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, the renowned and often cantankerous science fiction writer Harlan Ellison penned his original teleplay for “The City on the Edge of Forever,” the sole Star Trek episode bearing his name.
Alongside the script itself, Ellison furnished an abundance of supplementary materials, encompassing alternative drafts, story treatments, and producer memos.
Furthermore, he composed an extensive introductory essay narrating the episode’s genesis and the transformations it underwent during production.
The book culminates with a series of additional essays contributed by guest authors, many of whom had involvement with either the original series or its various spin-offs.
Although the copious thousands of words ostensibly revolve around the episode in question, a distinct secondary message becomes unmistakably apparent to the discerning reader.
Gene Roddenberry was a jerk.
Roddenberry’s legacy presents a conundrum for Star Trek enthusiasts. On the one hand, he birthed the characters and universe that birthed a franchise surpassing decades well beyond anyone’s initial expectations.
On the flip side, an increasing number of his contemporaries stepped forward to portray him as a self-aggrandizing figure who profited from the contributions of far more gifted individuals. (Ellison, for instance, once quipped that Roddenberry “couldn’t write for anything.”)
The picture that emerges is that of a profit-oriented television executive, a producer driven by financial gain, who enlisted the finest speculative fiction writers available only to steer their scripts toward a more conventional path.
Certainly, virtually every encounter that Harlan Ellison had with executives of any kind yielded a similar narrative.
The substantiation for his interpretation of Roddenberry can be discerned in the disparities between the original script for “City” and the version that made it to the screen.
These disparities offer valuable insights into Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek and shed light on why the franchise underwent a transformation after his passing.
In Roddenberry’s Star Trek, humanity attains a state of “perfection.” In the centuries-spanning from our time to the adventures of Captain Kirk and his crew, humanity has transcended qualities like greed, hatred, jealousy, and divisiveness.
Earth stands unified as one planet, and we explore the cosmos together in an atmosphere of peace and unity. The Starship Enterprise is not a warship, and Starfleet does not function as a military entity.
Crew members do not enlist for personal wealth or material gain but rather to advance themselves and their species.
It’s an astonishing portrayal of optimism, particularly remarkable given the turbulent backdrop of the 1960s.
Amid the Cold War tensions with the Soviets and domestic strife over civil rights, Roddenberry used his television series to reassure viewers that things would ultimately work out.
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He placed a young Russian man and an African-American woman on the bridge of the Enterprise, symbolizing unity in the face of the mysteries of the cosmos.
Regardless of the challenges of the era, Roddenberry’s universe conveyed the message that we would endure.
While it’s a noble sentiment, this presented a significant challenge for the writers whom Roddenberry enlisted to craft stories within that utopian universe.
Drama inherently hinges on conflict, and perfect individuals tend to lack substantial conflicts within themselves.
Consequently, the source of conflict had to originate externally, often through encounters with various alien species that the Enterprise stumbled upon on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, this frequently portrayed these alien races as imperfect antagonists who simply needed to become more human to progress.
Ellison observes in his essay that while humans had to remain flawless, the aliens (who he equates to “ghettoized minorities”) could be depicted as violent and unpredictable monsters, solely for the purpose of being saved by humans.
He humorously remarks on the concept of the “White Man’s Burden.” Roddenberry’s unwavering commitment to portraying humanity as perfect often took precedence over the imperative of crafting compelling narratives.
The fundamental disparities between Ellison’s script for “The City on the Edge of Forever” and the one Roddenberry ultimately produced all stem from this determination.
For those who haven’t watched the episode, the plot revolves around the consequences of time travel.
Someone journeys into Earth’s past and unintentionally alters history, resulting in a timeline where the Enterprise and its crew cease to exist.
Kirk and Spock venture into the past to rectify the situation but discover that restoring their history necessitates the sacrifice of an innocent woman. This moral dilemma grows even more complex as Kirk finds himself falling in love with her.
It’s a compelling story in both renditions, but Roddenberry’s requested revisions significantly diminish the impact of the narrative.
In the broadcast version, the time traveller is Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who inadvertently injects himself with a drug that triggers paranoid psychosis.
After fleeing imagined pursuers through a time portal, he wanders through 1930s New York in a state of madness before eventually recovering his sanity.
He then alters history by preventing a charity worker named Edith Keeler from being struck by a truck. Kirk and Spock intervene, and despite his deep affection for her, Kirk prevents Bones from saving Keeler.
In Ellison’s original script, the drama unfolds through a junior crewman named Beckwith, who is introduced as a greedy, manipulative murderer.
Beckwith resorts to bribery, offering drugs to a fellow officer in exchange for information on upcoming missions to exploit for personal gain. When the addict threatens to expose him, Beckwith commits murder and escapes through the time portal.
Kirk and Spock arrive on the scene and discover that Beckwith has altered history by rescuing the same charity worker from a fatal accident involving a truck.
This introduces an intriguing twist: the murderer’s gravest offence is not taking a life but rather reshaping centuries of history by saving one.
This nuanced moral dilemma is absent when McCoy is responsible for the disruptions, as it’s expected for Bones to save an innocent person.
Kirk still falls in love with Keeler, mirroring the broadcast version, but when the pivotal moment arrives and the truck approaches, Kirk finds himself unable to allow Edith’s death.
His love for her is too profound, even if it means the entire universe pays the price. In contrast, Spock, unburdened by emotional attachment, steps forward in place of his captain.
The script concludes with a heartrending scene in Kirk’s quarters, where he acknowledges that Spock’s choice was the correct one, though he understands he’ll never fully recover from the loss.
Ellison’s script initially garnered acclaim from the production team, including Roddenberry himself. However, a series of requested rewrites and revisions followed. The character of the drug-dealing murderer was the first casualty.
Ellison was informed, “Our characters don’t behave in that manner.” Similarly, Kirk’s moment of hesitation at the story’s climax was excised with the reasoning, “Our characters don’t behave in that way,” originating from Roddenberry.
Ellison’s frustration reached a breaking point, leading him to withdraw from the project ultimately. Over the ensuing decades, he has consistently emphasized that he bears no responsibility for the teleplay that ultimately made it to the screen.
He has used various terms to describe it, including a “thalidomide-baby script-by-committee.”
Roddenberry eventually resorted to exaggerating his experience working with Ellison, recounting to crowds of Trekkies at conventions that Harlan’s script would have incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in production costs and falsely claiming it featured “Scotty dealing drugs and things like that.”
These fabrications appeared to be a transparent attempt to defend himself against a highly respected figure in the science fiction community. Paradoxically, they ended up doing more harm to Roddenberry’s reputation than to Ellison’s.
In truth, Roddenberry possessed the full prerogative to make any alterations to Ellison’s script that he deemed necessary. After all, Star Trek was his creation, and it was his responsibility to ensure that the episode aligned with his vision of the universe.
While Ellison’s script may have excelled as a piece of drama, it did not encapsulate the “flawless humanity” that lay at the core of Roddenberry’s series.
This underlying conflict—between crafting compelling drama and maintaining perfect characters—would persist throughout the series Roddenberry himself created. The writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation encountered similar constraints.
The initial seasons of Next Gen often featured lacklustre scripts and uninspiring plots, inhabited by one-dimensional villains who existed primarily to receive Captain Picard’s stern lectures by the episode’s end.
In the original series, there was room for gentle teasing from Spock, but in NextGen, this role was assumed by Data, a humanoid android perpetually striving to emulate humanity in all its facets.
Roddenberry’s new ensemble cast seemed determined to portray humanity as even more perfect, introducing a fresh set of single-dimensional alien races to oversee.
In fact, the pilot episode of the show featured protracted debates between Picard and the god-like entity known as Q, serving as little more than philosophical manifestos for Roddenberry’s utopian worldview.
Roddenberry’s direct involvement in the Star Trek franchise gradually waned following the second season of Next Generation.
Rick Berman assumed leadership of the show as Roddenberry’s health deteriorated, overseeing the first Star Trek series produced without Roddenberry’s direct oversight: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
According to Star Trek lore, Roddenberry initially gave his approval to an early version of DS9 before his passing, but it’s rumored that he detested it.
This sentiment is not surprising because DS9 marked our first glimpse of humanity in Star Trek, which was unequivocally imperfect.
Within Deep Space Nine, the various alien races—both the “good” and “evil” ones—were portrayed at different times as greedy, lascivious, conniving entities driven by violence and conquest, much like in the original series.
The distinction here lies in the fact that, for the first time, humans were also depicted with flaws. The Starfleet officers introduced in Deep Space Nine were deeply flawed individuals, often susceptible to vanity, selfishness, and hubris.
As the show progressed, these flaws deepened to the point where the earlier speeches extolling the “perfection” of humanity appeared quaint and increasingly disconnected from reality.
In its second season, the show introduces a faction of human resistance fighters known as the Maquis, who are undeniably portrayed as terrorists.
However, their cause—the protection of the planets they colonized, now compromised by a treaty with a former adversary—is depicted as morally justifiable.
The complexity of the situation deepens when our main characters resort to their own morally questionable methods to thwart them.
In one episode, Captain Benjamin Sisko, our ostensible hero, engages in outright biological warfare to apprehend a lone Maquis operative.
These episodes raise challenging ethical and moral dilemmas, issues that would have been excised from any script that crossed Roddenberry’s desk.
Roddenberry consistently maintained that, despite appearances, Starfleet was not a military entity. However, DS9 shatters this notion by introducing a military conflict in its third season that escalates into a full-blown war by the fifth.
Episodes increasingly focus on space battles and territorial sieges, with any semblance of Starfleet’s primary mission of “exploration” cast aside.
We are introduced to another antagonistic human entity, a clandestine Starfleet agency named Section 31, which we learn is responsible for numerous atrocities, including attempted genocide.
In the sixth-season episode “In the Pale Moonlight,” the series poses its most profound ethical and moral dilemma yet. Sisko, once again our nominal hero, embarks on a course of action he believes will tilt the tide of the war in Starfleet’s favor.
Presented through flashbacks, Sisko records an audio diary, recounting the narrative of how he managed to enlist the Romulans, one of Starfleet’s longstanding adversaries, as allies in the conflict.
(In a clever stylistic choice, Sisko delivers this dialogue directly to the camera, drawing the viewer into his quest for justification and absolution.)
In stark contrast to the pristine humanity of yesteryears, Sisko accomplishes this objective through the most deceitful means imaginable: he lies, steals, fabricates evidence, and aids in the release of a violent criminal.
Ultimately, he achieves his goal, but only after his accomplice in the mission murders a prominent Romulan politician.
In one of the most chilling moments in Star Trek history, Sisko arrives at the unsettling conclusion that what truly disturbs him about these events is not the murder, the lies, or the deception but rather the realization that he “can live with it.”
He makes the moral decision that the ends have justified the means, and he gazes directly at the viewer as he arrives at this resolution.
“In the Pale Moonlight” stands as arguably the finest episode of Deep Space Nine and one of the most compelling hours of Star Trek since Roddenberry’s reimagined version of “The City on the Edge of Forever” aired three decades prior.
However, a significant reason for its enduring appeal lies in the fact that it boldly contradicts everything Roddenberry envisioned for Star Trek.
If the original series represented Roddenberry’s idealized vision, then DS9 presents the harsh, unvarnished reality.
While the subsequent series and films following Roddenberry’s passing may not have delved into such dark territories, they, too, veered away from portraying humanity as flawless. After Roddenberry, humans became, well, human again.
In a way, this shift is even more optimistic: it conveys the belief that centuries from now, humanity will endure, even if we haven’t completely overcome our flaws like greed and hatred.
It offers the hope that somehow, in some manner, humanity will persist.