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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.”