Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The X-Files

The X factor

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On Wednesday, the Washington Post published an article on the absence of women on the writing staff of The X-Files. Its author, Sonia Rao, pointed out that all of the writers for the upcoming eleventh season—including creator Chris Carter, Darin Morgan, Glen Morgan, James Wong, and three newcomers who had worked on the series as assistants—are men, adding: “It’s an industry tradition for television writers to rise through the ranks in this manner, so Carter’s choices were to be expected. But in 2017, it’s worth asking: How is there a major network drama that’s so dominated by male voices?” It’s a good question. The network didn’t comment, but Gillian Anderson responded on Twitter: “I too look forward to the day when the numbers are different.” In the same tweet, she noted that out of over two hundred episodes, only two were directed by women, one of whom was Anderson herself. (The other was Michelle MacLaren, who has since gone on to great things in partnership with Vince Gilligan.) Not surprisingly, there was also a distinct lack of female writers on the show’s original run, with just a few episodes written by women, including Anderson, Sara B. Cooper, and Kim Newton, the latter of whom, along with Darin Morgan, was responsible for one of my favorite installments, “Quagmire.” And you could argue that their continued scarcity is due to a kind of category selection, in which we tend to hire people who look like those who have filled similar roles in the past. It’s largely unconscious, but no less harmful, and I say this as a fan of a show that means more to me than just about any other television series in history.

I’ve often said elsewhere that Dana Scully might be my favorite fictional character in any medium, but I’m also operating from a skewed sample set. If you’re a lifelong fan of a show like The X-Files, you tend to repeatedly revisit your favorite episodes, but you probably never rewatch the ones that were mediocre or worse, which leads to an inevitable distortion. My picture of Scully is constructed out of four great Darin Morgan episodes, a tiny slice of the mytharc, and a dozen standout casefiles like “Pusher” and even “Triangle.” I’ve watched each of these episodes countless times, so that’s the version of the series that I remember—but it isn’t necessarily the show that actually exists. A viewer who randomly tunes into a rerun on syndication is much more likely to see Scully on an average week than in “War of the Coprophages,” and in many episodes, unfortunately, she’s little more than a foil for her partner or a convenient victim to be rescued. (Darin Morgan, who understood Scully better than anyone, seems to have gravitated toward her in part out of his barely hidden contempt for Mulder.) Despite these flaws, Scully still came to mean the world to thousands of viewers, including young women whom she inspired to go into medicine and the sciences. Gillian Anderson herself is deeply conscious of this, and this seems to have contributed to her refreshing candor here, as well as on such related issues as the fact that she was initially offered half of David Duchovny’s salary to return. Anderson understands exactly how much she means to us, and she’s conducted herself accordingly.

The fact that the vast majority of the show’s episodes were written by men also seems to have fed into one of its least appealing qualities, which was how Scully’s body—and particularly her reproductive system—was repeatedly used as a plot point. Part of this was accidental: Anderson’s pregnancy had to be written into the second season, and the writers ended up with an abduction arc with a medical subtext that became hopelessly messy later on. It may not have been planned that way, any more than anything else on this show ever was, but it had the additional misfortune of being tethered to a conspiracy storyline for which it was expected to provide narrative clarity. After the third season, nobody could keep track of the players and their motivations, so Scully’s cancer and fertility issues were pressed into service as a kind of emotional index to the rest. These were pragmatic choices, but they were also oddly callous, especially as their dramatic returns continued to diminish. And in its use of a female character’s suffering to motivate a male protagonist, it was unfortunately ahead of the curve. When you imagine flipping the narrative so that Mulder, not Scully, was one whose body was under discussion, you see how unthinkable this would have been. It’s exactly the kind of unexamined notion that comes out of a roomful of writers who are all operating with the same assumptions. It isn’t just a matter of taste or respect, but of storytelling, and in retrospect, the show’s steady decline seems inseparable from the monotony of its creative voices.

And this might be the most damning argument of all. Even before the return of Twin Peaks reminded us of how good this sort of revival could be, the tenth season of The X-Files was a crushing disappointment. It had exactly one good episode, written, not coincidentally, by Darin Morgan, and featuring Scully at her sharpest and most joyous. Its one attempt at a new female character, despite the best efforts of Lauren Ambrose, was a frustrating misfire. Almost from the start, it was clear that Chris Carter didn’t have a secret plan for saving the show, and that he’d already used up all his ideas over the course of nine increasingly tenuous seasons. It’s tempting to say that the show had burned though all of its possible plotlines, but that’s ridiculous. This was a series that had all of science fiction, fantasy, and horror at its disposal, combined with the conspiracy thriller and the procedural, and it should have been inexhaustible. It wasn’t the show that got tired, but its writers. Opening up the staff to a more diverse set of talents would have gone a long way toward addressing this. (The history of science fiction is as good an illustration as any of the fact that diversity is good for everyone, not simply its obvious beneficiaries. Editors and showrunners who don’t promote it end up paying a creative price in the long run.) For a show about extreme possibilities, it settled for formula distressingly often, and it would have benefited from adding a wider range of perspectives—particularly from writers with backgrounds that have historically offered insight into such matters as dealing with oppressive, impersonal institutions, which is what the show was allegedly about. It isn’t too late. But we might have to wait for the twelfth season.

Written by nevalalee

June 30, 2017 at 8:56 am

White Sands, Black Lodge

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Note: This post discusses details of last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

Before the premiere of the third season of Twin Peaks, I occasionally found myself wondering how it could possibly stand out in an entertainment landscape that it had helped to create. After all, we’re living in an era of peak television—it’s right there in the name—and it seemed possible that its “quirkiness,” which now seems like a comically inadequate word, would come across as more of the same. By now, it’s clear that my fears were groundless. Last night’s episode was one of the strangest things I’ve ever witnessed in any medium, and it confirms that this series is still capable of heady stylistic and conceptual surprises. The first ten minutes are as close as it gets to business as usual, with Dark Cooper ensnared by a surprisingly routine double cross. Then it gets deeply weird, with an extended musical guest performance by Nine Inch Nails and a Kubrickian star gate sequence emerging from the atomic bomb at Trinity, with some atypically good special effects. (David Lynch is usually happier with camera tricks that he seems to have cooked up in his basement.) The rest is alternately bewildering, lovely, horrifying, slow, incomprehensible, and hypnotic, and it just keeps going. Any one element wouldn’t have been totally out of place, but taken together, it’s the longest sequence of its kind in Lynch’s entire body of work, and it aired on Showtime. We aren’t even halfway through this season, but it feels like a hinge moment, the dividing line in which all the ways we thought we were learning how to watch this show literally blew up in our faces. A girl also swallows a giant bug.

Yet if this was possibly the weirdest hour of television I’ve ever seen, it’s also the most conventional episode of the season so far. This observation deeply annoyed my wife when I came up with it last night, but hear me out. Instead of a collection of sketches and dead ends, this was a hugely eventful episode in terms of how it affected its viewers, and it was full of information—weird information, but information nonetheless. Without trying to parse or interpret the images themselves, I feel comfortable in saying that they’re the equivalent of an origin story, however vague the details might be. In the extended scene between the Giant and the new character identified in the closing credits as Señorita Dido, there’s even the implication that the whole series is about restoring balance to the Force, with Laura Palmer’s spirit migrating earthward, decades before her birth, in response to the rise of evil. Even if we end our speculations here, this is more data than we’ve ever been given about the show’s backstory. The very idea of a “mythology” seems uncharacteristically prosaic for a series that has always stubbornly resisted being pinned down, but in its period setting, it feels kind of like one of those episodes of The X-Files in which unexplained events unfold decades ago in the New Mexico desert. (Between Alamogordo and Roswell, that state has come to play a very specific role in the American collective unconscious, and I almost wish that Twin Peaks had gone elsewhere for inspiration.)

In other words, if you’re approaching Twin Peaks as a code or a series of clues, this episode gave you more material than any previous installment. In its particulars, it was as crazy as hell, but its functional role was curiously straightforward. And while it’s always a fool’s game to pick apart the contributions of the show’s creators, the impulse to ground the story in the past feels less like Lynch than like Mark Frost, who published an entire book last year, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, that went over similar ground. (I haven’t read it, but a quick browse reveals that it mentions L. Ron Hubbard and his sojourn with the rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons, which means that I’ll probably need to take a closer look.) Frost has an odd resume, with a body of work since the show’s initial run that includes conspiracy thrillers, nonfiction books about golf, and the scripts to the first two Fantastic Four movies. He has an unusual interest in the past, but it feels literal-minded in comparison to Lynch, who uses the iconography of previous eras as a backdrop for dreams. Their interplay, like that of Lynch and his other longtime collaborator Barry Gifford, yield results that are strikingly different from what you get when the director is off working on his own. Among other things, their cultural reference points—like The Wizard of Oz in Wild at Heart—are more transparent. And we seem to be reaching a point in the series in which that shape is becoming incrementally more visible.

That’s why I’m slightly wary of what comes next, as much as I loved what I saw here. I don’t want Twin Peaks to become a crossword puzzle, or to have a coherent mythology that can be picked apart online. It was always most fascinating when it hinted at the existence of a pattern that lay behind the surface of the series, and even the viewer’s own life—a dream world, overheard in the soundtrack, that grows more elusive the older we get, and then revisits us in old age. At its best, it was a show that seemed knew something that we didn’t. If anything, it may have just shown us too much, although that depends on what happens next. The episode ends without returning us to the present, but I’d be very happy if, when it picks up next week, we moved on without referring to any of it, as if it were an extended footnote or appendix that didn’t need to be read to appreciate the text. It’s information for the audience, not the characters, and the nice thing about this revival is that it allows for the kind of massive structural digression that wouldn’t have been feasible twenty-five years ago. (Some of the least successful scenes in the original run of Twin Peaks involve Cooper and Sheriff Truman speculating about the true nature of the Black Lodge. The fact that we just got so much backstory in visual form hopefully removes the need to spell it out in the dialogue. And I only wish that The X-Files had taken the same approach.) It was brilliant and unforgettable. And I hope that we never have to talk about it again.

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2017 at 8:54 am

Don’t stay out of Riverdale

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Riverdale

In the opening seconds of the series premiere of Riverdale, a young man speaks quietly in voiceover, his words playing over idyllic shots of American life:

Our story is about a town, a small town, and the people who live in the town. From a distance, it presents itself like so many other small towns all over the world. Safe. Decent. Innocent. Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath. The name of our town is Riverdale.

Much later, we realize that the speaker is Jughead of Archie Comics fame, played by former Disney child star Cole Sprouse, which might seem peculiar enough in itself. But what I noticed first about this monologue is that it basically summarizes the prologue of Blue Velvet, which begins with images of roses and picket fences and then dives into the grass, revealing the insects ravening like feral animals in the darkness. It’s one of the greatest declarations of intent in all of cinema, and initially, there’s something a little disappointing in the way that Riverdale feels obliged to blandly state what Lynch put into a series of unforgettable images. Yet I have the feeling that series creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who says that Blue Velvet is one of his favorite movies, knows exactly what he’s doing. And the result promises to be more interesting than even he can anticipate.

Riverdale has been described as The O.C. meets Twin Peaks, which is how it first came to my attention. But it’s also a series on the CW, with all the good, the bad, and the lack of ugly that this implies. This the network that produced The Vampire Diaries, the first three seasons of which unexpectedly generated some of my favorite television from the last few years, and it takes its genre shows very seriously. There’s a fascinating pattern at work within systems that produce such narratives on a regular basis, whether in pulp magazines or comic books or exploitation pictures: as long as you hit all the obligatory notes and come in under budget, you’re granted a surprising amount of freedom. The CW, like its predecessors, has become an unlikely haven for auteurs, and it’s the sort of place where a showrunner like Aguirre-Sacasa—who has an intriguing background in playwriting, comics, and television—can explore a sandbox like this for years. Yet it also requires certain heavy, obvious beats, like structural supports, to prop up the rest of the edifice. A lot of the first episode of Riverdale, like most pilots, is devoted to setting up its premise and characters for even the most distracted viewers, and it can be almost insultingly on the nose. It’s why it feels obliged to spell out its theme of dark shadows beneath its sunlit surfaces, which isn’t exactly hard to grasp. As Roger Ebert wrote decades ago in his notoriously indignant review of Blue Velvet: “What are we being told? That beneath the surface of Small Town, U.S.A., passions run dark and dangerous? Don’t stop the presses.”

Blue Velvet

As a result, if you want to watch Riverdale at all, you need to get used to being treated occasionally as if you were twelve years old. But Aguirre-Sacasa seems determined to have it both ways. Like Glee before it, it feels as if it’s being pulled in three different directions even before it begins, but in this case, it comes off less as an unwanted side effect than as a strategy. It’s worth noting that not only did Aguirre-Sacasa write for Glee itself, but he’s also the guy who stepped in rewrite Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which means that he knows something about wrangling intractable material for a mass audience under enormous scrutiny. (He’s also the chief creative officer of Archie Comics, which feels like a dream job in the best sort of way: one of his projects at the Yale School of Drama was a play about Archie encountering the murderers Leopold and Loeb, and he later received a cease and desist order from his future employer over Archie’s Weird Fantasy, which depicted its lead character as coming out of the closet.) Riverdale often plays like the work of a prodigiously talented writer trying to put his ideas into a form that could plausibly air on Thursdays after Supernatural. Like most shows at this stage, it’s also openly trying to decide what it’s supposed to be about. And I want to believe, on the basis of almost zero evidence, that Aguirre-Sacasa is deliberately attempting something almost unworkable, in hopes that he’ll be able to stick with it long enough—on a network that seems fairly indulgent of shows on the margins—to make it something special.

Most great television results from this sort of evolutionary process, and I’ve noted before—most explicitly in my Salon piece on The X-Files—that the best genre shows emerge when a jumble of inconsistent elements is given the chance to find its ideal form, usually because it lucks into a position where it can play under the radar for years. The pressures of weekly airings, fan response, critical reviews, and ratings, along with the unpredictable inputs of the cast and writing staff, lead to far more rewarding results than even the most visionary showrunner could produce in isolation. Writers of serialized narratives like comic books know this intuitively, and consciously or not, Aguirre-Sacasa seems to be trying something similar on television. It’s not an approach that would make sense for a series like Westworld, which was produced for so much money and with such high expectations that its creators had no choice but to start with a plan. But it might just work on the CW. I’m hopeful that Aguirre-Sacasa and his collaborators will use the mystery at the heart of the series much as Twin Peaks did, as a kind of clothesline on which they can hang a lot of wild experiments, only a certain percentage of which can be expected to work. Twin Peaks itself provides a measure of this method’s limitations: it mutated into something extraordinary, but it didn’t survive the departure of its original creative team. Riverdale feels like an attempt to recreate those conditions, and if it utilizes the Archie characters as its available raw material, well, why not? If Lynch had been able to get the rights, he might have used them, too.

The test of tone

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Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in In Bruges

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on April 22, 2014.

Tone, as I’ve mentioned before, can be a tricky thing. On the subject of plot, David Mamet writes: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.” And if you can radically shift tones within a single story and still keep the audience on board, you can end up with even more. If you look at the short list of the most exciting directors around—Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, the Coen Brothers—you find that what most of them have in common is the ability to alter tones drastically from scene to scene, with comedy giving way unexpectedly to violence or pathos. (A big exception here is Christopher Nolan, who seems happiest when operating within a fundamentally serious tonal range. It’s a limitation, but one we’re willing to accept because Nolan is so good at so many other things. Take away those gifts, and you end up with Transcendence.) Tonal variation may be the last thing a director masters, and it often only happens after a few films that keep a consistent tone most of the way through, however idiosyncratic it may be. The Coens started with Blood Simple, then Raising Arizona, and once they made Miller’s Crossing, they never had to look back.

The trouble with tone is that it imposes tremendous switching costs on the audience. As Tony Gilroy points out, during the first ten minutes of a movie, a viewer is making a lot of decisions about how seriously to take the material. Each time the level of seriousness changes gears, whether upward or downward, it demands a corresponding moment of consolidation, which can be exhausting. For a story that runs two hours or so, more than a few shifts in tone can alienate viewers to no end. You never really know where you stand, or whether you’ll be watching the same movie ten minutes from now, so your reaction is often how Roger Ebert felt upon watching Pulp Fiction for the first time: “Seeing this movie last May at the Cannes Film Festival, I knew it was either one of the year’s best films, or one of the worst.” (The outcome is also extremely subjective. I happen to think that Vanilla Sky is one of the most criminally underrated movies of the last two decades—few other mainstream films have accommodated so many tones and moods—but I’m not surprised that so many people hate it.) It also annoys marketing departments, who can’t easily explain what the movie is about; it’s no accident that one of the worst trailers I can recall was for In Bruges, which plays with tone as dexterously as any movie in recent memory.

Hugh Dancy on Hannibal

As a result, tone is another element in which television has considerable advantages. Instead of two hours, a show ideally has at least one season, maybe more, to play around with tone, and the number of potential switching points is accordingly increased. A television series is already more loosely organized than a movie, which allows it to digress and go off on promising tangents, and we’re used to being asked to stop and start from week to week, so we’re more forgiving of departures. That said, this rarely happens all at once; like a director’s filmography, a show often needs a season or two to establish its strengths before it can go exploring. When we think back to a show’s pivotal episodes—the ones in which the future of the series seemed to lock into place—they’re often installments that discovered a new tone that worked within the rules that the show had laid down. Community was never the same after “Modern Warfare,” followed by “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” demonstrated how much it could push its own reality while still remaining true to its characters, and The X-Files was altered forever by Darin Morgan’s “Humbug,” which taught the show how far it could kid itself while probing into ever darker places.

At its best, this isn’t just a matter of having a “funny” episode of a dramatic series, or a very special episode of a sitcom, but of building a body of narrative that can accommodate surprise. One of the great pleasures of watching Hannibal lay in how it learned to acknowledge its own absurdity while drawing the noose ever tighter, which only happens after a show has enough history for it to engage in a dialogue with itself. Much the same happened to Breaking Bad, which had the broadest tonal range imaginable: it was able to move between borderline slapstick and the blackest of narrative developments because it could look back and reassure itself that it had already done a good job with both. (Occasionally, a show will emerge with that kind of tone in mind from the beginning. Fargo remains the most fascinating drama on television in large part because it draws its inspiration from one of the most virtuoso experiments with tone in movie history.) If it works, the result starts to feel like life itself, which can’t be confined easily within any one genre. Maybe that’s because learning to master tone is like putting together the pieces of one’s own life: first you try one thing, then something else, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find that they work well side by side.

Written by nevalalee

April 26, 2016 at 9:00 am

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

Alas, “Babylon”

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David Duchovny on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for The X-Files episode “Babylon.”

By now, I’ve more or less resigned myself to the realization that the tenth season of The X-Files will consist of five forgettable episodes and one minor masterpiece. Since the latter is the first true Darin Morgan casefile in close to twenty years, the whole thing still shakes out as a pretty good deal, even if the ratio of good, bad, and mediocre is a little worse than I’d expected. But an installment like this week’s “Babylon” is particularly infuriating because its premise and early moments are so promising, but get systematically squandered by a writer—in this case Chris Carter himself—who seems to have no idea what to do with the opportunities that the revival presented. The first image we see is that of a Muslim man in his twenties on a prayer rug, framed at floor level, and it instantly got my hopes up: this is territory that the original run of the series rarely, if ever, explored, and it’s a rich trove of potential ideas. Even when the young man promptly blows himself up with a friend in a suicide bombing in Texas, I allowed myself to think that the show had something else up its sleeve. It does, but not in a good way: the rest of the episode is a mess, with a mishmash of tones, goofy music cues, dialogue that alternates between frenetic and painfully obvious, an extended hallucination scene, and a weird supporting turn from the gifted Lauren Ambrose, all of which plays even worse than it should because of the pall cast by the opening scene. (Although seeing Mulder in a cowboy hat allowed me to recognize how David Duchovny turned into Fred Ward so gradually that I didn’t even notice.)

In short, it’s not much worth discussing, except for the general observation that if you’re going to use an act of domestic terrorism as a plot device, you’d better be prepared to justify it with some great television. (Even Quantico did a better job of moving rapidly in its own ridiculous direction after an opening terror attack. And the fact that I’m getting nostalgic for Quantico, of all shows, only highlights how disappointing much of this season has been.) But it raises the related issue, which seems worth exploring, of the degree to which The X-Files benefited from the accident of its impeccable historical timing. The series ran for most of the nineties, a decade that wasn’t devoid of partisan politics, but of a kind that tended to focus more on a little blue dress than on Islamic extremism. It had its share of dislocating moments—including the Oklahoma City bombing, which was uncomfortably evoked, with characteristic clumsiness, in The X-Files: Fight the Future—but none that recentered the entire culture in the way that September 11 did. For the most part, The X-Files was free to operate on a separate playing field without much reference to current events, a situation which might not have been the case if its premiere date had been shifted even five years forward or backward. It came after the Cold War and before the war on terror, leaving it with the narrative equivalent of a blank canvas to fill with a cast of imaginary monsters.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

Not surprisingly, Chris Carter has stated elsewhere that the show benefited from occurring before the fall of the World Trade Center, which inaugurated a period, however temporary it turned out to be, in which people wanted to believe in their government. Carter implies that this is antithetical to what The X-Files represented, and while that seems plausible at first glance, it doesn’t really hold water. In many ways, the conspiracy thread was one of its weakest elements of the original series: it quickly became too convoluted for words, and it was often used as a kind of reset button, with shadowy government agents moving in to erase any evidence of that week’s revelations. Aside from one occasion, the tag at the end of the opening credits wasn’t “Trust No One,” but “The Truth is Out There.” Paranoia was a useful narrative device, but it wasn’t central to the show’s appeal, and I’d like to think that the series would have evolved into a different but equally satisfying shape if the politics of the time had demanded it—although the damp squib of the reboot, which was explicitly designed to bring Mulder and Scully into the modern world, doesn’t exactly help to make that case. (The clear parallel here is 24, which was transformed by uncontrollable events into something very unlike what it was once intended to be. One of my favorite pieces of show business trivia is that its producers briefly considered optioning The Da Vinci Code as the plot for the show’s second season, which hints at what that series might have been in some other universe.)

In the end, an episode like “Babylon” makes me almost grateful that the show concluded when it did, given its inability to do anything worthwhile with what might have been a decent premise. And it’s an ineptitude that emerges, not from the fog of cranking out a weekly television series, but after Carter had close to fifteen years to think about the kind of story he could tell, which makes it even harder to forgive. The episode’s central gimmick—which involves communicating with a clinically dead suicide bomber to prevent a future attack—is pretty good, or it might have been, if the script didn’t insist on constantly tap-dancing away from it. (A plot revolving around getting into an unconscious killer’s head didn’t even need to be about terrorism at all: a rehash of The Cell would have been preferable to what we actually got.) It’s hard not to conclude that the best thing that ever happened to The X-Files was a run of nine seasons that uniquely positioned it to ignore contemporary politics and pick its source material from anywhere convenient, with time and forgetfulness allowing it to exploit the nightmares of the past in a typically cavalier fashion. But just as recent political developments have rendered House of Cards all but obsolete, I have a feeling that The X-Files, which always depended on such a fragile suspension of disbelief, couldn’t have endured conditions that forced it to honestly confront its own era—which suggests that this reboot may have been doomed from the beginning. Because the incursion of the real world into fantasy is one invasion that this show wouldn’t be able to survive.

Written by nevalalee

February 17, 2016 at 9:49 am

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