Many Such Journeys: TOS #28, “The City on the Edge of Forever”

The Enterprise visits a planet where a time portal enables a drugged McCoy to inadvertently change Earth’s history, forcing Kirk and Spock to travel to 1930s Earth, where Kirk falls in love.

  • This justly celebrated episode is not without its problems. The premise is striking, the situation dire, the characters and drama compelling, the awful moment of decision tragic and heart-wrenching. But its theory of time travel is a little loosey-goosey, and the pacing – after endless revisions by the producers from Harlan Ellison’s initial version – is rushed, with enough story to have filled another 15 minutes of airtime had it been available.
  • The story opens as the Enterprise is orbiting a mysterious planet that is the source of “ripples in time,” a phenomenon that manifests itself, seemingly, as road-bumps in space, causing the Enterprise to shake and Sulu’s helm panel to overload and erupt in sparks.
    • Kirk’s hasty summary, recited not as a log entry but as a report Kirk instructs Uhura to send to Star Fleet, describes how “something or someone down on this planet can affect changes in time causing turbulent waves in space displacement.”
    • Well OK, time and space are related. Still, one might speculate how else “ripples in time” might have been depicted. Brief flashes of events from the near past – or near future? Intriguing idea.
  • Yet it takes another physical jolt of the Enterprise to trigger the plot: McCoy, summoned the bridge to treat Sulu, injects him with a few drops of cordrazine – a fictional heart stimulant. Then a big jolt knocks McCoy over as he handles the hypospray device, and causes him to inject himself with the complete vial of cordrazine.
  • The effect, within seconds, is to transform McCoy into a raving paranoiac, screaming about “killers” and “assassins,” evading a security guard and disappearing into the turbolift.
  • Kirk’s Act I Captain’s Log is a “supplemental entry,” an odd event because there has been no previous log entry in the episode we’ve seen; presumably one might have been scripted and some point, and gotten cut in later drafts (or even recorded and deleted in editing for time’s sake, as sometimes happened). The effect is we get no stardate for this episode.
    • There’s one later log entry in this episode, in which Kirk states “No stardate,” because of the situation; but it begs the definition of what stardate actually means, as I’ve probably discussed before. In fact, the producers and scriptwriters rather arbitrarily assigned more-or-less progressive four-digit stardates to scripts as they went into development, but none too carefully; thus you have a couple episodes – “The Corbomite Maneuver” and “The Man Trap” – with overlapping ranges of stardates. Someone later tried to rationalize this, explaining how the stardate was determined not just by the passage of time, but by the ship’s position in space, yada yada. That has some superficial plausibility based on our understanding of relativistic effects. But how to account those effects with warp drive? Anyway, the point I’ve made before is that, if stardates can repeat themselves, then they are useless as a measure of identifying the progression of events, even if only the subjective progression of events on any given starship. And the mention of stardates during Star Base visits (e.g. in “Court Martial”) suggests they are meant to be definitive. This was an error of writing and production that no rationalization can ever explain.
  • In any event, the log entry here emphasizes the effects of cordrazine as a “madness” that will have some indefinite effect on McCoy. Spock’s research in the next scene elaborates its effects.
  • For whatever reason, McCoy heads to the transporter room, overcomes the transporter chief, and beams himself down to planet. And the transporter, Spock explains, was – for whatever reason (well, to move the plot along) — focused on the center of the time disturbance.
  • And so Kirk and a landing party – Spock, Scott, Uhura, and two security guards – follow McCoy down to the planet. They see stony ruins in every direction – as well as large donut-shaped object, which Spock identifies as the source of all the time displacement.
  • As Kirk and Spock speculate on its nature, it speaks – in English, of course – synchronously glowing as it does. “Since before your sun burned hot in space, and before your race was born, I have awaited… a question.” And, “I am the Guardian of Forever.” Both machine and being, or neither. Spock doesn’t understand. “I answer as simply as your level of the understand makes possible.”
  • This is good stuff, mostly, albeit a little vague. We’re used by now to experiencing effects and beings apparently operating in ways outside human experience, sometimes by orders of magnitude (e.g. the Organians).
  • Spock realizes that, in a perhaps limited sense, that it’s a time portal. It replies: “A gateway to your own past, if you wish.” And we see, in the center of the donut, a montage of film clips from old Hollywood movies, depicting the history of the human race.
  • McCoy is found and subdued, apparently. Kirk wonders if they might use this time portal to take McCoy back a day, to relive and avoid the accident? (A remarkably trivial thought, it seems to me, considering the infinite potential of such a time portal.) But Spock notes time is passing too quickly to make that practical.
  • He suddenly realizes he should be recording these “centuries of living history…” and turns on his tricorder.
  • And then McCoy wakes up, jumps up, and before anyone can react, runs toward the portal, and jumps through.
  • A moment later, Uhura says she’s lost contact with the ship. Nothing wrong with the communicator.
  • The Guardian explains: “Your vessel, your beginning; all that you knew, is gone.”
  • Kirk and the others – again, very quickly, compared to the pace of other episodes, especially the talky Gene L. Coon originals we’ve just seen– realize what’s happened. History has been changed. Kirk: “Earth’s not there, at least not the Earth we know. We’re totally alone.”
  • Now wait a minute. If history has been changed to the point where the Enterprise never existed – then presumably Kirk and the others wouldn’t exist either. Certainly not in their present state. Yet here they are, their memories of the Enterprise and their own pasts intact.
    • Spock made this point in “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” — that a change in history might cause the Enterprise and its crew to simply wink out of existence.
    • The literature of SF includes hundreds of time travel stories, many of them with uniquely different notions of how time travel would work. Perhaps the most famous is Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” in which stepping on a butterfly in the distant past changes everything in the time traveler’s future. Similar ideas in Alfred Bester’s “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” and R.A. Lafferty’s “Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne.” Canonical time travel stories, with paradoxes, include Robert A. Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” and “All You Zombies.”
    • A key issue is the so-called grandfather paradox, which is close to what Trek is invoking here: if you go back in time and kill your grandfather, before he marries your grandmother and they have children, what happens to *you*? If you vanish, then do you not exist to go back and time to kill your grandfather..?? And so on.
    • Some of the theories: Those hundreds of SF time travel stories have imagined various notions about why the grandfather paradox might not occur, generally by invoking some imaginary fundamental law about how the universe works: e.g., you can’t change the past, it has a momentum that isn’t affected by specific changes in the past. Or: you can change the past, but doing so creates an alternate, parallel history, from which you may or may not be able to return from. Or: you can visit the past, but not change it. Many other variations.
  • Presumably here Kirk and the landing party are protected by some kind of time bubble, being close to the Guardian of Forever, and so immune to the changes in history that McCoy effected; it’s easy to imagine a couple lines of dialogue to justify such a premise. But in a crowded, busy script, there was no time to do so; and for obvious story purposes, we need Kirk and his landing party active characters.
  • Quickly, the story moves on: in Act II, Kirk narrates a “no stardate” log entry, in which he states “For us, time does not exist” – well, yes it does, they are still experiencing their own existence in a linear, time-forward fashion – and summarizes the situation and their plan (all formulated during the commercial break, apparently): to have the Guardian repeat its display of Earth’s history, and for him and Spock to go back into history and try to “set right whatever it was that McCoy changed.”
  • In the moments before Kirk and Spock take the leap, they square things with those they are leaving behind. Kirk: “Scotty… when you think you’ve waited long enough… each of you will have to try it.” Scott: “Good luck, gentlemen.” And Uhura: “Happiness at least, sir.”
    • This last line is the first of many in this episode that seem unusually inspired; without denigrating the work of Trek’s tireless regular writers and producers, it’s tempting to attribute such lines to Harlan Ellison, though I have no way of telling; only intuition. I won’t dwell here on the well-known history about how Harlan Ellison’s initial script was rewritten heavily by the producers, to his eternal distaste; his original script has been published in at least two books, one his own  (https://www.amazon.com/City-Forever-Harlan-Ellison-Collecton/dp/1497642906/), that describes this entire history.
    • Marc Cushman’s book lists the dates of various outlines and script drafts. Ellison was assigned the script in March, 1966, delivered his first full teleplay in June – presumably the one in print in those books – and then did three further drafts of the script, as late as December, 1966. (Ellison, like fellow Trek scripter Theodore Sturgeon, was notoriously slow to deliver, by TV standards.) Thereafter, as with virtually all scripts submitted by outsiders, followed revisions by Gene Coon, D.C. Fontana, and Gene Roddenberry, all the way until February 1967, with the last page revisions by Roddenberry *during filming*.
    • Since Ellison submitted a script as late as December, it’s plausible that some of his dialogue from his last drafts survived into the final filmed script. I have no way of tracking this down. Yet several inspired dialogue passages suggest the input of an inspired writer, that survived the rewrites of Coon, Fontana, and Roddenberry.
    • At the same time – this episode is possibly the best example of how the Trek staff *needed* to rewrite Ellison’s original submission into something that was both filmable on a budget – the original script imagined grandiose sets, scenes in New York with large crowds – and which was consistent with the Trek universe (Roddenberry’s idealism that many petty human conflicts would be overcome by the 23rd century) and with how the Trek characters really behaved (Ellison’s original script had a character on the Enterprise dealing drugs).
  • And so Kirk and Spock leap through…. To a street in 1930s New York.
    • (Filmed at the same studio backlot where “Miri” and “Errand of Mercy” and “The Return of the Archons” and even “The Cage” were filmed – see this section, http://www.startrekhistory.com/acres.html, of startrekhistory.com, and follow the links, to see revealing photos of how individual scenes from these episodes were filmed in the same small area.)
  • They attract attention, in their funny clothes, and with Spock’s ears. Passing old women scowl. They rush across a street – almost hit by a car, an amazing foreshadowing of the episode’s climax – and spot some clothes hanging on an alleyway balcony. [The same alleyway as… see link just above.]
  • But are spotted by a local policeman. If Gene L. Coon couldn’t end this episode with humor, he injected it here. Kirk tries to explain Spock, his ears. “My friend is obviously… Chinese. I see you’ve noticed the ears. … The unfortunate accident he had as a child. He caught his head in a mechanical…. rice-picker.” And so on. Spock uses a similar ploy as in “A Taste of Armageddon” to distract the officer momentarily in order to apply his famous neck pinch. They flee… run down a street and around a corner (past the visibly labeled 21st Street Mission), and down some steps into an unlocked door to a basement.
  • Then follows a bit more time-travel theory. Spock thinks they’ve arrived about a week before McCoy. Kirk: “Arrives where? Honolulu, Boise, San Diego? Why not Outer Mongolia for that matter?” Good question.
  • Spock: “There is a theory…. That time is fluid, like a river; currents, eddies, backwash.” Kirk: “Then the same currents that swept McCoy to a certain time and place might sweep us there too.”
  • Of course this theory is necessitated by plot, as Spock says: “Unless that is true, Captain, we have no hope.”
  • Spock is frustrated that he can’t access the history replay in his tricorder. Kirk wonders why. Spock: “In this zinc-plated, vacuum-tubed culture?” And Kirk teases, “Yes well, it would post an extremely complex problem in logic, Mr. Spock. Excuse me, I sometimes expect too much of you.”
    • But this isn’t a problem of logic. It’s a problem of resources. Trek promulgated a very loose idea of what ‘logic’ was about, in reference to Mr. Spock, more often than not insisting logic in scenes where technical logic did not actually apply. As here.
  • And then they are discovered by the kindly Edith Keeler, who is generous to a fault, inviting them to stay – despite their breaking in, despite their white lie about it being cold outside – to work, cleaning up her 21st Street Mission, for 15 cents an hour, 10 hours a day.
  • The next, key, scene has Kirk and Spock in the ground-floor soup kitchen, accepting the food down a cafeteria line and then listening to Edith Keeler preach. An old man at their table warns them: “You expect to eat for free or something? You gotta listen… to Goodie Twoshoes.”
  • And Edith speaks, urging the men who’ve taken refuge there: “I do insist that you do survive. Because the days, and the years ahead, are worth living for.”
  • Her speech gets more extraordinary by the moment, especially considering that Kirk and Spock are hearing her: “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… in some sort of space ship.”
  • And so on. Spock: “Speculation? Gifted insight?” (Or currents in time that have swept them to a like-minded local?)
  • Edith finds them a “flop” – a flat, a place to sleep – in her building.
  • Later, in their flop, Kirk returns with groceries. Spock is trying to build a mechanism to connect to his tricorder so that he can slow the speed of replay down to examine the history of where they are. The mechanism is spread out across the bed. Spock advises Kirk that he needs a couple pounds of platinum. Kirk advises him that’s not practical, and Spock replies that Kirk is asking him to “construct a mnemonic memory circuit using stone knives and bearskins.”
    • Isn’t “mnemonic memory” redundant?
  • Spock pilfers a clockmakers set of tools to help him construct a mechanism. Edith discovers him; Kirk apologizes. She wonders why they both seem so out of place. Kirk wonders where she thinks they belong. More inspired dialogue:
    • Edith: You? At his side, as if you’ve always been there and always will.
    • And after Spock makes a remark, she finishes it: ‘Captain.’ Even when he doesn’t say it…
  • Kirk is falling in love with Edith Keeler.
  • And then follows a beautiful scene, with that inspired dialogue, as Kirk and Edith walk down the street. To the background tune of “Goodnight, Sweetheart.”
    • Edith: Why does Spock call you ‘Captain’? Were you in the war together?
    • Kirk: We… served together.
    • Edith: And you, um, don’t want to talk about it? … Whatever it is, let me help.
    • Kirk: “Let me help.” A hundred years or so, from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He’ll recommend those three words even over “I love you.”
  • A truly lovely thought. And then we get the added science-fictional perspective, in the following lines:
    • Edith: Century from now? Who is he? Where does he come from – where will he come from?
    • Kirk: Silly question, want to hear a silly answer?
    • Edith: Yes.
    • Kirk (pointing up into the sky): A planet… circling that far left star in Orion’s belt. See?
  • Maybe my favorite lines of dialogue in the entire series.
  • The plot quickly thickens. Spock finishes his device, and shows Kirk the replays of the history he recorded: in one version, a “social warrior is killed” here in 1930 – Edith Keeler – in a street accident; and in another version, Edith Keeler, in 1936, confers with the president, as a pacifist, and thus delays the United States’ entry into the World War II. Alternate history: the US delay enabled Germany to build the a-bomb first. And thus, it’s implied, Germany’s takeover of the world prevented the entire future history of humanity’s ascent into space, the formation of the Federation, the existence of the starship Enterprise.
  • Spock’s conclusion is ominous: Edith Keeler must be allowed to die. Somehow McCoy must have prevented her death.
  • Act Four begins with striking scenes, as McCoy erupts from the time portal onto the same street where Kirk and Spock appeared – but some weeks later, and at night. McCoy is still insane with effect of cordrazine, screaming out “Assassins! Murderers!”
  • Again, insightful dialogue. McCoy spots a street tramp.
    • “What planet is this??”
    • And McCoy looks around, seeming to perceive Old Earth, and looks up into the sky: “The constellations seem right.”
  • And McCoy, realizing where he is, realizing what medicine was like in 20th century Earth, sobs to himself about how hospitals needed sutures and needles, sewing up people like garments… until he collapses on the ground, passing out.
  • And the street tramp, poking at McCoy’s body, finds his phaser. And stepping away, activates it, and disintegrates himself.
  • The final scenes involve the coming together of all the characters. McCoy wanders into Edith’s 21st Street Mission, where Edith takes care of him, unaware of his connection to Kirk and Spock. McCoy wonders where he is.
    • McCoy: I am unconscious, or demented.
    • Edith: I have a friend that talks about Earth the same way that you do. Would you like to meet him?
    • McCoy: I’m a surgeon… not a psychiatrist. I am Leonard McCoy, senior medical officer aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.
    • Edith: I don’t mean to disbelieve you, but… that’s hardly a Navy uniform.
    • McCoy: It’s quite all right, it’s quite all right, dear… Because I don’t believe in you, either.
  • A random reference to a “Clark Gable” movie cues Edith to mention McCoy, alerting Kirk and Spock, who rush to greet him in jubilation; Edith, across the street, wondering what’s going on, starts to cross the street
  • And doesn’t see the truck that strikes her down. Kirk sees it. McCoy sees it. McCoy makes a move to rush to save her—and Kirk stops him. A scream, then silence. McCoy is aghast: “You deliberately stopped me, Jim! I could have saved her! Do you know what you just did??”
  • Kirk, in existential anguish, cannot speak.
  • Spock replies: “He knows, Doctor, he knows.”
    • Worth noting just one more thing about Ellison’s original script: in that, Kirk *was willing* to save Edith, for love, even if it meant the sacrifice of his future and the entire Federation. And Spock stopped him. A different ending; a different reading of Kirk’s character.
  • And then, magically, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, all back in their original uniforms, emerge out of the Guardian, where Scott observes that “You only left a moment ago.”
  • Guardian: “Time has resumed its shape. All is as it was before. Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway.
  • Uhura observes that the Enterprise is there, asking if they want to beam up.
  • And Kirk, bitterly, curtly, says, “Let’s get the hell out of here.
  • There is no cute final scene, no Enterprise flyaway. We see the Guardian, only, as the final credits appear.

A couple music notes, to be filled out:

  • The music of the Guardian of Forever is a creepy, organ version of the main Corbomite theme.
  • As Kirk and Spock flee the policeman, we hear Finnegan’s fight music from “Shore Leave.”
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