"Harlan Ellison's City on the Edge of Tomorrow: The Original Teleplay #1"
A critic always has biases. It helps to confess them, so that’s what I’ll do.
I’m a Star Trek fan, not the kind who dresses up at conventions or who learns to speak Klingon, but a fan nevertheless, a fan since childhood. I grew up watching the original series in reruns; I pretended to be Captain Kirk on the school playground; I had a pretty complete set of Mego action figures as well as the extraordinary Enterprise bridge play-set. I love the movies.
One of my clearest childhood memories is of watching Star Trek long after midnight on a black-and-white television set. My entire family had been roused out of bed by the threat of tornadoes. While monitoring the weather scrawl across the bottom of the screen for any sign of danger, we saw just a bit of an episode of Star Trek. The episode was “Mirror, Mirror.” You know the one: a transporter glitch sends Kirk and crewmates into an alternate universe and aboard an alternate Enterprise. In this world, the Federation is a force for evil. Good is bad; right is wrong. And, of course, Spock wears a Van Dyke beard.
We joined the episode half way through and only got to see a bit of it before the meteorologist from the television station broke into the broadcast to update the weather. I went to bed later that night, after the all-clear was given, confused by what I had seen. The ship looked like the Enterprise that I was familiar with; the first mate looked like the Spock that I knew; but nothing was exactly right. I was just as confused as Captain Kirk. It was months before I caught “Mirror, Mirror” again and straightened it all out for myself.
That feeling of being in an alternate reality, one that is like but not-like the one that I am familiar with, is a feeling that came back to me as I picked up the IDW adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s original teleplay for Trek’s most critically acclaimed episode: “The City on the Edge of Forever”. Of course, I have seen this episode countless times and there are scenes that I know by heart. And I am also somewhat familiar with the story behind Ellison’s script and of how the acclaimed writer was unhappy with the changes Gene Roddenberry and others made to his work. I understand that in the crucial scene that ends with the death of Edith Keeler, Ellison’s version differed pretty radically from the way the story was filmed. In Ellison’s story, it is Spock, rather than Kirk, who makes the crucial decision to allow Edith to die. I have never read Ellison’s script so, even though I have always thought that the producers made the right call in that crucial scene, I have been looking forward to the Tipton and Woodward adaptation, especially after catching a glimpse of the great Juan Ortiz cover.
But as I read it, I felt like I did when I was seven and watching “Mirror, Mirror” in the middle of the night. Things are almost right, but not quite. It is close, but not close enough; or perhaps, it is different, but not different enough.
Part of the problem is with Woodward’s painted illustrations. The layouts and designs, especially on the alien planet, are lovely, and the backgrounds and environments certainly exceed anything that would have been possible with the budget and technology available to Roddenberry at the time of the original series. For the most part his work captures the look and feel of the original series and its cast. This, however, is where the problems begin for me. Much of the time Woodward does reproduce the familiar actors’ faces with an uncanny precision. There are other times, however, when things are just a little bit off. In one panel I am looking at Leonard Nimoy portraying Mr. Spock; in the next, things are just not right; I’m not sure who I am looking at. It is close, but not exact. Action scenes in particular seem slightly wrong, the realistic designs in conflict with the action required by the script. In both cases, the mirror is distorted and I am thrown out of the illusion. Perhaps this is a universal problem with the kind of hyper-realistic characters that Woodward portrays, but it is especially problematic here, when the designs are patterned after actors whose faces so well known. In that case, close just isn’t good enough.
In many ways, the same holds true for the story. There are scenes that I just can’t imagine happening onboard the Enterprise that I grew up with. Who would have dreamed of drug dealing and murder among the crew? Maybe this is a different universe where such things happen on board a Starfleet vessel, but this one looks so much like the one I am accustomed to, populated by characters who look so much like the ones that I am familiar with, that these differences are hard for me to accept. Again, this disconnect between expectations and what happens is exacerbated by the decision to base the character designs so closely on the television actors, actors whose faces many of us have watched in these roles for decades. I suppose that, in this sense, the artist’s success contributes to the story’s failure. The decision to make the book look so much like the television program puts the differences clearly in the spotlight. Bolder design choices might have made a difference. Maybe Mr. Spock could have sported a Van Dyke.
I suppose that if I lived in a mirror universe, one where I had never watched Star Trek on television as a child while huddling against impending storms, one in which I had not watched “City on the Edge of Forever” at least a dozen times, then I might have had a different experience with this book. If I could travel back in time and alter my life story so that I had not watched Shatner and Nimoy in these roles so often that I know their faces better than I know my own, then I might have enjoyed this book more. But of course, I don’t and I can’t. That is my confession. When I read a story like this, one that I know so well, one that has shaped my sense of self, it is like looking into a mirror. I am bound to see myself looking back.