By Sabienna Bowman, Les Chappell and Heather McLendon
Season 3, Episode 1: “The Heir Apparent”
Original airdate: September 29, 1968
Heather: I saw my first Mission: Impossible episode around three years ago. And I was instantly hooked. M:I has it all: kitsch espionage, dynamic teamwork, disguises, gadgets, outlandish plots, extremely well-crafted plots, ridiculous accents. It is pure fun.
With few exceptions, the show follows the same format in every episode, the result of which is a ritual-like experience. The taped mission briefing that self-destructs. The dossier scene. The plan. The execution of the plan. Success. This is a show whose team never fails. Unlike the dark ending of I Spy, M:I almost always ends with victory. None of the principal team members die. It’s truly spy fantasy. Realism, as we’ll also see in next week’s The Avengers episode, doesn’t hold as much weight and influence as entertainment.
M:I first aired on CBS in 1966, consisting of Dan Briggs (Steven Hill), Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), Barney Collier (Greg Morris), Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus) and Rollin Hand (Martin Landau). Morris and Lupus were the only two actors to appear in all seven seasons. Dan Briggs was the team’s leader in the first season, and his performance was drier than dehydrated sawdust. Thankfully the powers-that-be dropkicked Mr. Hill and brought on the fabulous, silver-haired (and might I add: foxy) Peter Graves as the indomitable Jim Phelps. Graves’s presence completely shifted the tone of the show. It went from a mildly entertaining, if somewhat dull, program to an engaging show whose dynamism hinged upon the camaraderie and synergy of the main team. When all members of the IMF team were contributing their expertise for the sake of the overarching mission, the show sung.
The season three opener—”The Heir Apparent”—is one such episode. Each team member has a role to play. In my view, the best M:I missions are those that fail unless each person executes his and her responsibilities perfectly. When the various team members utterly depend upon each other for the mission’s success, the suspense heightens. The stakes are raised.
In the case of “The Heir Apparent,” the team needs to stop a military general from grabbing control of the small (make-believe) country through a bloody coup d’état. (I am always amused at the highly complicated situations given to Jim at the beginning of episodes, only for the mission to be “stop this person.”) The team carries out an intricate plan in which Cinnamon impersonates a blind princess—rightful heir to the throne. The real princess has disappeared and is most likely dead, yet the team resurrects Princess Celine so that the archbishop grants her power, and she can then transfer the power to someone trustworthy. (Sidenote: Barbara Bain is simply smashing in this episode. Her performance as the fragile, blind princess is fabulous, and it isn’t surprising that she won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama 1967-1969. Only downside is that Diana Rigg was also nominated in 1967 and 1968, and she was more deserving of the award, in my slightly biased opinion.)
Jim presents himself as an opportunist who “found” Celine and hopes to cash in on the impersonation. (He claims to not know whether she is the real princess or not.) Barney and Willy allow themselves to be arrested into solitary confinement so they can tunnel through the cathedral; Barney is to find the real Celine’s old puzzle box, solve it, and place clear dots on the box so Cinnamon can open it later in front of a crowd to prove she is the true heir. This utilizes Barney’s intelligence and Willy’s superhuman strength. Rollin—actor and make-up artist—disguises himself as a doctor, who bolsters up General Qaisette’s confidence, only to remove his disguise in the climatic scene (one of the best scenes in the entire episode as he surreptitiously does this while sitting in a crowd of people), thereby positioning Qaisette to lose all credibility.
It’s worthwhile to note the mission’s international setting. The first four seasons of M:I had the team crisscross the world, with a heavy emphasis on the team fighting against Communism and dictatorships. While the Cold War was occurring between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the show never addressed it explicitly. Instead there are many references to “the Iron Curtain,” and the team were frequently dispatched to aid “democratic” factions within small nations and stop Communist leaders. Even Qaisette speaks to this subtext. Later in season five, the show turned inward, as it was less expensive to use domestic settings instead of building sets for foreign locations, and the team’s concerns were wrapped up with organized crime.
So enjoy the absurd accents that the IMF team uses in missions like “The Heir Apparent.” Enjoy the obviously prefabricated sets and the hilarious attempt at depicting foreign languages (e.g. “gaz” for “gas” and “sekurit” for “security”). They don’t last in the M:I world forever.
Les: Now this is more like it. While I Spy offered us a more psychological take on the world of espionage and Get Smart was lovingly poking fun at its complexities, Mission: Impossible is all about the excitement of a well-orchestrated scheme, one rife with disguises, devices and double-crosses to the point that it earns the “impossible” part of the title. I found “The Heir Apparent” a delight to watch, one that featured a lively cast and twisting plot that nicely ramps up the tension without ever feeling like it’s forcing things along. (Though once again, my mind kept imagining Ricardo Montalban instead of Charles Aidman. I think my brain is now retconning him to be the villain in every classic spy show.)
What I loved most about “The Heir Apparent” was the fact that while the entire scheme went off exactly according to plan, there were several moments where I wasn’t quite sure whether or not that was the case. The moment where Barney and Willy drop the amulet in the process of making the mold—and Phelps’ uncertain expression in the moment—made me wonder if the original plan had been compromised and the IMF team was being forced to go with a Plan B. Except as time goes on, it’s entirely clear that everything had been planned in meticulous detail, and what seems like a misstep is in fact a calculated one. The way Barney and Willy play the head of the secret police, and then Phelps and Rollin play Qaisette, and then Carter plays the entire room of dignitaries all makes this team seem both incredibly competent at putting a scheme together, and also able to think on their feet when the situation calls for it. (Particular shoutout to Martin Landau in this case, even better here than he was at playing twin brothers in Columbo. Like you Heather, I was practically giggling at every cutaway to Rollin as he gradually peeled away parts of his makeup, becoming a slightly different person with every move, to the point that Qaisette is reduced to sputtering rage at seeing this complete stranger sitting where the doctor was.)
Something I found interesting about Mission: Impossible was that while I thought the whole cast was uniformly entertaining—Bain and Graves in particular—there’s not as much of the team dynamic as I was expecting. There’s the opening scene where they’re putting the scheme together in what I assume is Phelps’ lavish apartment, and you can tell from their conversations that this is a group of individuals who have a profound respect and admiration for each other, but once the job starts they’re all business. There’s no scenes where Phelps and Carter discuss the next stage of their plans—be she nun or princess Carter doesn’t break character once—and even when Barney and Willy are carrying out their part of the mission deep in the catacombs, there’s none of the tension-alleviating banter you’d expect from the likes of Solo and Kuryakin or Robinson and Scotty. As good as everyone is, this is a show that’s about the mission, not about the team, and the characters are all very much aware of what they’ve signed up for.
Also aiding the show’s workmanlike approach is the ending of the episode. Yes, the team accomplishes their mission by deposing Qaisette for good and handing the responsibility of selecting regent back to the archbishop, but that’s the end of their involvement in this affair, and whatever anarchy might result from Princess Celine appearing briefly and then never being seen again isn’t their problem. IMF isn’t a group that’s carrying out an agenda, they’re essentially contractors taking a job from an unseen authority, and while that might seem to be a benevolent one the viewer can only know for sure it’s the lesser of two evils. They’re not here to take a political stance, or to make sure that their candidate gets in. They were assigned to do a job, they do their job, and then they’re whisked away in a limousine never to be seen again by any of that country’s residents.
Or at least if they do see them again, it won’t be as who they were on their last visit.
Sabienna: I was a complete Mission: Impossible novice going into this episode—not only had I never seen an episode before, I’ve also never watched any of the Tom Cruise films—so the only thing that I knew for sure was that I was in for a killer theme tune. Having watched “The Heir Apparent,” I can see how this show could be addictive. It exudes cool. In fact, it’s so cool that it doesn’t matter that the characters are basically ultra-competent moving set pieces. As Les noted above, there’s no clever banter here and there’s basically zero nonessential dialogue. By the end of the episode, I had no idea who any of the agents were as people, but I did know that they were scarily efficient at their jobs.
While I’m typically all about character work, it was almost freeing to see a series commit so wholeheartedly to the plot. The agents’ mission to stop the general was absolutely thrilling stuff. From the purposely botched amulet heist to Barney’s down-to-the-wire assembling of the puzzle box cheat sheet, the unfolding mission played out more like a tense spy movie than a one-hour installment of an ongoing series. There were even a few cinematic flourishes from veteran television director Alexander Singer, like the gorgeous low angle shot when Cinnamon enters the confessional—even by today’s standards that would be considered a creative touch.
The best part was the choreography of the mission. It was almost like the agents were dancing, and every time I thought they were about to miss a step, they pulled off some sort of crazy move at the last second. The award for most impressive last minute feint goes to Rollin though; he disappeared so completely into his disguise as the doctor that I was almost as shocked as the General when he started peeling it away piece by piece. And in a crowded room, no less! As spy moves go, that’s about as ballsy as they get.
Unless we take Cinnamon into account. I have no idea how they could have possibly gathered that much intel about the princess in the pre-computer age, but Cinnamon was the team’s MVP for her utter commitment to the character. Because I’m used to watching character-centric programs where flaws are a thing people have, I kept expecting for her to break at some point, but she never so much as winced. By the time she claimed to know the Princess’s former nanny from the way she tapped her nails against her bracelet, I was ready to give her a standing ovation.
Now that I’ve been initiated into the world of Mission: Impossible, I understand why it’s considered the gold standard of spy shows. With a team as sleek and ultra-competent as these guys, it can’t be much of a contest.
As a reminder, we’ll be sampling a different series every week for the next few weeks:
05/09: The Avengers, “You Have Just Been Murdered” (season 5, episode 22).
05/16: Airwolf, “Fallen Angel” (season 2, episode 7); available through Hulu and Netflix Instant.
05/23: Scarecrow and Mrs. King, “Welcome to America, Mr. Brand” (season 3, episode 5); available through Amazon Instant Video.
05/30: Alias, “Truth Be Told,” (season 1, episode 1); available through Netflix Instant.