Open the Pod Bay Door, Cal. Agents of 220.127.116.11.
(SPOILERS: If you haven’t watched Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. since the seasonal break, don’t read this.)
Let me start by saying how awesome Kyle MacLachlan is at being batshit insane. I’d previously only seen him play subdued, with the exception of some of the later episodes of Twin Peaks, but he was once described as the “boy next door, if that boy spent lots of time alone in the basement.” He always seemed to be watching the crazy from outside, but he jumps right in with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. A quick Google search of his name reveals that in the comics, his character, Calvin Zabo, is literally a mad scientist, seeking out the ability to unleash his inner crazy in the form of a Mr. Hyde. That same Googling has his daughter Daisy originating a little differently than in the show (and a lot more sexistly, if I do say so – I prefer a superhuman, immortal teacher to a prostitute as Daisy’s mom), but she does still work for S.H.I.E.L.D.
That’s all a little beside the point—I wanted to talk about the parallels I saw between what’s going on with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick or Arthur C. Clarke, take your pick, they were designed to come out at the same time). I won’t be going into any kind of detail about 2001, so hopefully this will make sense to everyone.
First, there’s the name of the thingy that’s been at the centre of so much this season, what is eventually called the Diviner. That name is interesting in and of itself, as a diviner could either make things divine, or god-like; or find or guess something, like a water diviner finds water; or we say we can “divine” something, by which we mean we can surmise based on some kind of evidence. They all work in this situation, as Skye becomes something superhuman with her exposure to the Diviner and her change has answered the question of what the Diviner is, sort of.
Originally, however, the Diviner was called, on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Obelisk. I wondered why they called this particular thingy by that name as obelisks are usually quite large, and the Obelisk here can be held in one’s hand (but you should never, ever do that). Dictionary.com has “obelisk” defined as: a stone pillar having a square or rectangular cross section and sides that taper towards a pyramidal top, often used as a monument in ancient Egypt. It also seems to be the term for that cross-like thing used, like an asterisk, in footnotes (in my experience it usually comes after the asterisk has been used, and I’m only just now realizing why those French kids’ books had characters called Asterix and Obelix—evidently not just because they sounded alike, but because they’re footnotes in history), also referred to as a dagger. While the Diviner did kill, I don’t suppose that the writers intended for the name to evoke a dagger, but that’s clever, too. The evocation of ancient Egypt probably didn’t hurt. This doesn’t actually recall 2001 directly – that shiny alien artifact was called a monolith, but you know that would have been too obvious. But they are both shiny, black, and alien, and it triggered something in me early, but I couldn’t quite say what.
Second, Skye’s birth name was Daisy. I know her name originates with the comics, but I wondered if the writers named the thingy as they did because, in part, of her name. You may or may not be someone who’s ever seen Kubrick’s movie, but at the very end, when the Artificial Intelligence that sets the stage for our expectation of all future sci fi AI in TV and movies is being shut down, it reverts to the day it was activated, when it attempted to demonstrate its abilities by singing a song to the scientists and politicians who are there to meet it. The song it sings is Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two), some of the lines of which are:
Give me your answer, do.
I’m half crazy
All for the love of you.
Skye’s dad is more than a little half-crazy (more on that below) but it’s based on his desire to be reconciled with his daughter – he even sings it to her to remind her that her mother sang it to her as a child. Let’s just leave out the part where the song is about a man in love with a woman he wants to marry. That’s just creepy in this context.
Third, the Diviner/Obelisk changes people, evolves them to the next level. The monolith in 2001 chooses a particular tribe of hominids to become something more (something more human?) than another group of hominids fighting over the same patch of drinking water. The chosen group resorts to violence to achieve its ends, which may or may not be where Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is going, or where the characters think it may be going. There are groups of humans who believe that all superhumans (or Inhumans, as the case may be) are a threat, and it’s the monolith that seems to make this evolution possible. In both Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and 2001: A Space Odyssey, aliens are influencing human evolution and the resulting changes both inspire and frighten other humans. In the first part of 2001, the monolith inspires innovation via violence, but the second time humans encounter it, the inspiration is more …inspirational… implying the next stage of human development. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has people on both sides of this fence.
Then, of course, there’s Skye’s dad’s name: Cal. They could have gone with Calvin, but they stuck with Cal. This, of course, reminds us of the AI from 2001: the HAL 9000. HAL wasn’t a bad AI, he just got bad input. In Kubrick’s film, HAL, considered by the astronauts Frank Poole and David Bowman, to be another member of the crew, is supposed to help both those two astronauts and the ones in hibernation. He has conversations with Frank and Dave, plays chess with them, but he’s been given secret orders that contradict his stated purpose of perpetuating the mission, and this is what makes him go the robot version of insane. Cal is kind of in the same boat; he starts his story as a doctor but receives input (his wife is killed, his daughter is taken) that make him, shall we say, do things counter to the Hippocratic Oath—he no longer sticks to “first, do no harm.” We can, however, sympathize: he’s had a really rough go. Who’s to say any of us would not react in the same way in the same circumstances?
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is no 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that’s probably a good thing because it’ll way more accessible to a wider audience. Both, however, deal with ideas about what makes us human and how to deal with it. The Odyssey, it may pay to recall, is the story of a man named Odysseus, so strictly speaking, it’s the story of Odysseus; only later did the name take the meaning of an event-filled voyage. Perhaps Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, in calling their story “2001: A Space Odyssey” meant to imply that it was the story of the next century. By seeding Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with references to that paradigmatic sci fi masterpiece, the writers are trying to conjure the same reaction to change and the struggles that occur with any great leap forward: don’t trust big shiny alien rocks.
Or maybe it’s that there are good people and bad people on both sides, and everyone has to choose. And honestly, if we’re talking about it, all intelligence is artificial – we need input from a variety of sources if we’re not to go mad.