Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Star Trek at 50: The City on the Edge of Forever

Season 1
Episode 28: The City on the Edge of Forever
Filmed:  February 1967
First Air Date: April 6, 1967

Karen: Kirk sacrifices the woman he loves to save the future. It's a heart-breaking story that has gone on to be hailed the best Star Trek episode ever by many. And yet, the original story would not have had the Captain making this soul-rending decision. Perhaps more than any other episode "City" suffered from incredible behind the scenes strife. But it turned out to be a beautiful, touching tale.

Karen: Star Trek fandom has for years heard tales of the rancor between Roddenberry and Harlan Ellison, the writer of this episode. Depending on who you're listening to, you may hear a very different version of what happened. Again, we turn to Trek historian Marc Cushman and his book These are the Voyages Volume One for a detailed and (seemingly) unbiased account. If you're looking for all the minutiae I suggest you pick up the book (well, I suggest you pick it up anyway) but the basics are that Roddenberry approached a number of high-profile science fiction authors as he began getting Star Trek off the ground. Ellison was one of them. Ellison, besides having written a number of stories, had also written scripts for TV shows, including the script for the Outer Limits episode "Demon with a Glass Hand," which won a Writers Guild award.  There was no doubt about his talent. Ellison had an idea about Kirk going back in time and meeting a character based on the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who Kirk would fall in love with but have to let die in order for the future to proceed properly. Roddenberry gave the go-ahead and Ellison quickly produced a story treatment. This was in March of 1966.

Karen: However, while producer Robert Justman and others thought the story was beautifully written it also was not something they could film, for a number of reasons. Part of it was due to budget -there were too many things in the script that they couldn't translate to film given the meager funds they were working with. But perhaps just as important, there were things in the script that simply weren't consistent with the type of show Trek was. Maybe the best known of these is that rather than having McCoy become temporarily insane from an accidental overdose of a drug, as was filmed, Ellison had a crew member (not one of the regular cast) selling hallucinogens on the ship, and bludgeoning to death another crew member  who threatened to turn him in. This is certainly not typical behavior on the Enterprise.  It was felt by the Trek staff that the script needed revision.

A graphic novel featuring Ellison's original story is available

Karen: This is where the merry-go-round starts. Ellison provided a revision -but it took five weeks to get it. It was  May, and they were beginning to film the first episode ("The Corbomite Maneuver"). Even at this point, they were concerned about running out of scripts. They needed to turn them out with some alacrity. But Ellison was moving slowly on getting the teleplay finished. So in an act of desperation, Roddenberry set Ellison up with a desk in a tiny office at the studio, hoping they could keep an eye on him and get that script. Unfortunately, it may have distracted Ellison more, as he was frequently found on set. D.C. Fontana defended Ellison, to some extent, saying that, "Harlan did spend some time visiting the set, but that's considered necessary research for a writer. When a show hasn't been on air yet, freelance writers must have an opportunity to study the actor's speech patterns and delivery, the little gestures and nuances that each one brings to his or her role -and most of all - the character relationships which are being built episode by episode."

Karen: Robert Justman finally got his script from Ellison on June 7. After the first blush of excitement, Justman realized they were in trouble. Although the script was "brilliantly written" it was still too expensive to film, and the characters weren't acting the way they'd been established in the show. They were stuck at the same point. Ellison revised his script, unhappily, feeling that the special qualities of the script that he had worked so hard to put in were being lost with each revision. And there were many, many revisions. According to Cushman, Ellison himself provided three versions of the story outline, then did three versions of the teleplay (script), at which point Steven Carabatsos, who was still story editor (October 1966) stepped in to provide a rewrite. It was Carabatsos who removed the drug dealing element and instead introduced the idea of Dr. McCoy getting hurt and then injected with Adrenalin, which makes him go temporarily mad. After Carabatsos' effort, Ellison again went at it. What was marked as his final draft arrived in the Trek offices December 19th. It still wasn't where the staff felt they could use it. So Gene Coon took a shot at it over the Christmas holiday, then D.C. Fontana came in and worked on it, then Coon again, then Fontana, and finally Roddenberry touched it. By February of 1967,  nearly a year later, they finally had their script.

Karen: Typically, when you have this many people fiddling with a script, it comes out a mess. But somehow, they managed to create a gem. The Ellison script was, by all accounts, absolutely incredible, and would have been perfect for an anthology show like Outer Limits. But it was felt that it didn't have the 'feel' of Trek. The finished episode however is resolutely Trek to its core; the characters are the people we have spent this entire first season getting to know. Their mannerisms, their personalities, are all there. I should note that Ellison does not feel this way at all about it and you can easily find out more by searching the web. 

Karen: The acting in this episode is top-notch. Shatner is still working hard as Kirk. We see the gears turning in his head and the love and the anguish he feels is very real. Nimoy is as understated as ever but Spock's sense of concern for Kirk and his plight is tangible. DeForest Kelley gets to have some fun as the demented McCoy, but he has a sweet scene with Joan Collins as well. Kelley said that he decided to play it as if McCoy was also enchanted by Keeler. And what of Edith Keeler? Joan Collins was a well-known actress at this time and a casting coup for Trek. She and Shatner had real chemistry and the two of them made a lovely couple. Director Joe Pevney, who helmed many episodes, said of this show, "It was a pleasure working with the actors. They realized their full potential in that one."

Karen: There was one scene in this episode that I never completely saw until I got the DVD set, and that was McCoy's arrival back in 1930. When it went into syndication, they removed  the part where the derelict he encounters accidentally phasers himself out of existence. The full scene is in the clip below. 

Karen: Most of this episode was filmed back in Mayberry again -there is one well-known publicity  still where Floyd's Barbershop can be seen behind Kirk and Keeler - and desperate for stage space, the crew even borrowed the My Three Sons empty stage to film some scenes. I'd always wondered about the design of the Guardian, the mysterious machine/entity that transports our heroes through time. It was a strange design, but effective. Apparently it was not the work of the series regular designer, Matt Jeffries, who was ill at the time, but of Rolland Brooks. D.C. Fontana stated that Brooks misread the script, somehow translating 'runes' into 'ruins' and so we got the broken classical columns surrounding the Guardian. It's unclear where the lop-sided shape of the portal itself came from. Reportedly, when Jeffries walked onto the set he burst out with, "What the Hell is this?"

Karen: I have to admit, as a kid, this episode didn't do it for me. But really guts me. Throughout the series Kirk has to make many hard decisions, but this one is surely the most terrible. Despite the short time he is with Edith, she is a real kindred spirit  and it's easy to see how he could fall in love with her so quickly. The line "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one" has become a standard within Trek fandom since Star Trek II:The Wrath of Khan but long before Spock performed the math on that and made his decision, Kirk does it here, to its brutal conclusion. When Kirk discovers that McCoy is in the mission and races back to it, the brief joy he and Spock and McCoy experience at being reunited, plunges quickly into utter devastation when he realizes Edith's fate has arrived, and he has to actually hold back McCoy from saving her. McCoy's anger at Kirk -"Do you know what you've done?" and Spock's almost-consoling, "He knows, Doctor. He knows" were pitch perfect. Of course the final line, uttered by Kirk as they leave the planet was the perfect way to end the episode: "Let's get the Hell out of here."


Edo Bosnar said...

Definitely one of the best Trek episodes. And despite my fondness for Ellison's writing (most of the time) and my respect for his place in the broader world of SF, I really think the revisions were necessary. All of this subsequent rants about this whole matter notwithstanding, the end-product is nothing for anyone involved to be ashamed of.

Thanks for the extensive write-up, Karen. Some of this stuff I knew before, but I never knew until now that Edith Keeler was based on McPherson. As Spock would say, fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Was Joan Collins really "a casting coup for Trek" ? She was pretty much a B-movie actress till Dynasty made her a huge star in the '80s. She has said that her Trek role didn't mean anything at the time but nowadays she is proud to be part of the Star Trek universe. Somebody once told me that Joan Collins is my name backwards :D

Edo Bosnar said...

Colin, on your sort of reverse namesake Joan Collins, in the 1950s and '60s she was - while not a superstar - a somewhat well known actress with some respectable roles under her belt. It was in the 1970s that she almost disappeared, appearing in a lot of low-budget and forgettable films, etc. After which, yes, her role in Dynasty turned all that around and she pretty much became a household name...

Anonymous said...

OK, thanks Edo. I could only remember her in "Land Of The Pharaohs" prior to Trek. In the early '80s Joan Collins sued British newspaper The Sun (and won) because they kept calling her "The Bitch" after the trashy soft porn film she'd starred in.

Garett said...

Great review Karen, and great episode! This was one of my favorite episodes as a kid, with a bit of everything-- humour, drama, romance. I like the big Guardian design. Reminds me of Flintstones and 2001! The scene with the derelict phasering himself away was always in the repeats I watched, so maybe there were different versions out there.

I'm glad they got rid of the drug dealing scene. That doesn't fit with Trek. Joan Collins is very good in this episode, and very different from her later roles. Great understated delivery of Shatner's last line in the episode. I didn't know Ellison was so short, from the looks of it in that photo.

Love the art on the graphic novel cover!

david_b said...

To me, Ms. Collins was just one of those 'TV celebs' that made the rounds, like on Batman, Man from Uncle, you name it. Obviously she started out in movies, but some of the noteable B-stars just headed to notoriety on '60s television and became house-hold names that way.

Like Michael Ansara and others, all standard television careers back then.

Not much to add here. This episode served to effectively broaden Trek's story-telling appeal, from cold-war episodes (Errand of Mercy) to straight sci-fi (Where No Man Had Gone Before) to courtroom (Court Martial), now classic love stories. All with interesting sci-fi twists, but all-in-all more morality plays.

Certainly a 'mountain-top' of 1st Season's quality, you really saw the enormous broad canvas the writers had, with these characters and relationship-dynamics, what could really be accomplished.

Typically the weak point in sci-fi.., the writers involved here were clearly up to the task of showcasing the acting talent involved and exploring new story potential.

To think, 'Spocks Brain' is just over a year away.. (couldn't resist).

Nice column today.

William Preston said...

Thanks for writing about this one. Every time I see it, it's newly effective, a sign of greatness. Spock's TV set that shows the future is a pretty goofy concept, but somehow it works.

Ellison's done some great work, but there's often a combination of cynicism and romanticism that rubs me wrong. I'd have to see the original script to know whether that tone is part of it . . . though both those elements, in muted form, are present in the finished product.

I love the photo of Three Great Jews of Science Fiction. (I think they all would have appreciated that aspect of the photo-op.) And, Garett, Ellison is 5' 2" or so.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, this one's definitely a classic...even non-fans have heard of it. Everybody did a great job on this one. It's weird that Ellison's original idea was to have Kirk save Edith, and to hell with the consequences...not sure how he thought that would work for an ongoing show!

Mike Wilson

Karen said...

Howdy guys, thanks for chiming in today. One of the things I found perplexing about the whole back and forth of the script process was that it seemed Ellison was so convinced that the show could create the scenes he described with the budget and technical expertise they had -from what I read, clearly it was far beyond their abilities. It just goes to show the gap between the writer and those involved in actual production activities.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I watched "Wrath of Khan" again, this time the new blu-ray version (it looks crystal-clear -just glorious), and after seeing that, and "City" again, it strikes me that the writers of "Khan" were wrong: his son David says, "You never really have faced death before," after Spock's passing, and Kirk agrees, but Kirk DID face meaningful death, in this episode. Edith meant a great deal to him -enough that he might have sacrificed the future for her. I'd say that her death had a very devastating impact on him. If we'd had series with continuing storylines back then, watching Kirk grieve and overcome his pain would certainly have been a continued sub-plot on Trek.

I just received the IDW graphic novel based upon Ellison's original script for "City" and plan to read it when I go on vacation next week, so I'll review that soon, probably during the brief hiatus between my reviews of the first and second seasons of Star Trek. Yes, I've decided to review the second season too. I hope that's good news. But forget the third season! No way! Well...maybe a couple of episodes...

Edo Bosnar said...

Yay! Second season reviews! Excellent! Or, dare I say it? Far out!

(...don't see why everyone's down on season 3 though...)

Martinex1 said...

I'm glad to see you will review the second season- I'm really enjoying these. How about some of the animated series or old comics? (See I know about some of those now too!).

Not much to say about this episode that hasn't been said already, other than I did not recognize Joan Collins until well into the episode. Nice review. Cheers.

Unknown said...

"The City On the Edge of Forever" was an Intriguing episode, quite different from most others. Definitely in my top five, along with "Space Seed," "Mirror, Mirror," and a couple of others.

I loved the second season of the Original Series, perhaps even more than the first. I look forward to reading those reviews as well. I've been getting into the habit on Wednesdays to watch the episode Karen review that day. Even today I remember my sense of awe and fascination over twenty-five years ago as a child when I watched the second season episodes "Obsession," "A Piece of the Action," "The Immunity Syndrome," "Return to Tomorrow," "Patterns of Force," and "By Any Other Name." They were on TV in the wee hours of the morning, after midnight, and I would risk my parents' wrath by staying up to watch after everyone else had long gone to bed.

Yes, the third season is acknowledged to be the weakest of the three seasons, at least according to most fans, but in my view there were at least a handful of decent installments along with the clunkers.

I have about a dozen or so of the old Gold Key Star Trek comics from the Sixties; and I must admit that as of my last reading, they seemed to be pretty decent science fiction. Many clever ideas were presented, some which would have made good television episodes themselves.

Thomas F.

Martinex1 said...

Until I see Colin Jones in the Mirror, Mirror role of Joan Collins, make mine Bronze Age Babies.

Pat Henry said...

A gem, a true gem.

Harlan Ellison is a self-righteous ass. And I say that with great affection, for I've read and loved nearly everything he has written. He has a great talent, but he did seem fixated on injecting--if I may say--a dark element into Roddenberry's bright vision for the future for no other reason, it seems, than to stick a thumb in the eye of that vision. And, ultimately, this is a dark episode, an episode of unhappy Hobson's choices. Ultimately, the rewrites chose to focus on the story of the central three characters-- and that might not have been intuitive at the time, but certainly is brilliantly prescient in retrospect, each of the three characters playing, absolutely, their icon roles. Bones, the romantic; Spock, the pragmatist with deeply sublimated compassion; Jim, torn between the two.

The dialogue is superb, the interactions subtle and at times very humorous. You like these characters. And Edith's assessment of Spocks fierce loyalty to his captain, spot on. Getting Kirk and Spock out of their uniforms and into a room together as roommates has a classic sort of joy to it.


I finally got around to seeing the new film today. I have to admit after the last outing, I was dreading it. But... it was okay. Definitely a step up. But where the new franchise goes for the WOW and aren't these characters great and, boy, don't they all know how great they are? These episodes go for the subtle, the gentle affection of the Troika for one another, the sly and subtle humor, the sense of duty and personal sacrifice above all else.

A gem.

B Smith said...

Call me geeky, but one thing I liked about this episode was the use of the incidental music. Like many shows, the first half dozen episodes had full scores written (I'm guessing) and thereafter the music editor cannibalised and used bits and pieces for various scenes in various episodes.

One standout use in this episode was right at the end - the crew beam up and the pre-end credits credits come up. The piece of music played over it had been utilised before, but for this part was quite evocative in a way its previous uses hadn't been - really emphasised what was for once (and unusually) a downbeat ending.

Anonymous said...

Harlan Ellison once described himself as a "5'5" Jewish writer."

My impression is that Joan Collins was a promising newcomer in the 1950's, a B-list actress in the 1960's and 1970's, and a star in the 1980's-present. That may be partly because she chose to take some time off from acting to raise her children in the sixties. In the seventies, she seemed to mainly co-star in British horror movies, and guest star in American TV cop shows. Dynasty made her a household name, but the series benefited as much as she did. The ratings were marginal until she joined the cast, but it was in the Top Ten by 1984 and '85. (The ratings also went up when Heather Locklear became a series regular. The show needed, and had lacked, a really strong villain.)

The City On the Edge of Forever has a strong emotional impact, but some of the plot points don't make sense in the show's own context.

Supposedly, if Edith had not been killed in a traffic accident, she would have gone on to lead a pacifist group that would either prevent the US from entering WWII, or would have prevented the US from building the atom bomb. Either way, the Nazis won WWII. So McCoy had to be stopped from saving her.

But the Allies, including the US, defeated Nazi Germany without using atomic weapons. And, after the Japanese attack on Hawaii, followed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy formally declaring war on the US, it is unlikely that America could have stayed out of the war.

I don't disagree with the premise that pacifists in a democracy could disarm their own country and thus unintentionally encourage aggression by its enemies. (George Orwell: "Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically help out that of the other.") I could easily see such a thing happening in the 1970's or later. But it just doesn't fit the WWII era.

As for the latest Star Trek movie, I suppose it's an OK action movie, but it is not the "real" Trek. Kids are an important part of the audience now, and they are not interested in message-driven morality plays or in character-driven drama. The new version has more in common with Indiana Jones or Fast & Furious than with the original Trek series. The moral (such as it is) about "unity" might be intended as some kind of anti-Brexit statement, but I'm not sure if the producers were thinking that deeply.

William Preston said...

Third season Trek: Though there are a lot of weak eps, and the direction isn't as measured and mature as in the earliest episodes, those eps, along with the second half of season two, are the earliest I remember seeing (I was born in '62), so those formed a lot of my sense of the series till the reruns started.

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