Sunday, March 24, 2013

Return To Tomorrow

The Enterprise crew are in pursuit of a mystery and going where no man has gone before. Something beyond the limits of known space has activated the Enterprise distress relays and given the ship a course to follow. According to Spock the Enterprise has travelled, “hundreds of light years past where any Earth ship has ever explored.” It will take over three weeks for Starfleet to receive any messages the ship sends. As a concept this is pure distilled Star Trek, like the reception for the interplanetary ambassadors in JourneyTo Babel, but as a whole Return To Tomorrow is horribly slow, and dull.

Basically there simply isn't enough story to fill the 48 minutes running time. The core concept of the episode is a mindswap. Sargon, the sender of the mysterious signal, is a disembodied intelligence in a sphere who wants to borrow temporarily the bodies of Kirk, Spock, and Doctor Ann Mulhall; Diana Muldaur making the first of two Star Trek appearances, plus she'll be back as Doctor Pulaski for the second series of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Into the crew's bodies will be placed the minds of Sargon, his wife Thalassa, and Henoch, sole survivor from the other side in the conflict which destroyed their race and planet. The borrowed bodies will construct androids which will become the permanent homes of the three minds.

That's the set up to the story, but the transference itself doesn't take place until 22 minutes into the episode. It brings to mind associate producer John D. F. Black's advice to George Clayton Johnson about
The Man Trap script, “you don't get the creature aboard the ship fast enough.” Here it takes too long to get to the scene where Sargon, Thalassa, and Henoch once again feel the pleasure, and temptations, of being alive. Weirdly, having moved at a snails pace until now, the story suddenly leaps into action and two and a half minutes from the first mention of a metabolic inhibitor (the presence of these alien minds places great stress on the host bodies, Spock's body can easily cope but it's killing Kirk and Mulhall) act two ends by revealing Henoch is a bad'un. He plans to keep Spock's body for himself and will kill Sargon/Kirk with a doctored metabolic inhibitor. This stop/start storytelling continues into acts three and four. About 90 seconds pass between Kirk announcing, “Spock's consciousness is gone, we must kill his body, the thing in it,” to his regretful, “Spock,” as he examines what he thinks is the corpse of his first officer and friend. The lasting memory of Return To Tomorrow is of an episode which carefully ekes out moments of incident between scenes where the story stops and the characters make speeches at each other.

Some of the speeches are very good. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Doctor Mulhall gather in the briefing room and debate the dangers of agreeing to Sargon's plan in a scene which ends with a line from Kirk which is a mission statement for Star Trek. “Risk is our business. That's what the starship is all about. That's why we're aboard her.” But that line follows four minutes of back and forth about whether to go ahead with something which the audience knows is going to happen because it's the subject of this week's episode. It's great to see the crew chewing the fat like this but by episode 49 the inter-character debate needs to do more than just pad out the running time. Here McCoy objects and is talked round by Kirk while Scotty is tempted by the promise of technological advances. The result is a four minute character scene which doesn't advance the plot or tell the audience anything new about the characters. The only new development is that it is Mulhall rather than Spock who gets to describe Sargon's offer as, “scientifically fascinating.” 

Scenes with Sargon and Thalassa are particularly trying on the patience. Taking their cues from the script both William Shatner and Diana Muldaur opt for measured, declamatory performances; as if they were auditioning for the Charlton Heston role in some Biblical epic. In addition these scenes are often smothered in George Duning's heavy on the strings music which crushes what little subtlety exists in exchanges like:

THALASSA: Oblivion together does not frighten me, beloved. Promise we'll be together.
SARGON: I promise, beloved.
THALASSA: Together forever.
SARGON: Forever beloved. Forever.

Leonard Nimoy makes a better impression as Henoch. While the novelty has worn off seeing Spock act out of character Nimoy makes the script work by playing against the evil intention of the lines. He's charming, pleasant, and sarcastic. His best moment comes early on when praising Spock's body: 

SPOCK: This is an excellent body, Doctor. I seem to have received the best of the three. Strength, hearing, eyesight, all far above your human norms. I'm surprised the Vulcans never conquered your race. 
MCCOY: Vulcans worship peace above all, Henoch.
SPOCK: Yes, of course, of course. Just as we do, Doctor. 

Nimoy plays Henoch like a politician who realises he has gone too far. His “of course, of course,” complete with a reassuring touch on McCoy's arm is very well done. 

Doctor McCoy is also very well written in this episode. With Kirk and Spock both acting out of character he is our link to regular Star Trek. He's the sardonic voice of sanity in the early scenes. Not only pointing out the insane risks of agreeing to Sargon's plan but also lightly mocking the plot as if he is also playing the voice of the viewer at home, “that's the most ridiculous statement I've ever heard.” McCoy's character is just going over old ground, in addition to the briefing scene above there is also a pre-beam down scene where he frets about the danger of using the transporter, but Deforest Kelly plays him very well, and makes the effort to add small moments like his glance at Scotty when dismissing “a list of possible miracles,” as a reason for allowing the transfer to take place.

On the other side of the camera Ralph Senensky is directing again. His work is more distinctive here than it was in Obsession, possibly this is a less demanding script which allows him more time to compose shots. When Sargon/Kirk 'dies' there's a fantastic low angled view of Kirk on the floor with Thalassa, McCoy, and Nurse Chapel kneeling by his body. There's also a great shot of Scotty and Thalassa discussing the android filmed through the framework of the android body. Senensky also seems to be one of the few directors to give director of photography Jerry Finnerman time to really indulge himself with the lighting. The Enterprise sets look brilliant in Return To Tomorrow, and are lit with great slabs of colour; purple in the transporter room and green in the briefing room.

Film editor Donald R. Rode also does some great work with the cutting, and tries to inject some pace into a story which tends towards the languid. There are two brilliant jump cuts, one from Sargon telling the crew they are free to leave to Scotty's outraged, “you're going to what?”, and the second from Kirk's, “we must kill [Spock's] body, the thing in it,” to Uhura screaming. Rode also knows when to allow Ralph Senensky's footage to work on its own terms. Kirk's, “risk is our business,” speech plays out almost uninterrupted as a slow zoom into a close-up of Kirk. Then once Kirk is done Rode cuts to reaction shots of McCoy (looking very unimpressed), Scotty, Mulhall, and Spock, before cutting back to the same big close-up of Kirk which he follows with a matched close-up of one of Sargon's spheres in sickbay. Rode's first work on Star Trek was The Doomsday Machine, and since then he has also worked on The Deadly Years, The Immunity Syndrome, and A Private Little War. He's one of the unsung behind the scenes heroes of Star Trek's second season, and frankly he deserves to have his praises sung as often as possible.

Enterprise crew deaths: It's now been six episodes since any member of the Enterprise crew died, matching the six episode death free period between Errand Of Mercy and Who Mourns For Adonais? If the crew can get through next week without anyone buying the farm it will be the longest death free period in Star Trek.

Running total: 43

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