50 Years Ago This Week – City on The Edge of Forever

"City on the Edge of Forever," the twenty-eighth episode of the first season of Star Trek, aired on April 6 1967. Widely acclaimed, it is a fan favorite, and has been singled out for high praise by both Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. A time-travel affair where the bulk of the action takes place in depression-era New York, the episode buttresses our long and fervently-held contention that the original Star Trek series was not, at its core, a science fiction show. Rather, it offered a weekly rumination on profound ethical questions, negotiated by steadfast friends forced to make hard choices in the absence of the reassuring touchstones of established order.

If Star Trek is essentially about the relationships between Kirk, Spock and McCoy (and it is), "City on the Edge of Forever" offers an elegant variation on some of the themes found in those deep, complex intimacies. The plot is set in motion when McCoy, the victim of a freak accident, leaps through a portal in time that lands him in the past (this actually seems eminently plausible when you’re watching the show). As Kirk and Spock beam down to the planet where said portal can be found (along with a landing party that includes two nameless crewmen in red shirts who, astonishingly, survive the adventure), they learn that McCoy has somehow changed the course of history—and not for the better. So of course, McCoy must be saved and history restored, and Kirk and Spock leap back in time, where they learn that the focal point in all of this is a visionary social worker, Edith Keeler (Joan Collins, often shot in a gauzy soft focus once reserved for actresses of a certain age in old Hollywood—but she was then all of thirty-four).

Directed by Joseph Pevney, who handled more than thirty feature films before switching over to a long career television (including fourteen Treks), controversy looms over the script. The first draft, by Harlan Ellison, a writer of some repute, went through multiple and major re-writes by creator Gene Roddenberry and writer-producer Gene L. Coon and others, fueling a controversy that endured for decades. Ellison published a book on the commotion, in which he spends a good 100 pages settling scores, trashing Roddenberry, Shatner, and anyone else who ever got in the way of the towering ego that erupts from almost every page, before settling down to share his version of the script. An interesting read and perhaps even a good story, what that draft shows is just how good the (radically different) final teleplay was. Ellison’s cluttered submission featured an incongruous detour into drug-dealing, no McCoy whatsoever, and, throughout, was utterly tone-deaf to the essence of the show’s core characters.

In the version as shot, which we are lucky to have, Kirk (and McCoy) fall for the girl, Spock uncovers the inexorable dilemma, history hangs in the balance (one false move and Germany wins World War II), and the ending, like a good seventies film, is a gut-punch. Or as Kirk put it in the last line, assessing what just transpired, “let’s get the hell out of here.” 

Following McCoy

Searching for McCoy (All the Red Shirts Survive!)

 

McCoy Leaps

McCoy Leaps Back in Time

 

Kirk Spock

Kirk and Spock, in the 1930s, Need to Figure out What Happened to History

 

Visionary

The Visionary Edith Keeler . . .

 

Focal Point

 . . . Is the Focal Point in Time

 

Denouement

Denouement

 

Denouement 2

 

Denouement 3