The City on the Edge of Forever: Harlan Ellison’s original teleplay

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Issue #1

Star Trek: Harlan Ellison's City on the Edge of Forever by Harlan EllisonThe City on the Edge of Forever by Harlan Ellison, Scot and David Tipton, illustrated by J.K. Woodward

“The City on the Edge of Forever” is almost universally considered one of the best, if not the best, Star Trek episodes. Famously penned by Harlan Ellison, and nearly as famously changed quite a bit, IDW Comics has come out with a comic of Ellison’s original Hugo-winning teleplay. Done in five installments via collaboration between Ellison and Scot and David Tipton, and illustrated by J.K. Woodward, the end result makes for a fascinating read that stands on its own with the eventually produced episode.

The general plot is of course similar to the TV episode (warning, spoilers to follow, if one can spoiler a 40-year-old story). A crewmember from the Enterprise beams down to the planet below, travels through a time portal to 1930s America, and changes history (for the worse from the Enterprise’s perspective). Kirk and Spock, in order to set things right, go through the portal as well, where they meet Edith Keeler, whom Kirk falls in love with and then has to let die so history reverts back to its original course. Same basic story, but with significant differences in detail and tone.

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Issue #2

For instance, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore (or in the bright utopian Star Fleet world of Gene Roddenberry), when the opening scene involves a drug deal between two of the Enterprise’s crewmembers. Roddenberry had his vision of the future, and a highly successful one it was, but Ellison is more interested in mining the darker crevices of human nature, the ones that even if Roddenberry might admit still existed amongst the Star Fleet cadre, he mostly didn’t care to share with the public.

So while in the TV episode, it is Doctor McCoy who stumbles through the time portal, thanks to being driven temporarily crazy by an accidental injection of medicine, here Ellison has his drug dealer, Beckwith, confronted by one of his buyers and turning violent before attempting to escape first by beaming down to the planet then by leaping through the time portal. This more grim, more “adult” tone lasts throughout Ellison’s teleplay, with very little moderating humor or warmth.

Some of the differences, though, are less an issue of vision than of pragmatics. The artwork here is often beautiful, and far more expansive than what we see on TV — for instance, we see our characters, um, trekking through a red desert, we see the actual Guardians in a valley of crystal, we even see the City on the Edge of Forever in its entirety, rather than a cramped archway with a few rocks around it (the name makes much more sense in the visual context offered here). Beautiful and expansive as it all is, though, it’s easy to see why the show’s budget couldn’t have allowed for all that.

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Issue #3

Nor could its time span of sixty minutes minus commercials have allowed for the pacing offered in the comic, certainly an improvement over the rushed nature of the show: we get a sense of the city’s isolation, the explanation by the Guardians is much more involved, and later characters and relationships are allowed time to develop more fully and realistically. These aren’t really criticisms of the TV show; it did what it could do within the constraints it had; it’s merely a recognition that a different medium offers up different opportunities.

Another way this comes into play is in the depiction of how history has changed. In the show, the Enterprise is simply no longer there (certainly easy and cheap to film). Here, when the away team beams up they find the Enterprise is now “The Condor,” crewed by a rough and tumble motley group clearly not part of any organization at all, let alone Star Fleet. After a quick scrum, the away team secures the transporter room and Kirk and Spock leave them behind to hold it while they beam back down to try and go through the portal and change things back.

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Issue #4

This brings us to another refreshing change. The person Kirk tasks with holding the transporter room is Yeoman Rand, who takes on a much more pronounced and active role in Ellison’s teleplay than she ever played on the series. It’s too bad this didn’t make it into the episode somehow, even if the backdrop of the Condor had to be dropped.

The darker tone continues with Kirk and Spock’s arrival in the 1930s. In the TV show, we get some humorous by-play with a cop regarding Spock’s ears and an unfortunate rick-picking machine accident. But in Ellison’s version, we see some truly ugly xenophobia, as when one man rails about “a country run by the foreigners. All the scum we let in to take the food from our mouths. All the alien filth that pollutes our fine country.”  It is the mob inflamed by this man that chases after Spock, a far cry from the benignly confused policeman of the TV show. In fact, throughout the original teleplay, the politics are played in a harsher, edgier, and I’d say, more realistic light.

The latter half of the story focus on Kirk’s doomed relationship with Edith Keeler (literally the latter half — she first appears on page 50 of the 100 page text) and his relationship with Spock, who grows increasingly concerned the more Kirk becomes entwined with Keeler, telling Kirk at one point, “I have a theory, Captain, that the easiest place for a spaceman to ‘go native’ is his own world.”

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Issue #5

The artwork here does an especially nice job of conveying both relationships and their changes. In one scene, Spock and Kirk argue against a simple background that fades into gray then black, leaving the dialogue as a series of mostly floating faces, almost like black-clothed actors on a dark and bare stage. The starkness here is a perfect complement to the dialogue.

Toward the end, a new character is introduced, a legless veteran of Verdun, and I won’t say much about him so as not to spoil events that differ from the television version, but as with Rand’s more active characterization, I wish the episode had found a way to work this character in.

The story closes, as we know it does/must. That sense of inevitability, which was always one of the strengths of the TV episode, is here as well, even if it occurs in slightly different fashion. I have a small quibble with an event that happens upon their return through the time portal — it seemed unnecessarily distracting to me — but the end remains a devastating close to one of the most emotional Star Trek episodes ever. Two versions of the same tale, equally effective. Highly recommended. IDW will release an omnibus edition on February 10, 2015.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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