Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Shining Example Of What Not To Do

For years I have heard the story of what happened to Harlan Ellison when he worked on Star Trek back in the 60's. He is the writer credited with what very well may be the best episode of the original Star Trek. Definitely the most critically acclaimed one. The final episode won a Hugo Award and Ellison's first draft script won Best Original Teleplay from the Writers Guild of America. And to this day, Ellison rails against what he claimed was done to his script.

Let's start with Ellison's claim (and I use that word because I will show later how he has been in error) about what was done to his script. He claims that the first draft was prefect and didn't need to be changed. A look at the summary of his treatments and drafts of the script show that there were indeed a lot of changes. So that part is true. It also isn't very unusual in television. So Ellison's basic claim cannot be argued against. He also claims that several in the production staff, particularly Gene Roddenberry, treated him badly. Ellison's claims are backed up by others making similar claims. Roddenberry was not easy to work with. Okay, so his basic claims are correct - his script was changed and there is little doubt he wasn't treated very well.

Yet his claim, probably bolstered by his WGA award for best screenplay, that there was no need to change his script is where his argument starts to break down. It further breaks down with how he has behaved on the entire subject. Forty-plus years of ranting is quite enough, Probably too much.

What brought this really to light was the release of Robert Justman's notes on the revised second draft. These were internal comments on just how the script fit with Star Trek, their budget, and the characters. You can view the first five pages here. When you stop and consider what the demands of writing for television are, these documents reveal that Ellison had a compelling story, but he failed in execution to deliver a script that they could use. His script contains many elements that are out of character for the Star Trek characters and for Starfleet in general. It also failed in delivering a script that could be filmed on Star Trek's limited budget. Even so, they felt it was worth spending more on that episode than they usually did.

It all boils down to a couple of questions. Was the treatment Ellison received from the Star Trek staff unusual or uncalled for? And has all the energy and vitriol that Ellison has spent over the years really worth it? The answer to both questions is no. Ellison is mostly miffed that they would dare rewrite his script, not realizing that is a normal procedure, especially in cases where they like the story idea and want to make it work. Being treated ill by a producer seems pretty typical in Holllywood. And to make matters worse, Ellison has never seemed to realize that he wasn't working for Star Trek, he was working for Desilu Studios, NBC, NBC's sponsors and the viewing audience. Ultimately Robert Justman and Gene Roddenberry had to answer all these higher forces themselves and had to deliver the promised product. That is absolutely normal for a TV series. And they did something right because all you have to do is look at the enduring legacy of Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry had already compromised his vision to get the show on the air. I don't see where Ellison has any right to expect to be held to a different standard than any other writer or the creator of the series.

When you objectively look at the situation, the things that pissed off Ellison the most, the things that he still goes off about, are all a normal part of television production for a writer. Movie production as well. The writer has no say in the finished product. The director, actors, editor, producers, and studio all have a say and it is quite normal for any one of them to ignore the writer's words and do something else. Ellison would have had a field day working with Robert Altman.

What this boils down to is not Ellison's ability to write. That is well established. But from Justman's comments about the second draft of the script, while Ellison delivered a good story, it failed to fit into Star Trek, it failed to be shootable on their budget, and it failed to deliver suitable drama. Basically it failed to meet the requirements that Star Trek needed it to. So they rewrote it because they liked the heart of the story. What came out retains the core of Ellison's story. The changes that were made brought the story in line with the established characters, message, and nature of the series. The changes heightened the drama and made incredible television from what started out as an incredible story.

So what Harlan Ellison has presented us with the last forty-plus years is the perfect example of how NOT to behave. He gets credit for a WGA award and a Hugo award. So what that they rewrote the script. He wasn't the first writer that it happened to and he wasn't the last. What he has done is to set a bad example and unrealistic expectations for those who want to write in Hollywood. They can't expect to write a screenplay or teleplay and expect it to remain unchanged. The norm is a string of edits to make everyone happy and the final product invariably differs from the script. The script is just the starting point. Rather than Ellison making a valiant stand or a valid point, he comes off as whining and childish about the entire matter.

Is he wrong to be mad? No. Has he said anything that wasn't true. Yes. He claims his script didn't need any work when clearly it did. The rest is true, but that is not. Yes, his original script won an award, but so did the final product. It is a fan favorite. Of all the writers who worked on Star Trek, only Ellison has made such vocal complaints and he was not the only writer to have been rewritten. Most were. All he is doing at this point is showing a level of immaturity that is unbecoming to a professional writer. What is funny is that he thinks that as a professional he shouldn't be subject to rewrites. That runs contrary to what the true professionals say. George R.R. Martin, better known today for Game of Thrones, was one of the main writers on Beauty and the Beast and has stated how much they had to compromise on every episode. The network wanted action without violence and they got what they wanted. Compromise is the name of the game and Ellison won't admit that. You have to kill your darlings as a writer and Ellison has never let go of this darling, even though it was killed and buried more than forty years ago. Mad can be good, but never letting it go is poison.

It is hard to say a great writer such as Harlan Ellison is wrong, but it is quite clear that in this he is very wrong. He was not wronged and should be proud that the episode bears his name. The final product is magnificent because of his ideas. But as an example of how a writer should behave, he is a miserable failure. Yes, writers should expect a certain level of respect, but you have to be cognizant of your industry. Things are not the same for short stories, novels, teleplays, screenplays, stage plays, or musicals. You have to be aware of your role as writer and what the requirements are. In 1966, Harlan Ellison was doing a one off script for a science fiction television series. That brings with it a certain expectation. One of the things to expect is that the script will have to be rewritten, either by the writer, or by staff writers. To ignore that expectation for over forty years and pretend that you are so great a writer that it shouldn't have applied to you is lunacy. Get over yourself Harlan. Grow up and be professional.

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