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The City on the Edge of Forever

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at December 2, 2005 - 5:47 PM GMT

See Also: 'The City on the Edge of Forever' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: When Dr. McCoy accidentally injects himself with an overdose of powerful medicine, he becomes paranoid and beams himself down to a planet sending out temporal waves. Kirk and Spock discover the Guardian of Forever, a giant portal at the center of the waves that is capable of showing history passing at great speeds. When McCoy jumps through the portal, the Enterprise vanishes, and the Guardian informs them that all of history has been changed from McCoy's incursion. Kirk and Spock attempt to follow him into the past, finding themselves in America during the Depression, where they are assisted in finding work and housing by an optimistic social worker named Edith Keeler. Kirk falls in love with her, only to learn from Spock's tricorder that she is meant to die shortly. It was McCoy's saving her life, allowing her to lead a peace movement at the start of World War II, that allowed Hitler to win the war and all subsequent history to be changed. When the Enterprise officers are reunited, Kirk has no choice but to stop McCoy from saving her in order to restore Earth's past.

Analysis: It's difficult to know where to start with "The City on the Edge of Forever," which is quite possibly the most famous episode of science fiction television...certainly Star Trek's finest hour out of hundreds that followed. Here we see Kirk put into practice a philosophy that Spock will later claim as Vulcan - "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one" - with a pathos equaled only by Spock's own death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. There's an astonishing amount packed into these fifty or so minutes: a crisis in space, a medical emergency, a visit to a strange planet, time travel, then a fully-developed Depression-era tragedy in which Kirk develops perhaps the most sophisticated relationship he has with any woman on the series, only to learn that he must lose her and even play a part in her demise.

Underlying all this is the by-now-extraordinarily-close relationship between captain and first officer. Edith tells Spock that he seems to belong "at [Kirk]'s side, as if you'd always been there and always will be." On Earth, in a past where Kirk cannot easily explain why Spock calls him by a military title (he ducks the question when Edith puts it to him), the lines of rank dissolve and we see the two simply as friends, covering for one another, joking together and attempting to protect each other as well as they can in their precarious position. They are relaxed enough to see the humor in their situation when they arrive and receive stares, working in perfect, hilarious harmony to escape from a police officer -- if for nothing else, this episode would be a keeper for the scene in which Kirk explains that Spock got his head caught in a mechanical rice-picker as a child while Spock stares at him with a perfect Vulcan deadpan expression. Kirk is also able to joke about the absurdity of Spock's request for a block of platinum for the display he hopes to build out of his tricorder, which Spock famously explains to Edith as an effort to construct a mnemonic memory circuit using stone knives and bearskins.

Spock seems both amused and wary of Kirk's initial attraction to Edith, who is of great assistance to them finding work, room and board. But where Kirk sees a kindred spirit in this "slum angel" who dreams of harnessing the power of the atom and shooting for the stars, Spock sees an unnecessary attachment to the past...an attachment that must end in separation, as they both know even before Spock makes the horrifying discovery that Edith's death is the critical event necessary to restore history as they know it. Once they know the truth, Spock has the unhappy role of trying to be Kirk's friend while at the same time reminding him at every opportunity that Edith Keeler must die. He addresses Kirk as "Jim," even at the critical moment when he calls out to stop him from saving Edith and to remind him that McCoy must be stopped as well. After this episode their relationship never again reverts to the formality of the early installments of the series; Kirk will always be "Jim" in private.

Edith Keeler herself remains frustratingly enigmatic - frustrating because she is one of the most extraordinary women to appear on a series with many extraordinary women, yet there is no time to address her backstory, no way to explain the source of her progressive thinking. It is a credit to Joan Collins' unforgettable performance that we see Edith not only as a complete character, but as plausibly and sympathetically attracted to a man who should perhaps seem dangerous; the first two things she learns about him are that he's a liar and a thief, his best friend picks locks and builds what might be taken to be spy equipment, he won't talk about his past and he likes to babble about people from other planets. William Shatner is at his most charismatic here, so it's not difficult at all to see what Edith sees in Kirk. Yet there is perhaps the same hint of fanaticism in this seemingly level-headed woman as will appear later in Gillian Taylor in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - a woman who seemingly abandons reason to believe in space aliens in a desperate attempt to find a pair of whales.

Keeler's charisma, we learn, would become capable of influencing President Roosevelt and leading a peace movement that would delay the US entry into World War II. It is difficult to imagine the magnitude of the passion necessary to call a nation to peace after Pearl Harbor, and the ethical questions of non-involvement while Hitler's troops stormed through Europe naturally aren't touched upon during the episode; when Kirk says that she was right, peace was the way, Spock is brusque and dismissive: "She was right, but at the wrong time." We never learn what shaped this woman with the European accent and a seemingly endless supply of coffee, soup and odd jobs for the denizens of the mission she ran. In Harlan Ellison's original draft of the screenplay - the one he has been complaining for years was much better than what Roddenberry actually produced, although in his version, Captain James T. Kirk was actually willing to sacrifice a hundred million lives to save the woman he loved - there was more background on Edith, and on the mysterious, inexplicable planet of the Guardian of Forever, but both of these remain unexplored in televised Star Trek, perfect enigmas left over from this nearly perfect hour of television.

The Guardian is the other great character introduced by "The City on the Edge of Forever," yet we never learn anything beyond the great age of the long-gone civilization that built it and its penchant for speaking in riddles, which it claims are all the Enterprise crew is capable of understanding ("Annoyed, Spock?" Kirk jokes when the Guardian calls their science primitive). It can't really explain whether it is machine or being, nor its purpose, though its function is apparent enough, providing a gateway to the past in rapid but meticulous detail.

We never learn either what happened to the recording Spock made of the Guardian's presentation of Earth's past; if it could be slowed down to reveal the death of an unknown social worker in the 1930s, imagine the other lost treasures it must contain! Yet Star Trek never returned to this planet and its mysteries, though it has been speculated in several Pocket Books that it must have been kept under constant guard to prevent the Klingons or other enemies from tampering with galactic history. Probably the writers didn't want to risk comparisons to the powerful tragedy of the original episode - and I'm not really sure how royalties work, but maybe they didn't want to tread on Ellison's much-griped-about grounds. Maybe because of the things we never learn, the things that can only be speculated about, the Guardian and the test it inadvertently provides for Kirk remains a great point of mystery and interest.

There are hundreds of other charms in this episode, though. DeForest Kelley's marvelous performance as a paranoid, miserable McCoy trapped in a past Earth where doctors used stitches and sutures balances beautifully with his later witty, chagrined McCoy who doesn't really believe in his surroundings but is enough of a gentleman to be friendly to his benefactor. The humor is constant, with Spock insulting Earth's zinc-plated, vacuum-tubed culture and Kirk mocking that he can't really expect Spock to be of any help in such an environment, then joking that he approves of hobbies when Spock says they need money for his radio tubes, and using the lingo he picks up at Spock's expense. The set itself is fun - the milk bottle that shatters when McCoy startles a bum who later accidentally kills himself with a stolen phaser, the street signs and old cars - Edith's giveaway to Kirk that she knows McCoy is her surprise when neither 23rd century man has heard of Clark Gable. And brief glimpses of other pasts - Ancient Rome in the Guardian's projection, the Nazis on Spock's tricorder screen - give a sense of the scope of history.

Later Star Treks tried with varying degrees of success to recreate the enormity of the drama here - Deep Space Nine made Jake Sisko a time traveler trying to save his own father from a mistake in the past, and Voyager's "Year of Hell" imagined someone using a Guardian-type device until he got the past precisely the way he wanted it - but none of them have ever recreated the impact of this first, devastating foray into the past and its implications for these characters. In a season of extraordinary episodes, "The City on the Edge of Forever" is in a class by itself.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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