Monday, October 4, 2010

Star Trek's Most Overrated Masterpiece Is "The City On The Edge Of Forever."

The Good: Decent idea, Interesting dilemma, Great acting, Nice effects/costumes, etc.
The Bad: Plot-heavy, Character arcs underdeveloped
The Basics: What many fans see as Star Trek's crowning achievement, "The City On The Edge Of Forever" has something to offer anyone who likes decent television!

Long before there was any debate over which captain was better, Kirk or Picard, the geek world was lit with a firefight over what episode of Star Trek was the best. I'm a geek and I have no problem acknowledging that there was a time people would come to blows over this hot button issue. Interestingly, there was a pretty strong victor in this debate and it was "The City On The Edge Of Forever." There are legions of fans who would argue to the death that "The City On The Edge Of Forever" is the best hour of Star Trek and the pinnacle of the Star Trek franchise. As one who would argue that "A Piece Of The Action" is a stronger episode of Star Trek and that the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Duet" is the peak of the franchise - actually I think it's the high-water mark of television drama - I get yelled at by geeks a lot. But despite all its supposed greatness, "The City On The Edge Of Forever" has some flaws, which an objective reviewer ought to be fearless in exploring.

The U.S.S. Enterprise takes up orbit around a planet that is sending out intense shockwaves and in the process, a console explodes, wounding Sulu. Dr. McCoy arrives on the bridge to medicate him and accidentally overdoses on an experimental painkiller. Deranged, McCoy flees the ship and beams down to the planet. In pursuing him, Kirk awakens the Guardian Of Forever, a sentient device that has the ability to replay time events like we would watch a video. In his deranged state, McCoy leaps through the portal and into Earth's past. Almost immediately, the Enterprise ceases to exist and Spock and Kirk determine that whatever McCoy did in Earth's past, it so radically altered the timeline so that the Federation never came into existence! Stranded in time, protected only be being on this mysterious planet, Kirk and Spock decide the only way to save the future is to return to the past and prevent McCoy from altering history.

Passing through the Guardian Of Forever, the two officers arrive in the 1930s in New York City to realize they have little idea how to pursue McCoy. They soon find a social worker named Edith Keeler who gives both Kirk and Spock a job at the local soup kitchen. Spock uses their money, after Kirk pays their rent and gets groceries, to buy equipment to jerry-rig his tricorder so it might function and process scans Spock took from the Guardian to help figure out precisely what McCoy did to alter the timeline. When Spock figures out the general idea of how McCoy altered all history, it has heartbreaking consequences for Captain Kirk and he must put the future of the Federation above the dictates of his heart and find McCoy and stop him at all costs.

"The City On The Edge Of Forever" is only the second real time-travel episode Star Trek attempted (there was a third, but the time-travel elements are more a plot escape than a use of time travel to explore time and the nature of events) and it has much that is praiseworthy. In modern times, two historical events dominate time-travel plots and theories: one being attempting to explore what would have happened if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War. This episode glimpses the other question (which I shall not ruin by revealing!) and the answer that writer Harlan Ellison came up with is chilling.

It is worth noting that Harlan Ellison, a supposed master of science fiction, wrote the original script for "The City On The Edge Of Forever" before it was heavily rewritten by staff writers and Gene Roddenberry. He was furious about the rewrites and I get where he's coming from; I loathe the idea of other people rewriting my things. Having met Mr. Ellison at a convention (don't even try to get anything from Star Trek signed by him, he'll swear at you!) I think he pretty much mortgaged his ability to complain through two actions: he put his name on it and he's accepted any award he could that the episode has won. You can't kvetch about how it's not your work AND still take credit for it. Ellison's script was good science fiction, but it didn't ring true as a Star Trek episode (the characters didn't sound like the Star Trek characters). The Ellison/Roddenberry version that aired is a good combination of Ellison's strong science fiction vision and Roddenberry's narrative voice. And the episode largely works.

The problems with "The City On The Edge Of Forever" can be nailed down to two things: the plot exposition and the failure to develop the relationships. The plot exposition may be something of a necessary evil, but it does not hold up well on multiple viewings. How many times in the episode do Kirk or Spock say "McCoy altered the future, we have to find McCoy before he can change history?" It's a lot of times. Many, many times in the episode the viewer is reminded that McCoy messed things up and Kirk and Spock must do anything to prevent him from altering history. And we're told several times that our heroes have no genuine idea about when McCoy actually appeared in the past. We get it! And yet, they keep telling us, as if if they do not tell us every three minutes we'd forget. The costumes are pretty much a dead giveaway!

The second problem is a little harder for me to swallow in retrospect. Kirk and Edith Keeler develop a romantic relationship . . . sort of. "The City On The Edge Of Forever" takes its sweet time in developing and as a result, it takes a bit of time before Kirk and Spock journey back in time and longer before they meet Keeler and then she's talking and then *poof* suddenly Kirk is in love. It's pretty obvious what the producers of the show wanted, but the problem is the execution. There is not enough time in the episode spent actually building a relationship between Kirk and Keeler to be believable, especially for the depth of emotion it is connoted Kirk feels for her. In other words, in order to accommodate the slow pace at the beginning, the last act forces the viewer to suspend their disbelief over how quickly and how deeply Kirk has developed feelings for Edith Keeler. I suppose most fans are able to do that easier than I am, but the truth is, there simply is not enough time spent between Kirk and Keeler before Kirk reveals the depths of his feelings for her to Spock. It ends up as a troubling oversight.

That said, it is easy to see why "The City On The Edge Of Forever" is so popular; one of our heroes is almost critically wounded and in that state he does something so tremendous as to change the existence of the Federation! McCoy is a brilliant choice to end up as the turning point for history's motion because one wants to believe that he would try to do the right thing in any circumstance, but it's impossible to deny that he is a passionate character. Either deranged or when he comes down from that, McCoy has the potential to make good mistakes with the best of intentions.

Spock is more compassionate in "The City On The Edge Of Forever" than we see him in many outings and Kirk is a strange combination of determined and laid back. He talks frequently about his mission, but takes time to do such things as go out on a date with Edith Keeler. Edith Keeler, for her part, is a wonderful character who has the potential to be genuine and well-rounded. She gets the short end of the stick in the episode as we are treated to glimpses of her personality, but not the fullest understanding of it. She is presented as an idealist and a kindhearted person and the episode works to make her likable. It is easy to see why Captain Kirk would be distracted by her and even fall in love.

Keeler is played by Joan Collins and she is one of the biggest guest stars Star Trek ever landed. Collins is good, no doubt about it, though some of her appeal is cheated through the use of fuzzy lenswork to make her look younger and more starry-eyed. Collins essentially plays a period character and she does it with an ease that seems to come naturally to her. She delivers her monologue exceptionally well and in her other scenes she easily establishes one of the most memorable guest characters in the Star Trek franchise.

William Shatner gives one of his sterling performances as Captain Kirk. Kirk is a man out of time in this episode and as a result, Shatner plays him with a more whimsical quality in many moments. The result is a Captain Kirk who for the first time in the series seems like he could be a viable partner to the woman he is with. Shatner has decent on-screen chemistry with Collins and as a result, the viewer comes away from each of their scenes feeling that the implied and building relationship truly could be something.

But the acting award for the episode has to go to DeForest Kelley. Kelley is essentially a supporting player in the first season and often it seemed like the producers were unsure how they wanted to use Kelley or McCoy. As a result, McCoy and Kirk have more of a sparring relationship than McCoy and Spock in the early episodes. In the mid-first season episodes, the Doctor is a more subtle character, generally being less in-your-face, giving Kelley more of a subdued role to play. Not here. Here Kelley must play manic, wounded and outright crazy. Many of his scenes are difficult to watch because Kelley so convincingly throws himself into the role and so effectively portrays a wounded McCoy. Kelley is brilliant as the sweaty, barely-coherant McCoy and it's a shame he was not recognized for his performance here.

"The City On The Edge Of Forever" may be preoccupied with making sense of itself, but it's a worthwhile journey. The episode is funny, heartwrenching and comes together very well. Science fiction fans will enjoy the attention to detail and the science fiction themes, while fans of drama will like the pace and tension throughout the episode. This episode is also rather accessible to fans of romance stories as love motivates many of the actions at the key points in the episode. And for those who let themselves get emotionally invested in a work so short, it has the potential to be a serious tear-jerker. It is worth the attention of anyone who likes television that is well above average.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek reviews, please click here to visit the index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |

No comments:

Post a Comment