Greatness is incalculable. In a medium like television that depends so heavily on context, prejudices and taste, it is difficult to qualify any one moment as legitimately great. Mediums such as music, film and theater are more capable of being classified as great because they occupy a moment in time, a brief pass through an artistic endeavor. Television doesn’t have that luxury. Viewers become connected to different characters or situations, and as such, what one viewer may love another may claim is near blasphemous. Even some of the most critically lauded shows of all time, such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Seinfeld and M*A*S*H*, are heavily debated on what the greatest moments are due to the way viewers manufacture relationships with the characters.
It seems strange then that “The City on the Edge of Forever” is generally regarded as the greatest episode of Star Trek. Entertainment Weekly, IGN.com and IMDB all rank it as the best episode of the series. TV Guide ranks it as the #68 TV Moment of All Time. All time. Of all the episodes the series has done, of all the planets we have explored and aliens we have met, the critical consensus is that nothing compares to “The City on the Edge of Forever.” I’m not trying to say that its a bad episode. Far from it, there is a genuine sense of brilliance throughout the episode but this is a nearly singularly uncommon incident for any show, especially for a series that maintains as intense of a fan base as Star Trek does.
It’s strange to actually review “The City on the Edge of Forever,” and I choose not to quite do that. Rather, I intend to both attempt to explain why the episode has developed the reputation it has, and also try to critique the notion of vaunting an episode to such a level of prestige.
Its hard to discuss the episode itself without getting into the history of the piece. The original version of the episode was written by vaunted sci-fi author Harlan Ellison. His first script was a story about drug dealers on the Enterprise overdosing themselves back in time, with Kirk and Spock going back to chase them down and fix the effects of their influence on the timeline. Roddenberry wouldn’t have that, saying that there were no drug dealers on his Enterprise, and that the script would need to be rewritten. A couple or rewrites later and a little manipulation from the contracted writers table, and we finally have the version of “The City on the Edge of Forever” that made it to the screen. Naturally, Ellison was furious, believing that he had been screwed by everyone except Leonard Nimoy and he shuffled off.
The early writing problems pretty much set up why the cold open to this episode is so fucking terrible. That may be a bit harsh, but its just really weird. While coming in contact with some sort of time related anomaly, the Enterprise gets knocked around a bit, causing Sulu to fall unconscious. McCoy shows up with a shot of cordrazine, a sort of unexplained wonder drug, and gets Sulu back on his feet, but when the Enterprise takes another hit, Bones ends up injecting himself with the rest of the meds, sending him on a violent bender and insane bender. It looks really awkward and it seems like this was a last minute rewrite that was doing little more than trying to keep Roddenberry’s utopian dreams alive for another day. It works and it still takes the action to the same place that we were headed to but it needlessly complicates itself in an accident that could have been something that had a much deeper context.
McCoy makes his way to the transporter room and beams down to the planet that is causing the anomaly with the landing party (strangely including Scotty and Uhura) close behind. There, they come across a strange doorway and after a rhetorical “what is it,” the Guardian of Forever springs to life, demonstrating its power in riddles and putting Spock’s “primitive” scientific knowledge to shame. There’s some neat humor with Spock being put to shame, and Kirk has fun with it, but everything gets serious when the Guardian shows its ability, projecting a black and white video reel of human history. Seeing a chance to escape, drugged out McCoy leaps through the portal and back into time. Suddenly, everything changes. The Enterprise is gone, the communicators aren’t working and there is a sense that McCoy has really Butterfly-Effected everything. Kirk and Spock decide they are going to jump backwards two weeks before McCoy’s arrival in the time stream and stop him from doing whatever he does that alters the time flow.
There’s a general sense of near operatic grandness to tragedy in “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Even before Kirk and Spock jump back to the nostalgic grandeur of Mayberry, the stakes are huge and slightly tragic. Everything could change, and the remains of the crew could be left on the planet with no way to escape other than projecting themselves back in time. Before we’ve even made it to the doomed pacifists, there is already a sense of dread and tragedy.
This is all reinforced when we make it into the city with Spock and Kirk. Everything they do, up to and including meeting Edith at the mission has a sense of golden age working-man grandeur. They need to steal clothes, and they get some working man flannel and coats. Spock wears a dark stocking cap. They break into a basement and immediately start working at the mission, being fed for the sweat from their brow. I don’t want to romanticize this, but its a mood that we haven’t really seen from the show, and I personally am not a huge fan of it. Generally this sort of mood is reserved for shows that do little but say “oh man, those were the days, without your cell phones and internet pornography.” Its generally used as an intellectual short hand, and I’m always a little put off by it, but it works for the episode.
What doesn’t work is Edith. The manager of a mission in this unnamed city, she’s an optimist and a pacifist that sees the most in everyone and has eerily correct hopes for a future of paunchy middle aged men fighting the Gorn. She’s a pure Harlan Ellison character, right down to her dreamy ideas of the future, but she’s awfully out of place, particularly being cast as an almost too fashion forward beauty. Seriously, she looks like a mod. I half expected we were on Brighton Beach.
So, being an impossibly beautiful woman with lofty hopes for humanity, she and Kirk fall for one another. They go out, and once again she has some wonderfully overstated moments with Kirk when he talks about future novels written on planets orbiting around Orion’s Belt, but it seems sort of romantic if you have a thing for people who babble nonsensically. Meanwhile, Spock works on a makeshift computer and comes to a startling discovery. One newspaper states that Edith will die in the near future, but after a fluctuation, it reads that she will meet with President Roosevelt about the peace movement. After concurring with Kirk, the effects of McCoy’s future meddling becomes clear: McCoy will save Edith from a car accident and her beliefs on pacifism will continue to gain traction until Roosevelt invites her to the White House. Meanwhile, Nazi Germany will have been able to continue researching the atomic bomb without the interference of the invading Americans and will develop nuclear power first, as well as the V2 rockets required to wield it efficiently. This leads the Nazis to winning World War II, preventing the development of Starfleet or the exploration of the galaxy as planned.
Its a well thought out rewrite of history, although I suppose that the peace movement would have had to have some serious clout to prevent the United States from entering the war after Pearl Harbor, but it mostly works and has a grand sense of doom to it. Kirk and Spock must prevent McCoy from interfering, but that means one thing. The woman that Kirk loves must die for history as we know it to survive.
I wrote about the struggles Kirk has to go through when making big decisions in “The Alternative Factor,” and the same vastly applies here. He knows what he has to do to preserve history, but there is a sense that he could have the other way. He could let McCoy save Edith and live the rest of his life in the newly created history. When he meets Edith on the stairwell and catches her as she almost falls, we see the pain even more accutely. Kirk is used to always being the hero, being able to save every maiden and protect his ship at every turn. This is a decision that is even more difficult than what he had to do to Lazarus. In order to pull the trigger on this one, he has to unlearn everything he ever had to learn about being a hero, he has to let someone die when he has the chance to save her. He must look the other way and for Kirk, inaction is even worse than the wrong action.
In the end, Kirk both abandons Edith to her fate, and prevents McCoy from saving her. As the three of them leap back through the Guardian of Forever, their mission complete, there is a moment of silence. Kirk looks up and whispers “lets get the hell out of here.” Its a line that’s been played for laughs, primarily by Mustordayonaise Abe Lincoln, or in testosterone fueled action movies, like every movie that Arnold Schwarzenegger has been in, but Kirk sells it with nothing but remorse. The Guardian is a sign of the life that Kirk could have had, a life that he had to abandon. Its a moment where we have to wonder how comfortable Kirk really is with this. Is the Enterprise really worth the love of a woman who truly cared for him? Is the lonely life he’s chosen really worth what he has to give up?
The answer is mostly arbitrary mainly because Star Trek is stoically episodic in nature. We’re never going to hear about Edith again and although we’ll see Kirk have to make hard decisions, there won’t be a moment when he considers what happened here and work from his actions. This is a benefit and a detriment to shows from the period, but particularly grander television, like Star Trek. It stunts our ability to associate with Kirk as a constantly growing character and it stops us from being able to see the consequences of actions from the past. However, an episodic nature allows us to have wild shifts in style and tone from episode to episode. If Star Trek played out more like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, we never would have had off kilter episodes like “Shore Leave,” “The Conscience of the King” or “The City on the Edge of Forever.” They simply don’t fit the themes and ideas of the show.
This really brings me to the primary question I have on the relative greatness of “The City on the Edge of Forever.” The episode, particularly as Ellison originally intended it, really isn’t Star Trek. Roddenberry was right in that regard, but for the entirely wrong reasons. In all regards, this episode could have been made for just about any show. This could be an episode of The Twilight Zone, or The Outer Limits or even a supernatural episode of just about any show you could think of. There’s no discovery, no final frontiers, no exploration; its a grand operatic play with high ambitions, but not necessarily one fitting with the established universe.
Is that a bad thing? No, but its a very strange thing. My favorite episodes of Star Trek so far could vastly be used on just about any television series with a science fiction bent, but it seems unique that the most popular and most critically beloved episode of Trek doesn’t feature phaser fire, Klingons, Vulcans, naked green women, Kirk karate chopping things, gods/godlike beings, personality shifts, new species or people not prepared for the power they hold. All the hallmarks of Star Trek are barely there. If I had to show a person an episode of Star Trek and say “this is what the show is. This is the clearest product of the mission statement of the show,” there’s no way I’d pick “The City on the Edge of Forever.” I’d probably pick “Devil in the Dark” or “Errand of Mercy,” but that’s just me. These are episodes that could only be Star Trek. They fit comfortably in the mythology and offer stories that work well within the created boundaries.
Once again, I’m not disputing that “The City on the Edge of Forever,” isn’t great. It is. But what does “The Greatest Episode” mean when it just barely fits into the shows oeurve? Is the success of “The City on the Edge of Forever” a fluke, little more than an episode that was lucky enough to be sold to Roddenberry rather than Rod Sterling? Does it even really belong to us?
“I’m a surgeon, not a psychiatrist!”
“My friend is obviously Chinese. I see you’ve noticed the ears. They’re actually easy to explain.”
Next Up: “Operation–Annihilate!” and holy shit, its the finale.