Friday, December 16, 2011

Nostalgia Theater:
Mission: Impossible Edition

Peter Graves, flanked by (L-R) Greg Morris, Leonard Nimoy, and Peter Lupus
I caught a screening of the new Mission: Impossible movie earlier today, and hope to have a review up shortly, but in the meantime, I wanted to use this Nostalgia Theater entry to take a fond look back at the TV show that got the whole brand rolling. A unique merger of the spy genre that had exploded in popularity in the post-Bond '60s with the tried-and-true procedurals that were fixtures of the primetime landscape even then, Mission: Impossible, created by Bruce Geller, premiered on CBS in 1966 and ran for seven seasons.

Although it initially starred Steven Hill as no-nonsense "Impossible Missions Force" leader Dan Briggs during the first season, it really wasn't until the late Peter Graves took over the lead in year two, as slick, silver-haired Jim Phelps that Mission: Impossible gained itself a signature star who, together with Lalo Schifrin's signature theme music, helped give the show much of the iconic resonance it retains to this day. Here's the intro from one of the second season episodes:

Graves remained with the series for the remainder of its run, but the rest of the cast was always in flux, with Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Leonard Nimoy, Lesley Anne Warren, and Sam Elliott, among others, all putting in tenures of various durations toiling on the team. While some of these ensembles worked together better than others (my personal favorite is the Graves-Landau-Bain era), like most procedurals, what kept Mission: Impossible plugging along was its absolute fidelity to its established formula, which, rather than being an impediment, was one of its strongest points.

Like clockwork, every episode would start with the IM leader being given an assignment by way of microfilm or other secreted recording, then choosing the right team for the task (always whichever actors happened to populate the cast that season), and the rest of the hour then followed said team as they executed said assignment to perfection. No sidetracking or character development. In that strict adherence to formula, one can see the influence on later procedurals like Law & Order (which starred, for a long time, original Mission lead Steven Hill).

The first Mission: Impossible ended in 1973, but it was brought back to TV in 1988 (during a brief trend that saw TV classics such as Leave it to Beaver, Dragnet, and Adam-12 being revived -- to varying degrees of success). Peter Graves, reprising Phelps, was the only original star to return in a regular capacity to the new Mission, and it only lasted two seasons. Oddly enough, in an indication of what a stylistic black hole much of the '80s was (fashion-wise and synthesizer-wise), this version seems more dated today than the original one does:

After the new show ended its brief, two season run, it wasn't until 1996 and Brian De Palma's blockbuster Mission: Impossible feature that the brand reared its head again in a big way, with Tom Cruise as newly-invented IM agent Ethan Hunt, and Jim Phelps now played by actor Jon Voight. While opinions are divided as to the relative quality of that first film, it earned an eternal black mark with me thanks to its third act twist reveal that the previously heroic Phelps was actually the main baddie, who betrayed and murdered his colleagues in furtherance of a secret, villainous agenda.

For folks like me, who'd watched and loved the show(s) growing up, it was a gut punch that didn't make a lick of narrative sense. New audiences wouldn't have any idea who Phelps was anyway, and the only ones who'd recognize the name would just be irked by the perplexing decision to turn him bad. Indeed, the story goes that the late Greg Morris -- the only actor to appear as a lead in all seven seasons of the original show -- was so disgusted by this turn of events during a preview screening that he walked out in disgust. I don't blame him at all.

Still, my antipathy for that first movie notwithstanding (and we'll talk about the rest in greater detail soon), the lasting impact of Geller's creation on our collective cultural landscape is evident in the fact that forty-five years after it first premiered, we're still talking about it. Both the '60s and '80s Mission: Impossible series are now available on DVD, and thanks to the age of Netflix, the original is also available to watch in its entirety online. If you haven't seen it until now, it's a mission that's well worth accepting.

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