Mission Impossible was the first "grown up" television series I was allowed to watch, and it made a huge impression. There was never really any sense that the series was "finding itself" through the first episodes. It seemed full realized from the pilot. I loved every moment and every episode, just some more than others.
Many people believe that the show finally gelled when Peter Graves stepped in to lead the team in Season 2. That is true in many ways, but I've always had a soft spot for Stephen Hill's Dan Briggs. His role was (by necessity - he placed some strict limitations on his rehearsal and performance times) much more that of a leader and delegator, not a participant. He frequently turns over the execution of the plan to his team, pulling the strings from behind the scenes. Peter Graves will be much more "hands-on" when he takes over leadership of the team. Watch the last few seconds of the pilot and you will see a white/gray-haired man pulling the team members to safety on their getaway plane. His face is never seen, so it isn't much of a stretch to imagine that Phelps was in fact there, all along, behind the scenes, learning the ropes and waiting for a promotion to team leader.
Some of the series' best episodes appear in the first season. Operation Rogosh is only the third episode, but it's both an absorbing drama and a promise of what will come. It introduces many of the bag of tricks that will be the team's stock in trade over the run of the series: memory gaps, replicated locations, leaving the antagonist to suffer retribution at the hands of his "friends" rather than the team. It's a brilliant psychological drama, and every team member gets a star turn. Greg Morris (as Barney) adopting a Caribbean accent and howling, "I protest this whole COUNTRY, mon!" is a delight. Martin Landau's little karate chop to his palm, promising that if Rogosh confesses there will be no more "little...eh...massages" is not menacing, rather he gives us a professional who does his job thoroughly and with competence. (Something more frightening in ways). Stephen Hill is the worst public defender in history, hunched, stammering, incompetent, and when he finally gets an excuse to slug Rogosh, he does it with such relish that the viewer can't contain a satisfied "attaboy." Even Peter Lupus rises to the occasion, although he was never there for his acting ability. Barbara Bain relies on acting not glamour in this episode, and she portrays the hysteria and paranoia of an "innocent" woman tortured by hypothetical interrogators superbly.
Season 1 is full of big and little moments. One of my favorites is from "The Frame." The evil (and slightly psychopathic) Syndicate leader "accidently" stumbles across her, clad only in a lacy teddy and silk stockings. She's all tearing eyes, trembling lips, and terrified vulnerability as she proceeds to twist him around her pinky finger. As he turns and leaves, she gives tosses her head and gives a little shoulder waggle and tiny smirk, as if to say, "I'm GOOD. The poor schmuck doesn't have a prayer against me." It's a delightful moment, one of those serendipitous marriages of writing and acting, that lasts two seconds at the most. It tells us more about Cinnamon Carter than any number of speeches or "very special episodes." It also features the under-appreciated Arthur Batanides who appeared so many times in so many different roles that not even IMDb lists them all.
Just as "Rogosh" employed many of MI's future tactics early in the season, "The Train" empties the bag entirely. It's one of their "Big Moments" special effects schemes, and one that will be used over and over again, (see for example, season Six's "The Submarine."). The villains are persuaded they are on a train headed across the Alps, and tricked into revealing their contempt for their leader and plans to establish a harsh dictatorship after his death. The poor (dying of heart disease) Prime Minister watches them discuss their plans, and limps away, saddened but wiser, comforted by the team.
There are several things that make this season, and the series for the first few years, nearly perfect television. The writing is brilliant and the performances spectacular. Production standards are consistently high Some of the best episodes are now, sadly, somewhat dated, since they deal with the surviving remnants of WWII. There are a number of plots revolving around attempts to restore a Nazi reich, which 22 years after the war was not unrealistic. One of those episodes is "The Legacy." Briggs is shot in the chest at the end of the episode. If they had held it back and shown it at the end of the season, it might have given the producers just the excuse they needed to explain Peter Graves' elevation to team leader in Season 2. Ah well, if that's the worst carp I can come up with, clearly there's no more to say.