Before I get into my discussion of issues #3 and 4 of this excellent IDW Star Trek comic series, City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay, I should correct a factual error I made in my previous piece. Beckwith, the crew member in question who goes back in history in this version of “City on the Edge of Forever”, isn’t some random drug addict, but rather a malicious drug dealer, bent on causing mischief and damaging history for his own ends. Although I did make an error about the character, the adaptation point stands: Harlan Ellison’s original teleplay, upon which this comic was based, told a much darker story, with far less faith in humanity than the version Gene Roddenberry re-wrote for the screen. Dealer or user, Beckwith is not an accident, but represents a “type” that has been present throughout all of human history, and despite Roddenberry’s inspiringly optimistic vision, this is probably a more realistic prediction of future human behavior.
This is apparent right from the first sequence in issue #3, where Kirk and Spock arrive in 1930s New York and take refuge in a basement. This is the same as the televised version, with the important difference that in this version they are running from a racist gang of thugs who consider Spock to be a job-stealing Chinese person. This racial profiling struggle, which continues for Spock all the way through their time on Earth of the past, including having to threaten bosses who try to under pay him based on his “race”. This is not only realistic and understandable but very much in keeping with Ellison’s clear-eyed view of humanity. Roddenberry imagined a world without racism, and it’s one thing to portray 23rd century society like that, it’s quite another to transport those values into a known era and present a rose-tinted historical fantasy.
Much of the action of issues #3 and 4 isn’t so much adventure, per se, but rather time spent with our main characters. That’s one of the strongest writing choices made by Ellison, and glossed over in the televised version of this story. Kirk and Spock don’t simply stumble right on to the most important element of the history they’re trying to save (Edith Keeler), but rather have to make it by their wits, getting demanding jobs using heavy machinery, finding an apartment and often spending all night on the streets. Spock needs contemporary culture explained to him just as Kirk sometimes needs to be reminded of the facts of history.
They do see Edith Keeler, and she comes into the story with all the charm and intelligence and poise that Joan Collins brought to the role on TV. In Ellison’s vision, Kirk and Spock are drawn poetically to her based on the proclamation of the guardian, “Blue it will be…and clear as the truth… and the sun will burn on it… and there is the key.” Spock is walking down the street one day and sees Edith Keeler (the “Key”, get it?) dressed in a blue shawl held together by a clasp in the pattern of the sun, speaking truth about social justice. He realizes instantly that she is the historical focal point, and quickly confirms, using a jury-rigged tricorder, that she must die.
We get to spend a lot of time with Kirk and Spock in these issues, and they spend a lot of time together, mostly talking. And all of this conversation turns into a treasure-trove of character information and dialogue that is, to coin a phrase, fascinating. The process of rewriting or revising scripts for mass market production and distribution has been compared to knocking all the edges off of a story and sanding it down carefully to avoid anyone being overly stimulated or offended. Characterizations become less dramatic. Dialogue circles around issues without landing on them. And, except in the rigid case of the “antagonist” vs the “protagonist”, conflict is strictly minimized. The relationship between Kirk and Spock here, particularly the character of Spock, as compared to the TV version of this same story is a superb illustration of the principle.
Spock faces some racism in the televised version, but it goes no further than a gentle joke Kirk makes about how as a child in China he got his head caught in a rice picker. Later, Spock makes a reference to “stone knives and bear skins” being comparable to the tools at his disposal in this era. In the original teleplay, as presented here, Spock gets quite angry at the racist people and express absolute unmitigated disgust: “My race never languished in such ignorant behaviour for thousands of years.” Later, when Kirk offers the suggestion that they find disguises that will allow them to blend in, Spock sarcastically suggests that he will try to find a “ring to go through my nose,” another example of his righteous indignation at human society.
Also, not for the first or the last time in this version of the story, Kirk is the more responsible of the two, making useful, logical suggestions and Spock is a bit more erratic, at times. When Roddenberry re-wrote the story, Spock is cool and full of logic, answers and respect, and Kirk is headstrong and reckless. Ellison’s version gave flaws and strengths to both men, creating a startlingly “adult” and very refreshing take on these two very familiar characters.
Another important confrontation occurs in issue #4, where Spock carefully explains to Kirk that Keeler must die. Kirk has been spending a lot of time with Edith, and it falls to Spock to “call out” his Captain on crossing the proverbial line with the woman in question. “I am a Vulcan, not a neuter,” he explains. “I understand very well.” Rather than react with fury at being chastised by someone he outranks, Kirk listens to his colleague, though reluctantly. Just as in the version we’re all familiar with, Kirk resists the notion that Keeler must die, but eventually gives in to the logic. Spock here has the great line, “I will leave you alone, Captain, but time will not.”
We often forget, because it seems so deeply ingrained in the mythology of Star Trek, that “City on the Edge of Forever” was an early episode for the series. Broadcast late in the first season, it had been in development for some time before that. Ellison had written for TV before, and was basing his take on this world using the “writer’s bible”, not long-established characterizations based on many viewings of a library of episodes. Early on in the run, Kirk and Spock have a complex, evolving relationship. Probably by the second season, and certainly by the time of the movies, Kirk and Spock were true brothers and absolutely devoted to each other. But they don’t start off that way, often being snippy and antagonistic, and Kirk constantly teasing an uptight Spock, trying to get a rise out of him. Ellison’s “City on the Edge” shows this relationship evolving and growing in messy fits and spurts, rather than following a nicely groomed line from strangers through colleagues to friends. If we take a momentary opportunity to fit this version of the story into the vast Trek “canon”, it gives us an illuminating insight into this key relationship, and this mission was one of their formative experiences. Kirk and Spock feel differently about each other in issue #4 than issue #3. Spock is ready to speak with Kirk as a friend, not just a superior officer. This allows him to get away with speaking some difficult truths, as friends must do sometimes with each other.
And then there’s the sheer absolute beauty of JK Woodward’s art. Lovingly rendered scenes show a clever eye for detail, and the comparison I made last time with Drew Struzan’s masterful painting style is not only worth repeating, but even more apt here. Woodward takes the style of the original show and adds just enough to fit the differently imagined world. And the difficult scene between Kirk and Spock, featuring the long conversation discussed above, is rendered in an almost abstract way, with Kirk and Spock’s lovingly detailed faces hanging against an abstract black background. The face acting satisfies every bit as much as seeing a young Nimoy and Shatner bite into these roles. And if that weren’t enough, knowing in-jokes litter the gorgeously rendered pages. (For example, When Kirk and Spock first arrive in the basement that features so prominently in the televised episode, one of the pieces of bric-a-brac in the cluttered storage are is a poster advertising a play at the “New Queen’s Theatre” titled I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, written and performed by “Harlan Ellison”.)
Moreover, Woodward’s camera work and “set” design is artful and interesting. Isn’t it curious, and this is in the final filmed episode as well, how central the role of stairs are to the visual language of this story? Kirk and Spock steal from a fire escape in the televised version, involving Shatner climbing a ladder, and they soon after descend downstairs to a basement. When they first meet Edith Keeler in the televised version, she has walked down a flight of stairs. When she first speaks, she ascends stairs to a stage. And of course, later, Edith trips and falls on stairs, from which Kirk saves her. This motif is even more present in the comic, with Kirk and Keeler having their first conversation as stairs spiral between them, and the scene where Edith trips and falls to be saved by Kirk is even more elaborate, and takes place much earlier in the story. The metaphor of the spiral nature of time, how events repeat endlessly with variation, is the obvious reading, and does achieve a touching resonance when one considers Kirk reaching out for this remarkable woman across the vastness of time. I also appreciate the way this sort of Escher-esque device subconsciously evokes a surrealistic world of imagery and metaphor rather than a realist aesthetic. As Spock himself mentions, he and Kirk are phantoms in the 1930s, pulled out of a timeline that may or may not exist. This episode, like many good episodes of TOS (“The Cage” works similarly well) has a slight feeling of surrealist fantasy about it; an almost hallucinatory quality borrowed from contemporary shows like The Twilight Zone. I have never seen that aspect of the show “caught” in a comic book in such an effective way.
One story element we don’t see a lot of in these issues is Beckwith himself, reinforcing my take on his character and story as a world-class McGuffin. It really doesn’t matter at all who he is or what he is doing: the story isn’t about him. It’s about Kirk, Spock and Edith Keeler, and the approach taken by these two issues only make that clearer. Of course, we’ll see some more of Beckwith in the climax of the story, about to be concluded, but the standout element of these two issues is the mature and artful way it explores the relationship between two of popular culture’s most iconic characters.