Friday, May 25, 2018

Revisiting The City on the Edge of Forever

I recently revisited White Wolf's edition of Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever, which not only presents his various scripts for that episode, but includes his version of just what happened between him and the production team during that process, and after.

Essentially Ellison thunders at those he believes wronged him for sixty straight pages. One doesn't see much of that sort of thing--few writers dare. And part of its considerable entertainment value is the extreme novelty of one of those figures Hollywood cannot do without but is so notorious for mistreating, its writers, getting his own back.

Much of what Ellison has to say seems persuasive, but I am less interested in making a judgment about who said or did exactly what than in what seems in hindsight the sheer oddity of the match-up of Trek and Ellison. I am an admirer of both. But they were a mismatch, pure and simple. That did not prevent Ellison from writing a memorable teleplay that, even if much modified, provided a basis for one of that influential series' most celebrated episodes. Still, Beckwith and his jewels of sound really had no place on the Enterprise; while if Kirk's dilemma is more intellectual and less personal in the final version than in the original, it is exactly the kind of thing that science fiction is uniquely equipped to deal with in ways and to a degree that other sorts of fiction tend not to do, if not its reason to be.

In fact, the interaction and its frictions strike me as replicating in miniature a major division within science fiction at the time and since. On the one side was science fiction, narrowly defined, whose traditions were not limited to but certainly had at their center a humanistic and rationalistic consideration of the world in which we live, and extrapolation from what is to what might be--and with them, utopianism in the best sense of that term. On the other was the New Wave, whose writers and editors brought a great deal of energy, enthusiasm and talent to the writing of science fiction, but lacked any appreciation for it as a genre doing different things by different rules from the Modernist literature they wanted it to be so much more like. In some ways it has made the genre a more interesting place, but that division has had its risks and costs as well.

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