Home > Reviews > MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Season 3 Overview


My second-season overview noted that Mission: Impossible had settled into a rather formulaic rut, though there were some attempts at mixing things up toward the end.  The third season is a continuation of this; most of it follows the routine formula, but as the season progresses, there seem to be more efforts to add some interest and variety, to introduce real danger and uncertainty into many episodes rather than just having the plans unfold perfectly.  Even the routine episodes often have strong concepts or ingenious cinematography and direction to give them interest.  All in all, season 3 was stronger than season 2 (which is interesting when you consider that the reverse was true of M:I’s sister show Star Trek).

There were a lot more strong episodes this season than last.  The top episodes of the season are “The Mind of Stefan Miklos,” “Nicole,” and “The Interrogator,” while “The Mercenaries,” “The Execution,” “The Play,” and “The Glass Cage” are nearly as strong.  Good episodes include “The Heir Apparent,” “The Diplomat,” “The Test Case,” and “The Bunker” (which would be excellent if not for its very slow pace).  “The Contender,” “The Exchange,” and “Illusion” are respectable experiments with the format but fall short of what they could’ve been.  “The System” is mostly a strictly average episode, but its innovative use of a remote mini-camera makes it fascinating to watch.  That’s 17 above-average episodes out of 25 (so obviously I’m not using “average” in the mathematical sense, or at least not limiting it to this season alone).  Of the remaining eight, I’d count “The Cardinal,” “Doomsday,” “Live Bait,” and “The Vault” as average, run-of-the-mill episodes.  The duds are “The Elixir,” “The Bargain,” “The Freeze,” and “Nitro.”

Several common themes are found in these episodes.  A number of the plots involve faking science-fictional elements: eternal youth serums (“The Elixir”), precognition (“The Bargain”), cryogenics and future technology (“The Freeze”).  The stories often involve double layers of deception, letting the villains penetrate one layer of deception to make them think they’ve outwitted the enemy when actually they’ve fallen for a deeper ploy (notably “The Diplomat” and “The Mind of Stefan Miklos”).  We get a few cases of the heroes being pitted against foes nearly as cunning as they are, raising the tension (Stefan Miklos, Zelinko in “The Test Case,” Ventlos in “The Bunker”).  Five episodes (four stories) have domestic criminals as the team’s targets, and one other, “The Bargain,” targets both a foreign leader and his American mob associate.

Something new this time: I want to break the season down by where the episodes take place.  Eight episodes, just under a third of the season, take place in the United States, though several involve foreign antagonists: the 2-part “The Contender,” “The Execution,” “The Diplomat,” “The Bargain,” “The Freeze,” “The Mind of Stefan Miklos,” and “The System.”  Seven were in various Eastern European countries: “The Heir Apparent,” “The Cardinal,” “The Play,” “The Glass Cage,” the 2-part “The Bunker,” and “Nicole.”  “The Exchange” was implicitly in divided Germany itself, while four others, “The Test Case,” “Live Bait,” “Illusion,” and “The Interrogator,” seemed to be in unspecified German-speaking countries.  Only two this season, “The Elixir” and “The Vault,” were in Latin America.  “Doomsday” was implicitly in the Netherlands, going by the villain’s surname.  “Nitro” was the only episode in the Mideast, and “The Mercenaries” was in Francophone Africa.  So the most frequently visited region is Europe, followed by the US, then Latin America, with infrequent visits to other regions.  Without actually breaking it down for the first two seasons, I’d say that’s in keeping with the normal pattern so far, though I think visits to Latin America may have been a bit more frequent in the past.  The team didn’t visit Asia this year, but “Doomsday” did feature representatives of an unspecified Chinese-speaking nation.

As with the second season, the team composition was pretty steady throughout.  Like last year, Jim Phelps and Rollin Hand are in all 25 episodes, Barney Collier in 24 (sitting out “Nicole”).  Cinnamon Carter is in 23 (sitting out “The Diplomat” and “Nicole”) and Willy Armitage is in 22 (sitting out “The Play,” “Live Bait,” and “Nicole”).  “Nicole” is the only episode to have fewer than four of the regulars, and 21 episodes feature the entire regular team, the most in any season so far.  The core team was joined by additional team members or assistants in the following episodes:

02/03 The Contender: boxer Richy Lemoine (Ron Rich) and unidentified female gambler participate; trainer Bobby (Robert Conrad possibly playing himself) assists
05 The Execution: Dr. Henry Loomis (Byron Keith)
08 The Diplomat: Susan Buchanan (Lee Grant) and Dr. David Walters (Russ Conway) participate; diplomat Everett Buchanan (Don Randolph) cooperates
11 The Freeze: Dr. Jacob Bowman (John Zaremba) advises; inmate Max Davis (Vince Howard) and actress portraying Phonovision Girl (Carol Andreson) participate
21 Nitro: King’s advisor General Tamaar (Dick Latessa) assists
22 Nicole: intelligence agent Sparrow (James McCallion) is team’s contact
23 The Vault: K. D. F. International Auditors
24 Illusion: candidate Paul Trock (Martin E. Brooks)
25 The Interrogator: Hartford Repertory Company

“The Contender” and “The Diplomat” are the only episodes where the guest team member is a featured player, and “The Diplomat” is the only case that reflects the original conception of the series, with featured guest team members being called on each week for their special skills or usefulness, as opposed to a steady team adapting themselves to every possible case.  (In that format, for instance, “The Contender” would’ve had Lemoine do the fighting himself rather than having Barney impersonate him.)  “Illusion” was the only case where one of the guest participants listed above was featured in the tape sequence rather than the dossier sequence.  Bobby (Conrad), the unidentified female gambler, Phonovision Girl, and Sparrow were not included in dossier sequences or apartment briefings.  (Side note: I’m not sure “apartment” is the right word here, since “The Bunker” showed plans suggesting Jim lives in a house.)

Thirteen episodes featured original instrumental music, and one other (“Illusion”) featured original songs with lyrics by Bruce Geller.  Lalo Schifrin did 3 episode scores and two of the songs in “Illusion.”  Robert Drasnin did 2 episodes, Gerald Fried did 1 (with a partial score), Jerry Fielding did 3, and Richard Markowitz did 4.  Herschel Burke Gilbert & Rudy Schrager contributed one song for “Illusion.”  (Odd that “Illusion” gets detailed song credits, but the authorship of the songs from Star Trek: “The Way to Eden,” produced by the same studio and airing less than two months earlier, remains undocumented to this day.)  That’s four more episodes with original music than season 2, tied with season 1.  And they’re more widely distributed through the season than in the past, though still concentrated in the first half: the episodes with original scores are #1-6, 8-9, 12-13, 18-20, and 24 (songs only).  The scores that stood out the most for me were “The Contender” (Schifrin), “The Execution” (Fielding), and “The Play” (Drasnin).

Only one episode lacked a tape scene, though every episode at least began with a formal mission, unlike the past two seasons which had at least one “off-book” mission each.  Subtracting the recaps in 2-parters, that’s 22 distinct tape scenes, around 16 of which used at least partly new footage.  Three used 8-track tapes, one used a vinyl record, one used a nickelodeon, and one (confusingly) used a microfilm reel; the rest used reel-to-reel tape players of various sizes.  The stock tape scenes were drawn from both this and the previous season.   Three tape scenes ended with “Please destroy this tape in the usual manner” rather than self-destruction, but each time it was different (sinking in a pond, thrown into a chimney, dissolved in water), suggesting that “the Secretary” needs to brush up on the meaning of the word “usual.”  In this season, dossier sequences were used only in episodes with team members beyond the regular cast, seven distinct times in all.

So that’s it for M:I season 3.  It’s a definite step up from the second season, and competitive with the first.  I still feel the first season was the most interesting because it started out giving the characters more personality, having the missions often go wrong, mixing up the team composition more, and so forth; but the arc of the first season was downward, since by the second half of the season, it had settled into the formula and had inconsistent quality.  The second season was staunchly formulaic to the point of boredom, but as it wore on it began taking a few chances and had some impressive moments.  This season started off following its formula solidly and effectively, adding interest with imaginative gimmicks and clever direction; then it began growing beyond that formula, introducing more genuine suspense and danger, worthy adversaries, and the like to make the team’s successes less of a foregone conclusion.  It followed the second season’s pattern of having only two real format-breaker episodes (and less so than in that season, since both began with regular missions and then focused on complications arising afterward, a pattern we’ll see more often in later seasons), but managed to feel less formulaic overall, especially as the season wore on.  So its arc of quality was upward, and maybe that gives it the edge over season 1, at least in proportion to the expectations set by the early episodes of each season.

I’m curious to see how season 4 will compare.  Will it continue the upward trend, hold about even, or dive in quality?  Of course, now the time has come for the biggest cast change yet, with the departure of both Martin Landau and Barbara Bain from the show.  Landau will be replaced for the next two seasons by Leonard Nimoy (fresh from Star Trek) as “The Great Paris,” but Bain’s role will be filled by a succession of guest stars, or nobody at all, in season 4 (with Lee Meriwether being the only recurring female agent).  Of course, the formula of M:I is independent of the characters, so it remains to be seen whether the writing and direction will remain as strong as they were this year.

  1. Will
    December 22, 2011 at 7:58 am

    The third season for me marks the creative high point of Mission: Impossible. This is when the show was firing on all cyclinders. The cast were at their best and even the least impressive episodes still weren’t complete misfires.

    With stories like “The Heir Apparent”, “The Mercenaries”, “The Execution”, & “The Mind of Stefan Miklos”, the show was at the peak of it’s powers. There is a sense of confidence at play and it’s reflected in the performances of the series regulars and the storytelling as well. Mission: Impossible was (at that time) the biggest and hottest spy show on television. The season would finish in 11th place in the annual Neilsen ratings – the highest the show would ever get.

    Whilst the series would continue for another four more years (and still produce some strong well written episodes), the loss of both Martin Landau & Barbara Bain would impact the show in such a way that it never fully recovered. None of the subsequent cast members – who were all good in their own respective ways – held the same appeal as these two.

    • December 22, 2011 at 9:57 am

      I’d agree that season 3 was the best of the strictly formulaic seasons, but I still prefer season 5 (and at least the first half of season 1) for being less bound by formula, more character-driven, more willing to have the missions go seriously wrong or otherwise diverge from routine.

      • Will
        December 23, 2011 at 7:04 am

        Mission was a formulaic show and made no apologies about it. It both stood and at times fell by that standard. The fifth season was the most daring – partially because at that point the series needed to expand it’s parameters in order to survive. However despite the risks the series took, I felt in some ways that it was veering away from what it was suppose to be.

        The introduction of Lesley Warren into the show, combined with more domestic locales and an emphasis on youth orientated storylines at times made Mission almost look like “The Mod Squad”. It wasn’t helped by the fact that the only female cast member was significantly younger than her male counterparts. Visually it a very odd look.

  1. September 17, 2011 at 2:37 pm

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