Monday, January 30, 2017

Mission: Impossible -- Episode 8: The Pawn

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:
A chess grandmaster and his daughter want to defect from the Soviet Union, and the IMF team catches up with them at a chess tournament in Prague.  Nicholas assumes the grandmaster's identity while the other team members help him escape.  But when the escape is delayed, Nicholas has to survive a championship game of chess.

Memorable Quote:
Remember the girl in the coffee shop?  One who only liked intellectual types?  What was her name?  ~Rudensky
The girl in the coffee shop.  There were so many.  ~Nicholas
So many?  You, Antonov?  So many girls?  ~Rudensky
So shops.   ~Nicholas

The entire subplot of Nicholas having to play championship-level chess in disguise was fantastic.

Phelps overdoes it as the boisterous wealthy Texan, and it's hard to believe that the Russian woman wouldn't have found a way to take him out at some point.  And his character wasn't even necessary for the plot (except for leaving the duffel bag to set up the Major).  That's one problem with this show is that they feel like they have to have roles for each person on the team even when they're not needed.

Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:
  • A chess episode!  I love chess, even though I haven't played in a long time.  I got into it in 2nd grade and was on the high school chess team in 12th grade, but I haven't dusted off the set in quite a while.  Maybe this episode will inspire me to make a triumphant return.
  • 5:29 mark -- fun moment as Max does a magic trick for the team.  All these characters have a sort of politeness and childlike innocence about them, and 8 episodes in we hardly know anything about their personal lives.  That's not necessarily a complaint -- while it would be nice to have more background on them, I actually like the emphasis on plot over character.  If you asked producer Peter Lenkov, he'd say good tv is all about character, and his critique of the original Hawaii Five-0 could be applied to this show as well, that there's basically no character development (at least so far). But the flip side of that is what we've seen in the new MacGyver where we feel like we're being hit by a character development 2x4.  For my tastes, the original MacGyver had it just right as a plot-driven show with character background sprinkled in nicely throughout.
  • Whoa, this chess rivalry is heated!
  • They seem to be implying that Antonov is a Soviet (at one point the Major says that the dinner will be to celebrate two Soviets), but then why is there a Czech flag next to his name at the chess match?
  • It's a good thing that the guys that Nicholas impersonates on this series are roughly the same height and build that he is.
  • The dinner scene has a Lost Love feel to it from the magician, the disappearing defector, and the unhappy short-haired blond Russian woman.
  • This was one of the few episodes that I remembered a few things about, but I had thought that Nicholas had actually seen the chess moves (e.g. NK4) digitally appear in the ring rather than feel them by morse code.  It's one thing to feel a few letters and numbers, but it's another to pick up "If you read me, please adjust your tie."
  • The other thing I remembered about this one was when Nicholas takes off his mask in Antonov's room and hides behind the door and then blends in with the reporters. Great scene.

Brian Trenchard-Smith, episode director

I remember we shot the Chess championship in the ornate Queensland State Senate doubling as a Prague hotel. I was impressed with the redress of the foyer as Guest reception, complete with visitors' book. The art department had even written people's names in, in case the camera saw the page. I added my own name Jack D. Ripper. An hour later officials were up in arms at the defilement of the Senator's actual visiting book. Not a prop. Ooops! The producer promised to fire the culprit, till I told them it was me. Sorry. Can't fire the director in the middle of a shoot. It was all forgotten quickly. Isn't Max Phipps great as the Russian?

Final Analysis:
Love this episode!  I had fond memories of it as a kid and it delivered again with a fun and compelling storyline on a topic (chess) that I enjoy.  It may not have been really necessary for Nicholas to go through with the match, and even then it probably would have been fine if he just lost early or resigned.  But the way it played out was really cool, and I was glad that he had to make at least one move on his own without help from the grandmaster.  Ranking it 1 out of 8.


  1. This was a great episode. I knew the second I saw a chess board this was the episode you had remembered from your childhood. I had never seen it before, just I hadn't seen all but one or two of the season 1 episodes before. I will say I wasn't getting into this in the first 15 minutes as it seemed to move a little slowly, although I did like Max's magic tricks for the team. I thought the same thing as you as I watched that, thinking it was a nice little nugget of character development even if it was entirely a product of plot convenience. Ultimately, I think MacGyver hit the sweet spot in the balance between character and plot. Most modern dramas are way too heavily character-centered and thus spill the entire mythology of the series at the starting gate, and trying to progress the mythology for several seasons requires escalating contrivances that rarely feel organic ("my father is still alive!!!!"...."my mortal enemy for the last five seasons is my brother!!!"). But an audience needs some attachment to the characters to stick with a show or the risk is high that the formula becomes stale more quickly, and at least for me that's a bit of a problem with this series.

    Anyway, back to this episode, things heated up nicely with the "Lost Love"-esque magic show escape (seriously, the writers of this show and "MacGyver" basically owe each other residuals) that triggers Antonov's escape and replacement by Nicholas. Nice wrinkle of the delayed train leading to Nicholas having to play chess in Antonov's stead. I know nothing about chess but it was a fun and suspenseful scene, particularly Nicholas' dumb luck in making the right move while the patrolmen checked passports on the train. You say you don't understand why Nicholas had to go through with the chess match but it seems to me he did because if Antonov wasn't there for the match, they'd have figured he was trying to defect, barricaded the borders, and waged a manhunt. Nice touch how Nicholas blended in with the press to sneak out of Antonov's room after taking the disguise off as well. And while I mostly agree that Phelps' bit as a hayseed businessman was irrelevant, it was worth it for his badass hat tip to the Russian lady while she was being arrested and his train was leaving the station.

    Good stuff all around. Just based on the final two-thirds of the episode I'd be inclined to rate this #1 but since that was a little slow for me, I'll rate it a strong #2 after "The Killer".

    1. I actually thought they were implying that Nicholas knew what he was doing when he made the move rather than it being dumb luck, but I guess it doesn't really matter either way. You make a good point about why he had to go through with the chess match. Originally I had thought that they could have done a similar gambit where they leave a paper in the room with his fake route and then pin everything on the Russian lady, but it certainly would have been harder for the real Antonov to move around town, get his daughter, and cross the border if everyone was looking for him.

      And we're in agreement on the character development angle. It feels like in modern tv they try way too hard and go way too fast in trying to create character drama and backstory (e.g. 10 minutes of pointless Jack and Sarah interaction from that recent MacGyver reboot episode). The original MacGyver was perfect because the first season was mostly plot driven with sprinkles of character, and then the character and backstory filled out as the series went along.

  2. And on the "interesting trivia" front, this episode aired January 15, 1989, (the night before "MacGyver" episode "Deadly Dreams"!!!) and was the final episode the series on Sunday night. Starting on January 28, 1989, with the next episode, the series moved to Saturday night. Almost always, a move to Saturday night is purgatory before being put to sleep for good, but in the sake of "Mission: Impossible", it actually found its footing on Saturday nights, benefiting from the relatively limited selection of competition compared to the crowded Sunday night slot.

    NBC's "Golden Girls"-centric sitcom lineup absolutely owned Saturday nights in the late 80s and there was little leftover audience for ABC or CBS, but "M:I" managed a respectable second-place showing in the poorly viewed hour and slightly improved on its Sunday night numbers. It was still far from a sure thing the numbers would be good enough to warrant a season 2 renewal (they ultimately would be) but insofar as there was a period when this series found its audience, it came in the remainder of season 1 when it aired on Saturday.

    COmparatively, "Mission: Impossible's" replacement in the difficult Sunday night slot it vacated was a TV production drama called "Studio 5B". The ratings were horrendous and it was canceled after TWO episodes. The network struggled mightily to find anything that could compete with even a 15% share in that Sunday slot for the rest of the season, and it ultimately aired the final seven episodes of the weary former top-10-hit "Moonlighting" in the slot in April and May, where it collapsed.

    Later in the season, I'll share another piece of insane trivia on the actor who played Max and the primetime series he starred in before he got this "Mission: Impossible" role.

    1. Wow, The Pawn and Deadly Dreams back to back! Funny how I saw The Pawn the night it came out but had no knowledge whatsoever of MacGyver the next night. Little did I know that two years later I would get my first glimpse of the series with the return of Dr. Zito.

  3. And given their shared audience demographics, I'll bet anything a commercial for the "Deadly Dreams" MacGyver episode aired while you were viewing "The Pawn" Mission: Impossible episode.