Great Scott!: Back to the Future Hit Screens 35 Years Ago

Some films catch lightning in a bottle; this one caught lightning with a clock tower. Thirty-five years ago, Back to the Future shrugged off troubled early filming (which led to the lead actor being replaced) and went on to become one of the most beloved comedies of all time. It was a massive hit, launching a franchise that included two sequels, an animated series, theme park rides, comic books, video games, and a stage musical while inspiring other shows like Rick and Morty. In honor of the 88 mph that Doc Brown’s DeLorean needs to achieve to time travel, here are eight things about Back to the Future that might have been erased from your memory.

1. Starring … Eric Stoltz?

When shooting commenced on Back to the Future in November 1984, Marty McFly was played by Eric Stoltz. The acclaimed young actor, known in the 1980s for such films as Mask and Some Kind of Wonderful, took the job because Michael J. Fox’s Family Ties commitments kept him tied up. That situation was exacerbated by the fact that Fox’s TV mom, Meredith Baxter Birney, was on maternity leave, necessitating more time in front of the cameras from the rest of the cast. However, a few weeks into filming Back to the Future, director Robert Zemeckis felt that Stoltz, while turning in fine work, was playing the comedic part too dramatically. Stoltz also had misgivings about his own casting, and he agreed to depart the project. Zemeckis went back to NBC, and the producers agreed to a situation whereby Fox could make the film while continuing to work on Family Ties; this meant that Fox spent many weeks filming scenes for the sitcom during the day and shooting the movie at night.

2. Huey Lewis Is Judgmental

The video for “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & the News. (Uploaded to YouTube by hueylewisofficial)

During the early scene where Marty’s band, The Pinheads, auditions for the battle of the bands, the nerdy bespectacled judge is played by musician Huey Lewis. Huey Lewis & the News contributed two songs to the film’s soundtrack, “The Power of Love” and “Back in Time;” in fact, a more metal, distorted version of “Love” is Marty’s audition song. “Love” became the band’s first No. 1 on the Hot 100 and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.

3. The DeLorean: The Punchline That Time Forgot

The Back to the Future DeLorean
The famous DeLorean car from Back to the Future (Dan Jamieson /

Zemeckis and his BTTF co-writer and producer Bob Gale chose to make the time machine from a DeLorean as because its already futuristic appearance would sell the joke of the car being mistaken for a UFO. The car functioned as a secondary punchline at the time because the DeLorean Motor Company had gone bankrupt a couple of years earlier, and its founder, John DeLorean, had been acquitted in a high-profile drug trafficking trial less than a year before the film opened. During the run of the film in theaters, DeLorean was indicted on fraud and tax evasion charges related to his company’s bankruptcy, but he was acquitted in those cases as well.

4. The Town Square Was Shot ’50s First

Zemeckis shot BTTF’s Hill Valley Town Square scenes on the backlot at Universal Studios. All of the 1950s scenes were shot first, with the set dressed for the period and painted to have a shiny, new quality. When those scenes were wrapped, the set was redressed in a more run-down, ramshackle appearance to capture the decline of the town for the 1980s scenes.

5. Chuck Berry Was Already a Hitmaker

The “Johnny B. Goode” scene from Back to the Future. (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips)

The film gives the comedic impression that Marty McFly helped invent rock-’n’-roll and ignite Chuck Berry’s career when he plays “Johnny B. Goode” during the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance on November 12, 1955. The truth is that Berry already had a hit with “Maybelline ” earlier that year; with song sold a million copies. In fact, though it wasn’t released until 1958, Berry wrote “Johnny B. Goode” in 1955 as well; the opening riff on that tune was, well, swiped from Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman .” Mark Campbell of Jack Mack and the Heart Attack provided Fox’s singing voice in the scene.

6. Biff Seems a Little Bit Familiar (Especially in Part 2)

Thomas F. Wilson played uber-bully Biff Tannen in different incarnations in Back to the Future and its two sequels. However, the adult millionaire Biff from the darker, altered future in the second film was based directly on a real, very familiar person. In an interview with The Daily Beast , Gale was asked about similarities between Biff and the 1980s public persona of a certain current president. Gale said, “We thought about it when we made the movie! Are you kidding? You watch Part II again and there’s a scene where Marty confronts Biff in his office and there’s a huge portrait of Biff on the wall behind Biff, and there’s one moment where Biff kind of stands up and he takes exactly the same pose as the portrait? Yeah.”

7. Stoltz Wasn’t The Only Actor Switched in the Series

It’s not entirely uncommon for parts to be recast as a series of films unfolds. However, the BTTF films had two other significant roles recast for completely different reasons. Crispin Glover memorably played George McFly in the first film, but couldn’t reach an agreement about a contract for the sequels. Actor Jeffrey Weissman was brought in as George, but make-up and other techniques were used to suggest a resemblance to Glover. Footage of Glover from the first film was repurposed in the second. Glover filed suit on the grounds that the producers used his likeness without permission. The case changed the way the Screen Actors Guild negotiates, with contracts now including sections that bar filmmakers from faking a likeness or resemblance without permission or compensation.

The other significant change was the role of Marty’s girlfriend and eventual wife, Jennifer. Claudia Wells played her in the first movie. Unfortunately, Wells’s mother was diagnosed with cancer ahead of the back-to-back shooting of the sequels. She declined the part so she could be available for her family. Elisabeth Shue signed on and played Jennifer in II and III.

8. BTTF Directly Inspired Rick and Morty

The extremely popular Adult Swim animated series Rick and Morty owes its existence to Back to the Future. The show was created by Justin Roiland (who voices both leads) and Dan Harmon (creator of Community). Harmon also co-founded Channel 101, a monthly nonprofit festival for short films; they pair met at an installment and later collaborated on The Real Animated Adventures of Doc and Mharti, a filthy parody of Doc Brown and Marty. When Adult Swim approached Harmon about creating a show for them, Roiland suggested that they take their Doc and Mharti dynamic and repurpose it, dubbing the new versions Rick and Morty. An in-joke in the series is that while they frequently hop between dimensions and alternate reality, Rick often comments that he refuses to do time travel.

Featured image: Thiago Melo / Shutterstock

Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott: Time Travel

See all Movies for the Rest of Us.


Philip Wylie: The Unsung Hero of Super-Heroes

The annals of history overflow with the overlooked. Some people were incredibly famous in their time, but have faded from view even as their influence abides. Philip Wylie might be one such person. A prolific writer of novels, nonfiction, screenplays, essays, and articles (many of which were for The Saturday Evening Post), Wylie may be most famous for his 1943 book, Generation of Vipers, which essentially attacked every American institution from religion to government to mothers. In genre fiction circles, he’s most well-known and remembered for his novels like Gladiator, The Savage Gentleman, and When Worlds Collide. Those books left an indelible mark in their field and planted seeds that would become the avatar of America’s popular mythology: the super-hero.

Wylie’s life as a writer is hard to categorize. His work covered a broad area, touching many disciplines and topics. Whereas some working writers find their genre and stick to it (with occasional divergences into other styles), Wylie wrote just about everything. Born in 1902 to a minister father and a writing mother who died when he was five, Wylie had a keen interest in science and philosophy as well as literature.

The interest in science would be applied regularly to his writing, particularly, and unsurprisingly, to his science fiction work. His first two novels, Heavy Laden (1928) and Babes and Sucklings (1929), were both described as comedies of manners, with the first leaning heavily on details from his own life (one of the main characters has a minister father). 1930’s Gladiator leaned all the way into the science fiction genre. The main character is Hugo Danner, a man who is born with enhanced strength, speed, and invulnerability after his scientist father injects his pregnant mother with an experimental serum. Danner uses his strength for money-making endeavors, but eventually joins the French Foreign Legion to fight against Germany in World War I. The book has stayed in print over the decades; Marvel Comics adaptated the first half of the novel in Marvel Preview #9 in 1976, with legendary comics writer Roy Thomas handling the writing duties.

Roy Thomas’s manager, John Cimino, arranged for the venerable writer to discuss Wylie and why Thomas wanted to adapt the story. Thomas says, “The fact that it was such a seminal influence, I felt, on the concept of the super-hero… even though it in turn was probably influenced by the likes Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels and John Campbell’s story/novel The Mightiest Machine… made me want to adapt it at Marvel, even though I only got the chance to adapt the first half of it before I left Marvel for a time in 1980.”

On the broader subject of Hugo Danner as an influence on Superman, who didn’t appear in Action Comics #1 until 1938, Thomas says, “I know that [Superman co-creator] Jerry Siegel never admitted to a direct inspiration from Gladiator, but I have always pretty much discounted that as being said for legal reasons. After all, Jerry was a prominent and wide-reading SF fan in the 1920s and ’30s.” Thomas went on to say that some occurances in the novel were very similar to scenes from the novel, with both seeing the leads avenging wrongs and pushing back against bad businesspeople.Thomas says, “I can accept the general idea that the similarities may have been a coincidence, but I find it impossible to believe myself.”

Thomas would later get the chance to take advantage of Gladiator’s public domain status and incorporate Hugo Danner into his Young All-Stars comic at DC in the 1980s. One of the lead characters was young super-strongman Iron Munro, and Thomas canonized Hugo Danner as Munro’s father. Thomas says, “I knew that Arn Munro had been the super-human hero of Campbell’s novel/story The Mightiest Machine in Astounding Stories . . . an Earthman raised on Jupiter and thus gaining great strength and leaping abilities when he returned to his native Earth… Clearly, here was another possible inspiration for Superman, though it came later than Gladiator… so I decided that Arn Munro should be the son of Hugo Danner.”

Philip Wylie and his wife, Frederica
Philip Wylie and his wife, Frederica (SEPS)

Thomas pretty clearly sets a line of lineage from early science fiction novels through Gladiator and onward to Superman. But Gladiator wasn’t Wylie’s only novel to have a huge impact on comic and pulp heroes. His 1932 novel, The Savage Gentleman, sports more than a few similarities to a hero that would debut a year later in his self-titled magazine, Doc Savage. In The Savage Gentleman, Henry Stone is raised on an island by his father and two of his father’s servants and returns to a 1930s New York an incredible physical specimen with a fortune waiting for him; his hair is even described as “bronze.” Doc Savage, nicknamed “The Man of Bronze,” was an Olympic-level athlete and an expert at everything after being trained by men chosen by his father. As Thomas says, “[I]t was amusing to learn later that Wylie had also written a book titled The Savage Gentleman, who some see as influential on Doc Savage… who in turn was called a ‘Superman’ in ads before DC’s comic hero emerged… and was known as ‘the Man of Bronze,’ where Superman became first the ‘Man of Tomorrow,’ but soon the ‘Man of Steel.’”

In 1933, Wylie turned his attention to the stars for one of his best-remembered novels, When Worlds Collide. The story, co-written with Edwin Balmer, deals with a scientist discovering that two rogue planets may destroy Earth and the steps taken to try to save the population. As explained in the 1990 book, Flash Gordon: Mongo, the Planet of Doom, the novel was a direct influence on Alex Raymond, who took central plot elements of Wylie’s and created and drew the newspaper comic strip Flash Gordon the following year. The lineage of When Worlds Collide resonates through many branches of pop culture, as George Lucas has repeatedly identified Flash Gordon as an immediate influence on Star Wars.

The trailer for When Worlds Collide (Uploaded to YouTube by YouTube Movies)

Wylie’s work in those three novels formed the foundation for thousands of super-hero characters that come after them. Hugo Danner is the science fiction super-human, like Superman. Henry Stone is the pulp hero, a product of training backed by wealth, like Doc Savage and, later, Batman (who himself owes debts to Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel). The leads of Collide are the space heroes, like Flash Gordon, the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, and the Fantastic Four. Those are the starting points for a remarkable number of characters that would follow in four-color comics just a few years later.

As he worked on those novels, Wylie also worked in Hollywood, writing the screenplay for the adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1932’s The Island of Lost Souls. He also did uncredited work on the 1933 film version of Wells’s The Invisible Man, which borrowed as much from Wylie’s own novel, 1931’s The Murderer Invisible, as it did from Wells. He also had various other novels adapted into film, like 1949’s Night Unto Night, starring Ronald Reagan.

Over the following years, Wylie would continue to write, well, everything. A past director of the Lerner Marine Laboratory, he wrote dozens of short stories about fishermen Crunch and Des, many of which ran in The Saturday Evening Post, and were packaged in eight collections over time; the stories became a short-lived TV series in the 1950s. The first and most famous of his nonfiction books, Generation of Vipers, landed in 1942, and was (and is) controversial. Amid his attacks on Christianity and Washington, D.C., Wylie put down the lionization of the role of mothers in culture, calling it “momism.” Wylie both supported and walked back various statements from the book over the years, and critics have vacillated between calling that attitude misogynistic or taking a stance others wouldn’t. A Washington Post reassessment from 2005 notes that the book feels more like Wylie was attacking things just because they were there.

Wylie’s fiction continued to draw attention in occasionally surprising ways. His scrupulously researched writing on nuclear weapons (as in The Smuggled Atomic Bomb) was so knowledgeable and precise that he was questioned by the authorities. Ironically, that knowledge base would also earn him a place as an advisor to the Joint Congressional Committee for Atomic Energy. He also had progressive notes in his fiction.  In the 1951 novel, The Disappearance, he speculates on what would happen if men and women were suddenly cosmically separated. After a “blink” splits the world into two versions, one of only men and one of only women, Wylie examines how the men-only world begins to decline while the women-only world thrives. He also manages to approach homosexuality, a huge taboo at the time, in light of what happens when there’s only one gender remaining in the world.

At The Saturday Evening Post, in addition to Crunch and Des, Wylie’s pieces covered a predictably huge range of subject matter. He wrote on student performance in college, doctors in Bimini, and surviving hurricanes, among other topics. Portions of his novel, Triumph, about the after-effects of a nuclear war, were serialized in the Post. For other outlets, he wrote about medievalism, career women, UFOs, missile defense, censorship, and the work of Mickey Spillane.

Philip Wylie died in 1971, but his work continues to resonate. His fiction shaped comic books, science fiction, film horror, and more. His nonfiction forced people to reexamine their own opinions. The majority of his work is still in print, even if it’s overlooked by the general public. Aficionados of genre fiction remember him, but the sheer breadth of his contributions isn’t always recognized.  At least for now, Philip Wylie remains the unsung hero of super-heroes.

Click to read “How to Live Through a Hurricane” by Philip Wylie, from the December 30, 1950, issue of the PostSubscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.


Comics Legend Roy Thomas on the Wylie Influence

When The Saturday Evening Post reached out to Roy Thomas through his manager, John Cimino, it was expected that he’d have great insight into the work of Philip Wylie. However, Thomas’s answers were so thorough and thoughtful that we wanted to share the complete interview.

Thomas is a living legend in the field of comic books. The first editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics after Stan Lee, Thomas has created and co-created hundreds of characters that you know, including (deep breath): Wolverine, Carol Danvers (aka Captain Marvel), Ultron, Ghost Rider, Morbius, Valkyrie, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Red Sonja, Adam Warlock, Red Guardian, the Black Knight, Yellowjacket, Banshee, Havok, Sunfire, and many, many more. His resume for Marvel and DC is almost a book of its own. Here are his comments on Wylie and incorporating Wylie into comics.


THE SATURDAY EVENING POST: When did you first become aware of Philip Wylie’s work, and what prompted you to adapt Gladiator for Marvel Preview?

ROY THOMAS: I had read previously of Wylie’s prominence as an essayist, in particular his work Generation of Vipers. I’m not sure when I first became aware of Wylie’s late-1920s novel Gladiator. Sometime in the 1960s, I believe. I may have read about it first in a science fiction fanzine or book article, maybe one by SF historian Sam Moskowitz. By the late 1960s, I believe, it came out in paperback… it was out of copyright by then, apparently… and I bought a copy and devoured it. The fact that it was such a seminal influence, I felt, on the concept of the super-hero… even though it in turn was probably influenced by the likes Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels and John Campbell’s story/novel The Mightiest Machine … made me want to adapt it at Marvel, even though I only got the chance to adapt the first half of it before I left Marvel for a time in 1980. It was part and parcel with my work on the black-&-white SF comic magazine Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction, and might well have appeared in that magazine if it had lasted long enough.

I recall that I contacted what seemed to be Wylie’s agent . . . and was informed that what I’d heard was correct, and Gladiator was indeed in the public domain. So we didn’t have to pay anything to adapt the novel. However, the agent I deal with told me that Wylie’s widow “could use the money,” so I arranged for Marvel to pay her the hundred or two that we would have offered for the rights, since that was about as high as I’d have been authorized to go under my current arrangement with Stan and Marvel. One of my main frustrations was that I never seemed to run across a photo of Wylie except an older man, after he’d won fame as an essayist, when I wanted a picture of him as a younger man, when he wrote Gladiator.

The book is so straightforwardly and directly written as to be almost an outline for a novel rather than a novel itself in places, but it carried me along with the sheer power of its ideas. I long toyed with the idea of rewriting it as a longer book and copyrighting it in both our names… but I decided that was pure hubris on my part. I, or even more likely someone else, could have added a bit of polish and flowery language, etc., but we couldn’t have improved, really, on what was there.


SEP:  Some suggest that Hugo Danner was a direct inspiration for Superman, while others suggest that it’s more of a case of passing similarity or “ideaspace.” Do you have a particular view on the subject?

RT: I know that Jerry Siegel never admitted to a direct inspiration from Gladiator, but I have always pretty much discounted that as being said for legal reasons. After all, Jerry was a prominent and wide-reading SF fan in the 1920s and ’30s. Certainly there were other inspirations for Jerry’s first “Superman,” who was an evil scientist… but when he and Joe Shuster developed the second one, the physically powerful “Superman,” it smacked of Hugo Danner and Gladiator. There are even some similar episodes in the early comics to some in the novel, and Hugo and Superman both acted as independent avenging agents, righting wrongs and intimidating the so-called masters of malice in business and industry. I can accept the general idea that the similarities may have been a coincidence, but I find it impossible to believe myself.


SEP: When you were writing Young All-Stars, you made direct use of Hugo Danner for the origin of Iron Munro. How did that come about?

RT: I knew that Arn Munro had been the super-human hero of Campbell’s novel/story The Mightiest Machine, in Astounding Stories . . . Earthman raised on Jupiter and thus gaining great strength and leaping abilities when he returned to his native Earth. I have never actually read much of “Machine,” though I keep meaning to. Clearly, here was another possible inspiration for Superman, though it came later than Gladiator… so I decided that Arn Munro should be the son of Hugo Danner. I also knew by then that Arn Munro, changed considerably, had become the star of a minor comicbook feature under the title “Iron Munro, the Astounding Man.” I don’t know if the “Iron Munro” name is used at all in Campbell’s story, but I felt that naming the Young All-Stars hero Arnold Munro, Arn for short, and “Iron” as a nickname, would be a perfect homage, so I did it. I’ve no idea if, in The Mightiest Machine, “Arn” is short for Arnold or not. (Or was it ever spelled “Aarn”? I recall toying with that for a while.)


SEP:  What are your thoughts on the genre influence of Wylie as a whole?

RT: It is considerable, since I consider Hugo Danner and the entire book an influence on Superman, who in turn has been an influence on virtually everything that came afterward, even on Batman and non-super-powered heroes who also are descended from Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel. In addition, it was amusing to learn later that Wylie had also written a book titled The Savage Gentleman, who some see as influential on Doc Savage… who in turn was called a “Superman” in ads before DC’s comic hero emerged… and was known as “the Man of Bronze,” where Superman became first the “Man of Tomorrow” but soon the “Man of Steel.” Wylie’s reputation, such as remains of it (he’s largely a forgotten figure in today’s literary world, with his “Momism” and all), rests on Generation of Vipers… but he was really most important and influential on American and world culture as the author of Gladiator. If he’d written nothing else ever, he would be worthy of a place in the real pantheon of heroic fiction authors.

Featured image: Shutterstock

8 Times Science Fiction Got It Right

Science fiction remains one of the most durable of genres. It takes deeper questions like “What’s out there?” and “Would this work?” and turns them into stories of action or philosophy that reflect our own concerns about the world around us. With a lengthy history that dates back to Lucian’s A True Story from the Second Century of the Common Era, science fiction has had plenty of room to prognosticate on ideas and inventions. Here are a few that made the leap from imagination to reality.

1. A Major Pandemic

Most recently, a mini-sensation grew around the rediscovery of Dean Koontz’s 1981 novel, The Eyes of Darkness and its inclusion of a virus called “Wuhan-400,” as if the novel had predicted the rise of COVID-19 and its seeming point of origin in Wuhan, China; ironically, the virus was originally called “Gorki-400” in the first printing and only changed to “Wuhan-400” in later printings around 2008 or so. As close as that may seem, Koontz wasn’t really forecasting the events of today. He also was far from the first writer to posit the potential effects of a viral threat. Obviously, The Eyes of Darkness came a few years after Stephen King’s 1978 classic, The Stand, which includes a “superflu” that is fatal to over 99 percent of the world’s population. In his nonfiction book, Danse Macabre, King notes that The Stand was itself partially inspired by Earth Abides, George R. Stewart’s 1949 novel in which much of the world is killed by a measles-like disease. 2007’s The Pesthouse by Jim Crace uses a plague as a starting point for an allegory about a crumbling America.

If you want the source of plague-fiction, then you have to go back to the Grande Dame of science fiction herself, Mary Shelley. The writer of Frankenstein wrote The Last Man in 1826, kicking off the “post-apocalyptic pandemic thriller.” While none of these scenarios are precise (King is more concerned with moral choices, and Stewart deals in more ecology), one other book comes a bit closer to today. Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain from 1969 basically started the techo-thriller genre and uses Crichton’s medical background and scientist characters to demonstrate some fairly real (and not so real) methods for dealing with the book’s fictional threat.

2. Missions to The Moon

Computer generated image of a space shuttle taking off

French writer Jules Verne was one of the grandmasters of predicting the future through literature and is considered one of the fathers of science fiction (along with Hugo Gernsback and H.G. Wells, but they all call Mary Shelley “Mom”). As the second-most translated author in the world, behind only Agatha Christie, Verne is extremely widely read and a massive influence. In 1865’s From the Earth to the Moon, Verne posits a scenario in which the Baltimore Gun Club attempts to send three men to the Moon by building a giant columbiad cannon as a launch mechanism. Part of the love for the novel in scientific circles comes from the fact that the calculations that Verne’s characters use are amazingly close to the real math used by NASA. Another eerie coincidence is that, of all the locations in the world, Verne put the location of the columbiad in Tampa, Florida, only miles away from the eventual site of the real Moon launch in Cape Canaveral. Verne’s novel also led to the coining of the term “space-ship,” which first appeared in an article about the book in The Pall Mall Gazette in 1880.

3. Translators

The original Star Trek (1966-1969) features a device called a “universal translator” that allows races from different planets to understand one another, an idea that was picked up from “First Contact,” a 1945 novella by Murray Leinster. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) by Douglas Adams employs a more whimsical notion; the Babel Fish is a tiny fish that goes into your ear and provides immediate translations for speakers and listeners. One of the closest realizations of this concept today is Google Translate; the app presently supports 109 languages and can do 32 via voice.

4. The Internet

While the origins of today’s internet are rooted in the Department of Defense programs of the 1960s and the ARPANET that was used by the military and colleges in the 1970s, one of the writers who had the best vision of what the whole thing would become put it into words in 1984. That was William Gibson and his breakthrough novel was Neuromancer. Two years before that book, Gibson introduced the phrase “cyberspace” in his short story, “Burning Chrome.” Gibson’s vision extended beyond technology itself and into its cultural impact, envisioning a world overrun by massive corporations. He also referred to the vast interconnected computer network as “the matrix,” which has been absorbed into popular culture, notably The Matrix series of films. Writer Jack Womack suggested in the afterword of the 2000 re-issue of Neuromancer that Gibson’s vision was so profound that it may have actually influenced the way that the internet unfolded in the real world, asking, “What if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?”

5. Commercial Spaceflight

Verne and Wells put in the work when it comes to journeys to the Moon, but Russian writer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky wrote a lot about spaceflight in general, both in theoretical papers and in fiction. As early as 1903, he wrote “The Probing of Space by Means of Jet Devices,” which suggested using “multi-stage, liquid-fueled rockets” like the type that NASA would later adopt. While a vast amount of science fiction writing focused on spaceflight for exploration, elements crept in that suggested spaceflight as an everyday business kind of operation. Han Solo’s role as a smuggler in Star Wars (1977) suggests that there’s legal galactic trade, while Cowboy in Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) is a literal space-trucker. In the past several years, we’ve seen the rise of companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic that have committed to not only private spaceflight, but commerce, as they and other companies have contracted for supply deliveries to space stations.

6. Personal Communication

Woman using a mobile phone

Before the cell phone became one of the most ubiquitous devices on the planet, it had its antecedents in science fiction. The most famous is probably the communicator in Star Trek. In fact, it directly inspired Martin Cooper at Motorola; in 1973, he designed the model that would become DynaTAC, the first commercially available mobile phone. On a related note, David Gerrold, who wrote novels and episodes of classic TV, including Trek and Babylon 5, wrote a piece in 1999 where he predicted today’s smartphone with uncanny accuracy. He wrote, “I’ve got a cell phone, a pocket organizer, a beeper, a calculator, a digital camera, a pocket tape recorder, a music player, and somewhere around here, I used to have a color television. Sometime in the next few years, all of those devise are going to meld into one.” He went into much more detail, and none of it was wrong; in fact, he makes a fairly accurate description of the Samsung S10 that’s a few inches away from my keyboard at this moment.

7. Robots

A Computer generated image of an android looking at a city skyline

For centuries, there have been stories of artificial persons and automatons. They even go back to Greek mythology. You had Talos, the giant bronze man forged by Hephaestus; in other stories, Hephaestus created artificial people that helped him walk and machines that took things to Mount Olympus for him. However, it was Czech writer Karel Čapek that both introduced and named our modern conception of the robot in his 1920 play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Čapek credited his brother, Josef, for coming up with the actual word, which he drew from the Czech word “roboti,” meaning work. The robots in the play are manufactured en masses as workers, and they have human appearances. The idea of the human-seeming robot is central to the action of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film classic, Metropolis.

8. Nuclear Power

Computer generated graphic of a nuclear explosion

H.G. Wells published The World Set Free in 1914. In it, he posits atomic energy as both a fuel and a weapon. Many of his ideas were influenced by his reading of the science of the time. Wells conceived of atomic bombs that cause “continual explosions” that keep burning for days. Some historians suggest that Wells led directly to the creation of nuclear weapons, as physicist Leó Szilárd allegedly read the book during the same year that the neutron was discovered, 1932. The following year, Szilárd developed the concept of neutron chain reaction. Szilárd filed for a patent for a nuclear fission reactor in 1934, later writing, “Knowing what [a chain reaction] would mean—and I knew because I had read H.G. Wells—I did not want this patent to become public.” Szilárd would go on to write the letter that Albert Einstein co-signed, which led to the Manhattan Project and creation of the real atomic bomb.

Featured image: Shutterstock

6 Reasons The Twilight Zone Is the Greatest Series in TV History

Rod Serling saw things differently. As a television writer, he tried to broach controversial subjects and social issues, but frequently found himself at odds with networks and sponsors. He ultimately reasoned that he could tell more stories of the kind that he wanted if he cloaked them in the veneer of science-fiction and the supernatural. Since the best horror, fantasy, and science fiction stories comment on the human condition anyway, his notion made a perfect fit. This week in 1959, Serling brought The Twilight Zone to television. The anthology series made a deep impression on the American psyche during its four seasons, deep enough that the show has been turned into a theatrical film and revived for new runs in three separate subsequent decades. For its 60th anniversary, here are six reasons that The Twilight Zone remains one of the greatest, and most important, series in the history of television.

1. The Theme

We recently placed the spoken-word intro of The Twilight Zone at number one on our list of classic show-openers, and with good reason. There’s never been a more effective scene-setter than Serling’s ever-evolving narrations and Marius Constant’s eerie tune. The second season intro is perhaps the most famous, with Serling intoning, “You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead—your next stop, the Twilight Zone.”

2. The Writers and Directors

The assembly of talent behind the various iterations of The Twilight Zone remains impressive. For the original four-season series, Serling, a decorated World War II veteran who used the G.I. Bill to gain an education in literature and broadcasting, wrote or adapted a whopping 99 of the 156 episodes. Among the other writers were masters of horror and science fiction like Richard Matheson (16 episodes), Charles Beaumont (19 episodes), and that old friend of The Post, Ray Bradbury. The directors came from film and television, frequently boasting hefty resumes or bright futures; among them were names like John Brahm (director of film classics like The Lodger), Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), and Christian Nyby (The Thing from Another World). That tradition of top-flight talent continued into the later reboots of the series, with writers like Harlan Ellison and directors like Jordan Peele (Get Out), who runs the current version seen streaming on CBS All Access.

rod sterlng
Rod Serling in 1959. (Publicity Image, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

3. The Actors

The list of actors who graced individual episodes of the original series reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood. Some were young and unknown, while others were well-established at the time. We’re talking about Ron Howard, Carol Burnett, Robert Duvall, Charles Bronson, Dennis Hopper, William Shatner, Burgess Meredith, Cloris Leachman, Elizabeth Montgomery, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Julie Newmar, Art Carney, Mickey Rooney, and Buster Keaton, among many, many others. That tradition continues today, with established talents like Tracy Morgan and Seth Rogen appearing alongside newer stars like Zazie Beetz.

4. The Twists

Despite its prodigious reputation in this regard, not every episode of The Twilight Zone deployed a shocking twist ending. However, those that did produced some incredibly memorable conclusions, which helped build that reputation for the show. Endings that are still discussed and debated today include the final scenes of “To Serve Man,” “Time Enough at Last,” “Eye of the Beholder,” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Those four episodes, plus two others and a Serling retrospective, are coming to select movie theaters in November.


5. The Indelible Images

In addition to the trippy and spooky sights of the opening, the show worked off of a strongly cinematic visual vocabulary. While “To Serve Man” is most famous for the climactic explanation of its title, the suspense that is built into the last few scenes is expertly delivered (even as it works in a sight gag involving a smiling alien and a scale). The tight shots in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” put the viewer in the same claustrophobic space that William Shatner’s character is experiencing. That high-level craftsmanship, combined with the impact of the stories themselves, left a lasting impression on generations of viewers.

6. The Truth

Perhaps the most important element of The Twilight Zone is that each episode turns on an essential truth about humanity. People can be prideful or judgmental, but that comes with a cost. Awareness is good, but paranoia is destructive. Not all gifts are given with the best intentions, and so on. Serling’s aim was also true; he wanted to tell particular kinds of tales wrapped in a package that made them inviting to the masses. It’s easy to say that he succeeded. Unfortunately, some of the things that Serling and the other writers tried to warn us about still exist in American culture. People are still suspicious of their neighbors. Differences are not always celebrated. And we’re frequently more concerned about what we’ve got than helping our neighbors. Maybe that’s why the show keeps coming back; every generation needs to learn its lesson. That’s just a little bit of introspection, courtesy of The Twilight Zone.


Featured image: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo.

Ray Bradbury: Comic Book Hero

“It was like Moses parting the seas.” That was how one eyewitness described the scene. By 2010, Comic-Con San Diego had ballooned from its humble 1970 origins into the massive carnival it is today, with tens of thousands of conventioneers dressed as their favorite heroes and heroines, each hoping to play the latest video game, handle exclusive merchandise, maybe catch a glimpse of an A-list star. Yet in all the chaos, the countless Batmen, Wonder Women, and stormtroopers parted to make way for the biggest name in the building. Over a thousand people would cram into the conference room where he would field questions.

He was no hot young actor or starlet, nor a director of the latest comic book to get a film treatment. At almost 90 years old, Ray Bradbury could only smile as his wheelchair was pushed through the parting throng of gushing, gawking fans.

Photo of Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury in 2005 (Shutterstock)

The scene in 2010 was different from the one in 1939 at the great-granddaddy of all cons, The World Science Fiction Convention in New York. Bradbury, then only 19 years old, had to borrow money from his good buddy (and, later, his literary agent) Forry Ackerman to ride a Greyhound across the country and stay at the local YMCA. At this gathering, the teen rubbed shoulders with the likes of Isaac Asimov and John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Stories of Super-Science and a leader in the burgeoning science fiction genre, but ultimately failed to sell any of his stories to the numerous publishers he visited.

Thirty-one years later, Bradbury was asked to speak at a new conference venture in San Diego. In 1970, all of 300 people attended the Golden State Comic-Con, as it was then known, and no one knew that it would soon evolve into a world-famous annual comic event, known simply and without need of explanation as Comic-Con. Bradbury was well-established in the world of science fiction and fantasy by then, having published the modern classics Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, the former already a mainstay of high school English classes.

There was only one reason for someone as successful and well known as Ray Bradbury to attend a tiny gathering that the rest of the world ignored: He just loved comics. As he later said of his childhood comics, “Without all this splendid mediocrity, this sublime and wondrous trash in my background, I don’t think I would be any sort of writer today.” Comics created Bradbury, and in turn he propelled the medium forward.

Other writers had seen their works illustrated, but it was Bradbury who first embraced comic books and respected them in a way more easily understood in today’s Internet-based culture. He envisioned graphic novels decades before they existed, defended comic books at a time when they were being burned in public, and supported Comic-Con from that first gathering in 1970 through the end of his life. He never cared whether what he liked was trendy or cool; he simply did what he loved.

The World the Children Made

A Buck Rogers scrapbook Ray Bradbury made in his childhood, with some pages he colored-in.
The cover and interior page from one of Bradbury’s many childhood scrapbooks. He would meticulously cut and paste comics into the scrapbooks, often adding his own color. “I have never got over the initial impact of Buck Rogers on my life, and I am grateful for his explosion in my midst sometime in the year 1929 when the newspaper thudded against the screen door of my home in Waukegan.” —Ray Bradbury, as quoted from the booklet to Comic-Con San Diego, 1980. (Photo by Jennifer Bortel, courtesy the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, IUPUI)

As a boy growing up in Waukegan, Illinois, a city he would immortalize as Greentown in Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine, Bradbury obsessively scrapbooked his heroes from the newspaper comic strip pages. These included the wonderfully illustrated worlds of Phil Nolan and Dick Calkins’ Buck Rogers, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, and Hal Foster’s Tarzan and Prince Valiant. Hal Foster’s art depicted fantasy realms in nonexistent lands. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were Earthmen in space who introduced an entire generation of children to faraway galaxies and literally out-of-this-world inventions. In an era when horses were still hauling blocks of ice and plenty of homes went without electricity, these cartoons predicted a world of rocket ships, ray guns, and jetpacks. While science fiction was starting to pop up in movies, it was the funnies that brought the genre daily to the masses. They also planted the seed in a boy’s mind that sprouted one of the most prolific fantasy and science fiction careers of the 20th century.

In the late 1920s and early ’30s, there were no comic books per se. Occasionally a publisher would release a bound volume of Mutt and Jeff or Bringing Up Father, but the roughly 8-x-10-inch comic books selling for a dime at the local newsstand would not come into being until Famous Funnies debuted in 1934, edited by Max Gaines. Indeed, knowing that children kept the funny pages and threw out the rest of the paper convinced Gaines that comics could be sold directly to consumers.

A Mutt and Jeff comic strip from 1919, by Bud Fisher.
Mutt and Jeff cartoon by Bud Fisher, 1919 (Library of Congress) (Click to Enlarge)

Starting in 1929, Bradbury created his own comic anthologies from newspaper strips, cutting out his favorites from the Waukegan News-Sun and the Chicago newspapers and pasting them into scrapbooks, sometimes adding his own artistic flair by coloring them himself. He did this with religious devotion every day for years, pausing only briefly as a nine-year-old caving to peer pressure. As he explained decades later in a piece published in the guide to San Diego Comic-Con 1980, “Kids made fun, I took on embarrassment, and tore up the strips. A month later, empty, I burst into tears, asked myself what was wrong. The answer: Buck Rogers was gone, and life not worth living.” He soon began collecting again and never looked back. Moreover, he learned to never care what the world thought of his “low-brow” tastes. As an adult, he not only kept his collection of childhood strips —24 of his scrapbooks are still intact at the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies in Indianapolis — but he would defend comics at a time when they were neither hip nor valued as art.

Strictly speaking, the first time the comics industry paid off for Bradbury was in 1932, when the future writer was a mere 12 years old. His family had relocated to Tucson, Arizona, and Bradbury found work as an errand boy at a local radio station. A bold child, Bradbury walked to the studio of KGAR and asked for a job. Radio shows like Chandu the Magician were another joy of Bradbury’s childhood, and dozens of his stories would later appear on radio classics like Lights Out and X Minus One.

KGAR employed the boy to empty out ashtrays and fetch food for the men. After two weeks acting as their gofer, the workers asked if he would like to be on the air. He zealously accepted. With other children, he read the adventures of The Katzenjammer Kids and Tailspin Tommy, complete with funny voices and sound effects. KGAR paid him with movie tickets, the films of Lon Chaney and Douglas Fairbanks being another love of his.

While in Tucson, the Bradburys bought their youngest a toy dial-a-letter typewriter as a Christmas gift. From the age of 12, he typed fantastic stories, including his own fan-fiction continuation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. Bradbury’s pre-teen writing is especially impressive when you consider how tedious the dial-a-letter typewriter was: He had to dial in and then type each letter, one at a time.

Fan fiction typed out by a young Ray Bradbury.
Early fan fiction that a young Bradbury typed on his toy dial-a-letter typewriter. (Photo by Andy Hollandbeck, courtesy Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, IUPUI)

As a 17-year-old, after the family had moved to Los Angeles, Ray Bradbury joined a local science fiction club. There he met Ray Harryhausen, Forry Ackerman, and Robert Heinlein, who would become (respectively) a pioneer in stop animation visual effects; an editor, promoter, and literary agent of the science fiction genre; and “the dean of science fiction writers.” Heinlein helped the young writer get his first short story in a professional magazine, Script (the editors paid Bradbury with three free copies).

After the war, he wrote increasingly about space travel, which was becoming more likely and less theoretical as both America and the Soviet Union experimented with rockets. He speculated about interstellar travel in haunting tales like “Kaleidoscope,” “The Rocket Man,” and “I, Mars.” He rose quickly in the world of fantasy and science fiction magazines like Weird Tales and Thrilling Wonder Stories, eventually gaining a reputation as the “Poet of the Pulps.” People took notice of his talent, one of them a young comic book editor named Bill Gaines.

The May/June 1952 issue of Weird Fantasy, one of the many titles published by E.C. (Entertaining Comics), included the Wally Wood-illustrated story “Home to Stay,” which appeared to be based on Bradbury’s “The Rocket Man” and “Kaleidoscope.” Previous issues of E.C. Comics’ The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear showcased plotlines reminiscent of two other Bradbury stories, “The Emissary” and “The Handler.” Friends and colleagues brought these stories to his attention.

Bradbury was always highly defensive of his work. He took action by sending this tactful letter to Gaines:

Just a note to remind you of an oversight. You have not as yet sent on the check for $50 to cover the use of secondary rights on my two stories. … I feel this was probably overlooked in the general confusion of the office work, and look forward to your payment in the near future.

Gaines realized it made sense to pay the writer whose star was rising in the world of science fiction. He replied in kind: “Although we do not agree with your conclusions, … we are enclosing our check for $50, without intending to agree with your contentions.”

This minor spat between Bradbury and Gaines could have ended here if not for the author’s respect for what E.C.’s team of artists had done with his works. Though in his 30s, Bradbury was still the kid from Waukegan with a basement full of newspaper strips, and he was genuinely thrilled to see his stories turned into comics. He ended his initial letter to Gaines with this coda: “PS Have you ever considered doing an entire issue of your magazine based on my stories in DARK CARNIVAL, or my other two books THE ILLUSTRATED MAN and THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES?”

At this point, these were the only three books Bradbury had published, all of them collections of short stories. The prescient writer was calling on Gaines to create something that didn’t yet have a name: the graphic novel.

Gaines passed on illustrating entire Bradbury books, but his company eventually would adapt 27 of his best-known tales, including such classics as “The Lake,” “The Sound of Thunder,” and “There Will Come Soft Rains.” In a way, E.C. Comics did create Bradbury’s graphic novels, as most of these works would later be collected in two paperbacks, The Autumn People (1965) and Tomorrow Midnight (1966). Bradbury routinely wrote letters of praise not just to Gaines but also to the artists — Al Feldstein, Wally Wood, Joe Orlando, Will Elder, and Jack Kamen.

Besides seeing his works drawn by some of the best in the business, Bradbury’s name also appeared on the covers. (“In this issue: E.C.’s adaptation of a story by Ray Bradbury, America’s top horror writer!” He was also America’s “top science-fiction writer” depending on the genre of the comic.) His was the only writer’s name E.C. Comics stamped on its covers.

Shock SuspenStories No. 9 Cover, with story by Ray Bradbury. Credit William M. Gaines Agent, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Bradbury’s was the only writer’s name E.C. Comics stamped on its covers. (Photo by Jennifer Bortel, image courtesy the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, IUPUI. All images associated with E.C. Comics are owned and licensed by William M Gaines Agent, Inc. © 2019, All Rights Reserved.)

But Bradbury soon asked that his name not be so prominently displayed. In the early ’50s, comics were considered at best silly, juvenile, and not worthy of “real writers.” At worst they were thought to poison children’s minds. In January 1953, Bradbury wrote a long, apologetic letter to Gaines, asking that his name be removed from upcoming covers of Entertaining Comics. He painfully explained that this request was purely business, not personal. He had recently “graduated to the slicks,” meaning that he was finally breaking out of the pulps of Weird Tales and Planet Stories and into more respected, better-paying titles like The Saturday Evening Post and the Truman Capote-edited Mademoiselle. His association with low-brow comics would not enhance his reputation.

The first page of the short story, "The April Witch" by Ray Bradbury, as it appeared in the magazine.
Bradbury’s “The April Witch” appeared in the April 5, 1952, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. (SEPS)

The Irritated People

It may seem disappointing that Bradbury, famous for standing up for mass culture and being opposed to censorship, seemingly gave in to peer pressure, but this would be a simplistic way of thinking. Surrendering to the trends of the times would have meant simply abandoning E.C. Comics, considered by many social reformers to be the worst of the worst comic books, with their shocking covers and gory tales of death and dismemberment. Bradbury continued to work with Gaines and his stable of artists until their magazines folded; his asking they take his name off the covers was a compromise. “By all means,” Bradbury wrote, “exploit my stories and my name INSIDE your magazines, all that you wish.” Given that they paid him only $25 per adaptation (about $250 in today’s money), it’s clear that he was not getting much financially from a partnership that could only jeopardize his reputation. In our modern era, when top talents like Stephen King and Margaret Atwood eagerly turn their writing into graphic novels, it needs to be remembered that this was by no means a trendy or even wise move for a writer in conformist 1950s America. Bradbury wanted E.C. Comics to adapt his works simply out of childlike glee.

In the end, Bill Gaines and E.C. Comics found themselves in the crosshairs of one of America’s more hysterical movements: the comic-book burnings. In 1953, respected psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a best-selling book that claimed comics caused juvenile delinquency and homosexuality. In his denunciation of comic books, Wertham claimed, “Special emphasis is given in whole series of illustrations to girls’ buttocks. … Such preoccupations, as we know from psychoanalytic and Rorschach studies, may have a relationship also to early homosexual attitudes.”

By 1954, churches, schools, and respected civic organizations were leading bizarre purges, gathering children in public squares to throw their “filthy” comic books onto bonfires. The scenes must have reminded Bradbury of Fahrenheit 451, which he had just published.

Bradbury never forgot this odd episode of American history. In the introduction to Ray Bradbury Comics #4 (more on that publication in a moment), he wrote: “I was … put upon by professional psychologists and social reformers who … told us that fantasy was bad for children. … One learned professor managed to get quite a few comic books banned for many years.”

In that same issue, he added the following line to his previously published story “Usher II”: “All the tales of terror and fantasy, and for that matter, tales of the future were burned heartlessly. They began by controlling books of cartoons.”

Next Stop, the Stars

Bradbury’s career in comics continued to thrive as the industry itself grew and gained respectability. In 1970, he was asked if he would be willing to put in an appearance at a small convention happening in San Diego. The very first Comic-Con was so small that it fit in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel. Now called Comic-Con International: San Diego, the world’s largest comics convention attracts about 130,000 people annually. Bradbury returned to San Diego’s Comic Con every year until 2010, his declining health making the trip unfeasible. He loved the attention and happily signed autographs.

In 1972, he almost realized his dream of having his own newspaper comic. He commissioned Doug Wildey, who would create the Jonny Quest series, and his lifelong friend painter Joe Mugnaini, cover art designer for many of Bradbury’s books, to illustrate The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury had hoped for a weekly Sunday strip, but unfortunately, no distributors picked it up. Only the L.A. Times ran with it, and then it was only a three-page spread of the story “Mars Is Heaven” in the Times’ West Magazine.

A display recreating Ray Bradbury's office
A re-creation of Ray Bradbury’s office at the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies. (Photo by Jennifer Bortel)

It wasn’t until the 1990s — 50 years after he first suggested book-length adaptations of his stories — that Bradbury saw this vision come true. The Bradbury graphic novels began, oddly, as the result of a video game. He collaborated with writer and software developer Byron Preiss to turn his two best-known works, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, into games. Preiss next gathered a team of artists to publish The Ray Bradbury Chronicles, a limited-edition hardcover series of graphic novels of his best-known stories. This same team developed Ray Bradbury Comics, numbered issues published by the short-lived Topps Comics. While Topps will always be better-known for its trading cards, it did briefly have a comic book division in the mid-’90s, a time when many companies tried their hand at graphic novels. Each issue of Ray Bradbury Comics started with an introduction from Ray himself and included reprints from the E.C. years, plus new adaptations. This being Topps, each edition also came with three trading cards depicting scenes from various Bradbury stories.

A collection of graphic novels called "The Ray Bradbury Chronicles"
In the 1990s, Bradbury finally saw his dream come true. The Ray Bradbury Chronicles were limited-edition, hardcover graphic novels featuring some of his most well-known stories. (Photo by Andy Hollandbeck, courtesy of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies; Copyright © NBM Graphic Novels).

Between 2009 and 2011, Hill & Wang published Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and Something Wicked This Way Comes as graphic novels. That they were published by Hill & Wang shows how much more respected Bradbury and comics had become — this was the same company that printed an illustrated version of the 9/11 report.

In 2010, Bradbury graciously accepted the Comic-Con San Diego Icon Award, granted to people who are “instrumental in creating greater awareness of and appreciation for comic books and related popular art forms.” It was a fitting tribute to a man who did so much to make science fiction and comics the respected art forms they are today, and who stood by comics at a time when many were calling for them to be outright banned.

The world can now see comics the way a little boy in Waukegan once did 90 years ago. As Bradbury once said of comics finally being accepted as art:

And anyway, it appears we are vindicated. The Pop Art people come along, late in the day, to tell us about comic strips and characters. But we send them packing. Our answer is: we knew it all the time! Don’t tell us about what we have already loved and loved well!

—from the introduction to the Autumn People, 1965

Want to learn more about Ray Bradbury’s life and legacy? Read some of his short stories that appeared in the Post, plus our one-on-one interview with the man himself in 2009. Also check out Indiana University’s Center for Ray Bradbury Studies and support the Ray Bradbury Experience Museum in Waukegan, Illinois.

Featured image: All images associated with E.C. Comics are owned and licensed by William M Gaines Agent, Inc. © 2019, All Rights Reserved.

William Shatner on Sci-Fi, Aging, and the Environment

William Shatner has been on a voyage of personal discovery that is bolder and more ambitious than his exploration of the galaxy at the helm of the USS Enterprise. Beyond his legendary role as Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, he’s been a best-selling sci-fi author, singer, prize-winning horseman, commercial spokesman, and director. “Star Trek carved a path to the future, and that continues to inspire me,” he says of his continuing adventures at 86.

Shatner has written more than 40 books. He started with novels based on Star Trek, but his latest is the second in the futuristic Zero G series (co-authored by Jeff Rovin) called Green Space. The hero is 80-year-old FBI agent Sam Lord. Aboard the space station Empyrean, there is a vine designed to reach Earth that starts growing out of control. There is a character who can change gender at will. And to keep the mystery going, there is a rivalry with China and Russia.

Shatner has a delightfully quirky and offbeat sense of humor. So his serious and introspective side can surprise people.

On Science Fiction

Jeanne Wolf: Great scientists respect sci-fi creators like yourself.

William Shatner: Science fiction these days is only half a step ahead of science. Astrophysicists and scientists are working in the same way as science fiction writers. They’re working things out in their imagination based on the slim scientific facts that they know. Hawking imagines a black hole and then discovers the mathematics that support his theory, and new possibilities come to light. That’s the imaginative flair that scientists have to have. For me as a sci-fi writer, spinning those ideas in your mind brings you to the point where you dream in science fiction. Suddenly you think of something in the middle of the night, and it’s so vivid you don’t need to write it down because you know you’ll remember it in the morning. That’s what these books, Zero G, reflect: a vivid imagination.

JW: Having talked to some of the great thinkers of the world and asked yourself for years and years these questions in your mind, have you come up with any answer for why we exist and what the future holds?

WS: The dilemma, I think that would be the right word, is that we poor human beings have no answer even though we want one. There are so many mysteries around us. As a grandfather, I’m frustrated in not being able to impart the knowledge that I have. I can’t get it into the heads of my grandchildren fast enough because they want to look at their phone or play with their siblings. I’ve gotta be on guard that I’m not trying to be the teacher all the time. As a loving grandfather, I want to give them everything that I’ve acquired, but they’re going to have to make it their own way, and sometimes that’s painful. If the reality is that in a few billion years, the Earth will cease to exist and all remnants of anything that was thought of as human will be destroyed, you wouldn’t want to go through the challenge of living and then the pain of dying. I wonder if, at death, I’ll know the answer in an instant or in the moment. We have rose colored glasses, though. “It’s not gonna happen to me,” I say to myself. “I’m 86 and I’m not gonna die.” The biggest blessing of all is my health. The fact that I’m healthy and energetic and strong and my mental capabilities are still there, I don’t want to let go.

JW: I love that you made the hero of these two books 80 years old. It made me wonder if you’d turn down a chance to play Captain Kirk again.

WS: What we did in the books wouldn’t happen in Hollywood. If you’re going to make a movie of this book, they would never cast an 80-year-old man. It’s been 50 years since I first stepped on the set of Star Trek. I don’t know if the audience could take the shock of Captain Kirk at my age. It’s embarrassing sometimes. People, some kids, are thinking they’re going to meet the Captain Kirk they saw on the screen, and they’re looking right through me. It’s like, “It’s me! I’m here.” I used to be driven out of fear and anger, and then it became curiosity, and then it became amazement at the adventures that very few people could have that I have had. I would rather grasp them and maybe not do them as well as I’d like but at least attempt to rather than deny them because I was fearful.

On Aging

JW: Your main character in ZeroG says that as you get older, things have a brighter side and you get more optimistic. Is that true?

WS: Well, yes on certain subjects. Not optimistic that the universe is cold and hard. Whether there’s a benign being at the head of that who will comfort you and take you into her bosom, that gets more frightening.

JW: You are always going and going. You seem happy at this point in your life.

WS: Passion, romance, family, and curiosity are what keep me going. Everything I do is personal. I love to perform. I love the puzzle of putting the pieces of a character together. I love to be in love; I love to write about things that baffle us. Coming up with innovative solutions makes me ecstatic.

On Politics

JW: On Star Trek, part of the idea was trying to make peace in the world. Of course, enemies always come up. In this book, the Russians are still the enemy.

WS: It’s only 50 years in the future.

JW: Do you think they still will be? And if so, does that make the book all the more relevant in terms of the news and all the talk about whether Russia is our friend or out to get us?

WS: We took as the political situation that China and Russia would still be major powers and would be our rivals even in 50 years. Look what happened 50 years ago. After World War II, Germany became a power, China has risen, Russia is still there, everybody is vying for second, third, and fourth, but America is the leading power 50 years later; 50 years is not a long time. The geopolitics of it will be basically the same, we think. In that, everybody is vying for influence and to be able to sell their products.

JW: So the competition isn’t going to stop?

WSThe competition will always be there inasmuch as the caveman fought the other caveman for the rights to kill the pterodactyl.

JW: At the end of the book, two people who start out on opposite sides make a pledge that they won’t use the secrets they found out for any nationalistic gain.

WS: Right. It’s called the Hitler-Stalin pact.

JWSo you’re saying that’s a very nice promise in a book but the competition will always be there and we’re always going to go for our country?

WS: Yes. That’s in our genetic structure: loyalty to the clan. That’s how morality started. That’s how humans have been able to live — by clinging together in packs. The packs, like any other animal group, compete against each other, and when you have weapons of mass destruction, the competition becomes very bad.

On Ecology

JW: The environment is very important to you. What can you say to get that message across? I loved the scientist who said, “We’re going to mess up this planet and then we’re going to go mess up another one.”

WS: I’m starting to work in solar power. I signed an agreement with a company to talk about solar power. The reality is that I have dear friends who are ecologists. It’s really bad. The condition of the world is really bad and I’m a grandfather. You and I will be out of the mess before it becomes really bad, but our grandchildren will not be. It’s for them that we have to stop what we’re doing. The world will not exist the way we want it to if we continue the way we’re going.

I try to do what I can do. I talk to people like yourself to get that message across. If it appears in print or in front of a camera, maybe I can convince one person. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could convince Trump?

JWWe don’t want that to be the only quote, but wouldn’t it be nice! Finish your thought.

WS: Well, the thought is that there is no argument. People who are arguing about climate change are the people who can’t stand that the world is coming to an end.

On Family

JW: You dedicate this book to your wonderful family. When you describe being with your daughters and your grandchildren and your daughters’ husbands, I don’t think people know that family loving side of you.

WS: I was very reluctant to do a cruise that involved fans on the boat — 2,800 fans on a boat with me. So I said to the entrepreneur, “I want to take my whole family.” It’s 14 people. There’s a whole deck that is totally private. So for seven or eight days on a private deck, with the exception of the hours that I had to go perform, I sat with the 14 members of my family from breakfast until sleep time. I sat on the deck, we swam in the pool, we ate the meals, and everybody would go to their rooms or come back. It was a continual flow of family and it was the most beautiful time you can imagine. Being catered to, having to do very little work, and everyone being so happy. It was a wonderful family thing.

JW: Okay. I want to ask about your wife. I’ve been married a long time and when people ask me what makes a happy marriage, I don’t know how to answer. How do you answer why that works and why she’s the right woman for you?

WS: Most of it is her patience with me. (Laughs) But we have a lot of mutual interests besides the children and home and all the arts that go into making a home. A major factor is our obsession with horses and competing with horses and breeding horses and loving horses. It brought us together to begin with, and I’m sure it’s a big factor in keeping us together.

JW: What would you say if I asked you what she does to make you feel loved?

WS: She loves me.

JW: Is that the same way you try to make her feel loved?

WS: Yes. I like to think I do my part, but she’s very good at it.

JW: How do you feel that?

WS: Well, sometimes it’s the look in the eye, it’s the phone call at a precipitous moment, it’s the arms around me — flesh against flesh.

An abridged version of this interview is featured in the September/October 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.