MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’89) Reviews: “Target Earth”/”The Fuehrer’s Children” (Spoilers)
“Target Earth” is an oddly sci-fi name for an episode of this series, but it’s written by former Star Trek scribe Stephen Kandel — also the only writer other than Walter Brough to contribute to both the original and revival series, having been the seventh season’s story editor and scripting the excellent “The Deal” and “The Question” as well as the more disappointing “Incarnate” and “The Fountain,” plus the okay “Movie” and “The Fighter.”
We’re back in Australia again, at what’s supposedly the Outback launch site of the first privately built and operated space shuttle — although the private shuttle looks exactly like the American one so they can use the stock footage. There’s a weird shot panning down what looks like a life-sized wall mural of the shuttle (visibly 2-D) to where a blonde woman, Alina (Gosia Dobrowolska), is dragging an unconscious man under the shuttle’s rockets. Alina then goes to Mission Control, where they’re puzzled that the pilot is missing this important test firing, and she cheerfully orders the rocket ignition that vaporizes that very pilot.
Jim’s briefing today is by Robert Louis Stevenson, or at least that’s where he finds it shelved once a librarian directs him there. The shuttle, called Frontier One and operated by the Eurospace Consortium (whose initials are ESS for some reason), is carrying a powerful laser for destroying orbital debris, taking mineral samples, and nice stuff like that, but the IMF suspects that the disappearance and suspected murder of the pilot was part of a plan to take over the shuttle for terrorist purposes. They don’t know of a specific group or individual behind this, they’re just speculating, but they’re still sending in Jim’s team to find out, an oddly nebulous mission profile for them. And I hope the self-destructing disc didn’t start a fire in the book stacks.
The apartment scene establishes that Jim has done something I’ve often thought would be a good idea: Instead of having everyone just show up on the same day, he’s already had Grant and Shannon embedded at the ESS center for three weeks by the time he briefs Nicholas and Max — Grant as one of the scientists, Shannon as one of the two candidates for replacement pilot, with Grant coaching her through her radio earring. Jim goes in as a NASA observer, Max as a technician, and Nicholas as a doctor (or something) who’ll approve the winning candidate. Shannon has her hair pulled back in a severe bun to play a cool, competent professional, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of her sexiest looks yet. Anyway, her main competition is Rhine (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), and for some reason they’re competing in a piloting simulation in the actual shuttle cockpit, with Grant helping Shannon cheat to win. The simulation involves dodging asteroids, a situation that any space shuttle pilot would have little chance of ever encountering. It’s really unclear what the plan was going to be once they got Shannon the job; evidently they had no intention of having her actually fly the thing into space. Because they’re all shocked when Alina takes control and remotely launches the shuttle — which for some reason was fully fueled and powered up for launch even though it was just a simulation. Shannon Reed becomes the first IMF agent in space (that we know of!), and Rhine turns out to be a traitor, working for Robard (Eli Danker), a beret-wearing, chain-smoking revolutionary of unspecified origin whose band of soldiers storms in and takes over the command center. Robard is mad that Alina sent Shannon up with Rhine. She explains she figured Shannon was useful for her (cover identity’s) laser expertise, but Robard still kills Alina for taking initiative without clearing it with him.
Rhine uses the laser to blow up a communication satellite drifting past the shuttle’s viewports, even though those orbit 22,000 miles higher than any shuttle has ever gone. Robard threatens the world on TV, saying he’ll blow up all communications satellites unless America cedes control of a weapons satellite he intends to use to defend the borders of his own nation, which he doesn’t bother to identify. Cut to NORAD, where a general who’s poorly hiding his Australian accent orders a missile strike on the space center if they can’t resolve the problem otherwise.
Grant communicates with Shannon to get her to sabotage the laser, and she has to find ways to respond without tipping Rhine off that she’s talking to someone. (I remember when I first saw this episode, I had the idea that if I ever wrote an undercover agent in that kind of a situation, I’d have her, or him, establish a habit of muttering to herself under her breath, so that it wouldn’t seem suspicious when the need to communicate arose. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten around to using that idea, but it’s interesting what you remember after so long.) Anyway, the sabotage works, so Rhine makes her spacewalk to fix it — something her cover identity is trained in, but Shannon isn’t. Jim says Shannon is “gutsy enough,” as if that alone were sufficient qualification for performing an EVA. But her “spacewalk” consists of tiptoeing slowly across the set of the top of the shuttle — I guess it’s the old magnetic-boots dodge — and then standing next to the laser to fix it. After which her tether gets snagged (I guess it didn’t get the memo about guts equalling competence) so she has to unhook it, whereupon Rhine swings the laser around to knock into her (dude, you’re just gonna break it again!), and she goes spinning off into space like Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Except that when we come back from commercial, she’s suddenly stabilized, despite a complete lack of thrusters, and perfectly oriented so that purging her oxygen valve will jet her back to the shuttle. (I wonder, are spacesuits even designed to be able to purge oxygen? Seems kind of counterproductive.)
Meanwhile, Jim and Max have planted the notion that there are loose radioactive materials on the base — none of the techs bother to question this, perhaps because they sense these guys are helping them, or more likely because they’re extras who aren’t being paid to do dialogue. They fake a radioactive steam leak next to Robard, get him into the bio lab for decontamination, and use a rigged cigarette to knock him out so that Nicholas can impersonate him using the mask generator that Grant just happens to have with him even though they didn’t know they’d need it. Nicholas-as-Robard orders the troops to follow Max to a “bunker” against the missile strike, so Max can lock them up. Once Shannon knocks Rhine out by purging the airlock to suck him into it (more wasted oxygen) and locking him inside, she uses the shuttle’s relay to patch Jim into NORAD, where he gives his “government cryptonym” — US Alpha 716 Charlie — and tells the general the base is secure. (The general doesn’t actually confirm the cryptonym with anyone first, though.) Then it’s just a matter of Shannon single-handedly flying the shuttle home, which she somehow does effortlessly.
Okay, so the spacey stuff is rather ridiculous, the special effects are cheesy as hell, and Earth is never actually a target, unless you count the part of Earth that the ESS base was on, which was targeted by people on another part of Earth. Still, despite all that, this is a fairly good format-breaking episode of the type seen mainly in the fifth season, where the original mission (ill-defined though it was) is blown in the first act and the rest is all improvisation. Shannon continues her streak of being the team member most commonly placed in danger, but she’s also the one who must do the most single-handedly to resolve the situation, so it’s a strong showing for her. And even John E. Davis’s music is relatively interesting for a change, since he’s doing some more spacey stuff, a bit grander than his usual scoring. All in all, I rather enjoyed it, though parts of it made me wince.
“The Fuehrer’s Children”: Or perhaps “Fuhrer’s,” as it’s spelled on the DVDs. The first of two episodes written by supervising producer Frank Abatemarco, who would later write Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s abysmal “Man of the People,” but then redeem himself by co-writing the classic “Chain of Command” 2-parter.
We open in Oregon where white supremacist Richard Kester is holding a meeting of his White People’s Coalition and spewing a nauseatingly vicious racist screed (complete with the n-word) to his eager followers. Kester is played by Albert Salmi, who was such a ubiquitous character actor in the ’60s that I’m surprised this is his first M:I appearance. Anyway, Kester’s daughter Eva (Nancy Black) informs him that there’s a “race traitor” in their midst, a government agent they capture and hang.
Peter Graves is showing off his equestrian skills again, for Jim gets the disc at a show-jumping ground from a fellow rider. It’s hidden in a haystack by a jumping fence — again with the flammable locations for the self-destructing discs! But “flammable” is the word, for Kester’s WPC is the most violent Neo-Nazi faction around, and he’s meeting in Germany with other international Neo-Nazi groups to unite them under his leadership and start a global race war. The mission is to discredit him and undermine the Neo-Nazi movements.
Jim sets Shannon up as a manager at the inn near Hamburg where the meeting is being held, while Jim himself takes the place of a real South African computer expert Kester has reached out to for help (no word on how they intercepted the real guy, who looks nothing like Jim). The others are basically responsible for tracking down the “secret weapon” Kester supposedly has to support his cause. There’s a setback when Eva catches Grant bugging Kester’s suite just before Kester arrives. Jim is fortunately there too, and is able to talk Kester out of shooting Grant then and there, but they lock him up to be the prey for a special “hunt” the next day.
Then Kester goes out to a freighter he’s owned for a dozen years, just sailed in from the Philippines. Max, Nicholas, and Shannon have already come onto the ship as customs inspectors, and here’s a blast from the past: Their cover was that they were looking for contamination by the Mediterranean fruit fly virus — a slightly garbled reference to the problems that the US and other nations had in the 1980s with infestations of the invasive “medfly” species (the actual flies themselves, not a virus), including a deliberate release of medflies in California as an ecoterrorist act in the summer of ’89, just before this season of the show. Anyway, Nicholas follows Kester and discovers his “secret weapon”: Horrifyingly, it’s a room full of young boys that he’s held captive on this ship since abducting them as infants, raising them to know nothing but his Nazi propaganda, the perfect Hitler Youth. They’ve been trained by Kester’s man Vogel (John Bell), who leads them in singing a Nazi song (a familiar one, but I can’t place it) in their sweet little boys’-choir voices, while Nicholas and Shannon look on in horror through a window. It’s really rather horrific.
Meanwhile, Kester talks to Jim about setting up a computer network to allow hate groups to communicate worldwide. Oh, for the days when that was still science fiction. Jim proposes connecting it to the world’s financial network, both because it’s the most secure and because it would let him set up a program to embezzle insignificant amounts from many banks and thereby steal a lot of money undetected. To make this work, though, the team needs to rescue Grant, who’s been strung up by his feet by Vogel and had a tracker put around his neck so the kids can easily find him — quite an unsporting “hunt,” though that’s the least of the things wrong with it. Nicholas and Shannon knock out Vogel and Eva, and Nicholas somehow has a Vogel mask all handy and intercepts the boys before they can shoot Grant full of crossbow bolts. Then they take the boys back to their cabin and Grant introduces himself as a friendly human being and begins to show them that what they’ve been taught all their lives is a lie. It doesn’t prove hard at all to change their minds once they’re faced with the benign truth.
So Jim is able to make the funds transfer successfully (or Grant is, doing it remotely so it looks like Jim did it), and all the Neo-Nazi leaders agree to put their financial info on the special cards he hands out. This will let the team bankrupt their organizations. And Eva almost escapes, but Shannon chases her down and recaptures her, while Grant and Nicholas-as-Vogel give the kiddies a lesson about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So that night, when Kester proudly presents his Hitler Youth to the waiting Neo-Nazis, they begin singing a song about the Rev. Dr. King while Grant hijacks the video projection to show the “I have a dream” speech and clips of John and Bobby Kennedy, and Jim and Nicholas slip out in the tumult as the other, about-to-be-financially ruined Neo-Nazis turn violently on Kester.
Okay, so it’s hokey and unsubtle, but I love it. What Kester did to those children is probably the most horrific and sick thing any M:I villain has ever done, and it creates a sense of a more palpable threat from this group than you usually get from M:I villains. And while the racial message is kind of awkward, I love it that this becomes a story about rescuing and redeeming the children, about good ideas winning out over evil ones. It gives it a more optimistic feel than M:I episodes usually have. And seeing Nazis get their comeuppance never gets old. The climax reminds me of a line I wrote in Only Superhuman, about some of the things that Emerald Blair’s Freakshow gang did on behalf of persecuted transhumans: “They cracked the computer net of the Fourth Reich Neo-Nazi habitat, wiped their database, and replaced it all with endlessly looping video files of The Great Dictator, Casablanca, and The Producers.” I wonder if maybe I unconsciously remembered this episode when I wrote that.