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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.

——

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.

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