Bob Johnson's taped words commissioning the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) with another assignment became synonymous with the techno-sophistry of Mission: Impossible. "This tape will self-destruct in five seconds." They were as oft-cited as the title itself and the opening visual and aural motifs: a match striking into flame and Lalo Schifrin's dynamic theme music.
The program ran for 168 episodes between 1966 and 1973 on CBS, returning for a further 35 episodes on ABC between 1988 and 1990 (shot in Australia for financial and location reasons). The original executive producer, Bruce Geller, wanted to deploy "the Everyman-superman" in a "homage to team work and good old Yankee ingenuity." The leader of the Force was expected to choose a team to deal with each given task, usually comprised of a technical expert, a strong-man, a female model, and a man-of-disguise. Major actors at different moments in the series included Peter Graves (head of the IMF after the first season and through the revived series), Barbara Bain (model), Greg Morris (technical expert), Peter Lupus (muscle-bound), and Martin Landau (disguise artist).
By the time the program first began, TV producers were under intense pressure to include black characters in positive roles. Mission was held up in the TV Guide of the 1960s as a paragon of virtue in the representation of African-Americans, with the character of Barney Collier hailed as one of television's "New Negro figures." This didn't avoid criticism for making the token African-American a "backdoor" technical expert, one-dimensional and emotionless.
The instructions to writers of the first series read: "The tape message contains the problem. An enemy or criminal plot is in existence; the IMF must counter it. The situation must be of enough importance and difficulty that only the IMF could do it. The villains (as here and later portrayed) are so black, and so clever that the intricate means used to defeat them are necessary. Very commonly, but not inevitably, the mission is to retrieve a valuable item or man, and/or to discredit (eliminate) the villain or villains ... avoid names of actual countries as well as mythical Balkan kingdoms by being vague. This is not a concern at early stages of writing: use real names if it's easier." The force would accept its assignment and devise a means to carry out the task in an extremely complex way. Some aspect of the plan would go awry, but the team would improvise and survive.
The IMF was a U.S. espionage group, private-sector but public-spirited, that "assisted" Third World countries, opposed domestic organised crime, and acted as a spy for the government. Because its enemies were great and powerful, the Force required intricacy and secrecy ("covertness"). At the very time that the famous words were being intoned in each disembodied, taped assignment ("Should you ... be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions") the real-life U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense, Arthur Sylvester, was supporting covert operations. The program's considerable overseas sales (sixty-nine countries and fifteen dubbed versions by its third season) were said to have given many viewers around the world an exaggerated impression of the CIA's abilities.
David Buxton describes Mission as an exemplar of the 1960s British/American "pop series." These paeans to the fun of the commodity, to the modernity of design, fashion, and knowingness, leavened the performance of quite serious service to the nation. They had an ideological minimalism, open to a range of interpretations anchored only in the need to preserve everyday Americanness, in the most general sense of the term. The opening tape's "promise" of official disavowal in the event of failure established entrepreneurial initiative as a basis for action and gave an alibi for minimising additional references to politics. Instead, episodes could be devoted to a scientifically managed, technicist private sphere. The IMF represented an efficient allocation of resources because of its anonymously weightless and depersonalised division of labour, and an effective tool of covert activity as a consequence of its distance from the official civilities of diplomacy. This effect was achieved stylistically through a visual quality normally associated with the cinema: numerous changes in diegetic space, lighting that could either trope film noir or action-adventure, rapid cutting, and few lengthy reaction shots.
The first Mission was valorised by many critics for its plots. It was unusual for American TV drama to have episodes with overlapping and complex story-lines at the expense of characterisation. Following each program's twists became a talisman for the cognoscenti. The inversion of heroism, whereby treachery, theft, kidnapping, and destruction were qualities of "good" characters, made the series seem both intellectually and politically subversive. Once new people were introduced in a segment, they immediately underwent bewildering transformations that problematised previous information about their psyches, politics, and conduct. Geller's fantasy was that actants be just that: figures performing humanness, infinitely plastic, and ready to be redisposed in a moment. The series lasted much longer than its many spy-theme counterparts on network television through the 1960s, perhaps as a consequence of this decentred, subjectless approach.
Each episode of the original Mission cost $225,000, for which CBS paid $170,000. Geller was shooting upwards of fifty thousand feet of film per screen hour, more than twice the average, and spent 30% longer than the norm doing so. Special effects and writing costs also went far beyond studio policy, in part to make for the feature-film look that was a key factor in the program's success. Geller instilled a knowing self-reflexivity into the series. He became renowned for the remark that "[n]othing is new except in how it's done."
A 150-day 1988 strike by members of the Writers' Guild of America over creative and residual rights payments cast Hollywood's attention towards remakes and towards Australia, where the A$5000 cost of a TV script compared favourably with the U.S. figure of A $21,000. Paramount decided to proceed with plans to bring back Mission, a reprise that it had attempted intermittently over almost a decade. Four old scripts were recycled, and new ones were written after the industrial action had concluded. Mission offered "a built-in baby boomer audience" and the opportunity to avoid California unions. This attitude produced a very formulaic remake.
Consider the IMF's efforts to smuggle dissidents out of eastern Europe ("The Wall"). Posing as a Texan impresario keen to hire a chess player and a magician, Graves is accused by a KGB officer of making "capitalist offers." He replies good-naturedly that "[b]usiness is business the world over." And so it is, when his team is able to grant U.S. citizenship as it pleases whilst supposedly remaining independent of affiliation to any particular state. The IMF (what irony in an acronym shared with a key tool of First-World economic power) establishes a sphere of the "other" that is harsh and repressive compared with its own goodness and light. These spheres represent state socialism and capitalism respectively, as captured by a close-up of the East German Colonel Barty's highly polished boot grinding a little girl's lost doll into the mud as he arrests her defecting family. The shooting script calls for Graves to have a "broad American smile" to contrast him with a "slow, unfriendly" East German. The cut from unpleasantness at the Berlin Wall to Jim playing golf fully achieves the establishment of a lifestyle and polity distinctiveness, illustrating the IMF's efforts to assist elements "behind the Wall" that favour a new political and economic openness. Graves' patriarchal condescension is as much geopolitical as gendered in his remark to a ravaged Ilse Bruck in Act Three: "You're a very brave girl, Ilse. But we're still in East Berlin and you'll have to call on all your reserves to help us get back to the West." Indeed she would.
Daniel Briggs(1966-1967)............................... Steven Hill
James Phelps (1967-1973)......................... Peter Graves
Cinnamon Carter (1966-1969)..................... Barbera Bain
Rollin Hand (1966-1969)........................... Martin Landau
Paris (1969-1971)................................... Leonard Nimoy
Doug (1970-1971).......................................... Sam Elliot
Dana Lambert (1970-1971)................ Lesley Ann Warren
Lisa Casey (1971-1973)..................... Lynda Day George
Mimi Davis (1972-1973)....................... Barbara Anderson
PROGRAMMING HISTORY 171 Episodes
CBS September 1966-January 1967 Saturday 9:00-10:00
January 1967-September 1967 Saturday 8:30-9:30
September 1967-September 1970 Sunday 10:00-11:00
September 1970-September 1971 Saturday 7:30-8:30
September 1971-December 1972 Saturday 10:00-11:00
December 1972-May 1973 Saturday 10:00-11:00
Jim Phelps............................................... Peter Graves
Nicholas Black .......................................Thaao Penghis
Max Harte............................................ Antony Hamilton
Grant Collier................................................. Phil Morris
Casey Randall (1988-1989)....................... Terry Markwell
Shannon Reed (1989-1990).......................... Jane Badler
The Voice on the Disk............................... Bob Johnson
Michael Fisher, Walter Brough
ABC October 1988-January 1989 Sunday 8:00-9:00
January 1989-July 1989 Saturday 8:00-9:00
August 1989 Thursday 9:00-10:00
September 1989-December 1989 Thursday 8:00-9:00
January 1990-February 1990 Saturday 8:00-9:00
May 1990-June 1990 Saturday 8:00-9:00
Beatie, Bruce A. "The Myth of the Hero: From Mission: Impossible to Magdalenian Caves." In, Browne, Ray B., and Marshall W. Fishwick, editors. The Hero in Transition. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1983.
Buxton, David. From The Avengers to Miami Vice: Form and Ideology in Television Series. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1990.
Lewis, Richard Warren. "Is This Mission Possible? The IM Force Struggles to Overcome Cast Changes, Power Plays, Hollywood Intrigue." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 1969.
Miller, Toby. "Mission Impossible: How do you Turn Indooroopilly into Africa?" In Dawson, Jonathan, and Bruce Molloy, editors. Queensland Images in Film and Television. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1990.
_______________. "Mission Impossible and the New International Division of Labour." Metro-Media and Education Magazine, Autumn 1990.
White, Patrick J. The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier. New York: Avon, 1991.