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  • Ric Crossman

1.1.28 Let This Be Their Last Battlefield

The City On The Edge Of Forever

Kirk points towards Orion's belt, and Keeler follows his finger.
Shatner estimates the size of the budget Ellison's original script would have needed.

"...And in other news, celebrated science-fiction author Harlan Ellison has died, barely a week after his 32nd birthday. In his short career, Ellison won both a Writer's Guild of America award, and a Nebula Award, with his story "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said The Ticktockman" favoured to win the author a Hugo this September. Ellison is survived by his three former wives. The cause of death was traffic collision. Foul play is not suspected."

Fifty Shades On Gene

Whatever else one might want to say about it, COTEOF manages a truly impressive trick - it's one of the best-written and beloved episodes of the entire franchise, and yet the behind-the-scenes story still comes close to being more interesting than what we see on screen. Famously, while the original idea and first few script drafts came from Harlan Ellison - a writer who contributed colossally to sci-fi as a genre, and provided only slightly less to the bank accounts of litigators across America - his efforts were judged so far from filmable that Gene Coon, DC Fontana, and ultimately Roddenberry himself took their hammers to the teleplay. By the time all the re-dos were done, and filming and editing complete, only two of Ellison's original lines had survived.

Inevitably, Ellison tried to a) distance himself from the project, and b) sue. In terms of the suit filed, the stated nature of his displeasure was the number of unpaid rewrites he'd had to do, ultimately to no avail. Whether this was a legitimate objection, I have no relevant expertise upon which to base an opinion. Plus, critically, I couldn't give a shit. Whether Ellison's case held water, it's clear the liquid that really mattered was being pumped out by his hyperactive bile duct. As we'll come to later, the issue of rewrites is just the tiniest - but most actionable - sliver of Ellison's beef against Trek in general, and Roddenberry in particular.

And while it might sound like I'm framing Ellison as a cantankerous malcontent incapable of believing he was being treated with sufficient respect - which, to be fair, is precisely what I'm doing - its not like Roddenberry comes out of this smelling of Felaran roses. Ellison's complaint that Roddenberry took maximum credit for "City..." at every possible juncture certainly fits with portraits others have painted of the Great Bird of the Galaxy. It's hard to disagree that he had Gene nailed, in a way he completely didn't with, say, Kirk. [1]

Obviously, it's worth asking how much it's worth wading into a feud held by dead men. Trading in gossip doesn't look any better through a patina of grave-dust. That said, the decades-long war over what the story could, couldn't, and ultimately had been does spill out into some interesting territory. In terms of COTEOF as aired, there's not a whole lot left to argue about. Coon and Fontana are at the top of their respective games, taking Ellison's rock-solid foundation for a story and making the script sing [2]. The regulars have got their sea legs and started knocking it out of the park, to employ metaphors that are rather less mixed than you might think. Add in some nice design work for the Guardian, and unleash Joan Collins to class up the joint, and you've got a classic on your hands.

What still seems worth donning gloves and stepping into the ring for is the nature and intent of COTEOF's subtext, and what Ellison and Roddenberry respectively intended that to be. The story as aired has come under fire multiple times for pushing a message readable as being pro-war. Further, by some accounts, Ellison himself claimed a major part of why he disliked the version aired was the degree to which he was pushed into writing Keeler as an anti-war protestor, a sap whose commitment to pacifism was so total that the US, influenced by her vision of an Earth at peace, dithered during WWII long enough for the Nazis to slap together the atom bomb first.

It would make sense that Ellison would take exception to such an approach. His earlier short story "Soldier From Tomorrow" (which he reworked into the script for the Outer Limits episode "Soldier", perhaps best known now for allegedly being ripped off for Terminator) likewise features a character travelling backwards in time. On this occasion, though, the character is a soldier pulled accidentally from the battlefields of some far-future apocalyptic conflict, who then dedicates his new life in the past to speaking out against the horrors of warfare, hoping he can help avert what's to come.

One can see how Ellison might balk at being pushed into echoing that same setup, only this time with the message of pacifism explicitly being the problem. There are some problems though with the idea that this was his sticking point, or that it should be ours. Firstly, when actually given the opportunity to lay his beef out in full, in The City On The Edge Of Forever: The Original Teleplay, Ellison doesn't bring this issue up once. The closest he gets is to spend several paragraphs attacking Joan Collins for describing Keeler as thinking "Hitler was a nice guy" and being "probably a Nazi plant" in her (auto)biographies. Indeed, in this same section he goes so far as to defend the idea that Keeler's philosophy might inadvertently have aided the Nazis, as a standard "what if?" scenario. The point was never the reason Keeler had to die, it was how the fact Keeler needed to die affected Kirk.

That doesn't excuse treating Keeler's life as something for a man to weigh up, naturally. It does though make it difficult to believe Ellison cared much at all about the justification for the dilemma he was so desperate to set up. His concern was in paralleling "The Cold Equations", not in avoiding parallels to the Cold War. This seems even more clear when we consider the topic of Keeler's fate comes up only two and a quarter hours (I bought the audiobook) into a 150 minute rant, spread over three chapters, in which Ellison lays out every gripe and grudge he has against his time on Star Trek, often multiple times [3]. He wasn't bothered that the result of Keeler's actions benefitted the Nazis. He's bothered someone apparently couldn't tell the difference between result and intent (as well as being outraged a mere woman could dare to misremember his glorious work).

Ellison not caring about the subtext isn't the same thing as the subtext not being there, of course. As Marsfelder notes, though, it doesn't seem likely that Coon and Fontana would be onboard with pumping out a pro-war story. Coon in particular gave us "Arena" and "A Taste Of Armageddon", the latter of which wasn't just anti-war, but specifically based on Coon's feelings about the war in Vietnam.

It's possible Roddenberry himself took a hand here - pointing at him whenever reactionary guff crops up in this season is generally a safe bet. Perhaps it was based on conversations with Gene that lead to Robert Justman's claim that "of course they did [intend]" the episode to carry a subtext challenging the anti-Vietnam movement.

The extent to which Justman's recollection is accurate matters to me an awful lot less than the actual textual evidence in the script, though. I mean, if we practice death of the author, we should absolutely practice death of the associate producer. The script itself is explicit that Keeler is completely correct about what needs to happen for humanity to move forward. She isn't portrayed as naive, or foolish - from the very moment she meets our heroes she makes it clear she is kind, and caring, but in no way gullible (one of Ellison's complaints that genuinely rings true to me is that his Keeler was much more interesting than the one we got, but the sad truth is she still endsed up being above average by Trek women standards). She just has the extraordinary bad luck of focussing on world peace immediately before the dawn of fascism.

Peacemaker From Yesterday

"...The show might never have been so successful without the heavyweight names it caught within its orbit .The penultimate instalment of the first season, for instance, was written by no less than Theodore Sturgeon, already a genre writer of some repute (and with multiple awards under his belt). His first effort for the show, "Shore Leave" was fun and imaginative, but perhaps a little slight. With "Amok Time", though, Sturgeon provided the season with an eleventh-hour vitamin shot, catapulting its heroes into a tale of love, passion, friendship and self-sacrifice. For all that the episode centres around an alien, rarely until then had TV sci-fi so deftly dealt with what it means to be human.

While it's well-known at this point that Roddenberry had to more or less sit on top of Sturgeon until he finally produced an entire script, there's no doubt the result was worth the pressure both upon Sturgeon's back, and within Roddenberry's skull.

Star Trek had proved itself worthy of a second season. The only question was: where would it go from here?"

So yes. Pacifism in the face of fascim is an extraordinarily bad idea. Like, "striving for peace is the only possible way forward, unless you happen to be up against literal fucking Nazis" is unambigously and entirely the right stance to take [4]. The potential, unsound extension to that argument that maybe the same was true in Vietnam as well is never even implied, let alone deployed. We don't even know that Keeler herself would have argued the Nazis didn't need to be fought. All we know is that Roosevelt pointed to her influence when refusing to join the war at the end of 1940. Keeler would hardly be the first person to find their broad principles twisted into something considered politically convenient.

Furthermore, whatever Keeler said and did can't have resulted in a changed timeline where the US didn't declare war on Germany in 1940, because the US never declared war on Germany anyway. It was the other way around, in response to the US declaring war on Japan after Pearl Harbor. This means either that Keeler's actions resulted in the US not going to war after one of their naval bases was attacked with no or extremely little warning - which is extremely difficult to credit - or that Keeler's message of peace permeated to the point where Japan no longer considered it necessary to attack the US in the first place. What that probably translates to is a reduction in the scale of America's response to Japan's invasion of China, and/or the US scaling back its own imperialist activities in the Pacific. Or, without wishing to be reductive (though I'm not sure that's ever completely unavoidable with counter-factuals), it might just be something as specific as Japan being happier to attack UK holdings in the Indian Ocean, being more confident that this would not result in an American military response.

Even with the knowledge Keeler's death changed the course of history, then, had she lived she would have been no more to blame for a Nazi victory than Darwin is for the eugenics movement, or Marx is for Stalin. Hitler only lived because of his parents, and his grandparents, and his great-grandparents, and so on. A point in history that could not have occurred in precisely the same way had you made a different decision is not the same thing as a result for which you bear responsibility.

This is brought home in Ellison's original epilogue. For those who haven't read it, Ellison's script doesn't feature a temporarily insane Doctor McCoy, travelling into the past to ultimately save Keeler's life. Instead, that role is taken by a man named Beckwith, a drug-dealing crewmember who killed a colleague who threatened to expose him, and who was on the run from the Enterprise as a result. At the end of the fourth act, the death of Edith Keeler would have played out very similarly to what we eventually got, with the major change that Kirk finds himself unable to intervene, resulting in Spock restraining Beckwith and thereby causing Keeler's death.

In Ellison's epilogue, Spock tells Kirk he can understand why his captain was unable to commit to preventing Keeler's escape, but that he can't wrap his head around why Beckwith, a drug dealer and blackmailer who had already killed in an attempt to keep his drug-dealing and blackmail secret, would risk his own life to save a total stranger. Kirk's response is that even the worst of us is capable of great nobility on occasion. Spock then notes that good can come from evil, and evil come from good. A venal, petty murderer can try to save a total stranger, and an honest man, devoted to duty, can refuse to save an entire future because of the strength of his feelings.

On its own, none of this is terribly interesting - once you start accepting that the most evil people can do good things and vice versa, you should probably realise the whole Manichean thing should be tossed aside. What I like about this conclusion though is that it undercuts any reading of Keeler's own actions as being either good or bad. Of course our actions and their results are a mess of contradictions - we can't even be one thing in ourselves.

Someone wanting to make the case that Roddenberry wanted to reforge "City..." as a caution against anti-war sentiment as applied to Vietnam might find ammunition here. The cutting out of Ellison's ruminations on the complexity of intent, action, cause and effect - along with making the results of Keeler's proselytising more clear-cut than in the original version - does potentially simplify the story's message in an unhelpful way. I'd argue though that this is compensated for by the final episode beefing up the idea that the specific view the show offered of the future. Yes, this was a view of equality which while both cosmetic and parochial. That does not entirely rob it of merit. The final COTEOF suggests that there is such a thing as a situation in which war is necessary, but there is no reason we must continue to live in such a way that those situations themselves are able to develop. Frankly, I will take that.


And did Ellison appreciate the manner in which later rewrites position Keeler as a prophet for a gloriously war-free tomorrow? No. He hated it, dismissing Roddenberry's approach as saccharine and foolish. His own "Soldier From Tomorrow" concludes with the argument that only a soldier has the moral authority to argue war is bad, a position I find significantly less palatable than any amount of incoherent positive vibes Roddenberry wanted to cast out into the universe.

Harlan vs History

"... IDFC comes to a a real gem, tucked away in the generally poorly-regarded third season. Yes, the plot - Kirk (alongside Spock) goes back in time to restore history and ends up falling in love with Leigh Bellana, the woman whose death he must allow to happen - feels somewhat familiar. We've seen our heroes thrown back in time before, and the idea of a change in history altering our heroes' present is ultimately just a reworking of the (admittedly unexplored and hypothetical) background to "Mirror Mirror".

Nor is it just the show's own past that "And The Stars Never Rise" (ironically) recycles. The idea of going back in time to stop a war was explored in an Outer Limits episode written by sci-fi author Harlan Ellison (who died tragically at the age of 32, just a few months before one of the last stories he wrote won a Hugo). The idea here - that Kirk is ensuring a major war retains its historical shape - isn't all that different, though in this case the future is saved not through promoting peace, but through preventing peace being promoted. It's a rather less pleasing formulation than the one Ellison offered up two years earlier, and it makes me wonder what an alternative timeline, in which he lived long enough to have had the chance to write for Star Trek, might have looked like."

This isn't to say there's nothing to object to the way the story (no matter which version) frames the issue of Keeler's fate. Crucially, though, the biggest problem the script contains is one on which Ellison and Roddenberry appear to have been in complete agreement, and which I have no time for. Fundamentally, I just refuse to believe that any single person - up to and including Oppenheimer - could be the difference between the Nazis losing the war, and them winning it. It's just one more variant on Great (Wo)Man Theory - an usual but still fundamentally isomorphic take on the "go back in time and kill Hitler" idea. It's one more way of insisting history is changed by the individual, rather than the material conditions of history changing individuals.

Ellison's script tries to have its Romulan ale and drink it by suggesting Keeler was a temporal fulcrum about which the future revolved, but that such fulcrums aren't important in any other sense - indeed they don't even have to be people. I can see what he's trying to do here, but it's too incoherent to really blunt the punch he's hoping to pull (as well as being sufficiently woolly to make his bitching about Roddenberry's view to the future seem rather unfair). Whatever confused nonsense Ellison tried using to paper over the implausibility of Beckwith happening to meet someone capable of butterflying away the Manhattan Project, this is still about the idea that removing an individual from history would prompt qualitative rather than quantitative change.

But then that's the nature of the beast, isn't it? This is TOS. The James T Kirk show (Ellison also spends some time in his Moebius moan accusing Shatner of having objected to the original script because Spock had a few more lines than Kirk did). Great Man Theory is simply baked in. You might as well complain that no-one ever mentions Edith Keeler again. [5]

And yet, while this story itself, like most Trek stories of the era, embraces the heroism of the individual, the gestation of this episode tells a very different tale. There are, as I've noted, some ways in which the final version of "City On The Edge Of Forever" doesn't quite measure up to Ellison's version. There are other ways in which the reverse is true. COTEOF isn't the greatest moment the show ever gave us. A world in which it didn't exist would look almost indistinguishable to this one. But the fact it works overall - and in many ways works very well - isn't due to Ellison being too good a writer for his light to be fully hidden by the endless pages of rewrites. It works because, while Ellison clearly could write, so could Coon, and so could Fontana. It works because Shatner and Nimoy had an excellent double-act by this point, ably assisted in general by DeForest Kelley, and specifically here by Joan Collins (whatever her later strange recollections). It works because Joseph Pevney was among the most reliable directors the show had. And so on.

Another theme Ellison's ranting returns to, over and over, is that good stories can't be born out of committee. You need, he insists, a single clear voice. Otherwise, the results will be tepid, smoothed-out, even (to use Ellison's formulation), not worthy of the audience's trust. Whatever else he might have been right about, this is just obvious bullshit. A egomaniac justifying their egomania as a necessary condition of being an artist. The ultimate truth is that Star Trek without this episode would look very similar to Star Trek does with it, just as a world without Roddenberry would sooner or later have stumbled on the potential offered by television space opera married to the optimism of sci-fi's golden age.

Television, like history, is not a story of individuals. We none of us stand atop the shoulders of giants, but within human pyramids of dizzying height. If there's any point at all in wading into the feud between Ellison and Roddenberry, it's only to remind ourselves they both spent far too much of their career failing to grasp that truth, desperately fighting over credit for a success that clearly belonged to them both, and many others besides.

They couldn't both win, and in the end they both lost. And with that, we turn from the Guardian and its endlessly cycling displays of history. Time, at last, to move on.


1. The City On The Edge Of Forever

2. (The Storyteller)

3. (Ex Post Facto)

4. (Desert Crossing)

5. (The Infinite Vulcan)

6. (11001001)

Series Ordering

1. Deep Space Nine

2. The Original Series

3. Voyager

4. The Next Generation

5. The Animated Series

6. Enterprise

[1] When I wrote up "The Slaver Weapon", I said it made sense to hire Larry Niven to write an Animated Series episode, considering how well-regarded Ellison's contribution (however rewritten) had proved. Given that, it's interesting to note both Niven and Ellison proved completely unwilling to clear even the lowest bar required for writing for a TV series, i.e. taking into account what the show actually is.

[2] The story is filled with lovely little moments, but for my money the best is Kirk trying to spin an explanation for Spock that a US beat cop would buy, and figures "Screw it; it's gonna have to be at least a little racist". Ellison himself was frequently extremely clever. He was not often funny.

[3] Including, brilliantly, how unfair it is that Roddenberry told people that Ellison was an undisciplined and self-indulgent writer. Boy, did that eighty-page diatribe put the record straight there!

[4] Really, there's just as much reason to think that any pro-war undertones here come from Roddenberry trying to synthesise his conviction that humanity needs to outgrow violence with his time in the USAF during the war, during which violence was held to be a moral necessity.

[5] This almost reaches the level of a philosophical thought experiment: If a woman is killed in fiction to make a man sad, but those guyfeels are never observed, was she really fridged?

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