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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “Snowball in Hell”/”The Confession”

February 28, 2010 2 comments

“Snowball in Hell”: The briefing tape is hidden in an out-of-order phone booth. The mission: the head of a notorious, now-closed prison (Ricardo freakin’ Montalban!!) has for some reason obtained the “formula” to a substance called “cesium-138” which is the key to making cheap nukes. Which shows the writers didn’t do their science homework. First off, there’s no isotope of cesium with an atomic weight of 138; they must’ve meant cerium-138. Second, cesium is a chemical element. The formula for cesium is “cesium.” Period.

But the prison is actually the fort location that used to be out at Vasquez Rocks, and was used in many ’60s shows and films; Trekkies know it as the Cestus III compound from “Arena.”  (At least the initial establishing shot was of the Vasquez Rocks fort.  I think the  actual shooting was done elsewhere, possibly at the Culver City “40 Acres” backlot, which was often used in M:I.)

The dossier scene debuts new photos of Barney and Willy — no longer the Collier Electronics brochure and the “World’s Strongest Man” article, but just color glossies of the actors.

The plan involves fancy gadgets including a superstrong electromagnet so that Dan and Willy can find out where to dig into an escape tunnel that a former inmate has clued them into, and an ahead-of-its-time robotic crawler with built-in refrigeration for the “cesium” — which apparently is a liquid that turns dangerously explosive if it gets over 70 degrees. And the prison is in hot climes somewhere in the Mediterranean-ish. There’s also a simpler trick that’s really neat — sticking an adhesive sheet on a windowpane to break it without noise.

The plot is convoluted. Rollie and Barney pretend to be doing a photo essay on the prison to get inside and open the tunnel so Dan and Willy can break in and sabotage the generator. Barney also pretends to be a former inmate in order to hold the attention of the sadistic Sefra (Montalban). With the generator broken, Sefra must take the McGuffin juice to the local hospital’s freezer, where Cinnamon has set up equipment and Rollin is hiding inside some boxes. They steal the boom juice and load it into the cute robot thingy. But then the plan calls for Sefra to discover the theft and Barney to tell him the boom juice is in the escape tunnel — so that he’ll meet up with the robot, now set to “hot,” and get blown up.

Uhh, what? All that convoluted stuff to steal the explosive from him just to give it back and set it off? Okay, they had to eliminate Sefra as a threat because he knew the “formula” for the stuff and could make more. And they had to blow it up underground so it wouldn’t take innocent lives. Still, it seems like a pretty overcomplicated way of bumping the guy off. Why not just shoot him? Why even bother with the fancy robot that must’ve been hugely expensive?

Still, it’s an entertaining episode thanks to Montalban, who’s… well, he’s Ricardo Montalban in full villain mode, what else is there to say? And this episode debuted just two days after Montalban appeared on Star Trek as Khan. It’s hard to say how the shooting schedules corresponded, but Montalban must’ve done the two shows fairly close together.

Also, thanks to the Mediterranean-ish setting, most of the stock music is recycled from Gerald Fried’s terrific score to “Odds on Evil,” most of which hasn’t been used since that episode. It’s good to hear again, and good that there weren’t as many familiar stock cues being repeated this time.

——

“The Confession”: The briefing is in a photo studio’s darkroom this time, conventional tape with destruction by Dan throwing it in water. The mission is rather surprising for its politics. A US senator has been assassinated and the murderer Solowiechek (David Sheiner), believed to be a Communist agent, caught. The senator’s hardline supporters, led by McMillan (an overly hammy Pat Hingle), are clamoring for war. But the Secretary believes the (implicit) Soviets aren’t behind it; it’s too reckless a move for them. It’s suspected that McMillan himself killed the senator to make him a martyr and promote global war. Intriguingly, the threat to global peace this week is a red-baiting American hawk. That’s not the sort of angle I would’ve expected on a spy show.

So the team has to get confessions from McMillan and/or Solowiechek. Rollin is sent in as a cellmate of Solowiechek; he breaks out with the assassin unwillingly along for the ride, and sets up a situation where the timid bomber has to confess his connection to McMillan. Meanwhile, Cinnamon and Dan (using their real names again) play a reporter and cover artist for a magazine, doing a portrait of McMillan to go with their exclusive scoop on his appointment to the senator’s post by “the governor” (Dan on the phone with a handkerchief over the mouthpiece). There’s a clever trick where a pre-made painting is covered with a white coat that’s dissolved by Dan’s fake paints, so he can pretend to be a painter.  (I think this is actually a reverse-filming effect.) The ruse is almost discovered when McMillan turns out to be a painter himself and tries touching up the portrait. It takes some fast (and unconvincing, except to McMillan) talk by Dan to explain why the yellow paint is showing up green. But the real reason for the act is to get Dan’s paint box there with a TV camera hidden inside, so that when Rollin and Solowiechek barge in, the whole confession will be broadcast on live TV.

But things take a surprising twist that I’m actually going to spoiler-code (highlight with mouse to read):
when Rollin and Solowiechek are having a hard time getting McMillan to confess, they’re confronted by the “dead” Senator himself! He’s the one who faked his own death to stir up war.
But the TV broadcast exposes the plan and the day is saved.

One notable bit in this episode: I believe it’s the first time (or at most the second) where the team members explicitly refer to “the Secretary” when talking to each other. Usually that’s just a throwaway bit of the opening briefing, but here it’s clear that it’s the Secretary’s belief about the nature of the assassination that’s driving the team’s efforts, and there’s a tense moment or two when it looks as if the Secretary may have sent them on a wild goose chase.

Hmm… Solowiechek. And the Desilu executive in charge of this show at the time (along with Star Trek) was Herbert Solow. I wonder if Solow is a shortened form of Solowiechek. Even if not, the name is clearly an homage (as was the name Sulu over on his other show).

It’s a cool story, but again the issue of fame raises its head, in two ways. I have a hard time believing that a well-connected American like McMillan wouldn’t recognize Cinnamon Carter, particularly when she uses her own name. This was a case where that could’ve worked, though, since she was playing a journalist. It might’ve been nice to have an exchange where McMillan recognized her as famous model Cinnamon Carter and she explained that she’d moved from modelling to reporting, but of course, no such luck. The other problem is Rollin appearing on live TV when the plot was exposed to the nation — 40 to 50 million live viewers, according to dialogue, which is far higher than the number of people that actually would’ve seen this episode the night it aired. Between this and his highly publicized appearance on worldwide TV in “The Trial,” how could he continue going unrecognized?

Just as the previous episode relied heavily on stock music that hadn’t been reused since its debut, this episode’s score is almost entirely a reuse of Walter Scharf’s jazzy score for “The Ransom,” which I’ve been eager to hear again.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “The Diamond”/”The Legend”

February 28, 2010 3 comments

“The Diamond”: Good grief, this show had boring episode titles most of the time. At least we get the occasional cool title like “A Spool There Was” and “The Reluctant Dragon.” But this is “The Diamond.” Whee.

This is one of those weeks where Dan has to give somebody a code phrase to get the briefing tape. The tape is the standard small reel-to-reel player, in a rare-book shop. The mission: A brutal (white) dictator of a small African country has stolen the world’s largest diamond from the Africans who found it, and intends to sell it and use the funds to conquer and oppress more of Africa. So the goal is to swipe his diamond (and return it to its rightful owners). The scheme is to convince him that the team has a method for creating exact duplicates of diamonds, so he’ll be greedy enough to entrust his huge uncut diamond to the machine, since duplicating cut stones would give away the secret. Much of the scheme is convincing him this is for real, and as is often the case, they do it by pretending to hide the information but dropping clues so he’ll figure it out himself. Oddly, this is another episode where the characters use their real names.

The dictator has brought a “small” cut sample of the diamond, only about two inches across, for the bidders at an auction in London. To pull off the trick, the team must photograph the diamond, get an expert to duplicate it in paste (somehow well enough to fool an expert), then switch the fake for the real one without them knowing, so that they can then pass the real one off as the duplicate. The switcheroo was the highlight of the episode. Barney and Willy got the hotel room next to the guy with the diamond, used knockout gas to put the occupants to sleep, then removed the wall outlets to gain access and used a really long pole with a cable-controlled claw at the end to swipe and replace the diamond. Which was going fine until the bad guy’s Siamese cat Josephine came into the room and started playing with the claw and the fake diamond before they could put it back! Wheee! Kitty wanna play! I can haz dyemund? Now, I could’ve watched that for the whole 50 minutes, but they used the gas to knock the kitty out and complete the switch.

But then, with the fake duplicating machine, the bad guy placed the diamond in the machine himself. It was out of his sight while it was in there. So why didn’t they just do the switch there instead of going to all the trouble with the claw the night before? The cat sequence was fun, but kind of unnecessary.

Also, the diamond forger working with the team said it’d take him a couple of days to duplicate the diamond from the photos, but then he seemed to have it within a few hours.

Anyway, once they convince the guy to take them to his country, set their machine up, and entrust his huge 7-pound rock to it, the team has Barney hidden inside to steal the diamond and pass it to Willy in a truck through a hole in the wall, and then they fake an overload of the machine and have Dan and Rollin slip out while a tape recording plays of them struggling to fix the machine from the rear. Inexplicably, even though the machine is clearly on the verge of exploding, the bad guys just stand there staring for over a minute and implicitly get killed in the blast. Which is kind of a “Huh?” ending. Just taking the diamond would’ve been enough to ruin the guy, and it doesn’t make sense that he would’ve been stupid enough to just stand there and wait to die. It’s an unnecessarily and illogically violent conclusion.

——

“The Legend”: The tape is hidden in the panel of an “out of service” elevator (which has the problem of many TV elevators in that you can see the floor is continuous with the hallway outside). It purports to self-destruct in 10 seconds (possibly the first time the phrase “This tape will self-destruct” has been spoken on this show), but then goes up no more than 3 seconds later.

The mission: Nazis again! For the second time this year, it’s up to the IMF to prevent the rise of the Fourth Reich. This time it’s not the sons of Hitler’s advisors, but actual veterans of the Reich, assembled by Rudd (Gunnar Hellstrom) on behalf of an unnamed “Commandant” who will spearhead the new Nazi Party. Dan uses age makeup to impersonate one of them, with Cinnamon as his daughter. (And the 1967 Steven Hill in old-age makeup doesn’t look much like Adam Schiff, though more than Captain Kirk in “The Deadly Years” looked like Denny Crane.) They’re shocked to discover that the Commandant is none other than Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary and right hand. In real life, Bormann was often suspected of having survived and gone into hiding in South America, and this story builds on that belief. (This was made before his remains were found, and well before they were genetically confirmed to be his.)

While the other team members stage distractions, Dan tries to break in and assassinate the invalid Bormann, hidden behind curtains in his sickbed — only to discover that it’s just a dummy and a set of tape recordings in Rudd’s own processed voice. Which would’ve worked better if “Bormann” hadn’t obviously been a dummy from the moment we first saw him. I assume the intent was to hide that revelation from the audience until Dan found out, in which case the makers of the episode failed miserably. That failure badly undermines the first half of the episode.

So Rudd is using the legend of Bormann to set himself up as the rightful heir to, uh, Fuhrerdom. In a way, he’s emulating the real Bormann, who gained great power by controlling access to Hitler, becoming, in some historians’ view, the de facto leader of Germany. Rudd is controlling access to his fake Bormann, but he has things all set up for “Bormann” to pass the reins on to him.

Plan B is to discredit Rudd, but security is too good to expose the dummy, I guess. So they bring in Rollin to impersonate Bormann, using Rudd’s own plot against him. The others are fooled, so when Rudd tries denouncing “Bormann” as an imposter, he undermines his credibility.

Meanwhile, Cinnamon has been trying to win Rudd’s trust to set him up. She tries seducing him in a cool, no-nonsense, Nazi-ish kind of way, but he proves to be totally immune to her charms. That and his Smithers-like devotion to the illusory Bormann kind of make me wonder if the writer intended to imply something about his sexual orientation, but maybe I’m reading too modern a notion into the story.

Anyway, she slips him a gun with blanks so he can “kill” Rollin-as-Bormann, and the team departs, leaving Rudd to the mercies of the other Nazis. Hellstrom gives an effective performance in his final scene as the others close on him and he, broken and weeping, pleads pathetically for them to “Let me be your Fuhrer.” It’s left unclear what then happens with those Nazis. Do they still pose a threat, or did the authorities nab them?

It’s an odd incongruity about this show — all their contemporary politics is either anonymous or pseudonymous, with real-life hostile powers almost never mentioned by name, but then we get episodes dealing with real Nazi figures like Bormann and overt references to Hitler, right down to actual newsreel footage of Hitler in this one. Of course it’s understandable, since the Nazis were no longer a contemporary threat and thus fair game; but it still seems kind of weird for M:I to be such an alternate geopolitical universe in most respects yet still include Hitler and Bormann and their ilk. (It’s also noteworthy in that this is presumably the only instance where Rollin Hand portrays someone who really existed.)

But that’s not a criticism, just an idle musing. I’m more critical of the fact that they did two Nazi episodes in one season. It would’ve been better to pace them more.

On the other hand, it’s nice to imagine that maybe Dan Briggs, like the actor portraying him, was Jewish and took great satisfaction in bringing down neo-Nazis.

Bertie Wooster, the Dark Knight?

Thanks to KRAD for pointing me to this, the funniest thing I’ve read in some time:

What if Bertie Wooster was also Batman?

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What I’ve been writing: followup

I fixed that awkward scene in my fantasy story — found a way not only to make it less awkward but to add a whole new level of creepiness (which in context is a good thing).  I’m not quite ready to submit it yet, since the scene before that bit is maybe a little too talky and I’m going to see if I can improve its flow.

I got to wondering something about the universe of “The Hub of the Matter,” my recent Analog story.  Namely, why do they risk sending live Hub scouts to test new vectors, a job that’s tedious and potentially lethal, rather than using robot probes?  I’ve thought of a couple of amusing answers, and I’ll try to work at least one of them into the next Hub story I write.

I reread “No Dominion” and concluded that it wouldn’t be too hard to rework the Default-verse history to incorporate it — but I just decided this morning that I don’t want to.  As I said, it has ramifications that would have rather sweeping impact on the Default-verse and limit my storytelling in some ways.  Also, on reflection, I think it maybe exaggerates the degree to which certain new technologies would spread through society, which works in the context of a single story exploring the possible ramifications of those technologies, but isn’t necessarily likely or inevitable in a larger future-historical context.  Part of my reason for wondering if I should incorporate “No Dominion” into the Default-verse was that I asked myself, “Why wouldn’t these technologies be adopted there too?”  And I realize now that, while they probably would be to some degree, I doubt they’d be as ubiquitous.  I may incorporate the ideas into the Default-verse to a degree that’s appropriate, but the story itself would still stand apart.  I’m a little concerned that if the same ideas show up in the Default-verse, readers might get confused about whether or not “No Dominion” is part of it.  But then, that’s what my website annotations are for.

What got me started thinking about this was reading the TV Tropes page about “The Moorcock Effect,” defined as “the tendency of long-lived genre authors to, at what is usually a later point in their career, combine two or more distinct series they’ve created into a single continuity.”  Like what Asimov did later in life by combining his Foundation, Empire, and Robot universes into one (and even hinting at connections to The End of Eternity and possibly Nemesis).  Or what Larry Niven did much earlier in his career to create the Known Space universe.  Or the way Poul Anderson combined his Flandry and van Rijn tales into a single future history.  What I always wanted was to have a big, unified continuity from the get-go, to plan it out in advance and keep it all cohesive, rather than start out with separate pieces and later mash them up, possibly creating continuity problems in doing so.

But what I’ve lately ended up doing instead is creating a bunch of different universes that can’t possibly fit together because their histories and physical laws are too contradictory.  It was easy enough for Niven, Asimov, Anderson, etc. to combine their various series that took place at different points in the future and reused similar physics and technologies.  I don’t have that option with most of my universes.  And that’s cool.  I enjoy the prospect of exploring several wholly different approaches to FTL travel, to the prospects of posthuman evolution, and so on.  It’s more creatively liberating than sticking with a single set of assumptions.

Still, the temptation to construct a grand unified theory tying it all together is there, even though it’s pretty much impossible.  That’s why I was tempted to fold “No Dominion” into the Default-verse — because it’s the one other “written world” I currently have that’s similar enough in its physics and broad history that it could potentially be folded in if certain storytelling adjustments were made.  But there’s no point restricting the storytelling of the whole universe for the sake of consistency with a single story.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “The Frame”/”The Trial”

February 26, 2010 2 comments

“The Frame”: Finally we get a briefing sequence that isn’t recycled from earlier in the season. The message is hidden in a career aptitude test delivered via filmstrip and taped instructions, and Dan accesses the message by giving the wrong answers to two very easy multiple-choice questions. (Which leaves me wondering what would happen if someone had come in to take the test before Dan and had just been really stupid. After all, the lady administering the test clearly wasn’t in on the secret.) But the dossier sequence was clearly stock, I think from the pilot episode, since Dan’s hairstyle is distinctly different.

This is the first episode to do something that became standard in later seasons: sending the team up against stateside organized crime rather than something espionage-related. The last time they did a mob-related episode, “The Ransom,” it was an unofficial mission. This time, it’s the prototype for the later years of the series: the bad guy is someone conventional law enforcement can’t touch (though it isn’t explained why), so the team has to bring him down.

Syndicate leader Jack Wellman (Simon Oakland) has been assassinating legislators in arranged accidents, in order to put mob-friendly replacements in power. He’s having a dinner meeting with three other top mobsters, intending to give them all their annual bonuses, and the team goes in as caterers to steal the money from his safe and make it look like he’s welched on his colleagues so that they’ll turn on him. Conveniently, we see that the other three mobsters are uneasy with Wellman’s ambitious agenda, preferring to leave government officials alone and, apparently, settle for the kind of organized crime that doesn’t really hurt anybody much. (???) The episode goes to great lengths to reassure us that once Wellman’s taken care of, the other three will be pussycats by comparison. It gets somewhat repetitive.

The elaborate methods Barney and Willy use to break into Wellman’s wine-cellar vault — drill holes in the concrete above it, insert explosive charges, muffle them with big blocks of foam pressed down with an air piston, use a radio trigger so the blast goes off just when a flambe main course is ignited to conceal the sound — are perhaps more interesting than what’s going on with the characters. It’s certainly an elaborate caper, and it depends in part on the mobsters believing “waiter” Rollin is deaf so they’re free to talk about crime and such. Which almost backfires when Rollin inadvertently reacts to something he hears and one of the gangsters tests his deafness by setting off a gun right by his ear. Rollin exercises great self-control to convince them he really didn’t hear it, but his ears are ringing badly and he’s in considerable pain. It’s effective at first when they let us hear what he’s hearing — severe tinnitus and muffled voices — but it’s resolved way too quickly, with the ringing shutting off instantaneously after a few moments. They should’ve extended it so that we weren’t sure Rollie’s hearing would be okay until the end of the episode.

One problem here: the gangsters were all talking openly about Wellman’s role in the assassinations while Rollin was in the room. Instead of staging this elaborate caper, why not just have a wire on Rollin? Record their conversation, take it to the DA, get him arrested. I guess it ties into the claim that Wellman was “untouchable” by the law. They had to get his gangster buddies to kill him. But why? Okay, maybe he had some judges as well as politicians in his pocket, but still, the whole “untouchable” thing is hard to rationalize.

A more technical problem occurs when the plan calls for Rollin to spill soup in the lap of “old country” gangster Scalisi, so that he’ll go upstairs to change and discover Cinnamon in the role of a ladyfriend Wellman is supposedly keeping hidden away (who “turns out” to be his accomplice in stealing the money, though in reality he knows nothing about it). The problem is, when Scalisi hears a noise and draws his gun before going in to find Cinnamon, we get a clear look at the front of his trousers, and there’s not a drop of soup on them.

And when Barney and Dan get into the vault and take Wellman’s money — allegedly 4 million dollars in what are supposedly $100,000 bundles — you can see that the prop bills are actually singles!!

So an interesting idea, a clever caper, but with flaws in the concept and the execution. One high point is Arthur Batanides as Tino, a restaurateur who’s often catered to Wellman before but is working for the IMF team this time. But even though he’s on the good guys’ side, he’s very much not a seasoned agent, just an ordinary guy who’s nervous and scared about pulling a fast one on a murderous mobster. Kind of a refreshing contrast to the seasoned professionalism of the others.

One thing I keep wondering: at the end, we see the team drive away with the stolen $4 million. So what do they do with it? I assume they don’t get to keep it. I’d like to think it went to the families of the murdered congressmen and such.

——

“The Trial”: This time the briefing is delivered in an architect’s office, on some kind of strange recording device I can’t even identify. At first glance, it looked like some kind of phonograph, but instead of a flat disc, the recording medium seems more like a rotating drum — not like an Edison cylinder, but something that’s read on the flat face like a record, but considerably thicker and perhaps unremovable. I didn’t see any grooves, though there did seem to be a stylus or reader of some sort. Some kind of early magnetic storage medium, perhaps? A dictation machine for recording short, erasable messages? I don’t know. It’s the second time this season I’ve seen a recording device of a totally unfamiliar type.

An unusual team this time, just Dan, Rollin, and Willy. The mission: warmongering Eastern European secret police chief Col. Varsh (Carroll O’Connor) wants to frame an American for a serious crime and use a public show trial to stir up anti-Western sentiment. To keep an innocent person from falling victim, Dan convinces Varsh that he’s an actual saboteur and gets himself arrested. However, his alibi is Deputy Premier Kudnov (David Opatoshu), a Western-sympathetic leader whose power they want to support while bringing down Varsh. They’ll discredit Varsh by getting Kudnov to testify and Varsh to try to kill him to prevent it (believing it’s a ploy to bring him down).

It’s an interesting idea, but there are credibility problems in the execution. For one thing, this episode elevates latex mask technology to the magical level that became routine later in the series, totally abandoning earlier episodes’ attempts to acknowledge its limits. The Dan Briggs mask from the pilot returns, with Rollin impersonating Dan to play the saboteur at the same moment the real Dan is with Kudnov setting up his alibi. At least they don’t have Rollin doing Dan’s voice perfectly; it’s Landau’s voice dubbed over Hill. And he refuses to take a drink, presumably to preserve the makeup. But the visual impersonation is flawless, right down to Dan’s height, which is maybe 3-4 inches less than Rollin’s. Later on, to sneak Kudnov into the courtroom past the assassins, they have Rollin (as the defense attorney) apparently come into the courtroom and take the witness stand — only to take off a Rollin mask and reveal he’s actually Kudnov! How he lost his paunch and mimicked Rollin’s younger, svelte build goes unaddressed.

Also, the premise of the episode is hard to swallow in the context of the broader series. I’ve wondered how celebrities like famed actor Rollin Hand and supermodel Cinnamon Carter can operate as spies without being recognized. That’s more plausible overseas, since media culture wasn’t as global in the ’60s. But here we have Dan and Rollin showing their faces for days in a show trial that’s being televised all over the world — and it’s a cinch the shocking moment where Rollin’s face is peeled off to reveal Kudnov’s is going to get a lot of coverage. How could these two ever go unrecognized again after this?

Kind of a nice touch is when Rollin convinces Kudnov of the threat to his life by using an old Sherlock Holmes ploy — a small statue revolving on the phonograph with a lamp behind it shining on the shades serves as a decoy which Varsh’s assassin shoots at. But it’s rather a coincidence that Varsh’s man actually happens to be there at that moment, and that he’s so incompetent as to take a shot at an unconfirmed target and leave without verifying the kill. I would’ve found it more plausible if they’d had Willy be the one taking the shot, rather than depending on the unwitting participation of the actual assassin.

There are also some violations of proper courtroom procedure (attorneys asking leading questions and giving testimony and argument during examinations, exhibits being presented to witnesses before being formally entered into evidence, objections going unruled upon), but I can live with those since this is a court in a Soviet-bloc country and the judge is in Varsh’s pocket anyway, so it makes sense that the rules would be looser. And it’s no worse than you’d see in most any other television courtroom drama.

The high point of the episode is Carroll O’Connor’s performance as Varsh. The first time I saw this episode, I didn’t know at first that it was O’Connor. I knew the actor looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. I never would’ve associated this resonant-voiced, charismatic, (fake-)bearded fellow with Archie Bunker. Once I found out, I was truly impressed with O’Connor’s versatility as a character actor. It’s an excellent performance.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “The Legacy”/”The Reluctant Dragon”

February 26, 2010 6 comments

“The Legacy”: This is the first episode to have Willy in it since “The Carriers” — that’s four episodes in a row without him.

And he’s just in time for Nazis! The IMF takes on the sons of four former Nazi muckamucks who hid away a fortune of Nazi treasure, and now the sons are getting together to claim the treasure and fund a Fourth Reich. Only one, von Schneer, has been identified before the meeting, and none of them have ever met, so the IMF does a little airport switcheroo and has Rollin take von Schneer’s place.

The tricky part is, the four men have their own secrets that Rollin isn’t privy to. The IMF team collectively deciphers the postcard in their captive’s belongings that tells him where and when to meet the others. They identify themselves by each drawing part of a shape in chalk — one draws a circle, the next two draw crossed lines. It’s kind of a no-brainer that what Rollin has to do is complete the swastika. Not the greatest security system there. There’s a nice shot of the three men standing in deep shadow under an arch while waiting for Rollin to draw his bit, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Will the real Nazi war criminal please stand up?” To Tell the Truth had already been on the air for a decade at this point, so I’m probably not the first person to react that way.

Rollin hits his first major snag when it turns out each of the four men has three digits of a Swiss bank account number, and Rollin doesn’t know the digits. He has to stall, refusing to divulge them to anyone but the bank manager, and he butts heads with the imperious Graff, self-appointed Fuhrer-in-training. Dan’s team must orchestrate a scheme to get the numbers before their bank appointment the next day. Oddly, instead of grilling the real von Schneer, they go after the bank manager — played by Lee Bergere, Star Trek‘s Abraham Lincoln. Wow, first Surak, now Lincoln! It’s becoming increasingly obvious, even without reading the credits, that ST and M:I had the same casting director, Joseph D’Agosta.

Anyway, Dan tells Cinnamon “You’ve just become royalty,” to which she responds with a charming “But of course” tilt of her head. As a princess planning to move to Zurich (prompting Bergere to give the charming response, “I congratulate Zurich”), she lures the bank manager to a party, where a medical colleague of Dan’s drugs the guy and hypnotizes him into giving up the number on what he believes to be his deathbed — and then to forget the whole thing afterward. Barney manages to slip Rollin the number on a matchbook just before the meeting.

(You know, I have to say — as loathsome a habit as smoking is, the cultural ubiquity of cigarettes did afford some conveniences back in the ’60s. Matchbooks were a handy way to pass information, and lighting up was a handy way to read that information without anyone noticing. And as Cinnamon has demonstrated more than once, getting out a cigarette and waiting for a man to light it was a handy way for a woman to signal interest and for the man to break the ice. All very ritualized and developed as a social mechanism. Still, I can’t imagine how awful it must’ve smelled around these people. And given that Willy was the only nonsmoker on this team, I’m amazed that all of them except for Greg Morris are still alive.)

Although the plan to get the numbers is convoluted, it’s nice to see the team hit a snag that doesn’t get resolved in the first 20 seconds of the next act, but requires them to adapt as they go. I don’t think we’ve ever seen them quite so far behind their enemies, forced to improvise and in danger of blundering due to their lack of information.

So anyway, the bank account contains nothing but a pittance of useless Nazi-era currency, as a way of hiding it from the postwar seizure of Nazi assets. The real value is in the microdot on the envelope. It’s the first part of a map, and each of the four men has another part on a piece of microfilm in his pocketwatch. (Oddly, the microdot’s image is on the same scale as the other pieces, even though the other pieces are an inch or so across and legible with the naked eye.) But wait! When the time comes for Rollin to produce his piece, he can’t find his watch! Oh, no! Has he been caught flatfooted again? Did he fail to get the watch when they captured von Schneer? Has he finally pushed Graff’s patience too far?

But when “hotel manager” Dan escorts Rollin and one of the Neo-Nazis (ironically Patrick Horgan, who played a resistance member on the Nazi planet in ST’s “Patterns of Force”) to search the lost and found, Rollin “discovers” he had the watch in his pocket all the time, and Dan punches out the Nazi. This was nicely played — since they’d set up Rollin’s earlier lack of info, we were led to believe it was happening again, but the script faked us out. Rollie was only pretending not to have the watch because he didn’t want the bad guys to get the whole map. But he has 4/5 of it memorized and draws it for the team, using his final piece to fill it in. It’s a map of a cemetery, with four grave markers forming an X to mark the spot.

But Graff and the remaining Neo-Nazi have enough of the puzzle to reason out the rest, so they’re not far behind the team. Dan and the others find that their target is a crypt labeled “Braun,” as in Eva. They don’t find anything in the crypt except two corpses (whose, I wonder?). As they head outside to search, they’re ambushed by Graff and his pal, and a gunfight ensues in which Dan is shot in the right chest. The Nazis are defeated, and the bullet hits on the crypt reveal that it’s made of solid gold (though it looks more like a thin sheet of gold leaf stuck onto the stone). The crypt is the treasure.

And it just kind of fizzles out there. We don’t know what happens next. Do they dismantle the crypt? Do they leave it there and fix the damage so the gold remains hidden? And what about Dan’s injury? He looks pretty badly hit. I wonder if that was done as a way to justify reducing Steven Hill’s presence in the series, but I wouldn’t expect that kind of continuity in this show.

Overall, a fairly clever and tense episode, though anything would be an anticlimax after “The Short Tail Spy.” And it has kind of a weak ending, degenerating into gunplay and having an overly abrupt conclusion. But I have to savor the irony of a scene where truth serum is administered to Abe Lincoln.

By the way, I noticed an interesting bit of film craft during the shootout at the end. Some of the fake bullet hits on the stone or concrete walls in the cemetery looked to me as if they weren’t standard explosive squibs, but some kind of soft projectiles hitting the wall and splashing/spattering it — maybe old-style wax bullets of the sort that were used in movies before squibs were developed, except it looked more like some kind of powder than wax. I’ve read about wax bullets in the past — they came up with all sorts of clever variations to simulate different effects on different surfaces, such as a red-tinged one for “blood” and even a kind that splattered in a way that resembled cracks in a pane of glass. I would’ve figured they were no longer in use by ’66. But given that they seemed to be using an actual cemetery as a location, they probably couldn’t use anything that would damage the scenery, so they couldn’t drill holes in the wall for squibs.

——

“The Reluctant Dragon”: Well, naturally, Dan’s fully recovered from his life-threatening injury last week. In fact, he’s literally back to his old self, since the tape and dossier sequences here (just like the past two episodes) are stock footage from earlier episodes. The mission is to get out an implicitly Polish scientist, Cherlotov (Joseph Campanella), who was left behind when his wife defected a year before. Dan, Rollin, and Barney consult with the wife, Karen, before Rollin and Barney slip behind the Iron Curtain to give Cherlotov a way out. Only for Rollin to discover that he’s a loyalist who had no intention of defecting! Oopsie! However, they can’t just leave him there; he’s developed an anti-ballistic missile system which could upset the global balance of power if it’s “in the wrong hands.” (Meaning that if the imbalance of power is in America’s favor, that’s okay, huh?)

So the new mission is to convince him to leave, which entails smuggling Karen into the country to win him over. Again we get a mid-episode scene in Dan’s apartment, where he confronts Karen about her failure to reveal that Cherlotov didn’t really want to defect. I get the impression they’re deliberately writing Dan’s apartment into the episodes more so they can save money by making greater use of their primary standing set. (Though not their only one. The same elevator-and-hallway set has been in practically every episode since at least “The Carriers,” and every episode from “Memory” to at least “Old Man Out” used a redress of the same prison set.)

Luckily, Rollin, in his cover as an East Berlin deputy chief of police (surprising use of real place names), has befriended the local security commissioner Jankowski, played by the charmingly villainous John Colicos. He convinces Jankowski to use an iron fist on Cherlotov, his ulterior motive being to force the scientist to see the ugly side of his country and rethink his loyalties. However, there’s a devious security measure involving passport authorization certificates printed on a magnetic paper that Barney can’t forge. So Rollin has to throw a party to get an excuse to swipe his “colleagues”‘ passports under cover of performing magic tricks, only to find they’ve already been swiped by a waitress he invited to the party. Luckily, he’s able to romance her into giving him the passports.

But Commander Kor’s aide Apollo — err, sorry, Jankowski’s aide played by Michael Forest — has discovered that Rollin’s cover identity is a fraud. Their stunt doubles have a fight (honestly, Landau’s stunt double looks nothing like him) and Rollie’s double beats Apollo’s double. Rollin thinks all is well and is persuaded to have a friendly drink with Jankowski before slipping out of the country. But Jankowski’s a few moves ahead in their chess game, and he ends up knocking out Barney and getting Rollin and the Cherlotovs at gunpoint. Rollin tries to reason with him — you hate it here, why stay? They’ve genuinely bonded. But Jankowski’s comfortable where he is and has no interest in defecting. Rollin manages to get the drop on him and they fight while the others get away. Then cliche takes over — the gun goes off between them, there’s a long pause, it looks like Rollin’s staggering, but he’s just moving away to reveal that Jankowski’s been shot. But the cliche is subverted because Jankowski isn’t dead, and Rollin gives him a handkerchief to press against the wound before he leaves, theoretically saving his life, at least by TV logic. They exchange one last look of mutual respect, and then the heroes make their getaway.

Not bad, and Colicos’ role and his relationship with Landau is enjoyable. But I have to wonder: if Cherlotov hadn’t told anyone about the missile plans he was developing, then how the hell did the IMF know about it? Sometimes the Voice on Tape seems to be clairvoyant, giving the team assignments based on information that should be unattainable.

And you know something? Given how dominant a role Rollin Hand has had in much of this season, and how many episodes have focused primarily on him with the others either absent or in secondary roles, I’m kind of surprised they brought in Peter Graves at all in the second season rather than just promoting Landau to the lead role that he already effectively had.

What I’ve been writing

What I’ve been writing… is checks.  Lots of checks for lots of bills.  And now my bank account is looking especially scrawny.  Please, somebody, buy my books!

But before that, yesterday, I managed to get some work done on three different projects.

  1. A tentative outline for a new short story, probably a novelette.  It features the same main character and setting as Spec Novel #1 and the prequel story I wrote a month or two ago.  It’s also a new stab at a concept I tried out long ago.  Once I wrote a story called “Footprints on the Sands of Time,” in which an astronaut discovered an ancient alien footprint on the Moon — but no other evidence of the aliens was ever found, since all but that footprint had been obliterated.  The story was about the characters’ frustration at the lack of answers.  At the end, I jumped back to the aliens and explained the origins of the footprint and such, then finished with the line, “Well, maybe that’s what happened.”  Cute idea, but too insubtantial.  I eventually cribbed and tweaked a few of its alien names for The Buried Age (Manrathoth -> Manraloth, Giriaen -> Giriaenn, Ngarol -> Ngalior), but that was it.  Anyway, now I’m trying a different tack.  It’s an artifact instead of a footprint, and I’m using it more as a vehicle for character exploration rather than having the whole story just be “Well, we don’t know the answers and that’s annoying.”
  2. A rewrite pass of my second fantasy story, the one I wrote a couple of weeks ago.  I find I’m pretty satisfied with it, and was rather moved by the ending.  There’s still one key event whose execution I find rather awkward, though, so I’m going to try to think of a better way of handling that.
  3. Rereading what I’ve done so far of Spec Novel #2, refreshing my memory before I pick up writing again, and doing some tweaks.  This is the book that’s an expansion of “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide.”  The main tweak I made yesterday: In the original story, I went with the standard gimmick of translator gizmos that render the aliens’ speech into English in a synthesized voice.  It recently occurred to me that with augmented reality starting to catch on, the characters would probably have optical implants that could project info into their field of view, so I’m reworking it so they get the translation as subtitles.  I think that’s a better approach since you don’t have the difficulty of hearing the translation over the original speech, and since you can pay attention to the alien speech and maybe pick up the vocabulary faster than if there were a synthesized voice drowning it out.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about my upcoming story “No Dominion.”  I remarked before that I didn’t think it could work as part of my default universe (the universe of both spec novels and the related stories), but now I’m starting to wonder if maybe I can tweak the Default-verse’s history to allow it.  It probably won’t be feasible, but it’s worth a rethink.  At some point I’ll have to reread “No Dominion” (which I’ll have to do anyway in the editing phase before publication) and think about whether it’s doable.  Or desirable.  There are ideas in the story that might be worth including in the Default-verse, but on the other hand it has ramifications I might not want to have to deal with.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “Elena”/”The Short Tail Spy”

February 24, 2010 2 comments

Two romances this time, one for Rollin, one for Cinnamon.

“Elena”: Another variation on the format. This time the team consists of two members, neither one of them a credited regular, since Martin Landau was still nominally a “special guest star.” The mission is unusual: a US agent working in a friendly Latin American country (her own) has been acting erratically and sent her contact some of her own government’s secrets. Since Dan knows her personally, he sends Rollin and a psychiatrist (Barry Atwater, later to play Surak in ST: “The Savage Curtain”) to find out whether she’s cracked up and become a security threat. They only have a few days to find out before an assassin on “our” side takes her out. The agent, the title character of the episode, is played by the exotically lovely Barbara Luna (or BarBara, as she seems to prefer spelling it these days), later to be the “Captain’s Woman” Marlena in ST: “Mirror, Mirror.” So naturally she and Rollin end up having kind of a romance, and he has to save her from both the “friendly” assassin and the bad guy who turns out to have hypnotized her into doing these crazy things (and he turns out to be another Trek guest, Abraham Sofaer, who was the floating Thasian head in “Charlie X” and the voice of the Melkot in “Spectre of the Gun”).

An interesting variation on the format; instead of a team pulling an elaborate scam, it’s basically a lone agent trying to connect to this woman and keep his own side from killing her. There’s a lot more emphasis than usual on Rollin’s “behind-the-scenes” actions, interacting with his own people and being himself rather than playing a character. And eventually he comes clean with Elena about who he is, so he’s barely role-playing at all in the last third of the episode.

My problem is that I’m not sure why this is an IMF mission at all. What’s so impossible about it? Okay, so a friendly agent is acting wacky and might be compromised or just insane. Why not just come to her openly and ask her to undergo treatment? Maybe there was some concern that she might have gone over to the other side? But that didn’t seem to be what worried Dan’s superiors. The concern seemed to be that she’d become unstable and therefore dangerous because of what she might expose about US secrets. So why not just bring her in and analyze her? The setup here just doesn’t seem to hold together. It’s hard to understand why they brought in Briggs and his unusual style of espionage missions.

Still, it’s nice to see Rollie being himself so much. He’s got an unassuming quality and a vulnerability that are a refreshing change of pace from the usual hard-core superspy (like Briggs). Also, if you’re casting a love interest in the late ’60s, you can do a hell of a lot worse than Barbara Luna. I daresay she looked even better here than she did in “Mirror, Mirror” (frankly her negligee there was far from Bill Theiss’s best work), though with a similar penchant for hairdos that are really big in back, making her look like she’s got an elongated head or something.

We get a bit of new music from Schifrin, mainly an edgy motif accompanying Elena’s breakdowns.  Still, it’s mostly stock music, and since this is in a Latin American country, we get a lot of recycling of Jacques Urbont’s “Wheels” score.

The opening scene uses a good ol’ reel-to-reel, though bigger than the one that later becomes standard. However, the photo portion of the program, including a sensitive piece of microfilm, is hidden in plain sight on a bulletin board in the motor-home trailer where Briggs gets the assignment. And he disposes of the tape by tossing it in a partly-filled sink. I hope that means the tape was treated to dissolve on contact with water; it would be pretty risky to have the sink just sitting there filled with acid. Interestingly, the Voice on Tape says “the Secretary will disclaim any knowledge of your actions” rather than “disavow.” Maybe Bob Johnson was getting tired of saying the same thing every week? But he was sure going to say it a lot more times over the years to come.

——

“The Short Tail Spy”: Wow. Now this is how you do a special episode. This is the most character-driven episode of the series to date, perhaps ever, and also very well-written and well-made.

The opening gives little hint of what’s to come. It’s actually a reuse of tape-scene footage from “Old Man Out,” just with a different audio track and pictures cut in (due to the limitations on Steven Hill’s availability; the dossier scenes here and in “Elena” are mostly stock footage too). And the mission briefing sounds overcomplicated — two groups within the implicitly Soviet government are vying for the job of assassinating a defector, and the IMF team needs to stop the young upstart assassin in a way that discredits his group so that the old group, which the US finds easier to deal with, remains in power.

But the way it plays out is compelling. The young assassin, Andrei (Eric Braeden, billed as Hans Gudegast), is a ladykiller in both the figurative and literal senses, and Dan assigns Cinnamon to be the bait for a trap Dan and Barney are setting. Her job is to romance and seduce him, pretty much a typical day at the office for Cinnamon Carter — except that Dan has deliberately leaked her identity to her target! He doesn’t underestimate Andrei; the man would find out who she was anyway, so Dan wants to be in control of what he knows and when. It gives Cinnamon pause, and Dan actually gives her a chance to back down, but she “chooses to accept it,” as the saying goes.

What follows is an unusual cat-and-mouse game where Cinnamon and Andrei both know that the other one knows who they really are, but they “agree not to talk about it” and pretend they don’t know. The romance is developed through a clever montage that’s structured like a single conversation spread across multiple short scenes of Cinnamon and Andrei doing recreational or romantic things together — an efficient and creative way of establishing a romance credibly within the space of minutes, and a nice way around the “instant love” trope that was all too common in ’60s and ’70s television. And as the game goes on, we’re left more and more unsure whether it’s still a game or if their romance has become sincere. Dan begins to be afraid that Cinnamon is losing herself in the part, genuinely falling for him. There’s a tense confrontation between the two IMF agents, something profoundly rare in this series. (It’s also the first time we see a scene in Dan’s apartment in the middle of an actual mission; several scenes in “The Ransom” were set there, but that wasn’t a formal assignment.) Eventually it seems that Andrei’s hints about defection are sincere, and it seems that Cinnamon is convinced. Then it seems she’s made the fatal mistake of leading him right to his target in order to tell Dan of his wish to defect. When he comes in and holds the scientist at gunpoint, Cinnamon bravely walks toward him. Is it because she believes she’s won his heart and he won’t actually kill her? No — it’s because she sneakily unloaded his gun beforehand. She wasn’t fooled for a second, and was just putting on her act with Dan so as to be loud enough to lead him to the right room. Dan apologizes for ever doubting her.

Meanwhile, the subplot with the rival, older spy Shtemenko clashing with Andrei is entertaining too, though it kind of fizzles out toward the end. Dan’s job is to keep him out of the way, and he does this by following Shtemenko until the latter confronts him, whereupon Dan offers to do the assassination himself in exchange for money. Once the deal falls through for lack of funds, Dan and Barney contrive to let Shtemenko track down their whereabouts and make his own attempt on the professor, whereupon he falls into the trap set up for Andrei — a photographic trap that both disorients the would-be assassin and provides lots of humiliating blackmail pictures of his failure. This is a clever and amusing touch. Dan offers to let Shtemenko leave and go into retirement and destroy the negatives, but he deliberately plays it transparently enough to make Shtemenko think that Andrei set him up, leading him to attempt to kill Andrei.

I’m not sure, but I think maybe the original plan was to let Shtemenko kill Andrei, so when Cinnamon prevents it, we suspect she’s lost her objectivity. If that wasn’t the plan, I’m not sure what it was supposed to be. And if it was, I’m not sure why Cinnamon went off-script and pursued a different plan. Maybe she really did care for him, or maybe she’s just not as blunt and ruthless as Briggs. Shtemenko is sent packing, disarmed and humiliated, but is then written off via a fatal off-camera heart attack. It’s a regrettably awkward ending for a fairly entertaining guest character, and a minor weakness in an otherwise sterling episode.

The scientist being protected is entertainingly written too. Far from acting frightened of the risk to his life, he’s amusingly phlegmatic and casual about the whole thing. At one point he says he’s “vaguely curious” to know the whereabouts of his two aspiring assassins. If anything, he seems to be almost enjoying the whole affair, even though at the end he tells Dan that he wasn’t quite sure the latter knew what he was doing.

On top of the well-written script (by Julian Barry) and effective direction (by Leonard J. Horn) and editorial technique, we finally get another full original musical score, by Schifrin again. It’s his first real departure in this show from the tense, percussive style he usually brings, going for a more lush, romantic quality. Most of the music in the first half of the episode is diegetic, representing the live music being performed at the reception where much of the early part of the story takes place. The romantic motif for Cinnamon and Andrei is an elaboration on the melody accompanying their initial dance. I don’t enjoy this style of music as much as what’s come before in the series, but the original score is a welcome ingredient in this well-made episode, in keeping with its overall excellent production values.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “Zubrovnik’s Ghost”/”Fakeout”

February 24, 2010 1 comment

“Zubrovnik’s Ghost”: The mission briefing this week is in a doctor’s office, with the recording on some kind of dictaphone disk — something like a small phonograph record, but on a thin, flexible sheet of plastic-ish material. It’s a format I’ve never seen the likes of, I guess a short-lived technology. The photos were transparencies for the doctor’s backlit thingy for viewing x-rays.

At first I thought this would be an interesting change of pace. The mission: An important American scientist lost her husband a year ago, and an enemy agent has been exploiting her belief in the supernatural to convince her that her husband’s ghost wants her to defect. Rollin and Barney are assigned to fake their own ghost and convince her not to.

The third team member is Ariana Domi, played by Martine Bartlett (who’s kind of like a slightly shriller Louise Fletcher). She purports to be a real medium, and though Dan knows she’s actually a charlatan, he tries to convince Rollin and Barney otherwise.

So I was interested in where this was going to go. For one thing, it had the potential to be an inversion of the formula: instead of pulling a scam, they’d be confronting an enemy agent pulling his own scam and trying to figure it out. There was some of that going on, up to a point. For another thing, I was intrigued by the question of why Dan would want one of his operatives deceiving the other two.

Unfortunately, the episode turned out to be a jumble of mystical hogwash. Even though both mediums were fakes, there were mysterious things happening all through the episode with bees and wolf-dogs and thunderstorms and stuff. One of the bad guys was driven out a window to his death by a swarm of bees, and at the end, the spirit of the beekeeper who was murdered in order to fake Zubrovnik’s death (long story) apparently used smoke to herd the main bad guy into the room where he was attacked and killed by a swarm of bees (simulated ridiculously with strings of fake bees hanging down from the ceiling intercut with stock footage). Rollin and Barney never got to pull their fake seance because the power went out. Ariana finally admitted to them that her channeling of Zubrovnik had been faked, although it wasn’t explained how she pulled it off, and the rest of the stuff with the bees and smoke was pretty much presented as genuine supernatural activity, though the fake medium Ariana didn’t seem at all affected by that revelation. And we never got any explanation for why Dan didn’t want them to know she was a fake. Ultimately, the whole thing was rather incoherent. I would’ve rather seen the story I was expecting to see, the role-reversal piece where the bad guys are pulling the scam and the good guys are penetrating and countering it.

Another bizarre touch was that Rollin, Barney, and Ariana used their real names, even though they were playing roles! I could sort of understand them doing that with the American scientist, who was technically one of the good guys, but there were enemy agents there as well, so why wouldn’t the team be undercover as usual? But it’s interesting as, I believe, the first time we hear Martin Landau actually speak the name “Rollin Hand.”

There are a couple of good points here. One, there’s actually an explanation this time for why Dan isn’t along on the mission: the scientist has met him before and would recognize him. Clearly they’re already beginning to diminish Steven Hill’s role to accommodate his availability issues (i.e. he wouldn’t work on the Sabbath because of his Orthodox Judaism). Two, there’s a nice bit where the hench-agent locks Barney and Rollin in a storeroom and Barney whips up an electromagnet out of spare parts to pull the bolt from the inside. MacGyver was a latecomer.

No new music in this one, I think. So far we’ve had complete or partial original scores in the first 10 episodes and a stock score in the 11th. Meanwhile, Star Trek had original music in the first 8 episodes (discounting the two pilots), though it used more stock music in them. ST did have original music in three more episodes in the first season, the 11th, 16th, and 27th (again not counting the pilots), so that’s 11 in all. I wonder if M:I’s music budget was similar. So far it’s had four composers, while ST’s first 11 episodes used three, with the season as a whole using five.

Gee, it’d be too bad if the music were all stock for the rest of the season. Up to now, the music’s been one of the greatest strengths of the series.

By the way, I described the dictation-machine thingy from “Zubrovnik’s Ghost” to my father, who was in broadcasting for decades and thus pretty knowledgeable about recording technologies of the past, and he couldn’t remember ever encountering anything like it. Maybe it was a special design for doctors and others who needed to do dictation, or maybe it was a flash-in-the-pan technology that either didn’t work out or was quickly supplanted by something better — most likely cassette tape recorders, which came into use for dictation in the late ’60s, according to Wikipedia. (It took a few more years before their quality became good enough for music recording.)

Hmm — come to think of it, it’s odd that for the entire run of M:I, the tape-recorded messages were delivered on reel-to-reel devices, never cassettes as far as I’ve seen (unless you count the 8-track tape in episode 3 or 4, I think it was). There are plenty of episodes I haven’t seen yet, but they seemed to use the tape pretty consistently from the third season onward, without the variety of mission-delivery options seen in season 1. I wonder why they didn’t use cassettes. Was it just because the reel-to-reel player became such a trademark of the show?

On the 1988 revival, the briefings came on miniature CDs of a sort that were an invention of the show; minidiscs were not yet available in real life. So they pretty much skipped right over cassettes.

——–

“Fakeout”: A standard tape this time, delivered to Dan by a pigeon-keeper. He disposes of it in a fire afterward. The mission: Lloyd Bridges is an international drug kingpin, living in a country with no extradition to the US. Barney finds and swipes his heroin shipment, fighting and killing henchman Sid Haig (not yet bearded, almost unrecognizable) along the way. (The stunt doubles look nothing like them.) Cinnamon seduces him, Dan shows up as the jealous husband, turns out to be blackmail that Bridges catches onto. Barney hides the heroin in his room and calls the cops. Dan and Cinnamon strike, tie up the cops, steal the heroin. Cinnamon pretends to be delayed long enough to get caught by Bridges while Dan abandons her. She leads Bridges to Dan and the drugs, a chase ensues, and they switch road signs to trick Bridges into crossing the border into a friendly country, where he’s arrested promptly and the extradition papers are handed over.

Not much to say. Another small team, for once without Rollin. Interesting how they get Rollie to play people who are lovey-dovey with Cinnamon’s character, but when the guy needs to be confrontational with her, they get someone else.

Bridges’ character is cold and unlikeable, which makes it easy to root for his capture but not easy to enjoy the scenes of seduction between him and Cinnamon. She was also playing it a lot less vampy and sexy, more sharp-edged like Bridges, which wasn’t as fun to watch.

Still no new music, as far as I could tell. Lots of stock Walter Scharf music, though, which was nice.

I keep wondering about the other agent photos in the dossier scene, the people who never get picked. These are members of the production staff and their families, but in-universe I wonder who they are. Does Dan (or Jim Phelps) ever pick them for missions we don’t see on TV? Are they maybe used by other IMF teams? Does the IMF provide the list of candidates with Dan or Jim choosing their preferences, or is it Dan/Jim who assembles the dossier? (The fact that Phelps takes over Briggs’ entire team rather than using his own people argues for the former, I think.)

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Thanks to USS Aquila

February 22, 2010 2 comments

This weekend, I attended a meeting of a local Star Trek fan club called USS Aquila, who had chosen to discuss The Buried Age for their book club meeting this month and invited me to participate and talk about my book.  It was an interesting session with wide-ranging discussion, and although we couldn’t talk entirely freely about the book since a couple of members hadn’t been able to finish it, it was still a nice opportunity to connect with the fans.  So this is to thank them for having me.

The meeting was held at a library just across the river from me in Covington, KY, and it’s a pretty nice library that I’d like to visit again sometime.  To get there, I had to do something I don’t think I’ve ever done before, certainly not as a driver: cross the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, one of Cincinnati’s major landmarks and a prototype for the Brooklyn Bridge (also designed by Roebling).  I’ve always been afraid of suspension bridges in the past, but a while ago I saw a mini-documentary about the bridge on my local PBS station, which stated that the bridge was designed with kind of a belt-and-suspenders-and-belt approach, using three different kinds of structural support because the suspension technique was still fairly novel and Roebling didn’t want to take chances (or something).  So I figured, okay, it’s probably one of the sturdiest bridges out there.  Still, there were a couple of things I didn’t reckon on.  One, it’s very narrow, only one lane either way.  That surprised me, since it always looks so big in the pictures.  Two, the surface is made of metal gratings rather than concrete, I guess for lightness.  It was an uncomfortable surface to drive over because it felt like it was making the wheels want to jerk sideways — not an enjoyable sensation on such a narrow bridge.  I’m thinking next time I go to Covington, I’ll use another route.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “The Ransom”/”A Spool There Was”/”The Carriers”

February 18, 2010 1 comment

“The Ransom”: Oh boy, the first Very Special Episode! Instead of getting a mission from the Secretary, Dan is approached by a mobster who’s abducted the daughter of a friend of Dan’s to force Dan to break out a mob witness from police custody before he can testify. Interesting to see a variation on the formula so soon. It’s surprising, and somewhat implausible, that he’s able to pull together this whole large team and rig everything needed in a matter of hours.

The team includes all the usual suspects, plus two minor players: the doctor who previously helped out in “Operation Rogosh,” and a nameless, wordless guy played by none other than perennial Star Trek bit player and Shatner stand-in Eddie Paskey, aka Lt. Leslie. I laughed out loud when I discovered that his role in the caper was to be a stand-in — to take the place of the witness when the switch was made practically before the police lieutentant’s eyes. Given that the team members are recruited from all walks of life based on their professional skills, I can’t help entertaining the fantasy that Dan Briggs recruited the actual Eddie Paskey to do what he did best — stand in for another guy. Though apparently he was called “Steve” in the script, according to IMDb. This is actually Paskey’s second M:I appearance, after a bit part in the pilot, but this time he gets to be one of the privileged folk who get their photos in the big black dossier folder.

This episode boasts a bumper crop of future Trek guests — in addition to Paskey, we have William Smithers, Michael Barrier, Don Marshall, and an uncredited Jack Donner and Vic Tayback. That’s gotta be a record.

The story unfolds a bit unusually, not only due to the nature of the caper, but because it doesn’t go entirely smoothly; in contrast to the usual story beat where the team encounters a slight obstacle and quickly gets past it, much of the first two acts of the episode is devoted to several failed attempts to get the first phase of their plan to work, as they rig a system to deliver a knockout drug into the plumbing of the witness’s hotel room just before he takes a drink, but he instead swallows his sleeping pills dry and they have to try two additional gambits (including sabotaging the whole hotel’s air conditioning) to get him awake and thirsty. It was also unusual in that the antagonist, a mobster named Egan, knew exactly who Dan was. There was a lot more of Dan out of character here than usual. But he’s still as much of a hardcase as usual, maybe more so, since This Time It’s Personal.

What they don’t explain is how Egan knows of Dan Briggs and what he’s capable of doing. I would speculate that Dan ran some earlier mission where Egan was the target, and Egan found out about him during or after the mission. Dan claimed he only recognized Egan from the papers, but that could’ve been a cover story before he learned how much Egan knew. But the IMF didn’t run domestic missions at this point in the series.

Which makes me wonder if this episode was written as a money-saver, allowing the use of LA locations and standard US-style sets rather than fake overseas locations. At this point in the series, they would’ve needed unusual circumstances to justify doing an episode set stateside.

The biggest implausibility is the x-ray table they use to make the switch from the witness to Eddie Paskey. It’s rigged to flip over so one man can be quickly substituted for another. I have a hard time believing that such a gimmick could be rigged in the short time frame available here, or that it could be done in a hospital whose personnel weren’t in on the scam. Also, given what we were shown of where the x-ray plate slid in beneath the table, there’s no way it should’ve been able to flip as shown.

One more implausibility makes its debut here: the perfect impersonation. Rollin impersonates Egan in the climax, and it’s not Landau in a mask, it’s pure William Smithers, right down to the voice. Although to make it slightly more convincing, they gave Egan the conceit of wearing sunglasses all the time, which makes him look a bit like Agent Smith from The Matrix. At least they cast an actor who was a similar physical type to Landau.

Again, though, the score is a high point. Walter Scharf returns with a great jazzy score. God, I miss the days when TV shows had music this lavish.

——–

“A Spool There Was”: The mission briefing this time is in a hotel room where Dan finds a phonograph record and a row of developing trays with undeveloped photos in them, which then develop once he lifts a cover off the trays. I’m not sure if they were meant to burn out once he turned the regular light back on. But instead of “self-destructing,” the recording said “This material will decompose sixty seconds after the seal is broken.”  (I checked — it took 1 minute, 53 seconds. If it had gone up in 60, there wouldn’t have been time to complete the message!)

This is an unusual episode in that the team consists solely of Rollin and Cinnamon. They need to find a recording that another agent hid before being killed, and he’s hidden it so brilliantly that nobody can find it.  So they send in Rollin to deliberately put him in the same situation where he’s running for his life from the bad guys, so that he’ll be forced to think like that agent would’ve thought and be able to figure out where the recording was hidden.

So they’re deliberately putting him in extreme danger, the kind of danger that has already gotten another agent killed.  This gives some insight into why the mission tapes always say “Your mission, should you choose to accept it.”  Maybe the idea is that the missions are voluntary because they’re really, really dangerous and hard to pull off, the sort of thing you couldn’t in good conscience order anyone to do because the chances of success are so low.

It’s a story that could only have been made in the ’60s or earlier, back when they still used wire recorders. The late, lamented agent turns out to have hidden the wire in plain sight, stringing it onto a wire fence around some bushes. The first half of the mission is about Rollin and Cinnamon setting up their personae as lovers, with a pre-recorded tryst distracting the agents bugging their room while Rollin went out to get himself in trouble and find the wire. Naturally, this being ’60s TV, the recording consists of 42 minutes of Rollin and Cinnamon talking in character, and then once Rollie’s late, Cinnamon has to ad-lib a one-sided conversation until he returns. In a more realistic scenario, she could’ve bounced around on the bed and made moaning noises to fool the listening agents, but not on CBS in 1966.

Anyway, the rest of the episode is a comedy of errors as they try to get the wire. Rollin is about to snatch it away in plain sight, pretending to fix the fencing, when he’s called away to help the unsuspecting police. Then a boy finds the wire and takes it to fish with! Rollin tries to trade with him for a better fishing line, but he has to throw some enemy agents off, so he pretends to make the trade while telling the boy he’ll do it later, then leads the agents away. Later, Cinnamon follows the boy home and also pretends to get the wire from him, using a decoy wire and a fake drop to throw the locals off the trail. Then Rollie has to break into the boy’s home and snatch the wire from under the nose of the boy’s father, a local police officer. And then they have to make their getaway, using a whole lot of balloons as a decoy.

What upsets me is that Rollin just snatches the wire at the end. I was hoping he’d keep his promise and leave a roll of fishing line in its place. I mean, he’s supposed to be the good guy! What kind of cad breaks his promise to a little boy?

Otherwise, it’s a fun episode and an unusual one in its team composition. It’s the second episode where Briggs has been uninvolved on the mission, although his voice is heard on the decoy wire recording. Also, though Barney is absent too, he’s referenced as having rigged the fake camera holding the decoy wire.

It’s also the first episode of the series to date to make significant use of stock music beyond the usual dossier-sequence cue. It has a fair amount of original music by Schifrin, but also drops in some of Scharf’s score from “Old Man Out” and ends with Fried’s closing cue from “Odds on Evil,” and may feature some stock Schifrin cues as well, though it’s hard to tell given how much he reused the same motifs.

——–

“The Carriers”: A full-team mission, plus Mr. Sulu! George Takei guest stars as an epidemiologist to help scuttle an enemy mission to launch a biowarfare attack on the US using infiltrator agents. The story takes place in an enemy training facility designed to simulate an American town and train its agents — an idea also used in an Alias episode decades later. We’re introduced to “Willow Grove” in an idyllic montage with Lalo Schifrin going all-out with the folksy Americana music — then we pull back to see the fence and the guard post and the warning signs in Gellerese (the faux Eastern European language designed to be easily decipherable by English-speaking viewers), with the music taking a blaring turn to the dissonant. Quite funny, though broader than anything we’d see in a drama today.

Dan’s role is reduced again, but at least he’s on the mission, just in reserve for most of it. The team must intercept four enemy trainees and take their place (and quite a coincidence that three of them happen to be the right type to be doubled by Rollin, Cinnamon, and Barney, with Takei as the fourth), then find the bacteria cultures and neutralize them while making it look like they never got that far. They let themselves get caught so that Dan and Willy, disguised as enemy police, can “take them in for interrogation” and thereby free them.

But there’s a problem! Rollin accidentally gets exposed to the plague culture! The clock is ticking. Can they get away in time for Mr. Sulu to administer the antidote? Well, duh, and they really stretch the meaning of the word “immediately” to pull it off. Still, it’s a nice bit of suspense.

This is really Rollin’s episode, with Dan sidelined. He’s the one who’s figuring things out, doing all the clever stuff, getting his life endangered, earning the special enmity of the lead bad guy, played ironically enough by Arthur Hill of The Andromeda Strain. He’s even clever enough to sell his impersonation of a foreigner impersonating an American by “slipping” and bowing to Hill in an un-American way.

This episode marks the debut of the self-destructing reel-to-reel tape that became standard (this time in a photo booth), but it’s not entirely there yet, since the line is “This tape will destroy itself in five seconds” rather than “self-destruct.” I wonder, was the term “self-destruct” in common use yet in 1966? Is it possible that M:I invented or popularized it?

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “Odds on Evil”/”Wheels”

February 18, 2010 1 comment

“Odds on Evil” is basically Mission: Casino Royale. The IMF goes after a Mediterranean prince (Nehemiah Persoff) with designs on invading an oil-rich neighboring country, their mission being to prevent his purchase of arms to scuttle the invasion plans. Lucky for them, the prince is a compulsive gambler, and their plan to swindle him out of his money and thereby halt the arms deal revolves around the baccarat table and Rollin’s facility for cheating at cards. It’s rather convenient that the prince turns out to be so fixated on winning that he’s willing to put his invasion plans at risk simply to avoid losing a single game of cards. How did they know he’d be that screwed up?

Cinnamon is especially sultry as a woman who doesn’t let her marriage of convenience get in the way of her seduction of the prince, which is set up so that her “husband” (an agent played by guest actor Nico Minardos) can “kill” her so that the prince will want to get her out of the country inconspicuously — enabling her to smuggle out the money that’s been hidden in the lining of her fur coat. Cinnamon also gets to be a woman of action at the end, holding her own in a fight against one of the prince’s thugs. It’s nice to see her capable of that end of things as well as the femme-fatale stuff.

There’s also a part of the plan involving a gizmo for cheating at roulette, a computer that can somehow scan the motion of the wheel and the ball (magnetically, I guess) and predict exactly where the ball will land despite all the bouncing around it does. This is implausible, but it’s an excuse for strongman Willy to be in the episode, since the gizmo weighs 90 pounds and has to be hidden in a vest. Anyway, the whole thing is to let the jealous husband win a lot of money at roulette so he can then blow it at baccarat. I think the idea was to drive up the stakes of the game so that when the husband left and it was down to the prince and Rollin, it would be easy to justify taking the stakes up all the way to a million five. And also partly to set up the fight between Cinnamon and the husband, I guess. Anyway, these plans are getting complicated.

Still, despite its convoluted aspects, this is an enjoyable episode, again largely due to the music — which this time is by Gerald Fried, a composer best known for his Star Trek scores (especially “Amok Time” and its legendary Vulcan fight music) as well as Gilligan’s Island and Roots. Fried actually did this score before moving over to Trek. It’s a rich, lovely score with all of Fried’s trademarks — the strong, catchy melodic lines with their distinctive Friedian chord progressions, the use of ethnic influences (Greek/Mediterranean here), the complex rhythms and counterpoints, and his characteristic orchestrations including lots of woodwinds and that bass electric guitar that played Spock’s theme so memorably in “Amok Time.” He also does fun things with Schifrin’s leitmotifs, particularly a jazzy, brassy variant of the main theme that accompanies the final car escape. (Fried did a total of 6 M:I episodes, ironically including one called “Trek.”)

This is the first episode on which Dan isn’t part of the team, disappearing after the apartment scene. It’s odd to see him absent so early in the series. What I’ve read always implies that Steven Hill didn’t start getting phased out until later in the season. I briefly wondered if this was produced later in the season and aired early, but assuming this show did things similarly to its sister show Star Trek, the fact that it has a full original score with hardly any stock music strongly indicates it’s from the first half of the season.

I looked up Nico Minardos to see if he was well-known at the time. Turns out he probably was, but for the wrong reasons. He was a fairly busy TV actor at the time, probably a familiar face, but less than a month before this episode aired, he was involved in a boating accident that killed a fellow actor. He failed to save the other boater and almost drowned himself. I’m surprised they didn’t delay the broadcast of this episode to give people time to get past that. Maybe such things weren’t as widely and instantly publicized then. (Minardos has had a colorful life. In the ’80s, he was one of the defendants in the Iran-Contra scandal, of all things.)

——–

“Wheels”: We’re still getting more variations on the opening tape. This time, Dan got his briefing in a TV truck and disposed of the tape in a nearby incinerator.

This one has an interesting premise — the team has to “unfix” a rigged election by breaking into the compromised voting machines and tamper with them to cancel out the previous tampering, with matters being complicated when Barney suffers a gunshot wound. But there are problems with the execution that make it the weakest episode to date.

Once again we see Martin Landau cast in a dual role to justify Rollin’s impersonation of someone, but it makes less sense here than before. We see Cinnamon going through the files of this fairly small district to find someone who happens to be a match for Rollin, and she actually finds two, a highly implausible coincidence. Only one is a registered voter, so he’s the one Rollin has to impersonate. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, since the guy’s a devoted member of the opposition party and would’ve gladly helped out. The only justification is a passing reference in the tape scene — the Secretary instructs Briggs that no nationals of the country may be recruited to help, heaven knows why. As a result, Cinnamon has to trick the real guy into passing up his chance to vote, so she spends the day with a Martin Landau lookalike and has kind of a borderline romance thing with him. They’re kind of going overboard giving the married couple Landau and Bain a chance to do romantic scenes together. Without that one line in the tape scene, the story could’ve worked just fine with Cinnamon getting involved with a guest of the week. But apparently they feel obligated to work Rollin into every episode even though he’s nominally a guest star at this point.

And the plan doesn’t make a lot of sense. First, Dan and Willy impersonate guards to get “prisoner” Barney into the police station that holds the voting machines, so they can make molds of the keys they’ll need, and then they stage a mass breakout of protestors, which is where Barney gets shot. Later, they have Rollin fake a medical crisis in the voting booth so that Dan and Willy can come in as paramedics, with Barney hidden in the stretcher. Somehow, the evil leader and his evil police lackey (played by Trek guests Mark Lenard and Percy Rodriguez) don’t get suspicious about tampering even when several people are in the voting booth for several minutes unobserved. And somehow the police captain doesn’t recognize Dan and Willy as the guys who staged the breakout the day before. And somehow the cop who helps Willy with the stretcher where Barney is hidden doesn’t notice how heavy it is.

And the team creates a lot of trouble for this community, considering that they’re trying to help. In the course of their mission, they threaten an innocent doctor at gunpoint and tie him up, and then they cause an ambulance to crash so they can replace it. Okay, they didn’t actually hurt anyone, but still. And it wasn’t very admirable the way Cinnamon tricked the nice Rollin-lookalike guy and deprived him of his opportunity to vote. You could argue that Rollin cast the vote on his behalf, but still, that’s a bit discordant for a mission about defending democratic choice.

The main strength of the episode is its lively, lush, old-fashioned score by Jacques Urbont, making his only M:I contribution (and credited as Jack Urbont for some reason). Apparently Urbont’s most significant credit is the theme to the 1966 Iron Man cartoon series.

One thing I am liking is how Barney is being portrayed. It’s impressive to see a 1966 show depicting a black man as being this brilliant, well-spoken, tough, courageous, and charming. Star Trek gets praised for its inclusiveness, but Uhura and Sulu almost never emerged from the background, whereas Barney Collier is right up front on this show, in many ways the most indispensable member of the team.

My copies of ANALOG finally arrived…

Now I finally have the March 2010 issue of Analog in my hands, complete with “The Hub of the Matter” and a bio piece on myself inside and my name on the cover!  Cool!

However, I realized that the annotations I posted before used the wrong page numbers.  I used the page numbers from the galleys as placeholders until I got the final issue, but then I forgot about that and put the annotations online without realizing that the pages were wrong.  I also discovered that some late edits I tried to make didn’t go through, so the climactic scene has some slight timing problems which I address in the notes.

The revised annotations can still be accessed through the same link at my Original fiction page:

http://home.fuse.net/ChristopherLBennett/Originalfiction.html

(I don’t want to link directly to the spoiler notes from here, since they’re spoilers, and because the main page has some more general notes for the story.)

Autographed books — New sale prices!

February 18, 2010 7 comments

I’m dropping prices once again, but I feel this is as low as I can reasonably go and still get any decent return on this.

You can buy these books from me through PayPal (via the “Send Money” tag with payments to clbennett@fuse.net, or simply use the PayPal button on my homepage) for the prices listed below.  Please use the PayPal “instructions to merchant” option (or e-mail me) to let me know which book(s) you’re ordering, provide your shipping address, and let me know if you want the book(s) inscribed to anyone in particular (or not autographed at all, as the case may be).

Mass-market paperback novels: All now $5 each

  • Star Trek: Ex Machina (15 12 copies)
  • Star Trek The Next Generation: Greater Than the Sum (13 copies)
  • Star Trek Titan: Over a Torrent Sea (13 12 copies)
  • Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder (20 17 copies)

Trade paperback collections: All now $10 each

  • Star Trek  Deep Space Nine: Prophecy and Change (5 4 copies)
  • Star Trek Voyager: Distant Shores (8 7 copies)
  • Star Trek: Constellations (6 copies)
  • Star Trek The Next Generation: The Sky’s the Limit (8 7 copies)
  • Star Trek Myriad Universes: Infinity’s Prism (contains Places of Exile) (4 3 copies)
  • Star Trek Mirror Universe: Shards and Shadows (7 copies)
  • Star Trek: Mere Anarchy (contains “The Darkness Drops Again” (6 4 copies)

I’ll try to keep this list updated with regard to availability, but if you have doubts, query first. For buyers in the US, postage is $2 if you buy only one mass-market paperback, free for trade paperbacks or larger orders.  For buyers outside the US, pay the book price and I’ll bill you for postage separately once I determine the amount.

“The battery’s the weakest part of a car…”

February 17, 2010 1 comment

That’s what the guy at the car repair place told me today.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This morning, I called the insurance company’s motor club to schedule a jumpstart and/or tow appointment once again, and this time I got faster service, in about 45 minutes.  However, one thing the insurance people didn’t tell me is that I’d have to pay cash for the service call.  And I had hardly any cash on hand, and the nearest ATM was several snow- and slush-covered blocks away.

The problem turned out to be a dead battery.  The guy came in a car, not a tow truck, so I guess he was expecting that.  He had a portable gadget about the size of a car battery that he used to jumpstart the car, and he told me I had to keep it running for a while.  After that, he followed me to the nearest parking lot I knew of to the ATM (turned out there were actually two closer ones but I didn’t think of them) and stood watch by my idling car while I slogged through the snow and slush to the cash machine.  Not fun.

He recommended I get the battery checked at a nearby garage, so I went there and they took a look at it for me.  I had a bit of a surprised reaction when the mechanic took my car out into the street, down the block, and around the corner; turns out that’s the only way to get to the area in back where he worked.  Anyway, they diagnosed it as a failed battery and recommended replacing it.  Said it’d be about 45 minutes to get one in (he didn’t have any in stock since they’ve been heavily in demand the last few days).  So I went to do a quick errand at the post office and then walked to the library (a difficult slog since I was on the less snow-cleared side of the street), looked around there for about 20 minutes, then went back to the repair place at the appointed time.  Only to be told the battery people had gone to lunch and I’d have to wait another hour.  My problem is, I expect people to be punctual.  So I walked back to the library, an easier trip on this side of the street but still with some rough patches.

At the library (which has been sadly lacking in new Star Trek novels the past couple of months), I read a collection of Justice League Adventures, a comic series nominally set in the continuity of the animated Justice League TV series, but like most tie-in materials published during a show in progress, they pretty much all contained things that were contradicted by later seasons of the show.  (For instance, they assumed Wonder Woman’s lasso already had the truth-compelling ability Diana didn’t discover until a later season, and their versions of villains such as Chronos, Amazo, and the Royal Flush Gang were very different from what the show later established.)  Still, there were some fairly good stories in it.

And it took just about an hour to read.  When I got back this time, the car was ready.  So I was finally able to go to the grocery store and get some milk and bananas and cheese and yogurt and bread and sandwich turkey and other stuff I was out of or nearly so.  I’m having a light, early dinner now, since I’ve had an exhausting afternoon and haven’t eaten since the early lunch I rushed through before the jumpstart guy got here.

The guy at the repair place told me that batteries are not only less efficient and more strained in the cold, but are having more and more demanded of them as cars become more computerized.  Apparently, even formerly hydraulic systems like brakes and steering are being replaced with computer-controlled, electricity-drawing systems.  More and more, the entire operation of an automobile is depending on the battery, which, according to him, is the weakest part of the car.  Seems like an unwise practice to me.

But I’ve heard there’s some promising research being done into new energy-storage technology.  Apparently there’s a material being developed that so thin it could be used to make the doors and paneling of a car, and would charge faster and function more efficiently than a chemical battery.  The repair guy was skeptical, but with the way materials science is advancing these days, I’m more optimistic about the prospects.

A blizzard did it

Being without milk or transportation, I’ve had to make do.  My makeshift breakfast this morning is a smoothie made with yogurt, orange juice, pineapple (since I’m out of bananas), a bit of applesauce, Cheerios (or their generic equivalent), and honey.  Ironically, I’m also out of ice, so I’m chilling the blender in the freezer for a few minutes before I add the cereal.  I’m not expecting a gourmet delight, but it’s what I’ve got.  In related news, once breakfast is done, I will be out of yogurt.  I won’t be able to do this twice.  In fact, I no longer have any dairy products at all.

Okay, this is not a very good smoothie.  I don’t recommend the recipe.  It would probably be better if I had real Cheerios rather than store brand.  And if only I hadn’t eaten that last banana as a snack yesterday…

And now… Science!

I gather that some political pundits are trying to convince people that the huge snowstorms we’re getting in the US are disproof of global warming.  Here’s why that doesn’t make any sense:

What is snow?

It’s frozen water vapor that falls out of the sky.

How’d it get into the sky?

Because somewhere else on the planet, it got evaporated.

What evaporates water?

Heat.

Ultimately, even snow is caused by heat.  A bigger snowstorm doesn’t mean the atmosphere is colder, it means it’s wetter, that there’s more moisture to condense into snow when it reaches a cold area.  And a wetter atmosphere is a consequence of a warmer planet.

All weather is connected.  It’s all part of a single global system.  When it’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and vice-versa, so there’s always going to be heat and cold coexisting.  And the more total heat there is in the planet’s atmosphere, the more moisture and energy there’s going to be in the atmosphere, and that means all kinds of storms, rain and snow alike, are going to be larger and more powerful.

Which is exactly what the global-warming model actually predicts, despite the false assertions of the pundits.  And which, wouldn’t you know it, is what’s actually happening these days.

Science!  It works!

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

Snowing is half the battle

February 16, 2010 2 comments

I ran out of milk today.  I’m out of other stuff too, but without milk, I’ll have a problem come breakfast-time tomorrow.  Therefore, I needed to go to the grocery store, despite the fact that about 9 inches of snow got dumped on top of my car yesterday.

Fortunately, I had my emergency shovel in my apartment.  I inaugurated it the last time I had to go out, late last week.  It was in the trunk of my car at the time, so first I had to, err, borrow a shovel that the building maintenance guy had left lying around and clear enough snow off the trunk to get to the emergency kit I picked up cheap at Bed, Bath & Beyond a while back, so I could use a shovel I was actually entitled to use.  But as I was assembling that shovel, I pushed too hard on the handle and partially broke the plastic sleeve it went into.  The shovel was usable, but tenuously so, so I brought it to my apartment and solved the problem as Red Green taught me: with lots of duct tape.

So this time I had a shovel ready to go when I needed it.  Luckily, the snow was still fresh and loose, easy to shovel off, but there was a whole lot of it, and a lot more on the ground surrounding my car.  It took a lot of work to excavate the vehicle.

Finally, after getting most of the snow off my car and clearing as much as I could from behind and around the tires, I got in and prepared to wend my way grocery-ward.  I turned the key… and the car wouldn’t start.  It was completely dead.  I couldn’t even get the automatic door locks to work.  Which was strange, since they had worked just moments before.

Figuring the battery was dead, I asked some neighbors if they could give me a jumpstart.  But they told me I’d need to put the car in neutral and roll it back so they could reach the hood.  Turned out that I couldn’t shift the car into neutral unless I had power first.  (Or so I thought at the time.  It just now occurred to me that I released the emergency brake before I tried shifting to neutral.  Maybe going to neutral requires the brake to be engaged as a safety measure?)  And according to the neighbors, since there was no “ticking” sound when I turned the key, the problem might be the alternator, whatever that is, rather than the battery.  They suggested I call roadside assistance.

Okay, so I came back to my apartment so I could call from someplace warm.  But I wasn’t sure whom to call.  So I called my father — the car and its insurance policy are still in his name — to ask him.  He suggested his insurance company’s motor club, but he didn’t have the number, so he told me to call his agent.  I called the agent, and he didn’t have the number, so I Googled it.  I called the number and arranged for a tow.  They said they’d be there in an hour or so.

Nearly an hour and a half later, I got an automatic callback from the insurance company checking if I’d been helped yet.  I pressed 2 for no and 1 to speak to a representative.  After going through the rigmarole again, they told me the tow truck had had another call before me and should be there within 40 minutes.  They gave me the tow company’s number just in case.

An hour later, with the sun starting to set, I called the tow company to cancel.  It was too late to do anything about the car.  I asked to reschedule for tomorrow, and they told me to call the insurance company to cancel and make a new appointment.  So rigmarole again, and I tell them I’m cancelling a tow request.  I get put on hold, then somehow I get bumped back to the beginning and have one more rigmarole to go through before I can cancel.  And I can’t reschedule until tomorrow, so I’ll have to go through it again then.

And I still don’t have any milk.  I’m unsure what I’ll do about breakfast tomorrow.  The only dairy item I have is yogurt, and in my experience that doesn’t go too well with cereal.  And I’m out of Eggos.

Who would’ve thought digging out from under a record snowfall would be the easiest part of the process?

EDIT: I just went out to the car, since I remembered I left the emergency brake off.  While there, I tested whether I could shift to neutral with the brake engaged.  No luck.  That might be a problem if the car needs to be towed tomorrow.

And it’s snowing again.  Just what we need.

Categories: Uncategorized

Finished another story…

February 15, 2010 1 comment

In a recent thread, I mentioned I was starting on a second story in my new fantasy universe.  Though it’s a pretty short piece, and I had a pretty clear idea of the story structure from the outline, it was slow going for a while, since I had trouble focusing on it.  No good excuse; I just let myself get too distracted.  Anyway, the past few days I finally buckled down and did a couple of things to cut off distractions — like unplugging the laptop from the DSL cable and taking it into my bedroom to work, or doing my writing first thing (or nearly so) in the morning, while the ideas that percolated between waking and getting to the computer were still fresh.

As of last night, I’d gotten to the start of the climactic scene, and I realized there was an element of the characterization that bothered me, a problem I didn’t have a solution for.  But this morning I suddenly had a new realization about the physics of the climactic situation (for even though there’s magic in this universe, it’s bound by physical law), and that pointed me to a new way of resolving the story, something that I realized was a necessary payoff given what I’d set up.  It’s a resolution I’m a little uneasy with for reasons of my own; if I’d played it the wrong way, it would’ve reflected a notion of justice that I completely disagree with.  But I was able to make it work in a way I’m comfortable with.  And it does make the resolution stronger, the story more effective.  I wish I could explain more clearly, but it would spoil too much.

It just goes to show that while it’s good to have an outline, one should also be open to serendipity.  You never know what you’ll discover along the way.

The story is for an anthology whose deadline is still over two months away, so I’ll have plenty of time to refine it.  I’ll probably do a revision pass, then set it aside for a while, then come back and take a fresh look at it before I submit it.

In the meantime, I plan to get back to work on my spec novel — and resume looking for a paying job.  I’d intended to do some job-hunting last week, but the blizzard made it impractical.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “Old Man Out”

February 14, 2010 2 comments

“Old Man Out,” Part 1: Dan gets his mission in a closed movie theater, a silent newsreel with a tape-recorded description. His mission is to rescue an elderly cardinal and peace-movement leader from a prison that no one has ever escaped from, and to do so before his execution. His plan is for the team to impersonate a travelling circus troupe, and to this end, he recruits Crystal Walker, a trapeze artist played by the lovely, pixieish Mary Ann Mobley (aka Miss America 1959). We see something I’ve never seen before in this show: a recruitment scene. Instead of cutting right to the team assembled in Dan’s apartment getting the briefing, we see Dan coming to Crystal to ask for her help. Though she’s happy (in a flirtatious way) to see her old friend, she categorically refuses getting dragged into another mission, since she’s at an important point in her own career and doesn’t want to have to give that up. Dan eventually convinces her by telling her what’s at stake and giving her puppy-dog eyes. It’s the clearest indication yet that these aren’t professional agents but people Dan recruits from all walks of life. Although I’m forced to wonder what kind of missions would’ve required Dan to call on a trapeze artist at least twice in the past. Well, maybe missions calling for agility and the ability to handle heights. Or maybe he just really likes playing circus?

It sure looks as if Mobley does her own trapeze stunts, which are quite impressive. (And so is she. I’m not sure they could’ve found a stunt double who looked quite as stunning in that skimpy outfit.) I vaguely remember her being a recurring player on the annual Circus of the Stars specials in the late ’70s (that’s right, back then “reality TV” included celebrities doing circus acts, which makes the modern celeb-dancing shows seem downright dull), and IMDb confirms that she performed “death-defying high-wire acts” on those specials.

And Dan shows he can be a real hardcase. When informed that Crystal’s safety net will slow down their getaway, he decides right on the spot that she’ll perform without a net. Old friend or no, beautiful young woman or no, he’ll put her in greater danger if the mission requires it. And he won’t even ask first this time; now that she’s committed, he just tells her what she has to do.

The plot of part 1 is kind of a fakeout. Rollin gets himself arrested and manages to sneak a lockpick past the metal detector. He breaks out of his cell, reaches the cardinal, breaks him out, and gets him to the roof — only to tell him that this was a dry run to get the timing right (using the calliope music from the nearby circus as his timepiece). The real breakout will be later, at a time he specifies to Cinnamon using code phrases when she visits him. (There’s a clever use of the code-phrase gimmick, first set up as the trick to the mind-reading act performed by Dan and Cinnamon, then paid off as part of the actual mission.) However, when the time comes and Rollin gets to the cardinal’s cell, the old man is gone, taken away for intensified interrogation. “To Be Continued Next Week.” Wow, how’s Rollie gonna get out of this one?

In retrospect, the story seems a bit padded to make it a 2-parter. The “dry run” thing seems implausible; he might’ve only had one shot at freeing the cardinal, so they should’ve set up a plan that let him do it when he had the chance. And they sure spend a lot of time showing Mary Ann Mobley twisting around on the trapeze. Although I sure as hell wasn’t complaining about that. Even aside from the sex appeal, she was a very impressive athlete (although that just makes it sexier). As for the rest, the direction is effective, especially with the eerie irony of the cheery calliope music juxtaposed with the somberness and tension of the prison scenes. (And for the first time, the music is by a composer other than Lalo Schifrin, in this case the similarly-named Walter Scharf.)

These early episodes are especially fun because we get to see the characters being themselves more. There’s more focus on the initial planning, more scenes where the team members are out of character and discussing the plan or just joking with each other. A lot of this was lost later in the series; in most of the episodes I’ve seen, the team members spend almost the entire episode in character and their personalities are essentially ciphers. Even when they are out of character in the later seasons, they’re a lot more serious than this early group. I’m really beginning to think that the first season was the show’s best, even without Peter Graves. Indeed, I’m starting to warm up more to Steven Hill as Dan, maybe just because I’m enjoying these episodes so much.

——

“Old Man Out, Part 2”: Watching the recap of Part 1 at the beginning of this episode really drives home how much cinematic storytelling has evolved since 1966, becoming much more concise. Maybe it’s just that Part 2 ran really short, but it took them just under six and a half minutes to recap 48 minutes of story from Part 1. These days, a recap is typically more like 30 seconds, 1 minute, maybe as much as 2 minutes if it’s really involved. It’s as if audiences back then weren’t as accustomed to seeing only part of a discussion or action and being asked to extrapolate the rest. Even so, there were so many ways they could’ve shortened this, say, by having scenes from the mission itself playing over the soundtrack of the Voice on Tape giving Dan the assignment. Interestingly, they even put the episode credits inside the recap, essentially replaying most of the dossier scene from Part 1 (and as it happened, Part 1 was the first episode of the series where they showed the producer, writer, and director credits at the end of the dossier scene).

So we left off with Rollin in mid-breakout, discovering that Cardinal Vassek was no longer in his cell, having been moved to solitary confinement prior to his execution. But the team outside doesn’t know that — they’re already getting things underway for the escape. So Rollie gets to the roof and waves them off, forcing them to switch gears and set the carnival back up — drawing the suspicion of the local colonel, the ever-malevolent Joseph Ruskin (who a year from this point will be on Triskelion enslaving Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov with his glowy evil eyes). He’ll be watching them, so Dan coldly decides he must be taken out (although this amounts to little more than a roundhouse punch, and his ultimate fate is unestablished).

The new plan is for Rollin to break out alone so that Dan can dress up in the colonel’s uniform, “recapture” him, and insist that this cunning escape artist be placed in solitary, so that they can get to the Cardinal and break him out. So the lovely Crystal is called upon to distract the guards twice, once for each breakout. The main guard in question is overacted by a young Monte Markham, who’s been the recipient of flirtation from both Cinnamon and Crystal, who have been sniping at each other in character, though behind the scenes their girl talk is all friendly. (Crystal tries to get Cinnamon to admit she worries about Rollin, but Cinnamon dodges the question.) Anyway, Crystal’s first diversion is to feign an accident, nearly falling from her trapeze, and milking the appearance of danger for several minutes while Martin Landau’s stunt double makes his way off the prison roof. (If this was the most escape-proof prison in Eastern Europe, the prisoners must not have been trying very hard. Why aren’t there guards on the roof?)

The second diversion is where it gets really interesting. To cover for the big escape, Cinnamon and Crystal get into a prolonged, epic catfight — and naturally Monte Markham makes no attempt to break it up, instead just watching and laughing. The catfight got as much screen time as the escape (ratings!). And there was also a lot of screen time given to the two women laughing and hugging afterward.

There was one subplot that unfortunately never really went anywhere. William Wintersole played a captain on the prison staff who turned out to be rather sympathetic. He had a nice scene with the Cardinal where he begged Vassek (Cyril Delevanti) to give him some scrap of information that could delay his execution, with Vassek ultimately divining that what the captain really wanted was forgiveness. As I watched the scene, I was thinking that maybe the captain would find out about the escape plan and help it along at a key moment. But there was no such payoff. I guess it was just to give the cardinal another scene.

Finally, at the border gate, Dan has Barney play the calliope loudly so the guards can’t hear prison warden Oscar Beregi calling to tell them to stop the escaping circus troupe. Walter Scharf’s music in the final minute is a clever, well-done blend of the calliope music and orchestral variations of the M:I themes. Overall, the music in this 2-parter was very effective, rich, and enjoyable, and Scharf’s motifs are a nice departure from the Schifrin motifs that dominate most of this show’s scores. It’s disappointing that Scharf only did three more episodes of M:I. I looked up Scharf, and it turns out he’s the man who wrote the National Geographic Society theme from the TV specials! I’ve always loved that music. He did the Jacques Cousteau specials too, though I don’t remember the theme to those. (Appropriately, the person who cut the end titles together showed the music credits over a shot of Barney playing the calliope from that final scene.)

The one thing that bugs me is how Dan, Cinnamon, and Barney all knew how to play the calliope. I mean, in the preparations in Part 1, we saw Dan practicing, and he was kind of awkward at that stage. They sold the idea that he taught himself to do it for the mission. But here, all of a sudden, Cinnamon and Barney pull the same skill out of their hats when Dan is needed elsewhere.

I’m also disappointed that Crystal’s whole function on the mission was merely to be a sexy distraction. True, she served a secondary purpose in teaching Rollin how to do the wire-sliding stunt for the escape, but the episode kind of subverted that by having Dan end up doing the same stunt with no prior training. I was kind of hoping we’d see Crystal put herself at risk to help in the actual breakout. But I guess her faked accident was fairly dangerous. Still, it’s just so ’60s. It doesn’t seem fair that Dan persuaded her to give up a great opportunity in her own career just so she could be sexy and distract a guard or two. But on the other hand, she was awfully sexy to watch, so I can’t complain too much.

It’s kind of weird. Mary Ann Mobley is a name I remember from my childhood, but until now I never knew just how hot she was.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “Memory”/”Operation Rogosh”

February 14, 2010 1 comment

The second episode, “Memory” by Robert Lewin (directed by Charles Rondeau), is another interesting one. I get the impression from these two episodes that the intended format of the show was sort of a guest-star showcase, with the regulars surrounding and supporting a specialist of the week who was the dramatic focus. In the pilot, both Landau (who was only a guest star at the time) and Wally Cox filled that role. Here it’s Albert Paulsen (whom I’ve seen as villains in a couple of later episodes) as Joseph, an alcoholic memory expert who’s being asked to basically throw himself to the wolves by impersonating a dead agent as part of a plan to discredit a warmongering Eastern European leader. There’s an extended sequence of Dan Briggs training Joseph for his role, and there’s a strong emphasis on Joseph’s struggles to overcome his weakness for liquor and stay focused on the mission, as well as the team’s uncertainty about whether he’ll come through (though it’s mostly conveyed with worried looks rather than overt dialogue). I got the impression that Dan and Joseph were friends from the old neighborhood or something, but that too was left implicit.

The format is interesting. First off, there’s no recorded mission briefing; Dan gets his assignment printed on a card handed to him by a street photographer. Second, there are essentially two missions, kind of. They successfully complete their mission to get Joseph arrested and stage a failed breakout attempt to make his story implicating the bad guy look convincing. But Joseph has seen and memorized a list of all the country’s European spies, intelligence that requires his rescue. So after security has been tightened, they have to break in again and rescue him for real. That’s a neat story. It puzzled me for a while, though, since Landau got a guest credit in the dossier sequence, but his dossier went on the reject pile and he wasn’t part of the original mission team. I was confused until they brought him in briefly to impersonate Joseph for a short film made to fool the security cameras. (I wonder, did he happen to be in Eastern Europe already on an acting gig, or was he on some kind of reserve team that accompanied them, or did they have access to the world’s fastest jet?)

So not without a plot hole or two (for instance, having the security guy take out a list of all his agents and leave it lying on the table where Joseph could see it was very contrived, even granted that the man didn’t know about Joseph’s photographic memory), but effective and interesting.

One thing that’s also interesting to me as a lifelong Star Trek fan is the music. This show was produced by the same studio as ST, starting in the same year, shot on adjacent soundstages and with some of the same behind-the-scenes people, as well as plenty of shared guest stars. But even though most of the composers were different, the music reminds me strongly of ST’s music. Not in style so much as in the sound of the orchestra. And I realized — the music was probably performed by most of the same musicians, even the same instruments, and recorded and mixed on the same equipment. So there’s no wonder it sounds so familiar. I never thought about it before, but I suppose it’s possible for different orchestras to have different sounds depending on their performers and instruments — as well as their conductors, of course, who can make the same orchestra sound totally different. And according to my father, the recording equipment used can have a significant effect on the sound as well. Anyway, it’s interesting to be able to hear that connection between the shows. And it’s enjoyable to listen to new music that sounds so much like the ST music I grew up with.

A final note: In the M:I universe, there was a truly staggering number of nameless enemy countries dotting Eastern Europe and Central America.  But some early episodes were a little more overt about geography.  In “Memory,” the bad guy they were trying to discredit was described as “the Butcher of the Balkans.” So at least we knew what part of the world he was from. And I freeze-framed on the shot of the list of that country’s spies in Europe. I was expecting a gag list made up of the production crew’s names, since it was only on camera for a couple of seconds and not really legible at normal resolution (I used my DVD’s zoom function), but it was actually a credible list of Balkan-type names along with the names of various European countries rendered in what seem to be their own languages (Dania for Denmark, Polska for Poland, etc.).

——

“Operation Rogosh” is another effective one. Fritz Weaver is Imre Rogosh, an enemy agent who leaves mass death in his wake and who’s been sighted in LA. Dan Briggs’ mission (delivered on an 8-track tape in a car!) is to get the unbreakable Rogosh to reveal his plans for destruction before they come to fruition. So they capture him and make him think it’s three years later, he’s amnesiac, and he’s in a prison in his homeland, accused of being an American agent. Subtly, without pushing and tipping off the brilliant Rogosh, they must maneuver him into revealing what he knows. “Let him do the work,” Dan reminds his team at one point. It’s interesting to watch the team playing it this way, holding themselves back, hiding their reactions, resisting the temptation to ask what they’re dying to ask.

A major complication arises when Rogosh’s colleague tracks down where he’s being held captive and is ordered to assassinate him before he can talk. Dan spots the assassin in time and manages to shield Rogosh with his body long enough for Willy to take out the assassin without Rogosh getting shot or the ploy being revealed. Maybe a bit convenient that Dan saw the shooter, but there was more tension to this than to a lot of the complications in later episodes, which were often fakeouts or too easily resolved.

The real twist happens at the climactic moment when Rogosh has been maneuvered into giving away his plan to prove his “innocence.” He reveals having hidden four bacteriological weapons in reservoirs around LA, and just as he’s revealed the third and is about to reveal the fourth, in his eagerness he knocks over a chair — and sees the tag for the LA furniture rental company it came from. Oops! (I bet the team will be more careful about that in the future.) I was wondering how they’d ever get him to reveal where the fourth device was. But Dan knocks him out and he wakes up back in his cell — with three bacteria bombs sitting right next to him! Ouch!

This is the first episode that doesn’t fit my hypothesis that M:I was originally meant to be about a group of off-the-book agents doing questionable assignments to give the government deniability. Here, they’re on the phone to the authorities constantly to let them know what they’re discovering about the threat. Given the nature of the mission, that’s not surprising. I guess the real idea is the one that’s right up front in the title: this is a team that does missions deemed impossible by conventional means. It’s on a volunteer basis (“Should you choose to accept it”) because the missions are so challenging and dangerous. The teams are put together using unconventional operatives rather than standard spies because they’re unconventional missions.

And the team composition is pretty unconventional. In addition to the usual suspects in the dossier sequence, we see a pamphlet for the Horizon Repertory Company. Dan hired a troupe of actors to fill in the roles in this large-scale deception. I gather we’re going to see them used again a few times before the idea is forgotten. The focus is still on the guest star of the week, but this time it’s on Fritz Weaver as the villain rather than on a member of the team.

All in all, an effective episode, and the template for more than one later episode in which the team would try to convince a bad guy that he was in another time. A late-season episode in which they convince an enemy agent he’s in a post-nuclear year 2000 in order to trick him into revealing a stolen plutonium cache is practically a remake of this one, though less subtle and with a sci-fi twist. Then there’s the episode where they reverse it and try to convince William Shatner that he’s back in the past. Neither of those handled the concept as well as this one did.

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