The Thinker

Second Viewing: City on the Edge of Forever

Watching movies and shows online can be both fun and convenient. On Christmas Eve, I watched the British film Cashback streamed live to my desktop computer. Last night I watched classic Star Trek, specifically the episode City on the Edge of Forever from the show’s first season. Many Trekkers insist this was the best episode in the three-year run of the original series and I am inclined to agree. It was ostensibly written by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, but had to be substantially rewritten by staff scriptwriter D. C. Fontana to keep it within the show’s budget and fifty-minute length.

In case you have not seen the episode, at the start of the show NCC-1701 (a.k.a. the U.S.S. Enterprise) finds itself in the midst of a space-time disturbance. It jolts the ship; the usual sparks fly out of the navigator’s console and knocks out poor Lieutenant Sulu. Dr. McCoy (“Bones”) rushes to the bridge to give Sulu a small dose of “cordrazine”. When the ship is rocked again by another space-time disturbance McCoy accidentally injects the rest into himself, which turns him into a paranoid schizophrenic. He manages to elude security and beam himself down to the planet they are orbiting, which is at the center of the space-time disturbance. There on the planet a mysterious structure called The Guardian acts as a portal to human history. Dr. McCoy, still in a cordrazine paranoia high, jumps through the portal and back in time to New York City during the Great Depression.

It is not a good idea to disturb time because McCoy apparently does something to cause their present reality to disappear. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock end up going back to the same time to try to prevent McCoy from doing whatever he did to change history. This is a tall order because there is no guarantee they can find him.

I will not give out too much more of the plot on the off chance you have not seen the episode. While I watched it online on Netflix, there are other places online you can watch it, some for free. One place is, which is more than a bit ironic since it first ran forty years ago on NBC.

I was ten when the show first ran in 1967. For some bizarre reason my parents considered Star Trek too adult for us godly devout Catholics (perhaps it was the miniskirts the women wore), so it was off our list of approved shows. I did not actually see it until the early 1970s when it was broadcast in abbreviated form on an independent TV channel in Orlando. As I was living in Daytona Beach, this meant poor image quality and many Ronco ads. Watching it online though was a pleasure, because I could see it in full color and in higher definition than the 435 lines available to TV viewers back in the 1960s. It was like watching it projected in a movie theater. It made quite a difference.

Star Trek is of course a fantasy about the future, but to me it was a blast into my distantly remote past when I was only ten years old, we were up to our hips in Vietnam and prominent people like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were being gunned down. As much as Gene Roddenberry tried to hide it in its 23rd century frame, the show espoused the values of those times. Back then, the network censors were pretty ruthless. Kirk’s line at the end of the episode, “Let’s get the hell out of here,” considered shocking at the time, was lucky to make it past the network censors.

Women may have worn miniskirts in the U.S.S. Enterprise but there are oddities in the shows that today’s National Organization for Women would find sexist. When time stops, for example, Lt. Uhura says (rather unconvincingly), “Captain, I’m afraid.” It was perfectly reasonable back in the 1960s for a woman, even a Star Fleet officer like Uhura to revert to wallflower when the situation got too heavy. The same was not true for Kirk or Spock. It was time to raise the shields of masculinity and exude some testosterone.

For the 1960s, Star Trek was high primetime cinema. However, the pressures of putting out twenty-six episodes a year as well as keeping to a strict budget frequently strained the quality of the show. City on the Edge of Forever is an excellent episode for classic Star Trek, yet if compared to most shows of its successor, Star Trek: The Next Generation, it would rank maybe in the middle. In the 1960s, TV was not considered to be art, but entertainment. Occasional series like The Twilight Zone showed what the medium was capable of. With the constraints on time and budget the show was under, putting out good episodes every week was impossible. Unlike the original series, Star Trek: The Next Generation was syndicated. This allowed for bigger budgets, higher production values and better actors. Watching the original Star Trek series forty years later, the lack of quality, even for the better shows, is glaring.

Still, if you can rewind your mental clock back four decades you can appreciate that City on the Edge of Forever as a really good episode. New York City in the Great Depression was portrayed on a back lot of Desilu Studios, but the scenes were quite convincingly rendered. William Shatner’s ego is kept in check by director Joseph Pevney, who probably not coincidentally directed many of the show’s better episodes. Joan Collins plays the kind-hearted social worker Edith Keeler and renders a surprisingly fine performance. Some of the dialog comes across as rather strange and the music is at times too suggestive of how you are supposed to feel, but the episode is a great blend of fun, drama and science fiction. Actually, the best performance in the episode is given by the late DeForest Kelley (McCoy). It is consistently well acted, well directed and well written. The essence of Ellison’s fascinating and tragic plot is retained and convincingly rendered.

What a pity that network executives were so niggardly with prime time shows back in the 1960s. Star Trek was obviously an innovative idea for a TV series, given its long and successful franchise. Given the relative paucity of its production values (which were considered high for the time) the original series, when it was good in episodes like this one, demonstrated what the original series could have been had it been given the time and the money necessary. Star Trek’s true glory was destined to show up in future incarnations of the show.


One Response to “Second Viewing: City on the Edge of Forever”

  1. 10:19 am on December 28 2008, Craig H. said:

    It’s glaringly obvious that this episode used the Desilu backlot when Kirk and Keeler walk right by FLOYD’s barber shop and the adjoining TV (radio) repair shop from the Andy Griffith Show !

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