Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
So the new Mission: Impossible movie came out. Yes, Reader, I saw it, and I liked it.
It must have been in September 1990. A year earlier the Berlin Wall had come down, and now the Gulf War was starting. One day my mother, excited, announced to us what she must have just read in the papers: a new Mission: Impossible series would soon be broadcast on Taiwanese television.
I doubt many of you remember the 1988 TV revival of the original 1966-73 series. Apparently ABC green-lit the revival because of a threatened Hollywood writers’ strike, which prompted the studios to go back to the vault for existing scripts. And the fact is that, although the 1966 original might be considered something of a classic in the annals of American television, the 1988 revival was... not good. It was not surprising that it only ran for two seasons.
Of course I didn’t know that when I first saw it in 1990, dubbed in Mandarin and introduced two years late, after it had already been canceled Stateside. All I knew was that my mom was excited. She had loved the 1966 original, which had also been shown dubbed on Taiwanese TV.
It was some kind of statement of the way of the world, and actually a remarkably complicated one. Being firmly in the anti-communist and pro-American camp in the Cold War, Taiwan got all the American shows in those years, which came with the often rather crass notions of American power and the role of the United States on the world stage. In the early 2000s, I visited the Radio and Television Museum in New York and pulled up the pilot episode of the original Mission: Impossible. Cringing, I discovered that the plot was about that hackneyed imperialist trope of U.S. agents going south to a fictional Latin American country to interfere with its military dictator, with the IMF spies of course presented as heroes.
(Conversely, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Mainland Chinese never saw the original Star Wars trilogy when those films came out, which explains why today the series makes a less than stellar showing in the Chinese market.)
The trend of importing American shows continued in Taiwan well into the 1980s and even early 1990s. So I grew up with dubbed versions of all of these not-very-good ‘80s action series: The A-Team, Airwolf, Knight Rider, and of course MacGyver.
Ah, MacGyver. Believe it or not, it was by far the most popular American import on Taiwanese TV in those days. I’ve had American friends burst out laughing when I told them this. Because the truth is, MacGyver wasn’t a very good show either. It was frankly ridiculous: a secret agent working for a nebulous “foundation” going around saving the world with a Swiss army knife, high school chemistry, and way too much voiceover. The ridiculousness of the series was so self-evident that not only did Saturday Night Life parody it for years with “MacGruber,” but even the original was kind of tongue-in-cheek.
But we loved it. We were not so sophisticated as a television audience then, not least because Taiwanese broadcasters tended to introduce shows that they felt fairly confident could translate easily enough across cultural boundaries. I don’t remember anyone having heard of, say, The Twilight Zone, which was far more original than any of these shows, or Hill Street Blues, which critics credit with ushering in the golden age of television.
But we also loved MacGyver in particular because we kids could watch it. A lot of Taiwanese parents back then severely restricted their children’s television diet, to the point of basically not letting them watch any TV. With MacGyver, though, the kids had an ironclad argument in their favor: It was a show about science! And engineering! And math! And did I say science! What parents could in good conscience deny their kids an additional hour of science tutorial freely available on the TV box?
Time passed, and we grew wiser. Around the time they were showing the 1988 Mission: Impossible, the networks also introduced The Simpsons. Although appreciating The Simpsons dubbed was truly an impossible mission, show by show and episode by episode, the age of the simplistic rah-rah-rah-USA action shows was already passing.
When the first Missions: Impossible film came out in 1996, my mom didn’t like it. Jim Phelps, the character who had been the hero of the TV series, suddenly turned out to be a villain. The revelation seemed disrespectful to the older generation of fans. Jim explains his motivation as a sense of loss and disorientation after the end of the Cold War: Back in the good old days you knew exactly who your enemy was and who your friend was; now, suddenly, it was all jumbled and confused.
Over twenty years on, I can sympathize. Compared to today, wasn’t the Cold War a simpler time, when we all (sort of) knew that the Soviets were bad? It’s enough to make you feel nostalgic for that lost age of innocence, however unrefined it also was.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."