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
Like this site? Support it by buying Jammer a coffee.
45 comments on this post
Sun, Jun 17, 2012, 6:26pm (UTC -5)
Tue, Jul 24, 2012, 9:48am (UTC -5)
It's more than only little bit hypocritical...
Tue, Aug 7, 2012, 12:27am (UTC -5)
Besides, Sargon contacted them, they didn't violate the PD by initiating contact.
Tue, Sep 18, 2012, 6:43am (UTC -5)
Fri, May 3, 2013, 7:20am (UTC -5)
Fri, May 3, 2013, 4:16pm (UTC -5)
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?)
Sat, May 4, 2013, 2:23pm (UTC -5)
Tue, May 14, 2013, 5:46am (UTC -5)
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.")
Tue, Jul 30, 2013, 8:24am (UTC -5)
Also, you make a great point about modern sci-fi being slickly designed cynicism.
Thu, Jan 2, 2014, 2:46am (UTC -5)
Sun, Jan 5, 2014, 1:06pm (UTC -5)
Thu, Aug 14, 2014, 11:46pm (UTC -5)
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.
Thu, Aug 6, 2015, 1:45pm (UTC -5)
Funnier than Pollack would have been the opportunity presented in the Nurse Chapel / Henoch Filling Hypos scene, something that Mel Brooks, Monty Python, or Saturday Night Live might have spoofed. Did you notice how Henoch has to touch Christine's head to make her forget that she noticed the hypos were different? Okay, fair enough. But then he immediately launches into a rationalization (no doubt for our benefit, but she IS there in the scene) about why he's done that. Uh, why didn't he then catch himself, silently curse, then place hand on her head again to make her forget THAT? Of course, in the realm of beating a dead horse (unlike Pollack, right?) a good spoof might have him then prancing about again, silly grin, carrying on about what he'll next do, only to catch himself a second time, make her forget, then himself forget as he prattles on a third time, only to...
Now that... (pause) would be... (pause) funny, Kevin.
Thu, Oct 15, 2015, 11:32am (UTC -5)
Some minus points however :
This planet is NOT class M, as far as star trek classifications goes this is a class K world (like mars is) I like consisicy, and it is not given here.
As a reminder how star-trek classification works :
Class M, is a rocky planet with atmosphere that naturally has plant and annimal life, suitable for humanoid life
Class L is a rocky planet with atmosphere that naturally has plantlife but no annimal life, suitable for humanoid life.
Class K means without atmosphere, and no life, but can be made habitable with pressure domes and such.
Class D is also without atmosphere and no life, and the surface can not be terraformed, sub-surface habitats are however possible (like monitor stations/research stations)
Class H means toxic to humanoid life, uninhabitable, even if it has atmosphere and life on it.
Class N means toxic to MOST life humanoid and otherwise, sulfuric world, all water (if any) excist only as vapor, extremophiles and silicicium-based lifeforms may however still live here.
Class Y means toxic to ALL life
Class J means gas-giant
So clearly this is a K-class world.
Now minus point 2 : why the rush in self-destructing.
this race could have learned the federation A LOT, and even if they deemed themselves "to dangerous" to recieve their new android-body's, least they could have done was give SOME tech manuals as a thank you for the assistance in the first place?
We DID help them for the possible "gains" after all, so if we were willing to take the risk why chicken out now? How is kirk ok with them self-destructing and not trying to talk them in "stay a little longer we still could learn a lot"??
missed oportunity I say.
Also Making sex (ok kissing still point stands) in ONEOTHERS persons body?? and everybody standing around it is ok with that?? serious?? It is one thing to LEND a persons body, one complete other what you use it for, and sexual pleasure SURELY was NOT included in the agreement.
And did we really need multiple awkward relationships ak sexism [TM] again?? it's all that sexism that makes me dislike TOS in the first place.. your the army, behave professional!
Wed, Jun 22, 2016, 9:15am (UTC -5)
Fri, Jun 2, 2017, 2:25pm (UTC -5)
Also nice to see Muldaur's first appearance in Trek - a very attractive woman and good actress. Always preferred her over Crusher as doc on TNG.
Great soundtrack from George Duning - really nails the romantic music and creating an atmosphere. Some good moments between Muldaur and Shatner. It is a captivating story about love lost for so long and found again.
Not clear how Henoch dies or what kind of powers Sargon has but it does seem as if it gives the writers some kind of convenience for a nice ending.
Ultimately this is one of the "purer" TOS sci-fi episodes for me. Some of the ideas are very interesting - how Sargon et al evolved into energy beings, their planet being destroyed in some cataclysm but they preserved themselves in a chamber over a 100 miles beneath the surface.
The pacing is a bit slow - a lot of good ideas in this episode but the ending leaves a bit to be desired. I'd rate this 3 stars out of 4 for its concepts and intentions.
Thu, Jul 13, 2017, 10:11pm (UTC -5)
Although it turns out Sargon and his wife are benevolent, Dr. McCoy rightly points out that the aliens wanting the bodies of the two highest ranking officers seems suspicious. Kirk gives a lame explanation about him and Spock being the best matches (maybe so, but surely somebody else would have been an okay match). Of course, the real reason Kirk and Spock are chosen for the mind transfer is because this a TV show, and they are the stars of the show. So I guess a certain amount of artistic license has to be allowed.
Sat, Nov 11, 2017, 8:55pm (UTC -5)
Not much to add here, but one final note: Does anyone else find it ironic that the android bodies in this episode (see when the male android raises its hand while Henoch and Thalassa are examining it) actually look more like today's lifelike robots (see the freaky one in Japan) than Data and anything else we see from TNG forward? Sometimes TOS was really ahead of its time and TNG was really more dated in its vision of the future.
Wed, Nov 22, 2017, 5:57am (UTC -5)
Mon, Dec 4, 2017, 8:32am (UTC -5)
What spoils it all is that one of the aliens reveals himself to be evil. This hokey cliche was wholly unnecessary. The episode's "help aliens build robot" plot had enough risks and dangers to make the generic "evil alien" subplot superflous. Granted the subplot does offer some nice additional themes (absolute power can corrupt absolutely), but such themes are as old as Trek itself. Indeed, Trek's pilot - Where No Man Has Gone Before - features a man buckling under the pressure of becoming a God-like alien. So, in a way, this bit of tacked on moralising spoils the episode's more interesting and original moralising.
It's a excellent, above average, interesting episode, but with a little less conventional action and/or villainy, it would have been great.
Sat, Dec 30, 2017, 6:51am (UTC -5)
As far as the deadly drug goes, as I recall, the entity in Spock was able to use and augment his mental abilities, so he'd be able to sense if someone was coming at him with a phaser and stop them. But someone believing the hypospray was deadly, and eventually injecting Spock/entity with it, caused entity to leave. In conclusion, no one could get close enough to Spock to shoot him, so they had to resort to subterfuge.
Sun, Aug 5, 2018, 9:56pm (UTC -5)
Wed, Sep 26, 2018, 7:53pm (UTC -5)
Mon, Oct 29, 2018, 7:54pm (UTC -5)
That... is a good question. Make androids, put minds in them, walk around and maybe get off the planet someday. Instead of just hanging around in the globes.
I had never thought of that...
Tue, Apr 30, 2019, 10:57pm (UTC -5)
Nice to see Nimoy get to show some range, though. He was very slick here.
Sat, May 11, 2019, 8:37pm (UTC -5)
Intriguing storyline - not perfect handled, but generally well done.
Love Muldaur here, and later in TNG as Pulaski - a beautiful, talented lady.
Not a fan of the Shatner histrionics in the Risk speech. What could have been the highlight of the ep gets chewed to bits instead.
Enjoyed Nimoy's portrayal of Henoch and Nurse Chapel's role.
Definitely above average.
Mon, Feb 17, 2020, 4:05am (UTC -5)
-Immediately when Sargon enters Kirks body, he starts to talk ... like ... Kirk. That was a bit dissapointing, but I understand.
-Once again a missed opportunity to use Uhura. She would've been a perfect host for Thalassa. I understand why though; but what a shame.
-Didn't really buy into the whole android body main plot, but on the other hand, I feel it really wasn't about that.
-Bones gets no credit but he is the true hero of this episode.
III / IV
Sun, Mar 22, 2020, 5:43pm (UTC -5)
"Return to Tomorrow" is a beautiful episode -- not perfect by a long-shot (especially the ending) but it is great sci-fi and Kirk's "risk is our business" speech is so fundamental to what Trek is about.
And by the way, happy 89th birthday Mr. Shatner!
Thu, May 28, 2020, 8:21pm (UTC -5)
@4:00 Uhura says Kirk's subspace message will take over 3 weeks to reach Starfleet, I'm sure that violates continuity some how with the Enterprise D travelling further but never mentioning comm-range.
@10:05 The energy being Sargon said his species once seeded the galaxy 6000 centuries ago & his ancestors could have been Adam & Eve. This explains why there are so many humanoid species in the galaxy better than the TNG episode The Chase.
Every time Diana Muldaur (Ann) spoke I couldn't help imagining her as Dr. Pulaski, she actually looks beautiful here, she really changed in the 20 years between this & TNG season 2.
Fri, May 29, 2020, 9:16am (UTC -5)
I like how Kirk mentioned that humanity may be already superior in one way to Sargon in that it already overcame a similar self-inflicted disaster (presumably he means WWIII and the post-atomic horror but even the Cold War would be a sufficient example). Sargon dismisses Kirk's point and says that his people already evolved past an atomic incident, but one wonders if Sargon's people ever united in peace the way humanity did. The being that possesses Spock is from the "other faction", which implies there was still dissent and unrest among Sargon's people. This other faction ends up being Sargon's Achilles' heel by stopping his plan and showing that a part of his people never got past the original conflict.
This chink in the armor also adds another dimension to Kirk's "Risk is our business" speech. Indeed, humanity is willing to take such risks for curiosity's sake but it appears that in this particular case humanity is better off without the reward of overwhelming power.
It's worth mentioning since others commented on the disappointing ending that there was a controversy with this episode's writer John Dugan, a Catholic. He wanted Sargon and Thalassa to live on in the end as spirits without bodies, which is how he ended it in the original script. Roddenbery changed it so the two would simply fade into oblivion. Dugan was pretty upset by this change as he believed there should be an afterlife for even these beings and ended up using a pseudonym in the credits because of the change. I'm not sure the change materially affects the story, but it's funny Roddenbery went to such lengths.
Anyway, this episode speaks to many of Trek's strong points and I think Jammer underrated it quite a bit (to be fair, he was right about Shatner overacting). I give it a high 3 stars.
Random Historical Fact Check: Kirk rhetorically asks "What if the first Apollo mission failed?" Apollo I was the victim of a tragic fire that forced the mission to abort. Naturally though, NASA made more attempts after that.
Fri, May 29, 2020, 10:15am (UTC -5)
What a petty argument? Are both of them under the assumption that Kirk is a wizard and can "just tell" when a person dies whether their spirit 'goes on' or fades into nothing? I don't even know what it means to argue about this point. Catholics already believe that we have an afterlife *and* that you see nothing special when someone dies. Haha, what a dumb thing to fight about. And actually, the idea of disembodied human spirits floating around isn't even a Christian concept afaik. Or if it is one it's one of those quasi-pagan superstitious beliefs they had been in the 1500's when the old religions were still bound up with the new in many places.
Mon, Jun 8, 2020, 7:50am (UTC -5)
As to the speech, a similar point has been made - much more effectively imo - in The Immunity Syndrome, where they simply point out that look, we have come all the way here, this is what we do, so it *would* be kind of stupid to turn around and do what? go back home and hide under the bed? So yes I think it is comically oversold here, but you guys are right, it just wouldn't be Kirk without Shatner.
I also like that the aliens actually are who they say they are. Genuinely surprising when Sargon says 'ok let's get to work building those robots to teach the humans the things'. It sounds a lot like a con, but for once it's not.
Btw the funniest Shatner impressions have to be the ones that come from his crewmates, in interviews I found on youtube. Nimoy and especially Koenig do a great Kirk, sometimes to his face. Priceless.
Thu, Dec 31, 2020, 9:34am (UTC -5)
What's also a plot mistake, is the temptation the aliens feel by staying in human bodies instead of proceeding into robotic bodies later. Robots mean much more of an extended life expectancy (with changing parts as they may become defect) than clinging to mortal bodies which are aging and dying some day (or by accident quite suddenly). And being able to construct such sophisticated bots should mean also to incorporate some sensors in them coming close to human feel. After all, it's just nerve ends collecting the impulses and the result (as sensation) is still done in the brain.
Tue, Jan 5, 2021, 10:20am (UTC -5)
@Rahul is spot on, this is a beautiful episode. Episodes like "Return to Tomorrow" give Trek its soul.
And the touchstone for that is Kirk's incredible "risk is our business" speech. I never get tired of hearing it.
I was reminded of Kirk's speech recently by an equally inspirational speech in the current season 5 of The Expanse.
Call it the "Great things are achieved by embracing great dangers" speech.
Courtesy "The Expanse," a show that in this day and age, seems to have more of Trek's soul than Trek itself.
Tue, Apr 20, 2021, 7:44am (UTC -5)
It's a real 'could have / should have' episode. The premise of incorporeal minds was fascinating, though one would immediately question why they hadn't originally built robot receptors before they voluntarily went into the spheres. The hijacking of The Enterprise before making a polite request to 'borrow' 3 bodies, was an excusable plot device, as no-one got hurt in the initial stages. As for the Henok using of Spock's body, that was a highpoint, as we got to see Nimoy getting the chance to emote again.
Kirk's "risk" speech was melodramatically delivered, but a good moment:
"Do you... WISH.. that the Apollo mission hadn't got to the moon? Then to Mars...?"
It's a sobering thought that this was shown a full two years before the moon landing, and now it's only days since a drone flew over the surface of Mars. Fine stuff.
As others have pointed out, it was also good that Nurse Chapell got to share her body briefly with Spock, in a wish-fulfilment of her dreams. Small wonder that it didn't put her off him!
But in the end, I simply couldn't believe in those incorporeal minds retaining their passions and jealousies, and the whole thing turning into a botched melodrama.
Wed, Jul 7, 2021, 8:12pm (UTC -5)
Is this the kind of person Mulhall trusts to borrow her body one more time so she can enjoy a final kiss, or the kind of person the supposedly high-minded Sargon wants to kiss?
Mon, Aug 2, 2021, 11:49am (UTC -5)
This is the most romantic ending to a Star Trek episode ever, with perhaps only Metamorphosis coming close. I am sure there many holes in the plot, with even the concept of binary sex being challenged. But look beyond our current limitations and marvel at the idea of love being presented here.
After refusing her own temptations of power, Thalassa and Sargon choose to be together for oblivion, together. Imagine that, when current realtionships are so fragile.
Imagine CHOOSING to be with one person for oblivion, having already spent half a milliion years as energy trapped in a ball.
Takes your breath away.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, there is still huge danger that the pursuit of total power may get us all killed, facing the same problems as Sargon and his band. Who would we choose to survive the extinction of mankind?
A most thought provoking and romantic episode of Star Trek.
I like it even more every time I watch it, being jealous of those who have never had the pleasure.
Sat, Aug 21, 2021, 4:08am (UTC -5)
That said, the regular cast turns in some great performances this show. Spock tampering with the hyposprays, plotting to kill Kirk, all the while a friendly smile upon his face, is frankly, chilling. Top drawer TOS era trek. (Drek compared to 90s trek and the film's so TOS gets its own "rating" standards.) :)
Mon, Oct 11, 2021, 11:18pm (UTC -5)
Not to be a pain, but Dr. Mulhall should be wearing a blue shirt, not a red one.
Mon, Mar 14, 2022, 11:28am (UTC -5)
Sat, Apr 23, 2022, 9:30pm (UTC -5)
And Kirk's "in the business of risk" speech is the most ridiculous sophistry I think Kirk ever engaged in.
Probably Shatner knew the speech was nonsense and decided to go full Shat mode.
We're in the business of risk so we should allow three officers (including the top two commanders) to be possessed by spirits? What could POSSIBLY go wrong?
It's ridiculous, and if I were McCoy I would suspect Sargon planted this enthusiasm in Kirk's head when he first possessed him.
You know that soon after, Starfleet must have added a "DO NOT WILLINGLY BE POSSESSED" rule to the books.
Sat, Apr 23, 2022, 9:56pm (UTC -5)
Wed, Aug 24, 2022, 6:27pm (UTC -5)
Thu, Nov 3, 2022, 5:22pm (UTC -5)
Tue, Mar 21, 2023, 3:02am (UTC -5)
Or was that just a trick to secure their cooperation?
The whole episode would look different if viewed from the perspective that Sargon is no more trustworthy than Henoch or Thalassa.
Submit a comment
◄ Season Index