Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The X-Files X-it & the Death of Conspiracy Culture, Part One

Well, after 25 years it looks like we've reached the end of the road. I'm talking about what is most probably the last permutation of The X-Files, and of the Internet conspiracy culture that rose up alongside it. 

Maybe even the end of the Internet as a public square where people from all walks of life and all kinds of varying viewpoints mingle and argue. For some reason the three feel intimately linked.

Let's rewind the clock a bit here.

The X-Files returned in 2016 for a massively-hyped "event series" that felt nothing if not uneventful. Chris Carter tried to "get the band back together" as best he could, roping in nerdly favorites like Glen and Darin Morgan and James Wong, authors of some of the series' best-loved episodes. 

But other mainstays-- notably Howard Gordon (24, Homeland), Frank Spotnitz (Strike Back, The Man in the High Castle) and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul)-- were too busy with other projects to pitch in. They were missed.

The premiere episode ran after the Super Bowl L and scored huge ratings. X-Files chatter rose up like murmurations of grackles all across social media. And significantly, the program also lit up the conspiracy/ parapolitical/ UFO nexus like a Christmas tree. 

The show had no sooner ended than countless YouTube videos of the scorching duologue between Mulder and "Tad O'Malley" (a character based on Alex Jones, but played by Joel McHale and as such, immeasurably more appealing) were popping up like mushrooms after a summer storm.

All of which is to say the critics-- hyper-partisan globo-neolib extremists to a one-- hated every second of it like poison. 

Poison multiplied by AIDS-squared, plus the square-root of cancer.

The premiere episode was far from perfect. The overall rustiness on the part of the show's ruling triumvirate (Carter, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) was all too apparent. Duchovny seemed stuck in Hank Moody gear (his character from the long-running sex comedy Californication) and Anderson was still clearly fixated on Stella Gibson, her character from the Irish crime drama The Fall.

Mercifully, she didn't speak with a British accent.

Carter clearly had a lot on his mind but seemed all too prone to the stilted, pretentious, Marvel Comics-circa-1973 dialogue tics he often lapsed into in Mytharc episodes in the old days. Back then it mostly worked (with everyone except USENET nitpickers, that is) because it lent the show a kind of portentous, quasi-Biblical air. 

In the Age of Peak TV it just feels a bit cringey.

From there the tone veered drunkenly from ep to ep, with not even the slightest shred of continuity or mood between the six episodes. 

Wong's "Founder's Mutation" was the strongest of the lot, a canny synthesis of standalone and Mytharc that went a long way to stitching the two spheres together. But the look and feel was far more Fringe than classic X. No nostalgia fix there, in other words.

Darin Morgan's "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster" was a dumpy, middle-aged pity-party, undone by comedy so broad and ham-fisted you half-expected Soupy Sales to pop out of the woodwork. 

Brother Glen worked a lot harder than anyone at reaching for that classic 1994 ambiance, but his "Home Again" threw a recycled monster (from the sixth season's "Arcadia") in a pot with the overwrought hospital-bed melodrama XF fans tired of back in the 90s and seasoned it with a bizarro soliloquy from a veteran punk rocker (Tim Armstrong of Rancid). 

And so Armstrong, having proved to the world a very long time ago that he couldn't sing, took it upon himself to prove that he can't even talk with this incomprehensible performance. 

Of course, neither's really a handicap in a legendary street-punk outfit like Rancid, but perhaps a wee bit more so in The X-Files(If you deign to watch it, use subtitles. You can thank me in the comments). 

But by this point, the initial rush of excitement and expectation had cooled considerably. This wasn't The X-Files we all remembered from the good old days. This was more like if Led Zeppelin had reformed and recorded a dubstep album. 

In other words, that comforting cathode glow from our salad days was MIA, to say the least.

All of which seemed to signal to Chris Carter that now was the time to metaphorically go off his meds and cook up one of his patented forty-minute freak-outs. 

This time he dropped "Babylon" on the heads of unsuspecting couch potatoes, a lusty spinning-kick at all manner of hornet's nests (Islam, terrorism, drugs, redneck culture) that probably seemed like a really great idea at the time.

Assuming, of course, he was dosing.

On paper,  "Babylon" is fascinating, a long-overdue acknowledgement of the powerful influence of hallucinogens and ancient Mystery cults on the show

On screen, however, it was a watch-through-your-fingers trainwreck, filled with Mulder-Scully cartoon dopplegangers (Einstein and Miller, who the fans instantly loathed), cartoon country line dancing, cartoon cowboys, cartoon racists, cartoon cable news pundits, cartoon terrorists and cartoon Muslim mothers.

Not content with that heapin' helpin' of felony fan-abuse, Carter then hastily worked up a season-slash-series finale. Apparently with a gun to his head, judging by the writing. 

All of which is to say that "My Struggle II" makes "Babylon" look like "Duane Barry" in comparison. The dialogue was purplier, the motivations more opaque, and the acting more wooden than ever before in the show's checkered history. 

In true Carterian fashion, it climaxed with all hell breaking loose in the form of a weaponized contagion. And it all ended with a stunning set piece that had a prostrate Mulder and a helpless Scully face to face with certain death-- and global apocalypse-- in the form of a hovering UFO. Plus, um, that Miller guy.

Fans were baffled, M/S 'shippers were apoplectic with rage and critics had written it all off weeks before.

And so that seemed to be the ignoble end to a once-glorious franchise.

All that being said, the event series earned enough dosh for the struggling FOX network to garner another go. This time the season would run for ten episodes, presumably giving the writers more room to "wrap it all up" and send Mulder and Scully off into the sunset to live out their days in peace.

The thing was that Carter seems to believe he "wrapped it all up" back in 2001, with the eighth season's finale. 

That storyline was originally designed to cap the Mulder-Scully arc and pass the torch to the new agents. The plan was to have the show continue on with a new stars and a new showrunner (presumably Spotnitz and/or Gilligan) while Carter, Duchovny and Anderson launched a new franchise in the movie theaters.

The problem was that Gillian Anderson stayed on for the ninth season, which badly gummed up the works. Her storyline still had to be serviced, which went a long way to hindering any fan investment in the new XF team. 

Worse, the Internet culture that "grew up" with the X-Files had long since gone toxic, the online XF forums (that once earned articles on their own) now reduced to shit and garbage. (Glen Morgan actually wrote alt.tv.x-files off in the middle of the second season).

Then, of course, 9/11 happened and all of a sudden no one was much interested in hearing about government conspiracies anymore. 

Of course, it didn't help that X-Files spinoff The Lone Gunman (whose pilot ran in TXF's Sunday night slot very much like a traditional TLG guest-episode of the mothership) centered around a hidden government cabal trying to remote-control an airliner into the World Trade Center. 


The ninth season is actually a lot better than it gets credit for. That is with the obvious exception of  the mytharc, that mostly very much plays like a storyline its writers were being forced by network to keep kicking like a long-dead horse. 

And the second XF movie is also miles better than consensus opinion would lead you to believe. It's just very, very dark and very, very grim. 

But it seems that it too was designed to "wrap up" the Mulder-Scully storyline. It's just that it was the feel-bad movie of Summer 2008 and didn't have any flying saucers in it.

And so it transpired that for Season Eleven the writers dropped any pretense that The X-Files revival was anything but a nostalgia exercise for graying GenXers.  

Which, of course, was more than fine by me, being a graying GenXer. 

All the more so since it produced some of the most satisfying episodes since that epic Mytharc run in the middle of the eighth season. Only with that irreplaceable Vancouver mist. Plus,  Mark Snow back on the sine-waves and drum patches, where he belongs.

And it all started in the traditional X-Files fashion. Meaning with a fucking terrible season opener. 

Well, it wasn't uniformly terrible. It just felt like your typical first-draft Carter cram-job. Only this time with inexplicable inner dialogues on loan from Sin City. 

And not even the good Sin City. The inner dialogues from Sin City: A Dame to Kill for.

Still, William B Davis seemed to be having a lot of fun gnawing on the scenery and spouting Carter's Kree-Skrull War-worthy dialogue like it was holy writ. And it was nice to see Chris Owens as a miraculously-healed Jeffrey Spender (a role written for Robert Patrick, who wasn't available) and Annabeth Gish's Monica Reyes standing in for Laurie Holden's Marita Covarrubias. 

Plus,  AC Peterson was terrific as Mr. Y, who showed up next for a few seconds in the last episode to meet his maker. Of course. Carters gonna Carter.

In keeping with the times, the conspiracy now centered on the Breakaway Civilization and the Secret Space Program. Plus, the Singularity. Plus, Transhumanism. 

And we were also told the aliens weren't interested in our planet anymore because of...uh, global warming. Hey, this shit is written in California, you dig? Global warming is their Calvinism.

Anyway, the ship righted itself soon after the smoke from the "My Struggle" stinkbomb cleared.

What's truly remarkable about the writing in this season is its quintessence. Glen Morgan not only wrote a corker of an Ep. 02 ("This"), he wrote a quintessential Glen Morgan script

Meaning it starts with a very "Home"-adjecent set piece set to a Ramones song, lifts its premise nearly wholesale from an earlier XF classic ("Kill Switch," which it name-drops) and has a leftover Lone Gunman dropping late-Boomer popcult references hither and yon like a pomo Johnny Appleseed. 

Plus, tons of quippy dialogue and pulpy comic book action. 

Hell, I even pulled out my copy of Vitalogy to really soak in the 1994-ness of it all once it was over. Well, not really. But I would have had I thought of it.

Barbara Hershey, whom Chris Carter didn't seem to have the first clue what to do with, appears again as the evil Erika Price, who seems like the bastard child of Ray Kurzweil and Diana Fowley. She mouths the whole uploading spiel to Mulder in a memorable confrontation and almost sounds convincing. 

Overall, "This" is a terrific back-to-basics exercise signaling an oncoming parade of equally-worthy back-t0-basics exercises. Thank God.

That sighing sound you heard over the winter was that of angry sphincters all across the X-File Nation unclenching with relief when the credits for Ep. 03 rolled. 

Of course, we're talking here about Chris Carter's loopy "Plus One", a circa Season Five ep in all but the timeline. Certainly in spirit, look and feel. 

In other words, quintessential Chris Carter.

Now, the running theme throughout Season Eleven is alternate reality. "My Struggle III" was a shitshow to be sure, but came this close to convincing me that "My Struggle II" was meant to be a vision-slash-prophecy all along. 

Subsequently, "This" concretizes the alternate reality in Cyberspace. And "Plus One" is filled with Carter's traditional doppelgangers, many of which come across like unwilling, pissed-off abductees from a mirror universe.

Mind you, "Plus One" makes not one single lick of sense but is so giddy and high-on-its-own-supply that you don't even have time to notice. It very much reminded me of Carterian freakouts like "Post-Modern Prometheus" and "Improbable," but considerably more traditionalist as far as the actual X-File goes. 

It all kicks off with a punk trio covering a David Duchovny song (no, seriously) and barrels on into the dark, dark night from there. XF stalwart Karin Konoval (the inbreeding mother from "Home") plays male-female fraternal twins (gender-bending being another longtime Carter trope) with such abandon you nearly get a contact buzz from her. 

And then there's the bit with the fucking.

'Shippers, those poor, sweet summer children, have long-loathed Chris Carter for his unwillingness to turn The X-Files into /slash porn. Carter, a Baptist boy at heart, is a big believer in delayed gratification (read: ****-teasing)

Well, onscreen at least.

Knowing this was probably his last rodeo, Carter gave the 'Shippers (and possibly the snoggers) what they've been pining for, some flat-out Mulder-Scully fucking. Well, in his own weird way. 

But the 'shippers understood that in an X-Files context, "Plus One" was XXX hardcore porn. And the Mulder-Scully have to share a room trope might not have been lifted from a thousand fanfics dating back to 1993 but it most certainly felt like it was.

That most iconic of conspiracy settings, the parking garage

With Morgan and Carter having kicked in their quintessential eps as standalone valedictories, Darin Morgan then came up to bat. 

And here's where the broader undercurrent of the X-Files' victory lap bubbled to the surface, the collapse of conspiracy culture.

I realize most folks loved (or rather, pretended to love) "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster" but some others, including myself, most certainly did not. It all seemed so miserable and male-menopause to me, Morgan's lament that he had never been able to follow up on his incredible TenThirteen success. 

We should all have those problems, guy.

Anyhow, it could be argued that "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat" is mining that same lode (with Reggie Something, bystander to the X-Files' explosive success, mirroring Morgan himself after he left the series), but for my money it's considerably more witty (rather than bitter) and self-effacing (rather than self-loathing) than its predecessor.

"Sweat" too is a quintessential ep. In fact, it's so quintessential Darin Morgan that I almost felt like I'd been teleported back to 1996, which you probably all know is my fondest, dearest wish in life. 

More so than a Darin XF ep, "Sweat" reminds me very much of "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense," the ersatz Millennium sequel to my favorite Darin XF ep "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." It has that same MAD magazine circa 1972 quality to it, that kitchen sink-sense of utter abandon. 

Plus, the Zelig pastiche in the middle is particularly priceless. And kudos to DM for casting the tragically-underused Bill Dow in a brilliant cameo.

The centerpiece of the story however is a confrontation between Mulder and Dr. They, played with absolute perfect pitch by veteran character actor Stuart Margolin. 

And it's here that Morgan reads the epitaph for The X-Files, as well as conspiracy culture itself. 

A bit of history first.

The conspiracy culture that fed The X-Files was not the paleocon strain or the eschatological variety, both so commonly demonized today by those who grew up, calmed down and began wearing blue and brown. 

Rather, it was the druggy strain of the Illuminatus! Trilogy, Mae Brussel, and Apocalypse Culture. It was the conspiracy culture of WBAI-FM, Dave Emory and RE/search. It was a distinctly anti-authoritarian, left-libertarian exegesis, brewed up in the bloodstains left by the Kennedy assassinations, Kent State and Viet Nam.

Consequently, a parade of perfectly-rendered phreak-culture ringers traipsed across the screen, starting very early during the X-Files' run. 

From the first season you had Brad Wilchek, the blatant Steve Jobs-in-exile analog, and Max Fennig, the doomed alien-abductee turned conspiracy vagabond. Max in turn inspired the Lone Gunmen, whom Morgan and Wong based on a trio of weirdoes they met at a conspiracy con. 

The second season threw Chuck Burks and the short-lived Thinker into the stew. All of this reached its apogee with Vince Gilligan's work of mad genius, "Unusual Suspects," which told the Gunmen's origin.

But moving parallel with these were a rather-more serious breed of dissenters, starting with Tony Todd's avenging-angel in "Sleepless." Immediately following him was Steve Railsback's psychotic abductee Duane Barry and following him in turn was a parade of militia types (including double-agents and plants) and apocalyptic cult leaders like Richard Odin, Vernon Ephesian, Absalom and Josepho.

You could trace a kind of evolution in the series' history where both the nerdy and the heavy conspiracy-types ran in tandom before the nerdy types ultimately fell by the wayside. And in the final two seasons we have Tad O'Malley, who's kind of like Alex Jones, only charming and charismatic (can you ever picture Joel McHale playing an unlikable character?).

But with Trump's election, the Establishment no longer has any patience at all for conspiracy culture, other than its own. The Neolib-Neocon-FAANG-Wall Street Axis that exercises unchallenged, boot-to-the-neck dominance over every single institution in this country (aside from the Executive branch and a few impotent state gov'ts, at least ostensibly) tolerates not even the slightest deviation or dissent from its agenda, whether from the left, right or middle. 

So now, with the help of the engineering overlords of SiliCylon Valley, Cylon Francisco and Cyleattle, any discouraging words can be effectively silenced with a sleepless algorithm. And they're working day and night to try to stop any troubling individual thinking at the source. 

Meaning inside your skull. 

There may still be a rump of conspiracy culture-- mainly of the nihilistic Pizzagate variety-- left on social media, but if things continue on in their present course, those voices will be silenced sooner than later. 

But the other force militating against conspiracy culture is the collapse of the Center, which apparently didn't hold, after all. There's no monolithic voice of authority to appeal to and try to steer in your direction. The actual adults in this country -- and probably yours-- are all long since dead and buried.

And our current-model mainstream news media makes Andropov-era Soviet state media look like a stern pillar of objectivity. 

Maybe it's always been that way but they used to be better at hiding it. And shrinking budgets have left even the most-vaunted news outlets in the hands of Peter-Principle incompetents and clueless, debt-crippled Millennials wondering exactly when the hell their once-accustomed state of historically-unparalleled hyper-privilege evaporated (hint: it was after graduation).

So you can have all the facts in hand, all the documents, all the evidence you like. If no one wants to hear, it will never be heard. Guaranteed. Full stop.

I'd like to say I see this changing in the future but unless people stop using their computers for self-validation and dopamine fixes, I don't see that happening. 

So the romantic quest of a Mulder and Scully, firm in the belief that the "Truth"-capital T will set you free, doesn't even register in this day and age. If any Truth happens to darken your day, your Twitter and/or Facebook feed will chase those blues away. No one even cares about objective Truth anymore. Doing so is almost certainly a fireable offense these days, anyway. So I'd check with your HR dept.

Anyway, leave it to Darin Morgan-- Ten Thirteen's resident Trickster-- to drop that truthbomb in our laps. 

With that all said and done, let's return to our regularly-scheduled program because there's a lot more of this to chew on. Plus, trangenics, mind control, witchcraft, child abuse, Hollywood vampirism and more of that beautiful Vancouver rain. 

Tell you what, we'll do it in Part Two, because I'm getting mighty sleepy. Or maybe its depression-fatigue. I seriously can't tell the difference anymore.