SCRIPT REVIEW: “Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever,“ Part II: The Original Teleplay (1995)

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

Yesterday we reviewed Harlan Ellison’s awkwardly titled 1995 tome, “Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever, The Original Screenplay that Became the Classic Star Trek Episode, With an Expanded Introductory Essay by Harlan Ellison.” There were essentially *two* issues going on in that book - on the one hand we had the struggle between the Artist par excellence, and The Man Who Would Be God; and then you also had this script thing tossed in there.

I’m being glib, of course. The script is what the book was all about, it’s what caused all the fuss after all, and yet it’s merely an opening salvo in the much larger war between Roddenberry and Ellison, and as such it’s almost insignificant on some levels. By comparison, the American Civil War was inevitable, and even if somehow the shooting managed to be avoided at Fort Sumter, it *would* have happened a day or a week or a month later somewhere else over basically the same issues. Likwise, had Lee prevailed at Ghettysburg, he would have been defeated at some unsought battle history managed to avoid, at Harrisburg, or Baltimore, or wherever. With issues that big and fundamental, it’s certain that the bowling ball will begin to roll eventually, and once it gets going, perhaps you can brush it to one side or the other a little bit, but it is certainly not going to stop until it reaches the end of the lane. The fundamental conflict at hand between Roddenberry and Ellison was clearly like this, and in such a setting the actual triggering event can get lost in the fuss.

Which is a shame, because in this case the actual trigger - the script for “The City on the Edge of Forever” is a fine, fine story that really deserves to be seen an enjoyed.

This is not the best script ever written - hell, it isn’t even the best thing Ellison’s ever done - but it is really really good, and far above average, and it would have been a fine addition to the Trek cannon, had it been done as written.

Ellison gives us a lot of overlapping material to sift through here - two treatments, a complete original script, and an entire section of his first rewrite. For some this might be daunting or simply annoyingly repetitive, since it is basically the *same* story over and over, but personally I found it fascinating since it allowed us to watch the evolution of the tale *in* Harlan’s own mind.

The overall story is superficially pretty close to the episode everyone already knows: Enterprise discovers a planet with a time portal, a crewmember freaks out and travels back in time, thus creating a paradox and screwing up everything for everyone everywhere. Kirk and Spock travel back in time to fix the problem, there’s a love story involving a missionary lady who is fated to die, history is repaired, and everyone lives happily ever after…excepting the dead lady, of course. The details make the difference, however, and they’re all that separate the filmed version of “City” (Re-written by DC Fontana) from the vastly superior original version by Ellison.

In the first treatment, the Enterprise is tooling around doing whatever it is they do when the cameras aren’t rolling on them. There’s a junior officer named “Beckwith” who’s pushing drugs on the enterprise, and he’s gotten a man named “La Beck” hooked on “The Jewels of Sound,” a particularly interestingly thought-out and entirely addictive psychotropic drug. Beckwith is doing this to get information about their missions, and to trade with the local natives on whatever new worlds they come to in order to make a personal fortune. When his hitch in Starfleet is up, he intends to retire a wealthy man.

(While this may seem inconsistent with Trek as realized today, it’s important to note that economics did furtively come in to play on TOS, and the entire franchise had not become so rigidly communistic as it became in the TNG era)

After a near-accident while under the influence, La Beck has had enough and decides to give himself up. Before he can do so, Beckwith kills him, and is quickly captured by security. He’s placed on trial, found guilty, and will be executed and buried just as soon as they can find an uninhabited world. We’re told that the Enterprise is in “The Coal Sack Nebula” which is “In Between Galaxies” and that planets are few and far between, so this might take a while. (In fact, the Coalsack isn’t in between galaxies, but it is pretty far away - about 600 Light Years).

Presently they find a burned out, dead, ancient world orbiting a dying star that shouldn’t be able to support life, but somehow does. They beam down to execute Beckwith, and bump in to “The Guardians of Forever,” nine extraordinarily tall ancient humanoids who guard the focal point of time on this planet, and haven’t had a visitor since “Before the dinosaurs originated” on our world. Kirk gets fascinated by their time portal - here described as a glowing column - and while the Guardians are showing him earth’s past, Beckwith escapes and dives through in to the past. The Guardians freak out because history has been changed, and Kirk and company head back to the ship.

Once there, they discover the Enterprise no longer exists in this new timeline, and it’s been replaced by a pirate ship called “The Condor.” A fistfight ensues in the transporter room (Which looks exactly like the one on the Enterprise), and the good guys win, managing to seize that one compartment and block themselves in while the pirates try to cut their way through the door. Yoeman Rand tells Kirk and Spock to get back to the planet and try to figure a way out of this while she and the rest of the landing party try to buy them some time, and this they then do.

Back on the planet, the Guardians agree to help, and send Kirk and Spock back to a period about a week prior to when Beckwith will emerge in the past. They’ll all be drawn to a focal point in time, and messing with that catalytic person will mean the changes to history will be permanent. We get some mucking about in Chicago in the past with Kirk and Spock trying to fit in, and trying to track down the focal person who, of course, turns out to be a soup kitchen missionary named Edith Koestler. Kirk makes contact with her and falls in love with her, while Spock lurks around in the shadows looking for Beckwith.

When Beckwith finally appears, Edith is crossing a street to talk to Kirk, and doesn’t see a truck barreling down at her. Beckwith just reacts - he lunges out to try and save her, thus betraying his position to Spock. Spock quickly apprehends the guy, and Edith dies in the process. Taken back to the present, Beckwith is punished by the Guardians by being dropped in to the heart of an exploding sun, and being forced to re-live his own death over and over and over for all eternity, with no hope of parole or release.

Back on the ship, Kirk is shattered by what happened, and Spock, surprisingly, understands, saying ‘no woman ever offered the entire universe in return for her love.’ Kirk and Spock are both changed by their experience, and Spock lets down his defenses a bit, calling the captain “Jim” for the first time.


The second treatment, dated about two months later, is similar, but much tighter and punchier all around.

We open with basically the same La Beck/Beckwith incident and the murder, but rather than all the shoe dragging of a trial and execution, Beckwith bolts away just as soon as he’s discovered and manages to beam himself down to a planet they just happen to be passing. Kirk and Spock and Rand and some red shirts beam down to the surface to look for him, and quickly encounter the Guardians, Beckwith manages to escape in to the past, Kirk and Co have their alternate timeline run in with the pirate ship “Condor,” and it all follows pretty much according to the template of the first draft, however thematically it’s a lot different.

The location has been moved from Chicago to New York, and there’s a lot more racial tension on Earth in the Great Depression, and Spock’s status as a “Chinaman” isn’t played for laughs as much as social commentary. Kirk’s emerging love for Edith is more real and more important to him because - we find out - Kirk is devastatingly alone, and has been his entire life, and yet somehow this woman gets him.

Exactly who the woman - now named “Edith Keeler” - is and why she’s a focal point is a bit of a mystery. We’re never told how her survival can change the future, only that it does, and Kirk bristles at this. Actually identifying the “Focal Point” person itself emerges as a bit of a mystery in this version of the draft, since the Guardians can’t specifically say who or where the catalyst is, and can only give elliptical clues as to how to recognize it when it appears. It’s all very prophetic, but in the good sense of the word, not the annoying way.

Basically, as I say, it’s the same story, but it’s been improved, boiled down, tightened, fleshed out and slimmed down. In addition to simply being an entertaining romp, it’s now become a romp with some interesting questions. Actually, the questions were already there, but now that the framework is out of the way they’ve been moved to the foreground and it makes for a much more compelling story all around. There’s still nothing legendary and phenomenal in this, but it’s definitely already well above average for the show.

Next up, we come to the initial draft of the script, the one Harlan turned in ten months after he was first approached to pitch an idea to the Desilu folks. This is also the version he submitted to be peer reviewed, and ended up winning a major Writers Guild for. Again it follows the same basic format as the treatments, but tightened and (curiously) more relaxed. It follows the same basic format as the episodes of the time - naturally:


The Beckwith/La Beck incident and murder take place, culminating with Beckwith transporting down to the surface of the planet. This is pretty much identical to what we’ve seen before.

ACT 1:

Kirk and Company go down to the planet to capture Beckwith, and run in to the Guardians who, in this version, are still nine-foot-tall ancient humanoids, but they’re more imperious, nebulous, timelessly sad. They can see all that was or will be, but have trouble relating it to people in the here-and-now, which, I guess, is an occupational hazard. We get a neat window in to Kirk being amazed by all this, like a kid with a new toy, and then Beckwith escapes in to the past causing a generalized freakout in addition to a paradox. Kirk and company head back to the Enterprise, which is now a pirate vessel, and we see Kirk’s shock at trying to process all this.

ACT 2:

Kirk and Spock and Rand and the Redshirts manage to capture the transporter room in a rather pointless fight, but the situation is still dire. Kirk leaves Rand in charge, and he and the Vulcan head back to the planet to try and fix the situation. The guardians agree, and the duo travel back in time where they *immediately* run afoul of angry mobs who are furious about foreigners taking their jobs. A riot ensues, and Kirk and Spock run away, since the mob thinks he’s Chinese. There’s a neat scene shortly after where the two of them discuss this while on the lam:

SPOCK: “Is this the heritage Earthmen brag about? This sickness?”

KIRK: “This is what it’s taken us five hundred years to crawl up from.”

Spock won’t let it go, though. He’s morally and physically repulsed by what he’s seeing all around him, and it’s hard not to agree with Spock’s annoyance at Starfleet’s irritating sanctimony:

SPOCK: “My race never languished in such ignorant behavior for thousands of years. We went to space in peace. Earthmen came with *this* behind them.”

KIRK: “…And that’s why you hit space two hundred years after us!”

SPOCK: “Try to tell me Earthmen uplifted my race. Tell me that, and use Beckwith as an example of nobility.”

This is strangely prescient in some ways, since Trek - as the franchise later emerged - turned out to be a sad self-righteous retread on the concept of the “White Man’s Burden” to civilize all the lesser races in the world, with aliens substituted for non-whites. It seems that Ellison has already got Roddenberry’s number, or at least a piece of it, and is working this in to the script as a wry commentary. It’s subtle, though, it works.

Many will note that these revelations about Vulcans and the idea that Trek takes place in the 25th century contradict what we know from the series, but I have to point out that all the backstory about the Vulcans (Actually, still called “Vulcanians” at this point in the show’s development), or even a coherent timeline hadn’t actually been developed yet. Indeed, though it’s now an article of faith that TOS takes place “In the 23rd Century,” in fact there are numerous references within the show to it taking place solidly within the 22nd century.

Anyway, back to the story:

After Kirk and Spock get semi-established in 1932 New York, we get an extended sequence where the two of them attempt to use a Tricorder to figure out who and where this focal point/catalyst/key person is. This is really the only part of the script I don’t care for. It goes on too long and it’s too easy. I’m not one to harp on the technical limitations of the nonexistent technology they use in Trek, but while the method in which the Tricorder is used here makes sense, it actually makes *too much* sense, it’s too clever, too far forward, and it distracts from the plot I think. This is obviously the genesis of the “Stone knives and bearskins” scene that Fontana came up with in her rewrite which, frankly, is preferable to this one scene. She managed to take the ‘too easy’ curse off of it, and turn it in to a running gag as well.

Finally, Spock manages to meet Edith Keeler, and recognize her as ‘the key.’ (Get it?)

ACT 3:

Kirk contacts Edith. The two of them ‘meet cute’ and instantly hit it off. The romance is believable mainly because it’s played out as both of them being surprised at how easily they can communicate with each other. It’s like each has found a missing part of themselves, and not a physical or mental attraction, though there’s some aspects of that as well. Spock, meanwhile, continues to lay low and look for Beckwith. Presumably the murderer will be drawn to Edith, so by watching her they should be able to catch him.

Kirk definitely feels himself falling in love - really in love - with Edith, and Spock expresses some very rational, very detached concerns about this.

KIRK: “Listen: I’ve been on the move since I was old enough to ship on as a pier in one of the old chemical fuel rockets. It’s bee time, Mr. Spock, a lot of time.”

SPOCK (Understandingly): “And the women you have known have been casual liaisons, in the port cities and the pleasure planets. It is that way for every spacer, Captain. (beat) I am a Vulcan, not a neuter. I understand very well.”

Eventually, in frustration, the conversation goes in this direction:

KIRK: “Why can’t I bring her back with me? She isn’t important here, the way she feels, the goodness, the things she believes for the world, they aren’t ready for it - “

Spock realizes that Kirk is in love, and it’s jeopardizing the mission, and the entire future of the Galaxy. Meanwhile, Beckwith appears and, after a short run-in with Spock lurking in the shadows, he manages to get away.

ACT 4:

Kirk meets up with a legless crippled World War I vet selling apples, and pumps him for information. This character - “Trooper,” he’s called - isn’t in the earlier versions, but the scene is a marvel. Much has been made of the love story, of the morally ambiguous ending of the script, of the approach given to the characters, but I’d never heard anything about the “Trooper” scenes prior to reading the script, and I have to say that for me, this is the emotional center of the story because it tells us more about our characters than we ever knew before, and yet it’s entirely consistent and even touching.

We’re introduced to Trooper with the camera at eye-level for him, maybe waist high for everyone else. He’s a dead-eyed, miserable old derelict, beaten down by life and barely even surviving. He’s got a sign that says “I fought at Verdun.” The way it’s shot (According to the script directions), we only see Kirk from the back, and in the lower half while he talks to Trooper. Trooper isn’t having any of it, so Kirk simply sits down - bringing his face in to frame - and putting him on the same level as the homeless old vet. He leans against the wall and they start talking. It’s effortless and it’s brilliant, and it puts both of them at ease. Even so, Trooper isn’t really buying this. He suspects Kirk is a cop or a gangster or something trying to set him up, so he’s careful and reserved - he’s *interested* for the first time in God knows how long - in what’s going on around him.

Kirk keeps asking the guy for information about ‘A man who seems out of place, wearing strange clothes, maybe a weapon,’ and offers two bucks to Trooper in exchange for it. Eventually the vet gives in:

TROOPER: “I s’pose I gotta find out before you give it to me.”

Kirk gives him the two crumpled balls of money. Trooper is Astonished. It is the first real live we’ve see in his face.

KIRK: “I think I can trust a man who fought at Verdun.”

Then Kirk gets up and walks off. Later on, Trooper comes through with the information and leads Kirk and Spock to Beckwith’s lair. Showing genuine concern, Kirk tells the old man to get the hell out of there, but Trooper wants to stay. Kirk says he and Spock will take care of it, and gives the guy another buck to leave, so the guy drags himself off on his cart. Later, the showdown with Beckwith goes bad, and the renegade crewman gets the drop on Kirk. He pulls the trigger, and Trooper swings in out of nowhere and takes the shot. He’s disintegrated, and Beckwith again runs away. Kirk is very upset by this. Spock is mystified:

SPOCK: “Why did he do that for you?”

KIRK: “Because I gave him two dollars. (beat) Mr. Spock, you know history: Where is Verdun?”

Oh, vicious! Cruel! All this stuff totally works, more than works, it completely rocks! We’ve seen repeatedly that Kirk has inspired fanatical loyalty amongst his crew and his friends, but we’ve never seen *how* he does it. Here we see - for the first and only time, sadly unfilmed - how he can effortlessly endear himself to people in a way that makes them glad to lay down their life for him. He’s a master manipulator, and a man of deep feeling besides. In fact, he’s such a great manipulator *because* he actually cares for the little people. When he gets back to the future and discovers that Troopers death meant nothing to the flow of history because the man was essentially meaningless, Kirk is very upset and insulted by the news. This truly would have been Kirk’s best-ever sequence in TOS, so effortless, so charming, so good at what he does.

Just as I suspect Ellison had worked some of Roddenberry’s own sanctimony in to the script, I suspect that maybe he worked some of Shatner’s well-known manipulative abilities in to it as well here. They two of them were friendly while it was being written, though of course that didn’t last.

In any event, Kirk is willing to sacrifice all the future for his own happiness - that’s right, Kirk deliberately does the wrong thing! - but Edith dies anyway. Beckwith is apprehended, trying to save her life, and the two of them go back to The Guardian’s planet. Beckwith breaks free and dives back in to the time portal, causing Spock to literally howl in anguish, but the Guardians say that he hasn’t escaped, they simply sent him to the heart of an exploding sun where he’ll re-live his own death over and over again forever.


Back on the Enterprise, Kirk is shaken, both by what happened, and by what he was willing to do. Spock is confused by how a bad man like Beckwith could risk himself to do a good thing like saving a woman’s life.

KIRK: “.We look at our race, this parade of men and women and the unbelievable harm and cruelty they do. And we sigh, and we say ‘perhaps our time is past, let the sharks or the cockroaches take over.’ And then, without knowing why, without even thinking of it, the worst among us does the great thing, the noble deed, that spark of impossible human godliness. And we say, ‘perhaps the human race is entitled to a little more sufferance. Let them keep trying to reach that dream.”

Spock makes his observation about Edith having more to offer in exchange for her love than any woman before her, and calls Kirk, “Jim” for the first time, and then we head off in to space.


Of course as we all know, this violated a lot of Roddenberry’s caveats, and when it came to a conflict between ideas and dogma, the supreme ideologue Roddenberry was always going to err on the side of is own massive ego; art be damned. There was no way he was going to let Kirk be anything less than pefect all the time, there was no way he was going to tolerate Kirk and Spock bickering-yet-remaining-friends because that implies the future isn’t perfect, there was no way in hell he was going to allow there to be an illegal drug trade in *his* future, nor any kind of moral ambiguity. Nor really any drama, so all that has to go.

And of course the whole “Condor” Space Pirate thing doesn’t really work. In fact, Ellison never wanted it there. After his initial pitch, and before the first treatment, Roddenberry told him that the network was demanding a “Ship in peril” plot every week, so he reluctantly worked that in. This turned out to be either paranoia, ignorance, or a lie on Gene’s part - neither the Network nor the Studio ever requested any such thing, and of course it was the first thing cut from the script. (And it tells us *why* that hoary old device turns up so much in the show - Gene thought it was neat)

That said, Fontana mentions that essentially Ellison delivered what would have been a fantastic Second Season Outer Limits episode to Trek, but it wasn’t really a Trek script. I agree with that. It’s Trek enough to fit, of course, it would have been a great episode as written, but they wanted it tailored a bit more to a Trek venue. Despite 30 years of misinformation to the contrary, Ellison did *not* refuse to redo the material, and got first crack at the rewrite.

His book contains the Prologue/Teaser of the first (of several!) rewrites, though not the entire revised script. Even so, we can gather from this the shape it was taking. Beckwith and LaBeck and the drugs are gone, of course:


McCoy is in his sickbay working with an exotic alien lab animal of some kind. His tests show that it is definitely de-aging the closer they get to a mysterious new planet. The ship hits some temporal turbulence, and everything goes ass-over-teakettle, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea style. In the process, the space-lab-rat bites McCoy, pumping him full of a toxin that makes him go nuts. He runs amok, and beams himself down to the planet.

ACT 1:

They beam down to look for McCoy, and the planet is still a burned out, wasted cinder that we’ve seen in the other versions. There’s only one Guardian this time, and he’s not humanoid - instead he’s yet another boring TOS “Glowing light with a booming voice” alien. Kirk, Spock, and Rand get to talking to the Guardian just as in the previous versions, and McCoy gets past them, vanishing in to the past.


Beyond that, we don’t really know, though it’s obvious the whole moral ambiguity about the human race not being perfect, but maybe being worth another shot just the same, is missing, and if you play it out in your head, the script does feel a bit castrated without that. Obviously the ‘pirates’ stuff is gone, too. Definitely this version *does* feel more Star Trek like, with all that entails - both good and bad - but it still feels better than the aired version.


It’s taken me two days and like 14 pages to say what any reasonable person already knew: Ellison delivered a fine story and got done wrong by a self-important philistine.

The divergences between the versions of the script are really interesting, and provide an interesting window in to the Trekiverse as it developed, and in laying down the (sad) law of what would and would not be tolerated. Some of these are particularly telling, and one aspect that I think is sadly missing and quite interesting is Rand’s prominence in all versions of the script - a strong female that Kirk obviously trusts in a leadership position. It would be decades before we actually saw this on Trek, or arguably we never saw it, if you’re a cynic.

Finally, one thought kept nagging at me: The whole thing with The Enterprise as a pirate ship called "The Condor" in an alternate timeline struck me as very much like the alternate version of The Enterprise in "Mirror, Mirror." I don't want to suggest that Jerome Bixby ripped off the idea, but it's obvious that everyone and their cousin had their fingers in the rewrite of 'City' at one point or another, and even though the 'Condor' was the first element cut from the script, a story idea is a story idea and any enterprisingly cheap producer might possibly just start strewing them around for the other writers to pick up. Maybe. Again, this is nothing autoritative, this is just me speculating, for all I know Bixby had the alternate timeline idea originally and on his own, certainly he's got the creds for me to trust him, but I couldn't help wondering. The treatment for Mirror Mirror makes some noise about Star Trek taking place in the 25th century, too. Just a though, more likely a coincidence than anything else, but it kept popping up in my head.

The script is great, and a wonderful window in to Harlan and Trek, and I strongly, strongly, strongly recommend checking out this book.

Harlan Ellison read this article and contacted me! During an endlessly fun phone conversation, he pointed out that reason Edith was so important actually *was* pointed out in the script, but that I missed it. Edith Keeler is based on Aimee Semple McPherson, and pointed out that the script mentions (In the Tricorder scene) that Keeler would eventually become a wildly popular radio televangelist who preached a very strong isolationist stance over the airwaves. She became so popular in the midwest that politically she was able to postpone America's entry in to World War II by two years, thereby giving the Nazis time to perfect the atomic bomb. Hence, they won World War II and we lost. In looking at the script again, I see all that is in there, but I just failed to notice it for some reason. Since Mr. Ellison was nice enough to call me up and correct me about this, I felt I really had to correct that here.

He also said that he felt the Tricorder scene was kind of "goofy" himself, but it was another one of Roddenberry's suggestions during the writing process.