MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’89) Reviews: “Church Bells in Bogota”/”The Sands of Seth” (spoilers)
And now, the final two:
“Church Bells in Bogota”: The second episode by Frank Abatemarco, who previously did “The Fuehrer’s Children.” After Esteban Magdalena (Henri Szeps), the “Godfather” of the Colombian drug cartel, assassinates a kidnapped federal judge by dropping him from the helicopter that’s supposed to be returning him to his family, Jim gets the mission at an auto racetrack: Bring Magdalena to justice before he overthrows the Colombian government. Jim’s cover is a disgruntled former government contractor with secrets to sell, Max is a mercenary, and Shannon, yet again, goes in as a singer for the nightclub Magdalena owns. A point is made about the ironclad cover story they’ve prepared for Shannon, and about Shannon apparently having a fear of small planes like the one she’ll be taking to Colombia from the Hollywood talent agency where she’ll be recruited.
At said agency, Shannon is hired by Magdalena’s nephew Luis (Tony Xauet), who doesn’t even audition her first, since he’s in a hurry to get back to Colombia, even though there’s a storm brewing. Maybe it’s also supposed to be because he’s attracted to her, but that doesn’t come across in the scene. They subsequently bond over her fear of flying, and of course the plane is struck by lightning and goes down. The plane/storm footage, while obviously miniature work, is a damn sight better than the usual amateurish video effects on this show, so I assume it’s stock footage from some other production. Mercenary Max (coming soon to a toy store near you), who’s training Magdalena’s men in the use of a rocket launcher and having no luck getting past his supervisor Sanchez (Michael Long) to meet Mags himself, hears that Luis and some singer went down in a plane crash and are in the hospital. Jim sneaks in to see her as a doctor, and she doesn’t recognize him as anything else. Gasp — she has… amnesia!
Before long, Luis pressures the real doctor into releasing Shannon into his care, so she’s taken into the Magdalenas’ fortress-like compound. Now the team has two objectives: get Mags and rescue Shannon. But as usual lately, they don’t have any advance plan in place for getting Mags — they’re just trying to track him down. Defense contractor Jim, hoping to get into the compound to find Shannon, instead gets taken to a run-down safehouse where he’s faced with a drug-lord version of To Tell the Truth with a panel of ski-masked men, one of whom is Magdalena — but unlike in the game show, he doesn’t get to pick out the real one. He makes his spiel and convinces Mags to let him install a heat-seeking missile defense system in the compound. Plan B is to get to Mags when he sneaks out to his nightclub, where Shannon surprises Luis by singing “Someone to Watch Over Me.” A watching Grant and Nicholas are surprised when the lights go out and Magdalena appears as if by magic, evidently through some secret passage. There’s no getting him out that way either. And they’re even more surprised to see the whirlwind romance blooming between Luis and the amnesiac Shannon.
Once Jim gets into the compound, he has Max create a diversion for Sanchez (arranging for the expensive launcher to jam) so Jim can slip into Shannon’s room as the doctor she remembers from the hospital. He’s brought along a couple of highly specialized gadgets Grant apparently just had lying around, the first of which is a remote medical sensor developed by NASA for diagnosing astronauts in space (perhaps on Mars missions, since Grant says it could diagnose them from “millions of miles away”). This lets Grant remotely determine that Shannon has classic soap-opera amnesia, with no brain damage, presumably from the psychological trauma of her fear of flying, though that’s a totally lame explanation. The second device is a pair of video goggles, sort of a proto-Oculus Rift, that plays home videos of the team celebrating her birthday in Jim’s apartment (though it’s unclear who shot the video). It only takes about 20 seconds of this for her complete memory to return, an implausibly easy fix, and she feels pretty bummed about falling in love with a drug kingpin’s heir — particularly since he’s already proposed to her! Jim realizes that a wedding would be the perfect way to lure Magdalena out of hiding, but then has second thoughts, concerned for Shannon’s feelings. But she agrees to go through with it because they’re awful people. (Umm, the drug lords, not the IMF team.)
So then Grant and Nicholas carjack a priest and steal his clothes. Better rethink that awful people thing. Okay, it’s not as awful as it sounds, since the priest seems to have a pretty good idea of who they’re after and blesses their endeavor. (In that case, why didn’t they just ask?) It’s implausibly easy for them to get past the compound’s security to get ready, and when Magdalena comes up to Shannon’s room prefatory to giving away the bride, priest Nick arrives and trank-darts him, and for some reason nobody is patrolling that side of the house at all as Grant lowers them all down a rope to the ground. And the gate guards are totally unconcerned when Jim and Grant drive out in a florist’s truck with the others and Mags in the back. Why is this compound so impenetrable again? But Luis has figured out that they’ve taken his girl and his uncle, so he calls out pursuit, but Max finally uses that rocket launcher on Mags’s helicopter, and thus the team is able to get to the airport and steal Mags’s inexplicably unguarded replacement Lear jet. Luis shows up just as they take off and screams for his lost love, and Shannon mopes about betraying the murderous drug lord she knew for two days and who totally took advantage of her at her most vulnerable.
Okay, so it’s an implausible scenario in a lot of ways, and it’s got a number of problems, but it’s not bad overall. I’m still not loving this looser investigate-then-improvise approach that seems to have replaced the intricate capers that used to define M:I as a series, but seeing the team humanized by concern for one of their own isn’t bad in principle, as long as it isn’t handled as ineptly as it was in “The Assassin.” At this point my expectations have been lowered, and this is an adequately entertaining story. Even the music’s a bit more interesting than usual, since John E. Davis uses more Latin sounds (which don’t sound as cliched to me as some of his other attempts at regional music like Irish and cowboy stuff) and more romantic-drama-style music than we usually get. Also Jane Badler performs two songs, “Someone to Watch Over Me” by George and Ira Gershwin and “Tangerine” by Victor Shertzinger and Johnny Mercer. (Apparently Badler pursued a professional singing career after this series ended.)
“The Sands of Seth”: The series finale, and the last M:I television episode to date, is written by executive producer Jeffrey M. Hayes. It opens in Cairo with an Egyptian museum director, Horus Selim (Tim Elliott — and IMDb misspells it as “Horace”), warning an Egyptian government official that the old ways will rise again and Egypt must return to its ancient greatness yada yada yada, which the official pooh-poohs. Then a mummy shows up and strangles him. It took this episode less than 90 seconds to evoke the first “Seriously?” from me.
Perhaps fittingly for the series finale, Jim goes to an animatronic dinosaur exhibit and trades code phrases about extinction with the latest and last of the improbably pretty women who keep getting these assignments this season. (She says the dinosaurs lived for over 200 million years, which is off by about 35 million unless you count birds as dinosaurs, which I totally do.) His mission is to find out if Selim is behind the murders of four prominent Egyptian officials whose deaths threaten to destabilize the tenuous Mideast peace process, and if so, to stop him. The team’s command post, seriously, is a tomb that’s just behind the Sphinx but that apparently was only discovered the year before.
Nicholas plays an Egyptian secret police officer who accosts Selim’s second-in-command and mummy-impersonating assassin, who is actually named Karnak (Gerard Kennedy, who was the main villain in “Holograms” in season 1). He offers Karnak a set of envelopes to hold to his forehead and divine the answers to the questions inside… no, sorry, that was Carnac. What he actually does is to hint that the authorities suspect Selim of the murders and offer Karnak a chance to break with him to save himself. But Karnak is loyal. Meanwhile, Shannon arranges to meet Selim at the museum and let him know that her archaeologist father (Jim) has unearthed a find related to Seth, the god of death that Selim worships and is obsessed with. That gets him out to the tomb, where they show him a fake Scroll of Seth and also set up Max as a not-very-gruntled employee of Jim’s. Selim really wants the scroll, but Jim won’t part with it, so when Max offers to bring it to him, he’s interested. At their arranged meeting at an outdoor cafe, a bunch of Selim’s cultists show up dressed in black and abduct Max, who doesn’t go without a fight. Somehow this does not attract the attention of any kind of police. Oh, did I mention that Selim has his own cultists? Yup, they gather in a secret underground tomb with a huge statue of Seth in it, and I don’t mean the guy from Robot Chicken. Basically their pillars of faith are “Kill, kill, chant a lot, and kill.”
So once Max hands over the scroll and lets on that he’s a Sethophile himself, he hears Selim order Karnak to deal with Jim and Shannon, but he can’t warn them because he lost his communicator in the fight. Shannon gets her requisite dose of distress for the week when Mummy Karnak almost strangles her, but it’s a lure to draw out Jim to be knocked out so they can both be trapped in the tomb, which the team has set up with fake Sethaphrenalia for Selim to plunder. Max can only watch helplessly — even though he’s the last guy to leave and could easily have just pulled the door back open a crack to give them some air. So Jim and Shannon are trapped there in this tomb with only a couple of hours of air, and can’t call out because the walls are too thick. Remember: they’re trapped in a room the team spent hours setting up. It didn’t occur to them to install some oxygen canisters, like the one we saw Grant put in the fake sarcophagus earlier? Or, like, an interior door handle?
In that fake sarcophagus is Nicholas as a mummy, who arises and terrifies Karnak, because Shannon mentioned earlier that there’s a curse on the tomb entailing the usual dead-rising stuff. Consider, Gentle Readers: Karnak has committed several murders while dressed as a mummy. Now a guy dressed as a mummy is coming after him, and Karnak accepts it as entirely real. I guess you can kid a kidder. Nick knocks Karnak out, and the henchman wakes up in the desert, where Grant is dressed as a Nubian shaman or whatever and intones that Karnak must renounce Seth and stop Selim’s planned mass murder of Egyptian officials if he wishes to save his soul. This is supported with mystical images holographically projected in a pool, images that are obviously from old movies but that Karnak, again, accepts as entirely real. It’s stupid as hell, but what saves it is Phil Morris’s performance, which lets him show off the superb, mellow voice he’s made such excellent use of in animation roles in the ensuing quarter-century. I’ve never heard him deepen his voice this much, almost into James Earl Jones territory, and it’s thrilling to listen to.
So Karnak tries to turn Selim’s followers, but just gets a garotting for his troubles and is dumped into the sand pit that swallows the cult’s victims. The team slipped a tracker onto Karnak to follow him to the temple, and find it by the expedient of Shannon falling through a buried skylight, whereupon they find themselves inside the head of the Seth statue. By the way, Nicholas has been captured and brought before the cult, but fortunately Selim assigns Max to kill him as his initiation, so they fake Nick’s death together. By an astonishing coincidence, the head of the statue contains a sun reflector, and now that the skylight is open, the morning sun (conveniently at the correct position in the sky) will shine beams through the eyes in just a few minutes, letting Jim time the payoff of the plan. The rigged scroll reveals a “faded” part of the text speaking of a curse, and then self-immolates. Nicholas magically springs back to life, restored by the rays from Seth’s eyes. Grant rigs his communicator to resonate with the stone columns of the buried temple and bring it all crashing down, once the cultists have turned on Selim and dumped him into the sand pit. The team climbs out and watches as the lost temple collapses and millions of archaeologists cry out in protest and are suddenly silenced.
And Peter Graves delivers his final words in the role of Jim Phelps: “Present-day evil has joined ancient evil. Both of them lost in the sands of time.” He deserved better. Although I guess it’s not as bad as what the character of Phelps has coming for him in the movie — but that’s for a later post.
Oh, wow, so many, many things wrong with this episode. First off, the portrayal of Egypt. The extent of Hayes’s research seemed to be watching some old movies. Okay, granted, the age of the pharaohs was pretty much the last time prior to the modern age when Egypt was an independent nation, rather than a portion of someone else’s empire (whether Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman, or British), so maybe it’s not completely out of the question that a rabid Egyptian nationalist would look back to those times for inspiration, rather than to Egypt’s more recent, 1400-year-long history as an Islamic society. But the three named characters, supposedly living in modern, majority-Arab Egypt, are named Horus, Serapis, and Karnak, after two ancient Egyptian gods and an ancient temple site. Hayes didn’t even bother to give them names that residents of present-day Egypt might actually have. And here’s a fun fact: The population of Egypt is about 90-91 percent Muslim and 9-10 percent Christian, mostly Coptic Orthodox. There’s also a smattering of Baha’ists and Jews. A nationalist looking to mobilize the Egyptian people to reclaim their greatness as a world power wouldn’t win a lot of support by invoking an ancient faith that pretty much nobody in Egypt actually follows anymore. Maybe one deluded museum director who got too buried in his work (no pun intended) might end up with such an obsession, but I doubt he’d be able to gather an army of Seth-worshipping murder cultists.
Also, painting Set/Seth as a “god of evil” and murder is just the usual propaganda that Christendom has used to demonize other religions. Set was a god associated with chaos, violence, and storms (also the desert and foreigners), but played an important positive role in Egyptian religion as well; though he had killed his brother Horus, that was part of the necessary cycle of death and resurrection, and both gods functioned as counterparts in a cosmic balance like the yin and yang. Now, I will grant that the episode ended with the team convincing the cultists that Selim’s portrayal of Seth as a murder god was slanted and incomplete. But that was just a ploy, and Jim was pretty adamant about Seth being pure evil. So I can’t really give the episode credit for that.
It’s not a completely awful episode, just a silly one with a lazy, cartoony view of a foreign culture. Like “The Gunslinger,” it seemed to be motivated by a desire to do a genre pastiche, this time of mummy movies and Indiana Jones ancient-cult stuff. That gave it a fanciful quality rather far removed from what we generally think of as Mission: Impossible. But I’ll give it this: It finally breaks the trend of episodes where the team has no advance plan beyond “get in and wander around trying to find stuff out.” Yes, the plan has a number of contrived setbacks and improvisations, but there’s also a strategy being played out from the beginning, with the fake tomb and the scroll and the roles the team adopts. Although it’s a little unclear what the original endgame was planned to be, and contrived that the team’s advanced preparations meshed so neatly with random happenstance. Oh, and Davis’s music is back to cliche, with the same old “Egyptian” sound we’ve heard in a thousand movies and cartoons.
The one last thing on the DVD box set, aside from promos for a few of the episodes, is a Holiday Promo. Santa Claus rides up to his North-Pole home in his sleigh and finds a disc-player box in his mail basket, or something. He opens it up without needing a thumbprint scan — well, he is Santa Claus, after all — and the screen displays an image of the team wishing the viewers a merry Christmas. Santa walks away, but the disc does not self-destruct. I guess Santa already knows what his mission is.
Overview to follow!