On Saturday I was sad to wake to the news of the death of the writer of my favourite hour of episodic television and indeed many peoples favourite hour. Harlan Ellison the writer of the beloved original Star Trek episode City On The Edge of Forever has died at the age of 84.
Harlan is often acclaimed as the being the greatest sci-fi author of our time but to say such is not something he would approve of. Not because he didn’t think he was a great… he was well known for his argumentative outlook on life and not giving up on grudges. Rather Harlan didn’t like the term sci-fi or science fiction and he insisted his works were speculative fiction. Additionally he didn’t think himself as an author. Authors write books but writers write on anything and in any format and Harlan wrote anything from articles to TV shows, books to essays.
He made his break in magazines long before he became known for his work on the small screen.
Despite his work on Star Trek and other shows for which he may well have been best known to the general public, he is best regarded for his prolific speculative fiction work and by his own admission is believed to have written over 1800 short stories alone.
What I mostly remember him for though is for The City on the Edge of Forever, an episode I have watched well over 1,000 times since the late 1970’s. It won lots of awards and yet Harlan was on record for hating the end product, due to the re-writes that the work underwent due to elements being rather against the ethos that creator Gene Roddenberry trying to create including drug abuse onboard the Enterprise.
So what is it all about, the famous screened version starts… After administering a small dose of a dangerous drug to Lt. Sulu (George Takei), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) accidentally administers a massive dose to his own abdomen after getting knocked about when the Enterprise hits some interference from a strange time distortion.
Driven temporarily mad, McCoy beams down to the nearest planet, home to the Guardian of Forever, a talking portal that allows visitors to travel through time and space. When McCoy uses it to travel back to Depression-era New York, the Enterprise’s landing party learns their ship has disappeared. Whatever McCoy has done has distorted history in such a way that the universe as they know it has ceased to exist.
Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) give chase, in time learning that McCoy has changed time by saving the life of Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), the near-saintly proprietor of a soup kitchen. If allowed to live, her idealistic message of pacifism and tolerance will delay the United States’ entry into World War II, allowing Hitler to develop the atomic bomb, win the war, and dominate the Earth — shutting the door on the hopeful future imagined throughout the series.
And so, as Spock says twice in the episode — first as a question then as a statement arrived at through cold, hard logic — Edith Keeler must die. The only problem is that Kirk has fallen in love with her and isn’t sure he can bring himself to let her die. But, after reuniting with McCoy, he does just that, stopping the doctor from saving Edith from a truck that strikes her down in the street.
Many elements contribute to the episode’s greatness. The Guardian’s planet is an eerie, dreamlike place, one that inspires Kirk to comment, with understated poetic flair, “These ruins stretch to the horizon.” Director Joseph Pevney wisely lets the atmosphere, both of the alien world and 1930s New York, do a lot of the work.
Then there’s Shatner, who, often justifiably, gets a lot of flak for laying it on thick, but his performance here is measured. His love for Edith feels real, far removed from the flings seen in previous episodes. and so does his heartbreak.
Yet much of the brilliance can be traced back to the script. Star Trek had raised philosophical issues before, but few as thorny as whether taking one life can be justified in the name of a greater good. And not just any life: Kirk falls for Edith because she’s virtuous and beautiful and finds him charming, sure, but also because she’s the living embodiment of the utopian principles he’s sworn to uphold as a member of Starfleet.
She believes in humanity’s potential to overcome hatred and selfishness, in the possibility of the better future in which Kirk lives. But to make that future possible, he has to let her die. She has the right message at the wrong time. It’s a Kobayashi Maru scenario in the form of a tragic romance.
It’s a near-perfect episode of television, recognized as such from the moment it aired. The credits bore only one name: Harlan Ellison.
Whilst anyone else would keep their mouth shut and happily accept all the praise, Harlan was different. He almost made a career about complaining about anything that was less than perfect or in anything else than a total victory for Harlan. And of course in the world of television, hardly anyone gets to see their vision on screen exactly as he hoped.
Here is a great example of the plebs that Harlan had to deal with and an insight to just how firey he himself was known to be. The below relates to when he was asked to work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
“Paramount had been trying to get a Star Trek film in work for some time. Roddenberry was determined that his name would be on the writing credits somehow. The trouble is, he can’t write for sour owl poop. His one idea, done six or seven times in the series and again in the feature film, is that the crew of the Enterprise goes into space, finds God, and God turns out to be insane, or a child, or both. I’d been called in twice, prior to 1975, to discuss the story. Other writers had also been milked. Paramount couldn’t make up their minds and had even kicked Gene (Roddenberry) off the project a few times, until he brought in lawyers. Then the palace guard changed again at Paramount and Diller and (Michael) Eisner came over from ABC and brought a cadre of their buddies. One of them was an ex-set designer named Mark Trabulus.
Roddenberry suggested me as the scenarist for the film with this Trabulus, the latest of the know-nothing duds Paramount had assigned to the troublesome project. I had a talk with Gene about a storyline. He told me they kept wanting bigger and bigger stories, but no matter what was suggested, it wasn’t big enough. I devised a storyline and Gene liked it, and set up a meeting with Trabulus for December 11, 1975. That meeting was canceled, but we finally got together on December 15th. It was just Gene and Trabulus and me in Gene’s office on the Paramount lot.
I told them the story. It involved going to the end of the known universe to slip back through time to the Pleistocene period when Man first emerged. I postulated a parallel development of reptile life that might have developed into the dominant species on Earth had mammals not prevailed. I postulated an alien intelligence from a far galaxy where the snakes had become the dominant life form, and a snake-creature who had come to Earth in the Star Trek future, had seen its ancestors wiped out, and who had gone back into the far past of Earth to set up distortions in the time-flow so the reptiles could beat the humans. The Enterprise goes back to set time right, finds the snake alien, and the human crew is confronted with the moral dilemma of whether it had the right to wipe out an entire life form just to insure its own territorial imperative in our present and future. The story, in short, spanned all of time and all of space, with a moral and ethical problem.
Trabulus listened to all this and sat silently for a few minutes. Then he said, ‘You know, I was reading this book by this guy named Von Daniken and he proved that the Mayan calendar was exactly like ours, so it must have come from aliens. Could you put in some Mayans?’
I looked at Gene; Gene looked at me; he said nothing. I looked at Trabulus and said, ‘There weren’t any Mayans at the dawn of time.’ And he said, ‘Well, who’s to know the difference?’ And I said, ‘I’m to know the difference. It’s a dumb suggestion.’ So Trabulus got very uptight and said he liked Mayans a lot and why didn’t I do it if I wanted to write this picture. So I said, ‘I’m a writer. I don’t know what the fuck you are!’ And I got up and walked out. And that was the end of my association with the Star Trek movie”.
I had the pleasure of chatting on the phone to Harlan Ellison in the late 1990’s. It started off rather grumpily as he reputation had prepared me for but after 2 or 3 minutes we hit it off and chatted for about 40 minutes. I suppose in a small way he is one of several inspirations for my becoming a writer.
The world will be a less interesting place without Harlan Ellison.
I’ll finish off with just a feq quotes from this very quotable episode.
Capt. Kirk: You were actually enjoying my predicament back there. At times, you seem quite human.
Spock: Captain, I hardly believe that insults are within your prerogative as my commanding officer.
Capt. Kirk: Sorry.
Edith Keeler: [privately with Kirk] Why does Spock call you “Captain”? Were you in the war together?
Capt. Kirk: [warmly but discreetly] We… served together.
Edith Keeler: And you, um, don’t want to talk about it? Why? Oh. Did you… did you do something wrong? Are you afraid of something? Whatever it is, let me help.
Capt. Kirk: “Let me help.” A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He’ll recommend those three words even over “I love you.”
Capt. Kirk: Spock… I believe… I’m in love with Edith Keeler.
Spock: Jim, Edith Keeler must die.
Spock: [to Kirk] Save her, do as your heart tells you to do, and millions will die who did not die before.
Dr. McCoy: You deliberately stopped me, Jim. I could have saved her. Do you know what you just did?
Spock: He knows, Doctor. He knows.
Guardian of Forever: TIME HAS RESUMED ITS SHAPE. ALL IS AS IT WAS BEFORE. MANY SUCH JOURNEYS ARE POSSIBLE. LET ME BE YOUR GATEWAY.
Lt. Uhura: Captain, the Enterprise is up there. They’re asking if we want to beam up.
Capt. Kirk: Let’s get the Hell out of here.