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Harlan Ellison Turned Star Trek Into Something More. Could It Happen Again?

Harlan Ellison Turned Star Trek Into Something More. Could It Happen Again?
30 Jun
4:16

The City on the Edge of Forever” starts like many Star Trek episodes do. The USS Enterprise is in orbit around some far-flung planet when strange temporal disturbances (and a raving Leonard “Bones” McCoy) force Kirk and company to investigate the planet’s surface.

But after the away team meets the Guardian of Forever, an incorporeal lifeform tasked with guarding a time gateway, the show takes a more interesting turn. Chasing after a raving Bones, Spock and Kirk must enter the gateway in order to fix the past—even if it involves Kirk letting someone he loves die.

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Fifty-one years later, the episode is rightly remembered as one of the best Star Trek outings—perhaps the best. Countless critics have pointed to “The City on the Edge of Forever” as the ultimate expression of what Star Trek can be, challenging notions of war, peace, and moral decision-making.

The iconic (and often contentious) sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, who died yesterday in his sleep at the age of 84, created this indelible piece of Trek. In many ways he was not a typical Star Trek writer—but perhaps the franchise should look to him as it seeks to reinvent itself in this century.

The Controversial Architect

Harlan Ellison, 1977.

Getty ImagesBarbara Alper

Ellison’s sci-fi legacy far exceeds his brief work on Star Trek. Over a 60-year writing career, Ellison penned 1,700 short stories, screenplays, and comic books. If you’re a sci-fi fan—television, film, or otherwise—it’s nearly impossible that you haven’t experienced Ellison’s work, whether on shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Babylon 5, in comics like The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk, or Batman, or in the hundreds of his collected short stories.

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Ellison didn’t just write characters. He was one. According to biographer Nat Segaloff, who wrote A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, Ellison made more than a few enemies in the entertainment business and once sent a dead gopher to a publishing house to get them to return his calls. One of his more famous stories involves being fired during his first day working at Disney because he jokingly suggested the studio make a Disney porn flick.

The controversial Ellison also famously fought with Star Trek showrunner Gene Roddenberry over “The City on the Edge of Forever,” even leading to Ellison eventually suing CBS in 2009 for his fair share of receipts from the episode and releasing several versions of his original teleplay (he also picked a fight with James Cameron over The Terminator).

“The City on the Edge of Forever” remains as challenging as its creator was. But can Star Trek ever reach such philosophical heights again?

The Necessary Evolution of Trek

Star Trek: Discovery…set phasers to kill.

CBS All-Access

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Star Trek sees humanity’s future among the stars, and imagines our march of progress toward a more egalitarian society. It would make sense that a show about growth would grow and change with the times.

But the Star Trek of today is several steps removed from the vision of Ellison and Roddenberry a half-century ago. The J.J. Abrams movies and CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery show both strip the franchise of its moral questions and its unending optimism, leaving it little more than a Generic Space Adventure Show dressed in Star Trek uniforms.

Ellison’s idea of Star Trek was vastly different. In “The City on the Edge of Forever,” he wrapped the entire dramatic structure around one moral choice (spoilers ahead for a 51-year-old hour of television). Kirk and Spock travel back to 1930s to stop an erratic Bones from changing the past and thus obliterating the Federation’s very existence. They meet a woman named Edith Keeler, a mission leader who believes humans are destined for great things—if only we can learn to divert our appetite for war into a dedication to peace and exploration.

Of course, the Federation represents the better future she imagined. But while in the past, Spock (using primitive computing technology) discovers that Edith’s zeal for peace comes at a terrible price. In the natural timeline of Trek, Keeler dies young in a car accident. But in the episode’s distorted timeline, she lives to become a vocal advocate for a pacifism movement in the U.S. just as Hitler comes to power in Europe, changing history. In a cruel twist of fate, Kirk—who’s grown to love Keeler during his time in the past—realizes he must let Keeler die to preserve the future.

This Trek masterpiece doesn’t have epic fights with Klingons, exploding ships, gratuitous violence, or really any fast-paced action of any kind (unless you call Bones delirious bumbling “action-packed”), but it asks tough questions about what it means to be human. It’s this simple grain of Trek truth that also lies at the heart of the most memorable Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes as well.

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But these moral tales feel almost foreign to modern-day Star Trek, which feels more beholden to plot twists and CGI spectacle. Discovery, for example, tries to make a moral case for its convoluted 15-episode trainwreck of a first season, but awkwardly jams this idea in the final minutes of the last episode, treating it almost as an epilogue instead of the very heart of the show itself.

A New Age of Trek

The good news is that Discovery is only the beginning of a Trek renaissance. This month Variety reported that CBS was tapping Alex Kurtzman to head up five new Star Trek shows, with reportedly one show involving Patrick Stewart’s return as Jean-Luc Picard.

This would mark a new age of Trek, which has had usually one and at most two shows on air at a time, followed by a years-long hiatus. A new age could mean a new direction. Patrick Stewart’s involvement offers some hope that these new series might return to the more philosophical roots of the show—though, with this new Trek riding on the success of Star Trek: Discovery, it seems only logical to expect more TV like that.

But like the humans, Vulcans, and (eventually) Klingons that fill Starfleet ranks, fans must remain hopeful. The world undoubtedly lost a great science fiction writer this week, but the sci-fi generation he inspired can help make sure his kind of Star Trek—and challenging science fiction in general—will take us into an undiscovered country.

Source: https://www.popularmechanics.com/culture/tv/a22000795/harlan-ellison-star-trek/

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