The Greatest Romance of All Time (Literally, I Guess)

Recently I watched what has come to be my all-time favorite episode of any TV show: Star Trek’sThe City on the Edge of Forever.” In the first place, I’m a sucker for tragic impossible romances (Gatsby and Daisy, John Ferguson and Judy Barton, Aeneas and Dido, etc) and this is arguably the best that classic TV has to offer in that vein. This one has an advantage over the competition as well, because Edith Keeler by herself is yet another of my top favorite fictional characters. I admire her optimism in a cynical world and see it as a model for the outlook we should all have going forward in these troubled times (though it’s often hard to do, and I’m far from perfect at it myself.)

This episode explores two concepts I found personally relatable, though I’ve never seen either one depicted elsewhere. First, there’s the idea of someone who’s out of step with the times (a disposition I identify with) meeting a person who can venerate their “crazy” worldview (which is my fantasy). Then there’s the disconcerting possibility that you can hold the right ideals in the wrong time and ultimately do more harm than good despite having pure intentions. To me, these two tropes signify a belief I’ve had for awhile now: that there’s no such thing as an inherently great country or institution, only great individual people. (I’ll explore this theme in later posts as well.) In this case that’s Edith, who is clearly a step above her peers by virtue of her far-sighted vision of mankind. She reminds me so much of George McGovern’s candidacy in ’72 (another topic I’ll go into later). Like Edith, his ideas were sincere, and prescient in my opinion, but he came at the wrong time and ultimately his actions helped erode his own cause in American politics for decades.

What sets all these themes in motion is the quirky yet totally believable (and surprisingly touching) romance between a spaceship captain from the future and a charitable landlady from the 1930’s; two people who never should have met and by all accounts shouldn’t have anything in common. As Kirk falls in love with Edith, he soon realizes she has to die or else her pacifist movement will prevent the US from entering WWII in time to stop Germany from developing nuclear bombs. As Spock puts it “she was right–but at the wrong time.” Just thinking about how this great person who, by her own merits, would have been super-influential dying violently in a mundane traffic accident was in itself very profound to me. Imagine how many would-be movers and shakers we’ve lost in the real world due to similarly undeserved freak accidents. At the same time, I found it heartbreaking that she had to die for her own beautiful dream to come true. (Though I like to believe if Kirk had told her the truth, Edith still would have willingly sacrificed herself for the future.)

Roddenberry vs Ellison

Anyone familiar with this episode’s production is aware that its original author, Harlan Ellison, was unhappy with his work being severely edited for TV. Roddenberry agreed the original script was great but had to compromise certain aspects of it to fit a TV show budget. I’m not going to go in-depth about the details, but wikipedia has a pretty good summary if you’re interested. Neither am I interested in who was “right” in this disagreement either. But I would like to explore some of the differences between the shooting script (what’s in the aired episode) and original script (what Harlan Ellison wrote) and discuss which differences I personally liked or disliked in each. I’m going to focus solely on the romance between Kirk and Edith as it’s my primary interest in the episode and the central source of drama in the narrative.

First, let’s look at the shooting script.

In the shooting script, the relationship between Kirk and Keeler felt more natural. There’s a passion to be sure, but nothing over the top considering they’ve only known each other less than a month or so. It’s more that Edith and Kirk find each other fascinating because they speak the same language despite how far removed in history and experience they are. Like the best stories and character interactions in media, the televised script actually made me want to see more between them. For example, my favorite scene is where Kirk walks Edith home and discusses a future romance novel from another planet. Where most women would hear that kind of anecdote and feel like their boyfriend was crazy or perhaps condescending to them, Edith was honored to “play along” with this “fantasy” of Kirk’s. So, I like to imagine some adorable pillow talk done in the same spirit, where Kirk describes the real life moon landing accounts or historical discovery of interstellar life and Edith (believing it to be a story he’s making up for her benefit) is enthralled 💘 In short, it’s as though the TV rewrite understands the unique dynamic that exists between the two considering their place in history and Edith’s outlook, so the writers played that up in the most effective way possible.

The specific dialogue I loved the most in the filmed script comes from the same scene, when Kirk talks about some future romance novel that will be written in the distant reaches of space which gives preference to the words “let me help” even over “I love you.” Sometimes in fiction, it’s these kinds of little throwaway lines which hit the hardest. It’s a small but interesting piece of lore for this universe; it makes you wonder what kind of context that must be where “let me help” is considered the ultimate romantic expression. My personal opinion? “I love you” (besides being done to death,) is merely stating an abstract emotional condition. “Let me help” is more describing what that emotion compels you to do. It’s the selfless devotion which intentionally brings more vulnerability into your life (another way you can be hurt is through your partner). Through that small moment of dialogue, all of this can be conveyed extremely subtly, in such a way that the script is implying rather than spoon-feeding. It’s very suitably Star Trek without sacrificing emotional resonance. 😊

By the same token, when Kirk first realizes his feelings for Edith in the shooting script, he says “I find her most…uncommon…Mr Spock.” This simple line, in its own unique way, is so much more romantic than a million stock “I love yous.” Especially coming from someone like Kirk who’s been with a lot of women all over the galaxy and seen countless wonders from other planets. It shows he values sincerity, optimism and fortitude as opposed to sexual proclivity or exoticism. Coupled with the earlier line I mentioned, we get the sense that in this future world of Star Trek, simpler phrases which at first seem not particularly erotic to us, actually carry a deeper weight. Perhaps that’s because in a future of thousands of alien cultures and languages, simpler phrases carry a more universal meaning and are easier to translate. Or perhaps, the perspectives of humanity in the future have simply changed. Either way, it’s these kinds of lines which made this episode so memorable for me. Without them, I don’t think the story would have felt as authentic–it’d be another forced shallow coupling using the same forced lines that happens because the script demands it.

The climax as it was filmed shows us that Kirk is so visibly distraught at the sight of Edith’s death that he can’t even explain his actions to a furious McCoy. Spock, despite being governed by logic, possesses enough sympathy for his friend to speak on Kirk’s behalf: “He knows, Doctor. He knows.” That line is so haunting and the entire episode has been building towards it–the tragedy of Kirk having to knowingly kill the woman he loves. It reveals more about Kirk’s character that he’s reluctant to spell out his pain in front of the others (as compared to the Ellison script, but we’ll get there soon.) For better or worse, Kirk chooses to suffer in silence rather than unduly burden the crew by admitting to this perceived weakness. Only Spock, who understands his friend so well and has seen the romance develop over time, fully realizes the sacrifice his Captain has made for the good of humanity. That understanding strengthens their bond through the rest of the series. In fact, one could make a compelling argument that their relationship, as opposed to Kirk and Edith, is what’s truly at the heart of this episode. For me, the fact that Spock doesn’t offer up a sentimental line in this version (see below) is actually more touching as it means Spock knew it was better not to say anything. He can’t fully empathize with the emotions Kirk is enduring and he is smart enough to know logic is not what Kirk wants or needs to hear right now.

For references’ sake, in the shooting script, the only major difference from the page and what was filmed is Kirk’s final line. In the script, it’s “tell them to beam us up Lieutenant.” On TV it was “Let’s get the hell out of here.” The latter of course being far more effective; I get chills every time I hear Shatner say it. I love how the Guardian of Forever is oblivious, describing all the wondrous journeys through time available to them, but Kirk is so embittered and hurt that he wants none of it. The entire universe, recovering lost knowledge from the past or seeing the future, none of that matters if he can’t have Edith Keeler. While he won’t openly admit it, Kirk was emotionally devastated by what he had to do. We see that far more clearly through the dialogue and actions in this version of the script.

And now, Ellison’s original.

Personally, I don’t find the characterization of Edith, nor her and Kirk’s dialogue, to be as romantic or compelling. On page 32 (33 including the title page) of the script, we hear Edith speak for the first time. In the TV episode she gave a genuinely hopeful picture of the future, which could conceivably cheer up a more high minded poor listener (and would absolutely appeal to someone like Kirk due to its prescience.) However, Ellison only has her parroting FDR (“sadness isn’t real” as opposed to “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”) She tells her hungry listeners that it’s okay to go to bed hungry as long as you haven’t hurt anyone during the day. I’m sorry, but if I were on the streets or couldn’t feed my family I would find this to be a meaningless, even patronizing platitude. It’s hardly “words of profound truth” as Ellison calls them in his script.

I’m also not a fan of Kirk and Spock knowing what to look for (a blue cape and sunburst pin) when they go back into the past. For me, this distorts the natural magnetism between Kirk and Edith. Basically, in the shooting script it’s Kirk’s idea to bond with Edith as he and Spock pass the time waiting for McCoy to arrive. In Ellison’s version, it’s only because they already know she’s important–and one could interpret Kirk falling in love with her as a reaction to that elevated status in history as opposed to a personal connection. The actual dialogue which gets Kirk and Edith together is literally a point by point exchange of the expected lines “you’re handsome”/”you’re lovely”/”well that’s out of the way. Let’s hang out.” (Page 40 of the pdf file, 39 of the script. Slightly paraphrased.) From then on, we are merely told how great their talks are by Jim but never get to see them. The next time Jim and Edith are onscreen together they’re confessing their love with no buildup to that payoff. It’s either Ellison didn’t know how to write romantic dialogue or treated their scenes as an afterthought in comparison to the extremely complicated setup of the time travel plot. (The shooting script’s setup is much simpler.)

I think Spock’s final line in this episode, “no woman was ever loved as much, Jim. For no woman was ever offered the universe for love” was sweet and thought-provoking. But in my opinion it doesn’t feel earned considering how much of the romance occurred off-screen or through pretty standard dialogue. It would be interesting to see this final exchange and their look of understanding filmed for comparison’s sake. But on the page at least, it doesn’t feel as powerful to me as what we got in the rewrite. I dislike how Kirk constantly has to tell Spock how in love with her he was–including here again at the end. It’s the first rule of storytelling, show don’t tell. The kernel of a great romance is here, but the execution needed tweaking.

I should say that I am not here to disparage Ellison or his work with this post. I respect his writing, and his script has very good aspects which I didn’t focus on in this analysis. If nothing else he deserves a lot of credit for the brilliant hook for this episode–a tragic love that must be sacrificed for the good of mankind. It’s just that I don’t think the specific scenes between Edith and Kirk in his script are very creative or effective. Even though the conventional wisdom seems to be that Ellison’s version is better, in my opinion the rewrite crafted a more original, touching and believable romance and that’s what the episode relies upon.

Overall, “The City on the Edge of Forever” is a rare example of sci-fi used not to warn about potential technology or examine the changing human condition in response to scientific advancement, but rather to engineer a tragic human story which could not have been told in any other genre. 


  1. I’m giving away my age by admitting that I was here when it first aired. It was and remains a very powerful episode. I can say that even though it must be 25 years since I last saw it.


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