Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 15, 2020)
Back in 1966, Mission: Impossible took advantage of the era’s James Bond-ignited craze for spy stories. The series told of the “Impossible Mission Force”, an elite group of agents who traveled the world to deal with high-level threats.
Impossible lasted seven seasons, and this massive 46-disc Blu-ray set includes all 171 of the series’ episodes. With such a huge compilation, I couldn’t view all these shows if I wanted this review to go online any time before 2022.
To expedite matters, I watched two episodes per season. Here’s what I found, with synopses from IMDB.
Pilot: “IMF team leader Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) assembles his team for the first time. The mission: to recover two nuclear warheads belonging to General Rio Dominguez from a hotel vault in Santa Costa.”
Because I wasn’t alive when Impossible debuted – and too young for it during the years it aired and I existed – I possess only vague memories of its existence. Of course, the series maintained enough of a pop culture profile that I knew of it, especially when the still-running franchise of Tom Cruise movies started in 1996.
Despite my general ignorance of the series itself, I associated Peter Graves as the lead, not Steven Hill. As it happens, Graves didn’t debut until Season Two, so Hill enjoyed this part for a year before he got the boot.
As I progress through the series, I’ll decide whether or not Graves fared better than Hill, but based on the “Pilot”, Hill comes across like a stiff. We get a lively sense of the other IMF members right off the bat, but Briggs offers a dull lead, at least for this first show.
Despite the drag Briggs creates and a fairly slow pace, the “Pilot” does what it needs to do, as it sets up the various characters in a pretty efficient manner. Too bad we’ll never see Wally Cox’s Terry Targo again, as he only appeared in this one episode.
The Psychic: “The IMF's target is a US businessman (Barry Sullivan) who has fled to South America, where he can't be touched legally. He has taken control of a company that holds patents vital to US security interests. The IMF intends to get control of the company back from the businessman.”
Steven Hill, we hardly knew ye! Earlier I stated that I would get an impression of how Hill and Graves compare, but because I’ll only watch two S1 episodes and Hill barely appears in “Psychic”, that becomes impossible.
According to what I read, Hill caused problems on the Impossible set that led to his dismissal, and even before the producers replaced him with Graves, they diminished his role. In the case of “Psychic”, Briggs accepts the mission and then we don’t see him again.
Given what a dud Hill seemed in the pilot, I don’t miss him here. Plus, his absence allows guest star Richard Anderson – to earn fame on Six Million Dollar Man a decade later – to appear as a guest!
With or without Hill, “Psychic” presents a fun episode. In particular, the schemes the IMF pull off their plan – with those titular supernatural abilities – adds to the entertainment. “Psychic” ends S1 on a positive note.
The Widow: “First up for new IMF leader Jim Phelps (Graves) is a mission involving the drug trade. Phelps devises an operation which will drive a wedge between the heroin dealers and their customers.”
No one will ever mistake Graves for a great actor, but even after only one episode, he shows more charisma and presence than the dull Hill. Season Two starts with a pretty good bang in other ways as well, as “Widow” offers a more kinetic style. It launches the Phelps era with a solid adventure.
Recovery: “When a US bomber crashes behind the Iron Curtain, a brilliant US scientist (Bradford Dillman) who defected to this country supervises efforts to take the decode the device. The IMF must recover it and abduct the scientist.”
Dillman’s slimy scientist offers a highlight of “Recovery”, as he creates a nice departure from the thuggish businessmen I saw on the prior episodes I viewed. Dillman gives the role an oily flavor that makes him a worthwhile antagonist, and the show’s intrigue makes it a winner.
The Heir Apparent: “Cinnamon (Barbara Bain) plays a long lost princess to prevent a regent (Charles Aidman) from taking over in a small Baltic monarchy. Of course, IMF's mission is to prevent a dictator from taking over a 'free' monarchy.”
As the series progresses, the missions become more complicated, and I mean that in a positive tone. Though the stories veer toward the ludicrous, they remain concrete enough to engage, and “Heir” offers an exciting enterprise.
The Interrogator: “Only Norvan Kruger (Henry Silva) knows the location of a submarine that will launch nuclear missiles against the United States. IMF agent Rollin Hand (Martin Landau) tries to manipulate Kruger to reveal the location of this sub.”
With “Interrogator”, we get a fairly “small scale” tale, one that lacks the grand scope of some other missions. I like this tighter focus, as it’s good to see variation among shows. While not quite as fun as “Heir”, the episode’s psychological bent makes it effective.
The Code: “Paris (Leonard Nimoy) poses as a revolutionary leader to get close to two conspirators and turn them against each other. Meanwhile, the rest of the IMF team hurries to obtain the invasion plans, decode them and relay the plans to the San Cristobal defense forces before the invasion begins.”
Season Four brings a new character, as Nimoy’s Paris takes over for Landau’s Rollin. Bain also split after S3 but Cinnamon doesn’t bring a formal replacement, as S4 boasts a mix of guests in the “female agent” role. Here Alexandra Hay makes her one and only appearance as “Lynn”, an American operative not officially part of the IMF.
I like Landau’s Rollin, but hey, I must give Nimoy credit for his ability to hit the ground running. S4 of Impossible opened late September 1969, a smidgen less than four months after the final episode of Star Trek aired. Moving from one iconic series to another seems like a neat trick – take that, Shatner!
On the positive side, I like our view of Nimoy as the cigar-chomping Che Guevara knockoff. In addition, it seems fun to see Harold Gould – better known for his comedic roles – as the San Cristobal strongman.
On the negative side, while Hay seems sexy, she doesn’t create a credible secret agent. Also, the episode’s story never comes together like it should. While not a bad episode, “Code” feels a little lackluster, if still reasonably entertaining.
The Martyr: “Anti-Western Premier Anton Rojek (John Larch) tries to get the young people of his country to endorse his repressive regime. The IMF's plan to prevent this involves the talents of folk singer Roxy (Lynn Kellogg), as well as having Paris pose as the missing son of the country's late President, whom many young people there still idolize.”
Because I watched S4’s first and final episodes back to back, I got more of a sense of déjŕ vu from “Code” and “Martyr” than otherwise might’ve been the case. Both deal with illegitimate rulers and force Paris to impersonate leaders.
Even without that semi-repetitive nature, “Martyr” flails, largely because it tries too hard to be relevant for its time period. The show always reflected its period, of course, but its embrace of the 1960s counter-culture feels out of touch, especially when we hear the worst rendition of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” ever put to tape. “Martyr” becomes a lackluster end to S4.
The Killer: “The IMF is up against a contract killer (Robert Conrad) who makes random decisions at random to ensure his moves are unpredictable. As Barney (Greg Morris) stands in for the intended victim, the IMF must prepare for every eventuality to get close to the killer, thwart his plans, turn him against his client and stop their killing spree.”
For Season Five, Lesley Ann Warren – sans the “Ann” – becomes the IMF “sexy female agent” as Dana Lambert. She certainly looked great, though she seems a little flighty for the part.
Otherwise, “Killer” launches S5 on a high note. It brings a taut little thriller story and stands as a very strong episode.
The Merchant: “Jim lets himself be captured so he can become beholden to arms dealer Armand Anderssarian (George Sanders). Meanwhile Paris, Barney and Dana (Lesley Warren) gamble on Anderssarian's poker compulsion to bring his overextended debt situation to a crisis.”
Though Impossible enjoyed a good array of “name” guest stars, Sanders offers an unusually talented actor. One of his final roles, Sanders would die a year after this episode’s air date. One senses he lacks much investment in the part, but it’s a treat to see the ever-acerbic Sanders nonetheless.
Toss in Hollywood regular James Hong and “Merchant” should become a winner. Alas, the episode feels a little lackluster, as it never quite catches fire. While a decent show, “Merchant” ends S5 on a slightly flat note.
Blind: “A doctor temporarily blinds Phelps in order for him to convincingly pose as an alcoholic, washed up, ex-federal agent eager to sell information identifying an FBI mole deep within an organized crime boss' inner circle.”
Lesley (Ann) Warren, we hardly knew you! Dana goes bye-bye, and Lynda Day George takes over for the final two seasons as disguise expert Lisa Casey.
Not that George gets a lot to do in “Blind”, as the imposed disability gives Graves a reason to act! Even with the presence of a pre-Happy Days Tom Bosley, the plot seems a little too goofy to prosper, so this turns into a mediocre launch to Season Six.
Trapped: “The IMF needs to recover the multi-million dollar booty stolen by a family of smugglers. When the action gets hot, Jim sustains a head injury and wakes up with amnesia and nothing but a fake ID to tell him who he is.”
Graves played blind at the start of S6 and now he gets to act all forgetful? Give that man an Emmy!
After Bosley in the season premiere, another 1970s TV staple pops up here via game show host Bert Convy. Outside of that trivia, this becomes a surprisingly dull episode, as it takes forever to get into gear and never really ignites.
Break!: “Phelps poses as a pool shark to break up a gambling ring led by Krebbs (Carl Betts) and Allen (Robert Conrad),and recover microfilm left behind by a dead agent.”
TV producers didn’t worry much about continuity back in the 1960s and 1970s, a fact proven by the presence of Conrad here. We already saw him in Season Five’s first episode, and a look at IMDB indicates that he also appeared in Season Three’s “The Contender” – as a different character in all three shows!
I’m sure Conrad wasn’t the only guest actor to play multiple roles. It’s a goofy quirk of the era’s TV, and not something to be held against Impossible.
Outside of this casting oddity, “Break!” tends to be a pretty unmemorable show. Parts of it demonstrate promise but the end result seems mediocre.
Imitation: “While being transported to the United Nations, the crown jewels of the nation of Marnsburg are stolen by criminal Jena Cole (Barbara McNair). Cole plans to sell the jewels for $3 million, and the IMF's assignment is to get them back.”
With that, Impossible comes to an end – well, until a fairly short-lived late 1980s TV reboot and then the successful Tom Cruise movie series, of course. I’d love to say the original franchise went out with a bang, but “Imitation” feels pretty meh.
On one hand, it’s good to see Greg Morris play a more prominent role than usual. However, the story doesn’t develop into anything particularly engaging, so this winds up as a bland finale.
Because I “sampled” all seven seasons, I feel a little reluctant to deduce global trends, but I do get the impression the last two years of Impossible marked a dropoff in quality. That said, the episodes I watched never became bad - they just seemed somewhat uninspired.
Most of the Impossible programs I viewed worked pretty well. Again, my “sampling” means extrapolation, but overall, I think the series offered a fairly good level of intrigue and entertainment, even with the decline toward the end.