One of the best episodes in the history of the first season of “Star Trek” is arguably “The City on the Edge of Forever”, an episode that sees Dr. McCoy accidentally overdose on drugs, forcing Captain Kirk and Spock to travel back in time. For some fans, the episode isn’t just one of the best from the TOS era, it remains of the best in the whole history of the franchise. The episode has been featured on lists of the best Star Trek episodes over the years, perhaps most notably by outlets like Newsweek and the Hollywood Reporter.
Fans love the time travel aspect of this episode, as well as the appearance of Joan Collins as Edith Keeler, and the focus on the growing friendship between Kirk and Spock when both men are thrown out of their element. However, while this episode is a fan favorite, the man who wrote the episode hated the final product. Respected sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison gets the on-screen credit for “The City on the Edge of Forever”, but he’s also on the record in a book about how much the final episode deviated from his original vision. Here’s what you need to know about why this acclaimed writer hated one of his best-known creations.
Harlan Ellison Revised the Script So Much, He Wanted to Mask His Involvement Under a Pen Name
Harlan Ellison: There was no one quite like him in American letters, and never will be. Angry, funny, eloquent, hugely talented. If there's an afterlife, Harlan is already kicking ass and taking down names.
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) June 28, 2018
While the episode aired with Ellison getting the writing credit, that wasn’t what Ellison originally wanted. He wanted to mask his involvement in the episode, and be credited under the fake name “Cordwainer Bird”. This unusual moniker had a special meaning. According to Ellison himself (on page 51 of his book The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay), his use of the “Cordwainer Bird” pseudonym was well-known in the entertainment community, as a way of signaling that Ellison was involved in creating something he ultimately disliked in its final format.
As Ellison explained on page 51 of his teleplay book, using the Bird name was “sort of giving the Bird to those who had mucked up the words.” Ellison argued in the same section that it was Gene Roddenberry himself who pressured Ellison to use his proper name on the episode credit. On page 51, he discusses the extensive re-writes involving multiple writers (at least one of whom is not named by Ellison), and stated unequivocally about the final script: “I hated it.” On page 57, he also claims that he rewrote the script on five occasions, without pay, “to try and retain the integrity of the story” as Roddenberry and other writers meddled with the original teleplay.
Harlan Ellison was frustrated with the development process for his script, due to multiple re-writes, and the loss of a favorite character from the original draft who got re-written out during the revision process. That character, Trooper, was a WWI veteran who would have helped Kirk and Spock get acclimated to the 20th century. In his teleplay book, on page 29, Ellison states: “I think [Trooper] is the best character I’ve ever written into a script. I would have liked to’ve [sic] seen him come to life…I am sad he never had the breath of life blown into him by the magicians of the coaxial cable.”
Trooper never made it to the shooting script for “City on the Edge of Forever”. However, when Ellison’s original teleplay was adapted into a comic, Trooper did appear.
According to modern Writer’s Guild rules, the use of a pseudonym is only permitted if the writer “has already established a pseudonym or registers one at the Guild office before commencement of employment on a writing assignment, or before disposition of any rights to literary material on which he/she wishes to use such pseudonym.”
Ellison Ultimately Filed a Lawsuit Because of the Episode
— TrekCore.com 🖖 (@TrekCore) June 28, 2018
According to Variety, decades after the episode first aired, Ellison filed a lawsuit over proceeds from tie-in media inspired by his creation. Variety later reported that the lawsuit had been settled for undisclosed terms in October of 2009. Ellison filed the suit due to disputes over revenue earned from spinoff media and merchandise inspired by his iconic episode.
In an interview with StarTrek.com, Ellison revealed that he was able to make peace with his Star Trek past, once he released the unedited version of his original vision of the story. As he told reporters, “The fact that Paramount and their heirs have made millions upon millions off me and I have made only thousands and thousands is something you learn to live with after, what?… 40 years. If you don’t learn to live with it, you are a petty person, and I live every day in hopes that I will be just a little bit smarter than I was the day before.”
The final version of “The City on the Edge of Forever” ultimately hit the air in 1967, but the Washington Post notes that Ellison eventually released a book that featured his unedited version of the original teleplay. One key difference between the final episode and Ellison’s original vision was how the Guardian was portrayed on-screen. According to StarTrek.com, the original plan Ellison had would have seen the Guardian played by a group of aliens who were each nine feet tall.
Gene Roddenberry Responded to Ellison in a Letter
The post above showcases a letter from Roddenberry, who was responding to the criticism from Ellison. For the most part, Roddenberry appears to be trying to mend fences with the letter to Ellison, noting on the first page that “You anger about the near-criminal insanities of commercial television is something I share too, and have been as vociferous about as you.”
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the conflict between Roddenberry and Ellison meant that the two men did not speak for many years, a fact potentially exacerbated by Ellison publishing one version of the “The City on the Edge of Forever” script publicly.
“In 1975, he copyrighted his script with the notes Roddenberry had returned on it, then had it published in Six Science Fiction Plays,” THR reported, “Concurrently, Roddenberry spoke out in interviews about aspects of the writer’s version that made it unable to be filmed. (He would falsely claim it contained a plot point that made chief engineer Scotty a drug dealer.)”
“City” was not the only time Ellison went to court over a sci-fi creation. According to the Telegraph, Ellison got in a “copyright war” that ultimately ensured he got a place in the credits of The Terminator. iO9 reports that a settlement was reached after Ellison noted similarities between the “Terminator” feature film, and an episode of the TV series “Outer Limits” that he wrote. That episode “Soldier,” was itself adapted from a short story by Ellison himself: his 1957 tale “Soldier From Tomorrow.”