Saturday, September 17, 2016

Mission: Impossible Turns 50

When it comes to American spy shows, Mission; Impossible numbers among the most famous. At seven seasons and 171 episodes it is also the longest running American spy show. It is the second longest running spy show worldwide, coming in right behind The Avengers. It was fifty years ago today, on September 17 1966, that Mission: Impossible debuted on CBS.

Mission: Impossible was the creation of Bruce Geller. Mr. Geller had written episodes of such shows as  Have Gun--Will Travel, The Rebel, and The Rifleman. He was co-executive producer on Rawhide for a brief time. In creating Mission: Impossible Mr. Geller was not inspired by Alfred Hitchcock thrillers or James Bond movies, the inspiration for many American spy dramas of the Sixties, but instead by the classic caper movie Topkapi (1964). In fact, it was originally entitled Briggs Squad and centred on a group of former, not quite reformed criminals who had served in special forces.

Eventually Bruce Geller realised that to conform to the National Association of Broadcasters' Television Code, Briggs Squad would have to be given some sort of semi-official status. While they were still an independent group (not a government agency), they worked exclusively for the United States government. If they were caught, the government could then disavow any knowledge of them at all. The former criminals of Briggs Squad then became the secret agents of the Impossible Missions Force or IMF. It was after Bruce Geller found a place for Briggs Squad at Desilu (where another show called Star Trek was also being developed at the same time) that Briggs Squad was retitled IMF and then finally Mission: Impossible.

Initially the Impossible Missions Force was led by Dan Briggs (played by Steven Hill). Initially the composition of the IMF was to vary from episode, with a rotation of four or five guest stars filling one of the spots as agents. It is for this reason that Martin Landau was billed as a "special guest star" for the whole of the first season. As it turned out, however, the IMF generally relied upon the same agents from episode to episode. Each IMF agent had his or her own speciality. The group's original master of disguise, con man, picket pocket, and master of sleight of hand was Rollin Hand, played by Martin Landau. Cinnamon Carter was a model and actress, played by Martin Landau's real life wife Barbara Bain. Barney Collier (played by Greg Morris) owned Collier Electronics and served as the IMF's electronics and mechanical specialist. The group's "muscle" was weight lifter Willy Armitage (played by Peter Lupus).

While Mission: Impossible would become one of the most successful shows to emerge from the United States in the Sixties, it very nearly did not make it to the air. Two Desilu executives, Argyle Nelson, head of production and studio operations, and Edwin Holly, senior vice president, estimated that both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible would cost $225,000 apiece a week to produce, with weekly revenues of $160,000 apiece. Quite simply, Desilu would lose money on both shows. Ed Holly was so opposed to Desilu producing both Mission: Impossible and Star Trek that he told Lucille Ball, the head of Desilu, that they would have to sell the studio if they produced the pilots for both shows. Fortunately, Herb Solow, Vice President of Production, persuaded Lucille Ball to go forward with both shows. Lucille Ball  remained firm that both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible would continue.

Of course, Mission: Impossible would become known for its theme music and highly stylised opening credits. The theme was composed by Lalo Schifrin, who had already composed music for the films Rhino! (1964) and Les félins (1964). The opening credits would become among the most iconic in television history. They opened with a hand lighting a fuse, which continued to burn through scenes from the particular episode and the actors' credits. The hand that lit the fuse belonged to none other than creator and producer Bruce Geller.

Ratings for Mission: Impossible were not particularly good during its first season, but it did receive good notices from critics. It also did well at the Emmy Awards, where it won Outstanding Dramatic Series, Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series (for Barbara Bain), Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama (for Bruce Geller),  and Individual Achievements in Film and Sound Editing (for Paul Krasny and Robert Watts). Oddly enough, it did not win two of the awards for which it was nominated that it truly deserved to win: Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series for Martin Landau and Individual Achievements in Music - Composition for Lalo Schrifin.

While Mission: Impossible did not perform particularly well in the ratings in its first season, its audience was primarily well-to-do, young adults aged 18 to 35, essentially the key demographic desired by advertisers. Between its wins at the Emmy Awards and doing well in the key demographic, Mission: Impossible was guaranteed a second season. That second season would be without Steven Hill, who left the series. He was replaced by Peter Graves, the younger brother of James Arness and the star of the short-lived shows Whiplash and Court Martial. Mr. Graves played Jim Phelps, the new head of the IMF. No explanation was ever given for Dan Briggs's absence.

For its second season Mission: Impossible was moved from Saturday night at 8:30 PM Eastern/7:30 Central to Sunday night at 10:00 PM Eastern/9:00 PM Central. Eventually its ratings would improve to the point that in its third season it was one of the top rated shows on television. In the 1967-1968 season Mission: Impossible ranked no. 11 out of all the shows on the air for the year.

It was while Mission: Impossible was at the height of its success in 1968 that Filmways Productions sued Bruce Geller, alleging that he had plagiarised their short lived series 21 Beacon Street. 21 Beacon Street was a summer replacement show that ran for only eleven episodes in 1959 on NBC. The show centred on the Chase Detective Agnecy, headed by Dennis Chase (played by Dennis Morgan). Dennis Chase headed a team of specialists who often used such means as electronic bugs, hidden tape recorders, miniature cameras, and other advanced technology to catch criminals. Bruce Geller said that he had never seen the show (and given how briefly it was on, he was probably telling the truth). Regardless, he settled the lawsuit out of court.

Unfortunately, the success of Mission: Impossible would not last. Ratings dropped in the show's fourth season, to the point that it was no longer in the top thirty shows for the year. One of the reasons for the ratings drop was probably the departure of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. The couple left the show in a salary dispute. The IMF's new master of disguise was Paris, played by Leonard Nimoy (who was then fresh from Mission: Impossible's sister show, Star Trek). Another reason for the drop in the ratings may have been a major change in the show. During its first three seasons Mission: Impossible took place almost entirely in international settings. The IMF faced off against several opponents in vaguely Eastern European or Latin American countries. In the fourth season Mission: Impossible shifted towards more domestic settings. Increasingly the IMF's opponents would be the organised crime organisation called the Syndicate. The Syndicate had actually appeared in the first two seasons of the show, but by the fourth season began to play a much bigger role. The Syndicate would come to play such a large role that the later seasons of Mission: Impossible are often referred to as "the Syndicate Years" by fans. Regardless, it seems possible that the television viewing audience preferred international intrigue to fighting what was essentially the Mob on domestic soil.

Mission: Impossible would never again reach the numbers it did in its third season. It would also see more cast changes, so that ultimately only Greg Morris and Peter Lupus were with the show for its entire run (and even Mr. Lupus missed several episodes in the show's fifth season).  Mission: Impossible still managed to last several more years, ultimately succumbing to low ratings and being cancelled in its seventh season.

This would hardly be the end of Mission: Impossible. The series proved successful in syndication, where if anything it might have been more popular than it was during its original run. The Writers Guild strike of 1988 would lead to a revival of Mission: Impossible. While the cast was mostly new (except for Peter Graves, who returned as Jim Phelps), the scripts the show initially used were scripts from the original series updated for the Eighties. The new Mission: Impossible was fairly low rated, but proved successful enough to run for two seasons and 35 episodes.

In 1996 there was a feature film loosely based on the series. Titled Mission; Impossible, the film caused some ire among fans of the original show, as well as original cast members, due to its portrayal of Jim Phelps. Regardless, the movie proved successful enough to produce several sequels:  Mission: Impossible II (2000); Mission: Impossible III (2006); Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011); and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015). A sixth Mission: Impossible movie is set for release in 2018.

While I can't lay claim to being a huge fan of Mission: Impossible, I do believe that the first three seasons of the show number among the best American television had to offer in the Sixties. And there is no denying that Mission: Impossible had a huge impact on American pop culture. The theme song numbers among the most famous in television history, to the point that people who have never even seen the shows or movies recognise it immediately. Its opening credits, with the burning fuse, remains one of the best remembered opening credits in American television history. Mission: Impossible has been parodied many times over. Mission: Impossible has even had an influence on other shows. It Takes a Thief, The A-Team, Hustle, Leverage, Burn Notice, and White Collar all owe something to Mission; Impossible. Fifty years after its debut, Mission; Impossible not only remains popular, but still has an influence on American popular culture.

1 comment:

Eva said...

Oh my word, I love this show! The theme, the characters, the plots...everything. When my siblings and I were growing up (well, we still are, but I mean when we were younger) we owned the fourth season DVDs and we literally wore out the discs. I've only seen a few episodes outside of the fourth season, but I've enjoyed each one I've seen. Such a great show. (And I also enjoyed the first modern movie with Tom Cruise - I felt it stayed true to the spirit of the original show. Still haven't seen the sequels yet.)