...from the 'pen' of CHRIS GREGORY  



18. THE CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER Star Trek - Season One

Written by Harlan Ellison (rewritten by Gene Roddenberry)
Directed by Joseph Pevney
First broadcast April 6th 1967

combadgeThe City On The Edge of Forever remains a landmark in televised science fiction drama largely because it (at least tentatively) steps outside the limiting conventions of 1960’s TV, being one of the few episodes of the original series which displays an uneasy sense of morality. The story itself is often highly melodramatic and revolves largely around yet another one of Captain Kirk’s romantic ‘conquests’, and the actual time-travel mechanism – a ‘talking time opening’ called The Guardian of Forever, with its booming ‘godlike’ voice – is somewhat laughable by today’s standards, but the episode’s deliberately downbeat ending provides one of the most memorable moments in all of Star Trek. For once, despite ‘saving civilisation as we know it’, Kirk does not triumph. City On The Edge is also one of the first episodes which places the ‘future history’ of Star Trek in the context of actual ‘earth history’ and is thus a crucial episode in the development of the Trek ‘universe’, presenting the first effective use of the notion of ‘time paradox’ that will later be a major theme of The Next Generation. It is also the first episode to place the principal characters in something like a contemporary setting, so creating the kind of interaction which would later provide the richly ironic humour of the movie The Voyage Home.

combadgeA certain amount of controversy has always surrounded this episode. When Gene Roddenberry was devising Star Trek he had amongst his main advisors the leading ‘mainstream’ SF authors Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. Roddenberry was initially keen to receive scripts from other key figures in the SF literary hierarchy, and a number of episodes of the original series were based on scripts by well-known SF writers such as Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Bloch. Harlan Ellison, at the time a young writer nearer the ‘radical edge’ of SF, wrote the original script for City On The Edge but was dismayed when Gene Roddenberry rewrote the story extensively. Ellison’s highly literate script later won a Hugo Award and Roddenberry’s ‘watering down’ of Ellison’s original ideas has often be seen as an example of the way that TV science fiction tends to ‘bland out’ truly imaginative ideas. While there may be some truth in this, it largely ignores the fact that much of Roddenberry’s rewriting was necessary to make the story fit with the established format of the programme. Ellison’s original story also involved the presence of a drug addict among the Starfleet crew, something which Roddenberry vetoed as it did not fit in with his ‘utopian’ notion of a human race which had put such things behind it. It is also very probably true to say that such an idea would have been very unlikely get to get past the Network censors at the time. As the creator of Star Trek Roddenberry was responsible for making sure the programmes actually went out on the air...

combadgeAs it turned out, the role of the ‘Starfleet druggie’ was transferred to Dr. McCoy, who accidentally injects himself with an experimental drug which makes him delirious. When Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down onto a planet to investigate ‘mysterious time ripples’ they have detected, the crazed McCoy jumps into the Guardian of Forever and vanishes somewhere in the past. Spock’s instruments then show that the Enterprise (and the Federation itself) have disappeared. Whatever McCoy has done has altered history, leaving the human race with a bleak future. Spock and Kirk follow him through the time portal, where they find themselves in New York in the early 1930s during the ‘depression’. There they encounter Edith Keeler (Joan Collins) a pacifist social worker who is running a hostel for the homeless. Spock manages to conduct a ‘time prediction’ machine which shows that, in the time line they are in, she will later lead a pacifist movement which will delay the US entry into World War Two. As a result, Germany wins the war, leading to a bleak future for the human race in which Starfleet and the Federation do not exist. The only way this can be changed – and the previous timeline restored – is for Edith Keeler to die in a road accident. Finally, when she steps out into the road, Kirk has to hold back McCoy and prevent him from saving her. The three return through the time portal and find that the time line has been restored, and that in fact they have returned to the moment they left. But Kirk, despite having ‘saved the future of humanity’, feels only bitterness. There is none of the usual light-hearted banter at the end of the episode, only Kirk’s bleak cry of ‘Let’s get the hell out of here...’

combadgeDespite the toning down of Ellison’s original script, its philosophical core remains. For the first time, the main characters find themselves drawn into a ‘web of destiny’ and are at the mercy of greater forces than themselves. There is no neat solution to the problem they face and Kirk’s final anguish seems genuinely heartfelt. After all, even though he may have ‘saved humanity’, the problem was caused by Starfleet intervention in the first place. Thus the perils of intervening in the timeline are again emphasised. City On The Edge contains perhaps the only truly tragic moment in the original series, despite the fact that the ‘romantic business’ between Kirk and Keeler is pretty standard stuff. Joan Collins as Edith also brings a definite ‘star charisma’ to the part. The episode also has a sharp comic edge, with Spock having to wear a cap for the first time to disguise his ears (always something of a risible device). Also the placing of Kirk, Spock and McCoy in the twentieth century – or, at least, in this case, in a generic setting that is familiar to viewers, reveals that they can ‘work’ as characters outside the bounds of their time and their spaceship. For once the tedious minor characters of the original series – Scotty, Sulu, Uhuru and Sulu – are not ‘shoehorned’ into the action and the episode focuses strongly on the primal character interaction of the three principals. As ever, McCoy represents emotion, Spock logic and Kirk judgement and responsibility. By placing the three major characters outside their usual setting, the episode trades on viewers’ familiarity with them to produce a kind of ironic displacement of their character traits. For example Spock, who is supposed to be posing as an ‘ordinary guy’ so as not to rouse suspicion, finds it impossible to stop calling Kirk ‘Captain’. Nimoy’s skilled deadpan performance lends a new comic edge to his portrayal of Spock.

combadgeThe episode is also particularly well-paced and makes use of some imaginative lighting techniques, making it one of the few original series episodes to achieve a ‘cinematic’ look. Despite the corniness of some of its dialogue, City On The Edge transcends its era and remains a classic piece of 60’s TV. The kinds of themes and moods it evokes will later become major motifs in the new Trek series, with their many episodes featuring alternate time lines, time paradoxes and stories in which history and destiny become mutable and unpredictable factors.


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