Sunday, January 15, 2017

Mission: Impossible -- Episode 1: The Killer


To Watch: Click Here

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:
Jim's protege is killed by an assassin who is difficult to catch due to his changing tactics.  Jim puts together a new IMF team and catches up with the assassin in England where they convince him that his paymaster is trying to kill him.  The killer then confronts his boss in San Francisco and they kill each other.

Memorable Quote:
It's over.  Tom Copperfield's job is finished.  ~Phelps

Highlight:
Everything involving the fake hotel was very clever, including the taped-on street signs, the secret door behind the desk, and their quick room number switcheroo.

Lowlight:
The death scene in the beginning was strange when the victim saw his arms appearing to light on fire and then inexplicably threw himself off the side of a building.  It would have been less ridiculous if he had just keeled over.

Project Overview:
Welcome to the first edition of the Mission Impossible Project!  I plan on watching and reviewing the two seasons from the late 80's revival and also the 5 Tom Cruise movies.  I don't remember much about the tv show other than we watched it as a family: seven year-old me, my two older sisters, and my parents all in the family room.  Most of the time I had no clue what was going on, and my sisters didn't fare much better -- my poor parents probably just wanted to watch the show in peace but instead got peppered with questions throughout.  The four things I can hazily remember from the show are:
  • a chess episode where Nick pretends to be a grandmaster and has a ring that tells him what move to make
  • an episode where Nick goes bad (and I vaguely remember a lion being involved?)
  • Casey climbing up a fence and being chased by dogs in her last episode (won't spoil what happens next)
  • Shannon floating away into space and Grant saying, "Stay calm."
That's pretty much all I remember.  I also had a Mission Impossible video game for the original Nintendo, and the game was based on the show (you could switch between Max, Grant, and Nick). The game was hard as hell, and I remember one part in particular where there were these moving robot-type things that would set off a jarring alarm if they saw you and then would send out some fighters that would beat you to a pulp.

I thought this would be a fun show to watch since it's one I've seen before and is right up my alley with all the spycraft.  And while my main focus is the tv show, I thought it would be fun to cover the movies also (certainly no shortage of talking points when Tom Cruise is involved). 

Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:
  • I noticed on IMDB that the episode writer died in 1980, eight years before this episode aired. Huh?  Well, turns out that this episode is a remake of a 1970 episode also called "The Killer" from Season 5 of the original Mission Impossible (which aired from 1966 to 1973).  During the Hollywood Writers Strike of 1988, the networks were looking for already written material that they had ownership over, so ABC decided to reboot Mission Impossible and reuse the 1970 script (with adaptations) as the series premiere.
  • Another interesting thing I read online is that the series was filmed in Australia (unusual for an American network show) in order to save money.  Series regulars Thaao Penghlis and Tony Hamilton in fact were Aussies.
  • Speaking of Penghlis, I remember his was my favorite character as a kid.  After all, "Nick" is a great name, but I also enjoyed his master of disguise persona.  I also remember thinking that Thaad Penghlis was an awesome name (I learned later that it's actually "Thaao" instead of "Thaad," but still a great name).
  • Grant Collier (played by Phil Morris) is the son of original IMF agent Barney Collier (played by Morris's real-life father Greg Morris).
  • This episode was directed by Cliff Bole who directed 15 episodes of MacGyver (and he'll go on to do two more Mission Impossibles).
  • And like MacGyver, it's an ABC/Paramount Studios production.  
  • Whoa, it's a John de Lancie sighting as Drake the villain!  He's appeared many times on this blog, first as Brother Brian in MacGyver's The Escape, and later as Bartok the scientist in my twelve episode review of Legend.
  • "Vengeful" and "Peter Graves" (a seemingly calm, stoic guy) don't belong in the same sentence, and it's amusing to see him try to act like he's seething beneath the surface at various points in this episode.
  • What a theme song!  It's gotta be a top-5 all time tv theme, right?
  • And notice how long the theme is.  If they rebooted it today, they'd cut the theme in order to have more time for advertisers.  Just look what they did to the MacGyver theme in the reboot. The lesson here, as always: the execs running tv today don't know s*** from shinola.
  • I love the look of the black thing that Phelps gets in the beginning of each episode. Too bad it has to self destruct each time, though that is admittedly pretty cool.
  • They did a nice job making the streets feel like England, though it probably helps that they're in Australia.  But when Max pulls Nick over, he says "miles" instead of "kilometers" which seems like a faux pas.
  • Risky move letting Drake shoot Casey (in what I'm assuming was a bulletproof vest).

Final Analysis:
That was fun!  It wasn't the most thrilling or memorable thing I've ever seen, but not bad for a pilot episode and for a recycled script from 18 years ago.  I like the format and all the members of the team and am excited to see more.

10 comments:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this and it was a good reminder of how much fun TV was in the 1980s, even if it came at the expense of character development. My "weak point" for this episode, such as there was one, involved the abrupt assembling of the team and complete lack of distinctive personalities we saw from them in the pilot or in subsequent episodes. I can sort of understand the abrupt introduction given that I'm not sure how much they were allowed to deviate from the original script. And darn you for ruining my fun by already knowing that they recycled scripts from the original to get around the 1988 writers' strike! Apparently there's a lot more latitude to script rejiggering than I'd have thought considering they introduced four new characters in a supposedly old script.

    I actually like the hallucination that led to the death of the guy in the tower. It gave the hit man time to slip away from the scene...and mystery surrounding the victim's death. It also invoked the crazy hallucination-induced deaths from the 1985 film "Young Sherlock Holmes", which I enjoyed as a boy. The episode was at its most fun during the hotel scenes though. They were not only clever, but showed how the team had to think fast on their feet in the face of a complication to the original plan, something these kinds of "sting"-based series could have used more of rather than counting on the mark to behave exactly as planned. I liked the hit man's surprise method of execution from one floor below as well. It was just really well put together from beginning to end.

    There was pretty much one reason alone why the series filmed in Australia. There was a gigantic disconnect between the costs of producing an hourlong series in the late 1980s versus the budgets the networks were able to pony up. It was a stark departure from just a few years earlier when the networks were so flush with cash they were actually requesting that producers insert more expensive action scenes per hour in their shows. That's why action shows were on the decline generally in the late 1980s and why nearly all of them that were on the air were filming in Canada or on location outside of Los Angeles. "The Young Riders", for example, filmed in rural Arizona. But Australia is indeed a very odd choice and would seem to present its own set of production challenges. For instance, shipping American actors like John De Lancie (and another veteran character actor who shows up in Episode 2) across the globe from L.A. to Australia cannot be cheap....or convenient in any way for the actors. I may have to do a little more research to find out why Australia was the chosen production destination for this series.

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    1. I forgot to add that, yes, the theme song is a classic. I certainly prefer the extended TV theme songs of that era but keep in mind what I said about production costs. Part of the reason that the networks could no longer afford to do action shows in the late 80s is because they were still making 48-minute episodes of their shows. Today's shorter shows with truncated theme songs allow for more advertising revenue during the hour and thus larger production budgets. If they were still making 48-minute shows with 90-second theme songs, they would probably look like high school plays in terms of production quality.

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    2. Glad you enjoyed this one and apologies for stealing your thunder! I only started reading about the strike when I saw the script writer died in 1980 so I figured something strange must be going on. Why was it that the networks were suddenly cash-strapped in the late 80's?

      I disagree on your theme song point in that I believe that whatever extra advertising revenue they'd get from cutting a minute-long theme song (especially in today's day and age when so many people watch online or on DVR) would be more than offset by the buzz and passion that a great theme song engenders and generates. Obviously it's hard to prove but it makes good intuitive sense.

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    3. As for the IMF team, I've only seen one episode and so am not sure if their personalities become more distinctive, but they at least have distinctive skill sets: Nick as the master of disguise, Max as the muscle, Grant as the tech guy, and Casey as...well, I'm not sure yet what Casey's signature skill is. That formula was also used by "Leverage," a show I only saw once or twice and didn't get into.

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    4. I'm not entirely sure why network television budgets got tighter in the late 1980s. Perhaps it was just a matter of fast-rising labor costs among L.A. crew members....the quality product they were putting out begat stronger bargaining power for them in the industry and priced them out of the market. Or it may simply be that advertisers were more bearish in purchasing ads and it led to flat or declining ad rates. I'm really not sure.

      The economics of modern television are less about "buzz" and larger audiences than finding a moderate (or even relatively small) following that fits advertisers' demographic preferences. Perhaps a longer and more inspired theme song would help a little along the edges but if doing so takes away a quarter million dollars away from the weekly budget, it's highly debatable whether that loss of production value from the reduced revenue would be worth it. I guess there's no way of knowing unless a show tries a 70s/80s era long theme song and sees if it works in consolidated a very fragmented TV audience based on the buzz that those songs generated in an era where viewers only had three choices at any given time of day or night.

      Having recently reviewed season 2, it definitely felt like the characters on this show existed primarily to move the plot. I'm okay with that for a show like this but a little bit of humanity goes a long way in making a good show great.

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    5. In addition to creating short-term buzz there's also a long term value in developing a show's brand through music. For example, imagine if Mission Impossible never had a theme song in the 60's and 80's and compare that with the reality which is a song that many people instantly recognize the world over and is a centerpiece of big budget Hollywood movies. Maybe if there's no song, the show is not as popular and the movies never get made. I'm not saying that's the case (and counterfactuals are impossible to prove) but am suggesting that there are long term ramifications to thinking strategically about the brand. I even had sheet music for the Mission Impossible theme that I played when I took piano lessons as a kid. There won't be anyone playing sheet music for the new 15 second rebooted MacGyver theme (I hesitate to even call that a theme).

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    6. I wouldn't be so sure about that last point. Remember I e-mailed you the website dedicated to the "MacGyver Reboot" soundtrack as a special Christmas gift!

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    7. I'd rather have a lump of coal!

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    8. My understanding of why TV drama budgets declined in the late 80s is that it was mostly due to the phenomenal success of the Cosby Show, which debuted in 1984. Suddenly the networks realized they could get the same or better ratings from a cheap sitcom than they could get from a pricey drama. Overnight the networks all began stuffing their schedules with hit sitcoms: Cheers, Family Ties, Golden Girls, Who's the Boss, Growing Pains, Perfect Strangers, Full House, Designing Women, Murphy Brown, etc.

      At the same time the networks took a long hard look at their much more expensive adventure dramas, and decided to cancel them or slash their budgets. There was a great purge at the end of the '86 season that got rid of a number of pricey shows: The Fall Guy, Knight Rider, Airwolf, Hardcastle and McCormick, TJ Hooker, Riptide, and Dukes of Hazzard. The shows that remained were mostly detective tyoe shows with minimal action content. New shows for the most part had to film in cheaper overseas locations - Mission Impossible in Australia, and Wiseguy and 21 Jump Street in Canada. And of course MacGyver was forced to move to Canada for the same reason.

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  2. And for a little more of that era-sensitive context you can always count on me for, "Mission: Impossible" premiered on October 23, 1988, a week before "MacGyver" returned for its unofficial fourth season premiere with "The Secret of Parker House" Halloween special. It aired Sunday nights at 8/7 central on ABC (the same slot "MacGyver" premiered in three years earlier!), which was a very rough time slot for ABC, much like the other two timeslots the series aired at during its two-season run. It was up against "Murder, She Wrote" (still in the top-10), the final season of "Family Ties" which was fading at that point but still pulling in pretty decent numbers, and Fox's rising star tandem of "America's Most Wanted" and "Married...with Children", which were both in the process of becoming the first "hits" of the fledgling Fox network. While "Mission: Impossible" was pulling in comparatively passable numbers in the slot, it was nonetheless coming in FOURTH place in the hour, which was not a good place to be in the era of "audience share"-based ratings assessments. Once "MI" was shuttled to Saturday nights in late January 1989, however, it was pretty clear nothing else ABC could air in that slot was going to do as well as "MI" had been doing, which certainly contributed to the series getting a second season renewal.

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