11. Through the Past Darkly (and Lightly!)
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?
In the original Star Trek, Kirk and Spock returned to Earth's past three
times: "Tomorrow is Yesterday", "The City on the Edge of Forever", and
"Assignment: Earth" ("All Our Yesterdays" is also a time travel story but on another planet, not Earth, which is why I'm choosing to skip it, even though it does have some cool musketeers.) "The
City on the Edge of Forever" is considered among many to be the best
episode of the entire series, so let's start there. As you'll see, I have a lot to say about it.
Written (the first draft, anyway) by an up-and-coming science-fiction writer named Harlan Ellison, "The City on the Edge of Forever" begins with the Enterprise taking a beating from temporal disturbances emanating from a heretofore unknown planet. Sulu is seriously injured during one such disturbance, and Dr. McCoy is called to the bridge to administer first aid in the form of a "Cordrazine" injection, a remedy of the future that can perk a wounded patient right up if done right. If done wrong, as James T. Kirk says, it's "tricky stuff." Fortunately, it's done right for Sulu and he indeed perks up. Unfortunately, there's another disturbance, the bridge again shakes violently, and McCoy accidentally inject himself with way too much of the wonder drug. Crazed out of his mind, the good doctor runs from the bridge, into the transporter room, and beams himself down to the planet below. Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Uhura and a few nondescript crew members beam right on down after him, and find themselves amidst ancient ruins. Ancient, however, doesn't necessarily mean backward. One of the ruins appears to be a stone cavity, big enough for an adult to walk through, that both glows and talks! The cavity haughtily explains that it is the Guardian of Forever, a working time machine left behind by the planet's natives who otherwise couldn't survive their own civilization's upkeep. The Guardian plays back Earth's past as if the cavity was a particularly wide TV screen and images of Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome, the Crusades, the American Revolution, etc, are fleetingly glimpsed. Spock belatedly begins recording all this on his tricorder, when McCoy appears out of nowhere, jumps into the cavity, and disappears as fleetingly as the images themselves. At that point, Uhura realizes they no longer have contact with the Enterprise and, as the Guardian matter-of-factly explains, it's because there is no Enterprise, that McCoy has somehow changed the past, and everything that they once knew is now no more. Well, they still have their memories, I guess. Kirk wants more than that so asks the Guardian to replay Earth's past right up to the point of McCoy's leap into history. Kirk and Spock jump through and find themselves in New York City during the Great Depression. Trying to avoid conspicuousness, the two steal some clothes from a clothesline only to be confronted by a cop. Kirk tries to explain the most conspicuous part of Spock's anatomy by claiming he'd gotten his head stuck in a mechanical rice picker as a child. The cop wants to arrest them anyway, but Spock gets the drop on him in a form of a Vulcan nerve pinch. The two then flee the scene, and take refuge in a cellar, where they encounter pretty Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), who runs the 31st Street Mission. Kirk tells her at least part of the truth--that they're wanted clothes-nappers--and she takes pity on the two, telling them they can stay there, as long as they perform chores around the place. Once in their own room, Spock sets about building a computer so as to replay the images locked in his tricorder, not an easy task in that "zinc-plated vacuum-tubed culture."
not going to be building anything, Kirk spends his free time getting to know Edith better. Turns out she's a fascinating woman, who can foresee a time when space travel is routine. So could the guys who drew the Buck Rogers
and Flash Gordon
comic strips, but Kirk is impressed anyway. In fact, he's smitten. Meanwhile, Spock manages to build a crude computer, and finds he's recorded two contradictory images, both newspaper headlines. One has Edith meeting the President of the United States six years in the future. The other, an obituary, has her getting hit by a truck long before that, in fact, in just a few days! Before Spock can figure the discrepancy out, the computer short-circuits. Back to work. Once he gets it working again, he figures out exactly what happened, or will happen, or can happen. The Guardian of Forever doesn't just show any old history, but "focal points
", history's most malleable moments, where the outcome--the future--is most at stake. What's at stake here is nothing less than World War II. Edith Keeler may be an unknown proprietor of a soup kitchen now, but in six years she'll be the head of a peace movement so immense that Franklin Delano Roosevelt will have no other choice but to negotiate rather than take up arms against Adolf Hitler, giving the wily Nazi just enough time to develop the V2 rocket and the atomic bomb, and thus mastery of the world. Unless Edith gets hit by a truck first. McCoy apparently prevented that from happening during his first travel through time, so all Kirk and Spock have to do now is prevent McCoy's prevention. Except Kirk's now in love with Edith, so there's that
to deal with. That night or close to that night, McCoy finally makes his 1930s debut. Scaring the hell out of a milkman, the still-mad doctor, looking above at the constellations, realizing he's on Earth but an Earth before his time, rants about barbaric doctors cutting open bodies and sticking their hands inside before passing out. An opportunistic homeless guy goes through the unconsious McCoy's clothes and finds his phaser. It's the last thing he'll ever find as he accidentally vaporizes himself. The next morning McCoy staggers into the 31st Street Mission where Edith Keeler takes mercy and gives him a room, both of them leaving the dining area a mere moment before Spock enters. That night Edith checks up on McCoy. The Cordrazine has worn off by now, but with no immediate explanation as to why he's in New York City during the Great Depression, the doctor decides the drug must still be active within him, and thus everything par for the delusional course. Except Keeler herself, whom he's convinced is real. Introducing himself, he offers to do chores around the place. They'll talk about it later she replies; a man is taking her to a Clark Gable movie. McCoy never heard of the guy. Outside the mission, Edith again mentions Clark Gable, this time to Kirk, who's never heard of him either.
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
(1937; costar Jean Harlow's final film) Gone With the Wind
(1939; played Rhett Butler, his most famous role) Boom Town
(1940), The Hucksters
(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.)
Back to the matter at hand. After James Kirk displays his shameful lack of knowledge of classic cinema, Edith replies, "You know, Doctor McCoy said the same thing
." Upon hearing McCoy's name, Kirk quickly turns and runs across the street back to the mission, just as the good doctor is walking out. Kirk, McCoy and Spock have a joyful reunion. Well, Kirk and McCoy are joyful. Spock is his usual taciturn self. Edith Keeler, meanwhile, is naturally curious about all this and starts walking across the street herself, but neglects to look both ways when doing so (neither did Kirk, for that matter; some people are just unlucky.) A truck careens toward her. McCoy starts to run across the street to save Edith, but Kirk stops him, saving history in the process. Edith dies from her injuries. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy leap back into their own time, much to Scotty's surprise, as from his perspective, they've only been gone for a moment. They all beam back up to the Enterprise, ignoring the Guardian's offers of further time travel adventures.
As I said before, "The City on the Edge of Forever" is today considered the single best episode of the original Star Trek
series. Though ratings-wise the episode came and went, the accolades started early. In 1968, Harlan Ellison's original teleplay (which differed from what was eventually shown on TV) won the Writers Guild of America Award for best dramatic hour-long script. Perhaps more impressive, as at the time TV was given short shrift by the science-fiction establishment, it was awarded the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. It was another 25 years before the prestigious sci-fi honor was given to another TV show, this time for an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation
. More recently TV Guide
ranked it #68 on their 100 Most Memorable Moments in TV History, then #92 on the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, so according to the venerable periodical, it's slightly more memorable than great, but maybe that's preferable. No sense in being great if no one remembers you. The popular entertainment website The A.V. Club
gives the episode an A, calling it a "justly revered classic". Both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy have listed the episode as one of their favorites, with the latter calling it "good tragedy
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.
I love time-travel stories, but I wonder why in so many of the them the moral or message or lesson you're supposed to come away with is something along the lines of YOU CAN'T CHANGE THE PAST or YOU SHAN'T CHANGE THE PAST or YOU SHOULDN'T CHANGE THE PAST or YOU COULDN'T CHANGE THE PAST or YOU DON'T CHANGE THE PAST or YOU WON'T CHANGE THE PAST, as if there's an imminent threat of someone actually doing that. If you have a story where the moral is DON'T DRIVE DRUNK or DON'T POLLUTE or DON'T ROB BANKS or DON'T BE A JERK, well, there are some people who do those things, and could use a reminder as to why they shouldn't. I don't know that anyone's currently (for want of a better adverb) going back in time and changing it.
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.
Still, you never know, someone might have already invented a time machine and we just don't know it. Nor would we know if they changed time or not. In the fourth quote from the top of this page Michio Kaku compares changing the past to shifting sands and breezes and wiping a blackboard and then goes on to say that history as we know it would cease to exist. Well, that's true if we're in some kind of time-change protective zone (as seems to be the case with Kirk and Spock in "The City on the Edge of Forever", their memories of a now-nonexistent past unchanged.) But if you're within
that changed past, you would have history, no matter how many times someone metaphorically wiped the blackboard. All those other wipes would be some other you's history, but not yours, if you can follow that. Really, who's to say that the past we have now is the real past or the right past or the original past? It may be that in the very first past, Christopher Columbus couldn't wheedle enough money out of Queen Isabella to pay for his voyage and thus nobody knew the world was round until the advent of satellite technology in the late 1950s and early '60s. Either way or timeline, you still have to get up in the morning.
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.
While the moral of 11/22/63
is clearly you shouldn't change the past because if you do bad things will happen, I should point out that bad things happen, sometimes confusedly, for two different reasons in this novel. 1) Changing the past has a physical effect on the fabric of reality itself, as explained by a man charged with keeping an eye on the time portal in 1958 (who's new to the job, having replaced a fellow who went suicidally mad from keeping two separate realities in his head.) For instance, right after Kennedy escapes assassination, an earthquake occurs in California, killing thousands of people. Obviously, there's enough distance between the San Andreas Fault and Dealey Plaza that the only way one could have an effect on the other is on some metaphysical level. 2) Bad things also happen for no
metaphysical reason but just because something that did or didn't happen the first time around does or doesn't happen in the second run-through, resulting in a different, but natural as well as wholly explainable, chain of events. For instance, if Kennedy doesn't die, there's no subsequent martyrdom to provide the extra heft needed to get civil rights legislation passed. However, the line between the metaphysical and the natural as well as wholly explainable gets blurred at times. Like the worldwide increase in suicides. It's not clear why that is happening. Is eight years (JFK is reelected in '64) of hearing a Boston accent enough to make a person want to end it all? Seems to me that Stephen King was hedging his bets some. I wonder if when writing this novel it occurred to him that an averted Kennedy assassination with negative, even apocalyptic, consequences would be tantamount, in some people's minds, to saying that it was after all a good
thing that in real life Kennedy was killed. By making at least some of the change to the past metaphysical in nature, King was protecting himself from such a charge. I'm not sure he needed to go through that much trouble. If King really wanted to show the folly of changing the past, simply make JFK's fictional 1964-1968 White House stay match that of the man who was actually there, Lyndon Johnson. The Vietnam War and every kind of civil unrest possible (short of blacks burning down Chicago and establishing a fiefdom) would have debunked the illusion that life in these United States would have been wonderful had only Kennedy lived. No need for earthquakes, suicides, or a blinded Paul McCartney, though this being Stephen King, he probably thought all that added some color to the narrative.
However, John F. Kennedy is not the whole, or even most of the show in 11/22/63
, his speaking part amounting to a cameo appearance. The novel has several subplots involving a few wholly fictional characters, most notably Harry Dunning, a brain-damaged janitor who writes an essay in the GED class Jake Epping teaches about the worst day of his life, when his drunken father came home and took a lethal hammer to his mother and his siblings, and left young Henry with a head injury. Epping decides to change the past so as none of that will happen. He decides to do this more than once, as things keep going wrong. Saving Dunning from the hammer makes him healthy enough to pass an army physical, and he gets shipped off to his doom in Vietnam. A second attempt at saving Dunning coupled with the averted Kennedy assassination puts the janitor in a wheelchair following a nuclear disaster. Clearly God, or the man playing God, novelist Stephen King, has it in for Harry Dunning.
Now, my problem with all this is that if you change the past--you know, the phrase "change the past" may be part of the problem here. What Jake Epping and Dr. McCoy (I haven't forgotten Star Trek
) do is go back to the past, but once they're there
, it's the same forward motion through time as everybody else, so why should their decisions be any more disaster-prone? The past, present, and future all take turns occupying the same temporal space. Why should one be more vulnerable than the other? Unless you think all
decisions are disaster-prone. If which case there's nothing more for you to do than stay in bed and gradually starve to death. Say, there's an idea for a horror novel.
Really, wouldn't it be refreshing if there was a time-travel story where actual good
comes out of changing the past? The only examples I can think of is the late '80s-early '90s TV series Quantum Leap
and the first Back to the Future
movie, which came out in 1985. In Quantum Leap
, a scientist named Sam Beckett has invented a time machine that's been hijacked by some mysterious entity (Godot, maybe? Ha, ha.) As a result Beckett doesn't just end up in some earlier era (always within his own lifetime) but in other people's bodies as well. He can only leave that body and "leap" into another by doing good, but has to figure out for himself what exactly that good deed is, with the help of his hologram sidekick Al and a computer named Ziggy that seems to know everybody's business. It's nice that some good comes out those leaps, but since we're really never treated to a Before and After--Ziggy, via Al, only tells us what is "supposed" to happen, which Beckett then has to make happen--there's never a true sense of the past being changed. The stories are rarely of a historic nature, though Beckett did once leap into Lee Harvey Oswald (funny how the Kennedy assassination keeps popping up in time travel stories.) The good deed done there is the First Lady avoids getting shot, thus making the world safe for lonely Greek shipping tycoons looking for a little companionship. But does that make the real-life history in this fictional series "altered" history? Easy to change the past when the past was that in the first place. Indeed, since Beckett, Al, and Ziggy know only the assassination that we all know, they themselves have to have been products of the "altered" (but to us, real-life) history. Still, it was a novel take on an endlessly scrutinized moment in time.
While we're scrutinizing, I should note that Gene Roddenberry once thought the Kennedy Assassination would be a fitting subject for a Star Trek
movie. Paramount Pictures disagreed. The BBC was more open-minded. One episode of the British outer space sitcom Red Dwarf
, a series that could on occasion be every bit as imaginative and provocative as Trek
even if it was played seemingly just for laughs, has a bumbling group of time travelers accidentally knocking Lee Harvey Oswald out of a Texas School Book Depository window. So the President doesn't get shot after all, but soon after it's discovered he had an affair with Mafia moll Judith Exner. He's impeached and placed under arrest by the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover for some reason becomes president but soon has to abdicate after photos surface of him participating in a drag queen orgy. With the country in such a state of disarray, the U.S.S.R is once again able to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, causing Americans to flee all the major cities. In order to correct all this, David Lister (the main character on Red Dwarf
) goes to John F. Kennedy, now sequestered in a paddy wagon, and tries to convince him that he needs to die on November, 22, 1963 in order to go down in history as a beloved liberal icon. Surprisingly, the former president agrees to do this. The episode ends with JFK shooting himself from the Grassy Knoll! Even in a comedy, it's not a good idea to tamper with the past.
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
So, getting back to "The City on the Edge of Forever"--it's always been my intention to get back to it--if the moral is suppose to be that changing the past is always bad, then I'm waiting for some hard, i.e, nonfictional, evidence to back that up. But what if that's not the moral, after all? When Dr. McCoy prevents Edith Keeler from getting hit by a truck, he doesn't know
that he's changing the past. He doesn't even know he's in
the past, thinking it all a 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
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.
So what are the outcomes of all these sadistic choices? Superman wakes up from his dream (the waking-up-from-a-dream is another common plot device going all the way back to Alice in Wonderland
.) Spider-Man decides to try to save Gwen without dying in the process, so she ends up dying in the process instead. The people on both ferries first decide to detonate, then decide not to, and Batman shows up before midnight, thus preventing the Joker from using his detonator. The President decides to drop the Bomb on New York City before the Russians can, in the hope that the nuclear tit-for-tat will end any further escalation.
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
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.
Now compare all that to "The City on the Edge of Forever". I said throughout these series of posts that the Unknown is a major theme of Star Trek
. Well, there's not too much that's unknown in this particular episode. Once Spock gets that computer working, he lays it all on the line: EDITH KEELER LIVES = NAZI DOMINATION. The only real question is whether James T. Kirk is man enough, selfless enough, confident enough, assertive enough, courageous enough, gallant enough, attentive enough, conscientiousness enough, compassionate enough, diligent enough, benevolent enough, considerate enough, altruistic enough, committed enough, dependable enough, courteous enough, flexible enough, determined enough, honorable enough, fair enough, inventive enough, helpful enough, impartial enough, merciful enough, forthright enough, respectful enough, mindful enough, responsible enough, noble enough, resilient enough, sane enough, prudent enough, trustworthy enough, sincere enough, thoughtful enough, reasonable enough, tenacious enough, sensitive enough, tactful enough, wise enough, bold enough, and, finally, virtuous
enough to do everything in his power to make sure that a nice young woman who never hurt anyone is hit and killed by a truck.
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.
Once sadistic choice example I neglected to mention earlier, mainly because I thought it inappropriate to put the terms "Lana Lang" and "Auschwitz" in the same sentence (oops!) is William Styron's 1979 novel Sophie's Choice
, which a few years later became a film starring Meryl Streep. The story takes place in post-World War II Brooklyn, but the actual choice, which is revealed only towards the end of the novel, took place overseas a few years earlier. Sophie is a Polish Catholic accused of helping her lover, a member of the Resistance. She had in fact refused to help him, and assumes the Nazis will eventually find that out. They don't. She also stole a rationed ham to give to her sick mother and further assumes the Nazi's will understand since everybody has a mother. They may have mothers, but they don't understand, or care. Finally, she assumes that as a Gentile, her captors will go relatively easy on her, as compared to the Jews who usually ended up in Auschwitz. That's Sophie's fatal flaw, her assumption that her religious status and her general inclination to keep her nose clean (despite stealing the ham, which was, after all, a first offense) will keep her out of trouble. In fact, the Nazis do
go easy on her. Instead of throwing both of her young children--a boy and a girl--into the gas chamber, they just throw one, and even let her decide. That's the choice. A sadistic choice. And it's a pretty horrible depiction, especially in the movie. When she balks at this choice, the Nazi guard starts to take both children, at which point, Sophie, full of anguish, yells out "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
I know some of you are now scrunching up your faces, wondering what the hell does a novel about the Holocaust have to do with Star Trek
. Well, when in "The City on the Edge of Forever" Spock tells Kirk, "Save her--do as your heart tells you to do--and millions will die who did not die before,
" how do you think those millions are going to die, by tripping over their power lawn mowers? The Great Depression. World War II. In 1967 those events were only a generation away. WW II veterans, and even some Holocaust survivors probably watched this episode. I'm not suggesting they would have taken offense. How could they, when it confirms just how high the stakes were? Except the particular stake on which this episode rests, whether Edith Keeler will live or die, is a purely made-up one. Edith can't die because, as a fictional character, she never lived in the first place. But it all has the appearance of reality. People have a tendency to equate dramatic realism with seriousness. But a clever director can make a dog food commercial look realistic. All the realism of "The City on the Edge of Forever" doesn't make it the truth. Nor does it make it historically accurate.
25 to 27 years before Star Trek
first went on the air.
Those of you who have some familiarity with World War II may wonder why I would say "The City on the Edge of Tomorrow" is not historically accurate. If she lives, Edith Keeler is destined to lead a major peace movement. Well, there was
a major peace movement in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor. More properly called the Isolationist Movement, it was made up of elements of both the Left and the Right. Many on the Left felt the ongoing war in Europe in the late '30s and early '40s was just a replay of the one that went on in the 1910s, which was in retrospect all about making the world safe for imperialism. Many on the Right felt that the U.S.S.R was the true enemy, and maybe if we're nice to Hitler he'll go conquer it for us. So, if there really was a major peace movement back then, and Edith Keeler is said to have been destined to start one, shouldn't that have led a certain creditability to this episode? No, because Edith is fictional, and even if she wasn't, and was hit and killed by a truck, there would have been a major peace movement anyway
. OK, then, maybe she was meant more as a symbol or a metaphor for a major peace movement that was in fact a historical fact. That should lend a certain creditability to this episode, symbolically and metaphorically speaking. Well, Edith Keeler's fictional major peace movement keeps America out of the war long enough for Hitler to win it. The real-life major peace movement did no such thing. Oh, it looked like it might at times. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who everyone knew favored intervention even though he always stopped short of saying he favored intervention, won reelection to a third term by a much smaller margin than in his previous two victories, but still, he won (against Liberal Republican Wendell Wilkie who didn't much care for isolationists himself, but couldn't say so because he needed their votes.) A bill in Congress to renew the draft was passed by a single vote in 1941, but still, it passed. And so on and so forth until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor (an event "The City on the Edge of Forever" ignores.) OK, you say, but that's because Edith wasn't there, maybe if she had been...Oh, so this soup kitchen proprietor was suppose to succeed where Charles Lindbergh, Joe Kennedy, Norman Thomas, Henry Ford, Senator Burton Wheeler (D, Montana), Senator Gerald P. Nye (R, North Dakota), The Chicago Tribune
, The New York Daily News
, the Hearst newspaper chain, the Sears, Roebuck and Company, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, H.L. Menckin, Walt Disney, and Father Coughlin couldn't? What was her secret? Well, Joan Collins was very easy on the eyes in 1967 when this episode first aired. Maybe all the isolationist movement needed to put it over was a bit of sex appeal.
Earlier I talked about the Kennedy assassination. An upsetting moment in history for many people, but a moment that they're stuck with, whether they like it or not. Writers of time-travel stories have responded to that reality by saying, hey, maybe it's all for the best, even if there's no true way of knowing that. "The City on the Edge of Forever" is about World War II. We're all stuck with that, too, but if you can look past all the casualties, it turned out all right. Most Americans think the war was a good thing, at least good for Americans, as it transformed our country into a very wealthy superpower. Certainly that's what we were in 1967. Unlike the Kennedy assassination, we don't need this episode to make us feel better about what happened. So what exactly was the point? Back in '67, perhaps it wasn't the past that someone felt needed changing, but the present
: But she was right. Peace was the way.
: 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.
What really bothers me about "The City on the Edge of Forever" is a certain lack of respect for the democratic process. We're told that if she doesn't get hit by a truck, Edith Keeler will sway enough people to her point of view to delay America's entry into World War II. If Edith becomes roadkill, she sways nobody. But what about FDR? He was pretty good at swaying himself. Couldn't he counter Edith Keeler views with one of his Fireside Chats? Maybe by the 1960s the producers of Star Trek
forgot about Roosevelt's communication skills, stuck as they were with President Johnson droning away on TV that there was no possibility of the war in Southeast Asia getting out of control. Meanwhile, the antiwar movement had charismatic folk singers and rock stars and even some baby doctor who wrote a best-selling book. More than that, though, it had passion, fervent idealism, as did Edith Keeler. Nobody on the pro-war side seemed to be countering that passion very well. Maybe a show of force was in order. Edith got run over by a truck. The Vietnam protesters were tear gassed, hit with truncheons...
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
A word about the set. While the episode convincingly evokes 1930s skid
row Manhattan, it was actually filmed in 1960s Hollywood. Or Mayberry,
North Carolina. You read that right. It was shot on the same
set as The Andy Griffith Show
another Desilu production. Mayberry was just dirtied up a bit, filmed
at different angles, with the conspicuous addition of sinister-looking
shadows. Barny Fife could get mugged in a place like this. Maybe Andy,
As I said earlier, the teleplay of "The City on the Edge of Forever" was credited to Harlan Ellison. But he only wrote the first and second draft, plus two earlier outlines, out of what turned out to be something like ten altogether. I'll attempt to combine all of Ellison's version, at the risk of causing temporal disturbances of my own. All kidding aside, the differences are minor. In three of the versions an Enterprise crew member named Richard Beckwith who's been dealing drugs on the side kills a fellow crew member to keep him from snitching (in Ellison's final draft, a rabid animal goes crazy after it bites McCoy--heh, heh, heh-- no, no, it's actually the doctor that cracks up.) Beckwith's crime is discovered and he's sentenced to death. He's taken to what Captain Kirk believes to be an uninhabited planet to face a firing squad (another version has Beckwith escaping and beaming himself down after the verdict is read.) Kirk, Spock, and, in the second outline, Yeoman Rand, all beam down and discover the planet to be inhabited after all; in fact, there's an endless metropolis where the buildings are all dotted with symbols, or "runes" (though not spelled out in the script, that's how Ellison described it to the set designer, who misheard it as "ruins" and the planet was thus transformed into an endless archaeological dig, minus the archeologists; I thank this misunderstanding served the episode well, as you get the sense of a civilization that brought about its own doom by playing around too much with time travel.) They come to the arch, but it doesn't talk this time. Instead the Guardian of Forever--I should say Guardians
of Forever--are nine-foot aliens who man the time portal (in a later draft the aliens are transformed into a single ball of sentient light.) Beckwith escapes into the arch, causing all sorts of panic among the Guardians, who tell Kirk that the past has somehow been changed. Kirk returns to the Enterprise to find out it's not the Enterprise at all but a pirate ship called the Condor. Not wanting to walk the plank, Kirk beams back down to the planet and asks the Guardians what can be done. All they can tell him is that it has something to do with a woman named Edith Koestler who is supposed to be killed by a moving truck. In the original treatment, Kirk and Spock never learn why this should change history--it just does. In a later Ellison re-write, Spock comes up with two theories as to why the newly renamed Edith Keeler's fate should make all the difference. One theory has her giving birth to a future dictator, and in another the more familiar delaying of America's entry into World War II. Spock never does find out which one it is. Anyway, Kirk and Spock go back in time to 1930s Chicago (later NYC.) Ellison's last two versions has a legless World War I vet named Trooper. Beckwith points his phaser at Kirk and kills Trooper instead (whose death is, in the words of a Guardian, "negligible".) As evil a guy as Beckwith would seem, he nevertheless tries to save Edith's life (the good deed of which Kirk acknowledges in a later draft.) In all of Ellison's outlines and drafts, it's Spock
and not Kirk who prevents Beckwith from saving Edith. Afterwards, all three return to the present. The Guardians have a special punishment in store for Beckwith. In a typically grisly Ellison touch, he's thrown back into the time portal but not the 1930s but an exploding sun, i.e. a supernova, pulled back, and thrown in again, and again, apparently forever. An agonizing, fiery, and continuous death, though I suppose if it's for all of eternity he might have very well gotten used to it.
Remember when I said earlier that I googled "The City on the Edge of Forever" and "controversy" and nothing came up? Well, I meant nothing came up in regards to Edith Keeler's death. A lot has come up with regards to Harlan Ellison's script and why it's so different from what was aired and does it even matter, a nearly 50-year war of words between the science-fiction writer and the producers of Star Trek
. Though in general I like much of Ellison's writing (and not just his fiction; he wrote an introduction to a collection of Al Capp's celebrated Li'l Abner
"shmoo" strips that's so hilarious he perhaps unintentionally--I'm being charitable--upstages Capp himself) I was ready to side with Roddenberry and co. on this one. I've seen the abrasive Ellison on talk shows over the years, and he seems like the kind of guy that might start swearing if the line was too long for Communion. But in this battle there seems to be enough abrasiveness--and pettiness--to go around. Like I said, Ellison wrote the first couple of drafts, but none seemed to satisfy Gene Roddenberry, who passed it on to a lot of different people until finally writing the shooting script, i.e., the very last draft before it goes on the air, himself, though D.C. Fontana is said to have given final shape to the story. Ellison didn't like that final shape, and asked that his name be removed from the screen credit and replaced with the pseudonym Cordwainer Bird. Among his objections was Gene L. Coon's rice picker joke, and the fact that the story conclusively states that Edith Keeler would have kept the United States out of the war had she lived, whereas Ellison had left it ambiguous (he was against the war in Vietnam.) Roddenberry liked the idea of established science-fiction prose writers working for Star Trek,
thinking it gave the show a certain 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?
So what's with all the hard feelings? Back in the '60s (and most likely now) TV scripts were regularly rewritten, especially on unorthodox shows like Star Trek. If you go to a website called Memory Alpha and look at how each individual episode was put together, you'll see there was on a average of 10 different drafts (counting treatments and outlines.) Gene L. Coon or D.C. Fontana or both rewrote most of the teleplays for the first two seasons, and that was usually after four or five people had a go at it. One reason that the politics of the original Star Trek can be a bit blurry at times is that it's entirely possible that a liberal and a conservative contributed to any one episode. Or, leaving politics aside, someone with a poetic bent and someone who just wanted to tell a good, crackling yarn. Or a writer influenced by Shakespeare and a writer influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It's what makes television so troubling as an art form. You can never be sure of the artist. The reason that "The City on the Edge of Forever" is more the subject of controversy than any other episode of Star Trek is because it's deemed (despite my misgivings) as the very best Trek had to offer, Art with a capital A, and how it came to be that becomes all the more imperative. Factor in to all this that the episode was more widely seen in the 1970s when Trek, through syndicated reruns, finally became a hit. It was during this time that Harlan Ellison (for reasons other than Star Trek) became a celebrity of sorts, as did Gene Roddenberry (for no reason other than Star Trek.) Both men were asked again and again about this particular episode, so that like Richard Beckwith, they, too, were caught in an endless time loop. Except instead of a supernova there was a clash of egos. Nearly as explosive.
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.
A year and a half after Kirk and Spock visited the Great Depression, the Enterprise enters Earth orbit in 1968. They visit the past much more casually this time around. It's just another Starfleet mission, they're there to do historical research, trying to figure why human history didn't end in 1968. They soon find out. The Enterprise intercepts a transporter beam from a thousand light-years away, a technological feat unknown in Kirk's and Spock's time, much less the 20th century. The accidental visitor who beams aboard is a human (Robert Lansing) in a business suit holding a black cat. He tells Captain Kirk that his name is Gary Seven that though he's of Earth origin, he's been living on another planet, and is on a mission to save Earth from its destructive ways. Kirk finds the whole story kind of far-fetched (apparently more farfetched than taking a faster-than-light spaceship 300 years into the past) and orders Seven locked up. Seven scuffles with guards, easily shrugs off a Vulcan nerve pinch, and is about to escape when he's finally stunned by a phaser. But even that's not enough to hold him back as he eventually comes to and beams himself down to Earth. Speaking into a computer in a Manhattan office we learn his whole story. It's actually his ancestors that are from Earth. The never-seen aliens apparently abducted humans from way back when so as to raise a race of secret agents that could spy on the third planet from the sun. His particular mission now is to prevent the launching of orbiting nuclear platforms, which the unseen aliens consider to be rather dangerous. Now, wait just one second here! If we humans want to risk nuclear Armageddon, who exactly are these Buttinskis from another planet to tell us we can't? Where's their Prime Directive? Nevertheless, Seven wants to save us from ourselves, and, as always, it's the thought that counts. But first he needs to connect with his fellow secret agents, and at first mistakes Roberta Lincoln (a young Teri Garr) for one of them. In fact, she's just a clueless secretary hired by the missing agents, whom we soon learn were killed in a car accident. Seven convinces Roberta he's with the CIA, and has her type something up on a voice-activated typewriter while he steps out of the office for a bit. Meanwhile, Kirk and Spock (speaking of Buttinskis) beam down to Earth, get themselves briefly arrested, beam back up to the Enterprise (along with some very surprised cops.) As for Seven, he sneaks on to an air base and sabotages the rocket that's to take the nuclear warhead into orbit. Back on the Enterprise, Kirk figures out Seven's location, and tries having him beamed upwards, except it's at the exact moment that a curious Roberta is examining a rather unusual computer. She pushes a button, and beams Seven back to the office before Kirk can beam him aboard the Enterprise. Now convinced that Seven's a spy, Roberta manages to get his ballpoint weapon off of him. She's threatening to turn him in when Kirk and Spock show up. She now decides they're the spies and holds the ballpoint on them! Eventually, everyone calls a truce, and Seven detonates the warhead in a high enough orbit where it can't do any harm, but can scare the nations of the world into pursuing arms control. Finally, the black cat briefly turns into a sexy woman in a dominatrix-like outfit. Apparently, even a secret agent from outer space needs an outlet.
"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...
So what's so wrong with swap meets, may I ask? Teri, darling, we can't all
shop on Rodeo Drive.
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:
To this day, people still want to talk about that episode ["City on the Edge of Forever"]Some
remember me for that more than anything else I've done. I am amazed at
the enduring popularity of
Star Trek and particularly of that episode.
the time none of us would have predicted the longevity of the show. I
couldn't be more pleased--or more honored--to be part of
Star Trek history.
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.)
"Tomorrow is Yesterday" is a hundred times more lighthearted than "The City on the Edge of Forever" (ironically, on both episodes, D.C. Fontana gave a final shape to the story that eventually appeared on the small screen.) It's not quite a comedy bit it's close. When a skeptical Christopher tells Kirk that he's never believed in little green men, Spock introduces himself by saying "Neither have I
," making the 20th century Air Force captain a little less skeptical in the process. When another skeptical officer asks Kirk how he got onto a military base undetected, he replies, "I popped in out of thin air
," which is exactly what he did, with help from a transporter. Some more laughs when the guard who is accidentally beamed aboard the Enterprise sees his lunch ostensibly popped in out of thin air, giving a whole new meaning to the term "instant meal". Water didn't even have to be added! Obviously, there's a lot of comic potential to time travel, so it's odd that this episode felt the need to go outside that obviousness for an unfunny bit involving a computer that giggles like a country club party hostess who's taken it upon herself to test the mint juleps. More lightheaded than lighthearted.
I don't know what Harve Bennett, who co-wrote and produced most of the Star Trek
feature films involving the original cast, thought of that particular comic bit, but he must have considered "Tomorrow is Yesterday" to be as least as worthwhile as the more highly-celebrated "The City on the Edge of Forever", for when the opportunity came to make his own time-travel story, it was the former he used as a reference point, right down to the means of escaping one's own era in the first place.
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:
: 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.
: 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.
: For example?
: Oh, the collective works of Jacqueline Susann. The Novels of Harold Robbins.
: 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:
: You do realize, of course, if we give him the formula, we're altering the future.
: Why? How do we know he didn't invent the thing?
Take that, City on the Edge of Forever!
As for Uhura and Chekov, their mission is to find a nuclear reactor. The trip back in time has de-crystalized the dilithium crystals used to power the starship they arrived in, and a hefty dose of radiation might reverse the process. And so the two of them ask people on the street where they can find a reactor. Most just walk away shaking their heads and whatnot, but eventually they learn there's one at the Alameda Naval Air Station (since closed), where the U.S.S. Enterprise is moored. Not the starship but the real-life nuclear submarine (deactivated, the first step toward being decommissioned, in 2013.) Uhura and Chekov sneak aboard the ship and use some sort of 23rd century gizmo to steal photons from the reactor. They're eventually discovered, but Uhura manages to beam back aboard the Bounty/Bird of Prey with the purloined photons. Unfortunately, there's not enough power to transport Chekov, and he's taken prisoner by some MPs, who assume him to be a Russian spy. Chekov tries to escape but falls, injures himself, and is rushed to the hospital (that all seems rather dire but it soon leads to some of the funniest scenes in the film.) Back at the Cetacean Institute, Gillian finds out George and Gracie are going to be released ahead of schedule, right during Japanese whale hunting season! Feeling she has nothing to lose, she goes to Golden State Park, finds the invisible starship, and begins banging on it, demanding to be let in. She tells Kirk she'll help him, but only if he gives her a lift to the future. First, though, they have to rescue Chekov from the hospital. After a series of escapades that sees Kirk dressed as a surgeon frantically wheeling the gurney-bound Russian down a hallway while McCoy wanders about the hospital curing gravely ill people simply by giving them tablets ("I grew a new kidney!
"), they all make their way back to the Bounty, which takes off in a cloud of dust, much to the confusion of a couple of cyclists. In the deep, blue sea, George and Gracie look like they're done for as they're spotted by a Japanese whaling ship. Fortunately, the Bounty beams them up in time, much to the confusion of the Japanese. Now a slingshot back to the future, which again drains the starship of energy, causing it to crash-land in the San Francisco Bay of the 23rd century. The whales are released, and attempt to reason with the alien probe, perhaps saying something along the lines of, hey guys, you know you're causing Armageddon here? The probe goes back to where it came from and the Earth is saved. Kirk and the rest of the crew are put on trial for crimes committed in The Search for Spock
, which now seem rather minor seeing that they've
just saved mankind. Kirk is demoted to captain and given a new starship
Enterprise, causing the various alien races in the courtroom to dance
with joy. As the newest human member of the 23rd century, Gillian Taylor is
tasked with helping repopulate the humpback whale. Spock tells his father Sarek (Mark Lenard) that he feels fine.
There you have it, an out-and-out comedy, right down to the whales being named George and Gracie (after Burns and Allen, a once-popular and, as they're well-represented on YouTube, still very funny husband-and-wife act.) Yet it's still undeniably Star Trek
. Still a trip into the Unknown, except what's unknown to the Enterprise crew is simply what we call modernity, always kind of hard to figure out, even for those of us born into it. Kirk is still trying to hold it all together, except instead of evading Klingons and Romulans, it's hospital personnel. McCoy still crabs about everything, except instead of his usual complaints about 23rd century overachievement, it's what he considers the lack thereof in the 20th century that's now got him bugged. I swear, that man is never happy! This time around, though, and I admit it's a close call, the award for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy goes to Leonard Nimoy, his character the funniest he's been since the original series episode "Spock's Brain."
Clad in a robe with this pointy ears hidden in a headband, he could pass for a San Francisco hippie, albeit one more reserved than most. Maybe I shouldn't say that. He does seem a bit trippy
at times, no doubt the after-effects of dying and living to tell about it, or maybe he's just trying a bit too hard to fit into the 20th century:
: They like you very much, but they are not the hell "your" whales
: I suppose they told you that?
: 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.