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In the penultimate episode of the first season (based on a treatment by Harlan Ellison), the crew of the Enterprise finds itself exploring a "temporal disturbance" near an unknown planet. Electromagnetic interference causes the ship's computer to explode, injuring Sulu. McCoy runs to prepare an injection of adrenaline for him, but turbulence causes him to accidentally inject himself and become Brainwashed and Crazy. McCoy escapes the bridge and beams down to the planet.
Following him, the landing party discovers a city of ancient ruins that appears to be uninhabited and empty except for a mysterious glowing green archway, which McCoy runs through and disappears. The crew notices the archway, which appears to be sentient and exhibits strange telepathic abilities, acts as a viewscreen displaying various scenes from American history. The archway, which calls itself the Guardian of Forever, explains that it is a portal to any place and period in history.
Upon losing contact with the Enterprise, the crew realize that McCoy has somehow altered the course of history since entering the portal. In order to return to their ship and restore the original timeline, they must follow him and prevent him from causing any more damage. Steeling themselves to find the correct moment in history, Kirk and Spock jump through the portal and arrive in New York City during The Great Depression, where the pair must disguise themselves while they search for McCoy. Unfortunately, their Starfleet uniforms (and Spock's Vulcan ears) attract unwanted attention. When the pair attempt to steal clothes, they are chased by the police and end up hiding in the basement of a homeless shelter run by the kind, idealistic and smart social worker Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). Keeler offers to take in Kirk and Spock and find them work, although she is slightly suspicious of their military demeanour.
While Kirk and Spock do menial jobs, Spock is able to construct a rudimentary computer using electronic parts he has assembled. Kirk and Edith begin to fall in love. While Spock is scanning new stories from their time period, he discovers a terrible truth: On the night he entered the portal and arrived on Earth, McCoy saved Keeler from dying in an auto accident. Since she did not die as intended, she later became a peace activist and successfully convinced Franklin D Roosevelt to keep America from entering World War II until too late, allowing the Nazis to win and preventing Starfleet from ever existing. Kirk and Spock realize that in order to prevent this from happening, Edith Keeler must die.
Meanwhile, McCoy has been running loose in the city, still affected by the drugs. After an altercation with a homeless man who steals his phaser and shoots himself with it, he is found and taken in by Keeler, who believes he is merely drunk. As he recovers from the drug's effect, he befriends her, unbeknownst to Kirk and Spock.
The following night, Kirk takes Edith on a date to the movies - the night of her accident. An offhand comment by Kirk reveals to Edith that he knows McCoy and has been searching for him. When the pair run into McCoy on the street, Edith rushes into traffic to greet him. Kirk instinctively moves to push her out of the way, but Spock insists he not interfere. When McCoy moves to save her, Kirk restrains him, and Edith is struck by a car and dies, returning history to its original timeline.
McCoy angrily demands to know why Kirk stopped him from saving Edith. Spock assures him that Kirk knew fully what he was doing. With the timeline restored, the three are able to return to the planet through the portal, where the Enterprise has reappeared. Scotty expresses surprise at the short time that's elapsed since they left. The Guardian offers to show the crew more fantastic journeys, but an emotionally shaken Kirk simply states "Let's get the hell out of here" and prepares to have the crew beamed back aboard.
- Always Save the Girl: Played with, since saving Edith would doom the world.
- Animated Adaptation: The TAS episode "Yesteryear" is a sequel to this episode.
- Crowning Moment of Awesome: Considered the best episode from the Original Series ever made. coincidently the TAS sequel episode "Yesteryear" is considered the best animated episode and the only one Roddenberry considered making canon.
- Crowning Moment of Funny: Kirk's attempt to explain Spock's ears to a patrolman.
Spock: Perhaps the unfortunate accident I had as a child.
Kirk: The unfortunate accident he had as a child. He caught his head in a mechanical... (Beat glances at Spock knowing how ridiculous this next part sounds) ...rice picker.
- Downer Ending
- Executive Meddling: The writer Harlan Ellison described later on how his original screenplay - which required massive and expensive sets, had a drug dealing yeoman as the villain, additional characters for comic relief, and had Spock and not Kirk make the decision to let Edith get killed - got shredded. To be fair, depicting a drug culture went against Roddenberry's Utopian ideals of Starfleet, and Kirk being The Kirk had to make the tough decisions.
- The original screenplay by Ellison went on to win the Writers Guild of America award for Best Script, while the revised script - rewritten by Gene Coon, Gene Roddenberry and DC Fontana - won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.
- The original screenplay would eventually be adapted into graphic novel format in 2014.
- Fanfic Fuel: The Guardian has appeared in dozens of Star Trek novels.
- Fish Out of Temporal Water
- For Want of a Nail: If Edith Keeler lives, she'll convince America to delay their entry into WWII which will result in Germany developing the H-Bomb first and conquering the world.
- Foreshadowing: Kirk and Spock are nearly run over by cars when they first arrive in the 1930s.
- Godwin's Law of Time Travel
- Informed Attribute: As lampshaded by SF Debris, for a Guardian of Forever, he certainly doesn't do anything to stop a drug-addled crazy man run into the past and screw with human history. The sort of thing a Guardian would be expected to prevent.
- Kill the Cutie: Quite literally.
- Leitmotif: "Goodnight, Sweetheart" is their song.
- The Needs of the Many: Spock is pretty blunt in saying it. They can either save Keeler's life or let her die and save the millions that perished in the altered WWII.
- Precision F-Strike: "Let's get the hell out of here." The effect is obviously lost for modern viewers, but "hell" was pretty shocking for 1960s television.
- Recycled Set: 1930s New York City sure looks a lot like Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show. You can also see Mayberry in the episode "Miri".
- Save This Person Save the World: Inverted.
- Set Right What Once Went Wrong
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog
- Status Quo Is God: Neither Spock nor Kirk suggests the possibility of taking the foward thinking Edith Keeler back to the future with them instead of letting her get killed 'again'.
- A one-shot prose story features Kirk on his deathbed and is offered the chance to set right one wrong in his life. He wishes to have Edith Keeler brought to the 23rd century.
- Time Travel Romance
- Year Outside, Hour Inside: Kirk and Spock are in the 1930s for about a week. McCoy is there for a few hours. For the redshirts on the Guardian's planet, only about a second or so has passed.
- You Can't Fight Fate: Oh you can. It's just you really shouldn't.
Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway.