Star Trek: TOS – S01E22/23 “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and “The Return of the Archons”

“Tomorrow is Yesterday”

Season 1
Production Order #22
Airing Order #19
Directed by Joseph Pevney
Written by D.C. Fontana
Story by Michael O’Herlihy

We had quite the range in quality last time with the episodes “Arena” and “The Alternative Factor” (which honestly reflects the show well), but my hope going into this week was to find the show achieving a more consistent level.  Our first episode heads to a place the show has not gone before, if not one where no man has gone before.  “Tomorrow is Yesterday” starts out disorientingly with a USAF jet landing.  The air force notes a UFO in the air after it shows up on radar and they all rush out to send some planes up to get a closer look.  It’s only at this point that there’s any hint you are watching the right show as it’s revealed that the UFO is the Enterprise.  It’s a great opening that may feel out of place in the context of the show, but it’s also very effective as a cold open.

As to why the Enterprise is in this situation, it turns out that the ship was drawn to a black star but in their attempts to escape it, they were sent flying through space with the power temporarily knocked out.  The ship is held in orbit over Earth (a fact they recognize), but on the eve of Apollo 11 (or Star Trek equivalent) in the then near future year of 1969 (the episode aired in 1967).  It’s fascinating to see how these sci-fi shows deal with mankind’s giant leap forward and major turning point in sci-fi in real time.  Doctor Who avoided confronting the event directly (at least for a while), but it was in 1969 imagining a future where the moon had already been colonized, but that would ultimately be the extent of our exploration with further missions to Mars abandoned as unnecessary.

The time travel mechanic is also a fascinating bridge to cross for any show as it both opens so many avenues for stories, yet it also offers the potential for just as many if not more issues in storytelling.  The show had already opened up the door to time travel in “The Naked Time”, if only on a much more limited scale and didn’t set up any way to intentionally travel through time.  That episode was at point set up to lead into this episode and it likely would have been a natural fit (instead of sending them back three days, sending them back to 1969), but it would probably diminish the great hook of the earlier episode.

With a jet bearing down on them, the Enterprise is left few choices to protect themselves.  Their choice to try to stop the jet with their tractor beam winds up causing even more issues as the beam starts deteriorating the jet.  As a result, they are forced to beam the pilot aboard and introduce him to the future.  The jet pilot (Captain Christopher) is naturally suspicious of his new-found hosts, but more importantly for the show, it opens the tricky question of what to do with him.  Spock does not want to return Captain Christopher out of fear of temporal paradox, a fact Kirk acknowledges even if he doesn’t like.  It’s also something the Captain doesn’t like as he has a wife and two kids and would very much like to be with them again and can’t just join the crew on their adventures (not that he would be of any use being a man out of time).  It’s a small consolation however that the Enterprise also faces an issue of what it will do if it can’t head back in time since they also cannot return to Earth for very obvious reasons.

The non-interference aspect of the show has been mostly ignored to this part at least based on reputation, and while this incident introduces it less out of policy and more out of them all wanting to continue to exist, it was one I was looking forward to exploring.  The show gives itself an out though with the reveal that while Christopher may be irrelevant to time, his future son is not.  The tricky moral dilemma is quickly shuffled aside in favor of finding out how to return him in a way that maintains their secret.  In addition, while UFOs had been dismissed in the time period, their use of a tractor beam would have offered proof positive of both an alien threat and a malevolent one at that.

It’s here that the show shifts to a heist episode as Kirk and Sulu have to beam down to Earth and destroy the physical evidence.  In their efforts to destroy the info, Kirk gets himself captured and Sulu, Spock, and Christopher have to go back down to get him.  Christopher of course tries to hold them hostage and force his way back, but he’s taken down by Spock who continues to show just how awesome he is.  Plot wise it’s all perfectly functional to this point, but it’s when they have to head home that the show goes off the deep end.

To return back home, they slingshot around the sun flinging themselves first back further and then forward in time.  Somehow in the midst of all this they are able to transport Christopher back.  Since they are apparently able to just put him back in time where he left off, the show winds up making all the spy craft nonsense useless while altering that timeline so most of the episode didn’t even happen anyway.  It’s a climax that renders most of the plot irrelevant and I’m not sure how the hell it all works.  What made the Enterprise never uses the tractor beam in this timeline and just disappear?, etc.  The time science doesn’t even sound vaguely right and I’m not necessarily asking for plausible, just make it pass the smell test.

There was an overabundance of wacky music cues this episode, a sure sign of a “comedic” episode and while the plot is a bit of a missed opportunity, it’s this element that holds the episode back the most.  It’s hard to take the gravity of the situation seriously when you treat having to beam back another person as comic relief.  That’s not to say it is a bad episode.  On the contrary, I still liked it largely for the set up provided and stabs at difficult questions.  It’s just an episode that never quite delivered on the promise.

Grade: B-

Stray Observations
– I knew beforehand that this would not be the last time the series would indulge in traveling back to present day Earth as I am familiar in principal with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, but I can’t speak to how frequent a thing it will be.  I’m hoping rare if not again until that film and I’m nervous about the dabblings in time travel.
– The “female” computer voice as a result of the reset is unsettling.  The voice acting is clearly going for “affectionate”, but instead lands on “older chain-smoker”.  The voice was done by Majel Barrett who would gone on to marry Gene Roddenberry.
– The Enterprise operates under the auspices of the United Earth Space Probe Agency according to this episode and “Charlie X”, but nowhere else
– While completely uncredited (or acknowledged or paid), Robert Justman is the person who originally came up with the story.
– This is the first appearance of Mr. Kyle (played by John Winston), who would recur throughout the show.  He is credited merely as the Transporter Chief.

Return of the Archons

“The Return of the Archons”

Season 1
Production Order #23
Airing Order #21
Directed by Joseph Pevney
Written by Boris Sobelman
Story by Gene Roddenberry

After expressing my concerns last episode in the time traveling, I’ll admit that I was extremely nervous when “The Return of the Archons” opened in what appeared to be an Old West setting.  Thankfully, the episode instead just leaves that choice of setting as an unexplained occurrence, but one on an alien planet, Planet Beta 3.  The cold open opens with Sulu escaping with a crewman O’Neil being pursued by figures that look like monks (with a touch of the Grim Reaper in how they move and that staff that is only missing a sickle on the end) as O’Neil claims that the two of them know what they can do.  They never get a chance to explain as Sulu is attacked by one of them who points their staff at him with some electrical sound effects.  When he’s beamed on the Enterprise, Sulu starts rambling incoherently and finally claiming that the people down below are “the sweetest, most wonderful people in the world” and that it’s “paradise, my friend” (repeating the “paradise” with an odd grin on his face).  Again, it’s an effective opening for the show in establishing the setting and stakes while also continuing a trend I haven’t noted yet where the show feels like it is frequently jumping in part way through the story.  It’s the ideal use of in medias res with no stupid flashbacks to start the episode proper and yet also providing a fun hook.

The Enterprise is on a mission to search for the lost ship Archon that had disappeared almost 100 years prior.  I’m not sure why no ship was sent to rescue survivors in the years previous, but the episode seems largely unconcerned with that.  Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and three others beam down to search for O’Neil and figure out what happened to Sulu and the Archon.  What they find is that the populace there have a look of mindlessness and contentment, all walking slowly down the sidewalks.  Their speaking is incredibly stilted (even compared to Kirk) and suspicious.  They speak of a coming “red hour”, one that soon after arrives in the form of the people going inexplicably crazy, screaming and attacking or kissing each other while generally causing a ruckus as they destroy things in the street.

This event is called “festival” and is supposedly a regular occurrence.  After escaping off the street, the away team discovers a group of people hiding away who talk vaguely about various things including “the valley”,  “Landru’s will”, “lawgivers”, and people who are “not of the Body”.  Even questioning about Landru though seems to cause great suspicion and make people nervous, a fact that Kirk seems to hope can essentially be brute forced past if he asks enough times.  The humans who are not of the Body are the ones who haven’t been turned or absorbed into one giant consciousness.

Landru communicates by telepathy and is able to control those absorbed and who seem to act in unison while maintaining a godlike presence everywhere.  It’s an effective horror premise and one where I almost expected them to point and start making Invasion of the Body Snatchers noises.  In fact, later in the episode an absorbed McCoy does just that with the screeching replaced by yelling!  The Archons were pulled down from the sky and now the same thing is happening to the Enterprise in the form of heat rays which gives a nice ticking clock mechanic to the proceedings.  The Archons were supposedly wild (or just human) when they came with many killed and the rest absorbed.  Likewise, Landru accuses the Enterprise as coming to destroy the world (well he isn’t completely wrong), a world built without hate, fear, conflict, war, disease, or crime.  Of course, this world is a standard dystopia where that all comes at the price of basic humanity.

After McCoy is absorbed, Kirk and Spock receive help from an inside man who helps them fake the process believing the team is the prophesized Archons who have come to return.  While Landru appears first in ghostly projection form as an older man, “he” is correctly revealed as a machine, a fact Spock had earlier theorized.  Wait to continue to be a spoiler Spock by being so smart.  The real Landru died 6000 years prior after having built and programmed the machine.  Kirk has to argue with the machine and tries to destroy it with logical fallacies, eventually convincing it to kill itself to fulfill its own prime directive as it begs screaming for its life.

This episode sees the first mention of a “Prime Directive” on the show.  First, by Spock who alludes to a policy of non-interference as to why they should not destroy the computer (and which the show has been rather all over the place with) and then by Kirk who argues to Landru the machine that it has failed its own prime directive.  The latter instance may not have been explicitly the same one, but they have similar overtones with the episode arguing that no one should interfere with how another race behaves even if it is for the apparent betterment of them (glass houses guys).

Surprisingly, Kirk doesn’t just leave the people behind to sort everything out, leaving a team to help them rebuild a society.  It unsurprisingly comes down pretty definitively against this dystopia despite Landru’s disappearance immediately leading to countless fights as soon as the Enterprise leaves.  Once again, we have an episode that doesn’t deliver on a lot of its promises, but here it does so mostly by leaving a lot of the elements unexplained.  There really isn’t ever given an explanation for the festival.  It’s probably easy to fill in the blanks and assume that it is how Landru gets them to use up their inner desires and anger before returning them to the more contented state, but that’s all guesswork.  It’d be a proto-Purge if so, minus all the sociological commentary.

There are other questions that are far harder to answer.  Why are the Lawgivers needed when it seems like Landru has the power to inflict the same force without them?  What is the deal with the staffs being hollow tubes?  How is a computer so all-powerful and all-encompassing?  It’s likely just sloppy writing, but instead of being annoyed at all these unanswered questions, I am left instead just eager to know more about that society and eager to let my imagination run wild with the set up that was perhaps over-designed.  It may not succeed completely on an intellectual level, but it’s one that is great thanks to its horror-like premise, naturally feel to the challenges they have to overcome, and in its moment to moment execution.

Grade: B+

Stray Observations
– The episode was one of the contenders to serve as the pilot of the show when it existed in merely story form.
– O’Neil is played by Sean Morgan who would later reappear as the character once more but had also played unrelated Starfleet crewman both before and after.
– I love Spock’s wardrobe choice at the beginning of his mission.  It’s presumably meant to hide his ears, but it makes him stand out even more obviously and yet nobody comments on why he’s dressed like this.
– I don’t know how the town was so clean at the start of the episode if the festival is a normal occurrence as it is made out to be.  Is this a daily thing?  Weekly?  Monthly?  Annual?  Why don’t they seem interested in cleaning up after?  So many questions about it raised and not answered.
– All the talk of “lawgivers” and “the will of ___” bring back memories of South Park‘s “Wacky Molestation Adventure” and made it a lot harder for me to take portions of this episode seriously.  Man, I miss when South Park referenced things (including frequently Star Trek) not in the present or recent past…
– Landru the machine’s line of “Your statement is irrelevant, you will be… obliterated” has some very Dalek-y vibes even if the machine itself gives off more of a WOTAN feel.
– I’m not sure how the ship’s engineer (Scotty) winds up as captain even for a spell and it continues to raise questions about why the entire top-level crew is sent out on missions (at least sending out Sulu and some random crewman is a more logical first step this time).
– Horror mainstay Sid Haig (the Firefly Family movies) appears as one of the two Lawgivers
– The real Landru is played by Charles Macaulay, best known as Count Dracula from the film Blacula.

Next Up: Doctor Who (Classic) is next on the docket for 5/13 with “The Ambassadors of Death”.  For more Star Trek: TOS, you’ll have to wait until 5/27 when we will dive into “A Taste of Armageddon” and one of the show’s most famous episodes, “Space Seed”.