“The City on the Edge of Forever” is one of the handful of TOS episodes I’ve actually seen before. A few years ago, my dad was living with us for a short time and–back in the days of actually having cable–we put on BBC America for a classic Trek marathon. I remember this episode particularly because when it started, Papa said something like, “This is the one where they go back in time to the Great Depression.” And I–who had missed the dialogue about time rifts and had only seen Bones OD on some fictional drug and lose his damn mind–was like, “Uh, are you sure? Because that plot does not feel like a natural transition to this teaser.”
But, of course, he was right. In one of TOS’s most highly respected episodes, Bones, Spock, and Kirk do indeed go back in time to the 1930’s. And even more surprising? I actually agree with everybody: “The City on the Edge of Forever” is a damn good episode of Trek.
There will be SPOILERS for this episode and probably the Star Trek franchise in general. You’ve been warned.
WHAT GOES DOWN, BASICALLY
The Enterprise is investigating time ripples emanating from a nearby planet when Sulu’s console explodes. Bones save his life with some very potent drug, but when the ship rocks again, Bones accidentally injects himself with 100x the normal dose. Somehow, this doesn’t kill him, but it does make him ill and delusional, screaming about killers and such. Quickly, he manages to beam to the planet’s surface, where a stone portal sits. The portal is sentient, referring to itself as the Guardian of Forever, and leads to all of spacetime.
A confused Bones, naturally, runs through the damn thing, while Kirk and the rest of the rescue party look on in horror. Then things actually get worse: the Enterprise disappears out of existence because, somehow, Bones has managed to change all of human history. Spock and Kirk have no choice but to go after him, ending up on Earth, in America, in the 1930’s, maybe a week or two before Bones arrives. Quickly, they run into beautiful social worker Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), who Kirk falls in love with. Unfortunately, Spock discovers that Edith is at the center of the time distortion: her death will restore the original timeline, while her survival will lead to a pacifist movement that will further delay America’s entry into WWII and allow fascism to conquer all.
Bones, still delusional, finally arrives and finds his own way to Edith, who nurses him back to health. Kirk and Spock rush over to him, while Edith, perplexed, begins crossing the road–right in front of a big ass truck. Kirk instinctively turns to save her, but stops himself and actively prevents Bones from rescuing her as well. Edith dies, and Bones is horrified that his friend stopped him, while Kirk is heartbroken by his choice. They return through the portal, discover the timeline has been restored, and get the hell out of dodge.
As always, there are aspects of this story that I’m critical of; that’s just who I am as a person. For instance, it’s hard to tell a convincing love story in the space of one episode. Not impossible, certainly, but difficult, and I’m not particularly sure it was necessary here. After all, actively allowing someone to die is a hard choice, and I feel like it would’ve been quite enough for Kirk to care about Edith without dropping the big L bomb. I’m also not entirely enamored of how closely Edith’s vision of the future mirrors the truth, either because it somehow feels both too vague and too specific, or else because she almost speaks these beliefs like a prophet. You know, one day we will, not one day we could. I get it; I even like the idea, but it still ends up coming off a bit hokey to me. Like, yes, writers, I see what you’re doing; please settle down now and stop screaming the point at me.
That all being said, this episode is still quite moving. Interesting, too, despite the fact that by now, we’ve all seen time travel dilemmas like this before. I think it’s cool that Spock and Kirk don’t initially know whether Edith needs to be saved or sacrificed, only that, one way or another, she’s the key to fixing everything. And I really like that Edith’s pacifist ideals are what dooms everyone, not because those ideals are wrong but because they come at exactly the wrong time. It’s a level of nuance I wasn’t quite expecting from this show.
And while I still feel the romance was unnecessary–do I have a tag for that yet because I definitely should–Kirk’s grief is palpable here, and I genuinely feel bad for the dude. The whole ending is perfection, really, from an agonized Bones asking if Kirk knows what he’s done, to a quietly sorrowful Spock assuring Bones that he does, to the Guardian obliviously inviting everyone to make more journeys through the gateway. Not all tragic endings work for me–they can come across as obvious or desperately cheap–but this one is certainly an exception.
When Scotty tells Kirk that some circuits are threatening to overload (presumably, the ones that nearly blow up Sulu), Kirk just says, “Understood, engineer.” Engineer? You know Scotty’s name, motherfucker.
Sulu Watch: Sulu’s whole role in this episode is to get injured, setting up Bones for his accidental OD. His presence is notable, though, for the giant dopey smile on his face when he wakes up. For half a second, I actually wondered if Sulu had managed to get brainwashed again before realizing, nope, he just got the good drugs.
Between the hilariously blotchy makeup and the constant screaming about killers, it is real hard to take Delirious Bones seriously.
However, I do enjoy his performance when he settles downs somewhat under Edith’s care. Their scenes together are great.
While Kirk prefers to bodily toss himself into opponents and Spock leans towards nerve-pinching and occasional super strength, Bones, apparently, is all about the awkward judo chop to the back and the head. It’s pretty hilarious.
Cordrazine is a made-up drug, so I definitely shouldn’t care, but . . . seriously, Bones got 100x the normal dose? Dude. Bones is DEAD right now. This whole episode is clearly some whacked out, Jacob’s Ladder-esque fever dream. Also, the whole bit about similar past cases where patients became convinced they were in terrible danger and violently tried to escape? Come on, this is dumb. No one needs this bullshit exposition. Harlan Ellison, are you responsible for this? (It’s hard to tell, honestly. Ellison is credited for this script, but apparently it was also heavily rewritten. I have no particular opinion on Ellison myself; not being much of a classic SF lit girl, I’ve never read anything by him.)
Spock’s face when the Guardian of Forever insults his primitive scientific knowledge is pretty priceless. His indignation at working with technology that’s barely more advanced than “stone knives and bear skins” is similarly amusing.
Hey, Uhura is actually on the away team! Not that she gets to do much, of course, except say, “Captain, I’m frightened.” Six people on this team, and who gets that line? Exactly, the one woman. Still, at least Nichelle Nichols sells it as best she can. It could’ve been way more cringeworthy.
Before going through the portal, Kirk tells the the away team that if he and Spock don’t make it back, everyone will have to try their luck at restoring the timeline. This never happens, of course, but I have to admit I’m fascinated by an alternative universe where, after everyone else fails, Uhura goes back and saves the day.
Kirk, like an asshole, says how simple this century is and how little difficulty they’ll have. Naturally, a cop immediately tries to arrest them for stealing clothes. Frankly, it’s no more than Kirk deserves. He oughta be slapped across the face with a dead, smelly fish. Also, the writers, because dear God, I forgot how unbearably racist this scene is. See, when Kirk tries to explain Spock’s ears, he says that Spock is obviously Chinese, which, JFC. When Kirk quickly stalls out, Spock prompts him with this deadpan and genuinely funny line:
Kirk, inspired, promptly continues the tale of how Young Chinese Spock caught his head in a “mechanical rice picker,” which, JFC. By the time Kirk starts talking about the helpful American missionary/plastic surgeon on hand, the cop has had enough, and so have we all.
As the rice picker story doesn’t go over well, and because there are no Vulcan merchants roaming around during the Great Depression, Spock’s ear disguise of the episode ends up just being a blue beanie.
Spock nearly getting hit by a car is surprisingly great foreshadow. The moment where Jim and Edith almost get hit, unfortunately, doesn’t play nearly as well for me.
In the revolving door that is Jim Kirk’s Soft Focus Love Interests, Edith is pretty much fine. I like that she’s clever as well as kind; particularly, I like how she calls Spock out on calling Kirk “Captain,” whether or not he actually says it out loud. That Kirk spins Edith as being “most uncommon” is basically the 60’s version of “not like other girls,” but we’ll try to move past that, just like we’ll try to move past all that goddamn soft focus, because if I stopped to complain every time this show abused that particular effect, we’d be here all damn day.
There’s a crude guy at the homeless shelter who starts to say that if Edith really wanted to help a guy out, she’d screw him, not yak inspiration at him. Kirk bluntly cuts him off, which I very much enjoy, although I’d like the moment even more if he showed that particular brand of chivalry towards a woman he wasn’t attracted to himself.
There’s a fair amount of dialogue I enjoy in this episode. For instance, this exchange between Kirk and Spock:
“You were actually enjoying my predicament back there. At times, you seem quite human.”
“Captain, I hardly believe that insults are in your prerogative as my commanding officer.”
Which, yes, is basically the same joke these two have made about 78 times now, but their delivery and chemistry almost always manages to sell it. I also really like a lot of the dialogue between Edith and a half-delirious Bones. For instance:
“The most common question to ask would be ‘where am I’? I don’t think I’ll ask it.”
“The only possible answer would conclusively prove that I’m either unconscious or demented.”
After Edith tells him the year, Bones quickly decides that he is unconscious or demented, and when she doesn’t believe he’s a Navy sailor, he hilariously responds, “That’s quite all right, quite all right, dear. Because I don’t believe in you, either.”
Still, I think Bones made me laugh hardest at the very beginning of the episode, when he decides to administer two drops of cordrazine. Kirk starts second guessing him, but Bones cuts him off mid-sentence by successfully reviving Sulu. Then, as dry and insolent as only Bones can be, he says . . .
LINE OF THE EPISODE
“You were about to make a medical comment, Jim?”