Stardate: 2267, 1930 (technically there is no stardate given but it may be considered 3134.6-8 per Harlan Ellison’s initial script)
Original Air Date: April 6, 1967
Writer: Harlan Ellison
Director: Joseph Pevney
“Earth’s not there… at least, not the Earth we know. We’re totally alone.”
The Enterprise is orbiting an unexplored planet when suddenly a red alert crisis strikes. This is followed by waves of turbulence as the engines begin to overload, and an injured Mr. Sulu collapses (though he soon recovers from a “heart flutter” thanks to Dr. McCoy’s medical treatment using a hypo injection of cordriazine). As it currently stands, the Enterprise is trapped in the midst of a strange series of time ripples. Just before they can come clear of the ripples, however, one final heavy displacement sends the ship reeling and in the turbulence Dr. McCoy accidentally injects himself with a volatile dose of cordriazine sending him into a violent rage. He begins screaming about “killers” as he storms off the bridge and Kirk issues a security alert.
Bones has now become a serious threat. He hijacks the transporter and beams himself down to the planet below which is still in the midst of disruptions so Kirk orders a landing party down to the surface consisting of Kirk, Spock, Scott, Uhura, Galloway, and a security officer. On the surface, they discover the ruins of an ancient city (some 10,000 centuries old, per Spock) and in the center of the ruins sits a large portal known as the “Guardian of Forever.” It is somehow both machine and living being (yet strangely neither at the same time), and it is also a gateway for time travel. Before the portal can be properly examined, a crazed Bones suddenly reveals himself before dashing into the Guardian of Forever sending him backward in time. Unfortunately this dramatically changes the present (the Enterprise suddenly no longer exists).
Kirk and Spock have only one chance to travel backward in time slightly further than Bones in order to prevent his cordriazine-crazed time-altering acts. The portal sends Kirk and Spock back to New York City in 1930, perhaps a month or even a week before Bones is set to arrive. Kirk and Spock steal some clothes and outrun the police (in an amusing gag) only to wind up in a soup kitchen called “Mission” on 21st Street. It is run by a lovely social worker named Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). She is an optimistic young woman, passionate about science and world peace –a true forward-thinking, pacifist, optimist, and futurist. Kirk falls madly in love with Edith only to discover a painful fact. Spock notes that in order to accomplish their mission, “Edith Keeler must die” or else risk altering the course of history. Without her death, the American peace movement may arise and allow for the Nazis to actually gain a nuclear weapon and perhaps win World War II. Sadly, Kirk will not be able to pursue his flowering love for Edith.
“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 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’s vision of the future
In the end, Dr. McCoy arrives through the portal, still frothing from his cordriazine shot, and winds up in the care of Edith Keeler. But ag just the moment when Kirk, Spock, and Bones are all reunited –all while Kirk and Edith are on a date to see a Clark Gable film– a car frantically swerves into the road right where Edith is standing. Kirk tearfully prevents Bones from rescuing Edith and she dramatically dies inn the middle of the road. Her death is a sad and sacrificial necessity in order for history to move forward. This is perhaps one of the most emotionally gripping moments in all of Star Trek as Kirk’s budding love is cut down before it can even begin. This scene is a true demonstration of Kirk’s strength as Captain, his leadership supersedes his personal whims, no matter how strong. The crewmen travel back through the portal and then beam aboard the Enterprise as Kirk turns away and tersely swears, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” The Guardian of Forever is left alone on this derelict planet once again, in this dark corner of the cosmos perhaps to sit for another 10,000 centuries.
“Time has resumed its shape. All is as it was before.
Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway.”
Despite all the drama behind the scenes, “The City on the Edge of Forever” has emerged as one of the most critically lauded episodes of Star Trek ever made, and generally speaking I have to agree with the consensus. “The City on the Edge of Forever” is as tender as it is haunting. Rather than reiterating the well-trod playboy image of Captain Kirk, instead in this episode William Shatner delivers a tearful performance as a vulnerable Kirk, powerless to the task ahead of him, a task which requires the death of perhaps his one true love, Edith Keeler, played by the brilliant Joan Collins. While Kirk often must preserve the needs of the many against the needs of the few, Edith’s demise is doubly tragic in this case because she stands alone as that rare kindred spirit for Kirk, a lover out of time who nevertheless must be sacrificed for the greater good. This love between Kirk and Keeler is deeply felt but can sadly never be true.
While the 1930s is nearly a hundred years ago today, 1930 was a mere three decades or so prior to when this episode first aired, and the horrors of the ’30s and ’40s were no doubt freshly imprinted upon the minds of television viewers in the ’60s. Thus the idea that Hitler may actually have won the war but for the death of Edith Keeler affirms she must indeed tragically die, though she remains in the memories of most viewers a beloved, noble heroine. I should also note that Fred Steiner delivers a powerful, classically emotive score for this episode, much of it combined from other classic episodes. It bubbles up feelings of nostalgia for the golden age of old Hollywood.
In many ways, “The City on the Edge of Forever” is a tale of two cities –one of which lies in ancient ruins on an unknown planet (not unlike other long-dead civilizations in episodes like “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” or “The Cage”). The other city is of course The Big Apple in the 1930s. While the bustle of NYC foreshadows the coming of the Second World War, it is nevertheless contrasted with the desolate decay of the uncharted “Guardian” planet, home of a long-dead empire which once dwelt where the Guardian of Forever now sits alone.
Classic science fiction writer Harlan Ellison (1934-2018) wrote the initial draft of this script and at Gene Roddenberry’s request, he wrote two additional drafts, but the final story was revised considerably such that only two lines or so were kept in the final product. Deeply embittered, Mr. Ellison went public with his many criticisms (in fact he later published a book about the dilemma as well as his original script which diverges considerably from the episode). Many fans regard Mr. Ellison as an easily temperamental personality though perhaps he levied some legitimate concerns. At any rate, this episode was a success following the rewrites of Gene Roddenberry, Steven Carabatsos, D. C. Fontana and Gene L. Coon (a rare moment where the work of many hands produced something extraordinary). Aside from the petty squabbles behind the scenes, Harlan Ellison’s original script had some fascinating twists for Star Trek: there was a new drug-dealing character named Beckwith, a hilltop city lined with guardians, and Kirk actually traveled back to Chicago rather than New York City.
Initially, Harlan Ellison was one of the first writers recruited by Gene Roddenberry for Star Trek. He had won a 1965 Writers Guild of America Award for his Outer Limits episode “Demon with a Glass Hand.” In writing “City on the Edge of Forever,” Ellison was inspired by reading a biography of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and thought that it would be an interesting idea for Kirk travel back in time and fall in love with a woman of good intent, but someone who must die in order to preserve the future. Ellison considered that it would have a heart-wrenching effect on Kirk.
Director Joseph Pevney (1911-2008) is tied with Marc Daniels for most TOS episodes directed. He later remarked that as much effort went into creating this episode as other feature-length films he had worked on.
Star Trek Trivia:
- This episode was a Hugo Award Winner as well as a Writers Guild of America Award Winner.
- Harlan Ellison is often credited with being a savior of the show. He joined with other science fiction writers, including Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon and Frank Herbert to form “The Committee”. They wrote to the combined membership of the recent World Science Fiction Convention to ask NBC to save the show. Otherwise Star Trek might not have survived its first season.
- The set for New York City was the same backlot where Star Trek shot “Miri” and “The Return of the Archons” –it was the same set as Mayberry as featured in The Andy Griffith Show.
- The experience creating this episode led to a now-legendary decades-long feud between Harlan Ellison and Gene Roddenberry. I have listed some of the details above.
- This episode went over budget by more than $50,000 and overran its production schedule.
- Numerous mistakes were made behind the scenes of this episode, such as in the set design where there was an instruction for the creation of “runes” which were mistaken to mean “ruins”.
- There is a rumor that William Shatner rewrote portions of this script because he was upset that Leonard Nimoy had too many lines.
- Apparently, Joan Collins’s four-year-old daughter Tara was a huge Star Trek fan so she accepted the invitation to appear in this episode (much to the crew’s surprise).
- This was one of the most expensive Star Trek episodes ever made after the pilots. It also had one of the longest shoots in Star Trek history at eight and a half days.
- Robert Justman later claimed this episode was intended to be a commentary on the Vietnam War.
- NBC strongly objected to Kirk’s final line, “Let’s get the hell out of here” as it was one of the first examples of the use of “hell” as a swear work on network television. Imagine such a thing being controversial now!
- At one point, there is a homeless man who steals Dr. McCoy’s phaser and accidentally kills himself –whatever happened to him? Presumably his death did not also cause a cataclysmic shift in time either?
- Critics have noted the suspicious similarity between the Guardian of Forever in this episode and the godlike being in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
- Television voice actor Bartell LaRue performed the voice of the Guardian of Forever.
- The footage briefly visible through the time portal is taken mostly from from old Paramount Pictures and RKO Pictures films.
- Technically, no stardate is given for this episode, however in Harlan Ellison’s original script the date may be considered to be somewhere around 3134.6-8