Nov 30, 2011

DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The 7th TV Season

DVD Review: Mission: Impossible - The 7th TV Season

Mission: Impossible - The Final TV Season came out two years ago. There’s a reason this review is so long in coming–and it’s a selfish one. Quite simply, I didn’t want to rush through the final season of Mission: Impossible just to get up a timely review. I wanted to savor it. Yes, I know there are still two seasons of the 1989-91 revival series to come (the first of them out this week), but those aren’t the same. They don’t have Barney’s flairs or Jim’s wide collars or Willy’s sideburns. My own history with Mission: Impossible is sort of weird, in that my introduction to the series was through that late Eighties revival. I didn’t even watch it that regularly (I didn’t really watch any television that regularly as a kid), but I liked what I saw. (Little did I know then that what I was seeing was only a pale reflection of the real series’ true glory!) My next exposure to the franchise came with the first Tom Cruise film in 1996, and my memories of the revival series were strong enough to make me rebel at the idiotic decision to turn Jim Phelps into a bad guy. (Er, spoiler alert, I guess. I don’t mind spoiling stupid things from fifteen-year-old movies.) I hated the movie then. Years later, I’ve kind of come around and found some merits in it (especially compared to the second one!), but I still cringe at that lame “twist” and find myself wishing with each new installment that the franchise’s current custodians would find a way to undo it. (It sounded very promising in late 2009 when J.J. Abrams announced that he wanted Peter Graves to cameo in the fourth film, but Graves sadly passed away before that could become a reality.) Anyway, unlike many of my generation, my loyalty was always with Jim Phelps, not Ethan Hunt–despite the fact that I never managed to discover the original 1966-73 series in syndication during high school.

In the meantime, I’d managed to read a lot about the original show in magazines and fanzines (that pre-Internet source of information), and absorbed even more through osmosis at Spy-Fi conventions and the like. (It was the same with The Avengers; by the time I finally actually saw any episodes when A&E released them on VHS, I was already a fan through similar osmosis and through trading cards, which I had avidly collected.) By the time I managed to at last see the real Mission: Impossible in syndication after college, I was already a fan. And by the time Paramount began releasing season sets on DVD (which coincided neatly with the founding of this blog), it felt like I was re-watching old favorites, even if I was really seeing most of these episodes for the first time. I was finally realizing my decades-old but heretofore unconsummated Mission: Impossible fandom, and I discovered the series in earnest on DVD. Each season was a revelation, faithfully chronicled right here. I’d heard that it started to sag as early as Season 4 when Martin Landau and Barbara Bain left; I’d heard that it got worse when Leonard Nimoy came aboard, and that it ingloriously, er, self-destructed during the final years when the team mainly took on “the Syndicate” instead of enemy agents. I kept waiting for those dire warnings to come true, but they never did. If anything, I enjoyed Mission: Impossible more and more with each subsequent season. It’s true that I prefer spies to mobsters, but as more and more sweaty Syndicate bosses showed up, they were offset by the hilarious yet inexplicably compelling horrendous early Seventies fashions that turned up on the backs of Jim and his team. Those wretched orange turtlenecks, purple cravats and V-neck sweaters got me through any Syndicate rough patches, and made even the weakest episodes (ant those remained few and far between to the very end) still enjoyable. (And I still haven’t found myself a heavily-buckled Worsted Tex leather jacket like Jim’s, so I’d still appreciate any pointers in the right direction!)

Which brings us to this final DVD set, Mission: Impossible - The Final TV Season (which is really The 7th TV Season). When I got it, I simply couldn’t rush through it. I took my time, like sipping a fine wine. And it was worth it. Contrary to the naysayers’ doom-filled declarations, Mission: Impossible never really jumps the shark. Perhaps the quotient of great episodes per season diminishes in the later years, but there are very few episodes in this final batch that don’t manage to be enjoyable on some level. And there still are plenty of those great ones in store, like “Two Thousand,” “The Deal” and “Kidnap!” Furthermore, there seem to be a few more old-school spy plots thrown in amidst the Syndicate episodes that have become the norm during the past few seasons. And the writers appear more adept overall this season at mixing spy plots with Syndicate ones—and it makes for more interesting episodes than the previous two seasons, on the whole (not that those ones were bad). “The Deal,” for example, is an episode that manages to inject an old spy trope (preventing a coup in a Central American nation) into the new status quo. Which isn’t to say that I don’t have my gripes, as I’ll soon share in full, but most of them, from the inexcusably widening collars to the increasing sweatiness of the Syndicate baddies, gave me some measure of enjoyment as well.

The season opener, “Break!,” is a rare important episode in the ongoing continuity of the series (which generally tends to be fully episodic) because it introduces the character of Mimi Davis (Barbara Anderson), who will serve as a Replacement Female on a number of episodes this season while series regular Lynda Day George (who plays Casey) is out on maternity leave. This is significant because Mimi is the only team member ever to get an actual character introduction on Mission: Impossible! Past additions have simply turned up, or (in the earlier days) had their headshots selected by Jim or his predecessor, Dan Briggs (Steven Hill), during the pre-mission team selection process. Not Mimi. Her IMF origin story is actually tied into the plot of “Break!” She’s brought in for this specific assignment because she used to date Press Allen (The Wild Wild West’s Robert Conrad, guest-starring for the fourth time), a top goon for a New Orleans gangster named Krebbs. (How many villains named Krebbs has the IMF foiled over the years?) At the end of the episode, after Mimi's acquitted herself well enough, Jim informs her (and us) that Casey is “on assignment in Europe” for a few months, and asks how she’d like to work with them again. (That line marks another first: the first explanation for the absence of an IMF team member; usually they just disappear without a trace.) Mimi says she’d like that. She’s on parole paying for her former life of crime, and this assignment will help wipe that out. It’s even alluded to that she used to have a real drinking problem, but none of that potentially interesting back story is really explored, which is unfortunate. A missed opportunity. Oh well; that information is still the most back story we ever get on any IMF agent! (The extent of Cinnamon’s, for example, was the caption “top fashion model” on the cover of a magazine.)

Jim poses as a pool shark to ensnare Press, but the table is rigged by Barney. How? “This is an inertial guidance system,” tech wiz Barney (Greg Morris) tells Mimi, “The same kind that’s used to keep missiles on course. Our missile: one cue ball. And the circuitry inside. The other balls will be radioactively marked so they’ll show up on the control screen.” It’s all utter hokum, of course, but they explain away any discrepancies by having Jim already be a great pool shark in his own right. “Thanks 95 percent to you!” Barney tells him obsequiously. “The computer guidance could only give you a 5% edge. And deduct 5% from your opponent. Of course if you weren’t a pretty fair pool shooter yourself, we wouldn’t have a chance.” (This is only the first of several instances this season in which Barney will use computers to help Jim cheat at some game.) That 5% margin is further offset by Jim having a two-way radio somehow “implanted” in his ear, which sounds painful. As for the ends all of these ludicrous means are to, it’s the usual Syndicate-era plot about pitting two rival gangsters against each other and sowing dissent in their ranks, turning the henchman against his boss. Doubling up on M:I clichés, the whole thing has to do with some microfilm shot by a dead undercover agent who was previously planted in the gangsters’ midst with a wristwatch camera.

The pool scenes are endless and pretty boring, but Conrad elevates the episode with a typically strong performance as the gangster’s right-hand man caught in the middle. He makes his character sympathetic enough that you can’t help but feel sorry for him the way Jim and his team set him up.

The season really picks up steam with its fantastic second episode, “Two Thousand.” The first sign that we’re in for a treat is that Barney’s sporting a mustache, which he’ll have intermittently throughout the season thanks to episodes being shot out of order. (Or aired out of order, depending on how you look at it.) Beyond the ‘stache, “Two Thousand” begins with the season’s second-best mission briefing scene (depicted at the top of this article)—so enjoyable because it’s directly out of the obscure Eurospy movie The Killer Likes Candy! Just like Kerwin Mathews’ agent in that film, Jim goes to a photo shoot at some beautiful old ruins (they look like they could be in Rome, just like in the movie, although I’m relatively certain they’re not) where a fashion photographer is shooting some hippy models at canted angles. After exchanging the necessary code words, the shutterbug directs Jim to his tape recording. It’s really quite similar! (No doubt entirely coincidental, but fun nonetheless.)

In a show’s final season (even if they didn’t know it, at the time), I suppose it’s appropriate to do some “greatest hits” episodes. "Two Thousand" successfully combines elements from some of the IMF team’s most successful missions of the past: they take a nuclear physicist (Vic Morrow) who’s stolen some plutonium that he’s planning to sell to a nebulous foreign power, arrest him, and make him think that America is under attack (a plan which involves Jim dressing up like a general)–just like they did in the sixth season’s best episode, “Invasion.” Then they use make-up and drugs to “age” him, as they did to William Shatner in “Encore.”

Finally, they follow it all up by making him believe that it’s the future (as they did to Donnelly Rhodes in “The Freeze”) and that there’s been a nuclear holocaust, as they’ve done several times, most famously–and most successfully–to poor Anthony Zerbe in the Season 2 classic “The Photographer” (which probably remains my top candidate for the definitive Mission: Impossible episode, closely followed by “The Mind of Stefan Miklos” from the following year). Throw in the de rigueur late season twist of a fly in the ointment (this time a crooked cop who catches onto the subterfuge and alerts the victim’s lawyer), and you’ve got yourself one of Season 7's best. And why shouldn’t it be? All those elements worked well the first time around. Of course, “one of Season 7's best” isn’t super high praise, but it comes as no surprise that such a high point should be created by turning to the best of a more glorious past and sprinkling that with the more prominent facial hair of the late seasons.

Other elements making “Two Thousand” enjoyable include some truly impressive post-apocalyptic sets and multiple explosions, Barney’s mustache (which warrants a second mention) and Barney's completely uncalled for Jamaican accent, and Peter Lupus’s dire, apocalyptic line reading, “Oh my God. It’s the end of everything!” (That’s classic Seventies television right there!) Plus, Jim has concocted an especially grim view of the future (the distant, titular year 2000, to be precise) that involves–I kid you not–indentured slaves stuffing Ritz crackers into cans and then being gassed when they can work no more as America wages an unending, twenty-eight year old nuclear war against Jamaica (apparently—judging solely from that accent)! Jim’s got a really bleak, bizarre imagination! Perhaps he should have been a science fiction author instead of a spy. Of course, that’s the genius of the plan: it’s so far out that the target is unlikely to question what’s going on. Who would make this stuff up–and then spend the obviously huge amount of money necessary to pull it all off? “Two Thousand” is a genuinely classic episode of Mission: Impossible buried in its generally derided final season—and proof positive that that derision is undeserved.

FASHION ALERT: Great clothes for tugboating, Jim!
“The Deal” offers further such proof. This is another pretty wonderful episode—and one that gets us out of America again (even if our feet are still, as always, firmly planted on the Paramount lot), away from the urban realm of the Mafia. Does that mean no Syndicate? “Good afternoon, Mr. Phelps,” intones the famous voice on the tape recorder (Bob Johnson, to whom I should really give some credit in this final season). “General Oliver Hammond, British soldier of fortune who heads the armed forces of the Republic of Camagua is about to take control of the government...” Yes! An old school stop-a-coup sort of espionage episode! Right?

Even Barbara Anderson can't help but stare at that shirt
 “...aided by Syndicate money.” D’oh! “In return, Syndicate leader John Larson and his lieutenant Charles Rogan will control all gambling and prostitution in Camagua.” Really? That's the angle you want to take on this one, Mr. Voice-on-Tape? The reason that Jim and his team should stop a coup is because if they don’t then the Syndicate will control all the hookers of a tiny Central American country? Aren’t there better reasons to stop this Hammond character? I guess not. Not in a post-counterculture America mired in Vietnam and on the verge of Watergate. Oh well; it’s just the motivation. The end result is still the team getting up to its same old antics toppling and un-toppling foreign governments! The tape voice goes on to inform Jim (and us) that securing the key to a safe deposit box will expose the Syndicate involvement and discredit Hammond, thus (and Bob Johnson achieves his most dire tone ever here) “preventing Syndicate takeover of an entire nation.” I do miss those halcyon days when they were preventing Communist (or “Eastern”) takeovers of entire nations! The stakes seemed higher back then. Again: oh well. Willy wasn’t as shaggy and Jim didn’t generally spend the entire episode in a paisley shirt/striped linen pajama pant combo. So there’s a trade off, because I find the Seventies wardrobe much more entertaining than those dull Sixties suits. (No mustache on Barney this time around, though, I’m sorry to say.)

Not only are his sideburns shaggier, but strongman Willy’s (Peter Lupus) role in the whole scheme is also more integral than it used to be in those Sears suit days. Here, he turns up undercover on mobster Charles Rogan’s yacht, in the company of bikini girls. And one of them is Lana Wood! The whole guest cast is pretty stellar, in fact. Robert Webber plays Rogan, and Van Williams also appears. We don’t get to learn how Willy penetrated the Syndicate so deeply as to end up on one of their pleasure craft, but his code name in secret radio transmissions to Jim is “Brisco,” and I liked that. Unfortunately, he’s found out pretty quickly. Worse still, when he dives into the ocean to make his getaway, he gets shot! The irked mobsters leave him for dead floating in the middle of the sea, wounded and bleeding. It might just be the worst predicament an IMF team member has ever been in.

Meanwhile, Jim outlines everyone else’s roles. The absent Casey again gets a name-check when Mimi inquires, “When will she be back from Eastern Europe?”

Peter Graves screws up his eyebrows and gives a reply equal to Bob Johnson’s earlier delivery in terms of earnest direness: “I don’t know, Mimi. She’s on a deep-cover mission. She could be out of touch for quite a while.” (Or she could be back next week and then gone again the week after, since the episodes weren’t shown in the order they were shot.) Luckily, before she left she had a chance to fashion the team a mask of a gangster named Chalmers, which comes in handy here. Barney’s contribution is a special bullet that’s a combination tranquilizer dart and blood capsule, so it simulates death perfectly. I’m surprised it took him seven seasons to develop such a thing! He’s also got a pretty cool gadget ring with a needle on it that drugs people and puts them out instantly when he slaps them on the back (or neck), but I think we have seen that (or something quite like it) before.

Soon the whole team is off to Central America determined to discover where on the boat this key is hidden. But that won’t be easy. As with most plans hatched by Jim Phelps, it will involve a fake prison and fake deaths and enough manipulated shifting alliances to fuel an episode of Survivor. The gang seems surprisingly unconcerned when they seize the boat and discover Willy’s not on it, but of course they’re right not to worry about him. It’s not a spoiler for a series like this to reveal that he manages to survive and reconnects with the rest of them in time to don the uniform of a man much smaller than Peter Lupus… yet still have it fit perfectly. “The Deal” is a fun episode with just enough traces of the old, pre-Syndicate espionage action to please the most dyed-in-the-wool spy fan.

“TOD-5” is an old-school, out-and-out spy plot—but it’s set in the unlikely location of a small Southwestern desert town, where a terrorist group called Alpha expects a biological weapon called TOD-5 to be transferred to their agent, Wexler. The IMF team makes Wexler think that he’s been infected with the disease, and that his only hope for finding a cure is getting to the Alpha headquarters, thus revealing its secret location. With the help of the military and the local Sheriff’s Department, they close down the whole entire town as if it’s been secretly quarantined by the government. Then they start faking deaths all over the place to really drive Wexler to panic.

The quarantine con is a good one, and despite the small town setting, the writers give “TOD-5” a bigger-picture, international feel with some brief talk about how absent Casey is handling “the European connection,” rounding up Alpha members over there. But despite these nice touches, “TOD-5” commits a cardinal sin for a Mission: Impossible episode; it undermines its own elaborate plot. The trick is to keep the audience so caught up in the unfolding scheme that they never stop and say, “Isn’t Jim’s whole plan a little overcomplicated?” Well, in this one, everything goes wrong towards the end and Jim has to fall back on a Plan B—one that accomplishes the same end through much, much simpler (and presumably much less expensive—in terms of taxpayer dollars) means! So watching it, you ask yourself, “Well, then why was all that other stuff I just watched even necessary?” In truth, there’s almost always a simpler way to accomplish these impossible missions, and you can’t let the audience think about that. The Plan B fallback here renders pointless the entire episode that’s gone before. One more point worth noting about “TOD-5” is a rarity on this show: Jim actually shoots–and presumably kills–one of the bad guys. That doesn’t happen too often.

Following that disappointment, fortunately “Cocaine” is a load of fun. (Kids, please don’t take that sentence at face value!) For starters, Jim’s got a new leather jacket, which is kind of exciting for those keeping a close eye on the Seventies fashions. It’s still got some extraneous buckles, though sadly not as many as his old classic. And it’s longer. I want one like this, too! After a briefing in a bookstore (I always like spy things set partially in bookstores), we’re treated to the old familiar formula: an aerial of an exotic Central American city, then a close-up of the exterior of a soundstage on the Paramount lot. After so many domestic settings, the Paramount-as-a-foreign-country routine I used to complain about is like comfort food! At least this soundstage is shot through a wrought-iron gate to make it seem a little bit more exotic. (The red Ferrari Daytona parked outside helps on that account, too.) I’ve honestly never seen a show get more use out of soundstage exteriors than Mission: Impossible! Apparently every other country in the world is filled with huge, hanger-like buildings made out of corrugated metal. Not America, though.

What makes “Cocaine” so great isn’t the plot (it has to do with cocaine; that’s all you really need to know); it’s the milieu. The bad guy is a swinger who frequents the swingers’ club The Fun House! How can Seventies TV get any better than that, you ask? Easy: Mimi goes undercover as a “Fun Girl” at the club, and Jim slips in there too. As you’ve no doubt surmised already, his swinger attire includes a cravat—which is just awesome. What? You want more? Okay, William Shatner (in a loud pink shirt, playing a character named “Joseph Conrad”) is also a part of this swingers’ club, as is a live rock band. You really don’t need to know anything else about this episode besides all that. If those details alone don’t arrest your interest, then you’re not even human. But let me allow a single indelible image to speak the last word on “Cocaine” (take that as you will):

My note for this image was "crucial Shatner fashion screengrab!!!"
Barney’s mustached again in “Underground.” You can never predict when he will be or won’t be this season, which adds an extra savory layer to watching it, kind of like the whole Ross and Rachel “will they or won’t they?” thing on Friends in the Nineties. (Sadly viewership figures weren’t proportionate to that, and the “Will Barney sport a mustache this week?” Hail Mary gambit failed to garner Mission: Impossible an eighth season.) The plot is the same as the Avengers episode “Escape in Time,” more or less: a gang specializes in breaking criminals out of prison and getting them out of the country for a large fee–supposedly–but what they really do is brainwash and hypnotize and drug them to find out where they hid their loot, then kill them. Jim goes undercover as a murdering doctor who needs to get out of the country. (I wish he claimed a one-armed man was the real culprit, but sadly he doesn’t.) The villain takes his meetings at the old L.A. zoo, where apparently all that stood between people and wild animals was a rickety chain link fence through which people could throw peanuts at said animals—which happens to be this villain’s favorite pastime.

Jim demonstrates the operational advantages of wide Seventies collars.

The criminals buy Jim’s story and believe he has hidden loot, so they give him the same treatment as all of their clients. He’s subjected to one of those great, old-fashioned brainwashing sessions that seem more Sixties than Seventies and involve lots of weird sounds and hallucinogenic swirly red light effects. They hypnotist’s chamber is a really neat set, with Jim in a sort of raised dentist’s chair on a tipsy pedestal that spins around in a red room with psychedelic projections on the walls. Willy once again gets to stretch beyond his old strongman role, posing as a doctor. Are all anesthesiologists so muscle-bound? He also gets to shoot and apparently kills a henchman, so Season 7 is starting to stack up as one of the more violent ones in the series. “Underground” isn’t one of the best episodes, but it’s damn good entertainment nonetheless. See for yourself:

“Movie” is the first of two Seventh Season episodes to take its cue from Season 6’s “Blues.” Whereas that featured Barney going undercover as a blues singer who exposed a corrupt, Syndicate-backed record mogul in his audition song, “Movie” has Mimi posing as an actress who exposes a corrupt, Syndicate-backed movie mogul in her film. Well, she doesn’t do it alone. Jim (posing as someone else) is the executive who backs the picture and, entertainingly, Barney is the temperamental and somewhat swishy director. (And for some reason he’s British. Yup! Just because.)

The plan involves the standard pit-one-mobster-against-another scenario of which Jim is so fond. Since the story is set on a movie lot, the audience doesn't even have to pretend that the giant soundstages are buildings in a Communist country. For once, they're just soundstages. Jim even gets to ride in one of those golf carts that sometimes inexplicably turn up outside Eastern Bloc warehouses.

When faced with a seriously big budget doomsday scenario in “Ultimatum,” Jim Phelps uncharacteristically opts for a fairly low budget solution. Perhaps the IMF (Impossible Missions Force, that is—the cool IMF, not the International Monetary Fund) spent their entire allotted budget creating that future bunker for the coming war with Jamaica at the beginning of the season, or perhaps some Congressional oversight committee questioned Jim’s allocation of funds for quarantining an entire Southwestern town when there was clearly a less expensive Plan B option on the table… or perhaps Paramount or Desilu were tightening the series’ belt in the face of declining ratings. Whatever the case, when a madman issues an ultimatum to the President of the United States that he’ll detonate a nuclear bomb in “a major US city” (of course it’s Los Angeles–and even if it were New York it would still very obviously be Los Angeles), Jim and the team respond by staging a “hold-up men in a desolate roadhouse” scenario. Yeah, it’s an odd choice... but it works, naturally! The threat response may seem cut-rate compared to building a fake submarine in a warehouse or creating a scorched-earth compound and staging WWIII, but the episode does manage to pull out a helicopter and some actual location shooting in downtown LA, which is at least a tad more exotic than the Paramount lot.

We’re also afforded a rare glimpse inside the IMF headquarters (a much bigger staging facility than Jim’s apartment), complete with lots of personnel and techies and glowing pink wall maps and even another woman(!). Best of all, there’s a giant cube-shaped clock–always the mark of a first-rate intelligence HQ. We also get to see Jim in a life-or-death shootout—another rarity in a series that generally eschews gun violence for its leads. That’s at least twice so far this season, though, so perhaps these instances hint at a more violent mandate should Mission: Impossible have continued?

“Ultimatum” is another good episode for Willy fans; he gets to play a role (a gas station attendant) and gets a good fight in, taking out the gunman shooting at Jim. The episode’s final moments tick down on the face of a giant, luminescent, analog clock (attached to the nuke) superimposed over the picture. It’s pretty effective! (And more stylish than a 24-style digital readout.) Agent Mimi may have been the only Mission: Impossible character to get a real introduction, but no such considerations are paid to her swan song. After “Ultimatum,” she vanishes without a trace like so many IMF agents before her—particularly the female ones. The odd thing is, there are still plenty of Casey-free installments to come, but for some reason the producers would opt for Female Fill-ins of the Week (recalling the Season 4 formula) instead of continuing with long-term replacement Anderson, who had proved herself fully capable.

“Kidnap!” is unique in the annals of the IMF (at least I think so) in that it is a direct sequel to a previous episode, Season 6’s “Casino.” It’s also unique in that it’s directed by Peter Graves!

Jim and Barney are on vacation at a tennis resort earnestly discussing backhands and whatnot—and it’s kind of hilarious to hear Jim using his mission briefing voice to earnestly discuss backhands. So are some Syndicate baddies (from “Casino” supposedly, although I don’t think any of the actual actors from that episode reappear here.) As a special bonus for viewers, the setting dictates that everyone–good and bad–is wearing Seventies sportswear: a blue and white tracksuit for Jim, tennis shorts for Barney and everyone else, and–hilariously–a white V-neck sweater for one of the hoods who kidnap Jim.

Scary, huh?
One of the first indelible images director Graves burns on our minds is–oddly–a frame filled by Barney’s short-shorts-clad butt as he walks away from the table to answer a page. That’s when the bad guys move in and conk Jim on the head. Their boss, Drake, meets Barney in the lobby and explains the situation. He’s identified “the silver-haired man” (nobody’s claiming Jim’s blond anymore, even in an episode directed by Graves!) and his partner as the leaders of a team that knocked over their casino a year ago and made off with lots of Syndicate money and records. But Drake doesn’t want his money back. Instead, since he’s so impressed with how they handled that job, he wants Barney and his crew to do a job for him. He wants them to retrieve an incriminating letter from a safety deposit box... by 4PM that day! If they fail, then Barney can forget about ever seeing his “partner” alive again. Wherever they were vacationing, it must have been pretty near the rest of the team (in fact, it’s clearly L.A.), because Barney manages to gather them all in record time. (Perhaps their snazzy new brown van helped.) It’s great to get to see Barney lead a mission briefing for once in Jim’s absence as they concoct a plan to penetrate the bank with the safety deposit box. Barney’s plan isn’t bad, either, involving as much techno-chicanery as any of Jim’s (if not as many masks). In one inspired bit, Casey fakes an asthma attack to divert a bank teller’s attention, then injects something into the lock of a safety deposit box to create a clear plastic duplicate of the key! Besides asthma attacks, the plan also calls for Casey to do a lot of freaking out (which she’s pretty good at) and a lot of key-making (which isn’t really all that exciting on screen).

Jim’s overall absence from the plot makes “Kidnap!” a good choice for Graves to direct, but his character isn’t entirely idle. Back in captivity, Jim does his best to escape, accompanied by some particularly cool and jazzy music. (There’s a lot of that in this episode.) Graves, in fact, proves surprisingly limber, extricating himself from his handcuffs via contortionism. He even has to repeat the elaborate process several times to return to his initial pose whenever his captor comes to check on him, leading me to wonder if perhaps the whole episode was concocted to show off Graves’ limberness?

In my favorite sort of Mission: Impossible ending, Peter Lupus saves the day. He also has to chase down and pummel a Syndicate purse-snatcher (yes, there’s a reason for that) prior to the impressively fiery finale. Of course, the problem with doing a sequel episode like this is that it belies one of the show’s primary conceits, at the same time exposing an inherent flaw in the late-season premise. If one gangster remembers Jim and Barney from a con they pulled, what’s to stop every gangster from remembering–especially every gangster in Los Angeles? You can’t go ripping off every Syndicate man in the city without word getting out of who you are–or at least what you look like. As soon as you acknowledge that the gangsters are capable of recognizing Jim, most of the final two seasons’ plots fall right apart. Oh well. Since it’s a TV show, we’ll chalk that up to willing suspension of disbelief.

“Crack-Up” might well feature my new favorite tape recorder scene ever. (Which is why that one for “Two Thousand” was relegated to second place.) Jim pulls up in his big blue boat of a car and parks it right outside the Mark Taper Forum in downtown L.A. (you can’t do that today!), then walks up to a guy working on his hog right in front of the fountain (or that!).

What’s most amazing here, though, is Jim’s sport coat, which trumpets new dimensions of loud. Not content with a mere labyrinthine print, the intrepid designer decided to add a broad red grid on top of that... and then Jim decided to wear it, along with some of those giant rectangular sunglasses he favors so much. Then he decided to stand behind the hog, in front of the fountain, surely providing the iconic image of 1970s Mission: Impossible! Let us bask in that for a moment.

Maybe the defining moment of the entire Seventies, period
Okay, enough of that madness. On to the plot! Taking a page out of From Russia With Love, a chess grandmaster called Cordel (and played by Alex Cord) moonlights as an assassin. As usual, “conventional law enforcement” (pawns!) can’t touch him, so that means it’s up to Barney to help Jim cheat at another game. To that end, IMF’s resident electronics expert has the chess arena (well, it’s basically just a big room, but I like the ring of “chess arena”) rigged with cameras, and gives Jim glasses with a two-way radio. “The receiver is a highly-sensitive bone conduction device. The signal can only be heard by the person wearing them,” he tells him. “And the computer will be able to solve any chess problem within a few seconds.” Aha! So the ultimate man-vs-machine chess match actually occurred decades before Kasparov! (Or Watson.) Only it played out in secret. What a shame.

The woman of the week this time is Sandy, played by Marlyn Mason. She’s quite good in a thankless role, but I miss Mimi. A drug expert named Dr. Adler is also helping out, so there are a lot of strangers in Jim’s apartment for the briefing. I wish we’d gotten one of those old-fashioned team selection scenes to introduce all these new faces, but sadly those days are over and done and apparently there’s no going back.

The plan calls for quite a lot of gadgets on hand for Jim’s showdown with Cordel at the Mid-Town Chess Club. Besides that bone transmitter and the cameras and computer, Jim also has a ring that squirts a liquid that will make Cordel susceptible to hypnosis, and squirts it on one of his chessmen. The match itself plays out as a classic spy confrontation over the gaming tables, and I love that Jim is cheating! John Steed and James Bond would be proud.

Meanwhile there’s a Syndicate man called Leslie Harper coming to town. In the old days, the team would have made a Leslie Harper mask for someone, but this time Willy and Barney just straight-up beat up the real Leslie Harper (a rare occurrence) and since Cordel only knows the name and not the gender, the IMF gives Harper a last-minute sex change and Sandy slips into his shoes. (Not literally. She wears heels; he wears flats.)

There’s lots more trickery to come (including Jim using a flame to hypnotize the pre-treated Cordel) and shag carpet and a whole scene shot in a convex mirror—the kind of Seventies touch I absolutely adore. As is often the case with these plots, it seems like it would have been much simpler to just ask Cordel who his boss was while he was hypnotized rather than using the hypnosis as the basis for an elaborate (and no doubt expensive) frame-up, but that’s not how Jim’s mind works. In fact, you have to wonder if he hasn’t got a touch of sadism running through him. The IMF team’s tricks are so nasty that we actually sympathize with this cold-blooded killer by the time he thinks he’s murdered his own brother and is going insane! (And Cordel’s a much nastier customer than Robert Conrad’s tragic gangster in “Break!”)

Speaking of mean cons, “Incarnate” is yet another spin on the old “play on someone’s belief in the supernatural” con, complete with yet another phony psychic (Barney this time, sporting a perplexing Caribbean accent that sounds more Indian than anything), but it’s well done and a whole lot of fun. I like the Caribbean setting (even if it’s really just a neat-looking plantation-style house somewhere in the wilds of Burbank–and one that I think they’ve used before on Mission: Impossible) and I like the voodoo theme (six months before Bond encountered it in Live and Let Die) and I like that Jim pulled out his old purple striped shirt from Season 6's "The Connection" again to play another pilot. (That seems to be his pilot shirt. Or pilot/Frenchman shirt.) The basic setup is that the team goes after a tough female gangster who’s stolen a fortune in gold and then fled to a non-extradition island nation. The tape recording tells Jim his mission is to lure her back to United States soil “of her own free will” because suddenly the IMF has scruples about kidnapping people in other countries. I’m not sure that the upshot of Jim’s not-that-elaborate plan really qualifies as “her own free will,” but it does involve a voodoo dance ceremony (with Barney playing the high priest, of course), faked deaths and the projected “electrographic” ghost of the son she murdered. Despite the big dance number, this episode appears to have been filmed on the cheap, confined mainly to the single house location. That frugality inspires the production team (and Jim’s team, for that matter) to be especially creative, though (even if we’re robbed of seeing Jim fly his plane at the end–or even seeing the plane!), and makes for good television.

“The Question” boasts the best premise of the season–and it’s a tried and true one in the spy genre. Jim and his team are assigned by the voice on the tape to authenticate a potential defector. The defector is Nicholas Varsi (a bulked-up Gary Lockwood–sporting the worst hair of his career), a KGB (strike that; "KGN") assassin who’s cagey about giving up too much information to his captors at the FIS (that’s Federal Intelligence Service for those who are more used to acronyms like CIA and FBI). Complicating matters further, it seems that one of his FIS interrogators may be a deep cover mole for the KGN. Therefore, the IMF squad must first bust him out of the FIS interrogation facility, then pull their usual sort of con to force this cool customer into revealing his true intentions. Casey’s back in Europe (where she conveniently inFILtrated the KGN’s European branch, according to Jim’s oddly emphatic pronunciation), so the team is working with fill-in female agent Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley), whose special talent is encasing herself in head-to-toe bleach-spattered denim.


FASHION ALERT: Andrea’s bleach-spattered head-to-toe denim outfit–shockingly fahsion-forward for the 1970s, as I tend to think of bleached denim as an 80s trend
The plan calls for the IMF agents to pose as KGN agents posing as cops to kidnap Varsi from the FIS, then interrogate him anew as if from his own side. They try to force him to kill Andrea, who they say is an FIS agent, and he passes the test by pulling the trigger. Of course, the gun is loaded with blanks. That’s all in the first act. Subsequent details are hazier, but they involve a lock pick played by the same odd doohickey that played a dart gun in “Crack-Up,” an old-school rubber face mask (not so much in fashion this season), multiple bugs and bug-detectors, a sniper rifle, an assassination attempt and Jim climbing a building. You can tell it’s Jim even though you can't see his face because of the brief flash of pink and purple and black-with-white-polka-dots lining inside his coat as it billows out; only Seventies-era Jim Phelps would wear that!

The ending actually managed to surprise me, capping one of the best episodes in a surprisingly strong season. And the season’s strength isn’t solely based on new ideas, either. Like a Time Out of Mind-era Bob Dylan concert, besides these bouts of unsuspected late-game inspiration, Season 7 also pulls out lots of “Greatest Hits” material.
Like “Two Thousand” and “Incarnate,” “The Fountain” revisits an old favorite premise. Whenever you see someone on Mission: Impossible with seemingly unnecessary old age makeup as bad as George Maharis’s in “The Fountain,” you know that they’re going to be conned by the team into believing they’re younger at some point, as befell William Shatner in the Season 6 classic “Encore.” (Especially when the episode is called “The Fountain.”) Maharis plays runaway Syndicate man Thomas Bachman, and he’s being pursued by rival Syndicate man Matthew Drake (Cameron Mitchell, filling this episode up with big-name, past-it guest stars), who he made the mistake of maiming but not killing when he fled the Syndicate with a briefcase full of incriminating evidence. Of course, Jim’s mission if he chooses to accept it is to recover that evidence on behalf of conventional law enforcement before Drake can collect it or Bachman can sell it back to the Syndicate. In typical Jim fashion, he decides to do that the easy way: by having Barney pose as Bachman’s getaway pilot in Mexico, then staging a plane crash in the middle of the jungle near a mansion where a New Age cult (the Fellowship of the Golden Circle) of white-robed kooks keeps forever young with the aid of the Fountain of Youth (an elaborate Seventies water feature). As you do.

Joining the regular group of agents for this escapade (and continuing the long tradition of cat agents and dog agents) is a raccoon, although sadly since the show has long since done away with the team selection sequence, we don’t get to see Jim choosing its photograph. The subsequent indelible image “The Fountain” leaves behind is that of the raccoon crawling on Willy’s shoulders and head while he dons flowing white cultwear. (Or maybe it’s shirtless Willy pumping iron as Jim walks in on him wearing a dress. You don’t see that every day.)

For some reason once Drake (playing the obligatory fly in the ointment–or is Jim banking on his utterly illogical behavior?) learns that Bachman left Mexico in a plane heading for the United States, he decides to focus his search on the ground in Mexico, even though he admits that it’s a “one in ten-thousand chance.” Huh. Of course he’s right, but what made him take those odds? No matter, they pay off when he discovers the plane wreckage the IMF set up. When the gangsters encounter the peaceful cultists, this ploy will call upon the strangest maskwork the IMF has ever had to pull off–a rubber mask designed to age Casey by 100 years!

Sadly, I’m sorry to report that after “The Fountain,” things are pretty much downhill till the end as Mission: Impossible’s seven-year fuse simply fizzles out rather than exploding. That means that the bulk of the last two discs in the set are pretty tepid filler. I’d recommend that completists mix them in amidst the earlier episodes, and save a real treat like “The Question” or “Cocaine” for last so you’re not left with the likes of “Speed.”

I honestly expected more out of an episode that has Casey going undercover as a motorcycle-racing speed freak (in both senses of the term), but “Speed” is a pretty dull episode, only spiced up by some great San Francisco locations that make a nice change of scenery from the usual L.A./Paramount lot settings we’ve seen a trillion times by now. It’s also odd that an episode ostensibly a showcase for Casey doesn’t end up featuring Lynda Day George that much at all. This is another pregnancy cover-up episode, you see, and by putting on a mask, she conveniently turns into another actress (Jenny Sullivan as Margaret, the methamphetamine-addled daughter of a Syndicate man) for the majority of the running time. On the plus side (maybe?), Barney has his mustache again. (This episode was filmed very early on even if it aired near the end of the season.) Yeah, I admit, I’m grasping at straws.

Jim is supposed to be a motorcycle-riding pal of Margaret’s (a twenty-something girl), introduced to her drug dealer father as a maybe lover. Now that's kind of creepy. I can’t think of anyone screaming “cop” more in those circumstances than silver-haired Peter Graves! The real Margaret’s boyfriend, meanwhile, a lowlife named Zinco, wears the purple-and-black striped shirt that Jim usually wears undercover in these circumstances. If I were Jim, I’d be pissed about that. The only other point really worth noting about “Speed” is that, symptomatic of a clearly discernable—and disappointing—trend this season, it’s more violent than usual; in one scene, Jim viciously beats a thug within an inch of his life. Yes, it’s part of the plan, but the victim’s not in on it. The whole thing seems a little out of character for Jim Phelps. Also, Barney and Willy each kill some bad guys in a shootout at the end. I’d call that a rarity, but by the end of Season 7 maybe it isn’t so much anymore.

From the setup for “The Fighter,” which exactly mirrors that of Season 6's “Blues” (“Movie” only sort of mirrored it), I was hoping we’d see Willy undercover as a boxer the way Barney sang in “Blues.” No such luck. It just recycles the same dynamic between oily Syndicate hoods, and a guest star playing a young fighter gets duped into playing the Barney instead. Yawn. As a Peter Lupus fan, I’m disappointed at the squandered opportunity to really take advantage of his athletic prowess. There’s still a pretty decent car/motorcycle chase, but overall you’ll be much more entertained sticking with the original “Blues” instead of this less entertaining retread.

“The Pendulum” also should have been so much better than it is. A SPECTRE-like group called The Pendulum has a plan to take over the U.S. Army by means of an assassination plot that involves a plastic surgerized double taking the place of a top-ranking general. Naturally, it’s the team’s job to stop it. Throw in a villain named “Gunnar Malstrom” (Dean Stockwell) and a base clearly designed by a crazy modernist architect channeling Ken Adam, and we’re really in much James Bondier territory than usual. There’s also a good snag that must have happened before sometime, but if it did I can’t recall the moment off the top of my head: an IMF agent wearing a mask unintentionally runs into the actual person he’s impersonating! (That’s what I call a “Small world! You’re a Toro too.” situation.) It’s got all these great elements, but for some reason they don’t gel the way they should. Ultimately, “The Pendulum” is not a very exciting episode, though we do get to see Jim yell, “Everybody get down! It’s a bomb!” while he hurls a briefcase through a window. (Cut to: a wide exterior that doesn’t quite match up of a briefcase flying through a window. Cut to: an unrelated explosion.)

The thing you’ll remember from this episode is that awesome building, which actually houses the fake Evil Organization that Jim and Barney set up instead of the real Evil Organization. This upside-down cubist pyramid is clearly not a Paramount soundstage! (I imagine it is somewhere in Southern California, though, and I’d love to know where. Anyone?) Still, as cool as it is, it’s purely an exterior location used in a few establishing shots. Nobody gets to scale it, Tom Cruise-style. A particularly out-of-shape thug does manage to break in, though (off camera), despite all the impressive security the facility seems to boast. Come to think of it, it must have cost the American taxpayers quite a lot of money to staff this huge “secure” facility, all for the sake of a con! The hugeness of the building would also seem to work against Jim’s plan, but somehow the team is able to predict exactly which room their mark will sneak into when set loose in that whole giant place, and it’s an auditorium where they’ve got Willy set up giving a great Blofeld presentation on world domination. I know, I know: it all sounds like a lot of fun, but it really just isn’t. I don’t think anyone’s heart was in this one.

“The Western” is another pretty sub-par episode. A guy stole some treasures from a Mexican museum so Jim and the gang use skeleton masks and a whirlpool to make him think he’s got second sight, then fake an earthquake. Yeah, it all makes some kind of sense in context–maybe even a little too much. It’s terribly rote, but still not without its highlights. Said highlights include the aforementioned skeleton mask (causing the mark to believe he saw Death’s Head on a stranger right before the stranger got hit by a truck and died) and Jim and Barney in an Old West shootout in a bona fide Western ghost town. Overall, though, it’s pretty snoozy stuff.

FASHION ALERT: It's wide and it's pink, but at least it ain't mesh...
Which brings us to “Imitation,” in which one of the greatest and longest-running spy series of all time goes out with a whimper instead of a bang. “Imitation” wasn’t actually filmed last, but it did air last—and it feels like a burn-off. It’s Barney-centric, which is usually a good thing (and does afford us some enjoyably objectionable Barney fashions), but to the point of being pretty much a Barney solo show, which doesn’t seem appropriate for the series finale. Worse still, there’s very little Jim. The plot is a standard heist scheme involving some crown jewels and the usual switcheroos that inevitably accompany such MacGuffins. The only real redeeming factor is the femme fatale antagonist. Jena Cole is an interesting character, a master thief who’s been fighting for herself since childhood, her sole driving force an instinct to survive. Naturally, Barney’s got mixed feelings about taking her down. (It doesn’t hurt that’s she’s beautiful as well.) If “Imitation” had come in the middle of a season, I probably would have liked it a lot more. But as a finale, it’s pretty lackluster.

FASHION ALERT: This thug in pink mesh has Barney beat
While it’s true that the last several episodes are duds, and that (to just pound this metaphor into the ground because I find it irresistible) the original Mission: Impossible fuse ultimately fizzles out rather than igniting in a spectacular finale, I simply refuse to write off a season that also included “Two Thousand,” “The Question” and “Kidnap!” based on a weak last lap. Despite these final failures, I still contend that Mission: Impossible never jumped the shark. That slump was nothing more than a rough patch. Who knows what the writers would have come back with in an eighth season? (Actually, Patrick J. White’s essential Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier offers some intriguing hints, including the return of Robert Conrad’s supposedly dead assassin Lorca from “The Killer” and the physical introduction of the head of the IMF!) Mission: Impossible - The Final TV Season is a worthy companion to its predecessors–and a worthy addition to any spy library. I have no regrets. It was well worth stretching out this final season. And now, though I’ve stretched out the seventh season for more than a year (and then sat on this review for nearly another year after that, daunted by the prospect of so many screengrabs), I am still sad that I have no more classic Mission: Impossible to look forward to.

In many ways, this whole blog has been about my growth as a Mission: Impossible fan. As I mentioned in my introduction to this review, I approached these DVDs with a pre-existing fandom, but not a real knowledge of the show. Thanks to Paramount’s regular DVD releases, I’ve been able to happily rectify that. It was a thrill to discover each season as it came out—and to discover that the quality never, in fact, dropped, as it was widely rumored to do. It’s the only long-running spy show for which I’ve reviewed every single season, and some of those reviews have been not only among my lengthiest and most popular posts, but also my own personal favorites. Discovering new favorite spy series—and sharing those discoveries—is one of the main reasons I started this blog to begin with. And now, after watching all seven seasons, I can say categorically that Mission: Impossible is one of my favorites—probably my second favorite Sixties spy series after The Avengers.

Looking back at all seven reviews, I’m more grateful than ever to the new accessibility to old TV shows afforded by the advent of DVD. Of course, in the same time frame, that format has more or less run its course. But before DVD, there was no good, affordable medium on which classic TV series could be preserved and made widely available. New media offers the same sort of access, and as of this writing, all seven seasons of Mission: Impossible are available streaming from Netflix, which is great. But, personally, I’m glad to have them all in my very own collection on a tangible medium, available to re-watch whenever I want. And I will re-watch them a lot. I cannot recommend these DVD sets highly enough.


More Missions:
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season here.
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.

9 comments:

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

Tanner! I don't know where to start! The seventh season is my favorite of the entire run--I'm the only M:I fan I know who prefers The Syndicate Years--even if I consider "The Fountain" the very worst episode of the whole series.

But since I'm such a HUGE fan of Greg Morris--Barney's my favorite IMFer--I'll offer some thoughts to some of what you wrote; another great and hilariously accurate job. Glad I'm not appalled/fascinated by early '70s fashions, too!

"Hit" has one of Greg Morris' greatest line utterances, the legendary, "Nobody uses me, man." It's a great showcase for Greg Morris, as he plays hard-as-nails convict Carl Blaney to the hilt. This role finds Barney at his dragged-out "Maaaan" best! He gets some great scenes with Peter Lupus when Willy and Barney are jawing at one another in the prison yard. Later, Willy taunts Sam Dexter's goons and does a face shove on one of them. Barney-as-Blaney proceeds to kick the shit out of Willy, and is so cool that he (and his stunt double!) keeps his cigarillo in his mouth while doing so!

Movie: This one is great for Greg's L'Enfant terrible auteur filmmaker scene where he has a tantrum--it's not a "breakdown"--like someone with an "artistic temperament" might have--but was intentionally amusing because it was a lampoon of such Hollywood types (like Christian Bale). I also liked Morris' channeling of Roscoe Lee Browne's sophisticated speaking style in that role.

Boomerang Morris-as-Barney plays a corrupt police lieutenant who tries to blackmail Laraine Stephens' character, who murdered her Syndicate husband for money. There's a scene in a morgue where Morris does a sinister laugh out of the side of his mouth. He just oozes nastiness in his few scenes.

The Puppet Morris is undercover as "Holt", a chef hired by Syndicate man Leo Ostro (Roddy McDowell) to care for Ostro's brother. There's a fun scene where McDowell asks Morris if he can cook Russian cousine. Barney-as-Holt confodently responds: Pre or post revolution, sir?"

However, the best bit is when Barney must stand still after the suspicious Ostro makes Barney drink the beverage that has a heart-attack-simulating drug in it. Barney stands still and after a minute, is finally dismissed. I like how Morris hauls ass around the corner to get to the antidote. Morrisian brilliance once again.

Simes said...

It must take ages to write these reviews! Excellent job.

I've got vols 4,5, and 6 and have been holding off on getting 7 although in the light of your review I ordered it yesterday from amazon.co.uk :-)

When I was a kid, the ones that were showing in the UK were the ones from the Nimoy era and later....and these are the ones I most enjoy.

I've only seen the first three seasons through tv re-runs and then only occasional episodes. Alas, I'm no fan of Barbara Bain (in anything she's ever done...sorry Barbara...!) and - unbelievable as it may be to many - I'm no fan of Bain OR Landau together in this series! Reading the reviews, I may pickup the DVDs of the first three seasons at some point, although its in no way imminent.

Amusing to see the sylistic changes in things like music scores and fashions (and even dialogue) throughout the run of the series. And despite occasioanl clinkers, the standard of clever plots or offbeat stories was generally maintained through the run of the show.

Again - splendid and well written reviews!

Bob said...

Ah, the 70's fashions. Regarding your first picture of Peter Graves, I remember seeing the pattern of his sportcoat on the hallway carpeting of a Ramada Inn!!!!

Armstrong Sabian said...

I have to admit I've never watched more than a single episode of Mission: Impossible. But...

"Mission: Impossible are available streaming from Netflix"

WHAT????

I'll get on this right away.

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

The library seen in "Pendulum" is the Geisel Library at the University of California of San Diego:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geisel_Library

kelli.nnz said...

Terrific review, very detailed and thorough.

ANY episode of "Mission: Impossible" is a million times better than any of those beyond lame Tom Cruise flicks. How he was able to successfully sabatoge the format of the show for his own ego continues to astound me.

Thank God for the series, and those of us who continue to keep its memory alive.

Stu said...

KHAN!!!!!!!!!

erynnar said...

Tanner, just found your excellent blog after doing some research while streaming IMF on Netflicks. I think you'll find the upside down pyramid building in season seven is the The Geisel Library building of the University of California, La Jolla, San Diego, California, designed by William L. Pereira & Associates, completed in 1970. Ignore this if someone one already found and told you. Great reviews from another fan! Thanks so much!

Tanner said...

Thanks, erynnar! Someone else had mentioned that in a comment, but yours reminds me that I still haven't sought it out for myself! I'll be down in SD next month for Comic-Con, and I should plan a side trip, because that's one cool building! It's a pity it wasn't a bit better used. Oh well.

And thanks for your kind remarks! I'm glad you've found my blog, and I hope you'll poke around and check back. Welcome!