional" it seemed. The storyline, involving a robot sent back through time to murder a future hero before he can become that hero, seemed so evocative, so obvious, so...traditional...I just assumed it had probably been used by countless SF writers before Cameron. You can see why. Whenever the subject of time travel comes up, what is the example which some egg-head inevitably uses? He says, "Suppose you could go back through time to murder Adoph Hitler while he was still a child. Would you do it?" Well, you can see that illustration isn't far removed from the plot of The Terminator. For that reason, I was surprised to hear that Ellison had sued. I would have thought the idea so standard it was basically in the public domain!
Nonetheless, I was curious to see those two Outer Limits episodes for myself, and, a few years ago, I finally did. And, I'll tell you, I really think Cameron was robbed. "Soldier" is basically a grim study of the military mindset. A soldier from the future is transported back to the present where he meets up with a family. The soldier has been so thoroughly trained that he almost isn't human -- even the language he speaks has been rendered nearly incomprehensible by his training. The episode is about how the family tries to find the humanity inside him. In the climax, a second soldier appears and the first soldier is forced to give up his life to save the family from this newcomer. So, sure -- I can see how Cameron might have gotten a little bit of inspiration from that episode, but to claim Cameron plagarized the plot? Come on, people.
So how about "Demon With a Glass Hand"? In that episode, Robert Culp plays a man from the future who awakes in the present with few memories, a glass hand which talks to him, and a mission to find out what happened to the entire populace of the earth which, in the future from which he comes, vanished over night. At the same time, he is pursued by alien invaders from the future, who want to solve the mystery first. At the risk of giving too much away, I will say that Culp turns out to be a robot. (Many reviewers consider "Demon with a Glass Hand" to be the best Outer Limits episode, but I find it too pedantic. For my money, the head-and-shoulders best episode was Meyer Dolinsky's "The Architects of Fear", also starring Robert Culp in an amazing performance that is almost too painful to watch. When the hero, having been turned into a hideous alien, makes that "protect you from harm" secret sign to his wife and she realizes the dying monster is really her husband? Oh, momma!)
So, okay, there was a slight similarity between "Demon With a Glass Hand" and The Terminator, in that we have a robot travelling back through time. But Culp wasn't sent back though time to kill someone. To claim The Terminator was plagarized from that episode -- I just don't see it.
And yet, cruising around both Ellison fan sites and The Terminator fan sites, again and again I find Ellison's accusation is accepted by one and all, without question. Yes, Cameron admitted he was inspired by those two episodes, but being inspired by and plagarizing are two different things. Anyone who actually takes the time to watch those episodes can see that the similarities just ain't that close.
The fact is, I have a problem with Ellison's attitude to the whole question of creator's rights. He seems to think that authors live in hermetically sealed bubbles, cut off from every and all possible influence. To him, story ideas should simply spring into an author's mind, arising out of the void, the way scientists used to think fly larvae were "spontaneously generated" out of bread mold. The truth is, no author is an island. They learn by reading what others have written, taking what they thinks works, and reshaping it just enough that... well, that they don't get sued by someone like Ellison.
I don't care who you are, whether you're Stephen King or Ed Wood, you get ideas by learning from those who went before you. Ellison's "The City on the Edge of Forever" bears more than a passing resemblance to an Outer Limits episode by Anthony Lawrence called "The Man Who Was Never Born". Is that where Ellison got the idea? Maybe, maybe not. Does it even matter? The point is, even if Ellison was inspired by "The Man Who Was Never Born", he did his own thing with it, and the result was the most popular of the original Star Trek episodes. (Of course, there is a tremendous irony to my using this example, since Ellison always maintained that his Star Trek script was rewritten by others and not for the better. But that, my children, is a topic I shall tackle next time.)
I've always thought the biggest irony in this whole The Terminator business is that Cameron probably only acknowledged a debt to Ellison in the first place because he admired the man. Most likely he was trying to establish a respectable pedigree for his film, precisely because he didn't want critics to dismiss it as a mindless actioner. Stephen King, in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre, claimed great authors know their roots. So Cameron tried to prove he knew his roots and it bit him on the ass. I guess he won't try that again any time soon!
At the same time, given my co-editor's theory about how authors only claim to have been inspired by such and such a source as a means of legerdemain, I find myself wondering...
Where did Cameron really
get the idea for The Terminator?
Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate
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