For this project, I will be engaging with an episode from the original series of Star Trek. The episode in question is the twenty-eighth episode of the first season, entitled “The City of the Edge of Forever.” This episode is widely critically acclaimed and considered by many to be the strongest episode of the original series. I believe it’s themes of fate and the creation of utopia can be translated and adapted into a modern interactive storytelling format into a user controlled narrative that will retain much of the episode’s original messaging while further exploring themes of futility and the ambiguous nature of hope.
In this episode of the original series, Dr. McCoy, under the unintentionally consumed influence of a dangerous mind altering drug, enters a time portal and finds himself in 1930’s New York City. While lost in the past, he creates a deviation in the current timeline that causes the Enterprise and all of its crew to no longer exist. Kirk and Spock, somehow immune to this alteration of their present, follow Dr. McCoy back in time to reverse this new course of events. Once they arrive in the past, they encounter a mission worker named Edith Keeler, who provides them with clothes and jobs. Spock begins to work on discovering what McCoy did that altered the timeline, while Kirk begins to spend more time with Edit Keeler, leading to him falling in love with her. Unfortunately, Spock discovers that the change in the timeline is due to McCoy saving Edith’s life. If Edith survives, she goes on to found a pacifist movement at the onset of World War II, which delays the United States from entering the war and leads to Nazi Germany’s victory. Kirk confesses to Spock that he has fallen in love with Edith, and Spock tells him that in order to restore the timeline and return the world to what it was before, Edith must die.
Spock and Kirk discover that Edith has previously stumbled upon a delirious McCoy and has been nursing him back to health. The two members of the Enterprise reunite with McCoy. Seeing them across the street, Edith crosses the road to join them, inadvertently stepping into the path of a fast moving truck. Kirk moves to save her, but an exclamation from Spock reminds him of their mission. Kirk holds McCoy back from saving Edith, and she is struck by the truck and killed. The timeline restored, the three travel forward in time to their time period, finding the Enterprise and the universe around it restored to what it once was. Kirk, devastated, returns to the ship to keep forging ahead as best as he can (The City of the Edge of Forever, CBS Entertainment).
This episode engages with several different time periods, both real and imagined. The first is the hypothetical future that the majority of Star Trek takes place in: a utopian vision of unity between nations and peace across the galaxy. The second time period is the 1930’s era that McCoy, Kirk, and Spock find themselves in, during which the majority of the episode takes place. The third is the dawning of World War II; a time period that we do not witness within the episode, but whose fluctuating existence carries immense consequences for the future. The final time period to keep in mind while analyzing this episode is the one in which this episode originally aired. The episode was first seen on television in 1967, roughly twenty years after the end of World War II. This complex episode looks both forwards and backwards to examine how our future is shaped.
During the time when the episode was released, America’s participation in WWII and the economic and social changes that sprung from the nation’s involvement were viewed in a distinctly positive light. WWII provided a clear narrative of good guys and bad guys, and the triumph of virtue over evil. Moreover, the war kick-started the American economy which had been devastated by the Great Depression, as well as solidifying the United States’ position globally as a strong world power. Even though it would be unsavory to declare that the war was a good thing, America reaped the rewards of this international conflict without suffering incursions on its home territory, other than the military attack on Pearl Harbor (Wynn, Neil A.). WWII stood in stark contrast to the conflict the United States found itself embroiled in during the 1960’s. The United States and the communist Soviet Union found themselves enmeshed in a Cold War, a stand off between two nations who did not engage in direct military action with each other, but rather played out their aggression through intervening in the conflicts and struggles of less developed nations as those nations attempted to establish new modes of government (Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia). One of the sites of this struggle was the country of Vietnam, where the North and South regions of the nation struggled to gain control over the entirety of the region and assert their chosen mode of government, a fight between communism and a nominal democratic republic. The conflict escalated in the years following WWII, leading to indirect US involvement that quickly gave way to on the ground military action. In 1965, President Johnson sent troops to Vietnam, embroiling the United States in a war that the United State had no real part in and beginning what is seen as one of the nation’s greatest failures, both militarily and politically (History.com Editors). The interplay between the United States and the Soviet Union, and how this friction manifested itself through the Vietnam War, is deeply complex and cannot be covered in its entirety in this project proposal. Suffice to say, at the time this episode of Star Trek aired, the US was embroiled in a conflict that stood in stark contrast to the black and white morality of World War II. In focusing on the positive consequences of that war and the neccesary defeat of Nazi Germany, Star Trek established the United States as a force for good in the world, a powerful nation who’s intervention leads to positive change.
In envisioning a new, alternate version of this episode, I turn to the great issue currently facing our world:the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic, which exploded globally in March 2020, has altered every facet of life on this planet for virtually every nation. But in opposition to WWII, there’s no battle to be fought, no winners and losers. The heroes and villains are less clear. Some may say the elected leadership who have guided the United States and other countries are the heroes because of their commitment to keeping the world safe. But others may label them as the villains due to their inaction and the contradicting information and protocols they espouse. Individuals can be seen as both the good guys and the bad guys on a micro scale, with those who wear masks and receive the vaccine seeing themselves as unambiguously virtuous, despite other choices they might be making. We are all losers in this pandemic, and there is no battle to be won that will conclude this disaster.
In my reimagining of this episode, after an incident similar to that of McCoy’s delirious journey to the past, the crew members of a spaceship much like the Enterprise travel back in time to try and prevent the pandemic from occurring, as they live in a future where it did not happen. However, throughout the course of the narrative, the characters realize they have in fact entered an alternate universe, separate and distinct from their own. They come to understand that they cannot prevent the pandemic in this universe; there is no distinct moment that this disaster hinges on. No matter what they attempt, the virus will sweep across the world and forever alter life and existence. Beaten and defeated, the characters return to their own time and their own universe, leaving the alternate dimension beset by the virus to its fate, whatever that may be.
My version reflects the realism, bordering on cynicism, that has become part of our culture. This realism is partially in reaction to the dashed revolutionary hopes of the time during which this episode originally aired, as well as a greater perspective on the nature of world events and the United States’ involvement in those events. In my version, the development of the pandemic is too complex to hinge on a single moment, in contrast to the binary outlook to the future taken by the episode. The multiplicity of factors in the world do not allow for a diversion of the course of history. The characters eventually leave this alternate universe to its devastating fate, before retreating to the safety of their own universe where the pandemic was always an impossibility. I am attempting to disavow the notion that any one individual can shape the course of history with a single action; rather it is how we respond and act in tandem to each other that guides the future. The pandemic could not have been prevented; the only choice is what to do in the aftermath. One of the talking points of this pandemic is what each person can do to stay safe and keep others safe. While it is incredibly important to be cautious and wary as we exercise our individual responsibility, the true power to stem the tide of the pandemic can only come from organized, institutional effort from those who can make decisions for the entirety of nations. Much like climate change, it is a prevalent falsehood perpetuated by those in power that the action of any one individual holds sway over the course of this pandemic.
In analyzing the original episode and in my creation of a new imagining of its concepts, I turn to Freedman’s work, specifically his articulation of sci-fi as an opposite reflection of historical fiction, as well as his conceptualization of sci-fi works as utopian fiction. The original episode of Star Trek is a unique piece of science fiction media that is also literally a work of historical fiction. By sending the crew members of the Enterprise back in time, the series is engaging with the genre of historical fiction. Freedman claims that “much SF, especially of the more conformist sort, is a type of historical fiction in disguise (Freedman, 187).” Although Star Trek is a revolutionary show in many ways, from its depiction of members of many nations working together to its message of exploration without alteration of native populations, it still holds up a message of American supremacy. In the show’s reimagining of this historical moment, it requires the status quo of the past to be maintained in order to establish the order of the future. The moment of Edith’s death is a fixed point from which there can be no deviation in order to achieve the show’s momentous ideals. Much like historical fiction, this episode of Star Trek deals with defined points in history. Historical fiction cannot deviate from factual events without becoming a separate genre. Despite the show’s bold exploration of imagined futures, it requires the maintenance of the conception of America’s “good guy” role in WWII in order to create the utopian world of the main timeline of the show.
In terms of utopias, my reimagining of this episode plays with the idea that a better world is possible. In presenting a parallel universe free of Covid-19, my version postulates that a different universe might perhaps exist somewhere. But by making the fate of our world stuck in the inevitable fall to the virus, I bring a bleaker look to the possibility of change than that of the episode. These two views can be held as simultaneously possible; a better world is achievable, but not for us. Freedman speaks to this, saying “For every work of SF is a utopia, a text whose initial act (however severely the act may ultimately become compromised) is to refuse the status quo in favor of a social alternative which is not ours but which, for better or for worse, could, at least in principle, become ours (Freedman, 188).” Star Trek speaks directly to this principle in its portrayal of a peaceful society devoted to the betterment of the lives of its inhabitants as well as creatures yet discovered. My version of this episode engages with that idea by creating a future free from Covid-19, but adds a grimness not found in Star Trek by postulating that the virus was inevitable in our world. However, my imagined version also has an element of hope. Because the crew of the parallel universe leaves our world to its fate, we never learn how our universe progresses forward. While it is possible that our world succumbs to the combined forces of covid, climate change, and capitalism, we can still hope and strive for a better future, even though our world has been forever altered by these factors. However, the forces in this world themselves must be the authors of it. Past events cannot be retroactively altered through adventurers who have come to meddle in the past; we can only do our best to create a better future for all of humanity.
In building this prototype, there are two areas I will focus on: the text driven narrative arc and choices made by the users, and the visual presentation of the story. The building blocks of these elements involve mapping out the various pathways a user can take with the story, and identifying what type of images should accompany the pages displaying each of these choices. The final product of this project would involve creating a definitive script, as well as finding or creating the accompanying images. These elements would then be formatted in a user driven interactive portal, where the participant would be able to select various options that would lead them down the different paths of the story, although all the options would inevitably end in the same place.
To imagine the interactive nature of the prototype, I will create a series of slides with stand-in text and images to mock up the way a fully coded version of this project would operate. Users will be able to manually navigate through the options, led by such prompts as “if you save the vial from being shattered, go to slide sixteen.” This will give the user the ability to to visualize how a fully designed version of this project would operate without the arduous coding and design work involved. I will find non-copyrighted images through various online archives to stand in for the images used in the final product. The final images would all be specific to the characters and the world created by the story, while the images for the prototype will simply be narrative place holders.
The text I will create for the prototype will be the element closest to that found in the final version of the product, due to the need to clearly guide the user through. However, that text should be seen as a draft, liable to changes to better serve the narrative and the purpose of the interface. Many points will be represented with descriptions rather than dialogue, creating a general arc and sub arcs rather than specific plot points. Characters will be loosely sketched out, without the defining traits and backstories that would be found in the final version. All of these elements should combine to create both a visual and narrative mock up of the final product without needing to create a truly seamless interactive storytelling experience.
“The City on the Edge of Forever.” Star Trek, CBS Entertainment, 2 Mar. 2011, intl.startrek.com/database_article/city-on-the-edge-of-forever-the.
Wynn, Neil A. “The ‘Good War’: The Second World War and Postwar American Society.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 31, no. 3, 1996, pp. 463–82. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.1177/002200949603100302.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Cold War”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Mar. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/event/Cold-War. Accessed 6 March 2022.
History.com Editors. “Vietnam War.” HISTORY, 25 Oct. 2021, www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-history.
Freedman, Carl. “Science Fiction and Critical Theory.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 14, 1987, pp. 180–200. EBSCO, eds-p-ebscohost-com.proxy.library.nyu.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=c5ea290d-90ae-4565-ba34-cb862bacb609%40redis&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmU%3d#db=hus&AN=509461619.