Sunday, September 9, 2012

Star Trek – “The City on the Edge of Forever”

Season 1, Episode 28
Original Airdate: April 6, 1967
Writer: Harlan Ellison
Director: Joseph Pevney
Producer: Gene L. Coon, Gene Roddenberry
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley

Odd that the best episode of “Star Trek” also seems to argue against everything that the series holds dear. While the show always presents war as something the Federation and Enterprise will do anything to avert, here it appears to tell us it is necessary, and while the crew and Captain always seem to find a way to save lives no matter what the risk, here they seek to allow an innocent woman to die.

Of course upon further examination there’s so much more to it than that, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The episode begins with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) accidentally overdosing on a drug that gives him manic paranoia. He escapes the Enterprise before he can be secured and manages to slip into the time stream thanks to a talking rock, and soon changes the course of history to the point where the Enterprise and Federation no longer exist. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) follow him to 1930 San Francisco to stop him from doing whatever it was that created this mess, and in the process Kirk falls for dreamy soup-kitchen owner Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). Soon Kirk and Spock realize that Edith is meant to die and McCoy saves her, which accidentally allows Hitler to win World War II and change everything. Phew.

In case you couldn’t tell from the above paragraph, the storytelling here is very complex, but never to the point where you lose yourself in the intricacies.  Often, the first “Star Trek” series doesn’t get enough credit for its story structure and great complex storylines, but rewatch an episode like this or “The Trouble WithTribbles” and you’ll be surprised by how many balls the writers juggle with ease. While the plot here has many facets, it never feels forced or rushed. It was written by Harlan Ellison, then famously revised and rewritten by several producers and ghost-writers, and instead of feeling watered-down or convoluted because of the multiple voices, it soars on both a mechanical and emotional level. It would have been so much easier to write the episode about Kirk and Spock preventing McCoy from killing someone in his madness, but this is much more intriguing.

Joan Collins - Soft focus, angel lighting
There’s even time to create a sweet love story between Kirk and Edith. If we didn’t feel a connection between these characters then the episode would only feel like an exercise instead of a tragedy, which it really is. Director Joseph Pevney did his part by shooting Collins in close-up early and often – and almost always in soft focus and lit with the “halo” effect over her head to make her seem angelic. Honestly, it gets to be a bit much by the end of the episode, but thankfully the writing rises to the occasion. Though Edith gives Kirk and Spock kindness early, Ellison paints her as a character with many opinions and inner strength. She also owns a soup kitchen, which would normally be taking it a step too far into sainthood, but this actually serves a logical function within the episode. Of course Kirk and Spock would end up there, and of course the insane McCoy would be brought there as well. She’s a genuinely fascinating character in her own right, and Collins wisely underplays it (surprising considering her most memorable onscreen persona is just the opposite), and we can see why her beauty and personality attracts Kirk. I also have to applaud Shatner’s performance in the episode. He is known for hamming it up in this series and others, but here he beautifully carries the emotional weight of a man who has a date with destiny he doesn’t want to keep. Look at the pain on his face when he admits to Spock (and himself) that he’s in love with Edith, and watch the amazing moment when he hears Edith die and cradles his head into McCoy’s shoulder, unable to deal with what he did.

I said earlier that the episode seems to be pro-war, but upon further examination I don’t think so. McCoy breaks the Prime Directive by going back in time and changing history, and the episode is about setting that right, not insisting that lobbying for peace is silly and delaying the inevitable. Spock blatantly states: “She was right, but at the wrong time.” History happened the way it happened, and that is that. Any change, for the better or worse, is unfair to all it would effect in the future. Ellison was anti-war but other producers were against peace demonstrations and said the episode obviously lobbied for that, but I don’t think so. As a writer, I hate to admit it, but perhaps having multiple voices giving input into the story resulted in a far more complex question that the viewer continues to think about long after the episode ends.

I’m painting the episode as fully dark and depressing, but it really isn’t. In fact, there’s plenty of levity here. Kirk’s brief romance with Edith is charming, and there is a lot of early fun centered on Spock’s Vulcan ears and how Depression-era Earthlings react to it (“They were caught in an electric rice picker” is how Kirk explains it). By allowing us to laugh, it makes the emotion of the finale all the more impactful.

Time travel stories have always had a very special place in the “Star Trek” canon. Three of the best features (“Star Trek IV: The VoyageHome,” “Star Trek: First Contact” and the reboot/sequel “Star Trek”) deal heavily with time travel, and whenever it’s used in the many spin-offs (the two-part “Time’s Arrow” in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Trials and Tribble-ations” in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” are notable examples) the shows fire on all cylinders. And here there’s something so…fun…about seeing our characters wandering through the streets of a backlot trying to make sense of being out of time.

The original “Star Trek” series shot for the stars (pardon the horrible pun) and really tried to be about “something” instead of just presenting phaser battles and weird-looking aliens like the “Flash Gordon” serials and sci-fi monster movies of decades before. Like “The Twilight Zone,” its fantasies shrouded stories of real meaning in a digestible form. You never felt like you were being preached to, but you understood that the stories were on a different level. And the reason the franchise has lasted so long and through so many incarnations is that it tried to remember that. Sometimes the show failed, and sometimes it did get preachy, but sometimes, particularly episodes like “The City on the Edge of Forever,” it found that perfect balance.

Also, who would have ever thought that an episode about a talking, light up rock would be a masterpiece?

Addendum: I haven’t seen the episode since Paramount inserted new special effects into the series, but the results seem pretty damn flawless. I’m curious to see what the rest of the series looks like revamped.

“The City on the Edge of Forever” is available on the first season DVD of “Star Trek: The Original Series,” on iTunes, on AmazonInstant Video and on

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