Thankfully, the original series of Star Trek on BluRay arrived from Amazon about a week ago, and I've used my time under a multitude of blankets to revisit many episodes of TOS, now with re-mastered effect shots, and the ability to toggle between them and the original vision. I was very surprised to find how much I preferred these updated scenes featuring one of my all-time favourite starships, especially in episodes like "The Ultimate Computer" and "The Doomsday Machine" which required a lot of exterior shots of the Enterprise in order to help the story unfold.
Reaching the end of the second season I re-encountered the episode "Assignment: Earth", which has the least amount of Star Trek of any episode; most of the episode centers around the efforts of intergalactic secret agent Gary Seven (Robert Lansing), a human raised on an alien world and sent to Earth to protect it from itself, and his flighty but intelligent secretary Roberta Lincoln (Teri Garr). Kirk and Spock are almost incidental to the plot, sent back in time by Starfleet to make sure things unfold as they should, and initially opposing Seven, but eventually helping him prevent the weaponization of space in 1968.
Knowing as we do that Star Trek did a lot of its work on a shoestring budget, re-using props and costumes as much as possible, makes watching Assignment: Earth a bit puzzling: Why so little of the Enterprise and her crew? Why so much backstory on Gary Seven and his mysterious patrons? Isn't a new set, like Gary Seven's office with it's teleportation vault and Beta 5 supercomputer hidden behind rotating wall units, a bit extravagant for a single episode?
Well, yes, until you realize that a) Gene Roddenberry fully expected Star Trek to be cancelled, and b) he was hoping to use this episode as a 'back-door pilot' for a new series to be called "Assignment: Earth".
Star Trek actually was cancelled by NBC shortly after the second season, but a massive letter-writing campaign brought it back for a third. Assignment: Earth, sadly, never went to series, so we never got to see what Roddenberry might have intended for this 'spy-fi' venture, but it turns out that others have been intrigued by the potential as well.
At The Complete Assignment: Earth website, you can peruse this series-that-never-was to a remarkable depth. Curator Scott Dutton has collected an astonishing amount of material, including:
- the original pilot script
- the series proposal
- cast information
- photos of custom toys
- a credit sequence edited from existing footage
- props, costumes, and set blueprints
Most interesting to me, however, was the collection of blog entries written by a gentleman named Adam Riggio entitled "Roads Untaken". In it, he laments the lost opportunity of AE to present social justice issues in an entertaining medium, similar to what Star Trek itself did. He then goes on, however, re-casting the series (with Lenoard Nimoy and Diana Muldaur!) and outlining the broad strokes of four seasons.
Riggio's vision probably draws a little too much from modern-day television insofar as it has a comic-book-like continuity, building through various arcs to a season finale, unlike the stand-alone episodes of the period that suited syndication so well. Having said that, he makes a truly compelling case, and after reading Roads Untaken, I find myself joining him in lamenting for a series that never did, and could never now, exist.
This is not to say that Gary Seven's mission has to end there; comics legend John Byrne, a devoted Trekkie with a number of TOS books published by IDW, has written and drawn 5 issues of an Assignment: Earth comic book that is simply marvelous. It not only gives a faithful rendition of Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln, but expands upon their mission and objectives, and even revisits another Star Trek episode, "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" which shows the two of them working behind the scenes to help the Entrprise crew reset history in 1969 after accidentally abducting an American fighter pilot.
The idea of of a more advanced culture sending someone to Earth to help us make our way through tumultuous times resonated highly in the late 1960s, as North America wrestled with the war in Vietnam, generational friction, women's rights, and racial strife. In fact, as the internet Movie DataBase notes:
Spock mentions all the events that would happen the week of 1968 that they arrived in. Among the events he 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 he won the California Democratic Presidential Primary.I like to think we have made some decent progress as a planetary society since that time, even without assistance, but as we watch events unfold in Crimea, the furor around same-sex marriage and the attempts by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to chronicle the damage done by the Indian Residential Schools, I start to wish that there were people like Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln to help us out. Don't you?