In the London nighttime, it’s easy to imagine Jack the Ripper walking the streets of Whitechapel.
And that’s where I was in August 1998, along with Fangoria Editor Tony Timpone, his wife Marguerite and 60 other tourists. Timpone and I were in England to visit the set of The Mummy, where we got to meet-and-greet Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. But that Friday night, we were taking the Jack the Ripper Walk(ing tour) of the infamous murderer’s home turf, the killing grounds he roamed more than a century before. We saw the alleyways where he may have lurked, the bloody murder sites (or where they once had been) and the pub which served some of his victims (still in business, so we tourists got a beer break there).
It was a truly eerie experience, rendered even spookier by the encroaching fog swirling all about us as the evening wore on, a special effect worthy of Hollywood -- but real. After the Walk ended, the Timpones and I stayed around to chat briefly with tour leader Donald Rumbelow (ex-Scotland Yard cop, author and Ripper expert). Before he disappeared into the fog, we even talked about Star Trek.
Now, I’ve always been fascinated by Jack the Ripper (and the Titanic, the Gunfight at the OK Corral, Custer’s Last Stand, the Alamo, Khartoum, etc.), which is why I took the Walk. I had studied non-fiction books by Rumbelow and other "Ripperologists" (dissecting different theories as to Jack’s identity) as well as novels. In the movies, I’ve seen Sherlock Holmes face Jack the Ripper in A Study in Terror and Murder by Decree. And there was real-life Inspector Frederick Abberline, the police detective who investigated the killings, personified by Michael Caine in TV’s Jack the Ripper and by Johnny Depp in From Hell (a film based on an epic graphic novel by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell). Science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells (Star Trek Generations’ Malcolm McDowell) pursued Jack (Trek V & VI vet David Warner), via time machine, to the 20th Century in Time After Time (directed by Trek II’s Nicholas Meyer). I’ve even read that key Ripper novel The Lodger—and seen three film versions of it.
And, of course, Kirk, Spock, Bones and Scotty knew Jack—or rather, his undying spirit—in The Original Series episode "Wolf in the Fold." Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, scripted that haunting episode, combining a love of SF and his lifelong interest in the Victorian murderer (also on display in Bloch’s much-anthologized short story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" and a later novel, Night of the Ripper). In that 1967 Trek episode, Scotty is accused of bloody murder—Redrum! Redrum!—but (SPOILER ALERT!) he’s not guilty. There are other suspects and red herrings; among them, Hengist portrayed by John Fiedler, Jimmy Doohan’s real-life roommate when both were young actors.
You know Fiedler, don’t you? Essentially, he was typecast, mostly playing two kinds of characters. One was the nervous, mild-mannered guy (Mr. Peterson on The Bob Newhart Show, a juror in 1957’s 12 Angry Men, a That Touch of Mink newlywed). The other? Another species of nebbish, but one whose meek image masked a hardened core of steel (like Lawyer Daggett in 1968’s True Grit, the store exec who bedeviled Santa Claus Art Carney in The Twilight Zone’s "Night of the Meek" or Gordy the Ghoul on Kolchak: The Night Stalker). He was also the longtime voice of Piglet in Disney’s Winnie the Pooh cartoons. Film historian Tom Weaver interviewed Fiedler about those roles (Starlog Yearbook #16, "The Mouse That Roared"). And I saw Fiedler (who died in 2005) on Broadway, playing a cop in a farce for Tony Randall’s short-lived National Actors Theatre.
I had briefly met Fiedler at a previous Trek convention in Pennsylvania. Now, we were in Virginia and I barely fraternized with fellow guests. That’s because I had the busiest social calendar possible—other than on-stage presentations, I spent my time each weekend I attended that twice-annual con with local pals. Usually, I lunched on Saturday with Inge Heyer (who provided advice for the German edition of Starlog, which, without knowing the language, I edited; these days she’s also a Guest Blogger here on StarTrek.com). Other meals were devoted to an ex-girlfriend, two college fraternity brothers and a Starlog cartoonist. Nonetheless, I would share some real red face time with Fiedler.
Came Sunday and it was time to go home. Normally, I would just be dropped off at the last subway station on one of the Washington, D.C. Metro lines, travel in from there to Union Station where I would catch my very favorite mode of travel, Amtrak’s Metroliner (which did the D.C. to NYC run in three delightful hours, while I sat at a table in the train’s Snack Bar Car editing Starlog stories, eating and watching scenery pass by). However, "Curly" (as we’ll call him), a staffer I knew from past cons, was chauffeuring Fiedler to an area airport. Curly would be happy to take me directly to Union Station on the same trek. In fact, since my train left earlier, I would be dropped off first.
Off we went in a black SUV, Fiedler in the back seat, me riding shotgun. And despite being a local, Curly proceeded to get lost in the labyrinthine suburban roads surrounding D.C. Just strangers here ourselves, neither Fiedler nor I knew the way. But I did know one thing: Fiedler, this aged actor noted for portraying the meekest of milquetoasts, was getting angry—and then angrier—at our being lost, both the very concept and the fact it was endangering his trip home.
I could see him, via the rear view mirror of my exaggerated memory, silently steaming, turning red, redder, a study in scarlet in the rear seat. Curly kept apologizing but kept driving, seemingly getting further lost.
For a while, as I remember, I thought Fiedler would blow up, but he kept his temper in check. I tried to take the edge off matters by disingenuously asking him about the differences between Trek cons and the Disneyana fan events where Fiedler autographed pictures of Piglet. I recall volunteering to take a later train and suggested we do the airport first instead, but that scenario was shot down. "We’re almost there!" Curly promised.
Finally, we ended up at Union Station. I grabbed my bag, scrambled out and said farewell to Curly and the grim John Fiedler, still simmering on high, in the back seat. I fled to the NYC-bound Metroliner. What happened next? Did Fiedler make his plane? Did Curly get lost again? Or was bloody murder done? Redjac! Redjac!
I have no memory. I never saw them again.
David McDonnell, "the maitre’d of the science fiction universe," has dished up coverage of pop culture for more than three decades. Beginning his professional career in 1975 with the weekly "Media Report" news column in The Comic Buyers’ Guide, he joined Jim Steranko’s Mediascene Prevue in 1980. After 31 months as Starlog’s Managing Editor (beginning in October 1982), he became that pioneering SF magazine’s longtime Editor (1985-2009). He also served as Editor of its sister publications Comics Scene, Fangoria and Fantasy Worlds. At the same time, he edited numerous licensed movie one-shots (Star Trek and James Bond films, Aliens, Willow, etc.) and three ongoing official magazine series devoted to Trek TV sagas (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager). He apparently still holds this galaxy’s record for editing more magazine pieces about Star Trek in total than any other individual, human or alien.
Copyright 2014 David McDonnell