MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1966-73): Full series overview
Well, it’s been a long run — seven seasons, 171 episodes, 163 distinct adventures. And the series went through a lot of changes over the years. Appropriate, perhaps, since it was conceived with constant change in mind. Let’s try for some highlights:
Regulars: Government agent Dan Briggs (Steven Hill), fashion model Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), engineer Barney Collier (Greg Morris), and strongman Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus). Actor-magician Rollin Hand (Martin Landau) is de facto regular despite being listed as “Special Guest Star” throughout.
Initially an anthology-style show, with highly variable team composition and focus on guest agents of the week, though the focus soon shifted more to the regulars. Briggs’s role gradually diminished due to conflicts of Hill’s Orthodox Judaism with series shooting schedule. Briggs sometimes assembled teams but did not join them in the field. Landau became the effective series lead despite not being a regular. No cast member appeared in every episode.
Stories were initially more character-driven, often featured plots going wrong, team improvising. By late season, had become more formulaic: characters were ciphers, plans more often proceeded like clockwork.
Only a couple of episodes dealt with stateside organized crime, and one of those was not a government mission.
Originally “tape scenes” used many recording formats (once even a printed card), often needing to be destroyed by Briggs rather than self-destructing. “This tape will self-destruct” line emerged late-ish. Several tape sequences reused.
Dossier scenes introduced — useful due to variable team composition. Major guest stars (especially Landau) often credited over their dossier photos.
Team members were not pro agents, drawn from all walks of life. Briggs evidently running unofficial black-ops missions with deniability for government. Even this early, though, the team sometimes cooperated openly with government agencies, a trend that would only increase over time.
Foreign missions usually in unnamed foreign countries, sometimes leading to awkwardly evasive phrasing in tape briefings.
At first, prosthetics handled relatively plausibly: convincing impersonations required actor resembling subject, altered with prosthetics; full-face masks were limited in effectiveness. By mid-season, masks allowed perfect imitations but one couldn’t eat in them. By end of season, masks could be lived in for days, sweated through, even survive electroshock therapy undamaged. This fanciful approach was norm for rest of series.
- Best Episodes: A lot to choose from, but I’d say “The Short Tail Spy,” “Pilot,” and the 2-parter “Old Man Out,” in roughly that order.
- Worst Episodes: I’d say the morally distasteful “Shock,” followed by the ludicrous “Zubrovnik’s Ghost” and the geopolitically problematical “Action!”
Regulars: Government agent Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), Rollin Hand, Cinnamon Carter, Barney Collier, Willy Armitage.
Although Landau had effectively become the lead by late season 1, he was only willing to commit on a season-by-season basis, so Graves was brought in as the new star when Hill left.
Routine and formulaic season, more standardized team composition. Some efforts to vary formula toward end of season.
Tape scenes more standardized; nearly half were reused. From now on, the season’s tape scenes would all be shot ahead of time and cut into episodes at random. Still various delivery methods. Dossier sequences remain to introduce team variations and guest agents (less prominent than before); only Graves and Landau are in every episode.
More episodes focusing on domestic crime.
Two “off-book” missions, one personal, one accidental. The next couple of seasons would continue to have only a couple of significant departures from formula per season, always in the latter half.
- Best Episodes: “Echo of Yesterday,” followed by “Trial by Fury” and “The Town.”
- Worst Episodes: “Charity” is the most weak and pointless episode, followed by “The Killing” and “The Counterfeiter.”
Regulars: No change.
Still mostly routine, but stronger, with more danger, uncertainty, very occasional humanizing of regulars.
Tape scenes pretty standardized, fewer reuses. Still various recording formats. Dossier scenes used only in the seven episodes featuring guest team members beyond the core cast. Only Jim, Rollin in every episode, but only one episode, “Nicole,” featured fewer than four of the regulars.
A third of season set in United States; comparable organized-crime focus to S2.
While several earlier episodes involved exploiting supernatural beliefs, this season began the trend of faking science-fictional premises, and of trying to convince skeptics of paranormal claims.
- Best Episodes: “Nicole,” followed by “The Mind of Stefan Miklos” and “The Interrogator.”
- Worst Episodes: “The Freeze,” followed by “The Bargain,” and a toss-up between “The Elixir” and “Nitro.”
Regulars: Jim Phelps, impersonator/magician The Great Paris (Leonard Nimoy), Barney Collier, Willy Armitage. First season where Barney is in every episode. Only one episode lacks one of the four regulars (Willy).
No regular female lead; featured roughly a dozen guest female agents, with only Tracey (Lee Meriwether) recurring. Dossier sequences thus returned weekly, usually crediting guest actresses over their photos. Hartford and Globe Repertory Companies added for missions requiring large groups of players.
Tape scenes all featured magnetic tapes (reel-to-reel or 8-track cartridge) that self-destructed.
Trend toward US-based and organized-crime episodes reversed, with only two of each (only one that was both). Most consistent overseas-espionage focus since season 1. Otherwise, a fairly formulaic season, though with a few notable departures.
Fictitious foreign countries now usually named instead of nameless. Lots of People’s Republics.
Last season to have multi-part episodes, including the series’ only 3-parter.
- Best Episodes: “Submarine” by a landslide, followed by the 2-part “The Controllers” and the 3-part “The Falcon.”
- Worst Episodes: The season finale “The Martyr” hands down, followed by “Terror” and “Mastermind.”
Regulars: Jim Phelps, Paris, Barney, agent/actress Dana Lambert (Lesley Ann Warren, billed as Lesley Warren) all in every episode. Willy reduced to semi-regular, more or less alternating with Dr. Doug Robert (Sam Elliott), but both listed as main-title regulars when they appeared.
A formula-breaking season that reverted to the approach of early season 1: more exploration of character, more serious disruptions of missions or unexpected twists. Jim, Paris, and Barney all got episodes delving into their pasts or personal lives. We more often saw the team as themselves rather than subsumed in roles. There seemed to be a conscious effort to question, subvert, and deconstruct the familiar conventions of the series. If anything, this was overdone in the first half, with the second half reverting more often to more conventional cases, though still fresher, deeper, more suspenseful, less formulaic than in past.
Record number of US-based episodes and of organized crime episodes. Fewer fictitious country names, but several real countries cited. Only season to have an episode based in East Asia, aside from the teaser of the S6 finale.
New main-title theme arrangement in majority of episodes. New, more contemporary music style in several episode scores.
Teaser/cold open added before main titles; introduction to villains preceded tape scene. No variation in recording devices. “Secretary will disavow” line dropped from US missions and season finale.
Dossier sequences permanently dropped, despite frequent use of supporting team members. Nearly a third of episodes began in medias reswith no tape or apartment briefing. (Note that season 4’s “Lover’s Knot” anticipated many season 5 changes: an opening scene before the tape, the lack of an apartment briefing, a story with personal involvement and a hint of intra-team conflict.)
- Best Episodes : This could be a long list, but “The Amateur” surely tops it. “The Innocent” is a strong second, and I’ll give third place to “The Party,” though it has plenty of competition.
- Worst Episodes: Nothing’s really bad, but the only two weak-ish ones are “Kitara” and “The Rebel.”
Regulars: Jim Phelps, Barney Collier, actress/makeup expert Casey (Lynda Day George), Willy Armitage. Doug Robert made one final appearance. First season where Willy appears in every episode; only season where all credited regulars appear in every episode.
Focus shifted from international espionage to fighting organized crime in US. The only partial venture outside the US was part of a crimefighting case, and the sole espionage mission was in Los Angeles.
With the reduced cast, Barney and Willy more often called on for core role-playing rather than technical assistance or supporting role-play; thus the focus shifted away from mechanics/logistics, more toward interpersonal manipulation and deception.
Teasers still in use. Theme music back to original arrangement (or nearly so).
Tape sequences standard, except for one phonograph record. “Secretary will disavow” line permanently gone; “conventional law enforcement agencies” line now standard. Cooperation of police, authorities, and multiple supporting players now standard, rendering secret, self-destructing tape drops rather pointless.
- Best Episodes: “Encounter,” followed by “Nerves” and “Double Dead.”
- Worst Episodes: “Image,” followed by “Run for the Money” and “Encore.”
Regulars: Jim Phelps, Barney Collier, Willy Armitage. Lynda Day George still billed as regular but spent much of season on maternity leave, so Casey “reassigned to Europe.” Ex-con Mimi (Barbara Anderson) joins on recurring basis, plus two one-shot female agents.
Focus still on domestic crimebusting, with abundant cooperation from authorities, bit players. However, three episodes set outside US, roughly a half-dozen involving domestic terrorism or international intrigue.
No more pre-credits teaser, but intro scene before tape still used. Episode credits now shown over/before tape scene. Series logo no longer included with episode credits. “Conventional law enforcement agencies” line used intermittently.
Studio-bound feel gives way to more striking location work. Many tape scenes shot around San Francisco landmarks. “Speed” shot largely on location in San Francisco.
New main title theme arrangement. Very little original music in season.
First season with continuity: Casey’s absence, Mimi’s addition explained, a few episodes referenced past events or characters.
- Best Episodes: “The Question” is the best of the past two seasons. “The Deal” comes second, followed by “Speed.”
- Worst Episodes: “The Western,” followed by “Incarnate” and “The Fountain.”
Mission: Impossible started out as a series in which music played a central role. Like CSI today, a lot of its content consisted of scenes of experts doing slow, meticulous work to the accompaniment of prominent musical passages. Although most of this music was built around only two Lalo Schifrin leitmotifs — the main title theme and “The Plot,” the standard motif for the team’s machinations — it had a great deal of variety and was provided by a number of skilled composers, primarily Schifrin but including Walter Scharf, Gerald Fried, Jerry Fielding, Robert Drasnin, Richard Markowitz, and others. The early seasons featured the largest number of original episode scores, but as the series went on and its budget was trimmed, the music budget suffered and the series became more reliant on stock cues. The fifth season is notable for introducing a new, more contemporary musical style in several of its episodes, but the final two seasons’ music is largely repetitive and unimpressive. It’s an unfortunate trend.
List of M:I’s composers by number of episode scores (plus episodes where they were credited but I noticed no new music):
- Lalo Schifrin: c. 21 scores (c. 23 credited), seasons 1-7
- Richard Markowitz: 9 scores, S3-4
- Robert Drasnin: c. 7 scores (8 credited), S2-3, 5-6
- Gerald Fried: 6 scores, S1-4
- Jerry Fielding: 6 scores, S2-4
- Walter Scharf: 5 scores, S1-2
- Benny Golson: 4 scores, S5-6
- Richard Hazard: 3 scores, S4-5 (+1 credited, S6)
- Robert Prince: 2 scores, S5-6
- Jacques Urbont: 1 score, S1
- Don Ellis: 1 score, S1
- Harry Geller: 1 score, S5
- Hugo Montenegro: 1 score, S5
- George Romanis: 1 score, S6
- Duane Tatro: 1 score, S7
- Herschel Burke Gilbert & Rudy Schrager: 1 original song, S3
- Uncredited source music/new arrangements (possibly by music supervisor Kenyon Hopkins): 1 episode each, S4, 6-7
My favorite composers were Scharf, Fried, and Fielding, though Drasnin did some impressive work, and Schifrin certainly deserves recognition for defining the show’s musical style. Least favorite is Hugo Montenegro.
Note that although M:I was the sister production of Star Trek and had a fair amount of overlap in cast and crew, the only composers on this list who ever worked on ST are Fried and Fielding, who worked on the original series around the same time they were doing M:I, and Romanis, who did one ST:TNG episode in its debut 1987-8 season. The only one of these composers to work on the ’88 M:I revival series is Schifrin, who scored the premiere episode and whose themes (main title and “The Plot”) were used as consistently there as in the original series.
So how would I rank the seven seasons of M:I?
1) Season 5: The best writing, the most imaginative and versatile storytelling, the richest characterizations. No season had more surprises and twists or made the characters work harder for their victories. However, it works largely as a reaction to the formulas that came before, so it should be watched in that context rather than by itself.
2) Season 1: The one that started it all and showed what the series could’ve been if it hadn’t been taken over by formula. If the whole season had been on a par with the first half, it would take the lead over season 5, due to a stronger cast, better music, and the more flexible, diverse team compositions. But instead it trended downhill and ended up locking in the formula that would define the majority of the series. It established both the best and the worst of what M:I would be.
3) Season 3: Though generally formulaic, it handles the formula solidly and effectively, with excellent scripting, production values, direction, and music. It also deserves recognition for its upward trend; as the season progressed, it added more suspense and danger and pitted the team against worthier adversaries.
4) Season 4: An uneven but generally satisfying season, largely routine but with a few impressive format-breakers and multi-part epics, and featuring “Submarine,” one of the finest episodes of the entire series. Also benefits from strong music.
5) Season 7: Comfortably routine, with few real gems but few duds. Mostly entertaining if uninspired, but it includes one episode, “The Question,” that’s as good as almost anything in season 5. The weakest season musically.
6) Season 6: This is a close one. More standout episodes than season 7 (though nothing equalling “The Question”), but more middling to weak episodes as well, so the average is slightly lower, the season less consistently satisfying as a whole.
7) Season 2: The most routine, formulaic, and mediocre season overall. It just didn’t bring as much interest to the formula as the other formulaic seasons did. However, it’s one of the strongest seasons musically.
For the heck of it, here’s a list of regular or recurring IMF team members by number of episodes, counting only cast members from the original series and not the 1988 revival. (Nor am I counting Barney and Casey’s appearances in the revival, since they were not technically IMF team members in those stories.)
- Barney Collier: 166 (plus at least 1 offscreen assist)
- Willy Armitage: 147
- Jim Phelps: 143 (plus 35 episodes of revival)
- Rollin Hand: 76
- Cinnamon Carter: 71
- The Great Paris: 49
- (Lisa) Casey: 34 (plus 6 offscreen assists)
- Dan Briggs: 27 (only on mission in 20)
- Dana Lambert: 23
- Doug Robert: 13
- Mimi Davis: 7
- Tracey: 6 (4 distinct missions)
- Dr. Green (Allen Joseph): 2 (plus 1 offscreen assist)
- Dave (Walker Edmiston): 2
Also, the Voice on Tape (Bob Johnson) is heard in 157 episodes, although 8 of those are recaps in multiparters, so it comes out to only 149 distinct tape briefings — plus all 35 episodes of the ’88 revival.
Some comparisons of the different team members:
Best Team Leader: Candidates: Dan Briggs, Jim Phelps
Dan was in some respects a more interesting and edgy character, but tended to be somewhat colder and capable of considerable ruthlessness. Jim was more whitebread, but it was easier to like him as a series lead and to believe he could win and hold the team’s loyalty. He could also play a wide range of character types more effectively than Dan. The vote goes to Jim.
Best Second-in-Command: Candidates: Rollin Hand, Barney Collier
Rollin took over as team leader when Dan was written out of “Action!” and when Jim was abducted in “The Town.” Also, Rollin was effective field leader in several first-season episodes where Dan stayed behind. Barney filled in as team leader when Jim was missing in “Trapped” and abducted in “Kidnap.” Both performed effectively in the role, so it’s a tough call. But I’m inclined to give the vote to Barney, given that the naturalness with which he fell into a leadership role was impressive for someone who was nominally an engineer — and for an African-American character in a 1960s-70s show. Even when he wasn’t in a leadership role, his intellect and discipline always made him the linchpin of the team.
Best Master of Disguise: Candidates: Rollin Hand, Paris, Casey
Most of the team members engaged in roleplay, but these were the three whose expertise was primarily in impersonation, makeup, and voice mimicry. The vote goes to Rollin, for Martin Landau was simply the most versatile and effective character actor of the three. Leonard Nimoy did his best to show his range as a character actor and get away from Spock, but he felt like an inadequate substitute for Rollin, though at least in season 5 there was some attempt to give him a distinct personality of his own. The deck is stacked against Casey in the disguise role since the producers were reluctant to do stories that involved hiding her gorgeous face, so she tended to do her makeup work on behalf of others or got to play characters who happened to look enough like her that she didn’t need a mask. She was a very effective roleplayer and character actress, however.
Best Tech Guy: Barney Collier by default. Who else do you need?
Best Regular/Recurring Female Agent: Candidates: Cinnamon Carter, Tracey, Dana Lambert, Casey, Mimi
Yes, it’s a bit chauvinistic to treat “female agent” as a category, but that’s the way the role was defined in the show (except to an extent for Casey). If this were a beauty contest, Casey would win hands down. And Tracey, who was played by an actual Miss America, would score pretty highly too. But in terms of overall quality… hmm. Cinnamon could be quite strong or quite seductive when she chose to be. She was certainly impressive in the first season. But as the series went on, Barbara Bain seemed to get less invested in the role and phoned in her performances more. Some of her characterizations didn’t work well for me; the cold, professional women she played all too often were too flat of affect to be very engaging, and when she got emotional or tearful, she reminded me too much of Lucy Ricardo. Casey was more bland and Barbie-ish overall than Cinnamon, but that means she had fewer negatives as well as fewer strong positives. Dana is also a strong candidate in terms of performance, personality, and range, and benefitted from being in the season with the best writing; her roles started to feel a bit repetitive as the season wore on, but then, so did Cinnamon’s. Aww, heck, let’s say the best is first-season Cinnamon, followed by Dana, then Casey, then later Cinnamon. Of the two recurring women, Tracey was lovelier, but Mimi was more engaging overall and got more to do.
Best One-shot Female Agent: I won’t list all the candidates, but my favorite guest female agent was Crystal Walker (Mary Ann Mobley) from season 1’s “Old Man Out.” The runners-up would include Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley) from “The Question” (S7) and three agents from season 4: Gillian (Anne Francis) from “The Double Circle,” Lisa (Michele Carey) from “The Brothers,” and Monique (Julie Gregg) from “Amnesiac.” Though I might be ranking Monique higher than she deserves because of Julie Gregg’s wonderful performance in a different role in S5’s “Decoy.”
Best “Other Guy”: Candidates: Willy Armitage, Dr. Doug Robert
Of course, a muscleman and a doctor aren’t really comparable roles, but in season 5 the producers intermittently replaced Willy with Doug and considered making it permanent, so it’s worth comparing the two. Willy wins by a landslide. Certainly having a doctor on the team on a regular basis was a useful idea, but even though Doug was added with the evident intention of replacing the fairly taciturn, limited acting of Peter Lupus with someone more verbal and involved in the roleplaying, Sam Elliott at the time turned out to be a pretty weak character actor, no more emotive than Willy and utterly dreadful at the foreign accents the team was called upon to adopt (though that might not have been a problem if he’d been added to the cast a year later). And in the final two seasons, when the smaller cast required Willy to broaden his role and do more acting, Lupus rose to the occasion fairly well. So there’s simply no contest here.
Best One-shot Male Agent: There were few male guest stars who played significant roles on the team, due to the nature of the show. The most memorable candidates would pretty much be Joseph Baresh (Albert Paulsen) from S1’s “Memory”; Akim Hadramut (Steve Franken) from S2’s “The Slave”; the reluctant Jerry Carlin (Christopher Connelly) from S5’s “The Innocent”; Steve Johnson (Lawrence Montaigne) from S6’s “The Miracle”; and Khalid (Joseph Ruskin) from S7’s “The Puppet.” But only Baresh and Carlin stand out as interesting characters. I’ll give Baresh the edge on the strength of the actor.
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