‘Mission: Impossible’: The ’89 TV Season’

The common meaning of the phrase “Mission: Impossible” has changed dramatically since the original TV series in 1966. Most viewers now think of Tom Cruise, death-defying feats, JJ Abrams, and over-the-top action sequences. The four movie adaptations have made a successful translation to the big screen, and the latest addition was arguably the best yet.

Bridging the gap between the features and the ‘60s series was a late-‘80s revival that retained the essence of the initial show. Two seasons aired in 1988 and 1989, but low ratings led to a cancellation during the second year. Although only 35 episodes appeared, the legacy was enough to spur a DVD release from Paramount. The first season was released back in November, and the final offering is now available. The production values definitely fit the time period and limit the success, but devoted fans should enjoy the chance to re-watch the low-key spy series.

Mission: Impossible was initially designed as a reboot with an entirely new cast, but the approach changed when original star Peter Graves agreed to return as Jim Phelps. Joining the veteran spy is a younger team of experts offering a variety of specialties. There’s the master of disguise Nicholas Black (Thaao Penghlis), tough-guy Max Harte (Anthony Hamilton), electronics expert Grant Collier (Phil Morris), and the attractive former Secret Service agent Shannon Reed (Jane Badler). One of the main reasons for the revival was the 1988 writer’s strike, which sent networks scrambling to re-use old scripts to fill air time. The premiere and a few other episodes were remakes, but the rest were new stories after the strike ended. A few cast members from the original series appeared in the new version, including Greg Morris, Phil’s father in real life and on the show.

The episodes follow a similar pattern and begin with Phelps watching a video outlining the latest mission. He picks up this information at random locations after having a coded conversation with an operative. Phelps’ team works for a larger organization called the IMF (Impossible Missions Force), but they’re typically on their own when out in the field. While the feature films are more action-based, this version involves the delicate art of misdirection over violence. The team members take on different roles and effectively manipulate the bad guys without their knowledge. Their moves are often ingenious and can include faking the presence of gold, altering videos to include different words, and frequently impersonating henchmen to mislead the villains. There are some close calls along the way, but they’re always ready to devise a new plan to complete their missions.

Looking at the cast, Graves offers a steady presence as Phelps and makes even ludicrous moments believable. He raises the material above its TV spy roots, but even he can only do so much with certain plots. The best of the rest is Thaao Penghlis, who gets the showiest role as the chameleon. A long-time star of the soap Days of Our Lives, he sells the various disguises with grace. Jane Badler joined the cast during the middle of the first season when they killed off an original cast member. She spends a lot of time selling her physical assets, with her cleavage being one of the first shots in the credits. That said, Badler does fine playing a fairly limited role. Anthony Hamilton and Phil Morris are the least interesting characters on screen, but they aren’t given a lot to do beyond the expected action.

The season opens with “The Golden Serpent”, an ambitious two-part premiere that pits the team against a Southeast Asian drug smuggling organization. It’s one of the more action-packed stories and provides excitement, but it also contains some equally clunky moments. These episodes offer a perfect example of where Mission: Impossible succeeds and struggles throughout the season. A high-flying bridge chase between Harte and a knife-throwing baddie is fun, but the momentum’s destroyed by laughably terrible effects when a character falls off the bridge.

Given the big-budget TV series of today, it’s important to remember that action shows looked cheap in 1989. The bass-heavy music is consistent with the time period, but it also hampers the series when viewed today. Another issue is bad guest actors, particularly in the villainous roles. “Command Performance” offers a prime example with Grigor Taylor as the evil Defense Minster Ivan Savitch. Speaking with a silly accent and displaying obvious motives, he’s an unfortunate character who conveys little menace or enjoyment.

This four-disc release includes few extras beyond previews for specific episodes. It does provide an extremely random holiday promo with the cast awkwardly giving season’s greetings. The limited features aren’t a surprise given the modest audience for this release. The famous title should draw more interest from new viewers. There’s a certain amount of charm to the well-meaning series, which takes a straightforward good vs. evil approach to the world. We never question the motives of the IMF team and always believe they’ll come out on top.

Mission: Impossible is worth a look for audiences looking for a more straight-up spy series, but it’s unlikely to win many new fans. I was a big fan of this series as a 13-year-old when it aired originally. However, the revival did hold a higher place in my memory than the actual result, which provides mild entertainment but feels tied to its specific time period.

RATING 5 / 10