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Encyclopedia > Mission: Impossible

Mission: Impossible is the name of an American television series which aired on the CBS network from September 1966 to September 1973. It was then returned to television for three seasons from 1988 to 1990, with Peter Graves reprising his original role as Jim Phelps.


Series overview

The concept of the series was heavily influenced by "spies and espionage" fiction (in a flashy, fictional manner similar to the James Bond series), and its initial premise was centered around the existence of the 'Impossible Missions' Force', a team of secret agents employed by the United States government, and sent on covert missions to fight evil organizations, crime lords, and dictators. Although a Cold War element was present throughout the series (the idea of the United States working from behind the scenes to further its agenda across the nations of the world is common among many conspiracy theorists), the actual "Cold War" between the United States and the Soviet Union was not directly mentioned or referenced over the course of the series. In the early episodes of the series the I.M. Force was assigned to bring down corrupt politicians and dictators of Third World countries, but over time this aspect changed; by the time the series reached its final season, the stories largely involved activities against criminal organizations and spies within the United States, the format having changed due to protests against the Vietnam War.

Each episode of the series began with the team leader (Daniel Briggs for the first season, then Jim Phelps from 1967 until the final ) receiving a secret, pre-recorded message containing his mission. This sequence became famous (and often imitated and parodied) as every message would then "self-destruct," leaving no evidence (supposedly) of the actual existence of the mission. This sequence was often filmed on the Paramount back lot. Jim Phelps would then choose his teammates for the mission from a list of candidates (except for occasional guest stars and cast changes, he always chose the same team), and they would prepare an elaborate plan to conduct their mission and defeat the bad guy of the week. This ritual remained virtually unchanged through the show's run, although the self-destructing tape recorder wouldn't become the usual vessel for receiving orders until later in the show. In early episodes, Briggs/Phelps would receive orders on everything from phonograph records to slide-tape projectors. The 1980s’ series used miniature compact discs almost exclusively. Later seasons dropped the team selection process as redundant. Actor Peter Graves, who played Phelps, once said the entire seasons' worth of "tape scenes" were usually filmed all at once prior to production of the rest of the episodes, and that he never knew which tape scene would appear with which episode until broadcast.

Typical scenes included the mission assignment being conducted by a pre-recorded tape (or other device), the mission agents being chosen by the leader from a dossier, the opening briefing scene, the intricate use of disguises, and a typical "mask pulloff" scene (literally and/or figuratively) near the end of many episodes.

Each episode would usually involve the agents concocting an elaborate scheme to fool criminals or traitors into the hands of the law. The intricate, detailed planning of each episode's mission was the hook that drew Mission: Impossible viewers back for each episode. The series differed from most other adventure series in that the good guys' actions were planned down to the last detail, and they would almost always execute their plan flawlessly. The suspense of each episode came as audience members would wonder how the I.M. Force would outsmart their enemies and remain undercover.

The series is known for its opening theme tune by Lalo Schifrin which accompanied the opening title sequence in which an animated burning fuse moved across the screen.

The series' popularity began to wane by the early 1970s and the series was cancelled in 1973. It remains the longest-running espionage-based TV series ever produced for U.S. television.


In 1980, media reports indicated that a reunion of the original cast was in the planning stages, for a project to be called Mission: Impossible '81. Ultimately this project was delayed into 1982 and 1983 before being cancelled.

In 1988, the American fall television season was negatively affected by a writers' strike that prevented the commissioning of new scripts. Producers, anxious to provide new product for viewers but with the prospect of a lengthy strike, went into the vaults for previously written material. Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example, used scripts written for an aborted Trek series from the 1970s. The ABC network decided to launch a new Mission: Impossible series, with a mostly new cast (except for Peter Graves who would return as Phelps), but using scripts from the original series, suitably updated. To save even more on production costs, the series was filmed in Australia; the first series in Queensland, and the second series of episodes in Melbourne. Costs were, at that time, some 20 per cent lower in Australia compared with Hollywood. The new Mission: Impossible was one of the first American commercial network programs to be filmed in Australia.

Despite the recycling of scripts, the new series was a hit and ultimately lasted for two years; the writers' strike was resolved quickly enough that only a few episodes were actual remakes.

In one episode of the original series, one mistake caused "Cinnamon" Carter (Barbara Bain) to be exposed and captured by the villains, and Jim Phelps prepared a plan to rescue her. But in most episodes, his schemes worked to perfection. This formula was largely repeated in the second Mission: Impossible series of the 1980s, though the writers took some liberties and tried to stretch the rules somewhat. One episode of the later series featured the only occasion in which a regular IMF agent was killed on a mission and subsequently disavowed. The 1980s series also had IMF agents using technology that nearly pushed the series into the realm of science fiction, such as one gadget that could record dreams.

Novels and comic books

Several original novels, including two aimed at young readers and published by Whitman Books, were written in the late 1960s, and Dell Comics published a comic book on a sporadic schedule that lasted from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s although less than a dozen issues were actually published.

Series Cast

  • Barbara Bain as Cinnamon Carter
  • Sam Elliott as Dr. Doug Robert aka Lang
  • Lynda Day George as Casey
  • Peter Graves as Jim Phelps
  • Steven Hill as Dan Briggs
  • Martin Landau as Rollin Hand
  • Peter Lupus as Willy Armitage
  • Greg Morris as Barney Collier
  • Leonard Nimoy as the Amazing Paris
  • Lesley Ann Warren as Dana Lambert

Note: The cast changed considerably throughout the program's seven year run, so not all of the characters listed above appeared at the same time, and even regular cast members did not always appear in every episode, depending upon the mission. The most enduring cast members were Morris and Lupus who appeared in all seasons, while Graves who appeared in all but the first season.


The pre-recorded mission tape would usually begin with "Good morning/afternoon, Mister Phelps" and end with: "As always, should you or any of your I. M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five/ten seconds. Good luck, Jim." These briefings were read by voice actor Bob Johnson in the original series and the 1988 revival.

The movies

The television series also spawned two films, starring and produced by Tom Cruise:

Though these films were very profitable, many fans felt they ignored the elaborate plotting that was a significant feature of the TV series, and that they focused too much on star Tom Cruise rather than on the team aspect of the series, although it should be noted that the first movie was far closer to the spirit of the original series than the second one. Reversing the idea of the series, the movies' villains tended to know the whole plan, rather than the IMF. Fans were also upset that one of the main characters from the TV series was exposed as a traitor in the first movie. (As a result, several actors from the original TV series declined invitations to make cameo appearances in the films.) A third film is presently (fall 2004) in pre-production.



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