Saturday 14 March 2020

Mission: Impossible season 3

The third season of Mission: Impossible adheres rigidly to the formula established in the first two seasons. We still know absolutely nothing about any of the members of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force). We know nothing of their histories, nothing of their personal lives, nothing of their likes and dislikes or their hopes and fears. And that of course is exactly how series creator/producer Bruce Geller wanted it. He intended it to be an absolutely and totally plot-driven series and he stuck to his guns.

Of course an approach like that requires exceptional good scripts. They had that in the first two seasons. And it seems that the standard was maintained pretty well in season three. The plots remain impressively complex. They’re usually rather far-fetched but somehow they usually remain at least vaguely plausible. The plots are often so byzantine and so crazily elaborate that you feel sure they’re going to collapse under their own weight but, amazingly, they rarely do.

Since this series is so plot-driven it doesn’t really offer great opportunities for the actors. Or at least it doesn’t offer them obvious opportunities. The fact that these characters are spies means that they’re constantly playing different rôles - spies being essentially actors. That does offer at least some of the cast members the chance to do slightly different things in different episodes when they’re playing different undercover rôles. It’s mostly Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), Rollin Hand (Martin Landau) and Cinnamon Cater (Barbara Bain) who get these opportunities. Graves and Landau tend to ham it up, which they do in a fairly entertaining manner. Bain takes things a bit more seriously and does a decent job of playing a spy playing different women in each mission. Barney (Greg Morris) and Willy (Peter Lupus) mostly don’t get to do flamboyant undercover rôles.

In this season the IMF is as ruthless as ever, with many of their missions being effectively assassinations (with someone else manipulated to do the killing so the IMF’s hands remain apparently clean). And they go about cheerfully overthrowing foreign governments and interfering in other countries’ internal affairs in quite hair-raisingly brazen fashion. In the late 60s audiences accepted this as perfectly normal.

Generally speaking there are two approaches to spy fiction or spy TV. There’s the gritty realistic cynical school (the novels of Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and John le Carre, TV series like Callan and The Sandbaggers) and there’s the high adventure tongue-in-cheek slightly campy school that plays it all for fun (the Bond movies, TV series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Avengers). What makes Mission: Impossible interesting is that it has the ludicrous and outrageous plots of the high adventure all-played-for-fun but it takes itself very seriously. It’s never overtly tongue-in-cheek and there’s not the slightest hint of deliberate camp. In fact it takes itself so seriously that occasionally one wonders if that is itself a kind of elaborate joke.

I can’t recall a single instance of a character in Mission: Impossible cracking a joke. The humourlessness of this series is clearly deliberate (it’s obvious that Bruce Geller had very strong ideas about the nature of the series and he seems to have mostly managed to get his way).

I think the humourlessness is connected with the almost total absence of emotion, and the insistence on revealing absolutely nothing about the personalities of the characters. It’s interesting that even in an episode like The Exchange (in which Cinnamon is captured) we do see some expressions of emotion but whereas in most series the writers of such an episode would take the opportunity to fill in just a little of the character’s backstory this doesn’t happen here. There is no mention of Cinnamon’s next of kin or of any family members who would need to be informed if she didn't get out alive. The other IMF members are clearly upset about Cinnamon’s capture. Jim Phelps seems to be particularly upset. Does this suggest a possible romantic history between Jim and Cinnamon? It might to some people but the episode makes sure that we learn nothing that might confirm such a theory. He might be upset because he loved her but he might just be upset because she’s a close work colleague. After watching the episode we have no idea. This extraordinary determination to give the characters no apparent personal lives gives Mission: Impossible a slightly weird vibe but it does add to the show’s unique atmosphere.

There are plenty of things that make Mission: Impossible an intriguing series but it had one other asset that for me was the jewel in the crown so to speak. It had Cinnamon Carter. To me she was the ultimate 1960s lady spy. There were others who were more effective action heroines, Emma Peel for example. But Emma Peel was a comic strip character. That’s not a criticism. That was the type of series that The Avengers was, it was witty sophisticated comic book fantasy. Cinnamon Carter on the other hand was a thoroughly plausible lady spy. She did what lady spies do - she used sex as a weapon. Of all the female secret agents in pop culture I don’t think there is a single one more dangerous than Cinnamon Carter. If you found that Cinnamon Carter was trying to entice you into a honey trap then you might as well just accept your doom.

The Episode Guide

The Heir Apparent is typically convoluted and far-fetched. Cinnamon has to pose as an elderly princess, long believed to be dead, who is the heir to the throne of some small European principality. The suspense comes from the series of tests and cross-examinations that Cinnamon will have to go through and the fact that one slip-up means disaster. Barbara Bain gets to show off her acting chops in this very good episode.

The Execution is the sort of outrageously elaborate deception that was one of Mission: Impossible’s trademarks. In this case a mobster has first to be persuaded to kill Jim Phelps. The IMF team then kidnap the hitman, a very very tough cookie indeed, and try to convince him that he is actually on Death Row and about to be executed. The idea of course is to break the hitman and get him to squeal. The deception has to be absolutely perfect. Lots of tension in this episode. Excellent stuff.

The Cardinal is yet another unbelievably complicated plan on the part of the IMF. A certain Cardinal is the key to restoring democracy in an eastern European country. He’s been replaced by a perfect double. Now the IMF is going to do its own double acts with the Cardinal, in fact with multiple cardinals. You can’t help thinking that no-one in their right mind would actually attempt such an absurdly over-complex scheme but it makes for a classic Mission: Impossible episode.

The Elixir really pushes things into the realms of the fantastic. Riva Santel is the widow of the former president of a Latin American country and she has plans to seize power. The IMF plan to stop her is really bizarre - they’re going to convince her that Cinnamon has the secret to eternal youth. If there’s one thing that obsess Riva Santel  more than power it is her own fading beauty. So it’s a fairly ludicrous plot but somehow with this series it’s the most far-fetched plots that seem to work best.

The Bargain is an example of a Mission: Impossible episode that is too clever for its own good. The IMF scheme is one that stretches credibility a bit too far - the final twist relies too much on a particular character reacting in a certain way which when you think about it is not a reasonable assumption. Of course all Mission: Impossible plots stretch credibility - that’s more or less the point of the show. But the other problem with this one is that either it was overly confusing or I’m just not as smart as I thought I was because there were times when it lost me completely.

On the plus side it’s a good example of the breathtaking ruthlessness of the Impossible Mission Force, and it has some good moment. I like the lengthy almost completely dialogue-free scenes with Barney, Willy and Cinnamon - very atmospheric.

The Freeze is particularly outrageous. Armed robber Raymond Barret is about to be released from prison but he’s serving a short sentence for a different crime and under a different name. When he’s released he’ll be able to pick up the ten million dollars that was stolen quite legally. So the IMF set up one of their elaborate con tricks, persuading Barret that he’s dying and then persuading him to agree to be put in cryogenic suspension for a few years until a cure is found for the non-existent disease the he thinks he’s got. This is one of those episodes in which one can’t help feeling that the IMF’s plan is ingenious but possibly immoral and almost certainly illegal.

It’s an unusual episode also for the science fictional look that is a simply wonderful example of what people in the 60s thought the future would look like. It was a much cooler future than the one we actually ended up with. So it’s an interesting and fairly clever episode.

In The Exchange Cinnamon is captured on a mission behind the Iron Curtain. There is no way to break her out. The only way to get her back is by exchanging her with one of the other side’s spies currently imprisoned in the West. That’s not really a problem. Such exchanges were a routine occurrence during the Cold War, and both sides played by the rules. But the problem for Cinnamon is that she’s not an agent for a legitimate intelligence agency. The IMF is a totally secret completely illegal black ops unit and the U.S. Government’s policy on the issue is made clear in the taped message that Jim Phelps receives in every episode - if any of them are captured the U.S. Government will deny everything. Since the IMF officially does not exist it cannot negotiate an exchange. So Jim Phelps has to convince the Reds that Cinnamon is a freelancer and that a consortium of Swiss businessmen wants to negotiate the exchange, and that he can somehow get hold of top Soviet spy Rudolf Kurtz.

I find this a fascinating episode because it’s honest enough to make it quite clear that the IMF is technically a totally illegal organisation, but without ever quite coming out and saying it. And it’s a very effective and very suspenseful episode as well.

The Mind of Stefan Miklos is a great example of an IMF plan so incredibly over-complicated and so heavily reliant on a whole series of very dubious assumptions that if one tiny detail went wrong the entire scheme would self-destruct. The chances of such a plan working in real life would be nil. But that’s what’s so great about Mission: Impossible - the more far-fetched the story the more fun it is watching it all come together. In this case the IMF have to convince a top eastern bloc spymaster, Stefan Miklos, that information supplied by a double agent is genuine. The plan revolves around the fact that Miklos is not only a genius he is scrupulously logical and unemotional, he has a photographic memory and a mind that never misses even the tiniest detail. Jim Phelps intends to use all these strengths against him. Paul Playdon’s plot is outlandishly byzantine but it works.

The Test Case is a medical experiment conducted in a country behind the Iron Curtain. A Dr Beck has discovered what could be the ultimate bioweapon. It is necessary to destroy the microbe but it is also necessary to destroy Dr Beck. This will be done by convincing the security chief Captain Onli that Beck has sold out. The convincing will be done by Cinnamon, posing as a glamorous German journalist. It’s all very complicated and you have to pay attention or you’ll end up hopelessly confused, as I was. Not that it really matters - with this series you just trust that somehow it all makes sense.

In The System the prosecution case against a mobster named Victor has collapsed. The only way to get a conviction is to persuade the mobster’s close associate, Johnny Costa, to testify against him. That’s quite out of the question. Victor and Costa are close friends and true one another implicitly. But Phelps has come up with an outrageously involved plan to persuade Costa to betray Victor. As so often the script is very clever but relies on the victim reacting in a particular way when in fact he could react in any number of ways. But that’s all part of the fun in Mission: Impossible. And it is a particularly clever and devious scheme. Plus it gives Cinnamon a chance to do her sexy femme fatale bit that she does so well. A very enjoyable episode.

The Glass Cage is a maximum security cell in an escape-proof prison in some unnamed dictatorship. The prisoner in the cel is a resistance leader. The IMF have to get him out. The problem is that the prison really is escape-proof. The solution is a devious game of bluff and counter-bluff to cast doubt on whether the prisoner has escaped or not and whether he is who he is supposed to be. It’s typical Mission: Impossible stuff with some cool high-tech sets. Cinnamon Carter gets to play an icy evil security chief and she approaches her rôle with gusto. It’s all good stuff.

Doomsday concerns industrialist Carl Vandaam who is trying to save his collapsing business empire by getting into the business of selling atomic bombs. He has to be stopped. As usual the IMF sets out to stop him in an incredibly elaborate manner, and to set him up so he won’t ever do anything like that again. The suspense comes from having Barney trapped inside the fortress-like Vandaam headquarters after stealing the weapon’s plutonium. You might think Cinnamon playing the part of a nuclear physicist would be a bit of a stretch but the amazing thing about Barbara Bain is that she is able to get away with playing so many versions of Cinnamon. Quite a good episode.

Live Bait is an episode in which the IMF has to rescue an American agent held by the counter-espionage agency of an eastern bloc nation in order to protect a double agent. They also have to discredit or destroy Colonel Kellerman, a dangerously able member of that counter-espionage agency. It’s a basic idea that the series had used over and over again and this is one of the less inspired examples. The IMF’s scheme also lacks the wonderful baroque touches that you get in a good Mission: Impossible episode. It’s also an episode in which the IMF’s methods are much more morally questionable than those of the supposed bad guys. Its only saving grace is the wonderful performance by Anthony Zerbe as Kellerman. A very disappointing episode.

The Bunker is a two-parter. An enemy country is developing a new missile. A brilliant scientist is being forced to work on the project by the secret police. The IMF has to get him and his wife out of the country. The twist is that another unfriendly country has sent an assassin to kill the scientist so this time the IMF have two enemies to deal with. And instead of Rollin Hand doing the master of disguise bit this time it’s Cinnamon who does it. My favourite thing about this episode is the way they do the language of the country - everything is just written in English but if you substitute Ks for Cs and add a few umlauts you have a kömpletely könvïncing föreïgn längüage! It’s basically a stock-standard Mission: Impossible episode with a couple of minor variations but it works. And the little flying saucer drone is a nice touch.

Nitro takes place in a small Middle Eastern kingdom in which a plot is afoot to provoke war with a neighbouring country by blowing up the king. The man hired to carry out the bombing always uses nitro-glycerine even though it’s dangerous. In fact he uses nitro because it’s dangerous. Which will be fun for Rollin when he has to impersonate him. Barney gets to do some computer geek stuff with cool late 1960s computers and Cinnamon gets to be glamorous and do an outrageous French accent as a journalist. Typical Mission: Impossible stuff with a plot that goes perilously close to being too complicated but it’s nicely executed.

In Nicole Jim and Rollin are in the usual unnamed central European country trying to get hold of a list of agents. Barbara Bain does not appear in this episode but if you’re worrying that it will therefore be short on glamour you needn’t concern yourself. Barbara Bain was a very glamorous woman but with Joan Collins as the guest star this episode has glamour to burn. Nicole is a departure from the usual Mission: Impossible formula. The emphasis is not on the plot but on the relationship between Jim Phelps and a spy named Nicole, played by Collins. This is in fact an episode that deviates from the established formula in almost every respect. Given that this was late in the third season it was not a bad idea to keep viewers on their toes by throwing in something unexpected. And thanks largely to a fine performance from Joan Collins it’s a very good episode.

The Contender is a two-parter and it’s unusual in being a Barney-centric story. His job in this mission is really easy. All he has to do is win the world boxing championship. He gets some help from an ex-fighter. The idea is to break a fight-fixing racket. This is a typical episode in the sense that the plan is to get the bad guys to do the dirty work. I personally don’t think this one has quite enough plot for a two-parter and it doesn’t have the over-the-top elements that made this series so much fun. Of course I prefer the international intrigue episodes to the organised crime episodes for the very reason that they offer more scope for outrageousness. This one is just a bit flat.

This episode is also unusual in the we get some backstory on one of the main characters. We learn that Barney was in the Navy.  That’s all we learn but it’s more specific information than we’ve ever been given about any of the recurring characters.

The Vault is routine but competent. A Latin American finance minister has embezzled a fortune from his country and is trying to frame the president. The IMF has to stop him. Barbara Bain gets to do her generic sultry middle European accent that always makes her sound dead sexy. Rollin gets to disguise himself, Barney does some safe-cracking.

Some of the very best episodes were the ones in which Cinnamon was used as a honey trap, episodes like Illusion. The IMF has to destroy the reputations of two secret police chiefs of a certain East European country. The plan is to get one of them obsessed with Cinnamon and literally drive him insane with lust. Cinnamon is certainly the right girl for the job. The fun part of this episode is that the East European country concerned actually seems exactly like Berlin during the Weimar Republic. Which of course gives Barbara Bain the opportunity to channel Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel (and her performance has obvious similarities to Liza Minnelli’s later performance in Cabaret). She gets to turn the sexual heat up pretty high. I’m sure Miss Bain would have been delighted to dial it up even higher, but this was a family show. She still gets to sizzle, and to sing and dance (and I believe she really does her own singing). It’s a very good episode anyway but the night club scenes make it a must-watch.

In The Interrogator the man behind a nefarious plot against world peace has been captured by a nation unfriendly to the US. The IMF has to get hold of this man and find out what his plan is. To do this they will have to play some nasty little games with his mind. This was an idea that the series returned to again and again - the IMF breaking someone’s resistance by making him believe something was happening to him that really wasn’t happening. It was an idea that mostly worked and it works this time although you have to wonder how many more times they’re going to be able to pull it off successfully.

Final Thoughts

This series was still at its peak during its third season with its trademark approach of outrageous plots executed absolutely straight, resisting all temptations to adopt the tongue-in-cheek approach used by so many other spy series. Highly recommended.


  1. I saw some of this season on UK TV years ago - I definitely remember The Glass Cage as a great episode!

  2. The Mind of Stefan Miklos is an amazing hour. You've highlighted some of the reasons that this show doesn't always appeal to me - I think Geller was mistaken and the series would have been even better with more emphasis on character - but Miklos is just a stunner for how tightly it is plotted, and I love the ending. It's a shame the villain never came back for a rematch.

  3. Thee were a couple of light moments in the first season of "M:I," in "Memory" between Dan Briggs and Rollin Hand, and in the 2-parter "Old Man Out," where Barney actually makes a joke. But you're right, that sort of thing vanished early.