By the end of Star Trek‘s second season, it looked as though the show would be canceled. Word spread among cast and crew in the summer of 1967, as episodes continued to be filmed. Low ratings and network disputes with show creator Gene Roddenberry over how the program should be run had given NBC reason to pull the plug.
In all likelihood, the cancellation would have happened had it not been for the work of Bjo and John Trimble, two dedicated Star Trek fans who organized a letter-writing campaign of fans around the country. The enormous volume of mail convinced NBC to give Star Trek one more season.
Before the campaign took off in earnest, however, Roddenberry was already looking for other opportunities. He cared for Star Trek, but the reality of the time did not seem to show any real future for the series. Near the end of 1967, Roddenberry began work on “Assignment: Earth,” a brand new television series. It had many sci-fi elements, but was totally unconnected to Star Trek.
“Assignment: Earth” focused on Gary Seven, a super-skilled Doctor Who-esque traveler of sorts, who went into Earth’s present day to ensure history followed its proper course. He is joined by Roberta, a secretary, who learns about his mission and follows him along on his adventures. Seven is also accompanied by a shape-shifting cat (a humorous foil to his serious-toned character), along with Beta 5, a super-advanced computer who acts as a kind of advisor. They fight against the Omegans, an evil alien race attempting to undermine Earth via time travel, just as Gary Seven would attempt to set things right. Roddenberry pitched the series as a combination of spy-adventure and science fiction.
Gary Seven actor Robert Lansing describes the character background in a 1989 interview with Starlog Magazine, quoted on an Assignment: Earth fan website, The Complete “Assignment: Earth.”
“Gene was a good friend, but I was a New York snob actor, out to Hollywood. Many folks in my self-perceived position didn’t do Star Trek because it was considered a kid’s show, or a young show at any rate. Gene said, ‘I’m writing this for you and we can play with it. It might be a series.’ He said, ‘Well, you don’t have to, but just do this one thing for me.’ So, I did. It was a damn good script and a lot of fun.
“What Gene had done, was to go to futurists and scientists and ask them what advanced societies out in space might do towards more primitive societies like ours. One of the futurists said that they would probably kidnap children from various planets, take them to their superior civilization, raise them, teach and enlighten them, and then put them back as adults to lead their worlds in more peaceful ways. That was the idea behind Gary Seven.”
On its own as a script pitch, “Assignment: Earth” failed to gain any traction. Instead, Roddenberry adapted it into a Star Trek episode, aired as the Season 2 finale. It had become a backdoor pilot, an attempt by a currently running show to launch a new series. The idea of the Omegans was dropped. Gary Seven was no longer stopping aliens, and he had to save mankind from itself: war, greed, corruption, and so on.
The “Assignment: Earth” fan website has a copy of the original pitch, dated from December 1967, used to sell NBC on the idea, now revised as an episode of Star Trek. Roddenberry gives a description that emphasized the modernity of the concept.
“‘Assignment: Earth’ is the Star Trek spin-off pilot of a new show, ‘Assignment: Earth,’ a totally new today concept which can be described as ‘Science Fiction 1968!’ Laid against 1968 backgrounds and stories, but without losing the excitement and imagineering which identified futuristic Star Trek.”
The Star Trek episode “Assignment: Earth” tries to balance screentime for the regular crew against the needs of promoting the new show idea. Kirk and crew inadvertently intercept Gary Seven beaming to Earth. Seven and Kirk tussle throughout the episode, as Kirk attempts to learn of Seven’s true nature, and Seven attempts to accomplish his mission of destroying a space-orbit-bound nuclear warhead.
In a review of the episode, The A.V. Club‘s Zach Handlen criticizes the disconnected nature of the story from a traditional Star Trek episode.
“Kirk and Spock and the rest are reduced to cameos on their own show… Maybe ‘Assignment: Earth’ could’ve been a decent series; but it’s terrible Star Trek. ”
“At least we get some quality time with Teri Garr [who portrayed Roberta]… a pleasure to watch as always. She’s just kind of sweet and friendly, and while I can’t imagine wanting to tune in to her and Seven’s adventures every week, I do feel kind of bad that the show wasn’t picked up, for her sake. But hey, things turned out okay for her in the end, at least.”
If “Assignment: Earth” had been picked up as a series, it might have opened using the following narration, according to documents on the fan site.
“In the hands of this one man…
could rest the future of all mankind.
His name…Gary Seven…
born in the year 2319 A.D.
The only survivor of Earth’s attempt
to send a man back through time to today.
Assignment…fight an enemy
who is already here, trying to destroy us.
If he fails…there’ll be no tomorrow!”
In this case, there was no tomorrow. The characters of Gary Seven and Roberta have survived in Star Trek books and comics, but no TV series was ever made.
Star Trek would continue for one more season before being cancelled. Reruns, movies, and new TV shows would ensure a future for the franchise. “Assignment: Earth” is a unique footnote to that storied history.
[Featured Image by CBS]