Archive for October 11, 2011


October 11, 2011 6 comments

My assessment of season 4 was that it was mostly a relentlessly formulaic and uninspired season, with only a few standouts.  Season 5 could not have been more different.  The producers revitalized the show, bringing a fresh approach and attitude.  In a lot of ways, it was a return to the feel of the early first season: The team members were often seen out of character, there was more exploration of them as individuals, and it was more commonplace for the missions to go wrong in serious ways.  But season 5 took it even farther, with more departures from the usual episode structure than any prior season.  And the changes weren’t just structural.  The writing became fresher and richer, the plotlines more imaginative and more character-driven.  I’ve rarely seen a show reinvent itself in mid-run so successfully.

Season 5 had a larger number of top-notch episodes than any season yet.  My vote for best of the season goes to “The Amateur,” but it’s closely followed by “The Innocent,” “Flight,” “The Field,” and “The Party.”  Almost as good are “The Killer,” “Flip Side,” “Cat’s Paw,” “Hunted,” “Blast,” and “A Ghost Story,” though I might be giving higher scores to the early episodes than I otherwise would’ve simply because they were such refreshing departures at that point.  Other solid episodes are “My Friend, My Enemy,” “Decoy,” “The Hostage,” “Takeover,” “The Catafalque,” and “The Merchant” — the first three being imaginative format-breakers that weren’t quite as good as they could’ve been, the rest being routine episodes that handle the formula well.  Slightly below average for the season, though still above average for the series as a whole, are “Homecoming,” “Butterfly,” “Squeeze Play,” and “The Missile.” The lowest scores of the season go to “The Rebel” for its awkward production values and “Kitara” for its awkward handling of race, but neither is a complete dud.  Essentially the entire season is at or above average for the series to date.  That’s remarkable.

Still, the overall trend of the season is slightly downward.  And the pacing could’ve been better.  There were too many format-breaking episodes in the first half and too few in the second half.  I can understand the producers’ desire to show that this was a fresh new take on M:I, but maybe they used up their cleverest ideas too quickly.

Of the two new cast members, Lesley Ann Warren as Dana was the more successful, bringing a fresh tone and voice to the show, though I felt her performances later in the season became more repetitive and less natural than they seemed to me early on.  Sam Elliott was fairly unimpressive as Doug; his drab, deadpan delivery might’ve been okay in earlier seasons, but in this season where the actors were more often called upon to show genuine emotion and personality, Elliott came off as limited.  If the idea was to replace the similarly limited Peter Lupus with a more capable actor, they chose poorly.  Also, Elliott was worse at faking foreign accents than any other M:I regular to date.  On the other hand, Leonard Nimoy gave better performances this year than last, less stagey and more believable.  And for the first time, he was able to give Paris a distinct personality of his own, a rather laid-back persona with more casual, vernacular-laden speech than the rest (in perhaps deliberate contrast to Nimoy’s previous series-regular role).  Peter Graves and Greg Morris were also given opportunities to stretch dramatically, with Morris in particular doing impressive work in “Cat’s Paw.”

Another change made this season is the addition of a teaser/cold open before the main titles, usually an establishing scene before the tape scene, when there’s a tape scene at all.   Of 23 episodes, only 16 have tape scenes, and 4 of those are stock.  Of the 7 without tape scenes, 3 started in medias res during a mission in progress and showed complications throwing it off-track (“The Innocent,” “The Amateur,” “The Rebel”); 2 began with a problem arising just after a mission ended (“My Friend, My Enemy” and “The Hostage,” both of which involved Paris getting kidnapped); and 2 were personal missions (“Homecoming,” “Cat’s Paw”).  The tape sequences that did appear were standardized in technology, a small reel-to-reel player in every case, the first season where the method of delivering the briefing hasn’t changed.  But the content has: this season, the standard line “As always, if any of your IM Force are caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions” is excluded for missions taking place in the United States — and is also missing from the overseas mission in the season finale, “The Merchant.”  Only two distinct tape sequences lacked a self-destruct; in one (used twice) the tape was burned, in the other it was tossed into the ocean.  Neither used the old “Please destroy this tape in the usual manner” line.

A notable change was the permanent abandonment of the dossier scenes showing the team leader picking out photos of the team members of the week.  And for the most part, the team composition was the most standardized yet.  Jim Phelps, Paris, Barney Collier, and Dana Lambert were in all 23 episodes, and every episode featured either Willy Armitage or Dr. Doug Robert, or both in two cases (“The Innocent” and “The Party”).  Willy was in 13 episodes, the fewest yet for him (o1-04, 07, 08, 12, 15, 16, 18, 21-23), and Doug was in 12 (o3, 05, 06, 09-11, 13, 14, 17, 19, 20, 22).  Very few episodes featured prominent additional team members, though quite a few involve large ensembles of extras helping the core team.   These include:

01 The Killer: Team of hotel dressers/extras, including Clerk (Martin Ashe), Maid (Victoria Hale), Old Lady (Helen Spring), Bellhop (Tom Huff)
03 The Innocent: Jerry Carlin (Christopher Connelly), reluctantly
04 Homecoming: 2 pallbearers (ND extras)
05 Flight: Stone (Tol Avery), Butler (John S. Ragin), unspecified repertory company including “Capt. Jenkins” voice actor
09 The Amateur: Max Wittstock (Allen Joseph) participates; Father Bernard (Peter Brocco) assists
10 Hunted: Helicopter pilot (James W. Gavin, voice Walker Edmiston)
11 The Rebel: Alex Khora (Bob Purvey, voice Vic Perrin) and unseen pilot assist
13 The Hostage: Cooperation from consul Fred Sanders (uncredited actor), Cortina Prison commandant (Barry Morse) and staff; assistance from U2 spy plane crew
14 Takeover: Cooperation from governor’s office, apartment manager, hospital staff
15 Cat’s Paw: Purse snatcher (uncredited stuntman)
16 The Missile: Commander Wardman (John Pickard), base personnel, and Bobby Willard (Jimmy Bracken)
18 Blast: Grace (Susan Odin) temporarily joins team; cooperation from Hendricks (Pitt Herbert) & Drake Armored Service, George Miller (Douglas Henderson) and wife Grace Miller (uncredited), and police
19 The Catafalque: Repertory players including First Policeman (Miguel Riva), Operative #1 (Tony De Costa), Nun (Arline Anderson), fake “Victorio Fuego” (Sam Irwin), other fake cop, and workers
20 Kitara: Cooperation from John Darcy (Robert DoQui) and journalist Alice Duncan (unseen; Dana assumes her ID)
22 The Party: Repertory players as party guests, several drivers; cooperation from Warden Harvey (uncredited extra)
23 The Merchant: Repertory players as mercenaries and radar station crew

The new season brings a new version of the main title theme, debuting in episode 3, although the old theme is used in episodes 4 and 7; interestingly, for the first 7 episodes, the new theme only appears in episodes with Doug in them.  But for the rest of the season, the new theme arrangement is used exclusively.  Only 10 episodes have original music: two each by Lalo Schifrin, Robert Drasnin, and Benny Golson, and one each by Harry Geller, Robert Prince, Hugo Monetenegro, and Richard Hazard.  Several of the scores introduced more modern or avant-garde musical styles into the show.

At least 6 episodes this season deal with crime, organized or otherwise, rather than spies or national security threats;  “Blast” is a borderline case since it’s about crimes committed to fund a revolutionary movement.   Location-wise, a record 9 episodes take place in the United States, usually Los Angeles or an unspecified California city, though “The Homecoming” was in Jim Phelps’s birthplace of Norville County in an unspecified state.  This is in contrast to season 4, which had the fewest US-based adventures, only two.  The number of episodes set in Europe is a record low of 7: “My Friend, My Enemy” is explicitly in Switzerland and Vienna, “Squeeze Play” is in an Italian-speaking land on the Mediterranean (most likely Sicily), and the rest seem to be in the Eastern bloc, with “Decoy” being unspecified, “The Amateur” being in “Ransdorf, East Europe” and neighboring Dornburg (most likely representing East Germany), “The Rebel” in the fictional region of Kefero in an ambiguous part of the world (perhaps the Balkans), “The Field” in a country on the Adriatic coast (but with more or less Germanic character names), and “The Merchant” in a country on the Mediterranean (but with Romanian character names).  Two episodes (“Hunted” and “Kitara”) are in Africa, the former in “East Victoria” (a South Africa analogue) and the latter in “Bocamo, West Africa.”  Two episodes (“Flight” and “The Catafalque”) are in the Caribbean, the latter in “San Pascal.”  Only “The Hostage” is in Latin America, though portions of the mainly US-based “Flip Side” are in Mexico.  Only “The Innocent” is in the Mideast.  And for the first time ever, an M:I episode is set in East Asia, specifically Japan in “Butterfly.”  Aside from the fictional country names mentioned above, there is only one use of the “People’s Republic” naming convention that was commonplace in season 4, the Eastern European People’s Republic of “The Party,” which might be construed as an alternate name for the East European Republic from season 4’s “The Submarine.”

So that’s Mission: Impossible year 5, the season that revitalized the show and fulfilled its potential better than any prior season.  Unfortunately, the series won’t continue in this vein.  As I said before, this is the end of an era — the last season in which M:I is a show about international espionage.  For the remaining two seasons, the IMF will shift its focus almost exclusively to domestic crimefighting.  It’s also time to say goodbye to Leonard Nimoy as Paris and Lesley Ann Warren as Dana — and Sam Elliott as Doug is almost done too, making only one appearance in season 6, in exchange for Peter Lupus returning to full-time status.  Dana will be replaced by Lynda Day George as Casey.  Paris will be replaced by no one, with the regular team permanently reduced to four members.  What effect will this second, more drastic revamp have on the quality of the show?  Let’s just say it’ll be tough to live up to the quality of season 5.

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