“4,722 Hours” makes it clear that, though she may not seem like the best candidate to survive on an alien planet, Jemma Simmons has some pretty mad skills.   When “4,722 Hours” began with the flashback to the scene where Simmons got pulled into the Monolith and taken to the other planet, I wondered “Wait, is this episode going to only be about what happened to her?” And then the title came up – and it wasn’t the usual logo on the black screen, with the big sound effect. It just quietly appeared over the desolate, blue landscape Simmons was trapped in. And it was clear that yes, this was going to be a very different episode…  The story is one long character study giving Elizabeth Henstridge the opportunity to show off the depth of her acting ability, and the rich development given to Simmons this week makes me wish every member of the cast could get teleported away for a terrifying extraterrestrial experience.

Obviously the concept of a character marooned by themselves is not a new one – the writers utilized Enemy Mine (an excellent SciFi film) for their inspiration and there is also the not as excellent Cast Away featuring Tom Hanks.  Series like Galactica and Star Trek have told similar stories of this sort, among others. But this is Agents of SHIELD, a big, Marvel/ABC network TV series with a specific, (Earthbound) vibe and feel to it. So for them to take this show in this direction, even for a week, was bold and exciting.

When Simmons first arrived on the planet, she realizes that she is not in the same solar system as Earth by the stars she sees. Remembering her S.H.I.E.L.D. training, she decides to stay stationary until an extraction team can find and rescue her.  After 13 hours, Simmons decides to go to sleep. Awakening eight hours later, Simmons realizes that the sun has not arisen. She begins to cry and screams for the sun after being on the planet for 71 hours.  At 79 hours, Simmons decides that she must find food and water in order to survive; a normal human can survive without water for a hundred hours. Twenty hours later, as she climbs a ridge, Simmons sees an approaching sandstorm. Simmons awakens after 101 hours on the planet and discovers a nearby pond; she laughs as her thirst is quenched.   For quite awhile, it was only her onscreen and she was excellent showing Simmons try and approach the situation with an optimistic, even scientifically curious perspective, before the true direness of what was happening set in.   Now on the planet for 109 hours, Simmons swims in the pond; suddenly, she is grabbed from below. Fighting for her life, Simmons cuts a tentacle from the creature and drags it ashore. Two hours pass before Simmons finally decides to eat the tentacle. By 492 hours, Simmons’ hunger is so great that she decides to fight the underwater foe; she wins the battle, makes a fire, cooks, eats, and burps. Watching sweet, wide-eyed Simmons go almost feral, killing and eating that creature, was a sight to behold and it was emotional seeing her leave her messages for Fitz as time went on and things got worse and worse (that phone lasting at all is also a miracle, but hey, SHIELD tech, right?!).

Simmons has now been on the planet for 752 hours when she hears movement that she does not recognize. She goes to investigate;  falls into a trap and sees a man close it as she faints. Nine hours later, the man goes to check on Simmons; she is awake but fearful. At 783 hours, the man realizes that Simmons is not a hallucination. Simmons introduces herself to the man as the 824th hour passes; he brings her a bowl of food. Twenty-seven hours later, Simmons feigns a stomach ache and asks the stranger why he has poisoned her. As he enters the cage to investigate, Simmons hits him with the bowl and escapes. She runs but injures her leg. Her captor grabs her; he says that It can smell blood and will soon come. He takes Simmons to his cave and hides as a sandstorm roars above. He tells Simmons that his name is Will. Simmons stitches her leg while Will asks what year it is. At hour 853, Will Daniels reveals that he has been on this planet since 2001.   As an aside, I assume it was likely a purposeful nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey having Will trapped on that planet since the year 2001 (given we already had a Monolith in play), though given Dillon Casey is 31, let’s just assume he was playing a few years older than his actual age – or else Will was the Doogie Howser of both the Air Force and NASA, considering his history.

When Simmons stumbled upon Will (Nikita’s Dillon Casey), yeah, you could see where this was going – that she would bond with him and maybe even get romantic with him (as was indeed the case) – and he’d be the reason she needed to go back to the planet. The journey is more important than the destination, though, and the bond between Simmons and Will develops organically as their hours together turn into days, then weeks, then months. For most of this time, Simmons is still intensely devoted to Fitz. When she first finds herself stranded, she keeps her composure by thinking like a scientist, but once it starts to sink in that no one is coming for her, she starts to get more emotional and turns to her memory of Fitz for support. She imagines the date they’re supposed to go on and worries that their bond won’t maintain in a romantic context, and Henstridge does great work showing how Simmons’ relationship with Fitz gives her the strength to press on.   Throughout the first half of the episode, Simmons records voice memos for Fitz detailing her fear regarding the scarcity of food and water, her insecurity about her chances of making it through this alive, and her pride when she discovers what she’s capable of accomplishing when survival is her one and only goal. It allows Henstridge to vocalize all of Simmons’ turbulent emotions, and she fully captures all the desperation Simmons feels as she spends more time alone on an alien world. The thing that keeps her motivated is the hope that she’ll one day make it back to Fitz and the rest of her friends, but when that hope fades, her romantic commitment to Fitz fades with it.

By 3,010 hours, Simmons decides that she wants to go to the “No-Fly Zone” despite Daniels’ protests that that is the place where “It” lives. Going there nonetheless, Simmons finds a bottle of wine and a sword, along with a mass graveyard. Observing the stars, she realizes a way off the planet. Suddenly a storm approaches; Simmons sees a figure in the dust and runs. She places dirt on the cut she gets and peeks from behind a boulder. Simmons returns to Daniels, who was watching her through binoculars, and tells him that she now believes.  Twenty-two hours later, Simmons explains to Daniels her plan to find a portal that will return them home; she can use the battery from her cell phone to power his computers to calculate the stars and their movement. She watches the video of her friends for the last time. The battery dies at hour 3,183, but Simmons has accumulated enough data to determine that in eighteen days a portal will open in a canyon that is thirty meters wide. Weeks pass; by 3,561 hours, Daniels has created a way to get them across the canyon and Simmons has put a message in a bottle to drop in the portal as a back-up plan. On the 3,575th hour, the stranded ones arrive at the canyon to discover that it is now over a hundred meters wide and impossible for them to cross successfully. The portal opens and Daniels shoots the bottle to the opening. He misses by one second.  Hell, we knew for a fact that Simmons would safely make it home eventually, but it was still heartbreaking when she and Will tried to get Fitz a literal message in a bottle and failed, because we’d seen just how desperate they were and felt their pain in that moment.

Simmons and Daniels have become a couple when hour 4,720 arrives. Simmons has calculated that a once-every-eighteen year sunrise was to happen in a couple of hours. The couple celebrate the occurrence with the bottle of wine that Simmons found; it tastes like vinegar. Suddenly Simmons sees a flare streak across the sky. Daniels and Simmons run to the spot of the flare, but “It” comes for them. Daniels tells Simmons to continue, but she refuses to leave without him. Simmons then sees an astronaut coming and thinks that NASA has come for Daniels; he tells her that it is a trick as the sand becomes blinding and separates them. Daniels fires his only bullet at the figure as Fitz calls to Simmons. Simmons is rescued. Daniels is once again alone as the sun rises at hour 4,722.

There’s a noticeable change in Simmons’ disposition once she and Will kiss and start sleeping together (at least that’s what we’re led to believe by the shot of their two beds now side-by-side), and showing Simmons at her bleakest point earlier makes it easier to accept this new relationship by showing how it drastically improves her outlook. Her romance with Will significantly complicates the one she has with Fitz, but Fitz doesn’t let jealousy take over when Simmons finishes recounting her experience. The final scene between them — the only one not on the alien planet — was terrific, as Fitz processed what she’d just told him and decided he would do everything he could to help her (because of course he would) and save Will. And Henstridge got one more terrific moment showing Simmons tear up as she realized what he was doing for her. He rushes out of the room, but it’s not because of anger. Instead, he rushes to the lab to start figuring out how to bring Will back because Fitz is that good of a friend.

 

An iconic book and film, 2001: The Space Odyssey changed the way in which Science Fiction was perceived in popular culture and changed the “face” of cinema forever.

To some extent following familiar footsteps with regards to mankind being uplifted (see future posts on the Uplift War & other books by David Brin) by a far superior earlier race (progenitors, “The Ancients” as popularized in Stargate:SG1), 2001 shows how early Man was able to make the transition from prey to predator and eventual ruler of the world.

This Alien “Super Race” has seeded the galaxy with Monoliths which are designed to encourage the development of intelligent life (you could in some respects equate this to Von Neuman machines which are self replicating robots postulated as the only way to explore the universe … I’ll get into a real discussion of them at a future time). One such monolith is discovered on the plains of Africa, several million years B.C. and it “inspires” (changes?) a group of early man to develop and conceive of tools.

The main Ape Man (“Moon-Watcher”) uses these tools to defend his tribe from a roving leopard and then uses a club to kill the leader of a rival tribe. Moon-Watcher reflects that though he is now master of the world, he is unsure of what to do next—but he will think of something.

What happens next?

Jumping ahead, the book takes us to 1999 and Dr. Heywood Floyd.  Dr. Floyd is traveling to Clavious Base on the Moon and upon his arrival he is informed that they have found an anomoly under the soil in the Tycho basin.  Dubbed Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One (or TMA-1), an excavation of the area reveals a large black slab (identical to the one found by Moon Watcher earlier) and by analysis of the soil they are able to determine that it is over 3 million years old!

As Floyd and a team of scientists journey across the moon-scape to study the structure, they arrive just in time for the first touch of sun to hit its structure in all this time.  As soon as the sun light hits its surface (basically it can be assumed that the creators of this devise determined that only a sufficiently advanced civilization could journey to their moon and dig it out thereby “awakening it”), a radio transmission is broadcast to the far ends of the Solar System.  Determining that the signal was sent to Iapetus – one of the many moons of Saturn – an expedition is planned to investigate.

The Discovery One Mission Starts

Jumping forward again, we are taken to the year 2001 and the Discovery One mission to Saturn.  Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Francis Poole are the only conscious humans onboard the mammoth spaceship with the remainder of the crew in a state of suspended animation.  HAL 9000 – an AI (artificially intelligent) computer runs the ship and maintains life onboard.

After a series of false alerts from HAL, Poole and Bowman become convinced that HAL is defective and suspicious of HAL’s refusal to admit that there is anything wrong.  While communicating with Earth to relay their suspicions (which are verified), the link between Earth and the ship is severed.

Poole takes a pod outside the ship to repair the link and as he is doing so, he is killed by HAL who uses the pod to crash into Poole and tear his spacesuit.  Bowman – in shock – determines that he needs to wake up the rest of the crew to deal with the situation but as he is in the midst of doing so, HAL opens up the airlock doors and vents the ships atmosphere.  Bowman is successfully able to make his way to a sealed emergency shelter which has a spare spacesuit and is able to make his way back to the main computer area.

Bowman then laboriously disconnects the computer, puts the ship back in order and manually re-establishes contact with Earth. Learning that the true intent of the mission is to explore Japetus, he realizes that HAL had begun to feel guilty about having to keep the mission secret and had in essense had a psychotic episode due to the disconnect between his prorgramming and the mission goals.

The Continuing Mission

With the loss of air on the ship making a return to Earth impossible, Bowman elects to continue the mission and spends months alone slowly approaching Japetus.

During his long approach, he gradually notices a small black spot on the surface of Japetus. Realizing that this is again one of the black monoliths – only this time immensely larger, Boman elects to explore it one of the extra-vehicular pods.

However, as Bowman gets closer, the programming of the Monolith takes control and it is revealed as a Star Gate when it opens and pulls in Bowman’s pod.  Just before he enters, Mission control hears him say –  “The thing’s hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God—it’s full of stars!”

Transported via the monolith to a star system far outside our galaxy, Bowman is brought to a nice hotel suite (anyone remember this from Star Trek : TNG?) designed to make him feel comfortable and at ease.  Falling asleep, Bowwmans mind and memories are drained from his body and he is reshaped into the Star Child.  An immortal entity that can live and travel in space.

As the Star Child, Bowman returns to Earth and destroys the weapons threatening humanities survival and then like Moon Child before him – the new master of the world, Star Child too is uncertain of what to do next … but knows that he will think of something!

Closing Thoughts

Clarke is probably best known for his realistic depictions of space travel and his overall optimism for the future of humanity as a species.  Released as it was just prior to the seminal moon landings themselves can only have helped this books popularity but even taking that out of the picture and reading this book 30 years later it stands up very well.

The “red eye” of HAL portrayed so well in the movie and the tragic dissonance that this “person” feels is extremely well covered in the book also – and to be honest the malevolence of HAL comes across so much more in print.

If you have not read this book yet – read it.  If you have watched the movie and not really understood it – read the book and then watch the movie again … trust me … it just makes more sense.  While they are meant to stand alone – they are definitely stronger together.