BOOK REVIEW: “Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever, The Original Teleplay That Became The Classic Star Trek Episode

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

Harlan Ellison is my hero. I just love the guy.

I’ve got no real illusions about that, mind you: I doubt he’d like me, I doubt it would take five minutes for me to run afoul of his famous rages, easily half the things the man has ever said piss me off, and I don’t even like a lot of his fiction all that much - but - my hero he remains.

Maybe I’m just a bit perverse, but I want my heroes to be *better* than me, you know? If it’s something that *I* can do myself, then it’s not all that remarkable that General Douglas MacArthur did it, and it makes him somewhat less of an inspirational figure in my life. I want my heroes to be inspirational figures, sure, aspirational as well (If that’s a word, and if it isn’t, it should be), but more than that, I want my heroes to be challenging people who are simply *better* than me in ways I can shoot for, but never quite get. I don’t want some kind of easygoing idol who tells me that I’m Good Enough Just The Way I Am, and that we’re Free To Be You And Me, because I know damn well that I am *not* good enough. I want someone who challenges me, angers me, frightens me on occasion, and goads me on to greater personal accomplishments, and yet is someone I can respect.

Harlan does that. In spades. He does his own thing, he is his own person, he’s sacrificed his life upon the altar of his own integrity, and - most remarkable of all - he does not lie.

Angry, petulant, imperious, enraged, justifiably murderous, or merely annoying as he may well be on occasion, He Does Not Lie. And I love him for that.

Just felt the need to get that out of the way before we get to the actual ‘review’ portion of this review.

This awkwardly-titled book tells the tale of how his much-maligned Star Trek script came to be. Rather than just another behind-the-scenes tell-all that actually tells nothing, this is a fascinating story of one man’s quest to tell a story that mattered to him, a bunch of other men’s quests to get a piece of that action and bask in it’s reflected glory, and one miserable old SOB who spent the next thirty years trying to burn the writer’s reputation down. It’s a good story, interesting, believable, human, and kind of weird, when you get right down to it - I mean, we’re talking about a script here, one episode from one TV show a generation ago - who even cares after this amount of time, right? Let it go! And yet Harlan, by his nature, couldn’t. That’s about as surprising as snow in winter, but what pushes it over in to weird is how many *other* people couldn’t let it go either.

It became a millstone - presumably one of many - around Mr. Ellison’s neck, and finally he decided to set the record straight. He does, and in the process this book becomes one of only two or three books about Trek ever written that are actually *worth* reading. In fact, I’ll go further: If you’re a Trekie, you damn well *need* to read this book. It will make you re-examine your devotion to the franchise, or at least its creator, and presumably re-examine yourself a bit in the process as well. As “The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living,” that’s always a good thing, right? So, seriously, Trekies - get thee to a library, and check this out! Now! Move!

Oh, I see…don’t want to challenge your preconceived notions? Ok, that’s a lot to ask of you. That’s fine. Why don’t you go watch the Song of the Day while the grown ups and I talk, ok? Thanks….

The book is divided in to three sections: Part one is a massive, massive introduction - nearly a third of a million words! - in which Harlan tells the story of how Gene Roddenberry approached him to write for the show, how the story evolved, and how it quickly fell prey to palace intrigue, and the legends that have grown up around it in the thirty years hence. Part Two is the actual original award-winning script - never actually filmed - and includes two separate treatments and a lengthy section from a later Rewrite that Harlan did himself. Section Three is a series of Afterwards from people who were there at the time, or who can otherwise vouch for the veracity of what Ellison is laying down here. I’ll cover Parts I and III in this article today, but I think the script is interesting enough to warrant it’s own independent review tomorrow.

Part I

In a nutshell, Harlan takes us through the process, from when Gene Roddenberry first approached him to write for this new-fangled “Star Trek” show, though his own first pitch of the story idea to the higher ups, and on to the writing process itself. So far so good, but what makes this interesting is that it gives us a window in to what writing for TV was like in those day - a surprisingly hardscrabble environment for such a glamorous job - and it also gives us a strong view of Trek when it was still in its barnstorming days, before it became the cult-like soul-crushing all-encompassing Maoist dictatorship it later became. Not that it took it too long to get to that point, actually, a good deal of the subtext of this book is how quickly everything went south, and how much faster it would have done so, had Roddenberry had his druthers.

Ellison admits that the script was a hard one to write, and took far longer than anticipated: Ten Months. It had been intended to be one of the first ones shot, but kept getting pushed back further and further for obvious reasons. During this period, William Shatner decided to get in good with Harlan, since it’s always good for the career of an actor to be friendly with award-winning writers. When the script was done - ‘still pulsing from the typewriter’ - Harlan called Shatner, who immediately came over to check it out before anyone else even knew it was done (And came so fast he wiped out his Harley in Harlan’s driveway!)

It was Shatner that really started the whole thing. He counted the lines, and found that he had a six or so fewer than Spock, so after reading it he made a Beeline to Roddenberry and reported that “It’s a good script, but it’s got a couple problems.” Shatner is portrayed as a master manipulator, and that kind of jibes with everything I’ve read about the man elsewhere, and he quickly rooks Roddenberry in to complaining about a script that is, frankly, far better than anything else done on the show at that time, and which he hasn’t even read yet.

From there, everything falls apart. The script is re-written time and again, with more and more hands in the pot, getting messier every time. Roddenberry himself ultimately took credit for the re-write, but in typical Roddenberry Glory Hog fashion, he’s lying. He did contribute a few lines here and there, but the final re-write was done by DC Fontana. Harlan never knew this until he’d actually set down to write this book, despite having been friends with Fontana for thirty years. He’s got this temper, y’see, so people tend not to volunteer information.

Harlan wasn’t happy with the rewrites, and tried to take his name off the script, but Gene threatened to blackball him if he did, so Harlan backed down. He only watched the episode the first time it aired, and was heartbroken over it.

And there the story should have ended. But it didn’t. I don’t know why, really, even the book itself never quite makes it clear why Roddenberry was so crazy about not letting sleeping dogs lie. I mean, yes, TV Producers are widely regarded as rat bastards who view writers as mere toys for the betterment of their own bastardry, but come on - Harlan’s had bad experiences with these types before, no one ever felt a pathological need to stick it to him like this. It’s not like his experiences writing for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea have haunted him lo these many years. Once the episode is shot and done and the checks all clear, no one cares, so why did Roddenberry keep telling people that Harlan was an irresponsible rube, a writer who can’t or won’t write, and that any success “City” may have had was entirely because The Great Bird Himself swooped in and ‘saved’ the script from it’s own writer.

To be honest, I don’t know, but the strong, strong, strong impression I get from this book, and from Solo and Justman’s “Inside Star Trek,” is that Roddenberry was profoundly mentally ill. At the very least, he had ego problems out the ying yang: Trek was his show, his vision, his glory, and if the most popular episode of the show *wasn’t* his own doing officially, well, he’d just have to *make* it that way unofficially in Trek lore.
In 1987, the TOS episodes were just coming out on home video. Video Review magazine interviewed Roddenberry for his reminiscences about the show, and of course they talked about ‘City’

Video Review: That was a great episode.
Roddenberry: Yeah, it was a fun episode to do.
VR: Who wrote that?
Roddenberry: Well, it was a strange thing. Harlan Ellison wrote the first draft of it, but then he wouldn’t change it.
VR: That’s Harlan Ellison…
Roddenberry: Yeah. He had Scotty dealing drugs and it would have cost $200,000 more than I had to spend for an episode.
VR: That’s like E.T. wearing a coke spoon.
Roddenberry: When I called these things to Harlans’ attention, he said “You’ve sold out, haven’t you?” I said, “No, I haven’t sold out. I only have $180,000 to spend on an episode.” So I rewrote the episode. And his original won a Writers Guild award, but my rewrite won the Nebula award for actually being filmed.

Please note a number of untruths in this - firstly, Roddenberry’s version wasn’t actually written by Roddenberry, it was written by DC Fontana, and it didn’t win a Nebula. Furthermore, as the book goes in to great detail later on, it wasn’t $200,000 dollars over budget, it was only $60,000 over budget. Also, Harlan *was* willing to re-write scripts, and frequently did - gratis - he even won some awards for some of his rewrites, most notably the “Demon with a Glass Hand” episode of The Outer Limits, which was a complete conceptual re-working, not just twisting a few lines. And as to Scotty selling drugs, well, he doesn’t even appear in the episode!

Just a couple months after this, Alan Brennert wrote Video Review magazine to set the record straight. He said,

“In his interview…Gene Roddenberry states, not for the first time, that in Harlan Ellison’s “City on the Edge of Forever” Harlan “had Scotty dealing drugs” in his original draft of the scrip. Either Gene is seriously misremembering the script - it was, after all, 20 years ago - or he is deliberately perpetuating an untruth.
Scotty was not, for God’s sake, “Dealing Drugs.” In Harlan’s draft, there was, in fact, a subsidiary character named Beckwith aboard the Enterprise who dealt in “dream narcotics” called Jewels of Sound. In this version it is Beckwith, not McCoy who goes back in time and changes history. Beckwith was no more an integral character than any of the nameless ensigns who were routinely bumped off in the first act of almose every Star Trek episode.
I happen to like the version of “City on the Edge of Forever” that aired, but I also like and admire the original script…but Harlan cannot be maligned for making wholesale changes in the shows characters when those changes exist soley in Mr. Roddenberry’s flawed recollection.”

To which Roddenberry responded:

“Re your letter to “Video Review”, 10 February, subject Scotty dealing drugs in The City on the Edge of Forever, you are quite right in pointing out that I misremembered the script.

Harlan and I have since talked about it, and I believe he understands that I remembered a drug dealing crewman in his script and over the years erroneously thought of him as “Scotty.” As you must certainly realize, I had 78 other shows also on my mind during those three years.”

And there it should have stopped, right? Gene lies - or genuinely misremembers, either way - gets called on it, repents of his misdeed, and we’re done? But no, we’re not done. Within a month, Gene is again telling people at conventions that Harlan’s script “Had Scotty dealing drugs on the bridge of the Enterprise.” (In the version I most heard growing up.) Whether or not Gene legitimately misremembered up until this incident in 1987 - and it seems unlikely to me that he could be - it doesn’t matter because he is *Certainly* lying from this point on, deliberately misrepresenting facts to make himself look good and make Harlan - one of the most brilliant writers of our generation - appear as a buffoon who “Just doesn’t get it.”

It’s disgusting, really.

Well, from there the situation spirals out of control, with everyone in Hollywood, it seems, claiming to have either written the filmed version themselves, or have been in on it in some way, or at least knew ‘the real story.’ Harlan details some of these in the book, all the while giving us little asides about the Great Bird’s personal life, such as the incident when he ripped off John Meridith Lucas’ script “Nomad” and passed it off as his own original material; when he hired David Gerrold to put together the Writers’ Bible for The Next Generation, then fired him, merchandised the Bible mercilessly, and denied Gerrold had ever had anything to do with writing it; the time Gene talked his friends John and Bjo Trimble in to starting “Lincoln Enterprises” as their own company to merchandise Trek Wares so that Gene’s soon-to-be-ex wife (Eileen, whom he had kids with and cheated on mercilessly) wouldn’t be entitled to any of the profits as part of the divorce settlement, then had them sign it over to him once that was out of the way.

“You know why they cremated Gene? They were afraid people would come to piss on the grave,” says one Ex-Trek official in the book.

Now, it’s no real surprise that Roddenberry couldn’t write. Even the late Majel Roddenberry herself admitted (At a Vul-Con convention in Atlanta in the early 1990s) that Gene’s attempts at dialog were utterly unpronounceable, and then she’d rattle off several lines that she’d memorized as an example to the titters of all those around. It is sort of amazing that he insisted he could do it, however. And it makes sense that in the years since, with Trek becoming “As anally retentive a cult as the most obsessive True Believer could wish” (To quote Harlan), people would have become more and more aggressive about spreading Gene’s lies. We get details about this, examples of the true story getting accumulated beneath more and more detritus of falsehood, the Believers becoming more and more strident about Harlan’s cluelessness and Gene’s apotheosis, culminating in this little mention here that I think kind of is the bow on the package:

“Roddenberry’s character flaws included one that continued to get his ass in trouble year after year. And that flaw - oddly enough omitted from the “authorized” biography as written by David Alexander - was his need to subsume into his self perpetuating mythos of being El Supremo, every witticism, cleverly turned phrase, story-concept, deed of derring-do, noble thought or selfless action of anyone he met. If something was clever, or successful, or artful, it was his. If it was shit, it was ours. If something went wrong, it wasn’t *his* fault, it was the Conspiracy Theory machinations of invisible men in black who *actually* ran the Network; or it was evil, ungrateful, penny-pinching Paramount that was out to get him, or it was the fault of those unruly, tempermental writers who acted like cranky babies and who needed the stern - but Solomonically fair and kindly - hand of El Supremo to set them back on the path of righteousness: the path of fulfilling Gene’s dream and vision of himself as the incarnation of his wearingly repetitive god-surrogates (Adonis, V’Ger, Charlie X, The Squire of Gothos, Nomad, and Q, just to reprise a mere half-dozen of the Deity-as-Demento that Roddenberry either wrote himself or forced in to the work of others); or it was the evil ineptitude of Lurkers Within, the Iago or Brutus or Judas figures inside his own studio or production unit, who’s smiling faces masked their true intent to thwart his Great Plan to show the less-perfect human race that they could be Starswept and Galactic, if only they would pay heed to Gene Roddenberry’s immaculate view of human perfectibility. Flaws could not be permitted in the rest of the human monkey mass, but El Supremo was never to be confronted with his own teensy imperfections.”

I’m not qualified to armchair-psychoanalyze anyone, but I’ve seen this kind of extreme solipsism before in a couple people I’ve known - all Southerners like Gene - who were raised in a conservative, religious environment that bristled them, they rebelled against it, rejected God, and then basically spent the rest of their lives trying to convince themselves that *they* were as good as the God they’d excised. ‘You say we need Our Lord Jesus Christ to live in a peaceful, divine utopia where everyone has enough and is happy and fulfilled? Well that sounds like a dare to me! I’ll create my own socialist utopia where your God won’t be allowed, and then you’ll be sorry!’ Maybe I’m putting too fine a point on this - as I say, I’m certainly not qualified to judge a man I’ve never met - but in reading this book, I kept being reminded of the poor tortured souls I've personally know who think like that, ones who frustrated and angrily spend their lives in a vain effort to measure up to Something they don’t believe in the first place. I freely admit I may be wrong about this, but though wrong I may be, it kind of has the ring of truth to it.

Thus far, this essay has been more of an exercise in character assassination than a traditional book review. I’ve generally avoided mentioning the mechanics of exactly who screwed who, and how many times, and I haven’t much talked about the actual script itself. Partially this is because Harlan tells it so much better than I ever could. Partially it’s because I intend to review the script itself tomorrow, but mostly I think it’s because ultimately the script itself seems rather like a teacup in the larger tempest involved here - a titanic struggle of wills between two men, one who’s a pathetically mentally ill swinger who’s ego forces him to count himself as the master of limitless space, when in fact he’s merely a one trick pony (Though to be fair, it was a pretty good trick), and the other: one of the unquestioned great lights of literature in our age. In a struggle between these kinds of personalities - the bullshit artist, and the man who will tolerate no bullshit - conflict was inevitable. The actual trigger mechanism is almost irrelevant. While this book tells the story about the sad fate that befell Harlan’s script, in reality it’s as much *about* that as Moby Dick is really about a whale. We’ll save that for another day.

Moving on, Section III is the weakest part of the book. It’s not bad, mind you, but it lacks the narrative oomph of what came before. Essentially this is a series of afterwords from various interested parties. These range from the fascinating - DC Fontanna - to the ‘why bother’ - George Takai. There are a few others who are there for reasons I’m not entirely sure about. Melinda Snodgrass wasn’t on hand for any of the TOS events depicted here, I guess she’s intended as a kind of character witness for the prosecution.

Even so, many of these have some interesting points to make, which I’ll just let them tell you in their own words. On balance, it seems back up what we’ve already theorized above: That Gene was sorta’ messed up.

“For all the claims that Star Trek is genuine, realistic science fiction, nowhere is this more brought into question than in the dismissal of the notion that a Starfleet officer would ever behave in the manner we see Beckwith engaging in.

If we parallel Starfleet to the modern-day navy…Beckwith’s actions don’t seem to extraordinary at all. Not a whit, not a smidgen. But in a series which sought to explore infinite possibilities, Beckwith was just a tad *too* possible to make it on the air” --- Peter David

Shortly after this, Mr. David drives this point home even harder, showing how Roddenberry’s Vision was sacrosanct, even above the very ideas Trek allegedly set out to explore in the first place:

“We see, with the rewriting of Ellison’s script, that limits were set early-on as to just how far and how realistic Star Trek would be allowed to be in its themes, just how human (or alien) the characters would be allowed to be perceived.”

Later on, David Gerrold - who got shafted by Gene on more than one occasion - makes a few choice observations as well:

“If there is one thing that I have learned from Harlan - and also from Gene, albeit in an entirely different way - it is this: You *are* your word. Harlan Ellison understands this; I’m not sure that Gene Roddenberry ever did; but the difference between speaking a commitment and living it is the difference between eating the menu and eating the meal.”

He then goes on to say something beautiful and sad, and which could very well be our credo here at Republibot:

“Science Fiction used to be a dangerous literature. Now, it is a very commercial genre, and whatever dangers might still lurk within seem to have been safely sanitized for the marketplace. The real crime is that the lobotomy has been self-performed.”

And how much of this is Star Trek’s own fault for taking a genre intended for smart people and re-patterning it for non-thinkers who only like to believe they’re smart? Quite a bit, as he states later on:

“A television show like Star Trek shouldn’t be polite. It should be unafraid and passionate. It should startle and disturb and leave your view of the universe shaken. It should expand your vision of what’s possible in the world.”

It should, it certainly could, but we all know that’s not their goal, don’t we? Nor was it ever, at least according to this book.

Melinda Snodgrass concurs:

“’The City on the Edge of Forever’ is not a comfortable script. There is nobility and sacrifice, but there is also pain and imperfection on these pages. No wonder Gene Roddenberry wanted it rewritten.
I came aboard Star Trek: The Next Generation, and within weeks discovered I was bound in a creative straightjacket. The directive had come down from on high - my people are perfect. Star Fleet is perfect. The Federation is perfect. Only the little fuzzy-wuzzies possess flaws, and our mission is to seek them out and set them straight.”

Elsewhere, she notes:

“In Gene’s universe, love is established by people standing around telling each other how much they love each other and never doing a damn thing about it.”

This seems a fitting point to me to stop at. As we’ve noted elsewhere on this site, the Trekiverse is strangely lacking in the aspects of life that Gene - and presumably Trekies themselves - find tedious. There’s no money, there’s no politics, there’s no greed, there’s no ambition, there’s no culture, no music, no art, and above all, there’s no love. And if there is no love, then there can be no drama, really. In the end, this book strongly suggests that Trek was never about drama or telling stories, or even being interesting. Rather, it paints Gene Roddenberry as a massively defective man who was simply spinning a screed about how he’d run the universe if he were in charge, independent of any constraint, free of any restriction, an unlimited despot, benevolent, so long as no one questioned or crossed him.

In the end, what makes this book utterly fascinating and totally worth reading is that it paints a wrestling match between a man who would be God, and an atheist who refuses to believe in that man.

And God bless him for it!

Strongly, strongly, strongly recommended!

Tags: