Jerome Bixby: It Was a Good Life
By EMERSON BIXBY
(excerpted from the Introduction to the new Jerome Bixby collection, Mirror, Mirror: Classic SF by the Legendary Star Trek and Fantastic Voyage Writer)
After writing several thousand short stories — science fiction, action, horror, western, comedy, etc. — and working for Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder, Galaxy and other popular pulp magazines, Dad turned his attention to the screen. He continued writing short stories, often adapting them later for television or film, as with “One-Way Street,” which was part of his inspiration for Trek’s “Mirror, Mirror.” He took the theme from "One-Way Street" and astory titled "Mirror, Mirror," story, from which he also lifted the title.
Dad’s first screenplay was a Western titled "The Body at Miller's Creek", which sadly never got filmed. Similar to "The Man From Earth", it took place in one location and was mostly dialogue. A cowboy steps into a saloon during a fierce blizzard, orders a bottle of whisky, and mentions in passing that there's a body beneath the ice at Miller's Creek. Others in the saloon, also trapped by the blizzard, begin to speculate as to whose body it is, and some fear they are responsible for his death. The Sheriff who ran a drifter out of town, the bar-girl who harshly rebuffed an advance, the bartender who threw out a drunk, the rancher who argued with his son, and so on. These people spend most of the film baring their souls, confessing their sins and regrets, while the cowboy just sits and listens, drinking his whiskey. Then next morning, he rides out of town, pausing to look at the body beneath the ice, and realizes it's a scarecrow. A year or two later, “Miller’s Creek” almost became an episode of “Have Gun Will Travel”, with Paladin playing an almost silent role. Dad felt the producers passed on the script because there was no bloodshed, no conflict, and Paladin doesn’t kill anyone.
Dad always loved Westerns. He wrote a few more, none of which saw the light of day. In retrospect, he assumed he was trying too hard, almost attempting to re-write the genre. He never bothered with the familiar plots like railroads coming through, so-and-so's out for revenge, and Indian attacks. Instead, he kept attempting to write a new Western, something other than the run-of-the-mill stories Hollywood kept turning out. Don't get me wrong, Dad loved the good ones. "Red River" was his favorite, followed closely by "The Ox-Bow Incident."
In 1957, after the fourth or fifth rejected Western, Dad decided to try writing science fiction films. The next year, "It! The Terror From Beyond Space", "Curse of the Faceless Man", and "The Lost Missile" hit theaters pretty much back-to-back.
"The Lost Missile" was Dad's first film, which he scripted with John McPartland. On the first day of filming, the director dropped dead of a heart attack, and his son took over. The film was well-received, but it suffered from an overuse of stock footage. There was easily fifteen minutes of it: jets taking off, jets landing, soldiers running, jets taking off, jets landing.
Then came "It! The Terror from Beyond Space", which was Dad's answer to "The Thing." Dad went to his grave praising Kenny Peach, the film's cinematographer, and Paul Blasdel, who designed the creature. He was on the set for much of the filming, and struck up friendships with both Marshal Thompson and Dabbs Grier, who turned out to be an okay chess player.
“It!” was followed by "Curse of the Faceless Man." Now, if anyone out there ever wants to torture me for information, just play Rap music and force me to drink Decaf, and I'll sing. For Dad, just mention "Faceless Man" and he'd beg for mercy. His original script was a love story, essentially "Titanic" with a volcano. Set against the eruption of Vesuvius, a beautiful Princess falls for a lowly Slave, but their undying love can never be. The first half of the script dealt with our star-crossed love-birds hiding their passion in shadow. Then the Volcano erupts, and our hero spends the rest of the script attempting to get his love out of harm's way. Jumping from one building to the next over rivers of lava, outrunning landslides of molten rock, always one step ahead of the villain who wanted the Princess's hand for himself and who now vows that both shall die.
"The Faceless Man" was a good script, but the producers were amused that Dad actually thought they had money to spend on it. Someone, Robert Kent, I believe, came up with the bright idea of losing the love story, and hey, let's make our hero a mummy! Dad never visited the set, and had no idea that his volcanic love story had become a third-rate mummy rip-off. After the premiere, I understand he shared some colorful expletives with Kent and put it all behind him.
In the late '50's, Dad wrote for "Men Into Space", a sci-fi adventure series that attempted to depict the coolness of space travel, minus a budget. He wrote a script titled "Eye in the Sky", about a military satellite that spots the lone survivor of a shipwreck in a lifeboat. "Men Into Space" refused to do the episode; something about Department of Defense not wanting anyone to think we had satellites pointing down at Russians, or, goodness knows, Americans. Dad left the show shortly after.
Dad met a girl in, I believe, late 1958; an interesting precursor of the impending '60s drug-culture. After the divorce a few years later, Dad raised me and my two brothers single-handedly. In case I haven't already said this, my father wasn’t just a multi-talented writer, he was an excellent parent.
When Dad's story "It's a Good Life" was used as an episode of "The Twilight Zone," Dad had originally wanted to do the script himself. It turned out Rod Serling had written the script before purchasing the rights. Dad was so impressed with Serling's script that he didn't change one word.
In 1966, a new show about space travel caught Dad's eye: "Star Trek." After the third episode, Dad sat and wrote a script on spec, "Mother Tiger." In it, the Enterprise encountersa derelict ship with an alien in suspended animation; an exiled criminal from its home world and now the sole survivor of its race, which begins laying hundreds of eggs.
Roddenberry loved the script, but it would have been far too expensive to film, so Dad promptly wrote "Mirror, Mirror," which was by far his best Trek. I'm sure everyone has heard stories of a certain actor on Trek taking lines from other characters. This almost happened in "Mirror, Mirror," where so-and-so wanted this line, that line, and Dad threw a fit. So the director, Marc Daniels, suggests to so-and-so that they call the head of Paramount, and have them call the head of Desilu Productions, and have them call Daniels in the next "two minutes", at which point he'll be happy to alter the script. Daniels then said action and the scene was shot, with no changes to Dad's dialogue. Dad was forever grateful to Daniels for that.
Read more about the making of "Mirror Mirror" and Jerome Bixby's other celebrated Star Trek episodes "By any Other Name," "Requiem for Methuselah" and "Day of the Dove," as well as the saga of Fantastic Voyage, and more, in Emerson Bixby's fascinating account of his father's adventures in Hollywood - and beyond. Plus 9 more great novelettes and short stories for the new Jerome Bixby collection Mirror, Mirror: Classic SF by the Legendary Star Trek and Fantastic Voyage Writer $3.99 for Kindle.
Emerson Bixby is a screenwriter and director whose credits include Together in Heaven, On a Dark and Stormy Night (as by Bix Smithee), INRI, Deception,Last Dance, Bikini Island, and Disturbed.