“Right, but at the wrong time”: City on the Edge of Forever (TOS) vs. Past Tense (DS9)

Star Trek: The Original Series – “City on the Edge of Forever” (season 1, episode 28)
Written by Harlan Ellison; directed by Joseph Pevney; first aired in 1967

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Among ancient ruins on an unexplored planet, the Enterprise crew discovers the Guardian of Forever, a portal into the past. Paranoid and delusional after accidentally dosing himself with a powerful drug, Dr. McCoy escapes through the portal into Earth’s past, and history is altered as a result. Kirk and Spock follow him in an attempt to repair the damaged timeline, and find themselves in New York City during the Great Depression, a short time before McCoy arrives. Kirk meets, and falls in love with, Edith Keeler, a forward-thinking social worker whose peace movement will inadvertently lead to the Nazis winning World War II … unless Kirk can stop McCoy from saving the life of the woman he loves.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Past Tense” (season 3, episodes 11 and 12)
Teleplay by Robert Hewitt Wolfe; story by Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe; directed by Reza Badiyi; first aired in 1995

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

While visiting Earth for a conference, Sisko, Bashir, and Dax experience a timey-wimey transporter malfunction which sends them to San Francisco in the year 2024. Dax is discovered, unconscious and robbed of her com badge, by a media magnate who offers to help her find her missing friends. Sisko and Bashir, also unconscious and robbed of their com badges, are discovered by law enforcement officers, who send them to a Sanctuary District, a de facto prison for the unemployed, the homeless, and those with mental health issues. Sisko realizes they’ve arrived just days before the historic Bell Riots, during which the heroic death of a Sanctuary resident named Gabriel Bell will lead to sweeping social reforms. But when Bell himself is killed, prematurely, defending Sisko and Bashir, Sisko takes on Bell’s identity, and his role in Earth’s history.

City on the Edge of Forever 1

Last time, we looked at two fairly light-hearted time travel episodes, “Tomorrow is Yesterday” (TOS) and “Future’s End” (VOY). Those episodes make a good introduction to some of the basic conventions and (loose) rules of time travel in the Trek universe: time travel is possible in a number of ways, both intentional and accidental, with some highly advanced civilizations traveling back in time regularly; and one’s actions in the past can alter history, something which is generally to be avoided.

They also remind us of one of the big assumptions behind Trek in general: that human civilization is on an upward trajectory – not just technologically, but socially. Time travel episodes of Trek often emphasize this, by contrasting Earth’s past with its future … but they also posit that there are certain, significant turning points in history, times at which, if a time traveler were to change something, that upward trajectory might be significantly altered, or even reversed.

“Tomorrow is Yesterday” and “Future’s End” hinted at the severity of changes to the timeline, but “City on the Edge of Forever” and “Past Tense” are two episodes which take this idea and really run with it, each intent on telling a more serious, profound, and moving story than the episodes we looked at last time. The result is one episode which feels eerily applicable to our own time, and another which is one of the most ‘timeless’ (there’s that tricky word again) and successful episodes Trek has ever produced.

Let’s just get this out of the way: “City on the Edge of Forever” is generally (and, I think, correctly) regarded as a masterpiece. It is, arguably, the blueprint for a successful episode of any series of Trek, a master class on using high-concept science fiction to generate a story which is surprisingly intimate – reminiscent of a stage play – and grounded in character. It is, simply put, humane science fiction. It also produced some of Trek’s (and maybe science fiction’s?) most iconic moments and imagery. The Guardian of Forever, itself, is a great lesson for writers struggling with how to work exposition into their stories. Where “Past Tense” features many lines of dialogue attempting, and failing, to do the impossible – to make the hand-wavy ‘science’ behind its time travel believable – “City” turns this inherent weakness of time travel stories into a strength. It gives us the Guardian, a seemingly sentient portal in which we can see moments from history zipping by like microfilm, and through which we could simply step into one of those moments. It’s still hand-wavy, of course: we don’t know how it works, or who built it, for what purpose, and what happened to them. But the concept is intriguing enough, the image is striking enough, and the rules governing how the characters can use it are clear enough that we (or I, at least) don’t care that it’s hand-wavy. We’re on board, and willing to be taken wherever this story is going.

Which, as I mentioned above, is to a much more intimate, much smaller place than we might have expected, given the grandiose implications behind the Guardian of Forever. Recently, as I’ve been rewatching episodes from the various series of Star Trek, I’ve come to realize that my favorite episodes tend to be those with a smaller scope; those that introduce an idea, and then take their time exploring the implications of that idea on an individual, human level. And that is very much what we get from “City”. The relationship between Kirk and Edith Keeler develops quickly, of course, but it’s allowed to happen as quietly and gradually as possible in the forty-some minutes of this episode. With the notable exception of Kirk and Spock’s comic-relief banter with a police officer (complete with an uncomfortable bit where Kirk tries to ‘explain’ Spock by claiming he’s Chinese), there is very little wasted time in this episode, with the focus kept squarely throughout on the problem Kirk and Spock face – stopping McCoy from altering the past – and on developing Edith as an engaging and human character.

City on the Edge of Forever 2

The reveal that they have to stop McCoy not from doing obvious damage in a drug-fueled rage, but from following his best instincts and saving the life of someone we have spent time with, someone we know to be a good person, is a clever plot twist, yes. But it’s also just genuinely tragic. It’s really, really smart to give us that touching scene between Keeler and McCoy, when he’s finally himself again after spending the episode to that point in drug-fueled, scenery-chewing mania. McCoy beginning to tentatively, sardonically accept that the drug’s effects are wearing off – “I’ve convinced myself that this is all a cordrazine hallucination, but I’ve decided you’re not” – is quite disarming. He’s charming with her, she’s charming with him, and it all serves to help the audience connect to Edith as not just a love interest to Kirk, but as a person with a life of her own, before that life is cut so tragically (but necessarily?) short.

It’s a well-worn cliché of time travel fantasies to imagine removing bad people from history; to imagine, very specifically, stopping Hitler from rising to power. Part of what makes this episode so interesting is the way it flips that trope, reminding us that the tragic, seemingly senseless deaths of decent people are just as much a part of history as the defeat of Hitler; that while history may be on an upward arc (at least in the Star Trek universe), that arc is not without its fair share of tragedy.

I’m writing this at a time – at the end of the summer of 2017 – when there’s been much discussion of how best to respond, both in ideology and in action, to the rising influence of an extremist movement. Rewatching “City” now, I find myself wondering about the implications behind Keeler’s pacifism, her humanitarianism – her genuine good intentions – being the element that will change history for the worse, allowing Hitler’s own extremist movement to take over the world. A very shallow reading might interpret it as an argument against pacifism in general, but that interpretation simply doesn’t hold up; the episode goes out of its way to remind us that Edith’s ideals are Star Trek’s ideals. Kirk says explicitly, “But she was right, peace was the way,” to which Spock replies, “She was right, but at the wrong time.” It’s kind of amazing what “City” does with Edith; it gives us a character from a time decades before this episode aired, who foresees the utopian future which is the foundation for the whole Star Trek universe … and then tells us she must be prevented from working towards those ideals.

Viewing this dilemma through the lens of my own place in history – as we all do, always – I find myself thinking that just being right, in itself, doesn’t protect you, or the people around you, from those who are willfully, dangerously wrong. “City” seems to imply that the utopia of Kirk’s time didn’t come about because it was inevitable, but because people fought, when they had to, against those – your Hitlers, your Khan Noonien Singhs, and whoever else – who would do everything in their power to prevent Edith’s vision from becoming a reality. Maybe I’m reaching, maybe I’m projecting, but that’s what I find myself thinking about after watching this episode. Well, that, and “Good gravy, that was a near-perfect hour of television.”

Past Tense 1

“Past Tense” is not near-perfect, but it is good, and interesting, and unnervingly topical (more on that below). Almost any episode of Trek is going to suffer, at least a little, in comparison to “City on the Edge of Forever”, and where “City” is lean and tightly focused, “Past Tense” is not. Much like “Future’s End”, “Past Tense” is padded with multiple plotlines, each of which gives diminishing returns: the B-plot, following Dax, yields some interesting moments (like her not-as-dystopian-as-it-should-be dinner party conversation), but some completely unnecessary ones as well; and the C-plot, Kira and O’Brien’s time-hopping search for their crewmates, is pure, transparent padding to fill up this 2-part episode, with a wacky-hijinks-comic-relief tone that I found completely out of place in this episode (made all the more maddening by the fact that their most interesting time-jump, to the apparent nightmare that Earth will become if history isn’t fixed, happens off-screen). And “Past Tense” fails to learn from TOS’s treatment of time travel mechanics: if your explanation for time travel doesn’t make sense – it never does, really, and “Past Tense” is no exception – then don’t spend line after line of expositiony dialogue trying to pretend that it does. Just get on with the actual story you wanted to tell in the first place. And when “Past Tense” focuses on the story it exists to tell – the story of Sisko and Bashir in the Sanctuary District – it has some genuinely interesting things to say.

If “City on the Edge of Forever” hints at themes relevant to today’s political climate, “Past Tense” feels, at times, like it was written today, despite the fact that it first aired more than 20 years ago. The idea behind the Sanctuary Districts – mass, indefinite incarceration for those who can’t find jobs or afford psychiatric care, behind walls where they can’t bother the more fortunate or make them feel uncomfortable – well, it all rings eerily true in 2017. It’s long been a running joke among sci-fi fans that many of the dark futures we watch or read about are set in a year we’ve already passed; according to the TOS episode “Space Seed”, Khan himself should have come to power as a genetically engineered warlord around the time I was graduating from elementary school. But the 2024 of “Past Tense” feels remarkably, uncomfortably plausible as being only 7 years out from the time I’m writing this.

Part of this believability, I think, comes from the fact that “Past Tense” portrays everyone involved in the running of the Sanctuary District as basically decent people just doing their jobs (presumably so that they, themselves, won’t wind up as residents of a Sanctuary). The episode isn’t ambiguous in its portrayal of the Sanctuaries as a morally reprehensible institution; this is hammered home through Sisko’s 24th-century knowledge of the history surrounding the Districts, and through Bashir’s visceral disgust and outrage at the sight of people with treatable conditions wandering the District, untreated. The Sanctuary guards, the administrator who admits Sisko and Bashir to the District, and even the police detective who represents government interests during the hostage negotiations – none of them are let off the hook as blameless, exactly, but they aren’t malicious or uncaring, either. They are doing their jobs as part of a system they may not like, but which they feel unwilling, or unable, to challenge. As Sisko tells Bashir, “It’s not that they don’t give a damn, they’ve just given up … the social problems they face seem too enormous to deal with.” There’s no real villain here, and the episode is stronger for it. This near-future America hasn’t been conquered by an obvious fascist like Hitler, or by a warlord like Khan. It hasn’t been devastated by some big, contrived disaster. It’s a more subtle dystopia than that, the kind that forces us to examine how dystopian our own society might already be — might already have been, for some time.

Past Tense 2

How people normalize and excuse the dystopia around them is a thread that runs throughout the Sisko-Bashir storyline, and through much of the Dax story as well. As I mentioned above, Dax’s dinner party conversation sounds eerily like the sort of thing you might hear at any posh dinner party today: complaints about social unrest overseas as an obstacle to vacation plans; an expression of privileged surprise that the Sanctuaries even still exist, answered by an immediate assertion that the Sanctuaries are the only way to deal with “those people”. And in her conversation with Sisko and Bashir, the Sanctuary administrator kind of blew my mind when she used that ubiquitous real-world expression, “what with the economy, and all,” as a lame explanation for the fact that none of the ‘Gimmies’ – Sanctuary residents looking for work – are ever actually given jobs. That got me thinking about how ‘the economy’ allows us, in the real world as in this fictional 2024, to simultaneously accept a social problem as normal while pretending it’s only temporary. It’s pretty clear to us, almost from the moment Sisko and Bashir enter the Sanctuary, that none of its residents are there temporarily; they are told by another resident that the District is their home now, and the administrator herself refers to ‘Ghosts’, residents who haven’t properly adjusted to life in the Sanctuary, implying that Sisko and Bashir can expect to be there long enough that they’ll need to ‘adjust’. But blaming ‘the economy’, rather than deliberate policy, allows the administrator, and everyone else running the Sanctuaries, to both accept what they’re doing as normal, and also kid themselves that it might all get better if the economy just happens to improve (all while the dinner party guests live a life of luxury, seemingly regardless of the state of the economy).

Bashir goes so far as to apply this question of what is really normal, and what is only temporary, to his own seemingly utopian 24th century:

Bashir: It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Are humans really any different than Cardassians or Romulans? If push comes to shove, if something disastrous happens to the Federation, if we are frightened enough or desperate enough, how would we react? Would we stay true to our ideals, or would we just stay here, right back where we started?

Sisko: I don’t know. But as a Starfleet officer, it’s my job to make sure we never have to find out.

This is a darker take on the Federation than we’d typically get from Trek – something that tends to set DS9 apart from its sister shows – but it does seem to take us back to the implications behind Spock’s assertion that Edith Keeler was right at the wrong time. It’s stated even more explicitly, here, that the utopia humans enjoy in Sisko’s time doesn’t exist just because humans deserved a break. The Federation and its ideals are vulnerable, not just at key moments in the past, but always. And maybe Gabriel Bell gives us an example of how to protect those ideals. He takes part in the uprising, because it’s necessary, but real change comes when people outside the Sanctuaries see him risking, and seemingly losing, his life to keep his fellow human beings safe. He doesn’t just tear down the old way of doing things, but suggests that there might be a genuine alternative, a better way of doing things. In Sisko’s words, he reminds them “how to care”.

Maybe there’s a lesson there. Or maybe not. Who knows? It’s just a TV show, right? Right?

Next time, no politics (thank Q) as Trek time travel gets a bit of the It’s a Wonderful Life treatment, with “Yesteryear” from The Animated Series, and “Tapestry” from The Next Generation.

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