Mission Impossible

This article is about the first television series. For other meanings, see Mission: Impossible.

Mission: Impossible is an American television series that chronicles the missions of a team of secret American government agents known as the Impossible Missions Force (IMF). In the first season, the IMF leader is Dan Briggs, played by Steven Hill, then in the second season, the team gets a new leader: Jim Phelps, played by Peter Graves. He remains the IMF leader until the end of the series.

The series aired on the CBS network from September 1966 to March 1973, with seven seasons and 171 episodes. After another 15 years, though, the series would return with two additional seasons and then later would inspire a popular trio of movies in the 1990s and 2000s. Each episode deals with the IMF performing a mission, usually with world leaders, rogue figures, and--most often in later episodes--the mob underworld or, as the IMF tended to call it, "the syndicate," specifically the organized-crime syndicate. (This could be presumed to be partially due to J. (for "John") Edgar Hoover's iron-fisted hold on the FBI, a hostilely competing government agency, slipping as the 1970s began; Hoover died in 1972.) In most cases, the object of the mission was to eliminate the target by means of deception or elaborate means to convince the target that he is at another location or time has passed (either forward or backward), or to recover a valuable item which if fallen to the wrong hands of the target, would alter the government of a country. Sometimes the target would be a subordinate of a leader and the IMF must convince the leader that his subordinate is not on his/her side. The ultimate result of the missions are usually the target's disgrace among his associates, a secretly taped confession of the target, the target being shot by his own people, the target arrested by the police, or the recovery of the valuable item while trapping the target in a locked chamber. As this end result would happen, the IMF team members would stealthily leave the area, usually in a vehicle--though on at least one occasion, two IMF agents left in a boat, and one agent left in a helicopter. Some episodes might show the team members leaving the building or meeting together for one final summary of their successfully-accomplished missions.

With a few exceptions, the formula for each Mission: Impossible episode was the same, every week, for the first 4 seasons. Beginning with Season 5, a prologue was added to each episode.

Tape Scene[]

Considered to be among the most iconic moments of television, the tape scene is the first sequence of Mission: Impossible. Briggs/Phelps is shown accessing a tape recorder with a manila envelope which contains pictures of the target(s) and other individuals who are affected by the target's actions. Usually the tape and envelope are in a store, where Briggs/Phelps exchange codes by casual conversation with the store owner--thus the owner leaves so Briggs/Phelps can access the tape. Other times the tape is located in a parked car, telephone booth (where certain coins must be deposited in sequence to unlock the phone), a photo booth, fire alarm box, boat, darkroom, place of worship, toll booth, movie theater (indoor theaters and outdoor drive-ins alike), skating rink, zoo, beach, warehouse, or cigarette machine. Sometimes a phonograph, film reel, drive-in speaker, or telescope was used instead of the tape; in one instance, the Season 1 episode "Memory," Briggs received the instructions of his mission on a business card which a street photographer handed him, which card he read and promptly destroyed. Some tape sequences from Season 2 onward were reused more than once as stock footage for different episodes. From Season 5 onward, the tape scene in the prologue was usually shown after a brief introduction to the evening's episode though a situation encountered by the target or his staff which initiates the mission. When the mission instructions are to infiltrate the "syndicate" and put the target out of business (who usually extorts legitimate businesses or controls a specific operation), it is because "conventional law-enforcement methods" are currently unable to obtain any incriminating evidence to arrest and prosecute the target. The tape instructions make no mention of any law enforcement agency (e.g. FBI) by name.

The recorded voice for all episodes was done by Robert Cleveland "Bob" Johnson, and it generally transcribed as follows:

"Good morning Mr. Briggs/Phelps. The man you are looking at is ... Your mission, should you decide/choose to accept it, is to ... As always, should you or any of your IM Force be caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self destruct in 5/10 seconds. (Alternatively, it might instruct, "Please dispose of/destroy this tape in the usual manner/by the usual means/as usual.") Good luck, Dan/Jim."

The tape itself is played backwards as the mission instructions are disseminated to Briggs/Phelps. At the end of the tape sequence when the tape "self-destructs," smoke emits from the recording so as to render it useless to anyone who may find it. When the instructions are simply to dispose the tape, Briggs/Phelps would throw it into an incinerator, or use other means to render the recording useless.

Exceptions to the tape sequence were usually "off-book" missions--unsanctioned personal missions initiated by the IMF, usually to save a fellow team member or to save a personal friend--such as Briggs saving the daughter of his friend who was about to testify against a mobster during his criminal trial. Sometimes an ongoing mission suddenly becomes "off-book" when an IMF member is captured or shot by the target, such as Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) or Jim Phelps in the respective Season 3 episodes "The Exchange" and "Nicole." In the Season 1 episode "Action!", it was Cinnamon Carter who retrieved the tape and its instructions at a women's spa instead of Briggs (who was played by Steven Hill). This was because Hill, an Orthodox Jew, was getting more and more uncooperative with the crew during filming, he slowly was written out of the series in the final 5 episodes. (In background information that was never actually employed on the series itself, Briggs was described as a former US Army lieutenant colonel, presumably for the Army's G-2 (Intelligence) Section, whose duties and assignments could be described as causing his face and name to be known to a dangerously high number of enemies of the United States. This unused background information also described him as having acquired a Ph.D. in analytical psychology on "The G.I. Bill" and being a highly-paid behavioral analyst, making him an expert in human beings and among Earth's greatest guessers.) Hill had to leave early Friday afternoons (and the day before major Jewish holidays) to observe the Sabbath; this constricted the filming schedule because the film crew had to work around Hill's religious obligations. Hill was replaced by Peter Graves at the start of Season 2, who remained the IMF leader for the rest of the MI series.

Dossier Sequence[]

The second sequence is the shortest and simply shows Briggs/Phelps in their respective apartments using a black leather binder with the words "Impossible Missions Force" engraved on it. Briggs/Phelps would look over photos of IMF team members, selecting only those suited for the mission (usually the regular cast) and putting aside the rejected photos. Briggs/Phelps would also select one to three additional IMF members (as guest stars) in a specific mission, usually an expert in the type of work needed to carry out the mission, such as a circus performer to stage an eye-opening show as to create a distraction to break out someone in prison nearby or a doctor to carry out an non-lethal injection to temporarily disable the target. Once done, Briggs/Phelps would leave the binder on the table. In later seasons, Phelps selected IMF quasi-mode organizations, such as The Hartford and Globe Repertory Companies--a team of up to twenty workers dedicated to a specific part of the mission, such as fake prison guards or acting as a crew of a submarine or caterers of a "party." Again, as in the tape sequence, the footage of some dossier sequences may appear in more than one episode. In Season 1, Martin Landau was credited as "Special Guest Star" as his dossier picture was shown (and, of course selected), however he was made permanent cast member for Seasons 2 and 3. In "Action!" (when she recovered the tape), Carter is not shown selecting the IMF members, however her usual picture was already laid out anyway--thus she would technically be the first and only IMF team member to "select" herself in the dossier sequence. Beginning with Season 3, the dossier sequence was used less often, only to select a special IMF "guest," the repertory companies or a special animal, until this segment was eliminated by the end of Season 4, though the IMF continued to receive support in later seasons when needed. (An example was when people dressed up in a falsified 1930s city in the Season 6 episode "Encore.")

Apartment Sequence[]

The third sequence involved what was called "The Plan;" the selected IMF agents would meet in Briggs's/Phelps's apartment (most likely not technically theirs but rather inside what could be described as an IMF "safe-house," either in New York City for Briggs or in San Francisco for Phelps) to discuss the logistics of their mission. Each member would be assigned to a specific task as they ironed out any loose ends to their mission. The apartment's wallpaper or paint, and its various sticks of furniture, were all in shades of black and white, giving the initial appearance that these scenes were shot in black and white. (The actual footage itself, however, was always shot in color.) Briggs/Phelps would confer with each member as to how their part of the mission would be carried out, often with a demonstration of their gadgets to be used--from simple devices, like a cigarette lighter which would send a signal to a pair of radio-controlled heaters to melt the ink in counterfeited currency when activated (in "The Money Machine," Episode 8 of Season 2) or a rigged deck of cards to more complex settings, such as a staged film or special wheelchair which secretly holds a person inside; all this was a nod to the Q Branch of the British Secret Service (MI.6) showing gadgets to 007 in the James Bond films.

The team agents whose services Briggs/Phelps usually accepted included two engineers-technologists; these were Barnard "Barney" Collier (Greg Morris) and William "Willy" Armitage(Peter Lupus), the latter of whom was also a muscular heavy laborer. Usually, either of these would tell Briggs/Phelps that the equipment needed would be "already ready" or that there would be little or no difficulty in carrying out a specific event. It was implied that the IMF, being a United States government agency, had nearly unlimited resources at its disposal, in addition to the members of "The Director's Own" mission team all being independently wealthy; often these were obtained almost immediately, given the urgency and timeliness of their missions. Each IMF member was informed on what their responsibilities were, as well as being advised of the other team members’s responsibilities. Any possible setbacks the mission-team members might encounter in executing their plans were addressed in this sequence.

The Mission[]

The IMF members now set off to perform the mission, which involves various degrees of complexity: uniforms needed (usually guard uniforms), type of equipment needed (vehicles, machines, etc), forged documents (ID cards, passports, letters, etc.) and in many instances, makeup and disguises. Part or all of the IMF team members arrive at the target's residence or work location in a nondescript vehicle or car, with the rest of the group joining them within the location, albeit somewhere else nearby. Electronic equipment was primarily supplied by Collier, with Armitage (an engineer-technologist in his own right, as stated above) usually helping Barney with heavy lifting. Rollin Hand (and later the Great Paris) supplied the makeup to instantly change their faces to look like the target themselves or someone else. In one instance, Rollin Hand would be disguised as a mobster (who was already captured and drugged by other IMF members) then convinces the mobster's subordinates to perform plastic surgery to make him look like someone else to avoid detection by police after the mob "killed" Graves. (Actually, the makeup was peeled off to show Rollin while Graves survives the attack by hiding in an underground bunker.) Phone calls were usually rerouted to IMF team members for either wiretap purposes or to "send" a crew over to fix a problem encountered by the target (intentionally done by Barney or Willy) while in other instances a secretly taped recording of the target's (or his subordinates) confession was obtained. The IMF also used phony TV and radio broadcasts to "convince" the target that something happened already, a ruse by the IMF in tricking the target. Complex jobs were even handled by the IMF, such as a warehouse to stage a simulated train ride, ensuring train "derailments" and "hospitals." Other complex methods were a machine which supposedly made counterfeit currency, a large "jail" complete with a simulated execution chamber, a submarine with fake crew members, and even a nuclear testing site which duplicates the actual site needed. The IMF usually sets up their complex jobs inside a warehouse or airport hangar to create "rooms" and machines that simulate the actual setting the target (or subordinates) use. For example: In order to obtain the codes for diffusing a nuclear bomb inside a testing facility, the IMF drugs the target unconscious and transports him to the warehouse where the an identical setting is created (after a fake nuclear attack happened). Unaware of this, the target walks around the "rooms" then tries to diffuse the dummy bomb planted by the IMF--all while recording the events so Phelps can transmit this information to Barney Collier who is working to remove the real bomb. Animals used to complete their missions were a cat, dog, bats, and even a falcon (in the Season 4 episode, "The Falcon," the only three-part episode in the series.) Areas were "set up" as a means to expose the target's intented actions, such as allowing the target to kill someone he knows--only disguised by the IMF as another person whom the target had not intended to kill. They also set up "rooms" to allow the target in conducting a private search, often leaving an "object," such as fake ID, large amounts of currency or a valuable item--all which influences the target in knowing more about who he is dealing with.

Usually many IMF Targets (or their underlings) were sometimes captured by the IMF and quickly replaced by Hand/Paris with their likeness, including their voices dubbed to make other people appear that they look real. In early episodes, the painstakingly detail of applying makeup was shown, however as the series progressed, most viewers were accustomed to see the disguises anyway so the detail was left off. Other mechanisms such as elevators and cars were usually placed under the IMF's control while many missions involve crawling under tunnels. Sometimes two IMF members played "husband and wife", or "father and daughter", usually with Cinnamon Carter playing the female fatale to distract the target. The visual instructions on what each member (in most cases with Collier because of his electronics experience) does (such as setting up equipment, splicing a reel, etc) take up most of the episode's time, while the viewer does not know the outcome or result until towards the end when the IMF completes the set-up and executes their final moves on the target. Most of the IMF crew has impersonated the following: Government agents, police officers, doctors, bank guards, truck drivers, weapons dealers, jail guards, inmates (on purpose to get closer to the target or to free someone else from jail), chess players, gamblers, mobsters, food service workers, investors, electricians, repairmen, actors, film crew, wardens, sheiks, museum curators, Nazi members, news reporters, taxi drivers, and protesters.

All team members are trained to confront every variable in their missions; especially when one or more IMF members are about to be exposed. They can "talk their way" out of anything to convince the target (usually before and after commercial breaks). While at the target's location, they are also trained to be aware about the target recording their phone calls or being videotaped--often with a slow and deliberate manner in their voice so that the other IMF member receiving the telephone call will adjust their identity at a moment's notice. Such case of adjusting identity is the Season 3 episode "The Town" when Rollin Hand calls "Mrs. Phelps" (Carter) to let her and "Little Willy" to come over to save Jim Phelps who was temporarily paralyzed by a rogue doctor working with the entire town on an assassination attempt in Los Angeles. The critical part of every mission is psychology, how to use it against the target and to ensure that the IMF members remain calm--assessing every situation with the possible outcome(s). In some cases, the IMF must be aware what the target may do as a trap. In Season 3, Episode 16, "The Glass Cage," Carter impersonates a high level prison official who calls the target's bluff when he hires two prison guards to make it look like the real prison official enters the office which Carter and the target are engaged in a conversation. As the target "claims" that the real prison official enters the office with her escort, Carter identifies them as impostors, eliminating a potential situation if handled the wrong way. Every move the IMF team makes must be played with perfect timing and the right words to use against the target. Because the IMF is an independent agency operating outside the scope of any law-enforcement agency, killing anyone is strongly discouraged except in self-defense. Most confrontations between IMF members and their enemies often result instead in knocking the enemy out.


As the mission winds down, the IMF members slowly gather themselves together to exit quietly from the target's location(s), while other people discover the target's true intentions or the trap has been skillfully executed by the IMF. When the members watch the target being exposed by others, they conjure any excuse to leave the area, such as "I have a plane to catch" or "He is all yours" then run off to meet the rest of the IMF group in their getaway vehicle. Usually when the last IMF member(s) leave the area, they do so while the target is about to be shot or arrested--often hearing a gunshot in the background in the case of the target being killed off-screen by those who disbelieve him/her. The final scene usually consists of the IMF members getting into a car, truck, bus or any other vehicle then making their exit--often undetected by anyone and without any dialogue. However in the last 2 seasons, the obligatory IMF "exit" was shown less frequently and relied more of tying up loose ends in the story arc. More frequently shown in these 2 seasons was the IMF and law enforcement capturing the target red handed at the very end of each episode.




  • Barbara Anderson as Mimi Davis (Season 7)