Mission: Impossible really hit the ground running with this pilot, which is probably my favourite episode of the entire series. Yeah, it's that good. It doesn't mean everything after the pilot is sub-par, but rather few of them manage to pack the mixture of story and raw intensity on display here.
From the get-go this episode is packed with little details, a must given that again, this is the pilot from which all the series conventions will be established. The dossier selection scene shows how team leader Dan Briggs picks his agents from all walks of life, featuring magazine covers, newspaper clippings, and in the case of guest star Wally Cox, a police record. The latter especially implies so much about a character that will never again appear on the series, and makes you wonder what he did to end up on the IMF roster. We also see the first of Rollin's many disguise jobs throughout the series, and in a scene we'll never see again, he brings along a film reel of the target so he can practice his mannerisms while the others are setting things in motion. Yeah it would get seriously redundant to see this every episode, but for the pilot it does wonders to establish his skills and credibility.
And why does the impersonation work so well? Because Martin Landau also plays the target. Yeah, call me dense but I seriously did not catch this the first time around, because I wasn't looking for it. Having watched other M:I episodes first where they usually get the guest actor to play Rollin impersonating the guest, I was caught off guard by the fact it was actually Landau in a dual role. And again it's so necessary for the pilot, because to see Rollin actually tear off the latex onscreen sells the concept to us for future moments when the series will have to depend on camera tricks and suspension of disbelief (like the end, when Rollin impersonates Dan Briggs to get into the vault). Something else the pilot does well? The plot actually twists and turns. You may laugh, but by the middle of seasons 3 and 4, the series had fallen into a rut where the IMF were duping the bad guys left and right, and any cliffhangers were momentary annoyances that seldom put any real disruption in the plan. Season 5 shook things up again, but here the pilot show the team making decisions on the fly, as Terry's hands are broken and Dan must go into the vault himself. Which provides an absolutely tension-filled scene in which he must crack the code on the case holding the nuclear warheads.
And really, that cinematic sense and grittiness is what puts the final polish on the pilot episode. You just won't ever see the series play out like this again, from Barbara Bain's femme fatale attitude and slinking around in a towel to the team blasting their way through a blockade and escaping via plane under a hail of gunfire. This is a spy story straight off the big screen adapted for 1960's television with little lost in translation. It's quite a feat.
If you can convince someone to watch only one Mission: Impossible episode, make it this one.