Okay, so, this is Star Trek. You already know it. I don’t know how much I have to say about it, because it’s been such a staple of American, and even just human, culture for the last few decades that I imagine almost every person alive, even if they haven’t seen the show, still knows of its existence. They probably even know some of the names of the crew of the Enterprise, like Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Vulcan Science Officer/X-O Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Doctor “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), and, of course, Scotty (James Doohan). Since most of the people who would read a list of best episodes are nerds, instead of a summary, I’m going to tell you what I think Star Trek is about.
Star Trek takes place after WWIII, the Post-Atomic horrors, the Eugenics Wars, and the first contact with an alien race (although exactly when, and in what order, they took place changes by series). But, after all that, humanity finally manages to get its collective sh*t (mostly) together, and stop fighting among themselves. Humanity stops being primarily concerned with beating other people, and instead reaches the point of self-actualization, where instead of having to worry about fighting for food or shelter or prestige, everyone just works towards advancement for the sake of advancement. Despite the fact that it requires three near total global tragedies to come about, this is still probably the most positive prediction for humanity. Because of this, the show had an inherently optimistic attitude behind it at any time, and the writing usually reflected that. Even when the episode contained something morally gray, there still usually was a statement at the end reflecting that it still will contribute to a better future. In the future:
This episode went the other way.
“The City on the Edge of Forever” was written by Harlan “seriously, I’m on this list several times, look me up” Ellison, and he basically crafted it as the anti-Star Trek episode, which makes it one of the most memorable. Of course, because it was Ellison, the guy who got fired from Disney after 4 hours because he couldn’t stop talking about making Disney-themed porn, most of his script had to be “adjusted” to get onto the show (i.e. had to remove everything that would have made the fan-base violently ill), but the result still contains his fingerprints.
The episode begins with McCoy accidentally dosing himself with a drug that makes him paranoid and delusional, causing him to beam down to a nearby planet. The team follows, and encounters a giant stone ring that talks and has a portal in it. The rock, called the “Guardian of Forever,” explains that it can take anyone to any time and place with ease. Before they can contemplate the impact of this discovery and the possibilities of all of time and space, McCoy, still insane, runs through the Guardian. Images begin to fly at Kirk and Spock, who records them. At that time, the crew lose contact with the Enterprise, and find out that the Enterprise, and the Federation itself, no longer exist. McCoy has changed history. As the first Act ends, Kirk remarks “We’re totally alone.”
Kirk and Spock follow McCoy through time into New York in the 1930s, hoping to undo whatever broke time. During their search, they find the proprietress of the 21st Street Mission, Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). Keeler is a kind woman, dedicated to preservation of human life and to peace throughout the world. Essentially, she’s part of the Federation before there was a Federation. As the episode progresses, Kirk and Keeler grow closer, until Spock, having found out that the Guardian’s images are the alternate future playing out, reveals that Keeler is supposed to die soon, but also that, in the alternate timeline, she survives. Looking into it further, Spock finally discovers that, should Keeler live, she will create a peace coalition that will delay FDR from entering into WWII, which will lead the Nazis to develop the atomic bomb first and winning the war. While they don’t know exactly when she’s supposed to die, scans show that McCoy will save her from a car accident. Meanwhile, Kirk has fallen in love with Keeler, even though he knows that her life will destroy the future.
Finally, after finding McCoy, Kirk witnesses Keeler step out in front of a vehicle, and has to stop both himself and McCoy from saving her. She dies, violently, and McCoy, not knowing about the alternate timeline, screams at Kirk “Do you know what you just did?” Spock replies only “He knows.” After the three return, appearing back in the future only a moment after they left, the Guardian of Forever offers them access to any part of space and time, allowing them to answer almost any of the questions that humanity could ever ask. Uhura, finally being able to contact the Enterprise again, asks if the crew is ready to beam up. Despite the fact that they’ve literally just been given access to all of time and space, Kirk instead ends the episode with the famous line: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
As I said before, this is the anti-Star Trek episode. It ends not with wonder or optimism, but with a firm rejection of it due to the emotional toll laid upon Kirk through the episode. That’s part of the reason that this episode resonates so firmly, because that’s a more natural response than the typical Star Trek ending. But also, this episode stands as a reminder that sometimes we cannot move forward without a cost. In this case, the cost was a woman dedicated to a peaceful world. In the case of the future of Star Trek, it’s that humanity has to suffer so much that it decides to transcend natural instinct.
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Here it is on CBS:
Here it is on HULU: