Timely Treatment, TOS: S1E28 “The City on the Edge of Forever”

What more can be said about one of the greatest episodes of Star Trek ever written?  “The City on the Edge of Forever” is praised by critics and fans for its perfect combination of emotional depth and inspirational SciFi storytelling.  After accidentally injecting himself with an overdose of cordrazine, a delirious Dr. McCoy transports himself to a nearby planet.  A landing party beams down to look for him, and encounter mysterious ancient ruins.  One of which, a giant portal, claims to be the ‘Guardian of Forever’.  This time portal proceeds to show the Enterprise crew all of history, during which McCoy jumps through at random.

The Guardian of Forever
‘The Guardian of Forever’, a time portal of everything that ever was.

Suddenly, the Enterprise is gone, as well as the history familiar to everyone around the portal, leaving them stranded.  McCoy clearly changed something in the past that had universe-altering consequences.  Kirk and Spock must go in to look for him, ending up in 1930s America.  Once there, Spock’s conveniently successful plot facilitating device detects the focal point of the historical aberration: a woman who was meant to die, but didn’t.  The virtuous and kind hearted Edith Keeler went on to lead a pacifist movement which delayed the United States’ entry into World War II.  This gives Germany time to develop the atom bomb first, thereby changing history forever.  One of the few times when war was necessary and unavoidable was in the takedown of this regime. So many other points in history, world peace and harmony would be a welcome ideal.

The choice to let Keeler die represents the most fundamental conflict of medical ethics, and the most personal manifestation of narrative destiny.  It is the future personified.  Within this one person is both the hindrance of the better future and the ideologically-driven motivation to make it happen.  We all have a part to play in the strange dance that is our universe, but Keeler’s role is to not exist.  When all life is precious to a doctor committed to saving everyone, how could McCoy have known that the loss of one life would save millions more?

Despite its beautifully poetic climax, the story still suffers from the narrative difficulties of a time travel episode.  For example, if McCoy’s blunder caused Keeler’s death in the first place was he always personally responsible?  Keeler only crossed the street because Kirk abandoned her, but none of these people were supposed to be there in the first place!  Even more maddening is the fact that Kirk and Spock witnessed the universe without Keeler’s death because they hadn’t entered the portal yet, prompting them to enter the portal.  What was the original cause of Keeler’s death?  Were Kirk, Spock, and McCoy always a fixture in the past?

Nonetheless, the ending still echoes as strong as when the story first aired: “I could have saved her, Jim!  I could have saved her!”  Of course Dr. McCoy could and should have saved her.  He was morally obligated to do so from the moment he swore to do no harm, but when the harm caused by an action far outweighs the destruction of inaction, what is the good doctor to do?  The repercussions of our actions are never manifest in a vacuum, and as for which choice is right, only time will tell.

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