Sunday, 14 May 2017

Mission: Impossible, season 4 (1969)

Season 4 saw Mission: Impossible undergo some major shakeups both behind and in front of the camera. The most obvious change is the departure of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. In fact the loss of Landau is no problem at all. Leonard Nimoy takes over, playing exactly the same sort of role (professional magician, master of disguise, etc). And Nimoy is actually more fun than Landau.

The departure of Barbara Bain is however a very big problem. Without Cinnamon Carter to add her glamour the IMF team seems unbalanced. For some odd reason the producers decided not to replace Bain, instead using a series of female guest stars. This was a serious error of judgment. Given that Cinnamon was mostly used as the bait for honey traps (which is exactly the way a female agent would have been used in real life) she was more often than not in even more danger than the other members of the team. In these circumstances it is essential that  the female member of the team should be a regular cast member - we have to get to know her so that we worry when she’s in danger. And the female guest stars just aren’t very impressive (with the glorious exception for the wonderful Anne Francis). Lee Meriwether was brought into the series on a semi-regular basis for a while but she just isn’t a satisfactory substitute for Barbara Bain - she doesn’t have the class or the style and her performances are just a little flat.

In season four I’m again struck by the ruthlessness of the IMF. They don’t actually carry out assassinations but in episode after episode they set people up to be killed by others. They’re basically indirect assassinations. Rather startling for a spy series set during peace time! It’s also amusing if a bit frightening to contrast the psychological traumas suffered by British assassin David Callan in the directly contemporary Callan series to the casual cold-bloodedness of Jim Phelps and his team. Mind you Callan’s boss Hunter is every bit as cold-blooded as Jim Phelps - maybe assassinations really aren’t a big deal if you don’t actually pull the trigger yourself. I must confess that I really don’t know if the producers of Mission: Impossible were actually aware of the fact that this aspect of the series might one day raise eyebrows.

Of course in most spy series enemy spies get killed but usually the victims are actual professional spies and they get killed in gun fights rather than being set up for murder in a premeditated way.

Mission: Impossible is very much a spy series in which there are no moral dilemmas. There are good guys (who are always US allies) and bad guys (who are always anti-US) and it’s all very clear-cut. When the series started in 1966 this was pretty much the norm in American television spy dramas, while British series like Danger Man were already starting to introduce at least some shades of grey. By 1969 when the fourth season of Mission: Impossible was made the British TV spy drama was starting to become much more morally complex (not just Callan but also series like the very underrated Man in a Suitcase). I guess it’s not really a fair comparison since Mission: Impossible never had any pretensions towards realism. That’s why the IMF’s fondness for arranging to have bad guys rubbed out is slightly disturbing.

The opening episode of season four, The Code, is typical Mission: Impossible territory - the IMF must foil an attempted invasion in Latin America and in order to do so they must break an unbreakable code. The coding method is clever and intricate. The IMF team must also totally disrupt the invasion plans which they do in their customary way, spreading disinformation and suspicion. Leonard Nimoy makes a rather spectacular debut, sporting an impressive Fidel Castro-type beard and playing a Che Guevera-type professional revolutionary. Nimoy really has some fun with this part.

Director Stuart Hagmann is almost in danger of going overboard with the crazy tilted camera angles but since this is a spy series (and it’s an episode dealing with revolutionaries) the resulting feeling of disorientation is appropriate and it works. 

The Controllers is a two-part story in which the IMF has to discredit a scientist who has almost perfected a mind-control gas. 

 In The Numbers Game Mr Phelps and his team come up with an extraordinarily elaborate scheme to con a former dictator out of his wealth which is hidden away in a Zurich bank. The dictator had had plans to return to power in his country, plans which the American government is determined to thwart. While the con is so grandiose in conception that it well and truly stretches credibility that’s really a plus rather than a minus - this is Mission: Impossible after all and plausibility is not a major concern.

Fool's Gold deals with a plot to destabilise a friendly nation through the use of counterfeit money. The plot is a bit too reminiscent of other Mission: Impossible episodes. Perhaps the formula was starting to become just a little stale.

Commandante is better, with a few nice twists. There’s a revolutionary movement in a Latin American nation, only there are no less than three revolutionary factions. The US government is backing one faction. The IMF has to secure the release of an imprisoned priest (a member of one of the revolutionary factions) while discrediting and neutralising the other factions and at the same time leaving the way clear for the US-backed faction. The trick with the helicopter is rather cute.

The Double Circle requires the IMF to retrieve a stolen rocket fuel formula with a typically Mission: Impossible plot involving an elaborate deception to enable the theft of the formula. In this episode they finally solve the problem of filling Cinnamon Carter’s shoes. Anne Francis is absolutely delightful. She is so obviously the perfect replacement for Barbara Bain. The great mystery is why on earth she wasn’t made a permanent cast member. The deception plan in this episode really is intricate and ingenious. This is classic Mission: Impossible.

Neo-Nazis were a favourite theme in 60s action adventure television. Submarine, written by Englishman Donald James, is one of the most deliriously silly but inspired examples of the genre. A former SS officer is about to be released from prison is an Eastern Bloc country. He knows the location of one of those hoards of Nazi gold that were so popular with thriller writers of the time. American intelligence wants that gold so the IMF cooks up an insane plan to kidnap the SS officer and convince him he is aboard a WW2-vintage German submarine on its way to the secret Neo-Nazi headquarters where the gold will be used to re-establish the Third Reich. It’s an absurd idea but it’s executed with panache and imagination, and with a truly wonderful fake submarine set. Peter Graves and Leonard Nimoy get to practise their best phony German accents. It’s all fabulous fun.

Robot is one of the many episodes in which a dastardly plot is turned against the plotters, in this case the conspiracy being part of a power struggle in an eastern European country. Paris again gets to do his master of disguise thing but this time not just impersonating a secret policeman but also impersonating a robot! Good silly far-fetched fun with a fine supporting turn from Malachi Throne (well-known to cult television fans from his role as the spymaster in In Takes a Thief).

Mastermind is one of the organised crime stories that became increasingly common as the show’s run continued. The basic plot could have been just a tired old retread but they added a couple of delightfully bizarre elements - ESP and telepathy! So it ends up being very enjoyable.

In The Brothers Jim Phelps and his team have to risk the king of a Middle Eastern country but the difficulty is that they have no idea where he is being held. Their plan is to trick those who are holding the king to produce him. Standard Mission: impossible fare but well executed. This time the female IMF member guest star is Michelle Carey, sadly a very very poor substitute for Barbara Bain.

Time Bomb is one of the few episodes that does have some moral complexity, with an oddly sympathetic and sensitive villain (albeit one who intends to blow a entire city sky-high). It’s also a story in which Phelps’ ruthlessness takes on a slightly cruel tinge.

The Falcon is a three-part story and it has a definite Ruritanian flavour to it. This is the world of The Prisoner of Zenda, and it’s carried off with considerable style. There’s an imprisoned prince, a plot to force a beautiful princess to marry against her will, an eccentric and slightly simple-minded reigning prince and an elaborate conspiracy to seize the throne.

An amusing performance by Noel Harrison as the hapless and child-like Prince Nikolai certainly helps. There’s a nice combination of old-fashioned gadgets (like Prince Nikolai’s beloved clocks and clockwork toys) and the high-tech gadgetry of the world of Mission: Impossible. Leonard Nimoy as Paris gets to do his magician thing. The method by which the scheming General Sabatini is fooled into thinking he still has the imprisoned prince under lock and key is very clever. Even stretched out as it is over three episodes it’s highly entertaining.

Gitano is another Ruritanian kind of episode, with a young king being kidnapped. This is the central Europe of the pre-First World War era, with grand dukes and bandits and gypsies. The plot line is not overly inspired, although I do have a soft spot for these Ruritanian-flavoured stories.

Phantoms sees the IMF attempting to overthrow a Balkan dictator. The outrageous plot has them trying to send him mad by making him see ghosts! Their mission also includes saving the life of an imprisoned dissident poet. I actually found myself sympathising with the dictator - he was a nice old guy! And the dissident poet was an irritating young punk. When I find myself hoping the IMF will fail I guess you could say that for me that episode is a bit of a failure!

Chico has the IMF trying to retrieve two halves of a microfilm before big-time drug dealers can put the two halves together and discover the names of vital narcotics undercover agents. There are two highlights to this episode - Leonard Nimoy doing the worst Australian accent in television history and ace canine undercover agent Chico. Chico is one smart well-trained dog! This is one of several episodes over the years featuring animal IMF agents and they’re always particularly far-fetched but great fun.

Season four maintains the high standards of the previous seasons pretty well. On occasions the formula shows signs of wearing a bit thin but there are some great episodes and most of the stories are still very entertaining with nicely imaginative and satisfyingly far-fetched touches. Mission: Impossible might not bother itself with moral complexities or irritating details like realism but at its best it was glorious entertainment and the fourth season mostly delivers the goods. And there’s the bonus of Leonard Nimoy in top form. What more could you want?

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