Friday, March 2, 2012

This Logic Will Self-Destruct in Five Seconds

Most people remember two things and two things only about the classic series Mission: Impossible, which ran from 1966 to 1973 on the CBS television network. First is the pounding theme music, in 11/4 time, by Lalo Schifrin, which is pretty much the only thing to survive from the TV series into the Tom Cruise movie franchise. And the second is the instructions given to the chief operative (Jim Phelps as portrayed by Peter Graves for most of the series run) in some out-of-the-way locale where there was a tape recording set to self-destruct in five seconds.

I now seem to be watching every episode of this show, in chronological order, and it strikes me that there is something quite odd about those instructions from headquarters. For instance, in the episode I'm watching now ("Operation Heart," episode 7 from season 2), Jim goes to some sort of photo booth on what looks like a desolate side street in urban Los Angeles. Inside the booth, he inserts one key that starts up the photography mechanism, then unlocks a metal drawer with another key - or maybe the same key, who knows - wherein lies the tape recorder.

At some point, Jim had to be sent those keys and given the directions to that photo booth. Within the photo booth, all there was was a 60-second recording and two photographs. So wouldn't it have been just as easy to relay that information to him as it was to get him the location of the photo booth and the key?

It's not as if there were a limited number of drop points where Jim could retrieve his self-destructing tapes, so that the secretary could just send him to Drop Point B this week. As Christopher Bennett, who has much greater patience for this sort of thing than I do, counts it up, Jim went to 12 distinct locations for the 21 missions the team undertook in season two. So more than half the time, they have to send Jim a MapQuest for a new dropoff point. Why not just send the tape and photos directly to his apartment as well? All those fancy tape recorders cost money, not to mention all that ruined high-tech tape, and remember, it's all being paid for by you, the American taxpayer.

Maybe at some point during the third season the secretary will wise up, and in one of the elaborate drop boxes, the message will say, "Mr, Phelps, all this tape stuff is silly. From now on, your mission, should you choose to accept it, will be to sign for the FedEx delivery when we send the briefing to your home."


  1. My favorite thing about the series (though, as a kid, I found it complex and mesmerizing) is that Steven Hill, the guy who later played the grumpy DA on "Law & Order," was the show's first lead, and the first season was a hit. But Hill is Orthodox. He doesn't blend fibers in his clothing and he sure as hell doesn't work on the Sabbath. This drove them crazy at the network. So they put it to him: What are you going to choose -- those details of your religion, or this monster hit show we have?

    Hill walked.

  2. I almost wrote about Steven Hill, who is a great story and who I liked very much as the head of the Impossible Missions Force that first season. He was steely and self-negating in a way that Peter Graves never was.

    As I understand it, Hill was always upfront with the producers about his inability to be on the set after sundown on the Sabbath. One wonders what they were thinking - that they'd never be shooting late, after hours on Friday evening? I've never been on a set in my life, and I know that's unrealistic. "Barney Miller" used to tape till two or three in the morning on Friday nights.

    Maybe they figured they'd slather up Martin Landau in a bunch of Steven Hill makeup and no one would know the difference.

  3. It truly is baffling. I always wonder if it's possible they didn't know how observant he was, or if they just assumed that anyone -- any person they could understand -- would put aside all that and make more TV-hit suspense. All that money. Who'd choose the hobby of religion?