10 episodes of Mission Impossible that are formulaic television at its most refined

10 episodes of Mission Impossible that are formulaic television at its most refined

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

When Mission: Impossible debuted on CBS in 1966, the post-James Bond mania for spies and secret agents in the mass media had already begun to take a turn toward mod fashions and general flippancy. Mission: Impossible stood out from the pack because it was more high-toned and buttoned-down. Originally developed in the early ’60s by writer Bruce Geller as a pitch for a classy caper film (similar to director Jules Dassin’s contemporaneous worldwide hits Rififi and Topkapi), Mission: Impossible was itself something of an impossibility: a weekly hourlong adventure series about a loose-knit group of covert agents with unusual specialties, working together to defuse insanely complicated international crises. Geller—who only wrote the pilot—left his show’s creative team with a difficult weekly challenge, to come up with thorny problems and clever solutions. Yet for 171 episodes spread across seven seasons, from ’66 to ’73, the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) busted up terrorist cells, humiliated mob bosses, and thwarted communist dictators by using disguises, deception, split-second timing, and switcheroos.

Not that the production went off without hitches. In season one, respected Actors Studio alum Steven Hill played Dan Briggs, who began each episode by sorting through his dossiers of available agents, nearly always settling on master of disguise Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), sexy supermodel Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), circus strongman Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus), and guru gadgeteer Barney Collier (Greg Morris). But Hill was bothered that his role often didn’t amount to much more than retrieving each week’s secret message—before it could “self-destruct in five seconds”—and then handing off the more exciting parts of the mission to his far more colorful colleagues. Plus, Hill was reportedly brusque to his fellow actors, and made demands related to his religious faith that proved difficult for the producers to work around. Hill left after one season, replaced by Peter Graves as new leader Jim Phelps. After three seasons, Landau and Bain—husband and wife at the time—departed too, as Leonard Nimoy joined the cast for two seasons as a sleight-of-hand expert known as The Great Paris, and Lee Meriwether, Lesley Ann Warren, and Lynda Day George became part of the succession of actresses taking on the role of the IMF’s resident bombshell.

While the tone of Mission: Impossible never really wavered—unlike ’60s secret-agent series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Avengers, both of which grew campier over time—the focus did shift. In later seasons, as the Vietnam era made younger audiences wary of American intervention in foreign affairs, the IMF spent less time toppling foreign dictators and preventing nuclear war, and more time grappling with organized crime. The switch to more domestic missions corresponded with tighter budgets, as the show lost some of the cinematic pizzazz it had shown in earlier seasons. At the start, a good portion of each episode would rely on images over dialogue, and between the subjective camerawork and the propulsive Lalo Schifrin score—which made even moments of nothingness seem fraught with tension—Mission: Impossible at its best could be a concentrated dose of pre-counterculture cool. Rarely have guys in short hair and neat suits seemed so hip—even when, as in the infamous season one episode “A Cube Of Sugar,” they were painfully pretending to be hooked on narcotics.

Even in its later seasons, Mission: Impossible delivered plots as finely tuned and well sprung as a good watch. With a few exceptions, the basic structure of a Mission: Impossible episode didn’t vary much. The team would get their assignment, and then embark on an elaborate ruse that the audience at home sometimes had to figure out as it was happening. The IMF made movies, staged plays, wore costumes, and more often than not behaved like actors as much as secret agents—to the extent that the entire series could be read as a commentary on the art of performance. (That so many Mission: Impossible episodes were shot on familiar TV studio sets, including The Brady Bunch living room in season six’s “Double Dead,” only added to the feeling the IMF were saving a world composed entirely of other TV shows.) Mostly though, M:I was formulaic television at its most refined, asking the audience to marvel at the talent and intellect of accomplished professionals who knew how to conceive and execute a plan. And that’s just talking about the people behind the camera.

“The Carriers” (season one, episode 10): Mission: Impossible started strong, with a series of daring heists and rescues in exotic locales. Then with its 10th aired episode (the 13th one produced), the show proved it also had a knack for the bizarre. In “The Carriers,” Rollin, Cinnamon, Barney, and a bacteriologist named Roger Lee (played by Star Trek’s George Takei) infiltrate an overseas enemy training camp, designed to look like a typical American small town, copied from countless movie studio back lots. There, the Communists teach their agents how to work ordinary American jobs like “go-go dancer,” “fry cook,” and “hot dog vendor,” until they can venture undetected into the States, where they’ll help spread a deadly plague. “The Carriers” is one of the M:I episodes that delve deep into the trickiness of pretense, as the team works to be convincing enough as Americans to earn the trust of the town’s leader, but not so convincing that they blow their cover. Complications ensue—an accidental infection, a cigarette that draws suspicion—in what quickly becomes one of the tensest episodes of the first season. Yet there’s also a subtle patriotic affirmation to “The Carriers,” in the way that even the bad guys see the United States as an idyllic, Hollywood-ready community, populated by a diverse group of ethnic and social types.

“Action!” (season one, episode 23): One of the more common Mission: Impossible plots had the IMF faking a movie or a recording to trick the villain of the week into thinking his plot had been foiled, so that he’d reveal its remaining details. (One of the most fascinating of these is season seven’s “Movie,” in which the IMF fools a mob boss by posing as film producers making a Godfather-esque saga about some of his worst crimes.) In “Action!,” the situation gets flipped, as the team is sent to a Soviet bloc country to expose a propagandist who is planning to insert staged footage of a massacre into documentary footage of the U.S. Army in Vietnam. It’s another M:I about the art of fakery, but notable for the way it frames the filmmaker (played by J.D. Cannon) as something of a prima donna—implying that no matter what their political persuasion, artists tend to be exacting. According to Patrick J. White’s book The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier, real life imitated art, as behind the scenes, Steven Hill refused to perform a fairly simple stunt, forcing the producers to drop him from “Action!” and scrap two days of shooting.

“The Seal” (season two, episode nine): Thanks to the first Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible movie, the main image that a lot of people associate with the show is of secret agents dangling from wires, slipping through security systems to steal something priceless. Plenty of M:I episodes revolve around just that kind of crazy caper, most famously “The Seal,” in which the IMF bests a high-tech high-rise and retrieves a politically sensitive antiquity from a thieving collector with the help of a trained cat. Even beyond the especially slick operation, “The Seal” is a thoroughgoing delight, with a wonderfully oily turn by Darren McGavin as the arrogant art lover, and a terrific extended setpiece in which Rollin plays mystic for the villain, persuading him that his rare artifact is cursed. “The Seal” is a fine example of the filmic stylishness of the early M:I seasons, where quirky camera angles and dramatic close-ups were as essential to the success of an episode as the nifty plotting.

“The Town” (season two, episode 21): For all the trouble that Steven Hill gave the Mission: Impossible producers, he had a presence that helped define the show as an adventure series peopled by cool-headed professionals, not headstrong heroes. That said, Peter Graves as Jim Phelps added a new dimension in season two, as a leader who could handle himself well out in the field. (In superhero-comics terms, the change from Briggs to Phelps was like making Cyclops the star of the show instead of Professor X.) For example, it’s hard to imagine Briggs at the center of “The Town,” one of M:I’s rare “off-book” missions that the team stumbled into, unassigned. In a variation on “The Carriers,” “The Town” is about a small town of sleeper agents located inside the U.S., which Phelps discovers when he stops off during a road trip and accidentally sees a nice-looking young couple buying a gas gun. Though Phelps is immobile for most of the episode—blinking coded messages to Rollin, which the audience hears in voiceover—it’s the team’s commitment to rescuing him from a den of killers that drives the action. And while the IMF probably would’ve tried just as hard to find Briggs, too, the personal connection they have to Phelps is clearer and stronger.

“The Execution” (season three, episode five): In one of the most harrowing of the IMF’s “messing with the bad guy’s head” episodes, the team nabs a mafia hitman (played by Luke Askew) and fools him into thinking that he’s been on death row for three years, to see if they can get him to rat on his boss (Vincent Gardenia) before being sent to the fake gas chamber. “The Execution” was one of the last Mission: Impossibles co-written by William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter, who’d been part of creator Bruce Geller’s staff since the beginning—they wrote “The Carriers” and “The Seal,” among many others—and the partners intended this episode in part to be an exposé of the cruelty of capital punishment. While the con in “The Execution” is fairly common M:I business, with the IMF leading their target to believe he’d been suffering from memory loss and madness, the tension comes from watching the step-by-step process of a state-sponsored killing play out in grueling near-silence.

“The Falcon (Part One, Two & Three)” (season four, episodes 14-16): In its first four seasons, Mission: Impossible frequently stretched stories out into two-parters, making the show more like the movie that Geller originally wanted it to be. (One of those two-part episodes, season two’s “The Council,” was released theatrically overseas as Mission: Impossible Vs. The Mob.) The three-parter “The Falcon” is the longest sustained narrative in M:I’s original run, and in some ways the last hurrah for the show’s globe-hopping, dictator-defying, richly cinematic era. It’s also a tour de force for Leonard Nimoy, who gets to put Paris’ magic skills to best use, putting on a show to distract the dimwitted current ruler of a country being threatened with military takeover. Because the mission in “The Falcon” involves so many steps, it’s nowhere near as focused as a typical episode, but it’s no less energetic, because credited writer Paul Playdon and director Reza S. Badiyi use the plot as a hook to string together one super-cool IMF ploy and nail-biting crisis after another—like an epic anthology of the show’s greatest hits.

“The Innocent” (season five, episode three): In its fifth season, the Mission: Impossible creative team looked for ways to confound viewers’ expectations of the show, by making the IMF more vulnerable, and even by questioning the series’ entire ethos. From the beginning, viewers had heard the mysterious voice on the IMF’s self-destructing mission tapes say that if any of the team were caught, the U.S. government would disavow any knowledge of their actions. At the start of “The Innocent,” Barney is poisoned at a chemical weapons plant in the Middle East, and the team needs the help of a young computer whiz (played by Christopher Connelly) who doesn’t think that the American government has any business working these kind of covert jobs, and is only coerced into joining the mission when Paris plants heroin in his girlfriend’s room. “The Innocent” is noteworthy for being the first appearance of Sam Elliott, who played the team’s resident doctor, Doug Robert, for a handful of episodes in seasons five and six. But it’s also memorable for bringing in an outsider who questions everything the IMF does, from the false faces to the elaborate cons, and thus gets the team to reaffirm the reason why they go on these impossible missions in the first place.

“Homecoming” (season five, episode four): Another way that Mission: Impossible’s fifth season distinguished itself from the show’s earlier years was that it personalized the members of the IMF more, dealing more with their pasts and their convictions. “Homecoming” is one of the most unconventional episodes of the series, following Jim Phelps back to his hometown, where he gets involved with trying to track down a serial killer. Part mystery, part police procedural, and part exploration of changing cultural mores—as credited writer Laurence Heath contrasts the vindictiveness and moral turpitude of the townspeople with the troubled Vietnam vet that they first neglect then falsely accuse—“Homecoming” proves that the Mission: Impossible formula can still work even when some of its key elements are changed. When Jim is flashing back to his childhood, and flirting with an old friend (played by Loretta Swit), it’s as though he’s gone undercover as himself, or at least as a version of himself that ceased to exist when he joined the IMF.

“Invasion” (season six, episode nine): One of Mission: Impossible’s strongest early episodes is “Operation Rogosh,” in which the team convinces a foreign terrorist that he’s back in his own home and being tried for treason, forcing him to reveal all that he’d done (or, in the real world, was about to do) to conquer the U.S. This was one of the IMF’s most reliable cons, creating a future version of society where an apocalypse or invasion had occurred, as the people who’d been working behind the scenes—much like the IMF itself—discovered that it didn’t pay to get what they thought they wanted. The M:I writers kept this premise in play all the way up to the last season (which features the highly entertaining “Two Thousand,” starring Vic Morrow as a rogue nuclear scientist who the IMF dupes into thinking he’s an old man, about to be executed by his own people unless he reveals the location of his cache of radioactive material). Outside of the original, the best of the “Operation Rogosh”-like episodes is season six’s “Invasion,” with Kevin McCarthy as a spy who finds himself in an America that’s been invaded by the European People’s Republic. As with the other episodes with this plot, the fun of “Invasion” comes from seeing a smug subversive get his comeuppance, humiliated by those he’d assumed would hail him as a hero. 

“The Fountain” (season seven, episode 17): Because Mission: Impossible was played so straight, the show could come off ridiculous at times, if a plot was too out-there, or if Phelps had to jump through too many hoops to get that week’s mission tape (How did he find out where to go in the first place? Was there a separate tape for that?), or even if a given episode had too many shots of Willy walking wordlessly through a scene with his hand-truck. For those who want to see Mission: Impossible in unintentionally silly mode, look no further than “The Fountain,” in which the IMF poses as a cult of ancient spiritualists who have discovered the fountain of youth. It’s not a bad little con, as M:I plans go. (It’s no crazier than the team duping a mark into thinking that he’s traveled through time, or survived a nuclear attack.) But even when Phelps is posing as a holy man—long white tunic and all—he still sounds like Phelps, which renders nearly every one of his scenes in “The Fountain” hilarious. It’s at moments like this that the more preposterous elements of Mission: Impossible—like the remarkably lifelike masks that the agents make out in the field—defy the suspension of disbelief.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Memory” (season one, episode two), “The Mercenaries” (season three, episode four), “The Mind Of Stefan Miklos” (season three, episode 13), “The Submarine” (season four, episode seven), “Robot” (season four, episode nine), “Death Squad” (season four, episode 24), “The Killer” (season five, episode one), “Hunted” (season five, episode 10), “Blues” (season six, episode 10), “Kidnap” (season seven, episode 11)

Availability: All seven seasons are available on Netflix Watch Instantly; all are also available on DVD, and available to purchase digitally from Amazon.

Up next: Erik Adams helps say goodbye to the American version of The Office by celebrating its 10 key half-hours.

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