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Star Trek – Assignment: Earth (IDW, 2008) (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

John Byrne’s five-issue Assignment: Earth miniseries is fascinating, because it is perhaps the closest that fans will ever come to getting an actual series spinning out of the episode Assignment: Earth. Of course, the second season finalé had been planned as a backdoor pilot for a new television show, but it never quite materialised. Understandably, Gary Seven tends to appear in spin-off material as a guest star or supporting player. Assignment: Earth focuses on the adventures of Supervisor 194 on his own terms.

Coupled with Byrne’s decidedly old-school done-in-one storytelling structure, Assignment: Earth manages to tell four separate stories featuring Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln doing what they do in the late sixties and into the seventies. A series of unique and episodic adventures delivered on a regular, Assignment: Earth comes quite close to capturing the feel of a television show. Taking the television episode as his starting point, John Byrne manages to pitch a series of adventures that feel like they might hint at the direction the show could have gone.

Sensors detect a spin-off!

Sensors detect a spin-off!

While the Assignment: Earth miniseries is ultimately disposable and largely forgettable, it is an interesting experiment. By their nature, prose novels like The Eugenics Wars can only focus on a single plot starring the character. Using his fairly compressed approach to comic book storytelling, Byrne can tell five different stories in rapid succession, each with a clear beginning, middle and end. While these stories are inevitably written from the vantage point of 2008, they still feel like they might offer a glimpse at what the show might have looked like.

In many respects, Byrne is hampered by his source material. While the writer and artist has a bit of fun with the concept, a lot of Assignment: Earth ultimately feels a little dry and a little heavy-handed. Despite all the nods towards relevance and social commentary, Assignment: Earth lacks the spirit of adventure and excitement that a television show like this would need in the longer term.

"You'll have fifty percent less Nixon to kick around!"

“You’ll have fifty percent less Nixon to kick around!”

The five stories told within the miniseries fit within the broad templates that you might expect for a series spinning out of Star Trek and based on the script to Assignment: Earth. The first issue, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns fulfils all the obligations of a pilot episode. It sets up the characters, their technology, the world that they live in. The opening page even offers another glimpse at the end of Assignment: Earth, providing an effective launching pad for the series.

The plot beats of Brighter Than a Thousand Suns are pretty much in line with the episode Assignment: Earth. The United States is testing something dangerous and nuclear-related, while Gary Seven and his allies have to prevent a potential disaster. Brighter Than a Thousand Suns avoids any of the ambiguity surrounding Seven’s conduct in the television episode, instead having him confront a Soviet saboteur infiltrating “Hercules”, a project to built “an enhanced fusion bomb” – what some call a “super-atomic.” It is quite straight-forward.

Send in the clones...

Send in the clones…

The Cold War provides a handy background for a few of these adventures. Brighter Than a Thousand Suns features a Soviet agent infiltrating a top secret military project. My Name is Legion features a sinister militaristic plot by the establishment concerned about the state of the war in Vietnam. Too Many Presidents… features the Russians and the Chinese teaming up to abduct the President of the United States and replace him with a doppelgänger. It is all very pulpy stuff, very much in the wheelhouse of a possible Star Trek spin-off.

The other two chapters fit quite comfortably for the early first season of an imaginary television show. Despite the fact that Kirk and Spock appear on the first page of the first issue, John Byrne dedicates the second issue to a crossover with the classic Star Trek series. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow is actually a pretty clever set-up, exploring how Gary Seven responded to the time travel incident from Tomorrow is Yesterday. One of the joys of time travel; Gary Seven gets to meet an earlier version of the Enterprise crew.

He's caught her dead to rights!

He’s caught her dead to rights!

The issue consists of little more than Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln eavesdropping on scenes from the original episode, but it works better than it really should. It feels like a very cynical and self-aware crossover. It is the kind of thing that a network television show might have done early in its first year to shore up ratings; the decision to reference specific scenes from the classic episode feels like the comic book equivalent of stock footage. After all, the broadcast episode of Assignment: Earth was expensive. Costs would need to be made back somewhere.

Perhaps due to his admittedly difficulties with actors and likeness, John Byrne opts not to focus on the faces or features of the Enterprise crew members in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. As a result, the comic tends to feature the familiar crew from the neck down. Like the constant referencing of dialogue and sequences from Tomorrow is Yesterday, it feels like Byrne is referencing another stock television trope in his panel construction. He is obscuring the faces of famous characters, while still involving those characters in his story.

Guest-starring Kirk's right hand!

Guest-starring Kirk’s right hand!

However, if Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow feels like a rather cynical television crossover episode constructed from stock footage, then We Have Met the Enemy… feels like the sort of world-building mythology episode that the show like this would need early in its first year. We Have Met the Enemy… allows Gary Seven to investigate the car accident that killed his predecessors, while allowing Roberta Lincoln to get a look at the people who dispatched her boss on his top-secret intergalactic mission.

It is a story that seems inevitable given the mysterious back story suggested in the televised episode. There is no way that Gary Seven’s predecessors died in an innocent automotive accident; not only would that be a little too convenient, it would also rule out any number of exciting story lines that could flow from the revelation that they were murdered. Who killed them? Why? What were they investigating? Is there a clear and present threat against Gary Seven? Is this the beginning of something bigger?

Give peace a chance...

Give peace a chance…

We Have Met the Enemy… takes this nugget of an idea and runs with it. It reveals that Gary Seven’s predecessors were assassinated by “Counter Strike.” In keeping with the sixties science-fiction spy show aesthetic of the miniseries, it is revealed that “Counter Strike” are a rival organisation. “For centuries they swept across the galaxy,” Gary explains to Roberta, “raining down death and destruction on worlds they saw as having advanced too far, too fast. They struck indiscriminately… and utterly without mercy.”

In other words, they represent an effective ideological rival to Gary Seven. Whereas Gary Seven helps to guide humanity, these aliens seek to pervert it. In fact, these aliens also have their own operatives on the planet, with their own secret agenda. “You mean… they were the ones who gave us the atomic bomb and bad stuff like that?” Roberta asks. Gary Seven does not speak to that directly, instead suggesting that “Counter Strike” have done similar things before. It turns out that “Counter Strike” belong to the same alien species as Seven’s mysterious benefactors.

An Enterprising couple...

An Enterprising couple…

While this is not the best execution of the idea – the name “Counter Strike” is more than a little cringe-worthy – it does offer an example of the sort of angle that a series spun from Assignment: Earth could explore. After all, there are only so many nuclear tests for Gary Seven to foil, and only so many foreign operatives to apprehend. Engaging with the central mythology seems like a logical step for any story extrapolating outwards from Assignment: Earth. It is perhaps the most promising strand of the Assignment: Earth miniseries.

In many ways, John Byrne’s five-issue miniseries is more interesting than successful. It offers a range of different possible angles to explore the world of Assignment: Earth, but also hits upon some of the limitations built into the concept. Most obviously, the series is incredibly preachy, given its central premise. In My Name is Legion, Gary breaks up a plot to clone a race of Aryan super-soldiers. The comic handles the set-up in a way that is precisely as subtle as you might expect.

Going to pieces...

Going to pieces…

Not only do the Aryan clones brutalise an African-American guest star, but Gary Seven also lectures their creator. “Has Earth history taught you nothing, Professor?” Gary Seven demands, angrily. “How long before these perfect specimens of yours see imperfect mankind as the real enemy? How long before they round us up and exterminate us?” Just in case the reader does not get the point, we get a quick flash of the world that Gary is suggesting; one that bares an uncanny resemblance to the Second World War. It is very clumsy in execution.

It seems like Assignment: Earth has no choice but to embrace the American side of the Cold War. Russian and Chinese operatives appear across the miniseries, and they are always plotting to sabotage or undermine the United States. Although Gary Seven stops rogue elements of the military-industrial complex in My Name is Legion, there is never a sense that Gary Seven is interfering to stop CIA operations on foreign soil. As such, Assignment: Earth feels a little one-sided in its condemnation of the Cold War. (More Friday’s Child than Errand of Mercy.)

Home. Sweet home.

Home. Sweet home.

Similarly, there are points where the miniseries seems a little too ham-fisted. My Name is Legion features an epilogue at the Vietnam War Memorial that clearly wants to be touching; instead, it feels a little forced. In Too Many Presidents…, Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln protect Richard Nixon. Because the comic was written years after Watergate, of course Roberta Lincoln was always suspicious of Nixon. So, naturally, Nixon is presented as a shady lech with no moral fibre.

Indeed, the comic suggests that Seven and Lincoln may have replaced him with a duplicate; but nobody would care that much. Still, the comic is clever enough to observe that a lot of Nixon’s more questionable actions were deeply rooted, making it impossible to blame a possible imposter for everything. However, the script gets a little too on-the-nose at points. Having hypnotised Nixon with the Servo, Roberta ponders, “What if… while he’s like this… we just… ask him if he’s doing anything bad?”

You can never have too many Nixons!

You can never have too many Nixons!

For what it’s worth, Gary Seven replies, “Not without any evidence of malfeasance. It would be wrong.” However, he has no qualms making Nixon obey his commands or retrieving vital information from guards who are just doing their jobs. The ethics at play in Assignment: Earth seem largely arbitrary, and this is perhaps the more hilariously absurd scenario. While the idea of doing a fun romp with a duplicate of Richard Nixon is a fun idea, Too Many Presidents… is just too heavy-handed to work.

Despite these awkward references to Watergate, John Byrne’s writing style does feel very much in tune with the miniseries’ setting. Byrne has always been something of an old-fashioned writer, and so his voice sits rather comfortably with Assignment: Earth. There is no hyper-modern naturalistic dialogue, no dialogue beats, no stream of consciousness. If sixties script writers were working on a spin-off, it probably would not sound too different. Well, if the reader gets past having Isis talk or having Gary call her “babe.”

An endorsement from James T. Kirk!

An endorsement from James T. Kirk!

In fact, We Have Met the Enemy and the epilogue to Too Many Presidents… even suggests something of a sit-com atmosphere to life with Roberta Lincoln, Isis and Gary Seven. Early in We Have Met the Enemy…, Gary is horrified at the mundane utility of Roberta Lincoln’s use of his technology. “Have you really be using a teleportation device capable of transmitting matter from one side of the galaxy to the other… as a… dress maker?!” he demands. At the end of Too Many Presidents…, Roberta plays a prank on Isis, suggesting a casual and playful office atmosphere.

The art of the one-shot comic is dying, and it’s good to see Byrne keeping it going; however, Assignment: Earth occasionally feels a little too rushed. The writer struggles to fit everything into his issues. The potential tension between Diana and Gary in Brighter Than a Thousand Sons is never allowed room to develop to the point where we care about their relationship. The ending of My Name is Legion feels a little convenient – appearing because the issue is running out of pages, rather than because this makes sense.

Fun. Squared.

Fun. Squared.

Assignment: Earth is a fascinating (if flawed) glimpse sideways. It feels like a possible snapshot of the first five episodes of the proposed spin-off. John Byrne is hardly working with the best source material on the miniseries, and so it remains a curiousity rather than a classic.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the second season of the classic Star Trek:

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4 Responses

  1. It has been a long time since I read it, but ‘Too Many President’s’ always disturbed me. Regardless of what one feels of Nixon he had a spouse and children (I might be wrong but I think Pat Nixon even appears in this story). To casually send what may very well be a brainwashed imposter back to his family, to sleep in his bed with his wife, might very well be the most morally disturbing thing I’ve ever seen a Trekverse ‘hero’ do. To be fair Gary Seven comes from an alien culture, but I found it very hard to like Roberta Lincoln after that.

    • Yep. The whole thing is one big mean-spirited Nixon punchline. He even letches on Roberta. The resolution also feels a bit contrived. “We might have the most advance technology on the planet, but we can’t do another comparison because… well, because. That’s why.”

      But Byrne is seldom subtle in his work. Mean, but never subtle.

  2. “We Have Met the Enemy… takes this nugget of an idea and runs with it. It reveals that Gary Seven’s predecessors were assassinated by “Counter Strike.” In keeping with the sixties science-fiction spy show aesthetic of the miniseries, it is revealed that “Counter Strike” are a rival organisation. “For centuries they swept across the galaxy,” Gary explains to Roberta, “raining down death and destruction on worlds they saw as having advanced too far, too fast. They struck indiscriminately… and utterly without mercy.”

    In other words, they represent an effective ideological rival to Gary Seven. Whereas Gary Seven helps to guide humanity, these aliens seek to pervert it. In fact, these aliens also have their own operatives on the planet, with their own secret agenda. “You mean… they were the ones who gave us the atomic bomb and bad stuff like that?” Roberta asks. Gary Seven does not speak to that directly, instead suggesting that “Counter Strike” have done similar things before. It turns out that “Counter Strike” belong to the same alien species as Seven’s mysterious benefactors.”

    Wait, you mean the idea I had in the comment on the “Assignment: Earth” forum was in fact done, exactly like that?

    I love Star Trek. In a universe this size, there’s really nothing that hasn’t been done.

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