Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The City on the Edge of Forever" (April 6, 1967)

Stardate: Unknown

While the Enterprise charts dangerous time distortions around an unexplored planet, an accident occurs on the bridge. While treating Mr. Sulu (George Takei) for a minor injury, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) accidentally injects himself with a hypo full of Cordrazine, a dangerous drug.

In a state of complete panic and paranoia, McCoy flees the starship to the barren planet surface, and a landing party led by Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) pursues. There, on the planet, they encounter a device -- or perhaps entity -- called the Guardian of Forever.  It operates, essentially, as a time portal.

While the Guardian displays imagery of Earth’s past, McCoy jumps through the doorway and disappears. Immediately afterwards, the landing party loses touch with the orbiting starship. As Kirk soon learns, the United Federation of Planets, Starfleet Command, and the Enterprise no longer exist because McCoy has altered history.  He realizes that he and Spock must travel through the Guardian to the past to correct those changes and re-set the timeline as it should be.

Kirk and Spock travel to the year 1930, to New York City of the Great Depression. There, they find work with Sister Edith Keeler (Joan Collins) while waiting for McCoy to be swept by the same time currents to their location. 

While Spock struggles to power his tricorder with 1930s technology, Kirk falls in love with Edith Keeler.  Alas, she is the focal point in the time-line.  All of the future depends on her life…or death.

Widely considered the finest episode of Star Trek (1966-1969), “The City on the Edge of Forever” is also a contentious entry, owing to its troubled and very well-documented creative woes. 

Long story short: author Harlan Ellison was heavily rewritten, to his displeasure, and his original teleplay proved an award winner, despite its apparent deviations from established Trek lore. 

In Ellison’s version, there is a drug dealer aboard the Enterprise, named Beckwith, and he faces a terrible fate for his crimes.

The aired episode -- while not Ellison’s vision by a long shot -- is undeniably brilliant and beautifully. Basically, this Trek installment puts Kirk on the hot seat. He can choose personal happiness and contentment at Edith’s side, while sacrificing his friends, his future, and all of Earth itself.  Or he can choose duty and responsibility, and Kirk is always a creature of duty and responsibility.  Choosing this course requires him not just to lose Edith, but to essentially sacrifice her.

Hauntingly, Kirk chooses the well-being of the universe, a pure embodiment of Star Trek’sthe needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one” ethos. 

Kirk's final line in the episode, “Let’s get the Hell out of here,” captures well his anger and hurt at having been manipulated into such a position, into such a “no win” scenario. Forever time-crossed, Kirk and Edith can never be together, a fact which points in some way to a sadistic universe. Why would the Guardian bring these two together, only to tear them apart?  Why is Kirk made to suffer so grievously?

This tale humanizes Kirk significantly. Every day, he makes choices about who lives and who must die on the Enterprise and during its missions. But now, in this situation, he is made to feel the full impact of such a death.  He feels the loss -- because of his command decision -- more personally than ever before.

Captain Kirk has many lovers in Star Trek lore but Edith is likely his one, true, real, love.  She is no dalliance. No mere eye candy. Rather, one can see why she is a perfect partner for Kirk.  

To wit, Edith is an inspiration in a time of darkness, the Great Depression, reminding her suffering wards on a daily basis that the days ahead are worth living for.  She is also oddly insightful, able to forecast with pinpoint accuracy what mankind can one day become, if it outgrows war and hatred.  

Finally, she’s not merely curious...but tough and resilient. Edith is no pushover. She is compassionate and kind, committed to good work, and she is also a fighter.  She has a joy about herself and her purpose.

All these qualities make her appealing to Kirk, and to the audience too. Edith Keeler is a beacon of light in a dark world. Alone and lonely, Kirk is drawn to that beacon, quite naturally, though the two inhabit entirely different worlds.

“The City on the Edge of Forever” succeeds on the basis of the tragic love story, but also its unswerving ability to nail the characters with perfect, descriptive lines. 

for instance, Edith notes of Spock that he belongs as Kirk’s “side,” and says that he has “always been there, and always will.”  

That is just about the best (and most beautiful) description of the Mr. Spock character ever featured in any Star Trek episode. He is a fiercely loyal friend to Kirk. 

And once he is out of his drug-induced stupor, McCoy is his charming Southern self, concerned about all life, not merely his own.  We get a sense of just how charming and social the good doctor is during his moments with Edith.

It is a testament to the episode’s effectiveness that viewers are willing to gloss over certain practical questions here.  

Like: how does the Guardian determine which line of history is correct, and which isn’t? 

Similarly, the Guardian states that Kirk and Spock will be returned when things are set right, but there doesn’t appear to be a portal for them to jump back through.  

Does the portal just appear at their location, following Edith’s death in the street?

Some of this could be handled a little more clearly.

Most significantly, perhaps, it seems that a device or entity that has existed since before our “sun burned hot” in the heavens would possess some kind of safeguards so McCoy or other personalities of unstable behavior or hostile intent could not access it.  The Guardian, in a sense, is the greatest weapon in the universe.  It could easily be plundered or manipulated, and if it has any sense of self-awareness, wouldn't it understand that fact?

“The City on the Edge of Forever” is also remarkable, I would submit, for being representative of what I term Star Trek’s “pragmatic” brand of optimism. 

Specifically, Edith encourages a peace movement in America at the very time Hitler grows powerful in Europe, and threatens free people the globe over.  The episode stresses that Edith’s brand of peace is the right way, but that her movement comes “at the wrong time,” and Nazis take over the world because of it.

I call this “pragmatic optimism” because Star Trek always concerns peace as an ideal and goal, but also notes often that it is often necessary to root out and confront -- or fight -- evil. 

Overcoming violence is valuable and necessary in man’s evolution, yes (see: “Arena,” and “A Taste of Armageddon”), but the trick is also knowing that peace sometimes must be backed-up by a willingness to fight for your ideals, for your beliefs.  

Sometimes, though fighting is violent, it is also about defending the weak, or the defense of a principle.  Sometimes it is about stopping or preventing an injustice.  Real and lasting peace comes after these battles are waged. And there is often a real price for peace, in blood and treasure.

This idea recurs in the series. “A Private Little War” is a validation, essentially, of American involvement in the Vietnam War. It notes, with appropriate sadness and sobriety, that weak powers should not be destroyed by strong ones, but balanced with them…so that both survive.

Here, Edith’s peace movement “at the wrong time” is a warning to the real life peace movement of the Vietnam Era that though its goals were laudable, a retreat from the world would also carry an impact, and possibly a negative one.  There are consequences for action, it is true.

There are also, however, consequences for inaction.

In short, Star Trek acknowledges that there is almost universally a “battle for peace” that must be fought if that goal is to be achieved. 

Sure, it’s a rebuke of the late-1960s youth, or counter-culture, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. One cannot simply use peace as an opportunity to sit back and “tune out” from the injustices of the world.

Is “The City on the Edge of Forever” the best episode of Star Trek

I certainly understand why so many fans and critics think so. It is a moving, haunting episode. It is well-performed, inventive, and at times quite humorous. The fish-out-of-water premise seen here would recur as a favorite Trekkian theme in installments such as "A Piece of the Action" and The Voyage Home (1986).

In terms of my personal taste, however, I prefer “This Side of Paradise” -- an episode about how one character (Spock) has trapped himself in a “self-made purgatory” in which he cannot give nor accept love -- to this story of fate keeping Kirk from achieving any sort of personal happiness.

"City” is great, for certain, but there are s many great original episodes to choose from in the catalog.  I can’t honestly I declare that "City" is better than “Amok Time,” “Mirror, Mirror, the aforementioned “This Side of Paradise,” “Devil in the Dark,” “The Doomsday Machine,” or “The Corbomite Maneuver.”

Perhaps I should just close this review with the thought that “The City on The Edge of Forever” is a top ten episode of the series, for certain, and leave it at that.

Next week: the final episode of Season One: "Operation: Annihilate."


  1. Agree "TCOTEOF" is a great Star Trek episode, but not my best either.


  2. Sheri4:37 PM

    Your conclusions about "City" comport with mine. It is perhaps the most moving Star Trek episode, or nearly so, but it has major problems surrounding The Guardian itself--"All Our Yesterdays" handles the portal issue more sensibly. Like you, it has always bothered me that The Guardian has no apparent safeguards to prevent people just randomly leaping in to alter time.

    Harlan Ellison has been bitching and litigating for decades over this story, but his original script definitely could have been executed better in an anthology series like The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits than as a Star Trek episode--too many elements that would have been too expensive and required too many extras. As minimized and executed, it still has problems as common sense takes a major break around the time portal. Everyone follows McCoy down to the planet knowing he's unstable and out of control, yet nobody is watching out or properly positioned to head him off at the time portal should he suddenly appear! It isn't clear what Scotty and Uhura are there to do, although I guess having the engineer there to see how it operates makes some kind of sense, but Uhura's function is a complete mystery. It feels as though she was originally going to be needed for something that got eliminated. Her "Captain, I'm frightened" line suggests she's reacting to vibes emanating from the portal, or maybe that line is just all that remains of a fuller conversation. Everyone just behaves out of character or serves no apparent purpose on the Guardian planet itself. And it leaves us to wonder about the poor rodent-like man who phasers himself out of existence--was he so unremarkable that his loss affected history in no way at all?

    It's the emotional depth of "City" that makes such a favorable impression. It raises issues without becoming bogged down in them, deftly handles shifts in mood and tone, and seems to devote more time than it actually does to characters' motivations and essentials. In contrast to the Guardian scenes, in the "history" plot everyone behaves very much in character and handles events as we would expect of them. We relate to Edith because she seems as much out of place--"ahead of her time"--as Kirk, Spock and McCoy are. The overall tone of the piece is so remarkably elegiac that we can't help but engage with it romantically and nostalgically.

    It all adds up to "City" consistently being lauded despite its numerous flaws. It is one of my favorite episodes, although I have to say "Corbomite Maneuver", "Mirror Mirror", "Journey to Babel", "Doomsday Machine", and "Where No Man Has Gone Before" are all better constructed and well-rounded episodes.

  3. If only they had used the original Ellison script.

  4. John,
    I own several making of Star Trek books, including Harlan Ellison's own book regarding this very episode. The one through-line that strikes me is the amount of care that the creators of the series, particularly Roddenberry, took in fashioning "City on the Edge of Forever" into something truly special. They wanted to do justice to the name of Harlan Ellison, who was one of the most influential science fiction authors of the time, and continues to be.
    They couldn't make good Trek without doing damage to Ellison's script, so sacrifices were made. Ellison, in his own book, understands this, but the primary source of his own vitriol would later be Roddenberry's continued claims that Ellison "had my Scotty selling drugs." Scotty wasn't even in the original script. As Harlan says, "I gotcher Scotty right here, Gene."
    Regardless, the finished product is legendary and one of the finest hours of television ever produced. It's not my favorite episode, but left such an impression on me when I watched it that I sought out the works of Harlan Ellison, and voraciously consumed some of his best work. If you haven't read "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," procure it, read it, and I assure you, you'll be reading it several more times at least.
    The idea of Kirk finding love in another time is perfect. It wasn't until I obtained the soundtrack years later that I realized how the "Goodnight Sweetheart" song from 1931 was woven into the episode's accompanying music, including the powerful aftermath of Kirk's ultimate sacrifice. Ellison thought Spock should hold Kirk back, but the right decision was made. It's a moment that would define Kirk for years to come.
    "City on the Edge of Forever" is not a perfect episode, but it does have perfect moments which will live with the viewer until...well, forever.

    1. Steve, at one point music rights issues caused "Goodnight Sweetheart" to be replaced in this episode for home video releases! The loss was HORRIBLY obvious, although they tried to capture the appropriate tone and mood with the replacement music. Incredible how much the switch altered the feel of the episode. "Goodnight Sweetheart" was restored for all DVD and Blu-ray releases in the mid-2000's, thank God!

    2. Sheri,
      Fortunately I never experienced the alternate soundtrack, but I'm certain my reaction to it would have equaled your own. You are so right, and I'm glad they restored the original track for home video. Thanks for the info!