Assignment Earth I: Story Generator, Jamming, 24/09/2013

I worked on a few more tenure-track applications today, and did some more edits on the last chapter of the ecophilosophy project. But I had a conversation on the internet that stimulated my creativity very much, and thought it was worth sharing. It amounts to a kind of fanfic, but it’s worth the creative exercise. I’m going to publish a different installment of this project every Tuesday until I finish it. It may last three or four entries. Some context first.

One of the blogs linked at right is Vaka Rangi, a long-running project to articulate a complex and innovative reading of the Star Trek franchise, affiliating it with the religion/philosophy of ancient Polynesian ocean wayfarers. Yes, it gets complicated. I’ve counted at least seven meta-textual elements to his criticism already, and we haven't even left the 1960s yet. He’s also pointed out the positively retrograde contributions of Gene Roddenberry to Star Trek: TOS, who despite creating the franchise in the first place, was utterly terrible at writing or philosophizing for it. His most recent essay was on the second-season finale, “Assignment: Earth.” This was a backdoor pilot for the show Roddenberry hoped to develop after Star Trek’s ignominious cancellation after two years. With his quirky space navy show set to be forgotten in the dustbins of television history, he thought he’d try his hand at spy-fi, the science-fiction-influenced techno-thriller genre that was becoming popular thanks to imports of British programs like The Avengers.

This was Robert Lansing's expression in almost every part
he ever played, whether or not Gene Roddenberry wrote it.
“Assignment: Earth” was about a secret agent named Gary Seven, who lived in Apartment 12B at 811 East 68th Street in New York. He worked for an extra-terrestrial organization named Aegis, who as of 1968 had been surreptitiously guiding human history for thousands of years, keeping humanity set to a specific arc of historical development. Their agents, descended from humans kidnapped 4,000 years ago, were inserted into Earth cultures to intervene at specific critical points in geo-political development to keep humanity on the track Aegis set for us. 

A brilliant premise already. With our protagonist, we have fascinating themes and character possibilities. Gary Seven is separate from humanity because he was raised separately from Earth cultures, yet his purpose was to preserve humanity and aid its development. He would feel kinship with humanity and care for it, while also being separate from it thanks to his alien origin. 

With his mysterious employers Aegis, we deal with the themes of what makes proper history? What is the purpose of this arc of history Aegis aims to enforce through its subterfuge interventions? What right do they have to control human history from the outside? What right does humanity have to control its future when we’re clearly a short-sighted, violent species that more often causes widespread destruction than the genuine improvement of human life and Earth more generally? What exactly is an arc of history anyway? And does Aegis have perfect knowledge and control, or can it make mistakes?

These questions, which would animate my imagined television show, are just the kind of philosophical matters that are important to the utopias project. This evening, I was editing the section of the ecophilosophy manuscript that discussed this problem as well. I define, for the project, utopian thinking as imagining a perfect ideal for a society to function, and the utopian revolutionary as moving society toward articulating this perfection. The problem is that abstract visions of perfection never work in reality: the world is always more complicated than human moral reasoning can imagine. Therefore, utopian thinking that seeks to implement an actual utopia that would usher a history-ending paradise is inherently oppressive. It oppresses not only people, but the world itself. Utopia, in this context, is the forced conformity of people to an abstract idea. 

Teri Garr was allowed more dignity rolling in the hay with
Gene Wilder than working for Gene Roddenberry. I'd pick
Wilder any day myself as well.
The other regulars of the program would have been Roberta Lincoln, Gary’s human secretary who was an ordinary Mod youth in 1968 New York; and Isis, Gary’s cat who was also a beautiful woman, and possibly also his computer that calculated his necessary interventions. The backdoor pilot episode didn’t explain much of anything about Isis’ character, nature, or motivations. But presumably the show would have.

The problem is, as Vaka Rangi points out, that Gene Roddenberry was actually pretty bad at producing quality television. The best Star Trek scripts were the ones that received as little creative input from him as possible. Roddenberry’s story ideas tended to straight and humourless adventure that reinforced and validated patriarchal and imperial Western values. He was also fantastically sexist. In the Star Trek episode “Assignment: Earth,” Roberta Lincoln is played by Teri Garr, one of Hollywood’s best comic actresses in its 1970s renaissance. Garr refuses to discuss or even watch Star Trek today because of the disgusting and degrading treatment she received from Roddenberry on set. He essentially treated her as a set of legs to parade across the screen. Her performance of a role written essentially as a blonde ditz elevated it to a wonderful comedy. But she’d never play the role of Roberta Lincoln again.

Similarly went the actor who played Gary Seven, Robert Lansing, who said from the beginning that he never wanted to take part in a regular television series, and preferred to concentrate on his film career. Roddenberry was such a relative incompetent at producing television pilots that he cast a lead who had already promised that he would never take part in a television show. In any case, the backdoor pilot was a failure. Instead of a mediocre geopolitical techno-thriller sci-fi hour, we ended up with a history-making letter-writing campaign and a third season of Star Trek: TOS.

But in my head, at least, there was more to come.


  1. Cops can't write television, and when they do, they reflect boorish attitudes? Not surprising, in retrospect. It's hard to imagine just how underprofessionalized and content-starved the industry was at that point that a network would work with Roddenberry.

    I know people tend to have opinions (strong opinions even) about Star Trek and Roddenberry and that provides a fertile jumping-off point, but I would hope to see you flip this from fanfiction to your own original creation.

    The core of the idea is intriguing: philosopher kings have run the world, but their work has led to a democratic moment where their own role will suddenly be rejected. Was this their plan or have they lost control? What do they make of the stupidity, foolishness, ignorance of the democratic polity? Who in this story would champion the democratic spirit, show its possibility for human flourishing, the connection failure and triumph, risk and reward? Fertile stuff.

  2. Just recently came across your posts on AE. Very interesting, entertaining. Tell me, what kind of opening credits do you think the show would have had? This maybe? Just curious if you see it the way I did in this respect.