Every Saturday, The Savvy Screener’s Boomer Box is counting down “The 50 Greatest Television Episodes of the 1960s,” in reverse chronological order, as researched and written by Todd M. Pence.
The series which produced this week’s installment needs little introduction to any fan of 1960s television, nor indeed to anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave for the last 50 years.
Gene Roddenberry’s ambitious science fiction series Star Trek debuted in the fall of 1966 with little fanfare and mixed critical reception. Throughout its short life, it battled to stay on the air with an NBC network that almost from the start viewed it as an unwanted stepchild.
But the adventures of Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the Starship Enterprise found their audience, even if it didn’t show in the Nielsen numbers — so much so that the series became the first American television program to achieve cult status within its own lifetime.
Devotees of Star Trek didn’t just watch the show, they mythologized it. Years after Star Trek went off the air, reruns of its 79 episodes on local stations continued to best first-run primetime competition. Roddenberry’s vision of the future captivated audiences and created a cultural phenomenon which spawned numerous spinoff series and motion pictures. With the exception of the character of Sherlock Holmes, the Star Trek franchise has produced more apocryphal fiction than any other imaginary realm.
On April 6, 1967, Star Trek premiered the episode which is almost universally acclaimed as the original series’ finest hour: “The City on the Edge of Forever.” (You can stream the episode on Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix and Paramount+, or buy it for $1.99 from various providers.)
The good ship Enterprise is investigating an uncharted planet which is sending out shock waves. First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) identifies them as distortions in the time stream.
An accident aboard ship causes Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) to be injected with a drug overdose, causing violent paranoia. He subsequently escapes to the vessel’s transporter room and beams himself down to the planet, necessitating Captain Kirk and other members of the crew to form a search party to go after him.
On the planet, they discover the ruins of an ancient civilization with a sentient structure calling itself “The Guardian of Forever,” which they soon discover is a time portal to the past of any planet in the universe. While they are captivated by this discovery, a still-deranged Dr. McCoy manages to escape the security parties searching for him and plunges through the gate into the past of Earth. Suddenly, the Enterprise vanishes and the landing party realizes that McCoy must have done something to so radically alter Earth’s history that spaceflight never came about.
Kirk and Spock themselves enter the portal to find McCoy, determine the event that he changed, and t correct it if possible. They find themselves in New York City in the 1930s. Both of them take jobs at a mission, where Kirk falls in love with the virtuous woman who runs the establishment, Edith Keeler (Joan Collins. But a subsequent discovery made by Spock will soon force the good Captain into a horrifying dilemma.
“City on the Edge of Forever” emerged as the crowning jewel of the original Star Trek series, despite a history as turbulent as that of the show itself. Writer Harlan Ellison’s gripes about his original script not being filmed as written are well-documented, but the objective truth is that Ellison’s original script was unfilmable for a weekly TV show and that Roddenberry and Dorothy Fontana’s rewrites vastly improved the story and made it into the episode revered by fans of the show.
(Editor’s note; In 1998, Sci Fi Channel interviewed Ellison about the episode for its “Special Edition” airing of the entire Star Trek series, in which episodes were extended to 90 minutes to include commentary. Below, Ellison (starting at the 4:12 mark) reflects on his battle to preserve the original script, as well as on the never-used ending he wrote for the episode.)
- ‘60s #37: ‘The Time Tunnel’ - May 15, 2021
- #38: ‘Mission: Impossible’ - May 8, 2021
- Best ‘Star Trek’ Episode! - May 1, 2021
- #40: ‘Judd for the Defense’ - April 24, 2021
- ’60s #41: ‘Mannix’ - April 17, 2021
- #42: ‘Journey to Babel’ - April 10, 2021
- ‘60s #43: ‘Gunsmoke’ - April 3, 2021
- ‘60s #44: ‘The Invaders’ - March 27, 2021
- 60s’ #45: ‘Cimarron Strip’ - March 20, 2021
- #46: ‘Run for Your Life’ - March 13, 2021