The City on the Edge of Forever by Harlan Ellison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I don’t typically give five stars to stories. I also don’t typically read teleplays, screenplays, or scripts. But this combined three things into an irresistible package.
1. It’s Star Trek. Though I’m not as impressed by the series as I was when I was younger, the reboot got me interested again. I mean, a Kirk with emotional scars from losing his dad? Awesome. I hoped to find that same feel here.
2. It’s Harlan Ellison. I’ve read his essays and seen the Outer Limits episodes he wrote. I liked them. When I heard he had written a Gritty Star Trek Episode, I couldn’t help myself.
3. It’s a love story. I’m always a sucker for a good love story.
There are several other reasons to download this book, though. Harlan’s rant/intro, once you get past the justified anger, gives a disturbing picture of the inside of Star Trek. It’s a barrage of facts regarding how the original teleplay (and Harlan) had been increasingly maligned over the years by Roddenberry.
And yeah, I’d heard about Scotty selling drugs as part of the original story (he doesn’t). Inserting drug abuse into the Star Trek universe is part of what intrigued me about the story because, as I got older, I realized Star Trek, as seen by Roddenberry, is a pipe dream. It will never be real. Corruption will continue to exist as long as humans remain human and are susceptible to pain.
There are several versions of the episode in this book, all the way from rough idea to completed first draft. There’s even a couple of alternate scenarios for getting the away team down to the planet, including one with McCoy that makes more sense than what actually aired. So, another reason to get this, from a writing standpoint, is to see a master developing his story.
The teleplay itself, the first draft (May 13, 1966 treatment) is amazing. The opening scene with Beckwith, the drug-dealing officer, and the Jewels of Sound hooked me. It carried me through some slower (and beautiful) scenes with the Guardians of Forever (who look nothing like a glowing, stone doughnut). The time vortex was far more beautiful in this than I expected.
But the heart of this story is the incredible love between Kirk and Edith Keeler. Though I’d enjoyed the episode as it aired, I didn’t think much of the romance. I mean, Kirk didn’t really love Edith. When she was gone, he shrugged and turned back to his ship, the true love of his life.
Not here. In this teleplay, you feel it as they begin to become each other’s world. More than that, you realize that if they had stayed together, their drive and idealism could have made some truly amazing things happen.
Parallel to this is an exploration of the depth of friendship that exists between Kirk and Spock, something that wouldn’t show up until a few movies later. The test of that friendship as Kirk questions the goal he’d had when they first went back in time is as heart-rending as Kirk’s struggle with his duty as ship’s captain.
But the ending is what made the teleplay for me. It has far more emotional depth than the aired episode. Kirk doesn’t shrug. The ship doesn’t comfort him. It’s the kind of ending that demands several episodes to resolve, if it ever could. Loving Edith changed Kirk. Because of that, I can see why it didn’t air. Still, it’s a shame. I couldn’t get Ellison’s story out of my head for days afterward.