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Comic Book Review: ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’ by Harlan Ellison and J.K. Woodward

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One of the things I’ve always loved about science fiction is the titles. That’s probably about as trite as judging a book by its cover, but, in my defense, science fiction somehow always manages to produce the most poetic and romantic of statements about the wonders of time and space. Star Trek is particularly good at this, its episode titles often ranging from the poetic, such as “The World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky,” to the literary and philosophical, such as “Is there In Truth No Beauty?” One of my favorites has always been “City on the Edge of Forever.” Long before I watched Star Trek in its campy glory, that title made me want to; it set me dreaming and imagining an ethereal city in the clouds, rather like Cloud City in Star Wars, perched precariously on the edge of eternity and describing a story equally breathtaking.

cityontheedgeofforevercomicrandThe episode in question, penned by sci-fi luminary Harlan Ellison, has long been considered one of Star Trek’s best. “City on the Edge of Forever” is one of only two Star Trek episodes to win a Hugo Award, and everyone seems to agree that it stands out – well, except me. For me, it’s always been just another episode, not bad, and certainly up to par with most of Star Trek’s better episodes, but nowhere near its best. For me, it was missing something epic or breathtaking or ethereal or whatever other GRE word you want to put here.

As it turns out, though, the final filmed version of “City on the Edge of Forever” differs drastically from the original teleplay penned by Ellison. Now, many years later, IDW has chosen to release the original teleplay as a five-part comic book, working with Ellison himself to bring the original story to Star Trek enthusiasts. So far, only the first installment has been released and read by yours truly, but I’m already spectacularly more impressed by the original version than the filmed result I watched.

Part of that excellence seems to lie in the medium itself. For lack of ability to actually film the actual teleplay, a comic comes closest to the original medium of the story. It captures the vibrant colors of the original Enterprise, the handsome visages of its characters, and, of course, the over-the-top action of the original episodes – rendered with great style and feeling by J.K. Woodward. In short, it brings the story into existence in a way that the publication of a script full of stage directions never could, imbuing it with color and life.

And that colorful tale, though only one-fifth complete, is already intriguing in the variety of stylistic and storytelling differences between it and the filmed episode. These differences, ranging from the miniscule to the major, contribute to a story that remains engaging even for those who know the original episode well, while at the same time providing lots of food for thought for the devoted Trekkie that likes analyzing the nuances.

These differences are evident from the very beginning. Though the story begins with the Enterprise investigating the same temporal anomaly as in the episode, the impetus for the narrative, rather than McCoy accidentally injecting himself with a hypo, is a crew member named Beckwith illegally smuggling a dream narcotic called Jewels of Sound; it is this Beckwith who beams down to the planet rather than be turned in by a fellow officer for his illegal activities.

Naturally, Kirk, Spock, and an away team get ready to pursue him. On this away team, Yeoman Rand replaces Lieutenant Uhura – cityontheedgeofforevercomicpageanother change from the episode; in this case, Rand was likely scripted as part of the story before Grace Lee Whitney was essentially fired by the network due to addiction problems. Her role in the story so far is unclear, but given that she’s featured prominently on the cover alongside Kirk and Spock, I’d guess that her contribution to the narrative will be greater than Uhura’s unfortunately meager few lines. She already gets a start on playing an interesting role by blasting the transporter room open with a damn big gun, which is already a nice change from the Yeoman Rand who spent most of her time carrying Kirk’s dinners in the show.

Predictably, the away team is too late to prevent Beckwith from beaming down, and thus  follow him to the planet – where, after a bit of exploring, they find a long-lost city. Yes, an actual city (cue fanfare) on the edge of forever. It looks pretty damn cool, too, Woodward outdoing himself with beautiful illustrations of a city perched in the mountains, looking a lot more impressive and breathtaking than the cheap ruins of the original episode (and, okay, I know Star Trek was made on a budget of zero and I still love it dearly, but the magnificence of these illustrations is breathtaking).  Plus, I kind of have a thing for old, ruined, abandoned and mysterious cities (have you heard about my obsession with Stargate Atlantis?); they always seem to add a certain mystique to the story, and this is no exception.

Naturally, hidden in this city is the time vortex that permits this story to be told. In this version, the vortex is watched over by a race of ancient, humanoid beings (a nice change from the sassy, glowing donut that is the Guardian of Forever in the episode). Not only do they add even more mystique to this tale of hidden portals and long-lost cities, but they also happen to provide one of the best explanations for the whole “going back to the past to fix the future” thing and explain why small changes to the past don’t cause a butterfly effect that causes reality to unravel:

“Time is elastic. It will revert to its original shape when changes are minor. But when the change is life or death – when the sum of intelligence alters the balance – then the change can become permanent…and terrible.”

And that … makes so much more sense than Doctor Who, Back to the Future, Stargate, and every version of Star Trek put together ever did, and also means that I might actually be able to stand time travel stories now.

The comic concludes on a cliffhanger, as Beckwith jumps through the vortex and escapes through time. Having seen the episode, it seems clear how the story will go from here: he’ll screw up history and our steadfast Enterprise crew will have to fix it. Just how the story gets, there, however, is something we’ll have to see in upcoming installments, and which hopefully will be as interesting as the beginning.

The next issue is planned for release on July 23rd. After that, three more issues are forthcoming, though their release dates are as yet unknown.

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About Anastasia Klimchynskaya

My mind rebels at stagnation. Find the rebellious thoughts of that constantly racing mind at my blog, Monitoring the Media.