MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’89) Reviews: “Deadly Harvest”/”Cargo Cult” (spoilers)
“Deadly Harvest”: Written by Jan Sardi. We open in Kansas, where a vaguely Middle Eastern scientist named Jared (Nick Carrafa) is irradiating some seeds with “Danger: Laser Radiation,” and is then interrupted by Laurel, a beautiful blond woman he’s clearly romantically involved with. He gets a call from someone named Jouseff, and once he thinks he’s alone, he tells the man that he’s perfected the virus, which Jouseff wants deployed immediately. But Laurel is listening in on the extension, and he catches her. They have a rather clumsy fight, but she gives a good showing for a while; their fight starts a fire in the lab and he eventually impales her on something, but with her dying breath she traps him inside the “Danger: Laser Radiation” chamber and his image goes all wavery as he screams. Cut from the fire in the lab to the match at the start of the titles.
Then we’re not in Kansas anymore, because Jim is at the San Francisco Zoo (allegedly) to get the disc from a zookeeper who’s really beautiful but a really bad actress. I was distracted by the polar bears behind Jim as he listened, but the gist of it is that Jouseff (Ritchie Singer) is a minister from a country called Orandaq and also a terrorist; Jared developed a “genetic virus” that would wipe out a nation’s entire wheat crop, and only the fire postponed its release in the US. Jared survived with horrible scarring and needed plastic surgery for his face — which should be convenient for Nicholas, I’m guessing at this point. The mission is to stop the virus, of course. Oh, look, it’s a poly bear!
We’re back to Jim’s apartment again, and it’s another old-school type of briefing where the team already knows the plan. Turns out Laurel’s death has been covered up so Shannon can take her place. Jouseff (weird spelling, but that’s what the captions say — and his full name is inexplicably “Jouseff K.”) is coming to the US to retrieve Jared, and of course Nicholas is hidden under the bandages, with Grant as the doctor explaining the extensive facial reconstruction to Jouseff after Max sneaks out the real Jared. Jouseff insists on taking “Jared” back home right away, and Nicholas insists on bringing “Laurel” (Shannon) with him. Once they get there and the bandages come off, Jouseff is initially suspicious of the “changed” face underneath, but Nick and Shannon sell it. Nicholas is wearing fake fingerprints to help convince Jouseff. Later, he and Shannon take a walk through Jouseff’s compound, and his glasses have a microcamera and LCD display so Grant can see what Nicholas sees and text him instructions. This intel gives Grant an idea for breaking himself and Max into the compound so Max can find a way to destroy the deadly wheat crop. It involves hiding Max in a truck full of wheat with a rebreather, something Grant quips “goes totally against your grain.”
Grant also swipes a personnel file so he can text Nicholas data on Jared’s coworkers — one of whom, Isfahan, turns out to be an old flame who resents Shannon. Once Shannon’s alone in the lab, she swaps out the deadly seeds for fakes, but hides inside the laser chamber when Isfahan comes back, and Isfahan closes the door and traps Shannon in there by accident, rendering the whole jealousy beat rather pointless. Shannon has her walkie and calls Jim and Grant, who text Nicholas, who has to contrive a way to save Shannon without letting anyone know she’s in danger, so he has to cut it really close.
Then Nicholas and Shannon erase Jared’s research, which Isfahan discovers, leading to their arrest. This was part of the plan. Max puts gasoline in the sprinkler system to immolate the wheat crop, but he gets in a fight with a guard and his timing device is destroyed — so Jim tells him via communicator how to construct an old-school timer, a bucket hung from the sprinkler with a slow trickle of gasoline falling into it, and tied to a light fixture so that when it gives way, it will pull out the fixture and create sparks to ignite the gasoline. Meanwhile, the speedy and corrupt Orandaq justice system puts Nicholas on trial for sabotaging the plan to give the country a superweapon (with Shannon as a witness for the prosecution), but Jim finally deals himself into the game as an Amnesty International attorney sent to represent Shannon and, upon learning she’s just a witness, offers to represent “Jared” instead. In so doing, he rather heavy-handedly turns suspicion against Jouseff as the saboteur, which would never fly in a legitimate court of law, but the presiding general is basically the “I’m going to allow this” judge from Futurama, okay with every bit of irregular procedure. Maybe he’s so paranoid that it primes him to assume the worst of Jouseff, or maybe he just wants to punish Jouseff for his failure (like Jouseff laser-executed Isfahan earlier for failing to keep the files from being erased). But Nicholas plays along and “confesses” that, yes, he sabotaged the project, but did so under Jouseff’s orders. Once the lab blows up, the general orders the guards to take Jouseff away for execution and take Nicholas and Shannon to prison, but the guards on the latter are Max and Grant in keffiyehs, so the team walks away intact.
A workmanlike episode, a pretty solid M:I caper with a couple of legitimate setbacks for the heroes to overcome, though nothing too serious. Aside from the usual tendency to make Shannon a damsel in distress, and the use of the Arab-terrorist stereotype which was already a tired cliche even back in January 1990 when this debuted, the main drawback is the weakness of Jim’s strategy to turn suspicion against Jouseff in the trial. But as I said, that could perhaps be justified in a guilty-until-proven-innocent system like this one.
“Cargo Cult”: Written by Dale Duguid. At a gold mine in a place called New Belgium, we meet — holy cow, it’s Crais from Farscape! Lani John Tupu plays Michael Otagi, the commissioner of the territory, and his henchman shows him a truck full of corpses, whose disposal they have to put off because there’s a territorial health inspector on site. The inspector hugely overacts his outrage at finding cyanide in use at the gold mine, poisoning the indigenous population, but Crais saves us from any more painful overacting by forcing the inspector to drink his own cyanide sample.
At a church supposedly in San Francisco, Jim trades code phrases with an organist playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which, as every TV/film viewer knows, is the one and only piece of pipe organ music ever composed by anyone, ever. The mission is to stop the poisoning of the “simple hill folk” of New Belgium, one of the last surviving Stone Age populations, from the deadly mining practices the corrupt New Belgium government turns a blind eye to. At Jim’s apartment, he and Grant are briefing Nicholas and Shannon: Crais — err, Otagi — has been building a bridge that will let him get heavy machinery across to the mine, but Max, who’s already been embedded in the mining camp, has been unable to find a way across the temporary wooden bridge to find out what’s on the other side, because apparently security is really tight. Remember this, folks.
Jim takes the place of a currency broker that the IMF has arranged for Interpol to arrest, with Grant as his bodyguard. The miners are paid in gold, and they’re there to swap it for negotiable currency. There’s a bit of business about Crais’s henchman — who’s actually called Bull — being upset that Jim and Grant are gouging them on the exchange rate. Then Nicholas and Shannon show up as vulcanologists, with permission from the government to go across the bridge to study the volcano, which the Stone Age hill people worship as a god. Somehow it didn’t occur to Jim until this moment that Shannon could be in trouble coming into a camp full of men who haven’t seen a woman in months. He orders Max to get Shannon out of there quickly, but somehow this entails starting a fistfight with Bull, and Shannon nearly gets molested in the resulting melee until Grant fires his Uzi to calm things down. Crais — err, Otagi — approves the order to let Nicholas and Shannon across the bridge, and when Max raises an objection to make it look good, Otagi orders Max to go with them. Jim mutters to Grant that this is too easy.
No sooner does our trio cross the bridge that they’re surrounded by spear-carrying, chalk-covered tribesmen and imprisoned in the village, where they discover Regehr (Adrian Wright), a crashed aviator who’s gotten the villagers to worship him as a cargo-cult-style deity and is working with Otagi to exploit the villagers as slave labor. We’re supposed to be outraged at the racist exploitation of a noble indigenous people, but the villagers are portrayed as the worst kind of television cliche of mindless, bloodthirsty, chanting primitives. Before long, when Regehr complains to Otagi about how quickly his villagers are dying off, Otagi suggests appeasing them with a sacrifice of their captives — though Regehr intends to keep Shannon and make her his goddess wife. He doesn’t consider her consent to be an issue, as we see when he paws at her inside the crashed plane where he lives. It’s unclear why she doesn’t just kick his ass right then and there.
So Jim and Grant are worried when the others don’t report in — for the first time, as far as I recall, their mini-walkie-talkies are named onscreen as “communicators” — and Grant manages to get across the supposedly impassable bridge quite easily by hiding in the truck when Otagi and Bull bring over some more cyanide. He finds the others and then goes to their abandoned truck, where he retrieves a tranquilizer-dart rifle which he uses to knock out some of the villagers, with Nick and Max playing along to make it look like they’re doing it with their supernatural power. Once the men are reunited, they cross the supposedly impassable bridge twice between scenes to pick up Jim and bring him across. They need a plan to rescue Shannon, since now that Regehr has lost face, Otagi suggests he blame his setback on the “witch” Shannon and have her sacrificed to appease the volcano god.
Now, Jim says the key is to turn the villagers against Regehr and Otagi. But heaven forbid that should involve actually engaging with them as people and helping them take responsibility for solving their own problems. Of course not. They’re subhuman primitives too stupid to reason, so the solution is to manipulate and trick them the same way the bad guys are.
So Jim and the others then go back across the supposedly impassable bridge to the camp to get some explosives to fake a volcanic eruption, then the younger men go back across again. Grant goes to get a laser projector out of the same compartment where the dart gun was, even though it manifestly wasn’t there before. It’s magic! He’s somehow able to modify it into a hologram generator even though it apparently wasn’t designed for that.
Then Jim convinces Otagi to take him across the bridge (though why he’d need to when it’s so damn easy is unclear). Otagi takes him prisoner, though, and intends to throw him into the sacrifice as a sorcerer. So now Jim and Shannon are surrounded by spear-carrying tribesmen. But conveniently, the darts Grant used only knock people out for exactly four hours to the second, independent of individual body mass or metabolism, so Jim is able to wave his hand over the “dead” tribesmen and return them to life. And then they blow the dynamite in the volcano crater — causing all the miners to evacuate the camp, leaving Max free to rig the cyanide shed to blow up — and Grant projects an image of his face onto the smoke (makes more sense than their usual hologram-in-midair tricks) while Nicholas uses Regehr’s PA equipment (which he used to fake volcanic rumblings from the displeased god) to play his voice telling the tribesmen to let the prisoners go and turn against Regehr. So the team gets away, and then Regehr and Otagi get away in their truck, which just happens to be going across the bridge when the explosion goes off, and in a mix of bad bluescreen shots and a mediocre miniature shot, the bad guys fall to their fiery doom. (Not to worry — Grant says the explosion will “ionize the cyanide to 2000 degrees,” turning it into harmless smoke. Although I think this is completely untrue: “Sodium cyanide is not combustible itself, but contact with acids releases highly flammable hydrogen cyanide gas. Fire may produce irritating or poisonous gases. Runoff from fire control water may give off poisonous gases.” This is supposed to make things better for the locals??) Jim is pleased that the hill people will again be “untouched by man.” So, um, they don’t qualify as “man”?
Ohh, this one was painful. First off, let’s be clear about one thing: The portrayal here of a “cargo cult” as a bunch of foolish, superstitious primitives worshipping white men and the products of their civilization as divine because they’re so incomprehensibly advanced, and thus reduced to hapless pawns of any white or civilized person with an agenda, is grotesquely wrong. Cargo cults were founded by members of Melanesian cultures as a way of co-opting the material wealth of colonizing civilizations as a symbol for reasserting their own cultural autonomy and agency; as Wikipedia puts it, “Since the modern manufacturing process is unknown to them, members, leaders, and prophets of the cults maintain that the manufactured goods of the non-native culture have been created by spiritual means, such as through their deities and ancestors. These goods are intended for the local indigenous people, but the foreigners have unfairly gained control of these objects through malice or mistake.” So far from being blind submission to superior outsiders, it’s a reaction against their material superiority, an attempt to claim their goods and symbols for indigenous use and restore the traditional social order that contact has disrupted.
Now, the horrible racial condescension, the thoughtless dehumanization of the people who were supposedly being saved and protected, was bad enough — and only slightly mollified by the fact that the mastermind of their exploitation was played by a part-Samoan actor. And the treatment of Shannon made it even worse. I’ve talked about how often she’s cast as the damsel in distress, but she’s never spent the majority of an episode under the ongoing threat of rape before. But the rest of the episode doesn’t work either. It mostly ceases to be an M:I episode after the first act, becoming more of a cliched action plot out of a B-movie. Going through all the usual ritual to set up the team’s plan seems rather pointless when the plan is scuttled so early on; maybe they should’ve taken a cue from the fifth-season episodes that started in medias res with the plan already underway. And so much about the story is inconsistent — first the bridge is impassable and what’s happening on the other side is a total mystery, but as soon as the audience is let in on the secret, the commute across the bridge becomes effortless. Also, Regehr and Otagi’s men are able to command the villagers in English, yet at other points, the team members are able to carry on conversations in English without the adjacent villagers knowing what they’re saying. The villagers are props rather than people, so their ability to comprehend is at the convenience of the writer. This is a bad episode on every level, but the racism is enough to unseat “The Devils” and earn “Cargo Cult” the title of worst episode ever.
At least, I hope this is as bad as it gets. Four more to go…