CBS’s ‘Intelligence’ Tests the Trade-Offs of Technology

Warning: This article includes spoilers for the early episodes of CBS’s Intelligence.

On January 7, CBS launched its most popular show of the new season, Intelligence. Created by Michael Seitzman, Intelligence boasts an impressive cast that includes Josh Holloway (Lost), Megan Ory (Once Upon a Time), Marg Helgenberger (CSI), and John Billingsley (Star Trek: Enterprise). The series follows Gabriel Vaughn (Holloway), an agent commissioned by the fictional US Cyber Command to act as an “advanced” operative: he has been neurologically connected to the global digital grid and can call to mind any available data and imagery. However, he’s not always emotionally stable: he’s obsessed with learning the truth of his wife, a deep-cover operative herself, and thus Riley Neal (Ory) is tasked by supervisor Lilian Strand (Helgenberger) to be his partner.

Intelligence is a formulaic show, but its writers deftly manage the formula. The actors inhabit their roles ably (even Ory, of whom I was skeptical), and the dialogue, if not brilliant, is certainly lively. More importantly, the writing staff thus far seem aware of Intelligence’s potential for exploring complex (and very relevant) questions of technological ethics. Gabriel’s upgrades may be a bit too much like the Intersect in Chuck, but this show’s vector of approach diverges widely from NBC’s comic spy series. Chuck‘s Intersect  was a handy MacGuffin designed almost entirely to manufacture delightfully convoluted (and amusing) situations. Gabriel’s implants are more realistic in their execution, and though the writing is witty, the tenor of Intelligence is certainly more serious than Chuck ever aspired to be.

In the pilot episode, I was struck by the frequent use of the word “trade.” It is employed by Helgenberger’s Strand during a conversation with her Chinese counterpart (Rosalind Chao) as they work to track down rogue Chinese agents bent on creating a female equivalent to Gabriel. She suggests trade as an alternative to more combative relations. The implication of trading in this context and elsewhere is, of course, that one must give something to get something. But in the intelligence trade, how much must be sacrificed to get national security? Must Gabriel trade some of his humanity for the sake of becoming “advanced” enough to fight global crime and protect American interests?

To its credit, Intelligence resists the impulse to answer these questions tacitly. There are certainly some early gosh-wow moments when we see Gabriel employing his “party trick” abilities (as Riley calls them). Still, the writers maintain a healthy unease about Gabriel’s relationship to his enhancements. They cost him personally, as we see in the third episode (“Mei Chen Returns”) when his Chinese doppelganger inflicts psychic and physiological damage by effectively hacking into his mind. And in utilizing his upgrades, Gabriel’s brain not only displays information but imaginatively reconstructs and extrapolates scenarios from that information, an effect unforeseen by the chip’s creators. Such projections suggest that humans might be more than mere biological machines or, at the very least, that the human brain is a far different and more complex creation than any mere piece of technology.

The greatest challenge to Gabriel’s humanity thus far comes in the third episode, when Mei Chen (Faye Kingslee) intrudes upon his consciousness. In the climactic scene, she continues the episode’s running use of Genesis quotations by positioning herself as an Eve to Gabriel’s Adam. As his colleagues at Cyber Command successfully defeat Mei Chen, Gabriel retorts, “You’re not Eve.  You’re the serpent.” This parallel is instructive, for like the serpent, Mei Chen has essentially tempted Gabriel to forsake his true humanity in the false hope of becoming something greater. She herself admits that her “pleasures” are all that keep her human, pleasures she voluntarily labels “deviant.”  In exorcising her from his mind, Gabriel turns away (for now) from the attempt to transcend his humanity, to “evolve” (a word often used in the show) into something else. But in so doing, he also must accept the implications of his humanity, including the painful vulnerability of love (as opposed to mere pleasure).

Intelligence is, of course, an action show first and foremost, and it holds no pretensions otherwise. Even so, such intentions need not prevent it from examining serious and thought-provoking contemporary issues. As twenty-first century humankind integrates technology in ever more intimate ways, we will be increasingly called upon to ask fundamental questions about our identity and special distinctiveness, doctrines that Christians could once take for granted. CBS’s latest action series in its first few episodes has certainly staked no claims at definitively addressing these questions, yet thus far it seems poised to parallel the Christian belief that human persons are more than the sums of their parts and that we must be wary of what we trade to gain knowledge — or intelligence.

Photo via CBS.

About Geoffrey Reiter

Geoffrey Reiter is Assistant Professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida. He holds a B.A. in English from Nyack College and a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University, along with an M.A. in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.


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