In the twentieth episode of the second season of Star Trek, the crew is asked to loan their bodies to help save the remaining survivors of a distant civilization. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For consent issues
I really liked this episode. It’s certainly strange, but that’s part of its appeal to me. There’s not a central conflict until the halfway point (I MADE SUCH A FOOL OF MYSELF ON VIDEO, OH MY GOD), it explicitly address the concept of consent, and SMILING SPOCK. SMILING SPOCK.
What has this show done to me, y’all?
This might be one of the coolest body swap episodes I’ve ever seen because literally everyone consents to having their body taken over by another being. And even when Henoch plots to keep Spock’s body, the writers still have Nurse Chapel consent to taking Spock’s consciousness into her. This is so rare! Body swap episodes are historically messy things. From Buffy to Dollhouse to The X-Files to Fringe to Stargate to SO MANY OTHER SHOWS I CAN’T EVEN BEGIN TO NAME, this trope appears frequently in one context: someone is the victim of having their body taken from them. And while each example I can think of varies in how it addresses consent (from openly talking about it to never addressing it at all), “Return to Tomorrow” is possible the only usage of this trope I can recall being so respectful of that fact that people should be able to choose whether or not they allow this to happen to their own body.
There’s so much potential in this, and the writers do a fine job of being both frightening and hilarious with the concept. While William Shatner’s performance as Sargon is subtle, Leonard Nimoy gets to play a smirking villain who stalks the Enterprise, getting exactly what he wants through his terrifying displays of power. Dr. Mulhill unfortunately suffers from being a new character whose personality we aren’t familiar with, so her transformation doesn’t feel all that dramatic as it does with Kirk or Spock. Still! It’s such a surreal situation because these three possible ancestors of the human race are roaming the Enterprise, building androids to inhabit. (Which is a little strange to me. Why not just take them to Mudd’s planet and let them use those androids? Why spend so much time building them? That seemed like a much easier solution, AND IT COULD HAVE BEEN A HILARIOUS CROSSOVER.)
Okay, I don’t care about how cheesy it was, I really liked Captain Kirk’s dramatic monologue to the rest of the crew about allowing these beings to use their bodies. The show can sometimes waver between celebrating the advancements of science, while at other times, we are given warnings about how science can go too far. And I’m okay with that! I like that the show is flexible enough in its morality to allow fluid interpretations. But I’d also suggest that Star Trek celebrates exploration and risk, and that’s built into the core of what we witness over the course of the show. These characters go boldly into the great beyond, always uncertain of what they’ll encounter. Their entire lives are a risk while on the Enterprise, and that’s what so exciting about all of this. There’s also this fascinating undercurrent of self-interest to what Kirk proposes, given that he’s thrilled about what the beings might provide the human race. It does fit in with his general excitement, since it’s through exploration that humanity was able to progress and grow, but I think Kirk was maybe a bit too excited about the possibility of rapid growth.
So, if you’re not a video person, allow me to explain my comment above about making a fool of myself for your entertainment. About halfway through this episode, I very plainly remarked how cool it was that there appeared to be no central conflict in “Return to Tomorrow.” This seemed to be an episode where the all-powerful beings at the center of the plot simply wanted help from the Enterprise and nothing more. And I loved that! The first half of this story is so compelling to me because it doesn’t even follow the pattern Star Trek has used in the past for godly beings. It felt new and refreshing.
Of course, like two minutes after I proudly stated this, Henoch revealed to Nurse Chapel that he had no intentions of ever giving Spock back his body, and I felt like a fool. WHY DO I DO THIS WITH SUCH FREQUENCY? The world may never know. I still think this episode managed to stay exciting and compelling once the main conflict was introduced, which is a respectable feat. Even though this wasn’t the first time one of the members of the crew was the “villain,” it still felt like something the show hadn’t really done. Of course, I was endlessly entertained by how Nimoy portrayed Henoch!Spock, so that helped a lot. But through this twist, the writers got to explore a more complex characterization for Thalassa, and I’m very thankful for that. She exists in a fascinating middle ground, since she was not nearly as certain about Sargon’s plan as he was. Henoch acted as her temptation, goading her into not only rejecting the android plan, but to attempt to take Dr. Mulhill’s body herself. And lord, she gets pretty damn close to doing so.
But here’s the main difference between her and Henoch: when she utilizes her godly powers on Bones to threaten him, she instantly realizes the horrifying implications of what she’s done. She became consumed with her own powers, so much so that she did not respect human life. It’s such a great exploration of her own loyalty to Sargon and their beliefs, all through the lens of survival. Because that’s still at the heart of this! If these beings don’t find bodies to exist in, they’ll die out just like the rest of their kind.
There are a ton of great plot twists and misdirects throughout “Return to Tomorrow” once Sargon and Thalassa are reunited. Hell, the reunion itself was a trip because WE ALL THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD. Nope! And then there was Spock dying (WHAT PLEASE TAKE IT BACK) and the Nurse Chapel con and goddamn, this had such a satisfying ending. Well, a strange one, since Thalassa and Sargon bid goodbye to one another by kissing through Kirk and Dr. Mulhill’s bodies. At the very least, though, both parties absolutely consented to it, and that’s pretty incredible.
The video for “Return to Tomorrow” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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