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Star Trek – The City on the Edge of Forever by Harlan Ellison/Cordwainer Bird (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

The City on the Edge of Forever had a troubled history, not that you’d know it based on what appeared on screen. Like quite a few classic Star Trek episodes (The Enemy Within, The Doomsday Machine, Amok Time), it was developed from a script written by a giant of science-fiction. Harlan Ellison is a respected author with a considerable reputation. However, the version of The City on the Edge of Forever which eventually made it to screen at the end of the show’s first season is radically different from the version Ellison original wrote. “It’s not the vision I had,” Ellison quotes at the start of the paperback edition of his original screenplay, released in 1996.

The book is a fantastic read, and well worth a look for anybody with any interest in Star Trek or Ellison, or even good science-fiction or the craft of television writing. Reading the various drafts, there’s no denying that it is a phenomenal script, as good as the script that eventually went into production. At the same time, it’s also quite clear that it would not have made for as classic a Star Trek episode.

Into the vortex...

Into the vortex…

Ellison has a long and impressive bibliography, writing short stories and novels and television shows. By the time he had been recruited to contribute a script to the new science-fiction television show, the young writer was something of a veteran. A lot of Ellison’s teleplays were for anthology television shows, writing classics like Soldier or Demon With a Glass Hand for The Outer Limits in 1964.

Writing for a television show set within a fixed universe was always going to be a different proposition, especially since Ellison started writing The City on the Edge of Forever in March 1966, six months before The Man Trap would be broadcast. Ellison wasn’t part of the show’s writing team, and although he undoubtedly had a lot of guidance in crafting his story, he was still writing an episode that would air at the end of the first season, written before the first episode went to air. There were bound to be problems.

Takei that!

Takei that!

I’m sympathetic to both sides in Ellison’s long-running dispute with Star Trek. Roddenberry’s decision to repeatedly re-write the script to make it conform with the television show and to cap the budget are part of the reality of writing for a network television show. However, Roddenberry’s conduct was more than a little unfair. As Ellison recounts, Roddenberry forced unpaid re-writes from the author, refused to let Ellison use a pseudonym, both reasonable complaints about the way a science-fiction show treated a writer.

However, the most damning evidence in support of Ellison’s indignation came after the episode had aired. You would think that Roddenberry would be pleased the episode was regarded as a classic, and could be honest about why it was re-written, and acknowledge the fact that a lot of the core concepts came from Ellison. Instead, Roddenberry made all sorts of petty and ridiculous claims about how the original draft featured Scotty dealing drugs and how ridiculously over budget it was.

The way Roddenberry acting towards the episode is not logical...

The way Roddenberry acting towards the episode is not logical…

This seems a little disingenuous, and Roddenberry’s criticism seem a little vicious and hyperbolic. The original script didn’t even feature Scotty, and the most expensive episode of the original series was Roddenberry’s own vanity project, Assignment: Earth. More reasonable are the observations made by Star Trek writer D.C. Fontana in her afterword, where she explains that Ellison’s script simply couldn’t be filmed as it was – good ideas and all. His core concepts were great, and all that was needed was a rejigging.

So, reading the script, I can appreciate it as a work of great science-fiction. It’s a fantastic story. Obviously, it contains the root of the aired version of The City on the Edge of Forever, which is itself a great science fiction idea, but Ellison also throws out a lot of fantastic concepts that had to be trimmed from the final episode. For example, there’s the evil alternate universe version of the Enterprise, the raider ship Condor – something that seems to foreshadow Mirror, Mirror.

Can't see DeForest for the trees...

Can’t see DeForest for the trees…

There’s also the implication that the time vortex itself was constructed by the Ancients so that they could escape from their “dying sun” in a now desolate area of space known as “the Coalsack” into their own past. This would serve as the basis of the third season episode All Our Yesterdays. As Michael Hemmingson wryly notes in Star Trek: A Post-Structural Critique of the Original Series, “it seems Ellison’s first draft was material for three shows.”

While that’s hardly fair to writers Jerome Bixby and Jean Lisette Aroeste (the people responsible for Mirror, Mirror and All Our Yesterdays respectively), it is an astute observation of just how many great ideas are contained within Ellison’s script. While too many ideas is hardly the worst problem in the world, it seems like Ellison struggles to fit them all within the expected four-act structure of the show.

These clothes were a steal...

These clothes were a steal…

Still, there’s an abundance of great ideas here, and many of them are cast off almost in passing, worthy of more expansion and elaboration than a simple four-act forty-five minute script can afford. As mentioned above, two of Ellison’s relatively minor ideas would prove strong enough to sustain their own episodes. While the script is a great read, it’s very hard to imagine that much stuff working on screen in the time allotted, and that’s before you worry about the budget.

Most obviously, for example, the two quick cuts to the Condor make the story more convoluted than it needs to be. It’s a great idea, but it takes our focus away from what should be the centre of the story. It’s easy to imagine the result would have been distracting as the audience tries to balance “what will Kirk and Spock do in the past?” with “what’s going on with that crazy pirate Enterprise?”

Standing Guardian...

Standing Guardian…

Of course, we’ll never actually know how it would have turned out, but it feels like a filmed version of this high-octane script could seem more disjointed or uneven than the script itself. Which is a shame, because there are some great ideas here that are either completely overlooked by the finished episode, or simply left implicit. For example, Ellison’s take on the Guardian (or the Guardians) and makes them seem rather tragic and a little pathetic.

In the final episode, the Guardian seems quite lonely. That’s the only excuse for how talky it is, and how it so casually endangers time itself in order to show off to some complete strangers, because it hasn’t had anybody to talk to in years. I am imagining the Guardian, all alone on a dead world, talking to itself after a few eons of isolation. Ellison makes that character reading relatively explicit. Asked to demonstrate their power, the Guardians explain, “We have nothing to do but to desire to show you.” That, my friends, is how time itself gets destroyed. A bunch of lonely all-powerful beings trying to seem important to a bunch of random people they just met.

It's lucky the Doctor didn't end up in the dock...

It’s lucky the Doctor didn’t end up in the dock…

It goes without saying that Ellison’s take on the Guardians and the time vortex is impressive. Reading Ellison’s prose, it is rather stunning and easy to imagine the awe-inspiring beauty of his concept. It is also, however, quite easy to imagine that vision realised on the limited budgets and special effects of a sixties television show. Again, there’s a sense that Ellison’s script might have been more impressive, but it was less likely to work well on screen.

Of course, reading Ellison’s script is remarkably entertaining, if only because the author has a wonderful gift with words, to the point where you wonder if that magic could even be translated to the screen. The full script is included here, but also treatments of his early drafts, full of evocative prose. For example, the line which confirms the suggestion hinted at in the title, that The City on the Edge of Forever applies as much to the setting of Kirk’s encounter with Keeler as to the ruins on the dead planet. Depending on the draft, Ellison introduces New York/Chicago as “literally, the city on the edge of forever.”

Star spotting...

Star spotting…

There are some ideas which work better on the page than they probably would in live action. I like the suggestion that, when Kirk and Spock arrive in the 1930s, “they have trouble understanding the language (after all, even English alters to indistinguishability in three hundred years).” As Kirk explains, “It’s English, all right, but as difficult for me as, say, the English of Shakespeare’s time would be for them.”

As with a lot of Ellison’s writing, this is a good idea. It would confirm a logical theory that humanity wouldn’t actually be speaking English as we know it in the time period of the show, and that the series has just “translated” their dialogue for viewers. However, it would be very surreal to hear the natives of New York/Chicago speak a rather alien language until Kirk and Spock can wire up their translators to translate our English into their English so the show can translate it to our English.

I do like that Kirk is the breadwinner...

I do like that Kirk is the breadwinner…

There are still some occasional weird moments to be found. For example, stranded in the past, Ellison observes that Kirk and Spock “don’t even understand the medium of exchange.” In a way, Ellison seems to be ahead of Roddenberry’s curve, projecting a money-less utopia more in line with Star Trek: The Next Generation than the original Star Trek, where commerce is very clearly alive and well. However, this feels a little strange given Ellison’s script opened with a drug dealer on board, suggesting that the crew would have been aware of… well… dealing.

Which brings us to one of the script’s most controversial elements, the drug dealing. Being honest, the biggest problem isn’t the drug dealing itself. Given how occasionally cynical the classic Star Trek could be, I have no difficulty imagining a corrupt officer somewhere trying to profit off selling some of the good stuff. Those crazy high-ranking officers and those obfuscating officials can’t exist in isolation. If the Federation can leave its sick and its criminal in the care of Dr. Adams as seen in Dagger of the Mind, it’s hard not too hard to believe an amoral individual could worm their way to a boring position on the Enterprise.

Sulu really got it in the neck...

Sulu really got it in the neck…

That said, the script does seem to suggest that Kirk and his senior staff probably aren’t the most astute observers:

I want know our next putdown planet, and what the security log says about valuable commodities. I’ll want a landfall pass and I’ll want you to cover for me while I trade with the natives.

After the slaughter on Harper V, you’ll do it again? If Kirk finds out –

He won’t find out, will he, LeBeque? He won’t find out, or you’ll never hear these Jewels inside you again. Remember that. I’m coming back from this a rich man, and I’ll never have to go to space again.

Apparently, Beckwith the drug dealer was able to cause a “slaughter” on some alien world without raising any eyebrows. Given that Starfleet has never been the most attentive organisation, it doesn’t seem impossible, but it is hard to believe that not even Spock would investigate the coincidence that the Enterprise’s stay overlapped with what must have seemed like a random atrocity.

Hold on, Jim...

Hold on, Jim…

Still, the drug subplot doesn’t damage Ellison’s story completely. Indeed, it allows Ellison to indulge in some flowery language which suggests that he is at least acknowledging the show’s idealism, when Beckwith’s court martial talks about the grand duty that mankind owes to the cosmos:

The responsibility of those of us who come out from Earth is to come in peace, to spread the best of mankind among the other races of the stars. Those who seek to pervert this responsibility, to profiteer from the contact between races, to fill their own pockets at the expense of understanding and brotherhood, serve a devil that has no name. Richard Beckwith, by the evidence of the court-martial you have been proved guilty of fomenting insurrection on a less-advanced planet, of luring unsophisticated aliens into the vilest sort of narcotics addiction, of smuggling contraband and of murder in cold blood. The sentence of this court, by the articles of any justice applicable to these crimes, is that you be carried to the nearest uninhabited planet – for we would not sully the soil of a settled world by the imposition of your body – and there be put to death in the manner proscribed by the articles of punishment under which this ship goes to space. Do you have anything to say to this court?

Barring the pretty hardcore punishment for drug dealing (death by firing squad and anonymous burial on some distant rock), there’s at least a trace of Star Trek‘s optimistic outlook to be found in the way that Kirk describes “the responsibilities of those of us who come out from Earth.” That said, given that Gene Roddenberry wrote the framing sequence of The Menagerie to include a fairly arbitrary death penalty, perhaps it isn’t too draconian a Starfleet punishment.

Maybe McCoy's not too far wrong when he considers them "assassins"...

Maybe McCoy’s not too far wrong when he considers them “assassins”…

Still, it’s probably telling that the firing squad assigned to kill “a creature not even worth calling a man” was only present in the earliest March draft, and eliminated from the May draft of the script, even while Beckwith and his ultimate fate remained. Still, the problem with the Beckwith subplot isn’t the fact that it involves dealing drugs. The problem is that it makes a previous unseen character, and a rather shallow one at that, the centre of the action. The audience doesn’t know Beckwith. It has no reason to care about him. While giving McCoy an overdose of space!LSD was hardly the most graceful plot point, it is a bit easier to get on board with.

Despite Ellison’s cynicism and his somewhat harder edge, there are hints of Roddenberry’s philosophy shining through his early drafts. While the aired episode connects Edith Keeler’s idealism to the better future, Ellison’s script also points out that mankind has quite a way to overcome its demons. Arriving amid the panic of the Great Depression, Spock is attacked by a racist mob. “There’s one of ’em! There’s one of the foreigners trying to take the bread out of our mouths! Let’s show him how we feel about things!” It’s a reminder that the world has a long way to go before it can become all that it is possible for mankind to be.

Here comes the science!

Here comes the science!

Similarly, the script articulates the idea that mankind must be progressive and forward-looking. The dangers of the time vortex aren’t just the possibilities of damaging time itself. There’s a bigger existential risk caused by allowing people to interact with (and live in) their own past. It leads to stagnation and halts progression. “Man and non-Man must live in their present or their future. But never in their past, save to learn lessons from it.” That’s a pretty essential piece of Star Trek philosophy, right there.

That said, there is one very clear point where Ellison is not writing to the Star Trek mythos, and it’s a problem that severely undermines the script itself. It ties back into the fact that Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever is a fantastic script and story, but it isn’t necessarily a good fit for Star Trek. In order to get that peg to fit in the requisite hole, some of the rough edges had to be sanded down. One of those rough edges is the fact that Ellison doesn’t seem to understand Kirk. Or, rather, that Ellison doesn’t really respect the limitations of Kirk as a protagonist in a weekly television show.

Just to cap it all off...

Just to cap it all off…

In the original script, Kirk can’t bring himself to stop his crewmate from saving Edith Keeler and preserving the time line. He is so deeply in love that he cannot help bring about her death, even indirectly, even with the universe at stake:

Kirk starting toward Beckwith to prevent his act. And Kirk not being able to do it!

He cannot sacrifice her, even for the safety of the universe. But at that moment Spock, who has been out of sight, but nearby, fearing just such an eventuality, steps forward and freezes Beckwith in midstep.

Ellison has it both ways. Kirk is so in love that he can’t let her die, so Spock steps up and saves the universe. This ending might be tragic and work as a once-off, but it damages Kirk as a character. It’s not even his inability to stop her rescue, it’s the fact that he doesn’t act in any way. It would be one thing if he decided to save her himself, or if he stopped Beckwith himself. Unfortunately, this version of Kirk seems so indecisive that he can’t commit to one act or the other and delegates entirely to his supporting cast. In that moment, he stops being a leading character, and the show would likely have done serious damage to Kirk as a central protagonist.

Holding it up...

Holding it up…

It’s a sweet sentiment. Ellison even offers a bit of a sweetner in the final scene, as Spock tries to console Kirk. “No woman was ever loved as much, Jim. Because no woman was ever offered the universe for love.” It’s cheesy, but works to take some of the edge off. It makes it clear that Kirk’s love was genuine and deep, and that stayed his hand. However, it does nothing to help mitigate the fact that Ellison made Kirk look like he was a man who couldn’t handle the weight of the universe on his shoulders. Which is understandable, if this were the last story told featuring Kirk. But we need to tune in (literally next week) to know that Kirk can handled that pressure.

This is, to be fair, the biggest problem with the story and the script, and the one piece that really holds Ellison’s vision back from the show he was writing. The inability of the special effects to match Ellison’s vision can be forgiven, the drugs subplot isn’t too inconsistent with what we’ve seen of life on the Enterprise, but Kirk is the one character who absolutely and positively cannot be used in the way that Ellison wants to use him.

Everybody's important... well, except for that guy...

Everybody’s important… well, except for that guy…

While we’re making criticisms of the otherwise quite fine script, I have to admit that I like the way the final script deals with Edith Keeler a bit more. In the final version, she seems like a random person who just happens to be vitally important in the grand scheme of things. It could have been absolutely anybody else and the knock-on effect would have been similar. Everybody is important in their own way, and disrupting even the life of a person who seems relatively unimportant could have massive consequences.

Of course, this isn’t entirely supported by the aired version of the episode. It turns out that bum who gets vapourised is actually pretty unimportant. It’s kinda depressing to think that he could disappear from history and nobody would notice. Hm, I sense some Gene L. Coon cynicism at play here. Still, the importance ascribed to Keeler seems to suggest that anyone could be important, even if not everyone necessarily is important.

Past perfect...

Past perfect…

In Ellison’s script however, Edith is important because she is a “focal point.” As the Guardians explain:

But in each time-period there is a focal point, the Guardians warns them. Something or someone that is indispensable to the normal flow of time. Something that may be completely innocent or unimportant otherwise, but acts as a catalyst, and if tampered with, will change time permanently.

Keeler’s worth doesn’t stem from any basic goodness, or any raw potential for importance. Instead, Edith is important because she is assigned a value by the Guardians of Forever.

Talk about romantic history!

Talk about romantic history!

It doesn’t help that we’re told her fate immediately. The aired episode peels back the layers cautiously to reveal what is going on. As such, we’re not too on guard when we meet her, because we don’t even know that McCoy screwed up history by saving a life, let alone her life. As such, she is introduced to the audience as a character in her own right, rather than a plot device with some nice characterisation. It makes the reveal devastating, because – like Kirk – we’ve come to like her. If we know her fate ahead of time, we insulate ourselves a bit, and it’s harder to emotionally invest.

Ellison reveals her fate immediately, thanks to exposition from the Guardians. “Blue it will be. Blue as the sky of Old Earth and clear as truth. And the sun will burn on it, and there is the key.” Which sounds like it should be quite tough to work out, but Spock gets it instantly. The Guardians also reveal what Beckwith did to damage history at the start of the story. “He will seek that which must die, and give it life.”

Kirk showing remarkable restraint...

Kirk showing remarkable restraint…

To be fair, Ellison’s approach is perfect valid, and it’s easy to see what the writer was going for. Revealing the Beckwith – a vile drug dealer – saves a life and dooms the universe adds a layer of irony that is implicit in the final version. After all, you’d imagine that saving Edith Keeler could be the best act that Beckwith ever commits, and we should probably be rooting for him. Making Keeler’s fate immediately obvious also lends the episode an even greater sense of fatalistic tragedy. These are valid choices, and the work well enough.

However, the final version of the script works these plot elements in a way that far surpasses “well enough”, drip-feeding the audience information so that the picture slowly becomes clear. We only have all the facts with ten minutes left in the episode, which I’d argue is enough to build a sense of tragedy. Until that point, the aired version of The City on the Edge of Forever trades well in suspense. I can appreciate the original script, but I honestly prefer the way the final version handles Keeler.

Love is not the only drug...

Love is not the only drug…

Even aside from the script, which is pretty impressive on its own terms, the book is also insightful as an exploration of how a television episode evolves from first draft to final product. The plot points dropped and altered from draft to draft are informative, the changes marking a clear evolution from Ellison’s original idea to the final televised episode. For example, the addition of the pacifist movement to the script adds quite a bit of illumination to how Star Trek became increasingly political towards then end of its first year.

D.C. Fontana’s afterword is particularly illuminating, covering what happened after Ellison’s final draft. It’s great to hear she’s still on good terms with Ellison, who tends to hold grudges. She reveals that – once the script left his sight – it did the rounds with the best writers on the show. Both Fontana herself and Gene Coon worked on the script at different points, each adding their own perspectives. I suspect that this blending of various viewpoints is one of the reasons that the finished episode worked so well, incorporating the best of the Star Trek writers’ room.

I wouldn't want to picka  fight with him...

I wouldn’t want to pick a fight with him…

It is always nice to see that you are acquiring a rough feel for how particular writers approach a particular show. Outlining the contributions each writer made to the episode, both Coon and Fontana played to their own strengths, Coon as structural and concept man and Fontana as a strong character writer:

Gene Coon took the first crack at it. As I recall, primarily he came up with the structural changes, eliminating LeBeque and Beckwith and substituting McCoy as the catalyst. The pirates disappeared. In fact, the entire ship vanished because of the tampering with history. Kirk met Edith sooner, and dialogue and some relationships were changed. I believe it was Gene Coon whose delightful sense of humour spawned Kirk’s explanation that Spock’s ears got that way when he had a childhood accident – he got his head caught in a mechanical rice picker.

The Jewels of Sound were gone, of course. I invented cordrazine to put McCoy into a temporary madness. I tried to build the relationship of love between Edith and Kirk gently and meaningfully so her death would be the most wretching personal moment Kirk would ever know. And I inserted the running joke of Spock’s tricorder which grew larger and more complicated with mechanical additions each time it was seen.

It’s very interesting to see how an episode like The City on the Edge of Forever comes together.

Guardian on the Edge of a Nervous Break Down...

Guardian on the Edge of a Nervous Break Down…

I’m going to be honest. As much as I love Ellison’s script (and I do), I think that the final version made for a stronger episode than Ellison’s original pitch ever would. Extended out to a film, I suspect that Ellison’s teleplay could have become a science-fiction classic n its own terms, but it needed to be honed before it could make an exceptional Star Trek episode. That’s not to downplay the importance of Ellison. Despite the oft-quoted factoid that only two of his lines made it to the final cut, a lot of his ideas did, and it is those ideas which are a vital and essential part of what makes The City on the Edge of Forever a classic.

I just think that those ideas did need a little guidance to make it possible to execute them as part of sixties science-fiction series.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

7 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on BURFblog.

  2. His script was made into a graphic novel by IDW. I read it, and I honestly prefer the aired episode as well

    • Yeah, there’s no denying that the version that made it to air fits more comfortably (and more practically) with the franchise around it than Ellison’s script. At the same time, I have tremendous sympathy for the way he was treated, right down to the defamation that he suffered at the hands of Roddenberry crassly and cruelly misrepresenting his script and (in typical Roddenberry fashion) playing up his own contributions.

      • No doubt he was treated like crap. Granted, he himself is no angel, he’s kind of a litigious asshole, but agreed that ol’ Gene gave him the shaft. Regardless, I like the aired version more, which is sacrilege to some, but it’s how I feel. It just has more of an impact. Some of the Ellison version is superior, at least visually, but overall I think we got the best in the end.

  3. I’ve had the good fortune of having had access to a bunch of the draft outlines and working drafts of this script and the story of its evolution is even more complicated that anyone has ever presented. For instance, There’s a draft of the script by story editor Steve Carabatsos that no one ever mentions which introduces a number of elements that others have taken credit for and which is simultaneously more reverent to Ellison while utterly missing the point of the story.

    • Apropos of nothing, talk of an adaptation of something being “simultaneously more reverent … while utterly missing the point of the story” reminded me of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen.

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