Nov 19, 2020
Star Trek “The City on the Edge of Forever”: teleplay vs. episode
Many Star Trek fans say that the original series’s crowning achievement was the penultimate episode of the show’s first season, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Some fans go further than that by saying it’s the finest episode of all the Trek series. While I wouldn’t exactly rank it that high in either case (for reasons I’ll get to shortly), one thing that’s certainly added to the story’s mystique is the fact that the episode’s author, the late Harlan Ellison, famously expressed his dislike for the episode itself, a la Stephen King with Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining.
Ellison’s original script had a number of differences from how the episode itself turned out. Gene Roddenberry would go on to add to Ellison’s dissatisfaction by stating for years afterward that the original script would’ve been too expensive to shoot, as well as infamously saying that the story had Scotty dealing drugs.
Just a few years after Roddenberry’s death in 1991, Ellison would publish a book containing his original “City” screenplay. Ellison also used the book to express his displeasure at how Roddenberry painted him during the intervening years since “City” was first televised in 1997. I recently purchased the original “City” script in comic book form. This prompted me to draw a comparison between the teleplay and the episode it was turned into. As most people are more familiar with the episode itself, I’ll start with a brief recap of that.
The episode begins with the Enterprise tracking waves of time displacement, which have led them to an unknown planet. These waves are causing the ship to violently rock as the crew tries to navigate through it. One such wave knocks Sulu out, prompting Kirk to call McCoy. Bones administers a special drug which revives Sulu. The doctor is putting his medical kit back in order when another wave hits, causing the hypo Bones is holding to pump a shit-ton of that same drug into him. After a few seconds, Bones leaps up ranting like a maniac, and violently pushes everyone away before taking off.
After the title sequence, Kirk has security searching the ship for McCoy. But Bones quickly knocks out the transporter chief before escaping the ship by beaming down to the planet where the time waves are originating from. Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Uhura, and two redshirts go after him. On the surface, they’re surrounded by ruins of a former city. In the center of this is the source of the time waves: a glowing ring, which soon speaks to them, identifying itself as the Guardian of Forever. Our heroes realize that the Guardian is a time portal as it shows them images from the distant past.
McCoy appears, still batshit crazy, but Spock quickly nerve-pinches him. Kirk wonders if they can take McCoy back briefly in time to prevent his accident, although Spock poo-pooh’s the idea, given how fast the Guardian is showing the images. But the playback is slow enough for Spock to start recording the imagery playing in front of him. It’s at this point that McCoy revives and quickly disappears after leaping into the Guardian.
The Guardian states that McCoy is in the past. Uhura tells Kirk that she suddenly can’t get anyone on her communicator, leading to the revelation that the Enterprise, not to mention the Federation, is gone because McCoy has changed history. I’m assuming the landing party still exists because of their close proximity to the Guardian.
Kirk and Spock decide to chase after McCoy, making sure they arrive at a point before he does. The two leap through and end up in New York City in 1930. They quickly grab some period clothes, which leads to police chasing them, after Spock nerve-pinches one. They find refuge in the basement of a seemingly abandoned building. But as they start to make plans, a woman (Joan Collins) finds them after coming down from the upper floor. Kirk tells her that he and Spock have no money and stole the clothes they’re now wearing. The lady introduces herself as Edith Keeler, and tells them that they’re in the 21st Street Mission (which she runs), and offers them employment. Edith later offers them an apartment to stay at once she sees how good Kirk and Spock are at maintenance.
Weeks begin to pass while Spock uses some of his and Kirk’s earnings to crate a makeshift computer in order to interface with the data he recorded with his tricorder before and after McCoy changed history. At the same time, Kirk is becoming smitten with Edith, especially with her predictions and lectures on where humanity is heading in the decades to come.
One night, as Kirk takes a romantic walk with Edith, Spock is able to get some info. This info is Edith’s obituary. Kirk arrives but the info that’s shown this time is of a meeting she’ll have with FDR in 1936. That’s when the computer burns out. Spock informs Kirk that he saw her obituary, which is dated 1930. They realize McCoy made one of these events happen, and Kirk tells Spock to get his equipment going again.
More weeks pass as Spock repairs the equipment, during which time McCoy arrives and scares the living bejeezus out of a bum who loiters around the mission. The heavy drugs eventually cause McCoy to pass out, giving the bum a chance to swipe his phaser, which he quickly uses to vaporize himself with. The next morning, McCoy weakly makes his way to the mission, where Edith takes him to a room to let him rest, although Kirk and Spock just miss him.
Spock and Kirk are soon able to get more info from the tricorder. They learn that McCoy saved Edith from getting hit by a truck. This led to her becoming the head of a peace movement, which will prevent the U.S. from entering World War II. This, in turn, will give Germany more time to develop its weapons, allowing Hitler to get the atomic bomb first, which he’ll use to subsequently conquer the world. Kirk is agonized over the realization that Edith must die in order for history to be restored.
Thanks to Edith, McCoy is back to his normal self, although he seems to be taking the fact that he’s in another time quite well. Edith and Kirk are heading to a movie when she mentions McCoy. Kirk frantically tells her to stay put while he goes to get Spock. They’re reunited with McCoy, but their happy reunion is cut short as they all notice a truck heading toward Edith as she’s crossing the street. Kirk prevents McCoy from saving her, and as a crowd gathers around her body, Spock assures Bones that Kirk knew what he was doing.
Our heroes return to the future, where only a brief amount of time has passed. The Guardian says that the timeline has been restored and the landing party returns to the ship.
Ellison’s original teleplay begins with the ship orbiting an unknown planet, while Kirk realizes that one of his crewmen, Beckwith, is influencing other crewmembers with drugs. Beckwith escapes by beaming down to the planet. Kirk, Spock, Janice Rand, and some redshirts go after him and see an actual city embedded in mountains, which Kirk describes as “a city on the edge of forever”.
The inhabitants of this city identify themselves to our heroes as the Guardians of Forever, who protect a time portal. As they show Kirk and the others images from the past, Beckwith leaps through the portal, changing history. The Enterprise is now overrun by space pirates. As Rand and the others deal with them, Kirk and Spock go through the portal after Beckwith, ending up in 1930 New York City.
They meet Edith, whom Spock realizes, due to her surname Keeler, is the key point in time that will bring them to Beckwith. Spock is able to access info from his tricorder and speculates that Beckwith may have saved Edith from dying, which in turn may have led to Nazi Germany conquering the world.
Beckwith later makes his appearance, and uses his phaser to ward off Kirk and Spock as they attempt to nab him, killing a legless war vet named Trooper in the process. But Kirk and Spock succeed in apprehending Beckwith, as Spock prevents Kirk from saving Edith from an approaching truck.
They return to their own time, with Beckwith escaping again, but the Guardians state that a nova has sent him into a cycle of continuous suffering.
Back on the ship, Kirk tells Spock that he loved Edith while they mourn Trooper as well. Spock assures Kirk that his love for Edith meant that she wasn’t irrelevant.
The original script has some nice ideas, such as Beckwith and his unscrupulous drug dealing. It’s also nice to see Rand in a bigger role than she had in many of the episodes she appeared in. It’s also noteworthy that Spock seems a bit more emotional than usual in the story (yes, he’s half-human and all, but I wanted to note that). I also got a kick out of how Trooper resembles Harlan Ellison.
But one aspect of the televised version that’s superior to the original script is that Spock must take the time to create a interface in order to get information, which adds tension to the story as our heroes must wait to see what they must do. There’s also a big deal made at the end about Spock addressing Kirk by his first name for the first time, even though he did so in the pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.
Ellison was a writer Roddenberry wanted on Star Trek from the beginning, as Ellison was already a respected, award-winning author in the ’60s. But after Ellison submitted his original script, Roddenberry removed the characters of Beckwith and Trooper, among other changes. Ellison attempted to remove his name from the final product, but Roddenberry threatened to blackball him from the industry if he did so. Regardless, “City” would bring Ellison numerous accolades, including the prestigious Hugo Award. This acclaim was tempered by Roddenberry telling the world that he basically saved the “City” script with his changes.
I wouldn’t exactly say “City” is the franchise’s finest achievement per se. This may be a petty comment, but it always bugged me that it never seems to occur to Kirk or Spock to simply take Edith back to their time with them (a la Star Trek IV and Back to the Future Part III), thus saving the world from Nazi rule and Kirk a lot of heartache.
But “City”, in both its original and televised form, has wonderful moments, and I always loved how Shatner delivers the episode’s final line (“Let’s get the hell out of here!”). So I don’t think it’s a bad episode by any means. I’d just be more likely to rank, say, “Space Seed”, “Mirror, Mirror”, or “The Enterprise Incident” higher.
Still, while this wasn’t Star Trek‘s first time-travel story (that honor went to “Tomorrow is Yesterday”), it’s understandable why it became the yardstick by which all of the franchise’s subsequent time-travel stories have been measured.