MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S7) Reviews: “Underground”/”Movie” (spoilers)
Hey, last season we had “Underwater,” now it’s…
“Underground”: Gunther Schell (H. M. Wynant) is being driven to prison when the Sheriff’s van is intercepted by a team of bad guys who liberate him — and hey, it sounds like new music accompanying the scene! Jim gets the tape from a hostess at a Japanese garden restaurant — I wouldn’t be surprised if this is another San Francisco landmark — and then sits to listen to the highly secret tape just a few feet from where the patrons are coming in, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. His mission is to find Schell so as to track down the millions he has squirreled away for the mob.
In the apartment briefing — in which Casey and Barney’s moustache are both present — Jim explains that the gang that took Schell offers cons the promise of escape but actually brainwashes them into giving up their secrets, using a very dangerous truth drug. (The “false promise of escape” idea was previously used in “Mindbend.”) Jim will put himself in their clutches, but will be rendered immune to interrogation by a transmitter implanted in his ear and a post-hypnotic suggestion to respond only to Barney’s voice — a near-exact repeat of a trick they previously used in the season 4 finale “The Martyr.” So far a lot about this one feels familiar. Meanwhile, Lynda Day George seems to be struggling with her lines. Was this a rough pregnancy? It seems to have taken a lot out of her.
Jim’s picture is planted in the paper as a doctor sought for murder (gee, you’d think that’d come back to bite him), and Barney makes overtures to the gang’s contact. He gets a meeting at the zoo with the gang’s leader, Clavering (Robert Middleton), a big, bearded man with sort of a bargain-basement Sidney Greenstreet quality, and arranges a meeting and payoff to get Jim out of the country. Jim brings the money to the carousel meeting site, and Barney and Willy follow his tracking signal to a warehouse. But Clavering insists on putting Jim in a lead-lined coffin in the back of a hearse (with an air/sedative tank), and the signal is lost. For some reason, instead of watching the exit and following whatever vehicle emerges, Barney and Willy break into the warehouse and arrive too late. As Barney says, “Jim’s on his own.” Yeah, Barney, because you totally screwed up.
Jim is brought to another striking location, a park with white Arabesque buildings that’s representing the Lotus Hills Mortuary. Clavering reports to the Director, who’s played by John Stephenson, a man whose voice is instantly recognizable to those of us who grew up with Hanna-Barbera cartoons in the ’60s or ’70s (he was the original Dr. Benton Quest, Fred Flintstone’s boss Mr. Slate, and the voice of Professor X in the 1989 Pryde of the X-Men pilot). Schell is being interrogated by Dr. Hargreaves (Peter Mark Richman) in a spinning chair in a torture room filled with disorienting light patterns and noises, again like “Mindbend,” only more elaborate and intense. (One of the sounds is the rattlesnake-like clicking of the Martian War Machines’ eyestalks from War of the Worlds.) While this is going on, Jim wakes up, uses a lockpick hidden in his shirt collar to escape his room, and goes down to the basement, where he peels a patch off his arm and dumps some pills into the air conditioning system. As explained in the apartment scene, the pills release a gas tailored to affect only diabetics like Schell.
Meanwhile, Barney makes contact with Schell’s boss Lutz (Dennis Cross), playing a private eye, and lets Lutz know about the kidnap/brainwash scheme. He makes a deal to deliver Schell to Lutz once he gets him back.
Hargreaves and Clavering have no luck getting Schell to reveal where the money is. They leave him for the nonce and go to work on Jim — who, without Barney speaking in his ear, can only choke silently. Hargreaves realizes he’s hypnotized himself, and Clavering suspects he’s a spy. But ironically the glitch in the plan saves Jim — Hargreaves argued that if he were a spy, he’d confirm his cover story, not just be silent. (Come to think of it, reusing a trick the team has used before actually works in this context; since we’ve already seen how it’s supposed to go, that sets up its failure here.) Hargreaves figures he can break the conditioning with a few hours in his wacky torture room. There’s a fairly lengthy sequence of the torture/brainwashing with lots of spinning and flashing lights and noises, and I actually took the opportunity to go out and get a snack without bothering to hit the pause button. So I almost missed the part where the henchman alerts H & C that Schell appears to be dying. That’s Jim’s gas kicking in. Hargreaves examines him, but he’s a psychiatrist, dammit, not an MD! Clavering remembers that Jim supposedly is a surgeon, and pulls him out of brainwashing. Jim uses the opportunity to insist on bringing in an anesthesiologist he knows, one who has his own crimes to cover up. It’s Willy, and when the henchmen drag him there (with Barney and Casey following — Casey’s only role in the story is as a driver), he brings his little black bag — which contains a knockout-gas sprayer and mini-masks for Jim and Willy. With the baddies all knocked out, the team rescues Schell. Director Dr. Quest almost stops them, but Barney comes in and clocks him.
Then Barney notifies Lutz and they meet at Barney’s (supposed) PI office. Schell can’t remember if he talked or not, so he and Lutz drive off to check on the stashed cash — and Willy’s planted a tracker on their car, so they follow them there and get the drop on them once they find the cash intact. But Clavering has figured out that PI Barney is the one who clobbered Dr. Quest, so he’s followed them too. Luckily Jim spots him in a mirror and the good guys duck and let the two groups of bad guys inflict some attrition on one another until the cops show up, arrest the survivors, and retrieve the dough.
Not sure what to make of this one, but I guess it tends toward the positive. The plot feels somewhat recycled, but it holds together pretty well, except for the silly way the team loses track of Jim. And the danger of Jim being on his own isn’t too great, since clearly the plan called for him to bring Willy in later anyway. So that isn’t as strong a threat to the mission/the team as it could’ve been. So let’s call it a mostly routine but reasonably well-executed caper. Once again the location scout is proving to be one of the most valuable players this season, and we finally, refreshingly, get a complete original score, courtesy of Mr. Lalo Schifrin. I wonder why they waited until episode 7 to pay for a new score. I wonder how many others there will be. (IMDb’s credits for this season are a bit lacking in thoroughness.)
“Movie”: Don’t worry, this has nothing to do with Tom Cruise. We open at Pantheon Studios, where mobster Brent (William Smith) and his “guards” force the studio’s founder and head of production to sign over control of the studio. We know who the guy is because his protests are painfully expository: “You can’t do this! I’m head of production for this studio! I created Pantheon Studios!” Brent’s dialogue explaining how the founder got in debt is equally stilted, and it’s almost a relief when the conversation ends with the founder being tossed off a catwalk. But there’s a nice transition from the falling studio head to a falling combatant in a karate practice session, with the thrower being Norman Shields (John Vernon, previously the villain in the 3-parter “The Falcon” in season 4). Shields gets a phone call from Brent notifying him of the studio head’s “suicide,” and he then calls mobster Benjamin Dane (David Brian), who tells Shields that his kid brother Theo (Rhodes Reason) will be taking over the studio under Shields’s guidance.
Jim gets the tape in a hospital’s research lab, and all the mice and bunnies listen in as he’s asked to track down the ledger detailing how the syndicate is funneling money into the entertainment industry. Instead of the “conventional law enforcement agencies” line, the Voice says that this information could let them smash the syndicate once and for all. Well, at least until the next episode.
The team’s plan is to produce a movie, Portrait of a Murder, which is based on a murder Shields is suspected of and has details known only to him and the police (another “the play’s the thing” gambit?). There’s another reference to Casey helping out offscreen, but Mimi will be going undercover as a freshly discovered actress in Barney’s film. Jim will be impersonating Theo, whom Shields has never met — and faking Theo’s death to lure Benjamin to Hollywood.
Mimi gets the womanizing Theo’s attention on the flight to LA, then arranges to make sure they’re the last to deplane — except for Jim, who sneaks up and knockout-needles Theo. Willy sneaks him out in the food-service truck. But unknown to the team, Benjamin has sent a man to tail Theo, and the tail, Moore (Jerry Douglas), is surprised when Theo doesn’t get off the plane. He pages Theo to the courtesy phone, surprising and worrying Jim. (He sees Jim answer the page and knows he isn’t Theo. Jim doesn’t see him, though.) Luckily, the team has arranged to intercept the phone lines from the studio, so when Moore calls Benjamin, he gets the team’s voice impersonator du jour, Dave Waley, played by longtime M:I voiceover artist Walker Edmiston (and I think they’re actually letting him mimic the voices for real instead of overdubbing him). Dave finds out where he’s staying, and that lets the team identify him by comparing the hotel register against the plane manifest. But that doesn’t stop him from getting into the studio and intercepting Jim at gunpoint when he comes out of the Pantheon office building (actualy the familiar Lubitsch office building at Paramount — it’s the role it was born to play!). Mimi sees this and drives at Moore; he fires at her car, and the noise attracts the studio’s mobster-guards, who shoot Moore dead, unaware that he was on their side. So the main threat to the team’s plan is dealt with rather early.
Barney’s film disturbs Brent and Shields, since it’s way too close to reality and could harm Shields’s hard-earned good reputation in Hollywood. But Jim/Theo refuses to shut it down, thinking only of the profits it will bring the studio. Shields calls Benjamin, who tells him to get rid of Barney. At the end of the call, the team cuts mimic Dave in to ask how Shields will do it, so they’re forewarned that he’ll use a bomb. But they don’t know where or when. Barney searches the set the next day and doesn’t find it. But just after the camera is reloaded, Brent hurries Jim out of the soundstage. That gets Jim suspicious, but it doesn’t crystallize until he has a Dr. House moment while playing with a toy camera tchotchke on his desk. He calls Barney and warns him the bomb is in the film reel that was just loaded. Barney clears the set in a hilarious way, by staging a directorial temper tantrum and demanding that everyone leave at once. He follows just before the bomb blows.
After Jim chews out Brent about the security breach, Willy shows up as Shields’s karate partner, saying the regular guy’s out of town. He and Shields spar, and John Vernon does most of his own fighting, surprisingly. Willy “accidentally” knocks Shields out and switches his gun with a remote-controlled, blank-firing duplicate. Then Jim calls up Shields, pretending to be drunk, and demands they meet. (It’s reputedly on Stage 31, and if that’s really where the scene was shot, then they’re in the soundstage where the starship Enterprise sets had stood just a few years before, back when it was called Desilu Stage 9. That’s quite possible, since it would be right next door to the M:I soundstages.) He confronts Shields, professing the intent to bring him down with evidence of his crimes, and provokes Shields to draw on him so he’ll hand over the evidence. Jim triggers the remote-controlled gun to fire and falls “dead” — and Barney’s up in the rafters filming the whole thing, with only the back of Jim’s head visible. They then swap out Jim with the unconscious (and equally white-haired) Theo, who’s given a drug to fake death, with cooperation from the police to sell the illusion to Benjamin, whom Mimi calls to notify of Theo’s murder. (Same as in “Stone Pillow,” the syringe is labeled “live virus culture” for some reason.)
When the surviving Dane arrives at the studio, having seen his brother’s “corpse,” Shields explains what happened, which is close to the truth except that he says Theo jumped him and the gun went off by accident in the struggle. But Mimi tells Dane a different story. Shields insists that Theo was going to ruin them with Barney’s film, and Dane demands to see it. The film run in the screening room is instead the film Barney shot from the rafters, with an intro from Barney saying Theo asked for it because he was afraid of Shields. But Dave has dubbed over Jim’s dialogue with new lines in Theo’s voice to make it look like an unprovoked murder. Surprisingly, Dane doesn’t intend to kill Shields, but just orders him to leave the country. First, though, he insists that Shields turn over the financial ledger so Dane can run the operation himself. Willy watches from the projection room as Shields hands over his watch, which contains the ledger on a microdot. Jim and Willy intercept Dane outside and take the watch at gunpoint.
All in all, a solid if unexceptional episode. There are some moderately effective threats to the team, though the Moore problem is dealt with too easily — and if anything, the bomb isn’t dealt with easily enough, since it shouldn’t have taken so long for Jim to piece his suspicions together (and I could’ve done without the “noticing a random thing triggers a sudden epiphany” cliche). Barney’s director freakout was great fun, and it was also fun to see the Paramount lot actually shown off as a movie studio for a change, letting us see parts of it that are usually hidden when they’re trying to pass it off as the outside world. The depiction of filmmaking even seemed more authentic than what you usually see; for some reason, when film and television portray their own process, they tend to misrepresent it badly, but this felt closer to reality, with touches like scenes being shot out of order and an assistant director passing the director’s instructions on to the cast. We’re back to stock music, but otherwise it’s a moderately satisfying episode.