By J. Walker
Welcome to Same As It Ever Was?, a monthly column where I will examine television shows that lose one of their most influential voices. I will typically do this by looking at the series in general terms, and by focusing on a specific episode from before and after the departure in question.
Many years ago, Harlan Ellison, one of science fiction’s best and most cantankerous writers, published his original version of the teleplay for “The City on the Edge of Forever,” the only Star Trek episode that bears his name. In addition to the script itself, Ellison provided pages and pages of “supplemental material,” in the form of alternate drafts, story treatments, and producer memos. Also, he wrote a lengthy introductory essay, telling the story of how the episode came to be written and how it changed in production; the book concludes with several more essays from guest authors, many of whom worked either on the original series or one of its many satellite properties. Though all of these thousands and thousands of words are ostensibly about the episode in question, there comes clear a second message that the reader cannot avoid.
Roddenberry’s legacy can be tricky for Star Trek fans. On the one hand, he created the characters and world that spawned a franchise that’s lasted decades longer than anyone could have imagined; on the other, more and more of his contemporaries line up to paint him as a glory hound who leeched off the work of contributors far more talented than he was. (Ellison remarks at one point that Roddenberry “couldn’t write for sour owl poop.”) The vision emerges of a money-first television man, a greedy producer who lined up the best speculative fiction writers he could find, then drove their scripts to the middle of the road.
Of course, virtually every interaction Harlan Ellison’s ever had with an executive of any kind has produced a similar story. The evidence for his version of Roddenberry can be found in the differences between the original script for “City” and the one that made it to air. Those differences say plenty about Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek, and about why the franchise became a different beast after he passed away.
In Roddenberry’s Star Trek, humanity has achieved “perfection.” In the centuries between now and the adventures of Captain Kirk and crew, we have outgrown greed, hate, jealousy, and divisiveness. The Earth has united as one planet, and we explore the stars together in peace and harmony. The Enterprise is not a battleship and Starfleet is not a military organization; the crew members join not for money or material gain, but to better themselves and their species. It’s a shocking display of optimism, one all the more remarkable for the time period. The 1960s were a tumultuous time, but Roddenberry wanted to use his television show to assure his viewers that everything was going to work out fine. As America escalated the Cold War with the Soviets and waged war at home over civil rights, Roddenberry put a young Russian man and an African-American woman on the bridge of the Enterprise. The crew presented a united front against the mysteries of space. No matter the problems of this era, Roddenberry’s universe said, we will persevere.
That’s a nice sentiment, but it presented a stumbling block for the writers Roddenberry commissioned to tell stories in that universe. Drama requires conflict; perfect people don’t have much in the way of conflict. That conflict had to come from outside, usually in the form of the various aliens the Enterprise ran into on a weekly basis. Often, though, this had the side effect of showing the various races as imperfect villains who just needed to become a little more human to evolve. In his essay, Ellison notes that while the humans had to remain flawless, the aliens (stand-ins for “ghettoized minorities,” he says) could be violent, capricious monsters for the humans to save. “Talk about your White Man’s Burden,” he grumbles. Roddenberry’s vision of a perfect humanity was tantamount, even above his obligation to tell compelling narratives. The core differences in the script for “The City on the Edge of Forever” that Ellison wrote and the one Roddenberry produced are all a result of that determination.
If you haven’t seen the episode, the story is concerned with the ramifications of time travel: someone travels into Earth’s past and inadvertently changes history, resulting in a timeline where the Enterprise and its crew cease to exist. Kirk and Spock follow into the past, but discover that in order to restore their history, an innocent woman will have to die. It’s a dilemma that becomes all the more complicated when Kirk falls in love with her.
It’s a stirring story in either version, but Roddenberry’s demanded revisions drain the tale of much of its impact. In the aired version, the time traveler is Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who accidentally injects himself with a drug that turns him into a paranoid psychotic. After fleeing imaginary pursuers through a time portal, he vamps around 1930s New York before recovering from his lunacy and changes history by preventing a charity worker named Edith Keeler from being run down by a truck. Kirk and Spock get to him, and Kirk—despite his love for her—stops Bones from saving Keeler.
In Ellison’s original script, however, the drama is set in motion by a junior crewman named Beckwith, who is introduced to us as a greedy, manipulative murderer. He bribes a fellow officer with drugs to get information on upcoming missions, so he can capitalize for material gain. When the addict threatens to turn him in, Beckwith murders him and escapes through the time portal. Kirk and Spock arrive and discover that Beckwith has changed history by saving the same charity worker from death-by-truck. (It’s an interesting wrinkle: the murderer’s worst crime is not taking a life, but changing centuries of history by saving one; this shade of gray is lost when McCoy is the one mucking things up, because of course Bones is going to save an innocent person.) Kirk falls for Keeler, as in the aired version, but when the moment arrives and the truck approaches, Kirk finds that he can’t allow Edith to die; he simply loves her too much to let it happen, even if the entire universe is the price to pay. Spock, however, has no such emotional attachment, and steps forward in his captain’s stead. The script ends with a heartbreaking scene in Kirk’s quarters, as he admits that Spock did the right thing, though he knows he’ll never recover from the loss.
Ellison’s script was met with praise from the staff, and from Roddenberry, but a series of rewrites and revisions were demanded and enacted. The drug-dealing murderer was the first to go. “Our people don’t act like that,” Ellison was told. Kirk’s hesitation at the story’s climax was also excised. “Our people don’t act like that,” came the word from Roddenberry. Ellison’s frustration grew to the point that he finally left the project altogether, and he has spent the decades since explaining that he bears no responsibility for the teleplay that was eventually shot, a piece of work he calls, among other things, a “thalidomide-baby script-by-committee.”
Roddenberry would eventually exaggerate the story of working with Ellison, telling crowds of Trekkies at conventions that the script Harlan turned in would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars too much to produce, and that the story featured “Scotty dealing drugs and things like that.” These fabrications were an obvious attempt to defend himself against an eminently well-respected figure in the SF community, but they weren’t really necessary, and do more damage to Roddenberry’s image than to Ellison’s. In the end, Roddenberry was fully within his rights to make whatever changes he wanted to Ellison’s script that he saw fit. After all, Star Trek was his show, and he had to make sure the episode lined up with his vision of the universe. Ellison’s script works better as a piece of drama, but it doesn’t reflected the “flawless humanity” that lay at the heart of Roddenberry’s series.
That tension—between good drama and perfect characters—would pervade the series that Roddenberry created himself. The writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation would suffer from the same restrictions. The first several seasons of Next Gen are filled with lifeless scripts and dull plots, populated by charmless villains who only exist to receive a stern lecture from Captain Picard at episode’s end. In the original series, at least humans could rely on gentle teasing from Spock; in Next Gen, his role is filled by Data, a humanoid android who endlessly looks to emulate humanity in all its forms. Roddenberry’s cast of this new show somehow tried to make humanity more perfect, with a whole new group of one-note alien races to lord over. The show’s pilot episode, in fact, features several long arguments between Picard and the god-like creature known as Q, arguments that serve as little more than thesis statements for Roddenberry’s utopian worldview.
Roddenberry’s direct involvement in the Star Trek franchise slowly eroded after Next Generation‘s second season. Rick Berman came aboard to run the show as Roddenberry’s health declined, and he oversaw the first Star Trek series to be produced without Roddenberry’s direct involvement, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. According to Star Trek lore, Roddenberry gave his blessing to an early version of DS9 before his death, but he allegedly hated it. And it’s no wonder: DS9 is our first vision of humanity in Star Trek that is most assuredly not perfect.
In Deep Space Nine, the various alien races—both the “good” ones and the “evil” ones—are presented at various times as greedy, lecherous, scheming monsters bent on violence and conquest, just like in the original series. The difference here is that, for the first time, so are the humans. The Starfleet officers we meet on Deep Space Nine are deeply flawed creatures, often prone to vanity, selfishness, and hubris. And as the show went on, those flaws became deeper, until those old speeches about the “perfection” of humanity seemed quaint and badly out of touch.
In the second season, the show introduces a group of human resistance fighters called the Maquis, who are, quite plainly, terrorists. And while they are established as clear villains, their cause—the protection of the planets they colonized, now given away in a treaty with a former adversary—is presented as just. The sticky situation gets even stickier when our protagonists resort to their own vicious ends-justifty-means measures to stop them. One episode features Captain Benjamin Sisko, our theoretical hero, engaging in outright biological warfare to capture a single Maquis operative. Tough questions about ethics and morality are raised, questions that would have been bleached out of any script that passed Roddenberry’s desk.
Roddenberry had always asserted that—despite appearances—Starfleet was not a military organization. But DS9 tosses that into the black, introducing a military conflict in the third season that has escalated to a full-scale war by the fifth. Episodes focus on space battles and territorial sieges; all pretense of Starfleet existing as a vessel of “exploration” is abandoned. We meet another villainous human collective, a secret Starfleet agency called Section 31, that we learn is responsible for any number of atrocities, including attempted genocide.
In the sixth-season episode “In the Pale Moonlight,” the series asks us to make our most serious ethical and moral choice yet. Sisko—again, our theoretical hero—decides on a course of action that he feels will turn the war in Starfleet’s favor. Presented in flashback, Sisko records an audio diary, telling the story of how he came to bring the Romulans, one of Starfleet’s most hated adversaries, into the war on their side. (In a nice stylistic touch, Sisko delivers this dialogue directly to the camera, implicating the viewer in his quest for justification and forgiveness.) In direct contrast to the perfect humanity of old, Sisko accomplishes this task by in the most duplicitous manner imaginable: he lies, steals, fabricates evidence, and assists in the release of a violent criminal.
In the end, he succeeds, but only after his compatriot in the mission murders a prominent Romulan politician. Sisko, in one of the most chilling scenes in Star Trek history, comes to the final conclusion that what truly bothers him about the events is not the murder, or the lies, or the deception, but that he “can live with it.” He makes the moral choice that his ends have justified his means, and he looks directly at the viewer as he makes it.
“In the Pale Moonlight” is arguably the best episode of Deep Space Nine, and one of the most compelling hours of Star Trek since Roddenberry’s revised version of “The City on the Edge of Forever” aired 30 years earlier. But one of the reasons it remains so compelling is because it flies directly in the face of everything Roddenberry wanted Star Trek to stand for. If the original series was Roddenberry’s dream, then DS9 is the cold, dark reality.
While the rest of the franchise wouldn’t go to places quite so dark, the remaining series and films following Roddenberry’s death would also shy away from depicting humanity as free of blemishes. After Roddenberry, humans became… well, human again. And in a way, that’s even more optimistic: the idea that, hundreds of years from now, humanity will still exist, even if we don’t find a way to get around our greed and hate. That somehow, in some way, humanity will persevere.