Here’s a tough subject to cover: The City on the Edge of Forever. It’s one of the consistent contenders for the #1 spot in any Trekkie’s top ten list. It’s well written, thought provoking and frequently funny, with just a hint of terror when you find the universe you know is gone. (It even includes a slow motion shot of Kirk looking up at the stars with the haunting line, “we’re totally alone”!) Harlan Ellison has given us a magnificent episode to add to Trek lore. Yet it’s hard to talk about because there’s frankly so much to say. I’ll do my best to be concise.
While the Enterprise is exploring a sector of space, they find themselves passing through ripples in time. Wait a second… ripples in time? How do those feel exactly? How are they measured? Aren’t we passing through ripples in time every second? OK… let’s not get caught up on little things like that; we’ll never get anywhere. Sulu gets shocked, McCoy comes and gives him a dose of ultra-adrenaline, then accidentally stabs himself with it. He races to the transporter room and, after karate chopping the engineer in the ribs, he beams down to… wait, he karate chopped the man to the ribs and that knocked him out? I think I’d have been tickled by it, but knocked out? Did the engineer not hear the [schicht] sound from the opening doors? It would have been better to have the room unoccupied! OK, sorry… back to the plot. McCoy beams down to the planet and hides behind a garbage can sized rock that no one looks behind before leaping through the Guardian of Forever and destroying the future. It’s down to Kirk and Spock to go back in time and find him. And it leads to a classic episode.
I have to tell you all, I love this episode. Despite a handful of flaws or questions you may ponder if you poke at it too much, I really think this is a stellar episode, and that was not intended to be a pun. It’s mostly that it makes us think. But I confess, the comedy helps! “Where will McCoy arrive? Boise?…” Kirk’s random choices on where McCoy may turn up is hilarious especially when we consider he turned up on the same street. Clearly the Guardian was only tuned to one spot in each of the times it was viewing. Or we can laugh at the fact that Spock makes a tv out of spare parts that is capable of seeing the future newspapers and tunes in perfectly to the exact news article he needs. Lucky! (Let’s not even get into the fact that he was making $.15/hour… how much work did Spock do that Kirk was still able to buy groceries?!?!) We can laugh as Spock lockpicks a … combination lock! Well, he does have exceptional ears… But my absolute favorite moment is when Kirk and Spock are stealing clothing during the depression and get stopped by a cop. “My friend is obviously Chinese. I see you noticed the ears. They’re actually easy to explain. … He caught his head in a mechanical …rice picker!” I laugh even writing it. (Forget how terribly uncomfortable the entire racist comment is especially for a show that was surprisingly advanced in that regard. But Kirk’s struggle is priceless!)
Then there are the things you have to spend a moment to think about. Like the man who finds McCoy’s phaser and wipes himself out of existence. Thankfully he was never going to amount to anything or the future might have been destroyed twice over. But where is the phaser itself? Seems like it was destroyed in the blast. No Terminator moments here! Or we could ponder that peace led to the victory of the Axis powers during WWII; that’s actually a shocking thought. Had we embraced a kinder, gentler attitude, might the Nazis have won the war for real? (In some ways, this ties in to the idea posited in The Enemy Within that our darker side helps us make decisions.) Or we can ponder who created the Guardian of Forever? Can others find that planet and exploit it? What if that planet were destroyed? I accept that, like a tootsie roll pop, some things are not meant to be known.
But nothing says “Star Trek” quite so much as its positive messages about the future. Trek has a history of being a beacon of hope for people and no episode is more hopeful, even in the darkness, than this. Enter: Edith (Joan Collins) Keeler. Her outlook on the future is positively inspired. It’s no wonder Kirk falls for her in heartbeat. “One day soon, man is going to be able to harness incredible energies. Maybe even the atom. Energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds in some sort of space ships.” Her insight is as inspired as Star Trek itself. Her ability to read people is equally awe inspiring. Speaking of where she imagines Spock, she says “At his side. As if you’ve always been there and always will.” And her hope is heartfelt: “…they’re going to take all that money that they spend now on war and death… and make them spend it on life.” Her existence is summed up in three words: “let me help”. Fans of Star Trek or Doctor Who understand how powerful those three words are. They are the very heart and soul of classic Star Trek and can be captured in this one character in one little episode. Sadly, Roger’s Birthday is also Edith’s death day and on Feb 23rd, she has to die; which leads us to the final thoughts on this episode…
What if you’re faced with a choice so difficult that the only right answer will destroy you? Edith is, in Doctor Who terms, a fixed point in time. Her death has to happen to create the tomorrow that Kirk and crew come from. It is an utterly devastating thought with a monumental burden attached to it. The moment Kirk stops McCoy from saving her, we feel the heartbreak. “Do you know what you’ve done?” I always want the hero to find that third, unseen option; the one that saves everyone. But reality is seldom that lucky. Kirk has to leave the planet, along with a piece of himself. “Let’s get the hell out of here!” Wow.
There are three that vie for the #1 spot for Trekkies all over the world. It will be hard to top this one. But we’ll try… ML
The view from across the pond:
When I was a child the BBC was running Star Trek: The Next Generation. That was my introduction into the Trek universe, and I subsequently enjoyed DS9 and Voyager. One day the BBC was celebrating some anniversary or other, and showed what they claimed was the best ever episode of Star Trek, universally loved by everyone. That episode was The City on the Edge of Forever. It was my first experience of the original Star Trek, and at the time I thought it was absolute rubbish, so I never bothered with the original series again until now. My opinion of Original Trek has dramatically changed, having watched the first season from the start, as you might have read over the last few months, but we’ve finally reached that starting point I so disliked as a child, a starting point I now remember virtually nothing about. This is going to be interesting…
So firstly I can understand why this didn’t work for me as an introduction to Trek, because the opening of the episode is dreadful. The tricky bit with a story like this is getting all the pieces in the right place on the game board. First and foremost, the story requires McCoy to get down onto the planet and then into the past to do damage. Apparently the original version of the script by Harlan Ellison did this much more elegantly, but it was rewritten to something incredibly contrived. Then we have the Guardian himself…
“Are you machine or being?”
“I am both and neither.”
He reminds me of Kosh from Babylon 5. answering in riddles in an attempt to sound mysterious and different. But if he’s so smart why is he so rubbish at being a “guardian”? He can’t wait to let the first people who come along enter him (oo er) and wreak havoc in the past, and when they finally get back, having avoided wiping themselves out of existence, he tries to tempt them into having another go, like some crooked amusement arcade attendant.
Once we are into the past, things do improve, and the one thing this episode really does have going for it is humour. I won’t enumerate the ways, but it pretty much all revolves around Spock’s reactions to everything. I can forgive a clunky episode if it’s funny, and humour is City’s big saving grace. And boy, does it need it. Kirk and Spock get into an amusing tousle with a policeman and then take refuge in a basement. Now let’s get this straight. Of all the places they could have hidden and all the houses they could have gone into, they just happen to hide out in the very place they would find Edith Keeler, who just happens to be the key to putting history back on track. Handy, that. Keeler is sold to us as some kind of a visionary, but really she’s just a sci-fi fan:
“What is so funny about man reaching for the moon?”
Nothing. It was an idea that had been utilised in fiction several times. Thirty years before this is set, HG Wells wrote The First Men in the Moon. Scientists around the world had already been working on the possibility of space travel for a while by the 1930s. So her “gifted insight” is nothing more than any fan of Wellsian fiction or keen follower of scientific developments would posit. It would perhaps have been a minority opinion at the time, but there is certainly not enough done to mark Keeler out as somebody special enough to change the course of American politics sufficient to stop the US from entering the war, and anyone who has studied that period of history will be more than aware that their motivations had little to do with any philosophical notions of pacifism vs war.
Things spark into life a little more with the problem Kirk faces. To put history back on track, Keeler has to die, like she was supposed to.
“I believe I’m in love with Edith Keeler.”
Oh, come on. Have qualms about doing something that corrects history by killing her, sure, but don’t have qualms just because you fancy her. This series really needed to grow up a little sometimes. We keep getting great ideas that are only ever half-developed. Plus, there’s a very obvious third way. Kirk doesn’t even think to attempt saving her life and then convincing her that it isn’t the right time for her pacifism. She’s an intelligent woman who already suspects Kirk is something different, and he has over a decade to stop her from influencing the US entry into the war. Instead, he just lets her die. The episode has exactly the same problem as the last one, where Kirk condemned Lazarus to a living hell, and like last week his victim will doubtless be immediately forgotten while he moves on with his life.
So why do people love this? Perhaps because they equate “angst” and “tragic” with “deep” and “adult”. They see a hero failing on screen and that’s unusual so a failure becomes a triumph, just because it’s different. But different doesn’t always mean better. Sometimes a style of storytelling is unusual simply because it’s not very good. And making the hero of a sci-fi series a murderer who can’t even find a relatively obvious third way in a problem with two horrible choices is about as bad as it gets. That’s why I once watched the “best ever episode of Star Trek”… and walked away. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Star Trek: Operation: Annihilate!