The Terminator Before 1984’s THE TERMINATOR

The story of the Harlan Ellison OUTER LIMITS episode that got James Cameron sued.

There’s a curious credit at the end of James Cameron’s 1984 masterpiece The Terminator, a credit that was not in theatrical prints of the film, but added after the fact to home video editions. It reads simply, “Acknowledgement to the works of Harlan Ellison.” Its vague phrasing sadly makes The Terminator’s lineage as undisclosed as the sum Ellison received in a settlement after suing Hemdale and Orion Pictures for plagiarism. Ellison has something of a reputation as a litigious crank, but certain situations, settings and ideas in The Terminator resonate pretty strongly in a teleplay Ellison penned twenty years before Cameron’s film was released.

Ellison’s script was for an episode of The Outer Limits, a prime-time science fiction series which was greenlit in the wake of The Twilight Zone's success, and which ran for two seasons from 1963 - 1965 on ABC. Where The Twilight Zone became synonymous with allegorical, high-concept premises or O. Henry-esque twists, The hourlong Outer Limits was often more straight science fiction, especially in its second season. That’s the year Ellison wrote two episodes: “Demon With A Glass Hand” and “Soldier.” The former tells the story of a time-traveling android (Robert Culp) who doesn't know he's an android, assigned with protecting the human race from alien conquest. There are echoes of this story in The Terminator, but the script over which Ellison successfully sued was for The Outer Limits’ second-season premiere, “Soldier.”

The episode opens on an apocalyptic wasteland, and a narrator introduces us to two warriors from the future, human beings bred since birth to kill. Every bit of humanity and compassion, we're told by a narrator, has been removed from these men (though they still enjoy a good smoke). As they converge on the battlefield, they are hit by an energy beam and thrown into a very 1960s looking vortex.

One soldier is caught between planes of existence, but the other, Qarlo Clobregnny (Michael Ansara) materializes in a city alley in the present day, where he accidentally kills a newspaper vendor before facing off against the police. He’s eventually captured and interrogated Kyle Reese-style, examined by doctors and scientists who try to determine just from where - and when! - this strange brute has come. (Note: 1960s authorities are WAY more easily convinced someone is from the future than their 1984 counterparts.)

The plot’s similarities to Cameron’s film mostly end there, though one scientist’s attempts to domesticize Qarlo - he has him move in with his family, natch - has a possible analogue in the T-800 of Terminator 2. And the finale creates some stakes using the "two time travelers arriving at a different moment" convention. Astonishing similarities to the imagery and setup of The Terminator aside, “Soldier” is ultimately more of an anti-war screed, concerned with the idea of whether or not humanity can be bred out of a human - and if it can, whether it can be re-introduced. Funnily enough, these themes make its closest spiritual successor last year’s The Guest, a film that’s rightly been called the best Terminator reboot available to you this week.

You can watch “Soldier” on Hulu Plus, and you should. Sometimes going backward and seeing where a beloved film came from can be an infinitely more satisfying bit of contextualizing than banging your empty plate on the table and thoughtlessly ingesting another helping of empty franchise slop.

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