For six films, audiences have delighted as Tom Cruise has participated in increasingly ridiculous and dangerous stunts for his beloved Mission: Impossible franchise. You may be counting the days until you can finally see the long-awaited seventh installment, but did you know there is already something for Mission: Impossible fans to celebrate this holiday season? Long before Cruise was strapping himself to airplanes or going into space, there was the steady drama of the original Mission: Impossible series that aired for seven seasons and 171 episodes from 1966-1973. For the first time ever, every single one of these episodes is being released in an epic 46-disc Blu-Ray box set in glorious high definition. The differences between the film franchise and television series are stark, but there is enough shared DNA between the two that film fans unfamiliar with the show are encouraged to seek it out. In the series, the I.M.F. (Impossible Missions Force) take on dangerous espionage cases every week to try to make the world a little bit safer. The episodes certainly follow a formula, but this is one of the core things you come to love about the show.
While the new version of Mission: Impossible may be mostly a Tom Cruise vehicle, the original series is very much an ensemble series. As with every good team, you need a strong leader to give some context to the mission and gather the team. During the first season, this role was filled fairly well by Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) until certain external factors led to Hill being unceremoniously replaced without an onscreen explanation in the second season. The generally accepted leader of the IMF team is Jim Phelps (Peter Graves, Airplane!), who would remain in this position until the end of the series. Graves was such a strong presence on a show that did not lean much into in-depth characterization. Every episode the leader receives their mission from a hidden tape recorder before it self-destructs, at which point he must leaf through a dossier of agents to assemble his team for the mission at hand. The original plan going into the series was to cycle in special guest stars frequently as part-time agents that happened to fit the needs of the mission of the week. While this happened to some extent, it did not take long for the series to start utilizing the same team week to week regardless of the mission.
In terms of the core members, the stalwarts that were present from beginning to end were Barney (Greg Morris), the mechanical and electronics genius of the group, and Willy (Peter Lupus), a record-holding weight lifter who was a fan favorite. The first three seasons featured the great Barbara Bain as Cinnamon Carter, who would often use her beauty and acting skills to assist in the mission. This role on the team was attempted to be filled by a variety of guest actresses, including a great stint with Lesley Ann Warren (Victor/Victoria), but few could compare to Cinnamon. A personal favorite on the team was the “man of a million faces” Rollin Hand (Martin Landau). Landau did not sign on to a full-time position until the second season, but he was essential to the series from the very beginning with his wonderfully quaint disguises. The film franchise has conditioned you to expect nearly anyone to rip off a perfectly-crafted mask, but here we just get expertly applied makeup. As much as I love Landau and missed him when he left the show, replacing him with Leonard Nimoy for two seasons helped soften the blow. The series never really let you get to know these characters in depth, but you knew the roles they needed to fill from week to week.
The missions themselves were consistently similar for the first five seasons before network pressure made the scale shrink a bit. In the early days, the agents were often tasked with taking down high-powered individuals on an international scale such as dictators or fictionalized evil organizations. While the show mostly set up the team to appear innocent of anything truly heinous, agents definitely had blood on their hands in one way or another. Even if we do not count times in which the agents facilitated these malicious figures to be killed by their own people, there was more than one occasion where a lackey would meet their maker at the hands of an IMF agent. Things took a turn more towards the domestic in the later seasons as the IMF started assisting in taking down organized crime that eluded conventional lawful enforcement. While you know this was mostly to keep down costs on a new elaborate set location every week, you have to admit that the quality does not greatly suffer. The cases are consistently entertaining no matter where they go.
Mission: Impossible is very much a by-the-numbers series, but that is one of the comforting aspects of giving yourself over to the show. The show is not intended to make you stress about if they are going to succeed or not, but rather how they are going to achieve their objective. These agents have proven time and time again that they have what it takes to eliminate the threat that endangers the world. It is just a blast to watch the team work together towards this common goal. Modern shows have conditioned us to expect a deep backstory about each character along with moments dedicated to their home life. The closest we get to that here is the few times when the mission deviates into the personal, like when an old friend asks for help or one of their own is put in jeopardy. With over 171 missions, it would be ridiculous to say that there are not a few duds in the bunch, but overall the missions are consistently entertaining. This original series may not be as high-octane as the film franchise, but the actual implementation of semi-realistic spy craft is a truly fun time.
Mission: Impossible: The Original TV Series makes a spectacular debut on Blu-Ray with a digital AVC encoded 1080p transfer in its original 4×3 aspect ratio. Overall clarity and detail is stunning, and skin tones are natural and consistent with subtle facial features easily noticeable in closeup. The makeup effects from the disguises are especially textured in a way that shines through in this transfer. Other physical features such as hair remain well defined without devolving into a splotchy mess. This series remains remarkably consistent throughout its seven season run with earlier seasons looking just as gorgeous as the later episodes. This transfer maintains the natural film grain that helps with showcasing subtle details in the production design. Every episode takes you to a new location with fun elements to analyze in the background. Colors are well saturated in a pleasing way, and instances of print damage have been cleaned up immensely in a way that you could almost mistake this for a modern show. Minor specks pop up very rarely, but they are still worth noting. Black levels hold up well with crush not serving as an overwhelming issue. This new presentation from CBS Home Entertainment is very impressive, which should please fans of the series.
The Blu-Ray disc comes with a strong DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track that preserves the artistic intention of the series despite moving away from its mono origins. The iconic theme song bursts to life each episode to start the mission off on the right foot. There is never a moment where the music in the series threatens to overwhelm competing sounds, and it maintains a good balance so that dialogue comes through clearly. Atmospheric sounds such as the clicking off the tape player are rendered well alongside everything else. Despite the surround sound presentation, this track does not go overboard creating new effects to bolster activity in the rear channels. Everything sounds nice and natural, only a bit fuller at times. The low end support is not a barn burner, but it adds some nice texture to moments that need it. There does not seem to be any majorly noticeable instances of age-related wear and tear. CBS and Paramount have given this series the perfectly preserved audio presentation it deserves.
There are no special features included in this 46-disc collection.
Mission: Impossible: The Original TV Series embraces its procedural roots by offering up consistently excellent storytelling with characters to whom you grow quite attached. There were many shake-ups throughout the seven season run, but you could always rely on the show to hit the spot with its thrilling adventures. If you make the mistake of thinking this will be a non-stop action adventure like the film franchise, you will come away greatly disappointed. If you expect a low-key action-drama consistent with what was standard for the time period then you are sure to get sucked into the ride. CBS Home Entertainment and Paramount have delivered a Blu-Ray collection that is simply staggering. Not only do we get the entire series on 46 discs at a price that is very reasonable, but the A/V quality is consistently excellent. It is a wonder that this show made it to Blu-Ray, and fans of the show will be extremely pleased with the results. Highly Recommended
Mission: Impossible: The Original TV Series is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: CBS Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this set free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.