Tuesday, January 04, 2005

IM Force blog.

With the New Year, my mind gravitates to thoughts and reflections on mortality, the passage of time, and Mission: Impossible. That last one’s maybe a little idiosyncratic, but it happens that in the last few weeks I’ve been watching episodes of that TV show—not the dim Tom Cruise vehicles of the same name, but the late ’60s, early ’70s series that had one of the greatest introductions in television, if nothing else.

The Schaumburg Township Public Library has a fairly large collection of videos and DVDs to lend, for free, and periodically I access something. Among them, MI caught my eye because it was at the edge of my memory. I probably haven’t seen an episode in 30 years. Sometimes, such shows are better left there at memory’s edge, peering over into the abyss of Before I Was Born. I don’t think I would bother with Clutch Cargo if I saw it on the shelf, for instance. Other shows are worth another look. Around this time last year, I checked some Dobie Gillis tapes out of the same library, and on whole enjoyed them, especially the beatnik spoof of Maynard G. Krebs that I couldn’t have understood at five years old (I saw reruns, not the prime-time airings), and a surprise visit by guest star Francis X. Bushman in one episode.

The video MI collection is only a selection, not an encyclopedic DVD (a library couldn’t afford that), but I only need a selection. So far I’ve seen about five episodes, all dating from 1965 to 1967, none of which I had any specific memory of. Some passing observations:

Man, do they smoke.

Mr. Phelps did not in fact lead the IM Force during the first season, but a different character whose name I forget did—one played by Steven Hill, who was the DA on Law & Order in the 1990s. I had to look hard at the younger man to realize that it was, in fact, the same actor. Thirty years aren’t kind to anyone’s face, I suppose.

Instructions weren’t always relayed by tape recorder. One time it was a record player, another time a cassette. These items usually self-destructed, but one time the voice asked Phelps to “dispose of it in the usual way,” after which he threw it in a vat of acid.

I recognized at least one of the spots Phelps went to for his instructions: the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles (I’ve been there). Actually, several of the opening locales looked suspiciously like industrial districts in LA.

The IM Force thwarted some astonishingly ahead-of-their-time threats to the United States. Nuclear and biological terrorism were well represented.

Per cinematic convention, pretty much everyone in every country speaks English, which saved the IM Force the trouble of being polyglots as well as disguise artists, electronics experts, and so on. In some of the countries in which they operated, however, there were signs in other languages—and in at least two cases, mixtures of a Cyrillic-looking script and some German-like words. Maybe in the MI universe, the Germans and the Russians never fought each other in the 1940s, and 20 years later they’re both enemies of ours.

Then again, the show is quite coy about naming any real countries as enemies, though it does refer to the Communist bloc. This too was cinematic convention, though I’m not sure why. It wasn’t as if the Soviets were going to take them to court for defamation, or even pay attention.

Often enough, the story—and the fate of the characters—hinged on some improbabilities, sometimes remarkable ones. No matter. The stories were built well enough, sometimes brilliantly so, for me to ignore that.

Extralegal activities on American soil were par for the course for the IM Force, and indeed the show would have been no fun at all without them. And why was the show cancelled in 1973? An embarrassing investigation into IM Force abuses by Sen. Frank Church, I reckon.

Finally, Wally Cox was in the pilot. He played a safecracker. Underdog did not make an appearance.


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