The Man from Earth
A few thoughts after wasting away an hour or so of my Bank Holiday morning watching The Man from Earth, a relatively low-budget tale written by one-time Star Trek writer Jerome Bixby:
An impromptu goodbye party for Professor John Oldman becomes a mysterious interrogation after the retiring scholar reveals to his colleagues he has a longer and stranger past than they can imagine.
[Summary: turns out John Oldman is around 14,000 years old and his survival strategy is to disappear every decade or so and start again somewhere well away from his previous life. This time, after he’s ducked out of his farewell party and is packing up his truck, a bunch of his colleagues have turned up at his cabin and he finds himself telling them more of his life story than he’d planned. Including the notion that a few hundred years after he’d spent time learning Buddhist ideas from their source,1 he’d tried to impart some of those ideas in the Middle East under a different name. That didn’t go well, to put it mildly.]
Given that this dates from 2007, it’s crying out for an update/sequel/prequel. Will his anonymity be stripped away in the next few decades as more and more state bureaucracies make it ever harder to operate without official documentation? Or is he secretly planning a move to a society that resists that particular brand of "efficiency?" Or has he seen enough attempts by humans to design a watertight system to be confident that there will always be workarounds and holes to be exploited for those who look closely at the details?
At some level there’s got to be a lot more to John Oldman’s story that didn’t come up in this one night’s conversation around his fireplace. Presumably one of his traits, not displayed directly here, is that he understands that if he’s careful he can wait out lots of aspects of how societies choose to organise themselves, provided he’s willing to adjust his expectations of certain creature comforts and status in society. One suspects that he’s been observing humans and their institutions for long enough to see most cons or deceptions or traps coming from a mile away, so he’d be a trickier one to catch than you’d think, especially if he moves across civilisations over time and chooses his societies carefully.2
I could easily imagine this being a pilot setting up seven seasons and a movie about this portion of the life of John Oldman, except that the producers might not be able to resist turning it into something more serialised and grimdark than it needs to be.3 Modern TV is so in love with the notion of season-long plot arcs and tying together all the pieces by the end that I’m not sure there’d be much of an appetite right now for a show that dipped in and out of our central character’s life over the centuries, especially where one of our central character’s primary strategies is to not live in the same place or with the same group of supporting characters for too long.
The idea would work much better as a series of short stories and novellas. A shame that Jerome Bixby died shortly after this film was made, so barring someone with lots of money being a fan and buying the rights this is probably the last we’ll see of this idea. Unless it turns out that someone in the Star Trek writers’ room is a big Bixby fan and we get a prequel to Requiem for Methuselah that somehow puts our central character in a Starfleet uniform and he then gets spun off into yet another series, or we end up with Picard season 3 having Jean-Luc get fascinated by this Professor Oldman character whose backstory doesn’t quite check out.
- Remember, he’d lived long enough and moved around the world so much that he’d had time to learn at the feet of Siddhattha Gotama. ↩
- One point that a modern take on this script would surely have to address is that it’s very handy that he can pass as a white heterosexual male with an excellent command of English. Is the fact that John Oldman moved to the United States in the 19th century a sign that he saw that he’d be well placed to do well in the American Century to come? There again, he’s lived long enough that he’s seen the world change before and he may just be less bothered than we’d think. He’d been slipping through the cracks of society for long enough not to have to worry too much about which society is top dog, just so long as there’s room in it for someone like him to live an inconspicuous life. In comfort would be best, but his idea of what that requires might not be as similar to our idea of ‘in comfort’ as we’d think. ↩
- I swear, if our putative series’ finale ended up with John Oldman finding his way into the crew of Elon Musk’s first Mars colony to escape the ever-tightening grip of the state’s bureaucracy I’d be so disappointed. ↩