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Assignment: Earth

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at July 28, 2006 - 8:47 PM GMT

See Also: 'Assignment: Earth' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: When the Enterprise travels back in time on a research mission to study how humans managed to survive the 20th century without destroying themselves, the transporter room intercepts the beam of a man named Gary Seven, who along with his cat Isis has traveled a great distance to reach Earth. Seven claims that he is a human trained by aliens to help protect Earth, but although McCoy is able to confirm that he is indeed human, Seven escapes before the captain can discover his mission. Kirk and Spock beam down to New York City, where Seven has discovered that his fellow agents have died and he has inadvertently revealed too much about his plans to secretary Roberta Lincoln, who becomes his assistant. The United States is about to launch a nuclear weapons platform into space that will intensify the Cold War. Kirk and Spock discover Seven interfering with the rocket that will carry it, but before they can stop him, he is rescued from the scene by Roberta and they are taken captive. First Roberta and then Kirk must make the decision to trust Seven, allowing him to detonate the nuclear bomb more than a hundred miles above Earth's surface before it lands and starts a war.

Analysis: Despite plot holes big enough to derail the potential series for which "Assignment: Earth" was to have been the pilot, this remains a very enjoyable episode, all the more so for me because of what happened in the interim since the last time I watched it: namely, I became a Doctor Who fan. Suddenly some of Gary Seven's quirks -- like the time travel via what looks like typical Earth-based devices and the mightier-than-the-sword pen that substitutes for a sonic screwdriver -- remind me of the classic British science fiction series, which makes me wonder whether that was one of NBC's reasons for not picking it up independently. The theme seems similar too, though Gary Seven is a human raised by aliens rather than an alien and we see little evidence that he plans to meddle outside of Earth's own history: put him at pivotal moments, make sure things happen the way they were supposed to, and we have a logical if regrettably deus ex machina explanation of how humans did survive what Sargon called their primitive nuclear era.

What makes the storyline work is the chemistry among the actors and the fun they're obviously having. It's mind-boggling that Starfleet would risk contaminating the timeline just to study a nuclear crisis, and even more mind-boggling that Spock doesn't confirm Seven's story with a gimmick well-established in previous episodes, the mind-meld. Plus it isn't very bright of Kirk to bring his Vulcan first officer on the away team, rather than letting him do the scientific studies Scotty is carrying out on the Enterprise while letting the human chief engineer (who couldn't be unmasked by Roberta Lincoln like Spock) tinker with Seven's machines. Despite logic, however, it's fun to have Spock there to see Roberta's reaction to him; it's just as well Spock doesn't think of reading Seven's mind, because it would diminish the suspense when he detonates the warhead; and, really, if Starfleet hadn't authorized such a silly mission, it would have been pretty difficult to explain another accident like the one with the black hole from "Tomorrow Is Yesterday."

The episode feels rather dated, much more so than episodes of Star Trek set in the 23rd century: it feels as if we're watching not an actual story set in the Sixties but a caricature of same, with Teri Garr's Roberta Lincoln forced to talk too hip and wear clothing so awful that it's hard to look at her (gray tights with an orange-and-pink striped shawl-top? No woman's taste was ever that bad!) Seven, too, seems to have gotten his ideas about espionage not from studying actual CIA and Defense Department operatives, but by watching Star Trek's fellow Desilu production, Mission: Impossible, which despite the science fiction element "Assignment: Earth" resembles. None of this interferes with the fun of watching a single installment, and it's not like Mission: Impossible was ever realistic either (and some of Barbara Bain's outfits were almost as bad as Garr's here). But I can see why the series never took off.

The commentary on the Sixties remains interesting, with Kirk asking what's going on during the period they're visiting Earth and Spock offhandedly citing an assassination and a coup in Asia as well as the launching of the nuclear missile platform. Spock is perfectly delightful in this episode: he can't stop petting Seven's cat any more than he could help himself with the tribbles, he wears hats almost as painful to look at as Roberta's outfits, he tells Kirk in a calm voice that having no time for logic, they will have to rely on intuition. Maybe he doesn't want to mind-meld with Seven for some reason -- he might find out that most of the nuclear near-misses of the era required alien intervention to halt. Seven tells Kirk repeatedly that if he hinders him, Kirk will destroy Earth and start World War III -- this isn't minor meddling, the fate of the planet is at stake! Yet Seven's benefactors remain shrouded in mystery on a planet that even the Vulcans have never been able to detect.

In his history of the rise and fall of Khan, writer Greg Cox brought back Gary Seven, Roberta Lincoln and Isis to superb effect; these are probably my favorite Star Trek novels ever, and bring up a lot of might-have-beens both for the "Assignment: Earth" series that never was and the alternate history of the world in which the Eurasian war did break out. I'd have been happy to watch more episodes with Seven knocking people out with his pen's happy-ray and Lincoln trying to figure out how to serve her country and fix it at the same time, but this time around I find that the character who most intrigues me is Isis, the shape-shifting cat who always seems to know more than she's telling.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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