Mission Impossible: The Complete First TV Season Review
It’s a sad fact that for today’s generation the name Mission: Impossible is far more likely to conjure up images of a deeply unsatisfying trio of movies starring everyone’s favourite scientologist rather than the classy series today under consideration. The most frustrating thing about the three Mission films is that in essence they share nothing in common with the series which allegedly spawned them other than some familiar motifs - the self-destructing tape recorder, the face masks, that Lalo Schifrin theme - and the same title. This is a waste: in the right hands a cinematic version of Mission could be stunning, but the closest any movie has come to it in the past ten years has in fact been Ocean’s Eleven which in style and story was far closer to the Sixties series than any of the three Cruise movies. That Ocean's was similar is not surprising, as way back when it was a pair of heist movies that originally gave Mission creator Bruce Geller the idea for the series in the first place, namely Rififi (1955) and, especially, Topkapi (1964). What he came up with after being inspired by those two pictures became arguably the most successful of the many spy series around in the 1960s, an amusing blend of intricate plotting, high gadgetry, Cold War stereotypes and nerve-wracking tension that still holds up as quality entertainment today.
At the time he wrote the first draft of what was originally called Briggs’ Squad, Geller was widely considered one of the most talented and innovative television writers around. Starting his career in the early 1950s with sales to shows as diverse as Flash Gordon and Strike it Rich he quickly became renowned for rich characterisation (a rarity in those early days) and witty dialogue. He worked with a young Sam Peckinpah on a short-lived series called The Westerner which, through its humour and realism, injected some much-needed life into what was already becoming a moribund genre, and tackled social issues on detective show The Robert Taylor Show. In many ways he was a man ahead of his time with his work often too sophisticated and broad to work on the small screen (his year on Rawhide, now considered one of its strongest - if quirkiest - seasons, came to an end when the CBS chairman demanded it be returned to its old format with “more cows”) and it’s little surprise that he had just as much success penning the book for several Broadway musicals (although even there his intricate lyrics, while a joy to read on paper, didn’t always translate well to a live audience.) In 1966 he had the idea that Briggs' Squad might make a suitable project for his first feature film, but when one of the top brass at CBS, Alden Schwimmer, got wind of the project he suggested he pitch it as a television series instead to the struggling production company Desilu.
Desilu had been founded by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1951 to produce their hit show I Love Lucy. Although it had done well during the Fifties, by the mid-Sixties it was struggling to survive, with its only success being I Love Lucy follow-up The Lucy Show. Every year CBS gave them some money to commission some pilots, every year they dutifully made said pilots, and every year CBS didn’t like what they saw and sent them packing. Making their money from renting out the studio facilities to other productions, the company, while not exactly on the verge of bankruptcy, was finding life tough. 1966 saw somewhat of a turnaround in their fortunes: in the space of a couple of months, they suddenly acquired Mission: Impossible and another initially low-key series calling itself Star Trek. To modern sensibilities this is an extraordinarily strong, historic duo of titles but ironically neither show proved much of a boon to the studios, at least initially. While Star Trek’s battles with low viewing figures and constant threat of cancellation are now legendary, Mission proved just as trying, quickly gaining an unfavourable reputation in the industry for episodes running massively over budget and schedule and as a show enormously complex to put together.
Ostensibly, each instalment is constructed the same way. At the beginning the leader of the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) collects a new assignment given to him by a voice on a tape-recorder always hidden in an innocuous location such as a flower shop, a recorder that inevitably self-destructs after imparting said assignment (although, in this first season, not always after five seconds). The missions vary but usually boil down to having to either rescue someone from an enemy country, steal something from an enemy country (plans or weapons usually) or find out some information about an enemy country’s plans which the US Government can use to their tactical advantage. Dan then chooses the people he wants to join him on the mission from a big folder of IMF operatives (in reality the cast members plus members of the production team - the guy in dark glasses is Geller himself) and they have a brief, cryptic discussion about their scheme in his apartment which makes no sense to the viewers. The rest of the fifty-minute episode then follows the team carrying out their schemes, their plans only gradually becoming clear both to the viewers and those villains they are fooling until in the climax they waltz out of the field of operations looking pleased with themselves as their victims reap the consequences of the chaos they have left behind.
The key to the success of the series, just as Geller always intended, was in watching how the cons come together, how they manage to bamboozle the foreign despots or defecting scientists or whatever they have to in order to achieve their aims. As mentioned, it’s often unclear what exactly their scheme actually is, but the skill of the show is that even though we don’t know why they’re doing what they are, there’s enough entertainment to be had from watching them go about their nefarious plans to ensure patience isn’t lost. We might watch technical wizard Barney (played by Greg Morris) wiring up some elaborate contraption while attempting to avoid being spotted by Evil Commie Guards, or sexy Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) try to seduce an evil power-mad despot just so that he inadvertently reveals the combination to his safe containing the secret plans for WMDs (oh yes). One of the semi-famous aspects to the show are the constant masks being put on and pulled off, and this is the department of Rollin Hand (Martin Landau, at the beginning of his career and then-husband of Bain) who during the course of the season affects many disguises to try and gain access to information. Finally, there's Willy (Peter Lupus), the dogsbody of the group who never has anything to do other than carry heavy things around (although bless him he does that very well). But why is he carrying what he is carrying, why is Rollin disguised in that way, exactly what sort of gizmo is Barney wiring up, and why does Cinnamon have to put up with that lecherous creep? All is only truly revealed in that last act as their façade drops and the disparate threads finally come together. In many ways, it’s like an elaborate display of domino toppling, with the first three acts the tense set-up (one wrong move and the whole thing will come crashing down too early) and the last the final push to reveal the full pattern.
The complex plotting meant that this was a very difficult show to write for, and very few managed to do so successfully. Timing is essential, as is making sure the audience doesn’t get lost. It’s ironic that, in its rigid formula and almost mathematical approach to story construction, it was the very antithesis of Geller’s natural style and it’s unsurprising that he only ever wrote one episode, the show’s pilot (he confessed later that even that had been a tortuous experience). This first season, in particular, is far rougher than those which would follow it, as different writers experimented with different approaches to try and suss out exactly what did and didn’t work. This has both advantages and disadvantages: whereas the later years are uniform in their approach, with very little difference in style between one show and the next, here there’s a lot more variety and experimentation, much of which would come as a surprise to veterans only familiar with subsequent seasons. The problem is that those experiments don’t always work. One episode, Zubrovnik’s Ghost, flirts with the idea of spiritualism, another, The Short Tail Spy, sees Cinnamon apparently falling in love with the IMF’s quarry, neither of which quite come off. Not all the team is used in every show, and indeed in one, A Spool There Was, it’s down to Rollin and Cinnamon alone, and things don't always go according to plan, with mistakes being made and plans having to be redrawn on the spur of the moment.
What’s fascinating to see is how, among all these disparate approaches, slowly but surely the series everyone remembers it being slowly begins to coalesce and form in front of your eyes over the course of the twenty-eight episodes. The use of one of the trademarks of the show, the elaborate gadgets, evolves along a similar path to their appearances in the Bond films, appearing sparingly in the early shows before increasing in importance as the year went on. This was down to the two sets of writers who, more than any other, would shape Mission: Impossible into the beast it became. Of the many people who wrote for the show, it was Laurence Heath and the writing duo of William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter who got exactly what worked and what didn’t. The thing they understood was that the puzzle was everything: people would tune in to find out how the secret plans were stolen from the safe, not how the agents felt about doing the job. They began to introduce more and more outlandish pieces of equipment and scenarios, and soon these schemes became the highlight of each episode. Two early, defining episodes are Odds on Evil by Woodfield and Balter and Wheels by Heath, which see the IMF use respectively a device to correctly predict roulette results and voting machines to fix an election. Simple by themselves, they set a precedent that would grow and grow in scale: by the season’s end Woodfield and Balter were writing episodes such as The Train which sees the IMF convincing a group of men they are travelling hundreds of miles on a train when in fact stationary in a rail yard depot, propelled only by a series of pistons simulating movement and a back projection screen showing the view. Like much of the series it’s absurd but also great fun and, if one gets over the unlikelihood of back projection being remotely realistic, relatively easy to go with. Future seasons were dominated by this style of story, for better or worse.
Another noticeable part of the season is the gradual eradication of any characterisation among the principal characters. Continuing the idea that the puzzle is the key, Dan, Barney and the rest become essential plot devices, wheels in the machine that have to keep turning but not proper people in their own right. While it’s understandable that the mission is the most important thing, one of the problems with a series that eventually ran for as long as Mission did (seven years) is that the lack of character development eventually grows wearying. One can only take so many jail escapes and near misses with despotic regimes if one doesn’t have a clue who one is cheering on. However, this isn’t so much of a problem in this first year, with the characters far looser than they would be later. On the job they exchange witticisms and comments, make faces at each other, make the odd mistake and even have time for romantic interludes (is it my imagination or do Rollin and Cinnamon have an intimate encounter while knowing they are being listened to by the baddies in A Spool There Was?) These moments of levity are not detrimental to the series at all, and add a welcome human dimension to what can at times be quite cold protagonists, and their eradication over the course of the year, and complete absence thereafter, is not to the series’s benefit. For that reason alone this is a season to be savoured by Mission aficionados: we might not learn why they do what they do, but at least we know they have a sense of humour about it.
Indeed, later seasons would often be saved by the fact the performers, at least for the first few years, are a naturally likeable bunch. The exception for me is Barbara Bain who I've never been able to warm to, either here or in Space:1999 in which she also starred with Landau, and am hindered by the fact that I don’t think she’s remotely attractive (a bit of a problem when she is playing the lead saucepot in a series which, understandably given its era, lives up to the idea that men are there to fight with their hands, women with their bodies) but as plenty of other people seem to think she's hot stuff that’s my problem rather than hers. She's certainly a consummate performer, an intriguing mixture of Hitchcockian blonde and mischievous minx, and she's far better than any of the women who replaced her in the latter seasons. Her husband Landau is far more my cup of tea, bringing real enthusiasm to every scene he’s in and acting as far more of a natural leader than Hill’s Briggs. In this first year Landau, who had a burgeoning film career, was unwilling to commit himself exclusively to the show and so appeared constantly as a guest star, but come Season Two he signed on the dotted line and stayed for the next two years. In all the various guises he places himself he brings a level of wit to proceedings, as well as a constant sly wink to the camera: his natural balancing act, in which we can see he’s playing the baddies for fools but they can’t, is a difficult one, and he does it well.
Greg Morris as Barney, meanwhile, was at the forefront of Desilu’s attempts to improve roles for African-Americans on television at that time (see also Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek) and pleasingly, if perhaps unrealistically, not once is his race a matter of concern or even mentioned during the show. As the show’s resident techhead he has theoretically a less interesting role to play in each scheme but that doesn’t turn out to be the case at all: while usually Rollin and Cinnamon are playing up to the baddies, he’s busy hiding in the cellar wiring up this week’s explosive finale or drilling a hole or something equally risky, and many of the more tense moments of the season revolve around him (not least of which in one episode when he’s shot and has to complete a mission, or another when he’s tortured by guest star Ricardo Montalban). It was only Morris and Peter Lupus who stayed with Mission for all seven years and in that time Morris got the lion’s share of things to do. Regrettably this is not the case with his partner-in-crime, Willy. Eventually it became a joke among fans that he literally does eff-all in the series and there were light-hearted campaigns to give him a meatier slice of the action which never came off. The character starts as he means to go on in this season but Lupus is still an attractive screen presence and manages to ensure he doesn't become a cipher in the background.
And then there’s Steven Hill, the forgotten man of Mission: Impossible. Nowadays the series is inextricably linked with Peter “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” Graves, the Mr Phelps of legend, who was drafted in to replace Hill’s Mr Briggs at the beginning of the second season. Hill was replaced because ultimately he proved too difficult to work with, with a major problem being the fact that, as an orthodox Jew, he refused to work on the Sabbath, walking off the set every Friday evening. This was an enormous problem as Fridays were traditionally the longest days of the week as cast and crew scrambled to make up time lost during the course of the week to finish off an episode. Mission in particular suffered from this problem - it was very rare an episode was completed in seven days, especially after the exceptionally high level of inserts were added (shots such as close-ups of hands on safe and the like) - and it could ill-afford to have a leading man so intransient about his working time. A serious performer (he was in the first year of the Actors Studio alongside Marlon Brando), he also disappointed executives with his resolutely low-key portrayal of the IMF’s boss, but in the context of the premise it makes perfect sense. Hill has the ability to be able to blend into the background of any scene he appears in, perfect for a spy, but, nevertheless, when he needs it, such as the opening scenes in his apartment, he can bring to the screen a quietly impressive charisma. What he doesn’t have, crucially, is authority. He can get angry and passionate when needs be - watch the atypical episode The Ransom for an example - but in general he often appears to be playing second fiddle to Landau, who has more about him (not least in sheer physical presence) than Briggs. After a season’s worth of difficulties, the final straw came during the filming of an episode called Action! in which Hill, after two days’ shooting, refused to climb up a staircase he apparently didn't like the look of and caused the production to come to a halt. As a result he was suspended for the rest of that week, meaning that the episode had to be reshot - including the two days Hill had already done - with a new actor. On a series with as severe budgetary problems as Mission this was the final straw, and the decision was made to remove him (although the actor himself did not discover this until he read an announcement about Graves’s casting in Daily Variety.) Upset at what had happened, Hill retired from acting for a while, splashing out into real estate and living for a time in a Jewish commune before returning to the industry ten years later and managing to forge a highly successfully, albeit characteristically quiet, career as a character actor (with his most notable television role being on Law and Order.)
One of the reasons the show could ill-afford to have a leading man so difficult to work with was that its hugely innovative style made it imperative as much material as possible could be shot for each episode. In this modern day and age of flashy editing made easy by the use of digital tools, it’s difficult to discern exactly how revolutionary Mission’s look was in its day. It’s a sign of how much went into the making of each episode that fairly soon after production started it was decided that there would have to be a special unit dedicated slowly to the filming of the many inserts needed for each story. A show as intricate as this, one which television executives at the time cheerfully admitted they could not follow for love nor money, needed to tell its tales as visually as possible, especially as there’s very little dialogue exchanged between the protagonists about what they are doing. Every safe opening, every sleight of hand, every double-change, had to be zoomed in on and focused so the audiences got what had happened. Directors hated doing the thing, and as with the writers only a few found themselves temperamentally suited to this difficult series. It’s therefore surprising how, in this first year, the direction doesn’t seem nearly as raw as the writing does, with the style firmly set in place pretty much from the pilot episode on. Quick, pacey, fluent, it set the benchmark for many subsequent series and made people realise that not every show had to lumber along with the speed of a particularly slow tortoise.
It’s an interesting time to bring out Mission: Impossible out onto DVD (something long overdue in this reviewer’s opinion). While in the real world it would appear that American neocons are planning a final throw of the dice in respect to the situation in Iraq, we have here presented to us a series which essentially sums up the neoconservative viewpoint. Here is a show in which, week after week, the state meddles directly in the development of affairs in foreign countries, undercover admittedly but nevertheless interventionist in the extreme. They eliminate dictators, steal weapons and plans, try and persuade important scientists to defect and do everything else which has exercised political debate in the real world over the past half decade. There’s even one episode in which a baddy is given repeated electroshock treatment in an attempt to brainwash him and get him to spill the beans that has in this day and age uncomfortable echoes of Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition. I’m sure President Bush must love Mission: Impossible and it certainly adds an extra dimension to watching it now.
It’s important to note, however, before prospective watchers reach for the off button, that it’s a dimension almost entirely unintended by both Geller and his writers. Although the illicit support for such activities is undoubtedly there (we are, after all, meant to be cheering on Dan and co) it should never be taken as a serious dissertation on the issues. Its politics are resolutely two-dimensional, with an understandably simplistic depiction of all foreign totalitaristic regimes as unremittingly evil and our heroes as good eggs fighting the good fight, the equivalent of the cowboys in the white and black hats and to be taken just as light-heartedly. Geller was not interested in preaching, but instead simply liked the idea of an audience watching an elaborate con being played out in front of them, unravelling before their eyes so that, although initially the individual pieces didn’t seem to make much sense, when they all came together at the end to form the complete picture of what was going on there would be an immense sense of satisfaction. That was what propelled him on to make the series: despite its undoubted significance, this was also intended as a simple jigsaw puzzle intended to amuse rather than a thesis to inspire. If one wanted to use it as a tool of propaganda on behalf of the neocons it undoubtedly would serve very well, but the whole is so absurd that any reasoning person would swiftly see that as an argument supporting the idea of interventionalism it’s far too trivial to be considered. Instead, it should be treated for what it is: a damn entertaining show that still holds up well today, both as a period piece that captures a mood and paranoia then rampant in the new world and also as a still thrilling piece of entertainment in its own right.
All twenty-eight episodes of Mission: Impossible’s first season are presented on seven dual-layered single-sided discs with four episodes on each. The discs are housed in four slimline cases, two per box with the exception of the last, and all four cases are held in a overriding case in the same way most other US television DVDs are released. Each case has a brief synopsis of all the episodes held on the discs within, and the artwork is uniform, with only the character appearing on the front and the screen captures on the back differing. The one problem with the box is that tagline. “Nothing smoulders like the original,” I ask you.
The artwork is reflected on the main menus of the discs themselves, which are similarly uniform. Consisting of the names of the four episodes, as well an ever-handy Play All button and a Set Up option which takes you to a submenu to choose between the two soundtracks, it’s all standard stuff. Each episode is divided into seven chapters, although there isn’t a separate menu for selecting individual parts of an episode. Only a pedant would note that not all the pictures on the menu screens are from the show’s first season - check out Barney’s afro which dates from a different decade, never mind different season - but I am a pedant so I will note it.
There are no subtitle options because there are no subtitles other than close-captioning, an increasingly common phenomenon on TV releases that is vastly irritating and loses the set a point immediately.
The video on the episodes have scrubbed up very nicely. Shot in a soft way that was the fashion at the time, with lots of flattering lighting designed to bring out the best of Cinnamon’s make-up, the transfer handles the forty-year-old video very well with a clarity and level of detail that would be the envy of some more modern releases. There is the odd moment of flicker, and a tiny bit of grain, while there’s also an odd suspicion at times that the colours are not quite right in the out of doors scenes - skin sometimes look a little pale - and stripy shirts strobe, but other than that this looks very nice.
There’s a new 5.1 mix to complement the original mono track. The 5.1 doesn’t do a great deal different (although the music, especially the opening theme, comes across with more reasonance and thump) but is not flawed in any discernable way and makes a decent update to the mono original which, no doubt, purists will stick to anyway.
A highly entertaining series gets a reasonable release let down by lack of subtitles and no extras. Given that several of those involved in the series are still with us it’s hard to see why a couple of the IMFers couldn’t have been roped in for a commentary - it’s difficult to believe that, say, Peter Lupus would have had any problem with airing his thoughts on the series. Even more, it would have interesting to have had Steven Hill’s perspective on the show after all these years. Maybe it would have been too difficult to have gone back to, but the lack of extras, especially given the publicity surrounding the movie franchise, is a bit of a let down (even more so when considering that another prospective release for 2007, The Man from UNCLE, should it ever see the light of day, is said to have several goodies attached.) That aside, worth checking out to see how it was done properly and to excise all of your Tom Cruise demons.