Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Pantry on the Edge of Forever

I feel like Columbo . . .
"Just one more thing . . ."
After writing the other day about 11/22/63, I realized how much it has in common with "The City on the Edge of Forever," an episode from the first season of Star Trek, first broadcast in April 1967. The original teleplay for "The City on the Edge of Forever" was written by Harlan Ellison, then adapted, rewritten, and/or revised by at least one other writer on the production team for the show. I have the Bantam Fotonovel adaptation here beside me. Mr. Ellison doesn't get any credit on the cover, but there is an interview with him on the inside. I'll come back to that in a minute.

In 11/22/63, a man travels through a time-portal (located in the pantry of a diner in the ruins of his hometown) in an attempt to alter the past. He is successful in his mission, but the woman whom he loves in the past is killed, and the future is altered: the earth and everything he knew is threatened with destruction because of his meddling. He must then correct all of that. In his so doing, John F. Kennedy dies but the woman he loves lives on into the unaltered present. He loses her, but only to history.

In "The City on the Edge of Forever," a man travels through a time-portal (located in the ruins of a city on a faraway planet) and unwittingly alters the past, thus altering the future: nothing that he knew came to be and his fellow space-travelers are stranded in time and space. Two other men follow him in an attempt to undo what he has done. One of those men, Captain Kirk, falls in love with a woman from the past, Edith Keeler. Like the love interest in 11/22/63, Edith is a social activist or reformer. Like Stephen King's female lead, she remains unmarried and turns her efforts at making a better world outward towards that world rather than inward towards a family.

So Captain Kirk sets the past (and present) aright but loses the woman he loves, to death and to history. It is necessary that she die so that history can go on as it should or at least did. The mission is not to alter the past but to prevent the alteration of the past. Stephen King's protagonist, on the other hand, sets out to alter the past and to send history off in another direction. In so doing, he loses the woman he loves, but he also succeeds in his mission. The past, thus also the present, is altered. The problem is that the alteration, as in "The City on the Edge of Forever," results in disaster. In order to undo the disaster, the protagonist in Mr. King's novel decides to undo what he has done, but in the process, John F. Kennedy (one-half of the past's beloved) must die, just as Edith Keeler (all of the past's beloved) must die. The female lead in 11/22/63 (the other half, perhaps the lesser half, of the past's beloved) gets to live, although the protagonist still loses her to history.

So McCoy plays the role of the meddler, the same role played by the protagonist in Stephen King's novel, while Kirk plays the role of History, also the role of the lover. Edith Keeler is the beloved, both the love interest for the protagonist and the young President who must die. Spock is simply the protagonist's friend, Al Templeton, who has recorded all of the facts and knows what has to be done. (Spock is also a miniature version of the Guardian of Forever who replays history on his tricorder, just as the Guardian replays it in the images projected upon the doorway to Forever.) Kirk decides to allow the woman he loves to be killed so that history can go on and certain disasters are avoided. (Others are brought about by his actions, but they were going to happen anyway.) Stephen King's protagonist, on the other hand, decides to allow the woman he loves to go on living--and loses her to history in the process. Also in the process, he allows history go on unaltered, thereby preventing disaster and destruction. Clear as mud, right?

So who suffers the greater loss? Who makes the more heartbreaking decision? Who is more greatly affected? Who makes the greater moral choice? Captain Kirk or Stephen King's protagonist? By acting, Kirk allows the woman he loves to be killed. By not acting, the protagonist in 11/22/63 allows the woman he loves to go on living. One sacrifices the woman he loves up close and personal, while the other sacrifices the president whom he may or may not love (and then only from a distance), all so that history can go on as it should or did. None of this is to set up some sort of competition between "The City on the Edge of Forever" and 11/22/63, but it is getting me closer to my point.

Although 11/22/63 is original in many ways and a great work of the imagination, it is also a kind of inversion of "The City on the Edge of Forever." Is it a conscious inversion? In other words, was Stephen King inspired by Star Trek? I doubt it. (He was more likely inspired by John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels.) I can tell you, though, that there is something lacking in 11/22/63, for me at least. I'll let Harlan Ellison himself point out just what that is. (He didn't know he was pointing it out, of course.) From "Encounter with Ellison," an interview conducted by Sandra Cawson and published in Star Trek Fotonovel #1, City on the Edge of Forever (Bantam, 1977):
Sandra: Harlan. Why is "The City on the Edge of Forever" as well-loved as it seems to be by fans and critics alike?
Harlan: Because it's a story about people. The underlying philosophical theme carries the plot forward, but essentially it's a very simple love story. A story of choice. The kind of story that is identified traditionally as "tragedy" in the grand sense. I don't mean that to sound pompous or even to suggest that it's literature--because after all, what we're talking about is still just a television segment--but it's the essence of human relationships that snares the viewer. It's what Faulkner intended when he spoke of the only thing really worth writing about being "the human heart in conflict with itself." I think those who like the show identify with that.
That's what I was getting at the other day, for I think 11/22/63 lacks something of heart. (The protagonist himself admits that he is not a man who cries.) That's my opinion, of course; many reviewers and readers liked or even loved this book. Maybe to people of previous generations, losing John F. Kennedy to death was like losing a lover to the same spectre. To those of us born afterwards, however, his death, though tragic, is a piece of history. We will never know what things would have been like if he had lived. No amount of theorizing or speculation will make him live. More to what I think is the point of all the theorizing and speculation, whether in 11/22/63 by Stephen King or JFK by Oliver Stone (1991) or anywhere else, the Vietnam War will never be prevented. All of those men and women--58,220 of them--will still die. Their names (including that of a man named Terence Hanley) will be inscribed on a memorial to their sacrifices.

Setting all of that aside, the loss of the love interest in 11/22/63, either to death or to the unaltered past, is not very affecting, to me at least--nothing like the loss of Edith Keeler. But maybe that's just another kind of nostalgia speaking in me. Who, though, has ever forgotten the scene in which Edith Keeler is killed, in which Doctor McCoy exclaims to an already grieving Captain Kirk, "Do you know what you just did? I could have saved her!", and in which Mister Spock replies, with very human sympathy and understanding, "He knows, Doctor. He knows."

One more thing . . . 

As I mentioned above, the friend in 11/22/63--the friend who sends the protagonist on his mission--is named Al Templeton. I will now stretch his name beyond the breaking point: Al can easily become AI: artificial intelligence--a computer--a robot brain. Templeton is, literally, town of the temple. And what is the Guardian of Forever in "The City on the Edge of Forever" but an artificial (possibly) intelligence residing in a ruined city, with its columns, lintels, and pediments like a Greek temple? So is Al Templeton's name an homage to or evocation of the Guardian in his city on the edge of forever?

Just one more thing . . .

According to Wikipedia, the ultimate authority on all things:
When a Star Trek film was being developed in the late 1970s, one of the ideas proposed by Roddenberry was to have the crew travel back to the 1960s and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This idea was based on "The City on the Edge of Forever," due to the episode's popularity among fans by that time. [Original source: Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek by Joel Engel (New York: Hyperion, 1994).]
And that's really all for now.

Star Trek Fotonovel #1, City on the Edge of Forever, by Harlan Ellison, even if he doesn't get any credit on the cover. Note the broadside for a boxing match in the background: in 11/22/63 by Stephen King, there is a fictional boxing match between a real and a made-up boxer. A note to everyone who scans and places images on the Internet: be sure to select "descreen" when scanning so as to avoid moirĂ© effects in your images.

Revised extensively November 16, 2017
Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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