For a legendary writer in the field of science fiction, Harlan Ellison seemed like the perfect fit for Star Trek. Except for two problems: He didn’t follow the rules, and Gene Roddenberry didn’t understand him. His script for The City On The Edge Of Forever was ground-breaking, and that was the problem. He viewed the Star Trek universe as a darker and edgier place, creating what amounted to Deep Space Nine 30 years early. His script was grudgingly accepted, but that and the subsequent rewrites went against Roddenberry’s vision. Roddenberry, Gene Coon, DC Fontana and others were brought in to do further rewrites, and the story behind the story has become an infamous piece of Star Trek folklore.
Ellison himself was so annoyed that he threatened to use the pen name he utilises whenever he’s unhappy with a project, Cordwainer Bird, to let the fans know of his displeasure. Ultimately he didn’t, but his dissatisfaction never waned. While the episode as it stands won a Hugo Award, he felt somewhat vindicated when his original darker script won awards too. The fans have debated for years over which is better, but the fact remains that one of the greatest episodes in the history of Star Trek was saved until last. Without the ideas of the genius Harlan Ellison, a man who was once told he couldn’t write by his professor, who was fired from Disney after only one day, who was described as “possibly the most contentious man on Earth”, the fans would have been denied this work of brilliance…
The City On The Edge Of Forever – Summary: Approaching a strange planet, the Enterprise is buffeted by ripples in time that cause the navigation console to explode. Sulu is seriously injured and Bones tends to him, about to inject him with the volatile adrenaline-type drug cordrazine, and manages to revive him. When they get hit by another ripple McCoy accidentally injects himself with a high dose and starts to run amok. Delusional, he beams down to the planet and is quickly followed by Kirk, Spock and a landing party who discover that the ripples are coming from the Guardian Of Forever, a ring-like structure that acts as a portal to all space and time. McCoy leaps through the portal and into Earth’s past, which creates instant changes to the timeline. The Enterprise no longer exists and the landing party are stranded.
Kirk and Spock enter the Guardian to retrieve McCoy and fix the timeline, and arrive in 1930s New York. They steal some clothes in order to blend in, running into trouble with the police, but make their way to the 21st Street Mission. There they meet Edith Keeler, the woman who runs the Mission. She organises work for them and Spock sets about learning how McCoy will alter the timeline, while Kirk falls in love with the inspirational Keeler. Bones arrives at the Mission but is undiscovered by his friends. After going through the records, Spock learns that the change in the timeline occurs due to the USA entering World War II at a later point in history, due to a more pacifist outlook that is spread by Edith Keeler. Spock gives Kirk the news, stating that Edith Keeler must die.
Keeler helps look after McCoy, who recovers from the effects of the cordrazine, and when he tells her his story she laughs it off. Later she has a date with Kirk and is going with him to the movies. She Kirk about McCoy and he races across the street where he, Bones and McCoy reunite happily. She crosses the street to join them, stepping in front of an oncoming truck. Kirk wants to save her but Spock urges him not to. McCoy tries to stop the accident from happening, but is blocked by Kirk. As Bones stares at the dead body of Edith Keeler he angrily accuses Kirk, saying that he could have saved her. Kirk, torn by guilt and self-loathing, cannot even look at her and quietly moves away. They return through the Guardian and the timeline has been restored, and the Guardian assures them that more journeys are possible. A heartbroken Kirk simply mutters, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Operation: Annihilate! – Summary: The Enterprise is investigating a pattern of mass insanity that appears to be spreading in a straight line, from planet to planet, and the next in line is the world of Deneva. As they approach, they detect a ship leaving orbit and on a direct collision course with the sun. They manage to open a channel to the ship and the pilot raves insanely until he suddenly becomes lucid, claiming “It’s finally gone!”, but he and his ship are destroyed by the sun. The Enterprise heads back to Deneva, Kirk worried about his brother and his family who are living there. Kirk beams down with a landing party and the few locals they encounter scream warnings despite attacking them. They stun the locals, but Bones determines that even while unconscious the locals are being stimulated into violence.
Kirk locates his sister-in-law Aurelan alive, his brother Sam dead, and their son Peter unconscious. They beam them to the ship, where Bones discovers that Aurelan and Peter are in constant pain and he has to tranquilize them. They revive Aurelan to ask her questions, but when she starts answering that “they” are spreading, she experiences such agony that the pain kills her. Kirk and the landing party beam down again to find the mysterious creatures, and discover giant single-celled parasites that attack them, one attaching itself to Spock. Back on the Enterprise, Bones is forced to call off surgery to remove the creature from Spock, which has embedded itself into his spine and can kill him with pain when threatened. Spock revives but is controlled by the creature, attempting to take over the ship until restrained.
Finally Spock manages to control his pain through logic and beams down to the planet to retrieve a parasite for experimentation. Capturing one, he returns to the Enterprise and learns that the creatures have arrived from a different universe. With phaser fire useless as a weapon, they try to determine how the spaceship captain was able to get free. They believe that bright light is the key, and Spock experiments this on himself. His experiment kills the creature but causes his blindness. Too late he learns that all that was needed was ultra-high UV light waves. The Enterprise releases satellites to irradiate the planet with UV waves, killing the parasites all over Deneva. Spock’s sight returns thanks to Vulcans having a second eyelid, and he trades barbs with Bones, who grudgingly credits Spock with being the best first officer in the fleet.
The City On The Edge Of Forever may have been one of the most awkward episodes ever to make, but you wouldn’t know it. It’s the episode that fans consistently vote as one of the best.
A strong sci-fi story idea becomes one of the most touching ever. There are moments of humour from Spock, but the moment he announces that Edith Keeler must die we know there’s no way around what will be a heart-breaking moment for Kirk. She’s a wonderful character, inspirational and warm, wanting peace, and wonderfully portrayed by Joan Collins. You can understand why Kirk genuinely falls in love with her. But her death has to occur, and the nature of it, with Kirk having to choose between saving her and saving the timeline, is tragic. Shatner’s performance is one of his best, and everyone does their part. The Hugo Award this episode picked up is well-deserved.
Operation: Annihilate! May not seem the best way to end the season, but it’s not a bad episode by any means. The parasites are terrifyingly creepy, and the idea that they can control their hosts yet can’t be removed stirs up memories of The Puppet Masters and Alien. There are weak moments, such as Spock not realising that one of the sun’s properties is light, and the simple solution to Spock’s blindness seems like a cheap cop-out. Regardless, it’s a well-told story and it ends with one of the finest (and funniest) pieces of interplay between Spock and Bones, their relationship beginning to soar and cementing Bones’s place in the team. It’s hardly surprising that in the second season DeForest Kelley’s name would be added to Shatner and Nimoy’s in the opening credits.