MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 1988 Season Overview
As I thought about how to sum up this season for this overview, what struck me was how much it feels like a direct continuation of what came before. Yes, there’s been a gap of 15 years, the cast and crew are almost completely different, and the technology’s been updated, but the basic formula and approach of the show are essentially unchanged, and most of its tropes and conventions are intact. It even continues the conventions specific to the final couple of seasons of the original, such as the use of cold opens and the establishment of San Francisco as the site of Jim’s mission briefings. It really feels like it picked up right where it left off. I can’t think of many other series revivals that have picked up with so little change after so much time. Looking at the Revival page on TV Tropes, maybe The New Avengers, The New WKRP in Cincinnati, or the recently revived Red Dwarf might qualify, not to mention Jack Webb’s revival of Dragnet in the ’60s.
Indeed, in some ways, this revival was even more formulaic than the original. Aside from the replacement of Casey Randall with Shannon Reed, the team composition was the most uniform it’s been in any season, with every regular player appearing in every episode (even though Casey often had very little to do). It’s the only season other than S6 to have no off-book missions; even the episodes with personal stakes for Jim were still assigned IMF cases. Every episode therefore had a disc-briefing scene. And every briefing, even the domestic crimebusting ones, had the “Secretary will disavow” line whether it made sense or not. And while the original series periodically featured cons with supernatural elements, this season returns to that well more often than any previous one, five times out of nineteen episodes (over a quarter of the cases!).
The changes we do get are quite subtle. There’s more interplay and expository dialogue among teammates during the missions; more is told rather than simply shown, and it gives the actors more moments to play off one another. The apartment briefings are less focused on methods and mechanics and more on general mission overview. And the team often assembles on site for the initial briefing, though the norm is still to have it in Jim’s apartment — and Jim still lives in San Francisco as he evidently did in season 7.
I’d expected that the revival would feature more character development and continuity than the original, but I guess it wasn’t until the ’90s that those things really came to be demanded by audiences. This season does have a number of episodes that have personal stakes for the characters (mainly Jim Phelps), like “The Killer,” “The Condemned,” “The Lions” (kind of), “The Fortune,” “Spy,” and “Reprisal,” but the majority are standard M:I capers with no particular significance for the leads. And only a few episodes have missions going awry in any significant way — “Spy” is the prime example, though there are several where the team doesn’t have all the facts ahead of time and is engaged as much in investigation and improvisation as manipulation, e.g. “The Killer,” “The Condemned,” “The Legacy,” “The Fixer,” and “Reprisal.” (True, there are a lot of episodes where they’re trying to find where something or someone is hidden or discover a piece of information, but those are more McGuffins than anything else.)
As such, we don’t learn much more about the new characters than we did about their predecessors. Jim Phelps believes in meticulous planning and cares about his former and current teammates; Grant Collier loves his father and forgives him for being an absentee working dad; the team members like each other and have a friendly rapport; and that’s about it. We learn a bit more about the characters’ backgrounds and reasons for joining the IMF than we did about the originals, but it never comes into play. (For instance, if Casey Randall was a “top designer on three continents,” how come the police needed Jim to identify her body?)
It implicitly seems that Grant Collier is Jim’s second-in-command or closest confidante, and probably a lifelong family friend. He always seems to be the first one Jim briefs, joining him in explaining the plan to the others — although Nicholas also has advance information more often than the other two, further suggesting a certain hierarchy in the team. The new team is a little less specialized than the old ones, or comparable to the season 6/7 team, since all team members participate in role play. Still, Grant is the principal technical genius, Nicholas the principal role player, and Max the principal muscle and pilot. Jim often takes a less central role than he would in the past, frequently favoring eccentric character parts; perhaps after all these years in the game, he’s gotten a bit self-indulgent.
One substantial change in the new series is that we get a bit more insight into the IMF as an organization. The original series never showed us an IMF agent who wasn’t a part of Dan’s or Jim’s team; indeed, it was implied that the “agents” were civilian assets only loosely or unofficially affiliated with the agency. (Which is actually a bit like how real intelligence work operates today. Contrary to fiction, actual spies are pretty much useless in the field, since other governments already know who they are. So they mostly just work out of embassies and solicit local civilian assets to be their eyes and ears in the field. Though that’s just for listening and observing, not engaging in elaborate deceptions or risking death.) But here, we meet other IMF assets, including Jim’s successor as team leader and an inventor formerly with “IM Laboratories,” as well as the teenage son of another IMF agent. We also learn that IMF operatives perform advance research for the briefings Jim receives. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s the beginning of a fleshing-out process that would culminate in the much larger IMF bureaucracy of the movies.
The IMF’s mission as of 1988-9 seems like an evolution from its past as well. For five seasons, it was mostly focused on international espionage and security missions with occasional diversions to deal with organized crime in the US. In season 6, it shifted exclusively to stateside mob-busting. But while season 7 was mostly crime-focused, the number of overseas and/or intelligence missions started to creep up again. This season references overseas spy missions as early as six years after season 7, and in itself it portrays a mix of espionage and crimebusting missions, with many of the latter now occurring overseas. Specifically, eight episodes deal with criminal foes, including two international drug cartels and one international slave-trafficking ring. Three of the other criminal cases involve crimes directed against IMF agents, and thus could qualify as intelligence-related, while one (“The Haunting”) is a simple murder but has possible international ramifications. I’m not including the blackmail schemes in “The Fixer” and “The Devils,” because they involve the manipulation of government officials and thus fall more into the spy/intrigue category. I’m also not counting the fake refugee-smuggling scheme in “The Wall,” because its perpetrators abducted the daughter of an arms negotiator in order to influence international policy. Other criminal acts such as the arms dealing in “The Cattle King,” the chemical-weapons dealing in “Spy,” and the bioweapon theft in “The Plague” are in support of terrorism and thus count as national-security cases. Still, the number of straight-up espionage/political stories in the season is fairly low, and we don’t begin to see them until a quarter of the way into the season. This is yet another way that the ’88 season feels like it’s picking up right from where season 7 left off.
So how does the new cast measure up? Well, Peter Graves is still a stalwart presence, bringing the same mix of deadpan seriousness and avuncular charm that worked for him on the original, but he’s also showing some of the comedic chops he began to exercise in Airplane! and continued to draw on in subsequent works (like fellow Serious Sixties Actors William Shatner, Leslie Nielsen, and Lloyd Bridges — that movie transformed a lot of careers). But I’d say the real breakout and MVP here was Phil Morris as Grant Collier. Casting him was a terrific idea, not only because of the nostalgia/legacy factor of being the son of Greg Morris/Barney Collier, but because he’s a strong, charismatic actor in his own right, and probably quite popular with female viewers. Tony Hamilton also did an impressive job as Max Harte, good at being a tough guy but also able to give engaging performances in a variety of roles. And Jane Badler was capable and sexy as Shannon Reed. I said in an earlier overview that Lynda Day George was the most beautiful M:I leading lady, but Badler is a contender for the sexiest one — while also conveying competence and a tough edge. Thaao Penghlis as Nicholas Black was a decent leading man, at his best reminding me of a poor man’s Roger Rees; but he was playing a part that called for more of a chameleonic character actor, and in that respect he just didn’t measure up, his range far too limited for the job. And then there’s Terry Markwell as Casey Randall — attractive, more or less, and competent up to a point, but lacking in range and ultimately just not measuring up. I still have mixed feelings about her brief and disappointing tenure; sometimes I feel she wasn’t really given a chance to live up to her potential, but then I recall there were a couple of times when she was given a chance and fell short. Whatever the true reasons, it’s safe to say that of all M:I’s main-cast female regulars, Markwell made the least significant contribution to the series — except in the trivia-question sense of being the only M:I series regular to be killed and “disavowed.” But that’s kind of an ignominious honor.
Rating the episodes, I’d say the best one of the season was “The Pawn,” followed by “The Fortune” and “The Legacy.” These are solid and clever capers with interesting twists and various qualities that lend them added appeal — the music in “The Pawn,” the guest cast and personal stakes in “The Fortune,” and “The Legacy”‘s improvements on the episode it remakes. “The Killer,” “The System,” and “The Fixer” were all strong, effective capers, and “Spy” was also quite effective for its formula-breaking tension and danger, even if it ended up turning into too much of a conventional action-show episode. The remake of “The Condemned” and “The Lions” are imperfect episodes made stronger by their character elements, particularly the return of Barney Collier in the former. “The Plague” is a good story with some awkward writing, while “Holograms” is a flawed and formulaic story improved by a strong guest star and a good score. “The Wall,” “The Cattle King,” “The Greek,” “Reprisal,” and “Bayou” are mediocre, sometimes with good qualities cancelled out by their shortcomings, others just run-of-the-mill. “Submarine is also mediocre but comes out a bit more on the negative side of the ledger due to problems of plot coherence, and in contrast to the superb episode it was a very loose remake of. “The Haunting” was a silly mess, and “The Devils” was simply awful, quite possibly the worst episode of the franchise to date. Basically the season starts out reasonably strong, then has a mix of better and worse episodes in the middle, then ends up fairly weak and mediocre. Overall, a lot of the stories were less clever or less intricately worked out than in the original; complications that didn’t quite make sense increasingly took the place of intricacy. Also, the season started out with strong guest actors like John DeLancie, James Sloyan, and Gerard Kennedy, as well as a memorable turn by BarBara Luna later in the season; but toward the end, the villains began to become increasingly cartoony and grotesque, undermining what would’ve been stronger stories otherwise.
There were six episodes that were remakes of originals. “The Killer,” “The System,” “The Condemned,” and “The Legacy” were fairly close remakes with largely or mostly identical plots and verbatim dialogue, while “The Wall” (based on “The Bank”) and “Submarine” reused only the basic premises while changing the specifics, the characters, and the dialogue. Of these, the ones that most improved on the originals were “The System” and “The Legacy,” while the one that suffered most in adaptation was “Submarine.”
Jim Phelps, Nicholas Black, Grant Collier, and Max Harte were in every episode. Casey Randall was in episodes 1-12 (sometimes just barely), Shannon Reed in episodes 12-19. Episodes featuring guest agents or other assistants included:
- 01 The Killer: Anonymous two-member team of hotel dressers/extras
- 03 Holograms: Kieron Taylor (Gavin Harrison), son of IMF agent
- 04 The Condemned: Former IMF agent Barney Collier (Greg Morris)
- 07 The Cattle King: Shaman Mulwarra (Warren Owens) and tribe assist
- 08 The Pawn: Magician Joseph Rultka (Philip Hinton) and chess champion Gregor Antonov (Bryan Marshall) assist
- 09 The Haunting: Honolulu Police cooperates
- 13 The Fixer: Senator Tom Oxenford (Terence Donovan) cooperates
- 14 Spy: KGB colonel Dr. Yuri Nikolai (Shane Briant)
- 17 Reprisal: Former IMF agent Lisa Casey (Lynda Day George)
- 18 Submarine: Possible offscreen assistance of submarine soundstage crew
- 19 Bayou: New Orleans Police cooperates
However, only “The Killer,” “Holograms,” “The Cattle King,” “The Pawn,” and “Spy” mentioned these additional team members in the initial briefings, and only Rultka in “The Spy”‘s case; Barney, Lisa Casey, Antonov, and Oxenford were initially rescuees who became involved in the plans later on, and the others were incidental.
Additionally, we learn of several other IMF assets who did not participate in Jim’s teams:
- 01 The Killer: Tom Copperfield (Vince Martin), Jim’s successor as team leader for up to eight years prior to 1988
- 03 Holograms: Taylor, IMF agent
- 17 Reprisal: Former IMF agents Laura Ann Wilson (Chelsea Brown) and Marilyn (Paula Goodman); former IM Laboratories consultant Russell Acker (David Cameron)
Not to mention the Voice on Disc (Bob Johnson), the one person who’s been with the IMF longer than anyone else we know of, except maybe Barney Collier (I don’t recall whether Barney was retired or not in “The Condemned”).
Due to new union rules by the 1980s, every episode has a mostly or entirely original score. However, only three composers contributed to the season: original M:I composer Lalo Schifrin did the first three odd-numbered episodes, Ron Jones did the first six even-numbered episodes, and John E. Davis did the other ten. The best scores are Schifrin’s “Holograms” and Jones’s “The Pawn,” with Schifrin’s “The Killer” and Jones’s “The Lions” and “The Fortune” also being memorable. Davis’s work is adequate but fairly uniform and lacking any real standout episodes, and his avoidance of any full statement of “The Plot,” instead reducing it to a simple 7-note phrase, is annoying.
The locations this season were mostly overseas, with only five episodes set on US soil (though none produced there), including Honolulu, the Florida Keys, the District of Columbia, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Most overseas episodes were set in real locations, and unlike in the original series, Warsaw Pact powers like the USSR and East Germany were mentioned by name as adversaries. The only episodes set in fictitious countries were “Holograms” and “The Lions,” though several villains were from unspecified hostile powers, and the villains in “The Fortune” were from the fictional Central American nation of Alcante. Two consecutive episodes, “The System” and “Holograms,” were set in the Caribbean (although I’m unsure of that in the latter case) — the former in the Bahamas, the latter in a fictitious island nation. Seven episodes are set in Europe: “The Killer” and “The Devils” in England, “The Legacy” and “The Wall” in Germany, “The Pawn” in Prague, “The Greek” mostly in Athens, and “The Plague” in Paris. The teaser of “The Greek” is in Southeast Asia, and other Asian locations include the fictional Himalayan nation Bajan-Du in “The Lions” and Hong Kong and the South China Sea in “Submarine.” Only one episode, “Spy,” is set in Africa (an unspecified Central African country), and one, “The Condemned,” is in the Mideast (Istanbul). “The Cattle King” is the first M:I episode set in Australia — and thus the only one in the season shot on the actual locations it portrays.
The downside of this more international flavor, however, is that the show’s portrayal of ethnic diversity has not improved. In fact, it’s gotten worse, since the original series rarely attempted to portray non-Western cultures. The amount of stereotyping and condescension toward groups such as East Asians, Indigenous Australians, and “Gypsies” is distasteful. It’s a reminder that the timeframe of this series — and the culture of that era — was closer to the original series than it was to today.
So that’s season 1 of the revival — or season 8 of the series as a whole, since it is such a smooth continuation in so many ways. The season grew beyond its predecessors in some ways while hewing closer to the formula than a number of earlier seasons. It was a surprisingly authentic and respectful continuation, but with some lapses in insight and quality, and not quite living up to the cleverness of the original at its best. It’s better than what we might have gotten from a show that was commissioned simply as a way to work around a writers’ strike and was initially planned as a straight remake; but in other ways, it’s pretty much just what we’d expect from such a show. It’s not the finest season M:I has produced, but neither does it feel like it’s just going through the motions or that it’s missed the point. It is, quite simply, more Mission: Impossible, and that’s not a bad thing.
And yes, I will be carrying forward with the second and final season of the revival, since one of my readers was kind enough to help pay for the purchase of the DVD set. So I should be able to start in on that pretty promptly, other responsibilities permitting. After which I intend to proceed to cover the movies, allowing me to complete this review series at last.