Archive for March 12, 2010

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews (S2): “The Survivors”/”The Bank”

“The Survivors”: Jim gets the briefing tape on a rooftop, in some sort of maintenance storage locker or something bearing the rather tautological instruction “Use key to unlock.”  The mission: enemy agent Stavak (Albert Paulsen, previously an IM team member in “Memory”) has kidnapped two scientists and their wives and is holding them hostage in San Francisco (this will be significant).  He’s going after a third scientist, hoping to gain a McGuffin formula for an unspecified secret superweapon.  (I begin to understand why J.J. Abrams made a point of not explaining what the “Rabbit’s Foot” was in Mission: Impossible III.  It may have been an homage to the original show, where the McGuffins were frequently given little explanation and had little actual relevance to the story.  Which is the whole point of a McGuffin, really: that it doesn’t matter what it is so long as the characters are driven by its pursuit.)  Conveniently, Stavak doesn’t know what the third guy looks like, so Jim can impersonate him.

First, though, they publicize the alleged death of his wife’s mother, so that the “wife” Cinnamon can be abducted along with Rollin, whom Stavak’s men assume is the scientist but turns out to be his separated wife’s “good friend.”  The soon-to-be-ex-missus turns out to be quite vindictive toward hubby and willing to sell him out in exchange for money and freedom.  The whole thing being a ploy to get Rollin inside so he can make measurements of the facility and then get them out to Barney, while Cinnamon convinces the hostages to play along with the masquerade.

Once Cinnamon lures Jim into captivity, the purpose for the measurements and other preparations becomes clear.  After calling in a fake gas leak and getting the area around Stavak’s Chinatown hideout evacuated, the team uses a sonic device to shake up the building, allegedly the “same principle” of resonance demonstrated by Barney in the apartment scene when he shattered a glass with a tuning fork.  (So essentially they’re using an electronic equivalent of Tesla’s earthquake machine, though with more success than the Mythbusters were able to achieve.)  They also use a dump truck full of rubble to block the elevator shaft that’s the only way out.  The fake disaster comes just in time to save Jim and the scientists from being shot when Stavak’s expert sees through Jim’s fake equations.  (The physics-speak is almost right here.  Jim cites the “half-life of the K meson” as 1.2 x 10^-8, which is the correct value in seconds of the kaon/K meson’s mean lifetime.  However, the mean lifetime isn’t the same thing as the half-life.  The half-life is the time it takes for half of a sample of a radioactive substance to decay; the mean lifetime is the reciprocal of its decay probability per unit time, and comes out to 1.44 times the half-life.)

Now that they’re all trapped, with a (faked) gas leak giving them a deadline, Stavak cooperates with Jim in devising an escape.  Jim rigs a radio and picks up a fake news broadcast from Rollin, with keywords that direct him to a storm drain they can use as an escape route.  Jim has one of the scientists empty the powder from ten bullets and MacGyvers up a flashlight into a trigger device, covering it with mattresses so the blast won’t set off the natural gas in the corridor (ooh, let’s see the Mythbusters test that!).  In contrast to what you’d probably see in a modern show (or MacGyver for that matter), the blast is believably small (though the sound effect is too big) and only loosens the mortar enough to let the stone wall be disassembled with muscle power and a crowbar.

Once they dig to the storm drain, Stavak holds the hostages at gunpoint (a weak bluff, since as he himself admits on the way out, he doesn’t dare shoot because of the gas) and escapes with his own men into the drain, collapsing the tunnel behind him so the hostages are doomed.  Except that Barney and Willy have already cleared the elevator shaft of rubble so the hostages can get out easily.  Stavak and friends emerge on a calm, un-destroyed Chinatown street and get hauled away, realizing they’ve been had.  Jim tells the ex-hostages that they were in no danger since the gas was faked (it was probably just butyl mercaptan, the additive that gives natural gas its smell).  Or rather, it was “just as real as the earthquake.”

A decent episode, though the kind of M:I caper where they go to implausibly elaborate lengths to achieve a fairly simple goal.  Albert Paulsen is oddly sympathetic as a villain who isn’t written sympathetically at all.

Walter Scharf (“Old Man Out” and “The Ransom”) returns as the composer, and as usual his work has a distinctive and intriguing sound, with an interesting ethnic flavor when the Chinatown location is established.  His score here isn’t quite as impressive as his first-season work, however.

I found the dungeonesque setting of Stavak’s underground lair familiar, and I finally placed it — his office is the same set as the dungeon from Star Trek: “Catspaw.” Which, assuming the two sister shows began shooting at about the same time, would’ve been produced not long before this episode.  But the sets here were more extensive, with corridors and a cell, so maybe this one was done first?  Which would require M:I to have started shooting its season earlier.  Or maybe it’s a standard set that Desilu had in storage for use by various productions.  Still, I never would’ve expected to see ST and M:I share a set.  (Although there is a later episode of M:I where, in a scene with Leonard Nimoy, a Saurian brandy decanter from ST is used as set decoration in an apartment.)


“The Bank”: Jim goes inside a “Junk Shop” and exchanges code phrases with the proprietor, except the camera remains outside and the dialogue is unheard.  The proprietor lets him try out an old hand-cranked phonograph in the back room.  The message is on a vinyl record, but unlike the first-season versions, it isn’t sealed away from the air; rather, it’s rigged to self-destruct “when it reaches the final groove” (a misnomer, since a vinyl record only has one spiralling groove, but that’s nitpicking).  Anyway, the mission: East Berlin banker Alfred Belzig (James Daly, previously seen in a triple role in “Shock”) is secretly a Neo-Nazi.  He’s tricking East Germans who want to defect to the West, convincing them to deposit their money in his bank (allegedly so he can deliver it to them once they’re across the Iron Curtain), then sending them down an escape tunnel with instructions to take a route that actually drops them to their death, whereupon he keeps their money to help him bankroll his new Nazi movement.  The team has to expose him and retrieve the money.  (Actually, in dialogue they only mention the “East Zone” of an unspecified socialist country whose occupants use German titles and accents, yet there are signs onscreen specifying the locations as Berlin and West Germany.  Odd, that.)

Jim picks the usual suspects plus Paul Lebarre (Pierre Jalbert), a known bank robber.  Paul and Barney case the joint while Jim, pretending to be an agent of the “federal police” (i.e. the Stasi), arrests Paul and makes Belzig fear a robbery so that Jim and Cinnamon can get in place within the bank.  The episode takes place mostly within the bank, with people constantly going back and forth between the main area, Belzig’s office, and the vault as the team goes through maneuvers to get the goods on Belzig.  Barney takes pictures of the vault, Rollin pretends to be a new patsy for Belzig to fleece and kill off, Jim arranges to get Belzig out of the office so he can steal a reel of vault security videotape and find out what deposit box Belzig’s ill-gotten stash is in… it’s all rather convoluted, with so much back-and-forth it’s hard to keep straight.

Anyway, Rollin fakes his demise, then goes back into the tunnel system with a load of bricks.  While Barney is attracting the bank staff’s suspicions, Cinnamon goes into the vault and uses a gizmo to make the video picture flip (like TVs used to do back then when the horizontal was out of sync) to disguise the fact that she’s sliding a photo of the vault in front of the camera, then she rigs a charge to Belzig’s box that goes off when Barney reinserts his.  Paul fires a gun at the same moment the charge goes off (how did he know?) to make it seem like the sound came from him.  Barney comes out holding Belzig’s box, which makes Belzig nervous when Jim’s “federal police” agents apprehend the thieves — and then the real Stasi shows up.  To keep them from opening the box, Belzig has his security hold them at gunpoint, then retreats into the vault with the money, planning to flee through the tunnel — only to find that Rollin has bricked it up.  Jim says that when the time lock opens in the morning, Belzig and his cronies will be happy to go wherever the Stasi wants to take them.

Not a great episode.  There are some weaknesses in the plot and execution.  It’s implausible that hundreds of people would’ve all fallen (literally) for the trap in the left tunnel, even if they weren’t forewarned as Rollin was.  When Rollin shows up, Belzig initially has him held at gunpoint, suspecting him of being a Stasi agent, until he verifies his identity by checking his signature against previous correspondence with the man Rollin’s impersonating — and somehow it never occurs to Belzig, a man with decades of banking experience, that there can be such a thing as a forged signature.  It’s implausible that they’d take Rollin into the vault to “kill” him when “federal policewoman” Cinnamon is right there as the vault clerk; wouldn’t she get suspicious when he didn’t come out?  And there’s a silly bit where Jim is checking the stolen videotape to find out Belzig’s deposit box number, and uses a magnifying eyepiece to zoom in on the video image — what we see is clearly a zoom in on the live set, with no trace of scan lines and impossibly high resolution for a ’60s video image.  It’s as silly in its own way as the CSI episodes where Archie is able to enhance a blurry video image and turn it into a perfectly clear close-up.  Also, it’s unnecessary to know the exact box number; it’s enough to know its position in the vault: second row, second column.

Also, it’s kind of weird politically.  Given that East Germany was already under an oppressive regime at that point, it’s a bit hard to see how much more harm Belzig’s Neo-Nazi movement could’ve done there, at least from the perspective of ’60s TV politics where Nazis and Commies were equally villainous.  I guess it’s evil enough that he was killing so many people — implicitly Jews, I suppose — but his larger political ambitions seem like kind of a nebulous threat, trading one set of bad guys for another.  But I guess it’s another McGuffin.  The politics don’t really matter; what matters is the specific goal of the caper.

There is an amusing touch when Jim is left alone in the office and has to try to figure out the fancy newfangled videotape machine so he can steal the footage he needs.  Usually everything runs so smoothly for the IMF, or else goes wrong in serious ways.  Jim’s fumbling with the machine is played subtly, not blatantly for laughs, but it’s a nice humanizing touch.

Walter Scharf provides his fifth and final M:I score here.  As with “The Survivors,” it’s not as memorable as his first-season efforts.  And it’s interspersed with a lot of reused Gerald Fried cues from the season premiere.  But it has its enjoyable moments, with orchestrations reminiscent of scores from The Outer Limits and Lost in Space (neither of which Scharf worked on).

The final shot of the episode features what I believe is the debut of a touch that was often used in the series: as the team is leaving, the camera flips upside-down to follow them, and the image freezes while still inverted.  I wonder if this was meant to symbolize the topsy-turvy, twisty nature of the capers.

%d bloggers like this: