DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season
When Bad Decades Happen to Good Shows
Mission: Impossible ran for a long time, and by its sixth season, times have changed. For starters, the technology has changed since the first season. Gone are the old thin latex masks that an actor could peel off one moment, then be replaced by another actor the next, like magic. Now we’ve got molded, hard plastic masks–supposedly an improvement, I guess, but kind of creepy and not as much fun. The fashions have changed–noticeably. Gaudy Seventies styles began creeping in on Leonard Nimoy’s back during Season 4. By Season 5, they’d clung to Jim like Spider-man’s alien symbiote suit, and wouldn’t let go. Now they’re everywhere. Just looking at the characters, you’d think it was a whole different show from the early seasons. The conservative men’s fashions worn by Peter Graves, Greg Morris, Martin Landau and Steven Hill were timeless menswear looks, and don’t even appear that dated today. But the "hip" Seventies attire that graces the later seasons stands out now like a sore thumb! Like the early Seventies Bond movies, the Seventies Missions are far more dated today than their counterparts from the previous decade.
Beyond its look, the show itself has changed. Only two cast members remain from Season 1 (Morris and Peter Lupus). Others exfiltrated slowly over the years, and periodic cast changes have become a seasonal regularity by the sixth season. But the losses from Season 5 are more noticeable, because not everyone has been replaced. Season 6 gives us our smallest core team yet: just four members. Jim Phelps (Graves), Barney Collier (Morris), Willy Armitage (Lupus, reinstated to full-time star status after sitting out half the last season) and Casey (newcomer Linda Day George). Fifth season regulars Leonard Nimoy and Lesley Ann Warren have both departed, and George attempts to fill both vacancies at once. Casey is a make-up artist and apparently an actress, so she’s got the talents of Nimoy’s Paris (and Martin Landau’s Rollin before him), but wrapped up in the slinky body of a younger Barbara Bain.
George appears more sure of herself than Warren did, and therefore lends Casey more maturity than Warren’s doe-eyed Dana ever displayed. But I kind of miss Warren. Her obvious age discrepancy with the rest of the cast made her stand out, but it also made her unique. With George, the show finally found the younger Barbara Bain surrogate they’d been so desperately searching for ever since the thrice-Emmy-nominated actress departed... but we’ve already been there and done that with Bain. I still think the producers missed their best opportunity when they didn’t invite Anne Francis back after her splendid guest appearance in Season 4.
Besides the cast, the show’s themes have changed–as have its enemies. No more do the IMF agents go around the world toppling dictatorships and undermining Eastern Bloc governments. Now they stay primarily in America and turn their unique talents against the mob–or, as the voice on the tape (Bob Johnson) insists on calling them, "the Syndicate." This leads to a new regular caveat on all of Jim’s pre-recorded mission briefings: each of their targets are referred to as beyond the grasp of "conventional law enforcement agencies." Apparently, in fact, "conventional law enforcement agencies" are utterly useless, because every single two-bit mobster in the country seems beyond their grasp! I understand that the producers had the feeling that you could only depose so many dictators. But I don’t understand what they felt it gained them to limit their scope, rather than widening it! I suppose it does spare us the incessant Paramount-lot-as-Eastern-Bloc-country use of soundstage exteriors, but even that isn’t worth it. I suspect the real reason for the changing enemies goes back to the changing times.
The Seventies were a very different era, politically, from the staid mid-Sixties when the show began. Then the Cold War was still pretty black and white, and it was fine to have IMF agents destabilizing foreign governments every week. By 1972, the public tide had turned on Vietnam, and American television audiences weren’t as sure about the moral certitude of such covert actions as they once were. It was probably better, then, to avoid politics altogether. The mob is an easy target and a timeless one; everyone always hates organized crime. Unfortunately, all these years later, it’s just not as much fun.
That’s not to say that the episodes themselves aren’t fun, though. The enemies may be different, but the concept remains the same: trick said enemies into turning on each other by means of a clever, elaborate con or heist. Jim Phelps still has some doozies left up his sleeve to try out on unsuspecting Syndicate men. And there are new wrinkles in his plans as well. Done with last season’s failed "personal explorations," this year’s plots instead focus on things going wrong with the operations. In fact, it becomes a part of the formula: there’s always a monkey wrench in Jim’s brilliant plan, usually in the form of one of the bad guys’ henchmen assigned to keep tabs on the other bad guy they’re after. It gets a little stale after a while, but at first it’s a welcome new ingredient.
The season kicks off with the low-key episode "Blind," in which Jim has to undergo experimental surgery to make him temporarily blind so that he can pass as an ex-Federal agent with an ax to grind, making him an appealing mark for some mobsters. This is the kind of role that would have fallen to Paris or Rollin in previous years. Owing to their absence, however, Jim ends up taking on a lot more undercover assignments than he used to–but he still doesn’t do masks.
After that fairly rote beginning, the second episode, "Encore," really ups the ante! This is the one where they convince William Shatner that he’s woken up in the 1930s. Shatner, in heavy make-up, plays an old mobster. The IMF need to know where he buried a body and hid a gun several decades ago, so they dope him in his barbershop and transport him to a movie lot on which they’ve built an exact recreation of that city square in the Thirties. To sell the story, they also "de-age" him while he’s unconscious. How do they do that? Well, luckily Dr. Doug (Sam Elliott) from Season 5 comes back for this one episode because, you know, doctors can de-age people. (I bet Shatner wishes Dr. Doug were around today!) Whatever Doug does to him, it makes him look just like young William Shatner, which is how he plays out the episode.
Actors in masks and makeup play the other people around him, and Doug pulls on a mask to portray his best friend. Meanwhile, Shatner’s modern-day gangster buddies get nervous and start poking around the film set, causing trouble. (As is wont to happen this season.) It’s quite an elaborate set-up. In one of the early seasons, they recreated a 1930s room to make an old Nazi feel young again and confess something, but here they create a whole world of the past! It’s one of Jim’s most elaborate set-ups ever, and you just know other government agencies had to be jealous that so much of the national budget was being used for this! Unfortunately, it loses something when you remember that the whole thing is just to solve a decades-old cold case. "Encore" is great fun, but it hardly seems worth your tax dollars. We do get to see William Shatner "melt," though, as the de-aging effect slowly wears off!
"The Tram" showcases some more down-to-earth hijinks in a classic episode that would be equally at home in any of the early seasons. Top Syndicate bosses from around the country are meeting in a remote mountaintop cabin, accessible only by a tram. The IMF team, of course, takes advantage of the fact that none of them trust each other and takes control of the tram for their own purposes. As soon as they control who gets up and who gets down, the mobsters are all shooting at each other. Once again, it’s Jim who’s in the thick of it, undercover. This is "comfort Mission: Impossible": not wildly over the top, but chalk full of the perfect amounts of all the ingredients audiences have come to expect. Lynda Day George also gets her largest role yet this season, and makes the most of her God-given sex appeal.
"Underwater" is full of all the classic stuff as well, but this slick tale of scuba diving, sunken diamonds and dishonor among thieves is completely hijacked by Jim’s garb. I’m always a sucker for underwater action (and that’s handled well here), and Fritz Weaver is a pretty terrific villain, but who can possibly concentrate on that when Jim’s wearing purple pants, a too-tight striped shirt and the sort of bug-eyed sunglasses favored by Diabolik and Eva Kant? All topped off with a little kerchief tied around his neck? Oh, and sandals. Granted, he’s posing as some sort of scuba-teaching beach bum (I guess that’s what he’s supposed to be), but still! I’m sorry, but nobody with silver hair can possibly pull off that outfit. Weaver loses all his street cred for ever buying into it. Of course, these same wretched fashions make this episode an absolute essential!
Fashion Alert: All of it! And what is Jim smoking?
"Casino" is another example of a perfectly solid hour of television that may not rise to the spectacular heights of some of the best Missions, but certainly makes a good diversion. It’s the same game the IMF used to play with dictators, only now played with mobsters: this guy is in control, but we’d prefer this guy in control instead. You would think that by now every Syndicate operation in the country would have a picture of Jim with a sign that warned "Do not let this man into your utility closet!" but apparently they don't, because soon enough Jim is messing around in the utility closet next to the titular casino's vault. This episode is notable for an excellent performance by veteran character actor Jack Cassidy as the casino boss, the shortest hotpants ever put to film, and a particularly good score. But the thing you'll remember most is Barney's gadget of the week.
This week, Barney's created a cool little robotic box that he can operate by remote control inside the casino's vault (once it's been smuggled in as something precious requiring a safe deposit box). He can even flip it over from side to side. It’s a very neat toy, but its use isn’t entirely playing fair. Will you permit me to go off on a brief rant about spy gadgets? To me, the coolest gadgets are ones that pass for ordinary devices that would normally be used in ordinary situations, but which in fact do extraordinary things. Like a car that looks like a normal (albeit exquisite) car, but which really boasts an ejector seat and machine guns that pop out of the headlights and a whole armory of other tricks that can be used on the road. An ordinary vehicle doing extraordinary things in an ordinary situation. The weakest spy gadgets are ones that are built solely to do extraordinary things in extraordinary situations. Like an ordinary car (albeit an exquisite one) packed with nifty gadgets that deploys them on an arctic ice plateau, where it might as well be a tank. It doesn’t have to blend in with anything ordinary; it only ever functions in an extraordinary situation! So what’s the point?
Barney’s toy here is an extraordinary device created solely to function in an extraordinary situation of the writers’ devising. They dreamed up this weird, robotic vault for the sake of the weird device. Sure, it’s all pretty cool, but it’s not really playing fair with the viewer. Then again, it is neat what he does with it. He creates a vacuum in the vault and sucks all the money out. And, ultimately, it's cool enough to edge out the hotpants as the thing you'll remember about "Casino."
The only real espionage episode this season, "Invasion," is also–entirely coincidentally–the best. For starters, we begin in Paris. And there’s the Eiffel Tower to prove it! Of course, that only lasts a few minutes, and soon enough we’re back in familiar old Los Angeles. But it’s still exciting, because Jim’s on a date! Good for him! Unfortunately, it’s cut short when he’s called away from his table by a waiter informing him, "there’s a call for you in the booth." The call, of course, turns out to be his mission briefing. And it’s not one of these "Joe Mobster killed someone thirty years ago and we need evidence" jobs; it’s the real deal. Whitmore Channing, a traitor in the State Department, has killed a General and made off with crucial information about an impending window in the U.S. nuclear defense plan which will leave the country open to foreign invasion! So much for Jim’s date.
The team needs to discover the identity of the traitor’s foreign controller before America’s nuclear attack vulnerabilities are made known to the enemy. Wasting no time, they shoot Channing with a stun gun and make him think that days have past, and that America’s already been invaded in that time by his masters, the dreaded European People’s Republic. Willy goes in posing as an EPR captain and takes him into custody. The EPR logo on the side of their military van, it should be noted, is so jaunty, it could just as easily suit a bakery or a flower shop! And it’s in English, which is curious. I supposed these vans would have been done up specially for the purpose of invading America, with logos designed to be easily readable by the conquered. Locked in the back of the windowless van, Channing hears the sounds of soldiers marching through the streets and occasional announcements as Willie drives him to an EPR detention center. Upon arrival there, he finds hordes of hostile soldiers. This is a major operation! Jim’s even made sure his actors all smoke the right brand of Eastern European cigarettes. The brilliance of the operation, though, is that despite all this attention to detail, it’s a double con. They allow Channing to discover the subterfuge in order to get him to reveal his dead drop. It’s Willy who follows him there, and he gets to carry the finale pretty much solo (well, with the aid of a great big C-clamp) in one of the series’ better fights. This is classic Mission: Impossible.
"Blues," on the other hand, is not classic Mission: Impossible. It’s the other end of the spectrum, representative of everything that’s wrong with the sixth season. In "Invasion," the team was saving America. In "Blues," they’re solving a murder in the music business. This kind of thing hardly seems to require the talents if the IMF. In fact, I’d say Phil Spector’s recent murder conviction proves that taking down a killer record producer is not beyond the grasp of "conventional law enforcement!" Watching this one, I couldn’t help but wonder if Jim Phelps’ obvious demotion kept him up at nights thinking, "We used to take down governments, and now we’re going undercover as musicians to solve a run-of-the-mill murder. We used to be secret agents; now we’re common vigilantes. What happened?"
The one going undercover as a musician is obviously Barney, because he’s black. True, this is a Motown-like operation, but it’s still disappointing to see Mission: Impossible, a show that’s bucked racial stereotypes from the very beginning, suddenly buying into them wholesale. (Not only is he a singer; he’s also a heroin-addled junkie! Of course he is.) And even though I suspect Greg Morris may have wanted–even requested–to sing on the show, he ends up accidentally proving the stereotype wrong: simply being black does not a blues singer make! Just a few seasons ago, Jim would have recruited a real musician to help them out, drawing their 8x10 or record cover from his little folder at the beginning. Instead of sending in his electronics specialist as a singer, that is. Oh well.
Of course, just because Barney’s singing marks a series nadir doesn’t mean it isn't entertaining. Far from it! His outfit alone is entertaining when he goes in for his audition. Perhaps taking a page from Hamlet’s playbook, he tries to make the evil record producer feel guilty for releasing a singer from her contract by throwing her out a window by singing a song about it, "Judy’s Gone."
"Aimed so high like a soaring bird/it just don’t seem right/sang those sweet notes but said the wrong way/yeah, Judy’s gone now... It just don’t seem right/that he’s still here/and you’re gone forever/pushed into the night." Yes, we’re forced to endure the entire song. Later on we’re also treated to Barney’s performance of the Otis Redding hit "Dock of the Bay." It isn’t good, but it is hilarious. The whole situation is hilarious! If Mission: Impossible has a shark-jumping moment, I’d say that it’s probably Barney sitting there in those crazy Seventies duds crooning. Then again, I wouldn’t want to miss that moment for the world! In fact, having heard about it earlier thanks to a reader’s comment on another post, this was the first episode I put on when I received this set. To me, the kitschy Seventies Missions are just as entertaining as the taut, high-quality Sixties ones, but for different reasons. For some (like my girlfriend, who suddenly developed an interest in the series as the collars grew wider and the set-ups sillier), the later seasons might actually be more enjoyable! They’ve certainly got a higher degree of rewatchability thanks to their zaniness–and undeniable camp appeal.
Of course from a practical standpoint, "Blues" doesn’t make a lick of sense. The strongman, Willy, is forced to fill in on tech duty monkeying around with tape recorders while Barney’s off undercover singing. Worst of all, the con doesn’t even come together in a satisfying manner at the end, and Barney’s whole involvement in the operation proves ultimately as unnecessary as it is embarrassing! "Blues" is a train wreck, but one that you can’t help but watch. Again and again. From here, the season can only go uphill... and it does.
Fashion Alert: Barney’s jive musician costume for his audition!
"The Visitors" isn’t first rate Mission material, either, but it’s definitely closer to it. It also features one of the rare talent crossovers between the ITC talent stable and the American one when The Baron himself, Steve Forrest, guest stars. (Another such crossover occurs when Peter Wyngarde shows up in a fantastic episode of I Spy.) Here, Forrest is a bad guy. Well, actually he doesn’t really seem that bad from what we see of him, but we’re told he’s bad. Or rather Jim is told he’s bad, which is all he’s ever needed to hear to justify ruining someone’s life, fully embodying the actual CIA’s mentality of the time.
Forrest, sporting a mustache and curly hair, is a media mogul (or, dare I say it, newspaper baron) named Granger. Apparently the inescapable Syndicate owns fifty-one percent of his newspapers and radio interests. Granger’s backing certain candidates in an upcoming election (just seventy-two hours away) and unless someone does something about it, those candidates are bound to win. Which would be a bad thing, we're told. So Jim fixes the election, of course. That’s what it’s come to for the IMF. Having already put their own people in power in every banana republic and European duchy they could find, they’re now rigging American elections. It is a Seventies theme, but hardly explored in the same light such a topic would be the following year, after the Watergate Scandal broke!
Politics aside, Jim concocts a nifty plan that plays on Granger’s well-documented belief in extra-terrestrials. It calls for him and Casey to pose as aliens (dressed all in white) and Barney as a chauffeur, but also finds use for a mutant bee, which is always nice. There’s not much for Willy to do, but everyone else gets some tense moments in one of the season’s better episodes.
"Nerves" finds the IM team back in slightly more familiar territory of prior seasons, stopping a madman from unleashing deadly nerve gas. Of course, this being Season 6, said madman’s naturally got Syndicate connections. He’s a psychotic Syndicate enforcer named Wendall (Christopher George, Lynda Day's real-life husband) who steals nerve gas from the army and uses it in an attempt to broker his brother’s release from prison. The only snag is that is brother is sick–dying, even. And, naturally, Wendall won’t believe he died from natural causes. The only solution is for the IMF to send in an agent (a guest star, in a rare return to the old "agent of the week" formula) wearing a mask of the brother. Jim also puts Casey undercover in prison with him. Casey’s job is to hook up with Wendall’s ex-girlfriend, a female con played by Tyne Daley. Together they engineer an escape, and we get some decent action in the form of a police chase. It all builds to an exciting conclusion atop one of Sixties and Seventies television’s most overused locations, LA’s Griffith Observatory. It’s quite a finale, though.
"The Connection" is another throwback, in that it guest stars our old pal Anthony Zerbe, a card-carrying hall-of-famer in the Mission: Impossible rogues’ gallery. Here, he’s as brilliant as ever playing a competitive drug dealer who promises his American distributor he can do the same trade as their current supplier for forty percent less. There’s no one whose life it’s more fun to watch unravel around them thanks to Jim’s dirty tricks than Anthony Zerbe. This time out, Jim and the team trick him into thinking that a secluded part of Georgia is really an island off of Africa. They achieve this by drugging him on his flight and changing his watch while he’s asleep. Willy says something about the time change to which Jim gives a complicated answer that I’m pretty sure doesn’t make any sense, but we get the gist of what they’re trying to do.
Unfortunately, as per the new regular twist in the formula, there’s a fly in the ointment. A lackey working for the American distributor stows away in the same plane unbeknownst to Jim and Barney, and he realizes pretty quickly that something’s screwy.
Fashion Alert: Jim's entire ensemble, perfect for casual leaning against airplane fuselages
The highlight of this episode, besides Zerbe, of course, is seeing Jim pose as a bandit "from the mountains" in a striped shirt and beret and little French tie/neck kerchief thing. He has to prove what a tough guy he is by taking out two of Zerbe’s armed men. Seeing Jim undercover more and more often is one thing I really like about the new direction the series took in the Seventies. Because Jim undercover usually gives us an outfit worth posthing three or four pictures of!
Jim gets his biggest undercover role in "Trapped." And we get a foreign setting for the only time this season! The title card says "Southeast Asia..." but it’s clearly the Paramount lot. Ah, just like the good ol’ days!
Beyond the setting, the episode begins with a jolt: Casey is singing... horribly! And playing the piano. Why? We pan to Barney, listening appreciatively. Why is she singing for Barney? And why does he appreciate it? (Well, frankly his musical tastes are somewhat suspect after listening to his own crooning.) Wait, there’s more panning... it’s Willy! He’s also enthralled. And we keep on panning... to Jim. Who applauds. "Very lovely, Casey," he praises her. Is she entertaining all her colleagues while they wait for Jim’s mission plan? No, Jim’s already got his plan, and Casey’s practicing for a role she’ll play in it. But not very convincingly, I'm afraid.
Even though the team’s supposedly overseas, it’s still just gangsters they’re taking on. The plan is to drive a wedge between two brothers, one of whom has interests in the swinging Club Tempo, where Casey will be the new singer. Actually, it’s not a very happening club. In fact, it seems to be the same one we saw at the very beginning of the season when Jim was pretending to be blind, only then it was in LA. To give an idea of how happening this club isn’t, the waitress immediately starts flirting with Jim, telling him that "someone like you" shouldn’t be allowed to be alone. Really? Someone like Jim? Okay. We’ll just go with it. The flirtation is another symptom of all the flattering of Peter Graves this season. We keep getting more and more descriptions of Jim as "good looking" or "tall" or "big." A lady even calls him "young man" at one point. (He was 46 at the time.) Was this all at Peter Graves’ insistence? He doesn’t really seem the type to make such demands. Perhaps the producers were just buttering him up to try to get out of giving him a raise. Anyway, this flirtation at the gangsters’ nightclub leads to Jim being chased around the Paramount backlot by thugs with machine guns. In a fairly unique moment for Mission: Impossible, he even fires back with a pistol he’s packing! Somehow he survives the firefight... but he’s got amnesia. Yep, it’s one of those stories. And I love those stories!
Jim wanders around the city with only his driver's license legend to tell him who he is: Tim Reyburn, apparently. Uh-oh! (Color Hair: BLND.) We get lots of long close-ups of Jim concentrating hard (screwing up his face, Hugh Laurie-style) as he tries to remember things and eventually flashes back on Casey’s awful song. Soon he ends up back at the club, and eventually at the apartment of the waitress who was flirting with him. Way to go, Jim!
The amnesia element is a new twist on the old formula. This season hasn’t given us any of those personal episodes that occasionally popped up in the last two, so it’s nice to see the formula shaken up a bit for once. The rest of the team is now on their own, without Jim’s planning skills. They have to salvage the mission and rescue their missing comrade. Elevated to this new, more proactive Jimless planning status, Willy now gets to wear a cool fashion jacket too: a brown leather coat over a mustard shirt. It’s cool to see the team come together without their leader, though the end (which involves Jim taking on two assassins, or "button men," in hand-to-hand combat and Barney curing his amnesia over the phone) is regrettably a tad bit sloppy.
Even Jim getting amnesia isn’t the worst thing to happen to the IMF this season though. "Bag Woman" is the mission where everything goes wrong! It could be the template for the opening mission in the first Tom Cruise movie, except that–this being TV–obviously the team doesn’t end up getting wiped out. But everything still goes wrong. Barney’s undercover wearing a mask (one of the bulky, newfangled, hard plastic pre-fab models; it looks like a severed head in a hatbox when Casey reveals it) when the dog of the Syndicate enforcer he’s pretending to be fingers him as a phoney. Casey, meanwhile, is unwittingly carrying a bomb. It turns out the bag woman she’s impersonating was expendable to the Syndicate, and the payment she was supposed to convey has been replaced with explosives. Barney knows this, but he’s in no position to help. In fact, once his identity is learned, he’s shot, and goes into shock. And Willy, who’s supposed to be tracking Casey with a Goldfinger-like directional finder, gets into a car accident and his tracker is destroyed. It’s a really bad day for Jim, who has to sort everything out. While there have been plenty of snags in his plans before, this is the only mission I can think of off the top of my head where absolutely everything goes wrong, and for that it’s a cool episode. Willy also gets a nice heroic moment, bursting in to save the day with a gunshot. Yes, the day does somehow get saved, but come on: you already knew that.
It's the familiar that makes Mission: Impossible both compelling and sometimes infuriating at once. You wish they'd deviate from their formula a little more often, but then the formula itself is just so pleasant, like a favorite blanket. And despite the cast changes (I found myself missing Nimoy more than anyone else who had moved on in the past) and changes in villains, I still love Mission: Impossible, even as it enters its final downward spiral. If such a spiral is this much fun, then you're doing something right, for sure.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fifth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fourth 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.