Jul 8 2014 10:00am

The City that Never Sleeps or Goes Away: Harlan Ellison and Star Trek, Again

Leonard Nimoy William Shatner Harlan Ellison City on the Edge of Forever Star Trek

Growing up, I was that annoying kid who was suspicious of The Next Generation like five years after I was potty-trained. Precocious and pretentious about all things Star Trek doesn’t begin to cover it, and when a library book called Inside Star Trek gave me a glimpse of the story behind the story of the most famous classic Trek of them all—“City on the Edge of Forever”—I nodded knowingly. Affectation is a powerful force and when you couple it with little-kid intuition, weird truths can be uncovered. Because even back then, when I first watched Kirk and Spock leap through that giant donut time-machine, something about this adventure felt incomplete.

As an adult writer and critic, I’d never describe myself as a Harlan Ellison fan, but more of a Harlan Ellison apologist. You have to be obsessed with something to be a fan, but you have to deeply love something to be an apologist. I don’t think Harlan Ellison is a genius; I know he is. And I do think, as filmed, “The City on the Edge of Forever” is sucker-covered-hands-down best episode of the original Star Trek, barely beating “A Taste of Armageddon” and “The Devil in the Dark.” And yet, now nearly 50 years later, with numerous Treks behind us, the question still nags: would Ellison’s original script for “The City on the Edge of Forever,” have been better than what ended up on screen?

It’s nearly impossible to put the entire history of this controversy into one sentence, but I’ll try. Here goes: Harlan Ellison’s script was darker than a lot of other Star Treks, Roddenberry apparently disliked it and so it was re-written a lot (notably and secretly by Dorothy Fontana) which caused a lot of legal and emotional problems all of which still resonate through our space-time continuum. You can read a lot about it in various books, essays and interviews, and along the way, you’ll discover that this kind of fiddling with Ellison’s work followed by his trademark backlash is—for better or worse—one defining aspect of his career.

The City on the Edge of Forever Star Trek Harlan Ellison comic But now, as if by a miracle, Harlan Ellison seems to have put aside his long-standing dispute with all-things Star Trek and allowed IDW comics to release a graphic adaptation of his original script for “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Adapted for the comics by IDW’s primary Trek writers Scott and David Tipton, and with beautiful art by J.K. Woodward (who did slick work on the Doctor Who/TNG crossover a few years ago) everything about this release is totally legit. In the debut issue of this limited run (there will be five in all) IDW Trek editor Chris Ryall writes fondly about how this venture was his idea, and one that took some convincing of everybody to go along with. In his words, over time “nos” turned into “hmmmms.”

And from the perspective of any sort of Star Trek fan—hardcover or casual—reading the first issue of this comics adaptation of this famous Star Trek story will probably elicit a similar reaction: hmmmm. The differences between the filmed version of this story and the Ellison original are as mentioned, no secret. In the TV episode we all remember Bones gets accidentally injected with an overdose of a medical drug called cordrazine, which turns him temporarily into a raving maniac. But in Ellison’s draft, the madman isn’t our beloved Bones, but instead a jerky crewmember named Beckwith who is peddling narcotics in the shadows of the Enterprise. This is the guy who beams down to the surface of the Time-Planet, the one that contains a portal to the past. And Beckwith’s not on drugs, but instead is worried he’s going to get ratted out to Captain Kirk by one of his space-junkies.

The repercussions of a character stepping through the time portal—in both versions—creates an alternate timeline. But in our famous filmed version, that just means in the Enterprise doesn’t exist. But in Ellison’s, there’s a straight up pirate-bizzarro-world Enterprise in the place of the nice guys. Because only the first issue has been released, we’re not quite there yet, and so far the set-up of Beckwith jumping into the time-portal is all we’ve seen. Here, the famous time-portal isn’t a talking donut, but rather, a bunch of made-of-stone-wise-men, who will sort of remind you of the knight who is guarding the holy grail in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. These guys are the literal “guardians of forever,” and live in a city, which is metaphorically (and literally?), on the edge of forever.

The City on the Edge of Foreever comic Harlan Ellison Star TrekBut is it better than the “real” version? Or is this the “real” version? Well, it’s different. Because of how I feel about Ellison and his work, I have to say I think the idea of having a straight-up drug-dealer on the Enterprise is brave and sort of exactly the kind of darkness Star Trek needed occasionally, and often lacks. Infamously, the existence of Beckwith and his druggie ways lead to the erroneous rumor that Ellison’s script featured “Scotty selling drugs.” What’s funny though, is that it would kind of be better if it was an established character or crewmember selling the drugs. As much as I appreciate what is going down here, I have to admit, Beckwith comes across a little like an inverse Mary Sue. He’s conveniently a very Harlan Ellison-character, existing in a universe where he doesn’t seem to fit. Of course, this isn’t fair at all, because at that time, the Star Trek universe and its aesthetic was still being defined, and Ellison’s script—modified or not—helped to shape that.

Dramatically, having a regular Star Trek character as the central cause of all the time-travel antics in this story seems to make more sense to me than an outsider, jerky character like Beckwith. But, the Beckwith character is a little more realistic objectively. And that’s where I think my little-kid intuition kicks back in. There’s something about the original Star Trek, something that tried to sell you on a bill-of-goods that everyone in Star Fleet were great, wonderful people. Even when you’re young it seems fake. Of course there would be criminals and weirdoes living on the Enterprise. The question of whether the audience could have handled it probably has a lot to do with the actor who might have played Beckwith. For some reason, I can’t help but picture William Windom, who played Matt Decker in second season episode “The Doomsday Machine.” An unstable Star Fleet officer who accidentally changes the past could have worked, even if it wasn’t one of our core characters.

For now though, as Ellison has mentioned in regard to this project: “let the work speak for itself.” As IDW’s “City on the Edge of Forever” unfolds, we’ll all get to see how we like the inverse-changes, and what we make of Sister Edith Keller and the evil version of the Enterprise. Appropriately or not, reading this adaptation of Ellison’s teleplay can’t help but make you feel like you’re looking at a universe-altering pivot-point, not dissimilar to the history-changing schism presented by the plot itself. If this teleplay had been presented to audiences this way, would Star Trek as we know it have changed? Or would the time-line proceeded about the way we remember it?

Because we can’t slip through the Guardian of Forever itself, that alternate universe only exists in our minds and now, thankfully, on these pages.

Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.


1. JoeNotCharles
Anyone else find it ironic that Captain Kirk is grabbing Harlan's boob?
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
Ordered and now looking forward to this. Should be interesting. Thanks Ryan!
3. NickM
I read the issue and will say, I found it a bit disjointed. Also, 48 years later, it is nice to say this would have been a better version if filmed, but you also have to look at the budget for the show (there is no way the Guardians and the planet could have been filmed) and also the censors from NBC. Remember, this was a time when showing a belly button was not allowed, they were not going to allow a drug dealer to be a member of the Enterprise.
Also, if you read the first issue, there are several characters (Beckwith, the crewmember who threatened to narc on him, etc) and that would have also been cost prohibitive for them, with so many speakign parts.
In the end, when I finished the first issue of this - and make no mistake, I think this is pretty freaking cool and hope we can see more issues where they show the episodes before they were reritten to fit the constructs of 1966-68 television - I was underwhelmed and think the "my version was so much better" is.....wrong. But we will see if I still think that as the issues hit the street.
4. Ragnarredbeard
@1 JoeNotCharles,

Not only that, but Harlan looks decidedly uncomfortable in that picture. Like he didn't want to be there.
5. Lsana
About the "alternate Enterprise": what I remember from Ellison's essay was that his original script has the Enterprise gone, and the "our beloved crew have become space pirates" bit was added in a later draft, supposedly to satisfy Roddenberry's demand that there be some sort of danger to the ship. Ellison didn't particularly like it, thought it distracted from the love story, and wasn't devestated to see it go.

However, that's my memory from one TV Guide essay I read 20 years ago. If someone more an expert on the subject tells me different, I won't disbelive, but I'm curious if anyone can clear up the discrepancy.
Sky Thibedeau
6. SkylarkThibedeau
You never see the reeducation camps run by the Federation where people who don't quite fit Humanist Perfection are sent. The closest we get are the escapees Harry Mudd and Cyrano Jones and Beckwith. The 'Enterprise' logs of the incident were redacted to remove all reference to Ensign Beckwith and his drug dealing and replace it a false backstory of an accidental drug overdose being the cause if the space time disruption. The Department of Temporal Investigations know the real story as it is presented here.

Harry Mudd's capture by the Ferenghi and his violation of the Prime Directive by becoming Grand Nagus is another case that was completely removed from the archives and we'd best not discuss the capture and trial of Cyrano Jones by the Klingons.
Thomas Thatcher
7. StrongDreams
I don't think it would work in any TV series where the main cast is ostensibly Lawful Good to have a main character suddenly dealing drugs. Beyond the basic lack of motivation and set up, you either have to kick them off the show at that point, or have it all be a dream/alien influence/Not Their Fault and sledgehammer the reset button.

In modern TV you could have a secondary character show up as background a couple of times (Ensign holding PADD, transporter chief), then play a guest starring role for one episode, but that wasn't done in the 60s. (Or how about this--Lt. Yar is caught handing out illegal stimulants to her security staff, resulting in a botched assignment, someone dies, she gets court-martialed, then dies in a self-sacrificial attempt to make everything right.)

As far as actors to play Beckwith, how about the guy who played washed-up drunk Lt. Cmdr. Ben Finney? Star Fleet did have a few screwups, even in Roddenbery's prime.
rob mcCathy
8. roblewmac
nothing i've read about this script sounds like an hour of 1960s tv with a 60s tv budget.
j p
9. sps49
White Wolf released his original story years ago, and Ellison could not understand that playing in someone else's milieu is a constraint on what you can write.

Much of his written descriptions are difficult (impossible) to convey on TV. Sure, it was a good story. It wasn't Star Trek. And the televised version is better.

I am surprised that Ellison is apparently passing up another opportunity to talk smack publicly about Roddenberry after the latter's passing.
Jenny Thrash
10. Sihaya
Honestly, whenever I hear Ellison's name, all I can think is, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." It makes me smile.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment