“Watch…your future’s end.”: The City on the Edge of Forever
“I am my own beginning. And my own ending.”
“So. You’ve found the courage to speak to me face to face at last, have you? I must congratulate you on finally discovering your spine, however some thinkers far wiser than I might say there exists a very thin line between courage and stupidity.”
“I’ve not come for bravado-filled threats, I’ve come in the hope that together we might be able to negotiate an end to all of this. The damage can be repaired.”
“You people never fail to disappoint me, though your unwavering stubbornness is to be commended, I suppose. Have you nothing more or better to say to me than that?”
“Withdraw your troops from the 22nd Century. The damage can be repaired, and I’d hoped to make you remember the fundamental importance and worth of the Temporal Accords.”
“Please spare me your impassioned appeal to regulations and rules of order. I’ve lived far, far too long and much too hard to be swayed by your vapid platitudes, Agent.”
“Your quarrel isn’t with these people in this time! It’s with us!”
“Isn’t it? Tell me, do you know why my ships didn’t blow you out of the stars on sight? Because I wanted to show you this. This is what your people did on Earth in 1930, A.D. I want you to take a good, long look at it and try to defend or explain away your actions. Here. Now. To my face.”
“This…ceaseless hatred and violence…It is alien to us. And repugnant. We must depart this plane; the pain has become simply too great for us to bear any longer.”
“A philosophy of pacifism is only practical if you’re not living under oppression. It has been so very long: Do you remember what it feels like to be imprisoned? Trapped? Walked over? Used? Violated? We all know what the future means: Cycles of making and unmaking repeating themselves forever. We walk in eternity, you and I. But we are also stewards of it.”
“You are not of Organia, but you are like us. We should like to speak with you about this further.”
“Shh, now. In time.”
“The City on the Edge of Forever” is also rather infamously the center of an extremely messy legal dispute between writer Harlan Ellison and the then-members of the Star Trek production team. There seem to be two versions of events here and, unfortunately, in neither of them does Gene Roddenberry come out looking good. The first account, which is supported by Bob Justman and Herb Solow in Inside Star Trek and even Ellison’s own book on the subject says that the original draft (which was delivered late) featured an Enterprise crewman named Beckwith who was a drug dealer. After murdering a fellow crewmember who threatened to turn him in, he was sentenced to death on the planet the ship was in orbit of, which in this draft was inhabited by an ancient race of time observers called The Guardians and who maintained a Time Vortex. Beckwith escaped through the Time Vortex and changed history such that the Enterprise becomes a pirate ship called the Condor. Kirk and Spock must then follow Beckwith into the vortex and, as in the aired episode, arrive a week before him and discover they must stop him from averting the death of an Edith Koestler, which is difficult for Kirk as he has fallen in love with her.
The story then goes that Roddenberry considered this draft unusable for a number of reasons, the most prominent of which being that he was opposed to the idea that drug addiction would remain a serious problem in the enlightened future of Star Trek. Roddenberry himself told a variation of this on the convention circuit, where he would claim he disliked Ellison’s original script because it “had Scotty selling drugs”. This is, of course, blatantly untrue as Scotty wasn’t in the first draft of “The City on the Edge of Forever” at all (although Roddenberry did later admit he hadn’t read Ellison’s treatment in years at the time he made that remark). That aside, this version of events seems somewhat unlikely overall, given that from what we’ve seen of his work so far Roddenberry was far from a utopian at this point in his career. Either way, Roddenberry asked Ellison to rewrite his script, which he did, two more times. Still finding it unsatisfactory, this sequence of events has Roddenberry giving the story over to a number of editors, most prominently Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana, who did a series of uncredited rewrites of the script.
Unhappy with the way his script had been handled, Ellison requested that it air under the pseudonym “Cordwainer Bird”, a request Roddenberry allegedly denied by threatening to blacklist Ellison from Hollywood. Apparently, Roddenberry knew Ellison used this pen name when he was unhappy with the way television production teams interfered with his work, and furthermore that this was a technique of Ellison’s known to science fiction fans. This argument goes that Ellison’s major complaint with the situation was that Coon and Fontana weren’t credited in the final story, and that had fans seen “The City on the Edge of Forever” go out under the name “Cordwainer Bird” then they’d realise Star Trek was no different than any other science fiction show in the way it mistreated its story editors and production staff and that this was something Roddenberry couldn’t accept as he wanted to cultivate the myth it was special and ahead of its time.
“You speak many grand words about peace and egalitarianism, but the actions of your people are deafening. Consider this, then. Your crowning achievement. You cling so tightly to your reality that you would glorify the death of an innocent bystander who would become the voice of peace on Earth because it means you get to carry on living as you have always lived, turned away from the world until it’s time to pass judgment on the lesser cultures. You are not just silent, but willfully silent. I wonder, do your kind know anything about real silence?”
“We cannot take the risk that tampering with the past will negate our existence in the future! We all take that risk, and it is our duty as officers to keep the timeline pure and free of paradoxes-It must be upheld! Edith Keeler was an admirable woman, but ahead of her time. Had she lived, the Axis powers would have won the second World War, because Earth of the 1930s was not ready for such beliefs. She was a dangerous outlier in the timestream and, regrettably, had to be neutralized to preserve it’s natural flow. Your dangerous meddling is a threat to not just the safety and sovereignty of “my people”, but to the stability of the entire universe! Please, let me help you understand!”
“*I* do not ‘understand’…There truly is no limit to Federation arrogance. A life really means so little to you? I’ve tried to be charitable to you, to grant you as much intelligence and as much space at the debate table as I can. But you don’t give me arguments or defenses, you give me talking points and hollow catchphrases. What are you saying? That at once the integrity of all of creation hinges on one person, yet one who is also too pure and sophisticated for her backwater planet? And that death is preferable to life in such a place? I’ve never heard so much entitled double-speak and self-aggrandizement in my entire long, miserable life. You’ve wasted your trip, friend. You came to me hoping to convince me to put an end to our hostilities by making me “see reason”. All you’ve accomplished is to make me even more certain of my beliefs.”
“You can’t hide forever, Ayelborne. One day they will come for Organia. When shots ring out and the sky is set ablaze, you’ll be conscripted just like the rest of us. You know it to be true: You’ve seen it just as I have. It’s happened before, and it is written it will happen again. This time it can be different. This time it will be different. But you and I will have roles to play. It is an act of love.”
The account Ellison tells is rather different, though no less depressing. According to him, the dispute was not about writing credit and the treatment of the Star Trek production staff, or even Roddenberry’s attempted blackmail. Instead, Ellison claims the sticking point was a shift in the depiction of Edith Keeler: By the final draft Ellison submitted to Roddenberry, Keeler had become an overt anti-war protester. In the version that aired, there is a clear implication that the reason her death was important to history was because, had she lived, she would have ushered in a powerful new pacifist movement that kept the United States neutral in World War II, this allowing Nazi Germany to develop atomic weapons. This claim is bolstered significantly by the extensive legal documents and internal memos Ellison eventually made public, as well as a rather vague remark from Bob Justman that takes on a deeply upsetting reading within this context. When asked if the staff version of “The City on the Edge of Forever” was meant “to have the contemporaneous anti-Vietnam-war movement as a subtext”, Justman allegedly replied “Of course we did”.
While this version of events is significantly more plausible in my opinion just knowing what we know now about what Star Trek was like in its first season, I have a hard time accepting it completely at face value either. The primary reason this is tough for me to stomach is because I have a seriously hard time believing writers like Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana would have intentionally altered a story like this to give it such a flagrantly reactionary tone: That’s simply not in keeping with anything in their catalog, even at this relatively early date. Coon’s last two stories were about how Starfleet’s militarization and the Federation’s distance and pursuit of material wealth almost led to outright genocide and having Kirk punished by a group of hyper-evolved pacifists for his bloodlust and desire for conflict. Indeed, Coon also penned “Arena” and worked on the angrily anti-war “A Taste of Armageddon” which had Kirk admit humans were natural-born killers. Fontana’s last script was hideously reactionary, yes, but that was primarily the result of it being written by the author of “The Corbomite Maneuver”, and it’s very easy in my view to argue the most progressive aspects of “This Side of Paradise” were Fontana’s doing. I see absolutely no reason why either one of them would suddenly turn around, take Ellison’s relatively straightforward pitch and go out of their way to add in a scene that depicted pacifism as inherently wrongheaded and dangerous, and to then have that episode immediately follow Coon’s “Errand of Mercy” is ludicrous even by Star Trek standards.
Now, from what I gather Gene Roddenberry had the last go at “The City on the Edge of Forever” and it’s far easier to see this being his doing than Coon’s or Fontana’s. Bob Justman’s comment is confusing, and while I’m not entirely familiar with what his views might have been circa 1967, the fact he went on to work on Star Trek: The Next Generation for a time and to co-author Inside Star Trek with Herb Solow should be some kind of clue. Either way, it seems clear Harlan Ellison got somewhat shafted here, and the end result is yet another episode that’s frankly nowhere near as good as its reputation would suggest it is. It’s not the greatest episode of Star Trek, not by a long shot: It’s not even the greatest episode of this series, or even this season. The show is on very shaky ground now: Had we not just had “The Devil in the Dark” and “Errand of Mercy” this would be Star Trek‘s death knell. There’s no escape from a future built on manslaughter and crushing pacifism, even if it is because that pacifism isn’t “of its time”. But we have, and “Balance of Terror” and “Arena” too, and thus we soldier ever onwards.
However, it should be extremely telling that even in the version of events meant to excuse Gene Roddenberry, he still comes out looking pretty unequivocally like the bad guy.
“This conflict is not over, Agent. But I’ve done what I came here to do. Perhaps I didn’t even need to do what I did. Maybe you people will blow yourselves up without me. One thing you cannot seem to understand is that I don’t fight for the future: I fight for futures, and for a present and a past too. Our campaign here is over, but the conflict continues. Mark my words, Agent, this is not the last you’ll see of us. We will return. And when we do, time will stand still and the war to end all wars will rage once more.”
“Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway”.
July 15, 2013 @ 7:43 am
Fascinating. Another take on the problematic pragmatist idealism of Star Trek.
Seriously, though, this is a wonderful exploration of the theme, and one of the most difficult ideas about social progress in the material world. Creatures like the Organians who have already perfected their society don't need to compromise their values to make progress. They can look at a character like Edith Keeler and see someone who would be a powerful role model, and whose premature death (premature because she never had the chance to put her ideals into their most potent worldly action) was a terrible crime.
This is contrasted with a harsh pragmatism: Edith was literally too wise for her time, a light among barbarians, none of whom could recognize her for what she was. In terms of ideals, she was a beacon. In terms of actually achieving those ideals, she was a terrible obstacle. Progress only ever happens a little bit at a time, something to be slowly worked toward. The perspective of the time agent is morally horrifying, having to maintain all these terrible events out of a kind of Leibnizian bargain: the world can only become the best possible if it changes at just the right pace to be effective. Our ideals become counter-productive when we try to go too fast: a revolution is followed by a worse terror than the overthrown regime.
The time agent is condemned by the Organian, but the Organian has no place to tell us mortals how to progress. The Guardian offers Kirk the possibility not to have mad adventures in time like Doctor Who; it offers Kirk the role of time agent, leaping through time to keep humanity on the most progressive path. It disgusts him. The agent of your dialogue has been conscripted into that disgust.
July 15, 2013 @ 8:43 am
This is such a fantastic reading I don't have the heart to tell you that it's only almost, but not quite, what I was going for.
July 15, 2013 @ 11:57 am
You don't have the heart, but you did. That's ok, though. I prefer to be almost on target in an interesting way than actually being on target.
Both positions seem to be morally reprehensible for different reasons. The Organian perspective is hubristic and patronizing: an analogy would be a human condemning a homo erectus for not coming up with Shakespeare. The time agent's perspective means taking this almost Hegelian perspective on the world: the spirit of a people move at its own pace, and so a time agent has to tolerate intolerable horrors because they're the evils from which greater goods are capable. And the time agent is still mortal. The Keeler case may be clear, but there are probably a lot of situations where good people have to be destroyed to preserve the arc of history, but a time agent might not be totally clear about the effects of his own actions. Maybe some changes would progress things faster, but changing timelines is so dangerous that it can't be risked. It's a terrible double-bind, and I'm not sure if the scenario offers a way out of it.
July 15, 2013 @ 1:26 pm
No, I think it's a great reading and definitely a valid one and that's very much the train of thought I wanted to provoke by putting Organians here. It's just I would argue that's not the only relationship on display here: The agent and Ayelborne were not meant to be quite so…directly…contrasted. This may well be my fault for not making it clear enough in the structure of the post, though.
I'm starting to feel I should start providing reading guides for this kind of post…
July 15, 2013 @ 1:34 pm
Why on Earth would you do something like that? The ambiguity of interpretations is what makes it good art. And the best analysis good art is itself good art.
July 15, 2013 @ 4:58 pm
Personally I wouldn't mind a reading guide every now and then :T If it could be spoiler'd somehow. Ambiguity is all well and good, but it can be a hindrance if you're not getting everything you can out of the work in question as a result; I found this one a bit difficult to parse at first, but that's just me. And hey, an excuse to re-read 🙂
July 15, 2013 @ 8:31 pm
My sentiments exactly, but it's nice to hear them from someone else on occasion-Validation is good sometimes 🙂
July 16, 2013 @ 9:07 pm
Hi – been reading all your current posts since you began – keep up the good work! Thanks for a good read with this essay.
I got something interesting from the essay that perhaps was unintended – I love these moments in good art, either accidents creating new moments of magic, or conjunctions occurring that the artist did not themselves see at first. As I scrolled down with my trackpad, I started reading your essay and was very taken with the image of the Guardian as it was superimposed upon that of the Earth below. I noticed something, and this was underlined when further images of the Guardian were repeated as I continued to scroll, but with new visions within.
What it looked like to me was that the Guardian was creating an opening into the hollow Planet Earth, which then with each scroll down, contained new worlds or civilisations. Interestingly this could not happen in the same way if this was in a book and was an artefact of reading and scrolling on a computer with some images superimposed over others. It also obviously depended on my eye placing the images at the right point on the dark part of the planet for it to work – and the first three or four worked best (my designer eye wanted also to NOT have the image cropped at the bottom).
Anyway what it made me think of was all of the Hollow Earth tales propagated by many cultures and myths of the Black Sun (Aztecs, Sumerians and many more). What interested me was how groups and individuals use ideas such as this for their own means – such is seen at Wewelsburg Castle in Germany, where the SS redesigned the castle, as for them it sat on the axis point of the "Center of the World" – giving access to the power of the Black Sun in the Hollow Earth.
Anyways, group have their stories, their myths and even their conspiracies that get out hand and grow a life of their own – such as the idea of this being the best Original Series episode ever. I myself remember rewatching this episode when my partner and I were on a Trek marathon and actually I felt somewhat disappointed I recall. You have articulated perfectly the reasons why. I still enjoyed it but at the time wrote off any feelings of discomfort.
The final image inside our Hollow Earth states that war is declared – and I think that this war is within the show itself – between the show and its beginnings, with Roddenberry, between the show and its writers, etc, and finally (if the images inside the Earth go across time) with its fans and also a conflict propagated by the fans themselves who later seek to defend the show and its 'image', its mythos and its Black Sun at all costs. As is stated at your essay's end:
"…the conflict continues. Mark my words, Agent, this is not the last you'll see of us. We will return. And when we do, time will stand still and the war to end all wars will rage once more.”
July 17, 2013 @ 8:18 am
That's absolutely beautiful, and exactly the kind of interpretation I had hoped essays like this would provoke in my readers.
Thanks for the kind words, and thanks very much for that!
July 17, 2013 @ 11:21 am
Much appreciated! And thanks for your kind words too.
I have been long inspired by Philip's Doctor Who blog and currently yours. I do sometimes lurk a bit as I don't always have time to catch threads when they are live due to work commitments, but something about this essay caught me – so thanks again for the inspiration and I hope to share more!