The television show Mission: Impossible is one of the most widely recognized in broadcast history. The theme music, the burning fuse used to open the credits, the convoluted plots, and the self-destructing tape machine have all become widely recognized icons of popular culture, satirized and mimicked on a routine basis. Although the show never reached the top of the television ratings, it had a profound impact on both the television industry and its viewers. Catch phrases from the show, including "Good morning, Mr. Phelps" and "Your mission, should you choose to accept it," have become an accepted part of American popular vocabulary. Despite the fact that the original Mission: Impossible has been off the air for more than 25 years, it remains one of the most ground-breaking and innovative series in television history.
Mission: Impossible debuted in 1966. Although it fared poorly in the ratings, critics were impressed with the complicated stories, excellent acting, and constant air of suspense. The basic plot of virtually all of the episodes, however, was the same: the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) had to fool the enemy into destroying itself. Using a variety of disguises and deceptions, the IMF would turn the enemy on itself. They would often frame one member of the opposition, or attempt to convince the enemy that the information they held was false when it was not. The idea was to create the "perfect con" so that the enemy would never even realize they had been deceived.
The group of IMF agents were intentionally anonymous. The viewer knew very little about the personal backgrounds of any of the agents, and this allowed the writers and producers to introduce new characters with little disruption in the flow of the show. Over the course of the show, several agents came and went, including the replacement of the IMF team leader after the first season.
At the beginning of most of the episodes, the group leader (played by Steven Hill in the opening season and Peter Graves until the show's cancellation) would receive his instructions through a self-destructing tape. The leader would then plan an elaborate deception with his team of agents. The excitement of watching the show was not to see what would happen; the plan was outlined by the team at the beginning of the episode. Rather, the excitement of watching Mission: Impossible was to see how the elaborate plan was carried out and what pitfalls might occur during the course of the mission.
One of the most memorable parts of Mission: Impossible was the wonderful theme song composed by Lalo Schifrin. When Schifrin was asked to compose the theme, he knew nothing about the show except its title. Despite this lack of knowledge, he created a theme that fit the show using a hard-swinging jazz band in 5/4 time. The music Schifrin wrote remains one of the most recognized television themes of all time.
The popularity of Mission: Impossible has waned very little since its cancellation in 1973. The show won four Emmy awards, including best dramatic series, two Golden Globes, and two Grammy awards for Lalo Schifrin. Over the life of the series, it would be nominated for dozens of awards and gain international respect as one of the best shows on television. It has remained in near-constant syndication since 1974, and dozens of new shows utilizing the Mission: Impossible formula have come and gone. In 1996, Mission: Impossible was finally brought to the silver screen by Tom Cruise and director Brian De Palma. The film version of Mission: Impossible earned more than $400 million worldwide and generated millions more in video rentals and sales. The success of the movie only serves to re-affirm the strong affinity the public has for the members of the IMF force.
White, P. The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier. New York, Avon Books, 1991.