Star Trek Re-Watch: “Assignment: Earth”

“Assignment: Earth”
Written by Art Wallace (story by Gene Roddenberry and Art Wallace)
Directed by Marc Daniels

Season 2, Episode 26
Production episode: 2×26
Original air date: March 29, 1968
Star date: 1968

Mission summary

While on a frivolous time travel mission to research Earth’s history, circa 1968, Enterprise accidentally intercepts a transporter signal from an unknown source over a thousand light years away. A well-dressed man holding a black cat beams onto their transporter pad and looks at them dramatically.

The mysterious man in the sharp suit asks why they’ve intercepted him and demands they identify themselves. Kirk calls security to the transporter room before complying. The man is astonished to find a starship in the 20th century and when he notices Spock’s pointy ears he realizes Enterprise is from the future. He calls himself Mister Seven, claiming to be a contemporary Earth man sent by a secretive alien race to protect the planet. That’s a flimsy premise, especially from a guy who has conversations with his pet cat. Seven tries to convince them to beam him down immediately.

SEVEN: Captain Kirk, I am of this time period. You are not. You interfere with me, with what I have to do there, and you’ll change history. You’ll destroy the Earth and probably yourselves, too.
SPOCK: If what he says is true, Captain, every second we delay him could be dangerous.
KIRK: And if he’s lying?
SEVEN: This is the most critical period in Earth’s history. The planet I’m from wants to help Earth survive.
KIRK: What if it turns out you’re an invading alien from the future?
SPOCK: A most difficult decision, Captain.

Kirk has a tough call to make, so he puts it off until he can gather more information about their fashionable passenger and his ominous feline companion, Isis. He orders confinement for Seven, but the man and his cat overpower the incompetent security officers. He shrugs off Spock’s patented neck pinch and works the transporter controls until Kirk stuns him with a phaser.

As Dr. McCoy examines the stylish stranger, Kirk calls a ship-wide briefing with all science, engineering, and supervisory personnel through the comm system. They don’t know much more than they did before, but Spock takes a break from cuddling Seven’s cat to highlight the historical significance of the 1960s:

SPOCK: There will be an important assassination today, an equally dangerous government coup in Asia, and, this could be highly critical, the launching of an orbital nuclear warhead platform by the United States countering a similar launch by other powers.
KIRK: Weren’t orbital nuclear devices one of this era’s greatest problems?
SPOCK: 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.

In the brig, Seven tests the forcefield of his cell before shorting it out with his sonic screwdriver pen then using the device to hypnotize a red shirt into a dead sleep. He escapes to the transporter room while McCoy tells Kirk and Spock what a great body he has: “Human readings, yes, but not a single physical flaw. Totally perfect body.” Clean living or proof of alien origin?

Isis darts out of the room just before security reports Seven’s escape. She joins her master in the transporter room and they beam down before Kirk can stop him…

In a New York City office, a secret wall slides open to expose a hidden safe. The dials on the steel vault spin by themselves until the massive door swings aside to reveal a swirling blue energy field. Seven and his cat emerge from the transporter effect and calmly walk into the room as the vault and wall close behind them. He strides to the window and looks at the people below, marveling at how primitive it all is.

He calls out “Computer on.” A bookcase rotates and a large computer appears, a cross between Batman’s Batcomputer and Daystrom’s ill-fated M15. The Beta 5 analytical computer requests he identify himself by exposition:

SEVEN: All right. Agents are male and female, descendants of human ancestors taken from Earth approximately six thousand years ago. 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 civilization from destroying itself before it can mature into a peaceful society.

It may sound like a bad pitch for a television show, but it satisfies Beta 5 and she accepts him as Supervisor 194, Gary Seven. She reports that agents 201 and 347 have been missing for three days and begins searching news feeds and government communications to locate them in time to complete their operation: to sabotage a rocket carrying a U.S. suborbital nuclear warhead, which launches in less than ninety minutes. Seven might have to get his own hands dirty on this one.

Meanwhile, back on Star Trek: Kirk and Spock beam down in period-appropriate business suits, with a cap covering Spock’s ears. They begin tracking Seven’s position with Scotty’s guidance from Enterprise.

A blonde woman enters Seven’s outer office while Beta 5 produces false IDs and a map of McKinley Rocket Base for him. Seven, still dressed to the nines in a new suit, mistakes her for agent 201, but after the psychic typewriter freaks her out by auto-magically typing everything she says, it becomes evident that she’s hired help who knew nothing of their identities—until Seven inadvertently made her aware of their advanced technology. She quits but he uses his sonic pen to lock her in and consults Beta 5 via a green cube on the desk.

SEVEN: Scan unidentified female present.
COMPUTER: Roberta Lincoln. Human. Profession: secretary. Employed by 347 and 201. Description: age twenty, five feet seven inches, 120 pounds, hair presently tinted honey blonde. Although behavior appears erratic, possesses high IQ. Birthmarks—
COMPUTER: Small mole on left shoulder. Somewhat larger star-shaped mark on her—
ROBERTA: Hey, watch it! Okay, I’ll bite. What is it?
SEVEN: Miss Lincoln. Miss Lincoln, What kind of work did your employers say they were doing here?
ROBERTA: Research for a new encyclopedia? No? No.

He shows her his fabricated CIA papers to convince her he’s a government agent. “Very groovy,” she says, suddenly trusting him. Seven decides to keep her around, because why not, and asks not to be disturbed while he consults his cat. But Kirk and Spock are closing in on his coordinates.

They arrive at his front door just as Beta 5 reports that agents 201 and 347 were killed in an automobile accident on their way to McKinley. He sneaks out through his secret transportal as Roberta runs interference on the Starfleet officers. They struggle and she uses her defensive training to pull Spock’s cap off, which admittedly does force him to let her go so she can get a better look at his Vulcan features, with the requisite shocked reaction. Kirk shoots the locked office door with his phaser and bursts in—too late, again. Seven walks safely out of a hangar at McKinley.

Cops arrive at the apartment in response to Roberta’s panicked call for help. The captain and science officer beam out with the startled policemen then return them as soon as they’ve had an eyeful of Enterprise’s transporter room—giving Roberta another demonstration of advanced technology. So much for keeping a low profile. Seven isn’t much better at evading security personnel at the base. He’s stopped by a sergeant, who he allows to make a phone call before he zaps him asleep with his pen.

Meanwhile, on Star Trek, Scotty uses a weather satellite to get Google-like close-up images of the launch pad, performing a tedious visual scan for the stylish business man and his black cat. He misses Seven emerging from the trunk of the launch director’s car and his trip in the elevator to the top of the rocket, only thirty-five minutes before blastoff. Kirk and Spock beam down to the pad just as Seven’s sleepy sergeant wakes up to capture them. They really have the worst luck sneaking around 20th century military bases.

Kirk and Spock remain tight-lipped about their identities and the communicators and phasers the military confiscate from them. But Scotty’s finally found the needle in his haystack: he zooms in on Seven and Isis perched on the gantry crane, messing around in an open panel on the rocket. He attempts to beam them up, but Roberta inadvertently presses all the right buttons while playing with Seven’s toys and intercepts the transporter beam, bringing him back to his office before he can finish whatever he was trying to do.

Kirk’s “never felt so helpless” standing around watching the rocket take off. In Seven’s apartment, Roberta begins to get suspicious when her employer uses Beta 5 to sabotage the rocket. She tries to call for help but he cuts the phone cord with his pen. He takes the rocket off its flight path and arms the warhead, which alarms the military brass at the base, and most international governments. Seven has control of the rocket’s horizontal and vertical, and he sets it on a trajectory for Eurasia where it’s certain to ruin everyone’s day.

While the officers are distracted by their failed attempts to re-establish contact and activate the rocket’s destruct signal, Kirk and Spock nab a communicator and have Scotty transport them to Seven’s apartment. They find that Roberta has beaned Seven with a cigar box and taken his pen. He tries to convince Roberta that he’s trying to prevent World War III:

SEVEN: Roberta, you’ve got to believe me. Look, a truly advanced planet wouldn’t use force. They wouldn’t come here in strange alien forms. The best of all possible methods would be to take human beings to their world, train them for generations until they’re needed here.
ROBERTA: Mr. Seven, I want to believe you. I do. 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.

Okay… Kirk and Spock bust into the office and the Vulcan immediately tries to figure out Beta 5’s controls so he can detonate the warhead. Seven insists he has the same goal: to destroy the rocket before it drops below 100 miles over the Earth, “just barely in time to frighten them out of this arms race.” Roberta points the pen at Kirk threateningly, but Seven takes it from her—it was set to kill. He hands the weapon to the captain and offers his help.

Kirk is indecisive, but Spock may not be able to master the controls in time. “Without facts, the decision cannot be made logically. You must rely on your human intuition,” he advises. With the rocket thirty seconds from impact, he makes up his mind. “Go,” he tells Seven.

Seven takes over the controls and after a tense countdown, he succeeds in destroying the rocket at an altitude of 104 miles. Later, he dictates his report to his typewriter, calling the mission a success despite Enterprise’s accidental interference. The captain and Spock maintain that of course everything happened the way it was supposed to—they’ve just noticed that their historical tapes had a record that “a malfunctioning suborbital warhead was exploded exactly one hundred and four miles above the Earth” (how did Spock miss that?) and resulted in better international control of nuclear weapons. Oh, time travel.

Roberta is distressed when she sees Isis briefly turn into a Playboy Playmate, but Seven is coy about his cat’s true nature. He asks Kirk and Spock for some hints about the future, but they hold out on him.

KIRK: I’m afraid we can’t reveal everything we know, Mr. Seven.
SPOCK: Captain, we could say that Mr. Seven and Miss Lincoln have some interesting experiences in store for them.
KIRK: Yes, I think we could say that. Two to beam up, Scotty.
SPOCK: Live long and prosper, Mr. Seven.
KIRK: And the same to you, Miss Lincoln. Energize.

Seven, 104, 347, 1968… the numbers just don’t add up on this one. Most fans are aware that “Assignment: Earth” was intended as a backdoor pilot for a show starring Gary Seven, his quirky receptionist, a sexy shapeshifting cat, and a contrary computer. As such, it makes for a peculiar episode of Star Trek, and a dissatisfying season finale, relegating the crew to following Seven around trying to figure out what he’s up to. The conceit that time travel is so simple Starfleet can lead observational missions into Earth’s past was rightfully dropped after this anomalous plot, as was the planned TV series.

I don’t know if I ever watched this episode without the knowledge that it was an odd blend of two shows, but I think it left a better impression on me when I was younger. This time around the setup comes off as too farfetched, and the story structure is a mess. Too much focus is placed on Seven to the detriment of our regular cast, and aside from the scene where he meets Roberta, the script is uninspired. Add in the fact that we’ve seen a lot of this before, including a black cat who’s really a woman, and it doesn’t deliver much excitement.

But the show isn’t without its good points. I was curious about Seven’s true identity and mission right up to the end, having forgotten his purpose (or simply confused by his motives and unreliable explanations). The NASA stock footage is breathtaking even now, seamlessly integrated into the episode and making this episode look like it had an effects budget to rival a Hollywood film. I suppose in 1968 much of the public would have been familiar with those striking images, but I hadn’t seen them often enough to be a distraction. The shots of 1968’s streets, sets, and fashions are as much a window into the past as Star Trek itself often represents that tdecade’s culture and politics.

Seven calls that decade the “most critical period in Earth’s history,” and I’m not sure I would necessarily dispute the claim, even now. The episode tackles contemporary issues of the sixties more directly than usual, commenting and warning against the raging nuclear arms race with all the subtlety of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and about the same level of success. (Hint: none at all.) It’s interesting to see a 1960s interpretation of the 1960s, including Roberta’s explanation of her generation’s hippy culture. Most of all, I was intrigued that both Seven and Kirk are the good guys—they want the same thing, but they find it difficult to trust each other and the stakes are too high to risk making the wrong call, as good an analogy for the Cold War as any.

The biggest surprise in this episode: Kirk’s ship-wide briefing, which is unusual in any Star Trek series. I also noticed Scotty’s comment, “It’s impossible to hide a whole planet,” because in the TNG episode “When the Bough Breaks,” the planet Aldea manages it just fine with a cloaking device. Maybe the engineer hasn’t heard the legends about it.

Hey, do you think anyone went back for the communicator and phasers they left at McKinley Base?

Eugene’s Rating:Warp 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: Did we get our wires crossed with some other re-watch?

The best that can be said about “Assignment: Earth” is that it was barely a Star Trek episode. The worst that can be said is that I probably should have painted my apartment before popping the disc in so I could’ve had something more interesting to watch. Its greatest sin wasn’t the hopeless plot, the uninspired dialogue, the heavy-handed moral messages, or even the lack of screentime for our heroes: it’s that it was about as exciting as watching someone’s vacation photo slideshow. If they had gone on vacation to the Get Smart studio set. That they made in their living room. To act out their spy thriller fan fiction. (Hints of Bashir’s holodeck program, anyone?)

First of all, the “we were just on the usual Tuesday time travel route” set-up was pathetic and lame, even compared to some of the handwaving we’ve put up with before. I never though I’d look back at “A Piece of the Action” and think it was clever, but there you have it. Can they not even try to come up with something plausible? It can be half-hearted! I’ll take it! Worse was the excruciating overuse of stock footage. Now I’m a space geek through and through and I yawned audibly at least three times during each of the ponderously long rocket check-me-out sequences. Rockets are cool! I get it! You know what’s not cool after watching this episode? Rockets! They made rockets boring. True fact.

Okay, so the computer was kind of cool when she gave Seven lip, and Spock with a kitty is SO CUTE (and random…) and I am surprised I haven’t seen that in the various clipshow YouTube videos that people always send me. But oh Teri Garr, what are you wearing and why would you agree to be so annoying? There’s one line I really liked, though, that I felt was quintessentially Star Trek. Kirk says that it’s impossible to hide a whole planet, and Seven responds: “Impossible for you. Not for them.” It seemed to imply both that technology can do more than we think it can, and that limitations (perceived or real) are ours alone, not necessarily universal. A nice touch.

I guess I should talk about the science-fictional “idea” behind this episode, such as it is. Aliens interfering with Earth history: could be interesting, is not here. Spy thrillers involved with this: also could be interesting I guess but probably not combined with camp. The idea of technology moving more quickly than social progress: plausible! Ding! But those ideas aren’t really worthy of this episode. The real question I was left with at the end wasn’t “Oh what will become of humanity?” but “Why do 1960s aliens have an orgasm raygun?”

But maybe I am just not evolved enough to understand.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 2

Best Line: ROBERTA: “Research for a new encyclopedia? No? No.”

Syndication Edits: Kirk tells McCoy to hurry with his report and bring it to the briefing room; Kirk and Spock approach Seven’s building; Seven’s reaction to the news that his agents are dead; after Roberta calls the cops, Seven opens his vault, Spock holds Roberta, and Kirk blasts open the door; Kirk sees the plans for McKinley Rocket Base; Seven prepares to hide in the director’s car; three segments of Scotty scanning the viewscreen; Seven’s line, “Meow? You are nervous, aren’t you, doll?”

Trivia: The first draft of a half-hour pilot script for a series titled “Assignment: Earth” was dated November 14, 1966, which pitted Gary Seven against a race of alien time travelers trying to sabotage Earth’s development. He was assisted by Roberta Hornblower against two Omegan operatives named Harth and Isis and a time-altering computer. The pilot didn’t sell and it was reworked as a Star Trek episode, with that first draft dated December 20, 1967, in which the Enterprise crew watches Bonanza on the Bridge viewscreen. Seven appeals to McCoy to “think like a doctor, not a mechanic” while imprisoned, and his female aide was now called Roberta London. Roddenberry revisited the concept in another failed television movie/series, The Questor Tapes in 1974.

The episode uses NASA stock footage of launched from Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) , cropped from the anamorphic 2.35 : 1 aspect ratio.

Roddenberry was credited as “Producer” instead of “Executive Producer” for this episode, the first he was listed as such since the first season.

The character Gary Seven returned only in a number of novels and comics, including John Byrne’s comic mini-series sequel to the episode, Star Trek: Assignment: Earth, which featured a story that also ties back to the episode “Tomorrow is Yesterday.”

Other notes: Coincidentally, there were two important assassinations in 1968: Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4 (six days after the episode was broadcast) and Robert F. Kennedy on June 6. The Apollo 6 rocket was also launched on April 4.

Robert Lansing (Gary Seven) received a unique guest star credit for this episode, which included his character’s name. Fans might recognize him from films The 4-D Man and Empire of the Ants, as well as starring and guest roles on television, including Twilight Zone (“The Long Morrow”).

Teri Garr (Roberta Lincoln) was reportedly upset over Roddenberry’s shortening of her skirt and has refused to talk about Star Trek. Genre fans would remember her from Young Frankenstein and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

James Doohan voices a radio voice at the rocket base.

Previous Episode: Season 2, Episode 25 – “Bread and Circuses.”

Next Episode: Season 3, Episode 1 – “Spock’s Brain.” (Oh, boy.) US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.