The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.
Assignment: Earth was almost the last episode of Star Trek ever produced.
It was also possibly (although nowhere near “almost”) the pilot for a spin-off television show.
At the last minute, following a very high-profile fan campaign, Star Trek was renewed for a third season.
Fans would have to wait decades to see an actual Star Trek finalé that reduced the main cast to guest stars.
“Wait, who just hijacked my show?”
On one level, Assignment: Earth feels like something of an insult to the cast and the crew who worked on the series, as well as the fans who had campaigned so hard to save the show. It was Gene Roddenberry very clearly and transparently fashioning a parachute for himself. This was an attempt by Roddenberry to line up his next job, to produce a piece of television that would secure him gainful employment for the next couple of years. It is a very cynical piece of television.
Despite the fact that Roddenberry would become inexorably linked with Star Trek for the rest of his career, there is some indication that the television producer had been plotting an escape for some time. Roddenberry’s attention had been focused away from Star Trek for considerable stretches of the second season, affording producer Gene L. Coon more freedom than he might otherwise have enjoyed. During that time away, Roddenberry returned to the police procedural genre. Police Story was written as a pilot for a television show, but aired as a stand-alone movie on NBC in September 1967.
Hey! The opening credits of Enterprise!
Indeed, Assignment: Earth seems very consciously and very clearly designed as a showcase for Roddenberry and his proposed television show. The sets were built on the budget for Star Trek, and look surprisingly lavish. Might this money have been better spent on an adventure featuring the Enterprise? There is some suggestion that Assignment: Earth was the most expensive episode of Star Trek ever produced, and it feels very much like it is only a Star Trek episode as a matter of convenience, because that way it can be folded under the parent show’s expenses.
According to documentation that Marc Cushman dug up for These Are the Voyages, Roddenberry also fought viciously for the final “producer” credit on the episode, replacing John Meredyth Lucas. This possessive streak would later find expression in the mythology that Roddenberry would build up around himself, fanned by supporters like Richard Arnold. Over the years, Roddenberry would come to downplay the involvement of other people in defining Star Trek, dismissing and diminishing contributions by figures like Gene L. Coon or D.C. Fontana, who had overseen the series during his own absences.
In need of a lift…
It seems like Roddenberry had firmly taken control of Star Trek towards the end of its second season, despite his considerable absences during the middle stretch of the season. He seemed to be bringing Star Trek consciously backwards, even further than John Meredyth Lucas had done. The penultimate episode produced was The Omega Glory, a rejected pilot for series. With Assignment: Earth, Roddenberry pushed even further back; not only did he take Kirk and the Enterprise back to 1968, but he put them in a pilot for somebody else’s show.
To be entirely fair, this was not unheard of. Using pre-existing television shows to launch new television shows is a logical and sustainable business model. It helps with budgeting; it also provides audience-members with a gateway into this new world. The technique is still in common use, with shows like CSI frequently teasing spin-offs in the parent show before launching the new series itself. Even the Star Trek spin-offs would makes some effort to help launch the next iteration of the franchise, whether setting up the Cardassian withdrawal of the Maquis conflict.
Gary on, nothing to see here…
In fact, the idea of using the final episodes of an existing series to launch a potential spin-off was common enough. The Killin’ Cousin, the last episode of Barnaby Jones produced, was intended to spawn a new television series. The last episode of Quincy, M.E., The Cutting Edge, was similarly conceived as a launchpad for a new television show. The final season of Happy Days spin-off Charles in Charles features no less than three would-be pilots that never took off – Fair Exchange, Almost Family, Lost Resort. So Assignment: Earth is not a freak occurrence.
Assignment: Earth began life as a half-hour television pilot without any reference to the Enterprise. The pitch was obviously heavily influenced by James Bond. Tall, dark and handsome, actor Robert Lansing makes a convincing stand-in for Sean Connery. The name “Gary Seven” seems designed to evoke the iconic “Double-Oh-Seven.” The servo resembles a device that Bond might receive from the Q Department – although it should be noted that Bond would not receive his first gimmick pen until Moonraker, a decade after Assignment: Earth aired.
A cool cat…
Nevertheless, the influence of the Bond films can be keenly felt on Assignment: Earth. Gary Seven is a secret agent in a sharp suit, paired with a beautiful young secretary. In particular, it seems like Gene Roddenberry and Art Wallace watched You Only Live Twice before plotting the episode. Not only does Assignment: Earth featured Gary Seven involving himself in the space race, it also gives him a cute cat that he can stroke as a way of suggesting moral ambiguity around the character.
In fact, watching Assignment: Earth, Gary Seven feels like a cross between James Bond and a James Bond villain. He is a sauve secret agent capable of infiltrating any secure location on the planet, but he also hijacks a rocket carrying nuclear missiles in order to send a message to the world’s governments. Steering the rocket through a fancy console in an otherwise fashionable office, Gary Seven seems like he might be ready to make some sort of ransom demand or calculated threat.
It’s not rocket science…
Assignment: Earth was a collaboration between Gene Roddenberry and Art Wallace. Wallace is perhaps best known for his work on the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, but he also contributed the script for Obsession. According to Captain’s Logs, Wallace had pitched a similar idea independent of Roddenberry:
“Assignment: Earth is interesting in a sense,” Wallace points out, “because I had gone to Paramount and pitched a series idea to them. They had said that Gene Roddenberry had come up with a very similar idea. So I saw Gene and we decided to pool the idea, which was about a man from tomorrow who takes care of the present on Earth. That was intended to be the pilot, although it was never made into a series. It was a good pilot and it’s a shame, because I think if they had done it as a series with just Gary Seven, it would have been a very successful show.”
Ultimately, Assignment: Earth never did manage to launch that spin-off show, but it has remained a focal point of fan interest over the years. Gary Seven still holds no small amount of interest for fans and writers alike, popping in various tie-in and spin-off media over the years.
“Nobody steals my show and gets away with it!”
However, the appeal of Gary Seven seems rather strange. Assignment: Earth is a very clunky piece of work. It feels like a half-hour pilot that has been padded out with the addition of the Enterprise. Kirk and Spock spend most of the episode’s runtime following Gary Seven around like lost puppies while he drives the plot; when he is not outwitting Kirk and Spock in order to show how clever he is. Inevitably, Assignment: Earth ends with Kirk and Spock endorsing Gary Seven – trusting him to save the day, rather than saving it themselves.
The viewer might be forgiven for wondering what exactly the Enterprise is doing in 1968 in the first place. “Using the lightspeed breakaway factor, the Enterprise has moved back through time to the twentieth century,” Kirk explains. “We are now in extended orbit around Earth, using our ship’s deflector shields to remain unobserved. Our mission, historical research. We are monitoring Earth communications to find out how our planet survived desperate problems in the year 1968.” That is all the explanation we receive.
And he’s toyetic, too!
Given how dangerous the temporal excursions in Tomorrow is Yesterday or The City on the Edge of Forever had been, it is strange to see Kirk and his crew behave so flippantly about time travel. Writing for the semi-official Inside Star Trek newsletter, Ruth Berman struggled to explain this story element as…
An experiment in duplicating the accidental time travel in Tomorrow is Yesterday — the experiment apparently worked, since the Enterprise made it to the 20th century and back to their own time. But, presumably, further experiments in time travel will only be made with great caution because of the danger of changing history.
It is not at all convincing, and Assignment: Earth stands out as the most nonchalant use of time travel in the history of the franchise. Of course, it was written at a point where Roddenberry likely suspected there would be no more Star Trek, so it probably did not seem to be too big a problem at the time.
“Captain, I believe he gets HBO…”
Looking at Assignment: Earth as an episode of Star Trek seems to miss the point. The Enterprise crew are really just spectators, existing to introduce the audience to the team of Gary Seven, Roberta Lincoln and Isis. Assignment: Earth is a stealth pilot with the budget and the cast from a cult science-fiction show to pass the torch. However, Assignment: Earth never went to series. Instead, the series was stillborn – becoming a quirky footnote in the history of Star Trek rather than the beginning of something more significant.
To be fair, it is easy to see why Assignment: Earth didn’t get picked up for series. Although the teleplay is credited to Art Wallace, it is packed with the sort of awkward exposition and stilted moralising that one expects from Gene Roddenberry. Pondering what Gary Seven might be doing, Kirk observes, “Weren’t orbital nuclear devices one of this era’s greatest problems?” Spock replies, “Most definitely. Once the sky was full of orbiting H-bombs, the slightest mistake could have brought one down by accident, setting off a nuclear holocaust.” The episode is not subtle.
Blowing a fuse…
There is something just a little bit uncomfortable about the basic premise of Assignment: Earth. A bunch of anonymous aliens have abducted children from Earth, and raised them to become covert “operatives” on the planet surface. These operatives then work – using advanced technology and no accountability – to “protect” mankind. The implication is that operatives like Gary Seven have been guiding mankind from the shadows for decades, at least – all at the behest of secretive alien taskmasters.
This is a rather problematic set up. After all, The Omega Glory featured Kirk getting very upset at Captain Ronald Tracey for violating the Prime Directive on Omega IV. Then again, Kirk had gone on to nudge the planet’s civilisations towards traditional American values. The original Star Trek was never entirely consistent in its attitude towards the Prime Directive. In effect, this the philosophy of The Apple reflected back upon twentieth-century America, with a more advanced culture imposing their own norms upon a civilisation they deem “primitive.”
“Oh, sorry, I seem to have arrived on the wrong sets.”
However, Assignment: Earth never seems too bothered by this. Indeed, it is interesting that these issues have never really been explored in many of the tie-in materials surrounding Gary Seven and his mission on Earth. It is a pretty sizable issue with the episode, and while the pilot might have been setting the idea up to subvert it later, Assignment: Earth seems to have inherited the worst imperialist tendencies of Star Trek. Kirk (and Starfleet) may have made some questionable decisions, but they have a general philosophy of non-interference. Gary Seven’s philosophy is explicitly one of interference.
This aspect of Assignment: Earth also seems at odds with Roddenberry’s own moral philosophy. Roddenberry was a vocal opponent of the popular ancient astronauts theory, arguing that aliens did not build the pyramids. Roddenberry’s argument – one grounded in the humanism that defines Star Trek – is that humanity did not need mystical alien creatures to help them accomplish wonders. However, Assignment: Earth is the story about how mankind does need alien guidance because they are not capable of assuring their own continued existence.
Sure, Gary Seven is human. However, he is merely the puppet of an anonymous extraterrestrial power. Gary Seven is a cog in a well-oiled machine; he is a replacement part. The “operatives” are so interchangeable that Gary Seven can just step right into the shoes of his predecessors. As such, Assignment: Earth represents quite the departure from the humanism and optimism associated with Star Trek. The best we can hope for is that an alien race decides to meddle in human affairs to make things better.
Even aside from the troublesome subtext of the episode’s basic premise, Assignment: Earth serves to illustrate that perhaps Star Trek (and Gene Roddenberry) were not quite as consistent in their philosophy as hindsight would suggest. Roddenberry did a great deal of myth-making in the years after Star Trek went off the air, and a lot of it has lodged in the popular consciousness. As any rewatch of the series will demonstrate, Star Trek was not always as progressive and utopian as many fans like to believe.
Even aside from the problems with the premise of the show, Art Wallace’s script is decidedly clunky. To be fair, it has a lot of heavy-lifting to do as it integrates the Enterprise, but it has no real focus or levity. Instead, Assignment: Earth is stuffed with awkward exposition. When Gary Seven tries to convince the Beta V of his identity, it does not ask for a pass code or a DNA sample. Instead, it demands a plot dump. “Please confirm identity as supervisor by describing nature of agents and mission here.”
Of course, this seems like a rather arbitrary way of proving Gary Seven’s identity. After all, one assumes that any of his enemies would likely have a working knowledge of who he is and what he is doing. Certainly, if his adversaries know about the existence of the Beta V computer and can fake his voice pattern, it seems unlikely that a broad question about the nature of his assignment will slow them down. The question exists primarily to enable a long and cumbersome television show pitch from Gary Seven.
“Ay, I tried to pitch them ‘The Young Scotty Chronicles’, laddy, but they were having none of it.”
“Agents are male and female, descendants of human ancestors taken from Earth approximately six thousand years ago,” Gary Seven explains. “They’re the product of generations of training for this mission. Problem: Earth technology and science have progressed faster than political and social knowledge. Purpose of mission: To prevent Earth’s civilisation from destroying itself before it can mature into a peaceful society.” As pitches go, it is hardly “space, the final frontier…”
The rest of the episode is similarly clunky, with none of the central characters seeming particularly well-formed. Although clearly influenced by James Bond, Gary Seven has none of the wit and charm of the playboy spy. Instead, Gary Seven plays like a watered-down version of Spock. However, Lansing is not quite as comfortable with dry and emotionless as Leonard Nimoy, and Gary Seven comes off as rather stilted and awkward. To be fair, given that Gary Seven was raised without human contact, this makes some degree of sense. However, he lacks the sort of charisma needed from a series lead.
One of these days, Gary… right to the moon!
In an interview with Starlog, Robert Lansing confessed that he was originally reluctant to do genre television:
“At the time,” he confides, “Gene was a good friend, but I was a New York snob actor, come out to Hollywood. Many folks in my self-perceived position didn’t do Star Trek because it was considered a kid’s show, or a young show at any rate. Gene said, ‘I’m writing this for you and we can play with it. It might be a series.’ He said, ‘Well, you don’t have to, but just do this one thing for me.’ So, I did. It was a damn good script and a lot of fun.”
Although he seems to have softened in the years following the episode, it is interesting that Roddenberry would recruit a lead actor so disinterested.
Card-carrying secret agent…
Terri Garr does a better job with Roberta Lincoln. Garr seems a lot more comfortable with the comedic banter than Lansing, and makes the most of some truly terrible lines. Indeed, Assignment: Earth is downright painful when it tries to be funny, putting awful gags into the mouths of its lead characters. “Where’s three four seven?” Gary Seven demands on Roberta’s arrival. “With three four eight?” Roberta quips, which is painful enough. However, Assignment: Earth goes for the low-hanging fruit and has Gary Seven misunderstand. “Two oh one, code responses are not necessary.”
There is a similarly cringe-inducing scene with a dictation machine, which Assignment: Earth presents as the height of modernity. It is hilariously quaint. More awkward is the script’s patronising attitude towards sixties counter-culture. Asked if she wants to save the world, Roberta explains, “I know this world needs help. That’s why some of my generation are kind of crazy and rebels, you know. We wonder if we’re going to be alive when we’re thirty.” It is horribly condescending, suggesting that counter-culture just needs an older and more authoritative hand to guide it.
Computer says, “Exposit!”
However, like Lansing, there is a sense that Terri Garr was not entirely ready to commit to a television series. In her own interview with Starlog, Garr confessed that she did not like to talk about her time on Star Trek, and was almost relieved that Assignment: Earth never went to series:
Teri Garr appeared in Assignment: Earth. However, Garr responds, “I have nothing to say about it. I did that years ago and I mostly denied I ever did it.” She does admit that she would have been in the TV series that the episode was a pilot for, but it didn’t sell. “Thank god,” she says with genuine relief. “Otherwise, all I would get would be Star Trek questions for the rest of my natural life – and probably my unnatural life. You ever see those people who are Star Trek fans? The same people who go to swap meets.”
How about Marc Daniels, who directed that episode? “He’s dead. I liked Gene Roddenberry, but I don’t remember those people. I really don’t want to talk about Star Trek. That’s what I told them about this interview. If it’s a science fiction magazine, they’re going to ask me about this stuff I don’t – ” She breaks off abruptly. So much for that line of inquiry.
Based on these conversations, it seems rather unlikely that Assignment: Earth would have been particularly happy behind the scenes. There is a sense that Roddenberry and Wallace really had no idea of what they would do with the show if it did get picked up.
It’s all rather forced…
Assignment: Earth was almost the last episode of Star Trek. It is interesting how many episodes of the second season came close to being the last episode of the series. None of those episodes were particularly good – none of them seemed to encapsulate the essence of what made Star Trek great; none of them seemed to speak to the heart of the show. Assignment: Earth is a woefully cynical piece of television; more than that, it is also a very poorly-constructed episode of television. As with The Omega Glory before it, it suggests that Roddenberry was a better inspirational figure than he was a storyteller.
Still, Star Trek managed to limp on into a (deeply troubled) third season. Gary Seven and his supporting cast faded into history, abandoned forever in 1968. Maybe there is a happy ending, after all.
You might be interested in our other reviews from the second season of the classic Star Trek:
- Friday’s Child
- Who Mourns for Adonais?
- Amok Time
- The Doomsday Machine
- Wolf in the Fold
- The Changeling
- The Apple
- Mirror, Mirror
- The Deadly Years
- I, Mudd
- The Trouble With Tribbles
- Bread and Circuses
- Journey to Babel
- A Private Little War
- The Gamesters of Triskelion
- The Immunity Syndrome
- A Piece of the Action
- By Any Other Name
- Return to Tomorrow
- Patterns of Force
- The Ultimate Computer
- The Omega Glory
- Assignment: Earth
Filed under: The Original Series | Tagged: art wallace, assignment, assignment: earth, cancellation, Gary Seven, gene roddenberry, NBC, robert lansing, sixties, spin-off, star trek, Television, terri garr, the original series, time travel, tos |
When the Enterprise is assigned to observe Earth's history in 1968, suddenly it intercepts a transporter beam which originates at least a thousand light-years from Earth, bringing aboard a humanoid alien 'agent Gary Seven' holding a black cat called Isis, who warns them to step back and let him go to accomplish his mission to save Earth; initially phaser-struck down, he manages to beam himself away, actually on a mission to prevent a nuclear rocket being launched at McKinley base because earth is socio-politically not ready for its technological progress. He assumes a classified identity to override a powerful computer, and mistakes the wrong girl, Miss Lincoln, for another agent; the computer reports both other agents he seeks are deceased in an accident. Meanwhile Kirk and Spock beam down to investigate if the alien isn't hostile, realizing the risk of changing their own past. When they get on his trail, the girl sees Spock's ears, calls the police and Seven gets away; they must ... Written by KGF Vissers
Plot Keywords:male ensign|human|computer|rocket|cat| See All (185) »
Genres:Action | Adventure | Sci-Fi
Certificate:TV-PG| See all certifications »
Parents Guide:Add content advisory for parents »
Official Sites:Official site
Release Date:29 March 1968 (USA) See more »
Filming Locations:Paramount Studios - 5555 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USASee more »
Production Co:Paramount Television, Norway CorporationSee more »
Show more on IMDbPro »
Aspect Ratio:1.33 : 1 See full technical specs »
Did You Know?
TriviaSpock mentions all the events which are to occur on that date the Enterprise travelled back in time to the 20th century and met Gary Seven. Among the events mentioned was an important political assassination. As it turned out, there were ultimately two important political assassinations in 1968: just six days after this episode aired on March 29, 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, and two months later, on June 6, 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles, California on the night that he won the California Democratic presidential primary. See more »
GoofsThe same people can be seen passing - respectively - Kirk and Spock, and Roberta on her way into work, on four separate occasions (once in the same but split scene), going back and forth. The part of the walkway, however, is roughly the same on all occasions. See more »
Captain James T. Kirk: Captain's log. Using the light speed breakaway factor, the Enterprise has moved back through time to the 20th century. We are now in extended orbit around Earth, using our ship's deflector shields to remain unobserved. Our mission - historical research. We are monitoring Earth communications to find out how our planet survived desperate problems in the year... 1968.
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