Many people don’t know the name of Harlan Ellison today.
Ask a Star Trek fan about “The City on the Edge of Forever” and they will light up. It’s a beloved episode. It won a Hugo Award in 1967. It was a sophisticated episode, bold and fresh with it’s premise that one ordinary person’s life or death can set off a chain of events that alters life for billons. The episode has Joan Collins as Edith Keeler. Collins is best known for her role on the show “Dynasty”.
What people don’t know is that the episode they have seen and loved is not exactly what Harlan wrote because it was edited several times by other writers, D.C. Fontana, Gene Coon, Steven W. Carabatsos, and Roddenberry himself. This caused Harlan to do everything in his power to get his name off that episode. The ruckus he started over what happens a lot in Hollywood, has been affectionately known as “Harlan Ellison’s war against Star Trek”.
The episode, which aired April 6th 1967, that we all know features Doctor McCoy accidentally injecting himself with cordrazine. This was a powerful and dangerous drug. The accidental injection happens when the Enterprise is rocked by a time distortion while in orbit around a planet. He is able to escape the Enterprise and beam to the planet below. Captain Kirk and Spock, with a landing party, beam down to find McCoy. McCoy slips past them and enters a mysterious gateway. Kirk and Spock then lose communication contact with the Enterprise and find the gateway to be sentient and calls itself “The Guardian of Forever”. He tells Kirk and Spock that McCoy has altered the timeline on Earth, and the Enterprise and the Federation don’t exist anymore. The Guardian of Forever permits Kirk and Spock to go through, find McCoy and stop him from altering anything.
They arrive in 1930 in New York City. They befriend Edith Keeler, who helps them by giving them a place to live, sleep, and jobs. Spock tries to unravel the puzzle of what event changes the timeline by altering his tricorder and studying events. Meanwhile, Kirk spends time with Edith and starts to fall in love with her.
McCoy arrives in 1930, and stumbles into Mission 21, Edith’s place. She nurses him back to health but is not seen by either Spock or Kirk.
Spock completes his studies of the timeline to find that Edith is a point of convergence they had been looking for. In their timeline she is fated to die by being hit by a car. If she does not die, she will lead a movement of pacifism that delays the US entering WW2 and allows the Nazis to develop atomic weapons.
Spock tells Kirk, after he admits his feelings for her, that she must die to keep billions alive and restore the future.
On their way to see a movie, Edith tells Kirk about McCoy. Excited he tells Edith to stay put and goes to call Spock. The three reunite at the Mission. Curious, Edith goes to cross the street. A fast moving truck starts to come down the street. Kirk turns to save her but Spock shouts at him and he keeps McCoy from saving her.
She is hit and killed. History is restored. Love is lost. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy return to the Guardian’s planet. He offers more adventures in time but Kirk replies, "Let's get the hell out of here,” they depart for the Enterprise.
In Harlan’s script the structure of the episode we know is there. The big changes are the removal of a murderous drug-dealing crew member (which was not McCoy), which Roddenberry rejected because it did not align with his vision of the idealized future society he had created. The alternate future has space pirates(by request of Roddenberry in early drafts), 9 foot aliens instead of the more budget friendly talking portal, and a World War I veteran named Trooper.
What really sets it apart is that Spock makes the choice, not Kirk, to let Edith die. Ellison saw Kirk as a man too passionate to allow the logic of what must be to override his heart. Roddenberry believed that Kirk could do it.
Fans still debate if Kirk could have or couldn’t have done it.
Harlan Ellison, writer of 1800 short stories, screenplays, and novellas, was known that once he was angry, he stayed angry for a long time. He absolutely held grudges. Once going, it was like an avalanche of anger falling down on his target.
He hated being pigeonholed. He hated the ordinary, the average, the bland.
He also hate being called a science fiction writer to the point where he stated, “Call me a science fiction writer, I’ll come to your house and I’ll nail your pet’s head to a coffee table. I’ll hit you so hard your ancestors will die.”
Harlan Ellison’s main grudge with Gene Roddenberry, at first, was that his name was the only credit for Writer.
This was an untruth that Harlan could not abide. He asked to have his name taken off. He loved Star Trek, had fought to save its first season, but he couldn’t allow his name to be on something that truly wasn’t his. He relinquished and backed down finally, which would be the last time he did so.
“City on the Edge of Forever” was instantly a hit with TV viewers. It won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation. Ellison did accept the prize. He announced, in true Harlan fashion, that he was dedicating it to “the memory of the script they butchered, and in respect to those parts of it that had the vitality to shine through the evisceration.”
The feud between the two went on for decades.
Roddenberry responded by saying that Harlan’s version was too dark, big budget, and too over the top. He said, demeaning Ellison’s Hugo win, “many people would get prizes if they wrote scripts that budgeted out to three times the show’s cost.”
Ellison was also angry, despite his single credit, that much of the money made of this episode of Star Trek never made it to him.
In 1975 Ellison published the original version of the script in his collection of “Six Science Fiction Plays” allowing Star Trek fans to explore his version and Roddenberry’s after selling it at conventions for years.
Harlan Ellison, always has the last word. That word may last 90 pages. Once set off, he would say his piece until he felt it was said.
Harlan waited till 1995, four years after Gene Roddenberry’s death. He again published the original script, two treatments for the episode, testimonials from Nimoy, Fontana and Kelley, as well as others, and a new introduction from Ellison.
The tone of this introduction bellies the anger, in true Harlan style:
“Speak no ill of the dead?
Oh, really? Then let’s forget about a true introductory essay to this book. Let’s give a pass to setting the record straight. Let’s just shrug and say, ah, what the hell, it’s been more than thirty years and the bullshit has been slathered on with a trowel for so damned long, and so many greedy little pig-snouts have made so much money off those lies, and so many inimical forces continue to dip their pig-snouts in that Star Trek trough of bullshit that no one wants to hear your miserable bleats of “unfair! unfair” … that it ain’t worth the price of admission, Ellison.”
This goes on for 90 pages. Let it never be said that Ellison was laconic.
Still toward the end of his time on this Earth, Harlan finally did come to a peace in regard to a show and an episode that is truly beloved by the fans.
“The solitary creator, dreaming his or her dream, unaided, seems to me to be the only artist we can trust.” – Harlan Ellison
Star Trek would not be what it was without his words. He built an episode that would inspire many. His ripples of writing can still be seen.
But still, he never watched it. Stubborn, full of pride, a man who made himself tall standing on the stacks of the mammoth body of work left to us.
Harlan Ellison passed away June 28th 2018.