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!
We’re all taught from childhood to help those who clearly need our help. Especially when their lives are in danger. So what happens when the so-called greater good compels you to stand by, even if it makes you feel like a murder, and do nothing when an innocent woman is about to be struck dead in the street? Why couldn’t there be another way? Out of all Trek’s forced unhappy endings, this one stands out for dramatizing how overwhelmingly painful the greater good may often be. As if The Alternative Factor wasn’t sad enough.
Additionally, out of all Kirk’s women, Edith Keeler can feel like his one true Twin Flame. So the sympathy for how Kirk could never find that truly fulfilling love again afterwards is just. With Trek’s tradition of unhappily ended romances, there are plenty of dramatic and science-fiction-based reasons for them. Time travel proves to be the most tragic and makes us wish that Kirk’s quite imaginable ability to bring Edith back with him into the future was an option. But Harlan Ellison’s talents for writing sad SF-drama endings were established in The Outer Limits: Demon With A Glass Hand. All the same, we’re all still free to imagine a happier ending.
Joan Collins, despite her iconic mark on Dynasty as Alexis Colby, first found praise as the lovely Edith Keeler. She helped paved the way for several ill-fated time-travel love stories which now includes Dr. Who: The Girl In The Fireplace. The City On The Edge Of Forever makes audiences think as all great SF does. Certainly enough for humanity to take time travel most seriously for whenever we finally achieve it in the real universe.
Thank you both for your reviews on what many Trekkers can still appreciate reflections on. In honor of all the pioneering SF that fans like us grew up with, it keeps the Junkyard on the map.
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These days, in several reflections of dramas like Kirk’s with Edith and Lazarus, I imagine finding a better solution than anything that made me feel like a murderer or worse. In fact my failure to spare a moth in my new home some weeks ago has driven me to contemplate things like Kirk’s dilemma more profoundly. With all the wonders of science-fiction/fantasy, particularly with Dr. Who, you might think that Star Trek, even for all its vast seriousness, would affirm its optimistic vision of the future by showing how easier it can be to find more accessible options for every such occasion. Particularly after how many times Kirk made the Prime Directive flexible enough to avoid blatant injustice.
In all honesty, it gets jarring when we go from the ideal solutions to the pragmatism of lesser evils. But if Trek had to mirror the difficulties of reality for the sake of the intended message, then which should realistically work better: the sad ending or the happier one to make us see all the clarity we need to see today? To Kill A Mockingbird saw a black man victimized by injustice. A Time To Kill saw a black man saved by justice. But the same racial hatred and prejudice were there in both films. So with such repeatable dramas within a specific series, at what point, either early on or much later in the enduring franchise, do we dare to look back in a different light?
Star Trek may not embrace changes to its own format as abundantly as Dr. Who. And it may not make its sad endings seem as lingering as the real world naturally would. So in certain ways, it’s been feeding off itself for so long that the bolder impacts of Discovery and Picard are welcomed to some degree by Trekkers. Mixed feelings have been known to bring out the better impacts in specific stories. I like Trek optimism and of course it has always been real enough. But its many tragedies have prevented me from re-watching many episodes, I’m sorry to say.
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While I think the final episode is one of Trek’s best, I don’t consider it *the* best. One flaw is that as filmed, the relationship between Kirk and Edith is not fully reciprocated. The one scene that shows them kissing (and which explains why Spock then says, “Captain I did not wish to eavesdrop” because he had witnessed it) was cut and so unlike Spock and Zarabeth in “All Our Yesterdays” we don’t get a romance that is fully developed and mutually felt.
Another flaw is that I don’t for the life of me understand how Spock can tell that the newspaper reporting Edith’s death is from 1930 but he *doesn’t* see the exact date? Take a look at *any* newspaper and you can’t see the year without seeing the month and day. Of course the reason for this was to avoid the awkward dilemma where Kirk and Spock would have known the exact date the event was going to happen which wouldn’t have worked dramatically, but it’s a conceit that just doesn’t work for me.
That said, the final rewrite that was done by D.C. Fontana is a VAST improvement over Harlan Ellison’s original and much overrated and overhyped first draft version that he spent the rest of his life boldly proclaiming to be the greatest piece of writing ever conceived and how evil and terrible it was that his “vision” was changed. What a crock! Ellison’s original script is simply put *bad* TV writing. It is loaded with extraneous side-bar matters and characters that end up making the Kirk-Edith relationship seem more like an afterthought. Indeed, in Ellison’s script, Edith doesn’t even appear until Act 3! The set-up to the story with the drug pushing crewman named Beckwith who sets things in motion is totally out place (and ridiculously, Ellison introduces the Beckwith character by having him palming drugs on similarly named crewman “LeBecque”. The first rule of TV writing is you don’t give us two characters with similar sounding names or else the audience gets confused!) and puts too much focus on a guest character we simply wouldn’t give a damn about whereas having McCoy be the one who drives the action makes it something the audience can connect with because this is Kirk’s friend. Ellison’s never-ending campaign of running down the episode as it aired is the ultimate case of a preening egotist in love with himself who was willing to take all the fame and credit for the “best episode of Star Trek” and then at the same time run down everything that made it successful (including the actors who brought it to life.)
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Yeah but as you said, Ellison is a known egoist. I agree with your critique, don’t get me wrong, but anyone who knows H.E.’s reputation knows what to expect. I’ve enjoyed a few of his books, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t really like him that much. Frankly, I feel the same about Asimov! ML
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