Monday, March 18, 2013

TOS Rewind #53: "Assignment: Earth"

Up for us this time:  Assignment:  Earth  (3/29/1968)

Here's the podcast:

Eric starts us out:

With "Assignment: Earth," we bring the second season of original Star Trek to a close. As an episode, it has the distinction of being the only one that isn't really a Star Trek episode. It is actually a pilot for what was to be a new Gene Roddenberry series titled (you guessed it) "Assignment: Earth."

To the best of my knowledge, there are no other examples of airing a pilot this way. Perhaps for good reason. The story and premise of "Assignment: Earth" is solid and interesting, but for the most part, it sidelines Kirk and company, which means it doesn't deliver as Star Trek. To be fair, though, I can understand the calculus that must've been at work. Towards the end of the second season, NBC tried once again to cancel Star Trek, and once again, it was saved by a letter writing campaign by the fans. Nevertheless, Roddenberry saw the writing on the wall, and with "Assignment: Earth," seized the opportunity to try to launch a new series to take Trek's place.

And as an SF series, it had potential. The premise, that for a very long time an advanced alien species has been sending agents to Earth to help humanity survive and mature as a race, is compelling (and similar to the premise of another Roddenberry series pilot, "The Questor Tapes"). The main characters, Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln, had potential I think, but the late Robert Lansing's portrayal of Gary Seven seems a bit flat, and Roberta Lincoln, played by Teri Garr, is a bit too ditzy and insubstantial. In both cases, a little time for the actors to get a firm handle on their characters may very well have solved these problems, but we'll never know. "Assignment: Earth" was not picked up by NBC. Original Star Trek, however, did go on to have a third season, which we'll begin discussing in the next review.

For now, though, I'll close with some final thoughts about the second season. Overall, I think it edges out the first season for consistently turning out exellent stories. There are low points, of course--"The Apple" springs to mind--but they are outweighed by some of the best episodes in Trek history (e.g. "Amok time," "The Doomsday Machine," "Mirror, Mirror," "The Ultimate Computer" and so on). Also, the actors, writers, and producers are comfortable with the characters, theme, and format of the series. There is none of the struggling to find their footing that was evident, understandably, in the early part of the first season. That said, the first season episodes perhaps did a better job of delivering their messages with subtlty. And the sense of wonder that I've mentioned before was more evident; the impression that the Enterprise was out in deep, unexplored space was stronger and more convincing than it was in the second season.

I find, not surprisingly, that I honestly can't choose one season over the other, so, given that it has crossed from late at night to early in the morning, I'll leave it at that. LLAP.


So let's get this out of the way right now. This episode was frustrating and somewhat irritating for me to watch. Eric has given us a good summary of how this episode, a pilot for a new Gene Roddenberry show, came to be. I really want to cut Gene and his gang some slack for the situation they were undoubtedly in. These guys decided to use any tool at their disposal to sell a new show to rise from what they felt were the ashes of Star Trek. I'm sure in Gene's mind, Trek was about to be cancelled and probably forgotten. Even by those who wrote all the letters to the network begging for Trek's renewal. The new series would hopefully be a hit with its secret agent-like main character and attractive "assistant". The new show would have just enough sci-fi appeal to keep Star Trek's audience tuning in but be more accessible to mainstream viewers of 1968.

Well we know how well that plan worked out. The new show was not picked up, Star Trek held on for one more season, and Gene found himself left with a show that the network still wanted dead. Gene bowed out of the daily running of Trek and we have Third Season. I really understand the pickle Gene was in and perhaps he had no other option. Unfortunately the pilot/Trek episode we're left with is what we judge. The episode is just another failed concept and that's fine:  there are lots of them out there littering the TV landscape. The problem is that the episode is quite compromised as Star Trek.

The irritating part is the way that the Trek characters are given relatively little to do and when they do something, they're really diminished so the Gary Seven character can come off as more impressive; Kirk and company don't really have anything important to do other than be spectators to the epic coolness of Gary S. And his sweet office.

"Captain's log, supplemental. Spock and I are in custody. Even if we'd talk, they wouldn't believe us. We're powerless to stop Mr. Seven or prevent the launch, or even be certain if we should. I have never felt so helpless." This quote pretty well sums up the state of our beloved Trek characters on this episode. Gary Seven is even immune to Spock's neck pinch! Fortunately for Kirk, the government "security" people hold him are even more pathetic.

As Eric pointed out, Teri Garr's Roberta Lincoln character is a ditz. Lincoln alternates between clueless airhead with a bad wardrobe to world-wise patriotic hippie; "hey man, don't be monkeying around with my nation's rockets. I know this world needs help. That's why some of my generation are kind of crazy and rebels, you know?" Young people really can do anything!

The way time travel is used seems quite trivial and the whole setup where the Enterprise is just hanging out checking out history seems odd. Is that the best use of a Federation starship? Unfortunately even if the new characters were amazing, they're just footnotes in a middling Trek episode. If this episode disappeared tomorrow, I doubt anyone would miss it. I have to think that this concept, which is fine would have better served by an episode that just focused on the new characters/world even if it was set in the Trek universe. A simple mention or cameo by Star Trek characters would have sufficed.

And what the hell was up with Gary's cat? Perhaps the cat should have been the main character.

Next time:  "Spock's Brain"

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