The background of the making of the classic Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever has been discussed over and over among Star Trek insiders and fandom. Harlan Ellison wrote the screenplay, which was carved up so much in Ellison’s view, that over the past four decades Ellison was vocal in rejecting Gene Roddenberry’s final version that first made it to television screens on April 6, 1967.
What would the original version have looked like had Roddenberry stuck closer to the original script? It’s the kind of thing you would have thought fan film creators would have jumped at before now, but–even better–Star Trek fans can now see The City on the Edge of Forever visually portrayed in its originally conceived form.
IDW Publishing partnered the Star Trek writing team of Scott Tipton and David Tipton with the best Star Trek artist around, J.K. Woodward, and this year they adapted Ellison’s original screenplay into a five-issue comic book series that wraps this month, and will soon be released in a hardcover and trade edition. If you think that a comic book cannot convey everything you’d want to see from the original Star Trek, then you haven’t seen the photo-real artistry of J.K. Woodward.
In fact the single biggest reason to read The City on the Edge of Forever is J.K. Woodward’s panel after panel of beautiful paintings– renderings of not just the characters but William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Joan Collins, and Grace Lee Whitney–that will have your mind’s eye believing you just watched an actual episode of the original series.
As for the story, the average reader will probably think this was much ado about nothing. The spirit and feel of the adapted original screenplay is substantially the same as the original episode. But like any screenplay versus the final edited production, you can rarely include the writers’ entire vision in the final cut. The less than 60 minute time slot alone could not have handled Ellison’s extensive story detail. So what should have been cut? The final TV product had a light-hearted tone throughout, with Kirk and Spock bantering chummily despite being thrust back in time through a portal, and despite the death of an innocent.
Ellison’s tone is far darker and he has plenty of pages to reflect the criticism’s of Earth’s squalor compared to the Utopian vision of Roddenberry. The IDW series includes much more preaching by its characters, something that would not have been consistent with other episodes of the TV series, so many of the cuts arguably make sense. The City on the Edge of Forever is a standout episode for both its idea and its execution. Would Ellison’s vision have been too much for a 1960s audience? It seems so. Ellison no doubt was ahead of his day, and maybe the final episode cut included as much of his vision as was necessary for production constraints.
Other changes you will notice in comparing the episode with the adaptation include the extensive role of Grace Lee Whitney’s Yeoman Rand, who Ellison would not have known would be leaving the series before the episode was produced. The lynchpin of the original screenplay was a background character who overdoses on drugs and makes his way to a planet with a time portal and causes the events involving the time travel story to occur. Roddenberry often selected stories where a guest star was the show’s focus. This time for the episode he replaced the background “through-line” character with series co-star DeForest Kelley’s Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. We know from reading Marc Cushman’s These Are the Voyages that the production had good reason to fit its highly paid stars into episodes when they could, so the McCoy move would have made sense for the business of the series.
Beyond these big changes were a well-crafted, deeper relationship between Kirk and social reformer Edith Keener, a more antagonistic pairing of Kirk and Spock, and a solid look at 1930s urban blight.
No doubt, Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever is the Star Trek tie-in to check out for original series fans this year. The trade editions will likely include the great cover art for the standard and variant covers for the five issues, including work done by Woodward and Juan Ortiz, whose Star Trek work we have discussed here before, and other artists. If your local comic book store can’t get you back issues, you can pre-order the hardcover edition here at Amazon.com.