Archive for August 2, 2011

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:

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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