I am reasonably certain, which after the passage of so many years and so much living is not so easy to be, that the first time I heard of a new science fiction tv show, to be called Star Trek, was from Harlan Ellison at his palatial, more or less, Studio Hills home, Ellison Wonderland. Outside, as one entered, there was a sign that read, Never Look Down, Always Look Up. When You Look Down, All You See Is The Pennies People Drop. This bit of homey wisdom stuck with me until the day I looked down and found $73 someone had dropped. After it remained unclaimed for three weeks at the store outside which I had found it, I got to keep it. Since then I have been careful to look down a bit more often.
I am also pretty sure that give a few words or more, what Harlan said was that he had been hired (he supported himself mainly by writing tv scripts in those days), by some producer I had never heard of named Gene Roddenberry, to write a script for a new sf tv show that was to be aimed at adults and not kiddies, titled Star Trek. It was about a starship and its crew exploring new and unknown worlds and regions of the galaxy, and Roddenberry had, Ellison bragged, sold it the studio programming executives by telling them it would be like the then hit Western-themed television series about a wagon train crossing the U.S., which focused each week on a different passenger’s story or on some encounter by the train’s leaders with a threatening problem. “He told them it would be ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’,” Harlan chortled. “But he was kidding them. He intends it to be a lot better.”
Harlan himself had just finished his initial script for the series, a little thing called “City on the Edge of Forever.” Roddenberry and his associate producer, Gene Coon, were so excited about it, Harlan told me, that they thought it was one of the best scripts they had ever seen and where showing it around to other potential ST writers as an example of the kind of story they were looking for. Harlan had a copy of the script, of course, and I read at least the first few pages, which had a strong antidrug message, and possibly the whole script, with mounting wonder at the quality of the science fictional thinking that had gone into it and at the sophistication, for the era, of its writing.
All this proved very ironic in terms of what happened later. First the network standards and practices people, or maybe it was the two Genes, insisted the antidrug message embodied in the opening teaser of Harlan’s script had to go. No member of the crew, they decreed, could be shown as a crook, a drug addict, or otherwise engaged in any form of illicit activity. In Ellison’s first version a futuristic drug dealer who had been peddling his wares to various crew members escaped the clutches of security and beamed down through a timewarp to Earth in the past, where he threatened to change history for the worse. Kirk, Spock and Yeoman Rand (who Harlan dated briefly) go after him. With drugs and a drug dealer ruled out, Harlan was told he must substitute one of ST’s three stars (namely Dr. McCoy to cut down on expenses) for the drug dealer role and come up with an alternate way go get him down to the planet. Someone at ST suggested that a subspace disturbance could cause the camera (er-I mean ship) to lurch causing the good doctor (a reference that actually relates to Samuel Johnson and not Isaac Asimov, although I revere both equally) to accidentally inject himself with a toxic substance which would drive him mad, causing him to jump into the transporter. Harlan foamed at the mouth over this, as well he might, screaming at the producers that a doctor “accidentally” injecting himself was an idea somewhere below stupid. He offered to dream up a more plausible explanation and rewrite the scene in a somewhat more believable fashion. In his final draft, McCoy gets bit by an infected alien creature he is researching, goes crazy, beams down, etc. But the two Genes apparently liked their idea better and had the script rewritten so that McCoy injects himself accidentally when the ship lurches – and the artificial gravity glitches somehow. But the indignities, for a script the Genes themselves had proclaimed an exemplar of the kind of script they wanted for the show, were only beginning.
Then came the matter of the ending. In Harlan’s original draft, the drug dealer, bad as he is, instinctively saves a woman he sees about to be run over and killed by a truck. Her death, Kirk and Spock have learned, results in positive social changes that lead to the future being more peaceful and the birth of the Federation and the universe from which they, their crew, and everyone they know and love comes. If she lives, their future world will never come into existence and the stars will be constantly at war and trillions will perish.
Spock, ever logical, tackles the drug dealer to prevent him from rescuing the woman, thus preserving the more or less peaceful future of the Federation by allowing her die. Kirk, who has fallen in love with her, stands frozen, unable to bring himself to tackle her rescuer, and thus through inaction allowing her to live and prevent his entire future universe from coming into being. Spock later consoles him that no one ever loved a woman so much they were willing to give up a universe for her. (Note the breathtaking originality of the idea that passes by so quickly here. For in Ellison’s epic it is the bad guy who is trying to save the heroine and the hero who must cooperate in her death taking place.)
When the producers had finished with the script and had it rewritten to their heart’s content, it is McCoy, the humanist, who instinctively tries to rescue the woman when he sees her about to be hit by a truck. This time it is Kirk, the show’s hero and star, rising selflessly to put the greater good of the people of his universe above love (as a good WWII Naval captain should) who tackles the man about to save her, dragging the good doctor back, as he watches the woman he loves perish before his eyes.
On one visit to Ellison Wonderland, not long before the episode aired, he told the several of us there that when he had read the final shooting script they had changed everything (even moving the locale from Chicago to New York, despite the fact that the whole thing was shot on the back lot) and every bit of dialogue in what the two Genes had once deemed the model Star Trek script. The producers did keep one thing though, he remarked somewhat disconsolately. “At one point I described a planet as ’silvery’. They kept the word ’silvery’. ”
It was a sad commentary on a business well known for its dementia.
And, yet, when the show did air, knowing all I knew, I still had to admit that even the bones of what Ellison had conceived, broken and rearranged, made one of the best television episodes of any show I had seen all year.
It has of course been ranked since as one of the Best 100 Television Episodes of All Time, and was voted a Hugo Award by the assembled attendees of the World Science Fiction Convention the next Year. Harlan got his revenge, though, when his original script for the show was voted Best Hour-Long Script by his fellow television writers at Writers Guild of America annual awards dinner. Beating out, it should be noted for those who do not believe in karma, a script by Gene Coon, who had done a good deal of the rewriting on Harlan’s Script.
It was not long after hearing Harlan’s glowing endorsement of the show, and I think before things started to go really bad with his script and the show’s producers, that at the July 1966 Westercon I learned an episode of Star Trek would be screened at the con to see what fans thought, several months in advance of the program’s television debut. So you can imagination with what keen anticipation I looked forward to that screening. (I believe this marked the first time any television producer had taken cognizance of the science fiction world and sought its reaction. Anyone who has ever been to ComicCon or DragonCon knows things have changed a bit since then.)
In the next instalment of these memoirs, I will talk about that screening, my personal reaction to it, and what I remember of fan reaction in general.
Jean Marie Stine
author, Herstory & Other Science Fictions, ebook an paperback