City on the Edge of Forever: Star Trek's Greatest Moment?
Like many sentients in the known universe, I too consider the moral and ethical messages of Edith Keeler to be relevant.
When Star Trek debuted in the mid-Sixties, I was a little kid who used to sneak from my bed and sit on the stairs, peering through the railing to watch. Invariably, my dad would hear me and tell me to go back to my room.
What I didn't know then was that Star Trek would change so much in the world of sci-fi.
Then came Season 1 Episode 28, April 6, 1967—as philosophical as the entire series could get. A quick re-cap:
Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, medical officer of the Enterprise is accidently injected with a full load of a psychosis inducing drug. He flees in a manic state to a planet's surface where he mindlessly jumps through a portal in time and space. Kirk and Spock decide to go after him, because they discover that somehow McCoy has changed the timeline of history.
They all end up in 1930 Earth where they meet Edith Keeler, and optimistic, future-thinking pacifist who runs a soup-kitchen.
Spock and Kirk arrive one week before the paranoid and manic McCoy is to appear. During that time, they learn that the pacifist Edith Keeler will rise in importance and convince the president to stay out of WWII. Germany wins and history is destroyed. In order to fix history, Keeler must die. That is the moral question explored in Harlan Ellison's masterpiece. Keep in mind that Ellison hated the way the script turned out. One important part of which was that he wanted Spock to facilitate Keeler's death because Kirk couldn't overcome his love for her. The battle between Roddenberry and Ellison is a tale of legend. ANYWAY...
The fundamental issue, is "do the ends justify the means." In this case, is it moral to let Edith Keeler die in order to restore the proper historical timeline? And don't ignore the huge implications: The Nazis win and all the evil that they bring to the world is unleashed—murder, genocide, fascism, and the ultimate destruction of the values that we hold dear.
Spock's harsh statement is: Edith Keeler must die. Many of you have heard this used here there and everywhere. It is a metaphor for choosing a foul act for the greater good. (Note: "The Greater Good" was also used in Hot Fuzz from the Cornetto Movies Trilogy. It was the motto of the evil village of murderers led by Timothy Dalton. They preached that what they were doing was for the "greater good.")
But therein lies the crux of the matter, who gets to decide what the greater good is? This episode makes it easy because we all agree that a German victory would destroy everything. Why is that easy? Because Monday morning quarterbacks (looking back at what could have been) make moral questions an afterthought. However, what happens when you don't know the outcome in advance? Then egotistical humans decide what the "greater good" unilaterally—An often crappy solution that leads to outcomes that hurt others. It's a terrible philosophy that forces the opinions of other down the throats of the weak.
What happens in this episode? Kirk, who falls in love with Keeler, must let her die. Somehow McCoy is integral to the whole situation. In the end, in a huge twist, Kirk is forced to not only be passive, but the brilliance of the moral question requires Jim Kirk to be ACTIVE in the death of Keeler. This leap is often missed. Kirk prevents McCoy from saving the woman he loves. He grabs Dr. McCoy and physically restrains him. Bones exclaims: "I could have saved her." The pain on Kirk's face is apparent. Spock standing nearby, with the body of Edith Keeler laying in the street, dead, after being hit by a truck—Spock tells McCoy, "He knows, doctor." The last five minutes of this show encapsulate the huge moral dilemma.
What's the lesson? In my opinion, the difference between passive and active exercise of moral authority. I'm sure you can figure out a multitude of applications in our crazy Covid era. The current generation is bombarded with "greater good" questions.
One thing that is often overlooked and often minimized is sci-fi's ability to grapple with these kinds of questions. That is a huge error. In many ways, the freedom to imagine allows sci-fi authors to delve into ethical questions deeply—as much as any mainstream fiction, and occasionally more.
I would love to here your thoughts on this topic. Click here to comment.