Writers, Producers, and Harlan Ellison

As I mentioned last time, having seen an advance DVD of an upcoming film documentary about Harlan Ellison (which does not, as an aside, completely avoid not mentioning the LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS) prompted me to pull down from my shelves a 1995 Borderlands Press edition of Ellison’s famous Star Trek teleplay, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, which is of course the subject of a decades-long dispute between Ellison and ST creator Gene Roddenberry and his defenders over the compromises Ellison’s original version underwent by the time it was filmed and aired. The book includes a 45-page introduction by Ellison recounting the matter and describing how Roddenberry consistently misrepresented his original version — “He had my Scotty dealing drugs!”, Roddenberry would claim, though Scotty wasn’t even in the original draft — as well as afterwords by David Gerrold, D.C. Fontana, and others. The most interesting of these is Fontana’s, in which she reveals exactly who rewrote Ellison’s script to turn it into the filmed version — Gene Coon, who added the humorous “Chinese rice picker” bit; then Fontana herself, who added the running joke about the ever-expanding jury-rigged tricorder; and finally Roddenberry, in order to make it more “Star Trek-like”.

(Oddly, the book includes two pre-script ‘treatments’, prose descriptions of the story, but the earliest of these is one already semi-disowned by Ellison via his infamous pseudonym “Cordwainer Bird”; this version introduced the transformation of the Enterprise into a pirate ship after Ellison was told that every story had to put the Enterprise itself in danger… and this pirate or renegade ship theme survived even into Ellison’s final, award-winning script. (Though it was lost in the aired version, in which the Enterprise simply wasn’t there anymore.) Why doesn’t the book include Ellison’s original treatment..? Don’t know.)

This famous, contentious example of the conflict between TV writers and producers is, I think, a great exception. My understanding has been that the rule of thumb about “Stage is a writer’s medium; film is a director’s medium; TV is a producer’s medium” is largely true. Roddenberry was right to require scripts for his TV show to fit the pattern and premise he had established. Which is not to say that Ellison’s script wasn’t far superior to the aired version. Just that Ellison, when you read his defense of this incident and his other experiences in TV (such as insisting a set decorator use exactly the description of props he supplied in his recent “Master of Science Fiction” script, this in the documentary), clearly desires to be not only writer but also director and cinematographer and film editor. Yet television, as far as I can tell, has rarely if ever worked this way. Current TV series, which all seem to feature ongoing story arcs, would seem to require the overarching supervision of their producers more than ever. You hear a lot about Lost producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof; when have we ever heard about the writers of any individual episode?

Then just in the last week, three notable Star Trek creators died, and I realized that the most recent of these, co-producer Robert H. Justman, arguably had greater influence over the series — especially The Next Generation — than Joseph Pevney or any other frequent director or writer…. which is why I posted a brief obit for him, too, on Locus Online.

More on the Ellison doc soon.

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