Before I get to my list, a few disclaimers: first, I’m in no way opposed to the showrunners of S.H.I.E.L.D. inventing new elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the fly, with little to no precedent in the source material of the published comics. That’s perfectly valid world-building, as well, it’s just not where my focus is in this particular mental exercise. I’m acknowledging and paying tribute to the breadth and depth of my beloved funnybooks, especially some of my pet favorite concepts from them.
Second (as Harvey and I touched on in our earlier comments), there are some absolutely wonderfully bonkers concepts from the comics which would simply be cost-prohibitive for a network television series, even one ostensibly tied to one of the most lucrative corporate franchises going right now. Theoretical return-on-investment aside, it’s pretty clear from the first two episodes that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a show of modest means. So much as I would love, for example, to see the showrunners just shoot the moon and have a tesseract mishap zap the team to a bar on a distant planet full of weird non-humanoid alien lifeforms (a good opportunity to show that the universe is not entirely populated by violent conqueror races like the Chitauri, as there are numerous interstellar species who just want to live in peace and could not care less about backwater Earth), I acknowledge that’s not going to happen.
Third, while Harvey approached one side of the show’s formula, I’m taking on another. He nominated certain characters who could serve as the foil-of-the-week, while I’m looking at settings that could be destinations-of-the-week. Granted, a lot of those settings have certain characters automatically associated with them, and the two concepts are often inextricably linked, but my original point was always about the geography of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and how I hope that the show does not simply tread world-building water and cover ground which has already been introduced in the movies. The thing about Marvel is that its stories essentially take place in our world, in the present day, with all the recognizable history and landmarks, plus extra stuff that fits in around the edges. Not just fictional characters, but fictional countries, secret civilizations, portals to hidden worlds, and so on and so on. Many of those remote corners of the globe are, I feel, perfect fodder for S.H.I.E.L.D., because they’re interesting enough to visit for 42 minutes but not likely to produce a threat to the entire world that would require the Avengers to assemble.
Having blathered all of that, on to the dream travel itinerary!
1. Subterranea - Underground caverns and tunnels are a tried-and-true staple of sci-fi shows that don’t want to break the bank on fantastical backdrops, and it just so happens that Marvel has an elaborate world-unto-itself beneath the surface of the planet, with its own city-states populated by multiple races from lizard-men to lava-men to ugly humans who shunned the light above and befriended the giant mythical monsters that dwell below. OK, that last one is the Mole Man, who was the main villain in Fantastic Four #1, the cornerstone issue of the Marvel comics universe, so maybe he’s off-limits. But what about minor Hulk villain Tyrannus, a denizen of ancient Rome who was banished, fled underground, discovered the Fountain of Youth in a subterranean spring, and became ruler of semi-humanoids who had evolved to thrive in the caves? Verifying the existence of a Fountain of Youth sounds like the kind of thing Coulson’s team would be dispatched for, only to get waylaid by mute, bald albinos with weird slitted goggle-eyes. (Or lava-men. I really dig lava-men.)
2. The Savage Land - Dinosaurs! In Marvel comics, once upon a time some aliens terraformed a patch in the middle of Antarctica into a teeming tropical jungle, which managed to avoid every extinction event, ever. Yes, it’s more or less a rehash of Conan Doyle’s Lost World, transplanted to someplace even more remote than the Amazon basin. But still, it’s a Marvel location which pops up in the comics so often it should have its own international airport, probably because everyone loves dinosaurs. It’s also home to Marvel’s blond Tarzan analogue, Ka-Zar (not to mention his copper-haired wife, Shanna the She-Devil, and their pet sabretooth, Zabu) and if S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t be the launch pad for obscure Marvel characters to maybe get their own movie deals (Harvey likes Shang Chi, I like Ka-Zar) then what is the point, I ask you.
3. The Astral Plane - Getting a little bit more abstract, but hear me out. The astral plane, that ethereal realm of pure consciouness where mental projections can enjoy the freedom of unlimited movement, is a feature of the Marvel universe which, like the previous entries on this list, would have a lengthy timetable of all the arrivals and departures of various costumed characters. It’s such a nebulous metaphysical concept that it fits in equally well in mystical stories starring Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme (admittedly magic as a concept seems to be something the S.H.I.E.L.D. tv show and the MCU at large are actively avoiding, for now) and more straightforwardly sci-fi fare like X-Men stories where Professor X battles an evil telepathic mutant via psychic avatars. And, in the comics, S.H.I.E.L.D. has its own psi-division, making use of agents gifted with ESP (because why wouldn’t they) so it’s a reasonably natural fit. (The fact that none of Coulson’s team happens to be psychic is a minor storytelling challenge at most.) Best of all, the astral plane is fuzzily defined at best. An all-black or all-white soundstage, some gauzy halo lighting effects, maybe even some monochrome filtering, and there you are.
4. Counter-Earth - OK, the three entries above are all concepts which weren’t invented by Marvel at all, but rather co-opted as concepts that fit right in to a universe full of superheroes and associated craziness. And that in and of itself recommends them as places the S.H.I.E.L.D. show could go, because they wouldn’t have to spend a ton of time explaining to the audience how a “land that time forgot” works; it’s common cultural currency, which I concede is important for a commercial product trying to extend the visibility of a mega-franchise. But now that we’re deeply into the list I’ll throw some sharper curveballs. The concept of Counter-Earth is actually not something dreamed up at Marvel Comics, either, but it’s a bit more obscure than Atlantis or Shangri-La. And the Marvel twist on it is that it’s an artificially created replica, the result of insanely advanced super-science deployed by someone disappointed in humanity who wants to start the whole world over with himself as the godhead. (Himself in this case is the High Evolutionary, whom I have previously expressed a certain fondness for.)
So basically what the show gets to play with here (via perhaps the aforementioned inadvertent wormhole created by tesseract energy - I swear TESSERACT:S.H.I.E.L.D.::METEOR ROCK:SMALLVILLE, mark my words) is an empty world, which happens to look exactly like our world. Genre shows love this trope, really, having everyone wake up in an eerily deserted city (which in practical terms means using the generic backlot set but saving money by hiring exactly zero extras) and trying to figure out where everyone went. In this case, no one has gone anywhere except our heroes, who are unwittingly on the copy of Earth, not the original. Have Fitz figure out the mystery by realizing that the constellations in the sky are exactly wrong for the season (because Counter-Earth is on the opposite side of the sun, you see) or something, and then the real challenge is figuring out a way to get back.
5. The Nexus of All Realities - In what should come as no surprise to anyone who pays any attention to this blog at all, may I humbly suggest that the S.H.I.E.L.D. team make its way down to Florida at some point, to investigate strange energy readings in the swampy Everglades. There they will encounter two things: a cosmic crossroads in multi-dimensional space where people may pass between parallel universes, and its guardian, the Man-Thing!
OK, maybe not Man-Thing, because that is a hell of a practical effect to try to pull off (and the Sci-Fi Channel already tried, not so very long ago). But the Nexus of All Realities is a ridiculous high concept that doesn’t have to look like anything, because its not so much a place as a phenomenon that occurs in a remote swamp. And that phenomenon opens the way to all kinds of crazy goodness: a Mirror Mirror evil version of Coulson’s team, for instance? Or a crossover with the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer! (Gratuitous fan-bait? Why, yes, yes it is.) Infinite possibilities, really.
If I got even one of the items on this list at any point during S.H.I.E.L.D.’s run, I’d be geeked out of my warped little mind. But only time (and Nielsens) will tell, I suppose.