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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Season 1 Overview

So there we are. The first season of Mission: Impossible is no doubt its most diverse, and in many ways its most interesting. As with many first seasons, we can see the show taking time to find its voice and become the show it ends up being. Unfortunately, that show isn’t quite as interesting as what we started out with, because of showrunner Bruce Geller’s desire to strip the regulars of their personality and focus solely on the missions. The early episodes are engaging because of the characters’ humanity. We see them bantering, joking, expressing their feelings, having doubts, making mistakes, developing attachments that conflicted with their duties — even very occasionally having moments of interpersonal conflict. A few very early episodes centered on the guest agents of the week and their personal issues. But as the season moved into its latter half, all that faded away. Everything personal gave way to strict professionalism, and there was nothing left of the team members — regular or guest — but their jobs.

So what we had was a show that started out exploring the various possibilities of its format and characters but becoming increasingly nailed down to a more limited formula. Which is the sort of thing I would be inclined to blame on the networks — that kind of formula storytelling was quite common in ’60s/’70s TV. (We still have formulas today, of course, but different ones that require character angst and change rather than suppressing them). But I gather it was what Bruce Geller wanted. It’s a shame; it made the show less engaging.

The show’s credibility also suffered over time. In the pilot, prosthetic makeup was shown as strictly limited in its usefulness, but over the course of the season, this was ignored more and more. By “The Ransom,” we had perfect visual and vocal impersonation of a similar-looking person. By “The Trial,” we had Rollin able to look exactly like Dan but not mimic his voice or be able to take a drink while wearing the mask — and yet a paunchy older man was able to take on Rollin’s whole appearance and build just by putting on a Rollin mask. But by “Shock,” we had masks so absolutely perfect that you could eat and drink through them, sweat through them, and undergo electroshock therapy without the makeup being the least bit damaged. The portrayal of the mask technology was inconsistent throughout the season, even in the pilot itself; sometimes it was various latex pieces applied to the face, while at others it was a full-face mask.

Overall, I’d call the first half of the season very strong, the second half decent but variable. The one real dud in the first half is “Zubrovnik’s Ghost,” and even that had interesting potential that was wasted.

I’ll be getting the second season soon. I’m hoping the quality will rally somewhat at the start of the next season, but I expect it’ll still be pretty much the familiar formula that had become established by the end of S1. A pity; I was hoping the more interesting, flexible approach of the early episodes would last longer.

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Summing up some statistics:

Lalo Schifrin scored somewhere between 7-9 episodes of the first season. IMDb lists 9, but I’m certain of only 7; I’m willing to concede that I may have missed a few new cues in “Zubrovnik’s Ghost,” but I’m pretty sure there were none in “Fakeout.” Let’s call it 8 episodes, some partial. Walter Scharf did 3 episodes, and Gerald Fried, Jacques Urbont, and Don Ellis did one each, for a total of 14 episodes, half the season. All but one of those episodes were in the first half.

Of the season’s 28 episodes, 21 had original mission-briefing scenes. Reel-to-reel tapes of various sizes were used in 10 of those. Vinyl phonograph records were used 3 times. A type of tape cassette for a car-mounted player (perhaps a prototype of the 8-track, but not quite the same, I now think) was used once. Three briefings used unusual dictation machines, each one a different type. One briefing was delivered in an antique nickelodeon (hand-cranked film player); one via an aptitude-test machine using a filmstrip and audio playback; one via a speaker at a drive-in theater. One was delivered on a business card, but implicitly Dan had received an earlier briefing by other means and the card was confirming key details. Six episodes reused earlier briefing scenes. One episode had no mission briefing, since Dan was given the “mission” by a mobster in a pool room. (Unfortunately, I didn’t keep track of how many tapes/discs/etc. had to be disposed of by Dan “in the usual manner” and how many self-destructed.)

The team composition varied a great deal by episode:

01 Pilot: Dan, Rollin, Cinnamon, Barney, Willy, Terry Targo (safecracker)
02 Memory: D, C, B, W, Joseph Baresh (memory expert); R brought in later
03 Operation Rogosh: D, R, C, B, W, Horizon Repertory Company; Dr. Green (physician) briefly
04/05 Old Man Out: D, R, C, B, W, Crystal Walker (trapeze artist)
06 Odds on Evil: R, C, B, W, Andre Malif (actor)
07 Wheels: D, R, C, B, W
08 The Ransom: D, R, C, B, W, Dr. Green, Steve (stand-in)
09 A Spool There Was: R, C; B assists offscreen
10 The Carriers: D, R, C, B, W, Dr. Roger Lee (epidemiologist)
11 Zubrovnik’s Ghost: R, B, Ariana Domi (fake medium)
12 Fakeout: D, C, B
13 Elena: R, Dr. Carlos Enero (psychiatrist)
14 The Short Tail Spy: D, C, B
15 The Legacy: D, R, C, B, W; Dr. Lubell (physician) brought in later
16 The Reluctant Dragon: R, B
17 The Frame: D, R, C, B, W, Tino (restaurateur)
18 The Trial: D, R, W
19 The Diamond: D, R, C, B, W, Hans Van Meer (gemologist); Scotland Yard Inspector Ian McCloud assists briefly
20 The Legend: D, R, C, B
21 Snowball in Hell: D, R, C, B, W
22 The Confession: D, R, C, B, W
23 Action!: R, C, B, W, David Day (cinematographer)
24 The Train: R, C, B, W, Dr. Harrison Selby (surgeon), Oliver Donovan (art director), film crew
25 Shock: D, R, C, B, W, Dr. Ira Drake (neurologist/shock therapist)
26 A Cube of Sugar: D, R, C, B, W; offscreen assistance from Dr. Green
27 The Traitor: D, R, C, B, W, Tina Mara (contortionist)
28 The Psychic: R, C, B, W, Byron Miller (actor); Judge Wilson Chase assists

So Dan supervised in 27 episodes and was on the mission in 20. Rollin was in 26 episodes, Barney 25, Cinnamon 24, and Willy only 21. Early on, the guest agents tended to be fairly prominent actors/characters (Wally Cox, Albert Paulsen, Mary Ann Mobley), but became smaller supporting players as the season went on, the main exception being Eartha Kitt as Tina Mara in the penultimate episode. The full five members of the main team are present in 15 episodes, and the greatest variation in team size and composition is toward the middle of the season. It’s actually more consistent in the first third of the season than I’d expected.

What’s also interesting is that of the 8 episodes where Dan didn’t participate actively in the mission, only three are after his falling out with the producers in “Action!” (counting that episode itself). Although his role was reduced in the last six episodes of the season, he was still a mission participant in half of them. But even before his problems in “Action!,” there were four episodes where he didn’t appear except in the pre-mission briefings and one where he had a reduced stay-at-home role. So the usual descriptions of his role being diminished only after the “Action!” incident are misleading. (EDIT 4/7/2020: Or more likely, the episodes were broadcast out of filming order so as to spread out the episodes in which Dan had a major role. We would see a similar practice used in season 7 to deal with Lynda Day George’s maternity leave.)

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “The Traitor”/”The Psychic”

Now the final two episodes of the first season:

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“The Traitor”: Dan gets the briefing record in what I think is just an unused portion of a soundstage. Maybe they were getting lazy by this point. The mission: US agent Hughes (played unpleasantly by Lonny Chapman) has defected to The Enemy and is hiding out at their embassy, run by Malachi Throne. He’s handed over an important McGuffin document but doesn’t know how to decode it. The team must get it back before The Enemy deciphers it and discredit Hughes so The Enemy won’t trust anything he’s already told them.

Rollin impersonates the cryptographer The Enemy has called in, once stewardess Cinnamon delays him by drugging his drink off-camera (I guess they couldn’t afford a plane scene). His job is to create suspicion of Hughes. But the real work is done by special guest agent Tina, a dancer/acrobat played by future Catwoman Eartha Kitt. Willy sneaks her into the ductwork in a piece of replacement pipe, and she does all the catburglarish stuff that the Mythbusters discredited a couple of years ago — crawling silently through ducts (which would be absurdly noisy), using mirrors to deflect photoelectric beams (would set them off) so she can slide slinkily across the floor under the mirror rig, and just generally being all lithe and catsuity. (Hmm… prophetic casting?) Not that it’s played for glamour; Jerry Finnerman’s photography has none of the soft focus on women that was one of his trademarks elsewhere. I guess the M:I producers wanted him to cleave to their more matter-of-fact style (though he did get to use another Finnerman trademark, heavy noir-style crosslighting, on Hughes to make him look more eeevil). And Eartha’s pretty sweaty and dusty by the time she’s done.

The coolest gadget Tina uses is when she breaks into Hughes’ room after Rollin has sleepy-gassed him. As he’s lying dead to the world, she unrolls a sheet from her belt, drapes it over Hughes on the bed, and inflates it; it flattens out and creates the illusion of an empty (though unusually high) mattress. Thus, when Ambassador Malachi Throne comes in, it looks like Hughes has fled the coop to meet with Dan, who’s set himself up as a higher bidder for the secret plans. After Catwoman’s stolen the plans, she removes the inflato-mattress and plants payoff money in Hughes’ pocket. Discredited, Hughes flees the embassy, and Dan is waiting with the cops to arrest him for treason.

Really cool use of the guest agent here. The last time we had a female acrobat as the guest agent, Mary Ann Mobley in “Old Man Out,” her job was basically just to be a sexy distraction and to train Rollin in doing the big physical stuff. Here, Tina is the linchpin of the whole operation, the one doing the hardest, trickiest physical work and putting herself in the most danger, while the others are in more of a support capacity. And her athletic skills and dainty build made her superb for this kind of burglary work. One wishes she could’ve become a recurring member of the team.

The set used for the embassy’s entrance hall and study is the same set used as Wilson’s house in “Shock” just two episodes ago. It’s probably been used plenty of other times, but I didn’t notice until now. I suppose it’s difficult to do a show like this, with no permanent locations other than Dan’s apartment. There are some sets they clearly reused over and over again, redressing them slightly to try to pass them off as different locations: prisons, hotels, hospitals, private apartments, and this private house set. It would’ve been more convincing when you saw only one episode a week, rather than one after the other on DVD.

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And now, the season finale, “The Psychic.” Dan goes to an empty drive-in theater to get the message on one of its speakers. The mission: Industrialist Alex Lowell (Barry Sullivan) has bought controlling interest in a company that provides arms to NATO and has fled to South America, where he intends to sell the stock and the concomitant military secrets, or something, to Enemy agent January Vornitz (Milton Selzer, not a Bond girl as the name suggests). The team must retrieve the stock before he can sell it and compromise national security in some vague and technically legal way. Dan briefs the team on the mission in his apartment as usual, but he doesn’t participate in the mission. The briefing scene is the last time we will ever see Daniel Briggs. Adieu, Mr. Briggs. We hardly knew ye.

First, a guest agent (Paul Mantee, star of Robinson Crusoe on Mars) approaches Lowell as a Syndicate heavy offering to buy the stock. He’s turned down; Lowell seems pretty committed to selling these secrets to The Enemy, though overall he just seems to be in it for the money, so it’s unclear why he’s so uninterested in the mob’s money. Anyway, this is to set up the fiction that the mob is out to kill Lowell for his rejection. This is paid off when Cinnamon arrives as a noted psychic (presumably adopting the identity of a pre-existing famous psychic, since Lowell has heard of her), introduced by a not-so-friendly friend of Lowell’s, a judge (Richard Anderson) who’s working with the team and helps sell Cinnamon’s psychic powers to Lowell. Barney plants a bomb in Lowell’s car and Cinnamon predicts the explosion. Somewhat ludicrously, instead of, oh, checking under the hood or something, Lowell goes to the trouble of MacGyvering up a remote ignition system, hooking some long wires into the car’s wiring and touching them together from a distance, blowing up his own car in the process. O… kay. And apparently the team knew he’d go to these ridiculous lengths, since Cinnamon has placed a sound-activated detonator on the window to break it when the bomb goes off, so Barney can sneak in and Lowell will assume the alarm was triggered by the bomb.

Anyway, Barney uses a magician’s mirror trick (impressively done for real, with no visual-effects trickery) to hide under a table until the room is empty (having a scare when Lowell’s dog almost exposes him). Then he sets up a card-cheating rig under the table and plants stripped cards in place of Lowell’s. Rollin shows up as a gangster who’s “killed” Paul Mantee for his failure and now wants to discuss the matter like gentlemen. Cinnamon, whom Lowell is now convinced is genuine, predicts that he will play a hand of poker for the stock and win, using Rollin’s cards. Meanwhile, Barney is discovered (intentionally?) by Lowell’s henchman (Michael Pataki, later to play Korax in ST: “The Trouble with Tribbles”), but Willy knocks out the henchman and Barney escapes. Investigating, Lowell finds that the cards have been switched. Forewarned, he’s confident he can play and win by cheating the cheater.

But the cards are just the first layer of deception that Lowell was supposed to master. The real trick is the switcheroo rig Barney installed under the table, allowing Rollin to switch the real stock certificates for forgeries and pass the real ones to Cinnamon, who walks out with them unsuspected. The team reassembles and drives off just as Lowell and Calendar Guy Vornitz discover they’ve been tricked, and the season ends.

There’s more of Jerry Finnerman’s style in evidence here. This time, Cinnamon is definitely shot in softer focus than the men. Overall, though, the lighting isn’t as noirish as usual for Finnerman.

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So that’s it for the first season. Next: an overview and post mortem for the season as a whole.

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