TREK-A-DAY: The City on the Edge of Forever
EPISODE TWENTY-EIGHT: The City on the Edge of Forever
This was yet another episode I was looking forward to; though I knew little about it going in, the name frequently comes up as one of the most famous Original Trek episodes.
And surprise, surprise, A TIME TRAVEL PLOT!
But a masterful one, happily, conducted by Harlan Ellison (an acclaimed sci fi writer) who nevertheless resulted the rewrites done on the episode (which remains a powerful one, regardless…)
So, the plot: when McCoy accidentally injects himself with CRAZY he beams down to a planet which holds “The Guardian of Forever” a giant time donut that can transport you back to any point in history that you would care to go*. (Or, more specifically, anywhere that Paramount Studios had black-and-white stock footage of…)
Mmmmmmm Forbidden Time Donut….
Crazy McCoy jumps in randomly and changes the timeline, such that space travel never occurred and thus destroying The Enterprise and everyone on it. Kirk and Spock follow him into time to try and prevent this, and a number of A Sound of Thunder-esque hijinks occur (namely, trying to guess which of their actions screwed up the timeline). They arrive in 1930s New York and after a daring police chase (they hid.) manage to find their way into a halfway house run by Major Barbara (or, as she’s called in this non-Shaw written version, Edith Keeler) played by Dynasty‘s Joan Collins. Keeler enchants Kirk with her dreams of a time when money used for warfare will be applied to the betterment of mankind and the exploration of space and gradually the two fall in love while poor Mr. Spock (who Kirk has described as Chinese in an off-colour lie to describe his appearance earlier in the episode…he also claims Spock’s ‘deformed’ ears are due to a rice picking machine accident. Ouch.) toils away at creating a computer to triangulate where McCoy will arrive and how he will change the timeline.
What he discovers is that Kirk’s love (he drops the l-bomb) either dies the next day, or goes on to be super important to Eisenhower. The problem is, they can’t tell which will result in the broken timeline. Then the computer REALLY kicks in and they learn that if Keeler lives, she’ll form a massive pacifist movement which will prevent the US from being battle ready for WWII. Meaning Hitler wins.
And so, when McCoy (now having slept off his madness after getting to play a generally disturbing crazy version of himself) is reunited with Kirk and Spock, Kirk prevents McCoy from saving Keeler from being hit by a car, essentially killing the woman he loves. It’s a powerful, tragic scene, made all the more so by McCoy’s incredulity and frustration that Kirk stopped him. It’s pretty much a perfect moment for Captain Kirk, where he unflinchingly makes the right call at great personal cost. But he does it, almost immediately, prepared to live with the consequences rather than debate them with himself. It’s a split second decision and a truly heroic sacrifice.
They return to the Time Donut who offers them more time travel hijinks, but a slightly broken Kirk just wants to “Get the Hell out of here.” And so they do, and thus complete a perfect time travel episode. Perfect, because it spends less time dicking around with paradox ideas (fun when used sparingly, but annoying and tedious when the only focus) and instead focuses on characters. Keeler is a bit one-sided, but Kirk’s view of the life he could have with her makes it all worthwhile and is a nice (though perhaps unintentional) callback to The Naked Time, where pseudo-drunk Kirk’s greatest sadness is that he can never have a lasting relationship as his duties to his ship will always come first (granted he is talking about our hommie Yeoman Rand at the time…) It reminds me a lot of the incredible The Inner Light episode in The Next Generation (one of my favourites) which sees Picard live out a whole lifetime on a planet as an ordinary man. Granting these characters we know and love a chance at an entirely different existence is exactly what these time travel and alternate reality episodes should be about (which I think J.J. Abrams nailed in the new Trek film; they’re recognizably the same characters we know, just operating in new and interesting ways)
So for all the silly time travel that will come, here we have a classic sci fi adventure; Star Trek operating best once again by focusing on the characters and their relationships and how those factors play into the scenario, rather than just letting the scenario run the show.
*10 points if you got the Weird Al reference.