As each issue of TV Guide opened with Saturday, so we'll also start our night-by-night look with the best night of the week, and one of the best shows of its era.
as there ever been a show cleverer, with more intricate moving parts, than Mission: Impossible? I don’t see much current television so I can’t say if any of the newer shows top it, but I certainly can’t think of anything since its debut that can compare to it. Each week the IMF team would, on short notice, assemble a plan that required split-second timing, perfect execution, quick thinking in case something went wrong, and a willingness to put one’s life on the line for the success of the mission. Oh, and it also depended on people reacting in the way it was anticipated they’d react, which meant an incredible amount of background information on the main participants in the mission.
All this was done with a team that put the mission before all else. There were no soap opera elements to Mission: Impossible, no secondary stories to compete with the main thread. The nearest you got to a glimpse of anyone’s personal life was the obligatory shot of Jim Phelps’ apartment* at the beginning of each episode, when the team got together to go over details of the mission. Oh, there were hints that Jim and Rollin were personal friends, for example, but if the storyline didn’t advance the plot, forget about it. No quirkbots needed, no room for padded stories. Even the stars were replicable; only two of them made it through the entire series, and none of them were in every single episode. No wonder I’m a fan.
*Or Dan Briggs, in the first season.
In the years since, the “sting” element of M:I has often been copied, but never matched. Think of Leverage, for example. It shared many elements of the intricate M:I plot, but there were significant differences as well, most notably the intrusive personal angle that would have been more at home in a serialized daytime drama. As well, there were always little elements of the plot that were held back from viewers until they were sprung at an appropriate time, making them seem more like Saturday cliffhangers where you’re left thinking to yourself, “Hey, where did Commando Cody get that parachute from? I didn’t see that when the plane crashed last week!”* There were also similarities to be found in shows such as The A-Team, but they (rightfully) didn’t take themselves seriously enough to be real competition.
*Speaking of cliffhangers, Leverage had the annoying habit, which so many shows have nowadays, of ending the season with a faux cliffhanger, one that tries to convince us is full of suspense while we know damn well that Timothy Hutton isn’t going to be killed off when he just signed a contract for another year. M:I handles this much better; we aren't supposed to believe the cliffhanger before the commercial is a “will they escape or not” moment – in fact, what appears to be a threat often turns out to be a critical part of the plan.
No, when it comes to developing a story that was all but unbelievable – except for the fact that someone actually had thought it up – , nothing can compare to Mission: Impossible. It’s too bad that so many people know the title now through those awful Tom Cruise movies. Well, actually, maybe they aren’t that bad, as long as you don’t try to pretend that it’s really Mission: Impossible. Just leave that name off and go by the subtitle, and you’re probably all right.
*In particular, Martin Landeau as Rollin Hand. He has a ruthless edge to him that makes him the man I'd least want to run into in a dark alley - somewhat surprising, given his "regular" occupation as an illusionist. When he and his then-wife Barbara Bain (Cinnamon Carter) left M:I, something vital left with them.
Often, IMF missions are concerned with events of great importance to national security. Just this last weekend, I saw an episode where the team has 48 hours to find out the location of nuclear missiles aimed at the United States. Otherwise, boom. If that’s not acting in the national interest, I don’t know what is. But then there’s the first season episode in which they're charged with preventing the leader of a hostile government from rigging an election to stay in power. And it’s this kind of episode that troubles me, because there is no overriding national security interest evident here. Oh, I suppose the continued existence of this hostile government could result in one, but that’s hardly justification for a preemptive act against a sovereign foreign country, a direct intervention in their internal affairs in order to influence the outcome of an election – a rigged one, yes, but nevertheless one that is clearly a domestic issue. In other words, something the United States has no business getting involved in.
That’s one example, but there are others, where the IMF is clearly overstepping what I would consider the appropriate bounds of American foreign policy. A terrific episode from a few weeks ago involved making sure that the right man was chosen as security chief of another hostile government. This involved discrediting his two opponents through means that were, at the very least, deceptive: everything from playing mind games to temporarily drugging one of them. It makes for terrific television, but the morality of such action is dubious at best.
At times such as these, I tend to revert to the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas on patriotism. Aquinas felt that patriotism, i.e. love of one’s country, when rightly ordered, was one of the cardinal virtues. It’s why treason is such an act of treachery. It’s also, though, why no citizen is bound to obey the unjust dictates of an unjust government – because love of homeland implies love of a particular code that represents the nation, one that an unjust law is betraying.* However, paramount in Aquinas’ teaching is that the love which others have for their country must be respected as well. That means a couple of things; for example, in expecting an immigrant to conform to the cultural norms of their new country, one shouldn’t seek to have them disregard everything from their own cultural heritage. Second, it gives us guidelines as to how we should look at intervention in foreign affairs. To meddle in such sovereign domestic situations, there ought to be an overriding national security question involved. That isn’t always the case in Mission: Impossible, and it’s something to which I’ve become increasingly sensitive over the years.
*Not to mention God’s laws, to which, as Aquinas points out, every nation is bound as well.
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As the war became more and more problematic at home, the muscular foreign policy became more of a liability, so it’s no surprise that later M:I plots would turn inward, toward such domestic fare as the fight against organized crime. Whether or not such stories were as exciting, they were less controversial, which made all the difference.*
*One other type of plot I haven’t discussed much here is the one involving an tyrannical dictator, one who wasn’t freely elected and spends much of his time looting the national treasury and oppressing his people. I’m a little more lenient in these cases; it’s much harder to claim the involvement of a sovereign national government, and often the mission itself involves something like tricking the despot out of the loot he was earmarking for the purchase of weapons which would then be used to crush the legal opposition. It’s one thing to manipulate an entire country; scamming a tinhorn bully seems just a little more justified.
I’ve written before about my concerns regarding the ability of television series to influence public opinion through the actions of the regular cast. When viewers see the stars of shows such as NCIS breaching an individual’s privacy with impunity, they learn to accept it as long as the suspect is guilty. After all, we’re assured, the government only does this to guilty people, so if you’re innocent you have nothing to worry about. Even today, I think there’s that tendency with Mission: Impossible, to want to excuse some of the more dubious missions because those are the East Germans or the Soviets or the Cubans we’re dealing with, and the Commies deserve whatever they get. It doesn’t get in the way of my immense pleasure watching the show, but it does make me think, and sometimes the subsequent discussions with my wife about whether or not a mission is justified can be as entertaining as the program itself.
So when it comes to judging those iffy moments in Mission: Impossible, it’s best to remember that the show is a product of the Cold War, and to let that become food for thought. Under no circumstances should it be allowed to interfere with the enjoyment of one of the best shows of its type – for that matter, one of the most enjoyable shows that TV had to offer in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Its presence on my Saturday night lineup should come as no surprise.
Next time: a show that proved talking back to the television could be not only fun but profitable!