Mission: Impossible - A Retrospective Look Back at a Classic Spy Series

Article by John Hammond

I make no secret of the fact that I'm a massive James Bond fan. The exploits of 007 are ones that I have enjoyed since I was 9 years of age.

At about 15 years of age however, and thanks to (most likely) BBC2 repeats, I was introduced to Mission: Impossible. Not the very start of the series, but an episode from season 3 (I think). I loved it.  You can’t beat 60’s spy fare. I think that it’s fair to say that series like this still hold up well, for me certainly more than some of the efforts of today's TV! I just can’t see efforts like The Americans, Homeland and Counterpart (although very good) being talked about in the same vein as Mission: Impossible, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, The Saint etc.  But maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, for this article I look back at Mission: Impossible.

About the show...

Mission: Impossible ran for 7 seasons, from 1966 through to 1973. It follows the adventures of the Impossible Missions Force (aka the IMF). This is a group of elite spies who were often (on a weekly basis anyway) assigned to tasks that were seemingly impossible, hence the title. As you will no doubt have an idea, they would always manage to get the task done.

Each episode follows the same general formula; opening with the show’s iconic theme song (everyone should know this when they hear it), a match lights a fuse and we are presented with a montage of scenes from the upcoming episode.

We then see the IMF team leader - Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) in the first season, and Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) afterwards - goes to some remote, or seemingly ordinary-looking location, to obtain a recording of the mission briefing. Shortly after listening, ok, after 5 seconds, the tape will self-destruct, and we see the team leader flipping through photos and dossiers as he puts together the perfect team for the mission. This usually consists of the same main cast, but sometimes also includes a guest character who has expertise that's needed for the case in question. Or, if it’s a larger ruse the team needs to pull off, one of the photos may be of The Horizon Repertory Players, or some other acting troupe.

The leader then gathers the team to go over the plan for mission and test out some of the logistics. It’s here that the viewer gets their first look at how the IMF team plans to carry out the mission, and a glimpse at the gadgets they're going to use. These briefings are also sometimes used to throw in an audience misdirect, planting a scare for later when things seemingly don’t go as originally planned. After the briefing, it’s time to put the plan into action.

It’s safe to say that there's always some hiccup, or issue along the way, but in the end the team always manages to complete the mission, and make their escape. In some of the later seasons, the team selection and/or briefing is skipped and instead of following the formula, the episode jumps right into the action of the mission with a pre-credits scene (very James Bond).

The Seasons...

As mentioned earlier, during the first season, the IMF team leader is Dan Briggs and his mission team usually consists of the same four people. First there’s the beautiful Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain – hubba hubba), who utilizes her feminine wiles to distract and disarm specific targets. She can be the damsel in distress, or the strong confident woman - whatever the mission requires.

Then there’s muscle man Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus), whose immense strength always comes in handy for general grunt work (he doesn’t talk a lot), but also things such as secretly carrying tools. or people into vaults or locations.

Electronics expert Barney Collier (Greg Morris) is the team’s tech guy. If they need some gadget built, or communications system wired up, he’s the guy. He often spends the missions in the rafters, underground or behind walls.

Finally, there’s master of disguise Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), the expert mask-maker of the team.  He can transform himself, or the other team members, into completely different people (even the guest stars) as the mission requires.

During the show’s second season, Jim Phelps replaces Dan Briggs as the IMF team leader. No explanation is given as to why Briggs is gone unfortunately, but I think it would have been nice to have a nod to it. With Phelps coming in for season 2, it changes things up, as he's a little more hands-on during a mission.

Come to season 3 and, at the end of it, things change again as it's the last for Rollin Hand and Cinnamon Carter.  Real life couple Barbara Bain and Martin Landau left the show, and moved to the moon (Space 1999). In turn, this meant that there were some big cast changes for season 4. Master magician, The Great Paris (Leonard Nimoy) becomes the team’s new master of disguise, certainly a decent replacement for Landau. Bain however, proved harder to replace, and we were treated to several female guest stars during season 4.

This season also saw the introduction of Sam Elliott as Dr. Doug Robert, who fills the Peter Lupus (Willy) role for about 13 episodes. That’s not to say that Willy's gone, as he's still an integral part of the IMF team.

Finally, in season 5, the team have a new regular female member in Dana Lambert (played by Lesley Warren). This brought about more stability to the cast though, alas, it wasn’t to last, as Season 6 saw yet more changes to the team. Gone are Dana and Paris (Lesley Warren & Leonard Nimoy) and in comes make-up artist Lisa Casey (Lynda Day George). She joins the team as the newest female member, whilst also taking on the master of disguise role vacated by Nimoy.

The final season comes around, and while Lynda Day George is still a part of the cast, she took time away for maternity leave, meaning a new character, Mimi Davis (Played by Barbara Anderson) joins the team for several impossible missions.

Casting changes to main team aside, suffice to say, we are treated to a great number of guest stars throughout the show's 7 seasons. Keep an eye out for (one of the most prolific actors) James Hong, William Shatner, Ricardo Montalban, George Takei (I sense a theme here), and Joan Collins, just to name a few.

One thing to note abut the show, and many of the era, is that advert breaks aside, you still got a good 50+ minutes of action.  Today, with ads the way they are etc, you’re lucky to get 40-42 minutes. That extra time helps flesh out the stories, and makes Mission: Impossible a more enjoyable experience. The show did this tremendously well, and I still find it a joy to watch.

Worst / Best episodes:

At the bottom of the pile, I’d have to say that ‘The Fountain’ (from season 7) is the worst of the pack. An episode where the team convince the most gullible of people that they have discovered the fountain of youth. I think that says it all really. They also once tried to attempt a science-fiction episode! ‘The Visitors’ (from season 6) sees the IMF team trying to convince people that they're immortal aliens... I kid you not.

At the top of the pile though, this was a tougher choice. The highlight episode for me is season 4’s ‘Submarine’. Here we see the team needing to break the unbreakable, in German soldier Kruger Schtelmann (Stephen McNally). This is a character who's about to be released from prison after 25 years of stonewalling his just-as-villainous captors. The IMF’s task: break him in a matter of hours. The adventure opens with a clockwork operation to kidnap the mark, a brilliant sequence, and then becomes an interrogation on a submarine stage-set, all while the enemy rushes to find them. The submarine dramatics are quite the spectacle, and they propel the mark inexorably towards his undoing.

Another favourite of mine is ‘The Carriers’ (from Season 1). This is visually impressive episode, with an enemy planning a huge bacteriological attack on the United States. The villains have therefore built a training facility that perfectly mimics an American town, which in turn helps train their agents to seem to be real Americans. In this episode the team replace four of the enemy’s recruits, infiltrating the operation. It's a wonderful episode, with a creepy atmosphere. There aren't many, if any, better than this one.

Honourable mentions go out to Season 1’s ‘Operation Rogosh’, ‘The Heir Apparent’ from Season 3 and ‘The Mind of Stefan Miklos’, which was seen in Season 3.

Despite all the television that's been produced since the 1960’s, I'm confident that not many would call Mission: Impossible the greatest show of all time.  I know I couldn’t. What I can say however, is that this could be one of the most influential shows of all time; not only in the spy genre, but moreso with the ‘mission of the week’ shows, such as The A-Team. or Knight Rider ( Ilove those shows so much), or spy dramas like 24 and AliasIt’s a general influence on the whole of episodic drama shows, and it really brought a cinematic feel to small screen.

Mission: Impossible was like a 50-minute movie, every single episode. It had great action, great dialogue, and brilliant visual storytelling. Those are just a few of the things that made this show so great, and so influential. Just ask Tom Cruise!

Revival...

Speaking of Tom Cruise, you will no doubt be aware that the Mission: Impossible franchise lives on in the movies, with Cruise playing the leader of the IMF team for the 21st century. I think it's safe to say that these films have been a big success, with 2 more on the way to add to the 6 already seen. What you may not know is that this wasn't the first time that the franchise has been revived. Back in 1988, with a continuation of the original 1960's show, a two season show aired. Only one recurring cast member from the original show returned, that being Peter Graves who played Jim Phelps. Actually, make that two as the voice of 'the disc', Bob Johnson, also returned in his unseen role. While the first season of the 80's show had little success, a move to airing on a different night proved disastrous and the show was cancelled after season 2.

Your Mission Should You Choose To Accept It…

…is to run out (depending on your current tier restrictions), buy online, or stream this series from wherever you can find it. It's available to buy on DVD here.

I would also hope that a Blu-ray edition of the box set will be available soon, as it was released in this format in the US recently.

So, what are your thoughts on the show? I’d really love to hear everyone's opinions, on my article, or just anything about Mission: Impossible. Thanks for reading.

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