Oct 31, 2009

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Chuck: The Complete Second Season

I've been waiting for this announcement for a long time! Since NBC's spy comedy Chuck isn't coming back for a third go-round until mid-season this year, that, of course, means delayed DVDs of Season 2. I really don't understand the studios' need to release DVD seasons to coincide with new season premieres. Wouldn't it make more sense to make the DVDs available shortly after the end of the season in question, like Fox did with 24: Season 7, so that potential new viewers have lots of time to catch up and then tune in for increased ratings power when the new season does begin? Whatever. I digress. The news at hand (via TVShowsOnDVD) is that Warner Home Video has at last announced Chuck: The Complete Second Season on DVD and Blu-Ray on January 5, 2010. And check out that awesome, For Your Eyes Only-inspired cover! It's in keeping with the show's nerdy pedigree (and greatly to its credit!)that star Zachary Levi manages to duplicate Roger Moore's kind of weird stance from the Bond movie's teaser poster almost exactly. Besides the season's twenty-two episodes, the six-disc set will also include extras like webisodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and four featurettes: "Truth, Spies and Regular Guys: Exploring the Mythology of Chuck," "Dude in Distress: Explore Some of the Season's Best Action Sequences," "Chuck: A Real-Life Captain Awesome's Tips For Being Awesome" and "John Casey Presents: So You Want to Be a Deadly Spy?" I like the sound of that last one! (Adam Baldwin's deadly-serious Agent Casey remains the highlight of the series.) Additionally, "for a limited time" (according to the press release), the set will include two pairs of 3D glasses and the 3D version of the episode "Chuck Versus the Third Dimension." (I tried watching it in 3D on my old-fashioned TV when it aired with no luck; apparently you need one of those newfangled TVs with the flat screens like all the kids have to make it work.)

Meanwhile, NBC has upped its third season Chuck episode order from 13 episodes to 19, according to Variety. That's great news for a show that was on the verge of cancellation last spring! Low ratings or not, Chuck is at least a proven commodity, which is more than can be said of the network's recently-cancelled Southland (which looks to be moving to cable) or probably soon-to-be-cancelled Trauma. Those shows' bad luck may be Chuck's good luck. While the network wasn't planning to bring the series back until after the winter Olympics, the trade reports that we may now see new Chucks as early as January. Tying in (coincidentally, I'm sure) with that January 5 DVD date...

Oct 30, 2009

It Takes A Thief Finally Coming To DVD?

This isn't news, per se; it's a rumor... but it's a good one! And apparently from a reliable source. TVShowsOnDVD (a very reliable source itself) reports that the wheels are in motion to bring the last remaining classic Sixties spy show not yet available on DVD to that format at last. That's right, I'm talking about It Takes A Thief, starring Robert Wagner as a cat burglar pressed into service for American Intelligence. The show ran for three seasons on ABC and featured heavy-hitting guest stars like Peter Sellers and Fred Astaire. TVShowsOnDVD really offers no more information other than that something might be in the works, though they do hint that the title might have been sub-licensed. Select episodes have been available to watch online on Hulu since last year (and almost all of them can be watched there now). When that news was reported I speculated that Time-Life, who released superb boxed sets of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart, might make a logical home for the show. If it's been sub-licensed, that just might be the case. Shout! Factor would also seem a plausible candidate. The website promises further updates when they know the company involved.
New Trailer For From Paris With Love

We saw an underwhelming European teaser; now the first U.S. trailer is out for Luc Besson's EuropaCorp's latest neo-Eurospy movie, From Paris With Love... and, sadly, it doesn't look much more promising. If only any of the footage lived up to that awesome, awesome teaser poster! Based purely on the footage we've seen in these two trailers, the problem I have is not with Taken director Pierre Morell's direction (the action looks quite cool), but with the lead actors. For some reason both John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers sport some odd facial hair. Now I don't mind beards; quite the opposite; I sport one myself. But these particular beards (if they can even be called that) for some reason make the actors in question look especially sleazy. And Travolta's predictably over-the-top performance doesn't help. It's too bad, because I feel like these actors might work fine in this sort of film in more subdued (and clean-cut) performances, but they're not clicking with me as is. Hopefully I'll feel differently when I see the movie. Oh yes, make no mistake; even if the trailers leave me cold, I will be first in line for Besson's latest stab in his single-handed reinvention of the Eurospy genre!
Duckworth Drew In The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes: Season 2

We've already heard that Acorn is planning to release Season Two of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes in America next April; now Network has announced a UK release for The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Second Series–and revealed artwork. Series Two is of particular interest to spy fans for its inclusion of the episode "The Secret of the Foxhunter," which features Derek Jacobi as William Le Queux's gadget-using proto-Bond "Duckworth Drew of the Secret Service." As far as I know, this is the only filmed version of Drew, one of the more important figures in the evolution of spy fiction.

Fans of prolific spy TV actor Peter Wyngarde may like to know that the studio has also announced A Choice of Coward: The Complete Series. This 1964 anthology series features four Noel Coward plays introduced by the playright; Wyngarde stars in "Present Laughter."

Read my review of Network's Region 2 release The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: The Complete First Series here.

Read my review of Acorn's Region 1 release The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Set 1 here.

Oct 29, 2009

Danger Society: The Young Bond Dossier Available Today

Danger Society: The Young Bond Dossier, the official companion volume to Charlie Higson's series of James Bond novels about Bond's adventures as a schoolboy in the 1930s, is out today in the United Kingdom. It's available from Amazon.co.uk, and a signed edition is available in independent bookstores and directly from Ian Fleming Publications online. The shiny, silver volume (complete with silver gilt-edged pages) makes a nice companion piece to the golden UK hardcover of Hurricane Gold. And it's a great book! Besides a brand new, seventy page James Bond story by Higson, there's scads of great information about young Bond's world done in the style of the Dangerous Book For Boys. This is great stuff!

Oct 27, 2009

New Spy DVDs Out This Week: Eurospy And Prisoner!

We're at the height of the spy season now! For some reason we're on a roll, which continues next week with Mission: Impossible: Season 7. But for today, we have a couple of major reissues! First up is Dorado Films' new release of the 1965 Ken Clark Eurospy classic From the Orient With Fury (also known under one of my very favorite film titles, Fury On the Bosphorus). This is one of the three official "077" films, featuring the adventures of Dick Malloy, Agent 077 (clearly one of the more blatant 007 ripoffs on the market in the mid-Sixties–and one of my favorites). The rip-off itself was in turn ripped off, with many other Eurospy films purporting to be 077 adventures on their posters. But the official ones (Mission Bloody Mary, Special Mission Lady Chaplin and From the Orient With Fury) are the best. Dorado has released all three before, but they've since signed a deal with a major distributor and decided to re-releases them with new, more professional cover art. The new versions should be much easier for the average consumer to track down, too, available on Amazon and presumably in better brick-and-mortar video stores as well. From the Orient With Fury is the weakest of the three 077 adventures, but that still puts it in the cream of the crop of the Eurospy output at large. (Plus, it's got the beautiful Margaret Lee, and you can never go wrong with her!) Make no mistake: this is an essential purchase for anyone who enjoys the genre at all, whether you're just getting your feet wet in the vast Eurospy ocean, or a seasoned veteran. If you've already got the previous version, get the new one for a Bond fan friend who has yet to discover the joys of sub-Bond spies! (Or better still, keep the new one for yourself and give your friend the old one!) It's crucial to support companies like Dorado, who painstakingly restore long-forgotten Eurospy prints and see fit to release beautiful, widescreen versions of these films. The company is planning to reissue the other two 077s in the near future, as well as two more Ken Clark Eurospy offerings, Tiffany Memorandum and The Fuller Report.

The other huge release today is A&E's eagerly-anticipated Blu-ray edition of the classic Sixties Patrick McGoohan spy series, The Prisoner. While simply being able to appreciate the show's amazing production design and cinematography in high-definition is reason enough to salivate at the prospect of a Blu-ray release, A&E have gone all out and included all of the fantastic special features available on Network's Region 2 40th Anniversary DVD release (and recent UK Blu-ray release)! This puts the new Blu-ray set head-and-shoulders above any previous U.S. releases of the series, all of which were fairly bereft of any substantial special features. Among the extras available for the first time in this country are the impressive feature-length documentary “Don’t Knock Yourself Out” (boasting loads of interviews with all sorts of key production personnel), a featurette on the show's music with music editor Eric Mival (including "a unique look at the Music Bible for the show"), the restored original edit of “Arrival” with an optional music-only soundtrack featuring Wilfred Josephs’ complete and abandoned score, audio commentaries from members of the production crew on seven episodes, trailers for all episodes, commercial break bumpers, behind-the-scenes footage, PDFs of all the scripts(!) and production paperwork, and loads of image galleries. On top of all that, there's also a preview of AMC's upcoming Prisoner remake, whose upcoming debut this release is timed to coincide with. Again, this is essential spy stuff for anyone with a Blu-ray player. If you haven't yet made that plunge, however, and already have The Prisoner on standard DVD, I don't recommend picking up A&E's new standard release. Unless I'm wrong (and I hope I am), it doesn't appear to include any of these new special features. It appears, in fact, to be a simple repackaging of the exact same DVDs A&E has had on the market for years. It is, however, considerably cheaper, so if you don't have any Prisoner DVDs yet, it's a good buy. Amazon is currently offering the new standard discs for $45.99 and the Blu-rays for just $50.49 (almost half off)! You simply can't go wrong with feature-laden, high-def Prisoner for fifty bucks.

Oct 24, 2009

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Callan: Set 2

TVShowsOnDVD reports that Acorn has announced Callan: Set 2 for release on January 26, 2010. Fantastic! This entire series is long overdue on U.S. DVD, and I'm very pleased that Acorn is following up this past summer's release of the absolutely incredible Callan: Set 1 (review here). Of course, Set 1 was, in fact, the show's third season–the first in color. Set 2, therefore, will be the actual fourth–and final–season. (If sales merit it, Acorn hopes to go back and release the surviving episodes of the two prior black and white seasons.) But the news keeps getting better! Unlike Set 1, Callan: Set 2 will include extras! Specifically, it includes two audio commentaries by star Edward Woodward, on "If He Can, So Could I" and "The Richmond File: Call Me Enemy!" Apparently, however, it will not include the 1974 Callan theatrical movie, which was included on the Region 4 release of this season several years ago. (The commentaries may come from that release.) Oh well. Maybe the movie will come out on its own. Retail will be $59.99 for the four-disc set of thirteen episodes.
Tradecraft: Next Bond To Film In 2010

Variety reports that Daniel Craig has said that the 23rd James Bond film will begin filming "late next year." This would presumably put the Bonds back on an every three years schedule instead of every other year as the first two Craig films had been. The actor's statement is the only indication of a start date so far; there has been no official comment from EON or MGM. Craig apparently made the remark in response to a fan's question outside the stage door of his Broadway play, "A Steady Rain."

Oct 23, 2009

Billion Dollar Brain Soundtrack To Be Released In December

Film Score Monthly's shop, Screen Archives Entertainment, is currently taking pre-orders for a single-disc release of Richard Rodney Bennett's amazing, haunting score for the third Harry Palmer film, Billion Dollar Brain. It will be paired with Roy Budd's score for the 1982 action movie The Final Option, starring Lewis Collins, Edward Woodward and Ingrid Pitt. FSM previously issued the score for Billion Dollar Brain in a huge box set of MGM film music called The MGM Soundtrack Treasury (1959-1983), but this will be its first official individual release on CD. (A widely circulated bootleg paired it with The Ipcress File.) The release date is listed as "early December;" the cost is $19.95.

UPDATE: This new, standalone release will not be on FSM's label. According to the proprietor of Spy Bop Royale (the final word on spy music on the web), this release will be on the label Kritzerland. Sadly, that probably means that it won't include the fantastic liner notes from FSM's massive MGM box set.

Read my review of Billion Dollar Brain here.

Oct 22, 2009

Upcoming Spy DVDs

Great news! TVShowsOnDVD reports that one of the most glaring gaps in spy TV shows available on DVD will be rectified next year. The site reports that Warner Home Video is prepping a DVD release of Scarecrow and Mrs. King for 2010. While the Sixties had loads of spy shows and the Seventies hosted a few stragglers, the Eighties was by and large bereft of hit spy series. (Instead, viewers had to get their spy kicks from action hours with espionage elements, like The Equalizer and MacGyver.) Scarecrow and Mrs. King was the big exception: a thoroughly Eighties take on The Avengers pairing (by way of Moonlighting) of professional male secret agent with talented female amateur--in this case, a housewife. Bruce Boxleitner and Kate Jackson starred in the respective title roles in the hit series, which ran from 1984-1987. TVShowsOnDVD has no details yet on what configuration the series will be released in (or whether it will be through Warner Archives) or special features or anything, but just the knowledge that the show will be available is fantastic!

TVShowsOnDVD also reports that the latest season of contemporary British spy hit MI-5 (or Spooks as it is known in the UK) will follow the same release pattern of previous seasons and be released on DVD in the United States by BBC Video on January 26. According to the site, the four-disc, eight-episode set of MI-5: Volume 7 "will include extras such as Audio Commentary, an exclusive Behind the Scenes Documentary, an Action Sequence Featurette, a 'Spooks in Russia' Featurette, and the original UK trailer." Retail may have come down a tad from previous seasons, but it remains on the steep end at $59.98. Oh well, I'm thoroughly hooked on the series, so there's little doubt I'll pay their ransom! Season 6 was the best in years; here's hoping Season 7 continues that trend! There is still word on a U.S. release of the critically savaged (and, by the sound of it, uncharacteristic) spin-off series, Spooks: Code 9, which abandoned all pretense of realism and featured teenage agents in the near future. Honestly, I doubt it will happen, so if you're desperate to see that, your best bet is probably importing the UK disc. From what I hear, though, we're not missing anything.

DVDActive reports that Universal will release Quentin Tarantino's fantastic WWII-set spy movie Inglourious Basterds on DVD December 15. It will be available in single-DVD, double-DVD and Blu-Ray configurations. Somewhat uniquely for a first-release Tarantino disc, the h-end editions will feature copious extras! According to the site, "The only extra material on the 1-disc DVD will be extended and alternate scenes, the Nation’s Pride film, and domestic and international trailers. The 2-disc DVD and Blu-ray releases will include all that, along with a Roundtable Discussion with Quentin Tarantino, Brad Pitt and film historian/critic Elvis Mitchell, featurettes ('Making of Nation’s Pride', 'The Original Inglorious Bastards', 'Rod Taylor on Victoria Bitters - the Australian Beer', 'Quentin Tarantino’s Camera Angel'), a conversation with veteran actor Rod Taylor, a gag reel, a Film Poster Gallery Tour with Elvis Mitchell, a poster gallery, and a digital copy of the film." Even the single disc offers more extras than recent bare-bones Tarantino discs, like the Kill Bills and Deathproof! It's also cool that the extras feature so heavily on Sixties spy veteran Rod Taylor. Read my review of Inglourious Basterds here.

Oct 21, 2009

R.I.P. Joseph Wiseman

The Associated Press reports (via Yahoo) that Joseph Wiseman, the actor who played Dr. No, has passed away at the age of 91. I've always felt that Wiseman is too often overlooked for his lasting contribution to the James Bond legacy. He was later overshadowed by flashier villains like Gert Frobe's Auric Goldfinger and Donald Pleasence's Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but with Dr. Julius No, Wiseman established not only the quintessential screen Bond villain, but also the cinematic supervillain. Aside from a couple of antiheroes in early foreign silents like Fantomas or Dr. Mabuse, prior to 1962's Dr. No supervillains as we know them today were relegated mostly to taking on comic book heroes in serials. But after Dr. No, they were suddenly everywhere. Not only spies faced them (in droves) during the Sixties, but cops, detectives, cartoon characters and eventually even Homer Simpson. Who is state policeman Steve McGarrett's arch-rival on Hawaii Five-O, Wo Fat, if not another guise of Dr. No? True, Ian Fleming's half-Chinese doctor owed a considerable debt to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, but it was Fleming's notion of blending the last century's xenophobic "Oriental menace" with contemporary espionage that captured the imaginations of 1960s cinemagoers. In fact, the success of Dr. No led directly to a cinematic revival of Fu Manchu, absent from movie screens since the Thirties, re-tooled for the Bond-Age while keeping a period setting. The actor who played the Sixties incarnation of Fu, and became most associated with the role, was a distant cousin of Ian Fleming's who the author recommended play Dr. No in the film: Christopher Lee. (This was the era, remember, of Caucasian actors playing Asian roles.) Lee went on to memorably portray another Bond villain, Francisco Scaramanga, and the first cinematic Bond baddie role went to Wiseman, who clearly made the part his own. His clipped delivery (painstakingly–and thankfully–avoiding a cliched Charlie Chan-style Western version of a Chinese accent), careful posture, emotionless face and deliberate mannerisms literally defined "Bond villain" for all time–and all those actors who played 007's later, more famous adversaries owe him a debt.

Surprisingly, and unlike a lot of other Bond villains, Wiseman didn't go on to act in many other spy roles. Such appearances were few and limited to semi-spyish TV series like T.H.E. Cat, MacGyver and The Equalizer. But his single appearance in a James Bond film left an indelible mark on the genre, for which he should always be remembered.

Oct 20, 2009

New Spy DVDs Out This Week

This week sees the release of William Castle's 1963 technicolor foray into spy films, 13 Frightened Girls, released by Sony as part of The William Castle Film Collection. 13 Frightened Girls follows, well, thirteen teenage girls–diplomats' daughters, all from different countries–who get caught up in a web of espionage and become frightened. The Castle gimmick was a "world-wide" talent hunt to cast a teenage girl from each of thirteen countries; supposedly thirteen different beginnings were shot, each narrated by a different girl arriving from her own country. Unlike the legendary alternate ending to Castle's Mr. Sardonicus, at least four of these alternate beginnings were actually shot (probably not thirteen, though), and are included on this DVD. The British girl, spy fans will be happy to learn, is none other than the beautiful star of The Champions, Alexandra Bastedo, making her film debut! Other special features include the original British trailer (under the production title of Candy Web) and Castle's own opening and closing messages to the audience.

Also included in this set is another Castle spy film, Zotz!, in which a straight-laced college professor (Tom Poston) finds an amulet that slows people's motion. Naturally, being in possession of such a thing makes him a target for foreign agents. Rounding out the set are the Castle classics 13 Ghosts (whose title 13 Frightened Girls was clearly designed to emulate), Mr. Sardonicus, The Tingler, Homicidal, Straight-Jacket and, for the first time ever on DVD, Castle's collaboration with Hammer Films and Charles Addams (yep!), the 1963 version of The Old Dark House! Sounds like a great set, and definitely worth checking out for spy fans and Alexandra Bastedo fans for the rarely-seen 13 Frightened Girls.

Also out today is Hawaii Five-O: The Seventh Season. After the mostly espionage-free sixth season, McGarrett's arch-foe Wo Fat (Khigh Diegh) makes a welcome return (now as a freelance operative, having split with Red China), bringing with him his usual retinue of espionage, assassination and chaos.

Oct 19, 2009

Peter Graves' Pre-Mission: Impossible ITC Series

Bummed that the Mission: Impossible season coming out on DVD in a few weeks will be the last? Wondering where you’ll get your next Peter Graves fix? Fear not! The good folks at UK company Network have taken your concerns to heart, and they will release Graves’ other series (other series where he doesn't play second fiddle to a horse, that is), Whiplash, on Region 2 DVD in its entirety this fall! Whiplash (1960-61) is not a spy series, but a Western–with a twist. An Aussie twist. In this fondly-remembered intercontinental collaboration between Britain’s ITC, Australia’s Seven Network and a team of American writers including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Graves played Christopher Cobb, an American adventurer trying to start up a stagecoach line on Australia’s untamed outback. Following the tried and true formula of both ITC programs and American Westerns, he gets into various adventures each week–and gets out of them with the aid of his trusty whip and Akubra hat! Whiplash: The Complete Series (thirty-four half-hour episodes in black and white) will be available as an online exclusive from Network’s website starting December 7 at a cost of £42. In the meantime, go here to hear Saint and Danger Man composer Edwin Astley's infectious, whip-cracking theme song.
Tradecraft: Jolie, Lives Of Others Director Board Tourist

Angelina Jolie is making a career out of taking on spy movies that Tom Cruise walks away from. I almost said that she's taking his leftovers, but that really wouldn't be fair. In many ways the movies become more appealing with her involvement than they would be with his. So perhaps she's making them more awesome! Anyway, after stepping into the role he vacated on Phillip Noyce's CIA thriller Edwin A. Salt (necessitating a gender change for the lead character and a title change to just Salt), last week Jolie became attached to another high-profile spy film that Cruise had circled for a long time last year before ultimately choosing to make Knight & Day with Cameron Diaz instead: The Tourist. Jolie won't be playing the role that Cruise would have this time, however; that part already went to Terminator Salvation star Sam Worthington. This time, Jolie will be taking over the female lead to which Charlize Theron had been attached for some time, but recently vacated.

But Angie's not sightseeing alone. Today's Variety reports that she's probably bringing with her director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. This is big news, because von Donnersmarck's last movie, the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, was one of my very favorite spy movies of the decade. He hasn't made another movie since (after reportedly trying to find the right material for his English language debut), so it's very exciting that he's chosen a more mainstream espionage thriller. (Hollywood, meanwhile, is still trying to figure out how to remake Lives; last I heard they were pursuing the horrifying course of setting it in a near-future dystopic USA.) While the trade is clear that "von Donnersmarck hasn't formally entered into negotiations yet," they assert that Jolie's participation was contingent on finding the right director. "After meetings with several helmers, von Donnersmarck was deemed that guy on Friday night, insiders said." The trade goes on to recap the project's exciting premise:

Jolie, who most recently wrapped the Phillip Noyce-helmed Salt for Columbia Pictures, will play a female Interpol agent who draws an unwitting American tourist into her attempt to locate a criminal who was once her lover. Worthington, the Australian thesp who next appears as the star of the James Cameron-directed Avatar, will play the American tourist.

If von Donnersmarck's involvement gets firmed up, then this project just became far, far more interesting to me!

Oct 16, 2009

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.