"Assignment: Earth" may be the most interesting piece of Star Trek trivia ever. If it had succeeded in what it set out to do, Star Trek as we know it wouldn't exist.
By the end of the second season, the series was on the brink of cancellation. It seemed even Gene Roddenberry was resigned to that fact. He originally pitched this episode as the pilot of a completely new series. Instead it became the season finale. That's why it seems to be such a dramatic departure from virtually every other episode ever. It's about as standalone as you can get, but it's of significantly higher quality than usual, because of course at that point being a standalone episode was par for the course.
Enter: Gary Seven. Basically a human drafted into being an agent of an alien species, Central Intelligence Aliens if you will. "Assignment: Earth" is very blatantly far more his story than our crew's. The first and last time that ever happened. If he'd ever appeared again, I might have been given the excuse to recommend it on all four of my qualifiers and therefore certify it as a classic. I contend that the episode could very easily inspire more onscreen material. If and when that happens, consider the upgrade immediate.
|via Trek Core. And he kind of looks like Gene, too.|
Gary's mission was to stop humans from crossing the brink of nuclear war. He succeeds, by the way.
Our crew does factor into the episode. The other great distinction of "Assignment: Earth" is that it's the only casual instance of time travel in franchise history. The crew visits 1968 in order to resolve a riddle in the records. Later franchise lore would establish Starfleet having, y'know, rules about time travel, but that doesn't exist yet.
All around, this is a fascinating episode. If this is the first time you hear about it, then consider yourself initiated. There are comic books and prose books that feature Gary Seven, but of course he never again appeared onscreen. If Star Trek had turned into a Gary Seven experience, we certainly wouldn't have anything that we know today. The third season, although routinely creatively maligned, gave fans probably a better experience than they'd had in the latter third of the second season, but more importantly a full extra season to remind them of why they loved the series to begin with, and it looked nothing like Gary Seven.
But watch this episode and ask yourself, this guy could have developed into a cult phenomenon, too, couldn't he? And chances are if he'd stuck around, Kirk would have come back eventually too, right?
Anyway, that's speculation. Take it for what it's worth. Bottom line is, even if you know none of what might have happened, "Assignment: Earth" is a unique experience, a standout episode, one that turned around the fortunes of the late second season at the very last moment, and even on that note probably helped invigorate the creators for the final season. And that's worth celebrating, too.
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