Although it’s disparaged in some circles, “Assignment: Earth” remains one of my favorite episodes of the original “Star Trek” series.
Airing in March 1968 – the last episode of the second season of the classic show – “Assignment: Earth” was a “backdoor pilot,” industry parlance for an episode of a regular TV series that was intended to be a try-out for a spin-off series, an entirely different show.
The story follows the crew of the Enterprise as they – in rather blase manner – use the “slingshot” effect to travel back through time to 1968, a pivotal moment in world history. With the launch of an orbital nuclear weapons platform, the U.S. threatens to escalate the arms race.
Kirk, Spock and company don’t know about this particular wrinkle in time (heh), however. They just know that they have been waylaid by Gary Seven (Robert Lansing), ostensibly an Earth man who tells Kirk he’s been living on another planet his entire life and has been beamed back to his motherland to help the population avoid World War III.
Seven proceeds to escape from the Enterprise and beam down to the rocket launch site, with Kirk and Spock wondering if they should capture him or help him.
To investigate further, the two go down to 1968-era Earth, nattily dressed in sport coats and, for Spock, an ear-covering hat, and get mixed up in the goings-on. Lots of time-twisting hijinks ensue and we meet Roberta Lincoln (Teri Garr), the young woman working as secretary in the futuristic office from which Seven operates.
The episode builds to a tense climax as Seven tries to sabotage the rocket launch and throw just enough of a scare into the world without actually sparking war.
The episode ends with Kirk and Spock, looking smug, having done some research on Seven and Lincoln – they are from the future, after all – and predicting interesting adventures ahead for the team (including Seven’s shape-shifting cat/companion, Isis).
It was not to be, however. The series never materialized.
The characters turned up in a couple of “Star Trek” novels and comic books, but we never got to see the continuing adventures of Gary Seven. That’s too bad, too, because Lansing was such an interesting character actor. His grumpy, frowning demeanor would have made for an interesting, ahead-of-his-time presence on TV.
Some online criticism of the episode is that it seems dated – Teri Garr’s “mod” wardrobe and explanation of the hippie movement – or that it limits the amount of screen time for Kirk, Spock and others, particularly in the final episode of the second season. But I’m not sympathetic to those arguments. It was, after all, a pilot for a spin-off TV series. It’s done much more handily than in some series.
And it left me wanting more of Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln.