Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Original Series

"Return to Tomorrow"


Air date: 2/9/1968
Written by John Kingsbridge
Directed by Ralph Senensky

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

An alien being named Sargon—who exists as pure energy without a form—invites a small team to beam down to a planet that had been destroyed half a million years earlier. Sargon asks Kirk to volunteer his own and two of his crew members' bodies (Spock and Dr. Mulhall, played by Diana Muldaur), so Sargon, his wife, and an old enemy turned friend (or so we think) can create robot bodies and spread their awesome knowledge to the rest of the galaxy.

The episode does a great job of being intriguing until the final act degenerates into a mindless muddle. The plot, initially compelling and with rigid rules, throws all the rules out the window in an inane, arbitrary ending sequence that borders on incoherence. That's too bad, because the aliens' quest is an interesting, often poignant one—as they find their newfound human sensations almost too appealing to relinquish. The villain of the story inhabits Spock's body, giving Nimoy an interesting break from the norm.

There's also a speech in the episode that seems to epitomize Trek's sense of adventure, but it's so overplayed with dramatics and Shatner's scenery chewing that it comes off looking self-important and silly. It practically forms the model for every Shatner impression (particularly Kevin Pollack's) that has since been performed. I got a chuckle out of it, although I wasn't supposed to.

Previous episode: A Private Little War
Next episode: Patterns of Force

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12 comments on this review

Strider - Sun, Jun 17, 2012 - 6:26pm (USA Central)
Why does Dr. Mulhall wear red if she's an astrophysicist? Why isn't she wearing blue?
Mel - Tue, Jul 24, 2012 - 9:48am (USA Central)
What I dislike most in this episode is the revelation that the prime directive apparently only applies to other, less advanced cultures - the moment they meet superior beings they cant't wait to learn whatever they can from them with no concern for meddling with the natural development of their own society.
It's more than only little bit hypocritical...
Strider - Tue, Aug 7, 2012 - 12:27am (USA Central)
The Prime Directive is a convenience to hang a plot on and not much more. It's a nice idea, but it's not consistently enforced in any way at all. Right now I'm watching Bread and Circuses, in which we hear that they take an oath to die rather than to violate the PD, but they violate it all the time, especially in self-defense.

Besides, Sargon contacted them, they didn't violate the PD by initiating contact.
Jhoh - Tue, Sep 18, 2012 - 6:43am (USA Central)
Holy crap I just realized Dr. Mulhall in this episode is Dr. Polaski from TNG season 2, except much younger (and surprisingly attractive back then). I only recognized her by her voice, and then I started noticing her face was similar, but I thought it was my imagination, but no, it's Dr. Polaski alright.
Jeff - Fri, May 3, 2013 - 7:20am (USA Central)
Just watched this episode again last night. The episode raises all kinds of questions. Some answered, some not. But the first which came into my mind happens very early in the episode. As they approach the planet Spock says it registers as Class M. A moment later he informs Kirk that the atmosphere was ripped away thousands of years ago. So how can it currently be registering as Class M? Unless the sensors are so powerful they can detect what the planet's atmosphere used to be. A minor technobabble quibble, but it stuck out to me for the first time.
Grumpy - Fri, May 3, 2013 - 4:16pm (USA Central)
Was it ever canonically established that "class M" includes atmosphere? It was widely assumed (and, once assumed, may have fed back into canonical scripts). But the designation could refer to a more limited set of geophysical traits (mass, magnetic field, surface temperature) without reference to chemical composition. When I hear Spock say, as he often did, "Class M, nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere," I take that as two different facts.

Strider's nitpick about Mulhall's uniform is fair, but there's also this: why send an astrobiologist (her stated specialty) to investigate a lifeless planet? (Or was this the one where Mulhall was summoned by the aliens?)
Jeffrey - Sat, May 4, 2013 - 2:23pm (USA Central)
@ Grumpy. I get what you mean mentioning how they always say Class M, Earth type conditions (or variations). But I always took that to mean Class M meant, planets similar to Earth, including atmosphere. I've always thought they kept repeating that phrase for the benefit of first time viewers who otherwise wouldn't know what Class M meant. But it could mean two separate things. At any rate, it shows how powerful the Enterprise's sensors are. :)
Brundledan - Tue, May 14, 2013 - 5:46am (USA Central)
This is not one that I ever thought of as a "classic" episode; you won't find it on very many "best of" lists. However, on a recent viewing I was struck by how much I enjoyed it, and how well it represents what the message of Star Trek is and should be. And it isn't just the "risk is our business" speech, though that is indeed one of the very best moments in all of Trek.

Star Trek was a breakthrough in television science fiction because at its very core was the simple idea that people could live together and respect one another -- not only among themselves, but even with alien beings from the edge of the galaxy, whose very natures stretched the limits of our understanding. The writers and producers of Trek were very brave about presenting such an idea on national television at a time in which America was descending into violence and chaos.

"Return to Tomorrow" presents this idea as well as any episode of Trek I've seen. It begins with Kirk's visible agitation over a distress signal his officers can't explain, but the agitation gives way to curiosity and wonderment in short order as Sargon reveals himself and begins to explain who and what he is. Sargon, for his part, has the power to take what he wants from the Enterprise crew, who to him are at about the level mice are to us, but is committed to their right to life and self-determination even at the cost of his and his wife's existences. Finally, a (literal) meeting of minds convinces Kirk that the mutual possibilities of Sargon's proposal are worth any danger to himself. Ultimately, Sargon and Thalassa choose to sacrifice themselves rather than cause harm to what to them are the most inferior of beings.

And all of it is, indeed, tied together with the understanding that "RISK is our business". The risk undertaken by the Enterprise and her crew, in this case, but what Roddenberry and co. were saying, by extension, was that risk is the business of all of us. It's risky to trust others. It's risky to put our faith in the intentions of people we don't understand. Mutual trust is a hard-won commodity, but Kirk chooses to trust his instincts in the case of Sargon -- and the result is that even beings at opposite ends of the evolutionary scale are able to communicate with, work with, and understand one another. This was pretty heady stuff in 1968, and is just as remarkable now.

Sci-fi TV before Star Trek was mostly space monsters, and much of it post-TOS has been slickly-produced cynicism. Even TOS had its share of "captured by hostile aliens" plots, and so an episode like "Return to Tomorrow" is a breath of fresh air and a pleasure to watch. It is, as I now believe, a classic episode after all.

(As for the definition of "Class M" planets, it's made pretty clear from the very beginning, when Spock runs his scan of the Talos system in "The Cage" and notes that "Number four appears to be Class M.... oxygen atmosphere.")
Nick P. - Tue, Jul 30, 2013 - 8:24am (USA Central)
I completely agree with Brundledan, this is a wonderful episode. I love the "risk" speech. I love the fairly mature plot. It is paced well, and is truly a pleasure to watch. I think Brundledan would probably agree with me that I love the true-sci-fi episodes. bettering the human race, exploring the unknown. This episode is so much better then the black face-white face social commentary schlock that makes up a good chunk of star trek.

Also, you make a great point about modern sci-fi being slickly designed cynicism.
Alex - Thu, Jan 2, 2014 - 2:46am (USA Central)
I can't believe it took me until the final scene to realize that Ann Mulhall was played by Diana Muldaur! I think it's the eyebrows that gave it away. Also interesting how similar her character's name was to her actual name.
Moonie - Sun, Jan 5, 2014 - 1:06pm (USA Central)
I really, really liked this episode for the reasons stated by Brundledan. So far I found season 2 a bit difficult to get through so this was very welcome.
William B - Thu, Aug 14, 2014 - 11:46pm (USA Central)
Bravo to Brundledan, who makes the case for this episode very well.

I guess further commenting is somewhat superfluous. I guess I'll try:

The thing about Kirk's "RISK...IS OUR BUSINESS!" speech is that Shatner could have played it more, uh, subtle, naturalistic, etc., but instead he went for broke. He took, in other words, the riskier course. Look, I find it hammy and ridiculous, but it's also charming, elevating, and inspiring. It is all of those things, and part of the thing that stands up about Shatner's acting choices is that there is something inseparable about this man's bravado from its more ridiculous aspects. Which, you know, is true of the series at large. I think a different actor would maybe have been able to sell the gravitas of Kirk's speech without chewing the scenery, having that glint in his eye, etc. -- but I'm not entirely certain I want anyone to.

In addition to this, it really gets to me that Kirk brings up the first Apollo mission landing on the moon so casually like that. Again, there's some risk to this. History could have proven them wrong; the Apollo mission could have burned up and never made it to the moon, and then, well, this episode looking foolish would have been a small problem/consequence of this, but still, there it is. There is a go-for-broke mentality to this: "we should take the chance on being hurt by *believing* in something, daring to risk being wrong."

In some respects, this episode is as much engaged with the idea of grace in aging and death, not just on a personal level but on the level of society, as something like "The Inner Light" is. Yes, it's not as good (how often is Trek that good?), but this is also an episode which presents a few models on how to deal with the inevitability of death -- staving it off with technology (the robot bodies), completely using other people (as Henoch does), or accepting it with courage (as Sargon does). Thalassa finds herself torn between the Henoch and Sargon models of how to behave, and in that she makes the conflict seem human-scaled and relatable, even though Henoch and Sargon are more ideas (of evil and good, respectively) than fully-fleshed out characters. And through Thalassa, we understand how tempting it must be, to let Mulhall disappear and live again. She's going into death. And yet, she has to make the right choice.

In addition to (quite genuinely) being an idea-play about a possible future for the human race, where we have developed far beyond where we are now, and then can choose whether to deal with this like Sargon and Thalassa on the one hand, or Henoch on the other, this is also a story about aging, and old people; older people have superior knowledge and experience, and can choose to use this knowledge to instruct and help the young, or to exploit the young to hang onto everything they have. There is something of the conflict between generations, writ large, and I think the ambiguity here of whether or not Sargon's people actually are responsible for seeding humans (are they the beings from "The Chase"?) related. They may, or may not, be our "parents," but they could well be, and as a result how do parents choose to deal with their children -- by manipulating and using them for their own benefit, or letting them live their lives?

There is something going on with Chapel in this episode -- Henoch may be using alien powers, but I think he is using some Vulcan telepathy on Christine, when he touches her head and brainwashes her into being his slave. If Spock *wanted* to, I think, he could do this; use Christine, use her trust of him and attachment to him for his benefit, either through Vulcan mind control powers or just through everyday emotional manipulation. But he doesn't, and Henoch's rough treatment of her highlights how Spock's stoicism is a form of kindness to her. (I think Spock was tempted to use Chapel in "Amok Time," after he thought he wouldn't be able to go to Vulcan -- something the episode hints at and promptly dropped.) Henoch's inability to see Chapel as anything but a pawn is his downfall -- he stops being able to think of those around him as anything but people to be used. And she turns on him. That she gets to be the hero, in a sense, and also is able to share consciousness with Spock is something like a way of the episode "compensating" Christine for how she suffers. Spock will never show her the love she wants, but she gets some moments of intimacy with him, in some sense, justifies her faith in him, even if her faith in Spock, I think, left her open to be exploited by Henoch. Which really ties in with the episode's themes. The risk Kirk et al. took really *did* leave them open to Henoch; Kirk, Mulhall and Spock (and Chapel) just *barely* escaped with their bodies and their freedom intact. But being open to new experiences is not wrong, and those risks are worth it. Risk is their business.

The episode still has a slowish pace at times and its plot has some turns that don't quite make sense -- Sargon's powers change pretty suddenly, and the question of whether the possessed individuals' original minds are left in those glowing jars or stay in their bodies is unresolved. (How can Spock be stored in Chapel, and Kirk and Mulhall briefly possessed, if up to that point they were all housed in receptacles?) Sargon remains something of a blank, and in general it's an odd choice to have the episode's emotional dynamics be carried basically by characters we don't know. But these seem to me to be mostly unimportant -- weaknesses, sure, and I don't think this episode is a classic, but I think it does what Trek does very well. A high 3 stars.

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