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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.