In the latest episode of The X-Cast, myself and my co-host Carl Sweeney touch base on several pieces of X-Files related business…
– What we think of the new The Official Archives book.
– The news about the Albuquerque spin-off series, and what it means for the franchise.
– What’s coming for the rest of 2020 into 2021 for The X-Cast, including the live 500th episode series, Patron specials, and Season 6 coverage…
Precipitously timed as we head into deeper, restrictive Covid-19 measures in the U.K., The Great British Bake Off is a breath of fresh air.
Yes, I’m a fan of this show, particularly in recent years. I didn’t get on with Mel & Sue generally but once they left, and the charming mixture of Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig filled the breach when the show transitioned from BBC1 to Channel Four, it rapidly became a show I enjoyed with my wife as opposed to doing other things while she had it on. As with any ‘reality’ show, the combination of presenters and on-screen talent are the key ingredients to engagement. These kind of shows are, as a result, entirely subjective – I may have found Mel & Sue irritating, but many would have turned away from the show with Noel & Sandi taking their place, or the posh, grandmotherly Mary Berry being replaced by the equally posh, schoolmistress-y Prue Leith.
For me, the combination worked, and it allowed the fantasy of Bake Off to engulf me whole. And it is a fantasy. Bake Off exists in a hermetically sealed, English-rose depiction of Britain, one where the sun always shines on canvas tents surrounded by bunting in the gardens of manor houses and stately homes. It’s as if the 19th century gentry allowed the peasants to have a bit of fun on their grounds, yet at the same time it never strives to be elitist. Bake Off feels inclusive, warm and good natured, even if ultimately it’s not really about baking. It’s about personal empowerment, building self-esteem, and proving worth in a fantastical, alternate-universe England where we all live in harmony.
In 2020, more than ever, Bake Off is a pleasant fiction.
Over the years, we have enjoyed a litany of tie-in material for The X-Files, principally across the 1990s but again recently thanks to the return of Chris Carter’s iconic series.
Fans will remember Brian Lowry’s essential episode guide books back when the show aired – basic by today’s standard but a touchstone in the pre-online era of limited investigative or behind the scenes information. Ditto Jane Goldman’s two-volume Book of the Unexplained, much more of an expansive ‘coffee table tome’. Aside from the novelisation tie-ins from writers such as Charles Grant & Kevin J. Anderson, these materials expanded our knowledge and enjoyment of the television series, paving the way for the multimedia onslaught of additional material that would appear around shows and movies to come, and following in the footsteps of mega franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek, who had already been doing it for years.
In the modern 2020s, what can resources such as this offer us? Back in the ‘90s, without access to information or images or contextualisation, such books would inform and enrich our knowledge of the movies and shows we loved. Now, everything in those books is available thanks to a cursory Google search. This forces books such as The Official Archives to be a touch more inventive in how they engage with the property they’re playing with.
Paul Terry is clearly someone who adores The X-Files and knows it well, and such enthusiasm emerges in a book that is part coffee-table resource filled with arcanum and part investigative journal, playfully adding new details and lore to The X-Files mythos.
In the latest episode of Make It So, myself and my guest Zach Moore discuss the tenth episode of Star Trek: Discovery‘s first season, Despite Yourself, as we work through the season before the show returns to Star Trek: Picard coverage.
You can listen directly to the episode and subscribe via the following links or on your podcast app of choice:
X-Files: Albuquerque, which is currently being worked up for the network (and by extension their overlords, Disney), is planned to be an animated comedy revolving around a collection of “misfit agents who investigate X-Files cases too wacky, ridiculous or downright dopey for Mulder and Scully to bother with.” as described by TV Line’s Michael Ausellio. The project has a ‘script and presentation commitment’ from Fox (translated: if they like the script, they’ll let them make it) and is being developed by Rocky Russo & Jeremy Sosenko, with X-Files creator Chris Carter and his former PA/Season 11 scribe Gabe Rotter overseeing as executive producers. The old and the new joining forces, essentially, for a new chapter in the history of the series.
I say series because The X-Files will, if this does come to fruition, take the first steps to becoming a franchise; not just one singular, iconic series any longer, but rather part of a broader tapestry that could expand beyond the adventures of Fox Mulder & Dana Scully, who with David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson in the roles investigated America’s paranormal secrets between 1993-2002, across two movies, and then between 2016-2018 for what will, almost certainly, be a swan song for the traditional era of that show. Fans don’t want to admit it (I run an X-Files podcast so, trust me, I know), but the original series of The X-Files is done. Anderson doesn’t want to revive Scully again. Season 11 wrote the show into a corner, effectively, and it’s hard to imagine just what else you could do with the middle aged Mulder & Scully now that hasn’t been done.
In other words, this might be the right time for Albuquerque, if you subscribe to the idea The X-Files should even become a franchise at all.
Some are already declaring Lovecraft Country as ‘this years Watchmen‘, but this feels hyperbolic to a degree. Watchmen was an immediate shock to the system. Lovecraft Country will, hopefully, slow build its way to a piece of cathartic theatre.
Based on a 2016 pulp novel by Matt Ruff, the show adapted by Misha Green begins with a statement of intent – here be monsters. This differs from the novel, which introduces us to our protagonist Atticus Freeman (played here by Jonathan Majors) as he ventures back home to Chicago after the disappearance of his father, Montrose. All this will follow in Green’s show, as the first episode Sundown is particularly slavish to Ruff’s first fifty pages or so, but the opening moment indulges by landing Atticus in the wildest of dreams involving Lovecraftian monsters, UFO’s, beautiful women from space and cosmic wars. Pure blood pulp science-fiction which front loads, thematically, what Lovecraft Country concerns – black legacy and heroism within a nation populated by the worst of monsters. The shoggoths and weird places inside H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction are just to whet the appetite. The meal itself stands to be far chewier.
The pedigree behind Lovecraft Country is, of course, pretty damn impressive, and speaks to the confluence of black and white voices who have united to bring Ruff’s vivid yet recognisable world to life. Green, as showrunner, was lauded for her previous work Underground, an apt title given it didn’t break out into the mainstream as Lovecraft Country stands a chance of doing. Jordan Peele, as an executive producer, lends his satirical, ironic horror perspective (indeed the next episode, if it stays close to the novel, could feel veryGet Out). J. J. Abrams, super producer du jour, is likely the man who got this on its feet with the prestigious HBO, who are consistently looking for both their next Game of Thrones and now Watchmen, given that show is unlikely to get a second series (immediately – it’ll reappear eventually). HBO have certainly thrown enough money at Lovecraft Country to suggest they have lofty ambitions for it, and it could well be a series that has fallen at precisely the right time.
The difference is that Watchmen felt almost prophetic at the end of 2019 with hindsight, as focused on police brutality and corruption in racial terms as it was, whereas Lovecraft Country simply serves to externalise and metamorphose the hate coursing right now through America into literal, unknowable horror.
Though we may have entered a second possible ‘golden age’ for Star Trek on television, the same cannot be said for the iconic franchise at the movies.
Forbes writer and movie critic Scott Mendelson, in a recent article, decried that Paramount’s experiment to transform Star Trek into a franchise worth of rivalling Star Wars, the MCU, even Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers, is dead in the water after the box office failure in 2016 of Star Trek Beyond. He points out that while Star Trek 2009 and Star Trek Into Darkness both made a profit and are in the higher percentile of Star Trek films in financial terms, neither of them came anywhere close to making the profits witnessed in franchise films such as The Dark Knight or Skyfall over the last fifteen years. In all of these summations, he is arguably quite correct.
Ever since the end of The Animated Series in 1974, Star Trek’s only previous foray into the sphere of animation, the franchise has toyed with another ‘cartoon’ version of the series, but has perhaps steered clear by dint of being defined as such. Star Trek: Lower Decks is not easily characterised, simply, as a cartoon.
Lower Decks, created by Mike McMahan, exists thanks to the proliferation over the last twenty-five years or more of adult-centred animated television series. McMahan himself wrote a chunk of Rick & Morty, the good natured, wacky Netflix animated series—Back to the Future on acid, basically—and that itself arrives in the slipstream of the even more renowned series—South Park, Family Guy etc—that took the nominal concept of animation as kids territory, cartoons established decades past with Tom & Jerry through to Wacky Races and The Flintstones, and deliberately tailored them for older audiences. Cinema has proven adults respond just as well, if not even better, to intelligent animation as children do, with the Pixar stable lighting up the box office while cementing themselves in the minds of ages the world over, as have to a lesser degree Japan’s Studio Ghibli.
McMahan’s series—certainly on the evidence of the pilot episode Second Contact—lacks the whimsy of Ghibli, and certainly the cosiness of Pixar, but rather contains the self-effacing, self-knowing confidence of a Bojack Horseman. Lower Decks seems to understand the position it holds in relation to the broader Star Trek universe and the world of animation itself and, consequently, does not try and reinvent the wheel. It is, in many ways, exactly the kind of show you probably thought it would be, based on McMahan’s previous work, based on the promotional material and trailers, and based on what those involved have been talking up for a solid year. The only surprise in Second Contact is how unsurprising it actually is.
This isn’t meant as a slight, either. Lower Decks is huge fun. It just isn’t, at least yet, anything more.
Amongst the many trends available in television and cinema these days, the self-destructive family dynamic remains among the most potent and popular, except the targets are successively growing bigger in stature.
I have recently caught up on HBO’s Succession which, if you haven’t managed to catch it, truly is one of the finest pieces of drama anywhere today. With a third season on the way either this year or likely next—delayed, as much else, by Covid-19–Jesse Armstrong’s series has rocketed into the public consciousness following two incredibly strong opening seasons which focus on the Roy dynasty, a New York-based family in control of Waystar Royco, a multi-billion global news and entertainment multinational company, a family faced with challenges within and without as they strive to navigate an ever-shifting media landscape. Armstrong’s series is rich in Shakespearean plotting, razor-sharp writing, complex characterisation and laugh out loud black comedy which underscores a series which, ultimately, is about the self-destructive nature of exorbitant wealth on not just family, but humanity itself – both figuratively and literally. If Game of Thrones saw families physically stab each other in the back, Succession’s pain is psychological.
In watching the show, which Armstrong has worked hard to stress should not be interpreted as one particular family or another (but it isn’t hard to get a strong whiff of the Murdoch, or even Trump dynasties here), I’m left to wonder if part of Succession’s appeal is in watching people who have everything reduced to a personal, psychological nothing. The series is nominally concerned with the titular question of the successor to patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox, on brilliantly snarling form), with his grown up children variously positioning themselves to take over his sprawling, vastly lucrative empire, but the meat of the drama is in how Logan’s cruel, amoral lens on a world he is sucking dry belittles, damages and threatens to destroy his children along the way. As Logan’s brother Euan puts it in one episode, “In terms of the lives that will be lost by his whoring for the climate change deniers, there’s a very persuasive argument to be made… that he’s worse than Hitler.”. There is much current, real world relevance in what Succession deals with, but the heart of the drama, so finely balanced as it is with gallows humour that often resembles The Thick of It (which Armstrong also worked on), lies in how the rule of an empire is enough to destroy an entire family.
This feels like a tale that keeps being told. Succession follows Game of Thrones, or The Crown, even Ozark, in depicting the super-powerful lose their souls, or at the very least their happiness. I wonder… are we perversely enjoying their pain?
We all have those shows or movies that we sailed right on past, don’t we? Community was absolutely one of mine.
For years, I had close friends knowledgeable about television encouraging me to check in on Greendale Community College but for whatever reason, it never quite happened. I used to hear #sixseasonsandamovie and miss the reference. The first time I saw Joel McHale in anything was the revival of The X-Files. I spent *far* too long not knowing who Donald Glover was. All of these are on me. In hindsight, having just binge-watched almost the entirety of the series in around three weeks on Netflix (and slightly on Amazon), I can safely say Community is one of those shows that I am disappointed not to have experienced with everyone else at the time. I feel like those people who refuse to watch Game of Thrones and have no idea what they missed out on.
Let’s face it, Community is unique. There has never been a sitcom quite like it. You might call it a sitcom about sitcoms but that’s disingenuous. Community is more a sitcom that knows it’s a sitcom, and works hard to transcend a complex series of established formulas that have been in place for decades. Dan Harmon, the primary ubermind behind the adventures of the Greendale study group whose eventful college lives we observe each episode, understands tropes exist to be deconstructed and analysed, and deeper comedy can be reached in our post-modern landscape by encouraging the audience to be aware of said tropes. Community respects the so-called ‘fourth wall’ while never quite breaching it. In a sense, Harmon’s show is post-post-modern.
What’s great about Community, even as a show that arguably peaks and then troughs, is that it understands the sitcom well enough to deconstruct it while at the same time playing to the strengths of that same formula.