What makes great television? Television always seems so . . . disposable. Most television series are DOA when their pilots fail with executives and test audiences. If a show is successful it may actually make it to air and get a chance to build an audience. For those shows who stay on the air, they inevitably seem dated after leaving the airwaves.
Even for the most successful of TV shows there's maybe a few episodes audiences remember. The original Star Trek is one anomaly since it achieved cult status after NBC, canceled it. To the surprise of programmers ratings soared in reruns for local stations. Star Trek capitalized on the popularity of Sci-Fi in the late 1970s and later reemerged as a highly profitable film franchise for Paramount studios.
One episode all fans remember is "The City on the Edge of Forever." So I watched it and to see one if it still holds up. Written by the legendary Harlan Ellison, the episode in many ways latched on to themes that made the show unique: the camaraderie between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, a mission involving time travel, and a chance for Shatner to overact.
"City on the Edge of Forever" is Ellison's sole contribution to the Star Trek canon. For years he expressed bitterness over producers meddling with his script (the original script is available in book form). In addition to writing for television, Ellison wrote groundbreaking television criticism in his collection of essays, The Glass Teat. Writers like Ellison did inspire a later generation consider the idea of television as a useful storytelling medium and to not shy away from being subversive.
The episode itself starts with Dr. "Bones" McCoy accidentally injecting himself with a serum making him temporally insane. In his madness he is beamed down to a planet and enters a time portal transporting him back to 1930s earth. Kirk and Spock beam down and discovered McCoy had changed the course of history. Earth never achieved space travel so the Enterprise is not there. So they enter the portal to restore history to its proper course. Ellison's original concept centered around a drug dealer on the Enterprise who enters the portal! But the revised story still hinged on Kirk and Spock making history right.
Once they arrive in 1930 there are the obligatory scenes we get with time travel stories. Spock must don a cap to cover his Vulcan ears. They meet a cop and both improvise an explanation about Spock's ears? The concept of Kirk and Spock as lost time travelers was later revisited in one of the best films Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Eventually they are taken in by the angelic Edith (Joan Collins) who runs a homeless shelter who Kirk falls in love with, but then tragically learns she will prevent America from entering into the Second World War thus allowing the Nazis to prevail. Someone disrupted the timeline by saving her life. You can guess how the show ends.
I have not watched every Star Trek episode, but have seen many over the years. At its worst the show is campy fun. As for "City on the Edge of Forever," the episode epitomizes why the franchise endures. At its best, the journeys of the Starship Enterprise are a space adventure with a sense of humor and that sparked the imagination of a whole new generation.