Assignment Earth II: Story Generator, Jamming, 28/09/2013

I decided, in the light of my reduced viewing numbers running alternate-timeline versions of never-produced 1970s American adventure television on Tuesday, to move my Assignment: Earth posts to Saturdays, when I get a traffic reduction anyway. Those of you who want to read it always can. Those of you who don't, won't.
• • •
The status of headcanon or fanfic is a tricky thing. I don’t expect anything to come of this exercise in alternate-universe television writing that I started last week except some entertainment for myself and my readers, and perhaps some stimulation of the philosophical sense organs through reading my elaborate reconstruction of a television show that never existed. I’ll never get any rights to contribute to actual Assignment: Earth official fiction, which does exist and is read by some humans. But I like the exercise. I’m an academic researcher, but I’m also a fiction writer. And I can play on some days if I want to.

The first problem with Assignment: Earth as a concept was Gene Roddenberry. If you want more detailed information on why Gene Roddenberry deserves pretty much none of the praise he’s gotten over the last five decades, just read the blog Vaka Rangi, linked on the right, to find out what a sexist, socially conservative pig he really was. The second problem with Assignment: Earth in real life was that both the lead actors refused to do a full series. Robert Lansing didn’t want to work on a regular television series, and Roddenberry treated Teri Garr so disrespectfully on set that she refused to have anything to do with him again. 

So my imagined Assignment: Earth begins with a radical recasting. Without the stars of the actual episode, I can recast the part with whoever I want, but I want to keep it realistic-ish to the time period. Only actors who would have been the appropriate age in 1970 could join the cast. That actually doesn’t limit me very much.

Gary Seven as a character sits at a fascinating place in the Assignment: Earth story. If you remember from last week, Gary is human, but was raised on a faraway world by the Aegis organization, the extra-terrestrial group that has been secretly intervening in the geopolitics of Earth over thousands of years to keep humanity on a strict path of historical development. The details and purpose of that path are known only to the Aegis aliens themselves. Their human charges are no more than servants keeping the plan on track. 

Imagine the comedic possibilities of Leonard Nimoy playing
an alien who self-consciously tries to blend into the fashion
of the United States in the early 1970s.
Here is a character who is human, and feels great attachment to humanity and Earth. Earth is his ancestral home, and humanity is the species he’s responsible for guiding to enlightenment (or so the Aegis would have him believe). Yet he also feels separate from Earth and humanity, because he wasn’t raised among them, but in the sterile environment for the children marked to become Aegis officers. He is officially paired with Isis, a shapeshifter whose consciousness is twinned and simultaneously operating as a computer in his apartment. Gary Seven is raised in a world of logical clarity, and his life’s purpose is to shepherd humanity secretly through the steps of a rational plan of historical development. Gene Roddenberry already had an actor in his stable of regulars who would be perfectly suitable for this role. His name was Leonard Nimoy.

Roberta Lincoln, Gary’s human secretary, could become so much more than the one-note ditz Roddenberry designed and the two-note comedy ditz Teri Garr turned her into to save her on-set sanity. Roberta becomes Gary’s anchor in the human world, an imperfect person with a tangled personal life and complicated family history who, through her individual-scale dramas outside the office invading the main plots every three or four episodes during the first season, would gradually involve Gary in normal human relationships.

Watching Get Smart as a child made me realize
that no man ever succeeds without a woman
who actually knows what she's doing.
The question of her casting is important, though. She’d need a comic sensibility, which would work equally well for dramatic moments, because all good comic actors can do drama. She’d also need some practice in action, and have the charisma to hold her own against such an eccentric performance as Nimoy’s. Her arc over the first and second seasons would involve her moving from a comic relief position and occasional logistical support to actively helping Gary with his historico-dialectical spy games. She’d be the voice of the ordinary person in the philosophical/historical dialogue that is Gary’s life. The only person I can think of for that role is also the best: formerly Get Smart’s Agent 99, Barbara Feldon.

Isis would be pretty much a blank slate. I’d have her appear human more often than I’d have her appear cat. The cat disguise was pretty much inexplicable in the episode, so I’d have Isis be a cat for espionage purposes, and a human for daily interactions. Though some comic moments would come from the interaction of Roberta and Isis’ cat form. She’d be the representative of Aegis’ serious game of manipulating human history.  Yet she’d also be able, slowly and with a great deal of hesitation and trepidation, to express genuine affection for her charge Gary, and sometimes even Roberta. Isis may also have secrets from Gary, as she’s part of the computer network that calculates what his interventions should be, so has some knowledge of the Aegis plan for human history. Who could embody that steel trustworthiness in a pinch of trouble, but with a veil hiding possibly sinister secrets? Roddenberry already cast her once, and he would again in the real world of Star Trek: TOS’ third season: Diana Muldaur.

Diana Muldaur: Always so serious.
The overall character arc of the first two seasons would be Gary Seven torn between his growing affection and compassion for humanity and his loyalty to the political-historical program of Aegis. To keep the major plan on track, he would sometimes have to sacrifice individual lives. But his friendship with Roberta would influence him to care as much, and sometimes even more, for ordinary folk than for the master plan. 

I picture one episode, perhaps late in the first season. There have been mostly plots of adventure and danger as Gary and Isis, with a little help from the hapless Roberta, have played their spy games with the geopolitics of the human race. A sabotaged nuclear device here, a seed planted in the thoughts of a groundbreaking genetic researcher there. Each episode would have comic moments of Roberta trying to help Gary adjust to life as a human in the early 1970s. But every four episodes or so is an overall comic vehicle where the stakes aren’t that high. I imagine one episode where Roberta is distracted from her tasks at the office with family troubles. Maybe she has an older sister whose husband is beginning to abuse her, and Roberta asks Gary for help protecting her. Stories like this would teach Gary about aspects of human life that escape the structure of the Aegis plan for history, and put him in territory where his character is uncomfortable, where the eccentric super-spy has to adjust himself to function well. Isis would advise Gary with perfect logic that this is an inconsequential act that is utterly unimportant to his mission on Earth, so there is no need for him to interfere in a petty domestic squabble.

Picture a young Nimoy as Gary saying, “It is true that my interference in Roberta’s life would have no important effects on the global scale of human history. Her sister will never intersect a critical moment, nor will she have any serious indirect effects on critical moments. Her life is inconsequential. Therefore, just as there is no reason for me to interfere, no harm will be done by my interference! Meanwhile, I will have the chance to do some good, just as I do in a major interference. Except it will be small, virtually unnoticeable but for the few people it immediately affects. A useless good is nonetheless a good. I’ll be back this evening, Isis.” And he’s out the door. 

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