Archive for September 26, 2011

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S5) Reviews: “Flight”/”My Friend, My Enemy” (spoilers)

September 26, 2011 4 comments

“Flight”: Yay, John Colicos is back!  As Manuel Farrar, security chief of a Caribbean country, he’s in particularly menacing mode as he orders an assassin code-named Plato (Shepherd Sanders) to kill his country’s progressive president Rojas before he can sign a mutual aid agreement with the US, whereupon Farrar will take over the government.  Jim is briefed on this in a carnival ride (a fairly sedate one), and he actually takes a few moments to enjoy the ride before playing the tape.  His mission: find the identity of Plato, something only Farrar knows, before the assassination.  It’s the first time this season that the tape has included all the usual ritual phrases including the “Secretary” line, and we hear one of the conventional “self-destruct” music stings before going to titles.  The titles use the new theme arrangement and include Sam Elliott in place of Peter Lupus.  (The rest of the music is stock, and unfortunately the carnival music is not from Walter Scharf’s “Old Man Out” score from season 1.)

The scheme is to intercept Farrar when he boards a flight to the US separately from Plato.  I’m not sure why he’s on the flight, given that he plans to take over his country as soon as Rojas is dead.  But maybe he’s leaving the coup in the hands of his trusted right-hand man, police chief Diaz (Lloyd Battista, who played the dual title role in last season’s “The Brothers,” and who doesn’t know how the name “Manuel” is pronounced in Spanish-speaking countries).  Diaz plans to watch Farrar’s plane take off, so Barney distracts him by playing a temperamental flier who accuses Diaz of stealing his ticket.  Meanwhile, Stone (Tol Avery), a member of the repertory group assisting the core team, boards with a rough lookalike of Farrar who’s wearing a bald cap and glasses.  I think the lookalike is John S. Ragin (later of Quincy M.E.) and is named Butler.  Stone drugs Farrar and put the bald cap and glasses on him, and then Stone and Doug alert the stewardess that Stone’s “friend” has taken ill.  They take him off in an ambulance driven by Paris while Diaz is distracted.  But Paris almost causes a traffic accident, and they race away once it’s clear nobody’s been hurt.  But one of the involved parties writes down the ambulance’s license number and calls the cops.  Diaz learns there’s no such ambulance registered, and begins a search.

Farrar awakes on a fake plane cabin in a warehouse, and the team uses special effects to fake an engine fire and a plane crash.  Just before the crash, the captain’s voice (prerecorded, nobody we know) informs Farrar that they’re flying over the islands where a penal colony used to be.  Doug knocks him out again in mid-“crash,” and the team begins to strike the set before moving on to the next location.  So far, it’s been the most routine mission of the season.  But then Jim sees that Diaz’s cops are closing in, and the team bolts without dismantling the equipment.  But Dana has a moment of Lois Lane recklessness, going back to retrieve some incriminating tapes from Barney’s control console, and ends up getting captured.  The others have to drive away and hope she can fend for herself.  But Diaz is a very smart man, and he has the evidence from the warehouse.  He realizes they were trying to convince Farrar he was in a crash over the islands, and notes that the captain’s voiceover specifically called attention to the beaches, so he sends his men to search the coastline.  Yes, Chief Diaz has figured out that he’s in a Mission: Impossible episode!  This is what TV Tropes calls Dangerously Genre-Savvy.

So Farrar wakes up on the shore of this uncharted desert isle (so he thinks), with Gilligan, the Skipper too — no wait, it’s Paris and Jim as castaways in prison uniforms.  They and the repertory players pretend to be survivors of a prison plane that went down years ago, and they hold a court presided over by Jim to decide which of the two survivors, Farrar (who pretends to be a construction engineer) and Dr. Doug, deserves to survive, since they only have food for one.  Farrar argues that he deserves to survive more than a doctor, and when the votes are cast, it’s a tie.  Just before Lord Jim of the Flies can cast the tiebreaking vote, Farrar has a crowning moment of Colicosity: he intones, “Who are you, any of you, to stand in judgment over me?  I decide my own destiny!”  Then he picks up the gun on the table, shoots Doug (with a blank), and proclaims, “The deciding vote has been cast.”  Awesome.  Evil, but awesome.

Meanwhile, Diaz and Dana are playing psychological cat and mouse.  Dana pretends to be a hapless actress hired by unknown agents to play a stewardess in their scheme, and she tearfully tells him everything she knows and begs for her life.  But Diaz recognizes that she’s only told him the things he had already deduced, so he’s not buying her act.  So Dana drops the hysterics and becomes uber-cool spy gal, telling him essentially the truth about who she is and what the mission was, and convincing him that he needs to let her go so she can contact her people at the prearranged hotel, thereby bringing them into his clutches.  So Dana’s walking a tightrope here, having to participate in setting a trap for her own teammates in order to have any chance of freeing herself.  When Barney arrives at the hotel, she tips him off to the bugs, and Barney unscrews the light fixture and they hide in the hollow ceiling until Diaz’s people are thrown off the scent.

Paris plays an inmate sympathetic to Farrar, and allows Farrar to discover he’s Marcos, a real spy for Farrar from years back who died in a plane crash.  Farrar finds that Paris/Marcos is planning to escape on a raft because of what he’s learned: that Plato is a double agent for the US gathering dirt on Farrar and Diaz.  Farrar realizes they must get away instantly, and “shoots” a guard so they can escape.  But the noise brings down Jim and the rest.  Farrar wants Paris to stand guard while he escapes to warn Diaz about Plato, but Paris goes all cowardly and blubbery and useless.  But Farrar, as Jim explained in the apartment scene, is brave and loyal to his cause, so he’s willing to stay behind and cover Paris’s escape so he can deliver the warning.  So Farrar tells Paris who Plato is.  Jim radios the information to the authorities, and they set off an explosion to distract Farrar long enough to let them get away.  Plato gets arrested in the nick of time, and we see Farrar wandering the now-deserted “island” until he reaches the hilltop and discovers he’s still in his own country, with Diaz just driving up and wearing a hangdog look.

This is a strong episode with a strong script by Harold Livingston, who would later write the screenplay to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  It gives us two effective villains, and while Colicos is in fine form as Farrar, he’s stuck in the formulaic dupe role while his subordinate Diaz gets to rise above the formula, see through the charades, and pose a formidable obstacle, ultimately coming out of it as the more impressive antagonist (although he got a bit slow on the uptake at the end so that Barney and Dana could escape).  As is the norm for this season so far, the episode moves beyond the usual formula and deconstructs it.  After four years on the air, the audience knows all the tricks, so it’s about time the bad guys started to catch on as well.  True, we’ve had the occasional episode before where the bad guys recognized that they were being tricked (“The Glass Cage” springs to mind), but they’ve rarely gotten as far as Diaz; and in the context of this revisionist season, it feels like another instance of the show commenting on its own tropes by having characters in the story recognize those tropes and call attention to them.  While Jerry in “The Innocent” stood for the cynical young viewer who questioned whether the show had relevance, Diaz stands for the genre-savvy fan who’s been watching long enough to see every move coming.  And the pressure from Diaz forces the characters to raise their game, just as pressure from the audience may have forced the show to raise its game.

And I have to say, I’m really growing impressed with Lesley Ann Warren.  I’ve seen most of this season already, a couple of years back when I discovered it was available on cable, and at the time I wasn’t entirely satisfied with Warren, largely — I admit — because I didn’t think she was hot enough.  (She was very close to being hot, but a little too gaunt and freckly.)  But now, with the context of three seasons of Barbara Bain and one season of various guest actresses, I’m really appreciating the fresh energy and talent Warren brought to the show.  She was a good actress, more natural than Bain, and yes, better-looking too.  She was maybe a bit too young to be playing a career spy, only around 23-24 at the time, and perhaps was cast as part of the show’s evident efforts to make itself more youth-oriented; but as she showed here when confronting Diaz, she could project poise and strength beyond her years.

“My Friend, My Enemy”: Enter the Spockacycle!  Paris is riding a motorcycle along a back road in (what a road sign alleges to be) Switzerland when he’s run off the road and tranked by enemy agents.  The head agent, Maur (Wesley Lau), orders that Paris must never know he was captured.  We get the new main title theme with Doug (I’m starting to think the new arrangement is for Doug episodes and the old one is for Willy episodes), and then we go to veterinarian Paul Tabor (Peter Mark Richman), who’s actually a brainwashologist working with Maur.  Apparently Maur recognized Paris from a caper he pulled against Maur “last year,” and since Lau has been in M:I before, I was hoping Maur was an actual returning character, but no such luck; Lau did appear the previous year in “Doomsday,” but as Dr. Thorgen.  Anyway, Tabor plans to implant an electrode that will stimulate the “kill center” in Paris’s brain (oh, is that how it works?), and to establish his bad guy credentials, he demonstrates the principle with a German shepherd he’s programmed to turn against its owner, a hapless corporal.  (Don’t worry, he’s not physically hurt, but ohh, the heartbreak!)

But first Tabor has to hypnotize Paris to find out what his emotional triggers are, and it turns out that Paris has daddy issues that put Spock’s to shame.  Not only did his real father back in Cleveland drive his mother away, but his mentor/surrogate father, the magician Meerghan, killed Inga, the love of Paris’s life, out of jealousy.  Tabor uses this to brainwash him to kill his current father figure, his “control” (whom we know as Jim Phelps).

Meanwhile, Jim and Dana are concerned that Paris hasn’t checked in following the completion of a mission the three of them just pulled, so once Paris does call and say he was in an accident and needs some time to recuperate (having no memory of his brainwashing), the team follows standard procedure to clear him, calling in Barney and Doug.  Jim and Doug check in separately under assumed names to surreptitiously contact and test Paris (on the assumption he’s being watched) while Barney and Dana investigate the crash site.  Tabor’s apparently a better doctor than Doug, since Doug can’t find anything wrong.  Jim is content to let Paris have some time off until Barney & Dana finish up, and that gives Paris time to get acquainted with hot blonde tourist Enid (Jill Haworth), who happens to be the same type as his lost love Inga.  Naturally, she’s working for Tabor to help manipulate Paris into killing Jim.  As Tabor ramps up the brain implant to ease Paris toward the act of murder, it makes Paris increasingly hostile toward Jim, dismissing Jim’s suspicions about the girl.  And it made me laugh out loud to see Leonard Nimoy deliver the lines, “Can’t you understand real emotion?  Or have you become some kind of a machine?”

Meanwhile, it turns out Maur made the mistake of touching the broken-off headlight of Paris’s bike, which Barney finds and gets fingerprints from.  They also find German shepherd hairs on Paris’s clothes.  This leads the team to Maur’s office in Vienna, where Dana goes in undercover, uses a dog whistle disguised as a cigarette holder to confirm the presence of an angry canine, and “accidentally” leaves her purse behind so she can come back later to get her “asthma pills” and accidentally lay the purse on Maur’s windowsill, setting off the alarm so Barney and Doug can sneak in undetected.  They find the dog and figure out what’s been done to it.   Apparently Doug has heard of the brain’s “kill center” too.   (It’s allegedly the lateral hypothalamus — which is actually the brain’s hunger center.  It should’ve made Paris extremely peckish, not murderous.)

So Enid (whose real name is Marla) thinks the plan is to fake her death with a prosthetic bullet wound and pin it on Jim, but of course Tabor’s evil so he has his henchman Ernst (Bruce Glover) shoot her for real when she calls Paris and begs him for help.  Paris finds her body and Tabor switches his hunger, err, kill center from peckish to ravenous.  So Paris grabs the gun that Tabor left lying at the scene and goes after Jim, whom he sees as Meerghan.  Jim and Paris (and their stunt doubles) fight, and Jim tries to get through to Paris, telling him to fight the brainwashing.  Naturally, it works, and Paris utters a relieved, revelatory “Jim!” (“Your name is Jim!”  Nahh, that’s something else.)  Tabor confronts them both and says he’s underestimated them, then tells Ernst to shoot them, but Paris has recovered enough to use the gun on Ernst instead of Jim.  Tabor is captured.

Then we cut to the Paramount office building a hospital where a cured, de-brain-implanted Paris comes out and greets the German shepherd, who’s also been cured, in a cute happy ending.  (The dog’s name is Max, so I’m going to pretend that he went on to be Dr. Rudy Wells’s test subject and became Max the Bionic Dog from The Bionic Woman.)

A fairly effective episode, another attempt to add personality and backstory to one of the regulars and to create conflict within the team.  Just as Jim was being himself throughout “Homecoming,” so Paris is basically being himself here, brainwashing aside; although he uses a fake name with Enid, he’s off the clock and has no hidden agenda (that he knows of).  It’s reasonably effective, though it’s weakened by the fact that the conflict is entirely artificial.  And this episode is essentially something I’ve always wanted to see in this show: a story in which the IMF is confronted by their own mirror, an enemy team pulling a scam on them.  You’ve got Maur, the control (Jim); Tabor, the mastermind of the technology and medicine (Barney crossed with Doug); Marla, the femme fatale (Dana); and Ernst, the muscle (Willy).  And the evil Paris surrogate is Paris himself, though he doesn’t know it.

Other pluses include an excellent score by Robert Drasnin.  The cues when Paris’s brainwashing goes into high gear are reminiscent of the fine score from “Echo of Yesterday” in season 2, and the episode ends with a lovely “happy ending” variant of “The Plot.”  It’s also nice to see an episode set in real foreign locations instead of Fauxnameia or the Generic People’s Republic.

The problem, though, is that on top of all the other format-breakers this season, it’s too much too fast.  It may have been frustrating that the previous three seasons had only 2-3 exceptions to the formula per year, but at least when they came they felt special.  But here we are only six episodes into the season and we’ve had four format-breakers in a row.  How are they going to sustain this level?  I wouldn’t have minded having these episodes spread out more widely, with a fair number of more routine episodes between them — as long as they were the fresh, clever take on the routine that we saw in the first two episodes this season.   Too many “special episodes” at once makes them feel less special.

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