Episode Reviews, The X-Files, TV

THE X-FILES 11×04 – ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ (TV Review)

There have been several back and forth opinions regarding the latest season of The X-Files as to whether or not the show has too often tried to layer its fantastical stories with too much overt American political commentary. The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat will definitively put that argument to bed – not only is Season 11 now almost certainly going to be the final run of this iconic show, Darin Morgan’s comedic entry is a pointed response to the Trump, Fake News, Post-Truth era. It is also, as you may expect from the man, a minor work of brilliance.

Darin Morgan’s comedy episodes have become their own sub-genre within The X-Files since very early on in the second and third seasons, delivering gems such as Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’, episodes which took the essential concept of Chris Carter’s series–two FBI agents investigate the paranormal–and inverted it into a comedic romp filled with one-liners, flashback gags and histrionic, heightened levels of reality.

Some have argued The X-Files was so successful precisely because each writer brought a different canonical sensibility to the series – Carter’s arch grasp of symbolic theme, Glen Morgan & James Wong’s fusion of pulp and thriller stylistics, or Vince Gilligan’s blue-collar horror tales, but Darin Morgan’s stand out the most for being almost non-canonical, a pocket universe of wry, format-breaking, ‘meta’ stories which shine an alternative light on The X-Files and prove, without a shadow of a doubt, it has a remarkable elasticity of tone.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×03: ‘Lord Snow’ (TV Review)

If the first two episodes of Game of Thrones established the core characters and concepts the saga will pursue, Lord Snow makes us keenly aware not just of the underpinning geo-politics, but the deliberate level of fractious perception which makes up the realm of the Seven Kingdoms.

Though we have visited the city in previous episodes, King’s Landing is explored in greater detail, with the introduction of Littlefinger and his houses of ill-repute, and characters such as Lord Varys and Grand Maester Pycelle, all of them the kind of elite noblemen and courtiers you would have found in ancient Rome or the round tables of English Kings, part of a city which feels akin to a fusion of Roman architecture and the pulse of Tudor London. For the first time, we see the symbol of power many will come to desire in Game of Thrones – the Iron Throne, a seat constructed of the swords of past Kings, which with the greatest level of irony we’re introduced to as Jaime Lannister perches at the foot of it.

Jaime, being a Lannister, often goes out of his way to reinforce his own narrative about events of the past and present regarding his family. Even though he earned his soubriquet ‘Kingslayer’ for the fact he slaughtered Aerys ‘the Mad King’ Targaryen at the foot of the Throne, Jaime nonetheless blames the will of the people and realm for his murderous actions to Ned Stark, incumbent Hand of the King, taunting the man not only over his position “they say the King shits, and the Hand wipes” but that the noblemen of the realm stood by and did nothing when Ned’s father & brother were murdered in the Throne Room during Robert’s Rebellion. In one conversation, barbed with an undercurrent of hatred, the enmity of the Lannister’s and Stark’s is clear.

One family values truth, the other values their truth.

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The X-Files, TV, Writing

THE X-FILES 11×03 – ‘Plus One’ (TV Review)

Bread and butter indeed. There is a strong argument brewing that Plus One, the third episode of The X-Files eleventh season, is the purest example of a ‘classic’ X-File since the year 2000.

I’ve discussed previously how we need to start thinking of the first nine seasons of The X-Files the way we do 1960’s Star Trek, as the ‘classic’ series of the show. The revival seasons have proven The X-Files, in order to adapt to an evolving and changing television landscape, has found for better or worse (and fandom are strictly divided as to the answer) the need to reinvent itself, to some degree. Season 10 was filled with episodes which reconceived the series’ legendary ‘mytharc’, indulged in the nostalgia of the show’s comedy episodes, and fused both ‘monster of the week’ stories with character journeys for Mulder and Dana Scully, alongside a bizarre experimental piece from creator Chris Carter. Not one of those episodes, truly, felt like the ‘classic’ series.

Plus One is the first episode since the show returned to buck that trend. Season premiere My Struggle III bravely took the mythology to controversial new places and This, Glen Morgan’s follow up, pitched Mulder & Scully in the middle of a breakneck Hitchcockian conspiracy thriller with shades of that same mytharc. This had plenty of touches to please any ‘classic series’ fan but equally engaged in action stylistics and storytelling choices which kept it firmly in the realm of ‘revival series’. You can see why Carter would have wanted to write Plus One, because for the first time in years he has the space, breathing room and position to create a true ‘monster of the week’ tale, even if that term can sometimes be used too broadly. Plus One doesn’t have a Tooms or a Pusher or even a Rob Roberts.

Yet at the same time it’s the most standalone piece The X-Files has given us in a long time.

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Essays, TV

THE X-FILES and Alternate Universes

As the much-anticipated eleventh and almost certainly final season of The X-Files kicks off 2018, a remarkable fan theory has begun to arise in certain social media groups from the first two episodes: that The X-Files has slipped into an alternate universe. On the face of it, the notion sounds as crazy as the kind of cases Agent Fox Mulder has in his basement office, but could some nugget of possibility ripple beneath this theory?

A major factor backing up the assertion was confirmed in season premiere My Struggle III, in the fact Agent Dana Scully imagined the previous Season 10 finale My Struggle II in her mind’s eye, a remarkable twist eradicating the events of an entire episode only sold to the audience by virtue of Scully having been gifted of it thanks to a vision from her long-lost son William.

The catastrophic, world-ending, apocalyptic events of the Season 10 finale ended up simply as information for Scully to understand, a warning perhaps of knowledge to help she & Mulder prevent the release of the deadly Spartan Virus that wipes out humanity. So the theory goes, however, Scully’s vision wasn’t just a prophetic warning of terrible events to come, but rather an entire alternate reality she, and we, have experienced since The X-Files returned to our screens.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×02: ‘The Kingsroad’ (TV Review)

Game of Thrones, in many respects, has more than one pilot episode. There is an argument the entirety of its first season, or at least a sizeable proportion of it, constitutes the introductory beginning. The Kingsroad very much continues layering in themes, concepts, symbols, ideas and character arcs which will pay off across the next half a dozen seasons.

This is where, of course, serialised television differs significantly from traditional storytelling, particularly when adapting literary source material. Game of Thrones isn’t the first serialised show to be described as a ‘novel for television’ (you can go back, at least, to J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 in the 90’s which considered itself such), but never before had a TV show attempted to adapt such a grand, complex series of novels as George R.R. Martin’s. Unlike plenty of serialised series before it, and indeed which launched afterwards, Game of Thrones from the beginning knew in broad strokes the beginning, middle and at least part of the end, given the majority of A Song of Ice & Fire has long been written. This gives the beginning of the series a confidence many other shows struggle to find or maintain.

Game of Thrones in later series has been accused, not unfairly, of racing through plot beats. Seasons 6 and particularly 7-8 are almost certainly guilty of this, for better or worse. Season 1, however, is already taking its time. The Kingsroad merely builds on what was established in Winter Is Coming, which essentially was not much, in the grand scope of Westeros. It gave us our primary characters around which the entire show would orbit (given if you look at the pilot, the majority of key players are still with us in the final episode). It set up the principal antagonists of the series, and the main narrative through-line of Season 1, being the conspiracy at the heart of King’s Landing.

Foundations. Good foundations but with a huge amount of scope to add more scaffolding to.

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Episode Reviews, TV

THE X-FILES 11×02: ‘This’ (TV Review)

This doesn’t just feel like an episode of The X-Files. It feels as much like a core distillation of not just everything the show says today about the state of global surveillance, conspiracy and government, but rather everything it used to say. If ever an episode of the show was designed to remind us we’re no longer watching The X-Files of the 1990’s, it’s, yes, This.

The X-Files operates in an interesting place today. In my review of My Struggle III, part of the discussion revolved around how Chris Carter’s seminal series struggled when it was revived in 2016 precisely because it sat between what is now the world of yesterday (Obama’s stable, if divisive administration) and the world of today (Trump’s unstable, chaotic regime). Much like how all six episodes we’re figuring out how to re-conceptualise their storytelling for a new age of television, so Carter’s series attempted to find its place in a rapidly changing America. If the Season 11 premiere felt saddled by continuing mythology beats and was swamped by the narrative twist regarding Scully’s child, which had a mixed reception to say the least, then Glen Morgan’s follow up has the freedom to truly make the most of where The X-Files fits in the current paradigm.

Glen Morgan, and his oft-producing partner James Wong, were always two of the greatest assets The X-Files ever had. When they left firstly midway through the second season and later, following a brief return, midway through the fourth, there is no doubt both were missed. Morgan & Wong, as a duo, are responsible for some of the strongest episode the original series of The X-Files (as I’m now calling Seasons 1-9) ever produced – chiefly among them the peerless One Breath, which to some degree This resembles. Not in story or even in style, but placed in terms of how it frames the characters of Mulder & Scully within a post-Watergate arena of paranoia, with mythological grandmasters operating at the head of the table.

Though Morgan goes solo with This, everything he taps into feels like an extension and evolution of the kind of stories both were telling in the 90’s.

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Season Reviews, TV

BLACK MIRROR (Season 4) provides twisted dystopian allegory for our times

Black Mirror arguably has found its place as The Twilight Zone of its generation, and the fourth season only serves to remind you of its allegorical power.

There’s a strong argument that the third season, which aired last year, cemented its position in that regard. That was the point Netflix pulled off one of its biggest coups – stealing Charlie Brooker’s anthology series from British terrestrial Channel 4 after two successful three-part series which brought together some of the strongest up and coming British actors to tell twisted tales regarding the ominous infiltration and immersion of technology in our lives.

Almost always set in a future ever so slightly ahead of our own, never too far to be alienating or unrecognisable, Brooker’s stories tapped into those primal existential fears we all feel – that maybe, just maybe, all these black screens, social media platforms, VR gaming innovations and so on, are destroying our culture and society rather than enriching or evolving it.

Black Mirror posits a world filled with people unable truly to utilise this advanced, game changing technology often in a positive way, and frequently the majority of episodes end up being cautionary tales of some sort.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×01 – ‘Winter Is Coming’ (TV Review)

What strikes you about Winter Is Coming, the opening episode of Game of Thrones, is the children.

George R.R. Martin’s book saga, A Song of Ice and Fire, famously had the two central characters embodying the dual elements, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, as roughly around fifteen years old. For the purposes of producing a palatable, adult fantasy television show, HBO aged them up by around three or four years (though in casting terms near enough ten). The children we see, therefore, in the TV show adaptation are in some cases even younger than Martin’s original conception of these young Royal figures thrust into a story of war, magic, conquest and sexual misfortune. Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark, even Joffrey Baratheon, all are demonstrably children when the show begins.

The show very much begins reminding us children are the heart and soul of Martin’s epic.

The world of Westeros often feels like it is being seen through children’s eyes in Winter Is Coming. From the terrifying spectre of a blue-eyed Wildling wight girl beyond the Wall, to Arya & Bran witnessing the coming of the King into their home of Winterfell, all the way through to the climactic fate suffered by Bran upon witnessing a licentious act. Indeed it isn’t just the children of youth who provide the prism through which Martin’s story begins – Jon and Tyrion Lannister both frame themselves as ‘bastard’ children in different perspectives, Daenerys and her brother Viserys Targaryen are children displaced of a hereditary entitlement they believe is their due, and Jaime & Cersei Lannister of course are children embroiled in a bond that goes beyond nature.

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Film, Reviews

Film Retrospective: STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979)

In many respects, Star Trek: The Motion Picture signifies the purest, truest form of what Star Trek is.

How often have you asked that question, as a fan or not – what is Star Trek? The answer may be different when considering the movies over the last, almost forty years, and the fifty-year history of the multiple television shows. It’s a question we are asking once again now with new TV series Star Trek: Discovery, and it’s an answer different to a great many people.

Is it about our exploration of the universe? It is about our innate humanity and how it relates to the future, to technology, or to our place in the cosmos? Is it about comradeship, friendship, or the bond of a crew in the face of the unknown? Or is it, as the mantra from Spock over the opening titles of the iconic 1960’s series states, about strange new worlds, and boldly going where no man has gone before? 

I can only tell you what Star Trek means to me, and how The Motion Picture embodies many of the above questions in the answers it delivers.

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Episode Reviews, TV

THE X-FILES 11×01: ‘My Struggle III’ (TV Review)

The X-Files enters the era of post-truth with a remarkable level of chutzpah. After the relaunch of Season 10 aka ‘the Event Series’ and it’s rampant success, Season 11 became almost assured once difficult contract negotiations (principally with Gillian Anderson) were figured out, but despite only a two year gap between both seasons, the cultural landscape on which they were playing has changed almost beyond recognition.

Chris Carter’s series became a pioneer of cultural & sociological allegory, probably the most powerful in terms of defining the 1990’s as Star Trek defined the 1960’s, so for The X-Files to truly feel needed and relevant again, ironically we perhaps needed the election of Donald Trump and the rise of anti-intellectual, fake news, nationalist propaganda. One of the reasons Season 10 didn’t quite work was because it sat in a strange space – the end of Obama’s divided but relatively stable era, and the beginning of the most anxietal period in American history for decades.

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The X-Files was a show built on the search for eternal, ephemeral, philosophical Truth with a capital T. My Struggle III, the season premiere of what could be the show’s final run, proves The X-Files could well end fighting back against post-Truth. The tag line says it all. I Want to Believe, one of the show’s maxims, turns into I Want to Lie.

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