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Harlan Ellison Returns to THE OUTER LIMITS
Author gets respect during adaptation of his story
By Frank Garcia
November 08, 1999
Too frequently in Hollywood, giving respect to the written word is a constant battle. The writer demands it. The producer withholds it. And now, Harlan Ellison, one of our best contemporary writers, has got it. After a long, tumultuous history of encounters with Hollywood producers who have paid enormous fees to adapt his works, Ellison has finally got what he's wanted: respect.
Thirty-five years ago, Ellison wrote two of the most memorable OUTER LIMITS stories of the 1963-65 SF anthology TV series created by Leslie Stevens. 'Soldier,' starring Michael Ansara, presented us with a disoriented soldier from the distant future who arrives in the 20th century, and 'Demon with a Glass Hand,' starring Robert Culp introduced us to Trent, an amnesiac man with a glass hand pitted against alien invaders.
Now, Ellison has returned to the 1990s edition of the series with a futuristic, deep space story. 'The Human Operators' was a Hugo and Nebula awards-nominated short story co-written by Ellison and A.E. Van Vogt in 1970 that made its first appearance in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION in January, 1971. It was later included in 1975's PARTNERS IN WONDER (reprinted in 1983), composed of short stories on which Ellison had collaborated with a group of superstars such as Robert Bloch, Robert Scheckley, Samuel R. Delaney, Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, Ben Bova and seven others.
'The Human Operators' has been adapted for the small screen by OUTER LIMITS supervising producer Naren Shankar. It stars EVENT HORIZON's Jack Noseworthy and THE GIRL NEXT DOOR's Polly Shannon. Directing is Jeff Woolnough, a veteran of the OUTER LIMITS episodes 'Deadman's Switch' and 'Sarcophagus.'
'This is the first of my collaborations that has ever been done in film,' says Ellison. 'The first time any of the stories in PARTNERS IN WONDER has been done. It's a bit of a milestone. Naren wanted to do the story, and he went to the people at Trilogy and Atlantis Films [the Outer Limits' production companies] and told them this was the one story he wanted, and they negotiated with me long and hard. Finally, because Naren impressed me considerably, I let them buy it.'
Set in the mid-distant far future, approximately 98 starships roam across the universe, remnants of an ages-old fleet still extant after the terrible Earth-Kyba conflict. The ships are sentient, devoid of all humanity, save for one per vessel: each starship contains one human, whose only existence is to maintain and repair the decaying, centuries-old Ship. For one such Operator, a male in his early teens who runs Starfighter 31, life is a solitary existence dogged by an omniscient, always watchful Ship who directs his labors and who, if he makes a mistake, viciously punishes him like a psychopathic abusive parent. Everything changes when another 'human operator,' a female from Starfighter 88, enters his Ship. The two Ships have decided these two innocents will mate, producing a child who will itself become the next generation Operator. The Ship assumes that this event will proceed routinely, but it soon discovers that this assumption is a miscalculation with tragic results.
Harlan Ellison has a writing career that spans five decades. He's forged his multi-award-winning reputation with 73 books, more than 1700 short stories, articles, essays and newspaper columns. He's responsible for two dozen teleplays and an equal number of feature films. He was also BABYLON 5's conceptual consultant. For Ellison, THE OUTER LIMITS experience is in remarkable contrast to many previous projects adapting his stories for film and television. This time around he - and his story - were treated with tender loving care.
'Naren found the story works pretty much as it was written,' Ellison said. 'Since it's not a terribly complex plot line, he's doing the story almost exactly. Cinematically, almost no changes were required from the basic story.'
Today's special effects technologies are at a level where the tale can be realized as a tightly-budgeted television production. 'Naren was gracious enough to ask for my thoughts on production, and I was able to suggest some tricks I would have used if I, rather than Naren, had written the teleplay,' notes Ellison. 'For instance, picture this: the young boy is required to go out on the hull of his Ship, a vessel that has been in space for hundreds of years. He's doing repairs. Originally, the script called for him to be in a spacesuit. I said, 'Well, we've seen that a hundred times, haven't we?' That seems to me old style. Why don't you put him in a force bubble? He can actually touch the hull of the ship. He won't have to be in a spacesuit. He could be in the garb that he wears inside the ship itself. He could be wearing shorts. The visual of a man outside in space wearing nothing but a pair of cutoffs would be startling against form, an arresting image!' Naren liked the idea, and that's what they have done.'
This project has made for a refreshing, even pleasant collaboration. 'This is one of the few times I've allowed anyone to adapt my work other than myself,' says Ellison. 'I'm enormously pleased by the relationship that Naren has formed with me on this piece. He's an extraordinarily talented young writer.'
To successfully adapt Harlan Ellison's works, here's the magic formula. 'Naren possesses one quality above others, that most people in television do not have today, he has respect for the written word. He has respect for filmmakers and writers who are older than he is. He is almost totally absent of the arrogance and ignorance that mars many of the young people working in the field today. I'm extraordinarily impressed by him, by the degree of courtesy that he's showed me, by his genuine desire to have me look over his work as he went on. He certainly didn't need me on it. His script was quite good without anything from me. But the fact he asked--he listened to what I had to say, and some of my suggestions were included--is a very high mark in my book. I think he's a very fine young man.'
When Shankar invited Ellison to participate in the translation of his short story as a 45 minute film, he gained in the process not just the author but also a ruthless editor. 'I altered things from the original story because I know the differences between the demands of the visual medium and what I can do in prose,' notes Ellison. On paper, the boy's thoughts and feelings are provided to the reader as internalized monologues, written in the first person. In film, dialogue is used to convey information. But since the boy is the only person onboard, there's no one for him to converse with. He cannot confide to the starship because 'the Ship is the implacable father. It's not necessarily trying to do the best thing for him, but trying to preserve its own power,' says Ellison. To get this information to the viewer, Shankar employs the device of voiceovers. And that creates its own problems, as Ellison explains. 'Ordinarily, voiceover is not a salutary script device because people, over the decades, have been trained not to hear anything. Only to watch! That's one of the great curses of television. When it was motion pictures, it was a different thing. You went to a movie theater and you sat there and the voiceover was listened to because it was all around you. But in television, there's so many other distractions in the house. Voiceovers are often lost. People don't hear it. If there's vital information that has to be imparted, it is usually more efficacious to figure out a way to visualize it rather than to use voiceover. But in this case, there is no alternative. That's what Naren used and from the script, when I read it, it was quite compelling. The dialogue is simple, direct. And yet, it has a considerable amount of power.'
With a classic SF story in their hands, and given an opportunity to create their own classic in a visual medium, the challenges confronting the OUTER LIMITS staffers were two-fold. How to build a centuries-old starship on a limited budget and how to deal with the fact that for the entire story, a man and a woman do not wear clothes. Production designer Steve Geaghan declared that the starship interiors for this story was 'going to be one of the best, if not the single most stunning set we've done in five years. It's feature film quality. Sometimes everything just falls into place. It's taking the zeitgeist of Harlan Ellison's original story and a beautiful script by Naren Shankar. I've tried to capture the oppressive, massiveness of the ship, its age and dereliction. I think we've captured it very well.'
In their discussions about the construction of the spaceship, Ellison told Shankar, 'There's no reason for light to be on the ship at all times. The Ship doesn't need light. The boy is the only person there, the only time that light should be on is when the boy is walking through. The lights go on and off as he walks through. And he said, 'Yeah, that makes very good sense.' I said, 'This is a very old spaceship. And when that boy dies, he's replaced by another one. Many things have fallen into disrepair. I would think it would be even grubbier and grottier looking than the spaceship that was designed for the original Alien movie. There should be pools of oil here and there, things dripping from the overhead. It should, in fact, look like an old warehouse.' And that's what they did. When Naren spoke to the set designers and the decorators, that's what he told them. It was straight from the horse's mouth to the production!' chuckles Ellison. 'I do understand that they have spent more money on this than on any other Outer Limits.'
Now comes the controversial part. Although Outer Limits has occasionally incorporated sexuality or nudity in a number of its shows, 'The Human Operators' presents a difficult challenge. This is not just another story where the producers can show flesh for a scene or two and fix it later for syndication. Because of the nature of the story, the two characters are nude throughout, and the character's ages are in the 13 to 15 age bracket. The purpose of the girl arriving aboard the boy's vessel is to have sex so that the child can become the next repair person. And that's the way it has been for generations.
'They have to be almost the same age as the kids in THE BLUE LAGOON,' explains Ellison. 'They should be very innocent and young. The sexuality and the kind of adolescent ingenuity as demonstrated in the story are very common in boys and girls. There's nothing bizarre about it, no more than BLUE LAGOON is.'
Ellison continued, 'Why would they need clothes? Clothes would have rotted off long ago. Use shadows and light to maintain a sense of decorum of their nakedness. But that would have been much too hard to do. So let's see what they've used for costumes. Originally, it was suggested they would wear these form-fitting spandex kind of things. I said, 'No! That's STAR TREK-looking crap! You don't want that!' The boy should just be wearing a pair of hiking shorts. Cutoffs! Have him bare-chested. And the girl should be as naked as possible because clothes are not necessary. There's a logical reason for the nudity! It's not like many cable series where they stick in one or two bare-chested scenes and edited out when it goes to commercial television. There's an actual inherent story need, a story rationalization requirement for nudity.'
Ellison and his wife Susan were scheduled to fly to Vancouver and personally observe the filming of 'Human Operators,' but the opportunity was missed. Production began on November 20, 1998, after the completion of 'Joyride,' Cliff Robertson's episode. 'There was a glitch somewhere, and there wasn't time for me and my wife to go up there so we had to cancel out,' he says. 'I feel very badly about it because I did want to be there to see the show as it was being done.'
Although Ellison is pleased and relaxed that one of his stories is being captured on film with his blessings, he is also saddened that his friend and colleague, A.E. Van Vogt, a veteran SF author most famous for such classic novels as 'Slan!' and 'The Null-A' trilogy, cannot participate in the affair. Van Vogt is seriously ill with Alzheimer's Disease. 'I'm just sad that Van is physically so far removed from his normal state,' remarks Ellison. 'It's a great tragedy. I will get a copy of this print to him and his wonderful wife, Lydia, so they can see it at any time when he becomes clearer and perceive what's going on around him.'
You can expect more OUTER LIMITS from Harlan Ellison. A contract has been issued for him to adapt another short story. 'I'm in the midst of writing a script based on my story, 'Wanted in Surgery.' It's been a year and I've been busy with other things and I didn't get to it when I should have. But I am now working on it.'