Scripted by famed science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison and directed by Joseph Pevny, “The City on the Edge of Forever” is often ranked as the greatest episode of the original series. I wouldn’t put it quite that highly—I have a bunch of problems with it, as I’ll discuss.
Still, even if you find the cutesy “kill baby Hitler” time-travel dilemma to be annoying and glib, “City” has a lot to recommend it. Not least among those upsides is a witty script and some of the best performances of the series from Leonard Nimoy (as first officer Spock), DeForest Kelly (as Dr. McCoy) and William Shatner (as Captain Kirk.)
This is really the first time the series fully explores the Kirk/Spock comedic potential that would become a centerpiece of some of the best episodes like “A Piece of the Action” and “The Trouble With Tribbles.” Many of the set pieces are just wonderful. Kirk trying to explain Spock’s ears to a 1930 policeman (“He caught his head in a mechanical rice picker”) is practically Mel Brooks-worthy. So is Spock’s crotchety exclamation that Kirk is trying to get him to build a computer with the technological equivalent of “stone knives and bearskins.”
Nimoy and Shatner are both Jewish, and part of the fun of the episode is the way in which they evoke the hectoring back and forth and blustering rhythms of vaudeville sketch comedy. It’s like going into the past has allowed our heroes to connect to their inner Marx Brothers, adding a bit (or more than a bit) of welcome Jewish schtick to the episode’s mostly moralistic and Christian milieu.
Alas, it can’t all be schtick. There also must be plot. The USS Enterprise is mapping ripples of time distortion around a distant planet. Helmsman Sulu (George Takei) is zapped by a short circuit, and Dr. McCoy rushes to the bridge to give him a life-saving couple of drops of a powerful stimulant cordrazine.
Sulu revives, but unfortunately no one in the future uses seat-belts, and a jolt to the ship causes McCoy to inject himself with a massive overdose of the drug. This gives DeForest Kelly the chance to chew up all the scenery, as McCoy descends into extremely sweaty, google-eyed paranoia. He rushes off the bridge and manages to beam himself down to the planet thanks to the standard incredibly lousy Starfleet security.
Kirk, Spock, Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Engineer Scott (James Doohan) and some others beam down to the planet to retrieve McCoy. They manage to apprehend and knock him out. But they also discover a giant donut-type thing that unexpectedly announces it is the Guardian of Forever and can let them travel to the past.
The Guardian tells the landing party their technology is puny, and then starts playing the entire past history of humanity for them to show off. Spock sets his tricorder to record this historic treasure trove of info just before McCoy wakes up, starts with the screaming again (“Assassins!”) and leaps through the donut dingus.
Immediately the landing party loses contact with the Enterprise. McCoy has somehow changed history, and the Earth and Federation that the landing party knew no longer exists. The Guardian says, “oops” (not really) and offers to let them jump through to try to stop McCoy from doing whatever he did. Spock figures out the best moment with his magic tricorder, and he and Kirk make the leap.
They end up in the US in 1930, where they look very out of place in their Starfleet pajamas and (in Spock’s case) pointy ears. They steal some clothes, run from a policeman, and end up in the mission of Edith Keeler, played by the much-celebrated Joan Collins (though the sad fact is she doesn’t have much to do except look beautiful and saintly.)
Keeler offers them work and a place to stay. Spock sets about trying to access the historical info he got in his tricorder to figure out their next move. Kirk starts romancing Edith Keeler because she looks like Joan Collins and what the hey?
The “hey” turns out to be that Edith is the dangerous time nexus that holds the plot together. She was destined to die in a car accident in 1930. But somehow McCoy saved her and she started a national peace movement that slowed US entry into WWII. The Nazis developed the atom bomb and took over the world, presumably, which is why there’s no Federation in the future anymore.
McCoy finally materializes in this time period, still chewing scenery and sweating. He too stumbles into Edith’s mission, where she gets him to calm down. He finally comes to his senses, though he’s obviously somewhat confused at where the improbable plot has taken him.
Kirk and Spock don’t know McCoy has arrived until Edith mentions it to Kirk as they head out to a movie together. Kirk rushes back to the mission to try to find McCoy, who he runs into on the sidewalk. There is a joyful reunion, which Edith tries to join. But as she walks across the street, a car heads towards her. McCoy attempts to save her, but Kirk stops him. She dies, the world is saved, and Kirk is heartbroken. Irony, tragedy—the end.
Kill Baby Hitler, Except Baby Hitler Is Good Now
The ironic, tragic plot is obviously engineered for maximum angst. It’s also, unfortunately, engineered as a Cold War apology.
Nazi Germany was an evil regime and a global threat; US intervention there was the right choice if intervention has ever been the right choice. In the Cold War, however, the righteousness of World War II was often used to buttress arguments for committing troops to much more morally dubious conflicts—such as Vietnam, which was ongoing when “City on the Edge of Forever” aired.
Edith’s peace movement is meant to evoke the anti-war movement of the time. The episode does have some sympathy for that movement. “She was right,” Kirk insists, with his eye on the semi-utopia of the far-future Federation. “Peace was the way.” Spock nods. “She was right,” he says, “but at the wrong time.” The message for peaceniks is that a world without war is a noble dream. But pragmatically, right now, we’ve got to bomb Southeast Asia.
Again, there was good reason to intervene in World War II. But even given that, the episode stacks the deck against Edith and antiwar movements in an egregious and slippery way.
First of all, Germany was nowhere near developing an atomic bomb at the end of the war; they’d only engaged in preliminary research. Keeler would have had to have delayed US entry into the war by years.
The US was quite concerned about Germany’s atomic program though; would they have suspended their own research even if they weren’t in the war? And do we know an American peace movement would have stopped FDR from offering aid to the allies, leading Japan to attack Pearl Harbor? There was already a powerful noninterventionist movement after all. It wasn’t altruistic, but fascist, and led by such prominent figures as Charles Lindbergh.
Because World War II is in our past as well as Kirk’s, the show is able to suggest that it is telling us the truth about what happened and what will happen. But this is a ruse, both because their alternate future is not very convincing, and because arguments about war and peace aren’t made with perfect knowledge of the future.
Kirk and Spock aren’t just guessing that Edith is on the wrong path; they know she is. This kind of absolute precognition flattens all moral arguments. Being able to predict the future is a perfect trump card in any argument about war and peace. You say we should withdraw from Vietnam? Well, I know for sure that if we do, the world will be destroyed!
The show itself at the very end seems to acknowledge that it has created a frustrating and unfair fait accompli. When Kirk, Spock, and McCoy return to their time after Edith’s death, the Guardian tells them they can take many more such trips and have many more adventures in time. It almost sounds like Ellison himself is making a pitch to script more shows.
Kirk isn’t interested though. “Let's get the hell out of here,” he says. It’s the last line of the episode, and perhaps my favorite. Shatner looks well and truly disgusted with the Guardian, the scriptwriters, and everyone who put him in the position of killing off a pacifist activist in the name of propagandizing for a pointless war that (we now know in the future) the US was going to lose anyway.
Every episode of Star Trek: The Original Series is currently streaming on Paramount+.
Rating: 8.5/10 SPECS
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.