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Friday, May 29, 2009


The most interesting and unique chapter of my life started when a TV network fulfilled one of the great dreams of my boyhood. In 1994, Showtime cable announced its revival of the series The Outer Limits.

The Outer Limits is TV’s purest expression of science fiction. It didn’t exist to tell the stories of a particular world or a specific cast of characters. It was a show that you watched for the simple love of science fiction itself. Science fiction was the “star” of The Outer Limits. And I truly did love it. I loved everything about it. I memorized the famous opening takeover of your TV set by the Control Voice (Vic Perrin)--the long version of it! (“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. WE are controlling transmission...”) I loved it for being a show that lavished its attention on monsters: the most grotesque aliens and nightmarish creatures that could be created for television in 1963. I loved the way it reveled in the stuff that science fiction is about: space travel, time travel, extraterrestrial life, exotic and imaginary technologies, the mysteries of the universe--and their possible consequences in the context of humanity. I didn’t just watch the show; I read and studied everything about it that I could get my hands on. And I dearly wished that someone, sometime, would bring it back with new episodes.

The Outer Limits was never syndicated where I live; you had to go to another, bigger city like New York, or get cable TV, to see it. I remember whenever we would go out to Seattle to visit my aunt and uncle who lived there, they did live in a larger city and they did have cable--and they did get The Outer Limits every weeknight at 10. Fond as I was of my relatives, I had an appointment to keep every evening in Seattle. When my father got cable TV (my mother refused to get it for years and years; when she finally did have it put in after she retired, I started searching the house for the pod), I used to go over to his house on Saturday afternoons to watch the show on the New York station that carried it. I remember how my father--who was not a science fiction fan--used to react to the show. I recall in particular how he viewed the episode “The Chameleon,” in which Robert Duvall plays a spy who must be made over into an alien to infiltrate the crew of a craft from another planet. My Dad spent the whole time remarking on “them weirded-up things...those are the most weirded-up things I ever saw."

When at last I got cable for myself, I finally had the show right where I wanted it--or at least the ability to get it without having to go over to Dad’s. Which was a lucky thing, because eventually the New York station dropped it from its afternoon time slots and started running it sporadically at 3 or 4 AM. I actually used to set my alarm clock for that time when I noted it in TV Guide, get up to watch it, and then go back to bed! Seriously! This was in the days just before the prevalence of VCRs in the home; I think there was even one family holiday, before I had the ability to tape it, I actually didn’t come to dinner until I had seen the show. And you have to understand; this wasn’t a frivolous indulgence in a TV show. I wouldn’t have done such a thing for just something on television. I was getting up at 3 or 4 AM or delaying a holiday meal to watch The Outer Limits.

So anyway, it was in the middle of the 1990s that I at last got my wish. At first I was afraid I’d have to wait years for it because I couldn’t spring for a subscription to Showtime, but the network and production company shrewdly opted to recover their production costs by running the episodes of the all-new Outer Limits first on the premium channel, then selling them directly into first-run syndication, meaning that if the Showtime season started in the spring I would be seeing the episodes immediately in the fall. I didn’t mind waiting that long, though I waited with Zantis on my tongue (baited breath). And if you don’t know what a Zanti is, a) what are you doing reading this Blog, and b) look it up!

Now here’s a funny little aside: I used to have a subscription to Omni magazine, which started publication when I was in high school. One early issue of Omni boasted the first publication of the story “Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin. It was the tale of what happened when a keeper of interplanetary exotic pets bought specimens of alien insects who had religion and made war just like humans--and he was stupid enough to set himself up as their “god” and then abuse them. When I read this, my initial reaction was, This isn’t just a story. It’s an Outer Limits episode in print. Someone ought to revive the show and do this as the first episode. Well, many years later, Showtime revived the series, and the very first episode was...yep. It wasn’t Martin’s story, which they couldn’t have produced on their million-dollar-per-episode budget, but it was the same concept, right down to the name. When the broadcast version of “Sandkings” premiered, I made a big bowl of hot buttered popcorn and a big mug of hot cocoa with cream that I whipped myself, and slipped into two hours of science fiction Nirvana, taping it simultaneously. Then I rewound the tape and watched the two hours again. This may be why “Sandkings” is the only Outer Limits episode ever to give me a bad dream. As I slept, the little buggers grew to the size of small children and came knocking at my door. But one little nightmare was a small price to pay for a dream come true.

I realize we’ve come to the point of this post by the most roundabout route possible, but here we are at last: Once I finally had The Outer Limits back, I decided I wanted to try to do what I couldn’t do the first time, and write for the show! I began to study the new episodes as minutely as I had the old ones, mentally picking them apart to see their structure and learn their thought process. You see, there was something else that I had written a couple of years earlier that I wanted to try to adapt into an episode of the new series. It was an unsold feature film screenplay called The Elemental, which I had based on my intense dislike of winter in the Northeast. In this picture, I imagined winter as a literal monster, a thing that had come in a meteor and could use the cold and snow and ice as actual weapons to hunt its prey. It could even appear as a bank of frozen, slithering mist with fangs and claws. The story played like “Our Town in New England the Year the Thing Came from Space at Christmas”. (One of my favorite scenes even had a doting father in his living room decorating for Christmas Eve when the creature sucks him up the chimney!)

Realizing that I couldn’t possibly submit a two-hour, multi-million dollar production as an episode of The Outer Limits, I set out to do radical surgery on The Elemental to create a prospective Outer Limits episode called “Ice”. I wrote out entire families of characters, switched the college science professor from supporting character to lead and made him an astrophysicist, retained the woman reporter as his romantic interest, created a different story structure based on the five-act structure that the show was using (and setting up radically different plot twists in the process), and reinvented the creature. The Elemental became the Comet Entity, a living superconductor with electrically charged blood, a being that could live and hunt only in the frigid winter of Massachusetts where its frozen cocoon fell from space. I developed this from the way the new Outer Limits used science in its stories. I paid particular attention to “If These Walls Could Talk,” in which a "haunted house" has been permeated with a space enzyme from a meteor, which changes the inanimate matter in the house so that it acts as if it’s alive and devours people; and “Under the Bed,” which reveals that the Bogey Man is a real creature that does snatch and eat children, but can’t live in the daylight because the Sun will polymerize and petrify its skin--both stories of extremely non-human physiology. (The “chandelier grabbing the police officer” scene in “If These Walls Could Talk” is in the same spirit as the “Dad sucked up the chimney” scene in The Elemental, though I wrote mine first!)

Completing the script for “Ice,” I set out to try to get it into the hands of the producers of the show. And here I encountered the great hurdle that looms before everyone who has ever tried to get anyone in Hollywood to read anything they’ve written: The Outer Limits didn’t accept scripts from people not represented by agents. So the gates of my dream show were blocked by two barricades: that of getting an agent to want to read “Ice,” and then getting it from agent to producer. And agents, like everyone else in the world, say they want to give someone a chance and then won’t do it. They talk a good game about being on the lookout for new talent, but when it comes their way it’s “Hit the bricks, Charlie.” My courting of both the show and the people who could get me into it quickly proved futile. So here I was with “The Teleplay Formerly Known as a Screenplay,” but what was I going to do with it?

It’s here that I’m going to present another J.A. FLUDD FACTOID, the first we’ve had in quite a while. Our new Factoid is, I hate standing in lines! Lines at cinemas, lines at the Post Office--and lines at the supermarket, they bore the hell out of me! I will take a book with me, or browse on my iPhone and check my E-mail as I’ve been doing for the last couple of years. Or, at the market, I’ll pick up a magazine for the express purpose to stop myself being bored in the checkout line. So it was that one fateful afternoon at the market, I grabbed a copy of the now-defunct Star Trek Communicator magazine to stave off the tedium. And here was where I found something very interesting.

The Communicator magazine had an article on a Screenwriting Internship Program offered by the Writers Guild of America, by which anyone interested in writing for television could submit a resume and a writing sample appropriate to the show where he wanted to intern. If you wanted to intern on a sitcom, you sent in a half-hour sitcom script. If you wanted to intern on a dramatic series, you submitted an hour-long dramatic script or a two-hour, dramatic feature film or Movie of the Week script. It didn’t have to be a script for exactly the show that the would-be intern was approaching, just a script of the same basic genre and form. If the show liked your sample, you were in for six weeks, paid! You can see the wheels turning now, can’t you?

The article also brought up something that I had forgotten. Star Trek was unique in all of Hollywood as the only institution in the entertainment world that would look at any script that a would-be writer sent them, whether it was agented or not. This was partly because Star Trek has always had a unique relationship with the fans whose letter-writing campaigns saved it from cancellation twice and transformed the show into a de facto religion with conventions as their High Mass. Most of the deluge of scripts came from people who had the proprietary interest in Trek that is typical of fans. It was also partly because Star Trek had a great hunger for material and was so eager to find the next great idea for an episode that it would consider the submissions of just about anyone. It was by far the easiest place in Hollywood to reach to make your “pitch” of a story or script.

I dared to think the thought.  I could easily create a suitable resume from the one that I had at the time.  And I just happened to have an hour-long dramatic script readily at hand, the one I wrote for The Outer Limits.  I rolled the idea around in my head for a while.  I mentioned it to my friend Brian after reading “Ice” to him and some other friends (one of whom was properly scared, so I knew I had done my job), and he said, “Yeah, you should go ahead and do that.”  So I made two copies of a resume and two copies of “Ice”.  I wrote two cover letters.  I stuffed two envelopes.  And I mailed them to Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles, one to the Story Editor of Deep Space Nine and one to the Story Editor of Voyager--the two Trek shows that were then on the air.  And through the spring and the summer, I waited.

Then, one August afternoon, just as I was getting in the door from the temporary job I was doing at the time, I heard the phone ring upstairs.  I heard the machine answer it.  And I heard a voice calling from three thousand miles to the southwest.  

And I made the maddest dash up the stairs I’ve ever made in my life.


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