MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’88) Reviews: “The Fixer”/”Spy” (spoilers)
“The Fixer”: This is the first non-remake episode of the revival series to be written by a veteran of the original series: Walter Brough, who wrote “Squeeze Play” and “Casino”, and who’s also on board the revival as a co-producer. It’s also the second episode in a row to feature a guest star from the original series, Richard Romanus, who played a guard in “Gitano.” Romanus plays Arthur Six, a Washington journalist who’s blackmailing many US government officials with the dirt he’s accumulated on them — much the same setup as the original series’ “Mastermind,” though the plot is very different. The teaser shows him backing a federal judge into a corner and driving him to kill himself.
The main titles have been redone to feature Jane Badler in place of Terry Markwell, recreating similar shots in a couple of cases (which don’t work as well for her since her background is in journalism rather than fashion), but adding a new one of Badler soaking wet in a bathing suit with a plunging neckline. The new shot of Shannon Reed’s passport gives her the same March 8 birthday Casey’s passport showed. And the shot of Badler accompanying her credit is much better than Markwell’s, looking over her shoulder and smiling alluringly where Markwell was piling her hair up over her head for some reason. There’s also a new shot of a mask-fabricating device (Grant’s invention) that debuts later in this episode. (Meaning that Richard Romanus’s likeness is in the credits every week from now on, apparently. Did he get residuals for it?)
Jim gets the disc player from a news vendor. The mission is to destroy the blackmail files that Six is using to sway the members of a Senate committee investigating him, and to ensure that he’ll be indicted. Since Brough has done this before, the apartment briefing feels more like it should, with the team comparing notes about a plan in progress rather than being told about the mission for the first time — although the focus is still just on assumed identities and planning rather than showcasing gadgetry to be used later.
Jim gets Six on the hook by playing an old friend of the Senate committee’s chair, Senator Oxenford (Terence Donovan) — a friend who (according to a fake fax the team sends Six) was involved in a fatal drunk-driving accident. I guess the idea is that the senator helped him cover it up or something, giving Six dirt he could use to blackmail Oxenford, though that isn’t clear. He and Six meet in front of a bluescreened Lincoln Memorial (I think they were still using blue rather than green at the time.) Jim’s using the name of a real friend of Oxenford’s who died heroically decades ago, and he convinces Oxenford to play along with the scam. Meanwhile, Shannon (oops, typed “Casey” at first) is catching the eye of Six’s loyal muscleman Doyle (John Calvin) in order to set him up for a divide-and-conquer ploy. While Badler’s acting is rather broad (and involves quite a lot of headshaking as she talks), she’s definitely better at the femme fatale game than her predecessor was — and evidently the producers and costume designer think rather more highly of Badler’s cleavage, given how much they show it off.
Grant and Max are mostly filling Barney and Willy’s traditional roles, with Grant behind the scenes doing tech stuff and Max mostly looming as a security guard. But Grant does a bit of role-play as a delivery man bringing in a giant American flag for Six’s upcoming party, which he uses to conceal his break-in to Six’s safe — a plan that goes awry when he finds the safe empty, then gets shocked by a security system when he tries to plant an incriminating document as “Plan B.” Apparently this is a genuine setback in the plan, but it doesn’t seem to have a major impact on the team’s operation, except for Jim deciding to “turn up the heat” — i.e. send Nicholas in as the guy behind the planted evidence, demanding half a million bucks for his secrecy, and setting himself up to be killed by Doyle (though he wears a bulletproof vest and blood packs),with Max snapping shots of the murder. There’s another setback when the team can’t figure out where Six keeps his blackmail files, though that’s resolved rather easily when they break into his office later.
Anyway, everyone’s there for the party, and Jim tips off Doyle that Shannon is actually one of Oxenberg’s investigators. He drags her into Six’s office (almost catching Grant in the act) and roughs her up a bit, but she continues to play her part, showing Doyle the photos of his “murder” of Nicholas and saying that Six plans to throw him to the committee as the scapegoat. While Six is in makeup preparing for his TV broadcast from the party, a Six-masked Nicholas comes in and further sells the illusion to Doyle. We see the return of an old M:I standby, the knockout-needle ring (although now it’s an actual ring rather than the palmed joy-buzzer-esque needle from the original), which Nick uses to drug Doyle long enough for Max to empty his gun and Nick to ditch the mask. (There’s an attempt to do something clever by bluescreening Romanus against a window, having him walk out of frame, then show a “reflection” of Penghlis pulling off the mask, then have Penghlis walk back into frame. But the positioning and timing of the reflection don’t match what it’s supposedly reflecting.) So when the real Six comes in — having been told by Jim that Doyle is going to testify against him — they get into a highly incriminating argument that Grant, who tapped into the security cameras earlier in the episode, switches into the live national TV feed, bringing Six down. (Although technically Six doesn’t say much that’s decisively incriminating; it’s mostly Doyle alleging that Six has ordered him to commit crimes. Six does threaten to kill Doyle, but that doesn’t really prove anything.)
This was a pretty solid episode, feeling a lot like the original, but with a bit more tension than usual. It felt like there were some genuine setbacks and uncertainties in the plan, although they didn’t really seem to affect the flow of events that much because Jim already had fallback plans ready. There were also some nice, brief moments where we got to see team members drop character and show glimpses of their true feelings, like when Grant was hurt and the others showed concern. But my favorite was where Six told Jim that he believed planning every detail in advance was the key to success, and after he walked away, Jim said, “I couldn’t agree more.” Hearing it put into words like that made me realize how much M:I’s meticulous plots are a reflection of Jim Phelps’s character, since he’s the master strategist who devises these clockwork schemes. I never really thought about it that way before. (Although of course it was Dan Briggs who set the template.)
Musically, we’re into the era where John E. Davis will be the permanent composer, with one exception in season 2. He’s still using “The Plot” to score the disc scenes, but at least here he doesn’t use it for the bad guys. And he seems to have settled into using a specific, briefer variant of the opening bars of the melody, cutting out the middle six notes of the initial twelve-note phrase, and only occasionally using snippets of other portions. I don’t think he used the entire phrase at any point in the episode, or in his past few scores. He also makes less use of the main title theme than either Schifrin or Jones did.
“Spy”: Wow, and I thought it was generic when the original series did an episode called “The Spy.” Now they aren’t even bothering with the article. Anyway, this is not based on that episode; it’s an original script by executive producer Michael Fisher.
We open with a British agent named Crosby, entering a Central African village where everyone is dead, along with all animal and insect life for miles around (the plants seem fine). He’s recording a report and taking photos, calling the massacre “Christie’s work.” But John Christie himself (Tim Hughes) is watching and has the agent killed. (You could say he stills Crosby.)
Jim gets the disc in Chinatown after exchanging code phrases with a shop proprietor in Chinese (no idea how good his accent was). The Voice warns Jim that this is a particularly hazardous mission, since Christie is one of their own — an MI6 agent who’s gone to the other side. (For some reason, the Voice finds it necessary to explain to Jim, a seasoned intelligence agent, that MI6 is the British intelligence agency.) He must be stopped before he unleashes the massive stockpile of chemical weapons he’s been amassing for sale to terrorists. Since the superpowers have a common interest in stopping Christie, the team is being assisted by an expert from “way outside the team,” as Jim puts it: KGB colonel and physician Dr. Yuri Nikolai (Shane Briant).
Christie’s based at a hotel in Central Africa, and the chemical weapons plant is believed to be nearby. Grant and Max get themselves hired for Christie’s band of mercenaries, with Max’s job interview consisting of beating up Christie’s henchman Carl (Lee A. Rice II) with help from another drug-tipped ring that weakens him enough for Max to win. This is so they can get inside and find the weapons plant, which they do quite easily, although Max has earned Carl’s enmity. Nicholas plays an elderly French monsignor who grew up in the hotel in the time of Hemingway, and Shannon plays a reporter doing a memoir of his life, in order to convince Christie to let them visit his office so they can plant a bug. Amazingly, Thaao Penghlis actually adopts a French accent. It’s a pretty bad French accent, but at least it’s not the same Australian accent he’s used week in and week out even when playing Americans or Englishmen.
Jim’s part in the plan is to impersonate a representative of the people Christie plans to sell his hoard of diamonds to in order to fund his weapons plant, so that he can steal the diamonds and hobble the operation. But Dr. Nikolai — who was Jim’s opponent on a mission a decade earlier — warns Jim that this is risky. Christie’s access to US intelligence was cut off 5 years ago, so the rest of the team is safe, but Jim could be found out. Jim tries to avoid getting his fingerprints taken (refusing to give up his coffee cup or to accept a glass of brandy from which his prints could be taken), but Christie has a hidden camera and uses facial recognition to identify “Name: James Phelps — Nationality: American — Occupation: IMF Team Leader.” Oops! Christie pulls a gun on Jim. But Nicholas and Shannon have been listening in on the bug (which was for capturing the sound of the safe tumblers) and manage to blow out the hotel’s power long enough to get Jim away and for Nicholas to knock out Christie and swipe the diamonds. However, Jim is shot and needs to rely on the KGB doctor to save him. Fortunately, he spared the doctor’s life ten years ago, and Nikolai returns the favor. Grant and Max are also exposed and have to shoot their way out of the chemical plant.
Once Nikolai identifies the chemical mixture — which conveniently becomes explosive with harmless fallout if it’s mixed wrong — Jim’s new plan is to fake Shannon’s death in a car wreck so Christie can recover the diamonds and proceed with the chemical mixing, with the labels switched (thanks to Grant’s handheld scanner and portable printer) to precipitate the kaboom. But Grant and Max are discovered planting the labels and have to fight their way out again, with Max having to take on Carl barefisted without any drugged needles this time, and just barely winning. Christie discovers the switched chemicals and blithely drives away without warning anyone else in the plant, so presumably they’re all killed when it blows up. Jim says they’ll bag Christie next time, though we won’t see the character again.
Have you noticed this stopped sounding like Mission: Impossible a few sentences ago? Generally I like it when the plan fails and the team has to improvise a solution, but that’s when the solution is another clever plan. Here, once Jim is found out, the usual con-game approach mostly gives way to a more conventional action story complete with very long shoot-’em-ups and pointless fistfights. And the big shootout is practically A-Team style, with tons of automatic weapons firing and nobody appearing to get hit. (Although to be fair, automatic weapons are extremely hard to aim, what with all the recoils. Apparently continuous fire mode is used more for suppression fire than actually hitting people.) It’s a major departure from the way this show usually works — and it feels like a precursor to the movies to come.
That said, it was nice to see more of the team out of character, and to see Jim speaking openly with fellow spies — both Christie as an adversary and Nikolai as a former enemy who’s now an ally. Although that too feels more like a conventional spy story and less like M:I — which, as I’ve said before, is really more of a con-artist or heist show dressed up as a spy show to give its protagonists legitimacy.
Hmm, if Jim clashed with the KGB doctor a decade earlier, that would’ve been 1979 — six years after the original series ended and eight years after the IMF became a domestic mob-busting agency. I guess it went back to international espionage sometime in the interim.
Not much to say about Davis’s score, except that I’m starting to get tired of his stripped-down “Plot” variant. The thing about the original “The Plot” is that it was long and complicated, so even though it was used extensively in every score, there was a ton you could do with it, lots of possible variations on its parts, and even just a straightforward statement of it took you on a journey. But reducing it to just six or seven notes repeated over and over gets tedious in a way the whole thing never did. Ron Jones has only been gone for two episodes and I’m already missing him.