Star Trek: Return to Tomorrow

Star Trek Opening TitlesFor having one of Star Trek’s best remembered quotes, Return to Tomorrow is a dreadfully slow affair that offered the chance for greatness and delivered mediocrity.  Conceptually, this is an episode about godlike beings who just want a favor.  That would have been enough; there didn’t have to be a threat posed by a rogue member of the group.  The threat could have been a race against time or something else, that would have still given the actors a chance to flex their muscles while offering mind candy instead of the standard villain of the week.  And Spock is the most notable character change, because he spends far more time smiling than we’ve ever seen before!

Kirk and crew are out exploring further than any Federation vessel has ever gone before when they meet the disembodied voice of Sargon, who can turn off the Enterprise with a thought.  He invites the crew down but wants specific people.  Kirk and Spock are the most obvious ones but he also wants Dr. Mulhall; Next Generation’s Dr. Polaski.  Kirk has no idea who she is or how she got aboard, pretty sure she’s about a century too early, but this red-outfitted member of the science department is on Sargon’s radar, so she becomes part of the landing party.  And… Dr. McCoy, because Sargon is pretty sure if something can go wrong, McCoy can be blamed.  And sure enough, our chief medic who presumably swore the Hippocratic oath, starts off with a winner: when Kirk is taken over by Sargon, McCoy draws his phaser.  (I imagine the thought was “if Jim can’t have his own body, no one can!  I’m a doctor, not a guy who watches puppets!”)  The thing is, this story could have worked without Henoch rebelling.  We’ve had plenty of “race against time” episodes; let this follow suit.  The idea of borrowing bodies was a great one but there were so many better ways to resolve this.  Let’s review…

In I, Mudd, Mudd’s Women and What are Little Girls Made of, we’ve seen just how far androids have come and Sargon is bound to be more advanced than the humans behind those beings.  But I’d even be willing to ignore that in favor of a simpler solution.  Surely there are people on life support who would be perfect hosts.  Even if not on the Enterprise, are we expected to believe that Starfleet wouldn’t be willing to open negotiations with these beings and bring people to them in exchange for knowledge?  As Sargon says, they’ve waited for millions of years… what’s a little more time?   They clearly know things we couldn’t dream of.  Hell, they know things they didn’t dream of!!  Take for instance the exchange of consciousness – they require a receptacle when swapping minds but the story ends with Sargon and Thalassa taking over Kirk and Mulhall without having a place to put their consciousness!  Did they realize, “oh we didn’t need a receptacle after all, how silly!”   There’s also a batch of idiocy in the scene with Spock and Chapel; she realizes something is wrong and Henoch erases the murder attempt from her mind… and then tells her the very thing he just erased.  Am I missing something?  I guess Henoch hadn’t attended Logic School…

I can’t help but laugh though because there are some wickedly funny moments in this episode.  Hands down the best is watching Shatner undergoing his possession by Sargon.  Scotty is against the whole body swap idea until word that he might learn how to build an engine the size of a walnut.  This is a big thing for him!  (Or should that be a small thing?  I don’t know!)  McCoy, equally annoyed by Kirk’s willingness to undergo this “simple” body swap, sarcastically blurts out “Quite simple. Happens every day!”  And even Sargon knows about standard orbit! 

But while this ends up being a largely disposable episode, there is a great concept that popped up which I somehow forgot: the idea of our world being seeded by other life forms.  It’s not a new concept now, but I was surprised to hear it in a Classic Trek episode.  Could life have been planted here on Earth by other races?  Spock seems to think it would make sense of some Vulcan legends, at the very least.  And then there’s the quote.  I think of all the quotes in Star Trek, one that is a template for life is Kirk’s: “Risk!  Risk is our business.  It’s what this starship is all about!  It’s why we’re aboard her.”  In business and in life, risk is a necessary step in advancement.  Star Trek may get stories wrong from time to time, but a reminder like this is so important.  Risk is our business.  It’s why the Enterprise exists and what we fans have loved for 50 years.  But it’s also a reminder that no relationship started without the risk of getting hurt.  No long term job exists without risk and no business can thrive without it.  Risk truly is at the heart of every decision we make.  We evaluate and balance probability and what we know vs what we don’t, but there is always an element of risk and we need to embrace that.  And if nothing else about this episode, I do applaud that quote!

Kirk was willing to risk his life for another who he felt was worth it.  He wasn’t wrong but one bad apple spoils the bunch and Sargon realizes that dying is part of the proper order of things.  He and Thalassa get one more kiss and die.  And the crew of the Enterprise live to risk another day…  ML

The view from across the pond:

In this episode the Enterprise returns to… um. This takes place tomorrow, and… um. OK, let’s try to figure out the title later. Yet another alien race that is more powerful than the Enterprise takes control of the ship. Sargon demonstrates his power by turning off the lights, which immediately prompts Kirk to reverse his decision to leave Spock on the ship. I had to laugh when Kirk said to Spock, “we can’t risk both of us being off the ship”, although he routinely does that, and in the past he’s taken basically the entire senior staff down onto a planet. Sargon takes over the transporter and leaves the two redshirts behind. Presumably he’s been keeping an eye on the Enterprise and thought it better to leave them where they are for their own safety and for his. One of them would probably fire a weapon instinctively at Sargon’s shiny ball.

This is one of many attempts in sci-fi over the years to explain the origins of life in the universe in terms of an alien race who “left our seed behind us” (ew). I hate that lazy von Daniken-esque nonsense whenever I find it (and I find it far too often for my liking), and was therefore delighted to see the idea immediately debunked by Ann. Maybe Vulcan, but not Earth. We left our own seeds, thank you very much. But these are specifically aliens who “dared think of ourselves as gods”. Any reviews that mention Star Trek’s relationship to godlike beings miss the point here, because this is a complete subversion of the idea of aliens as gods. Instead, this race’s hubris, thinking of themselves as gods, has led to their destruction, and even their von Daniken claims are a crock. They are just three desperate survivors of a dead race, clinging on to life inside shiny balls. Meanwhile, the other balls have gone dark, which was a bit sad. Their friends aren’t going to be able to return to tomorrow… whatever that means.

Refreshingly, these not-gods don’t have plans of conquest. They just have a polite request. They want to take their places as unusual bedside lamps in sickbay, and to temporarily borrow Kirk, Spock and Ann’s bodies while they build robot bodies for themselves. Compared to what Kirk normally has to deal with, this is such a reasonable request that he is obviously going to say yes, although bizarrely he won’t agree until he has a unanimous decision. Since when is he running a democracy? I can understand that Spock and Ann need to consent, but what’s McCoy doing at that meeting?

Kirk persuades McCoy with a rousing speech (let’s be charitable and just say it’s a big performance from Shatner), and then we have the joy of seeing Spock smiling a lot and complimenting Christine on being a “lovely female”. Nimoy clearly has a lot of fun with this episode. Meanwhile, Kirk/Sargon is delighted to have a body, and gives Ann/Thalassa a look that says he wants to experience something he hasn’t been able to do for a long time. From then on, there is shock after shock, with Spock/Henoch going rogue, trying to kill his friends, which is a bit mean considering they are the last three survivors of their race. Perhaps after so long stuck inside shiny balls he’s sick of their company. When McCoy made his weekly pronouncement of “he’s dead”, I thought “yeah, right”, because this was Kirk we were talking about, but what happened to Spock had more of an impact.

“Spock’s consciousness is gone. We must kill his body, the thing in it.”

Just for a moment I did wonder if he was going to be written out at this point, because his fate seems so final, his consciousness apparently destroyed. Luckily he was passing the time inside Christine, so all her Christmases came at once.

Now, about that title. The Enterprise clearly didn’t return to tomorrow because they haven’t been to tomorrow yet, so in that case… um… Sargon and Thalassa returned… no, I give up.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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3 Responses to Star Trek: Return to Tomorrow

  1. scifimike70 says:

    The Chariots Of The Gods references in our science fiction may feel lazy in regards to how they seem to deprive us of our human independence. But should they? What if it’s just the opposite? I may agree enough that humans built the Pyramids, even if the obviously advanced precisions for all the blocks put into place can seem otherworldly. If ETs taught us how to do it so that we COULD do it for ourselves, with these ET encounters somehow blotted out in our contemporary memory as theorists have proposed, then I can openly find more realism in that.

    Because it’s not that different from children being born with all their skills and talents, which they still needed to be taught about by parents and teachers. It doesn’t diminish independence. It only inspires us to treasure it more. So in that sense, we indeed learned to build for ourselves, but with the proper source of knowledge being the more reasonable mystery. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, it wasn’t the Black Monolith that told Moon Watcher what to do with the bone. That notion came to him on his own volition. All the Monolith had to do was leave the spark in the minds of the man-apes and the rest would follow in due course. If that’s how it could have been done in real life, then it can make Chariots Of The Gods and Ancient Aliens feel more worthy of our open minds. There is therefore fair logic on both sides.

    This was the first occasion for Diana Muldaur to make herself known in Star Trek. She returns in “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” and as Dr. Kate Pulaski in The Next Generation. Roddenberry had also cast her as Marg in Planet Earth (1974), one of his few attempts at the time to broaden his SF creativity beyond Star Trek. It’s also interesting that James Doohan, who still plays Scotty in this episode, had also doubled for the receptacle voice of Sargon.

    Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Pocock says:

      Fair enough, but the idea diminshes human achievement however you try to spin it. Humans built those structures, every step of the way. We needed no “teachers”.

      Liked by 1 person

      • scifimike70 says:

        It’s the ET visits themselves in the remote past that chiefly fascinate me. Because even if we did build all those great things by ourselves, there was clearly an overwhelming inspiration from somewhere. Just as Jesus inspired so much with the miracles he achieved, it can easily come down to how the universe is sparking our desires for such great accomplishments. That can take a vast variety of forms.

        Liked by 1 person

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