Thursday, May 2, 2013

Assignment: Earth

A sneaky pilot for a series starring Robert Lansing as Gary Seven, and Teri Garr as Roberta Lincoln. Assignment: Earth is unable to demonstrate the strengths of the proposed new series or Star Trek.

As a Star Trek episode, Assignment: Earth ends up being Tomorrow Is Yesterday stripped of all the concepts which made Tomorrow Is Yesterday the better episode. Gone is the clever near future setting of Tomorrow Is Yesterday, broadcast in January 1967 but set in a then undefined future just before the first mission to the moon. Instead the opening Captain's log immediately tells us Assignment: Earth is intended to be contemporary, “ the year 1968.” Gone too are D. C. Fontana's carefully worked out solutions for getting the Enterprise crew in and out of the story. The Enterprise has been in 1968 for some time at the start of Assignment: Earth, and the story ends before the Enterprise heads home. Also gone is much of the incident from Tomorrow Is Yesterday, the increasing complications of a plot in which the Enterprise crew know they cannot interact with 20th century Earth, but must in order to try and resolve problems caused by earlier interactions, which causes more problems, and so on. In Assignment: Earth Kirk never gets to take the lead, he and Spock spend most of the story following Gary Seven from New York, to McKinley Rocket Base, and back to New York.

As the first episode of a series called Assignment: Earth, the viewer is left with no idea of how that show would work on a weekly basis. The concept is clearly laid out when Gary Seven describes his mission as, “to prevent Earth's civilisation from destroying itself before it can mature into a peaceful society,” but what does that mean over 26 weeks? There is no antagonist in Assignment: Earth. The plot, such as it is, runs entirely on Kirk, and Spock not knowing if they can trust Gary Seven, and Roberta not knowing if she can trust Gary Seven, or Kirk and Spock. Earlier non Star Trek drafts of the pilot featured an evil alien race called Omegans but in the broadcast story there is no hint of any malevolent external threat. From the pilot it seems the audience is meant to assume Gary and Roberta will work as a team, but what we are shown on screen is a script which keeps the pair apart. Gary Seven goes off and sabotages the rocket while Roberta stays in New York being a quirky klutz, and saving the day by accidentally twiddling the right knobs. There's very little opportunity to see if the pair have any chemistry together, Gary Seven spends more screen time with Isis the cat. Based on the episode, Assignment: Earth the series would involve Gary Seven and Isis the cat infiltrating a different military or scientific facility each week, and committing a little light sabotage to highlight the danger caused by whatever activity the facility conducted. There's also a fundamental problem caused by the series being a Star Trek spin off. If Gary Seven's mission is to neutralise threats to the future then it's hard to generate jeopardy around the concept when we have already seen that future in Star Trek.

A big problem with the episode is that the pace of the storytelling is glacial. In act three the following story points are covered; Gary Seven has to sabotage the rocket; Kirk and Spock must follow Seven to McKinley Rocket Base; Scotty must use the resources of the Enterprise in the hunt for Seven; and Roberta must discover Gary Seven's transporter. Covering these story points takes 14 minutes. Worse, many of these story points are simply delaying tactics for the plot. Kirk and Spock follow Gary Seven to McKinley, where they are instantly arrested and made to stand in the corner of the control room set until they can discretely beam back to his New York apartment. The audience was shown Gary Seven's hidden transporter in act two, so when Roberta discovers it we are watching Roberta learn something we already know. Even worse, four of act three's 14 minutes are NASA stock footage. That's stock footage used as visual material in it's own right (for example the rocket launch which takes up about a minute of screen time), edited into viewing screens, treated with voice-overs (there's lots of grainy film of mission control with public address style announcements played over the picture), or featuring characters wordlessly interacting with the footage (Gary Seven in the gantry lift, Scotty using the transporter room viewscreen).

Some fun can be had with the ideas behind the episode. It's difficult not to feel sorry for John D. F. Black. All the way back in The Naked Time he proposed a model for time travel (antimatter implosion) and the series constantly ignores it. The second time they travel in time, Tomorrow Is Yesterday, is an accident using the slingshot method, the third time in The City On The Edge Of Forever it's the Guardian of Forever, and for Assignment: Earth they're back to using the slingshot method. Actually one point in the episode's favour is the stylish way it starts by essentially saying, "yeah we've travelled in time, deal with it."

It's also difficult to understand what Starfleet thinks it can learn from the Enterprise's mission. Surely there are more interesting periods for the ship to visit? The mission might make sense if Assignement: Earth is a trial run for time travel history research and the plan was to go to a historically insignificant time to minimise the risk of disruption, but the script is clear that 1968 is a big deal in Earth history. Spock has a line, “there will be an important assassination today, an equally dangerous government coup in Asia...” but 1963 had a more historically significant assassination and a coup in South Vietnam. Obviously in the real world this is to flatter the viewer, “hey kids what we're doing now matters,” but in story terms why investigate 1968 in a series which has established the Eugenics Wars will start in the 1990s. On a more nitpicking note, when Spock complies his historical report for Kirk at the beginning of the episode he describes the launch of the orbital nuclear warhead platform as, “highly critical,” but does not mention, as Kirk does at the end of the episode, “our record tapes show, although not generally revealed, that on this date, a malfunctioning suborbital warhead was exploded exactly one hundred and four miles above the Earth.” It seems odd for Spock to miss that important point out of the briefing he gives to Kirk. Perhaps we can write this off as history changing around the events of the episode but the big lesson of The City On The Edge Of Forever is that even the tiniest change can have unforeseen consequences.

Another unsolved mystery is what is Spock doing with Scotty in the transporter room at the beginning of the episode? Kirk says the Enterprise's mission is, “monitoring Earth communications,” so why would Spock be anywhere other than the bridge? Is monitoring communications actually a cover story? For their historical research are the Enterprise crew secretly beaming people on board, interrogating them, and then using a Vulcan mind meld to erase all memories of the experience?

One real mystery of Assignment: Earth is that this episode turns out to be the most expensive Star Trek story made. According to a post at the Trek BBS website the final cost of Assignment: Earth was $288,049.00, easily beating the final $250,396.71 cost of The City On The Edge Of Forever. To put it bluntly, the episode doesn't look that expensive. The City On The Edge Of Forever had night location filming on the Desilu backlot with vehicles and extras dressed appropriately for the period, as well as some large studio sets, and a big one-off piece of scenery in the form of the Guardian. By comparison Assignment: Earth has a couple of ambitious effects shots which add a rocket to location footage filmed on the Paramount lot, but there's very little else which would seem to account for the money bar some location filming with a lot of extras to look like New York crowds. Maybe there were a lot of additional behind the scenes costs to do with making a pilot as part of an ongoing series?

Enterprise crew deaths: None again
Running total: 46

1 comment:

  1. Truly bewildering that this episode should have cost so much to make. As you quite rightly point out, it's not evident on-screen, unless those various overlay shots (featuring NASA footage, etc) were expensive to produce. Certainly the New York street scenes (and Seven's office) can't have cost all that much. Robert Lansing was a star of some serious heft at this time (especially coming off the lead in "Twelve O'Clock High,"), so it's possible his fee was disproportionately high. Or maybe they spent an inordinate amount on story and script development. No, the only explanation that makes sense is that Desilu, or Paramount, or Roddenberry, or some combination of all three, took the opportunity to "bury" some costs, perhaps overruns from previous episodes. This makes sense when you consider that this was going to be the last season (until NBC reconsidered), and the idea presumably was that the new series would replace the old (if it got "picked up"). This would have been everyone's opportunity to "balance the books," using the new-series development money that NBC would have fronted the studio. On the other hand, who knows? Maybe they built some sets they never used, although I've never read nor heard anything about any of that.