Saturday, June 16, 2012

Assignment: World Killer

Besides 24, which produced 195 episodes over eight seasons, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is American television's most successful espionage series--171 episodes over seven seasons on CBS. I've written about the series, one of my all-time favorites, many times on this blog, so read those posts for more information.

The show also inspired four Popular Library tie-in novels, two of which were penned by John Tiger, the pen name of noted screenwriter and novelist Walter Wager. Wager, whose credits include the novel TELEFON and excellent I SPY tie-ins, wrote the first and fourth M:I novels, and I'm covering the first book here.

Published in 1967, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (the novel's title) was the only paperback tie-in to feature original series lead Dan Briggs. Steven Hill, later the irascible D.A. Adam Schiff on LAW & ORDER, starred as Briggs during the show's first season, but was then jettisoned for more familiar leading man Peter Graves as Jim Phelps.

Briggs chooses actor Rollin Hand (played by Martin Landau in the series), model Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), strongman Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus), and gadget specialist Barney Collier (Greg Morris) to assist him on the Impossible Missions Force's latest mission, which involves Nazis Kurt Dersh and Fritz Messelman developing deadly chemical weapons on an island within the South American country of Santilla (M:I always used fake countries).

Wager/Tiger follows the series' premise very well. He knows the characters and story format, and he develops a clever plot that gives all the characters something worthwhile to do. The biggest difference between show and book is that Wager uses his 142 pages to flesh out the M:I characters a little bit.

The TV series was notorious for not doing this. The characters had almost zero backstory, which would get it crucified by today's critics, who would miss the point that they didn't need backstories or complicated arcs. Because every episode called for them to play a role or even wear elaborate disguises, their blank pasts and Everyman personalities helped the team members keep their covers when the slightest slip-up could mean the deaths of one or all of them.

Still, it works in Wager's book, which makes Briggs a former high school football coach and Willy an Olympic weightlifter, for instance. Fans of the series will definitely want to read this book, which is also tailored nicely for adventure and espionage junkies.


Benzadmiral said...

Without a doubt this is one of the best TV tie-ins ever penned. Even at the time I was a big Dan Briggs fan: He seemed to me to be the mastermind, who would envision *how* the mission was to be performed, and the others would help him refine it -- but it was Dan's plan. Phelps never struck me as a superstar in that department. Tiger/Wager does indeed give us a great M:I story.

Craig D. said...

I recently bought a copy of this book online because I'm such a big fan of the TV show, and I was pleasantly surprised at how good it is. I had previously read Wager's 58 Minutes and wasn't too impressed (the film adaptation, Die Hard 2, was much better), but this book had me wishing that he had written for the TV show. The plot was great and he seemed to understand the show quite well. My only complaint is that it's so short; I doubt if it even reached 50,000 words. I also bought a copy of Code Name: Rapier by Max Walker; I haven't read it yet, but I'm hoping it's better than Code Name: Judas, which you didn't seem to enjoy too much. I don't know if I'll ever bother with Judas, but I'll be sure to get Wager/Tiger's Code Name: Little Ivan at some point. Wikipedia tells me that in addition to these four novels, there were also two "junior" novels, but I don't have much interest in those.