Writer On The Edge Of Forever

Harlan Ellison has died.  An Ohio native, a graduate of the Ohio State University, and a prolific writer who had a long and productive career, he will always be remembered — by me at least — as the genius who came up with the idea, and wrote most of the screenplay, for one of my all-time favorite Star Trek episodes:  City on the Edge of Forever.

city-edge-foreverCity is generally considered one the finest episodes from the original Star Trek series.  It told the story of Edith Keeler, a gentle, peace-loving woman who lived during the Great Depression, helped the unfortunate, and dreamed big dreams.  When Dr. McCoy is inadvertently injected with a drug that induces a psychotic episode and finds a time portal, he goes back in time and interacts with Edith in a way that somehow changes history, prevents the formation of the Federation, and leaves the Enterprise leadership stranded on the planet with the time portal.  Kirk and Spock use the portal to try to fix the damage and also go back to the Depression era, where Spock attempts to build a primitive computer from vacuum tubes — or, as he puts it, “stone knives and bearskins” — to learn what happened and Kirk falls madly in love with Edith.  When Spock determines that McCoy somehow saved Edith from death, and thereby created a universe in which her pacifist leadership delayed America’s entry into World War II and gave Nazi Germany time to win the race to build atomic weapons and capture the world, Kirk has to make the excruciating decision to allow the woman he loves to die.

When he does so, and he and Spock and McCoy return to the planet with the time portal, a heartbroken Kirk says “Let’s get the hell out of here” to end the episode — which legend says was the first time a curse word of any kind was broadcast on American network television, and the censors let it go because it punctuated the episode perfectly.

It turns out that the City episode was a point of great contention between Ellison and Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek who thought producing the episode as Ellison wrote it would just be too expensive.  Ellison wasn’t happy with the changes that were made and asked that a pseudonym be listed as the script writer, but Roddenberry kept Ellison’s name on the episode — which then won Ellison a Hugo Award.  Ellison was still fighting, and writing, about the episode years later.

RIP, Harlan Ellison, and thank you for an impressive body of work that just happens to include an all-time classic idea.

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Redshirts

If you’re a sci fi buff looking for a book recommendation for the new year, I suggest John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which was published in 2012 but which I’ve just discovered.  It’s fast-paced, well written, laugh-out-loud funny — and I’m not somebody who use “LOL” very often — and it addresses an important issue.

redshirtIt’s an issue that any fan of Star Trek, the original series, recognized long ago :  namely, the appalling mortality rate among the member of the away team that were sent down to the surface of the planet with Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy.  Those poor anonymous red-shirted bastards — because typically, they wore red shirts identifying them as members of the Security department — were lucky to be given a name or have even one line before they were blown up, devoured by beasts, ravaged by rapidly accelerated old age, cut down by phaser fire, reduced to a cube and then crushed into dust, or otherwise knocked off in painful, embarrassing, and inexplicable fashion before the first commercial break.

Even worse, as the episode went on, you learned that the red-shirted deaths were the result of some colossal misunderstanding or bad decision by Captain Kirk, and the misunderstanding would be resolved, and at the end of the episode Kirk would make some funny comment as the Enterprise left orbit.  And, even as you chuckled at Kirk’s witticism, it became all-too-clear that nobody gave a a second thought to the red-shirted guy who met his maker on Planet Albatron 4.  You couldn’t help but wonder if you thought about it:  how do these red-shirt guys even get insurance?  How much is the United Federation of Planets paying in widows’ and orphans’ benefits, anyway?

This issue has been explored before — Galaxy Quest does a pretty good job with it, through the ruminations of Sam Rockwell’s character Guy Fleegman — but Redshirts takes it to a different level by imagining how the rest of the crew in a similar circumstance in a different TV universe might react to the constant rain of death that was befalling randomly selected “away team” members.  It’s hysterical, and the clever ways in which the desperate crew members try to deal with the issue tell you a lot about Scalzi’s creativity.  He’s a good writer, too.

It’s always fun to find a new author and work your way through his catalog.  I’ve been enjoying Scalzi’s truly excellent Old Man’s War series, too, but Redshirts was a special comedic treat.

Live Long And Prosper

I was very saddened to learn today of the death of Leonard Nimoy at age 83.  He was an accomplished stage and screen actor, poet, and photographer — but to those of us who loved Star Trek, he will always and forever be the man who created Mr. Spock.

Books have been written about Spock and Kirk and McCoy, the complex relationship between that trio that made Star Trek such a terrific show, and the half-Vulcan character who struggled mightily to keep his human side in check in compliance with the dictates of Vulcan culture and its relentless emphasis on logic.  Nimoy made Spock a believable character — and thus a great character — when he very easily could have been as silly as Jar Jar Binks.  After all, an alien with pointed ears, green skin and super-human strength who eschews all emotion?  But thanks to Nimoy’s deft touch, Spock was as real and complex and layered as any character in the TV or film universe.  And, for those of us who were awkward adolescents at the time, dealing with a rush of weird new emotions and our own feelings of not quite fitting in with the rest of the world, Spock was enormously appealing.

I also liked that Nimoy seemed to struggle with the Spock character almost as much as Spock struggled with his human side.  Nimoy knew immediately that Spock was an iconic character, and he wanted to avoid being typecast.  When the Star Trek series ended, he promptly took on a completely different role as Paris on Mission: Impossible, wrote an autobiography called I Am Not Spock, and seemed to constantly reject the great character he created.  But ultimately he relented, reconnected with the role, and played Spock in a long series of movies and TV appearances — and Star Trek fans are grateful that he did.  Indeed, his connection with the character became such that he wrote a later autobiography called I Am Spock, and by the end of his life, as Richard points out, Nimoy ended his tweets with LLAP — a reference to Spock’s great Vulcan salutation.

Live Long and Prosper.  What a wonderful, simple sentiment from what was supposed to be an unemotional culture!  Nimoy lived that sentiment and gave us an unforgettable creation.  He will be sorely missed.

In Response To Richard’s Link . . . .

You can make a lot of arguments about James Tiberius Kirk. You can point out that he put on a few pounds over the years. You can contend that no rational Captain of a Starship would routinely beam down to an unknown planet with the initial exploring party, equipped only with a phaser and tricorder and a security guy in a red shirt who inevitably would be killed within seconds. You can argue that there is no way that Kirk could have defeated the Gorn, or could realistically have battled Spock to a draw in the thin, hothouse atmosphere of Vulcan. You can dispute whether, when all characteristics and traits are taken into account, James T. Kirk was a better Starship Captain than Jean-Luc Picard.

So, yes . . . you can make a lot of arguments about Captain Kirk — but I don’t think you can reasonably argue that Kirk was not attracted to women and instead harbored secret passions for his friend Mr. Spock. The only reason we didn’t see more obvious sexual activity between Kirk and his various female partners is that the original Star Trek was filmed in the 1960s, when TV shows were much less sexually explicit than they are now. After all, this was in the same time period when a young married couple, Rob and Laura Petrie, was depicted sleeping in separate twin beds on The Dick Van Dyke Show. In that time and place, Star Trek was pushing it with scenes where Kirk was shown sitting on a bed putting his boots on.

The best thing about Richard’s link, though, is that it is a good reminder of how there were many really crummy episodes of Star Trek. Some of the worst (or perhaps, most annoying) that I can think of right now are Charlie X, And The Children Shall Lead, the episode where Jason Bolt from Here Come The Brides was fighting himself from a parallel universe, the episode where the “Yangs” were fighting the “Comms,” and the episode where two guys who were literally half-white and half-black turned out to be bitter enemies because one was black on the right side and the other was black on the left. I’ll take an episode where Kirk is getting some action — even if implicit — over the episodes that hit you over the head with an overt political message any day.