Posts Tagged ‘The X-Files’
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe published an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he described what he claimed to have been the creative process behind his poem “The Raven.” He portrayed each element as the result of a long chain of logical reasoning, as in his account of how he arrived at the image of the dead Lenore:
Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death—was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”
Ever since, critics have been inclined to read Poe’s essay as a sort of fiction in itself, or even a sly parody, since few poets seem to have ever approached their work in such a calculating way. But I think it’s reasonable to see it as a series of high-speed photographs of the artist’s mind, like one of those pictures showing a bullet being shot through an apple: it slows down and fixes an instinctive phenomenon that really occurred within seconds.
In other words, Poe is laboriously dissecting a process in which every poet engages, consciously or otherwise: the search for symbols that can do double or triple duty within the poem. Poetry is the art of compression, and the hunt for fruitful images or metaphors is ultimately a way of saving space—you pack each line with maximum meaning by looking for combinations of words that can stand both for themselves and something else. “A violet by a mossy stone” says more in six words than most writers could do in sixty, and we see much the same impulse in Robert Graves’s list of poetical images from The White Goddess:
Sometimes, in reading a poem, the hairs will bristle at an apparently unpeopled and eventless scene described in it, if the elements bespeak [the goddess’s] unseen presence clearly enough: for example, when owls hoot, the moon rides like a ship through scudding cloud, trees sway slowly together above a rushing waterfall, and a distant barking of dogs is heard; or when a peal of bells in frosty weather suddenly announces the birth of the New Year.
What these images all have in common—along with what Graves calls their evocation of the muse—is that they stand at the center of an aura of associations: each one trails a hidden story behind it, and it allows the poem to convey the same amount of meaning with fewer components.
This may seem like a mechanical way of describing the craft of poetry, but I suspect that authors of all kinds, if they look how their writing evolves, would point to the moments in which they did more with less as the places where their work was most effective. This is particularly true of forms that are constantly managing their own complexity. A conspiracy theory, for instance, which I’ve elsewhere called a sort of surrogate for the act of writing itself, is more powerful when assembled out of elements that carry their own cognitive charge. The early seasons of The X-Files evoked a world of intrigue using a few well-chosen symbols—smallpox vaccination scars, for instance—and it grew less compelling and more confusing as the names of the players multiplied. Even conspiracy theories that depend on the accumulation of detail rely on a few vivid images to keep the rest of the pieces in line. I’ve watched Oliver Stone’s JFK maybe a dozen times over the last twenty years, and although I’d have trouble remembering exactly what argument he’s making, I can’t forget the magic bullet, whether or not I believe in it. A conspiracy theory might seem to have little in common with a poem, but both depend on a certain economy of means. There’s a good reason why the Freemasons or the Illuminati reappear so often in such theories: just as a poet like Robert Graves returns repeatedly to images of the moon, conspiracy theorists fall back on metaphors that have proven their memorable qualities over time.
You see a similar progression toward simplicity in my own novels, each of which is basically a conspiracy thriller with different kinds of window dressing. The Icon Thief spends an exorbitant amount of time laying out a complicated theory involving Marcel Duchamp, the Rosicrucians, and the Black Dahlia murder, both because the story was about complexity and because it was what I felt comfortable writing at the time, and it occupies fifty or more pages of the finished book. City of Exiles has a conspiracy centering on the Dyatlov Pass incident, which had to be described at length, but it devotes half as much space as its predecessor to laying out the details, in part because I wanted to cut down on this sort of thing, but also because the elements were inherently evocative. Eternal Empire cuts it even further: the historical conspiracy that drives the plot, such as it is, is described in a couple of dialogue scenes, most notably in Chapter 41. And when I look back, I think that I was able to condense this material so much because I hit on the right cluster of symbols. If the death of a beautiful woman, as Poe says, is the most poetical subject in the world, there are a few words that perform much the same function in conspiracy fiction, and the best of them all—at least for now—is Putin. Vladimir Putin is the Lenore of Eternal Empire, and his name and all it embodies is enough to spark the reader’s imagination when paired with a few intriguing details. Putin’s aura allowed me to do in five pages what The Icon Thief did in fifty. And I couldn’t have written this book without him…
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.)
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.