****GUARDIAN OF FOREVER-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!****
“City on the Edge of Forever” is a highly praised episode of the original Star Trek series (TOS). It’s the episode that usually makes many fan favorites’ list. Is it one of my personal favorites? Yes, absolutely. But could it have been better? That’s debatable. For much of my Star Trek fan-life, I’ve always accepted that “City…” was the apex of quality when it came to TOS. Then, during an afternoon of book shopping back in the mid-1990s, I discovered Harlan Ellison’s original script—the version that Ellison finalized prior to heavy rewriting by the late Gene L. Coon and the late Dorothy Fontana (two very talented writers in their own right). I took it home and read Ellison’s original script that night, and found it to be a very different experience; much more layered and nuanced than the version of “City…” I grew up watching on TV. Like Sokath from TNG’s “Darmok”, my eyes were uncovered.
For this column, I’d like to dive in and explore this beloved episode in both of its versions, and see how the they stack up to each other. I will cover these versions in the order I knew them, from the original 1967 broadcast episode (the version I grew up watching) to the late Harlan Ellison’s original teleplay (which I read as an adult back in 1996) and the more recent IDW graphic novel adaptation of Ellison’s teleplay, which the closest thing to a fully-realized alternate version of “City…”
Let’s begin by taking a look at the broadcast episode.
“City on the Edge of Forever,” April 6th, 1967.
The episode begins somewhat typically as the Enterprise is subject to heavy turbulence in space, with everyone on the bridge swaying stage right and stage left. Spock (Leonard Nimoy reports to Captain Kirk (William Shatner) that the turbulence is centered on the planet they are orbiting. The waves are actually ripples of time displacement. The helm console of Lt. Sulu (George Takei) then overloads, electrocuting him! Kirk calls sickbay, and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) rushes to the bridge. With Sulu’s heart fluttering from shock, McCoy risks injecting him with a few drops of a powerful stimulant called “cordrazine.” Sulu recovers almost instantly.
Scotty (James Doohan) reports from the jury-rigged helm console that they’re getting around most of the time ripples. Spock reports that one final distortion wave is coming up; as the ship hits the wave, McCoy accidentally injects himself in the stomach with a hypo full of cordrazine. Before Kirk can get additional medical assistance to the bridge, a sweating McCoy jumps to his feet screaming! The good doctor is suddenly paranoid that everyone on the ship is out to kill him. Despite a ship-wide alert, McCoy overpowers the transporter chief (John Winston) and beams himself down to the time-planet, straight to the source of the temporal disturbances felt from space. Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and several security guards beam down to retrieve the delusional doctor…
Note: Right before McCoy’s accidental self-injection, Spock announced they were coming up on one last temporal displacement wave; maybe it would’ve been a good idea for Kirk to order the bridge crew to “brace for impact”? That quick order might’ve prevented McCoy’s accident altogether. Granted, McCoy’s hypo accident was a last-minute workaround to fill a plot hole left by the omission of writer Harlan Ellison’s drug-dealing “Beckwith” character (more on him after the synopsis), so it gets a pass. Also, it’s arguably a better idea to have a beloved main character like McCoy as the crewman desperately fleeing the ship, and not some anonymous drug-dealing officer we’ve never seen before and will never see again.
Kirk and his landing party beam down to a haunting world of purple twilight and ancient ruins, dating back tens of thousands of centuries. In the middle of the ruins is an oddly asymmetrical portal, which Spock incredulously reports to be the source of the time displacement. As Kirk asks Spock, “Then what is it?” A booming voice, accompanied by lights within the portal, answers, “A question! Since before your sun burned hot in space, and before your race was born, I have awaited a question!” The voice identifies itself enigmatically as “the Guardian of Forever.” Asked if it is “machine or being,” the Guardian (voice of Bart LaRue) answers “I am both and neither… I am my own beginning, my own ending.” Spock, frustrated by the Guardian’s riddles, continues his investigation of the object before concluding that the Guardian is a “gateway to other times and dimensions.” The Guardian offers Kirk and the others a view of Earth’s past, as various monochromatic images of Earth history flutter by.
Note: Much of the black and white footage used for the Guardian’s flashbacks appear to be old public domain newsreel footage from the 1920s through the 1940s; a few shots also appear to be images from Paramount Pictures own film library.
A crazed, blotchy-faced McCoy suddenly appears from behind a broken column, but is quickly felled by one of Spock’s Vulcan neck pinches before he can harm anyone. Kirk speculates aloud about taking Bones back in time through the portal to prevent the hypo accident. Spock notes the tremendous speed by which the centuries pass…they’d have to be very precise to step through at the exact date they wished. Kirk asks the Guardian if it can change the speed at which the centuries pass, and it replies, “I was made to offer the past in this manner; I cannot change.” Kirk is mesmerized by fleeting glimpses of actual history unfolding before his very eyes, as Spock suddenly realizes he should’ve been using his tricorder to record centuries of unseen images from Earth’s past. With Spock now actively recording from the time vortex, McCoy snaps awake, rushes past the security guards, and leaps straight into the Guardian itself. As McCoy vanishes, the landing party’s communicators suddenly go dead. The ship is no longer in orbit. McCoy, back in the past, has changed history. The Enterprise is gone, and the landing party realizes they are stranded on the time planet—saved from nonexistence, but with no past or future in which to return.
Note: Couple of things; Kirk’s original plan was to take the drugged McCoy back a day in time to relive the accident and avoid the hypo overdose… but how would taking an already drugged McCoy back a day or so help him avoid the accident? The McCoy from the present has already overdosed, and as we see, traveling back in time didn’t change that. And if they took McCoy back to his own past, wouldn’t there suddenly be two of them? Which one would be the “real McCoy”? << Okay, that wasn’t a joke setup, I swear.
Spock was recording record images from the Guardian’s time vortex before and after McCoy entered the portal; he believes he can use the tricorder to approximate exactly when he and Kirk can safely jump through. With nothing left to lose, Kirk advises the landing party that should they not return, each of the landing party will have to go through the portal themselves. Even if the remaining landing party fails, at least they’ll be alive in the past somewhere. Counting down to the exact moment, Spock and Kirk get ready, and leap through the portal together…
Arriving in New York City, circa 1930, Kirk and Spock immediately realize that their uniforms as well as Spock’s Vulcan features are quickly drawing unwelcome attention from the locals. Hurriedly, Kirk steals some washed clothes hanging to dry on a nearby fire escape. They are confronted by a big cop (Hal Baylor), who isn’t buying Kirk’s nonsensical story about Spock being “Chinese”, or that a “mechanical rice picker” accidentally created Spock’s pointed ears (yikes…). As they’re being frisked, Kirk expertly distracts the cop while Spock neck pinches him into unconsciousness. The two men grab their stolen clothes and flee into an alleyway, where they find refuge in the basement of the 21st Street Mission—a local soup kitchen for indigents run by Sister Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). After putting on their 20th century wear, the two Starfleet officers are confronted in the basement by Edith, and Kirk decides to comes clean; he tells her they were being chased by a cop because they are broke, and were forced to steal the very clothes on their backs. Somehow, Kirk’s blatant honesty strikes a chord of sympathy (or attraction) within Edith, and she offers them work by cleaning up the Mission’s basement. The pragmatic Spock inquires about their ‘rate of payment’, earning a sharp look from his captain. Spock explains that he needs radio tubes for his “hobby” (building a computer aid to view his tricorder’s images). Trusting her gut feelings, Edith agrees to hire the odd pair on the spot.
Note: Modern viewer alert; Kirk’s line about Spock looking Chinese (he doesn’t) and having his head caught in a “mechanical rice picker” to explain away his pointed ears comes off as terribly racist today. It’s a cringeworthy moment, but for all the wrong reasons…
Later that evening, Kirk and Spock go to the mission’s dining hall, where they grab some soup and listen to “Ms. Goody Two Shoes” (aka Keeler) tell the homeless men why it is important to live for the future… a prosperous future that she believes will offer atomic space travel, unlimited resources, cures for diseases, etc. Kirk and Spock are stunned by Edith’s “gifted insight” into their own 23rd century. Kirk is enthralled by this young visionary, Spock isn’t amused. After dinner, Edith congratulates the two of them for cleaning the basement so well, and asks if they need a “flop” for the night (a room). She tells Kirk of a vacant room in her building for $2 a week. Kirk and Spock take her up on the offer. After a few days, the two are settled in, with Kirk buying food on their meager salary, while Spock builds a large, cumbersome, makeshift, vacuum-tubed computer aid for the tricorder using little more than “stone knives and bearskins.” Edith knocks at their door, and Spock hurriedly dons his cap to hide his pointed ears. Letting her in, Edith offers the duo extra work if they’d like…she then notices Spock’s zapping, sparking contraption. Asking what Spock is building, the Vulcan tells her that he is “endeavoring to construct a mnemonic memory circuit using stone knives and bearskins.” She shrugs. They accept her offer of work…
Note: One criticism I hear often about this episode (and it’s a valid one) is that Edith’s impromptu speech at the Mission dining hall about a better future filled with wonders like atomic spaceflight, ending poverty, curing diseases, etc. sounds a bit too on-the-nose, and feels clumsily shoehorned into the script. Most likely, Edith (or any missionary worker) would be reading from the Bible or some other inspirational/religious text. Yes, Edith Keeler is supposed to be an uncommon visionary for her time (hence the reason Kirk falls for her), but her speech at the dining hall just screams Gene Roddenberry-utopian humanism rather than something a real sister running a soup kitchen might say. She could’ve expressed her views about the future to Kirk in private, which would’ve been more believable, rather than broadcast them to a roomful of men who couldn’t care less.
As Spock and Kirk clean the dining hall after hours, Spock notices some watch repair tools which he later (ahem) “borrows” to work on his tricorder interface device. Edith storms in on the two men, angry at Spock for stealing the watch-repair tools “like a real pro.” Spock flatly tells her that he only borrowed the tools and would’ve returned them in the morning. Before Edith can protest, Kirk jumps in, vouching for Spock’s character. Kirk assures Edith that if Spock says the tools will be returned in the morning, she can stake her reputation on it. She agrees to drop the matter… if Kirk walks her home.
While Kirk and Edith walk, a radio in a nearby shop plays. They talk. Edith asks Kirk if he and Spock are war veterans. Kirk evasively quips that they’ve “served” together. Edith worries that Kirk might be in trouble, and offers to “let me help.” Musing on her words, Kirk grins, and says that a famous novelist will write a classic with that very theme “100 years from now.” Edith assumes he’s teasing her and plays along, asking where this famed ‘novelist’ will come from. Kirk points to the far left star in the belt of the Orion constellation. Edith isn’t laughing—instinctively, she believes him, somehow. They nearly kiss…
Note: The song that plays in the background during Kirk and Edith’s stroll is “Goodnight, Sweetheart,” and was a popular British tune recorded in 1931—a year after “City on the Edge of Forever” takes place. The version on the original episode’s soundtrack was replaced after 1980 by a studio re-recording due to a copyright issue. The song has been covered repeatedly by multiple singers over the years, including Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Rudy Vallee.
Kirk returns back to the rented room where Spock is finally able to glean images off of his tricorder. Before Kirk walks in, Spock sees an obituary of Edith’s death from a traffic accident. As Kirk enters, Spock shows Kirk other images recorded from the Guardian after McCoy altered the past. In 1936, Edith Keeler will start a national pacifist movement that will delay the US response to World War 2— allowing Adolf Hitler to develop the atomic bomb before the United States and capture the world. This happened because McCoy (somehow) prevented Edith from meeting her intended fate. Spock theorizes that Edith Keeler herself may be the focal point in time to which they were all drawn. A mortified Kirk tells Spock that he is in love with Edith Keeler. A clearheaded Spock warns Kirk that Edith’s death may be their only hope to repair the future.
Note: Beautifully acted scene between Nimoy and Shatner as their characters ponder what to do over Edith Keeler’s fate; allow her to die, or allow millions more to perish in a world fallen to Hitler’s Nazis? It’s also interesting to note the color choices for Kirk and Spock’s stolen clothes: Kirk is wearing a red flannel shirt—red being a color of passion, while Spock is wearing a more neutral gray shirt and blue jeans. Much like their respective gold & blue Starfleet uniforms, Kirk’s color represents warmth, while Spock’s matches his dispassionately ‘cooler’ logic.
Meanwhile, the object of Kirk and Spock’s mission has finally arrived in 1930 as well. McCoy appears from thin air one morning, as the time-traveling doctor terrifies a local denizen (David Harmon) of the mission, causing the man to drop a glass bottle of stolen milk. Still delusional from his cordrazine overdose, McCoy grabs the poor derelict, thinking he’s responsible for this elaborate “museum” of Earth’s past. Still deep under the influence of the drug, McCoy rambles on about hospitals within this ‘museum’… wondering aloud if the surgeons still used needles and sutures. Wincing in pain, the exhausted doctor collapses to the floor, sobbing. As he loses consciousness, the vagrant steals McCoy’s phaser and sneaks off, ratlike, into a dark alley with his ‘treasure’. He then accidentally sets the weapon to overload and vaporizes himself. The following morning, a groggy McCoy awakens and heads off to the 21st Street Mission. Stumbling into the dining hall for breakfast, Edith sees the bedraggled doctor and takes him to the backroom, where he can ‘sleep off’ his presumed hangover. As Edith takes McCoy away, he narrowly misses Spock…who is helping prepare breakfast for the men in the kitchen nearby.
Note: How does Spock, with his supposedly superior Vulcan hearing, miss the sound of Dr. McCoy’s voice when he’s standing only 10 to 20 feet away?
Kirk meets Edith at the stairway of their apartment building. At the top of the stairs Edith slips, but a quick-thinking Kirk catches her before she can fall. They say goodbye, and she walks away. Spock quietly observes Kirk’s gallant move, fully aware that the fall might’ve killed her had Kirk not intervened. Kirk dismisses Spock’s observation, saying “it’s not yet time. McCoy isn’t here,” not realizing that McCoy is now in their timeframe. Once again, Spock warns Kirk not to give in to his heart…to remember the millions of other lives who are depending upon their success.
Edith then checks in on McCoy, who is recovering in the backroom of the Mission. Almost fully restored to health, McCoy sincerely thanks Edith for her hospitality and offers to ‘repay’ her kindness. She tells him they can discuss it later, since she’s late for her Clark Cable movie date with her ‘young man.’ A quizzical McCoy has no idea who Clark Cable is, leaving Edith very puzzled…
Note: Is it just me, or did I detect a hint of flirtation from Dr. McCoy towards Edith in that scene? He really pours on the southern gentleman charm for her, before she quickly mentions her “young man”, as if to gently ward off any amorous interest. In McCoy’s defense, Joan Collins is very charming in this episode as well, and it’s easy to see why Captain Kirk would fall so hard for her. Collins’ Edith Keeler is beautiful, empathetic, intelligent and witty. It’s hard to believe this is the same Joan Collins who would gruesomely murder her husband with a fire iron in the 1973 horror anthology film, “Tales From the Crypt,” not to mention spend a large swath of her career playing ruthless businesswoman Alexis Colby on TV’s “Dynasty” from 1981 to 1989. That’s acting, folks...
The literal wheels of fate are in motion. Kirk takes Edith across the street from the Mission when she asks if they can see “the Clark Cable movie at the Orpheum.” Mirroring McCoy’s reaction, Kirk asks, “A what?” Edith responds, “You know, Dr. McCoy said the same thing—-“ and Kirk cuts her off; “McCoy?? Leonard McCoy?!” Telling her to stay put, Kirk runs across the street to the Mission, shouting for Spock. Spock rushes out, as McCoy hears them both. The three overjoyed Starfleet officers are reunited as a confused Edith watches. She begins to cross the street, unaware that a large truck is barreling down the avenue towards her. Edith’s gaze is fixed upon Kirk, Spock and McCoy as McCoy tries to warn her. Kirk, instinctively carrying out his duty, physically grabs McCoy, preventing him from stopping Edith, who walks right in front of the truck. She is killed instantly.
Note: Kirk deliberately allowing Edith, the love of his life, to be run over by a truck is still a very powerful television moment, undiluted by time. It’s contrary to every ‘hero instinct’ we see in films, TV and pop entertainment wherein the hero of the piece always dashes gallantly to the rescue. “City on the Edge of Forever” is a very atypical love story.
Kirk is frozen in agony for a moment as he clutches tightly onto McCoy, but the doctor is shocked by his captain’s behavior, “You deliberately stopped me Jim! I could’ve saved her… do you know what you just did??” Kirk then pushes McCoy away as Spock quietly interjects, “He knows, Doctor. He knows.”
Note: The caliber of acting from Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley in this scene is extraordinary. It hits you right in the gut, even today. Yes, it’s arguably more theatrical by modern TV/streaming standards, but people have to remember that TVs in those days were generally tiny; a 19″ to 25″ TV was considered a ‘big screen.’ Actors in those days had to break out of that tiny box and really get those emotions across. They probably didn’t imagine that those same performances would be shown fifty odd years later on screens averaging anywhere from three to six feet in diagonal width.
Back on the time-planet, Scotty, Uhura and the landing party are waiting as Kirk, Spock and then McCoy return from their traumatic sojourn into the 20th century. Scotty tells them that they “only left a moment ago.” Spock quietly tells the engineer, “We were successful.” The Guardian speaks, “Time has resumed its shape. All is as it was before. Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway.” Uhura opens her communicator, and reports that the ship is standing by to beam them back. A sullen Kirk utters, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” They beam back to the ship.
Note: This is the first and only time in TOS Star Trek where Kirk curses (not counting the TOS movies, where restrictions on language were a bit looser). And yes, in 1967, saying “hell” on the air was largely taboo for American television.
“He has passed into…what was.”
In re-reading Ellison’s March 1966 draft, and later completed teleplay, there are many key differences between his story and the broadcast version. While just about every word of dialogue is different (of course), the story’s broadest of broad strokes remain the same; a crazed Enterprise officer goes back in time, changes the flow of history, and must be retrieved by Kirk and Spock. Kirk meets Edith, they fall in love, and Spock later confirms she is supposed to die for time to resume its original flow. Edith is killed (as she was meant to be killed), future history is corrected, and a devastated Kirk returns to the ship.
However, just about everything else between those essential beats is changed, even the characters, who are closer to their earlier season one selves than the more cohesive unit they would became later; Ellison wrote his drafts just as TOS went into production, and a full six months before it debuted, so this is understandable. For a much more comprehensive look at the differences, you might want to track down an eBay or Amazon copy of Harlan Ellison’s book on the evolution of his story, titled “City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Star Trek Teleplay” (Borderlands publishing, 1993). I bought my copy back in 1996, and I found it to be a fascinating, brutally honest read. Fair warning; anyone expecting the usual ‘St. Gene Roddenberry’ mythologizing will be very disappointed. I only wish the late Dorothy Fontana wrote a book like this before she passed away in 2019; I’d bet that she had some stories to tell as well.
Without getting into Ellison’s disputes with Star Trek’s powers-that-were, here are a few key changes between Ellison’s version and the aired episode:
—History isn’t changed by an accidentally overdosed McCoy.
The original teleplay featured a drug-dealing crewman named Beckwith, who is selling illegal narcotic crystals called “Jewels of Sound” (glowing crystals, not too unlike Harry Mudd’s “Venus drug” in “Mudd’s Women). The instantly-addictive crystals are illegal within the Federation (which isn’t yet named). When Beckwith’s drug ring aboard the Enterprise is discovered, he escapes the ship and beams down to the time planet, eventually escaping into Earth’s past, as McCoy does in the final version.
Note: To those who have a problem with a Starfleet crewman aboard the Enterprise dealing drugs? Check out Lt. Valeris (Kim Cattral) in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991), who secretly aids an illegal, right-wing cabal within the Federation, or any number of power-crazed captains (Ron Tracy), commodores (Matt Decker), and many bad admirals (aka ‘badmirals’) who’ve corrupted and twisted Federation policies and values throughout all of Star Trek. The defense rests (for now…).
—The Guardian of Forever isn’t a sentient, machine-being.
In Ellison’s story, there is a group of tall, ancient, white-bearded wise men self-designated as the “guardians” of forever. These godlike beings protect a time portal that is a nexus point for all of the various timelines in our galaxy. These guardians have been protecting the nexus’ gateway long before dinosaurs first appeared on Earth, and they are pleased to converse with the Enterprise crew, their first company in thousands of centuries. The portal was also locked at 1930s Earth before Beckwith jumped in, and only became unstable after he jumped into it.
Note: If there’s one complaint I have with Ellison’s version is that the Guardians literally forewarn Kirk and Spock about a key in time (as in Keeler) before they enter the gateway, noting that they (and Beckwith) will encounter an actual “key in time”. Knowing this before departure, Kirk should have steeled himself a little better against romancing Edith (whom Spock warns him about). And a group of godlike bearded men sounds way too Biblical to me; I prefer my temporal gateways nice and doughnut-y, thanks…
—The Enterprise itself changes.
After Beckwith goes back in time, the landing party beams back up to the ship, only to discover that it has become a pirate vessel, now named the “Condor.” Kirk and Spock then quickly return to the planet in an attempt to fix the past, while the rest of the Enterprise landing party (including Janice Rand) are holed up in the Condor’s transporter room, while pirates try to cut through the locked doors of the chamber. The pirate ship setting is not too dissimilar from what we’d later see in Jerome Bixby’s “Mirror, Mirror” from season two.
—Now with extra racism.
Kirk and Spock go back to 1930s New York (Chicago, in earliest drafts), and there are even more “Oriental” slurs hurled at Spock, including remarks from his would-be cheating white employer (who is not Edith). Granted, the remarks are contextual within the 1930 setting, but I’m still glad to see them excised.
Note: Kirk’s awkward Chinese “mechanical rice-picker” line in the final version is bad enough.
—The character of “Trooper,” the crippled World War 1 veteran.
Kirk and Spock’s tracking of the dangerous Beckwith in 1930s NYC is much more suspenseful and dangerous than their stalking of McCoy in the final version. There is a street character named “Trooper,” a legless veteran of World War 1 who sells information to Kirk on Beckwith’s whereabouts, only to be vaporized out of existence by Beckwith during a phaser fight with Kirk and Spock in a back alley. Trooper was a more poignant, nuanced character (“I fought at Verdun”) than the final version’s unnamed vagrant (David Harmon), who is accidentally vaporized when he steals and fatally toys with an unconscious McCoy’s type-1 phaser.
—Crime and punishment.
After Edith’s death, Kirk and Spock return to the present with Beckwith, who is condemned by the guardians of forever to die repeatedly (for all eternity) within the heart of a sun; an eternal damnation for the man who wanted eternity for himself.
Note: Doctor Who’s “Family Of Blood” (2007) saw a similar punishment for one member of a family of time-traveling aliens seeking to artificially boost their previous Mayfly-like lifespans. For their greed and transgressions, the wrathful Doctor condemns one of them to spend eternity in the heart of a collapsed star.
—Ship’s Counselor Spock.
There’s a touching final scene aboard the Enterprise, where an uncharacteristically sensitive Spock tries to reach his melancholy captain by calling him “Jim,” (something he’d do several times before the broadcast version), and reminds Kirk that Edith was unique; for no woman was ever offered the universe for love. This final scene of Ellison’s version is not too dissimilar to a final scene in Jerome Bixby’s third season episode “Requiem for Methuselah,” where Spock tries to ease the pain of his heartbroken captain with a gentle mind-meld. Spock’s line to Kirk is heartbreaking: “No other woman was ever offered the universe for love.”
The overall vibe of Ellison’s version is much deeper, darker and heavier than a traditional Star Trek episode of that time. Edith and Kirk’s romance also has a bit more time to breathe than in the televised version as well. I’ve always found the Ellison teleplay to be a very interesting ‘what-if?’ in the annals of Star Treks that never were. It also would’ve been prohibitively expensive to produce at the time, given TOS’ limited budget and visual effects technology.
“I was made to offer the past in this manner…”
In February of 2015, IDW released a hardback graphic novel realization of Harlan Ellison’s original teleplay. Adapted by Scott & David Tipton and illustrated by J.K. Woodward over five issues, the project received Ellison’s blessing before his passing in 2018 (he even writes a foreword and final note in the hardcover edition). The book uses panels and stills recreated from shots seen in the broadcast episode, as well as original creations from Ellison’s teleplay. The final work is a faithful, fanciful recreation of this episode that never was, but with an unlimited budget to match Ellison’s original vision. The supplemental material at the end of the hardcover edition details its creation as well as various Easter eggs and hidden tributes within the artwork. All of Woodward’s artwork was handmade; no digital art was used at all.
The text of the graphic novelization is very faithful to Ellison’s version, and makes a handy primer for someone who’s never read his original teleplay. Woodward does photo-accurate renderings of the original actors (including guest star Joan Collins), with various models posing as original characters who were not in the final episode, such as the drug-dealing Beckwith (who looks appropriately menacing), and (most significantly) the image of the late Harlan Ellison himself, cast as his legless World War 1 veteran named “Trooper.” This is a wonderful bit of poetic license and poetic justice, as Ellison was understandably angered by the character’s removal from the final televised script. Now Ellison gets to play Trooper himself, with no acting experience required.
A graphic novelist friend of mine borrowed this book from my collection when he came to visit last summer, and while he enjoyed this fascinating Trek-never-taken story, his only issue was with the over-produced artwork of the book’s individual panels, which he felt were too poster-like at times (lacking the freer form of other graphic novels). This is a perfectly valid criticism, and my friend (who’s won an Eisner Award) certainly knows his stuff. All I can offer is my layman’s opinion, of course, and for me, the artwork succeeded in realizing Ellison’s teleplay as a “finished” episode of Star Trek. That said, some of the poses (recreated from TOS screencaps) seem a little bit oddly placed—the overly surprised look in Spock’s eyes when he ‘recognizes’ Edith as the focal point in time, for example. Or Kirk abruptly crying in Edith’s arms with no transition; Kirk’s crying pose in the panel was taken from the aired version where he cried in McCoy’s arms after he watched Edith die. At any rate, these are minor nits—it’s an amazing book.
I actually had the chance to meet Scott Tipton and artist J.K. Woodward at a convention in Los Angeles in February of 2015 (the month of the hardcover’s release). I bought my copy, and they signed it for me. Later that night, I read the book cover-to-cover in my hotel room and was amazed at the level of quality they poured into it. The visuals of the book are very close to what I’d always imagined in my mind’s eye after I read Ellison’s script. For seeing Harlan Ellison’s vision fully realized, this is as good as it gets—and that’s fine by me. The Tipton Brothers and J.K. Woodward did a terrific job.
“Are you machine or being?”
The stone-doughnut “Guardian of Forever” would appear in two other Star Treks after its debut in the 1967 broadcast version. A recreated version of it would also make the rounds at various conventions (including Star Trek Las Vegas) and at “Star Trek: The Exhibition”, a touring museum which briefly inhabited the famed “Spruce Goose” hangar in Long Beach, California back in February of 2008 (a friend of mine offered my wife and I free tickets… who am I to refuse?). I would also attend a vastly scaled-down version of the Exhibit at Riverside, California in September of 2010 (sadly, no Guardian…the entire exhibit was scaled back to the size of a large janitorial closet).
The Guardian touring prop is a faithful replica of the TOS original; close to the same scale, cast in fiberglass, and with working internal lighting, it’s great for photo ops (and yes, I pose with this thing every chance I get—hey, I’m a geek; it’s how we roll). The annual Star Trek convention at Las Vegas is scheduled to return this August (after last year’s COVID-mandated cancellation) but my attendance will depend upon my getting a vaccination in time, as well as the overall state of the pandemic in the months ahead. If things significantly improve? I might book my hotel and ticket, but as things are right now, I’m not counting on it. If I do go, I will, of course, detail the convention for you in this column as I’ve done since 2017 (see: site archives, on the lower righthand half of this site’s home screen, for August of 2017, 2018 and 2019).
The booming voice of the Guardian of Forever was provided by actor Bartell LaRue (1932-1990). LaRue’s TV roles included “Mannix,” “The Brady Bunch” and “Mission: Impossible” (a series which featured Leonard Nimoy as master-of-disguise “Paris” for two seasons). LaRue’s voiceover for the Guardian is both imposing and curiously neutral, sounding exactly like a sentience trapped in equilibrium between device and life-form. LaRue also made a brief onscreen appearance in Star Trek’s second season episode “Patterns of Force” (1968) as a Nazi newscaster of the planet Ekos; a world where a Federation historian altered the planet’s evolution by introducing the concept of Nazi fascism to unite its warring factions.
Note: Once again, we see an ‘enlightened’ Federation citizen gone bad; in this case professor John Gill (David Brian), an old history professor of Kirk’s at Starfleet Academy, who felt Ekos needed a bit of Earth-style fascism to get its act together. Having endured a gut-punching flirtation with fascism here in the United States these past four years? Yeah, no thanks, John. By the way, that drug-dealing Beckwith character isn’t looking so farfetched anymore, is he?
The Guardian of Forever would also make an appearance in Star Trek: The Animated Series‘ (TAS) poignant D.C. Fontana-scripted episode, “Yesteryear” (my personal favorite episode of that series). The story sees an adult Spock forced to use the Guardian to correct his own past, which had become corrupted after he’d used the time vortex for historical research into Orion’s past. His presence in Orion’s past left Spock unable to save his younger self in the original timeline. Okay, the time travel logistics of the episode are absolutely bonkers (as are most time travel scenarios in pop entertainment), but the story of Spock confronting his own unhappy childhood is surprisingly engaging. The episode’s message of dealing with the loss of a family pet was perfectly targeted for TAS’ key demographic of young children. TAS Star Trek was made on a very low budget, so guest roles were often recorded by regular cast members in order to save money on voice talent, thus the Guardian was voiced by a deliberately withered-sounding James Doohan (yes, Scotty himself). The Guardian in this episode appears to have modified its ability to slow down its own time-stream as well, allowing would-be travelers easier access to their chosen destinations. This is an inexplicable departure from the Guardian’s ‘fast-forward’ time travel access we saw in “City…”
The Guardian would also make a surprise reveal in the recent two-part episode of Star Trek: Discovery: “Terra Firma, Part 1” and “Terra Firma, Part 2” (2020). The Guardian’s reveal was crafted as a surprise afterMichael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) and mirror-universe Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) beam down to the mysterious snowy wilderness world of Dannus V in the late 32nd century. The two of them believe the planet may hold a cure for Philippa’s rapidly deteriorating physical and mental condition (a result of severe spacetime displacement). Instead, they find a surreal scene; an old man dressed anachronistically in 1950s period garb, sitting in an easy chair, reading a newspaper in the middle of the snowy plain. The man identities as “Carl” (Paul Guilfoyle), and he seems to understand Philippa’s problem quite well. Philippa sees a wooden doorway, which Carl tells her to step through. When she does, Philippa finds herself back in the mirror-universe Terran Empire of the mid-23rd century. Carl has offered her a chance to revisit her past in order to “test” her. Philippa fails to significantly change her own history but learns she isn’t quite the same person, either. She is returned to the present, where Carl drops the facade and reveals himself to be the Guardian of Forever itself (complete with a brief audio clip of Bart LaRue’s original Guardian voice). The Guardian has moved from its original location after abuse by different factions during the “Temporal Wars.” Carl then offers Philippa a renewed chance for life in an unspecified past. She accepts.
Several new traits for the Guardian are seen in this episode; it now moves from planet-to-planet, and it has a sentient, user-friendly interface (“Carl”). I assume Carl took a humanoid form since both of his ‘guests’ on Dannus V happened to be human beings. If they were Andorians, he’d probably appear blue-skinned with twin antennae atop his scalp. The notion of the Guardian having a ‘human face’ harkens back to Harlan Ellison’s original concept for the “guardians” of forever as humanoids (even if Ellison envisioned these wisened ancients as white-robed, bearded figures more suited to Mt. Olympus). The Carl human-interface is almost like Ellison’s original concept coming full circle.
Note: I wonder if the famously litigious Ellison would’ve sued the producers of Star Trek: Discovery of their use of the Guardian of Forever in this episode?
“Each of you will have to try it”.
At the end of the day, there are two very different versions of “City…” for your perusal; the original Harlan Ellison teleplay (brought to life in a faithful graphic novel adaptation) and, of course, the broadcast TOS episode. Both have merits, though the Ellison teleplay is a deeper, darker and more emotional story, filled with subtle insights and meanings excised from the simplified TV version. That said, the broadcast version, ghostwritten in multiple passes by the late Gene L. Coon and Dorothy Fontana, still holds much power, even in its diluted form. It certainly is an atypical Star Trek episode, and undoubtedly one of the best within the Original Series canon (personal favorites always vary, of course). While Ellison’s story would’ve been an epic budget-breaker, the televised version keeps a modicum of the story’s magic alive, at least.
In both versions, the hardest-hitting scene remains intact: Captain Kirk has to stand by and allow the woman he loves to die in order to restore the future. At the end of the day, that is what “City…” is ultimately about—Kirk being asked to do the impossible. While actor William Shatner is often mocked these days for his hammy, over-the-top acting style, his work in “City…” is unimpeachable. Whichever version of this heartbreaking story you choose, you will either experience televised Star Trek at its best, or a typically brilliant Harlan Ellison story. Devoting your attention to either (or both) is a low-risk scenario. Makes a great sci-fi love story for Valentine’s Day, too. Enjoy!
Star Trek: The Original Series is available for streaming on CBS All Access (to be renamed Paramount+ next month) as well as Netflix. Blu-Rays and DVDs of Star Trek can also be found for sale (contact-free shipping) from Amazon.com and other big ticket electronics retailers. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States are over 470,000 as of this writing and that number is increasing by thousands daily. Several vaccines are working their way into the general population, so for the time being, so please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public (even if you are vaccinated; the vaccine’s immunity isn’t permanent), and avoid crowded outings as much as possible. Let’s all try to keep any get-togethers safe-distanced, outdoors (weather permitting) and in small numbers, please!
Live long and prosper!
17 Comments Add yours
I’ve read the graphic novel and I’ve of the books you mentioned too! I like both the episode and the original version and it was so great to see The Guardian back in Discovery.
I assume you’ve read Imzadi? The Guardian plays a part in that as well. Great story!
No, I haven’t Tom, but thanks for the recommendation! Appreciated.
Yeah it’s a future story, Commodore Data is involved, but the main focus is on Admiral Riker and of course the Guardian comes into play. I read the book several times when it came out in high school (for me) and then I discovered Johnathan Frakes narrated the audio book. It. Is. Glorious! It’s HIS character after all! HE does very well at getting various characters’ mannerisms and voices down without doing a straight up imitation. There was a sequel that was also enjoyable but the original was so great. I am actually listening to it now, having reminded myself of it!
I thought Ellison’s version had Spock, not Kirk, preventing McCoy from saving Edith – ?
And I agree about Edith’s speech seeming forced or misplaced…the one flaw in the broadcast version.
McCoy wasn’t in the Ellison script; it was a drug-dealing Enterprise crewman named Beckwith who went back in time (via the time portal overseen by the “guardians” of forever) to avoid prosecution for selling illegal “Jewels of Sound.”
And yes, I agree.
Edith’s speech in the dining hall felt way too on-the-nose. I half-expected her to add, “And we will live in a United Federation of Worlds someday…”
right…but wasn’t it Spock who made sure Edith got killed? in Ellison’s version.
City on the Edge of Forever is my favorite TOS episode, no doubt about that. I’m definitely curious about the graphic novel as well.
The graphic novel is a fascinating what-if that validates Ellison’s original vision.
Enjoyed this detailed look immensely, esp your praise/discussion of the graphic novel, which is lovely, and extra info on Bart LaRue and the Guardian. Edith’s speech may have been too on the nose, a good way of putting it, but as an edit and collapse of the love story, for a 52-min show, I find it effective in displaying how she and Kirk might be compatible – she’s a leader and speaker with her own ideas, like Kirk and like Aimee Semple McPherson, whose bio sparked Ellison’s initial train of thought.
Obviously, there had to be some compression done to Ellison’s original story, which would’ve arguably made a more effective 2-parter than a single episode.
Despite her speech sounding a bit too much like a Roddenberry-mandated rewrite, the character is still terrific, and Joan Collins played her to perfection.
Thanks for reading and thanks for the insights!