Books: Visions Before Midnight — Mission Unspeakable | clivejames.com
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Mission Unspeakable

No-no news report of the decade came from ITN, who speculated darkly about whether the Lizard Peninsula would be hit by pieces of the Saturn rocket making its flaming return to Earth. Cub reporter Stephen Matthews was in position at the threatened site. ‘People around the Lizard Peninsula don’t seem at all worried about being hit by bits of the American rocket.’ He turned dramatically to look at the aforementioned geographical feature while the camera zoomed in to show the rocket not hitting it.

In the current series of Mission Impossible (BBC1) the Master of Disguise role is played by Leonard Nimoy, alias Mr Spock from Star Trek. For Trekkies this is a disturbing duplication, since it becomes difficult to watch the Impossibles in action without being assailed by suspicions that a leading member of that well-drilled team is suffering from atrophy of the ears. Last week the Impossibles were once again in contention against an Eastern European people’s republic, called the Eastern European People’s Republic.

The plot hardly varies from episode to episode. A disembodied voice briefs the taciturn chief of the Impossibles about the existence — usually in the Eastern European People’s Republic — of a missile formula or nerve-gas guidance system stashed away in an armoured vault with a left-handed chromosympathetic ratchet-valve time lock. The safe is in Secret Police HQ, under the swarthily personal protection of the EEPR’s Security Chief, Vargas. The top Impossible briefs his black, taciturn systems expert and issues him with a left-handed chromosympathetic ratchet-valve time-lock opener.

The Master of Disguise taciturnly adopts a rubber mask which transforms him into Vargas. A tall, handsome Impossible, who is even more taciturn than his team-mates (and who possesses, like James Garner, a propelling-pencil skull), drives the team to the EEPR, which is apparently located somewhere in Los Angeles, since it takes no time at all to get there by road and everyone speaks English when you arrive. A girl Impossible — who has no detectable function, but might possibly be making out with the top man — taciturnly goes along for the ride.

After a fantastically elaborate deception in which the Secret Police end up handing over the plans of the vault and placing themselves under arrest, the systems expert disappears into the air-conditioning duct and gets to work. A great deal of sweat applied to his forehead, and an abundance of music applied to the soundtrack, combine to convince us that the tension is mounting. A succession of reaction shots shows each of the Impossibles grimly checking his watch. Can the left-handed chromosympathetic ratchet-valve time-lock opener do its thing before the real Vargas blasts his way out of the broom-cupboard and rumbles the caper? Click. The nerve-gas guidance system is in black but trustworthy hands. The Impossibles pile taciturnly into their truck and drive back to America, leaving the contented viewer with just one nagging question: what on earth has gone wrong with Spock’s ears?

Mission Impossible is glop from the schlock-hopper. Columbo (Anglia) tries harder — which in my view makes it less interesting, since although I would rather have art than schlock, I would rather have schlock than kitsch. Here again the plot is invariable. A high-toned heavy commits a fantastically elaborate murder, whereupon Columbo drives up in a pile of junk and is almost arrested as a vagrant by the young cop on duty. (That Kojak can dress so well and Columbo so badly on what must basically be the same salary is one of the continuing mysteries of American television.) Gradually the murderer — last week it was Robert Culp — crumples under the pressure of Columbo’s scruffy scrutiny. The plot is all denouement, thereby throwing a lot of emphasis on Columbo’s character. As often happens, the character element is not as interesting as the programme’s creators would have you believe. Kojak, for instance, rates as the No. 1 imported fuzz opera mainly because Telly Savalas can make bad slang sound like good slang and good slang sound like lyric poetry. It isn’t what he is, so much as the way he talks, that gets you tuning in.

Barlow, currently re-emergent on BBC2, is what he is, alas. Despite the Radio Times articles on the alleged miracles of its making, the series is in fact tedious to the last degree. The complexity of Barlow’s character would have to rival that of Dostoevsky if we were to stay interested while he concerned himself — as he did last week — with washing up, making coffee and listening to the radio. When he sets his jaws against the foe, the foe dutifully turn pale with terror, but it is difficult to believe. Stratford Johns partly disarmed criticism on this point by cramming himself into the same studio with William Hardcastle on In Vision (BBC2) and hinting that he might conceivably be sending the role up.

12 January, 1975