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.

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Hawaii Five-O season 1 (1968)

Hawaii Five-O was one of the longest-running cop shows in the history of American television. It ran for twelve seasons and 279 episodes from 1968 to 1980. It was a series that truly deserved the epithet iconic.

Five-O is a special Hawaiian police/counter-intelligence unit led by Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord). It’s a bit like a small-scale state version of the FBI. While most of the stories are crime stories and conform to a straightforward police procedural format there are a few episodes in each season with more of a counter-intelligence/counter-terrorism theme.

The series was shot entirely in Hawaii and this was unquestionably its biggest asset. It makes superb use of the setting. What makes it interesting is that it doesn’t just focus on the glamorous Hawaii that the tourists see. It delves into the shady underside that every society has. It deals at times with the rich and famous but it also deals with very ordinary Hawaiians, including native Hawaiians and the Chinese community.

While it is certainly “socially aware” it generally avoids bludgeoning the viewer with political messages. And while it does deal with the seedy underbelly of Hawaiian society it doesn’t ignore the glamour and the natural beauty of the setting. In fact it provides a remarkably balanced and nuanced portrayal of Hawaiian society.

The pilot episode, Cocoon, is extremely interesting. It’s very much a spy story rather than a police drama story. Hawaii Five-O would at various times feature stories that involve international intrigue or even espionage but Cocoon is a pure spy story which suggests that the concept of the series was altered quite a bit the time the pilot was shot and the time filming of the series proper began. Cocoon is actually a very good spy story but shifting the focus more towards crime stories was probably a sound decision.

The Five-O deal with crime but being an elite unit they deal with large-scale crime or cases that may have international complications. This means the series can quite plausibly ignore dull routine cases and concentrate on the more exciting stuff.

Deathwatch is an episode that uses a plot mechanism which is far from original but it’s an exciting enough story as McGarrett tries to persuade a gangster to give evidence against his boss. McGarrett’s problem is to keep his witness alive long enough to get to court. It’s an example of a typical tough gangster tale this series always handled extremely well.

Pray Love Remember illustrates another side to the series. A female Indonesian student is strangled. The main clue is a set of very large footprints. Unfortunately there are two suspects with very large feet! The vital clue is provided by a little girl who wants McGarrett to help her to find a missing fish. McGarrett gently explains that Five-O doesn’t normally deal with kidnapped fish, but then he changes his mind as he realises the fish may lead him to the solution of the murder. A nifty little episode and it gives Jack Lord the chance to show McGarrett’s more compassionate side.

Hawaii Five-O was a program that tried to grapple with the issues that seemed to be tearing the US apart at the time, one of them being the Vietnam War. King of the Hill deals with a Vietnam vet who is both a hero and a psycho although his psychosis may be only temporary, and he is a hero so McGarrett has to stop his potentially lethal rampage and save him at the same time.

Up Tight tries to confront the problem of drugs, with mixed success. It’s still a brave attempt.

In Face the Dragon McGarrett and his team have to battle an outbreak of bubonic plague. Plague is not all they have to deal with - there is espionage as well. This is one of the spy story episodes that added a slightly unusual spice to the series and it’s a lot of fun.

The Box, dealing with a prison escape, is one of the less successful episodes. It gets bogged down towards the end and even veers perilously close to preachiness. One for the Money is a serial killer story, although McGarrett finds one of the crimes to be particularly puzzling.

In Six Kilos McGarrett goes undercover as a safe-cracker, but he has no idea what the target of the robbery is to be. It’s a fun if fairly straightforward crime thriller.

The Big Kahuna is more interesting. Sam Kalakua is a descendant of Hawaiian royalty. He’s now an old man and he’s been arrested for shooting off a rifle in he grounds of his house. He claims he was defending himself from the Hawaiian goddess of fire. It appears that he may be losing his mind, but McGarrett is inclined to suspect there’s more t this than meets the eye. It’s a good episode that avoids the pitfall of excessive sentimentality while treating traditional Hawaiian beliefs with respect.

No-one would accuse Jack Lord of being a great actor but what he does have is charisma in abundance and that’s a considerably more important attribute for the star of a television series. He does the tough guy stuff with a great deal of style and he does the caring compassionate cop thing without being excessively sentimental about it. It’s one of the most iconic performances in television history and it still works.

The supporting actors - James Macarthur as Danno, Kam Fong as Chin Ho and Zulu as Kono - are also not great actors in a conventional sense but they are all memorable in their different ways and the teamwork between the four principal actors is perfect.

The decision to film the series entirely in Hawaii was exceptionally bold, given that suitable television production facilities were non-existent there at the time. The series paid off handsomely for Hawaii, providing a major boost for the tourism industry. 

One more thing that has to be added - this series has the greatest theme tune in the history of television.

The US first season DVD set includes an hour-long special filmed for Hawaiian television in 1996 featuring interviews with many of the people involved with the series.

Monday 11 July 2016

Mrs Columbo (1979)

Have you ever asked yourself the question - what was the worst decision ever made by any television network anywhere in the world? You might imagine it would be a very tough answer question to answer. You would be wrong. The answer is very easy to answer. The worst decision ever made by a TV network was NBC’s decision to commission a spin-off from the Columbo series. The new series would be Mrs Columbo.

The decision was breathtakingly clueless.  Throughout the long, successful and illustrious run of Columbo there had been frequent references by Lieutenant Columbo to his wife but we never ever see her. In fact it has been plausibly suggested that Columbo was unmarried and that his stories regarding his wife (and various other relatives) were simply part of his armoury of psychological weapons to be deployed in order to unnerve suspects. Nonetheless this never-seen and possibly mythical character was to be the heroine of the new series and she was to be a journalist and amateur detective.

There were a whole series of reasons why the spin-off series was a bad idea. Firstly, Mrs Columbo was only an interesting character in Columbo because we never saw her and we could therefore speculate endlessly on what she was really like, whether she was really as Columbo described her and whether she really existed or not. Secondly, making her a journalist and amateur detective was a hackneyed idea. Thirdly, when we are actually introduced to Mrs Columbo we know instantly that she is just wrong. This is not the kind of woman Lieutenant Columbo would marry. Fourthly, the actress chosen for the role is at least twenty years too young to be Mrs Columbo. Fifthly, the unlucky actress in question, Kate Mulgrew, is hopelessly miscast as an amateur detective. Sixthly, judging by Murder is a Parlor Game, the quality of the writing was absolutely deplorable.

Remarkably, even though the series was cancelled after just thirteen episodes during that mercifully brief run the title of the series was changed twice. It started in 1979 as Mrs Columbo. It was changed to Kate the Detective but the ratings remained dismal. It was then changed to Kate Loves a Mystery, and the ratings remained dismal. The name changes were part of a desperate attempt to persuade viewers to forget that there had ever been any connection to Columbo. Even the heroine’s name was changed, supposedly after a divorce.

Murder is a Parlor Game was the second episode aired under the Mrs Columbo title and is included as an extra in the US Columbo third season DVD set.

This is an inverted murder mystery (the formula used so successfully in Columbo). This means we know the identity of the killer right from the start and our interest is in seeing the detective unravel the mystery and outsmart the criminal. A retired Scotland Yard detective is confronted by a figure from the past. Chief Inspector Morly (Donald Pleasence) is threatened with either death or a revelation about his past or both. A struggle ensues and the other man is killed. Morly’s bungling attempts to make the murder look like suicide are good enough to fool the police but not good enough to fool his neighbour Mrs Columbo.

The fact that the story is far-fetched is not a major problem. Realism is not a necessary ingredient for a good murder mystery. The problem here is not the story but the totally inept execution.

This episode achieves something that I would have considered to be impossible - getting a lousy performance out of Donald Pleasence. This achievement was made possible because the episode is hopelessly ill-conceived. Is this a serious murder mystery? Is it a seme-serious murder mystery with a slightly tongue-in-cheek flavour? Is it an out-and-out parody? I don’t know, and it’s obvious that Donald Pleasence didn’t know either which is why his performance is all over the map.

There is yet another reason why this show was doomed. It tries to adhere to the successful Columbo formula with each story being an inverted murder mystery. This is a very risky formula. It requires very disciplined writing. It depends on the viewer accepting that the detective hero  really is smart enough to outwit the murderer. It needs a reasonably smart murderer - he has to make at least one mistake otherwise he’d never get caught and there’d be no story but the murder has to be clever enough to provide the detective with a genuine challenge. It also requires, crucially, superb acting chemistry between the actor playing the detective and the actor playing the murderer. Columbo was able to get away with an inherently risky formula because (mostly) all of these requirements were fulfilled.

Sadly Murder is a Parlor Game fails to fulfill a single one of these requirements. Most fatally the murderer is such a bumbling incompetent that we feel embarrassed for him. 

An inverted murder story has to be exceptionally well done if it’s going to hold our interest. We already know the answer to the mystery so persuading the viewer to keep watching is a challenge. There is no real reason to keep watching Murder is a Parlor Game. Even if you ignore the incredibly ill-advised concept of a series about Mrs Columbo and judge this episode on its own merits it has to be accounted a failure - the inept writing, the hopelessly confused tone, the miscasting of Kate Mulgrew and the generally poor acting are enough to sink it like a stone. It doesn’t even have a so-bad-it’s-good quality to it. Avoid.

Friday 1 July 2016

Sir Francis Drake (1961)

Before turning their attentions to contemporary action adventure series Lew Grade’s ITC had enjoyed great success with a succession of historical adventure series beginning with Robin Hood. The last of these ITC historical series was Sir Francis Drake. It was made in 1961 by which time the success of Danger Man had already pointed towards the future for ITC.

Sir Francis Drake ran for a single season of 26 episodes but while it failed to achieve the level of success that had been hoped for it’s actually highly entertaining.

As always Lew Grade was prepared to spend the money to make the series look good. ITC even built a full-size sailing replica of Drake’s famous ship The Golden Hind (not as expensive an undertaking as you might think since The Golden Hind was a fairly small ship). The costumes look terrific and the sets are mostly very good. With some reasonably decent scripts and a generous helping of action scenes the results are most satisfactory. Like ITC’s other historical series it’s aimed at a young audience but compared to The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the tone is less whimsical and it’s less obviously a mere kids’ show.

The Prisoner kicks off this series in impressive style. It has a sea battle, and a beautiful Spanish lady taken prisoner by Drake, a lady who is determined to avenge Spain’s disgrace by sinking The Golden Hind. There’s adventure, intrigue and action and all pretty well executed as well.

The series tries to provide a balance between adventures afloat and ashore and to provide plenty of variety in story lines. In The Lost Colony of Virginia the fledgling colony’s survival is in serious doubt. Drake is determined that it will survive and gets some unexpected help from a feisty girl who happens to be an expert gunner. 

In Queen of Scots the imprisoned Scottish queen may have engaged in one too many conspiracies but Drake suspects she may be less guilty than she seems. 

The writers were obviously determined to feature every famous and colourful character of the Elizabethan Era. Scientist, magician and astrologer Dr John Dee qualifies as both famous and colourful. In Dr Dee he runs foul of Sir Francis Drake but Drake cannot afford to make such a powerful enemy (the Queen trusts Dr Dee implicitly) and perhaps Dr Dee is more innocent dupe than villain.

Bold Enterprise has Drake risking his neck by defying an explicit order from the Queen. The temptation to raid a Spanish outpost is just too much for him. Lots of action in this one - a very fine piece of swashbuckling adventure. 

The English Dragon has Drake trying to rescue the Queen’s cousin Lord Oakeshott (David McCallum), a difficult task since Oakeshott considers he has very good reasons for not wanting to be rescued and soon Drake himself may be in need of rescue as he blunders into a trap set by the crafty Spanish Ambassador Mendoza.

The Garrison sees Drake delivering supplies to a beleaguered English garrison in the Netherlands, but it turns out to be a phantom garrison. What has happened to the 500 English soldiers? An excellent episode with a few dark overtones and a nicely ironic ending. And a rare episode in which the chief villain is not a Spaniard.

The Flame-Thrower involves an English secret weapon with the perfidious Spaniards trying to steal the secret, the problem for both sides being that the inventor does not want his brainchild used as a weapon. 

The Governor's Revenge offers us another example of Spanish wickedness and treachery. The governor of one of the King of Spain’s colonies in the New World has hatched a plot to take his revenge, the governor’s brother having been slain in a sea fight with Drake. He finds that it is not so easy to outwit Sir Francis Drake.

The series is set at a time when England was not formally at war with Spain although the possibility that war might erupt at any time is ever-present. Drake’s plunderings of Spanish treasure ships were in theory private adventures and were in fact not too far removed from piracy but both Drake and the Queen (who supported his ventures) always had to be careful not to go too far. With the two countries being officially at peace many of the episodes are tales of diplomacy rather than war. This actually gives the writers more scope than straight-out war stories would have done. It’s also worth mentioning that Sir Francis Drake’s approach to diplomacy tends to be very proactive. For Drake diplomacy shades easily into espionage and can be a very exciting and very dangerous (and sometimes quite bloody) business. In this respect the concept of the series was thought out very well - it can be considered to be more a spy series than a war action series. 

Visit to Spain is typical of these episodes. Sending Drake as her official representative to a Spanish royal wedding is the kind of thing that is almost bound to result in adventure and quite possibly bloodshed, although the Queen may not have expected the adventure to go so far as the kidnapping of a princess. 

In Boy Jack the Queen sends a very young courtier on a delicate diplomatic mission. The mission might have gone very wrong had it not been for Captain Drake’s presence.

The Spanish are portrayed without exception as cruel, violent, treacherous and also remarkably inept. The anti-Spanish tone is rather startling. The Spanish attempt to invade England was after all four hundred years in the past. I can only assume that the producers meant us to see the Spanish as stand-ins for a much more recent enemy - the Nazis. Or that the somewhat authoritarian Philip II of Spain was meant to remind us of modern dictators like Hitler and Stalin, which seems a little unfair to Philip II! 

A major asset to this series is the very strong supporting cast. Jean Kent is a glamorous but shrewd and slightly coquettish Queen Elizabeth. Roger Delgado plays the wily, scheming and totally perfidious Spanish Ambassador Mendoza as an out-and-out melodrama villain and his performances are a delight. Actually Delgado is used as an all-purpose Spanish villain, playing a Spanish governor in The Governor’s Revenge.

Terence Morgan makes a very solid hero. He perhaps doesn’t quite convey the large-than-life quality of a man who became a legend but he does capture the right blend of daring and sometimes insane risk-taking and he plays the rĂ´le with a bit of a twinkle in his eye which is I think the right way to approach it. 

Don’t expect too much in the way of historical accuracy from this series. This is escapist adventure fun not a history lesson.

Sir Francis Drake is one of the very best television swashbuckling adventure series. Enormously enjoyable. Highly recommended.