The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay
© 1996 Harlan Ellision, with numerous afterwords
In the classic Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, Captain Kirk must chase a mentally disturbed man into Earth’s past to save its future. Based on a teleplay penned by Harlan Ellison, it featured the kind of moral dilemma not seen again until Star Trek Deep Space Nine. Kirk falls in love with a woman of Earth’s past, but if he saves her from a deathly fate, the Federation itself will — through the usual ‘want of a nail’ reckoning — cease to be. The original teleplay was heavily modified before it hit the screen, however, with many hands tinkering with it. Unfortunately for Star Trek, this tinkering wasn’t routine, instead creating and sustaining a long-lived feud between Roddenberry and Ellison. It wasn’t that Roddenberry merely altered the teleplay beyond recognition, Ellison hotly maintains here; it’s that for years Roddenberry and his admirers mis-represented what was done, defamed Ellison’s character and told outright lies about his involvement in the creative process. In this volume, Ellison first presents his side of the story, follows with the original teleplay and several revisions, and concludes with perspectives from other Trek luminaries like Nimoy and D.C. Fontana. For a fan of the original show, this is quite the read. Ellison’s opening apologia bristles with contempt for Star Trek as a franchise, which had ceased to be about boldly imaginative stories and became a bland action-adventure series in space. Provided, however, that the Trek-loving reader is not a quivering bowl of jelly, Ellison’s jabs can be absorbed and the peek into early Star Trek appreciated in full.
Ellison’s original teleplay for the “City on the Edge of Forever” follows the opening essay/rant, and tells a dramatically different story from that portrayed on the screen. Oh, the basics are there — time travel, New York, Edith Keeler — but the motives and executions are different. Speaking of execution, that’s how in the original story Kirk and company came to the planet to begin with. They were looking for a desolate cinder on which they could summarily execute a crewman for murder, peddling drugs, interfering with the affairs of other cultures, and the unauthorized use of a transporter without additional personal present, as required by the Federation OSHA. (Okay, I’m kidding about that last one.) The notion of an Enterprise crewmember selling drugs to innocent third-world space people was too much for Roddenberry to tolerate, never mind that throughout the show other Federation personnel would prove morally flawed. Think of Captain Tracey from the Omega Glory, or the crazy psychologist whose Tracey’s actor also portrayed. In Ellison’s original and in the revisions, the drug-peddling fellow seeks escape from justice by entering the temporal vortex on the planet. Kirk and Spock realize that their dope-peddler has changed history somehow, and thus enter the portal to pursue the plot along familiar lines — until the end.
It is the end that makes City on the Edge of Forever. In the television version, Kirk is forced to make a heroic sacrifice, to allow the woman he loves to meet her deathly fate so that the Federation might be saved. That doesn’t happen in Ellison’s original. Instead, when push come to shove and Kirk sees death hurtling toward Edith, he fails at the last. Like Frodo, his moral stamina is exhausted at the precipice of Mount Doom, and he can’t do it. Only this time, Spockwise Gamgee does the deed for him instead of Smeagol. This is a rare look at Kirk, a man whose pain, love, and yearning can overwhelm Steely Federation Resolve. Roddenberry wanted to make his Starfleet and the Federation perfect — just see the TNG series bible — but not only is that more fantastical than Lord of the Rings, it makes for really boring stories. What is left to work with, god-aliens and the warp core constantly threatening to overload? Fortunately, Deep Space Nine brought back moral quandries with a vengeance — and none surpasses Sisko’s “In the Pale Moonlight”!
There are other minor changes; in his afterword, David Gerrold comments on how Ellison’s set directions were effectively disregarded or mis-read. He imagined an eerie city filled with runes, guarded by ancient creatures who seemed to be set in stone. What was built was…ruins, and a lopsided donut. (One person in the afterword alleges that the set director read the script while enjoying a night out at the bar, interpreted runes and ruins, and bob justman’s your uncle. Seems a bit too tidy for me.) Altogether Ellison writes that he created five different revisions, grooming the story in an attempt to make Roddenberry happy. For instance, he dropped the enterprising drug peddler angle altogether, and has McCoy bitten by an alien creature and subsequently becoming addled. Not satisfied with Ellison, however, other writers were put to work axing this or that, and the doctor becomes a nincompoop who sticks himself with a hypo on accident.
Having read through all this, I can agree that in many ways Ellison’s story was superior, even with some rough spots. In the first teleplay, for instances, he introduces too much too soon: the Guardians of Forever give Kirk the entire plot, telling him that the fugitive is going to try to save someone who is fated for death by the laws of the universe or somesuch, and he needs to rescue them. Later revisions improve this to make it more mystical and dramatic when Kirk has a sudden moment of realization. The drug-dealing plot I thought was rather interesting: I’m most partial to the original series when it reveals its rough roots, when we encounter details that demonstrate how Roddenberry was still establishing what kind of Earth this was he was writing about. The original Starfleet, for instance, had many more details and mores from 1950s military culture, including the death penalty for violating a specific general directive. (See “The Cage”/”The Menagerie”) The narcotic Ellison used wasn’t just some powder or fluid, it used sound to intoxicate the human brain. That’s a concept I’d like to see explored!
In the end, the afterwards by Nimoy, Takei, Koenig, D.C Fontana, and David Gerrold (the latter two being Trek writers) add other brief perspectives and make this a book Trek fans should find considerable interest in. They will be insulted repeatedly in the beginning, but the story that follows is worth experiencing, especially given that it allows us a rare look into the creative process. Ellison’s temper, which DC Fontana wryly notes is as dangerous as an H-bomb, and has a half-life just as long — makes him a prickly fellow to get to know at first, but I’ve read enough of Leonard Nimoy’s frustrations trying to work with Roddenberry to realize the “Great Bird of the Galaxy” wasn’t the ideal visionary he was sometimes made out to be. I don’t know of any Trekkies who hold him in that luminous regard, and that includes the TrekBBS community I’m an active member of. Besides, Isaac Asimov was great friends with Ellison, so he had to have been a good soul under the indignant defensiveness he displays here.
5 stars for interest, 4 for execution. Ellison’s opening essay repeats itself a bit.
I Am Spock, Leonard Nimoy