Tuesday, April 21, 2009

TOS Rewind #27: "The City on the Edge of Forever"

Episode:  The City on the Edge of Forever (04-06-1967).  Drink:  a Martini (classic episode=classic drinky).

Eric, Rob, and I had more trouble than usual getting the podcast done for this one due to scheduling and technical challenges (okay, so that was my particular challenge), but we managed to pull it off.  It's long (52 minutes) and is spliced together from two separate attempts so my apologies in advance if there's duplicate material in there (the sound quality varies a bit as well).  I think I have the tech problems ironed out so at least we should be good on that score.  We hit a lot of points, so I think it was worth it.  For those who are willing to brave the commentary, it can be found here:

Eric starts us out with his written version:

“The City on the Edge of Forever” is widely considered to be the best classic Star Trek episode, and for good reason. The direction and acting (particularly Bill Shatner’s) is top notch, and the drama is genuine and touching. And although I usually avoid the term, the “chemistry” between the characters works brilliantly. Best of all (for me at least, and if you’ve read any of my previous reviews, this should come as no surprise), it is superbly imaginative science fiction and a wonderfully dramatic, but tragic, story.

Before we go any further, I should mention the controversy surrounding this episode—“The City on the Edge of Forever” was written by Harlan Ellison who (to this day) feels wronged both by the studio for not paying royalties and Gene Roddenberry for rewriting his original script. I completely sympathize with Ellison’s grievance over unpaid royalties, but I’ve read the original script, and while it was quite good, it clearly wasn’t Star Trek and had to be rewritten to be produced as a Trek episode. In addition, it was (and still is) quite common for producers to rewrite scripts for their shows, and as Executive Producer and creator, doing such a rewrite was Roddenberry’s prerogative. Still, Harlan Ellison is a damn good writer, and he has an outspoken, no-bullshit, populist attitude I admire, so I’m not going to take sides. Both versions of the script are great.

Both versions of the script are also tragic love stories (albeit of a different nature), and both scripts deal with two of my favorite subjects: time travel and the history of World War II. Time travel in Star Trek has often been laughable, couched in ridiculous pseudoscience and technobabble, but in “The City on the Edge of Forever” it’s done through the Guardian of Forever, which I’ve always found to be an awe inspiring idea/concept/being. And, as long as you’re willing to employ a bit of imagination (which is necessary to enjoy science fiction), it’s perfectly plausible. No attempt at scientific explanation is offered or possible. And it is through the Guardian that the history of World War II is accidentally disrupted, allowing Nazi Germany to develop nuclear weapons before the United States. (No need to expound upon why this is extraordinarily bad.) The real drama of the story, however, is that Kirk has to allow a woman he loves to die in order to set things right. And he does, but at a terrible personal cost, which is beautifully, but heart wrenchingly, played out in the last few minutes of the episode. Kirk’s anguish, McCoy’s confused horror, and Spock’s gentle compassion all play off each other perfectly and bring the story full circle.

So what we’re left with is a tragedy in the best tradition of tragedies. And as such, it leaves us with a strangely satisfying sense of bitter completion that Kirk expresses perfectly: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
I don't know if I have a real favorite of this show, but this could be it, along with a few others.  As Eric points out, the story has a great premise that stands out even among the generally good episodes of the first season.  Back when we covered "Tomorrow is Yesterday," I remember thinking that the whole time travel thing was being covered in a pretty nonchalant way.  Sure, they have to correct the changes they've made to the past, but it isn't all that serious and they seem awfully sloppy with regards to how they've disrupted things.  "City" sets a far more somber tone to this sci fi concept.  Changes, even a minor one, can alter everything that is to come.  This comes down to the idea here, doing the right thing at the wrong time.  McCoy saves Edith and dooms the world.  It's really interesting ponder the significance of everyday choices we all make.  Sure, nothing I do will probably change the course of the planet, but you never know.  Not that there's really an answer to all this.  The only conclusion drawn here is to leave the hell alone and hope things sort themselves out.

I know my friend Lee knocked this one down a bit for not having an outstanding social message or commentary, but Rob presented one quite well on the podcast.  I'm feeling lazy, so I'm going to refer him and anyone else to the commentary.

The character interaction here is especially strong in this episode.  There is genuine warmth between Kirk and Spock as they go through their often amusing "Odd Couple" sequence in the second act while Spock tries to build his computer device from "stone knives and bearskins" (aka vacuum tubes and random electronics).  The Edith Keeler character may not be 100% developed, but she has to be the best female character of the old series. 

The acting is decent in this episode, with DeForest Kelley really doing a good job playing the drug-addled doctor.  His scene with the street person is particularly good.

We covered a lot of ground for this one on the podcast, so if you want to hear more, go check it out.

I watched both the original and remastered versions of this one.  There's one shot where I actually
prefer the old optical effects:  the planet.
The original

The remastered
Sure, the new one looks more like a real planet, but the old effect has that forlorn lifeless look that really works for this episode.  Other than that, the rest of the changes were minor (and the improved picture quality, as usual).

Next time:  “Operation Annihilate!”

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