It’s a Classic: ‘Star Trek’ – “The City on the Edge of Forever”

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“A question.  Since before your sun burned hot in space and before your race was born, I have awaited a question”

Star Trek - City a

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) encounter the mysterious ‘Guardian of Forever’ (image credit: ViacomCBS).

Year:  1967

Starring:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Joan Collins

Director:  Joseph Pevney / written by:  Harlan Ellison / series created by:  Gene Roddenberry

What’s it about?

Captain Kirk and Science Officer Spock travel back in time in pursuit of a delirious Doctor McCoy, crazed by an accidental overdose of a powerful drug, in order to prevent disastrous changes in the timeline…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Once aptly described by film critic Scott Mantz as the Citizen Kane of Star Trek”, “The City on the Edge of Forever” is a firm fan favourite and irrefutably one of the finest ever Star Trek episodes.  From a story written by the late science fiction author and television writer Harlan Ellison, “The City on the Edge of Forever” received significant, uncredited rewrites from Star Trek writer/producer Gene L. Coon, story editor D.C. Fontana and finally, series creator Gene Roddenberry in order to temper some of Ellison’s more radical ideas that didn’t align with the altruistic nature of the series and behaviour of its characters (drug-dealing Enterprise crewmembers would clearly be out of place) and other elements that the show’s budget simply couldn’t allow.  Thankfully, the result is nothing less than an unforgettable masterpiece of imaginative and dramatic SF-TV.  The episode rightfully earned the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Episodic Drama on Television as well as the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.

“The City on the Edge of Forever” opens as the U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at an unexplored planet to investigate the source of mysterious ‘time ripples’.  The ship is rocked, causing helmsman Sulu (George Takei) to be injured and whilst being treated, Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) accidentally injects himself with a dangerous overdose of a drug which renders him paranoid and maniacal.  Pursuing McCoy to the planet below, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his landing party discover ancient ruins and a strange, sentient stone structure – a gateway through time that calls itself the ‘Guardian of Forever’.  As the Guardian demonstrates its ability, the deranged McCoy leaps through the gateway.  Following McCoy to a point before his arrival, Kirk and his loyal Vulcan first officer, Mr. Spock (the always superb Leonard Nimoy) find themselves in depression-era New York and eventually in the 21st Street Mission, run by the pacifist Sister Edith Keeler (Joan Collins).  Accessing historical records from his tricorder device, Spock soon discovers that McCoy has somehow caused an unfolding change in events – whereas Edith Keeler had originally died in an accident, she now survives and her campaign for peace would lead to a delay in the United States’ entry into the Second World War, allowing the victory of Nazi Germany – creating a ripple effect of unfathomable consequences.  As they await McCoy’s arrival through the time stream, Spock informs his captain that in order to save the future, Keeler must die…but Kirk finds he has fallen in love with her.

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Kirk faces a moral dilemma as he falls for Sister Edith Keeler (Joan Collins) in “The City on the Edge of Forever” (image credit: ViacomCBS).

It’s a great story and a standout episode for William Shatner, whose passionate performance is remarkably effective and bittersweet.  Despite the more dramatic aspects of the story, there are some terrific comic moments in the second act – Kirk and Spock being caught ‘acquiring’ 20th Century clothing by a patrolling police officer leads to a hilarious scene in which Kirk attempts to explain the alien Spock’s appearance, one of many moments in the episode that demonstrates the magnificent interplay and rapport between Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.  Shatner also shares wonderful chemistry with guest star Joan Collins, who is charming as Edith Keeler, a woman beyond her time who dreams of a hopeful future for all of humanity – a future that the gallant Captain Kirk knows to be true.  It gives “The City on the Edge of Forever” an evocative philosophical angle to accompany the story’s grand science fiction aspects and solid characterisation.  “The City on the Edge of Forever” is also, undoubtedly, a strong outing for co-stars Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley – who puts in a particularly memorable turn as the crazed drug-afflicted McCoy, whom Keeler nurses back to health – and a highlight of the friendship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy which is both embraced and put to the test as Kirk faces perhaps his greatest and most personal moral dilemma.

The climactic moments of “The City on the Edge of Forever” are agonising (all the more dramatic thanks to some tense direction by Joseph Pevney) given there is only one inevitable outcome and provides an unusually sombre, yet poignant, ending for an episode of Star Trek.  It all creates a must-see classic which represents the Star Trek franchise at its absolute best.

Standout moment (spoilers)

Discovering that McCoy has arrived and is healthy, Kirk rushes across the street to greet his friend – as Edith steps into the road, unaware that a fast-moving truck is approaching…

Geek fact!

Harlan Ellison’s original script for “The City on the Edge of Forever” would later be adapted into comic book form as a mini-series from IDW Publishing, released in 2014.

If you like this then check out…

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Yesterday’s Enterprise” : Captain Jean-Luc Picard faces a difficult decision when the appearance of the Enterprise ‘C’ through a time vortex adversely alters history.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

10 thoughts on “It’s a Classic: ‘Star Trek’ – “The City on the Edge of Forever”

  1. City on the Edge of Forever is one of my favourite classic series Star Trek episodes. Its such a clever time travel story, with powerful themes at its core, and brilliant performances all round. A sci-fi classic!

      • I really like the original Star Trek, the series had so many brilliant storylines, and I always enjoy revisiting them. Totally agree, lot of a lot of the iconic STTOS episode, they just seem even better now. Their stories and themes are universal and timeless.

      • TOS has always been by far my favourite series (closely followed by TNG) and it’s amazing to see how well the stories hold up all these years later. I’ve probably watched most of the episodes hundreds of times but I never tire of watching them, especially the true classics like City!

  2. Excellent thoughts on what seems like another masterpiece of an episode, good sir. You write your reviews in such a compelling fashion, making me (and probably anyone else) who reads it want to dive right into the Star Trek universe. This one also seems to convey so much gravitas and emotion with its story, especially the ending, too. Sounds like one that everyone needs to check out as soon as possible.

    Have you tried that comic you mention? Is it anything worthwhile compared to this episode? 😮

    • Thanks Lashaan, it certainly my intention to convey how good these classic Trek episodes are – just a shame (like with the Twilight Zone) that not everyone would be able to get past the old fashioned production values. But these stories are timeless and better than a lot of modern TV in all honesty!

      I actually have the IDW adaptation and plan to read it soon to see how it compares, but I have read and heard a lot about the differences between the two versions over the years – Harlan Ellison was quite vocal in his objections to the changes, but they only served to make it more consistent with the vision and ‘personality’ of Star Trek.

  3. This episode is a classic for a reason! And I love that you mention Yesterday’s Enterprise as a comparison, as that is one of my favorite TNG episodes.

    • Glad you’re of the same opinion Nancy, I’ve always loved this episode – even from a very young age it forever captivates me!

      Oh and funny you should mention “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, as I have that lined up for a future ‘It’s a Classic’ post (there’s an exclusive for you haha)!

      • Did you read The Autobiography of James T Kirk by David A Goodman? In it, he moons over the death of Edith and places his love for her above all others.

        I look forward to your Yesterday’s Enterprise post!

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