People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
Time travel used to be thought of as just science fiction, but Einstein's general theory of relativity allows for the possibility that we could warp space-time so much that you could go off in a rocket and return before you set out.
If we could travel into the past, it's mind-boggling what would be possible. For one thing, history would become an experimental science, which it certainly isn't today. The possible insights into our own past and nature and origins would be dazzling. For another, we would be facing the deep paradoxes of interfering with the scheme of causality that has led to our own time and ourselves. I have no idea whether it's possible, but it's certainly worth exploring.
What would happen if history could be rewritten as casually as erasing a blackboard? Our past would be like shifting sands at the seashore, constantly blown this way or that by the slightest breeze. History would be changing every time someone spun the dial of a time machine and blundered his or her way into the past. History as we know it would be impossible. It would cease to exist.
I find the whole time travel question very unsettling if you take it to its logical extension. I think it might eventually be possible, but then what happens?
Sorry to break up the narrative here, but I really feel I have to perform a public service for the pop culture-deprived citizens of the 23rd century. Clark Gable. Major film star of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Among his career highlights: A Free Soul (1931; though he played a secondary character, and a murderous gangster to boot, this one made him a star), Red Dust (1932), Strange Interlude (1932, first time he wore a mustache onscreen), No Man of Her Own (1932; only film with future wife Carole Lombard), Dancing Lady (1933; only film with The Three Stooges, none of which he married), It Happened One Night (1934; made him an even bigger star and brought the undershirt industry to its knees after he appeared on screen bare-chested), Manhattan Melodrama (1934; last film John Dillinger ever saw), The Call of the Wild (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), San Francisco (1936), Saratoga (1937; costar Jean Harlow's final film) Gone With the Wind (1939; played Rhett Butler, his most famous role) Boom Town (1940), The Hucksters (1947), Homecoming (1948), Mogambo (1953; remake of Red Dust with him playing the same character), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), The Misfits (1960; his final film--Marilyn Monroe's, too.)
Why, there's even a T-shirt. Can you think of any higher accolade than that?
You may have detected by my tone that I'm not quite as enamored of this episode as everybody else. I don't dislike it, but do think it's overrated. With your open-minded permission (just in case you're wearing one of those T-shirts while reading this) I'd like to share my misgivings with you.
Now, if you read some of the quotes at the top of this page, yes, time-travel is theoretically possible. So is eliminating the world of war and poverty. OK, that may not be a good comparison, as time-travel may strike most of you as much more likely than eliminating the world of war and poverty. Also, time-travel into the future has actually occurred. Real-life astronauts have taken clocks into space and returned to Earth to find that said clocks are now a millisecond slow, meaning the spacemen themselves have arrived a millisecond into the future (far short of the thousands of years achieved by the hero of H. G. Wells 1895 novel The Time Machine.) Or else they're just crappily made clocks bought from a dollar store. Anyway, we're already traveling into the future. If you're hair's a little grayer or you've got a few more liver spots on your forehead once you get there, well, deal with it. As for time traveling into the past, you can warp-time space, as Stephen Hawkings notes, but what do you warp-time it with? Faster-than-light rocket ships are the most likely way. Except that faster-than-light rocket ships are unlikely, meaning that it's theoretically possible to travel into the past in a machine that's theoretically impossible. Sigh. There are always strings attached. Which reminds me. String theory is another possibility when it comes to time travel. Just unravel the strings connecting space, time, gravity, electromagnetism and the fifth dimension and we all go back in time. Either that or the fabric of reality disappears and we all vanish into nothingness. Antimatter to antimatter and dust to dust. Before you get too depressed, wormholes are another possibility. You just need the theoretically impossible (or at least improbable) faster-than-light rocket ship as there are no wormholes in Earth's immediate neighborhood. Or black holes, another time-travel possibility. However, even if you could get close enough to a black hole to travel backwards in time, the gravity would be so great you'd be crushed to death first, possibly ending up as dandruff in some poor caveman's hair. In Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the title character falls backwards in time after getting hit in the head with a crowbar. As much as I admire Twain, I have to admit that's not very realistic, as "backwards" (as well as "forwards") is relative. Speaking of relativity, it's Albert Einstein that got us into this mess with those damn theories of his. Except even he didn't believe in time-travel, as he found it disruptive of cause-and-effect (you know, that old saw about what happens if you invent a time machine and kill your grandfather before you you were born and thus can't invent a time machine in the first place, though I suppose it would be a good way to beat a murder rap.) Einstein insisted there must be something in physics that would prevent time-travel, but died without discovering exactly what that would be. He never figured out that Unified Field Theory, either. The theoretical underpinnings of the atomic bomb--that he figured out.
A recent example of the cautionary time-travel story is Stephen King's best-selling novel 11/22/63. In 2011 a 35-year old divorced GED instructor by the name of Jake Epping living, like most King characters, in a small town in Maine, is told by Al, the owner of a local diner, that in his pantry is a time portal to 1958, to which he's been visiting for years to pick up fresh hamburger meat for his establishment at 50 year old prices. Epping would normally not be inclined to believe any of this except that Al looks a lot older than he did just two days earlier. Seems in his last visit to 1958, Al decided to stick around for a while--all the way to 1963 so as to the thwart the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He didn't succeed, and as he's now dying from lung cancer, wants Epping to do it for him. Epping balks at this, so Al commits suicide. Realizing the portal might soon be lost to him forever, Epping indeed returns to 1958, makes his way to Texas, where he stalks and spies on Lee Harvey Oswald, depicted here as a wife-beating lout (as are several other characters in this book.) Epping succeeds in foiling the assassination, and returns to 2011 to see if the world has improved any. It hasn't. Nuclear wars are commonplace, as are nuclear accidents such as the one that has wiped out most of New England including Maine, now a province of Canada. Epping further learns that Kennedy failed to get any civil rights legislation passed, Martin Luther King was killed not in Memphis but Chicago and the blacks there retaliated by burning the city down and establishing a fiefdom, George Wallace succeeded Kennedy and dropped an atomic bomb on Hanoi, a decision met with resounding approval by the American people with the exception of Arthur Bremer, who shoots and kills Wallace, who's than succeeded by former Air Force General and firebomb innovator Curtis LeMay, who in turn is succeeded by Hubert Humphrey, who serves just one term and is succeeded by Ronald Reagan. Several administrations go unmentioned but we find out Hilary Clinton is now president (Bill having succumbed to a coronary), and has had to deal with such problems a earthquakes, an increase in suicides, and Miami going up in a mushroom cloud. If all that wasn't bad enough, Paul McCartney was blinded during a concert. Seeing how he's fucked everything up, Epping returns to 1958, which sets everything right again.
Unless the comedy is Back to the Future. Actually, the main storyline is indeed your typical altered-past-gone-wrong, though this time nothing of a historical nature. However, once everything is righted, there's another change to the past, but, finally, one with a positive outcome. Marty McFly returns to the present in a time machine-DeLorean and is pleasantly surprised to discover that he now has a vastly improved, as well as more upwardly-mobile, family life. However, what's good for McFly may be a bit frustrating for some in the audience, and here we come to the real reason so many time travel stories take the negative route. As we're not characters in a movie or otherwise made-up story, we can't simply erase our troubles by getting behind the wheel of a DeLorean (in fact, the DeLorean wasn't all that good for DeLorean, as in John, whose company went bankrupt.) It's sort of like when you hear someone say "If I had to do it all over again, I'd do everything exactly the same." Easy to say when it's a pretty good bet you never will have to do it all over again. And just as easy to say you shouldn't change the past. Meanwhile, what happened to Marty McFly's original family, the one with all the flaws, the one that had an entirely different set of experiences, as well as memories of those experiences, the first time around? Did they just disintegrate? Egads!
Cordrazine-fueled illusion. If you think about it, McCoy preventing Edith Keeler from getting hit by a truck is every bit as accidental as Edith Keeler getting hit by the truck in the first place. The only character who deliberately changes the past in this episode is James Kirk, with Spock's encouragement. True, Kirk's changing the past back to the way it was, but it's still a conscious choice.
And what of this choice?
"The City on the Edge of Forever" is a good example of the "sadistic choice" story. This is where the hero is faced with two choices, each of which will have some kind of negative consequence. It's a pretty common plot device. For instance, there's a 1950s Superman story where Lex Luther, apparently for no other reason than to piss the Man of Steel off, has Lana Lang and Lois Lane in some kind of contraption where if either one is rescued, the other dies. Moving ahead to the 1970s and a different superhero, the Green Goblin threatens to throw Spider-Man's girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, off New York City's George Washington Bridge unless the web-slinger kills himself first. Moving ahead to the 21st century and a movie version of a comic book superhero, the Joker rigs up two ferries with explosives. One ferry has law-abiding citizens, the other convicts with guards watching over them. Each ferry has a detonator that can blow the other up, and the Joker has a detonator that can blow up both ferries, which he'll do if one doesn't blow the other by midnight. Got all that? Good, because I now want to leave superheroes behind altogether and go backwards to 1964 for my final example, the movie Fail-Safe. A Pentagon computer malfunctions and orders an all-out nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. The President of the United States (Henry Fonda) does manage, through various maneuvers, to prevent most of the warplanes from arriving at their targets. Except for the one headed toward Moscow. The fellow flying that particular aircraft is determined to drop the Bomb no matter what. The U.S.S.R is sure to retaliate. Nothing the President can do about that, except he'll soon have to decide whether to retaliate against the retaliation.
Of all these sadistic choice stories, I suppose Spider-Man's is the most realistic. No, not that a man in one scary costume would do battle with a man in another scary costume on top of the George Washington Bridge, causing all kinds of traffic jams as some motorists stop and crane their necks upward to see what the hell is going on. Just that denying a sadistic choice is a sadistic choice seems to me the most likely human response. Actually, maybe Superman's dream sequence is the most realistic. For the most part, our waking hours aren't filled with sadistic choices. They're filled with hard choices. Should I take my old job or keep my new one? Should I replace the antifreeze in my car, or just hope that The Old Farmer's Almanac is right and we have a mild winter this year? Should I tell my fiancee about the time I got drunk and tried to make out with that statue in the town square, or just hope none of my so-called friends ever post the pictures on Facebook? Things like that. I never bought The Dark Knight. Those two ferries would have gone up in flames while Bruce Wayne was still buckling up his utility belt. Nor, as much as I like the film and the man who plays the President, do I find the ending of Fail-Safe very convincing. Henry Fonda was a lifelong Democrat. Nuke New York and you lose a major constituency.
The one thing all these sadistic choice stories have in common is there's a degree of uncertainty to the proceedings. Superman is so indecisive he wakes up. Spider-Man can't be too sure that the Green Goblins is holding all the cards, as well as Gwen Stacy, or he wouldn't have attempted to save her in the first place. None of the people on the ferry knows what the people on the other ferry is going to do, and vice-versa. Until almost the very end, President Fonda hopes the mere offer of radiating the Big Apple is enough to appease the soon-to-be Moscow-less Soviets.
Turns out he is.
I googled "The City on the Edge of Forever" and "controversy" to see if anyone has a problem with Kirk's good deed. I could find none. Everybody on every web site seems to think Kirk had no other choice. Don't expect any dissension from me. If I were Kirk--and I'm not despite his last name being the same as my first--I might have done the same thing. So what's the problem?
The problem is that it's not a problem. The whole thing is cleverly designed so that the viewer can take sadistic satisfaction from Kirk's sadistic solution to his sadistic problem, as the T-shirt I showed you earlier will attest. Also simplistic satisfaction from a simplistic solution to a simplistic problem. And a contrived solution to a contrived problem (notice I didn't say the satisfaction was contrived; I'm giving people the benefit of a doubt.) I don't find this episode to be particularly profound. It offers no great insight on the human condition other then that, like Edith Keeler, we tend to go through life utterly clueless about what fate has in store for us. Nimoy said it was good tragedy. Not as the Ancient Greeks defined tragedy, which has some fatal flaw leading an otherwise decent person to their ruin, unless you consider Edith's inability to look both ways before crossing the street a fatal flaw. Of course, you can argue that it's not really Edith that suffers here but Kirk. Well, what's his fatal flaw? That he's a sucker for a pretty face? In that case, Donald Trump is a tragic hero. Nor is this tragedy in the Shakespearean sense, where a great person is brought low. After all, Kirk gets to leave the Great Depression behind and go back to his cool state-of-the-art starship. There are also American tragedies, such as Theodore Dreiser's aptly named 1925 novel An American Tragedy. There an act of criminal desperation sends an ambitious but impoverished young man to his doom. Whereas Kirk desperately wants not to commit an act that sends an impoverished young woman to her doom, and when he does anyway, we can all agree it wasn't an act of criminal negligence--right?--though a jury might have saw it differently had he bothered to stick around the 1930s and stand trial. Arthur Miller's 1949 play Death of a Salesman is often described as a tragedy. There an ordinary man exhausts every option to improve his lot in life but still ends up crushed by overwhelming fate. James Kirk is far from ordinary, and he ends up aiding and abetting overwhelming fate, albeit reluctantly. Actually, now that I've had some time to think about it, I'm not so sure Kirk (or Spock) really did exhaust every option. Edith may have been destined to die, but couldn't the two Starfleet officers at least clued her in about what was going on. Who knows? Maybe she would have put that peace movement on the back-burner. To be fair "The City on the Edge of Forever" does have two traditional features of dramatic or literary tragedy: emotion and catharsis. Lets start with emotion. Kirk falls in love with Edith and goes through heartbreak when he has to watch (and let) her die. But as she's totally clueless as to her role as a focal point in history and spends much of her time doing good, you'd think Kirk might have found her demise rather unsettling anyway even if he'd never had any strong feelings towards her. Not that he should have had strong feelings in the first place. Since Kirk knows going in that all of history now depends on him, you'd think he would have steeled himself against any emotional involvement. So why is the bar set so romantically high in this episode? Maybe, just maybe, the producers were in fact a bit concerned that viewers might balk at this young woman's death and Kirk's role in it, even if it did guarantee a Nazi-less future. So in order to put the whole thing over, it was decided Kirk indeed needed to suffer, to pay, for his utterly selfless, unavoidable, perfectly understandable, and unambiguously non-controversial course of action. And here we come to the catharsis. The audience gets to suffer right along with him, not too much but just enough not to get caught up in any moral second-guessing.
"Take my little girl! Take my baby!"The guard picks up the little girl, who screams "MOMMY!" as she's being carried away. Though the story was fictional, it was rooted in reality. As is the aftermath of Sophie's decision. Eventually losing track of her son as well, she makes her way to America and a new life, marrying a Jewish-American with problems of his own. But her guilt and her grief impinge on that new life. She drinks heavily and eventually commits suicide. The sadistic choice ends up defining her life. Whereas James Kirk's sadistic choice is completely forgotten by the very next episode. In fact, the history-on-a-precipice adventure that is "The City on the Edge of Forever" is never mentioned again during the series run, not even in the second season's time travel episode "Assignment: Earth" where Kirk and co. go quite voluntarily, even eagerly, into the past. The Guardian of Forever does make an appearance in one episode of the 1970s animated version of Star Trek titled "Yesteryear", but the reunion doesn't seem to bring on any bad memories for Kirk, and Edith Keeler's name is never mentioned. I'm not suggesting Kirk should have taken to drink and committed suicide, only that the cutoff point for grief, heartbreak, and tragedy can't just be the announcement, "Stay tuned for scenes from next week's episode!"
25 to 27 years before Star Trek first went on the air.
KIRK: But she was right. Peace was the way.
SPOCK: She was right, but at the wrong time.
Associate producer Robert Justman admitted as much when, 25 years after it aired, he was asked if "The City on the Edge of Forever" was meant as a potshot at the then-burgeoning anti-Vietnam War movement. "Of course it was."
If Justman could answer with such certainty in 1992, imagine just how certain those feelings must have been in the 1960s. Many of the leading creative lights of Star Trek (though not all) looked at one set of protesters and saw that they were as hopelessly deluded as the American Firsters during World War II. Try to tell them that west of the Caucasus Mountains, Germany in the 1930s was the most populous country in Europe, and the fourth largest in area, whereas on a map of Asia, Vietnam was an emaciated seahorse in the lower right hand corner. It did and still does have a lot of people, but in the '60s they were mostly poor, mostly rural village people without access to electricity or running water, whereas Germany was a major scientific, technological, and industrial center in the 1930s with a rapidly rising standard of living (thanks to increased military spending.) This should have made the Vietnam of the 1960s a much smaller military threat compared to Germany of the '30s. In some ways, however, Vietnam was a bigger military threat, or it at least gave the United States a much harder time of it. I should note here that there were two Vietnams, North and South (so take everything I just said and divided it in half.) The U.S. supported the capitalist South and opposed the communist North. However, the folks to whom the U.S. opposed the most belonged to a group in the South that was supported by the North: the Viet Cong. As fearsome as the Nazis were, they fought their war in a largely predictable fashion, with columns of soldiers and tanks, and planes over head. You could see them coming. The Viet Cong, on the other hand, had no planes or tanks. In fact, they didn't even seem to have soldiers. Just bullets that came out of nowhere. The Nazis wanted to conquer territory, whereas the Viet Cong stood by quietly and let the U.S. conquer territory, and then, and only then, did they start shooting. The U.S. and Nazis tried to force the other to retreat. The Viet Cong retreated before the battle began, and only showed up after it was over. If you haven't guessed by now, I'm talking guerrilla warfare. That's why they were so hard to fight, but only on their own soil. Unlike Nazi Germany, there was zero chance of the Viet Cong ever invading the United States. To be fair, the Vietnam War was part of a larger chess game going on between the United States and the Soviet Union. But that wasn't much like World War II, either. Nuclear annihilation was always a possibility in the 1960s, which is why we squabbled over Vietnam instead. It was relatively safer. Nuclear weapons weren't used in WW II until the very end, and by that time Germany had already surrendered. But all those differences didn't much bother the establishment. And it still doesn't. Ho Chi Minh or Saddam Hussein, it's always Hitler we're fighting, and if you say otherwise you're an isolationist.
Star Trek was off the air by then, but I'm sure many supporters of the war looked at the above picture and thought to themselves, sad that it had to happen, but really, it was the only logical outcome. Now is the wrong time for peace. This should shut those hippies up [which it did to a degree.] They were interfering with history, with destiny, with the future. Now is the time to set things right.
Time may change me
But I can't trace time
So those are some of my misgivings about "The City on the Edge of Forever". I didn't have these misgivings immediately. The first time I watched it, I, too, thought it was the greatest thing since the mechanical rice picker. It was with repeated viewings that I started having second thoughts. Edith Keeler can get hit by a truck only so many times before I want to jump in and save her myself.
However, even if I can't accept it as a whole, I do like a lot of the parts that makes up "The City on the Edge of Forever". The acting, for instance. It may just be William Shatner's greatest moment as James T. Kirk. Yes, I'm skeptical Kirk would allow himself to fall in love with Edith with so much at stake, and then, after falling in love, he would stand by and let her die. But Shatner has him do both convincingly, as his character agonizingly answers the call of duty. On paper, Spock should be the same callous realist he was in the second Star Trek pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before" but Leonard Nimoy refuses to play him that way, and the episode is better for it. He really does not want to see Kirk get hurt, so the call of duty may cause him just as much agony, which, as a good Vulcan, he of course suppresses. When, after being prevented from saving Edith, a confused McCoy shouts at Kirk, "Do you know what you just did?" it's a wise and empathetic Spock who answers, "He knows, Doctor, he knows." As for McCoy, I didn't think it was possible, but DeForest Kelley manages to make him even more intense. In a reminiscent rant about 20th century medical procedures to a clueless homeless guy, the good doctor exclaims, "They used to hand-cut and sew people like garments. Needles and sutures. Oh, the terrible pain!" (remind me to cancel that eye lift.) And Joan Collins as Edith Keeler is a long way from Alexis Carrington on Dynasty. Attractive, intelligent, and caring, you can see why Kirk would fall in love with her. Had the truck arrived 15 minutes later, maybe even Spock would have tried to save her.
I also like the whole film noir feeling of the thing. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy have visited a lot of eerie worlds, but none so eerie as New York City during the Great Depression. A lot of great set pieces. Kirk and Spock's comical encounter with the cop. Edith's pontifications to a roomful of disinterested homeless men, leaving only Kirk impressed. Kirk's and Edith's nighttime stroll (the glue that holds all the sadism together.) Spock's sometimes dramatic, sometimes comical attempts to get his makeshift computer to work amid one blown fuze after another. McCoy's sudden appearance on a dark lonely street, and the unfortunate milkman who witnesses it. The homeless man inadvertently vaporizing himself with McCoy's phaser (a scene not shown in syndication for many years.) And the very ending, as an emotionally spent Kirk says, "Let's get the hell out of here," while the Guardian of Forever, like some sort of apocalyptic carnival barker, continues his pitch, "Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway."
cachet, and refused the request. All this is Ellison's version of events that he only told after Trek had been of the air for a while. Nevertheless, he must have felt strongly about it. In 2009, he sued Paramount Pictures for 25% of all net receipts from the publishing, merchandising (including, I imagine, the "Edith Keeler must die T-shirt") any other profits from the episode since 1967, despite him having been work-for-hire. The case was eventually settled out-of-court in terms that Ellison says he found satisfying. Now, how the other side felt. There was plenty of resentment among Roddenberry and co. towards Ellsion going back to when his original script--and NOT what ended up being seen on TV--won both the Writers Guild of America and Hugo awards shortly after the episode aired. "Well, it's easy to win an award if you don't have to worry about how much it costs to shoot," Roddenberry reportedly said at the time, implying Ellison just didn't understand the economics of television. He probably didn't. Nor did several other science-fiction writers who contributed scripts to Star Trek that had to be heavily re-written or else they would have busted the budget. Scripts that Roddenberry solicited from the financially illiterate sci-fi community. Actually, the only thing I can think of that might have made Ellison's version more expensive was the cool exploding star time loop that engulfs Beckwith. But that came at the very end of the story, and I doubt it was a deciding factor when the WGA and Hugo juries made their decision. Another complaint/rationalization was that Ellison's script depicted drug dealing, and Starfleet officers would never do something like that. It's true that by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Roddenberry had a more idealistic view of the future he had created, to the point of balking if a script had Starfleet officers arguing with each other. But back in the 1960s, the original Trek never shied at portraying a warts-and-all future, or for that matter a warts-and-all Starfleet. My God, in "Court-Martial", another first season episode, a Starfleet officer fakes his own death, and has Captain Kirk framed for murder! Roddenberry's complaints then took a mendacious turn when he claimed Ellison's script had Scotty dealing drugs, an out-and-out lie. Roddenberry's idealism apparently didn't extend to his own behavior, but then he wasn't a Starfleet officer, was he?
All right. Enough with "The City on the Edge of Forever". There's some other periods of times I'd like to visit, all in the latter half of the 20th century.
"Assignment: Earth", the title of the episode I just described, originally saw light as a whole other series, one that Gene Roddenberry thought might replace Star Trek, which was on the verge of cancellation. In the script for the pilot there is no Kirk or Spock or Enterprise, though everything else, as I understand it, remained the same. I'm not sure why, but it was later turned into a "backdoor pilot", i.e. as an episode of an existing series, in this case Trek. That accounts for its disjointed nature. At times it seems like you're watching a typical Trek show, sometimes not. As for time travel, that theme kind of takes a back seat in this episode. Part of the fun of having characters visit the past is watching their reactions to technological, cultural, and sociological differences. In this story, however, Kirk and Spock pretty much take 1968 in stride. It is amusing watching the beamed-up cops reactions as they suddenly find themselves aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. No shortage of technological differences there! Mostly, the episode hinges on Teri Garr's performance, and an entertaining one it is, as her character tries to make sense of Kirk, Spock and Gary Seven. She finds them all kind of weird, whether they're from the present or the future.
Speaking of Teri Garr...
I know, I know, she's had health issues lately. I'll back off, but first I'd like to at least provide a dissenting opinion:
Welcome to the swap meet, Joan!
More than a year before "Assignment: Earth" and a mere three months before "The City on the Edge of Forever", Star Trek made its first journey into Earth's past. In "Tomorrow is Yesterday" the U.S.S. Enterprise travels too close to a black star, what today we would call a black hole, and is thrown back into the late 1960s. We don't actually get to see any of that. Instead, the episode opens with the Enterprise sailing through the daylight sky, causing the United States Air Force to scramble it jets to see just what the hell is up there. One of those jets gets too close and is inadvertently destroyed by a "tractor beam". Fortunately for the pilot, he's beamed aboard the Enterprise before he, too, can be inadvertently destroyed. Now aboard the starship, USAF Captain John Christopher (John Perry) is amazed at both the advanced technology as well as the presence of women in orbit (Sally Ride's trip into space was still 16 years away.) Unfortunately, Spock has some bad news for Christopher. They can't let him go back home as he now knows too much about the future. Outside of Christopher's hearing, Kirk comes up with even worse prognosis. The future is so technologically advanced, the USAF captain would be like a caveman in an electonics store. OK, Kirk didn't actually put it that way but that's what he meant, possibly implying that as an anachronistic ignoramus, Christopher will have to be, I don't know, institutionalized or something. Actually, he won't. Spock does some further research and finds that Christopher does indeed belong on Earth, as a yet unborn son will someday be a history-making astronaut. Meanwhile, it's discovered that the jet had a wing camera that wasn't destroyed, meaning Kirk and Sulu (why Sulu? He's pretty much ignored in every other episode), as well as Christopher, who know the layout, have to go down to the air base and retrieve the film. Fun and games ensues as a guard is accidentally beamed aboard the Enterprise. Meanwhile, Kirk is interrogated by another officer and told he could rot in jail for 200 years, which the good captain replies would be just about the right amount of time (actually, that's a 100 years too soon, as it was later decided that Star Trek takes place in the 23rd, and not the 22nd, century.) Christopher briefly has a gun drawn on Kirk, insisting the film can't be destroyed, as it will back up his story on the starship Enterprise's existence, which the Air Force captain feels duty-bound to tell his superiors. Spock beams down behind Christopher and gets him with that nerve pinch. Once they're all back aboard the Enterprise, Scotty comes up with a solution that should solve everybody's problems. Slingshotting the Enterprise around the sun should bring it back to its own era, meanwhile (and somewhat contradictorily) Christopher and that other fellow can be beamed backwards in time, making them somehow forget what they've seen of the future (so why doesn't Kirk and Spock suffer a similar case of amnesia whenever they go back in time? Well, since the future is all they know, I suppose that would be a heck of a lot more memory to erase.)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Having spent a while on the planet Vulcan, James T. Kirk and the rest of the Enterprise crew decide to return to Earth and a probable court-martial for the nine Starfleet regulations they broke during the preceding film The Search for Spock. As for the man for whom they risked breaking all those regulations, Spock has just about regained all his formidable mental facilities, except there's just one question asked of him by a computer that he has no answer for: How do you feel? He's a Vulcan--he has no feelings! Ah, but as his mother Amanda (Jane Wyatt) reminds him (by her very presence if you think about it), he's only half-Vulcan. The computer wants to know how his human half feels. Of course, that's the half Spock regularly ignores, as he does now, though he will return to testify on his Earth friends behalf in their upcoming trial. One of the Starfleet regulations they broke was the starshipnapping of the Enterprise, stolen property that can no longer be returned as they let it auto-self destruct. So they're going to face up to their misdeeds in another stolen starship, the Klingon Bird-of-Prey, which they renamed the Bounty, after the naval vessel on which Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian had their little disagreement. Meanwhile, another starcraft, of neither Earth nor Klingon origin, is going to beat them to their home planet. A humongous space probe, the likes of which has never before been seen (if you don't count Star Trek: the Motion Picture and the original series episodes "The Cobermite Manuever" and "The Doomsday Machine"), it's now causing all sorts of havoc on Earth, turning off the lights, vaporizing the oceans, etc. As the best and brightest minds of the Federation and Starfleet run around like chickens with their heads phasered off, Kirk and Spock quite calmly figure out the problem and come up with a solution. The giant probe is speaking humpback whale. It's apparently visited Earth in the past, and wants to connect with some old friends. Unbeknownst to the probe, the old friends are now instinct. So Kirk has the Bounty slingshot around or off or against the sun (just as it did in "Tomorrow is Yesterday") and return to the 20th century where the aquatic mammals, though endangered, can still be found. Since everyone for a change gets to see Old Earth in this one, they can't just leave their ship in orbit without anyone to man it. So they park it in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. It becomes clear in this film that cloaking devices are actually invisibility devices. All well and good, but isn't the Bird-of-Prey still a solid object? Can't some jogger or cyclist collide right into it? Kirk and co. don't have time to worry about that. After making a spectacle of themselves on the streets of San Francisco (no pun intended, all you 1970s TV fans out there), they decide to split up, dividing various responsibilities amongst themselves. It's up to Kirk and Spock to find the whale. So they take the bus. After nerve-pinching a punk rocker for playing his boom box too loud, Spock has a question:
SPOCK: Your use of language has altered since our arrival. It is currently laced with...shall I say...more colorful metaphors. 'Double dumb ass on you', and so forth.
KIRK: You mean profanity. That's simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays attention to you if you don't swear every other word. You'll find it in the literature of the period.
SPOCK: For example?
KIRK: Oh, the collective works of Jacqueline Susann. The Novels of Harold Robbins.
SPOCK: Ah, the Giants!
Eventually Kirk and Spock end up at the Cetacean Institute, a marine research center that just so happens to have two humpback whales in captivity named George and Gracie. Spock jumps into the tank and mind melds with one of the whales, much to the surprise of a tour group and institute employees. Spock learns that the whales are quite intelligent, maybe as intelligent as humans (though lacking opposable thumbs--humans can lock them up rather than the other way around.) Kirk, meanwhile, charms a pretty marine biologist by the name of Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks). The charm wears off over dinner at an Italian restaurant when he tells her he's from the future and needs the whales' tracking devices before they're released back into the ocean. She refuses, thinking he's either working undercover for the Pentagon or quite crazy. As for Scotty, McCoy, and Sulu, they may not come across as crazy but at least a bit eccentric to a manager of a pexiglass plant. Nevertheless, a deal is struck. Give them enough pexiglass to build a whale tank, and Scotty will provide the plant manager with the formula for transparent aluminum, a substance unknown in 1986. Afterwards, Scotty and McCoy discuss the serious ramifications of such a deal:
MCCOY: You do realize, of course, if we give him the formula, we're altering the future.
SCOTTY: Why? How do we know he didn't invent the thing?
Take that, City on the Edge of Forever!
SPOCK: They like you very much, but they are not the hell "your" whales
GILLIAN: I suppose they told you that?
SPOCK: The hell they did.
As for Catherine Hicks as Gillian Taylor, well, as you can see, she makes a pretty good straight man to these cosmic comedians. Yet it's not all yuks, guffaws, and titters. The film has a point. Even as it's highly unlikely you'll ever get to change the past, you can still take what you need from it to improve the present.
And there's a touch of social significance as well.
Four years before Star Trek first went on the air.
Not that any of producers or writers noticed. The environmental movement that Carson's book helped jump-start is curiously missing from the original series. I say "curiously" because the original Star Trek never shied from criticizing technology. But just the psychological drawbacks of it. An over-reliance on machinery could turn people into dum-dums, as it does in "The Return of the Archons", "The Apple", and "Spock's Brain." That that same machinery might have a physical effect on the world that surrounds those dum-dums is never considered. And what about that other environmental culprit, overpopulation? That problem is exposed in "The Mark of Gideon", but merely for the inconvenience it may cause, what with people bunched so together that a planet could end up like Wal-Mart on Black Friday. But that so many people might create a lot of waste and cause a lot of destruction and deplete a lot of resources is barely noted. You never see Earth (except in the past) on the original Trek, so I guess you're just supposed to assume that the number of animal and plant species, as well as the undeveloped areas of the world is the same in the future as they are in 1969. That wasn't even true three years into the future, much less 300!
By 1986, producer-co-writer Harve Bennett, co-writer Nicholas Meyer (who also co-wrote The Wrath of Khan) and director Leonard Nimoy (this was his second Trek film) knew better. "It's ironic. When man was killing these creatures, he was destroying his own future," James Kirk tells Gillian. Words to remember, even if it turns out to be some calamity other than a giant alien probe. Maybe they can do a Star Trek movie on global warming. Kirk and Spock can take a time machine back to Kyoto.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was another monster hit, and so Paramount Pictures gave the good people on the starship Enterprise permission to visit another heavenly body. Maybe even the heavenly body.
NEXT: A Spiritual Quest, or: How to Win Friends and Influence People.