Classic SF on TV: ‘Outer Limits: Soldier’

outer limits soldier

When “The Outer Limits,” an ABC TV anthology series, began airing, Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” had been on the air for four years and was making its mark with literate science fiction and fantasy stories by great writers like Richard Matheson.

“The Outer Limits,” which has always had less recognition than “The Twilight Zone,” nevertheless presented smart and ahead-of-their-time SF and fantasy tales, including the first episode of the second season, “Soldier.”

Written by established author Harlan Ellison, “Soldier” (1964) was the first of two episodes of “The Outer Limits” written by Ellison. In “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand,” Ellison explored somewhat different takes on the same kind of story: A soldier from the future comes back in time to our present day (well, 1964 in the case of “Soldier”). He’s pursued by a relentless killer who’s also from the future. The soldier ends up protecting modern-day humans before he meets his fate.

If the story sounds familiar … well, Ellison thought a movie that came out 20 years later took too many liberties with his basic idea. More on that in a minute.

In “Soldier,” Michael Ansara (who died just recently) plays Qarlo, a soldier from 1800 years in the future who materializes, in full battle gear, in a big-city alley after a battle in the future with his enemy. Qarlo quickly attracts the attention of the police, who arrest him after he melts their patrol car.

Once Qarlo, who struggles like a caged animal, is in the hands of the FBI, an agent (Tim O’Connor) calls in Kagan, a language expert (Lloyd Nolan), to try to figure out what language Qarlo is speaking. It’s English, Kagan says, and he quickly (probably too quickly, but hey, it’s an hour-long show) theorizes that Qarlo is a soldier from the future, in a time when men like Qarlo are bred to be soldiers, fighting machines with no knowledge of love and family and no master but the state.

Kagan, trying to introduce Qarlo to the modern-day world because they have no way of sending him  back to his own time, even takes him home to meet his family.

There’s that other soldier from the future to be considered, however, and a showdown in the Kagan family living room that feels kind of anti-climactic.

There are more than a few leaps in logic in “Soldier,” but most of them can be forgiven. A couple of head-scratchers – Qarlo’s lines-and-circles drawing of his – our – solar system is taken to a scientist who can tell, from the rudimentary sketch, that the Earth’s position around the Sun indicates Qarlo came from 1,800 years in the future – stand out.

But a lot about the episode is still effective, including Ansara’s performance as the bred-and-born soldier and Nolan’s intuitive expert. I also loved O’Connor, a character actor who is great in so many TV shows in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, as the snappy FBI agent.

harlan ellison

You’ve probably figured out that a lot of people – notably Ellison – have drawn comparisons between “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand” and “The Terminator,” director James Cameron’s 1984 SF adventure about two soldiers – one an android – who time-travel back from the future to the present day (well, the 80s), one to kill a woman who’s crucial to the future of mankind and one to protect her.

Ellison heard about the similarities before the movie came out and investigated. His attempts to see the movie before it premiered were stymied by Cameron and his studio. Cameron had apparently joked to a reporter that he had “ripped off” a couple of Ellison “Outer Limits” ideas. Eventually Ellison saw the movie and recognized enough of his plot to threaten to sue.

Ellison ended up with – according to a video interview with him that I saw – $65,000 to $75,000 and an acknowledgement, in the end credits of video releases of “The Terminator,” to his work.

“The Terminator” might have been made even without the inspiration of “Soldier” and it might not. But there’s no doubt that “Soldier” got there first and gave us a sci-fi story that still holds up.

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