Debuting September 17, 1966, the CBS action-adventure series Mission: Impossible generally adhered to a formula as rigid and unswerving as a Kabuki dance. Most of the series' 171 hour-long episodes opened as the head of the top-secret "Impossible Missions Force" -- Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) during the first season, Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) thereafter -- arrived at an out-of-the-way location, where he would immediately find a tiny tape recorder. Flipping on the machine, the IMF leader would receive the instructions pertaining to his latest mission from an anonymous voice (actually an uncredited Bob Johnson), his words sometimes complemented with photographs of the "target." Some five seconds before the recorder self-destructed, the IMF head would be admonished, "As always, should you or any member of the I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions." The scene would then shift to the leader's posh apartment, where he would thumb through the 8 x 10 glossies of his top IMF agents, the better to choose the people best suited to assignment at hand. Outside of the occasional "guest agent," the leader's selections would be exactly the same, week after week.
During season one, the IMF team consisted of Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), professional actor and master of disguises and dialects; Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), demure "mystery woman" who could impersonate anyone from a worldly femme fatale to a trembling damsel in distress; Barney Collier (Greg Morris), a genius at electronics and computer technology; and Willie Armitage (Peter Lupus), a professional bodybuilder who provided the necessary "muscle" for the mission. In season four, Rollin Hand was replaced by The Great Paris (Leonard Nimoy), a professional magician who, like his predecessor, was adept at disguises; Paris remained with the team for two years. After Cinammon left the IMF at the end of season three, she was replaced by a number of female operatives, notably Dana Lambert (Lesley Ann Warren), Lisa Casey (Lynda Day George), and Mimi Davis (Barbara Anderson). And in season five, Dr. Doug Lane (Sam Elliott) joined the team. (By the time the series ended, the opening "tape" sequence, and the ritual of shuffling through the photographs, had pretty much been abandoned in favor of a weekly "teaser" which set up the situation prior to IMF's arrival on the scene.)
The IMF's covert assignments took them all over the world, often to a fictional Eastern Bloc "people's republic," a mythical South American dictatorship, or an imaginary African-Asian kingdom. The team pooled its individual talents and skills to topple despots, discredit scientists bent on taking over the world, infiltrate and destroy neo-fascist organizations, thwart and smash sinister drug cartels, or simply force the villains to kill off one another. To make things easier for the American viewers, the languages in these ersatz countries usually consisted of a smattering of Latin, a dash of Esperanto, and a sprinkling of English -- which explains the many buildings and vehicles bearing such emblems as "Kompanie der Gaz" and "Companea de Agua." In a handful of the earlier episodes, the IMF remained in the U.S. to take on the minions of organized crime; in later seasons, the team was almost exclusively devoted to thwarting domestic bad guys. Other than its formulaic storylines and highly stylized action sequences, Mission: Impossible is most fondly remembered for its pulsating theme music, written by Lalo Schifrin. Released as a single, "The Mission: Impossible Theme" made Billboard magazine's Top 100 charts for 14 weeks in 1968. Ending its CBS run in September of 1973, Mission: Impossible was revived with brand-new episodes in 1988. Mostly filmed in Australia, the 35 "new" episodes brought Peter Graves back to the fold as IMF leader Jim Phelps, but otherwise boasted a brand-new cast. Interestingly, the new team's electronics expert, Grant Collier, was the son of Barney Collier -- and was played by Phil Morris, son of Greg Morris! Finally, two theatrical-movie adaptations of Mission: Impossible were released in the 1990s, both starring Tom Cruise. All of these latter-day Mission: Impossible incarnations sagaciously retained Lalo Schifrin's classic theme tune. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi