Monday, January 28, 2013

Mission: Impossible – “Encore”

Season 6, Episode 2
Original Airdate: September 25, 1971
Writer: Harold Livingston
Director: Paul Krasny
Executive Producer: Bruce Geller
Cast: Peter Graves, Lynda Day George, William Shatner

I had never seen an episode of “Mission: Impossible” before this one. So I have no idea if “Encore” is a good representation of the rest of the series, but I really hope it is. Everything about it is legitimately insane, and yet the story is told with such style and conviction that, in its own weird way, it’s pretty close to perfect.

We begin with IMF (a super-secret government branch where all the agents have really awesome hair) team leader Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) getting his assignment of the week: to ascertain a confession and evidence against a murderer/mobster/all-around-evil-guy Thomas Kroll (Captain James T. Kirk…er…William Shatner). Kroll is in his 60s and just exploded a hospital where a little ‘ole lady was about to snitch on him, so we know he’s bad to the bone.

So IMF decides to (wait for it) make Kroll believe he has traveled back in time to save some humpback whales to 1937, the date he first met the woman he would ultimately kill in that hospital.

Yes, you read that right.

Okay, let’s break this down for a minute, shall we? They drug Kroll with a hot towel and kidnap him and give him a makeover. How can they make a 60-something guy with a limp appear to be in his 30s again, you ask? Well, they cover his face with wax and other magical elements and shoot his bad leg with a drug that will take away his limp. Phelps has rented out a film backlot and meticulously recreated at least two blocks from Kroll’s old neighborhood, right down to the buttermilk in his icebox. Oh, and I should mention that all of this appears to have been done in about 24 hours.

Like I said, this is nuts. And it would be completely laughable if it wasn’t done with complete conviction from everyone involved. Also, the viewer has to take a huge leap of faith, but as far as I’m concerned, I don’t want to watch a show called “Mission: Impossible” without muttering “that’s impossible!” to myself at least twice in a given episode. And even though the premise is…uh…farfetched, writer Ron Livingston creates some really smart complications among the impossible leaps. For example, the magic face wax and leg drug will only work for six hours.  And Kroll doesn’t act stupidly for a man in his situation. He scrubs his face thoroughly to ensure there’s no makeup to make him look younger. He rushes to a window when he hears a plane overhead (It’s a 1930s plane Phelps had fly over to help with the cover. These guys think of everything). More than that, above and beyond the time-travel trick, what we are witness to is a very elaborate mind game – almost a game of chess between a mostly unseen Phelps (who only interacts with Kroll once) and Kroll’s better instincts.

Yes, there are a thousand different ways this story is implausible and also a thousand ways that Kroll could make the team. I don’t care, because while the episode is playing, it’s all too much fun. Livingston actually takes more time that one would expect at turning Kroll into a legitimate character. Of course any 60-something guy magically back in the body of a 30-something-year-old would immediately want to chase some tail, and that’s what Kroll does, taking the “woman” he will eventually kill to a movie and making none-too-subtle remarks about wanting to get with her. That’s just creepy on so many levels.

“Encore’s” director, Paul Krasny, keeps things seeming much bigger than they really are. For most of the episode we are in cramped, period sets that Krasny and his director of photography look rich and lush. It really feels like a movie more than an episode of television, never moreso than at the climax:

Kroll has just inadvertently given up the evidence, and suddenly everyone around him seems to evaporate.  Everyone has been pulled out, you see. One would also expect cops would be storming in, but go with it. Kroll wanders out into the period street, so bustling with life just moments prior, and it is now empty and abandoned. Kroll begins running, searching, and as he does so we see the ink put in his hair to shade it run down his cheeks. His wax begins to loosen. His limp returns. But he keeps running…until he runs all the way off the set and onto another one on the backlot: an street from classic shoot-‘em-up Westerns. It’s a wonderful, metaphorical image to end our story. Indeed, we don’t see Phelps apprehending our villain or even anything close to that. Instead, we see Kroll’s second in command, a man in his 60’s like Kroll, approach him – a reminder of who he really is and a mirror image Kroll does not want to look at. That is more of a defeat for him than being hauled off in handcuffs. And also, from the writing to direction, beautifully realized.

Back when I wrote about “Battlestar: Galactica” I noted how awesome it was that they share a sneak preview of what’s to come in the episode, and here I was just as excited to see the same in the opening credits. The show’s iconic theme music plays as we are shown tiny snapshots of exciting moments in the episode to come. Yes, setting Lalo Schifrin’s music against anything, even “Heaven’s Gate,” would make what we are seeing the most exciting action film ever made, and I think that’s the point. It jazzes up the viewer and ensures that he or she will be back and ready for more just as soon as the commercial break is over.

I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to watch the original “Mission: Impossible” television show. I’m a huge admirer of the film series, and now have set my DVR to tape the show’s nightly airing. From glancing at several articles, it appears that “Encore’s” craziness is the exception in the series, not the rule. But even if the show remains (relatively) grounded throughout the rest of its run, that won’t mean I love it any less. I can’t help but love the smoke-and-mirrors game it plays with its viewers and villains every week…and that theme song will never get old.

“Encore” is available on DVD and YouTube.


  1. You seem to understand what's fun about the show. It's totally insane but done with complete conviction. If you like that then you'll love this show.

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