8.14.2013

Captain's Blog pt. 54: Assignment: Earth

This is what I'd call a derivative. Not derivative as in redundant but in the financial sense, i.e. my enjoyment of it is derived from the value of something else: in this case, the rest of the series. I include it here because it more than any other really stands out against the backdrop/ context of TOS. It's an off-key note in many ways, but it adds texture to the orchestra.

Its odd-man-out-ness is understandable as it was conceived as the pilot for an altogether different series. The Enterprise crew was only added several revisions later, where it became the last episode of Season 2. Which is why they seem so ineffective throughout; they're along for the ride on a script that wasn't built to accommodate them.

As the Captain says at one point, "I've never felt so helpless."

It's a back-door pilot, i.e. an episode of an established series that's actually a pitch for a spin-off show. Star Trek's fate was uncertain at this point and though a letter-writing campaign would result in the show's renewal for a third season, Roddenberry basically used Trek as a delivery mechanism for this idea for a new show.

So, on the night of March 28, 1968 - while Gomer involved himself in a Hungarian feud over on Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. - a small amount of loyal viewers tuned in to see:


The title is interesting. As describing the crew of the Enterprise portion of the story, I'll go as high as 2 pts. Just because I like the matter-of-factness of it. (I picture Kirk opening a sealed order that has "Assignment: EARTH" written on it, with the appropriate musical cue. He hands the paper to Bones who says something like "Dear God in Heaven." Actually, if they wasted a good 5 minutes passing such a note around the bridge and each character got to react more than once, that would be wonderful enough for me to bump this whole episode up a good 10 pts overall.) As a story for the pilot of a proposed Gary Seven series, it possesses a similar bam-here's-the-deal-ness. So let's say 2.25 (out of 3) pts.

Guest: 3.5 out of 3 pts. Obviously, as a showcase for a whole different show, the guest stars here have to pack a lot more punch. And while they're not the most memorable guest stars Trek ever had, they're still pretty good.

Robert Lansing in particular. Laconic and a bit stuffy, he might have made a better Mission: Impossible lead than what they tried for him here. (And a Dog Star Omnibus no-prize to anyone out there who thinks of him first as "Control" from The Equalizer.) His performance has grown on me over the years.

He did the show as a favor for his old pal Roddenberry.
Even had it proved wildly popular, he made it clear he was heading back to Broadway regardless.
And so he did. Though he returned to LA to work in TV throughout the 70s and 80s.

Gary Seven is a great character/ concept. A lot of Roddenberry's non-Trek ideas aren't so interesting to me, but I'd have watched a show with this set-up and Lansing in the lead role, definitely. Someone really should resurrect this show and give it a proper shakedown cruise. Keep it in the 60s; hell, lease the Mad Men sets. (Or just adapt the set-up for MM's next season. Now that would be something. Cross-marketing at its finest.)

Teri Garr has dropped hints that filming this was an unpleasant experience. Roddenberry was apparently a real taskmaster on set and micromanaged her all the way down to her hemline. (Something Garr really hated.)


There's a whole site dedicated exclusively to this episode, by the by. Lots more behind-the-scenes stuff than we need to cover here, but suffice it to say, Teri wasn't a huge fan of Star Trek and was happy that an ongoing series never materialized.


As for Isis, the cat who is also a lady,


she was played by Victoria Vetri:


aka Angela Dorian, Playboy's Playmate of the Year for 1968. Presumably, she didn't complain about her hemline. I never made this connection before.
Also one of Rosemary's pals in Rosemary's Baby. She actually was in quite a bit of stuff, not the least of which was:

Nor did I realize she was arrested in 2010 for shooting her husband. (Guess that "Bee Girls" tagline came true for him. He survived; she served time.)

And Barbara Babcock adds to her TOS c.v. as the voice of Beta-5. It's easy to hear why she (and James Doohan) were asked to do so many voiceovers. I honestly can't imagine the original episodes without their audio performances. They're all over the series.


While I think it's cool Majel Barrett got so much voiceover work on the other shows, it's too bad Barbara was never asked back. Although perhaps she was and wasn't interested? Anyone know?

Two other audio elements of TOS I hope never get edited out/ replaced on inevitable re-packagings of the future: 1) the background chatter of stations checking in over the comm system. (Often supplied by the Genes.) and 2) the bridge noises. My DVDs have the bridge noises as audio for the menu screen: better than a meadow full of crickets.

(I really should have a separate category for audio. My spreadsheet does, but I didn't feel like coming up with new ways of saying "It's so awesome" 50 times)

Kirk and the Gang: 5 out of 10 pts. No one does a bad job or anything, just no one has all that much to do or much point to the story. They provide temporary complications. Not bad, certainly still fun. 

"Isis and Mister Spock... Approve."
Speaking of this cat:

Script / Theme: 3.5 pts. As a proof-of-concept story about how Gary Seven and Isis meet Roberta Lincoln and what they're all about, it's not bad. As a Trek story, it's not very good. (As a season finale, too! It was different in those days, sure, but still, how rude.) There's no real conflict or "assignment" going on here. Kirk and Spock are sent back in time to... witness Gary exploding the warhead? Ultimately? But they could have done that from space and easily made it look like an accident. I know they didn't expect to meet Gary Seven, but the tension is still fairly contrived. The premises of the Enterprise being there are simply not thought out.

When did Starfleet start doing firsthand-historical-observation missions? (Picard asks the same question of Rasmussen in "A Matter of Time," so apparently it was news to him in the 24th century.) I do love the little pause and dramatic delivery Shatner gives "1968" in the first Captain's Log, though.

Internal Logistics

Uhhh...
1 out of 3.
Visual Design: 2 of 3 pts.

Great 1960s-ness in this episode. Lots of fur coats.
Except Ms. Lincoln, but I guess she was supposed to be zany: spirited but flighty. So, you know, hippies.
Incidentally, this blonde lady with the purple fur coat and white hose appears in every street scene shot, but this was the best screencap I could get. If I were Gary Seven (or Beta-5) I'd be suspicious. Why is she casing the joint?
I like the mixing-in of so much grainy stock footage.
In olden days, mixing stock footage with tv footage meant cropping its aspect ratio from 2:35 to 1 to TV-of-the-time's 1.33 to 1. Nowadays, it would be even worse, as aspect ratios have changed.
Believe it or not, this was once useful information; it allowed you to decode the technical details on the back of Laser Discs.
like this one.
 
Gary Seven with M-5 Computer Atavachron Beta-5.

Memorability: Here's how I break it down: Personally-memorable-to-me: 4 pts. Out-there-in-the-world-memorable: 1 pt. Garden-variety-Trekker-memorable: 2 pts. Average: 2.5-ish out of 5 pts. This would probably be another one where we'd negotiate which 50 TOS episodes we were bringing with us to the frontier, and you'd say "Now, don't go sneaking in "Assignment: Earth" or anything crazy while I turn around to lift this cooler," and I'd assure you I wouldn't, then of course swap it in while you weren't looking.

Sorry about that in advance.

Total Points Awarded: 19.75

9 comments:

  1. This episode wasn't the greatest and Teri Garr annoyed the hell out of me. But Lansing is a different story. The man could flat-out act. He had a decent career but it should have been bigger and better. Based on acting ability alone he should be considered in the same class as Gene Hackman or Warren Beatty. He never really got his due, though.

    I would have liked to see this turned into a series. Maybe someone should have tried in the 90s when sci fi was all over TV, with The X-Files, the new Outer Limits, Friday the 13th, Babylon 5, the various Treks, etc. I think they missed their window. Again.

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    1. Would love to have seen this show come to fruition.

      Here's my offering of what it might have looked and sounded like.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6lmBbV3VWo

      This might have been a different way to go...or maybe two years into it's run....a change of theme song and approach

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmynXHrR74w

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    2. Those are pretty well-done, kudos!

      Have you read Byrne's Assignment: Earth comic? What did you think?

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  2. Lansing was a good actor, but far too somnambulistic for this role. He seems vaguely bored most of the time. I mean, really, the presence of the Enterprise and crew seemed about as significant to him as a UPS van double-parked in front of his building: a minor annoyance and impediment to him getting to where he wants to go.

    It's that sleepy attitude that makes the whole Gary Seven theme of the show so annoying here. Had the character been played by someone more intense yet with a sense of fun (someone more like Shatner himself, I suppose), this might have helped buoy the episode. Even Roy Thinnes, whose last episode of The Invaders had just aired, would have been better. No, he didn't have much of a twinkle in his eye, but he had an intensity as David Vincent that might have made Gary Seven more believable.

    Teri Garr is a bit more fun here, with her mod-ish clothes and her dingbat demeanor. The chemistry between her and Lansing is nonexistent, though, and it's clear that a lot of the potential series would have been predicated on their partnership. Instead of a Bond/Moneypenney relationship, it's more of an emotionally-distant-dad/just-graduated-boarding-school-in-California-and-taking-a-year-off-before-college-daughter.

    I'm once again struck by how fairly blase Kirk and Spock are about something you'd think would have blown their minds - evidence of a highly-advanced alien civilization manipulating Earth centuries before anyone knew about it. Plus, the fact that those aliens were still unknown in the 23rd century might have galvanized them into following up while still in the 20th century.

    The whole Spy vs Spy story at Cape Canaveral was pretty tedious. Plus, as you touch on, the Enteprise itself could have easily taken care of the problem from orbit, rather than Kirk mucking about on-planet.

    All-in-all, an episode with a lot of potential for fun, but the actual end result is kinda dreary.

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    1. I remember your saying you found Robert Lansing's performance sleepwalky from some long-ago email or conversation, now that you mention it. I've grown to appreciate him, tho I started off not liking him all that much. Ditto for his chemistry with Teri Garr. The trinity between he, her, and Beta-5 is just a remix of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy trinity, sure, but I like the addition of Isis and the potential for understated stuffy vintage 60s sci-fi they hint at.

      Byrne's continuation of it all is probably the best of a lot of worlds, as you can imagine the lines said any way you please while reading.

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  3. Last time I watched this one, it struck me a bit as an attempt to create an American version of "Doctor Who." Which, frankly, would have been a fine thing.

    I like the episode. It isn't one of my favorites, but I do dig it.

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  4. I wonder if Lansing comes across so understated is because the entire cast of Star Trek over-acted so much. . .Many blame this on the actors. I blame it on the era. Everybody was over-acting in the late 1960s and 1970s. Charlton Heston was a great actor, but did a lot of over-acting in stuff like Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green.

    I liked Teri Garr. She was supposed to be a ditz, so she played one and played it well.

    I enjoyed this episode a great deal. But again, I don't think about it. I just go along for the ride as long as it's not too bumpy.

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    1. Naw, I've seen Lansing in many other things. In this particular role he just seems distracted and bored. For an understated TV performance from that era I like, check out who I mentioned above: Roy Thinnes in The Invaders. For that matter, there are quite a few understated performances on TV from the late '60s - look at Mission: Impossible. Or Adam 12. Or Dragnet.

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  5. And by the way, this is a great blog post you've done. Really well done.

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