Jones the Cat and the Litigation of 'Alien' and 'The Terminator'

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Of all the enigmas of Ridley Scott’s magnificent film Alien (1979), one with the capacity to genuinely cause fans and critics to sink into dejected catalepsy or fevered rage is the presence aboard the space vessel Nostromo - and the narrative consequences of - Jones the cat. My purpose here is to close decades of pregnant ire and febrile speculation and explain the perverse, confessional purpose of Jones, and if you’ll excuse my reach, the world Jones made. It is very simple, really: Jones the cat is both an unconscious confession of Hollywood guilt and a feline “fuck you” to Alfred Elton Van Vogt, whose 1939 short story Black Destroyer is widely and legally acknowledged to have been the principal source of the Alien narrative. In Van Vogt’s narrative, the ‘alien’ is an intelligent feline entity discovered in the ruins of an alien civilization. When taken aboard the Darwinian Space Beagle by a survey team, this feline alien savages the crew before it is finally killed in the ship’s “lifeboat”. As Fredric Jameson notes in his collection of essays Archaeologies of the Future, “Van Vogt is not credited and as it turns out he sued the film-makers for plagiarism; the latter settling out of court.” This should put us in mind of perhaps the greatest litigations in the secret history of science fiction: the case of writer Harlan Ellison versus James Cameron’s The Terminator. You might recall the well-founded allegations by Ellison that The Terminator had been plagiarized from two episodes of The Outer Limits that Ellison had written, notably Soldier (September 19, 1964)and to a lesser extent The Demon With A Glass Hand (October 17, 1964). Cameron had allegedly said as much during an interview for Starlog magazine, but that statement was redacted. Ellison successfully sued and his name was added rather quietly to the credits of all subsequent releases of the film. Like the presence of Jones the cat in Alien, there’s an unconscious confession in the case of Harlan Ellison versus James Cameron/Hemdale/Orion Pictures. I am not referring here to the cat sniffing at the remains of the combatants in Soldier, but to the fact that The Terminator’s female protagonist Sarah Connor’s name is contained in two of the actors immediately credited at the close of that Outer Limits episode: Michael An-sara and Tim O’-Connor. To my knowledge, this Freudian evidence was never employed, I don’t remember Ellison citing it, but there it is.  This is a giveaway even beyond the obvious similarities in visuals and plotting.

Such are the small betrayals of the unconscious and the incriminations of calling card references that are too smart, or a compulsive ‘inspiration’ that demands inclusion even without transparency. Alien is a notoriously Freudian narrative, rendering an array of psychoanalytic readings. This makes sense, particularly when considering its source material in Van Vogt’s Black Destroyer, which beneath the bloody conflict of man and alien (in this case the Coeurl, also bearing an ambiguous relation to the French word for heart) is a conflict between Freudianism and ‘Nexialism’, and therefore, between psychiatry and Van Vogt’s fictional precursor (Nexialism) to L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics and Scientology. The alien, the Coeurl, of Black Destroyer feeds on Id, which happens to involve ripping out the throats of, and beheading the crew. Van Vogt’s classic The World of Null-A (published by Astounding Stories magazine 1945 and in hardcover by Ace Books in 1949) is, at its core, a propaganda piece for Alfred Korzybski’s theories of General Semantics, which bear superficial resemblance to the later scams of Dianetics and Scientology with which both Van Vogt and his advocate John W. Campbell Jr. editor of Astounding were involved by degrees. Thus, it is an enjoyable irony that the quiet detail that incriminates the alleged and settled plagiarisms of Alien is the insistent jag of the unconscious, embodied by Jones, the cat. The giveaway of Jones the cat at the heart of Alien is also the victory of Freud over L. Ron Hubbard.

 

 

James Reich – Author of 'I, Judas' (Soft Skull Press, Oct. 2011) and 'Bombshell' (Soft Skull Press, July 2013). Work has also appeared at/in The Rumpus, Bold Type Magazine, Headzine, and others. Also: Musician w/ post-punk band Venus Bogardus. He is a contributing faculty member at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.