Fun Fact - The City on the Edge of Forever

What's your favorite original Star Trek episode?

If you are typical, you will answer, "The City on the Edge of Forever." This is the overwhelming fan favorite, and the critics agree, granting it the Hugo award for outstanding science fiction in 1968. I suppose it's my favorite too, although selecting one episode out of 78 is tough - I'd feel more comfortable choosing my top five, or top ten.

There was one other original Star Trek episode that received a Hugo award - can you guess which one? For extra credit, skip ahead 25 years - the next television program to receive a Hugo award was an episode from Star Trek The Next Generation - can you guess which one?

Answer: The Menagerie also received a Hugo award in 1968. This two-part episode used scenes from the unaired pilot, and expanded its plot to create a compelling story. Turning to Next Gen, The Inner Light was given a Hugo award in 1993. In case you don't know all the Next Gen episodes by title, here is a brief synopsis. An unknown probe approaches the Enterprise and locks onto Captain Picard's mind through an energy beam. He seems to be unconscious, but he is actually living out the life of Kamin, a well respected citizen in the village of Ressik, on a planet called Kataan, circling a star that went nova long ago. Kataan was destroyed, but its people were able to build and launch this probe before they succumbed to the inexorable drought caused by the ever-expanding star. Their culture lives on through the life experiences that were passed into Picard's mind. Picard lived as Kamin for many decades, yet the neural transfer only took 25 minutes. This is a wonderful story - if you haven't seen it, call up Netflix and watch it - and if you have seen it, you might want to watch it again, it's that good.

Ok, that's enough Star Trek trivia, let's return to The City. The teleplay was written by Harlan Ellison, a master of science fiction. He won a Hugo award for his play, quite apart from the Star Trek episode. The original play and the Star Trek episode differ significantly, and the differences did not sit well with Ellison. It is not an exaggeration to say he hated the show. The fans loved it, and the critics loved it, but the author did not. This is not unusual. Stephen King did not like the movie The Shining, saying, "Kubrick just couldn't grasp the sheer inhuman evil of The Overlook Hotel." Anthony Burgess didn't like A Clockwork Orange: "The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about." Madeleine L'Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, was asked whether the television adaptation of her book met her expectations. "Yes," she replied, "I expected it to be bad, and it is." Yet Ellison's discontent with the rendering of his play seems to go beyond the typical "That wasn't what I had in mind" dissonance. He really really didn't like the resulting Star Trek episode, calling it "a thalidomide baby version of my script." He accepted his awards and accolades "in memory of the script they butchered, and in respect to those parts of it that had the vitality to shine through the evisceration." Those are some pretty strong emotions.

Reviewing various wikipedia articles, and the relevant page on the Ellison website, I find three primary disgruntlements, though other, lesser concerns may lurk beneath the surface.

  1. Ellison's original script describes a race of Guardians, who are the keepers of time. These beings were written out of the story and replaced with a single, stationary object known as the Guardian of Forever. Kirk asks, "Are you machine or being?", and the mysterious entity replies, "I am both, and neither. I am my own beginning, my own ending." So why the change?

    We must remember that Star Trek was forced to live within a miserly budget. In The Naked Time, the biohazard suits are constructed from an inexpensive orange shower curtain. Turning to other props, discarded styrofoam packing inserts, when properly spray painted, served as high tech devices in the engine room, and the handheld probe on the medical tricorder is a modified salt shaker. With this as backdrop, Roddenberry couldn't afford a throng of Guardians: actors, costumes, make-up, etc. Let's be honest, a large glowing ring is cheaper.

    Another cost-saving revision involves the alternate timeline caused by the change in history. Ellison describes an Enterprise run by pirates, and there's nothing wrong with that on the page, but once again Roddenberry couldn't afford a crew of extras with pirate costumes, so instead he just winks the Enterprise out of existence. With these changes, the episode rolls in on schedule, and just a bit over budget, $250,000 versus $180,000.

    Personally I think these changes / omissions do not detract from the story - if anything they allow us to focus on the central theme, the conflict between Kirk's deep love for Edith Keeler and his responsibility to the future.

    Spock: "Save her, do as your heart tells you to do, and millions will die who did not die before."

  2. In the original script, the Guardians identify Edith Koestler, later renamed Edith Keeler, as the focal point in time, with no further explanation. Kirk and Spock speculate, positing several pivotal roles that she might play, but the question remains unresolved. Trusting the Guardians, Kirk and Spock allow Keeler to die in a traffic accident, as she was meant to do, without knowing how she might have changed history had she lived. I find this a bit unsatisfying. "What's so special about her?" Apparently the Star Trek writers felt the same way. They developed a plausible explanation, wherein Keeler, "founder of the peace movement", delays U.S. entry into World War II. This in turn gives the Nazis time to develop the atomic bomb and conquer the world. (Reminds me of A Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury.) This was one of several alternate timelines suggested in Ellison's original script, but Roddenberry made it clear that this was indeed the path that history would take if Keeler survives. I think a historian would quibble with this particular butterfly effect. By early 1941, the United States was barely engaged, but on December 7 of that year, every dove had become a hawk, and the nation threw itself headlong into the war effort. So really, how much could Keeler have delayed our entry into the war? A couple months maybe? Certainly not one day past December 7. Still, any explanation is better than none, and this one seems semi-believable if you don't look at it too closely. Furthermore, the use of stone knives and bear skins to tease the answer out of Spock's tricorder provides some comic relief.

    Since one of Ellison's timelines was selected, what's the problem? It can be summarized in the ambiguity of these two lines of dialog.

    Kirk: "She was right, peace was the way."

    Spock: "She was right - but at the wrong time."

    This begs the question, when is the right time for peace? When can we finally stop going to war? Ellison had to wonder if the unspoken answer to this question is, "Not yet. Not until the Red Menace is wiped off the face of the earth." The Vietnam War was escalating, and Ellison knew damn well we didn't belong there. This put him squarely in the minority, just as precious few spoke out against the blunderous Iraq War when it began. (I knew it was crap when I saw Colin Powell's PowerPoint presentation, frightening militeristic crap, but unfortunately I wasn't running the country in 2003.) Did this episode of Star Trek, with his name on it, suggest that the Vietnam War, like World War II, was morally justified? Should we fight on, to prevent something horrible from happening in the future? Is the peace movement laden with naive idiots? well fear not Mr. Ellison, I don't think most viewers interpreted it that way. To my mind, Spock views World War II as an anomaly in human history. It was perhaps the only wrong time for peace. Certainly Star Trek strives for peace in its other episodes, as when peace is forced upon us by the Organians. "No I won't kill him." Kirk says to the Metrons, refusing to start a war with the Gorn. Humans and Klingons are forced to get along in The Day of the Dove, Kirk puts an end to war in A Taste of Armageddon, and Assignment: Earth points out the folly of our nascent nuclear arms race. I could go on. The whole of Star Trek tells us that peace is the way in the mid 60's and forever more.

  3. The greatest deviation between the page and the screen occurs at the end, as a truck is barreling down upon Edith Keeler. Does Kirk let her die in order to set things right, even though he is deeply in love with her? In Ellison's script, he does not. Kirk's love dominates his logic and his responsibility to the future. Spock is the one who must step forward and prevent Beckwith, (later changed to Dr. McCoy), from saving her life. If Kirk had his way, he would live happily ever after with his new love, and the galaxy be damned. As a one-off story, this makes perfect sense. It's a love story, and only the cold logic of a Vulcan can save the day. However, as a star trek episode, the story exists in a greater context. Kirk is the captain, the invincible captain, the one who shakes off the spores in This Side of Paradise through sheer force of will, while Spock, with his Vulcan logic, sits around and looks at clouds. Kirk is the hero of the story, almost every week, and it would be inconsistent for him to fall at the feet of Edith Keeler.

    I can see why this revision would stick in Ellison's craw - it's a tectonic shift registering 7.2 on the Richter scale. But I can also see why Roddenberry felt it was necessary. In other words, both men are right.

In the end, there is room enough in our hearts for the original script and the tv episode. Both can be praised and enjoyed for what they are. Both won awards, and deservedly so. The ongoing acrimony doesn't serve us, and should not be allowed to tarnish these two extraordinary works.

Allow me to close with one more nugget of Star Trek Trivia. Gene Roddenberry's wife Majel appeared in the original series as Christine Chapel, Dr. McCoy's assistant, and in The Next Generation as Lwaxana Troi, Deanna's mother. She was also the voice of the computer in both series, as well as Voyager and Deep Space 9. Gene Roddenberry, however, never appeared in any Star Trek episode or movie, and his voice was heard only once. He had just one line, consisting of two brief sentences, in an early episode of the original series. What was the episode, and what did he say?

Charlie X, second episode to air. Kirk wishes he could serve turkey for Thanksgiving instead of meatloaf. Charlie hears this, and makes it happen, trying to do something nice for the crew. Gene, as the chef, expresses his confusion over the intercom.

"Sir, I put meatloaf in the ovens. There's turkeys in there now. Real turkeys."

Further Reading

Hugo awards: The City and The Inner Light review of The City review of The City
The Shining and A Clockwork Orange
A Wrinkle in Time
The tricorder and other Star Trek props I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream