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INTELLIGENCE: Is It Science Fiction (Or Any Good)?

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So I’ve been watching Intelligence, the new CBS cyber-thriller starring Josh Holloway, or as many of you may know him, Sawyer from LOST. And while I haven’t been reviewing it here, it was a topic of discussion around the SciFi4Me office when it was first announced. You see, Intelligence is based on, or rather it’s “inspired” by, Phoenix Island, the first novel by author John Dixon and it has, well, almost no relation to the book at all. The book is about 16-year-old Carl Freeman and his troubled youth which lands him on the titular island and what is supposed to be a new program that treats delinquents like military recruits in a last-ditch effort to get them back in line. What it really is, and what happens to Carl there would be spoilers, but suffice it to say, the real purpose of the island and the true plan of the Old Man who runs it is far darker and dangerous. Contrast that with the TV show, where former Delta Force operative Gabriel Vaughn (Holloway) is part of an elite high-tech unit at US Cyber Command and the subject of a top-secret program called Clockwork. What the two have in common is what both Carl and Gabriel have in their heads: A cutting edge computer chip that gives them unique abilities.

They are, it must be said, very different kinds of chip, and with all the differences between the two stories, the inspiration here seems to be “what if we made a TV show about a guy with a chip in his head, you know, like that kid in that book has, only not, and with an internet connection”, and I think it would be a better description to call it a serious version of Chuck more than anything else. Here, the chip enables Gabriel to hack into any computer system and access wireless networks with his mind and, curiously, unlock electronic locks which wouldn’t have any connection he should be able to manipulate, and that ultimately is the problem with this show…

It’s kinda dumb.

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“Wait. What?”

Look, I am aware that a lot of television is dumb, but when you have shows like Person Of Interest, which deals with artificial intelligence, on the same network… you kind of expect a little better, even if you know that’s probably too much to ask. And it’s a shame really, since the cast is pretty good, but so far every episode of Intelligence has had some pretty amazingly bone-headed writing on display. And I don’t care how good the cast is, when characters do things that simply make no sense then it pretty much kills a show for me. What am I talking about? Well, let’s consider each episode, shall we?

Spoilers follow, obviously.

The Pilot: OK, it’s a pilot, and if you know anything about how the TV world works, basing whether or not a show is going to be good on the pilot episode is a dodgy proposition. Some pilots are amazing, but most are just OK, and most of that has to do with money. Pilots are usually shot before the network picks up the show, and a LOT of shows don’t get past the pilot stage. They’re kind of proof-of-concept episodes, and as such, well, need to be given a little leeway. That said, there is a LOT to be concerned about here. First you have Gabriel off on his own on a mission, where he gets captured, but this is all a ruse to implant a virus in the bad guys computers and he gets away (of course). Oddly, he escapes by unlocking an electronic lock which, considering his chip enables him to be connected to the Internet and wi-fi and phones and satellites, and why on earth is this electronic lock connected to any of those things? Back home we’re introduced to Riley Neal, a Secret Service agent whom the head of Clockwork, Lillian Strand, has brought in to protect Gabriel, and she serves as our proxy by getting the info dump about Gabriel, Clockwork, and the premise of our show. In the course of this, we learn:

  1. Gabriel is one of a kind, the possessor of a rare mutation that enables the chip to interface with the human mind. And there is only one chip, and its inventor, Dr. Cassidy, is no longer with US Cyber Command. Gabriel was a Delta Force operative, is considered to be the U.S.’s best secret weapon, and, oh, his wife, a former CIA agent? She apparently turned traitor and became a terrorist. She’s supposed to be dead, but Gabriel believes she’s still alive.
  2. Dr. Cassidy continued his work on the chip at home and has developed a new, even better chip which, of course, is the target of Chinese agents who kidnap him and take the chip, wanting him to implant it into one of their agents.
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Because putting the only guy in the world with this technology in the hands of the enemy makes so much sense.

Of course there is more to the episode, including the daring rescue of Dr. Cassidy, but a few things need to be discussed right off the bat, like NO INTELLIGENCE AGENCY IN THE HISTORY OF EVER IS GOING TO LET THE ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD WHO POSSESSES THE ONLY SUPER-COMPUTER BRAIN CHIP GO OFF ON A FIELD MISSION ON HIS OWN WITH EXACTLY ZERO BACKUP. And NO INTELLIGENCE AGENCY IN THE HISTORY OF EVER IS GOING TO LET THE ONE PERSON WHO INVENTED THE ONE SUPER-COMPUTER BRAIN CHIP JUST LEAVE AND CONTINUE HIS WORK ON HIS OWN WITHOUT 24/7 SURVEILLANCE AND PROTECTION. And a little bit of WAIT, HIS WIFE IS CONSIDERED A TERRORIST, AND THEY STILL PUT THE ONE OF A KIND SUPER-COMPUTER BRAIN CHIP IN HIS HEAD?

There’s also the whole He’s-a-loose-cannon thing, which while a grand tradition in the hero category, seems a little odd when you are dealing with a Delta Force guy. I’m not in the military, but isn’t a big part of the training about working as a unit? Following orders and being a team player, because that’s how missions are successful and you and your unit get home safely? If Gabriel is such a wild card, then how was he such a good soldier? And Delta Force, well, they aren’t some little group that’ll take just anyone.

And if you’re going to have someone protect this guy, why exactly are we going with one Secret Service agent, especially since he’s considered to be so important? Why is this guy in the field at all? If he can access all this stuff, why does he need to be anywhere else but at US Cyber Command?

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Because they wouldn’t let me wear this cool jacket if I was just here all the time.

But OK. It’s a pilot. We’ve met the characters, the premise is flawed but interesting, and we meet a potential arch-enemy in the Chinese agent who now has the new-and-improved chip in her head. We find out that Lillian thinks that Gabriel’s wife is still alive and that she may not be a terrorist. OK, fine. They sold the pilot, they got a 13 episode order, let’s see where they go.

The second episode is “Red X” and we jump right into the mystery of Gabriel’s wife, Amelia, when it appears that she’s alive and involved with a plot to blow stuff up in the US with a new, undetectable plastic explosive. Dumb things abound in this episode, too, with the terrorists disguising the explosives as an all-white chess set, which sets off Gabriel’s “huh, that’s odd” trigger, when there is no reason not to make it look like any other chess set other than it being a way to draw attention to it.

And the Swiss company that developed the new explosive that no one can detect, and who discovered that some of it was stolen? Yeah, they never told anyone that this was a thing that happened, because we obviously don’t live in a world where stolen undetectable explosives are ever going to be used for nefarious purposes. We also find part of the day saved by an elevator shaft blocking a detonation signal which, while I can attest to losing signal on my cellphone whenever I get into an elevator, except for all the times I actually don’t, because it kinda depends how strong the signal is, so that would have been just blind luck on the part of our heroes.

And of course Gabriel is running into danger again and his superiors are letting him, with only Riley to protect him. Luckily Dr. Cassidy and his wise-cracking son are there to be experts on everything, like bomb-making and autopsies, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure US Cyber Command could actually afford to have real specialists in those fields be available, since last we saw, Cassidy was a super-computer brain chip kind of guy. Interestingly, while Amelia appears to die in an explosion after giving the worst “I never loved you” speech of all time, no body is recovered and our heroes have apparently never seen a thriller movie of any kind and are all convinced she’s dead.

Of course she is.

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She’s dead! Dead I tell you! I’m a Scientist! I know things! THHHHIIINNNGGGSSS!!!

Up third is “Mei Chen Returns” and the return, oddly enough, of Mei Chen, the Chinese agent with the new-and-improved chip in her head. See she has the same little mutation that lets the chip work, but she’s all eeeeeeeevvvvvviiiiiillllll, and on top of that, can use her newer chip to hack into Gabriel’s chip, and into his mind. Which begs the question, just how does this hacking thing work here? Answer? Handwavium, that’s how.

And why on earth would Dr. Cassidy make the second chip even capable of hacking the first? Worse though, is that the episode opens with US Cyber Command not knowing where Gabriel is, since he’s off mourning the (apparent) death of his wife. And yes, that requires us to believe that the combined abilities of the US intelligence services let the ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD WHO POSSESSES THE ONLY SUPER-COMPUTER BRAIN CHIP just wander off down to Mexico, despite the fact that the series is set in Maryland, and Mexico and Maryland are not, in fact, right next to each other, and he had to get there by some form of traceable transportation, and where the hell was his handler, Riley, when he just wandered off, and WHY THE HELL ISN’T THE CHIP TRACKABLE? Shouldn’t it be? And even if it isn’t, who thought not having the ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD WHO POSSESSES THE ONLY SUPER-COMPUTER BRAIN CHIP lowjacked was a good idea? C’mon people!

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Hi there. I’m beautiful and evil. Because.

And was it really necessary to make Mei Chen a sexual deviant, which is something that she actually tells Gabriel? She’s already a murderer and an all around bad person; was that scene of any real value other than making the sexy villain more of a cliché? This doesn’t actually stop her from being better than Gabriel at pretty much everything, but since she’s a cliché, she monologues at him when she should be killing him, trying to convince him that he needs to team up with her, since they are the only ones who can truly understand being the (almost) ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD WHO POSSESSES THE ONLY SUPER-COMPUTER BRAIN CHIP. Of course her sales pitch involves the sexual deviancy thing, so it’s not much of a deal. Maybe.

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Still Evil. EEEEEEEEEVVVVVVVVVIIIIIIIILLLLLLL.

And we’re three episodes in and Riley is trying to be Gabriel’s friend which is just a really bad idea, considering her job is to keep him alive and yet she lets him go off and wallow in his pain in Mexico because she feels guilty about her part in Amelia’s “death”, and isn’t that like the worst way to be protecting the ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD WHO POSSESSES THE ONLY SUPER-COMPUTER BRAIN CHIP? Lady, it isn’t your job to protect his feelings, it’s to keep him alive. This is not how you do that.

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I’m terrible at my job, but damn I look good doing it.

Oh, by the way? Everyone around Gabriel, even Riley, is better at doing his job than he is. Cassidy’s son Nelson uses actual computers to do everything Gabriel’s supposed to be able to do this episode and faster, and it leaves one asking what exactly the big deal about the ONLY SUPER-COMPUTER BRAIN CHIP is. Tracking down Mei Chen is actually done by connecting clues and information that they don’t need Gabriel for. At all. Oh, and there’s a CIA analyst lady who stole secrets a la Edward Snowden, who causes all of this and you just really don’t care about her at all.

Ah, episode 4. “Secrets of the Secret Service”. If you’re old enough to remember the American TV shows of the 80’s like The A-Team and Knight Rider or have caught them in reruns, there’s a… simplicity to the plots. There was a time when networks seemed to think that all people wanted out of television was escapism, and any examination of real world consequences or impact on individuals were sacrificed at the altar of episodic television. Modern versions of shows from that time like Battlestar Galactica bear little resemblance to their original versions because they embrace story arcs and are character driven, and events of one episode build on those before it. This is a fairly recent thing, and shows that tried to do it before it caught on (like, say, Farscape for example) were subject to behind-the-scenes fights between the show’s creators and the networks, with the latter pushing for more episodic stories, and the former trying to tell season-long stories. Some got away with it more than others, like Babylon 5, but really, it didn’t explode into the pop culture until shows like 24 proved what audiences knew all along: They’re smart enough to follow a story that lasts more than the occasional two-parter.

I’ve digressed a bit, but if you look at those shows now, you’ll see how things like politics were dumbed down to the point of “us vs them”, or in the 80’s “U.S. vs Russia”, with rugged heroes fighting against (often) dastardly Soviet agents or the like, with nary a consequence for international relations occurring in the aftermath. Planes were hijacked, bombs went off, but the next episode meant another adventure, free of any real effects of the previous story.

Apparently the writers of this episode are big fans of those stories, because that’s the only explanation of how they could tell this story and not realize that our heroes have caused an international incident and essentially cause the United States and Syria to go to war with each other. We’re going to ignore the B-plot about Riley’s old Secret Service boyfriend because it’s character stuff that doesn’t actually matter, and focus on the open gunfight that Gabriel and Riley and Riley’s Ex get involved in on the streets of Damascus, driving a government car. Pretend for just a moment that the Syrians would A) not be following the US delegation to the peace talks with all of their intelligence people, and B) not take political advantage of the fact that Americans attacked Syrian citizens, in Syria, in broad daylight. Also, we are asked to believe that the plane they all fly out of the country on would never be challenged on leaving earlier than the Syrian government was told and then, after the firefight in the streets, not be stopped by the Syrian Air Force. Which is totally a real thing, with fighter jets and everything.

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“I don’t know why I’m here at this point in the review. I was in the second episode.”
“It’s because all the CBS photos from this episode were boring.”
“And this was more exciting? Wow.”

Look. I don’t expect every show to be perfect. I’m aware that popular entertainment is often… less than well written. But it’s not that impossible either. And this show has potential. There’s a whole story to be told about the first person to be connected to the global information grid. It can even be a techno-thriller show, it really can. But this is not the way to do it. And the ratings are tanking. Intelligence lost 10 million viewers between the 1st and 2nd episodes, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s because audiences were not impressed. Shows about the intelligence community that have them acting like idiots will do that. Shows that show them being good or evil are fine; c’mon, NSA and CIA stories practically write themselves these days, but in the real world, the intelligence communities actually are pretty efficient and not filled with people making terrible decisions all the time. Some of the time, of course, and all you have to do is follow the news to see that. But the writers here seem to think that the audience wants to see an US Cyber Command that has no idea how to deal with the ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD WHO POSSESSES THE ONLY SUPER-COMPUTER BRAIN CHIP, even though they came up with the idea and made it happen.

So yeah. It’s kinda dumb. With the terrible ratings, a second season is pretty unlikely, but the word is that CBS is planning to run the first season no matter what, and that raises a question for you folks at home.

Should I be reviewing this? Do you want to read reviews of the rest of the season, knowing that unless the show really gets a LOT better, everything I write about the show will likely have the words “dumb”, “stupid” and “unbelievable” in them prominently? ‘Cause I can do that.

Part of me wants to, because there is some joys to be had tearing a show apart; we all know that, and I am not immune to such things. There is a poll thingy below this, and yes, “poll thingy” is the correct term, and all you have to do is pick one of the exciting options available to you. And we, and I, shall take your choices and run with them. It is a good cast, and it would be nice to see it get better, it really would. Josh Holloway is a good actor. Marge Helgenberger can do authority extremely well and Meghan Ory is nice to look at and a quite talented actress, even if I have a little difficulty believing that her Riley was the best of all possible choices to be Gabriel’s handler. John Billingsley and P.J. Byrne are fun as the father and son Cassidy’s, and Lance Reddick of Fringe has joined the show as the Director of the CIA, and he’s always good. So there are reasons for me to keep watching and telling you what I think… as long as you know it’s going to likely be a bit brutal.

Maybe more than a bit.

(Oh yeah. The title of this article. Is Intelligence science fiction? It could be. If it’s about a man who is sharing his mind with a computer and the effect that has on him, and if it’s about the amazing technology that makes such a thing possible, and well beyond our current capabilities, then yes, yes it is. If it’s an action show about a guy with Google Glass in his head, then not so much.)

[polldaddy poll=7767805]

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Timothy Harvey

Timothy Harvey is a Kansas City based writer, director, actor and editor, with something of a passion for film noir movies. He was the art director for the horror films American Maniacs, Blood of Me, and the pilot for the science fiction series Paradox City. His own short films include the Noir Trilogy, 9 1/2 Years, The Statement of Randolph Carter - adapted for the screen by Jason Hunt - and the music video for IAMEVE’s Temptress. He’s a former President and board member for the Independent Filmmakers Coalition of Kansas City, and has served on the board of Film Society KC.

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