Harlan Ellison put a drug dealer on the Enterprise. That was not the biggest script problem

Harlan Ellison submitted his The City on the Edge of Forever story outline in March of 1966. Two revised outlines followed in May, with the first-draft script arriving in June, followed by revised versions that month and again in August. Story consultant Steven Carabatsos then did a script rewrite, Ellison did another draft in December, and then Gene Coon, D.C. Fontana and Gene Roddenberry all completed rewrites and polishes through February 1967 before the cameras started rolling early that same month.

Why so many writers and rewrites? Because the script, while brilliant, was also problematic. The obvious issue was that one crew member is a drug dealer and at least one other is an addict. The addict, stoned on duty, almost destroys the Enterprise. This was a much darker vision of the future than Roddenberry wanted, and he was right to reject Ellison’s versions of the story.

But this hurdle — scripts that didn’t get the tone and characters right — was a routine occurrence, especially early in the series. Freelance writers could not be expected to understand the nuances of the shows they served. But Ellison’s work contained a much more fundamental problem, one that is surprising for such a gifted writer: the prime mover is a character we don’t know and don’t like, and therefore don’t care about.

The cover of IDW's The City on the Edge of Forever graphic novel, depicting an illustration of the Enteprise, a clocl and the running figure of Kirk.

This article is about IDW’s beautiful graphic novel of Ellison’s teleplay. It is an almost word-for-word retelling of his script, and one Ellison himself endorsed, writing in the introduction “I want you to believe as deeply as you believe in anything that I am ‘over the moon’ at what has been done with my original teleplay.” 

Someday I will write a longer piece about Ellison’s own book on the episode. 


The story

Ellison’s story underwent some changes as it progressed, but here are the basics:

The episode opens with Beckwith, a hulking command-division officer who deals an illicit drug called The Jewels of Sound. An addicted lieutenant named LeBeque is begging the dealer for a hit. Beckwith will give him a dose, but in exchange he wants “to know about that planet out there, what the log says about valuable commodities. I’ll want a landfall pass, and I want you to cover for me when I trade with the natives.” LeBeque shoots back, “After the slaughter you caused on Harper Five, you’ll do it again?” He says all Beckwith wants is to “cheat aliens, get them hooked on illegal narcotics, and steal what they could trade for cultural advances.”

Again, it’s a much darker future than Roddenberry wanted, more Breaking Bad than Star Trek.

LeBeque gets his hit and is soon being admonished by Spock for mishandling the bridge controls and almost wrecking the ship. “You’ll blow the entire drive,” Spock says.

LeBeque tells Beckwith he’s decided to turn in the dealer, so Beckwith kills him and then clubs a guard outside the transporter room before beaming down to the planet.

In a captain’s log, we learn the Enterprise has been investigating strange radiation that has the ship’s chronometers running backwards. A landing party pursues Beckwith and discovers a surreal city in the distance, which Kirk calls “A city on the edge of forever.”

Kirk then derides time travel using words that must have horrified Roddenberry: “I always thought stories about time machines were the drunkstuff of lab technicians when they’ve had too much pure grain to drink.”

Beckwith then jumps through the portal and changes history. I will end the summary there, so as not to spoil the story. It really is worth reading.

What Ellison got wrong

The complete lack of humour. When Kirk and Spock arrive in New York, they encounter a virulent racist standing on a soapbox ranting about “the alien filth that pollutes our fine country.” The mob attacks Spock and the two flee to the safety of a nearby basement. Missing is the funny televised scene of Kirk and Spock encountering the policeman after they snatch some pants and shirts. Ellison’s work is unrelentingly grim, while the screen version had moments of humor that improved the viewing experience and are true to life. Even in bad times, there are bits of levity.

The drug-dealer story line isn’t necessary. The only purpose served by placing a drug dealer and mass murderer on the Enterprise is to create a character desperate and panicked enough to seek escape by leaping through a time portal. The drugs themselves and the presence of addicted crew members have no real bearing on the rest of the story.

The rewritten script instead gives this antagonist role to McCoy, in a plot much more in keeping with the Star Trek universe. McCoy does his duty and saves Sulu’s life. A fluke caused by a lurching ship sets in motion the same crisis as in Ellison’s script, but without the murders and destruction.

The end lacks punch. The episode consistently ranked as Star Trek’s best closes with a gut blow. That punch lands with far less force in the graphic novel. I won’t give away the ending here, saying only that our hero is less heroic in this version.

We don’t care about Beckwith. But the biggest problem with the original story — and one that is surprising coming from such a talented writer — is that we feel no connection to the story’s prime mover. Beckwith is a two-dimensional villain. He all-but twirls his mustache and ties Uhura to the train tracks. He is not interesting.

By contrast, the filmed version delivers one of the strongest episodes for the TOS trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Kirk and Spock are worried about McCoy, and we share that concern because we like him. It is interesting to watch them deal with Depression-era New York. It is frustrating to see them almost run into each other as the currents of time draw them together. And we share their joy when they are finally reunited. We are engaged by the characters. Ellison’s version has us spend a lot of time with a guy we don’t care about, but the screened version uses that time to develop McCoy’s character and deepen the trio’s bond.

What Ellison got right

There is a lot to love in Ellison’s vision.

Our crew doesn’t ignore McCoy’s pending death. It always bugs me that the crew rushes down to the planet to find McCoy before the drug overdose kills him but they then immediately get distracted by the Guardian and forget about the doctor. McCoy could easily have died while they chatted with the big talking circle. Ellison wrote the same basic sequence but it makes more sense absent the pending demise of a main character.

Janice is a badass. Ellison created a fantastic role for Janice Rand. When Beckwith locks the doors to the transporter room, Kirk orders Rand to melt them with a phaser rifle. On the planet, Beckwith grabs her from behind and she sends a sharp elbow into his midriff. And after Beckwith leaps through the portal, the crew beams up to find that the Enterprise has been replaced by the pirate ship Condor. Rand beats up some bad guys and then Kirk puts her in charge of the security squad with orders to defend the room. “Yeoman Rand…can you hold this chamber?” Rand replies “I can, sir.”

It’s a role that, in the ’60s, would normally have been filled by some large guy. Ellison’s take is progressive and refreshing and Grace Lee Whitney would have had a wonderful time playing the part.

(It’s interesting to note that Ellison had a relationship with Whitney during the production of season one, so it’s possible he was following in Roddenberry’s footsteps: writing a good role for his girlfriend. But even if true, it would have been a breakthrough episode for one of the women of TOS.)

Spock gets some great dialogue. Ellison’s dialogue is often inspired. There is, for example, a lovely moment in the graphic novel that first appeared in Ellison’s initial script, which he called the Writer’s Work Draft, and in the June 3, 1966, teleplay he published in his book on the episode. Whereas the aired episode ends with the best closing line of any TOS episode, Kirk’s despaired “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Ellison’s version has Kirk and Spock return to the Enterprise. Kirk is anguished over the death of Edith, and the episode closes with Spock comforting his friend:

No woman was ever loved as much, Jim. Because no woman was ever offered the universe for love.

That’s beautiful and should have been worked into the screen version somewhere.

Working with this production team. The graphic novel is gorgeous. As Ellison writes in the introduction, “I could not have pictured it as perfect as it has turned out.” Much of the credit must go to artist J.K Woodward, who produced stunning images.

Needlessly dark

Overall, though, Ellison’s script is needlessly dark and not consistent with the future Star Trek presented. Ellison, always voluble in his criticism of how Roddenberry handled his work, wrote in the introduction to this book that “there have been many who have excused what was done to my script by saying, erroneously, that the technology was not available fifty years ago to approximate what I had put on the page.” That was surely a concern at the time, but that analysis ignores the story weaknesses and the misfire on tone.

I am a fan of dystopian fiction, starting with A Canticle for Leibowitz in high school and on to recent TV like The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and The Handmaid’s Tale. But we don’t need Star Trek to be dark. We need Star Trek to be inspirational. There is already precious little out there for those who crave an optimistic view of the future. Roddenberry and the creative crew were right to recognize the brilliant core of Ellison’s idea, and right to rework it into a Star Trek episode.

2 Comments

  1. “I am a fan of dystopian fiction, starting with A Canticle for Leibowitz in high school and on to recent TV like The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and The Handmaid’s Tale. But we don’t need Star Trek to be dark.”

    I have this reaction to “Star Trek: Discovery”. I think would be a pretty good sci-fi show if the uniforms were different, the starships were a different design, the names of the alien species were different, and the techno-speak was different. Because there’s tension, and plot, and relationships between people, and the Klingons, as a species, are really well-developed both physically and culturally. But it just doesn’t feel like Star Trek to me. Maybe Ellison was writing for the “Space Voyage: Discovery” series that never was…

    Like

    1. Exactly. Discovery is a good show, but it has not been a good Star Trek show. Season two was a lot better, and more Star Trek, and it may continue to improve. Thanks for reading and commenting, Trevor. This post has generated a lot of reaction on Facebook, the most of any post I have written thus far.

      Like

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