Archive for May 4, 2014

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988) Reviews: “The Killer”/”The System” (spoilers)

Huzzah! Netflix has finally gotten the first season of the 1988 Mission: Impossible revival series in stock, so I’m finally able to resume my review series after a gap of nearly two and a half years. Unfortunately they only have the first season at the moment, but that constitutes 19 of the revival’s 35 episodes.

The M:I revival series came about as a consequence of the 1988 Writers’ Guild of America strike, which fell during the time when the networks needed to develop scripts for the 1988-9 season. Desperate for material to film, the networks began looking around for pre-existing scripts they could reshoot. Paramount decided to revive Mission: Impossible, this time selling it to ABC rather than CBS, and filming it in Australia to save money. The initial plan was to remake episodes of the original series with new actors playing the original characters. But once Peter Graves was brought back to revive the role of Jim Phelps, it was decided that the remainder of the cast would play new characters instead. (Not that it really made much difference, since the characters were always pretty interchangeable.) The strike was resolved early enough that the recycled scripts could be revised, modernized, and adapted for the new series. For the remade episodes, I’ll be rewatching the originals for comparison and discussing what was changed in the remakes.

The new cast was as follows:

  • Peter Graves as Jim Phelps: The veteran Impossible Missions Force team leader, 15 years older than when we last saw him but otherwise unchanged.
  • Thaao Penghlis as Nicholas Black: The master of disguise, filling the shoes of Rollin Hand and the Great Paris.
  • Phil Morris as Grant Collier: The real-life son of Greg Morris playing the son of Barney Collier and filling the same tech-genius role.
  • Terry Markwell as Casey Randall: The femme fatale, replacing Cinnamon Carter, Dana Lambert, and the original Casey (no relation).
  • Tony Hamilton as Max Harte: The strongman, replacing Willy Armitage, but also a frequent roleplayer.
  • Bob Johnson as the Voice on Tape — now updated to the Voice on Disc. The only returning regular besides Graves.

Okay, we’ve been waiting years for this, so without further ado:

“The Killer”: A remake of Season 5, episode 1. Credited to the original author, Arthur Weiss, though given an uncredited rewrite.

The opening is completely new. This “Killer,” under the alias Drake (John DeLancie, just a year after his debut as Q on Star Trek: The Next Generation), assassinates a middle-aged man at a party, using a hallucinogenic dart that causes him to imagine he’s on fire and thus throw himself off a balcony. Seems a rather overcomplicated and unreliable murder weapon. But then at the funeral, we see Jim Phelps watching from afar, looking resolute. Lalo Schifrin is back to score the new pilot, and he introduces Jim with a soulful variant of the main title theme, modulating into a bit of “The Plot” (the motif used in every episode to accompany the execution of the team’s plans), then returning to a more resolute main theme statement as the teaser ends. (Notably, the teaser takes place in San Francisco, which was evidently where Jim lived in the final season of the original.)

The main titles feature a very ’80s-ish synth/guitar rearrangement of the main theme, and instead of giving us a montage of scenes from the current episode, they just provide a generic montage of clips of the cast and various spy gear and techie stuff (some taken from episodes, others staged for the titles). Notably, the match that lights the animated “fuse” is now held by Peter Graves himself rather than an anonymous hand (actually creator Bruce Geller’s) as in the original. And the “fuse” now runs across the lower portion of the screen rather than the middle. (The end titles are over a static “IMF” in a red computerish font, rather than the original montage of gadgetry.)

In the message-drop scene, Jim exchanges code phrases with a fisherman as in the original, but this time the fisherman offers some slightly stilted exposition about how the victim, Tom Copperfield, was a former team leader for the IMF and Jim’s personal protege, presumably sometime after the original series ended in 1973. (Might’ve been nice if it was a character we knew, so the death would have resonance, but that would’ve precluded that actor returning for a guest spot later on, so maybe they didn’t want to go there.) This hardly seems necessary, since the Voice delivers that same information moments later on the briefing disc. Yes, the old mini-reel-to-reel tape player has been replaced by a thumbprint-encoded black box that opens to reveal a keypad requiring a 3-digit code sequence, whereupon it releases a miniature optical disc (a fake technology at the time, but close in size to the Sony MiniDisc introduced 4 years later) that Jim places in a slot to activate it. There’s also a video screen (replacing the envelope of photos that used to accompany the tape) with a row of green LEDs over the screen that show the progress of the playback, plus a set of three status lights on the side: A green “Run” light while the message plays, a yellow light with a rectangular symbol for the self-destruct warning, and a red “Destruct” light over the 5-second countdown. And one more change: “Good morning, Mr. Phelps” has evolved to “Good morning, Jim.” Which could make it hard for new viewers to figure out what Jim’s full name is.

The mission is basically the same as before: Stop the assassin’s next killing and discover the identity of his employer, Scorpio. But we’re given less information. The focus is more on Jim’s vendetta and less on the dilemma of how to stop a murder when you don’t know the who, when, where, or how.

We move to the revival series’ sole use of the classic dossier sequence (not seen since season 4), albeit in updated form, and scored by a variant of Schifrin’s original dossier-scene music. Jim’s (new IMF-provided?) apartment comes with a keyboard hidden in the coffee table and a big screen that unfolds from a decorative pillar. These replace the binder of dossiers from the original, and the video dossiers come with narration by Bob Johnson, offering us brief backstories for the new team members — more than we ever got for the originals. Nicholas Black is a drama teacher at “an eastern university.” Casey Randall is “a top designer on three continents” who helped the IMF catch the terrorists who murdered her husband and has continued to freelance for them. (Same problem as Cinnamon Carter: How does someone so famous function as an undercover operative?) Max Harte is an athlete who organized his own private Rambo-style mission to liberate his older brother from a Vietnam POW camp. And Grant Collier is Barney’s son — ’nuff said.

The rest proceeds largely as in the original episode, even with a fair amount of verbatim dialogue, but with a few changes. The action now takes place in London rather than Los Angeles. Drake arrives late and has a deadline to call his contact, explaining his hurry better than the original did. The team also fakes the street signs outside the hotel, correcting an oversight in the original: If he picked the hotel out of the phone book, wouldn’t he know the address? The cadre of assistants needed to fake up the hotel (a classier facility in this version) is smaller, with the team relying more on high-tech printers and gizmos, losing some of the charm of the original. Max slows Nicholas’s cab down by playing traffic cop and pulling him over, whereas Willy just screwed with the traffic lights. On first facing Drake as the hotel clerk, Jim (who’s been away from the game too long) almost has a lapse of control and wants to lash out at his protege’s murderer. When Drake calls his contact (played by Farscape‘s Virginia Hey), he uses a phone booth outside and is picked up by Max’s shotgun mike, rather than using the bugged lobby phone. And the scenario is reversed from the original: Drake arranges to meet her at a park, and when Nicholas calls her back impersonating Drake, he changes it to the hotel. This leads to a nice moment where Drake and the woman pass each other on the stairs unknowingly. Casey doesn’t seduce Drake to slow him down — a bit of an oversight, since it leaves less time for Jim and Grant to get the target to safety. She does, however, drop a hint about him becoming “famous” for his murders, a compliment he’s uneasy with.

The assassination sequence is simplified considerably. The real target is taken to safety off-camera. The dummy intended to stand in for Grant is introduced much more casually — and is far, far less convincing than the one from 18 years earlier. Drake doesn’t reserve a room over the phone, but just breaks in. The murder weapon is the same — a plastique bomb disguised as golf balls — but he plants it on the floor from the room below rather than lowering it through the air vent from the room above, and it goes off after one minute rather than fifteen. Rather than meeting Casey in an alley and seeing her assassinated by Scorpio’s men, he returns to the hotel to find her there to assassinate him herself and become his replacement. Drake takes the gun from her and “kills” her (as planned) before leaving to hunt down Scorpio — who turns out to be the guy back in San Francisco who threw the party where Copperfield was killed. Drake breaks his cardinal rule of never repeating a murder method, reusing the hallucinogenic dart to kill Scorpio — but why? That killing was only special to Jim, not to Drake or Scorpio, so there’s no reason for the symbolism. Plus it’s implausible that it has the same result, a balcony dive (off-camera). Scorpio — who has the same real name as in the original — only wounds Drake, so the hitman is able to see the closing beat where the team members assemble to let him know he’s been had. Followed by a tag scene at Copperfield’s grave, where Jim tells the other four that he should stick around since it would be a shame to break up such a nice team.

So how does it stack up to the original? Well, I’d say it’s mixed. “The Killer” was a fairly good choice to remake; it was the debut of the superior season 5, wherein the show broke away from its longstanding formula in which the missions played out effortlessly for the team and instead began injecting more challenges and difficulties. That made for a more suspenseful story, and that’s effective here. The added stakes for Jim don’t really resonate beyond a couple of brief added scenes, though. It would’ve been better to pick an episode in which Jim had a more direct interaction with the killer. But as I’ve mentioned, while some of the changes were slight improvements (particularly the more up-t0-date, less gendered role for Casey), there were a couple of misfires with the whole hallucination-dart thing. Still, the teaser here is a vast improvement on the rather dull one in the original.

The new cast isn’t too impressive yet. Peter Graves is the same as he always was, which is cool. Phil Morris is younger, less experienced, and less potent a performer than he would become later on, and thus is not quite on the same level as his father on the original. Penghlis and Hamilton are okay, but both speak in Australian accents even though they’re supposed to be American. Markwell is rather lovely — though less so than I seem to remember finding her back in ’88 — but isn’t impressing me yet as an actress (and fakes an American accent imperfectly, though better than the other two Aussies). The only guest star of note is DeLancie, and he’s certainly a more charismatic and classier villain than Robert Conrad was.

As for Schifrin’s music, it’s a solid M:I score — fortunately orchestral rather than electronic like the new main title — but not a standout, and not as distinctive as his funk-influenced score for the original episode. (There are a few parts of it that sound to me as if they might have been arranged by Ron Jones, the acclaimed TNG/DuckTales composer who would score several other episodes in the season ahead. That’s just an impression, but it’s possible. It’s not unheard of for TV or film composers to help each other out with orchestrations when there’s a time crunch; for instance, Alexander Courage and Fred Steiner both worked with Jerry Goldsmith to arrange cues for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.) But it solidly re-establishes the main motifs of the original series. Both the main title theme and “The Plot” will continue to play central roles in every episode of the revival, as they did for the original.

“The System”: Remaking Season 3, episode 15. Credited to the original author, Robert Hamner.

Again we get a new teaser — the original had none. We see Frank Marley (James Sloyan, replacing James Patterson’s Costa) and his boss Connors actually killing the federal witness against the latter, a murder we only heard about in the original. Jim gets the disc message at a football stadium after trading code phrases with the popcorn vendor, and it’s the same mission as in the original: Convince Marley to testify against Connors, something he’s never likely to do since he’s Connors’s trusted heir apparent.

Marley’s casino is in the Bahamas rather than stateside. It’s odd that the first two episodes, even though they’re set around the world, are adapted from US-bound mob stories from the original. And it makes the inclusion of the “Secretary will disavow any knowledge” line rather incongruous. The original series dropped that line for stateside organized-crime cases, since they weren’t espionage-related. In these episodes, they’re still going after criminals rather than spies, so the cloak-and-dagger stuff is as incongruous as it was in the crime-focused seasons 6 and 7 of the original. (And moving the crimebusting stories overseas makes me wonder about the legality of the team’s operations on foreign soil).

The original “The System” was a weak, bland episode only livened up by its innovative and striking cinematography, which helped compensate for its rather dinky casino set. Here, we get a much more lavish location shoot at a real hotel-casino, making the episode look more expensive even though the cinematography is more conventional.

Max plays the hitman role that Jim filled in the original, tipping Marley off that Connors plans to hit him, while Jim takes over Rollin Hand’s role of the auditor supposedly sent by the mob boss. Max offers a better motive for the tipoff: rather than just being uneasy with a high-profile hit, he wants to hitch his wagon to Marley’s star since he’s the likely new boss. (We also begin to see here that Tony Hamilton is a much better actor than Peter Lupus was.) Casey fills Cinnamon Carter’s role of the sexy gambler with the system, drawing Marley’s interest to trick him out of large sums of money and frame him in his employees’ eyes, and Grant fills his father’s role of breaking into the vault. The vault sequence is less imaginative than the original. The pressure-sensitive floor alarm is replaced with a rather silly wall unit firing out random lasers, which Grant blocks with a mirror so he can climb into the room — which leads to a new act-break cliffhanger when the mirror falls out of place and he needs to call in the others (using the miniature walkie-talkies that are evidently standard IMF equipment now) to cut the generator long enough for him to replace it. That’s a nice introduction of danger into a story that was too by-the-numbers originally, and makes up for the sillier security system. Grant also blocks a security camera using a handheld video camera (using one of the mockup IMF mini-discs) to record a shot of the room and feed it into the security cable.  The larger size of the foreign bills and the staging of the later counting sequence also address my problem with the original sequence, giving a reason why Jim couldn’t have just brought the extra money in with him and planted it rather than having Grant break in beforehand.

The biggest plot change is made to introduce the use of full-face-mask impersonations. Now the masks seem to be created by a mix of hand-sculpting by Nicholas and computer-aided design by Grant. Nicholas impersonates Marley in order to do what Rollin and Cinnamon did with a forged note on a piece of paper: Telling the blackjack dealer to let Casey win a lot of money. The real Marley is distracted with another cash counting scene, not in the original. The faked attempt on Marley’s life is moved to a scene with Max rather than the later scene with Casey (Cinnamon) where she reveals she’s working for the mob boss. The oddest change is when, rather than having Nicholas or Grant (whom Marley hasn’t seen) play the real hitman, it turns out that Max was the hitman all along, just pulling a fakeout as part of the frame, or something. That part doesn’t work so well. Anyway, it ends like the original, with Marley locking himself in the vault and calling the cops to make a deal to testify.

Despite the less impressive cinematography and gadgetry, this is much more effective than the original. The story is pretty much the same, and it’s a standard M:I tale with no insights into the regular characters; but some of its flaws are improved on, and the location shooting makes it much more impressive. For the second week in a row, they’ve cast a far stronger villain than the original did, even though Sloyan doesn’t have much to work with here. The strongest part is Ron Jones’s debut score for the series. It’s very much an M:I score, but also very much a Ron Jones score; those two things mesh quite well. In the vault sequence, Jones’s use of the first three notes of the main theme as a recurring motif over one of his trademark electronic ostinati reminds me very much of some of his TNG work. But at other times, he goes for a more contemporary sound (much as Schifrin did in the original “The Killer”), distinguishing his score from both TNG and the original M:I. Notably, in Grant’s break-in, Jones arranges “The Plot” over a distinctive bass guitar riff, one I actually remember even though I haven’t seen this series in a quarter-century. This riff will be reused in later Jones scores for the series.

So how can we cope with these remakes in the context of series continuity? Maybe we could pretend that Jim is reusing plans that worked in similar situations, if it weren’t for the fact that so much of the dialogue was verbatim, character names like Scorpio/Chambers were the same, and the villains reacted the same way to the team’s scripted lines and maneuvers. There’s really no way to reconcile them. And a larger issue for the show in general is that Phil Morris was already 7 years old when M:I began, but Barney was always portrayed as an eligible bachelor. It’s hard to make it fit.

But then, TV shows in the ’60s and ’70s rarely had much continuity, and M:I was a prime example. Team members would reveal their faces on national or global television one week and then be totally anonymous again the next, or be badly injured, brainwashed, or tortured in one episode and be perfectly healthy a week later. Regulars vanished without explanation and their replacements were treated like they’d always been there. Only in season 7 was there even the slightest attempt to acknowledge continuity. In those days, before commonplace syndication or home video, episodes had to stand alone since past episodes might never be seen again, and missed episodes might never be seen at all. So even shows with continuing characters tended to work like anthologies. There are many such shows — even as late as Law & Order — that function more like a set of parallel realities featuring identical characters rather than a series of consecutive adventures in a single reality. Indeed, sometimes a show would remake its own earlier episodes in later seasons (one example being Mannix, the third Desilu drama developed by Herb Solow alongside M:I and Star Trek, which remade a first-season episode with Charles Drake into a sixth-season episode with William Shatner). There’s really no way to reconcile such things.

But that’s okay — next comes the revival’s first original episode!

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