Sep 25, 2008

DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season

DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season

With the loss of starring spouses Martin Landau and Barbara Bain due to contract disputes and a shakeup in leadership behind the camera, I approached Season 4 of Mission: Impossible with some trepidation. I was especially ambivalent about the absence of Martin Landau, who, despite the crucial, magnetic presence of Peter Graves (as team leader Jim Phelps) and Steven Hill before him, I had always viewed as the true star–and heart–of the show. Landau’s Rollin Hand got all the showiest "roles," slipping easily into varied disguises and personalities as each mission dictated. As it turned out, though, Leonard Nimoy proved a completely adequate replacement for Landau, so much so that I never really missed Rollin. Nimoy imbues his character, "Paris the Great" (ostensibly a magician, although that line of work only comes into play in one episode), with spirit and charisma, giving his all and eagerly diving into a succession of roles week after week with a gusto equal to Landau’s.

It turns out Barbara Bain actually left a larger hole in the cast. Bain took a while to grow on me, but eventually she did, and I came to appreciate her even more in her absence. The producers didn’t hire a permanent replacement (which was a mistake), so we’re left with a rotating succession of female agents in her stead. The only one who seems truly capable of filling Bain’s shoes is Honey West herself, Anne Francis, but she only gets a single episode. Lee Meriwether fills in the most, but never really gets much to do. Still, aside from the notable lack of a female lead, Season 4 does a remarkable job of maintaining the overall quality of the previous three seasons. This is still top-notch spy TV, though viewers will quickly tire of the Paramount backlot, which gets even more use than it did before, somewhat diminishing the mystique of international intrigue. (The plus side is, every time I’m on that lot, I feel like I’m an IMF agent on assignment behind the surprisingly Californian Iron Curtain, which is a pretty cool feeling...)

In the season premiere, "The Code," the lot stands in for the Cuba-like Central American nation of San Cristobel. I don’t think one has to know the Paramount lot well in order to realize that many shots don’t even match up! One moment, a car is driving on a well-foliated park road, the next it’s passing through the famous Paramount Bronson Gate (too recognizable a landmark to successfully play a dictator’s compound), with no trees in sight. They don’t even bother to clear a golf cart (used for easy transportation from soundstage to soundstage) off the set! I guess it makes things look more exotic.

Being in Central America, Paris’s very first disguise requires him to sport a bushy Castro beard. He sure doesn’t waste any time! And, believe me, Leonard Nimoy with a Castro beard is an asset to any season premiere. It’s a sight worth seeing. Furthermore, Barney gets too play with a cool toy: a little remote control car with a camera mounted on it that scoots through tubes of some sort in the walls of a building. And the special guest female agent, Alexandra Hay, is quite attractive, even if she’s underused (typical for the women this season). So despite the lack of scenery, the kickoff has a lot going for it even before you add cool 1969 camera angles and the strange sort of camera movements the show is known for. (It must have been the 24 of its day.) We’re off to a good start.

Even though the IMF has never been squeamish about sending villains to their doom (they did it in the series’ very first episode), they seem particularly cold-hearted in Season 4, and Phelps sets that tone in the coda of "The Code." The mission results in one of two conspirators (and national leaders, no less, albeit of a dangerously leftward persuasion) firing at another. Jim comments emotionlessly, "The mission is a success." But who fired? Jim responds to that inquiry by saying, "What difference does it make?" That’s cold! Especially for the hero of a Sixties TV series! But it’s a streak that continues throughout the season. Perhaps broadcast standards were relaxing a bit heading into the 1970s, but it seems to me that the team goes especially hard on its rogues’ gallery of thugs, dictators, Commies and racketeers this year.

We may be off to a good start, but it isn’t long before Jim and his team are already falling back on another variation of the "make someone believe it’s WWIII" scam they’ve pulled successfully before. The victim in "Numbers Game" strives to count himself among the dictator set of the IMF’s enemies. Our guys need to convince this would-be ruler (plotting to reclaim his now independent European country) that war has broken out in order to get him to give up a vital Swiss bank account number. Yawn. Same old, same old. This episode reeks of "been there, done that," but doesn’t manage to do it as well as it’s been done before–or would be again, for that matter, in this season’s far superior "The Submarine."
The doomsday scenario is even more pointless than usual, because it turns out all they’re really setting up is a situation where the general is desperate to trade his account number for Penicillin! Surely there were easier ways to bring such circumstances about. Jim needs a lot of extras to play soldier for this plan to work, so he recruits the entire "Hartford Repertory Company" during the standard "selecting the team" moment. Yet all these amateur players are perfectly adept at pulling cons in the middle of Europe. It’s tenuous moments like this that threaten to bring the entire series toppling by exposing the inherent lameness of the premise. Even though all the members of Jim’s team–including the regulars–are supposed to be ordinary citizens with jobs like electrician, magician or strongman, none of them act like it. They all behave like professional spies! Luckily, the show is usually good enough that you forget that shaky foundation and it doesn’t much matter. Not so in this episode. Lee Meriwether briefly livens things up posing as a nurse, but, once again, the "woman of the week" doesn’t get much to do. Despite the weak script, the whole thing is at least well-executed, offering up some good off-lot locations like the bay where Jim collects his briefing tape and the bridge the team eventually crosses to leave the country.

Season finale "The Martyr" is another bad one, but manages to be much more fun than the tired "Numbers Game" in the process. To combat pressure from "their country’s young people," an Eastern European dictator wants to use the Youth Congress to spread his wicked ways. There’s good use of stock footage to create the Eastern Bloc country this time, and even to fill its streets with youthful demonstrators. But it’s more dated than most Missions by its failed attempts to delve into the hippy culture and fashions of the time (even behind the Iron Curtain, I guess). Where the episode really falls apart is in having us believe that Paris and Barney could actually pose as "youth leaders." Nimoy was pushing forty at the time, and looks it! It’s laugh-out-loud ridiculous to see him playing a student.

Barney actually looks good in his motorcycle-riding "youth" costume, but he can’t pull off lines like, "Say, baby, what’s botherin’ you?" and "If you don’t like it here, split, you dig?" and "Oh, this is funky, man. Real funky."

In addition to criminal overuse of the word "youth" and variations thereof, we’re even treated to a youthful "happening" so full of Hollywood’s version of hippydom it would seem more at home on Hawaii Five-O. This culminates in a horrible, horrible rendition of Bob Dylan’s seminal Sixties anthem "The Times They Are A-Changin’" courtesy of IMF "lady guest star" Lynn Kellogg (an actual folk singer).

It’s really, really horrible. Just awful. Truly.

It’s also about seven years too late. Mission: Impossible was never on the cusp of popular culture, but then again it didn’t usually try to be. As long as they avoided such contemporary gimmicks, they managed to create timeless episodes. Not so with "The Martyr."

But the episode has a lot of good things to offer as well, making it a tricky paradox. There’s a very good spy plot going on amidst all this youthful exuberance, and it owes a lot to John Le Carré. The IMF creatively uses a double agent to make their enemies believe what they want them to. And those enemies–both the Boris Yeltsin-looking Premiere and his curly-haired chief of secret police (the usual duo)–are particularly wonderful villains, among the season’s best. Jim is programmed to withstand hypnosis and truth drugs, and even has a chip implanted in his ear so Barney can talk to him. All this adds up to an impressively intricate triple-blind dupe, the sort of con you always want out of Mission: Impossible. And even that awful rendering of "The Times They Are A-Changin’" is used very effectively at the end over footage of student protesters believably cut in with shots of the Premiere shouting from his podium. "The Martyr" embodies the best and the worst of the season, but unlike in "The Numbers Game," both are enjoyable. The espionage is top-notch, and I do get a Jason King-like kick out of seeing Paris lead a Youth Congress. But did I mention how badly that Dylan song gets butchered?

Fortunately, most of the fourth season is better than all that. Even a three-part episode manages not to drag too much (and also affords Meriwether her biggest role, and Paris the chance to do magic). And episodes like "Double Circle" and "The Submarine" are among the very best of the series so far.

In the former, the team’s object is to retrieve a stolen rocket fuel formula from an impenetrable safe belonging to a notorious secrets broker named Victor Laszlo (yes, writer Jerry Ludwig got a little cute with his naming). Their elaborate plot to pull it off involves building a duplicate of Laszlo’s apartment on the floor underneath his, rewiring his security camera to show their duplicate apartment, and erecting a false wall in his own apartment, concealing the real safe at a crucial moment, Inside Man-style. It’s all so complicated that I don’t think I could explain exactly how they pull it off–or even say if it really works–but that doesn’t matter because the episode is so slick that I didn’t even find myself wondering while watching.
What makes this a particularly exemplary episode is the fact that every member of the team has a very specific role to play, utilising their own unique skill set in a way that contributes to the overall whole. So often one team member doesn’t get to pitch in, or is asked to serve a function other than his or her primary one. Not so here. Willy even gets to use his strongman skills and lift up the huge false wall so that Barney can get out from behind it! (Rarely do the plots actually call for a strongman, causing the producer's to rethink Peter Lupus's role the following year.) Paris makes such use of his mastery of disguise that Nimoy gets to sit most of this one out, with another actor playing the role. Barney gets to be the techie he’s meant to be, plugging and unplugging XLR cables with the gravity of someone defusing a bomb. It’s a real credit to Greg Morris that he can do this stuff again and again, episode after episode, and still make it both convincing and suspenseful every time. Finally, Anne Francis’s Gilligan gets the best Barbara Bain part since Barbara Bain. Her role (and haircut) is the same one that Cinnamon usually found herself in, as an undercover operative reliant on her looks and charm to obfuscate her true objectives. Gilligan is the best written female role of the season, perhaps because it’s written like Cinnamon. On top of that (as I mentioned before), Francis is the best guest actress of the season, and the combination is a winner. She demonstrates admirably that she could have filled Barbara Bain’s platforms better than anyone–and looked even better than Bain in the process. It’s a tragedy that the producers apparently didn’t see this, and Francis never returned. She clearly should have been a regular.

On top of the team clicking so well, we’re also treated to a great villain in Laszlo. Guest star James Patterson plays the role so well (adding a fey "dear boy" to every order he gives) that he should have been named after a different Bogie foil: Kasper Gutman. I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for him when the IMF set him up for another one of the season’s typically violent ends. In an episode that represents all the aspects of the show working together so well, it’s appropriate that Paris (while disguised as Laszlo) gets a line which neatly summarizes the premise of the entire series: "People see what they expect to see." Paris may only get to perform magic in one episode, but the whole team performs masterful slight of hand week after week. I think that Brian De Palma and David Koepp may have been referencing "Double Circle" in the opening moments of their 1996 Mission: Impossible movie, which would make sense as it’s so representative. After that initial scene, the film (and its sequels) would stray far from familiar series territory.

"The Submarine" is another prototypical Mission: Impossible episode. (So much so that the producers of the 80s revival saw fit to remake it–in a ploy to shoot "new" programming despite an ongoing writers' strike!) The premise of making someone believe they’re being transported in some sort of vehicle isn’t new for the series (they did it in Season 3 with a truck in "The Exchange"), but it’s so well executed here that that hardly matters. This time, they kidnap a Nazi war criminal from his own Iron Curtain captors, and trick him into believing he’s being secreted away by his compatriots aboard a U-Boat. In reality he’s still in the same Eastern Bloc neighborhood where he was being held by the other side. (The neighborhood is, of course, the familiar Paramount lot, and the general who orders his men to sweep the city might as well have ordered them to "Check every sound stage on the lot!") The IMF team manages to assemble a very elaborate submarine set in the middle of this Eastern republic: it’s even set up on a rig to simulate motion, diving and being hit with depth charges. The plotline is pretty predictable, but the execution is flawless. And the reaction from the old Nazi when he realizes what’s happened is priceless.

"Robot" is a complicated tale about doubles and doubles of doubles and mechanical doubles of doubles with a pseudo sci-fi twist. In a rare moment of hilarity in a generally pretty somber series, Jim and Paris film a fake demo reel of themselves as a novelty act with Paris pretending to be a robotic man. As planned, this captures the attention of a Communist-leaning general plotting a coup, and he pressures them into creating a robot of the Western-friendly Premiere to make a speech bequeathing power to him. Of course, the "robot" they create ends up having a bit more free will than the general counted on... This plot has it all. In addition to a fantastically tense scene of Barney breaking into a cell inside a jail–with the guard watching him–we get masks, doubles, fake robots, mechanical hands; you name it! The fake-outs and double fake-outs are so complicated this time that they might be a little silly, but they’re still wonderful. They’re exactly what I expect out of this show.

"Phantoms" is another episode that plays up the technology to an almost sci-fi degree–and another one that sets up yet another Eastern European dictator for a fall. It’s cool, though. The team sets up a fake television interview, blinding the dictator with really powerful lights. In that moment, they switch his glasses for specially treated infra-red ones. They then use an infra-red projector (hidden in a book) to broadcast "ghosts" on his wall that only he can see: the ghosts of those he’s ordered killed, including family members. The ghost trick is only the capper to a much more elaborate con, but it’s a great capper. The con itself is pretty good too–except for a rather unbelievable bit of mask business that requires Paris once again to play a man much, much younger than himself.

Lee Merriwether gets her meatiest role of the season posing as Jim’s philandering wife in "Fool’s Gold," but it’s still not much of a role. Her goal is to set herself up for blackmail, but the stakes aren’t that high as all of the characters involved in the blackmail scenario are creations of the IMF, and not real people. It’s still a decent episode, though, with Paris posing as a professional counterfeiter who lures the bad guy into a bigger and greedier scheme than he was initially planning, leading–of course–to his ruination. In addition to playing a part, Paris has to contend with a vault protected by soundwaves that can reduce a man to a vegetable.

"Chico" treats viewers to a somewhat lighter note, revisiting a premise from the second season with an animal team member. That time Phelps selected a cat, this time it’s a cute dog (named Chico, of course) to slightly lesser effect. But the episode is pretty strong overall, even if we’ve seen the animal agent thing done before. Jim and his team pit two rival South American drug barons against each other. Once again, they’re both good villains–and intelligent, too. From the first scene, it’s clear that Jim will have to be at the top of his game to put one over on these guys. Luckily, one of them is a collector of rare stamps, giving Paris his in, posing as an Australian sailor. (And he pulls it off better than Artemus Gordon did in Season 4 of The Wild Wild West!) Chico is such a well-trained dog that Barney’s able to train him to pick out one certain stamp from the whole collection (all part of the elaborate con), and he lowers him into the air conditioning ducts in a basket. (Yes, it’s cute.) There’s no way that viewers will ever think of "Chico" as anything but "the one with the dog," but it does have some very suspenseful moments, and a circuitous plot that holds up pretty well.

As with Season 3, Season 4 shakes up the formula a bit with a few more personal episodes focusing on the characters as more than just mannequins for masks. Just when Jim’s limited expressions of varying degrees of concern are starting to get a bit annoying, along comes a love story for Paris or Barney to distract you. Since the show’s formula demands that its characters remain unattached, any Mission: Impossible love story is bound to be a tragic one, but that makes them all the more interesting.

Paris gets his chance to show emotion in "Lover’s Knot." As with most of these more personal episodes, this one eschews the formulaic opening wherein Jim gets his mission (should he choose to accept it, at least). Instead, it opens with the murder that sets everything into motion. The team is already in place in England, undercover at the U.S. Embassy. Well-chosen scenery, good stock footage, a lack of studio shots and some real English actors (including Jane Merrow and Hitchcock favorite John Williams) all add up make the setting pretty convincing. Overall, it looks like more money went into this prestige episode than most.
The team’s mission, already in motion, is to expose "K," the top Eastern Bloc spy in London. K’s spy ring has already blackmailed, turned and even killed a few American diplomats, so Jim and Paris both position themselves as likely targets, with Paris getting himself pretty deep into gambling debts very quickly. Sure enough, the enemy moves in, in the form of lovely Lord’s wife Lady Cora Weston, played by Jane Merrow. She throws herself at both men, which serves their plan nicely, but toys with Paris’s heart as he develops real feelings for her. She may be a spy–and she may be married–but he’s convinced she’s as much of a pawn as he is in the Great Game.

This episode breaks the mold stylistically as well as formulaically. We’re treated to far more superimposition than usual in the form of two montages: a nifty gambling one as Paris loses oodles of money and a rather cheesy love montage, which finds him horseback riding and rowing with his lady love–all to some very stereotypical romantic music. (The lake they go rowing on is the one location that seems significantly more Southern California than England.)

Everything comes to a predictable but satisfying tragic conclusion, which borrows rather heavily from Ian Fleming. It’s a great finale, heartbreaking for Paris and rewarding for the audience. It’s nice to have an occasional emotional connection with characters who are normally so robotic and aloof. Once again, Jim plots things so tightly as to force K to suicide... but wouldn’t America have been better served by capturing such a notorious spymaster, and learning what he had to offer? Jim certainly has the opportunity, but seems to want to see K dead. The whole episode reminded me a lot of a Danger Man or a Saint, perhaps owing to the presence of Merrow (who was in both those series–as well as The Prisoner), but more likely owing to similar plots in similar settings on both of those shows as well.

Barney gets center stage for the first time in "Death Squad." He even gets a love interest: Alma (Cicely Tyson). Once more, there is no "your mission" opening, signifying another more personal episode. This one opens with Barney and Jim on vacation in Central America, where Barney is arrested for murder. It was an accident, of course, that came as a result of defending Alma. That seems like a bit of a cop-out to me; I think the premise would have been far more interesting had Barney been arrested for a murder he actually did commit, while on a mission instead of on vacation... but the Mission: Impossible wasn’t yet ready to intentionally tackle scenarios quite so morally ambiguous.

Unfortunately for Barney, the man he killed was a relative of the head of the banana republic’s secret police. Also unfortunately for him, the police chief runs a notorious death squad–and prefers his enemies to disappear forever rather than receive a fair trial. Jim mobilizes the team, and Paris and Willy show up fifteen minutes in. Working with Alma, they first attempt to mount a legal defense, but realizing that’s useless here, they instead do what they do best. This time, however, the stakes are higher than usual, because as in Season 3's "The Exchange," they’re playing for the life of one of their own.

Meanwhile, Barney’s far from idle on the inside. He makes a rather ingenious escape attempt, using his electronics skills to create his own soldering iron out of wires from a bedframe and a light fixture. His devotion to another wrongfully-sentenced inmate, however, makes the attempt a failure.

Luckily, his comrades have better luck. Willie gets to do an accent this time, pretending to be an Italian Interpol agent, Inspector Rinaldi, in a scheme appealing to the police captain’s sense of greed. He and the rest of the team manage to intervene at the very last moment, arranging a rather spectacular escape from the noose for Barney in an especially nail-biting finale. A great slower version of the standard "Mission: Accomplished" theme plays at the end, re-emphasizing that "Death Squad" wasn’t just business as usual.

I love these atypical, more personal episodes. When you have a show that’s so staunchly rooted in formula, it makes it all the more rewarding when that formula’s shaken up. "Lover’s Knot" and "Double Game" are the icing on the cake of another fantastic season of Mission: Impossible. Astoundingly, Season 4 manages to maintain the momentum of the excellent third season despite the loss of two stars. The lack of a strong, regular female team member keeps it from attaining quite those heights, but Paris is a more than adequate replacement for Rollin Hand, who’s loss I had expected to feel more strongly. One final note I should make about Paris, though: Nimoy brings a Roger Moore level of Seventies fashion to Mission: Impossible, including such Moore favorites as cravats and safari jackets. It’s a little jarring in a series that generally manages to appear fairly timeless (despite the odd attempt at cashing in on the "youth culture!"), but regular readers will no doubt be aware that I’m a sucker for Jason King duds, so I don’t mind it one bit. And appearance aside, his acting is top-notch.

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


chiops said...

I'm glad you posted this review, mate. Before now all I've heard is doom and gloom, but in spite of that I STILL bought the boxset. You have vindicated my choice to do so.


Tanner said...

Thanks, Chiops! I'm glad to validate your decision. I'd heard a lot of bad stuff going into it too, and that coupled with the loss of the Landaus had me expecting the worst... and (clearly) very pleasantly surprised with what I got! "The Martyr" gets ripped on a lot for obvious reasons, but even that I found quite enjoyable.

I am kind of dreading the move away from international intrigue in the syndicate years with Season 6, but I'm glad we've got another season that mixes in the espionage to look forward to. And maybe I'll find myself pleasantly surprised even by those later years, not having seen them.

Anyway, definitely give your set a watch!

Jeff Flugel said...

Great, in-depth review, Tanner!
I also bought the 4th season, mostly because of Nimoy's presence (always been a big fan). I must also admit to liking the concept of rotating actress of the week...most of my favorite eps from earlier M:I seasons were the ones with guest stars joining the regular IMF team. Like you, I respond well to episodes that shake up the formula. But maybe I'm just a contrarian...after all, I prefer Steven Hill to Peter Graves.

Thanks again for such a fun, detailed review!

Abe Lucas said...

I've been re-reading this review, Tanner, and it's one of your best! If you think "The Martyr" provided some good yuks, wait'll you get a load of the fifth season! I can't wait to read your review of that wonderfully dated early 70s "hip"! I know how much you love "The Persuaders!" and I know you'll get a kick out of the drastic (for M;I)stylistic departure! I didn't order S5 myself until recently because I wasn't ready to see Jim Phelps' crazy shades and outré suits, among many other things...