Parenthesis: Elyse A. Dickenson’s The Forrester Papers

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.​​.. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.
— The bit of The War of the Worlds you’re
contractually obligated to quote at the beginning of this sort of thing.

The Forrester Papers by Elyse DickensonNo one would have believed in the last years of the twentieth century that our wallets were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences less than man’s and yet as venial as his own; that as fanboys busied themselves about their various concerns, they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps as narrowly as a marketer with a focus group might scrutinize the transient memes that swarm and multiply in a subreddit… Yet in the television production studios of Hollywood,  intellectual property lawyers and brand strategists that are to our brand consciousness as ours is to discount grocery story generics regarded our disposable income with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the 1990s came the great disillusionment.

From where I am sitting as I write this, I can see three starships Enterprise (The inflatable one I mentioned before, a large die cast Franklin Mint model, and an Art Asylum model with cutaway view. The rest are consigned to the room we refer to as an office, but really it’s just where we keep the printer and the toys Dylan isn’t allowed to play with either because they were confiscated for bad behavior or because they’re mine), a woodcut Joker, a vinyl statue of Batman, a set of Mickey Mouse characters dressed up as Star Wars characters, a black Megaforce Power Ranger, a 24-inch-tall Voltron, six sonic screwdrivers (including this one), a hat in the shape of Pikachu’s head, the soundtrack CD to Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, a ten gallon tote filled to the brim with Transformers Rescue Bots, an 18-inch tall Optimus Prime, and a T-shirt bearing the image of Optimus Prime in the style of the poster for the 1982 film TRON (being worn).

Back in the mythical land of the 1980s, the market for merchandising television shows wasn’t quite like it is today. You could get Disney-owned properties stamped onto pretty much any sort of child-sized object you liked, of course. I had a set of Weebles, tin plates and an area rug emblazoned with Winnie-the-Pooh. Kid’s shows, or shows with broad child appeal, had toys — the first licensed toy I remember owning was a Knight Rider dashboard. My fondest youthful memories of television are linked intimately with a number of shows which, if we are being honest, existed only to serve as advertisements for toy lines — The Transformers, of course, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and the complicated case of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. As usual, I will reiterate that these toyetic franchises of the 1980s were by no means devoid of awesomeness, but their best qualities tended to come about not by design, but by the happy accident of promising young writers still honing their skills being told by the producer, “We literally give zero fucks what you write as long as you sell the toys.” Another sort of Great Disillusionment would come in the early 90s when the industry would be invaded by cool and unsympathetic child psychologists, all convinced they’d worked out the secret to appealing to children despite having never apparently met any. They were without fail done on the cheap. They tended to be show-accurate only in a sort of Pablo Picasso kind of way (The Knight Rider dashboard was really quite shockingly lacking in a “Turbo Boost” button). What you didn’t have back then was the notion of an “adult collector” market. I mean, if a grown-up wanted to buy up cheaply made toys at inflated prices and then keep them in their boxes for thirty years, that was cool and all, but no one was going to make highly-detailed show-accurate Cagney and Lacey action figures, and no one was clamoring for a 1:128 scale replica of The Love Boat. And once you got outside the realm of toys, things dropped off pretty quickly. You weren’t going to find a Che Guevarra-style art print of Charlotte Rae as Edna Garrett (A thing which I now command to exist. Get on it, The Internet) or a T-shirt bearing the slogan, “What’chu Talkin ‘Bout, Willis?” in adult sizes. Hardly anything had a home video release, only a handful of things had associated books, and literally nothing at all had a website.

This would all change, eventually. I suspect Japan was an influence, with its Otaku subculture normalizing the idea that it was plausible to market high-end media tie-in products to unmarried men in their mid-twenties who had nothing better to do with their money than to take a little respite from what an unrelenting slog life as a grown-up can be. It became, if not entirely mainstream, at least, no longer a “check his basement for dismembered bodies”-red flag if a grown man owned a 3/4 scale bust of Spider-Man.

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that there isn’t much in the way of official merch associated with War of the Worlds the series. There are, to my knowledge, three things. J.M. Dillard’s novelization of the pilot we have already discussed in detail. Knifesmith Jack Crain designed Ironhorse’s distinctive tomahawk and the unusual knife (Which I have since learned is called a “battle baton”) I pointed out back in “The Second Seal”. He’s been selling replicas since 1989, and they’re available from his website even today. I have a small collection of interesting-looking knives and swords (Part of me wants to get a Klingon Bat’leth, but if I got one, I know how I’d die: freak pizza-cutting accident), but the going rate for the Battle Baton is far beyond what I’d be interested in paying, and I don’t think I could quite cope with owning something that would change my “small collection of interesting-looking knives” into the kind of thing you’re supposed to declare on your insurance policy.

If you wanted something else, something tangible, to do with War of the Worlds, then, you were pretty much going to have to step outside the bounds of properties officially sanctioned and licensed by Paramount. Oh yes, I am talking about fan-works. Fan produced works enjoy a legally ambiguous state due to the inherent vagueness of concepts such as “derived work” and “substantially original” and “transformative” and “fair use”, and anyone who tells you that the legal situation is clear-cut one way or the other is either an idiot or being paid, and that disclaimer you put at the beginning saying that you don’t own the characters has the legal force of just putting a tiny crucifix at the top and asking Jesus to keep you from getting sued. The realpolitik is that what’s legal and what’s “fair use” is largely a function of who’s making the claim and how much money they’re willing to pay a lawyer, and I really don’t want to talk about it more than that because a family friend once had his life ruined due to spurious intellectual property claims by a certain organization which has a blue roof and once served my family raw chicken tenders. Anyway, Paramount has not always been very nice about this sort of thing, but in recent years they’ve been pretty laid back about letting people make all the homebrew Star Trek they want so long as they don’t make money off of it, which is tremendously decent of them.

If, as it seems we are, we’re talking about fanworks in the 1980s, then we’re not talking about Kindle Worlds or fanfiction.net, or probably even USENET. We’re talking about fanzines. Alien, Illustration by John AltomariAnd here, I’d make a joke about you not knowing what that word even means, but given that my readership is like five people, and one of them stopped reading when they realized this article wasn’t about forestry, I’ll let it slide. Amateur press publications date back at least to the 19th century, farther if
you count stuff like Benjamin Franklin self-publishing on the side in his spare time between doing actual publishing, inventing electricity, inventing stoves, inventing democracy, coining aphorisms, and banging French prostitutes. By the 1920s, readers of pulp genre fiction magazines had started collecting, collating and reproducing their letters of praise, constructive criticism, and/or angry incoherent rants on ditto machines to distribute to like-minded fellow readers. They increased in sophistication and professionalism as the technology available grew, though the availability of affordable desktop publishing software wouldn’t end up happening until the rise of the internet began to marginalize such publications. At the height of fanzines, you were still talking about typewritten articles and hand-drawn illustration literally pasted to a literal pasteboard, and if an article said it was “reproduced with permission”, they literally meant that they physically cut it out of the original and photocopied it. Over time, they became clearinghouses for editorials, essays and discussions, basically internet discussion boards in slow motion. In a world where communication was slow and the world less connected, fanzines provided the social glue that made it possible for people with a common niche interest to form communities in spite of geography. Only very, very slowly.

Then in 1967, the Lunarians, organizers of one of the oldest and most prestigious annual science fiction conventions, published Spockanalia, a fanzine dedicated specifically to Star Trek, and, unlike traditional “fan”zines, but more like non-fan-oriented amateur publications, primary consisted of reader-submitted fiction. Also unlike the preponderance of science fiction fanzines, this kind of franchise-specific fanzine wasn’t nearly so much of a sausage party.

The history of women in science fiction fandoms is a long and fascinating subject about which I don’t know nearly enough to go into any sort of detail. I do know enough to say that for all of my childhood and adolescence, there was an unchallenged assumption that something approximating 100% of science fiction fans were white, socially awkward, maladjusted, unkempt man-children who technically came in all shapes and sizes, but mostly “round” and “large”, and that while this stereotype has lost ground, it’s still got enough of a hold on the public consciousness that The Big Bang Theory stays on the air. And this stereotype does a tremendous disservice to the many, many devoted female fans who, just for an example, were largely responsible for Star Trek being a thing that exists today rather than an obscure NBC show that got canceled after its second season. I’m more than a little uncomfortable with the implication that fanfiction-dominated fanzines are a thing which exist because the creation and consumption of fan-art is an inherently female activity, but I’m hardly in a position to talk as a white, socially awkward, unkempt, round, large man whose personal magnum opus consists of a hundred thousand words of literary analysis and criticism about TV shows from the ’80s while I’ve been utterly unable to write that novel my parents have been on my case to crank out for twenty years now.

Which brings us to Elyse A. Dickenson and The Forrester Papers. Elyse Dickenson, according to fanlore.org, she was active in fandoms for Star Wars, Stargate SG-1, Houston Knights, Indiana Jones, and was particularly prolific in Due South fandom. She authored a 1982 filmography of Harrison Ford, and edited the War of the Worlds fanzine The Blackwood Project.

The Forrester Papers is a fan concordance to the first season of War of the Worlds. A “concordance”, sometimes called a “reverse text”, is essentially a highly detailed index, mapping an alphabetized list of all the words in a text to their locations. In the days before modern information retrieval, published concordances were pretty much how you found stuff in a corpus. On its own, the term “concordance” nearly always refers to a comprehensive index to a holy book, particularly the Bible. In 1969, Bjo Trimble compiled a Star Trek Concordance, which, despite its curious omission of Susan Howard’s role in “Day of the Dove”, became the canonical reference book for Star Trek well into the 1980s. The concordance, with won a 1990 Fan Q award, is unabashed about its purpose: “For the reader who is interested in writing fiction based upon this TV series, this publication should prove an invaluable guide for quick reference, and it will also save much wear and tear on the VCR heads.” Published in October, 1989, the introduction alludes to the massive changes that came with the second season, but refrains from judgment, beyond saying that Chaves and Akin will be missed. My research hasn’t turned up and indication of Dickenson’s specific opinions of the second season. There are allusions to a possible second volume, but I see no evidence that this ever came to fruition. The Blackwood Project ended its run in February 1991, the fandom having largely run out of steam.

I got my copy on July 26, 1996 from a fan I met via the Sci-Fi Channel’s old bulletin board. Since I’ve only got a second or third-gen photocopy with some of the pages in the wrong order, I can’t speak to the original print quality; it includes a number of photos from the press kit which didn’t reproduce well, but also some original artwork by Frank and John Altomari which is very nice. The typesetting is decidedly old-fashioned, but clean and professional. It weighs in at 206 pages set in double columns with occasional line decoration that looks very PageMaker, even if the rest of the typesetting doesn’t bear the usual PageMaker hallmarks. The original run was comb-bound with a plastic cover and cost five dollars. The concordance begins with brief history of the War of the Worlds franchise, noting the accuracy of Wells’s geography, then repeats all the well-known urban legends about the radio play, adding an anecdote I hadn’t heard before of then-future TV celebrity Steve Allen and his family being panicked by the broadcast. A few column-inches highlight the various 50th anniversary celebrations of the radio play that took place in Grover’s Mill, which we, of course, got to see firsthand, in fictionalized form, back in “Eye for an Eye”.

The section about the movie gives a brief overview of the earlier aborted attempts by Cecil B. Demille, Alfred Hitchcock and Sergei Einstein, but doesn’t mention Ray Harryhausen’s early attempt. It does however, mention some information I didn’t know, that Barre Lyndon’s first draft of the script revolved not around a scientist and a library science teacher, but rather was a much more violent, action-oriented thriller about a test pilot searching for his missing fiancée. There’s a very brief mention of the Jeff Wayne musical adaptation, but nothing of the WKBW remake.

Alien, Illustration by John AltomariThe overview of the TV series is the longest part of this section, giving a general outline of the characters and premise. Dickenson notes the dearth of merchandise. It’s from this part that I learned about the availability of Ironhorse’s Tomahawk and Battle Baton (It’s remarkably easy to find on the internet once you know what it’s called). She notes, as I did, the changes made between the novel and the televised version, such as Norton’s parentage, Suzanne’s relationship with Sylvia, and Clayton surviving until the events of the pilot (Annoyingly, she provides no specific source for her claim that he had died years earlier in the television canon. I feel like this is true as well, but can’t actually find a concrete source for it). She also notes that the series changes the aliens’ planet of origin, claiming that Mars has been recast not as their home, but a staging area. This claim, too, is curiously unsourced — again, every fan I’ve met is very sure of it, but the only actual dialogue referencing Mars in the show comes from the 1938 militiamen, who are just plain mistaken on the point.

The next section gives biographies of the production staff, including the fun trivia that the wives of Greg Strangis and creative consultant Herbert Wright each had guest roles in the series, in episodes we’ll deal with later.

Biographies of the major actors follow, and two tables of the actors appearing in the show, one organized by character, the other by name. This leads us into the middle section of the book, episode summaries. Included is the original production order of episodes. I don’t think we can read much from that: they clearly weren’t meant to air in the filmed order. But I was surprised that “Goliath is my Name” was the fifth episode filmed (After “The Resurrection”, “Thy Kingdom Come”, and two episodes we haven’t gotten to yet) given how much more even and well put-together it is than the episodes that aired before it.

Illustration by John Altomari

The episode guide, which covers the movie and the first season, runs about a hundred pages, providing plot summaries even more detailed than mine, but without the sight gags. The remainder of the book, about fifty pages, is the concordance proper. The attention to detail is downright pedantic, covering such trivia as the name on the army uniform Harrison wears to break into Kellogue Air Force Base (“Andrews”), or the line item charge code for time on Pacific Tech’s supercomputer (BCL 71149). There are accompanying illustrations of The Cottage, Ironhorse’s weapons, the aliens themselves, and even Gertrude. Also, inexplicably, The Grateful Dead are described as a Heavy Metal band.

The Forrester Papers is a book that’s clearly meant to be read as a reference manual, rather than cover-to-cover. In that regard, it’s very richly detailed, and I have no doubt that it’s the finest secondary source that’s ever been written, and if you’re interested in being able to cross-reference the minutia of the series, it absolutely can’t be beat — it’s pretty much my go-to source for making sure I heard things right or working out which episode a thing happens in.

Which makes it a pity that the only way you’re going to get your hands on one of these some day is more or less the only way you were going to get your hands on this back in 1989 (or, for that matter, 1996): know a guy who already has a copy and give him the price of photocopying and postage. Copies of War of the Worlds fanzines do turn up on ebay from time to time, generally at prices that aren’t quite prohibitive, but will make you stop and think seriously about what you’re doing. Or, as it turns out, go to the Toronto Public Library’s Merril Collection, where they’ve got a copy. I realize that makes this whole article a bit of a dick move. But this entire series owes a debt of gratitude to Elyse Dickenson for this thing, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t give her a shout-out.

And now, for something completely different…

3 thoughts on “Parenthesis: Elyse A. Dickenson’s The Forrester Papers

  1. Pingback: Deconstruction Roundup for October 9, 2015 | The Slacktiverse

  2. Ron Nomura

    I was very much into War of the Worlds in the late 1980s when it originally aired. The lack of fun merchandise from this show didn’t stop me at all
    from collecting… I was able to get both seasons press kits, one season being a huge globe of the earth with the alien hand hanging over the top (like
    in the opening graphic). The second season was little more than a large stylized envelope with the usual photos and information. Jack Crain offered to
    trade me one of his knives for the season one… Ha! no thanks Jack!
    Yeah, not a big fan of the Crain-man! It took him almost two years to make my limited edition Battle Baton and Phoenix Tomahawk and get it to me.
    During the wait, he decided to change the grips on Tomahawk and not chrome the edge, I promptly returned it for another 1-1/2 year wait. I was finally happy around
    1994 but that was a long time ago. Elyse Dickenson was great! Always prompt with returning letters and I was lucky enough to buy an original copy of the Forrester
    Papers – Season 1. There was a smaller run for Season 2 but it sold out before I could order it. Still looking for it.

  3. Ross Post author

    Wow, you scored the first season press kit? I’ve been looking for one of those for years. Seems like every time they come up, the price quickly moves outside what I’m willing to pay (It’s a small comfort that I’m pretty sure the people who bought them thought they were getting something associated with the Tom Cruise movie).

    I had no idea there was a second season concordance. I found one reference in my research to her working on it, but I’d just assumed it got abandoned as the WotW fanzine scene dried up. One more thing for my list of “stuff I should totally get if I ever find one, which I almost certainly will not”

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