Podcast Episode 4: Insert Cold War Joke Here
It's time for another full-length episode!
Why are Christmas spy movies abnormally good? Mainlining Christmas investigates.
- On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
- The World is Not Enough (1999)
- Three Days of the Condor (1975)
- The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
- Ronin (1998)
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
- The Avengers: Too Many Christmas Trees (1965)
- Get Smart: Our Man in Toyland (1965)
- Kim Possible: A Very Possible Christmas (2003)
- Codename: Kids Next Door: Operation: N.A.U.G.H.T.Y. (2005)
- Danger Mouse: The Snowman Cometh (2015)
- Prep and Landing (2009)
- Sydney Pollack on abandoned Bond tone for Three Days of the Condor.
- Shane Black on Christmas
- Sam Jackson on his all-time favorite role (Long Kiss Goodnight).
- Great article on Long Kiss Goodnight, including some details of earlier drafts.
- Geena Davis’s Wikipedia page, mostly because it highlights the fact that her incredible acting career is still somehow the least impressive thing about her.
- Review of Ronin connecting it stylistically to Three Days of the Condor.
- Jean Reno briefly discusses becoming friends with Robert De Niro on the set of Ronin.
Transcript:Lindsay: Welcome to today’s espionage-themed installment of the Mainlining Christmas Podcast.
Erin: Christmas espionage. There’s got to be a way to turn that into a portmanteau. Chrispionage, maybe.
Lindsay: We recently noticed an odd pattern in the quality of holiday-themed spy movies.
Erin: Not that there’s that large of a sample. We’ve only identified four spy movies set during the holidays. But all four of them are good.
Lindsay: Not just good, arguably great. That’s a 100 percent success rate. No other genre can claim that.
Erin: And today we’re going to tell you why.
Lindsay: No. No, we’re not. We have no idea why.
Erin: But we’re gonna find out. Because I’ve got the answer in this nondescript briefcase, which we will definitely be opening before the end of the episode. Because if we didn’t, the whole existence of this briefcase would feel utterly meaningless.
Erin: December of nineteen sixty-nine introduced the world to - as far as we’ve been able to determine - the first major spy movie set at Christmas. I refer, of course, to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” the sixth installment in the Eon Productions Bond franchise and the first to feature someone other than Connery in the lead role.
Lindsay: You know, that decision was almost addressed in the movie. At one point, there were plans to explain the change in actor by having Bond get plastic surgery. This would have also filled in the most infamous continuity error, where Blofeld doesn’t recognize Bond despite having met him face-to-face in the prior film.
Erin: I guess they decided that would have been too complicated. Besides, it would have killed the 4th-wall-breaking gag in the cold opening, which addresses the casting directly.
Lindsay: Ironically, the book this particular movie was based on was written 7 years earlier, while the first Bond movie was being filmed, and Ian Fleming took the opportunity to give Bond some Scottish heritage. Which made sense for Sean Connery... and less for George Lazenby.
Erin: And all of that is probably why this installment isn’t as fondly remembered, as, say, Goldfinger.
Lindsay: Which is a shame, because this is a far better movie.
Erin: Yeah, agreed.
Lindsay: It's a strong adaptation of the book, possibly the closest adaptation, at least until Casino Royale. The biggest differences are in the texture, especially around Bond's mental state, and some plot alterations that mostly serve to make the ending more exciting.
Erin: “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” has its share of flaws, but I think its treatment of the romance is fantastic. I’d even argue the movie is helped by having a less iconic Bond. That lets Tracy and Blofeld shine, and they’re more important to this story, anyway.
Lindsay: Especially Diana Rigg’s Tracy. She’s much more memorable than Lazenby’s Bond, which makes her arc all the more poignant.
Erin: Bond may be the point-of-view, but the story is really about her.
Lindsay: Tracy is great in the book, but it's a different character arc. Both she and Bond are less emotionally broken people in the movie, and her role is expanded.
Erin: For example, she doesn’t have to sit out the entire climax.
Lindsay: She also doesn't get captured or need rescuing in the book.
Erin: At least she's more than a damsel. The sequence where she defends herself against one of Blofeld’s goons is probably the best hand-to-hand fight in the movie.
Lindsay: Agreed. Most of the fights are a little weak. The chases are better.
Erin: The ski chase, in particular. A lot of the credit goes to the composer. The score for this movie is phenomenal - it really ratchets up the tension.
Lindsay: And then there’s the ending.
Erin: It’s really good.
Lindsay: Is it hyperbole to call the last scene of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service the single best scene in the entire franchise?
Erin: Yes, it’s a little hyperbolic. But it’s also probably true. They’ve never topped that sequence in my opinion. Tracy’s death is heartbreaking.
Lindsay: Spoiler alert.
Erin: The movie is pushing five decades, and the book is even older.
Lindsay: It is the first time the movies showed Bond’s vulnerability. He has an emotional breakdown in the closing shot.
Erin: I’m still astonished they were brave enough to use that ending.
Lindsay: That’s a decent overview of the good stuff. We should also probably mention… the bad stuff.
Erin: Not everything in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has aged well.
Lindsay: Tracy is a developed character with a complete arc, but we can’t say the same for the other women in the movie. Many seem extra ditzy, maybe to make up for the fact that there are decent female characters in this film? Most of them don't even have names.
Erin: Sure they do. There’s “Jamaican Girl,” “Chinese Girl,” “Indian Girl…”
Erin: We’re not making those up. Those are actually in the credits. There’s a small army of seductive young women being hypnotized into sabotaging the world’s food supply.
Lindsay: Ostensibly they are being treated for food allergies. The movie displays a fundamental misunderstanding of both hypnosis and allergies. And viruses, while we're at it.
Erin: I do like that Blofeld’s plan involves actually curing them of their allergies. You’d think a universal cure to allergies would be worth at least as much money as whatever he hopes to get blackmailing the UN, but I guess Blofeld just really wants to make his fortune through evil.
Lindsay: It’s really to the actor's credit that he mostly manages to sell all this. The concept is about as cartoony as possible, but Telly Savalas makes it work.
Erin: He’s fantastic. When they redesigned Lex Luthor for the animated Superman series, they used his portrayal of Blofeld as a template.
Lindsay: Huh, I didn't know that, but I can see it. In any case, because this is a Bond movie, Bond sleeps with a couple of the women for information. It's not as skeezy as it could be-
Erin: But it's still egregious and somewhat unpleasant.
Lindsay: I do want to mention the Christmas elements before we move on. Bond's infiltration of Blofeld's hideout takes place in the days directly leading up to Christmas. The girls have a party with all the trimmings, and Tracy and Bond have to escape villains through a village holiday fair.
Erin: Plus there's all the snowy chases. After 24 movies, though, it's still the only Bond movie to take place at the holidays.
Lindsay: I guess Christmas only comes once a franchise.
Erin: Oh, God. You went there.
Lindsay: No, wait, I didn't mean to!
Erin: Too late. Now we have to mention Christmas Jones and The World is Not Enough.
Lindsay: ...Fine. It’s one of the Pierce Brosnan Bond films from the 90’s. The Bond girl - well, one of the Bond girls - is named “Christmas,” which might be a reference to the holiday setting of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Erin: Almost certainly. The entire movie is an homage to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The villain is sort of a fusion of Blofeld and Tracy. There are some cool concepts, but it fails in the execution. And, despite the festive name of the Bond girl, it’s not a Christmas movie.
Lindsay: It’s not a good movie, either.
Erin: No. I’d argue it was almost good. Honestly, it was almost great, but…
Lindsay: If only they’d set it at Christmas?
Erin: She’s joking.
Lindsay: If only they’d committed to the original concept of having the Bond girl actually be the villain, instead of pulling a second Bond girl out of nowhere?
Erin: That’s more like it. The World is Not Enough wants to be an updated take on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but it falls flat. But because it’s not set at Christmas, it doesn’t break the pattern.
Lindsay: Because On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is definitely a Christmas movie, even by most of the stricter qualifiers. And it’s a damn good spy flick for its time. Despite a handful of issues, it still holds up today.
Lindsay: The next movie on our list has a very different tone. Three Days of the Condor came out in 1975, six years after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Erin: Oddly, it wasn’t supposed to have all that different of a tone. The director, Sydney Pollack, originally wanted to do something in the vein of a Bond adventure/spy movie. But somewhere along the way it transformed into a serious, R-rated suspense film.
Lindsay: Mostly serious. It still isn’t exactly a realistic portrayal of espionage. There are over-the-top assassins and vast conspiracies.
Erin: Yeah, there are still artifacts of the fantasy spy adventure sub-genre, but the movie ultimately feels more like it plays out in our world than Bond’s.
Lindsay: The main character, played by Robert Redford, isn’t a master spy. He’s employed by the CIA, but he’s essentially a researcher who’s paid to read novels and search for… well… anything they can use. Patterns, plots, sneaky tricks, that sort of stuff.
Erin: He stumbles across something that gets all of his coworkers killed and pulls him into a world of intrigue.
Lindsay: I love that the movie is not interested in holding your hand as a viewer. It's 42 minutes in before he clearly explains what his job actually entails.
Erin: The tension is also very well handled. You learn everything you need to know about the character's fear and rising paranoia in silent cuts between the actor's face and his surroundings.
Lindsay: His Christmas surroundings!
Erin: This is where the movie is most interesting to us. It’s clearly set during the holidays - there are decorations and music.
Lindsay: But unless I missed a line, I don’t think anyone actually mentions the holidays. Not once.
Erin: I’m fairly sure there was nothing in the script connecting it to Christmas, but they chose to set it against that backdrop.
Lindsay: And ho boy, did that start a trend.
Erin: Yup. Three Days of the Condor is patient zero for Christmas action movies. This is where Shane Black got the idea, and the rest is history.
Lindsay: The choice seems to have been made for tonal reasons. The holiday music in the background adds to the main character's isolation. It makes for a nice contrast between the cheerful celebrations and the secret world of espionage hiding in the shadows.
Erin: And that contrast has blossomed into a festive tradition!
Lindsay: There’s more to like about this than just its yuletide setting. The movie’s MVP is Max von Sydow, who plays an independant assassin.
Erin: There’s a scene where he examines a miniature that I’m pretty sure is supposed to be a knight. I’m not sure if this is a callback to his role in the Seventh Seal, though in Condor he has more in common with the character he faced off against in the earlier film.
Lindsay: He certainly feels like an angel of death. He murders people, including a few we care about, and for most of the movie appears to be the main antagonist. Then at the end, he switches sides and serves as a kindly mentor to the protagonist.
Erin: Not because of a change of heart, mind you - that would have been dumb. It’s just that the film’s events cause allegiances to get shuffled, removing the animosity between him and Redford’s character.
Lindsay: It’s a hell of a scene. Every scene with him is amazing.
Erin: Even the scenes without him are strong. For the most part.
Lindsay: There’s this one exception.
Erin: So, remember how we said aspects of On Her Majesty's Secret Service were problematic?
Lindsay: Part of the plot of Three Days of the Condor has the main character abducting, abusing, and imprisoning a random woman, before having sex with her. It's painful to watch.
Erin: He rapes her. The movie doesn’t frame it that way, but he all but tells her that’s the condition for him letting her go.
Lindsay: I think, I think they wanted her to be like Tracy. The film tries to make the case that she's a broken woman, that her photographs of barren trees and empty landscapes mean that she's sad and self-destructive, so that we'll believe she wants a fling with this violent, possibly unhinged guy. Faye Dunaway really tries her best to sell it that way. But she doesn't get enough character development to make it work.
Erin: It’s also worth noting that Redford’s character is the one to psychoanalyze her and explain all that. In essence, it’s a story where a man abuses a woman and decides she wants him to rape her. And the movie is 100% okay with that.
Lindsay: Yeah. It’s all presented as a romance. Complete with music that is incredibly cliche, gross, and completely wrong for both the characters and the movie as a whole.
Erin: Some of that was just because it was made in the 70s, but you’re not wrong.
Lindsay: Assuming you’re able to look past that, the rest of the movie is pretty fantastic. It offers a critical look at the concept of espionage and explores the idea of government agencies going too far. It asks some uncomfortable questions about our country and its possible future.
Erin: Yeah, there’s a reason this was as impactful as it was. In addition to leaving a mark on Christmas movies, this also served as the template for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Lindsay: Not a Christmas movie.
Erin: True. Iron Man 3 was, though.
Lindsay: Not a spy movie.
Erin: Also true. But the director of Iron Man 3 wrote The Long Kiss Goodnight, the third movie we’re discussing.
Lindsay: That transition was a little dizzying.
Erin: I wanted to make sure it couldn’t be traced.
Lindsay: The Long Kiss Goodnight is a 1996 movie written by Shane Black and directed by Die Hard 2 alum Renny Harlin.
Erin: It is so good.
Lindsay: It is so good! It's funny, sweet, action-packed, and stuffed full of both snappy dialogue and Christmas.
Erin: It’s my third favorite Christmas action movie. I realize that doesn’t sound all that impressive, but believe me when I say there are more than you’d expect. Maybe it’ll sound more impressive if I say it’s my favorite Shane Black movie.
Lindsay: The movie is a sort of mashup of spies and hard-boiled detectives. It's got elements of Jason Bourne and Philip Marlowe. The title of the movie is certainly a reference to Chandler's classic novel, The Long Goodbye.
Erin: The Long Kiss Goodnight stars Geena Davis as a super-spy with amnesia discovering that she’s not, in fact, just a kindly school teacher raising her daughter. Sam Jackson plays Mitch Henessey, the private investigator helping her dig into her past.
Lindsay: There are quite a few twists as Davis’s past comes back to haunt her. By the end, they discover a conspiracy not entirely unlike what the villains in Three Days of the Condor were working with.
Erin: Before you dismiss that connection as a stretch, keep in mind this was written by Shane Black, who has cited the tonal effect of Three Days of the Condor as the reason he sets his movies at Christmas. There’s also a scene in both movies where the protagonists use phone lines to outmaneuver and track down the bad guys. The method may be different, but the idea is similar.
Lindsay: Fans of Shane Black will find a lot more than just the holiday setting that feels familiar. The movie features a cute kid, phenomenal comedic dialogue, and infusions of noir.
Erin: I tend to think it’s more comedy than action, though I don’t consider that a negative. There were apparently several major script revisions before they arrived at the final draft, and some of those sound quite a bit darker.
Lindsay: They were still revising this right up to release. Jackson’s character was supposed to die, but test audiences rebelled. They reshot the end at the last minute.
Erin: The final result is one of Black’s lighter movies. It’s not quite a spoof - there are still a few dark moments - but it’s more fun and less emotionally striking than most of his work.
Lindsay: Both Davis and Jackson are fantastic in this. Davis sparks with manic energy and sharp humor, and Jackson balances her with a grounded, vulnerable performance masked by bluster and wit.
Erin: Recently, Jackson was asked to rank his roles and choose his favorite. Mitch Henessey wound up in the #1 spot. It’s honestly not hard to see why. The dialogue is phenomenal, and his performance is even better.
Lindsay: It’s really a combination of Davis’s physicality and Jackson’s line delivery that make this as good as it is.
Erin: Sometimes he sells a scene or a joke with an expression. He’s so good, you don’t realize he’s the reason someone else’s line was funny, but it’s a look he gives that sells it.
Lindsay: I can't say enough about Geena Davis in this. Her action skills are top-notch, and despite her obvious protagonist power, you feel the character works for every success.
Erin: I think every movie we’re talking about today comes with some sort of recommendation, but The Long Kiss Goodnight has the fewest qualifiers. Okay, there are a few sequences which date the effects. And if you’re looking for realism, the infamous slow-moving fireball from the grenade will irritate you.
Lindsay: It does sometimes sacrifice realism for the sake of style. But if you haven’t seen this one yet, you should track it down. It’s a joy to watch, start to finish.
Erin: Before we move on to movie number four, I want to take a minute to address something a few of you may be wondering, which is how we’re defining “Spy flick”.
Lindsay: This is a welcome departure from our usual hobby of debating various definitions of the term, “Christmas movie.”
Erin: Oh, I have written numerous articles on definitions and litmus tests to determine whether something is a Christmas movie. But we’re somewhat less experienced when it comes to espionage.
Lindsay: Spy movies are hard to pin down. Which is somewhat appropriate, because SPIES are supposed to be hard to pin down.
Erin: It’s relatively easy when you’re looking at something like Bond or even Three Days of the Condor. These are widely recognized as iconic spy properties.
Lindsay: But there might be a few of you questioning our decision to include Long Kiss Goodnight. Sure, one of the leads is a spy, but the other is a detective, and the movie owes at least as much to noir as to espionage.
Erin: And on top of everything else, it fits neatly in the catch-all “Action flick” genre.
Lindsay: When you start dissecting these genres, you find they’re all closely related and overlapping. Most spy movies are action, war, or heist films where one or more characters are spies.
Erin: And that was basically our litmus test. If at least one of the lead characters was a spy, we counted it. Even if the fact that character was a spy wasn’t revealed until the end of the movie.
Lindsay: Oh yeah. Spoiler warning.
Erin: Let’s talk about Ronin, the 1998 crime thriller starring Robert De Niro and directed by John Frankenheimer.
Lindsay: Note he said “crime thriller,” not “spy movie.” And certainly not, “Christmas spy movie.”
Erin: It can be all three. But on the surface, it’s mostly a crime thriller about a team of international mercenaries planning and executing a heist to steal a briefcase that contains… a Macguffin.
Lindsay: To be fair, the case is ultimately a misdirect. It matters to the movie’s villain for reasons that are never explained, but the villain matters to the hero for reasons that are explained.
Erin: Explained quickly. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss it.
Lindsay: That’s true of most of Ronin’s plot. It gives you just enough information to have a vague idea what's happening, then expects you to keep up while it plows ahead at 100 miles per hour.
Erin: Which is also what the movie’s mostly remembered for. The car chases in this film are legendary. All of the action is, honestly, but the shootouts are too quick to be memorable.
Lindsay: Well, that's just a side-effect of the film’s commitment to realism.
Erin: The car chases, on the other hand, are almost impossible to forget. At least, they are now that I’ve seen the movie four or five times. If I’m being entirely honest, this one had to grow on me.
Lindsay: It’s subtle for an action movie. The chases and fights are buffered on all sides by dialogue that seems to run in circles or characters quietly waiting or preparing, which makes it easy to lose interest. But if you can stay focused, you’ll be rewarded.
Erin: It’s kind of an odd situation. Everything about this movie is incredible except the characters and premise. It’s not like those are bad - they’re just kind of background noise. Meanwhile, the precision that went into every second of filming this is amazing.
Lindsay: I actually liked the characters, at least on the second viewing. I especially like the understated friendship growing between DeNiro's cranky professional and the French specialist played by Jean Reno - the realism in that relationship isn't hurt by the fact that apparently the actors became friends off-camera as well. Sean Bean emotes his heart out, but he's not in that much of the film. Every actor is great, the cinematography is incredible, the stunt work is some of the best ever filmed…
Erin: If the characters had been a little more stylish or the tone had been a little lighter, I really think this would be remembered as one of the best genre films ever made. But I don’t feel like that would have been possible. Listening to the audio commentary, you feel like it was as good as it was because Frankenheimer believed in it. Swap out the lead for someone with an artificial personality and snappy one-liners, and I doubt he’d have been as committed.
Lindsay: This actually has a character-driven plot with numerous twists and surprises, but everything is so grounded that it's hard to follow what's happening and why.
Erin: I think all of this was a choice, or maybe a trade-off, to get to the final result. It’s an amazing piece of cinema if you’re willing to meet it on its own terms, but it’s just not all that interested in being entertaining.
Lindsay: I think we both really like this movie now, but neither of us cared for it on the first viewing.
Erin: Oh, and at the end of the movie we learn the main character was secretly a spy the whole time.
Lindsay: And the movie’s technically set at Christmas.
Erin: Yeah, it doesn’t come up much, but it’s definitely set at some point during the holiday season.
Lindsay: It’s a nice change seeing Christmas celebrated in the background of an action movie set in southern France, as opposed to it being in the background of an action movie set in LA or New York, but other than that, the principle seems the same.
Erin: Yeah, they’re doing the whole juxtaposition-of-violence-against-the-season thing again. It might even have been a reference to Three Days of the Condor. There are a few other possible connections, the most interesting of which being a set of miniatures used to explain the title.
Lindsay: In the commentary, the director says he just likes miniatures.
Erin: I’m choosing to not believe him.
Lindsay: This also includes a sequence where the characters need to trace a phone line, just like in Three Days of the Condor and The Long Kiss Goodnight. The twist is that this is a cell phone, which was still a relatively new piece of technology when this came out.
Erin: You could even make a case that almost every major character is similar to Max Von Sydow’s in Condor. He was sort of the original ‘Ronin,’ at least in the context of this movie.
Lindsay: It’s a stretch, but it makes a degree of sense.
Erin: Of course, there are a lot of other movies referenced by Ronin.
Lindsay: Yeah, but none of those are Christmas movies. At least none that I noticed.
Erin: That’s it for Christmas spy movies, or at least the ones we could find.
Lindsay: Movies, sure. But if we expand the parameters of our search, we find a lot more.
Erin: Actually, let’s stay on movies for another minute. Only… not Christmas movies. I want to talk about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the 2011 espionage film starring Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, and… well… damn near every British actor over the age of 40 who was available.
Lindsay: That one isn't a Christmas movie, but it’s got a few scenes set at a Christmas party.
Erin: There’s sort of an extended flashback the movie revisits a few times where the main character, George Smiley, learns his wife is having an affair with one of his coworkers.
Lindsay: This isn’t even an especially dark moment in the movie. The whole thing’s like that.
Erin: Yeah, it’s sort of a deconstruction of the genre. It’s a spy movie that strains out every ounce of excitement, passion, and moral righteousness from the premise. You’re left with a realistic look at the consequences this sort of work would have on the people who are involved as they age.
Lindsay: But, hey, it’s a good movie. More a noir drama than the adventure stories you normally get. It sets out to deliver something depressing and it succeeds.
Erin: I don’t know that it’s as groundbreaking or amazing as the other movies we’ve looked at, but - then again - this wasn’t technically a Christmas spy movie. Just a spy movie with a little Christmas sprinkled in.
Lindsay: You’re saying it would magically have been a masterpiece if they’d changed the setting to Christmas?
Erin: I think that’s the thesis we’re developing, yes.
Lindsay: Moving over to television, that thesis isn’t disproven by the 1965 holiday episode of The Avengers.
Erin: Not the superhero team the Avengers. The British spy duo.
Lindsay: Right. Although the plot of this episode would have been equally likely to involve either team. The episode is called “Too Many Christmas Trees,” and the characters are attacked by a group of psychics who send creepy dreams in an attempt to steal state secrets.
Erin: The stage for this psychic heist is a Christmas party in the real world and a nightmarish Winter Wonderland in John Steed’s mind, complete with a deformed, grotesque Father Christmas.
Lindsay: Over the course of the episode, they erode his sanity while Emma Peel works to unravel the mystery.
Erin: Unravel the mystery and kick some ass.
Lindsay: Turns out, being a psychic doesn’t necessarily equip you with the skills to deal with an agent of Peel’s caliber. She tears through their ranks pretty easily in the finale.
Erin: It’s a great episode, combining Christmas horror with spy-themed comedy and action. It also incorporates elements from “Dead of Night,” a famous British horror anthology from 1945 that includes a sequence set at Christmas.
Lindsay: Dead of Night isn’t really a Christmas movie, though.
Erin: Nah. Just one of the shorts takes place at a Christmas party.
Lindsay: Like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Erin: Just like… sorry. Getting off track. The point is, the Avengers episode includes some nice homages to the classic movie.
Lindsay: And a lot of Dickens references. Not just A Christmas Carol, either. These are some deep cuts.
Erin: I can’t say for certain how this stacks up compared to other episodes from this series - my understanding is this was a fairly great show - but even on its own, this was a delight to watch.
Lindsay: That same year, Christmas made a delightful cameo in another, even more comedic spy series.
Erin: The episode of Get Smart titled "Our Man in Toyland" isn't clearly set at Christmas, but it does feature an agent undercover as a department store Santa.
Lindsay: I was really pleased how well Get Smart held up. I watched reruns as a kid and I loved it.
Erin: It was well written and a lot of fun. Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 have to figure out how the evil spies are smuggling intelligence out through the department store, and it turns out that they're recording it on voice tapes inside dolls.
Lindsay: Between the toys and Santa it's definitely Christmas-ish, but no one mentions Christmas or December.
Erin: Still, I feel confident counting it as Christmas espionage, even it’s maybe a technicality.
Lindsay: We've talked about style versus realism and live-action comedy, let's talk about some animated spies now. It may be a long skydive from 1965, but 2003 brings us to a secret agent dear to our hearts: Kim Possible.
Erin: This was one of the Disney Channel’s better offerings from this era. The title character balances her work as a secret agent battling supervillains with the stresses of high school.
Lindsay: In the episode “A Very Possible Christmas,” Kim’s friend and bumbling assistant Ron Stoppable decides that the best present he can give her is to go on a mission in her stead, so that she can spend the holiday with her family. This does not go as smoothly as planned, and Kim and her family end up circling the globe looking for Ron when he’s stranded at the North Pole with the villain.
Erin: The show was notable for cycling through quite a few tones. This is one of the sillier episodes, but the writing is really clever. It’s a lot of fun.
Lindsay: The episode features an in-world Christmas special that multiple characters are familiar with, and it’s peppered with references to famous real Christmas specials. They work in lines of dialogue from How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Erin: And there’s also an allusion to the 1997 film, Anaconda.
Lindsay: Well, there was an anaconda in the episode. I’m not sure it was an allusion. Also, Anaconda wasn’t a Christmas movie.
Erin: It should have been. Sorry - getting off topic. The point is, this episode has everything. The ending might even be a callback to the He-Man & She-Ra Christmas Special.
Lindsay: You’re reaching again.
Erin: It isn’t brilliant, and the “secret agent” elements are less central here than in some of the other episodes, but it’s certainly enjoyable.
Lindsay: Same goes for the 2005 holiday installment of Codename: Kids Next Door. This one’s called, “Operation: N.A.U.G.H.T.Y.”, which stands for… a very long acronym.
Erin: This was always an odd series. The premise, that a secret organization of preteen special agents carried out Mission: Impossible style tasks to keep the world safe for kids, had a lot of potential. But the execution was mixed.
Lindsay: It was almost too imaginative for its own good. They’d just kind of throw ideas, genres, and plots into a blender, then serve up the results. Sometimes they were inspired; other times… just weird.
Erin: This episode was a good example, though personally I found the results worthwhile this time. It opens with a North Pole heist that appears to be carried out by the Kids Next Door. This is somewhat believable, as the show always sort of featured a fairly relaxed view of ethics.
Lindsay: In retaliation, the North Pole sends a strike team of elves to take back the magical device that was stolen. The team is called “Elf-a Strike”, and they’re led by a gruff brawler who goes by Wintergreen.
Erin: For those of you who aren’t total nerds, this is an allusion to Alpha Flight, one of the more obscure superhero teams from the Marvel Universe.
Lindsay: It’s a deep cut, but it’s actually a pretty nuanced one. Alpha Flight is Canada’s superhero team, which places them closer to the North Pole than usual. That said, the elves on “Elf-a Strike” are based more on members of the X-Men than they are on Alpha Flight specifically.
Erin: Well, other than Wolverine, who has been on both teams. He’s also been on the Avengers. Not the British Avengers, but the...
Lindsay: The Kids Next Door fight the elves until everyone realizes there’s been a misunderstanding. The real culprits are the Kids Next Door’s enemies, the Delightful Children from Down the Lane. Elf-a Strike then teams up with the Kids Next Door to save Christmas.
Erin: Again, this is staying true to the source material. Comic crossovers almost always start with a misunderstanding, a fight between heroes, then the eventual team-up.
Lindsay: And a last-minute twist. This time, it’s when #3 goes Dark Phoenix after hacking into a Christmas-themed variation on Cerebro.
Erin: Again, it’s all very odd. It’s hard to imagine how anyone came up with the concept for this episode. Maybe they started with the Alpha Flight/Elf-a Strike pun and then went from there.
Lindsay: Regardless, your enjoyment will probably depend on your knowledge and love of comics lore. So we really dug this. Our most recent example comes from a 2015 holiday episode of the rebooted Danger Mouse series called “The Snowman Cometh.” Danger Mouse is a super secret agent, complete with gadgets, supervillains, and world-saving missions.
Erin: The Snowman is a recurring villain. He’s sort of the Rhino of the show, if you're familiar with Spiderman's Rhino: the joke is, he’s not much of a threat.
Lindsay: He’s too stupid to achieve his goals. He keeps showing up, but he’s never the main villain. Just a side note.
Erin: Until this episode, which starts with him pulling a fairly minor heist, which goes about as well for him as usual. But instead of slipping into the background, he manages to steal Santa’s magic hat, which gives him the fat, jolly old elf’s powers.
Lindsay: Fat, jolly polar bear. He’s a polar bear in this version. And his helpers are all penguins. And all the animals are basically the same size.
Erin: It works best if you don’t think about it too hard.
Lindsay: This is a double-length episode, which means it’s a half-hour long, since the normal episodes are actually half-episodes.
Erin: Which gives them a little more time to build up the story and pack this full of puns and references.
Lindsay: And violence. This basically ends with Danger Mouse and Santa executing The Snowman by towing him to the sun.
Erin: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Christmas specials, it’s that the only way to kill an anthropomorphic snowman is to melt him with solar energy. That’s the only way they ever stopped Frosty.
Lindsay: Despite the violence, this episode doesn’t get overly dark. It’s one of the funniest episodes of the series, which is pretty wonderful overall. And while the secret agent elements are mostly nominal--
Erin: --It borrows at least as much from superheroes as spies.
Lindsay: Well, we’ve already established that the spy genre has always been somewhat nebulous. It’s technically a spy series, so it counts. And it certainly doesn’t break our streak.
Erin: There’s also a trope in Christmas media that connects to the spy genre: having Santa’s elves contain a division of spies or counterintelligence experts.
Lindsay: This shows up everywhere from The Tim Allen Santa Clause movies to The Tick animated series and the criminally underappreciated Arthur Christmas.
Erin: None of these are really spy movies, though - they’re movies or shows where one or more of the minor characters are spies.
Lindsay: That’s because there are no movies or television shows where Christmas elf spies are the main characters.
Erin: I see what you did there.
Lindsay: I said there were no movies or TV shows. I didn’t say anything about specials.
Erin: Which brings us to our absolute favorite piece of spy-themed holiday entertainment, the 2009 TV special, Prep and Landing.
Lindsay: This is the story of Wayne and Lanny, two highly trained agents of the North Pole tasked with breaking into houses, neutralizing threats, and preparing the location for Santa’s arrival.
Erin: It is so good.
Lindsay: The special depicts the entire North Pole as an super-efficient, technically advanced operation devoted to delivering gifts to the good children of Earth.
Erin: Wayne is the jaded veteran, and Lanny is the new recruit. This does an amazing job juggling the comedy intrinsic to the premise with tense action sequences and a legitimate genre story.
Lindsay: This is absolutely a spy story. There are callbacks to Bond movies, including a exhilarating, if brief, ski sequence reminiscent of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Even the music feels a little similar.
Erin: I also love how it subtly explores the parallels between surveillance and Santa’s naughty and nice lists. There’s a reason this concept works as well as it does.
Lindsay: In addition to the original, there are a few sequels, including a short and a full-length follow-up. We… don’t entirely see eye-to-eye on the full sequel.
Erin: It’s called “Naughty vs. Nice.” I think there are some good ideas, but it undermines some elements of the original that I really like.
Lindsay: It’s still worth seeing. And the original is just fantastic.
Erin: I also love those shorts. The one called “Secret Santa” features a Mission: Impossible-style heist that’s just wonderful.
Lindsay: Well, I think that’s everything.
Erin: I mean, not quite everything. There are other spy shows that have done holiday episodes we just didn’t get to.
Lindsay: Hey, we never promised this would be comprehensive, but at the very least it’s a hell of a large sample set.
Erin: And everything we saw was good.
Lindsay: You’re giving in on the Prep and Landing sequel?
Erin: Okay, I’m still not a fan of that, but it’s mainly because the original is amazing. The Prep and Landing FRANCHISE is great.
Lindsay: And even if you wanted to quibble about Naughty Vs. Nice, the ratio of good Christmas spy media to bad is unmatched.
Erin: Which leads us back to the original question: why? What is it about this particular Venn diagram that raises the quality of everything - or at least nearly everything - to these heights?
Lindsay: I’m not sure there’s an answer.
Erin: There’s ALWAYS an answer. We just have to dig deeper. Follow the trail of cookie crumbs. Starting with Ronin and those miniatures.
Lindsay: What about the miniatures?
Erin: I just can’t escape the idea they’re connected to the ones in Three Days of the Condor. But Condor also ties to Codename: Kids Next Door.
Lindsay: Wait, it does?
Erin: Yes, okay. The Kids Next Door episode was a Marvel comics parody. It didn’t make any sense at the time, but that’s because we weren’t thinking about Long Kiss Goodnight.
Lindsay: Long Kiss Goodnight? I thought you were connecting it to Three Days of the Condor.
Erin: Wake up! It’s all connected, thanks to Shane Black. His love of Three Days of the Condor resulted in both Long Kiss Goodnight and Iron Man 3 being set at Christmas. Then, less than a year after Iron Man 3, Marvel releases Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film directly inspired by Three Days of the Condor. And who’s in it?
Lindsay: Yes, Robert Redford is in both movies.
Erin: Yeah okay, sure, but Winter Soldier also features Samuel L. Jackson, star of Long Kiss Goodnight.
Lindsay: Are you building to a Winter Soldier/Cold War joke?
Erin: Oh, it’s no joke. It’s the key to finally answering the question we’ve been circling since we started investigating this genre. But it goes deeper. Because what else did we look at?
Lindsay: The Avengers.
Erin: A team that has the same name as the team Captain America belongs to, and one sharing a name with a British television series from the 1960s starring Diana Rigg, who also just happens to star in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Do you really think all that’s a coincidence?
Lindsay: What about Prep and Landing?
Erin: Owned by Disney. Same with Kim Possible. You know what else Disney owns?
Erin: Marvel! Don’t you get it? It’s all connected! Follow the actors, writers, ideas, and - most importantly - the money, and it all ties into Disney’s acquisition of Marvel, a brand that ostensibly only has passing connections to espionage. Do you have any idea what this means?
Erin: Yeah… me, neither.
Lindsay: Maybe it’s just because it’s not obvious to set a spy movie at Christmas. Maybe the fact there’s no simplistic, universal connection between espionage and the holidays meant no one bothered to make a Christmas spy movie unless they had a good reason or a good story to tell.
Erin: Or maybe that’s what they WANT you to think.
Lindsay: The Mainlining Christmas Podcast is written, recorded, scored, edited, and generally created from microfiche stolen from the North Pole vaults by Lindsay Stares--
Erin: --and Erin Snyder. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter, so come tell us what great or terrible piece of Chrispionage we're missing.
Lindsay: For more information about many of the movies we talked about today,
Erin: --and many more extremely plausible theories about Christmas--
Lindsay: -- visit MainliningChristmas.com.
Erin: Oh, crap I forgot about the briefcase!