My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“The City on the Edge of Forever” is widely regarded as one of the best — if not the best — episode of the original Star Trek series. But as every Trekkie worth his replicator credits knows, the version that got filmed was substantially different from the teleplay that science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison turned in. The notoriously prickly Ellison didn’t take too kindly to being rewritten, and he’s griped for years about how Gene Roddenberry screwed him and his story over, and how much better his version was than the one that viewers saw. Now his original teleplay has been brought to life in a form that gives us an idea of how it might have looked on the small screen if it’d been made the way Ellison wrote it. This graphic novel adaptation, with scripting by brothers Scott and David Tipton and artwork by J.K. Woodward, is an impressive piece of work. Woodward’s art is particularly noteworthy, a highly realistic painted style that captures the likenesses of actors William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Joan Collins, and Grace Lee Whitney with eerie accuracy. And it’s fascinating to see both the parallels and departures from the more familiar television version of the story. There’s only one problem: I personally don’t think Ellison’s version of the story is better (or even as good as) the revised one.
Oh, his ideas were grander than the revision’s, to be certain. His Guardians of Forever would’ve been much cooler than the “stone donut” the TV producers came up with as a cost-saving substitute, and his story features some poignant moments and themes that arguably shouldn’t have been left out. But Ellison’s teleplay also includes some really hackneyed space pirates, a lot of unnecessary characters (which of course would’ve cost money in the form of additional actors who need to be paid), and some cringe-worthy “far-out” sci-fi jargon that sounds like it came straight out of the rocket-ship movies of the 1950s instead of the more naturalistic style Star Trek was going for in the 1960s.
Also, I was deeply troubled by Ellison’s misunderstanding of the familiar characters. While it was great to see Yeoman Rand do some butt-kicking instead of playing the helpless female she so often was in the TV series, Spock comes across as a condescending, peevish, frankly kind of bitchy antagonist to Kirk. To be fair, Ellison probably wrote this before the series had really nailed down Spock’s characterization, but with the benefit of hindsight, this version of Spock is just flat-out wrong… except in the final scene when he tries to console his heartbroken captain. That scene works beautifully. But in general, Ellison’s teleplay, while entertaining and emotionally effective, feels more like an episode of The Outer Limits (which Ellison also wrote for) than Star Trek. It’s not that it’s bad, because it’s not… it’s very good as a science-fiction story. It’s just not very good Star Trek, if that makes sense.
Still, this graphic novel is well worth checking out for the artwork and the glimpse of what might have been. It includes all the variant covers by Juan Ortiz and Paul Shipper from the single-issue comic run, as well as an afterword that reveals all the “Easter eggs” the writers and artist slipped in. (Watch for an appearance by Ellison himself as “Trooper,” a character I’m deeply ambivalent about, because I don’t think the story needed him — as Ellison has always claimed — but I do like him and his interactions with Kirk.)