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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “Old Man Out”

February 14, 2010 2 comments

“Old Man Out,” Part 1: Dan gets his mission in a closed movie theater, a silent newsreel with a tape-recorded description. His mission is to rescue an elderly cardinal and peace-movement leader from a prison that no one has ever escaped from, and to do so before his execution. His plan is for the team to impersonate a travelling circus troupe, and to this end, he recruits Crystal Walker, a trapeze artist played by the lovely, pixieish Mary Ann Mobley (aka Miss America 1959). We see something I’ve never seen before in this show: a recruitment scene. Instead of cutting right to the team assembled in Dan’s apartment getting the briefing, we see Dan coming to Crystal to ask for her help. Though she’s happy (in a flirtatious way) to see her old friend, she categorically refuses getting dragged into another mission, since she’s at an important point in her own career and doesn’t want to have to give that up. Dan eventually convinces her by telling her what’s at stake and giving her puppy-dog eyes. It’s the clearest indication yet that these aren’t professional agents but people Dan recruits from all walks of life. Although I’m forced to wonder what kind of missions would’ve required Dan to call on a trapeze artist at least twice in the past. Well, maybe missions calling for agility and the ability to handle heights. Or maybe he just really likes playing circus?

It sure looks as if Mobley does her own trapeze stunts, which are quite impressive. (And so is she. I’m not sure they could’ve found a stunt double who looked quite as stunning in that skimpy outfit.) I vaguely remember her being a recurring player on the annual Circus of the Stars specials in the late ’70s (that’s right, back then “reality TV” included celebrities doing circus acts, which makes the modern celeb-dancing shows seem downright dull), and IMDb confirms that she performed “death-defying high-wire acts” on those specials.

And Dan shows he can be a real hardcase. When informed that Crystal’s safety net will slow down their getaway, he decides right on the spot that she’ll perform without a net. Old friend or no, beautiful young woman or no, he’ll put her in greater danger if the mission requires it. And he won’t even ask first this time; now that she’s committed, he just tells her what she has to do.

The plot of part 1 is kind of a fakeout. Rollin gets himself arrested and manages to sneak a lockpick past the metal detector. He breaks out of his cell, reaches the cardinal, breaks him out, and gets him to the roof — only to tell him that this was a dry run to get the timing right (using the calliope music from the nearby circus as his timepiece). The real breakout will be later, at a time he specifies to Cinnamon using code phrases when she visits him. (There’s a clever use of the code-phrase gimmick, first set up as the trick to the mind-reading act performed by Dan and Cinnamon, then paid off as part of the actual mission.) However, when the time comes and Rollin gets to the cardinal’s cell, the old man is gone, taken away for intensified interrogation. “To Be Continued Next Week.” Wow, how’s Rollie gonna get out of this one?

In retrospect, the story seems a bit padded to make it a 2-parter. The “dry run” thing seems implausible; he might’ve only had one shot at freeing the cardinal, so they should’ve set up a plan that let him do it when he had the chance. And they sure spend a lot of time showing Mary Ann Mobley twisting around on the trapeze. Although I sure as hell wasn’t complaining about that. Even aside from the sex appeal, she was a very impressive athlete (although that just makes it sexier). As for the rest, the direction is effective, especially with the eerie irony of the cheery calliope music juxtaposed with the somberness and tension of the prison scenes. (And for the first time, the music is by a composer other than Lalo Schifrin, in this case the similarly-named Walter Scharf.)

These early episodes are especially fun because we get to see the characters being themselves more. There’s more focus on the initial planning, more scenes where the team members are out of character and discussing the plan or just joking with each other. A lot of this was lost later in the series; in most of the episodes I’ve seen, the team members spend almost the entire episode in character and their personalities are essentially ciphers. Even when they are out of character in the later seasons, they’re a lot more serious than this early group. I’m really beginning to think that the first season was the show’s best, even without Peter Graves. Indeed, I’m starting to warm up more to Steven Hill as Dan, maybe just because I’m enjoying these episodes so much.

——

“Old Man Out, Part 2”: Watching the recap of Part 1 at the beginning of this episode really drives home how much cinematic storytelling has evolved since 1966, becoming much more concise. Maybe it’s just that Part 2 ran really short, but it took them just under six and a half minutes to recap 48 minutes of story from Part 1. These days, a recap is typically more like 30 seconds, 1 minute, maybe as much as 2 minutes if it’s really involved. It’s as if audiences back then weren’t as accustomed to seeing only part of a discussion or action and being asked to extrapolate the rest. Even so, there were so many ways they could’ve shortened this, say, by having scenes from the mission itself playing over the soundtrack of the Voice on Tape giving Dan the assignment. Interestingly, they even put the episode credits inside the recap, essentially replaying most of the dossier scene from Part 1 (and as it happened, Part 1 was the first episode of the series where they showed the producer, writer, and director credits at the end of the dossier scene).

So we left off with Rollin in mid-breakout, discovering that Cardinal Vassek was no longer in his cell, having been moved to solitary confinement prior to his execution. But the team outside doesn’t know that — they’re already getting things underway for the escape. So Rollie gets to the roof and waves them off, forcing them to switch gears and set the carnival back up — drawing the suspicion of the local colonel, the ever-malevolent Joseph Ruskin (who a year from this point will be on Triskelion enslaving Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov with his glowy evil eyes). He’ll be watching them, so Dan coldly decides he must be taken out (although this amounts to little more than a roundhouse punch, and his ultimate fate is unestablished).

The new plan is for Rollin to break out alone so that Dan can dress up in the colonel’s uniform, “recapture” him, and insist that this cunning escape artist be placed in solitary, so that they can get to the Cardinal and break him out. So the lovely Crystal is called upon to distract the guards twice, once for each breakout. The main guard in question is overacted by a young Monte Markham, who’s been the recipient of flirtation from both Cinnamon and Crystal, who have been sniping at each other in character, though behind the scenes their girl talk is all friendly. (Crystal tries to get Cinnamon to admit she worries about Rollin, but Cinnamon dodges the question.) Anyway, Crystal’s first diversion is to feign an accident, nearly falling from her trapeze, and milking the appearance of danger for several minutes while Martin Landau’s stunt double makes his way off the prison roof. (If this was the most escape-proof prison in Eastern Europe, the prisoners must not have been trying very hard. Why aren’t there guards on the roof?)

The second diversion is where it gets really interesting. To cover for the big escape, Cinnamon and Crystal get into a prolonged, epic catfight — and naturally Monte Markham makes no attempt to break it up, instead just watching and laughing. The catfight got as much screen time as the escape (ratings!). And there was also a lot of screen time given to the two women laughing and hugging afterward.

There was one subplot that unfortunately never really went anywhere. William Wintersole played a captain on the prison staff who turned out to be rather sympathetic. He had a nice scene with the Cardinal where he begged Vassek (Cyril Delevanti) to give him some scrap of information that could delay his execution, with Vassek ultimately divining that what the captain really wanted was forgiveness. As I watched the scene, I was thinking that maybe the captain would find out about the escape plan and help it along at a key moment. But there was no such payoff. I guess it was just to give the cardinal another scene.

Finally, at the border gate, Dan has Barney play the calliope loudly so the guards can’t hear prison warden Oscar Beregi calling to tell them to stop the escaping circus troupe. Walter Scharf’s music in the final minute is a clever, well-done blend of the calliope music and orchestral variations of the M:I themes. Overall, the music in this 2-parter was very effective, rich, and enjoyable, and Scharf’s motifs are a nice departure from the Schifrin motifs that dominate most of this show’s scores. It’s disappointing that Scharf only did three more episodes of M:I. I looked up Scharf, and it turns out he’s the man who wrote the National Geographic Society theme from the TV specials! I’ve always loved that music. He did the Jacques Cousteau specials too, though I don’t remember the theme to those. (Appropriately, the person who cut the end titles together showed the music credits over a shot of Barney playing the calliope from that final scene.)

The one thing that bugs me is how Dan, Cinnamon, and Barney all knew how to play the calliope. I mean, in the preparations in Part 1, we saw Dan practicing, and he was kind of awkward at that stage. They sold the idea that he taught himself to do it for the mission. But here, all of a sudden, Cinnamon and Barney pull the same skill out of their hats when Dan is needed elsewhere.

I’m also disappointed that Crystal’s whole function on the mission was merely to be a sexy distraction. True, she served a secondary purpose in teaching Rollin how to do the wire-sliding stunt for the escape, but the episode kind of subverted that by having Dan end up doing the same stunt with no prior training. I was kind of hoping we’d see Crystal put herself at risk to help in the actual breakout. But I guess her faked accident was fairly dangerous. Still, it’s just so ’60s. It doesn’t seem fair that Dan persuaded her to give up a great opportunity in her own career just so she could be sexy and distract a guard or two. But on the other hand, she was awfully sexy to watch, so I can’t complain too much.

It’s kind of weird. Mary Ann Mobley is a name I remember from my childhood, but until now I never knew just how hot she was.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “Memory”/”Operation Rogosh”

February 14, 2010 1 comment

The second episode, “Memory” by Robert Lewin (directed by Charles Rondeau), is another interesting one. I get the impression from these two episodes that the intended format of the show was sort of a guest-star showcase, with the regulars surrounding and supporting a specialist of the week who was the dramatic focus. In the pilot, both Landau (who was only a guest star at the time) and Wally Cox filled that role. Here it’s Albert Paulsen (whom I’ve seen as villains in a couple of later episodes) as Joseph, an alcoholic memory expert who’s being asked to basically throw himself to the wolves by impersonating a dead agent as part of a plan to discredit a warmongering Eastern European leader. There’s an extended sequence of Dan Briggs training Joseph for his role, and there’s a strong emphasis on Joseph’s struggles to overcome his weakness for liquor and stay focused on the mission, as well as the team’s uncertainty about whether he’ll come through (though it’s mostly conveyed with worried looks rather than overt dialogue). I got the impression that Dan and Joseph were friends from the old neighborhood or something, but that too was left implicit.

The format is interesting. First off, there’s no recorded mission briefing; Dan gets his assignment printed on a card handed to him by a street photographer. Second, there are essentially two missions, kind of. They successfully complete their mission to get Joseph arrested and stage a failed breakout attempt to make his story implicating the bad guy look convincing. But Joseph has seen and memorized a list of all the country’s European spies, intelligence that requires his rescue. So after security has been tightened, they have to break in again and rescue him for real. That’s a neat story. It puzzled me for a while, though, since Landau got a guest credit in the dossier sequence, but his dossier went on the reject pile and he wasn’t part of the original mission team. I was confused until they brought him in briefly to impersonate Joseph for a short film made to fool the security cameras. (I wonder, did he happen to be in Eastern Europe already on an acting gig, or was he on some kind of reserve team that accompanied them, or did they have access to the world’s fastest jet?)

So not without a plot hole or two (for instance, having the security guy take out a list of all his agents and leave it lying on the table where Joseph could see it was very contrived, even granted that the man didn’t know about Joseph’s photographic memory), but effective and interesting.

One thing that’s also interesting to me as a lifelong Star Trek fan is the music. This show was produced by the same studio as ST, starting in the same year, shot on adjacent soundstages and with some of the same behind-the-scenes people, as well as plenty of shared guest stars. But even though most of the composers were different, the music reminds me strongly of ST’s music. Not in style so much as in the sound of the orchestra. And I realized — the music was probably performed by most of the same musicians, even the same instruments, and recorded and mixed on the same equipment. So there’s no wonder it sounds so familiar. I never thought about it before, but I suppose it’s possible for different orchestras to have different sounds depending on their performers and instruments — as well as their conductors, of course, who can make the same orchestra sound totally different. And according to my father, the recording equipment used can have a significant effect on the sound as well. Anyway, it’s interesting to be able to hear that connection between the shows. And it’s enjoyable to listen to new music that sounds so much like the ST music I grew up with.

A final note: In the M:I universe, there was a truly staggering number of nameless enemy countries dotting Eastern Europe and Central America.  But some early episodes were a little more overt about geography.  In “Memory,” the bad guy they were trying to discredit was described as “the Butcher of the Balkans.” So at least we knew what part of the world he was from. And I freeze-framed on the shot of the list of that country’s spies in Europe. I was expecting a gag list made up of the production crew’s names, since it was only on camera for a couple of seconds and not really legible at normal resolution (I used my DVD’s zoom function), but it was actually a credible list of Balkan-type names along with the names of various European countries rendered in what seem to be their own languages (Dania for Denmark, Polska for Poland, etc.).

——

“Operation Rogosh” is another effective one. Fritz Weaver is Imre Rogosh, an enemy agent who leaves mass death in his wake and who’s been sighted in LA. Dan Briggs’ mission (delivered on an 8-track tape in a car!) is to get the unbreakable Rogosh to reveal his plans for destruction before they come to fruition. So they capture him and make him think it’s three years later, he’s amnesiac, and he’s in a prison in his homeland, accused of being an American agent. Subtly, without pushing and tipping off the brilliant Rogosh, they must maneuver him into revealing what he knows. “Let him do the work,” Dan reminds his team at one point. It’s interesting to watch the team playing it this way, holding themselves back, hiding their reactions, resisting the temptation to ask what they’re dying to ask.

A major complication arises when Rogosh’s colleague tracks down where he’s being held captive and is ordered to assassinate him before he can talk. Dan spots the assassin in time and manages to shield Rogosh with his body long enough for Willy to take out the assassin without Rogosh getting shot or the ploy being revealed. Maybe a bit convenient that Dan saw the shooter, but there was more tension to this than to a lot of the complications in later episodes, which were often fakeouts or too easily resolved.

The real twist happens at the climactic moment when Rogosh has been maneuvered into giving away his plan to prove his “innocence.” He reveals having hidden four bacteriological weapons in reservoirs around LA, and just as he’s revealed the third and is about to reveal the fourth, in his eagerness he knocks over a chair — and sees the tag for the LA furniture rental company it came from. Oops! (I bet the team will be more careful about that in the future.) I was wondering how they’d ever get him to reveal where the fourth device was. But Dan knocks him out and he wakes up back in his cell — with three bacteria bombs sitting right next to him! Ouch!

This is the first episode that doesn’t fit my hypothesis that M:I was originally meant to be about a group of off-the-book agents doing questionable assignments to give the government deniability. Here, they’re on the phone to the authorities constantly to let them know what they’re discovering about the threat. Given the nature of the mission, that’s not surprising. I guess the real idea is the one that’s right up front in the title: this is a team that does missions deemed impossible by conventional means. It’s on a volunteer basis (“Should you choose to accept it”) because the missions are so challenging and dangerous. The teams are put together using unconventional operatives rather than standard spies because they’re unconventional missions.

And the team composition is pretty unconventional. In addition to the usual suspects in the dossier sequence, we see a pamphlet for the Horizon Repertory Company. Dan hired a troupe of actors to fill in the roles in this large-scale deception. I gather we’re going to see them used again a few times before the idea is forgotten. The focus is still on the guest star of the week, but this time it’s on Fritz Weaver as the villain rather than on a member of the team.

All in all, an effective episode, and the template for more than one later episode in which the team would try to convince a bad guy that he was in another time. A late-season episode in which they convince an enemy agent he’s in a post-nuclear year 2000 in order to trick him into revealing a stolen plutonium cache is practically a remake of this one, though less subtle and with a sci-fi twist. Then there’s the episode where they reverse it and try to convince William Shatner that he’s back in the past. Neither of those handled the concept as well as this one did.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1966) Reviews: Pilot

February 14, 2010 5 comments

Beginning my repostings of Mission: Impossible reviews originally published on the Ex Isle BBS in this thread.  (I’m reposting them here because I’d like to have them archived on my own site.  Also, once I’m caught up, I’ll probably do the subsequent reviews here first.  At least for now, it’s a handy way to generate blog content without too much work.)

——–

Anyway, the pilot contains the nascent form of all the tropes we know, and in a way that makes them more interesting. Over time, it became more and more routine. Here, it feels fresher, more rough-edged, more dimensional. I found myself wishing I could’ve seen this episode without having seen any of what followed, so the formula would be entirely fresh to me.

The opening has Dan Briggs coming up a freight elevator (a location used amazingly often in the series) into a curio shop, where he asks for a specific recording. He’s about to ask a young woman who works there, when a furtive-looking guy says he’ll take care of this customer. This is the contact, and it’s interesting that Briggs doesn’t immediately know the right person to approach. The contact’s attitude helps convey a sense of significance and secrecy to the scene.

The record is sealed in plastic, and is designed to degrade a minute after the seal is broken, a nice touch. The Voice’s spiel is a little more complex than usual, adding the line, “As always, you have carte blanche as to method and personnel.” That helps underline the impression I discussed in the previous post: that the point of setting up the missions this way was deniability. The government’s staying out of it; they’re hiring an independent contractor to get the job done by whatever means necessary, and the less anyone official knows, the better.

An interesting touch is at the end of the recording, where the voice says, “I hope it’s ‘Welcome back,’ Dan. We’ve missed you.” Wikipedia’s episode list just interprets this as Briggs having been on sabbatical from the IMF, but I wonder: could the intent have been that Briggs was a retired CIA agent, say, who decided to set up his own operation called the IMF to help the government out with off-the-book missions? Maybe it was “welcome back” in the sense of “welcome back to the spy game,” rather than to a specific agency? Could this have been the IMF’s first assignment? And does that maybe suggest that “Your mission, should you choose to accept it” wasn’t meant to be a weekly thing, but just for this, before they knew whether they’d succeeded in convincing Briggs to return to the game? A fascinating question.

The scene of the team meeting in Briggs’ apartment is more fleshed out too, less routine. It’s not just “I’ll do this part,” “I’ll do that part,” “I’ll do the other thing,” like that. It’s more tentative. Briggs has brought these people together for this assignment, but they haven’t fully committed yet, and he asks them individually if they can handle the requirements of the task. In addition to the usual gang, the team includes Wally Cox as safecracker Terry Targo, needed to break into (or rather, out of) a Latin American general’s vault and steal his nuclear warheads. He comes off as the weak link, admitting his nervousness could be a problem.

Things get really interesting when we get into the mission. Again, it all feels a lot less routine. A lot of things go wrong, forcing the team to adapt — notably Terry getting his hands crushed and requiring Dan to go into the vault in his place. Also, an accidental encounter with the General forces them to knock out a couple of guards, whose disappearance makes the General’s aide suspicious and almost scuttles the whole thing. There’s more banter between the characters, particularly Rollin and Cinnamon (played by a real-life married couple, and it shows), and more insight into how they’re reacting to the caper (not so much with Barney and Willy, though; Willy’s just there to be strong and has only two or three lines). Rollin in particular is nervous about his ability to pull off his impersonation of the General.

I guess it makes sense that the team became more a well-oiled machine later on, that they didn’t need to talk to each other as much about the mission or express emotion and uncertainty. The more accustomed they got to these missions, the more routine it would become. But it’s more interesting to watch them at this nascent stage when they’re still getting a feel for things, still unsure of themselves. They’re more humanized, more relatable. Also, in the later scenes where Dan confronts the real General in the vault, we get to see him out of character, no act, no facade, and he’s pretty interesting to watch that way, more so than he’s been in the later episodes I’ve seen.

Although, granted, the personality Cinnamon shows here is basically pure vamp; she’s defined by her sex appeal. But then, nobody here was particularly multidimensional. And it was a ’60s spy show. At least she managed to come off as an intelligent, self-possessed seductress. And they kind of pushed the envelope for TV sexiness. There was a scene where, to throw off the General’s suspicious aide, she had to do a quick-change and come out of the other room wearing nothing but a towel. Once the aide was gone, Rollin commended her from her performance — and we saw an angle through the door of the two bound-and-gagged guards who’d been in the room with her while she changed, and she said, “You should’ve seen it from those seats.” Yowza.

As for Rollin, they had Martin Landau play both him and the General, making it plausible that he was chosen specifically for his resemblance to the target. Of course, it becomes less plausible when they keep using him more and more later on. Ironically, there’s a portion where Rollin has to imitate Dan, and it’s clearly depicted as an imperfect job; he’s wearing sunglasses to hide the mask and using his own voice. Indeed, I’m not sure, but I think it actually may have been Landau in a Steven Hill mask in those scenes; his mouth looked more like Landau’s than Hill’s. And given that the makeup was by John Chambers and Dan Striepeke (the team that did Planet of the Apes), I’m willing to believe it’s possible.

The ending of the mission is less smooth too; their deception is partially discovered as they’re on their way out, and they’re chased all the way to the airport before they make their getaway in a small plane. Definitely an edgier ending, and giving it more of a spy-thriller feel.

One thing that felt like a concession to ’60s moral watchdogs: it was implied that the safecracker’s hands were ruined and he’d never yegg again. I can just see the network note insisting that the lawbreaker receive his comeuppance even though he’s one of the good guys.

The direction by Bernard L. Kowalski is taut and effective, with lots of short scenes and quick, matter-of-fact cuts creating a staccato, edgy effect as we see the various team members setting up their plans. The scenes with Terry in the vault are particularly effective, with the pitch blackness for part of the scene and Cox’s perspiration and wide eyes as he worked. I got claustrophobic just watching it.

The main title theme is used in two scenes of the episode proper, including the final chase. I recall reading somewhere that the cue was actually written for that chase scene and they decided to drop it in as the main title when they didn’t like what Lalo Schifrin originally came up with for that. Given that the story was in a Latin American country, I wonder if that explains the use of bongos and somewhat Latin rhythms in the title music.

Overall, this is the most effective episode of M:I I’ve ever seen, and a great way to kick off the series. This is what I wish the M:I movies had been like.

(Additional thoughts posted later:)

I watched the pilot again last night, and my take is that in the scene where Rollie-as-Dan was talking, it was Hill with Landau’s voice dubbed over him, but in the subsequent scenes during the checkout from the hotel and the getaway, it was Landau in a Hill mask, keeping his face very immobile and not talking, because the mask wasn’t very flexible in real life. Except it wasn’t the same mask we saw unattached in earlier scenes and the final shot of the episode, because that mask included eyelids and lips. If you look closely, you can see that the Hill mask worn by Landau has the mouth cut out to accommodate Landau’s own, and undoubtedly it had the eyes cut out so he could see. So they were taking some poetic license there.

While watching the pilot again, I started to question the security system they had on the nukes. The idea was that if you entered the wrong combination on their lockbox, you’d set them off. I have a hard time believing this dictator would be willing to blow up his own capital — indeed, devastate the bulk of his tiny country, which was shown on a map as an imaginary Caribbean island no more than 50 km wide — in order to keep American agents from stealing his nukes. Isn’t that pretty hugely self-defeating?

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Musings on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE

February 14, 2010 6 comments

I’m about to begin reposting a series of Mission: Impossible review threads I originally posted on the Ex Isle BBS.  I thought I’d lead off with an overview thread I wrote before I began my systematic first-season reviews.  The post that follows contains some speculations I’ve since concluded were erroneous, but the changes in my thought process will become evident in the subsequent review posts, and I think it’s worth reposting this essay as I wrote it on May 23, 2009.  (The original thread is here.)

————

Since I got digital cable a few months ago, I’ve finally been getting to see the original Mission: Impossible in reruns, though so far I’ve only gotten to see episodes from the 4th-6th seasons (featuring Leonard Nimoy and occasionally Sam Elliot in S4-5, Lesley Ann Warren in S4, and Lynda Day George in S6). And I think I’ve finally figured something out about the core premise of the show that makes me think that the original intent behind the series was blurred in later seasons and lost altogether in the movies.

Here’s the basic scenario. A man (originally Steven Hill as Dan Briggs, then Peter Graves as Jim Phelps) goes to some innocuous location. He takes out a package containing a taped message and a set of photographs. The tape recording spells out a crisis situation, “Your mission should you choose to accept it.” He’s told that if he or any of his team “are caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” Then the tape self-destructs.

Next we see Briggs or Phelps in his apartment going through dossiers, selecting a team. (This was done less in later seasons as the teams became more standardized.) These aren’t formal government agents, but people from all walks of life — actors, magicians, an engineer, a circus strongman, a doctor, whatever special talents are needed. The team meets to plan their secret mission, not in a government building, but in the man’s living room.

What does all this tell us? That these missions are black ops, so totally off the books that the government has no direct involvement in them at all. “The Secretary” (of Defense, probably) has an arrangement with Dan Briggs/Jim Phelps to serve as a private contractor of sorts, handling missions too sensitive for the government to authorize directly. He isn’t commanded to do these missions, just offered the chance to volunteer — meaning that he doesn’t technically work for the government at all but is just helping out. The team Briggs/Phelps assembles is completely on its own, impossible to connect to the government. They’re just private citizens, and if they’re caught doing espionage in foreign countries, they’ll be hung out to dry, given no protection by the government that secretly backed their mission. This, I think, must have been the original intention of series creator Bruce Geller.

It’s an intriguing concept, that the so-called “Impossible Missions Force” is a rogue, essentially extralegal operation with only the most tenuous, secret government backing. (I think M:I was inspired by The Sting, the Newman/Redford movie about criminals pulling off a monumentally elaborate con game. The IMF’s missions were all elaborate sting operations, con jobs, and the like.) Unfortunately, as the series went on, this concept was lost. Not only did Phelps’s team become more standardized, but they became more institutionalized as well. In the episodes I’ve seen, they often have the direct support of the government, military, police, or whatever private businesses they need to cooperate with, and they can draw on government resources and call in agents to assist them whenever they need to. The opening sequence of the self-destructing tape and the standard catchphrases (“should you choose to accept it” and “the Secretary will disavow”) remained, as did the formula of the team meeting in Phelps’s apartment before the mission, but those tropes became essentially meaningless once the IMF became portrayed as something more domesticated and official.

And of course the movies took this much farther. In them, the IMF was a full-on government agency, essentially indistinguishable from the CIA. J.J. Abrams’s M:I III, despite being the only good film in the trilogy, took this to the furthest extreme, actually showing the IMF’s huge, elaborate headquarters and giving it a director and a large bureaucracy and everything. (Essentially he was remaking Alias with a male lead and a bigger budget.) The concept of the IMF as independent contractors on a deniable, off-the-books mission was completely and utterly lost.

And that’s a shame, because it’s an interesting idea — and because the famous catchphrases of the show make no sense without it. For decades, I’ve been wondering about those catchphrases, what was meant by “Your mission, should you choose to accept it.” It’s only in watching the show regularly that I finally figured out what it was probably supposed to mean, and realized the extent to which the core concept has been lost. (A caveat, though: I haven’t seen any episodes prior to season 4, unless it was very, very long ago when I was a kid, so I don’t know for sure if the series ever really depicted it this way. But when I told this theory to my father, who saw the show in its original run, he agreed readily with my interpretation.)

So what I would like to see is a “reboot” of Mission: Impossible, either on film or preferably on TV, that returns to the original concept. No big government agency backing the team; it’s basically a bunch of private citizens with special talents, pulling a con job at the unofficial and highly secret invitation of the government. They’re totally on their own, there’s no paper trail, nobody in the government knows they’re doing this except the Secretary of Whatever and maybe one or two people on his staff, and they’ll deny it categorically if asked. The team doesn’t have federal or state resources to draw on, but has to improvise and make do with what it can beg, borrow, or steal. It’s made up of people from different walks of life who have their own reasons for being willing to take such enormous risks with no possibility of recognition for their heroism and every possibility of being arrested, disgraced, and/or killed. Unlike the original series, where the characters had virtually no personality or history (except in the occasional Very Special Episode, and whatever was revealed in those was never referenced again), a modern M:I would delve more deeply into the team members’ motivations.

Wouldn’t that be an intriguing show? And isn’t it a shame we never really got to see this premise developed to its full potential?

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