May 26, 2015

[Comics] Star Trek: Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever

So I had been pretty keen on getting a copy of this comic ever since it was announced. But given how much of a miser I've become with comics, I ended up waiting for a relevant comiXology sale in order to pick up the title at a good rate. I love my digitial comics, but I still don't feel 100% comfortable paying full retail rates for them.

But getting back on point, I was really curious as to how this comic adaptation of the original Harlan Ellison teleplay for The City on the Edge of Forever would turn out. As it stands, this Star Trek: TOS episode remains to be one of if not the most popular Star Trek stories out there. And if the final output was already enough to create a place in the minds and hearts of Star Trek fans over the years, what could have the original story been like?

Over the years I've read a few comments and insights on what the original script was like and even a few lengthier discussions of some of the deviations from the original plan versus the final episode. But getting the story in comic book form is a nicely unique way of experiencing things in a visual manner, even without a full episode being produced again. And the end result was pretty interesting indeed.

Synopsis: Star Trek: Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever is a 5-issue limited comic book series based on Ellison's original teleplay for the Star Trek episode of the same name. The story was adapted by Scott and David Tipton with art by J.K. Woodward for IDW Publishing.

In many ways, the story remains largely familiar to any Star Trek fan. A rogue crewman manages to get sent into the past by the Guardian of Forever and it's up to Kirk and Spock to pursue the individual and restore the proper timeline. The time travel portal created by the Guardian sends them back to 1930's New York where they encounter the noble Edith Keeler, who is strongly devoted to a cause but is also fated to die. Her death is a critical event that cannot be changed, but can our heroes stand idly by and just watch this death unfold?

But given this is a comic book, the story telling was no longer limited by the budget of a struggling science fiction TV series. Thus we don't just see one vague purple shape representing the portal and the Guardian of Forever. Instead we see a good number of almost spectral Guardians residing in a rather grand city that does appear to be situated at the edge of forever. We have a new rogue crewman who was already a criminal on the ship be the one to travel back in time instead of it being an accidentally drag-crazed Dr. McCoy as it was in the TV series. Naturally there are other shifts as you progress through the story, but I'll leave you with those quirks found in the first issue alone.

The art style used in the comic series had that nice blending of rather beautiful exotic vistas and character imagery that was clearly based on the still from the original episode. Thus Edith is unmistakably based on Joan Collins, which was a nice touch. There were still occasional panels where the level of detail / accuracy for faces wasn't quite as good, but you can't have all that on a comic book production schedule, I suppose.

The comic series clearly illustrates how a lot of Ellison's ideas were impossible to film at the time due to budget constraints. At the same time, other differences between this teleplay and the final TV episode were interesting, but also not perfectly in line with how we've come to understand how these characters behave. Some changes were pretty interesting though, like Yeoman Rand's role in holding the transporter room of the Condor, which I felt was a nicely fulfilling aspect to things.

It's a shame that this story was so heavily re-written for the TV release. In many ways, we are left with two distinct stories that have similar beats but still different tones and key moments. We have slightly different character arcs and moments of conflict but generally the same result. The comic gives one a better appreciation for what Ellison was trying to achieve with this story and probably what the TV folks were thinking when they modified the script prior to its final TV release.

The fact that the stories feel both different yet similar isn't good or bad in itself. This isn't an opportunity to compare one version to the other and somehow conclude that one is definitively "better". They're both great stories and perhaps the core structure of the narrative that Ellison created is really what shines through in both versions of this tale. At least that's what my takeaway was from reading this piece.

Thus Star Trek: Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever is a lovely little reading experience that shows us what might have been had things gone differently. There's a reason this teleplay won so many awards and citations and it's a solid Star Trek story. The series as a whole gets a good 4.5 creative imagery panels in the comic out of a possible 5.

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