TOS Rewind #46: "Return to Tomorrow"
Up now: Return to Tomorrow (02/09/1968)
Eric, Rob, and I did a podcast for this one. Listen to it here.
Eric starts us out this time:
Return to Tomorrow is one of those episodes that's a mixed bag. It is commendable in many ways, but there are detractors too.
Just as a matter of trivia, Dr. Ann Mulhall is played by Diana Muldaur, who also played Miranda Jones in the third season episode, "Is There in Truth No Beauty" and Dr. Katherine Pulaski in the second season of Star Trek:The Next Generation.
In any case, let's begin with the positives. One thing I always enjoy about this episode is getting a glimpse into the fictional prehistory of our galaxy. Sargon's race existed long before humanity and may have been responsible for some of the intelligent humanoid races that subsequently evolved. (This could present some serious continuity problems, given what ST:TNG established about the prehistory of intelligent humanoid species in our galaxy, but I'll save that geekiness for another time.) Leonard Nimoy also does a delightful job playing the evil Henoch--I have to believe that was a great deal of fun. And not to be outdone, DeForest Kelley turns in a subtle but excellent scene when McCoy refuses to betray Kirk and Mulhall saying she will not "peddle flesh!" Probably the most moving scene, though, is when Kirk, in a briefing, delivers a spot-on summary of the mission of the Enterprise, which is by extension a summary of Star Trek.
On the down side, it was less than satisfying to see the crew being used as helpless pawns in the power struggle between Sargon and Henoch. That sort of situation usually is a hallmark of a sub-par episode. And the resolution of the episode seems a bit contrived and muddled. In spite of these detractors, however, I find that Return to Tomorrow holds up surprisingly well.
I realize this sounds like a repeat of some earlier reviews, but this is another one of those episodes that I have never loved, but also didn't despise. I'll get back to that factor later as I believe that Eric nailed the fundamental issue with this episode well.
So here we are, watching our brave heroes cruising along in space when some alien intelligence contacts them from a seemingly dead planet in a remote section of the galaxy. The idea of the Enterprise encountering this sort of situation has always been compelling for me; it is good, classic science fiction. The setup here looks good: who were these people? What happened to their civilization? How did they keep the lights going for centuries in those plastic globes? Of course we can't have some big cheese from a long-dead advanced civilization appearing without a healthy dose of condescension: "my son." Shouldn't that bother Kirk just a bit after the treatment he and the crew got from Apollo?
As soon as it's revealed that Sargon and the other aliens want to "borrow" Kirk and company for a while that we get one of the better parts of this episode. The cast actually has a decent discussion about making contact with aliens like that. McCoy is placed as the skeptic here and he has a very good point, but has no chance when Kirk gives his "risk is our business" speech. It's a good one that serves to prime the viewer for some good old fashioned alien mind control. As Eric pointed out already, a real weakness in this episode is the way that the main characters become sidelined while Sargon and Henoch battle it out. I also have to ask: if Sargon is so incredibly smart, why doesn't he think twice before letting Tenoch (Spock) out of his globe, knowing he was an enemy in the old interstellar war? The story resolution feels like a cheat with the aliens seeing the error of their ways (not so smart, eh?) and disappearing into outer space. But at least they have their love to keep them warm...
Another factor here is the way that Shatner acts when Sargon is in his body. Not only do we get the scenery chewing Kirk-like performance, but the acting has this extra slow-moving heft that looks silly even for Shatner. Compounding the issue is the insistence on using an echo effect for the aliens whenever they are in their bodies. Would it have killed the director to rely on the actors to tell us when the characters had changed?. Nimoy fares best under these circumstances as he gets to play an evil, conniving character that is completely different than Spock. Sargon is like an older stuffed shirt version of Kirk. Diana Muldaur is fine, but I have never really warmed to her performances either in the Original Series or her turn as Dr. Pulaski on Next Generation. Maybe it's just me...
The effects on the Blu-Ray version look fine, though there wasn't a lot of new material. Maybe I would have been more impressed if they'd offered an alternate audio track that removed the echo from Shatner's voice!
Next time: "Patterns of Force"