What would Nietzsche say about “The City on the Edge of Forever”?

Photo of Nietzsche by Gustav-Adolf Schultze, 1882

I’ve taught the ethics of Star Trek for many years in Korea, and one thing I have learned is that Koreans are just like Star Trek TOS fans from other countries. They love the classic episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” above all. This episode features time travel, humor, romance, horror, and of course tragedy. In her evaluation of the episode, Sara O’Hare says that the philosopher Nietzsche would find it compelling too. “Nietzsche, in his writings on Greek history, also adopted the Romantic attitude toward the past by suggesting there are certain meaningful archetypes in the Greek past: in the context of ‘City on the Edge,’ Kirk represents the ‘Tragic Hero,’ Spock the ‘Apollonian’ figure, and McCoy the ‘Dionysian’ figure. Nietzsche defines a Tragic Hero as the one who takes the suffering of the world onto their shoulders for the benefit of everyone else. Kirk bears the burden of letting the woman he loves die in front of him, entailing immense personal suffering to ensure that the millions more who would’ve died under Nazi world domination would be saved.” (Location 7480).

She continues that Kirk is in the center between Spock and McCoy: “Nietzsche describes the Apollonian character in terms of logic and symmetry, peace and beauty, and the Dionysian character as chaotic, emotional, and impulsive. Kirk is often caught between the Apollonian and the Dionysian extremes of Spock and McCoy, respectively. Logical and calm, Spock is the prime example of an Apollonian temperament, whereas McCoy is more emotionally driven and compassionate, which is what led him to save Edith Keeler in the first place and thereby unwittingly change all of history for the worse. The moment Edith is killed, the extremes of these Greek characteristics come out in our three protagonists. McCoy, driven by temper and profession to care for the well-being of others, darts into the street to save her life. Spock waits, watches, and hopes for the logical good to come about, for history to be made rational again. And Kirk is stuck in the middle. As he’s in love with Edith, he wants more than anything in the world to be able to keep her alive, but he also knows the consequences of her well-meaning pacifism. The dramatic climax proves to be a (re)turning point for all of history with Edith Keeler as the focal point, and Kirk must make the painful but life-affirming decision to grab McCoy and hold him back from saving her.”(Location 7489)

Finally, O’Hare concludes: “The choice of life or death puts Kirk into a position to create a meaningful narrative despite tragedy. Regardless of the outcome, the decision will have a lasting effect forever. At this decisive moment, Kirk emerges from the center of the struggle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian as the Tragic Hero. This pattern of ethical struggle is found over and over again during the course of these three men’s mission through space.” (Location 7497)

At the end, the time line is restored, Kirk, Spock and McCoy reappear in the present, and Kirk says “Let’s get the hell out of here”. Hard to believe that Kirk and Spock would later return to the same planet and use the Guardian of Forever again in the best episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, “Yesteryear”. Don’t get me wrong, I love “Yesteryear” too, but I think it is best not to watch it back-to-back with “City on the Edge of Forever” as it would tend to diminish Kirk’s grief and regret about the death of Edith Keeler back in 1930. Unlike my students in Korea, who are watching this TOS episode for the first time ever, many of you have seen it before, and after reading this, I think it is worth another look. It never ceases to amaze me how Star Trek provides not just entertainment, but a way to study moral philosophy in a one hour weekly adventure that never seems to get old, thanks in part to the remastering of the original episodes from the 1960s, but mostly because of the storytelling.

Star Trek author Marc Cushman says “This is more than Star Trek at its best; it is television at its best. One of the central challenges of producing meaningful drama in a continuing series is that the lead characters must persevere. Whatever life-and-death situations the writers dream up, the audience has the foreknowledge that the series’ leads will be back next week, unruffled. The future of the show depends on it. For a writer — or a group of writers — to come up with a story that challenges the recurring characters of a series and forces them to change or grow in some small way without derailing the entire series is rare. And that is the best way to describe ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’ — profoundly rare. Gone With the Wind … Casablanca … Love Story … Somewhere in Time … and ‘The City on the Edge of Forever.’ They are among the greatest love stories ever depicted on the screen. Get out your handkerchief.” (p. 570)


Kevin S. Decker; Jason T. Eberl (eds.). The Ultimate Star Trek and Philosophy: The Search for Socrates (The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Marc Cushman; Susan Osborn. These Are The Voyages, TOS, Season One (These Are The Voyages series Book 1). Kindle Edition.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.