Friday, August 03, 2018

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

I'm a big fan of the maxim "stay in your lane" when it comes to popular culture institutions. I don't mean "pound the same idea into the ground until the world screams for mercy," I mean, "figure out what made people pick your idea out of an endless ocean of competitors and clamp down on it like a snapping turtle."

Doing so effectively calls for wisdom and for a deeper understanding of archetype and group psychology, something most creative types aren't exactly known for.

Let me cite two examples from the world of pop music as examples of what I'm not talking about...

Before the formula took hold...

On one side of the ledger you have AC/DC. After mucking around with different rhythms and modes for a few years they discovered that their take on "All Right Now" by Free seemed to resonate best with a mass audience when Back in Black sold a squillion copies. 

So for the next several decades they ruthlessly mined that formula; mid tempo, four-square backbeats, clipped, staccato riffs, bluesy bluster and anthemic choruses.

Or as I used to say, "I like AC/DC. They have a lot of good song."

On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum (in pretty much every possible way) are The Village People. The troupe started off as a gay in-joke played on a sexually-naive mainstream culture, blending Tom of Finland caricatures with dopey disco pumpers rife with double entendre.

The joke wore thin pretty quickly as dumb jokes usually do. And after a few years of broad-spectrum cultural hegemony, the disco party ran out of gas (Plus, cocaine. Plus, amyl nitrate) and triggered a major backlash. 

It wasn't so much the music-- urban/gay dance music continued to sell regardless-- as the slick, elitist culture that surrounded it. And a catastrophic feature film in 1980 (starring Bruce Jenner) did nothing but reduce The Village People and disco itself to a laughing stock.

Feel the CRINGE-- every inch of it.

So the Village People-- gagging for commercial air-- latched onto the culty British nightclub fad known as "New Romanticism" as their ticket to continued cultural relevancy. 

It was a humiliating disaster, but one so drenched in kitsch, desperation and cluelessness (the album's title was Renaissance, hope against hope) that it, um, entered the annals of the great "what the actual fuck were they thinking" career movies, in much the same fashion as The Brady Variety Hour.

In one of those desperate gambits that inspire both pity and contempt, the VP dressed up in outfits apparently pilfered from Spandau Ballet's Goodwill donations and shot a video that played like something Adam Ant might do if his handlers were deliberately trying to sabotage his career.

Renaissance peaked at #138 on the Billboard charts.

The upshot of this is that while both AC/DC and Village People's times in the zeitgeist spotlight have long since passed, AC/DC continued on as a major act and the Village People entered the netherworld of street fair, cruise ship and corporate party gigs, with most of the original members having been whittled away through attrition. 

I can't say for sure, but I'm willing to bet that they don't include any songs off Renaissance in their setlists.

So what does all this have to do with The X-Files?

Chris Carter always bragged that The X-Files offered an "elastic" venue for storytelling. And indeed the series often delved into all kinds of different gears, alternating mini-monster movies with quasi-serialized "Mythology" episodes and comedic relief. 

But The X-Files did one thing really well. And that was telling stories that made the paranormal seem normal by taking the subject matter seriously and grafting Carter's laconic sensibility onto episodic television produced with feature-film production values. 

The show climbed to the top of the zeitgeist heap with a reliable alchemical formula; the lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry of its young leads, understated procedural drama, and the iridescence of that Vancouver mist.

No sooner had The X-Files reached its apex as its makers began fucking with the formula. The first feature film went widescreen with the story, peeling away the intimacy that made the outlandish stories so believable. 

Production then moved from Vancouver to Los Angeles, peeling away the magic and the atmosphere of its former host. The first LA season was front-loaded with weak comedy and high-concept episodes, pissing all over the "this is all actually happening now" flavor the series worked so hard to create.

Personal and professional conflicts began to show onscreen and the series seemed both rootless and aimless throughout most of its sixth and seventh seasons. The quality-control remained high but the magic seemed to be gone. 

The producers worked extremely hard to get back to basics for the eighth season but with David Duchovny on part-time status, the show had changed one too many lanes for some disproportionately vocal fans. And so it went for the ninth season and the second feature.

Unfortunately, the producers didn't really seem to grasp exactly why so many people were excited about for the 2016 revival. And so they took it upon themselves to try to pull some more rabbits out of the hat, in an attempt that the show could still be "relevant" in the 21st century when all pretty much everyone wanted was for the show to give the 21st century the finger and transport us en masse back to the good old days.

I don't know if Ten Thirteen got a talking-to from the suits or if the brickbats had beat the pretensions out of them but it seemed obvious that Carter and Co. were not going to make the same mistake again. 

So fire up the DeLorean, Marty; it's 1995 or bust.

Unfortunately, it was a bit too late.

The 2016 bellyflop scared most of the fair-weather fans away and Gillian Anderson's announcements-- in October and January-- that this would be her last season probably gave a lot of others the impression that she-- and therefore the show's inimitable chemistry-- weren't going to be around this year. 

But the other problem is that David Duchovny and Anderson aren't young and pretty anymore. It's a horrible, superficial thing, but for television it's a terrible fact of life. I'm not too proud to admit that basking in the glistening, fecund beauty of Gillian Anderson's pillowy lips was a major reason I tuned in back in the day. 

Sue me.

What's more, Scully isn't really the combustible emotional powderkeg she once was either, and you noticed. Or at least I did. Not once did I think, "Oh, c'mere baby, Daddy will make it better." 

So it wasn't totally like the 90s.

Anderson was perfectly serviceable (and remains a perfectly handsome woman) but didn't really bring her A game to the table. Duchovny, on the other hand, did act the hell out of his scenes, which may be why the writers steered the drama in his direction, most notably Chris Carter with "My Struggle IV."


"Ghouli"-- Jim Wong's second pass at harmonizing the show's mytharc with its standalones-- reminded me of an old anecdote I once heard in which Jim Shooter-- Marvel's 80s Editor in Chief-- gave everyone a "Marvel-by-numbers" story he and an artist worked up. The story was an object lesson in how he wanted stories told in order that even someone who'd never read a comic book before would know exactly what, who, when and where the story was about.

So, rather than getting buried by a quarter-century of continuity, Wong created an archetypal X-Files episode with "Ghouli," in that it starts off like a "Monster of the Week" episode, delves into the psi pond the series so often fished from before morphing into a straight-up, burger-and-fries Mytharc ep, reintroducing us to William Mulder and the Deep State players chasing after him.

I don't know how closely Wong and Carter worked here but "Ghouli" certainly set the plate for the series' finale. So did "Founder's Mutation," in fact.

Wong seemed cognizant that after 200+ X-Files stories there wasn't much to do that would surprise anyone, so he went for the old favorites; "Ghouli" dives into the teen angst of eps like "Die Hand Die Verletz" and "Syzygy", lifts swathes of story from eps like "Pusher" and "Folie a Deux" and serves up all kinds of prototypical X-Files hospital-bed melodrama.

Gabe Rotter, Carter's longtime right-hand man, also went for X-Files by Numbers with "Kitten," an episode that didn't seem to impress fans or critics (it's not the strongest-directed X-Files ever) but is right up Secret Sun Alley.

The traditional X-Files pattern of twinning a Myth ep with a story about hallucinogens holds on to the bitter end with this episode, which centers on MK-NAOMI, the successor program to MK-ULTRA. 

Lifting component parts not only from previous X-Files eps but from Jacob's Ladder, Full Metal Jacket and Beyond the Black Rainbow, "Kitten" flashes back to Skinner's days in Viet Nam and shows how exposure to an unnamed nerve agent transformed a scared-shitless Marine draftee into a cruel, sadistic killing machine.

Unfortunately, the war never ended for "Kitten" and he continued to be tested upon in a military insane asylum. Worse still, the military then selects his old hometown as testing ground for a new and improved version of the NAOMI gas. 

There are echoes of XF conspiracy classics like "Blood" and "Wetwired" all over the place here and the ep guest-stars 90s wunderkind Haley Joel Osment in a dual role. Osment very much looks like he's done some hard living since his glory days and as such is perfectly cast.

Rotter brings to light the low-intensity war America has always waged on its working class-- particularly the white, rural working-class (read: "Scots-Irish")--since its founding. In this, the NAOMI nerve agent might as well be an airborne Oxycontin, ravaging entire communities and leaving nothing but human wreckage in its wake.

Following "Kitten," the X-Files reached back into the techno-nightmare kitbag with "Followers," written by Kristen Cloke (who guest-starred in "The Field Where I Died" and played Lara Means on Millennium) and Shannon Hamblin.  

A lot of critics saw this eps as The X-Files trying to steal some of Black Mirror's thunder, but real fans knew these very themes are, um, hardwired into The X-Files, dating as far back as "Ghost in the Machine" early in the first season. 

Some might see this episode as a kind of an exercise in "X-Files Lite" but what we're really looking at is an exercise in postmodern gallows humor. 

I couldn't help but think of criticisms aimed at the producers of This is Spinal Tap. Industry types howled that the film wasn't really a comedy because all the ostensible jokes were how the rock business really worked. But that's precisely why the movie is so pant-pissingly hilarious.

Similarly, the jokes in "Followers" are only slightly-exaggerated takes on current-year reality. So maybe this is in fact the scariest X-Files ever made, because your odds of waking up in this particular dystopia are one hell of a lot higher than throwing down with liver-vampires or butt-genies.

This is a dystopia a lot of the 90s conspiracy theorists failed to prophesy. Why bother with shock troops and mind control when you can simply drive someone to raving, drooling insanity with an automated customer-service line?

New writer Benjamin Van Allen was next up at bat and his "Familiar" probably came closest to melting away the horrific century we're all being punished with and conjuring that elusive mid-90s flavor from history's grave. 

As such, "Familiar" has a wicked double meaning; it's about familiars in the black magic sense but it's also deliciously familiar in tone and spirit to long-time fans.

Hell, if you CGI'd Anderson and Duchovny's 90s faces over their present ones in post, you'd have an episode so 1995 it would drive legions of Mandela Effect types to the looney bin for good. 

In other words, Van Allen set out to write a classic X-Files ep and succeeded way beyond anyone's wildest dreams. But underneath the rich, cozy glow of nostalgia is a scorching rumination on witchcraft, child abuse and mass hysteria. 

The sick joke here is that at the same time we have Mulder and Scully wringing their hands about witchhunts and McCarthyism, they're in fact hunting an actual witch whose spell-craft is slaughtering very small children-- babies, really-- in the most horrific ways. (Mind you, "Familiar" isn't even close to a comedy, that's just a figure of speech).

There's classic X-Files messaging at work here; sure, there are hysterical witch-hunts and they're terrible business. But guess what? There are also real witches out there and they're pretty awful too. 

"Familiar" doesn't directly address controversies over pedophilia but it really doesn't have to. It's a lot more effective-- and considerably less polemic-- by tackling them indirectly. It gives the denialist side of the argument a very fair hearing but very clearly illustrates that we're not just looking at "alt-right" propaganda here. 

Stopping child predation should be a resolutely nonpartisan issue (Denny Hastert, anyone?) but we're not allowed that luxury anymore, are we? 

Politics uber alles!

The real problem with mass hysteria is that it too often scapegoats the innocent and lets the guilty off scot-free, based on prejudice and misconception. In that context, it makes you think "Familiar" would have been more effective on an elite college campus than in a stereotypical small town.

Not content with poking around the pedophilia (which is a misnomer; the proper term should be pedopathy) hornet's nest, The X-Files then dives straight into the Spirit Cooking wood-chipper with "Nothing Lasts Forever," yet another black comedy.

The growing satanic darkness gnawing away at the Hollywood demimonde seems to be an unspoken thruline this season. You have one of the serial killers in "Plus One" identify herself as a famous child actress, you have kiddie TV characters murdering toddlers in "Familiar" (recalling recent controversies with Elsagate and Rick and Morty), and Hollywood has-beens chasing the sweet bird of youth through blood-drinking and cannibalism in this episode. 

The episode's written by Glen Morgan protege Karen Nielsen but one can't help if there's a bit of inside baseball at work here, in the classic X-Files tradition. 

The episode's main villain--Barbara Beaumont-- is a has-been TV star who fancies herself a pop diva, even though she can't carry a tune in a basket. And her henchman is a mad genius who parasitically feeds off the life-force of a fading actress by grafting her to his body.

Maybe it's just my imagination but is this a subtle (but nasty) dig at the X-Files' ruling triumvirate? I can't say, but it wouldn't be out of character for this show and the legendary infighting Ten Thirteen was once notorious for.

After a season of comforting familiarity, Chris Carter capped it all off with an episode that genuinely surprised me. And pleasantly at that.

I'd been dreading "My Struggle IV", particularly after the "My Struggle III" clusterfuck. But I realized after the giddy rush of "Plus One" was that the problem with this latter-day mythology was Carter's boredom and exasperation with the arc, despite whatever brave face he might have put on it to the press. 

"My Struggle" was flawed in many ways but didn't lack for passion. It seems like a purgative for Carter's worst fears, which should be especially unsettling considering how connected he is to power players in the intelligence community. 

"My Struggle II" is a mess, which I blame on overwork and first-draft scripting. It could have played a lot better had Carter handed it off to one of his writers to de-cringe the dialogue. But it too had an underlying "the Microbes are Ready" urgency, even if the effect was mitigated by the careless writing.

Conversely, "My Struggle III" is a trainwreck, an attempt to retcon a story that was almost certainly meant to be a series finale. Some critics compared it to the Sopranos finale, in which fans were left to wonder if it wasn't all designed to give a high-concept take on Tony's assassination.

This time, I knew we were in trouble when Carter's science consultant Anne Simon tweeted Carter had just finished the script for "My Struggle III" around the same time the season was slated to start shooting. 

Never a good sign.

That being said, I absolutely adore "My Struggle IV" and have no qualms at all about going to the mat to defend it as a work of straight-up genius and the only real way to end this tortured mythology in 2018. 

After all, asking Carter to drag the mytharc out of mothballs after 15 years was always going to be a dodgy proposition, in much the same way it was unreasonable to ask Jack Kirby to end the Fourth World saga with a couple of stories 15 years after he'd had the books taken away from him. 

Plus, the real power behind the Mythology throne was always Executive Producer Frank Spotnitz, who took the reigns to the storyline in the third season after serving an crash-course apprenticeship in the second. 

Make no mistake, Carter was deeply involved in the mythology to be sure, but it was Spotnitz who set the pace. 

This was both a good and bad thing- Spotnitz had a great knack for Byzantine plotting but could plot himself into a corner now and then. Carter's own strength was in the emotional stakes of the drama and so you'd have stretches in which that wouldn't be baked into the cake so much as mixed into the frosting when he wasn't involved in the original plotting.

And as such that punch-you-in-the-face effect of episodes like "The Erlenmeyer Flask," "Duane Barry" and "Paperclip" wasn't always on the menu.

In a perfect world, Carter would have worked with his writers to produce a serial event series back in 2016 and iron out all the kinks from years of continuity out properly. That isn't what happened, since Carter decided instead to give the vocal fans what they said they wanted. Well, kind of. 

There's a much stronger sense of continuity in the eleventh season and the Wong-Carter tag team worked well in trying to square some of the circles, especially the demarcation between the myths and the monsters. 

But I very much get the feeling with "My Struggle IV" that Carter simply dispensed with the burdens of the past and went back to basics, in this case his eternal love for Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

And so it is that Carter decided to end the series with a monster of the week episode. 

The punchline here is that the ultimate product of all the striving, struggling and suffering Mulder and Scully underwent in their pursuit of "the Truth" ultimately results in their son turning out to be the most dangerous monster they'd ever encountered, the sum of all their fears. (I have my doubts about the Smoking Man paternity per se but I won't risk making a fool out of myself again by citing precedent).

In other words, Scully gave birth to the Antichrist and not the Christ child as fans had long expected. Probably not a message anyone wants to hear.

I know a lot of fans didn't like the finale but that's OK. We all make mistakes. I think the passage of time will allow people to look back on the episode and judge it on its own merits and not under the weight of a quarter-century of speculation and disappointment. 

What I especially enjoyed was that the writing was free of Carter's ear-scraping Chris Claremontisms, all that stilted, proclamatory word-salad that we heard so much of in the prior My Struggles. 

Carter isn't a perfect writer by any means but he can write crisp-enough dialogue when he's invested in the story. There was some petty nitpicking over some of his choices, but that's the Internet for you.


So ultimately what we have here is a victory lap for a pop culture hallmark. And that's OK, even if most of the viewership sat it out. 

I loved The X-Files best when it was a secret. I liked it least when it was a ubiquitous mass-market product, especially a product that people who knew nothing about it felt entitled to opinionize about. The fans who tuned in this season were the hardcore, kind of like the Biblical Remnant, so it was usually interesting to hear what they had to say. 

Ironically. the show retains its prophetic kick even as the masses have passed it by. As Gordon pointed out during our wrap-up on Rune Soup, Chris Carter presented us with the realities of the Breakaway Civilization, the secret space program and weaponized space viruses. 

All of which being plucked from the back pages of the news no one bothers to read anymore. 

And as we saw, the techno-surveillance state, child predation and elite satanism were all well-referenced in the revival as well as transgenics, CRISPR CAS9 and all the other real-world horrors people are studiously ignoring while they fight over Trump and identity politics.

No one seems to care much about fighting power anymore. The struggle now is over who exactly gets to control the machinations of mass death and complete control. People--most especially the Rockefeller Republicans wearing the flayed skin-suit of the long-defunct Democratic Party-- don't have any problems with endless war, oligarchy or surveillance anymore. They just want to sit as close to the big boy table as they possibly can.

They're all in for a big, nasty surprise, is all I have to say about that for now.

In this context, William Mulder isn't just a movie monster, he's an avatar. He is the Angel of Death, the inevitable outcome of the National Security State. The battle isn't over steering him away from his horrible destiny, the battle is over who exactly will be behind the steering wheel.

I think everyone understands this, at least on an unconscious level. Attentive fans realized this back in the ninth season. And as such, The X-Files leaves the stage with a prophecy no one wants to hear but know in their hearts is true.

NOTE: I heard a lot of grumbling that the thing with 50-something Scully being pregnant again was somehow unrealistic. Well, I have a friend who got pregnant at 50 and had triplets. So maybe it really isn't all that preposterous.