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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Season 4 Overview

Season 4 featured the biggest changes yet in Mission: Impossible‘s run, with the loss of two of the show’s most prominent cast members (Martin Landau and Barbara Bain), the addition of Leonard Nimoy fresh off his fame as Mr. Spock, and the lack of a regular female cast member.  And yet to a large extent it’s a return to routine, even more so than the previous season.  The ritualistic dossier sequences, almost abandoned last season due to the standardized cast, now return with a vengeance since the team composition varies by at least one member throughout the bulk of the season.  The storylines return to focusing almost exclusively on international intrigue, with fewer organized-crime stories than last season (“Mastermind” and “Chico” are the only ones, and only the former is set in America).  And, sad to say, the episodes become more formulaic and mediocre on average, with fewer standouts.

The most brilliant episode this season was “Submarine,” which was clever and imaginative on every level and a great deal of fun.  The 2-parter “The Controllers” was also really good, undermined only by a logic flaw in its resolution, and “The Falcon,” the only 3-parter in the series’ entire run, was nearly as good, full of twists and turns that kept things fun and interesting.  “Commandante,” “Time Bomb,” “Phantoms,” and “Death Squad” were reasonably strong one-parters; “Lover’s Knot” was strong in concept but not as strong as it could’ve been.   “The Numbers Game,” “The Brothers,” “Amnesiac,” “Orpheus,” and “The Crane” are satisfying but not great, “Fool’s Gold” and “Chico” a bit less so.  “The Code,” “The Double Circle,” “Robot,” “Gitano,” and “The Choice” are run-of-the-mill, and “Mastermind,” “Terror,” and especially the season finale “The Martyr” are the duds.  Overall, the season had a weak start and a very weak end, was uneven for much of its length, and settled into an adequate middle ground in much of the latter third.

The trend toward IMF schemes involving sci-fi or supernatural premises remain strong, with subjects including lifelike automatons (“Robot,” perhaps the only M:I episode sharing its name with a Doctor Who episode — no, wait, there’s a “Doomsday” too), thought transference (“Mastermind”), precognition and fringe medicine (“Time Bomb”), and ghosts (“Phantoms”); plus “The Controllers” features the real (in-story) sci-fi premise of a mind-controlling superdrug.  (One could also count Vautrain in “The Choice” pulling his own supernatural con.)

A new development this season is that the imaginary countries are rarely nameless anymore.  It used to be that the poor Voice on Tape kept having to give Jim (or Dan Briggs) mission briefings that awkwardly avoided naming the countries where the bad guys operated, even though you’d think that’s information Jim would kinda need to have; but this year the countries get names about half the time.  As a result, we get a number of villainous People’s Republics: the United People’s Republic (an offscreen enemy in “The Code,” “The Double Circle,” and “Amnesiac”), the Federated People’s Republic (visited in “Fool’s Gold” and “Time Bomb,” but with two different premiers), the East European Republic (“Submarine”), the North Asian People’s Republic (mentioned in “Amnesiac”), and the People’s Democratic Republic of Carinthia (“The Martyr”).  We even get a People’s Republican Army on the good guys’ side in “The Crane.”  The overwhelming majority of episodes this year are in Europe, 18 in all (15 distinct stories), or nearly 70 percent of the season.  Eight seem to be in Eastern Europe (the 2-part “The Controllers,” “Fool’s Gold,” “Submarine,” “Robot,” “Time Bomb,” “Phantoms,” and “The Martyr”); the 3-part “The Falcon” in what might have implicitly been Switzerland or a surrogate, with “The Numbers Game” seeming to be in the same general region; “The Amnesiac” and “Orpheus” seemingly in or around Germany (the latter had the familiar “East/West Zone” terminology implying East and West Germany); “Gitano” in the Spanish-speaking “Sardia” and “Montego”; “The Crane” in the Greek-speaking “Logosia”; “The Choice” in a Francophone “Duchy of Trent” evidently unrelated to the real historical duchy of that name; and “Lover’s Knot” in some totally made-up country with the ridiculous name of “England.” (Hey, wait a minute…)   Four episodes are set in Latin America, “The Code,” “Commandante,” “Chico,” and “Death Squad.”  Only “The Double Circle” and “Mastermind” take place entirely within the United States, which ties it with the Mideast, the location of “The Brothers” and “Terror.”  Still no episodes set in East Asia, and nothing in Africa this year.

The tape scenes have become more standardized, with every one featuring either a small reel-to-reel tape player or an automobile’s 8-track tape player.  The variant “Please destroy this tape in the usual manner” is totally absent, with every tape self-destructing.  The variations were small; the first couple of episodes have Jim leaving the tape player on rather than turning it off before it self-destructs, and “Commandante”‘s tape opens with “Good morning, Jim” instead of the usual “Good morning, Mr. Phelps.”  (Note that “Good morning, Jim” became the standard salutation in the 1988 revival series, unless my memory is playing tricks on me.)  Only one of the tape scenes looked like stock footage to me.  Tape scenes were used in all but two episodes, “Lover’s Knot” and “Death Squad,” even though “Lover’s Knot” was a standard mission.  The apartment briefings were skipped in those two and “The Martyr.”  Dossier sequences were used in all but six cases, even though two of those (“Lover’s Knot” and “The Martyr”) featured team members beyond the core foursome.

As before, Jim Phelps is in all 26 episodes, as are Paris and, for the first time, Barney Collier.  Willy Armitage is the only member of the four regulars to skip an episode this season, sitting out “Lover’s Knot.”  So 25 out of 26 episodes feature the entire core team, the most uniform it’s ever been in that regard.  However, the composition beyond that varies widely, with only four episodes (“Commandante,” “Terror,” “Death Squad,” and “The Choice”) featuring only the core team.  (I’m not counting “Chico” as core team only because the dog was actually featured in the dossier sequence and, well, is the title character.)  The guest team members include:

01 The Code: Lynn (Alexandra Hay); unnamed young local man (A Martinez)
02 The Numbers Game: Tracey (Lee Meriwether); Dr. Ziegler (Karl Swenson); Hartford Repertory Company
03/04 The Controllers: Meredyth (Dina Merrill)
05 Fool’s Gold: Beth (Sally Ann Howes)
07 The Double Circle: Gillian Colbee (Anne Francis); air-conditioning business owner Erickson (Robert Ritchie)
08 Submarine: Tracey; Hartford Rep
09 Robot: Tracey; actor playing “Mr. Mechanico” (Ken Delo)
10 Mastermind: Dr. Irving Berman (Ben Wright), pharmacist Thomas Galvin (Gerald Hiken); Phillip’s Maintenance Service; Nurse Larkin (Alice Reinheart)
11 The Brothers: Lisa (Michele Carey); Hartford Rep
12 Time Bomb: Wai Lee (Barbara Luna); Globe Repertory Company
13 Amnesiac: Monique (Julie Gregg); Globe Rep; stunt driver Jack Ashbrough (Victor Paul)
14/15/16 The Falcon: Tracey; Sebastian (Frank da Vinci); Lucifer the falcon
17 Chico: Chico the dog
18 Gitano: Zorka (Margarita Cordova); Captain Serra (John Rayner)
19 Phantoms: Nora Bennett (Antoinette Bower); broadcaster Edmund Moore (Ivor Barry)
21 Lover’s Knot: US embassy official Marvin Rogers (Jerry Douglas); Ross (Ford Lile)
22 Orpheus: Valerie (Jessica Walter); two actors portraying guards (unidentified extras)
23 The Crane: Clay (Ralph Ventura); Globe Rep
26 The Martyr: folk singer Roxy (Lynn Kellogg); Dr. Valari (Peter Brocco); Maria Malik (Anna Lee) cooperates

That’s essentially eleven women who played substantial roles (since Nurse Larkin was a bit player and Roxy was little more than a cameo for a then-popular singer).  Lee Meriwether’s Tracey is definitely the standout, appearing in six episodes in all, showing her versatility in “Submarine” and “The Falcon” and her sex appeal in “Robot.”  The other guest agents who would’ve been worth seeing again are Anne Francis (Gillian), Michele Carey (Lisa), Barbara Luna (Wai Lee), Julie Gregg (Monique), and Jessica Walter (Valerie), with Francis and Carey topping the list.  (I’m tempted to list Margarita Cordova as well, but her role was kind of specialized; she was darn sexy, though.)  Alexandra Hay was lovely as Lynn, but her character was horribly treated, existing only to be placed in a sexually compromised situation and then forgotten.  Fortunately this was not typical of how the women were treated this season.  For some reason, perhaps budget, the pattern of using guest female agents diminished toward the end of the season, happening only twice (barely, since Roxy barely counts) in the last seven episodes.

Only eleven episodes featured new musical scoring, although “The Martyr” included an uncredited piece of rock-styled instrumental music along with Lynn Kellogg’s performance of “The Times They Are a-Changin'” (written by Bob Dylan).  Richard Markowitz did the most episodes, five in all: “The Numbers Game,” “Robot,” and the 3-part “The Falcon.”   Lalo Schifrin scored “Fool’s Gold” and “Submarine.”   Jerry Fielding did the 2-part “The Controllers.”  Gerald Fried did his final M:I score for the season opener “The Code,” and Richard Hazard made his M:I debut with “Commandante.”  The rest of the season was scored with stock cues, including new recordings of cues from the three prior seasons.

As I said in my last overview, I felt there was an upward trend from season 2 to season 3.  Unfortunately, it reversed itself this year.  The more variable cast was an interesting development, but overall the season was middle-of-the-road with only a few really strong episodes.  And it was frustrating to see so many talented and striking women getting one shot and never being seen again.  Meanwhile, though as a Trekkie I hate to say it, Leonard Nimoy just isn’t as good in the pivotal “master of disguise” role as Martin Landau was.  He only has a few character types, and one of them (the dissolute or sardonic guy who laughs and says “No, no, no, no” a lot) is a little annoying.  And he’s not great with accents.

The stories included a number of impressive format-breakers, including several (mainly the multiparters) where things really did go serious wrong with the plans, and a couple of episodes that let the characters play something beyond their usual strict professionalism and show a human side.  But those were occasional standouts in an otherwise emphatically formulaic season.  The fakeout cliffhanger, the kind of act break where the moment of danger is effortlessly resolved or part of the intended plan all along, is more common than ever this season (or at least tied with season 2).  Even the multiparters seem to put their cliffhangers at weaker places than they could’ve been.  (For instance, the cliffhanger in “The Controllers” would’ve been far stronger if it had come a couple of minutes later in the story, when they found their prize witness was dead, rather than simply the middle of an action scene.)  So the overall feel of the season is inconsistent, often tending toward the most tedious cliches of the series but occasionally rising well above them — or at least trying to with limited success.

So will season 5 be any better?  Looking over the episode descriptions, it seems like it’ll have a lot more formula-breakers and missions going awry.  Next season adds a regular female agent again, Lesley Ann Warren as Dana Lambert.  And Willy gets reduced to semi-regular status, with a young Sam Elliott joining the team as Dr. Doug Robert for much of the season.  So more change is in the air, but will it keep the series fresh and engaging?  We’ll have to wait and see…

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