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Friday, 27 September 2013

Agents of Shield: Doctor Who and Torchwood’s American Cousin

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (AOS), considered by many American critics to be the biggest television show of the fall season, has crossed the Atlantic and landed on Channel 4.  This stylish and special effects driven show is a spinoff of the 2012 blockbuster film Avengers Assemble.  AOS’ roots lie in the Marvel comic book and cinematic properties.  Given the show’s premise it could be considered the American cousin of Doctor Who and Torchwood.  AOS stars Clark Gregg reprising his role as Agent Phil Coulson; Gregg’s character was killed during the 2012 film but has been mysteriously resurrected.  Now Coulson leads a team investigating superhuman and alien threats to the world.  AOS is the project of Avengers Assemble writer and director Joss Whedon along with his brother, Jed Whedon, and sister-in-law, Maurissa Tancharoen.  Jed and Maurissa also worked with Joss Whedon on the film.  This trio’s last television collaboration was the short lived sci-fi series Dollhouse.


AOS opens with a voiceover that whets your appetite for more than a cameo appearance by The Avengers.  The audience quickly learns this show is about the aftermath of superhuman encounters (similar to Torchwood dealing with leftover alien technology).  Michael ‘Mike’ Peterson (Angel’s J. August Richards), a single father struggling to support his son, becomes an Internet sensation while rescuing a woman from a burning building.  Unfortunately for Mike his identity was discovered by the opening’s narrator Skye (Chloe Bennet).  Skye is a conspiracy theorist and hacker who is part of the AOS world’s variation on Anonymous, called Rising Tide.  She believes that Mike should be going public with his powers before he is captured by S.H.I.E.L.D.  Like other Marvel characters such as Spider-Man, Mike is conflicted over using his powers to earn a living.        

Not surprisingly, Mike’s heroic rescue has come to the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D.  As Mike’s origin story unfolds, Agent Coulson recruits individuals to join his equivalent of Torchwood.  Team building is one of the oldest clichés in superhero works.  It is impressive to witness two different types of origin stories running concurrently within the same episode.  Unfortunately this limits the creators’ ability to give the characters distinguishable personalities.  Leo Fitz (The Fade’s Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Hollyoaks’ Elizabeth Henstridge) come across as nothing more than ciphers.  The largest portion of the team gathering segment is devoted to the most reluctant agents, Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) and Melinda Mays (Ming-Na).  Ward’s introduction is the longest and includes a Paris fight scene involving Rising Tide operatives.  This is a fast-paced sequence that inserts humor in between the punches and jabs; Whedon and company have perfected this device across numerous projects.  Mays’ introduction is a wonderful nod to a mild mannered bespectacled superhero.  During the course of the episode, viewers learn that Mays is a respected S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent with a traumatic past.  A third act fight sequence lay to rest any doubts about the character’s unassuming nature.  The episode’s brisk pace does not leave viewers much time to ponder Mays’ past, I am certain this (along with Fitz and Simmons) will be addressed in the future.

Once the investigation gets underway, the team quickly comes into contact with Skye.  Naturally Ward and Skye see each other as adversaries; this interaction is also used to do a bit of chemistry testing.  Whedon shows are notorious for setting up adversaries who ultimately become lovers.  After Coulson convinces Skye to assist in the investigation, the team uncovers the secret behind Mike’s powers (cue the Iron Man 3 Magoffin).  At this juncture in Mike’s origin story, he identifies himself as a hero but he has committed villainous acts.  This leads the prerequisite third act struggle in which Michael’s choices lead him in direct conflict with S.H.I.E.L.D.

Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson is the ideal character to make the transition from cinema to television.  Agent Coulson has appeared in nearly every Marvel Studios film to date.  Typically Coulson served as the “regular guy” who is able to make the world’s super humans, aliens, and gods seem relatable.  AOS uses him in a similar capacity.  Coulson’s weapon of choice is humor, but at times it is too much.  I hope this imbalance will be corrected in subsequent episodes.  Phil Coulson is not the only Avengers Assemble character to crossover.  Though Avenger Assemble’s Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) appears on screen briefly, she helps propels the show forward by planting a seed that will sprout in a future episode.  Hill also explains S.H.I.E.L.D.’s acronym (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) and mission for viewers who are new to the franchise.  

Based on this pilot, it is obvious the creators re-watched a bit of Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who (and Torchwood) while working on this script.  The repetition of the word Tahiti, accompanied by a bit of foreshadowing from Maria Hill and Dr. Streiten (Firefly and Serenity’s Ron Glass), reminded me of the phrase Bad Wolf from Doctor Who Series One.  Over the course of this episode, Coulson displays characteristics befitting The Doctor.  Coulson challenges Leo Fritz to come up with a solution that does not cost Mike his life; Coulson continuously argues that all people have value.  Instead of using guns to resolve the final conflict with Mike, Couslon relies on intellect.  He tries to appeal to Mike’s humanity.  The final scene uses another Doctor Who trope, inducting a new companion.  During this scene Coulson invites Skye to join the team; she is reluctant but ultimately goes with him.  Lola, Coulson’s 1962 red Corvette, serves as the requisite TARDIS.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does a marvelous job of using familiar elements from franchises such as Avengers, Doctor Who, and Torchwood in order to create a show that has a mass appeal.  Some critics have argued this episode is mediocre.  I do not fully endorse that notion.  Yes, I would love for Fitz and Simmons to be more distinguishable.  Given the Whedons’ track record on previous shows, I am sure it is only a matter of time.  Clearly the creators are very comfortable in this world (sometimes they are a bit too comfortable).  During a scene in which crucial information is revealed, Simmons unloads a barrage of Marvel comic and movie concepts: Erskin, Gamma Radiation, and the Super Solider Serum.  The casual viewer does not have time to digest this information.  Like most pilots, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a work in progress, but it provides a solid entry point into this world.  As a fan of Marvel comic books and films, I have come to expect a product that melds the familiar and unfamiliar.  As long as the Whedons respect this basic Marvel tenet, I believe that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will continue to air on both sides of the Atlantic for some time.  Who knows, maybe the cousins will meet at some point.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Continues Fridays at 8.00pm on Channel 4 

Contributed by Mo Walker

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