Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The City on the Edge of Forever

***** (5 stars out of 5)

'The City on the Edge of Forever' is quintessential Star Trek. Ask anybody.

Out of his head on an accidental drug overdose, McCoy also leaps out of his century when the ancient Guardian of Forever opens a portal into the past.

Change wrought by the mad doctor alters time: the Enterprise and possibly all human civilization vanishes, leaving only the landing party. Kirk and Spock make the attempt to set things right in Depression Era New York.
They steal local costumes, evade the constabulary, and wind up with menial jobs in the flophouse of Edith Keeler, a social worker.
She's stridently moral, genuinely hopeful, and kind.
Kirk falls hard for Edith while Spock works out what McCoy changed: and it's a doozy. In their original past, Keeler died this week in 1930 in a traffic accident. In the changed past, she convinced the U.S. Government to stay out of WW II on pacifist grounds.
The right choice... at ABSOLUTELY the wrong time. Hitler's Third Reich rose to power and only fell by taking everybody with it. Though it crushes Kirk's heart along with Edith's body, the Captain stops McCoy from saving her life.
The wonderful future Edith dreamed of and longed for is restored, but she will never see it.

Harlan Ellison wrote a dark fairy tale of sacrifice and selfishness which will stand the test of time, even (or especially) in the form that reached the small sixties screen.

The episode is famously controversial for the fact that it was extensively re-written, and for Ellison's suit against Paramount Pictures regarding this. I'll go on record with my opinion: the script did not meet the demands of episodic television. It would have been good as a stand-alone, good in an anthology, and probably would work well in a serialized or arcing format common to TV of our present time.

But a cardinal rule of episodic storytelling is: you gotta reset for the next hack down the line.

The crew must have an adventure, learn a lesson, and repeat.

Kirk and Spock may not end an episode as the enemies Ellison's script called for. (Kirk in the script is willing to kill the entire universe including Enterprise and crew for Edith, while logical Spock stops Kirk saving her by force.) I see no saving their working relationship, let alone any friendship. Not then, probably not ever. The series would have died right there.
Peripherally, I'm also personally in favour of the re-write when it came to drug dealers in a Starfleet crew. A combination of improving humanity and high standards in this optimistic future made that unconscionable in 'Star Trek'. Benefiting from many hundreds of episodes in handfuls of spin-off series following that philosophy, I still agree with the Great Bird and his brood.

I'm a sucker for a time travel story, but also for happy endings. A bittersweet stalemate with a harsh, uncaring universe may be the closest thing Mr. Ellison has to offer me. So while it's unquestionably top-notch drama it isn't a personal favourite.

But it offers several thoughts I'll always treasure: 'Let Me Help' is a three-word phrase Kirk values even over 'I Love You'. And the elusive path to Star Trek's utopia is revealed: people made governments take the money spent on death... and spent it on life.

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