With word of the passing of writer Harlan Ellison, we were reminded of an interview we conducted with him in the mid-1990s when he was publishing a definitive look at the history of his classic Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” The first portion of that interview, which we’ll be posting next week, offers up his unfiltered thoughts on his whole relationship with the show, Gene Roddenberry and the making of that episode. To kick off this tribute to Harlan, we’re offering up what we consider to be the softer (arguably) side of that conversation.
“The City on the Edge of Forever,” of course, deals with a time-altered reality that brings Kirk, Spock and McCoy back to Depression-era New York City, where the discovery is made that McCoy prevents social worker Edith Keeler from being killed, resulting in the complete alteration of history where the Nazis win World War II. Kirk, ultimately, has to allow Keeler to die, despite the fact he has fallen completely in love with her.
Putting aside everything that happened with the script for “The City on the Edge of Forever,” where did the idea come from initially?
Very simple where it came from. I work in peculiar ways, and my mind works in peculiar ways. Very often a story will grow out of not even an idea; it will grow out of a color, a juxtaposition of surfaces. The idea of “City” came from the image of the City on the Edge of Forever, and it was an image of two cities, which is what it says in the script. The city on the edge of forever is the city on this planet. It was not a big donut in my script; it was a city. That was a city that was on the edge of time, and it was where all of the winds of time met. When you go through to the other side, here is this other city which is also on the edge of forever, which is New York City during the depression. It’s the mirror image of each other. In that time, all I was concerned about was telling a love story, which I made the point that there are some loves that are so great that you would sacrifice your ship, your crew, your friends, your mother, all of time and everything in defense of this great love. That’s what the story was all about.
All of the additional crap that Gene kept trying to get me to put in, kept taking away from that. The script does not end the way the episode does. Kirk goes for her to save her. At the final moment, by his actions, he says, “F— it, I don’t care what happens to the ship, the future and everything else. I can’t let her die, I love her,” and he starts for her. Spock, who is cold and logical, grabs him and holds him back and she’s hit by the truck. The TV ending, where he closes his eyes and lets her get hit by the truck is absolutely bullshit. It destroys the core of what I tried to do. It destroyed the art; it destroyed the drama, it destroyed the extra human tragedy of it and it also dulls the meaning of the last scene in which Spock talks to him and calls him Jim for the first time.
What’s so surprising is that, given your involvement in the first letter-writing campaign to save Star Trek, there was a time when you were optimistic about the show.
I was very optimistic. I was vice president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and I was the one who set up the West Coast banquet. I showed the pilot, the first time it was shown to the science fiction community, and I said, “This is our chance to get good science fiction on the tube. It’s being run by people who seem to know what they’re doing and they want us.” That was how Roddenberry came to hire Ted Sturgeon and the others, because of my intercession. Everybody else takes credit for it. All of these people were friends of mine, and I got them to go in on the show. Later when Gene said most of the people he wouldn’t want in the same room with him, I said, “You f—ing ingrate.” So I was very optimistic about it, but within a couple of years that changed and everybody was laughing at me. When these people said, “Star Trek is going to be the new horizon for us; we’re going to sell more science fiction than ever before, and it’s going to be the golden age,” I said, “No it’s not, you fools. You’re not going to sell one more of your novels. What they’re going to sell are Star Trek books,” and this was before there was ever a Star Trek novel. Everybody looked at me and laughed and told me not to be ridiculous. Well, there it is: Star Trek books and that idiom, that space opera crap, has pushed everything off the best seller list. I don’t like being right, but it was obvious to me that that’s the way things were going to go.
So do you view it as a show that never met its potential?
I have a fairly pragmatic view of these things. I hope I do. I look at a show in which Gene’s idea of explaining racial prejudice is painting people half-black and half-white. That’s real childish shit. Most of the shows were childish shit. This was a series that had the potential of being truly great. There are few series that really transcend the medium. All the rest of it was just television. That’s what, to me, Star Trek was mostly, just television. One week it might be good, next week might be bad, but they operated off the kind of philosophy that exists in the television industry, which is, “Our character wouldn’t act like that,” meaning that there is utter inflexibility. That’s the death of drama. It’s bad enough that you have the rigors of a weekly series where the characters have to reappear every week —you can’t kill anyone — but people don’t act that way; they don’t act in a uniform way. They act bizarrely; that’s why they’re people for Christ’s’ sakes.
Have you checked out the spin-offs at all?
For me, the experience was so saddening, I’ve never even watched “City on the Edge of Forever”, except when it first aired. I’ve never seen it again. I have a videocassette of it in my files. It was so painful, I couldn’t watch it. It was like after I had a fight with Frank Sinatra, I couldn’t enjoy his music anymore, which is the saddest part of it. The same for Star Trek, I just could not enjoy it anymore.
You have this reputation of being the angry man, and this book doesn’t really help that impression. How do you see yourself?
I will tell you one of the pivotal experience of my life that delineates me. This is how I see myself. When I was a little boy during World War II, my mother, who had an asthmatic condition — I was never really sure what it was — and I went on the train from Ohio to Miami Beach. She had to be where it was warm; this was winter. We’re talking 1941, maybe 1942. I became friends with all of the airmen who were training down there. They would be training on the beach. They had their obstacle course on the beach, and they would run it. I was a little kid, just a very small kid, and I loved to run their course with them and they took me on as their mascot. One day they said, “Listen, they’re showing a movie to us in the park, if you can get your mother to let you out tonight, come and see the movie with us.” I said, “Okay, I will.”
Of course, my mother wouldn’t let me out because I was maybe seven or eight years old and very small, but I pried loose the screen on the fourth or fifth-floor window of the hotel we were staying in in Miami Beach… we were not wealthy or anything. These were the days when it didn’t cost a lot. Outside the window was a huge palm tree that was curved. I threw myself off the ledge of the window, grabbed the trunk of the tree and slid down the tree in my Dr. Denton’s with the bomb bay door, and went running off to the park where three or four hundred airmen were sitting on the ground. A huge sheet had been stretched between two palm trees and they were showing Mark of Zorro, with Tyrone Power.
It was such a magical setting. Here I was this little kid who just adored airplanes and adored flyers. It was a night of incredible magic for me, and I sat there and watched The Mark of Zorro, and the point of The Mark of Zorro is that the downtrodden and those who are defenseless need to be defended; need to be protected from those who would attack them and lie to them and make slaves of them. It made an enormous impression on me, and the image of Zorro, the righter of social wrongs, was embedded in me at that age.
When someone says why are you the way you are, why are you so angry, it’s because I have a conscience. I don’t like waking up angry every morning and going to bed angrier every night. I would much rather be like most of the f—ing drones in the universe who just say, “It’s not my job; I don’t want to get involved,” which makes me want to take an uzi and shoot them dead. Most people are like that. Most people won’t stick out their neck. As a consequence, I have an enormous number of enemies, because whenever you take a stand for something, it means you’re going to gore somebody’s ox and they’re going to come after you. That’s the way I see myself. I once said to somebody that my icon was Jiminy Cricket because Jiminy Cricket was the manifestation of conscience, he’s friendship, he’s steadfastness, he’s fidelity, and these are the qualities I most honor and revere in people. I don’t care if people f— chickens, but I do respect, courage, personal integrity and ethics. That’s how I try to live my life. This means that if I see something that seems to be an injustice, I speak out against it. I realize that’s a very pompous sounding attitude, but I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do about it. That’s the way I feel.
Images: CBS Television Distribution,
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