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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S4) Reviews: “Lover’s Knot”/”Orpheus” (spoilers)

September 15, 2011 2 comments

“Lover’s Knot”: No tape, dossiers, or apartment scene this time; we jump right to the scene of a murder, and then establishing shots of London.  In the past, episodes that have opened sans tape have either involved “off-book” or unplanned escapades or have started near the end of a mission in progress and been about what happens after it goes wrong.  But this one features a planned mission and starts at the beginning; it just takes an unconventional approach.  In lieu of the apartment scene, we see Jim, Paris, and Barney (Willy is absent for the first time this season) at the US Embassy, briefing their contact Marvin Rogers (Jerry Douglas), an embassy official who’ll be helping with the mission.  The assignment is to expose a European spymaster known as “K,” by going through his operative Lady Cora Weston (Jane Merrow), the trophy wife of the much older Lord Weston (John Williams — the venerable British actor, that is, not the composer who was still going by Johnny at the time).  Cora seduces American personnel and gets them into compromising positions so they can be blackmailed.

Jim and Paris both set themselves up as her targets, though not at the same time.  Jim is the obvious target at first, presenting himself as a luckless gambler, while Paris’s job is to seduce her and get close to her even though she isn’t assigned to him.  Once the bad guys make Jim lose big bucks at a rigged craps table and blackmail him into stealing a code descrambler for them — one tuned by Barney to pick up only fake conversations between Rogers and the prerecorded (faked?) voice of US intelligence director Stone (voice of Vic Perrin) — the fake messages tell them that Stone suspects Paris’s character of embezzling money meant to pay off intelligence assets.  (The tapes of Stone are played by a tech guy named Ross (Ford Lile) back in the US.)  So Cora has to seduce Paris now, and Paris and Jim set up a fake fight where Jim fake-dies (and gets fake-burned up in a fake furnace rigged by Barney a few feet in front of the real one, the third time this season he’s used that trick) so that Cora and her comrades can blackmail Paris into turning to their side — but he demands to speak to the mysterious K in person, leading the team there with a homing-device cufflink (sloppy of the bad guys not to check for that) and discovering — to my complete lack of surprise — that K was Lord Weston all along.  (Not that hard to figure out given the limited number of guest stars, and the fact that they wouldn’t cast an actor as prominent as John Williams for a single scene.)

That all sounds pretty straightforward, but what complicates it is that Paris begins to develop real feelings for Cora, and vice-versa.  This is an unusual episode in more than just the opening, for throughout it, we get scenes of the team out of character, interacting with one another and showing emotion.  There’s no open conflict, but Paris is clearly having some unprofessional feelings and is conflicted about how he’s using Cora, and Jim and Barney exchange some worried looks over it.  However, it doesn’t really go anywhere too dramatic; despite his misgivings, Paris carries out the mission properly until near the end.  Once the team has tracked down Weston, Jim orders Rogers to get him out courtesy of another faked Stone message that clears Paris of all charges and orders him assigned to an important conference, so that Weston will want his new double agent in place.  So Paris is on the way out, but Weston gets a call from an agent of his in the US State Department, telling him that the real Stone died minutes before that phone call was made.  He orders Paris intercepted at the gate, but Jim, Barney, and Paris take out Weston’s men.  Scotland Yard is on the way, but Paris insists on going back for Cora.  Rather than arguing, Jim goes with him, and they have a very civilised confrontation with Weston, who gives up when informed that the Yard is on its way and allows Cora to leave — and then shoots himself off-camera.  Cora tells Paris she was done, that she’d grown tired of the lies and manipulation and wanted out.  Paris tells her it’s too late.

All in all, a nice attempt at a format-breaker, bringing back some of the character focus within the team, the “behind-the-scenes” glimpses of the team being themselves when alone together, that we’ve rarely seen since the first season.  The music consists primarily of Lalo Schifrin cues reused from “The Short Tail Spy,” which told a rather similar story; that particular romantic theme seems to have become the standard motif for M:I romances by this point, in much the same way that “The Plot” is the standard motif for the team enacting its schemes or Barney building gadgets.  But ultimately this isn’t as good as “Short Tail” or last season’s romantic episode “Nicole,” since the character focus has so little payoff.  We never get to see Jim confronting Paris about whether he can fulfill the mission, or arguing about whether to go back for Cora.  It’s all left as subtext, so it’s not much of a departure from the usual format.  So while it was refreshingly non-routine, it wasn’t non-routine enough to be fully satisfying.  I also wasn’t too crazy about Jane Merrow as Cora; she was pretty enough, but I found her acting rather stiff and stagey, like she was reciting her lines rather than really feeling them.  (Interestingly, a few years earlier, Merrow had guest-starred in an episode of The Avengers entitled “Mission… Highly Improbable.”)

“Orpheus”: Jim boards a closed ferry to get the tape; the start of the sequence outside the ferry is on location, but then, unusually, Jim goes inside to what appears to be a studio set of the ferry interior, probably something left over from another production.  The mission is to stop the next job of the mysterious assassin Stravos (Booth Colman), who can only be accessed through his emergency contact Bergman (Albert Paulsen in his fourth M:I role).  The team must manipulate Bergman into bringing Stravos in before his next hit.  The dossier sequence introduces Jessica Walter as Valerie, but omits a pair of extras disguised as guards who will help the team later on.

The episode is one of those set in an “East Zone/West Zone” country that’s implicitly East and West Germany, though the signage is “Gellerese” rather than German.  Jim plays an American defector asking for money, but Bergman suspects he’s being played.  Bergman is a canny and engagingly cynical character, and best of all, he has a cat, an orange tabby called Bitsy.  Anyway, he sends his aid Deiter (a smarmy Bruce Glover — it should be “Dieter” from the pronunciation, but IMDb says “Deiter”) to collect Jim, who fakes a confrontation with his tail Willy and ends up “killing” him with blanks, convincing Deiter/Dieter to bring him in.  Bergman’s still unconvinced and has Jim interrogated.  Jim has taken a drug to fake heroin withdrawal, and counts on Bergman withholding the fix he demands until he gives up the information, since an injection of real heroin, in combination with the drug he’s taken, will kill him.

Meanwhile, Valerie comes in as a high-ranking investigator, and a friendly Bitsy almost exposes Barney, who’s in the file room hacking the teletype to verify Valerie’s credentials.  Barney rigs an electric spark to scare the poor kitty away.  Mean Barney!  Bitsy just wanted to play!  Anyway, Valerie orders Paris arrested and interrogates him, revealing to Bergman that he’s actually a man that Stravos was supposed to have killed months before but who instead was given plastic surgery and a new identity.  (The man is represented by a photo of Nimoy’s stand-in Frank da Vinci, who’s previously been glimpsed in “The Amnesiac” and “The Falcon”).  Valerie claims to suspect Bergman of being a traitor, so Bergman has to clear his name.  As it happens, Jim has admitted to his side paying off a prominent double agent called Orpheus, and the dates he gives implicate Stravos.  Bergman decides Jim has earned his heroin fix, and Valerie is barely able to stop his twisted act of kindness in time to save Jim.  She then arranges for the fake guards to take Jim and Paris away for “interrogation,” thereby freeing them.

Valerie pushes Bergman to contact Stravos and arrange a meeting right away, before the hit is scheduled.  The plan is for Valerie to order Bergman to stay behind while she meets Stravos herself (since Bergman’s loyalty is still suspect), while Paris disguised as Bergman does the actual meeting.  But Bergman informs her there’s a password only he knows, and he refuses to share it with her.  He has to make the meeting.  So the team has to improvise fast.  They arrange to switch the hotel room where Bergman was supposed to meet Stravos, so Bergman enters the darkened room and gives the password to Paris, whereupon he’s knocked out and Paris goes next door to give the same password to Stravos.  He barely manages to convince Stravos to reveal his target before the bomb he planted goes off.  I was wondering why there were so many hours between when he planted the bomb and when it went off, but it turns out it was timed to coincide with a meeting of several Western scientists.  The “West Zone” police get them all out in the nick of time.

Not a bad episode, particularly thanks to the always-engaging Albert Paulsen and the intelligence of the character he’s playing, which posed some challenges for the team.  And of course including a cat automatically makes it a superior episode.  Jessica Walter is pretty good in her stern investigator role.  But the plot has a couple of logic glitches.  One, Deiter/Dieter arranges to have Jim’s demand for cash fulfilled before their first meeting, but when Bergman is questioning Jim later on, Jim is demanding money in exchange for information as though he hasn’t been paid at all yet.  And two, Jim already knows in the apartment scene that they need to reach Stravos before 4 PM, even though they don’t know who the target is or how the hit will be carried out.  How could he possibly know that?  So it’s reasonably good, but not as satisfying as it could be.

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The upside of being low on groceries

Not having many other lunch options in the kitchen, I decided to make some hummus mix (and added a bit of honey since it tends to be a little harsh), and my lunch is two halves of a garlic-oregano pita filled with hummus, cucumber, onion, and kalamata olives.  It’s good.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S4) Reviews: “Phantoms”/”Terror” (spoilers)

September 15, 2011 2 comments

Ooh, a scary theme to the titles!

“Phantoms”: In a stock tape scene (though one that I think begins a little earlier in the footage this time), Jim gets a briefing about Premier Vorka (Luther Adler), an Eastern-bloc dictator about to launch a purge of his country’s young artists, devastating a generation friendly to the West.  The team must remove him from power before the purge begins.  The dossiers include actress Nora Bennett (Antoinette Bower) and broadcaster Edmund Moore (Ivor Barry) of the BBC English Broadcasting Service.

Jim takes the place of a writer, the latest in a line of writers whom Vorka has pretended to mentor but actually plagiarized and killed, publishing their works as his own.  Jim’s addition to the real writer’s manuscript involves Lisa, a woman Vorka loved back in the ’40s and bore a son with, but who then joined the resistance and was killed in Vorka’s prison, with the son disappearing.  Moore’s role is to do a puff-piece interview of Vorka, allowing his tech guy Barney to plant an infrared projector and speakers in Vorka’s study, cleverly concealed from Vorka’s view by the bright klieg lights and the removal of his glasses, which Barney switches for an IR-sensitive pair.  Once he’s alone, he begins seeing projected visions of Lisa’s ghost (played by Nora, made all woogly by having the camera pointed at a reflective sheet Willy is flexing), who tells him that Zara (Jeff Pomerantz), the main artist/protestor targeted by the purge, is actually his long-lost son.  When Vorka investigates, files planted by Paris lead to Paris in disguise as the elderly man (and it’s a really bad age prosthetic) who brought the young Zara to the orphanage where he grew up.  Old-guy Paris gives details that convince the dictator that Zara is his son — including the claim that the boy had Zara’s congenital heart condition.  Vorka orders Zara brought to him, but Willy intercepts the car and rescues Zara while Paris dons a Zara disguise and goes in his place.  He rejects Vorka’s claim of fatherhood and provokes Vorka to lash out, causing Paris/Zara to “die” of a heart attack, whereupon the real Zara with the team positions himself so that when he stands up in the projection, it looks like his ghost is rising out of his body.  (Which doesn’t really make sense, since they’d have to know exactly where Zorka was standing to align it properly.)  Zara and Nora go all “J’accuse” on Vorka, who shoots at the ghosts, bringing in his men, who realize the old guy’s flipped his wig.  He’s eased into retirement and his more moderate deputy premier takes power.

This is a fairly good one.  Vorka is a well-drawn character, a reprehensible mass murderer, liar, and hypocrite who nonetheless has the regrets and longings of an aging, lonely man who laments for all he’s lost, and who can be swayed by remorse for a lost love (even though he killed her) and the wish for a son to love.  He’s smart, too; after the first “haunting,” he’s canny enough to order his study searched for anything that might’ve created the illusion, but Jim is lucky enough to be on hand and “borrow” the book in which the projector is hidden (with the lenses of the projector and the spy camera hidden inside the “O”s in the title and Vorka’s name).  Another effective player is Michael Baseleon as the head of Vorka’s KGB-equivalent; he’s delightfully menacing and reptilian as he interrogates Zara.  Antoinette Bower is rather underused, since outside of the apartment scene she has nothing to do but make woo-woo ghostly pronouncements.

I’ve complained before about the team’s fondness for plans with SF/fantasy elements, but the script justifies it here by establishing that Vorka grew up in a community that believed in supernatural things, so he’s already receptive to the possibility even though his Marxist convictions say he should reject it.  It’s also hinted that he’s going a little senile anyway and didn’t need much of a push.  The episode does rely too much on the usual fakeout cliffhangers where what seems like a dangerous moment passes with no harm done, but there is one effective act break where Vorka, panicking after a ghostly visitation, points a gun at Jim and demands to know if he saw it too.  Vorka’s erratic enough at that point, and ruthless enough in general, that the threat to Jim is very real and believable, even if it is resolved effortlessly in the next act.

“Terror”: The tape is in a parked car on a road near the airport (they seem to have shot a lot of these around LAX this season), though inside the car it’s the usual “8-track tape briefing” stock footage.  The mission: noted terrorist El Kabir (Michael Tolan) is about to be released from prison by his secret ally in the goverment of Suroq, Vassier (David Opatoshu), and the team has to stop it before he can lead his terrorist army to do more terrorizing.  Yup, the “Arab terrorist” stereotype existed even in 1970, though back then it was probably seen as a more local phenomenon.  There’s nobody in on the plan except the four leads, so no dossier sequence is needed.

Barney steals a dynamite truck from the army, then dons a fez (he must’ve heard they were cool) to play a deserter who wants to sell it to El Kabir’s lieutenant Atheda (Arlene Martel, best known as Spock’s bride-to-be in Star Trek: “Amok Time,” though she shares no more than a few seconds of screen time with Nimoy here).  Meanwhile, Paris and Jim play officers coming to question El Kabir about the dynamite theft, with Jim being placed in the opposite cell as an undercover agent (so they tell the prison warden), then convincing EK he’s working with Vassier and warning him that the government intends to have him shot “trying to escape.”  Meanwhile, Paris in a Vassier mask goes to Atheda to tell her the same thing, so she’ll see no choice but to buy Barney’s dynamite to blow him out, courtesy of a secret system of ancient tunnels that Paris/Vassier tips them off to.  (Jim says in the apartment scene that the tunnel map was compiled from historical records and that the tunnels were built by the ancient Mycenaeans, suggesting that Suroq is located along the eastern Mediterranean coast, making it a stand-in for Syria or Lebanon.)  But dynamite won’t work in that space; Barney and his partner Willy have to extract the nitroglycerine from it, a delicate operation made more risky by a sudden thunderstorm (and I think I recognize some of the lightning footage from the Gilligan’s Island titles).  Honestly, Jim has got to stop devising plans that require handling nitroglycerine!  Is he trying to get Barney killed?

Anyway, the real Vassier almost scuttles the plan by having El Kabir released too early, so Paris and Jim vamp until the explosion goes off.  But Jim “overheard” the location of the cave they’d be emerging from, so the military cuts them off.  EK makes Willy give him the leftover nitro, which he uses to threaten the military.  Paris goads him into throwing it, and it lands harmlessly since Willy swapped the bottles.  Oddly, one soldier reacts to the complete lack of danger El Kabir poses at this point by shooting him dead.  The rest of the terrorists are taken into custody, and Paris and Jim claim Barney and Willy as army deserters and take them away for “interrogation.”  Willy assures Jim he disposed of the real nitro in “the aqueduct,” though why exactly that’s safe, or what the hell aqueduct he’s talking about, is unclear.  Maybe he means he poured it into the water?  Will there be a commensurate drop in heart attacks as a result?

All in all, not too coherent an episode.  The setup is confusing.  How is Vassier’s agreement with El Kabir a secret when he’s talking openly with other officials about his intent to release him?  And how is Vassier discredited at the end?  EK shouts something about how Vassier was behind all of this, but he gets it wrong, stating the false story that Vassier intended to assassinate him rather than the truth that they were in cahoots.  So Vassier isn’t actually dealt with at the end, as far as I can tell.  The whole thing’s kind of a jumble.

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