How I love Mission: Impossible! Let me count the ways…
There’s a quirk of personal history connected with this show. The first time I ever saw it was as a teenager, when I happened to catch a rerun of a 1970 episode, “The Killer.” In this episode, co-starring Leonard Nimoy, the IMF team cons a killer who makes all his plans at random, at the last minute, to prevent anyone else from knowing what the plans are and developing countermeasures. So they pull off the con by making all the decisions for him. A très kewl episode.
Then Mission: Impossible came back for two more seasons in 1988-90. And I completely missed it. I still haven’t seen those episodes, and they haven’t yet been released on DVD. But now that the entire 7-season Mission: Impossible original series has been released on DVD, I hope they’ll continue with the 1988-90 episodes.
(And then, of course, there were the Tom Cruise movies. But we don’t talk about those.)
Since I’m almost through watching the original series on DVD, I was considering some of the things that characterized this show:
- Greg Morris, Peter Lupus, and Bob Johnson (who did the voice on the tape): the only three actors who were with the show throughout the entire original 7 seasons.
- “This tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds.” (How do I get a self-destructing tape?!)
- Those masks that actually reduce the size of a person’s face, look and feel completely natural, and pull off when no longer needed without leaving any glue or residue.
- Technological innovations that can’t possibly work (at least not with this universe’s physics) and that never appear again in any successive episode, even when they’d be useful.
- Wonder drugs that perform impossible feats, like a pill that can stop all body functions without actually killing you, or a spritzer that will knock out a grown man in 2 seconds flat, or a ring-syringe that will do it in 1. Speaking of which…
- The magic karate chop, which will knock out any bad guy, just like that. (Or the magic punch to the face, which the bad guys can never seem to learn.)
- Overly complex plots. (Why bother taking the direct route when a roundabout one will suffice?)
- Faultlessly accurate intelligence—and where they get it from, who knows?
But I think what I’ll always love the most—and what makes this show worth watching is…
- The magic of the con.
It’s the mind-games they play, the illusions, convincing their target to believe something that isn’t true, even could not possibly be true. It’s a grand, high-stakes magic show. Their true goal is never what it appears to be, and by the time the victim has figured out what’s going on—if he ever figures it out—the trick is already over, and the IMF team is off onto the next one.
This is what magicians do, as Teller (of Penn & Teller) explained at the Magic of Consciousness Symposium for the Mind Science Foundation, in 2007. They make the What and Why of each move so obvious—at least the What and Why that they want you to think you see—that you never notice the sleight of hand, until it’s too late. Here’s the video: