Monday, February 13, 2012


I love it when movies and television shows are unafraid to think outside the box. Most writers and producers are afraid to. For one thing, they don’t want to be laughed at should their reach exceed their grasp. And it’s also harder to think outside the box.

But I love it, particularly in plotting. The crazier, the better. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is one of my favorite television series. For 171 hour-long episodes, the M:I gang ran the Big Con on dictators, gangsters, megalomaniacs, killers, thieves, and despots all over the world. Occasionally, particularly in later seasons when the show was running out of fresh ideas, the cons got way out there.

The farthest out they ever got was in “Encore,” which was the first episode produced and the second aired of the sixth season. Written by Harold Livingston (STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE), who penned several way-out MISSIONs, and directed by the visually creative Paul Krasny, “Encore” asks you to not only check your suspension of disbelief at the door, but to give it cab fare and send it home for the evening.

But first, some background on the series. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE debuted on CBS on September 17, 1966. Steven Hill (later District Attorney Adam Schiff on LAW & ORDER) starred as Dan Briggs, the leader of the Impossible Missions Force, a secret government agency assigned to battle evil where traditional law enforcement either could not or would not interfere. Their missions were so sensitive, if any of them were caught, the U.S. would “disavow any knowledge of your actions,” Briggs was told each week in a taped message describing the mission.

Backing up Briggs were master of disguise Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), sexy Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), electronics whiz Barney Collier (Greg Morris), and strongman Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus). Gadgetry, split-second timing, nerves of steel, gutsy acting choices by the characters (who usually posed as someone else), and a firm demeanor of professionalism led to the IMF getting their man, often through elaborate poses and capers.

By the time Season Six started, the cast had turned over several times, and now starred white-haired Peter Graves as IMF leader Jim Phelps and beautiful blonde Lynda Day George as disguise expert Casey, along with Morris and Lupus. And if fans thought the cast had pulled off some whoppers in the past, well, “Encore” proved they hadn’t seen nothin’.

Thomas Kroll (William Shatner) and Frank Stevens (Michael Baseleon) are New York City mobsters in their sixties. The “old” makeup on the forty-year-old actors isn’t great, particularly Baseleon’s leonine beard, but it’s acceptable. Kroll and Stevens have been arrested many times, but never convicted of anything. Phelps figures the best way to get them is for a murder they committed 34 years earlier in 1937. However, there’s no evidence, because the body was never found.

What to do? Force Kroll to commit the same murder again. While getting his daily shave at the neighborhood barbershop, Kroll is drugged by the IMF and transported to a movie studio on Long Island, where Kroll’s neighborhood has been elaborately (and expensively) recreated to look exactly as it did in 1937. And I mean exactly—right down to a fabrication of a power bill shoved beneath the door to Kroll’s “apartment” (Casey interviewed Kroll’s old housekeeper to get the details!). Extras wander the two-square-block area in period clothing, and the local bijou shows appropriate fare.

But Kroll is an old man, right? Not with the wizardry of IMF doctor Doug Robert, played for the last time by Sam Elliott (THE BIG LEBOWSKI), who joined the cast on a part-time basis the season before, but didn’t work out. Doug shoots paraffin under Kroll’s skin to de-age him thirty years, dyes his hair, and even temporarily removes his limp, for Chrissake. However, this will last only six hours, after which time “his face will melt like a candle.”

When Kroll finally wakes up, he’s back in the same barber chair, but everything around him is 1937. This is where Shatner has to do some heavy lifting. What would you do if you suddenly awoke and it was thirty years ago? It’s impossible to believe the last three decades were just a dream, but then again, Kroll’s surroundings are so painstakingly accurate (obviously, implausibly so) that what else could you believe? Shatner does an excellent job selling Livingston’s absurd premise. Even if you can’t fully buy into it, at least Krasny and the actors make it a fun ride.

From there, it’s just a matter of getting Kroll where they need him to be. Casey, posing as the 1937 victim’s girlfriend, and IMF agent Bill Fisher (Paul Mantee), wearing a mask to resemble Stevens (and mostly played by Baseleon), walk Kroll through the day until it comes time for Kroll and Stevens to commit the murder (Doug, using a mask and a blood capsule, plays the victim).

Kroll’s idea to dispose of the corpse is to hide it behind a hidden wall in the basement of the bar, where bootleg liquor was stored during Prohibition. While Kroll frantically pokes and prods the cellar’s stone wall, looking for the secret catch, Barney and Willy are at the real bar, digging out the corpse that will lead to Kroll’s and Stevens’ downfall.

Often, a highlight of a MISSION was the end, when the bad guy slowly began to realize he had been had. While the IMF was seen driving away stoically, another job well done, the heavy stood dumbly with an “oh shit” look on his face. “Encore” ends with Shatner dashing desperately through the empty streets of “New York,” only to find himself suddenly on the dirt road of a Western set (Krasny spoils the New York illusion with a shot of an L.A. mountain range looming over the Paramount backlot, but it’s an effective shot anyway) with his wax face dripping on his suit and his gray hairs straggling.

As long as you don’t stop to think about the ridiculous amount of research, footwork, construction, and expense that went into convicting a pair of elderly killers, “Encore” is a swift and cheeky caper with—most importantly—believable performances to sell the illusion. Whether the episode works for you will depend on how far you’re willing to let it out of the box.

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