Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Spotlight on "Soldier"

by John Scoleri

Right now you're probably thinking what the heck is John doing writing a Spotlight? Doesn't  he already have a forum in which to talk about every episode? And didn't he say in the beginning that he hadn't seen that many episodes?

Well, yes and yes.

When we were initially set out to assign the Spotlights, Peter and I each signed up for one. Peter quickly realized that the first issue noted above made it a challenge to come up with more to say about a particular episode ("Tourist Attraction"). In my case, there was only one episode that I even considered, and that was "Soldier."

The first time I saw the episode was at the 1991 World Fantasy Convention, where Harlan Ellison was the guest of honor. He introduced a screening of it, before which he spoke about the Terminator lawsuit. It was fascinating to hear the story from his perspective, and rather than attempting to reiterate it here, I thought I'd toss to Harlan to briefly discuss it and leave it at that.


Ellison's story (retitled "Soldier of the Future" by the editor) first appeared in the October 1957 issue of Fantastic Universe, and was later reprinted in his collection From the Land of Fear. That book also contains a version of his teleplay for the episode, though interestingly enough, not the author's preferred version, which is included in the Kevin J. Anderson collection DJS mentioned in his OL Book Spotlight called The Outer Limits: Armageddon Dreams published in 2000 by BSV Publishing.

The story opens similarly to the episode, with Qarlo on the battlefield. After being zapped, he (alone) appears on a New York subway platform. The shock of his appearance causes a newspaperman to have a heart attack, and after an altercation Qarlo is subdued and arrested. The philologist is brought in to help the man responsible for Qarlo, Lyle Sims. Sims ultimately decides the best way to use Qarlo is on a speaking tour to warn people of the horrors of war. Qarlo's first person (and surprisingly graphic) depictions of life (and death) on the battlefield were quite interesting, but aside from that I found the story disappointing.

Ellison's teleplay improves upon his story considerably. Rather than beat you over the head with the heavy-handed war-is-bad message (It feels like there should be a clip-out anti-war coupon to sign and send in when you're finished reading it), the teleplay shifts  the focuses to Kagan, who I find to be one of the OL's most fascinating characters.

Let's think about this for a minute. Say you're a Bureau-hired philologist (Another brief aside—one of the thing's that annoyed me in the short story was that he's described as the "philologist named Soames" three times in the first several paragraphs after he's introduced. You'd think FU was paying Ellison a premium for using the word philologist!). You show up for your latest FBI appointed gig, see your subject is the Frankenstein monster, and let's face it, you check all the right boxes, have the guy declared a psycho, and catch the next plane back to Quantico before lunch, right? You're not going to volunteer to jump into the padded room with the unrestrained beast, let alone invite him home to stay with the wife and kids!

But for Kagan, these things are done without a second thought. He's a man committed, if you're willing to believe it, to the betterment of mankind. Why else would he assume so much personal risk on account of this stranger? What makes Kagan so uber-cool is that he's not what you expect to see when you describe a 'Hero.' He's an average Joe, and in a completely believable way, fearless. He's no fool—he certainly recognizes the threat that Qarlo represents—but he's also not irrational, rushing to judgment about what he does not understand. And at the same time, he's not our typical egghead OL scientist-type, so caught up in his work that he lacks a life away from it. He's a loving husband and father, and a genuinely good person. It comes across in the way he interacts with his wife, with his kids, and with Qarlo.


Credit is certainly due to Ellison, although it works for me because of Lloyd Nolan's performance. I may be in the minority, but I think he fit perfectly in the role. In lesser hands, the character could have easily come off as laughable. Instead, we get an incredible portrayal of a man convinced in the capacity of the human race to be peaceful.

While it doesn't necessarily play to the strengths of the series of which it's a part of, "Soldier" remains one of my favorite episodes of The Outer Limits.

11 comments:

  1. I don’t know how “Demon with the Glass Hand” got in there, but I can testify now (since I didn’t have to testify then) that Cameron’s influences for “The Terminator” were “Soldier” and “The Man Who Was Never Born” on TOL, and NOT the short stories of Harlan Ellison. I doubt Cameron had ever read them in story form. He was a huge TOL fan like I was, though, and we discussed those episodes specifically in 1983 when he showed me the early drafts of “The Terminator” during the period he was attached to direct my sci-fi script “M-PATH.”

    Science fiction is full of high concepts, and a lot of cross pollination. I agree with Ellison here that, if you say you just want to try a different approach on an idea, and ask permission, you might be surprised what you get. I warned Cameron that Ellison is not the high concept guy to mess around with, though. I wouldn’t have thought to suggest, “Why don’t you ask him for permission?” And I doubt he would’ve considered it. Since Cameron was still not known back then past Corman films, chances are Ellison might’ve been okay. But, sorry, once there was big money and big attention around the film, the big egos would out. He wouldn’t have been okay, and he would’ve made a stink, and he would’ve wanted to make appearances and claim credit beyond just the simple acknowledgement buried in the credits. So, in the end, it wouldn’t have really mattered.

    I never thought about the incident with Cameron and the “Yeah, yeah,” when I mentioned “Soldier” to him again until I heard about the lawsuits later after “Terminator” came out. But Cameron also knew one axiom of Hollywood that I probably never had the cojones or selective conscience to contemplate – “It’s easier to beg forgiveness later, than ask permission.” By then, you’ve already made a name for yourself, and in Hollywood, no one really cares about where the story ultimately came from, they just worship the current success. The end justifies the means.

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  2. Nice work, as always, John---and beautifully sets the stage for my page-to-screen analysis of the Sohl episodes. Thanks!

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  3. Thanks, John, for a well-written and stirring essay in defense of Lloyd Nolan's performance and your enthusiasm for "Soldier."

    Even more, thank you for that great video of Ellison's explication of the whole plagiarism issue regarding THE TERMINATOR. I had never seen this, or the specific facts laid out in such detail.

    Well, that puts it to bed, doesn't it? I just lost most of what respect remained for the egotistical Cameron. Where does one find the wellspring of gall inside himself to simply blurt the circumstances of his plagiarism, in cavalier fashion, for all the world to hear?

    The crazy thing is, Ellison played the aggrieved party with such uncharacteristic equanimity. He, of the well-documented loose-cannon reputation. When we met him and talked about TOLAIR, he also came off as a pleasant enough, accessible guy. I think the key with Harlan is, just don't approach him under a flag of bullshit, and don't lie to him.

    But now I see how this all played out, and it couldn't be more cut-and-dried.

    Thanks again, John, for a very illuminating piece and a nicely thought out story/film comparison of a favorite episode.

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  4. Hollywoodaholic--- I love your observation of the biz adage concerning asking forgiveness later! Yeah, that makes perfect sense within the high-stakes catfight for recognition in Hollywood. (I hear this kind of industry in-fighting stuff from my FX pal Ted Rae all the time.) And it does, to a degree, mitigate Cameron's arrogant disregard for asking first.

    Thanks for your informed personal persective on this matter I've never particularly understood or agreed with. Cameron's documented hoof-in-mouth pretty well clarified it, and you've afforded it some nuance.

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  5. John?...John Scoleri?...Why...what are YOU doing in here?

    Well done, Mr. S., particularly regarding Kagan's character. And I agree with you about Nolan's fine performance.

    And I echo the thanks for posting the Ellison clip.

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  6. John--

    Nice work. You will see that I just posted my own defense of Lloyd Nolan in the episode commentaries; you make a very convincing case.

    Re: the You-Tube clip above: are we to believe that the host-dude-guy is actually sitting in the same room with Ellison, conducting the interview? (check 6:55) It's obvious that Ellison was in a hotel room, while the background behind the host-dude-guy looks like he's in his basement. I could be wrong, but...

    LR

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  7. There are two story elements in the OL version that are not in the original story, namely the helmets, and the enemy being flung through time to pursue Quarlo. Where did these ideas come from? Were they in the script Ellison submitted to TOL, or were they requested, or added, by TOL Script Editor Seeleg Lester, or someone else?

    Thanks in advance.

    Glenn

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  8. Glenn -

    The helmets (and their repeating KILL... KILL... KILL...) as well as The Enemy being transported alongside Qarlo were elements in both published versions of Ellison's teleplay. As noted in the OLC excerpt, the main thing inserted without Ellison's input was the gun store sequence.

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  9. I can never help thinking there are at least two other stories that could fit into the whole "Soldier / Terminator" controversy. One is "Cyborg" (the Michael Rennie film of that name), and the other is "Teenagers From Outer Space." In spite of all the jokes about it, "Teenagers" has two enemies who resemble Quarlo and the Enemy more than a little, as far as their relationship and other things. And it has a "body count" right out of a Terminator kind of movie.

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  10. I've never read the short story, but it's interesting that Sims uses Quarlo as a warning to the world, since that's exactly what Reardon wants to do with Andro in THE MAN WHO WAS NEVER BORN (though in his case it's about something other than war).
    Even though that doesn't manage to happen, of course, could Anthony Lawrence have been inspired by the short story when it comes to that one scene?

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