Consider the world of the Impossible Missions Force (IMF)—tracing its history in reverse order. Imagine that Rogue Nation is (for now) the beginning of Ethan Hunt’s career and he is eventually replaced by Jim Phelps.
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise):
Agent Hunt’s physical talents and capacity for tolerating what almost anyone else might consider punishing abuse certainly qualify him for taking on many of the impossible missions assigned to him. It is undeniable that Ethan is able to accomplish things “no human could possibly do,” but he exhibits some significant disadvantages that set a countdown on his time with the IMF.
Firstly, while no one would question his skill as a tactician, Hunt is not an adept strategist, nor is detective work a strong suit. Luck and, at times, absurd daring amount to a rather large x-factor during any missions he may choose to accept.
It is worth noting that the so-called “Ghost Protocol” is always in effect throughout the IMF scenarios, whether viewed in chronological order or in reverse.
“As always, should you or any of your IM force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. Good luck.”
Ethan Hunt accepts this, but not he is not as resigned to it as Jim Phelps. In Hunt’s perfect world, although he enjoys the latitude of assembling his own team and engaging in tremendous gambles, would probably prefer more official support.
There is also the matter of Ethan’s desire to live a normal life. His marriage to Julia Meade distracts him from his missions and represents a significant threat to Julia and many civilians.
The loose network of single agents and their temporary recruits has devolved to a liability. A more cohesive group is required, and although Ethan Hunt may be capable of accomplishing physical feats that others would find impossible—or inconceivable—he has difficulty keeping his personal life separate from his comportment as an agent.
In addition, the real conflict in Hunt’s last two missions stems from the leadership of the IMF itself. First with Commander Swanbeck, and then Director Kittridge—the “higher ups” are vague and adversarial. Eventually he “goes on vacation,” permanently extending it into retirement.
James Phelps (Peter Graves):
And then there’s Jim Phelps. At the end of the 1996 film (I’d warn of a spoiler, but come on—it was 1996 and you’re reading an article about MI), he dies. We have to overlook that here. Rather than losing his life, let’s say he’s lost his way.
Outside the often cutthroat world of the IMF, Jim Phelps’s actions would be entirely unforgivable. There’s more than a hint of Machiavellianism in the agency responsible for the Missions: Impossible. In our reverse order, and particularly in the IMF reality, his ambiguous morality and skill at deception are significant assets.
While Phelps is married to Claire, this may be a deception as part of a cover story. Jim Phelps does have potentially compromising relationships, but this may be part of his missions. The IMF tactics during his tenure are about exploitation of weakness—regardless of what that may entail.
His service during this period also serves as redemption. (Peter Graves, who portrayed Mr. Phelps in the original series, declined the opportunity to reprise the role in the 1996 film. He disliked the premise of his character being revealed as a traitor. This retrospeculation is offered, in part, in his memory and in support of his objection.)
It is in the 4th film—or second in this structure—that our first hint at the Rabbit’s Foot appears. This is never resolved, even though it is presumably an important part of the 3rd film. The Rabbit’s Foot comes into play, albeit indirectly, on Phelps’s watch. He employs the tactics of psychological warfare, which we saw in his “first” outing—Hunt’s “last”.
The Rabbit’s Foot is now the metaphoric basis for the approach to missions in general: psychological warfare and pitting each opponent against their greatest mental foibles and superstitions, turning their own minds against them.
Rather than accomplishing the physically impossible, the definition of impossible is broadened and used as the central strategy. Forcing opponents to accept new realities or imposing situations from which it is literally impossible to recover is part of Phelps’s new approach. The IMF seeks to cause their foes and/or any associates to doubt their sanity or competency.
Where Hunt took the fight to his opponents as directly and quickly as he was able, Phelps is indirect and much less obvious. Infiltration becomes a hallmark of the IMF in this era.
Hunt relied mainly on endurance; outlasting the enemy made his approach somewhat comparable to a schoolyard hand-slap game—the bruises and collateral damage were obvious and often severe. With Phelps, the game is truly one of chess. His is a more subtle IMF, with an immeasurable improvement in plausible deniability.
Daniel Briggs (Steven Hill):
Why Phelps left the IMF (if that’s really what happened) is not revealed. His replacement, Dan Briggs, is a calculating coordinator by comparison. Though a capable operative, this new agent leaves himself out of the field about 25% of the time. Perhaps, this is a personal choice following Swanbeck and Kittridge, or the IMF itself has addressed the problems they represent. In essence, Briggs replaces the Director when able.
Briggs is an enigma and a contradiction. He’s more willing to kill in the line of duty than either Hunt or Phelps—including innocents. In contrast, he’s very much an avuncular figure to the members of his team.
The successes of Phelps’s missions require no change in tactics or strategy. Enemies are still confronted with no-win situations and ultimatums of circumstance. Agent Briggs does not rely on paranormal hoaxes or simulation of MKUltra mental abilities as Phelps did. But the superstitions and ideologies of enemies remain the fulcrum used for leverage.
After a year of genius, however, Dan Briggs leaves active service with the IMF and joins the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps.
The first self-destructing tape in the original series ends with, “I hope it's 'welcome back,' Dan. It's been a while.”
We may never know who replaced Agent Briggs in reverse-order Impossible.
“Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”
Thom Truelove is the co-founder of Psych Wing (a group developing short films set primarily in the sci fi genre) and a collaborating partner on future sci fi/fantasy novels with gothic Victorian fantasy author Leanna Renee Hieber (Tor Books).
As an essayist, his work has been picked up by such anthologies as the forthcoming “The Book of Starry Wisdom: Apocrypha of Lovecraft's Cthulhu” (edited and produced by Simon Berman). You are invited to visit Thom's blog, “Surfing the Zeitgeist” at thomtruelove.com.