Friday, 29 July 2016

Mission: Impossible season 2 (1968)

The second season of Mission: Impossible adheres pretty closely to the formula established in the first season. And that’s no bad thing.

The major change from the first season was the departure of Steven Hill and his replacement by Peter Graves as the head of the Impossible Mission Force. Personally I preferred Hill. Peter Graves is good but he looks like the sort of guy who might well be a spymaster. Steven Hill looked like he might be a dentist or a pharmacist. I’ve always imagined a real-life spymaster would probably look more like a pharmacist than a secret agent.

The original intention was to have one regular character, the leader of the Impossible Missions Force, and a rotating roster of supporting players. This idea was pretty much abandoned fairly early in season one and in practice each episode almost invariably features the IMF leader and the same four team members. The scene that always takes place at the beginning when the team leader sorts through the folders representing the possible team members for each assignment and chooses his team is a relic of the original idea that was retained because it became so iconic. There is the occasional second season episode in which one of the regulars is missing (Barney Collier does not appear in Echo of Yesterday) or in which there is an extra team member (such as the plastic surgeon in The Council).

In the later years of the series there was a shifting of emphasis towards a crime-fighting rather than an espionage series, motivated mostly by the network’s desire to save money (spy shows in exotic settings can be expensive while cop shows are cheap). Fortunately there’s not much sign of this in the second season, and production values are still high.

One of the things that really strikes me about Mission: Impossible is the extraordinarily flexible ethics of the IMF. They’re the good guys but their methods are often breathtakingly underhanded and in probably the majority of cases out-and-out illegal. You can see why in the famous opening sequence in each episode when Mr Briggs or Mr Phelps gets his instructions the message always ends with the warning that if any of the team are killed or captured “the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” And you can see why the tape always self-destructs. The IMF’s missions are in fact basically criminal.

In the late 60s it was starting to become common for spy movies and TV series (such as Callan) to explore the ethical murkiness of the world of espionage and to show the good guys doing things that are only marginally less unethical than the activities of the ostensible bad guys. What’s amusing is that Callan (1967-1972) and Mission: Impossible (1966-1973) were almost exactly contemporaneous and yet in the latter there’s never any suggestion that maybe it would be nice if the good guys displayed at least a token respect for international law and the legal rights of citizens. The Council is an episode that is a particularly remarkable example of the IMF’s breezy and casual attitude towards breaking and entering, illegal searches, kidnapping, tampering with evidence and even murder! And it all takes place on American soil. Of course we know that the bad guys are really evil bad guys, but it’s still somewhat startling and it seems to be assumed that the viewer won’t find any of this disturbing. I would imagine that ten years later this sort of thing would have set off very definite alarm bells among network execs, or at least in the network’s legal department.

One of the hallmarks of this series is attention to detail. The IMF’s plans are always incredibly complicated and almost always involve elaborate electronic or mechanical devices and the plans are explained (and shown) in intricate detail. Of course whether any of these fantastic plans would actually work in practice is another matter but it at least the impression is given that they would work. One slight weakness of this series is that the IMF’s plans seem to go a bit too smoothly, although admittedly that can be a refreshing change from most secret agent series in which the hero invariably makes a mistake and falls into the clutches of the bad guys only to escape and turn the tables at the last moment.

The series takes the same methodical and immensely detailed approach to story-telling that the IMF takes to its operations. That might sound dull but it isn’t, partly because the plans (and the plots) are genuinely ingenious and partly because the emphasis is on slowly and deliberately (and generally very successfully) building up the tension rather than on action.

The IMF’s missions are almost invariably elaborate double-crosses or deceptions or stings. They don’t usually do anything as crude and obvious as blowing up buildings or simply shooting people. The aim is to set a trap, bait it (with Cinnamon Carter often being the bait) and then wait until the victim is well and truly in the trap with no hope of escape. In many cases it’s the victim’s own weaknesses (greed or arrogance or addiction to power)  that are turned against him. This is psychological warfare and it tends to be more effective than gun or blowing stuff up. In that sense, despite the frequent outlandishness of the plots, this is somewhat more cerebral than most of the US spy series of its era.

It’s interesting to compare Mission: Impossible with another popular 60s US spy series that also involves some rather flexible ethics - It Takes a Thief. The thief-spy-hero of It Takes a Thief, Al Mundy, is a professional burglar recruited by a US intelligence agency. While burglary, on the very up-market scale that is his specialty, obviously requires planning Mundy is inclined to improvise when necessary. He relies on his instincts and can be impulsive. This is in marked contrast to the absolutely meticulous planning of Mission: Impossible operations in which improvisation is totally out of the question - everyone has their part in the operation and they stick to it rigidly. Everything depends on teamwork, while Al Mundy is very much a lone wolf. It’s also interesting that while Al Mundy is an actual criminal (albeit now more or less reformed) his ethical standards are rather higher than that of the IMF - he is happy enough to steal for his country but he would certainly draw the line at killing or setting people up to be killed.

While I’d hesitate to describe Mission: Impossible as belonging to the Gritty Realism school of television espionage series there’s little of the light-hearted breeziness of It Takes a Thief or the tongue-in-cheek flavour of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - it’s all played fairly straight.

The Seal is an episode in which the IMF’s mission is little less than out-and-out thieving. As it happens it is, despite this, an excellent episode - truly a lot of fun. An American aviation billionaire named Taggart (Darren McGavin) has acquired a jade statuette which is the royal seal of a tiny Himalayan kingdom. Taggart acquired the seal quite legitimately. He bought it. Of course it’s quite likely that the people he bought it from stole it, but that’s not Taggart’s problem. It is a problem for the US State Department, relations with this small kingdom being rather important. They can’t legally force Taggart to return the seal so the IMF team are given the task of stealing it. Not an easy task, Taggart being a stickler for security for his art collection. Luckily the IMF team has a new recruit for this mission. Rusty is a thief of genius. Rusty also happens to be a small ginger cat. Apart from Rusty the main interest is provided by McGavin’s performance as the larger-than-life egomaniacal but but entirely unsympathetic billionaire.

The Council, a two-part story, is an anticipation of the direction the series would take in its later years. It’s set in the US and the villains are US mobsters. It’s a clever story although rather cold-blooded.

Operation 'Heart' is a rather convoluted story about an attempted coup and an American archaeologist who is not a spy but the Americans want the local security chief to believe that he is. The archaeologist happens to be dying and the IMF team have to save him and prevent the coup.

The Money Machine is a classic sting operation, as the IMF have to neutralise the activities of a corrupt financier in an African state. Not much action in this episode but it gets major bonus points for the high-tech super-computer used for printing counterfeit money. When I was a very small child I thought complex machines like television sets worked because they had tiny people inside them. In this case it’s true! All my suspicions are confirmed. Great fun.

The Photographer has a couple of glaring plot holes but it’s worth it for the climax which includes the use of nuclear weapons! We also get Cinnamon playing the part of a very glamorous biochemist who is also a fashion model. As a biochemist Cinnamon makes a very convincing fashion model.

Charity pits the IMF team against a pair of con-artists collecting millions for bogus charities. The inflatable platinum bars are a nice touch. A very fine episode.

Cinnamon poses as an astrologer as part of a plan to rescue an opposition politician from the clutches of the secret police in an eastern European nation in The Astrologer. The plot is insanely complicated but immensely enjoyable and includes an automaton!

No 1960s television series would be complete without at least one episode dealing with dastardly plots by evil neo-nazis. The sheer ludicrousness of the concept (there were probably about five neo-nazis on the whole of Europe in the 1960s) did not deter writers in the least. Mission: Impossible’s season two contribution to this sub-genre, Echo of Yesterday, may well be the silliest ever. A wealthy elderly German industrialist named Kelmann is working in conjunction with ambitious neo-nazi politician Colonel Markus von Frank and the US government has in its possession a psychiatrist’s report that confirms that von Frank really could be the new Hitler! The industrialist with nazi sympathies is played by - Wilfred Hyde-White!  And it gets worse. Mr Phelps goes undercover as the would-be leader of the Nazis in the US and in order to be anointed as leader has to fight a duel with von Frank to prove his courage. Cinnamon has to persuade Kelmann to stop funding von Frank by reminding him that Hitler murdered the ageing industrialist’s wife. She wasn’t murdered by Hitler’s minions - she was murdered by Hitler in person! She has to persuade Kelmann to give up his wickedness by making him think he’s back in 1932 again. I’m not making any of this up. This is a story that would have been rejected by the producers of Get Smart for being too silly. To cap it all off every single cast member manages to turn in a career-worst performance. Maybe they read the script and just decided it wasn’t worth bothering even trying to act. This has to be the worst ever Mission: Impossible episode. Even great series have the odd dud episode.

Apart from dud episodes it’s also inevitable that you’ll get the occasional story that is more or less a filler episode. The Spy comes into that category. It’s not bad, just a bit too routine. Secret plans have been stolen so the IMF have to break into a vault to retrieve them and they have to foil the efforts of a beautiful glamorous female spy. There’s double-crossing going on but it’s a bit predictable. The surprising thing about Mission: Impossible, in its early years at least, is that such routine stories stand out because most of the episodes are not merely routine. The following episode, A Game of Chess, provides a good example - once again a vault has to be broken into but the double-cross is more inspired and the background (a chess tournament) is more interesting.

Mission: Impossible has on the whole aged pretty well. The exotic locations are fun and while the stories adhere fairly closely to a formula considerable skill is employed to keep the formula fresh. Season two has what most fans of the series would consider to be the definitive cast line-up (which was retained for the following season) and the standard of story-telling is for the most part extremely high.

An excellent spy series and the second season sees it at its most iconic. Highly recommended.

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