Posted by:
Byron Brewer

Wayback Machine: Mission: Impossible




picWith Tom Cruise and the top guns of the IMF ready to strike again at theatres near you, we thought we would warm up the Wayback Machine and look back at the extraordinary TV show with the great theme that gave birth to this film franchise.

Mission: Impossible aired on CBS from September 1966 to March 1973 and chronicled the missions of a team of secret American government agents known as the Impossible Mission Force (IMF). The leader of the team was Jim Phelps, played to great stiff success by Peter Graves. Many of today’s fans might not recall that in the first season of the show, the IMF was led by Dan Briggs, played by Steven Hill.

A hallmark of the series shows Phelps receiving his instructions on a recording that then self-destructs, followed by the iconic theme music composed by Lalo Schifrin. Phelps’ small team of secret agents were used for covert missions against dictators, evil organizations and (primarily in later episodes) crime lords. On occasion, the IMF also mounts unsanctioned, private missions on behalf of its members.

The identities of the organization which oversees the IMF and the government it works for are never revealed. Only rare cryptic bits of information are ever provided during the life of the series, such as in the third season mission "Nicole," where the IMF leader states that his instructions come from "Division Seven." In the 1980s revival, it is suggested the IMF is an independent agency (as the FBI can only legally operate within the United Statesand the CIAcan only operate outside the country). However, in the first motion picture, the IMF is depicted as part of the CIA.

Phelps was the only full-time member of the IMF. He formed teams made up of part-time agents who come from a variety of professions, choosing their operatives based on the particular skills necessary to the mission, with at least one of those agents being female. There is a core group of three or four agents who were regularly chosen, but the episodes did not always feature the same regulars, and many episodes feature one-time guest star agents who have unique abilities.

The regular (and most famous) agent line-up during the first season consisted of: Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), a top fashion model and actress; Barnard “Barney” Collier (Greg Morris), a mechanical and electronics genius and owner of Collier Electronics; William “Willy” Armitage (Peter Lupus), a world record-holding weight lifter; and Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), a noted actor, makeup artist, escape artist, magician and “master of disguise.”

As with many spy shows of the era, there is a Cold War subtext present although the actual Cold War between the United Statesand the Soviet Unionis rarely mentioned over the course of the series. (See, for example, the mission objectives for "The Trial" and "The Confession" in Season One.) However, in the early years, specific locations behind the Iron Curtain are named (such as Lubyanka prison in the episode "Memory") and many of the targets appear to be leaders of fictional Slavic countries.

Major named enemy countries include the "European People's Republic" and the "EasternEuropeanRepublic." Additionally, real languages spoken in East Europeare used. In the Season One episode "The Carriers," one of the villains reads a book whose title is the (incorrect) Russian Na Voina (About War); police vehicles are often labeled as such with words such as "polǐiçia" and "pőĮįia," and a gas line or tank would be labeled "Gaz" which is a Romanian translation. This "language," referred to by the production team as “Gellerese,” was invented specifically to be readable by non-speakers of Slavic languages. Their generous use of it was actually intended as a source of comic relief.

During the fifth season, with Paramountexecutives having gained greater control, new producer Bruce Lansbury began to phase out the international missions. This would manifest itself the following year with the IMF battling organized crime in most episodes, though this season still featured more international forays than not. These gangland bosses are usually associated with "the Syndicate," a generic organization, or its franchises. Generally when describing such assignments, the tape message notes that the target is outside the reach of "conventional law enforcement." The objective of such missions was usually simply to obtain evidence that might be admissible in court, often taking the form of tricking the mobsters into making a confession while being recorded.

Manipulating the targets into killing one another became much less frequent as well. Lansbury also attempted to replace Peter Lupus, who was expressing dissatisfaction with his part at this time, with Sam Elliott. Over the course of the fifth season, Lupus's Armitage character appeared in 13 of its 24 episodes, to the outrage of fans who demanded Armitage's return. By the end of the fifth season, Elliott was gone (he did appear in the first filmed episode of Season Six) and Lupus appeared in the remaining two seasons, with Armitage being given a larger share of screen time and more demanding duties.

The recorded message (“Good morning, Mr. Phelps”), Phelps’ browse through his IMF dossier, the timing of the plots and the iconic theme made Mission: Impossiblea TV classic.

I’m curious to see how December’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol will live up to its legacy.