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The Essential Geek #11: "The City on the Edge of Forever"

The Essential Geek #11: "The City on the Edge of Forever"

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What is left to be said about "Star Trek"? As a franchise, it's one of the great towering monoliths of modern geekdom. Even if its most recent series and movies have left a great deal to be desired in the watchability department. As a creative force, it's had an incalculable influence on the science fiction films and shows of today.

For the moment, let's ignore all that, and look at "Star Trek" in the most basic way possible, as just a collection of hour-long TV episodes and feature-length movies. On those terms, it's pretty freaking great. And yet, it doesn't always get the credit it deserves. It's easier to make the standard "Beam me up, Scotty" gags and dismiss "Trek" as little more than a quirky, kitschy phenomenon. Yet in its best moments, it is exciting, groundbreaking, thought-provoking, fun and brilliant stuff.

Nowhere is this more evident than in "City on the Edge of Forever," perhaps the greatest hour of television "Trek" has ever produced, and one of the great enduring sci-fi tales of the century. I'm not exaggerating; it's that good.

"City" is an episode of classic "Trek" from near the end of the show's first season in 1967. (For the newbies, "classic" refers to the first "Star Trek" series, the one with Kirk and Spock and the beaming up and the mini-skirted ensigns.) As it opens, McCoy is shooting Sulu up with some drugs to fix a heart flutter, and the Enterprise is being buffeted by ripples in time. One of these ripples forces McCoy to accidentally shoot himself up with a ton of his own drugs, which drives him temporarily insane. In this freaked-out state, he beams down to the nearest planet.

Kirk and Spock follow, and on the planet's surface they find the Guardian of Forever, a time portal that McCoy naturally bolts right through, because he's crazy on the drugs. Instantly, the Enterprise vanishes! Looks like McCoy has altered the past, and that Kirk and Spock will have to use the Guardian to go back in time and make things right.

Only it's not that simple. Kirk and Spock do go back to where McCoy ended up, the America of the Great Depression. They arrive several days before McCoy is due to appear, and they wind up doing odd jobs for Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), a pretty and kind woman who runs a shelter for delinquents. Kirk does exactly what he knows no virile starship captain should ever do: He falls in love with Edith.

Being that this is a time travel episode, and that time travel plots almost always hinge on the smallest of coincidences for their dramatic punch, you may have already guessed that Edith Keeler is somehow the crux of the entire space-time conundrum faced by the intrepid crew of the Enterprise. It turns out that McCoy will snatch Edith Keeler from the front of an oncoming car and save her life, and so when McCoy
appears and suddenly Kirk is there ... Well, I don't want to spoil it too much, but things don't end well. It's a heartbreaker.

"City" is one of the rare instances in which "Trek" transcends itself. It's not that "Trek" can't be good on its own terms, but most of the best episodes require at least an understanding of, if not an affection for, the core characters and situations of "Star Trek." "City" stands alone because its story is so strong that you don't need to really like Kirk, Spock and the gang to be affected by it. It's more universal than their usual space-hopping adventures.

It's a universal tale of love and loss, and a classic case of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few ... or the one. Kirk has to sacrifice someone he cares about to save the entire future of the universe as he knows it. It's the personal writ large, and the epic brought to earth, in the form of two people who love each other but cannot be together.

That's what makes it one of the best science fiction tales of the century. If You've learned nothing from spending time with The Essential Geek, it's that story and character and conflict will always win out over big FX, cool concepts, and tired cliches. "City on the Edge of Forever" has the kind of timeless story that will probably be floating around in the ether for the next ten thousand years. Its characters have survived three seasons of television, six movies, and countless books, so it's safe to say they're pretty strong. And as for conflict ... Well, just see the above, re: needs of many, needs of few ... or one, etc. It's all there; all the pieces fit.

Like all great sci-fi, "City on the Edge of Forever" works so well not because it's about far-flung times and strange new worlds, but because it's about people like us, the feelings they feel, the decisions they make and what those decisions mean.

The story behind the development of "City" is almost as thrilling as the episode itself. Sci-fi author Harlan Ellison was credited as writer on the script, but complained for decades at conventions about the rewrite that Gene Roddenberry ("Trek" creator and exec producer of the original show) did on his original draft. Finally, Ellison released a book in which he presented for the first time his version of the script, along with a full telling of the story behind the episode's development. The book is an excellent read for "Trek" fans who love the episode and want to hear more about the behind-the-scenes of the original "Star Trek."

If you're itching to check out "City," your best bet is to keep an eye on the listings at the Sci-Fi Channel, which still reruns the original series frequently throughout the week. SciFi.Com offers the title of each episode shown, so it should be easy to track down. There's a DVD available of the episode, but it's from Paramount's first attempt at releasing the original "Trek" on DVD, and so you'll pay at least $15 for a disc with only two episodes on it. If you must own it, wait until later this year, when the entire first season of "Star Trek" is expected to be released in one boxed set.

So tape it, rent it, buy it, download it if you gotta, but see see see "City on the Edge of Forever" sooner rather than later. It's vibrant proof that sci-fi is still the best medium we have for boldly going ... not where no man has gone before, but where we've all been and will continue to go, in the privacy of our own hearts.

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  • Hi Matt: Just read your article. I don't consider myself to be a Trekkie

    but I have got to say that this particular hour of TV

    "City on the Edge of Forever" is one of the most interesting hours of television

    that I have ever watched.

    Joan Collins is fantastic as the lost love Edith Keeler.

    Even if you aren't a Trekkie I recommend seeing this episode. Truly one of

    the best hours of television ever produced by anyone, let alone by Gene

    Roddenberry and company!


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