July 22, 2015

The brilliantly clever, ethically dubious world of Mission: Impossible

A couple of years ago I took on the task of listing my ten favorite shows of all time.  It proved a popular feature, so I've decided that this summer's project should be a look at the shows that make up my weekly viewing habits.  It's not exactly like it's the full broadcast schedule of the Hadley Television Network, but it's a pretty fair representation of what our household watches.  Note that not all of the Top Ten shows are represented in the current schedule, and many of the shows that are didn't appear in the Top Ten.  It just goes to show there are a lot of fun programs out there; not every night has to be filled with Golden Age programming.  

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. 

Has 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.

Watching them on DVD over the last couple of years, I’ve come to an even greater appreciation of the acting and writing talent involved in the series*, which is why it will always remain one of my favorites.  There’s something else though, something I hadn’t noticed during the initial viewing.  Had it not been for my reading of Steven Stark’s Glued to the Set, I might not have thought about it at all.  On the other hand, given how American foreign policy has gone the last few years, I might have been all over it right away.

*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.

This blog will not self-destruct in five seconds.
As always, we have to put M:I in context when we talk about something like this.  The show was created and came of age during the Vietnam War, a time of very muscular American foreign policy, with the Cold War demanding an active American involvement in the internal affairs of other nations, usually nations hostile to the United States.  The ends of that foreign policy often justified the means, which meant the IMF frequently was involved in setting up foreign officials to appear as if they were betraying their own country, involved in some nefarious act, or otherwise untrustworthy – even if they were simply doing their job, even if their suspicions were correct.  I think it’s that which bothers me the most, the idea that the ruthless security chief might be absolutely correct in his diagnosis of the situation, but will be set up by the team in such a way that he gets shot for his troubles even though he’s an “innocent” party, so to speak.  (Fortunately, none of the enemy agents are “innocent” enough to warrant our feeling sorry for them; they deserve whatever happens to them, just because they’re on the wrong side.)  And while they never applied the kind of torture that we’ve seen in real life over the past few years, the mind games they’ve inflicted on some people can certainly push the envelope.

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!

19 comments:

  1. I recently finished my third journey through the 7 seasons, so obviously it's a favorite of mine as well. I am gaining more appreciation for many of the post-Landau and Bain shows, especially those with Lynda Day George. I recently picked up the '88 and '89 revival seasons, but haven't been able to get into them.

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    1. I'll be interested when we get to the post-Landau/Bain era, which is this weekend, I think. I do remember the later ones, but I get more impressed with Landau all the time; perhaps it's having seen him play so many heavies that gives Rollin such an edge.

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  2. My favorite was season 2, 1967-68 airing on Sunday nights at. 10 eastern time. First year for Phelps who replaced Mr Briggs played by Steven Hill, the superbly crotchety district attorney on Law and Order for years to follow. The IMF gang faked a nuclear war diorama scene on a terrorist hiding out in his bomb shelter. Don't forget the famous Rusty the cat episode where the trained feline heisted a rare jewel from the maniacal character played by the brilliant Darren McGavin of Christmas Story.

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    1. Ah, that cat episode! That was just terrific, wasn't it? I mean, there's no way you can top a trained cat burglar!

      I had no recollection of the Steve Hill episodes before seeing them, although I was certainly aware of them. Different from Peter Graves; not always as involved, but very good in his own way, and again with an edge to him that shows what a tough man Briggs must have been.

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  3. A couple years ago I received the first two seasons on DVD. I'd probably never seen most of those episodes before as I was too young when the series first ran and if I'm not mistaken, well before MI reruns on METV, the Steven Hill episodes were rarely shown in syndication.

    From the episodes of the first two seasons there's one that's kind of a "personal episode", that the team goes on a mission to help a friend of (either Phelps or Briggs, I forget which) but that's the closest they ever got.*

    * - and as kind of a side note, about the closest we've had recently, with a series that centered on the main story only, with no secondary soap plot lines, might have been "Law & Order". Yes, about mid way through it's run they touched upon some of the characters (the cops mainly) personal life, but for the most part, it was crime/trial only.

    My only real complaint with MI, especially the later seasons, was the lack of Phelps going through dossiers, to choose this week's team and the plotting in his apartment. I realize they were mostly jettisoned because of lack of time, but I always thought those scenes were a cool nod towards the team work of the MI team

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    1. You know, one of the things I would have loved seeing happen would be for all the discarded dossiers to have pictures of famous actors and actresses. You know, he picks the usual group, but Bing Crosby - cast him aside. Elizabeth Taylor - forget about it. Robert Stack, Sidney Poitier, any other stars. As a spoof it would have been a marvelous idea!

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    2. You know, one of the things I would have loved seeing happen would be for all the discarded dossiers to have pictures of famous actors and actresses. You know, he picks the usual group, but Bing Crosby - cast him aside. Elizabeth Taylor - forget about it. Robert Stack, Sidney Poitier, any other stars. As a spoof it would have been a marvelous idea!

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    3. That was a first season episode, where a mobster kidnapped the daughter of a friend of Briggs, in order to make him and the IMF get a witness out of protective custody before he could testify against him to a grand jury.

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  4. Sometimes, I think that you take some of these shows way too seriously.

    Mission: Impossible was, first and foremost, a caper series.
    It was far from the first of its kind, either on TV or in any other media.
    Caper shows are among the hardest to write for; they require skill at intricate plotting and story twists, and not that many writers are skilled in that direction.
    Bruce Geller, M:I's creator, assembled a team who know how to put together stories that moved fast and made sense, but could still fool an intelligent watcher with one last twist: Woodfield & Balter, Laurence Heath, Jackson Gillis, Stephen Kandel, and more others than I've got time to look up.
    Also, the visual style set by people like Reza Badiyi (who designed the famous opening titles), Barry Crane, and again I'll have to look the others up, but there you are.
    Also also, the adroit use of guest actors, whether typecast or not, went a long way towards selling some pretty farfetched goings-on.
    (In passing, a salute to the just-passed Theo Bikel, who will stand in for many others who crossed plots with the IMF.)

    One more:
    About the dossier scenes at the start of the early episodes:
    Did anyone ever wonder about those head shots that were being used as the guys who didn't get picked?
    Mainly, these were production people on the show; Bruce Geller, the executive producer, was one of the more frequent rejects.
    Every so often, though ...
    On a couple of occasions, Jim Phelps considered - and rejected - Mike Dann, CBS's programming chief at the time.
    And once - but only once - the photo that Jim tossed aside was none other than the Chairman of the Columbia Broadcasting System, William S. Paley (I wish I could remember the specific episode; guess I'll have to get the DVDs and find out for sure).

    As to the business of the IMF's ethics (or lack thereof) - hey, it's a show, it's a story, it's a caper - take it on its own terms.

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    1. You might be right about taking them seriously, but as a cultural archaeologist that's my job, and I love looking at them this way! As I'm fond of saying from time to time, the words of Caiaphas about Christ in suggesting that it is better for one man to die that many is an unwitting prophesy regarding the Crucifixion and Resurrection, which means you certainly can have meanings that are no less true for the fact that they were unintended at the time. It was in Shank's book that I got this original reading of M:I, which I found to be quite thought-provoking, even if I don't adhere to it entirely.

      My own preference, of course, but I think the enjoyment of television can be compounded by plunging deeply into the secondary stories told by the series, whether it be something like this, or the suggestion (which I'll write about sometime) that the ultra-realistic, post-modernist style of the modern police procedural makes it impossible to look at the characters as archetypes of a particular point of view, as I contend they would tend to be in the '60s and early '70s.

      For me television is much more of a philosophy than a simple entertainment, and I would say that the book I'll eventually get out of this blog would belong on the sociology shelf as much as it would mass media.

      Having said that, I would also contend that I watch M:I (and other shows) for the sheer pleasure they provide me, even as I make parallel observations in the deeper areas. The brilliance of a show like this is that it works on both levels, whereas anything taken from the works of a writer such as, for example, Ayn Rand, would be heavy on the symbolism and maybe not so hot on the storytelling.

      That's just me, but I hope and think there are a lot of people like me out there. After all, television is one of the main means of influencing people, and it's been that way from the very start!

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    2. BTW Mike, loved the point about the discarded dossier pictures - see my above comment for who I would have liked to see in those pictures!

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    3. Point noted, Mitchell, but ...

      ... you said it yourself - it would have been a spoof.
      Mission: Impossible was not a spoof, so your idea wouldn't have fit.
      Using pictures of Geller, Dann, Paley, et al. was an inside joke, more for the amusement of the cast and crew than anything else.
      I didn't spot any of these until long after the original airings, when I'd read up enough on the business to know who they were (and what they looked like - TV Guide was a big help with that).

      In its first season, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ran an episode in which David McCallum's then-wife Jill Ireland was the principal guest star.
      That wasn't an in-joke itself, but there was a party scene in which the guests included Sam Rolfe (the creator-producer), Norman Felton (the executive producer), Joseph Calvelli (the associate producer), and Richard Donner (the episode's director).
      Those were in-jokes; they worked.

      On the other hand, Get Smart did a Mission spoof, with Don Adams going through the dossiers and rejecting Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, Huntley and Brinkley, and Alfred E. Neuman - and a scene or so later, trying out a disguise - as Martin Landau.
      That was a spoof; it worked.
      It's a subtle distinction, I know ...

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    4. Correcting the above:
      MeTV reran the Get Smart/Mission: Impossible spoof last night.
      The "dossiers" that Don Adams ran through were Alfred E. Neuman, David Susskind (whose Talent Associates company produced Smart), Robert Karvelas (agent Larabee, the one Control agent who was actually dumber than Max), and Tiny Tim (Adams didn't just reject this one - he tore the picture up).
      Those other shots I mentioned were in a different episode, as was Martin Landau's cameo.
      More below (heads up, Television.AU ...)

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    5. MISSION had it's own in-joke...in one of the final episodes of the first season, Dan Briggs goes to a drive-in theater in the daytime to get his assignment. The marquee reads

      GELLER AND SOLOW IN
      SPEND THE MONEY

      referring to series creator Bruce Geller and Desilu production executive Herbert Solow, and the fact of how expensive the show was to make. The reason Stephen Hill was replaced (voluntarily or not, I've never found out) was as an practicing Orthodox Jew, he wouldn't work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, which played havoc with a show so tightly budgeted in terms of time and money.

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  5. I never really saw the original Mission Impossible, apart from a handful of repeat episodes during the 1980s. But I did enjoy the 1980s remake which was filmed in Australia, initially in Queensland before shifting to Melbourne which is my home town. It was fun to try and spot which local sites and landmarks were being used to mock various international locations. It was also interesting to see Aussie actors appearing in a US TV series, which at the time was something of a rarity -- unlike now where Aussies are everywhere on American TV.

    I also liked the remake because it featured Jane Badler from V, which was a show I loved (although I normally hate sci-fi). She had settled in Australia. She is still based here, actually, and pops up on local TV series on occasion. In the local soap Neighbours she was cast as a nasty called "Diana", the name being a reference to her V character!

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    1. AU ('ey, you!):
      (Sorry ... it's just too good to resist ...)

      I well remember the '80s reboot of Mission: Impossible.
      Years before, Peter Graves made a syndicated series in Australia, called Whiplash, a kind of Outback Western that had had some success in the USA (not a lot, but ...).
      The supporting cast included a couple of Australian actors, Thaao Penghlis and Tony Hamilton, who both had done extensive TV work in the States (as recently as last year, Penghlis revived a villain he'd played on General Hospital 30 years before).
      One episode featured a guest appearance by Michael Pate, who'd spent years in Hollywood playing heavies, before returning to Australia to become a major TV star at home.(And good for him!).
      Another show featured Frank Thring, whose resemblance (from different angles) to Alfred Hitchcock and Sir Lew Grade kept him busy.
      Unfortunately, the one episode I recall clearly was one of the last acting appearances of Albert Salmi, whose life and career were unraveling at this point (his suicide was not long after he made this show).
      The Australian Mission was undertaken in order to get around an American writer's strike (see ethics, above), but was sufficiently popular Stateside to get renewed at least once. Make of that what you will ...

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    2. And when Graves was filming WHIPLASH Down Under...he also appeared in a local production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC

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  6. The "cliffhanger" motif you notice is a holdover from the show's original format--it would run half an hour and leave you in suspense until the next time.
    (I don't know if it would have run multiple nights, like BATMAN or PEYTON PLACE)

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  7. The "cliffhanger" motif you notice is a holdover from the show's format in development--it would run half an hour and leave you in suspense until the next time.
    (I don't know if it would have run multiple nights, like BATMAN or PEYTON PLACE)

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!