Archive for October, 2011

E-books on the rise?

October 31, 2011 2 comments

I recently signed on to the Simon & Schuster Author Portal, which among other things (that I haven’t gotten around to investigating yet), allows us authors to see sales figures on our books and e-books published by S&S and its imprints.  The specific sales figures are confidential, of course, but I’m noticing an interesting trend.  While the overall sales figures of my books are much higher in print form than in e-book form (since all my Trek novels are available in e-editions as well), in recent weeks the e-book sales numbers are generally competitive with and often higher than the print-book numbers.  In fact, I didn’t really count them precisely, but the impression I get from the latest week’s figures is that the majority of my backlist titles sold more electronic copies than print copies.  Which would seem to confirm that e-reader use is significantly on the rise, at least for older books that might not be readily available on store shelves (though would still be available for purchase online or through special order at bookstores).  It’ll be interesting to see how the print and electronic sales figures for next year’s DTI: Forgotten History compare to one another.

The unfortunate thing, though, is that my two Marvel Comics novels, X-Men: Watchers on the Walls and Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder, apparently aren’t available in e-book form.  I’m quite proud of both of those novels, but they’re not selling very actively these days, and maybe they’d be doing better if there were e-editions available.   (Although of course I’m hoping that by mentioning them here and posting purchasing links I’ll prompt a few more sales.)

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S6) Reviews: “Image”/”Committed” (spoilers)

October 30, 2011 1 comment

“Image”: Aging gangster Emil Gadsen (George Voskovec) and his son Tony (future Hill Street Blues star Daniel J. Travanti) are visiting Emil’s partner, a gangster with the unlikely name of Thor Coffin (Warren Stevens).  They’re partners in what the Voice on Tape later calls the biggest “vice operation” in the Northeast, but Emil’s fleeing to Tangiers (no extradition treaty) to escape prosecution, leaving Thor to run the business.  However, he’s keeping the list of corrupt officials that’s the source of his power.  It’s an uneasy partnership; Thor badly wants to possess Emil’s list, while Emil wants to use Thor’s multimillion-dollar stamp collection to launder his money, but neither man will give up his prize possession.  Jim’s mission, as he’s told by the tape in a pipe room somewhere, is to get the list.

Jim distracts Thor by trying to sell him some stamps while Willy breaks into Thor’s wine cellar through the sewer and makes his way to the room behind Thor’s safe, breaking into it from the rear and stealing Thor’s stamp collection.  Willy gets caught by a guard on the way out but soon knocks him out, and this doesn’t materially affect the plot since the theft was supposed to be discovered.  Meanwhile, Barney adopts the identity of Caribbean psychic Revalier (with the real one’s cooperation) and pretends to give Emil a tarot reading, claiming that someone “closer than a brother” will be a source of danger to him.  Once getting the skeptical Tony out of the room, Barney drugs Emil and hypnotizes him with a series of post-hypnotic suggestions that will be triggered by showing him the Death tarot card.

Anyway, a guest impersonator named Dave Scott (Paul Marin) masks up to look like Emil, but instead of replacing Emil, his job is to convince Emil that he’s a long-lost twin brother.  They meet by chance in a restaurant, and Dave claims to be a professor from the old country with Casey as his daughter.  Remembering Barney’s warnings, Emil invites them over for cocktails later, but the “professor” is kidnapped by masked gunmen who are actually Jim, Willy, and guest muscle Tom Hawkins (George McCallister Jr.).  The posthypnotic suggestions are used to make Emil think he’s feeling what the professor feels as he’s knocked out, beaten, and tortured, and a doctor working with the team, Charles Berk (David M. Frank), teams with Barney in convincing Emil that the professor is actually a Siamese twin he never knew he had (conveniently Emil has a scar from an accident in infancy) and that they’re joined by a “Corsican Brothers”-style psychic link, so that Emil will die if the professor dies.  Barney’s psychic readings suggest that Thor is the kidnapper, and even though Tony’s still a skeptic, he agrees when Emil tells him to go investigate at Thor’s.  Tony forces one of Thor’s guards to take him to the wine cellar and he finds the professor there being worked over by Willy and Tom.  Callously, he leaves the professor there and comes back to report to daddy.

Meanwhile, Jim has tried to sell Thor’s stamps to a dealer with ties to Emil, so Emil finds out that there’s a way past Thor’s awesome security system and pays Jim to take him in.  They find the professor “dead” and then Jim uses the tarot card to trigger Emil’s final attack.  Now skeptic Tony is convinced his father’s dying and he insists that Emil give him the secret list (oh, what a saint).  Emil reveals it’s hidden in his watch, and Tony runs off with it, leaving Emil there.  But as soon as he gets outside with Jim, he finds the police waiting.  As does Emil a minute later when Willy revives him and leads him out.

Wow, just reading through all that again prior to posting made me shake my head in bewilderment at how thoroughly ludicrous this episode’s premise was.  What a mess.  I have the same problem here as in “The Miracle” — if Barney has such amazing hypnotic powers, why not just hypnotize Emil into revealing where the list is?  Why go through all this convoluted deception to convince the guy of something entirely bizarre?  Making a guy think he’s psychically linked with a long-lost Siamese twin has got to be the weirdest way yet of getting to the bad guys in this show.  It’s just so silly.  And it’s hard to believe you can hypnotically manipulate a guy into having the fake physical reactions Emil has here.  All in all, this is the worst one of the season so far.

“Committed”: Nora Dawson (Susan Howard) is in a cell at the state mental hospital, babbling incoherently.  (She must’ve seen the last episode.  Or maybe written it.)  Turns out she’s being drugged into that state by the evil and extremely rotund Dr. Carrick (Robert Miller Driscoll) on orders from the crooked lieutenant governor Harrison (Alan Bergmann), in order to keep her from testifying against Harrison’s boss Chandler (Bert Freed).  At a Western-themed kiddie park, Jim retrieves what’s supposedly his nephew’s lost lunchbox from an employee, and the tape inside tells him to rescue Nora and deliver her to court the next day in a coherent state.  In the apartment scene, it’s explained that Nora can’t be released because her husband (Jack Donner) is in Harrison’s pocket.  Joining the team is Wilson (James B. Sikking, our second future Hill Street Blues star in as many weeks), the prosecutor on Chandler’s case; he promises the full cooperation of the DA’s office.  Jim explains that the mental hospital is a converted prison basically controlled by Harrison, and they’ll face the same problems they would with breaking someone out of prison, especially since it’s on an island.

The first step is to get Casey committed.  Jim plays her uncle who’s eager to get rid of her, and Casey pretends to be insanely jealous of the women in his life, including the women he photographs for fashion spreads (though she insinuates something less respectable).  Carrick calls in the hatchet-faced but kindly-voiced Nurse Brophy (Anne Francine), part of the criminal clique, to take Casey for evaluation (and Lynda Day George gets the chew the scenery something fierce, and looks kinda hot playing crazy).  Meanwhile, we cut to a painfully expository scene between Harrison and Chandler — at one point Harrison actually says “As lieutenant governor of this state…”.  Beyond stiltedly recapping what we already know, the scene explains why they didn’t just kill Nora as Chandler wants: she’s already testified against Harrison and he needs to discredit her.  Harrison mentions Mr. Dawson’s cooperation, and afterward Chandler has his goon Lusk (Geoffrey Lewis) kill Dawson (lest he talks), then orders him to kill Nora.

Willy comes near the prison island in a boat, using a megaphone to tell the tower guard that his engine’s broken down, while Barney scubas ashore and climbs in through the sewer, rigging the boiler with a radio-controlled device.  Casey freaks out and attacks a Rorschach-blot screen with a knife to get herself thrown in isolation, conveniently in the cell right next to Nora’s (are there only the two?).  On hearing of this, Jim fakes a fainting spell so he’ll be placed in a room to recover, then disguises himself as a hospital employee and makes his way to isolation, where he helps Casey don a Nora mask and inflate a Casey blow-up doll in her bed (not that kind of blow-up doll — the camera angle clearly shows it’s not anatomically correct), then blasts a hole in the wall between cells (concealed by the padding).  When Nora is brought back from her last crazymaking treatment (which leaves her muttering random nouns one after the other, one of the stranger depictions of psychosis I’ve seen on TV), they knock out Nurse Brophy and sneak Nora out, while Casey stays behind so the bad guys won’t know Nora’s gone.  Barney’s gadget triggers a boiler overload so Maintenance Man Jim can sneak Nora out through the boiler room, where Barney came in.  (And I think it’s the same location where the previous episode’s tape scene was filmed.)  He’s given Nora an antidote shot to restore her sanity, but she breaks down crying and Barney has to comfort her.  Jim then knocks out the tower guard so Willy’s boat can come back and retrieve them.

But Lusk comes after Casey/Nora, who signals Jim with a beeper in her hospital bracelet.  She fights off Lusk as best she can, but this is 1972 TV so of course she needs Jim to arrive in the nick of time and save her.  They hide Lusk and the evidence of the fight before Carrick and Brophy arrive to collect Casey/Nora.

In court, when Nora is called to the stand, she acts rather crazy, and the defense smugly insists that she’s insane.  But ADA Wilson shockingly reveals that it’s not Nora, pulling off the mask to reveal Casey, and accusing Carrick of the crazymaking.  He then has the real Nora come in and testify that Chandler murdered a senator while Harrison watched (though the way she phrases the latter might constitute hearsay).

All in all, a decent but uneven episode.  The unmasking in court seemed a bit gratuitous, but I guess the idea was that it was the only way to ensure Nora reached the stand safely, so I can live with it.  And aside from the theatrics, the courtroom procedure felt fairly authentic to me — though it was weird to see an M:I episode turn into a courtroom drama for the last five minutes.  I guess the main appeal of the episode is Lynda Day George’s scenery-chewing.  Susan Howard (who played the first female Klingon we met in Star Trek) is pretty much wasted as the mostly incoherent Nora.  And the episode loses points for the ultra-stilted exposition between the bad guys.  So it’s watchable, but mediocre overall.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S6) Reviews: “The Bride”/”Stone Pillow” (spoilers)

“The Bride”: We meet Joe Corvin (James Gregory), a very angry mobster who specializes in funneling mob money to Swiss banks, but who’s accusing his intended diplomatic courier of ripping him off.  The courier gets tossed down an elevator shaft by Corvin’s enforcer Richie (Charles Dierkop, who played a minor member of Butch’s gang in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid even though he looked far, far more like the real Butch Cassidy than Paul Newman did), so now Corvin has to find another way of getting millions of mob money to Switzerland.  That sounds like an opening for the IMF; Jim gets the assignment to put Corvin out of business when he retrieves the tape from a locker in a college swimming pool’s office.

Once again, Casey substitutes herself for someone the mark hasn’t met, namely Corvin’s Irish mail-order bride; he wants a nice, demure, convent-trained girl from the old country, and he treats her like his property, expecting complete obedience. But she shows signs of “illness” and erratic moods.

Meanwhile, Barney is meeting with Corvin’s mob contact Mellinger (Brad Dexter), pretending to be the boss of the murdered diplomatic courier and offering to move the mob’s money for less than Corvin charges — and sooner, because Corvin is still searching for a new way to do it.  This gets him questioned/threatened by Corvin, but he has some “in the event of my death” evidence locked away to keep him alive.

While Corvin’s off dealing with Barney, Richie follows Casey to a clandestine meeting with Jim, where he finds him giving her heroin.  Joe is outraged to find she’s a junkie and wants nothing more to do with her.  But he’s intrigued to find that Jim is a smuggler who uses his airline job to get stuff through customs.  Now Mellinger won’t need Barney.  Corvin makes arrangements with Jim.

But Casey takes a pill to fake her death from a drug overdose.  Corvin sends her to the funeral home run by Collins (Woodrow Parfrey), who disposes of the occasional corpse for him.  But Jim calls to let him know that security’s tightened at the airport (due to fear of terrorists, 30 years before 9/11) and their plan won’t work because even Jim’s luggage would be searched.  But the team arranges for Corvin to see a coffin with a diplomatic seal being loaded without inspection.  Corvin calls Collins to stop him from cremating Casey, ordering her embalmed instead.

Of course, Casey’s still alive, so Barney keeps Collins busy on the phone as an overly inquisitive customer while Willy knocks out Collins’s assistant Harris, who’s replaced by his near-lookalike, guest team member Bob Roberts (both are played by Gwil Richards).  Hey, I’m noticing a pattern.  The last guest impersonator was named Bill Williams.  (Although both surnames are only in the credits; only the first names are used onscreen.)  They revive Casey and swap her out with a dummy.  Barney also sabotages their hearse so a new one rigged by the team can take its place.  Once Corvin (with a nervous Mellinger watching) loads the money into the coffin’s pillow (under the “dummy” of the dead Casey, whose eyes are visibly moving, which is problematical on two levels) and the coffin is loaded into the hearse, Bob knocks out Collins.  In the back of the hearse, Barney emerges from a secret compartment, takes the money out of the coffin, and replaces the diplomatic seal he broke with a new one, then slips out of the bottom of the hearse.

The coffin is rigged to fall off the conveyor and break open, revealing the dummy of Casey and the lack of the money, which makes Mellinger suspicious of the bewildered Corvin.  Jim says Corvin asked him for two tickets to Miami, creating more suspicion.  Mellinger takes Corvin and Richie home — and finds a very much alive Casey holding two tickets to Miami.  Mellinger sends Casey away, then holds Corvin over the same elevator shaft seen in the beginning, demanding to know where the money is.  Corvin is… understandably confused.

I was expecting more from this episode, since it was scripted by Jackson Gillis.  But it’s a fairly average episode.  There are some decent bits of writing and characterization, particularly Collins’s slow burn when Barney won’t let him off the phone, but it doesn’t add up to anything exceptional.  Also, this is another episode that credits a composer (Richard Hazard) but that doesn’t have any new music as far as I noticed.

One good thing about the lack of a regular male “master of disguise” character this season — the way they’re bringing in a different impersonator each time based on their resemblance to the desired target makes a lot more sense than having just one guy do all the impersonations, or having a lot of the impersonation subjects just happen to resemble the team’s usual makeup guy (or gal, in Casey’s case).

“Stone Pillow”: Crooked PI Larry Edison (Bradford Dillman) is blackmailing Vincent Vochek (Robert Ellenstein), the biggest gangster west of Chicago, with a film that places him at the site of a murder.  He’s going to prison for some unrelated crime, but before he does, he wants to ensure he’ll get 5 grand a month for the rest of his life — promising that the film will stay buried as long as nothing happens to him.  He tells Vochek they should both wish Edison outlives him.  Cut to Jim getting the tape from a forest ranger and being offered the mission of getting the film from Edison so the perenially stymied Conventional Law Enforcement Agencies can prosecute Vochek.

The IMF’s plan hinges on Larry’s secret girlfriend Leona, who has just died in an auto accident (self-inflicted, no foul play) but confessed on her deathbed to be Larry’s accomplice (though died before she could reveal the film’s location).  They’ve kept her death secret so that Casey can impersonate her.  But that’s a later stage of the plan.  First, they get the cooperation of the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections to let Barney take over as temporary warden (with frosted temples to make him look older) along with Willy as a guard and Casey as a prison psychiatrist.  But Vochek probably has people on the inside so they can’t reveal their true identities to the prison staff.  Barney rejects the attempts of guard Fort (Arthur Batanides) to get Larry placed in protective custody against unspecified enemies, and it’s pretty easy to guess that Fort is Vochek’s inside man even before it’s confirmed.  Instead, Willy puts Larry in a cell with inmate Jim, who’s playing a loquacious, philosophical, chess-playing sort called the Professor.  It’s a nicely written scene, one of several provided here by scripter Howard Browne.  Professor Jim says he’s in stir for breaking a window — going on to elaborate that “the window was in an armored car containing 84 thousand dollars.”  He and Larry bond, but Jim lets Larry discover that he’s hiding some sort of plans inside the foot of his bed.

Willy rigs a squib to make it look like someone took a shot at Larry, but Warden Barney and Dr. Casey still rebuff Fort’s insistence that he be put in protective custody (since Casey argues that isolation would be harmful to his tenuous mental state).  Larry feels he has to get out, and he confronts Jim about the escape map he’s been drawing.  When Jim refuses to cut him in, Larry angrily sweeps his chessmen to the floor, discovering the tiny gun and bullets hidden within them.  Larry threatens to expose Jim’s plans if he isn’t cut in, so Jim agrees.  (There’s no way Jim could’ve predicted that Larry would trash the chessmen at that point.  How did he intend to get Larry to this point without it?)

At Casey’s group-therapy session the next day, Jim and Larry pull the gun on Casey and escape after knocking out a guard.  (Whom they leave unconscious in a room containing several hardened inmates, which doesn’t strike me as a good idea.)  Willy has arranged to be at the guard post overlooking their escape route and fires some token shots to make it look good.  When the three get to a waiting car, Larry is about to force Casey into the car, but Jim knocks him out and sends her off to stall their pursuers (though she doesn’t actually appear to do anything that slows them down significantly).  Jim drives them to a second car, moves the unconscious Larry into it, then douses the first car in gasoline, sends it over a hill, and triggers a charge to blow it up.  He then injects Larry with a syringe that says “live virus vaccine,” which made me wonder if part of the plot was to make Larry sick — but apparently it’s just a sedative and the label is  a prop-department glitch.

So Larry awakens to find it’s the next day and his death has been faked.  He’s eager to call Leona to find out if she sent the film to the DA, but there’s no answer.  Casey isn’t at her place yet, but it is being searched by Vochek’s men, because Larry smuggled out a letter that Fort intercepted and delivered to Vochek (who then resealed it and sent it to its proper address).  Later, Casey does arrive in a Leona mask (and for the duration she’s played by Brooke Mills, who has an oddly stiff and robotic way of moving), finds the letter, and is confronted by Vochek’s men, who warn her to give up the film.  She contacts Barney to alert him to the complication, but they proceed with the plan.  When Larry reaches Casey/Leona, she tells him she already sent the film to the DA — but Professor Jim is suspicious and calls a “friend” in the DA’s office (actually just calling Willy in the van), “learning” that the DA has never heard of any such film.  Leona must want the blackmail money for herself!  Larry goes to confront Casey/Leona, who’s ready with a blank-filled gun.  When she tries to shoot Larry, Jim fake-kills her, though she calls some imaginary accomplice on the phone before “dying” to convince Larry that Jim isn’t her accomplice.  Still, Larry grabs her gun and forces Jim to stay behind once he retrieves the key to where the film is hidden.  Barney and Willy drive off after him, but can’t do anything about Vochek’s men who are in closer pursuit.  Larry gets the film from a warehouse and gets into a shootout with Vochek’s men, whom the IMF takes down.  Larry tries to shoot Jim but discovers his gun is full of blanks.  He has no choice but to hand over the film.  Conveniently, Vochek has personally accompanied his men on this pursuit, which seems like a pretty stupid way of giving himself deniability, and is done only so we can see him arrested at the end.

Well, the story here has some weak points, but the dialogue is lively and clever, making this a very enjoyable episode.  In other news, Casey is a redhead now, which can’t be related to her impersonation of the redheaded Leona, because in that role she wears a full wig over her own nearly identical hairstyle.  Huh?

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S6) Reviews: “Run for the Money”/”The Connection” (spoilers)

October 28, 2011 1 comment

“Run for the Money”: Gangster Trask (Richard Jaeckel), who works for bigger gangster Mason (Herb Edelman), goes into a shop with a sign reading “TOBACCO’S” [sic], which is a front for an illegal gambling parlor.  Trask leaves his briefcase there, and it blows up the parlor and its occupants as he and Mason drive off (and their driver rather stupidly drives them right by the store two seconds before it blows up).  Jim then takes forever driving up to and walking through a miniature golf course before getting the tape out of the windmill and being tasked with breaking up the Mason-Trask partnership and ending their betting operation that funnels millions to the mob.  The team is assisted by jockey/trainer Nick (William Harmatz) and a champion racehorse named Lucky Lady.

To be honest, I had a hard time keeping track of the specific plot beats this time.  The plan is to convince Trask, who aspires to own a champion racehorse but doesn’t have the knowledge or skill to pick a winner, that a horse named Red Sand (actually Lucky Lady in disguise) is a champion out of nowhere.  Jim is the owner of the horse, and Casey is trying to buy it from him, though she turns out to be fronting for someone else.  All this is played out before Trask to catch his attention, and Casey arranges an involvement with Trask so she can be on hand to use a Barney gizmo in her purse to slow Trask’s stopwatch so he thinks the horse is a lot faster than it is, while Jim insists that the horse is no good.  (There’s a scene where they go on a date, interrupted by Trask taking her to the stables so he can take a sample of hair from Red Sand’s forehead mark, but the next day he talks about keeping her out late — could she have actually slept with him?)

Meanwhile, Barney breaks into Mason’s high-tech gambling parlor to swap out a computer circuit, making it look like a failed robbery to throw them off.  Trask finds out the hair sample was bleached, and determines that it’s actually Lucky Lady, who was reported stolen recently.  Also that Casey is fronting for someone, and she stages a meeting with Mason to make Trask think it’s him.  Trask wants the horse, so he has his goon threaten Casey into calling Jim and telling him that Mason withdrew his bid.  The odd thing here is that Trask was actually on the phone in Jim’s apartment, standing right next to Jim, when he instructed his goon to threaten Casey into lying to Jim.  Huh?  How is that supposed to have worked?

So anyway, Trask now owns the horse.  But Jim gets Mason’s attention by placing a big bet on Mason’s horse King’s Friend, and convinces him that Red Sand is a dud, admitting he gimmicked Trask’s stopwatch to con him.  Once Mason’s hooked, Jim triggers Barney’s planted computer circuit to explode, preventing them from altering the 40-to-1 odds on Red Sand after learning that someone (actually the team) has bet 100 grand on her (disguised as twenty $5000 bets in various cities).  Mason’s worried enough to have his goon be ready with a sniper rifle to shoot any horse (or jockey?) who comes close to rivalling King’s Friend.  Huh?  I guess the idea is that the race will be forfeit and nobody will get paid off, but still, it seems an oddly public action to take.

So anyway, Lucky Red Sand Lady takes the lead and sniper guy is ready to snipe, but Barney just coincidentally happened to see him climbing a ladder and manages to tackle him in time.  Redlucky Ladysand wins the race, to Trask’s delight.  Mason orders another goon — or actually a Thug, according to the credits — to call the betting parlor and halt the payoffs.  And let’s pause to acknowledge that the Thug is the only credited M:I role (though the second of three in all) for the great character actor Charles Napier, who sadly passed away not long ago.   Jim gets the drop on Charles Napier (who, this being the ’70s, is wearing a pink shirt under his suit jacket) and keeps him from stopping the payoff.  Mason has lost $4 million of the mob’s money, and he blames Trask.  The team watches as Mason and his men collect Trask and take him away to a no doubt grisly fate.  They then do the usual thing of getting into their own car and driving off into the final freeze-frame — except they seem to be driving directly toward a fence at some speed.

Well, this was a bit of a mess, which perhaps isn’t surprising from a script by Edward J. Lakso, author of the infamously bad Star Trek episode “And the Children Shall Lead.”  It was a fairly ordinary caper overall, but with some elements that didn’t make a lot of sense.  There’s not a lot of consistency to the character Casey plays; the script even comments on how mercurial and random her actions and choices seem to be, and the only defense she can offer is “Who understands women?”  And yet it’s her character who’s the linchpin of the entire plot — both in the sense of the IMF’s plot and the plot of the story we’re watching.  So it doesn’t have a very cohesive feel to it.  It also makes limited use of Barney and practically no use of Willy.  And one odd thing: it credits Robert Drasnin with a new score, but all the music sounded like familiar stock cues to me.

“The Connection”: We meet Dolan (Anthony Zerbe) as he takes over a meeting that New York mobster Clegg (Joe Maross) was supposed to have with another heroin supplier whom Dolan has killed in order to take over his operation.  He’s taking over the heroin trade for the entire East Coast, getting his supplies from Malot, an island off Northwest Africa.  Jim is informed of this in the announcer’s booth at what looks like a college running track — and for the first time in a couple of seasons, he gets the message on a phonograph record rather than a tape!  Now, there’s a blast from the past.

Clegg gives Dolan a million bucks to pay his supplier on Malot, a woman Dolan hasn’t met, and whose identity Casey assumes.  Dolan flies to Rome to catch a private plane to Malot, so for the first time this season, the IMF travels abroad in order to meet Dolan at Rome.  But their flight will actually take him to a part of Georgia that matches Malot’s climate; they gas Dolan and his men and reset their watches to conceal the flight time (though, oddly, they set their watches forward rather than back).  Unknown to them, though, Clegg has sent his man Finch (Bruce Watson) to keep tabs on Dolan, and he’s hidden aboard the plane.  The gas knocked him out too, but his watch didn’t get reset, so he’s suspicious as soon as they arrive.

Casey, quite fetching in a short red wig and a reasonably good (or at least nice-sounding) French accent,  provides Dolan and his men with the equipment to process opium poppies into heroin, and once he’s satisfied, he calls his supplier, a call which Jim has traced with the help of Simone (Francoise Ruggieri), a local telephone operator whose French accent is part of the illusion that Dolan is in Francophone territory.  The Rome police intercept the shipment and Barney delivers it to the house in “Malot.”  They also track down Dolan’s employer in Istanbul when he calls.

But Finch intercepts one of Dolan’s men, questioning him about the time discrepancy, then killing him when it turns out he knows nothing.  The team is alerted that there’s a wild card in the mix and begins searching.  Eventually Finch attacks Casey in her room and Jim drives him off.

Once Dolan’s satisfied with the drugs, he contacts Clegg in New York, and the team tracks the call.  They send Willy to Clegg to try to make a separate deal, and Clegg learns that Dolan’s boss in Istanbul never got the money Dolan sent him — Clegg’s money.  Or something — I’m probably misremembering the order these things happened in, but the gist is that the team is making Clegg think that Dolan’s double-crossed him.  Willy takes a beating until he finally “breaks” and admits he got the drugs from Dolan’s supplier (the one Casey’s impersonating).  Clegg accompanies Willy to Rome where they meet Barney’s plane to go to “Malot”/Georgia (courtesy of more knockout gas).

So Clegg coming to confront and accuse Dolan goes as planned, but Finch has figured out it’s a scam, courtesy of a gas station he came across that just happened to be festooned with signs declaring it to be in Georgia.  (Now, really, what are the odds?  A small-town gas station like that, off the beaten path, probably wouldn’t get many customers who weren’t local.  So there’d be no need to announce what state it was in.)  So Finch breaks in and confronts Jim in the basement processing lab, holding him at gunpoint and interrogating him.  Luckily, operator Simone is in the next room and overhears this, so she rings the phone in the lab, distracting Finch enough for Jim to jump him.  A fight ensues until we get the old “gun goes off between them” gag, and naturally Finch is the one killed.  Jim flees through the window as Dolan and Clegg come down and find the body.  Then they hear the police sirens converging on them.  The team (not counting Simone) assembles at the airstrip and flies away.

A fairly average episode — another one by Edward Lakso, along with Ken Pettus this time — but with some nice touches.  It’s good to see an episode with at least a slightly international flavor again, and Finch poses a persistent and credible threat to the team’s plans.  It’s unclear why they had to base the scam in Georgia, except to serve the season’s mandate to keep things domestic.  They had the cooperation of several countries’ law enforcement agencies, so couldn’t they have mounted the scam somewhere closer to Malot?  And the endgame isn’t very strong.  The key successes are gained simply by tracing Dolan’s calls and identifying the members of the drug network.  I’m not sure what getting Clegg to accuse Dolan of a double-cross actually accomplishes, since their relationship was brand new and it’s not like Clegg had a lot of trust in him to begin with.  And with the police coming at the end — what will they be arrested for?  Neither of them shot Finch.  I guess being found with the drug equipment could be pretty damning, except that the IMF set up that drug equipment for them, so it’s entrapment.  It could be that they were going to be arrested anyway for the crimes they’d already been linked to through the phone traces, but again, that means the important stuff happened without ceremony earlier in the episode and the climax doesn’t really amount to much.

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On sincerity and the Great Pumpkin

October 28, 2011 5 comments

I’ve just read the following Peanuts strip and it sparked a thought:

The strip is part of a series involving Linus’s obsession with the Great Pumpkin.  I’m sure everyone knows about this, but to sum up, in Linus’s heterodox belief, the Great Pumpkin is the Halloween equivalent of Santa Claus, giving presents to children at Halloween.  In this strip, we see Linus carefully preparing his pumpkin patch and explaining to Charlie Brown that “[e]ach year the ‘Great Pumpkin’ rises out of the pumpkin patch which he regards as the most sincere.”  Linus asks Charlie Brown whether his pumpkin patch is sincere enough, and Chuck gives an encouraging but not particularly sincere reply.  Of course, we longtime readers know that, like Charlie Brown’s quest to kick the football or win a baseball game, or just about any other personal quest in Peanuts, Linus’s desire is doomed to remain unfulfilled.  Of course, most would say this is because the Great Pumpkin is merely a figment of Linus’s imagination.

But it occurs to me that even by the rules of his own delusion, Linus is condemning himself to failure.  Consider: what defines a “sincere” pumpkin patch?  Presumably it means a pumpkin patch that’s cultivated for no other reason than the cultivation of pumpkins — one whose nominal function is its only function.  But if Linus is cultivating his pumpkin patch not merely for the pumpkins themselves, but as a means to the end of luring the Great Pumpkin, then he has an ulterior motive and his patch can never be truly sincere.  So by the very act of trying to attract the Great Pumpkin, Linus is ensuring that he never will.  But he’s so obsessed with his quest that he can’t see the self-defeating contradiction in his own premise.

As with a lot of things about Peanuts, I think maybe that says something philosophically significant.  Something about the difference between trying to look righteous and pious in pursuit of personal favor and genuinely practicing a moral, spiritual life without any thought of personal gain.  Of course it could have secular applications as well, but Linus is a pretty spiritual character so it’s easy to look at it in those terms.  Although Linus usually seems to be one of the savvier, wiser characters in the strip, so it’s a bit odd to see him on the self-deluded side of a spiritual allegory here.  Unless I’m reading too much into it.

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In an octopus’s garden

Here’s a fascinating article about octopus intelligence and the ways in which it’s profoundly different from ours:

As a science fiction fan and author, I’m always fascinated by research revealing that other sapient species probably exist right here on Earth — be it apes, dolphins, elephants, whatever.  And the “smarter than we ever imagined” club keeps broadening.  Now it’s grown to encompass birds and cephalopods like octopus and squid.  (And yes, the plural of octopus is octopus, octopuses, or octopodes, not “octopi.”  It’s from Greek, not Latin; -pus means “foot” and its plural is -podes.)  This article is particularly interesting to me as an alien-builder in its discussion of how radically different the octopus’s senses and perceptions are, and how different are the reasons behind its evolution of intelligence.  It might be premature to read consciousness into the octopus’s behavior, but it might be so alien that it’s hard to define what is or isn’t conscious.

Although it’s kind of heartening that, even across such a gulf, the article describes such a bond of affection between human and octopus.  Even though octopus aren’t particularly social, and often fight with rival octopus, some of them do seem to show affinity or at least interest toward certain humans.  We often assume in SF that the gulfs between different sapient species might be too great to surmount if they’re different enough (see Orson Scott Card’s Ender novels, for instance).  But I tend to think maybe the opposite might be true.  We often get along better with other species than we do with our own kind.  Like the way dolphins are famously benevolent and protective toward humans even though they’re often quite aggressive toward other dolphins.  I think it’s because members of other species are rarely our rivals in the same way that members of our own species can be, so there’s less incentive for fear and hostility.  And I think it’s because intelligent minds have a natural tendency to reach out to other intelligent minds.  At least that’s true with mammalian and avian species, whose intelligence arises from the need for complex social interaction and communication.  But this article says that octopodan intelligence didn’t come from social needs, but may instead have come from the need to be adaptable in strategies for pursuing various forms of prey, fleeing various forms of predator, and dealing with the changing environment of the sea.  So what, in that case, could be the incentive driving this form of intelligence to connect with others?  Perhaps simple curiosity.  Perhaps an intelligent mind can recognize that another intelligent mind, particularly an alien one, is something it can learn new things from.  And if a species’ intelligence arises from the need to adapt and innovate in order to survive, then surely there would be a survival imperative to seek new knowledge, new insight.  Even if we have nothing else in common with another intelligence, we may have curiosity and the willingness to learn in common.  That could be the basis for understanding with even the most alien intelligences.

In any case, this article makes me rethink my assumption that all intelligent species would be social species.  Certainly many would be, and those would be the aliens that we could probably get along with the most easily, the ones most likely to join into interstellar federations and commonwealths and leagues and whatnot.  But there could be others as well, species that evolved a less social form of intelligence.  It’s doubtful that they’d have much in the way of civilization, though, if they couldn’t cooperate and organize.  But maybe they’d find a way.  It’s certainly interesting to think about.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S6) Reviews: “The Visitors”/”Nerves” (spoilers)

“The Visitors”: Hey, it’s Stately Wayne Manor!  The familiar location, a residence on South San Rafael Avenue in Pasadena, is serving not as the home of millionaire Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward Dick Grayson, but as the abode of newspaper publisher Granger (Steve Forrest), whose reporter is telling him about an expose he’s planning that exposes the syndicate’s control of key positions throughout his state.  When he reveals that he has no copies of the sensitive evidence he’s brought, Granger, who’s actually in with the mob though the reporter doesn’t know it, has his chauffeur Leonard (Jack Donner doing a bad British accent) sabotage the reporter’s helicopter so he and his pilot go kaboom.  The now-familiar smash cut from a killing to a close-up of the tape player is used, and it’s the first stock tape scene of the season, reusing the sequence that was shot in the pharmacy set from “Hunted” but used in the fifth-season finale.  The tape reveals that Granger has used his power as a publisher to promote and protect mob candidates and they’re days from gaining statewide power in an election.  The mission is to expose Granger and his fellow mobsters before the election.

The plan is to take advantage of Granger’s eccentric beliefs.  He’s a fitness nut who craves immortality, and he’s believed in UFOs ever since a light in the sky led him and an acquaintance named Helen to find a boy lost in a well 25 years earlier, beginning his career as a journalist.  He’s mainly a rational, intelligent man, but narcissistic enough to believe that a higher, alien power has been guiding his rise to greatness.  (There’s a slight problem here, since 25 years earlier would’ve been 1946, and “flying saucer” beliefs didn’t begin to emerge in pop culture until the Kenneth Arnold sightings of 1947, with the term “UFO” being coined in 1952.  And the idea that “flying saucers” represented alien spaceships didn’t catch on until sometime after ’47, which is why the US military could call the crashed vehicle from Roswell a “flying disc” and then identify it as a weather balloon without there being any retraction or coverup involved — since at the time, the term hadn’t yet acquired any connotations of extraterrestrial origin but just meant “unknown roundish thing in the sky.”  However, perhaps Granger’s belief that the light represented an alien force emerged in the years following his experience — as UFO lore evolved in popular culture, his retroactive interpretation of his 1946 experience evolved with it.)

First, Barney impersonates an ex-con (adopting the record of a real, reformed felon who’s cooperating in exchange for a fresh start) and makes contact with Kellog (Frank Hotchkiss), Granger’s assistant and mob handler, seeking work.  Then the team arrests Leonard and makes it look like he robbed Granger’s safe and fled.  Kellog hires Barney to fill the job opening, and Barney wastes no time delivering a paralytic toxin to Granger via a “mutant bee” (intrinsically harmless but hyperaggressive) that he blows down the chimney into Granger’s study.  Granger’s doctor, Laurence, (Richard Bull) can’t identify the toxin so he contacts a venom center, which is actually Jim doing a fake accent and asking Dr. Laurence to send the bee remains and a blood sample.

But that night, while Granger’s paralyzed in bed but fully conscious, Barney fakes lights and smoke outside his window while Willy activates a gizmo that screws up TV/radio signals for miles around and spams the police switchboard with taped calls (mostly the voices of Jim, Casey, and Barney) reporting UFO sightings.  After Barney drove the samples to the “venom center,” he smuggled Jim and Casey in, and now they descend from the roof and suddenly appear in Granger’s room, dressed in white and carrying weird equipment.  They order Dr. Laurence to leave and Kellog makes him.  Then “nurse” Casey, wearing a raven-haired wig with a streak of white just like Helen from 25 years ago, puts weird gizmos on Granger’s chest, letting him see a birthmark on her hand that matches Helen’s.  They scan him with a flashy-light box that sounds like a Star Trek shuttlecraft interior, and Jim injects him with a counteragent using a futuristic injector gun that sounds like a cross between an ST hypospray hiss and starship-door sound effect (which, in fact, was the sound of an air rifle played backwards).  Then they “vanish” by going out the side doors and climbing back up to the roof, so nobody sees them leave.  Granger is completely recovered in minutes, and a well-timed special report on the radio (which doesn’t seem to be cued by the team but just conveniently happens) informs him of the citywide sightings.  Was he saved by aliens?

Later, when Granger’s heading for the newspaper office, Barney fakes engine trouble, and while he and Kellog are examining the engine, Casey shows up and gets in the back seat with Granger, warning him that their blood tests found leukemia and asking him to stay close to home.  He asks “Helen” how she can be unchanged after a quarter-century, but she doesn’t answer then.  Yet she’s already at his home when he gets back, and she uses oogy-woogy senses to detect the bug Kellog has in Granger’s office (which the team actually found earlier when they robbed the safe — I wonder what they did with the money they took?).  This gets Granger to fire Kellog.  Casey then tells Granger she was sent to offer him immortality, but he resists and accuses her of fraud, so she tells him they were wrong to choose him 25 years ago.  She drives off, but as planned, Kellog’s firing has gotten his mob bosses back in NY to order him to kill Casey.  He pursues her with Barney at the wheel (and they drive under a distinctive viaduct, a location I remember from season 4’s “The Numbers Game”), and Barney makes sure Kellog’s shots miss and that their pursuit is delayed long enough for Willy to rig a fake crash of a duplicate of Casey’s car.  Meanwhile, alien doctor Jim has come to Granger seeking Casey/Helen, saying she’s in danger (and this is just after Dr. Laurence called to say the “venom center” reported signs of leukemia to him).  They drive off after her and come upon the crash scene.  Kellog flees, leaving Barney behind, which is a glitch in the plan.  Jim and Granger descend to find Casey supposedly thrown clear of the crash but with a mask simulating a mummified appearance.  Jim has Granger drive them to a hidden HQ containing a healing tube that Jim puts Casey into.  The tube fills with smoke, and I assume the idea is that Casey is switching masks under cover of the smoke, but oddly, we see a film dissolve from her “mummified” mask to a hairless mask (not sure whether it’s meant to suggest “cadaver” or “alien”) before the smoke fills up and then clears to reveal Casey’s normal face.

Now convinced that the “aliens” and their healing tech are genuine, Granger asks them to cure his leukemia.  But Jim says he betrayed them by turning to crime and corruption, and refuses to help him.  Granger offers to come clean, to expose the mob-owned candidates in the upcoming election, and Jim uses a disguised phone in his super-spacey control booth to let Granger call the radio station he owns and get hooked in to make a live announcement, naming all the corrupt candidates and promising to reveal more in future broadcasts.  For some reason, though, the IMF leaves during the broadcast.  And somehow Kellog has tracked Granger here, no idea how, and he shoots Granger.  This seems to diminish the team’s victory; will just a single uncorroborated broadcast really be enough to ensure all the named candidates lose?  I suppose it could prompt investigations that would expose them, but the election’s only a day or two away.  Logically, the team should’ve kept Granger safe so that he could deliver hard proof to the authorities and the public.  Still, his shooting allows for a rather striking conclusion — as Granger lies on the floor, dying, he strains desperately toward the “healing tube,” and the final freezeframe comes just before his hand can reach its activation button.

Well, I was expecting an M:I episode about a faked alien visitation to be quite lame and gimmicky.  The fact that Harold Livingston scripted it didn’t encourage me, since his previous season 6 script, “Encore,” was overly gimmicky and unbelievable.  But while this story has some logic problems in the final act, it’s mostly a solid episode with well-written dialogue and a rather poetic conclusion.  Even the new musical score is a pleasant surprise.  It’s the only M:I contribution of George Romanis, who would later contribute my least favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation score (“Too Short a Season”), but Romanis does good work here, reminding me somewhat of the style of Ray Ellis’s music for the Filmation cartoons I grew up with in the ’70s.  All that and Stately Wayne Manor too!  So all told, this is a much more enjoyable episode than it had any business being.

“Nerves”: Criminal Wendell Hoyes (Christopher George, husband of Lynda Day “Casey” George) has stolen a canister of nerve gas from the Army and threatens to release it in a populated area if his brother Cayman (Paul Stevens) isn’t released.  But Cayman is on his deathbed.  The only hope of finding the canister is Jim Phelps, who gets the tape from a fisherman at the pier in the early morning.  There’s a timing issue here, since Wendell gives the Warden 24 hours to comply in the teaser (unless I’m misremembering), but Jim gets the briefing in the morning, and in the apartment scene, guest team member Bill Williams (Peter Kilman) says he’s been studying Cayman’s voice all night, suggesting yet another day has passed since the tape scene.  And in the apartment, Barney says the nerve gas canister is defective and the gas will corrode through in 43 hours.  (This being TV land, they can predict precisely when a material failure will occur.)  And Wendell himself is violently paranoid and unstable (so the episode title has a dual meaning).

The first stage is to put Casey in as a prisoner alongside Wendell’s girlfriend Saretta (Tyne Daly — gee, I thought she looked familiar!), cuffing them together, and then staging a jailbreak.  Casey’s getaway route is blocked by police (cooperating with the team), so Saretta takes over and makes Casey drive them to Wendell’s hideout in a winery, with Barney tracking them via a bug in the getaway car.  Wendell is suspicious of Casey and has his partner Tully (Rafer Johnson) check her out through his mole in the prison, a guard named Campbell (Ron Masak).  But the warden has cooperated with the team to fake Casey’s record, and when Cayman dies, the prison doctor agrees to cover that up too.

Once Casey’s bona fides are established, Wendell tries to force himself on Casey, to Saretta’s displeasure as well as Casey’s.  But Saretta’s evidently used to his turbulent ways and is good at calming him and reassuring him of her love and devotion — which one senses is a skill she had to learn as a defense mechanism, because he’s violently unstable.

When Wendell calls the prison, Jim plays an official empowered to release Cayman (actually Bill in disguise) in exchange for the canister, but Tully pulls an expected double-cross, driving off with Bill/Cayman and leaving Jim in the lurch.  (Cayman is Paul Stevens’s fourth M:I role, and every single one of his characters has been the subject of a mask impersonation by an IMF team member.)  The team has now infiltrated two of their own into Wendell’s organization, but they’re still no closer to finding the nerve gas.  So when Wendell tells Bill/Cayman that he plans to sell the gas to a terrorist, Bill tries to convince him that he’s going too far and should keep his bargain with the government instead.  But Wendell accuses Bill/Cayman of going soft and vehemently insists on doing it his way.  Saretta and Tully agree, so Bill and Casey have no choice but to play along and hope Wendell will take them to the canister before it ruptures.  But when they go out to get the canister, Wendell’s in no hurry.

Worse, the corrupt guard Campbell has discovered the real Cayman’s body in the morgue, and though the absence of cell phones in 1971 impedes his efforts, he eventually manages to notify Tully (who’s stayed behind due to car trouble) of the deception.  Jim, Barney, and Willy follow Wendell, Bill, and the women (whom Wendell intends to kill later, feeling he only needs his beloved brother) to the Griffith Park Observatory, but Tully’s close behind, and soon warns Wendell that his brother’s dead and he’s brought an impostor.  Wendell takes Bill to the crate that held the canister, but it’s empty.  Wendell attacks Bill and then orders Tully to shoot him, and since he was a bit player I was wondering if he might actually get killed, but Jim arrives just in time to save him, shooting Tully in the shoulder (which, of course, does virtually no damage — see “Encounter” earlier this season). Wendell runs for the canister, determined to set it off and make Them pay for killing his brother, and when Tully tries to stop him (afraid for his own life), Wendell shoots him, but Tully shoots back and wounds him.  Wendell then climbs up into the observatory dome and starts shooting at Jim and Barney from that high vantage.  We’re in the final two minutes of the episode and the team still doesn’t know where the nerve gas is hidden.  But just before Wendell succumbs to blood loss and falls dead, he fires several shots that Jim realizes weren’t aimed at him.  He and Barney climb to where they hit and find the canister. The last scene of the episode is the team watching as the canister is encased in cement.

Well, this was a very effective episode, written by Henry Sharp and Garrie Bateson.  All too often in M:I, the team is on top of the situation from the start and there’s little doubt of their success.  But here, they go through virtually the entire episode without any real sense of gaining ground toward their goal — not because of any shortfalls on their part, but because the situation is so heavily stacked against them.  M:I capers rely so much on predicting the behavior of their targets, so their methods can fall short when dealing with someone as unstable and unpredictable as Wendell.  And the exposure of Bill in the last act added even further to the already effective suspense.  The script didn’t make it at all easy for the team to achieve its goal, and up until literally the last minute of the episode, there was an effective sense of uncertainty that the team would be able to succeed.  Of course it was a given that they would, but it wasn’t at all obvious how they would.  The episode is further enhanced by an effective new score by Robert Drasnin, who gives Wendell a suitably edgy, staccato leitmotif, counterpointed by a softer flute motif for Saretta.

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