To think, this was supposed to be the start of spinoff series like Torchwood would eventually become in Doctor Who’s future. Rather apt, because I decided to do the same as Jim Kirk. Using “the lightspeed breakaway factor” (which everyone knows about), I shot back to 1968 and found out how this episode came about. Art Wallace races into Gene Roddenberry’s office: “Gene! GENE! You’re never gonna believe this. I was in England for the last few months and they’ve got this show about a human who travels through time with an assortment of companions, usually dames who scream but some are real lookers! And he goes around righting wrongs! I bet we could do a story with him meeting the Enterprise crew, by golly! The show is called Doctor Who! We can have the Doctor show up here and help save the day! But no one will know if he’s a good guy or not. It’ll be the bee’s knees!” “Well, I think we have this thing called copyright law, or we will in the future, and it’s sort of the Prime Directive for TV and stuff. We can’t call him the Doctor.” A loud snap, and Wallace has an idea: “We can call him something else which will also be a pseudonym for yet something else! It’ll work like a charm, hot diggity!”
So Gary Seven armed with a sonic screwdriver, complete with airheaded companion Teri Garr and a cat-shapeshifter, enters the Star Trek universe. But is he a good guy or a bad guy? The Vulcan neck pinch doesn’t work on him; that’s got to be a sign! And he’s from some hidden planet (that won’t be named until 1974; it’ll be called Gallifrey) and he looks human but maybe he isn’t (because we haven’t established that two-heart thing yet). Nevermind, we can retcon that later. The point is he may be a good guy but since this show isn’t called Gary Who or Doctor Seven, we have to wonder the whole episode long.
It’s a light hearted episode but the plot is so ridiculous, it could have been resolved in 5 minutes. How’s that?
Kirk: “We have no way of knowing if he’s here to help or destroy us!”
Spock: “Most illogical Captain. We’ve established over 2 seasons that I have this ability called the Mind Meld, where I could read his mind and find out if he’s telling the truth! Had you forgotten?”
McCoy, “Damn it, you green blooded Vulcan! We’re in extended orbit for a reason! We need to extend the plot by always missing him and allowing for near escapes straining viewer credulity!”
Spock, “Ah, a very human idea, doctor (Sylvester) McCoy! I will sit in the background and wear this hat…”
Not to mention, what was this mission Kirk was on? A historical fact finder? What, Starfleet now sends people back in time to find things out? “Jim, it’s Rob Wesley. You still owe me one for almost blasting my ship with that Ultimate Computer a few weeks ago. Well, I have a bet with Ron Tracey that 1968 was the year that made the difference for Starfleet. I want you to go back in time and find out what’s what. Go see if things were all ok on the ground. I’ve got $50 on the line, so come back safely. And don’t get spotted like you did last season!” Pretty sure that’s how it went down.
Speaking of getting spotted, since Spock really is a risk, why beam him down to the planet for this mission? Isn’t it safer to have McCoy go? Or is Kirk afraid McCoy will give them away? And why do people change outfits mid-episode? Gary Seven gets to his office and changes… why? Part of his charm was that he was beaming to Earth fully attired in his business suit! Jim and Spock ditch their clothes once they “save the day” (by getting out of the way and letting Seven and Lincoln doing their thing). Speaking of clothing, I love how Gary knows just which pocket holds which ID; I’m always patting my pockets like a Columbo impersonator, but Gary knows which pocket contains which bogus identification. And possibly the funniest thing of all is when Gary finds out he has under 90 minutes to save the world: he says his predecessors need to be found immediately or he’ll have to do the work for them. He then proceeds to sit comfortably petting Isis. Nothing like waiting until the last minute. (I’m not even getting into what he was really up to with the cat, now that I think about it! Maybe we could forgive the delay…)
This episode is a joke, but for all the wrong reasons. Enjoyable: absolutely. Sensible: hell no. Think about this: Spock says according to the Enterprise records, everything happened as expected. No duh! What’s it going to say, “you altered the future and my record tapes now remember both realities?” We learned about that in City on the Edge of Forever! If they destroyed Asia, it would have said that was what was supposed to happen to. No leap there, Mr. Logical. And look, I’m no nuclear rocket scientist, but detonating a nuke 104 miles from land… I don’t think that’s good anyway. How was that a victory for the good guys? Oh… my… brains… are… eeking… out…
Thus ends the second season of one of the greatest science fiction series of our time; not because the episodes made sense, but because the characters are so damned likable. Oh, before I go back to my own time, I popped forward a few months … you remember, lightspeed breakaway factor…. This episode was released in March of ’68. The makers of Doctor Who found this episode and they were really mad. They wanted compensation but didn’t know how to work the dollar to pound conversion, so the great bird of the galaxy had an idea: “We’ll give you Gary Seven’s office and you can use it later this year. I heard Tobias Vaughn will be needing an office complete with secret lair! We’ve got just the thing! But let’s keep this exchange off the record. We don’t want the future destroyed if they learn about our connection too soon…” And so, that connection between Doctor Who and Star Trek was to remain secret until you all stumbled into the Junkyard expecting a sensible review… ML
The view from across the pond:
“Using the light speed breakaway factor, the Enterprise has moved back through time to the 20th Century.”
Oh, OK, fine… wait, what? The Enterprise is a time machine now? That bombshell is dropped on us as part of an opening Captain’s log, and Kirk has never dropped such an astonishing log in his life. It’s like we’re joining at the start of part two of a story. I wondered for a second if I had missed out an episode by mistake.
The explanation for this weirdness is we aren’t actually watching Star Trek any more. We are watching the pilot episode for a different series Gene Roddenberry was trying to get launched. What is it with these weird backdoor pilots in the 60s? The Outer Limits did this a couple of times, and it baffles me that anyone got away with it. Surely the network wanted the show they were paying for, not a strange detour into a show they had not greenlit? I can’t pretend to have any understanding of the way that all worked, but it does seem odd. This might have Kirk and Spock etc. in it, but it’s hardly the same show at all.
It appears that Assignment: Earth, had it been picked up for a series, would have been something akin to the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who: alien invasions of contemporary Earth, with a bit of time travel and a strong flavour of the spy genre craze at the time. Gary Seven shows up with his telepathic cat, looking like a cross between James Bond and one of his enemies, and carries around what is basically a sonic screwdriver, before the Doctor had his own magic wand pretending to be technology (the sonic screwdriver does actually predate this, but only in its literal form, not as a multi-function gadget). Seven is immediately an impressive character, possessing abilities that are awe-inspiring to the crew of the Enterprise (e.g. beaming around the galaxy, across vast distances), despite not actually being a time traveller himself. He has some kind of all-powerful bosses, who presumably would have featured eventually in the main series. This actually had a lot of potential.
The way it’s all shoehorned into the Trek format isn’t too bad at all. Once you’ve got past the revelation that the Enterprise is a time machine, a problem is created for Kirk which is engrossing and fascinating:
“You interfere with me, with what I have to do down there, and you’ll change history. You’ll destroy the Earth, and probably yourselves too.”
Seven is a contemporary human, albeit one with strange origins, but he belongs in the 1960s and the Enterprise doesn’t. If Kirk stops him from whatever he’s doing they could erase their own history. On the other hand…
“What if it turns out you’re an invading alien from the future?”
It’s a knotty problem, with little evidence either way. Things are so worrying and dangerous that Spock raises an eyebrow. You know things are bad when that happens.
It turns out this is another episode about Cold War concerns, with Seven trying to “prevent Earth’s civilisation from destroying itself before it can mature into a peaceful society”. After 45 minutes and a lot of running around to get to the point, everything basically comes down to the same dilemma we’ve had from the start, with Spock pointing out to Kirk that he cannot use logic in the absence of facts and has to trust to his “human intuition”, so this is an episode that does a lot of running on the spot, to bring us back to the original problem. With danger averted, suddenly it turns out that the Enterprise computer knows all about Seven’s future, which kind of makes a nonsense of the whole premise of the episode, but I can forgive some big lapses in logic when Star Trek is this fun.
So that’s it for the second season of Trek. We’ll be back soon with the third and final season, but in the meantime I’ll just echo the words of Kirk and Spock at the end of this episode: live long and prosper. RP
For the first time I saw Teri Garr who plays the adorably funny Roberta Lincoln, I for one still like this Trek episode for that much. Robert Lansing as Gary Seven is also excellent. As for any issues between Star Trek and Doctor Who because at time, I didn’t think of it too much in regards to how Trek’s time travel stories, along with stories of ET intervention on Earth in the past, would be set apart from Doctor Who in a way that made each SF show different enough from each other. But now it can certainly make me appreciate all the Trek/Who mashups even more including of course Assimilation.
Isis is a most unforgettable character. Also the scene with two policeman accidentally beamed up to the Enterprise and set right back down in shock, with one of them played by Bruce Mars who played Finnegan in Shore Leave, proved how the powers behind the classic Trek loved to take chances with comedy. Thank you both for your reviews. I look forward to when you both take on the classic Trek’s final season. 🖖🏻
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You won’t have long to wait! We are carrying straight on with Season Three next week.
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As a backdoor pilot, this episode doesn’t work because the idea that the Enterprise would go back in time just to do “research” comes off as a forced gimmick designed to make this a backdoor pilot and not a piece of logic organic storytelling. The next flaw for me is the broader premise of who Gary Seven is and who he’s working for. I would like someone to tell me why Seven’s work isn’t the ultimate case of “Prime Directive” style interference in the development of a planet? What gives the powers that be behind Gary Seven the right to resort to this blatant interference in Earth’s development? And fundamentally, what difference is there between Seven’s judgment of Earth as “barbarian” (reflecting no doubt the sentiments of the race he is working for) and those of a 19th century Colonialist casting judgment on “barbarian” cultures? This is why I’ve never had any use for episodes that give us those all-knowing advanced races like the Metrones (“Arena”) etc. who often come off as not being as “advanced” as we’re supposed to think they are.
Had this somehow managed to become a series though, I think a lot of people expecting high-stakes sci-fi would have been in for a disappointment. The vibe I get is that an “Assignment: Earth” series wouldn’t have been about Gary Seven warding off aliens interested in Earth, but would have been more about him using the sci-fi trappings at his disposal in the context of domestic Earthbound stories that would have otherwise been right at home in traditional 1960s urban TV dramas like “Naked City”, “East Side West Side” etc. (Like for instance, it’s all too easy for me to envision an episode where Gary Seven saves an African-American youth in New York from getting involved in urban street gang violence and ending up in jail so he can become an important political figure in the 21st century. )
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Imagining how the most proper sci-fi would work on a spinoff for Gary and Roberta could be as challenging as for how K-9 & Company would have been as a series spinoff of Dr. Who. As most sci-fi spinoffs how taught us, similar sci-fi basics need to be retained even if dramatized somewhat differently. As for any species in the universe being advanced enough to interfere in a lesser species’ development, whatever ideas they had for the ET race that recruited Gary were an intriguing mystery at the time. But it’s probably just as well that they didn’t explore it any further. At least as far as I know. Some things, even in all the best of our sci-fi, should be most appealingly left to our imaginations.
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I think it would have been Jon Pertwee’s Doctor on earth, basically. In fact, replace Gary with the Doctor for the episode and you have an early crossover. Could work for a single story, but a series of that was just a few years away with Pertwee’s time as the Doctor… ML
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It would have been interesting to see how April Tatro could have regularly reappeared if possible as the human form for Isis.
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