With James Bond 007 leading the fray by becoming a worldwide sensation, spies were big business in the entertainment industry in the 1960s. TV and movie screens were regularly occupied by characters in espionage. In 1966, producer/writer/director Bruce Geller came up with an idea for his own spy show, and while it could never reach the heights of Bond, the franchise created by Geller is a rare case in that it’s a Bond successor that is still alive, popular, and successful to this day.
Titled Mission: Impossible, Geller’s show would follow agents in the international organization the Impossible Missions Force as they went on their supposedly impossible missions… And that’s all there was to be to it. Geller didn’t want to delve into the personal lives of the spies or give details on IMF, each episode was to show the lead agent getting the mission details, gathering the team he would require to pull it off, and then getting it done. All we would know about the IMF agents is how good they are at their job.
The most famous M:I team leader (at least until Tom Cruise stepped in as Ethan Hunt in the movies) was Peter Graves as Jim Phelps, but Phelps didn’t come into the series until the second season of its seven season run. For the first season, Steven Hill was in the lead as agent Daniel Briggs. Hill’s eventual departure from the series was due to religious objections to the show’s shooting schedule. Keeping with Geller’s “no personal stories” mandate, Briggs’s departure and replacement with Phelps was not explained or questioned at all.
The pilot episode of Mission: Impossible, which first aired on September 17, 1966 (about nine months after the release of the James Bond movie Thunderball and nine months before the release of You Only Live Twice), starts off with a title sequence set to the theme music by Lalo Schifrin, immediately drawing the audience in and getting them hyped up with one of the best score tracks ever composed.
The story begins with Daniel Briggs entering an “odd lots” store, where the store owner gives him privacy so he can listen to a record album that has been set aside specifically for him. On this album is the voice of an IMF higher-up laying out details on the mission Briggs is being offered.
The way phrases from these mission briefings are often quoted don’t quite match up with how they’re delivered in the pilot. Rather than “Your mission, should you choose to accept it”, the voice on the record says “…should you decide to accept it”, and rather than self-destruct, the album decomposes when it’s finished playing.
Briggs accepts the mission, and it’s a high stakes objective that any viewer could get behind. An enemy power has provided General Rio Dominguez, dictator of the (fictitious) Caribbean island of Santa Costa, with two nuclear warheads, which the dictator intends to use against the United States. An IMF team needs to infiltrate Dominguez’s base of operations, the Hotel Nacional, and steal the warheads from the hotel’s time-locked vault.
To pull off this heroic theft, Briggs assembles a team consisting of Martin Landau as master of disguise Rollin Hand, Wally Cox as soft-spoken safecracking demolitions expert Terry Targo, Greg Morris as techie Barney Collier, Peter Lupus as strongman Willy Armitage, and Barbara Bain (Landau’s real life wife) as seductive model Cinnamon Carter.
The IMF team is in Santa Costa within the episode’s first 8 minutes, with the remaining 43 minutes entirely focused on showing, in a tense and thrilling manner, just how they carry out the mission. Things do not go smoothly, unexpected obstacles arise, and the team operates under the constant threat of certain death if they fail and are captured. IMF would disavow any knowledge of their actions, leaving them to face the wrath of Dominguez and his military.
Of course, this being the pilot of a long-running series, we know the mission isn’t going to be a total loss, but Geller does an excellent job keeping the viewer interested, intrigued, and on the edge of their seat. And when the mission is over, so is the episode. There’s no celebratory epilogue, no messing around, just credits.
Looking back from a time when heroes regularly have some sort of mental torment and personal stake in their adventures, Mission: Impossible’s dedication to simply showing the missions is a refreshing change of pace.
Some spy shows that have followed have gotten bogged down by dealing too much with uninteresting character stories and complicated personal relationships. Bruce Geller made sure that wouldn’t happen to his series.
The only thing Mission: Impossible’s writers and directors had to do was make sure the adventures were a blast to watch, and Geller fully delivered on that with his pilot episode.