Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review: City on the Edge of Forever (x 2)

I've been a Star Trek fan since September 8th, 1966. And since the day it aired, "The City on the Edge of Forever" has been my favorite episode. You may remember it as "the one where Kirk, Spock, and McCoy go back to the 1930s and have to allow Edith Keeler to die."

Sometime in the 1970s I became aware that the author, Harlan Ellison, was less than pleased with the re-writes that this episode was given prior to production. I think "hatchet job" might be a fair characterization of his attitude toward the screenplay as filmed. He called it a "fatally inept treatment". Since I've been a Harlan Ellison fan only slightly more recently less long than I've been a Star Trek fan, I've long taken Ellison at his word that his original screenplay was much, much better than the filmed version; and that the hatchet job was because it was just too awesome to be filmed on a television budget.

Since then, I've read the original screenplay... both as a screenplay and as IDW's graphic novel treatment. I dug it out again recently, and am moved to write down my thoughts.

EVERYTHING past this point is a spoiler, and I  mean that in every way.
Really. I'm about to ruin this for you.

I'm going to examine the differences between Ellison's work and the Star Trek episode, with a primary focus on the teleplay due to Ellison's hype. I'll be comparing the June 1966 teleplay (the one used as a basis for the IDW graphic novel) and the television episode as aired. Afterward I'll examine some particular points of contention and do my best to back up what I say here in the prologue.

But most of all, when I view this and evaluate it, I will treat it from the point of view of a television story editor in 1966. I cannot evaluate this as a novel, or a feature movie, or a two-hour episode; and I can't grant you carte blanche to make any lasting changes you want in this world. We have to be on the air in weeks to come. I have a budget to keep, I have a series vision to maintain, and I have characters with a history. I have to ask myself, is this a good Star Trek script?

And let's be clear about this, please... despite protestations about artistic vision, etc., this is basically a work made for hire (and I say that in a factual sense more than a legal one. When the original draft was returned to him, Ellison got back the rights to it as well). Every TV episode or movie is a team collaboration of author, directors, cinematographers, property masters, designers, special effects crews, etc.. You have to start there. As much as Ellison would fervently wish it otherwise, the author doesn't get the final say, because it's not an anthology. With the exception of guest appearances, these are not his characters. He's playing in somebody else's sandbox with their characters, their props, and their rules. In this context, it is flatly not enough to be an artist. You also have to be a craftsman who is willing to add to a body of work in a way that fits. It's not an edifice that's required from you, it's a brick.

If I were reviewing Gene Roddenberry's convention appearances, I would stand in Ellison's corner and cheer, but I'm not. I'm not reviewing who told what lies, or whose account is correct. I don't much care about a 50 year old pissing contest. If it's not in the script, I don't much care. I do care about production issues. Is it filmable? Is it affordable? I do care whether the hype is warranted. I'm contrasting two scripts. And before I write another word, I'll eliminate suspense:

Harlan Ellison is wrong.

Given the environment into which this had to be delivered... the world, the characters, the format, the vision... the filmed version is not only better, it's astonishingly better. And Ellison might have done well to keep quiet in the intervening decades and just enjoy the accolades heaped upon it. Ellison's original script might have been mighty fine science fiction, but it's not Star Trek.

Now, you may turn rosy flesh colors and expound on art and decry the creative straightjacket of the television serial format. But the fact is that this creative straightjacket defined the utopian vision that is Star Trek as loved by generations, and ensured that it wouldn't be tarnished by artists who would, in their creative zeal, diminish it with their attempts to explore Man's frailties in a forum intended to herald his transcendence. When the task is to present a vision of a bright and shining future, you don't get bonus points for flinging mud all over it and calling it "real"... not even if you don't like that vision. The problem is, Harlan Ellison forgot who owns the sandbox.

It's not only producers who can shit all over another writer's work.


Here are links to where you can get the original teleplay for yourself.

The Teleplay 
and author's recollections

The Graphic Novel
a very close adaptation of the
teleplay, highly recommended
You can see the episode in its entirety on Hulu or on

And now, summaries compared:

Harlan Ellison's Teleplay Star Trek Episode
Begins with an approach to a planet where the clocks are running backward. Begins with an turbulent approach to a planet from which emanate "ripples in Time"
A drug-dealing crewman (Beckwith) is seen assaulting one of his customers (LeBeque) who had threatened to expose him. Beckwith seals himself in a transporter room and escapes to the planet's surface. After administering a potent drug to Sulu, who was injured as a result of the turbulence, McCoy accidentally injects himself with the cordrazine, and in a mentally deranged state escapes to the planet's surface.
Kirk, Spock, and a landing party that includes Yeoman Rand and five security officers follow. They encounter a gleaming, shimmering "City on the Edge of Forever", watched over by nine-foot-tall Guardians of Forever; man-like, but motionless and resembling statues. They guard the Time Vortex. Kirk, Spock, and a landing party that includes Uhura and three security officers follow. They encounter the ruins of a once-great city, and among the ruins a toroidal construct that identifies itself as the Guardian of Forever. This single object is the source of all the time displacement and is built to encompass the Time Vortex.
As the Guardians demonstrate the Vortex to the landing party, Beckwith watches from a hiding place. Seeing a chance to escape, he dives into the Vortex and back in Time. As The Guardian demonstrates its function to the landing party, the deranged McCoy watches from a hiding place. He dives through the portal and back in Time.
The teleplay now has a long sequence of the landing party returning to the Enterprise, which is no longer the Enterprise but a renegade ship called the Condor (somewhat reminiscent of the Mirror Universe Enterprise). After an initial skirmish, Kirk and Spock beam back down to the surface, leaving Rand and the Redshirts to defend the Transporter Room. The Enterprise is no more.
After some discussion about how what is and is not possible and the mutability of Time, and with last minute words of advice from the Guardians in the form of cryptic clues ("Bring him back. He will seek that which must die and give it life. Stop him," and "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."), the Guardians send Kirk (armed with phaser rifle) and Spock into the past to a point sometime before Beckwith's arrival. Having no other choice, and having estimated McCoy's position in the past based on the fact that Spock was recording images as McCoy jumped through, Kirk and Spock depart to prevent McCoy from changing history. Before leaving, Kirk instructs the crew that should he not return, they should each try in turn. At least they'll be safe in the past.
Kirk and Spock materialize in a crowd and are set upon by a xenophobic mob. Spock "lays about with vigor, sending men sprawling". Kirk fires his phaser rifle at a lamp-post, disintegrating it. They run off into an alley and into a basement. Kirk then leaves to go steal some period clothing. Kirk and Spock materialize on a quiet street and attempt to keep a low profile. They immediately see the need for period clothing, but are caught in the act of theft by a policeman, resulting in the  famous "mechanical rice picker accident" story to explain Spock's ears. They escape into an alley and into a basement.
This is the basement of no place in particular. They're discovered by a janitor and offered jobs. He's not particularly curious. This is the basement of the 21st Street Mission. They're discovered by Edith Keeler and offered jobs. She's insightful and knows immediately that Kirk is lying to her. This impresses Kirk. He admits that they stole the clothes. This impresses Keeler. She hires them despite that in a demonstration of forgiveness.
The teleplay then depicts time spent as the two settle into jobs waiting for Beckwith to arrive. Along with this is a shot of the Transporter Room in the future being defended by Rand and the Redshirts (to lend a sense of "imperativeness" to the actions of the past). The Janitor has gotten Spock a job as a dishwasher, and we endure an altercation where Spock shakes down his racist boss for the proper pay.
On his way home, Spock passes by Edith Keeler on the street as she's addressing a crowd, telling them that sadness isn't real though hunger is. He notes her blue cloak and sunburst pin, and (prompted by narration, so you don't miss it) connects it to the Guardian's cryptic clues. The scene fades out as Spock connects the "key" of the clue to her name: "Keeler". He recalls that the rest of the Guardians' clues state that she must die. Spock then goes home, tells Kirk about it, and then takes Kirk back out to the street to point her out. They then follow her back to her apartment, and Kirk decides to rent an apartment in the same building. As a consequence of working and eating at the Mission, Kirk and Spock hear Keeler talk at length. She insists that the days ahead are worth living for because Man's finest achievements are yet to come, and accurately predicts atomic power, space travel, and a post-scarcity economy... basically, the future of the Star Trek universe. Spock is impressed by her vision. Kirk is very impressed.

Knowing that the duo have nowhere to stay, Keeler mentions that there is a vacant apartment in her building.
Kirk and Spock spend their nights stalking Keeler, peering through her window from an adjacent rooftop. Spock warns Kirk of emotional entanglements. Kirk works and develops an attachment to Keeler while Spock attempts to modify the tricorder to scan for the temporal focal point. In need of delicate tools, Spock "borrows" some. Keeler catches the pair at it and further demonstrates her intuition via questions she poses about their background.
Later, Kirk engineers a "chance meeting", as Spock looms ominously in the background. We see Kirk and Keeler date.
We are then treated to a limbo set dialog between Kirk and Spock that establishes that time has passed and that Kirk and Keeler have been dating. In this lengthy exchange we infer that Kirk loves Edith Keeler. With the aid of his tricorder, Spock determines that Edith Keeler is the temporal focal point, but is not sure how.
Kirk and Keeler date. As they walk past a sub-street-level music shop, Edith would like to hear a song that's being sung. As she starts down the stairs, she stumbles. Kirk reaches out, but holds back and fails to catch her. Keeler falls to the bottom of the stairs, but survives.  Kirk and Keeler date some more. Kirk relates that an alien poet in the future will value the words "Let me help" more than "I love you".
Beckwith appears on the street in full sight of Kirk and Spock. They chase him, and there's a quick tussle, but he gets away, Kirk runs to Keeler and ushers her to safety at home.  They confide their love for one another.

Meanwhile, McCoy, still deranged, appears at night on a nearly deserted street. He has an encounter and is knocked out. The next morning, dazed, he staggers into the Mission, unseen by Spock or Kirk.
There is an exchange in an alley between Kirk and Spock. Spock wonders if the Redshirts are still alive in the Transporter Chamber. He reminds Kirk that Keeler must die. Kirk grabs Spock's arm, revealing a phaser. Kirk realizes that Spock is prepared to use the phaser on him.

Later, Beckwith steals Spock's phaser and runs away.
Spock is able to definitively pinpoint it to Keeler's pacifism delaying the entry of the US into World War II. As a result, the Allies lost. Edith Keeler must die, or the future of Earth is doomed. 

Kirk confides that he loves Edith Keeler.
Kirk bribes a disabled war veteran (Trooper) for information about Beckwith. Keeler nurses McCoy back to health. She notes his anachronistic speech.
Kirk and Keeler have cake and conversation in her apartment. Spock arrives with news from Trooper regarding Beckwith's location. They go to an alley, have another altercation with Beckwith, and Trooper is disintegrated by Beckwith's phaser fire. Beckwith gets away again. Kirk saves Keeler as she stumbles down a stairway. Spock reminds him of the danger of doing so. 

Meanwhile, McCoy is much better, though still speaking anachronistically. Keeler notes that he doesn't know who Clark Gable is.
The next day, after a sermon, Keeler is crossing the street to join Kirk as a beer truck approaches. Beckwith comes out of a building and, not seeing Kirk, rushes to save Keeler. Kirk cannot bring himself to stop Beckwith. He is willing to sacrifice the future of Humanity for his love. Spock runs up and stops Beckwith. Keeler is hit by the truck, and the crew are returned to the future. On the way to a movie, Kirk doesn't know who Clark Gable is either. Keeler remarks that it's just what Dr. McCoy said. Excited, Kirk runs back across the street, where he, Spock, and McCoy are reunited. Keeler moves to join them, walking across the street into the path of the oncoming truck. McCoy rushes to save her, but Kirk holds him back. He sacrifices his love for the future of Humanity.
Back at the Time Vortex, Time has regained its shape. The crew wonder that this is so given the death of Trooper, but the Guardian declares, "He was negligible."

Beckwith escapes AGAIN and jumps into the Vortex AGAIN. This time, the Guardians declare that he has been locked in Time in the heart of an exploding sun. There is a special effect of Beckwith screaming and dying over and over again for all eternity.

Afterward, Spock invites Kirk to Vulcan to rest. The two of them discuss the importance to History of Trooper and Keeler. Kirk reminds us that he loved her, and Spock agrees that no woman had ever been loved so much, because no woman had ever been offered the universe for love.
Back in the future, Time has regained its shape. The Guardian declares, "Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your portal."

Uhura notes that the Enterprise is now in orbit.

Kirk stoically commands, "Let's get the hell out of here."

I've read other reviews that try to convince me of the superiority of Ellison's piece, but I can not agree. As I compare the two... and I encourage you to read them for yourself... I note that there's not a hint of the "fatally inept treatment" of which Ellison complains. To the contrary, the Star Trek script is tighter, more logical, more in keeping with the Star Trek universe, and more accurately portrays the main characters. It provides a stronger focal point, raises the stakes, and engages the audience more. The re-writes were done by Gene Coon, D.C. Fontana, and Gene Roddenberry, and none of it was inept. Ellison's pissed because they weren't all his words. Big deal, they weren't his characters, either, and it wasn't his ship, nor his show.

It is Ellison's treatment... particularly his poor portrayal of Spock... that is lacking. It pains me to say this about a writer I admire -- a veritable giant in his field -- but it's true. And the fact that it's Harlan Ellison compels me to be blunt about  it. 

It's easy to look at this script with 20/20 hindsight. We have the benefit of all three seasons of the original series. But in Ellison's defense, he wrote it in 1966. This was a new show. He had been asked for his contribution early in production. On the other hand, by every credible account, he was late delivering the script, and had ample opportunity to know these characters, and that's even more reason to defer to the production staff (and the actors themselves) regarding such things as characterization. 

Given his difficulty in working with others and his desire for a free hand over property he didn't own, many of Ellison's protestations come off as too strenuous and largely fueled by ego and personal ire at being slighted. At least, that's the impression I get from his book. It's not entirely unwarranted... his anger was fueled by shabby treatment, and he did write a very impressive script. But again, not so appropriate when you consider it for Star Trek. And I think it's clear that he thought Star Trek would be a very different kind of show than it was. Read the book, and particularly his essay from 1975 for some moments of clarity on a subject to which he is too close.

Now let's look at some specific points:

Point: Yeoman Rand

Let's begin by giving kudos to Ellison for one of his most interesting characterizations, and that's Rand. He wrote her as a strong, competent, highly adaptable officer, not at all in the "get me some coffee" mold that we typically saw in the show. It's as if he gave her a field promotion to security chief. It's strange on the one hand that he decided to put all the grunt and technical work in the hands of someone whose very job description is that of an administrative clerk. Still, it would be better than adding Yet Another Character, and it makes a lot of sense if we imagine the position of yeoman to be filled by someone who is on a command career path and who needs the experience of working closely with a captain. Unfortunately, by the time this episode was produced, Rand had been written out of the series, a victim of budget cuts. Nevertheless, the same treatment could have worked for Uhura.

Point: 'Drug'-dealing crewmen.

Ellison seems unacquainted with the post-scarcity economy. I don't entirely buy it myself, but it's the conceit of the series, so the writers must acknowledge it. Beckwith is driven by dreams of avarice. He's a schlub who is in space for a paycheck. This is completely at odds with the in-universe reality that Starfleet crewmembers are there because they want to be. They are graduates of an academy. They are stringently selected. Even when they fail it's often because they aspire to be more than they are (as with Finney in the episode, "Court Martial"). Ellison's premise is out-of-character for the series. It's not that Star Trek never depicted drugs... note "Mudd's Women" and "Mudd's Passion", sanitized though they may be. And as to the discipline aboard a starship, witness Captain Merik's statement in "Bread and Circuses", where he extols a Starfleet crew as being a cut above. Many people get the vision wrong: it's not that the Federation doesn't have a seedy underside... it's that you won't find it aboard the Enterprise.

And yes, I know Ellison prefers the dystopian to the utopian. But if that's the excuse, then he simply wrote this for the wrong show. And yes, it was written early in the history of Star Trek, but if this storyline had gone forward it would have informed later episodes and we'd have had a very different show. I'm glad it was cut.

Point: Spock. 

Ellison's concept of Vulcans and their philosophy entirely missed the mark. I'll present some actual snippets for your perusal: 
Spock whirls on LeBeque. He is as coldly furious as an alien without emotion can get. Menace in his voice.
Uh-huh. Over a crewman who is, to all appearances, quite ill. Logic dictates that Spock would recognize the physical dysfunction and calmly dispatch the crewman to Sickbay without undue stress.
Is this the heritage that you Earthmen brag about? This sickness?
My race never had this. We went to space in peace. Earthmen came with all of this behind them. 
"My race..." Spock is half-human.  By the way, Kirk then states that the Vulcans achieved spaceflight two hundred years after humanity. Spock displays a rather blatant and undisguised disgust that is completely uncharacteristic; particularly since he's well-versed in history, as the script explicitly states. He'd have known about this. This is typical of the hit-and-miss treatment that Ellison gives Spock. Spock's emotionlessness is used as an excuse for an undercurrent of cruelty untempered by gentler emotions rather than being a result of a philosophy of peace. Meanwhile the fact of his averred lack of emotion is called into question by sudden bouts of disgust or anger. Emotionlessness shouldn't mean only the good ones are missing.

The two get into an argument, then...
Spock is about to say something that borders on violence. He starts, stops, resumes his mask of imperturbable alien calm.
Imperturbable. He uses that word. I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

There's more of the same. When the Cook counts out Spock's wages (a dollar short),
"Spock's hand snakes out quickly, and he grabs the Cook's wrist in a grip that is obviously painful." 
No logic or reason. Violence as a first resort.

Later, Kirk says to Spock, "Since when did you become a telepath?" Facepalm. "Dagger of the Mind" had aired seventeen episodes prior.

I'm fairly certain that where the aired episode gets the Vulcan right, it's due to story editor D.C. Fontana, who provided a re-write and who wrote such classic episodes as "Amok Time", "Journey to Babel", and "The Enterprise Incident". The point here is that as much as Ellison would love to have the character say these things, they're wrong. They're not Spock. And to allow it onto the screen would ruin Spock, who by this time had an established character.

Point: Time Travel & False Urgency

Time travel shows are generally bonkers in the first place, but there are some related tropes that make very little sense (by which I mean none whatsoever). One of these is the idea of clocks running backward and people getting younger, all the while having brains that think along the normal arrow of Time. How's that even supposed to work? Why aren't the engines collecting energy instead of expending it? Why aren't photons flying into the light sources? We can't even conceive of such a thing, much less plausibly depict it.

Also, I generally dislike concurrency in the context of some deadline in the far future imposing some urgency on your actions in the past. This is time travel! You have all the time between "then" and "now" to get 'er done. Here we have a case of two travellers who are placed a week or more prior to the target event. Ellison's script includes inserts of scenes in the false future in which Rand and the Redshirts hold off the Renegade hordes in the Transporter Chamber. If we take this at face value, the crew will be stuck in that box without provisions for a week at least, and the Renegades won't have figured out some way to cut through the door. There are so many logical problems with this approach!

First, if you truly do have a time machine, you can simply send your heroes back and then immediately pluck them out from the following week.  Sure, you can give your fictional time machine any rules you like, but keep in mind that this one is already depicted as scanning the historical timeline much faster than real-time. It would be nice to stick with that. So to be consistent, negligible time need be spent awaiting their return. This is the method employed in the aired version, with the result that all of the air time can be spent on the actual problem in the past.

That brings us to a second point, which is that there is no logical urgency outside of the core problem. There's certainly none arising from any event in the future, including the destruction of the Redshirts and the ship they stand in. All will be reset when the timeline is healed. And that makes this entire line of narrative redundant. The ship, the fighting, the holding down of the fort. All of it. It needed to be cut from the shooting script, and it was.

Point: Keeler's "inspirational" speech

In Ellison's version:
"Shadow and reality, my friends. That's the secret of getting through those bad times. Know what is, and what only seems to be. Hunger is real, and so is cold. But sadness is not. And it is the sadness that will kill you, that will ruin you. We all go to bed a little hungry every night, but it is possible to find peace in sleep knowing you have lived another day, and hurt no one doing it." 
"Love is only the absence of hate."
We read that these are "words of profound truth." We're not shown that, nor are we told it by a character. It's declared by Ellison himself in the blocking instructions. D'oh. OK, so we can read that as instruction to Nimoy to be awed by this speech. However, his character Spock might take exception to a definition of "love" that can be achieved by a box of lug nuts.

The problem is, if you're going to be awed, it needs to be by something awe-inspiring. Ellison's version comes across as vague platitudes, or the sort of thing spouted to comedic effect by the Sphinx in Mystery Men. It's just something for her to say while Spock is noticing the clumsy visual clues that were handed to him. They are certainly not the kind of ideas that will change the course of history. While conversing with Kirk, Spock offers up a few guesses as to how she might change history, but there is no cause given more specific than her mere existence.

The episode needed something better. Here is the on-screen version of Keeler's speech:
"I'm not a do-gooder. If you're a bum; if you can't break off with the booze or whatever it is that makes you a bad risk, get out. Now, I don't pretend to tell you how to find happiness and love when every day is just a struggle to survive. But I do insist that you do survive. Because the days and the years ahead are worth living for. One day soon, Man is going to be able to harness incredible energies; maybe even the atom. Energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds in some sort of spaceship. And the men that reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases. They will be able to find a way to give each man hope and a common future, and those are the days worth living for."
The filmed sermon is precise and targeted. It's not just a message of hope addressed to the bums. It is for the home audience. It concisely summarizes what Star Trek is all about. And in so presenting these and other ideas like them, Keeler goes from being vaguely pacifist to being a strong anti-war activist. Spock is able to identify the exact point at which History is affected.

Now, I know that Ellison hates this speech. He says so, and I'm quite sure he'd be greatly disappointed in me for claiming it's better. He claims that he's sure Roddenberry wrote it, and quotes someone as saying it's the kind of "dopey Utopian bullshit" that Gene loved.

Well yeah... that's why this sounds like Star Trek and Ellison's piece doesn't.

Ellison also feels that this ruins this gentle character. Well, maybe it does for him. But for the rest of us, it doesn't. For one thing, it makes sense to say it. This speech is ostensibly addressed to a street crowd in the Great Depression. Are they really going to be interested in some philosophical vaguaries about knowing what's "real" and "shadow" while you stay hungry, or would they respond to a message of hope for a better tomorrow where everyone is well-fed?  Also this version gives Keeler strength. If you can't lay off the booze, get out. Rand doesn't have to be the only strong woman in the cast, and it's more notable in Keeler given her environment. Finally, the change gives the character a precise reason for being the focal point of history... one to which the audience can immediately relate, and one that has consequences severe enough to provide that sense of urgency that Ellison was expecting from the flawed insert cuts.

Ellison's version was vague and narratively weak, so this was a good edit, even if you hate Roddenberry.

Point: Excess.

Ellison's script is chock full of unnecessary characters, starting with Beckwith. As a villain, he's crap. He's there to be the MacGuffin. There he is in the first act, being Evil. For the rest of the show he's just out there, running around. What's he doing? Nothing much. Just lurking, somewhere, out of sight, bein' all Evil 'n' stuff 'n' junk. We are occasionally reminded of his existence when he runs into a scene, dances around silently for a bit, and runs away again. His complete unimportance is highlighted by the fact that he could be and was done away with entirely and the main plot point... Keeler's effect on History and on Kirk... was unaffected. None of his action-packed appearances mattered in the slightest. This is the ultimate redshirt. Not only is he useless fodder, to be killed off in the episode, but we're glad when it happens. Or we would be, if we cared about him... which we don't.

Contrast this with using McCoy (a change Ellison credits to D.C. Fontana, who credits it to Gene Coon). We have a vested interest in getting McCoy back beyond the whole "saving the Universe" thing. And when we see him at the end, we're genuinely glad to have him back. McCoy ruins history in the course of saving lives. He's no villain at all. And you know what...? This whole episode needs no villain. A villain just gets in the way. There are things that are bigger than our petty ideas of good and bad. Sometimes the whole Universe conspires to ruin your life. It's not fair, but it can't be helped. We don't need to undermine the utopian vision to get to the tension and drama.

Been there, done that,
didn't work then either.
Now, Ellison doesn't like the fact that McCoy accidentally injects himself with cordrazine when the ship hits some pretty rough turbulence. That's actually a petty point, and Ellison doth protest too much. His own 2nd Revised Final Draft had McCoy messing around with a dangerous poisonous animal in Sickbay in pretty rough turbulence. Either way it's a stupid thing to do. The thing about the hypo is that the only reason it was out is because it's a tool that McCoy had just used to do what doctors do. He was done in by a speed bump, not incompetence. The shooting script did it without having to devise some way of depicting a convincing poisonous alien and getting it to bite an actor. (Ellison's script suggested Yet Another Dressed-up Dog.) Bottom line, the show's solution is really no dumber than Ellison's, and it was cheaper to shoot. At the end of the day you have to shoot something. And here's the dirty secret that no one has considered: you don't actually need any crisis to start the action. The mission of the Enterprise is to explore strange new worlds. Here's a strange new world. Any member of a landing party could have conceivably stumbled upon a time portal and simply walked or fallen through. Time goes haywire, and that's calamity enough to drive the action practically unchanged. McCoy goes mad mostly because we need a cliffhanger for the Teaser. It's a matter of format.

LeBeque? Unnecessary. He's introduced because he's about to be killed, and you can't do that to a regular. Lose Beckwith, and you can lose LeBeque.

The Orator? Unnecessary. Getting rid of him gave us a lighter moment with the cop; and in a heavy drama you need a light moment or two: mechanical rice pickers... stone knives and bearskins. There's a reason "comic relief" includes the word "relief".  Ellison's script is dark, dark, and more dark. Including conversations in the dark. With a giant helping of darkness at the end. It should come with free wrist-razors in every TV Guide. It would be great on The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. Not Star Trek.

The Janitor? Unnecessary. Getting rid of him put Edith Keeler in the script sooner, with a more prominent role as the director of the Mission and the person who extended forgiveness to our protagonists.

Trooper? Unnecessary. The only real reason for doing the whole, "he was of no inconsequence" schtick is to prove that he is of consequence. Except this person demonstrably isn't. Neither are you or I, probably. No need to rub it in. Trooper might be one of Ellison's favorite characters (and he is a fine character, truth be told), but he could be better employed in another story. I mean that. This guy has a great story, but we've got under an hour to tell a completely different story with its own subtext, and that gives Trooper short shrift. At the end of the episode you have to feel sad for Edith and for Kirk and for Trooper, and of the three we're supposed to feel sad for Trooper because he doesn't matter. Or, more honestly... because he did, and doesn't anymore. He fought at Verdun. It's a fine tale when told with room to explore it, but here it's a distraction at best.

A boatload of nine-foot-tall Guardians? Unnecessary. Only one really talks. The others are window-dressing. When it comes to effects, bigger isn't always better. What's more impressive... a huge bulky bodybuilder, or a nine-year-old kid who kicks the bodybuilder's ass? Hint: it's the kid. Likewise, the stone Guardian doesn't impress us with its size, but with its capability. That said, this device could look like anything... I have no idea why it's a flat Flintstones tire.

Ellison shows us a big shiny city that's never visited. Really. No curiosity. We see it, but dammit, we're not going to go knock on a few doors to see if the everyday folks have anything at all in common with the Guardians. I have great difficulty in explaining the depth of this lack of curiosity. If it's a ruin, it suddenly makes a lot more sense why they're not wandering around taking in the sights. The astonishing part of this is that the revision was a complete accident. The set designer had mis-read "runes" as "ruins" and built accordingly. Nevertheless, I think it was a fortuitous change.

And while we're talking about the city, Kirk uses the title in a line of dialog. In awe, he labels it "Like a city on the edge of forever." This is just a little too much foreshadowing. The characters haven't met the Guardians yet, there is as yet no sign of the Time Vortex. And here's Kirk waxing poetic about eternity. Sappy.

Ellison shows us a re-dressed ship complete with an entirely new crew of Renegade Baddies with speaking parts. For what? To show how the future has changed? And in that future, why would that ship be there? Why would it respond to the beam-up request? And why, having responded, would they chastise Kirk for having come aboard? Didn't they just beam him up? If history diverged in the 1930s, why would the tech be so similar in detail that Rand could easily hack the transporter console? Why do all of this for one scene and a momentary cutaway shot? Why tell all your fans that they would just love the hell out of this if it were only filmed?

Personally, I'd say having no future is a lot worse than having an altered one. That's what Gene Coon contributed, and it was the right choice.

Ellison gives us a hugely expensive and complicated comeuppance for Beckwith... an eternity of pain. One lifetime in imprisonment probably would have satisfied our sense of justice. Beckwith's just the jerk we met for the first time in scene one. He has no history with us, and we don't hate him enough to flay him forever.

Now here's the thing... you can read the script, and it's all quite flowery and poetic, with beautiful language. Arguably, the best passages in it aren't even in the dialog... they're in the stage directions. Whether the words on that page ever get to the viewers' eyeballs is a crapshoot. You could do it in a heartbeat with CGI today (and it would be nice if some fans were allowed to do that, wouldn't it?), but I honestly don't think they add to the story. Let me pose this: imagine a story about a man and a woman, set in exotic locations, with supporting characters galore. They meet, they argue, they break up, they reconcile. Now take the same story and set it in a small town. Is it the same story? Suppose you streamline the supporting characters? The lines intended for a waiter, bartender, and cab driver are all rolled into dialog with a single close friend? How does the story fare?

Ellison's excesses are really nice to have if you can afford them. But they don't add to the story. Consider that though Janice Rand is in Ellison's script, she was no longer in the cast due to budget cuts. Now go back and look at the list of unnecessaries. Tally up the cost of them. Look at whether the effects described would be believable as delivered by 1960s tech. Ask what you would do if you were the showrunner.

Point: Kirk and Keeler

In the Ellison version, the fact that Keeler must die is given to them before they even go back in Time. Spock puts two and two together before Kirk even sees her. It's known to Kirk before he engineers his "chance" meeting. This makes Kirk an idiot for falling in love. Furthermore, he stands there, an indecisive lump, while Spock saves the future of mankind by stopping Beckwith. Kirk takes no active part in his sacrifice.

In the aired script, it's not revealed that Keeler must die until after Kirk falls in love. There's no foreshadowing to blunt the impact of this news for Kirk or for the audience. BAM!

The climactic scene in which Keeler dies is, in my opinion, the reason this episode should have won an Emmy. It was the point in Kirk's life when he believed the needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the one. Kirk took an active part in his sacrifice. The world turns because he was willing to let his heart stop with hers.
McCoy: "You deliberately stopped me, Jim. I could have saved her. Do you know what you just did?"
Spock: "He knows, Doctor. He knows."
Few words, big impact.

In Ellison's script, Kirk would have let the future die. You can whine that "he'd sacrifice everything for her," but that's exactly what makes it bad. It makes Kirk selfish... weak. He deliberately abdicates his role as a hero, and as a result he wouldn't be believable in that role in later episodes. Even if you hate Roddenberry and think he was a sleaze, a stopped clock is right twice a day. At least he understood that if you want to be a hero, then deny yourself.

Point: The Last Line

In Ellison's book, Peter David laments that the ending of the televised episode is, "Business as usual. 'Let’s get the hell out of here.' There’s none of the carryover that would have given the aired episode that extra depth."

Except it's not business as usual. What he ignores here is Shatner's delivery. I'll leave it to you to watch and tell me whether you honestly believe that Kirk's disgust and desire to get as far away from the source of his pain as quickly as possible constitutes "business as usual". Every time I see it I'm impressed at the depth of meaning conveyed in those seven short words.


Obviously, all of this is opinion. Take it or leave it. But I haven't heard or read a cogent argument, and that includes from Harlan Ellison himself, that makes me prefer his inconsistent, out-of-character, unfocused script to that which was aired.

Other than removing the strong part given Rand, there are no changes to the shooting script that were not for the better. That's not to say that even Ellison's weakest works aren't mightily impressive. But I take it as fact that the Star Trek production team took one of Harlan Ellison's weakest works and made it worthy of an Emmy.


  1. I completely agree with your evaluation. I used to be a big Ellison fan, but as I grew older and re-read a lot of his works, and especially his commentaries on them, plus stories about his behavior at conventions, I realized that he was a jerk, and I didn't like him. So I sold off all the books at the local used book store. No big loss.

    I gotta commend you on the wonderful side by side comparison on the original screenplay vs the one which was fixed and filmed. Looks like a lot of work!

    As to Harlan "Enfant Terrible" Ellison- here is a good story about him A friend, the lady who ran the rec center at the Presidio of Monterey and who got me INTO fandom told me once about going up to Frank Kelly Freas (from MAD magazine) at a west cost convention to get his autograph/a small sketch in her intergalactic passport. He was talking to Ellison at the time, so she patiently waited nearby for them to finish. Ellison saw her- she was old enough to be he mother at the time- and rudely and loudly said "No autographs!".
    She looked him squarely in the eyes and said "Why would I want YOUR autograph?" Then, smiling sweetly, handed the booklet to Mr Freas, and said she had long enjoyed his work. She completely ignored the sputtering twit beside him, as Mr Freas tried not to laugh.

    1. One of the things drilled into you by Ellison in the introduction of his book is that, regarding the words spoken in this episode, they're Ellison's words... written by him. I invite anyone to watch the episode and read his teleplay and determine how much of that is true.

  2. In Harlan Ellison's script, Kirk abandons his training and his responsibility to Starfleet, the Federation and the Trillions who lived there for the love of a woman centuries dead.

    I can just imagine Starfleet's response to Kirks report as to what happened (should he be stupid enough to include certain details).

    Captain James T. Kirk, you are hereby relieved of command of the USS Enterprise...