City on the Edge of Forever, The Original Teleplay:

Star Trek‘s Classic 1930s Tragedy

The final part of Scott and David Tipton’s adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s original draft of “City on the Edge of Forever” caps one of the most intriguing and emotional stories in the Star Trek universe, ending this five issue run in high style. The art of JK Woodward is breathtakingly good throughout, and the story is as haunting and sad and wonderful as it always has been, only enhanced by Ellison’s original, darker, storytelling choices. If you only ever read one Star Trek comic, this is a good place to start.


We’ve already discussed the many subtle differences between this version and the teleplay that was filmed for the classic Original Series episode in 1966. In summary, this version lacks McCoy, Uhura, or really any other major Trek character other than Kirk and Spock. Beckwith, a drug-dealing scoundrel of an Enterprise crewmember, jumps into the crystal edifice of time portal operated by the “guardians of forever” and changes history by preventing the death of Edith Keeler, an action that is prophesized by the guardians. Kirk and Spock follow, with Kirk falling in love with Edith, much to Spock’s dismay (they had an intense confrontation in the previous issue, with Spock calling Kirk out on being a playboy), and ultimately they do stop Beckwith, at the cost of Kirk losing the woman he loves.

Overall, these are darker choices, with bad actors in the 23rd as well as the 20th century. And the relationship between Kirk and Spock is far more adult and antagonistic than in the TV series, in which Spock rigidly keeps his military formality. There was, of course, a fair amount of antagonism between these characters early on even in the televised version of TOS, but it takes a far less playful tone here. There are none of the broad jokes and sarcastic quips that William Shatner loves to deliver in this original teleplay. The whole tone is far more “adult”.

And the relationship between Kirk and Keeler, though even in the televised version it was effective 1930s melodrama, has a melancholy and complexity in this original teleplay. There’s no doubt, for example, that Kirk and Keeler are sexually intimate, rather than the coy and chaste, almost Victorian relationship they had on camera. Here, although nothing is shown, they play like the true power couple of the silver screen they should have been. One could picture Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman playing these roles.

I really can’t say enough good things about artist JK Woodward’s work here. He does selectively use images from the original teleplay, when it works (Kirk’s expression after seeing the death of Edith Keeler, for example, gives Shatner an acting moment that’s hard to top).

But he also brings out, with enormous sensitivity, such subtle face acting in a story that really requires it. Kirk and Spock’s “performances” here are every bit as good, if not better, than we can imagine Shatner and Nimoy making them. The very last page of the comic is almost heartbreaking, when Kirk plaintively says to Spock, “But I loved her…” The acting here, making Kirk seem so small, and so sad, for such a hero, is a brilliant choice. Equally brilliant is having Spock remain mostly impassive through this truly emotional display. Kirk’s haunted expression and the episode’s unresolved emotions resonate even more powerfully here. (I, for one, always thought that the next episode should have been Kirk lying on McCoy’s psychiatric couch for about two weeks.)

Woodward also finds time for some great stunt casting, the most obvious being Harlan Ellison himself, playing a legless World War I veteran with an ear on the streets, who supplies Kirk with information about the appearance of Beckwith for a princely two dollars.

The previous issues had dealt with the quite real and serious challenge Kirk and Spock would faced in locating Beckwith in the past. Kirk’s solution, to hire someone who spends all their time watching others, is quite clever, although this character was written entirely out of the televised version.

Finally we’re left with the meaning of this strange story about love and sacrifice and above all about time. About actions and consequences. Does your life really matter, in the end? This is the question raised, implicitly and explicitly by this story. The legless veteran, for example, is killed by Beckwith, but his death doesn’t change history. He, in some ways, had already made his contribution to history by fighting at Verdun. Keeler had more to contribute, but was prevented from doing so, and this was the way it had to be in order to get the world of the future in which Star Trek takes place.

Of course, the story shows us that the world of the future in which Keeler lived was not simply a different one, but a worse one from the contemporary Trek universe. That’s an important point, because changing history doesn’t necessarily imply making things worse. In some ways that may have been an even more powerful story, with Kirk and Spock fighting to save a universe that isn’t worse, but simply different. They would have been fighting, not for necessarily a better future, but one in which they felt more comfortable. In terms of history and sociology, that would have been an even more daring choice.

Daring choices are the order of the day for this story, and for Ellison in general. The story is haunting on many levels, and that haunted, unresolved nature survived into the televised version. This is a very strange episode of Star Trek. Whenever I think about any incarnation of Trek, and how “faithful” (to use that horrible word) it’s being to the spirit of Roddenberry’s original vision, I just think of their mission statement. It’s right up front, before episode, Kirk tells us exactly what the mission of this ship is and what the goal of the show is. But let’s be honest, fellow Trekkers: how often does the Enterprise really “go where no one has gone before,” and “find new life and new civilizations?” That’s certainly not what this episode is about, although you can make the argument that they do discover a new civilization here (the City on the Edge of Forever itself). This story, in the context of the series, is about the relationship between Kirk and Spock, and it’s ironic that the relationship, as portrayed in the televised version, is fairly toothless compared to the two men going through an extraordinary experience here. At the end of this story, Spock calls Kirk “Jim” for the first time, and it’s earned. They are veterans now, these two. They have shared something that no one else in the universe understands, and it wouldn’t be the last time either of them would have that experience.

Star Trek does take little “timeouts” from its main mission on occasion to focus almost entirely on the characters (with all its action and adventure, The Wrath of Khan is very much about the relationship between Kirk and Spock). Lots of fans adore those diversions, even if they have very little to with exploring “space, the final frontier.” But here in this utterly gorgeous adaptation of “City on the Edge of Forever”, Kirk and Spock do a different sort of exploration, and it takes Kirk into emotional places that for him are more dangerous than any Klingon. To see the mighty hero brought down to size by his own heart… this is classic Greek tragedy. Star Trek has long since reached a point in our shared popular culture that using the show, and its scenarios and characters, to explore weighty themes of life, the universe and everything seems entirely fitting.

“Let’s get the hell out of here.”

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


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