Recap: Star Trek S 1 E 28 The City On The Edge Of Forever

"'Let me help.' A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He'll recommend those three words even over 'I love you.'"

Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Episode: Season 1, Episode 28
Title: The City On the Edge of Forever
Previous: The Alternative Factor
Next: Operation: Annihilate!
Recapper: Deckard

"As I'm watching the episodes for reference just before drawing each strip, I take notes on ridiculous stuff that I can make fun of in the comic. Things that pull me out of the story and make me think, "That makes no sense. I can make a gag about this bit." For most episodes I have anywhere between 10 lines and half a page of notes. When this episode ended, I had written nothing."
David Morgan-Mar, creator of Planet of Hats

In the penultimate episode of the first season (based on a treatment by Harlan Ellison), the crew of the Enterprise finds itself exploring a "temporal disturbance" near an unknown planet. Electromagnetic interference causes the ship's computer to explode, injuring Sulu. McCoy runs to prepare an injection of super-adrenaline for him, but turbulence causes him to accidentally inject himself and become Brainwashed and Crazy. McCoy escapes the bridge and beams down to the planet.

Following him, the landing party discovers a city of ancient ruins that appears to be uninhabited and empty except for a mysterious glowing green archway, which appears to be sentient and exhibits strange telepathic abilities, acts as a viewscreen displaying various scenes from Earth history. The archway, which calls itself the Guardian of Forever, explains that it is a portal to any place and period in history. It also easily steals Spock's Cultural Posturing crown.

The conversation with the Guardian is interrupted when McCoy runs through the archway and disappears. Moments later, Uhura reports a loss of contact with the Enterprise, and the crew realize that McCoy has somehow altered the course of history since entering the portal. In order to return to their ship and restore the original timeline, they must follow him and prevent him from doing whatever he did. Steeling themselves to find the correct moment in history, Kirk and Spock jump through the portal and arrive in New York City during The Great Depression, where the pair must disguise themselves while they search for McCoy. Unfortunately, their Starfleet uniforms (and Spock's Vulcan ears) attract unwanted attention. When the pair attempt to steal clothes, they are chased by the police and end up hiding in the basement of a homeless shelter run by the kind, idealistic and smart social worker Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). Keeler offers to take in Kirk and Spock and find them work, although she is slightly suspicious of their military demeanour.

While Kirk and Spock do menial jobs, Spock is able to construct a rudimentary computer using electronic parts he has assembled, which he uses to analyze his tricorder's recording of the historical scenes shown in the archway. Kirk and Edith begin to fall in love. Spock discovers a terrible truth: Soon after he entered the portal and arrived on Earth, McCoy saved Keeler from dying in an auto accident. Since she did not die as intended, she later became a peace activist and successfully convinced Franklin D. Roosevelt to keep America from entering World War II until too late, allowing the Nazis to win and preventing Starfleet from ever existing. Kirk and Spock realize that in order to prevent this from happening, Edith Keeler must die.

Meanwhile, McCoy has been running loose in the city, still affected by the drugs. After an altercation with a homeless man who steals his phaser and shoots himself with it, he is found and taken in by Keeler, who believes he is merely drunk. As he recovers from the drug's effect, he befriends her, unbeknownst to Kirk and Spock.

The following night, Kirk takes Edith on a date to the movies — the night of her accident. An offhand comment by Edith reveals to Kirk that she knows McCoy. When Kirk and Spock run into McCoy on the street, Edith walks into traffic to find out what's going on. Kirk instinctively moves to push her out of the way, but Spock insists he not interfere. When McCoy moves to save her, Kirk restrains him, and Edith is struck by a car and dies, returning history to its original timeline.

McCoy is shocked and furious, and demands to know why Kirk stopped him from saving Edith. Kirk is too heartbroken to say a word, and Spock gently tells Bones that "he knows". With the timeline restored, the three are able to return to the planet through the portal, where the Enterprise has reappeared. Scotty expresses surprise at the short time that's elapsed since they left. The Guardian offers to show the crew more fantastic journeys, but an emotionally shaken Kirk simply states "Let's get the hell out of here" and prepares to have the crew beamed back aboard.

Presently, IDW is publishing a comic book adaptation of Harlan Ellison's original script of this story.

Tropes

  • Always Save the Girl: Played with, since saving Edith would doom the world.
  • America Saves the Day: Implied that this happened in World War II, since America staying out of the war in Europe apparently allows Germany to defeat both Britain & Russia.
  • Bamboo Technology: Spock has create a massive crude circuit array for his tricorder to display its recordings from the Guardian and he complains that he has to work with the 1930s equivalent tech resources of "bear skins and stone knives."
  • Big Applesauce
  • Bittersweet Ending: Edith dies, but the future continues as normal.
  • Dramatic Shattering: A random vagrant is so frightened by Bones' appearance that he drops a glass bottle of milk.
  • Explosive Instrumentation: At the beginning of the episode, leading to Bones breaking out the cordrazine.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water
  • Foreshadowing: Almost the first thing to happen to Kirk and Spock when they arrive in the past is that they're nearly run over by a car.
  • For Want of a Nail
  • Godwin's Law of Time Travel
  • Home Version Soundtrack Replacement: Accidentally averted. The DVDs were originally going to have "Goodnight, Sweetheart" replaced by generic music for monetary reasons. Then the DVDs were made with the song still in so Paramount paid the money.
  • Informed Attribute: For a Guardian of Forever, he certainly doesn't do anything to stop a drug-addled crazy man run into the past and screw with human history, the sort of thing a Guardian would be expected to prevent. SF Debris had an excellent go at this:
    Chuck!Spock: Perhaps your new name could be something like "Butterfingers on the Edge of Whoopsie, Did I Do That?"
    Chuck!Guardian: I've succeeded! Just in a way far beyond your comprehension!
    Chuck!Spock: Yeah, that's not working anymore.
    Chuck!Guardian: ...Shit.
  • Kill the Cutie
  • Leitmotif: "Goodnight, Sweetheart" is their song.
  • Mad Scientist Laboratory: Spock's primitive computer workshop is a small-scale version of this, including an entirely gratuitous Jacob's Ladder.
  • Missed Him by That Much: McCoy is led out of the soup kitchen just as Spock shows up to serve.
  • Not That Kind of Doctor: Inverted when Bones tells Edith "I'm a surgeon not a psychiatrist."
  • Notable Original Music: Although this is the only episode to use music not specifically composed for the series, the musical cues featured in the episode are unusual for a different reason. Because the partial score composed for the episode incorporates cues from the copyrighted "Goodnight, Sweetheart", and because this episode aired so late in the first season, and because new recordings of music were conducted for each season (under union rules), all of the music composed for this episode is heard only in this episode - a vanishingly rare case indeed for a show which quite famously reused the same dramatic cues in dozens of episodes.
  • Precision F-Strike: "Let's get the hell out of here." The effect is obviously lost for modern viewers, but "hell" was pretty shocking for 1960s television (contrast Kirk's slightly awkward line "Go to the Devil" from "Day of the Dove"), and they had to fight the network watchdogs to keep it in.
  • Reset Button: According to the Guardian, if they were successful in restoring the timeline, "It will be as though none of you had gone". Then, this would indicate that the bum who accidentally killed himself with McCoy's phaser is restored to life. And from Edith's point of view, she never met any of them before she died. However, Kirk still remembers.
  • Retroactive Recognition: a very young Joan Collins as the poor but kindhearted Edith.
  • Save This Person, Save the World: Inverted.
  • Sequel Hook: The Guardian's final words definitely give the impression that the writing staff intended to make further historical stories. Unfortunately, it never happened.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog
  • Status Quo Is God: Neither Spock nor Kirk suggests the possibility of taking the forward thinking Edith Keeler back to the future with them instead of letting her get killed 'again'. Perhaps this is what the "Guardian" is guarding against.
  • Time Travel Romance
  • The Needs of the Many
  • Wham Line: "Edith Keeler must die."
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Bones, after Kirk restrains him from saving Edith.
  • You Can't Fight Fate

"Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway."