Star Trek Re-Watch: “Return to Tomorrow”

“Return to Tomorrow”
Written by John Kingsbridge
Directed by Ralph Senensky

Season 2, Episode 19
Production episode: 2×22
Original air date: February 9, 1968
Star date: 4768.3

Mission summary

Enterprise is drawn to an unexplored star system by a strange distress signal…or is it? The signal doesn’t seem to exist, yet it’s affecting Uhura’s channels—but there’s definitely something, maybe, trying to get their attention and… Oh look! There’s a planet up ahead. It’s a formerly-Class M planet now with a dead atmosphere, and completely lifeless. Or is it? A voice speaks to the crew using only the power of his mind; he identifies himself as Sargon, and directs them to kindly park their ship in orbit. Kirk’s understandably hesitant since the planet’s dead and all, but Sargon’s invitation is ominous, if not compelling: “And I am as dead as my planet. Does that frighten you, James Kirk? For if it does, if you let what is left of me perish, then all of you, my children, all of mankind must perish, too.”

Kirk remembers that their mission says something about seeking out new life, so he agrees to give Sargon the benefit of the doubt. Spock’s already initiating some “first contact” of his own—Sargon tells him, “Your probes have touched me, Mister Spock.” But the science officer’s instruments only detect energy deep below the surface of the planet (where else would it be?), where their transporters can’t reach. Not to worry, Sargon has it all under control. He even sets their transporters for them with the coordinates of a chamber with a breathable atmosphere. Kirk asks Dr. McCoy to join him, but Spock-blocks his second-in-command who is looking forward to studying their new friend. After all, what if something happens to both of them? All the power goes out and Kirk gets the message: Sargon wants the Vulcan along. The power comes back on and Spock accompanies Kirk to the transporter room, where they find a grumpy McCoy and a beautiful astrobiologist, Dr. Ann Mulhall, who answered a mysterious summons of her own and reported there without Kirk’s orders. Kirk doesn’t even know who she is, but what’s there to complain about?

Sargon beams down the away team, sans their two red shirts. Oddly, the security guards are fine; they were just left behind on Enterprise, the luckiest break of their probably short lives. The others end up in a vault that was created half a million years ago, when the planet’s atmosphere was ripped away. Its walls are made of a strange alloy Spock has never seen before. One of these fancy walls opens and they discover an inner chamber with a large glowing sphere inside: Sargon, or what’s left of him.

SARGON: Sealed in this receptacle is the essence of my mind.
SPOCK: Pure energy. Matter without form.
KIRK: Impossible.
MCCOY: But you once had a body of some type?
SARGON: A body much as yours, my children, although our minds were infinitely greater.

Kirk asks why he keeps calling them his children, and he explains that they may be distantly related, as they seeded the galaxy with life “six thousand centuries” ago, which is, uh, a long time. He even says the magic words: “Adam and Eve.” Sargon reveals that his race evolved to the point where they considered themselves gods, but despite their advanced minds, they still destroyed their civilization with war. Kirk cuts to the chase and asks how they can help. In answer he convulses, and Sargon speaks from the captain’s body: “I am Sargon.”

McCoy points a phaser at him and orders him out of Kirk’s body, but Spock comments that this is useless while Sargon is in control. Meanwhile, Sargon revels in the flood of new sensation in a living body instead of his receptacle—phenomenal cosmic power, itty-bitty living space.

SARGON (In Kirk’s body): Lungs filled with air again. To see again. Heart pumping, arteries surging with blood again. A half a million years. To be again. Your captain has an excellent body, Dr. McCoy. I compliment you both on the condition in which you maintained it.

Unfortunately, Sargon’s presence pushes Kirk’s body to dangerous limits: his blood pressure is increasing and he’s running a 104-degree fever. Meanwhile, the sphere glows feebly with the essence of Kirk’s mind, which is too weak to allow him to speak to them.

Sargon brings them to another chamber with many rows of dark receptacles. Only two of them glow with life energy: Henoch, one of his enemies from the war, and Thalassa, his wife. He asks to borrow Spock’s and Mulhall’s bodies long enough to build android bodies. Kirk’s body weakens and Sargon switches minds with him again. The captain collapses, but his body readings return to normal. He tells them:

When Sargon and I exchanged, as we passed each other, for an instant we were one. I know him now. I know what he is and what he wants, and I don’t fear him.

McCoy and Mulhall think he’s nuts, but Sargon allows them to return to Enterprise to discuss the situation, with the understanding that if a single person doesn’t want to cooperate, they will be free to go.

Kirk convenes a meeting with McCoy, Spock, Mulhall, and Scott, since he’d be working with the aliens to build their new bodies. Mulhall and Spock are fascinated with the possibilities for scientific discovery and technological advancement, but McCoy is dead set against it: “It all seems rather indecent to me.” He just wants to know why they should go along with this, and Kirk delivers a passionate speech that sways his vote:

They used to say if man could fly, he’d have wings. But he did fly. He discovered he had to. Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn’t reached the moon, or that we hadn’t gone on to Mars and then to the nearest star? That’s like saying you wish that you still operated with scalpels and sewed your patients up with catgut like your great-great-great-great-grandfather used to. I’m in command. I could order this. But I’m not because Doctor McCoy is right in pointing out the enormous danger potential in any contact with life and intelligence as fantastically advanced as this. But I must point out that the possibilities, the potential for knowledge and advancement is equally great. Risk… Risk is our business. That’s what the starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.

They beam the three receptacles aboard and perform the transfer in Sickbay. As soon as Henoch is in Spock’s body, he begins flirting with Nurse Chapel, while Sargon (in Kirk’s body) and Thalassa (in Mulhall’s) go at each other. They kiss, but things heat up too quickly and they collapse, their bodies unable to handle the burden of the alien minds inhabiting them. Henoch is having no trouble with his borrowed Vulcan physiology, so it’s up to him to work up a “metabolic reduction” formula to make it possible for Sargon and Thalassa to function in their human hosts.

It turns out Henoch isn’t entirely on the level. He likes Spock’s body and doesn’t want to give it up for a mechanical one, so he prepares a different formula for Sargon, so he will die in Kirk’s body. When Chapel notices his deception, he makes her forget it and forces her to believe the hyposprays are correctly loaded.

As Sargon weakens but shrugs it off, certain that he was given the correct formula, Henoch tries to tempt Thalassa into keeping her own body. She doesn’t relish the thought of being in a robot body that can’t feel anymore than he does. In turn, she tries to convince Sargon.

THALASSA: In time, a host body will become accustomed to us, husband. Injections will no longer be necessary.
SARGON: That will take months, perhaps years. We haven’t that choice, Thalassa.
THALASSA: Husband. Feel the touch of my hand, husband.
SARGON: No, beloved. If we torment ourselves—
THALASSA: Beloved. What will that word mean to a machine?
SARGON: Our thoughts will intertwine.
THALASSA: Will they, husband? Will they intertwine like this? Can two minds press close like this? Can robot lips do this?

They kiss, and once again it’s too much. Sargon collapses and McCoy pronounces him dead. Now all that remains of Kirk is his mind, trapped in the receptacle in Sickbay, though they can keep his body functioning for a time.

Henoch completes Thalassa’s android body, but she’s horrified when she sees it. His taunts drive her to propose a bargain with Dr. McCoy: she will restore Captain Kirk’s mind to his body if he will allow her to keep Mulhall’s body. All he has to do is pretend that she switched back and none will be the wiser.

MCCOY: Neither Jim nor I can trade a body we don’t own. It happens to belong to a young woman.
THALASSA: Who you hardly know. Almost a stranger to you.
MCCOY: I will not peddle flesh. I’m a physician.
THALASSA: A physician? In contrast to what we are, you are a prancing, savage medicine man. You dare defy one you should be on your knees worshipping? I could destroy you with a single thought.

And she tries to do just that, surrounding McCoy with flames and causing him great pain. She relents, realizing that Sargon was right to limit the use of their power. Sargon congratulates her for not succumbing to the temptation. It seems he didn’t die after all, he simply transferred his consciousness into Enterprise’s computer systems. McCoy goes to his office, leaving Thalassa and Sargon to discuss their plans.

A moment later, the ship shakes and Nurse Chapel exits Sickbay in a kind of trance. Dr. McCoy returns to discover Kirk is fine, Mulhall is back in her own body, and the receptacles have been destroyed—taking Spock’s mind with them. Dr. Mulhall tells him that Thalassa has joined Sargon and Kirk tells him it was necessary to sacrifice Spock:

Bones, prepare a hypo. The fastest, deadliest poison to Vulcans. Spock’s consciousness is gone. We must kill his body, the thing in it.

On the Bridge, Henoch is torturing Uhura and terrorizing the crew, while Chapel stands blankly by his side. Kirk, Mulhall, and McCoy arrive to stop him, but he inflicts pain on the captain and Mulhall. McCoy tries to inject him with the poison, but Henoch instructs Chapel to take the hypo from him and inject the doctor instead. She seems to comply, but turns it on Henoch at the last moment. Sargon prevents him from transferring to a new body and he collapses to the deck.

Kirk laments the loss of his friend, but Sargon comforts him: “I could not allow your sacrifice of one so close to you.” The lights flicker and he switches Spock’s consciousness from Chapel’s body back into his own. It was all a trick! Chapel’s and Spock’s minds shared her body for a while, so Henoch wouldn’t discover him. Sargon made McCoy think he had filled the hypo with poison so Henoch would read his mind and believe it, when it was merely a sedative meant to convince him to flee and destroy himself.

However, Sargon has come to a sobering conclusion after Henoch’s actions. “We now know we cannot permit ourselves to exist in your world, my children. Thalassa and I must now also depart into oblivion,” he says. He asks only for one small favor: to borrow Kirk’s and Mulhall’s bodies for one last time. The captain and doctor agree, allowing the aliens to share a touching moment, and a final kiss before departing.

THALASSA: Oblivion together does not frighten me, beloved. Promise we’ll be together.
SARGON: I promise, beloved.
THALASSA: Together forever.
SARGON: Forever beloved. Forever.


Analysis

“Return to Tomorrow” is a breath of fresh air after a stretch of crappy and mediocre episodes. I remembered this as one of several bodyswap/alien possession episodes of the series, but was truly stunned with how compelling and moving it is. It’s easy to mock Shatner’s melodramatic turn as Sargon (“Heart pumping, arteries surging with blood again.”) but he couples this same moment with a more nuanced performance, walking jerkily as though unaccustomed to legs after eons without a body, which neither the talented Leonard Nimoy or Diana Muldaur replicate when they act possessed in turn. Nimoy, of course, clearly enjoyed the opportunity to stretch his acting—and facial—muscles, playing out of character and allowing Hen-Spoch (did you see what I did there?) to smirk, smile, and scheme his way through his scenes.

This episode is remarkable because it isn’t about our usual Star Trek characters or their actions. It’s really focused on the relationships between Sargon, Henoch, and Thalassa, what happened to their civilization, and their efforts to regain some of their lost glory. Although Kirk and the others do give them the means to play out their power struggle and attain closure, they are pretty much stripped of any agency or ability to affect the outcome. Sargon, at least, is trying to make up for their mistakes by guiding the humans to a better end; it’s no surprise that he takes Kirk’s body, because they’re driven by the same passion and idealism for the future, and they share some of the same arrogance about their abilities and potential. He’s also just as good as the captain at tricking his enemies.

After a long run of space douches, Sargon is the real deal: despite his power and his frequent manipulations of the crew, he is compassionate and trustworthy. Even in the wake of a war that devastated his planet, he thought to include the opposing side in their repository of minds, though that turned out to be another mistake. His decision to seek oblivion at the end is also unexpectedly noble and satisfying. Though he doesn’t get to follow through on his desire to help humanity, just his example should provide some perspective as humans continue to evolve—and better that he encountered the Enterprise crew than faded into obscurity on his planet. As McCoy will say years later under different circumstances, “He’s really not dead, as long as we remember him.”

Along with an impressive plot that would be good science fiction even without the Star Trek setting, complete with some surprising twists that actually work, this is also a love story glimpsed through brief moments between Sargon and Thalassa, with a bittersweet ending. The romantic in me completely agrees with Christine Chapel’s assessment: “It was beautiful.”

I only have one glaring nitpick on this one: why didn’t Sargon build android bodies instead of receptacles and a giant underground chamber, if they had the knowledge and materials? Perhaps they didn’t have enough time, or it wouldn’t have done them any good without a way off the planet? Speaking of which, is a planet Class M if you can’t breathe on it anymore? Why is Mulhall in a red uniform if she’s a scientist? And what’s with everyone addressing Mr. Scott as “Engineer” all the time?

Finally, it’s interesting that Spock seems to agree with Sargon’s suggestion that they are related, claiming it would “explain certain elements of Vulcan prehistory.” Henoch discovers that the Vulcan body is more compatible with his mind, the receptacles are reminiscent of Vulcan katric arks, and we know Vulcans are capable of transferring their minds into other bodies as well.

All in all, a fantastic episode.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: The first thing I did when I was able to finally peel my eyes away from this breathtaking episode was look up whether the writer had contributed anything else to Star Trek. When I learned he didn’t, I became heartbroken. “Return to Tomorrow” is what science fiction (and Star Trek in particular) is all about: the pursuit of science and new experiences, the beauty of connecting to one another in a mostly empty universe, and the feeling of limitless possibilities. Bodyswapping is one of my least favorite SFnal tropes, but “Return to Tomorrow” pulled it off with finesse. It’s a love story—not just between Sargon and Thalassa, but a paean to the richness of the human consciousness.

There are so many great scenes, and one of the early ones is Kirk’s round-table discussion about whether or not to loan their bodies to these beings. (How great is it that this is a choice?) Kirk tries to appeal to everyone’s interests, but McCoy says, “Then I’ll still want one question answered to my satisfaction. Why? Not a list of possible miracles, but a simple basic understandable ‘why’ that overrides all danger.” It’s not just a risk analysis he wants, but an explanation, an understanding. It’s the most important question in the world: Why? Kirk explains that human history has, in a way, been an attempt to answer that question. Why go to the moon, to the stars? Why do anything so dangerous as to put human life on the line? Because the mere potential and possibility of what we can achieve is so great that it’s worth the risk. Maybe it just hit a weak spot—you all know how I feel about the Apollo program—but I was most moved by his invocation of the manned spaceflight program. Here is a fictional future starship captain referencing a real-life scientific accomplishment that hasn’t happened yet but is accepted as part of human history. It’s presented as something that will happen, absolutely, without reservation, because men can do that. Because men will always reach beyond them for answers to “Why?”

But this isn’t just a cold examination of the importance of scientific progress—it’s a tribute to love and the intangible human experience. Humans are fundamentally lonely, trapped inside their own minds and bodies (or spheres…), but when they connect—when they find a piece of themselves in someone else—something beautiful and luminous happens. I liked that when Kirk gets his body back, he says he’s not afraid anymore, because he felt and understood Sargon. The real achievement here is that despite the fact most of the episode involves our main characters acting as puppets, I never for a moment felt like I was watching anyone other than Sargon, Thalassa, and Henoch. There was nothing cheesy about it, and those personalities, so different (and yet so not…) from our heroes, were commanding, compassionate, and all their own. I ached for Sargon and Thalassa when they spoke of not wanting to be forgotten, begging Kirk to “rescue us from oblivion,” and yet in the end they chose oblivion as a final act of compassion. Most painful, of course, was watching the two of them in their new bodies come to terms with the ultimate inadequacy of machines to communicate love. I still think the androids would have been fine until they came up with a better solution 1000 years down the line, but their decision to disappear together was touching and, well, romantic.

I also want to note something I found insanely impressive in this episode: plot coherence. It was smart and never used plot coupons to shortcut to something. Sargon gives Kirk time to think about his proposal because “After all these centuries, we can wait a few more hours.” Thalassa suggest enlisting actual engineers to help build the android. And most importantly, the final reveal was actually clever. I can’t tell you how impressed I was about the resolution. Major props here to Nurse Chapel, who manages to be strong, funny, and sweet all at once. We don’t see her character nearly often enough, but every time she’s around she just shines. It still kills me that Barrett could have been Number One—she’s a scene-stealer and such a rich and fabulous actress.

My one unresolved question though: what do you all think the “cataclysm” was? It seemed like an environmental disaster of some kind (an environmentalism metaphor?), since the atmosphere was ripped away, as opposed to, say, a war.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 6

Best Line: Probably Kirk’s famous “risk is our business” speech, but these lines just before it cracked me up: “Scotty, I need your approval, too. Since you’ll work with them, furnishing them all they need to make the android robots. You won’t be working with them, you’ll be working with us, our bodies. They’ll be inside us, and we’ll be—”

Syndication Edits: None, it seems.

Trivia: In the original script, Sargon and Thalassa continue on as spirits, but Roddenberry rewrote the ending, prompting writer John T. Dugan to use his pen name John Kingsbridge.

One of the fiberglass receptacles reappears in later episodes as a Romulan cloaking device (“The Enterprise Incident”) and as the robot M-4 (“Requiem for Methuselah”). Sargon’s stand is reused in “All Our Yesterdays.”

In a deleted scene, Sargon’s planet is referred to as “Arret” (Terra backwards). The name “Sargon” apparently comes from Assyrian and Mesopotamian kings, “Henoch” appears in the Old Testament, and “Thalassa” is the name of a Greek sea goddess.

A new musical score was composed for this episode, unusual this late in a season, and never reused except for the Henoch score in “Patterns of Force” and “The Omega Glory.”

This episode marked George Takei’s return to the show after his 10-episode absence to film The Green Berets.

Diana Muldaur (Mulhall) was so good, she returned to Star Trek not once, but twice: as Dr. Miranda Jones in the third season “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” and of course as Dr. Katherine Pulaski in season two of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where she still has little affection for androids.

The idea that humanity was seeded by other races is revisited in the episode “The Paradise Syndrome” and resurfaces in the TNG episode “The Chase.”

Other notes: This episode provides material for several clips in the famous Star Trek blooper reel, most notably Shatner touching Sargon’s sphere and saying, “Have no fear, Sargon is here.”

Kirk refers to the Apollo moon landing, which wouldn’t happen until the following year with Apollo 11.


Previous Episode: Season 2, Episode 19 – “A Private Little War.”

Next Episode: Season 2, Episode 21 – “Patterns of Force.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.


This post originally appeared on Tor.com.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.