Thursday, May 28, 2009

Star Trek--"The City on the Edge of Forever"

First things first: I am ahuge Harlan Ellison fan. I first noticed him when he had a segment on Sci Fi Buzz back in the glory days of the Sci Fi Channel before it became a place to dump cancelled NBC Universal shows and bad straight to DVD movies. I loved his wit and attitude. I have tried to put as much of it as I can into the Eye. Over the years, I had seen his episodes of The Outer Limits, read some of his comics, and had seen this episode before I knew who he was, but I developed a newfound appreciation for him that compelled me to scour used bookstores to find his written work. When it comes to ellison, I am partisan, which is why much of this review is going to talk about the decades old controversy surrounding the script.

But let us talk about the episode itself. “The City on the Edge of Forever” is the most unique episode of TOS. The drama is the best of the series because the ethical dilemma is not as black and white as the moral questions usually are. Such would be the caswe even if kirk had not fallen in love with Edith Keeler. That element just adds an extra pain to it. Kirk has to let an innocent woman die in order to preserve a history in which 46 million people are supposed to die in world War II. There is no good option there.

I like the exploration of the significanse of an individual. “tmorrow is Yesterday” played with the idea, but there was an underlying humor to to trying to erase all evidence of the Enterprise’s presence in the past that the seriousness of the consequences of tampering with history were lost. “The City on the Edge of Forever” corrects that error beautifully. Through doomed, good hearted Edith Keeler we learn that even the best of intentions can cause unintended harm. We, wedo hurt other people by our mere existence, not just our more proactive moments. Cynical, but a fact of life.

I also think Kirk’s romance with keeler is the only meaningful one of the series. There are a couple of subsequent cases one can argue--’The Paradise Syndrome” comes to mind-- but they just do not resonate quite like Keeler. I will confess it might be a personal touch that pangs me. But I would rather not go into that. Suffice to say, sometimes an episode of television can be like a song. The writer may have his own ideas about its deeper meaning, but once it is out there, it is yours to feel about it as you please.

In an earlier review, I said the moment an agonized kirk clutches McCoy as Keeler is fatally struck by the car is the most painful moment in TOS. It bears repeating here. I cannot think of any other moments as heart wrenching for me.

With that out of the way, the best means I can talk about Ellison's dispute over the original script is to comment on the 1996 book he wrote about it. The book is trademark Ellison fury, searing every page.

For more than forty years now, controversy has raged over the fan favorite TOS episode, "City on the Edge of Forever." Here, Ellison gives us the story of his script, how it was written, then rewritten numerous times, finally to the point where he disavowed it, trying to put his nom de plume, Cordwainer Bird as author.

The book, which starts as an interesting piece of, if not Trekker lore, television behind the scenes, quickly becomes a (likely justified) character assassination of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Plenty of evidence is presented to prove the claims of dishonesty by Roddenberry against not only Ellison, but other creators. "City" is not the first tome to assert Roddenberry's credit stealing or lack of writing ability (although it has never been put so succinctly as when Ellison says Roddenberry, "couldn't write worth sour owl poop.")

In three separate interviews printed here, Roddenberry claims that Ellison's script was unfilmable for two reasons. One, he had several crewmen acting out of character and two he was over budget. Taking these one at a time, Roddenberry was actually quoted as saying, "He [Ellison] had my Scotty dealing drugs!" Scotty does not appear on the script anywhere. Several times Roddenberry had apologized for his mistake, but he never seemed to stop making it.

Although Scotty was not dealing drugs, another character created just for this episode, Lt. Beckwith, is dealing in Jewels of Sound, a sonic narcotic. Roddenberry objected to having any of his perfect crew showing such poor character. Perhaps this was Roddenberry's complaint, and not defamation of Scotty, but Starfleet officers in general, whom Roddenberry never wanted to show with conflicts or flaws.

As for the second issue, budget reports reprinted here show Ellison did go over budget $66,000, which is a negotiable amount. Ellison proved he was willing to rewrite to accommodate expenses; he did so three times without pay, something that is against the rules for producers to ask writer's to do, according to the Writer's Guild of America. Roddenberry's claim of being $300,000 over budget is ludicrous and, I would hope, just a result of bad memory and not a willful lie.

No one else is safe from Ellison's legendary wrath, either. He recounts an incident with William Shatner, who had requested to be the absolute first to read Ellison's completed script for "City". Ellison invited Shatner into his home (after Shatner wipes out his motorcycle showboating in his driveway.) to examine the script. And examine it he does-for several hours. Thus we had the first request for a rewrite, because Shatner had counted the lines he had, and realized that Leonard Nimoy had a handful more. Such were the egos involved here.

What exasperates the point to almost unbearable levels is that the original script, unfilmed and owned exclusively by Ellison, won a Writer's Guild of America award, while the filmed version ("a thalidomide baby version of my script", according to Ellison) won a Hugo in 1967 for Best Dramatic Presentation, the only teleplay ever to do so. Ellison accepted the Hugo award in "memory of the script they butchered, and in respect to those parts of it that had the vitality to shine through the evisceration."

One is compelled to ask, then: Is the script really that great? In a word, yes. As a piece of writing, the original "City on the Edge of Forever" is a touching story. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of a legless World War I veteran named Trooper who becomes a tragic hero, so important and yet, unimportant. He is a very poignant character I would have liked to have seen added to Trek lore.

Ellison's original script has an officer, Beckwith, dealing in drugs and then escaping to a nearby planet. Beaming down after him, Kirk and crew discover the Guardians of Forever, who watch over a beautiful ancient city. As in the filmed version, a portal shows the crew events from Earth history, but Beck with is the one to jump through to escape, not McCoy. He is also the one who saves Edith Keeler and changes history.

The love story between Kirk and Keeler is played up, and becomes all the more tragic as Kirk honestly contemplates sacrificing for love the future, as it should be. In the end, Spock must grab and hold Beckwith as Keeler is killed, there by setting the time stream right again. Beckwith jumps back through the portal and lands in the heart of a sun and is forced to repeat that cycle forever.

This book is worth a read through, particularly just to have a copy of the original script. A good seventy pages is nothing but an angry rant by Ellison that true fans of his will enjoy, but others will think is just fussy and unnecessary. Because of this episode's status in the hearts and minds of fans everywhere, the battle to claim credit for it may never cease. Ellison, however, makes a fine case here.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

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