Home > Reviews > Musings on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE


I’m about to begin reposting a series of Mission: Impossible review threads I originally posted on the Ex Isle BBS.  I thought I’d lead off with an overview thread I wrote before I began my systematic first-season reviews.  The post that follows contains some speculations I’ve since concluded were erroneous, but the changes in my thought process will become evident in the subsequent review posts, and I think it’s worth reposting this essay as I wrote it on May 23, 2009.  (The original thread is here.)


Since I got digital cable a few months ago, I’ve finally been getting to see the original Mission: Impossible in reruns, though so far I’ve only gotten to see episodes from the 4th-6th seasons (featuring Leonard Nimoy and occasionally Sam Elliot in S4-5, Lesley Ann Warren in S4, and Lynda Day George in S6). And I think I’ve finally figured something out about the core premise of the show that makes me think that the original intent behind the series was blurred in later seasons and lost altogether in the movies.

Here’s the basic scenario. A man (originally Steven Hill as Dan Briggs, then Peter Graves as Jim Phelps) goes to some innocuous location. He takes out a package containing a taped message and a set of photographs. The tape recording spells out a crisis situation, “Your mission should you choose to accept it.” He’s told that if he or any of his team “are caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” Then the tape self-destructs.

Next we see Briggs or Phelps in his apartment going through dossiers, selecting a team. (This was done less in later seasons as the teams became more standardized.) These aren’t formal government agents, but people from all walks of life — actors, magicians, an engineer, a circus strongman, a doctor, whatever special talents are needed. The team meets to plan their secret mission, not in a government building, but in the man’s living room.

What does all this tell us? That these missions are black ops, so totally off the books that the government has no direct involvement in them at all. “The Secretary” (of Defense, probably) has an arrangement with Dan Briggs/Jim Phelps to serve as a private contractor of sorts, handling missions too sensitive for the government to authorize directly. He isn’t commanded to do these missions, just offered the chance to volunteer — meaning that he doesn’t technically work for the government at all but is just helping out. The team Briggs/Phelps assembles is completely on its own, impossible to connect to the government. They’re just private citizens, and if they’re caught doing espionage in foreign countries, they’ll be hung out to dry, given no protection by the government that secretly backed their mission. This, I think, must have been the original intention of series creator Bruce Geller.

It’s an intriguing concept, that the so-called “Impossible Missions Force” is a rogue, essentially extralegal operation with only the most tenuous, secret government backing. (I think M:I was inspired by The Sting, the Newman/Redford movie about criminals pulling off a monumentally elaborate con game. The IMF’s missions were all elaborate sting operations, con jobs, and the like.) Unfortunately, as the series went on, this concept was lost. Not only did Phelps’s team become more standardized, but they became more institutionalized as well. In the episodes I’ve seen, they often have the direct support of the government, military, police, or whatever private businesses they need to cooperate with, and they can draw on government resources and call in agents to assist them whenever they need to. The opening sequence of the self-destructing tape and the standard catchphrases (“should you choose to accept it” and “the Secretary will disavow”) remained, as did the formula of the team meeting in Phelps’s apartment before the mission, but those tropes became essentially meaningless once the IMF became portrayed as something more domesticated and official.

And of course the movies took this much farther. In them, the IMF was a full-on government agency, essentially indistinguishable from the CIA. J.J. Abrams’s M:I III, despite being the only good film in the trilogy, took this to the furthest extreme, actually showing the IMF’s huge, elaborate headquarters and giving it a director and a large bureaucracy and everything. (Essentially he was remaking Alias with a male lead and a bigger budget.) The concept of the IMF as independent contractors on a deniable, off-the-books mission was completely and utterly lost.

And that’s a shame, because it’s an interesting idea — and because the famous catchphrases of the show make no sense without it. For decades, I’ve been wondering about those catchphrases, what was meant by “Your mission, should you choose to accept it.” It’s only in watching the show regularly that I finally figured out what it was probably supposed to mean, and realized the extent to which the core concept has been lost. (A caveat, though: I haven’t seen any episodes prior to season 4, unless it was very, very long ago when I was a kid, so I don’t know for sure if the series ever really depicted it this way. But when I told this theory to my father, who saw the show in its original run, he agreed readily with my interpretation.)

So what I would like to see is a “reboot” of Mission: Impossible, either on film or preferably on TV, that returns to the original concept. No big government agency backing the team; it’s basically a bunch of private citizens with special talents, pulling a con job at the unofficial and highly secret invitation of the government. They’re totally on their own, there’s no paper trail, nobody in the government knows they’re doing this except the Secretary of Whatever and maybe one or two people on his staff, and they’ll deny it categorically if asked. The team doesn’t have federal or state resources to draw on, but has to improvise and make do with what it can beg, borrow, or steal. It’s made up of people from different walks of life who have their own reasons for being willing to take such enormous risks with no possibility of recognition for their heroism and every possibility of being arrested, disgraced, and/or killed. Unlike the original series, where the characters had virtually no personality or history (except in the occasional Very Special Episode, and whatever was revealed in those was never referenced again), a modern M:I would delve more deeply into the team members’ motivations.

Wouldn’t that be an intriguing show? And isn’t it a shame we never really got to see this premise developed to its full potential?

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  1. Christy
    December 9, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    Quite, quite fascinating. I never thought of the characters being completely independent people, not actually attached to a government agency. Perhaps I was influenced by having seen the first movie long ago and the series just recently.

    • December 9, 2011 at 9:52 pm

      Well, keep in mind this post was written before I’d seen most of the series. Even if what I’m suggesting was the original intention, the show didn’t seem to stick with it very long.

  2. Eli Berg-Maas
    April 10, 2012 at 12:12 am

    You may well be aware of it now, and it only crosses tangentially with what your talking about, but you may be interested in “Person of Interest” a show airing on CBS. It’s more action oriented instead of cons, but the same idea of volunteers working without support. In this case, the connection to the government is even more tenuous. They have access to US intelligence data, but the government is literally unaware that they exist.

    • April 10, 2012 at 7:06 am

      I watch Person of Interest, yes. I don’t think it has much in common with M:I — and the government is certainly aware that at least Reese exists, since the CIA is hunting him.

      The modern show that’s closest to M:I is Leverage on TNT. It’s much the same setup, a 5-member team of specialists conducting elaborate con games on bad guys, except they’re Robin Hood-style thieves rather than government agents. M:I was always essentially a con/heist show, a spiritual cousin to Topkapi and The Sting, just dressed up with national-security trappings because ’60s broadcast standards wouldn’t let criminals be the heroes.

  3. Steve Carr
    April 11, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Yes, a reboot would be a good idea going back to the original concept of everyday people who do MI work part time. They could be directed to fight terrorism, white extremists, drug traffic and Middle East tyrants. However, it was stated in an interview once with Peter Graves that they are not “do-gooders”. They are highly paid by the government for their work.

    • April 11, 2012 at 9:20 am

      Oh, I always assumed they were paid for their work. I’m just saying that it seems the original intent was that they weren’t official, on-the-books government agents, so that the government would have deniability if they were caught or killed (which is what “disavowal” would mean — it’s easier for the government to disavow any knowledge of a spy’s actions if that spy is not on the official payroll of any government agency). Instead, I figure that Dan Briggs or Jim Phelps would have a large fund available to him which he would use to make off-the-books payments to the operatives he recruited.

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