Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Assignment: Earth," The Pilot That Was Couched In Star Trek But Succeeds!

The Good: Good acting, Generally clever story, Intriguing plot, Thematic issues
The Bad: Theme is a false premise, Isis “character.”
The Basics: When Star Trek is co-opted for a pilot for another series, Kirk and Spock interfere in an enhanced human's efforts to save the '60's!

Gene Roddenberry, the creator and executive producer of Star Trek, was a man who was not a one-trick pony. Instead of being happy with the modest success of Star Trek, as the popularity of the series was reaching its peak in the second season, he was looking for the next big thing that he could create. He had an idea for a show, called “Assignment: Earth” and he decided that to effectively sell it (and probably to cut down on some of the initial expenses of making a pilot episode) he would combine it with Star Trek. The result is "Assignment: Earth," a Star Trek episode that explores the issues of the day in the late 1960s and makes for a fine episode of Star Trek, but was apparently not strong enough to sell to the networks!

The U.S.S. Enterprise has gone back in time to the late 1960s to try to learn how the people of that era survived the various threats to their existence. While in orbit, the ship accidentally intercepts a transporter beam coming from deep space. A man in a suit, holding a cat, beams aboard and is troubled by the presence of the Enterprise there. He reveals that he is Gary Seven, an agent from a far advanced world and a human. Kirk wants proof that his intentions are benevolent, but Gary Seven refuses to give him more information.

With the help of his cat, Isis, Gary Seven escapes down to Earth and Kirk and Spock reluctantly follow. While Gary Seven sets up an office with his flighty secretary, Roberta Lincoln, Kirk and Spock attempt to blend in and figure out what Gary Seven's mission is. It soon becomes clear that the futuristic agent's mission involves the testing of a new missile carrying a nuclear warhead, but whether Gary Seven has been sent to stop the test or start a nuclear war is a mystery that has Kirk and Spock racing to stop him!

"Assignment: Earth" is an interesting episode both as a pilot for a potential new series and as a Star Trek episode. As a Star Trek episode, it faces a few unique problems. The first is that the basic premise of the show is at odds with information presented in the episode. The Enterprise is back on a fact-finding mission which seems odd because of the dangers of time travel and the fact that they were back in the same era in the prior season's episode "Tomorrow Is Yesterday". If the Federation lacks historical records from the 1960s, this creates an interesting gap in history and despite all of the other temporal problems with Star Trek, this one is one that has remained rather consistent; a gap in the 1960s Earth history may be easily explained by the loss of records in the aftermath of World War III. In Star Trek: First Contact fans witness the effects of World War III and we gather there is much of civilization that has been lost or overrun. But in order to make "Assignment: Earth" work, Spock lists off various events that happen in the days around when the Enterprise is visiting. Perhaps you see the problem; you can't have both, the lack of information that makes it worth risking time travel for and enough information to know what is supposed to happen from events as specific and esoteric as a missile test!

As a pilot episode for a new series, the episode is problematic in that it becomes a part of the Star Trek pantheon. As a result, if "Assignment: Earth" did not directly deal with some of the established ideas from Star Trek, it would have sunk the series. So, for example, we know from "Space Seed" (click here for that review!) that Khan and his genetically engineered followers raised an army and dominated much of the Earth until they were stopped in the early 1990s. If "Assignment: Earth" did not address that, it would have seriously weakened its credibility . . . because it had been introduced as part of the same universe as "Star Trek."

That said, there is a lot to recommend "Assignment: Earth" as the freestanding Star Trek episode that it is. First is the concept of Gary Seven. Gary Seven is a human, abducted and raised elsewhere and returned to Earth with the mission of saving the world. Yeah, it's pretty clear that this episode might well have influenced the producers of The 4000! But Gary Seven himself is an intriguing character. Arriving at Earth armed only with a pen (it's not just a pen!), a cat (she's not just a cat!), and his wits, Gary Seven takes over an operation that has been compromised by the deaths of the previous agents. Gary Seven is efficient and dedicated in completing their mission.

More than that, Gary Seven is immediately established as a leader, an authority in what he is doing and a man of great competence. Indeed, he holds his own against virtually the entire Enterprise crew with little advantage outside his intelligence, Isis and his ability to knock people out with his pen. He is, as intended, a James Bond type hero and he is intriguing to watch and has a very cool sense of style to him.

Roberta Lincoln, the flighty secretary, is a decent sidekick to the cool, efficient and very in-tune Gary Seven. What makes her interesting is that she is basically the embodiment of the audience, a woman who is going through her normal daily routine when the extraordinary comes up and starts smacking her around. She is not very politically motivated and she is instantly suspicious of Gary Seven and his impressive futuristic technology. The two work as a mismatched pair that could only truly work on television!

And Kirk, Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew are pretty much just along for the ride to complicate what is very much Gary Seven's adventure. Kirk and Spock debate about the motivations of Gary Seven, though the savvy viewer will figure out VERY early on whose side he is on. As a result, Kirk and Spock are captured in one of their few unhelpful roles where they hinder one who is in many ways their equal (or considering he works without a starship, possibly their better!).

Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner play their roles as Spock and Kirk much as they did during the prior time-travel adventure that put them on Earth in the past, "The City On The Edge Of Forever." They give us nothing new with their performances here, though they are not bad.

Roberta Lincoln is played by Teri Garr and she does a phenomenal job playing the archetypal "dumb blonde." Having seen her in other roles and hearing interviews with her, this is clearly an act and she plays it well. In one of her younger roles here, she is quite good a playing a late teen/early twentysomething woman who is interested, but not engaged until she is forced to be. Garr makes the role her own with a wide-eyed portrayal of Lincoln that is distinctive.

But it is Robert Lansing that rules the episode. As Gary Seven, Lansing is an efficient, if socially awkward character who has a physical role and a strong ability to emote using minimal body language. Much of the episode has Lansing as Gary Seven collecting facts, contemplating data and the camera lingers on him in a way that forces him to present the idea that Gary Seven is formulating conclusions and processing the information he has been given. It is easy to see how he might have carried the series had it been picked up. He has the leadership quality needed to frontrun a series and he pulls it off well.

Aspects of "Assignment: Earth" seem very dated, especially now. The concern with surviving the 1960s might have been very vital at the time, but is seems somewhat campy and overstated now. Every generation believes it might be the last, that it is standing at the verge of the apocalypse. As a result, "Assignment: Earth" resonates far less now and fans of Star Trek are left to wonder why the episode didn't take a daring leap and try to explore how humanity initiated and survived World War III!

"Assignment: Earth" is accessible to anyone who likes good action-adventure stories or historical dramas. It is a bit esoteric for most fans of science fiction, though the Star Trek component to it might make it easier for some to swallow.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Second Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the second season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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