MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’88) Reviews: “The Devils”/”The Plague” (spoilers)
“The Devils”: Written by Ted Roberts.
Oh, dear. We open with a scene of a drugged blonde being led by chanting guys in hoods to an altar where a guy in a goat-demon mask sacrifices her. One of the spectators looks on in horror, then wakes up screaming — it was his dream. Or was it? After the titles, when Jim gets the disc from a shrimp boat captain (and John E. Davis for once uses the main theme rather than “The Plot” to score it), we learn the guy is a diplomat in London who’s catatonic in an institution, while two others have committed suicide — all of them guests of Lord Holman (John Stanton), who’s believed to be a traitor who’s blackmailed these guys into sharing state secrets. Holman likes to indulge in New Age druidic practices, with a big celebration coming up the next week — and the episode treats these alternative spiritualities as indistinguishable from Satanism. This alone got me fearing the worst — but then Grant brought out the stupid-looking magic helmet that read the catatonic diplomat’s “electrotelepathic emanations” in order to get video images of his thoughts, which reveals the goat-head sacrifice. With total deadpan gravitas, Graves intones, “He’s been involved in Satanic rites.”
It’s like a scene out of a parody of this very show.
As if there weren’t enough cultural insensitivity already, Shannon and Nicholas are going undercover as stereotyped “Gypsies” — and for once we get a gadget demonstration in the apartment briefing, a video crystal ball for fortune-teller Shannon, as well as a few other gadgets in a second group discussion later on. Shannon makes contact with Holman’s groundskeeper Challis (Ron Graham) — no word on whether he holds the brew that is true — and gives a reading in which the video crystal ball is a totally pointless embellishment, and in which she fingers Jim, arriving in a limo and dressed in a black suit with a bright red tie and handkerchief, as The Evil One. Yes, folks… Jim is undercover as Satan. Oy. Freaking. Vey. Holman is skeptical of this at first, but Jim and Max uses various gadgets like glowy-evil-eye contact lenses, shoes that burn cloven hoofprints in the rug, and a gas that causes a brief lapse of consciousness so Holman thinks they’ve disappeared before his eyes.
Grant makes contact with the local Constable Egerton (Russell Newman), initially putting on an act as an uncaring American cop who’s only making a pro forma investigation of the three murdered girls who’ve turned up near the Holman estate. It seems random, but I guess this is to provoke a reaction from Egerton, who seems to express genuine concern for the victims — so Grant (with Jim’s approval) soon drops the role altogether and lets Egerton in on their investigation linking the pond where the bodies were found to an underground stream passing through Holman’s estate. Really, most of the elaborately set-up scheme seems to get tossed aside pretty quickly this week. But confiding in Egerton is a mistake, since the constable is on Holman’s hook and tells him about the investigation — but not much of a mistake, since when Holman orders Egerton to kill Grant, Egerton refuses to play along anymore, killing himself — along with any possible tension or suspense that plot thread could’ve generated.
Oh, and there’s an earlier scene where all four junior team members break into Holman’s underground devil-worshippin’ catacombs to scope them out. It’s unclear why they all had to go, especially since they don’t bother to split up and search to find the captive girl slated for the next sacrifice, instead having to make a separate effort later on to trail Challis to her cell. Why wait? Anyway, they free the girl, but by that point I’d already predicted that Shannon would get captured to take her place and end up as a cliched damsel in distress on the altar, and I was right. There’s even a scene where Holman’s upper-class, all-male cabalists (wait, are they being blackmailed or willingly part of the cult?) strip the drugged Shannon to put her in a white shift for the sacrifice — and it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have taken some liberties with her in the process, but the episode is totally unconcerned with that. I sometimes forget how much sexism still remained in ’80s TV. Anyway, even though they kidnap her and dress her up, they somehow fail to discover that she’s wearing a wig.
All this culminates in a rather unfocused climax where Jim convinces Holman that he’s already claimed the latter’s soul, which shocks and terrifies Holman — why? Hadn’t he already pledged his soul to Satan? I guess the idea was that it was just a pretense for his blackmail, though the episode never addresses why so many prominent British politicians are sincerely Satanists and murder cultists. (At one point, Jim says that if the truth came out it would bring down the government, but if the government consists of men like that, doesn’t it deserve to be brought down? The episode implies that they were just weak-willed men that Holman pressured into going along with devil worship and serial murder, but that’s not much better.) And just as Shannon’s about to be sacrificed, the team springs some gratuitous gadgetry like red spotlights on Jim and Max’s faces, and Jim basically drives Holman back to fall into his own underground river, which is on fire because of another Grantism. So, yeah, that happened.
Wow. I think this is the worst episode of the entire franchise so far. It’s sometimes hilariously awful, but there were moments when I couldn’t tell if I was laughing or sobbing. The stupid, it burns! And the ethnocentrism, the reduction of women to passive victims, the over-the-top horror-movie villain scheme… this was more like a second-season Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode than an M:I episode, but it was played with absolute seriousness, only unintentionally emerging as farce. Graves makes an effectively suave Prince of Darkness, but even he has trouble selling some of the dialogue or the ridiculous situation.
“The Plague” is written by Rick Maier and features two-time Bond girl Maud Adams as the villain, Catherine Balzac, who’s our third blackmailer in the past four episodes. She’s blackmailed a French general into stealing a hyper-deadly US-made (and US-renounced) bacteriological weapon from a facility with amazingly lax security; when he sets off an alarm, we see the guards running around in response, but then they disappear and the guy just walks out and hands the petri dish to Balzac right outside the building, whereupon he asks “Now will you stop blackmailing me?” and she rewards his stilted expository question by shooting him. Right next to the building that was surrounded by guards on alarm just a few moments before. (But, to her credit, she did stop blackmailing him.)
Jim gets the disc from a bikini-clad aquarium employee, after Jim quotes a really condescending adage that dolphins are “God’s most obedient creatures.” Just for that, he’s not getting any thanks for all the fish. Anyway, Voice tells him that if the bioweapon was stored in unsafe conditions, it could breach containment and spread a plague across Europe.
This is another episode where the team is already at the site (Paris — the city, not Leonard Nimoy) for their first briefing. The plan involves using subliminal audio to do a couple of things, the first of which — for reasons that never quite become clear — is to make the audience at Balzac’s nightclub go gaga over Shannon’s singing. (Her first number is “La Vie en Rose.”) I’m pretty sure it’s Badler herself singing — the episode was probably written to let her show off her talent. Four episodes in, Shannon has already gotten more to do than Casey had in twelve episodes. Which seems to support the idea that Terry Markwell was let go for not being up to the job, rather than leaving because the producers didn’t give her enough to do. (I have a memory of watching this episode when it first aired and hearing my father criticize Badler’s lip-syncing to the prerecorded music. Even when it’s the performer’s actual voice, onscreen singing is almost always prerecorded in a sound studio for best quality and then lip-synced for the camera. I think my father’s complaint was that she was visibly just mouthing the words rather than putting her breath into it, but I couldn’t really tell the difference then or now.)
Anyway, Max gets himself noticed as a nightclub guest with an obviously fake cover, and when they question him, he makes a break and leads them on a motorcycle chase to Jim, whom they catch when Max gets away. Jim pretends to be the scientist who created the bacteria and warns Balzac of the danger that she’s infected. Grant then reinforces this by playing a US agent offering satellite secrets in exchange for the return of the bacteria before it goes virulent. And Nicholas replaces the eyepatched scientist sent by the terrorist buyers of the bioweapon, whom the team intercepts. When Balzac and her henchman leave Nick alone in the lab, Grant (via walkie-talkie) guides him through the procedure to use the waldo arm to secure the sample in the team’s special container. Even though he needs Grant to explain the workings of the equipment, he still knows what buttons to press even though Grant just gives him very generic directions. But then he’s startled by a noise and fumbles the waldo arm, cracking the glass. But the bacteria politely waits 15 seconds before becoming dangerous, so Nick has that much time to secure it in the case, although of course it’s really far longer than that, because seconds are longer in TV-land.
So Shannon swaps out one of Balzac’s earrings with a subliminal-sound earring that will induce anxiety and loss of balance, symptoms of the bacteria, and Nicholas contrives a lab accident that coats their skin in a harmless polymer Grant prepared that will dry in a way that makes it look like they’re breaking out in hideous sores. (Actually the exposition says the bacteria causes rapid aging of the internal organs, but that never becomes relevant.) Somehow the bad guys never notice that Nick cracked the glass. Oh, and Shannon makes the lights flicker so Balzac and henchguy think they’re going blind. Jim agrees to work up an antidote if they tell him where the rest of the bioweapon is stored, and she accedes; Nick and Shannon find the container intact and safe. Jim tells Balzac that there’s only enough antidote for one, so the henchman fights her for it, and a fire breaks out in the lab. The heat melts the polymer coating on their skin and they see they’ve been tricked, but the fire has already trapped them in the lab and Jim trades a solemn look with Balzac before leaving her and henchguy to their fate. “You know what I say?” he says to the team. “A plague on both their houses.” Uh, that’s not quite what that line meant.
An okay but flawed episode, and a decent attempt to fake Paris as a location. Having an actual Bond villain as the antagonist lends it some prestige, I guess, and Adams was reasonably effective, even if the villains are starting to blend together lately. And Penghlis broke out another accent, something Eastern European this time. Why can’t he manage American? Meanwhile, John E. Davis’s paraphrases of “The Plot” continue to drift further from the original melody, although I guess that’s better than just using the same 7-note phrase over again. (I said before that it was six notes, but it adds a final note to resolve to the tonic.) And he’s still using fragments of it to score the villains’ actions in the teaser, but less so than before. Beyond that, I can’t say much more about the scores, because they’re all pretty much the same. Which is disappointing, since the original series was so heavily reliant on strong music.