The Surprising Problem With Star Trek’s Most Celebrated Episode

By Noah Berlatsky

In January 2017, explored space will get another installment in the most optimistic high-profile sci-fi franchise of all time. For Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, CBS plans to launch a new television series — bringing bold exploration and inter-species amity to the world’s screens for a fifth decade.

Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry famously presented his Federation as more advanced — not just technologically, but socially. The original bridge of the Starship Enterprise included a multi-racial, multi-national cast unusual for its day, in an effort to foreshadow a more diverse, more tolerant future. And yet, this hope for peace and cross-cultural harmony is oddly contradicted by the show’s most lauded episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

Famously based on a script by sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, the 1967 episode appeared in Star Trek’s first season. It won a Hugo award, and is regularly credited as the best Star Trek episode of the original series — or of any Star Trek series.

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(Credit: Wikimedia)

But after all the praise, it’s a bit of a let-down to return to “The City on the Edge of Forever” and realize that it’s actually an elaborate exercise in justifying violence and would-you-kill-baby-Hitler ethics.

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The Enterprise has stumbled on a planet with a sentient gateway that can send people into the past. Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) accidentally injects himself with the dangerous futuristic drug cordrazine, and in a paranoid fit races through the gate. In the past he prevents the death of Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). Keeler goes on to found a pacifist movement, delaying U.S. entry into World War II, and allowing Germany to develop an atomic bomb. As a result, the happy Federation future never happens. Which means that Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) have to go back into the past to stop McCoy and make sure pacifist Keeler dies before she can preach peace and cause disaster.

The episode’s celebrity is mostly based on the low-key romance between Kirk and Edith Keeler, a romance given melodramatic, tragic oomph by the moral dilemma at the crux of the episode. Edith Keeler is a good person — even a saint. She runs a mission for the poor; she takes care of the ill and distressed. But her very goodness, which makes Kirk fall in love with her, will destroy the world. To thwart Hitler (kill baby Hitler!) an innocent must die.

“The City on the Edge of Forever,” in true Star Trek fashion, associates the future with peace. Keeler is not just kind; she’s a visionary, like Roddenberry himself. She is certain that people will reach the moon and the stars someday. And her commitment to peace is also presented (again like Roddenberry’s) as forward-looking. “She was right. Peace was the way,” Kirk declares. To which Spock soberly replies, “She was right. But at the wrong time.”

Peace is the future in “The City on the Edge of Forever.” But at the same time, knowledge of the future provides irrefutable evidence that peace doesn’t actually work — at least, not now. Super-logical Spock, speaking with the raised-eyebrow certainty of transhuman intellect, tells Kirk over and over that he must let Keeler get hit by a car. He looks into his computerized crystal ball and speaks without any caveat: “Save her, do as your heart tells you to do, and millions will die who did not die before.”

This is exactly the post-hoc logic used to justify Hiroshima. If we didn’t drop the bomb, more U.S. soldiers would have died — for certain, absolutely no question — than Japanese civilians were killed. It’s also the logic that was used to justify the Iraq invasion. If Saddam isn’t stopped now, he’ll perfect his “heavy water experiments” (to borrow Spock’s words) and his atomic bombs in the hands of terrorists will kill untold millions. Perfect knowledge of the future justifies any atrocity in the present. If you know for sure what baby Hitler is going to do, then you have to kill him — and Edith Keeler too, if she’s in the way.

The thing is, experts like Spock always claim they know for certain what disaster is approaching, and which dictator is building a bomb. Roddenberry’s vision of harmony is intended to inspire the world to reach for a kinder, gentler future. But “The City on the Edge of Forever” shows that that same supposedly more peaceful future can provide a rationale for a violent, deadly status quo. Smack in the middle of the Cold War, Star Trek told its viewers that a better future (led by a dashing American captain) justified violence in the past. Think on peace and you can shoot to kill.

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The debonair Captain Kirk (Credit: Wikimedia commons)

What’s most depressing about “The City on the Edge of Forever” is that its vaunted status is inseparable from its rejection of pacifism. Pacifism is always seen as unrealistic — a lovely dream that inevitably leads to harm in the brutal world of realpolitik. “The City on the Edge of Forever” is deep and serious because it preposterously insists that it knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that peace objectively will not work. Most experts these days believe Germany was nowhere near developing a bomb — and for that matter, the U.S. stayed out of the war until they were actually attacked. Maybe a major peace movement would have had us enter the war at about the same time, but prevented us needlessly dropping nuclear weapons on civilian targets, and resulted in less loss of life. But Star Trek isn’t having it. Peace kills. The future has come back and told us so.

“The City on the Edge of Forever” is not about a time travel paradox. It’s about a narrative which leverages the future as a way to justify actions in the present. That narrative, as the episode shows, is popular, and even venerated — not least because it leads to death. As Star Trek whooshes forward into its next fifty years, maybe it’s time to reconsider the canonical status of “The City on the Edge of Forever” in favor of less self-fulfilling stories. As Kirk says feelingly at the episode’s conclusion, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

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Lead image credit: JD Hancock, Flickr