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Archive for August, 2011

Tentative cover for STAR TREK DTI: FORGOTTEN HISTORY

The Simon & Schuster Digital Catalog has a tentative cover up for Forgotten History, which apparently is being published under the DTI banner after all:

 

Star Trek DTI: Forgotten History 

Granted this is a tentative cover, but I like the continuity with the Watching the Clock cover, the reuse of the Shepherd’s Gate Clock face from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich as a design element.  Having Kirk’s Enterprise fly through it is a great touch.  And looming above it all, the face of James T. Kirk, the bogeyman of the DTI… it’s an excellent design, really fitting for the book.

The catalog page is here.  The blurb that’s currently up there is the one from Watching the Clock, so just ignore it.

Movie review: SOURCE CODE (spoilers)

I just came across Duncan Jones’s Source Code at the library, and since I liked Moon, I decided to check it out despite some lukewarm reviews I’ve heard (besides, it’s free — yay, libraries!).  I thought it was a fairly good movie.  I liked it right off the bat for two things — one, it had an impressive score by a composer I’ve never heard of, Chris Bacon (whose most notable composer credit other than this, at least as far as I’m concerned, is the infamous rejected Wonder Woman pilot from earlier this year), and two, it actually had a proper main title sequence with honest-to-gosh credits at the start of the film!  That’s become so rare these days, it’s refreshing to see.  It’s definitely the way I prefer it.  I don’t like having to wait until the end to find out who was involved in a film.  Anyway, the main titles and Bacon’s theme (which evoked Herrmann’s North by Northwest and some of Goldsmith’s work) gave it a nice classic suspense-film feel right off the bat, and I liked the bright, vivid cinematography.

I had mixed reactions to the cast.  Jake Gyllenhaal was okay as the lead, Stevens, and he had some quirky reactions now and then that were pretty appealing, but he was just slightly off in a way I can’t pin down.  He wasn’t bad, but someone else could’ve probably done better.  Michelle Monaghan was perfect and sweet and glowing as Christina, which is what the film asked of her; it might’ve been nice if her character had been less idealized, but she filled the role well.  Vera Farmiga was also effective as Goodwin, a good mix of professionalism, doubt, and sympathy.  I wasn’t crazy about Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Rutledge, the head of the source code project.  I know the character was supposed to be unsympathetic (even though he was trying to save lives and was arguably more in the right about Stevens’s final disposition than Stevens himself and Goodwin were), but an actor can play a jerk yet still be more engaging to watch and listen to than this.  (And it bothered me that the unsympathetic character was given a physical handicap.  That’s an unfortunate stereotype that movies really should’ve grown beyond by now.)

The way the story was unfolded was quite engaging — we and Stevens are thrown into the situation without understanding what’s going on, and the mysteries are gradually explained as the film progresses, with some really unexpected twists, some of which I was fortunately unspoiled on.  Of course, when we finally got an explanation of what the “source code” was and how Stevens was being enabled to relive the last eight minutes before a train bombing over and over again, it was complete gibberish; but that just puts the film more in the realm of fantasy than science fiction, and that isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker.  A lot of classic Twilight Zone episodes were built around similarly fanciful “science.”  If anything, I’m reminded of Quantum Leap, which was evidently an inspiration for this film (given the premise of jumping into someone else’s body in the past, and given that Stevens’s father, when we finally hear him over the phone, is played by Scott Bakula).  Here, as in that show, the technology that enables the time-jumping is hocus-pocus and the name of it has no real applicability to the thing it’s being used for.  (Although I guess the idea is that what the memory-reading system does is analogous to reading the source code of a software system — they’re reading the “source code” of a brain and reconstructing its memories from that.)  But the science isn’t the point; it’s just a plot device.

And that’s key to accepting the final twist in the film (spoilers), which is that the “source code” technology is more powerful than its creators realized; what they thought was just using some quirk of quantum information theory (I’m extrapolating) to somehow tap into and reconstruct the short-term memory of a recently-deceased brain was, in fact, allowing Stevens’s mind to connect with the past of alternate timelines, actually to “leap” into the Sean Fentress of those timelines and affect their events.  Looked at that way, the ending kind of makes sense; Stevens couldn’t alter the past of his own timeline, couldn’t undo the disaster, but he was able to branch off a new one where he could prevent the disaster.  And once he didn’t have his own body to return to, he was able to remain there.  I recall criticisms that the ending contradicted what the film had previously established, and that’s a fatal flaw in a story.  But what makes this ending acceptable is that it only contradicts what the scientists employing this technology believed about how it worked.  Throughout the film, Stevens is fighting against that belief, trying to prove that his experiences have a greater reality than Rutledge and Goodwin think they do.  And there’s certainly evidence that they do; the very fact that he’s able to change things suggests he’s not just reliving memories, and when characters on the train are able to access Internet data that Sean couldn’t possibly have in his short-term memory, that pretty much proves he occupies a reality beyond just those reconstructed memories.  Rutledge and Goodwin can’t know that because they’re not “inside the source code” like he is, so they don’t realize what it is they’ve actually tapped into.  That’s a fanciful premise, but it’s a self-consistent one, so it’s okay.

Still, I wouldn’t have minded some more exposition about how this was supposed to work.  How did Rutledge’s people tap into a dead man’s memories?  Did they have Sean’s brain there with them at Nellis AFB?  The film gave more of an impression that their technology was somehow reaching into the aether to retrieve the “afterglow” of Sean’s mind, which is a lot harder to suspend disbelief about.

Also, the identity of the bomber was ridiculously easy to figure out.  As soon as the second run-through, there was a clear suspect, since (spoilers again) the film twice showed us the “you dropped your wallet” bit to call attention to the guy who got off the train.  It was a bit too telegraphed.  And really, Stevens should’ve been focusing all along on people who got off.

One thing puzzles me.  I could swear I’ve seen a story like this before, where the hero has to jump back into the same event over and over and figure out how it happened, but he (she?) jumped into a different person each time.  In fact, until I watched this movie, I thought that was what happened in it.  So what story am I thinking of?

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Transplant complete…

I’m posting this from my new new laptop, with the previous laptop’s hard drive installed.  Which was a rather easy operation for the guy at the computer shop to perform, taking just a couple of minutes.  So far, all my programs and software appear to be intact.  The battery now holds a charge, though I had a bit of a scare when it didn’t seem willing to recharge.  I was almost convinced that the problem was with the AC adaptor and swapping out the whole computer had been a waste — but then I remembered that the adaptor was fine at providing AC power to the computer, so why wouldn’t it charge the battery?  So I shut the computer down and restarted it on battery power, thinking that might put it in the right frame of mind, so to speak; then I let it drain to 90%, and then I plugged in the charger.  And lo and behold, the charging light went on, and the power meter has been creeping upward.  Oddly, the recharge light is green even though the charge is below 100%, but it still seems to be charging.  Maybe that’s just a difference in the way this model of computer is put together — the light is green if it’s within several percent of a full charge, rather than at 100% as on my old Pavilion laptop.

The performance seems to be the same (for better or worse) and the hardware seems to be the same — with only one slight exception.  The previous laptop had Bluetooth installed but not enabled, while the new one lacks it.  Which doesn’t really matter to me, since I didn’t use Bluetooth for anything, but I kinda liked having the potential to have my phone and my laptop communicate through Bluetooth, even though I don’t really know exactly what that would entail.  Oh, well.  I guess if there should ever come a time when I need Bluetooth, I could get it installed.

I have yet to find out how much time the battery would give me at maximum.  So far I’ve mostly been using it with an external keyboard and monitor plugged in, and I assume those draw an additional power load.  But I’m sure it’s somewhat over 3 hours at least, and that’s somewhat better than the Pavilion, though not as good as I’d hoped.  I guess I’ll see next time I go on a trip, at the latest.

For now, though, I can say that the battery problem is resolved, though I still think it’s ridiculous that the way to “fix” the computer was to replace virtually the whole dang thing.  The store guy couldn’t tell me whether the manufacturer would repair, recycle, or just toss out the defective laptop, unfortunately.  Then again, when I bought my HP printer a while back, it was in a nifty reusable tote bag instead of plastic wrap, so I have some reason to believe that HP cares about being “green” and wouldn’t just throw it away.

And at least the replacement means that the store is going to reset my 60-day warranty period, in case something goes wrong with the new Compaq.  Which is well-timed, because I bought the first Compaq exactly 60 days ago.

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Cover for TYPHON PACT: THE STRUGGLE WITHIN released!

The cover to my upcoming e-novella Star Trek: Typhon Pact: The Struggle Within has been released by Simon & Schuster.com:

Typhon Pact: The Struggle Wtihin

Despite being an e-book, the cover design here is in keeping with the design used for the previous four novels in the Typhon Pact series.

I can understand the marketing reasons for focusing exclusively on the novella’s Enterprise-centric plot in the cover art and blurb, since the other, parallel plotline focuses on two book-only characters (Jasminder Choudhury and T’Ryssa Chen) and a book-only species (the Kinshaya). Still, it would’ve been nice to see a rendering of Jasminder or T’Ryssa. And getting to see a Kinshaya would’ve been really cool too.

Typhon Pact: The Struggle Within goes on sale on or around October 4.  That’s only about six weeks from now!

More laptop woes

Well, I’ve been waiting nearly 2 months for that replacement laptop battery to come in, and when I checked in on Monday, the guy at the shop told me it would be in today.  So I walked up there this afternoon to see if it was in, and the IT guy told me that the main guy was out picking up the battery and I needed to come back later.  So I walked back home, and that was more than enough walking for me, so when I went in a little later, I drove over.  We put the new battery in and tried charging it — and nothing happened.

Which confirmed what I’ve been fearing for a while, that the problem is with the laptop rather than the battery.  And apparently the way to fix it is not just to go inside the thing and find and repair whatever circuit or capacitor or chip or whatever causes the problem — the way to fix it is to replace the whole dang laptop, except for the hard drive.  I was confused when they told me that, because when I suggested that before when I bought a new computer, I was told that it couldn’t work, that you’d have to reinstall and reload everything from scratch.  But now they tell me that that’s only if you’re dealing with two different models of computer.  If two computers have identical hardware, they say, you can swap out the hard drive with no problem.  So the guy’s going to get me a new laptop tomorrow.  Luckily the 60-day warranty is still good for another, like, two days.

It just seems so inefficient, doesn’t it?  Replace the whole machine for one damaged part?  But that’s the way technology generally is these days.  I hope that the laptop I’m using now won’t just be trashed, that it’ll be sent back and refurbished or something.  I’ll ask about that.

Anyway, I still had a few minutes left on the meter when I left, so I walked over to a sub shop to get some dinner, and got back to my car just about 2 minutes after the meter ran out.  And then I noticed something on the windshield.  My first-ever parking ticket.  “For two minutes?” I thought.  But then I checked the ticket and it said “No Pkng 4-6 PM M-F.”  I looked around in confusion for a sign to that effect, and eventually found a little sticker on the parking meter.  Oops!  And to think, I was considering parking in the lot right next to the street, whose meters seem to have just been taken out.  But I wasn’t sure whether that meant the lot was okay for public parking, and I didn’t want to risk… wait for it… getting a ticket.

Oh, well.  Hard-to-read signage or no, it was my mistake, and I take responsibility for my mistakes.   Luckily it turns out you can pay tickets online these days, so I’ve already gotten that taken care of.   I was a bit surprised at how much the payment was — not a huge amount, but maybe 20% or so more than I expected — but I guess that’s why they call it a penalty.  I will remember to check parking meters more carefully in the future.

But just think… if I’d waited a while longer before going to the computer shop the first time, I would’ve only needed to make one trip on foot and the parking meter would never have been an issue.  Again, no one to blame but myself.  Anyway, I’m definitely walking to the computer store tomorrow.

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Movie review: AGORA

In the library the other day, I happened upon a DVD of a movie called Agora, which caught my interest because it was about Hypatia of Alexandria, the philosopher/astronomer who’s the most (and probably only) famous female scholar of the Hellenistic age, and whose murder has been cited by some as the downfall of that age and the beginning of the Dark Ages.  I’ve been interested in Hypatia’s story ever since I learned about her from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and apparently so was the film’s director, Alejandro Amenábar.  He started out wanting to make a film about the history of astronomy from Hypatia to Einstein, but ended up focusing specifically on Hypatia and the Alexandria she lived in, but as a microcosm representing a much larger story.

The film is a Spanish production, but has a multinational cast and crew and is in English.  It stars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, beginning in her youth as a lecturer at the Library of Alexandria (or rather, the Serapeum, where the surviving texts were brought when the original Library was burned in Caesar’s time), where she lectured and taught disciples of both pagan and Christian faiths, and was caught in the middle as tensions between the faiths erupted into violence, ultimately leading to the trashing of the Library by decree of the (Christian) Roman emperor.  It then jumps forward to the final years of her life, in which she was a chief advisor to the city’s prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and thus came under challenge by Bishop Cyril (Sammy Samir), who objected to a pagan (and according to the film, a woman) advising the now-Christian city’s ruler.  Ultimately Hypatia was killed by a mob, and her teachings, like the contents of the Library, were lost to posterity.

The film does a marvelously researched and detailed job recreating 4th/5th-century Alexandria, as is fascinatingly discussed in the DVD’s hourlong making-of feature, and is made with considerable naturalism and verisimilitude.  But it should not be mistaken for an accurate account of Hypatia’s life and death.  As I said, the film uses these events as a microcosm or symbol of the history of science and the transition from the Hellenistic era to the Dark Ages, so a lot of historical liberties are taken.  The timeline is compressed, the main characters not significantly aging even though the two halves of the film represent events that came some 24 years apart.  Hypatia’s friend Synesius (Rupert Evans), whose letters represent the principal historical source for Hypatia’s life, is present in the film until the end even though the real Synesius died two years before her.  Orestes is consolidated with another, unnamed figure from history, a suitor whom Hypatia rejected in a rather infamous way that’s depicted in the film.  The second lead, Max Minghella, plays a fictional character, Davus, who starts out as Hypatia’s adoring slave and then joins the Christians and pretty much goes through the film not being sure what side he’s on; if anything, he’s sort of a personification of the zeitgeist of Alexandria itself, a viewpoint character through whom the audience can follow the shifting political and cultural forces pulling the city in multiple directions.  Most of all, Hypatia herself is shown anticipating millennia of scientific progress, starting out a firm believer in the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe but gradually coming around to Aristarchus’s heliocentric model and even making Kepler’s breakthrough, realizing that the orbits of the planets are ellipses rather than circles, only to be killed before she can pass the insight on to posterity.  (The film’s POV periodically rises into space, looking down on the Earth, reminding us of the cosmic truths that Hypatia seeks and the other characters in the film remain ignorant of.)

Is this too great a break from reality?  Not necessarily, though it’s a stretch.  Hypatia’s work and writings were lost to history, as many insights of the ancient Greeks were lost to the Western world for thousands of years (though the Muslim world retained and expanded on a lot of it — it’s important to remember that the Dark Ages were a phenomenon of Western Europe, not the entire world [EDIT 7/27/2019: Or rather, that the “Dark Ages” didn’t even exist, but were invented after the fact by Renaissance historians who glorified Greece and Rome and assumed the age after their fall was automatically “dark.”]).  Hypatia’s expertise in astronomy and geometry gave her the necessary grounding, so if anyone in the period could’ve figured it out, it’s believable that she could have.  What gives me the most pause is the scene showing her conducting an experiment to prove the existence of inertia, supporting the idea that the Earth could move and we couldn’t detect the motion because our frame of reference moves with it.  The thing is, the main reason Hellenistic science fell short of the modern breakthroughs it was on the verge of reaching was that it was a slavery-based society.  The intellectuals who did the thinking considered actually doing things, building things and performing work and so forth, to be the business of slaves, beneath their notice, so they didn’t have the mindset to consider practical experimentation useful as a means of testing their hypotheses.  And the movie does portray Hypatia as taking the institution of slavery for granted.  Then again, the crux of its portrayal of the character is her ability to question her preconceptions, so maybe she could’ve overcome that prejudice along with her Ptolemaic prejudices.

And that’s pivotal.  The film’s portrayal of Hypatia anticipating Kepler isn’t meant to be historically accurate, but symbolic.  For one thing, it symbolizes all the unknowable works, writings, and insights of the ancients that were tragically lost when the Library of Alexandria was sacked, when Hellenistic knowledge was condemned as paganism and destroyed, when great minds like Hypatia were persecuted and killed.  With so much of their work lost to posterity, who knows what they might have discovered?  More fundamentally, it symbolizes the theme of the film.  All around Hypatia, throughout Alexandria, characters of all faiths are preoccupied with the purity and perfection of their beliefs to the degree that they feel driven to persecute, expel, or murder those who believe differently, and thereby completely miss the point of their beliefs.  And yet Hypatia’s scientific quest leads her to realize that the surface we stand on may not be fixed, that our perceptions may be relative to our frame of reference, and that there may be more than one center of all things.  Her discoveries in the film may be anachronistic, but they symbolize the film’s message about the folly of dogmatism and intolerance, and they echo her own willingness, even need, to question and move beyond what she believes.

Apparently some have denounced the film as anti-Christian, but I don’t think that’s true.  Pagans, Christians, and Jews are all shown persecuting and attacking people of other faiths, and there are decent characters of all faiths who are defined by their willingness to look beyond religious categories and accept those who disagree.  So it’s not against any one religion, it’s against the abuse of religion as an excuse for intolerance and persecution.  Indeed, the film is full of morally ambiguous characters, people who are capable of the best and worst of humanity.  A key example is Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom), leader of a Christian group called the Parabalani, who goes from standing by while his followers toss a pagan into a firepit in one scene to encouraging Davus to give food to the starving beggars in another.  Even Hypatia, whose portrayal is largely hagiographic (Amenábar even admits to painting her as a secular Christ figure), has the flaw of accepting slavery, and even though she’s mostly kind to her slave Davus, it’s her casual condescension that ultimately drives him to join the Christian mob.   The one character who isn’t ambiguous is Bishop Cyril, the main antagonist of the film’s second half.  He comes off as menacing, manipulative, and hateful, a man who lives to persecute those who don’t fit his standards of purity and keeps narrowing those standards until he’s turning against fellow Christians for not being pure enough.  Indeed, he’s even given a speech wherein he condemns a Jewish attack on the Parabalani by declaring, a bit metatextually and heavy-handedly, that the Jews must be exiled and condemned until the end of time.  Now, what I’ve read about Cyril and his role in the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria and the murder of Hypatia doesn’t exactly incline me positively toward him, but there are plenty of characters in this film who commit horrendous acts and still have a sympathetic side, while even the idealized Hypatia is given one or two flaws.  This isn’t a film about good vs. evil, but about human fallibility, about people struggling to figure out the right thing to do and often screwing it up massively.  So the one-dimensionally villainous portrayal of Cyril seems out of place.

Overall, though, I think Agora is an excellent film, so long as you don’t take it as accurate history but make the effort to do the research and listen to the commentary (which is in Spanish with subtitles — I just turned off the commentary audio and read the subtitles along with the film’s regular audio track) and understand where and why the film diverges from known history.  Rachel Weisz is superb as Hypatia, a woman who’s cool and logical as would befit a woman filling a traditionally male role in 4th-century Alexandria, but who still has a restrained passion and joy about science that captivates the viewer.  At least, I found it exciting to watch her discovering inertia and figuring out elliptical orbits, but I enjoy watching the scientific process.  (And they did mostly avoid the House, MD school of random epiphany substituting for deductive reasoning; there were a couple of scenes where Hypatia had a sudden insight based on something she or someone else said in a conversation, but at least the conversations were about reasoning through the problems she was trying to crack.)  The director said he saw her story as a love story between Hypatia and the universe, and Weisz plays that well (albeit to the dismay of her merely human suitors who are unable to compete with the stars).  The rest of the cast is strong as well, particularly Ashram Barhof, who makes Ammonius a lively and funny character who’s appealing despite the awful acts he performs (though really, I’d think someone with such a rich sense of humor about his faith wouldn’t be so dogmatic about it).  The production values are excellent, particularly the recreation of classical Alexandria on a scale that’s remarkable for a modestly-budgeted film (I was surprised to learn from the making-of feature how much of the city was actually built rather than digitally created).  And basically it’s cool to see a film that’s about both science and history, two of my primary interests, and particularly to see a film about Hypatia, to get a conjectural glimpse of what this pivotal yet little-known figure from history might have been like.

ONLY SUPERHUMAN: The date’s been set!

I just heard from my editor that the publication date for Only Superhuman has been decided on.  The novel will be released in October 2012.  That’s a few months later than I was hoping for, but it’s good to know the date anyway.  It’ll be too late to be available for next year’s Shore Leave convention, alas, but it should be out just in time for the 2012 New York Comic-Con.

UPDATE: Turns out this publication date is not yet set in stone.  It could change.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Season 3 Overview

My second-season overview noted that Mission: Impossible had settled into a rather formulaic rut, though there were some attempts at mixing things up toward the end.  The third season is a continuation of this; most of it follows the routine formula, but as the season progresses, there seem to be more efforts to add some interest and variety, to introduce real danger and uncertainty into many episodes rather than just having the plans unfold perfectly.  Even the routine episodes often have strong concepts or ingenious cinematography and direction to give them interest.  All in all, season 3 was stronger than season 2 (which is interesting when you consider that the reverse was true of M:I’s sister show Star Trek).

There were a lot more strong episodes this season than last.  The top episodes of the season are “The Mind of Stefan Miklos,” “Nicole,” and “The Interrogator,” while “The Mercenaries,” “The Execution,” “The Play,” and “The Glass Cage” are nearly as strong.  Good episodes include “The Heir Apparent,” “The Diplomat,” “The Test Case,” and “The Bunker” (which would be excellent if not for its very slow pace).  “The Contender,” “The Exchange,” and “Illusion” are respectable experiments with the format but fall short of what they could’ve been.  “The System” is mostly a strictly average episode, but its innovative use of a remote mini-camera makes it fascinating to watch.  That’s 17 above-average episodes out of 25 (so obviously I’m not using “average” in the mathematical sense, or at least not limiting it to this season alone).  Of the remaining eight, I’d count “The Cardinal,” “Doomsday,” “Live Bait,” and “The Vault” as average, run-of-the-mill episodes.  The duds are “The Elixir,” “The Bargain,” “The Freeze,” and “Nitro.”

Several common themes are found in these episodes.  A number of the plots involve faking science-fictional elements: eternal youth serums (“The Elixir”), precognition (“The Bargain”), cryogenics and future technology (“The Freeze”).  The stories often involve double layers of deception, letting the villains penetrate one layer of deception to make them think they’ve outwitted the enemy when actually they’ve fallen for a deeper ploy (notably “The Diplomat” and “The Mind of Stefan Miklos”).  We get a few cases of the heroes being pitted against foes nearly as cunning as they are, raising the tension (Stefan Miklos, Zelinko in “The Test Case,” Ventlos in “The Bunker”).  Five episodes (four stories) have domestic criminals as the team’s targets, and one other, “The Bargain,” targets both a foreign leader and his American mob associate.

Something new this time: I want to break the season down by where the episodes take place.  Eight episodes, just under a third of the season, take place in the United States, though several involve foreign antagonists: the 2-part “The Contender,” “The Execution,” “The Diplomat,” “The Bargain,” “The Freeze,” “The Mind of Stefan Miklos,” and “The System.”  Seven were in various Eastern European countries: “The Heir Apparent,” “The Cardinal,” “The Play,” “The Glass Cage,” the 2-part “The Bunker,” and “Nicole.”  “The Exchange” was implicitly in divided Germany itself, while four others, “The Test Case,” “Live Bait,” “Illusion,” and “The Interrogator,” seemed to be in unspecified German-speaking countries.  Only two this season, “The Elixir” and “The Vault,” were in Latin America.  “Doomsday” was implicitly in the Netherlands, going by the villain’s surname.  “Nitro” was the only episode in the Mideast, and “The Mercenaries” was in Francophone Africa.  So the most frequently visited region is Europe, followed by the US, then Latin America, with infrequent visits to other regions.  Without actually breaking it down for the first two seasons, I’d say that’s in keeping with the normal pattern so far, though I think visits to Latin America may have been a bit more frequent in the past.  The team didn’t visit Asia this year, but “Doomsday” did feature representatives of an unspecified Chinese-speaking nation.

As with the second season, the team composition was pretty steady throughout.  Like last year, Jim Phelps and Rollin Hand are in all 25 episodes, Barney Collier in 24 (sitting out “Nicole”).  Cinnamon Carter is in 23 (sitting out “The Diplomat” and “Nicole”) and Willy Armitage is in 22 (sitting out “The Play,” “Live Bait,” and “Nicole”).  “Nicole” is the only episode to have fewer than four of the regulars, and 21 episodes feature the entire regular team, the most in any season so far.  The core team was joined by additional team members or assistants in the following episodes:

02/03 The Contender: boxer Richy Lemoine (Ron Rich) and unidentified female gambler participate; trainer Bobby (Robert Conrad possibly playing himself) assists
05 The Execution: Dr. Henry Loomis (Byron Keith)
08 The Diplomat: Susan Buchanan (Lee Grant) and Dr. David Walters (Russ Conway) participate; diplomat Everett Buchanan (Don Randolph) cooperates
11 The Freeze: Dr. Jacob Bowman (John Zaremba) advises; inmate Max Davis (Vince Howard) and actress portraying Phonovision Girl (Carol Andreson) participate
21 Nitro: King’s advisor General Tamaar (Dick Latessa) assists
22 Nicole: intelligence agent Sparrow (James McCallion) is team’s contact
23 The Vault: K. D. F. International Auditors
24 Illusion: candidate Paul Trock (Martin E. Brooks)
25 The Interrogator: Hartford Repertory Company

“The Contender” and “The Diplomat” are the only episodes where the guest team member is a featured player, and “The Diplomat” is the only case that reflects the original conception of the series, with featured guest team members being called on each week for their special skills or usefulness, as opposed to a steady team adapting themselves to every possible case.  (In that format, for instance, “The Contender” would’ve had Lemoine do the fighting himself rather than having Barney impersonate him.)  “Illusion” was the only case where one of the guest participants listed above was featured in the tape sequence rather than the dossier sequence.  Bobby (Conrad), the unidentified female gambler, Phonovision Girl, and Sparrow were not included in dossier sequences or apartment briefings.  (Side note: I’m not sure “apartment” is the right word here, since “The Bunker” showed plans suggesting Jim lives in a house.)

Thirteen episodes featured original instrumental music, and one other (“Illusion”) featured original songs with lyrics by Bruce Geller.  Lalo Schifrin did 3 episode scores and two of the songs in “Illusion.”  Robert Drasnin did 2 episodes, Gerald Fried did 1 (with a partial score), Jerry Fielding did 3, and Richard Markowitz did 4.  Herschel Burke Gilbert & Rudy Schrager contributed one song for “Illusion.”  (Odd that “Illusion” gets detailed song credits, but the authorship of the songs from Star Trek: “The Way to Eden,” produced by the same studio and airing less than two months earlier, remains undocumented to this day.)  That’s four more episodes with original music than season 2, tied with season 1.  And they’re more widely distributed through the season than in the past, though still concentrated in the first half: the episodes with original scores are #1-6, 8-9, 12-13, 18-20, and 24 (songs only).  The scores that stood out the most for me were “The Contender” (Schifrin), “The Execution” (Fielding), and “The Play” (Drasnin).

Only one episode lacked a tape scene, though every episode at least began with a formal mission, unlike the past two seasons which had at least one “off-book” mission each.  Subtracting the recaps in 2-parters, that’s 22 distinct tape scenes, around 16 of which used at least partly new footage.  Three used 8-track tapes, one used a vinyl record, one used a nickelodeon, and one (confusingly) used a microfilm reel; the rest used reel-to-reel tape players of various sizes.  The stock tape scenes were drawn from both this and the previous season.   Three tape scenes ended with “Please destroy this tape in the usual manner” rather than self-destruction, but each time it was different (sinking in a pond, thrown into a chimney, dissolved in water), suggesting that “the Secretary” needs to brush up on the meaning of the word “usual.”  In this season, dossier sequences were used only in episodes with team members beyond the regular cast, seven distinct times in all.

So that’s it for M:I season 3.  It’s a definite step up from the second season, and competitive with the first.  I still feel the first season was the most interesting because it started out giving the characters more personality, having the missions often go wrong, mixing up the team composition more, and so forth; but the arc of the first season was downward, since by the second half of the season, it had settled into the formula and had inconsistent quality.  The second season was staunchly formulaic to the point of boredom, but as it wore on it began taking a few chances and had some impressive moments.  This season started off following its formula solidly and effectively, adding interest with imaginative gimmicks and clever direction; then it began growing beyond that formula, introducing more genuine suspense and danger, worthy adversaries, and the like to make the team’s successes less of a foregone conclusion.  It followed the second season’s pattern of having only two real format-breaker episodes (and less so than in that season, since both began with regular missions and then focused on complications arising afterward, a pattern we’ll see more often in later seasons), but managed to feel less formulaic overall, especially as the season wore on.  So its arc of quality was upward, and maybe that gives it the edge over season 1, at least in proportion to the expectations set by the early episodes of each season.

I’m curious to see how season 4 will compare.  Will it continue the upward trend, hold about even, or dive in quality?  Of course, now the time has come for the biggest cast change yet, with the departure of both Martin Landau and Barbara Bain from the show.  Landau will be replaced for the next two seasons by Leonard Nimoy (fresh from Star Trek) as “The Great Paris,” but Bain’s role will be filled by a succession of guest stars, or nobody at all, in season 4 (with Lee Meriwether being the only recurring female agent).  Of course, the formula of M:I is independent of the characters, so it remains to be seen whether the writing and direction will remain as strong as they were this year.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S3) Reviews: “Illusion”/”The Interrogator” (spoilers)

August 12, 2011 1 comment

Last two of the season!

“Illusion”: The mission (in a stock tape scene): a rather Germanic foreign country has three contenders for the post of chief of security, one of whom is US-friendly, the other two of whom are rivals but both want to “turn the whole country into a concentration camp,” as Tape Voice Guy puts it.  Naturally, the mission is to take out both the bad candidates.

Bad Guy #1 is Skarbeck (Fritz Weaver with a beard), and the team knows from a smuggled letter that he killed a lounge singer he once loved, Carlotta, but covered it up so that it couldn’t be proven.  He’s violently jealous and prone to blackouts.  Cinnamon and Rollin play performers who’ve copied her act — Rollin is basically playing the Emcee from Cabaret, while Cinnamon is basically playing Marlene Dietrich, singing sexually suggestive songs in a flat, rough voice (or maybe Barbara Bain is just a poor singer).  This is to get Skarbeck interested in Cinnamon, and when he talks to her backstage, she tells the right lies to make him realize she’s playing him.  She says she’s working for Bad Guy #2, Lom (Kevin Hagen from Land of the Giants), and is supposed to seduce and compromise him.  She’s willing to play along and work with Skarbeck to spy on Lom in return.  Meanwhile, Jim and Cinnamon convince Lom they’re willing to work with him to make Skarbeck unstable and ruin him, though Lom and his aide are secretly willing to kill Cinnamon and blame Skarbeck.

Barney slips  a hypnotic drug into Skarbeck’s pill bottle and Jim leaves a post-hypnotic suggestion that he should try to kill Cinnamon when she confesses to cheating on him with Lom.  There’s concern on Jim’s face as he basically turns Skarbeck into a lethal weapon aimed at his colleague.  But Cinnamon’s protected by a ring with a knockout-drug needle, which makes Skarbeck “black out” just after he thinks he’s killed her (which he hasn’t, but Jim has to stop Lom’s man from shooting her afterward).  They take Skarbeck to the cabaret while the good-guy candidate Trock (Martin E. Brooks, the third and final Rudy Wells from the bionic shows), who’s actually working with the team, brings the clueless Lom there while Rollin-as-Lom and Jim taunt Skarbeck, telling him they made him kill Cinnamon.  Willy dims the lights to let Rollin get away, and when the lights come up and Skarbeck sees the real Lom, he shoots him, in front of the whole cabaret crowd, so he’s bound to be arrested.  (It’s a bit disturbing that Trock, supposedly the good guy here, works with the team to kill off both rivals for the job he’s seeking.)

A decent change-of-pace episode, more driven by psychology than gadgetry.  Devoting so much of it to Rollin and Cinnamon’s cabaret act was an interesting idea, though it would’ve been more successful with a better singer.  (And the songs were original, and surprisingly ribald for 1969 TV, though not great otherwise.)  Given that this was around the time that Martin Landau and Barbara Bain were having a contract dispute with the producers and threatening to leave, it seems to me that the writers were making a special effort to give them chances to show off and stretch their performance muscles, as if to give them an incentive to stay around.  If so, it clearly didn’t work.

The only original music here is the trio of songs that Cinnamon sings; “Buy My Glass of Wine” and “The Lady ‘Bove the Bar” have music by Lalo Schifrin, and “Ten Tiny Toes” has music by Herschel Burke Gilbert & Rudy Schrager.  The lyrics are by Bruce Geller and the arrangements by Marl Young.

“The Interrogator”: Paul Playdon returns to write the season finale.  In a stock tape sequence, we learn that enemy interrogator Kruger (Henry Silva) has information on an impending attack his government plans to launch in two days, and has been captured by another hostile government whose chief interrogator Spindler (Gunnar Hellstrom) has been trying without success to break him.  They want the information for their own ends, but they won’t share it with the US if they get it.  So the team must get Kruger away from Spindler and get the info from him.  But Kruger knows all the tricks himself and can’t be broken.  (We get a dossier sequence to show that Jim’s using the Hartford Repertory Company to play bit parts in the scheme.  Amusingly, their pamphlet shows them already wearing the military uniforms they’ll wear during the caper.)

Jim’s plan, therefore, is to get Kruger to “break himself.”  It depends on the (alleged?) principle that the victim of torture comes to identify with the torturer, in this case the interrogator — i.e. to confuse one’s sense of self with that of the person in power.  I suppose the idea is that since the whole point of the torture/interrogation process is to break down the victim’s sense of self and identity, that leaves the interrogator as the only one in the room with a clear identity and thus the victim sees oneself as an extension of the interrogator.  So while Kruger is the one being interrogated, he’s in a compromised enough psychological state that Jim believes he can be convinced of a role reversal.

The team sabotages the car taking Spindler and Kruger somewhere and arranges to abduct them.  (The abduction includes raising a wire in the roadway to knock a guard off his motorcycle, but the stuntman inexplicably flips forward off the bike instead of back.)  First, they have to find out what Spindler has learned from interrogating Kruger.  He wakes in a (fake) prison cell, with Dr. Rollin and Major Jim refusing to believe he’s really Spindler instead of a deranged accident victim.  To get them to take him seriously, Spindler is left no choice but to tell them what he knows: that Kruger’s country has submarines in position to launch a nuclear missile strike on the US!  It’s an effective way to end the first act, nicely escalating events.  And it’s just nice to see a story where the team doesn’t miraculously know everything in advance and can be taken off guard by something.

Next, they inject Kruger with a drug that causes near-total amnesia and let him wake up in a replica of his home.  Cinnamon is disguised to look like his redheaded wife and claims to be her; his memory is vague enough that he can’t tell the face is different.  (His wife’s name is Anna, the third one Cinnamon’s played this season.  Honestly, if Paul Playdon hadn’t written “Nicole,” I’d think by this point that Anna was the only female name he knew.)  She says she’s leaving him, but when he reveals he has amnesia, she has second thoughts.  Jim is now the doctor, and Kruger convinces him to help Kruger remember, particularly once his superior (one of the repertory players, though Vic Perrin dubs him for some reason) informs him he’s dead if he doesn’t break a certain prisoner in three hours (which is the deadline for the missile attack).

The goal is to confuse Kruger and blur the lines between the reality where he was the prisoner and the scenario now where he’s the interrogator. He’s taken to the prison (though how they pulled that off when the fake home and fake prison  sets are in the same chalet is unexplained) and in a duplicate of his own cell in Spindler’s prison, he begins to question prisoner Rollin.  It gets pretty surreal and psychological with all the confused memories.  Kruger sees himself in Rollin’s place, and is stunned when he sees that the man “Anna” is running away with looks just like Spindler (which is the code name that prisoner Rollin confessed to using).  Of course that’s Rollin in a Spindler mask at that point.  Kruger begins to remember being Spindler’s prisoner, and Dr. Jim must convince him that it’s his mind playing tricks on him: having failed to keep his wife, he wants to be punished, so he imagines himself as the prisoner and his rival as his torturer.

As the deadline nears, Kruger questions Rollin one last time.  Rollin pretends to break, but just silently mouths the location of the submarines — and then takes on the mien of an interrogator questioning Kruger, just to confuse Kruger a bit further, and to give Jim the opportunity to remind the audience of the principle of the questionee identifying with the questioner.  Dr. Jim congratulates Kruger for breaking Rollin — he says the only reason Rollin would’ve snapped like that was guilt from spilling the beans — but Kruger must confess he didn’t hear the information.  Jim convinces him that his desire to be punished led him to suppress the information, that it’s in his mind and he must remember it if he wants to live.  It’s really quite clever, putting him in a situation where he wants to reveal the information buried in his mind.  Just in the nick of time, he remembers where the submarines are, and Barney radios the Navy (I guess) with moments to spare.  (Although really it’s hard to see what they could do in 20 seconds to prevent the missiles from being fired.)  The team puts Spindler and Kruger back on the road in their truck as if they’re just awakening from the original accident, so nobody will ever know the IMF was there.

“The Interrogator” is an effective season finale, a case with very high stakes and a suspenseful ticking clock, and a surreal, reality-bending plotline reminiscent of an episode of The Prisoner.  It’s a good high note for the season to go out on.  As the swan song for Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, though, it’s less effective.  Their roles are smaller here than in many episodes, since the focus is so heavily on Henry Silva as Kruger.  Landau gets to play the long-suffering prisoner who suddenly morphs into the interrogator, perhaps an interesting acting challenge, but it isn’t as entertaining a role to watch as some of his other impersonations in recent episodes.  As for Bain, she doesn’t seem to have her heart in it anymore, pretty much phoning in her final M:I role (perhaps she’s just sick of playing Annas).

Season overview to follow!

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S3) Reviews: “Nicole”/”The Vault” (spoilers)

“Nicole”: We open with a stock-footage tape scene, I think from the second season again.  The mission is to recover a list of US agents who’ve defected to the other side, in the possession of General Valdas (Logan Ramsey, the Proconsul from Star Trek‘s “Bread and Circuses”).  It’s a basic enough mission that only Jim and Rollin are involved — the only time this season we’ve had fewer than four regulars in an episode — and in lieu of an apartment scene, we see them planning with a contact, Sparrow, who suggests they work with undercover agent Nicole Vedette (Joan Collins, who of course was Edith Keeler in ST’s “City on the Edge of Forever”), Valdas’s private secretary.  Jim doesn’t want to jeopardize her cover, since he’s confident he and Rollin can handle things.

Jim and Rollin attend a party at Valdas’s home, with Jim as a major and Rollin as a lecherous, absent-minded old general, a role he plays with obvious gusto.  (He even manages to get in a rather blatant bit of sexual innuendo for 1969, when he’s re-enacting an old military campaign by casting attractive young ladies as the officers and alluding to the “breastwork” of one of them.)  Meanwhile, Nicole shows up looking radiant (really, Joan Collins was quite lovely at the time, something I never really noticed in “City,” I guess since she was presented less glamorously there), and she and Jim spend quite a while making eyes at each other across the room before she eventually approaches and they begin flirting.  By this point, it’s clear this episode is heading in an unusual direction, more character-driven than the norm.

And it gets more unusual.  A few reviews back, I said I thought it would be nice to see an episode where the villains were a step ahead of the IMF for once, getting the edge on them and screwing up their meticulous plans by having their own tricks that our heroes were unaware of.  Well, this is that episode.  Valdas has just had a pressure alarm installed in his safe, too recently for Jim and Rollin to be aware of it, so when Rollin feigns having to lie down upstairs so he can break into the safe, he sets off the alarm and is trapped by a security grate.  Jim is left with no choice but to break cover and hold Valdas at gunpoint.  (Valdas goes through the whole episode wearing a neck brace, something which is never brought up in dialogue; so either Logan Ramsey really had a neck injury or the director just decided to throw in that unusual detail without explanation.)  He and Rollin make their way out, but — gasp — Jim is shot!  Rollin has no choice but to drive away.

Jim awakens in a cell just in time for Nicole to try to break him out, but Valdas catches her in the act and locks her in with Jim, saying he’s suspected her of being a spy for some time.  Nicole tells him that there’s no search underway for Rollin, and that she was allowed to see the list of double agents even though Valdas suspected her, so she and Jim conclude the list is fake — Valdas wants them to get away with it in order to feed false intel to the US.  Jim plays dead to get the guard into the cell so they can escape.  There’s a long montage of them running through the moonlit forest, with the same cloud passing over the moon three different times.  Meanwhile, Rollin has handed over the list to a contact but stayed to search for Jim.

Jim and Nicole rest in a barn, but Jim passes out — and Nicole goes out to meet with Valdas in his car.  She’s actually working for Valdas, trying to convince the Americans that the genuine list is a phony, because her name is on it.  Valdas sends his doctor to revive Jim, since the plan is to let him safely escape — and Nicole has an insurance policy, dirt on Valdas that will be leaked if she doesn’t call Switzerland once a week, to protect herself.  But once she leaves, Valdas orders that she be shot once Jim gets away.  We see he has Nicole bugged and is listening in.

Jim recovers and Nicole goes to “check the perimeter,” but leaves her purse — and when Jim bums a smoke from her bag, he discovers her matchbox is bugged.  Close-up on sad look as he realizes she’s working for the enemy.  (And yes, smoking saved Jim’s life.  How very ’60s.)  They go on the run again, and Jim acts determined to push on at all costs, and seems to feign a fall that almost kills him.  A distraught Nicole tells him he doesn’t have to strain himself because Valdas wants him to escape safely.  She confesses the whole plot because she genuinely cares for Jim.  And she doesn’t realize she’s bugged and Valdas has heard the whole thing.  Now they’re really in trouble.  They run some more, but Valdas and his men and dogs corner them — and Valdas has known the location of Nicole’s Swiss insurance package for some time, so he doesn’t need her alive.  Rollin has disguised himself as a guard, though, and holds Valdas at gunpoint, getting him and the guards to drop their weapons.  But Rollin conveniently failed to make sure Valdas was unarmed, so, predictably, the love interest gets shot dead.  Rollin shoots back and Valdas dies, and the guards scatter long enough to give Jim a few moments to mourn over Nicole’s body before he and Rollin drive away.

This is the kind of episode I’ve been wanting to see all season, not only one where the villain is actually ahead of the heroes at almost every turn, but one that has actual emotional stakes for the heroes.  Despite Peter Graves’s presence, it feels like a callback to the first season in many ways — the more character-driven storytelling, the unconventional team composition, the willingness to have things go seriously wrong with the plan.  There’s a lot of reused Schifrin music from early episodes too, notably diegetic party music from “The Short Tail Spy,” one of the first episodes to be built around a romance for a team member.  It’s a refreshing change of pace, with humor and emotion rather than just strategies and gadgets.  The script is by Paul Playdon, who also did “The Glass Cage” and “The Bunker,” two of the stronger stories this year.  The direction by Stuart Hagmann is top-notch too, with some very imaginative camera angles and compositions, notably in Jim & Nicole’s first conversation where they’re framed by out-of-focus crystals in a centerpiece (or something) that surround their faces with shimmering double images.

Overall, an exceptional episode — too exceptional, really, because they should’ve done stuff like this far more often.

“The Vault”: Jim gets the briefing in the booth at a card-entry parking lot; I think it’s stock footage, but I could be remembering it because I’ve seen this episode before.  The mission: Costa Mateo’s president De Varo (Rodolfo Acosta) plans to use the money in his presidential vault to fund his country’s industrialization, but his aide Pereda (Nehemiah Persoff with a caricatured Mexican accent) has stolen it and put it in a Swiss bank, planning to frame De Varo for embezzlement and take power.  The president’s private vault is supposedly impenetrable, since his perfect pitch lets him use an audio combination, but Pereda has a recording of the tones which let him empty the vault.  This is one of those episodes where the leader trusts the villain implicitly and can’t be convinced of his crimes unless he’s caught in the act.  So the team has to put Pereda in a situation where he’ll rob the vault again.  There’s a dossier sequence to establish that the caper involves the help of an auditing firm, but this is barely relevant to the story.

Jim and Cinnamon play Eastern-bloc agents who want to build military bases in Latin America, a deal the moral De Varo rejects but Pereda’s willing to make.  There’s a lot of money in it for him if he succeeds in taking the presidency within a day, so he has an incentive to make sure it happens.  After De Varo leaves for a business trip Pereda has arranged to make it look like he’s fleeing,  Rollin arrives as an auditor sent to check the books, which lets him stand guard outside the vault room while Barney breaks into it through its escape hatch which is supposedly unopenable from the other side.  Barney stages a theft (of the other vaults in the room, not the sound-locked presidential vault which he still can’t penetrate) and sets off the alarm, and Rollin knocks out the guard and lets Barney hit him so he can later claim the thief escaped.  Barney, though, hides back in the escape tunnel, concealing himself behind a fake rear door.

Rollin calls Pereda and pretends to be the president, notified of the theft and on his way back.  Pereda fears his plan is ruined; the absence of money in the president’s vault will be blamed on the robbers, not on presidential embezzlement.  But Jim and Cinnamon convince him he can still pull it off if he temporarily refills the vault from the main treasury to make it seem it wasn’t robbed, then removes the money again.  There’s a fun scene where Cinnamon Fatale seduces the diffident accountant that Rollin is playing and coaxes him into coming to her hotel room for an hour or two, so Pereda can work unobserved.  Although it’s really so Rollin can change into a De Varo mask, while calling the real De Varo with his accountant voice and alerting him to the theft so he’ll arrive shortly thereafter.  Pereda uses his recording to open the sonic lock, and Barney records it with a mike he’s planted.  This lets Rollin-as-De Varo open the vault and let Pereda think he’s been fooled.  But he also rigs the vault door so that after he leaves, when Pereda begins removing the money again, Barney can trigger it to shut, trapping Pereda inside for the real De Varo to catch in the act minutes later.

This is a routine episode, the kind where the caper plays out exactly as planned with no significant problems, just fakeout cliffhangers in the “Oh, is Barney about to be discovered?”…”No, he hid just in time” tradition.  There’s quite a lot of footage of Barney breaking into one vault door after another to set up the scenario, so it’s kind of slow-going until the second half.  And it contains one of the most irritating elements of the M:I formula — following up the tape and apartment scenes where the villain’s plot is spelled out with a stilted dialogue scene where the villain and his assistant discuss the plan in order to spell it out a second time, even though they both already know this stuff and so does the audience.  So this isn’t a bad episode — the seduction scene is very amusing, at least — but it’s as formulaic as they come.  If you wanted to show someone what a typical, run-of-the-mill M:I episode was like, this would be a good example.

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Things pasta

For dinner today, I had some of that fettucine I bought at the Farmer’s Market on Sunday.  It was dried pasta, but apparently fresh (or whatever) enough that it only needed 3-4 minutes in the water; it started to soften almost immediately after I put it in the water.  I’m not used to that from the grocery-store pasta I usually get.  I served it under some red sauce and precooked/frozen turkey meatballs that are a bit past their prime but still fairly good.  But the pasta was very good.  It’s made with olive oil, and olive oil makes just about everything better.

It’s certainly an improvement over the last fettucine I tried.  The thing is, the stores no longer seem to carry the brand of whole-wheat fettucine I used to have (Hodgson Mill — they still have a few other things from them, but not fettucine).  So I’ve been trying to find some alternative, and the first thing I tried was a “multicolor” variety with various vegetable flavors.  Seemed like a good idea in theory, but it turned out to be too rubbery and not very good.  So I tried again, and that led me to this pasta.  Although, ironically, later on my Sunday trip I went to a Whole Foods Market in the area and found some whole wheat fettucine at last.  In retrospect I realize I should’ve tried the local organic food store — they might’ve had some too.

But then I wouldn’t have gotten this nice pasta at the Farmer’s Market, so I guess it’s just as well I didn’t.  But now I’ve got three different types of fettucine in my kitchen cabinet.  Which I guess is not a bad thing.

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It’s an uphill climb

I had a couple of errands to run downtown this morning, and I went by bus rather than driving.  One of the errands was a trip to Findlay Market to get the Romaine lettuce I couldn’t find at the Hyde Park Farmer’s Market on Sunday.  It was a fair walk from my previous stop (the Main Library), and my left knee was kind of sore, but after I spent a couple of minutes standing mostly still at the market, it started to get better.  Anyway, I realized that I’d never taken the bus home from Findlay Market and didn’t know where the nearest stop for my route was.  So I headed in the direction of the route and found myself at an intersection that’s only a few blocks from where I’d get off the bus anyway — albeit a few very, very steep uphill blocks.  And since the outbound bus made a left turn at that intersection, there was no stop within a block — I’d either have to backtrack the route or go at least part of the way uphill to get to a stop.  And going backward didn’t appeal to me.

Here’s the thing: A couple blocks south of my apartment building, the street dips steeply downhill and ends in a cul-de-sac, but at the foot of the road is a flight of over 100 steps that goes down to another, even steeper street that, a couple of blocks south of that, intersects with the bus route.  And that intersection is where I found the first available bus stop.  I’ve only taken those steps once before, and downhill, back when I was first considering moving here and wanted to investigate the lay of the land.  I’ve been kind of scared off by them ever since because there are so many steps and it’s not the nicest-looking area to be in.  But as I stood at that stop, I realized I was only a few blocks by bus from where I’d have to get off and walk anyway.  I could’ve just walked along the bus route, but that would be more roundabout than taking the steps.  I knew that climbing those steps would take a lot out of me because I’m out of shape.  But I wasn’t going to get back into shape unless I exercised.  And my father, who was a child of the Great Depression, raised me to be frugal.  So I decided it didn’t make sense to spend a buck seventy-five bus fare to travel four or five blocks just because I was afraid of a little gravity.

So I made the climb.  If anything, the hardest part was walking up the reallllllly steep street from the bus stop to the steps.  Luckily I thought to bring a bottle of water with me, so I rested and rehydrated before heading up the steps.  And I had to rest to catch my breath several times on the way up, further proof that I’m out of shape.  But the stairs weren’t quite as decrepit or scary as I remembered, and 109 steps later, I was on my own street… though at the bottom of the very steepest part of it, so I wasn’t out of the woods yet.  I had to stop and lean against a few telephone poles before I finally got to level ground.

When I finally got to my building, a couple of my neighbors were just getting in.  When one of them asked how I was doing, I couldn’t resist boasting that I’d just walked all the way from Findlay Market.  “That’s a long way,” he said.  “Not so long horizontally,” I replied, “but very long vertically.”

And that would be a good punch line on which to end the anecdote, but it’s got me thinking… it’s really not that long a walk to Findlay Market.  Maybe I should consider going there on foot in the future, something I’ve considered before but never had the guts to try.  At the very least, I could walk downhill to get there and take the bus back up.    But if I were in better shape, I could manage the walk back uphill reasonably well, and making that walk periodically would help me stay in shape.  Maybe I’ll make it easier on myself by following the bus route, which is longer but not quite as steep or as run-down an area.  Even going that way, it’s just under a mile to walk one-way, less than the trip to the post office.  It’s just a lot steeper.  And I can handle steepness.  It was exhausting, but kind of invigorating.  I feel pretty good in the wake of it, now that I’ve showered and changed and had lunch.  If nothing else, it’s good to finally get an answer to my wonderings about how feasible the walk would be.

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Good news for the publishing industry!

According to The New York Times, the publishing industry is recovering from the economic crisis of a few years ago:

Publishing Gives Hints of Revival, Data Show

BookStats, a comprehensive survey conducted by two major trade groups that was released early Tuesday, revealed that in 2010 publishers generated net revenue of $27.9 billion, a 5.6 percent increase over 2008. Publishers sold 2.57 billion books in all formats in 2010, a 4.1 percent increase since 2008.

One of the strongest growth areas was adult fiction, which had a revenue increase of 8.8 percent over three years.

E-books were another bright spot, thanks to the proliferation and declining cost of e-reading devices like the Nook by Barnes & Noble and Amazon’s Kindle, and the rush by publishers to digitize older books.

In 2008 e-books were 0.6 percent of the total trade market; in 2010, they were 6.4 percent. Publishers have seen especially robust e-book sales in genre fiction like romance, mystery and thrillers, as well as literary fiction. In 2010, 114 million e-books were sold, the report said.

This doesn’t come as a complete surprise to me.  After all, not only did I just sell my first original novel to Tor, but my former Star Trek editor Marco Palmieri, who was laid off from Pocket due to the economic crisis, has recently been hired by Tor.  The fact that publishers are hiring new staff at all is a sign that things are getting better.

And the news about the rise in e-book sales, while not too surprising, is heartening, since I’m currently looking at the first-pass galleys for Star Trek: Typhon Pact: The Struggle Within, the first new ST e-book since March 2008, which goes on sale in October.  Hopefully it will do well and be the first of many more.

A market on the square

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’ve given up buying lettuce at the grocery store because they constantly spray it with water, making it rot faster and wasting my money and theirs.  (I think they do it so the greens won’t wilt, but wilted greens can be completely restored by soaking them in water for a while, but rotten greens are simply lost.)  Instead, I go down to Findlay Market, the main produce market in the city, and buy it there.  But this weekend I had some other stuff I wanted to shop for that was in the Hyde Park/Oakley area (where I lived for about the first 26 years of my life), so I decided to check online to see if there were any other produce markets in that part of town.  And I discovered the Hyde Park Farmer’s Market, which is apparently held every Sunday morning (at least during the summer) in Hyde Park Square, one of my favorite hangouts of old.  I’m surprised I never knew about this, but it’s been quite a while since I lived over there.

I got there to find that the block of Erie Avenue containing the square (which is actually more of a really long oval, or rather an oblong with rounded ends) had been closed to traffic, so that the various vendors’ booths could be set up in the street or parking spaces and pedestrians could move freely.  I had to park a fair distance away, actually pretty close to where I used to live, so it was a familiar walk.  I didn’t find any lettuce; the one booth that carried it had sold out by the time I arrived, alas.  But I had a nice piece of Greek-style vegetarian pizza and a strawberry scone, and bought some organic fettucine (or some similar type of pasta) which I’ll try later.  And it was a nice place to wander around in for a while, a nice atmosphere to take in.  It’s not an indulgence I could afford every weekend — since it’s a fair drive to get to that part of town and back — but it’s nice to know it’s there for future reference.

(And I thought about going to Findlay Market for lettuce, but the inbound freeway traffic was quite backed up, perhaps for some sporting event or other downtown, so I didn’t want to chance it today.  Luckily my freeway trip to Hyde Park is on the outbound side, and I took so-called “surface roads” back home.  Why are non-freeway roads called surface roads?  It’s not like the freeway is underground or in the air, most of the time.)

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MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE (S3) Reviews: “The Bunker”/”Nitro” (spoilers)

“The Bunker” Parts 1 & 2: Jim gets the briefing on an 8-track in a car parked by a rather nice fountain; the footage in the car is probably stock, but the exterior footage seems new.  The mission: rocket scientist Rojak (Milton Selzer) is being held captive by Nameless Enemy Goverment #1 in a bunker deep underground, forced to build a revolutionary new missile for them so they won’t kill his wife Anna (Lee Meriwether, although dubbed by Barbara Bain throughout).  How a guy who looks like Milton Selzer rates a wife who looks like Lee Meriwether is not explained.  Anyway, Nameless Enemy Government #2 is even more worried about the missile than America is, so they’ve sent their top assassin, Ventlos, to kill Rojak.  The team must destroy the missile and save Rojak before Ventlos gets to him.

Ventlos is something I’ve always wanted to see in this show: an enemy counterpart to the team itself, someone actively trying to subvert their goals.  Specifically, Ventlos is a counterpart to Rollin, a master of disguise.  Even before the IMF team manages to get anywhere near the bunker, Ventlos infiltrates it by killing and impersonating its security chief Praedo (Jack Donner, Tal from Star Trek: “The Enterprise Incident”).  There’s a superbly executed scene where Praedo is confronted and killed by Ventlos disguised as him (i.e. with Donner in both roles in the same scene), with near-seamless transitions between the two achieved purely by fast pans from one to the other or by the actor’s body obscuring the camera, no split screens or other visual effects required.

Meanwhile, Jim infiltrates the bunker by playing another security officer, establishing his bona fides by having Barney fake a machine-gun attack on his car just as the head of the operation, Col. Ziegler (David Sheiner), drives up to see it.  Jim has a large gadget with him that he says is a detector for a chemical hand stamp system he’s been sent to set up.  Jim tells them that Ventlos is after Rojak — a rare instance of an IMF member telling the unvarnished truth to the enemy, because they have a common enemy in Ventlos — and hopes the hand stamps will help them distinguish real personnel from an impostor.  Ironically, the first person Jim stamps is “Praedo,” unaware that it’s really the very assassin he’s trying to stop.

Meanwhile, Cinnamon, looking rather striking with black hair, arrives as another military officer whom Jim exposes as an impostor, an accomplice who arrived expecting Ventlos to have replaced Jim.  The actual Ventlos knows this is untrue, but can’t react.  What he makes of it will remain unknown.  Cinnamon gets thrown in jail next to Anna.  Willy, disguised as a workman, Santa Clauses his way down the chimney and breaks out Cinnamon and Anna, leaving Cinnamon in Anna’s place while taking the real Anna out.  (Here they do something totally ridiculous.  Cinnamon pulls off a mask of her own face to reveal a mask of Anna underneath it! That makes no sense.  Why not just have Willy bring in the Anna mask for Cinnamon to put on in the cell?)  Willy and Anna ride a winched rope up the incinerator chimney just as a workman dumps the trash and lights it up.  This is the part-1 cliffhanger, though it’s underwhelming since Willy and Anna are already halfway up the chimney when the fire starts, so they’re not really in that much danger.

As usual for this show, the recap in Part 2 is incredibly long.  It’s about 7 minutes and 10 seconds before we get the “Part Two” caption, and even then the first 20 seconds are reused chimney footage from Part 1.  Willy and Anna get out safely, and since Rojak is refusing to cooperate, the guards come to get Cinnamon-as-Anna in order to threaten her life so Rojak will cooperate (which was the other element of the cliffhanger).  And in the scenes that are supposed to be Cinnamon wearing an Anna mask, I can’t help noticing that Lee Meriwether has a considerably sleeker figure than Barbara Bain.  Anyway, Cinnamon manages to whisper in Rojak’s ear and pass him instructions to play along until 2 PM, when he’s to unfasten the ventilation grille in his lab/prison.

This is the other reason for Jim’s big detection gadget.  Hidden in it is a remote-controlled flying saucer which Jim hides in the ventilation ducts so that Barney can remotely pilot it to Rojak’s lab.  This sort of gizmo could be done for real today, but here it was hung on wires that unfortunately are quite obvious.  (Indeed, in some shots they try to “prove” it’s not on wires by hanging and shooting it sideways to make it look like there was a solid ceiling above it, but the wires are so easy to see that the illusion totally fails.  I assume it wouldn’t have been so obvious on 1960s TV screens, but even so, they could’ve done better.)  The saucer carries a drug and instructions for Rojak to inject himself with it to simulate a heart attack and call for his wife.  The bad guys need to call in a heart specialist, and Rollin has set himself up (via a news conference) as a heart specialist who happens to be in town.  So with a little prompting from Jim, Ziegler calls in Rollin.

Unfortunately, when Ventlos-as-Praedo gets Rollin alone, he knocks him out — and then he Rollins Rollin!  He makes a quick mask and takes over Rollin’s identity as the doctor (though he doesn’t know the doctor is already a fake).  For no good reason, he leaves Rollin unconscious rather than killing him as he did Praedo.  Other than that, it’s a cool twist — instead of seeing Rollin disguise himself as someone else, we see an enemy disguise himself as Rollin, leaving our heroes unaware.  But only briefly.  Jim promptly notices that “Rollin” is acting strange, and when he approaches and whispers Rollin’s name, it surprises Ventlos, tipping Jim off that this isn’t Rollin.  He fights off Ventlos and warns the others, saving Rojak.  But Ventlos flees into the fuel room and screws up the mixture so it will explode.  Since TV physics apply, it’s possible for the scientist to calculate that they have exactly 7 minutes until it blows — which, by an astonishing coincidence, will be 3 PM on the dot.  An evacuation begins, but Jim knocks out Ziegler and locks the main enemy scientist in the lab/cell with the missile plans.  Jim, Cinnamon, and the recovered Rollin get away with Rojak and try to get out in the missile’s special elevator before the kaboom happens.  It’s a long, slow sequence as the elevator and the fuel sensor gauges climb and climb and climb and (yawn) climb some more.  But it culminates in some very big bangs, an orgy of explosions that continues until the final shot of the heroes driving away.  (And yes, we do get a shot of them running from an explosion behind them.)

Overall, this was a good one, with a marvelous twist of having an enemy agent working against the team and using their own methods to pursue his own antagonistic goals.  The episode is full of masks and disguises — Ventlos as Praedo, Cinnamon as Anna, Ventlos as Rollin.  (I’m beginning to wonder why, in this world where spies use masks all the time, security people don’t routinely pull at people’s necks to see if their faces will come off.  Even the most paranoid bad guys who insist on thoroughly searching everyone never think to check for masks or wigs.)  It’s got some excellent direction and cinematography, notably the doubling of Jack Donner (and another seamless in-camera shot that pans from Donner in the mirror starting to pull his mask off to Ventlos’s portrayer Ray Baxter finishing the removal, done in a single take by having the actors positioned just right).  It’s got a partly new score by Richard Markowitz, and the original music is more distinctive and interesting than Markowitz’s previous M:I scores, even sounding a bit Gerald Fried-esque in the under-credits sequence of Part 1.

It does have a few drawbacks, though.  On top of the problems I’ve mentioned, it’s awfully padded, with a lot of scenes dragging on interminably.  There’s more than a single episode’s worth of story here, but not enough to fill two.  They could’ve filled the episode out more by developing the characters further instead of just padding the scenes.  True, the show rarely delved into the main characters, but it could’ve explored Rojak, Anna, and the antagonists more.

Also, there seems to be a mini-theme developing lately, first in “The Glass Cage” and now here, of putting Cinnamon in situations where she must be thoroughly searched — by men, apparently — to get into a high-security installation.  Here it happens to her twice, first as the impostor, then as Anna (the same fake first name she used in “The Glass Cage,” by the way).  Of course it’s entirely off-camera, but that’s just what makes me wonder if there wasn’t some kind of sexual innuendo intended.

Still, drawbacks aside, this 2-parter is one of the strongest installments of the season to date.

“Nitro”: The briefing, oddly, is on a microfilm reel in an office somewhere.  A microfilm reel with a soundtrack?  And while we see Jim turning the handle continuously to play the audio, the faces are shown frame-by-frame.  Weird.  Anyway, the mission is to stop a warmongering general named Zek (Titos Vandis) in a Middle Eastern country from scuttling the peace treaty between his king and a neighboring country, something he plans to do by blowing up the Government House when the king is in it announcing the treaty, then leaving evidence to pin the bombing on the other nation.  We get a dossier sequence to show that Jim has recruited the help of an official in the king’s government, General Tamaar (Dick Latessa).

The plan is to have Rollin impersonate a mysterious terrorist named Hakim, a bomber who favors using nitroglycerine despite its extreme volatility.  Zek and his accomplice Najiid (Sandor Szabo), owner of an explosives factory, have hired Skora (Mark Lenard) to blow up the building with cordite.  The team abducts Skora and knocks him out.  Then Rollin-as-Hakim breaks into Najiid’s explosives factory to steal some nitroglycerine, a very delicate and risky operation.  (Barney infiltrated the factory to reprogram their computers to open the vault and shut down the alarms.)  He and Willy get away in a truck, but a bullet fired by the guards grazes the brake line.  Rollin disguises himself as Skora and disguses the unconscious Skora as Hakim.  He tells Zek that the cordite plan won’t work due to the geology under the building.  So they need a backup plan.

Jim plays a journalist who pegs Cinnamon as a “special friend” of Hakim, so when Zek & Najiid’s people somehow find “Hakim,” who seems dead as an effect of the drug, Cinnamon can be questioned as a co-conspirator.  (Cinnamon says it was his heart that killed him, which seems ironic for someone so fond of nitroglycerine.)  Rollin-as-Skora suggests adopting Hakim’s plan to blow up Government House with nitro in the radio-controlled truck, and convinces Cinnamon to take them to the controller.  When the time comes, they put Skora-as-Hakim, still out of it, at the wheel of the truck.  While the king makes his speech on TV, Zek is listening by radio to “Skora” and an aide as they control the truck.  Rollin and Barney knock out the aide and Rollin impersonates his voice (easy enough, since the aide has been dubbed throughout by Martin Landau with his voice electronically deepened).  They use sound effects and Rollin’s Herbert Morrison-style narration to make Zek think the bomb has hit, while Jim sabotages the TV transmission to further sell the illusion.  That prompts Zek to make a broadcast announcing the king’s death, while the king looks on in surprise.  Meanwhile, Jim and Willy, with complicity from Tamaar, have slipped Najiid a drug that feigns illness and partial paralysis, so he can’t leave the building.  When Barney radio-controls the truck toward the building, making it look like “Hakim” is starting his bombing run (and that Zek jumped the gun with his announcement, I guess), Najiid is forced to confess the whole plot to the king and Tamaar.  But gasp, the brake fluid has all leaked out and Barney can’t stop the nitro-laden truck!  He finally manages to make the gears sieze up just before it hits.  “Hakim” is brought before the king and he dazedly pulls off his mask, revealing Skora.  The king orders the bad guys arrested.

This one doesn’t hold together well.  Why did the IMF make things so dangerous for themselves by choosing to impersonate a terrorist who favored nitroglycerine?  How did the bad guys find the truck after the theft?  And I’m not really sure any of this was necessary.  Why not just have Tamaar warn the king about the terrorist plot?  If they knew Skora was planning to plant bombs, why not let him start doing it and catch him in the act?  I guess they had to ensure that Zek and Najiid confessed they were behind it, but they could’ve had Rollin-as-Skora wear a wire while he talked to the conspirators, thus exposing them.  It really wasn’t necessary to go through this insanely dangerous nitroglycerine theft and stage a plan that came within inches of actually causing the explosion they were trying to prevent.  Ultimately it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

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What happens to delay a dream?

This morning just before I woke up, I had a dream in which I was walking through Seattle, then getting on a bus and trying to figure out how to get to Sea-Tac Airport so I could go home, and I needed to call someone but I couldn’t find my cell phone.  It was the kind of dream I’ve had many times in my life, where I’m trying to figure out the way home but can’t seem to get any closer to my destination no matter what I do, and it seems natural enough to combine that with my memories of my trip to Seattle.  But why did my brain wait so long to toss this one out there?  The memories that the dream is based on are from May 3, just over three months ago.  And it was just a month ago that I was in Baltimore, so if I was going to have a “lost in an unfamiliar city” dream, why not Baltimore instead of Seattle?

Well, maybe it’s because my “can’t find a route home” dreams usually involve buses (since that was my main mode of transportation for a large part of my life), and the last time I rode buses was during my Seattle trip, since I drove to Shore Leave.  Plus maybe I’ve been to Baltimore enough times that it’s not as unfamiliar as Seattle.

Although of course my memory of Seattle is imperfect, so the intersection where I caught the bus in my dream was a fusion of the intersection where I caught a Seattle bus in reality and a Cincinnati intersection that I often drive through when going to the West Side (and used to ride through on the bus quite frequently when I lived over there).  I remember thinking, during the walking part of my dream, that the walk seemed considerably shorter than it had been the “first” time I did it.  I guess that’s because my brain was condensing various parts of my walk through Seattle onto a mental map of that more compact area in Cincinnati.  They’re not even that similar, but I guess my brain chose that intersection because I drove through it just a few days ago when I went to see a movie and go shopping.  (It was Captain America.  Excellent movie, but I picked a lousy theater to see it in.)  But that just underlines how odd it is that I’d have a dream this morning about something that happened three months ago.  (Well, unless I’ve had several dreams about it but this was the first one I remembered.  The only dreams I ever remember are the ones that happen directly before I wake up.)

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Shore Leave leaves July (for August)

From the beginning, the annual Shore Leave science fiction convention in Baltimore, the main convention for Star Trek novelists, has been held on the second weekend in July.  But the far more hugigantinormous San Diego Comic-Con has decided that its 2012 and 2013 assemblages will be on that same weekend, which would leave Shore Leave aching for actor guests.  So it’s been decided to bump Shore Leave back a month, or nearly a month.  For at least the next two years, Shore Leave will be on the first weekend of August.  That’s August 3-5, 2012 and August 2-4, 2013.  The location will not change; it will still be at the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn.

This shouldn’t have any impact on my own ability to attend the convention; as far as I know right now, I should be there just as I’ve been for the past seven years.   But as followers of this journal know, I’m hoping that my original novel Only Superhuman might be on sale in time for next year’s Shore Leave.  So pushing the convention back a few weeks slightly improves the odds of that happening.  Well, theoretically, anyway.  I’m hoping to get some information about the publication date before much longer.

Either way, though, I’ll have at least one new book available at Shore Leave 34.  I don’t think I posted about it here (though I did update my website), but it was announced last month that Star Trek: Forgotten History will be published in May 2012 (which means it should go on sale in late April).  So that’ll actually be a bit less current under the new Shore Leave schedule, but hopefully there will still be plenty of copies on sale for the Meet the Pros autograph event.

The Shore Leave site is here: http://www.shore-leave.com/

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S3) Reviews: “Doomsday”/”Live Bait” (spoilers)

“Doomsday”: We get our first stock-footage opening of the season, recycling the park footage from “The Diplomat.”  The mission is to stop industrialist Vandaam (Alf Kjellin), who’s obtained some weapons-grade plutonium-240 and intends to auction it off to whatever small country will pay the most, in order to save his overextended corporate empire from financial ruin.  Oddly, there are only three nameless countries bidding: an Eastern European one represented by Kura (Arthur Batanides), an Asian one represented General Wo (Khigh Diegh, who played Wo Fat in the original Hawaii Five-O), and a Latin American one represented by Castillo, whose plane the team has intercepted so they can substitute Rollin in his place.  The photo shown of Castillo in the apartment scene looks like the same photo used for the dictator Rollin impersonated (and Martin Landau played) in the pilot episode, but this time Rollin doesn’t use any makeup in his impersonation, an odd inconsistency.  Meanwhile, Jim pretends to be an oil executive willing to double the amount of money at Kura’s disposal in exchange for special considerations.  Cinnamon is his nuclear-physicist consultant, who advises Kura in the auction.

Of course, Barney’s job is to sneak into the vault and swap out the stolen Pu-240 for a fake.  The bomb is kept in a highly secure vault and surrounded on four sides and below by electric eyes — yet somehow it never occurred to the security system’s designers to put sensors on the big ventilation grate which is directly above the bomb and inside the sensor beams!  The grate accessible through a ventilation duct which connects directly to a private elevator shaft which Barney can get into by picking a simple lock.   Okay, he has to do some risky climbing, but still, it’s a ridiculously convenient gap in the security system.

Remember what I said in the review of “The System” about wondering whether Barney would lower himself from the ceiling on a cable like Tom Cruise in the first M:I movie?  Well, this is where he actually does that.  He swaps out the Pu easily enough, but then we get the bonus of a genuine complication: Barney’s climbing rig pulls on the pipe it’s attached to, a screw comes loose, and some plasters fall on top of the bomb before he can get back into the vent.  And Vandaam’s aide has left his clipboard in the vault, so he comes back and finds the plaster, tipping off Vandaam to the switch — though Vandaam decides to continue the auction anyway.  But he orders a lockdown of the building, with Barney trapped inside.  Barney breaks into an empty office and calls Jim, and they work on a revised escape plan.  Yay, improvisation!

Anyway, Rollin delays the bidding process as long as possible (mainly by complaining about the delays), and he and Cinnamon manipulate things so Kura’s the winner.  Kura’s henchman (recurring M:I player Sid Haig) collects Jim’s money from the bank, but Willy swaps the briefcase for another one using a trick suitcase, and when the money from the swapped briefcase is put in Vandaam’s safe along with Kura’s money, Cinnamon triggers a charge in the (fake?) money that burns it all up.  Then Cinnamon demands to test the Pu again, forcing Vandaam to admit it’s been stolen.  Kura demands his money back, and when he sees only ashes in the safe, he cries double-cross and shoots Vandaam.  The team gets Barney out by clocking a few guards (a bit of an anticlimactic escape plan) and the day is saved.

A routine episode, marred by the blatant contrivance of the gap in the security system and the implausibly small number of bidders for the bomb, but redeeming itself somewhat by having things actually go a bit wrong for the team and forcing them to improvise.   Also, the bomb prop itself was weird; I think it must’ve been a prop representing a torpedo or something, because it had a propeller on the nose cone.

“Live Bait”: The tape sequence is stock footage again, this time recycled from Peter Graves’s very first episode, the second-season premiere.  The mission is twofold.  Bad guy Kellerman (Anthony Zerbe) has captured an American agent, Marceau (Ed Gilbert, later an animation voice artist whose well-known roles included G. I. Joe‘s General Hawk, TaleSpin‘s Baloo, and BraveStarr‘s Shaman), and is trying to get him to confess that Selby (John Crawford), an American who supposedly defected to the other side and works in their intelligence office along with Kellerman, is actually a double agent.  The team has to rescue Marceau and, if possible, preserve Selby’s cover.

They go about discrediting Kellerman with a convoluted plan whose details I had a hard time following since I was distracted by hunger (and then by eating), but it involved taking advantage of Kellerman’s naive aide Brocke, played by an amazingly young Martin Sheen.  Brocke’s in love with Stephanie (Diana Ewing), an actress who’s apparently just using him to get close to the Minister of Communication to help her career, though he doesn’t see that.  Rollin passes himself off as a state investigator (and Kellerman is too easily convinced of his bona fides) and has a conversation with him that’s being filmed through a one-way mirror.  Barney uses split-screen tricks (and the tech for this is not authentically depicted, I’m pretty sure) to replace Rollin with Jim as an American agent delivering different lines.  They then abduct Stephanie and allow her to see the fake conversation through a crack in a door (and why she can’t tell the difference between film projected on a screen and a live conversation right in front of her is unexplained), leading her to think Kellerman is a double agent who’s willing to sacrifice Brocke as his patsy.  She’s allowed to escape easily through the window and she calls Brocke to come get her.  Selby convinces Brocke he has to flee with Stephanie, but Kellerman has them captured and brought before him.  He intimidates Steph, and since she cares less about Brocke than her own well-being, she lies and calls him the double agent.

Now comes the part where the team springs Marceau, which involves gassing the whole building with knockout gas planted by Rollin.  Having earned Kellerman’s trust, he’s been shown where Marceau is held, and learns that Marceau is chained to an antipersonnel mine which will kill anyone trying to free him.  This is presented as a surprise at the act break, but it turns out that the team prophetically anticipated this, right down to having the right size of funnel to strap around the mine so they can freeze it with liquid nitrogen.  They free Marceau and drag Kellerman to the cell to implicate him in the escape.  Rollin revives Brocke, who’s now more convinced than ever that Kellerman is the traitor and shoots him.  Selby’s cover is safe and Marceau is free.

An okay episode, but more convoluted than it needed to be.  There was also some added stuff about Kellerman finding out about American agents (which the team arranged for him to do, of course) and setting up a trap for them, using Brocke as a patsy, or something, and it was hard to keep everything straight.  And some parts were less than convincing for the reasons I’ve discussed.  It’s mainly of interest for its guest cast, notably Zerbe, Sheen, and Star Trek veterans John Crawford (Ferris, “The Galileo Seven”) and the lovely Diana Ewing (Droxine, “The Cloud Minders”).  And Ed Gilbert for us animation buffs, but his was a small role.  There’s also the first partly original score in a while, the second by Richard Markowitz — like his first, not bad, but not really standing out.

The weirdest thing about this episode was the set decorations.  Throughout the government offices and on the street outside, there were a bunch of posters that looked like they were meant to imply Soviet Realism, with images of workers and tools and such, but were rendered as rather crude, almost childlike line drawings, as if they were just rough sketches of the art that was supposed to be there.   Maybe they were meant to be semi-abstract, but it doesn’t seem like a lot of care was put into them.

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How the Vesta was spun

The latest news from the Dawn probe at Vesta: NASA has posted a video showing a full rotation of the protoplanet, compiled from Dawn photographs.  I don’t seem to be able to get the embed code to work, so here’s a link:

http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?media_id=104094441

It’s fascinating to watch, with so many complex features.  I’m really wondering what caused those parallel striations around the equator.  I’m also wondering if that big mountain in the southern hemisphere is really what scientists have assumed it was, the central bulge of a crater so big it pretty much flattened out the rest of the hemisphere.  It doesn’t really look like there’s a crater there.  Maybe it’s so old that the edges have been worn away, but maybe the mountain is something else.  And that would mean I’d have to do a bit of rewriting in Only Superhuman.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S3) Reviews: “The System”/”The Glass Cage” (spoilers)

“The System”: The tape is in a medical exam room, and the photos accompanying it are x-ray-like transparencies for the light box.  The mission is strictly mob-related again: a witness slated to testify against mob boss Mr. Victor has been killed, and the only other person with the goods on him, casino owner Johnny Costa (James Patterson), considers himself untouchable and isn’t willing to testify.  The team has to make him think Victor has a hit out on him so he’ll turn state’s evidence.  The tape is disposed of “in the usual manner,” dissolving when tossed into water.

Most of it is a by-the-numbers mission.  Jim plays a hitman who turned down the job (too high-profile for his tastes) but is willing to sell Costa the identity of the guy who took it.  Costa doesn’t believe him, but is wary enough to keep him around.  Rollin plays a mob accountant sent to check Costa’s books (as well as faking the voices of Victor and his assistant over the phone, with the voices dubbed over Landau’s recognizable as Desilu voiceover stalwarts Vic Perrin as Victor and Walker Edmiston as the assistant).  Barney plants extra money in Costa’s safe so Rollin will find the discrepancy, creating suspicion.  Cinnamon (who looks sexier here than she has for quite a few episodes) plays a gambler with a system, convincing Costa to give her a small loan to play with (as Costa points out, casino owners love system players because they make the casino owners a lot of money), then using Rollin’s forgeries of Costa’s signature to get the cashier and blackjack dealer to pay her tens of thousands of dollars.  Rollin “discovers” this too and accuses Costa of fraud, but Costa knows he’s being framed, presumably to justify a hit.  Finally Rollin and “hitman” Willy chase Costa into the casino’s money-counting room, where he sets off the alarm and waits for the police, whom he intends to tell everything.

It’s an average plot, with some holes in it.  There’s a sequence where Barney has to break into the counting room safe to plant the extra money and must avoid setting off the highly sensitive pressure alarm in the floor.  Did he lower himself on a wire like Tom Cruise?  No, just hid in the duct and used a long grapple arm and safecracking gizmo.  (And we get the return of his amazing backward screwdriver from “The Play”!  Yay!)  It’s a nice bit of gimmickry, but completely unnecessary.  The only reason he planted the money was so Rollin could “discover” it when counting the money.  But if Rollin was going to have access to the money anyway, why couldn’t he have just carried in the extra wad in his pocket and planted it?  It was a gratuitous way to give Barney something to do and pad the episode.

What elevates the episode above the ordinary is its camera work.  There are three sequences — the introductory casino scene with Jim at the craps table, Barney’s counting-room break-in, and the blackjack game where Cinnamon gets the big payoff — that employ some sort of small mechanical snorkel-cam capable of extreme closeups, even swooping around to a vantage point inside the safe Barney is cracking and getting in between the hand and body of a blackjack player or two.  It’s very innovative, high-tech cinematography for its day (though if you look in the lower right in the blackjack scene you can see that the camera has picked up some fibers from the felt table), and impressive even by today’s standards.  It’s fascinating to watch.

One other in-story gadget that’s interesting for how old-fashioned it is: Rollin-as-Victor’s voice is pre-recorded so “Victor” can talk to Costa’s lieutenants while Rollin is with them, and it’s recorded on a phonograph record using a machine that cuts grooves in it while Rollin speaks.  I guess the reason they didn’t use the usual tape is because they needed Barney to manually control the timing between sentences, easier to do with a record where he could see where the grooves began and ended than on a reel-to-reel.

All in all, a middle-of-the-road episode with one spectacular technical innovation elevating it above the ordinary.

“The Glass Cage”: Mission briefing is in a bus station or airport waiting area, in an “out-of-order” nickelodeon-type film-viewing machine.  The goal is to get political prisoner Reisner (Richard Garland) out of an escape-proof, high-tech enemy prison run by Major Zelinko (Lloyd Bochner) before he can be tortured into revealing the names of other resistance leaders.  Zelinko’s a smart cookie and his prison’s security is highly advanced, so the plan is, as Jim puts it, “If we can’t get Reisner out, we’ll get them to hand him to us.”

Cinnamon goes undercover as Anna, the secretive director of the nation’s prison system, and there’s a suspenseful moment where it seems the real woman she’s impersonating has shown up at the prison to expose her, but it disappointingly turns out to be the usual end-of-act fakeout, just a test by the cautious Zelinko to see if she’ll admit to being an impostor — a test she passes.  Jim and Rollin come in as officers sent to interrogate Reisner, and Rollin’s in disguise as someone Zelinko knows and recognizes, so he and Jim get in without being searched — allowing Jim to switch briefcases with Cinnamon, whose belongings (and person, implicitly) were thoroughly searched.  This seems like an odd shortfall in Zelinko’s otherwise diligent regard for security, to go just by facial recognition.  What if it is the real guy but he’s been compromised or bought out by the enemy?  It seems inconsistent that Zelinko is so concerned with demonstrating proper procedure by searching “Anna” because it’s what she’d expect and insist on, but then being so lax with the search procedures while she’s looking on.  Anyway, Cinnamon and Rollin set up a little soap-opera between them and Cinnamon leads Zelinko to believe that Rollin is competing for a promotion Zelinko wants and trying to seduce/pressure “Anna” into giving it to him.  That lets them lure Zelinko away from the prison for an evening, leaving his second-in-command Gulka (Larry Linville) in charge.  Zelinko has recommended Gulka to run the prison after he leaves, but Cinnamon makes him think it’s only a temporary job and Zelinko actually wants someone else in the post.

Barney and Willy have gotten themselves arrested, and courtesy of the unsearched briefcase, Cinnamon slips them an escape kit and plants knockout gas in the control room, as well as switching out Reisner’s file for a fake one.  Once Zelinko’s gone, the knockout gas cartridge goes off and B&W break out and make their way to Reisner’s maximum-security cell.  They blind the cameras with magnesium flares (nice!) and rope-climb over an electrified floor (an effectively tense sequence) to get to Reisner’s glass cell, whose door openings are controlled from and logged in the master control room.  Barney reaches the control room and contacts Reisner using a resistance code, telling him to stay in the cell but change his behavior, start talking instead of remaining stonily silent.  Then they arrange to get caught.  The escape plan was set up to fail.

Zelinko returns and is mad at Gulka for letting this happen.  He notes that the cell door was opened, and fake evidence on the security tapes (courtesy of a neat Barney gizmo that goes around a strip of reel-to-reel tape and erases and overwrites it) suggests that Barney & Willy got out with Reisner.  And the man in the glass cell is suddenly all talkative.  Zelinko suspects an impostor has been put in Reisner’s place, but tells Gulka to join him in pretending it’s still the real guy, for the sake of their careers.  But “Anna,” Jim, and Rollin are monitoring from the control room, and they and another prison officer intercept Zelinko before he can get to Reisner’s file.  They check the prisoner’s fingerprints against the file.  By this point, the smart Zelinko has figured out that the escape was intended to fail and make them think the real Reisner is an impostor, and when the prints don’t match, he realizes the file was switched.  But Gulka is as petty and vindictive as you’d expect a Larry Linville character to be, so he exposes Zelinko’s attempt at fraud and Zelinko gets carted away.  Cinnamon orders Gulka to turn the “impostor” Reisner, as well as Barney & Willy, over to her for further interrogation, and they all drive out to freedom.

All in all, a nice episode, another one like “The Mind of Stefan Miklos” where the team is matching wits with a foe as cunning as they are.  Zelinko is fully expecting that the enemy will stage something very like what the IMF is doing, and so he’s alert to it and able to see through the deceptions.  And yet the story requires him to have certain lapses of caution, like letting Jim and Rollin in unsearched and letting himself be lured away by “Anna”‘s personal drama at such a crucial time (though the latter can be chalked up to letting his career ambition cloud his judgment).  And though he realizes that the breakout was meant to fail, he neglects to investigate how the prisoners got the equipment they used.  If he had, he’d surely have realized that “Anna” had been their accomplice, thus exposing Cinnamon and preventing the plan’s success.  So ultimately it’s not as successful an attempt at portraying a worthy adversary as “Stefan” was.

Just once I’d like to see an episode where the IMF is genuinely outsmarted by the bad guy, or where they realize that they’ve been the victim of the enemy’s deceptions.  We’ve gotten “The Exchange,” where Cinnamon got captured after the plan was successfully carried out, but I’d like to see something where the plan outright fails due to the enemy’s eye on the ball and they have to improvise a solution.  Heroes are defined by the quality of their antagonists, so having the bad guys always be less smart than the team, even when they’re portrayed as very smart, is a little disappointing.  The heroes’ victories would be more satisfying if they could be genuinely outmatched once in a while.

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