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Friday, December 11, 2009

CLASSIC SFR: CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER

Science fiction romance has deep roots in the world of Classic STAR TREK fan fiction. (And not just because Spock’s female fans wanted to see him get some action. A lot of us writing TREK fanfic were/are Kirk fans, thank you very much!) A big reason for this was that the classic series itself had a romantic streak a parsec wide that was a major part of its appeal.

So when people ask me to define SFR, I often refer back to a seminal episode of STAR TREK written by a giant of science fiction, Harlan Ellison, City on the Edge of Forever. For non-TREK fans, younglings and fans with Swiss-cheese memories, this is the episode in which Doctor McCoy, accidentally injected with a powerful hallucinogen, leaps through a time portal known as the Guardian of Forever into 1930's America and somehow changes history. Kirk and Spock must go after him and undo whatever it is that he does or the Enterprise and its crew are lost.

The essential conflict of the story emerges as Kirk meets and falls in love with a young woman who runs a soup kitchen ministering to the downtrodden of the city where all three Enterprise officers are drawn. As Spock soon discovers, Edith Keeler is the pivot point on which history turns. In the original timeline, Edith dies in a traffic accident. In the altered timeline, McCoy prevents her death, and she goes on to form a grassroots peace movement that prevents the U.S. entry into World War II long enough for Germany to develop rocket-launched nuclear weapons. In the new timeline, the Nazis win WWII.

Thus Kirk is faced with the ultimate hard choice: love or duty. And in this case, Ellison didn’t make it easy on the poor guy. We’re talking one life vs. millions of lives, your personal pain vs. a new Dark Age for your planet. Of course, Kirk being Kirk, there is no real choice. He prevents McCoy from saving Edith. She dies as she was meant to. And, as the Guardian says, “All is as it was.”

It’s interesting to note that Ellison himself had a different ending in mind for the episode. He had Kirk freeze at the crucial moment; Spock had to do the deed. Who knew the guy known throughout the SF world as an A1 smartass was such a romantic? One story goes that William Shatner insisted that Kirk would never have failed his duty, that to have him choke would have been a major break in character, and I tend to agree. Of course, I have all these years (and episodes and movies) to look back on as evidence of that. Shatner, presumably, only had his gut instinct of what Kirk would do.

This story is science fiction romance at its best in a lot of ways. You truly cannot separate the science fiction from the romance, even though ninety percent of the story is set on 1930’s Earth. Take away either half, and the story falls apart. The characters, the plot, the essential conflict, all depend on both the SF and the R.

Where we run into trouble, however, is in the ending. Ellison, after all, is a science fiction writer, not a romance writer. (Hell, he’d probably have my head for even presuming to write this blog at all!) Add to that the requirements of STAR TREK itself—no real change in the characters from week to week (though Roddenberry and his actors violated that one practically every week), no commitments/attachments for your characters and so on. So, no matter what, EDITH KEELER MUST DIE!

I actually wrote a fanfic story in which Kirk sat Edith down and explained the situation to her (to hell with the Prime Directive—seemed like this was a case where it could be waived). She was reasonable and gave up the whole peace movement thing. Problem solved and no one dies. Unfortunately, Kirk still had to leave, cuz, you know, he’s got a ship to run.

Problem is, these solutions violate the Number One Rule of Romance—must have a happy ending (known in the biz as happily ever after, or HEA). You know what, there is absolutely NOTHING WRONG with HEA. It’s just that some stories don’t lend themselves to it. If that’s the case, then it’s not, technically, a romance, even though it may qualify on all other points.

Sadly, this is the case with City on the Edge of Forever. You couldn’t sell this excellent story to a romance agent or publisher without somehow changing the ending. (Kirk retires to 1930 after a long career? It’s a better ending than GENERATIONS gave him, that’s for sure!) I doubt you would find a science fiction publisher who would take it, either (too much “girly” romance!).

Harlan Ellison wrote City on the Edge of Forever more than 40 years ago, at a time when television writing, science fiction and indeed, just about everything in the creative world was undergoing incredible ferment and change. The only rule in those days was that there were no rules, and Ellison was at the forefront of those changes in science fiction. But since then it seems that literature, like radio and cable TV, has fractured into tiny fiefdoms of limited taste and little crossover interest.

Science fiction romance, a hybrid subgenre that beautifully melds the best of all worlds, is too expansive to be confined to one narrowly defined category. It can’t be precariously balanced on the iron-tipped fence separating two armed camps.

Storm the castles, I say! Break down the defenses! Crash the party! Read the other gals’ (and guys’) stuff! Then color outside the lines! Eventually somebody will take notice. And, if not, at least we will have had some fun.

Cheers, Donna

2 comments:

  1. As Spock would say, "Fascinating!"

    Time travel paradoxes make great fodder for exploring What ifs...

    This is brilliant: Science fiction romance, a hybrid subgenre that beautifully melds the best of all worlds, is too expansive to be confined to one narrowly defined category. It can’t be precariously balanced on the iron-tipped fence separating two armed camps.

    Heck yeah! Storm the castle gates...and space station airlocks, too. SFR is probably one of the most diverse little niche genres in the fiction universe.

    Thanks for your insights into this Star Trek classic episode, Oh Resident Star Trek expert. :) And BTW, isn't that a killer title? Love it.

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  2. Thanks, Laurie. I once saw the script for this episode at a special exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I felt like I was viewing some sort of holy relic. Ellison's original script won a Writers' Guild of America Award for most outstanding dramatic episode in 1967-68; Roddenberry's adaptation won the 1968 Hugo. Talk about inspiration!

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