Written by John T. Dugan and Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Ralph Senensky
Tackling subjects not commonly talked about back in the day was one of the strengths of the original series of Star Trek. It made the show far more interesting and different from anything else that was on the air at the time. Looking back now, it’s hard to understand sometimes how cutting edge it was.
In Return to Tomorrow, the Enterprise finds a planet devastated by war more than half a million years before. The remaining life evolved beyond the corporeal, encased in three orbs, having waited all those years to be found. It is found by a landing party consisting of Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Doctor McCoy (DeForrest Kelley), and Dr. Ann Mulhall (Diana Muldaur). One orb is Sargon, his wife Thalassa, and one of his opposition, Henoch.
If that’s alarm bells going off in your head, you’d be right. Why the audience can see that and the crew of the Enterprise cannot is a weak spot in an otherwise good story.
Sargon uses Captain Kirk’s body momentarily to demonstrate what he wants. He wants to allow the three “souls” to inhabit the body of three members of the Enterprise crew so they may construct body-like containers that they may resemble living again. In return, Sargon proposes to give them scientific knowledge way beyond what they currently have. Sounds like a great deal, right? No harm, no foul?
This was the first of multiple appearances by Diana Muldaur in the Star Trek universe. She makes another appearance in the original series and then again as Doctor Pulaski in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Her performance here is great, both as Dr. Mulhall and the body with Thalassa. Leonard Nimoy also gets to be something other than the unemotional Vulcan. He seems to enjoy those moments for all he can and gets a good number of them throughout the second season.
The weak spot in the acting is William Shatner. He tries to ham it up a bit too much in the role of the Captain inhabited by the peaceful Sargon. There are a few cringe-worthy moments, but they don’t detract from the story overall.
And the story is a good one that asks questions about life. Should we keep people alive beyond when their bodies have worn out for the knowledge they possess? What kind of life is that? Sargon seems at peace with being “trapped” in an artificial body, but Henoch seems to feel quite differently. Thalassa is torn between the two, at times feeling that it would be a great idea to stay in Dr. Mulhall’s body rather than switching to the artificial one being created for her.
The body-switching plot would be a popular one over the years in many science fiction shows. I think here it works the best I’ve ever seen, largely to a good story and good acting. We care about Sargon, Thalassa, and even Henoch because they are the characters we know from the series. At the same time, they are very much their own, carrying the baggage of a half a million years earlier.
All in all Return to Tomorrow is a solid episode of the series that holds up very well. There’s a crisis and drama as the Enterprise tries to help beings that seem altruistic. Can our souls exist outside of our bodies? Can they be contained in something other than our bodies? There’s a lot to think about with no clear answers, and that’s good.