How the sci-fi influences of Harlan Ellison helped shape the iconic action sci-fi franchise

The Terminator (1984) is an important movie and here’s why. Not only was it a box office smash at the time, it kick-started the legendary career of director James Cameron, cemented Arnold Schwarzenegger as an ultimate action movie legend, forged cult status for the rest of its cast, had a kick-ass theme tune and was the jump-off point for a massive franchise.

All in all a movie which has become a sci-fi action classic which is so culturally important that it sits in the library of Congress in America. The origins of the movie are complex and far from original. Let’s take a look at the dark conspiracy at the heart of the creation of The Terminator.

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The Terminator Harlan Ellison Origins

Nothing is created in a vacuum and indeed one of the joys of science fiction is that we can look at its origins and see how it’s building blocks have been shaped and evolve from one work to the next.

The Terminator came at a time when science fiction was moving into the genre we call Cyberpunk, in fact it’s quite safe to say that The Terminator cinematically helped to create the language of Cyberpunk on the big screen. Of course science fiction had been moving towards a dark, cynical and dystopian viewpoint for some time but there is a definite difference between influence and outright plagiarism.

Terminator’s script had definitely, shall we say, borrowed from some of the greats of sci-fi but there was one titan of speculative fiction whose work was clearly stamped on those pages. That man was the late, great, Harlan Ellison.

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The Influences of Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison Terminator

Ellison’s body of work is truly prolific, it covers just about every form of media you can imagine. He wrote for Star Trek, The Outer Limits and Marvel comics, his work was often award-winning and he, along with a number of other creatives in science fiction, redefined the meaning of the genre.

On one level you can completely understand that a writer of such stature would surely influence the mind of James Cameron but sources indicate that he was relatively comfortable about acknowledging that he had ripped off Ellison’s work.

This admission turned up in a biography about Cameron. In addition to that, Ellison was informed by a colleague who worked for the magazine Starbust, that Cameron had taken the idea for Terminator from Ellison’s work on the The Outer Limits.

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Similarities to Harlan Ellison’s ‘Soldier’

The Terminator Harlan Ellison Origins

Ellison first became aware of the Terminator as the script was circulating in Hollywood. Friends in the industry were suggesting that there were similarities to be found with his body of work. It wasn’t until the premiere however, where Harlen actually snuck in, that he realised the apparent likeness to his own work and swiftly took legal action.

It doesn’t take Perry Mason to discern that Terminator has several similarities to elements of the Star Trek episode “The City at the Edge of Forever” and the Outer Limits episode “The Demon with a Glass Hand” but where the plot of Terminator really reflects Ellison’s work is in the Outer Limits episode, “Soldier”.

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The Terminator Harlan Ellison Origins

Both plots contain a warrior from the future who travels back in time with the objective of saving the life of a woman whose survival is imperative to securing the future of humanity from the threat of a seemingly unstoppable enemy.

The outcome of Ellison’s legal action was an out of court settlement in which the parties agreed upon an undisclosed sum being given to Ellison and from the original home video to this day an additional credit was added to Terminator, which reads ’the producers acknowledge the works of Harlan Ellison’

This settlement was an agreement between Ellison, the producer, Hemdale and the distributor Orion pictures. Cameron has gone on record to state that although he isn’t allowed to discuss the issue in detail, he wasn’t pleased with the settlement. He has even gone as far as to have denied the allegations and expressed disappointment with the outcome.

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As mentioned above the similarities between the episodes of Ellison’s work and The Terminator are pretty clear, especially in Soldier. Clips of the opening moments of the episode can be found on youtube and even the visuals share a strong resemblance to the opening of The Terminator. Across Ellison’s work, there are definitely plot and even character elements which have had an influence on The Terminator.

Now this doesn’t detract from the brilliance of The Terminator in fact, for those who are willing to go and connect the dots and visit or even revisit Ellison’s work it enhances the viewing experience. Although the struggle may have been a challenge as fans of science fiction action, it’s us who win.