Harlan Ellison, a true science fiction master, rarely wrote about robots. He was more focused on people and the psychological quirks and interactions, particularly under horrifying or extraordinary conditions (see I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and Jeffty is Five). Oddly, despite his many achievements as a grand master of the short story form, many people remember him for a tacked on credit saying his work inspired The Terminator. Ellison, loudly, began a lawsuit against James Cameron, which never was filed and settled out of court with a “mum’s the word” agreement not to divulge the details. David Brennan writing on the James Cameron Online site is the most cogent explanation for the charges and settlement that I’ve read and I recommend reading it. Brennan notes that everyone assumes that Ellison’s 1964 Demon With A Glass Hand episode of The Outer Limits was the source of the inspiration. (The Outer Limits was a sci-fi anthology that ran from 1963-1965, sort of the Black Mirror and X-Files of its day.) Brennan argues that the more plausible episode was Ellison's 1965 episode Soldier, but then offers another explanation for the threatened lawsuit (again, read his article, I won’t spoil it here).
So were either episode a plausible source of inspiration? I watched both episodes of The Outer Limits on YouTube and my conclusion is “no.” But I do think The Terminator in some ways touches upon some of the emotional nerves exposed in the Outer Limit. Certainly Cameron replicated the vibe of a good Outer Limits episode, but not any details.
Let’s start with the award winning Demon With A Glass Hand. The protagonist, Trent, is a man who has woken up 10 days earlier in the 1960's and is being chased by human-looking aliens. He has a glass hand with 3 missing fingers and amnesia. The hand is a computer but its functionality is limited without the missing three fingers, so Trent must recover the fingers. He begins a cat-and-mouse search for the glass hand’s missing fingers in the alien’s headquarters in an office building (the Bradbury Building, which was Sebastian’s apartment building in Blade Runner). There he enlists the aid of a woman business owner, Consuela, who was working late. Along the way he discovers that both he and the aliens are from 1,800 years in the future and there’s no sure way back to the future using the technology that got them here. The woman becomes infatuated with Trent and eventually Trent, despite being focused on his task of recovering the missing fingers, softens to her.
And then Trent discovers he is a robot, it’s not just the glass hand. He’s been sent back into the past with the digital recording of 70 billion people and will have to live for over 2,000 years to return the people to a time when the invading aliens have been driven off and it is safe for humans. Stunned by the discovery and the implications of having to live for 2,000 years, he reaches to Consuela. Consuela recoils as if he were a demon and leaves. Trent’s reward for saving humanity will be to go it alone. If Green Day’s "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" had existed in 1964, it would be blasting over the end credits.
Other than a robot going back in time, there’s no direct similarity to The Terminator. If anything, Trent with his pervasive sadness and determination is a bit reminiscent of Reese not The Terminator. When the tightly wound Trent tries to convince Consuela that he’s from the future and trying to save the world; it has the same emotional feel as Reese trying to explain what is going on to Sarah Connor. And when Trent reaches out to Consuela, it is like Reese letting his guard down and taking a chance to be happy in his short, battered life. Except, heartbreakingly, unlike Sarah Connor, Consuela rejects Trent.
The 1965 episode Soldier was singled out by Brennan as being the most likely from a legal perspective to be seen as similar to The Terminator, though Brennan argues that can’t have been the real basis for the lawsuit (again, I suggest you read his article).
Soldier begins with a desolate landscape with laser death beams flashing everywhere. The voice over explains that the soldiers have been raised since birth with nothing but the urge to kill the enemy. Two soldiers engage in fighting each other, get in the cross beam of two laser death beams and find themselves in a swirling time vortex. One soldier, played by Michael Ansara (yes, Klingon General Kang from Star Trek), appears to be falling through the time vortex faster than the other, and next thing we know is that he has landed in an alley in a city. After trying to shoot a newsstand proprietor who is using a knife to cut the string on a bale of papers, he is picked up by the police. The government realizes that he has to be an alien or something. A linguist starts working with the soldier, whose name in Qarlo, and begins to decipher his language and background. It is clear that Qarlo is intelligent but his intelligence has been suborned by decades of conditioning to kill the enemy. To accelerate understanding, the linguist brings Qarlo home to his perfect family- wife in pearls and a teenaged daughter and son who are respectful and clean cut. The family discovers that Qarlo has a grim background that makes Kurt Russell’s life in the 1998 movie also named Soldier look like a cake walk. We, the audience, can’t help but think Qarlo would be better off as a robot.
When the enemy soldier finally arrives, he hunts down Qarlo at the family home. Qarlo attacks and the two soldiers kill each and vanish. But, in a lovely moment of ambiguity, Qarlo’s fighting may have maximized shielding the family. Did Qarlo finally get enough of a normal life to feel a moment of love and protectiveness or was it just simple, reflexive “kill the enemy” programming? We don’t know. It’s hard not to get teary-eyed, either thinking about how horrible Qarlo’s reducted-to-a-machine life was or that when he finally gets to feel a bit of humaness, it’s game over.
The similarity to The Terminator is pretty much limited to the part where two soldiers from the future land in an alley. The soldiers don’t arrive naked. They don’t whup ass on street punks and the special effects are non-existent. Hard to see a lawsuit worthy connection there.
But certainly Cameron took the entire Outer Limits and Twilight Zone vibe and all the B grade movies that had a touch of, well, something, and made it into The Terminator. The two Harlan Ellison episodes serve as a reminder of how many ideas are floating around in the universe and that they often boil down to how the characters try to make a connection with others.
If you get a chance, watch the episodes and enjoy. I am confident that you, like me, will easily see past the cheesy theatrical makeup, amusingly primitive special effects, continuity errors, and such that marked early TV series, to the part that resonates. These episodes shouldn’t work, but they do and in the end they touch the human heart. Like Ellison said, he writes about people and that was enough for a laudable career.
Rest in peace, Harlan. And thank you for being a writer.
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