Archive for February 24, 2010

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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