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”

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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).

Flashback: ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’

2019 marks four decades since Gene Roddenberry’s ‘Star Trek’ was relaunched on the silver screen…

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Bob Peak’s wonderful poster art for ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Year:  1979

Starring:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Majel Barrett, Persis Khambatta, Stephen Collins

Directed by:  Robert Wise / written by:  Harold Livingston (story by Alan Dean Foster)

What’s it about?

As a mysterious and hostile force advances towards Earth, Admiral James T. Kirk is reunited with his former crew as he takes command of the newly refitted U.S.S. Enterprise on a mission to intercept the intruder…

Retrospective/review

Celebrating its fortieth anniversary this December, Star Trek: The Motion Picture may not be as popular as its 1982 sequel – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – but its place and importance in the history of the franchise shouldn’t be overlooked.  Originally conceived as a pilot for a new Star Trek television series, the production would evolve into a big budget feature film in the wake of the success of Star Wars – although Star Trek: The Motion Picture would take more of a high-concept science fiction approach similar to that of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Produced by Gene Roddenberry (who would write the film’s interesting but slightly bizarre novelisation) and skilfully directed by The Day the Earth Stood Still’s Robert Wise with a story, credited to noted SF author Alan Dean Foster, that echoes elements of classic Star Trek episode “The Changeling”, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is presented on a visual scale that could only have been dreamt of back in the days of the original series.  The film opens as Klingon (the iconic Trek race given a more alien-like makeover for the big screen) warships commence an attack on an approaching force – an expansive and powerful cloud of energy which soon neutralises the aggressors.  As the cloud proceeds on a heading for Earth, an unfulfilled and desk-bound Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) convinces his superiors to place him in command of the newly refitted U.S.S. Enterprise on a desperate mission to intercept and establish contact with the intruder.

Believing the benefit of his experience and leadership will provide the best chance of success, Kirk initially finds himself troubled by an unfamiliarity with the refitted Enterprise and in conflict with her would be captain, Will Decker (Stephen Collins), whose situation is complicated further by the posting of his old flame, Ilia (the late Persis Khambatta, in her introductory film role) as ship’s navigator (Walter Koenig’s Chekov now occupying the post of security chief).

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Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the Enterprise (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Dealing with engine troubles and a near fatal wormhole encounter before rendezvousing with science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) along the way, the stakes are raised as the Enterprise intercepts the approaching danger – traversing the energy cloud to discover a colossus alien vessel at its centre.  As Ilia is replaced by an android duplicate serving as a representative of the alien ship, Kirk learns that the intruder is ‘V’Ger’, a life-form on a journey to find and ‘join’ with its creator.  It all leads to a startling finale in which (spoilers follow…) Kirk and his crew face V’Ger, which they are astonished to discover is the lost 20th Century NASA probe, Voyager VI – repaired by an unknown machine race and sent on a return voyage to its point of origin where it can complete its programme of “learning all that is learnable” and providing all the information it has amassed to the creator.  Having gained sentience on its journey, V’Ger has reached the limits of its understanding and must evolve by joining with its creator…and one amongst the Enterprise crew volunteers to do so.

The film is commonly criticised for its slow pace (detractors unfairly labelling it as ‘The Slow Motion Picture’) and whilst this may be true, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is best viewed for what it is – a cerebral cinematic experience that reunites an iconic and beloved set of characters, unfolding steadily and subjecting the viewer to some striking visuals as it presents intriguing and intelligent science fiction ideas.  Despite the more conceptual and visually driven story, the cast are all reliably great – especially the central trio: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, representing, respectively, the celebrated troika of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.  As the main star, Shatner is provided with some decent material as the ever-passionate Kirk wrestles with his regret at accepting promotion and his yearning to return to command of a starship.  Likewise, Nimoy gets to once again grapple with Spock’s conflicted half human/half Vulcan nature, his sensing of V’Ger and an inability to attain ‘Kholinahr’, the Vulcan ritual of complete emotional purging, driving his desire to re-join the Enterprise crew and seek out the mysterious invader.  DeForest Kelley’s Doctor McCoy is once again the cantankerous yet valued conscience and moral centre.

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The glorious refitted U.S.S. Enterprise, designed by Andrew Probert (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

The production design and special effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture are reasonably impressive considering their age.  The redesigned Enterprise is simply beautiful, brought to life by the superb model work.  The sets are sparse but have an appropriately futuristic feel to them as do the crew uniforms which are a fitting evolution of those in the original series in comparison to the more military-based attire of the sequels.  In terms of the effects, led by 2001’s Douglas Trumbull and Star Wars’ John Dykstra, they remain a key element, the mesmerising sequence of the Enterprise’s penetration of the cloud, the jaw dropping ‘V’Ger flyover’ scenes and Spock’s ‘spacewalk’ being the most obvious highlights – in addition to the wonderfully executed launch of the Enterprise, of course.  Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar nominated score is one of the composer’s best and an inseparable accompaniment to the story and visuals, capturing the romance and majesty of space in the 23rd Century, the grandeur of the Enterprise, the eerie mystery of the enigmatic force that threatens humanity and the wonders of the unknown.

It’s no secret that the production of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was troubled by last minute script re-writes, increasing costs (its budget inflating to a then eye-watering $46 million, making it the most expensive feature film at that time) and a tight schedule to meet its 7th December 1979 release date, leaving director Robert Wise with no time to produce a final cut and unsatisfied with the film in its theatrical form.  Much of this was remedied with the 2001 DVD release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition, a superior edit of the film with Wise reinstating some of the more character-orientated scenes missing from the theatrical version whilst trimming down some of the longer and more superfluous moments, a fresh sound mix and new CGI effects to enhance and embellish the existing visuals.  Unlike the Star Wars Special Editions, the changes made were to benefit what Wise felt was an unfinished film and, largely, choices that would have been made in 1979 had the production been permitted the extra time and resources required.

Despite receiving a critical drubbing Star Trek: The Motion Picture would prove a box office success, paving the way for several sequels and an eventual television rebirth of the franchise.  Whilst Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is considered to be closer to the overall spirit of the original Star Trek series with a deeper focus on the characters and emphasis on morality play elements (whilst injecting a larger measure of action and excitement), Star Trek: The Motion Picture is perhaps more cinematic and – especially in its Director’s Edition form – an enjoyable and underrated first big screen adventure for Kirk, Spock and company that’s deserving of a revisit and perhaps a reappraisal as it reminds us that “The Human Adventure is Just Beginning”…

Read the classics review of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan here

Geek fact!

Mark Lenard, who portrayed Spock’s father in the original Star Trek series appears as a Klingon commander in the epic opening scenes of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

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

Flashback: ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’

The original Star Trek cast bow out as they face a battle for peace… 

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‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’: a satisfying conclusion to the voyages of the original crew.

Year:  1991

Starring:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Christopher Plummer, David Warner, Kim Cattrall

Directed by:  Nicholas Meyer / Written by:  Nicholas Meyer & Denny Martin Flinn (Story by Leonard Nimoy, Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal)

What’s it about?

When the Klingon Chancellor is assassinated enroute to peace talks on Earth, Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy are accused of the crime leaving Spock and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise to uncover the true culprits…

Retrospective

With the lukewarm reception of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (read the retrospective here), Star Trek’s future on the big screen seemed to be in doubt.  Yet, with the franchise’s 25th anniversary approaching, Paramount Pictures decided that the original cast deserved one more adventure before relinquishing the silver screen to their younger (and by this point, less costly) successors on the increasingly popular spin-off series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Determined to deliver a classic and rewarding finale for the original crew (albeit William Shatner, James Doohan and Walter Koenig would cameo in Star Trek Generations) and one that would be equally redeeming for the audience, Paramount enlisted Leonard Nimoy and Nicholas Meyer to help shape Star Trek VI, both having been involved in the more successful and more popular entries in the series – Nimoy as director of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Meyer as director (and uncredited writer) of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and co-writer of The Voyage Home.  With Harve Bennett feeling jaded by the troubled production of Star Trek V and disagreements with Paramount over the direction of Star Trek VI (the concept for a prequel featuring a new cast as younger versions of Kirk, Spock, McCoy et al being rejected by the studio) he would decide to depart the franchise leaving Ralph Winter in place as the film’s head producer.

The creative matchup of Nimoy (receiving executive producer and story credits) and Meyer would prove to be a strong and vital component to Star Trek VI, both looking to do what they felt the franchise did best – tell a compelling story that explores the human condition and discusses the issues of the day in an entertaining and engaging manner.  With the social and political climate of the 1990s being shaped by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the climax of the Cold War, Nimoy felt that this would make for a suitable and relevant topic of discussion for a good Star Trek story, one that would once again feature the original crew’s greatest adversaries: the Klingons.  Given that the Klingons were conceived by Star Trek writer/producer Gene L. Coon as a stand-in for the Russians and to provide conflict allegorical of Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, their role in the story would be a natural and logical fit.  From this central concept, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (a title lifted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) was born.  Working from Nimoy’s premise, Meyer would craft the film’s screenplay with co-writer Denny Martin Flinn, providing a dark, yet ultimately optimistic tale infused with all the fun, humour and excitement audiences had come to expect from a Star Trek film.

Star Trek VI opens with the destruction of the Klingon moon Praxis, the Klingon Empire’s key source of energy (an event likened by Nimoy as a galactic version of the Chernobyl incident), leading to a call for peace with the United Federation of Planets.  Three months from retirement, Kirk and his crew are ordered to rendezvous with the Klingon Chancellor’s delegation and escort them to Earth to open negotiations, but when the Chancellor is assassinated, Kirk and McCoy are put on trial for plotting Gorkon’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.  What follows is a thrilling ‘whodunit’ which sees Spock and the crew of the Enterprise in a race against time to uncover the perpetrators and rescue their comrades before peace talks falter and all-out war becomes certain.

Heading up the guest cast are David Warner (who had appeared as St. John Talbot in The Final Frontier and as a time-travelling Jack the Ripper in Nicholas Meyer’s directorial debut, Time After Time) as the “Lincoln-esque” Klingon Chancellor, Gorkon, Christopher Plummer as his villainous chief of staff, the Shakespeare-spouting General Chang, Rosana Desoto as Gorkon’s daughter (and successor) Azetbur and a post-Mannequin, pre-Sex in the City Kim Catrall as the Enterprise’s new Vulcan helmsman, Valeris.  Reprising their roles from The Voyage Home are Brock Peters as Admiral Cartwright, John Schuck as the Klingon Ambassador and Mark Lenard as Vulcan Ambassador and Spock’s father, Sarek.

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Christopher Plummer as General Chang.

With a screenplay laced with strong dialogue and characterisation, Nicholas Meyer draws out fine performances from the principal and guest actors alike ensuring that each of the core Star Trek characters get their moment in the spotlight, especially George Takei who relishes the advancement of the loyal Mr. Sulu to Captain of the U.S.S. Excelsior.  Christopher Plummer makes for a great villain, excessive and passionate quotations of Shakespeare only adding to his increasing malevolence.  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley are once again on top form with Shatner and Kelley in particular sharing some memorable scenes together during their trial and subsequent sentence to the penal mining asteroid, Rura Penthe.

It’s reported that Gene Roddenberry (whose health was in serious decline) had concerns about The Undiscovered Country, specifically the prejudice and bigotry displayed by the Enterprise crew and the more militaristic approach to Starfleet, conflicting with the more altruistic vision he had for Star Trek and its characters.  These are certainly valid points but can largely be forgiven when taken in the context of the film’s story and the history of the conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire and those aforementioned parallels to America and Russia.

Climaxing with a tense and exciting finale featuring an explosive space battle between the Enterprise, Excelsior and a prototype Klingon vessel and a desperate race to prevent the assassination of the Federation President (played by Robocop’s Kurtwood Smith), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a fitting conclusion to the original cast’s tenure and a satisfying celebration of the franchise that remains one of its most enjoyable big screen instalments.

Geek fact!

Star Trek VI includes a cameo from one of Hollywood’s hottest rising stars of the 1990s – and Star Trek fan – Christian Slater.

What are your memories of Star Trek VI? Share your thoughts below!

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Once more unto the breach: the original cast of ‘Star Trek’ assembled for their final adventure…