Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Star Trek Began In a City On The Edge Of Forever

“A question. Since before your sun burned hot in space, and before your race was born, I have awaited…a question.” – The Guardian of Forever

“One day soon, man is going to be able to harness incredible energies, maybe even the atom... energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds in... in some sort of spaceship. And the men that reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases. They will be able to find a way to give each man hope and a common future. And those are the days worth living for.” – Edith Keeler

One can make the case that not only was “The City On The Edge Of Forever” the finest Star Trek episode ever but that it is also one of the best episodes of any television show ever, period, exclamation point!

Star trek was largely through it’s first full season on April 6th, 1967 when “City” first aired. It was when I fell in love with the show and characters. More than any other episode, “City” defined the essential relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy. A relationship that in turn would define Star Trek.

“The City On The Edge Of Forever” was penned by Sci-fi great Harlan Ellison and edited by Gene Coon, D.C. Fontana, and Gene Roddenberry among others. This re-writing lead to much controversy and carping on the part of Ellison, but even he would be hard pressed to say that this was not a classic screenplay. The plotline, largely Ellison’s was GREAT sci-fi and still one of the best treatments of time travel and the consequences involved in changing history. It was Roddenberry, Coon and Fontana who added the character touches that made it “Star Trek”.

For the one or two of you who have not actually SEEN “City”, here is a brief plot summary
The Enterprise is in the process of investigating temporal disturbances that take the form of destructive waves in space time centered on a nearby planet. Mr. Sulu is injured when a console explodes when the ship hits an unexpected temporal wave. McCoy is summoned to the bridge and injestc the helmsman with cordrazine. When another temporal wave causes the ship to shake violently McCoy accidentally injects himself with an overdose of serum, causing him to become violently paranoid. He flees from the bridge and beams down to the planet. Kirk takes a landing party down to the planet to retrieve the Doctor.

Once on the planet, Spock finds that the source of the time distortions is an ancient stone structure When Kirk asks a question to no one in particular the structure comes to life, identifying itself as the "Guardian of Forever". It explains that it is a sentient time portal that can access any point in timespace, and displays periods of Earth's history in its portal opening. The team soon locates McCoy, but he runs away and leaps through the portal before anyone can stop him. Suddenly the landing party loses contact with the Enterprise. The Guardian informs the landing party that history has just been altered and that, as a result, the Enterprise no longer exists. McCoy has somehow altered the past.

Kirk asks the Guardian to loop the history images again and he and Spock to jump through to a time just before McCoy entered, in the hope that they can correct what he has changed. Kirk and Spock leap through at the correct moment and materialize in New York City during the 1930s Great Depression era. Their uniforms and Spock's ears shock a passerby, so Kirk steals some clothes he spots hanging on a fire escape and the two hide in the basement of a nearby building. There they meet a woman named Edith Keeler. She is a social worker who runs the 21st Street Mission. They apologize for trespassing and offer to work for her. Intrigued by the pair, she allows them to stay.

Spock begins to construct a crude interface for his Tricorder and uses it to find out what part of history McCoy has altered.

Touched by her world view, Kirk soon begins to fall in love with Edith.
McCoy materializes in an alley, still under the influence of the cordrazine, and, after an encounter with a homeless man, stumbles into the 21st Street Mission. Edith sees him and takes him to rest. Kirk and Spock are not aware of his arrival.

Meanwhile, Spock finally finishes the interface and he and Kirk analyze the data. It reveals that Edith was supposed to have died shortly after in a traffic accident but that, having been spared this fate on account of McCoy's actions, she instead went on to form a pacifist movement whose influence delayed the entry of the United States into World War II; this delay in turn gave Nazi Germany time finish their heavy water experiments and develop the Atomic Bomb before the United States. The world falls to the forces of Hitlerism and ultimately tears itself apart trying to throw off Nazi rule. Kirk must face the fact that if Edith does not die as she is supposed to, history will be altered forever. Starfleet, Spock, McCoy…everything that he knows will cease to exist.

Edith nurses McCoy, who tells her who he is and where he is from. Edith does not believe his fantastic, but tells him that he would fit in nicely with her eccentric new boyfriend who will later be taking her to a Clark Gable movie. She is surprised to find that Bones has never heard of the star.

Later, as Kirk and Edith are walking to the movie house, Edith is surprised that Kirk also never heard of Clark Gable . She says "Doctor McCoy" said the same thing.

“McCoy? LEONARD McCoy??”

Alarmed, Kirk emphatically tells Edith to "Stay right here" before dashing across the street to get Spock. McCoy emerges from the mission right in front of them. Edith crosses the street to join them, does not see a truck which is approaching. Instinctively, Kirk moves to pull Edith out of the way but freezes when Spock yells out.

"No, Jim!". McCoy then tries to save Edith but is held fast by Kirk; the truck hits her and she is killed. A shocked McCoy yells.

"I could have saved her...do you know what you just did?". Kirk pushes him away, speechless, and Spock says quietly,

"He knows, Doctor. He knows."

History reverts to its original timeline and Kirk, Spock, and McCoy return to the Guardian's planet to find the rest of the landing party where they had left them. The Guardian makes an offer.
"Time has resumed its shape. All is as it was before. Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway."

Uhura indicates that the Enterprise is ready to beam them back up and the devastated Kirk responds.

"Let's get the hell out of here."

I get a lump in my throat just writing the summary!
I have seen this episode dozens of times over the year and it never loses it’s power. It is as fresh today as it was over 40 years ago. “City” is still the benchmark for Star trek and “the origin” of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy relationship. Even the recent reboot acknowledges that these three, and particularly the relationship between Kirk and Spock are the HEART of Star Trek.
When Spock asks Edith where she thinks he and Kirk belong she actually defines their friendship in one simple statement:

“[to Spock] You? At his side. As if you've always been there and always will. [to Kirk] And you... you belong... in another place. I don't know where or how... I'll figure it out eventually.”- Edith Keeler

Back at the beginning of the episode Kirk does not send someone else after McCoy. He and Spock , without hesitation, take that mission upon themselves. They don’t think twice about being lost in time if it gives them even the smallest chance of saving their friend.

In “city” we really get out first glimpse of Spock’s “human” side. And it is almost all in the form of empathy for Kirk’s dilemma.

“Save her. Do what your heart tells you to do, and millions will die who did not die before” – Spock

How do you tell your brother that he has to sacrifice that which he loves most? The “Vulcan” Spock might not be able to do it. The “Human” Spock might not be able to do it. But SPOCK, both human and Vulcan, found a way.

When he makes the statement to Jim that “Edith Keeler must die” we can see how much Spock feels for his friend. This was a defining moment in the development of Star Trek’s most beloved character.

It is a direct line from this episode to Star Trek II- The Wrath Of Khan when Kirk observes that:

“Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most…human”
We would not have had that moment in Star Trek II without “City”.
The complete understanding between Kirk and Spock was born in this episode.

This is also a defining moment for Kirk as well. Perhaps it is THE defining moment in the development of the character.

We learn that Jim is not just the hell bent for leather, womanizing adventurer that he sometimes leads us to believe. Edith is in fact his one true love and he has the briefest of time with her. Now he has to face all the rest of his life without her. “City” shows us just how LONELY Kirk is.
We also learn that, as McCoy put it in the third season episode “The Tholian Web”, Jim Kirk is “ a hero in every sense of the word”.
The ability to make the sacrifice he did in order to restore history took more courage than facing down a Gorn or a Klingon warship. Despite his personal anguish, when the moment came, he did not hesitate. Kirk made the impossible choice and went on with living with the consequences.

For those of you who have never seen “City”, go see it now. For those who have, give it another view. Because Star Trek REALLY began in…

“The City On The Edge Of Forever”

That’s 30!

(Oh and Live Long And Prosper!)


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