Archive for February 26, 2010

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.