Wednesday 19 November 2014

Review: Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever, The Original Teleplay.

The recently concluded five-part comic adaptation of Harlan Ellison's original telelplay for The City on the Edge of Forever is almost unique in Star Trek comics history. To the best of my recollections there has been just one other episode adapted into comic form, the TNG finale, All Good Things..., and while most of the movies have also been adapted, aside from the odd deleted scene they have not strayed far from the on-screen presentations. The City on the Edge of Forever though, is like an episode of Star Trek from an alternate reality. My thoughts on the series continue after the jump below.

From the first few pages we are introduced to a much darker version of The Original Series, with the antagonist of the story, Beckwith, a drug dealer on the Enterprise, having signed on to starship duty to gather riches from exotic worlds and retire early to a life of luxury - A stark contrast to the good natured humans of the Starfleet we have come to know over the decades since this script was first written.

Beckwith takes the place of McCoy in the story as we know it from the television episode, and in doing so changes the tone throughout. Now we are not on a mission rescue a friend, we are out to stop a dangerous distasteful criminal (and in either case correct the timeline).

The mysterious and ethereal Guardians of Forever
This also gives us a great contrast with Edith Keeler, who in this version of the story is perhaps a little further along in her mission of peace in the world, already giving public addresses; well on the way to the future peace-maker that would ultimately lead to US defeat in the second world war - Or at least we can understand that from the episode, as the comic is more ambiguous about her future, with Spock inferring her significance in history from a riddle the Guardians give him and Kirk before they follow Beckwith, rather than having read the precise history they must avert off a tricorder screen, as in the episode. At any rate, Keeler is the good in reflection to Beckwith's evil, something that makes the ending all the more ambiguous when Beckwith tries to save Keeler from her death.

A tense exchange between Kirk and Spock
Throughout there this is a much more complex exploration of what is is to be human, specifically how flawed we are, and not just from the character of Beckwith. There is more overt racism experienced by Spock when seen as foreigner by the depression era Americans, and in return Spock's feelings about the period in which he is trapped show not just distaste for humanity, but seemingly utter revulsion. This in turn leads to a significantly more confrontational relationship between Kirk and Spock. The vapourised homeless person is also swapped out for a veteran of the first world war, who ends up allied with Kirk and Spock in stopping Beckwith. Before this the man is making a meagre living selling apples on the street, and like the other homeless man, when he is eventually vaporised, his loss seems to have no impact on history - An injustice of repeatedly unsung heroism pondered by Kirk and Spock at the conclusion of the story.

The overall pacing of the story is quite different, we don't meet Keeler until half way though, however Kirk and Keeler's relationship is quickly cemented once we do, so there is no huge impact from her later introduction. Before we travel back in time there is a sequence set aboard an alternate timeline ship that has replaced the Enterprise. With the rest of the out of time landing party left on this ship to fight off some nasty humans, this is used as imputes for Kirk and Spock to get on with the mission and rescue their imperilled crewmates. I can see why this was chopped out of the episode as we know it, it seems a bit of a distraction really, from just getting on and fixing the timeline. The ending is also extended slightly, with a particularly nasty ending for Beckwith, and a little more time for Kirk and Spock to reflect on the events they had been apart of.

Woodward's beautiful, surreal, and visceral art from the finale
Beckwith's fate is one of the most impressive illustrations in the comic, but it is not alone in wowing. Throughout J.K Woodward has really excelled. His painted artwork (as seen previously in the TNG/Doctor Who crossover, and issues of the Alien Spotlight and Captain's Log series) has always seemed almost luxurious, and utterly unique in IDW's Star Trek output, and this time he has been given the scenarios to explore some really interesting and diverse angles on Trek: Exploring a strange new world in the ethereal reinterpretation of Guardians of Forever, giving us a period piece in 1930s New York, the darker alternate future starship, and some particularly breathtaking art in time travel and drug use scenes. I can't wait to see what IDW get Woodward working on next, his art seems to become more and more stunning with each project!

I was quite surprised just how different this story is to the episode. The willingness to explore flaws in humanity, and the ambiguity about good and evil at an individual level and as well as the impact on history, makes it seem very contemporary. In comparison the episode seems quite romanticised. But that also makes it more like the Star Trek we know. Gone is the Voyage Home-like humour of our temporally displaced heroes, as is the moment of triumph and comradery of the reunion of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. The original teleplay, as seen in the comic, doesn't feel like the cheery light-hearted hopeful version of The Original Series we tend to recognise in retropect, but it does feel at home in the wider world of Star Trek we know now, which has not shied from going into darkness, allowing the ideals of Star Trek to shine in contrast.

Issue 5 cover by Juan Ortiz
Both versions of this story have their merits and flaws, both are simply great Star Trek. I'm glad the world has had the opportunity to experience both realities.

The City on the Edge of Forever was written by Harlan Ellison, and adapted to comic book form by Scott and David Tipton. The stunning artwork was painted by J.K. Woodward, and the series also featuring retro covers by Juan Ortiz (I particularly favour the bright blue final issue), and more painterly alternate covers by Paul Shipper.

If you've not been picking up the individual issues, the complete series will be released in a hardcover omnibus book in February.

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