Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Difficult We Do Right Away; the Impossible Takes a Little While

As always, should you or any of your IM force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. Good luck, Jim. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. ~ The voice on the tape, Mission Impossible 1966-1973

Peter Graves passed away the other day, at an advanced age and quickly, which, if you gotta go, ain't a bad way. Strangely, in most of the stories I saw, the first reference to his acting career was as the pedophile captain in Airplane! Well, he was very funny, but, in this day and age, when people see pedophiles in every guy who pats a kid on the shoulder, it's probably not the way he'd want to be remembered.

Of course, his biggest success was as Jim Phelps, the unflappable boss of the Impossible Missions Force. That was, I think, the role that got people to think of him as something other than just James Arness' brother.

Well, just thinking about that brought back all sorts of memories about Mission Impossible, which was in my top 2 or 3 shows, along with Star Trek, back in my misspent youth. For those of you who are only familiar with the recent movie versions (yech), let me enlighten you.

The original team didn't include Graves. The original boss was Steven Hill, who played a guy named Dan Briggs during the first season. Hill left at the end of that season, for reasons that were fuzzy at the time. I remember something being said about going on a religious retreat, even becoming a monk. According the factoids at IMDB, he left because the show filmed on Saturdays, which conflicted with his observance of the Sabbath as an Orthodox Jew. Whatever the case, he left the show after the first year and left acting for 10 years. You may have seen him a few years ago. Remember District Attorney Adam Schif on Law & Order? Yup, same Steven Hill.

Of course, he had more hair back in 1966.

The best shows were in the first three years, which was right in my nerd wheelhouse. Me and the other geeks at Case Tech used to plunk down in front of the old black-and-white every weekend to watch Trek and MI.

The basic team consisted of the boss, first Briggs and later Phelps, the strong man Willy, the actor Rollin, the femme fatale Cinnamon, and the electronics genius Barney. Oh, and there was the voice on the tape, which was done by the same guy for the entire run of the show.

Y'know, it really used to bug me that they melted that tape all over the recorder. It seemed like such a waste of equipment.

Willy was played by Peter Lupus and got about two lines a show. At some point he would lift something heavy to show how strong he was, then exit stage left.
The producers claimed he was really lifting the weight because they wanted to assure us that everything we saw on IM was actually possible. Yeah, right, like we cared -- or believed that (see Barney below).

Rollin, overacted by Martin Landau, actually had the easiest role on the show. Every week he was supposed to create some magic mask that would allow him to impersonate someone. At that point, another actor (usually the guest star) took over, and Martin took the rest of the week off, watching his wife Barbara Bain smooch the bad guys.

Ms. Bain played Cinnamon, whose job usually was to vamp around trying to look sexy. However, they seemed to shoot her through an awful lot of gauze to get the effect to work.

For us geeks, the real hero was Barney. Greg Morris played this electrical genius who could bug any room, tap into any phone line, and create holograms with the aid of his magic alligator clips. Morris didn't get any more lines than Willy, but he got a lot more screen time because he was always doing the tense stuff in the electrical closet.

Barney would open a circuit box or remove an electrical panel and whip out his alligator clips. The next thing you knew, all the lights in the building were flashing Morse code, spilling all the bad guys' secrets. He could work magic with an elevator. Pull the panel, apply the clips, and --bingo-- pressing "6" took the bad guy to the 15th floor -- and it was only a 14 story building. I fully expected one day he'd apply those clips in an elevator, and the bloody thing would go sideways.

All of us nerds desperately wanted a set of those clips.

Peter Graves was, of course, suitably cool as Jim Phelps. He would come up with these arcane plans that would get the bad guys to kill each other or blow up their own nuclear plant or change their invasion plans so that they would parachute their troops into a swamp consisting entirely of quicksand.

In my favorite episode, though, Phelps had to convince a bad guy that he (the bad guy) had actually found the plot out. I forget why, but trust me, it was the right thing to do. At any rate, Phelps and the IMF team are leaving all of these ridiculously subtle clues around, because the bad guy is really smart, so sending him a letter saying, "It's a TRAP!" was out of the question (and many years too early).

As we come to the end of the program, Phelps is out in a truck listening to the bad guy (thanks to one of Barney's clever bits of bugging, which has somehow eluded our super-smart bad guy), and the bad guy isn't figuring it out. He's got the final clue right in his hand, but he isn't seeing it. The clue is a pack of matches, in which the matches were torn out by a left hander when they should have been torn out by a right hander or some such thing (I may be confusing that with a Columbo episode). At any rate, Phelps is muttering to himself how he made the clues too subtle, and the bad guy isn't going to get it, and the whole deal is going to fall through, and the damned secretary is going to disavow them for real this time. Suddenly, the bad guy looks at the matches and voila! He's got it.

The bad guy puts the wheels in motion that IMF wanted him to do all the time, then pauses and says something to the effect that the Phelps character was very, very clever but his plan has been foiled. "He'll be crushed," says the bad guy with a touch of regret.

Yeah, right. Well done, Mr. Phelps.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Shooting the Bluebird of Happiness

Happiness does not consist in pastimes and amusements but in virtuous activities. ~ Aristotle

According to a psychologist in Australia, happiness is a bad thing. It seems, according to his testing, that when people are happy, they are more selfish, which means that if people were less happy, the world would be a better place.

Not a happy place, but a better one.

Yes, I think he's an idiot.

Basically, his methodology for determining that happiness is evil went something like this. First take a bunch of students and make some of them happy and some of them miserable. He had a couple of ways of doing this. One was with a fake test, where some people got very negative feedback, while others were praised. The other way was to show some students an excerpt of a comedy show while showing others a depressing movie clip. The students were then given a questionnaire to determine how happy they were. they were then given lottery tickets and told they could share them with a friend. The happy people gave away less tickets than the depressed people, thereby showing that they were selfish bastards.

It's hard to decide where to begin dealing with this nonsense. First of all, college students are not average people. They are hormonal young people who are less than predictable in their responses to anything. Some people ranked as depressed by the negative feedback may actually have laughed it off, while those supposedly happy may have been suspicious of the praise. And when it comes to viewing movie or TV show clips, some college students will be very moved by a supposedly depressing film. Or perhaps any number of them had more serious things on their mind (a coming term paper, a boy or girl friend they just broke up with, and so on) than whether their performance on some strange test was problematic.

And people will lie on questionnaires. Especially psychological questionnaires. If the surveys just dealt with the events of the study (how do you fell about the praise/browbeating you received?), it ignores the external factors that could affect their overall attitude.

My point is that the researchers really had no idea how happy or not happy these people were. And that skews the results. Further skewing the results is that, if someone is a selfish so-and-so, it's unlikely that their mood will have anything to do with whether they're giving away lottery tickets. Frankly, given the state of the world today, I'm surprised any of them gave away anything.

Heck, the questionnaire may have been tilted more to separate the group into selfish and unselfish, rather than happy and unhappy. Psychologists are people, too, and have certainly been guilty of prejudicial surveys.

Psychological research gives me a pain. Aside from all the contradictory findings we've heard over the years from these people, their methods are dubious at best and their interpretations are almost always, shall we say, "fuzzy."

My dislike for this sort of thing goes back to my college days, when I was forced to take a Psych 101-type course. One day, the instructor outlined a study that was performed that "proved" that the adage "misery loves company" was, in fact, false. What exactly is accomplished by testing old adages was never explained.

At any rate, they ran this study in a manner eerily similar to our "happiness stinks" study. They took college students and gave them some sort of impossibly hard test. This was done to invoke "misery." The miserable student was then place in a roomful of happy people (how they were made happy wasn't revealed). The miserable student would just gravitate to a quiet corner and sulk, ignoring the others.

They then introduced another miserable student into the room (the second student had just undergone the same test). As if drawn by a magnet, the second miserable student gravitated to the first miserable student, whereupon they compared miseries.

According to the instructor, this clearly disproved that "misery loves company" because the miserable students avoided the happy ones. Well, I was the first to speak up, but that was only because I was closer, because the entire class rose in objecting to this interpretation. I said, the test proves the adage. It means that, if I'm miserable, I want to be in the company of someone as miserable as I am (preferably more miserable). It's proved by the fact that the miserable students immediately huddled together. They wanted company, just not happy company.

In other words, to those of us in the class, the entire premise of the test was based on a misreading of the adage by the psychologists to begin with.

But, look, if it makes them happy ...