Tuesday, September 8, 2015
3:37 PM — Justin Snead — 0 comments
Only 8 of the series’ 201 episodes were written by women. By the time Gillian Anderson got to write and direct her season 7 episode “all things” she was the 7th female writer of the show and only the 4th to get a sole writing credit. She was also the last. Her episode was the last one written by a woman.
This is not surprising considering male-dominated Hollywood, nor am I raising it as a criticism. In fact, it is a testament to the sensitivity and feminism of Chris Carter’s all-male writing room that the show was so even handed on gender. The horror genre to this day is notorious for sexploitation of female bodies and sexist stereotypes. The X-Files mostly avoided that. You could sense that the writers were actively balancing the number of times each partner got to rescue the other. If you add it up, you might even find that Scully rescued Mulder more times than he rescued her. Over the years, Scully went on dates. She had sex a few times without the story shaming her for it. When Mulder did act possessive of her, this was always done in a way that cast him in a negative light, like he was being petty or even creepy.
It is also a credit to the writers that they kept the narrative balanced between Mulder and Scully despite the fact that the show was about Mulder’s life’s work, not hers. Almost every episode is structured around Mulder’s crazy idea being right—this is part of the fun of watching. He’s like a paranormal Sherlock Holmes, which makes Scully his Watson. Watson’s narrative purpose is basically to show how smart Holmes is by comparison. Not so with Scully. She is Mulder’s counterpoint, her critical perspective making his methods stronger, and vise-versa. Unlike a lot of depictions of Watson, Scully is not a dolt or a buffoon. She always held her own.
And still… by Season 6 and 7 this relationship started to grate ever so slightly. By then she was not personally invested in many X-files because of her health or her family. It was just an all-consuming day job. She spent a lot of time whining to Mulder that the case they were investigating was not an X-File, only to be proved wrong. Much of their work was on Mulder’s terms, and he gave her a lot of marching orders with every expectation that she would do as told. We were left to wonder, how long would a strong, independent woman—a medical doctor who can kick butt in heals—put up with this?
Anderson’s episode “all things” is a corrective to this Scully drift, and also a sly, brilliant maintenance job of the status quo in their relationship. Anderson tackles the imbalance head on from Scully’s point of view, and let’s Scully have some agency in deciding to keep the path she is on.
In the voice-over opening monologue she even uses the word ‘drift’ to name what is by then obvious about Scully: “How rarely do we stop … to consider whether the path we take in life is our own making, or simply one into which we drift with eyes closed.”
Anderson gives Scully a juicy backstory that dramatizes this choice. Before joining the FBI she had an affair with a married man that resulted in the dissolution of the marriage. She left him, but in this episode he reappears in her life offering to take her back. She contemplates the life she could have had if she stayed with him, and that she could restart now if she wanted. But by the end of the episode, she has chosen against this old flame. She tells Mulder, “I once considered spending my whole life with this man. What I would have missed” [Emphasis mine].
Here Anderson allows Scully to voice her reason for staying on the X-Files. Scully values what she has learned, how she has grown, in her years working with Mulder. She is saying: I chose this, and I continue to choose this for myself. It is an understated moment at the very end of the episode, but one that is the key to her character.
Anderson also has some good-natured fun with Mulder’s character. After 7 years of episodes of him always being right, she makes him wrong about everything in this episode. The episode begins after an autopsy of an X-File that is legitimately not an X-File. Scully says that the victim did not die “of inhalation of ectoplasm as you so vehemently suggested.” Mulder says: “What else could she possibly have drown in?” It was margarita mix.
But Mulder had already moved on to crop circles in England. In a well-shot scene, he is talking through one of his slide shows and the camera is on Scully picking through a salad not paying any attention to him. When he calls her on it she says, “I guess I just don’t see the point.” And besides, it’s Saturday so instead of flying to England to track down “some sneaky farmers who happened to ace geometry in high school” she’d rather be doing just about anything else, like taking a bath. You really get the sense of what her work life is like at it’s lowest. When Mulder is hot on the trail, he is brilliant and it’s riveting. But on an average day in the office, he can be nutty, pedantic, and boring—and she is expected to play along with every crackpot idea. Turns out Mulder flies all the way to England—Scully refuses to go—and he finds absolutely nothing.
In theories of literacy there is the concept of Landscapes of Action and Landscapes of Consciousness. The former is when the story is all about action, the quest, winning the prize, reaching the goal. The latter is all about what is happening in the interior of the characters, their hearts and minds, their inner-most thoughts. Literature uses both to tell its stories. Boys are supposed to respond better to literature that inhabits the Landscape of Action, while girls tend to relate better to the Landscape of Consciousness. The same goes for male and female writers, of course not 100% of cases fit this model. It is telling that Anderson’s episode contains no mystery to solve, no case to crack, no monster to capture. There is very little plot. There is a beginning, middle and end, but it maps onto Scully’s internal conflict: is she happy; has she made the right choices in her life; should she choose another path? As Scully has been telling Mulder all season: there is no X-File here. Except for the mystery of existence, and the role of fate in our lives, which the series, in its season 7 maturity, has been suggesting is the most important X-File of all.
The episode Duchovney wrote and directed in Season 6 was all about baseball, pure Landscape of Action. Of the two episodes I think Anderson’s, though flawed, was superior. His story was kind of a mess. He concocted a twin brother to Arthur Dales, presumably so he could work with an actor that he preferred over the original Arthur Dales. Admittedly that actor was great fun to watch, but the story was just a mess, even though it had an interesting concept: a gray alien in the 1940s rebels against colonization and shape shifts into a black baseball player before integration. It is the only time in the entire series when we get the point of view of an actual alien, but because the depiction is in such a silly episode and unmoored from the rest of the mythology, I don’t put much stock in it.
Scully does not factor much in this one, but there is a striking scene in the end when Mulder is teaching her to hit a baseball. It starts out as a sweet scene, but grows more cringe-inducing. Mulder holds her torso and forces her movements so that she swings the bat to hit the ball. He looks like he is manhandling her. First of all, I don’t think this is how you teach someone to hit a baseball. Second, it is a terrible visual that symbolizes Mulder as the puppet-master of her life.
Duchovney started co-writing episodes with Carter in Season 3 and continued into Season and 9 (when he wasn’t even acting in the show). He had sole writing credit on episodes in Seasons 6 and 7. This is not evidence of gender bias as much as it is Duchovny’s personal desire to write for the show, born out by the fact that last year he published a novel and admitted he always wanted to be a writer. It is surprising that Anderson did not write and direct again, especially during season 9 when she had a lighter acting schedule. I can only hope that this did not happen because of her own wishes. In any case, I’m grateful we got her take on Scully in “all things”
Implications for the new season:
“all things” has a great teaser where we see Scully getting dressed in the bathroom and then walking out with Mulder asleep in bed. We later learn she fell asleep on his sofa the night before. Still, the moment was arresting. For the first time—after years of being against the idea and even denying it ever happened—I totally accept Mulder and Scully as a sexual couple. Not only is it plausible, it is also highly likely considering their close bond and complete lack of any factors holding them back from trying out a romantic relationship. Their flirtation has been building over Season 6 and 7. By mid Season 7 Duchovny and Anderson portray the characters with more affection for one another, with more outward signs of their love. And the scripts give them romantic lines like Mulder whispering to himself, “She still can surprise me.” They seem genuinely in love, but also afraid and unsure what to do with it. At the end of “all things” as they are musing about their life paths Mulder says, “One wrong turn and we wouldn’t be sitting here together… That’s probably more than we should be getting into at this late hour.” It’s a scene that, if Scully had not fallen asleep, would have ended in a kiss.
While it makes good character sense to put them together, the relationship would have fundamentally altered the show’s narrative. The love affair would necessarily become such a big part of the story that it would crowd out other elements of the successful X-Files formula. The writers could not have them chasing monsters and killers like they used to. We would always be wondering what they were doing together when they weren’t working: are they on a date? Do they go on vacation? Are they moving in together? Do they argue about the toilet seat and who does the dishes? If they were romantically involved, the show could never avoid the details of how they are as a romantic couple. So it is good that they got together at the end of the series, and in such a vague way. For the same reason, I am glad that Mulder and Scully won’t be a couple in the new season.
What has changed for me, upon re-watching the series, is that I now accept they were in an active romance. It lasted a few years but it did not work out because they are two different people who want different lives. When they reunite in the new episodes it will be as best friends who know one another better then anyone else, who share a deep love and history, but who have gone their separate ways. All the better since they can chase aliens without having to pick up toilet paper on the way home.
3:25 PM — Justin Snead — 0 comments
I know I just argued that Season 7 marks the X-Files's incomprehensible period, but now that I am over half of the way through the season this description only applies to the season 7 two-part premier. The mid-season mythology two-parter “Sein Und Zeit” and “Closure”--where Mulder finally accepts his sister is dead--is a masterpiece. It shows The X-Files at its most narratively mature. It is the narrative pinnacle of so much of what the series was about: faith in things unseen; acceptance that answers, when they come, will only scratch the surface of understandings that we will never fully grasp.
In a way, these two episodes are almost like the finale of the series we had been watched up to this point, and it had all the right notes of where the should should have ended if Carter had decided to end it that season. If anyone here is re-watching in preparation for the new season, this two-parter is a must revisit.
“In spite of the series’ slow fade throughout its later seasons, The X-Files has never felt finished, in the same way we’ve never been able to close the book on the great mysteries of our time (the Kennedy Assassination, Roswell, Bigfoot, Donald Trump’s hair). The timelessness of the show lies in the way it prompts us to consider the mysteries of the universe and comforts us with the notion that there are answers out there we will one day find.” From:http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2015/08/i-want-to-believe-why-the-new-x-files-series-will.htm
To which I would only add that the X-Files appeal is that some mysteries will never be solved and there are things in heaven and earth we simply will not be able to comprehend. This is a central theme of the show.
I've been thinking about how the show never had a proper "everybody hug goodbye" finale—like how a lot of finales try to place the characters in a position that we can imagine them in after the freeze frame/fade to black. Even "The Truth" was not a goodbye, more of an until-next-time.
"Closure" really has the feel of a good bye--at least to the mythology arc. Samantha was the last thread of that mystery yet to be resolved. If Carter had wanted to end the X-Files, he could have pushed that mid season episode to the end of season 7 and had the series end with Mulder blissfully letting go of The X-Files (and perhaps embracing a love affair with Scully). And it would have worked 100%.
But the quote above makes me think that the X-Files, whenever it ends, doesn't need a traditional finale. There will always be X-Files to uncover, and apparently Mulder and Scully will always come out of retirement to solve them.
3:08 PM — Justin Snead — 0 comments
First, a note about how the mythology was structured in the seasons. An X-Files season finale will address some of the questions raised during the season’s mythology episodes, but then add an entirely new, out-of-left-field element that sets up a big season premier after the summer hiatus. That premier, usually a two-parter, set the stage for the following season’s mythology arc. This follows the good mystery writing advice that for every question you answer, raise two new ones. So: The 1st season finale confirmed that the government has evidence of aliens in the form of a fetus, and added the element of the Human-alien hybrid Project. The 2nd season finale confirmed that there is a government syndicate of elders working on said Project, and introduced the idea of vaccinating humans against an unknown virus. The 3rd season finale explained the shape shifting aliens, and then introduced the idea that there is a coming colonization that some aliens are opposed to.
This cycle repeats until the 6th season when the alien colonization arc is definitively resolved mid-season with “Two Fathers/One Son” where the alien rebels kill the Project and all the elders except CSM. Now the writers’ trusty mythology-episode formula is inoperable. There are no more questions the need answered, and the alien mythology needs an entirely new direction. The finale provided a new direction with great promise—unfortunately the season 7 follow up squandered it by being nonsensical and full of cop-outs.
On the plus side, I loved the concept of the aliens having our genetic code (not mapped out at the time the episode aired) and the holy texts of all world religions scrawled on a ancient artifact buried off the coast of Africa. The mind reels at the possibilities: Humans were not just planted here, but the aliens also bestowed their creation with religion and culture. Why? And how does that fact fit with the idea that the aliens are returning to take over the Earth and potentially kill their creation after we established a global society and modern infrastructure? These are good, satisfying questions for a sci-fi series to pose. Also, CSM has a brief scene where he is in a conference room overseeing a group of men in suits getting up to speed on the alien invasion plans, essentially reconstituting the Syndicate. An exciting, mind-bending finale.
Unfortunately, the season 7 payoff does not pay off. Scully is exhuming the ancient alien artifact and faces three biblical warnings: a plague of insects, the sea turns to blood, dead animals and one person comes back to life. Her reaction is that she is not supposed to gain the knowledge contained in the artifact and she decides to walk away from it. She returns to the U.S. without any evidence. Later—after we see a reanimated human corpse!—the massive craft-shaped artifact is simply gone. No clue as to how it was removed. Was is the government, or aliens? Did the zombie drag it out to sea? The episode doesn’t tell us.
Even more nonsensical is Mulder’s illness. Apparently he has had the junk DNA in his temporal lobe activated much like Gibson Praise (though the episode does not make this explicit connection to the season 5 episodes) and he is now “more alive” by becoming “biologically alien.” His brain is so active that his body can’t respond and he switches from raving lunatic to comatose. In the words of CSM he has become an “alien-human hybrid…immune to the coming viral apocalypse.” CSM has his doctors extract the alien DNA from Mulder and inject it into himself so that he will survive also.
The reason Mulder was thus altered? A rubbing of the artifact in Africa on a piece of paper reacted with the latent alien virus that was still in Mulder’s system since season 4 when he was infected with the Black Oil (in that two-parter “Tunguska/ Terma” where he went to Russia with Krycek and was captured in the gulag).
So now we have the kind of not-so-good questions that indicate a sci-fi series is not telling a coherent story. How did a piece of paper turn Mulder into an alien-human hybrid, the thing that took the Syndicate 25 years and countless abductions to fabricate? If Mulder’s exposure to the alien virus is the answer, then why wasn’t Scully affected by the same piece of paper? She was infected with the virus too, and worse. When Mulder was splashed with the Black Oil, it crawled into his skin, but he was shown in the next scene none the worse for ware. But when Scully was infected we actually saw an alien baby sucked out of her mouth. The rubbing did not affect her.
Furthermore, in the previous big mythology episode, we learned that the alien invasion is thwarted because the rebels are winning. Their victory was made apparent when they killed all the members of the Syndicate and stole the alien fetus that was the center of the Project. Why does CSM act as though that did not happen and the “coming viral apocalypse” is still on schedule? This too is ignored.
The 6th season finale cements an X-Files cliché that has Mulder going crazy. At the end of season 2 he was suffering extreme paranoia because CSM was drugging him. At the end of season 4 he suffers depression and we are left to believe he actually commits suicide. Season 6 ends with him committed in a padded room. The fact that he is going crazy yet again would be excusable if the reason for it made sense. In this case it does not. Nor does it add anything to his character. By the end of the follow up two-parter, the alien DNA is extracted from him and he returns to his normal self. It was all just a contrivance to put Mulder in danger in time for another cliffhanger.
And that is why shows like The X-Files run out of steam about this point in their life cycles. You cannot tell stories of a global-to-cosmic scale without having something interesting and usually dangerous happen to your main characters (if you doubt that, try reading Last and First Men—I cant get through 20 pages.) There are only so many times you can put your characters through the ringer without it getting ridiculous.
The TV writer’s first priority is to develop stories that don’t have characters simply walking from one room to the next or getting stuck in long, talky scenes of expository dialogue about action happening elsewhere. You have to make sure your story has something happen to your characters every 10-15 minutes of screen time no matter what. The second priority is to connect that action with some larger meaning or significance. The third and final priority—and here is where it gets hard—is to keep the action and meaning of this episode consistent to all the mythology episodes that came before it. A writer is going to care about the first two priorities, and if the third one doesn’t fit… oh well, my deadline’s coming.
The trick is to keep the plates spinning. I for one am glad that The X-Files kept them spinning for 6 years. By season 7, the plates were falling.
Implications for the new season:
It will be interesting if Chris Carter radically changes the X-Files mythology formula described above. There are undoubtedly unanswered questions left over from Season 7-9. Does he answer them and pile on new questions? Does he ignore them and try to start new mysteries?
And what does a 6-episode X-Files season look like--one that we now know will contain stand alone and alien mythology episodes? Will the first episode establish a new mythology to be resolved in the sixth episode? Will the sixth episode contain a cliff hanger?
I’m reminded of Mathew Weiner’s philosophy when writing Mad Men, a series that he was never sure would get picked up for a next season. He said that every season they went for broke, never holding any great twist for a later season, but dumping into the one they were writing. And every season finale was written as though it was a series finale. Carter should heed that advice right now.
One thing I am confident of: the new season will not continue the “TV senility” of the last few X-Files seasons. This will feel like a fresh, new TV series. It will be narratively tight and comprehensible. I hope.
Friday, June 26, 2015
7:48 AM — Justin Snead — 1 comments
Is Star Trek old and in need of re-engineering, or does it
need to be abandoned to the museum of 20th Century science fiction?
Is Star Trek old and in need of re-engineering, or does it
need to be abandoned to the museum of 20th Century science fiction?
I was getting caught up on HBO’s The Newsroom last night, and in episode 5 of Season 3, there was a Star Trek reference that peeked my interest. Trek references in pop culture are telling signs of the status of the franchise. If Trek is on the cover of Time magazine (1995) or getting full page coverage in The New York Times (2009), then it is probably a good year to be a Trek fan. But this reference put me in a particularly morose mood about the state of Trek. It was not a negative reference. The problem was the type of person the reference associated with Star Trek, and not because the character was a stereotypical nerd like on Big Bang Theory. It wasn’t like that at all.
For those of you who do not know The Newsroom or Aaron Sorkin, this is a show (and a show runner) that glamorizes the past over the future. The show’s hero Will McAvoy played by Jeff Daniels is constantly equated to the 17th Century anti-hero Don Quixote (just as The West Wing’s hero Jed Bartlet was a throw-back to JFK). The central conflict of the episode with the Trek reference is whether the newsroom can adapt to a new millennial corporate overseer who wants to replace their Edward R. Murrow business model with an Internet-driven/TMZ/citizen-journalist style of news. Just one of the questionable things they are being asked to broadcast is an on-air debate between a rape victim and her accused rapist. The show’s heroes can’t adapt, as evidenced by the crusty old president of the news division, Charlie Skinner played by Sam Waterson, suffering a heart attack in this episode. A young reporter, Jim Harper played by John Gallagher Jr., is just as old-school idealistic as the other heroes of the show (and Sorkin), as evidenced by the fact that he broke up with his girlfriend who left the newsroom to write gossipy click-driven Internet columns, as opposed to the ‘real journalism’ he thinks he does. Sorkin has said in the commentary that Jim is a younger version of Charlie, the embodiment of the old ways of journalism instilled in a young man just starting out.
Jim is the character referred to in this episode as someone who watches Star Trek. He takes umbrage at the fact that someone confused the Star Trek episode he was watching with Star Wars. There is a scene where we actually see him watching a classic Star Trek episode on his iPad. To my ears this brief, insignificant reference, screamed this (probably unintended) message: the guy who says ‘piss off 2015, I prefer my media like it was 1955’ is the Star Trek fan.
Am I overreaching? No. Consider the summersaults Hollywood types are doing right now to update Star Trek for modern sensibilities. The Bad Robot reboot is one example. But those who want to produce a new TV series, who will have to film dozens of hours of TV, have a higher hurdle to make their show relatable to modern audiences, of which the most important demographic will be millennials.
Enter Michael Gummelt, apparently in talks with Paramount/CBS, who said to TrekMovie.com about a potential series: “[Star Trek] needs to be reinvented for a new generation. Not a reboot, that’s already being done in the movies. What I want for this series is for it to be the future – a Star Trek TV series that feels modern and feels futuristic relative to our current times.”
Futuristic relative to our current times. There’s the rub. This is the real reason Trek canon gets a bad wrap by current Hollywood people involved with Trek. It’s not that writers and producers feel constrained by fictional facts, decades old lines of dialogue, Trek history. They desire to be free of the old Trek aesthetic, the look, feel and sensibility of TOS and TNG-era Trek. They want a Star Trek that seems futuristic to people in this decade, not the 60s or the 80s.
Classic Star Trek was standard science fiction of that era (written by some well-know 60s science fiction writers), but as TV, Roddenberry knew that the setting, the characters, and how they interact had to be visually familiar and relatable to his audience. His solution was to make the Enterprise look, feel and sound like a WWII battleship in outer space. There was the bridge, complete with pinging sounds; tight crew quarters; a sickbay; a rec. room, etc. The viewer tuning in could make the necessary suspension of disbelief—Oh I see, it’s the Navy is space—and then enjoy the story.
When TNG came around 20 years later, that TV audience did not have the same cultural reference points as a generation before—we did not come of age close to WWII and Korea or having seen a lot of WWII movies. So the Enterprise-D resembles a plush, leather-interior luxury cruise liner, more Love Boat than the Battle of Midway. The bridge, it has been said by the show’s own writers, looked like the lobby of a chincy hotel; sprawling crew quarters; a lounge (ten-forward); state-of-the-art entertainment (holodecks); children romping down the corridors—a cruise ship in space. Voyager, TNG’s sister show, was virtually identical in sensibility.
In these shows, the way the characters interact is deeply 20th Century. They communicate using glorified radios. Decisions are made from a central authority, distributed down a clear chain of command. They hang out socially in rec. rooms and lounges (bars, when they are in alien environments). There are more robots and devices that want to be human than there are humans who want to be more technological. Nobody ever Tweets, or even emails. I don’t expect Twitter to still be a functional company in the 23rd or 24th Centuries. But you have to admit that characters on even TNG-era Star Trek do not interface with technology as much as the average person does in a coffee shop or elementary school in 2015.
The change to Trek lore that potential future Trek writers and producers are calling for is not about technology per se, faster warp drives and sleeker communicators (there is not more archaic-sounding term than ‘communicator’ is there?). No, the so-called necessary change is about the interface between people and technology. It’s about a millennial seeing a star ship on TV they’d want to hang out on, instead of one modeled on a naval battleship, an ‘iBridge’ grafted onto a naval battleship, or a cruise ship.
This is why Michael Gummelt says that the future trek series he envisions is “set sometime in the future, distant enough that it doesn’t really matter which universe it takes place in. It’s universe-agnostic.”
These are the words of someone who wants to tell a Star Trek story on a completely blank canvas. He wants to eject the archetypes of characters that would be familiar to those of us who grew up in the 1980s, or who saw many WWII movies, or, in the case of Kirk’s archetype, read stories about 18th Century naval captains (Horatio Hornblower, as a character born in 1776, as a piece of fiction born in 1937). All of that, and necessarily all of Trek canon, needs to be relegated to the dust bin of pop culture history. In exchange for… what exactly? Maybe it will be great, modern science fiction. But will it be Star Trek? If so, what threads of Star Trek DNA will it shed and what will it retain? On The Newsroom, the heroes have to ask what exactly can be considered news in 2015? For us Trekkies, what is Star Trek in 2015?