Welcome to one of the best episodes of the entire Star Trek franchise. Season 1, episode 28 of Star Trek: The Original Series: The City on the Edge of Forever. It’s written by the great Harlan Ellison, airing on April 6, 1967, starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, with guest star Joan Collins.
In The City on the Edge of Forever, the Enterprise orbits a mysterious planet (you know, as they do), the ship begins shuddering violently because of ripples in time. These time distortions toss everyone about until Sulu is knocked out, bringing Dr. McCoy to the bridge. Because of a slight heart flutter (yeah, George Takei–you’re literally a heartthrob!), McCoy must inject him with just a few drops of cordrazine. In small doses, it’s just fine, but if someone were to inject himself with an entire hypospray, Lord help us all.
So, another time distortion hits the Enterprise, and McCoy stumbles, accidentally injecting himself with an entire hypospray of cordrazine. As Kirk narrates: “Two drops of cordrazine can save a man’s life. A hundred times that amount has just accidentally been pumped into Doctor McCoy’s body. In a strange, wild frenzy, he has fled the ship’s Bridge.” McCoy attacks Lt. Kyle (John Winston) in the transporter room and beams down to the surface of this mysterious planet. Once there, he finds his way to The Guardian of Forever, an omniscient time portal, and jumps through to Earth’s past, circa 1930s. And something he does there will wipe out the timeline as we know it:
Guardian: Your vessel, your beginning, all that you knew is gone.
Kirk: McCoy has somehow changed history.
Kirk continues in his Captain’s Log: “For us, time does not exist. McCoy, back somewhere in the past, has effected a change in the course of time. All Earth history has been changed. There is no starship Enterprise. We have only one chance. We have asked the Guardian to show us Earth’s history again. Spock and I will go back into time ourselves and attempt to set right whatever it was that McCoy changed.”
So, Kirk and Spock must follow. They must blend in and search for their friend while hoping to affect the past as little as possible. While there, they befriend Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), a social worker, and Kirk falls in love. As they do research, hoping to find signs of McCoy, they discover that Edith has had a profound effect on the timeline and that if she doesn’t die, everything will be lost. She’ll lead a pacifist movement that delays the US involvement in World War II, which gives Germany enough time to develop an A-Bomb first.
KIRK: We know her future. Within six years from now, she’ll become very important. Nationally famous.
SPOCK: Or Captain, Edith Keeler will die this year. I saw her obituary. Some sort of traffic accident.
KIRK: You must be mistaken. They both can’t be true.
SPOCK: Captain, Edith Keeler is the focal point in time we’ve been looking for, the point that both we and Doctor McCoy have been drawn to.
KIRK: She has two possible futures then and depending on whether she lives or dies, all of history will be changed. And McCoy
SPOCK: Is the random element.
KIRK: In his condition, what does he do? Does he kill her?
SPOCK: Or perhaps he prevents her from being killed. We don’t know which.
KIRK: Get this thing fixed. We must find out before McCoy arrives.
SPOCK: Captain, suppose we discover that in order to set things straight again, Edith Keeler must die?
This brings us to a truly heartbreaking moment–one of the true moments of great acting by William Shatner, beyond giving orders and inspiring people. He must allow Edith, the woman he’s fallen in love with, to die.
What works best here is not just the plot, but the deep bond that all the characters share. The triumvirate of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are at their best when it’s just them, doing their thing. McCoy needs saving, so of course, his friends jump through time to bring him home. Along the way, of course, Kirk befriends a woman. However, she’s not just some conquest for him to bed. She’s a real person with a depth to her. She’s also a strong woman, single-handedly running a soup kitchen, telling the men there what to do and how to behave, but not in a domineering, evil way. It’s difficult to see how her life would lead to the wrong outcome of the war. And so, she must die. It’s a brutal scene, with more impact because we don’t see it. We only see Shatner and Kelley struggling to hold one another back from saving the woman who has touched both their lives.
Just as Shatner shines in his romance storyline, DeForest Kelley sells every second of his craziness. He looks absolutely deranged, running around the ship, mumbling with incoherent paranoia, then getting to the past he’s mottled with red-rimmed eyes, stumbling about. He’s amazing.
This is one of the first times we see Spock needing to hide his ears, with the wonderfully racially sensitive explanation of his “deformity” to a police officer who catches them stealing clothes.
Kirk: My friend is obviously Chinese. I see you’ve noticed the ears. They’re actually easy to explain.
Spock: Perhaps the unfortunate accident I had as a child.
Kirk: The unfortunate accident he had as a child. He caught his head in a mechanical rice picker. But fortunately, there was an American missionary living close by who was actually a skilled plastic surgeon in civilian life.
While it’s more than a little racist, it’s also really funny. Shatner and Nimoy actually seem to be riffing here, though of course they weren’t, and it’s so very 60s and 40s at the same time, which is why it works.
The Guardian of Forever is seriously intriguing. There could be an entire series based just on it. It only appears once more onscreen in Star Trek (“Yesteryear,” from the animated series), though it does show up in quite a few of the novels. Just look at how it describes itself:
Kirk: Then what is it?
Guardian: A question. Since before your sun burned hot in space and before your race was born, I have awaited a question.
Kirk: What are you?
Guardian: I am the Guardian of Forever.
Kirk: Are you machine or being?
Guardian: I am both and neither. I am my own beginning, my own ending.
Spock: I see no reason for answers to be couched in riddles.
Guardian: I answer as simply as your level of understanding makes possible.
Spock: A time portal, Captain. A gateway to other times and dimensions, if I’m correct.
Guardian: As correct as possible for you. Your science knowledge is obviously primitive.
Kirk: Annoyed, Spock?
Guardian: Behold. A gateway to your own past, if you wish.
I’d watch the show that was just Starfleet Temporal officers travelling through the Guardian!
“The City on the Edge of Forever” won the Hugo award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1968, and rightly so. I didn’t mention it back with “The Menagerie,” but that episode also won the Hugo in 1967.
KIRK: You were actually enjoying my predicament back there. At times, you seem quite human.
SPOCK: Captain, I hardly believe that insults are within your prerogative as my commanding officer.
– I love their relationship!
“Where would you estimate we belong, Miss Keeler?”
“You? At his side, as if you’ve always been there and always will.”
– Edith describing Spock and Kirk’s relationship
Edith: Now, let’s start by getting one thing straight. I’m not a do-gooder. If you’re a bum, if you can’t break off of the booze or whatever it is that makes you a bad risk, then get out. Now I don’t pretend to tell you how to find happiness and love when every day is just a struggle to survive, but I do insist that you do survive because the days and the years ahead are worth living for.
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. Our deserts will bloom.
– This is a pure, unadulterated glimpse into Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future, and it’s grand.
Coming up next…
Sorry, guys. After this amazing presentation of science fiction, we’re going to get an enormously campy episode, chock full of flying pancakes. Yes, you heard me. Flying, slimy pancakes! Get ready!
Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.