Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Darin Morgan

Subterranean fact check blues

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In Jon Ronson’s uneven but worthwhile book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, there’s a fascinating interview with Jonah Lehrer, the superstar science writer who was famously hung out to dry for a variety of scholarly misdeeds. His troubles began when a journalist named Michael C. Moynihan noticed that six quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s Imagine appeared to have been fabricated. Looking back on this unhappy period, Lehrer blames “a toxic mixture of insecurity and ambition” that led him to take shortcuts—a possibility that occurred to many of us at the time—and concludes:

And then one day you get an email saying that there’s these…Dylan quotes, and they can’t be explained, and they can’t be found anywhere else, and you were too lazy, too stupid, to ever check. I can only wish, and I wish this profoundly, I’d had the temerity, the courage, to do a fact check on my last book. But as anyone who does a fact check knows, they’re not particularly fun things to go through. Your story gets a little flatter. You’re forced to grapple with all your mistakes, conscious and unconscious.

There are at least two striking points about this moment of introspection. One is that the decision whether or not to fact-check a book was left to the author himself, which feels like it’s the wrong way around, although it’s distressingly common. (“Temerity” also seems like exactly the wrong word here, but that’s another story.) The other is that Lehrer avoided asking someone to check his facts because he saw it as a painful, protracted process that obliged him to confront all the places where he had gone wrong.

He’s probably right. A fact check is useful in direct proportion to how much it hurts, and having just endured one recently for my article on L. Ron Hubbard—a subject on whom no amount of factual caution is excessive—I can testify that, as Lehrer says, it isn’t “particularly fun.” You’re asked to provide sources for countless tiny statements, and if you can’t find it in your notes, you just have to let it go, even if it kills you. (As far as I can recall, I had to omit exactly one sentence from the Hubbard piece, on a very minor point, and it still rankles me.) But there’s no doubt in my mind that it made the article better. Not only did it catch small errors that otherwise might have slipped into print, but it forced me to go back over every sentence from another angle, critically evaluating my argument and asking whether I was ready to stand by it. It wasn’t fun, but neither are most stages of writing, if you’re doing it right. In a couple of months, I’ll undergo much the same process with my book, as I prepare the endnotes and a bibliography, which is the equivalent of my present self performing a fact check on my past. This sort of scholarly apparatus might seem like a courtesy to the reader, and it is, but it’s also good for the book itself. Even Lehrer seems to recognize this, stating in his attempt at an apology in a keynote speech for the Knight Foundation:

If I’m lucky enough to write again, I won’t write a thing that isn’t fact-checked and fully footnoted. Because here is what I’ve learned: unless I’m willing to continually grapple with my failings—until I’m forced to fix my first draft, and deal with criticism of the second, and submit the final for a good, independent scrubbing—I won’t create anything worth keeping around.

For a writer whose entire brand is built around counterintuitive, surprising insights, this realization might seem bluntly obvious, but it only speaks to how resistant most writers, including me, are to any kind of criticism. We might take it better if we approached it with the notion that it isn’t simply for the sake of our readers, or our hypothetical critics, or even the integrity of the subject matter, but for ourselves. A footnote lurking in the back of the book makes for a better sentence on the page, if only because of the additional pass that it requires. It would help if we saw such standards—the avoidance of plagiarism, the proper citation of sources—not as guidelines imposed by authority from above, but as a set of best practices that well up from inside the work itself. A few days ago, there yet was another plagiarism controversy, which, in what Darin Morgan once called “one of those coincidences found only in real life and great fiction,” also involved Bob Dylan. As Andrea Pitzer of Slate recounts it:

During his official [Nobel] lecture recorded on June 4, laureate Bob Dylan described the influence on him of three literary works from his childhood: The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Moby-Dick. Soon after, writer Ben Greenman noted that in his lecture Dylan seemed to have invented a quote from Moby-Dick…I soon discovered that the Moby-Dick line Dylan dreamed up last week seems to be cobbled together out of phrases on the website SparkNotes, the online equivalent of CliffsNotes…Across the seventy-eight sentences in the lecture that Dylan spends describing Moby-Dick, even a cursory inspection reveals that more than a dozen of them appear to closely resemble lines from the SparkNotes site.

Without drilling into it too deeply, I’ll venture to say that if this all seems weird, it’s because Bob Dylan, of all people, after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, might have cribbed statements from an online study guide written by and for college students. But isn’t that how it always goes? Anecdotally speaking, plagiarists seem to draw from secondary or even tertiary sources, like encyclopedias, since the sort of careless or hurried writer vulnerable to indulging in it in the first place isn’t likely to grapple with the originals. The result is an inevitable degradation of information, like a copy of a copy. As Edward Tufte memorably observes in Visual Explanations: “Incomplete plagiarism leads to dequantification.” In context, he’s talking about the way in which illustrations and statistical graphics tend to lose data the more often they get copied. (In The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, he cites a particularly egregious example, in which a reproduction of a scatterplot “forgot to plot the points and simply retraced the grid lines from the original…The resulting figure achieves a graphical absolute zero, a null data-ink ratio.”) But it applies to all kinds of plagiarism, and it makes for a more compelling argument, I think, than the equally valid point that the author is cheating the source and the reader. In art or literature, it’s better to argue from aesthetics than ethics. If fact-checking strengthens a piece of writing, then plagiarism, with its effacing of sources and obfuscation of detail, can only weaken it. One is the opposite of the other, and it’s no surprise that the sins of plagiarism and fabrication tend to go together. They’re symptoms of the same underlying sloppiness, and this is why writers owe it to themselves—not to hypothetical readers or critics—to weed them out. A writer who is sloppy on small matters of fact can hardly avoid doing the same on the higher levels of an argument, and policing the one is a way of keeping an eye on the other. It isn’t always fun. But if you’re going to be a writer, as Dylan himself once said: “Now you’re gonna have to get used to it.”

Astounding Stories #4: Sinister Barrier

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Sinister Barrier

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

At the beginning of the only episode worth watching of the tenth season of The X-Files, a dejected Mulder says wearily to Scully: “Charles Fort spent his entire life researching natural and scientific anomalies, which he published in four books, all of which I know by heart. And at the end of his life, Fort himself wondered if it hadn’t all been a waste…Is this really how I want to spend the rest of my days? Chasing after monsters?” To which Scully gently replies: “We’ve been given another case, Mulder. It has a monster in it.” And while Mulder’s air of despondency can be attributed in large part to the sensibilities of writer Darin Morgan—who once had a character divided over whether to commit suicide or become a television weatherman—the reference to Fort is revealing. Charles Fort, who died in 1932, was a tireless cataloger of anomalous events from newspapers and scientific journals, mostly gathered in the reading room of the New York Public Library, and he’s something of a secular saint to those of us who try to take an agnostic approach to the unexplained. During his life, he was the object of a small but devoted following that included the authors Theodore Dreiser and Ben Hecht, and in the years that followed, he became the hidden thread that ran through an entire subgenre of science fiction. The X-Files, as Morgan implies, falls directly in his line of descent, and if I’m honest with myself, when I look at the science fiction I’ve published, it’s obvious that I do, too.

And I’m not the only one. Take Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell, which I think is one of the four or five best science fiction novels ever written. It was originally published in 1939 in the inaugural issue of Unknown, and there’s a persistent rumor that John W. Campbell founded the entire magazine solely to find a place for this sensational story, which wasn’t quite right for Astounding. The truth is a little more complicated than that, but there’s no question that the novel made a huge impression on Campbell, as it still does on receptive readers today. After a quick nod to Charles Fort on the very first page, it opens with one of the great narrative hooks of all time: scientists across the world are committing suicide in exceptionally gruesome ways, and the only factor connecting the deaths, at least at first, is the fact that each man had painted his upper arm with iodine and dosed himself with mescal and methylene blue. Bill Graham, a kind of proto-Mulder working for military intelligence, is assigned to the investigation, and as he digs even deeper into the case, the anomalies continue to multiply. He discovers that one of the dead scientists had been looking into the low rate of goiter among the institutionally insane, and in a page of discarded notes, he reads the words: Sailors are notoriously susceptible. And he ultimately realizes that an excess of iodine—common in a seafaring diet, and inversely correlated with goiter—leads to changes in the eye and nervous system that allowed the scientists to stumble across a terrible truth.

Eric Frank Russell

By this point in the novel, I was sitting up in my chair, because what Russell is doing here is so close to what I’ve spent so many stories trying to achieve. And the big revelation more than lives up to our expectations. It turns out that humanity isn’t the highest form of life on this planet: instead, we’re little more than cattle being raised and devoured by aliens called Vitons that live in the upper atmosphere. Normally, they exist in the infrared range, so they’re invisible, but after being dosed with iodine, mescal, and methylene blue, we can see them for what they really are: balls of glowing plasma that descend on their unwilling victims and suck out their emotional energy. The Vitons can also read minds, which means that they can target and destroy anyone who glimpses the truth, and once Graham realizes what is going on, he finds that his own thoughts—and even his dreams—can betray him to the enemy. Other human beings can also be controlled by the Vitons, turning them into murderous automatons, which means that he can trust no one. This only complicates his efforts to fight the menace, which he soon identifies as the secret cause behind countless seemingly unrelated events. The Vitons deliberately inflame religious hatred and incite wars, in order to feed off the violent emotions that ensue, and they’re the explanation for such disparate mysteries as the disappearance of the Mary Celeste, the enigma of Kaspar Hauser, ball lightning, and, of course, alien abductions and unidentified flying objects. And as a global cataclysm ensues, Graham finds himself at the center of the resistance movement aimed at freeing mankind from its unseen oppressors.

In all honesty, the third act of Sinister Barrier doesn’t quite live up to that amazing opening, and it all comes down to the development of a superweapon that can destroy the alien menace, a plot device that was already a cliché by the late thirties. And it suffers, like much of the science fiction of its era, from a poorly developed love interest, when Russell’s heart is so clearly elsewhere. But it’s still an amazing read. It takes the novel less than eighty pages to accelerate from that initial string of unconnected deaths to action on a planetary scale, and it’s crammed throughout with action. At its best, it’s unbelievably fun and ingenious, and at times, it eerily anticipates developments to come. (For instance, it speculates that the Vitons were behind the actual unexplained suicide of the astronomer William Wallace Campbell, who, decades later, would lend his name to the Campbell Crater on Mars—which also honors a certain science fiction editor.) It’s so good, in fact, that it makes later efforts in the same line seem almost superfluous. To modern eyes, it reads like an entire season’s worth of The X-Files compressed into a single breathless narrative, and it even anticipates The Matrix in its vision of the entire human race enslaved and fed upon without its knowledge. If Fort was the godfather of the paranormal, Russell was the first author to fully realize its possibilities in fiction, and anyone who explores the same ground is in his debt, knowingly or otherwise. And I’m strangely glad that I didn’t discover this novel until I’d already made a few similar efforts of my own. If I’d known about it, I might have been too daunted to go any further. Because a little knowledge, as Russell warns us, can be a dangerous thing.

Our struggle, part two

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William B. Davis on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for the X-Files episode “My Struggle II.”

“The writers we absorb when we’re young bind us to them, sometimes lightly, sometimes with iron,” Daniel Mendelsohn once wrote in The New Yorker. “In time, the bonds fall away, but if you look very closely you can sometimes make out the pale white groove of a faded scar, or the telltale chalky red of old rust.” That’s true of movies, television, and other forms of art, too, and it’s particularly powerful when it happens in your early teens. If you want to change somebody’s life forever, just find him when he’s thirteen—and give him a book. I’ve increasingly come to recognize that two-thirds of my inner life was shaped by half a dozen objects that I happened to encounter, almost by accident, during a window of time that opened up when I was twelve and closed about two years later. They included a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, a movie and a television series by David Lynch, and a pair of novels by Umberto Eco. Take any of these props away, and the whole edifice comes crashing down, or at least reassembles itself into a drastically different form. And of all the nudges I received that put me on the course I’m on today, few have been more dramatic than that of The X-Files, which premiered as I was entering the eighth grade and left a mark, or a scar like that of a smallpox vaccination, that I can still see now.

I’m writing this because I’ve realized that a young person encountering The X-Files today for the first time at age thirteen, as I did, wouldn’t even have been born when the original finale aired. It’s likely, then, that there’s a version of me being exposed to this premise and these characters courtesy of the show’s revival who has never seen the series in any other form. And I honestly have no idea what that kid must be thinking right now. Aside from a miracle of an episode from Darin Morgan, the reboot has been an undeniable letdown even for longtime fans, but to new viewers, it must seem totally inexplicable. It’s easy to picture someone watching this week’s finale—which is devoid of thrills, suspense, or even basic clarity—and wondering what all the fuss was about. I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that my favorite television series, or at least the one that had the greatest impact on what I’ve ended up doing with my life, was so uneven that I don’t need to watch the majority of its episodes ever again. But to someone who hasn’t made that mental adjustment, or isn’t familiar with the heights the show could reach on those rare occasions when it was firing on all cylinders, the revival raises the question of why anyone was clamoring for its return in the first place. If I were watching it with someone who had never seen it before, and who knew how much I loved it, I’d be utterly humiliated.

Lauren Ambrose and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

I don’t think anyone, aside perhaps from Chris Carter, believes that this season gained many new fans. But that isn’t the real loss. The X-Files, for all its flaws, was a show that could change lives. I’ve written here before of the Scully effect that led young women to pursue careers in science, medicine, and law enforcement—which would be completely incomprehensible to someone who knows Scully only from her reappearance here. (Gillian Anderson does what she can, as always, but she still sounds as if she’s reading the opening narration to “My Struggle II” at gunpoint. And when she sequences her own genome in what feels like record time, I just wanted her to say that she was sending it to Theranos.) The reboot isn’t likely to spark anyone’s curiosity about anything, aside from the question of why so many people cared. And while it’s a tall order to ask a television show to change lives, it isn’t so unreasonable when you consider how it once pulled it off. The X-Files entered my life and never left it because it was clever, competent, and atmospheric; it featured a pair of attractive leads whom I’d be happy to follow anywhere; and its premise pointed toward a world of possible stories, however little of it was fulfilled in practice. It changed me because it came along at the right time and it did what it was supposed to do. The reboot didn’t even manage that. If anything, it made me retroactively question my own good taste.

I won’t bother picking apart “My Struggle II” in detail, since the episode did a fine job of undermining itself, and there are plenty of postmortems available elsewhere. But I’ve got to point out the fundamental narrative miscalculation of keeping Mulder and Scully apart for the entire episode, which is indefensible, even if it was the result of a scheduling issue. Even at the revival’s low points, the chemistry between the leads was enough to keep us watching, and removing it only highlights how sloppy the rest really was. It doesn’t help that Scully is paired instead with Lauren Ambrose, giving a misdirected interpretation of a character who isn’t that far removed from Scully herself in the show’s early seasons—which just reminds us of how much Anderson brought to that part. The episode falls to pieces as you watch it, packing a contagion storyline that could have filled an entire season into less than fifty minutes, reducing Joel McHale’s right-wing pundit, who was such a promising character on paper, to a device for delivering exposition. (Since the episode ends on a cliffhanger anyway, it could have just moved it to earlier in the story, ending on the outbreak, which would have given it some breathing room. Not that I think it would have mattered.) As the revival slunk to its whimper of a close, my wife said that I’d been smart to keep my expectations low, but as it turns out, they weren’t low enough. If the series comes back, I’ll still watch it, in yet another triumph of hope over experience. Keeping up my hopes will be a struggle. But it wouldn’t be the first time.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2016 at 9:48 am

How I like my Scully

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David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.”

Dana Scully, as I’ve written elsewhere, is my favorite television character of all time, but really, it would be more accurate to say that I’m in love with a version of Scully who appeared in maybe a dozen or so episodes of The X-Files. Scully always occupied a peculiar position on the series: she was rarely the driving force behind any given storyline, and she was frequently there as a sounding board or a sparring partner defined by her reactions to Mulder. As such, she often ended up facilitating stories that had little to do with her strengths, as if her personality was formed by the negative space in which Mulder’s obsessions collided the plot points of a particular episode. She was there to move things along, and she could be a badass or a convenient victim, a quip machine or a martyr, based solely on what the episode needed to get to its destination. That’s true of many protagonists on network dramas or procedurals: they’re under so much pressure to advance the plot that they don’t have time to do anything else. But even in the early seasons, a quirkier, far more interesting character was emerging at the edges of the frame. I’m not talking about the Scully of the abduction or cancer or pregnancy arcs, who was defined by her pain—and, more insidiously, by her body. I’m talking about the Dana Scully of whom I once wrote: “The more I revisit the show, the more Scully’s skepticism starts to seem less like a form of denial than a distinct, joyous, sometimes equally insane approach to the game.”

And this is the Scully who was on full display last night, in Darin Morgan’s lovely “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.” Morgan is rightly revered among X-Files fans as the staff writer who expanded the tonal possibilities of the show while questioning many of its basic assumptions, but it’s also worth noting how fully he understood and loved Scully, to an extent that wasn’t even true of Chris Carter himself. If you’re intuitively skeptical of the show’s premises, Scully is the natural focal point, since she’s already raised most of the obvious objections. What Morgan created, especially in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “War of the Coprophages,” was a character who both acknowledged the madness of her situation and took a bemused, gleeful pleasure in navigating it with dignity, humor, and humanity intact. Morgan’s vision of life was often despairing, but he grasped that Scully saw the way out of the dilemma more truly than Mulder ever could. In a world where everyone dies alone, regardless of whether it’s because of a monster attack or suicide or heart disease, we can’t do much more than retain our detachment and our ability to laugh at its absurdity. (This incarnation of Scully belonged to Morgan, but Vince Gilligan did a nice job of simulating it in episodes like “Small Potatoes” and “Bad Blood,” which suggests that X-Files writers ought to be judged by how well they understood her at her best.)

Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

Objectively speaking, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” isn’t one of Morgan’s finest efforts, and it’s probably the most minor episode he’s written since “Humbug.” Its central premise—a monster who turns into a man when he’s bitten by a human being—is the best pure idea he’s ever had, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. The plots of Morgan’s classic episodes don’t sound particularly promising when you reduce them to a capsule description: they’re more an excuse to ring a series of variations on a theme and to wander down whatever weird byways he wants to explore. The twist in “Were-Monster” is so clever that it seems to have handcuffed him a little, and as goofy as the episode often is, it’s surprisingly straightforward as a narrative. (This actually becomes a gag in itself, as the monster lays out his backstory in a ludicrously detailed flashback that is so informative that even Mulder has trouble believing it.) But it’s also possible that this wasn’t the time or place for an installment like “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” which pushed against the conventions of a show that was still cranking out an episode every week. It’s been twenty years since “Jose Chung,” and I think that Morgan intuitively understood that there was no point in undermining something that no longer existed. “Were-Monster” isn’t a subversion, but a renewal of a certain vision about these characters that has been lost for decades. As David Thomson said about Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, after filling a page with a list of its shortcomings: “Still, it was done.”

And although it tracks the Night Stalker version of Morgan’s script fairly closely, in the small details, it feels just right. There’s something here that wasn’t always evident in his earlier work: an obvious affection for the characters, including Mulder himself, for whom Morgan seemed to have little patience. Morgan has always spoken about his stint on The X-Files with a touch of ambivalence, and it’s doubtful that he ever felt entirely comfortable in the writer’s room. With the passage of time, he seems to have realized how much the show meant to him, and “Were-Monster” plays like an act of reconciliation between the series and the writer who provided it with its finest moments. It’s full of touches that I’d be tempted to call fan service, except that they feel more like Morgan’s notes to himself, or a belated acknowledgment that he loved these characters even when he was ruthlessly satirizing them. At one point, Scully glances up from an autopsy table and says: “I forgot how much fun these cases could be.” Watching it, I said aloud: “Me, too.” And it’s a message from Morgan to the fans who have revisited his episodes dozens of times. It doesn’t reach the heights of his best work—although I reserve the right to revise my opinion—but it does something even better: it reminds us, in a way that the previous two episodes did not, of why this show meant so much to us for so long. Later, after listening to a particularly screwy rant from her partner, Scully smiles to herself and says: “Yeah, this is how I like my Mulder.” And even if we never see these versions of them again, for now, they exist. It was done. And it’s a miracle.

Written by nevalalee

February 2, 2016 at 9:22 am

The alien corn

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The X-Files episode "Founder's Mutation"

For the first five minutes of “Founder’s Mutation,” the second episode of the belated revival of The X-Files, even the most skeptical fan might start to feel a glimmer of hope. After a gory cold open that wouldn’t have been out of place in the show’s prime, we cut to the most reassuring sight imaginable: Mulder and Scully, attired in sharp suits, kneeling over a fresh corpse with a crime scene photographer clicking away. (It’s an image so engrained in the show’s visual fabric that Darin Morgan was making fun of it twenty years ago in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” but it’s still good to see again.) Unfortunately, it soon becomes hard for the viewer to sustain that sense of optimism. The storyline is even more incoherent than usual, with plot points drawn apparently at random from a raffle drum in the writer’s room: genetic manipulation, sinister birds, psychokinesis, evil corporations, infrasound, psychic siblings, mind control, experiments on babies, alien DNA. Much of it plays, ironically enough, as if it had been written by an extraterrestrial who knew how such scenes looked and sounded but not what they meant, or as if we were watching our own hazy memories of the episode twenty or so years down the line: it’s all a little blurred, with scenes thrown together from what feel like two different stories, just as I can never remember the difference between, say, “Roland” and “Young at Heart.” Even our guest star, Doug Savant, is the kind of middling name actor the show would have featured in the mid-nineties, which only underlines the sense that we’re nostalgically recalling—and quickly forgetting—the installment even as it unfolds.

Which is all just to say that “Founder’s Mutation,” despite the hopes I expressed yesterday, is pretty corny, even dire. (Given the percentages that characterized the show even in its best years, a six-episode run could be expected to include one great episode, two good ones, and three mediocre or worse—and we’re burning through the latter at an alarming rate.) The only way to make sense of it as a piece of television is to view it as a sort of transitional casefile, an episode that looks and moves like a standard Monster of the Week but is really seeking other effects. And in fact, when you start thinking of it less as a proper story than as a sort of tone poem or a scrapbook of stock tropes designed to spark certain responses in Mulder and Scully, it becomes slightly more explicable. The show has never been shy about trading on nightmarish images of pregnancy or fetal trauma, and “Founder’s Mutation,” with its procession of children suffering from hideous genetic deformities, crosses that line even more than usual. Here, the images seem intended only to evoke feelings in Mulder and Scully about their lost son, and as it turns out, those segments, which feature some good work from both Duchovny and Anderson, are the best part of the episode. They’re still a little off, though, especially when you consider that little William Mulder came and went so late in the show’s run that he doesn’t have much resonance even for true fans. And it feels borderline tasteless to have those emotions triggered by images of genuine pain.

The X-Files episode "Eve"

But what bothered me the most about the episode, given the role it plays in this limited run, is its cavalier attitude toward narrative resolution. There’s a widespread misconception, which apparently extends even to the show’s writers, that the strength of The X-Files lay in its willingness to leave stories open-ended. It’s true that its overarching mythology never tied anything off or explained much of anything, although most fans would probably argue that this was a bug, not a feature. But when you look at the strongest Monster of the Week episodes, you find that there’s rarely any doubt about what really happened. Mulder and Scully may be left in doubt, or without any concrete evidence to show for their troubles, but the viewer usually has all the pieces. Episodes like “Pusher” or “Ice,” to name just two of the show’s best casefiles, are perfect narrative puzzles in which every element serves a purpose and every story point makes a surprising amount of sense. And it’s damning to compare “Founder’s Mutation,” which doesn’t make any sense at all, to a first-season episode like “Eve,” which hits many of the same beats but also holds together as a story, structured as a series of increasingly dark—but delicious—surprises. It’s not that Chris Carter and James Wong, who wrote and directed the episode, have forgotten how to do this: it’s that they clearly don’t think that viewers will find it necessary, as if frustration and loose ends were part of the show’s brand.

But at the risk of stating the obvious, narrative resolution within the confines of individual episodes is more important now than ever, since the show’s future is so finite. Viewers will embrace loose ends in a television show when there’s a chance that they’ll be addressed eventually, even if few series have ever managed to live up to that promise. (This is why the best Monsters of the Week tended to be more cleanly resolved than the episodes from the mytharc: we knew that we weren’t going to see the likes of Flukeman again, so there was greater pressure to supply what little closure the show was willing to provide.) We’re already a third of the way into a foreshortened season, and the odds that any of the story points raised over the last two nights are going to be revisited in a satisfying way are vanishingly small. Writing a television series can resemble an act of sleight of hand, or a confidence game, with the writers assuring us that answers are around the corner as they obfuscate matters even more, but in this case, the trick has no power—it only works when we have a full season or more of possibilities to anticipate. In this case, we know that the magic show is almost over, and that the performer hasn’t delivered on his line of patter in the past. We’re left with nothing but what the show can offer us in the moment, and if I remain absurdly hopeful that I’ll see something good over the coming weeks, it’s because at its best, The X-Files could immerse viewers in the moment as powerfully as any show ever made. Its past was a muddle, its future unknown, so it sought out small flashes of terror or clarity. It could still happen again. As Mulder said thirteen years ago: “Maybe there’s hope.” And he had about as much reason to believe it then as I do now.

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2016 at 9:22 am

The founder’s mutation

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Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

The scientist Max Delbrück never wrote for television—he was a Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist who laid the foundations for the modern discipline of molecular biology—but he understood how it worked. In an interview with the oral history project at CalTech, he famously said:

If you’re too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions; but if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling, you [can] nail it down…I called it the “Principle of Limited Sloppiness.”

Which, when you think about it, is also the recipe for constructing a good genre series. When the pilot first airs, you almost never know what the show is going to be about. (This is not to be confused with its premise, which is something else entirely.) All you can really do is explore possibilities, set up story elements, pair up characters, and throw out ideas, most of which turn out to be dead ends, but some of which theoretically lead to useful adaptations. If it’s too random or sloppy, the show will die before it evolves into something more interesting, but it’s only by “embarking on pathways randomly presented,” as Gregory Bateson said, that you have any hope of finding something new. And the mark of a great showrunner is the ability to create the conditions under which this limited sloppiness can gradually pay off, while minimizing the consequences of any mistakes, of which there are bound to be plenty. As Dana Scully once observed: “There are hits and there are misses…and then there are misses.”

As I once wrote at greater length for Salon: “What strikes me now about the first season of The X-Files is how relentlessly it kept reinventing itself, and how willing it seemed to try anything that worked…As time goes on, the show’s formal incoherence starts to look like its greatest asset.” I thought of these words again last night while watching the show’s return, in an episode aptly titled “My Struggle,” which comes more than thirteen years after the conclusion of its original run. I went in with modest hopes—a level of anticipation that would have been very different if a mediocre second movie hadn’t adjusted my expectations downward—and I agree with most critics that the result is undeniably messy, particularly for a show that had well over a decade to think about how its next phase might look. Characters are introduced and never fully developed; entire scenes seem to lead nowhere; much of it feels rushed, as if large chunks of story had been cut at the last minute; and promising ideas, like the implication that Mulder’s brand of paranoid speculation feeds all too neatly into the conspiracies of right-wing nuts like Glenn Beck, are raised without really being addressed. It doesn’t have the clarity and suspense of the best episodes of the show’s classic mythology, like “Piper Maru/Apocrypha,” and much of it feels like it’s simply laying the groundwork for “Founder’s Mutation,” which airs tonight. As a fan, I enjoyed watching the old band get back together, but I have a hunch that a wider audience was left wondering why it was supposed to care.

Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Yet this kind of sloppiness was so integral to the original show’s success that we had no reason to expect anything else. Series creator Chris Carter, who wrote and directed the premiere, was never a particularly strong storyteller in his own right, and staff writers and freelancers like Glen Morgan, James Wong, Darin Morgan, and Vince Gilligan were generally responsible for the show’s most memorable moments. But that’s notable and revealing in itself. Carter’s genius, which shouldn’t be underestimated, lay both in conceiving of the show’s premise—which was an unparalleled engine for generating stories—and in managing the whole complicated machine in a way that allowed for its inherent sloppiness to catalyze the work of others. Its first season was a string of increasingly wild one-off experiments that resulted in many of its most useful formulas and ideas, as well as a bunch of episodes that went nowhere and were quickly forgotten. Keeping the whole enterprise moving while scattering seeds that would bear fruit for later writers was what Carter did best, and it worked great when he had twenty or more episodes in which to refine the results. But it doesn’t really work with six. There isn’t enough time. And while I don’t blame Carter for falling back on a tone and approach that worked so well when the show, against all odds, had time to develop it, I do question whether it makes sense in such a limited window. (It’s also instructive to note that the show’s single most significant mutation, in the form of the tonal expansion of Darin Morgan’s “Humbug,” didn’t occur until late in the second season.)

But I wouldn’t necessarily have it any other way, especially because I’ve come to realize that the sloppiness of The X-Files had repercussions in my life far beyond that of the show itself: it’s the primary reason that the original series has influenced my own career as a writer more than just about any other work of art. I’ve published three novels that can best be understood as a veiled love letter to what the show accomplished, as well as another book’s worth of short science fiction that tries to recapture the same magic. Even my fondness for female protagonists can be traced back to Scully. (Just as the Scully effect encouraged a generation of young women to pursue careers in medicine, science, and law enforcement, her example caused me to think intuitively about science fiction and suspense through a woman’s eyes.) And if the series had been tidier, or more reliable, it wouldn’t have seized my imagination to the same extent: a more consistent show would have allowed me to settle for what it had to offer, rather than seeing what I could do with the tools it provided. A “perfect” show tends to close off possibilities beyond what its creator envisioned; a show of limited sloppiness provides its writers and fans with the material for unlimited dreams. In the same interview that I quoted above, Delbrück noted: “I have said…that science is a haven for freaks, that people go into science because they are misfits, and that it is a sheltered place where they can spin their own yarn and have recognition, be tolerated and happy, and have approval for it.” That’s what The X-Files was for me. And it still is—despite, or because of, all its hits and misses.

Written by nevalalee

January 25, 2016 at 10:22 am

The X Word

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"Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Man"

Note: Spoilers follow—really!—for the upcoming season of The X-Files.

As a longtime X-Files fan eagerly awaiting the show’s upcoming return, I’ve spent the last year consuming even the tiniest scraps of information about the new season. Casting announcements, photos from the set, the briefest of teasers—I’ve studied them all, not so much for clues about what was coming as for the small tingle of pleasurable anticipation they inspired. Last week saw the release of our thickest slice of information yet: a full featurette, The X-Files Reopened,” with more than twenty minutes of interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and clips from new episodes. It was great to see David Duchovny, the agelessly beautiful Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi, and Chris Carter, and I was especially glad for the appearance of a surprisingly trim-looking Darin Morgan. Morgan, the writer responsible for such classic casefiles as “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” is one of my favorite authors in any medium, and the prospect of a new episode from his brain is one of the most exciting aspects of the show’s resurrection. As I listened to him describe his episode and caught glimpses of the new scenes, however, I noticed that much of it seemed familiar. And I finally realized that not only did I know a lot about this episode, but I’d read an early version of the script in its entirety.

At this point, a little background information is probably necessary. After his short but triumphant run at The X-Files, including an Emmy win for “Clyde Bruckman,” Morgan moved to Millennium, where he wrote and directed a pair of excellent episodes. And after that—nothing. Like many a great screenwriter before him, Morgan spent more than a decade in the wilderness, with rumors of new projects occasionally surfacing but nothing produced under his byline. (I know this because I actually created his Wikipedia article, a fact that I occasionally forget when I go to look him up and find myself reading my own words.) Morgan tended to pop up in projects produced by his brother Glen, another X-Files veteran, and his first televised scripts in many years took the form of two installments of the supernatural teen soap Tower Prep, which aired in 2010. Before that, however, he’d worked as a consulting producer on his brother’s reboot of Night Stalker—the original version of which had influenced Chris Carter himself—that aired for a grand total of six weeks five years earlier. Morgan wrote a script for the show, titled “The M Word,” which was never produced. But the teleplay was made available as a bonus feature in the box set of the series, and it later turned up online, which is where I found it years ago. It’s smart and funny, like everything else Morgan has ever written, and you can still read the whole thing here.

"Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Man"

And a quick comparison of the X-Files promotional footage and the Night Stalker script indicates that Darin Morgan’s “new” episode, titled “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Man,” is close to an exact remake of “The M Word.” In the segment of the featurette starting around 16:33, Morgan says that he had wanted to make a monster in homage to Creature from the Black Lagoon, which precisely matches the description from the teleplay:

The man-sized creature looks reptilian, resembling a horned lizard (including, obviously, some occipital horns). Its features also have a humanness to them, in the manner of Jack Pierce’s classic Universal makeup designs of yore. In short—it’s a monster!

The scene that follows, in which the monster scares a couple of stoners in the woods, appears to have been faithfully shot as written, down to the line “Did that just happen?” A later scene, in which Mulder and Scully interview a transgender character who shot at the monster, also tracks a scene in the earlier script almost word for word, including the opening camera move in which Mulder is seen through a hole in the witness’s purse—”Looks like you gave it a pretty good shot!”—and the memorable exchange: “It was only wearing underwear.” “Boxers or briefs?” Both feature a scene in which the hapless protagonist is surprised to see that his hand is transforming. And this character’s name in both episodes, which is a slight plot spoiler in itself, is Guy Mann.

As far as I know, no other media outlet has noticed that a script for one of the most highly anticipated and closely guarded reboots of the year is basically available online for anybody to read. An article by Den of Geek from last summer refers to the “possibility” that the script was derived from “The M Word,” and a few astute fans on X-Files message boards have also made the connection, but that’s it. I haven’t done more than skim the old script, mostly because I don’t want my first experience of the episode to be ruined, but part of me feels slightly disappointed that Morgan didn’t write a new story from scratch: he understands the appeal of the original show so well—and was responsible in such a large part for creating it—that I wish he’d done more than plug Mulder and Scully into an existing equation. Of course, this script has probably been revised in ways that we haven’t seen, and I suspect that when Morgan wrote his original Night Stalker episode, he was secretly thinking of The X-Files anyway. And I can’t blame him for wanting to rescue a premise that he thought was lost: Morgan’s writing process has always been a laborious one, and it makes sense that he’d try to recover those sunk costs. (As Jose Chung once said: “Unlike profiling serial killers, writing is a very depressing and lonely profession.”) If I were in his shoes, I’d have done much the same. I’m still looking forward to it more than anything else due to air on television this year. And if the revived series takes off and we’re lucky, maybe Morgan will start afresh, and solve a new equation for X.

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