Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mission: Impossible: TV for Smart People

“Please slow it down – I get stomach cramps!”

That quote was taken from a letter sent to the producers of Mission: Impossible from someone who apparently couldn’t take the stress.

I’m glad they didn’t listen. The show’s frenetic pace was one of its greatest assets, comparable to nothing else on TV until Jack Bauer began his first race against the clock on 24. From the lit match that kicked off the opening credits to the final freeze-frame, Mission: Impossible just flat-out moved, and demanded that you pay attention. 

If you did, and your stomach didn’t hurt, your efforts were rewarded. M:I rarely insulted the intelligence of its viewers. Don’t expect the surplus exposition found in other hour-long dramas – you won’t watch scenes in which Jim Phelps turns to Cinnamon and says, “So that means the agent we captured yesterday is planning on contacting his government at midnight, to receive his final instructions on the assassination attempt of General Morales!” No, sorry, you keep up, with no help from the characters.

The title was well chosen because the focus is always on the mission, not the operatives who carried it out. That made casting critical, as an audience used to building familial attachments to TV characters would now have to cheer on a team of emotionless government workers.

Who were they? One-sentence descriptions will suffice: Leader Dan Briggs (later Jim Phelps), a brilliant tactician of stoic demeanor; Barney Collier, electronics genius; Willie Armitage, the team’s muscle, Rollin Hand, master of disguise, Cinnamon Carter, fashion model turned Mata Hari. The characters were not further developed, because their personalities or lives before the Impossible Missions Force mattered not at all. 

Instead, the drama emerged from the high stakes at play; while Mannix was beating up small-time hoods, and Steve McGarrett was chasing Wo Fat on Hawaii Five-O, the IM Force was toppling foreign governments and averting nuclear holocaust.

But it wasn’t just what they did that made them special, it was how they did it. Viewers used to the near misses and lapses of judgment that were written in to pad out 60-minute shows could now watch a team that didn’t make mistakes. The IM Force got its orders in the first scene and then, step by step, carried them out flawlessly. This was a team that triumphed because they were smarter than their adversaries, not stronger.

Because of this, on those rare occasions when something did go wrong, the sense of danger was far more pronounced. When enemy agents captured Cinnamon in “The Exchange,” it wasn’t like Dan Tanna having to rescue Binzer on Vegas. The threat seemed real.

Theirs was a partnership of professionals, who often went about the task at hand in blessed silence and without commenting on their own cleverness. Every episode featured long scenes with little or no dialogue, which ironically constituted some of the best writing in 1960s television.

For those who want the full story of how this series came to be, I would direct you to Patrick White’s outstanding book The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier. He shares some great stories about the show’s mad genius creator, Bruce Geller, the role that Lucille Ball played in approving the series pilot, and why star Steven Hill left the show after its first season, to be replaced by the actor who became synonymous with M:I, Peter Graves. 

Hill’s episodes, incidentally, are consistently excellent but were rarely syndicated, which thanks to DVD is no longer an issue. Syndication was a lousy way to discover this series anyway, because there was simply no acceptable means to cut even 5 minutes out of its best episodes. 

Not everyone liked it. In its first season more viewers watched Lawrence Welk, and one critic in Saturday Review wrote a scathing piece that condemned agents who break the laws of other nations, and are never brought to justice.

He had a point. At a time when half the nation was incensed about U.S. forces in Vietnam, here was a show that proudly depicted saboteurs getting their marching orders from “the Secretary” (presumably Secretary of State), who then undermined the domestic affairs of other nations by manufacturing evidence, framing and entrapping government officials, and killing with no remorse.  

Heaven knows how many advocacy groups would demand that Mission: Impossible be taken off the air if it were introduced today. But times were different in the 1960s, and I leave it to you to decide if that’s a good thing.

Almost all of the series’ best episodes can be found in its first three seasons, before the quality was diminished by recurrent cast turnover and a shift to more domestic stories. Here are seven superb Missions worth taking again.

The Pilot
The IM Force is dispatched to Santa Costa to recover two stolen nuclear devices. Everything that made the series a classic was already in its first episode – the self-destructing message delivery system, Lalo Schifrin’s brilliant theme, Rollin’s rubber masks, Barney’s technological wizardry, a cracking pace and a plot that kept viewers on the edge of their seats for a full hour. Also joining the team – Wally Cox, in a memorable one-shot appearance as a safecracker. 

Operation Rogosh
This first-season show was the first of many episodes in which the team creates an elaborate charade to convince an enemy agent that he has been transported through time or across a great distance. Here, they have just 36 hours to break an “unbreakable” terrorist planning a series of attacks on Los Angeles.

The Carriers
The team infiltrates a replica of a typical American city, located behind the Iron Curtain, where enemy agents are trained to think and act like Americans as part of a germ warfare plot. Such places actually existed during the Cold War. In the best scene, the Russians teach Cinnamon how to go-go dance. 

The Legacy
Four men, all sons of Adolf Hitler’s most trusted officers, meet in Switzerland to recover a Nazi fortune, which will be used to start the Fourth Reich. Rollin impersonates one of the heirs, prompting many anxious moments. There’s also a great, unexpected twist at the end. 

The Astrologer
Mission: retrieve missing microfilm and a kidnapped freedom fighter; the challenge, do it while 40,000 feet in the air on a two-hour airline flight. The tight quarters, limited time frame and lack of escape route all intensify the suspense.

The Mind of Stefan Miklos
“I don’t think there has ever been a more difficult show to write in the history of American television than Mission: Impossible,” said one veteran TV writer. Episodes like this one, which may be the series’ best, are the reason. The team has to lead a brilliant intelligence officer to a false conclusion, by leaving clues that can’t look like clues. 

The Glass Cage
How do you free someone from an escape-proof glass cubicle that is constantly guarded and video-monitored, in the heart of a maximum-security prison? The Impossible Missions Force finds a way. 


  1. Excellent, David. Spot on not only on what M:I was, but why it worked. It's about as far away from the emoting of today's procedurals as you can get. As you mentioned, the interference in the domestic affairs of other nations would be a delicate point today; I'm sure that today's characters would also spend an excess amount of time involved in soul-searching and hand-wringing, constantly examining their consciences as to whether or not they were doing the right thing. Not here, though - these people are pros, and you never forget it.

    1. Thanks, Mitchell. I fear you are right about a modern take. Of course the films haven't done that, but that's a whole separate mythos as far as I'm concerned. Any project that makes Jim Phelps a traitor is dead to me.

    2. Completely - Jim Phelps would NEVER sell out his country.

  2. What did you think of Lynda Day George as Casey, Mr. Hofstede? Do you remember seeing veteran soap actor Thaao Penghlis as Nicholas Black on the 1988-90 revival? I wonder how Marcy Walker would've fared on the revival. Marcy was planning on leaving "Santa Barbara" in '88, but decided to stay with the daytime serial after finding out that she was pregnant.

  3. Lynda was the best female operative after Barbara Bain, no question. There were certainly a couple of gems in each of the later seasons, but for me the show lost a lot of its magic after the departures of Bain and Martin Landau.

    1. Did you ever like "Banacek," Mr. Hofstede? If so, did it make you think hard? Lynda Day George was interviewed EXTENSIVELY by TV historian Jonathan Etter for the latter's 2003 book "Quinn Martin, Producer." BTW, Thaao Penghlis has a new memoir out.

  4. Great post on a great TV series! I recently rewatched the first (and best) three years. I started with season 2 because I remembered Peter Graves best as the IMF leader. But I was pleasantly surprised with season 1 and how good Steven Hill was, too. In addition to the episodes you listed, I like "The Seal" (the one with the cat) and the one where they steal the platinum by mounting it on a car.

  5. Great post. Your top-picks are spot on. I just watched all 7 seasons and agree, Lynda Day George was the best of the BB replacements. I find a different kind of charm in Season 5 with Leonard Nimoy and Lesley Ann Warren. Some of my favs: "The Deal", "The Merchant" and "The Innocent." M:I fans should have no trouble spotting the commonality between "The Train", "The Submarine" and "The Flight"?

    1. You're right- season 5 does have its moments, particularly those that shake up the formula like "The Amateur" and "The Innocent."