Teri Garr – Roberta Lincoln in Star Trek : Assignment Earth

One of the most successful actresses to get her start on the original Star Trek series is Teri Garr, who played Roberta Lincoln in the second season finale “Assignment : Earth”. 

This is also one of the strangest episodes of Star Trek because in many ways its not really an episode of Star Trek.  Due to poor performance NBC cancelled Star Trek during its second season.  A legendary letter writing campaign convinced NBC to commission another year, with a worse time-slot, and a much lower budget. However, before that happened Gene Roddenberry started looking for another job. 

His plan was what is known as a “back-door pilot” – that is use an episode of his existing show to preview his proposed replacement show.  In other words, make a Star Trek spinoff.

In this episode (and proposed series) a human agent named Gary Seven (played by the late Robert Lansing) has been trained by altruistic aliens to be their agent on planet Earth to prevent its destruction by nuclear apocalypse.  He meets a woman named Roberta Lincoln (played by Garr) who he assumes is another agent, but is really just a young woman looking for a job as a secretary in the office that serves as a front for the room containing his alien technology, such as a typewriter that takes voice dictation. 

The Enterprise, having travelled back in time intercepts Seven and after hijinks ensue with a couple of police officers, they assist Mr. Seven in stopping the launch of a nuclear weapons satellite.  At the end of the episode Roberta takes the job of Seven’s secretary while Kirk and Spock wish them well in their future adventures, thus setting up the Assignment Earth television series.

Ultimately NBC passed on the concept and Star Trek chugged along for another year until it ran out of steam.  The characters occasionally show up in star trek licensed media such as the Assignment Earth comic book series and the Peter David novels detailing the rise of Khan Noonian Singh (which brilliantly weave together most of the 20th century characters from the varies series) 

Teri Garr’s relationship with Star Trek seems to have been like many connected to the show: at times it has been dismissive and resentful, and at other times warm and appreciative. 

During an infamous interview in 1990 with Starlog Magazine she said things like “I did that years ago and I mostly deny I did it” and expressed relief that Assignment Earth didn’t go to series so she could avoid a life-time of Star Trek conventions. In her 2006 autobiography “Speedbumps: Flooring It Through Hollywood” she describes Roberta Lincoln as an important break thru in her career and a steppingstone to some of the comedy parts she was later cast in.

During the early 1970s she was often typecast as what she describes as “ditsy blonds” in sitcoms, but these jobs led her to Mel Brooks who cast her as Inga, a blond bombshell with an absurd eastern European accent in the comedy “Young Frankenstein”. 

In the late 1970s her career progressed to more serious work, and she returned to science fiction in the landmark film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” directed by Steven Spielberg, although in that infamous Starlog interview she claimed she didn’t think of that film as being science fiction. 

By the early 1980s her career had progressed to the point where she was cast in the Dustin Hoffman film “Tootsie”.  It was for this film she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (she lost to Jessica Lange who also appeared in the film). 

It was during the making of Tootsie that her life started an enormous change.  While making the film in New York she went jogging in central park and started feeling tingling in her leg.  Over the next two decades she would have progressively worse symptoms until a doctor finally diagnosed her with Multiple Sclerosis in 1999.   In 2007 she suffered a brain aneurysm unrelated to MS and was in a coma.  For decades her witty banter made her a favourite guest of David Letterman who asked her on the show many times, and she triumphantly made a return appearance in 2008 making fun of her medical ailments, although noticeably walking with a limp.  Reportedly her symptoms have worsened in recent years to the point where she often uses a wheelchair and a personal support worker.

Evidently, she was feeling well enough to deal with fan mail as this week I received three autographed photos of her as Roberta Lincoln.  If there is any remaining resentment of Star Trek, she does not take it out on the fans who ask her to sign things.

As you can see from these images her signature has become a bit rough as her symptoms have worsened.  Under the circumstances I would not have blamed her for throwing my envelope in the garbage.  If I was in my mid 70s with major health setbacks, I do not imagine I would want to sign 50-year-old photographs.  Never-the-less I will put these on the wall and treasure them, just like I treasure this show.

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