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Retro Comic Review: IDW Revisit’s Original “City on the Edge of Forever” Concept in a Classy Comic

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Ask anyone who’s watched the Star Trek TV series, hardcore Trekkie or casual fans, which episode is their favorite, odds are they’ll probably say “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Originally aired in 1967, it has gone on to be a signature episode of the franchise, consistently tying with “The Trouble With Tribbles” as best Star Trek episode of all time, generating numerous sequel stories in the tie-in media (the best being the framing sequences of Diane Carey’s novel Final Frontier), and for being just plain good.

A somewhat lesser known aspect of “City…” is that what we saw onscreen is not the original story; the episode was written by noted sci-fi author Harlan Ellison but was significantly revised by other authors prior to being filmed. Most of the revisions were to keep the story within budget, consistent with the spirit the TV show (Ellison started writing before a single Star Trek episode was created), etc.

Ellison, who’d bent over backwards to revise the script himself, was outraged seeing his work “butchered.” The result was decades of bad blood between him and Gene Roddenberry, even becoming a lawsuit with CBS a few years back. (Ellison’s version of the controversy can be found in a book he wrote in 1996, Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever, containing essays on his grievances, the various drafts, and his final full script before the project moved beyond him.)

While the script has been published, it still doesn’t really answer the question of how “City…” would’ve turned out had the Powers That Be filmed Ellison’s version instead of the revised one. While we’ll never be able to know for sure what a TV version would’ve been like, IDW gave us the closest approximation possible by adapting it in this five-issue miniseries, Star Trek: Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever The Original Teleplay, by Scott and David Tipton, with illustrations by J.K. Woodward.

Much like in the filmed episode, the Enterprise is investigating strange temporal readings from an unexplored planet. However, instead of McCoy, the catalyst for the adventure is an original character, Lt. Beckwith. Beckwith is a nasty piece of work, involved in clandestine drug dealing for profit. When this is discovered, Beckwith escapes via transporter to the mysterious world below.

Kirk leads a landing party to the surface to retrieve Beckwith. There, they find a city inhabited by the Guardians of Forever. This order of beings keep watch over the time vortex, a phenomenon that allows for observation of the past and time travel. When the Guardians demonstrate the time vortex’s workings, Beckwith uses it to escape into Earth’s past, completely changing history.

To set things right, Kirk and Spock travel through the time vortex to 1920s New York to intercept Beckwith before he alters the timeline. Armed with nothing but the tricorder readings they gathered and the cryptic comments from the Guardians, Kirk and Spock set up shop, working out that one Sister Edith Keeler is the focal point that Beckwith affects, which will result in a terrible choice before all is over, and they can return to the reality they call home.

The best thing about the comic, hands down, is the beautiful artwork. The use of painted pages instead of traditional lines, inking, and coloring creates an unique look and JK Woodward successfully balances photo realism with stylization. Woodward also renders the characters and sets as they appear in the TV show proper. The familiarity of the visuals and characters is very important as it helps use stay connected to the story as it goes down it’s alternate paths.

However, that familiarity is somewhat offset by there being few few classic characters in the comic. Aside from Kirk and Spock, the only regulars we get are McCoy and Uhura in silent cameos and Yeoman Janice Rand as a supporting character during the pre-time travel sequences. While having more familiar faces would’ve been welcome, Rand, always an underutilized character in the TV show, gets her chance to shine in a way she never did before.

As far as the story itself goes, the comic presents it clearly and effectively. Most of the fun is seeing the differences between the two takes of the story, although it still reads just fine even if you haven’t seen the episode. It’s a decidedly darker take on the Star Trek world, a tone set right away by showing us Beckwith manipulating a victim he hooked on drugs. In fact, there’s very little humor at all in the story (although there is a priceless joke involving Spock and a beer truck that never made it onscreen).

In the 1920s, we get to see more of the negatives of the era then on TV. For example, Spock being treated badly because of the perception that he’s a Chinese immigrant becomes fodder for discussions on human nature and the differences between the past and the present. While that does add depth, it also continues to an angrier tone that the TV show never had and I’m not sure that it’s an improvement. Spock and Kirk are more at odds with each other, with the friendship of the TV versions minimal or non existent. There’s an incidental character’s death that, while addressed, goes overboard on showing a cruel world with little of any kind of hope.

While the differences to the story are part of the draw, they also include elements that run crosscurrent to the TV show. For example, Spock’s characterization is off with an angry undercurrent for much of the story. One conversation suggests that humans were exploring space a couple of centuries before Vulcan, which the various TV shows have established did not happen.

Cases can be made for either tweaking minor details so that the comic would be consistent with the Star Trek universe as it exists now or keeping the incongruities to better represent the original vision. I think the latter was the right call, since the point of the comic was to present the original story and intent behind it, but I do find that these deviations annoying.

The Enterprise crew encounter the Guardian again for the first time in IDW’s comic book based on Harlan Ellison’s “City on the Edge of Forever” script. (Art by J.K. Woodward)

So, is Ellison or the TV’s version of “City…” the better one? I would have to say that the TV version is hands down. First of all, it’s a less bloated story than Ellison envisioned and the script and comic give us. After the timeline is changed, there’s a brief interlude where Kirk and company discover that the Enterprise has turned into a pirate ship that doesn’t go anywhere beyond giving minor supporting character Janice Rand something to do. The comic also has Kirk and Spock originally offered work by a throwaway janitor character instead of Edith Keeler, which is unnecessary padding. This also gives Keeler less “screen time,” not allowing us to get to know her as well or care for her as much.

Having Beckwith, a new character, be the catalyst for the timeline change instead of series regular McCoy, was also a mistake. Beckwith is just a plot device to get the story rolling; we don’t care what happens to him, and he has no real personality beyond being the designated villain. Also, having a designated villain simplifies the story in a way the TV show did not by having no villain, just an unfortunate circumstance where there was no good answer to the problem.

Finally (MAJOR SPOILERS) the powerful ending of the episode where Kirk has to make the gut-wrenching choice to let Keeler die for the greater good is not here. Instead, Kirk is frozen with indecision while Spock is the one who decides to correct history. There is no comparing the two versions; the comic’s ending is incredibly weak, despite the attempt to address some philosophical concepts.

However, since part of the reason to read the comic is to see Ellison’s vision brought to life, I don’t think that these weak points are a problem; it’s part of the draw to see the original idea. Anyways, much of what made the episode the great story it is can be found in the comic’s version.

It may be obvious after reading the “City…” comic adaptation why Ellison’s vision for the story was, as Spock said in the TV show, “..right; but at the wrong time,” and not right for Star Trek as was. However, the meat of what made the final product so good is organic to Ellison’s take and there are additional gems to be unearthed. This excursion down the road not traveled an easy recommendation for anyone who enjoys Star Trek.

The hardcover trade paperback reprint of the miniseries also contains a forward and afterword by Harlan Ellison. It’s not exactly informative, but it is interesting to hear what he has to say all the same. There’s also some behind-the-scenes pages at the end, with comments by J.K. Woodward showing work in progress photos and a gallery explaining the Easter eggs contained in the final product. Most of Easter eggs them are just noting friends they used to create background and minor characters (although the fact that Ellison’s 1960s-era likeness was used for Trooper is pretty neat), references to Ellison’s other works, and well as visual ties to the actual “City…” episode. I fond the latter to be the parts I liked the most of the extras.

So, what do you say? Was the comic an enjoyable alternative take on what could have been? Is it a better story than what the TV show produced? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Extra notes:

– Ellison’s un-fillmed teleplay won the 1967 Writers Guild of America Award for “Best Episodic Drama on Television.” In a bit of irony, it beat another Star Trek nominee; the rather lackluster Original Series episode “Return of the Archons.” Ellison was by all accounts a very ungracious winner. I also find his decision to submit his version rather than the filming script (as the credited writer, he picked the draft), a bit suspect, given that the point of the award is to honor the final product, not the work-in-progress. However, the “City…” episode hasn’t gone unrecognized; it won the Hugo for “Best Dramatic Presentation” in 1968.

– Ellison’s version presents the identify of the city that the title refers to differently from the actual episode; it refers to 1920’s era-New York in the TV show while the script and comic connect it to the place where the time portal is located.

– The jewels of sound are a really interesting idea for a narcotic. Kind of a shame that the franchise never thought to use them in a TV show.

– By coincidence or design, the use of a “time vortex” is actually part of the canonical Guardian of Forever. In the Animated Series episode “Yesteryear,” one of Kirk’s lines is: “We are in orbit around the planet of the time vortex, the focus of all the timelines of our galaxy.” Whether “Yesteryear”’s writer, D.C. Fontana, was thinking about Ellison’s original idea or not, I don’t know.

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