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Dec. 5, 2004

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  Dissing The City on the Edge of Forever

Don't Tell Ellison I Wrote This Because I Don't Want Him to Hurt Me

And now, from the Flogging a Dead Horse Department...

Last editorial I started talking about famed SF author Harlan Ellison and the time he sued director James Cameron for allegedly ripping off a couple of Ellison's Outer Limits scripts for his movie The Terminator.  Writing that reminded me that I still hadn't gotten around to reading Ellison's original teleplay for the Star Trek episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever", which he published in Trade Paperback a few years back.  So that's what I did.  Read it.

Now I want to talk about it.

In a nutshell, the story behind that teleplay goes like this.  Back in 1966-67, Ellison was hired to write an episode for the original Star Trek TV series.  Famous for his award-winning short stories, Ellison was a honking big name in SF circles and he was considered a prime catch.  Unfortunately, he was also very, very slow.  So, after several months delay, Ellison turned in a script.  It is at this point that the various participants diverge in their recollections.  Ellison claims his teleplay was greeted with great huzzahs, that everyone loved it to bits and that series creator Gene Roddenberry, as well as others, then inexplicably completely rewrote it, producing a vastly inferior teleplay whose only good points were those remaining from Ellison's original.  Contrarily, those who rewrote it maintained Ellison left them no choice because it simply wasn't "filmable" in Ellison's original form, it was much too expensive, the principle characters weren't behaving the way they should, and Ellison himself was intractable and refused to rewrite it.

Now, none of this would be important were it not for three things.  Four if you know how to count.  First and foremost, the rewritten, supposedly inferior teleplay was turned into the episode "The City on the Edge of Forever" subsequently voted by fans as The Best Star Trek Episode of the original series.  Also, while the rewritten version won science fiction's prestigious Hugo Award, Ellison's original version won the equally prestigious Writers Guild Award.  And finally, Ellison himself doesn't take guff from no one, and has spent the last three decades insisting that Roddenberry and cronies ruined his script and have themselves spent the last three decades spreading lies about him at SF conventions to justify their madness.  (Actually, maybe that's five.  Yeah, that's probably five things.)

All these years, the question remained unanswered.  Was Ellison's teleplay better than the "evicerated" version which made it to TV?  Other than a limited edition anthology published in the 1970s, Ellison's original teleplay has never been available to the general public -- until now.  A few years ago, Ellison, to his credit, decided to let the readers decide and published his original teleplay as a mass market Trade Paperback (along with a very lengthy rant detailing just about every wrong done to him by Roddenberry and friends over the past three decades).

Again and again, throughout his vitriolic intro, Ellison challenges the reader -- READ the original teleplay, SEE for yourself, YOU decide.  And so that's what I... DID.

Before I continue, let me make it clear that I'm not interested in debating all the many wrongs which Ellison feels were done to him by Roddenberry and co.  For example, Roddenberry apparently repeatedly claimed one reason for rewriting "City" was that Ellison had Scotty, a series regular, pushing drugs -- this in spite of Ellison repeatedly bringing it to Roddenberry's attention that it simply weren't so and Roddenberry repeatedly promising never to do it again.  Certainly, Scotty isn't even in the teleplay published in the Trade Paperback, so I have no idea why Roddenberry kept claiming he was.  Maybe he figured it got a good reaction from the audience and he didn't care that it was at Ellison's expense. 

But, like I say, I am not interested in the question of who hurt who.  My question is  --  Was Ellison's original teleplay better than the version which made it to TV?   My answer, after reading the original teleplay and then watching the TV version is...Nyet!  In fact, I will really put my neck on the block and say that the TV version is not only better than Ellison's original version but that the original version which Ellison delivered to Desilu studios was astonishingly flawed, at times remarkably amateurish, and, in some scenes, completely unfilmable.  There is no way in Hades that Roddenberry could have allowed Ellison's script to go to air without really major revisions -- not if he wanted to keep his job, he couldn't.

The reason I say I am putting my neck on the block is because, in researching for this editorial, I was unable to find a single comment anywhere by anyone in any medium that saw Ellison's original version as being anything less than a work of unparalleled genius.  I'm not kidding, folks.  In his intro, Ellison paints himself as the lone man fighting against the overwhelming forces of Roddenberry's legions of fans.  Well, it ain't true.  No one criticises Ellison.  No one.  The closest was a non-professional reviewer at who said that the TV version was "superior" -- but then added the proviso..."for its television purposes" -- which can be read as meaning Ellison's mistake was in refusing to dumb down his script for TV.  Yeah, Ellison must have cried himself to sleep over that one.

So, maybe you're asking yourselves how I, lowly little tapeworm that I am, with only the tiniest smidgen of experience writing movie scripts, can have the gall to disagree with...well, just about everybody.  If I think Ellison's teleplay was so bad, how do I explain all those who say the opposite?  Well, I can't.  All I can do is put forward my view and let the gentle readers decide.  I'm an editor, right?  So, that's what I'm going to do.  Edit.

Come join me, won't you?

Right off the bat what do we notice? -- Ellison's script is about one hundred and ten pages in standard screenplay format.  Using the 1 page=1 minute rule, we find that his teleplay is twice as long as it needs to be for a 52 minute episode of a TV series (back in 1966 -- today the episodes are more like 45 minutes).  Twice as long.  Even assuming the pages of his Trade Paperback hold fewer words than the regular pages of a teleplay, there is no question -- nearly half of his script would have to be jettisoned, genius or no genius.  That Ellison apparently didn't consider this when he handed in his teleplay doesn't speak well for his professionalism.

But, still, we will pretend his teleplay was the right length and work from there.  Many of those who complimented Ellison's teleplay singled out his poetic use of language in the descriptive passages.  In his Trade Paperback, he includes a brief essay by Dorothy Fontana, who was a script editor on Star Trek.  She singles out his descriptions for special praise, but she, as a writer, should have known better.  Any writer for movies or TV knows that it doesn't matter how cleverly you write the descriptive passages because those words will never be heard by the audience.

Only the dialogue makes it to the screen.  That doesn't mean that you shouldn't put care into the descriptions, but you mustn't forget that what matters is WHAT happens, not HOW YOU DESCRIBE IT.  This is why you can see interviews with an actor gushing over the script for his latest movie, telling you how he laughed and he cried, and how that script, that wonderful script, convinced him to do it even though his agent told him not to -- and yet, the actual movie is gnawing on a milkbone (take a moment).  Chances are that's because the screenwriter threw all the jokes and all the emotion into his descriptive parts, making the screenplay absolutely fantastic to read, but forgetting to tell an interesting story that would actually make it to the screen.  (It is also, incidentally, why Stephen King writes novels that sell like hotcakes, but turns out movies like Sleepwalkers and Maximum Overdrive.)

So I guess I lied when I said I couldn't explain why everyone gushes over Ellison's teleplay.  An awful lot of those gushers seem to be impressed by Ellison's descriptive passages, not apparently aware that those words don't matter in the long run.  For that matter, how can anyone claim Ellison's original teleplay was better than the rewritten teleplay based on poetic descriptions when, in the latter case, we only have the TV episode itself to judge by?  For all anyone knows, the rewritten "City" had terrific descriptive passages too, but they of course don't appear in the finished episode.  (He sinks one and the crowd goes wild!)

I guess it's about time I summarized the two teleplays for those of you who don't know what the hell I'm talking about.  In other words, FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO CAME IN LATE...

In the TV episode, Dr. McCoy accidentally injects himself with a drug overdose and, raving like a loon, he uses an alien time machine to escape into earth's past, circa 1930s.  There he changes history forcing Kirk and Spock to follow him to stop him from doing whatever he did.  In the past, Kirk falls deeply in love with a Depression Era charity worker named Edith Keeler, only to discover that she is the point of change: In one timeline, she is killed -- in the other she lives.  But which is the correct timeline?  Either McCoy saved her or he caused her to die -- Kirk can't be sure which.  But then, using the tricorder, Spock settles the question: Edith Keeler must die.  Finally McCoy appears, and Edith takes him in, nursing him back to sanity -- unaware Kirk is looking for him.  But then, Edith casually tells Kirk that he reminds her of one of her boarders -- McCoy.  Kirk runs off to tell Spock, leaving Edith beside the road.  Kirk, Spock and McCoy meet up and vigorously hug and Edith, wondering why three men are vigorously hugging (this being the 1930s, remember?), starts across the street just as a truck with astonishingly bad brakes turns the corner.  Kirk starts to rescue her until stopped by Spock's "No, Jim!", then grabs McCoy preventing him from saving her as well.  A screech, a thump, and McCoy asks in horror:  "Jim, do you know what you've just done?"  To which Spock replies:  "He knows, doctor. He knows."  With history set right, they return to their own time where Kirk has only one unforgettable final line:  "Let's get the hell out of here."

Ellison's original version was similar, but with some crucial differences.   A crewman named Beckwith goes back through time, fleeing the Enterprise after murdering another crewman (a French-Canadian, no less!).  Kirk and Spock follow Beckwith to stop him from doing whatever he did to change history.  Kirk falls in love with Edith Keeler, only to learn that she must die to set history right. At this point, Ellison introduces a completely new character, a legless veteran of the First World War named Trooper, who Kirk pays to lead them to Beckwith.  When they try to capture Beckwith, Beckwith takes a shot at Kirk -- which Trooper valiantly intercepts, giving his life.

The climax is virtually the opposite of that which made it to TV.  Whereas the TV version had Kirk sacrificing the woman he loves for the sake of the universe, in Ellison's version Kirk tries to save the woman he loves even though it means sacrificing the universe.  To save her, (and this is important) Kirk doesn't rescue her directly, but instead DOESN'T STOP BECKWITH FROM SAVING HER (and, yes, I know that is an awful double negative.  Take it up with Harlan).  But it doesn't do any good because Spock stops Beckwith from rescuing her anyway.  Edith is hit by a truck, history is set right, but when they return to their own time, Spock is bothered by Trooper's death, which should have changed history too.  The all-knowing Guardians of the Time Machine tell Spock callously that Trooper didn't "count", but Edith's death (or non-death) did -- an unfair state of the universe which seems to be the main issue at the end of Ellison's "City".  Then, Beckwith breaks free and again leaps into the time machine, which, (kind of inexplicably) locks him into a repeating past whereby he appears again and again in the heart of a sun -- dying over and over, throughout eternity.  (The Guardian rather lamely explains: "He wanted Forever.  The Vortex has given him Forever." -- as if this were some sort of ironic Twilight Zone ending, when, in fact, nowhere did Beckwith say he wanted "Forever".  And, even if he had, it still wouldn't explain the sun.  Sheesh, Harlan, give us a little credit!)

Now, another problem with Ellison's original teleplay is that Edith Keeler doesn't even meet Kirk for the first time until the third act, more than halfway through the teleplay.  That's a long time to ask the audience to wait for the "love interest".  The result is that Ellison is forced to cram all that bothersome  business about Kirk falling in love into a few rushed, didactic, remarkably unsubtle scenes.  He is also forced to make a mistake common to many amateur writers:  He TELLS US, when he should SHOW US.

Watch the TV episode and what do you notice?  For all that "City" is a love story, at no point does either Kirk or Edith say "I love you."  The closest Kirk gets is the one pivotal moment when he tells Spock, "I think I am in love with Edith Keeler."  That's it.  They don't need to say it because we can see it's true.  In every interaction, it is obvious Kirk is smitten and she is... intrigued.  Because the TV version doesn't hit us over the head with it, little things have a tremendous impact -- far more impact than in Ellison's sledgehammer original.  Kirk notes that Edith is "uncommon", and it is as if he called her "a goddess".

Forced to cram their courtship into a few scenes means, for example, that Kirk meets her in one scene  and in the next (after a "bridge" of them holding hands to convey the passage of time) Kirk is already making himself at home in her apartment and snuggling his head rather intimately in her bosom.  Maybe Kirk has known her for a week, but we've just met her.  To convince us that he would fall in love, we have to fall in love too.  There simply hasn't been time for that.  It also means that we have two scenes, back to back, in which Edith repetitiously tells Kirk: "I love you, Jim," and "I love you, James Kirk."  Okay, we get it -- she loves him.  Now, make us believe it.

Well, this essay has turned out to be a lot longer than I intended and I still have oodles to say, so here's what I'm going to do.  I'm going to make this the first half of a two-part editorial.  Next time we'll talk about Ellison's addition of the legless "Trooper" subplot, and why it was a really, really bad idea.  We'll discuss the problem of what I will call "plot contrivances" and why I feel Ellison uses them far too much, robbing his teleplay of plausibility.  And finally I will explain why I feel the climactic scene, as written by Ellison, was indeed literally "unfilmable".

So, sound interesting?

Well, show up anyway.  I'll bring beer.

Click here for Part Two

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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