Friday, February 19, 2016

The X-Files: Episode 5 review

Episode five of The X-Files miniseries presented an unusual take on Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations hypothesis, approaching the subject as only this program could. Show writers explored a number of timely themes, especially given the xenophobia, racial tension and religious extremism at work in the world in 2016.

Many of the enjoyable moments in this episode result from Mulder and Scully mentoring agents who resemble younger versions of themselves. 

Agent Miller – Mulder’s doppelganger – receives Scully’s help interrogating an unconscious suspect who miraculously survived a suicide bombing. Meanwhile, Agent Einstein – Miller’s partner and Scully lookalike – is paired with Mulder, who makes it his business to challenge the younger agent’s all-too-rational perspective.

Rarely in the show’s history has there been a better demonstration of Mulder’s intuitive approach to criminal investigation vs. Scully’s unconventional, yet scientific methodology.

A commentary on the nature of reality takes a humorous turn when Mulder persuades Agent Einstein – a medical doctor and scientist – to administer psilocybin mushrooms to him so that, in an altered state of consciousness, he can psychically enter the comatose mind of the bombing suspect.

Einstein gives Mulder vitamin B3 (niacin) instead, inducing a placebo effect that causes the senior agent to trip his way through the nightlife of the unnamed Texas town where the investigation is taking place.

While there, Mulder’s revelry is interrupted by a vision of himself and the bombing suspect, floating through the underworld, ferried on a spectral boat piloted by none other than the Cigarette Smoking Man.

A Tom Waits song growls in the background, as the dying suspect whispers a word to Mulder, a word that just so happens to be the name corresponding with a building in the ‘real world’ where religious extremists are holed-up, planning attacks.

As longtime viewers will attest, Mulder has always been in touch with his shamanic side. “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious – the source of all true art and science,” Einstein tells Miller in the pair’s last scene of the show, evoking the enlightened perspective of another century’s Einstein. No doubt Mulder would agree.

“I saw things, Scully. Deep and unconditional love,” Mulder tells his partner near the episode’s conclusion, attempting to articulate his experience.

“I saw things, too,” Scully replies to him. “I witnessed unqualified hate that appeared to have no end.” Such is the story of our times; but in a way, it is the story of all times.

The episode begins and ends with the sound of mysterious ethereal trumpets, suggestive to some that the end of the world is nigh. Maybe so; but maybe those trumpets are just squealing wheelsets on old train cars, audible to those within earshot of a railyard.

Whatever the case is, as the final chapter of The X-Files miniseries nears, possibilities for apocalypse – for ‘revealing truth’, in the original meaning of the word – have never been better.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The X-Files: Episode 4 review

Exposing conspiracy and revealing the truth behind uncanny mysteries is what The X-Files has been about since its pilot broadcast in 1993.

Many episodes unfold in a hypnagogic, hallucinogenic, half-lit reality situated between the real world and the imagined one. In fact, there’s precedent for the argument that the best shows in the series overall were the episodes where viewers were left with more questions than answers.

Take the latest installment of the new miniseries, for example. In this classic ‘Monster of the Week’ scenario, Scully and Mulder track down what essentially amounts to a wraith – a ghost of vengeance – which has been ‘manifested’ or ‘realized’ by the intent of a graffiti artist with a social conscience.

There is real crime – the unjust are murdered – but as far as having a suspect who can be tried and incarcerated, how do you arrest – let alone prosecute – a ghost? Answer: You don’t, and that’s because punishing the criminal wasn’t what this episode was about, in the end.

It was, however, about Scully’s mother, a character who has been part of the ongoing X-Files story since season one.

The sense of a longer narrative continuum is reinforced here; the mother-daughter relationship, the reintroduction of both Scully’s brothers, and Mulder’s connection to the family are all part of bringing the show’s history forward so its relevance can be applied to the miniseries.

Also, the familial setting offers Scully more opportunities to reflect on her choice to send William, her child, away, which may be a story ‘through-line’ to the final installment of the miniseries.

This is simply to say that it’s possible William – who possesses both alien and human DNA – will become endangered (by Cigarette Smoking Man?), which will draw Scully and Mulder back into the illuminati-alien metanarrative (re)introduced by the miniseries pilot.

The symbol of the band-aid worn by the wraith deepens the meaning of this episode as well.

Busing homeless people out of active business or residential areas, sending a child away out of a persistent fear for that child’s safety, even the technologically mediated, compartmentalized way most people die in modern western society are all examples of ‘band-aid’ solutions for perennial issues that aren’t resolved easily, if ever.

You could even say finding ways to get to the heart of issues like cruelty, fear and death is like trying to catch a ghost…

Friday, February 5, 2016

The X-Files: Episode 3 review

Intense belief eschews humor. That’s the reason true believers have serious, or – at best – celebratory, methods of expressing their devotion, and not comedic ones.

But it’s not exclusively a religious issue. No matter what the enterprise, whenever people get consumed with an idea, any suggestion which seems to mock, trivialize or ridicule the treasured notion is dismissed as undesirable, an anathema to the profundity of adherents’ belief.

Welcome to the third episode of The X-Files miniseries, in which Mulder and Scully confront head-on the unusual and frequently ridiculous assertions that have been the series’ bread and butter since day one, as well as the earnest claims of those who truly ‘want to believe’.

This episode was easily the most humorous of the three aired in the miniseries thus far, thanks in no small part to the presence of Rhys Darby, better known to North American audiences as Murry Hewitt from The Flight of the Conchords television series (2007-2009).

As a long-lived lizard monster, Hewitt’s character, Guy Mann, undergoes a transformation after he’s bitten by a (human) serial killer. The encounter causes him to change into an average 21st century man, driven by unconscious impulses to get a menial job, eat hamburgers, and consume pornography.

By inverting progression of the expected plot (ie, a human being transformed into a monster), this episode teases out many inane and childish aspects of subjects investigated on the show.

Exchanges between Mulder and the other characters in this episode – including an idiosyncratic, pill-popping psychologist – reveal his state of mind to be preoccupied with the futility of his efforts on X-Files cases.

That development tracks with the intensity of his conviction in the first two episodes of the miniseries. Long-time fans will recognize Mulder’s questioning of his life’s work, as well as the polarities of doubt and faith, as recurrent themes through the long arc of the show.

Scully remains reliably rational throughout this episode (except on one occasion recounted by Guy), maintaining her intellectual equanimity. She meets Mulder’s bemusement with the sort of detached pleasure one might feel watching a favorite pet chase its own tail. At the end of the episode, she gets a dog.

Fortunately for Mulder, his crisis of faith finds resolution, but not before addressing the most fundamental absurdity of all: death.

The exchange between Mulder and Guy in a graveyard is both humorous and touching; comedy which allows for essential questions to be asked in a spirit of play that wouldn’t normally be asked if the situation were more somber.

“I’m just looking for some kind of internal logic,” a befuddled Mulder tells Guy, after having heard his lizard-man’s story.

“Why?” Guy answers. “There’s no external logic – to any of it!

But by the end, both man and monster have taken metaphysical consolation in the familiar “more things in Heaven and Earth” refrain from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, only this time quoted from the First Folio, wherein the Bard wrote “than are dreamt of in our philosophy” instead of “your philosophy”.

There is a message here. In The X-Files, viewers might expect to find a weighty truth.

But, in fact, the truth is simply that absurdity abounds – in fiction and in life – and few people, real or imagined, know that better than Mulder and Scully. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

The X-Files: Episode 2 review

The second installment of the new X-Files presented viewers with a format expected to prevail for the duration of the series.

Blending a serialized investigative procedural within the context of a multi-episode narrative arc was an important aspect of the show’s original appeal, and the producers of the miniseries have stuck with the formula.

In the case of the most recent program, the focus was on a subject familiar to followers of The X-Files’ original run – genetic disorders caused by a combination of extraterrestrial DNA and human manipulation.

Reinstated FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder find themselves on a case involving a homicide victim who stabbed himself in the head with a letter opener. This leads to an investigation of juvenile subjects who exhibit extreme cases of abnormal physical and psychological mutation, a plot development which dovetails nicely with the emotional state of our heroes, who are dealing with the fallout of having reunited on the job after years apart.

The cause of their shared angst? Nothing less than the fact that they are parents of a child they sent away; offspring carrying alien DNA, doomed to spend his life in isolation, hidden away from people who would do him harm. Parallels between Mulder and Scully’s current investigation, and their history together are explored in several dream sequences, in which both parents fantasize about spending time with William, their son.

This isn’t the first instance of The X-Files visiting such territory. As well as William’s presence during the ninth season of the original series, long-time viewers will recall a case involving Gibson Praise, a child chess prodigy who’s revealed to be the genetic ‘missing link’ between humans and aliens.

As the target of a plot orchestrated by Cigarette Smoking Man, Gibson comes to be under the protection of Mulder and Scully, who both demonstrate parental concern for the boy.

Connections between genetic experimentation on children and extraordinary abilities was also a central theme on J.J. Abrams’ Fringe (2008-2013), which took (arguably) a more measured and consistent approach to many ideas first introduced on The X-Files.

The X-Files: Episode 1 review

“We have a small problem…they’ve reopened the X-Files,” says the nefarious Cigarette Smoking Man at the end of the new X-Files’ first episode.

For Smoky, it’s news that spells trouble. But for legions of fans eagerly anticipating the reboot of a beloved television program, it’s as if the mothership just landed.

This updated version – with David Duchovny and Gillian Andersen reprising their roles as Fox Mulder and Dana Scully – shows The X-Files to be as much in keeping with the spirit of 2016 as it was responsible for seeding the current pop culture zeitgeist a generation ago.

Indeed, I suspect it won’t be long before much of the new show’s intricate, paranoia-laden dialogue filters onto ‘alternative media’ webcasts, radio programs and videos; content which itself is often premised on ideas pioneered, or at least popularized, during the initial run of The X-Files (1993-2002).

Such appropriations should come as no surprise, as the stories spun by Mulder and his new accomplice – an Internet broadcaster and ‘truther’ named Tad O’Malley (played by Community alum Joel McHale) – blend the disparate elements of conspiracy culture with such aplomb that their accounts are almost compelling enough to believe.

Scully, of course, isn’t buying any of Mulder’s shenanigans. She joins him for an initial investigation, but soon resumes her work as a surgeon, operating on children born without ears, a condition known as Microtia,

It’s an ironic metaphor, since Scully is the one who is unable or unwilling to hear her former partner’s argument for conspiracy, accusing him and O’Malley of irresponsible fear-mongering when they plan to take their theory public.

But Scully, too – like a skeptical viewer presented with an intriguing plot twist – is forced to rethink her stance after discovering she and another woman are carrying alien DNA.

And just like that, they’re off!

After his extended run on Californication, it was good seeing Duchovny back in a less hedonistic, but no less irreverent role; doing ‘smart’ as well as he did ‘sleaze’.

Andersen, as the ‘yin’ to Mulder’s grizzled, impassioned ‘yang’, brings grace and gravitas to the part she made famous in the ’90s. The truth is out there, and these two were made to find it.