Interestingly enough “City on the Edge of Forever” is one of those stories that not only deserves every accolate its has received over the years but it actually lives up to and exceeds them. This is one of those rare episodes of television that transcends the genre.
“City on the Edge of Forever” has one of the most colorful histories of any episode of Star Trek as well. The original story was written by respected science-fiction author, Harlan Ellison. (Classic Trek had lots of “big name” sci-fi writers pen episodes for the show.) Ellison’s original script (which you can purchase and read for yourself) involved a drug dealer on the Enterprise who goes back in time though the Guardian of Forever. Kirk and Spock follow him back when the drug dealer changes history to put the timeline back on course.
Over the years, a lot of stories have cropped up about the original premise for the show. One rumor had it that Scotty was the drug dealer in question (he was not…the script had it being a not before seen red-shirt character). A lot of these rumors were allegedly propogated by Gene Roddenberry at fan conventions, according to Ellison. As I’ve said, the original story is available for you to purchase and read, including a 50 or so page forward by Ellison that I can sum up for you like this. “Gene Roddenberry is a bastard and I hate him for changing my script, which you can soon read after I’m done with all my ranting.”
The script itself is a bit bleaker and darker than what Star Trek normally is and reading it, I can see why changes were made. Of course, there are also stories (verified by other Trek sources on the set) that Ellison took so long to write the script that it almost never got made.
To me, the funny thing is that a lot of the kiss and tell Star Trek books from ten years ago all had an entire chapter devoted to this episode. That should tell you something about how big it is in the Trek canon.
The funny thing to me about Ellison’s book is after 50 pages of “Gene Roddenberry is a bastard” we get an essay from script editor and writer D.C. Fontana who admits she did much of the re-write of the script herself under Roddenberry’s supervision. So it wasn’t Gene who “butchered” Harlan’s script it was Fontana, who in between ranting about how much he hates Roddenberry, Ellison has high praise for.
The thing is despite the massive re-writes by Roddenberry, Fontana and I’m going to assume producer Gene Coon done to this script, Ellison still gets sole writing credit on it.
That said, the changes actually make the script better and make for a better, overall episode of Star Trek. Instead of a drug dealer on the ship, we have McCoy accidentally injected with an overdose of cordazine. He becomes manic, thinking everyone is out to get him. The Enterprise is orbiting a world where waves of time distortion are eminating, looking into this. McCoy beams down and the landing party follows him.
On the planet, the landing party discovers an arch that is the Guardian of Forever. It’s a portal to the past. As Spock is studying it, McCoy jumps through it and vanishes into history. The timeline then alters and the Enterprise is gone. Kirk and Spock must now go back and repair what McCoy has done. If they do so, they will return home and it will be as if nothing happened.
Kirk and Spock go back in time to Depression era New York. There Kirk meets and falls in love with Edith Keeler, as played by Joan Collins. Keeler runs a soup kitchen and believes in helping her fellow human being. As the story goes along, Spock finds out that Keeler in the lynchpin…she dies in an auto accident (she’s hit by a truck), thus creating the future he and Kirk now. If Keeler doesn’t die, her movement keeps the U.S. from entering the second world war until it’s too late and Hitler has the bomb.
Kirk is now faced with a choice–sacrifice the universe he knows or the woman he loves.
For all the times that Kirk romances the alien girl of the week and how cliched it can be, the romance with Edith Keeler is anything but. There are those who say Shatner can’t act but to those critics I say–watch this episode. The man can do it and his performance here is nothing short of superb. As are the performances of everyone in the cast. Again, watch the scene in which Keeler dies. Kirk must stop McCoy from saving her and the look on Shatner’s face as he has to let the woman Kirk loves die is heartbreaking. It also features some great dialogue as McCoy asks if Kirk knew what he was doing and Spock replies, “He knows, Doctor. He knows.”
As I’ve said before, this episode really transcends the genre and is more than just a Star Trek episode. It’s a story grounded on a science-fiction premise (traveelling in time) but as with all good Trek, it’s about more than that. It’s about the characters, who all shine through here. At this point, Star Trek is humming on all cylinders with the cast firmly in touch with who these characters are. Shatner, Nimoy and DeForest Kelley all deliver solid, amazing peformances and Joan Collins is well cast as well.
The scene where Keeler dies is heart wrenching and horrifying. It was made in the time when less is more…we don’t see the wreck but instead hear it and see character’s reactions to it. It’s far more effective than showing the wreck and its results on screen.
(In an interesting bit of trivia….I notice that Kirk has to sacrifice a lot this first season…first his best friend to start the series and now he has to let the woman he loves die.)
It ends with the (then) risque line of Kirk saying “Let’s get the hell out of here” as the crew beams up.
The one nitpick you could have is that this is clearly an epiosde that is driven by character over plot. Kirk has to sacrifice Keller but we get no resolution to what brought them to the planet to start with–the time waves that are affecting the whole universe. I guess we can assume the Guardian was malfunctioning or something and its now somehow fixed, but we’re not given any answers. Much in the same way another episode from this list did with “Mirror, Mirror.” Once Kirk and company escape the mirror universe, we never find out what happened with the Halkans and, in fact, Kirk orders the ship out of orbit at episode’s end. So, I guess they completed the mission..but we’re not sure.
Again, this is not one of those things that really matters that much. But when you watch these things a million times over the years, these things tend to jump out at you on the thousandth or so viewing…
“City on the Edge of Forever” is a true classic—not only of Star Trek but all of TV drama. And it’s place as one of the most reverred and respected episodes in the Star Trek canon is well deserved. If you are looking for a good way to see why Trek has endured for 40 years, this episode is worth viewing or viewing again.