Captain's Blog pt. 72: The City on the Edge of Forever

For this week's Saturday Night Trek Showcase, let's turn our attention to that most celebrated episode of the Trekverse:

April 6, 1967
Lots of ground to cover, so let's dig right in.

Title: (3) Even though the city referenced only exists in Harlan Ellison's original script, it's still a hell of a title. (And it's not like there isn't a city on the edge of forever in the final version: it's just in 1930.)

Visual Design: (2.75)

Nice costumes for Ms. Keeler, throughout.

The city street sights should look familiar to fans of the Andy Griffith Show or Mayberry R.F.D.

As for the Guardian itself (which Dorothy Fontana refers to as "a lopsided donut") Harlan's original script called for "rune stones," but Roland Brooks (stepping in for an ill Matt Jefferies) misread this as "ruins." By the time Jefferies returned, the set was already built and would have been too costly to strike.

Fontana continues: "(It was me who) inserted the running joke of Spock's tricorder growing larger and more complicated with mechanical additions each time it was seen. Naturally, he was hampered by the fact that the tools he needed hadn't been invented yet. ("I am endeavoring,  ma'am, to construct a mnemonic memory circuit using Stone knives and bear skins.") Thus the octopus-like appearance of the contraption and its continual growth."

When I first saw this episode, I was a little unclear on what happened to the bum after McCoy passes out in the gutter. Did he shoot himself? Did the phaser overload? If it did, why was the effect so localized? I tried to express my confusion to the best of my 10-years-old ability. My Mom told me "He beamed up to the Enterprise."

But the Enterprise isn't there, I said. "Well, that's why he died," she replied. My Dad immediately disagreed, and I missed the next five minutes of the show as they argued back and forth. This may be the first family-Trek-squabble I remember from the 1980s McMillan household. Certainly not the last. My parents never argued any of this in anger or anything - don't get the wrong idea. It was just part of how I grew up.

Kirk and the Gang: (50) In his his essay in the appendix of Harlan Ellison's bitchfest The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay That Became the Classic Star Trek Episode, Peter David writes that the changed ending from Ellison's original to the televised version robs the ending of its punch and Kirk's character arc of its relevance. I don't know what episode he's watching or what Trek fans he's talked to, but this could not be further from the truth. The last line of this episode and the emotional anguish leading up to it is conveyed pretty much perfectly. No one's robbed of anything. And to skip ahead (spoiler alert) to the Script/Theme section, it packs way more emotional wallop/ completes the arc much better in the finished version.

Uhura, Scotty et al. don't get much to do, sure. But as far as showcase-work for the leads, it's dynamite.
"We're... totally alone."
I've linked to 100 Names in 100 Seconds, that great mash-up of "The Immunity Syndrome," before, but here it is again. I mention it because "City" contains some of the all-time greatest yelling-each-other's-names of all TOS.

Probably the finest "BONES!" ever bellowed.
There's a particularly fine "....Spock!" here (above), but it pales in comparison to the one at the end. Here it is in slow-mo:

This is immediately preceded by a rather epic "Mc-Coy??" and followed by another epic "Spo-oc-ccck!" as Kirk charges across the street.

Bones' lost weekend in spacetime consumes a glorious amount of screentime:


(I've said it before, but it bears repeating: You! What Planet Is This?! would make a fine tombstone epitaph. No name, just that.)

Not to jump ahead, but this is so much better than the Jewels of Sound idea in Ellison's original script. 

Guest: (4.5) Edith Keeler was based on Aimee Semple McPherson, a prominent evangelist of the 1920s and 30s:

but she will forever be synonymous not with Ms. McPherson but:

Sister? Easy to forget that Kirk's essentially carrying on with a nun in this episode.
To folks of my generation, Joan Collins is remembered mainly as Alexis Colby on Dynasty.

But to audiences in 1967, she was Warren Beatty's glamorous girlfriend, one of the era's premier bombshells and sought-after leading ladies. A real coup for the series.

As George Takei notes in his review of this (in one of the aforementioned appendices to the Ellison book) "Edith Keeler is the personification of truest virtue." And it must be said that Collins does a great job with the role. She has better chemistry with Shatner than any woman he's been similarly paired with in Trek. It's easy to see both why Kirk is so taken with her and how she could have inspired a generation to pursue peace so diligently. Ellison writes:

"If you've read the script, you will remember that Edith Keeler is a humanitarian whose philosophy is one of kindness and compassion. It is stated that she develops a coherent identifiable philosophy that many people in that post-World-War-1, semi-isolationist society found appealing. It is set forth in the teleplay that her philosophy catches on - something like Scientology but without the phony scams - and it is sufficiently appealing that it produces a tone in the body politic that briefly keeps America out of the war against Hitler. A brief period that permits the development of the first atomic bomb not by America but by the Third Reich, and that leads to Germany winning World War 2."

He continues: "And how does the Bimbo Queen Joan Collins remember this glorious role that even now she is asked repeatedly about? (Quotes from her biography Inside Joan Collins.) '(Edith Keeler) tries to prove to the world that Hitler is a nice guy. She is quite probably a Nazi plant. She is in love with Adolf Hitler, while Bill Shatner as Captain Kirk falls in love with her while Dr. Spock - he of the ears - allows her to get run over by a truck lest her teachings lead the world to utter destruction.' It seems this journey "inside" Joan Collins (reminds one) of a visit to a forlorn, empty venue where the wind whistles forever across a sterile terrain."

Aww. But that is pretty muddleheaded, to be sure. I'm always puzzled when actors can bungle the details of their most iconic roles so badly. Understandable to some degree, but a tad disappointing.

Script and Story: (10/10) Now we come to the heart of the matter. As anyone reading this knows, Harlan Ellison and Gene Roddenberry clashed repeatedly about how his script was revised and how Ellison felt like the studio got free rewrites out of him. Adding further fuel to the fire: Roddenberry repeated several mischaracterizations of Ellison's original script at conventions and in interviews, ("He had Scotty dealing drugs on the Enterprise," "Harlan's original script would have cost $500,000," etc.) Despite personally promising Ellison he would stop doing so once called out on it, several times, he never did, and the two had a falling out so bad that Ellison eventually wrote the aforementioned book, whereupon he meticulously lays out his side of the story with customary vitriol. 

Beyond this, though, is the matter of Ellison's original script vs. the finished, televised version.

Ellison's version features a morally bankrupt character named Beckwith in the McCoy role, literal Guardians of Forever, (i.e. tall, alien beings who guard the portal,) a strange narcotic called "The Jewels of Sound" to which a character named Lebeque is addicted, a veteran of Verdun named Trooper,  and a different ending. (See below) When time resumes its normal shape, Beckwith is punished for all eternity in the exploding heart of a supernova, and Spock tells his Captain, "No woman was ever loved so much, Jim, for no woman was ever offered the universe for love."

Let's turn this over to Dorothy Fontana: "Harlan's original script was brilliant. (...)If it had been written for an anthology show such as The Outer Limits, undoubtedly it would have been shot almost without change. Unfortunately, it was not best suited to a series format. As the reader readily can see, the plot problem (the change in history) is brought about by characters who are strangers to the audience, LeBeque and Beckwith. The result of Beckwith's meddling with the past is that the Enterprise is now the Condor, a raider ship with a crew of renegades. Once the situation is established, it is seen again only once, in a flash cut, leaving the audience to wonder how the few defenders in the transporter room are doing while Kirk and Spock are in the past.

"It is almost the end of the second act before Kirk and Spock see Edith Keeler - and at that moment, Spock realizes Edith is the focal point of the time change because of clues the Guardian of Forever gave them. Kirk does not meet Edith face to face until Act Three, so their personal relationship is short (though no less deep.)"

Here I must interject; I find it substantially less deep. This is my main beef with Ellison's original. Maybe if he'd gotten the chance for a few more rewrites, I don't know. I like the "universe for love" line, but it's just not supported in-text. We don't get the time to truly believe that he loves her that much.

Back to Fontana: "Kirk loves her despite the fact that he knows she must die. He loves her despite the even more cruel fact that he knows he cannot lift a hand to save her. At the climax of the story, it is Beckwith who reaches out to save Edith and Spock stops him while Kirk (unable to) looks on in grief."

Before we get into the rewrites, here are my thoughts on his original script: 1) Fontana is absolutely right to point out the structural problems; it's like a textbook example of how not to effectively introduce/ manage characters. Again, all we have are treatments and not finished, polished drafts, but given his attachment to his own approach, I think the structural problems would have remained. 2) Beckwith is just a terrible character, incongruent to the Trekverse, and a stupid name to boot. 3) The Jewels of Sound are distracting. They have no significance to anything for the rest of the story. They're simply created as a "space drug" for LeBeque (another extraneous character) to be addicted to, so he can turn on Beckwith, who can then kill him and thus be hunted, thus get to the planet, thus jump through the Guardian. It's four or five layers of artifice too many.

4) Beckwith's punishment at the end: why would the Guardians of Forever choose such a fate for the guy? As written, they are aloof are fantastically ineffective, yet they possess this sort of power/ milieu for punishment? More importantly, why would such superior beings employ such torture? and 5) As mentioned above, the romantic connection between Edith and Kirk doesn't land.

As for the rewrites: "Gene Coon took the first crack at it. As I recall, primarily he came up with structural changes, eliminating LeBeque and Beckwith and substituting McCoy as the catalyst. The pirates disappeared - " (NOTE: The pirates weren't in Ellison's original, it should be noted; he only added them to his own rewrite when Roddenberry told him there wasn't enough action.) - "In fact, the entire ship vanished because of the tampering with history. Kirk met Edith sooner, and dialogue and some relationships were changed. (...) Harlan hated it."

Next came Fontana's turn: "I invented cordrazine to put McCoy into a temporary madness. I tried to build the relationship of love between Edith and Kirk gently and meaningfully so her death would be the most wrenching personal moment Kirk would ever know." And it certainly is/ was.

"Harlan liked this draft a little better but not much. Gene Roddenberry decided to rewrite it himself, and it was his version which became the shooting script. Harlan's general structure was there, as were his major characters and the main conflict of the story. What Roddenberry did was make it more Star Trek."

I wish she'd elaborated on that last point a little bit. I wonder what exactly he added to make it "more Star Trek." When all was said and done, only a few lines from Ellison's original script remained in the episode. As Fontana goes on to note, it's exceedingly rare to go to such lengths and try and keep the writer involved, especially in 1967 but even today. I'm sympathetic to aspects of Ellison's argument, but he comes off at least as bad in his diatribe as Roddenberry does in later years when he misrepresented the situation. For me, the episode as aired is measurably superior.

Ellison isn't the only one whose ideas didn't make it onto the screen. DeForest Kelley writes of how he suggested to Pevney (the director) that the story would have even greater resonance if McCoy falls in love with Edith himself. Pevney agreed to try it. A bit of this is hinted at:

but the few lines he added to explicitly convey it ("You have the biggest eyes I've ever seen" and some smitten glances) were filmed but cut from the episode. I do like the character of Trooper. Despite how randomly he appears in the story, there are a couple of nice lines and moments with him. I can't get enough of WW1 stuff. It's emblematic of the main problem, though: yet another character alien to the Trekverse carrying a sizable portion of the story's emotional load.

"Let's get the hell out of here."

Interior Logistics: (2.5) The only thing I'd like to bring up here is that McCoy seems convinced everyone is an assassin and a murderer until he sees the bum on Old Earth, whom he's convinced is someone like himself, separate from the assassins. I'm not sure if this is because he's "coming down" or just a blip in his space-meth hallucinations, but it's noticeably inconsistent. (Though certainly pretty fun.)

Memorability: (20) Anyone have the commemorative plate, perchance?

Available on eBay for about $120. People are nuts.
Total Points Awarded: 102.75

"Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway."


  1. The set looks like that because of a TYPO?!? Wow. That's a pretty damn fortuitous typo.

    I used to have a copy of that Harlan Ellison book. I wish I still did; I'm an Ellison fan (in theory, at least -- I've only read maybe half a dozen of his short stories, plus that book), so I'm interested in what he's saying. And sympathetic, to a degree, even though he's clearly a jackass who needed very badly to be able to learn to let go of shit once in a while. I actually don't remember that Peter David essay, possibly because it sounds like the work of a moron.

    That clip of Aimee Semple McPherson -- whom I had never heard of -- was awesome. I have a sort of philosophical opposition to her, I guess; but at the same time, she seems so sweet and pleasant. And a little crazy, too. I kinda dig her.

    How long can it possibly be until one of the various semi-pro Star Trek fan-film organizations film a version of this episode using Ellison's script? Like you, I think the produced version is better; but still, it'd be cool to have a filmed version of Ellison's as a comparison piece.

    Great episode; unquestionably one of the highlights of the entire franchise. If only for "he fell into...a mechanical rice picker."

  2. " If only for "he fell into...a mechanical rice picker.""

    Great line. (Gene Coon's contribution, I believe.) From the same scene, anytime I have the opportunity to say "I recognize the traditional... accoutrements," I take it.

    I'd love to see Phase 2 or Trek Continues film the original script, absolutely. Or for IDW to put out an adaptation, for that matter.

    Have you seen Dreams With Sharp Teeth, the Ellison documentary? Great stuff.

    I was a big fan of the Dream Corridor comics based on his work, as well. Even if he wrote himself in as a Cryptkeeper/ Rod Serling sort of narrator/ host, and that stuff went on for agonizing lengths of time. I love some of his work and would love to read all of it, someday, and certainly will. He IS a jackass, though.

    I've always found it very amusingly telling that if you took out the Forewards and Afterwords to each story in either of his "Dangerous Visions" collections, you'd decrease the page count by about 100 pages. Says a lot about the guy. "Shut up and play your guitar," as Zappa once said.

    1. "Dreams With Sharp Teeth," you say? I have never heard of it, but am immediately interested.

    2. Dreams with Sharp Teeth is a great documentary on Ellison. It really humanizes him. It shades a bit over into being a bit of a love letter to the guy, but the sheer volume of love showered on him by everyone from major figures in literature and scifi to the average reader shows he can't be as much of a jackass as he likes to portray himself as.

  3. I'm a big fan of Ellison. His writing is just incredible; his intros and outros in the Dangerous Visions books are some of the best stuff in them, in my opinion. He does come across as a jackass, but his friends and defenders are legion; this is mostly because Ellison is always punching up in his attacks and diatribes. He has short man's syndrome, in that he picks the biggest guy in the room to fight with. Is he aggravating? Oh hell yeah. I get irritated with him myself a good bit of the time. But he's a true living legend, the type of artist we need most in the world, one that doesn't mistake volume for profundity, yet combines the two.

    The City on the Edge of Forever book blew me away when I first bought it new. I tore through it, and laughed myself to tears the whole way in the commentary/diatribe section. The various script drafts fascinated me, and there are images and moments I wish had made it into the final product. However, the biggest flaw that was pointed out, the inclusion of two new characters to carry the plot, is just too big a problem to ignore. Ellison was still becoming the master he is, and at the time his ego outstripped his experience and skill.

    Those drafts of his do make me wish he'd been given a show of his own to work on. With any luck, David Gerrold's Star Wolf project will actually get put into production; Gerrold is one of those loyal and vocal friends of Ellison, and it'd be great to see Harlan given free rein on as many episodes as he wants. One can only hope.

    On the other hand, Ellison went on to co-create The Starlost. It's basically a reverse-Trek, with the protagonists exploring strange new worlds, but within their own starship. The show is just awful. Ellison foreshadowed Alan Moore by decades and almost instantly disavowed it. The thing is, you can see the kind of themes and ideas Ellison is known for in it, and you can sense in The Starlost a spiritual kinship to the CotEoF scripts. Walter Koenig even makes a couple of guest-starring appearances, though they're pretty awful. Later, much later, Ellison and Koenig would both figure into yet another scifi series, Babylon 5.

    So what does all this have to do with CotEoF? Not much, beyond showing that Ellison is both capable of coming up with fantastic ideas for TV, but is too truculent to avoid falling out with everyone he works with for any length of time, and is too quick to dismiss any revision of his work. I think Trek would have been immeasurably enriched had he written a few more scripts for the show.

    1. I've always been curious about "The Starlost," but never enough to actually find it and watch it. It'll happen someday, though.

      I saw Ellison speak at Dragon*Con a few years ago, and he was great. Even if he IS a jackass, it doesn't negate the genius. And I've always felt that geniuses probably ought to be given a little extra leniency, anyways. That probably makes me an elitist, and I'm okay with that.

      I agree that the inclusion of the two non-series characters in his original script are probably the big sticking point. Then as now, that seems like something you'd only do if you're trying to get your screenplay rejected.

    2. Nice Ellison reflection here from Herb Solow's wife:


    3. Sounds as if Ellison is probably the sort of guy who is great to the people he chooses to be great to, and maybe a bit less great to those who offend him in some way.

      I've got no beef with that. Life's too short to go around being nice to EVERYONE.

  4. Best damn Star Trek episode ever!

    This episode, more than any other, demonstrated how Spock completed Kirk. Yes, Kirk was in command and outranked him. But Spock made Kirk and Kirk on his own would have been a less formidable character.

    I accept Ellison's gripes as valid. Nobody writer wants to have his work tampered with -- especially if he is confident that it is top notch. Ellison's script is top notch to be sure. But it was Gene's show and Gene knew what he wanted and knew what would work in Star Trek. I like Ellison's story and concept, but I love Roddenberry's final product.