Friday, December 16, 2011
|Peter Graves, flanked by (L-R) Greg Morris, Leonard Nimoy, and Peter Lupus|
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:
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:
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. 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.