Apr 13, 2009

DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Fifth TV Season

We know right away to expect changes in Season 5 of Mission: Impossible, because the first episode, "The Killer," shockingly doesn’t open with the traditional shots of Jim retrieving his top secret tape recording. Instead, it opens with a teaser. There’s Jim West himself, Robert Conrad, playing a modern-day toughie complete with a tough tattoo. Behind him, his girlfriend dances feverishly–by herself–to the radio. With this alarming sight, we’re welcomed to the Seventies, full-on. Peter Graves drives that fact home in the next scene, as he wears a skintight orange turtleneck to retrieve his mission briefing tape. So much for somber suits of the Sixties. Further messing with tradition, there is no agent selection sequence with Phelps going through dossiers. Since the team is usually the same on every mission, that wasn’t really necessary anymore, but it’s still an alarming break with the familiar.

Even that most sacred of all Mission: Impossible tropes is tampered with in some episodes this season: Lalo Schifrin’s instantly-identifiable theme song! There’s a new version that was possibly intended to sound hip and contemporary for the new decade, but actually sounds embarrassingly like it was recorded by a marching band. The cast is also a little different, but that’s really nothing new. Mission: Impossible has had a revolving door for actors ever since Steven Hill’s team leader Dan Briggs disappeared after the first season to be replaced by Peter Graves’ far more iconic Jim Phelps. That said, the absence of strongman (and series mainstay) Peter Lupus from about half the episodes of Season 5 is a bit alarming, though a very young (and disarmingly mustache-free) Sam Elliott does a good job in his stead during the ones he sits out.

The void left by Barbara Bain after Season 3 is finally filled, though–unsurprisingly–there’s no introduction for new female team member Dana; she’s just there, played by Leslie Ann Warren. The premiere episode doesn’t really make clear what it is she adds to the team. What’s her skill? Being a woman? Being pretty? The Gabrielle Anwar-like ability to not wear a bra? (According to The Mission: Impossible Dossier, this point actually caused a lot of friction between the liberated actress and the show’s more conservative producers.) Whatever the case, she’s clearly eons younger than anyone else on the team, and also younger than most of the rotating female agents who filled in for Barbara Bain during the fourth season. The age discrepancy feels a bit incongruous.

We’re still heavy on the Paramount lot, but there are also some actual LA street shots mixed into the premiere episode, which is nice. Conrad plays a contract killer who decides everything at random, with the roll of two dice. Therefore, it’s impossible for the team to predict where he’ll go or what he’ll do, and consequently trickier to mount one of their elaborate cons. Luckily, as the show’s title suggests, "impossible" is their specialty, and Jim and the gang soon have matters well in hand. They construct a fake hotel set in a vacant building, but don’t know what to call it until they hear what hotel Conrad chooses. Then they have twenty minutes to create a duplicate of that hotel, and they have to hope he picks one of their taxis. Luckily they have two, but even in the Seventies, could you really have your pick of taxicabs at LAX? This point seems dubious, but luckily it works out for the team, and the killer selects Paris (Leonard Nimoy, back for his second season on the show) to drive him.

Paris, of course, knows to bring him to the fake hotel. He has to make the drive a slow one, though, giving his comrades more time to prep the set. You see, Jim’s plan is unfortunately a tad over-dependent on an old lady using a sewing machine to embroider the hotel name on the sheets! Willy (Lupus) slows Paris down further by monkeying with traffic lights (with a neat gadget) and creating other assorted disturbances. And that’s all just the setup! Before the rather convenient conclusion, there will be a dummy Barney, an explosion and a near miss averted only thanks to Jim’s seemingly psychic brilliance. It’s all a little preposterous, but then that’s exactly what makes it classic Mission: Impossible material. Another season’s off to a great start, even if the new female star remains an unknown quantity.

Jim’s orange turtleneck at the beginning, however, was not an isolated event. Loud Seventies fashions abound in this episode, a harbinger of the whole season. In previous seasons, occasionally unfortunate trendy fashions stood out because they were so few and far between. Most of the team dressed very conservatively throughout the Sixties, and Jim always wore suits. Not so anymore. The fashions now are uniformly obnoxious and ubiquitous, but there’s usually one standout in each episode. In this case, Robert Conrad’s electric blue tank top narrowly edges out Jim’s orange turtleneck for that honor. The fashions in Season 5 are so entertainingly dismaying, in fact, that they necessitate a new review feature: periodic "Fashion Alerts" showcasing the most egregious efforts of the costume department.

Fashion Alert: Robert Conrad’s blue tank top

The more personal episodes were always standouts in past seasons, mainly because they were rarities in what was normally such a clinical show. There are more of them this year, but they actually lose something in becoming more common.

There’s no mission briefing at all in "Homecoming," alerting us that it will be one of those more personal episodes. Jim returns to his small, quintessentially American hometown–only to discover a serial killer operating in its midst. Naturally, he calls in the team, who are all happy to help out. (Paris, in particular, "digs old hometowns" in general for some reason.) This seemed like such a good setup for an episode: a team of professional spies–used to operating behind the Iron Curtain, no less!–come to a small town in America to catch a local murderer. Yet for all his spy skills, Jim’s big plan at the end amounts to hiding in some bushes peeping on people. And while I was looking forward to getting some insight into Jim’s character, learning a bit about his past–maybe even meeting a family member–what we get is a series of increasingly cheesy slow motion flashbacks featuring a kid who looks surprisingly like he could be young Peter Graves frolicking in fields with other kids who appear to have stepped out of an Our Gang short. The present-day action centers around a local watering hole operated by a childhood chum of Jim’s named Midge. When pretty young ladies start turning up strangled, the town turns on its sheriff–another old pal of Jim’s. Soon, Dana is undercover as a new waitress at Midge’s–tempting bait for the serial killer.

The elements that work best here are the scares. The killer generates some genuine creepiness, all the more effective for how out of place it feels in an episode of Mission: Impossible. It seems unlikely that the show’s producers would have seen Dario Argento’s seminal giallo thriller The Bird With the Crystal Plumage that year, but a number of giallo trappings do turn up in this episode. The unseen, heavily disguised killer tracks women through POV shots and hoarsely whispers, "Pretty girl! Pretty girl!" before attacking them. Furthermore, the killer’s identity will come as no surprise whatsoever to anyone familiar with Bird and other gialli. Unfortunately, for Jim the solution comes in a memory triggered by his stopwatch, which causes him to flashback to being the kid with the stopwatch timing all the other children as they ran and frolicked. You all remember that kid, right? The "kid with the stopwatch?" Me either. It’s a lame device in a regrettably underwhelming episode.

Fashion Alert: Jim’s leather jacket with its odd buckled collar arrangement (I really want one!)

"Flight" is yet another variation on Season 3's "The Submarine." This time, instead of tricking a Nazi into thinking he’s on a sub, though, they trick a left-leaning Latin American would-be dictator into thinking he’s on a plane. The team is really good at constructing these rigs on the fly. Their tubular plane contraption looks very much like their submarine one, but it can’t be the same rig transported to another continent, as that one was discovered by Eastern European authorities. As is this one by Latin American authorities. So they must just have the construction down pat, even without their strongman. That’s right, Willy sits this one out in favor of Sam Elliott’s Dr. Doug Lang. (Or is that Doug Robert? There’s some confusion there.) The network apparently thought it was stupid to have a strongman on the team when his role was so limited. To an extent, they were right. There are plenty of episodes whose plots don’t actually call for demonstrations of great strength. "Flight," ironically, isn’t one of them! Muscle is called for to simulate turbulence by rocking the airplane fuselage model using levers... and it’s a sweaty Jim operating the levers! Where’s Willy when you need him? What there isn’t much call for is a doctor. As likable as Elliott is in the role (and he is likable, even if it’s weird watching him without his trademark bushy mustache), "doctor" isn’t a specialized skill set often needed on these impossible missions. Sure, he’s traveling as a doctor, but he doesn’t have to do any doctoring. Any one of the team could have played the part of doctor for their purposes. Lang does have to surreptitiously drug the would-be dictator with the prick of a needle, but that’s also something all the team members have shown themselves adept at in the past.

The staged plane crash is a neat concept, though, even if it’s only a setup for an overly elaborate scenario to make the target believe he’s crash-landed on an island controlled by tunnel-dwelling escapees from a penal colony. Throwing a monkey wrench into Jim’s plan is the unfortunate coincidence that a civilian reports the gang’s phony ambulance for speeding (who reports an ambulance for speeding?), leading the police to discover their setup and arrest Dana. The subplot about her escape is more interesting than the main storyline, even if she gets a little bit annoying in the course of performing a sob story for the police chief.

As with so many Season 4 episodes, the obvious Paramount backlot settings are quickly wearing thin. Why do Central America and Eastern Europe look so similar? And why is the most common architecture in both places so soundstage-y? Something to ponder.

One of the season’s more unique episodes, "My Enemy My Friend" also begins without a mission briefing for Jim. Instead, the teaser finds Paris motorcycling along the Swiss Alps (which are surprisingly deserty, as played by Los Angeles’s Griffith Park) at the close of mission, heading to rendezvous with the team. Along the way, his bike is run off the road and he’s captured by foreign agents. Whereas a lot of the teasers are utterly disposable, this one is both exciting and crucial to the episode’s plot. The enemy operatives perform an elaborate, IPCRESS-like brainwashing on him, turning him into their own Manchurian Candidate, his mission to kill his control... Jim Phelps. The brainwashing requires delving into Paris’s past, and the hallucinatory interrogation scene provides some vivid flashbacks and interesting character insights. Leonard Nimoy excels at these scenes, once again proving himself a more-than-adequate replacement for Martin Landau.

The second half of the villains’ plan requires setting Paris free, and letting him follow his standard procedures to meet up with his control in an Alpine resort. The whole team is there, of course, and Jim is hilariously disguised as a Scottish birdwatcher! Fortunately, the part is written in such a way as to only require one line of dialogue delivered in a faux brogue. Also populating the resort are enemy agents, including a beautiful honeytrap designed to set off Paris’s kill scenario, and a ruthless assassin played by Mr. Wint himself, Bruce Glover. This episode aired less than a year before Diamonds Are Forever, so he’s quite recognizable to Bond fans (and equally psychotic) despite a villainous goatee. Barney and Doug get to do some nifty breaking and entering, and for just a moment I thought they were going to dangle, Ethan Hunt-style. Alas, they don’t, and fans of Topkapi-style dangling will have to turn to the Tom Cruise film instead of the series to get their fix. The episode has a satisfyingly downbeat ending.

As much as I love the taped mission briefings, I also like that the series has started experimenting, and beginning episodes where they once would have left off. Besides "My Enemy My Friend," "The Hostage" is another example of this intriguing technique. Paris is kidnapped at the outset by South American rebels who believe he really is the wealthy hotel magnate he’s been impersonating on his most recent mission! We never learn much about that mission, but this mistaken identity forms the basis of the next–unplanned–one. Naturally, the team turns out to rescue him from this predicament. Despite the dire warnings of the taped voice, no one is ever disavowed on the series.

Anthony Zerbe, guest star of one of the all-time classic Mission episodes, "The Bunker," returns for what turns out to be another classic, "The Amateur." This is as quintessentially "spy" as Mission: Impossible ever gets: the team is stuck behind the Iron Curtain in an East Germany-like country (identified onscreen in a very Germanic font as "Ransdorf, Eastern Europe"). Of course it’s really the Paramount lot, but at least it’s an Octoberfest sort of street there. Dana’s working for the typically slimy Zerbe as a bar girl and arranges a meet between Jim and a local operative so he can deliver a stolen "rocket laser" prototype. The operative is followed to the meet and gunned down, leading to a rare moment where Jim and Barney both draw guns to shoot it out. They escape with the rocket laser, but the whole team is now trapped behind enemy lines as the head of the secret police orders, "Until further notice, I want this country closed, shut, locked down tight!"

Meanwhile, the entire IMF spy network is now compromised. Jim’s got to concentrate on reaching his asset, Father Bernard, and retrieving his list of agents before the enemy does. (Not too smart to keep a written list of your agents, but whatever. The guy trained at a seminary, not the Farm.) In case he gets captured, he breaks up the rocket laser and entrusts Dana with the guidance system, without which the technology is apparently useless. She must have seen Our Man Flint recently, because she decides to hide it in some cold cream. This arouses the suspicions of bar owner Zerbe (whose German accent curiously drifts now and again towards Irish), certain Dana’s a spy. He sees an opportunity and takes it. But he’s soon to learn that an amateur (hence the title) shouldn’t play games with real secret agents...

Before Jim enacts one of his most ingenious escape plans ever right under the nose of the secret police chief in the airport finale, you’ll witness Dana contending with a jealous stripper, Jim and Doug disguised as priests and forced to perform last rites, and Barney and Paris in bicycle shorts! There’s disguises (including Paris in that doozy!) and spying galore in this excellent hour of spy television–one of Mission: Impossible’s finest moments.

Fashion alert: Jim’s wearing that weird buckle-neck jacket again–in Eastern Europe, no less, where it’s sure to stand out!

Several episodes this season deal with race in an effective, adult way. By "adult," I don’t mean hitting viewers over the head with after-school special-like "lessons;" I mean that they manage to work serious and–unfortunately–still touchy (in 1970) themes into highly entertaining adventure stories. "The Hunted" boasts a great opening with the team extracting a black leader from a (pseudo) South African prison hospital. Now the M:I tropes are so well established that they can do a whole episode’s worth of cons in a four minute teaser, just like the Brian De Palma movie did decades later. Surprisingly this time, one of the team members actually gets hit, and the others leave him behind! I’ve secretly always wanted that to happen. Of course, it’s just a random guest star "redshirt"... or is it? He stumbles into a doorway, where a black woman tends to his wounds... and discovers he’s wearing a mask. Underneath, it’s Barney! He’s also wearing fake white skin on his hands and feet in order to pass unnoticed in Apartheid society. This is a good episode for Barney, giving Greg Morris a chance to really shine as he carries the majority of the program. Paris gets the rest as he goes on the run as a decoy–the wounded white man everyone’s looking for–in order to lure police away from Barney. It’s unfortunate that the woman aiding Barney turns out to be deaf and mute, as that leads to some overly precious cliche moments. But overall, "The Hunted" is a very strong episode and another example of this season’s high quality. It also makes great use of variations on Schifrin’s "Mission: Impossible Theme" throughout, and not just at the beginning and end. Furthermore, everything builds to a big budget, action-packed finale involving a helicopter.

Fashion alert: Jim in shorts!

"Kitara" explores similar racial territory with a rather fantastic sci-fi device. It takes place in the fictional nation of "Bocamo, West Africa," ruled by "a colonial minority practicing severe racial segregation." It’s impressive that a show like Mission: Impossible dared to take on such a subject when just a few short years earlier the same exact thing was going on in the Southern United States. The team’s target is the sadistic, racist, and naturally white Colonel Kolba. Dana poses as a journalist there to interview him, and dredges up a story of a black man posing as a white man who was exposed by an illness and appropriately "reclassified." With these thoughts planted in Kolba’s head, Jim and Barney set about a Ralph Ellison-like experiment and plot to make Kolba think that he himself is black. To that end, Barney has an amazing lightbulb that turns white skin black! (Albeit a rather unconvincing shade.) Jim exposits, "One exposure to the lamp at night, and he’ll be black by the morning." Of course the team relies on more than just parlor tricks to build a very convincing con job.

Race is also the elephant in the room in "Cat’s Paw," but it’s tastefully non-explicit. This episode is Barney’s turn to take center stage in his very own "Homecoming." At the beginning, he sees his brother and they say all of the things that people in movies say to each other right before one of them gets killed, like "when are we going to get around to that fishing trip we’ve always been meaning to take?" Predictably enough, this is the last Barney sees of his brother, and soon he’s pulling the whole team in to help him get revenge for his death. (It’s too bad Paris doesn’t remind everyone again how much he "digs" old hometowns! But maybe his enthusiasm doesn’t extend to the inner city?)

Race is at the heart of the conflict that got Barney’s brother killed; a black syndicate is vying with a white one for control of the area. Unlike in blacksploitation movies, however, the black syndicate is just as bad as the white one–and they’re colluding with the white police chief, who’s happy to take money from either side. While Barney goes undercover with the black gangsters, Paris and Dana focus on their white accountant with the same old bogus psychic routine they’ve used about a billion times by now. The two plotlines feel very separate, and don’t come together that well. (Furthermore, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the widowed accountant Paris dupes.) As much as I always wanted to know more about the characters, for some reason the personal episodes this season don’t work too well. There is a good ending to "Cat’s Paw," though, in which Barney is forced to sell out a criminal woman who loves him–and does so in a surprisingly cold-hearted fashion.

Fashion alert: Paris’s flowery blue collar when he’s impersonating a spiritualist

"The Party" treads familiar territory much more convincingly. It opens up with a communist agent making a phone call from LA’s San Fernando Valley just before American counterintelligence operatives move in on him. He leads them in a pretty cool chase across fences and rooftops before being captured. This sets the stage for Jim and his team to pull the sort of con that they can do in their sleep, but that’s always fun to watch. They need to convince the foreign agent that he’s been traded back to his own people in order to get him to reveal top secret information. For once, both Willy and Doug are part of the team–together! Willy, however, is back to his traffic light-rewiring role from "The Killer" instead of his strongman routine. Doug gets to be a doctor, and even performs a medical examination, taking full advantage of his supposed skill set for a change.

The IMF team stages a phony "welcome home" party at the enemy agent’s embassy in order to fool him. This requires first emptying the embassy of its actual personnel (thanks to an elaborate bomb threat from Barney), then repopulating it with fake partygoers. The imposters (led by Willy) enter through the sewers, and it’s a nice image seeing all these upperclass types in evening attire mucking through drainage pipes. The plan also calls for a side trip to the agent’s home country, and the art director’s managed some more convincing locations than usual to stand in for Eastern Europe. Most importantly, they’re not soundstages! (Small things, however, like US mailboxes in the foreground, do give them away.) We also learn that Paris looks surprisingly good in a heavy Russian overcoat.

I keep waiting for Mission: Impossible to veer decidedly downhill, as is its reputation in later seasons. But that keeps not happening. Yes, there are some major changes in Season 5, and not all of them for the better. But overall, the series delivers another season of thrilling television. And while there may have been more "Syndicate" episodes than in seasons past, there were also more pure, straightforward espionage episodes than ever before. And even the ones dealing with the mob aren’t automatically domestic; "Squeeze Play," for instance, takes place in Marseilles. (Although it looks as much like the Paramount backlot as all the other foreign locales.) While some Season 5 episodes are of a decidedly lesser quality than others, there are also probably more first-rate episodes overall than we’ve had since Season 2 (possibly owing to the "hard spy" angle). And every episode was fun to watch. In fact, I’d argue that Season 5 may be the most fun season yet. What can I say? Bad fashions add to my enjoyment of a lot of period TV. But on top of that, things are generally faster paced, and the team faces far more unexpected left turns than in previous years this time out. It’s not quintessential Mission: Impossible, but The Fifth TV Season is essential nonetheless.

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.


David said...

As always, a great overview of the season. I haven't seen any season five episodes yet, but I am intrigued by the first episode 'The Killer'.

In the late 80's, when they started remaking Mission Impossible in Australia, 'The Killer' was the first episode. As there was a writers strike, they re-used old scripts.

For a comparrison, you used to be able to find the 80's version on youtube.

Abe Lucas said...

Tanner: Great overview, but it's Lesley Ann *Warren*!

Oh, and if you find a brown Jim jacket--get me one, too!

Tanner said...

Whoops! That's what I get for staying up till 2 uploading images. Thanks for keeping me honest, CK. I'm always mixing up those two anyway. I fixed it now. I hope we're both able to track down that buckled jacket somehow!

David, I really, REALLY hope that Paramount continues right on releasing the two seasons of the 80s revival series immediately after the original wraps up this fall! That's the Mission: Impossible of my own childhood, and I have good memories of that series that I'm curious to see if it actually lives up to! They picked some good episodes for their remakes, like The Killer and Submarine--but a few odd ones, too, I think. Either way, it was a good thing that the strike didn't actually end up affecting the series and they were able to create new scripts eventually.

Ted said...

I dig Season 5! I too had read how the series sort of collapsed in the last few seasons but I had a blast with 5. I particularly enjoyed the episodes where the formula was tweaked, or unexpected backstory was revealed. (The show almost never has flashbacks or any hint that the IMF are real people - a Bruce Geller commandment.)

The soundtrack was expanded in season 5 with some great new music. (Though you're right, the title theme is a bit too sqeuaky clean - give me the old Bongo spy sound any day.)

I thought Leslie Warren was good, but a bit young - too young looking to pass in the various IMF roles that Barbara Bain did (though Bain seemed a little too old for some of her flirtier covers.)

Waiting hard for season 6! And bring on the goofy revival series.

Abe Lucas said...

RE: Lesley Ann Warren

IMO not only was she too young at this time, she often gave subpar performances, owing more to her youthful inexperience than lack of talent, I might add. I mourn the loss of the womanly and cool-as-ice Barbara Bain, especially the way she would have handled the role of the medium in "Cat's Paw."

I won't be buying the M:I revival; I grew up in the eighties, that was enough! ;)