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Choosing to Accept Just Part of TV’s Original ‘Mission’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Danny Biederman is an author and screenwriter specializing in 1960s pop spy fiction. He wrote "The Best of James Bond" for EMI Publishing

It was 1966. The Cold War was in full swing, and spies were all the rage on American TV. One standout espionage series, Paramount’s Emmy-winning “Mission: Impossible,” outlived the rest, reigning for seven seasons on CBS. It was revived in 1988 for a two-season run on ABC, with star Peter Graves reprising his Jim Phelps character from the original series.

Thirty years after its debut, “Mission: Impossible” has returned again, this time as a theatrical motion picture.

Fans of the series will be pleased to see that the filmmakers have attempted to do much more than merely borrow a familiar title and its dynamic theme music. They’ve resurrected the show’s basic format: An elite U.S. undercover team must complete a dangerous mission, using skill and state-of-the-art technology.

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Yet, although many of the specific elements of the TV show find their way into the film, the screenplay takes liberties with the series, format and two of its characters--liberties that may have fans of the old show squirming in their seats.

Lalo Schifrin’s heart-pounding theme music is back, as is a polished update of the famous fuse-burning title montage. The movie also makes use of “Mission’s” most famous earmark, the tape-recorded assignment that “self-destruct[s] in five seconds.”

The only on-screen TV character who returns, however, is Impossible Missions Force leader Jim Phelps. After Graves’ nearly 200 missions, it’s pop-culture shock to find Phelps portrayed by a different actor, Jon Voight. Voight, along with the filmmakers, gives the character a notably different interpretation, making him married and world-weary, rather than the heroic bachelor of the series.

Departing from the TV series, the movie’s screenwriters have altered the workings of the Impossible Missions Force. In the series, the IMF is a mysterious undercover unit operated by one man, Phelps (preceded by Dan Briggs--played by the underrated Steve Hill--in the series’ first season). The IMF’s only connection to the U.S. government is the voice on the tape that offers Phelps his missions.

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In the movie, the IMF is no longer strictly under Phelps’ control; it is shown to be part of the CIA. And that mysterious voice on the tape now has a face: a CIA official named Kittridge. It is Kittridge, not Phelps, who recruits the IMF team in this story.

TV’s Phelps shapes his own IM Force for each mission, recruiting outside specialists as needed. These specialists--introduced when Phelps selects their photos and background clippings at the start of each episode--usually include a master of disguise, a femme fatale, an electronics expert and a muscleman. In the movie, though, the team members’ specialties become blurred, as they were in the later episodes of the TV show.

The biggest difference between the series and the movie is the handling of the plot, always the most important element of the original show.

The scripts of TV’s “Mission: Impossible” dazzle viewers by weaving together fantastic schemes that give each episode’s villain a tremendous angst. The IMF’s incredible illusions of alternate realities--convincing their targets that they had aged 20 years, survived World War III, gained psychic powers or been betrayed by their most trusted associates--always achieve the desired results. It is the IMF’s deft manipulation of the enemy’s stunned reaction at story’s end that is the ultimate payoff to the series’ fans.

Don’t look for this aspect of the TV show in the movie’s primary story line.

Instead, the new “Mission: Impossible” capitalizes on the occasional TV story in which, as a plot twist, the mission goes awry. On the small screen, these are fun, offbeat episodes that, despite that plot twist, still employ the classic “Mission” formula to masterful effect.

In the movie, with that twist as its driving force, the screenwriters opt to send their story in a direction more typical of a regular adventure film than of a “Mission: Impossible” TV episode. The movie’s assured blockbuster status notwithstanding, this approach may leave the uninitiated with a false sense of what the TV series has to offer and the nostalgic fan hungry for a story line more in tune with the essence of the original show.

Climaxing the motion picture, and culminating with Schifrin’s signature theme, is an elaborate, effects-laden action sequence. When the TV show rolls out that theme music in its final scenes, it is in celebration of the IMF’s success. Leaving the villain behind--ruined and defeated--the secret agents of the IMF coolly walk away, pile into a car and drive off, the camera often flipping the scene upside down in an ultimate “Hurrah!” before fade-out.

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* Reruns of “Mission: Impossible” air at 6 p.m. every day on fX. It will also air at 9 p.m. every day beginning next Tuesday. The cable channel is running a 12-hour marathon of episodes beginning at 2 p.m. on Monday.


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