Star Trek Re-Watch: “The City on the Edge of Forever”

“The City on the Edge of Forever”
Written by Harlan EllisonTM
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Season 1, Episode 28
Production episode: 1x 28
Original air date: April 6, 1967
Star date: no star date (dun dun dun)

Mission summary
The Enterprise is in shaky orbit around a planet, rocking back and forth like a seafaring vessel as “ripples in time” from the surface wash over the ship. An explosion at the helm knocks Sulu unconscious and McCoy is summoned to the bridge to administer medical assistance. He gives Sulu a small dose of “cordrazine,” a powerful and dangerous stimulant, which revives him in a very good mood. Another time ripple rocks the ship and McCoy accidentally empties the entire hypospray of cordrazine into his stomach. He immediately flips out, ranting “Killers! Assassins!” and fleeing the Bridge. The drug has driven him mad, with the paranoid delusion that people are trying to kill him. He attacks the Transporter Chief and beams down to the planet to escape.

Kirk leads a landing party consisting of Spock, Uhura, Scotty, and a couple of red shirts to hunt down McCoy on the planet below. When they arrive, McCoy somehow continues to elude them among the rocks, but even they can’t miss the strange stone doughnut out in the open, “pulsating with power of some kind”—the apparent source of the waves of temporal displacement. Spock’s scans indicate that the structure is 10,000 centuries old, unexplainable by any science he knows. Kirk asks, “What is it?” and the glowing portal itself responds, “A question. Since before your sun burned hot in space and before your race was born, I have awaited a question.”

It identifies itself as “the Guardian of Forever” and offers itself as a gateway to Earth’s past. It flashes stock footage at them on fast forward, historical images of camels crossing the desert, ancient Rome, battles fought… Ever the explorer, Kirk is fascinated by the possibilities: “Strangely compelling, isn’t it? To step through there and lose oneself in another world.”

An agitated McCoy finally appears, still screaming his head off about murderers. Spock easily subdues him with a Vulcan neck pinch. Not knowing whether McCoy’s condition is temporary or permanent, Kirk suddenly realizes he now has access to a time machine! Perhaps they can go back a day and prevent the hypo accident. The images are passing too fast to pinpoint such a precise moment though, and the Guardian only runs at one speed. Spock, suddenly remembering the DVR mode on his tricorder, begins recording the images as they zip by. Then McCoy, still hopped up on cordrazine, wakes from his nap. He jumps through the center of the Guardian of Forever and disappears. The Guardian tells them, “He has passed into…what was.”

Uhura loses contact with the Enterprise and they realize that McCoy has somehow altered the past, eliminating their timeline and trapping them on the planet. Kirk and Spock have no choice but to leap through the portal into the past, striving to put right what once went wrong. Since Spock recorded the whole thing, he knows roughly when McCoy entered the Guardian, and they time their jump so they will arrive shortly before he does—if they’re lucky.

They land in an alleyway in Depression-era New York. Their bright Starfleet uniforms and Spock’s pointed ears stand out in 1930, even in Manhattan, so they’re forced to steal some contemporary clothes from a fire escape, elude a policeman, and hide in the basement of a building. There they make plans to find McCoy, hoping that the flow of time, a temporal “backwash” (ew!), may bring them all to the same time and place. Uncertain of where or when he will arrive, or how he’s changed history, Spock will need to build a computer to access the images recorded in his tricorder.

Suddenly they’re discovered, but it’s okay because it’s a beautiful woman and Kirk has charm to spare in any time period. He tells her that they were hiding after stealing clothes because they have no money, and amazingly she offers them work: cleaning and washing at “fifteen cents an hour for ten hours a day,” which will allow Spock to purchase the vacuum tubes and parts he needs. They introduce themselves and she tells them she’s Edith Keeler, manager of the 21st Street Mission.

During dinner, Edith lectures the men at the mission on cleaning up their acts and continue their struggle to survive, because the sun will come out tomorrow:

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 spaceship. And the men that reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases. They will be able to find a way to give each man hope and a common future, and those are the days worth living for. Our deserts will bloom.

She’s either a prophet or a science fiction fan, but either way Kirk is smitten. He finds her “most uncommon,” and she apparently feels the same about him. She finds them a room in her building for two dollars a week, which Spock promptly fills with electric contraptions in his efforts to “construct a mnemonic memory circuit using stone knives and bearskins.” He’s forced to “borrow” some tools from a clock repairman for a night, and Edith confronts him over the theft. Kirk defends his claim that he was going to return them by morning, which distracts her—she’ll drop the matter if Kirk will walk her home. She’s curious about him and wants some answers.

By the time Kirk gets back, Spock has gotten some answers of his own from his tricorder. He’s found two contradictory newspaper articles: an obituary indicating Edith died in 1930 from a traffic accident, and a headline dated six years later, describing a meeting between her and President Roosevelt concerning World War II. Edith is their “focal point in time” and McCoy is “the random element” that will affect whether or not she dies. They need to determine which event is supposed to happen before he arrives, but Spock must first fix the burned-out circuits to coax more information from his tricorder.

Ironically, they’re now running out of time, because the mad doctor finally pops into New York, scaring the crap out of a homeless man. He chases the man, screaming “Don’t run! I won’t kill you!” He finally catches the guy and mumbles like that guy next to you on the subway, convinced that he’s in some museum-quality reconstruction of Earth’s past:

Oh, I’d give a lot to see the hospital. Probably needles and sutures. All the pain. They used to hand-cut and sew people like garments. Needles and sutures. Oh, the terrible pain!

When McCoy passes out, the homeless man steals his phaser and manages to disintegrate himself. Well, no one will miss him at least. Meanwhile, Kirk and Edith are becoming romantically involved, though the captain is tortured by the idea that she might have to die. The next morning, McCoy stumbles into Edith’s missionary and she bustles him off for some rest, just missing Spock in the cafeteria.

Later, Spock has finally repaired his equipment and they now know how McCoy messed up the timestream. Because he saved Edith from her accident, she led a peace movement that delayed U.S. involvement in World War II. This gave Germany enough time to complete their heavy water experiments and develop the atomic bomb, ensuring Hitler’s victory. They don’t know exactly when Edith is supposed to die, but die she must; only, Kirk has one small problem: he’s in love with her. Edith is falling for Kirk, too. While flirting on the stairwell at their apartment building, Edith stumbles and the captain catches her. Spock chastises him for the rescue:

We’re not that sure of our facts. Who’s to say when the exact time will come? Save her, do as your heart tells you to do, and millions will die who did not die before.

Meanwhile, Edith has nursed McCoy back to health, and he thanks her for saving his life. He’d like to return the favor, but it’ll have to wait until after her date with her “young man.” She hopes Kirk will take her to a Clark Gable movie, but the actor’s name doesn’t ring a bell with McCoy. Kirk doesn’t know it either; when he asks her about it on the street, she says, “You know, Dr. McCoy said the same thing.” Amazed to hear that McCoy is in the Mission, Kirk leaves her on the sidewalk and runs across the street, yelling for Spock. McCoy appears at the door and the three of them have a joyous reunion, cut short when Edith starts to cross over to them, right into the path of an oncoming truck. Kirk heads for her but stops when Spock reminds him that he musn’t save her: “No, Jim!” McCoy also rushes toward her, but Kirk grabs the doctor and holds him back, eyes squeezed shut in agony, allowing Edith to be struck and killed. McCoy is horrified.

MCCOY: You deliberately stopped me, Jim. I could have saved her. Do you know what you just did?
SPOCK: He knows, Doctor. He knows.

Back in uniform, Kirk and Spock leap back through the Guardian followed by McCoy, only a moment after they left. Their mission was successful.

GUARDIAN: Time has resumed its shape. All is as it was before. Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway.
UHURA: Captain, the Enterprise is up there. They’re asking if we want to beam up.
KIRK: Let’s get the hell out of here.

This is one of the highest-praised episodes of Star Trek, for good reason. Privately, I’ve been holding this one as my ideal for the Warp 6 rating. I was mildly worried it wouldn’t hold up as well as I remembered, but it remains an incredible episode, often imitated but rarely surpassed in science fiction in any medium.

Even without the soft focus lighting, from the moment the talented and beautiful Joan Collins appears in this episode, it’s obvious that “The City on the Edge of Forever” is a love story about Edith Keeler and Jim Kirk. With the SFnal problem of the damaged timeline to contend with, unfortunately this will be a brief and tragic affair; the spaceman from the future and the woman who is ahead of her time are as starcrossed as two lovers could be. We have often seen Kirk’s dalliances with women before, but this relationship is handled differently. They flirt delicately, and in the moment that they finally acknowledge their feelings, we are deprived of witnessing their first kiss. Later, when they kiss again, it’s gentle and sweet, with Edith taking the lead.

These kisses are far from the passionate lip-locks we’re accustomed to, distinguishing their relationship as something special… perhaps something purer. As far as we know, it isn’t even consummated. Indeed, Kirk infrequently invokes the word “love” in connection with a woman, and the scenes of them strolling hand-in-hand through the streets of New York with “Goodnight Sweetheart” playing in the background could have been lifted from any romantic film of the 1930s. It’s the believability of their relationship, the strength of Kirk’s feelings for Edith, and her compassion and goodness that give the ending so much emotional weight.

If Kirk’s moral quandary and the painful resolution were all that this episode had to offer, it would still stand above many others, but there’s so much more making this an enjoyable and provocative story. The tragedy is balanced with some of the best comedic moments in the series, from Kirk’s explanation about Spock’s accident with the mechanical rice-picker to every line McCoy utters to Edith once he’s regained his mind and manners.

MCCOY: I’m a surgeon, not a psychiatrist. I am Leonard McCoy, Senior Medical Officer aboard the USS Enterprise.
EDITH: I don’t mean to disbelieve you, but that’s hardly a Navy uniform.
MCCOY: It’s quite all right. It’s quite all right, dear, because I don’t believe in you, either.

There’s another love story in play here as well: the friendships between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. With the doctor driven mad and lost in time, it is just as important to recover their friend as it is to restore their past and future. When Kirk realizes the nature of the Guardian of Forever, his first impulse is to use it to save McCoy, to prevent his accidental overdose from happening. Later, Kirk’s excitement over the possibilities of time travel and his romantic notions of visiting his past are completely destroyed by Edith’s death. Far from a temptation, Kirk wants nothing to do with the Guardian; the loss of his thrill for exploration and adventure is almost as tragic as his decision to let the woman he loves die to preserve his future. (Though I think the fact that Clark Gable is apparently forgotten in the 23rd Century is even more depressing.)

The episode ends on a somber note, perhaps a bit abruptly, but I think it’s fitting. Though outwardly “all is as it was before,” Kirk was deeply affected by his experience. He isn’t the same man he was at the beginning of the episode. They beam back to the Enterprise and leave the Guardian as they found it, alone in the ruins of an empty world. The barren landscape and the Guardian’s lonely existence hint at a dark history and implies that the time portal is not as much a boon as it might seem.

There was only one real sour moment in the episode, when Uhura deadpans “Captain, I’m frightened,” after discovering their past has been erased. This is a perfectly understandable sentiment given the circumstances, but the delivery was a bit off. Other than some nitpicky questioning of some minor plot elements (such as why they are unable to simply scan for McCoy and beam him up from the ship), this is a perfect episode all around.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: I know this one only by reputation, and all the praise is earned and then some. It’s a tour de force. This is, for all intents and purposes, a perfect episode.

I love Kirk and Spock’s friendship so much. They get frustrated with each other, but they have so much respect and admiration for one another. It’s priceless when Edith calls Spock on it: “Captain. Even when he doesn’t say it, he does.” They know just how to get each other through. When Kirk jokes that Spock must not be capable of creating the tricorder device, it’s exactly the nudge the man needed. His place is by Kirk’s side, Edith says, and she’s right. I was reminded of STII, when Kirk realizes that Spock is no longer on the Bridge beside him. It is that moment, that realization, that hits Kirk like a blow. You can feel and see that here—the strength that neither could muster without each other.

Their friendship competes with the relationship that blooms between Kirk and Edith. For the first time, we see a woman that Kirk could really love. She shares his same idealism and optimism, the same certainty that the future holds nothing but promise, and the same confidence that no obstacle is too large to overcome with the right amount of determination. I delighted in the way she saw through all of Kirk’s lies. He can’t put anything past her. And without Kirk’s ship, without his responsibilities, there is nothing to stop them. He gets a slice of a normal life, and letting that go—letting her go—is devastating. Joan Collins surprises no one by being radiant and astounding, but Shatner really pulls off something special here. He conveys so perfectly a man burdened by the knowledge that the one person that could make him happy must die. After Spock shows him the evidence, Shatner turns away and walks toward the camera, and you see tears in his eyes. When the time finally comes, he cannot watch, and then runs behind a corner, shaking, fists clenched. I teared up then and I tear up now just recalling the scene. He conveys that loss with such emotional power. I can think of few contemporary “romantic” films that comes close to expressing what he does.

Her optimism is the optimism the show often expresses: a belief that one day they’ll “take all this money they spend on war and death” and, as Kirk says, “spend it on life.” But Spock somberly reminds us that that was not the time for peace. The maturity of that statement really struck me. Peace is not a panacea to the evils of men—rather, there will be a time for it, only when men are ready to accept it can they truly move beyond their own motivations. It made me wonder what happened to the world the Guardian of Forever is on that left such a wasteland of ruins.

There are no wasted scenes, and no wasted lines. This is a piece about hope, about aspiring to do more than you think you could ever achieve. It’s about believing, even when there’s no evidence, even when there is no hope, that we can live in a better world. When McCoy launches himself through the portal and the Enterprise disappears, Kirk says, “We are totally alone.” The camera pans up to show the stars and the vastness of space. We are so small in the grand scheme of things, and he tastes just a tiny bit of what we sometimes feel looking at our own sky: trapped on our world, yet knowing the possibilities that lie beyond it just out of reach. It’s the feeling that Edith talks about in her speech to the poor, urging them that someday, when there is space travel, we will have a “common future.”

I think my favorite part was when Kirk watches the Guardian speed through the newsreels of history. He notes how compelling the urge is to “lose oneself in another world.” They, too, are watching television, and in a way they stand in for us as viewers. Star Trek is the world in which we lose ourselves and dream that dream. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the power of image and art to create the impossible. We will always dream and yearn for other worlds; it makes us human. Star Trek—especially Star Trek like this—gave us a little piece of that dream.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 6 (can I turn the dial up to 11?)

Best Line: Too many to choose from, but the most memorable is Kirk’s rambling explanation for Spock’s ears: “My friend is obviously Chinese. I see you’ve noticed the ears. They’re actually easy to explain… The unfortunate accident he had as a child. He caught his head in a mechanical rice picker. But fortunately, there was an American missionary living close by who was actually a skilled plastic surgeon in civilian life—”

Syndication Edits: Just after encountering the Guardian of Forever, Kirk asks Spock what it is, and he says “Unbelievable.” Kirk responds, “That’s funny”; Uhura’s line that she’s frightened; the shot of Spock nearly getting hit by a car; part of Kirk and Spock’s escape from the policeman (a shot of them running down the street); Kirk saying he approves of hobbies, and the two of them sitting down with their food; a shot of them handing in their plates after the meal; Kirk and Spock sweeping for the clockmakers and a reaction shot; the dairy truck delivering the bottle of milk, and the homeless man stealing it; several establishing shots of the mission and a restaurant to show McCoy is on the move; and this wonderful conversation between Kirk and Edith as they climb the stairs together:

EDITH: Why? What is so funny about man reaching for the moon?
KIRK: How do you know?
EDITH: I just know, that’s all. I feel it. And more, I think that one day they’ll take all the money they spend now on war and death
KIRK: And make them spend it on life?
EDITH: Yes. You see the same things that I do. We speak the same language.
KIRK: The very same. (He leans in for a kiss.)

Trivia: Not just arguably the best episode of Star Trek, which won the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, this is also the most controversial, owing to the changes from Ellison’s original script (itself a winner of a Writers Guild of America award) and the final version, as well as ongoing legal battles over the use of the Guardian of Forever in merchandising and other Star Trek stories. In his draft, a druggie named Beckwith traveled back in time to Chicago via the technology of an alien race called the Guardians of Forever. Kirk was unable to let Edith Koestler die, and Spock had to step in to prevent her from being saved.

Other notes: The New York sets used in this episode were previously used for the town of Silsby in Superman and the Mole Men (1951) and the streets of Metropolis in the first season of the Adventures of Superman (1952). The Guardian of Forever appears again on screen in the animated series episode “Yesteryear,” and is also featured in many tie-in novels and stories.

Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 27 – “The Alternative Factor.”

Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 29 – “Operation: Annihilate!” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.