Mar 23, 2015

Mission: Impossible: What is The Syndicate?

After watching the trailer for Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, many viewers may be asking themselves, "Who or what is this Syndicate?" Longtime fans of the TV series, however, are probably already grinning. The Syndicate has a long history with Mission: Impossible... though not in quite the same context as this new movie iteration.

Although the later seasons of Mission: Impossible are commonly referred to as "the Syndicate years" since the organization became the Impossible Missions Force's primary antagonist, the Syndicate actually first reared its ugly head as early as the very first season. Bob Johnson, the iconic voice on the self-destructing tapes who gives Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) and Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) before him his missions, first mentioned the Syndicate in a mission briefing in Episode 17 of Season 1, "The Frame" (though an "International Narcotics Syndicate" was referenced ten episodes sooner). We're told, "The Syndicate has a finger in every legitimate business. Now they're moving into government." Yes, this Syndicate was organized crime. Essentially the Mafia, though that word wasn't spoken much on American TV in the Sixties. The Syndicate also popped up frequently on another Bruce Geller TV show of the era, Mission: Impossible's sister series the private eye drama Mannix. It was a polite way to talk about the mob on television.

The Syndicate made a big splash going up against Phelps and his IM Force in the second season two-parter "The Council." This was a significant appearance, because the two episodes were edited together into the first theatrical Mission: Impossible movie, Mission: Impossible vs. the Mob, for release in foreign markets, Jim's mission was, according to the recording, to "put an end to [new Syndicate boss] Frank Wayne and his organization." The crew may have succeeded in ending Wayne's career, but clearly they didn't accomplish the objective of smiting the organization, because the Syndicate would return again and again. In "The Council," the scope of the plot is still international (the Syndicate is laundering its money in Swiss banks), keeping the IMF's purview fairly CIA-like and foreign-oriented, but that would change. From the very beginning, the IMF always took on the occasional homegrown criminal between spy missions (everything from large scale con men to armored car robbers), but eventually they would turn their focus more towards domestic crime and the Syndicate behind it.

By Season 4's "Mastermind," the writers had learned to stop having the team go up against the Syndicate's top man every time. You could only take out so many leaders before it all got implausible. Henceforth, the IMF's Syndicate-based missions would mostly be against local leaders or men with specific roles in the vast organization that was the Syndicate. (An organization big enough to have its own convention in "Mastermind.")

It was in Season 5 (the 1970-71 season) that the show's producers made a conscious decision to focus less on Cold War politics with fictional Iron Curtain countries (story consultant Lawrence Heath expressed frustration about not being allowed to use real countries and current events). In his essential book The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier, Patrick J. White explains that the change was a reaction to plunging ratings. The writers felt that the show had become too predictable in its old format. Since only two episodes of Season 4 had taken place in the United States, a decision was made to shift the series geographically. And the primary enemy on the homefront was the Syndicate. Even with this mandate, however, a good chunk of Season 5 episodes still took place overseas and focused on traditional espionage. It was in Seasons 6 and 7, after Leonard Nimoy left, that the Syndicate really came to the forefront.

During the final two seasons, we hear Bob Johnson talk about "the Syndicate" so often that it becomes a whole new trope for the show. It's almost as familiar as "your mission, should you decide to accept it," or "this tape will self-destruct in five seconds." Because of that familiarity, it came as a delight to many fans of the TV show when the fourth Tom Cruise film, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, mentioned the Syndicate in an offhand manner. At the end of the movie, once the action is over, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) gets a new mission briefing about "a new terrorist organization calling itself 'The Syndicate.'" This is only one of many Easter Eggs in that movie for TV fans, but it made me clap out loud in the IMAX theater. Still, the question remained. Was it just an Easter Egg? Or was this briefing laying the groundwork for the next movie? Happily, we now have an answer. It was laying the groundwork alright, for a ferociously reinvented Syndicate who's back in a big way in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.

Appropriate to our times, the new Syndicate feels a lot more threatening than the old one, which eventually boiled down to a lot of sweaty men in ill-fitting Seventies suits who sometimes seemed beneath the talents of the IMF. But the reinvented Syndicate is an equal to the IMF. It's a "rogue nation" unto itself according to the trailer, "trained to do what we do," in Ethan's words. "An anti-IMF," as Benji (Simon Pegg) puts it. Furthermore, it's shrouded in secrecy. According to Alec Baldwin's character, "the CIA has never discovered any intel regarding this Syndicate." When he poses the possibly rhetorical question as to why to Agent Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Brandt brashly asks, "Do you want the polite answer, or the truth?" Does this exchange indicate that the Syndicate might have infiltrated the CIA itself? Or just that it's so good at covering its tracks it's managed to elude them? I tend to favor the former. This new Syndicate certainly seems to owe a lot to Marvel's Hydra (particularly as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where the evil organization had managed to fully penetrate intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D.) and James Bond's SPECTRE. But with that resonant name, it still holds a uniquely Mission: Impossible identity. I love every twist that manages to bring the movies closer to their small screen antecedent, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how this new Syndicate plays out.

Read my reviews of the Syndicate-heavy seasons of Mission: Impossible:

DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Seventh TV Season
DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season
DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Fifth TV Season

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