Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Vince Gilligan

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 X factor

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

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

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

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

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June 30, 2017 at 8:56 am

Going for the kill

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David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for the X-Files episode “Home Again.”

One of the unexpected but undeniable pleasures of the tenth season of The X-Files is the chance it provides to reflect on how television itself has changed over the last twenty years. The original series was so influential in terms of storytelling and tone that it’s easy to forget how compelling its visuals were, too: it managed to tell brooding, cinematic stories on a tiny budget, with the setting and supporting cast changing entirely from one episode to the next, and it mined a tremendous amount of atmosphere from those Vancouver locations. When it pushed itself, it could come up with installments like “Triangle”—one of the first television episodes ever to air in widescreen—or “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” none of which looked like anything you’d ever seen before, but it could be equally impressive in its moody procedural mode. Yet after a couple of decades, even the most innovative shows start to look a little dated. Its blocking and camera style can seem static compared to many contemporary dramas, and one of the most intriguing qualities of the ongoing reboot has been its commitment to maintaining the feel of the initial run of the series while upgrading its technical aspects when necessary. (Sometimes the best choice is to do nothing at all: the decision to keep the classic title sequence bought it tremendous amounts of goodwill, at least with me, and the slightly chintzy digital transformation effects in “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” come off as just right.)

This week’s episode, Glen Morgan’s “Home Again,” is interesting mostly as an illustration of the revival’s strengths and limitations. It’s basically a supernatural slasher movie, with a ghostly killer called the Band-Aid Nose Man stalking and tearing apart a string of unsympathetic victims who have exploited the homeless in Philadelphia. And the casefile element here is even more perfunctory than usual. All we get in the way of an explanation is some handwaving about the Tibetan tulpa, which the show undermines at once, and the killer turns out to be hilariously ineffective: he slaughters a bunch of people without doing anything to change the underlying situation. But there’s also a clear implication that the case isn’t meant to be taken seriously, except as a counterpoint to the real story about the death of Scully’s mother. Even there, though, the parallels are strained, and if the implicit point is that the case could have been about anything, literally anything would have been more interesting than this. (There’s another point to be made, which I don’t feel like exploring at length here, about how the show constantly falls back on using Scully’s family—when it isn’t using her body—to put her through the wringer. Scully has lost her father, her sister, and now her mother, and it feels even lazier here than usual, as if the writers thought she’d had too much fun last week, which meant that she had to suffer.)

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny on The X-Files

What we have, then, are a series of scenes—four, to be exact—in which an unstoppable killer goes after his quarry. There’s nothing wrong with this, and if the resulting sequences were genuinely scary, the episode wouldn’t need to work so hard to justify its existence. Yet none of it is particularly memorable or frightening. As I watched it, I was struck by the extent to which the bar has been raised for this kind of televised suspense, particularly in shows like Breaking Bad and Fargo, which expertly blend the comedic and the terrifying. Fargo isn’t even billed as a suspense show, but it has given us scenes and whole episodes over the last two seasons that built the pressure so expertly that they were almost painful to watch: I’ve rarely had a show keep me in a state of dread for so long. And this doesn’t require graphic violence, or even any violence at all. Despite its title, Fargo takes its most important stylistic cue from another Coen brothers movie entirely, and particularly from the sequence in No Country For Old Men in which Llewelyn Moss awaits Anton Chigurh in his motel room. It’s the most brilliantly sustained sequence of tension in recent memory, and it’s built from little more than our knowledge of the two characters, the physical layout of the space, and a shadow under the door. Fargo has given us a version of this scene in every season, and it does it so well that it makes it all the less forgivable when an episode like “Home Again” falls short.

And the funny thing, of course, is that both Fargo and Breaking Bad lie in a direct line of descent from The X-Files. Breaking Bad, obviously, is the handiwork of Vince Gilligan, who learned much of what he knows in his stint on the earlier show, and who revealed himself in “Pusher” to be a master of constructing a tight suspense sequence from a handful of well-chosen elements. And Fargo constantly winks at The X-Files, most notably in the spaceship that darted in and out of sight during the second season, but also in its range and juxtaposition of tones and its sense of stoicism in the face of an incomprehensible universe. If an episode like “Home Again” starts to look a little lame, it’s only because the show’s descendants have done such a good job of expanding upon the basic set of tools that the original series provided. (It also points to a flaw in the show’s decision to allow all the writers to direct their own episodes. It’s a nice gesture, but it also makes me wonder how an episode like this would have played in the hands of a director like, say, Michelle McLaren, who is an expert at extending tension to the breaking point.) Not every Monster of the Week needs to be a masterpiece, but when we’re talking about six episodes after so many years, there’s greater pressure on each installment to give us something special—aside from killing off another member of the Scully family. Because if the show were just a little smarter about dispatching its other victims, it might have decided to let Margaret Scully live.

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February 11, 2016 at 9:30 am

How I like my Scully

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David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

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

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

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

Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

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

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

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February 2, 2016 at 9:22 am

The Darin Morgan files

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Darin Morgan in The X-Files episode "Small Potatoes"

Yesterday, I finally listened to the fantastic interview between Kumail Nanjiani and the writer Darin Morgan, which took up nearly two full hours of the former’s ongoing podcast about The X-Files. If anything, it was too short: Morgan came fully prepared with stories about his brief tenure on my favorite television show of all time, and they only managed to get through “Humbug” and “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” (They’ve promised a reunion to cover “War of the Coprophages” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” and I’ll be awaiting it even more eagerly than the next installment of Serial.) I’ve written about Morgan here before, but I don’t think I’ve made it clear how great my debt to him really is: if I were to make an objective list of the writers who have most influenced my own work, he’d rank in the top five. And I can trace it all back to one line in “Humbug,” after a circus performer performs an impromptu eulogy at a funeral by driving a railroad spike into his chest. After the rest of the crowd has dispersed, Mulder observes, still seated: “I can’t wait for the wake.” And while I was already a fan of The X-Files, something in that moment opened up a new world of possibilities: it’s no exaggeration to say that my sense of the genre’s potential been quietly but permanently expanded.

After listening to the interview, I turned, naturally enough, to Darin Morgan’s Wikipedia page. I was primarily interested in learning more about his current gig—the show Intruders, which, like most of his recent work, was produced by his brother Glen—but I ended up being confronted by something strangely familiar. It wasn’t until I’d opened the page and read the first paragraph, in fact, that I remembered that I’d created that article more than ten years ago, back in Wikipedia’s wild early days. (It’s a reflection of how important Morgan is to me that this article was one of the first I contributed, right after the one for mix tape.) And I was a little startled by how much of my original text is still intact, although unseen hands have done a helpful job of providing necessary references and citations. This is a reflection both of Wikipedia’s curious inertia, in which some pages can go untouched for years, but also to the apparent stasis of Morgan’s own career. Ten years ago, I was able to accurately describe Morgan as a writer best known for six offbeat episodes of The X-Files and Millennium, and that hasn’t really changed. Since then, his only visible productions have been two episodes of the show Tower Prep, one episode of Those Who Kill, and his aforementioned work on Intruders—the latter two of which aren’t even listed in the article yet, although I’ll probably add them if I have a spare moment later today.

Charles Nelson Reilly and Lance Henriksen in "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense"

So what happened? I’m hoping that Nanjiani and Morgan will discuss this further in their next chat, but the reason isn’t hard to pin down: it’s some combination of the natural uncertainty of a writer’s life and Morgan’s own discomfort with the television medium. Trying to write for a living, particularly in Hollywood, is so tenuous an enterprise that it’s not surprising to find acclaimed writers—even those with Emmys—toiling for decades without any new credits to show for it. There are countless examples of screenwriters who made one big splash and haven’t appeared anywhere since, and this doesn’t mean that they haven’t been working: for a given writer’s name to end up on a movie, not only does the script have to survive the development process, but all the ensuing factors involved in production and arbitration have to line up just right. If anything, it’s more surprising when it happens than when it doesn’t. The conditions in television are somewhat different, but in his interview with Nanjiani, Morgan reiterates that he never felt especially comfortable in the writer’s room. (After seeing the first dailies for “Humbug,” which were nothing like what he’d seen in his head, he was physically distressed to the point that he nearly got into a car accident on the way home.)

What’s funny, of course, is that Morgan has continued to work in television ever since, albeit sporadically, and he says that his experience on The X-Files was by a large measure the best he would ever have, even if he wasn’t able to appreciate this at the time. (He notes that his episodes were shot with a minimum of network interference, whereas his scripts these days come back with pages of notes, and his thoughts on this are enlightening in themselves—he thinks that the constant threat of cancellation has compressed the timeline in which a television series can evolve, creating enormous pressure on writers and executives alike.) It isn’t hard to imagine a world in which Morgan had a career more like that of his old colleague Vince Gilligan, or even of Charlie Kaufman, whose work he anticipated by half a decade—and under far greater constraints. And the fact that he hasn’t serves as another reminder of how much lies outside a writer’s control, regardless of talent or recognition. This isn’t a lesson that Morgan needed to be taught: from “Clyde Bruckman” on, one of his great themes has been how little we can influence or understand the tricks the world plays on us. I don’t know what Morgan’s life has been like in the ten years since I created his page on Wikipedia, but I suspect that it would make an interesting movie. And Charlie Kaufman would probably get to write it.

“What are you offering?”

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"What are you offering?"

Note: This post is the fifty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering the epilogue. You can read the earlier installments here

As I’ve noted before, writing a series of novels is a little like producing a television series: the published result, as Emily Nussbaum says, is the rough draft masquerading as the final product. You want a clear narrative arc that spans multiple installments, but you also don’t want to plan too far in advance, which can lead to boredom and inflexibility. With a television show, you’re juggling multiple factors that are outside any one showrunner’s control: budgets, the availability of cast members, the responses of the audience, the perpetual threat of cancellation. For the most part, a novelist is insulated from such concerns, but you’re also trying to manage your own engagement with the material. A writer who has lost the capacity to surprise himself is unlikely to surprise the reader, which means that any extended project has to strike a balance between the knowns and the unknowns. That’s challenging enough for a single book, but over the course of a series, it feels like a real high-wire act, as the story continues to evolve in unexpected ways while always maintaining that illusion of continuity.

One possible solution, which you see in works in every medium, is to incorporate elements at an early stage that could pay off in a number of ways, depending on the shape the larger narrative ends up taking. My favorite example is from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Leonard Nimoy wanted Spock to die, and his death—unlike its hollow pastiche in Star Trek Into Darkness—was meant to be a permanent one. Fortunately, writer and director Nicholas Meyer was shrewd enough to build in an escape hatch, especially once he noticed that Nimoy seemed to be having a pretty good time on the set. It consisted of a single insert shot of Spock laying his hand on the side of McCoy’s unconscious face, with the enigmatic word: “Remember.” As Meyer explains on his commentary track, at the time, he didn’t know what the moment meant, but he figured that it was ambiguous enough to support whatever interpretation they might need to give it later on. And whether or not you find the resolution satisfying in The Search for Spock, you’ve got to admit that it was a clever way out.

"It was a lock-picking kit..."

The more you’re aware of the serendipitous way in which extended narratives unfold, the more often you notice such touches. Breaking Bad, for instance, feels incredibly cohesive, but it was often written on the fly: big elements of foreshadowing—like the stuffed animal floating in the swimming pool, the tube of ricin concealed behind the electrical outlet, or the huge gun that Walter buys at the beginning of the last season—were introduced before the writers knew how they would pay off. Like Spock’s “Remember,” though, they’re all pieces that could fit a range of potential developments, and when their true meaning is finally revealed, it feels inevitable. (Looking at the list of discarded endings that Vince Gilligan shared with Entertainment Weekly is a reminder of how many different ways the story could have gone.) You see the same process at work even in the composition of a single novel: a writer will sometimes introduce a detail on a hunch that it will play a role later on. But the greater challenge of series fiction, or television, is that it’s impossible to go back and revise the draft to bring everything into line.

City of Exiles is a good case in point. In the epilogue, I wanted to set up the events of the next installment without locking myself down to any one storyline, in case my sense of the narrative evolved; at the time I was writing it, I didn’t really know what Eternal Empire would be about. (In fact, I wasn’t even sure there would be a third installment, although the fact that I left a few big storylines unresolved indicates that I at least had some hopes in that direction.) What I needed, then, were a few pieces of vague information that could function in some way in a sequel. Somewhat to my surprise, this included the return of a supporting character, the lawyer Owen Dancy, whom I’d originally intended to appear just once: it occurred to me later on that it might be useful to let him hang around. When he comes to visit Ilya in prison, I didn’t know what that might mean, but it seemed like a development worth exploring. The same is true of the lock-picking tools that Ilya examines on the very last page, which I knew would come in handy. As I said yesterday, a draft can feel like a message—or an inheritance—from the past to the future. And you try to leave as much useful material as possible for the next version of you who comes along…

“She couldn’t believe it was over…”

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"Ilya saw that the path to the elevators was blocked..."

Note: This post is the twenty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 21. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’ve spoken frequently on this blog about my fascination with television, and especially with the challenges involved in telling an extended, episodic narrative in a medium that offers no clearly defined endpoint. Trying to plan too far in advance is a fool’s game: you never know if you’re going to get a single pilot, ten episodes, or a decade’s worth of stories, so you simultaneously need to act as if you might be canceled tomorrow and if you’ll get six seasons and a movie. Inevitably, the situation encourages shows to burn through ideas as quickly as possible. Since you don’t know how long you’re going to be on the air, it doesn’t make sense to hold any of the good stuff in reserve—which is why so many series seem to work themselves into exhaustion around the fifth season or so. At the other extreme, planning too far in advance can rob a show of its surprise and spontaneity, as I argued last year in my Salon piece on The X-Files and House of Cards. Even a show like Breaking Bad, which was able to set its own timetable for its final run of episodes, allowed chance and uncertainty to creep into the process: when Vince Gilligan and his writing staff showed us that machine gun in the trunk of Walt’s car at the beginning of the final season, even they weren’t sure how it was going to be used in the end.

Since a book is written and conceived in its entirety before its initial publication, it’s harder for a novelist to set challenges like this, although there are exceptions. Writing in a serial format, as Tom Wolfe did with the original draft of The Bonfire of the Vanities and Stephen King did with The Green Mile, can create something of the same effect, and it’s an approach I’ve often been tempted to try. It’s also a factor for authors of series fiction. Plotting out one novel is hard enough in itself, much less trying to figure out a narrative arc that spans several volumes, and I suspect that most writers who stretch a single story across multiple books aren’t quite sure how the final result will look. George R.R. Martin’s evolving sense of the scope of A Song of Ice and Fire has been thoroughly documented—he originally conceived it as a trilogy, only to see it balloon to a projected seven installments—and although he claims to have a general sense of how the story will end, I expect that even he will be surprised by many of his own developments. Part of this has to do with sustaining the writer’s interest over a project that can consume many years of his or her life, but even more of it has to do with the impossibility of holding that much information in one’s head at any one time.

"She couldn't believe it was over..."

As a result, a plot development in the middle of a series can sometimes resemble a shot in the dark, a best guess as to which avenues of exploration will turn out to be dramatically profitable. By the time I started work on City of Exiles, I knew that I wanted it to be the middle volume of a trilogy, which meant that every choice would affect not just the plot I was writing, but a hypothetical third book whose outlines I could see only dimly. (I’d like to believe that the three books in the series feel like one unified story, but I had no idea what Eternal Empire would be about, or even who the protagonist would be, until I’d submitted a draft of the second installment.) Of all the judgment calls I made, the one that had the greatest impact on what followed was the decision to have Ilya captured by the police at the exact midpoint of the series. At the time, as I mentioned last week, it was a way of forestalling writer’s block: I didn’t want to write the same novel all over again, and the change was radical enough to get me excited about where the story would go. But it also imposed enormous limitations, since I was effectively confining my most dynamic character for an extended period of time, and it meant that I was suddenly writing a prison novel, which wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind when I started.

When I wrote the scene of Ilya’s capture, which occurs in Chapter 20, I knew that all of these elements would present issues down the line, but I tried to take a page from the episodic narratives I admired and focus solely on the moment. I think the result is an exciting scene, and hopefully an unexpected one, all the more so because I didn’t know what would happen next. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine this series unfolding in any other way, and it certainly opened up a rich vein of new ideas. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think I would have been brave enough to write this scene at all if I didn’t know that I had ample background material available on the British prison system, in the form of memoirs, journalism, and other works of nonfiction, most of which will make its appearance in Part II.) By writing both Ilya and myself into a corner—and one I wouldn’t be able to get out for another three hundred pages, spread over two different books—I gave the series a jolt of energy that it badly needed. Whether the result was better or worse than it would have been if I’d gone in a different direction is something I’ll never know. All I can say is that it made me a lot more curious about the outcome, and that when I put Ilya in handcuffs, I had no idea how, if ever, he’d get out of them again…

Written by nevalalee

March 13, 2014 at 10:10 am

A young person’s guide to The X-Files

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Gillian Anderson in "Triangle"

I was thirteen years old when The X-Files premiered, and if you’re thirteen now, you were much too young to watch the show in its original run: its final episode would have aired sometime around your second birthday. With so much great television being produced all around us, it can be hard to catch up on a series, even a classic, that concluded its golden years before you were born, and neither syndication nor binge-watching will quite do the trick. It’s a fundamentally uneven show, so it can be something of a crapshoot if you happen to stumble across it on cable, or even if you decide to watch a season straight through. If you’re interested, I’d recommend sampling it at first, checking out a few episodes that offer a sense of what made this series so special before diving into the deep end. Here’s one possible approach:

1. Pusher. Long before Vince Gilligan created Breaking Bad, he was one of my personal heroes, since he’d written what I’d argue is the finest hour of television The X-Files ever produced. I’ve discussed it in greater detail elsewhere, but what strikes me the most about it now—with its duel of wits between Mulder, Scully, and a hired killer with the ability to control the minds of others—is how modest it is. There aren’t any aliens, gimmicks, or government conspiracies, no revelations that would reshape the series forever: it’s notable only because it’s the best. And for anyone who wants to see what this show could do at its finest, there’s no better place to start.

2. Ice. David Duchovny once referred to this installment as the show’s first really “rocking” episode, and it holds up better than just about any other. The premise—which traps Mulder and Scully at a snowbound research base with a handful of scientists and an alien threat—is obviously lifted from The Thing, but it’s told with such energy, economy, and wit that it’s hard to complain. It’s one of my favorite bottle episodes in any series, and it has one of the best supporting casts the show ever assembled, with Felicity Huffmann, Xander Berkeley, and Steve Hytner chewing the scenery as they deal with a nasty surprise in Alaska.

David Duchovny in The X-Files episode "Pusher"

3. Humbug/Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose/War of the Coprophages/Jose Chung’s From Outer Space. It’s a bit of a cheat to lump all of Darin Morgan’s episodes together in one entry, but otherwise, he’d have taken over this entire list: I can’t think of another writer in any medium who made such an impact on me with such a small body of work. (For much more on the subject, see here.) “Humbug” shifted the show’s tone forever, mining a newfound vein of mordant humor; “Clyde Bruckman,” for which Morgan won an Emmy, is one of its funniest and most emotional episodes;  “Jose Chung” picks apart and tramples the abduction narrative forever; but “War of the Coprophages,” the goofiest and most humane of the bunch, is the one I revisit the most.

4. Eve. When we think back to The X-Files now, what stands out are its conceptually or formally ambitious episodes, but at its early height, this was the kind of story it told best: a self-contained, creepy tale that lives happily within the confines of its genre while hitting all of its beats with remarkable concentration. This one stands out for a few great shock moments, a fantastic guest turn by Harriet Hansom Harris—in something like three different roles, depending on how you count them—and a nice, twisty plot: it looks at first like a case of alien exsanguination, then gets even weirder. It’s one of the few episodes that left me genuinely curious about what happened after it ended.

5. Triangle. This is a personal choice, and a slightly controversial one: it’s an obvious example of the show’s tendency, in its later seasons, to emphasize visual or structural trickery over plot, and yes, the story is a little thin. But the result is still gorgeous, a fantasia, told primarily in continuous tracking shots, inspired in equal parts by Titanic and The Wizard of Oz, with Mulder traveling back in time via the Bermuda Triangle to a luxury liner in 1939. The moment when Scully, in the present, crosses virtual paths on a split screen with her own doppelgänger is one I treasure to this day, and it’s a reminder that for a show capable of generating so much dread, The X-Files also left its viewers with a surprising amount of joy.

Extra credit: You’ll find countless other lists of essential episodes, but a few more of my personal favorites include “Fire,” “Paper Hearts,” “Quagmire,” “Small Potatoes,” “Field Trip,” and “Piper Maru/Apocrypha.”

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2013 at 8:26 am

Vince Gilligan and the dark genius of Breaking Bad

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It’s generally agreed that the two greatest dramas on television today are Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two consistently fascinating shows that air on the same network and appeal to similar demographics, but which in other respects couldn’t be more different. Mad Men, as I’ve said before, is almost fractal in its simultaneous commitment to fine detail and shapely storytelling, and it comes off as a seamless piece of narrative that could go on serenely forever. Breaking Bad, by contrast, is a lumpier, shaggier, messier show that often seems on the verge of coming apart entirely. It has narrative problems that I don’t think it ever truly solved—notably involving the character of Skyler White—and it didn’t really come into its own until halfway through the third season. It can feel contrived, and its seams often show. But at its best, it reaches greater heights than any other recent show, Mad Men included. And much of its appeal comes from the fact that creator Vince Gilligan and his writing staff clearly don’t always know what will happen next, but are willing to follow the characters into strange, dark places.

I’ve been a big fan of Gilligan ever since I first saw “Pusher,” my favorite episode of The X-Files, and one of the great pleasures of  Breaking Bad is the chance it affords to watch Gilligan and his writers think in real time. Breaking Bad is all but unique among important television shows in that its underlying conception changed radically after its first season, as the writers began to honestly examine the story’s implications. The series began as a finely crafted but somewhat facile black comedy about an essentially decent family man forced into a life of crime to pay his medical bills. As the show went on, however, it became increasingly clear that this premise, which made for a great elevator pitch, was unsustainable over the course of many seasons—at least not without a radical shift in tone. The result is a show that has become increasingly bleak in ways I don’t think even Gilligan anticipated, but to his credit, he has remained fully committed to the show’s new direction, based on a simple concept of dazzling audacity. As Gilligan said to the New York Times Magazine: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a show that takes the protagonist and transforms him into the antagonist?”

Which is exactly what Breaking Bad has done. The fact that it has succeeded so completely is a testament to the strength of its cast, especially Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, but also to the power of committing fully to the logic of the narrative, even if you don’t know precisely where it will lead. This applies to individual story arcs and episodes as well as to the shape of the series as a whole. In a wonderful series of interviews with Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club, Gilligan admits that his writing staff will generally begin each season with only a vague idea of where it ends, and often plot only three or four episodes ahead. This is very close to how I write my own novels, with detailed outlines taking me a third of the way through the story at a time, and it’s a thrilling way to write fiction, since it allows you to control the narrative to a certain extent while still being unsure of where the characters will ultimately go. The difference, of course, is that Gilligan and his team are doing it in public, with each season airing before they move on to the next, and it’s especially fun to see the show revisit elements from earlier seasons—like the sinister figure of Tio Salamanca—in ways that nobody could have anticipated.

And it’s also careful to keep its options open. Gilligan notes that even the writing staff doesn’t know much about the mysterious background of Gus Fring, the icy antagonist played so brilliantly by Giancarlo Esposito. This is partly because Gilligan feels, and rightly so, that certain characters “are sometimes more interesting the less you know about them,” but also because they don’t want to commit themselves without reason. Similarly, they’ve never said anything about Walt’s mother, or even shown us her picture, in order to keep certain possibilities alive. Whether or not these elements will ever pay off is an open question, but Gilligan and his writers have proven themselves experts at playing the long game, even if they aren’t entirely sure what the next move may be. It’s that constant play between constraint and possibility—between honoring the rules that the show has established while also leaving a few things in reserve—that makes the series so riveting from episode to episode. And it’s a measure of the show’s mastery that even as Walter White’s options continue to contract, the show’s own options seem limitless.

Written by nevalalee

August 10, 2012 at 10:15 am

Lessons from Great TV #7: The X-Files

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The X-Files has influenced my own writing more than any other television series, but the funny thing is, I couldn’t tell you much about it. I don’t remember the truth about Mulder’s sister, or what happened after Mulder was abducted, or what exactly that black oil was supposed to do, and I certainly don’t know what the Syndicate (or was it the Consortium?) was planning. Over time, the details of the show’s conspiracy arc have started to blur together, and even if they amounted to a coherent whole, which I doubt, I’m not that interested in putting together the pieces. Chris Carter, the show’s creator, may have thought that the series’s legacy would rest on its elaborate mythology, but that isn’t what drew me to the show in the first place, and it isn’t what I recall most fondly now. What I remember are the routine episodes, the casefiles and the Monsters of the Week, the stories that infamously led nowhere and solved nothing, but often resulted in some of the most compelling television of its time. This version of the show, which didn’t try to fit the world’s weirdness into any overarching pattern, is the one that got under my skin, and it’s influenced nearly everything I’ve written since, from The Icon Thief to “The Boneless One.” And for all its notorious complexities, its real appeal is gloriously simple: two smart, attractive professionals confronted with a mystery that seems inexplicable at first, but is ultimately revealed to have its own dark logic, as farfetched as it might be.

And it’s easy to underestimate episodes like this. Consider “Pusher,” which is the best classic casefile the show ever did, and one of my favorite hours of episodic television from any series. At first glance, there’s nothing about it that stands out from the rest of the show’s third season: there are no aliens, no conspiracies, and barely any atmosphere—the show takes place in various mundane locations around Washington D.C. and Alexandria, Virginia, and, curiously, almost entirely in the daytime. Its villain, Robert Patrick Modell, while wonderfully played by Robert Wisden, is a pointedly nondescript figure whose only interesting quality is his ability to talk other people into doing anything, including killing themselves in gruesome ways—a decent hook, but no better than most of the show’s usual plots. What sets “Pusher” apart is the grace with which it moves from one familiar beat to another. The script, by future Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, is clever, funny, and suspenseful in all the right proportions, and it concludes with perhaps the strongest dramatic set piece in the show’s history, as Modell challenges Mulder to a psychic game of Russian Roulette. Unlike the great deconstructive episodes written by Darin Morgan, “Pusher” doesn’t question or comment on the show’s conventions, but honors and upholds them. No gimmicks, no aliens, no conspiracies or special effects—just the basic elements of genre elevated by intelligence and craft, in an episode notable only for the fact that it’s, well, the best. And that’s the biggest mystery of all.

Tomorrow: “And that’s why you don’t teach lessons about comedy.”

Written by nevalalee

July 10, 2012 at 10:00 am

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