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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

A con long, long ago

Last week, in discussing the recent Comic-Con in San Diego, I naturally focused on news that related to my favorite franchises, i.e. Doctor Who and Dark Shadows. (Sadly, I could find no indication of news of any kind relating to a possible Babylon 5 revival.) But lots of interesting other tidbits came out, which you probably already know about if you care about these sorts of things.

For example, Disney presented a trailer for, of all things, a sequel to its groundbreaking 1982 movie Tron. Reportedly, the film recounts the story of Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) who goes searching for his missing father, Jeff Bridges reprising his role from the original movie. Also reportedly returning from the original (and here’s a sort-of Babylon 5 connection!) is Bruce Boxleitner. There is no indication that Boxleitner’s B5 costar Peter Jurasik will be along again and, more sadly, there is no indication of David Warner returning. But other really cool Brit thesps, namely John Hurt and Michael Sheen, are mentioned. It should be good. Or at least interesting.

Much of the excitement was about footage shown from Iron Man 2 which, by all accounts, was very promising. And, of course, fanboys went wild for any news they could get about James Cameron’s Avatar, which seems to have been anticipated for about ten years now. Also promising was footage of Jackie Earle Haley (Roschach in Watchmen) in the role of Freddy Kruger in the inevitable A Nightmare on Elm Street remake. But perhaps more intriguing was disaster extravaganza king Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) talking about his plans for adapting Isaac Asimov’s legendary Foundation series. Less encouraging were Peter Jackson’s comments that things are not nearly as far along on the Hobbit movies (to be directed by Guillermo del Toro) as reports may have suggested.

Overall, there was much to get excited, intrigued or at least curious about.

Last week, the Comic-Con prompted me to wax nostalgic about my first visit to a science fiction convention, many moons ago. The more I have thought about it, the more I have realized that much of the detail has been lost in the mists of time or, more precisely, in the residue of dead brain cells. I don’t recall exactly when we went, but it had to be during my senior year of high school or, perhaps most likely, during the summer before I went away to college. My recollection was that it was held in downtown Los Angeles. It must not have been one of the bigger ones, i.e. Westercon, but it was still pretty impressive to me.

There were exhibits, including the famous alien head that appeared in the closing credits of the original Star Trek series. At this point, Star Trek hadn’t been off the air all that long. I seem to recall one or two people in costume, but it wasn’t like sci-fi conventions today when almost everybody seems to be done up as a movie or TV character. There were film screenings, including Roy Rowland’s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., which was conceived and co-written by Dr. Seuss. But mostly what I remember is the authors. My friend Ed, in addition to being mad into comic books, was a serious science fiction fan. He knew all the authors on sight and was determined to go up to each of them and talk to them. Larry Niven was there. He had written a number of novels and short stories and had recently won a ton of awards for Ringworld. Harry Harrison was there. Among his work was the Deathworld series and a number of stand-alone novels, including Make Room! Make Room!, which was the basis for the movie Soylent Green. And Ed went particularly ga-ga when he spotted Forrest J Ackerman, the world’s foremost science fiction fan, a founder of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society and editor and primary writer for the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland.

But the encounter that stands most vividly in my memory is the one with Harlan Ellison. At that point, he had already written several novels (The Man with Nine Lives, Spider Kiss, Doomsman) and stories. But he also had contributed quite a few stories and screenplays to television series, including Route 66, Burke’s Law, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Flying Nun. Notably, he had written two episodes for The Outer Limits (“Demon with a Glass Hand” and “Soldier”), one for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Memo from Purgatory”) and, most memorably, the episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” (the one with Joan Collins) for Star Trek.

What I remember about Ellison is that he was a very short man with a very big personality. In my mind I confuse him with Roman Polanski because, to my confused brain, they seem to have been separated at birth. I forget what exactly Ed said to him (I let Ed do all the talking with these guys, I was too in awe) but it was something gushing and adulating and self-prostrating and reverential. But I remember quite clearly what Ellison said. He looked up apprehensively at two hulking young men (Ed and I were both well in excess of six feet tall) who were blocking his light and dead-panned, “Well, here are a couple of all-American boys.” We dined out on that for years to come.

Needless to say, Ellison’s profile only went higher as the years rolled by. Under the pseudonym Cordwainer Bird, he created the 1973-74 TV series The Starlost. His 1969 story “A Boy and His Dog” was made into a 1975 movie with Don Johnson and Jason Robards. His screenplays for The Outer Limits were eventually recognized as the basis for James Cameron’s classic The Terminator. And, most notably from my own point of view, he was credited as “creative consultant” for Babylon 5, contributing two screenplays to the series’ final season, “A View from the Gallery” (which viewed the goings-on in the space station from the perspective of two maintenance workers) and “Objects in Motion” (the penultimate episode of the series to actually take place on the space station). In an odd turn, his screenplay adaptation of Asimov’s I, Robot was eventually published after much wrangling with the then-head of Warner Bros. The script used for the 2004 movie starring Will Smith had no connection to him.

Ellison’s life seems to be littered with battles (and occasional lawsuits) against producers and studios and individuals. He always seems to have been chafing against someone who, he felt, was stifling his unique literary vision—and who, of course, was probably signing his paycheck. Ed and I may have been lucky to get away with a mere sarcastic remark. But one thing definitely recommends Ellison as a person. He is friends with B5 creator J. Michael Straczynski. There is a very funny video on YouTube in which JMS tells about the time he and Ellison saw Schindler’s List together. In a nutshell, Ellison was very nearly knifed for telling a dangerous-looking individual, who was talking and laughing(!) during the film, to “shut the f*** up!”

How many times I wished I had his nerve!

-S.L., 6 August 2009

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