The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Controversial author Harlan Ellison remade sci-fi while battling movie studios, publishers and Frank Sinatra

Writer Harlan Ellison, pictured during a 1976 interview, remade science fiction throughout his prolific career. (YouTube/ThamesTV)

Fans and critics alike rank “The City on the Edge of Forever” as one of the best — and darkest — episodes from the original “Star Trek” series.

The plot follows the USS Enterprise crew as they are sucked through a time portal back to 1930s New York City. A crew member saves the life of a young woman played by Joan Collins. The good deed, however, throws off history: The woman goes on to mount a pacifist movement, keeping the United States out of World War II. The Nazis then win the war, completely altering history. When the crew learns this, they realize they have to time-jump back again and let the woman die — even though William Shatner’s Captain Kirk has fallen in love with Collins’s character.

“Jim, in order for the universe to be saved,” Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock explains to Kirk, “Edith Keeler must die as it actually happened.”

The 1967 episode ends as the crew members watch a truck mow down the woman  — just as history demanded. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Kirk tells the crew.

The show — morally complicated and somber — was pure Harlan Ellison, then a rising science fiction writer tapped by “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry to produce scripts for his series.

Ellison died on Thursday at age 84.

He was among the “new wave” of incredibly prolific authors who used stories about space and technology to explore dark moral terrain.

But what ran on television was different from the writer’s original idea. Ellison’s script for the “Star Trek” episode presented a harsher concept — including a more overt antiwar theme, illegal drug use among the crew, and an execution. Roddenberry and his team drastically watered down the writer’s idea, sparking a bitter spat between the show’s famous creator and Ellison. Decades later, in 2009, Ellison filed a lawsuit against CBS Paramount over merchandising and publishing fees from the episode, Wired reported.

“It ain’t about the ‘principle,’ friend, it’s about the money!” Ellison bombastically said in a statement when the suit was filed. “Pay me! I’m doing it for the 35-year-long disrespect and the money!”

That was also pure Ellison.

Across his incredibly prolific career — he penned 50 novels and more than 1,700 short stories, as well as scripts for classic television shows like “The Outer Limits” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” according to the Verge — he was as well-known for his spats and public battles as for his groundbreaking imagination. Ellison tussled with Frank Sinatra over a pair of boots, scrapped with publishers about his creative vision, and even took on Hollywood studios when they lifted his ideas of big budget movies.

“I go to bed angry and I get up angrier every morning,” he boasted once, the Associated Press reported. Those big emotions, however, also powered a literary career that helped reshape science fiction throughout the 20th century and into the next.

“Ellison was immensely talented, immensely argumentative and immensely controversial, all in equal measure,” author John Scalzi told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. “Loved or loathed, he was undeniably one of the great figures in science fiction.”

Ellison was born in Cleveland and grew up in a small town on the city’s east side. Part of the only Jewish family in the area, Ellison had to defend himself physically against bullies, Variety reported. That same spark carried over into adulthood. Ellison was booted out of Ohio State University after punching a professor who said Ellison had no talent for the written word, according to the AP.

By 1963, the writer was in California. An early gig at Walt Disney Studios ended when Ellison was overheard by co-founder Roy Disney cracking a joke about using the company’s characters in a porn film, the Verge reported. But the writer began earning glowing accolades and awards for the stories and scripts he churned out at a steady rate.

“It is the game of ‘What if?’ ” he said explaining his writing process in a 2013 Guardian interview. “You take that which is known, and you extrapolate — and you keep it within the bounds of logic, otherwise it becomes fantasy — and you say, ‘Well, what if?’ That’s what speculative fiction is, and at its very best, it is classic literature, on a level with ‘Moby Dick’ and Colette and Edgar Allan Poe.”

Ellison was completely dedicated to his artistic work, landing him at odds often with his own editors and publishers. As the AP reported, it wasn’t uncommon for a disgruntled Ellison to mail his publishers bricks or, on one occasion, a dead gopher. He was equally outspoken in his politics. Ellison accompanied the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the historic 1965 march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery, and frequently bashed the Vietnam War.

He also did not wilt before high-wattage celebrity. As the journalist Gay Talese recounted in his 1966 New Journalism classic “ Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” an argument between the writer and the famed crooner in a Los Angeles nightclub almost came to blows. Sinatra took issue with Ellison’s boots.

“I don’t like the way you’re dressed,” Sinatra told Ellison, Talese wrote.

“Hate to shake you up,” the writer shot back, “but I dress to suit myself.”

His attitude — he once called himself “bellicose” — had darker shades as well. The Verge reported he assaulted an author in 1985 at a convention, and he was accused of groping writer Connie Willis at the Hugo Awards in 2006 — a charge he denied.

Ellison was equally combative in the courtroom, taking on major film companies when he felt his ideas had been copied. He sued James Cameron, claiming the director’s megahit “The Terminator” lifted themes from two episodes of “The Outer Limits” Ellison penned in the 1960s. The producers settled with Ellison out of court, but the terms forced the moviemakers to acknowledge the writer’s contribution, according to the Times.

Similarly, Ellison settled his lawsuit with CBS Paramount over the classic “City on the Edge of Forever.” The writer later released his own uncensored version of the original script as a book.

“He always said, ‘Pay the writer,’ ” Richard Curtis, his literary agent, told the Times. “That was his motto.”