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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988) Reviews: “The Haunting”/”The Lions” (spoilers)

“The Haunting”: Written by Michael Fisher.

We open with Parker Stevenson burying a young woman’s body on a beach and flashing back to murdering her at an amusement park. That’s the whole teaser. Afterward, the episode opens oddly: Jim is already at that amusement park, supposedly in Honolulu, when he gets the disc briefing. Umm, did he get another disc telling him to go there? Or did he happen to be on vacation in the area and thus available when the IMF needed him? Anyway, the mission is to prove that Stevenson’s character, bearing the ridiculous name Champ Foster, committed the murder, the latest of several he’s suspected of — something the police can’t prove due to a lack of evidence, as well as the influence of his rich and domineering mother Victoria (Janis Paige). The victim was Princess Jehan, daughter of the leader of “an oil-rich emirate state” (ahh, good old Voice and his circumlocutions to avoid naming countries), and said emir is threatening to back out of important oil price talks if the murder isn’t solved in three days.

In light of the mission, the whole “If any of your IM Force are caught or killed” line is rather bizarre. Why would this mission be sensitive enough to require the government to disavow involvement? They’re just trying to solve a murder that took place on United States soil. Surely the emir would be grateful if he knew the American government had helped bring his daughter’s killer to justice. This just doesn’t seem like a job for the IMF.

The team joins Jim in (Australia pretending to be) Honolulu for the briefing scene as well. The plan is to take advantage of Victoria’s spiritualist leanings and stage a seance wherein they’ll catch the conscience of the Champ. Great — the third time in just nine episodes they’ve used a supernatural con. It’s already getting old.

So let’s see. Max insinuates himself into Champ’s life as a fellow sociopath who learned about him through a shared psychiatrist and intends to extort money from him in exchange for information he’s picked up about the police investigations into Champ. Tony Hamilton does a pretty good job as a menacing weirdo, but it’s hard to see how his role dovetails into the overall con, unless it’s to get Champ paranoid about the cops closing in. Nicholas plays Jehan’s sheikh brother, who insists that his sister had a prophetic gift, predicting her death and her return on her impending birthday. This gets Victoria on the hook, especially when Jim plays a mentalist at a party (after the team waylays the scheduled performers by stealing their truck, alas) and pretends to get a harrowing vision from Jehan. Grant then swipes the undeveloped party photos from the drop-off photo developing kiosk (remember when those were all over the place?) and uses a high-tech gizmo to superimpose an image of Casey-as-Jehan (no mask, just hair and wardrobe) onto the undeveloped film before returning it to the kiosk. Then they knock out Champ and let him wake up at the now-closed amusement park, where Casey-as-Jehan calls to him from a  rooftop and disappears before he gets there. I guess this was to help sell the idea of her return from beyond. Other than this, Casey’s only role in the episode is to tag along with Grant so he can give exposition to her about his gadgets. It used to be that the exposition would be given in the opening briefing and the gadget setup would happen mostly wordlessly. This episode is taking a number of liberties with the formula.

And I have to throw in a digression about the photo-booth scene. When Grant retrieves the bag containing the negatives and reads the label, it says “YACHT CLUB FIRST THING IN THE MORNING PLEASE”. Including the quotation marks. Why the hell would anyone put quotation marks on a note like that? I see this all the time in TV and it frustrates me — quotation marks around text that nobody would put in quotation marks, like newspaper headlines. I figure that what must happen is that the scriptwriter puts the text in quotation marks in order to say “This is what you should print on the sign” and somehow the art department doesn’t realize the quotes aren’t meant to be part of the actual sign. It’s bizarre that nobody catches these things.

Anyway, there’s a bit where Max pretends to kill Grant, who was a cop who was getting too close, but again I’m not sure of the point. The key to it all is the seance, where Grant’s trickery convinces Victoria that Jehan’s ghost is there, and a hologram projector generates a midair image of a button from the jacket Champ wore on the night of the murder, a button that Casey cut off earlier to make Champ think it fell off when he strangled Jehan. So he rushes to the place where he buried her to dig her up and find the button, and the cops are there to arrest him (so it wasn’t a secret government-deniable mission after all, since the team must’ve brought in the cops), and that’s about it.

I dunno, this one just doesn’t do much for me. I don’t see why this is an IMF mission and I don’t see what purpose most of the scam served. If anything, I’d think that making Champ worry the cops were onto him would make him less likely to dig up the body rather than more likely, since he knew that nobody else had any idea where it was. Also, the plot point about his domineering mother dictating his life, which was stressed in the disc and briefing scenes, had no real relevance to the story. It just doesn’t hold together well.

Not to mention that, for a story set in Hawaii, it was implausibly devoid of Asians and Pacific Islanders, except for a couple of extras and the Fosters’ houseboy who spoke in broken English. For the second time, the “modern” revival of the series features more blatant racial stereotypes than the ’60s original. (Although I must say that Thaao Penghlis, who’s of Greek ancestry, makes a much more convincing Arab sheikh than, say, Martin Landau or Leonard Nimoy would have.) Musically, John E. Davis’s score is nothing to write home about. Oh, and the seance is conveniently accompanied by a thunderstorm illustrated by what must be some really old stock shots of animated lightning. It feels like cheating to have nature itself conspire in setting the mood for an IMF scam, rather than having the team set it up. And they’re lucky all that ionization in the atmosphere didn’t disrupt Grant’s control signals to the hologram generator and other gadgets. Heck, I wish it had. This was a standard, formulaic M:I episode of the type where nothing ever goes wrong for the team. And there wasn’t enough else going on to generate interest in any other way. This is the poorest episode yet of the new series.

“The Lions”: Teleplay by David Phillips, story by James Crown.

In the stock-footage Himalayas, in the Tibet-like country of Bajan-Du, we see Ki (James Shigeta), brother of the late king, conspiring with his security chief Jaru (John O’Brien) to swap out a set of golden lion statues from the temple for fakes. The statues are a puzzle each new king must solve (reminiscent of the season 3 episode “The Heir Apparent”), and failure to solve it will trigger a death trap (which Ki and Jaru use to skewer a hapless monk who stumbles upon them). The fakes are weighted like loaded dice to make the puzzle insoluble. As we learn in Jim’s briefing (which he gets at the San Francisco Zoo, supposedly), Ki opposes his brother’s modernization and Western ties (favoring traditionalism and “Eastern alliances”) and intends to ensure that his brother’s half-English, Western-schooled son Mikos, or “Mike” (Jeremy Angerson), is killed by the test so he can claim the throne. The team’s mission is to stop Ki and ensure that Mikos gets a fair chance. Because of course Westernization is always good and traditional non-Western values are always bad, right? In the briefing, Casey even uses the word “primitive” to refer to the Bajan-Du people’s ancient tradition. Ouch.

The briefing scene is another one that doesn’t quite get the point of those scenes in the original series. It’s not about the team reviewing the plan they’ve already made and tantalizing the audience with glimpses of the specific devices and schemes they’ll use — it’s Jim, Nicholas, and Grant briefing Max and Casey for the first time on what they need to accomplish, with no discussion of the method beyond what the team’s covers will be. There’s even a bit where Grant receives some important bit of info (I guess via computer) during the briefing itself.

Jim goes in as the new tutor for Prince Mike, because of course his mumsy insists he get a proper, superior Western education. Despite the uncomfortable ethnocentrism, this is actually rather engaging, because it lets us see Jim bonding with the teenaged scion, trying to offer what guidance and encouragement he can, and having to debate with himself whether to give the boy the answer to the puzzle once he and Grant figure it out. We so rarely get to see the IMF team members developing genuine bonds with anyone on their missions, and it’s nice to see. Mike’s mother (Diane Craig) even figures out that Jim isn’t what he appears, but he assures her that he’s there for her son’s benefit.

Nicholas plays an agent of the company that insures the golden lions, demanding to be shown the specifics of the security system so he can later show Grant and Max how to break in. Casey plays a reporter who hints her interest in Ki is more personal than reportorial, but whom Nicholas insinuates is not what she appears. This is one of the few times Casey is called on to play the seductress, and while it’s perhaps a sign of progress that that’s not the female lead’s principal role anymore, I have to say that Terry Markwell is pretty bad at it. She looks nice, but that’s about the only thing she brings to the seduction game — no charm, no sultry voice, no alluring expressions. She flirts in the same tone she’d use to discuss the weather. (Well, sometimes discussing the weather is flirting — cf. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — but you know what I mean.) She’s kind of the opposite of Barbara Bain, who was only moderately attractive to look at but could be intensely alluring when she chose to be.

Grant goes in Topkapi-style, lowered from the ceiling on ropes, much like his father did in “Doomsday” and anticipating Tom Cruise by seven years. He plants some kind of devices on the fake lions — amusingly, between their hind legs. Meanwhile, Nicholas knocks out and impersonates Jaru in order to frame him for taking a payoff from Casey to swap the statues back. This provokes Ki to restore the real statues, thinking they’re the fakes (and of course he kills a confused Jaru for his alleged treachery). Prince Mikey now has a fair chance.

Jim figures out the solution to the puzzle straight away, and disappointingly, he tells the audience. I’d already figured it out myself at that point: The five statues represent the five virtues of manhood and must be placed in order of their importance, and the answer is that they’re all equally important and must be placed together. Which is also kind of the obvious solution to the matter of maintaining the physical balance of the temple platform. So it’s not really that much of a puzzle. Still, it would’ve worked better dramatically if Jim had left the solution unspoken and Mikos had been the first one to spell it out aloud. Of course, he does figure it out… and what happens next is kind of inexplicable. You’d think that Mike’s non-deadness would prove to Ki that the lions were the real ones and he’d been duped. Indeed, Mikos’s success prompts him to run to his safe and check the lions held there — the fakes which Jim has now melted by activating Grant’s statue-crotch attachments (that’s one hell of a chastity belt!). Which somehow convinces Ki that Mikos has destroyed the real lions, so he comes back to the temple accusing Mikos of blasphemy and treason, then declares the statues on the temple to be fakes, picking one up and getting skewered when the balance is broken. Umm, what? None of that made any sense. There’s no way Jim could’ve predicted he’d react that way to the melting of the fake lions, so why were they melted at all? Wouldn’t it have been better to, say, have him followed back to his safe and catch him in the act when he opened it and revealed the fakes?

So this is quite an unbalanced episode, you could say. The ethnocentrism is irritating and the ending makes no damn sense, but otherwise it’s a pretty nice story. The sets and visual effects representing Bajan-Du are nicely done, aside from the obvious video matte lines whenever anyone’s standing in front of the window to Jim’s quarters. Ron Jones contributes a nice, interesting score blending Asian influences with the Schifrin themes. And it’s nice to see Jim forming an honest connection with the prince and his mother, actually having a personal stake in the outcome but having to trust in the boy rather than micromanaging every step of the problem as he usually does. There’s a lot of good here but a lot of problems too, especially at the end.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988) Reviews: “The Cattle King”/”The Pawn” (Spoilers)

“The Cattle King”: This original episode, written by Ted Roberts, takes advantage of the show being filmed in Australia to do a story set in Australia. And boy, do they ever shove Australia in our faces. We open with a shot of an Aboriginal Australian using a spear to hunt kangaroos, then stumbling upon a sacred cave site which our villain, a cattle rancher named Matthews (David Bradshaw), is blithely desecrating to store a stockpile of stolen Stinger missiles that he’s selling to terrorists to pay off his enormous gambling debts (not unlike the villain in season 3’s “Doomsday,” though the episode has no other similarities to that one). Matthews blows up a tree that the aborigine had just run past, which I think was meant to convey that he killed the guy. Or maybe he was just afraid the tree had seen too much.

Jim’s mission, received on a boat in a marina, is to retrieve the missiles before he delivers them to his terrorist buyers (who are into shooting down passenger jets, apparently). The plan involves a familiar M:I gambit, taking advantage of the bad guy’s superstitions to manipulate him, with help from an Aboriginal shaman named Mulwarra (Warren Owens), whom Jim persuades to assist the team so they can retrieve the missiles before his band takes vengeance on Matthews for his crimes against their people. The portrayal of Aboriginal Australians as spear-carrying, chanting, bush-dwelling tribesmen in loincloths and body paint is pure stereotype and caricature, tantamount to the way ’60s American TV portrayed American Indians. It might seem surprising that a show actually made in Australia would depict its indigenes in such an unrealistic way, but apparently such stereotypes are quite pervasive in Australia itself, just as Native American stereotypes have long been in the US. The original M:I generally managed to avoid such gross stereotyping of other cultures, largely by avoiding their portrayal and focusing on Western countries, with rare exceptions like “Butterfly” (unlike, say, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which seemed to go out of its way to find new cultures to stereotype and diminish). It’s sad to see its more modern revival actually backsliding from the original.

Grant contacts Matthews as a buyer for his remaining missiles to lure him to Sydney, then makes him wait in town for a couple of days, so that the compulsive gambler Matthews will go to the racetrack and meet Jim — playing a successful land speculator, courtesy of a planted magazine in Matthews’s suite — and Casey, playing an acquaintance of Jim’s who’s so impossibly lucky that she’s been barred from the track and the casino. She claims to be an anthropologist living among the aborigines and granted luck by a magic spell, which she demonstrates to Matthews by swapping out his personal “lucky” dice for loaded ones (at least while she’s throwing them). She takes him to see Mulwarra in hopes of getting his own luck spell, but Mulwarra (sincerely) tells him he’ll be cursed instead for his crimes.

Although it takes some help from technology which Grant and the others set up in Matthews’s suite, including speakers and a projector to play images and sounds of Mulwarra’s band chanting, a rigged balcony that catches fire and then gets completely repaired by the time Matthews brings the security guy up, and so on. There’s a neat bit later on where Matthews is stuck in the elevator and the doors open to reveal a vertiginous drop to the street and then Mulwarra’s haunting face — and only afterward do we see the team dismantling the projection equipment from in front of the elevator doors, an inversion of the usual M:I pattern where we see the setup before the execution. (Although it’s unconvincing that he could be standing just a foot or two away from the projection screen and perceive it as a 3-dimensional open space. But many M:I episodes have had muche the same problem.)

Anyway, all this is just to get Matthews in a superstitious state of mind. He plans to take advantage of Casey’s luck spell to win a fortune in Jim’s land speculations, but the team makes it look like Jim’s been arrested for fraud, and then Matthews finds Casey lying “dead” with a self-inflicted bullet wound. Now he’s not only desperate for money, but desperate to get the missiles off Aboriginal land so they’ll free him from his curse. So he accepts Grant’s terms to cancel the delivery to the terrorists and sell all the missiles to him straight away. Matthews brings the missiles in a truck and then swaps vehicles with Grant, but Grant’s rigged the car with more curse multimedia, so Matthews crashes in the middle of the outback, and the team leaves him to the mercies of Mulwarra’s band of stereotyped savages, to whom he sobbingly promises to return all of his land.

It’s unusual to see an episode where Casey has a lot to do and Nicholas and Max have relatively little. Terry Markwell shows she can deliver an adequate performance when actually given something to do. Nicholas gets to do a bit of roleplay to help set up the whole land-speculation thing, but Max serves little purpose beyond flying a helicopter, helping Grant and Nicholas set up gadgets, and doing a tiny bit of roleplay here and there. Ironic, since the episode confirms that Max is from Australia (despite his US passport in the main titles — but then, I guess I shouldn’t expect spies to have accurate passports). Nicholas’s Aussie accent goes unexplained, though.

Anyway, it’s not bad, but a little unfocused. I didn’t really figure out until writing this review that the point of all the superstition/curse stuff was to make Matthews want to get the missiles off sacred ground. It seemed more like padding than anything else. And the whole trope of using technology to fake supernatural phenomena was one that the original M:I came to resort to a bit too often, and my recollection is that the revival series used it quite a lot as well — indeed, this is the second time in only seven episodes. Still, one of my big problems with the trope in the original series was that they often used supernatural gambits to win over skeptics, when it would’ve made more sense to save them for marks who were already superstitious and primed to buy into the scam. That’s not a problem this one has.

This episode is the debut of composer John E. Davis, who will alternate with Ron Jones for six episodes and then take over as the sole composer for the remainder of the series (except for a single season 2 episode). Much of the score is a pretty typical ’80s-TV synth score, but it has moments that are rather impressive. It bugs me a bit, though, that it used a partial statement of “The Plot” to underscore Jim’s disc scene at the beginning. Really, “The Plot” is meant to represent the team’s machinations while the caper is in progress, so using it in the opening is premature.

As of this episode, the end titles begin using a montage of stills instead of the big “IMF” background — but they’re clips from the episode just ended rather than a generic montage of gadget close-ups like in the original.

“The Pawn”: Jim just rides a horse on the beach to get to the disc player on a random rock — maybe the horse was trained to know the route?? Anyway, the mission is unusually straightforward for this show: Help a Czech chess champion, Antonov (Bryan Marshall), defect from the Soviet bloc. This is the third M:I episode with a chess focus, after “A Game of Chess” (surprisingly enough) in season 2 and “Crackup” in season 7. And it’s the first one that doesn’t involve an implausibly portrayed chess computer. Billy Marshall Stoneking provides the script.

Antonov is being watched like a hawk by the hardnosed Major Zorbuskaya (Rowena Wallace), who knows he’s eager to defect after the killing of his protestor son — which she knows because she’s the one who killed him in the episode’s teaser, though that never really becomes relevant. Jim’s plan to smuggle Antonov out involves a magician named Joseph Rultka (Philip Hinton). Nicholas is surprised at this, which is odd, because his predecessors Rollin and Paris were both professional magicians. (And I found myself lamenting that they couldn’t have gotten Martin Landau or Leonard Nimoy in for a guest appearance.) But Max, as it turns out, studied magic in college, so he’ll be apprenticing with Rultka to play the magician in the caper. Once again, Max, who initially seemed to be the new Willy, has turned out to be better at filling Rollin and Paris’s shoes than their nominal successor Nicholas. Why do we need Nicholas again?

Okay, I exaggerate. For Major Zorbuskaya’s benefit, Nicholas establishes himself as part of the gaggle of reporters questioning Antonov about his upcoming “grudge match” with his bitter rival Bakunin (who, interestingly, is played by future Farscape writer/producer Justin Monjo). Jim plays a Texas talent scout looking to persuade Antonov to come play in Texas, making Major Z intensely suspicious of him, and convinced he isn’t as dumb as he’s playing. It’s not entirely clear what purpose Jim serves here, unless it’s to divert the major’s suspicion with his obvious pretense. Anyway, magician Max and his lovely assistant Casey (the most literal manifestation yet of the “hover helpfully in the background and look pretty” mode that’s been her primary role in most episodes so far) employ a gambit much like that used by Paris in season 4’s “The Falcon”: Get Antonov to volunteer for an illusion, make him disappear, and have a masked Nicholas take his place to divert Major Z’s attention while the real Antonov is smuggled to safety, along with his daughter, who’s coming in on the Prague Express. The plan is that Nicholas just has to keep up his impersonation for a couple of hours, though he has some difficulty convincing an old friend of Antonov’s who’s happened to show up. (By the way, we see Nicholas studying up on Antonov as he prepares for his impersonation, and this includes listening to an audio dossier narrated by Bob Johnson. I believe it’s the first time in the entire M:I franchise that we’ve heard Johnson’s voice during an actual mission rather than solely in the opening.)

But a bigger problem rears its head when the Prague Express is delayed 12 hours — the daughter won’t get in until tournament time! Nicholas will have to play chess at championship level! But Grant manages to rig an electric signal pulse in Antonov’s ring and deliver it to Nicholas, so he can use Morse code to communicate the moves Antonov picks as he watches the match on satellite TV from the train. But there are some hairy moments as the group on the train has to hide what they’re doing from the border guards, and Nicholas is forced to make a critical move on his own — and it’s brilliant! With a little more help from Antonov, fake Antonov wins the match and retires to his room — whereupon Jim tells the gaggle of reporters that there’s a press conference there, they burst into the room, and when Major Z herds them out, a now-unmasked Nicholas just walks out with the crowd (a gambit I’m sure I’ve seen before on M:I, though I can’t remember the episode). Oh, gaggle of reporters. You’re so predictable. Oh, and Jim tricks the Soviet guards into thinking that a bag full of defectin’ supplies belongs to Major Z, and they find the passport that Grant sewed into her coat lining earlier, and she takes a well-deserved trip to Siberia.

Well, at least until the Soviet Union falls about two years later. It’s kind of amusing to watch a defection story aired in 1989 and think that if they’d just waited around a couple more years, none of this would’ve been necessary. Except, well, Major Z made it pretty clear that she planned to send Antonov to a gulag in the immediate future in any case.

I think this is my favorite episode yet of the revival series. Although it does have a couple of plot oddities, a lot of it is very clever and fun. It’s the kind of episode I like, where the team faces real setbacks and has to improvise. It portrays chess more plausibly than the prior two chess episodes — except for an odd bit where Bakunin accused Antonov (the real one in the first match) of cheating, even though his protest seems to have more to do with Antonov just being distracting than with any recognized form of cheating in chess. Peter Graves gets to show off some of the comedic chops he developed in Airplane! and afterward. And Bryan Marshall is well-cast as Antonov — and, more importantly, as Nicholas playing Antonov. He resembles Thaao Penghlis enough in bone structure and speech rhythms that I can buy the conceit that Nicholas is behind the mask. And Ron Jones provides his best score yet for the series, the highlights of which are the action/chase motif under the teaser and an elegantly meticulous harp-like melody in waltz time accompanying the chess play. Beyond those, Jones goes for a more unusual and interesting sound than he has in previous episodes, and it’s nice to hear him stretching himself.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988) Reviews: “The Legacy”/”The Wall” (spoilers)

“The Legacy”: A remake of Season 1, episode 15. Credited to Michael Lynn and Allan Balter, the latter being a co-writer of the original episode. Balter’s collaborator William Read Woodfield had his name taken off the episode.

The remake adds a rather pointless action teaser of a battle scene at the end of WWII in Europe, with some Nazi officers escaping the Allies with a truck full of gold. After the titles, Jim gets the briefing disc in a car in the parking lot of an amusement park. The mission is basically the same — find the gold before the four Nazi heirs do — but now the heirs are the grandsons rather than the sons of Hitler’s officers, the gold is now worth 5 billion on today’s market, and the cabal’s plan is not specifically to build a Fourth Reich but simply to fund terrorism and foster a new Nazi movement in Europe. Lalo Schifrin gives us his familiar “self-destruct” harp glissando one more time.

To a large extent, this is the most verbatim adaptation yet, except that Max takes the lead “customs agent” role that Dan Briggs (Phelps’s predecessor) played before. Tony Hamilton stands out as the greatest improvement on his original series predecessor; he has the build to be a plausible strongman like Willy, but is a more capable actor and better able to carry the roleplay as well. The postcard clue is simplified — Cinnamon deciphered it in the original, but here, Casey is left with very little to do, continuing the trend. The four scions meet in a church now, lighting candles and placing their postcards on the table, which is a bit more plausible than the rather easily deciphered chalk-drawing code of the original. Nicholas is the undercover man, like his counterpart Rollin in the original — but I have to say, the Nordic-featured Max would’ve made a much more plausible Aryan. Maybe they hewed a bit too closely to the original on this point.

A small change is that two of the other men give Graff (Judson Scott) their portions of the bank account number before Nicholas finally refuses to give his. Also, Nicholas shows visible alarm at learning of the numbers (that he doesn’t have). Rollin controlled himself better and adapted more swiftly. A more subtantial change comes when the team speaks of planting misleading information about Graff’s partying and gambling in a local magazine to get the other Nazis to question Graff’s motives for seeking the gold. But then it’s back to the original plot, with Casey “becoming royalty” (a role she doesn’t take to nearly as well as Cinnamon did) and having a simpler version of the “Baroness”‘s first meeting with the bank manager, here called Kubler (Shane Briant). But before then there’s a new scene where Grant uses a dial-up modem to hack the bank computer and plant her forged financial records. Ooh, so high-tech!

In the original, a real psychologist named Lubell was brought in to drug and hypnotize the bank manager, but here, Lubell is just an alias used by Jim, who handles the hypnosis himself with help from some techie frippery to give Grant more to do. Passing the matchbook with the numbers to Nicholas is simpler, for Casey just impersonates a hotel maid. After the foursome leaves for the bank, the rest of the team breaks into their suite, plants the magazine article about Graff, and taps into the electronic microscope the Nazis plan to use to read the microdot. This means the IMF team wil get the information at the same time the Nazis do, which changes the purpose of Nicholas pretending to lose his watch. Rather than a ploy to get Rollin out of the room so he can pass along the map, it’s part of the campaign to make the others suspicious of Graff’s intentions. (They also hypnotized Kubler into mentioning a failed investment of Graff’s.) As before, it also serves to let the IMF team get to the cemetery ahead of the bad guys. (And the parts of the map are engraved microscopically on their watch crystals, correcting the original’s scale problems with the microdot vs. the stamp-sized map pieces hidden in their watches.)

And here’s where the episode departs most from the original. There, they found the crypt of “Braun” (which was a pretty obvious clue they hardly should’ve needed a map for), found no gold, got into an overlong shootout with the bad guys, let Graff get away after they caught him (!), and accidentally found that the whole crypt was made of gold. Oh, and Dan got shot in the right lung but reacted like it was just a flesh wound. It was a flawed ending to an otherwise superb episode. Here, Grant uses a computer map of the cemetery to identify the crypt of “A. Lois,” which Jim recognizes as a play on Alois, Hitler’s father’s first name. Once they find the crypt empty, Jim figures out that the incongruous period is the trigger to a secret panel that reveals the gold in a cavern beneath. Grant uses Mylar to reflect the cave wall and hide the gold, and they leave the crypt gaping open for Graff and the others to find “empty.” Nicholas turns the others’ suspicion against Graff, and Graff, shockingly, shoots Nicholas and one of the others, before discovering the real gold. Penghlis plays his “death” very effectively, with a disturbingly sharp twist of his head when he’s shot, but we soon learn he had a bulletproof vest — and the team has called in the Swiss police to arrest Graff, handily contained in the crypt, for the murder he just committed. (Lucky for Nicholas that Graff didn’t go for a head shot.)

“The Legacy” was one of the strongest episodes of the original series, giving the revival a tall hurdle to surmount. Most of this remake is either a direct copy of the original or a simplification, and the performances of Penghlis and Markwell disappoint compared to their forebears. (Indeed, the more I watch Markwell, the more I wonder why I liked her so much in 1988. She’s not a very versatile or engaging performer, and I can see why they’ve used her so little.) But the final act is an enormous improvement. The shootout ending of the original didn’t really fit the show, but the psychological warfare the ’88 team uses to turn the Neo-Nazis against each other is a classic M:I gambit. One reason I like this story is because it was such an unusual challenge for the team, since they started out with almost no advance information and had to improvise at every step, rather than the usual formula where they’re ten steps ahead of the villains the whole time. That’s still true here, but Jim’s plan to discredit Graff makes the team less reactive. It’s the first remade episode where there’s more cleverness on display than there was the first time around. I never expected the revival to live up to the quality of an episode like “The Legacy,” but while it falls short on some levels, it’s actually managed to improve on it where it counts.

I can’t say the same for the casting, though. Up to this point, the remakes have mostly improved on the originals in their guest casts, but in this case, the new Graff, Judson Scott, isn’t nearly as convincing a menace as the original, Donald Harron. I wish the Graff role had gone to the actor playing supporting Neo-Nazi Brucker, Steven Grives. He would later play the lead villain in BeastMaster: The Series, and was a really excellent scenery-chewing bad guy there. But unfortunately he’s relegated to a minor role here. (It’s interesting to realize that both iterations of M:I were produced contemporaneously with iterations of Star Trek and that both drew on many of the same actors as well as directors, composers, and the like. And the same has more or less been true of the recent movie versions of the two sister franchises, with ST:TNG writing duo Ron Moore & Brannon Braga writing the story to the second M:I movie, and with J.J. Abrams and his collaborators, including Simon Pegg, starting out on M:I and then moving to ST. I guess the two are just destined to go together.)

The music is also a disappointment this time out. The score, credited to Schifrin, is rather ordinary and partly tracked; the last act largely reuses cues from Ron Jones’s two prior scores, and some of the Schifrin cues may be reused as well, or else are just rather generic. The original was tracked too, but mostly with Walter Scharf’s superb score to “Old Man Out.” This score just doesn’t compare. Which is a pity, since it’s Schifrin’s final original contribution to this series and thus to Mission: Impossible as a whole.

“The Wall”: This one looks like it started as a remake of Season 2, episode 15, “The Bank”, but I’m guessing the writers’ strike ended early enough that it could be reworked into an almost completely different story by scriptwriter David Phillips. Little remains except the basic premise of a villain pretending to smuggle people out of East Berlin but leading them into a trap in order to steal their money. In this case, Dr. Wolfgang Gerstner (Alan Cassell) pretends to show people a safe route across the no man’s land between East and West Berlin, but tips off his partner Col. Batz (Peter Curtin) to arrest or shoot them before they get across. Since this was made in the age of glasnost, not long before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the story establishes that there are peace talks underway, and since Gerstner and Batz depend on the Wall for their profits, they’ve kidnapped Ilsa, the teenage daughter of a leading West German negotiator, to force him to sabotage the talks. This raises the stakes for the team, should they decide to accept the mission to rescue the girl and bring down the bad guys (and you know they will). Six episodes into the new M:I, and we finally get a political/espionage mission instead of a crimebusting mission. Well, I guess stopping a Neo-Nazi movement is political, but this is the first time in the new series that the fate of nations has potentially hung in the balance.

The team members make their way across the border into East Berlin (now called that openly — none of the original series’ coy references to the “East Zone”), but Grant — who is totally rocking the trenchcoat-and-fedora look — uses an obviously fake passport to get himself arrested and brought before Batz, whereupon he reveals that he’s a Cuban officer working for the KGB. The team intercepts Batz’s phone when he calls his superior, and Nicholas imitates the man’s voice — another case of a different actor’s voice being dubbed over Penghlis, so there’s still no evidence that he can do accents. It’s an odd oversight in the casting, hiring a “master of disguise” who can’t disguise his voice without audio trickery. Anyway, Grant claims to be investigating a black-market smuggling ring, in order to spook Batz and get him to warn Gerstner to call off his operations. This is after Jim plays much the same role Rollin did in “The Bank,” a desperate man who comes to Gerstner begging for his services to get himself and his “daughter” Casey (who’s still mostly just hanging around Jim rather than doing anything of her own) out of the East. After getting Batz’s call, Gerstner is about to shoot Jim and Casey, but “Stasi officers” Max and Nicholas come in and arrest him (and Tony Hamilton actually can fake a German accent).

The team takes Gerstner to a fake prison set they’ve built in a warehouse and, given the time limit on negotiations, put him through a lightning-round interrogation, using drugs, lighting, and fake stubble on his cheeks to make him think days have passed. (Casey applies the stubble makeup. Hooray, she’s useful! Lucky break that he just looked at his “stubbly” chin in the mirror rather than feeling it). They let him see Stasi Max interrogating Jim and KGB Grant interrogating “Batz” (Nicholas in a mask), and “Batz” gives up Gerstner, prompting Gerstner to incriminate him in turn, with the team taping it. Then Jim stages a fight wherein he shoots the guards, and he and Casey start to run off with Gerstner — but he wants to collect his hostage Ilsa first, and mentions the address just before the drug they injected him with knocks him out. (Geez, guys, cutting it awfully close there.) Meanwhile, Grant shows Batz the first part of the doctor’s taped confession so he’ll send it to his superior, then swaps it out for a tape of the second part where Batz is named, getting the colonel to damn himself. Then at the warehouse, the team rescues the girl and gets away, but not before prompting Gerstner to flee into his own escape tunnel and — in the return of an old M:I tradition — get shot off-camera. And then the negotiator and his daughter are reunited on the other side.

There’s not much point in comparing this to “The Bank,” since they’re such different episodes. It’s an okay story, a pretty standard M:I caper but with a bit more relevance to then-current events than the original series ever got to have. Some parts of the plot seem overly convoluted or gratuitous, serving little purpose but to generate act-break cliffhangers; for instance, the hostage girl is in a medically induced coma, and when the team arrives in the warehouse, they set off a failsafe that cuts the power to her life support, threatening to kill her until Max restores the circuit at the top of the next act. I’m not sure why cutting the power would stop her heart if she’s just in a drug-induced coma and can recover quickly once the drugs are stopped. Cast-wise, there are no notable guests, and Terry Markwell and Thaao Penghlis still come off as the weak links in the main cast. But Phil Morris gets his best chance yet to show his stuff, and he and Hamilton are both reasonably impressive at their role-playing. Musically, we get a fully electronic score by Ron Jones, which, well, sounds a lot like you’d expect a fully electronic score by Ron Jones to sound. For me, while I think Jones did more interesting and distinctive things with electronics than a lot of his contemporaries did, I’ve never enjoyed it as much as his orchestral work. I’d call this a routine Jones score, nothing exemplary.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988) Reviews: “Holograms”/”The Condemned” (spoilers)

First off, a couple more observations about the new main title sequence:

The main title sequence is longer, with a truncated, ten-bar reprise of the main melody added before the final sting, over the cast credits. The montage includes shots of the team members’ passports. The camera is zooming out as the image changes from one passport to the next, so varying amounts of text are visible, but here’s what I can discern:

All five team members’ passports claim they’re US citizens, and Nicholas was allegedly born in Massachusetts, despite Max and Nicholas having distinct Australian accents and Casey a subtler one. Casey’s date of birth is March 8 (year unseen), Grant’s is October 3 (year unseen), Nicholas’s is July 24, 1950. Jim was born in California on October 10, 1929. That makes Jim two and a half years younger than Peter Graves and Nicholas five years younger that Thaao Penghlis. Jim’s passport was issued January 27, 1987.

And now to our story.

“Holograms”: Sorry, folks, this is not a Jem crossover. It is, however, our first chance to see what the new M:I writing staff can do when not remaking an original episode. Robert Brennan is our writer this evening.

We open with an assassination brazenly committed while the victim is being interviewed. The TV reporter recklessly declares the victim dead seconds after the shooting. After the titles, we get stock footage of San Francisco, confirming that Jim still lives there (although the Australia-based filming means we don’t get actual footage of Jim in SF locations like we did in season 7). He trades code phrases with a street violinist on what’s probably meant to be Fisherman’s Wharf. Despite being a new episode, its setup closely parallels the original’s “Fakeout”: drug lord Col. Usher (Gerard Kennedy) is self-declared president-for-life of a nameless country, indicted in absentia by the US but kept immune from overthrow by his enforcer Duvall (William Zappa), who assassinated his only legitimate rival for the presidency. The mission is to neutralize Duvall and lure Usher onto US-controlled soil so he can be arrested. (The country is probably meant to be in the Caribbean somewhere, but it’s hard to tell since it’s so oddly Anglophone.) The show has reprised the original’s device of freeze-framing and showing the series title over a music sting (originally done at the end of the dossier sequence, now at the end of the disc sequence), though that serves little purpose now because the producer, writer, and director credits do not accompany it. The music sting here is basically the original one, with Schifrin himself providing this episode’s score.

The apartment briefing is handled differently than in the original show. There, usually, the team had already been briefed on the basics before we arrived, and we’d just see them going over the details one last time; it was clear they knew things we didn’t, and part of the suspense came from wondering what purpose the various devices and stratagems were meant to serve. Here, though, most of the team seemed to be learning the plan from Jim for the first time. The exception is Grant, who’s been working on a holographic system projecting a ghostly image of the new series’ first guest team member: Kieron Taylor (Gavin Harrison), the 15-year-old son of an IMF member, who’s going to play the role of the long-lost son that Usher believes he has (from an abused wife who left him and whom he believes was pregnant at the time) and has been obsessively searching for. This is one more indication that the IMF now has people working for it beyond the individuals Jim recruits. The new series is fleshing out the agency a bit more than the original did, a step toward the huge IMF bureaucracy of the Tom Cruise movies. Anyway, the plan is to lure Usher to a beach house on a US-controlled island by building a duplicate beach house on a neutral island where Usher is safe and then doing a switcheroo. I don’t much care for having the plan revealed up front like this; I prefer the old method where we just got hints.

Nicholas and Grant get in by impersonating a recently-arrested drug dealer and his bodyguard, there to sell Usher the ether he needs to boost his cocaine manufacturing. Grant rigs Usher’s bedroom with hologram projectors that, when it’s dark, create a midair image of Kieron doing a Princess Leia-style “Father, we need you” routine. (As usual in fiction, there’s no explanation for what the “hologram” is supposedly reflecting off of in midair.) This is a rehash of the gambit the team used in season 4’s “Phantoms” and season 5’s “A Ghost Story,” although the techniques used there were more intricate. Anyway, Usher (who already suffers from a congenital neurological condition giving him severe headaches) worries that he’s hallucinating, and Nicholas happens to mention that there’s an American neurologist named Dr. Quinn in the vicinity. Now, here’s where the script makes a mistake: They’ve perfectly set up Usher to invite Quinn and believe it was his own idea, but instead Nicholas takes the liberty of inviting Quinn — who of course is Jim — on his own. Sorry, wrong. The key to a con game (or so I understand it from fiction) is to make the marks think it was their own idea to do what you want them to. Make them think they’re being led and it’ll just make them suspicious.

Anyway, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Agent lets slip that he’s been treating a boy with an almost identical congenital condition (and the same rare blood type as Usher) on a nearby island, ferried there by a seaplane pilot played by Max. Duvall brings Max in and he tells Usher where to find the island, and it’s the neutral island where the team has built the fake house. There, Usher meets Kieron, who drops enough hints to convince Usher that he’s the long-lost son. (Casey briefly impersonates his ex-wife from a distance, but otherwise her only role in the story is to be Kieron’s chaperone, as well as his scuba partner for a trick earlier on where Kieron appeared before Usher in the flesh and then ran to the beach and swam off underwater so that Duvall couldn’t find him.)

Meanwhile, Nicholas is rigging the (oddly unoccupied) cocaine processing facility with explosives when he’s caught by Duvall, who’s been tipped off by the guy Nick’s impersonating. Duvall calls Usher back from the island. Grant sees that Nick’s been arrested and helps him knock out Duvall. Now, I always like it when the plan goes awry and the team has to improvise, but it feels like a cheat here, because apparently taking out Duvall and having Nicholas impersonate him was the next step in the plan anyway. (And having Usher called away at that point was apparently part of the plan too, since it lets Kieron relocate and the team’s helpers dismantle the duplicate house.) As Duvall, Nicholas tells Usher that he had the impostor killed, and that the US fleet is on maneuvers so he can’t take the boat back to the island. The only option is Max’s seaplane — and again the script makes the mistake of having Dr. Jim blatantly suggest the idea to Usher rather than just letting him think of it himself. You’d think Usher would be suspecting a trap by this point, since by now he knows that the man who brought in Dr. Jim was an impostor. But Usher is conveniently clueless and lets himself be led by the nose to the wrong island, where US authorities are there to arrest him.

This is a mediocre and flawed beginning for the revival’s original stories. It’s largely a rehash of tropes from older episodes, which is perhaps forgivable considering that they were all going to be remakes at first; perhaps this script grew out of a preliminary remake plan. But the greater problem is that the execution is awkward and lacking the subtlety which a proper con game should have. It shows a lack of understanding of the show and its approach. There’s also some really clunky expository dialogue, and a rather silly part where Usher soliloquizes to Dr. Jim about his deepest concerns and anxieties immediately after first meeting him and before he has any reason to trust him.

Still, the production succeeds where the writing fails. Kennedy is excellent as Usher, with a gravel-voiced performance reminding me of Kevin Conway’s Kahless from Star Trek: TNG, and showing a more sympathetic, almost touching side as he tentatively reaches out to the boy he believes is his son. The location filming made possible by the Australia-based production leaves the original show’s soundstages and backlots in the dust. And Lalo Schifrin provides an excellent score that reminds me at times of some of his work from the original’s season 3, while occasionally venturing into more modern territory (though I still suspect Ron Jones of arranging some of the synth ostinati in the second half). Schifrin also provides an original action cue which is basically an inversion of the main theme, and in the climax he does something only rarely done in the original, combining the main M:I ostinato with “The Plot” before shifting into a full statement of the main theme for the moment of triumph and the finale.

But the new main cast is still a little underwhelming. Nicholas is supposed to be playing an American here, but if he’s even attempting to do an American accent, then he’s doing it really badly. They really should’ve tried harder to cast actors who were good with accents. To be sure, the narrow repertoire of fake accents that Martin Landau and Leonard Nimoy were able to bring to bear wasn’t very convincing, but Penghlis doesn’t seem capable of faking an accent at all, short of having another actor’s voice dubbed over his own.

“The Condemned”: Remaking Season 2, episode 19. Teleplay by Ted Roberts and Michael Fisher, with the story credited to John Truman, a pseudonym for the original episode’s writer Laurence Heath.

This time there’s a lot of rewriting, although the basic plot is the same. The teaser shows former M:I regular Barney Collier (Greg Morris) at a cafe in Istanbul, where he’s arrested by the corrupt Captain Hamidou (Adrian Wright), a composite of the honest Mexican police captain and the criminal Constantine from the original episode. Apparently it takes Barney three months to get a message out about his arrest to the IMF — yes, this time it’s an official mission, while in the original it was a personal mission for Jim. He gets the assignment in a trailer on the beach, allowing for a couple of gratuitous bikini babes to walk by (in addition to the belly dancer in the cafe earlier). For some reason, the Voice is cagey and doesn’t tell Jim until the end that the wrongly condemned man he has to rescue is Barney. In the briefing, Jim suggests that Grant sit this one out since it’s too personal, but the young Collier insists on coming along. We learn that his mother passed away two years ago.

Jim convinces an honest underling of Hamidou (and one ambitious to be given back the prison governorship that Hamidou kicked him out of) to let him and Grant visit Barney — corresponding to the opening scene of the original, and giving Jim a chance to photograph the walls of the cell, which is an utterly awful, squalid place compared to the stark but clean cell in the original. Grant uses the photos to print out latex sheets duplicating the wall texture in three dimensions, which Nicholas and Max smuggle in wrapped around their legs during their priest impersonation (where they engage in some fun and well-played banter not present in the original). But they can’t very well have Greg Morris languish behind a fake wall for the whole episode like Kevin Hagen did in the original, so as soon as the “priests” return with the hooded executioner, and once the guard discovers the “empty” cell and runs off to sound the alarm, Max and Nicholas knock out the hangman, take down the fake wall, dress Barney in the hangman’s robe and hood, and escort him to freedom.

But they still have to clear Barney and bring down Hamidou. They need Barney to confront the woman who helped frame him, here named Lydia (Anna Maria Monticelli), but Barney’s in no condition after three months in that horrid cell, so Nicholas has to turn Grant into his father. This allows for a father-son exchange where Barney laments missing birthdays and important events in Grant’s life due to all his secret agenting, but Grant absolves him as, now disguised as his father, he tells him, “I wanted to grow up to be just like you.” Aww.

Casey tags along with Jim to investigate the home of the murder victim, here named George Stanton; since Cinnamon wasn’t in the original episode, Casey has no role of her own to fill. For the second week in a row, she’s pretty much a fifth wheel. She and Jim discover that Stanton and Hamidou stole a priceless royal necklace (rather than the original crown), then  get arrested by Hamidou (in place of being captured by Constantine). Jim plays private investigator again, and convinces Hamidou to go into a partnership to find the necklace and split its insured value. Meanwhile, Barney confronts Lydia and forces her to go to Stanton, who kills her like in the original. This time, instead of accidentally falling to his death, Stanton confronts and almost shoots Jim, then gets into a fight with Nicholas before falling to his death. To save time, Lydia lingers long enough to fill Jim in on the plot details the team had to figure out on their own the first time. In this version, Stanton faked his death in order to double-cross his partner Hamidou and get away with the necklace.

The endgame is much simpler than the elaborate remote-control car chase in the original. There, they had to make it look like a dead man was still alive in order to prove to the honest police captain that he’d faked his death earlier. Here, they have to expose the corrupt captain’s culpability in the crime. So they just lure Hamidou to Lydia’s cafe, where Barney confronts him (using the old mirror-in-the-door trick to avoid Hamidou’s bullets — three times in a row, since Hamidou has an amazingly flat learning curve) and gets him to confess to his acts of thievery and murder while the team tapes the whole thing. Seriously, the guy can’t resist incriminating himself repeatedly and in detail, which comes off as laughably contrived. All the team has to do is invite the honest cop and show him the videotape — after Barney “accidentally” tips Hamidou off that the necklace is in his cell, driving the corrupt captain back to the prison so he can be handily locked away.

The caper portions of this episode are a step down from the original. That was the first off-book mission we’d ever seen Jim on, a rare departure from formula in which the team had to improvise its tricks and solve a mystery on the fly (although, as I said in my review, their improvised tricks were implausibly elaborate and indistinguishable from their usual schtick). Not to mention the added challenge of proving that a man thought already dead was still alive even after he’d died for real. This was more of a conventional mission aside from the personal angle, and an easier problem to crack since there was still a living villain to extract a confession from after Stanton died. So on that level, it falls short. But it benefits from the personal angle, using the plot of Jim saving a friend as an opportunity to bring back Greg Morris (for his first of several guest appearances) and explore Barney’s relationship with his son. It’s Barney’s scenes with Jim and Grant that make the episode work.

Production-wise, we’re still getting good location work, although there are a couple of less-than-convincing digital matte paintings of the hilltop prison fortress and the Istanbul skyline. Ron Jones scores again, reusing the ostinato he added to “The Plot” in episode 2, but his score here doesn’t impress me as much as his previous one  — perhaps because I watched this just after watching the original, which was tracked with some of the old series’ best cues. We also get a shorter version of the main titles this time, leaving out most of the montage portion.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988) Reviews: “The Killer”/”The System” (spoilers)

Huzzah! Netflix has finally gotten the first season of the 1988 Mission: Impossible revival series in stock, so I’m finally able to resume my review series after a gap of nearly two and a half years. Unfortunately they only have the first season at the moment, but that constitutes 19 of the revival’s 35 episodes.

The M:I revival series came about as a consequence of the 1988 Writers’ Guild of America strike, which fell during the time when the networks needed to develop scripts for the 1988-9 season. Desperate for material to film, the networks began looking around for pre-existing scripts they could reshoot. Paramount decided to revive Mission: Impossible, this time selling it to ABC rather than CBS, and filming it in Australia to save money. The initial plan was to remake episodes of the original series with new actors playing the original characters. But once Peter Graves was brought back to revive the role of Jim Phelps, it was decided that the remainder of the cast would play new characters instead. (Not that it really made much difference, since the characters were always pretty interchangeable.) The strike was resolved early enough that the recycled scripts could be revised, modernized, and adapted for the new series. For the remade episodes, I’ll be rewatching the originals for comparison and discussing what was changed in the remakes.

The new cast was as follows:

  • Peter Graves as Jim Phelps: The veteran Impossible Missions Force team leader, 15 years older than when we last saw him but otherwise unchanged.
  • Thaao Penghlis as Nicholas Black: The master of disguise, filling the shoes of Rollin Hand and the Great Paris.
  • Phil Morris as Grant Collier: The real-life son of Greg Morris playing the son of Barney Collier and filling the same tech-genius role.
  • Terry Markwell as Casey Randall: The femme fatale, replacing Cinnamon Carter, Dana Lambert, and the original Casey (no relation).
  • Tony Hamilton as Max Harte: The strongman, replacing Willy Armitage, but also a frequent roleplayer.
  • Bob Johnson as the Voice on Tape — now updated to the Voice on Disc. The only returning regular besides Graves.

Okay, we’ve been waiting years for this, so without further ado:

“The Killer”: A remake of Season 5, episode 1. Credited to the original author, Arthur Weiss, though given an uncredited rewrite.

The opening is completely new. This “Killer,” under the alias Drake (John DeLancie, just a year after his debut as Q on Star Trek: The Next Generation), assassinates a middle-aged man at a party, using a hallucinogenic dart that causes him to imagine he’s on fire and thus throw himself off a balcony. Seems a rather overcomplicated and unreliable murder weapon. But then at the funeral, we see Jim Phelps watching from afar, looking resolute. Lalo Schifrin is back to score the new pilot, and he introduces Jim with a soulful variant of the main title theme, modulating into a bit of “The Plot” (the motif used in every episode to accompany the execution of the team’s plans), then returning to a more resolute main theme statement as the teaser ends. (Notably, the teaser takes place in San Francisco, which was evidently where Jim lived in the final season of the original.)

The main titles feature a very ’80s-ish synth/guitar rearrangement of the main theme, and instead of giving us a montage of scenes from the current episode, they just provide a generic montage of clips of the cast and various spy gear and techie stuff (some taken from episodes, others staged for the titles). Notably, the match that lights the animated “fuse” is now held by Peter Graves himself rather than an anonymous hand (actually creator Bruce Geller’s) as in the original. And the “fuse” now runs across the lower portion of the screen rather than the middle. (The end titles are over a static “IMF” in a red computerish font, rather than the original montage of gadgetry.)

In the message-drop scene, Jim exchanges code phrases with a fisherman as in the original, but this time the fisherman offers some slightly stilted exposition about how the victim, Tom Copperfield, was a former team leader for the IMF and Jim’s personal protege, presumably sometime after the original series ended in 1973. (Might’ve been nice if it was a character we knew, so the death would have resonance, but that would’ve precluded that actor returning for a guest spot later on, so maybe they didn’t want to go there.) This hardly seems necessary, since the Voice delivers that same information moments later on the briefing disc. Yes, the old mini-reel-to-reel tape player has been replaced by a thumbprint-encoded black box that opens to reveal a keypad requiring a 3-digit code sequence, whereupon it releases a miniature optical disc (a fake technology at the time, but close in size to the Sony MiniDisc introduced 4 years later) that Jim places in a slot to activate it. There’s also a video screen (replacing the envelope of photos that used to accompany the tape) with a row of green LEDs over the screen that show the progress of the playback, plus a set of three status lights on the side: A green “Run” light while the message plays, a yellow light with a rectangular symbol for the self-destruct warning, and a red “Destruct” light over the 5-second countdown. And one more change: “Good morning, Mr. Phelps” has evolved to “Good morning, Jim.” Which could make it hard for new viewers to figure out what Jim’s full name is.

The mission is basically the same as before: Stop the assassin’s next killing and discover the identity of his employer, Scorpio. But we’re given less information. The focus is more on Jim’s vendetta and less on the dilemma of how to stop a murder when you don’t know the who, when, where, or how.

We move to the revival series’ sole use of the classic dossier sequence (not seen since season 4), albeit in updated form, and scored by a variant of Schifrin’s original dossier-scene music. Jim’s (new IMF-provided?) apartment comes with a keyboard hidden in the coffee table and a big screen that unfolds from a decorative pillar. These replace the binder of dossiers from the original, and the video dossiers come with narration by Bob Johnson, offering us brief backstories for the new team members — more than we ever got for the originals. Nicholas Black is a drama teacher at “an eastern university.” Casey Randall is “a top designer on three continents” who helped the IMF catch the terrorists who murdered her husband and has continued to freelance for them. (Same problem as Cinnamon Carter: How does someone so famous function as an undercover operative?) Max Harte is an athlete who organized his own private Rambo-style mission to liberate his older brother from a Vietnam POW camp. And Grant Collier is Barney’s son — ’nuff said.

The rest proceeds largely as in the original episode, even with a fair amount of verbatim dialogue, but with a few changes. The action now takes place in London rather than Los Angeles. Drake arrives late and has a deadline to call his contact, explaining his hurry better than the original did. The team also fakes the street signs outside the hotel, correcting an oversight in the original: If he picked the hotel out of the phone book, wouldn’t he know the address? The cadre of assistants needed to fake up the hotel (a classier facility in this version) is smaller, with the team relying more on high-tech printers and gizmos, losing some of the charm of the original. Max slows Nicholas’s cab down by playing traffic cop and pulling him over, whereas Willy just screwed with the traffic lights. On first facing Drake as the hotel clerk, Jim (who’s been away from the game too long) almost has a lapse of control and wants to lash out at his protege’s murderer. When Drake calls his contact (played by Farscape‘s Virginia Hey), he uses a phone booth outside and is picked up by Max’s shotgun mike, rather than using the bugged lobby phone. And the scenario is reversed from the original: Drake arranges to meet her at a park, and when Nicholas calls her back impersonating Drake, he changes it to the hotel. This leads to a nice moment where Drake and the woman pass each other on the stairs unknowingly. Casey doesn’t seduce Drake to slow him down — a bit of an oversight, since it leaves less time for Jim and Grant to get the target to safety. She does, however, drop a hint about him becoming “famous” for his murders, a compliment he’s uneasy with.

The assassination sequence is simplified considerably. The real target is taken to safety off-camera. The dummy intended to stand in for Grant is introduced much more casually — and is far, far less convincing than the one from 18 years earlier. Drake doesn’t reserve a room over the phone, but just breaks in. The murder weapon is the same — a plastique bomb disguised as golf balls — but he plants it on the floor from the room below rather than lowering it through the air vent from the room above, and it goes off after one minute rather than fifteen. Rather than meeting Casey in an alley and seeing her assassinated by Scorpio’s men, he returns to the hotel to find her there to assassinate him herself and become his replacement. Drake takes the gun from her and “kills” her (as planned) before leaving to hunt down Scorpio — who turns out to be the guy back in San Francisco who threw the party where Copperfield was killed. Drake breaks his cardinal rule of never repeating a murder method, reusing the hallucinogenic dart to kill Scorpio — but why? That killing was only special to Jim, not to Drake or Scorpio, so there’s no reason for the symbolism. Plus it’s implausible that it has the same result, a balcony dive (off-camera). Scorpio — who has the same real name as in the original — only wounds Drake, so the hitman is able to see the closing beat where the team members assemble to let him know he’s been had. Followed by a tag scene at Copperfield’s grave, where Jim tells the other four that he should stick around since it would be a shame to break up such a nice team.

So how does it stack up to the original? Well, I’d say it’s mixed. “The Killer” was a fairly good choice to remake; it was the debut of the superior season 5, wherein the show broke away from its longstanding formula in which the missions played out effortlessly for the team and instead began injecting more challenges and difficulties. That made for a more suspenseful story, and that’s effective here. The added stakes for Jim don’t really resonate beyond a couple of brief added scenes, though. It would’ve been better to pick an episode in which Jim had a more direct interaction with the killer. But as I’ve mentioned, while some of the changes were slight improvements (particularly the more up-t0-date, less gendered role for Casey), there were a couple of misfires with the whole hallucination-dart thing. Still, the teaser here is a vast improvement on the rather dull one in the original.

The new cast isn’t too impressive yet. Peter Graves is the same as he always was, which is cool. Phil Morris is younger, less experienced, and less potent a performer than he would become later on, and thus is not quite on the same level as his father on the original. Penghlis and Hamilton are okay, but both speak in Australian accents even though they’re supposed to be American. Markwell is rather lovely — though less so than I seem to remember finding her back in ’88 — but isn’t impressing me yet as an actress (and fakes an American accent imperfectly, though better than the other two Aussies). The only guest star of note is DeLancie, and he’s certainly a more charismatic and classier villain than Robert Conrad was.

As for Schifrin’s music, it’s a solid M:I score — fortunately orchestral rather than electronic like the new main title — but not a standout, and not as distinctive as his funk-influenced score for the original episode. (There are a few parts of it that sound to me as if they might have been arranged by Ron Jones, the acclaimed TNG/DuckTales composer who would score several other episodes in the season ahead. That’s just an impression, but it’s possible. It’s not unheard of for TV or film composers to help each other out with orchestrations when there’s a time crunch; for instance, Alexander Courage and Fred Steiner both worked with Jerry Goldsmith to arrange cues for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.) But it solidly re-establishes the main motifs of the original series. Both the main title theme and “The Plot” will continue to play central roles in every episode of the revival, as they did for the original.

“The System”: Remaking Season 3, episode 15. Credited to the original author, Robert Hamner.

Again we get a new teaser — the original had none. We see Frank Marley (James Sloyan, replacing James Patterson’s Costa) and his boss Connors actually killing the federal witness against the latter, a murder we only heard about in the original. Jim gets the disc message at a football stadium after trading code phrases with the popcorn vendor, and it’s the same mission as in the original: Convince Marley to testify against Connors, something he’s never likely to do since he’s Connors’s trusted heir apparent.

Marley’s casino is in the Bahamas rather than stateside. It’s odd that the first two episodes, even though they’re set around the world, are adapted from US-bound mob stories from the original. And it makes the inclusion of the “Secretary will disavow any knowledge” line rather incongruous. The original series dropped that line for stateside organized-crime cases, since they weren’t espionage-related. In these episodes, they’re still going after criminals rather than spies, so the cloak-and-dagger stuff is as incongruous as it was in the crime-focused seasons 6 and 7 of the original. (And moving the crimebusting stories overseas makes me wonder about the legality of the team’s operations on foreign soil).

The original “The System” was a weak, bland episode only livened up by its innovative and striking cinematography, which helped compensate for its rather dinky casino set. Here, we get a much more lavish location shoot at a real hotel-casino, making the episode look more expensive even though the cinematography is more conventional.

Max plays the hitman role that Jim filled in the original, tipping Marley off that Connors plans to hit him, while Jim takes over Rollin Hand’s role of the auditor supposedly sent by the mob boss. Max offers a better motive for the tipoff: rather than just being uneasy with a high-profile hit, he wants to hitch his wagon to Marley’s star since he’s the likely new boss. (We also begin to see here that Tony Hamilton is a much better actor than Peter Lupus was.) Casey fills Cinnamon Carter’s role of the sexy gambler with the system, drawing Marley’s interest to trick him out of large sums of money and frame him in his employees’ eyes, and Grant fills his father’s role of breaking into the vault. The vault sequence is less imaginative than the original. The pressure-sensitive floor alarm is replaced with a rather silly wall unit firing out random lasers, which Grant blocks with a mirror so he can climb into the room — which leads to a new act-break cliffhanger when the mirror falls out of place and he needs to call in the others (using the miniature walkie-talkies that are evidently standard IMF equipment now) to cut the generator long enough for him to replace it. That’s a nice introduction of danger into a story that was too by-the-numbers originally, and makes up for the sillier security system. Grant also blocks a security camera using a handheld video camera (using one of the mockup IMF mini-discs) to record a shot of the room and feed it into the security cable.  The larger size of the foreign bills and the staging of the later counting sequence also address my problem with the original sequence, giving a reason why Jim couldn’t have just brought the extra money in with him and planted it rather than having Grant break in beforehand.

The biggest plot change is made to introduce the use of full-face-mask impersonations. Now the masks seem to be created by a mix of hand-sculpting by Nicholas and computer-aided design by Grant. Nicholas impersonates Marley in order to do what Rollin and Cinnamon did with a forged note on a piece of paper: Telling the blackjack dealer to let Casey win a lot of money. The real Marley is distracted with another cash counting scene, not in the original. The faked attempt on Marley’s life is moved to a scene with Max rather than the later scene with Casey (Cinnamon) where she reveals she’s working for the mob boss. The oddest change is when, rather than having Nicholas or Grant (whom Marley hasn’t seen) play the real hitman, it turns out that Max was the hitman all along, just pulling a fakeout as part of the frame, or something. That part doesn’t work so well. Anyway, it ends like the original, with Marley locking himself in the vault and calling the cops to make a deal to testify.

Despite the less impressive cinematography and gadgetry, this is much more effective than the original. The story is pretty much the same, and it’s a standard M:I tale with no insights into the regular characters; but some of its flaws are improved on, and the location shooting makes it much more impressive. For the second week in a row, they’ve cast a far stronger villain than the original did, even though Sloyan doesn’t have much to work with here. The strongest part is Ron Jones’s debut score for the series. It’s very much an M:I score, but also very much a Ron Jones score; those two things mesh quite well. In the vault sequence, Jones’s use of the first three notes of the main theme as a recurring motif over one of his trademark electronic ostinati reminds me very much of some of his TNG work. But at other times, he goes for a more contemporary sound (much as Schifrin did in the original “The Killer”), distinguishing his score from both TNG and the original M:I. Notably, in Grant’s break-in, Jones arranges “The Plot” over a distinctive bass guitar riff, one I actually remember even though I haven’t seen this series in a quarter-century. This riff will be reused in later Jones scores for the series.

So how can we cope with these remakes in the context of series continuity? Maybe we could pretend that Jim is reusing plans that worked in similar situations, if it weren’t for the fact that so much of the dialogue was verbatim, character names like Scorpio/Chambers were the same, and the villains reacted the same way to the team’s scripted lines and maneuvers. There’s really no way to reconcile them. And a larger issue for the show in general is that Phil Morris was already 7 years old when M:I began, but Barney was always portrayed as an eligible bachelor. It’s hard to make it fit.

But then, TV shows in the ’60s and ’70s rarely had much continuity, and M:I was a prime example. Team members would reveal their faces on national or global television one week and then be totally anonymous again the next, or be badly injured, brainwashed, or tortured in one episode and be perfectly healthy a week later. Regulars vanished without explanation and their replacements were treated like they’d always been there. Only in season 7 was there even the slightest attempt to acknowledge continuity. In those days, before commonplace syndication or home video, episodes had to stand alone since past episodes might never be seen again, and missed episodes might never be seen at all. So even shows with continuing characters tended to work like anthologies. There are many such shows — even as late as Law & Order — that function more like a set of parallel realities featuring identical characters rather than a series of consecutive adventures in a single reality. Indeed, sometimes a show would remake its own earlier episodes in later seasons (one example being Mannix, the third Desilu drama developed by Herb Solow alongside M:I and Star Trek, which remade a first-season episode with Charles Drake into a sixth-season episode with William Shatner). There’s really no way to reconcile such things.

But that’s okay — next comes the revival’s first original episode!

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TOPKAPI (1964): The proto-MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE? (Not exactly…)

January 11, 2012 2 comments

In the comments to my recent review of Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, I mentioned (not for the first time on this blog) that the original Mission: Impossible TV series was partly inspired by the 1964 heist movie Topkapi.  Since I’ve run out of M:I episodes to recap/review (until I can get my hands on the DVDs of the ’88 revival, which Netflix is taking its good time getting in stock), it occurred to me to check out Topkapi as a sort of adjunct to my review series.  Fortunately, it is available for streaming on Netflix.

Topkapi was written by Monja Danischewsky, based on the novel The Light of Day by Eric Ambler, and directed by Jules Dassin.  It stars Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov, Maximilian Schell, and Robert Morley.  Ustinov won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

And it’s very different from what I expected, very different from M:I.  It’s more of a screwball comedy, opening with Mercouri talking directly to the audience to explain her goal, to steal a priceless emerald-encrusted dagger from the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul.  (Hey, I like it that she’s into emeralds.)  Her character, going by the name Elizabeth Lipp, is a thief, but one who’s never been caught, nor has her old flame Walter Harper (Schell), whom she recruits to help her steal the dagger and replace it with a replica she’s created.  He insists that they need to recruit a team of amateurs, people who also have no police records, since if a heist of this magnitude succeeds, the cops will be looking at the high-end thieves, all known.  Here we can see the ancestry of the M:I trope of assembling a team of “amateur” spies — magician, supermodel, engineer, professional bodybuilder — for off-book, deniable missions too sensitive to leave a paper trail back to the government (though this implied concept was abandoned by the show soon enough).

The team they assemble consists of  eccentric inventor Cedric Page (Morley) — sort of the “Barney” of the operation in M:I terms, though more like a spiritual ancestor to Blade Runner‘s Sebastian — plus the volatile strongman Hans (Jess Hahn) and the mute acrobat Giulio the Human Fly (Gilles Segal), who reminds me of the non-English-speaking contortionist in the George Clooney Ocean’s Eleven.  (How many movies borrowed tropes from this movie, anyway?)  The last “recruit” is the unwitting patsy (or “schmo,” as they call him) — Arthur Simpson (Ustinov), the world’s most hapless tour guide, whom they hire to drive a valuable rented car across the border to Istanbul, with some of their heist gear hidden in the door.  They don’t plan on Simpson having an expired passport that gets him questioned and his car inspected at the Turkish border, revealing the hidden rifle and smoke grenades.  The Turks arrest him, thinking he’s part of a terrorist plot to attack a major meeting of important officials, but his bumbling defense convinces them that he’s probably a dupe, so they let him prove it by spying for them, carrying on his assignment as though nothing happened.  Once he delivers the car to Cedric, a cop working for the government tells Cedric that only the registered driver can drive the car under Turkish law, so Cedric is forced to bring Simpson with him to meet the other plotters.  There’s a bunch of character-based wackiness that doesn’t amuse me, largely involving a drunken, incoherent male cook (Akim Tamiroff) who keeps coming onto Simpson and picking fights with Hans, or else involving the rather unattractive Mercouri playing a seductive vamp who claims to be a nymphomaniac.

It isn’t until nearly halfway through the movie that the heist begins to unfold and we begin to see some more elements relating to M:I.  A notable one is when, before the heist, a fight with the cook leads to Hans getting his hands crushed in a door so he can’t play his part — a trope used with Wally Cox’s safecracker character in the M:I pilot.  This requires them to bring Simpson into their confidence so he can fill Hans’s role of lowering Giulio into the museum on a rope.  So Simpson lets slip that Turkish Security thinks they’re terrorists and is watching them, so they have to adjust the plan.

I guess the heist sequence itself, which kicks in during the final half-hour of the movie, is the main part that inspired M:I — and not just the show, as it was a direct inspiration for the famous lowered-on-a-wire sequence in the first Tom Cruise M:I movie.  The meticulousness with which the planning and execution are shown step-by-step is the main inspiration.  But at the same time, there’s a lot that’s different.  These thieves are less of a well-oiled machine than the IMF, with lots of stumbles and hitches and improvisations and barely averted disasters as they execute the heist.  The sequence is carried out with very little dialogue, like M:I, but with no music whatsoever throughout the entire heist, very unlike M:I.  And the plan turns out to have one tiny but fatal flaw, so the outcome is rather different than it is in M:I.

Bottom line, I wasn’t crazy about the film.  Even aside from not being the kind of film I was expecting, it was a little too weird and eccentric, and I really disliked Mercouri as the lead actress.  And too many of the plot points depend on these supposed master thieves making stupid decisions.  If they were going to pick Simpson as their dupe, they should’ve researched him more first and made sure his passport was valid.  Worse, their decision to bring him aboard as a replacement for Hans makes no sense.  We were shown that the team was assisted by at least one member of a carnival that had set up shop next to the Topkapi Museum (which, come to think of it, may have inspired the similar use of a carnival in M:I’s first two-parter “Old Man Out”), so if they needed a strongman, why not recruit one from the carnival, instead of pinning the success of their plan on a flabby middle-aged coward whose involvement brings them close to disaster time and time again?  The plot just doesn’t add up.  Maybe it’s not supposed to, maybe these characters are intended to be bumblers attempting something beyond their abilities, but that’s hard to reconcile with the premise that the masterminds are too good to have ever gotten caught.  So it just didn’t work for me.  I almost wish I hadn’t seen the film at all.  The only thing I really gained from the experience was having my misconceptions about the film clarified.  It’s not nearly as much a spiritual ancestor of Mission: Impossible as I was expecting.

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M:I: GHOST PROTOCOL: At last, an actual MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie

This week I got my semi-annual royalty check from my publisher, and it was a lot bigger than I expected (yay!), so I celebrated by going out to a bookstore and a movie.  The movie I picked was Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which I’ve been looking forward to, since I’m a big fan of its director Brad Bird’s previous films The Iron Giant and The Incredibles (and to a lesser extent Ratatouille), and I was eager to see what he could achieve in live action.

And Bird didn’t disappoint me. This is the best M:I movie ever. It was the kind of movie I’d expect from an animation genius like Bird, full of richly imaginative visuals and action composition — and I don’t just mean action in the sense of fights and chases, but in the sense of cause and effect, one thing leading to another, like the delightful touch of the progression of Ethan’s goggles from the Burj Khalifa climbing scene through the meeting scene to the sandstorm scene. And it had a lot of Bird’s wonderful sense of humor as well, full of marvelously funny action gags (like Ethan going back to smack the phone when it didn’t self-destruct in five seconds, or trying to use the retinal scanner on the moving train car) and character bits (mainly Simon Pegg’s Benji and Jeremy Renner’s Brandt, who have a good comic interplay). It wasn’t as deep with the characters and emotions as The Incredibles was, but it was highly entertaining, with lots of inspired set pieces. I actually didn’t find the much-touted Burj Khalifa sequence to be the highlight of the film. There were so many other sequences that were just as cleverly scripted, designed, and executed, just as frenetic and intense. If anything, it was a little too much — I felt a bit overloaded by the end of it.  But it was too much of a good thing.

Best of all, it’s the first Ethan Hunt film that really feels worthy of the title Mission: Impossible.  Previously, this film “series,” if you can even call it that, was three radically different spy films reflecting their respective directors’ sensibilities more than they reflected each other or the television series they were named for.  Brian De Palma made a De Palma-style paranoid thriller with some trappings of Mission: Impossible.  John Woo made a Woo-style action thriller with even fewer trappings of M:I.  J. J. Abrams made Alias: The Movie with a pretty good M:I pastiche or two in the middle.  But Brad Bird actually went and made a Mission: Impossible movie.  Granted, it’s also an Ethan Hunt movie, with the characteristic wild action and agent-on-the-run tropes of that protagonist’s prior screen adventures.  And it’s the first of the Ethan Hunt films to actually feel like a continuation from its predecessor; sure, a lot had changed since the previous film, but at least those changes were explained, and there were character threads growing out of what the third film established (which makes sense, since Abrams produced this one).  But Ghost Protocol had more of the original M:I television series in its genetic makeup than any of the previous films — though it’s definitely filtered through Bird’s own voice and sensibilities as a filmmaker.

It started with the main titles. Not only did Bird bring in the iconic fuse-lighting motif as part of the actual action, which was inspired, but he used it to segue into a main title sequence that took the same basic concept as the original series’ titles — the burning fuse superimposed over a progression of scenes from the story we were about to see — and amped it up into a very dynamic, visually imaginative, Pixaresque sequence. Then there’s Michael Giacchino’s music with its liberal use of Lalo Schifrin’s main title theme and an excellent use of Schifrin’s “The Plot” motif leading into and during the Kremlin sequence (though it’s a shame he didn’t use “The Plot” anywhere else in the movie), not to mention peppering the score with Schifrinesque bongos and violin vibratos, so that it felt more like an extension of the original series’ music than any of the previous films’ scores. But it felt like the original M:I in content as well as style. It’s the most team-driven of the movies, not just Ethan plus his support group, but a full ensemble piece throughout like the original was (though with a smaller team size than the series usually had in its first five seasons).  It’s also the first of the movies that didn’t have a romantic subplot per se for Hunt, so the focus was more heavily on the progression of the mission, as it was in the show (there were occasional M:I episodes that gave the leads romances, but such personal involvements were rare exceptions, not the rule they’ve been onscreen).  The IMF is still implicitly a much larger, more centralized bureaucracy as it’s been in the films, but the storyline keeps it mostly off-camera, letting the film feel more like the series, where the team was never seen in any kind of official headquarters and their superiors were invisible and implicit.  (Okay, we actually met “the Secretary” here, a major subversion of the show’s conventions, but it was brief.)  It’s a good compromise between the established realities of the movie universe and the flavor and approach of the show.

And some of the gambits they used were right out of the show. The idea of hiding from guards behind a projection screen, as Ethan and Benji did in the Kremlin hallway, is a modernized, amped-up, much more convincing (and funnier) version of a gambit the original series used in “The Falcon, Part 3.” Controlling the elevators to direct the mark to a duplicate room a floor away from the real one was used in “The Double Circle.” Intercepting both parties in a meeting, having them respectively meet different team members in adjacent rooms, was a gambit they used in “Orpheus” and probably other episodes. And the way Benji helped Brandt get into the server room was in the spirit of the sort of behind-the-scenes stuff Barney and Willy routinely did in the original show, using clever, high-tech equipment to sneak through tunnels and shafts and so forth.  Sure, having the tech go wrong so often was a subversion, something we infrequently saw in the show, but even as a subversion it felt like a reaction to the series’ defining tropes more than those of the movies.

Although Agent Carter, despite sharing a surname with Cinnamon Carter (and I didn’t catch onto that until after the film), was something of a subversion as well, in that she tended to have a much more brute-force approach than was standard in the original series, beating answers out of people instead of tricking them, and she almost fumbled her seduction assignment (though she looked really good in that green dress at the party — not quite as striking as Maggie Q’s dress in the third movie, but almost).  Aside from Hunt, she was the main thing that felt more like part of the movie universe than the TV universe.  But she felt like an outsider trying to adjust to the more clever and devious way of doing things, so that still makes it feel (at least to me) like the movie is treating the show’s approach as the standard.

I had a nice little experience in the final scene of the film. When Brandt was starting to confess to Ethan about the thing he was all angsty over (I don’t want to spoil it), I realized what the upcoming surprise revelation was going to be, and I gasped in delight and leaned forward in anticipation. And then a few lines later, just before the reveal, a woman in the row in front of me — whose face I could see now that I was leaning forward — gasped in realization just as I had.  It was nice to (sort of) share that moment with someone else. Sometimes, even in this age of cell phones and relentless chatter and shoddily run, overpriced theaters, there’s value to seeing a movie with an audience rather than alone at home.

(And no, this isn’t the kind of detailed analysis I did for the TV series.  Maybe someday, I’ll do that for all four movies, just to be thorough, but not yet.)

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1966-73): Full series overview

December 3, 2011 4 comments

Well, it’s been a long run — seven seasons, 171 episodes, 163 distinct adventures.  And the series went through a lot of changes over the years.  Appropriate, perhaps, since it was conceived with constant change in mind.  Let’s try for some highlights:

Season 1

Regulars:  Government agent Dan Briggs (Steven Hill), fashion model Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), engineer Barney Collier (Greg Morris), and strongman Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus).  Actor-magician Rollin Hand (Martin Landau) is de facto regular despite being listed as “Special Guest Star” throughout.

Initially an anthology-style show, with highly variable team composition and focus on guest agents of the week, though the focus soon shifted more to the regulars.  Briggs’s role gradually diminished due to conflicts of Hill’s Orthodox Judaism with series shooting schedule.  Briggs sometimes assembled teams but did not join them in the field.  Landau became the effective series lead despite not being a regular.  No cast member appeared in every episode.

Stories were initially more character-driven, often featured plots going wrong, team improvising.  By late season, had become more formulaic: characters were ciphers, plans more often proceeded like clockwork.

Only a couple of episodes dealt with stateside organized crime, and one of those was not a government mission.

Originally “tape scenes” used many recording formats (once even a printed card), often needing to be destroyed by Briggs rather than self-destructing.  “This tape will self-destruct” line emerged late-ish.  Several tape sequences reused.

Dossier scenes introduced — useful due to variable team composition.  Major guest stars (especially Landau) often credited over their dossier photos.

Team members were not pro agents, drawn from all walks of life.  Briggs evidently running unofficial black-ops missions with deniability for government.  Even this early, though, the team sometimes cooperated openly with government agencies, a trend that would only increase over time.

Foreign missions usually in unnamed foreign countries, sometimes leading to awkwardly evasive phrasing in tape briefings.

At first, prosthetics handled relatively plausibly: convincing impersonations required actor resembling subject, altered with prosthetics; full-face masks were limited in effectiveness.  By mid-season, masks allowed perfect imitations but one couldn’t eat in them.  By end of season, masks could be lived in for days, sweated through, even survive electroshock therapy undamaged.  This fanciful approach was norm for rest of series.

  • Best Episodes: A lot to choose from, but I’d say “The Short Tail Spy,” “Pilot,” and the 2-parter “Old Man Out,”  in roughly that order.
  • Worst Episodes: I’d say the morally distasteful “Shock,” followed by the ludicrous “Zubrovnik’s Ghost” and the geopolitically problematical “Action!”

Season 2

Regulars: Government agent Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), Rollin Hand,  Cinnamon Carter, Barney Collier, Willy Armitage.

Although Landau had effectively become the lead by late season 1, he was only willing to commit on a season-by-season basis, so Graves was brought in as the new star when Hill left.

Routine and formulaic season, more standardized team composition.  Some efforts to vary formula toward end of season.

Tape scenes more standardized; nearly half were reused.  From now on, the season’s tape scenes would all be shot ahead of time and cut into episodes at random.  Still various delivery methods.  Dossier sequences remain to introduce team variations and guest agents (less prominent than before); only Graves and Landau are in every episode.

More episodes focusing on domestic crime.

Two “off-book” missions, one personal, one accidental.  The next couple of seasons would continue to have only a couple of significant departures from formula per season, always in the latter half.

  • Best Episodes: “Echo of Yesterday,” followed by “Trial by Fury” and “The Town.”
  • Worst Episodes: “Charity” is the most weak and pointless episode, followed by “The Killing” and “The Counterfeiter.”

Season 3

Regulars: No change.

Still mostly routine, but stronger, with more danger, uncertainty, very occasional humanizing of regulars.

Tape scenes pretty standardized, fewer reuses.  Still various recording formats.  Dossier scenes used only in the seven episodes featuring guest team members beyond the core cast.  Only Jim, Rollin in every episode, but only one episode, “Nicole,” featured fewer than four of the regulars.

A third of season set in United States; comparable organized-crime focus to S2.

While several earlier episodes involved exploiting supernatural beliefs, this season began the trend of faking science-fictional premises, and of trying to convince skeptics of paranormal claims.

  • Best Episodes: “Nicole,” followed by “The Mind of Stefan Miklos” and “The Interrogator.”
  • Worst Episodes: “The Freeze,” followed by “The Bargain,” and a toss-up between “The Elixir” and “Nitro.”

Season 4

Regulars: Jim Phelps, impersonator/magician The Great Paris (Leonard Nimoy), Barney Collier, Willy Armitage.  First season where Barney is in every episode.  Only one episode lacks one of the four regulars (Willy).

No regular female lead; featured roughly a dozen guest female agents, with only Tracey (Lee Meriwether) recurring. Dossier sequences thus returned weekly, usually crediting guest actresses over their photos.  Hartford and Globe Repertory Companies added for missions requiring large groups of players.

Tape scenes all featured magnetic tapes (reel-to-reel or 8-track cartridge) that self-destructed.

Trend toward US-based and organized-crime episodes reversed, with only two of each (only one that was both).  Most consistent overseas-espionage focus since season 1.  Otherwise, a fairly formulaic season, though with a few notable departures.

Fictitious foreign countries now usually named instead of nameless.  Lots of People’s Republics.

Last season to have multi-part episodes, including the series’ only 3-parter.

  • Best Episodes: “Submarine” by a landslide, followed by the 2-part “The Controllers” and the 3-part “The Falcon.”
  • Worst Episodes: The season finale “The Martyr” hands down, followed by “Terror” and “Mastermind.”

Season 5

Regulars: Jim Phelps, Paris, Barney, agent/actress Dana Lambert (Lesley Ann Warren, billed as Lesley Warren) all in every episode.  Willy reduced to semi-regular, more or less alternating with Dr. Doug Robert (Sam Elliott), but both listed as main-title regulars when they appeared.

A formula-breaking season that reverted to the approach of early season 1: more exploration of character, more serious disruptions of missions or unexpected twists.  Jim, Paris, and Barney all got episodes delving into their pasts or personal lives.  We more often saw the team as themselves rather than subsumed in roles.  There seemed to be a conscious effort to question, subvert, and deconstruct the familiar conventions of the series.  If anything, this was overdone in the first half, with the second half reverting more often to more conventional cases, though still fresher, deeper, more suspenseful, less formulaic than in past.

Record number of US-based episodes and of organized crime episodes.  Fewer fictitious country names, but several real countries cited.  Only season to have an episode based in East Asia, aside from the teaser of the S6 finale.

New main-title theme arrangement in majority of episodes.  New, more contemporary music style in several episode scores.

Teaser/cold open added before main titles; introduction to villains preceded tape scene.  No variation in recording devices.  “Secretary will disavow” line dropped from US missions and season finale.

Dossier sequences permanently dropped, despite frequent use of supporting team members.  Nearly a third of episodes began in medias reswith no tape or apartment briefing.  (Note that season 4’s “Lover’s Knot” anticipated many season 5 changes: an opening scene before the tape, the lack of an apartment briefing, a story with personal involvement and a hint of intra-team conflict.)

  •  Best Episodes : This could be a long list, but “The Amateur” surely tops it.  “The Innocent” is a strong second, and I’ll give third place to “The Party,” though it has plenty of competition.
  • Worst Episodes: Nothing’s really bad, but the only two weak-ish ones are “Kitara” and “The Rebel.”

Season 6

Regulars: Jim Phelps, Barney Collier, actress/makeup expert Casey (Lynda Day George), Willy Armitage.  Doug Robert made one final appearance.  First season where Willy appears in every episode; only season where all credited regulars appear in every episode.

Focus shifted from international espionage to fighting organized crime in US. The only partial venture outside the US was part of a crimefighting case, and the sole espionage mission was in Los Angeles.

With the reduced cast, Barney and Willy more often called on for core role-playing rather than technical assistance or supporting role-play; thus the focus shifted away from mechanics/logistics, more toward interpersonal manipulation and deception.

Teasers still in use.  Theme music back to original arrangement (or nearly so).

Tape sequences standard, except for one phonograph record.   “Secretary will disavow” line permanently gone;  “conventional law enforcement agencies” line now standard. Cooperation of police, authorities, and multiple supporting players  now standard, rendering secret, self-destructing tape drops rather pointless.

  •  Best Episodes: “Encounter,” followed by “Nerves” and “Double Dead.”
  • Worst Episodes: “Image,” followed by “Run for the Money” and “Encore.”

Season 7

Regulars: Jim Phelps, Barney Collier, Willy Armitage.  Lynda Day George still billed as regular but spent much of season on maternity leave, so Casey “reassigned to Europe.”  Ex-con Mimi (Barbara Anderson) joins on recurring basis, plus two one-shot female agents.

Focus still on domestic crimebusting, with abundant cooperation from authorities, bit players.  However, three episodes set outside US, roughly a half-dozen involving domestic terrorism or international intrigue.

No more pre-credits teaser, but intro scene before tape still used.  Episode credits now shown over/before tape scene.  Series logo no longer included with episode credits.  “Conventional law enforcement agencies” line used intermittently.

Studio-bound feel gives way to more striking location work.  Many tape scenes shot around San Francisco landmarks.  “Speed” shot largely on location in San Francisco.

New main title theme arrangement.  Very little original music in season.

First season with continuity: Casey’s absence, Mimi’s addition explained, a few episodes referenced past events or characters.

  • Best Episodes: “The Question” is the best of the past two seasons.  “The Deal” comes second, followed by “Speed.”
  • Worst Episodes: “The Western,” followed by “Incarnate” and “The Fountain.”

Mission: Impossible started out as a series in which music played a central role.  Like CSI today, a lot of its content consisted of scenes of experts doing slow, meticulous work to the accompaniment of prominent musical passages.  Although most of this music was built around only two Lalo Schifrin leitmotifs — the main title theme and “The Plot,” the standard motif for the team’s machinations — it had a great deal of variety and was provided by a number of skilled composers, primarily Schifrin but including Walter Scharf, Gerald Fried, Jerry Fielding, Robert Drasnin, Richard Markowitz, and others.   The early seasons featured the largest number of original episode scores, but as the series went on and its budget was trimmed, the music budget suffered and the series became more reliant on stock cues.  The fifth season is notable for introducing a new, more contemporary musical style in several of its episodes, but the final two seasons’ music is largely repetitive and unimpressive.   It’s an unfortunate trend.

List of M:I’s composers by number of episode scores (plus episodes where they were credited but I noticed no new music):

  • Lalo Schifrin:  c. 21 scores (c. 23 credited), seasons 1-7
  • Richard Markowitz: 9 scores, S3-4
  • Robert Drasnin: c. 7 scores (8 credited), S2-3, 5-6
  • Gerald Fried: 6 scores, S1-4
  • Jerry Fielding: 6 scores, S2-4
  • Walter Scharf:  5 scores, S1-2
  • Benny Golson: 4 scores, S5-6
  • Richard Hazard: 3 scores, S4-5 (+1 credited, S6)
  • Robert Prince: 2 scores, S5-6
  • Jacques Urbont: 1 score, S1
  • Don Ellis: 1 score, S1
  • Harry Geller: 1 score, S5
  • Hugo Montenegro: 1 score, S5
  • George Romanis: 1 score, S6
  • Duane Tatro: 1 score, S7
  • Herschel Burke Gilbert & Rudy Schrager: 1 original song, S3
  • Uncredited source music/new arrangements (possibly by music supervisor Kenyon Hopkins): 1 episode each, S4, 6-7

My favorite composers were Scharf, Fried, and Fielding, though Drasnin did some impressive work, and Schifrin certainly deserves recognition for defining the show’s musical style.  Least favorite is Hugo Montenegro.

Note that although M:I was the sister production of Star Trek and had a fair amount of overlap in cast and crew, the only composers on this list who ever worked on ST are Fried and Fielding, who worked on the original series around the same time they were doing M:I, and Romanis, who did one ST:TNG episode in its debut 1987-8 season.  The only one of these composers to work on the ’88 M:I revival series is Schifrin, who scored the premiere episode and whose themes (main title and “The Plot”) were used as consistently there as in the original series.

So how would I rank the seven seasons of M:I?

1) Season 5: The best writing, the most imaginative and versatile storytelling, the richest characterizations.  No season had more surprises and twists or made the characters work harder for their victories.  However, it works largely as a reaction to the formulas that came before, so it should be watched in that context rather than by itself.

2) Season 1: The one that started it all and showed what the series could’ve been if it hadn’t been taken over by formula.  If the whole season had been on a par with the first half, it would take the lead over season 5, due to a stronger cast, better music, and the more flexible, diverse team compositions.  But instead it trended downhill and ended up locking in the formula that would define the majority of the series.  It established both the best and the worst of what M:I would be.

3) Season 3: Though generally formulaic, it handles the formula solidly and effectively, with excellent scripting, production values, direction, and music.  It also deserves recognition for its upward trend; as the season progressed, it added more suspense and danger and pitted the team against worthier adversaries.

4) Season 4: An uneven but generally satisfying season, largely routine but with a few impressive format-breakers and multi-part epics, and featuring “Submarine,” one of the finest episodes of the entire series.  Also benefits from strong music.

5) Season 7: Comfortably routine, with few real gems but few duds.  Mostly entertaining if uninspired, but it includes one episode, “The Question,” that’s as good as almost anything in season 5.  The weakest season musically.

6) Season 6: This is a close one.  More standout episodes than season 7 (though nothing equalling “The Question”), but more middling to weak episodes as well, so the average is slightly lower, the season less consistently satisfying as a whole.

7) Season 2: The most routine, formulaic, and mediocre season overall.  It just didn’t bring as much interest to the formula as the other formulaic seasons did. However, it’s one of the strongest seasons musically.

For the heck of it, here’s a list of regular or recurring IMF team members by number of episodes, counting only cast members from the original series and not the 1988 revival.  (Nor am I counting Barney and Casey’s appearances in the revival, since they were not technically IMF team members in those stories.)

  • Barney Collier: 166 (plus at least 1 offscreen assist)
  • Willy Armitage: 147
  • Jim Phelps: 143 (plus 35 episodes of revival)
  • Rollin Hand: 76
  • Cinnamon Carter: 71
  • The Great Paris: 49
  • (Lisa) Casey: 34 (plus 6 offscreen assists)
  • Dan Briggs: 27 (only on mission in 20)
  • Dana Lambert: 23
  • Doug Robert: 13
  • Mimi Davis: 7
  • Tracey: 6 (4 distinct missions)
  • Dr. Green (Allen Joseph): 2 (plus 1 offscreen assist)
  • Dave (Walker Edmiston): 2

Also, the Voice on Tape (Bob Johnson) is heard in 157 episodes, although 8 of those are recaps in multiparters, so it comes out to only 149 distinct tape briefings — plus all 35 episodes of the ’88 revival.

Some comparisons of the different team members:

Best Team Leader: Candidates: Dan Briggs, Jim Phelps

Dan was in some respects a more interesting and edgy character, but tended to be somewhat colder and capable of considerable ruthlessness.  Jim was more whitebread, but it was easier to like him as a series lead and to believe he could win and hold the team’s loyalty.  He could also play a wide range of character types more effectively than Dan.  The vote goes to Jim.

Best Second-in-Command: Candidates: Rollin Hand, Barney Collier

Rollin took over as team leader when Dan was written out of “Action!” and when Jim was abducted in “The Town.”  Also, Rollin was effective field leader in several first-season episodes where Dan stayed behind.  Barney filled in as team leader when Jim was missing in “Trapped” and abducted in “Kidnap.”  Both performed effectively in the role, so it’s a tough call.  But I’m inclined to give the vote to Barney, given that the naturalness with which he fell into a leadership role was impressive for someone who was nominally an engineer — and for an African-American character in a 1960s-70s show.  Even when he wasn’t in a leadership role, his intellect and discipline always made him the linchpin of the team.

Best Master of Disguise: Candidates: Rollin Hand, Paris, Casey

Most of the team members engaged in roleplay, but these were the three whose expertise was primarily in impersonation, makeup, and voice mimicry.  The vote goes to Rollin, for Martin Landau was simply the most versatile and effective character actor of the three.  Leonard Nimoy did his best to show his range as a character actor and get away from Spock, but he felt like an inadequate substitute for Rollin, though at least in season 5 there was some attempt to give him a distinct personality of his own.  The deck is stacked against Casey in the disguise role since the producers were reluctant to do stories that involved hiding her gorgeous face, so she tended to do her makeup work on behalf of others or got to play characters who happened to look enough like her that she didn’t need a mask.  She was a very effective roleplayer and character actress, however.

Best Tech Guy: Barney Collier by default.  Who else do you need?

Best Regular/Recurring Female Agent: Candidates: Cinnamon Carter, Tracey, Dana Lambert, Casey, Mimi

Yes, it’s a bit chauvinistic to treat “female agent” as a category, but that’s the way the role was defined in the show (except to an extent for Casey).  If this were a beauty contest, Casey would win hands down.  And Tracey, who was played by an actual Miss America, would score pretty highly too.  But in terms of overall quality… hmm.  Cinnamon could be quite strong or quite seductive when she chose to be.  She was certainly impressive in the first season.  But as the series went on, Barbara Bain seemed to get less invested in the role and phoned in her performances more.  Some of her characterizations didn’t work well for me; the cold, professional women she played all too often were too flat of affect to be very engaging, and when she got emotional or tearful, she reminded me too much of Lucy Ricardo.  Casey was more bland and Barbie-ish overall than Cinnamon, but that means she had fewer negatives as well as fewer strong positives.  Dana is also a strong candidate in terms of performance, personality, and range, and benefitted from being in the season with the best writing; her roles started to feel a bit repetitive as the season wore on, but then, so did Cinnamon’s.  Aww, heck, let’s say the best is first-season Cinnamon, followed by Dana, then Casey, then later Cinnamon.  Of the two recurring women, Tracey was lovelier, but Mimi was more engaging overall and got more to do.

Best One-shot Female Agent: I won’t list all the candidates, but my favorite guest female agent was Crystal Walker (Mary Ann Mobley) from season 1’s “Old Man Out.”  The runners-up would include Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley) from “The Question” (S7) and three agents from season 4: Gillian (Anne Francis) from “The Double Circle,” Lisa (Michele Carey) from “The Brothers,” and Monique (Julie Gregg) from “Amnesiac.”  Though I might be ranking Monique higher than she deserves because of Julie Gregg’s wonderful performance in a different role in S5’s “Decoy.”

Best “Other Guy”: Candidates: Willy Armitage, Dr. Doug Robert

Of course, a muscleman and a doctor aren’t really comparable roles, but in season 5 the producers intermittently replaced Willy with Doug and considered making it permanent, so it’s worth comparing the two.  Willy wins by a landslide.  Certainly having a doctor on the team on a regular basis was a useful idea, but even though Doug was added with the evident intention of replacing the fairly taciturn, limited acting of Peter Lupus with someone more verbal and involved in the roleplaying, Sam Elliott at the time turned out to be a pretty weak character actor, no more emotive than Willy and utterly dreadful at the foreign accents the team was called upon to adopt (though that might not have been a problem if he’d been added to the cast a year later).  And in the final two seasons, when the smaller cast required Willy to broaden his role and do more acting, Lupus rose to the occasion fairly well.  So there’s simply no contest here.

Best One-shot Male Agent: There were few male guest stars who played significant roles on the team, due to the nature of the show.  The most memorable candidates would pretty much be Joseph Baresh (Albert Paulsen) from S1’s “Memory”; Akim Hadramut (Steve Franken) from S2’s “The Slave”; the reluctant Jerry Carlin (Christopher Connelly) from S5’s “The Innocent”; Steve Johnson (Lawrence Montaigne) from S6’s “The Miracle”; and Khalid (Joseph Ruskin) from S7’s  “The Puppet.”  But only Baresh and Carlin stand out as interesting characters.  I’ll give Baresh the edge on the strength of the actor.

As always, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of this blog.  Please dispose of this post in the usual manner.  Good luck.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Season 7 Overview

After the daring and deconstruction of season 5, season 6 of Mission: Impossible returned to the more formulaic approach of seasons 2-4.  The seventh and final season continued in much the same vein.  It still focused mainly on domestic crimefighting, though the team did travel abroad a bit more often than in season 6 and had more than one episode involving espionage or terrorism.  As in season 6, there’s also less focus on gadgets and meticulous preparation than in previous seasons and more emphasis on roleplaying and manipulation.  As a result of this, as well as the reduced cast size, Greg Morris and particularly Peter Lupus were both able to show off their acting chops more than before.  Although it was somewhat more expansive in content, the final season was more consistent in quality than the preceding one, with fewer bad episodes but fewer superb ones.

The finest episode of the season — in fact, the finest since season 5 — is without a doubt “The Question,” a marvelous mindgame thriller that would’ve fit right into the inventive, ambitious fifth year.  Second-best is “The Deal,” with its multilayered plan and character tension.  Both of these were scripted by year 7’s story editor Stephen Kandel (known to Star Trek fans as the creator of Harry Mudd, and a future MacGyver producer).  “Speed” is also a high point for its extensive San Francisco location shooting and a strong story that diverged from formula.  “Two Thousand” stands out for its post-apocalyptic flavor and striking location work, and “Leona” for strong characterization.  Most of the rest of the season, I’d say fully half the episodes, hovered around the same modestly-above-average level, routine but reasonably effective.  “Kidnap” stands out as the season’s only off-book mission, but feels disappointingly routine for it, and suffers from a half-hearted attempt at continuity.  “Cocaine” is a modestly effective episode undermined by a flawed, overly cluttered plot.  “Hit” is a decent try that’s damaged by serious flaws.  “The Fountain” is a contrived and awkward mess.  “Incarnate” is silly and borderline racist, and “The Western” is awful, a bizarre patchwork that consists mostly of useless and disconnected subplots.

The season was strongly affected by Lynda Day George’s pregnancy and maternity leave.  “Two Thousand,” “Leona,” “Underground,” and “Speed” were apparently the first ones filmed, late in George’s pregnancy; her role in these was diminished and she was shot only from the shoulders up when she appeared at all, and in “Leona” and “Speed” Casey was mostly in disguise, played by different actresses.  Practically the whole plot of “Speed” was written around George’s diminished presence.  Casey is missing entirely from ten further episodes: She is replaced by Barbara Anderson as Mimi in “Break,” “The Deal,” “TOD-5,”  “Cocaine,” “Movie,” “Hit,” and “Ultimatum”; by Marlyn Mason as Sandy in “Crack-Up”; by Elizabeth Ashley as Andrea in “The Question”; and by no one in “Imitation,” the only episode of the season with no female team member.  So George only participates in a major way in eight episodes this season: “Kidnap,” “The Puppet,” “Incarnate,” “Boomerang,” “The Fountain,” “The Fighter,” “The Pendulum,” and “The Western.”  These eight must have been shot after her return from maternity leave.  However, the episodes were broadcast in a very different order, presumably to spread out the non-Casey episodes rather than have them clumped together.

But this season features a first for M:I — a modicum of concern for continuity.  In past seasons, changes of team composition were never explained, except by the expedient of the dossier scenes showing the team leader choosing the participants.  Regular characters missing from an episode were almost never mentioned, except for one or two early episodes where Barney was not present but was referenced as the builder of a gadget employed in the story.  But here, Casey’s absence was explained by having her on assignment in Europe, and in most of the episodes without Lynda Day George, passing references were made to Casey making an offscreen contribution, either creating a mask used in the episode or carrying out a Europe-based part of the plan.  The only episodes in which Casey was not referenced were “Ultimatum,” “Crack-Up,” and “Imitation.”  Mimi is also the only regular or recurring team member to get an origin story explaining how she came to join the IMF.

In addition to the female agents listed above, the core team of Jim Phelps, Barney Collier, and Willy Armitage was assisted by the following individuals:

02 Two Thousand: Det. White (Don Diamond); actors playing Sergeant (Barry Cahill), Admiral (Harry Lauter), Marshall (Mort Mills), and others; police chief cooperates
03 The Deal: Repertory co. incl. Lt. Blair (Paul Gleason); Casey assists offscreen
04 Leona: Driver (uncredited), laundry truck driver (uncredited, Ed McCready?); cooperation from cops incl. Plainclothesman (Dick Valentine)
05 TOD-5: Repertory players incl. Green (James McCallion); Casey assists offscreen; population of Woodfield cooperates
06 Cocaine: Cooperation from Frank Fallon, police, government
07 Underground: Police cooperate
08 Movie: Voice impersonator Dave (Walker Edmiston); police cooperate
09 Hit: Impersonator Jack (uncredited); prison warden & police cooperate
10 Ultimatum: Large task force incl. announcer Carl (Fred Holliday), operator Lisa (Judith Brown), & actor Jack (Dale Tarter); police incl. Patrolman Frank Daggett (Vince Howard) and Sergeant (Bob Legionaire)
11 Kidnap: Dowager (Monty Margetts)
12 Crack-Up: Dr. Adler (Arthur Franz), Orderly (Michael Masters, uncredited)
13 The Puppet: Impersonator Hank (Richard Devon); actor Khalid (Joseph Ruskin); possibly travel agent (Shirley Washington)
14 Incarnate: Group of “voodoo” dancers; unidentified actor impersonating Robert O’Connell (Solomon Sturges)
15 Boomerang: Impersonator Bert (uncredited)
17 The Fountain: Unidentified extras; police cooperate
18 The Fighter: Voice impersonator Dave (Walker Edmiston)
19 Speed: Driver (George P. Wilbur); police and Ramsay Sanitarium staff cooperate
20 The Pendulum: Telephone operator (Beverly Moore); impersonator Manny (Don Reid); ensemble including Arab (Peter Mamakos)
21 The Western: Driver (Troy Melton), stuntman (uncredited)
22 Imitation: Impersonator/jeweler Duval (Ray Ballard, uncredited); electronics store clerk (uncredited)

Note that Walker Edmiston (who had done many prior uncredited voiceover roles) appears twice as Dave, although he’s credited in “Movie” as Waley and in “The Fighter” as Rawls.  This might be a case where the role was scripted as a different character but the director or actors chose to inject a touch of continuity by using his previous character’s name.  Dave is the first recurring minor team member we’ve had since the first season’s Dr. Green (Allen Joseph), who appeared twice and was referenced as an offscreen participant once.  I’m not counting the Hartford and Globe Repertory Companies since no specific characters were ever established for them and I’m not aware of any credited actors who recurred as company members (though some extras probably did).

As mentioned above, continuity was a new feature this season.  For the first time, we had episodes referring back to elements of previous adventures.  “Kidnap” was a nominal sequel to season 6’s “Casino,” though it contradicted many of the particulars of that episode.  In “Incarnate,” Jim used the name of a gangster who appeared in “Movie” as a character reference; and for the first time (as far as I recall), a team member adopted the same false identity on two separate occasions, with Jim playing hitman Dave Riker in both “Boomerang” and “The Fighter.”  Okay, it’s the barest bones of continuity by today’s standards, but it was a novelty for Mission: Impossible, whose episodes generally had so little continuity that they might as well have been in alternate universes from one another.

Another new feature this season, and an outstanding one, is the impressive location work.  The past few seasons felt very studio-bound, with the Paramount backlot becoming very familiar and the Paramount office buildings showing up in slightly redressed form almost every week.  Season 7 took the production out of the studio far more often, making extensive use of varied and striking locations.  In particular, most of the tape sequences of the season and the majority of the episode “Speed” were filmed on location in San Francisco (probably around the same time).  This would imply that Jim Phelps and the team were based in San Francisco, since it stands to reason that Jim would get the tape drops near his home.  However, he seems to have the same apartment he had in previous seasons where the tape drops were recognizably in Los Angeles, and there’s at least one tape drop this season that’s near LA City Hall.  Again, we may need to invoke alternate universes.

As before, the tape messages this season lack the line “If any of your IM Force are caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”  That line was abandoned near the end of season 5 and will not be heard again until the 1988 revival.  However, the references to “conventional law enforcement agencies” which were used in most 6th-season episodes are only in around 13 episodes this season. All in all, there were 19 distinct tape scenes this season, two of which were partially used twice; only one episode, “Kidnap,” had no tape scene. Twelve of the tape scenes were shot in exterior locations, mostly San Francisco landmarks.  Two others combined an exterior “arrival” shot with an interior tape sequence.  All the tape scenes used the standard small reel-to-reel tape except for “TOD-5,” which used a phonograph record (so I guess it wasn’t really a tape scene).  It’s worth noting that only one episode in the entire series, season 2’s “The Seal,” ever used a standard cassette tape to deliver the briefing.  This is odd, since I’m sure cassettes were in standard use by the last couple of seasons.  All the tape scenes this season featured self-destructing media.

Speaking of locations, while only a portion of one sixth-season episode took place outside of the US, three 7th-season missions took place mostly or entirely overseas: “The Deal” and “Incarnate” on fictitious Caribbean island nations (Camagua and Jamada, respectively), “The Fountain” in Northern Mexico.  There are also five episodes that, while US-based, depart from crimefighting to deal with terrorism or international intrigue: “Two Thousand,” “TOD-5,” “Ultimatum,” “The Question,” “The Pendulum.”  (“The Deal” is a hybrid mob/intrigue story, about mobsters backing an overseas coup.  One could also count “Imitation” as a borderline case, since a small part of the episode deals with infiltrating an unfriendly nation’s embassy, and since there are international stakes if their crown jewels are lost.)  So while the season continued the previous year’s format of the IMF as primarily a mob-busting team, it featured more of the kinds of cases the organization was formed to handle.

Musically, this is by far the least impressive season of M:I.  Only two episodes featured full original scores: “Underground” by Lalo Schifrin and “Ultimatum” by one-time composer Duane Tatro.  Both are decent but unremarkable.  “The Puppet” had a small amount of new music, I believe.  Several other episodes credited Schifrin as composer but featured no new music that I could discern.  Conversely, “Incarnate” had new source music and atmospherics but no credited composer.  There is also a new arrangement of the main title theme, making this the only season other than the 5th to use a variant arrangement.

So that’s the end of the original Mission: Impossible.  All in all, it’s a reasonably good wrap-up.  While it’s far short of the heights of seasons 1 and 5, it’s more stable in quality than the preceding season. It consists mostly of routine, but then, so did most of the series, as it turned out.  And as formula-dominated seasons go, it holds up relatively well — not brilliant (except in “The Question”), but generally well-executed and not unpleasant.  At least I can say that the show avoided any major deterioration in overall quality toward the end, and even went up a bit on average from its penultimate to final year, even if there were fewer outstanding episodes.  It didn’t go out with a bang, but I wouldn’t call it a whimper either.  It just stayed the course until it stopped.

Still to come, a retrospective of the entire original series.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S7) Reviews: “The Western”/”Imitation” (spoilers)

November 30, 2011 1 comment

Here we are… the final two episodes of the final season of the original Mission: Impossible.  Here we go:

“The Western”: Van Cleve (Ed Nelson) and his partner Royce (Barry Atwater) have robbed a priceless historical relic from an implicitly Mexican museum.  Royce wants to dissolve their partnership and take his half of their loot, but Van Cleve anticipated this and arranges to blow up Royce using stock explosion footage from “The Bunker” back in season 3.  Jim gets the tape from a maintenance guy at a large fountain in a public square (at least the second time this has been done this season, but it kinda makes sense that a fountain would be a good place to listen to a secret message without being overheard).  The mission is to retrieve the treasure from Van Cleve so it can be returned to its rightful owners — by which they mean the government founded by the Europeans who stole the statue (and the continent) from its original owners.  (The only name the villain is given is “Van Cleve,” and Royce calls him “Van,” but the team refers to him throughout as “Van Cleve” as though that’s just his surname.  Maybe he’s Van Van Cleve?)

Jim flies out to Miami and works with a pair of performers to stage a scene for Van Cleve: one of them bumps into VC while wearing a skull-like “death mask,” then walks out in front of a van (not Cleve) driven by the other performer and gets “killed,” pulling the mask off so it seems like a premonition.  Then, on the plane (where future Blade Runner star Joanna Cassidy has a bit role as a stewardess), VC is seated next to Casey, playing a student of probability who’s been bitten by the gambling bug.  She uses a trick handbag to let VC see a pile of money in her bag, and then have it “disappear” when she opens it again.  (At least, it’s supposed to be the same kind of double-compartment trick bag as the attache case in “The Puppet,” but I see no way the bag as shown could accommodate a hidden compartment; instead it’s cheated by editing.)  Casey suggests that he’s precognitive.  Yes, it’s another entry in the annoying M:I subgenre of capers revolving around convincing a skeptic of something paranormal, which always strikes me as a bizarre approach.

Jim and Barney arrive on VC’s land and get shot at by his ranch manager (or whatever you call it) Ed — and hey, it’s Michael Ansara in a role that almost totally wastes his talent.  They explain they’re geologists, and as it happens, VC is an expert in geology, so he quizzes them and they know enough technical jargon to convince him they’re legit.  Barney’s actually playing the senior geologist, but Jim’s role is still the pivotal one; he acts shifty (and gets shushed by Barney), putting the idea in VC’s head that they’re keeping a secret.  VC calls up a government contact to look into them, and finds that their survey is top-secret.

VC has Ed follow Jim to the casino, where he turns out to be a compulsive and losing gambler.  (Willy’s running the roulette wheel and is probably rigging the outcome so Jim keeps losing, but we’re not told or shown how.)  So VC drops in on him and offers to pay his debts in exchange for the secret info about the survey.  Jim says he’ll think it over.  Meanwhile, at the craps table, Casey has won (again, no specifics how), and she shows VC the money in her handbag, just like in his “vision” on the plane.  VC invites her to dinner at his ranch.  While Jim and Barney rig his bedroom with hydraulic jacks under the furniture to simulate an earthquake (plus tape players in his bedside and car radios), Casey keeps him occupied by offering a rational explanation for his visions, saying that he has a computer brain that can calculate probabilities in advance.  Which I suppose ameliorates the silliness of the “convince the skeptic” approach a bit.  Anyway, VC soon sets aside the intellectual stuff and gets on with the making-out-with-a-pretty-girl part — but outside, someone is raising a gun to the window.  Is it one of the team?  No — it’s Royce!  He’s alive, though his face is burned (or at least pretty badly scraped).  And VC and Casey are in his line of fire!

But they move at the last second and the shot misses.  As VC and Casey hide, Royce bolts for it and Jim and Barney pursue, with VC’s men following farther behind.  Royce and the IMF boys get to their respective cars and a chase ensues — and then there’s a complete non sequitur where Royce just happens to drive into a “ghost town” (read: Western backlot), get out of his pickup, and exchange gunfire with Jim and Barney for a couple of minutes before ditching his gun and driving off again.  This is the only part of the episode that has anything to do with the title, and it’s a completely random insertion into the plot.  Its only relevance is to allow the team to get prints off his gun, but that was completely unnecessary.  Royce’s photo was included in Jim’s briefing packet, so they could’ve just had Jim get a look at his face as he fled the ranch.  This whole lengthy action sequence, the thing the whole episode is named after, serves no purpose except as padding.

Not to mention that Van Cleve figures out on his own that it’s Royce because his men recover a 9mm shell casing and VC knows that Royce swears by a 9mm Mauser.  (Now, a few minutes earlier, we saw Barney duck behind a horse trough whose thin wooden wall, no more than an inch thick, was sufficient to shield him from a bullet fired from Royce’s gun.  But now, Ed says that a Mauser could “put a slug through a 4-inch slab of green oak.”  Make up your mind, episode!)  Casey relays this info to the team, making the whole fingerprint thing even more pointless.  Jim says that if Royce kills Van Cleve — the only one who knows where the treasure is — the whole mission is shot.  And so the team proceeds with their mission. moving up the timetable, but otherwise taking no action of any kind to watch out for Royce or stop him.  Huh?  Huh?!

Jim shows up at VC’s door and accepts the bribe, telling him that they’ve discovered a fault line that’s about to set off a major earthquake which will destroy a nearby dam and flood the entire valley.  He offers credible explanations for why the dam can’t be drained or reinforced.  (Whatever this episode’s other flaws, writers Arnold & Lois Peyser sure seemed to know their geology.  But that’s a flaw in itself, if the writers are more preoccupied with geological jargon than cohesive storytelling.)  As soon as Jim leaves, Barney activates a rig in VC’s pool that roils the water, causes a crude dummy of a drowned VC to rise to the surface, and then dissolves it.  It’s a vision of his watery demise!

Now, you’d think that this would be enough, along with Jim’s warnings, to convince VC to race to his treasure stash and move it somewhere safer.  But no, we still have half an act left and haven’t gotten to do the earthquake gimmick yet!  So VC inexplicably sets aside these life-threatening concerns and goes sleepy-bye.  And the team waits three hours to let him settle — again, doing absolutely nothing to guard against Royce breaking in and killing the one guy who can lead them to the McGuffin.  So when they finally trigger the earthquake gimmick and the fake radio reports and scare VC into bolting for his stash, Royce is following right behind in his pickup, ahead of the team.  Oy.

So VC gets to the cave where he hid the statue — and even though they tried to disguise it by shooting from a different angle and through some brush, it’s obviously the same cave VC blew up in the first scene!  Oy oy oy.  And as it turns out, it conveniently didn’t matter that the team just ignored the Royce problem, because Royce doesn’t get into the cave until after VC has unearthed the treasure.  And Royce deliberately shot to miss before to spook VC into going for the treasure.  So this whole big threat Royce posed for half the episode wasn’t actually a threat to the mission at all.  *sigh*  So the team comes in and gets the drop on Royce before he can shoot VC, and that’s the anticlimactic end of the episode.

Oh, dear.  What an awful mess.  So much of it was unnecessary.  And not just the pointless Western shootout that inexplicably gave the episode its name.  The whole precognition thing was unnecessary too.  They could’ve gotten VC to lead them to the treasure strictly by using the geologist/earthquake ploy.  And while the precog gimmick wasn’t as silly as usual in these cases, since Casey provided a rational-sounding explanation with no appeal to the supernatural, it’s still a hoary cliche of this series and it’s strictly there to pad out the story and give Casey a role.  It’s like they had an idea too straightforward to fill an hour so they just tossed in whatever leftover bits they could to pad it out, without really bothering to fit them together cohesively.  This is hands down the worst episode of the season yet.  And it’s a shame to see it so close to the end of the series, especially when most of the season has maintained a pretty even keel in terms of quality, not superb but generally okay.  I just hope that the series finale is better than this.

“Imitation”:  An armored car is heisted by a gang of men led by Eddie (Thalmus Rasulala).  After fleeing the scene (with the sound effects editors really overplaying the screeching of tires as the cars slowly pull out and drive away), Eddie hands the goods off to a woman in the back of a limo, who opens the case to reveal a set of crown jewels.  In a stock tape scene (the one inside an office from “The Fighter,” but without the preceding exterior shot), Jim is informed that the loot is the Marnsburg crown jewels, scheduled to go on display at the UN in 3 days, and the suspect is master criminal Jena Cole (Barbara McNair — and the character name may have been chosen to suggest Lena Horne, whom McNair somewhat resembles).  Jim must retrieve the jewels within 72 hours.  (And Jena is pronounced like “Jayna.”  She doesn’t show any sign of Wonder Twin powers, however.)

The team’s plan involves switching the jewels with imitations, and breaking into the Marnsburg consulate’s safe.  They can’t cooperate openly with the embassy, both because Marnsburg is less than friendly to the US and because the embassy’s code chief Dunson (Lew Brown) is on Jena’s payroll.  They’re assisted by Duval (Ray Ballard), evidently a jeweler with sleight-of-hand skills.  And they are not joined by Casey, who’s completely absent from the episode with no explanation and no substitutions.  This is the only episode of the season with no female team member.

And maybe that’s because this time the mark is female.  At Jena’s establishment the Kit Kat Klub (or Kit at lub, depending on how literally you take the sign out front), Barney’s job is basically to play Casey’s usual role, the pretty face to hook the mark.  He brings a letter of introduction supposedly from her late brother and claims to have been his final cellmate, providing enough details to convince her.  The letter said to take care of him, and he straight up asks for a thousand bucks, which Jena obliges out of her brother’s memory.  This is so the sonic sensor device in Barney’s pocket can remotely overhear the safe tumblers and get the combination.  She says she has a 30-day return policy on loans with 20 percent interest, and gives him $800 and tells him she expects a thousand back in 30 days.  That’s actually 25 percent interest.  If she expected an 120% return on her loan to equal $1000, then the loan should’ve been $833.33.  Anyway, Jena has another kind of interest in Barney, as she notes to her henchman Boomer (Pernell Roberts).

While Jena’s backer Stevens (Charles McGraw) pressures Jena to hand over the jewels — which she won’t do until she gets paid — Barney breaks into her office and swipes 12 grand from her safe.  She discovers the theft and has her contact in the police department ID the fingerprints — it’s Barney.  Boomer and Eddie go to his apartment and find his safecracking gear and a blueprint of the consulate safe.  They realize he’s planning to rob the crown jewels, unaware that Jena’s men have already done so.  Meanwhile, Jim shows up following Barney, and when Jena brings him in for questioning, he says Barney owes him a lot of money and will be dead if he doesn’t repay it in a week.

But the team has sent the consulate a fake teletype saying that the stolen crown jewels were fakes sent in anticipation of a heist, and the real ones will arrive shortly.  Willy arrives as the Marnsburg official with the real jewels and puts them in the vault.  Dunson tells Jena about the alleged fakes, and the team replaces Jena’s jeweler with Duval, who swaps out the real jewel they bring him for a copy to “prove” the ones Jena has are fakes.  And her backer is still pressing her to turn over the jewels.  So she brings in Barney and persuades him to partner with her.  She tells him that if he’s loyal, there’s nothing she won’t do for him — and if he betrays her, there’s nothing she won’t do to him.

That night, Barney breaks into the consulate, with Dunson standing by to run interference with the guards.  The case Willy put in the vault with the fake crown jewels contains a radar-dish thingy that rises out of the lid (and there’s no way the thingy and its lifting motor could fit in the case as shown) and somehow lets Barney read the combination from the inside, or something.  So he gets in and removes the fake jewels that Jena thinks are real.  He takes them back to Jena, but insists on calling Jim and arranging to  hand over the jewels in exchange for not being killed, which is understandably urgent for him.  Jena tries to persuade him to wait and do it her way instead, telling him she loves him (that was sudden) and doesn’t want him to go.  But he’s all cold and insensitive, which somehow makes her like him more, or something.  She seems to accede and takes him out to the bar for a celebratory drink while Boomer guards the case — though Boomer actually swaps out the “real” (fake) jewels for the “fake” (real) jewels behind Barney’s back.  Then they let Barney walk out with the real jewels, thinking they’re sending him out with the fake jewels and signing his death sentence.  Jena’s somewhat conflicted, but her greed comes first.  Then Barney’s a bit conflicted as he sees Stevens and his goons arrive, no doubt to kill Jena when she hands over the fakes.  But he doesn’t do much about it.  The cops drive up and arrest everyone — off camera — and then Barney goes over to “take a look” and exchanges one final meaningful stare with a still-alive Jena before the cops take her away.  And that, abruptly, is the end of the episode and the end of the original Mission: Impossible.  (It’s also the last time we’ll ever see Willy Armitage, though Jim, Barney, and Casey will all return at least briefly in the 1988-9 revival series.)

Well, it’s better than “The Western,” to be sure.  Not a top-notch episode, but a moderately good one, which is pretty representative of the season as a whole.  It was a rare episode for this season in that it tried to establish a bit of a romance for one of the main characters (the last time a team member actually bonded with a mark, it was a guest agent in “The Question”), but it’s very half-hearted about it, more a slight loss of detachment than the deeper involvements we’ve occasionally gotten in seasons past with episodes like “Elena,” “The Short Tail Spy,” “Nicole,” “Lover’s Knot,” “Decoy,” “Squeeze Play,” or “Cat’s Paw.”  So it’s not up to the level of those excellent episodes, but it’s a plus by this season’s standards.  And Barbara McNair is a major plus as well, a lovely actress with a lively, dynamic performing style that’s enjoyable to watch.

So there you have it — the last episode of the series.   It’s not really the end, though, since there’s still my season overview to follow, and a full-series overview after that.  And it’s only a couple of weeks until the first season of the 1988 revival comes out on DVD, so hopefully Netflix will make that available before long.  And who knows?  I might even cover the movies at some point, although they have very little in common with Mission: Impossible beyond the title.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S7) Reviews: “Speed”/”The Pendulum” (spoilers)

November 24, 2011 1 comment

Yes, now we speed the pendulum, for the end draws ever nearer… umm….  Never mind.

“Speed”: We open in San Francisco — not just for the tape scene, but the whole episode this time.  Two men in a truck rip off a chemical company and report to mobster Sam Hibbing (Claude Akins) that they’ve now cornered the speed (amphetamine) market.  Jim gets the tape in a trainyard (I guess they don’t need a San Fran landmark when the whole episode’s set there) and is tasked with finding the amphetamine stash before it hits the street and putting Hibbing out of business.  Hibbing intends to auction the stolen speed off to the highest-bidding distributors.  Like last week, Jim’s plan involves using the gangster’s daughter, this time Margaret Hibbing (Jenny Sullivan), an avid motorcyclist who’s also become a speed addict to escape from the pain of her regular beatings at her abusive father’s hands, and to punish him at the same time.  Margaret is being pursued romantically by Snelling (Ross Hagen), the man who devises clever ways of delivering Hibbing’s drugs to the buyers; but Margaret doesn’t reciprocate his interest (logical, given her history of abuse by the dominant male in her life).  Barney’s mustache is back and Casey spends the apartment scene with her body hidden behind a movie projector — was this shot early in the season (while Lynda Day George was still pregnant) and held back until nearly the end?

While Barney plays a New Orleans mob representative making a deal with one of Hibbing’s regulars, Dayton (Charles Bateman), to provide financial backing for the auction.  Meanwhile, Willy rigs Margaret’s motorcycle before she goes out for a ride, and all the exterior location shooting makes a point of showing off that they’re honest and for truly in San Francisco, complete with a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.  Out in front of a location which IMDb informs me is the Palace of the Legion of Honor art museum, Jim triggers the gizmo Willy planted to knock out her motorcycle engine, so they can knock her out and replace her with Casey disguised as Margaret.  She rides to meet daddy Hibbing and let him see how high she is before leading him on a lengthy chase through the streets of San Francisco (gee, that’d make a cool name for a TV show), as if they hadn’t already driven home enough that they’re actually shooting there.  The chase culminates with a staged crash that leaves Casey-as-Margaret “injured” on the pavement, but Hibbing is only concerned with removing the drugs from his daughter’s handbag so the cops won’t find them.

The hospital scene that follows is on the soundstage back at Paramount, but they’ve stuck a backdrop of San Fran in the window, with the Palace of Fine Arts serving as the highly visible landmark du jour.  Hibbing takes his time coming to visit, and is only concerned with checking “Margaret” out so she won’t reveal anything incriminating while on medication.  He discovers that “Margaret” has seen the light and a friend of hers — Jim — is going to help her get clean.  But Hibbing sends Jim away and threatens “Margaret” with being sent away somewhere hellish if she doesn’t behave.  Casey is surprised when a disreputable-looking biker type shows up at her door and leaves upon seeing Hibbing there.  Casey can only say she doesn’t know him.

But he comes back later and it’s clear he’s not only Margaret’s pusher but her lover, and he conveniently refers to himself in the third person so we and Casey know he goes by Zinc (Jesse Vint).  And he must be high himself, since he can’t tell from kissing “Margaret” that she’s wearing a latex mask.  He gives her drugs and pushes her (so to speak) to take them while he watches, which apparently is his fetish.  Luckily, Jim was alerted about this guy when Casey called earlier, and he now arrives to confront Zinc.  A fight ensues.  Zinc flees and Jim pursues, but loses him.  He goes to the real Margaret for information about Zinc, but she won’t tell him, no matter how much he urges her that he’s trying to help her — and he’s disappointed when she asks for drugs in exchange for the information.  It’s always nice to get these rare moments when the team members engage honestly with people rather than trying to trick them.

Once Casey/Margaret gets out of the hospital, Hibbing sends Phalen to investigate the air shipping service Jim’s character owns, and learns from disgruntled employee Willy about Jim’s money troubles and his violent temper which got him a decade in Leavenworth for killing a fellow officer in a fight.  (When Phalen asks how long Willy’s been with Jim, Willy answers, “on and off, two, three years.”  Would’ve been a nice in-joke if he’d said six years, on and off.)

Barney’s financial backing (with undetectable counterfeit money) lets Dayton win the auction, but Barney insists the drugs be in New Orleans by morning, a tricky proposition.  Hibbing needs to call in Snelling for the special job.  But Casey, getting a signal from Barney, has already called Snelling and invited him over, pretending that Margaret has finally warmed to him romantically.  When Snelling arrives, Casey signals Jim and then starts acting ultra-trippy.  Jim barges in and finds her spacing out with Snelling, then finds her pills (presumably the ones Zinc gave her, now repurposed).  She claims Snelling provided them, and Jim beats the crap out of him, then injects him with that old standby, the drug that simulates death.  With Snelling “dead,” Hibbing has lost his delivery man and is potentially out millions of dollars — but he has Jim on the hook for murder and pressures him to deliver the goods in Snelling’s place.  This will let Jim and the team follow him right to the drugs.  And the location porn isn’t done yet, since they’re in a warehouse near the east end of the Bay Bridge.

However, the plan is in danger of Zinc poisoning.  (Come on, I had to make a zinc pun somewhere.)  Mr. Zn sneaks into the Hibbing house and starts aggressively making out with a reluctant Casey/Margaret, clutching her head hard enough to pull off the edge of her mask.  Hibbing shows up and is outraged at Zinc’s presence — until Zinc rips Casey’s mask off.  Casey’s stunt double makes a break for it, crashes through the window, and runs away; Zinc pursues, but she eludes him.  But Hibbing now knows there’s a sting going on, and he rushes to the warehouse to intercept Jim.  He gets the drop on Jim, but Barney and Willy were hiding in Jim’s van and come out with guns drawn, shooting both Hibbing and Phalen.  But we cut to a headline saying “Hibbing indicted,” so it must not have been a fatal shot.  Margaret is “no longer afraid” now that daddy’s put away, so she’s made a conveniently sudden recovery and is ready to turn her life around, just like that.

Okay, that last scene was way too easy, but it’s what you expect from ’70s TV.  Otherwise, this is a very strong episode, written by Lou Shaw.  It has a lot of elements that raise it above the routine: the extensive San Francisco location filming, the presence of Zinc as a dangerous spoiler to the team’s plans, the out-of-character moments with the team, and the Jim-Margaret confrontation adding some honest drama.  It’s very clear, however, that this episode was written around Lynda Day George’s pregnancy.  We only see her face in a few scenes at the beginning and end, and the only time we see any part of her below the shoulders (in the very final shot), it’s pretty apparent that she’s massively pregnant.  So this episode must’ve been shot very early in the season — probably the last one produced of the episodes with Casey in a diminished role and Barney with a mustache, and the first one before the Mimi (and Sandy and Andrea) episodes.  It also stands to reason that the San Francisco shooting would’ve been done at the same time as the season’s tape scenes (recall that the tape scenes are generally shot all at once and then cut into the episodes one by one), which would presumably have been early in the season.  So it’s odd that they delayed airing this episode until so near the end of the season.

“The Pendulum”: Okay, I have to confess before starting to watch the episode that I’m almost hoping it’s awful so I can say “‘The Pendulum’ is the pits!”  But that would be a Poe excuse for humor.

Dean Stockwell plays Gunnar Malstrom, who’s appropriately named, since his first act is to gun down US general Weston (Frank Maxwell) and bury him, abetted by his secretary/hitman Bock (Scott Brady).  He reports to a terrorist organization called the Pendulum Group, run by the Leader (Jack Donner), whose position Malstrom covets.  One of their members has gotten plastic surgery to look like the late Weston.  They’re ready to begin an operation code-named Nightfall, which will let them take over the US military.  Jim’s mission is to find out what Nightfall is and stop it.  The tape scene, surprisingly, takes place near Los Angeles City Hall, and is an extended version of the tape scene from, I believe, “Leona,” which actually seems to be in a winery or something rather than a bar as I thought at the time.

Casey’s already been on a date with Malstrom before the apartment scene, and on their second date, she confides that she’s recruiting him for her organization — though Willy shows up and tells her she’s overreaching herself, and she leaves a very confused Malstrom behind.  The next day, Barney shows up at his office and asks to be put in contact with the Pendulum leader (and plants a bug).  Malstrom denies knowing anything about it, and after Barney leaves, he has a henchman check him out.  The operator at Barney’s hotel, working with the team, takes a bribe from the henchman to let him hear Barney making plans with international allies, which leads Malstrom to send Bock out of the country to investigate.  Unable to get details on Barney, Malstrom goes out with Casey again (at the same restaurant owned by Mike Apollo from “Leona,” at least in the establishing shot) and convinces her to take him to her organization’s HQ (which is represented in exteriors by the UC San Diego library).  The team arranges for him to overhear Barney talking about killing him, so he sneaks out.  He ends up in an office overlooking an auditorium where Willy is speaking to a bunch of multinational extras about their operations, which involve stirring up war and crisis to drive their arms sales.  Malstrom is discovered and taken prisoner.

Malstrom is strapped to a chair (that’s secretly a polygraph) and Barney grills him, but then Casey comes in as his defender.  The polygraph registers his reactions to the various names and entities they mention, tipping them off that Nightfall is targeted at the military.  Indeed, the Pendulum leader and the fake Gen. Weston are arranging a meeting of the joint chiefs at Weston’s home.  But then Bock shows up to see them and says that Malstrom’s acting suspicious, going off to meet with Casey’s group as soon as he thought Bock was in Europe.  The leader orders Bock to go after Malstrom and kill him.  They then rig a briefcase bomb to blow up the military chiefs once they arrive.

The team keeps questioning Malstrom until the polygraph registers rises at the mentions of assassination and General Weston.  Then they bring him in to see “Chief” Jim, who casually drops this information to Malstrom’s surprise, and says that Pendulum’s plans get in the way of his group’s competing plans for US takeover.  He wants to acquire Pendulum and install Malstrom as its leader, if he’ll call off Nightfall.  Malstrom won’t cooperate, but he lets slip that Nightfall is already pretty far along.  With time of the essence, Jim advances to Phase 2, which will involve arranging Malstrom’s escape and rescue by a Bock impersonator, who if I interpret the credits right is named Manny (Don Reid).  The team doesn’t know the real Bock is outside closing in.  This could get complicated.

Casey tries to win Malstrom over and slips a tracker/mike under his lapel when she gets affectionate.  Oddly, from this point to the end of the act, over 2 minutes, is missing on the Netflix stream, although I found a more complete (though time-compressed) version on YouTube.  (And the “Report Problem” screen on Netflix doesn’t include an option for “part of it is missing.”)  While Willy takes Malstrom back to his cell, Jim goes in person to warn the man he thinks is Gen. Weston of the plot, although Jim’s using a fake name and credentials for some reason.  Fake-Weston and the Leader decide to ask Jim to sit in on the meeting so he’ll be blown up with the rest.

The Netflix stream picks up with the military leaders assembling in Weston’s study.  Back to the UCSD library, Bock is closing in and the Bock-postor is getting ready.  Real Bock spots fake Bock, then stalks fake Bock, then clocks fake Bock.  So when he starts shooting at Malstrom (and conveniently missing), Willy and the guards think it’s just part of the scheme and Willy fires back with blanks — until a guard gets shot and Willy realizes it’s the real Bock firing real bullets.  So he swaps guns and takes down the real Bock, apparently nonfatally.  Malstrom gets away in a car as planned and heads for the meeting, with Casey and Barney following.

Worth noting: during the meeting, one of the military chiefs says that one of the main issues on the table is the monitoring of “the Soviet submarines at Petropavlovsk.”  This is the first and probably only mention of the Soviet Union in the entire series.  In the past, various fictional People’s Republics have stood in for it.  But that just underlines the futility of trying to construct a coherent alternative geopolitics for the M:I universe.

When Malstrom arrives and demands to see the general, the fake Weston takes the opportunity to activate the briefcase bomb and head out with the Leader.  They confront Malstrom, who urges them to call off Nightfall, but they say the bomb is seconds away from detonating, and then, believing he’s defected to the rival group, they shoot him.  Hearing this through the bug, Barney alerts Jim, who identifies the briefcase as the bomb and tosses it out the window.  Cut to Malstrom getting taken into an ambulance, looking up to see the team staring down at him.  The end.

This is a moderately effective episode.  As I’ve said before, it’s a nice change in these last couple of seasons when they get away from the organized-crime stuff and do stories with an espionage/political/fate-of-the-world focus, even if it means concocting domestic terrorist groups.  I think season 6 only had one such episode, but there have been several in season 7.  And there’s some nice suspense, with Bock infiltrating and threatening the plan and with Jim unknowingly showing his hand to the bad guys.  It’s always cool when the bad guys are a step ahead of the IMF.

I also want to note that its use of a polygraph was unusually credible for TV.  They didn’t embrace the myth of the polygraph as a “lie detector,” but instead treated it as what it really is, a means of detecting stress reactions.  By noting his reactions and evaluating them in the context of their interaction, they’re able to identify what terms and concepts evoke a strong reaction.  It’s maybe a little more reliable than it would really be, but it’s still a much more plausible portrayal of a polygraph than we usually see on TV.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S7) Reviews: “The Fountain”/”The Fighter” (spoilers)

“The Fountain”: Matthew Drake (Cameron Mitchell) is in a computer center — no, wait, it’s a crime computer center, maintaining the syndicate’s records in a state-of-the-art way (keeping in mind that in 1973, state-of-the-art computers meant big wall banks with spinning tape reels).  On behalf of the organization, he’s auditing the activities of Tom Bachman, an aging rival gangster who’s not happy about the scrutiny.  Bachman is played by George Maharis in blatantly fake makeup to make him appear middle-aged, so it’s a safe bet that this caper will somehow involve the team temporarily de-aging him somehow as they did with William Shatner in “Encore” (so we can guess what fountain the title is referring to).  But that’s getting ahead of the story.  Bachman and his men pull guns on Drake and the techs, and Bachman steals two reels of incriminating computer records (after helpfully giving exposition to the audience about what’s on them), locks everyone in the back room, then sets off a bomb (while his henchmen are still in the room).  Later, in one of the many novelty shops where Jim has received tape briefings (this one featuring a lot of tall, slender cat statues), Jim is told that Drake was only injured and is hunting for Bachman and the records.  The team must get the records before Drake does.

This is the third episode this season to be set outside the US, though just barely, in Northern Mexico.  The team has tracked Bachman there and they intercept the pilot hired to fly him back to the US, with Barney taking the pilot’s place and meeting Bachman in a local bar.  In a rather contrived setup for later, Bachman asks what kind of plane Barney has and Barney describes it right down to the color, while the barman listens in.  They fly off and Barney fakes engine trouble, then knockout-needles Bachman; upon landing, they partially rouse him and play a tape of plane-crash sounds.

Drake, whose left hand has been crippled and covered by a black glove, follows Bachman’s trail to the bar and pays the barman to tell what he heard, though Drake’s henchman Dawson (Luke Askew) would rather beat it out of him.  The barman tells all about the yellow single-engine plane that Barney so contrivedly described earlier.  Drake clenches his single gloved hand and professes his desire to hunt down Bachman and take revenge.  “He tasks me, and I shall have him!”  Well, no, he doesn’t actually say that, but with the one glove it is kind of a Khan-like moment.

Bachman awakens near the simulated wreckage of the plane and sees Barney bandaging a simulated broken leg and making a crutch from a (not-simulated) branch.  They limp through the woods and Barney leads them to a mansion where the rest of the team (and at least one extra) are pretending to be members of some sort of religious retreat.  Jim and Casey tell Bachman that Barney’s being tended to, but they don’t need doctors.  They say they’re members of the Fellowship of the Golden Circle, which is actually a “Moebius circle” with no end — though Lynda Day George pronounces it as a “Mowaybus circle.”  After Bachman comments on Casey’s old-fashioned name (she’s going by Charity) and she says it was common when she was a girl, Willy comes in with a “wounded” raccoon (actually drugged) and Casey feeds it some special water locked in a cabinet (actually injecting it with an antidote out of Bachman’s sight), and the raccoon has a miraculous recovery.  After they leave, Bachman checks a dusty old book Casey was holding (they’re in a rather lovely library set that I don’t recall them using before, perhaps borrowed from some other series) and finds a picture of her in it; the copyright date is 1861.

Bachman confronts Casey about this, but she’s evasive.  Everyone here is evasive, but very bad at it, since they keep leaving proof of their miracles lying around.  Willy has a photo of himself as a WWII pilot (though it’s an obvious cut-and-paste job, and I mean that in the literal pre-Photoshop sense), and when pilot Barney shows up with his broken leg healed, Jim tries to claim his leg was never broken.  Eventually Bachman spies on Casey going through a secret panel and follows her down to a grotto containing a spring.  He gets her to confess that the water gives healing and immortality provided she drinks every 48 hours, otherwise she swiftly reverts to old age and dies.  So she has to stay here, but she would like to leave with Bachman if they take some special water with them.  Jim shows up and, seeing that he’s onto the secret, lets him drink the water (after warning him that it’s a complex chemical compound with side effects).  Plus a knockout pill (the side effects) so they can dye his hair and inject paraffin into his wrinkles to make him look younger for a week.  And Casey puts on a mask of extreme mummification (probably a reuse of the makeup from “alien” Casey in last season’s “The Visitors”) under a mask of her normal face.

Meanwhile, Drake’s men have found the plane wreck and tracked down the mansion, and shortly after Bachman awakes and sees his new youth, the henchmen barge in and hold them all at gunpoint.  But this isn’t actually a disruption of the plan, since Bachman’s intention is to mend fences with Drake by offering him the water to cure his hand.  He goes with them and brings Casey and a sample of the water as proof.  Even though an earlier scene had Drake implicitly giving the bloodthirsty Dawson permission to kill everyone but Bachman, the goons simply leave without harming anyone, making the whole thing a fakeout.  The team follows them to Drake’s place.  Drake disbelieves Bachman’s story, but Bachman proves it by denying Casey the water.  While no one’s looking, she sprays her outer mask with a chemical that dissolves it and exposes the mummy mask beneath, and takes a pill to feign death.  Convinced, Drake agrees to mend fences, and Bachman agrees to hand over the records.  They go to where the records are hidden, but the team has followed and Jim and Barney come in with the cops.

This was the second episode in a row written by Stephen Kandel, and it’s bewildering that he’d go from the brilliant “The Question” to this mediocre caper.  The story doesn’t make a lot of sense.  How did they know that Bachman would be willing to make amends with Drake once he found a way to heal Drake’s hand?  I mean, this is the same guy who recently tried to kill Drake and sacrificed two of his own henchmen to do so.  I guess the idea is that it’s to get Drake to call off his vendetta, but still, how could they really have known he’d go for it?  It just seems like a ridiculously convoluted way to find Bachman’s hiding place.  And the subplot of Drake’s men hunting down the team felt like a cheat, because it ultimately played right into the plan as though Jim had intended it all along, and the threat of the bloodthirsty Dawson turned out to be toothless.  Overall, it’s rather disappointing, and coming right after the best episode of the season — by the same writer, no less — makes it even more of a letdown.

“The Fighter”: Boxer Gunner Loomis (Herbert Jefferson, Jr.) is unhappy with the mobsters who control his contract, the ruthless Braddock (Joe Maross) and his weak-willed partner Mitchell (William Windom), and foolishly tells them he’ll talk to the feds if they don’t release him from his contract.  Unluckily for him, Braddock has already called in a hitman to take care of him.  (He tells the hitter to “make it look like a hit-and-run,” which is odd, given that Loomis is killed in the shower.)  Jim goes into a big white Greco-Roman building to get the tape in an office; it might be San Francisco City Hall again, but I’m not sure.  And wouldn’t a government building be a strange place for a secret government agent to get a secret message?  Anyway, the mission is to get the goods on Braddock and Mitchell.  Mitchell is the weak link, a formerly honest promoter whom Braddock corrupted.  And his daughter Susan (Jenifer Shaw) is in love with one of Braddock’s boxers, Pete Novick (Geoffrey Deuel).  Jim plans to take advantage of that relationship, while protecting the two young innocents.

While sweet, innocent Susan gleefully watches her boyfriend and another man inflict cumulative, incurable neurological impairment on one another, Jim and Barney rip off the syndicate’s payroll.  Later, Barney shows up in Braddock’s office with an offer to buy out Pete’s contract, and the amount he offers is the exact amount just stolen.  Yes, he’s moving in on Braddock’s operation and is aggressive about it.  (And, bizarrely, he’s using the alias “Spanner.”)  Meanwhile, Casey plays reporter to interview Pete, and while he may be an “innocent,” he’s kind of a jerk, blowing off a date with sweet, innocent Susan to take the seductive blonde reporter up to his pad for an, err, interview.  (Also he’s got a “look the other way” policy toward his promoters’ corruption.)  But Willy’s rigged Pete’s car with remote servos and given Casey the controller, and she sticks him with a drug that makes him woozy for exactly 2 minutes and then knocks him out (oh, come on!), just long enough to see motorcyclist Willy speeding headlong toward him and then passing out as Casey remote-steers the car out of Willy’s way.  They stage an accident scene which Casey photos, and then she comes to him the next day to tell him he killed the guy and she’s blackmailing him on Barney/Spanner’s behalf.  He goes to Braddock and Mitchell for help and they say they’ll take care of it.  Then Willy shows up as a federal agent who warns them about Spanner’s aggressive new organization and wants them to testify against him, turning to them as the lesser of two evils.  Braddock will have none of it, but Mitchell is curious.  (And Braddock needs a better secretary.  Both Barney and Willy were able to barge into his office after he refused to see them.)

Later, Susan comes to Pete, angry at him for missing their date, but he confides in her about the “dead” biker and she’s devastated.  (Nasty thing for the team to do to these innocents.)  She goes to her father Mitchell for help, but Mitchell doesn’t want her dating this tainted boxer and demands she leave him.  After she leaves, he asks Braddock to go ahead and let “Spanner” have Pete’s contract, but Braddock decides he’d rather kill Pete, a decision Mitchell’s uneasy with.

The team has Braddock’s phone lines tapped, so when he tries to call someone whom I guess you’d call a talent agent for hitmen, they intercept the call — and we see the return of voice artist Walker Edmiston to the team.  And though he’s credited as “Rawls,” Jim calls him “Dave,” which is the same name he used back in “Movie” (where he was credited as Dave Waley).  So I think we can count Dave as a recurring team member, the first since Mimi.  Dave says Braddock’s preferred hitman is on vacation or something, and sends in Jim as a substitute.  As if bringing Edmiston back weren’t enough, we get another bit of the continuity that’s unique to this season: the alias Jim uses, hitman Dave Riker (another Dave), is the same identity he used back in “Boomerang.”

Jim agrees to kill Pete, and Braddock wants to come and watch just to make sure of the new guy, insisting the reluctant Mitchell come as well.  Jim arranges to blow Pete’s house up with a bomb.  But elsewhere, Willy and Barney intercept Susan and take her in for “questioning,” and Casey dons a Susan mask and goes to Pete’s house, to the horror of the watching Mitchell.  Casey knocks Pete out and Willy carries him to safety just before the bomb blows, but as far as Mitchell knows, Braddock’s hit has claimed his daughter’s life.  (By the way, isn’t it rather rude of the team to save Pete’s life by destroying all his worldly possessions?  I hope the government compensates him.)

You’d think this would be enough to get the devastated Mitchell to testify, and Willy comes to make the offer, but he still won’t do it.  Not until Jim shows up for his payment from Braddock and drops a comment about another hit he was asked to do.  Braddock thinks it’s just a mixup, but Mitchell thinks the hit was meant for him.  To prove otherwise, Braddock promises to kill Jim and asks Mitchell to go get him.  But Jim intercepts Mitchell at gunpoint and takes him into the empty boxing arena, telling him Braddock did hire Jim to kill Mitchell.  But Braddock comes in and almost spoils things by shooting Jim; Willy intercepts him just in time and the shot goes wild, and then Willy comes in so it seems to Mitchell that Willy fired the shot.  With Willy holding hitman Jim at gunpoint, Mitchell promises to testify.  So his daughter’s death didn’t do it, but a threat to his own life did?  Some loving father.  (Did I mention he smacked her when they argued earlier?)  Anyway, we wrap up with the team explaining things to the young couple, saying that Mitchell will still need to do time but it’ll be easier for him if he gets to see his daughter.

Another routine episode, but a reasonably well-written one.  It’s yet another Stephen Kandel script (this time in collaboration with Nicholas E. Baehr), and it’s certainly an improvement over last week’s, though nowhere near the level of “The Question.”  Still, it’s a solid outing overall.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S7) Reviews: “Boomerang”/”The Question” (spoilers)

November 17, 2011 1 comment

“Boomerang”: The lovely Eve Vayle (Laraine Stephens) meets her husband Johnny (Charles Guardino) at an airstrip, tries to trick him into giving her sensitive documents he’s carrying, then has her hired killer club him with a wrench when that doesn’t work.  The killer flies him up in his small plane, bails out, and sets off a bomb.  At the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, Jim gets the mission to retrieve the incriminating documents from Eve.  Jim intends to create the illusion that Johnny is still alive.  But nobody’s in the apartment briefing except the core foursome, so who’s going to wear the mask?  We later find it’s a guest agent named Bert, but the actor is uncredited.

Barney shows up at Johnny’s funeral as a cop who’s rude and confrontational toward Eve and her henchman Homer Chill (Walter Barnes), whose cousin Joe is wanted in Gotham City in connection with the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne.  But that’s not important now.  Homer is a henchman inherited from Johnny, but he actually reports to the head of the organization, Luchek (Ronald Feinberg).  After the funeral, Eve meets with Luchek and blackmails him with the incriminating documents: regular payments and Eve’s continued safety will ensure the originals stay hidden.  To think I held you when you were born, Luchek says, but Eve counters that it wasn’t too many years later that Luchek killed her father.  Luchek backs down and pays the money.

Willy rigs a tripwire at Eve’s door so that she falls just as someone takes a shot at her.  Detective Barney detains the unseen shooter at gunpoint and brings him inside as he questions Eve, and we see the shooter was Jim, who’s playing it cool and cheerful and is even polite to his intended victim.  Eve refuses to cooperate with Barney or explain why she was targeted, so he takes Jim away.  Eve has Homer do his own investigation and they track hitman Jim down; he’s been released by virtue of a transfer of funds from his pocket to Barney’s.  Eve offers to double his fee if he’ll kill the man who hired him, and when Jim hesitates, she invites him to dinner.  Once sufficiently romanced, Jim confesses that he doesn’t know who hired him; he got the money and instructions from a courier.  But she convinces him to try tracking the man down.

Willy sneaks into Eve’s bedroom and takes some money from the stacks Luchek paid her, leaving a copy of Johnny’s thumbprint on the safe dial.  When Eve pays Jim the agreed-on amount, which by lucky happenstance is exactly one bundle’s worth, Jim finds it’s 2 grand short.  (Is this something the team could’ve reasonably predicted?  Jim said he was offered $12,500 for the hit.  Maybe he expected Eve to double that because it’s fairly routine, or maybe he would’ve haggled if she hadn’t offered that off the bat.  And maybe $25,000 is the standard size of a bundle of cash of this denomination, and maybe it was reasonable to expect that mobsters would routinely deal with such bundles.  Still, it seems the plan relies a bit too much on factors outside the team’s control.  Unless I’m remembering the timing wrong and Willy broke the safe and passed the details on to Jim before he started talking money.)  Checking all the bundles, Eve finds more money missing, and is bewildered since only she and Johnny knew the combination (and apparently, despite being a criminal, it’s never occurred to her that a safe can be broken into).  Jim uses face powder to bring out the thumbprint, and there just happens to be a copy of Johnny’s driver’s license complete with thumbprint in the safe, and Eve just happens to be sufficiently expert in dactyloscopy (look it up) to make a positive match by sight alone.  Jim says it must be a fresh print or it would’ve dried out.  But Eve is certain Johnny’s dead.

At least until she finds out that Johnny’s jacket was delivered to her home (by Willy), and Casey calls pretending to be the laundry and saying it was supposed to go to another address.  Eve and Jim go to that address and find Casey, along with duplicates of Johnny’s possessions found on his body (as well as some rather weird abstract cat art decorating the place).  Jim intimidates Casey into confessing she’s working with Johnny, though she says she hasn’t seen him in days.

Eve and Jim are getting rather lovey-dovey, and Homer wonders if she’s falling for him, but she assures him that doing business sometimes demands actions that resemble affection.  Eve then goes to the hotel where Johnny’s killer is lying low.  The team intercepted him days ago, and desk clerk Willy tells Eve he never checked in.  It’s starting to look like the man she saw parachuting out of that plane was Johnny.  Which is reinforced when Bert breaks into her room that night and injects her with a needle.  There’s nothing in the needle; it’s just cosmetic for later.  The trick here, bizarrely, is that Willy previously swapped out her sleeping pills for ones calibrated to make her sleep for a precise amount of time.  (Seriously, again, who is the IMF’s pharmaceutical designer?  A drug like that could make millions for the insomnia market.)  Why not just leave her sleeping pills alone and have Bert inject her with adrenaline, if he’s going to inject her anyway?  Well, in any case, she wakes up just in time to see Bert-as-Johnny say “I got what I wanted” and leave.

Corrupt cop Barney shows up and takes Eve to see “Johnny’s” body, freshly killed by Barney.  He says they were partners; Johnny pentothalled her into revealing where the documents were and was going to… umm… do something nefarious with them; I missed that part.  But Barney decided to kill him and muscle in on Eve’s blackmail scheme, taking 3/4 of the payments for himself.  He shows her (a duplicate of) Johnny’s briefcase to confirm he has the documents.  Eve goes to Jim and tries to seduce him into killing Barney (gee, that’s her solution to everything, isn’t it?), but Jim is skeptical of Barney’s story, saying Johnny would never have actually brought the documents.  They have to be sure.  She takes him to where she hid the documents, and describes the site well enough that the eavesdropping Homer is able to repeat it to Luchek, who recognizes where it is.  At the site, she finds the documents are still there, and then pulls a gun on Jim, not needing him anymore.  I would imagine the plan at this point was for Barney and Willy to jump out with guns drawn, but Luchek gets there first, and Eve takes a bullet to that ever-popular wound location, the shoulder.  Jim punches out Luchek and his goon, and that’s when Barney and Willy finally arrive and reclaim the evidence.  Eve looks hurt to realize Jim was playing her all along, but it’s not like she was doing any different.

A run-of-the-mill but fairly entertaining episode.  The main point of interest is Laraine Stephens, a striking actress who resembles a more delicate-featured Elizabeth Montgomery, but whose dainty, girlish looks are belied by a smoky, brassy, New York-tinged alto that sounds like its owner has been around the block a few times.  There are some moments where it seems they’re trying to play this as a real romance for Jim, but if so it’s a superficial pretense, since both of them are merely playing each other.  This could’ve been a more potent episode if Eve had been more sympathetic, though it’s hard to see how that could’ve been done in the context of the story they were telling.

The episode credits Lalo Schifrin for the music, but this time I’m certain there’s no original scoring, except maybe for some source music in the restaurant scene — though if there’s no other original music, that’s probably stock as well.

“The Question”: What do you get when you multiply six by nine?  No, that’s a different question.  The question is, why does Gary Lockwood have such an unflattering haircut?  He’s barely recognizable as Nicholas Varsi, a foreign assassin who’s arrested meeting his contact at the airport and tells the arresting officer, Nelson (Jason Evers), that he wants to defect.  Atop a skyscraper, a surly guy adjusting a TV aerial hands off the tape to Jim, whose mission, “should you agree to undertake it,” is to determine whether Varsi’s defection is on the level, since he won’t reveal his assignment and might be passing false information from the enemy (hey, another spy mission).  There’s some interagency conflict here, since he’s in the custody of the Federal Intelligence Service, which may have been infiltrated by a mole, so the IMF has to abduct Varsi without FIS cooperation.  (To add to the alphabet soup, Varsi is an operative for the “KGN.”  Subtle…)

This is another episode that must’ve been shot during Lynda Day George’s maternity leave (they sure are spacing those out), since Casey’s allegedly working in Europe again and the lady agent of the week is Andrea, played by Elizabeth Ashley, who was so memorable in last season’s “Encounter.”  In a sense, this is her second time playing an IMF team member, since she spent most of “Encounter” playing Casey in disguise.

Varsi is being held by the FIS in a condemned building (with rather sedate grafitti saying “LOVE” and “KOOKIE KOURT”).  There’s a scene — no doubt the latest of many — in which Nelson and Varsi go back and forth: Varsi won’t reveal his assignment until he has a guarantee of a new identity, the FIS won’t give him a guarantee until they can prove his story of defection.  It’s a nicely written scene by Stephen Kandel, a lively and clever exchange.  Finally the FIS agents tire of it and leave, though evidently a cameraman stays in the room with him, since on the agents’ security monitor the camera freely pans, dollies, and tracks to follow Varsi’s movements.

Barney throws a firebomb into the building, then Jim and Willy show up as cops (supposedly members of the standard round-the-clock patrol of the building) and pretend to participate in the investigation, actually planting another couple of bombs as a diversion.  They enter Varsi’s room, distract him with the classic “Look out!” ploy, and knock him out, then put a Willy mask on him.  The real Willy climbs out the window and Jim makes it look like Varsi-as-Willy-as-cop has been shot.  So Barney and Andrea come in as an ambulance crew and take Varsi out.  But when the FIS agents can’t find Varsi, Nelson catches on and sends them after the ambulance.  A chase ensues until Willy releases some barrels in the pursuing car’s path (they were ready for anything).  But Nelson arranges a police search with the assistance of a captain played by George O’Hanlon, best known today as the original voice of George Jetson.  Captain Jetson doesn’t do much except periodically tick off the percentage of the area that’s been searched.

Varsi awakens in an abandoned winery where he’s interrogated by Jim in the role of the local head of KGN operations.  Varsi claims he was pretending to defect as a response to his arrest, but Jim is unconvinced and demands details of his assignment, which Varsi refuses to give.  He’s allowed to see a sobbing Andrea, who’s supposedly just been tortured by Willy.  Later, she’s thrown in the storeroom with him — and her blouse is unbuttoned, suggesting somethng more than torture was going on.  But Varsi’s a savvy agent and realizes this might be just more of the game; he’s already found the bug in the room (the one he was allowed to find).   The next round of cat-and-mouse ensues: is she really the captured FIS agent she claims, or a KGN agent sent to sound him out?  Is he really a defector or a loyal assassin?  They both distrust each other and they both acknowledge it freely.  It doesn’t stop Varsi from making out with her, though.

Their conversation is monitored by a voice-stress “lie detector” of Barney’s, which gives inconclusive results: either Varsi’s honestly a defector or he’s a very controlled liar.  We see the team discussing where they stand, the kind of “behind-the-scenes” discussion that’s become rare again this season.  The gadget didn’t work, so it comes down to Andrea.

Jim tells Varsi they used a lie detector on him, but claims they were convinced by its results.  As a final test, they hand him a gun and tell him to kill Andrea.  He apologizes to her and pulls the trigger, but the chamber’s empty (though he calls it a blank).  Convinced of his loyalty, Jim gives him a car and supplies for his assignment.  Varsi asks for Andrea to come with him as a driver and hostage.  He’s still wary — he may have guessed that the gun would be empty.  If he’s a defector, he’ll prove it by taking Andrea to the FIS; if he’s not, he’ll prove it by killing his target and her.  Anyway, the team evacuates the winery just before the cops close in on it.  Farewell, Captain Jetson.

The team tracks Varsi’s car by homing transmitter, but he stops at an electronics store and buys a bug detector, finding the bug in his own shirt collar.  He ditches the bug and drives off, but Andrea turns on a spare bug in her barrette when they stop for gas.  But the nosy gas station attendant (remember when they had those?) plays with the bug detector and reveals the second bug, which Varsi destroys.  Now Andrea’s on her own.  The team splits up to search.

Varsi now has Andrea tied up in a hotel room, where a sniper rifle has been left for him.  He carries Andrea into the bedroom, gags her, and tells her to be quiet; he’s meeting his superior Kemmer (whom he’s apparently never seen), who might kill her if he finds her.  While Varsi assembles the rifle, Andrea wriggles her way over to the phone, lifts the receiver and dials Jim’s car phone with her hands behind her (lucky for her it’s a touch-tone phone), and taps Morse code into the receiver with her fingernails, tipping Jim off to her location.  She gets back on the bed just before Varsi comes back in, but sees she’s left the receiver slightly ajar.  I was expecting the phone to start making that noise it makes when you leave it off the hook too long, thereby tipping Varsi off, but that didn’t happen; maybe they didn’t do that yet in 1973.  Varsi doesn’t notice the phone and Andrea is safe — for now.

When Kemmer arrives, it turns out to be Nelson — which didn’t surprise me at all, given that Jason Evers usually played bad guys.  He says he ran Varsi’s interrogation to make sure of his loyalties.  But then Varsi reveals his loyalties, pointing his rifle at Kemmer/Nelson; he really is a defector and his plan was to smoke Kemmer out and hand him over to the authorities.  But like virtually everyone in this whole episode, Kemmer is thinking a move ahead, and he already sabotaged Varsi’s firing pin.  Varsi’s gun doesn’t work; Kemmer’s does.  Kemmer then goes into the bedroom and carries Andrea out.  (Lucky for Lockwood and Evers that Elizabeth Ashley is a dainty woman.  I’m reminded of Gielgud’s advice about playing King Lear: “Get a small Cordelia.”)  Turns out that, for whatever reason, Kemmer didn’t kill Varsi, just lightly wounded him.  He has Andrea tie Varsi up, then ties her back up and replaces the rifle’s firing pin.  We see now that the hotel room is just across from a government building of some sort and a motorcade is arriving.  Kemmer prepares to shoot the unspecified Important Person arriving with the motorcade — and a really nifty joint operation begins to come together.  Varsi scoots across the floor and starts moving a side table with his feet.  Andrea helps him move it with her feet.  Outside, Jim arrives, sees the rifle sticking out of the window, and climbs the outside of the building.  Varsi and Andrea tip over the table, distracting Kemmer just in time for Jim to leap in and beat up Kemmer (which is quite a coincidence, since they didn’t know he was coming).  Kemmer holds his own, but finally Willy bursts in and gets him in a full nelson (fittingly).  Barney’s the only one left out of this impressive climactic dogpile.

As Varsi is wheeled into the ambulance, Andrea gladly says that they know who he is now.  But who is she, he asks?  Wistfully, she tells him that will have to stay a question.

This is without a doubt the finest episode of the season so far, and with only six left, it’s unlikely to be surpassed.  It’s the first episode this season that feels like a season 5 episode, with the team being “out of character” for much of the story, things going wrong with the plan and building suspense, a team member developing a real relationship with a guest character, and strong, clever writing throughout.  The rare return to an espionage-themed caper also adds to that fifth-season flavor.  All the characters here are on the ball, keeping each other guessing, seeing through each other’s ploys, and anticipating each other’s moves, and nobody knows what side anybody’s on until the end — just what you want in a good intrigue thriller.  It’s always more interesting on M:I when the guest characters are smart enough to know they’re being played, even to play back, and almost everyone here is playing on the same high level.  On top of which we even get a rare hint of genuine romance.  It’s a bit odd that the dramatic core of the episode revolved around two guest stars, although that’s kind of in keeping with the original format of the series back in the very early episodes.  And I note that this is the second time they’ve brought in Elizabeth Ashley for a script that made considerable demands of its lead actress.  If it weren’t for Mrs. George’s maternity leave, I’d wonder if they lacked faith in her dramatic chops.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S7) Reviews: “The Puppet”/”Incarnate” (spoilers)

November 16, 2011 1 comment

Sometimes these paired titles in my review headers make interesting phrases.  “The puppet incarnate?”  Wasn’t there a Twilight Zone episode or two along those lines?

“The Puppet”: Ooh, look, it’s Roddy McDowall!  I know already I’m going to enjoy this.  He’s playing Leo Ostro, a young, Ivy League-educated gangster who’s arguing with his more pragmatic older brother Paul (John Crawford) about a new plan he has for the family business, one that Paul considers naive and reckless and says will only go forward over his dead body.  Leo contemplates for a bit, then says, “Paul?” in that classic McDowall tone of thoughtful innocence masking mischief, and when Paul turns, Leo shoots him.

Cut to Jim in a novelty shop or something (did their San Francisco location budget run out?), being told that Paul Ostro recently suffered severe facial injuries in a hunting accident, whereupon talk began to emerge about the Ostro crime family preparing to institute a new plan of some sort.  The team’s rather nebulous mission is to discover the nature of the plan and the reason for the change in policy.  There’s no mention of why “conventional law enforcement agencies” can’t handle this task, or even why it’s so important to define the mission in this particular way.

But Jim quickly catches onto what’s already evident to the audience — that the heavily bandaged Paul recovering from “facial injuries” may be an impostor, the titular puppet for someone else.  Jim’s gambling that he can pretend to be someone Paul knows — either the recovering “Paul” is an impostor or he’ll be drugged enough to be confused.  The regular foursome (including Casey, who’s looking more like her old self again) are joined by Hank (Richard Devon) and Khalid (Joseph Ruskin); both actors are familiar faces from M:I episodes past, but this is their first time playing good guys.

The team arranges a family emergency for the Ostros’ chef (I don’t want to think about how) so that Barney can take over the job (and he’s studied up on cuisine so he can pass Leo’s vetting).  Meanwhile, various mobsters are meeting in “Paul”‘s bedroom, and since “Paul” can barely talk, Leo takes over explaining “Paul’s” new plan — or rather, not explaining the details, just asking them to invest a million each with the promise of a twelvefold return.  Gault (John Larch), a rival wishing to take over the Ostros’ operation, resists investing blind, but “Paul” vouches for Leo, and the mobsters trust his word and hand over the money.

Jim and Casey arrive at the mansion, with Jim insisting he and Paul have been business partners for months.  “Paul” doesn’t recognize him, but once Jim “reminds” him of the details of their plan — a deal with a Middle Eastern minister to get their hands on half a million tons of “misplaced” oil — “Paul” and Leo are inclined to go along with it, though Leo insists on meeting the minister (Khalid, of course) to get the details; he wants to be convinced the deal’s legit before he invests the million bucks that Paul supposedly promised.  Jim insists the minister can’t be seen going to the Ostro mansion, so Leo goes to him.  Jim and Casey arrange for Casey to stumble and expose track marks on her arm to Leach (Val Avery), Gault’s spy in the Ostro home.

Barney spikes “Paul”‘s liquid meal with a drug to induce a fake heart attack, letting Willy come in as a doctor and take photos of “Paul”‘s tattoo, as well as collecting the tape recorder in Barney’s watch, which has a sample of “Paul”‘s voice for Hank to imitate.  Barney’s been called to the bedroom by the returned Leo, who’s instantly suspicious that “Paul” was poisoned — which makes sense if it’s a perfectly healthy impostor.  Leo makes Barney drink the rest of the spiked concoction, and Barney does so and stands calmly until Leo’s satisfied — then races to the kitchen to drink the antidote in time.  (Why didn’t he take it in advance?  Or have a vial ready in his pocket?  Good to inject an element of suspense/danger, but it shouldn’t be so contrived.)

Leach tips Gault’s men off about Casey, so they abduct her and tempt her with drugs until she tells them that Leo and Jim have arranged to abscond to Zurich with $4 million.  Gault’s man following Jim to the travel agency finds corroboration for this story.  (Is the travel agent that Gault’s man questions part of Jim’s team, or just an innocent?  There’s no indication of the former, but I’d be surprised if Jim left that element to chance.)

When Dr. Willy returns, he insists on being left alone with Paul, then he and Barney swap out Leo’s “Paul” for Hank, and Willy and Hank break open the safe and extract the mobsters’ money, which Willy then transfers to a briefcase in Khalid’s room just in time for Leo to show up.  (Meanwhile, Barney and Casey remove the bandages from “Paul” and confirm that he’s an impostor.)  They show Leo the papers confirming the oil deal and put them in the trick briefcase so he can take them to experts for verification.  But then Gault’s men grab Leo and Jim at gunpoint and take them back to the mansion, where all the gangsters meet in Paul’s room.  When they open the trick briefcase, it opens on the compartment containing their money and two tickets to Zurich.  Leo insists he’s been framed and turns to “Paul” for support, but Hank-as-Paul claims to know nothing of this.  Leo denounces him as an impostor, so the mobsters cut off the bandages — and surprise, surprise, under the bandages Hank has on a mask of the real Paul with heavy facial burns.  He tells them Leo shot him and kept him drugged and controlled.  To save himself, Leo has to explain his whole plan to the other mobsters: learning that South African currency was printed in the US, he arranged the means to make flawless counterfeits and is ready to start distributing them globally.  He takes them down to the subbasement to prove his story by showing them the printing equipment — and the watching Barney signals Willy to bring in the cops, catching all the bad guys with the evidence.

A pretty routine mission overall.  In theory it’s slightly more interesting than usual in that the team is trying to solve a couple of mysteries, rather than having all the answers and being in control from the start as they too often are.  But the “mystery” of Paul’s imposture is obvious from the start (they gave it away with that opening scene), so it doesn’t work so well.  Although the reveal of Paul’s face under Hank’s bandages is a nice twist, one they did a good job of misdirecting us away from.  Mainly the strength of the episode is Roddy McDowall’s presence; he’s always fun to watch and listen to, even when his material is fairly mediocre.  There’s also a small amount of new music by Lalo Schifrin, but not much.

“Incarnate”: Robert O’Connell (Solomon Sturges) is hiding a stolen gold shipment in a cellar furnace when he’s confronted by his mother Hannah — and holy cow, it’s Kim Hunter, just a week after Roddy McDowall’s guest spot!  First Cornelius, now Zira!  (But alas, Maurice Evans isn’t in the next episode.)  Turns out Hannah stole the gold and Robert stole it in turn from her, then testified against her so he could have it to himself.  He’s willing to shoot his own mother to keep the gold — but she shoots him first, without hesitation, though she cradles him in her arms afterward.  In another shop, Jim gets the tape out of a roll-top desk and is told that Hannah and her other, more loyal son Thomas (Robert Hogan) have fled to the Caribbean (according to the good old “conventional law enforcement agencies,” and I think this is the first time a tape message has referred to something the C.L.E.A. did accomplish rather than something they couldn’t).  The US can’t kidnap her from foreign soil, so Jim’s mission is to get her back to the US and find the gold.  Jim’s plan involves playing on Hannah’s superstitions, and is built around voodoo, which Jim describes as a “primitive” religion throughout the Caribbean.  Arrgh.  Oh, the seventies, what am I going to do with you?  They intend to create the “ghost” of Robert using what Barney mispronounces as “hellagraphic” projection (which I guess is like holographic, but more hellish?).

Interestingly, the episode is plotted and co-scripted (with story editor Stephen Kandel) by Buck Houghton, the producer of the first three seasons of The Twilight Zone.  So perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s taking a supernatural tack, however misguided.

The team’s already tricked out the house Hannah’s rented on the Caribbean isle of Jamada; the house is the same one that would later be Mr. Roarke’s house on Fantasy Island.  That makes this the second episode this season (the other being “The Deal”) where the bulk of the episode takes place in a foreign country, and in both cases the countries are in the Caribbean.  Housekeeper Casey greets Hannah and Robert with the apology that the household staff has disappeared because they’re a bunch of superstitious primitives scared off by “the drums.”  Sigh.  Thomas scoffs, but Hannah insists voodoo is real, and Casey chimes in with a story about the house being used for voodoo rituals and a whole army division disappearing overnight (gee, good thing she’s not the realtor).

That evening, Jim shows up as a pilot/smuggler seeking to get the O’Connells’ participation in a drug smuggling operation into the States; he insists he can get in and out without the US authorities noticing.  Thomas is intrigued, but Hannah shows him the door.  Interestingly, Jim establishes his underworld bona fides by dropping the name of Benjamin Dane, the powerful East Coast mob boss from the earlier episode “Movie.”  This is only the second time that an M:I episode has shared any continuity with an earlier episode that wasn’t part of the same multiparter.

That night, when Hannah turns in for bed, Casey slips some kind of hypnotic or whatever into her cocoa to amplify the effect of the holo — sorry, hellagraphic visitation by Robert’s angry ghost.  The next day, Barney plays a shopkeeper in town and contrives for Hannah to find a duplicate of Robert’s unique ring, which Barney pretends to get an omen of “death in water” from.  That night, Casey flirts with one of Hannah’s guards and knocks him out, and the next morning they find him apparently drowned to death in the pond outside (though of course it’s the old “drug to fake death” routine).  Willy shows up as the local doctor, who has the hots for Casey, but she only has eyes for Thomas.  (Poor Willy.  I don’t think he’s ever gotten a romance this whole series, even as part of a scheme.  Which is weird, given how popular Peter Lupus was with female viewers.)

Hannah goes back to Barney for more spiritual advice, but he’s reluctant, since he senses evil around her.  He warns that something inside her is dead and seeks death — by water, by air, and by fire.  He intimates that there’s a ceremony to exorcise the demon, but doesn’t want anything more to do with her.  But later, she finds her other guard hanged (not really, of course — the team grabbed him a bit earlier), and interprets that as “death by air,” or rather the lack thereof.  Now she’s determined to do the ceremony, and Barney agrees to lead it.  He’s assisted by a bunch of locals or performers who do the drumming and dancing and whatnot.  Back at Mr. Roarke’s house, Casey is making time with Thomas when jealous Willy bursts in, drawing a gun;  a fight ensues and Casey hands that gun (loaded with blanks) to Thomas so he’ll “kill” Willy with it.  Now he needs to flee back to the states, and he goes with Casey to steal Hannah’s buried stash of money (paper, not the gold).  The plan is for Casey to accompany him back to the US.  But apparently she’s not as irresistible as the team was banking on, since Thomas knocks her out and goes off on his own.

When Jim finds this out, he sends Willy to the ceremony to keep an eye out for Thomas — but Thomas spots Willy first and knows something’s up.  As the ceremony climaxes, the hellagram of Robert appears in the bonfire and says his soul won’t rest until she tells him where the gold is.  Then Barney knockout-needles her and swaps out her bullets for blanks.  When she awakens the next morning, she’s allowed to “accidentally” see that one of her “dead” guards is still alive.  Back at the house, she confronts Barney at gunpoint until he “confesses” that Thomas hired him to arrange the scam, and that she spilled the whole thing to Thomas during the part of the previous night she can’t remember.  So she shoots Barney, who fake-dies, and she calls up smuggler Jim to arrange a trip back to the US.  Thomas is still out there, a potential spoiler for the plan, but it’s resolved way too easily when Barney spots him through the window and goes out to beat him up.  So Jim (who’s wearing the same ugly striped shirt he used in “Underwater,” but as part of an overall ensemble that isn’t quite as bad) flies her back, and the gold turns out to be in the same place where Robert was burying it (which must be why she caught on that the “ghost” was a fake).  Hannah has a gun hidden in the stash and is preparing to shoot Jim, but she telegraphs it and he disarms her, and then the cops arrive to arrest her.

This wasn’t great.  Cool to see Kim Hunter, but the caper is mediocre and the condescension toward Afro-Caribbean religion and culture is unpleasant.  It’s weird that the episode would play up Hannah’s superstitious nature to such an extent (and it really is rather caricatured) but then have the caper rely on her catching on that the hauntings were a trick.  And all the stuff with Thomas goes nowhere and is basically just padding.  There is some new music here, mostly source drums, but some of the accompanying and surrounding cues seem new; however, there’s no composer credited.  Yet I’m fairly confident by now that the musical style I heard there was Schifrin’s.  Perhaps the music credit for Schifrin on “The Puppet” (which I couldn’t swear had any new music at all) was meant to go on this episode instead?

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S7) Reviews: “Kidnap”/”Crackup” (spoilers)

November 15, 2011 3 comments

“Kidnap”: Mobster Andrew Metzger (John Ireland) meets a pair of henchmen at a tennis tournament and points them to two men whom we know as Jim and Barney, saying Jim is their target.  The two IMF members are on vacation (albeit using fake names, like on their last vacation together in season 4’s “Death Squad”), and there’s a nice, if brief, bit of characterization where Jim is meticulously planning a campaign to defeat their tennis opponents and Barney tells him to relax and enjoy the vacation.  Barney is paged to the lounge, and once he’s gone, the henchmen knock Jim out and drag him to their car.  Metzger approaches Barney and says his men have Jim.  Apparently he’s connected with the Aquarius Casino from last season’s “Casino” and identified Jim and Barney from security tapes.  That’s right, this is M:I’s only sequel.  But don’t expect much in the way of continuity.   The only things here that actually track with “Casino” are the name of the casino and the use of a few film frames from that episode as surveillance photos.  Otherwise, the two episodes contradict each other pretty badly.  The characters herein who were supposedly employees or patrons at the Aquarius were nowhere to be seen in “Casino.”  And in that episode, the team stole the daily take from the casino’s gambling tables, totalling just over half a million dollars, and framed the casino’s owner for it to trap him into turning state’s evidence; but here, it’s claimed that the team stole $4 million in “skim money” as well as incriminating records.  I can understand wanting to keep the connections minimal, given the realities of ’70s TV, but it’s odd that they’d alter incidental details like this.

Anyway, Metzger has a different mission for Barney.  As with season 1’s “The Ransom,” the bad guy wants the IMF to do their thing for him, specifically to get an incriminating letter away from his former protege and now-rival Connally (Charles Drake) if they ever want to see Jim alive again.  (The fact that Jim is the captive probably has something to do with the fact that this is Peter Graves’s directorial debut on the series.  When series regulars become first-time directors, they generally do so with stories that minimize their screen time so they can devote more time to directing.)

The planning scene with the diminished team is run by Barney in Jim’s absence.  It’s an interesting opportunity to see Barney as the team’s second-in-command, though there’s some precedent for that in episodes like “Trapped” (the episode right after “Casino”).  Casey is back (we won’t see Mimi again) and apparently has added pickpocketing to her repertoire of skills.  In fact, both she and Willy seem to be fulfilling what’s historically been Barney’s standard role, providing and explaining the equipment they’ll be using in the caper.

Jim is taken down to an air-raid shelter and tied up with wire.  His head abductor, Hawks (Jack Ging), explains that one of the others, Proctor (Geoffrey Lewis), was head of security at the Aquarius Casino and lost his job, so now he really wants Jim dead.

Connally’s letter is in a safety-deposit box and he won’t give the key to the feds until he gets his guarantee of immunity.  Casey goes to the bank to request a safety-deposit box to put her jewelry in, then fakes an asthma attack long enough to make a key impression of the lock in Connally’s box, the one that goes with the bank’s key (and the method she uses, injecting a fast-drying plastic, wouldn’t actually work).  Willy’s repertoire now includes locksmithing, and he makes a duplicate key from the mold, then the team arranges to get Connally’s second key.  Barney pretends to be the elevator repair guy to get to the controls, then Willy and Casey coordinate with a hitherto-unestablished guest team member credited as “Dowager” (Monty Margetts), an old woman who signals Barney by radio when Connally and his federal babysitters leave.  Once they’re all in the elevator, Barney stops it, and Casey fakes a panic attack long enough to get the key out of Connally’s pocket and make an impression of it.  With the two keys made, Casey goes back to the bank and gets the letter from Connally’s box, while Barney delays Connally and the feds.  Casey gets the letter, but Hawks (tipped off by a bank employee who’s been watching for team members from the casino security footage) intercepts her outside and steals the letter before they can duplicate it (the plan is to deliver one copy to Metzger to save Jim and the other to the feds to put Metzger away).  Barney learns that Metzger doesn’t have the letter; Hawks must be acting on his own, stealing the letter to blackmail Metzger.  So Barney decides to forge the envelope, guiding Casey to remember every detail.  Somehow they’ve managed to collect all necessary supplies for that forgery in a matter of minutes.

Meanwhile, Jim has been working on his escape, getting free of the bed he was tied to and getting his bound hands in front of him.  Eventually he manages to melt the wire by touching it against the heating element of an electric space heater.  By the time the team gets there with their forged envelope (claiming the letter’s in a safe place as security for Jim’s release), Jim has his escape plan ready.  Metzger and Proctor (who’s been butting heads with Jim all episode) escort them to see Jim, then Hawks shows up with the real letter and holds them all at gunpoint, planning to kill all the witnesses.  Jim has a can full of flammable liquid he found in the shelter’s cabinets, and he tosses it into the space heater, creating a diversion so the team can beat up the bad guys and lock them in, taking the letter to give to the feds.  Jim tells Barney they can just make their 5:30 tennis court reservation.

Despite being the first “off-book” mission we’ve had for a while, and despite the atypical situation of Jim’s captivity, this is a pretty run-of-the-mill caper.  The idea of actually doing an episode that follows up on the consequences of the team’s actions in an earlier episode is a welcome novelty, but the inconsistencies with the episode it’s supposedly a sequel to undermine that.  And it doesn’t serve Casey well in her big return episode that her chief roles are to suffer an asthma attack and a panic attack — though the part with Barney relying on her memory to reconstruct the envelope is good.  Watching Jim try to MacGyver his way out of  captivity is interesting, and it’s good to see Barney as leader, a role he fits into well.  And there are one or two nice directorial touches on Graves’s part, like having Proctor reflected in a wall fixture to reveal that he has the drop on the team.  Still, despite those nice touches, I didn’t find the episode all that engaging.  Though maybe that’s just because I was distracted from trying to compare it against “Casino.”

“Crackup”: Peter Cordel (Alex Cord) comes out of a chess club and is met by his brother Harry (Peter Breck), who gives him a gun which Peter says he doesn’t expect to use.  He breaks into the upper-story bedroom of a woman who controls important stock options, and after explaining to the terrified woman why he was hired to kill her, he pistol-whips her (so he used it after all, kind of) and tosses her off the balcony.  Cut to a plaza with a fountain, where Jim gets the tape from a guy fixing his motorcycle and is told that the IMF is certain Cordel is a top assassin even though he’s so brilliant that “conventional law enforcement agencies” (which haven’t been mentioned for a while) have never been able to arrest him or identify his employer (so how does the IMF know this?).  Jim’s mission is to achieve both those goals.  The team is again Casey-less, but instead of Mimi, they’re joined by one-time team member Sandy (Marlyn Mason, not to be confused with Marilyn Manson) and Dr. Adler (Arthur Franz).

Jim passes himself off as a psychiatrist and chessmaster with help from Barney’s chess computer and a bone-conduction mike in his glasses (the chess computer is portrayed unrealistically as calculating only one move at a time instead of modelling several moves ahead, just as in season 2’s “A Game of Chess”), and squirts a hypnotic drug onto Cordel’s chessmen before they play.  After the game, Jim hypnotizes Cordel at his car while Dr. Adler keeps another patron away by blathering on endlessly about the game.  Then, once Jim’s given Cordel a whole series of hypnotic suggestions and triggers (yup, it’s one of those episodes), Adler comes up to Cordel and provokes an argument, then uses a trigger phrase to put Cordel in a trance.  He then uses fake blood to make it look as though Cordel blacked out and killed Adler with the latter’s cane (he takes a pill that’s supposed to simulate death, but Cordel doesn’t even check the body and the pill wears off moments later).

Cordel races away from the scene and goes to the bar where he’s arranged to meet Leslie Harper, courier for a mobster trying to recruit him away from his current employer.  But Willy is on hand waiting to intercept Harper.  The plan hits a snag when Harper is late, and Willy calls Sandy, who instructs him to proceed as normal with the plan.  (Odd that someone we’ve never seen before is giving the orders.)  Anyway, she shows up just before Harper arrives, and Willy spirits Harper into a back room and knocks him out just seconds before Cordel arrives.   He retrieves Harper’s proof of identity and slips it in Sandy’s bag; she takes advantage of Harper’s androgynous name to take his place as Cordel’s contact, adding an element of seduction to her sales pitch.

Later, in a scene shot entirely as a reflection off a convex parking-garage mirror, big brother Harry is met by their employer’s goon (familiar Desilu/Paramount voice artist Bart La Rue in an uncredited role) who shows him the news of Adler’s supposed death and says he should keep Cordel away from the chess club for a while.  (Seriously, the rate at which newspapers in the M:I-verse have to print retractions must be staggering.)  Harry goes to his brother to warn him about that and about what “the Man” might do if Cordel defects to the rival team, but Cordel will have none of it.  Sandy shows up just as Harry storms out, and offers to “sweeten” the deal, wink wink nudge nudge.  Down in the lobby, Harry sees police detective Barney drive up and head for the elevators (ignoring the “All Visitors Must Register At Desk” sign — gasp!), but when Harry calls Cordel to warn him, Sandy has him too, err, occupied to answer the phone.  But not too much to answer the door when Barney arrives to question him about the chess club murder.  Sandy lies to alibi him, and Barney appears to accept it.  Sandy then leaves Cordel to prepare for his chess match — but outside, Harry grabs her and says to stay away from his brother or he’ll kill her.

Later, before their next chess game, Dr. Jim psychs Cordel out by telling him about a patient, a soldier whose job of killing took over his dreams and led to delusions that drove him to kill.  Despite supposedly being a master chessplayer, Cordel doesn’t recognize this obvious bit of maneuvering for what it is, and nervously postpones the game.  Outside, Barney intercepts Cordel while Willy runs interference with the watching Harry.  Barney says the bartender busted Cordel’s alibi and confronts him about the murder, then uses the hypnotic phrase to entrance Cordel while he plants a gun in his hand and douses himself with fake blood.  Cordel wakes to find himself standing over Barney’s “body” just as a crowd — and Harry — arrive.  He flees to his apartment, finding Sandy there.  Harry arrives to confront him, but Sandy delivers the trigger phrase and Jim punches Harry out; then they repeat the fake-murder trick and make Cordel think he’s killed his brother, just before Sandy sticks a knockout needle in his neck.

Cordel awakes in what Jim tells him is the prison psych ward.  Jim promises to help treat him, and encourages him to turn to friends and family, but Sandy is the only friend he has (or so he thinks).  Once Jim leaves, a burly orderly (Michael Masters) comes into Cordel’s room and tries to smother him with a pillow (and there are a couple of moments during the fight where Cordel’s short hospital gown fails to provide adequate coverage, but I assume he had a flesh-colored undergarment on and I sure wasn’t interested in freeze-framing to check).  But the orderly dangles the call button where Cordel can grab and press it, and then flees, and orderly Willy dismisses Cordel’s claims as a paranoid delusion before mentioning that Sandy’s here to see him.  Afraid for his life and sanity, Cordel turns to Sandy as the only person he can trust, saying his employer wants to silence him before he talks, and telling her how to contact his employer to convince him to call off the hit — or else he will name names.  Sandy goes to the arranged meeting and is picked up by a chauffeured limo.  She asks the man in back the chess question Cordel gave her to confirm his identity, but the man in back passes it on to the driver, the real top man.  But just then, the driver gets a call from Harry, who’s overpowered his guard and warns him that Sandy’s up to something.  The bad guys get her at gunpoint and drive off, but just then they’re surrounded by cop cars.  You’d think some kind of standoff would result with Sandy as a hostage, or at least that they’d shoot her right off to ensure she couldn’t reveal which man was the real boss.  Instead, the car stops, Sandy gets out and tells the cops who the boss is, and she drives off with the team, an implausibly easy resolution to the climactic crisis.

Still, up until the weak ending, it’s a pretty decent episode.  It’s certainly a damn sight better than their previous hypnosis episodes like “The Miracle” and “Image.”  In those episodes, hypnosis was portrayed as having the power to induce complex behavioral changes in the subjects, leading to the credibility question of why they used it to stage ridiculously elaborate hoaxes to get the information they needed rather than just hypnotizing the subjects into revealing the information.  Here, though, the hypnosis doesn’t make Cordel do anything except freeze into a trance state on hearing the trigger phrase and wake up again on hearing his name.  Everything else is orchestrated by the team while Cordel is entranced.  So that makes it a lot more credible.  Plus the story overall is reasonably entertaining, and Marlyn Mason is a fairly alluring femme fatale.  That helps make up for the stagey feel of the production.  The early part of this season was full of fresh and unusual locations, but this was almost entirely on the backlot and standard locations like a very familiar tunnel in the mountains.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S7) Reviews: “Hit”/”Ultimatum” (spoilers)

“Hit”: We meet syndicate boss Sam Dexter (Dane Clark) making out with his girlfriend Vicki (Barbara Rhoades).  Both of them engage in very stilted expository dialogue for the audience’s benefit.  “Sam, I can’t believe you’re about to go to prison!” “Yeah.   A year on tax evasion charges.”  They might as well turn to the camera and address us directly.  Sam wonders who ratted him out.  Just then, they get a call from corrupt ADA Reynolds (Robert Reed), and Vicki asks, “How’d he know you were here?”  then turns to the camera (not really) and adds, “My place?”  Reynolds’s timing is contrived, since he’s calling to answer the question Sam just asked: it was Vicki who ratted him out.  So Sam sneakily cuts Vicki’s brake line (it’s the same green car we’ve seen several times on M:I over the past three seasons, the one with no engine under the hood, though it seems to have a brighter paint job now, or maybe it’s another car of the same model).  When he sees her off, he surreptitiously wipes his fingerprints off the door handle, though he didn’t seem to have a problem with getting his prints on the brake line.  Her car races out of control down the steep mountain road (and I wonder if this might be partly stock footage from “The Missile” in season 5), then flies off a cliff — and like so many cars going off cliffs in TV, it blows up in midair before it actually hits anything.

Cut to San Francisco harbor before dawn as the camera pans across the skyline.  Jim gets the tape in a boat cabin.  Dexter’s organization is still active despite his imprisonment, under the direction of a partner known only as “The General.”  The team must identify the General and prove Dexter killed Vicki to shatter the organization once and for all.  For the second week in a row, there’s no line about “conventional law enforcement agencies” being unable to get the job done.  Maybe by this point the producers figured the crimebusting role of the IMF had been sufficiently established that they no longer needed to rationalize it.  This is another Mimi episode, with the usual passing reference to Casey assisting offscreen (this time to create Mimi’s cover identity).  The other guest team member is mask performer Jack, who’s uncredited and won’t be seen with his own face outside the apartment scene.

Jim plays a federal prosecutor who’s reopening the investigation into Vicki’s death, which we eventually learn was 9 months earlier.  He lets ADA Reynolds know he has a witness to the murder, and Reynolds’ gobetween Murdock (Frank Christi) tips off Dexter in prison.  Meanwhile, Willy and Barney have gone in as inmates.  Willy picks a fight with Dexter’s men and takes out his chief bodyguard, but Barney intervenes and takes Willy down, supposedly sending him to the hospital (whereupon he’s transferred out).  Dexter is grateful to Barney and wants to recruit him, but Barney will have none of it.  Dexter’s chief muscle Gordon notices that Barney was secretly doing a drawing on a pad of paper, and the old “rub a pencil on the sheet below” trick reveals an escape plan.  Dexter dismisses the plan as a pipe dream, but Gordon suddenly gets all weepy and melodramatic about what will happen to him when Dexter gets out in three months, and even though Dexter assures him he’ll get a lawyer to spring him, Gordon remains behind with quivering lip.  The scene is played as a big deal, but this is the last time we see Gordon, so it goes nowhere.  It’s very strange.

Anyway, Jim’s witness Mimi gives a deposition, and Reynolds realizes she’s lying when she claims she saw Dexter drive away from the murder scene (it was established in the opening that he didn’t bring a car there).  Reynolds goes to her apartment and confronts her about who hired her to “frame” Dexter, and when she won’t talk, he sends in Murdock to employ “less legal” methods of persuasion.  But Murdock is surprised to see his own double — Jack in disguise — and Jim takes him down.  (When Reynolds leaves and Murdock arrives, we see them in an elevator whose door has a frosted-glass top half so we can see them descending and ascending.  But we don’t see the top of the elevator car doing the same.  I suspect the actors were just crouching behind the door.)  The fake Murdock leaves just in time to get hit by a car driven by Willy, with Reynolds watching in shock.  Later, in the hospital, the fake Murdock tells Reynolds with his “dying” breath that the General hired Mimi and had him hit.  Reynolds and Jim go to Dexter in prison to let him know the General is moving against him, and Jim asks him to identify the General.  Dexter refuses, and when Jim leaves he tries to get Reynolds to take out a contract on the General.  Reynolds doesn’t want to get involved, but Dexter says he’s been paying Reynolds for years and expects — and just then Jim and the cops come in and arrest Reynolds, now that they have him incriminated on tape.

Dexter has no one left to turn to (since Gordon and his other henchmen have been transferred out of the prison offscreen — huh?).  So he goes to Barney for help in escaping.  His plan is to kill the General, then get back to prison before anyone knows he’s gone — the perfect alibi.  Jim and Willy get everything set up for Barney’s escape, knowing they’ll have to tail the escape car closely, since Dexter won’t leave Barney alive once he’s served his purpose.  But when Barney and Dexter escape into the drainage tunnels (through the same hatch Barney used to get in and out of the mental hospital in last season’s “Committed”), Dexter causes a cave-in and they have to find an alternate way out, miles from the arranged getaway car.  A teen couple drives up and goes off into the woods to make out, and Dexter forces Barney to steal their car (Dexter suddenly has a gun, with no explanation). The rest of the team has no idea where Barney’s going.  So Jim comes up with a backup plan. Willy awakens Murdock, claiming to be from a rival operation seeking to move in, and offers him a partnership if he’ll ID the General for them.  He refuses, but Willy gets a call supposedly saying they’ve found the General without Murdock’s help, then leaves.  Murdock gets free of his ropes and dials the General’s number, which the team intercepts; then they and the cops come in and arrest Murdock before his call goes through.

Dexter and Barney get to the General’s mansion and knock out his butler/bodyguard, finding him (Jan Peters) in a secret computer room behind his bar.  To keep Dexter from shooting the General, Barney stalls for time, getting Dexter to confess to killing Vicki, then revealing that he’s not really the convict he says he was.  It’s unclear how Barney thought any of this would save him, but just at the right moment, Jim, Willy, and the cops come in and arrest both criminals.  Barney shows Jim the General’s crime computer, and Jim is satisfied that it should let them bring the whole operation down.

This is the weakest one of the season so far.  A decent premise, but it has flaws in structure and execution that drag it down.  There’s a decent attempt to have things go wrong and create some suspense, but Jim’s solution has an air of familiarity to it, as does a lot about the episode overall (though this late in the series it’s hard for any episode to do something we haven’t seen before).  And it’s unclear how they really managed to get Dexter on Vicki’s murder.  Is Barney going to testify to his confession?  Can he even do that, given that he and the team seem to be deep-cover operatives who don’t even use their real names on vacation?  And if he did, would that be enough proof to put Dexter away?  Would it even be admissible under the circumstances, or would it constitute entrapment?  It’s a weak and inconclusive payoff.

“Ultimatum”: Rogue nuclear physicist Jerome Cooper (Murray Hamilton) and his wife Adele (Madlyn Rhue) drive up to LA City Hall, and Cooper goes inside with a satchel.  For some reason he has to go through City Hall to get to the sewer where he has a large bomb planted.  Once there, he attaches the detonator and timer.  Then Adele gives him a letter to send to the President.  At another landmark, Fort Point at the Presidio in San Francisco (not far from where Kim Novak leapt into the bay in Vertigo), Jim is informed by the tape that Cooper has planted a 50-megaton nuclear bomb under an unknown city and given the president until noon the following day (even though he set the timer to “6”) to replace several key officials with Cooper’s men and institute several major changes in US foreign policy.  Jim’s mission, obviously, is to find and stop the bomb.  Again the “conventional law enforcement” line is missing, this time for good reason.

By the way, this bomb is an enormous case of overkill.  At 50 megatons, it would be tied with the Soviets’ Tsar Bomba as the largest nuclear bomb ever made.   It wouldn’t only destroy the entire city of Los Angeles and many of its suburbs, but the fallout it generated would probably cause devastation over a huge swath of the country.  A much smaller yield would’ve been more than adequate to hold the city hostage, and it’s questionable how Cooper could’ve managed to obtain the materials to make a fusion bomb of world-record magnitude without drawing attention from the authorities.

For once, there’s no mention of Casey being involved in a Mimi episode, and nobody’s in the apartment scene but the core foursome.  However, the team has a huge task force working in an elaborate situation room with maps of all the prominent cities that might be Cooper’s target.  Could this be an actual IMF headquarters of some sort?  While the IMF started out seeming to be a sort of garage-band operation run out of Dan Briggs’s or Jim Phelps’s apartment, the ’88 revival series and the movies showed it as a larger, more institutionalized agency.  Maybe this is an intimation of that.

One of the task force members, operator Lisa (Judith Brown), calls Cooper and connects him to a phony presidential aide arranging a meeting with the Prez at the “Western White House” to negotiate a surrender to Cooper’s demands.  (This would seem to confirm that Richard Nixon or a close parallel was the POTUS at this time in the M:I-verse, since Nixon had a “Western White House” in southern California.)  Cooper drives off for the meeting, but not before arranging with Adele to ensure the bomb goes off at noon if he doesn’t contact her by ten.  They agree that their cause — whatever that may be — is more important than his life.

Somehow the team has rigged Cooper’s car radio to pick up their fake transmissions, with task force member Carl (Fred Holliday) breaking in as a radio announcer to report on a Bonnie-and-Clyde-style shootout and escape.  They’ve also rigged his car to blow its antifreeze line just outside a gas station/diner attended by Willy, who invites Cooper to go inside for some coffee while he repairs the car.  Meanwhile, the police put up roadblocks to contain the area.  Jim and Mimi arrive as the criminals and take Willy and Cooper hostage in the diner.  (Mimi frisks them, but overlooks the gun Cooper has hidden in his sock.)  An agitated Cooper tries to convince them to let him make a phone call, but Jim will have none of it.

When 10 AM passes with no call, Adele knocks out the grocery delivery boy and sneaks past the watching cops in his van, then calls her accomplice Morgan (Donnelly Rhodes in his third M:I role) and sends him to search for Cooper.  He runs into the roadblock and is told about the “killers” they have holed up, but that just prompts him to sneak by on foot and investigate.

In the diner, the fake news broadcasts tip Cooper off that the Prez has called a number of senior officials to a secret meeting.  Then a patrolman (Vince Howard) shows up and Jim orders Willy to act natural while the others hide in the kitchen.  The patrolman, according to plan, pretends to know Willy and shows him a picture of Cooper, saying the authorities are trying to locate him.  Once he’s gone, Cooper tries to convince Jim that he’s an important man and needs to make a phone call.  He draws his gun on Jim and Mimi, but Jim manages to disarm him pretty quickly.  Cooper tells them about the bomb and the blackmail and they begin to catch on that they could get rich from this.  They let Cooper call his accomplice Rogers (Vic Vallaro) and order him to disarm the bomb.  The team’s plan is to follow the accomplice to the bomb.  But Morgan is watching through binoculars, and calls Adele to let her know what’s going on.  So Adele kills Rogers when he comes out of his office.  Oh noes!

When Cooper hears of this on the radio, he realizes he’s the only one who can stop the bomb now.  He tells Jim there’s a failsafe only he can disarm, a secondary timer that will detonate the bomb after a week if the first timer is disarmed.  But as they prepare to leave, Jim notes a glint from a sniper rifle, and gets Cooper down just before Morgan shoots him.   Morgan pins them down, and Jim whispers to Willy to make a break for it so Jim can “kill” him and leave him free to go after the sniper.  But then Jim decides to go out after Morgan himself, presumably so Cooper won’t be left wondering what happened to the sniper.  Jim and Willy take him down together, and then Barney picks them up in a helicopter with half an hour to spare.

They arrive at City Hall and climb down into the sewers, with the literal ticking clock on the bomb superimposed.  (Now the alarm window says “9” instead of “6.”)  But Adele is still there, apparently fanatical enough to be willing to die for whatever the hell their cause is, and she shoots at Jim, Mimi, and her own husband.  Jim wings her, and Mimi tends to her while Jim and Cooper go for the bomb.  Cooper disarms it with five seconds to spare, then tells Jim that they rule the world now.  Adele arrives with Mimi, laughing at Cooper’s words, and points out the cops closing in.  Now, you’d think that at this point the 7-day secondary timer would be addressed, but it’s completely forgotten; the episode just ends with the Coopers being taken away.  Are we supposed to think Cooper disarmed both timers at the same time?  It’s very unclear (and no, that’s not a typo for “nuclear”).

So this is a moderately effective episode, despite some head-scratcher moments.  It’s always nice when they do a national-security story instead of a crimebusting story.  And there’s some moderately effective tension as Adele’s machinations jeopardize the plan.  Another plus is an original musical score, only the second of the season and the only M:I contribution by composer Duane Tatro.  But the premise is somewhat implausible, and it would help if we had some inkling of why the Coopers were doing this — what they hoped to gain and why Adele and Rogers were so willing to sacrifice their lives for it.

So I went back to the tape scene and freezeframed on the blackmail letter included in Jim’s briefing package, hoping it might fill in some of that missing background.  And boy, does it ever.  It includes the following paragraphs:

I, and my colleagues, have long been concerned about the growing corruption and decay in our nation.  We have been frustrated too long.  Now we have taken firm, decisive action.  We represent those millions of Americans who feel the need to change the destructive course that this nation is taking.  These are the first set of demands that we are making.  Demands that will begin to reverse our nation’s decline.

The following treasonous, corrupt government officials must be arrested at once:

[List of eight congresspersons and three senators]

In addition, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secretary of HEW and the Attorney General must be seized and held.  Furthermore, you must leave office at once, recalling our troops from abroad and halting the foreign entanglements which have weakened our nation for a generation.

Blackmail letter from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: "Ultimatum"

Wow.  That throws the whole episode into a new light, considering what I said earlier about the implication that Nixon was the president in-story as well as in reality.  So basically the Coopers were taking a stand against the corruption of the Nixon administration and the war in Vietnam.  They were on the right side of history, even though their methods were inexcusable.  I wonder, was scripter Harold Livingston, or whoever in the production was responsible for the text of the letter (since it’s not very well-written), trying to defend Nixon’s policies and paint his opponents as villains?  Considering that this letter would’ve been all but illegible to viewers at the time, I think not.  As far as viewers could actually tell, the Coopers’ cause was a complete mystery.  So maybe this letter was snuck in there as a subtle subversive statement of protest directed at Nixon’s administration and policies.  (Interestingly, all three figures mentioned in the last quoted paragraph above were later suspected or implicated in the Watergate cover-up, though I don’t think that had happened yet at the time of this episode.)

Anyway, it’s ironic that the Coopers and their “associates” went to such great lengths to try to root out the corruption in Nixon’s administration and end the war in Vietnam.  If they’d only waited a couple more years, matters would’ve resolved themselves.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S7) Reviews: “Underground”/”Movie” (spoilers)

November 10, 2011 1 comment

Hey, last season we had “Underwater,” now it’s…

“Underground”: Gunther Schell (H. M. Wynant) is being driven to prison when the Sheriff’s van is intercepted by a team of bad guys who liberate him — and hey, it sounds like new music accompanying the scene!  Jim gets the tape from a hostess at a Japanese garden restaurant — I wouldn’t be surprised if this is another San Francisco landmark — and then sits to listen to the highly secret tape just a few feet from where the patrons are coming in, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.  His mission is to find Schell so as to track down the millions he has squirreled away for the mob.

In the apartment briefing — in which Casey and Barney’s moustache are both present — Jim explains that the gang that took Schell offers cons the promise of escape but actually brainwashes them into giving up their secrets, using a very dangerous truth drug.  (The “false promise of escape” idea was previously used in “Mindbend.”)  Jim will put himself in their clutches, but will be rendered immune to interrogation by a transmitter implanted in his ear and a post-hypnotic suggestion to respond only to Barney’s voice — a near-exact repeat of a trick they previously used in the season 4 finale “The Martyr.”  So far a lot about this one feels familiar.  Meanwhile, Lynda Day George seems to be struggling with her lines.  Was this a rough pregnancy?  It seems to have taken a lot out of her.

Jim’s picture is planted in the paper as a doctor sought for murder (gee, you’d think that’d come back to bite him), and Barney makes overtures to the gang’s contact.  He gets a meeting at the zoo with the gang’s leader, Clavering (Robert Middleton), a big, bearded man with sort of a bargain-basement Sidney Greenstreet quality, and arranges a meeting and payoff to get Jim out of the country.  Jim brings the money to the carousel meeting site, and Barney and Willy follow his tracking signal to a warehouse.  But Clavering insists on putting Jim in a lead-lined coffin in the back of a hearse (with an air/sedative tank), and the signal is lost.  For some reason, instead of watching the exit and following whatever vehicle emerges, Barney and Willy break into the warehouse and arrive too late.  As Barney says, “Jim’s on his own.”  Yeah, Barney, because you totally screwed up.

Jim is brought to another striking location, a park with white Arabesque buildings that’s representing the Lotus Hills Mortuary.  Clavering reports to the Director, who’s played by John Stephenson, a man whose voice is instantly recognizable to those of us who grew up with Hanna-Barbera cartoons in the ’60s or ’70s (he was the original Dr. Benton Quest, Fred Flintstone’s boss Mr. Slate, and the voice of Professor X in the 1989 Pryde of the X-Men pilot).  Schell is being interrogated by Dr. Hargreaves (Peter Mark Richman) in a spinning chair in a torture room filled with disorienting light patterns and noises, again like “Mindbend,” only more elaborate and intense.  (One of the sounds is the rattlesnake-like clicking of the Martian War Machines’ eyestalks from War of the Worlds.)  While this is going on, Jim wakes up, uses a lockpick hidden in his shirt collar to escape his room, and goes down to the basement, where he peels a patch off his arm and dumps some pills into the air conditioning system.  As explained in the apartment scene, the pills release a gas tailored to affect only diabetics like Schell.

Meanwhile, Barney makes contact with Schell’s boss Lutz (Dennis Cross), playing a private eye, and lets Lutz know about the kidnap/brainwash scheme.  He makes a deal to deliver Schell to Lutz once he gets him back.

Hargreaves and Clavering have no luck getting Schell to reveal where the money is.  They leave him for the nonce and go to work on Jim — who, without Barney speaking in his ear, can only choke silently.  Hargreaves realizes he’s hypnotized himself, and Clavering suspects he’s a spy.  But ironically the glitch in the plan saves Jim — Hargreaves argued that if he were a spy, he’d confirm his cover story, not just be silent.  (Come to think of it, reusing a trick the team has used before actually works in this context; since we’ve already seen how it’s supposed to go, that sets up its failure here.)  Hargreaves figures he can break the conditioning with a few hours in his wacky torture room.  There’s a fairly lengthy sequence of the torture/brainwashing with lots of spinning and flashing lights and noises, and I actually took the opportunity to go out and get a snack without bothering to hit the pause button.  So I almost missed the part where the henchman alerts H & C that Schell appears to be dying.  That’s Jim’s gas kicking in.  Hargreaves examines him, but he’s a psychiatrist, dammit, not an MD!  Clavering remembers that Jim supposedly is a surgeon, and pulls him out of brainwashing.  Jim uses the opportunity to insist on bringing in an anesthesiologist he knows, one who has his own crimes to cover up.  It’s Willy, and when the henchmen drag him there (with Barney and Casey following — Casey’s only role in the story is as a driver), he brings his little black bag — which contains a knockout-gas sprayer and mini-masks for Jim and Willy.  With the baddies all knocked out, the team rescues Schell.  Director Dr. Quest almost stops them, but Barney comes in and clocks him.

Then Barney notifies Lutz and they meet at Barney’s (supposed) PI office.  Schell can’t remember if he talked or not, so he and Lutz drive off to check on the stashed cash — and Willy’s planted a tracker on their car, so they follow them there and get the drop on them once they find the cash intact.  But Clavering has figured out that PI Barney is the one who clobbered Dr. Quest, so he’s followed them too.  Luckily Jim spots him in a mirror and the good guys duck and let the two groups of bad guys inflict some attrition on one another until the cops show up, arrest the survivors, and retrieve the dough.

Not sure what to make of this one, but I guess it tends toward the positive.  The plot feels somewhat recycled, but it holds together pretty well, except for the silly way the team loses track of Jim.  And the danger of Jim being on his own isn’t too great, since clearly the plan called for him to bring Willy in later anyway.  So that isn’t as strong a threat to the mission/the team as it could’ve been.  So let’s call it a mostly routine but reasonably well-executed caper.  Once again the location scout is proving to be one of the most valuable players this season, and we finally, refreshingly, get a complete original score, courtesy of Mr. Lalo Schifrin.  I wonder why they waited until episode 7 to pay for a new score.  I wonder how many others there will be.  (IMDb’s credits for this season are a bit lacking in thoroughness.)

“Movie”: Don’t worry, this has nothing to do with Tom Cruise.  We open at Pantheon Studios, where mobster Brent (William Smith) and his “guards” force the studio’s founder and head of production to sign over control of the studio.  We know who the guy is because his protests are painfully expository: “You can’t do this!  I’m head of production for this studio!  I created Pantheon Studios!”  Brent’s dialogue explaining how the founder got in debt is equally stilted, and it’s almost a relief when the conversation ends with the founder being tossed off a catwalk.  But there’s a nice transition from the falling studio head to a falling combatant in a karate practice session, with the thrower being Norman Shields (John Vernon, previously the villain in the 3-parter “The Falcon” in season 4).  Shields gets a phone call from Brent notifying him of the studio head’s “suicide,” and he then calls mobster Benjamin Dane (David Brian), who tells Shields that his kid brother Theo (Rhodes Reason) will be taking over the studio under Shields’s guidance.

Jim gets the tape in a hospital’s research lab, and all the mice and bunnies listen in as he’s asked to track down the ledger detailing how the syndicate is funneling money into the entertainment industry.  Instead of the “conventional law enforcement agencies” line, the Voice says that this information could let them smash the syndicate once and for all.  Well, at least until the next episode.

The team’s plan is to produce a movie, Portrait of a Murder, which is based on a murder Shields is suspected of and has details known only to him and the police (another “the play’s the thing” gambit?).  There’s another reference to Casey helping out offscreen, but Mimi will be going undercover as a freshly discovered actress in Barney’s film.  Jim will be impersonating Theo, whom Shields has never met — and faking Theo’s death to lure Benjamin to Hollywood.

Mimi gets the womanizing Theo’s attention on the flight to LA, then arranges to make sure they’re the last to deplane — except for Jim, who sneaks up and knockout-needles Theo.  Willy sneaks him out in the food-service truck.  But unknown to the team, Benjamin has sent a man to tail Theo, and the tail, Moore (Jerry Douglas), is surprised when Theo doesn’t get off the plane.  He pages Theo to the courtesy phone, surprising and worrying Jim.  (He sees Jim answer the page and knows he isn’t Theo.  Jim doesn’t see him, though.)  Luckily, the team has arranged to intercept the phone lines from the studio, so when Moore calls Benjamin, he gets the team’s voice impersonator du jour, Dave Waley, played by longtime M:I voiceover artist Walker Edmiston (and I think they’re actually letting him mimic the voices for real instead of overdubbing him).  Dave finds out where he’s staying, and that lets the team identify him by comparing the hotel register against the plane manifest.  But that doesn’t stop him from getting into the studio and intercepting Jim at gunpoint when he comes out of the Pantheon office building (actualy the familiar Lubitsch office building at Paramount — it’s the role it was born to play!).  Mimi sees this and drives at Moore; he fires at her car, and the noise attracts the studio’s mobster-guards, who shoot Moore dead, unaware that he was on their side.  So the main threat to the team’s plan is dealt with rather early.

Barney’s film disturbs Brent and Shields, since it’s way too close to reality and could harm Shields’s hard-earned good reputation in Hollywood.  But Jim/Theo refuses to shut it down, thinking only of the profits it will bring the studio.  Shields calls Benjamin, who tells him to get rid of Barney.  At the end of the call, the team cuts mimic Dave in to ask how Shields will do it, so they’re forewarned that he’ll use a bomb.  But they don’t know where or when. Barney searches the set the next day and doesn’t find it.  But just after the camera is reloaded, Brent hurries Jim out of the soundstage.  That gets Jim suspicious, but it doesn’t crystallize until he has a Dr. House moment while playing with a toy camera tchotchke on his desk.  He calls Barney and warns him the bomb is in the film reel that was just loaded.  Barney clears the set in a hilarious way, by staging a directorial temper tantrum and demanding that everyone leave at once.  He follows just before the bomb blows.

After Jim chews out Brent about the security breach, Willy shows up as Shields’s karate partner, saying the regular guy’s out of town.  He and Shields spar, and John Vernon does most of his own fighting, surprisingly.  Willy “accidentally” knocks Shields out and switches his gun with a remote-controlled, blank-firing duplicate.  Then Jim calls up Shields, pretending to be drunk, and demands they meet.  (It’s reputedly on Stage 31, and if that’s really where the scene was shot, then they’re in the soundstage where the starship Enterprise sets had stood just a few years before, back when it was called Desilu Stage 9.  That’s quite possible, since it would be right next door to the M:I soundstages.)  He confronts Shields, professing the intent to bring him down with evidence of his crimes, and provokes Shields to draw on him so he’ll hand over the evidence. Jim triggers the remote-controlled gun to fire and falls “dead” — and Barney’s up in the rafters filming the whole thing, with only the back of Jim’s head visible.  They then swap out Jim with the unconscious (and equally white-haired) Theo, who’s given a drug to fake death, with cooperation from the police to sell the illusion to Benjamin, whom Mimi calls to notify of Theo’s murder.  (Same as in “Stone Pillow,” the syringe is labeled “live virus culture” for some reason.)

When the surviving Dane arrives at the studio, having seen his brother’s “corpse,” Shields explains what happened, which is close to the truth except that he says Theo jumped him and the gun went off by accident in the struggle.  But Mimi tells Dane a different story.  Shields insists that Theo was going to ruin them with Barney’s film, and Dane demands to see it.  The film run in the screening room is instead the film Barney shot from the rafters, with an intro from Barney saying Theo asked for it because he was afraid of Shields.  But Dave has dubbed over Jim’s dialogue with new lines in Theo’s voice to make it look like an unprovoked murder.  Surprisingly, Dane doesn’t intend to kill Shields, but just orders him to leave the country.  First, though, he insists that Shields turn over the financial ledger so Dane can run the operation himself.  Willy watches from the projection room as Shields hands over his watch, which contains the ledger on a microdot.  Jim and Willy intercept Dane outside and take the watch at gunpoint.

All in all, a solid if unexceptional episode.  There are some moderately effective threats to the team, though the Moore problem is dealt with too easily — and if anything, the bomb isn’t dealt with easily enough, since it shouldn’t have taken so long for Jim to piece his suspicions together (and I could’ve done without the “noticing a random thing triggers a sudden epiphany” cliche).  Barney’s director freakout was great fun, and it was also fun to see the Paramount lot actually shown off as a movie studio for a change, letting us see parts of it that are usually hidden when they’re trying to pass it off as the outside world.  The depiction of filmmaking even seemed more authentic than what you usually see; for some reason, when film and television portray their own process, they tend to misrepresent it badly, but this felt closer to reality, with touches like scenes being shot out of order and an assistant director passing the director’s instructions on to the cast.  We’re back to stock music, but otherwise it’s a moderately satisfying episode.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S7) Reviews: “TOD-5″/”Cocaine” (spoilers)

November 9, 2011 2 comments

“TOD-5”: A government scientist named Morse…  Hey, that sounds like the first line of a limerick.  Ahem:

A government scientist named Morse
Has sold out his country—how coarse!
He stole a nerve toxin,
So he needs outfoxin’
By the Impossible Missions Force!

(Sorry for the meter in the first and last lines.  Best I could do.)  Anyway, Morse (Ross Elliott) is contacted by Holt (Peter Haskell), go-between with a domestic terrorist organization called the Alpha Group, which intends to buy a stolen canister of nerve gas TOD-5 from Morse.  They meet in a hotel in the small Southern or Southwestern town of Woodfield.  But Morse has hidden it and will need a day to retrieve it. Holt calls go-between Davies (Michael Conrad, the third future Hill Street Blues regular to show up lately) who “connects” him with the Alpha Group the old-fashioned way, by holding two telephone handsets against each other speaker-to-receiver.  The Alpha Group is led by Dr. Victor Flory (hey, it’s Ray Walston!), and they’re suspicious of Davies, for good reason, since we see him listening in on the conversation.  Flory orders Davies detained for a few days once he returns, after which it won’t matter.  Cut to Jim in an antique shop, getting the briefing on a vinyl record on an antique phonograph — only the second time in several seasons that something other than a reel-to-reel tape has been used.  The mission is to locate the Alpha Group.  As Jim explains in the apartment scene, it’s not enough just to retrieve the TOD-5, because Alpha has other bioweapons it plans to use in a major strike several days hence.  They have to get to Alpha and shut it down.  This is another Mimi episode; Jim explains that Casey is in Europe monitoring Alpha’s overseas branch.  Mimi’s job is to get close to Holt, and Jim gives her a tracking-device watch and warns her not to let anything happen to it.  What do you want to bet something happens to it?

Jim and Willy effortlessly take Morse out of action and retrieve the TOD-5.  Morse boasts that capturing him won’t stop the attack.  But then, he doesn’t know the plan.  Next morning, Holt arrives at the hotel to be told by a new clerk (who seems sweaty and unwell) that Morse was never there at all. Holt checks in and searches Morse’s room, finding nothing.  He tries calling Alpha, but an operator tells him the long-distance lines out of Woodfield were downed in a storm.  He goes to the garage where his car is parked and finds it won’t start.  Holt accuses mechanic Willy of sabotaging his car, and Sheriff Jim intercedes.  Just then, there’s a bloodcurdling scream from outside.  A man staggers into the street, his face covered in sores.  He collapses and an ambulance promptly arrives.  Jim keeps everyone back from the sick man, including waitress Mimi, who seems close to him.  Holt notices the ambulance crew (including Barney) have military-style khaki pants and boots.  Just as the ambulance drives away, the camera zooms in on a man in the background — it’s Davies!  Hmm, I’d figured he was the fed who notified the government and got the IMF on the case.  Maybe he represents a third party?

In the diner, waitress Mimi flirts with Holt (even though the guy who just “died” in the street was “sort of a boyfriend” of hers), and can’t tell him anything about Morse.  When he leaves, Davies comes in, claiming to have been hunting in the area, and starts asking questions about Morse, making Mimi and Jim suspicious.  Mimi slips Jim his beer glass so he can fingerprint it.  Later, Holt sneaks into the garage and finds Morse’s car under a tarp, with the (dummy) TOD-5 canister just sitting in the back seat.  He takes the car and tries to get out of town, but finds the roads blocked.  Sheriff Jim notices he’s not driving the car he came in, and orders him to take it back where he found it.

Back in town, Holt convinces Mimi to tell him what’s going on.  He’s figured out a lot of it: that there was a TOD-5 leak and the military took over the town, quarantining it to avoid a panic, even if it kills everyone in Woodfield.  He convinces Mimi to let him know the next time they come to take a sick person away.  Later she comes to him in his room and knocks him out long enough for the team to inject him with a drug that will fake the symptoms of the plague (seriously, who designs these perfectly tailored drugs they keep using?), and they set back his watch and rewind the tape player hidden in his hotel-room radio so he’ll think no time has passed when he recovers a few minutes later.  Mimi tells him another sick person is about to be picked up, and he follows the ambulance to a morgue outside of town, where he’s captured and questioned by GI Joe Barney.  (Sorry, I didn’t notice his rank.)  Barney confirms what’s happening, and that only a very few people are immune to the toxin.  And Holt isn’t one of them.  Barney hands him a mirror and lets him see the sores starting to form on his skin.  Panicked, Holt breaks free and rushes back to Mimi.  She tells him she has no symptoms, even though her boyfriend died a couple of days before.  Holt realizes she must be immune, and might be his salvation.  Sheriff Jim shows up at Mimi’s door, but collapses “dead” soon thereafter.  Mimi suggests taking his cop car out of town; with the siren running, it’ll be let through the roadblock.  Once they’re on their way, Mimi activates her signal watch.

But Davies (whom the team has now identified as an Alpha member) follows them out of town, going offroad in his Jeep to get around the roadblock.  He shoots out their tires and pins them down with gunfire.  Turns out he wants the TOD-5 for himself so he can sell it.  The team arrives, but can’t intervene without blowing the mission.  Holt pretends to cave and tosses out the duffel containing the canister and the money he was going to pay for it.  Davies is distracted by the shiny long enough for Holt to recover his gun and shoot Davies in the leg.  But Davies’ gun goes off and hits Mimi in — guess where — the shoulder.  We’re getting to the point where you’re not really an IMF agent until you’ve been shot in the shoulder at least once.  And, predictably, when she falls, she breaks her signal watch.  When Holt takes her away in Davies’s Jeep, the team’s only hope is that Davies is still alive and willing to tell where Alpha HQ is.  He is alive, but they threaten to end that condition by shooting open the (fake) nerve gas canister right next to him.  At the last second, he agrees to talk.

Holt arrives with Mimi at the small-town church housing the Alpha Group, deliberately exposing Flory and the rest to the plague to force them to find a cure.  He tells them not to hurt Mimi, since she’s immune.  Then he appears to drop dead, an effect faked by the drug, and Flory is about to autopsy him when the nurses interrupt him with the discovery of the transmitter in Mimi’s broken watch.  Just then, Holt wakes up, and for some reason the first thing he does is to brush at his facial sores, which are suddenly flaking off harmlessly.  Just then, the team bursts in on the shocked bad guys, and we get a rare instance of direct lethal violence on the team’s part, when Flory pulls a gun and Jim shoots him in self-defense (though Flory dies off-camera).  Cut to Mimi recovering in the hospital, where Jim tells her she’s no doubt happier to recover than Holt was.  (There’s no further mention of Casey’s activities in Europe against the overseas branch of Alpha.)

A reasonably effective episode.   Nice to see bad guys who aren’t mobsters, even if they are domestic.  And it’s an unusual touch that the episode unfolds mostly from Holt’s point of view and we don’t always know in advance what the team is doing or who’s working with them (though it seems pretty much the whole town had to be cooperating with them).  Davies’s agenda is something of a mystery for much of the episode too, adding an unpredictable element.  The location work is good too; wherever they found to shoot the Woodfield scenes was not your typical backlot, and the shootout and confrontation with Davies took place in an interesting mountain-valley location.  So far it’s looking as though a lot of the seventh season’s budget is going into novel location work — the San Francisco-based tape scenes, the earthquake-ruined hospital in “Two Thousand,” the boats and coastal/seagoing locations in “The Deal,” now this.  It’s a nice change from when practically every episode featured the same studio backlots or office buildings.

“Cocaine”: We open at an import company in Rio de Janeiro (judging from the stock footage of its harbor), where… is this a Shatner I see before me?  Yes, William Shatner is back, but he’s not the focus of this scene.  He’s alongside gangster Carl Reid (Stephen McNally), and they’re meeting with Laroca (Gregory Sierra) to view a seahorse sculpture they’re having shipped to America.  The artist Santoro (Miguel Landa) is shocked to discover they’re using it to smuggle drugs — though he must lead a very sheltered life, since he needs it explained to him that the powder is cocaine.  He walks off, naturally getting shot for his trouble while the other bad guys coolly close their deal for the largest cocaine shipment ever smuggled into the US.  We cut to Jim driving up to a bookstore just across the street from San Francisco City Hall — very near the location used in the season premiere’s tape scene.  “Your mission, should you accept,” is to seize the shipment.

The mark for this mission will be Shatner’s character, Reid’s right-hand man Joe Conrad (who probably has some kind of darkness in his heart).  Conrad is vain, arrogant, and fancies himself a swinger (so, totally against type for Shatner, right?).  He’s just joined a Playboy-style club run by men’s cosmetics mogul Frank Fallon, who’s recovering in Europe from a near-fatal plane crash and has had his face totally reconstructed.  Casey, still on maternity leave assignment in Europe, has secured Fallon’s cooperation so Jim can take his place.  Mimi has gotten a job as a “Fun Girl” at the men’s club.  (For some reason, she’s attired in a glamorous evening gown in the tape scene, instead of casual clothes.)

Barney plays a cop whose star is rising due to a huge drug bust he just made.  Reid and Conrad can’t figure out where the drugs came from, since Reid controls all cocaine in the city.  But there seems to be a link to Fallon’s club, so Conrad goes there and Mimi arranges to catch his attention, pretending to be high on the job and getting a rebuke from Jim-as-Fallon.  He convinces her to get together after work, and she invites him to her place.  (This is a reunion for Shatner and Barbara Anderson; she seduced him as Lenore Karidian in Star Trek‘s “The Conscience of the King.”)  He claims interest in getting high, and she’s just let him see the sooper-seekrit compartment where her stash is when Barney and his cops show up to search her place, missing the stash.  Once they’re gone, Conrad takes the stash, and shows only one small bag of it to Reid and his chemist Stanley (Milton Selzer), the latter of whom confirms it’s the purest coke he’s ever seen.  Reid then has Conrad meet with Barney and try to bribe him, but Barney pretends to think that Conrad’s working for Fallon and that he’s not interested in taking Fallon’s money “anymore.”  Between this and some fake financial records Willy plants at the credit union, they’re now convinced that Fallon is the rival drug dealer.

So Conrad bails out Mimi and demands to know where she gets the drugs.  She takes him to see Jim/Fallon, and Conrad offers to go into partnership.  Jim refuses and rebuffs Mimi.  Playing the woman scorned, Mimi tries to shoot him and the gun goes off between them, fake-killing Mimi.  Now Conrad has leverage over Jim, and forces him to take  them to his source.  It’s Willy, cast against type as a genius chemist who’s invented a machine to synthesize cocaine cheaply.  Conrad calls in Stanley to confirm its purity, telling him to keep it between them, but Stanley lets Reid know anyway.  After Stanley confirms the purity of the coke (actually government-seized drugs provided to the team), Barney bursts in and is about to arrest them.  But Conrad Shatners it up and urges Barney to think about the millions he could make from this drug-manufacturing process.  Barney agrees to a partnership, and pretends to kill Stanley (just knocking him out) to be sure he won’t talk.

Conrad arranges with his buyers — presumably the ones who were supposed to buy Laroca’s shipment — to meet him earlier that day at Fallon’s club and buy his coke for less.  But then Jim and Willy get the drop on the buyers (including the late Charles Napier again, though he’s uncredited) and the “dead” Mimi comes out to collect the money.  Barney doesn’t join them; it looks like he’s been set up along with Conrad.  After the others leave with the loot, the buyers discover the “drugs” are sugar.  One of them is about to shoot Barney as a warning to Conrad, but Barney talks his way out, saying Conrad can get them their drugs.  He’s bought Conrad time, but he has to get his hands on that shipment from Rio now.  So Conrad intercepts (then shoots) Reid’s courier and gets the location of the statue.  Reid’s man is tailing him, and the dying courier tells him the location.  Jim and Willy try to pursue, but Conrad nearly runs over a crossing guard leading a bunch of kids across the street, and Jim has to stop to avoid hitting them.  Luckily, the team has tapped Reid’s phone at some point (this was never shown), and Mimi overhears the location.  Conrad reaches the gallery and tries to buy the statue, then Reid and his men get the drop on him, then the cops and the team show up and get the drop on them all.  Conrad smiles ironically as he sees the team all together.

An okay episode — like the last Shatner episode, scripted by future Star Trek: The Motion Picture screenwriter Harold Livingston (from a story by Livingston and Norman Katkov).  Not a great one, though.  All the schemes and double-crosses are maybe a bit too convoluted, and some things are set up that don’t really have any payoff (like a whole scene of Reid and Conrad explaining to the courier about how he’ll be given a phone number in reverse, which sounds like it’ll throw off the team, but it has no effect on the story).  But again, one of its main strengths is an effective use of visually interesting locations beyond the backlot.  A street sign saying “2900 W 6th St.” visible in the last-act car chase let me identify a couple of the distinctive buildings, including the Central Civil West Courthouse and the nearby Church of the Precious Blood — and there actually is a school right next to the place where the schoolchildren were crossing the road.  (Although during the chase it looked like they went through the same intersection several times.)

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S7) Reviews: “The Deal”/”Leona” (spoilers)

November 8, 2011 1 comment

“The Deal”: This time we open with Jim getting the tape — not at a landmark this time, just at a drive-thru bank, though the bank architecture has a Chinese influence, making me wonder if it’s still in San Francisco (although LA has a Chinatown too).  Jim gets the tape packet from the teller by asking her to change a $1000 bill — and he never gets his change, making this the most expensive tape drop ever for him.  In a new stylistic variation, the episode credits (producer, writers, director) are shown during the tape sequence, as Jim drives from the teller booth to a parking space to listen to the tape.  The mission: General Oliver Hammond (Lloyd Bochner) is about to launch a coup of the island nation of Camagua with $5 million worth of backing from mobsters Rogan (Robert Webber) and Larson (Peter Leeds), and Jim has to intercept the money and expose the deal.  The tape phrasing is a little different; the “conventional law enforcement agencies” line is missing, and the Voice says “The assignment, if you accept it,” rather than the standard wording.

There’s no apartment scene either; we jump right to Jim, Barney, and Mimi (in her second guest appearance) working with a team of extras to make a fake Camagua detention center and patrol boat at an abandoned US base on the Camaguan coast.  (According to a map seen later, Camagua occupies an imaginary island about halfway between Puerto Rico and Venezuela.)  That makes this a significant episode: it’s the first time since the fifth season that an entire mission  takes place outside of the United States.  Again, there’s dialogue explaining that Casey is away on a deep-cover assignment; it’s a shock to see this show actually explaining a cast change or absence, and now they’ve done it twice.  But Mimi says that Casey made a mask just before she left, so technically Casey is a participant in this caper.  Willy is already aboard Rogan’s yacht, searching for the key to the safe-deposit box with the mob money; if he gets lucky, the rest of the plan won’t be necessary.  Naturally he doesn’t get lucky.  He’s caught when his transmissions to Jim get intercepted by Rogan’s radio.  He fights his way free and jumps overboard, but gets shot in the upper chest.  The mobsters leave him for dead.  The camera pulls back to show the vast empty expanse of ocean in which Willy is lost, which is undermined when it pulls back so far that you can see the rail of the boat it’s being shot from.

The team’s fake Camaguan patrol boat rendezvouses with the yacht, and Rogan’s group expect to be greeted warmly by Hammond’s people.  But Barney places Rogan and his cronies — including Sanders (former Green Hornet star Van Williams), Chalmers (Robert Phillips), and his ladyfriend Marcy (erstwhile Bond girl Lana Wood) — under arrest.  Nearby, a Camaguan fisherman complains about the patrol boat fouling his nets and insists that someone in authority will get an earful.  Rogan and his people are informed that Hammond has been arrested and they’re being charged with abetting his coup.  The men get private cells, but the vulnerable Marcy has to share hers with Mimi, in the role of Hammond’s mistress.  (I wonder how Mimi, so recently paroled, feels about having to play a prisoner.  Not that we’ll ever find out.)  Meanwhile, the team searches the yacht thoroughly, but finds no trace of the key.  They don’t have time to tear the whole boat apart — so Jim says they must tear Rogan apart.

When Chalmers is taken away by Col. Jim for interrogation, he’s switched with a masked double (a nameless extra) who pretends to make a break for it and get shot.  Later, Marcy has to listen to the (faked) sounds of Mimi being beaten, after which guard Barney apologizes and says he’ll do what he can for her tomorrow.  Marcy figures out that Mimi and Barney have an escape plan.  Jim also interrogates Rogan and the Green Hornet about the fate of Willy, but they have nothing to say.

Meanwhile, Willy has managed to swim ashore and is captured by a Camaguan soldier.  General Hammond questions him and Willy improvises nicely, saying that Rogan has double-crossed him and fled with the safe-deposit key.  It’s night by now, so Hammond orders a search with infrared cameras.  He also notifies Larson, who flies out to join him.

After their trial, Jim sentences Marcy to prison and the two men to execution in the morning.  The team arranges for Marcy and Rogan to have a few seconds alone so she can tell him about the escape plan.  But a search plane overflies their position, and Jim is concerned that they may have to flee at a moment’s notice.  Back in the capitol, Hammond has gotten the fisherman’s report about the fake patrol boat.

In the morning, Sanders is taken out for execution, and Rogan is convinced it’s a bluff to make them crack and reveal where the money is.  Or so he thinks until he sees Sanders shot “dead” (with wax bullets containing tranquilizer darts and fake blood).  Rogan is now ready to make a deal with Jim.  He signs a confession in exchange for a prison sentence — but though Jim urges him to give up the safe-deposit key, Rogan still refuses.  He’s holding out for a deal with guard Barney: help escaping in exchange for a share of the $5 million.  Barney agrees and helps him break out.

In the hospital, Hammond’s colonel comes to Willy and gloats that the yacht has been found, nowhere near where he claimed, and Hammond and his troops are on the way there.  Now, usually in M:I, when someone gets shot in the shoulder or thereabouts, it doesn’t impede their movements at all.  This time, they’re a bit closer to reality; Willy’s left arm is mostly out of action throughout this episode.  Which lets him show off just how good he is when he knocks out the colonel and a guard one-handed, changes into the colonel’s clothes, and makes his way to the radio room to warn Jim of Hammond’s approach.  Luckily, Barney has gotten Rogan and the women out of the prison.  Rogan leads Barney to the yacht and reveals why nobody could find the key with metal detectors: because it’s a plastic key baked inside a flowerpot.  Barney tells Rogan he’s a free man and slaps him on the back — but of course that was irony, because he has the good ol’ knockout needle thingy in his palm.  He takes the key and the team hauls out on the patrol boat just as Rogan regains consciousness and rushes out to see Hammond and Larson arriving, just in time for the usual thing where the baddies realize they’re screwed and stare at each other in dismay.  Willy swims out to the patrol boat and is united with the team for the first time in the whole episode.

Well, this was a pretty darn solid episode, written by Stephen Kandel with the story co-written by George F. Slavin.  (Kandel is known to Star Trek fans for creating Harry Mudd, and he would later write for Wonder Woman and MacGyver among others.  This is his first of five M:I scripts.)  What’s refreshing about the plan is that it doesn’t have a single, specific endgame that it takes an hour of convoluted stuff to build up to; rather, the team makes multiple different tries to locate the key, and seeing each successive attempt fail helps build suspense.  It also improves the pacing in the first act to see the team’s preparations happening alongside Willy’s search of, and escape from, the yacht.  Willy’s capture and questioning give him the chance to shine and create an added element of peril, and Hammond’s search provides an effective ticking clock.  There’s also a touch of ambiguity, since Marcy is somewhat out of her depth here and probably doesn’t know much about Rogan’s plans; you feel a little bad watching the team force her to witness apparent executions and torture and be afraid it will happen to her.  There are moments where it looks like Mimi feels bad about it too and tries to make things easier on Marcy, but there’s no real payoff for that.  It would’ve been nice to see her confront Jim about what he was inflicting on Marcy.  But the episode was full enough as it was.  It’s still early in the season, but this is the best one so far.

“Leona”: A mobster with the unlikely name of Mike Apollo (Dewey Martin) is instructing an associate, Lou Parnell (William Boyett), on the particulars of a series of payoffs to state officials.  Searching for a lighter, Apollo stumbles upon a voice-activated tape recorder hidden in Parnell’s drawer.  Realizing Lou is a spy, he has him taken away for interrogation.  Cut to Jim entering a closed bar, where again the episode credits are shown during the tape scene.  (Including a credit for Barry Crane, an associate producer since episode 2, who’s now matured to full producer.)  “Your job, Jim, should you decide to accept it” (again a variant phrasing), is to locate Parnell and rescue him from torture.

Jim’s plan involves another mobster with the even more unlikely name of Joe Epic (Robert Goulet), a friend and ally of Apollo’s.  They run separate rackets, and despite their friendship, either would gladly move in on the other’s holdings.  The peace is kept by the grand old man of the region’s mob, Malta (Will Kuluva), who holds regular summit meetings.  Epic’s wife Leona (Beverly Ralston) recently died, drowning in the bath after mixing prescription barbiturates with alcohol.  Using a masked Casey, hidden speakers, and Leona’s rare perfume, the team makes Epic think he’s being haunted by Leona’s spirit calling for vengeance (though he accepts that it’s all in his head).  Meanwhile, Jim plays an insurance investigator who suspects Epic of killing his wife.  He plants suspicion in Epic’s head, first that Leona’s death wasn’t natural, then that she was having an affair — evidence that cabbie Willy and doorman Barney back up, leading Epic to a love nest where he finds pictures of Leona — and Apollo.  (Barney’s moustache is back, though it was absent in “The Deal” — these episodes are clearly being aired out of order.)  Jim simultaneously leads Apollo’s men to suspect he’s working a deal with Epic; he flirts with Epic’s secretary Edith (Pippa Scott), actually a spy for Apollo, and she seduces him into revealing that he and Epic are planning to move in on Apollo with the phony murder charges.

So Epic calls a summit meeting overseen by Malta, and lays his charges against Apollo.  This clash of mobsters plays out oddly like a courtroom scene as Epic calls witnesses Willy and Barney (who were “subpoenaed” at gunpoint) to lay out his evidence against Apollo.  But Apollo calls his star rebuttal witness, Jim, who’s been similarly coerced to appear by Apollo’s men.  Jim doesn’t say what Apollo expects, though, telling Malta he’s not sure which of the men killed Leona.  Things are looking bad for Apollo.  His only option is to call his alibi witness, the man he was with on the day of Leona’s death: Lou Parnell, the undercover fed his men are torturing.  He has Parnell brought in through an underground tunnel, and as soon as Jim sights their target, he signals Casey outside, who’s with the cops.  The cops charge in and rescue Parnell.  Jim takes enough pity on Epic to tell him that his wife wasn’t having an affair after all.

This was a pretty good one, written by Howard Browne.  Although Epic is nominally a bad guy, he’s a sympathetic character who genuinely loved his wife and misses her terribly, and Robert Goulet conveys his grief effectively.  I kind of feel sorry for him, being put through the wringer like that by the IMF just so they can foil a crime that he has no real connection to.  This isn’t the kind of episode that relies on a strong sense of danger and uncertainty, for the plan unfolds smoothly, or the kind that relies on really imaginative gadgetry and gimmicks.  So it needs good character work to generate interest, and it succeeds on that front.  There’s also some interesting cinematography here and there.

The one thing I’m missing so far this season is new music.  Four episodes in, the scores have been entirely stock.  Long-running shows tend to have their budgets cut in later seasons to stay on the air; we’ve already seen that with the cast-size reduction and the shift to a domestic focus (probably cheaper than creating a bunch of “exotic” locations, even if they did just recycle the same backlots over and over).  Now it’s looking like they didn’t budget for hiring composers at all this season.  It’s too bad; the music was one of the great strengths of the show’s early seasons.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S7) Reviews: “Break!”/”Two Thousand” (spoilers)

November 7, 2011 1 comment

Now begins the final season of the original show…

“Break!”: The past two season’s use of cold opens has apparently been dropped; we start right off with the main title theme.  It’s a new arrangement again, with some bars dropped and others repeated.  It sounds a bit awkward.  But we still have an opening scene before the tape sequence, this time a rather slow-paced scene in New Orleans where bad guys Dutch Krebbs (Carl Betz) and Press Allen (Robert Conrad), who control the gambling rackets in the South, are watching a colleague called “Toledo” clean up at pool; he then stays behind when they leave the pool hall, going upstairs to take photos of their books with his superspy watch, but they come back in, catch him, and shoot him.  “Too bad,” Dutch says.  “He was one sweet pool player.”  Cut to Jim trading code phrases with an artist sketching a large domed building which I believe is San Francisco City Hall.  He gets the mission to find Toledo’s body and his camera watch before the microfilm deteriorates.  How the authorities know that Toledo took the photos before dying is unexplained; they must’ve read the script.

We cut to Jim and Barney demonstrating a system that will help Jim win at pool, an inertially guided, remote-controlled cue ball that will let Barney give Jim a 5-percent edge and diminish his opponents’ success commensurately.  Casey is absent, but they’re joined by Mimi (Barbara Anderson), Press’s old girlfriend who’s out on parole.  Jim warns her of the dangers of getting involved, but she’s eager to play her part.

First off, a ski-masked Jim and Willy steal a shipment of money from Press, both to make him look bad and to make Krebbs think his rival Sharkey (Robert Mandan) is behind it.  Then Willy arranges to get a bodyguard job with Krebbs, first by beating up a current bodyguard whose name, weirdly enough, is Mork (famed stuntman Hal Needham), then by getting Mork’s parole revoked (whereupon I assume he was shipped back to the Ork Federal Penitentiary).  Meanwhile, Barney rigs a local pool table with the rigged cue ball and its control plate.  Thus, when Jim shows up with Mimi on his arm, he’s able to sweep the table.  The timing gets a little compressed here, because as soon as Jim has sunk a mere two shots, the bar owner calls up Krebbs to alert him to this new pool prodigy.  (And most of Jim’s pool shots, except for the very trickiest ones, are visibly performed by Peter Graves himself.  They must’ve written the episode around his existing talent.)  Krebbs sends Press to scout Jim out, leading him to a reunion with Mimi, whom he convinces (with a payoff) to convince Jim in turn to take on Krebbs as his manager.

But Jim makes time with one of the waitresses in Krebbs’s establishment, making Mimi jealous.  Eventually she lets Krebbs and Press in on the secret of the remote-controlled cue ball, operated by Barney in the role of Jim’s partner.  Krebbs is convinced he can clean up.  But after another IMF-staged robbery puts Press still further in the doghouse, Barney offers Press a side deal.  They go to Sharkey, revealing the trick to him, and agree to arrange things so that Jim will lose to Sharkey’s man.  Things are heading that way, but then at the last minute, Barney knocks out Sharkey’s goon and drives the control van away, and triggers the control plate to vaporize while Willy switches the real cue ball back.  The final shots are left to Jim’s own skill, and he wins the game.

When Sharkey tries to accuse Krebbs of fixing the game, he finds the cue ball is genuine.  He thinks Press has double-crossed him, and tells Press he’s a dead man.  Then Jim suggests to Krebbs that Press was the one who tipped Sharkey off, so Krebbs also tells Press he’s “just bought a contract.”  Press fears he’s doomed, but Willy tells him that his employers will pay Press good money for Toledo’s camera watch.  Unusually for M:I antagonists in this position, Press doesn’t go for it and pulls a gun on Willy, but Mimi runs interference long enough to let Willy get away.  Press then goes to Sharkey and offers him the watch if they unite against Krebbs.  So they go to the cemetery and Press digs up Toledo’s body.  Yes, he digs it up.  Even though the episode is supposed to be set in New Orleans, where they don’t bury bodies in the ground because the water table’s too high.  Bit of a research failure there.  Anyway, he gets the watch, and Sharkey’s about to shoot him for it, but Barney and Willy get the drop on all the bad guys.

We cut to the familiar Paramount office lot, with the team reading a newspaper reporting Krebbs’s indictment.  The Lubitsch Building is dressed up as the state house, and Mimi comes out and tells the team that her parole has officially been ended and she’s a free woman.  Jim says he’s heard from the Secretary — the first time that particular individual has been mentioned in over a season, and the first time in many years that he’s been mentioned by anyone other than the Voice on Tape — and been informed that Casey will be on a series of special assignments in Europe, so he asks if Mimi will work with them from time to time, and she agrees.  It’s the only time we’ve ever gotten an origin story for a recurring IMF team member, or an explanation for a team member’s absence.

Well, this was a fairly routine caper, but a moderately interesting one.  Having Mimi actually be Press’s old flame, playing herself and using their real history against him, lent a bit more emotional interest than usual, though not much was done with it; she was no more conflicted about scamming Press than any other IMF femme fatale.  But if nothing else, Barbara Anderson is rather lovely and a welcome substitute for Lynda Day George.  And while all the pool “action” gets a little tedious and the pacing overall is rather slow, I respect the fact that Peter Graves did so many of the pool shots himself.  All in all, a workmanlike and reasonably entertaining start to the season, with an interesting twist in the person of Mimi.

“Two Thousand”: We open with Joseph Collins (Vic Morrow) picking up a cash payoff hidden in a condemned building and getting a call from a European contact.  They arrange for the contact to pick up a shipment of plutonium that Collins has stolen.  Nearby, government agents are listening in, but they know Collins won’t talk if they arrest him.  One of the agents says it will have to be dealt with another way.  That way is Jim Phelps, who’s again picking up the tape at a striking San Francisco landmark, this time the Palace of Fine Arts, where he gets the tape from the photographer at a fashion shoot (and according to IMDb, the model is a young Joanna Cassidy).  The mission, of course, is to retrieve the plutonium before the Europeans pick it up.  It’s worth noting that even though this is more of a spy mission than a crimefighting mission, the tape still includes the now-standard reference to “conventional law enforcement agencies.”

The San Francisco settings of the last couple of tape scenes might answer my question raised last season by that episode that indicated Jim and the team had to fly to Los Angeles from wherever Jim lived.  These episodes might be suggesting that he lives in San Francisco.  Although that would seem to conflict with all those tape scenes filmed around LAX in earlier seasons.  As far as I can tell, he still seems to be in the same apartment, though I haven’t looked too closely at the scenery.

Casey is present in the apartment scene, but her face looks kind of chubby and she’s seated with most of her body hidden behind a table and a tape deck.  No doubt this was shot while she was pregnant.  The other notable change is that Barney suddenly sports a moustache!  Willy says they’ve arranged to use an abandoned area in Bridgeton that was ruined by an earthquake, and Casey familiarizes the team with various drugs and compounds that will be used in the caper.

While Jim and Willy are watching Collins’s apartment, Collins is listening to his radio — or actually a double planted earlier by Willy, with an internal cassette that begins playing fake news reports of a looming conflict in the Mideast.  Then Larry Tate from Bewitched comes walking by.  Or rather, David White is playing Max Bander, an attorney who calls Collins on a pay phone, alerting him to his watchers, and saying he represents someone US-based who wants to pay Collins double what the Europeans are offering for the plutonium.  Collins asks for an hour to think about it, but then Willy shows up at his door along with Detective White (Don Diamond) and arrests Collins on a murder charge.  Larry, err, Bander gets the license number and calls his contact in the police, a corrupt vice cop named Sager (Mark Tapscott), to get what information he can on the arrest.  But Sager finds out there’s no record of the arrest and the car didn’t belong to the police.

At police HQ, the team takes Collins into a wing that’s closed for renovation (the chief is cooperating with the team and has arranged this, though the rest of the cops are in the dark).  They’ve set up a room with a fake window showing a rear-projected city view (including Los Angeles City Hall), and somehow Collins can’t tell the difference between film on a screen and a live view.  They let Collins call his law firm, but it goes to Casey as the operator telling him his attorney can’t be reached.  (She’s in a black turtleneck and a loose outer shirt to hide her pregnancy, but apparently she’s not as far along as I assumed from the apartment scene.  She looks very drawn and tired, though.)  Then, as Willy and White interrogate Collins, faked newspaper and radio reports tell of a building global crisis, and then a bulletin announces that missiles have been launched — and Sager, who’s lowered a mike down the ventilation shaft, is bewildered to hear this.  Collins watches through the “window” as a bomb goes off on the film, and at that moment, White drugs him unconscious.  They take him into the next room to prepare him, and Jim says to call ahead to Bridgeton (the earthquake-damaged region).

This lets Sager cue Bander and his boss in to where Collins is being taken, and the boss assigns Bander to take a couple of men out to Bridgeton.  “Bridgeton” is actually the Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar, California, which was badly damaged by a 1971 earthquake in real life.  Like “The Tram” last season, this is an episode that was clearly written around a striking location.  It’s an impressively ruined setting, but the team’s helpers are making it even worse by planting bombs.  Collins wakes up to find himself with a bunch of entranced old people on a crude assembly line canning emergency rations.  He discovers that he’s apparently become an old man himself, and has a major freakout before Jim, as a military general, has him taken to a cell occupied by Barney.  Using his stock Caribbean accent, Barney explains that Collins is a “Class 9,” a group of survivors from near Ground Zero who were shocked into a trance state and rarely come out of it.  He’s awakened in the year 2000, 28 years into an endless global war.  Across the hall, a group of other Section 9s are strapped into chairs and gassed to “death.”

But then the sound effects of an air raid kick in and Willy starts setting the charges off — while Bander and his men watch the show from a nearby road.  Collins’s cell is badly shaken by the explosions and partly collapses, which seems a rather dangerous tactic on the team’s part.  Anyway, it breaks the door open, and Barney and Collins try to escape but are frightened back to their cell by the voice of Jim ordering search parties — but not before Collins takes a fallen soldier’s gun.  He orders Barney to show him the way out, but Barney scoffs and says it won’t matter, since in two days he turns 65 and will be executed, like all Class 9s.  Still, Collins forces Barney at gunpoint, and they travel across the strikingly devastated location until they reach a command center where Jim and several other military leaders are discussing their situation and how hopeless it is now that they’re out of nuclear bombs.  When the guards find Collins, he pleads for his life, telling the joint chiefs that he’s a nuclear physicist and knows where they can find 50 pounds of plutonium.  Once convinced that they’ll keep him alive for his bomb-building skills, he tells them where to find the bomb — but Bander’s people are listening in with a parabolic mike and head off for the site ahead of the team.

But it turns out Collins’s European contact and his men are already there digging up the plutonium, and a shootout ensues between the two bad-guy factions.  By the time Jim, Barney, and Willy arrive, Bander and his men have been eliminated, and the team gets the drop on the Europeans.  Back at Bridgeton, Collins finds his cell door open and the whole place deserted, and his age makeup is coming off.  As a vintage-1972 police car drives up for him, he laughs hysterically amid the ruins.

This is a pretty solid episode.  It’s built on tropes we’ve seen in earlier episodes, such as the structure of “Operation: Rogosh” and “Invasion” (where a character is tricked into thinking it’s a postwar world and he needs to give up his secrets to save his life, while enemy agents threaten to foil the plan); the fake-war scenarios seen in those episodes and “The Numbers Game;” and the fake-future scenario seen in season 3’s “The Freeze” and its fake-past variation in season 6’s “Encore” (which, like this episode, was written by Harold Livingston and has a similar ending).  But seeing as how it’s year 7 of the series, we’re unlikely to see anything really new, and what matters is the execution.  Despite what I said in my “Operation: Rogosh” review, this episode isn’t nearly as much a remake of that one as “Invasion” was.  Its post-apocalyptic flavor gives it an interesting edge, and the complication posed by Bander, while an example of a recurring trope itself, doesn’t feel quite the same as other such complications, perhaps because he represents a wild-card third party that the team doesn’t even know about.  And as with “Invasion,” at this point it’s refreshing just to see an episode that revolves around national security and global intrigue rather than domestic organized crime.  Mainly, though, what lends the episode its impact is the striking, devastated Sylmar location around which the episode was built.  It’s good that they established in dialogue that the damage was the result of an earthquake in-story as well as in reality, since there’s no way the IMF — or a Hollywood TV crew — could’ve faked something like that.  It’s an exceptional sight to see.

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