Captain's Blog pt. 49: Return to Tomorrow

When "Return to Tomorrow" first aired on February 9th, 1968, its timeslot competition was an episode of Gomer Pyle, USMC where someone sends Gomer a baby carriage by mistake. Compelling stuff. Over on NBC, this gem of an episode explored themes of possession, eternity, love, betrayal, and galactic progeny.

Let's start with the title. 1.5 pts.

Kind of a Back to the Future thing, I can dig that. Nothing too fancy or poetic, more or less just a description of events.

Where this episode excels is in its Script and Theme (out of a possible 10 pts.): 7.5 / 8 pts. It's really a great slice of sci-fi with no "plot coupons," as Torie Atkinson calls them over at Tor. Every line and scene makes sense and moves the story along without contriving any circumstance.

Despite Sargon and the gang's considerable powers and evolution, they are recognizably motivated by the same things Kirk and the gang are: science, compassion, intelligence, love, and - as we see with Henoch - not above a little murder, abuse of power, and deception to achieve those ends. Even Thalassa is briefly tempted to use her superiority to take what she wants rather than respect the lives and sovereignty of the crew.

The body-swap trope was by no means an innovation in 1968, but it's handled with sophistication and sensitivity here. (Compare, for example, to "Turnabout Intruder," only a year later.)

"Since exploration and contact with alien intelligences is our primary mission, I've decided to risk the potential dangers and resume contact."

Visual Design: I'll go with 2 out of 3 points here. There's some wonderful surrealism going on here.

Like wax figures in some future museum, depicting its past imagining itself. Return to Tomorrow, indeed.
Not much going on with costumes this episode, but the traditional Trek color palette plays well against the lighting composition. I've really come to admire the light and shadow choices of TOS through screencapping these eps, and it's delightful to discover there are aspects of these episodes that can still pleasantly surprise me after all these years. "Return to Tomorrow" features a return to the mostly green and purple backlighting, something much more prevalent in the early episodes than they were by this point in season 2.

And then there's this, of course:

Internal Logic and Consistency: 2.25 out of 3 pts. Not bad at all. If two of Sargon's ancestors were the models for Adam and Eve, as he claims, and if said civilization ended their galactic colonization 600,000 years ago, that would put their appearance on Earth somewhere around the advent of Homo heidelbergensis, an early ancestor Humans share with the Neanderthals.

"Your probes have touched me, Mister Spock."
But it makes a certain amount of sense with Vulcan, as Spock notes, given the whole katra thing and its energy-transference analog. 

It's a bit unclear why they didn't just build the androids for themselves, before they made the switch to "pure energy/ matter without form."

Given everything else of which they're capable, seems like they probably could have mastered something like this well before they went the whole spheres and eternal tomb route.
And I know no one on the Enterprise ever brings up anything that happened on any other mission/ episode, but Sargon might have appreciated a heads-up about the work of Roger Korby or the androids on "I, Mudd."

Kirk and the Gang: 20 out of a possible 10 pts. Everyone does a great job here. The economy of the script helps, but Nimoy clearly enjoys being able to smile, leer, and cackle.

Majel Barrett gets only a handful of chances to really do much of anything on TOS, but she gets a nice character arc here, and her surprise turning of the tables at the end is a nice touch.

Of course, we learn Sargon hid Spock's consciousness in her, so her "agency" is somewhat compromised from a certain point of view. Nevertheless, Barrett does a good job. And of course, this is the episode where Shatner delivers his famous and often-parodied "Risk is our business" speech, combined here with Eric McCormack's spot-on take on it from Free Enterprise. (Link disabled, alas.)

(This also accounts for the episode's Memorability, I'd wager, which I value at 3 out of 5 pts.)

Beyond that, Shatner embraces the opportunity to wrest as much physicality from the being-possessed business as possible:

Nimoy and Muldaur don't seem to react quite the same way, do they?

Speaking of Diana Muldaur, she is the guest star of note:

She does a good job as Astrobiologist Mulhall, who presumably avoids the Captain and Spock as much as possible for the rest of her tenure aboard the Enterprise.
I had to go back and find out who this was when I saw the name I didn't recognize during the end credits:

It appears from Ms. Lou's imdb page that "Return to Tomorrow" was her high water mark as a working actress. I'll just assume no script ever seemed worthwhile after having cut her teeth on this one. 3 out of 3 pts. (3.5 if you count Doohan's voice as Sargon.)

Total Points Awarded: 47.75

"Kirk out."


  1. This one is pretty great. You make a good point about nobody remembering Roger Korby. It's interesting to consider just how different an era this was, television-wise; back then, it was expected that you write episodes from the standpoint of assuming every single viewer had never seen a single episode of of the series before.

    I wonder what the first show was to really change that in a substantial way?

    I always forget how off the wall Shatner is in this one. Great, yes; but damn...

    1. Off the top of my head, the only time I recall anyone mentioning anything that happened in another episode was when Kirk recalled Spock's through-the-wall mind meld from "Taste of Armageddon" in "By Any Other Name." Could that really be it, tho? It very well might be. Like you say, a whole different era.

    2. The first show I can remember "serializing" was Cheers. Maybe there were some before, but it's the first one I noticed.

  2. Anybody else see the heavy influence of Mario Bava on Star Trek's lighting?

    1. Now that's an influence I never considered. But now that I have, absolutely. Good call, very interesting. Both utilized a minimalist set design and stark contrasts in lighting them.

    2. It's much more apparent with the digital remastering and the high definition television. The old tube televisions and old broadcast standards washed out a lot of color.