Last night, MeTV aired the pilot episode of "Mission: Impossible" - and believe it or not, I've never seen it before. Like most pilots, it had some rough edges compared to the series that followed, even in the first season. On the other hand, in the case of "Mission: Impossible," those rough edges actually worked well, in that the mission did not go off as expected, requiring instead a degree of improvisation not usually seen in later episodes.
While watching it, however, I had a curious sense of deja vu, which I soon realized was due to the striking similarity that the central con shared with the one in the George Clooney remake of Ocean's 11.
Now, to start with, any similarity between Ocean's 11 and "Mission: Impossible" is hardly surprising. After all, the 11 members of Danny Ocean's (Clooney) team are basically a collection of special talents just like the IMF team. I mean, you've got Clooney in the Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) role as the leader; Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) and Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner) as the disguise artists, just like Rollin Hand (Martin Landau) and later the Great Paris (Leonard Nimoy); and Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison) as the electronics expert, the role fulfilled so ably by Barney Collier (Greg Morris).
But beyond the idea of the collection of disparate but necessary talents is the nature of the con itself. You decide:
In "Mission: Impossible," a Central American dictator who lives in a fancy hotel has acquired two hydrogen bombs, which are stored in the hotel vault; the IMF plan is to sneak a safecracker into the vault to open the inner safe so that the nukes can be stolen. This is done by having other IMF members pose as wealthy visitors with things to store in the vault.
In Ocean's 11, a mobster lives (basically) in the Bellagio hotel/casino and has $160 million; the plan is to sneak an acrobat into the vault to set off a bomb inside. This is done by having a wealthy patron tour the security system of the hotel to be reassured that his belongings will be safely stored in the hotel vault.
In both capers, the person to be sneaked into the vault suffers a critical injury: broken fingers, caused in each instance when a door slams shut on them (room door in "Mission: Impossible," back doors of a van in Ocean's 11).
Obviously, the stakes are quite different, and therefore Ocean's 11 has a more light-hearted tone, whereas "Mission: Impossible"'s pilot is played straight. Indeed, it's almost "24"-like in its seriousness, including the best line I've heard in any "Mission: Impossible" episode. IMF team leader Dan Briggs (Steven Hill)* is in the vault with the dictator, trying to get the right code sequence to disarm the nukes so that they can be transported safely. The dictator pleads with Briggs to just leave and offers his guarantee that the nukes won't be used against the United States.
Briggs responds: "I can make that same guarantee. You get my meaning? If these nukes go off, it won't be in my country."
You can almost hear Jack Bauer delivering that threat!
* Yes, Jim Phelps was not in the first season of "Mission: Impossible." Peter Graves joined the cast in the second season after Steven Hill (who later starred on "Law & Order" as the District Attorney) left due to conflicts in the shooting schedule caused by his devotion to his religion.