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The X-Files

The X-Files – ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’

“It’s not me! It’s the world! The world has gone mad!”

There have been several back and forth opinions regarding the latest season of TheX-Files as to whether or not the show has too often tried to layer its fantastical stories with too much overt American political commentary. ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ will definitively put that argument to bed – not only is Season 11 now almost certainly going to be the final run of this iconic show, Darin Morgan’s comedic entry is a pointed response to the Trump, Fake News, Post-Truth era. It is also, as you may expect from the man, a minor work of brilliance.

Darin Morgan’s comedy episodes have become their own sub-genre within The X-Files since very early on in the second and third seasons, delivering gems such as ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’ or ‘Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space”, episodes which took the essential concept of Chris Carter’s series–two FBI agents investigate the paranormal–and inverted it into a comedic romp filled with one-liners, flashback gags and histrionic, heightened levels of reality. Some have argued The X-Files was so successful precisely because each writer brought a different canonical sensibility to the series – Carter’s arch grasp of symbolic theme, Glen Morgan & James Wong’s fusion of pulp and thriller stylistics, or Vince Gilligan’s blue-collar horror tales, but Darin Morgan’s stand out the most for being almost non-canonical, a pocket universe of wry, format-breaking, ‘meta’ stories which shine an alternative light on The X-Files and prove, without a shadow of a doubt, it has a remarkable elasticity of tone.

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The X-Files – ‘Plus One’

SCULLY: “This is a mass phenomenon!”
MULDER: “Which is why you and I are gonna jump on I-95 south this morning and get back to our bread & butter…”

Bread and butter indeed. There is a strong argument brewing that ‘Plus One’, the third episode of The X-Files’ eleventh season, is the purest example of a ‘classic’ X-File since the year 2000.

I’ve discussed previously how we need to start thinking of the first nine seasons of The X-Files the way we do 1960’s Star Trek, as the ‘classic’ series of the show. The revival seasons have proven The X-Files, in order to adapt to an evolving and changing television landscape, has found for better or worse (and fandom are strictly divided as to the answer) the need to reinvent itself, to some degree. Season 10 was filled with episodes which reconceived the series’ legendary ‘mytharc’, indulged in the nostalgia of the show’s comedy episodes, and fused both ‘monster of the week’ stories with character journeys for Mulder and Dana Scully, alongside a bizarre experimental piece from creator Chris Carter. Not one of those episodes, truly, felt like the ‘classic’ series.

‘Plus One’ is the first episode since the show returned to buck that trend. Season premiere ‘My Struggle III’ bravely took the mythology to controversial new places and ‘This’, Glen Morgan’s follow up, pitched Mulder & Scully in the middle of a breakneck Hitchcockian conspiracy thriller with shades of that same mytharc. ‘This’ had plenty of touches to please any ‘classic series’ fan but equally engaged in action stylistics and storytelling choices which kept it firmly in the realm of ‘revival series’. You can see why Carter would have wanted to write ‘Plus One’, because for the first time in years he has the space, breathing room and position to create a true ‘monster of the week’ tale, even if that term can sometimes be used too broadly. ‘Plus One’ doesn’t have a Tooms or a Pusher or even a Rob Roberts. Yet at the same time it’s the most standalone piece The X-Files has given us in a long time.

The X-Files and Alternate Universes

As the much-anticipated eleventh and almost certainly final season of The X-Files kicks off 2018, a remarkable fan theory has begun to arise in certain social media groups from the first two episodes: that The X-Files has slipped into an alternate universe. On the face of it, the notion sounds as crazy as the kind of cases Agent Fox Mulder has in his basement office, but could some nugget of possibility ripple beneath this theory?

A major factor backing up the assertion was confirmed in season premiere ‘My Struggle III’ (thoughts on which are espoused here in depth), in the fact Agent Dana Scully imagined the previous Season 10 finale ‘My Struggle II’ in her mind’s eye, a remarkable twist eradicating the events of an entire episode only sold to the audience by virtue of Scully having been gifted of it thanks to a vision from her long-lost son William. The catastrophic, world-ending, apocalyptic events of the Season 10 finale ended up simply as information for Scully to understand, a warning perhaps of knowledge to help she & Mulder prevent the release of the deadly Spartan Virus that wipes out humanity. So the theory goes, however, Scully’s vision wasn’t just a prophetic warning of terrible events to come, but rather an entire alternate reality she, and we, have experienced since The X-Files returned to our screens.

The main reason this theory interests me is because of the underpinning factors about The X-Files‘ return which is giving the idea significant ballast for some fans; principally how some fans would love nothing more than to see Season 10 essentially erased from canon. There is a growing feeling amongst a fraction of The X-Files fandom that a chance could have arisen to handily ignore some of the missteps considered to have arisen during the six-part revival season, principally the significant changes to established series mythology and problems & inconsistencies about the portrayal of Mulder & Scully. The theory to my mind seems less about having a cogent, satisfying narrative reason for two timelines being in play and rather looking for an excuse to pretend certain original creative choices in 2015 didn’t happen.

The X-Files – ‘This’

MULDER: “How do you like that? The FBI finally found out what it’s like to be looked on as a little spooky!”

‘This’ doesn’t just feel like an episode of The X-Files. It feels as much like a core distillation of not just everything the show says today about the state of global surveillance, conspiracy and government, but rather everything it *used* to say. If ever an episode of the show was designed to remind us we’re no longer watching The X-Files of the 1990’s, it’s, yes, ‘This’.

The X-Files operates in an interesting place today. In my review of ‘My Struggle III’, part of the discussion revolved around how Chris Carter’s seminal series struggled when it was revived in 2016 precisely because it sat between what is now the world of yesterday (Obama’s stable, if divisive administration) and the world of today (Trump’s unstable, chaotic regime). Much like how all six episodes we’re figuring out how to re-conceptualise their storytelling for a new age of television, so Carter’s series attempted to find its place in a rapidly changing America. If the Season 11 premiere felt saddled by continuing mythology beats and was swamped by the narrative twist regarding Scully’s child, which had a mixed reception to say the least, then Glen Morgan’s follow up has the freedom to truly make the most of where The X-Files fits in the current paradigm.

Glen Morgan, and his oft-producing partner James Wong, were always two of the greatest assets The X-Files ever had. When they left firstly midway through the second season and later, following a brief return, midway through the fourth, there is no doubt both were missed. Morgan & Wong, as a duo, are responsible for some of the strongest episode the original series of The X-Files (as I’m now calling Seasons 1-9) ever produced – chiefly among them the peerless ‘One Breath’, which to some degree ‘This’ resembles. Not in story or even in style, but placed in terms of how it frames the characters of Mulder & Scully within a post-Watergate arena of paranoia, with mythological grandmasters operating at the head of the table. Though Morgan goes solo with ‘This’, everything he taps into feels like an extension and evolution of the kind of stories both were telling in the 90’s.

Game of Thrones – ‘Winter Is Coming’ (1×01)

What strikes you about Winter Is Coming, the opening episode of Game of Thrones, is the children.

George R.R. Martin’s book saga, A Song of Ice and Fire, famously had the two central characters embodying the dual elements, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, as roughly around fifteen years old. For the purposes of producing a palatable, adult fantasy television show, HBO aged them up by around three or four years (though in casting terms near enough ten). The children we see, therefore, in the TV show adaptation are in some cases even younger than Martin’s original conception of these young Royal figures thrust into a story of war, magic, conquest and sexual misfortune. Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark, even Joffrey Baratheon, all are demonstrably children when the show begins.

The show very much begins reminding us children are the heart and soul of Martin’s epic.

The X-Files – ‘My Struggle III’

The X-Files enters the era of post-truth with a remarkable level of chutzpah. After the relaunch of Season 10 aka ‘the Event Series’ and it’s rampant success, Season 11 became almost assured once difficult contract negotiations (principally with Gillian Anderson) were figured out, but despite only a two year gap between both seasons, the cultural landscape on which they were playing has changed almost beyond recognition.

Chris Carter’s series became a pioneer of cultural & sociological allegory, probably the most powerful in terms of defining the 1990’s as Star Trek defined the 1960’s, so for The X-Files to truly feel needed and relevant again, ironically we perhaps needed the election of Donald Trump and the rise of anti-intellectual, fake news, nationalist propaganda. One of the reasons Season 10 didn’t quite work was because it sat in a strange space – the end of Obama’s divided but relatively stable era, and the beginning of the most anxietal period in American history for decades. The X-Files was a show built on the search for eternal, ephemeral, philosophical Truth with a capital T. ‘My Struggle III’, the season premiere of what could be the show’s final run, proves The X-Files could well end fighting back against post-Truth. The tag line says it all. I Want to Believe, one of the show’s maxim’s, turns into I Want to Lie.

The X-Files’ Chris Carter, Misogyny, and Agenda Fandom

Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, is apparently a misogynist. It’s an opinion which has been circulating for some years in certain corners of X-Files fandom, of which I consider myself a part given my contributions to the podcasting sphere with The X-Cast.

I’ve been writing a lot about fandom recently because it currently seems to be operating at its most pervasive and toxic on social media – whether in the case of Star Wars fans calling for Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi to be struck from very canon because it dares to try new approaches, or in this case a Reddit AMA in advance of the premiere of ‘My Struggle III’, the opening episode of The X-Files Season 11, in which Chris Carter opened himself up to questions from fans about the new season and became, once again, the victim of a different strand of online toxicity: agenda fandom. In this case a core, collected, organised group of fans who targeted Carter with questions deliberately designed to establish his misogynist credentials. As some commentators on social media subsequently opined, Carter didn’t disappoint, in their eyes.

This piece isn’t going to see me defend Carter in terms of this apparent misogyny. My opinion on this, simply, is that he isn’t sexist. That a man who helped devise a character like Dana Scully, an empowered, rational, scientist and doctor who has subsequently inspired at least one generation of young women to follow career and life paths which are hugely beneficial to diversity, being described as a misogynist seems antithetical to common sense. That’s where I stand. What interests me more is the rise, increasingly, of militant agenda fandom. Of a collectivisation of fans who come together not to help build up the property they love, but instead tear it down.

The X-Files: Mythology within Mythology

When you apply the word mythology to the fabric of modern television, you have to pay a great deal of lip service to The X-Files, because it was really the first TV show to couch its storytelling in that terminology. Chris Carter’s seminal 1990’s series, one of the most significant pop-culture features of the decade, invented what became known as the ‘mytharc’ – not just a continuing narrative regarding the presence of extra-terrestrial life on Earth and a sinister, global conspiracy to cover their existence up, but a veritable mythological template on which to tell a story, depict archetypal character journeys, and immerse viewers in a world where they could theorise, suppose and contemplate.

The X-Files built its entire success around its sense of mythology, alongside the chord struck by its partnership duo, FBI agents Fox Mulder & Dana Scully, and those fans who didn’t show up to see Mulder & Scully get it on, almost certainly were there to enjoy the kind of continuity, richness and adherence to ‘canon’ with almost the fervour of the Star Trek or Star Wars fanbases. Which is why, when The X-Files finally returned to TV after almost a fifteen year break, it was almost for many fans baffling to see Carter seemingly contradict and downright reject the mythology he had so painstakingly created.

The League of Gentlemen’s Brexit Britain: why the old guard TV shows are returning now

If you grew up in the late 1990’s across into the new millennium, you almost certainly remember The League of Gentlemen, if you’re British at least. Then unknown performers Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith burst on the TV scene and delivered for the BBC a sketch comedy as successful as The Fast Show and Monty Python’s Flying Circus before it, only skewed far more away from social comedy or absurdity, and closer to a grotesque, eccentric inversion of Northern lifestyle spliced with Hammer horror movie homage. Running for three series and a Christmas special, the League got in and out before anyone could start to find them wearing; constantly evolving their visual and narrative style, telling witty, bleak and inventive stories, and ending with the hope they would make more. Almost twenty years since they began, they have, with three new Christmas specials on the horizon. But why now?

It’s fair to say there has been something of a Renaissance for 90’s and ‘Noughties’ television in the last couple of years. The old guard have been popping up all over the place, revamped, reimagined and revived for an entirely new audience. The X-Files, early in 2016, returned with its two key original characters and a shortened, six episode run, followed swiftly by a condensed, compact revival of Prison Break for an erstwhile fifth season. This was after, in the autumn of 2015, popular superhero series of the mid 00’s Heroes returned for a mini-series called Reborn.

This year’s most profound revival has been, almost inexplicably, Twin Peaks, in which David Lynch crafted a third season almost twenty years since the end of the second, baffling and confounding audiences in equal measure on both sides of the Pond – some say it’s genius, others say it’s ponderous. Even Star Trek, a 90’s mainstay of television which dominated the science-fiction landscape for more than a decade before drifting into mid-00’s obscurity, returned with a new lease of life thanks to Discovery, its new series set ten years before the original 1960’s run. These aren’t the only examples but they all have one crucial element in common – all of them, to a series, have met with a mixed response.

In the Line of Fire (1993)

In the Line of Fire feels increasingly like a cultural artefact in this day and age. Though in some ways rooted in the 1990’s, in an era divested of the Cold War but away from a future of terrorist uncertainty, there is a political timelessness about Wolfgang Petersen’s movie. It feels at though it exists between two worlds. Barring one exception, this was the last film starring Clint Eastwood in the title role that he didn’t direct and you perhaps feel at times Eastwood wants to jump out of In the Line of Fire and establish his own political sentiments on Jeff Maguire’s script and Petersen’s effective, if at times pedestrian direction.

Eastwood has at times asserted his fairly right-wing political leanings on his filmmaking, most notably in American Sniper, but In the Line of Fire remains essentially neutral in terms of political discourse. The President under threat is never even characterised, beyond the traditional American image of a white, middle-aged man. He could be Reagan. He could be Carter. He could even be Clinton, who was in office at the time. Petersen’s film isn’t concerned with the man Eastwood’s ageing Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan is determined to protect, simply about what protecting a President means.

The film is concerned primarily with age in terms of Frank and indeed America itself. The shadow of John F. Kennedy’s assassination hovers over the picture, given how Frank is, as he modestly describes himself at one point to René Russo’s junior agent, a “living legend”; the only remaining serving agent who was in Dealey Plaza on the day of the President’s assassination in November 1963. Thirty years after the most powerful event in modern American history, In the Line of Fire focuses on a character who has never been able to escape it. Frank, in many respects, is analogous to America as an entity.