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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 1989 Season Overview

While the first season of the Mission: Impossible revival felt surprisingly like a typical season of the original series — mostly following the classic formula with only a little more flexibility or innovation than the original generally had — the second season experimented and departed more. In the first half or so of the season, this worked pretty well, giving us a run of mostly solid episodes with a good amount of legitimate suspense and personal stakes for the team members. In some ways I was reminded of my favorite season, year 5 of the original, in terms of the frequency with which Jim’s plans hit snags and dangers and the team was forced to improvise.

But then, in the latter portion of the season, things began to fall apart. In four of the last five episodes, the intricate advance stratagems that had always been the trademark of M:I vanished, and the team’s strategies were mainly reduced to going into an unclear situation, trying to find stuff out, getting in trouble that they weren’t prepared for, and having to improvise solutions. (This also happened in “Target Earth” in the first half of the season.) Maybe this was at network request to create more of a sense of suspense and danger — something that, admittedly, the original series generally lacked when the team’s plans usually played out like clockwork — but it was a fundamental change in the premise and character of the series. As I’ve remarked multiple times, Mission: Impossible wasn’t really a spy series at heart; it was a caper series in the spirit of Topkapi or The Sting, or the more recent Leverage. The spy stuff was just an excuse to make the heroes’ con games and elaborate thefts and other crimes seem patriotic and heroic. What defined M:I was the intricacy of the team’s stratagems and cons; it was a show about people who triumphed with their wits and their skill rather than their fists or their guns. But this season increasingly departed from that approach in favor of a more conventional action formula where the heroes were reactive and unprepared, making things up one step at a time rather than plotting out a whole game in advance. It made the show feel simpler, less intelligent. The writers didn’t have to work as hard to come up with intricate strategies while concealing their specifics from the audience. It seemed that the writers got lazier, and that made it feel like Jim Phelps was losing his touch. Although that didn’t explain the rest of the team losing their basic competence in episodes like “The Assassin” where they broke cover right under the watching villain’s nose. And it wasn’t just the plotting that got lazier. A lot of the episodes in the back half of the season are extremely dumb and poorly thought out, often inconsistently plotted, and tending toward lazy stereotypes of other cultures just as badly as the previous season, and perhaps even worse.

As a result, the season feels split in two. The first half is stronger overall than the previous season, with only one episode I’d rate below average (“Command Performance”). But of the final eight episodes, only one was excellent, three were decent, and the other four were weak to horrible. So while I’d call the first half of the 1989 season one of the strongest runs in the franchise, the second half was, overall, the weakest in the television franchise’s history. It’s an unfortunate way for the series to go out, especially after such a promising start.

Despite the writers’ strike being long over, this season has two stories that seem loosely inspired by original episodes, borrowing their setups if not their details: “Command Performance” has a similar premise to the 1966 season’s “Old Man Out,” while “The Assassin” has nearly the same setup as season 6’s “Mindbend.” There are no actual remakes this year, though.

The strongest episodes this year were “Countdown” and “The Fuehrer’s Children,” both of which created a strong sense of danger and had effective stories. These were followed closely by “For Art’s Sake” and “The Princess,” both solid capers, if imperfect ones. “The Gunslinger” is almost as effective, if a bit sillier in premise. “The Golden Serpent” and “Target Earth” were pretty entertaining, albeit more as action thrillers than standard M:I capers; “The Golden Serpent” in particular feels like an over-the-top ’80s action movie that occasionally pays lip service to being M:I, and is enjoyable largely for its extravagance, which is unmatched by the rest of the season. In a lot of ways, it feels like a test run for the feature films (particularly since the second film was also shot in and around Sydney and made extensive use of its scenery). “War Games,” “Deadly Harvest,” and “Church Bells in Bogota” are reasonably entertaining if unremarkable. “Command Performance” is mediocre and pales in comparison to the original episode it resembles, and “The Sands of Seth” is not exactly awful, but quite fanciful and ridiculous in premise, feeling like the kind of story you’d see in a Saturday morning cartoon version of M:I. “Banshee” and “The Assassin” are badly written and incoherent, and “Cargo Cult” is a disaster, nonsensical and deeply racist, probably the worst episode in the entire franchise.

Cast-wise, Phil Morris continued to be the breakout star, showing great talent, charisma, and versatility. In a more ideal, colorblind Hollywood, I could’ve easily seen Morris taking over the lead role if the series had continued long enough for Graves to retire from it — or even becoming the lead of the movie franchise. Jane Badler was pretty impressive too, charming and sexy and confident, conveying a lot of strength and competence despite the producers’ insistence on putting her through the Perils of Pauline on an ongoing basis. (But then, Pauline in the original 1914 silent serial was a pretty competent action heroine herself, not the helpless damsel we’ve subsequently come to associate with the name.) Peter Graves was his usual stalwart, avuncular self, playing up his kinder side as the emphasis on team bonding increased, and took the occasional opportunity to show off his skills in horse riding, quick drawing, and the like. Tony Hamilton didn’t seem to have as much to do this season, but continued to be effective when he did. And Thaao Penghlis was consistently adequate, managing to do a few more accents this season than last, though American still eluded him. Still, he remains perhaps the least versatile “master of disguise” I’ve ever seen.

The season expands on some of the characteristic elements of the previous season. There’s a lot more of the team out of character, discussing plans and problems — often with the usual roleplay/scam elements diminished to near nothing. We see more of the team’s friendships and affinities, particularly all the men’s warm feelings for Shannon — which gets a little tired when the episodes constantly put Shannon in danger to create anxiety among her teammates. We also continue to get a number of episodes where the team skips Jim’s apartment and assembles at a “command post” on site — although it’s only five out of the fifteen distinct stories, fewer than I’d thought (“The Golden Serpent,” “Banshee,” “For Art’s Sake,” “The Assassin,” and “The Sands of Seth”). Four of those five are in the latter half of the season, though.

Last season, the focus was somewhat split between espionage and organized-crime missions, but here there’s a far stronger emphasis on international intrigue, terrorism, and politics. The criminal cases all involve greater international-scale threats: the international drug triad in “The Golden Serpent” includes the prince of a foreign nation, the arms dealers in “Banshee” threaten to reawaken a religious war, the art thief in “For Art’s Sake” is working to create an international incident, and the drug lord in “Church Bells in Bogota” threatens to overthrow the Colombian government. So essentially every episode has political stakes, making this perhaps the only M:I season without a purely crime-oriented caper. By contrast, the percentage of episodes featuring supernatural-themed cons is close to what it was in the previous season, though “War Games” only dabbles with playing on the villain’s astrological obsession, and “Cargo Cult” uses supernatural illusions to fool the “primitive villagers” and turn them against their exploiter rather than the usual trope of playing on the villains’ superstitions. “Banshee” is perhaps the crudest example of said trope, with a caricatured villain who goes into a cartoonish panic over any superstition, even one he’s never heard of before. And “The Sands of Seth,” like “Cargo Cult,” features a villain who is himself using supernatural deceptions, so it’s fighting fire with fire.

Beyond the opening 2-parter, which for the first time shows us a second IMF team operating independently of Jim’s, we get no further insights into the IMF as an organization. Indeed, the season is unique in having not a single episode in which the core team was joined from the start by a supplemental agent. The only episodes where anyone assisted the core team were the 2-parter “The Golden Serpent,” where Barney Collier worked with Jim’s team after having previously been assigned to another, unnamed IMF agent’s team, and “Command Performance,” where the rescued priest Father Thomas Vallis (Ivar Kants) assisted in his own rescue. So despite the variations in story structure, in some ways this is the most formulaic season ever: Essentially no variation in team composition, no off-book missions, no briefing discs without the “Secretary will disavow” line.

Location-wise, Europe was the site of five episodes and the teaser of a sixth, with most of the locations this season being fictional: the Monaco-like Valence in “The Princess,” a nameless Baltic state in “Command Performance,” the Eastern European lands of Sardavia and Bucaraine in “War Games,” and the fictional Irish town of Bally-na-Gragh in “Banshee.” The only real European locations were Hamburg (or nearby) in “The Fuehrer’s Children” and Geneva in the teaser of “The Assassin.” America was the focus in “For Art’s Sake” (NYC), “The Assassin” (Boston), and “The Gunfighter” (the fictional Pontiac, NV), though “Fuehrer’s” began in Oregon, “Deadly Harvest” was partly in Kansas, and “Target Earth” featured scenes at NORAD. Australia was the site of two stories, “The Golden Serpent” (Sydney) and “Target Earth” (the Outback), while “Cargo Cult” was on the fictional island of New Belgium in the Southwest Pacific. “Deadly Harvest” and “The Sands of Seth” were in the Mideast, the former in the fictitious terrorist state of Orambaq and the latter in some alternate-reality cartoon version of Cairo, Egypt. Only “Countdown” was set in Asia, in the fictional land of Kangji, and only “Church Bells in Bogota” was in Latin America — do I even need to say where? Oh, and “Target Earth” was the first and only M:I episode to take place partly in Earth orbit.

Musically, there is very little to say. Every episode was credited to John E. Davis, though IMDb lists Neil Argo as an uncredited additional composer throughout the season. The music was generally unremarkable and often cliched, nothing to write home (or blog) about. It’s quite a letdown from the original series, where music was so important. I wonder why the producers chose to go with the bland Davis over the more talented and interesting Lalo Schifrin and Ron Jones from the ’88 season. But then, a lot about the new series lacks the stylistic sophistication of the original, in terms of directing and cinematography, and in this season the plotting got a lot less sophisticated toward the end. Its visual effects were far more ambitious than the original’s, but usually quite crude in execution. The revival just didn’t quite have the class of the original. The one thing it consistently did better was location work, featuring lavish and varied locales in contrast to the backlot-bound feel the original generally had. But then, that’s one thing that Australian and New Zealand productions are known for — the lush, spectacular scenery.

In sum, the ninth and final season of Mission: Impossible started off strong and ambitious, improving on its predecessor and coming close to rivalling the best of the original — but toward the end, its weaknesses came to the fore and it became downright sloppy, stumbling its way toward what by that point was an inevitable cancellation. I wonder if the producers saw that cancellation coming well in advance and just stopped trying. If so, it’s a shame. If only they’d kept up the quality of the first half or so of this season and gotten at least one more year at that level, this revival could have been a really impressive addition to the franchise. As it is, I’d say it’s still worth checking out, even just for Phil Morris and Jane Badler, who are two of the best IMF team members we’ve ever had. And it’s still a legitimate continuation of the original — mixed in quality, but then, so was its predecessor. If nothing else, it gave us the continued adventures of Jim Phelps and the IMF as we knew it from the original… a last look at the familiar incarnation of M:I before it moved to the big screen and transformed into something radically different. Even several different somethings. But we’ll get to that.

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