Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Return to Tomorrow" (February 9, 1968)

Stardate 4768.3

The Enterprise receives a distress call from a dead planet, and is contacted by a being called Sargon.  This individual asks that a landing party beam down to a vault beneath one hundred miles of solid rock.  Mysteriously, Sargon refers to the crew as “my children.”

Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) and Dr. Ann Mulhall (Diana Muldaur) beam down and discover that Sargon is from a long-dead race of god-like beings who once explored the stars, and even visited the human race. 

A destructive and terrible war tore apart their world, Arret, half-a-million years ago, and now Sargon, his wife, Thalassa, and a representative from the other side, Henoch, are all that remain of the planet’s populace.

They exist, however, not as physical bodies, but as incorporeal forms encased in large orbs.  

Sargon’s proposal for Captain Kirk is simple. He, Henoch and Thalassa would like to use the bodies of Kirk, Spock, and Mulhall to inhabit while they build robot bodies for themselves to spend eternity dwelling in.

McCoy is unhappy about the idea, because each body “possessed” undergoes dangerous spikes in cardiac function, and risks being “burned out.” Sargon insists that this symptom can be tempered with regular injections, but Kirk must sill convince his crew that they should take the risk, because the possibility of interacting with the incredibly wise Sargon, and his wealth of knowledge, promises to be worthwhile.

What Kirk has not counted on, however, is that Henoch has no desire to live in a robot body. Instead, Henoch would rather keep Spock’s. And knowing that Sargon would never let that happen, Henoch plans to murder his -- Kirk’s -- body…

Like last week’s “A Private Little War,” “Return to Tomorrow” is one of those thoroughly entertaining and impressive episodes of the original Star Trek (1966-1969) that seems to get forgotten when lists of ten best, twenty best, or even season best episodes are drafted.

“A Return to Tomorrow” deserves at least some consideration for ten best of Season Two, I would suggest, because of Kirk’s incredible speech about risk, and the reason that mankind must accept risk if he wishes to thrive, and move forward. It is an inspiring speech, and I like to think of it as the Kirk Doctrine, or the Kirk Manifesto.

It goes something like this:

“They used to say that 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 to the nearest star? That’s like saying that you wished you still operated with scalpels and sewed your patients up with catgut…

…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 this starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.”

Looking back, this doctrine isn’t merely inspirational, it’s a blueprint for the next steps that we need to take, right here, right now, in 2017, to move forward into the universe. I love this particular Kirk speech, and believe it speaks to the core appeal of Star Trek as a franchise, and indeed, as a philosophy, or futurist movement.

The speech also speaks to Captain Kirk’s character; his heroism, his innate optimism.  It demonstrates his ability to lead, to rally others to his cause, even to be an effective public speaker. (Sorry, I teach public speaking, and one lesson I enjoy teaching every semester concerns the art of persuasion, and how the great speakers summon us by calling to the best angels of our nature, not the gutter emotions.) Kirk’s speech in this episode is a textbook perfect example of that approach. He acknowledges that there is danger, but then moves right into the inspirational talk about the rewards that lay beyond the danger. He tells us not only to strive, but why we should strive. And he ties that striving right back to human history, and the history of space travel.

Because Captain Kirk has this opportunity to lead, and to inspire, “Return to Tomorrow” takes on a special quality, at least as far as I’m concerned. Kirk isn’t just reacting to a crisis here. He isn’t just choosing a course of action. He is proving why he sits in the center seat, and why his crew would follow him to the edge of the galaxy and beyond.

Of course, the episode possesses other values worth noting

In fact, “Return to Tomorrow” is nearly a textbook example of why William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were each cast in the series. Shatner gets the opportunity to go big, to make us feel inspired with his character’s rhetoric and discourse. 

And Leonard Nimoy -- who holds back so much as Spock -- gets to play a diabolical, smirking character, Henoch.  Since we are so accustomed to seeing Spock as an emotionless persona, it is a shock to the system to see small changes, like that devilish smirk, or Spock leaning casually against a door frame.  It’s as if Leonard Nimoy understands that just by doing little things – by turning outward his performance just a notch or two, the impact would be huge.  It was a brilliant calculation.

The theme underlining “Return to Tomorrow” is also powerful. The episode concerns vanity, or overconfidence (rather than a fear of progress). Sargon and his people reached a point of advancement so great that they began to consider themselves Gods. 

Considering oneself a god means that laws are no longer needed, or simply required for others. That rules no longer matter.

Henoch believes he is owed survival, and Spock’s body as well, because of the gifts he could bring the galaxy. Thalassa nearly travels this route too, until she sees how much she is privileging her own happiness over the existence of the others.  She is horrified to realize she has been so selfish, so impulsive.

The message is that even as we advance, even as we grow and develop, we maintain our “human equation,” which consists of jealousy, avarice, selfishness, and other emotions. We can walk forward into a brave future, but we will still carry these cave-man legacies with us.  We must master them, or they will be our undoing, as Spock might remind us.

That’s what happened to Sargon’s people. They thought they were Gods.  They forgot they were human, and still tethered to mortality, and fallibility.

The story is a powerful tale of love, too. Sargon and Thalassa have loved one another for 600,000 years, through war and a virtually incorporeal existence. Here, they face the possibility of oblivion, but face it together.  It’s a powerful argument for love, for connection, even for monogamy, if you wish to take the lesson that far.

I haven’t mentioned Diana Muldaur yet, and I must do so, before closing.  She is an important actor in Star Trek history, for her roles in the original series and The Next Generation. She is an exceptionally strong presence in this episode, and transmits brilliantly an understanding of the conflict that her character, Thalassa, faces.  She is not evil. She is not a menace to the universe. She is a person who wants, above anything else, to live, to be human again And in wanting that, she is able to look right past the rights of others. Muldaur makes Thalassa very human, both petty and transcendent.

Indeed, that seems to be the whole point of this episode, to explore the human condition and our ability to be those things.  We must take risks and strive as we move forward, but heaven help us if we ever forget that we are mortal and fallible.

Next week: “Patterns of Force.”


  1. Sheri6:09 PM

    I could swear that the reason Sargon refers to the cast as "my children" is that he and his fellow beings not only visited, but actually seeded or colonized humans throughout the galaxy. This explains Sargon's undaunted altruism toward the humans for whom he feels responsible, in contrast to Thalassa's temptation and Henoch's total corruption. These three, in a slightly different way than with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, represent the Id, Ego and Superego of Freudian thought. Thalassa's struggle to resist temptation makes her the character to whom we can relate, as she represents Everyman in this trio.

    That "risk is our business speech" is absolutely an expression of man's essential aspirational nature, the need to DO, to seek, to find, to learn. I agree that this is the distillation of the very essence of Star Trek, the reason people watched it over and over and found it inspirational. And the soaring music that underlies that speech is used one other time for a similar speech: in "Mirror Mirror", when Kirk challenges Mirror Spock, saying, "In every revolution there's one man with a vision . . ." In both cases, we have the quintessential explorer (of both the internal and the external unknown) explaining who we are, what we are meant to do, and why we do it.

    Was there ever a character--a human character, not a superhero--created for television who so represented both the reality of human existence and the thrust of mankind's need to strive and learn? I don't think so. William Shatner has taken a lot of flak for alleged hamminess, but I don't think audiences would have responded so readily to a character meant to represent both the internal and external, the real and the aspirational, if the performance had been any flatter. Kirk is meant to be both life and larger than life. How boring it would have been if we couldn't have *seen* and *felt* why his own crew so readily responded to him! There was once a psychological study done of children (possibly autistic children, I can't recall) that compared the impact of various TV shows on them. The upshot was that Star Trek had penetrated their minds more readily than any show on television, and Mission Impossible did so the least. The reason was that every episode was as readily *heard* as seen, so they didn't have to be looking at the screen to absorb the action or the message. If Shatner occasionally went over the top, well, so what? Who was more memorable?

  2. Another excellent and winning review, John.
    That Kirk's "Risk" speech is the heart of this episode goes without saying, but it could arguably be the heart of not only The Original Series, but every iteration of Star Trek that has come since. Why do we, as human beings, continue? Why press on? "Return to Tomorrow" presents a multitude of answers, and is a wonderful statement on what motivates our humanity - both good and bad.
    I, too greatly admire all of the performances on display here. William Shatner is simply brilliant, his words and emotions breathtaking, and I daresay courageous. How many actors could take the lines about "Heart pumping, arteries surging with blood again" and make them feel not only alive, filled with both power and pathos, allow them to be taken seriously, and make us believe they're being spoken by someone other than Kirk? Only William Shatner, that's who.
    As for Nimoy, among the details you noted, he even changes the way he walks when Spock's body is occupied by Henoch. His gait becomes a kind of swagger, and it's definitely a conscious choice made by the actor. It reminds me of how Christopher Reeve literally changed his physical appearance for both Clark Kent and Superman (a choice which Melissa Benoist wisely echoes in her portrayal of Supergirl).
    This was an "A-game" episode, and everyone brought it, from the director to the musical composer. Memorable and thoughtful, "Return to Tomorrow" is why we're aboard the Starship Enterprise.

  3. John, thoughtful review of “Return to Tomorrow”.
    Sheri excellent comments too. I love the "Risk is our business speech" scene and always submit that scene to anyone that does not appreciate Star Trek. It gave me goosebumps when I saw it as a boy in the '70s and still makes me smile every time.


  4. Excellent review John, of (as you pointed out) a very underrated episode. So happy that you made special mention of the extraordinary Diana Muldaur. I also love her performance and character in another criminally underrated episode, season 3's "Is There No Truth In Beauty". She was also great in Gene Roddenberry's "Planet Earth" playing a very different character than either of her two classic Trek outings.

  5. I adore Kirk's speeches, from "We're not going to kill today" to "In every revolution, there's one man with a vision," to "Risk is our business." Shatner's bad behavior during the series has sometimes overshadowed or tainted Kirk, but it's important to remember that the actor is not the character. Shatner may be petty and insecure, but KIRK is a great man, an incredibly inspiring person who shows us the best of humanity.


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