To boldly go where no man has gone before…
Something strange happened at the end of the second season of Star Trek. “Assignment: Earth” was the season closer, and was production #55. The third season started with “Spock’s Brain,” which was production #61. The five episodes in between were aired later, one as late as three months after the season opener. It’s strange that they would’ve picked “Spock’s Brain” as the season opener, for it is widely considered the worst episode of the series, and indeed “Spectre of the Gun” is a much stronger episode. Despite their disparate original airdates, Paramount is releasing the series in its production order, so these two episodes, shown months apart, are bundled together. They have very little in common except the pervasive standby plots of the original Trek: time travel and alternate Earth scenarios. Fortunately, they are the most original episodes of their respective formulas.
In “Assignment: Earth,” the Enterprise time-travels to the 20th century to observe a pivotal moment in Earth history (and since when does the Federation send ships willy-nilly through time to observe history?). Once at their target date in the 1960s, the Enterprise is bombarded by a transporter signal from a distant galaxy. Wacky hijinks ensue when Gary Seven, the secret agent from across the stars, tries to stop the space launch of an orbital nuclear weapon that the Enterprise has been sent to watch. Or something. A young Teri Garr is also involved as a ditzy secretary in the wrong place at the wrong time, or at the right time…it’s hard to tell with these time travel stories.
Oh, and before I move on, there’s an Ed Wood-worthy line by Captain Kirk, making his log entry: “Captain’s log supplemental. A man in a 20th-century business suit. What is he?” Um, a man in a 20th century business suit?
Boldly skipping forward to the third season, we have “Spectre of the Gun.” A vindictive alien race sentences an away team to death by choosing the form of the Destructor. A giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man then appears and stomps New York to tiny little bits. No, really, that’s what happened…in Ghostbusters. In this episode of Star Trek, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Chekov (what a team!) find themselves in a recreation of Tombstone, Arizona just hours before the famed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and the denizens think they’re the Clanton gang. The Enterprise gang must find a way out that doesn’t involve killing, and the solution they discover would do Neo and Morpheus proud.
As I write, I’m watching the nightly syndicated episode of Star Trek: Voyager. My, how much changes in 30 years. It’s not just that the special effects are better; it’s better all around, especially in the acting and writing fields. Nothing can supplant the original’s place as, well, the original, but all three series that succeeded it were far superior television.
As far as the Original Series’ time-travel episodes go, “Assignment: Earth” is not particularly original. The machinations of the plot are too similar to “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” a first season episode that saw the Enterprise involved with a 20th century Air Force pilot who would father an important figure in Earth’s space exploration. I have to be honest, I don’t like time travel Trek episodes, especially ones like this that are so cavalier about it. It all seems like another shallow attempt to reuse other sets, stock footage, and costumes. Besides being a routine time travel episode, it’s also a “technobabble” episode, relying on made-up science and gadgetry to move the plot achingly along. Take a look at the scene where Scotty scans for Gary Seven…by using remote cameras to look around a Cape Canaveral launch site. With all the technology in the universe, an engineer uses a slightly higher-tech version of a pair of binoculars to search for someone! It’s downright silly. Likewise, the 19-year-old Teri Garr is silly and entirely superfluous to the plot.
“Spectre of the Gun” is yet another one of the episodes that recycles sets and costumes to have Kirk and his buddies interact with a genre that would be familiar to viewers in 1968. Here, of course, the western genre is farmed out for interstellar use, which is kind of funny because Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars.” Most of the headlining Trek stars appeared in westerns prior to their Trek work. William Shatner is an exception, though he was in a Spanish western called Comanche Blanco released in late 1968. Leonard Nimoy was in a 1953 western named Old Overland Trail. DeForest Kelley had the most westerns notched on his phaser belt; he even played one of the Earps in 1957’s Gunfight At The O.K. Corral. James Doohan was in an ABC TV movie named Scalplock shortly before he began work on Star Trek. All that is a side note to their work on the episode itself. The premise of aliens beings creating a simulation to kill the crew seems trite now, considering that all Trek series hence have had the holodecks that allows the crew to create just about any environment for training or recreation. There is a tense, pessimistic tone that is uncharacteristic of the original series, and it makes the episode stand out. The climax is a little outlandish, with Spock performing mind melds on the other crewmembers to convince them that it is just a simulation and the bullets cannot harm them, but otherwise it makes for a grand story.
As usual, I repeat the standard technical specifications paragraph, because all the Trek discs are alike.
Each of the Star Trek episodes have been digitally remastered, and they look as good as a television show from the 1960s can hope to look. The image is sharp and detailed with excellent color fidelity and no bleeding. The only problems with the image are inherent to the source material. The picture overall is a little grainy, particularly noticeable in special effect model shots, and can have a few blips caused by dust on the negative. The audio has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1. Keeping with its mono roots, sound is mostly restricted to the center channel. Directional effects are used for starship fly-bys during the opening credits, and infrequently throughout the episodes. The purist in me would rather have seen the mono tracks cleaned up and utilized, rather than an unnecessary remix. The only extra is the “preview trailer” for each episode.
“Assignment: Earth” is ridiculous but eminently enjoyable, and “Spectre of the Gun” is a taut, serious episode. As Trek discs go, this one is a good choice for the discerning collector.