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Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos (Review)

This June, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins and other interesting objects. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture went through a variety of iterations before settling on the version finally produced – a revised version of In Thy Image, the proposed pilot for the aborted Star Trek: Phase II television series. The story was devised by noted science-fiction author Alan Dean Foster, who had enjoyed a long relationship with the franchise – novelising episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series earlier in the decade. Decades later, he would novelise the JJ Abrams films.

However, Foster was not the only noted science-fiction author who consulted on the development of what would become The Motion Picture. Theodore Sturgeon, who had contributed to the show, was among those contributing. Ray Bradbury, who Roddenberry had pursued to write for the show on several occasions but never did, also pitched. However, one of the more interesting ideas came from Harlan Ellison.

Ellison is a writer who will forever be associated with the franchise. He contributed the original teleplay for The City on the Edge of Forever, but was infamously displeased with how the episode turned out. He and Roddenberry had an acrimonious relationship after that point, with both sides prone to make cutting remarks and accusations across the aisle at one another. Roddenberry was fond to exaggerating or lying about Ellison’s original script, while Ellison was quite candid about his opinion of Roddenberry as a writer.

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So the idea of Harlan Ellison pitching a Star Trek movie is absolutely fascinating. Of course, the idea never quite got off the ground. It was scuppered quite early by a studio executive’s request that Ellison include Mayans in the story, which was set at the dawn of time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Ellison reacted to the less-than-insightful observation in a suitably Ellison-ian fashion. That was the end of his involvement with the project and Star Trek: The Motion Picture evolved in a completely different direction. Which is oddly appropriate, given Ellison’s pitch.

In Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, Ellison offered an abridged version of his pitch for the movie:

It involved going to the end of the known universe to slip back through time to the Pleistocene period when Man first emerged. I postulated a parallel development of reptile life that might have developed into the dominant species on Earth had not mammals prevails. I postulated an alien intelligence from a far galaxy where snakes had become the dominant life form, and a snake-creature who had come to Earth in the Star Trek future, had seen its ancestors wiped out, and who had gone back into the far past of Earth to set up distortions in the time-flow so the reptiles could beat the humans. The Enterprise goes back to set time right, finds the snae-alien, and the human crew is confronted with the moral dilemma of whether it had the right to wipe out an entire life form just to ensure its own territorial imperative in our present and future. The story, in short, spanned all of time and all of space, with a moral and ethical problem.

It sounds quite brilliant and bold – even if it’s easy to imagine how tortured the production process might have been if Ellison got past those early meetings.

Most ideas like that wind up cast off and forgotten about, consigned to a filing cabinet in the back of the author’s memory. The history of Star Trek, like so many other franchises, is filled with “could have beens” and “might have happened” – an almost infinite number of potentialities. Ideas that were never developed, or were abandoned, that would have changed the flow of the franchise irrevocably; pitches lost to the mists of time.

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Ellison’s pitch, however, wasn’t quite lost. In 2013, DC Comics released 7 Against Chaos, an original graphic novel that had been in the pipeline for about a decade. Although, reading it, it seems like it might have been bubbling around inside Harlan Ellison’s head for quite a while longer. The story of a time travel expedition launched to prevent a sinister reptilian alien from re-writing history, 7 Against Chaos seems like Ellison’s classic Star Trek pitch brought to life.

Of course, this isn’t Star Trek. As Ellison has stressed in interviews, the graphic novel draws from a host of influences. At the most basic level, it is Ellison’s riff on The Seven Samurai, only with some science-fiction trappings:

Well, I love Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and, by extension, the remake, The Magnificent Seven. They are two of my favorite films of all time. I always felt, “Wouldn’t it be great to do The Seven Samurai in space?” I was approached by many different film companies, 20 years ago, to do a lot of different films. They would always say, “Well, what do you have?” I would say, “Let’s do The Seven Samurai in space.” Well, they didn’t have the SFX at the time. They just didn’t have the special effects and it would have cost them many, many, many millions of dollars to do. So I had to put it on the backburner for a little while.

It is set in the distant future, but in a future very different from Roddenberry’s ideal. “22nd century humanity’s nature is unchanged,” we’re told, as Ellison takes us into a bleak future where capitalism runs amok, soldiers are genetically-engineered and slavery is a social norm again.

There’s a sense – as with a lot of Ellison’s work – that the author is balancing between two extremes. Mankind can be utterly wonderful, but also completely contemptible. The universe is both beautiful and horrifying. “Mourna sees the open sky the second time in a decade,” the narration assures us. “It’s terrifying.” This is a world where mankind has the power to remake worlds, but where humanity itself seems curiously uninterested in them. “Much of Mars, even post-terraforming, is still unvisited.”

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This is very much in keeping with Ellison’s view of the world. There’s a conflict between everything that mankind can accomplish, and the vices that still weigh down on us. Urr, the mission’s robot, is perfectly willing to kill in self-defence. “Admittedly a breach of the first law by the second,” the team leader, Rourk, notes – referencing Asimov’s Three Laws. Urr justifies his position, pragmatically, “All humanity is flawed. But some are actively cruel. They use and discard aware entities. They create suffering. Those I will not save.”

This is already at odds with Roddenberry’s utopian vision. After all, Ellison came into repeated conflict with Roddenberry over how much cynicism Ellison could bring to The City on the Edge of Forever. Roddenberry objected to the idea of drug-dealing within Starfleet, and also to the idea that James Kirk would be willing sacrifice all of history for the love of one single woman. Ellison – in short – saw the flaws in humanity that Roddenberry refused to acknowledge.

Indeed, some of 7 Against Chaos could be read as a criticism of Roddenberry’s futuristic utopia. At one point, Rourk explains that human civilisation is in decline due to the comfort that it currently enjoys. “The long prosperity, the computer-directed management of human affairs, gave rise to a sort of hubris. Now the false god of certainty has proved to have feet of fragile clay.” The world is not as certain as we might like it to be.

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The cast of 7 Against Chaos is comprised of outsiders. These are people who have been oppressed and persecuted by the system. They are victims of all manner of hatred and prejudice. They see the ugly side of humanity. And yet, despite that, they are the ones assigned to save it. There’s something curiously heart-warming in all that, in the idea that the people who have seen the very worst society has to offer should be those entrusted to protect and preserve it.

There is an endearing optimism to some of Ellison’s writing, albeit buried under layers of cynicism. There are points in 7 Against Chaos where you get a sense that Ellison might have been such an awkward fit for Star Trek after all. Despite the action movie set-up, 7 Against Chaos becomes something of a morality play in its final act. Ellison rejects the idea that two opposing futures need to exist at odds with one another. The future need not be one single absolute point.

As the reptilian villain plots to destroy humanity’s Earth in order to allow a reptilian Earth to rise in its place, one of the team objects. “There’s no need to destroy either,” she argues. “You could have what you want… without a genocide on your conscience.” It doesn’t have to be a choice; there doesn’t have to be a genocide. The future can have limitless possibilities and a multitude of paths.

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This could be read as a rejection of the moral that Roddenberry and his writing staff worked into City on the Edge of Forever. The episode is centred around the idea that there is one absolutely incontrovertibly “right” future and that anything that opposes that future must be demolished. Changing history doesn’t even create an alternate world (as it does in Ellison’s draft); it essentially destroys the entire fabric of the universe.

This is a controversial moral position – the idea that there is only one correct way for the future to unfold, and that anything challenging that idea is dangerous. It’s an idea that Star Trek itself has challenged. Peter David plays with the idea in Imzadi, and the issue is raised again during the Past Tense two-parter on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In the context of 7 Against Chaos, Ellison seems to be revisiting the idea himself.

Naturally, the decision to allow both possible worlds to live is the right one. It is the decision that demonstrates mankind’s capacity to be truly noble and peaceful “The altruistic impulses of mammals disgust me,” the reptilian villain protests. “You would cuddle carrion if it was once aware.” Again, this sort of optimistic humanism would seem to fit quite well with the Star Trek universe, despite the fact that the cynicism surrounding it probably makes it a bitter pill to swallow.

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It’s interesting how 7 Against Chaos feels like a conscious throwback. Ellison himself has argued that he is enjoying a “renaissance” at the moment, and deservedly so. However, the comic feels like it harks back to an earlier era of science-fiction. The wonderful artwork of Paul Chadwick evokes the seventies. In particular, the various high-concept science-fiction elements seem to have been constructed in homage to the wacky seventies sci-fi comics of the legendary Jack Kirby.

The plot itself seems like it harks from an earlier time. It turns out that life on Earth was developed by sufficiently advanced aliens. “Your world has been a battleground for alien seeders of their own kind,” our bad guy explains. This feels like a wonderfully brutal twist on Erich von Däniken’s 1968 novel, Chariots of the Gods. Von Däniken’s ideas were very popular in the late sixties and seventies. (They were even been an influence on Star Trek, despite Roddenberry’s distaste for it.)

Ellison blends that idea of extraterrestrials seeding life on Earth with the idea of competing evolutionary lines. There’s the idea that mankind was just one possible evolutionary outcome from those early years on planet Earth. Again, this is a pseudo-scientific idea that really took root during the seventies, lending 7 Against Chaos something of a nostalgic vibe. The comic reads like a piece of work that was lost at some point in the mid- to late seventies and has only now been recovered.

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The notion of hyper-evolved reptilians only really pushed to the fore of popular culture in the seventies and eighties, with creatures featuring on television shows like V and Land of the Lost. Indeed, the notion of “lizard people” also took off in conspiracy theory circles – imagining alien reptiles or reptiles secretly controlling the world. Indeed, it was even proposed that dinosaurs might have evolved into forms not too dissimilar to the form eventually take by mankind – although the scientific basis of these theories is questionable, at best.

7 Against Chaos often feels like a wonderful throwback to an earlier era of science-fiction. It’s not at all difficult to imagine Ellison’s story as a lost seventies classic. As such, it feels like a much belated companion piece to his pitch for Star Trek. It’s proof that not all lost ideas die, some evolve into distinct and fascinating forms.

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