Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The X-Files

The believer

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Note: Spoilers follow for “My Struggle IV,” the eleventh season finale of The X-Files

There are times when I think that The X-Files was the most important thing that ever happened to me. I’m not saying that it carries much weight compared to getting married or having a kid, but as far as pop culture is concerned, if you wanted to go back in time and remove just one piece to cause the maximal change in my life, you couldn’t do any better than this. If I had never seen The Red Shoes or read Jorge Luis Borges or even listened to the Pet Shop Boys, I’d be immeasurably poorer for it, but my overall biography would be more or less unchanged. The X-Files, by contrast, was a determining factor in how I spent my time for years. I wrote fanfic throughout high school and college. My first published short story, “Inversus,” was basically a straight casefile with the names changed, and only a timely rejection of my second effort from Analog editor Stanley Schmidt kept me from trying to turn it into a series. Of all the stories that I’ve published since, at least half fall comfortably into that formula. My three novels don’t have any paranormal elements, but they represented a conscious attempt to recover some of the magic of two government agents unraveling a conspiracy, and even Astounding is a project that never would have occurred to me if I hadn’t spent most of my life writing science fiction in one form or another. Which is all to say that if you managed to distract me so that I didn’t watch “Squeeze” on September 24, 1993—or even “Humbug” a year and a half later—most of this goes away, or at least gets transformed into a form so different that I wouldn’t be able to recognize it.

Yet it’s also a little embarrassing for me to admit this, not just because The X-Files wasn’t always a good show, even in its prime, but also because I don’t remember much about it. It had the longest run of any science fiction series in the history of television, with two hundred and eighteen episodes and two feature films. That’s a staggering amount of content, and it means that there’s more to know about Mulder and Scully, in theory, than about the main characters of any comparable franchise. In practice, that isn’t how it worked out. There are maybe two dozen episodes of the series that I plan on watching again, along with about fifty more that I remember fairly well. The rest consist of a single image, a vague impression, a logline, or more often nothing at all. Most of the mytharc, in particular, has disappeared entirely from my memory. And one of the problems with last night’s season finale—which probably marks the end to the entire series—is that it assumes that its viewers care about elements that the show flagged as important, but never really meant anything to the audience. I don’t recall much about William, or Mulder’s family drama, and I barely even remember Agent Reyes. These are clearly all things that should matter to the characters, and there’s no question that that loss of their child was the major event in Mulder and Scully’s lives. But it isn’t real to me, which is why I spent most of the episode asking myself why it had to be about this at all. (In any case, there’s already a perfect finale to the show, and it’s called “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.”)

But the eleventh season as a whole exceeded my expectations to an extent that I’m grateful that it exists. Apart from “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” the tenth season was uniformly painful to watch—it left me feeling humiliated that I’d invested so much of my life into this series, and nobody, aside from Gillian Anderson and Darin Morgan, seemed to have any idea what they were doing. This past season had one great episode (“Forehead Sweat”) and one that came close (“Rm9sbG93ZXJz”), and apart from the opener and closer, which were disasters, the rest ranged from merely watchable to pretty good. Duchovny looked healthier and more relaxed, there were some nice sentimental moments between the two leads that elevated even routine installments, and there was even an attempt to stir some fresh voices into the mix. The fact that the show seems to be ending now is regrettable, but maybe it’s the best possible outcome. And I can even live with the finale, which offers up a winning bingo card of Chris Carter’s worst impulses. It separates Mulder and Scully for most of its runtime; it scrambles the chronology for no apparent reason; it dwells on pointless action and violence; it drops every plot thread that it raises; it spoils a nice fakeout by repeating it just a few minutes later; and its idea of a happy ending is having Scully announce that she’s pregnant again. (“It’s all she’s good for,” my wife remarked dryly.) But it at least it was bad in all the usual ways, without going out of its way to invent new ones, as much of last season did. And as Scully once said about Robert Patrick Modell, I won’t let it take up another minute of my time.

But The X-Files is a lot like life itself—which is only to say that my relationship to it maps onto everything else that matters. If the golden age of science fiction is twelve, as the fan Peter Graham allegedly said, then the show came along at just the right time to change me forever. If I had been born a few years earlier or later, or if I had been watching a different network, it might have been something else. As it turned out, I got sucked into a show that lasted for the quarter of a century that happened to coincide with most of my teens, twenties, and thirties. If I don’t remember a lot of it, well, I can’t recall much about college or the first two years of being a father, either. I just have bits and pieces, which are enough to make up my memories. Dana Scully is my favorite character on television, but my picture of her is assembled from the handful of episodes that understood what made her special, rather than the countless others that abused or misused her to an extent that we’re only just starting to acknowledge. I view her from only one angle, as I do with most of the people in my life, and I see what I want to believe. Like Darin Morgan, I’ve come to identify more with Mulder as I’ve gotten older, not as an action hero, but as the guy who started his career in a basement and ended it nowhere in particular. But you also have to imagine Mulder, like Sisyphus, as happy. I can’t sum up The X-Files in one sentence, but these days, I see it as a show about how to relate with intelligence and grace to a world that remains unknowable, indifferent, and too complicated to change. Maybe it starts with finding someone you love. The finale wasn’t about this, of course. But it never really had to be.

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2018 at 9:01 am

Looking at “The Spires,” Part 3

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Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “The Spires,” the lead story for the March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

After I had been working on “The Spires” for about a week, I had what might have seemed at first like a lot of material. I knew that the main character would be a bush pilot in Alaska sometime in the thirties, and I had a decent sense of his backstory. The mystery would revolve around the silent city in the sky that Charles Fort discusses in New Lands, and despite my initial trepidation, I even had an explanation for it, in the form of the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program and a mirage that went backward in time. But while this might seem like a fair chunk of story, it really wasn’t much at all—because I didn’t know what would actually happen yet. In Which Lie Did I Tell?, the screenwriter William Goldman speaks of the range of possibilities that he confronted when he began writing an original story based on his love for red wine:

Now, what kind of tale could I try? Answer: anything. There are no rules when you start in. I could have written a heart-wrenching drama—Ray Milland deux, if you will. A Jimmy Cagney gangster flick, set in Prohibition, about who owns Chicago. I could have made it a George Lucas job, set in the future when scientists have discovered that if you substitute blood for Bordeaux, people will stagger around a lot but they’ll also live forever.

Goldman ended up writing it as a romantic comedy thriller, and the result was The Year of the Comet, a flop so infamous that its male lead, Tim Daly, recently said wistfully to The A.V. Club: “That was my shot, right? That was my shot to be a movie star.” Which might be a warning in itself.

As far as “The Spires” was concerned, though, I found that I could reason my way toward a plot largely from first principles. My protagonist probably wouldn’t fly up to Willoughby Island alone, since it’s usually better to have more than one character, if only so that he could occasionally talk to someone. Like most of my stories, it required that a fair amount of information be fed to the reader, which is usually best handled with dialogue. I didn’t want my main character to be an expert on Charles Fort, mirages, or time travel, since this didn’t fit his background, and by withholding some of the details for as long as possible, I would have more options when it came to structuring the mystery. The obvious conclusion, then, was that my pilot was flying someone else into Glacier Bay. It occurred to me at some point that it could be a woman, which suggested a few angles in itself, and when I added a third man—the woman’s husband—to the equation, the possibilities multiplied. For a while, I considered writing it as an homage to Dead Calm, and there are still a few traces of this in the finished result, although I didn’t take it as far as I might have. This might all sound pretty mechanical, but I hoped to proceed along these lines for as long as possible, simply by following my instincts about what this sort of story needed. I also like to get ideas from the setting, and I spent some time reading about Willoughby Island. Its geography gave me a few story beats, and I learned that at one point it had been a fox farm, which provided me with some useful images. (Remarkably enough, about six months after writing the story, I ended up on a cruise to Alaska, and I had a chance to see Willoughby Island with my own eyes. To my relief, it looked more or less like I’d imagined it.)

It wasn’t until I’d been working in this manner for a while, and maybe not until I started writing, that I realized that I had a problem on my hands. Because I was dealing with HAARP, which still made me uneasy, I decided to stick all of that material at the very end, outside the boundaries of the main plot, which would put some distance between it and the narrative. This wasn’t a bad strategy, but it also gave “The Spires” the structure of a setup followed by a punchline. In other words, it was a shaggy dog story. There’s a venerable tradition of this kind of thing in science fiction, so this wasn’t necessarily an issue in itself. The trouble was the tone. In most cases, a plot like this benefits from a light touch that alerts the reader to the fact that the ending is going to pull away the rug, and if not, then it should at least be short. (One of my favorite examples is “The Figure” by Edward Grendon, which is close to my ideal of this sort of story.) “The Spires” was neither of the above. It was moody and atmospheric, with a dynamic between the three main characters that was played more or less straight, and it became clear early on that it was going to be a novelette. Part of this has to do with my own tastes—and limitations—as a writer. My stories vary widely in time period and setting, but their tonal range tends to be relatively narrow. I don’t really do humor, because that’s a specialized skill that only a handful of science fiction writers have ever managed to pull off, and I’ve refined a style over time that works for me. If my touchstone is The X-Files, I don’t think I’d ever be able to write a Darin Morgan episode, but on a good day, I can manage something like “Ice” or maybe even “Pusher.” So I ended up writing “The Spires” in my usual fashion, even if I wasn’t sure how it would turn out.

And to be honest, a year and a half later and with the story in print, I’m not entirely convinced by it. I still think that the connection between HAARP and the silent city is pretty neat, to the point that it outweighed my other misgivings, and the way that the story is resolved through primary sources turned out to be rather elegant. The human side works well, too. I like the characters, the setting is exactly as evocative as I hoped it would be, and the writing seems fine, although I probably could have pushed the period angle a bit further. The trouble is how these two halves fit together, and in retrospect, I’m not sure if either piece fully serves the other. On the shaggy dog side, the story spends a lot of time developing relationships and conflicts that aren’t strictly necessary for the twist at the end, and while the length is appropriate from the point of view of internal logic, it feels long for a plot that is essentially there to deliver a slightly precious idea. (If a lot of the gimmick stories in Analog have historically suffered from flat characters and dialogue, this might simply be a case of managing the reader’s expectations.) And the fact that the ending unfolds through a series of quotations means that the plot doesn’t really get the conclusion that it deserves. As a result, I deliberately allowed the drama to simmer beneath the surface, because I knew that it wouldn’t receive a traditional resolution, but I wonder now if that was a mistake—if I’d gone with something darker or bloodier, the punchline might have landed harder. Or perhaps it wouldn’t have worked at all. In the end, this was going to be a weird story no matter what, and I did what I could to hold it all together. And maybe that’s how it had to be. As Fort himself once wrote: “The fate of all explanation is to close one door only to have another fly wide open.”

Written by nevalalee

March 14, 2018 at 8:56 am

Looking at “The Spires,” Part 2

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Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “The Spires,” the lead story for the March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

A few months before I began working on “The Spires,” I briefly spoke with the science fiction writer Gregory Benford at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. At the Campbell Awards, Benford shared an anecdote about a conversation with John W. Campbell that was so striking that I knew at once that it would end up in my book, mostly because of the editor’s comments about race, which is a subject for another post. For now, I’ll only say that the intended purpose of their encounter, which took place at the Worldcon in Berkeley in 1968, was to discuss a potential article about tachyons, or hypothetical particles that travel faster than light. Benford had written a paper on the subject—with the uncredited collaboration of Edward Teller—that he hoped to turn into a piece for Analog, and he tracked Campbell down at the hotel bar to pitch it to him in person. Campbell had written dismissively of tachyons in the magazine before, and when Benford tried to discuss it further, he was dismayed to find that the editor didn’t seem to fully grasp the physics involved. In the end, Campbell passed on the proposed article, and Benford later used tachyons as a plot point in his novel Timescape, in which they serve as a means of sending a message from the future into the past. I don’t actually mention tachyons in “The Spires,” because, frankly, I don’t fully understand the physics involved, at least not to the point that I would feel comfortable presenting it to the picky readers of Analog. (And I should confess that when Benford asked me if I knew what tachyons were, I may have said something like: “Only from Star Trek.”) But if I was thinking about particles traveling backward in time at all, it was probably thanks to that conversation with Benford.

The central premise of “The Spires,” which I still think is pretty neat, is that a mirage could work in time as well as space, with an image from the future traveling backward through the kind of atmospheric duct that produces such optical illusions as the Fata Morgana. (If this sounds confusing here, it hopefully makes more sense in the story itself.) Since the story was set in Alaska in the thirties, it occurred to me that a research facility in the present day might produce such an image by accident, casting a shadow of itself on the past without anyone even knowing about it. All I had to do was find an appropriate source of spooky radiation in Alaska, and after about ten seconds of online searching, I did. Unfortunately, it was the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program—and if the name doesn’t ring a bell, maybe you should count yourself lucky. There are times when I wish I’d never heard of it. Here’s how a recent article in Nature describes the project:

HAARP is the most powerful ionospheric heater in the world. At its heart is a phased-array radar that emits radio waves that are partially absorbed between 100 kilometers and 350 kilometers in altitude, accelerating electrons there and “heating” the ionosphere…The facility…is perhaps the only research facility that has had to justify itself as being neither a death beam aimed at Russia nor a mind-control device. So prevalent are the conspiracy theories that HAARP has even been referred to in a Tom Clancy novel, in which a fictional facility is used to induce mass psychosis in a Chinese village.

In other words, it’s the last thing that you should put at the center of a serious science fiction story, precisely because it appeals to an audience of adolescent conspiracy theorists. I should know, because I used to be one of them. In college, I spent the better part of a summer researching a novel that revolved around exactly this kind of mind control program, and I seem to have read such books as Angels Don’t Play This HAARP and HAARP: The Ultimate Weapon of the Conspiracy. In my defense, I was nineteen years old at the time, and this was a few years before the episode of The X-Files, written by Vince Gilligan, in which a similar array causes Brian Cranston’s head to explode. (On the bright side, this means that we also have it to thank for Breaking Bad.) Almost two decades later, for my sins, I found myself trying to build a story around it, and I almost gave it up as unworkable. At one point, I definitely decided not to use it at all. The trouble was that not only did I fail to find anything better, but I wasn’t sure that I ever could. HAARP was just too perfect. Its famous antenna array looked a lot like the city of spires that witnesses described in the sky above Alaska—a phenomenon that probably has more to do with atmospheric turbulence, but which was hard to resist for purposes of this story. Even better, or worse, was the matter of location. The “silent city” is said to appear over Mount Fairweather when viewed from the southern tip of Willoughby Island, and given those coordinates and some basic facts about mirages, it’s easy to draw a line on the map that would indicate where the “real” city would be. And one of the towns within that narrow slice of land happens to be Gakona, where the HAARP facility is located.

Ultimately, I decided to use it in the story after all, and I’m still not sure that it wasn’t a mistake. I decided to deal with it using two narrative tricks, neither of which was altogether satisfying in itself. One was to present the “solution” to the mystery entirely through quotations from primary sources, which would serve as a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand to disguise how contrived it all was. I wound up using quotes from Fort’s New Lands as epigraphs for the novelette’s three sections, followed by three passages at the end from the Alaska Dispatch, Popular Science, and Wired, which bring the story up to the present day. (It’s a conceit that also requires me to drop the human story, which is a sacrifice that may not have been worth it.) My other strategy was to make the paranoid mindset an explicit theme of the story itself. This wasn’t exactly a stretch, given the connection to Fort, and I gave a speech on the subject to one of my characters, who argues that some degree of paranoia within the larger population is justified, because it occasionally turns out to be right. As far as such themes go, it isn’t bad, but it’s there entirely to make the closing connection with HAARP slightly more palatable. Both tactics, you’ll notice, are about ironizing the narrative. The use of quotations situates the puzzle’s resolution outside the main body of the story, so that crucial information is given to the reader, not the characters—which is the textbook definition of irony. Meanwhile, the material about paranoia is my way of anticipating or deflecting any criticism of the story’s more ludicrous elements. It’s very different from my usual approach, but I think that it sort of worked. The greater problem was combining it with a story about characters who were supposed to be basically realistic. Tomorrow, I’ll describe how I dealt with that challenge, and why I’m still not completely satisfied with the result.

Written by nevalalee

March 13, 2018 at 9:27 am

The allure of unknowing

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Although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one. Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!”

—E.B. White, The Elements of Style

Last night, while watching the new X-Files episode “Ghouli,” which I actually sort of liked, I found myself pondering the ageless question of why this series is so uneven. It isn’t as if I haven’t wondered about this before. Even during the show’s golden years, which I’d roughly describe as its first five seasons, it was hard not to be struck by how often a classic installment was followed a week later by one that was insultingly bad. (This might explain the otherwise inexplicable reference in last week’s “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” to “Teso dos Bichos,” a terrible episode memorable mostly for interrupting the strongest run that the series ever had. As Reggie says: “Guys, if this turns out to be killer cats, I’m going to be very disappointed.”) Part of this may be due to the fact that I’ve watched so many episodes of this show, which had me tuning in every week for years, but I don’t think that it’s just my imagination. Most series operate within a fairly narrow range of quality, with occasional outliers in both sides, but the worst episodes of The X-Files are bad in ways that don’t apply to your average procedural. They aren’t simply boring or routine, but confusing, filled with illogical behavior by the main characters, ugly, and incoherent. There are also wild swings within individual episodes, like “Ghouli” itself, which goes so quickly from decent to awful to inexplicable to weirdly satisfying that it made me tired to watch it. And while last season proved that there are worse things than mere unevenness—with one big exception, it consisted of nothing but low points—I think it’s still worth asking why this series in particular has always seemed intent on punishing its fans with its sheer inconsistency.

One possible explanation is that The X-Files, despite its two regular leads, was basically an anthology show, which meant that every episode had to start from scratch in establishing a setting, a supporting cast, and even a basic tone. This ability to change the rules from one week to the next was a big part of what made the show exciting, but it also deprived it of the standard safety net—a narrative home base, a few familiar faces in the background—on which most shows unthinkingly rely. It’s a testament to the clarity and flexibility of Chris Carter’s original premise that it ever worked at all, usually thanks to a line or two from Scully, leafing through a folder in the passenger seat of a rental car, to explain why they were driving to a small town in the middle of nowhere. (In fact, this stock opening became less common as the show went on, and it never really found a way to improve on it.) It was also a science fiction and fantasy series, which meant that even the rules of reality tended to change from one installment to another. As a result, much of the first act of every episode was spent in orienting the audience, which represented a loss of valuable screen time that otherwise could have been put to other narrative ends. Watching it reminds us of how much other shows can take for granted. In Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet writes: “When you walk into a bar and see a drama on the television, you’ve missed the exposition. Do you have any trouble whatever understanding what’s going on?” That’s true of most dramas, but not necessarily of The X-Files, in which you could sit through an episode from the beginning and still be lost halfway through. You could make a case that this disorientation was part of its appeal, but it wasn’t a feature. It was a bug.

And the most damning criticism that you can advance against The X-Files is that its narrative sins were routinely overlooked or forgiven by its creators because it was supposedly “about” confusion and paranoia. Early on, the myth arose that this was a series that deliberately left its stories unresolved, in contrast to the tidy conclusions of most procedurals. As the critic Rob Tannenbaum wrote in Details back in the late nineties:

What defines The X-Files is the allure of unknowing: Instead of declaring a mystery and solving it by the end of the show, as Columbo and Father Dowling did, Carter has spent five year showing us everything except the truth. He is a high-concept tease who understands an essential psychological dynamic: The less you give, the more people want. Watching The X-Files is almost an interactive venture. It’s incomplete enough to compel viewers to complete the blank parts of the narrative.

This might be true enough of many of the conspiracy episodes, but in the best casefiles, and most of the mediocre ones, there’s really no doubt about what happened. Mulder and Scully might not end up with all of the information, but the viewers usually do, and an episode like “Pusher” or “Ice” is an elegant puzzle without any missing pieces. (Even “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” which is explicitly about the failure of definitive explanations, offers a reading of itself that more or less makes sense.) Unfortunately, the blank spaces in the show’s mytharc were also used to excuse errors of clarity and resolution, which in turn encouraged the show to remain messy and unsatisfying for no good reason.

In other words, The X-Files began every episode at an inherent disadvantage, with all of the handicaps of a science fiction anthology show that had to start from nothing each week, as well as a premise that allowed it to explain away its narrative shortcomings as stylistic choices, which wasn’t true of shows like Star Trek or The Twilight Zone. All too often, this was a deadly combination. In an academic study that was published when the show was still on the air, the scholar Jan Delasara writes:

When apprehended consciously, narrative gaps may seem random accidents or continuity errors. Who substitutes the dead dog for Private McAlpin’s corpse in the episode “Fresh Bones?” And why? What did the demon’s first wife remember but not tell her husband in “Terms of Endearment?” Who is conducting the experiment in subliminal suggestion along with chemical phobia enhancement in “Blood?” Is Mulder’s explanation really what’s going on?

Delasara argues that such flaws are the “disturbing gaps and unresolved questions” typical of supernatural horror, but it’s fair to say that in most of these cases, if the writers could have come up with something better, they would have. The X-Files had a brilliant aesthetic that also led to the filming of scripts that never would have been approved on a show that wasn’t expressly about dislocation and the unknown. The result often left me alienated, but probably not in the way that the creators intended. Mulder and Scully might never discover the full truth—but that doesn’t excuse their writers.

Written by nevalalee

February 1, 2018 at 8:53 am

The doomsday defense

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Note: Plot details follow for the X-Files episode “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.”

You don’t usually get to pinpoint the precise moment at which your life changed, but for me, it occurred at about a quarter past nine on the evening of Friday, March 31, 1995. I was watching television in my bedroom, just a few feet away from a set that had been inconveniently placed against the wall by the foot of the bed. Because of its location, the most logical way to watch it was seated on the rug, all but pressed up against the screen, which meant that I experienced much of the second season of The X-Files from a position where I was close enough to touch it. That night, the episode was “Humbug,” and the scene that grabbed me the most was the Alligator Man’s funeral, which culminates in a character played by the circus performer Jim Rose clawing his way out of the grave to drive a steel spike into his own chest. After the attendees spill out of their chairs, Mulder waits for a beat and then deadpans: “I can’t wait for the wake.” And while this was far from the first outright joke to appear on the show—it had the usual number of quips and smart remarks that you see in any procedural—something about that line felt different from everything that came before it. It seemed to stand slightly above and to one side of the action, inviting us to note how absurd it all was before diving in even deeper. In allowing Mulder and Scully to be ironic about the situations in which they found themselves, it singlehandedly expanded the possibilities of a series that already seemed capable of anything. But it also brutally awakened us to how limited the show and its audience had been all along.

I thought of this moment again while watching the show last night, in which Mulder, now decades older, digs through a carton of videocassettes, looking in vain for a tape that no longer seems to exist. When Scully says that it can’t have been that good of an episode, Mulder shoots back: “It’s not about the episode, Scully. It’s about my memory of seeing my first Twilight Zone. It changed me. You don’t forget that.” The author of these lines, of course, is Darin Morgan, and I’d like to think that this exchange is a nod to the undeniable fact that his work changed the lives of countless viewers when it first aired more than twenty years ago. The core of Morgan’s achievement—which I define as the episodes “Humbug,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “War of the Coprophages,” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” along with “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” and “Somehow Satan Got Behind Me” from Millennium and “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” and now “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” on the current revival—is my favorite body of work by any single writer on television. Over the years, it has certainly meant more to me than any other. Morgan is often remembered as the writer who introduced a note of black comedy into The X-Files, but his real contribution was his insight that humor is the only way of dealing with certain truths that can’t be ignored. A fluke monster or zombie isn’t nearly as terrifying as the knowledge that after a lifetime of struggling for love, approval, and security, we’re all destined to die alone. Not even Mulder and Scully can do anything about this. What else can you do but laugh?

“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is probably the last episode of The X-Files that we’ll ever get from Darin Morgan, and it plays like a valediction to a show that has consumed more of his life—and mine—than either of us had any right to expect. (If “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was Morgan’s most modest effort since “Humbug,” “Forehead Sweat” returns to the insane formal experimentation of the two episodes featuring the writer Jose Chung, and its only real shortcoming is the unavoidable absence of the late Charles Nelson Reilly.) In typical Morgan fashion, it starts out as a riff on the Mandela Effect, complete with a reference to the Berenstain Bears, and then quietly begins to drop hints that our existential predicament is worse than we ever suspected. Morgan’s central theme has always been the futility of our pretensions in the face of death, but now he implies that even Mulder and Scully may have been wasting their time all along. He pins the blame on one figure in particular, and it isn’t the Cigarette-Smoking Man. Beneath its surface whimsy, this is the angriest, most politically charged episode in the history of The X-Files, and while some of its gags about a border wall may seem too on the nose, Morgan is writing for a future audience that will hopefully find them more obscure. But he’s also posing a question that feels all too relevant. Now that we’re living in a time when crimes can be committed in plain sight because millions of Americans seem willing to forgive, overlook, or deny everything, what’s the point of a government conspiracy? Mulder has devoted his life to searching for the truth, but even if he finds it, it’s possible that nobody will care.

Morgan doesn’t have an answer, and our world continues to change too rapidly to be satirized by even the most sophisticated works of art. (At one point in the episode, a character refers to “our current president” uttering the phrase “Nobody knows for sure.” I couldn’t place the reference, so I looked it up online, only to find that Trump had tweeted it about the status of the Dreamers just the day before the episode aired. As a radio host on The Simpsons once marveled of a computerized disk jockey: “How does it keep up with the news like that?”) But maybe the overall arc of Morgan’s career offers us a reason for hope. He never felt entirely at home in the writers room, and his skepticism toward the show itself was manifested both in his fondness for Scully—no one has ever done a better job of writing for her—and in his open contempt for Mulder. For years after leaving the series, he kicked around Hollywood without any writing credits, and he often came off as ambivalent toward his own accomplishments. Now he seems to have made his peace with it, and his status as a relative outsider allows him to express his affection for the show’s legacy more honestly than someone like Chris Carter ever could. “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was like an olive branch to the characters with whom, for better or worse, he’ll always be associated, and “Forehead Sweat” feels like his farewell. At the end, with a sentimentality that would seem excessive coming from anyone else, Scully says to Mulder: “I want to remember it how it was. I want to remember how it all was.” So do I. In particular, I want to remember Jose Chung, whose last act, after being fatally attacked by an axe murderer, was to point to Terry O’Quinn and ask: “Don’t you just love that mustache?” And when I remember Darin Morgan, all I want to do is thank him. For all of it.

Present tense, future perfect

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Michael Crichton

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 11, 2016.

Science fiction is set in the future so frequently that it’s hard for many readers, or writers, to envision it in any other way. Yet there are times when a futuristic setting actively interferes with the story. If you think that the genre’s primary function is a predictive one, it’s hard to avoid, although I’ve made it pretty clear that I believe that it’s the other way around—the idea that science fiction is a literature of prediction emerged only after most of its elements were already in place. But if you see it as a vehicle for telling compelling stories in which science plays an important role, or as a sandbox for exploring extreme social or ethical situations, you realize that it can be even more effective when set in the present. This is especially true of science fiction that trades heavily on suspense and paranoia. My favorite science fiction novel ever, Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier, is set in the near future for no particular reason: its premise of invisible alien beings who manipulate human civilization would work even better in ordinary surroundings, and nothing fundamental about the story itself would have to change. You could say much the same about Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, which is indebted to Russell’s story in more ways than one. And there’s a sense in which The X-Files actually plays better today, as a period piece, than it did when it initially aired: in hindsight, the early nineties have become the definition of mundanity, and a perfect setting for horror. (At a time when we seem to be actually living in an alternate history novel, its assumption that a sinister government conspiracy had to be kept secret can seem downright comforting.)

When you push science fiction into the present, however, something curious happens: people start to think of it as something else. In particular, it tends to be labeled as a technothriller. This is ultimately just a marketing category, and slipperier than most, but it can be defined as science fiction that limits itself to a single line of extrapolation, usually in the form of a new technology, while grounding the rest in the period in which the book was written. And you’d think that this approach would be seen as worthwhile. Plausibly incorporating a hypothetical technology or scientific advance into the modern world can be just as hard as inventing an entire future society, and it allows the writer to tackle themes that lie close to the heart of the genre. If we’re looking to science fiction to help us work out the implications of contemporary problems, to simulate outcomes of current trends, or to force us to look at our own lives and assumptions a little differently, a story that takes place against a recognizable backdrop can confront us with all of these issues more vividly. A futuristic or interplanetary setting has a way of shading into fantasy, which isn’t necessarily bad, but risks turning the genre into exactly what John W. Campbell always insisted it wasn’t—a literature of escapism. In theory, then, any effort to coax science fiction back into the present is enormously important, and we should welcome the technothriller as a matrix in which the tools of the genre can be brought to bear on the reality around us.

Gillian Anderson in War of the Coprophages

In practice, that isn’t how it turns out. The technothriller is often dismissed as a disreputable subgenre or a diluted version of the real thing, and not always without reason. There are a few possible explanations for this. One is that because of the technothriller’s natural affinity for suspense, it attracts literary carpetbaggers—writers who seem to opportunistically come from outside the genre, rather than emerging from within it. Michael Crichton, for instance, started out by writing relatively straight thrillers under pen names like Jeffrey Hudson and John Lange, and it’s interesting to wonder how we’d regard The Andromeda Strain, or even Sphere or Congo, if he had worked his way up in the pages of Analog. Other reasons might be the genre’s pervasive strain of militarism, which reflects the association of certain kinds of technological development with the armed forces; its emphasis on action; or even the sort of writer that it attracts. Finally, there’s the inescapable point that most technothrillers are providing escapism of another kind, with hardware taking the place of original characters or ideas. That’s true of a lot of science fiction, too, but a technothriller doesn’t even ask readers to make the modicum of effort necessary to transport themselves mentally into another time or place. It’s just like the world we know, except with better weapons. As a result, it appeals more to the mundanes, or readers who don’t think of themselves as science fiction fans, which from the point of view of fandom is probably the greatest sin of all.

Yet it’s worth preserving the ideal of the technothriller, both because it can be a worthwhile genre in itself and because of the light that it sheds on science fiction as a whole. When we think of the didactic, lecturing tone that dominated Crichton’s late novels, starting with Rising Sun, it’s easy to connect it to the psychological role that hardware plays within a certain kind of thriller. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, because the writer gets certain technical details right, we’re more inclined to believe what he says when it comes to other issues, at least while we’re still reading the book. But it takes another level of insight to realize that this is also true of Heinlein. (The story of Campbellian science fiction is one of writers who were so good at teaching us about engineering that we barely noticed when they moved on to sociology.) And the strain of technophobia that runs through the genre—which is more a side effect of the need to generate suspense than a philosophical stance—can serve as a corrective to the unthinking embrace of technology that has characterized so much science fiction throughout its history. Finally, on the level of simple reading pleasure, I’d argue that any attempt to bring suspense into science fiction deserves to be encouraged: it’s a tool that has often been neglected, and the genre as a whole is invigorated when we bring in writers, even mercenary ones, who know how to keep the pages turning. If they also have great, original ideas, they’re unstoppable. This combination doesn’t often appear in the same writer. But the next best thing is to ensure that they can push against each other as part of the same healthy genre.

Written by nevalalee

December 22, 2017 at 9:00 am

Out of the past

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You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.

Vertigo

About halfway through the beautiful, devastating finale of Twin Peaks—which I’ll be discussing here in detail—I began to reflect on what the figure of Dale Cooper really means. When we encounter him for the first time in the pilot, with his black suit, fastidious habits, and clipped diction, he’s the embodiment of what we’ve been taught to expect of a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI occupies a role in movies and television far out of proportion to its actual powers and jurisdiction, in part because it seems to exist on a level intriguingly beyond that of ordinary law enforcement, and it’s often been used to symbolize the sinister, the remote, or the impersonal. Yet when Cooper reveals himself to be a man of real empathy, quirkiness, and faith in the extraordinary, it comes almost as a relief. We want to believe that a person like this exists. Cooper carries a badge, he wears a tie, and he’s comfortable with a gun, but he’s here to enforce human reason in the face of a bewildering universe. The Black Lodge might be out there, but the Blue Rose task force is on it, and there’s something oddly consoling about the notion that it’s a part of the federal government. A few years later, Chris Carter took this premise and refined it into The X-Files, which, despite its paranoia, reassured us that somebody in a position of authority had noticed the weirdness in the world and was trying to make sense of it. They might rarely succeed, but it was comforting to think that their efforts had been institutionalized, complete with a basement office, a place in the org chart, and a budget. And for a lot of viewers, Mulder and Scully, like Cooper, came to symbolize law and order in stories that laugh at our attempts to impose it.

Even if you don’t believe in the paranormal, the image of the lone FBI agent—or two of them—arriving in a small town to solve a supernatural mystery is enormously seductive. It appeals to our hopes that someone in power cares enough about us to investigate problems that can’t be rationally addressed, which all stand, in one way or another, for the mystery of death. This may be why both Twin Peaks and The X-Files, despite their flaws, have sustained so much enthusiasm among fans. (No other television dramas have ever meant more to me.) But it’s also a myth. This isn’t really how the world works, and the second half of the Twin Peaks finale is devoted to tearing down, with remarkable cruelty and control, the very idea of such solutions. It can only do this by initially giving us what we think we want, and the first of last night’s two episodes misleads us with a satisfying dose of wish fulfillment. Not only is Cooper back, but he’s in complete command of the situation, and he seems to know exactly what to do at every given moment. He somehow knows all about Freddie and his magical green glove, which he utilizes to finally send Bob into oblivion. After rescuing Diane, he uses his room key from the Great Northern, like a magical item in a video game, to unlock the door that leads him to Mike and the disembodied Phillip Jeffries. He goes back in time, enters the events of Fire Walk With Me, and saves Laura on the night of her murder. The next day, Pete Martell simply goes fishing. Viewers at home even get the appearance by Julee Cruise that I’ve been awaiting since the premiere. After the credits ran, I told my wife that if it had ended there, I would have been totally satisfied.

But that was exactly what I was supposed to think, and even during the first half, there are signs of trouble. When Cooper first sees the eyeless Naido, who is later revealed to be the real Diane, his face freezes in a huge closeup that is superimposed for several minutes over the ensuing action. It’s a striking device that has the effect of putting us, for the first time, in Cooper’s head, rather than watching him with bemusement from the outside. We identify with him, and at the very end, when his efforts seemingly come to nothing, despite the fact that he did everything right, it’s more than heartbreaking—it’s like an existential crisis. It’s the side of the show that was embodied by Sheryl Lee’s performance as Laura Palmer, whose tragic life and horrifying death, when seen in its full dimension, put the lie to all the cozy, comforting stories that the series told us about the town of Twin Peaks. Nothing good could ever come out of a world in which Laura died in the way that she did, which was the message that Fire Walk With Me delivered so insistently. And seeing Laura share the screen at length with Cooper presents us with both halves of the show’s identity within a single frame. (It also gives us a second entry, after Blue Velvet, in the short list of great scenes in which Kyle MacLachlan enters a room to find a man sitting down with his brains blown out.) For a while, as Cooper drives Laura to the appointment with her mother, it seems almost possible that the series could pull off one last, unfathomable trick. Even if it means erasing the show’s entire timeline, it would be worth it to save Laura. Or so we think. In the end, they return to a Twin Peaks that neither of them recognize, in which the events of the series presumably never took place, and Cooper’s only reward is Laura’s scream of agony.

As I tossed and turned last night, thinking about Cooper’s final, shattering moment of comprehension, a line of dialogue from another movie drifted into my head: “It’s too late. There’s no bringing her back.” It’s from Vertigo, of course, which is a movie that David Lynch and Mark Frost have been quietly urging us to revisit all along. (Madeline Ferguson, Laura’s identical cousin, who was played by Lee, is named after the film’s two main characters, and both works of art pivot on a necklace and a dream sequence.) Along with so much else, Vertigo is about the futility of trying to recapture or change the past, and its ending, which might be the most unforgettable of any film I’ve ever seen, destroys Scotty’s delusions, which embody the assumptions of so many American movies: “One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be rid of the past forever.” I think that Lynch and Frost are consciously harking back to Vertigo here—in the framing of the doomed couple on their long drive, as well as in Cooper’s insistence that Laura revisit the scene of the crime—and it doesn’t end well in either case. The difference is that Vertigo prepares us for it over the course of two hours, while Twin Peaks had more than a quarter of a century. Both works offer a conclusion that feels simultaneously like a profound statement of our helplessness in the face of an unfair universe and like the punchline to a shaggy dog story, and perhaps that’s the only way to express it. I’ve quoted Frost’s statement on this revival more than once: “It’s an exercise in engaging with one of the most powerful themes in all of art, which is the ruthless passage of time…We’re all trapped in time and we’re all going to die. We’re all traveling along this conveyor belt that is relentlessly moving us toward this very certain outcome.” Thirty seconds before the end, I didn’t know what he meant. But I sure do now. And I know at last why this show’s theme is called “Falling.”

Written by nevalalee

September 4, 2017 at 9:40 am

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