Best episode ever? Very close, and certainly among the very top. The script is tight, imaginative, funny, complex, and manages to work itself into a genuinely tragic conclusion. The performances are superb all around, including Shatner at his absolute best, Nimoy as dry/funny/dire as ever, Kelley displaying the widest range (from jovial to psycopathic to recuperative to disbelieving to agonized to numb), and Collins managing to make Edith more than just the girl-of-the-week. Pevney and Finnerman do beautiful work while staying out of the way. Steiner turns in a beautiful mini-score which is among the most subtle and satisfying Trek scores ever. There is so much to laud here -- but you already know that. So many people list this as their favorite episode that it long ago won the de facto label, "best-in-show."
While it's certainly great, I think it was bested (by "Conscience of the King" and possibly a couple of others) for a number of reasons. But here, in some greater detail, is the case for best-ever.
Like all of the great episodes, it comes down to the script -- the one thing about the episode which has been the subject of controversy for decades (see sidebar). In short, the creative team took a wonderful script from Ellison and converted it into an even more wonderful Star Trek episode. In its original form it may have worked for some anthology show or even a feature film (non-Trek), but never could have worked for the episodic Trek. So Roddenberry, Coon, and Fontana collaborated to massage (Ellison would say "massacre") the darn thing into something...well...usable. They did so by tightening all of the loose ends, streamlining all of the storytelling, and honing the dramatic moments to a very fine point. In the process, a great deal of subtlety was lost, to be sure, but the result contains characters we recognize in a much sharper telling of exactly the same imaginative story. The first draft was sweeping and cinematic, but it also wasted a great amount of time expounding on character backstory and relationships which, by the time this aired, were well-established. The creative team pared down the scope to save oodles of money (despite Ellison's protestations that the whole thing would cost "a nickle" to shoot) and rallied around the central character crisis: Kirk falls for Edith. Edith must die to save the universe. What will Kirk do?
A Few Words About the First Draft
For decades now, Harlan Ellison has had to defend his original script against lies told repeatedly by Roddenberry. He has written books (well, the same book twice) about it, and there is little doubt who is in the right. Roddenberry dishonored Ellison over and over. The record has now been set straight.
Setting that aside, just how good is the first draft script? And more importantly, would it have made a better Trek episode than Roddenberry's shooting script? The answer, I'm afraid, is no -- not by a long shot. Not only would it not have been better, it would have been substantially worse. It may very well be a great stand-alone script (this is debatable), but it is not Trek. And that is the major problem.
Ellison was writing very early in Trek history, before there was very much reference material to draw on. He had to draw on what he knew from other scripts, the writer's guide, and what he could get from the actors and creative team. Clearly, he either did not get enough good information, did not do his homework, or thought he could improve on the characters and tone of the series and consciously decided to go his own direction. It's almost as if he's writing another pilot episode.
Thus, the Kirk and Spock characters of his draft bear little resemblance to those we have come to know. His Kirk is something of a sap, who all too readily passes up the chance to save his ship for some sort of weak "happiness" in the past. If there is one thing we know about Kirk, it's that he will do anything to save his ship (he says it repeatedly throughout the series). He will do even more to save the universe. He will sacrifice anything, and find whatever strength is necessary within himself. This is a concept central to the character.
Again, however, Ellison must be forgiven because in the early first season, this trait was still being developed. In fact, the revisions wrought on this story would be central in establishing that element of Kirk's character once and for all. In other words, Coon, Fontana and Roddenberry modified Harlan's vision in order to do something very important for the series. They gave Kirk the most unforgettable moment his character (and the series) would ever have, a moment which would shade how the character was written and acted by Shatner through the remainder of the Enterprise's voyages. They owe Harlan a great debt of gratitude for making it possible, while he owes them a great debt of gratitude for using his vehicle for such a noble purpose. (I doubt that either side actually saw it that way. Such is the nature of interpersonal relationships.)
The first draft Spock, meanwhile, also seems utterly unfamiliar. By the time this episode was made, much had been settled and explained about Spock, and much of what Ellison tried to do in his script was simply no longer necessary -- redundant even. Ellison's Spock is the same one seen in "The Cage" and, to a lesser extent, "Where No Man." It simply could not have been used as written. Nimoy would have protested -- rightly and loudly (his essay in Ellison's book is notably brief and muted in tone).
Likewise, the relationship between the two characters, so carefully established in "The Menagerie" and "Court Martial," is not present here. In its place is a series of "getting to know you" moments which might have been appropriate as late as the third or fourth episode of the series, but they are dreadfully out of place here.
Ellison's language is consistently elegant (though his directions to the director are a bit over the top), but his vision seriously disregards the entire budgeting process. Much of his excess could simply have been cut with little damage, and this alone was not sufficient reason to rewrite the whole thing. It merely made for a very safe explanation to the writer, thus avoiding the need to tell him that he got the characters and overall tone wrong (a very hard thing to say, for sure). The "Guardians of Forever" as described in the script would have simply cost a fortune -- whether done as actors with prosthetics, animations, optical effects, or some combination of all of these. The portal itself might have occupied one of the effects houses for months. All of this simply had to go. Frankly, the replacement elements in the final script are much more efficient. They get us into the story faster and with less expense. That's what TV writing is all about.
Beyond these things, there is a fantasy element to the first draft script which, despite being dynamite sci-fi, does not embrace the heart of Trek. This is evidenced by the punitive final scene in which Beckwith, the rogue crewmember who played McCoy's role of instigator in the first draft, is punished by having to live out eternity at the center of a supernova. There is no denying that this is an interesting idea, but Trek was always about rehabilitation rather than punishment. If Beckwith did somehow manage to avoid detection of his drug habit (unlikely in the first place), and did plunge the crew into this terrible mess (a random plot device improved by handing it to McCoy, a character we know and care about), Kirk would have handed him over to Bones for assessment and treatment. Alternately, if he did manage to escape again back into the time portal, it should have been to a time where he did no damage and was now long dead. These are more Trek than what Ellison wrote.
The important point is that Ellison was writing in a vacuum (whether by circumstance, neglect or choice is not known). He created a beautiful story filled with characters and situations incompatible with the burgeoning universe envisioned and in the process of being created by Roddenberry et al. Fontana's essay in Ellison's book makes clear that no disrespect was intended by the rewrites, but that they were necessary simply to bring the script into line with what the creative team was trying to create in the series. Ellison could not have known what that was -- perhaps even they didn't know. One could actually argue that the episode as filmed is a fan favorite because it settles a few things about the characters and universe once and for all.
The creative team saw an opportunity to take a beautiful story and tailor it for the world they were creating. They also saw a backdoor way to help them in the creation. Only they (Coon, Fontana, Roddenberry) could do that, because only they knew (or could work out) what that was. The rewrites on this script were an excercise in making Trek into what it ultimately became. That it was done by carefully (and very respectfully) editing and amplifying such beautiful source material is a great tribute to Ellison that, I fear, he may never recognize.
Having seen only the pilot episodes when he started writing, Ellison picked up on the conversation between Pike and Boyce in the captain's cabin, and the other underlying assumptions scattered throughout "The Cage" -- that starship captains tire, get disillusioned, consider retiring, are tempted by other possibilities, etc. Thus, it made sense to him that Kirk, when presented with a shot at true love, might just consider chucking it all and staying with Edith. This then set up a wonderful tension into which Spock's logic could step -- with a phaser, no less.
But Ellison apparently didn't watch all the way to the conclusion of "The Cage," in which Pike resists all the temptations out of a sense of duty, and a very real need for the adventure and tension provided by his difficult career. Kirk, built in the same mold as Pike, could not plausibly give up everything to stay in an altered timeline which effectively eliminated the entire life he had known.
Ellison's premise, though quite implausible for Trek, was about 15 years ahead of its time. The flawed characters he imagined would have been quite rife with story possibilities and could have taken Trek in a completely different direction. But the simple utopia Roddenberry imagined was already at the heart of the show by the time this episode was filmed. Ellison had every right to disagree with Roddenberry, of course, but he also should have realized that he was bound by the show's established tone. We could argue long and hard about whose vision was more interesting (Ridley Scott would probably get the last word), but the fact is that Roddenberry already had 27 hours in the can which established the world as he saw it. It was not within Ellison's prerogative to try to change it in one episode.
Thus, his lower deck crewmembers and alternate Kirk and Spock, though marginally interesting, just plain don't fit the format. Giving the role of initiator to McCoy did three things besides preserving the utopia: offered more screen time for a beloved character and actor just coming into their own, kept the focus on the people we know and care about, and got us to the meat of the story much faster. After all, this episode was never going to be about illegal drugs on a starship. It was always -- in every one of Ellison's drafts -- about the emotional ramifications of changes in the timeline. His lower deck story was a red herring.
What Roddenberry and crew saw was an opportunity to fill in a whole bunch of blanks about their main characters. So they distilled Ellison's original into something much more potent. Where Ellison waxed eloquently about the Guardian and its planet, Fontana and friends realized that the Guardian was just another device, not the story. A flashing oval rock would do just fine (Fontana might not agree, at least according to her essay in Ellison's book). While Ellison wove tingly subplots about fallen crewmembers and Verdun survivors, the creative team blew off the fluff and stuck to the more meaty stuff about our heroes. Ellison not only wanted to spend a lot of money, he wanted to spend it in all the wrong places. The shooting script fixed that quite succinctly.
It becomes a tour-de-force for various pairs of characters. Kirk and Spock try to make their way in an unfamiliar world, dealing with tensions that inevitably arise between them. Kirk and Edith explore each other's compatible but very different sensibilities. McCoy and Edith do a marvelous patient/care-giver dance in a couple of brief but brilliant scenes. Humor ripples through the script, and much of it is genuinely character-driven. The climax is astounding, changing characters and relationships as it fixes up the universe. It is certainly the most memorable moment in all of Trek.
That's the argument FOR. Here are some mitigating factors which argue AGAINST the best-ever label.
The shooting script is not without flaws. At least some of the humor is blatantly derivative. Spock is again "insulted" by a reference to his humanity (a joke which had already been used twice before), has a weakly comical neck pinch (recalling "There is a multi-legged creature..."), and once again has his ears as the subject of discussion (countless previous times already) and disguise (at least once before).
Because the story is so expansive, some of it had to be severely condensed. This happens noticeably in the segment with the tools, combination lock, and Edith's confrontation. But it also hampers the Kirk-Edith romance, which has almost all of its depth siphoned away by being condensed into three very short scenes (one of which admittedly contains the beautifully memorable line about "Let me help"). Ellison's original disposed with much of the "awkward infatuation" stage of the relationship, and jumped in at "comfortable familiarity" escalating to the exchange of I-love-yous. This allowed some depth to the interaction between the characters, which in turn lent a greater sense of gravitas to her need to die.
In the finished episode as a whole, substantially more time is spent on Kirk and Spock trying to solve their problem than on Kirk falling for Edith. While this makes sense from a series standpoint, the ending might have been that much more effective if one Kirk-Spock scene had been dropped in favor of one more Kirk-Edith scene. In some ways, this episode might have been better as a two-parter.
Edith is actually drained of much of her personality by the rewrite. She is essentially reduced to a type (do-good mission worker), and only Joan Collins's charisma can redeem the character. She cannot, however, avoid all of the cheesiest and preachiest moments. Keeler's mystical after-dinner speech about the future (interjected by Roddenberry, no doubt) is positively cringe-inducing. It's utterly unnecessary, written in broad strokes (to make sure there's no one who doesn't get it), and its presence highlights a serious problem in both versions of the script. Trek always aspired to be about Something Important, but this episode fails in that regard. Not that love is unimportant, but it falls short of the "say something" instruction given to all Trek writers. Edith's speech is crammed in as an attempt to further Roddenberry's utopian vision, and give the story a little message. But that attempt fails, and the episode would have been better without it.
On screen, there is actually very little chemistry between Shatner and Collins. Pevney does a wonderful job of disguising this fact, and inserts the (somewhat self-conscious) hand-holding shot in an effort to stoke the relationship a bit. It works, although it must be said that Edith's "love" for Kirk is much more believable when she speaks of it to McCoy, with Shatner nowhere in sight. Their almost-kisses are especially puzzling: Twice they get close but we cut away just before it happens. Despite his fine performance, Shatner spends a fair amount of time mugging for the camera like a matinee idol. The open-necked shirt certainly played a role in that, I suppose.
The climactic moment is especially interesting to study. It derives all of its emotional energy from Kirk's actions and reactions -- amplified by McCoy -- and none from the death of the guest star. In fact, once the truck hits her, we never see her again. The character, having been relieved of most of its interesting qualities already, is reduced to a simple device. The audience's emotional response is channeled toward Kirk and away from Edith.
Again, this is entirely appropriate for a series episode, but it misses an opportunity. If the audience loved Edith as much as Kirk is alleged to, we might get a double-dose of tragedy. As it is, the moment actually completes the gutting of the Keeler character which has taken place in the rewrites.
It sounds manipulative, but the entire sequence is extremely manipulative -- from Spock and McCoy's near-miss meeting in the kitchen moments earlier, to Kirk and Edith's near-miss with a car as they cross the street, to Edith's off-hand mention of McCoy, to Kirk's startled reaction and instructions to Edith, to his shout to Spock, to Spock's and McCoy's simultaneous appearance, to the group hug (complete with flailing limbs and awkward handshakes -- is this a hug or handshake moment for a Vulcan?), to Edith's zombie-like entrance into traffic, to the scream and impact, to McCoy's lunge and Kirk's interruption, to the rushing onlookers, to Shatner's knuckle to mouth and Spock's dry summation. In fact, this is movie manipulation at its very best. Everything is perfectly synchronized -- including emotions -- and fits together like a beautiful puzzle.
The emotional manipulation is especially effective, as Pevney severely condenses the amount of time between the elation of the reunion -- perhaps the most joyous moment in the original series -- and the anger/sorrow/confusion of the accident. Ellison's original has no similar moment, which may have inspired Pevney's famous comment about Ellison's lack of dramatic sense. In fact, Ellison resorted to rather routine slow motion escalation of the crisis, and followed it with a lengthy denoument which seriously undercuts the emotional impact. The shooting script is a marked improvement, as is Pevney and editor Ballas's sense of timing.
There is also one shockingly bad optical effect: Kirk looks up to the sky and the camera follows his gaze upward. The sky apparently starts just above Kirk's head, then as it reaches the top, the stars shift to a completely different field. It's unusual because bad opticals like this are relatively rare in the first season.
As mentioned above, Roddenberry always hoped Trek episodes would be about Something Important. I don't think this episode rises to that challenge, but there are some interesting things implied. In the alternate timeline, peace as a strategy results in the doom of the planet. By killing the peace movement before it can be born, war thrives earlier -- and presumably stronger -- counter-intuitively resulting in the way of life which could allow the birth of space travel and development of the peaceful 23rd century utopia Roddenberry envisions. It's easy to see a parallel with the war in progress as the episode was created. Did Roddenberry quietly disapprove of the war protests? Or did he merely lament the fact that peace as a strategy rarely succeeds as well as war? Or is he merely acknowledging, as Kirk suggests, that timing is everything?
There is no clear answer, and one is probably not necessary. The real questions of this episode are personal. Which is more important: love or history? self or universe? personal satisfaction or duty? the one or the many? The answer may seem obvious, but finding a definitive way to state that answer had eluded the creative team up until this point. This episode provides the perfect vehicle, with a decidedly sci-fi edge and some genuine elegance.
Rating: Very Top (1)