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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S3) Reviews: “The Mind of Stefan Miklos”/”The Test Case” (Spoilers)

“The Mind of Stefan Miklos”: In an abandoned movie theater, Jim is briefed: US agent Townsend (Jason Evers) was found to be a double agent and fed false information, but his contact Simpson (Ed Asner) found out it was fake and denounced Townsend as a traitor.  Aware that Simpson doesn’t like Townsend, the enemy has sent their most brilliant man, Stefan Miklos (Steve Ihnat), to determine whether the information is good.  So whereas in “The Diplomat,” the mission depended on convincing the enemy that real intel was fake, here it depends on convincing them, or rather Stefan, that fake intel is real.

Since Stefan is a brilliant man, this is another one of those episodes where the goal is to work against the obvious, to get him to believe one thing by trying to convince him of the opposite and let him catch the flaws.  They start by swapping out the information drop he’s getting in a statue at an art gallery (curated by Vic Perrin, the Outer Limits Control Voice in a rare on-camera role), substituting Rollin’s picture for Simpson’s (along with some forged  documents).  Meanwhile, Rollin goes to Simpson as Stefan, gets the proof from him, and convinces him he’s been compromised and needs to plan to leave the country.  Simpson is a different type of character than I’m used to seeing Ed Asner play, an insecure, stammering milquetoast and compulsive, nervous talker, but with an undercurrent of bottled contempt and bitterness.  It’s a nicely scripted role and a bit of a showcase for Asner.

Simpson leaves just in time, for the real Stefan arrives, and now it’s Rollin’s turn to play Simpson to Stefan, even adopting Simpson’s shy, nervous mannerisms, and telling him the proof will take a day to get there.  (I thought I caught a major error here; Rollin has studied to pass as left-handed in order to impersonate Simpson, but Stefan doesn’t notice that Rollin’s watch is on his left wrist.  My impression is that left-handed people generally wear their watches on the right wrist.  However, a bit of web research reveals that that’s not always the case.)  So Stefan goes to search Townsend’s apartment and finds a hidden picture of his “secret girlfriend” Cinnamon, a picture that conveniently contains just enough information to let Stefan track her down and determine that she’s planning to leave the country with Townsend.  Stefan intercepts Townsend at the airport and takes him away.

Now, here’s the cool part.  Jim and the team are listening in via a bug in Townsend’s shirt collar, and it seems like Stefan has bought their fake evidence that Townsend’s a traitor.  Jim is worried that he was too clever, that the clues he planted to make Stefan doubt the setup were too subtle.  It’s a rare case where there’s some genuine tension that the team’s plan might fail.  But just before Stefan shoots Townsend, the latter’s pleas of innocence call his attention to a minor discrepancy.  That gets him noticing the rest, and thanks to his photographic memory (which the team was relying on), he recalls a couple of other clues — “Simpson” and Cinnamon with the same matchbook, Cinnamon’s home containing a painting that was at the gallery.  He goes to the gallery and discovers how the documents were switched.  So he becomes convinced that Townsend was framed by the Americans to make Stefan think that the information was fake; therefore it must be real.

And that leads to a nice moment in the coda.  Stefan speaks to the still-bugged Townsend, content in his “victory”; but he says he wishes he could meet the American mastermind who came up with the frame.  He says the man is brilliant, but Stefan pities him; he played the game well, but he lost, and that will destroy him.  As Jim, the real victor of the game, listens in, we see on his face that he feels the same regret about Stefan.

So I wasn’t expecting much from this episode going in; the setup seemed too similar to “The Diplomat,” and some aspects of the scheme seemed too obvious for something that was supposed to be subtle.  But it turns out that was a feature rather than a bug; Stefan was supposed to figure out that he was being led on.  Ultimately we got an episode with some nice bits of characterization and some genuine suspense.  We need more episodes like this, ones where the villains are just as much on the ball as the heroes so that the outcome isn’t a foregone conclusion.

Oh, and there’s a largely original score here too, this time by Richard Markowitz making his M:I debut.  Markowitz did a number of TV scores over the years, but the shows he contributed to the most were The Wild Wild West in the ’60s and Murder, She Wrote in the ’80s.  His score here is nice, but doesn’t really stand out.

“The Test Case”: The briefing is a blast from the past, a vinyl record in a listening booth in a music store, instead of the tape that’s been standard all season.  The mission: Dr. Beck (David Hurst) has developed an airborne virus (or bacterium, the script can’t decide) that causes instant meningitis, killing in minutes and then becoming harmless, a potent battlefield bioweapon.  The team must discredit and eliminate him as well as retrieving the culture.  The risky plan involves infiltrating a demonstration of the bioweapon for the enemy nation’s top brass (a general played by Bart La Rue, the second time in two weeks that a major Star Trek voiceover artist makes an on-camera appearance), replacing the political-prisoner guinea pig with Rollin, who has to hope Barney can rig the test chamber and swap out the lethal stuff in time.  Meanwhile, Cinnamon plays a reporter who’s actually a spy offering Beck a half-million-dollar bribe to hand over his culture.  Once Jim has replaced the doctor sent to observe the test, he tells the bad guys that he was approached too and describes Cinnamon and Willy (I hope Willy doesn’t find out that Jim called him a “thug type,” though Cinnamon would be flattered that he lopped a decade off her age and described her as “late twenties”), so they’ll monitor Cinnamon’s calls.

Everything goes smoothly at first, with Barney installing a balloon in the test chamber and cutting a hole in the mechanical dumbwaiter’s shaft so he can swap out the bioweapon cylinder with knockout gas.  The plan is to catch the gas in the balloon for later release while Rollin takes a capsule Barney also hid in the chamber in order to fake the symptoms of meningitis up to and including death.  But a minor mechanical fault leads a technician to go into the test chamber, where he sees the balloon.  Once again, something genuinely goes wrong with the plan.  It forces Rollin to improvise; he feigns a panic attack, lashing out at the tech and knocking him out.  Dr. Jim wheels the tech out and ensures he’s kept under.  But Rollin’s improv causes a new problem; his hands are cuffed and he can’t get the capsule into his mouth.  So he drops it on the floor, falls to the floor himself, and scoots over until he can grab it in his teeth (eww, way past the five-second rule there!).  Rollin “dies” and is taken to autopsy, but Dr. Jim “discovers” he’s still alive — and releases the knockout gas so the enemy brass guys seem to fall ill with (non-fatal) meningitis themselves.  Jim accuses Beck of fraud and treason, and Beck pulls a gun on him.  This time, it’s all part of the plan, though Jim’s lucky that Beck wasn’t trigger-happy.  Beck is convinced his only way out is to take Cinnamon’s bribe, so he calls her tapped phone and retrieves the culture from storage — allowing Barney to swap it out for a fake through the dumbwaiter again.  The bad guys confront and shoot Beck, and Jim puts the fake culture back on the dumbwaiter to return it to storage — and of course it’s a bomb that destroys all the cultures.

A fairly routine episode overall, but there were some nice moments where the plan went awry and the characters were forced to improvise.  I think the producers were starting to catch on that they needed to include more uncertainty and suspense into these plots, that the minor snags that cropped up 30 seconds before the commercial and were resolved by 30 seconds after it weren’t enough.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S3) Reviews: “The Freeze”/”The Exchange” (spoilers)

“The Freeze”: Jim is briefed by the old 8-track in a parked car trick: Inmate Raymond Barrett (a young Donnelly Rhodes, best known as Doc Cottle in the Battlestar Galactica remake series) is actually an armored-car thief who’s dodging prosecution for his real crime by pretending to be someone else and serving out a shorter sentence, just long enough to wait out the statute of limitations and get the 10 million bucks free and clear.  (How he fooled the criminal justice system into thinking he was somebody else is unexplained.)  The mission is to get him to reveal where he hid the loot before the statute runs out in two days.  We get a dossier sequence, since the mission involves recruiting the prison’s doctor and Barrett’s cellmate, whose cooperation is obtained with a reduced sentence.  We also discover here that Jim apparently plays a role in the gadget design himself, since he’s seen working on a sketch for a gadget involved in the mission before he selects his team.

The plan is to convince Barrett that he has a terminal illness, and at the same time have him happen to discover that a local doctor (Jim) is working on a cryogenic process to freeze people until cures can be found for their diseases (yup, that concept was already around by 1968).  Dr. Jim pretends to be reluctant because it’s illegal to freeze him while he’s still alive (he can’t wait because his imaginary disease is progressive and would be incurable if he waited), but Barrett is allowed to find out that Dr. Jim”s being “blackmailed” by Willy because he illegally froze his terminally ill wife (good grief, he’s Mr. Freeze!), so that gives Barrett leverage to force him to do the procedure.  It’s one of those episodes where the team goes to great lengths to appear to be discouraging the mark from doing what they want him to do, on the assumption that he’d get suspicious if they pushed him toward it too obviously.  But this guy’s no great brain, and he’s not at all suspicious about being told he has a terminal illness just after he encounters the cryonics doctor.  They didn’t have to go to so much trouble to avoid tipping him off.  (And I’m positive I’ve seen the cryogenic chamber in some other show, though I’m not sure if it was in Star Trek.)

Anyway, Barrett wakes up to find himself in the fabulous future world of… 1980!  There are futuristic concept cars in the parking lot, and his hospital room is dominated by what looks uncannily like a modern flatscreen TV.  There’s a bank of small cartridges that contain video recordings that play on the screen.  It’s kind of striking how prophetic it is.  But then Rollin and Cinnamon come in wearing clear plastic raincoats over their hospital scrubs, and suddenly prophetic gives way to B-movie hokey.  But the sequence redeemed itself when Rollin told Nurse Cinnamon to administer “5 ccs of cordrazine.”  Rollin’s a Trekkie!

Rollin tells Barrett about the wondrous changes in the future, including the fact that paper money has been replaced by credit cards and that much of the world he knew has been torn down and rebuilt.  Barrett checks and finds that the cemetery where he hid the money is due to be torn down any day, so that gives him an incentive to break out.

But of course, when he breaks out, he sees that the whole thing was a scam, that he wasn’t really in the future.  But he goes after the money anyway, since he sees a fake newspaper saying it’s one day after the statute expires.   Meanwhile, the cellmate has been snitching to Barrett’s accomplices so they’ll track him down and confront him just as he gets the money.  The accomplice gloatingly tells Barrett that there are ten minutes left on the statute.  Barrett attacks him, takes his gun, and shoots him just as the cops drive up.  So they not only have him on the theft, they have him on murder.  He laughs as he’s taken away.

This episode is fraught with problems.  First off, if Barrett could fool the courts into thinking he was somebody else, surely he could’ve found a more comfortable way to wait out the statute than sitting in jail on a lesser charge (although I guess the idea was that in jail, he was safe from the accomplices who wanted to get the location of the money out of him).  Second, the statute of limitations doesn’t actually work the way it’s shown here.  Under federal law, statutes of limitation don’t apply to anyone actively fleeing from justice, specifically so criminals can’t game the system in just this way.  He hasn’t physically fled, but he has disguised his identity, which does count as a deliberate effort to evade prosecution.  (And that statute was enacted in 1948, so it would’ve applied at the time of the episode.)  Third, why the hell is this an IMF case?  The only thing that’s at stake is 10 million dollars.  There’s not even a token attempt to concoct some lame national-security excuse for involving the team.  Fourth, what was the point of faking a trip to the future just to reveal it as a hoax?  Why would he still go after the money once he realized that someone was trying to trick him into revealing its location?  Wouldn’t he just lay low a while longer until the heat was off?  And if the final step in the plan entailed making him think it was one day after the statute expired, why even bother with the 1980 routine?  They could’ve just, say, had his cellmate beat him up and then have him wake up and be told it was two months later and his sentence — and the statute — were up.  The plot is far more clever and convoluted than it needed to be (a problem with the previous episode, “The Bargain,” as well).

Other inconsistencies: The fake magazine where Barrett reads about Jim’s cryonics research is dated December 1968, but the newspaper he picks up at the end, which is supposed to be a day ahead of reality, is dated August 18, 1968.  Now, magazines are often dated a few months in advance, since they’re really “display until” dates, but I think 4 months is pushing it.  Maybe a fiction magazine could be dated that far ahead (though it would typically be more like 2-3 months), but I don’t think a news periodical would be.   Besides, it was in a doctor’s office, so it would more likely have been the December ’66 issue. 😉  Also, there are photos of the completed cryogenic chamber in the fake article — so why are Barney and Willy only now assembling it and being worried about finishing it in time?

So basically, despite some fun bits in the fake-future sequence, this episode is a complete mess.  Conceptually the weakest and most incoherent of the season so far, though I can’t fault the execution and it’s interesting to see a young Donnelly Rhodes.

“The Exchange”: The first formula-breaking episode of the season begins in medias res as Cinnamon breaks into a vault in an enemy country and snaps pictures of their spy-stuff documents, leaving a window open so she can toss the camera to Jim and Rollin below.  But a pigeon flies in and sets off the electric eye on the window.  Cinnamon tosses out the camera, completing the mission, but gets arrested.  Is this the part where the Secretary disavows any knowledge of her actions?  We’ll never know, since Jim and the team are determined to get her out.  There’s no mention of reporting back to the Secretary or getting new orders — perhaps, implicitly, because the team knows those orders would be to abandon her.  But they’re going to get her back, even if it means taking on their (implicitly West German) allies.  They’re going to break out a prominent Eastern Bloc spy in “Western Zone” custody and exchange him for Cinnamon.  But you can’t have ’60s TV heroes display too much moral ambiguity, so of course they’re going to break him and get his information first, and then trade him for Cinnamon, so that they serve both national security and friendship rather than having to choose one or the other.

Cinnamon gets interrogated by Strom (John Vernon), but won’t talk except to give a phony name.   (Even though she’s  a famous supermodel, the bad guys have absolutely no information on who she really is.)  Strom’s medical advisor Gorin (Robert Ellenstein) notes a blip in her vital signs when Strom threatens solitary confinement, revealing that Cinnamon has the most common phobia of fictional heroes, claustrophobia.  Seriously?  I’m sure there must’ve been prior episodes where she had to hide in a small space or crawl through a duct, but she showed no sign of this.  Then again, it was implied that it was more a latent fear that Gorin amplified with drugs.  They work on Cinnamon for a while, and they get as far as extracting Jim’s first name from her.

Jim meets with Strom, pretending to be a Swiss official, and offers to exchange Cinnamon (under her fake name) for the spy Kurtz (Will Kuluva), an offer Strom is eager to take.  While there, Jim surreptitiously snaps photos of Strom’s office.   Meanwhile, Rollin sneaks Kurtz out of prison in the bottom of his motorized wheelchair, substituting an inflatable dummy in his place (and how the team got a lifelike inflatable dummy of a notorious spy on such short notice is never addressed).   They take Kurtz to a warehouse and put him in a crate, then fake a drive across the border using sound effects and a hydraulic rig to make him feel like he’s on a moving truck (again, where did they get this on short notice?!).  He ends up in the replica of Strom’s office, with Jim posing as Strom’s replacement, convincing him that Strom was arrested for treason and Kurtz had better report everything he did in the West if he doesn’t want to be found complicit in the treason.  Once Kurtz finishes his report, the team reveals that he’s been tricked and take him to the exchange.

At the border checkpoint, the trade is about to take place when the Western Zone officials come up and try to recapture Kurtz.  Rollin shows them half the information Kurtz gave and promises the rest after the exchange is complete, so they back down.  The trade is made, and Jim gives Cinnamon a trenchcoat to keep her warm — and Strom strafes them with bullets before driving off.  Naturally, the trenchcoat (and Jim’s) was bulletproof, so the team is all safe and reunited.

It’s a nice idea for a formula-breaker, showing something going seriously wrong with the assigned mission for once (although they still complete it) and forcing the team to go off-book and even work against their allies to rescue their teammate.  Unfortunately it never really feels like an improvised rogue operation.  Aside from Cinnamon’s torture scenes, it plays out too much like a routine episode, and the team’s ability to whip out all these elaborate gadgets and props perfectly tailored for this rushed, improvised mission is on a par with the Adam West Batman’s running-gag ability to pull impossibly apropos Bat-equipment from his utility belt as needed (and as it happens, the prison where Kurtz was held was represented by the same stock footage used for Gotham State Penitentiary in Batman).  As for the torture scenes themselves, playing frightened/vulnerable/sad isn’t really playing to Barbara Bain’s strengths; when she cries and wails, she tends to remind me of Lucille Ball, undermining the sense of drama.  And the really interesting angle of the team going against their orders and their allies to help their friend wasn’t sufficiently developed.  So in the final analysis, “The Exchange” feels like a missed opportunity; what could’ve been an exceptional episode takes too few chances and turns out too ordinary.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S3) Reviews: “The Play”/”The Bargain” (spoilers)

“The Play”: Jim’s contact in the opening is a woman whose kids are playing on a rooftop swingset and slide.  She directs him to a ladder to the upper level, and he helps the little girl up onto the slide as she goes by (but in the next shot, she’s just starting to approach the slide).  The tape on the rooftop tells him to stop Kuro (John Colicos in the second of his three M:I appearances), Minister of Culture in an Eastern-bloc country called the UCR, from undermining the pro-American Premier Vados (Barry Atwater, so it’s Kor vs. Surak in Star Trek terms) with an aggressive anti-American propaganda campaign.  Jim destroys the tape “in the usual manner” of tossing it into the adjacent chimney that’s been blowing smoke in his face the whole time.  (Then Jim notices that the little girl heard his secret briefing, so he has to throw her off the roof.  No, I made that part up.)

No dossier sequence, since it’s just the standard team, minus Willy (that’s two in a row with less than the complete cast).  The apartment scene involves testing a “Cone of Silence”-type gizmo that somehow uses “radar” to block sound from outside and ensure the person under its influence hears only what’s transmitted through the gizmo; this is tested by firing a gun next to Rollin’s ear while he’s under the Cone of Silence, which is kind of mean given that he was almost deafened in that exact same way back in the first season’s “The Frame.”  But then, since when did this show have continuity?

Cinnamon portrays an American playwright who’s written a play that a crowd (of actors hired by the team) denounces as anti-American.  Jim and Rollin are her actors, playing the US president and UCR premier.  The plan is to convince Kuro to put the play on in his own country, something he thinks will score a propaganda coup, an anti-American play written by an American, and painting Premier Vados in an unflattering light.  But the team hits a major snag when Kuro insists on casting the UCR’s top actors in the leads instead of Jim and Rollin.  And this is what makes it such a cool episode.  Instead of the usual crises that get resolved in 30 seconds, this time the team has to spend most of the episode trying to get their plan back on track.  First, Rollin goes to one of the two great actors, Enzor (Michael Tolan), and tempts him with a deal to play Lear on Broadway.  After convincing Enzor that it isn’t a test of his loyalty, he switches identities with Enzor, who, being an actor in the M:I-verse, is naturally an expert at making totally convincing masks (though he doesn’t do voices, apparently).  Then Rollin takes on Enzor’s identity and makes such a jerk of himself that the other actor storms out of the production, leaving Kuro no choice but to bring in Cinnamon’s preferred actor, Jim.  Cinnamon and “Enzor”/Rollin go to the premier and warn him that Kuro’s changes to the play paint him damningly, so he’ll come to the theater and hear a rehearsal.  The Cone of Silence, which Barney has installed over the premier’s seat, feeds him the fake, prerecorded lines, which are phrased to fit the mouth movements of the actors reading the normal lines that Kuro is hearing.  Basically it comes down to the subtle distinction between satirizing Vados, which the open-minded premier is fine with, and outright slander such as accusing him of having a mistress and embezzled funds in a Swiss bank.  Kuro gets dragged away, bewildered at this turn of events.

This is an enjoyable episode because it’s refreshing to see the team’s clockwork plans thrown off track and require them to struggle to fix things.  It creates an element of suspense that’s too often missing.  The episode also benefits from a very nice original score by Robert Drasnin, who does clever and novel things with the familiar Schifrin themes and adds a lyrical leitmotif for Enzor.  And it features one of Barney’s most awesome gadgets ever, which I can only think to call a U-turn screwdriver — it uses a head with a couple of gears in it to let him turn a screwdriver head pointing backwards, so he can undo the screws on the outside of a grate from the inside.  That’s utterly brilliant.

What bothers me about the episode, though, is that it basically depends on the team quashing the freedom of expression in another country.  They get Kuro removed from power simply because he engages in anti-American propaganda.  Which seems pretty hypocritical.  On a less philosophical note, John Colicos’s character here is not nearly as rich and interesting as the previous character he played (in “The Reluctant Dragon”).  A lot of the dialogue writing is rather heavy-handed.

“The Bargain”: Jim gets the briefing in the office of a roller-skating rink, as though a guy in a 3-piece suit walking through a skating rink would somehow be inconspicuous.  The mission: deposed dictator Neyron (Albert Paulsen in the third of his five M:I appearances) is making a deal with mobster Layton (Warren Stevens) to finance his counter-coup to return to power in exchange for legalized gambling in his country.  Naturally this must be stopped, and for the first time in three weeks we have the whole regular team doing it.  Neyron’s Miami estate is impregnable, so Barney, Cinnamon, and Willy have to get invited in as his new chef and his assistants, after the team convinces his old chef to quit (off-camera).  Meanwhile, Jim and Rollin check into Layton’s mob-owned hotel and convince him that Rollin is a wealthy recluse who seems to want to buy the hotel but is secretly making another kind of deal.

Now, here’s the bizarre part: the plan involves using various tricks and drugs to make Neyron think he’s come down with a rare disease that grants the power of precognition.  Yes, you heard me, they made him think he came down with a bug that lets him predict the future.  This culminates in showing him a pseudo-“holographically” projected film of Layton (actually Rollin in disguise) confronting him over a deal gone wrong and shooting him.  Meanwhile, Jim and Rollin convince Layton that the wealthy recluse is horning in on his deal with Neyron, so he goes to Neyron’s home to take back the bonds he paid him — and coincidentally says and does almost exactly what Rollin did in the film, so Neyron will pre-emptively shoot him.  And Jim calls the cops so Neyron will be arrested (though you’d think an investigation would reveal that the cops got the call before the shooting happened).

Okay, so, seriously — making a guy think he’s precognitive?  That’s really reaching.  And it’s totally unnecessary to the story.  They could’ve done it without any of the fake disease/psychic power stuff, just taken the bonds from Neyron’s safe and done the same sting with Layton.  That might’ve ended with Neyron shot instead of Layton, but then the cops could’ve arrested Layton, or else Neyron’s bodyguards would’ve dealt with him.   Either way, the mission would’ve been accomplished.

So a mediocre and unbelievable episode, and one with no new music to interest me (though it used some worthwhile stock cues, including a lot from “The Contender”).  My favorite gadget this week was an inflatable case that could change from looking like an attache case to looking like a doctor’s bag, so Jim could switch identities quickly.

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Federation social studies

Star Trek: DTI: Watching the Clock established that the Federation Council created the Department of Temporal Investigations in 2270.  Since part of what Star Trek: Forgotten History is about is showing how that happened, I’ve spent most of today trying to figure out stuff about the Federation Council as of 2270.  While novels like Articles of the Federation have done a lot to define the nature and membership of the Council in the 24th century, as well as establishing various 23rd-century Federation presidents, and while Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home actually shows us the Council as it’s constituted in the mid-2280s, I found that essentially nothing has been established about its members as of 2270, at least as far as Memory Alpha and Beta can inform me.  So I couldn’t crib any existing characters for councillors; I had to make them all up from scratch.  (The novel The Lost Years did establish a couple of councillors’ names, but its version of events around that time is incompatible with the modern literary continuity, or at least with Ex Machina.)

So first off I had to figure out what worlds were known or likely Federation members as of 2270, either within canon or within Trek Lit continuity.   Since the council chamber seen in TVH had 60 seats (2 sets of 3 tiers with 10 seats each), I figured the Council might’ve had 50-plus members as of a decade and half earlier.  And when I put together a list of members, drawing first on canon, then on the Lit continuity, then on reference books like Star Charts and the Encyclopedia, and then on sites like Memory Beta (in order of priority, not time), I ended up with 40-odd certain or probable candidates, which is close enough to provide a good roster while leaving some wiggle room for what later books might establish.  (And I had to do a lot of winnowing down of Memory Beta’s list of Federation members, many of which don’t make sense to count as members at all.)

I won’t give my list here, since it’s tentative and conjectural.  But I’ve included a number of the species glimpsed in the background in “Journey to Babel,” and made sure to put them on the sub-councils (similar to congressional committees) that are featured “onscreen” in the novel, along with a few species from the TOS movies, mainly TMP.

So even though I’ve only added a thousand words to the manuscript today, I’ve done a lot of work.  Tiring stuff, and I kinda lost track of time (good grief, it’s 9 PM already?), but it’s nice to have the opportunity to fill in another unexplored slice of the Trek universe.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S3) Reviews: “The Cardinal”/”The Elixir”/”The Diplomat” (Spoilers)

“The Cardinal”: The tape is in a closed library (Jim has the key), and the mission is to stop aspiring Eastern European dictator Zepke (Theodore Bikel) from replacing his country’s beloved Cardinal Souchek (Paul Stevens) with an impostor who will endorse Zepke and let him take power.  (Amazing how many of these nameless Eastern European countries in the M:I-verse are able to fend off totalitarianism through the charismatic influence of a single spiritual leader.)  Somehow Zepke has taken over an entire monastery and replaced its nuns and monks with his soldiers in order to hold Souchek prisoner while the impostor, Nagorski, studies him in preparation for the big broadcast.

Barney uses a gizmo that deploys a long metal pipe (flattened and coiled up within it, so IMDb’s trivia notes say) up to Nagorski’s window and sends up mosquitos that will infect him with a bacillus.  Jim and Cinnamon show up as a doctor and nurse with a convenient flat tire, so Zepke will get them to tend to his impostor.  Rollin then shows up as an old friend of Souchek’s and declaims him as an impostor, so that Zepke will want to bump him off.  Conveniently, the team is aware that Zepke’s preferred method of assassination is suffocation, which in this case means sealing Rollin in a crypt downstairs, and of course Rollin’s cross is a gadget for lifting the lid.  He needed to get into the crypt to open the door from the inside so Barney and Willy could get in, since it’s rigged with a deadfall if opened from outside.  But the tunnel caves in behind B & W and they’re in danger of suffocation themselves if Rollin can’t get out in time, though of course he does.  They sneak into the room where Soucheck is held hostage and Rollin puts on a Souchek disguise to serve as a diversion as Zepke watches through the one-way mirror.   Jim and Cinnamon put the impostor in an oxygen tent that mists up, providing concealment as B & W remove stones from the wall, pull out the impostor, and let the real cardinal take his place in the bed, impersonating his own impersonator, so that when Zepke lets him make his speech, he ends up denouncing him and then escaping in the press of reporters.  For a moment, I was afraid that the impostor would get assassinated in the cardinal’s place (now that the real one was no longer needed), but instead Zepke’s major (Barbara Babcock, disguised as a nun) discovers him bound and gagged and rushes to warn Zepke, arriving moments too late.

Overall, an average episode.  The setup is too familiar, and the scheme relies too much on the team being able to predict details with improbable accuracy.  How’d they know which rooms the cardinal and impostor were in?  And how’d they know suffocation-happy Zepke would put Rollin in the crypt instead of just putting a plastic bag over his head or something?  It’s too contrived a scenario.  But there are a couple of positive points.  Paul Stevens is credible as someone Rollin could impersonate, since there’s a strong resemblance.  There’s a nice continuous shot where we see Stevens as Rollin-in-cardinal-guise begin to remove his prosthetics, then the camera pans to Barney & Willy stowing their equipment, then it pans back to Landau pulling off the last bits of makeup, with the two actors no doubt switching places while the camera looked away.  There’s a decent attempt to create a genuine sense of danger for Barney & Willy with the rockslide.  And the episode’s biggest strength is another all-new (or nearly so?) Jerry Fielding score.

“The Elixir”: Okay, now they’re getting lazy — the tape sequence seems to be in the studio’s screening room, where Jim tells the technician that he’s “here for the special showing” (talk about your unsubtle code exchanges).  For the second week in a row, we deal with a wannabe dictator, this time Riva Santel (Ruth Roman), long the power behind the throne of her Latin American country and now on the verge of announcing her full-fledged takeover following the sudden death of her husband (though whether she orchestrated that death is, I think, not established).  And for the second week in a row, the villain’s plan depends on an impending TV broadcast, in this case a broadcast to mobilize her followers to launch a coup and impose martial law, playing on her personality cult.

Now, this being a female antagonist in a ’60s show, naturally she’s vain and preoccupied with her fading looks, and the team’s gambit plays on that.  Cinnamon plays a TV hostess interviewing Riva, and the team lets Riva “discover” that Cinnamon is actually nearly 70 years old and rejuvenated by a revolutionary new technique involving silicone injections, surgical lasers (surprising to hear a mention of laser surgery in 1968), and hormone treatments.  Naturally she wants the procedure done to her, and Dr. Rollin can only do it the morning before the big speech, so as a precaution she pre-records her speech on videotape.  Barney and Willy have managed to tap the camera feed (through the power cord, somehow — I don’t think it works that way) and make their own tape copy of the speech, which Barney edits to make it sound like a farewell address rather than a call to arms (how convenient that she gave him everything he needed).  The assisting doctor of the week does the surgery on Riva, and she’s covered in bandages.  She’s kept sedated long enough that the taped speech has to be used, and Barney has switched the original tape for the edited copy.  Cinnamon impersonates Riva long enough to get word to the premier that she’s crossed the border, and then the speech plays announcing her retirement.  The real Riva, outraged, pulls off the bandages to reveal that she’s now played by a different actress!  Yes, the rejuvenation surgery was a myth, but apparently it is really possible to totally transform someone’s face in just two hours — which makes one wonder why M:I-verse spies and impostors rely so much on masks. Anyway, nobody believes she’s Riva and she gets hauled away as a lunatic.

Another mediocre episode, too much like the previous one and too reliant on the implausible surgical techniques.  Ruth Roman is unconvincing as a woman who’s built a personality cult around her beauty and charisma, since she really doesn’t have much of either.  And the tape-editing trick is unconvincing, since Barney’s splices are somehow able to produce a seamless edit with no image jumps.  There’s never any sense of peril for the mission or the team, except for a bit where Barney’s camera connection is interrupted when someone trips over the cord, and then some random extra plugs it back in a moment later (without even an intervening commercial break).  Everything unfolds too conveniently for the team.  The episode doesn’t even offer any new music.

“The Diplomat”: Jim gets the tape briefing in a park: Agents from the Nameless Enemy Power have stolen the locations of America’s missile command centers, which could enable a pre-emptive strike.  There’s no way to get the information back, so the team has to discredit it, make it look like the real info is fake info planted by American agents.  For once, the dossier sequence serves a purpose, because instead of the usual setup where every mission happens to call on the talents of the regulars (or where the regulars are used even if someone else would logically be a better choice), we get something closer to the original concept of the series, where Jim recruits several new faces specifically for the mission.  Their target is enemy agent Toland (Fernando Lamas), who’s well-connected in Washington, so instead of trying to pass off Cinnamon (who isn’t in this episode, the first time this season that the whole cast hasn’t been used), they recruit a real diplomat’s wife, Susan (Lee Grant), to seduce Toland and set up a situation where he gets to see her important husband’s book of missile data in her safe.  Rollin plays a paparazzo blackmailing Susan, so that Toland will pay him off for the photos, whereupon a “grateful” Susan will open the safe for him so he can steal the codes and verify the information they have.  Meanwhile, Jim pretends to be an enemy agent, but the team makes sure the bad guys discover the fakery so they’ll know he’s an American spy — so when he hands them the real information, they’ll be convinced it’s fake, and that Toland, who’s just brought them the same info, must also be a spy (ergo, as usual, the bad guys off their own agent).

What’s interesting about this is that Toland is known for poisoning the women he woos and uses, so Susan, a civilian, is in genuine danger of her life.  They can’t fake her poisoning because he’d recognize it as such.  So they have to let him genuinely give her a sleeping-pill overdose and have the guest-doctor-of-the-week standing by to resuscitate her after Toland leaves.  (All these guest doctors — I’m beginning to see why, when they later brought in Sam Elliott to replace Peter Lupus as a regular, they made his character a doctor.)  It adds interest to the briefing scene when Jim and the others have to convince an uncertain Susan and her husband to agree to risk her life for the good of the country.  And there was a moment during Susan’s poisoning when I wondered if they might be daring enough to actually have her die.  Although, of course, it ended up being resolved far too easily and neatly.  Still, the unusual setup added some spice to the formula, and Lee Grant was an engaging special guest star.  So this one goes in the above-average column, though it’s less than it could’ve been.  (As is the music.  Gerald Fried gets credit for the score, but he adds only a few brief cues and some diegetic music, the rest being stock.)

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A heck of a productive day

I didn’t get any writing done on Star Trek: Forgotten History yesterday, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do much today.  When I sat down to start writing, I felt sleepy and unfocused, since I’d had a big lunch (pizza!).  So it was very slow going at first, but I pushed through and got a major scene done.  That was more than enough to count as a good day’s work at this early point in the process when I have plenty of time.  But I was eager to get on with the next sequence that would take me to the end of the chapter — and kind of a significant transition point in the book.  So I sat down and started on it, knowing I had about three and a half hours until my TV show came on.  And aside from a short break in the middle, I ended up writing for most of that period.  And when I finished and did the word count, I discovered I’d written 5800 words today.  Which is an amazing tally, and more than a quarter of the total count so far, as well as getting me up to around a quarter of the total target length fo the book.  I guess it’s because I had a milestone I really wanted to get to — that’s the sort of thing that often prompts me to keep going until I get there — but it’s still a remarkable day’s work.  Heck, if I could do the same every day, I could finish the book in less than two weeks.

On top of that, I decided that I didn’t really need the next scene I had in mind, and could just fold the relevant points into this chapter.  So I’ve saved myself some work in addition to doing a great deal of work, and that pushes me even farther ahead.

Though in a sense, what I’ve just finished was the easy part.  But I’ve got plenty of time to work through the rest.  I can’t remember the last time I made such excellent progress so early in a novel.

And now I’m sleepy.  *yawn*

Dawn probe reaches Vesta orbit!

Yesterday, July 16, 2011, NASA’s Dawn space probe entered orbit around the asteroid (or more properly, protoplanet) Vesta, the second-most massive object in the Main Asteroid Belt.  This is a mission I’ve following with interest, and I made a previous post about it back in April.  But now I can reveal why I’m particularly interested in this mission — because my upcoming novel Only Superhuman is set in the Asteroid Belt, and much of its action takes place on habitats around Vesta (or around Ceres, which Dawn will visit in 2015).  The novel mentions little enough about Vesta itself that I hope I won’t have to do any rewrites as a result of Dawn‘s findings, but I’m going to keep my eye on this just in case, and who knows — maybe I’ll get to write more about Vesta in a sequel.

Here’s the NASA press release:

http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/feature_stories/spacecraft_enters_orbit.asp

And here’s the clearest photo of Vesta to date, taken on July 9:

 Dawn photograph of Vesta

So… we now have direct experience of Vesta.  I guess that means we aren’t Vestal virgins anymore! 😀

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S3) Reviews: “The Mercenaries”/”The Execution” (Spoilers)

“The Mercenaries”: Mission tape is an 8-track in a parked car, nothing special.  The mission is to “destroy” mercenary leader Krim (Pernell Roberts in a Castro-ish beard), who’s ravaging Francophone Africa, pretending to fight for emerging nations but just bleeding them for cash, or something.  The politics are irrelevant.  Basically this is a very clever heist caper.

The plan is to discredit Krim and turn his allies against him by making it look as if he’s stolen the gold from the vault in his enclave (i.e. the “Arab Village” section of the Culver City backlot).  To do that, they have to get him to believe he’s found a rumored treasure in gold left behind by a military regiment years before.  Rollin pretends to be a deserter from that regiment who gets caught with a flake of gold, leading him to be tortured until he reveals where it is.  Meanwhile, Jim and Cinnamon pretend to be gunrunners wanting to do business with Krim, and they stage a scene where Cinnamon seduces Krim and her angry “husband” Jim comes in and threatens Krim with his own gun, so they can swap out the clip for blanks, so Rollin can survive when Krim shoots him after finding the treasure (though he took a big chance that it would be Krim and not his henchman who fired the shot).

But first they have to get the gold, and this is the ingenious part.  When Jim demands to see the gold in the vault as proof that Krim’s money is good, he leaves a metal ball there which rolls to the lowest point in the floor.  Underground, Barney uses a gadget (stud finder?) to pinpoint where the ball rests, then he and Willy drill through several feet of rock and through the floor of the vault.  They insert a device that rises through the floor, deploys an array of heating elements, and melts the gold so that it flows down through the hole!  They pour it into molds to reform it into gold bars again, and once they’re done, the  device sprays plaster over the floor to hide the thin coating of gold that remains, with its own cap then plugging the hole.

Barney and Willy take the gold to the planned cache just in time for Rollin to lead Krim there and get “killed.”  Krim hires Jim to smuggle the gold out, holding Cinnamon as a hostage for his cooperation.  (It’s unclear whether Cinnamon being taken is part of the plan, but it doesn’t create much complication, for Rollin’s easily able to get her out.)  Then it’s just a question of tipping off Krim’s ally Gruner (oddly, the second M:I character to date whose first name is January) that the gold has been stolen.  He offs Krim, and the team drives off in the truck, since conveniently Krim already told the gate sentry not to search it.  What they’re going to do with the ton of gold in the back of the truck is not addressed.

It seems that what constitutes a “good” M:I episode at this point is one that has particularly clever gimmicks and plans, rather than something with strong characterization or a creative departure from formula.  The formula is set, the characters are ciphers, the backgrounds of the missions are just excuses to set up the con game of the week.  It’s all about watching the plan unfold, almost never with any real complication or suspense.  So holding the audience’s interest relies on making the schemes and gimmicks really clever.  In this case, they succeeded.  (Good music helps too.  There are a few nice new Robert Drasnin cues in this episode, though most of the music is stock from previous seasons.)

“The Execution”: Evoking the pilot episode’s opening, Jim trades a code phrase with a staffer in an electronics store and gets shown into the office where the message waits on a reel-to-reel tape deck.  The mission is to stop mobster Parma (Vincent Gardenia), who’s cornered the food market and intends to parley that into broader power or some such thing that, as usual, doesn’t really matter to the story.  We get a shortened dossier sequence to introduce the team consultant, a prison doctor named Loomis (Byron Keith, Batman‘s Mayor Linseed).

The only way to stop Parma is to get one of his men to talk, something they never do because they trust Parma to get them out of trouble with the law.  Jim goes undercover as a produce vendor who refuses to go along with Parma’s protection racket and threatens him, making himself a target for assassination.  For once, there’s a genuine element of risk and uncertainty here, since the team doesn’t know in advance who the assassin will be and what method he’ll use.  But of course they’re on the ball, tapping Parma’s phone to get the hired gun’s name (Victor Duchell, played by Luke Askew), then tracking him as he buys his killin’ supplies.  It takes some deduction to figure out he’s making a “rifle grenade.”  That lets them figure out a defense, using a projection-TV system to make it look as though Jim and Cinnamon are in their apartment’s living room when they’re safely in the back.  (An interesting bit of ’60s insight here: Barney describes the projection-TV rig as “a smaller version of what you see in a theater when they televise an auto race or a fight.”  I guess movie theaters showing live TV was the ’60s equivalent of the modern sports bar with a humongous plasma screen.)  I guess they were also able to deduce where Victor would fire from too, since they’re quickly able to corner him (in disguise as cops, with Willy as a bystander who chokeholds him unconscious).

Victor awakes to find himself in (a fake) prison, seemingly three years later and just hours from his execution.  He’s told that he’s been claiming amnesia throughout his trial but the psychologists didn’t buy it.  He’s forced to watch as another prisoner (Rollin) is readied for and taken to the gas chamber an hour ahead of him.  I imagine Rollin must’ve relished the acting opportunity it gave him, to play a desperate, terrified condemned man in his final minutes.  He (i.e. Landau) does a pretty good job of it.

But again, a complication arises: the team belatedly learns that Victor’s been through this for real, getting saved by Parma mere minutes before the end.  They have to make sure they get nothing wrong in their Death Row simulation, or they may tip him off.  And he’ll be a tough nut to crack in any case.  It’s a more interesting caper than usual, because success depends on psychological factors rather than just every gimmick going off like clockwork.  A bit odd, though; Vic is offered clemency if he’ll testify against Parma, which he refuses to do, but at the same time he insists aloud that Parma will get him off — and isn’t that pretty much a confession right there that he works for Parma?  There’s also the plot hole that the team members have to play two roles each in dealing with Victor, first his victims and arresting cops and then the people he encounters on Death Row, and yet this doesn’t give away the fakery.  There’s a handwave statement that seeing the same faces on different people would add to his disorientation and help them break him, but it’s unconvincing.

Aside from that, though, it’s a tense buildup as Victor is taken right to the moment of his execution.  It isn’t until the “cyanide” is actually starting to fill the room that he breaks down and agrees to testify against Parma (and Jim turns on the tape recorder to catch it).  Conveniently, Rollin has arranged (by faking Vic’s voice on the phone) to draw Parma to the warehouse holding the fake prison set just in time to hear his confession and try shooting him through the bulletproof glass, adding attempted murder to the rap.

All in all, despite a weak setup (cornering the food market?  Really?), this is a tense and effective episode.  The plan goes off about as smoothly as usual, but at least there’s a moderately convincing effort to create suspense and uncertainty.  There’s also a good, mostly new score by Jerry Fielding and some effective, stylish direction by Alexander Singer.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S3) Reviews: “The Heir Apparent”/”The Contender”

Yes, it’s the return of my Mission: Impossible reviews! Several things have converged to revive my interest: The release of the trailer for the upcoming film Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (produced by J.J. Abrams, who made the only good M:I movie to date, and directed by Brad Bird of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille) has got M:I on my mind again; Netflix has begun streaming the entire series online; and I finally have fast enough download speeds (for now, at least) to take advantage of same.  So on to season 3, though I don’t know if I’ll go into as much detail as I did before.  But as usual, be aware of spoilers ahead.

“The Heir Apparent”: The tape sequence uses the old “out-of-order phone booth” trick, in a park this time.  The mission is to stop an evil general, Qaisette (Charles Aidman), from taking over an Eastern European monarchy, Povia, and making it a dictatorship.  Power to name a leader rests with the Archbishop (Torin Thatcher), who refuses to appoint Qaisette.  But he’s old, and I guess the fear is that once he’s gone, Qaisette can seize power.  Or something.   Anyway, the plan is to pass Cinnamon off as the long-dead heiress to the throne, who died with the rest of the royal family in their ouster decades ago — basically a riff on the Anastasia legends.  But the clever thing is, they know Qaisette will never buy it, so they use his skepticism as part of their plan, admitting to him that she’s a fake but getting him to play along with them at convincing the Archbishop that she’s legit — knowing that once that’s done, he’ll expose her as a fraud and discredit the Archbishop, clearing his path to power.  Rollin pretends to be an elderly doctor who treated Anastasia Princess Celine just before her death, giving Qaisette the one piece of medical evidence that conclusively proves her to be a fraud.

There are some really clever bits to the scheme here.  The final test of Celine’s identity is a puzzle box that only she knew how to open.  Barney and Willy get themselves thrown in jail (together in solitary confinement, since apparently the people of Povia have a different definition of “solitary”) so they can dig through the catacombs to get to the royal vault, so Barney can use his brainy smartness to solve the puzzle box.  The clever bit, though, is that they use a quick-hardening liquid to mark the box with a series of Braille-like raised dots that tell Cinnamon what sequence to use to open the box.  But the really clever part is what’s happening with Rollin.  The “elderly doctor” is in the audience, on hand so Qaisette can use his testimony to discredit Celine if she passes all the tests.  But while everyone’s attention is raptly fixed on “Celine” solving the box, Rollin is able to slowly, carefully remove his makeup and pieces of his jacket right in front of everybody, so that when Qaisette finally turns to him, the doctor is gone and only this young stranger remains.  Now, that’s chutzpah.  And a marvelous illustration of a real psychological principle; they’ve done experiments where someone has changed appearance like that when someone looked away for a moment, and the observers didn’t notice the change (even when one person was quickly switched for a different one).  I once saw an online video that told you to focus on a card trick, so that you failed to notice that the color of the backdrop, the tablecloth, the performer’s shirt, etc. was being changed right in front of you.

Naturally, Qaisette has a last-act freakout from having his plans foiled, and confesses that he knows Celine’s dead because he personally burned the palace down.  So he and his minions get hauled away, and the Archbishop names Cinnamon/Celine the new monarch — though he quietly tells her he knows she’s a fake and is grateful to her for saving his country.  And naturally she makes a speech declining the throne and asking the Archbishop to appoint a young leader the people approve of.  I was relieved she didn’t actually declare Povia a democracy, which would’ve been taking the team’s meddling a little too far.

A pretty good start to the season, thanks to those really clever ploys in the endgame.  Still, not perfect; for instance, with all these tests of “Celine”‘s identity, why did nobody think to check whether her grey hair was a wig and her wrinkles makeup?  (Logically, it would’ve made more sense for the IMF to recruit a woman of the right age to play the role.)  And it had the perennial M:I problem of giving us complications just before the commercial and then revealing that they were part of the plan all along.  Worse, they had Jim trading worried expressions with his teammates to sell the illusion that something was going wrong, which is just plain cheating.  I’ve said before that these episodes would be a lot more interesting if things actually would go wrong with their plans for more than 30 seconds and force them to improvise.  And I’m sure I’ll say it again.

“The Contender,” Parts 1 & 2: Jim rents a little pleasure boat (from show creator Bruce Geller)  and goes out on a pond to receive the most ludicrously rationalized mission yet.  They have to stop a criminal, Buckman (Ron Randell), who’s taking over and fixing all pro sports in America, because if he succeeds, America will be ostracized in the global sports community and our enemies wil gain a propaganda victory.  Yes, apparently fixing boxing matches abets the global march of communism.  Jim disposes of the recording “in the usual manner,” something that only seems to be said when he uses an unusual manner, which in this case is just to toss it in the pond (where it merely sinks rather than dissolving like they usually do when tossed in water).

So Jim recruits an ex-boxer, Lemoine (Ron Rich), whose hands were burned in the Army, to help them train Barney (whom he resembles) to take his place.  Lemoine is reluctant to participate in the scam until Jim assures him no fights on the actual record will be fixed by Jim’s team.  This being a 2-parter, we get a lengthy training sequence for Barney (this was before the invention of the training montage, so it’s fairly spread out and intercut with other stuff), with a cameo by The Wild Wild West‘s Robert Conrad (himself an ex-boxer) as Barney’s trainer (called Bobby, so he might be playing himself).  Meanwhile, Cinnamon ingratiates herself with Buckman’s pet fighter so she can move up to Buckman himself, and Jim stages an accident so he can save the life of Buckman’s associate Whelan (John Dehner) and get a job in his gambling operation.  They fix one non-competition fight, letting Barney-as-Lemoine win to convince Buckman to take him on, and then rely on Buckman having the other guys take dives so the underdog Lemoine (Barney) will rise — and eventually be required to take a dive himself once he’s the favorite.  Of course, once that championship match actually comes, Barney doesn’t take the dive, and beats the reigning champ fair and square (taking quite a chance there, huh?).  Meanwhile, the team has a woman go around and place big bets on Lemoine, then make it look as though it was Cinnamon in disguise and convince Whelan that she was working for Buckman, so that Whelan will assume he’s been double-crossed and kill Buckman.  Then the real Lemoine switches with Barney in the dressing room and announces his retirement.  It’s presented as a moment of triumph for him even though he’s taking credit for someone else’s achievement.

Okay, so it’s problematical conceptually.  On top of the rest, it’s an odd way to do a Barney focus, to put him in a purely physical role in contrast to his usual role as the brains of the team.  Not to mention the oddity that he and Rollin use makeup to simulate Lemoine’s moustache, even though the training presumably takes long enough that he could’ve easily grown a real one.  Also, typically of M:I 2-parters, it’s very padded; it brings back the dossier sequence (which was skipped in the premiere), and as usual, the recap of part 1 is nearly 7 minutes long.  But on the plus side, it’s a bit of a change from the usual formula because success depends on skill (Barney’s) rather than trickery and is perhaps less assured as a result.  It’s got an interesting Lalo Schifrin score (so far all three scores have been his) with some nice jazzy bits during Barney’s training.  And the direction by Paul Stanley is taut, moody, and effective.

I’m always on the lookout for familiar elements from Star Trek in M:I, since they were contemporary shows shot on adjacent soundstages, but here I noticed something that may have shown up in a later ST series.  Behind Buckman’s desk was a statue of two men wrestling that looked like the same one the art department of Star Trek: The Next Generation modified into a statue of the Klingons Kahless and Morath.  It’s certainly possible, since studios rarely throw props away, and you never know when something old might get recycled.

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So how was your drive home, Christopher?

Oh, that.  Well, let’s see if I can remember… it’s all sort of blending together.  I got up pretty early on Monday morning, and cousin-in-law Mark advised me that the longer I waited to set out, the worse the rush hour traffic would be on the DC Beltway.  So after having a big bowl of cereal (literally —  their bowls are bigger than mine so I poured more than I intended) and checking the weather (noting a chance of thunderstorms along the route), I packed up and set out at about 7:20 AM.  Getting onto the Beltway was easier this time than back at Thanksgiving; this time I didn’t miss the exit (even though the sign for it was almost hidden by tree branches).  The Beltway traffic wasn’t too bad, and so it was pretty straightforward from there.  I took advantage of every rest stop, knowing I needed to pace myself.  After just about four hours, I left Maryland and entered West Virginia.  My gas was running low as I neared Morgantown, and I tried using my phone’s Yellow Pages application to find a Kroger gas station (so I could use my discount card).  But I don’t actually subscribe to the phone’s GPS service, and I couldn’t quite figure out the directions it gave, so after stopping for lunch, I decided just to give up on Kroger and get gas from the nearest station I could find.  But the first one said on the pump that the gas included ethanol, and I don’t know enough about my car to know if that’s appropriate for it.  And the second charged too much.  So I just went back onto the freeway in search of the next exit.  And lo and behold, there was a sign for Kroger gas!  Not offering nearly as good a discount as I get at home, but it was the cheapest I could find.

Then I took I-79 north into Pennsylvania and up to I-70, and I think it was somewhere in PA that my eyes really started to sting and water (maybe from sweat dripping sunblock into them — that happens sometimes) and I had to pull over until it cleared up.   Unfortunately, the first available place to stop after I took the next exit was a large gravel lot.  For the rest of the drive home, I could hear a piece of gravel rattling around inside one of the wheels.  At least, I really hoped that’s what it was; I’d gone over kind of a big dip in the road when leaving the lot.  But I didn’t have a wheel fall off at 65 MPH and crash and burn horribly, which is a good sign.

Then I left Pennsylvania and ended up… back in West Virginia?!  Well, just that little tiny extension of West Virginia that sticks up in that very narrow space between Ohio and Pennsylvania for reasons surpassing understanding.  Why did the people who drew the PA border need it to be a perfect square at that corner?  Why not just extend it all the way to the Ohio River?  Anyway, I stopped at a rest stop near Wheeling, and luckily they had a TV showing the Weather Channel, which at just that moment was reporting on a very heavy thunderstorm that was going to pass over my route within the next hour or two.  I figured I’d have to stop somewhere and ride it out, but first decided to make as much progress as I could before it hit, so I wouldn’t lose time.  So I kept driving until the sky grew dark, and once the rain started to fall, I pulled off at the next exit.  The only real place to wait there was a gas station/convenience mart, but the rain was coming down hard by the time I parked there, so I definitely made the right call.  I decided to buy an ice cream sundae, and had just finished paying for it when the power went out.  So I ate my sundae in the dark (or the dim, anyway) and watched the storm.  Eventually, once the rain had become light enough and the thunder was coming some 15 seconds after the lightning, I figured the worst was past and got back on the road, though it was  another couple of hours before the rain ended altogether.

The ice cream was around 4 PM, so I didn’t get hungry for a while, which was good, because the storm had made for a long delay and I was hoping to get home before 8 so I could watch the season premieres of Syfy’s Monday shows, and thus didn’t want to stop for dinner.  Once I got past Columbus and onto I-71, I knew I was pushing it; I didn’t expect I’d get home before 8, but the margin was close enough that maybe I could’ve if I’d gone fast enough.  But I was still a little uneasy about that rattle in the wheel, and I didn’t want to take any chances with safety just to get home in time for a show I was recording anyway.  So I took my time, and as I expected, I got home about 10 minutes after 8 — tantalizingly close, but not close enough.  Just as well, since it gave me time to check my mail and settle in a bit.

I must’ve been pretty exhausted, since I slept until after 8 AM the next morning, and I’m still feeling pretty fatigued.  It was a really long trip — just about 12 hours and 50 minutes.  And I still haven’t fully unpacked or caught up on all my recorded shows.  Or gotten around to picking up that laptop battery I need.  It’ll be another day or two before I’m back to normal, I guess.

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ONLY SUPERHUMAN: Introducing Emerald Blair

At Shore Leave this weekend, I got to talk publicly for the first time about some of the details of Only Superhuman, and now I’m going to share them here, along with some character sketches I also showed at the convention.

Only Superhuman takes place roughly a century from now in the Main Asteroid Belt of the Solar System.  The Belt inhabitants, called Striders (corruption of earlier “stroiders”), have had to embrace human modification through genetics, bionics, etc. to survive the radiation and microgravity of space.  Many soon went beyond mere survival to explore more extensive “mods” (a term that came to apply to transhumans themselves as well as their enhancements), effectively giving themselves superpowers.  Naturally, some individuals, groups, and nations began using these powers for personal gain at the expense of others, or clashing with rivals at the expense of innocent bystanders.  But who would help the victims?  The Striders are a highly nationalist bunch, suspicious of outside authority.  Space habitats must be tightly controlled, regimented environments, and Striders accept the need for that to preserve their own homes, but assert their independence by being highly resentful of foreign or outside authority.  The sheer diversity of the Strider populations (for different asteroids’ distinct orbits, resources, and the like promote the development of distinct cultures) also keeps them from getting along.  As such, any attempt to get Striders involved in law enforcement outside their own local jurisdiction is problematical, and the Belt is a rather lawless place.

But just as there were some mods who used their transhuman abilities for harm, there were some who chose to use them to help and protect their neighbors in times of need.  These special few (at least, those capable and powerful enough to survive the attempt) came to be known as Troubleshooters, and soon gained a reputation in the public eye as larger-than-life, romanticized figures, essentially superheroes.  But the Troubleshooters could only do so much as individuals, and sometimes clashed over methods and jurisdiction.  Eventually, the greatest of the Troubleshooters organized the rest (at least, those who would agree to follow the rules) into the Troubleshooter Corps (TSC), a non-governmental organization promoting and coordinating their efforts.  Knowing that the Striders would resist their aid if they presented themselves as a paramilitary or mercenary group, they embraced their media image as superheroes — colorful, flamboyant celebrity crimefighters with distinctive costumes and code names, role models that people could look up to and trust implicitly.

The newest Troubleshooter is 22-year-old Emerald Blair, nicknamed the Green Blaze:

Emerald Blair, "Green Blaze"

Copyright Christopher L. Bennett

In many ways, “Emry” Blair is an ideal Troubleshooter recruit: your classic superheroine, a hot redhead with ample muscles and ample curves.  She’s got superhuman strength, senses, reflexes, endurance, healing ability, and intelligence (though not necessarily judgment).  She’s even got the obligatory tragic past motivating her heroics — a past that includes several years as a juvenile delinquent and mod-gang member called Banshee.  This was a rebellion against her father, who was once a member of the Vanguard habitat-nation.  The Vanguardians were the first human community to embrace transhuman mods beyond mere survival needs and the first to use their augmented abilities to protect people; as such, they were considered the first real superheroes.  But they got too ambitious and heavy-handed.  Public opinion turned on them and they retreated to the outer reaches of the Belt to live in isolation as the Strider community grew without them.

But now they’re back.  And they’re apparently in bed with other mod nations known for unsavory or unethical practices.  The Troubleshooters, under new leadership, send the Green Blaze to infiltrate them, playing on her family ties to find out what they’re up to, if anything.  But the last thing Emry wants is to confront that side of her past.  And she’s uneasy about the Corps going after people who haven’t done anything yet.  Is it a way of heading off trouble before it comes, or something more dangerous?  Emerald Blair is caught between two factions seeking to bring their own brand of order to the Striders, and in the process she’s forced to confront the tragedies of her own past and decide what kind of superhuman — and what kind of person — she will become.

Emerald Blair portrait

Copyright Christopher L. Bennett

Why “Emerald Blair?”  Well, because I thought “Emerald” would be a cool name for a character (green is my favorite color), and I decided to create one.   I had recently (back in 1988 when this began) had the idea to explore superpowers in a scientifically plausible way, so I decided Emerald would be a superhuman operative.  I picked the Solar System frontier in the early 2100s because it was a setting I hadn’t explored before — and ultimately it ended up meshing rather well with the transhuman elements of the concept. I chose “Blair” as a name that was neither too ordinary (like the gazillion characters with exotic first names and the last name “Jones,” from Cyrano to Indiana to Cleopatra) or too exotic.  I’m not sure where it specifically came from (maybe just from repeating “Emerald blank” to myself to sound out the rhythm), but it struck a happy medium.

For the first 15 years, she was just Emerald “Emry” Blair, no other name.  But when I abandoned my initial Troubleshooterspec novel, rethought everything from the ground up, and decided to embrace the superhero elements of the concept more fully, that left Emry in need of a code name.  Perhaps “Green Blaze” is unimaginative, too much of a riff on her real name, but I didn’t want to go too far afield, and it’s not as if Troubleshooters’ identities are secret (not most of them, anyway).   Plus it evokes a lot of classic costumed heroes — Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Green Hornet, Green Goblin (hey, at least one version of Gobby has been heroic).

Emerald Blair (profile)

Copyright Christopher L. Bennett

Yes, these drawings are my own work, done in pencil and colored pencil.  The full-face portrait was finished in 2002 (though I did several earlier drafts over the preceding 5-6 years), the profile (my favorite) done in 2003.  The full-length “Green Blaze” portrait is a mostly digital reworking, finished in 2011, of a 2002 drawing done before I’d fully embraced the superhero idea (so her costume was not quite so flashy there).  Since this is that design modified to fit my new ideas, I see it as more an approximation, a concept sketch, than an authoritative Green Blaze costume design (although it is consistent with the costume details mentioned in the novel).  But as far as the face and physique are concerned, these are the drawings that guided how I described Emerald in Only Superhuman.

Emerald’s face is inspired by my best friend from college, but I used a photo of an actress from a magazine for reference and adjusted the features from memory (it was a photo from the late ’80s, hence the big hair — just assume she’s in very low gravity).  The hair color is inspired by a different girl I knew in high school, and I’m rather proud of how it turned out in the original portrait, though I’m not sure the colors came through quite right in the scans, especially the profile.  Ideally it should evoke the colors of autumn leaves.   Emry’s physique in the full-length portrait is modeled on tennis star Serena Williams, although Emry is a few inches shorter.  I wanted Emry to be both muscular and voluptuous, but in a realistic way rather than a comic-book exaggeration, and in a functional way like a working athlete rather than the display-oriented build of a female bodybuilder.  I like the contrast between Emry’s dainty, elfin face and her powerful body.

I have no idea if Emry will look like this on the novel’s cover, or if she’ll be on the cover at all.  That’s up to the Tor art department.  But my editor has my sketches.  And at least the readers of my blog will know what she looks like in my mind.

Shore Leave stuff

I’m home!  I was going to make a second Shore Leave-related post on Saturday evening, but I still had three panels that day, and since I had pretty low turnout at my solo panel, I figured my news about Only Superhuman and my Trek projects would still be new information for a lot of people there, so I wanted to wait until I’d “debuted” the news a second time before posting it here.  And after I left on Sunday, I went to Cousin Barb’s in the DC area to stay overnight, and we went over to her friend’s house for dinner and a movie (the same friend who cooked us Thanksgiving dinner last year), and then I went to bed early and set out early the next morning and spent the whole lonnnnnngggg day driving home, so I didn’t get to post until now.

Here’s what I had in draft on Saturday night:

Well, my day feels like it’s been more eventful than it looks when I review my activity.  I didn’t go to that many panels — I sat in the audience on a writing-advice panel at 11 and a Star Trek Magazine panel at 1, then had lunch in my room and rested up, then spent half an hour or so talking to Paul Simpson about my 4 PM panel, as well as to Scott Pearson and Marco Palmieri when they showed up.  Then I rehearsed how I planned to talk about Only Superhuman a bit (and I fumbled it in the actual talk), then came the big event, my panel.  Well, big for me.  The audience was fairly small, maybe 8 people or so.  Still, it was fun to get to talk about OS at last, and I even did a dramatic reading of a scene from the book.  (Maybe I should’ve announced that in advance, but I wasn’t sure I’d go through with it.  I should’ve remembered that I’m an inveterate ham given the chance.)  I also revealed some exclusive info about my upcoming Trek projects.

The Only Superhuman news will be in a separate post following this one.  Here’s the Trek news:

Star Trek: Typhon Pact: The Struggle Within has two parallel plotlines, dealing with the least-explored species on both sides of the current political divide in the Trek Lit universe: on the Typhon Pact side, the Kinshaya (a species introduced in passing references in John M. Ford’s classic novel The Final Reflection and only seen to date in Keith R.A. DeCandido’s A Singular Destiny, the novel that introduced the Typhon Pact) and on the side of the expanded Khitomer Alliance, the Talarians from TNG’s “Suddenly Human.”  Most of the other Pact member species will also be featured to some extent.

Star Trek: Forgotten History (or Star Trek: DTI: Forgotten History, as it’s still being billed on the Simon & Schuster sites) is the “origin story” of the Department of Temporal Investigations, a group whose founding date was established in earlier works as 2270.  Naturally, the time-travel exploits of Kirk and the Enterprise are heavily involved in those foundational events.  The main body of the novel begins in 2267, exploring the Starfleet/Federation response to Kirk’s time-travel discoveries, but the bulk of it takes place in the era following Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Yes, I’m finally getting to revisit the post-TMP timeframe I’ve previously explored in Ex Machina and Mere Anarchy: The Darkness Drops Again, and I’m very pleased about it.  Additionally, the novel has a frame story featuring the 24th-century DTI characters from Watching the Clock — and several of the DTI’s older members, the characters established as having been alive at the time, will play at least small roles in the main body of the story as well.

So to some extent, Forgotten History is both a prequel and a sequel to Watching the Clock, and both a prequel and a sequel to Ex Machina.   Yet I’m taking care to write it as a self-contained tale, something you can follow without having read either prior work.

I didn’t mention this at the con, since I didn’t know it yet, but Simon & Schuster’s site now has publication dates listed for both of these: The Struggle Within is listed for October 4, 2011 (eBook only), and Forgotten History is listed for April 24, 2012 (making it the May book for next year).

Oh yeah, that Shore Leave thing…

Sorry, I forgot to post yesterday to say I arrived intact at Shore Leave.  It was a pretty uneventful drive, except for the few minutes of blinding rain on Friday morning.  And that time Thursday evening when I tried to see whether I could go up hills better in low gear than in drive, and learned it’s probably not a good idea to shift into first while travelling at 65 mph.  Lucky the driver behind me was alert.

So anyway,  I waited at home until about 1:30 Thursday, then called the computer place and learned the laptop battery hadn’t come in.  Since I was almost entirely packed and ready, I left as soon as possible thereafter, and was on the highway by a bit after 1:50.  It was just about seven hours later that I decided it was getting too twilit and foggy to make it to the next exit that had motels (at least, ones listed in the coupon books you can find at rest areas) and stopped for the night in Somerset, PA.  I didn’t get enough sleep, but I was alert enough (with help from a chocolate donut from what passed for the motel’s “continental breakfast” and some iced tea from a service plaza a bit further on) to make it the remaining three and two-thirds hours to Hunt Valley.

I had a good idea.  I prefer to drink filtered water, which I can’t be sure of getting on a trip, so in addition to my usual metal bottle full of ice water, I also filled up my 2-quart plastic bottle and stored it in the freezer the night before I left, then wrapped it in a towel and put it under a heavy blanket in the back seat.  Once my smaller bottle ran out, I was able to refill it from the big bottle as the ice melted.  By Friday night, I still had a respectable chunk of ice in there, and it survived overnight in the motel room’s mini-fridge.  When I got to the Shore Leave hotel, I still had a big chunk of ice in the pitcher, but I realized belatedly that this hotel doesn’t have mini-fridges in the rooms for some reason.  So I just wrapped the ice bottle in the towel and stuck it in the ice bucket in the cabinet.  (Both the ice machines on this floor were out of ice, so I got no help there.)  Actually I should’ve insulated it less, because I reached the point where I was out of water in my metal bottle and the ice remaining in the big bottle was in too big a chunk to fit into the little one.  So I had to refill the little bottle with water from one of the water coolers sitting around for the convention.  And as of this morning, the ice chunk is completely melted.  Oh, well.  It was good while it lasted.

Haven’t done much conventioneering yet.  Most of the folks I know were busy elsewhere when I wandered the floor, though I had a good talk with Voyager novelist Kirsten Beyer.  The big event was the Meet the Pros signing party last night, and I got to see most of the gang and talk with a bunch of them, mostly my Mere Anarchy colleagues Dave Galanter and Mike W. Barr, and also my Only Superhuman editors Greg Cox and Marco Palmieri.  It was cool to be able to talk to Greg about the book in person (although he talks really fast…).  It’s heartening to hear someone who isn’t me talk about it with such enthusiasm.

Right now, I’m finishing up my blueberry pancakes and banana smoothie from room service, plus tea from the room’s coffee maker.  Pretty nice, though a bit rich; I knew there was a reason I usually stuck to the light menu.  Oh, well, I wanted a change of pace.

My big event today, indeed my only scheduled event today, is my solo panel at 4 PM, to be moderated by Star Trek Magazine editor Paul Simpson (whom I finally met in person yesterday).  I’ll be talking about my upcoming Trek projects Typhon Pact: The Struggle Within and the TOS/DTI novel Forgotten History, and particularly about Only Superhuman, which I’m sure I’ll go on about in detail, complete with visual aids.  I hope to see a lot of people there, though I’m apparently competing with a Tricia Helfer panel, so I’m not holding my breath.

Leaving for Shore Leave today…

But I’m not sure when.  The computer place still hasn’t gotten my new laptop battery in, so I pretty much have to wait until either they have it or I’m sure they won’t get it today.  I’ll be able to get by without it, so long as I bring the power cord, but I’ll have more flexibility if I have a working battery.   Actually we tried another battery yesterday, an untested one the store guy picked up at the distributor or something, but it wouldn’t charge at all.  Which is the same problem the other battery has.  I’m starting to wonder if the fault could be with the laptop itself rather than the batteries.

(I considered taking the old laptop, but it’s heavier and much slower, and its battery only has a couple of hours’ worth of life anyway.)

As it happens, the latest time it’s likely to come in is just about the latest time I’m willing to leave, around 2.  That should give me 6-7 hours of daylight for driving.  Less than I’d like, but enough to get at least halfway to Baltimore.  And really, it doesn’t matter if I don’t get too far today, since I’ll have pretty much all day tomorrow; I don’t have any events that day until Meet the Pros at 10 PM.  Still, hopefully I’ll be able to get on the road earlier today, to give myself more leeway.  The forecast calls for scattered thunderstorms along my route tomorrow, so the more driving I can get in today, the better.

Weirdness with download speeds

For a couple of days there, it looked like there was something seriously wrong with my new laptop (an HP Compaq) — it seemed to be loading pictures and videos from the Internet incredibly slowly, even more slowly than my old laptop (an HP Pavilion).  I was used to a download speed for videos of roughly real time — a 5-minute video would take about 5 minutes to load.  But now it was taking two to five times as long, which made for a very long wait.  I was worried that this was a serious flaw with the new laptop, and I wondered if there was some way to repair it.  But anyway, when I needed to watch a video this morning (a Gargoyles episode on YouTube, because my stupid DVR failed to record it on TV last night), I decided to plug the DSL cable back into the Pavilion and watch it there.  And the video loaded just as slowly.  So it wasn’t a problem with the Compaq, but with the DSL connection.  That was a relief, but I was still annoyed about the slow connection.

But once I plugged the DSL cable back into the Compaq, I discovered that suddenly everything — pictures, videos, pages — was loading much faster.  I’m used to seeing download speeds of several dozen KB, but suddenly I’m getting hundreds.  It was a refreshing but bewildering acceleration.  Could just moving the DSL connection from one computer to another and back have had some effect?

Then I noticed something. I have to keep my DSL modem on the floor, because the layout of my apartment is such that the best place for the desk is inconveniently far from the phone jack, and the cord that goes from the modem to the jack is too short to reach the desk.  Since the modem gets somewhat warm, I keep it turned up on its side so that both its largest-area surfaces are exposed to the air for maximum ventilation.  Usually I keep it with one side down, so that the status lights are on the right when I face it; but moving the USB cable from the Compaq on my desk to the Pavilion on my dining table knocked the modem over, and when I put it on its side again, it was the other way up, with the status lights to the left.  It’s hard to believe this could have an effect, but it’s the one clear change that correlates with the sudden increase in speed.  Could there be some connection or something inside the modem that’s more firmly connected with gravity pulling it in one direction than in the other?  Could that be the difference between the sluggish, unreliable connection I’ve learned to put up with and the lightning-fast connection I’m getting this afternoon?  I hope so, because that means it’s a very simple fix to the problem.  And I hope it lasts.

Now if only I could fix the DVR so it stops being “unable to record this program”…

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