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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ellison Wonderland (originally published 8/93)

What happens to you when you get really angry? Yeah, me too. We fume and sputter and make idiots of ourselves. It is only hours later, in the cold blood of bitter reflection, that we realize what we should have said.

But every now and then a person will be born with a diode wired in backward somewhere so that they actually get more articulate as their anger rises, not less. If that person also happens to be a writer, like H.L. Mencken or Philip Wylie, they can offer us a rare gift. Like Howard Beale in the movie "Network," they can articulate our rage for us.

I mention this by way of following up last week's column on "guilty pleasures," the bad movies that we love out of sheer perversity. One of the movies shown on TNT's recent "Bad Movies We Love" night was "The Oscar." Its script was co-written by Harlan Ellison, although he doesn't enjoy admitting it.

But if you saw "The Oscar," and if by chance this was your first exposure to Ellison's work, I need to tug your sleeve and make you aware that it is in no way representative of his work as a whole. To the contrary, he belongs to that tiny and valuable fraternity of writers for whom anger is a catalyst and not an impediment to effective communication.

The purest expression of his anger as craftsmanship is to be found in his many published essays. In his fiction, and in his scripts, it tends to take the form of emotionally charged fantasy tropes. His stories typically involve people pushed beyond the limits of what the real world can contain. It's a form of fantasy that was popularized by Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone," but no one brings quite as much of an edge to it as Ellison.

If you liked Serling's shows, and you're ready to handcuff yourself to a writer who will pursue the darkest of human emotions to the edge of the abyss and leap in after them, Ellison's fiction is for you. His scripts, by comparison, tend to end up a bit watered down, but even so they still pack a punch. Forget about "The Oscar," then, and look for these Ellison titles at the corner video store.

"Soldier" (1964). This episode of the "Outer Limits" television series tells the story of a soldier from the far future who is transported back in time to the present day. Although human, he is as close to a fighting machine as futuristic training and indoctrination can make him. Warfare is all he knows, all he can cope with. Does this sound vaguely familiar? The producers of "The Terminator" were ultimately persuaded that it was similar enough that the film's credits should include an acknowledgment of the inspiration provided by Ellison's work.

"Demon With a Glass Hand" (1964). Ellison's second script for "The Outer Limits" won him the Writer's Guild Award as the best teleplay of the year, an honor he has now received four times. Again it features a time traveler from the future, but a benevolent one this time. A mysterious amnesia has rendered his origin and purpose a mystery, even to himself. As he struggles to solve the puzzle of his own identity, he must simultaneously struggle to stay alive. He has been pursued into the past by futuristic bad guys who clearly want him dead. Slowly he comes to the awful realization that he is the last hope of humanity.

"City on the Edge of Forever" (1967). Ellison's one and only script for the original "Star Trek" series is regarded by many as the best episode of all. Dr. McCoy goes through a time portal and ends up on Earth in the 1930s. While there, he does something that completely alters subsequent history. Kirk and Spock go after him to set things right and discover that McCoy had disrupted history by saving the life of a woman who would otherwise have died in a traffic accident. The problem is that by the time they figure this out Kirk has met and fallen in love with the woman who must die. Will he do the necessary thing and let her die, or will he sacrifice Earth's history for love? Ellison received his second Writer's Guild Award for this script.

Could superior scripts like these really be the work of the author of "The Oscar?" I prefer to blame the film on Ellison's two co-authors. After all, he may be beautiful when he's angry, but I don't particularly want him angry at me.

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