Classic Television Thursday #38 – Mission: Impossible (1966-1973)

mi1I know that I said I would be following up the last Classic Television Thursday post with more on the Amos and Andy TV show, and I will be in a couple of weeks, but I decided that could wait a little bit when, during a discussion with one of my younger co-workers of the new Mission: Impossible movie he mentioned that he didn’t know that there had been a Mission: Impossible TV show. Incredible as that seemed to me, I realized that of course there would be many of the younger generation that had no idea of the series as it existed before the film revival.

(Not having seen actual episodes of the show I can understand, especially since it’s not one of those that gets much replay, but not even knowing there was a show was just a bit more startling for me.)

mi3Anyway, Mission: Impossible debuted in the fall of 1966 on CBS. The basic premise was actually fairly atypical from the usual TV series, in that, at least in it’s initial conception, the only real recurring regular would be the team leader (Steven Hill playing Dan Briggs in the first season, then Jim Phelps, played by Peter Graves in later seasons) and the rest of the operatives would either be chosen from a rotating cast of characters or would be special guest stars who would be brought in for a particular episode so that there was no real set team. Of course, in practice, this was a bit harder to pull off, so there eventually evolved a regular cast which consisted of Greg Morris who played Barney Collier, the electronics genius, Cinnamon Cater (Barbara Bain) who was a fashion model and actress, Willy Armitage (played by Peter Lupus) who was the muscle of the team, and makeup artist and magician extraordinaire Rollin Hand, played by Martin Landau.

Of course, as the seasons went on, these regulars would change (Leaonard Nimoy was even a regular cast member for a couple of seasons), but that was at least the initial core group.

mi2The show almost always followed a standardized format: After the initial title scene (btw, it’s interesting to note that while it always featured Lalo Schifrin’s unmistakable theme song this sequence was actually different from week to week as it would actually show short clips from the episode to follow as it traced the path of a lit fuse) which saw Briggs/Phelps receive a tape recording, phonograph record, phone call, etc. which would give the general outline for the plot of that week’s show.

This “tape scene” was a great way to get the viewer intrigued in what was to follow. Here’s a description of how that scene would usually play out taken from Wikipedia:

Most episodes begin with the leader of the IMF getting the assignment from a hidden tape recorder and an envelope of photos and information that explains the mission. The tape almost always begins with “Good morning/afternoon/evening, Mr. Briggs/Phelps.” Then it explains the situation and ends with “Your mission Dan/Jim, should you decide to accept it” or words to that effect, with a brief explanation of the mission. The listener is reminded, “As always, should you or any of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” At the end of the instructions, Phelps/Briggs is notified, “This tape will self-destruct in five [or, occasionally, “ten”] seconds. Good luck, Dan/Jim.” Then smoke would rise from the tape, and the instructions would be destroyed.

After that, at least initially, when the make-up of the team in each episode was more in flux, there would be a dossier sequence which would show Dan or Jim shuffling through a selection of photographs and biographies of available team members, sorting them into yes or no piles depending upon the skills necessary for the upcoming job. This scene not only allowed new viewers to quickly pick up on just who was who, but was the chance to introduce any guest stars that might be appearing in that episode. This would be followed by a briefing scene during which the plan, and each member of the team’s part in it would be outlined. Of course, it also provided the viewer with certain expectations for what was to follow which would add to the tension when either the plan would have to be changed mid-stream, or something would occur which would make it seem that the plan, as outlined, had been disrupted beyond repair.

mi4Finally, after all of this set-up, the plan would be put into motion and the adventure would truly begin.

(I know, it seems like a lot of each week’s episode was dedicated to set-up, but really all of this was handled expeditiously, and considering that there was no over-arching plot or location which the audience would immediately recognize it really was the most efficient way to get people up to speed on the drama yet to come.)

Unfortunately, I have to confess that I don’t think I’ve seen any but the first of the recent M:I films all the way through, so I can’t comment on how well or whether they follow this format. On the other hand, the release of the latest in the series, Rogue Nation, has brought along with it the perfect chance for those of you who are curious to check out this high quality television series: Target is currently carrying season box sets for less than $10 apiece, and if you;re a fan of the movies, or just of spy or caper/heist shows in general, I highly recommend giving them a try.

As I noted above, the opening title sequence actually differed in the scenes that it showed from episode to episode, but here’s a typical example:

Next time we’ll take a look at the other television to movie adaptation that’s currently in theaters.

2 thoughts on “Classic Television Thursday #38 – Mission: Impossible (1966-1973)

  1. Good recap of the original Mission: Impossible series. Watching it with my family was definitely one of the highlights of my early childhood.

    I think the two most recent M:I movies are worth watching. That’s saying a lot, given that I have a particular dislike for Tom Cruise.

    1. Yeah, that’s one of the things that’s really kept me from seeing more of the recent films. Though I do acknowledge that he can be a good actor, and I like the fact that he’s doing so many of his own stunts, there’s just something about Cruise (and it really has nothing to do with his personal life/religious beliefs, which I try to set aside from the onscreen performance of any actor and just judge them on what I’m seeing in the film they’re in) that just rubs me the wrong way.

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