Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The X-Files: Chris Carter Strikes a Nerve...(UPDATED)


So after 14 years off the air, 11 months of waiting after the revival was announced and most excruciatingly, 20 minutes of contentless, post-game fluff and a mind-rotting avalanche of commercials, the new episode of The X-Files aired. 

The ratings were huge and most of the fans seem ecstatic. But at the same time there is quite clearly an organized campaign among critics and keyboard commandos against this reboot, against the first episode "My Struggle" in particular. And as I explained in my previous post it has less to do with what's being shown than what's being said.

Let me explain.

Some time ago I interviewed the author Jonathan Lethem about our mutual love of Jack Kirby and his chapter of Kirby's 70s work in Lethem's collection of memoirs entitled The Disappointment Artist. Kirby's 70s work is hugely influential now, in fact it can be argued that his ideas are essentially single-handedly keeping the entire movie business solvent, whether directly (through the Avengers Universe) or filtered (through the Star Wars Universe). 

But back then they were not well-received by fandom at all, and were seen as irrelevant and off-the-wall and generally uncool.

What was Kirby writing about back then? Oh, ancient astronauts, UFOs, conspiracies, hidden technologies, genetic engineering, interdimensional travel, and so on and so forth.

Sound familiar?

I asked Lethem why Kirby seemed to buck the tide so stubbornly, given his old-school commercial artist instincts.  And Lethem responded that after so long in the business, after making millions for others and having so little to show for it in return, Kirby lost the will to compromise, to meet the editors and audience halfway. He had a vision and was going to pursue it, regardless of the consequences.

After making billions for others and watching others grow rich stealing his ideas, Chris Carter seems to be in a similar place with The X-Files. 

Carter started out wanting to "tell scary stories".  He didn't know how yet, all he knew is that he loved old shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Invaders and most especially, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

After reading a news story about poll that a surprisingly large proportion of Americans claimed to have experienced alien abduction, Carter researched the topic and found it was a perfect hook for "scary stories". Having seen how many UFO-themed series ran out of gas early on (Jack Webb's Project UFO especially), he expanded the scope of the stories to tell more conventional scary stories, about monsters and ghosts and all the rest.

But as the series progressed Carter discovered a whole new trove of source material for "scary stories", the then-burgeoning conspiracy underground. 


Compared to the real life horrors that governments and corporations were capable of, liver-eating mutants and flukemen were pretty light fare. Which is why so many fans prefer the monsters and comedy episodes- they're actually not scary at all.

They're goofy, fun, escapist entertainment.

"Deep Throat", where pilots who fly secret aircraft are subjected to chemical brain damage to keep their missions secret, is scary. "Conduit", where a bureaucratic mistake brings a squad of goons to smash up your house and arrest you and your small child, is scary. "Blood", in which a combination of aerosolized drugs and subliminal messages drive people to wanton acts of murder, is scary. As is its companion piece, "Wetwired", where those messages are broadcast through cable TV channels.

Or how about "731", where the homeless and insane are experimented upon and then slaughtered by death squads and buried in mass graves? Or "Zero Sum", where schoolchildren are subjected to weaponized smallpox through killer bee attacks? 

Mind control, human experimentation, planned cullings, and secret warfare are scary. Vampires and werewolves simply are not; they're fun and silly.  

So Carter again sets out to scare his audience. And he does so by doing what he's always done- reach into the Jack-in-the-Box of America's Nightmare Cabinet and force the fringe into the mainstream.

That he seems to be taking so much flak shows that he is indeed striking some very sensitive nerves, which is why mainstream voices-of-record The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly were not content to attack "My Struggle" once, they actually did so twice.
Roswell, 9/11, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Kimmel, Faraday Cages, the military-industrial complex, kids without ears, the military-industrial complex, JFK, Henrietta Lacks, Saddam Hussein, “Mission Accomplished,” the Patriot Act, Edward Snowden, communism, terrorism, fascism, the Venus Syndrome, “They’ve reopened the X-Files.” 
There, I just spoiled “My Struggle,” the rebooted premiere of The X-Files and one of the single strangest episodes of anything ever. “My Struggle” is a chain-gun barrage of catchphrase paranoia and midlife-crisis crypto-Randian anti-philosophy. -Entertainment Weekly (first review)

What I know for sure is that despite my affection for Joel McHale, I couldn’t get past that 9/11 false flag stuff to really enjoy his character. In general, this episode forced me to re-think my interest in conspiracy theories and my openness to be entertained by them — something The X-Files taught me...
 
Back then it was the ’90s (my 20s), when I was drunk on the irony and irreverence of the era. Having lived through more than a few national and personal tragedies since then, I find it harder to be amused by the appropriation of catastrophe and the troubling ways we make sense of life’s horror. --Entertainment Weekly (second review)
The show was at its best when its heroes investigated something very creepy — a ship on the Norwegian Sea whose crew mysteriously ages, for instance — and came up with more questions than answers. The real pleasure of “The X-Files” wasn’t having your worst fears about the government confirmed; it was realizing that our world might still contain phenomena that are unexplained, and perhaps unexplainable. --New York Times (first review)
This time he’s propagating a theory, not about aliens, but about the cruelest of creatures: man. He reckons that the “alien abductions” he’s spent his life investigating were actually undertaken by men posing as aliens and testing alien DNA on humans. This evil plan will culminate in the “takeover of America.” I spit out my drink laughing at that line, which was bad because I was watching this episode on my computer. It sounded like something Sarah Palin would say. Along for this trite trip through Mulder’s troubled mind is a right-wing talk show host, because that is a believable alliance these days. --New York Times (second review)
Lest you think that's some editorial quirk, look at the bad review in Time, which not only completely misinterprets the mandate of the original series (fun?) but cites the authoritarian propaganda orgasmatron The Dark Knight as the example Carter should be following:
2016 may be the worst possible time to attempt a reboot of a series whose point of view was that conspiracy theories are, above all else, fun. As evidenced in political polling, the current national mood is something less joyful and more fearful, and a show in which a can-do attitude can barrel through any mystery feels out-of-step with the times. 
That doesn’t stop The X-Files from trying. The show, after all, has to live down an ending that resolved little and a stand-alone movie, in 2008, that underperformed at the box office (it was overshadowed by a film that spoke far more strongly to the national mood at that time—Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.)- Time review
So apparently it's not OK to write about this stuff anymore, not even as fiction. It was OK during the Bush era, it was OK to be suspicious of the Powers-That-Be then. Michael Moore made millions doing so. But not with the Anointed One in the Oval Office.
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UPDATE: The bad reviews almost certainly caught Chris Carter and Fox by surprise. Why?

Because the new X-Files pilot was wildly received not only at NY Comic-Con but at MIPCOM, a television trade fair. Read this:

Cynical industry journalists turned into gawking fanboys at the MIPCOM television trade fair on Tuesday night when Fox screened — in its world premiere — the first episode of the hotly anticipated return of The X-Files. 
The audience packed into Cannes' Grand Auditorium broke out in spontaneous applause multiple times — including when Duchovny and Anderson first appeared — and the crowd whooped and cheered as the closing credits rolled. But perhaps the biggest applause came earlier, when the opening credits — with The X-Files' trademark intro music — hit the screen.
So ask yourself: what happened between October and January?
•••••••••••••••••••••
This is exactly why we see such dangerous polarization in this country, why news outlets like Time are dying, why people are drawn to fringe opinions in the first place. People see the hypocrisy and double-standards and don't like them.

Now here's the thing: I didn't learn about most of the issues Carter raises on Alex Jones or Glenn Beck, I first heard about them on WBAI and WFMU, two hard left/liberal radio stations, back in the 1980s and 1990s, and in underground publications like Covert Action Quarterly. How long ago that seems today.

Being liberal or progressive once meant "questioning authority." No longer.


So let's be clear what the Voice of the Establishment is saying here. It's not OK to make fiction about this stuff-- fiction, mind you-- because it's too scary.

When The New York Times decides to send that message twice, one can only conclude that Carter struck a nerve.

The irony here is that the conspiracy material won't have much effect on the Alex Jones/David Icke crowd either way; they'll just figure it's more predictive programming or disinfo or whatever. There's no pleasing them either.

But again, you get the feeling Chris Carter simply doesn't give a shit. He's going to do what he wants to do and let everyone else deal with it.

The people who write for geek sites and non-mainstream media don't like "scary" either. Nor do the floating, freelance trolls who you see on comment sites and message boards. Here's a typical sampling of geek opinion, (a demographic who never liked the serious side of The X-Files anyway) and their fixation on the McHale character's radical libertarianism :
Fox Mulder was always noble. We identified with his plight because what he was doing was born out of love, so it’s both confusing and unfortunate that the show portrays Glenn Beck types the same way. 
Call me crazy, but I like my conspiracies served up classy, not lumped in with “the guvernmint is gonna take yer gunz!-  The Workprint
Hilarious. And this from Geekwire
 A few moments into Mulder and O’Malley engaging in a bro-babble about enslaving humanity via agricultural manipulation, the Fifth Extinction, weather control and the building of prison camps for no unknown purpose, blaming every significant world power but the Kardashians, a person can’t be blamed for wondering whether we really needed more of this show.
There was going to be no pleasing these people anyway. They've had their knives out for Carter for a very, very long time, both for trivial, "nerd-rage" reasons (mostly because that Carter has never prostrated himself before them like other creators) and among a certain subset, more troubling reasons that have to do with certain issues Carter's taken on in his writing.


But even the X-Files fansite Eat the Corn
(which has signed onto some extremely questionable enterprises, like the recent X-Files comics) has trouble separating fiction from reality in an otherwise positive review when he doesn't like the politics:

While this is good news, the turn Mulder takes embracing O’Malley’s theories and Carter’s comments above could be cause for concern. Your mileage may vary, naturally, however I would not want to see The X-Files become an apology of libertarian, conservative, anti-liberal propaganda even if these theories are framed in a fictional narrative. 
That O'Malley's politics are essentially no different from Max Fenig's, or the Lone Gunmen's, Susanne Modeski's or Michael Kritschgau's (particularly) seems besides the point in this climate. Why? I can think of any number of fictional characters whose politics I disagreed with and that didn't change my experience with the work itself.

Something is seriously askew.


But it doesn't matter because Carter simply doesn't care what any of these people think anymore. And there's a good reason why.

Way back in the day, co-executive producer Glen Morgan noticed a funny thing about a certain breed of online X-Files fans. They'd go online and say the writers should do a more conventional monster like a werewolf. So they'd do one and the fans would then complain that they shouldn't do such cliched stories. 


The fans would then say they should do more emotional stories and when they would (Morgan cited 'The Field Where I Died' and 'Never Again') they'd complain they should stick to the sci-fi.

 

When the first feature film came was announced, fans clamored for answers about the Mytharc and after it came out fans complained they should have done a standalone story. They did a standalone story for the second feature and the fans all bitched it should have been about the alien conspiracy.

Get the picture?

The other issue is that the series left off with a prophecy about the alien invasion impending in 2012, leaving Carter and the other producers with a huge amount of retconning to do. In the tiny, shrinking time allowed for TV dramas (the commercials were brutal-- I did an immediate rewatch and found I enjoyed it tenfold) Carter had to reintroduce the characters and the Mythology and explain why the invasion never came without saying, "Gee guys, the alien invasion never came because a third movie was never greenlit."

Never mind not wanting to be associated with the avalanche of alien invasion crapfests we've seen in the past decade or so.

Despite some carping from a certain constituency of fans, the general consensus was (and is increasingly now) that after two seasons of narrative drift, The X-Files regained its mojo in the eighth season. David Duchovny- who for years never tired of telling everyone how badly he wanted off the show- was so energized by playing with Robert Patrick he was reportedly tempted for a time to stay on.

Then there was the strange interlude of The Lone Gunmen pilot, which has since been tagged as "predictive programming" by people who never actually watched it, but in fact plays exactly like how the dialogue reads.

As these things happen, the show followed on a fulfillment of this prophecy, at the worst possible time.  There was a lot of confusion behind the scenes with contracts unsigned and a planned major character having to be written off due to a difficult pregnancy (Lucy Lawless's Shannon McMahon), a seeming forced rewrite of a major new character and a lot of uncertainty in general.

The final season of The X-Files is a lot better than its reputation would have you believe, but the Mythology does suffer from sheer exhaustion (literal, physical exhaustion on Carter's part) and casting issues (the eighth season was meant to see Mulder and Scully off to the movies but Gillian Anderson stayed on, which the writers openly admitted to struggling with).

Serious competition from Alias and The Sopranos sunk the aging show and a protracted lawsuit over royalties sank the planned movie series. A second movie was made on the cheap and on the fly and sadly went over a lot of people's heads, despite being one of the most sophisticated exercises in mythic allegory I've ever seen.

Carter's fortunes (and to a certain extent that of his current co-exec, Glen Morgan) waned while everyone else went on to fame and fortune with series like Homeland, Breaking Bad, and The Man in the High Castle.  

Not well known for his willingness to compromise, Carter has not been a player in the new Hollywood. So seeing The X-Files revival as possibly his last chance to have his say before a mass audience, he seems to have pulled out all the stops, unleashing on all the issues that have been on his mind since 9/11.

Carter didn't come from the usual UCLA film school circuit, he was a journalism major. And when he has something to say and a short time to say it his characters are known to speechify, a common and legitimate criticism of his writing.  


'Redux I' is, in this writer's opinion, Carter's speechifying tendency at its most extreme. And to be honest, the reviews had me expecting the same thing. And this episode does owe a lot the Season Five opener in style and tone. But it's a lot more effective because what Carter has to say here is a lot more focused and the dialogue a lot cleaner than 'Redux'.

The role served in Redux by Michael Kritschgau here is played by Joel McHale (called Tad O'Malley for those keeping score), who reviewers are comparing to Alex Jones or Glenn Beck. But I say he seems more a Hollywood take on Richard Dolan, the author of UFOs and the National Security State, vols 1 + 2. McHale's exegesis and Cassandra-like prophesying more closely matches that of Dolan than that of Jones or Beck, who we just get a window dressing of, really.

McHale drops in to wake Mulder up and get the action moving along. He introduces Mulder to a multiple abductee, drives a wedge between Mulder and Scully and seems to convince Mulder that his belief in an alien conspiracy was in fact a manipulated stageshow, put on by an offstage set of players who were above even the old Syndicate.

I won't spoil too much for people who haven't seen the episode yet. Fox leaked so much footage I felt like I'd seen it all before it aired, but trust me, I didn't and you haven't either.

Joel McHale does a better job than David Duchovny at delivering the information since he sounds more engaged in his part. Duchovny seems a bit stuck between Mulder-mode and Hank Moody-mode and when he's talking about the New World Order it sounds more like Hank lamenting over his latest relationship fuckup. But that's his creative decision and in general his performance works. He's playing a defeated man who's obsessions are punchlines, whose lifelong love walked out on him and who's reduced to surfing the web for hoaxed UFO videos.

But if Carter's weakness is his tendency to speechify, his great strength is to shut up and punch you in the face repeatedly. And he does so at crucial points in "Struggle." And when you least expect it, expect it.

The problem is I don't know how I'm going to be able to watch simple standalones now. James Wong's episode tonight looks interesting and is seemingly tied into the overarching theme established in "Struggle". I love me a good Darin Morgan yukster but is it appropriate in a six-episode run? I know Chris Carter wanted to "put the band back together" and bring as many of the original players back as possible, but it may give me a case of narrative whiplash.

Now, the retconning of the Mytharc. I'll have to search my archives but I remember reading this post on USENET or something way back in the day that argued that what we saw last night (or something similar) was actually Carter's idea all along. I thought it was a mad rant at the time, but entertaining enough to stick in my memory. Now I wonder.

There's also an unofficial X-Files episode guide published after Fight the Future that goes into the whole Colonist/Rebel issue and argues that that is actually at the core of the lot of the mysteries in the series.

We'll have to see. Most fans have no idea how much external factors figured, and indeed, actively interfered with the telling of the arc, preferring to pin it all on Carter's mercurial nature.

The Mytharc arose as a reaction to Gillian Anderson's pregnancy and the Colonization arc was ended in Season Six for reasons that apparently had nothing to do with what Carter and Co. planned, but in fact in response to a mysterious external factor or influence that has never been adequately explained.

Its replacement (starting with "Biogenesis") didn't even survive its initial three-episode arc and, tellingly,  would only re-emerge in the ninth season. The lead-up to the movie had to deal with the "skeptic Mulder" storyline that no one in the writers' room wanted to deal with. The supersoldier arc strained against the national mood post-9/11.

I've always seen the Mytharc more as poetry than prose anyway, a kind of floating improvisation on fixed themes. But it makes a lot more sense if you watch them all together, something not a lot of fans have probably done. There are all kinds of layers and unspoken undercurrents that most fans have no interest in, certainly fewer critics.

But this retconning most definitely ties into my own suspicions raised by the 'Biogenesis'/'Provenance' storyline, that the aliens of the Godships were not the alien Colonists and that the two were in fact in opposition. That William was linked to the Godship aliens, which explains the baffled reaction of the supersoldiers in 'Existence' and the incineration of the supersoldier cultists in 'Providence'.

I don't know where it's going but unlike his critics I'm humble enough to admit that Chris Carter is smarter than I am. So I'll keep watching and see what happens next. In the meantime, 'Founder's Mutation' in two hours....

UPDATE: I'm going to have to give "Founder's Mutation" another viewing before I comment on it. It very much felt on the first go like Mulder and Scully wandering into an episode of Fringe. The change in tone from apocalyptic to near-whimsy was a bit jarring, it must be said. I did appreciate the thematic tie-ins as well as the William visions (which were beautifully conceived and shot) though, and hope that particular storyline is going to be resolved in this series.

UPDATE: HATE FAIL: The massive hate campaign against the X-Files premiere failed in the most spectacular fashion.
The return of “The X-Files” got off to an even better start than previously thought. The show adjusted to a 6.1 in adults 18-49 in Sunday’s final ratings, up from 5.1 for the partial number in the preliminary results.
Note how even TV by the Numbers buries the lede here by headlining only the smallest number. It got a 6.1 rating but a 19 share and a whopping 16.9 million viewers, even after the 22 minute overrun from the game. And that's just live TV. The numbers stayed big for the second night, nearing almost 10 million viewers on the overnights, a number that will probably be adjusted up as well.

NOTE: One major criticism I do have about the relaunch is the digital video. I totally understand the need for it but it simply doesn't have the depth and richness of film. One of the reasons I was so hypnotized by the criminally-underrated second film was Carter, Roe and Bartley's full exploitation of film as a canvas, particularly making use of all that beautiful Canadian tundra. Could video capture that poetry?

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