Best Episode of Star Trek Ever
Space is the final frontier and for a mere three seasons, Captain James T. Kirk and his crew explored that frontier. Created by Gene Rodenberry, Star Trek represented an idea that someday the human race could put aside our differences and explore the universe together. When it initially aired, the network did not understand what they had and ended it after three seasons. Following this Star Trek steadily built a massive following and cementing itself in pop culture history. Rodenberry and his gifted team of writers treated viewers to fascinating takes on classic science fiction tropes, including time travel. In fact the episode that fans cite as the best episode ever featured this particular plot device. Airing on April 6, 1967 and written by science fiction legend Harlan Ellison with uncredited input from Star Trek favorites DC Fontana and Gene L Coon, “The City on the Edge of Forever” forces Kirk to make an impossible choice with grave ramifications on the history of humanity. Since a while back I covered the Worst Episode Ever of Star Trek, it is only fair that I honor this game-changing show by looking at the Best Episode Ever.
While conducting a standard medical injection on Sulu, a time disruption causes Dr. “Bones” McCoy to accidentally inject himself with a drug that drives him mad. McCoy beams himself down to the planet where the disruption originated, forcing Kirk and Spock to travel down as well to find him. There they find a large and mysterious green hoop known as the Guardian of Forever. This entity reveals itself as a portal throughout all of history and McCoy has already traveled through and impacted the timeline in such a way that the Enterprise is lost. To find the doctor and set the wrong things right, Kirk and Spock must leap through the stream of time which lands in them New York City in the midst of the Great Depression. McCoy has been taken in by the charitable Edith Keeler (played by Joan Collins) who runs a New York-based mission. Spock is able to pinpoint that this is where time goes awry, as Bones will save Keeler from her destined death. Because she survived, it sets off a chain reaction, where, with the best of intentions, she leads an influential pacifism movement during the Second World War. This leads to the US not entering the war allowing Nazi Germany to ultimately triumph. It may seem like a simple fix, they just have to prevent McCoy’s act of heroism and allow Keeler to die in an accident as predestined. Except Kirk has fallen for the charitable woman and he does not know if he can stand to lose her.
One of the ideas Gene Rodenberry had when he was first putting together Star Trek was that he would allow the best writers in the science fiction to periodically come in and write their own episodes. Had this panned out we could have seen Trek episodes from the imaginations of: Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein and so many others. The first of these greats he brought in to play in his sandbox was the notoriously cranky and opinionated Harlan Ellison. The Hugo and Nebula award winner behind such famed works as Deathbird Stories, Vic and Blood, and countless other books, short stories, screenplays, and comics, pitched what would become “The City of the Edge of Forever”. In his initial draft, Kirk and Spock were on the planet to oversee an execution of crewmembers who were perpetuating an illegal drug trade on the Enterprise. Here they would encounter the GuardianS of Forever, a race of giants who protected a source of time travel. In this version, it is one of the criminals who escapes custody that forces Kirk to dive into the time stream. No doubt, you see how this is far darker and possibly more ambitious to the final product. Indeed the grand scope of Ellison’s original vision drew concern from the more budget-minded producers. A rift behind-the-scenes between Ellison and Rodenberry over the episode meant that famed Trek writer DC Fontana among others had to get the script into its final form.
Despite the changes to the original plans “City on the Edge of Forever” has built a reputation as the greatest episode this storied series ever produced. There is no Romulans, stunt men in monster suits or Mirror Universe doppelgangers to contend with. Instead it is Kirk wrestling with a moral dilemma, does he let a good woman die even if the cost of her living is universal? The fact that they forged a relationship makes things that much harder for him. The acting of William Shatner in Star Trek is often the butt of jokes, but in this episode, he turns in a performance which will tear your heart out. The Emmy winner has claimed that this episode was his favorite of the original series because as he saw it “The City on the Edge of Forever” was a “beautiful love story” told with a brilliant science fiction framework. It helped that he and guest star Joan Collins had such strong chemistry that the audience completely buys into their rapid connection. He is a dashing hero who hits it and quits it with the ladies but meeting a woman who is imaginative and intelligent with a mind set light years ahead of her fellow humans of the era sparks something in the captain.
One of the most underrated aspects of this episode is the entity known as the Guardian of Forever. This creature is simply a rock formation in a hoop, but Ellison’s fingerprints are all over it. A grand and godlike being who lords over Kirk and Spock, but there is also a certain loneliness which comes across with a creature such as this. Another great element of this episode’s script which is often overlooked in the grand scope of the adventure is the humor. There is bound to be chuckles from seeing two people from the far flung future navigating 1930’s era New York and “City on the Edge of Forever” nails it perfectly so that the audience gets their laughs in but it does not compromise the integrity of Kirk and Spock as characters.
Though in the end Kirk, Spock, and McCoy return successfully the climax of this episode is unexpectedly bittersweet. Reunited with the rest of the Enterprise crew there is no cheering or celebration only Spock telling the others they had made it. Once the Guardian gives them the closure of the time stream being restored, Kirk simply tells the crew “Let’s get the hell out of here” leaving the episode to close with the wind howling on this desolate rock inhabited by a mysterious being. In the world if 60’s television sci-fi a conclusion this bleak was usually reserved for The Twilight Zone, but the colorful and hip world of Star Trek pulls it off perfectly. “City on the Edge of Forever” was an example of Star Trek at its best, it is an imaginative and thought-provoking science fiction tale with characters we connect with.
I agree that this is among the best Star Trek episodes! The ending made me tear up the first time I watched it.
Truly one of the best TOS episodes ever made, you’re right! It would have been cool to see an episode written by Philip Dick, now that you make me think about it…