Star Trek Re-Watch: “Tomorrow is Yesterday”

“Tomorrow is Yesterday”
Written by D. C. Fontana
Directed by Michael O’Herlihy

Season 1, Episode 19
Production episode: 1×21
Original air date: January 26, 1967
Star date: 3113.2

Mission Summary
In the radar room of a U.S. Air Base circa the late 1960s, someone notices a blip: some kind of ship has entered the atmosphere “like it fell out of the sky or something.” It beeps on the radar. A UFO sighting! The captain orders someone to go up and take a closer look. As the camera cuts to the pilots getting ready to intercept and investigate, we see the tiny figure of the Enterprise, in orbit around an ancient Earth.Through a captain’s log we learn that en route to Starbase 9, the Enterprise got sucked into a “black star,” and in order to escape the strong gravitational pull they had to reverse engines at full warp power. The result? A mumblemumble gravitational slingshot effect that sent them tumbling through space-time, “to stop here, wherever we are.”

With only impulse power, the Enterprise needs some time to get the engines back online. They try to contact Starfleet Command, but there’s no signal—all they can pick up is a news report announcing the first manned moon shot.

KIRK: Manned moon shot? That was in the late 1960s.
SPOCK: Apparently, Captain, so are we.

Just as that’s sinking in, the Air Force interceptor arrives and is ordered to either force the UFO to land or “disable” it. Worried about nuclear weapons that could harm the already-crippled Enterprise, Spock warns Kirk that any damage taken might not be repairable in this time period. Kirk decides to put the aircraft under a tractor beam, but the ancient plane begins to break up under the force of the beam. To save the pilot’s life, Kirk beams him aboard the Enterprise.

The pilot, Captain Christopher, is understandably freaked the fuck out, and stares wondrously at Kirk. He’s surprised that Kirk speaks English (and even more surprised to see lady crewmembers!), and absolutely astounded by the bridge, where Kirk has the foresight to tell him not to touch anything. Spock doesn’t think this tour of the ship is a good idea, and tells Kirk that given what the man has seen of the future, he can’t possibly be allowed to return to the present. The information could be dangerous. He might design miniskirts.

Christopher is none too happy about this—he has a wife and two daughters back home that he’d like to see again. Ironically, while the engines can be repaired in a matter of hours, Scotty reminds the captain that they have no place to go. Christopher demonstrates the maturity of a five-year-old by taking glee in this: “Too bad, Captain. Maybe I can’t go home, but neither can you. You’re as much a prisoner in time as I am.”

Way to be the bigger man, Christopher! He then attempts to escape, though Kirk is able to stop him. McCoy suggests that perhaps he could be retrained in the future, and become a productive member of society. Kirk, however, is way less politic, and states frankly that “in our society he’d be useless. Archaic.” Moreover, he’s skeptical that he could be “trained” to forget his family. Because McCoy and Kirk are such sensitive people, they have this conversation right over Christopher’s bedside, and he overhears the whole thing. Though originally they believed that the captain had made no “relevant contribution” to Earth history (ouch…), it turns out that his son winds up being a famous astronaut—a son that hasn’t been born yet.

With no choice but to return him (the captain’s “woohoo!” can be heard throughout the ship), Kirk decides that some damage control is still in order, and he and Sulu beam down to the air force base to recover any recordings and photos that the captain transmitted back to base. They find an old tape machine (which Kirk amusingly notes he’s only seen in museums), and they recover the tapes…just as a sergeant catches them. The sergeant takes the tapes, their communicator, and their belts, and orders them not to move. Meanwhile, worried that they haven’t reported back, Spock beams the communicator back to the ship—and the sergeant with it!

Sulu and Kirk move on to the photo lab to get the last of the evidence, but in doing so they trip a sensor, alerting the base to their presence. Three men enter the lab and find Kirk, who closes the door to the development room itself, allowing Sulu the chance to beam away. The three men are utterly mystified by Kirk’s miraculous presence, and not satisfied with his explanation that he “popped out of thin air.” The following interrogation scene is truly spectacular: a smug and wily Kirk toys with the Air Force personnel, headed by Fellini:

FELLINI: What is that? Is that a uniform of some kind?
KIRK: This little thing? Just something I slipped on.

FELLINI: All right, Kirk. Maybe this will make you laugh. Sabotage, espionage, unauthorised entry, burglary. How are those for starters? And I can think up lots more if you don’t start talking.
KIRK: All right, Colonel. The truth is, I’m a little green man from Alpha Centauri. A beautiful place. You ought to see it.
FELLINI: I am going to lock you up for two hundred years.
KIRK: That ought to be just about right.

But before it can go much further, Spock, Sulu, and Christopher beam down and disable the men, freeing Kirk. They are all about to return and beam up when Christopher turns on them, refusing to beam back. Spock knew this would happen (who didn’t?) and uses his trusty Vulcan racial ability to nerve-pinch him into submission.

They return to the Enterprise, and with the warp engines back online they decide to try a reverse mumblemumble slingshot effect to get back…to the future! The two 20th century guys, Capt. Christopher and the sergeant, agree to be beamed back in time to the point at which they left, hopefully leaving them without any memory of the experience (mysteriously…). Because this is Star Trek, it totally works, and everyone makes it safely back to their proper place in space-time.

Classic science fiction premise, classic television execution: just what the doctor ordered. Okay, so it makes absolutely zero sense: I can deal with that. We’ve got time travel to the past-as-present, two unwitting guys who get wrapped up in it, and a farcical attempt to restore order and balance to this kooky world. I really enjoyed this episode, perhaps more than it deserved (I’m a sucker for time travel stories). What made it for me was the humor. It didn’t rely primarily on cheap laughs built around stereotypes and cliches (see: “Shore Leave”), and it didn’t fall into the trap of making the situation so goofy that you miss the really serious threat of the premise. Instead, we get some hilarious character moments: Kirk’s “oh shit!” face when the sergeant beams up instead of him; Spock’s underplayed eyebrow raises and barely restrained smiles; and Sulu’s face brightening when he sees the classic tape machine that he had previously only see in museums. Kirk and Sulu exchange delightful glances at each other as they break in, like two kids who know they’re doing something naughty and aren’t where they’re supposed to be.

A huge highlight for me was the really well-choreographed fight scene between Kirk and the Air Force goons. Compared to the Gorn fight, in which the lizardman is so slow and awkward that it seems like he’s been mildly sedated, this is great fight. My favorite part of the episode was by far the Kirk interrogation scene right after the fight. Shatner pulls off that trademark blend of smug arrogance and puckish pranking with zest. And you know what? I think the lady computer was hilarious, especially when it changed from sultry woman to petulant child. I’d like to pretend that the Amazon planet programmed that as a big joke on Kirk, knowing it would fluster him. The whole episode was just a joy to watch from beginning to end.

Lastly, I love the way that the episode plays with the idea of space travel as a whole. What if men were the aliens that visited Earth? Would we recognize ourselves? Kirk, who’s traveled the galaxy, jokingly tells Christopher that he doesn’t believe in little green men—and yet he’s seen aliens so different from humans. How can he say that it’s not possible there might be some out there? I think it’s because our idea of the alien or the “other” doesn’t always mesh up with the reality, and the alien doesn’t have to be something frightening. Kirk is an alien to Christopher, and yet despite the centuries that separate them, they are so similar. We might be afraid to look at the unknown, but there’s no reason to be frightened: maybe it’s just another version of us out there, ambitious, spirited, and determined.

This aired at the height of the space program, before man had landed on the moon; the possibilities are endless, and the hope and optimism and excitement about the new frontier is undeniable. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the child Christopher has after these events take place becomes an astronaut.

Torie’s Rating: Warp Factor 5 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: The premise of this episode is kind of cute: what if the Enterprise traveled back in time to modern day America (where modern day = 1967) and was mistaken for a UFO? This is something we’ve seen before (or…later?) in science fiction, including in Star Trek: DS9 (“Little Green Men”), and of course we have echoes of this episode in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the modern day has been updated to 1986 and they get to run around another military base. The slingshot method of time travel that sends the Enterprise to the 1960s, originally established in “The Naked Time” (which is oddly not referenced in this episode at all) is also pivotal to that film’s plot.

So “Tomorrow is Yesterday” (one of my favorite episode titles in TOS) is mostly fun and mostly harmless, with some hilarious dialogue and terrific character interactions, though at times it’s a bit too meta and possibly too ridiculous (such as the sexy computer voice flirting with Kirk, which just feels so out-of-place). It has one of the most astonishing teasers in the series, a shot of the starship flying in Earth’s atmosphere against a clear blue sky. And it also deals with some interesting moral questions, direct and implied, that make this more than just a throwaway episode.

The primary issue is what to do with Captain John Christopher. Setting aside the fact that Kirk basically screwed up when he sets the tractor beams on Christopher’s plane, thereby jeopardizing the pilot’s life, the captain has to decide whether to send the man home or risk erasing their future. (Here’s that pesky interpretation of temporal paradox and a single timeline, which crops up again and again in the old shows.)  There never really seems to be a question that preserving the timeline is going to take priority over Christopher’s life, even though it was their fault that he got involved in the first place.

In fact, they’re all a little bit cold to him, such as when Spock announces—in his presence—that Christopher basically accomplishes nothing important with his life. Ouch. How would that make the guy feel if he does get home? Moreover, he can’t even do anything useful in the future with his limited education. (If only he were a whale biologist! How Kirk changes his tune when the twentieth century traveler is a single woman.) Spock even seems to take pleasure in showing off his alienness in front of the ignorant human. Though they discuss the possibility, it seems unlikely that Christopher will ever see his family again, especially since they keep giving him more information about the future—the very thing they want to avoid! They certainly shouldn’t be telling him that he’s going to have a son, who is going to make a “relevant contribution” and seems essential to the space program and the eventual creation of Starfleet. Well, that changes everything, doesn’t it? Let’s send Christopher back, then.

They don’t really entertain many other options. They consider whether they can condition him to forget his family, but not if they can wipe his memory of the Enterprise. What about Spock’s Vulcan mind meld? Almost anything would make more sense than their eventual solution of replacing him with himself before he sees the Enterprise.

Okay, let’s actually talk about that for a second. What exactly did they do? Considering that the transporter beam overlaps him for a second, it looks like they’re beaming him back into himself, but since he doesn’t remember anything that happened from that point forward, it seems that they’ve actually… killed him. They’ve wiped out the other version of him, the Christopher that went aboard their ship. And I don’t think any interpretation of quantum physics can account for the fact that the Enterprise he saw isn’t there anymore, since they haven’t prevented themselves from traveling in time. It seems that the time stream can only accommodate one version of each, and the newer version replaces the old one, or something. Someone help me out here! Kirk doesn’t even bother trying to explain it to Starfleet when they call the Enterprise when it returns to its own time.

They do the same thing to the crazy catatonic sergeant, beaming him in moments before he discovers them. (But how can he discover them in the room when they aren’t there? Time travel gives me a headache.) But they may have actually done him a favor; what I find most distressing about what they do to Christopher is the implicit trust he has in them. It never crosses his mind that they might just kill him, since he’s essentially an inconvenient loose end. He even goes so far as to thank them for “the look ahead”: the glimpse of space and man’s future that he forgets moments later. Thanks for nothing, is more like it.

There are some rewarding elements that might slip by if you aren’t paying attention. This episode highlights the difference between the 20th century and the 23rd when Christopher sees (okay, ogles) a woman walking by and is astonished that she’s on board—and part of the crew. Spock later tells him about Cygnet XIV, “a planet dominated by women,” who unfortunately give their computer systems an “upgrade.” I liked seeing how much Kirk and Sulu enjoyed being in the military base, with all that old twentieth century stuff; you get a sense that this is what put them in space, their sense of adventure and curiosity, even if they’re showing the same response to their own pasts. I’m a bit surprised that they beamed down in their uniforms, though. Did anyone else think of a sonic screwdriver when Kirk used his whistling-thingy to unlock a door?

So basically, “Tomorrow is Yesterday” has a good setup but fails to follow through, though I still managed to enjoy a lot of it. I’m such a sucker for time travel stories.  D.C. Fontana has contributed both some of the best and some of the worst episodes of the franchise, but this one falls squarely in the middle for me.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp Factor 4 (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Line:

KIRK: Now you’re sounding like Spock.
MCCOY: If you’re going to get nasty, I’m going to leave.

Syndication Edits: After the initial shake-up, Kirk asking about auxiliaries, Spock wondering if Scotty has taken care of the engines, and And Kirk helping up Uhura from the floor (panty-shot!); Captain Christopher gazing in astonishment at the miniskirted crewmember; McCoy and Kirk’s conversation about how the 430 people onboard would, if they came to earth, certainly change the future; Kirk and Sulu’s comment about only seeing the tape reels in museums; Spock’s captain’s log; and the first part of Kirk’s interrogation.

Trivia: The Star Trek Chronology apparently lists this episode as taking place in 1969, which leads to an interesting premonition: the “manned moon shot” that was Apollo 11 did wind up launching on a Wednesday in 1969 (July 16).

Other notes: This episode was originally part two of a two-parter that began with “The Naked Time.”

Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 17 – “Arena.”


Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 19 – “Court Martial.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

This post originally appeared on

About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books. 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 adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.