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

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.

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.

But 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


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