In the twenty-eighth episode of the first season of Star Trek, I can’t deal with this episode. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Holy shit. Holy shit.
This episode feels immense, which is saying a lot when you consider that I just wrote a review about the deeply upsetting end to “The Alternative Factor.” THAT EPISODE IS CHILD’S PLAY WHEN COMPARED TO THIS ONE. But with “The City on the Edge of Forever,” we get a script by Harlan Ellison that fully commits to the premise it sets up, and that’s what makes this episode so compelling and thrilling. More so than any episode of this first season, I felt like this story took us to an uncomfortable place and then refused to let us turn our gaze away from it. It’s a fairly standard story in the greater canon of time travel stories, but I don’t want to divorce it from the context of this show or the time it aired. Like, was there anything on the air like this at this point? Couldn’t you easily argue that most Western television had not done a story like this? (Science fiction literature had gone so much further than this, I should say. LORD.)
But even if you look at this episode outside the lens of the sci-fi tropes it either engages with or created, it’s still a fantastic story, and that’s because the text inherently cares about the characters within it. It’s as much a study of Kirk and Spock’s friendship as it is a test of Captain Kirk’s loyalty to his crew and to the future. It examines the struggle between romance and duty. It explores the ways in which small acts can dramatically alter the future. IT’S ALSO SUPER FUCKED UP, WHAT THE HELL.
It’s weird thinking back on how this episode opened because it’s not at all a sign of what is to come. I thought that we’d get a bottle episode where the crew deals with the side affects of Bones accidentally injecting himself with cordrazine. Bones, paranoid and terrified while trying to hide from everyone on the Enterprise? There’s an episode in that, admittedly one that’s a lot thinner than the story we do get. But then we’re faced with the Guardian of Forever, one of the more surreal elements of the first season, and WHAT THE FUCK, BONES JUST JUMPED BACK INTO HISTORY AND THE ARCH IS CLOSED AND HOW THE HELL IS THIS EVER GOING TO BE RESOLVED. Again, there were ways to write this story that could have made it much more simple than it turned out to be, but Ellison’s story is purposely complex. Once Bones jumps through the portal, the Enterprise disappears. GONE. IT’S ALL GONE BECAUSE HE MANIPULATED HISTORY IN SOME WAY AND SPACE FLIGHT NEVER HAPPENED. WHAT. THE. FUCK.
It’s such a bold step! I knew that it would have to be resolved by the end of the episode because this show is not serialized, and I think that made it even more entertaining. The sheer impossibility of Kirk and Spock’s plan to set history straight is spelled out to us, we have no idea how they’re going to pull it off, and then Kirk is telling the surviving crew that they’ll have to go through the portal one-by-one in case they fail to stop Bones. With this set-up, we know that Kirk and Spock are going to have a hell of a time just locating Bones, let alone figuring out what he did to alter history. But the most rewarding aspect of this episode is given to us immediately upon the time jump because, again, the story commits to the absurdity of the premise.
BECAUSE KIRK AND SPOCK HAVE TRAVELED TO NEW YORK IN 1930. This episode turns into a disaster in less than five minutes, and I love every bit of it. With no idea how long until Bones shows up in their timeline (or if he’ll even be on the same continent!), they are instantly forced to deal with a much bigger problem: they clearly don’t fit in at all. Spock’s got all the markers of an actual alien, they’re both wearing their uniforms, they have no American currency, and they have nowhere to go. I gotta say that this episode handled the homeless better than SHOWS WRITTEN IN 2014. And seriously, isn’t this exactly what would happen if you were dropped into this time period without money or clothes or any friends? Kirk and Spock steal clothing, nearly get arrested (BLESS THAT SCENE FOREVER, IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL), and hide in the basement of the 21st Street Mission, a homeless shelter and food bank. It’s here that they cross paths with Edith Keeler, ONE OF MY FAVORITE CHARACTERS IN ALL OF THE STAR TREK CANON. (I need to stop liking characters because they inevitably die 90% of the time. I’M CURSED.)
I thought I had her figured out, but oh god, I wasn’t even close. I initially thought that she seemed way too accepting of two strange men in her basement, but given her job, it makes sense that she deals with this kind of nonsense all the time. She treats Kirk and Spock with a mixture of understanding and curiosity, and it’s just endlessly charming to watch. She’s harsh at times, but never in a way that’s mean or unsympathetic, and I love that about her. She’s willing to help people who have no safety net, but she does so in a way that uplifts them, gives them something to do or some place to stay. Her idea of “payment” is not condescending or unreasonable either; she helps the homeless find jobs and asks that they contribute around the Mission in order to get a meal and some coffee.
Basically, she’s one of the most endearing characters in this whole show, and tragically, that’s the whole point. She is full of hope for a world she knows is just on the horizon. I mean, seriously, how many of y’all thought that her “payment” for a meal was going to be a lecture from the Bible? OH GOD, I FELL FOR IT, NO SHAME. Instead, she treats the men in her mission to her vision of the future, where the stars offer a world of possibility and wonder. So I get why Kirk eventually grows very fond of Edith, falling in love with her. As someone who has spent years cataloguing the stars and the beings who live out in the universe, Kirk understands the very same sense of wonder that Edith has. Except that he’s lived it.
Unfortunately, it’s this same admiration that dooms him. I think there’s a vital bit of criticism to be made for the fact that Edith is fridged for literally the entire future of the human race, and I’ll let those more qualified speak to it. The tragedy of “The City on the Edge of Forever” is revealed to us long before we actually see it, painting a grim tone over the second half of the story. We know that Edith is central to the fate of the world, but is that because she lives or she dies? Did Bones cause her death or did he prevent it? Which action doomed them all hundreds of years into the future? Is there anyway to save humanity and Edith at the same time? (I did find the whole pacifism bit of this episode strange, given that what little I know of Harlan Ellison is that he was fairly anti-war? Perhaps that was added in later? I don’t know, but it had a weird and unfortunate implication to it.)
I feel like I should also state that the performances here deserve as much praise as Ellison’s writing. This is a heavy episode, and I don’t think it would have gone over quite as well if we didn’t get such amazing portrayals from William Shatner, Joan Collins, and DeForest Kelly, with a special appearance by Spock’s beanie and pea coat. (THAT IS THE GREATEST THING IN THE UNIVERSE, OH MY GOD.) Seriously, how fantastic are the scenes where Bones first arrives in 1930? Joan Collins is perfect as Edith, and the utter pain and terror between Bones and Kirk during the climax is COMPLETELY UNFAIR. Remember when I said that Kirk was clearly disturbed by what had happened at the end of “The Alternative Factor”? Hahaha, LOOK AT THE END OF THIS EPISODE.
This is a brutal episode of the show, sure, but I don’t think that the tragedy is the only aspect of it that makes it memorable. Watching Kirk and Spock try to make some sort of living for a couple of weeks in New York City is utterly compelling. (Domestic AU!) Edith Keeler is unlike any character this show has ever had. The combination of these two aspects in “The City on the Edge of Forever” gives Star Trek a chance to explore character dynamics and the emotional complexity of time travel. Yes, you can’t ignore the tragedy that is an intricate part of the story, but it’s not a mere gimmick. It’s one of the more affecting stories the show has ever given us, and it sets the bar for the kind of episodes Star Trek can have in the future.
EVERYTHING HURTS, BY THE WAY. Holy shit, what an episode. I feel like I watched a part of history, y’all. Having just spent a lot of time at nerdy conventions for the better part of two months, I am beginning to understand what a massive beast this fandom is. Y’all are everywhere! As I make my way through the canon of Star Trek, I also get to discover why the fandom has been around for so long. This episode in particular feels like one of the best examples of Star Trek‘s appeal, and I don’t want to ignore that. I mean, KIRK/SPOCK DOMESTIC AU. THAT, TOO. But I can see why the show has garnered such a massive, all-encompassing group of fans over the last forty-eight years. It’s episodes like this that help fill in the gaps for me.
The video for “The City on the Edge of Forever” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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