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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S5) Reviews: “The Amateur”/”Hunted” (spoilers)

September 30, 2011 2 comments

“The Amateur”: We open in medias res in “Ransdorf, East Europe,” though the signage in the stock footage is clearly German.  Eric Schilling (Anthony Zerbe), a bar owner and petty con artist, is rolling a drunk customer while his hectoring but hot girlfriend, the bar’s cigarette girl Clara (Lisa Pera), looks on.  We follow them back into the bar as they bicker, and in the background there’s a waitress taking a photo of a customer.  Oh, it’s Dana!  And she’s using the photo to pass rendezvous instructions to the team’s contact, Max.  Max burns the photo as he leaves through the back, but a curious Eric follows him out and finds the remnant of the photo (and the fire has conveniently burned around the message Dana wrote — plus I think the surviving part is the corner of the Polaroid in the long shot and the lower middle in close-up).  We cut to Jim and Barney meeting Max, who’s driving up to deliver a new enemy weapon, which is inexplicably called the “rocket laser.”  (A laser for shooting down rockets?  A laser ignition system for fusion rockets?  More likely they just slapped together two words that sounded advanced and dangerous.)  But somehow Max tipped off the state police, and is killed in the ensuing shootout while Jim and Barney flee in the car.  (Max is not wearing a red shirt, but he might as well be.  Does a red car count?)

The auto chase is interrupted by the main titles (new arrangement, with Doug) and then resumes.  Apparently they expected to use the car, since they already have a van prepared with Paris at the wheel; they drive into the back, lift the ramp, and elude the cops.  Later, they discuss their plan to get the rocket-laser-scissors out of the country by breaking it into five easily concealable parts, one for each team member.  Dana gets the smallest piece, hidden in a cold cream jar.  If any one piece gets left behind, the rocket laser oscillation overthruster will be useless to both sides.

Meanwhile, the East German European spy chief Col. Eckert (Ronald Feinberg), a massive bear of  a man with a broken-nosed countenance and a humorless, intimidating presence, is determined to lock the country down and let no one get away.  He backtracks Max’s contacts, leading him to Eric’s bar, where he questions Eric (who’s been flirting with Dana trying to find out what shenanigans she was into, earning Clara’s jealousy) about his former customer Max, informing Eric that the man is dead.  “I’m sorry,” Eric says.  Eckert: “He was an enemy of the state.”  Eric: “In that case, I withdraw my condolence.”  Eric catches on that Dana was Max’s contact, but he plays it close to the vest, not wanting to tip off Eckert.  But of course, being (as the title says) just an amateur, he does exactly that with his smarmy evasiveness, and Eckert orders him surveilled.

Meanwhile, Jim and Doug need to get to their other contact in-country, Father Bernard (Peter Brocco), and warn him about Max’s cover being blown, as well as retrieving his list of Western agents.  They come to the church disguised as a priest and a monk, respectively.  But Eckert’s men are searching the place, and they reveal that Bernard has had a stroke and is on his deathbed.  Doug is apparently a brilliant enough doctor to make a complete diagnosis just by having the father watch his hand move back and forth once, and even though Bernard does this perfectly well, Doug confirms that he’s at death’s door.  The suspicious guard (Don Eitner, I think) prods Jim to deliver last rites, which Jim does reluctantly, partly to cover the act of recovering the Bible which, according to Bernard’s eye gestures, contains the secret list.  The guards search Jim & Doug’s suitcases while the sacrament is delivered, and clear them.  Once they get away with the list and retrieve the parts of the teenage mutant rocket laser from bus lockers, Jim says he’ll call the monsignor and ensure the proper sacraments are spoken by someone qualified.

Eric clumsily searches Dana’s stuff and breaks open the cold cream jar, substituting another one in her purse and then finding the guidance system in the broken one.  Clara’s getting impatient with his interest in Dana, so he confides in her about what’s going on, boasting about how his cranium contains not just a creaky old sausage factory, but a Geiger counter that senses something hot.  Ohh-kayyy… anyway, his Geiger counter is telling him to sell the guidance system to the American spies, since Eckert would just take it and give him nothing.  It also tells him to take out his antique WWII-surplus Luger pistol, which he clumsily loads while Clara warns him that he’s an amateur out of his league.  She says Eckert will kill him, and although she’s constantly criticizing him and insulting him, she loves him and doesn’t want to see him hurt.  So she tells him she’s going to Eckert herself and walks out.  Then a shot rings out, quite loud and startling, and Clara falls dead, shot in the back… by Eric.  He doesn’t even seem upset by her death.  It’s a shocking moment, perhaps because the shot is so loud and there’s no prior warning, perhaps because it’s just so casually ruthless an act from a character who’s been a comic antagonist and seemingly an empty threat until now.  But of course it was a clumsy and amateurish thing to do, and when he carries out Clara’s body (which has no trace of blood or even a bullet hole in her coat), Eckert’s men watch every move.

Paris and Barney are sneaking out by joining a cross-country bike race from Ransdorf to Dornburg, where the airport is.  They ride through the streets of the Paramount backlot, which are getting very, very familiar to me by this point.  (I miss seeing the Desilu backlot in Culver City.)  But Paris has a blowout and wrecks his wheel.  He tells Barney to go on; he’ll find another way.  Just after Barney rides on, a helpful cop offers to give Paris a ride to Dornburg.  While Barney is still chugging along on his bike, the police car drives by, and Paris waves smugly to Barney and says “See you in Dornburg!”  It’s a fun moment of character interplay within the team.

In Dornburg, we see four of the five pieces of the Rocket Laser Megazord — and a jar of cold cream.  Dana knows Eric must have the guidance doohickey, but there’s no time to make a round trip to make a deal with him before their flight gets in from London.  So Dana calls him to invite him to Dornburg, pretending to continue their budding romance — though Eckert has Eric’s phone bugged and sees right through it (Eric’s line about wanting “50,000 kisses” from her is kind of an easy code to decipher).  So Eckert’s men take over airport security.

Eric is waiting for his contact at a closed ticket window when Paris arrives Laugh-In style by opening the doors over the window.  He’s wearing the same gray wig and moustache he wore in “Decoy” last week, and he gives Eric the payoff in exchange for the fifth component.  Then they just have to sneak it past Eckert and get away themselves.  Paris drops off the component and eludes Eckert’s men while Jim retrieves it, and everyone eventually rendezvouses in an airport van where they don disguises — with Dana donning a black pixie-cut wig that makes her look rather fetching in a Nicole deBoer kind of way, though the big glasses undermine it some.  They use a trick they’ve used before, getting out of (or into) somewhere by pretending they’ve just arrived (or left) and being sent back.  They blend in with the passengers from the incoming London flight, pretending to be employees of the “English Television Network” (I guess that’s a competitor for last season’s English Broadcasting Service), but Paris previously faked a call from a government official telling the airport administrator that their visas had been revoked because their network had insulted the East German European government.  So they have to get “back on” the plane they were never on in the first place and fly away.

Meanwhile, Eckert has found Eric, who agrees to make a “deal” with Eckert and tell him everything.  He tries to pin the whole thing on Clara, though of course Eckert knows Eric murdered her.  He also tells Eric the money he was given is counterfeit.  (That doesn’t make sense.  Where did the team get so much counterfeit money on such short notice?  Why not simply pay him in good faith?)  The disguised Dana looks right at Eric as the team walks past, but he doesn’t quite recognize her.  He asks Eckert about their deal; in return for his cooperation, he asks for his life.  “What is that worth?” Eckert snarls.  “Amateur.”  And Eric is taken away as the team’s plane flies off.

This was a really fine episode, the first of four M:I installments written by Ed Adamson.  It’s an interesting conceit, exploring an IMF caper from the viewpoint of a bystander who stumbles into it.  It might’ve been interesting to see the whole thing from the bad guys’ perspective — just see the team members introduced one by one and have to figure out what’s going on along with the viewpoint characters, or maybe ahead of them because at least we’d know who they were.  But then we wouldn’t have gotten the interesting character bits with Jim and the priest or with Paris and Barney.  The setup is a little odd, in that the IMF’s mission didn’t seem to involve retrieving the rocket laser framizam potrzebie in the first place, just getting it out of the country afterward.  Usually both ends would’ve been their responsibility.  Still, it was explained that Max had high security clearance; maybe he was the only one who could get to it.  And given what a scary and capable antagonist Eckert is, it’s believable that getting the components past him and out of the country would be the “impossible” part.  But the most fun is following Eric, a delightfully smarmy and self-deluded character, boasting about his computer brain and convinced he’s destined for his big score, but hopelessly blind and out of his league every step of the way.  Anthony Zerbe does a fine job making Eric a contemptible but charming creep.   Eckert is the mastermind the team has to watch out for, but Eric is the wild card, his sheer clumsiness and overconfidence making him an unpredictable complication.  It’s a clever and effective twist.  This season so far is all about telling stories where things go wrong with the team’s missions, but this is a particularly interesting way of going about it.

“Hunted”: For the first time this season, the episode begins with the tape scene (though still in a cold open before the titles), in an RV at a park.  The mission is to rescue the Nelson Mandela-like anti-apartheid leader Kolda from the hospital where the South Africa surrogate country of “East Victoria” is holding him, refusing him treatment so he’ll die.  The plan is to get him out of the country so he can form a resistance government in exile.  But that’s the easy part, a simple matter of Doug and some unfamiliar orderly (Dick Dial, Peter Graves’s stunt double) sneaking into Kolda’s hospital room, with Doug checking his vitals while the other guy burns through the window bars and lowers a canvas slide that Jim and Paris secure at the lower end.  Then they just slide the unconscious Kolda down to ground level and drive off with him in the van.  Unfortunately, an official arrives just then to question Kolda and sets the guards after Doug and the orderly.  Doug gets away, but the orderly is shot in the leg and limps into the black district, where he ends up in the shop of a seamstress called Gabby (Ta-Tanisha) and passes out before he can say anything.  Gabby comes to his aid and is surprised to find that his Caucasian face is a mask — and under it is Barney!  (Cut to titles, still the new arrangement.)

Barney awakens under Gabby’s care and discovers she’s deaf and mute.  Her cousin Luddy (future Battlestar Galactica co-star Herbert Jefferson Jr.) shows up and tells her about the man who helped Kolda escape, saying he’d gladly turn him in for the reward.  Gabby plays dumb (so to speak) until he leaves, then finds that Barney has bolted.  She tracks him down as he hides from the police, then helps him limp away as he pretends to be drunk (by singing rather amusingly).  They bond rather sweetly as she treats his wound under his guidance, though it’s not a romance; the actress was only 17 at the time.  He even uses his superspy supersmarts to teach himself sign language in a matter of minutes, though she can read lips just fine.

The team gets Kolda to a helicopter, but they all agree to stay and search for Barney until the window closes.  Since the police, led by Banco (Ivor Barry), are looking for a white man, Paris goes off to be a conspicuous injured white man to draw them away from Barney’s probable location.  He holds up a drugstore for morphine, and the white pharmacist delays while his wife calls the cops from the back room.  But their black clerk comes out and warns Paris that the cops are on the way — and it’s future Eureka star Joe Morton in his television debut!  How about that?

Barney learns that Gabby’s real name is Maryana, with “Gabby” a nickname mocking her muteness.  She’s the daughter of one of Kolda’s fellow resistance leaders, a man killed by Banco himself (a revelation that never gets any payoff), and Barney suspects her deafness and muteness are psychosomatic and can be treated if she comes with him to the US.

While Paris drags out his diversion a ridiculously long time, Jim and Doug dress up as cops, divert the real cops from the area, and search it themselves.  Jim comes to  Maryana’s shop searching for Barney, who’s hidden behind the fireplace, but Maryana thinks he’s a real cop and is ready to stab him with scissors if he stumbles on Barney’s hiding place.  But Jim misses it — and somehow Barney fails to hear him talking even though he’s listening carefully at the hidden door when Jim is a foot away from it.  Barney then asks Maryana to go to the team’s rendezvous point to contact them, but she’s scared away by the police.  Dana, watching through a window, sees her approaching and notices that she doesn’t react to the police siren until she sees a cop.  When Jim checks in, she tells him about the girl, and Jim realizes it’s the same deaf girl he met in town.

Luddy comes back and finds Barney’s bloody clothes, so he calls the cops.  Maryana fights him, but Jim, Doug, and Dana come in and Jim knocks him out while Dana convinces Maryana they’re Barney’s friends.  The reunited team and Maryana get away just ahead of Banco’s forces, and a lengthy car chase ensues.  Meanwhile, Paris has gotten into a fight and cracked some ribs, and he’s too weak to make it to the rendezvous point — although he happens to be next to a dam with a tower on top, so he and Jim arrange by radio that once the chopper picks the rest of them up, it’ll pick up Paris from the top of the tower.  And that’s what happens, while Banco’s men fire at them from the ground level.  It’s a really impressive action sequence with spectacular visuals from the top of the tower.  They must’ve really blown their budget on this one.

This is a very strong episode, with a nice touching story between Barney and Maryana and a spectacular action climax.  It does have a couple of minor strikes against it, though.  Paris spends way too much time being the decoy — it’s illogical (pardon the expression) to put one teammate at such great risk of capture in order to rescue another.  He should’ve just put on the act long enough to draw the cops away and then vanished.  And while it’s nice that the episode portrayed a deaf-mute girl as a heroic character, it undermines it that they treated it as something to be fixed rather than accepted.  And tying her backstory to Banco and Kolda was kind of gratuitous, since it didn’t lead to anything.  She was important enough as a character just for being kind and brave; she didn’t need to be linked to the mission.  Although at least it implies the eventual happy ending of her reunion with Kolda, whom she knew when she was a child.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

All done!

September 30, 2011 2 comments

I’ve just turned in my manuscript for Star Trek: DTI: Forgotten History, right on deadline.  My target length was between 75-85,000 words, and the draft I just turned in clocks in with a word count of 84,998 words according to WordPerfect.  (MS Word pegs it at over 86K, but I think it may be counting headers and footers.)  That’s only the second time I haven’t run over the target length range on a Trek novel (the first was Greater Than the Sum, which was toward the lower end of the target range).  And yeah, I could’ve tweaked it to get exactly 85K, but I actually achieved that yesterday.  I needed to do a bit of minor tweakage for consistency with another Trek novel, though, and that cost me two words.  But I decided it wasn’t worth bothering to toss in two more words just to meet an arbitrary goal that I already met.  Getting that close to the maximum target length is still just about unprecedented for me.

So am I satisfied with how it turned out?  Yeah, I think so.  I got to include a lot of stuff I’ve wanted to write about for a long time.  And I think it holds together pretty well overall.

But now I’m just glad to put it behind me, think about other stuff for a while.  I can catch up on the DVRed shows I haven’t watched yet this week because I was too busy working.  And stuff like that.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S5) Reviews: “Butterfly”/”Decoy” (spoilers)

September 28, 2011 1 comment

“Butterfly”: In Japan, we see a martial-arts demonstration which American businessman Kellem (Russ Conway) is watching intently.  Toshio Masaki (Hawaii Five-O‘s Khigh Dhiegh), a rich and powerful man and a racist who’s considered his sister Mioshi his “enemy” since she married Kellem, stabs her to death and frames Kellem for the deed, with help from his man Shiki (James Shigeta).  Kellem makes the frame-up easy, since the first thing he does on finding his wife’s body is to pick up the knife for no clear reason and get his fingerprints on it.

On a long pier, Jim makes contact with a guy in a boat by pretending to offer to buy it and take it for a test drive, though the pretense hardly seems necessary since there’s nobody remotely near earshot.  The tape instructs Jim to clear Kellem and stop the vehemently anti-American Masaki (which the Voice mispronounces, putting the stress on the last syllable) from scuttling a new US-Japan trade agreement.  No self-destruct line; Jim just tosses the tape in the water.  The producers finally seem to have caught on that it makes no sense to say “Please destroy this tape in the usual manner” when it happens so unusually.  We get the old theme arrangement and Willy’s in the credits, reinforcing my hypothesis that there’s one theme arrangement for Willy episodes and another for Doug episodes.

Since there’s somehow no physical evidence linking Masaki to the crime (which I guess was more plausible decades ago, when forensics was less advanced), and since Masaki is kind of a latter-day feudal lord who has everyone in his pocket except the one honest cop Akita (Benson Fong), the team’s goal is to make Masaki incriminate himself.  Jim poses as Kellem’s lawyer and gets him to tell every last detail he remembers — though not until after we see Kellem’s daughter Nobu (Helen Funai) reject his pleas of innocence and denounce him.  The purpose of Jim’s interview is to recreate the moments leading up to the murder in order to create a blackmail film.  This is done by having Paris and Dana don masks of Masaki and Mioshi and sneak into Masaki’s estate while Barney films them from a nearby hill.  As a distraction, Willy challenges Masaki’s undefeated jujitsu champ to a match.  Before this, we saw Willy training with a jujitsu master to learn to last as long as possible.  Since he needs to drag it out, he kinda lets Masaki’s fighter pound the tar out of him — and his ordeal is made even worse because the impostors are delayed by some guy taking a smoke break.  Eventually Jim gives Willy the signal that the deed is done and Willy says uncle.

Dana contacts Masaki to tell him she happened to film the murder and wants money to keep quiet.  He has Akita trace her second phone call (not telling the honest cop what it’s about) and raids her place, but only gets half the film.  He has it enlarged, convinced it’s a fake, and confronts Dana about the lack of an identifying scar on his wrist, but Dana creates doubt by pointing out the graininess of the film.  He’s still on the hook.

Meanwhile… and here’s where the episode’s credibility takes a serious hit… Paris is impersonating a famous kabuki actor who strikes up a friendship with Nobu, who’s staying with Masaki.  Masaki finds her mixed blood offensive, but hopes she can be redeemed.  Anyway, blackmailer Dana contacts Nobu as well, creating suspicion in her that Masaki killed her father, and Paris convinces Nobu to go to the cops about it.  So she shows Akita the phone number the blackmailer gave her, and Akita notices it’s the same number Masaki had traced.  So he follows Dana to Masaki’s place and comes in just as he’s starting the film.  Akita insists they continue.  Just before the moment of the murder (which isn’t on the fake film, of course), Masaki stops the film, exposing his guilt — and he then conveniently admits he killed her.

Oh, and before Akita came in, Masaki’s jujitsu expert took Dana away to be killed, but of course Jim and Willy broke in to rescue her and Willy got his rematch with the fighter, redeeming himself by clobbering the guy.

This is the most conventional M:I episode so far this season, a standard caper with no significant departures from the old formula and nothing going wrong with the plan that isn’t resolved within moments — and as I said in my last review, that’s actually kind of refreshing after so many format-breaking episodes in a row.   Yet it still does something new; I’m fairly certain that it’s the first ever M:I episode (and the only one, at least in the original series) to be set in East Asia.  And for the most part, by ’70s standards, it’s a pretty authentic and respectful depiction of Japanese culture, with all the Asian characters played by Asian actors (except for Khigh Dhiegh, who was actually of North African descent and born in New Jersey, and whose real name was Kenneth Dickerson).  Plus there’s another fairly good Robert Drasnin score, which has a somewhat Asian sound at times without sounding stereotypical.  And yet it features the entirely ridiculous conceit of Paris successfully passing himself off as Japanese.  It was one thing in “Commandante” where his impersonation of a Chinese officer only had to fool some Latin Americans who might not have had much contact with Asians.  But a hawk-nosed Westerner wearing blatantly plastic-looking epicanthic-fold makeup (much more obvious than his “Commandante” makeup) managing to convince Japanese people that he’s Japanese?  Particularly the racist Masaki, whose reaction to Nobu shows that he’s keenly attentive to departures from “pure” Japanese physiognomy?  That just doesn’t make any sense.  And it’s so unnecessary, since Paris’s only roles in this episode — to let Masaki know about Willy’s jujitsu chops (so to speak) and to convince Nobu to go to the cops — could probably have been fulfilled without him.  At the very least, the reasonable thing for Jim to do would’ve been to recruit an actual Japanese person to fulfill this part of the plan.  Having Paris do it is simply a bad idea.  (Although it is kind of fun to see Nimoy in full kabuki makeup.)  The sheer wrongness of it drags down what’s otherwise a borderline-excellent episode, as routine M:I episodes go.

“Decoy”: In the cold open, Anna Kerkoska (Julie Gregg, who played one of the guest agents last season) rushes in to stop her brother Alexi (the Martin Landau-esque Paul Stevens, who’s previously appeared in “The Council” and “The Cardinal” as characters impersonated by Rollin Hand) from killing himself, conveniently arriving before he does the deed.  He tells her that the new regime in their Communist country (apparently we’re back to the countries being anonymous) is about to start a purge of everyone associated with the former premier, their late father.  He says he wants to kill himself before that happens, and rejects her proposal to turn to the Americans for help, saying they wouldn’t be interested.  “Unless,” he suddenly and conveniently realizes — they can successfully defect if they give the Americans a list placed in Anna’s safekeeping by her father, naming government officials sympathetic to the West.  By the time Anna goes off to contact the US embassy, it’s already obvious that Alexi is playing her, but then they drive it home by having police chief Petrovich (Michael Strong, a frequent M:I guest) come in and gloat that she’ll lead them to the list.

Jim gets the tape from a camp counselor on a hike, and he’s given the assignment to help Anna defect — although somehow the IMF has psychically gleaned that it’s a trap by Alexi, so the team is forewarned.  (Honestly, how do they find these things out sometimes?)  We get the new theme arrangement, but it’s a Willy episode, so that blows my theory about the two theme arrangements out of the water.

We see Barney and Willy driving in their equipment disguised as consumer electronics, and Jim and Dana driving in as brother and sister (even though Peter Graves was 20 years older than Lesley Ann Warren).  This is to establish the only viable border crossing, a tunnel (familiar from countless TV shows shot in the Los Angeles hills) controlled with a sentry post and a heavy steel gate that’s mined to prevent anyone from smashing through.  Meanwhile, Paris flies in and goes to arrange a funeral (there’s some effective humor in the Paris scenes, first with a Joo Dee-like handler when he checks in and then with the snooty, mercenary funeral director), and then contacts Anna in the park (actually the “town square” portion of the Paramount backlot that has different regional styles of buildings in different directions, this time with the camera pointing toward the “Germany” side) in order to tip off the watching Petrovich (and his agent, M:I’s designated henchman Sid Haig in his ninth and, alas, final episode) that he’s the American spy they should follow.  This distracts their attention from Jim, who makes contact with Anna as an editor for a major publishing company.  The team makes it look to Petrovich as if the US agents have kidnapped Jim’s sister (Dana) in order to blackmail him into helping them get to Anna by pretending to work with her on a book about her father, the late premier.  I guess this is so they’ll be following the wrong guy, Paris (who “disappears” by shedding his old-guy disguise), while Jim is doing his work.

But what Jim doesn’t anticipate is that he and Anna fall in love with each other.  They go for a long walk (represented interestingly, but inexpensively, by having what I suppose are photo doubles walk through a real park while Graves and Gregg are double-exposed in close-up against a blank background) and Anna waxes lyrical about the complicated, contradictory man her father was, a despot and a loving family man, and how she loved and hated him at the same time.  It’s beautifully written dialogue and Gregg delivers it beautifully, if a bit broadly by today’s standards.  And it leads to Jim and Anna making out and Anna saying he’s the first man she’s ever loved.

Eventually the “kidnappers” contact Jim and tell him to get Anna and Alexi to the funeral home at an arranged time for their defection.  They can only take a few possessions, and Alexi gets suspicious when Anna refuses to part with a music box (that’s also a cigarette case — oy).  He wrestles her for it, it breaks open, and he realizes the list is encoded on the drum of the music-box mechanism, while she realizes he was scamming her to get to it.  Anna is further stunned when Jim karate-chops Alexi unconscious and an Alexi double (a masked Paris) drags him into the closet.  Anna is outraged to learn that Jim was using her just as Alexi was, but he assures her he does love her and convinces her that she needs to come with him.

Sid Haig is watching at the funeral home, though, so they have to sneak Jim and Anna out.  Hearse driver Barney brings in the coffin and hands Jim an inflatable Jim dummy, and then Paris/Alexi asks for Anna to be shown to the little girls’ room (which is labeled in French for some reason), allowing her to be switched with Dana and snuck out into the hearse with Jim.  Petrovich and Sid Haig discover the switch, with Dana playing the kidnapped sister and Paris still playing Alexi.  Willy positions himself as a policeman so that Petrovich orders him to take Dana and Paris away for questioning, and the bad guys chase after the hearse.  But a few miles down the road, the hearse stops and opens its back door… and a teeny little go-cart (that Barney and Willy were seen assembling earlier) shoots out the back and brazenly races right past Petrovich’s car in the other direction.  It vrooms down the twisty mountain roads of Los Angeles Eastern Europe, sometimes deliberately veering off the asphalt to dramatically fling gravel into the camera, while Petrovich pursues, all accompanied by Lalo Schifrin’s climactic car-chase music from the M:I pilot episode.  When the go-cart nears the border gate, the guards start firing.  Jim pushes Anna’s head down, but since she’s the hero’s love interest in a 1970 show, it’s an open question whether she’ll live through it.  But no, getting her out is their mission, and having the hero fail was even more anathema to the ’70s TV-adventure formula than having the hero in a committed relationship.  So the teensy go-cart zooms right under the steel gate and on to freedom.  Petrovich’s car pulls up just short of the gate; I guess they didn’t have the budget to blow him up.  Or maybe the network asked them to cut down on the violence.  It does seem more of the bad guys are surviving lately.

Anyway, Jim and Anna have a final scene together, backed by some of Robert Drasnin’s lovely score to “The Play,” in which they reaffirm their love but Anna decides she needs time to discover who she is as a free woman before they decide where to take their relationship.  Which is a convenient way to write her out of Jim’s life for the rest of the series, but it’s reasonably well-handled.

This episode is mixed, but mostly positive.  The plot seems a bit odd; why try to make Jim seem like an innocent to divert the villains’ attention, yet then drag him into the middle of the defection plot?  And why fool Petrovich and Alexi into thinking the US would use kidnapping and blackmail to bring about Anna’s defection when they know full well that she wants to defect already?  It seems contrived just to allow Jim to get close to Anna.  And how did the IMF know it was a trap?  It might’ve made for a more interesting episode if they hadn’t known, if the audience had been aware that the villains were a step ahead of the heroes, creating tension and danger.  Also, Paul Stevens’s overly broad and villainous performance makes it hard to take his scenes seriously.

But Julie Gregg is luminous and soulful as Anna, and John D.F. Black’s script has its finest moments with her dialogue.  Peter Graves isn’t especially convincing as a romantic lead, but I can believe that Jim could fall in love with this woman.  This would otherwise be the most mediocre episode of the season so far, but Anna and her portrayer make it a fulfilling experience.

Farewell, Sid Haig.  The show just won’t be the same without your stalwart henching.  But of course you’re moving on to bigger and eviler things, pursuing your long-term goal of galactic conquest.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

I wish I could forget how to be forgetful…

Last night I ran out of zip-top plastic bags, so I left the empty box out on the counter to remind me, and made a plan to go to the grocery store today. This morning I made a grocery list and tried to make sure I checked everything, because I knew there were several things I needed to remember I was out of. I came back from the store just now, and needed to clear a space on the tiny counter for my bags, and I was about to move the empty zip-top-bag box out of the way when I realized… D’oh! I forgot the very thing that prompted me to plan a grocery trip in the first place! Which I think is the second time in as many weeks that that’s happened. (Yeah, yeah, of course I should’ve written it down on the list as soon as I noticed I was out. But that would require being organized!)

Categories: Uncategorized

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S5) Reviews: “Flight”/”My Friend, My Enemy” (spoilers)

September 26, 2011 1 comment

“Flight”: Yay, John Colicos is back!  As Manuel Farrar, security chief of a Caribbean country, he’s in particularly menacing mode as he orders an assassin code-named Plato (Shepherd Sanders) to kill his country’s progressive president Rojas before he can sign a mutual aid agreement with the US, whereupon Farrar will take over the government.  Jim is briefed on this in a carnival ride (a fairly sedate one), and he actually takes a few moments to enjoy the ride before playing the tape.  His mission: find the identity of Plato, something only Farrar knows, before the assassination.  It’s the first time this season that the tape has included all the usual ritual phrases including the “Secretary” line, and we hear one of the conventional “self-destruct” music stings before going to titles.  The titles use the new theme arrangement and include Sam Elliott in place of Peter Lupus.  (The rest of the music is stock, and unfortunately the carnival music is not from Walter Scharf’s “Old Man Out” score from season 1.)

The scheme is to intercept Farrar when he boards a flight to the US separately from Plato.  I’m not sure why he’s on the flight, given that he plans to take over his country as soon as Rojas is dead.  But maybe he’s leaving the coup in the hands of his trusted right-hand man, police chief Diaz (Lloyd Battista, who played the dual title role in last season’s “The Brothers,” and who doesn’t know how the name “Manuel” is pronounced in Spanish-speaking countries).  Diaz plans to watch Farrar’s plane take off, so Barney distracts him by playing a temperamental flier who accuses Diaz of stealing his ticket.  Meanwhile, Stone (Tol Avery), a member of the repertory group assisting the core team, boards with a rough lookalike of Farrar who’s wearing a bald cap and glasses.  I think the lookalike is John S. Ragin (later of Quincy M.E.) and is named Butler.  Stone drugs Farrar and put the bald cap and glasses on him, and then Stone and Doug alert the stewardess that Stone’s “friend” has taken ill.  They take him off in an ambulance driven by Paris while Diaz is distracted.  But Paris almost causes a traffic accident, and they race away once it’s clear nobody’s been hurt.  But one of the involved parties writes down the ambulance’s license number and calls the cops.  Diaz learns there’s no such ambulance registered, and begins a search.

Farrar awakes on a fake plane cabin in a warehouse, and the team uses special effects to fake an engine fire and a plane crash.  Just before the crash, the captain’s voice (prerecorded, nobody we know) informs Farrar that they’re flying over the islands where a penal colony used to be.  Doug knocks him out again in mid-“crash,” and the team begins to strike the set before moving on to the next location.  So far, it’s been the most routine mission of the season.  But then Jim sees that Diaz’s cops are closing in, and the team bolts without dismantling the equipment.  But Dana has a moment of Lois Lane recklessness, going back to retrieve some incriminating tapes from Barney’s control console, and ends up getting captured.  The others have to drive away and hope she can fend for herself.  But Diaz is a very smart man, and he has the evidence from the warehouse.  He realizes they were trying to convince Farrar he was in a crash over the islands, and notes that the captain’s voiceover specifically called attention to the beaches, so he sends his men to search the coastline.  Yes, Chief Diaz has figured out that he’s in a Mission: Impossible episode!  This is what TV Tropes calls Dangerously Genre-Savvy.

So Farrar wakes up on the shore of this uncharted desert isle (so he thinks), with Gilligan, the Skipper too — no wait, it’s Paris and Jim as castaways in prison uniforms.  They and the repertory players pretend to be survivors of a prison plane that went down years ago, and they hold a court presided over by Jim to decide which of the two survivors, Farrar (who pretends to be a construction engineer) and Dr. Doug, deserves to survive, since they only have food for one.  Farrar argues that he deserves to survive more than a doctor, and when the votes are cast, it’s a tie.  Just before Lord Jim of the Flies can cast the tiebreaking vote, Farrar has a crowning moment of Colicosity: he intones, “Who are you, any of you, to stand in judgment over me?  I decide my own destiny!”  Then he picks up the gun on the table, shoots Doug (with a blank), and proclaims, “The deciding vote has been cast.”  Awesome.  Evil, but awesome.

Meanwhile, Diaz and Dana are playing psychological cat and mouse.  Dana pretends to be a hapless actress hired by unknown agents to play a stewardess in their scheme, and she tearfully tells him everything she knows and begs for her life.  But Diaz recognizes that she’s only told him the things he had already deduced, so he’s not buying her act.  So Dana drops the hysterics and becomes uber-cool spy gal, telling him essentially the truth about who she is and what the mission was, and convincing him that he needs to let her go so she can contact her people at the prearranged hotel, thereby bringing them into his clutches.  So Dana’s walking a tightrope here, having to participate in setting a trap for her own teammates in order to have any chance of freeing herself.  When Barney arrives at the hotel, she tips him off to the bugs, and Barney unscrews the light fixture and they hide in the hollow ceiling until Diaz’s people are thrown off the scent.

Paris plays an inmate sympathetic to Farrar, and allows Farrar to discover he’s Marcos, a real spy for Farrar from years back who died in a plane crash.  Farrar finds that Paris/Marcos is planning to escape on a raft because of what he’s learned: that Plato is a double agent for the US gathering dirt on Farrar and Diaz.  Farrar realizes they must get away instantly, and “shoots” a guard so they can escape.  But the noise brings down Jim and the rest.  Farrar wants Paris to stand guard while he escapes to warn Diaz about Plato, but Paris goes all cowardly and blubbery and useless.  But Farrar, as Jim explained in the apartment scene, is brave and loyal to his cause, so he’s willing to stay behind and cover Paris’s escape so he can deliver the warning.  So Farrar tells Paris who Plato is.  Jim radios the information to the authorities, and they set off an explosion to distract Farrar long enough to let them get away.  Plato gets arrested in the nick of time, and we see Farrar wandering the now-deserted “island” until he reaches the hilltop and discovers he’s still in his own country, with Diaz just driving up and wearing a hangdog look.

This is a strong episode with a strong script by Harold Livingston, who would later write the screenplay to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  It gives us two effective villains, and while Colicos is in fine form as Farrar, he’s stuck in the formulaic dupe role while his subordinate Diaz gets to rise above the formula, see through the charades, and pose a formidable obstacle, ultimately coming out of it as the more impressive antagonist (although he got a bit slow on the uptake at the end so that Barney and Dana could escape).  As is the norm for this season so far, the episode moves beyond the usual formula and deconstructs it.  After four years on the air, the audience knows all the tricks, so it’s about time the bad guys started to catch on as well.  True, we’ve had the occasional episode before where the bad guys recognized that they were being tricked (“The Glass Cage” springs to mind), but they’ve rarely gotten as far as Diaz; and in the context of this revisionist season, it feels like another instance of the show commenting on its own tropes by having characters in the story recognize those tropes and call attention to them.  While Jerry in “The Innocent” stood for the cynical young viewer who questioned whether the show had relevance, Diaz stands for the genre-savvy fan who’s been watching long enough to see every move coming.  And the pressure from Diaz forces the characters to raise their game, just as pressure from the audience may have forced the show to raise its game.

And I have to say, I’m really growing impressed with Lesley Ann Warren.  I’ve seen most of this season already, a couple of years back when I discovered it was available on cable, and at the time I wasn’t entirely satisfied with Warren, largely — I admit — because I didn’t think she was hot enough.  (She was very close to being hot, but a little too gaunt and freckly.)  But now, with the context of three seasons of Barbara Bain and one season of various guest actresses, I’m really appreciating the fresh energy and talent Warren brought to the show.  She was a good actress, more natural than Bain, and yes, better-looking too.  She was maybe a bit too young to be playing a career spy, only around 23-24 at the time, and perhaps was cast as part of the show’s evident efforts to make itself more youth-oriented; but as she showed here when confronting Diaz, she could project poise and strength beyond her years.

“My Friend, My Enemy”: Enter the Spockacycle!  Paris is riding a motorcycle along a back road in (what a road sign alleges to be) Switzerland when he’s run off the road and tranked by enemy agents.  The head agent, Maur (Wesley Lau), orders that Paris must never know he was captured.  We get the new main title theme with Doug (I’m starting to think the new arrangement is for Doug episodes and the old one is for Willy episodes), and then we go to veterinarian Paul Tabor (Peter Mark Richman), who’s actually a brainwashologist working with Maur.  Apparently Maur recognized Paris from a caper he pulled against Maur “last year,” and since Lau has been in M:I before, I was hoping Maur was an actual returning character, but no such luck; Lau did appear the previous year in “Doomsday,” but as Dr. Thorgen.  Anyway, Tabor plans to implant an electrode that will stimulate the “kill center” in Paris’s brain (oh, is that how it works?), and to establish his bad guy credentials, he demonstrates the principle with a German shepherd he’s programmed to turn against its owner, a hapless corporal.  (Don’t worry, he’s not physically hurt, but ohh, the heartbreak!)

But first Tabor has to hypnotize Paris to find out what his emotional triggers are, and it turns out that Paris has daddy issues that put Spock’s to shame.  Not only did his real father back in Cleveland drive his mother away, but his mentor/surrogate father, the magician Meerghan, killed Inga, the love of Paris’s life, out of jealousy.  Tabor uses this to brainwash him to kill his current father figure, his “control” (whom we know as Jim Phelps).

Meanwhile, Jim and Dana are concerned that Paris hasn’t checked in following the completion of a mission the three of them just pulled, so once Paris does call and say he was in an accident and needs some time to recuperate (having no memory of his brainwashing), the team follows standard procedure to clear him, calling in Barney and Doug.  Jim and Doug check in separately under assumed names to surreptitiously contact and test Paris (on the assumption he’s being watched) while Barney and Dana investigate the crash site.  Tabor’s apparently a better doctor than Doug, since Doug can’t find anything wrong.  Jim is content to let Paris have some time off until Barney & Dana finish up, and that gives Paris time to get acquainted with hot blonde tourist Enid (Jill Haworth), who happens to be the same type as his lost love Inga.  Naturally, she’s working for Tabor to help manipulate Paris into killing Jim.  As Tabor ramps up the brain implant to ease Paris toward the act of murder, it makes Paris increasingly hostile toward Jim, dismissing Jim’s suspicions about the girl.  And it made me laugh out loud to see Leonard Nimoy deliver the lines, “Can’t you understand real emotion?  Or have you become some kind of a machine?”

Meanwhile, it turns out Maur made the mistake of touching the broken-off headlight of Paris’s bike, which Barney finds and gets fingerprints from.  They also find German shepherd hairs on Paris’s clothes.  This leads the team to Maur’s office in Vienna, where Dana goes in undercover, uses a dog whistle disguised as a cigarette holder to confirm the presence of an angry canine, and “accidentally” leaves her purse behind so she can come back later to get her “asthma pills” and accidentally lay the purse on Maur’s windowsill, setting off the alarm so Barney and Doug can sneak in undetected.  They find the dog and figure out what’s been done to it.   Apparently Doug has heard of the brain’s “kill center” too.   (It’s allegedly the lateral hypothalamus — which is actually the brain’s hunger center.  It should’ve made Paris extremely peckish, not murderous.)

So Enid (whose real name is Marla) thinks the plan is to fake her death with a prosthetic bullet wound and pin it on Jim, but of course Tabor’s evil so he has his henchman Ernst (Bruce Glover) shoot her for real when she calls Paris and begs him for help.  Paris finds her body and Tabor switches his hunger, err, kill center from peckish to ravenous.  So Paris grabs the gun that Tabor left lying at the scene and goes after Jim, whom he sees as Meerghan.  Jim and Paris (and their stunt doubles) fight, and Jim tries to get through to Paris, telling him to fight the brainwashing.  Naturally, it works, and Paris utters a relieved, revelatory “Jim!” (“Your name is Jim!”  Nahh, that’s something else.)  Tabor confronts them both and says he’s underestimated them, then tells Ernst to shoot them, but Paris has recovered enough to use the gun on Ernst instead of Jim.  Tabor is captured.

Then we cut to the Paramount office building a hospital where a cured, de-brain-implanted Paris comes out and greets the German shepherd, who’s also been cured, in a cute happy ending.  (The dog’s name is Max, so I’m going to pretend that he went on to be Dr. Rudy Wells’s test subject and became Max the Bionic Dog from The Bionic Woman.)

A fairly effective episode, another attempt to add personality and backstory to one of the regulars and to create conflict within the team.  Just as Jim was being himself throughout “Homecoming,” so Paris is basically being himself here, brainwashing aside; although he uses a fake name with Enid, he’s off the clock and has no hidden agenda (that he knows of).  It’s reasonably effective, though it’s weakened by the fact that the conflict is entirely artificial.  And this episode is essentially something I’ve always wanted to see in this show: a story in which the IMF is confronted by their own mirror, an enemy team pulling a scam on them.  You’ve got Maur, the control (Jim); Tabor, the mastermind of the technology and medicine (Barney crossed with Doug); Marla, the femme fatale (Dana); and Ernst, the muscle (Willy).  And the evil Paris surrogate is Paris himself, though he doesn’t know it.

Other pluses include an excellent score by Robert Drasnin.  The cues when Paris’s brainwashing goes into high gear are reminiscent of the fine score from “Echo of Yesterday” in season 2, and the episode ends with a lovely “happy ending” variant of “The Plot.”  It’s also nice to see an episode set in real foreign locations instead of Fauxnameia or the Generic People’s Republic.

The problem, though, is that on top of all the other format-breakers this season, it’s too much too fast.  It may have been frustrating that the previous three seasons had only 2-3 exceptions to the formula per year, but at least when they came they felt special.  But here we are only six episodes into the season and we’ve had four format-breakers in a row.  How are they going to sustain this level?  I wouldn’t have minded having these episodes spread out more widely, with a fair number of more routine episodes between them — as long as they were the fresh, clever take on the routine that we saw in the first two episodes this season.   Too many “special episodes” at once makes them feel less special.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S5) Reviews: “The Innocent”/”Homecoming” (spoilers)

September 25, 2011 2 comments

“The Innocent”: No tape at all this time; the cold open drops us right into the middle of a mission at the Interoco chemical company in a nameless Mideastern country, as Barney and Willy break into a vault containing barrels of “Dehominant-A” (like a defoliant, but for people) while trying to break into a computer room next door.  But Willy’s a little clumsy and inadvertently opens the valve on one of the barrels, and Barney steps in the highly toxic chemical, which paralyzes his leg.  Willy tries to get him past the guard, claiming a sprained ankle, but a doctor shows up and realizes Barney’s been exposed.  Willy knocks out the guard and the doctor, but not before the alarm is sounded.  Barney can hardly move, so he tells Willy to get away and tell Jim.  Cut to the main titles — featuring a whole new arrangement of the main title theme, with very different percussion.  We also get a new composer contributing the incidental score, Harry Geller (no known relation to M:I creator Bruce Geller), who does a decent job in a more conventional style than the previous two episodes have featured.  No idea if he’s responsible for the new theme arrangement.

We see the rest of the team (except Jim) worrying about Barney — and among them, with no introduction or explanation, is the newest semi-regular, Dr. Doug Robert (Sam Elliott, who is not yet listed in the main titles).  Jim comes in and tells them he’s spoken to Washington; the mission must go ahead regardless of Barney’s status.  The local government and their implicitly Soviet backers are only hours from completing a new, deadlier Dehominant-B and unleashing it on a neighboring country.  Jim has a new plan, but with Barney out of commission, they have to recruit the only other person in the country able to reprogram Interoco’s computer: Jerry Carlin (Christopher Connelly), who’s brilliant but a “dropout” — not in the collegiate sense, but in the “turn on, tune in” sense, a hippie-type who’s turned his back on the system.  Dana tries to recruit him by honestly telling him what’s at stake, but he’s not about to help The Man with his petty international power squabbles, and when she falls back on plan B — offering money — he rejects that too.  Later, Paris and Doug arrive at Jerry’s place as local cops who plant heroin on Jerry’s girlfriend and arrest her; Paris then reveals himself to Jerry as an enemy agent who blackmails Jerry into going along with the IMF’s plan as their mole on the inside, in exchange for his girl’s freedom.  Jerry has no choice.

So the team, plus one, breaks in through the cooling pipes, with Paris and Doug wearing gas masks to hide from Jerry.   The folks in the plant choose that moment to flood the pipes with seawater, so the team has to run to get out in time, which they barely do.  Then they do the usual M:I stuff; Paris cuts into the pneumatic message-tube system to deliver fake IDs to the file room for later, and Jim calls up the dehominant’s creator Dr. Vazan (a toupeed, barely recognizable Robert Ellenstein), pretending to be a colleague interested in his pesticide research and setting up an interview with a colleague (Dana).  Jim then briefs Jerry on the computer he has to hack.  The cynical Jerry doesn’t see much difference between Their weapons and Our weapons, and Jim’s reassurances that they intend to destroy the dehominant rather than using it fall on deaf ears.  But Jim says that doesn’t matter, since they have a deal.  But when Paris and Doug come in, Jerry realizes he’s been had and sounds the alarm.  The team hides in the furnace and muffles Jerry’s cries until the searchers leave the room, and then they tie Jerry up and try to proceed without him.

Dana arrives to interview Vazan, while Paris dons a Vazan mask.  The familiar M:I routine is mocked by Jerry, who says the mask won’t fool anyone.  He asks Paris why they’re bothering to do this.  Paris says there are a lot of reasons, but the simplest one is that they’ve got a friend a hundred feet away who’ll be dead in 20 minutes if they don’t help him.  That gives Jerry pause to think.

Once Dana manages to get rid of the hyper-paranoid implicitly-Soviet agent Orlov (Larry Linville in his third M:I role, acting more Linvillesque than ever), she sticks a knockout-needle ring into Vazan’s neck — and Lesley Ann Warren gets this scary-ruthless look on her face that makes it clear you do not want to mess with this woman.   Willy brings in a collapsible filing cabinet that was hidden under Dana’s car, and they use it to sneak Paris into Vazan’s office and the real Vazan out.  So Paris-Vazan goes to interrogate the dying Barney and slips an earpiece into his ear so Jim can tell him what to confess — which is that the two guys currently manning the computer are his accomplices.  Then Barney fake-dies and Vazan orders him taken to the autopsy room where the team is hiding.  Doug manages to pull Barney back from the brink, but he’s in no condition to take on the computer, and with Jerry unreliable, Jim is willing to risk doing it himself.  But Jerry’s figured out that he won’t survive unless they do, so he agrees to help them, getting some instructions from Barney.  (And among the caged lab animals used to test the bioweapons, there’s a cute little white kitten!  How dare they hurt a kitten!  They must be bad guys!)

Orlov arrests the innocent computer techs (well, not innocent, since they’re complicit in making a chemical WMD and being mean to kittens), giving Paris-Vazan an excuse to bring in Jim and Jerry as the new techs, using the credentials Paris planted earlier to placate Orlov.  We then get to see how Jerry uses his advanced computer skills to accomplish the intricate programming task that nobody but he and Barney could’ve accomplished, which is done by… pressing three buttons.  He then deletes the formula by pressing two more buttons, which don’t correspond in the slightest to the procedure Barney explained to him.  This is intensely anticlimactic.  Explain again why Jim couldn’t do this?

So Jim hands Paris-Vazan a note saying “Split,” and there’s a funny line where Paris-Vazan shows Orlov the folded note and says “Read this and you’ll see what our next step is,” then TV-karate-chops him unconscious. The three of them walk out casually, joined by Willy, and head for the exit.  But standing at the guard post is the guard from the teaser, chatting to his friend about how he was just about to let the spy go when the doctor showed up, and then someone knocked him out from behind!  And then he looks over and there’s Willy standing right next to him.  And the poor schmo gets knocked out by Willy again, and the team makes a break for it, rendezvousing with Dana, who’s brought Jerry’s girlfriend for a happy reunion and concluding driveaway.

Well, first off, after the season opened with two stateside crime-related stories, it’s good to see they haven’t abandoned overseas espionage stories yet.  And it’s also great to see how determined they are to shake up, deconstruct, and reinvent the formula of the past few seasons.  Just about everything I liked about the early first season is back with a vengeance: stories driven by character interaction with the guest team member, stories where things go seriously wrong with the mission, moments of humor, the works.  We even get to see the characters make mistakes, unlike previous seasons where the only things that (rarely) went wrong were due to outside factors.  Barney only got poisoned and captured because Willy didn’t watch what he was doing.  And we get to see them being morally ambiguous when they use dirty tricks to maneuver Jerry into cooperating.  And it’s intriguing to see a story in which the characters have to work with someone who doesn’t want to be part of the mission.  It really brings a fresh slant to things.

Moreover, I have a feeling that Jerry was meant to be a surrogate for the members of the 1970 viewing audience who were growing suspicious of authority and less inclined to identify with a bunch of government spies playing dirty tricks on other countries.  And maybe also for those viewers who’d simply gotten tired of the formulaic, dehumanized storytelling and the implausible gimmicks like the masks.  Jerry questioned the team’s legitimacy and mocked their methods the way a critical audience member might, and this episode was the show’s way of trying to win those viewers over, to convince them it was still worth caring about these people and believing in what they did.  And it did a good job at it too.

“Homecoming”: No tape, no mission.  Jim is back in his hometown, reflecting on his past; we see a worn-out sign for “A. Phelps and Son Boat Rental,” and Jim has memories of himself as a child with his father back when the sign was more intact.  (This flashback will self-destruct in five seconds.)  He’s mending a fence on the edge of his family property when an old friend, Connie (Sharon Acker), drives by and waves hi.  Not far down the road, her tire blows out, and her spare is punctured.  A creepy voice whispers “Pretty girl” from the bushes and calls her by name; she sees someone with thick glasses hiding in the brush and runs back toward Jim, screaming.  He hears the screams and runs to intercept, but before he can get to her, we get the main titles, which are back to using the old theme arrangement.  Anyway, he scares off the assailant and finds Connie half-strangled.

Back in town, the townsfolk are harassing Norville County sheriff Brad Owen (Joe Maross) about his inability to catch the person who’s killed two women and nearly killed a third.  They call for Brad’s resignation, but Jim points out that wouldn’t solve the real problems, which are that the department is understaffed and has no crime lab.  Afterward, Jim is interviewed by reporter Stan (Jack Donner), who seems a little too inquisitive about Connie and happens to be wearing thick glasses.  But we quickly find he’s not the only suspect; the deputy has thick glasses too.  Which makes it odd that Connie’s willing to accept his guardianship until she can get out of town at Sheriff Brad’s suggestion (because her tires were intentionally punctured; she was targeted).  Then there’s Seth (Frank Webb), the young, PTSD-suffering Vietnam vet who also wears thick glasses.  Jim is in the bar belonging to old friend Midge (Loretta Swit), who fills him in on how Seth was the only survivor of his unit and came back troubled.  Suspecting him, Jim acts friendly to sound him out, but one of the locals, Joe (Fred Beir), picks a fight with Seth, during which an earpiece breaks off his glasses.

Later, Connie sneaks out on the deputy to meet with Joe, her lover (he’s married), but she gets killed and Seth’s earpiece is found at the scene.  This leads Jim and Brad to Seth’s home, where they find a list with the names of the three victims — all single women living alone — plus two other women who are married.  It’s enough to put out an APB on Seth.  Meanwhile, Jim calls in Barney in the role of a criminologist (and it’s suprising for an engineer to suddenly manifest CSI skills), and has the other team members standing by.  We see them at a party thrown by Dana; apparently they all socialize together (and Paris plays the piano).  Dana spends the first half of the episode in backless dresses, as if to make it even more obvious than usual that she doesn’t wear a bra.  Thank you, the ’70s!

Seth breaks into Jim’s place, clearly confused about whether he’s at home or in ‘Nam, and Jim talks him into coming with him to the sheriff’s office to make a statement about how the real murderers are the townsfolk who sent him off to kill.  This lets Brad get the drop on him and put him in a cell, but Barney’s convinced the killer is someone short with small hands and feet, much smaller than Seth.  Also Jim remembers that the glasses earpiece broke off in the bar before the murder; anyone could’ve picked it up.  Brad and the townsfolk are convinced it’s Seth, though, so Jim needs to call in the rest of the team.  Dana comes in and applies for the waitress job at Midge’s, with the intention of making herself fit the victims’ common profile — which basically comes down to flirting with Joe, who had affairs with all three victims (as Joe’s wife ultimately confesses to Jim) and is starting to look like a suspect.

But the townsfolk are ready to lynch Seth, leading Jim to make some Timely Social Commentary about how we sent our kids off to kill in Vietnam and turned on them when they came home.  Then Willy and a couple of extras (maybe from one of last season’s repertory companies?) sneak into the jailhouse to break out our Rambo-lite in a coffin that’s supposedly holding Connie’s body.  With the supposed killer on the loose, it’s a perfect opportunity for the killer to strike, and Dana’s the obvious target, at least after Paris comes into the bar as her drunk ex-boyfriend and blurts out to all the suspects that she spent the night with Joe (which is apparently not true).  Jim and Barney already happened to get themelves deputized as a delaying tactic while Willy snuck out Seth, so they work together to stake out Dana and catch the killer.  So Dana’s tending bar and the three men watch as the patrons gradually leave, and finally Midge leaves Dana to close up and tend to the last customer, heavy-glasses-wearing Stan.  She goes downstairs to get a new bottle of booze for Stan, and the whispery killer whispers at her and then attacks her.  Luckily, one of Jim’s childhood flashbacks that we’ve been seeing throughout the episode kicks in, and he remembers a tomboyish girl who beat the boys at sports.  He rushes in just in time to pull the killer off Dana — and it’s Midge!  Motivated by her unrequited love of Joe and her jealousy of all the unworthy tramps he slept with.  (And no, I can’t tell what they see in the guy.)

So this is yet another attempt to do something new with the show, humanizing Jim by delving into his past.  (We learn he was a high-school football star, he served in the Navy, and he takes his coffee black.)  It’s the first episode of the series where he never assumes a false identity.  It’s also a clear attempt to bring some social relevance into the show, in contrast to the spy-vs.-spy fantasy world of past seasons.  It’s interesting that such a radical format-breaker is written by Laurence Heath, who’s been a regular writer for the show since the first season.  Unfortunately, it’s the least effective episode of this revisionist season so far.  The murder mystery is a bit clunky, and Jim’s frequent flashbacks to childhood (and child Jim had a creepy-looking grin) are seriously corny.  The musical score by Robert Prince (another composer who, like Harry Geller, had previously worked with M:I producer Bruce Lansbury on The Wild Wild West) is mixed, with a lot of very hokey ’70s easy-listening stuff, although there are a couple of strong jazzy moments, particularly when Connie is murdered.  And Jim doth protest too much, methinks; there are too many times where he makes a point of going, “Well, I’m just a simple country guy who doesn’t understand any of these law-enforcement matters, but here’s exactly what you need to do.”  And I don’t know… even though I’ve found this season’s eagerness to break with formula refreshing, this one departs a little too much from feeling like a Mission: Impossible episode.  Murder mysteries, small-town drama and intrigue, Vietnam commentary… it’s the sort of thing a lot of other shows could do, and the M:I-style roleplaying and schemery is a minor component.  It almost seems like a script written for another show and adapted to fit this one.

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Bookmark liberation

I’ve now reshelved all the Trek books I had lying around as references while writing DTI: Forgotten History — including novels such as Ex Machina and Watching the Clock, nonfiction like The Making of Star Trek and the Star Trek Concordance, and various technical reference books and documents (including the “Enterprise” Flight Manual, a behind-the-scenes document created for actor reference on Phase II/Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which has detailed diagrams of the TMP consoles).   Things are somewhat neater around here now (though still a bit more cluttered than after my last big cleanup).  And the all-but-depleted pile of bookmarks next to my desk is now replenished.  Yay!

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S5) Reviews: “The Killer”/”Flip Side” (spoilers)

September 24, 2011 2 comments

Welcome to season 5 of Mission: Impossible, adding Lesley Ann Warren (without the “Ann”) to the team as Dana Lambert. This year there are some changes in the offing.

“The Killer”: Right off the bat, there’s a major change in the format of the show: we now have a teaser (“cold open” in modern parlance) before the main titles. There doesn’t seem to be much point to it, though; it’s simply an introduction to the bad guy of the week, Eddie Lorca (Robert Conrad, previously seen helping the team — possibly as himself — in “The Contender”) as he hangs out with his girlfriend and gets a call from his employer, taking a new contract. We then cut to Jim getting the tape from a fisherman on the beach, and his mission is to stop Lorca, a mob hitman, from carrying out his contract, even though it isn’t known who his target is or when and how he’ll strike. The mission is also to identify his boss, a powerful mob figure nicknamed Scorpio. The “secretary will disavow” line is missing from the tape, perhaps because this isn’t a spy mission, and we get a new music cue accompanying the self-destruction (one of the few times that’s happened in four years), which leads into the main titles. Everyone gets a new picture in the titles, and it sounds like the theme is a new performance with an added cymbal line underneath the usual arrangement (or maybe it was there before and is just played/mixed louder now?).

Another change: even with a new team member, there’s no dossier sequence. Are those gone for good? Jim explains to the team that Lorca thrives on randomness. He doesn’t make his decisions — including how to kill his target — until the last moment and often by chance. He’s kinda like Two-Face, except with dice instead of a coin. So the team has to try to ensure that every random choice he makes leads to where they want him, and how they do it is inspired. On arriving at LAX, he picks a hotel at random out of the phone book (though it’s not completely at random, for it’s one whose listing stands out on the page) and Willy is waiting as the cabbie — but Lorca decides at the last moment to take the next cab. And Paris is driving that cab. The team has rented a vacant hotel and stripped it of all signage, and once they hear Lorca tell Paris to go to the Bower Hotel, they put a whole team of signmakers, printers, seamstresses, etc. to work putting up Bower signage and stationery all over the hotel, while Paris and Willy try to slow the cab ride down long enough despite Lorca’s urgings for haste. Then, when Lorca lets the dice pick his room number (lucky 7), Barney puts a 7 on the bugged room they’ve prepared and labels the surrounding rooms in relation to it. It’s all very clever and fun to watch, and there’s much more of a behind-the-scenes emphasis than the show has normally had since the first season.

Lorca calls Scorpio and gets his female go-between, arranging to meet her at his hotel (an odd move for Mr. Random, but it helped keep the episode budget down, no doubt). The team intercepts the call and gets the number, so Paris calls her back mimicing Lorca’s voice and changes the meeting to a nearby park, where he gets the victim’s identity. It’s a union leader who’s African-American, so they replace his photo with one of Barney and go to get the guy to safety while Dana impersonates the go-between — just Warren approximating the other actress’s voice rather than the usual overdubbing (though the other actress, Carol Carle, was probably cast because she sounded similar to Warren). Dana gives him the target and keeps him, err, occupied long enough to let the others do their job, and she looks very fetching in her skimpy blue dress, even if she does look a bit too much like a freckle-faced teenager otherwise. Warren does a reasonably good job with the acting too. But when Lorca leaves, he walks, and when Paris tries to tail him in a cab, he loses him due to traffic. They don’t know how he’s going to strike at Barney. There’s a cute gag where we see what looks like Barney lying dead next to the ringing phone — were they too late to warn him? — until we recognize that it’s a dummy Barney is setting up as a target for Lorca to shoot at.

But Lorca isn’t shooting. He breaks into the room above and lowers a plastique charge down the air vent. Then he calls Barney to arrange a meeting and says he’s in the lobby, but nobody on the team saw him go in — and then Willy sees him going out of the hotel, across the street to call Barney again. Jim realizes it’s to get Barney next to the phone, and his photographic memory (who knew?) of the room kicks in and he remembers the air vent just in time to warn Barney to get out.

With the deed allegedly done, Lorca gets the payoff from Dana, but she’s “killed” in a drive-by, and with her “dying” breath claims that Scorpio set them both up to be killed. So Lorca gets cabbie Willy to take him to Scorpio’s address, and the two men conveniently kill each other. Jim gives one last roll of Lorca’s lucky dice and they come up snake eyes.

Well, this was refreshing. M:I is a show that, for most of its run prior to this point, has been defined by its formula, one that it generally followed rather mechanically with only occasional, subtle variations. But with the opening of this season, it’s clear that it’s a fresh new show; the premise is still the same, but the approach is very different. It brings back some of the strengths of the first season — more focus on the team being themselves behind the scenes, more things going wrong with the plan, more uncertainty of success due to the cunning of their foe. These were occasional, welcome exceptions to the rule in the past few seasons, but if this season begins with them, it suggests a whole new attitude. There are stylistic variations as well, notably the cold open and the loss of the dossiers. And while Lalo Schifrin is back to do the episode’s score, he’s adopted a more contemporary funk style.

One thing that bothers me about the premise is that it doesn’t seem much like an IMF-level case. Sure, what makes it major enough to get the government involved, presumably, is that Scorpio is a very powerful mobster. But he’s a minuscule part of the story, and the focus is mostly on stopping a much lower-ranked hitman from carrying out a single murder. It foreshadows the change in the show’s focus from international intrigue to crimebusting. Still, however incongruous the assignment, it’s delightfully clever in the execution. And in a way, it fits the name of the show and the organization better than most missions. Stop an assassination when you don’t know the who, the how, the where, or the when? That sounds like a pretty impossible mission. So it works for the show despite the oddity of it.

So it looks like all bets are off now, and the old formulas no longer hold sway.  I’m looking forward to seeing more of this season’s new approach to Mission: Impossible.

(By the way, this episode was remade as the series premiere of the 1988 M:I revival series.  It’ll be interesting to compare the two versions when that comes out on DVD in a couple of months.)

“Flip Side”: The cold open introduces us to drug dealer Mel Bracken (Sal Mineo), talking to an exposition buddy about his plans to increase distribution, and follows a young woman who’s “gotten into his stash” (which basically just seems to make her ultra-horny) and gets dumped on the street, where she’s drawn to the lights of a dance club and parties until she literally drops, presumably of an overdose. Cut to Jim getting the tape at an outdoor theater, being assigned to stop and expose Bracken, his Mexican supplier Maximillian (Robert Alda), and Cameron, the Midwestern pharmaceutical magnate who supplies Maximillian legally (hey, it’s MacGyver’s future boss Dana Elcar!). There’s no “Secretary will disavow” and no “This tape will self-destruct” — just the mission and “Good luck, Jim,” and then Jim tosses the tape into the fire. Cue titles.

Since Cameron is staying within the letter of the law by using Maximillian as a go-between, the goal is to link him directly to the dealer Bracken. Cameron is meeting Maximillian in Mexico before they both come to LA for a pharmaceutical convention, and Dana catches Max’s interest due to her resemblance to a onetime film star he once loved, passing herself off as the star’s daughter, Cindy Dawson, whom Max knew as a child (though his reaction to her now is less paternal, shall we say). This involves Lesley Anne Warren singing a couple of songs, and while I think she uses way too much vibrato, she’s definitely a better singer than Barbara Bain. But her real goal is to seduce Cameron, who’s normally faithful to his wife, but is pretty much putty in her hands, because he’s the kind of diffident, insecure older guy who’s not accustomed to having an attractive young lady taking such an interest. Dana persuades him to call her when they separately get to LA, while Paris, posing as Dana’s fellow musician and business partner, persuades Maximillian to introduce her to his contact in the record business, who happens to be Bracken.

Meanwhile, Barney climbs onto the truck delivering Cameron’s drugs to Max’s Mexican warehouse (by climbing out of the hood of a car behind it while it’s stopped at an intersection — I guess it must be a make of car with its engine in the trunk) and plants tracking-beacon “pills” in with the drugs. That way, once they’ve been transferred and concealed for shipping to Bracken, Barney is able to track the truck. When its driver makes a rest stop, Barney breaks in to confirm the pills are in cocktail peanut containers — but he’s discovered by the driver and a fight ensues. But Barney decides to take the driver’s place, and calls Jim with a modification of the plan. Once more, the approach to the characters is more humanized, less cold and detached, than in previous seasons, for we see that the others were worried about Barney and express relief when he checks in, through actual words rather than just a brief look.

Once Dana lures Cameron to dinner with her, they come back to his suite and she begins popping pills. She fakes an overdose and Paris shows up, declaring her dead. In his defense, Cameron did try to stop her from taking the pills, but he prove himself a hypocrite when he bribes Paris to move Dana’s body elsewhere instead of calling the cops. Meanwhile, Jim has replaced Bracken’s mob contact for a major drug deal, and when the truck full of peanuts shows up with Barney driving, it’s filled with actual peanuts. Jim insists to Bracken that he get the drugs immediately, but Maximillian is nowhere to be found (since the team’s had him arrested on the evidence Barney gathered). Meanwhile, Bracken’s goon, sent to find Cameron, finds Paris in Dana’s apartment, and Paris tells Bracken about the OD. Bracken brings in the distraught Cameron and persuades him to ship a new supply of drugs directly, over Cameron’s protests that it would link them and ruin them both. Of course, Cameron is right, since when the deal goes down, Barney’s in the rafters taking photos. The goon spots him and a shootout ensues; the goon goes down, but Bracken is only winged. He and Cameron are taken into custody, and Cameron is shocked to see Dana there, alive. “You’re not even Cindy, are you?” he asks. She tells him there was a Cindy Dawson, until last year, when she died of an overdose.

This is a solid script by Jackson Gillis, a stalwart TV writer with a career spanning 40 years, including major contributions to The Adventures of Superman (including the oft-remade “Panic in the Sky”), Perry Mason, Lost in Space, and Columbo. It’s got solid character writing, particularly for the nuanced but ultimately pathetic Cameron, with some good moments of humanization for the team as well (Dana even shows moments of discomfort at manipulating the sad sack Cameron, though as we see at the end, she reminds herself that he doesn’t deserve much sympathy). That final revelation Dana delivers to Cameron may be a bit obvious and after-school-specialish, but it’s handled so deftly by Gillis that it really packs a punch. There are some nice twists in the presentation of the scheme too, bits where parts of the team’s plan are hidden from us at first by the editing and attention of the camera, like when we see Bracken talking to his mob contact and only then swing around to see it’s Jim (though we could’ve guessed since we saw Willy intercepting the real contact in the previous scene), and when we cut away to Dana and Jim listening while Barney spells out his revised plan which we don’t hear.

My main problem with the story is that I’m not too sure why Dana and Paris’s portion of the scheme was necessary to the overall plan. It may be that getting Cameron implicated in her overdose was necessary to convince him to make the deal with Bracken, though I don’t specifically recall Bracken threatening him with exposure if he didn’t deliver the drugs. I could be forgetting something, but it seemed to be mainly an excuse to work an “evils of drugs” message into the story. Not that I have anything against such a message in principle; I think we as a society got so tired of being inundated with anti-drug propaganda in the ’80s and ’90s that we forgot the soundness of the underlying message, the fact that drugs really do destroy lives. But strictly from the standpoint of storytelling logic, it seems there should’ve been more of an in-story reason for this subplot. Messages are fine, but they shouldn’t be forced into a story.

So all in all, the freshness of the season’s style and approach continue. The show has been revamped almost top to bottom. It even feels like a ’70s show now rather than a ’60s show, which it literally is (this is the 1970-71 season), but since the difference in actual production time is only a few months, that’s an impressive transformation. Even the acting style seems to have changed a bit, become more naturalistic. Nimoy’s performance as the musician seems less artificial, less caricatured, more relaxed than his role-playing last season. Warren is a more naturalistic actress than Bain or last season’s dozen or so guest ladies, and was presumably brought in to give the show a younger, hipper flavor (which works a lot better than the ludicrous attempt at hipness in last season’s finale). The overall look and feel of the show seem different too. And there’s a new composer, jazz musician Benny Golson — yet although his source music for the episode has a very ’70s jazz/rock flavor, his non-diegetic scoring fits pretty well with the musical style of the previous seasons. I guess it’s not pure funk from now on.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

And…. cue end credits!

Why have I got the Jerry Goldsmith Star Trek theme running through my head?  Because I just wrote the final scene of Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations: Forgotten History, and I’m imagining the movie-era Enterprise sailing majestically away from camera and leaping into a prismatic warp flash before the end titles roll.

It’s been a blast writing this novel, because it’s let me revisit the post-TMP era from Ex Machina, and also do my first real in-depth exploration of the 5-year-mission era and the period in between.  It turned out about half pre-TMP and half post-TMP, plus a frame story with Lucsly & Dulmur.  This book will probably be confusing for some people to shelve, since it’s both a Watching the Clock sequel (and prequel) and an Ex Machina sequel (and prequel).  And there’s another series heading that it could sort of fall under too, but that would be telling.  Anyway, this book may hold the record for containing the most things I’ve been wanting to work into a Trek novel, or at least the most eclectic assortment thereof.  Many of which fall under the category of getting to revisit the post-TMP period again.  Although I’ve been just as eager lately to do something in the timeframe of The Animated Series, and while Forgotten History only spends a brief amount of time in that era, it does have a lot of TAS references.

The first draft comes out to 83,600 words, just shy of the maximum 85K I was contracted for.  I think I’ve rarely come so close to a target length.  Of course, I still have revising and polishing to do, which will probably modify the word count.  And I’ve got just under a week to do that.  Hopefully that’ll be time to make two full passes.  I wish I hadn’t slowed down so much in the middle of the writing period, so that I’d have more time now for polishing.  But that’s just the way it always seems to go for me.  Even when I start out as strong as I did on this, with the words just pouring out, sooner or later I lose momentum and go into a down phase where it’s a lot harder to focus and decide what to write.  Usually I get back into an up phase toward the end, because I have to, but it’s been a bit more of a struggle this time, and the really good bursts of writing have been less frequent this month than they were in that first week.  However, I did manage to get more than half the book written within the past 24 days, so maybe slow and steady wins the race.

Oh, hey, I just remembered a minor story point I forgot to work in.  I don’t think it’s urgent, and I’m not sure there’s a place to work it in, but I guess I’ll go take a look.

Is it bigger on the inside…?

Here is what I saw on the way to the grocery store today: A compact, blue, boxy Honda with a license plate reading TARD1S.  Neat!  Unfortunately, I was too far behind the car at the red light to take a picture of it or shout “Allons-y!” at the driver or something.  But it’s always nice to see random acts of geekery in the real world.

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All downhill from here…

I just finished writing the climactic action sequence for Star Trek DTI: Forgotten History.  I feel exhausted and giddy.  Although it’s not so much the action that tired me out as the research.  In order to figure out the specifics of the technical solution to the main problem, I had to go back and figure out certain other specifics in more detail than I had before, and that required reading up on certain established bits of Treknology and extrapolating how they could have produced a certain result.  It wasn’t easy to sort that out.

Still, I did my best to put in a goodly amount of ship-shakey and blowy-uppy stuff too.  While still finding reasonable explanations for why it would happen.

Now it’s all over but the denouement, which hopefully should go quickly.  Eight days to deadline!

Making plans for NY Comic-Con

September 20, 2011 1 comment

I’ve just made my flight reservations — I’ll be going to the Big Apple for the New York Comic-Con in a bit over three weeks, October 13-16.  I’m not sure yet if there will be a “booth presence” for Star Trek novels; Simon & Schuster will apparently be an exhibitor this year, but I haven’t heard anything about author signings.  However, I expect I’ll be spending a fair amount of my time hanging around the booth for Tor Books, who’ll be publishing Only Superhuman in about a year’s time.

It was at last year’s NYCC that I learned freelance editor Greg Cox was acquiring for Tor and got his okay to send him the manuscript for Only Superhuman, and look how far we’ve come since then.  I’ve sold the book, it’s a year from hitting the shelves, and my friend and former Star Trek editor Marco Palmieri has gotten a job at Tor and done some assistant editorial work on OS.  And while I’m in town, I’m planning to visit the Tor offices in the historic Flatiron Building, one of those Manhattan landmarks I’ve never gotten around to visiting before.

And yeah, I’m flying again.  Second round-trip airline flight this year — probably second of three, since the family Thanksgiving is in Maryland again and there’s no way I’m repeating the mistake of driving through the Appalachians in November.  I kind of enjoyed the interstate drive to and from New York for last year’s Comic-Con, but it was a little bit longer than I was comfortable with, and I didn’t like the parking situation in NYC.  Flying’s more expensive than driving would’ve been, but at least on this trip I can count it as a business expense, and I’m staying with a friend so I don’t have hotel bills to worry about.  Unfortunately I have to get up really early in the morning for my flight from home to NYC.  The later available flights cost more and require going to places like Atlanta or Detroit and changing planes, which seems silly.

Tiger stripes are math!

September 20, 2011 3 comments

From io9:

http://io9.com/5841941/the-mathematical-formula-for-designer-babies-with-tiger-stripes-or-leopard-spots

 

As weird as it may seem, one model describes almost all mammal coloration patterns. All it takes to make an animal a certain color is the interaction of a couple of chemicals with the skin. One chemical stimulates melanin, causing darker coloration in the skin and fur of mammals, while another keeps melanin from being produced. These spread outwards through the body of the animal in the same way in every mammal….

The key to the differences in coloration is the fact that the chemicals spread outward in waves at different phases during the gestation period. Some start their move when the embryo is still tiny. Some start when it’s nearly fully grown. If the animal is tiny, no pattern will form, which is why there aren’t a lot of tiger-striped mice out there. If it’s huge, the chemicals jumble outwards and back, interfering with each other until they form a uniform color. This is why there aren’t any tiger-striped elephants.

And tigers? Their chemical waves move out at just the right time to form a series of peaks and valleys that lead to striped patterns on their fur. Leopards, though smaller than tigers, get hit with the waves at an embryonic stage at which they’re a little bigger than the tigers. The waves interfere enough to form spots on their bodies. Giraffes get hit at a bigger stage and form the large brown patches that we see on them.

Also, it depends on the shape and size of the body part, which is why spotted cats have striped tails.  The original report is here:

http://www.popmath.org.uk/rpamaths/rpampages/leopard.html

This is really cool to know, that something as beautiful as the stripes on my beloved cat Tasha are an expression of math and physics, an interference pattern between chemical waves.  And it might explain something about her brother Shadow.  When he was a very small kitten, he had faint stripes of lighter and darker gray, but as he got older, the stripes vanished and he became a solid (and totally gorgeous) dark gray.  Maybe the interference process was still ongoing.

It’s also useful to me as an SF writer and alien-creator to know this.  This specific formula only applies to mammals,  but the original article says that similar math can explain butterfly wings and striped fish.  So maybe if I create some giant alien creature in a future novel or story, I’ll take care not to give it stripes or spots.

Categories: Science Tags: ,

Good news — the M:I revival is coming to DVD!

In working my way through Mission: Impossible season by season and posting my reviews here, I’ve lately been thinking that it was unfortunate I could only include the original series and not the 1988 revival which ran for two seasons.  After all, the revival was essentially my first clearly remembered experience with M:I; I have vague impressions of watching it occasionally as a child, or at least being in the room while my parents or grandparents watched it, but I don’t know if I followed it very well at that age, because I was virtually a complete novice to the series when the revival came along, and needed my father to fill me in on how it compared to the original.  Also it would be interesting to compare the two incarnations of the series, especially since four of its episodes are straight-up remakes of original-series episodes (shot during the ’88 writers’ strike — in fact, the original intent was to do it purely as remakes as a way to get around the writers’ strike, but the strike wrapped up soon enough that the series was mostly original).  Not to mention that a number of its first-season episodes were scored by Ron Jones (Star Trek TNG, DuckTales), and I’d love to hear those scores again.

So I was pleased to discover just now that the first season of the 1988 revival is scheduled for release on November 29. Which, of course, is a tie-in to the upcoming Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which comes out in theaters in December.  It might take a little longer to come to Netflix, I suppose, but depending on how long it takes me to get through the remaining three seasons of the original, I might be able to move pretty smoothly into the revival — although there’s no news on when the second season might come out.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Season 4 Overview

September 17, 2011 1 comment

Season 4 featured the biggest changes yet in Mission: Impossible‘s run, with the loss of two of the show’s most prominent cast members (Martin Landau and Barbara Bain), the addition of Leonard Nimoy fresh off his fame as Mr. Spock, and the lack of a regular female cast member.  And yet to a large extent it’s a return to routine, even more so than the previous season.  The ritualistic dossier sequences, almost abandoned last season due to the standardized cast, now return with a vengeance since the team composition varies by at least one member throughout the bulk of the season.  The storylines return to focusing almost exclusively on international intrigue, with fewer organized-crime stories than last season (“Mastermind” and “Chico” are the only ones, and only the former is set in America).  And, sad to say, the episodes become more formulaic and mediocre on average, with fewer standouts.

The most brilliant episode this season was “Submarine,” which was clever and imaginative on every level and a great deal of fun.  The 2-parter “The Controllers” was also really good, undermined only by a logic flaw in its resolution, and “The Falcon,” the only 3-parter in the series’ entire run, was nearly as good, full of twists and turns that kept things fun and interesting.  “Commandante,” “Time Bomb,” “Phantoms,” and “Death Squad” were reasonably strong one-parters; “Lover’s Knot” was strong in concept but not as strong as it could’ve been.   “The Numbers Game,” “The Brothers,” “Amnesiac,” “Orpheus,” and “The Crane” are satisfying but not great, “Fool’s Gold” and “Chico” a bit less so.  “The Code,” “The Double Circle,” “Robot,” “Gitano,” and “The Choice” are run-of-the-mill, and “Mastermind,” “Terror,” and especially the season finale “The Martyr” are the duds.  Overall, the season had a weak start and a very weak end, was uneven for much of its length, and settled into an adequate middle ground in much of the latter third.

The trend toward IMF schemes involving sci-fi or supernatural premises remain strong, with subjects including lifelike automatons (“Robot,” perhaps the only M:I episode sharing its name with a Doctor Who episode — no, wait, there’s a “Doomsday” too), thought transference (“Mastermind”), precognition and fringe medicine (“Time Bomb”), and ghosts (“Phantoms”); plus “The Controllers” features the real (in-story) sci-fi premise of a mind-controlling superdrug.  (One could also count Vautrain in “The Choice” pulling his own supernatural con.)

A new development this season is that the imaginary countries are rarely nameless anymore.  It used to be that the poor Voice on Tape kept having to give Jim (or Dan Briggs) mission briefings that awkwardly avoided naming the countries where the bad guys operated, even though you’d think that’s information Jim would kinda need to have; but this year the countries get names about half the time.  As a result, we get a number of villainous People’s Republics: the United People’s Republic (an offscreen enemy in “The Code,” “The Double Circle,” and “Amnesiac”), the Federated People’s Republic (visited in “Fool’s Gold” and “Time Bomb,” but with two different premiers), the East European Republic (“Submarine”), the North Asian People’s Republic (mentioned in “Amnesiac”), and the People’s Democratic Republic of Carinthia (“The Martyr”).  We even get a People’s Republican Army on the good guys’ side in “The Crane.”  The overwhelming majority of episodes this year are in Europe, 18 in all (15 distinct stories), or nearly 70 percent of the season.  Eight seem to be in Eastern Europe (the 2-part “The Controllers,” “Fool’s Gold,” “Submarine,” “Robot,” “Time Bomb,” “Phantoms,” and “The Martyr”); the 3-part “The Falcon” in what might have implicitly been Switzerland or a surrogate, with “The Numbers Game” seeming to be in the same general region; “The Amnesiac” and “Orpheus” seemingly in or around Germany (the latter had the familiar “East/West Zone” terminology implying East and West Germany); “Gitano” in the Spanish-speaking “Sardia” and “Montego”; “The Crane” in the Greek-speaking “Logosia”; “The Choice” in a Francophone “Duchy of Trent” evidently unrelated to the real historical duchy of that name; and “Lover’s Knot” in some totally made-up country with the ridiculous name of “England.” (Hey, wait a minute…)   Four episodes are set in Latin America, “The Code,” “Commandante,” “Chico,” and “Death Squad.”  Only “The Double Circle” and “Mastermind” take place entirely within the United States, which ties it with the Mideast, the location of “The Brothers” and “Terror.”  Still no episodes set in East Asia, and nothing in Africa this year.

The tape scenes have become more standardized, with every one featuring either a small reel-to-reel tape player or an automobile’s 8-track tape player.  The variant “Please destroy this tape in the usual manner” is totally absent, with every tape self-destructing.  The variations were small; the first couple of episodes have Jim leaving the tape player on rather than turning it off before it self-destructs, and “Commandante”‘s tape opens with “Good morning, Jim” instead of the usual “Good morning, Mr. Phelps.”  (Note that “Good morning, Jim” became the standard salutation in the 1988 revival series, unless my memory is playing tricks on me.)  Only one of the tape scenes looked like stock footage to me.  Tape scenes were used in all but two episodes, “Lover’s Knot” and “Death Squad,” even though “Lover’s Knot” was a standard mission.  The apartment briefings were skipped in those two and “The Martyr.”  Dossier sequences were used in all but six cases, even though two of those (“Lover’s Knot” and “The Martyr”) featured team members beyond the core foursome.

As before, Jim Phelps is in all 26 episodes, as are Paris and, for the first time, Barney Collier.  Willy Armitage is the only member of the four regulars to skip an episode this season, sitting out “Lover’s Knot.”  So 25 out of 26 episodes feature the entire core team, the most uniform it’s ever been in that regard.  However, the composition beyond that varies widely, with only four episodes (“Commandante,” “Terror,” “Death Squad,” and “The Choice”) featuring only the core team.  (I’m not counting “Chico” as core team only because the dog was actually featured in the dossier sequence and, well, is the title character.)  The guest team members include:

01 The Code: Lynn (Alexandra Hay); unnamed young local man (A Martinez)
02 The Numbers Game: Tracey (Lee Meriwether); Dr. Ziegler (Karl Swenson); Hartford Repertory Company
03/04 The Controllers: Meredyth (Dina Merrill)
05 Fool’s Gold: Beth (Sally Ann Howes)
07 The Double Circle: Gillian Colbee (Anne Francis); air-conditioning business owner Erickson (Robert Ritchie)
08 Submarine: Tracey; Hartford Rep
09 Robot: Tracey; actor playing “Mr. Mechanico” (Ken Delo)
10 Mastermind: Dr. Irving Berman (Ben Wright), pharmacist Thomas Galvin (Gerald Hiken); Phillip’s Maintenance Service; Nurse Larkin (Alice Reinheart)
11 The Brothers: Lisa (Michele Carey); Hartford Rep
12 Time Bomb: Wai Lee (Barbara Luna); Globe Repertory Company
13 Amnesiac: Monique (Julie Gregg); Globe Rep; stunt driver Jack Ashbrough (Victor Paul)
14/15/16 The Falcon: Tracey; Sebastian (Frank da Vinci); Lucifer the falcon
17 Chico: Chico the dog
18 Gitano: Zorka (Margarita Cordova); Captain Serra (John Rayner)
19 Phantoms: Nora Bennett (Antoinette Bower); broadcaster Edmund Moore (Ivor Barry)
21 Lover’s Knot: US embassy official Marvin Rogers (Jerry Douglas); Ross (Ford Lile)
22 Orpheus: Valerie (Jessica Walter); two actors portraying guards (unidentified extras)
23 The Crane: Clay (Ralph Ventura); Globe Rep
26 The Martyr: folk singer Roxy (Lynn Kellogg); Dr. Valari (Peter Brocco); Maria Malik (Anna Lee) cooperates

That’s essentially eleven women who played substantial roles (since Nurse Larkin was a bit player and Roxy was little more than a cameo for a then-popular singer).  Lee Meriwether’s Tracey is definitely the standout, appearing in six episodes in all, showing her versatility in “Submarine” and “The Falcon” and her sex appeal in “Robot.”  The other guest agents who would’ve been worth seeing again are Anne Francis (Gillian), Michele Carey (Lisa), Barbara Luna (Wai Lee), Julie Gregg (Monique), and Jessica Walter (Valerie), with Francis and Carey topping the list.  (I’m tempted to list Margarita Cordova as well, but her role was kind of specialized; she was darn sexy, though.)  Alexandra Hay was lovely as Lynn, but her character was horribly treated, existing only to be placed in a sexually compromised situation and then forgotten.  Fortunately this was not typical of how the women were treated this season.  For some reason, perhaps budget, the pattern of using guest female agents diminished toward the end of the season, happening only twice (barely, since Roxy barely counts) in the last seven episodes.

Only eleven episodes featured new musical scoring, although “The Martyr” included an uncredited piece of rock-styled instrumental music along with Lynn Kellogg’s performance of “The Times They Are a-Changin'” (written by Bob Dylan).  Richard Markowitz did the most episodes, five in all: “The Numbers Game,” “Robot,” and the 3-part “The Falcon.”   Lalo Schifrin scored “Fool’s Gold” and “Submarine.”   Jerry Fielding did the 2-part “The Controllers.”  Gerald Fried did his final M:I score for the season opener “The Code,” and Richard Hazard made his M:I debut with “Commandante.”  The rest of the season was scored with stock cues, including new recordings of cues from the three prior seasons.

As I said in my last overview, I felt there was an upward trend from season 2 to season 3.  Unfortunately, it reversed itself this year.  The more variable cast was an interesting development, but overall the season was middle-of-the-road with only a few really strong episodes.  And it was frustrating to see so many talented and striking women getting one shot and never being seen again.  Meanwhile, though as a Trekkie I hate to say it, Leonard Nimoy just isn’t as good in the pivotal “master of disguise” role as Martin Landau was.  He only has a few character types, and one of them (the dissolute or sardonic guy who laughs and says “No, no, no, no” a lot) is a little annoying.  And he’s not great with accents.

The stories included a number of impressive format-breakers, including several (mainly the multiparters) where things really did go serious wrong with the plans, and a couple of episodes that let the characters play something beyond their usual strict professionalism and show a human side.  But those were occasional standouts in an otherwise emphatically formulaic season.  The fakeout cliffhanger, the kind of act break where the moment of danger is effortlessly resolved or part of the intended plan all along, is more common than ever this season (or at least tied with season 2).  Even the multiparters seem to put their cliffhangers at weaker places than they could’ve been.  (For instance, the cliffhanger in “The Controllers” would’ve been far stronger if it had come a couple of minutes later in the story, when they found their prize witness was dead, rather than simply the middle of an action scene.)  So the overall feel of the season is inconsistent, often tending toward the most tedious cliches of the series but occasionally rising well above them — or at least trying to with limited success.

So will season 5 be any better?  Looking over the episode descriptions, it seems like it’ll have a lot more formula-breakers and missions going awry.  Next season adds a regular female agent again, Lesley Ann Warren as Dana Lambert.  And Willy gets reduced to semi-regular status, with a young Sam Elliott joining the team as Dr. Doug Robert for much of the season.  So more change is in the air, but will it keep the series fresh and engaging?  We’ll have to wait and see…

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S4) Reviews: “The Choice”/”The Martyr” (spoilers)

Last two of the season!

“The Choice”: The briefing’s in an office somewhere, and the mission is to stop the Rasputin-like Emil Vautrain, a fraudulent mystic who’s enthralled and manipulated Duchess Teresa (Nan Martin), ruler of the Duchy of Trent.  Vautrain has made Teresa sick and is planning to kill her as soon as she names him her successor, but she’s too in love to see it.  There’s no dossier scene since it’s just the core foursome, and the plan revolves around the fact that Vautrain bears an uncanny resemblance to Paris (he’s played by Nimoy in a wig and beard, doing a scratchy voice that’s electronically raised).

The team gets Vautrain’s attention by putting on a macabre stage show in which Jim hosts and Paris plays a “convict” who miraculously survives a real electric chair, thanks to fake rubber hands and a wire running through his coat to divert the current.  When Vautrain’s henchman Goujon (M:I stalwart Sid Haig, this time with his whole head shaved) discovers Jim trying to sabotage a podium Vautrain is scheduled to speak at so that it will electrocute the speaker, Vautrain has Jim and Paris brought in and pulls off Paris’s blatantly fake wig and beard to reveal the other fake wig and beard beneath that make him a dead ringer for Vautrain.  (One wonders why he stopped there.)  Vautrain guesses that they’re working for his rival, Minister Picard (Arthur Franz), a former confidante/lover of Teresa’s who futilely tries to free her from Vautrain’s thrall.  (Yes, Leonard Nimoy is playing a character whose rival is named Picard.  Insert obligatory Star Trek in-joke of your choice.)  Jim and Paris play along, revealing that the plan was to have Paris replace Vautrain and fake surviving the assassination attempt, convincing Teresa he’s immortal, only for Picard to expose the fraud and discredit him.  Vautrain decides to carry out the plan with the modification that he’ll replace Paris afterward and finger Picard for the assassination attempt.  But the team has his office bugged and is ready for his plan to kill Jim and Paris afterward.  They switch Paris and Vautrain, knocking out the latter, who wakes up in a prison van with Jim, who stages their escape and makes sure Vautrain gets a gun with blanks in it.  Vautrain confronts Paris-as-Vautrain in Teresa’s office and shoots him, with Paris making it look like he survived being shot thanks to the squibs and evidence Barney planted earlier.  The real Vautrain gets hunted down as an impostor and shot (on Paris’s order, essentially).  But then Paris-as-V admits to Teresa that he’s been using tricks to make himself seem immortal, then tells her he’s leaving and that she can trust Picard from now on.  Outside, Picard says to Paris, “Whoever you are, thank you.”

A pretty routine episode, nothing special.  The premise of the target looking just like Paris is one that would’ve worked if this had been Paris’s first mission — for instance, that’s why Rollin Hand was recruited to the team in the pilot episode — but it’s hard to swallow this close to the end of the season, especially since it’s at least the second time this season that the impersonation subject has been a lookalike/soundalike for Nimoy.  Nan Martin was perhaps the one standout here; I’m used to seeing her as a much older woman, but here at age 42 she was a fairly handsome woman, and it makes me wonder what she would’ve been like in her prime.  Still, her character is an ineffectual dupe, more a plot device than a person.

There really was a Duchy of Trent (or Tridentum) until 1802, located in what’s now Northern Italy and ruled by the Germanic Lombards.  The Duchy of Trent in “The Choice” is Francophone, however — yet,  as with “The Crane,” all the Europeans have American accents, or English in Martin’s case.

“The Martyr”: The tape’s in a closed novelty shop, and gives Jim the rather nebulous mission of stopping/exposing the repressive rulers of the People’s Democratic Republic of Carinthia, Premier Rojek (John Larch) and his chief enforcer Czerny (Scott Marlowe), before Rojek can convince the nation’s youth organization to endorse his rule.  We cut right to the mission with no dossiers or apartment scene, but the core team is assisted by folk singer Roxy (Lynn Kellogg) and Dr. Valari (Peter Brocco), who helps implant a receiver in Jim’s ear and assists Barney in hypnotizing Jim as a defense against truth drugs.

Barney also slips a secret message to Maria Malik (Anna Lee), widow of the beloved former premier Anton Malik, whom the Carinthian youth idolize.  Malik is held prisoner in the state mental hospital (actually the Paramount Studios office building, which has been featured before this season, usually as the bad guys’ headquarters), and Barney fires the message through the bars of her window.  We see a close-up of the decoded message, and thanks to freeze frame I could tell that it was actually a valid substitution cipher where each letter was represented by a pair of letters of numbers (though there was at least one typo).  Which wouldn’t be too hard to crack; substitution ciphers (cryptograms) are pretty easy to break, and it wouldn’t have been too hard for a cryptographer to notice that the shortest word was four letters long, that they all had an even number of letters, and that pairs of letters or numbers recurred throughout.  (Sorry, an interest in cryptography kinda runs in the family.)

Anyway, Jim contacts a known double agent as a way of tipping off the government that the Maliks’ son Peter is actually alive and in the country in the guise of Paris — the twist being that he doesn’t know he’s Malik’s son and has grown up being a rabid supporter of Marxism and Rojek’s regime.  Rojek, worried about the “Malik cult” among the youth movement, realizes he can use Paris/Peter to denounce Anton Malik’s memory and score a propaganda victory.  But first he must interrogate Jim to make sure this isn’t a trick, and that’s where Barney comes in.  After Roxy sings “The Times They Are A-Changin'” at a reception, Paris denounces her American hypocrisy, and Barney, looking groovy in sunglasses and a medallion and acting the part, starts a fight with him.  Guard Willy takes him downstairs to a holding cell, wherein he breaks out, Spider-Mans up the building to plant a bug in the office of the evil doctor who’ll interrogate Jim, then climbs back to his cell and uses a radio hidden in a book (which Willy arranged for him to keep in his cell) to send instructions to Jim.  This is what the hypnosis was for: to ensure that Jim would respond only to Barney’s voice while under truth serum.

So Rojek is convinced that Paris is really Malik’s son and wants to denounce him, and he makes a big public announcement of the fact — whereupon Dr. Valari calls him and reveals the proof that Peter Malik is really dead.  Rojek realizes “Peter” is an impostor planning to denounce him, and expects that Maria will endorse him as her real son, rallying the Malik-loving youth against Rojek.  So he decides to bring Maria to the youth rally so that, once Paris denounces and Maria endorses, Rojek can reveal the fraud and discredit the Malik cult.  (The rally is held in a small indoors room even though there are thousands of youth gathered in the stock footage outside, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Money must’ve been tight this late in the season.)  Instead, Paris praises Rojek and denounces Malik, and Maria is the one to denounce Paris as an impostor (as Barney’s note instructed her to do at this time).  Somehow, this triggers a youth uprising (with a bit of rabble-rousing from Roxy) and stock-footage chaos reigns in the streets while the team and Maria drive to freedom and Rojek stands at the podium looking comically ineffectual.

Between this and “Ghosts,” it seems the producers of M:I were trying to tap into the whole “youth movement” thing going on in the ’60s — giving the team missions that put them on the side of activist youth and opposed to the oppressors and liars of the older generation.    Of the two, this was by far the more blatant attempt to connect with the youth movement, and the more embarrassing one.  It’s silly to see Paris and Barney, played by men in their late 30s, pretending to be members of a youth group (at one point Barney is dismissed as a crazy young person by a guard who isn’t much older than he is, if not younger).  Roxy contributes virtually nothing to the mission, and her presence is a weak excuse to get folk singer Lynn Kellogg, apparently a minor celebrity of the time, into the show.  And the whole plot about winning the hearts and minds of the youth was rather vague and weakly handled.  If Rojek was such a tyrant, how could his nation’s youth be so unaware of it that they could be easily won over to his side by a single speech?  Alternatively, if the unrest was so great that all it took was one exposed lie of Rojek’s to trigger a revolution, why did he imagine he had any chance of winning them over?   If a revolution is indeed what happened.   It’s not at all clear what the team has actually achieved here.  Did they get Rojek to trigger his own overthrow, or did they simply embarrass him?  With the whole plot revolving around the pursuit of nothing more than a PR victory, the sense of tangible stakes was too low, the outcome too nebulous.  This was a feeble exercise in pandering and a weak conclusion to the fourth season.

Overview to follow!

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S4) Reviews: “The Crane”/”Death Squad”

“The Crane”: Jim takes an inordinate amount of time wandering through an art gallery before going into the back room to get the tape briefing: The team must rescue rebel leader Constantine (Eric Mason, voice of Vic Perrin) from the ruling junta of Logosia (a Greek-ish country except with American accents, and incongruously Californian palm trees in one shot) before they execute him.  The junta is run by two men, General Kozani (Carl Betz) and his trusted aide Col. Strabo (Felice Orlandi).  Interestingly, the good-guy rebels are called the People’s Republican Army, the first time this show has used a name containing “People’s Republic” as anything but bad guys.  This is an all-male episode; the dossier sequence establishes Clay (Ralph Ventura), who’s basically extra muscle, and the Globe Repertory Company as participants in the mission.

Jim knows that when they try to rescue Constantine, Kozani and Strabo will be able to erect a dragnet they can’t penetrate.  So the plan is to hide Constantine in plain sight.  At a construction site, they use mines and squib “bullets” to stop the armored truck transporting him to his execution, knock out the occupants, and then hide the drugged Constantine (why they keep him knocked out instead of filling him in is unclear) in a hopper of some sort suspended directly over the attack site by the titular construction crane (a telescopic, vehicle-mounted type).  Then Paris and Barney try to elude the manhunt through the sewers and have a close call; there’s some effective suspense here.

Meanwhile, Jim breaks into Kozani’s office and holds him and Strabo at gunpoint, saying he was Constantine’s ally until Constantine made a deal with Kozani.  Willy comes in as a guard and knocks Jim out (supposedly), and the other guards take him to a cell for later questioning.  Kozani and Strabo are wondering why Jim would think they’d made a deal with Constantine.  Jim has also planted a device to intercept Kozani’s radiophone calls, so that when he later tries to call Strabo (who’s out overseeing the search by now), it goes to Willy at a warehouse.  But Willy can’t do perfect voice impressions, and Paris isn’t back yet, so poor Willy has to stall.  Finally, Paris-as-Strabo says he’s been contacted by Consty with a proposed deal and thinks Kozani should come meet with him.  Kozani and his aide Rafik (Don Eitner, who played the back of Kirk’s double’s head in Star Trek: “The Enemy Within”) find that out of character for Strabo, so Rafik goes to investigate and barely avoids getting blown up, suggesting the meeting was a trap for Kozani.  Rafik finds a flier touting an alliance between Strabo and Constantine!  Kozani persuades prisoner Jim that they’re both being betrayed, and they write up an agreement to end the conflict, contingent on Strabo’s execution.  Jim arranges to take them to meet with Constantine.

Meanwhile, after hours of futile searching, the real Strabo notices the crane overhead and is just about to investigate it when he gets a call from Paris-as-Constantine, who sets up a meeting with him.  Paris and Willy knock Strabo unconscious, make him up as Constantine, then force him to sit silently lest he be shot by Clay.  This is because Jim has brought Kozani there, getting him to clear out the police for their secret meeting with “Constantine” (but really so Barney can get the real Consty down from the crane and finally fill him in).  Kozani sees who he thinks is Constantine and tells him he’s making a mistake partnering with the treacherous Strabo, and shows him the agreement calling for Strabo’s death.  Before Jim leaves, he covertly opens a desk drawer so Strabo will see the gun inside.  Strabo seizes the gun and unmasks, saying he and Kozani have both been tricked but that he now knows where they stand.  As usual, the team hears a gunshot as they walk out, with the added bit of Constantine assuring Jim that his rebels can take care of Strabo.

A nice idea, and the hiding-in-plain-sight gimmick is clever.  There are a couple of nice moments where things don’t quite go as planned, lending some suspense.  But it feels a little overcomplicated, a bit hard to keep track of all the bad guys and all the shifting accusations.  Plus it’s one of their most blatant examples of setting up a bad guy to be killed.  True, they do that all the time, but here they literally bring Kozani to the slaughter and all but literally put the gun in Strabo’s hand.  It reduces the comfortable illusion of distance between the protagonists and the homicide.  All in all, it comes out as an average episode with a few above-average moments.

“Death Squad”: It’s another Very Special Episode! We open with Barney on vacation in a city called Cuidamo, located south of the border (down Mexico way, or something of the sort) and dancing with Alma (Cicely Tyson), an artist he’s been seeing for the past couple of weeks.  A jealous man whom Alma rejected bursts in and attacks her, Barney defends her, and the guy goes out the window and lands on his knife.  The corpse turns out to be the brother of the ruthless local police chief, Corba (Pernell Roberts), who arrests Barney for murder — although he seems rather cold about the death of his own brother, and is just as ruthless toward other wrongdoers such as the petty criminal Riva (Leon Askin), who is terrified when he realizes he’s being locked up in the special cell block reserved for victims of Corba’s officially secret, but still infamous, death squad.  Barney, naturally, ends up in the same block.

Jim is on vacation along with Barney, though for some reason they’re both using fake last names even before anything goes wrong.  He gets Barney a lawyer, but Corba threatens the lawyer into dropping the case.  After interrogating the shyster, Jim knows that Barney has no chance unless the IMF rescues him, so he calls in Paris (who seems to be just getting home from a performance as a magician when Jim calls, judging from his attire) and Willy.  He explains to them that there’s no physical evidence to back up the death-squad charges against Corba so the governor won’t take any action against him.  They need to convince Corba to delay Barney’s execution, so Willy goes in as an Interpol agent and identifies Barney and Jim as suspects in a famous emerald heist the month before.  Corba wants those emeralds to finance his campaign for higher office, so he’s motivated to keep Barney around and persuade Jim to persuade Barney to talk to him.

Meanwhile, once Riva fills Barney in on how doomed they are, Barney MacGyvers up an arc welder out of the light fixture (well, maybe I should say he Barneys it up, since he was doing it while MacGyver was still in high school) and breaks out of his cell, freeing Riva too.  But the escape is foiled by the arrival of Corba’s hench-lieutenant Jocaro (John Shuck, later to co-star with Nimoy in two Star Trek movies), and Barney gets an offscreen beating for his trouble.  But he’s allowed to speak to Jim (with Corba watching), and Jim manages to tip him off to the basics of the plan.  Naturally Barney catches on fast.

Paris pretends to be a fun-loving officer transferring to Corba’s command, luring Jocaro to a party (i.e. the two of them, some booze and music, and a couple of hookers) and pretends to pass out drunk long enough for Jocaro to search his wallet and find clippings connected to the jewel heist.  Jocaro questions Paris, who reveals that one of Corba’s victims was the driver in the heist (corroborating something Interpol Willy said before) and had an emerald hidden in his pocketwatch.  This prompts Jocaro to go to the secret execution site to check out the belongings of the dead, with Jim and Willy tailing him.  They find Corba’s gallows and the acid bath where he disposes of the bodies.  While Paris collects the belongings of the dead as evidence, Jim and Willy rig the gallows so that when Barney (who’s refused to talk) and Riva are brought in and hanged, the nooses give way and the bottom drops out, dumping them safely in the basement on cushioning Willy set up.  The team flees the building and drives away, after Paris disables Corba’s car’s engine and radio.  Then Barney goes to Alma and personally escorts her to New York, presumably to get her away from Corba’s revenge, though he assures her that there’s enough evidence on Corba to hang him.

A nice format-breaker, though Barney’s romance wasn’t as major a part of the story as Paris’s in “Lover’s Knot” or Jim’s in last year’s “Nicole.”  Well, there were a number of emotional scenes with Alma and Barney or Alma and Jim, but still the focus seemed to be mainly on the plan.  It was a nice variation seeing the mission come together gradually, with Jim first piecing together the situation and then improvising a plan.  And it was nice to see Barney being resourceful on his own and bonding with Riva.  There was a funny metatextual moment when Barney was doing his usual thing of performing a slow, meticulous operation without saying a word, as we’ve seen in practically every episode, and then Riva says, “You sure are good at concentrating.”  I never expected to see this show hang a lampshade on one of its own cliches like that.  Though the best part was the payoff of their relationship, when they’re about to be hanged (they think) and Barney is all brave and stoic about it, and the cowardly Riva draws strength from his example.

I wish I knew why Jim and Barney were using fake last names, though.  Do they always do that?  Have they given up their original identities altogether in order to do IMF work?  Hmm, maybe that’s why the original dossier for Barney with the “Collier Electronics” brochure was replaced by just a photo.  But how does that work for Paris, who only uses one name and performs under it?

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S4) Reviews: “Lover’s Knot”/”Orpheus” (spoilers)

“Lover’s Knot”: No tape, dossiers, or apartment scene this time; we jump right to the scene of a murder, and then establishing shots of London.  In the past, episodes that have opened sans tape have either involved “off-book” or unplanned escapades or have started near the end of a mission in progress and been about what happens after it goes wrong.  But this one features a planned mission and starts at the beginning; it just takes an unconventional approach.  In lieu of the apartment scene, we see Jim, Paris, and Barney (Willy is absent for the first time this season) at the US Embassy, briefing their contact Marvin Rogers (Jerry Douglas), an embassy official who’ll be helping with the mission.  The assignment is to expose a European spymaster known as “K,” by going through his operative Lady Cora Weston (Jane Merrow), the trophy wife of the much older Lord Weston (John Williams — the venerable British actor, that is, not the composer who was still going by Johnny at the time).  Cora seduces American personnel and gets them into compromising positions so they can be blackmailed.

Jim and Paris both set themselves up as her targets, though not at the same time.  Jim is the obvious target at first, presenting himself as a luckless gambler, while Paris’s job is to seduce her and get close to her even though she isn’t assigned to him.  Once the bad guys make Jim lose big bucks at a rigged craps table and blackmail him into stealing a code descrambler for them — one tuned by Barney to pick up only fake conversations between Rogers and the prerecorded (faked?) voice of US intelligence director Stone (voice of Vic Perrin) — the fake messages tell them that Stone suspects Paris’s character of embezzling money meant to pay off intelligence assets.  (The tapes of Stone are played by a tech guy named Ross (Ford Lile) back in the US.)  So Cora has to seduce Paris now, and Paris and Jim set up a fake fight where Jim fake-dies (and gets fake-burned up in a fake furnace rigged by Barney a few feet in front of the real one, the third time this season he’s used that trick) so that Cora and her comrades can blackmail Paris into turning to their side — but he demands to speak to the mysterious K in person, leading the team there with a homing-device cufflink (sloppy of the bad guys not to check for that) and discovering — to my complete lack of surprise — that K was Lord Weston all along.  (Not that hard to figure out given the limited number of guest stars, and the fact that they wouldn’t cast an actor as prominent as John Williams for a single scene.)

That all sounds pretty straightforward, but what complicates it is that Paris begins to develop real feelings for Cora, and vice-versa.  This is an unusual episode in more than just the opening, for throughout it, we get scenes of the team out of character, interacting with one another and showing emotion.  There’s no open conflict, but Paris is clearly having some unprofessional feelings and is conflicted about how he’s using Cora, and Jim and Barney exchange some worried looks over it.  However, it doesn’t really go anywhere too dramatic; despite his misgivings, Paris carries out the mission properly until near the end.  Once the team has tracked down Weston, Jim orders Rogers to get him out courtesy of another faked Stone message that clears Paris of all charges and orders him assigned to an important conference, so that Weston will want his new double agent in place.  So Paris is on the way out, but Weston gets a call from an agent of his in the US State Department, telling him that the real Stone died minutes before that phone call was made.  He orders Paris intercepted at the gate, but Jim, Barney, and Paris take out Weston’s men.  Scotland Yard is on the way, but Paris insists on going back for Cora.  Rather than arguing, Jim goes with him, and they have a very civilised confrontation with Weston, who gives up when informed that the Yard is on its way and allows Cora to leave — and then shoots himself off-camera.  Cora tells Paris she was done, that she’d grown tired of the lies and manipulation and wanted out.  Paris tells her it’s too late.

All in all, a nice attempt at a format-breaker, bringing back some of the character focus within the team, the “behind-the-scenes” glimpses of the team being themselves when alone together, that we’ve rarely seen since the first season.  The music consists primarily of Lalo Schifrin cues reused from “The Short Tail Spy,” which told a rather similar story; that particular romantic theme seems to have become the standard motif for M:I romances by this point, in much the same way that “The Plot” is the standard motif for the team enacting its schemes or Barney building gadgets.  But ultimately this isn’t as good as “Short Tail” or last season’s romantic episode “Nicole,” since the character focus has so little payoff.  We never get to see Jim confronting Paris about whether he can fulfill the mission, or arguing about whether to go back for Cora.  It’s all left as subtext, so it’s not much of a departure from the usual format.  So while it was refreshingly non-routine, it wasn’t non-routine enough to be fully satisfying.  I also wasn’t too crazy about Jane Merrow as Cora; she was pretty enough, but I found her acting rather stiff and stagey, like she was reciting her lines rather than really feeling them.  (Interestingly, a few years earlier, Merrow had guest-starred in an episode of The Avengers entitled “Mission… Highly Improbable.”)

“Orpheus”: Jim boards a closed ferry to get the tape; the start of the sequence outside the ferry is on location, but then, unusually, Jim goes inside to what appears to be a studio set of the ferry interior, probably something left over from another production.  The mission is to stop the next job of the mysterious assassin Stravos (Booth Colman), who can only be accessed through his emergency contact Bergman (Albert Paulsen in his fourth M:I role).  The team must manipulate Bergman into bringing Stravos in before his next hit.  The dossier sequence introduces Jessica Walter as Valerie, but omits a pair of extras disguised as guards who will help the team later on.

The episode is one of those set in an “East Zone/West Zone” country that’s implicitly East and West Germany, though the signage is “Gellerese” rather than German.  Jim plays an American defector asking for money, but Bergman suspects he’s being played.  Bergman is a canny and engagingly cynical character, and best of all, he has a cat, an orange tabby called Bitsy.  Anyway, he sends his aid Deiter (a smarmy Bruce Glover — it should be “Dieter” from the pronunciation, but IMDb says “Deiter”) to collect Jim, who fakes a confrontation with his tail Willy and ends up “killing” him with blanks, convincing Deiter/Dieter to bring him in.  Bergman’s still unconvinced and has Jim interrogated.  Jim has taken a drug to fake heroin withdrawal, and counts on Bergman withholding the fix he demands until he gives up the information, since an injection of real heroin, in combination with the drug he’s taken, will kill him.

Meanwhile, Valerie comes in as a high-ranking investigator, and a friendly Bitsy almost exposes Barney, who’s in the file room hacking the teletype to verify Valerie’s credentials.  Barney rigs an electric spark to scare the poor kitty away.  Mean Barney!  Bitsy just wanted to play!  Anyway, Valerie orders Paris arrested and interrogates him, revealing to Bergman that he’s actually a man that Stravos was supposed to have killed months before but who instead was given plastic surgery and a new identity.  (The man is represented by a photo of Nimoy’s stand-in Frank da Vinci, who’s previously been glimpsed in “The Amnesiac” and “The Falcon”).  Valerie claims to suspect Bergman of being a traitor, so Bergman has to clear his name.  As it happens, Jim has admitted to his side paying off a prominent double agent called Orpheus, and the dates he gives implicate Stravos.  Bergman decides Jim has earned his heroin fix, and Valerie is barely able to stop his twisted act of kindness in time to save Jim.  She then arranges for the fake guards to take Jim and Paris away for “interrogation,” thereby freeing them.

Valerie pushes Bergman to contact Stravos and arrange a meeting right away, before the hit is scheduled.  The plan is for Valerie to order Bergman to stay behind while she meets Stravos herself (since Bergman’s loyalty is still suspect), while Paris disguised as Bergman does the actual meeting.  But Bergman informs her there’s a password only he knows, and he refuses to share it with her.  He has to make the meeting.  So the team has to improvise fast.  They arrange to switch the hotel room where Bergman was supposed to meet Stravos, so Bergman enters the darkened room and gives the password to Paris, whereupon he’s knocked out and Paris goes next door to give the same password to Stravos.  He barely manages to convince Stravos to reveal his target before the bomb he planted goes off.  I was wondering why there were so many hours between when he planted the bomb and when it went off, but it turns out it was timed to coincide with a meeting of several Western scientists.  The “West Zone” police get them all out in the nick of time.

Not a bad episode, particularly thanks to the always-engaging Albert Paulsen and the intelligence of the character he’s playing, which posed some challenges for the team.  And of course including a cat automatically makes it a superior episode.  Jessica Walter is pretty good in her stern investigator role.  But the plot has a couple of logic glitches.  One, Deiter/Dieter arranges to have Jim’s demand for cash fulfilled before their first meeting, but when Bergman is questioning Jim later on, Jim is demanding money in exchange for information as though he hasn’t been paid at all yet.  And two, Jim already knows in the apartment scene that they need to reach Stravos before 4 PM, even though they don’t know who the target is or how the hit will be carried out.  How could he possibly know that?  So it’s reasonably good, but not as satisfying as it could be.

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The upside of being low on groceries

Not having many other lunch options in the kitchen, I decided to make some hummus mix (and added a bit of honey since it tends to be a little harsh), and my lunch is two halves of a garlic-oregano pita filled with hummus, cucumber, onion, and kalamata olives.  It’s good.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S4) Reviews: “Phantoms”/”Terror” (spoilers)

September 15, 2011 1 comment

Ooh, a scary theme to the titles!

“Phantoms”: In a stock tape scene (though one that I think begins a little earlier in the footage this time), Jim gets a briefing about Premier Vorka (Luther Adler), an Eastern-bloc dictator about to launch a purge of his country’s young artists, devastating a generation friendly to the West.  The team must remove him from power before the purge begins.  The dossiers include actress Nora Bennett (Antoinette Bower) and broadcaster Edmund Moore (Ivor Barry) of the BBC English Broadcasting Service.

Jim takes the place of a writer, the latest in a line of writers whom Vorka has pretended to mentor but actually plagiarized and killed, publishing their works as his own.  Jim’s addition to the real writer’s manuscript involves Lisa, a woman Vorka loved back in the ’40s and bore a son with, but who then joined the resistance and was killed in Vorka’s prison, with the son disappearing.  Moore’s role is to do a puff-piece interview of Vorka, allowing his tech guy Barney to plant an infrared projector and speakers in Vorka’s study, cleverly concealed from Vorka’s view by the bright klieg lights and the removal of his glasses, which Barney switches for an IR-sensitive pair.  Once he’s alone, he begins seeing projected visions of Lisa’s ghost (played by Nora, made all woogly by having the camera pointed at a reflective sheet Willy is flexing), who tells him that Zara (Jeff Pomerantz), the main artist/protestor targeted by the purge, is actually his long-lost son.  When Vorka investigates, files planted by Paris lead to Paris in disguise as the elderly man (and it’s a really bad age prosthetic) who brought the young Zara to the orphanage where he grew up.  Old-guy Paris gives details that convince the dictator that Zara is his son — including the claim that the boy had Zara’s congenital heart condition.  Vorka orders Zara brought to him, but Willy intercepts the car and rescues Zara while Paris dons a Zara disguise and goes in his place.  He rejects Vorka’s claim of fatherhood and provokes Vorka to lash out, causing Paris/Zara to “die” of a heart attack, whereupon the real Zara with the team positions himself so that when he stands up in the projection, it looks like his ghost is rising out of his body.  (Which doesn’t really make sense, since they’d have to know exactly where Zorka was standing to align it properly.)  Zara and Nora go all “J’accuse” on Vorka, who shoots at the ghosts, bringing in his men, who realize the old guy’s flipped his wig.  He’s eased into retirement and his more moderate deputy premier takes power.

This is a fairly good one.  Vorka is a well-drawn character, a reprehensible mass murderer, liar, and hypocrite who nonetheless has the regrets and longings of an aging, lonely man who laments for all he’s lost, and who can be swayed by remorse for a lost love (even though he killed her) and the wish for a son to love.  He’s smart, too; after the first “haunting,” he’s canny enough to order his study searched for anything that might’ve created the illusion, but Jim is lucky enough to be on hand and “borrow” the book in which the projector is hidden (with the lenses of the projector and the spy camera hidden inside the “O”s in the title and Vorka’s name).  Another effective player is Michael Baseleon as the head of Vorka’s KGB-equivalent; he’s delightfully menacing and reptilian as he interrogates Zara.  Antoinette Bower is rather underused, since outside of the apartment scene she has nothing to do but make woo-woo ghostly pronouncements.

I’ve complained before about the team’s fondness for plans with SF/fantasy elements, but the script justifies it here by establishing that Vorka grew up in a community that believed in supernatural things, so he’s already receptive to the possibility even though his Marxist convictions say he should reject it.  It’s also hinted that he’s going a little senile anyway and didn’t need much of a push.  The episode does rely too much on the usual fakeout cliffhangers where what seems like a dangerous moment passes with no harm done, but there is one effective act break where Vorka, panicking after a ghostly visitation, points a gun at Jim and demands to know if he saw it too.  Vorka’s erratic enough at that point, and ruthless enough in general, that the threat to Jim is very real and believable, even if it is resolved effortlessly in the next act.

“Terror”: The tape is in a parked car on a road near the airport (they seem to have shot a lot of these around LAX this season), though inside the car it’s the usual “8-track tape briefing” stock footage.  The mission: noted terrorist El Kabir (Michael Tolan) is about to be released from prison by his secret ally in the goverment of Suroq, Vassier (David Opatoshu), and the team has to stop it before he can lead his terrorist army to do more terrorizing.  Yup, the “Arab terrorist” stereotype existed even in 1970, though back then it was probably seen as a more local phenomenon.  There’s nobody in on the plan except the four leads, so no dossier sequence is needed.

Barney steals a dynamite truck from the army, then dons a fez (he must’ve heard they were cool) to play a deserter who wants to sell it to El Kabir’s lieutenant Atheda (Arlene Martel, best known as Spock’s bride-to-be in Star Trek: “Amok Time,” though she shares no more than a few seconds of screen time with Nimoy here).  Meanwhile, Paris and Jim play officers coming to question El Kabir about the dynamite theft, with Jim being placed in the opposite cell as an undercover agent (so they tell the prison warden), then convincing EK he’s working with Vassier and warning him that the government intends to have him shot “trying to escape.”  Meanwhile, Paris in a Vassier mask goes to Atheda to tell her the same thing, so she’ll see no choice but to buy Barney’s dynamite to blow him out, courtesy of a secret system of ancient tunnels that Paris/Vassier tips them off to.  (Jim says in the apartment scene that the tunnel map was compiled from historical records and that the tunnels were built by the ancient Mycenaeans, suggesting that Suroq is located along the eastern Mediterranean coast, making it a stand-in for Syria or Lebanon.)  But dynamite won’t work in that space; Barney and his partner Willy have to extract the nitroglycerine from it, a delicate operation made more risky by a sudden thunderstorm (and I think I recognize some of the lightning footage from the Gilligan’s Island titles).  Honestly, Jim has got to stop devising plans that require handling nitroglycerine!  Is he trying to get Barney killed?

Anyway, the real Vassier almost scuttles the plan by having El Kabir released too early, so Paris and Jim vamp until the explosion goes off.  But Jim “overheard” the location of the cave they’d be emerging from, so the military cuts them off.  EK makes Willy give him the leftover nitro, which he uses to threaten the military.  Paris goads him into throwing it, and it lands harmlessly since Willy swapped the bottles.  Oddly, one soldier reacts to the complete lack of danger El Kabir poses at this point by shooting him dead.  The rest of the terrorists are taken into custody, and Paris and Jim claim Barney and Willy as army deserters and take them away for “interrogation.”  Willy assures Jim he disposed of the real nitro in “the aqueduct,” though why exactly that’s safe, or what the hell aqueduct he’s talking about, is unclear.  Maybe he means he poured it into the water?  Will there be a commensurate drop in heart attacks as a result?

All in all, not too coherent an episode.  The setup is confusing.  How is Vassier’s agreement with El Kabir a secret when he’s talking openly with other officials about his intent to release him?  And how is Vassier discredited at the end?  EK shouts something about how Vassier was behind all of this, but he gets it wrong, stating the false story that Vassier intended to assassinate him rather than the truth that they were in cahoots.  So Vassier isn’t actually dealt with at the end, as far as I can tell.  The whole thing’s kind of a jumble.

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