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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S5) Reviews: “The Killer”/”Flip Side” (spoilers)

September 24, 2011 2 comments

Welcome to season 5 of Mission: Impossible, adding Lesley Ann Warren (without the “Ann”) to the team as Dana Lambert. This year there are some changes in the offing.

“The Killer”: Right off the bat, there’s a major change in the format of the show: we now have a teaser (“cold open” in modern parlance) before the main titles. There doesn’t seem to be much point to it, though; it’s simply an introduction to the bad guy of the week, Eddie Lorca (Robert Conrad, previously seen helping the team — possibly as himself — in “The Contender”) as he hangs out with his girlfriend and gets a call from his employer, taking a new contract. We then cut to Jim getting the tape from a fisherman on the beach, and his mission is to stop Lorca, a mob hitman, from carrying out his contract, even though it isn’t known who his target is or when and how he’ll strike. The mission is also to identify his boss, a powerful mob figure nicknamed Scorpio. The “secretary will disavow” line is missing from the tape, perhaps because this isn’t a spy mission, and we get a new music cue accompanying the self-destruction (one of the few times that’s happened in four years), which leads into the main titles. Everyone gets a new picture in the titles, and it sounds like the theme is a new performance with an added cymbal line underneath the usual arrangement (or maybe it was there before and is just played/mixed louder now?).

Another change: even with a new team member, there’s no dossier sequence. Are those gone for good? Jim explains to the team that Lorca thrives on randomness. He doesn’t make his decisions — including how to kill his target — until the last moment and often by chance. He’s kinda like Two-Face, except with dice instead of a coin. So the team has to try to ensure that every random choice he makes leads to where they want him, and how they do it is inspired. On arriving at LAX, he picks a hotel at random out of the phone book (though it’s not completely at random, for it’s one whose listing stands out on the page) and Willy is waiting as the cabbie — but Lorca decides at the last moment to take the next cab. And Paris is driving that cab. The team has rented a vacant hotel and stripped it of all signage, and once they hear Lorca tell Paris to go to the Bower Hotel, they put a whole team of signmakers, printers, seamstresses, etc. to work putting up Bower signage and stationery all over the hotel, while Paris and Willy try to slow the cab ride down long enough despite Lorca’s urgings for haste. Then, when Lorca lets the dice pick his room number (lucky 7), Barney puts a 7 on the bugged room they’ve prepared and labels the surrounding rooms in relation to it. It’s all very clever and fun to watch, and there’s much more of a behind-the-scenes emphasis than the show has normally had since the first season.

Lorca calls Scorpio and gets his female go-between, arranging to meet her at his hotel (an odd move for Mr. Random, but it helped keep the episode budget down, no doubt). The team intercepts the call and gets the number, so Paris calls her back mimicing Lorca’s voice and changes the meeting to a nearby park, where he gets the victim’s identity. It’s a union leader who’s African-American, so they replace his photo with one of Barney and go to get the guy to safety while Dana impersonates the go-between — just Warren approximating the other actress’s voice rather than the usual overdubbing (though the other actress, Carol Carle, was probably cast because she sounded similar to Warren). Dana gives him the target and keeps him, err, occupied long enough to let the others do their job, and she looks very fetching in her skimpy blue dress, even if she does look a bit too much like a freckle-faced teenager otherwise. Warren does a reasonably good job with the acting too. But when Lorca leaves, he walks, and when Paris tries to tail him in a cab, he loses him due to traffic. They don’t know how he’s going to strike at Barney. There’s a cute gag where we see what looks like Barney lying dead next to the ringing phone — were they too late to warn him? — until we recognize that it’s a dummy Barney is setting up as a target for Lorca to shoot at.

But Lorca isn’t shooting. He breaks into the room above and lowers a plastique charge down the air vent. Then he calls Barney to arrange a meeting and says he’s in the lobby, but nobody on the team saw him go in — and then Willy sees him going out of the hotel, across the street to call Barney again. Jim realizes it’s to get Barney next to the phone, and his photographic memory (who knew?) of the room kicks in and he remembers the air vent just in time to warn Barney to get out.

With the deed allegedly done, Lorca gets the payoff from Dana, but she’s “killed” in a drive-by, and with her “dying” breath claims that Scorpio set them both up to be killed. So Lorca gets cabbie Willy to take him to Scorpio’s address, and the two men conveniently kill each other. Jim gives one last roll of Lorca’s lucky dice and they come up snake eyes.

Well, this was refreshing. M:I is a show that, for most of its run prior to this point, has been defined by its formula, one that it generally followed rather mechanically with only occasional, subtle variations. But with the opening of this season, it’s clear that it’s a fresh new show; the premise is still the same, but the approach is very different. It brings back some of the strengths of the first season — more focus on the team being themselves behind the scenes, more things going wrong with the plan, more uncertainty of success due to the cunning of their foe. These were occasional, welcome exceptions to the rule in the past few seasons, but if this season begins with them, it suggests a whole new attitude. There are stylistic variations as well, notably the cold open and the loss of the dossiers. And while Lalo Schifrin is back to do the episode’s score, he’s adopted a more contemporary funk style.

One thing that bothers me about the premise is that it doesn’t seem much like an IMF-level case. Sure, what makes it major enough to get the government involved, presumably, is that Scorpio is a very powerful mobster. But he’s a minuscule part of the story, and the focus is mostly on stopping a much lower-ranked hitman from carrying out a single murder. It foreshadows the change in the show’s focus from international intrigue to crimebusting. Still, however incongruous the assignment, it’s delightfully clever in the execution. And in a way, it fits the name of the show and the organization better than most missions. Stop an assassination when you don’t know the who, the how, the where, or the when? That sounds like a pretty impossible mission. So it works for the show despite the oddity of it.

So it looks like all bets are off now, and the old formulas no longer hold sway.  I’m looking forward to seeing more of this season’s new approach to Mission: Impossible.

(By the way, this episode was remade as the series premiere of the 1988 M:I revival series.  It’ll be interesting to compare the two versions when that comes out on DVD in a couple of months.)

“Flip Side”: The cold open introduces us to drug dealer Mel Bracken (Sal Mineo), talking to an exposition buddy about his plans to increase distribution, and follows a young woman who’s “gotten into his stash” (which basically just seems to make her ultra-horny) and gets dumped on the street, where she’s drawn to the lights of a dance club and parties until she literally drops, presumably of an overdose. Cut to Jim getting the tape at an outdoor theater, being assigned to stop and expose Bracken, his Mexican supplier Maximillian (Robert Alda), and Cameron, the Midwestern pharmaceutical magnate who supplies Maximillian legally (hey, it’s MacGyver’s future boss Dana Elcar!). There’s no “Secretary will disavow” and no “This tape will self-destruct” — just the mission and “Good luck, Jim,” and then Jim tosses the tape into the fire. Cue titles.

Since Cameron is staying within the letter of the law by using Maximillian as a go-between, the goal is to link him directly to the dealer Bracken. Cameron is meeting Maximillian in Mexico before they both come to LA for a pharmaceutical convention, and Dana catches Max’s interest due to her resemblance to a onetime film star he once loved, passing herself off as the star’s daughter, Cindy Dawson, whom Max knew as a child (though his reaction to her now is less paternal, shall we say). This involves Lesley Anne Warren singing a couple of songs, and while I think she uses way too much vibrato, she’s definitely a better singer than Barbara Bain. But her real goal is to seduce Cameron, who’s normally faithful to his wife, but is pretty much putty in her hands, because he’s the kind of diffident, insecure older guy who’s not accustomed to having an attractive young lady taking such an interest. Dana persuades him to call her when they separately get to LA, while Paris, posing as Dana’s fellow musician and business partner, persuades Maximillian to introduce her to his contact in the record business, who happens to be Bracken.

Meanwhile, Barney climbs onto the truck delivering Cameron’s drugs to Max’s Mexican warehouse (by climbing out of the hood of a car behind it while it’s stopped at an intersection — I guess it must be a make of car with its engine in the trunk) and plants tracking-beacon “pills” in with the drugs. That way, once they’ve been transferred and concealed for shipping to Bracken, Barney is able to track the truck. When its driver makes a rest stop, Barney breaks in to confirm the pills are in cocktail peanut containers — but he’s discovered by the driver and a fight ensues. But Barney decides to take the driver’s place, and calls Jim with a modification of the plan. Once more, the approach to the characters is more humanized, less cold and detached, than in previous seasons, for we see that the others were worried about Barney and express relief when he checks in, through actual words rather than just a brief look.

Once Dana lures Cameron to dinner with her, they come back to his suite and she begins popping pills. She fakes an overdose and Paris shows up, declaring her dead. In his defense, Cameron did try to stop her from taking the pills, but he prove himself a hypocrite when he bribes Paris to move Dana’s body elsewhere instead of calling the cops. Meanwhile, Jim has replaced Bracken’s mob contact for a major drug deal, and when the truck full of peanuts shows up with Barney driving, it’s filled with actual peanuts. Jim insists to Bracken that he get the drugs immediately, but Maximillian is nowhere to be found (since the team’s had him arrested on the evidence Barney gathered). Meanwhile, Bracken’s goon, sent to find Cameron, finds Paris in Dana’s apartment, and Paris tells Bracken about the OD. Bracken brings in the distraught Cameron and persuades him to ship a new supply of drugs directly, over Cameron’s protests that it would link them and ruin them both. Of course, Cameron is right, since when the deal goes down, Barney’s in the rafters taking photos. The goon spots him and a shootout ensues; the goon goes down, but Bracken is only winged. He and Cameron are taken into custody, and Cameron is shocked to see Dana there, alive. “You’re not even Cindy, are you?” he asks. She tells him there was a Cindy Dawson, until last year, when she died of an overdose.

This is a solid script by Jackson Gillis, a stalwart TV writer with a career spanning 40 years, including major contributions to The Adventures of Superman (including the oft-remade “Panic in the Sky”), Perry Mason, Lost in Space, and Columbo. It’s got solid character writing, particularly for the nuanced but ultimately pathetic Cameron, with some good moments of humanization for the team as well (Dana even shows moments of discomfort at manipulating the sad sack Cameron, though as we see at the end, she reminds herself that he doesn’t deserve much sympathy). That final revelation Dana delivers to Cameron may be a bit obvious and after-school-specialish, but it’s handled so deftly by Gillis that it really packs a punch. There are some nice twists in the presentation of the scheme too, bits where parts of the team’s plan are hidden from us at first by the editing and attention of the camera, like when we see Bracken talking to his mob contact and only then swing around to see it’s Jim (though we could’ve guessed since we saw Willy intercepting the real contact in the previous scene), and when we cut away to Dana and Jim listening while Barney spells out his revised plan which we don’t hear.

My main problem with the story is that I’m not too sure why Dana and Paris’s portion of the scheme was necessary to the overall plan. It may be that getting Cameron implicated in her overdose was necessary to convince him to make the deal with Bracken, though I don’t specifically recall Bracken threatening him with exposure if he didn’t deliver the drugs. I could be forgetting something, but it seemed to be mainly an excuse to work an “evils of drugs” message into the story. Not that I have anything against such a message in principle; I think we as a society got so tired of being inundated with anti-drug propaganda in the ’80s and ’90s that we forgot the soundness of the underlying message, the fact that drugs really do destroy lives. But strictly from the standpoint of storytelling logic, it seems there should’ve been more of an in-story reason for this subplot. Messages are fine, but they shouldn’t be forced into a story.

So all in all, the freshness of the season’s style and approach continue. The show has been revamped almost top to bottom. It even feels like a ’70s show now rather than a ’60s show, which it literally is (this is the 1970-71 season), but since the difference in actual production time is only a few months, that’s an impressive transformation. Even the acting style seems to have changed a bit, become more naturalistic. Nimoy’s performance as the musician seems less artificial, less caricatured, more relaxed than his role-playing last season. Warren is a more naturalistic actress than Bain or last season’s dozen or so guest ladies, and was presumably brought in to give the show a younger, hipper flavor (which works a lot better than the ludicrous attempt at hipness in last season’s finale). The overall look and feel of the show seem different too. And there’s a new composer, jazz musician Benny Golson — yet although his source music for the episode has a very ’70s jazz/rock flavor, his non-diegetic scoring fits pretty well with the musical style of the previous seasons. I guess it’s not pure funk from now on.

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And…. cue end credits!

Why have I got the Jerry Goldsmith Star Trek theme running through my head?  Because I just wrote the final scene of Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations: Forgotten History, and I’m imagining the movie-era Enterprise sailing majestically away from camera and leaping into a prismatic warp flash before the end titles roll.

It’s been a blast writing this novel, because it’s let me revisit the post-TMP era from Ex Machina, and also do my first real in-depth exploration of the 5-year-mission era and the period in between.  It turned out about half pre-TMP and half post-TMP, plus a frame story with Lucsly & Dulmur.  This book will probably be confusing for some people to shelve, since it’s both a Watching the Clock sequel (and prequel) and an Ex Machina sequel (and prequel).  And there’s another series heading that it could sort of fall under too, but that would be telling.  Anyway, this book may hold the record for containing the most things I’ve been wanting to work into a Trek novel, or at least the most eclectic assortment thereof.  Many of which fall under the category of getting to revisit the post-TMP period again.  Although I’ve been just as eager lately to do something in the timeframe of The Animated Series, and while Forgotten History only spends a brief amount of time in that era, it does have a lot of TAS references.

The first draft comes out to 83,600 words, just shy of the maximum 85K I was contracted for.  I think I’ve rarely come so close to a target length.  Of course, I still have revising and polishing to do, which will probably modify the word count.  And I’ve got just under a week to do that.  Hopefully that’ll be time to make two full passes.  I wish I hadn’t slowed down so much in the middle of the writing period, so that I’d have more time now for polishing.  But that’s just the way it always seems to go for me.  Even when I start out as strong as I did on this, with the words just pouring out, sooner or later I lose momentum and go into a down phase where it’s a lot harder to focus and decide what to write.  Usually I get back into an up phase toward the end, because I have to, but it’s been a bit more of a struggle this time, and the really good bursts of writing have been less frequent this month than they were in that first week.  However, I did manage to get more than half the book written within the past 24 days, so maybe slow and steady wins the race.

Oh, hey, I just remembered a minor story point I forgot to work in.  I don’t think it’s urgent, and I’m not sure there’s a place to work it in, but I guess I’ll go take a look.

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