An ongoing discussion of how the comics provide prequels, sequels, and tie-ins to the Star Trek episodes and films, soon to be a book from BearManor Media. Click here to view an archive of this article series.
80: IDW Publishing, 2008
Star Trek’s first television spinoff was Star Trek: The Animated Series, which charted new adventures for James T. Kirk and his crew, continuing their five-year mission as though the live-action show had never gone off the air. This was the first of many TV sequels for the franchise—twelve to date and counting—but history almost played out differently.
In 1968, The Original Series’ second season ended with “Assignment: Earth,” written by Art Wallace and directed by Marc Daniels, based on a story by Wallace and Gene Roddenberry. The episode introduced the enigmatic Gary Seven (Robert Lansing), his secretary Roberta Lincoln (Teri Garr), the feline shapeshifter Isis (April Tatro), and the snobbish computer Beta Five (Barbara Babcock). Tatro’s role remained uncredited until 2019, when Larry Nemecek interviewed the contortionist and dancer for his podcast The Trek Files and confirmed that she had, in fact, portrayed the agent in human form, thus solving a fifty-year mystery.
“Assignment: Earth”—a personal favorite, and not just because Garr was my first celebrity crush—originated as a standalone, same-named half-hour TV series concept. When studios failed to show interest, Roddenberry reworked the script as a backdoor pilot that would air on Star Trek as a proof-of-concept in the hope that this might change NBC’s mind. It did not, but the premise—which involved two human operatives and a cat-person travelling around the 20th century, covertly fixing mankind’s mistakes for Gary Seven’s mysterious alien employers—would have made for a fascinating series indeed. It’s a shame the network executives were so shortsighted.
Because the show was not picked up, the proposed Assignment: Earth remained a “What if…?” scenario for years. DC Comics featured Gary Seven and Isis in issues #49 and 50 of its monthly Star Trek title, then brought Gary back in the sixth annuals of both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Meanwhile, Seven has appeared, with or without his companions, in several prose stories, including Greg Cox’s Assignment: Eternity and The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, as well as Pocket Books’ Strange New Worlds anthologies. And, of course, the Supervisors play a large role in the second season of Star Trek: Picard, with Wesley Crusher and the Traveler revealed as being among their number.
IDW has gone to great lengths to explore the untold potential of the spinoff that never was, with Supervisor 194 and company returning not only in Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor, but also Star Trek: New Visions and Star Trek: Year Five, each of which will be discussed in future installments of this column. Before any of those appearances, though, writer and illustrator John Byrne gave Gary, Roberta, Isis, and Beta Five their own comic miniseries, appropriately titled Star Trek—Assignment: Earth. Byrne clearly shares my adoration for the Seven-Lincoln team-up, as he is also the creative mind behind Frontier Doctor and New Visions.
The miniseries imagines the adventures Seven’s team might have had if their proposed TV show had been produced, making it one of IDW’s most unique Trek offerings. The five issues take place roughly a year apart, starting in 1968, three months after the episode’s events. Byrne adeptly captures the voices and likenesses of Garr and Lansing, not to mention Babcock’s snarky portrayal of an artificial intelligence with an attitude, and he fleshes out Isis—both as a person and, intriguingly, as a cat—more than the character’s brief scenes on Star Trek could.
In a span of seven tales (issues #4 and 5 feature two apiece), the operatives thwart Soviet sabotage, expose a plot to create enhanced super-soldiers, and investigate the deaths of Agents 347 and 201, who’d originally hired Lincoln. The duo were mentioned but not shown on TV, and their deaths turn out to have been the result of murder. (Dayton Ward’s novel From History’s Shadow dubbed the agents Ryan Vitali and Elizabeth Anderson, though Roberta knew them as their aliases, Mr. Smith and Mrs. Jones.) The team also prevents an alien invasion and even stops Chinese leader Mao Zedong from replacing U.S. President Richard Nixon with a surgically altered doppelgänger during Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China.
The Nixon and Mao issue subtly calls back to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, in which Spock quoted the maxim “Only Nixon could go to China,” which Gary also references. This chapter is one of the few times a Trek comic has featured real-world historical persons, other than a handful of Gold Key tales. Nixon’s involvement is played for laughs since readers know he’s only a few years away from his disgrace in the Watergate scandal. Roberta doesn’t know this, of course, since it hasn’t yet happened from her perspective, but she doesn’t trust the man and hilariously suggests Seven use his servo-pen to make Tricky Dick confess to any crimes he’s committed.
Isis has an amusing solo story in which she witnesses a mugging in cat form, then briefly becomes human and knocks the thief unconscious for police to arrest. But it’s another tale, spotlighting Isis and Roberta, that best demonstrates the aborted show’s comedic potential. Determined to prove her feline comrade is more than just a cat, Lincoln pretends to spill coffee in the office, then frantically yells for Isis to grab some paper towels. The startled shapeshifter rushes to comply without thinking, before pausing in annoyance, realizing she’s given away her secret. Smiling, Roberta utters a self-satisfied “Gotcha,” marking the start of a decades-long friendship.
Readers learn more about the characters here than the episode had time to convey. Despite his onscreen knowledge of the 23rd century, Seven admits he’s never been to Earth’s future; rather, he’s seen enough Earth-like worlds to understand how this planet will evolve, and he’s been provided with a great deal of temporal information by his employers. He and Roberta enjoy romantic relationships in the comics (though not with each other, thankfully), while Isis assumes multiple forms and has an active role in defeating the villains. It’s exactly what the show should have been… and probably better than it actually would have been, if we’re being honest about 1960s television.
On TV, Lincoln displayed jealousy toward her shapeshifting comrade since the human Isis was quite fetching, implying Roberta was attracted to Gary. There’s little hint of that in Byrne’s miniseries, as the dynamic here does not depend on Seven providing motivations for the female characters. This is preferable from a Bechdel test standpoint, for it allows Isis and Roberta to emerge as more than just the subservient sex-kitten spy (pun intended) and lovestruck secretary roles in which the episode had pigeonholed them. They’re Seven’s equals—independent, intelligent, and competent—and their beauty is rarely exploited… though Isis does use sex appeal to her advantage on occasion. They’re agents with agency, and it’s fantastic.
Seven’s employers turn out to be shapeshifters as well, and one transforms into a handsome human male to put Roberta at ease. Could Isis be one of those employers, appearing at times as a beautiful woman simply to mollify him? When he pets the cat, is it she who is calming him? Hmm. In any case, Byrne draws the aliens—which some sources have dubbed the Aegis—as massive, shaggy, and tentacled, whereas DC had depicted them as humanoid giants. Since they’re capable of changing physical form at will, both versions can coexist without creating a continuity snafu.
In addition to the “Assignment: Earth” tie-in, issue #2 cleverly takes place during “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” with Seven and Lincoln covertly observing Kirk and Sulu infiltrating the U.S. Air Force base to retrieve footage from John Christopher’s downed aircraft. It’s Star Trek meets Back to the Future Part II, and it’s a hoot. Gary is amusingly aghast at Kirk’s multiple mishaps, such as inadvertently beaming up a sergeant to the starship in addition to Captain Christopher.
Worried that Kirk will damage the timeline, the operatives stick around to make sure the problem is resolved, even posing as members of the Enterprise crew. Like Marty McFly revisiting his own past, the operatives must not alter the course of original events, which proves challenging as they walk the corridors of the starship, in danger of being seen—and since “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” aired before “Assignment: Earth,” this Kirk has not yet met them, even though they’ve met him. Great Scott(y), Marty!
Assignment: Earth was the third of four IDW miniseries produced under the publisher’s “Second Stage” umbrella. A sequel titled Assignment: Earth II was announced for 2009 but was never released, and I for one consider that a great loss to Star Trek comics aficionados. Next week, we’ll wrap up “Second Stage” with Star Trek: Mirror Images, the first in a long-running series of IDW titles from Scott and David Tipton to be set in the mirror universe. Long live the Empire!
Looking for more information about Star Trek comics? Check out these resources:
- My ongoing column for Titan Books’ Star Trek Explorer magazine
- The Complete Star Trek Comics Index, curated by yours truly
- The Star Trek Comics Checklist, by Mark Martinez
- The Wixiban Star Trek Collectables Portal, by Colin Merry
- New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, by Joseph F. Berenato (Sequart, 2014)
- Star Trek: A Comics History, by Alan J. Porter (Hermes Press, 2009)
- The Star Trek Comics Weekly page on Facebook
Rich Handley has written, co-written, co-edited, or contributed to dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction, about Planet of the Apes, Watchmen, Back to the Future, Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, Stargate, Dark Shadows, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Red Dwarf, Blade Runner, Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Batman, the Joker, classic monsters, and more. He has also been a magazine writer and editor for nearly three decades. Rich edited Eaglemoss’s Star Trek Graphic Novel Collection, and he currently writes articles for Titan’s Star Trek Explorer magazine, as well as books for an as-yet-unannounced role-playing game. Learn more about Rich and his work at richhandley.com.