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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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