|Morph Ball acquired.|
This is an episode I really, really wanted to like but the whole thing sort of left me feeling unsatisfied at the end. Mind, this is after I had to remind myself what it actually was: “Return to Tomorrow” is unfortunately one of the episodes that I’ve always tended to get mixed up with a bunch of other episodes, namely “The Return of the Archons”, “This Side of Paradise”, “The Way to Eden” and “The Paradise Syndrome”. Basically, Star Trek has far too many episodes with the words “Return”, “Eden”, “Paradise” and “Tomorrow” in the title, and this isn’t even getting at my old bugbear the show keeps loving to fall back on: Bland, lazy Garden of Eden and Book of Genesis pastiches. By The Prophets even “The Cage” had an “Adam and Eve” plot, and this one has the nerve to not only drag that up again, but throw Erich von Däniken into the mix and imply Sargon’s people were the inspiration for those myths. Almost five years into Star Trek I can flatly and confidently claim I am beyond sick and tired of Adam and Eve by now.
(For what it’s worth, I also used to confuse “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, “The Alternative Factor” and “Requiem for Methuselah” a lot, but interestingly not with “Return to Tomorrow” even though this one also deals with androids. Hopefully now that I’m doing this project I’ll be able to keep all these episodes straight for once.)
But, once I figured out what precisely I was watching, that is, the episode I knew as “the one with the hyper-evolved humanoids, the talking soul gem balls and the first appearance of Diana Muldaur in Star Trek” I was genuinely excited because I remember it having some interesting ideas and really classic scenes. As it turns out, while “Return to Tomorrow” does in fact have all those things, it’s somewhat less than successful at bringing them all together. This in itself is worth commenting on, though: I’ve seen just about every episode of Star Trek up to now as either a complete triumph or a crateringly awful disaster, especially this season. There’s been very little in-between these two extremes in my experience, but with “Return to Tomorrow” we get something else entirely: This isn’t even middling filler, this is a great episode brought down by a small handful of nevertheless fairly noticeable missteps whose potential greatness is still very self-evident.
This becomes clear very early on, as the teaser sets us up for something epic: The Enterprise is out exploring beyond the furthest point where any Starfleet vessel has ever explored when a booming voice comes out of nowhere, takes control of the ship’s systems and, seemingly knowing everything about the crew, requests the ship enter into orbit around a dead Class M planet while declaring that he himself is dead, and all of humanity will die too if they don’t help him. The first act, where it’s revealed Sargon’s people are a race of unfathomably evolved beings of pure thought who were once humanlike, but who destroyed their species in their own hubris and who now require temporary humanoid form to bring themselves back to life, is good enough to get us thinking about themes like the death of gods and the inherent connection between gods and humans through the unique factor of individual human experience, and it didn’t even have to rape anybody. Even the rest of the episode, which is where the cracks in “Return to Tomorrow”’s central premise start to become more obvious, does a very good job describing the human experience as a combination of intellectual pursuits, emotional needs and physical sensuality. Furthermore, this is a terrific demonstration of John Meredyth Lucas’ talents as showrunner, him having previously overseen a re-evaluation of the core Star Trek logic-emotions duality in “Obsession” and his own “The Changeling”.
Starfleet too has frankly never been better depicted before. The crew are willing to take dangerous risk after dangerous risk because of how much they could learn, and Kirk even says for one of the first times that searching for new life in the interests of scientific advancement is their paramount goal. Kirk also gets a frankly rousing speech in the second act where he likens helping Sargon to humanity’s first steps into outer space and the evolution of the field of medicine, firmly declaring that this is why they’re on the Enterprise and that “risk is our business”. It’s a great bit that finally moves Starfleet, and more importantly the Enterprise, away from the dull space patrol stuff it was doing throughout the first season and some earlier parts of the second (though William Shatner seems less than convinced: He’s a bit changeable this episode, and this is the scene where it’s the clearest. I’m never sure if he’s trying to do broad-strokes Shakespearean performativity or a having a “Gamesters of Triskelion”-esque lunch of scenery) that’s brought down by one thing: It’s all based on an extremely Western concept of exploration.
The two things I love most about Star Trek are its use of science fiction to extrapolate everyday life and its sense of wonder about the universe and exploration. However, that said the term “exploration” is a bit of a loaded one: The concept of boldly taking risks to challenge the unknown and “make discoveries” is one that’s wrapped up in some very Western, and actually patriarchal, assumptions. This is because the whole notion of discovery is predicated around the discoverer being the first person to find something, and therefore going down in history as having made an unknown known. Thing is, there are very few instances where this has actually happened: Especially in the case of discovering new places, what typically happens is that indigenous people learn about things through their travels, which become part of their shared cultural knowledge, and then some pompous Western asshole shows up, declares himself (and it’s always himself) the sole discoverer of the place because he’s the first to mark it on a map that he can send back to his royal patron.
The Ancient Navigators didn’t plunge into the unknown and make discoveries, they made travels and excursions to different places that they knew were going to be there because they could read signs in the ocean surface waves, the behaviour of pelagic birds and the position of stars in the sky to discern with accuracy where land was. This allowed them to reach every shore that touched the Pacific and Southern Oceans and most likely establish friendly relations with all the indigenous people they met there. Meanwhile, colonial Western Europe couldn’t figure out what shape the Earth was such that they thought you could sail off the edge of it (though naturally, they figured they were the centre of it) and assumed everyone who wasn’t them were either subhuman or witches. In all seriousness, what this gets at is that the Western idea of exploration is intrinsically linked to the notion of there existing an objective unknown that can be slowly filled in with Knowledge, which is quite different than the way it is elsewhere in the world.
In this regard I can’t recommend highly enough Joseph Turnbull’s book Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers, which asserts the dividing line here is the embrace in Modernist, Western societies of the concept of map-making and meticulous record-keeping, whereas Pre-Modern, Non-Modern, Non-Western cultures prefer unwritten oral history shared by an entire community and passed down from person to person (Turnbull also dedicates an entire lengthy, though outdated, chapter to Polynesian navigation which is as good a primer on the subject as you’re likely to find in Western academic literature). It’s also why I can’t quite let go of the concept of exploration, or at least the word, as once again this is a case where I don’t really have something I consider a suitable alternative to offer aside from “journeying” and “travelling”, which is closer but still not quite there in my opinion. Until I can rectify that, for the moment I’ll have to tentatively posit a Western and Non-Western version of exploration, and that my sympathies lie more with the latter than with the former.
Getting back to actual Star Trek in a blog post ostensibly about Star Trek, this is the sort of problem that plagues “Return to Tomorrow” everywhere. Because, for all its fascinating exploration of the centrality of intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual pursuits to humanity, “Return to Tomorrow” also ultimately has a very strong and visible pop Christian conception of this, just as it has a clearly Western concept of exploration. The consciousness receptacles fundamentally operate via a very traditional dualistic conception of the Self. As much as the script on the one hand embraces sensuality as an important part of what it means to be human, it still depicts our possible fully-evolved future as beings of pure thought energy, and let’s not forget Thalassa’s tragic fall, despite the fact it is ultimately, though narrowly, avoided, is based on her becoming “tempted by the sins of the flesh” as it were. Were I especially inclined to follow this thread to the logical limit, I’d point out how Henoch is telegraphed as the villain almost right from the start, his plan involves murdering Sargon and seducing Thalassa and he spends the bulk of the episode in the body of Spock, the person who all the characters just love pointing out looks like Satan. There you go: Another bloody Adam and Eve story. This one’s just inverted, as Adam and Eve are trying to get back into the Garden.
It’s probably not entirely fair that I’m always dogging Star Trek so hard about this. After all, it’s just as much of its culture as any other work of fiction is going to be. But that’s sort of the point: The problem for me isn’t that Star Trek is of its culture, its that it’s part of *hegemonic* culture and, like most hegemony, not very many people seem to notice this. Pop Christianity, through being central to Westernism, is part of a network of interlinking social norms and cultural assumptions that comprise a master narrative that dominates world discourse at the expense of other ways of seeing and interpreting. Star Trek isn’t seen as a cultural artefact of how Westernism manifested in late-1960s Los Angeles, it’s seen as a fairy tale from the future that takes an objective look at contemporary society and provides a utopian blueprint for the way forward. That so many technologists and engineers have spent so many years trying to turn so much made up future gadgetry from Star Trek into reality should be proof enough of that (Don’t believe me? Take a look at the thing 99% of you have in your pockets or purses right now. Some of you might even be reading this article on one). This is simply not what any of these shows was ever intended to be, especially not this one, nor is it, I argue, a helpful way to even approach reading them. That’s the problem with hegemony and privilege: Those who live within it see it as the default or norm. As an anthropologist, and especially as an anthropologist who had the flatly insane idea to study Westernism instead of a village in Africa or Oceania due to particular aspects of my own life and upbringing, that’s always something I’m going to fixate on.
But in spite of this “Return to Tomorrow” does make some of the first noticeable steps towards moving away from this sort of thing a bit. It’s tough to pick out at first as the character who we would most expect to be providing this given the type of story we’re working with, Doctor McCoy, is once again hideously shafted. The script calls for DeForest Kelley to be in “Bristling Unchecked Passion” mode yet again and casts him as basically a crotchety neo-Luddite opposed to taking risks in the name of science, which is curiously the exact opposite of the position he held in “The Immunity Syndrome”. This episode could have been a fantastic showcase for McCoy, writing him as the one person savvy enough to notice the potential problems in Sargon’s plan, to see Henoch’s duplicity for what it is and to remind Thalassa that she was human (or at least human-like) once and to plead with her to not put herself and her ambition above the rights and dignity of others despite her great power, sort of a more nuanced and less bombastic version of what Kirk tried to do for Elizabeth Dehner and Gary Mitchell in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. Instead, “Return to Tomorrow” just has McCoy irritated and indignant all the time and resolves its conflicts by repeatedly faking the audience out with hollow and false “all hope is lost” moments and gets Spock and Sargon to make everything better on each occasion by pulling heretofore unknown plot convenience superpowers out of thin air.
Thankfully, the episode does have someone to take up this role, but, tellingly, only by virtue of pure dumb luck. Despite showing up with absolutely no introduction and getting the same annoying “I can’t believe she’s a woman” response from Kirk that Helen Noel got in “Dagger of the Mind”, Doctor Ann Mulhall is this episode’s best asset by far. Despite technically only appearing in the story briefly near the beginning and the end and sitting the rest of the episode out while Thalassa explores her body, Mulhall gets the best scene of the week when she interrupts Sargon’s long-winded von Dänikenesque ramblings by flatly stating that all contemporary science points to humans having evolved on Earth by their own accord, causing Sargon to backtrack and change the subject. Although Spock says the theory would explain parts of Vulcan history, Mulhall’s point stands, effectively rebuking both of “Return to Tomorrow”’s most troublesome premises in one blow.
This scene aside though, every ounce of Ann Mulhall’s impact comes from her actor, Diana Muldaur. This is Muldaur’s first of three high profile Star Trek roles, returning next year to play Miranda Jones in “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” before coming back to the franchise twenty years later as a series regular during the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing Doctor Katherine Pulaski: chief medical officer of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D. I’m not going to beat around the bush here: Muldaur is hands-down one of my absolute favourite actors to ever grace any incarnation of Star Trek. She’s a flat-out masterclass, and it’s screamingly evident why from her first appearance: Muldaur is a jaw-droppingly commanding stage presence and she exerts so much gravity over the entire production she practically generates her own singularity. Taken on their own, the bulk of Mulhall’s lines are not particularly remarkable: Aside from the one (admittedly brilliant) scene with Sargon, she mostly just confirms McCoy’s and Spock’s tricorder readings and backs up Kirk when the senior staff is debating leasing out their bodies. But Muldaur infuses her lines with so much confidence and matter-of-factness Mulhall comes across as a consummate professional and is the first female character in Star Trek to go toe-to-toe with Kirk, Spock and McCoy utterly as an equal.
One can imagine another actor playing Mulhall as more of a traditional Star Trek wistful, childish pouty Yeoman archetype: A smiling, doting supporting character just happy the boys let her play with them. The tricorder dialog exchange would have played out more like “Ooh, I got the same readings too, Captain! See?” then the “colleagues flatly share information with each other” feel we get, and even the scene with Sargon could have been delivered with a naive, ingenue-esque “But…I don’t understand! How is this possible?” vibe to it. Now, I stress I’m not trying to be cruel to the other female guest stars the show’s had, as I’m quite certain this is the way they were told to act by various members of the production staff, especially if Gene Roddenberry was involved. But the fact remains Star Trek without question has a track record for treating its female characters like this. Equally though, the show’s never had a co-star like Diana Muldaur before, and she’s not having any bit of that. She goes out of her way to make Mulhall a devastatingly competent professional who demands our respect and attention, and the results are electrifying: Mulhall is one of the greatest characters in the entire Original Series by virtue of Diana Muldaur alone.
This does absolute wonders for “Return to Tomorrow”, as the script is clearly a sexist nightmare. Mulhall gets very few scenes as herself, Thalassa is yet another weak woman tempted by the sins of the flesh and the episode clearly wants Mulhall to be Kirk’s girl-of-the-week, even though this is in practice not at all who she is, mostly due to Muldaur, but also actually William Shatner, who seemingly deliberately misses every single cue that he’s supposed to play Kirk infatuated with her. The keystone is Muldaur’s dual role as Mulhall and Thalassa, as she plays them both very, very differently. Muldaur undoubtedly handles the two character brief the best of herself, Shatner and Leonard Nimoy: Although Nimoy is clearly trying to play Henoch as distinct from Spock, in practice he tends to come across more as Evil Trickster Spock instead (not that this isn’t highly entertaining to watch, mind). Meanwhile, Shatner plays Sargon as straightforwardly and generically godlike.
Muldaur though goes to great lengths to depict Thalassa and Mulhall as two very different people: As Thalassa she’s every bit as vindictive, spiteful, passionate and capricious as the script wants her to be, but, like Shatner, she brings a grandiose theatrical flourish to this, making her seem wild, mighty and unpredictable, and just a little bit unreal: A very far cry from the cool and collected Ann Mulhall. And this is what ultimately saves “Return to Tomorrow” from itself: Muldaur limits and contains Thalassa’s foibles to Thalassa and Thalassa alone, highlighting that this is a personal flaw with the character, and not something intrinsic to all women. In doing so, Muldaur deals the death blow to the script’s sexist overtones, although ironically in the process this might also have undermined the story’s general coherence as well.
That’s sort of the problem with “Return to Tomorrow” on the whole. There’s a lot to like, but most of what there is to like doesn’t seem to be the parts of the episode the writers and producers actually wanted us to focus on. The scene that best exemplifies this is the denouement, where Sargon and Thalassa destroy themselves because the temptation of being corporeal would be too great. This was not the original ending: Writer John T. Dugan wanted instead for them to roam the galaxy together as beings of thought. Gene Roddenberry took the script and changed it so they died instead (and this is the thing about Roddenberry: He doesn’t give editorial comments, he just takes a script, rewrites it himself without telling the original author and then sends it out without crediting or acknowledging anything), prompting Dugan to use his pseudonym John Kingsbridge. Neither ending is amazing (though Dugan’s seemed like it could have been made to work), but Roddenberry’s ending is just pointless and mean-spirited and only seems to be there because he wanted to throw his weight around.
As apt a metaphor as any.