Welcome back to Final Frontier Friday! This time around we’ll be covering one of the most famous episodes of the Original Series’ entire seventy-nine episode run: ‘The City on the Edge of Forever.’
Even before it was filmed, ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’ represented something of a coup for ‘Star Trek’. The reason for that was simple: Harlan Ellison. Even for a show that prided itself on soliciting contributions from contemporary science fiction writers, Ellison was a name among names. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly a match made in heaven. In Ellison’s early drafts of the story, the inciting incident involved a crewman dealing drugs aboard the Enterprise (as opposed to McCoy accidentally injecting himself) and a climactic scene that saw Kirk paralyzed by indecision while Spock acted to prevent Edith Keeler’s rescue. Suffice it to say, these and other elements (including some problematic characterizations of the regular cast) proved to be sticking points with the production staff, who took issue with Kirk’s indecisiveness, and even Gene Roddenberry himself, who rather strenuously objected to the idea of drug abuse still being a problem in the 23rd century (to say nothing of his problems with a Starfleet officer selling them).
These issues lead to months of rewrites, with the final episode representing the combined efforts of D.C. Fontana, Gene Coon, Roddenberry, and others. While Ellison’s story served as a backbone for the final script, much of his specific work in fleshing it out was discarded or altered through the revisions. When all was said and done, Ellison asked to have his name taken off the episode. He would later say that this was due less to specific revisions (though he was far from thrilled with the changes generally) but more to a combination of the number of unpaid rewrites he’d been expected to complete (prior to Fontana, et al taking the reins) and to personal issues with Roddenberry. Roddenberry refused that request, in no small part because the pseudonym Ellison wanted to use, Cordwainer Bird, would have been a significant black mark on the show within the science fiction community. The Bird pseudonym was one that Ellison was known to use to signal his displeasure with the way he had been treated by a production, and this would have been devastating to the show’s ability to attract established science fiction writers to contribute.
While orbiting an uncharted planet, the Enterprise encounters turbulence caused by ripples in time. One pocket of turbulence causes an overload in Sulu’s console, injuring the helmsman. McCoy arrives from sickbay and administers a small dose of Cordrazine. As he begins to pack his medkit, the ship hits another wave of turbulence and the doctor falls on his hypospray, injecting himself with a massive dose.
In a state of manic paranoia and delirium, McCoy flees through the ship and manages to beam himself down to the planet. Kirk gathers a landing party to go after him. On the surface, they find a mysterious arch surrounded by ruins. As they investigate the arch, Spock determines that it is the source of the temporal displacement. Suddenly, the arch comes to life, identifying itself as the Guardian of Forever. In the simplest terms, the Guardian is a sentient time portal. By way of explanation, the Guardian begins to display scenes from Earth history. As it does so, the rest of the party located McCoy, who Spock is able to knockout with a nerve pinch. Chastising himself, Spock begins recording the history displayed by the Guardian on his tricorder… just in time for McCoy to regain consciousness and leap through the portal. The party quickly realizes that they’ve lost contact with the ship, further deducing that McCoy has changed history.
Kirk and Spock resolve to follow McCoy into the past, arriving in New York City in 1930. After stealing some clothes to blend in, the two take refuge in the basement of a nearby mission, where they get changed and meet a social worker named Edith Keeler. Edith runs the mission and offers the two men work and a place to sleep. Kirk is instantly smitten with Edith. With their pay from the mission, Spock is able to construct a crude approximation of a mnemonic memory circuit, allowing him to interface with his tricorder. Despite his evasiveness and strange behavior, Kirk and Edith begin to grow closer.
Spock is finally able to bring his equipment online. Before the circuit burns out, he manages to determine that the focal point in time is Edith Keeler. Whatever McCoy did to change history, it’s connected to her. According to a 1936 newspaper headline, Edith is destined to become nationally prominent, so much so that she has a lengthy meeting with President Roosevelt. But another headline sees Edith dead by the end of 1930. Only one can be true, but which one? Is McCoy destined to save Edith or kill her? What if restoring the timeline means that Edith has to die?
At last, McCoy arrives in 1930. In his delirium, he wanders the streets before collapsing in an alley. Meanwhile, Kirk is increasingly distressed by Spock’s revelations, anxiously wondering when Spock will have the circuit repaired. More than a little worse for wear, McCoy, arrives at the mission and is whisked away to a room moments before Spock can spot him. With the circuit repaired, Spock is able to chart the alternate history. The idealistic Edith would found an influential peace movement. As negotiations dragged on, delaying America’s entry into the war, Germany was able to develop the A-bomb first, allowing the Nazis to conquer the world. As Spock succinctly puts it “She was right but at the wrong time.” For history to be restored, Edith Keeler must die. Kirk is devastated by this, admitting to Spock that he is in love with Edith.
With Edith’s help, McCoy recovers, though he remains unconvinced that any of what he’s seeing is real. As Kirk and Edith walk to the theater to see a Clark Gable movie, she offhandedly mentions McCoy by name. Kirk reacts frantically, telling Edith to wait for him while he heads back across the street to the mission. At the door, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy reunite… as Edith begins to cross the street. With a car approaching, Kirk grabs McCoy when the doctor moves to help Edith, who is struck and killed. With history restored, the Guardian returns the three men to the 23rd century. Kirk remains silent as the Guardian confirms that all is well. Uhura reports that she’s regained contact with the Enterprise, to which a grim Kirk simply replies “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Okay, do you really need me to tell you this one is a classic? Because it is, and with good reason. In fact, I defy you to find a “Best of ‘Star Trek'” list that doesn’t place this one at or near the top. But why does it work as well as it does? Well, like many of the best ‘Star Trek’ episodes, ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’ uses big sci-fi ideas to tell a story that is first and foremost about people. In this case, it’s the story of a man – Kirk – faced with an impossible choice. By turns funny, tense, and poignant, it is, in the end, a very human story. But when your story is so fundamentally about people, even the best script, the most compelling story succeeds or fails on the strength of its cast. Fortunately, everyone involved was up for the challenge. With the action separated from the Enterprise, the episode is able to showcase some of the series’ strongest performers.
Indeed, so much of what makes this episode work rests squarely on the shoulders of William Shatner. It can be easy to forget, given his willingness to go ham it up and how widely some of his acting tics have been parodied over the decades, but Shatner is a hell of an actor, and that strength is on full display here. Kirk’s anguish when Edith hits the pavement is palpable, as he holds onto McCoy as much to stop him from interfering as for literal and emotional support. So too is his silent pain when on their return to the 23rd century. Either of these would be easy to overplay, but by taking the opposite approach Shatner ensures the ending will not only be a gut punch but one of the most memorable in all of ‘Star Trek’. Never have the words “Let’s get the hell out of here,” carried so much weight. And it’s not just the climax. Similarly understated is his relationship with Edith. Though he’s obviously intrigued at their first meeting, the true depth of his feelings for her comes to the fore so gradually that you’re left wondering when Kirk himself realized what he was getting himself into.
And then there’s Joan Collins as Edith. Collins is an unforgettable presence in this episode. Despite the limited time we spend with her (Kirk and Spock are “only” in the 1930s for about thirty of the episode’s fifty minutes), her budding romance with Kirk is never anything less than believable. And to Collins’ credit, we are never left wondering what Kirk sees in her. While an early speech she gives about space travel and harnessing the power of the atom is a bit much, nearly every opinion she voices makes clear that she is a woman ahead of her time. The tragedy of ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’ isn’t simply that Edith had to die. Nor does it end with the fact that Kirk had to make the impossible choice of letting her death play out. The tragedy that underlies all of that is contained in Spock’s line, that she was right (about peace being the answer) but at arguably the one time in humanity’s blood-soaked history that a war was truly necessary. The world would be a better place if it had more people like Edith Keeler in it. That her death should prove so necessary, not only to stop the Nazi’s but to the eventual existence of the Federation is a bitter irony, to say the least.
And of course, there’s Leonard Nimoy. Any original series review I write may as well include an unspoken “Nimoy is amazing”. Despite this being fundamentally a Kirk episode, Spock shines as he always does. Whether he’s glancing bemusedly while his captain spins stories of mechanical rice pickers or grumbling about being forced to work with stone knives and bearskins, his subdued wit is on full display. But we also get to see what Nimoy was talking about when he said that he always played Spock as a deeply passionate man who just happened to be fighting to keep those passions in check. The moment it becomes clear that Edit Keeler has to die, Spock never wavers in his conviction that allowing her death to happen is the right thing to do. But he’s also far more sensitive to Kirk’s predicament than you’d expect from a supposedly emotionless man.
But I’ve gone on long enough. What do you think of ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’? Does it deserve its reputation or is it overrated? Should they have stuck more closely to the Ellison’s version of the script? As always, let me know what you think in the comments and be sure to check back in two weeks for our next installment!