Archive for December, 2011

My Xmas bike ride

December 25, 2011 2 comments

When I went for a quick walk in the park this morning, I noticed that the street was very empty, the neighborhood very quiet, since most everyone was indoors or away for Christmas.  Plus it was relatively warm, in the upper 40s — no white Christmas this year.  So I figured it would be a perfect opportunity to take my bicycle out for my first ride since the seat was repaired (I forgot to bring my helmet to the bike shop, since I didn’t realize they could do the repairs in a few minutes, so I had to walk the bike home).  Not only would the traffic be light, so I could ride in the streets without worrying much about dodging  cars, but the university campus would be empty, so I could ride around there without worrying about dodging students.

So this afternoon — once it had even topped 50 degrees F — I went out for my ride.  And no sooner did I get into the street that I had to deal with three approaching cars in quick succession.  Oh, great.  But after that, the road stayed mostly empty.  I even got the unprecedented experience of riding on an almost totally empty Calhoun Street — something I’d never have the courage to do under normal circumstances, since it’s generally a pretty busy street (although the sidewalk on the university side is usually quite crowded too).  I’ve never had such an easy time riding from home to campus.  And the campus was indeed empty enough that I could ride around the various plazas and pavilions, doing multiple loops around the various crisscrossing sidewalks.  It would’ve been roomier to go down to the Campus Green at the northeast corner, or even across to Burnet Woods, but coming back from either of those places would require a lot of uphill riding and I wasn’t sure I was up to that.  I wanted a fun ride that gave me a reasonable amount of exercise, not something where I really had to strain myself.  And actually, now that I take a look at the satellite view in Google Maps and compare the two, the areas where I did my riding add up to almost the same area as the Green.  Since they’re closer than the Green, the total distance I rode was less, but my total round-trip distance was probably something like two and a half miles — enough to leave me tired in a way that feels good and relaxed, like I accomplished something, rather than sore and exhausted.  All in all, a nice present for myself.

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My “Best Trek Gift” story is on is doing a holiday feature entitled “The Best Trek Gift You Ever Gave or Got,” for which they interviewed a bunch of people associated with the Trek franchise, from actors and production staff to tie-in authors including me (and it’s flattering to be included on an equal level with the stars of the shows).  So I passed along the story of my most valued and most missed Star Trek present from my childhood, my Mego bridge playset, along with the photo of it under the tree which is my only surviving relic of it.  I’d expected them to cut down my rambling reminiscence and just use what they needed, but they actually published the whole thing (though they cropped the photo), and you can read it and the other Trek-gift stories here:

The Best Trek Gift You Ever Gave or Got – Part 1

There’s also a second part with further gift reminiscences, including more bridge-playset reminiscences (truly it was the Holy Grail of classic Trek toys).

The Best Trek Gift You Ever Gave or Got – Part 2

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Sometimes they come back

December 23, 2011 1 comment

Yesterday I went down to the apartment building’s laundry room to do my laundry — and sitting there on top of one of the dryers was a sock I’d lost the last time.  Maybe the sock-stealing dryer demons learned the true meaning of Christmas.  Or something.

Otherwise it’s another quiet holiday season for me.  I think I just get so overwhelmed by family Thanksgiving that I prefer quiet and solitude for a while thereafter.  I wouldn’t mind finding a comfortable middle ground, though.

But I’ve got stuff to keep my occupied, like proofreading the galleys for DTI: Forgotten History.  And after that, I hope to get back to work on that spec novel.

The WEST SIDE STORY curse is broken

I finally got my requested copy of the West Side Story Special Edition DVD set from the library, so I’ve finally seen the film (or rather, I’ve seen it for the first time since I was a kid and for the first time in color and widescreen as it was meant to be seen).  Whenever I’ve tried to watch it before, something’s happened to interrupt me before the Prologue ended, so I kept waiting for the phone to ring with bad news or the building’s power to go out or the ground to open up and swallow my TV, but this time the universe cut me a break and let me watch the whole thing.  (I actually did get some bad news on the phone on the same day I brought home the DVD, but it wasn’t while I was watching it.  And that’s a topic for another time.)

I was a little alarmed at first when I got the DVD, since it said on the case that it was in the “original 16×9” aspect ratio, whereas the original ratio was actually 2.20:1, and 16:9 is nowhere near that.  But I did some checking online and most sites said it was 2.20:1 and “enhanced for 16×9 TVs,” although I had a hard time finding out what that meant and I’m still not entirely sure.  Anyway, it looked to me like what I was getting on my regular TV was maybe a little less than 2.20:1, but at least 95% of that.  While there were some group shots where the occasional person on the periphery was cut off a bit, the compositions did seem to fit the frame and vice-versa, so I was definitely getting as close to the complete experience as I can reasonably expect to.

And it was definitely worth holding out for the widescreen edition.  The design and composition and choreography are so tailored for the 70mm widescreen format that the very idea of watching in in 4:3 “fullscreen” (like on the copy Netflix sent me) and missing out on 40% of every shot is a sick joke.  This is a gorgeous movie that demands to be seen at its full width.  Director Robert Wise, production designer Boris Leven, and cinematographer Daniel Fapp did a fantastic job creating a visually stunning film, an intriguing hybrid of vivid theatricality and urban realism.  And though I’m far from a connoisseur of dance, I could tell that Jerome Robbins’s choreography was equally impressive and it would be a crime to cut nearly half of it off the screen.  (I was interested by the dance-fighting in the Prologue, which drove home how similar the disciplines of stunt-fighting and dancing really are.)

It’s also a very beautiful film to listen to.  The songs are excellent, although it’s surprising to me to find that I’m less fond of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics than I am of Leonard Bernstein’s music.  Maybe that’s just because it was early in Sondheim’s career.  There’s still plenty of clever Sondheimian stuff in there, though, creative and surprising rhymes and clever bits of characterization.  (Though in “America” he did overreach himself trying to find a rhyme for “Manhattan.”  Though I think the awkwardness of it was part of the joke.)  Interestingly, I often felt the melody in the songs seemed more Sondheim-like than the lyrics.  Maybe that shows how influential this collaboration was on Sondheim’s later work.  Anyway, Bernstein’s music is great, and I really like the instrumental parts.  I gather Bernstein preferred the smaller 30-piece orchestra of the original play and found the movie’s arrangements for an orchestra three times bigger to be too bombastic and unsubtle, but I just love that big orchestral sound.  (I think a lot of this music resonates with me because we spent a lot of time learning these songs in junior-high music class.  So this is one of those things that I know better than I knew that I know it.  Or… yeah.  Or something.)

Storywise, it’s a little more basic.  It’s a variation on Romeo and Juliet, but slimmed down and somewhat simplified, and with a change at the end that I wasn’t expecting.  There’s some interesting stuff with the exploration of ethnic prejudice and politics in lower-class New York City of the day, but I think it was a little too cleaned up.  Probably street gangs and juvenile delinquents of the 1950s-60s were somewhat less violent than their modern counterparts, but I suspect the film (and play?) toned that down even further to make the characters more sympathetic, going out of its way to stress that the gangs were hesitant to employ weapons rather than fists and that when deadly violence occurred it was unintended.  It felt a little self-conscious, at least from a modern viewpoint.  And then there’s the central romance between Maria and Tony.  It’s kind of hard to take it seriously, since they barely know anything about each other and there’s no real sense of why they love each other except that they’re predestined soulmates or some such thing.  However, it’s entirely plausible as the sort of overly dramatic infatuation that teenagers are prone to (which, really, is kind of the point of Romeo and Juliet).  When I was that age, I was certainly prone to falling hard for a girl and thinking my whole universe revolved around her even though I knew nothing about her beyond her looks — although in my case it wasn’t reciprocated, for better or worse.  So it’s believable that they’d react the way they do, but it’s hard to buy into their viewpoint as being valid or their relationship as being as deep and permanent as they imagine.  And there’s not very much to their characters beyond being madly in love, so they’re not the most interesting parts of the story.

The casting wasn’t my favorite part either.  Richard Beymer is just kind of bland as Tony, and while Natalie Wood is (or was) certainly lovely, I found her a little insubstantial.  But then, I guess she was supposed to be kind of insubstantial and carefree in the first act, and then go to a darker place in the second.  Maybe I made up my mind about her too quickly.  (I also thought Wood uncannily resembled Juliet Landau of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so much so that I wondered if they were related, until I remembered that Landau is the daughter of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.  As it happens, I also think Wood’s sister Lana Wood looks a lot like Summer Glau.) Anyway, as for the rest of the cast, Rita Moreno is certainly the standout, and George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn and the rest of the ensemble are pretty good, but their strength is more as a troupe than as individuals.  And most of them seem too old to be convincing as teenagers, which is ironic, because most of the roles were recast for the film because the Broadway cast was seen as too old-looking.  Simon Oakland does an effective turn as Lt. Schrank, the main adult character and one of the few non-dancing roles in the film (hey, it just struck me that none of the adult or authority-figure characters dance, just the ones who are supposed to be teenagers).  Schrank is a complicated character, sincerely wanting to keep the peace and clean up the streets, but embittered and unthinkingly racist, failing to realize that he’s part of the very problem he wants so much to resolve.  (I’d expected Officer Krupke to be a more major character, given that he has a song named after him, but he was little more than a spear-carrier.)  I was also quite pleased to see the minor, uncredited appearance by John Astin as the social worker “Glad Hand” at the dance; he was his usual charmingly quirky self and elevated a fairly minimal role.

Some of the ’60s conventions here were a bit hard for me to accept, notably the reluctance to cast Hispanic actors in leading Hispanic roles (Natalie Wood was Russian-American, George Chakiris Greek-American), and the practice of dubbing over the actors’ own singing with other performers, most notably (and recognizably) Marni Nixon as Maria.  The DVD set has a documentary that let me hear some of Wood’s own singing, and I liked it better than Nixon’s.  Okay, maybe it was less polished and perfect, but that’s what I liked about it.  It had more texture and personality and felt less studio-packaged than Nixon’s.  Maria should’ve sung like an inexperienced but enthusiastic teenager, not like a professional opera singer.  I know I was getting passionate up above about seeing this film the way it was originally presented, but in this case I’d be willing to make an exception.  I wouldn’t mind getting to see a version that restored the original actors’ singing (where feasible — Rita Moreno was dubbed on “A Boy Like That” because she wasn’t capable of singing in a low enough register).

Of course, a large part of my interest in this film was because it was directed by Robert Wise, who directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a longtime favorite of mine.   And it does seem to me there are some points of commonality between the two.  WSS and ST:TMP are both films that rely heavily on long set pieces driven by visuals and music rather than dialogue (even a lot of WSS’s musical numbers are largely or mostly instrumental).  A lot of people consider that a bug of TMP, but I see it as a feature, a quality that makes it a very grand and cinematic experience.  It makes me wonder if Wise’s experience directing musicals, with their big set pieces, was influencing his choices about the pacing and focus of TMP.  Both films also rely on spectacular production design and sets, and I’m wondering if that striking red overpass in the set where the rumble took place in RSS was the same kind of forced-perspective construction as the horizontal intermix chamber in TMP’s engine room — i.e. building a set component that tapers and shrinks toward the rear to create the illusion of parallel lines receding much farther than the set can contain.

Of course, one clear difference is that WSS is a much more vividly colorful movie while TMP is done more in pastels and grays.  But that was kind of a ’70s thing, and it seemed to reflect Wise’s view of the technological future, the same cool, sterile professionalism you see in his The Andromeda Strain.  That doesn’t mean he couldn’t be drawing on his experience with other films as well.

Quantum teleportation: maybe not?

December 18, 2011 3 comments

After my earlier post on quantum teleportation, I’ve been wondering about whether I wanted to include it in my science fiction in some way, but first I wanted to get some handle on whether it was feasible in practice to teleport a macroscopic object rather than just individual particles or a Bose-Einstein condensate in a single coherent quantum state.  Finding detailed discussions online is a bit tricky just using Google, but I found a discussion thread that goes into a fair amount of depth:

“Quantum teleportation of macroscopic objects” at Physics Forums

Granted, BBS threads, even on science forums, aren’t the best way to get information about the subject, but I’m in no mood to try to wade through a bunch of technical papers, and I’m only looking at it from the perspective of a fiction writer, so for now I’m content to let other people do the interpreting for me, though I still have to try to filter out the informed posts from the less informed ones.

It sounds like there may be some fundamental limitations that would prohibit teleporting humans or the like.  Apparently what gets teleported are discrete properties like spin or charge.  Teleporting a continuous variable, like the relative positions of multiple atoms or their momentum, would require infinite amounts of data, so one of the posters says.  Another poster countered that some measurement of continuous states was possible, citing a paper on, but the first replied that it was a limited, classical-resolution measurement and not precise enough to allow replicating a macroscopic object accurately.  (Kind of like how Star Trek replicators have only “molecular resolution” and not “quantum resolution” so they can recreate nonliving matter but not living beings, because the error rate would be fatally high.)

Then there’s this thread at the Bad Astronomy and Universe Today Forum (which seems to have been started by the same poster under a different username), in which it’s pointed out that a macroscopic object can never be truly isolated from its environment, which again would suggest that the amount of information you’d need to define its state exactly would be effectively unbounded.

And this thread from the same forum (which is definitely by the same poster since it has the same original post as the Physics Forums thread above) clarifies that thermal effects in the body would interfere with getting a precise scan; ideally you’d need to freeze the subject to extremely near absolute zero, which isn’t exactly conducive to survivable teleportation.

Another factor raised in this article from Null Hypothesis: The Journal of Unlikely Science is a simple matter of bandwidth: even if you didn’t need infinite information to transmit continuous states, you’d still need to transmit so much data to replicate a human body that it would take a great deal of time and energy to send — billions of years at our highest current transmission rate.  And if you could get a much higher transmission rate, according to the link in the previous paragraph, you’d need to send such intense energy that it would become unfeasible — you’d basically be firing a very powerful beam of gamma radiation at the receiving station, and that’s more a death ray than a transporter beam.  At the very least, in most instances it would take less time and energy just to travel physically than to send a teleport signal.

So the question this raises for me is: how “exact” do you actually need to get?  It could be feasible using advanced nanofabrication technology to “print out” a human body that’s a good molecular-level match for the original person.  As long as you recreated the DNA and RNA in the cells accurately, you could probably settle for just knowing how many of which type of cell the body had, and where they were located, so you could reduce the amount of data that needed to be sent by using these “generic” substitutions.  You could even improve on the body, say, write out excess fat or burgeoning tumors, or rewrite defunct hair follicles as functioning ones, or add extra muscle, or even make more radical changes.  (See Wil McCarthy’s The Queendom of Sol tetralogy for an illustration of this.)

Aside from matching (or refining) the genetic and epigenetic data, then, the key information you’d need to transmit a person with their identity intact would be an accurate brain scan.  Otherwise you’ve just created an identical twin rather than duplicated the original person.  So the question is, just how accurate would it have to be?  As far as science is able to determine, thought and memory are classical-scale processes.  According to this page which I used as a reference for quantum theory in DTI: Watching the Clock:

 In quantum terms each neuron is an essentially classical object. Consequently quantum noise in the brain is at such a low level that it probably doesn’t often alter, except very rarely, the critical mechanistic behaviour of sufficient neurons to cause a decision to be different than we might otherwise expect. The consensus view amongst experts is that free-will is the consequence of the mechanistic operation of our brains, the firing of neurons, discharging across synapses etc. and fully compatible with the determinism of classical physics.

Sure, there are some theorists who argue that consciousness is based on quantum processes, and you hear a lot of talk about “microtubules” in the neurons operating on a quantum level, but there’s no experimental support yet, and the general consensus is that quantum effects in the brain would decohere well before they reached the scale at which the neurons’ activity occurs.  So it might be possible to faithfully duplicate the entire mental state of a human brain using classical-level accuracy, so that mechanism in the research paper mentioned above might be applicable.

So the key issue that remains is the one that was the focus of my previous post: Is there continuity of consciousness between the original and the duplicate?  What I reasoned there is that what creates our perception of ourselves as continuous beings is the ongoing interaction, and thus the quantum entanglement/correlation, among the particles of our brains.  The specific particles may be expended and replaced, but the correlations within the entire overall structure give us our sense of continuity.  So if the original subject and the teleported replica are quantum-entangled, that would make them the same continuous entity on a fundamental level even if separated in space and time.  The question is, would that same principle apply even if the entanglement were between the original and a body that was not an exact quantum duplicate?  I.e. if you used classical-level fabrication to synthesize a duplicate of a person and only quantum-teleported partial information about the state of the brain?  You’d synthesize a brain and body that were almost exact replicas, and then transmit enough quantum data about the brain to essentially cancel out the discrepancies and make it effectively the same brain, with the entanglement providing the continuity.  Thus you have a replica of the body but preserve a single continuous consciousness.

So the original body would not need to be scanned to destruction but the brain would.  Remember, teleporting quantum state information requires changing the original state.  You’d essentially be teleporting just the brain/mind into a new, possibly modified body, and leaving the old body behind as a corpse with a destroyed brain.  Ickier than the ideal situation.  But it still precludes the possibility of creating a viable “transporter duplicate.”

But the question is, how much “cheating” can you get away with?  How small a percentage of the information defining you needs to be quantum-teleported rather than classically copied in order to ensure that your consciousness survives intact?  How could science measure the difference between a synthesized replica that thinks it’s you and one that actually contains your original consciousness?  How much entanglement, how much equivalence, is enough for continuity?  Even if we assume the teleportation of the brain states alone is enough to make it the same brain, we run into the mind/body problem: the two are more linked than we have traditionally tended to think, and it may be premature to define consciousness as something that resides solely in the brain.  The entire nervous and hormonal systems may play a role in it too.  Still, if you were to have your legs amputated and replaced with prosthetics, that wouldn’t destroy your consciousness.  So maybe teleporting just the brain states is enough.

But then there’s a simple mathematical question: does that really reduce the amount of data by a significant amount? The mass of the brain is about 2 percent of the total mass of the body, so that’s only reducing the amount of data by roughly two orders of magnitude.  So it would take 2 billion years to transmit instead of 100 billion, say.  To make it feasible, you’d have to “compress” the data still further — and we’d need a much deeper understanding of how the brain works before we could estimate how little of its structure we could get away with teleporting at a quantum level versus substituting with “generic” cellular/structural equivalents.  (Of course it’s a total myth that “We use only 10% of our brains; fMRI scans show conclusively that we make use of just about all the brain’s volume over the course of a day.  But on a cellular level, a lot of that may be underlying substructure that could be “generically” replicated.  Or maybe not.  I don’t know enough about neurology to be sure.)  Even so, I doubt the threshold percentage would be low enough to reduce the amount of data by even one order of magnitude, let alone many.

And there’s still the thermal problem.  There’s a lot of molecular motion in the brain, not just from its temperature but from the constant chemical exchange among neurons.  You might not be able to get a detailed quantum scan of a living, active brain as opposed to a deep-frozen corpse, and I don’t have enough confidence in cryonics to believe a person could be frozen to near absolute zero and then revived.

Still… depending on what fictional universe I’m in and how much I’m willing to bend the rules, I might be willing to fudge things enough to include quantum teleportation if I have a good enough story reason for it, using the ideas discussed above to make it relatively more plausible.  Maybe there are ways to transmit data at far higher rates than we can now conceive, and with less energy expenditure.  And come to think of it, having a requirement that a subject has to be frozen solid before teleportation adds an interesting twist.  Though it would rule it out as a routine commute as it is in Star Trek or Niven’s Known Space.

Hints of Higgs? Maybe…

The big science news today is the announcement of the latest results from the Large Hadron Collider”s search for the elusive Higgs boson, and while the results are far from conclusive so far, they’re actually mildly encouraging.  Two independent detectors got pretty much consistent results suggesting the possibility of a particle with a mass somewhere around 125 GeV.  (That’s giga electron volts — since E=mc^2, physicists measure particle mass in units of energy.)

Here’s the New York Times piece on the news, including links to the raw data published on a site called TWiki (whose motto is probably not “bidi-bidi-bidi”).  Here’s a more detailed article from New Scientist.  However, the most useful link I’ve come across is this Higgs FAQ from the blog of particle physicist Matt Strassler.  I’ve never quite understood what all this Higgs field/particle business was all about until recently, but I’m starting to get a handle on it now.  The FAQ does a good job of explaining the Higgs field and its role, and why not finding the Higgs particle would be just as intriguing and useful a result as finding it.  (Because the particle isn’t the key, it’s just the simplest and only known way of detecting the Higgs field, which is the thing that’s actually important.  And if there were no particle, it would just mean the field is different than the simplest model suggests, or that it works in a different way, not that it didn’t exist.)

So nothing conclusive today, but interesting hints that will be pursued further.  Apparently they’ll be able to confirm or deny this evidence by next summer, and if it doesn’t pan out, they’ll try something else when the LHC reaches full power in 2015.

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The rest of the (WEST SIDE) STORY

Well, I’d been considering going ahead and watching the West Side Story DVD that Netflix sent despite it not being in the right aspect ratio, so I decided to do some research about the film and its video releases and see if I could find out just how much of the picture I’d be missing.  Maybe the moderately widescreen ratio I saw when I started watching the disc would be close enough.  But I found to my surprise that the correct aspect ratio for the film is the 2.20:1 ratio of the 70mm SuperPanavision format it was shot in (the even wider 2.35:1 was for 35mm prints in certain theaters) — and the Netflix entry for the DVD showed that it was supposedly in 2.20:1.  So could I have misunderstood?  Could I have gotten the right version after all?

So I put the DVD back in and measured the aspect ratio when the overture screen came on.  (For those who don’t know, this was back when many films had actual overtures, long musical passages over still or empty screens, to give the audience time to file in — instead of the commercials and trailers we have these days.)  As near as I could measure it, it was pretty close to a 16:9 ratio, or 1.78:1, only about 80% what it should be.   Nope, not quite there.

But wait, I thought: the Netflix page says it’s 2.20:1.  So what if it’s only the overture that has the 16:9 ratio?  Just to be sure, I fast-forwarded through to the beginning of the film proper, where the abstract vertical lines on the overture screen fade into the Manhattan skyline and then an extended flyover of New York City, heading toward the West Side.  And after watching the images fast-forward for a moment, I realized…

It was fullscreen!!!  AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

 So Netflix apparently sent me the wrong disc, or else they straight-up have the wrong technical info on their page for it.  Maybe, given how scarce copies of this film have apparently been at Netflix (since it’s been on “Very Long Wait” for ages), they ran out of widescreen copies and sent me this as sloppy seconds, or something.  Which isn’t acceptable to me.  While I might’ve settled for a version giving me 80% of the picture, there’s no way I’m settling for a 4:3 fullscreen format, which would give me only 60%.

But wait, there’s still hope.  It occurred to me just now, while I was writing this post, that it’s been a few years since I tried to find WSS at the library and could only find a fullscreen edition.  So between the previous paragraph and this one, I checked the library catalog, and they reportedly do have the special edition DVD in 2.20:1 format available, and I’ve put in a hold request for a copy.  Hopefully the library will come through for me where Netflix failed.

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WEST SIDE STORY eludes me again

December 9, 2011 2 comments

Somehow the universe seems to be conspiring against letting me see the 1961 Robert Wise film of West Side Story.  Or at least, letting me see it in the proper format.  I figure if I’m going to watch it, I should watch it as it was meant to be seen, in its full Super Panavision width, since its visuals and choreography were designed for that format and a version that cuts off portions of the image to fit a taller/narrower screen would be incomplete.  But the version I was able to borrow from the library was pan-and-scanned.  There have been times when Turner Classic Movies has shown the film uncut and in proper format, and there have been at least two occasions when I’ve tried to watch it there, but each time, something has happened to interrupt my viewing very early in the film.  I think there was a power failure or something the first time.  The most recent time, it was a call from my very ill father that led to the extended hospitalization that, ultimately, he never recovered from.

So it was a while before I was willing to try again, but eventually I put the film in my Netflix queue, and was told I had a Very Long Wait for it.  Once or twice, the “wait” notation vanished from my queue page, but by the time I sent back my current DVD and the next one was processed, I’d missed my shot at it.  So I was thrilled when I finally, finally got the mail telling me that WSS had been shipped to me.  And just now, I eagerly put it into the DVD player, hoping at last to see this film that’s eluded me for so long.

And the first thing that came onscreen was a message telling me the film had been formatted to fit my screen.


Okay, it’s not a “fullscreen” presentation.  It is letterboxed, at least on my old CRT television.  But it’s apparently a standard HDTV-type aspect ratio instead of the film’s full widescreen format.  So portions of the picture are still missing.  And if I’d been willing to settle for an incomplete picture, I would’ve just watched the version from the library years ago.  The whole reason I’ve held out this long was in hopes of getting to see the complete, unaltered version of the film.

And I’m not just mad at the DVD manufacturers, but at myself, since there was a one-time-only opportunity to see the film in select theaters last month, arranged by TCM, and although I made a cursory effort to look into it, I didn’t pursue it aggressively enough to get a ticket, since it would’ve been a late showing and I don’t like driving at night, and since I figured I’d eventually get it from Netflix.  So, yeah.

I guess the question is, do I lower my standards and watch the DVD anyway, or do I send it back unviewed and hope I find out about TCM’s next showing in time to watch or DVR it?  I mean, given my track record, if I don’t settle for the bird in the hand I have now, I may never get to see this movie.   At least if I watch this, I’ll get most of the experience.  But I’ve been holding out for the “right” version for so long that my disappointment with the reformatted version might sour it for me.  Right now I’m just too frustrated to want to watch it.  Maybe that’ll change if I give it a few days.

It’s just so weird that so many things keep going wrong with my efforts to see this particular movie.  I’m not even that big a fan of musicals, though I like Sondheim (who did the lyrics, of course) and I’m interested in Robert Wise films.  Under normal circumstances, I’d just be curious about this film, not passionate.  But this one has eluded me for so long that it really meant a lot to me to finally get to see it in its full and intact form, and now I’m really frustrated that the universe has screwed me over yet again.

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Thinking about other universes (or, the trouble with infinities)

December 8, 2011 8 comments

I’ve been mulling over another subject that was suggested by the recent NOVA miniseries “The Fabric of the Cosmos,” hosted by physicist Brian Greene based on his book of the same name.  I felt some of the ideas it put across were too fanciful, putting sensationalism over plausibility or clarity, and one of them was the topic of its concluding episode, “Universe or Multiverse?”

The premise of that episode was that, if the Big Bang happened as the result of localized symmetry-breaking in an ever-inflating realm of spacetime, then our universe could be just one “bubble” in a perpetually expanding cosmic foam, with other universes being separate “bubbles” with their own distinct physics and conditions, forever out of reach because the space (how many dimensions?) between us and them is forever expanding.  Now, that’s okay as far as it goes.  It’s a somewhat plausible, if untestable, notion given what we currently know.  But what Greene chose to focus on was a rather outre ramification of this: the idea that if the multiverse is infinite, if there’s an infinite number of other universes alongside ours, then probability demands that some of them will be exact duplicates of our universe, just happening by random chance to have the exact same combination of particles and thus producing the same galaxies, stars, planets, species, inviduals, etc. — kinda like how the famous infinite number of monkeys banging on an infinite number of typewriters will inevitably produce all great literature by chance.  Thus, so the claim went, there could be other universes out there that are essentially parallels to our own with duplicates of ourselves, except maybe for some minor variations.  (Or maybe universes where duplicate Earths and humans exist in different galaxies, or where a duplicate Milky Way coexists with a different configuration of galaxies, or all of the above.)

Note that this is entirely different from the concept of parallel timelines, the usual way of generating alternate Earths in science fiction.  Parallel timelines aren’t separate universes, despite the erroneous tendency of SF to use the terms interchangeably.  They’re coexisting quantum states of our own universe.  The idea is that just as a single particle can exist in two or more quantum states at the same time, so can the entire universe.  These alternate histories would branch off from a common origin, and thus it’s perfectly reasonable that they’d have their own Earths and human beings and the same individuals, at least if they diverged after those individuals were born.  And there’s at least the remote possibility of communication or travel between them if nonlinear quantum mechanics could exist.  What we’re talking about here is something else altogether, literal other universes that just happen by random chance to duplicate ours because it’s inevitable if there’s an infinite number of universes.  While parallel timelines would be facets of the same physical universe we occupy, and would thus essentially be overlapping each other in the same place, these duplicate universes would be unreachably far away, except maybe by some kind of FTL or wormhole technology if such a thing could ever exist.  And they might predate or postdate our own universe by billions of years.

But I think it was a flawed conceit to dwell on that aspect of the multiverse idea, and I have my problems with the reasoning employed.  For one thing, it’s purely an ad hoc assumption that the multiverse is infinite rather than finite.  If it’s finite, then there’s no guarantee that there would be other universes that exactly duplicate ours.  Certainly there could be ones with compatible physical laws, with their own stars and galaxies and planets and life forms, but odds are they’d be different planets, different species, different individuals.  No duplicate Earth, no duplicate Lincoln or Kennedy or Jet Li.

And if the multiverse is infinite, then sure, you could argue that with an infinite number of tries, it’s inevitable that our universe would be exactly duplicated somewhere.  But the flip side to that argument is that if there’s an infinite number of universes, then the odds that any given universe would duplicate ours would be n divided by infinity, or effectively zero.  In practical terms, if we found a way to visit other universes via wormholes or something, then we could search for an infinite amount of time before finding one that had its own Earth and human race and history duplicating ours except for having more goatees or whatever.  Thus, by any realistic standard, such duplicates would be effectively nonexistent. (This is the problem with infinity as a concept in science — it tends to lead to absurdities and singularities.  Physicists generally try to avoid infinities.)  So while that result (the existence of duplicate universes) might be a logically sound consequence of the premise of an infinite multiverse, it’s also a trivial result, one that has no practical meaning and can’t be proven or falsified.  So it’s not science, just sophistry.  It’s angels dancing on the head of a pin.  And that makes it a waste of time to focus on in a program that’s supposed to be about science.

Besides, it’s boring.  The show presented us with the prospect that there could be an infinite number of possible forms for universes to take, whole other sets of physical laws, an unlimited range of possibilities… and all they wanted to talk about was duplicates of the world we already know?  What a staggering failure of imagination — or what a staggering triumph of self-absorption.  I would’ve been far more interested in hearing about the endless variety of universes that weren’t just like ours.  Why not dazzle the viewers with some discussion about what physics would be like in a universe with more than three spatial dimensions?  Or one with a higher or lower speed of light?  That would’ve been so much cooler and more enlightening than the silly, dumbed-down examples they gave, like Earth with a ring around it or Brian Greene with four arms.

I suppose the one appeal of the infinite-monkeys premise is metafictional: You can use it to argue that if every remotely possible combination or interaction of particles is inevitable, then every fictional universe really happens somewhere.  So, for instance, I could claim that my various fictional universes — my default/Only Superhuman universe, the Hub universe, the “No Dominion” universe, whatever else I might eventually get published — all coexist in the greater multiverse, and their different physical rules, different principles of FTL and whatever, could be explained by subtle variations in the laws of physics of their distinct universes (and yet somehow don’t prevent the fundamental interactions, dark energy, and so forth from having the exact same values so that stars and planets and life can form the same way).  And it’s handy for fans who want to believe that, say, a crossover between Star Trek and Transformers, or Star Wars and Firefly, or whatever might be possible despite the huge differences in those universes’ histories and physics.  But I’m not sure I find it desirable.  To me, if there’s some planet in some unreachably distant universe that exactly duplicates Earth’s evolution and history, and has a duplicate of myself who’s writing this post at this equivalent point in his Earth’s orbit (which might be billions of years in the past or future relative to my “now,” if such a thing could even be meaningfully measured), I wouldn’t really think of him as me, or his Earth as being my Earth.  So it wouldn’t really feel to me that those other fictional universes connected to my world’s history, and that would make them less meaningful.

Or would it?  I mean, just going in, I know these fictional universes don’t have the same physical laws as our universe, that the specific characters or alien races or whatever that exist in them don’t exist in our world.  So I know going in that they’re already separate realities from my own.  Their versions of Earth and its history may correspond almost exactly to ours, yet they’re still separate entities.  So maybe it’s no worse to think of my various written worlds (blog name drop!) as coexisting realms in an infinite multiverse than it is to think of them simply as independent fictional constructs.

And sure, sometimes I think it would be nice to have some sort of grand unified theory linking my universes together.  I already tend to think of “No Dominion” as being in a parallel quantum timeline of my Default universe, because it has no visible discrepancies in physics or cosmology and has a lot of similar technological and social developments; it’s just that some technologies develop decades too early to be compatible with my published or soon-to-be-published Default-universe fiction.  That won’t work for something like the Hub, though, since it has distinct differences in physical law.  And yeah, I admit I’ve tried to think of a way to fit my universes together into a unified multiverse, at least in passing.  I suppose the “infinite monkeys” idea could give me a means to do that.

But I don’t think I find it appealing, because it just multiplies the variables to such an insane degree.  If these universes are just infinitely separated samples of an infinitely expanding metacosmos, then that doesn’t really unify them in any way, does it?  They’re so far apart, so mutually unreachable, that the “connection” doesn’t really count as a connection at all.  (After all, given the underlying physical premise, there’s no realistic chance of any kind of wormhole link or inter-universe crossover anyway.)  It’s a trivial and useless result fictionally for the same reasons it is physically.  And if they’re specks in an infinite sea of universes, it makes them all feel kind of irrelevant anyway.  So why even bother?  It’s simpler just to treat them as distinct fictional constructs and not bother trying to unify them.  Besides, even if I know intellectually that the humanity and Earth and Milky Way of my fictional universes aren’t the same as my own, it’s more satisfying to pretend they are, to construct a satisfying illusion for the readers that they’re reading about an outgrowth of our own reality, than to pretend that they’re some totally separate duplicates in universes unreachably distant from ours.  No point going out of my way to create a premise that alienates me and my audience from the universes they’re reading about.  Granted, judging from some conversations I’ve had in the past, there are some people out there who wouldn’t have a problem with that.  But it doesn’t really work for me.

TrekMovie reviews STRUGGLE WITHIN, and new ST MAGAZINE article now out!

Two bits of Star Trek news that I’m happy about:

One,’s reviewer Robert Lyons has posted a review of my e-novella Star Trek Typhon Pact: The Struggle Within, and he has some very nice things to say.  My favorite bits:

 Bennett provides a timely story, inspired by very recent real world events, combined with an accessible yet still alien background (in both the A and B story!), that completely engages the reader.

While “Zero Sum Game” may be the best novel in the series, “The Struggle Within” is truly the best story of the five… and an outstanding conclusion to the series….

Very flattering.

Also, Star Trek Magazine #38 is now out, and it contains my entry in the ongoing Star Trek 45s series, examining every 45th aired episode of ST one by one.  My piece is on one of my favorite Voyager episodes, “Concerning Flight,” and it has an absolutely gorgeous title-page illustration of Janeway and Leonardo da Vinci which you can see a small version of here.  My thanks to the magazine’s designer, Philip White, for giving my article such a great accompanying image.

BATMAN: YEAR ONE — DVD adaptation review

I just got the DC Universe Animated Original Movies adaptation of Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One miniseries, courtesy of Netflix.  This was a story written back when Miller was still capable of doing good work, before he became a parody of himself, and I don’t even want to talk about the depths he’s sunk to recently.  There’s plenty about that on the Internet already.  This is about the movie adaptation, written by Tab Murphy, directed by Sam Liu & Lauren Montgomery, produced by Montgomery and Alan Burnett, and executive produced by Bruce Timm and Sam Register.

In the past, these adaptations of pre-existing comics stories, such as Justice League: The New Frontier and All-Star Superman, have tended to edit them down a great deal in order to fit them into the obligatory 70-odd-minute timeframe — anything longer would require a bigger budget than Warner Bros. is willing to allocate to one of these.  Since this one came out to only 64 minutes, I was expecting a lot to be trimmed.  But after watching the movie, I pulled my trade paperback of the original miniseries off the shelf (it’s the only Frank Miller comic I still own, and the only one other than The Dark Knight Returns that I ever owned) and compared the two.  And it turns out that the movie barely cuts anything from the story, and even adds some new material.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  One is that the miniseries is only 4 issues long, much shorter than the others I mentioned.  Another is that a great deal of it is told through narration.  The main deletions in the movie version are these passages of narration, which tend to be trimmed down, replaced with dialogue, or shown visually rather than told.  Other than that — and the removal of the comic’s references to smoking — the only significant thing that’s missing is a short scene of Bruce Wayne skiing and thinking to himself that he needs Jim Gordon as an ally.  Dropping the skiing scene makes perfect sense — it’s pretty ridiculous of the comic to have Bruce performing elaborate skiing stunts just 8 days after he was repeatedly shot, burned, and otherwise very nearly killed in the tenement scene, and the movie’s approach of treating the skiing purely as a cover to explain Bruce’s injuries is a lot more reasonable.  But having Bruce/Batman express a desire for an alliance with Gordon is something it would’ve been nice to keep in the film.

The new material that’s added is mostly expanded action; some stuff is added to make a couple of scenes even more over-the-top and Milleresque than they were in the comic (like Flass tossing the Hare Krishna at the train station halfway across the platform rather than just shoving him, or making a suspect’s car flip over during a chase).  Some, as I said, is the portrayal of moments only described in narration in the original.  But the best addition in the movie is that Jim Gordon’s wife Barbara gets significantly more screen time, dialogue, and presence.  She was something of a cipher in the comic, but here she’s treated better — at least by the screenwriter and directors if not by Gordon himself, since the plot is extremely faithfully adapted.  My favorite change (spoiler warning) is that in the comic, it’s Gordon’s own words that prompt him to come clean to Barbara about his affair, while Barbara is much more passive and mostly silent; but in the movie, it’s Barbara’s own disgust at Bruce Wayne’s evident womanizing that guilts Jim into confessing.  It’s a definite improvement on Miller’s far more male-centric approach.

There are other directorial choices in the movie that also improve on Miller & Mazzucchelli’s storytelling.  For instance, in the iconic scene where Batman crashes the corrupt politicians’ banquet at Falcone’s mansion to tell them none of them are safe now, the comic’s version focuses far more heavily on Batman’s preparations and actions, but the movie’s point of view stays mainly with the people inside and focuses on their confusion and fear as smoke fills the room, the lights go out, and the wall blows open.  It’s evocative of Christopher Nolan’s approach to Batman’s debut in Batman Begins, where the viewpoint is that of the mobsters under attack and Batman remains a mysterious, largely unseen figure like the monster in a horror movie.

And that’s appropriate here, because Jim Gordon is far more the point of identification in this story, while Batman, particularly in the movie version, is a more remote, forbidding figure, a loner who isn’t particularly humanized.  The casting plays into this.  At first, I was put off by Bryan Cranston’s strong baritone as Gordon and Ben McKenzie’s nasal tenor as Batman.  It was a very different approach than what I was used to.  But once I got accustomed to it, both voices worked pretty well.  McKenzie’s Batman reminded me in voice and manner of a cross between Jim Caviezel’s and Michael Emerson’s  characters on Person of Interest (a show from The Dark Knight‘s screenwriter Jonathan Nolan), and was effective at conveying the sense of a colder, more forbidding Batman, one who’s obsessed to a perhaps pathological degree — not an approach to Batman I’m particularly fond of, but one that fits this story, in which Batman is a driven loner who hasn’t yet gained the alliances and partnerships that temper and humanize him later in his career.  And Cranston’s Gordon is sympathetic once you get used to the flat, matter-of-fact, emotionally dull delivery that characterizes the film’s tone, like something out of a gritty ’70s crime drama (and there’s a dubbed-anime sense to it as well, with Cranston’s voice reminding me of Richard Epcar’s Batou on Ghost in the Shell, for instance).  Katie Sackhoff plays Sarah Essen in much the same no-nonsense, passionless way, but I guess that fits these characters who are so battered down by the hell of living in Gotham at its most corrupt.  Perhaps the most expressive player in the cast is Eliza Dushku as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.  She works very well in the role.

The animation by Moi Animation Studio is top-notch stuff, and the visuals follow Mazzuchelli’s art very closely.  The music by Christopher Drake is good and largely fits the ’80s-style setting of the film; in particular, there’s some music in the sequence where Gordon tails Detective Flass that reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith’s work.  All in all, I’d say this is a very good adaptation that is at once extremely faithful to the original and an improvement upon it in a number of ways.  If you liked the comic Batman: Year One, you should enjoy the movie.

I was pleased to discover that Warner Bros. has changed their policy of leaving their DC Showcase short subjects off of the rental editions of their DC Universe movies.  This rented DVD does indeed include the DC Showcase: Catwoman short that was produced as a companion piece to the movie.  Written by Paul Dini and directed by Montgomery, it’s something of a loose sequel to the movie, bringing back Dushku as Catwoman and including one other character from B:YO whose identity I don’t want to spoil (with all the other voices performed by animation stalwarts John DiMaggio, Kevin Michael Richardson, Tara Strong, and Cree Summer), although it replaces the costume Mazzucchelli gave her in B:YO (which she also wears in the film, although it’s colored closer to black there) with her modern Darwyn Cooke-designed costume with the cat’s-eye goggles and the front zipper.  And it is made to fit the tone of the movie somewhat, with a lot of violence and gunplay and an extended strip-club sequence that, while staying PG-13, features the most overt sexuality that’s ever been included in a DC Universe DVD movie to date.  That part did feel somewhat gratuitous to me; did she really need to put on that show for so long in order to get close to the bad guy?  Though maybe it makes sense in the context of Miller’s B:YO version of Catwoman as a former prostitute.  At least she’s using her sexuality as a tool for her own purposes, I guess, but it still feels like pandering to the male audience, even though a woman directed the short.  But it eventually gives way to an even more extended chase/fight sequence that follows through to the climax of the short and culminates with a set of chain reactions that owe more to Wile E. Coyote than Frank Miller and had me laughing long and hard.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1966-73): Full series overview

December 3, 2011 14 comments

Well, it’s been a long run — seven seasons, 171 episodes, 163 distinct adventures.  And the series went through a lot of changes over the years.  Appropriate, perhaps, since it was conceived with constant change in mind.  Let’s try for some highlights:

Season 1

Regulars:  Government agent Dan Briggs (Steven Hill), fashion model Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), engineer Barney Collier (Greg Morris), and strongman Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus).  Actor-magician Rollin Hand (Martin Landau) is de facto regular despite being listed as “Special Guest Star” throughout.

Initially an anthology-style show, with highly variable team composition and focus on guest agents of the week, though the focus soon shifted more to the regulars.  Briggs’s role gradually diminished due to conflicts of Hill’s Orthodox Judaism with series shooting schedule.  Briggs sometimes assembled teams but did not join them in the field.  Landau became the effective series lead despite not being a regular.  No cast member appeared in every episode.

Stories were initially more character-driven, often featured plots going wrong, team improvising.  By late season, had become more formulaic: characters were ciphers, plans more often proceeded like clockwork.

Only a couple of episodes dealt with stateside organized crime, and one of those was not a government mission.

Originally “tape scenes” used many recording formats (once even a printed card), often needing to be destroyed by Briggs rather than self-destructing.  “This tape will self-destruct” line emerged late-ish.  Several tape sequences reused.

Dossier scenes introduced — useful due to variable team composition.  Major guest stars (especially Landau) often credited over their dossier photos.

Team members were not pro agents, drawn from all walks of life.  Briggs evidently running unofficial black-ops missions with deniability for government.  Even this early, though, the team sometimes cooperated openly with government agencies, a trend that would only increase over time.

Foreign missions usually in unnamed foreign countries, sometimes leading to awkwardly evasive phrasing in tape briefings.

At first, prosthetics handled relatively plausibly: convincing impersonations required actor resembling subject, altered with prosthetics; full-face masks were limited in effectiveness.  By mid-season, masks allowed perfect imitations but one couldn’t eat in them.  By end of season, masks could be lived in for days, sweated through, even survive electroshock therapy undamaged.  This fanciful approach was norm for rest of series.

  • Best Episodes: A lot to choose from, but I’d say “The Short Tail Spy,” “Pilot,” and the 2-parter “Old Man Out,”  in roughly that order.
  • Worst Episodes: I’d say the morally distasteful “Shock,” followed by the ludicrous “Zubrovnik’s Ghost” and the geopolitically problematical “Action!”

Season 2

Regulars: Government agent Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), Rollin Hand,  Cinnamon Carter, Barney Collier, Willy Armitage.

Although Landau had effectively become the lead by late season 1, he was only willing to commit on a season-by-season basis, so Graves was brought in as the new star when Hill left.

Routine and formulaic season, more standardized team composition.  Some efforts to vary formula toward end of season.

Tape scenes more standardized; nearly half were reused.  From now on, the season’s tape scenes would all be shot ahead of time and cut into episodes at random.  Still various delivery methods.  Dossier sequences remain to introduce team variations and guest agents (less prominent than before); only Graves and Landau are in every episode.

More episodes focusing on domestic crime.

Two “off-book” missions, one personal, one accidental.  The next couple of seasons would continue to have only a couple of significant departures from formula per season, always in the latter half.

  • Best Episodes: “Echo of Yesterday,” followed by “Trial by Fury” and “The Town.”
  • Worst Episodes: “Charity” is the most weak and pointless episode, followed by “The Killing” and “The Counterfeiter.”

Season 3

Regulars: No change.

Still mostly routine, but stronger, with more danger, uncertainty, very occasional humanizing of regulars.

Tape scenes pretty standardized, fewer reuses.  Still various recording formats.  Dossier scenes used only in the seven episodes featuring guest team members beyond the core cast.  Only Jim, Rollin in every episode, but only one episode, “Nicole,” featured fewer than four of the regulars.

A third of season set in United States; comparable organized-crime focus to S2.

While several earlier episodes involved exploiting supernatural beliefs, this season began the trend of faking science-fictional premises, and of trying to convince skeptics of paranormal claims.

  • Best Episodes: “Nicole,” followed by “The Mind of Stefan Miklos” and “The Interrogator.”
  • Worst Episodes: “The Freeze,” followed by “The Bargain,” and a toss-up between “The Elixir” and “Nitro.”

Season 4

Regulars: Jim Phelps, impersonator/magician The Great Paris (Leonard Nimoy), Barney Collier, Willy Armitage.  First season where Barney is in every episode.  Only one episode lacks one of the four regulars (Willy).

No regular female lead; featured roughly a dozen guest female agents, with only Tracey (Lee Meriwether) recurring. Dossier sequences thus returned weekly, usually crediting guest actresses over their photos.  Hartford and Globe Repertory Companies added for missions requiring large groups of players.

Tape scenes all featured magnetic tapes (reel-to-reel or 8-track cartridge) that self-destructed.

Trend toward US-based and organized-crime episodes reversed, with only two of each (only one that was both).  Most consistent overseas-espionage focus since season 1.  Otherwise, a fairly formulaic season, though with a few notable departures.

Fictitious foreign countries now usually named instead of nameless.  Lots of People’s Republics.

Last season to have multi-part episodes, including the series’ only 3-parter.

  • Best Episodes: “Submarine” by a landslide, followed by the 2-part “The Controllers” and the 3-part “The Falcon.”
  • Worst Episodes: The season finale “The Martyr” hands down, followed by “Terror” and “Mastermind.”

Season 5

Regulars: Jim Phelps, Paris, Barney, agent/actress Dana Lambert (Lesley Ann Warren, billed as Lesley Warren) all in every episode.  Willy reduced to semi-regular, more or less alternating with Dr. Doug Robert (Sam Elliott), but both listed as main-title regulars when they appeared.

A formula-breaking season that reverted to the approach of early season 1: more exploration of character, more serious disruptions of missions or unexpected twists.  Jim, Paris, and Barney all got episodes delving into their pasts or personal lives.  We more often saw the team as themselves rather than subsumed in roles.  There seemed to be a conscious effort to question, subvert, and deconstruct the familiar conventions of the series.  If anything, this was overdone in the first half, with the second half reverting more often to more conventional cases, though still fresher, deeper, more suspenseful, less formulaic than in past.

Record number of US-based episodes and of organized crime episodes.  Fewer fictitious country names, but several real countries cited.  Only season to have an episode based in East Asia, aside from the teaser of the S6 finale.

New main-title theme arrangement in majority of episodes.  New, more contemporary music style in several episode scores.

Teaser/cold open added before main titles; introduction to villains preceded tape scene.  No variation in recording devices.  “Secretary will disavow” line dropped from US missions and season finale.

Dossier sequences permanently dropped, despite frequent use of supporting team members.  Nearly a third of episodes began in medias reswith no tape or apartment briefing.  (Note that season 4’s “Lover’s Knot” anticipated many season 5 changes: an opening scene before the tape, the lack of an apartment briefing, a story with personal involvement and a hint of intra-team conflict.)

  •  Best Episodes : This could be a long list, but “The Amateur” surely tops it.  “The Innocent” is a strong second, and I’ll give third place to “The Party,” though it has plenty of competition.
  • Worst Episodes: Nothing’s really bad, but the only two weak-ish ones are “Kitara” and “The Rebel.”

Season 6

Regulars: Jim Phelps, Barney Collier, actress/makeup expert Casey (Lynda Day George), Willy Armitage.  Doug Robert made one final appearance.  First season where Willy appears in every episode; only season where all credited regulars appear in every episode.

Focus shifted from international espionage to fighting organized crime in US. The only partial venture outside the US was part of a crimefighting case, and the sole espionage mission was in Los Angeles.

With the reduced cast, Barney and Willy more often called on for core role-playing rather than technical assistance or supporting role-play; thus the focus shifted away from mechanics/logistics, more toward interpersonal manipulation and deception.

Teasers still in use.  Theme music back to original arrangement (or nearly so).

Tape sequences standard, except for one phonograph record.   “Secretary will disavow” line permanently gone;  “conventional law enforcement agencies” line now standard. Cooperation of police, authorities, and multiple supporting players  now standard, rendering secret, self-destructing tape drops rather pointless.

  •  Best Episodes: “Encounter,” followed by “Nerves” and “Double Dead.”
  • Worst Episodes: “Image,” followed by “Run for the Money” and “Encore.”

Season 7

Regulars: Jim Phelps, Barney Collier, Willy Armitage.  Lynda Day George still billed as regular but spent much of season on maternity leave, so Casey “reassigned to Europe.”  Ex-con Mimi (Barbara Anderson) joins on recurring basis, plus two one-shot female agents.

Focus still on domestic crimebusting, with abundant cooperation from authorities, bit players.  However, three episodes set outside US, roughly a half-dozen involving domestic terrorism or international intrigue.

No more pre-credits teaser, but intro scene before tape still used.  Episode credits now shown over/before tape scene.  Series logo no longer included with episode credits.  “Conventional law enforcement agencies” line used intermittently.

Studio-bound feel gives way to more striking location work.  Many tape scenes shot around San Francisco landmarks.  “Speed” shot largely on location in San Francisco.

New main title theme arrangement.  Very little original music in season.

First season with continuity: Casey’s absence, Mimi’s addition explained, a few episodes referenced past events or characters.

  • Best Episodes: “The Question” is the best of the past two seasons.  “The Deal” comes second, followed by “Speed.”
  • Worst Episodes: “The Western,” followed by “Incarnate” and “The Fountain.”

Mission: Impossible started out as a series in which music played a central role.  Like CSI today, a lot of its content consisted of scenes of experts doing slow, meticulous work to the accompaniment of prominent musical passages.  Although most of this music was built around only two Lalo Schifrin leitmotifs — the main title theme and “The Plot,” the standard motif for the team’s machinations — it had a great deal of variety and was provided by a number of skilled composers, primarily Schifrin but including Walter Scharf, Gerald Fried, Jerry Fielding, Robert Drasnin, Richard Markowitz, and others.   The early seasons featured the largest number of original episode scores, but as the series went on and its budget was trimmed, the music budget suffered and the series became more reliant on stock cues.  The fifth season is notable for introducing a new, more contemporary musical style in several of its episodes, but the final two seasons’ music is largely repetitive and unimpressive.   It’s an unfortunate trend.

List of M:I’s composers by number of episode scores (plus episodes where they were credited but I noticed no new music):

  • Lalo Schifrin:  c. 21 scores (c. 23 credited), seasons 1-7
  • Richard Markowitz: 9 scores, S3-4
  • Robert Drasnin: c. 7 scores (8 credited), S2-3, 5-6
  • Gerald Fried: 6 scores, S1-4
  • Jerry Fielding: 6 scores, S2-4
  • Walter Scharf:  5 scores, S1-2
  • Benny Golson: 4 scores, S5-6
  • Richard Hazard: 3 scores, S4-5 (+1 credited, S6)
  • Robert Prince: 2 scores, S5-6
  • Jacques Urbont: 1 score, S1
  • Don Ellis: 1 score, S1
  • Harry Geller: 1 score, S5
  • Hugo Montenegro: 1 score, S5
  • George Romanis: 1 score, S6
  • Duane Tatro: 1 score, S7
  • Herschel Burke Gilbert & Rudy Schrager: 1 original song, S3
  • Uncredited source music/new arrangements (possibly by music supervisor Kenyon Hopkins): 1 episode each, S4, 6-7

My favorite composers were Scharf, Fried, and Fielding, though Drasnin did some impressive work, and Schifrin certainly deserves recognition for defining the show’s musical style.  Least favorite is Hugo Montenegro.

Note that although M:I was the sister production of Star Trek and had a fair amount of overlap in cast and crew, the only composers on this list who ever worked on ST are Fried and Fielding, who worked on the original series around the same time they were doing M:I, and Romanis, who did one ST:TNG episode in its debut 1987-8 season.  The only one of these composers to work on the ’88 M:I revival series is Schifrin, who scored the premiere episode and whose themes (main title and “The Plot”) were used as consistently there as in the original series.

So how would I rank the seven seasons of M:I?

1) Season 5: The best writing, the most imaginative and versatile storytelling, the richest characterizations.  No season had more surprises and twists or made the characters work harder for their victories.  However, it works largely as a reaction to the formulas that came before, so it should be watched in that context rather than by itself.

2) Season 1: The one that started it all and showed what the series could’ve been if it hadn’t been taken over by formula.  If the whole season had been on a par with the first half, it would take the lead over season 5, due to a stronger cast, better music, and the more flexible, diverse team compositions.  But instead it trended downhill and ended up locking in the formula that would define the majority of the series.  It established both the best and the worst of what M:I would be.

3) Season 3: Though generally formulaic, it handles the formula solidly and effectively, with excellent scripting, production values, direction, and music.  It also deserves recognition for its upward trend; as the season progressed, it added more suspense and danger and pitted the team against worthier adversaries.

4) Season 4: An uneven but generally satisfying season, largely routine but with a few impressive format-breakers and multi-part epics, and featuring “Submarine,” one of the finest episodes of the entire series.  Also benefits from strong music.

5) Season 7: Comfortably routine, with few real gems but few duds.  Mostly entertaining if uninspired, but it includes one episode, “The Question,” that’s as good as almost anything in season 5.  The weakest season musically.

6) Season 6: This is a close one.  More standout episodes than season 7 (though nothing equalling “The Question”), but more middling to weak episodes as well, so the average is slightly lower, the season less consistently satisfying as a whole.

7) Season 2: The most routine, formulaic, and mediocre season overall.  It just didn’t bring as much interest to the formula as the other formulaic seasons did. However, it’s one of the strongest seasons musically.

For the heck of it, here’s a list of regular or recurring IMF team members by number of episodes, counting only cast members from the original series and not the 1988 revival.  (Nor am I counting Barney and Casey’s appearances in the revival, since they were not technically IMF team members in those stories.)

  • Barney Collier: 166 (plus at least 1 offscreen assist)
  • Willy Armitage: 147
  • Jim Phelps: 143 (plus 35 episodes of revival)
  • Rollin Hand: 76
  • Cinnamon Carter: 71
  • The Great Paris: 49
  • (Lisa) Casey: 34 (plus 6 offscreen assists)
  • Dan Briggs: 27 (only on mission in 20)
  • Dana Lambert: 23
  • Doug Robert: 13
  • Mimi Davis: 7
  • Tracey: 6 (4 distinct missions)
  • Dr. Green (Allen Joseph): 2 (plus 1 offscreen assist)
  • Dave (Walker Edmiston): 2

Also, the Voice on Tape (Bob Johnson) is heard in 157 episodes, although 8 of those are recaps in multiparters, so it comes out to only 149 distinct tape briefings — plus all 35 episodes of the ’88 revival.

Some comparisons of the different team members:

Best Team Leader: Candidates: Dan Briggs, Jim Phelps

Dan was in some respects a more interesting and edgy character, but tended to be somewhat colder and capable of considerable ruthlessness.  Jim was more whitebread, but it was easier to like him as a series lead and to believe he could win and hold the team’s loyalty.  He could also play a wide range of character types more effectively than Dan.  The vote goes to Jim.

Best Second-in-Command: Candidates: Rollin Hand, Barney Collier

Rollin took over as team leader when Dan was written out of “Action!” and when Jim was abducted in “The Town.”  Also, Rollin was effective field leader in several first-season episodes where Dan stayed behind.  Barney filled in as team leader when Jim was missing in “Trapped” and abducted in “Kidnap.”  Both performed effectively in the role, so it’s a tough call.  But I’m inclined to give the vote to Barney, given that the naturalness with which he fell into a leadership role was impressive for someone who was nominally an engineer — and for an African-American character in a 1960s-70s show.  Even when he wasn’t in a leadership role, his intellect and discipline always made him the linchpin of the team.

Best Master of Disguise: Candidates: Rollin Hand, Paris, Casey

Most of the team members engaged in roleplay, but these were the three whose expertise was primarily in impersonation, makeup, and voice mimicry.  The vote goes to Rollin, for Martin Landau was simply the most versatile and effective character actor of the three.  Leonard Nimoy did his best to show his range as a character actor and get away from Spock, but he felt like an inadequate substitute for Rollin, though at least in season 5 there was some attempt to give him a distinct personality of his own.  The deck is stacked against Casey in the disguise role since the producers were reluctant to do stories that involved hiding her gorgeous face, so she tended to do her makeup work on behalf of others or got to play characters who happened to look enough like her that she didn’t need a mask.  She was a very effective roleplayer and character actress, however.

Best Tech Guy: Barney Collier by default.  Who else do you need?

Best Regular/Recurring Female Agent: Candidates: Cinnamon Carter, Tracey, Dana Lambert, Casey, Mimi

Yes, it’s a bit chauvinistic to treat “female agent” as a category, but that’s the way the role was defined in the show (except to an extent for Casey).  If this were a beauty contest, Casey would win hands down.  And Tracey, who was played by an actual Miss America, would score pretty highly too.  But in terms of overall quality… hmm.  Cinnamon could be quite strong or quite seductive when she chose to be.  She was certainly impressive in the first season.  But as the series went on, Barbara Bain seemed to get less invested in the role and phoned in her performances more.  Some of her characterizations didn’t work well for me; the cold, professional women she played all too often were too flat of affect to be very engaging, and when she got emotional or tearful, she reminded me too much of Lucy Ricardo.  Casey was more bland and Barbie-ish overall than Cinnamon, but that means she had fewer negatives as well as fewer strong positives.  Dana is also a strong candidate in terms of performance, personality, and range, and benefitted from being in the season with the best writing; her roles started to feel a bit repetitive as the season wore on, but then, so did Cinnamon’s.  Aww, heck, let’s say the best is first-season Cinnamon, followed by Dana, then Casey, then later Cinnamon.  Of the two recurring women, Tracey was lovelier, but Mimi was more engaging overall and got more to do.

Best One-shot Female Agent: I won’t list all the candidates, but my favorite guest female agent was Crystal Walker (Mary Ann Mobley) from season 1’s “Old Man Out.”  The runners-up would include Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley) from “The Question” (S7) and three agents from season 4: Gillian (Anne Francis) from “The Double Circle,” Lisa (Michele Carey) from “The Brothers,” and Monique (Julie Gregg) from “Amnesiac.”  Though I might be ranking Monique higher than she deserves because of Julie Gregg’s wonderful performance in a different role in S5’s “Decoy.”

Best “Other Guy”: Candidates: Willy Armitage, Dr. Doug Robert

Of course, a muscleman and a doctor aren’t really comparable roles, but in season 5 the producers intermittently replaced Willy with Doug and considered making it permanent, so it’s worth comparing the two.  Willy wins by a landslide.  Certainly having a doctor on the team on a regular basis was a useful idea, but even though Doug was added with the evident intention of replacing the fairly taciturn, limited acting of Peter Lupus with someone more verbal and involved in the roleplaying, Sam Elliott at the time turned out to be a pretty weak character actor, no more emotive than Willy and utterly dreadful at the foreign accents the team was called upon to adopt (though that might not have been a problem if he’d been added to the cast a year later).  And in the final two seasons, when the smaller cast required Willy to broaden his role and do more acting, Lupus rose to the occasion fairly well.  So there’s simply no contest here.

Best One-shot Male Agent: There were few male guest stars who played significant roles on the team, due to the nature of the show.  The most memorable candidates would pretty much be Joseph Baresh (Albert Paulsen) from S1’s “Memory”; Akim Hadramut (Steve Franken) from S2’s “The Slave”; the reluctant Jerry Carlin (Christopher Connelly) from S5’s “The Innocent”; Steve Johnson (Lawrence Montaigne) from S6’s “The Miracle”; and Khalid (Joseph Ruskin) from S7’s  “The Puppet.”  But only Baresh and Carlin stand out as interesting characters.  I’ll give Baresh the edge on the strength of the actor.

As always, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of this blog.  Please dispose of this post in the usual manner.  Good luck.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

My bike broke! (But fortunately I didn’t)

December 2, 2011 2 comments

I’ve gotten out of the habit of bike-riding the past few months, ever since a close call with a car kinda scared me off of riding, at least in my neighborhood, which is just not a safe or enjoyable enough place for riding due to the heavy traffic and steep hills.  I’m sure a more experienced cyclist could handle it, but I just don’t like riding in the streets unless they’re very empty.

But as I mentioned before, I took my bike with me to the family Thanksgiving get-together in Maryland last week, and I participated in a lengthy bike ride there.  It got me to thinking I really should try to get back into riding at least a little; the streets may not be great, but there are some halfway decent places to ride on the nearby university campus (at least at times when it isn’t too crowded).  So I decided today to take a ride over to UC and get some much-needed exercise before the weather got any colder.

And that went well enough, and I made it all the way to the park-ish area where I kinda like to ride, and then I made it all the way back (mostly uphill, and with a couple of stops to rest) to the edge of campus.  Then I got off the bike to walk it across the street — and the seat swivelled under me.  It had popped loose or something and was spinning freely, and I couldn’t push it back down into place.  Luckily, I was just a couple of blocks from the local bike shop where I bought it, so I walked it over there, and the guy told me the seat had broken.  He didn’t have the part to fix it on hand, and it’d be a bit pricey to order a new one at this point.

Now, if I were still riding regularly, it’d be an easy decision.  But I’m not sure how much more bike-riding I’m going to do at all.  Well, I really should do the campus thing every so often, weather permitting, or maybe find some nice, safe, reasonably flat bike trail I can drive to (though I don’t enjoy the hassle of taking off my front tire and putting the bike in the trunk).  But I doubt I’d do much riding in the near future, with winter coming on.  So I decided just to walk my bike home and mull over the decision, and maybe just put off getting a new seat until next year, or at least until the fellow at the shop finds a discounted seat for me.  (I could just go for a rigid seat support instead of a suspension seat like the one that broke, but it would be rougher on my anatomy, probably.)

Well, at least I got the one ride in before the seat broke.  I can’t really say I enjoyed it, because I’m too out of shape for that and it was too crowded and too chilly.  But I did need the exercise.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

On quantum teleportation and continuity of self

December 1, 2011 11 comments

A recent episode of NOVA‘s miniseries The Fabric of the Cosmos, based on Brian Greene’s book of that name and hosted by Greene, featured a discussion of quantum teleportation, and it got me thinking about the subject again.  I’ve considered it as a possible far-future technology for my science fiction, but I’ve been resistant to the idea of using it as a means for teleporting sentient beings, because of the question of whether the self survives.  The question is, if your body is destroyed and an exact duplicate is created elsewhere, is that really the same you?  The being who steps out of the teleporter on the other end has all your memories and personality and considers herself to be the same person who stepped into the transmitting station, and nobody else might be able to tell the difference, but it might still be that the original person’s awareness ceased forever the moment she was destroyed by the teleporter to create her duplicate.  Nobody else could tell the difference, but she could tell — or rather, she could if she hadn’t ceased to exist.  The question is, is there an actual scientific way of resolving this dilemma, or is it doomed to be a matter of philosophy and personal belief forever?  Because I’m not stepping in one of those things — or having one of my beloved characters step into one, at any rate — unless I can be persuaded that there’s a continuity of self-awareness from one end to the other.

But I’ve done a lot of reading about quantum theory over the past couple of years as research for my Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations books, and just other reading in general before that about the idea of decoherence as an explanation for how the quantum world becomes “classical” at a macroscopic scale.  And upon reconsidering quantum teleportation within that context, I’ve realized there’s a possible way to resolve this question, one that actually allows defining the self and its continuity in scientific rather than metaphysical terms and thus allows getting a more concrete handle on the problem.

The key is to look within the question itself and evaluate its unexamined assumptions.  The question is, will my own sense of myself as a continuous, self-aware consciousness be carried through the teleportation process?  To answer that, we must ask the deeper question, what is that sense of self-continuity in the first place?  How does it come about?  A brain is actually an ensemble of trillions of quantum particles, each in its own superposition of multiple states.  What makes all those separate particles function as a continuous whole?  Current quantum theory suggests that it’s their interaction.  By interacting with one another, they become quantum-entangled: that is, as their multiple overlapping states interact, some of those states will correlate with one another.  As those particles interact with still more particles, their states will correlate as well, and you’ll eventually get a whole ensemble of entangled particles whose quantum states are correlated with one another, functioning as a single whole.  (Those other states that don’t correlate either fizzle out to insignificance under the Quantum Darwinism model or branch off into alternate timelines under the Many-Worlds model, but that’s irrelevant here.)  It’s that collective, mutual correlation among all the different particles that creates what we think of as a macroscopic, classical reality.  (This is why it appears to us that measuring a quantum particle collapses its wavefunction into a single state.  “Measurement” is simply a process by which we correlate the states of our own quantum particles with a particular state of the measured particle, so that the ensemble of particles that we call ourselves reacts only to that state and doesn’t perceive the others.)

So when I perceive my mind as a continuous whole, an entity with an unbroken existence in time and space (at least the space within my skull) rather than just a collection of quarks and leptons, that sense of continuity exists because of the interaction and entanglement among my brain’s particles creating a correlation among their states.  Even when I’m not being teleported, I rely on quantum entanglement to give me a continuous sense of existence.

So what happens when someone is quantum teleported?  Her particles are thoroughly scanned along with the particles of a reference object, both of their states measured precisely and defined in relation to one another.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle doesn’t let you measure the position and momentum of her particles exactly at the same time, but the reference object lets you get around that: you don’t have to know the specific positions and momenta, you just have to know how they differ from those of the reference particles.  (In my Star Trek fiction, I’ve explained the “Heisenberg compensator” of the transporter as being based on this principle.)  Now, presumably that interaction between our subject and the reference object creates a correlation, an entanglement, between them.  (I’m actually not entirely sure of that part, but I think it stands to reason.)  Now, the reference object is already pre-entangled with a matter supply at the receiving end, and some of the state information of our subject is transmitted instantaneously through that entanglement link while the remainder is transmitted “classically” (i.e. without direct entanglement) via a speed-of-light signal (although theoretically it could be stored and delivered on a hard drive, I imagine, if the storage capacity were high enough).  Then that information — the exact quantum information of the original subject, who’s now been disintegrated (since you can’t record quantum states exactly without changing them) — is superimposed on the receiver station’s matter supply, transforming it into that exact, indistinguishable duplicate of the original.

So what this means, or so it seems to me, is that the subject who steps into the teleporter station to be disintegrated and the one who steps out after being assembled are not only exact, indistinguishable duplicates, but share a quantum entanglement with one another.  Just like the different parts of her brain and body were entangled and correlated with each other all along, thereby giving her a sense of herself as a continuous being.  So if entanglement/correlation is what creates our perception of continuous classical existence, then it stands to reason that by any meaningful definition, the subject who steps out of the receiving station is continuous with the subject who stepped into the transmitting station.  Even though there’s a separation in space and time, they’re still the same unbroken whole, because it’s the quantum entanglement that creates a “whole” out of a bunch of individual particles in the first place, and entanglement is independent of separation in spacetime.  Two entangled particles separated by 50 light years will still be just as directly linked as they would be if they were physically adjacent.  So the classical view that the teleported person ceases to exist for a time and is then reconstructed somewhere else is irrelevant on the quantum level that underlies reality.  It’s still the same continuous self for the same reason that the self exists as a continuous thing in the first place.

So for my purposes, at least as it applies to fiction, I’m now reasonably convinced that quantum teleportation would preserve the continuity of self — that your own self-awareness, your consciousness, would be preserved and unbroken through the process even if you were physically nonexistent for years between transmission and reception (say, if you were beamed across an interstellar distance, or if the hard drive containing your classical data got lost for a while).  It may seem unlikely, but only until you realize that what we perceive as a continuous reality is something of a quantum illusion to begin with, simply a coherent, large-scale correlation among certain states of a bunch of interacting particles.

Although there are still some massive obstacles to consider.  Like, how does the teleporter actually work?  How does it measure all the 10-to-the-29th-power particles in a human body at once?  Given that doing so would require completely disintegrating the subject, that would require a lot of energy, essentially a lot of heat.  It would basically be vaporization.  If it weren’t done instantaneously, wouldn’t that heat and energy rather radically affect the states of the adjacent particles you hadn’t gotten around to scanning yet?  You’d need to scan fast enough to capture the complete information of an intact person.  Conversely, if you did it more gradually, say, by using nanotech or pinpoint lasers to disintegrate a body bit by bit (a la TRON), there’s a question of timing.  If you scan different parts of the brain at different times, then there will be a time lag between the different parts when you reassemble them, and that will alter their relation to one another.  It would be like taking a blurred photo of a moving object because you left the shutter open too long.  (Or more like using slit-scan photography to stretch out an image.)  So even if the brain that came out the other end contained the same continuous mind that went in, the transition would still alter its mental state.  Would that just be a minor hiccup in awareness, or would it actually alter your mind somehow?  Probably the brain’s activity is dynamic enough that it would be temporary, but what about the physiological changes from one part of the body to the other if the scan takes too long, or the reassembly does?  The human body is a jellylike, wibbly-wobbly thing on the inside.  If the process is too slow, then the different ends of an neural connection or a capillary might not line up right because they moved during the scan or the reconstruction stage.

Still, I suppose if you had a powerful enough quantum computer, it might be able to record that amount of state information pretty quickly, and be able to employ corrective algorithms to compensate for any delays in the scanning or reconstruction process.  It might be necessary to be sedated before transmission in order to avoid the discomfort of being disintegrated/reassembled or the sudden alterations of mental state that might occur as a result of scanning lag.

So I’m not going to jump right into using QT in my fiction without trying to get some handle on these practical questions first.  It might not turn out to be better than the alternatives available in a given universe.  It might be more practical or cost-efficient for teleporting small and simple objects or raw materials rather than sentient beings.  But at least I no longer consider the continuity-of-self question to be insurmountable, and that was the most important objection I had.  So the door is open now.


After the daring and deconstruction of season 5, season 6 of Mission: Impossible returned to the more formulaic approach of seasons 2-4.  The seventh and final season continued in much the same vein.  It still focused mainly on domestic crimefighting, though the team did travel abroad a bit more often than in season 6 and had more than one episode involving espionage or terrorism.  As in season 6, there’s also less focus on gadgets and meticulous preparation than in previous seasons and more emphasis on roleplaying and manipulation.  As a result of this, as well as the reduced cast size, Greg Morris and particularly Peter Lupus were both able to show off their acting chops more than before.  Although it was somewhat more expansive in content, the final season was more consistent in quality than the preceding one, with fewer bad episodes but fewer superb ones.

The finest episode of the season — in fact, the finest since season 5 — is without a doubt “The Question,” a marvelous mindgame thriller that would’ve fit right into the inventive, ambitious fifth year.  Second-best is “The Deal,” with its multilayered plan and character tension.  Both of these were scripted by year 7’s story editor Stephen Kandel (known to Star Trek fans as the creator of Harry Mudd, and a future MacGyver producer).  “Speed” is also a high point for its extensive San Francisco location shooting and a strong story that diverged from formula.  “Two Thousand” stands out for its post-apocalyptic flavor and striking location work, and “Leona” for strong characterization.  Most of the rest of the season, I’d say fully half the episodes, hovered around the same modestly-above-average level, routine but reasonably effective.  “Kidnap” stands out as the season’s only off-book mission, but feels disappointingly routine for it, and suffers from a half-hearted attempt at continuity.  “Cocaine” is a modestly effective episode undermined by a flawed, overly cluttered plot.  “Hit” is a decent try that’s damaged by serious flaws.  “The Fountain” is a contrived and awkward mess.  “Incarnate” is silly and borderline racist, and “The Western” is awful, a bizarre patchwork that consists mostly of useless and disconnected subplots.

The season was strongly affected by Lynda Day George’s pregnancy and maternity leave.  “Two Thousand,” “Leona,” “Underground,” and “Speed” were apparently the first ones filmed, late in George’s pregnancy; her role in these was diminished and she was shot only from the shoulders up when she appeared at all, and in “Leona” and “Speed” Casey was mostly in disguise, played by different actresses.  Practically the whole plot of “Speed” was written around George’s diminished presence.  Casey is missing entirely from ten further episodes: She is replaced by Barbara Anderson as Mimi in “Break,” “The Deal,” “TOD-5,”  “Cocaine,” “Movie,” “Hit,” and “Ultimatum”; by Marlyn Mason as Sandy in “Crack-Up”; by Elizabeth Ashley as Andrea in “The Question”; and by no one in “Imitation,” the only episode of the season with no female team member.  So George only participates in a major way in eight episodes this season: “Kidnap,” “The Puppet,” “Incarnate,” “Boomerang,” “The Fountain,” “The Fighter,” “The Pendulum,” and “The Western.”  These eight must have been shot after her return from maternity leave.  However, the episodes were broadcast in a very different order, presumably to spread out the non-Casey episodes rather than have them clumped together.

But this season features a first for M:I — a modicum of concern for continuity.  In past seasons, changes of team composition were never explained, except by the expedient of the dossier scenes showing the team leader choosing the participants.  Regular characters missing from an episode were almost never mentioned, except for one or two early episodes where Barney was not present but was referenced as the builder of a gadget employed in the story.  But here, Casey’s absence was explained by having her on assignment in Europe, and in most of the episodes without Lynda Day George, passing references were made to Casey making an offscreen contribution, either creating a mask used in the episode or carrying out a Europe-based part of the plan.  The only episodes in which Casey was not referenced were “Ultimatum,” “Crack-Up,” and “Imitation.”  Mimi is also the only regular or recurring team member to get an origin story explaining how she came to join the IMF.

In addition to the female agents listed above, the core team of Jim Phelps, Barney Collier, and Willy Armitage was assisted by the following individuals:

02 Two Thousand: Det. White (Don Diamond); actors playing Sergeant (Barry Cahill), Admiral (Harry Lauter), Marshall (Mort Mills), and others; police chief cooperates
03 The Deal: Repertory co. incl. Lt. Blair (Paul Gleason); Casey assists offscreen
04 Leona: Driver (uncredited), laundry truck driver (uncredited, Ed McCready?); cooperation from cops incl. Plainclothesman (Dick Valentine)
05 TOD-5: Repertory players incl. Green (James McCallion); Casey assists offscreen; population of Woodfield cooperates
06 Cocaine: Cooperation from Frank Fallon, police, government
07 Underground: Police cooperate
08 Movie: Voice impersonator Dave (Walker Edmiston); police cooperate
09 Hit: Impersonator Jack (uncredited); prison warden & police cooperate
10 Ultimatum: Large task force incl. announcer Carl (Fred Holliday), operator Lisa (Judith Brown), & actor Jack (Dale Tarter); police incl. Patrolman Frank Daggett (Vince Howard) and Sergeant (Bob Legionaire)
11 Kidnap: Dowager (Monty Margetts)
12 Crack-Up: Dr. Adler (Arthur Franz), Orderly (Michael Masters, uncredited)
13 The Puppet: Impersonator Hank (Richard Devon); actor Khalid (Joseph Ruskin); possibly travel agent (Shirley Washington)
14 Incarnate: Group of “voodoo” dancers; unidentified actor impersonating Robert O’Connell (Solomon Sturges)
15 Boomerang: Impersonator Bert (uncredited)
17 The Fountain: Unidentified extras; police cooperate
18 The Fighter: Voice impersonator Dave (Walker Edmiston)
19 Speed: Driver (George P. Wilbur); police and Ramsay Sanitarium staff cooperate
20 The Pendulum: Telephone operator (Beverly Moore); impersonator Manny (Don Reid); ensemble including Arab (Peter Mamakos)
21 The Western: Driver (Troy Melton), stuntman (uncredited)
22 Imitation: Impersonator/jeweler Duval (Ray Ballard, uncredited); electronics store clerk (uncredited)

Note that Walker Edmiston (who had done many prior uncredited voiceover roles) appears twice as Dave, although he’s credited in “Movie” as Waley and in “The Fighter” as Rawls.  This might be a case where the role was scripted as a different character but the director or actors chose to inject a touch of continuity by using his previous character’s name.  Dave is the first recurring minor team member we’ve had since the first season’s Dr. Green (Allen Joseph), who appeared twice and was referenced as an offscreen participant once.  I’m not counting the Hartford and Globe Repertory Companies since no specific characters were ever established for them and I’m not aware of any credited actors who recurred as company members (though some extras probably did).

As mentioned above, continuity was a new feature this season.  For the first time, we had episodes referring back to elements of previous adventures.  “Kidnap” was a nominal sequel to season 6’s “Casino,” though it contradicted many of the particulars of that episode.  In “Incarnate,” Jim used the name of a gangster who appeared in “Movie” as a character reference; and for the first time (as far as I recall), a team member adopted the same false identity on two separate occasions, with Jim playing hitman Dave Riker in both “Boomerang” and “The Fighter.”  Okay, it’s the barest bones of continuity by today’s standards, but it was a novelty for Mission: Impossible, whose episodes generally had so little continuity that they might as well have been in alternate universes from one another.

Another new feature this season, and an outstanding one, is the impressive location work.  The past few seasons felt very studio-bound, with the Paramount backlot becoming very familiar and the Paramount office buildings showing up in slightly redressed form almost every week.  Season 7 took the production out of the studio far more often, making extensive use of varied and striking locations.  In particular, most of the tape sequences of the season and the majority of the episode “Speed” were filmed on location in San Francisco (probably around the same time).  This would imply that Jim Phelps and the team were based in San Francisco, since it stands to reason that Jim would get the tape drops near his home.  However, he seems to have the same apartment he had in previous seasons where the tape drops were recognizably in Los Angeles, and there’s at least one tape drop this season that’s near LA City Hall.  Again, we may need to invoke alternate universes.

As before, the tape messages this season lack the line “If any of your IM Force are caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”  That line was abandoned near the end of season 5 and will not be heard again until the 1988 revival.  However, the references to “conventional law enforcement agencies” which were used in most 6th-season episodes are only in around 13 episodes this season. All in all, there were 19 distinct tape scenes this season, two of which were partially used twice; only one episode, “Kidnap,” had no tape scene. Twelve of the tape scenes were shot in exterior locations, mostly San Francisco landmarks.  Two others combined an exterior “arrival” shot with an interior tape sequence.  All the tape scenes used the standard small reel-to-reel tape except for “TOD-5,” which used a phonograph record (so I guess it wasn’t really a tape scene).  It’s worth noting that only one episode in the entire series, season 2’s “The Seal,” ever used a standard cassette tape to deliver the briefing.  This is odd, since I’m sure cassettes were in standard use by the last couple of seasons.  All the tape scenes this season featured self-destructing media.

Speaking of locations, while only a portion of one sixth-season episode took place outside of the US, three 7th-season missions took place mostly or entirely overseas: “The Deal” and “Incarnate” on fictitious Caribbean island nations (Camagua and Jamada, respectively), “The Fountain” in Northern Mexico.  There are also five episodes that, while US-based, depart from crimefighting to deal with terrorism or international intrigue: “Two Thousand,” “TOD-5,” “Ultimatum,” “The Question,” “The Pendulum.”  (“The Deal” is a hybrid mob/intrigue story, about mobsters backing an overseas coup.  One could also count “Imitation” as a borderline case, since a small part of the episode deals with infiltrating an unfriendly nation’s embassy, and since there are international stakes if their crown jewels are lost.)  So while the season continued the previous year’s format of the IMF as primarily a mob-busting team, it featured more of the kinds of cases the organization was formed to handle.

Musically, this is by far the least impressive season of M:I.  Only two episodes featured full original scores: “Underground” by Lalo Schifrin and “Ultimatum” by one-time composer Duane Tatro.  Both are decent but unremarkable.  “The Puppet” had a small amount of new music, I believe.  Several other episodes credited Schifrin as composer but featured no new music that I could discern.  Conversely, “Incarnate” had new source music and atmospherics but no credited composer.  There is also a new arrangement of the main title theme, making this the only season other than the 5th to use a variant arrangement.

So that’s the end of the original Mission: Impossible.  All in all, it’s a reasonably good wrap-up.  While it’s far short of the heights of seasons 1 and 5, it’s more stable in quality than the preceding season. It consists mostly of routine, but then, so did most of the series, as it turned out.  And as formula-dominated seasons go, it holds up relatively well — not brilliant (except in “The Question”), but generally well-executed and not unpleasant.  At least I can say that the show avoided any major deterioration in overall quality toward the end, and even went up a bit on average from its penultimate to final year, even if there were fewer outstanding episodes.  It didn’t go out with a bang, but I wouldn’t call it a whimper either.  It just stayed the course until it stopped.

Still to come, a retrospective of the entire original series.

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