Ohio Connections: Spring 2024 – Ellison & Whitman & More

Starting with the Spring 2024 edition of the Ohio Center for the Book newsletter, we decided to being highlighting some famous and some lesser-known historical Ohio connections. We hope you enjoy these insights into Ohio’s historical links and continuing influence on literature, culture, and society. This season, we’re focusing on two connections a century apart: Ohio’s tumultuous connection to Star Trek and our state’s heartbreaking connection to a poem by Walt Whitman.

April 6, 1967: Star Trek & Harlan Ellison

When “The City on the Edge of Forever” (Season 1, Episode 28, of the original Star Trek series), was first broadcast on April 6, 1967, on NBC, it should have brought pride and satisfaction to Ohio author Harlan Ellison. After all, he was credited as the writer! However, what he watched unfolding on screen that evening ended up being so far removed from his submitted script — his vision — that he divorced himself from the episode evermore. What he saw on screen was a Frankenstein’s monster, a loathsome and unholy mish-mash, brought into being by others. Too many writers did indeed spoil the broth. After the episode achieved cult status, the debate as to which was more worthy — that which could have been or that which was — began in earnest. Both Ellison’s original script and that version of the script that was ultimately produced won awards. Whenever Gene Roddenberry — Star-Trek‘s creator, screenwriter, and producer — spoke to the general public or the trades about the genesis of the episode, what he spoke, according to Ellison, was Roddenberry’s truth — not THE TRUTH. How were people going to learn the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? From Ellison’s point of view, it would never come from Roddenberry.

This Ohio Connection will examine the fundamental differences between “The City on the Edge of Forever” episode as written by Harlan Ellison, and, after multiple people had finished (sullying?) it, that version of the script as it was given to the actors to perform. Were the producers of Star Trek justified in modifying (recreating?) that script, or did they commit sacrilege? If filmed and broadcast as Ellison had written — imagining that all the money, talent, and resources required were at the ready — would “The City on the Edge of Forever” in the spring of 1967 have helped or hindered the fledgling Star Trek series?

How did we get here?

It was the early days. The beginning. Gene Roddenberry was frightened that low Nielsen ratings would result in Star Trek’s cancellation, it being categorized as a one season oddity, a one trick (or no trick) pony. The characters (their appearances, personalities, demeanor, quirks, habits, histories) and their interrelationships had yet to be fleshed out. Everyone tried to find a groove, to feel their way forward. There was potential the size of Mount Everest on their hands. But how could they make it work?

Hoping to convince CBS and Desilu executives not to cancel the fledgling series but to give the team and the public time to chew on it, Roddenberry sought the help of Harlan Ellison, a doyen of speculative fiction at the time. Roddenberry recognized that Ellison endorsing Star Trek would favorably sway public opinion. Ellison acquiesced, and he persuaded several of his peers to join him in writing testimonials or to speak positively about the program to the trades. Ultimately, Star Trek stumbled out of the gate but was renewed for a second season.

Among the scripts submitted to Roddenberry in 1966 for development was Ellison’s own “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Ellison evaluated the Federation Starship Enterprise as a (flying) battlecruiser, operated by a humanoid crew that was prone to the stresses, ills, and conflicts that beset humanoids, that could be augmented by the stress of close confinement and conflict. He wrote, in his judgment, a realistic sci-fi story that could reasonably happen to a realistic crew. It dealt with drugs, drug pushers, brains on drugs, a killing, and the turmoil of whether one’s personal duty could ever, should ever, be trumped by one’s personal desires. Ellison wrote his script when Star Trek was in its swaddling clothes, when little about the show was chiseled in stone. However, enough of the show’s characteristics, its look and feel had been finalized in the interim between Ellison’s submission of the script and when it was finally green-lit for production that show producers called for rewrites.

Over the course of several months, Ellison did just that, trying to bring his vision into conformity with the emerged construct. Unbeknownst to Ellison, Roddenberry (and others) were re-writing his rewrites. Two fundamental plot points were changed to which Ellison did not and could not ever accept. One never-forgiven change pertained to Doctor McCoy. Rather than focusing upon how a frenzied, manic Enterprise drug-peddling officer time-traveled and changed the present because he kept the past from unfolding as it should have, as it must have, it was Doctor McCoy who was driven mad — by accidentally (clumsily?) injecting himself with a shot meant for a sick patient. McCoy then went back in time with his two best friends — Captain Kirk and Spock — in hot pursuit. The second point pertained to the degree to which the love-struck Captain Kirk had been blinded by love. In Ellison’s script, Kirk was more than willing to let humanity suffer if only the character of his girlfriend Edith would live — and love him. Nothing else mattered. Only through Spock’s intervention did humanity experience the future as its future should have happened. Distraught over how his script had degenerated into what he considered a farce, Ellison wanted to be divorced from it. Despite how fundamentally different from Ellison’s vision the final script ended up being, and Ellison’s desire of anonymity, Rodenberry nevertheless retained Ellison’s name to encourage other mainstream authors to affiliate themselves with Star Trek.

Proud of what he had accomplished, Ellison submitted his original script to the Writer’s Guild of America which, during the 1966-67 Awards season, winning the honor for best Television Episodic Drama. When the script as it was filmed (under Ellison’s name) was submitted for consideration, it won a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.

During the ensuing years, the script as filmed has become a cult classic — and Roddenberry propagated his version of the truth: The “The City on the Edge of Forever” was born out of a conflict in which Roddenberry needed to save Ellison from Ellison. To Ellison, Roddenberry’s recollections were peppered with outright fabrications, half-truths, and twisted truths. Even though, when confronted by Ellison, Roddenberry promised to stick to the facts, he did not (could not) do so. The substance of Roddenberry’s discourse is that Harlan Ellison did not (could not? would not?) understand Star Trek, and that he was inept at his chosen craft, his chosen livelihood.

In 1996, Ellison, through White Wolf Publishing, published The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay that Became the Classic Star trek Episode. It gave him not only the opportunity of sharing and promulgating his original script with the world but to also share with people (both the living and the dead) just how much they hurt him… and just what kind of people he thought them!

Harlan Ellison, born in Cleveland, Ohio, on May 27, 1934, would have celebrated his 90th birthday this year. The conflict over “The City on the Edge of Forever” remained as hot as it ever had right up until Ellison’s death at the age of 84 on June 28, 2018.

See also:

May 1863 & 1864: An Ohio Soldier’s Death Inspired Poet Walt Whitman

Whitman in 1862

Among the wounded Union troops cared for by poet Walt Whitman at the Armory Square Hospital (located on the National Mall where the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum stands today) was Oscar H. Cunningham, a young farmer from Delaware, Ohio.

During the battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, Private Cunningham of Company “I” 82nd Ohio Volunteers, received a gunshot wound to his right thigh causing a compound fracture of his femur. He was brought to Armory Square Hospital and admitted as a patient (Bed 20, Ward K). On June 15, 1863, the bullet was extracted. Tragically, however, over the ensuing months extensive abscesses began to form. Whitman observed that Cunningham’s “leg is in a horrible condition, all livid & swollen out of shape.” On May 2, 1864, the first anniversary of the battle, Cunningham’s right leg was amputated. D. W. Bliss,* the surgeon in charge, was hopeful that Cunningham would recover. Whitman wrote a reassuring letter to Cunningham’s sister, Helen, and dissuaded her from visiting as Cunningham seemed out of immediate danger. However, as Whitman confided in a letter to his mother, it became apparent that the brave soldier would soon perish from his wounds.

I have just left Oscar Cunningham, the Ohio boy—he is in a dying condition—there is no hope for him—it would draw tears from the hardest heart to look at him–his is all wasted away to a skeleton, & looks like some one fifty years old—you remember I told you a year ago, when he was first brought in, I thought him the noblest specimen of a young western man I had seen, a real giant in size, & always with a smile on his face—O what a change, he has long been very irritable, to every one but me, & his frame is all wasted away.

Walt Whitman’s Soldiers, National Museum of Health and Medicine

Whitman channeled the tragic fate of Private Oscar H. Cunningham into a poem entitled “Come Up From the Fields Father.” Published in 1865 as a poem within his collection Drum-Taps, Whitman envisaged the moment on a rural Ohio farm when a mother reacts to a stranger’s letter concerning her son. Although the letter stated that her son was wounded but in stable condition at a military hospital, she is convinced that he had died since the letter was dispatched. Heartbroken, she starves herself to death so as to speed the moment in which they will be reunited.

Oscar “H” Cunningham died on June 4, 1864. He was among the first soldiers to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. His grave is currently designated as Section 27, Grave 553.

His sister Helen wrote to Whitman expressing gratitude for his ministrations but lamented not having been present at his death:

I was going to start right of to see him I would have come long ago but he thought not, so did you. this time I intended to go whether anyone thought best or not but the same eve Liut Perry came bringing us the sad news of his death,...

Helen S. Cunningham to Walt Whitman, 9 May 1864

*NOTE: Dr. D.W. Bliss would go on to treat Ohio’s own James Garfield after the president was shot by Charles Giteau in 1881. Some say Bliss’s “treatment” led directly to the infection that ultimately killed President Garfield.

Did You Know…

The Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Youth is the longest-running event in the United States to focus exclusively on multicultural literature for children and young adults. It is named for Ohio author Virginia Hamilton, born March 12, 1934, with the next conference scheduled for 2025.

April 6 is National Tartan Day and commemorates Scotland’s Declaration of Arbroath signed in 1320. Ohio author Leclaire Alger, known by her Gaelic pseudonym Sorche Nic Leodhas, collected and retold numerous Scottish folktales in her books for children.