Leonard Nimoy’s Gary Seven is the star of the television show Assignment: Earth. His character supplies the central arc of the show, the man whose messy involvements with human relationships lead him to rebel against the easy answers and simple plans of his masters. Diana Muldaur’s Isis is his familiar, embodying the tension of the mission itself with the sympathetic protagonist Gary. But Barbara Feldon’s Roberta Lincoln is the heart of the show in a literal sense.
Roberta is the conscience of Assignment: Earth. Gary Seven began to doubt the authority and knowledge of the Aegis when he befriended Roberta. Indeed, it begins when Gary first makes friends among humans, lets them into an intimate circle. Even in the backdoor pilot Gene Roddenberry first produced at the end of the second season of his predecessor program Star Trek, Gary only becomes sympathetic, or at least understandable, when he makes friends with Roberta and the crew of the Enterprise. Although the Enterprise would disappear into the depths of obscurity in television history, Roberta Lincoln would become the ethical centre of one of the most revolutionary television shows in American science-fiction.
If I could return to the real world for a moment, this conception of the power of friendship is at the centre of my own moral philosophy. Justice, right, and good are abstract concepts. In the discipline of philosophy, we treat these as powerful concepts, and they underlie all political activity. Yet they don’t have worldly power; these concepts alone can’t motivate people to action. Hell, even among philosophers, we’re less often driven to action in the name of these concepts as we’re driven to arguments over their nature and content. What motivates people to political action is when they see and empathize with an injustice, a wrong, or a harm, that befalls some actual person. The motive of authentic politics (not just jockeying among state and corporate institutions for personal power) is this face-to-face connection.* That empathetic connection is the generation of friendship.
* Anyone with a little background can see the influence Emmanuel Levinas has had on me as a political, moral, and ethical thinker.
Roberta was Gary’s first friend, the first time in many, many years that an Aegis operative has truly made a friend on Earth. The empathy and sympathy for the people of Earth that uniquely characterizes Gary among all the operatives began with Roberta. That was the importance of the arc involving the Robinson family in season three. Roberta’s friendship had introduced Gary, for a start, to the injustices suffered by women in the middle class. His friendship with the Robinson family introduced Gary to the injustices and harm done by racism institutionalized in government, culture, and economics. The involvement of Isis in the lives of the Robinson family similarly started friendships that opened her to the everyday economic injustice of racism and gang crime. Some of the season three episodes focussed on the Robinson family would be action-comedies with Isis in the comedic role, stuck getting to know the Robinson family matriarch, Johnny’s mother Joelle, while Gary and Roberta did a lot of the action television work. It would be a change of pace, as the role of Roberta in seasons one and two would often be comic relief while Gary and Isis took care of the action work. Joelle would periodically appear around season four, usually approaching Isis first.
Central to Assignment: Earth, and to my own conception of effective politics, is the power of friendship to enact social change. Simply getting to know and care for individuals who are different than you, who face different problems in their lives than you, opens you to political action. The abstract concepts of more usual moral and political philosophy are tools in our arsenals once our friendships have motivated us to political action.
That’s why the fourth season finale of Assignment: Earth begins when Francis Eight and Morrigan confront Roberta Lincoln with what she did. They understand the power of what friendship can do, and contrary to suspicions sown throughout the season, they are still loyal to the Aegis, and will do whatever they think necessary to safeguard their plan for humanity’s development. In fact, they are a little too loyal, because their plan threatens to tear the television show Assignment: Earth apart. Their goal is to destroy the friendship between Roberta and Gary Seven, severing his sympathetic link with humanity, and allowing him to be the brutally impartial agent that is required. They risk going farther into immorality than any operative has before.