Turbulence aboard the Enterprise results in Dr. McCoy accidentally injecting himself with a high dose of a volatile drug. Rendered paranoid and delusional, McCoy becomes convinced that the crew are trying to kill him. He races for the transporter, beaming himself to the nearest planet.
The planet turns out not only to be habitable, but to be the home of The Guardian of Forever, a portal that allows people to travel into the past. Kirk, Spock, and a landing party arrive just before a crazed McCoy jumps through the portal. History is altered... and the Enterprise, indeed the galaxy as they know it, ceases to exist.
Now Kirk and Spock must travel through the portal to prevent McCoy's interference. Arriving in the United States during The Great Depression, Kirk finds himself drawn to Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), a woman who runs a shelter for the many people made homeless by the Depression. Kirk declares that he is in love with Edith... but Spock discovers evidence that Edith is the focus of McCoy's change. Did McCoy, in a paranoid state, cause her death? Worse: did he prevent it? Is the cost of setting history to rights Edith Keeler's life?
Capt. Kirk: Fits into Depression-era society with startling ease. He and Edith make a natural match, and the agony of Kirk's ending choice is written all over Shatner's face. As in most of the other episodes in the first season, Shatner is anything but the ham he's been made out to be. He gives a fine, restrained performance, playing equally well opposite Nimoy as opposite Joan Collins.
Spock: Through his amazing powers of Plot Device, Spock is able to use Depression-era spare parts to study the images the tricorder made of the Guardian's display. This allows him to unlock the two possible futures, the one in which Edith lives, versus the one in which Edith dies, and to figure out which future is the "correct" one. Spock's ruthless logic - the same logic that determined that Gary Mitchell must die - leads him to an inescapable conclusion. However, his friendship with Kirk is quite genuine, as observed by the softer tones Nimoy uses when delivering his verdict to Kirk, or when answering McCoy's outraged question at the end.
Dr. McCoy: The script cleverly uses McCoy's best trait, his boundless compassion, against him. The value McCoy places on life is what leads him to the act which changes everything, and he is outraged when Kirk doesn't allow him to repeat his "mistake" at the episode's finale.
Hot Historical Babe of the Week: Joan Collins is Edith Keeler, the young woman who runs a mission to help people left peniless by the Depression. This is a character who is made perhaps just a touch too good. She is kind-hearted, but just tough enough that she won't allow those she helps to take advantage of her. She is far-seeing, able to size up Kirk and Spock as natural companions in an instant, and able to predict with an eerie accuracy some of the terrifying advances humanity would make within the next decade. In fanfiction, she'd be dismissed as a Mary Sue. That she works as well as she does on-screen is a testament to Collins' easy chemistry opposite Shatner, and the on-screen reactions of particularly Kirk and McCoy toward her. Still, I confess that I'd prefer the episode if she was just a bit less perfect.
NO REDSHIRTS WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THIS EPISODE
Depression-era hobos, however, are not so lucky. A downtrodden bum, upon finding McCoy's phaser, promptly vaporizes himself with it. Given that the timeline is still restored at the episode's end, we are forced to conclude that his death is apparently of no importance to the timeline whatever. When you travel to the past, watch out for butterflies... but hobos are fair game!
Regularly cited as the best Trek episode ever. If pressed, I think I prefer Balance of Terror, just of the ones I've already reviewed, but this is certainly in the Top 5. This is a show where all the disparate pieces just come together perfectly. The characters are spot-on, and Shatner and Nimoy give particularly fine performances. The period detail is well-observed, and the dialogue has a sparkle to it that elevates it above the mere functionality of many episodes' exchanges.
For an episode that I always remember as being basically bleak and something of a downer, it is surprising how much humor there actually is. From Kirk trying to explain away Spock's strange appearance ("Well, my friend here's obviously Chinese"), to Spock's blunt assessment of his task at deciphering the tricorder as "creating a mnemonic memory device out of stone knives and bearskins," there are several amusing bits. All of which makes the inevitability of the finale so much more effective. By making the episode full of life and vitality, the tragedy hits home so much more - to the point where it ends up being the moment that the entire episode is remembered for.
The script does very well at making the tragedy appear inevitable. Compare this with The Alternative Factor, in which Lazarus' horrific fate seems unnecessary (just kill one Lazarus; you solve the problem and both Lazaruses end up better off). Here, Kirk's bitterly hard decision actually feels earned.
Thankfully, writers Harlan Ellison and Gene Roddenberry (who performed substantial rewrites, much to Ellison's ire) manage to avoid falling into the common trap of ending the episode with a comedy "tag." Kirk's "Let's get the hell out of here," while no one else even can speak, is the perfect cap on an excellent hour of television.
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