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Jan. 2, 2005

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  Dissing The City on the Edge of Forever Part Two

(For Part One read Dissing The City on the Edge of Forever or Please Don't Tell Ellison I wrote this Because I Don't Want Him to Hurt Me)

Last editorial, I wrote about the infamous controversy between SF biggie Harlan Ellison and Star Trek series creator Gene Roddenberry over the authorship of the teleplay which became "The City on the Edge of Forever" -- generally regarded as the best episode of the original Star Trek series.  Ellison wrote the initial teleplay only to see it rewritten, and, in his view, "evicerated", by several other hands, including Roddenberry himself,  To support his contention, Ellison justifiably (and interminably) points out that his original teleplay won the prestigious Writers Guild Award.  And though the rewritten, supposedly "evicerated", version won Science Fiction's equally prestigious Hugo Award, ( as well as reaching the air as the most popular episode of the series), Ellison maintains that it was a vastly inferior teleplay whose only good points were those remaining from Ellison's original.  For thirty years, the question remained.  Was Ellison's original better than the version which appeared on TV?

A few years ago, Ellison finally published his original teleplay as a mass market Trade Paperback, so as to let the readers decide for themselves.  And that's what I did.  (For a summary of both versions, the TV teleplay and Ellison's original, read these paragraphs from my previous Rants and Raves Editorial.) Having read Ellison's original version, then once again watched the TV episode, my conclusion was that (to quote my last editorial): "the TV version is not only better than Ellison's original version but that the original version ... was astonishingly flawed, at times remarkably amateurish, and, in some scenes, completely unfilmable."  Then, having blown the smoke off the barrel of my six-shooter, I went on to give a few reasons for my criticism. 

This editorial I want to give a few more.

One weakness I find in Ellison's original teleplay is Ellison's overuse of what I will call "plot contrivances".  Plot contrivances (for the purposes of this essay) are elements of a teleplay which were added for the sole purpose of pushing the plot forward, but which cannot be arrived at through any logical reasoning.  No idea what I'm talking about?  (Yeah, I get that a lot.)

For example: Both Ellison's teleplay and the TV version were faced with the problem of explaining how Kirk and Spock could leap into the time machine and stop Beckwith/ Dr. McCoy from changing the past, when Beckwith/Dr. McCoy could have ended up anywhere on the planet Earth in the 1930s.  Nor did they know what he had changed, so how could they prevent him from doing so?  How were they to figure out that Edith Keeler must die?

Admittedly the TV version does rely upon a "plot contrivance" in that Spock offers up some dubious  techno-babble about how "if the theory that Time is a river is correct", they should be carried by the same current that carried Dr. McCoy, and so end up in the same place and time.  This is a "plot contrivance" because it wasn't arrived at through any logical reasoning.  We are simply asked to accept it on faith, to "willfully suspend disbelief" (as writers say). 

But, on the other hand, to explain how Kirk and Spock figure out that Edith Keeler must die, the TV version cleverly comes up with an explanation which arises from events which have gone before -- and so isn't what I would call a plot contrivance.  At the moment that Dr. McCoy jumps into the time machine, Spock is recording using his "tricorder".  Later, then, he simply replays information recorded at that time, displayed by the time machine, and discovers two different timelines which diverge with the death of Edith Keeler.  Sure, it's a little far fetched, but it makes just enough sense to answer the needs of the teleplay.  So, in that case, I wouldn't call it a "plot contrivance" because it was arrived at logically.

The problem with plot contrivances is that they require the reader to accept the writer's conceit that "it is so", even though the reader knows that it is all a lot of hooey.  Thus, it works against the plausibility of a story.  And plausibilty is never more important than in science fiction.  Luckily, most readers will allow the writer one plot contrivance per story. 

As an example, most of the episodes of the Twilight Zone TV series depended on such plot contrivances for the story to even begin.  In the TZ episode "It's a Good Life", for instance, we are asked to accept without explanation the existence of a little boy with virtually unlimited mental powers.  The rest of the story follows logically from that "plot contrivance", but the story can't go anywhere until we all agree to accept that boy's mental powers as "given".  So, there's nothing wrong with "plot contrivances", so long as they are used sparingly.  But the more "plot contrivances" that are piled into a single story, the more the audience loses trust in the logical cohesiveness of that story.  The more it begins to look like the writer is just making things up as he/she goes along.

And Ellison's original teleplay for "City" relies far too heavily on far too many "plot contrivances".  For example, the Guardians of the Time Vortex, when asked how Beckwith changed history, offer up something about how in every time period there is one THING which, if altered, would change history.  The corollary of this would seem to be that you could change everything else except that THING and history would not change.  Later, though, when Trooper sacrifices his life to save Kirk, Spock is surprised that Trooper's death didn't alter history, surprised that Trooper "didn't count" -- when they had already been told that only one THING in a given period counted, and that was Edith Keeler.  I suspect that Ellison himself was confused over how this changing-history business was supposed to work.  The more he relied on plot contrivances to carry his plot, the more trouble he had following his own rules.

Similarly, as with the TV version, Ellison's original version also uses the tricorder to answer questions.  But, whereas the rewritten version has a logical reason for the tricorder having the answers, Ellison's has Kirk asking the tricorder to somehow calculate probable points of historical change with the goal of eventually reducing those points down to one (Edith Keeler).  But how was the tricorder supposed to do this?  What information did it have to work with?  Kirk earlier said that, to humans, time travel was believed to be a myth.  Again, Ellison is waving his hands, asking us to take his plot contrivances on faith without bothering to work out at least a semi-logical explanation.

The tricorder was also supposed to determine when Beckwith would appear, but, before it could answer that question, it burned out.  Over the episode, Spock works to fix the tricorder, but in a later scene, Kirk asks Spock when he thinks Beckwith will appear.  It seems Ellison must have forgotten that, according to his plot contrivance, there was no way to answer that question without first fixing the tricorder.  Ellison is like a juggler trying to juggle too many balls.

Also, when they are asked what this THING is that Beckwith must have changed, the Guardians of the Time Vortex reply with a cryptic poem which poetically describes Edith Keeler.  But why?  The Guardians didn't speak in cryptic rhymes before.  Other than Ellison's desire to hold back information, there is no logical explanation given for this.  It is a "plot contrivance", plain and simple.  (Worse, when  Kirk asks the tricorder the same question, it too replies with the same cryptic poem.  The tricorder?  Why?  Why?)

I could go on forever, (I heard that, you in the back row!) but one last example will suffice.  In the end, Beckwith. having been captured, tries to escape again and jumps back into the time machine.  But, instead of escaping to the past this time, he finds himself appearing (and perishing horribly) in the heart of a sun, over and over again, throughout eternity.  Obviously Ellison was going for an ironic sort of fate for the evil Beckwith, and a lot of readers took it that way.  But think about it, people!  Where is the irony?  For that matter, where is the logic?  When asked to explain, the Guardian says: "He wanted Forever.  The Vortex has given him Forever."  But nowhere did Beckwith ever say he wanted "forever".  He didn't want "forever", he wanted to escape into the Earth of the 1930s.  And why does he keep appearing and re-appearing in the heart of a sun anyway?  The Guardian gives some explanation about not being able to visit the same Past twice -- but that still doesn't explain the fecking sun!!!

I rarely enjoy ghost stories for the reason that authors too often think they can toss logic out the window when dealing with the supernatural.  Unfortunately, Ellison seems to feel the same way about science fiction.

Moving on...

A major difference between the two versions of "City" lay in Ellison's addition of a subplot involving a legless WWI veteran named Trooper.  Of this character, Ellison later bitterly lamented: "Trooper was removed entirely.  I think he is the best character I've ever written into a script.  I would have liked to've seen him come to life.  His death in the show says, I think, something fearful and important about the passage of our lives on this tiny grain of dust we call the Earth.  I am sad he never had the breath of life blown into him by the magicians of the coaxial cable.  Perhaps some other time, in some other script."

Powerful words indeed.  In her essay included in Ellison's Trade Paperback of "City", D.C. Fontana, one of the original Star Trek editors, similarly enthused: "For myself, I miss Trooper -- a beautifully drawn portrait of a worn and despairing veteran of the Great War..." Reading those testimonials, you would never guess that Trooper only appears in two scenes and that he only shows up in the script just shortly before the climax.  He was clearly a last minute addition, hastily thrown in without any attempt to incorporate him into the rest of the teleplay.  Nevertheless, that doesn't mean he can't be all that Ellison seemed to think he was.  The problem is...he ain't.

I think Ellison himself unwittingly put his finger on the problem when he wrote "Perhaps some other time, in some other script."  The problem, as I see it, is that this isn't a script about a WWI veteran named Trooper.  It is the tragic love story of Edith Keeler and James T. Kirk, and that is what Ellison should have focused on.  Throwing in a competing subplot about the tragic death of Trooper serves only to detract from the tragic death of Edith Keeler, particularly in the climax.

Nor is the situation improved when we consider that Trooper only appears in two scenes.  First, Kirk visits him -- penniless on the street -- and offers him two dollars if he can locate Beckwith.  Then, in the second scene, Trooper leads Kirk and Spock to Beckwith and, in the ensuing firefight, Trooper -- apparently touched by Kirk's little act of trust in offering him the two dollars before he located Beckwith -- throws himself in the path of a phaser-beam meant for Kirk.

There is nothing wrong with this subplot -- except that it is so thinly developed.  But, as it is, it comes across as almost insulting, as if Ellison feels he can play the "noble sacrifice card" without any attempt at supporting characterization simply because we are so familiar with it.  But Ellison should have saved it for another script, one that could really be about Trooper and his noble sacrifice, when Ellison could really do it justice.

But the real problem is this.  When Kirk, Spock and Beckwith return to the present, Ellison seems to have forgotten which was the main tragedy -- Trooper or Edith Keeler.  Worse, he seems to have lost interest in Edith Keeler and her story altogether, and instead wants to concentrate on the death of Trooper.  As a result, Kirk is completely sidelined, since obviously his only concern would be for the death of the woman he loved.  Instead, suddenly Spock is the central character, carrying on a long debate with the Guardians of the Time Vortex about Trooper's worth to the cosmos, and Ellison writes: "Kirk, through all this, stands there stunned as if by the hammer.  His face is dead.  He cannot co-ordinate."  In the rewritten TV version, Kirk is similarly silent, but with two crucial differences.  First, the scene is much shorter -- only about three lines of dialogue.  Secondly, Kirk's silence serves to build up the suspense as we wait for him to speak, which he ultimately does -- the powerful final line: "Let's get the hell out of here."  In Ellison's version, Kirk is silent in hopes we will forget about Edith Keeler; in the TV version, Kirk is silent to remind us of her.

In the end, probably the biggest difference between the two versions of "City" lies in respective climaxes.  In both teleplays, Edith Keeler is run over by a truck, thus returning history back to normal.  In both teleplays, Kirk is faced with the terrible decision of whether he should let her die to save the universe, or save her and sacrifice the universe.  In the TV version, Kirk sees Edith Keeler is about to be run over, starts to go to her rescue but then, at Spock's "No, Jim!", not only stops himself, but grabs McCoy to keep McCoy from rescuing her as well.  He clearly makes the decision to sacrifice the woman he loves for the good of the universe. 

Now, what about Ellison's original? 

In Ellison's version, Kirk makes the opposite choice.  He decides that his love for Edith Keeler is greater than the good of the universe and so tries to save her even though he knows it would doom the universe by changing history.  Much debate has centred around the question of whether this was "in character" for Kirk or not.  Detractors maintain that Kirk would never make a decision that would doom the universe -- to which Ellison replies that Kirk is only human and how can anyone say for certain how someone might act under those circumstances?

In my opinion, if we are talking purely in the abstract, I can accept Kirk behaving either way.  I don't think it was "out of character" for him to sacrifice the good of the universe for the love of a woman, as Ellison would have him do.  But, at the same time, I can just as easily see him sacrificing the woman he loved for the good of the universe, as the TV version had it.  But that is only in the abstract.  If there is one over-riding complaint I have with Ellison's original teleplay, it is that he seems to treat the whole thing more as an intellectual problem, rather than as a tragic romance which he feels in his heart.  It isn't enough that Kirk's behaviour be justifiable in the abstract.  We have to feel it in our hearts.  Judged by that criterium, the two versions are worlds apart.

At its most basic core, "The City on the Edge of Forever" is a story about sacrifice.  Ellison has concocted a marvelously tragic dilemma, one which has no happy solution.  However he chooses, Kirk will lose.  The only question is, which is the greater sacrifice for Kirk... the woman he loves or the universe he has sworn to protect?  In the abstract, it is obvious the universe should be the greater sacrifice.  But we are not talking about the abstract.  We are asking, which does the audience care more for?  In that case, the answer is obviously Edith Keeler.

The "universe" is itself an abstract concept, something we know exists but which touches no great emotional cord in our hearts.  Edith Keeler, on the other hand, is a woman we have come to know and hopefully care about.  There is no logic behind our reactions, but there it is.  This is why Ellison's original ending was emotionally weaker than the version which eventually aired.  For Kirk, and the audience, the heartwrenching, emotional sacrifice is letting Edith die; the intellectual, abstract sacrifice would be to let the universe die.

Which brings me to one last point.  Many of my criticisms were admittedly subjective.  I'm sure there are many people who would argue that they thought Ellison's ending was better than the TV one, my argument not withstanding.  But I would argue that Ellison's climax was not only emotionally weaker than the TV version, it was literally "unfilmable" as Ellison wrote it.  What I mean is that it would have been virtually impossible to film it in such a way as to get across to the audience all that is supposed to be got across.

In support of this, I would point out that throughout his teleplay, Ellison is extremely precise in including camera directions for the Director -- to the point of being intrusive at times.  But then, strangely, at the beginning of the climax he writes: "No camerawork has been indicated here purposely, so the pace and layout of shots can be best developed by on-set choices."  I think even Ellison dimly recognized that the scene could not be filmed, and so decided to dump the problem in the Director's lap.

Why is it "unfilmable"?  (Hang on, 'cause this is going to require some s'plaining.)  The problem is this -- Edith Keeler is about to be run over by a truck, right?  Kirk realizes that this is the event which Beckwith must have altered which changed history.  That is, before Kirk and Spock travelled back through time, Beckwith travelled back alone and alone saved Edith Keeler from the truck.  Thus changing history.  With me so far?  Therefore, according to Ellison's logic, if Kirk wants to save Edith Keeler (which he does), he simply has to stop himself from stopping Beckwith.  Then Beckwith will save Edith Keeler, and Kirk will have sacrifced the good of the universe for the woman he loves.  In other words, to save Edith Keeler, logically Kirk should just stand there and do nothing.  And that's what Ellison has him do.

But now picture the scene as seen by a TV audience.  Normally if a hero sees the woman he loves about to be run over by a truck, what does he do to save her?  Obviously, he tries to pull her out of the way of the truck.  Normally, if the hero were to just stand there, it would indicate he wanted her to get run over.  I will go further and argue that, in this particular case, it is difficult to imagine Kirk so sure that Beckwith will rescue Edith Keeler that he passes up the chance to save her himself.  (Bear in mind, for Kirk to have stood any chance of stopping Beckwith, he must have been as close to Edith Keeler as Beckwith was.  So, it would have been smarter for him to rescue her himself rather than trusting to Beckwith -- drug pushing homicidal psychopath that he was). It just doesn't wash.  Any audience, watching the scene as Ellison had it, would inevitably have assumed Kirk had made the opposite decision.  They would assume he stopped running because he had decided to let Edith Keeler die.  (Notice that in the rewritten version, when Kirk initially tries to save Edith Keeler, what does he do?  Does he stand there and wait for McCoy to rescue her?  No, he does not.  He starts toward her, meaning to rescue her with his own two hands.)

Well, now you have seen a few of the reasons I feel Ellison's original version of "The City on the Edge of Forever" was inferior to the rewritten version that reached TV.  (There are others but if I write much more I think my eyes will start to bleed.)  Nevertheless, for all my criticism, Ellison certainly deserves credit for coming up with the basic concept (although it still must be pointed out that the Outer Limits used a similar plot in the earlier episode "The Man Who Was Never Born").  But reading Ellison's introductory rant published in the Trade Paperback of his script, one final question keeps haunting me.

To Ellison, the rewritten version was inferior to his original teleplay and that is all there is to be said about that.  But, having watched the TV episode again and compared it to the original script, what strikes me is how incredibly well written the final, filmed, TV version was.  It wasn't just good... it was VERY good.  No one knows who rewrote it, though such names as Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana are all known to have had a whack at it.  But what amazes me is how virtually flawless was the result.  It is so carefully focused on the romance, yet never overplayed, every line a classic, from the joke about Spock getting his head caught in a Chinese rice-picker to Kirk's unforgettable final "Let's get the hell out of here."

As a kid, I fairly worshipped Ellison almost wholly because of that one Star Trek episode.  But now, having read his original script, I realize that Ellison was not the true genius behind "City".  His "City" was a serviceable first draft, but there was someone who took that first draft and shaped it into the most popular of the Star Trek episodes.  Someone sat down at his or her Underwood and removed the extraneous character of Trooper, introduced Edith Keeler earlier in the narrative, changed the climax, carefully honed and reworked the story, taking an interesting idea and turning it into...a classic.  And for thirty years that someone has gone unrecognized.  I wish I knew who they were -- they deserve more credit than they ever got. 

What must it have felt like, I wonder, as, alone in a room, late at night, they typed that final line: "Let's get the hell out of here."  So simple, so succinct.  They knew -- no long drawn out ending was required.  They knew -- they had created something powerful.  No more words were necessary.  Just that one line, then get off the stage.  They knew.  What must it have felt like? 

I'll bet it felt pretty good.

Click here for Part One

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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