STAR TREK REWIND: “The City on the Edge of Forever”

“I am my own beginning. My own ending.”

I dreaded writing about “The City on the Edge of Forever” not only because it is considered the greatest single episode of Star Trek, past and present, ever made but also because so much has already been written. Harlan Ellison himself wrote a book on the subject. The book contained his original drafts of the teleplay as well as making note of the many changes on its way to production.

Ellison resented the process Roddenberry employed at first to seduce writers, acquire, and then finesse scripts from the top science fiction scribes of the time. Roddenberry knew his ship would not get off the ground without the blessing of the likes of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlen, Theodore Sturgeon, George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, and Ellison. After a time, he stopped buying scripts from those writers and instead used (and abused) his own inner circle.

Ellison’s original teleplay is an impressive script, but it wasn’t right for Star Trek. The story required a dramatic and unbelievable leap from reason among the crew of the Enterprise. There was drug dealing and outright murder committed by members of the crew. This isn’t what we’re used to seeing on the ship. The changes to the script involved accidental overdose of a drug and McCoy’s resulting temporary madness. He beams down to a planet that appears to suffer waves of time and space displacement.

Kirk and the landing party beam down to search for McCoy and this is where they meet the Guardian of Forever: a sentient time portal. McCoy leaps through the portal and, almost immediately, everything changes. The Enterprise has vanished from orbit. Kirk and Spock decide to go to the time and place McCoy went to bring him back, or at the very least, keep him from doing what it was he did to change the future. They find themselves in 1930s New York during the Great Depression.

They steal some clothes and hide out in the basement of a soup kitchen run by the altruistic Sister Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). They manage to negotiate jobs and, with Edith’s help, they get a furnished room. Meanwhile, Spock has to repair his tricorder so he can track McCoy and discover the time variance. This is something I’ve never understood. Why does the tricorder need to be repaired? Was it damaged during time travel? Is it low on batteries or something?

Spock requires some ridiculous electrical jury-rigging (including a Jacob’s ladder) to get the thing to work. Kirk and Edith spend time together, and Kirk starts to fall in love with her. Spock discovers that their future hangs in the balance depending on what happens to Edith Keeler. He sees two digressions in the timeline; either Edith lives and we can’t kill Hitler, or Edith dies and we can kill Hitler. Edith Keeler must die, and it’s obvious McCoy saved her life and destroyed his own future (ironically by doing a good deed).

This represents a cruel paradox for Kirk, and this is, I think, what Ellison intended for his story. He wanted to play a sick joke on James T. Kirk. When McCoy finally appears in the past, he is rescued by Keeler as he comes out of his drug-induced mania. The episode is almost like a ticking clock where Edith races to her death and, at Spock’s prodding, Kirk must act to restore their future.

There’s a bit at the end of the episode when Kirk, Spock, and McCoy return from the past. Kirk has a look of anguish, anger, and sadness on his face. The remaining members of the landing party appear baffled by his near-instant mood shift. This is why Shatner is an excellent actor, no matter the criticism of his many performances. He is able to impart volumes with just one look on his face.

It’s even more stunning to figure all of these scenes are shot together to save time and money in moving from location to location. This means Shatner had to very quickly get into character in between set-ups. He tells the landing party, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” It’s a shocking moment; one of rage and candor, and that’s what makes “Yesteryear,” the Animated Series sequel to this episode, so hard to understand.

I can’t imagine Kirk would ever want to come back to this terrible place and relive his trauma. “The City on the Edge of Forever” has it all: action, adventure, romance, and humor. It was one of the most expensive episodes to produce, owing to the period locations and vehicles, as well as the script changing hands and being rewritten by Roddenberry, D.C. Fontana, and Gene Coon over a period of eleven months, but it is worth it. This is the episode that put Star Trek on the map.

Happy Holidays to everyone. This year has been a doozy; just a strange, sad cluster of time that has reinforced my belief in the absurd. I wonder if 2023 will be any better, or at the very least, a little less than unusual. Let’s try to have a Happy New Year!

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