One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
Wednesday, September 06, 2017
Star Trek Anniversary - John's Top 20: "City on the Edge of Forever" (#11)
At #11 on my list is "City on the Edge of Forever," the ultimate Captain Kirk love story. This is a deeply affecting tale of his star-crossed love with Edith Keeler, a social worker during America's Great Depression. The episode tells a strong fish-out-of-water story, too, with Kirk and Spock contending with a baffling primitive culture. Stardate: Unknown
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kirk chooses the well-being of the universe, a pure embodiment of Star Trek’s
“the 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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
Does the portal just appear at
their location, following Edith’s death in the street?
of this could be handled a little more clearly.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“The City on the Edge of Forever” the best episode of Star Trek?
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).
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.”