For writers, some stories become too powerful to turn away from no matter how many times it takes to get them right. For celebrated science fiction author and ardent comics supporter Harlan Ellison, the four color medium ended up being the perfect platform to finally realize one of his long-hidden epics the way he intended in the form of the four-issue “Phoenix Without Ashes” miniseries, whose second chapter hits comic shops this week from IDW Publishing.
Originally conceived as a teleplay for sci-fi series pilot, the germ of “Phoenix” ended up being run through a creative and financial wringer shortly after Ellison wrote it in 1972, and the writer still recalls how he lost hold of the project. “When I came up with the original idea and we sold it to 20th Century Fox, we were betrayed, of course,” Ellison explained to CBR News of the story’s long journey.
Originally set to be filmed in London England under the supervision of producer Sir Lew Grade (“The Muppet Show”), “Phoenix Without Ashes” told the story of a massive spaceship known as the Ark which was built of a multitude of self-enclosed biospheres, each of which contained a separate civilization. After Ellison’s initial pilot introduced the concept and one such society run by families of farmers, each subsequent episode would focus on another biosphere and be written by another sci-fi author as certain longterm mysteries continued throughout.
“Instead of going to have it shot in England with Sir Lew Grade, which would have made it an A-1, top-of-the-line presentation, as a two-hour movie and then series, it got laid off by the then head of production at 20th Century Fox in Canada,” the writer told CBR. “They were able to shoot it a lot cheaper than Sir Lew Grade would have charged them in London, and it would have looked fabulous in London at one of the studios there! They betrayed us and cut a deal with an outfit in Canada. And it wasn’t even CTV -Â the Canadian television network that the government owns. It was a much lesser network in Canada owned, incidentally, by the same guy who owned the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
Ellison explained that the subsequent rewrites of his script forced him to take his name off the project when it finally aired in Canada under the title “The Starlost,” a final product which suffered from much lower production values and story coherence than expected. “The people in Canada were very nice people, but they didn’t know what they were doing. It was not a matter so much of ineptitude as it was of unfamiliarity with doing top-of-the-line productions. And of course, they had done all this Canadian TV that was like low-grade BBC in the 1940s and ’50s. They hired the special effects guy Doug Trumbull, and they thought he’d be able to pull of the special effects. But he was just in the beginning stages of his work there, and nobody in Canada seemed to understand that the size of the production was [so huge] and that this Ark – this spaceship that had been avoiding some vast, nameless disaster that had happened on earth named Vastator -Â was gigantic, immense and almost as big as the earth! And each one of the biospeheres would be as big as a town or a city -Â wholly and totally encased and enclosed so they had no slop over or culture crossover with the other biospheres in the configuration. They had been in the spaceship so long that they not only didn’t realize there were other worlds they could go to through the connecting tunnels…they didn’t know that this wasn’t the world they were living in. It’s like years later when they did ‘The Truman Show’ with Jim Carey.
“Each world has been culturally separated. There’s a world of the old Coptic Egyptian court. There’s a world of feudal barony. There’s a world of a modern ecological greenness. There’s an Amish world. There’s an Egyptian Book of the Dead world. We were planning on doing a show in each of the biospheres. But they were so ignorant -Â and I don’t mean stupid, I mean ignorant in that they knew nothing of history, nothing of culture – that they set up a mission where these people would be going for ‘the backup controls.’ And we said, ‘Where are they traveling to?’ and they said, ‘To the back of the ship where the backup controls are!’ I said, ‘No no no…backup controls doesn’t mean the back of the ship. Backup controls means a secondary system somewhere for when your primary fails. You don’t travel hundreds of thousands of miles to the back of a space-born Ark without direction or navigation that’s heading into the heart of a star where everyone will die by running around looking for the backup controls.’ It was ridiculous.”
Luckily for Ellison, while he lost the chance to see the show produced to his liking, he retained the rights to the original teleplay and eventually worked it into a novel along with writer Edward Bryant. “It got so bad that I had to take my name off [the pilot], and when I settled with them, they didn’t use my script. My ‘Phoenix Without Ashes’ was the bible. It was the whole history of these people – where they were going and why there were going there -Â and it had major characters. They never used it. They used some other thing by a not such a good writer in Canada…and the show lasted one season and went off because it was pretty dreadful. I maintained control of the original ‘Phoenix Without Ashes’ which actually happened to win the Writer’s Guild Award for most outstanding teleplay that year because you can submit whatever version you want of your story to the Writer’s Guild, and that’s why they’re impeccable. They can’t be bought or rigged.”
Even with an award to its name and a novel on the shelves, the “Phoenix Without Ashes” concept never went any further under Ellison’s pen. However, last year the writer was reached by IDW E-i-C and CCO Chris Ryall. “Chris read it, and it was something that he was very fond of since he remembered it as the book and not the TV show, and he approached me on behalf of IDW to see if we’d like to do it as a comic, and I said, ‘Absolutely,'” Ellison recalled. What followed was a full on adaptation of the original teleplay using all of Ellison’s words as interpreted by Alan Robinson on interior art and the writer’s friend John K Snyder III on covers.
“I think they’re about as complete and as true to what I wrote and what Ed Bryant adapted as anything that’s ever been done of my stuff,” the writer said of the four-issue series which is also bringing the original novel back into print. “For a wholesaler incentive, if you buy 25 copies, you get these wonderful little chapbooks of the novel. There’s going to be four of them to present the entire text of the novel in chapbooks. It’s going to be a collector’s item of some quality. And they’re just doing everything they can. The breaks in the story are fairly obvious because it was written as a two-hour script. There’s a teaser, four acts and a denouement. The breaks would have been fairly obvious, and Alan Robinson has done great work all the way through.”
As readers now discover the first tale in the saga of the Ark where one man confronts the frightening truth that his entire world is just one piece of a spaceship, Ellison is already setting his sights on continuing the exploration of the Ark’s worlds as he’d hoped to over 35 years ago. “They did a number of [worlds] on the ‘Starlost’ of course, but they didn’t use any of my scripts. The next one I was going to do was based in the Egyptian House of the Dead called ‘Eros In The Charnel House.’ We had buttons made up that said, ‘I Am Vastator. Tell Me What You Know.’ Vastator, of course, is the mysterious thing that killed earth, and that’ll be what you find out as the series goes – who the villain is. They keep trying to find out what the hell Vastator was, and the vast logs and archives on the Ark, which are in many different places – one is like the great library at Alexandria and another is the first IBM location in the world – are seen through tips and hints all the way through. If this takes off, it can go any number of years because there are plenty of stories. It’s going to take smart writers and very adept directors, but in this age of special effects, we can do everything I dreamed of for that show.”
With Ryall and the staff at IDW at the helm, Ellison seemed excited that his world-creating idea can flower in a logical, engaging manner. “It’s hard to find a way of promoting a comic these days that doesn’t say, ‘It will change the universe forever!’ or ‘The DC Universe will never be the same again!’ Because of course it’ll all be the same again. Somebody’s dead, and they’ll be back again in six weeks. But with ‘Phoenix Without Ashes,’ there was built in – and I think John and Alan have preserved this – a real sense of scope. There was a real sense of these poor little human beings trapped in this bubble of amber suddenly realizing that God is a lot bigger than they are and the universe is a lot bigger than they are. And there they stand: teeny tiny on this vast, million-mile construct filled with hundreds and hundred and hundreds of separate worlds – some of which have died or regressed. Anything which exists on the earth 100 years from now can be done.”
And who knows? If a readership is found for the “Phoenix Without Ashes” series and any future installments of the idea Ellison called “a simple story of Robinson Crusoe,” then the series may make its way to film as it had originally been intended. The writer said that Columbia picked up an option on the story with David Goyer having written a new script earlier in the decade. “When he did his script, it was extraordinarily ham-handed…it had dinosaurs in it and all kinds of crap. It was sort of a silly ‘Land of the Lost’ kind of versions,” Ellison said, but “Now we’ve discovered that some studios are sniffing around it. They’ve got an agent on it, and they have people saying, ‘Did you ever think of this as a movie?’ and I say, ‘Duuuuuuh! Yes, I thought of it as a movie – as a movie and a continuing series of comic arcs and then another movie and a theme ride and bobblehead dolls and decorated stripper polls!'”
With luck, Ellison’s “Phoenix” may yet rise again.
“Phoenix Without Ashes” #2 of 4 is in comic shops this Wednesday, September 15 from IDW Publishing.