In the season premiere, "The Code," the lot stands in for the Cuba-like Central American nation of San Cristobel. I don’t think one has to know the Paramount lot well in order to realize that many shots don’t even match up! One moment, a car is driving on a well-foliated park road, the next it’s passing through the famous Paramount Bronson Gate (too recognizable a landmark to successfully play a dictator’s compound), with no trees in sight. They don’t even bother to clear a golf cart (used for easy transportation from soundstage to soundstage) off the set! I guess it makes things look more exotic.
Even though the IMF has never been squeamish about sending villains to their doom (they did it in the series’ very first episode), they seem particularly cold-hearted in Season 4, and Phelps sets that tone in the coda of "The Code." The mission results in one of two conspirators (and national leaders, no less, albeit of a dangerously leftward persuasion) firing at another. Jim comments emotionlessly, "The mission is a success." But who fired? Jim responds to that inquiry by saying, "What difference does it make?" That’s cold! Especially for the hero of a Sixties TV series! But it’s a streak that continues throughout the season. Perhaps broadcast standards were relaxing a bit heading into the 1970s, but it seems to me that the team goes especially hard on its rogues’ gallery of thugs, dictators, Commies and racketeers this year.
Season finale "The Martyr" is another bad one, but manages to be much more fun than the tired "Numbers Game" in the process. To combat pressure from "their country’s young people," an Eastern European dictator wants to use the Youth Congress to spread his wicked ways. There’s good use of stock footage to create the Eastern Bloc country this time, and even to fill its streets with youthful demonstrators. But it’s more dated than most Missions by its failed attempts to delve into the hippy culture and fashions of the time (even behind the Iron Curtain, I guess). Where the episode really falls apart is in having us believe that Paris and Barney could actually pose as "youth leaders." Nimoy was pushing forty at the time, and looks it! It’s laugh-out-loud ridiculous to see him playing a student.
Barney actually looks good in his motorcycle-riding "youth" costume, but he can’t pull off lines like, "Say, baby, what’s botherin’ you?" and "If you don’t like it here, split, you dig?" and "Oh, this is funky, man. Real funky."
But the episode has a lot of good things to offer as well, making it a tricky paradox. There’s a very good spy plot going on amidst all this youthful exuberance, and it owes a lot to John Le Carré. The IMF creatively uses a double agent to make their enemies believe what they want them to. And those enemies–both the Boris Yeltsin-looking Premiere and his curly-haired chief of secret police (the usual duo)–are particularly wonderful villains, among the season’s best. Jim is programmed to withstand hypnosis and truth drugs, and even has a chip implanted in his ear so Barney can talk to him. All this adds up to an impressively intricate triple-blind dupe, the sort of con you always want out of Mission: Impossible. And even that awful rendering of "The Times They Are A-Changin’" is used very effectively at the end over footage of student protesters believably cut in with shots of the Premiere shouting from his podium. "The Martyr" embodies the best and the worst of the season, but unlike in "The Numbers Game," both are enjoyable. The espionage is top-notch, and I do get a Jason King-like kick out of seeing Paris lead a Youth Congress. But did I mention how badly that Dylan song gets butchered?
Fortunately, most of the fourth season is better than all that. Even a three-part episode manages not to drag too much (and also affords Meriwether her biggest role, and Paris the chance to do magic). And episodes like "Double Circle" and "The Submarine" are among the very best of the series so far.
In the former, the team’s object is to retrieve a stolen rocket fuel formula from an impenetrable safe belonging to a notorious secrets broker named Victor Laszlo (yes, writer Jerry Ludwig got a little cute with his naming). Their elaborate plot to pull it off involves building a duplicate of Laszlo’s apartment on the floor underneath his, rewiring his security camera to show their duplicate apartment, and erecting a false wall in his own apartment, concealing the real safe at a crucial moment, Inside Man-style. It’s all so complicated that I don’t think I could explain exactly how they pull it off–or even say if it really works–but that doesn’t matter because the episode is so slick that I didn’t even find myself wondering while watching.
On top of the team clicking so well, we’re also treated to a great villain in Laszlo. Guest star James Patterson plays the role so well (adding a fey "dear boy" to every order he gives) that he should have been named after a different Bogie foil: Kasper Gutman. I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for him when the IMF set him up for another one of the season’s typically violent ends. In an episode that represents all the aspects of the show working together so well, it’s appropriate that Paris (while disguised as Laszlo) gets a line which neatly summarizes the premise of the entire series: "People see what they expect to see." Paris may only get to perform magic in one episode, but the whole team performs masterful slight of hand week after week. I think that Brian De Palma and David Koepp may have been referencing "Double Circle" in the opening moments of their 1996 Mission: Impossible movie, which would make sense as it’s so representative. After that initial scene, the film (and its sequels) would stray far from familiar series territory.
"The Submarine" is another prototypical Mission: Impossible episode. (So much so that the producers of the 80s revival saw fit to remake it–in a ploy to shoot "new" programming despite an ongoing writers' strike!) The premise of making someone believe they’re being transported in some sort of vehicle isn’t new for the series (they did it in Season 3 with a truck in "The Exchange"), but it’s so well executed here that that hardly matters. This time, they kidnap a Nazi war criminal from his own Iron Curtain captors, and trick him into believing he’s being secreted away by his compatriots aboard a U-Boat. In reality he’s still in the same Eastern Bloc neighborhood where he was being held by the other side. (The neighborhood is, of course, the familiar Paramount lot, and the general who orders his men to sweep the city might as well have ordered them to "Check every sound stage on the lot!") The IMF team manages to assemble a very elaborate submarine set in the middle of this Eastern republic: it’s even set up on a rig to simulate motion, diving and being hit with depth charges. The plotline is pretty predictable, but the execution is flawless. And the reaction from the old Nazi when he realizes what’s happened is priceless.
"Robot" is a complicated tale about doubles and doubles of doubles and mechanical doubles of doubles with a pseudo sci-fi twist. In a rare moment of hilarity in a generally pretty somber series, Jim and Paris film a fake demo reel of themselves as a novelty act with Paris pretending to be a robotic man. As planned, this captures the attention of a Communist-leaning general plotting a coup, and he pressures them into creating a robot of the Western-friendly Premiere to make a speech bequeathing power to him. Of course, the "robot" they create ends up having a bit more free will than the general counted on... This plot has it all. In addition to a fantastically tense scene of Barney breaking into a cell inside a jail–with the guard watching him–we get masks, doubles, fake robots, mechanical hands; you name it! The fake-outs and double fake-outs are so complicated this time that they might be a little silly, but they’re still wonderful. They’re exactly what I expect out of this show.
"Phantoms" is another episode that plays up the technology to an almost sci-fi degree–and another one that sets up yet another Eastern European dictator for a fall. It’s cool, though. The team sets up a fake television interview, blinding the dictator with really powerful lights. In that moment, they switch his glasses for specially treated infra-red ones. They then use an infra-red projector (hidden in a book) to broadcast "ghosts" on his wall that only he can see: the ghosts of those he’s ordered killed, including family members. The ghost trick is only the capper to a much more elaborate con, but it’s a great capper. The con itself is pretty good too–except for a rather unbelievable bit of mask business that requires Paris once again to play a man much, much younger than himself.
Lee Merriwether gets her meatiest role of the season posing as Jim’s philandering wife in "Fool’s Gold," but it’s still not much of a role. Her goal is to set herself up for blackmail, but the stakes aren’t that high as all of the characters involved in the blackmail scenario are creations of the IMF, and not real people. It’s still a decent episode, though, with Paris posing as a professional counterfeiter who lures the bad guy into a bigger and greedier scheme than he was initially planning, leading–of course–to his ruination. In addition to playing a part, Paris has to contend with a vault protected by soundwaves that can reduce a man to a vegetable.
"Chico" treats viewers to a somewhat lighter note, revisiting a premise from the second season with an animal team member. That time Phelps selected a cat, this time it’s a cute dog (named Chico, of course) to slightly lesser effect. But the episode is pretty strong overall, even if we’ve seen the animal agent thing done before. Jim and his team pit two rival South American drug barons against each other. Once again, they’re both good villains–and intelligent, too. From the first scene, it’s clear that Jim will have to be at the top of his game to put one over on these guys. Luckily, one of them is a collector of rare stamps, giving Paris his in, posing as an Australian sailor. (And he pulls it off better than Artemus Gordon did in Season 4 of The Wild Wild West!) Chico is such a well-trained dog that Barney’s able to train him to pick out one certain stamp from the whole collection (all part of the elaborate con), and he lowers him into the air conditioning ducts in a basket. (Yes, it’s cute.) There’s no way that viewers will ever think of "Chico" as anything but "the one with the dog," but it does have some very suspenseful moments, and a circuitous plot that holds up pretty well.
As with Season 3, Season 4 shakes up the formula a bit with a few more personal episodes focusing on the characters as more than just mannequins for masks. Just when Jim’s limited expressions of varying degrees of concern are starting to get a bit annoying, along comes a love story for Paris or Barney to distract you. Since the show’s formula demands that its characters remain unattached, any Mission: Impossible love story is bound to be a tragic one, but that makes them all the more interesting.
Paris gets his chance to show emotion in "Lover’s Knot." As with most of these more personal episodes, this one eschews the formulaic opening wherein Jim gets his mission (should he choose to accept it, at least). Instead, it opens with the murder that sets everything into motion. The team is already in place in England, undercover at the U.S. Embassy. Well-chosen scenery, good stock footage, a lack of studio shots and some real English actors (including Jane Merrow and Hitchcock favorite John Williams) all add up make the setting pretty convincing. Overall, it looks like more money went into this prestige episode than most.
This episode breaks the mold stylistically as well as formulaically. We’re treated to far more superimposition than usual in the form of two montages: a nifty gambling one as Paris loses oodles of money and a rather cheesy love montage, which finds him horseback riding and rowing with his lady love–all to some very stereotypical romantic music. (The lake they go rowing on is the one location that seems significantly more Southern California than England.)
Everything comes to a predictable but satisfying tragic conclusion, which borrows rather heavily from Ian Fleming. It’s a great finale, heartbreaking for Paris and rewarding for the audience. It’s nice to have an occasional emotional connection with characters who are normally so robotic and aloof. Once again, Jim plots things so tightly as to force K to suicide... but wouldn’t America have been better served by capturing such a notorious spymaster, and learning what he had to offer? Jim certainly has the opportunity, but seems to want to see K dead. The whole episode reminded me a lot of a Danger Man or a Saint, perhaps owing to the presence of Merrow (who was in both those series–as well as The Prisoner), but more likely owing to similar plots in similar settings on both of those shows as well.
Barney gets center stage for the first time in "Death Squad." He even gets a love interest: Alma (Cicely Tyson). Once more, there is no "your mission" opening, signifying another more personal episode. This one opens with Barney and Jim on vacation in Central America, where Barney is arrested for murder. It was an accident, of course, that came as a result of defending Alma. That seems like a bit of a cop-out to me; I think the premise would have been far more interesting had Barney been arrested for a murder he actually did commit, while on a mission instead of on vacation... but the Mission: Impossible wasn’t yet ready to intentionally tackle scenarios quite so morally ambiguous.
Unfortunately for Barney, the man he killed was a relative of the head of the banana republic’s secret police. Also unfortunately for him, the police chief runs a notorious death squad–and prefers his enemies to disappear forever rather than receive a fair trial. Jim mobilizes the team, and Paris and Willy show up fifteen minutes in. Working with Alma, they first attempt to mount a legal defense, but realizing that’s useless here, they instead do what they do best. This time, however, the stakes are higher than usual, because as in Season 3's "The Exchange," they’re playing for the life of one of their own.
Meanwhile, Barney’s far from idle on the inside. He makes a rather ingenious escape attempt, using his electronics skills to create his own soldering iron out of wires from a bedframe and a light fixture. His devotion to another wrongfully-sentenced inmate, however, makes the attempt a failure.
Luckily, his comrades have better luck. Willie gets to do an accent this time, pretending to be an Italian Interpol agent, Inspector Rinaldi, in a scheme appealing to the police captain’s sense of greed. He and the rest of the team manage to intervene at the very last moment, arranging a rather spectacular escape from the noose for Barney in an especially nail-biting finale. A great slower version of the standard "Mission: Accomplished" theme plays at the end, re-emphasizing that "Death Squad" wasn’t just business as usual.
I love these atypical, more personal episodes. When you have a show that’s so staunchly rooted in formula, it makes it all the more rewarding when that formula’s shaken up. "Lover’s Knot" and "Double Game" are the icing on the cake of another fantastic season of Mission: Impossible. Astoundingly, Season 4 manages to maintain the momentum of the excellent third season despite the loss of two stars. The lack of a strong, regular female team member keeps it from attaining quite those heights, but Paris is a more than adequate replacement for Rollin Hand, who’s loss I had expected to feel more strongly. One final note I should make about Paris, though: Nimoy brings a Roger Moore level of Seventies fashion to Mission: Impossible, including such Moore favorites as cravats and safari jackets. It’s a little jarring in a series that generally manages to appear fairly timeless (despite the odd attempt at cashing in on the "youth culture!"), but regular readers will no doubt be aware that I’m a sucker for Jason King duds, so I don’t mind it one bit. And appearance aside, his acting is top-notch.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Seventh TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Second TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The First TV Season here.