- Jerome Bixby's 'The Man from Earth'
As the name above the title might suggest, the greatest strength of Jerome Bixby's The Man from Earth lies in its thought-provoking script. As a screenwriter, Jerome Bixby (1923–98) was best known for penning four memorable episodes of Star Trek (US 1966–9), including 'Mirror, Mirror' (6 October 1967), which [End Page 161] introduced the concept of a parallel universe into the Star Trek universe. His short story 'It's a Good Life' (1953) was adapted by Rod Serling for The Twilight Zone (1959–64; broadcast 3 November 1961), was remade as one of the segments of Twilight Zone: The Movie (Dante, Landis, Miller and Spielberg US 1983) as well as prompting a sequel, 'It's Still a Good Life' (19 February 2003), for The Twilight Zone (Canada/US 2003). Bixby also co-authored the original story that was the basis for the film, Fantastic Voyage (Fleischer US 1966), which curiously was then novelised by sf icon Isaac Asimov.
In The Man from Earth, Bixby's protagonist, John Oldman (David Lee Smith), decides that he must leave his comfortable, tenured position as a history professor at an unnamed university because of a rather singular problem: he does not age, or so he claims. He can only stay in one place for a few years without arousing unwanted suspicions, and so must move on to start a new life every ten years or so. The story takes place over the course of a long afternoon and evening, at an impromptu gathering of Oldman's colleagues – representing a broad range of academic disciplines, from art history to biology and anthropology – who have come to bid him a fond farewell, during which he finally shares with them his big secret: that he has lived for over 10,000 years. Their responses (like those of the viewer, perhaps) range from incredulity ('You must be joking!') to indignation ('How dare you pull such a prank on us?') to genuine curiosity and wonder ('Tell us more!', 'Can this be true?'). Throughout the evening, each tries with little success to poke holes in the punningly named Oldman's story, but gradually some of them come around to a cautious acceptance of his claims.
Although the overly sarcastic Art (William Katt), who is responding to an apparent midlife crisis by dating one of his students and sporting an ill-advised ponytail, might at first seem like an easy cliché, he actually offers an interesting counterpoint to Smith's 10,000-year-old man. If we cringe at the sight of Art cuddling with a 20-year-old co-ed, how awkward must it be for the centuriesold Oldman to be romantically involved with anyone? Aside from such practical questions – which also include, what are John's earliest memories? and when did he realise that he was immortal? – a couple of big surprises are sprung near the end of act two, leading into a rather sudden and mildly confusing resolution. The first and more startling of these revelations comes after Oldman tells of his wanderings 'towards the east', during which he met and studied with the Buddha. This bit of news spurs his colleagues into a rapid series of questions, finally leading to, 'Did you ever meet any figures from the Biblical tradition?' Oldman's hesitation here only serves to make his listeners more insistent that he answer their question, and he reluctantly admits that he was the man who became known as Jesus. However, he is quick to point out that he never claimed [End Page 162] to be divine, and says that his simple teachings (based on Buddhist principles) have often been overlooked in favour of a needlessly complicated mythos that casts the figure of Jesus as a deity.
Having gradually acclimatised the audience to the hard-to-swallow premise of a caveman who has lived into the twenty-first century, Oldman's story takes a giant leap that shakes the very foundations of some worldviews – ironically, by...