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Star Trek: "The City On The Edge Of Forever" / "Operation--Annihilate!"

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McCoy: Do you know what you just did?
Spock: He knows, Doctor. He knows.

Here we are at the end of the first season, and before we finish the final two episodes, I thought it would be nice to take a moment to bask in it all. To savor things. To think about what we've learned. Don't mess with strange aliens, because they could be godlike beings of unfathomable powers, or really pissed off mothers. (So, godlike beings all around, then.) Being a starship captain is a great way to pick up women; too bad you'll leave all of them because your ship comes first. Monsters, no matter how silly, can be deadly, so make sure to have a cushion of at least three non-descript goons to stand between you and whatever danger lurks ahead. Spock knows everything.


Also, time travel, even under the best of circumstances, is a pain in the ass.

There. Deep breaths, some back-patting, empty compliments on how much we've accomplished, vague, optimistic commentary on what lies down the road. Good stuff. Too bad there's no wine to pass around, but let's all pretend we're drunk on achievement, 'kay?

"The City On The Edge Of Forever" is the first episode of Star Trek I ever owned. It was on one of the VHS releases they did in the nineties, and I think I've still got it kicking around somewhere. Sentimental reasons, and all that. I remember buying it because I was trying to get back into Trek and wasn't sure where to start; even then, I knew "City" was one of the big ones. I'm not sure its reputation has reached much beyond basic Trek fandom (I think if you were to mention the title to a non-fan, they'd probably assume you were talking about a Jefferson Starship song), but given the inherently contentious nature of fandom, it says something about the quality of the episode that just about everybody agrees it's excellent.

I was heavy into Harlan Ellison at the time, and seeing his name on the back of the box didn't hurt. It would be a couple years before I'd know about the whole controversy over the way Ellison's original script was handled; now I have a copy of his published teleplay, which includes a lengthy introductory essay on just how thoroughly nearly everyone fucked him. (Everyone except Nimoy. Everybody loves Spock.) Having read Ellison's original and watched the filmed version multiple times, I can see good and bad to the changes that were made. At this point, it seems sort of moot to get into the whole thing. Whatever he feels about it, "City" is a justly revered classic, and Ellison is part of that.

Probably the worst change comes in at the beginning. The Enterprise has been drawn to a strange new planet, led there by unusual temporal readings; now they're in orbit, charting various waves of turbulence caused by "ripples in time." So far, so good. But then the helm blows up a little, injuring Sulu, and McCoy is called to to the bridge. Sulu has a heart flutter, so McCoy decides to risk injecting him with "a few drops of cordrazine." The meds bring Sulu up and about, but the next time ripple sends McCoy sprawling, and he accidentally injects himself with the crazy drug.

It's a little awkward. McCoy's drug induced ravings eventually lead him down to the planet, where he jumps through a time gate and butterfly flaps his way into a whole mess of trouble. But while McCoy's craziness is fairly entertaining, the idea that he'd inadvertently inject himself with what is apparently The Most Dangerous Medicine Known To Man is a stretch. In Ellison's original script, the instigator was a new character, a drug dealer who escaped into the past to try and get away from Kirk. Roddenberry put the kibosh on the concept—no drug dealers on the Enterprise, thank you very much—and the fix still shows some of the scars from where it was forced into place. For such a classic episode, "City" has a surprisingly awkward start, with little indication of the greatness that is to follow.

We've done time travel before, of course. The sets we see once Kirk and Spock jump to the past look pretty familiar, although it's nice for once that they're standing in for Depression-era Earth, and not some supposedly otherworldly approximation of same. As for how they get there, it's familiar Ellison-style pseudo-poetics, based on exploiting our natural affections for extremes (notice how everything on this planet seems to be vaguely epic?). When the landing party beams down to chase after the violent and paranoid McCoy, they find ruins that stretch out for miles, and this strange, O-shaped object that proves to be the source of the time disturbance. A simple question ("What is it?") gets the gate up and running, operated by a disembodied voice calling itself "The Guardian of Forever." Apparently, the Guardian is lonely; it's been waiting a very long time to talk.

That's the only real way to explain what happens next. For all its high-falutin' language—as always, Spock's reactions are hilarious—you can't help but get a picture of some nerdy guy in a basement desperately trying to impress his new friends. If he's supposed to be "guarding" anything, he does a piss poor job of it; within seconds, he's showing off reruns of human history (all black and white) and bragging about his abilities. In effect, the Guardian's eagerness to please nearly destroys the universe. Although I guess to him, it's not so much a big deal, since when McCoy goes through the gate and the Enterprise winks out of existence, it's not like anything's changed much for Magic Voice.

So we've got our time jumping premise; it's nice how McCoy's tampering just confirms the theories put forth in "Tomorrow Is Yesterday," and there are some good touches here (I like that Kirk orders the rest of the crew to follow if he and Spock don't make it back okay). The planet itself is appropriately eerie , even though it doesn't look all that different from other planets we've seen. But we still don't have what makes this episode so memorable. We've got the threat—but for once, it's the resolution that's gonna blow our minds.

Trek has flirted with sadness often enough, and we've talked about how the show's darkness is one of the things that makes it so memorable. But for all that, the good guys win out in the end by doing the right thing, and that right thing is always fairly easy to spot. We feel bad for the salt vampire, but when it comes down to it, we're not gonna have too many sleepless nights over killing the thing. Had to be done, y'know? Us or them. And hell, it was a freakin' monster for all that.

As monsters go, Edith Keeler is something new. She's a dedicated pacifist who runs a homeless shelter and befriends Kirk and Spock; she preaches forward thinking, compassion, and has an unusually prophetic idea of the future of space travel. She's a great judge of character as well, filling the "Captain" in at the end of Spock's sentences and sensing that he and Kirk belong someplace else. Joan Collins is an odd choice for the role(casting Edith as a glamor girl seems to be missing the point), but after a few minutes, it makes enough sense. Maybe she comes from a wealthy family, and she's trying to find her own place in the world. Whatever the reason, she's unquestionably a good person, and when Kirk says he loves her, it seems… appropriate.

But Edith has to die. Spock manages to cobble together a computer (bitching all the while) and finds out that before McCoy came into the past—in a clever touch, he finds this out before McCoy's actually arrived, so we're essentially waiting on something that, for us, has already happened—Edith was killed in a traffic accident. Somehow McCoy saved her, and in the upcoming years, Edith's speeches about pacifism would gain more and more followers, until she'd eventually meet with President Roosevelt himself; and because of her counsel, America would delay it's entrance into the second World War just long enough for Germany to develop the A-bomb. (She'd have to be one hell of a convincing speaker to calm the US down after Pearl Harbor.)

For all the trappings, that's what this boils down to: either a good woman dies, or the universe does. Heavy stuff. Add to that Kirk's growing romantic attachment, and the decision becomes nearly impossible. There's a great moment, once Spock and Kirk have determined what the problem is, when Kirk catches Edith before she can fall down the stairs. It's a purely reflexive action, but in order to save everything he's ever known, he can't ever do that again. He has to sacrifice what's important to him, and what's more, he has to do it by going against everything he's ever been taught about what makes a good person. And in the end, when he does the right thing, his only consolation is that the universe goes back to being what it was before, and he gets to spend the rest of his life believing himself a murderer. Sure, a murderer for all the right reasons, but I doubt that makes it better.

Ellison's original script has a final scene between Spock and Kirk where Spock tries to comfort Kirk about what happened; it's not a bad scene, and it's got some good lines, but for my money, nothing beats Kirk's "Let's get the hell out of here," that concludes the aired version. There's no attempt to mollify anything, or put a jokey spin on it. It's just brutal.

It seems like "City" really should be the last episode of the first season, and if Trek was being made today, there's every chance it would've been. But it ain't; instead, we've got the whimsically titled "Operation—Annihilate!" to bring down the curtains. That might for the best, honestly. "Annihilate!" is a little rocky in places, but it's got a freaky looking threat, some enjoyable theatrics, and Nimoy turned up to a level we haven't seen since "The Naked Time." In a way, it's more representative of classic Trek than "City"; the latter is grand tragedy, while the former is a scrappy sci-fi pic that gets in and gets the job done without bogging down in the philosophical.

The Enterprise is tracking a plague of madness that seems to be moving through space from one planet to the next. Deneva is next, and Uhura hasn't been able to make contact with the inhabitants. Just as our heroes enter the system, they spot a Denevan ship making a beeline for the sun. Before they can get close enough to hit the ship with a tractor beam, it's destroyed. And if that wasn't weird enough, Uhura finally gets a message through the communicator—and it's a desperate plea from a woman Kirk recognizes as his sister-in-law, who lives with his brother on Deneva.

"Annihilate" often feels like a bunch of ideas tossed together till there was enough of them to fill the time. It's not disjointed, exactly, but there's enough here to take up half a dozen shows. Like Kirk's brother, Sam. When Kirk and his team beam down to the planet, they're assaulted by a mob bearing glass clubs. Phaser fire takes down the crowd fast enough, but there's still a mystery to be unravelled; a mystery that takes a bad turn when Kirk finds Aurelan, his sister-in-law, shrieking, while the bodies of her husband and her son lie nearby. The son, Peter, is still breathing, but Sam is dead—there's an inadvertently hilarious shot of Shatner lying on the floor wearing a moustache, as though the director wasn't convinced we'd believe Kirk and the dead man were related unless they looked almost exactly alike.

The quick exit of Sam seems like a lot of wasted opportunity. I'm not a huge fan of troubled family dynamics on genre shows, but seeing such a potentially important character tossed out like tomorrow's fish and chip paper is disconcerting. In fact, the whole personal connection seems wasted here. Aurelan and Peter are brought back to the Enterprise; both are infected by what we'll soon learn is this ep's major threat, an organic pancake, plastic-vomit looking thing that's never given a name. (I'm sure they have an official name in the Trek-verse, but I liked to think of them as the Wads.) A lot of kvetching is done over the possibility that Kirk might have to execute his nephew—along with everyone else on Deneva—to keep the Wads from spreading, but as a dramatic touchstone, it's not all that effective. Peter never says anything, so we don't care what happens to him; the familial stuff seems more like a desperate, and unneeded, attempt to inject pathos.

Why unneeded? Well, for one, killing a million people is always going to sting, regardless of how many of them are on your Christmas list. For another, and here's the biggie, Spock manages to get himself infected during the landing party's first confrontation with the creatures (notice how it gets tendrils all through his body without damaging his uniform?). Screw the nephew, it's Spock we don't want to see get dead. Not that they'd kill him, but there's more than enough emotion in Spock's struggles against the incredible amounts of pain the Wads use to control their victims. The rest seems needlessly coincidental and not all that interesting.

After Spock overcomes the initial attempts at mind control (fun fight on the bridge, with yet another incredibly obvious double for Kirk), he manages to get a specimen of the alien back to the Enterprise for study. The things are single cell beasties that resemble brain cells; all together, they make one really big creature that goes all face hugger on people (okay, "whatever it can reach" hugger) and uses them as puppets. (Wonder if Heinlen ever saw this?) The things are from another galaxy with different physical properties from our own, which makes it kind of weird that they can latch onto humans so readily, but more importantly, it also makes them very difficult to kill through conventional means. This is where the whole "we may have to get rid of everybody on the planet" thing comes up, since the Wads are hellbent on expanding their empire, and without an effective way to stop them and save the lives of the already infected, Kirk may have to go to extremes. (Hey, either he's wrong or he's totally right every time.)

Thankfully, it doesn't come down to that. After banging their heads against the wall for a good twenty minutes, Kirk and the rest eventually realize that the aliens can be defeated through exposure to light. And after blinding Spock with the light of a million candles, they realize that they don't need the full spectrum to win—just one part, that humans can't even see. So it's very sad for Spock, especially since if they'd just waited ten minutes for the test results to come back on the original trial, they could've cured him without breaking his eyes. (I call it "the Mist fallacy.")

It's funny how much emo they wring out of Spock's dilemma here; he comes out of the test chamber and, after declaring himself cured, immediately walks into a table, as though bumping into furniture is the actual proof of blindness, and not the, y'know, being blind part. McCoy is effusively apologetic, and everybody's all messed up inside, but wouldn't you know it, it turns out okay in the end. Spock has an extra eyelid! That he forgot about. It protected his vision, so the blindness was only temporary.

"Annihilate!" falls apart if you think about it too long(every time I write the title, I kind of wish I was talking about a musical); the whole scheme of setting up satellites around Deneva to hit the planet with the killing light doesn't work at all. But it moves at a good clip, and it makes a nice palate cleanser after "City." You could say of all the things we've learned through the first season of Star Trek, maybe the most important is, sometimes plot holes aren't so bad after all. Better if you can avoid 'em, sure, but if that's not possible, move as quickly as possible, give us some great Kirk/Spock chats, and don't spare the goofy looking beasties. 

And that's that.

So…anybody ready for season 2?

"City On The Edge Of Forever": A
"Operation—Annihilate!": B+

Stray Observations:

  • Kirk explains Spock's ears as the unfortunately result of an accident with a "mechanical rice-picker." Hilarious!
  • After McCoy arrives in the past, a bum grabs his phaser and manages to blow himself up. You'd think that would be harder to do.
  • After they kill their first alien in "Annihilate!," one of the crew members observes, "Captain, it doesn't look real!" Early meta?