MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988) Reviews: “The Cattle King”/”The Pawn” (Spoilers)
“The Cattle King”: This original episode, written by Ted Roberts, takes advantage of the show being filmed in Australia to do a story set in Australia. And boy, do they ever shove Australia in our faces. We open with a shot of an Aboriginal Australian using a spear to hunt kangaroos, then stumbling upon a sacred cave site which our villain, a cattle rancher named Matthews (David Bradshaw), is blithely desecrating to store a stockpile of stolen Stinger missiles that he’s selling to terrorists to pay off his enormous gambling debts (not unlike the villain in season 3’s “Doomsday,” though the episode has no other similarities to that one). Matthews blows up a tree that the aborigine had just run past, which I think was meant to convey that he killed the guy. Or maybe he was just afraid the tree had seen too much.
Jim’s mission, received on a boat in a marina, is to retrieve the missiles before he delivers them to his terrorist buyers (who are into shooting down passenger jets, apparently). The plan involves a familiar M:I gambit, taking advantage of the bad guy’s superstitions to manipulate him, with help from an Aboriginal shaman named Mulwarra (Warren Owens), whom Jim persuades to assist the team so they can retrieve the missiles before his band takes vengeance on Matthews for his crimes against their people. The portrayal of Aboriginal Australians as spear-carrying, chanting, bush-dwelling tribesmen in loincloths and body paint is pure stereotype and caricature, tantamount to the way ’60s American TV portrayed American Indians. It might seem surprising that a show actually made in Australia would depict its indigenes in such an unrealistic way, but apparently such stereotypes are quite pervasive in Australia itself, just as Native American stereotypes have long been in the US. The original M:I generally managed to avoid such gross stereotyping of other cultures, largely by avoiding their portrayal and focusing on Western countries, with rare exceptions like “Butterfly” (unlike, say, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which seemed to go out of its way to find new cultures to stereotype and diminish). It’s sad to see its more modern revival actually backsliding from the original.
Grant contacts Matthews as a buyer for his remaining missiles to lure him to Sydney, then makes him wait in town for a couple of days, so that the compulsive gambler Matthews will go to the racetrack and meet Jim — playing a successful land speculator, courtesy of a planted magazine in Matthews’s suite — and Casey, playing an acquaintance of Jim’s who’s so impossibly lucky that she’s been barred from the track and the casino. She claims to be an anthropologist living among the aborigines and granted luck by a magic spell, which she demonstrates to Matthews by swapping out his personal “lucky” dice for loaded ones (at least while she’s throwing them). She takes him to see Mulwarra in hopes of getting his own luck spell, but Mulwarra (sincerely) tells him he’ll be cursed instead for his crimes.
Although it takes some help from technology which Grant and the others set up in Matthews’s suite, including speakers and a projector to play images and sounds of Mulwarra’s band chanting, a rigged balcony that catches fire and then gets completely repaired by the time Matthews brings the security guy up, and so on. There’s a neat bit later on where Matthews is stuck in the elevator and the doors open to reveal a vertiginous drop to the street and then Mulwarra’s haunting face — and only afterward do we see the team dismantling the projection equipment from in front of the elevator doors, an inversion of the usual M:I pattern where we see the setup before the execution. (Although it’s unconvincing that he could be standing just a foot or two away from the projection screen and perceive it as a 3-dimensional open space. But many M:I episodes have had muche the same problem.)
Anyway, all this is just to get Matthews in a superstitious state of mind. He plans to take advantage of Casey’s luck spell to win a fortune in Jim’s land speculations, but the team makes it look like Jim’s been arrested for fraud, and then Matthews finds Casey lying “dead” with a self-inflicted bullet wound. Now he’s not only desperate for money, but desperate to get the missiles off Aboriginal land so they’ll free him from his curse. So he accepts Grant’s terms to cancel the delivery to the terrorists and sell all the missiles to him straight away. Matthews brings the missiles in a truck and then swaps vehicles with Grant, but Grant’s rigged the car with more curse multimedia, so Matthews crashes in the middle of the outback, and the team leaves him to the mercies of Mulwarra’s band of stereotyped savages, to whom he sobbingly promises to return all of his land.
It’s unusual to see an episode where Casey has a lot to do and Nicholas and Max have relatively little. Terry Markwell shows she can deliver an adequate performance when actually given something to do. Nicholas gets to do a bit of roleplay to help set up the whole land-speculation thing, but Max serves little purpose beyond flying a helicopter, helping Grant and Nicholas set up gadgets, and doing a tiny bit of roleplay here and there. Ironic, since the episode confirms that Max is from Australia (despite his US passport in the main titles — but then, I guess I shouldn’t expect spies to have accurate passports). Nicholas’s Aussie accent goes unexplained, though.
Anyway, it’s not bad, but a little unfocused. I didn’t really figure out until writing this review that the point of all the superstition/curse stuff was to make Matthews want to get the missiles off sacred ground. It seemed more like padding than anything else. And the whole trope of using technology to fake supernatural phenomena was one that the original M:I came to resort to a bit too often, and my recollection is that the revival series used it quite a lot as well — indeed, this is the second time in only seven episodes. Still, one of my big problems with the trope in the original series was that they often used supernatural gambits to win over skeptics, when it would’ve made more sense to save them for marks who were already superstitious and primed to buy into the scam. That’s not a problem this one has.
This episode is the debut of composer John E. Davis, who will alternate with Ron Jones for six episodes and then take over as the sole composer for the remainder of the series (except for a single season 2 episode). Much of the score is a pretty typical ’80s-TV synth score, but it has moments that are rather impressive. It bugs me a bit, though, that it used a partial statement of “The Plot” to underscore Jim’s disc scene at the beginning. Really, “The Plot” is meant to represent the team’s machinations while the caper is in progress, so using it in the opening is premature.
As of this episode, the end titles begin using a montage of stills instead of the big “IMF” background — but they’re clips from the episode just ended rather than a generic montage of gadget close-ups like in the original.
“The Pawn”: Jim just rides a horse on the beach to get to the disc player on a random rock — maybe the horse was trained to know the route?? Anyway, the mission is unusually straightforward for this show: Help a Czech chess champion, Antonov (Bryan Marshall), defect from the Soviet bloc. This is the third M:I episode with a chess focus, after “A Game of Chess” (surprisingly enough) in season 2 and “Crackup” in season 7. And it’s the first one that doesn’t involve an implausibly portrayed chess computer. Billy Marshall Stoneking provides the script.
Antonov is being watched like a hawk by the hardnosed Major Zorbuskaya (Rowena Wallace), who knows he’s eager to defect after the killing of his protestor son — which she knows because she’s the one who killed him in the episode’s teaser, though that never really becomes relevant. Jim’s plan to smuggle Antonov out involves a magician named Joseph Rultka (Philip Hinton). Nicholas is surprised at this, which is odd, because his predecessors Rollin and Paris were both professional magicians. (And I found myself lamenting that they couldn’t have gotten Martin Landau or Leonard Nimoy in for a guest appearance.) But Max, as it turns out, studied magic in college, so he’ll be apprenticing with Rultka to play the magician in the caper. Once again, Max, who initially seemed to be the new Willy, has turned out to be better at filling Rollin and Paris’s shoes than their nominal successor Nicholas. Why do we need Nicholas again?
Okay, I exaggerate. For Major Zorbuskaya’s benefit, Nicholas establishes himself as part of the gaggle of reporters questioning Antonov about his upcoming “grudge match” with his bitter rival Bakunin (who, interestingly, is played by future Farscape writer/producer Justin Monjo). Jim plays a Texas talent scout looking to persuade Antonov to come play in Texas, making Major Z intensely suspicious of him, and convinced he isn’t as dumb as he’s playing. It’s not entirely clear what purpose Jim serves here, unless it’s to divert the major’s suspicion with his obvious pretense. Anyway, magician Max and his lovely assistant Casey (the most literal manifestation yet of the “hover helpfully in the background and look pretty” mode that’s been her primary role in most episodes so far) employ a gambit much like that used by Paris in season 4’s “The Falcon”: Get Antonov to volunteer for an illusion, make him disappear, and have a masked Nicholas take his place to divert Major Z’s attention while the real Antonov is smuggled to safety, along with his daughter, who’s coming in on the Prague Express. The plan is that Nicholas just has to keep up his impersonation for a couple of hours, though he has some difficulty convincing an old friend of Antonov’s who’s happened to show up. (By the way, we see Nicholas studying up on Antonov as he prepares for his impersonation, and this includes listening to an audio dossier narrated by Bob Johnson. I believe it’s the first time in the entire M:I franchise that we’ve heard Johnson’s voice during an actual mission rather than solely in the opening.)
But a bigger problem rears its head when the Prague Express is delayed 12 hours — the daughter won’t get in until tournament time! Nicholas will have to play chess at championship level! But Grant manages to rig an electric signal pulse in Antonov’s ring and deliver it to Nicholas, so he can use Morse code to communicate the moves Antonov picks as he watches the match on satellite TV from the train. But there are some hairy moments as the group on the train has to hide what they’re doing from the border guards, and Nicholas is forced to make a critical move on his own — and it’s brilliant! With a little more help from Antonov, fake Antonov wins the match and retires to his room — whereupon Jim tells the gaggle of reporters that there’s a press conference there, they burst into the room, and when Major Z herds them out, a now-unmasked Nicholas just walks out with the crowd (a gambit I’m sure I’ve seen before on M:I, though I can’t remember the episode). Oh, gaggle of reporters. You’re so predictable. Oh, and Jim tricks the Soviet guards into thinking that a bag full of defectin’ supplies belongs to Major Z, and they find the passport that Grant sewed into her coat lining earlier, and she takes a well-deserved trip to Siberia.
Well, at least until the Soviet Union falls about two years later. It’s kind of amusing to watch a defection story aired in 1989 and think that if they’d just waited around a couple more years, none of this would’ve been necessary. Except, well, Major Z made it pretty clear that she planned to send Antonov to a gulag in the immediate future in any case.
I think this is my favorite episode yet of the revival series. Although it does have a couple of plot oddities, a lot of it is very clever and fun. It’s the kind of episode I like, where the team faces real setbacks and has to improvise. It portrays chess more plausibly than the prior two chess episodes — except for an odd bit where Bakunin accused Antonov (the real one in the first match) of cheating, even though his protest seems to have more to do with Antonov just being distracting than with any recognized form of cheating in chess. Peter Graves gets to show off some of the comedic chops he developed in Airplane! and afterward. And Bryan Marshall is well-cast as Antonov — and, more importantly, as Nicholas playing Antonov. He resembles Thaao Penghlis enough in bone structure and speech rhythms that I can buy the conceit that Nicholas is behind the mask. And Ron Jones provides his best score yet for the series, the highlights of which are the action/chase motif under the teaser and an elegantly meticulous harp-like melody in waltz time accompanying the chess play. Beyond those, Jones goes for a more unusual and interesting sound than he has in previous episodes, and it’s nice to hear him stretching himself.