Star Trek The Original Series Revisited: Tomorrow Is Yesterday

“Tomorrow Is Yesterday” is one of those time travel episodes dedicated to erasing themselves. Yet, even by those inert standards, it’s remarkably lacking in drama and life—which I think is rather the point. A few episodes of the series so clearly demonstrate how a bland faith in inevitable progress functions as an endorsement of the status quo.

Back To The Late 60s

The USS Enterprise is shot back in time after an (unshown) encounter with a “black star.” The crew finds themselves orbiting the earth in the late 1960s. As they enter US airspace, they are intercepted by an F-104 fighter plane. They try to prevent the pilot from engaging them by catching the plane in a tractor beam. But that causes it to break up, and they are forced to beam the pilot, Captain John Christopher (Roger Perry), aboard.

At first, Starship Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) thinks they can just hold Christopher till they’re ready to leave and then beam him back home. But First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) worries that if they do that, Christopher will be able to change time because of his knowledge of the future.

He initially determines that taking Christopher back to the future with them will change nothing. After more research, he realizes that Christopher’s unborn son is destined to contribute to the space program. Christopher has to go back to his earth.

Since the Enterprise has to return, Christopher, Kirk, and Lt. Sulu (George Takei) beam down to earth to try to remove all records of the Enterprise’s existence. That way, they figure no one will believe Christopher when he tells his story. They beam into the Air Force base to destroy photos and records. But an Air Force Sergeant (Hal Lynch) interrupts them, and they’re forced to beam him back to the ship.

Meanwhile, Engineer Scott (Jimmie Doohan) has been working on how to get the Enterprise back to its own time. He works out a way to slingshot the ship around the sun. That allows the Enterprise to go back a little in time to beam Perry and the Sergeant back into the moment before they left.

Then the Enterprise zips into the future, having effectively written everything in the episode out of continuity. The future folded onto the past, and literally, nothing happened.

We Are Always Right Now

The reason nothing happened is that the show posits the future and the past as continuous and effectively identical.

Sure, the Enterprise has more advanced tech than in the past. The Sergeant is shocked at the replicator’s ability to make him some chicken soup out of nothing, and Christopher is mildly impressed by the size of the ship. He’s also startled by the existence of the alien Mr. Spock. Kirk, for his part, isn’t prepared for how fragile 1960s planes are.

But as far as ideological differences go, or differences in perspective between past and future, they don’t seem to exist in any meaningful way.

Christopher initially wants to escape and report to base. But that’s simply out of duty which Kirk and the others understand perfectly. There’s no rancor. In a throwaway goof, the voice of the ship’s computer has been inadvertently given the voice of a vaguely seductive woman. Christopher, Kirk, and Spock all laugh about the giggly frivolousness of the “female.” Gender stereotypes apparently never change.

Similarly, when Christopher asks Kirk what he would do in his position, Kirk says, “I’d report [to my superior] if I could.” The Air Force captain and the starship captain are on different sides of this particular conflict, but they’re the same person in all important respects.

An Eternity of Pleasantness

This is not generally how time travel stories go. Usually, when past and present encounter each other, they look in a fun-house mirror, not just a plain old mirror.

In the Deep Space Nine episode “Past Tense,” for example, the crew from the future is shocked and dismayed to encounter an earth past mired in poverty, homelessness, callousness, and rebellion. The story suggests that people have choices; they can tread a path toward violence and inequality or reach for something better.

Similarly, the “City on the Edge of Forever,” which appears just a few episodes after “Tomorrow is Yesterday” in the first season of the original series, acknowledges that people’s choices may lead to peace, war, fascism, or antifascism.

In “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” there’s no tension and no real choice. The Enterprise is worried about changing the future, but not because there’s a worse alternate on offer. There’s never any specific prediction or worry about what Christopher might change if things go awry. The episode can’t imagine any alternative to the future, which is also the past. Things must stay the same. No other option is even dreamt of.

The lack of alternatives leaves the episode adrift. Kirk offers no criticisms of Christopher’s past, and Christopher offers no criticisms of the future. He doesn’t even appear to care about the future, except that he’s pleased to hear he will have a son.

Christopher’s vague patriarchal pride suffuses the episode as a whole. Writer D. C. Fontana and director Michael O’Herlihy are pleased with their own time, the future, and the first fit so seamlessly into the second. All is as it should be, and all will be as it should be.

White male military protagonists protect the skies now and will protect the skies in times to come. Christopher’s memory is erased, but it doesn’t matter because he has nothing to remember. Past and future are uniform, pleasant, and inevitable.

Progress Without Change

Star Trek is sometimes praised for its progressive optimistic vision. That’s epitomized here by the fact that the show, released in 1967, confidently predicted the moon landing a couple of years before it happened in 1969. “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” shows that optimism about progress doesn’t exactly translate into a vision of change. And it really doesn’t translate into a call for change.

Instead, the certainty that tomorrow will be like yesterday, only better, can paper over conflict and erase the very possibility of transformation. The same trustworthy captain with the same brave certainty leads us ever onwards towards the same bland future/present, where everything is fine, and nothing need ever be different than it is.

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This post was produced by and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Featured Image Courtesy of Desilu Productions.


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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.