To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.
The City on the Edge of Forever stands as both on of the most troubled episodes of Star Trek ever produced, and one of the most brilliant. It’s a powerful science-fiction romance, cleverly constructed and smoothly executed. Everything in the episode seems to working smoothly, which seems all the more improbable given the difficulties occurring behind the scenes. Harlan Ellison’s teleplay differs significantly from the finished product, but it’s very hard to argue that the televised episode isn’t among the finest Star Trek stories ever produced.
One of the great things about the original Star Trek was the way that it recruited science-fiction writers to contribute ideas and scripts to the show. It’s something that was, largely, sorely missing from the spin-offs. Of course, the realities of network television meant that those writers had to have their scripts revised and tweaked and edited in order to fit the mould of Star Trek, but we ended up with classics like Theodore Sturgeon’s Amok Time or Norman Spinrad’s The Doomsday Machine.
To be fair, it wasn’t always a painless process. In Matheson Uncollected, Richard Matheson complained that the writing staff on Star Trek felt the need to add a supporting storyline to The Enemy Within. However, that absolutely pales in comparison to the difficulties involved in getting The City on the Edge of Forever from the page to the screen. Ellison objected to the rewrites, including those he was forced to do without payment, and even tried to use a pseudonym on the episode. Indeed, he even eventually published his own version of the original script, which is well worth hunting down.
Part of the problem here was undoubtedly Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry is a difficult figure. Obviously, without Roddenberry, there would be no Star Trek. However, he has a long history of re-writing the history of his own creation and of limiting the ability of good storytellers to work within “his” universe. He seems to have taken particular exception to Ellison, as noted in an interview with Video Review, in which he seems quite petty:
That was a great episode.
Yeah, it was a fun episode to do.
Who wrote that?
Well, it was a strange thing. Harlan Ellison wrote the first draft of it, but then he wouldn’t change it.
That’s Harlan Ellison…
Yeah. He had Scotty dealing drugs and it would have cost $200,000 more than I had to spend for an episode.
That’s like E.T. wearing a coke spoon.
When I called these things to Harlan’s attention, he said “You’ve sold out, haven’t you?” I said, “No, I haven’t sold out. I only have $180,000 to spend on an episode.” So I rewrote the episode. And his original won a Writers Guild award, but my rewrite won the Nebula award for actually being filmed.
It goes almost without saying that this is mostly nonsense. As everybody is fond of pointing out, Scotty doesn’t even appear in the episode. There is a drug dealer, but it’s a character who was never seen before and who is punished for his transgression. It’s clear that Roddenberry is just trying to vilify Ellison.
He also somewhat mischaracterises the cost of The City on the Edge of Forever. It is fair to say that it is the most expensive episode of the first season, barring the pilot – which was both part of a separate production block and involved the cost of building standing sets. However, it was not the most expensive stand-alone episode of Star Trek. That dubious honour goes to the second season finalé, Assignment: Earth.
Roddenberry had famously hoped to spin off Assignment: Earth into a television show, so the episode was his pet project. So it seems a bit hypocritical to accuse Ellison of coming in ridiculously over budget when Roddenberry himself funnelled money into what was essentially a back-door pilot. I like Assignment: Earth more than most, and even I will concede that it is fairly banal. Is it really possible to justify spending more on Assignment: Earth than The City on the Edge of Forever?
This sort of hyperbole is one of the reasons I tend to be sceptical of Roddenberry, as a rule, despite the importance of his role in the franchise’s development. It seems rather petty and insecure, hinting at an unwillingness to share credit where credit is due. Even if Ellison’s drafts are massively different from the finished episode, the core idea and the execution all owe a massive debt to Ellison. More than that, Roddenberry wasn’t the only person to work on the version of the episode, and describing it as “his” version undervalues the contributions of various writing staff. In particular Gene L. Coon and D.C. Fontana.
Those names don’t get nearly the attention they deserve, and I suspect that part of the reason that The City on the Edge of Forever works so very well is because it is a great Harlan Ellison idea tweaked by two of the strongest writers ever to work on Star Trek… and Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry was the creative vision behind Star Trek, and he tinkered quite a bit with the scripts to the show, but his credited contributions to the mythos are hardly inspiring. Datalore. The Omega Glory. Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And I say this as somebody who likes a couple of those, despite Roddenberry’s work, but is aware of their… weaknesses.
In the ten episodes leading up to The City on the Edge of Forever, Coon has given us the Federation, the Klingon Empire, the Gorn and the Horta. He is one of the best world-builders ever to work on Star Trek, and one of the smartest and most wry writers to work on the original show. Fontana is the best character writer on the classic series. So, with both of those hammering a great Harlan Ellison script into a fantastic Star Trek episode, it’s easy to see how The City on the Edge of Forever could have turned into a classic.
What is frustrating about all this, though, is that Roddenberry’s position and his actions are – by and large – broadly defensible. Harlan Ellison is one of the best science-fiction writers of his generation, but that doesn’t mean he is automatically going to turn in a perfect Star Trek script. It’s part of the give-and-take of writing for network television that the script is going to have to be altered in order to fit a template. Roddenberry’s decision to re-write the script is justifiable. It’s just his attitude towards Ellison during that process and his snide re-writing of history afterwards that cast him in a negative light.
As Michael Hemmingson notes in Star Trek: A Post-Structural Critique of the Original Series, the core idea of The City on the Edge of Forever is all Ellison, but it is not an idea tailored to Star Trek:
The Kirk in Ellison’s script is not the Kirk in Roddenberry’s universe, and only two lines of dialogue from Ellison made it on screen, both spoken by the Guardian of Time: “Since before your sun burned hot in space, since before your race was born” and “Time has resumed its shape.” The concept of the Guardian, the implications of time travel, and the character Edith Keeler are the authorial creations of Ellison, adapted to serve Roddenberry’s needs.
It’s just the way that writing for television works, and it’s the price of allowing outside writers to contribute to the show. Keeping the writing to the hired staff writers would minimise these problems, but it would also cost us episodes like this. So it’s a necessary sacrifice.
As D.C. Fontana points out in an afterword to Ellison’s script, a lot of the changes were relatively mechanical and simply moving various objects around so that the story could be arranged in the form of a Star Trek episode:
Unfortunately, it was not best suited to a series format. As a reader readily can see, the plot problem (the change in history) is brought about by characters who are strangers to the audience, LeBeque and Beckwith. The result of Beckwith’s meddling with the past is that the USS Enterprise is now the Condor, a raider ship with a crew of renegades. Once this situation is established, it is seen again only once, in a flash cut, leaving the audience to wonder how the few defenders in the transporter room are doing while Kirk and Spock are in the past. It is almost the end of the second act before Kirk and Spock see Edith Keeler – and at that moment, Spock realises Edith is the focal point of the time change because of clues the Guardian of Forever gave them. Kirk does not meet Edith face to face until Act Three, so their personal relationship is short (though no less deep). Kirk loves her despite the fact he knows she must die. He loves her despite the even more cruel fact that he knows he cannot lift a hand to save her. At the climax of the story, it is Beckwith who reaches out to save Edith and Spock who stops him while Kirk looks on in his grief.
I actually really like Ellison’s original script. I think it’s actually as good a script as the finished version, if not slightly better. However, there’s no doubt that the filming script makes for a much better episode of Star Trek than Ellison’s original teleplay could have. Unconfined by the forty-five minute format or the budget of a television show or the weight of these established characters, Ellison’s episode would have been just as much a masterpiece as the finished version. However, when you factor those in, it’s clear that the best possible decisions were made.
The most obvious early change is the use of McCoy to replace the new drug-dealing supporting characters. Indeed, in a delightfully sixties moment, it seems like the good doctor accidentally gets high on his own supply. It turns out that the Federation treats damage from all those exploding consoles with something similar to LSD. It’s a very clever plot device, but one that feels like a decidedly contemporary touch, the kind of thing that points to the era which produced the show.
Investigating the effects of an overdose, Spock reports symptoms that would seem quite familiar to most contemporary viewers, “Subjects failed to recognise acquaintances, became hysterically convinced that they were in mortal danger, and were seeking escape at any cost. Extremely dangerous to himself or to anyone else who might–“ In short, McCoy is on a very bad trip.
The rather wonderful David R. George III makes a very astute character observation in his tie-in novel, Provenance of Shadows. Tying McCoy’s drug-induced paranoia to guilt issues revealed in the much later Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, George retroactively suggests that McCoy’s worries about the “assassins! murderers! murderers! assassins!” are just a projection of his own guilt about helping his father commit suicide all those years ago. In effect, he is the assassin he fears so much.
It’s a nice little retroactive piece of character work, all the more impressive since McCoy’s involvement in his father’s death would only be established two decades later. It’s very hard to watch The City on the Edge of Forever without George’s suggestion informing my interpretation of McCoy’s ranting and raving. After all, he seems very adamant that he couldn’t possibly be a murderer or an assassin, oh no. “No! Don’t run! I won’t kill you! It’s they who do the killing! Don’t run! I won’t kill you!” If you have to say something like that…
One of the more interesting subtexts of The City on the Edge of Forever, and something not present in Ellison’s original draft, is an idea which seems rather “un-Trek-like.” For all that Roddenberry accused Ellison of producing something which didn’t fit the Star Trek model, Ellison’s original draft could not be interpreted as defending the Vietnam War. As Star Trek and History observes:
The subtext of this episode and its significance are highlighted by the evolution of the script and key pieces of dialogue inserted into the version that was broadcast in April 1967. The original script of May 13, 1966, written by Harlan Ellison, was a poignant tragedy of doomed love. Although using the science-fiction concept that any change in the past, no matter how slight, might radically alter the future, this script had no reference to Edith as a peace activist, much less to a peace movement that could change the course of history. In Ellison’s revised script of June 3, 1966, Spock imagines possible futures that might come to pass if Edith were to live, such as, “She might give birth to a child who would become a dictator.”
As broadcast in the spring of 1967, “The City on the Edge of Forever” was clearly a parable suggesting that the peace movement directed against the U.S. war in Vietnam, no matter how noble, alluring, and idealistic in its motivation, might pose a danger to the progressive course of history. The episode projected the view that sometimes it is necessary to engage in ugly, distasteful action, such as waging remorseless warfare against evil expansionist forces like Nazi Germany or the Communist empire attempting to take over Indochina, even doing away with well-intentioned, attractive people who stand in the way of such historical necessity.
However, here it the show seems to suggest that war is justified and that those well-intentioned pacifists could potentially be wrong about the consequences of American non-interference. It’s a pretty dramatic reversal from the stance the two aforementioned episodes. Although, to be fair, this isn’t unprecedented. The show has shifted its opinion on political and social matters already. Compare the conservationist subtext of The Devil in the Dark to the attitudes of The Man Trap.
More than that, the show has already suggested that direct American interference is justified if it stems the tide of communism. The Return of the Archons sees Kirk wilfully disregarding the Prime Directive to free the inhabitants of Beta III from the influence of an evil computer that seems to espouse at least some of the virtues of communism, with Kirk unashamedly arguing for the right to freedom and self-determination.
Star Trek is a television show written by a variety of authors, each with their own unique voice and approach to the show. It is radically different from the shows produced on television today, especially those creator-driven tightly-scripted cable dramas which typically feature a large number of scripts from the showrunner, ensuring some consistency of creative vision. A lot of the Star Trek scripts were tinkered with by Roddenberry and others, but with no real eye to serious philosophical consistency.
Script editing in the first year of the show struggled to establish continuity from episode to episode, so trying to suggest a uniform political outlook would have been a doomed effort. And one of the strengths of an episodic television show is the ability to make those sorts of shifts without being tethered to a rigid set of beliefs. Individual episodes can advance different viewpoints, and the audience can respond to those as they see fit.
It might be worth stepping away from the Vietnam analogy that many perceive at the heart of The City on the Edge of Forever. The episode itself seems to represent a significant political shift in Star Trek‘s political attitude, with a decidedly conservative philosophy coming to the fore, as Bruce Isaac observes in Star Trek as Myth:
The central conflict in The City on the Edge of Forever is perhaps the clearest expression of the classical utopian impulse in Star Trek. In constructing (American) history as linear, the episode prohibits a reading of history that runs alternate to the orthodoxy. History is utopian in its essential progress from a point of mythic origin to the utopian future of the Federated universe. The promulgation of Keeler’s pacifist politics will not only lead to defeat in the Second World War but will evolve into a swelling pacifist movement that can potentially oppose the military establishment of the democratic ideal. While Spock acknowledges that Keeler’s pacifism is in some sense ‘right’, he suggests that it was simply not propitious in 1941, when America was considering intervening in the Second World War. Here history is accorded the status of always already existing and establishing in the evidence of its existence a ‘correct’ interpretation. What was meant to unfold in the passage of time was in essence right. An unchangeable history is equated with a utopian belief in the natural, preordained progress of the humanist self and society.
To be fair, this is inherently true of most time travel episodes. Kirk and crew spent most of Tomorrow is Yesterday trying to prevent damage to the time stream. However, The City on the Edge of Forever seems particularly wary of change, favouring fate and obligation over self-determination and liberty.
The Guardian itself seems incapable of free will. When Kirk asks it to slow the passage of time inside the portal, it responds, “I was made to offer the past in this manner. I cannot change.” When McCoy alerts history, we discover that the non-existence of the “right” reality is equivalent complete non-existence. McCoy’s trip back in time doesn’t create an alternate universe, it creates a dead and empty universe.
For once, there is “no stardate.” Kirk’s log suggests that there is no reality because this reality has ceased to exist. “For us, time does not exist.” The evil alternative Enterprise of Ellison’s script does not even exist. There is nothing. “Earth’s not there,” Kirk tells Uhura. “At least, not the Earth we know. We’re totally alone.” It’s telling that those two statements (“Earth’s not there” and “not the Earth we know”) are treated as equivalent. As far as Kirk is concerned, there is no possibility of Earth beyond the Earth that they know.
At the same time, the script has a very strong sense of fatalism, despite the fact that McCoy can apparently alter history. Kirk and Spock can survive to go back and stop him. Indeed, would Edith Keeler have crossed that road at that time if Kirk and McCoy hadn’t been there in the first place? She was going to the cinema with Kirk, and then walking across the road when he reunited with McCoy. If they hadn’t gone back, it would have to be a cosmic coincidence that she died in the came place at the same time.
Ellison’s script provides an explicit answer to that question, one only implied in the final episode. “Time is elastic. It has a tendency to revert to its original shape when the changes are minor.” Time isn’t simply a force of nature that can be controlled, measured, directed and accounted for. It is almost a living organism, and it will try to heal itself. That is suggested by the aired episodes. When Kirk and Spock plan to go back to stop McCoy, their crew mates point out how hopeless that cause it.
“Captain, it seems impossible,” Uhura observes. “Even if you were able to find the right date…” She doesn’t need to finish. Scotty picks up the thread, “Then even finding McCoy would be a miracle.” Of course, they do find McCoy, seemingly because they have to find McCoy. Because there is a right way for history to happen, an anything which distorts that shape is inherently damaging and the wound must be healed. There are not alternatives. There is right and wrong. As Spock observes, “There could be some logic to the belief that time is fluid, like a river, with currents, eddies, backwash.”
It’s worth noting that the conflict that The City on the Edge of Forever centres around is the Second World War. This was the conflict that effectively defined the politics of the second half of the twentieth century, and it’s the war from which America emerged as one of the poles in a bipolar world. Star Trek was essentially the American Century projected into the distant future, with a healthy dash of Kennedy-era optimism included.
Given that the Second World War was at the root of that particular generation, that the creators of the show like Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon were shaped by it, it makes sense that the Second World War is the cornerstone of the Star Trek universe. So it makes sense that, without the American victory in the Second World War, there would be no Star Trek. When one of the proposed scripts for Phase II, Tomorrow and the Stars, repeated the idea of history at stake, it also sent Kirk back to the period briefly before the Second World War. More than any other point in history, the Second World War is the focal point of Star Trek.
Of course, all of this hints on why The City on the Edge of Forever is a fascinating episode, but not why it is a brilliant one. It’s very hard to articulate just how perfectly everything comes together to make the show the work. Perhaps the most obvious is the fact that William Shatner and Joan Collins have this amazing chemistry that just gels. For the script to work, we need to feel Jim’s attraction to Edith straight away, and that’s the sort of chemistry beyond what you can put on paper. Both actors are tremendous here. Shatner has had a year to settle into the role, but Collins’ ability to make Keeler seem like more than a simple idealist is impressive.
There’s also the grand sense of tragedy to it all. Keeler is right. Her philosophy seems in line with what we’ve seen of the show so far. She believes in democracy, in the power of the people, and in the idea that people are basically decent. Although she’s not an idiot, and won’t carry drunks or addicts. She’s not quite as squeaky idealist as the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but she’s very clearly on the same level as the classic Star Trek – not afraid of a little dirt, but basically optimistic.
Keeler is about as close to the embodiment of the show’s philosophy as you are likely to get, all the more impressive for the fact that she lives in the twentieth century, in the shadow of a gigantic war. Her optimism and her utopian ideals resonate with Kirk. “I just know, that’s all,” she explains. “I feel it. And more, I think that one day they’ll take all the money they spend now on war and death…” Kirk finishes for her, “And make them spend it on life?” That’s a good idea, isn’t it? That’s the right way to think, right? That’s the kind of philosophy the show should be fostering and rewarding right? “But she was right,” Kirk remarks. “Peace was the way.”
And then we’re told that she has to die. Which is staggering, and brutal, and tough. It’s a fantastic twist, and one of the reasons I think the final script works better as an episode of television than Ellison’s ever could is because the reveal is paced so well. In Ellison’s script, we know she’s going to die from the outset, so our emotional engagement is always a bit guarded. Here, we get to know here. Then we find out she’s the key. And only with ten minutes to go do we discover that she has to die. It’s just fantastic structuring.
The City on the Edge of Forever feels like grand tragedy, built up brilliantly. It is just a superbly constructed piece of television. The cast bring their a-game. Even DeForest Kelley gets a chance to shine, despite the fact that McCoy is relegated to the sidelines for most of the episode. You can see why the episode has become so iconic and influential, and why David R. George III chose to make it the nexus of his Crucible trilogy for the show’s fortieth anniversary.
Even the episode’s ending is perfect, arguably much more affecting than the final conversation between Spock and Kirk in Ellison’s original draft. We’ve become so used to the format of the show that we expect the episode to end with our trio sitting on the bridge, laughing together and trading affectionate barbs. Kirk’s immediate and to the point “let’s get the hell out of here” might not be the most expressive line ever written, but ending the episode there underscores just how empty everything is.
We don’t end on an affirmation of the bond between the three leading men, with the idea that the universe is somehow slightly better off than it was at the start of the episode. We close on Kirk just wanting to be anywhere else, and the notion that – as he and the team transport away – the Guardian of Forever is alone once more. As it must be, to be fair, but that doesn’t make the closing image any less effective. Kirk feels as worn down and devastated as that landscape.
The original Star Trek never did any serious form of serialisation. We know, once this episode is over, that Edith Keeler will never be mentioned again. So we never got to see the consequences of the relationship between Edith and Kirk. It’s a credit to everybody involved that the closing scene so effectively makes it clear that this is something that will linger, even if it is never explicitly mentioned again.
William Shatner deserves particular credit. His acting is frequently mocked, and with good cause. There are points where he slips into self-parody on Star Trek. The most obvious indication we’ve had so far is in The Enemy Within, but Shatner’s hamminess would grow more pronounced as the show went on. His performance in The City on the Edge of Forever is restrained and powerful, and a reminder that Shatner can be a powerful dramatic actor when he wants to be.
As an aside, as much as this might feature the best romance of the series, it’s also worth noting that Kirk and Spock get some wonderful interaction. Shatner and Nimoy have a natural rapport, and it’s always a joy to see the duo working together. Of course, ever since This Side of Paradise, I’m having a hard time overlooked the homoerotic subtext between the pair, and The City on the Edge of Forever layers on that subtext pretty heavily.
They are two men who board together in New York, which isn’t that remarkable. Nor is the fact that Kirk is the breadwinner and Spock the stay-at-home partner. However, it’s interesting to watch how awkward they get when Edith Keeler walks into their room. They are immediately secretive and embarrassed, and Kirk tries to get her out of their apartment as quickly as possible. Of course, they are trying to preserve the time line, but it seems like even Edith picks up on the none-too-subtle vibes between the two men.
When she agrees to loan Spock her tools, she states, “I still have a few questions I’d like to ask about you two. Oh, and don’t give me that ‘questions about little old us?’ look.” When she states the two of them don’t belong in New York, Spock challenges her to identify where they do belong. “You?” she replies. “At his side, as if you’ve always been there and always will.” Later on, when Spock awkwardly reports to Kirk without using his formal title, Edith adds it for him. “Captain. Even when he doesn’t say it, he does.” Hm. I bet there’s a lot of things that go unsaid between those two, eh?
It’s also worth noting that the Guardian itself is a fantastic construct, and very in keeping with the vibe of the first season, when it seemed like the universe was populated with long-dead alien civilisations that could potentially cause massive damage without even thinking about it. It suggests beings so ancient and powerful that they are almost beyond our comprehension. And then they died anyway, so we might wonder what hope we have of surviving.
The Guardian is a wonderful design, and a prime example of a concept that is relatively simple, but works great on the screen. Star Trek always had a keen grasp of its limitations. The idea of a sentient doughnut standing guard over the entirety of time and space is a strangely tragic notion, the sense that the Guardian itself is a universal constant, a living witness to everything that ever happened and yet never a participant.
Indeed, given that changing history tends to destroy history, rather than – you know – re-writing it, it seems like the Guardian exists to never actually be used. Imagine existing forever and yet being unable to do the one thing that you were designed to be able to do? Even its designers ultimately left it alone on a dead planet. You get a sense that, even after the stars have burnt out and every living thing in the galaxy has moved on to some higher plane, the Guardian will be sitting there watching reruns. Think of the existential crisis it must be going through.
The City on the Edge of Forever might be the best Star Trek episode. Ever. In the show’s long-running history. Of the franchise’s 700+ episodes. As such, it’s remarkable to think that it was produced at the end of the show’s first year on television, and as a result of so much strife and difficulty. I think it’s a testament to the quality of Star Trek that it could create something as wonderful as this under those conditions. Television shows can run for over a decade without producing anything on par with this, and Star Trek managed to do it within thirty episodes.
You’d almost believe it was fate.
You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:
- The Cage
- Where No Man Has Gone Before
- The Corbomite Manoeuvre
- Mudd’s Women
- The Enemy Within
- The Man Trap
- The Naked Time
- Charlie X
- Balance of Terror
- What Are Little Girls Made Of?
- Supplemental: Errand of Vengeance: The Edge of the Sword by Kevin Ryan
- Dagger of the Mind
- The Conscience of a King
- The Galileo Seven
- Court Martial
- The Menagerie, Part I
- Supplemental: Early Voyages #12-15 – Futures
- The Menagerie, Part II
- Supplemental: Burning Dreams by Margaret Wander Bonanno
- Shore Leave
- The Squire of Gothos
- Supplemental: Requiem by Michael Jan Friedman & Kevin Ryan
- The Alternative Factor
- Tomorrow is Yesterday
- The Return of the Archon
- A Taste of Armageddon
- Space Seed
- This Side of Paradise
- The Devil in the Dark
- Errand of Mercy
- The City on the Edge of Forever
Filed under: The Original Series | Tagged: City on the Edge of Forever, Edge of Forever, Edith Keeler, Ellison, Gene L. Coon, gene roddenberry, Harlan Ellison, kirk, List of Star Trek characters (G–M), Nazi Germany, Roddenberry, spock, star trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, star trek: the original series, StarTrek |