Thursday, September 4, 2014

Mission: Impossible (aka Mission: Impossible #1)

Mission: Impossible, by John Tiger
No month stated, 1967  Popular Library

Mission: Impossible ran for seven seasons, but for some reason there were only four tie-in novels published. Luckily, these novels were original stories, not just novelizations of episodes, and if this first one is any indication, the short-lived series is well worth checking out. But then, this first volume was written by Walter Wager, and the only other installment he wrote was the fourth one.

Last year I started watching the show, something I’d meant to do since I was a kid, and I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed it, particularly the sixth and seventh seasons, when the Impossible Missions Force went up against “the Syndicate,” ie the mob. These episodes were like ‘70s crime movies, with sometimes-campy plots, awesome ‘70s fashions, and superb “urban funk” soundtracks, usually courtesy Lalo Schifrin, who also wrote the theme song. Most fans though prefer the second and third seasons, where the IMF would go into fictional ComBlock countries and take on spies and whatnot.

This first novel is interesting because it predates even those seasons – it ties in with the first season of Mission: Impossible, when Dan Briggs (played by Steven Hill) was the IMF chief, rather than the more-familiar Jim Phelps (ie Peter Graves, the actor most people think of when they think of the show). Phelps didn’t come onto the scene until the second season, and like most others I much prefer him to Briggs, who came off as very cold and, well, bland in his episodes. (I’ve read this was the actor’s intention, to portray what a real spy might be like, but still – it makes for a boring character.)

Wager spices up Briggs’s character so that he’s more in tune with the common idea of what an action hero should be like. Wager was a prolific writer, working in men's adventure magazines as well as writing novels under a variety of house names, and thus he certainly knows how to quickly dole out an entertaining story with a toughguy leading protagonist. Prose-wise his style reminds me a little of Manning Lee Stokes, only less stuffy, but you can tell the guy cut his teeth in the pulps, as he’s all about the single-sentence paragraph and ending his chapters on (sometimes lame) cliffhangers.

More importantly, he appears to have been a fan of the show, or at least to have watched it – I haven’t read many TV tie-ins, but it’s my understanding that a lot of them were cranked out by contract writers who were usually unfamiliar with the series and characters they were writing about. Wager has the feel of the show so down pat that you can almost hear the Schifrin soundtrack in many scenes; Mission: Impossible would’ve made for a fine episode of the series.

The novel begins just as an episode would, with Briggs visiting some random place, exchanging a code phrase with a contact, and then getting the infamous taped message which gives him his mission. (Unlike the familiar “This tape will self-destruct” of later seasons, in the earliest episodes Briggs had to destroy the tapes himself.) The mission this time is for the IMF to venture to the fictional Latin American country of Santilla, where two former Nazis currently reside – Kurt Dersh and Fritz Messelman.

Dersh was a concentraction camp doctor and performed horrifying experiments on his prisoners; his latest project, funded by the corrupt military junta that rules Santilla, is the creation of Dexon-9, a nerve gas that destroys a person’s mind in seconds. He has been placed in a highly-secure compound on Lake Chiriqui, outside Santilla’s capital city of Isidro, where he is protected by a garrison of soldiers, machine gun nests, and water mines around the shore. The lake itself is infested by piranha.

Messelman was an SS sadist and works as the liason with the rulers of Santila – we’re informed that Dersh, despite his cruelty, is a jolly sort of imbecile who has no understanding of how harmful his experiments are to “lesser races.” The government of Santilla, in the person of General Lorca, intends to use Dexon-9 to take out first Venezuela and later, who knows, maybe the world. There are also fears that they could sell the deadly gas to the Russians or Red Chinese.

Whereas the typical action story would have a commando team drop in and blow everyone away, Briggs and the IMF of course handle things with more finesse. Separately and in groups they head into Isidro, Briggs posing as an obnoxious Texas oilman (as if there’s any other kind), sexpot Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) posing as a jet-setting socialite, and master thespian Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), muscle-bound Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus), and electronics whiz Barney Collier (Greg Morris) posing as visitors from a fictional Middle Eastern country, Rollin Hand hamming it up as “Prince Achmed,” with Willy as his turbaned guard and Barney as his aide-de-camp.

This opening “Plan A” is a lot of fun and very much in the spirit of the actual show. My only issue is “sexpot” Cinnamon, whose body and beauty is constantly played up by Wager. Personally I don’t find Barbara Bain very attractive, and I find her “honeytrap” characters in the show often hard to buy; she generally looks a good ten years older than the ingenues she poses as, and that’s no surprise, because the actress was a good ten years older. In later seasons the show cast younger actresses who had the more expected looks and curves for these “bait” sort of roles (Lesley Ann Warren in season five in particular – good grief!!). Now, Bain made up for this with her smarts, grace, and regal bearing, but Wager writes the character like she’s a 24 year-old bombshell.

But anyway, while Cinnamon capably captures ladies’ man Messelman’s attention, Briggs goes around in the guise of an oilman and hires out a helicopter to scope out the fortress on Lake Chiriqui. Rollin Hand makes waves as Prince Achmed, and the “shock and awe” portion of Plan A has Willy enduring a three-mile swim in scuba gear beneath the lake, fending off piranha and avoiding mines. When they discover the fenced perimiter is sound-rigged as well (something Briggs did not know, and thus did not plan for), they revert to Plan B, which is more of a sabotage sort of deal that, again, is really in the spirit of the show.

One difference is that Wager’s IMF is a bit more bloodthirsty. In the show their targets rarely if ever died, and hardly ever did the IMF themselves kill anyone. But in their attempt to swindle Messelman into thinking death commandos from the Israeli revenge squad Shin Bet are after him, Wager’s version of the force blows up the man’s car, killing his driver, and later cause a lot more death and destruction. The Shin Bet stuff is really great, with Messelman finding his office destroyed and vague messages in the paper which are obviously for him alone. One of the hallmarks of Mission: Impossible was the slow breaking of a villain, and Wager completely captures that here.

He also captures the fun element where the IMF members pretend to be other people due to their acting skills and “rubber masks.” Rollin Hand spends the final quarter of the novel playing General Lorca, a well-done sequence which sees him escorting Messelman into the island complex so as to “free” Dersh and plant bombs, the two Germans having been hoodwinked into believing they are, along with Lorca, about to leave Santilla for more money and freedom in “Prince Achmed’s” fictional Middle Eastern country. Here ensues the carnage mentioned above, with the climax featuring a massive explosion taking out the island – and everyone who works in the complex.

One thing Wager does not capture is that fun moment at the climax of each episode in which the IMF’s target realizes he has been had. Wager’s finale is a bit clumsy in this regard, with the IMF team, having bustled Messelman and Dersh onto a private plane, drug them up, handcuff them, and then announce to each of them that they’ve been fooled! This includes goofy stuff with Rollin Hand doffing his mask and bowing to them. It just seems a little too overly comical, given the otherwise well-handled tone of the novel.

As mentioned, Wager’s writing is very good – nice and economical, doling out just what is necessary. Only occasionally does he pad the pages with useless diversions, usually courtesy Messelman’s vitriolic opinions on this or that. As mentioned Wager has an annoying tendency toward the single-line paragraph, an obvious page-filling gambit. More unfortunately he is fond of using epithets, ie “the Oregonian” to describe Briggs, whom Wager states is from, you guessed it, Oregon. Even worse are his constant references to Barney as “the Negro.” Yes, Barney Collier was black, but this was rarely if ever mentioned in the show – as it should be, he was valued for his smarts and his skill, and his race had nothing to do with anything.

But these are minor criticisms. Mission: Impossible is a really enjoyable TV tie-in, and you wish Wager had written more than just two of them.


Scott said...

I did not care for the final couple seasons. They were fine but not as good as the others. I also enjoyed the revived series from 88 to 89

Marty McKee said...

I also liked this book a lot. I'd be interested in finding out when it was written, because Wager had to have seen a bit of the show. Fortunately, M:I was fully formed right from the excellent pilot, so a good writer could probably nail the M:I formula pretty well from the first few episodes.

The follow-up, CODE NAME: JUDAS by Max Walker (who may be Michael Avallone?), is not very good and is written by someone not as familiar with the show as Wager must have been.

RJR said...

I believe Walter also wrote the I SPY books. When I left MWA in 1989 Walter made it h is mission to get me back. It never happened. He was a character.


Felicity Walker said...

I too loved the 1980s Mission: Impossible series, and had a crush on Thaao Penghlis. (He played the equivalent of Martin Landau’s character--the actor/master of disguise).

Gary R. Peterson said...

Your review convinced me to go on eBay and find a copy, and there are a surprising number of this first book to be had affordably. I read it over a few days and also enjoyed it thoroughly. I'm rewatching the series and near the end of the first season, so perfect timing for this Briggs-led adventure.

The book is a lot more bloodthirsty than the series. In the end I think the IMF were directly responsible for more deaths than in the seven seasons of the TV series. The honeytrap scenes were more explicit than 1966-era television would allow. Imagine Cinnamon bound and gagged, "stark naked," to use Wager's words, with a swastika scrawled on her belly. I liked that Wager exercised his freedom to go beyond what television censors would allow.

I agree with you that the final pages were weak. The IMF gloating over their defeated foes? Out of character, especially Willy clasping his hands over his head like a victorious boxer. The backgrounds on the characters was unnecessary and stripped some mystery, but Wager had to fill the pages. And he did so deftly and with skill. This book sparked me to buy his I SPY series of tie-ins. Thank you for the review and the tip that led me to such a fun book!

Baron_Waste said...

The later seasons were good in particular ways, not so much in others. They started to veer into science fiction - I remember an episode where the mark was conned into thinking he was in the future, where The War had been going on far too long; fortunately, he happened to know where some weapons-grade plutonium had been stashed…

But “the times they were a’ changin’,” and finally came an episode where the Voice of Mission Control was wrong! And the IMF team came out from behind the walls and apologized to the guy they'd been trying to break down to a confession - he’d done nothing wrong!

Like, wow, man, y’ know?

- BW

dfordoom said...

You've sold me on this book. I've just ordered a copy.

Felicity Walker said...

My room-mates and I have been watching the repeats of the original Mission: Impossible on MeTV this past year or two and it seems like the villain does usually die, just at the hands of the other villains. The IMF frames him and smugly drives away while we hear a gunshot indicating the villain has been executed by his partners.

So far, no episode that we’ve seen has required the secretary to disavow any knowledge of their actions, though they do get captured a lot, usually as part of the plan.

We’ve started watching in the middle of the first season with Steven Hill as Briggs. I like Steven Hill so I enjoyed that, and now we’re well into the Phelps era and I’m enjoying Peter Graves too. I’m also excited to see the future versions of the cast with Leonard Nimoy, Lee Meriwether, etc.

I had never thought of Barbara Bain as beautiful either, but that was because I only knew her from Space: 1999, in which she looks much plainer; in Mission: Impossible I can see why she was cast as a beautiful character. And speaking of people playing characters 10 years younger than themselves, one episode has Phelps pretending to be a man in his 30s—and this isn’t even the episode where he dyes his hair black! He has a fake ID that says he’s 30-ish and he has white hair! In fact, at the time of that episode Peter Graves was actually five years younger than I am right now, but he looks much older. Going grey at a young age and all the smoking they did back then must have made him look more weathered.

Since the original Mission: Impossible was made by Desilu and filmed in the mid-to-late 1960s, it’s also fun spotting the Star Trek actors in guest roles. The last episode we saw had Alfred Ryder (Professor Crater from the salt vampire episode “The Man Trap”) as the villain.