Writer, Broadcaster

City on the Edge of Forever

Photo from Memory Alpha

Once upon a time I tried to make a radio play version of the Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever, by science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. The Powers That Be at CBC Radio at the time were in favour of the idea. The Business Rights people contacted Harlan and attempted to negotiate with him. I can’t quite recall how it came about, but I wound up calling him.

I’d been a big fan of his work ever since reading his short story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which blew my mind (I actually wrote a version it for radio, since lost to time). I don’t think I even knew then that he’d written City on the Edge of Forever. Much later I discovered that he is considered by many to be, shall we say, problematic. Anyway, being a fan at the time, I was tickled at the opportunity to talk to him. We had a short conversation which focussed mostly on how much the rights to City on the Edge of Forever would cost. I informed him that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was a public broadcaster and we’d pay what we could. Needless to say, it wasn’t enough for Harlan, so the project never happened.

If you’re wondering how we could ever even have conceived such a thing, here’s my original pitch, which lays it all out. The thing is, as far as I know, it all stills hold true today. You could not produce a version of Gene Roddenberry’s City on the Edge of Forever, but you COULD produce a version of Harlan Ellison’s. If you really wanted to, and if you had enough money to purchase the rights. And maybe changed the characters’ names.

The City on the Edge of Forever Pitch

There was a time when if you were a Star Trek fan then you were a member of a relatively small club.  This is no longer the case.  Now, just about everyone is familiar with Star Trek – it’s a cultural phenomenon. 

Arguably the best Star Trek episode ever made – in any of the ubiquitous franchise’s many incarnations – is City on the Edge of Forever.  City on the Edge of Forever features the original and most beloved characters in the Star Trek pantheon: Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, “Bones” McCoy, and so on.  The story is simple and poignant: Kirk travels back in time to 1930’s New York to prevent a shipmate from altering time.  There, he falls in love, but to fulfill his mission, he must allow the woman he has fallen in love with to die.

The episode spawned a famous feud between the episode’s original writer, Harlan Ellison, and Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry.  Citing cost overruns and other difficulties, Roddenberry and his staff (Gene L. Coon and D.C. Fontana, mainly) completely rewrote Ellison’s version of the episode before shooting it.  The two versions are quite a bit different, yet both have demonstrable merit.  Roddenberry’s went on to win a Hugo; Ellison’s won the Writer’s Guild of America’s Award for Most Outstanding Teleplay.  Just about everyone has seen Roddenberry’s version of City on the Edge of Forever — Ellison’s version has never been produced for film, televison or radio.

Harlan Ellison owns the rights to his original, award-winning version of the most famous Star Trek episode ever to air.  Paramount Studios owns the rights to the Star Trek franchise; they do not own the rights to Harlan’s script. What this means is that CBC Radio can produce a radio play version of City on the Edge of Forever simply by changing the names of the characters. 

The free publicity for CBC Radio likely to be generated by mounting a radio version of Ellison’s City on the Edge of Forever, coupled with the intrinsic entertainment value of the piece itself, is probably reason enough to produce the property.  Couching the production within the context of the issue of creative ownership (conversations with Harlan Ellison and other artists who perceive their work to have been mishandled by others) might justify the production further.

I believe this to be quite an opportunity.  Given Star Trek’s place in popular culture, it is possible – perhaps even likely – that a CBC Radio production of Harlan Ellison’s City on the Edge of Forever could be nothing less than a cultural event.

2 Comments

  1. Chris Cutress

    During the heights of Radio Drama Studio 3 in Vancouver was scheduled to be rebuilt. One of the proposals was to leave studio 3 intact and instead use the rebuild budget to obtain a 10 year lease on a studio at Stephen J. Cannell studios in North Vancouver, BC. They would build a Drama Studio for the CBC and we would work out of there. Part of the deal is that during down time we would record Radiophonic versions of independent US scripts that could then be used to promote future TV and Movie productions. CBC would be paid for our time during these projects and we would have gotten outside credits for our work. A number of us thought that would be a win-win for the Radio Drama Department in Vancouver and for the CBC as it would be a revenue generating endeavour that could finance other Radio Drama productions. Needless to say, when the whole thing was presented to the ‘power that were’ the concept was nixed and Studio 3 Vancouver was rebuilt and all Radio Drama Production stayed in house. The logic was that CBC Radio was not supposed to make money ?!? In a way it’s too bad because 10 years later when we needed to replace the equipment there was no money and the last few years in Vancouver were filled with work arounds due to console problems. Once a budget was approved it was ultimately shifted to another of the studios and the console that was finally put in Studio 3 was a hand-me-down from elsewhere in the plant. And the rewiring of the studio to make that console work took away much of the versitility of the room.

  2. Robert Runte

    So, Harlan’s gone…who inherited those rights? With a few minor adaptations…one could do a non-ST version…. If not CBC, there must be other radio people around…. just saying.

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