It makes sense that one of the first things Star Trek Phase II would attempt would be a revisit of a major Original Series story, theme or motif. In fact, it makes even more sense here than it did in the context of Star Trek: The Animated Series: That show was pegged as more or less a continuation of the Original Series, tweaking and revising it where necessary. It also only came five or six years after “Turnabout Intruder” fist aired, whereas “In Thy Image” came a decade afterwards and into a very different cultural landscape. The world, not to mention Star Trek itself, has changed, and Star Trek Phase II has to update itself accordingly.
It also, though I hate to admit it, makes sense that the first such story, and the first regular episode to air after the pilot, would be a revisit of “The City on the Edge of Forever”. Much as I despise it, it’s without question the most popular and iconic episode of the Original Series and usually considered the very best, or at least it is if you’re pretentious and joyless enough to turn your nose up at “The Trouble with Tribbles”. You’d want to kick off your new show with something that reminds people of the old show’s highlights, while also demonstrating that you’re now capable of improving on them. So, doing an episode inspired by and very much like “The City on the Edge of Forever” is eminently logical.
The thing about “Tomorrow and the Stars” though, is that it’s not *like* “The City on the Edge of Forever”, it *is* “The City on the Edge of Forever”. In that episode, a dangerous ailment plagues one of the crew leading to an accidental time travel incident where Kirk ends up in mid-20th century Earth, where he falls in love with a woman who turns out to be involved in a major world event that cannot be altered for fear of changing history, so Kirk must let her die to preserve the timeline. In this episode…a dangerous ailment plagues one of the crew leading to an accidental time travel incident where Kirk ends up in mid-20th century Earth, where he falls in love with a woman who turns out to be involved in a major world event that cannot be altered for fear of changing history, so Kirk must let her die to preserve the timeline…
Oh sure, the details are fudged around with a bit: In “City…” Kirk ends up in the 1930s and his paramour is a social worker who will bring about the downfall of civilization with her radical and dangerous idea that maybe bombing the shit out of each other isn’t the best approach to world politics, while in “Tomorrow…” he ends up in the 1940s (and, of interest to me and this blog, Hawai’i) and his lady friend happens to have the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Namely, Pearl Harbour on December 6, 1941 Also, Kirk is translucent for reasons that are never really explained and which serve no purpose to the story. But in every other respect, this is the exact same goddamn story.
This is not to say, however, that “Tomorrow and the Stars” does not manage to actually improve on “The City on the Edge of Forever”-It does, and the changes it makes are noticeable and important enough that this is without question the better version of the story. On just a structural level, “Tomorrow…” blows “City…” out of the water: The older episode relied upon an incredibly convoluted and implausible series of mishaps involving the ship suddenly getting the chills, McCoy accidentally overdosing and beaming down to a random planet where the crew randomly encounter the Guardian of Forever who happens to be in charge of time and happens to be looking at 20th century Earth at the moment. This one is far more elegant and streamlined: It basically amounts to Kirk needing to beam down to Earth and, thanks to taking damage from a recent skirmish, the transporter’s circuits got fried and it works like a time machine now. It doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense and certainly the Guardian of Forever is a far more intriguing concept, but it does what it needs to do and gets the job done.
Also different this time is we get a now-familiar Star Trek A/B plot structure. “The City on the Edge of Forever” was one of the only times the Original Series really played the notion of Kirk as the heroic leading man straight and unironic: The vast majority of the episode is devoted to him and his inner crisis, while Spock muddles about in the background and McCoy drops out of the story for the middle two acts. Meanwhile, everyone else just disappears completely, being left in temporal limbo twiddling their thumbs outside the Guardian of Forever while the fate of the universe is at stake. “Tomorrow and the Stars”, however, splits its time evenly between Ghost!Kirk and his girlfriend (this time named Elsa Kelly) and the Enterprise crew trying to figure out what happened. These scenes are really interesting, as they give our first real indication of how the crew’s dynamic is different now.
Primarily, this part of the episode is a familiar “Four Musketeers” problem-solving story, but this time the players are Decker, Xon, McCoy and Scotty. Decker is far more hands-on and far more of a team player than Kirk ever was on the Original Series, working closely with Xon and Scotty in all the technical stuff and even helping them formulate the theory that eventually gets Kirk back. Were this an Original Series episode, that would have been all on Spock and Scotty while Kirk went and put on some kind of extravagant and flamboyant distraction. McCoy is in some ways the odd person out here, but there’s a bit of interesting stuff to do with him too: He naturally blows up at Xon and while there are shades of the old Spock/McCoy animosity, here the scene wants to play out a bit differently, as if the implication is that McCoy distrusts Xon just as much for his youth and inexperience as he does for his Vulcan blood, if not more so (though McCoy would never admit this, of course).
Ilia is a bit undeserved by this episode (so, actually, are Chapel, Rand, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, but that’s sadly par for the course by now and Ilia’s a new character, so we might have hoped to see some more of her), or at least for the majority of it, because she ends up playing a very important part in the denouement. As Kirk sits alone in his quarters inconsolable at yet another doomed love affair, Ilia comes in to comfort him and help him move on. It reminds me of nothing else except the scene with Spock at the end of “Requiem for Methuselah” where Spock helps Kirk forget Rayna, but this scene is considerably more effective for the simple fact it’s more mature. In “Requiem…” we’re of course moved by Spock’s gesture, but the fact remains his solution was ultimately to make Kirk forget everything: In short, a diegetic reset button that restores the status quo and once again dodges any attempt at proper character development. We get the emotional voyeurism without actually allowing our characters to deal with, learn from or move beyond their pain, and those are very Star Trek themes. And that’s what this scene with Ilia is about: It’s recognising and reaffirming that these *are* in fact important and healthy things. Ilia is showing Kirk that working through pain is a very human thing to do, and is another way for people to grow and learn.
(That’s not to say “Tomorrow and the Stars” doesn’t have its own share of problems: The reason given for why Kirk needs to return to Earth is to seek special treatment for a disease he and Chekov contracted, but as soon as the time travel shenanigans start that plot thread is swiftly abandoned and is never addressed again after that. Also, I still cannot figure out for the life of me what the purpose of turning Kirk translucent was-It just sort of happens and there doesn’t seem to be any underlying symbolism behind it. There’s also a really dodgy scene where Uhura picks up old-style radio communications in a strange and indecipherable language, even the Universal Translator is stumped and nobody on the bridge can figure it out until Sulu pops up and recognises the language as that most archaic and mystical of tongues: Japanese…)
The most obvious improvement “Tomorrow and the Stars” makes over “The City on the Edge of Forever”, however, is in the status of the doomed woman Kirk falls for: The fundamental problem with “The City on the Edge of Forever” is that any position that holds letting forward-thinking class warriors like Edith Keeler die because of the emasculating effects of their pacifist ideology is unequivocally morally and ethically indefensible and completely at odds with Star Trek’s fundamental values. In fact, despite of how beloved this story still remains, even Star Trek’s own luminaries have raised concerns with it, such as Mike W. Barr, who completely inverted “City..” and turned its ugly reactionary dialog against it in “The Final Voyage”. In “Tomorrow and the Stars”, it’s not Elsa Kelly who’s vital to history, it’s the event she lived through, and the debate isn’t over saving her, it’s about using Kirk’s future knowledge to stop the Pearl Harbour attack and potentially save Elsa and change the way her life plays out (her fate at the end of the episode remains uncertain).
(Elsa is also married, so there’s that, but I don’t think this fact had much of a purpose other than attempting to make the episode seem “edgier” and more “adult”. Her husband, though supposedly a serviceman, is barely in it and he never interacts with Kirk, though the fact the Admiral was translucent at the time may explain why. I, uh, keep coming back to that.)
So, freed of its predecessor’s crippling ethical issues, “Tomorrow and the Stars” becomes a far better showcase for the sci-fi tragedy it’s trying to tell, but at the same time a far more straightforward and simplistic one. The basic conflict boils down to the age-old changing history query, which rather seems like a philosophical dilemma that’s loaded itself up with so many premises and qualifiers it becomes too self-dependent to hold water. I mean, from a moral standpoint there’s no way to argue against doing the best you can in whatever situation you find yourself in and to take a stand against evil wherever, and whenever, you see it and it’s in your power to do something about it.
Secondly, from a pragmatic standpoint it’s not even worth raising this question because Western-style time travel does not currently exist and isn’t likely to in the near future, and so long as Star Trek wants to maintain a chronology that is at least superficially comparable with one from the real world, there’s no actual way to prevent historical events within the memories of the writers from happening in the first place because that would immediately undermine the show’s narrative logic. In other words, obviously if you ever get the chance to go back in time and stop a massive world catastrophe that had a net negative effect on the world from happening you should absolutely take advantage of it, but because we *can’t* do those things and Star Trek had to extradiegetically acknowledge this, stories of this type are ultimately going to end up as particularly pointless shaggy dog stories. History can’t change, even the bad parts, so we have to come up with a bunch of convoluted technobabble reasons for why it can’t.
This episode is not as pointless as I was afraid it was going to be from the summary. It manages to improve upon one of the most beloved episodes of the Original Series by making it actually watchable, which is a major plus right from the start. This, combined with quite a few really intriguing character moments make “Tomorrow and the Stars” an excellent and tantalizing hint at any number of directions Star Trek Phase II could go that pull it out of the shadow of its precursor and show that the Star Trek myth continues to evolve. But it’s not a perfect episode either: There are a fair few really cringeworthy moments and even more that simply refuse to make any sense. We haven’t quite topped (or even equaled) the batting average struck by Star Trek: The Animated Series so far, but there are certainly worse places to be in than this.