Friday, September 25, 2009

A Mission Worth Accepting

One of the most elegantly handled television series of the 60s (and maybe of all time) was the undercover agent suspense drama Mission: Impossible. Conceived during The Cold War when spies were popular in films (The James Bond series among many others) and on television (The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy), this program revolved around the I.M.F. – Impossible Missions Force.

A highly secretive branch of the US government, the I.M.F. would receive instructions regarding a sensitive international situation or serious criminal activity, something beyond the realm of regular law enforcement, and be asked to step in and solve things. The leader would then select his team from a pool of agents, depending on his or her skills, and then construct a plan in which to get the job done. Though these plans were always elaborate (sometimes ludicrously so) and exceptionally well thought-out, there was always an element of suspense thanks to the wild card actions of the bad guys the team was trying to defeat.

The unforgettable opening theme (with famous music by Lalo Schifrin) showed an animated fuse burning while rapid-fire clips from the episode in question flickered on the screen. The (abhorrent to true fans of the show) film series starring Tom Cruise kept this music, but little else.

Though few casual fans of the show recall it, the first season featured a team leader named Dan Briggs, played by Steven Hill. When Hill began to experience (and cause) trouble due to some newfound religious beliefs, he was segued out and replaced from season two on by Peter Graves, who played Jim Phelps. Phelps and his team of Rollin (Martin Landau), Cinnamon (Barbara Bain), Barney (Greg Morris) and Willy (Peter Lupus), though they were only together for two of the seven seasons, are the most iconic and well-remembered group from the run of the show.

Despite the intense secrecy regarding the instructions given to the team (the leader frequently had to use code words or step into offbeat buildings in order to retrieve his envelope and tape recording), the man on the tape would state the following, “As always, should you or any of your IM force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. Good luck, Jim. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds” and the tape would then “dissolve” in a huge cloud of smoke! Really private!

After a while, since the same people were chosen almost every single week, scenes involving the agents being selected out of a dossier were dropped. However, most episodes retained the debriefing scene in which the agents assembled, always glamorously dressed in shades of black, white and/or grey, and revealed tidbits of the plan -- just enough to intrigue the viewer.

Graves was a handsome and stalwart lead who stayed from season two on and even headlined a brief late 80s revival. (Greg Morris’s son Phil also
starred in this as Barney’s son.) Landau got a nice acting workout as a master of disguise. Barbara Bain, in particular, was a breakout star of the show. Possessing an amazingly cool and beguiling face and a sleek figure, she added immeasurable class to the proceedings and picked up three Emmy Awards in the bargain! Morris was notable as the first black lead on a TV series in which no reference was made to his color. (When some racist viewers wrote in to complain that he and Bain were too close together, writers wrote scenes that placed them interacting even more closely!) Amiable muscle man Lupus could barely put five words together, especially at first, but his goodwill with audiences kept him there through the series. He would later shock his costars and the rest of the world with a full-on nude spread in Playgirl magazine.

In a startling and very messy break, Landau and Bain departed the series after three seasons. The complicated details of the split (with both sides blaming the other) led to career trauma for the couple. They later had a modicum of success (mostly on a cult level) with the British sci-fi series Space: 1999 before winding up in utter garbage like The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island! Not even Nostradamus could have predicted that Landau would eventually carve out a solid career as a supporting actor in films again, even winning an Oscar! Bain fared less well, but worked in some nice projects here and there. The once tight couple divorced in 1993.

Replacements for the departed cast members included, over the years: Leonard Nimoy as another master of disguise, Lesley Ann Warren as a nubile distraction, Sam Elliott as a hunky doctor and Lynda Day George, who did surprisingly well as a latter day re-dux of Bain, even copping an Emmy nomination for herself. When she went on maternity leave, Ironside’s Barbara Anderson stepped in for a while. Directly following Bain’s departure, a series of actresses filled in as agents. The most frequent was Lee Meriwether.

The show eventually moved from mostly foreign settings to mostly urban American areas which served to erode it’s uniqueness, but also kept it going after there had been so many fictional Slavic nations, Latin dictatorships and obscure duchies that it had worn thin. The budget decreased in time as well, however, and the series lost a bit of its luster. (However, times were becoming less glamorous anyway as the 70s rolled in, so it likely didn’t stand out so much at the time.)

Fans of Star Trek should take particular delight in watching M:I on DVD as the series share many, many guest stars in common. Remarkably, for a show about spies and crime, there was very little gunplay or bloodshed. The stories relied more upon intricately planned “stings,” much of which the audience was expected to grasp without a lot of explanation. The early seasons, in particular, devote an almost fetishistic amount of attention to the details of how the various gadgets work and the amount of trouble it took to complete the tasks at hand. This fact may be as off-putting to some viewers as it is fascinating to technology geeks.

The allure for me is in the crisp, clean photography, the stylish clothing of the performers, the dedicated teamwork of the agents and the elaborate hoaxes which were pulled on the villains.


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