Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mission: Impossible The Later Years

For the first part of this article please read  MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE The Early Years

The story so far: after the third season of MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE, two of the stars, Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, left over a contractual dispute. For the fourth year Landau's character was replaced by Leonard Nimoy, but there was no major female lead hired. Every episode during the fourth year featured a different actress helping out the four men, or no female operative at all. 

Now this actually harped back to the original concept, which was for an always-changing group of experts to be set on a mission, instead of the same group of  people always tackling the crisis no matter what it was.  Over the course of the first three years, however, a "group" mentality had been created. With two main characters gone the producers and writers didn't try to embrace this change; they simply ignored it. Peter Graves as Jim Phelps was suddenly good buddies with Leonard Nimoy's character, who seemed to simply have always been around with fellow buddies Greg Morris as Barney and Peter Lupus as Willy. There was no "I have to get used to this guy" or "I miss Martin Landau's character." He simply was there, and the women simply were, as well.

In my opinion, this just didn't work. If there isn't a new "expert" introduced especially for each mission, then it becomes just a matter of some face in a crowd. (In the show's defense this was done well a few times, most notably with Eartha Kitt during season one, Lee Grant during season three, and Jessica Walters during season four.) This rotating casting also calls into question the whole show's premise: where before the choices of operatives was seamless (Phelps would actually go through a dossier and PICK the same people week after week!) now it seemed forced. Why was Lee Meriwether here this week, but Anne Francis the week before? Are there an unlimited number of female operatives, or was Anne Francis killed between this week and the last? The show could have used the actors' exits as a spring-board for more intense drama, but it didn't and the whole show's reality (always somewhat strained) suffered.

Although there would still be some excellent episodes, overall the show had peaked.

In Year Five young actress Lesley Anne Warren was added to the mix. The first time I saw an episode with her I thought, "What is SHE doing there?" She looked way too young to be an expert at anything, let alone all the talents these "spies" were supposed to be great at. She was a fine actress for certain types of characters, but for what she was supposed to be doing as a cool-headed spy, not at all in the same league as Anne Francis or, my favorite, Lee Meriwether. Season five had a variety of different scenarios, but in general it was not as well-done as the previous seasons. Lesley Anne Warren left after one year, and Leonard Nimoy joined her. Again, the main two supporting characters were gone! 

And then along came Lynda Day George! She was beautiful and, although younger looking than Barbara Bain or Lee Meriwether, older looking and acting than Warren. She fit in visually, and just as importantly, she suddenly was doing the things that Barbara Bain had been doing: acting insane, pretending to be a felon, or acting like she was strung-out on drugs. Now we're talking! 

Unfortunately, by now all the bad guys were "the syndicate" and the writers were out of ideas. The plots began to depend on a hook; where for six years the IM Team had worked with nary a hitch in their plans, now they were regularly interrupted by security guards they hadn't planned on or witnesses who were supposed to be absent. The first time Willy is shot during the action it's dramatic; the second or third time it happens you start to think that Phelps should think about replacing his agents! Other plots featured a waaay too convoluted attempt to convince a gangster that the team were aliens or immortals or that the gangster had time-slipped 40 years into the past. None of these are MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE's greatest moments.

So in other words, by seasons six and seven the writers didn't know what to do with a strong female agent, and Lynda Day George never had any specifically strong episodes written around or about her. That's a shame, because I think she would have knocked those episodes out of the park. I'm sorry she never got the chance to try.

Today is Lynda Day George's birthday. The last actress to appear on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is 68 years young today. 

Peter Lupus as Willy had weathered the storm (although he was supposedly going to be fired after season five) and was with the series for the entire run. Greg Morris had said that he was bored with the show by the end and was ready to leave. So if it hadn't been cancelled, he was not going to be in season eight. That's an odd thing to have said, as he was one of the few of the actors who actually did come back....which we'll talk about next time! 

Here's the opening theme from one of the episodes from the season six (1971), "Blind " where Jim Phelps fakes being sightless.  

Happy Birthday, Lynda Day George! 

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