Saturday, June 02, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Slaves" (September 18, 1976)

In “The Slaves,” the Ark II team catches wind of a nearby village using slavery, a “miserable and immoral practice,” and Jonah sets out to observe.  Unfortunately, he is captured by the forces of Baron Vargas (Michael Kermoyan), a tyrant who deploys magic tricks to keep the slaves from attempting escape, banding together, or asserting their rights.

In particular, Baron Vargas has convinced many of his exhausted slaves that he possesses the power to turn people into mindless animals.  The people, having no education or experience with such things, cower in fear.  One man, Gideon, has even become an informant for Vargas, because he believes his sister has been transformed into an animal.

When Jonah stands up to Vargas, the devious Baron stages a fire and light show in which he appears to transform Jonah into a rooster.  In truth, Jonah is simply put in prison, abducted in a cloud of smoke, out of the eyes of the crowd. 

Seeing the deception for what it is, Ruth and Samuel at the Ark II decide to out-magic the evil magician.  They rescue Jonah, and assert their own technological magic to free the slaves.  

In “The Slaves,” written by David Dworski, the audience gets to see a bit more of the grand Ark II’s interesting capabilities.  In this case, the vehicle projects a force field beam; one that is able to make it look like Jonah is actually walking on air.  The force field beam looks dangerous, like a laser, but like all of the Ark II’s devices is entirely defensive in nature. 

Other than that touch, this episode, directed by Hollingsworth Morse, hammers home the worthy point that fear stems from ignorance, and that knowledge can overcome ignorance, and thus fear.  The villager slaves are all superstitious and terrified, but Jonah and his team pull back the curtain, to use a Wizard of Oz metaphor, to reveal the truth about the manipulative Vargas.  It’s a worthwhile point, especially because so many tyrants in today’s world use ignorant beliefs (usually of a religious nature) to hold back their populations. 

Watching this episode of Ark II, I understood, perhaps for the first time, what’s missing from the series format: a sense of how Ruth, Jonah and Samuel are educated and trained, and what kind of organization, specifically they hail from.  What are their skill-sets?  How did they become trained?   How were they chosen for these assignments?

It would have been great if the makers of Ark II had provided a bit more detail about these adventurers, and why they became involved with the Ark II mission, and what skills, precisely, they bring to the table.  It would have been neat to get an episode where they check back in at home base, as well. I'd love to see the society they hail from, and what it is like.

I also got to wondering, perhaps because this episode is a little dull: is Ark II the only vehicle in the fleet?  Is there also an Ark III or Ark IV out there, patrolling a different area of the post-apocalyptic terrain?

Of course, I realize that this Filmation series was designed for children.  But the episodes create an interesting enough world that as a viewer, you want to know more about the characters, their backgrounds, and the world they inhabit.  This is truly a series that would benefit from an intelligent remake:  You could take the core series concept, the characters, the production design and the world-view and then spin out new details about all of them, significantly deepening the Ark II-iverse.

Next week: “The Balloon.”

Ark II Bumper & End Credits with 1976 Commercials

Friday, June 01, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Star Trek: First Contact (1996) is likely the finest of The Next Generation feature films.  In part, this is so because the film combines an extremely popular villain, the Borg, with an extremely popular idea in the franchise: time travel

In part, First Contact also thrives because the film is more action-oriented and visceral than some of the other entries in the canon. The screenplay, by Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore also goes through fewer contortions than Generations did to fashion its compelling tale.  Where Generations seemed confusing and contrived, First Contact feels stream-lined and sleek. 

Perhaps most importantly, Star Trek: First Contactwhile occasionally gory and quite violent – remembers that the core of Star Trek’s appeal does not rest in warfare and hatred, but rather in the exploration of the “human adventure.” 

By ending on the high note of humanity’s first contact with the Vulcans, First Contact honors Star Trek’s important legacy of hope and promise.  This vision of a better tomorrow (and of a better humanity, to boot), differentiates the franchise from virtually all other space adventures, and makes the film a pleasure to watch, even fifteen years after its theatrical release.  An average Star Trek movie can excite you with space battles, certainly, but only a very good one can tap into the inspirational nature of Gene Roddenberry’s celebrated creation.

Accordingly, film critics approved of and admired the film, and First Contact remains one of the best-reviewed Star Trek films in the saga’s history.  Variety wrote: “Star Trek: First Contact" is a smashingly exciting sci-fi adventure that ranks among the very best in the long-running Paramount franchise. Better still, this is one TV spinoff that does not require ticket buyers to come equipped with an intimate knowledge of the small-screen original. Fans and non-fans alike will line up for this wild ride, and many will be repeat customers.”

Lloyd Rose at The Washington Post praised Jonathan Frakes’ direction, and opinedThere are moments of visionary beauty in this film that rank with "Metropolis," with Josh Meador's interior vistas in "Forbidden Planet" and Irvin Kershner's and Ralph Quarrie's work in "The Empire Strikes Back" -- that is to say, with the best fantasy films ever made.

As a reviewer and unapologetic Trek fan, I boast deeper reservations about First Contact than Rose apparently did, and feel that while the film is indeed the best of the Next Generation cinematic efforts, it still falls short of the cinematic majesty and scope of The Motion Picture (1979), or the sheer emotionality and humanity of The Wrath of Khan (1982). 

Part of the reason that Star Trek: First Contact doesn’t work on the same rarefied level as those aforementioned titles is that many of the earthbound scenes involving James Cromwell’s recalcitrant Zefram Cochrane boast no effective foil for the mischievous inventor of warp speed technology.  Riker, Troi and Geordi are beloved characters to be certain, but they are never really established effectively in the script as larger-than-life personalities with the heft to match Cochrane note-for-note and blow-for-blow.  As a result, the film’s pace lags badly every time First Contact returns to Earth and the Borg are shunted off-screen.

By contrast, the Borg themselves (itself?) are incredibly effective in design, concept and execution.  They are visually-inspired, dynamic villains, and First Contact benefits strongly from their presence, even if aspects of their culture (namely the Borg Queen) now seem contradictory and unnecessarily muddled.   As a longtime Star Trek fan, I was also disappointed with some of the shoddy continuity in the film, especially because in most cases the flaws were unnecessary and could have been easily rectified in post-production.

But such quibbles aside, Star Trek: First Contact remains a fun and involving science fiction adventure.  It’s an eminently sturdy entry in the long-lived franchise, and comes close to recapturing successfully the character chemistry that made Star Trek: the Next Generation so beloved an endeavor.

“A group of cybernetic creatures from the future have traveled back through time to enslave the human race... and you're here to stop them?

In the 24th Century, the cybernetic Borg attempt a second invasion of Sector 001, the home of the human race.  Instead of warping to planet Earth to join the battle, however, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the U.S.S Enterprise-E are ordered to stay away.  Starfleet fears that Picard’s traumatic experience being assimilated by the Borg could make him an “unstable element” in the critical defense of Earth.

With his crew’s support, Captain Picard ignores Starfleet’s orders and assumes control of the fleet battling the Borg Cube.  Able to hear the Borg’s thoughts, Captain Picard pinpoints the cube’s weakness and destroys it, but not before a Borg escape craft opens a temporal anomaly and travels into Earth’s past.

Caught in the energetic wake of the escaping Borg sphere, the Enterprise crew can only watch as Earth of the past is assimilated by the cybernetic organisms.  The starship follows the Borg to the past, to April of 2063 in an effort to prevent the change.  There, they learn that the diabolical aliens plan to scuttle Earth’s “first contact” with alien life forms following the successful test flight of Zefram Cochrane’s (James Cromwell’s) experimental warp ship. 

Picard realizes he must preserve the timeline, or the human race will become…Borg.

Before long, the Enterprise herself is infested with Borg invaders.  Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) is captured by the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), who requires the information stored in his android brain if she wishes to access the ship’s computer and stop Cochrane’s historic flight. 

Meanwhile, on Earth’s surface below, Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) must convince Cochrane to make his historic flight…

“I am the beginning. The end. The one who is many. I am the Borg.

The Borg are really no-brainers as movie antagonists.  The most beloved episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation remains the two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds,” concerning a Borg incursion into Federation space. The Borg are such popular villains because they promise a fate much worse than death. 

It’s one thing to be killed by drooling, murderous aliens; it’s another thing entirely to have your individuality wiped away and your intelligence sublimated into the Borg Collective.  In that state, your memories belong to the Borg.  Your physicality belongs to the Borg.  Your very soul…is theirs. 

Somewhere inside, you may want to struggle against the Collective or Hive, but you can’t succeed.  You must stand by and watch in a kind of living Hell as the Borg exploit your knowledge and exploit your body, perhaps even condemning your very loved ones to the nightmare of being “one” with the collective. It’s a horrid fate to imagine, let alone endure. 

The Borg threat also works remarkably well in the context of The Next Generation, a series that -- through the inclusion of half-Betazaoids, Klingons, androids, the blind and other colorful characters -- champions diversity as a worthwhile human ideal.

The Borg destroy diversity, making all life-forms conform to their vision of perfection, thus making them a perfect adversary for our colorful and very individual 24th century heroes.

Assimilation into the Borg group consciousness is such a powerful, frightening notion that it would be nearly impossible to ruin the threat of the Borg in a two-hour motion picture.  And yet, First Contact almost achieves the impossible by giving the Borg a heretofore unseen new ruler, a single individual called the Borg Queen. 

Now, let me be plain: Alice Krige is remarkable as the Borg Queen here.  She gives a performance simultaneously terrifying and sensual.  Similarly, her appearance is both frightening and incredibly sexy.  And yet the very idea of a Borg Queen represents a terrible undermining of the original notion of the Borg: a collective life form.

Now, suddenly – after several years of Next Generation episodes – we learn that that the Borg are ruled by an individual leader?  By the equivalent of a Queen Bee?  And worse, this Queen Bee is apparently seeking a human mate?  Here, it is plain she seeks not to make drones of protagonists Captain Picard or Data, but to make them her lovers and companions, co-rulers of the lower Borg caste. 

In one fell swoop, then, the terror and anonymity of assimilation is largely undone.  For one thing, the Borg can maintain individuality after assimilation, as the presence and personality of the Borg Queen prove.  For another, our heroes don’t face total erasure of individuality.  Instead, they get to hob-knob it with the sensual, if sadistic, Borg Queen.  There are some humans who may not consider that arrangement so terrible, frankly, given her overt sensuality…

I understand the (flawed) thinking that individuals make a “better” enemy in a movie than a group of bad guys, but the popularity of the Borg as a collective in the Next Generation TV series proves the fallacy of such thinking.  First Contact invents a new character in the Borg Queen that -- while beautiful and menacing -- totally undercuts the terror of the Borg equation.

Her presence raises important questions too.  How does the Queen exist in multiple dimensions at once, since First Contact suggests that she was present on the Borg ship with Locutus, although though we never saw her there in “Best of Both Worlds?”

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, how do the Borg survive (into episodes of Voyager) if their multi-dimensional Queen keeps getting destroyed?  How many Queens are there?  How does she die?  Does Star Trek now possess an un-killable character?   Also, because she can apparently be in more than one dimension at a time, why does the Queen have to bother with sending a message to the Borg of her time by sensor dish?  Why not just transition from one place to another, one time to another?

Another serious problem in First Contact again comes down to how writers Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga choose to highlight crew interaction.  Specifically, superficial “movie thinking” undercuts what could have been incredible scenes of conflict and drama between Enterprise team members.  

Here, Patrick Stewart delivers an incredibly well-written Moby Dick speech about the Borg, explaining in detail why he won’t fall back again, why he won’t let the Borg win.  Stewart does a terrific job with the material.  It’s the monologue of an obsessed, driven man, and it works quite effectively in terms of the character we love, even if it seems logical that he would have exorcised these Borg demons already, given the span of time between “Family” and First Contact.

But forget all that. Picard gets called on the carpet and called out for his obsession with Borg… by Lily (Alfre Woodard), a one-time guest star in the franchise.  She goes toe-to-toe with Picard and points out how his pursuit of the Borg doesn’t make sense.  She’s known him for maybe a few hours, when she makes the speech.

I’ll be blunt: this confrontation should have occurred between Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden).  She has known Captain Picard longer than anyone else aboard ship, she can speak from experience -- not hear say --  that his orders usually make sense, and she boasts the standing as chief medical officer of the Enterprise to stop Picard in his tracks if he is acting in a manner that is dangerous to the well-being of the starship’s crew. 

If this were an original cast Star Trek movie, do you have any doubt that it would have been McCoy calling Kirk on the carpet over his behavior, as he did, explicitly in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), to name just three incidents?  McCoy could do it because he was Kirk’s confidante, and because he had that standing as CMO to question a captain’s behavior.

Again, Crusher – who shares breakfast with Picard every day as we know from the series – is that person in The Next Generation universe.  Yes, Stewart and Woodard are powerful in the confrontation scene together, but it doesn’t resonate deeply in terms of Star Trek history, because Picard doesn’t get checked by one of his own, by one of his crew. These movies are supposed to be about how starship crews work together to resolve problems, right?  Shouldn't the person who actually knows Picard be the one to question him?  You may recall, I had a similar problem with how Generations used Crusher.  She should have been Picard's "Nexus" ideal, given their relationship there. And she should do her duty as CMO here, in First Contact. It's not that I have a thing for Crusher (though I like her just fine).  It's that as a member of the team, when there is an opportunity to use her character appropriately...she should be thus used.  And she never is.  In any Star Trek movie.  Even Chekov, Sulu and Uhura had moments in the sun in the original Star Trek films when there was opportunity.

I’ve always believed this a major flaw in the Next Generation movies: they give the supporting cast members little to do, and farm out the dramatic work to guest stars inside of established characters.  The Moby Dick scene would have been infinitely more powerful if Gates McFadden – whom we know and love as Crusher – had been given the opportunity to stand up to Captain Picard.  I wrote above how Riker, Geordi and Troi don’t seem equal to the task of countering Cochrane here.  The same is true of Crusher in First Contact: she’s written like a doormat.  She remains on the bridge, without questioning orders, while Lily enthusiastically performs her job as chief medical officer.

This reveals -- as we see time and time again – that there’s definitely a pecking order in the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies:  the men get better roles than the women do, and Picard, Riker, Worf and Data get the lion’s share of the drama, while the rest of the characters are afforded only brief moments that play as the equivalent of shtick.  Troi gets to play drunk, for example.  In First Contact, Crusher not only shirks her duty to hold Picard’s feet to the fire over a bad decision, she actually loses a patient (Lily again…) who is under her protection.  That’s the best the writers could come up with for a character who raised a son, overcame the tragic death of her husband, commanded the Enterprise from time-to-time and even headed Starfleet Medical?

In short, for First Contact, the writers decided to go out and invent a woman tough enough to challenge Picard, when a woman already in the Next Generation stable could have done it just as well, and it would have resonated far more with the Trek fan base.  All they needed to do was to write Gates McFadden a decent part.

In the introduction to this piece, I wrote about some careless errors in the film.  Let me name just a few.  At one point, Picard tells Lily the Enterprise consists of 24 decks. Later, Worf’s security chief replacement reports that the Borg control "deck 26."  If we’re to believe Picard, that deck doesn’t exist.  By looping “24” over the “26” dialogue, this would error would not have occurred.  I just can’t believe that nobody was checking continuity on a major studio’s tent-pole franchise.

Other matters of concern include the origin of Zefram Cochrane.  He is a character from the original series episode “Metamorphosis,” and one with an entirely different look and origin (in terms of home planets, apparently) than what this movie establishes. But First Contact feels no obligation to explain the discrepancies in Cochrane’s biography. 

Also, since when can Captain Picard hear the voices of the Borg?  Is this a common side effect of those who have been separated from the Collective?  If so, did Hugh, the Borg refugees of “Descent” and Seven of Nine also hear Borg voices in their heads whenever they encountered them?

In spite of such problems, Star Trek: First Contact is a highly entertaining movie with many dramatic and visually-appealing high points.  

Prime among these is the zero-gravity sequence in which Picard, Worf and Hunt must battle the Borg on the exterior of the Enterprise hull, on the main deflector dish.  This scene is splendidly-directed, buttressed by incredible special effects, and it features an undercurrent of anxiety throughout, as the Borg – slowly becoming aware of Picard’s interference – begin to menace the crew as the team works to stop them. 

I remember, circa 1994 or so, I was deeply disenchanted with the Star Trek universe and consequently looking back at Space: 1999 (1975 -1977) with much appreciation, because I felt that the world of the Enterprise had become too safe and predictable.  Space adventuring was no longer dangerous.   Now it consisted of vacations on holodecks, endless resources and material wealth, courtesy of replicators, and even families living on the saucer section while exploring the final frontier.  I lamented the fact that not once in Star Trek: The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine up to that point, had any main character been seen in a space suit, actually reckoning with the actual environment of space.  The crew members of Starfleet seemed to me too insulated from danger.

So I was delighted that Star Trek: First Contact included this zero-g sequence and put my qualms to rest, at least momentarily.  The zero-gravity action scene in Star Trek: First Contact reminds us that these men and women are in a dangerous profession, and that even with all the comforts of “technology unchained” in the 24th century, they must still sometimes go out into space with precious few resources to fight enemies, or attempt to repair their ship.   The zero-gravity fight scene is actually my favorite in the film because it is so tense, and because it features so many nice character touches, from Picard’s unconventional cleverness (blasting a Borg into space by shooting the deck of the ship…) to Worf’s “always be prepared” mentality, bringing a blade out into space with him.  It’s terrific stuff.

I also enjoy the climax of Star Trek: First Contact tremendously because it remembers that Star Trek isn’t always supposed to be about battling hostile aliens.  This is one of the reasons why I’m not all that impressed with Star Trek Online. It’s a game about going out to other worlds and fighting aliens, about firing phasers and engaging in battle.

For me, that’s but one small aspect of Star Trek, and not, for me, the one with the most appeal.  Star Trek: First Contact features great battle sequences, but more than that, ends on the high note of first contact.  It shows us an important and inspiring scene in human history, our first, peaceful meeting with extra-terrestrials.  In this case, the humans who broach that contact are fatigued from war, and not “perfect” (like our 24th century protagonists).  And yet they lead with trust and peace, and a wonderful, new era is opened up because of their willingness to go out on a limb.  Frankly, I find the final scenes of First Contact absolutely inspiring, reminding us of the better angels of our nature.  We can greet the unknown not with fear, paranoia and suspicion, but with hope and peace and trust. 

In ending the film on this high note, rather than the (admittedly-satisfying) defeat of the villainous Borg, First Contact remembers and honors the highest aspirations of Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek saga.  Remember “the human adventure is just beginning?” the tag-line of Star Trek: The Motion Picture?  First Contact literalizes that motto, and shows us the wondrous beginnings of man’s odyssey to the stars, beginning with the first moments of brotherhood with another race.  It’s a fantastic and inspiring story-point.

I also appreciate the creativity involved in Data’s subplot in First Contact. I didn’t care for how Data was utilized in Generations…as a veritable bi-polar psychotic. Here, he seems more...balanced.  He faces temptation as the Borg perform an assimilation in reverse.  Usually, the Borg apply mechanical prosthetics to biological skin.  Here, they apply biological skin to a mechanical apparatus.  It’s an interesting idea, especially since Data suggests early on that he can’t be assimilated by the Borg.  The Queen proves him wrong, and in a diabolical fashion that tempts Data.  We never really believe he has turned to the dark side...but as Data suggests, a few seconds can feel like eternity when we're uncertain of his exact motivations. 

I understand that Star Trek fans are divided on the subject of Frakes as a director.  He gets good performances from the cast here, and manages several action scenes nicely.  Judging by First Contact, he certainly seems up to the center seat...the director's chair. 

Between the zero-g action, the up-lifting last moments of first contact, and Data’s unique experience being Borgified, it’s largely futile to resist First Contact, a high-point for the Next Generation cast at the movies. 

Movie Trailer: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

" Believing oneself to be perfect is often the sign of a delusional mind."

- Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Underrated but Great # 2: The X-Files, Season 8 (2000 - 2001)

The Conventional Wisdom:

Many of you are already familiar with the conventional wisdom about The X-Files (1993 – 2002).  This conventional wisdom has been disseminated and repeated across fan hubs and critical review web-sites for many years now.

It goes something like this: After star David Duchovny departed the series as the lead actor, the series went down-hill…fast.  In fact, The X-Files stayed on the air a few years too long, and ended in something resembling disgrace and embarrassment.

Well, the truth is out there…and it’s much more nuanced and intriguing than the conventional wisdom suggests.  First, it’s accurate that during the eighth season of The X-Files, David Duchovny reduced his participation considerably.  He was no longer the star of the program, and he appeared as Mulder in less-than-a-dozen episodes airing that year.  But he wasn’t gone entirely.

His successor in the male lead position was actor Robert Patrick (Terminator 2 [1991], Fire in the Sky [1993]).  On The X-Files, Patrick played John Doggett, an ex-New York police detective who did not boast a familiarity with the paranormal or supernatural, but instead constructed his cases upon the bedrocks of common sense, a finely-tuned moral barometer, and good old-fashioned police work. 

In short, Doggett equaled “dogged.”  He was a superb, tireless agent (as Scully once noted: “above reproach”), and the character and performance provided the series with a welcome injection of fresh blood.  Yes, Doggett was quite different from the beloved Agent Mulder, yet if you speak to many X-Files fans that actively disliked Patrick’s tenure as Doggett, they won’t name either the actor or the character as the source of their upset.

Instead, a series of arguments are raised.  For instance, a few of these critics will suggest that the writing was bad in Season 8, even though episodes were by-and-large penned by the same authors who toiled on earlier seasons of The X-Files and knew their way around the series’ premise and characters.  Their stories in season eight at least deserve a fair hearing.

Some will tell you that the monsters of the week during Season 8 suddenly grew “tasteless,” based on disgusting premises like a vomiting monster (“The Gift”) or a creature that could crawl into the rectum of a grown man (“Badlaa”). 

And yet -- again -- one must wonder why earlier, highly-praised X-Files stories such as “Home” (featuring an amputee and genetic mutants), “F. Emasculata” (concerning a disease with exploding flesh pustules), “Bad Blood” (with extracted human organs dripping blood from a scale during an autopsy) or “The Host” (with a creature hiding in a port-a-potty) did not encounter the same negative response of “tastelessness.”  Throughout its run, The X-Files was persistently and gory, and that’s a good thing in my estimation, especially in a medium (at the time) that favored homogeneity.

Another oft-voiced complaint is that during Season 8, Scully and Doggett ended up striking off on their own too much, and thus ending up in mortal jeopardy without back-up.  Once more, did those folks complaining about this issue ever actually watch the earlier seasons of The X-Files? 

This sort of situation happened all the time to Scully and Mulder.

One potential answer underlying the conventional wisdom is that, at some point, many critics of The X-Files decided, a priori, that a Mulder-less version of the show wasn’t going to be something good, or something in which they could fully invest and actively engage with.

So they erected a series of false premises about the series to reinforce their pre-existing beliefs. 

The Affirmative Case:

So, if the conventional wisdom is wrong, why is Season Eight a strong season and one worthy of praise and The X-Files legacy?

First and foremost, there’s Doggett.

He is the third leading “Chris Carter male” we have encountered, following Fox Mulder and Millennium’s Frank Black (Lance Henriksen).  My wife, a therapist, coined the phrase “The Chris Carter male” because she became intrigued by the writer’s male characters, and their common traits.  She describes the Chris Carter males as “chivalrous and heroic, but unavailable emotionally to the women in their lives.” 

When I interviewed Chris Carter in late 2009, he responded to this psychological classification and noted that it was “dramatically-interesting to him” to write for characters when “it’s what’s withheld that counts, or is that important.”

He went on to say:  “If the character is remote or unable to speak about these things – because it’s series television we’re talking about here – it becomes something that needs to be discovered.  So if you discover these things too quickly, if a person is too emotionally available, it actually takes away from interest in the character.

What's Doggett laughing about with his budz?
With this premise in mind, Carter and the other writers of The X-Files grant Doggett a particularly intriguing arc in Season Eight. He starts out as a dependable but relatively unimaginative by-the-book agent in the premiere “Within/Without.”  In fact, viewers even feel a little suspicious of him starting out because when we first see him  approaching Mulder’s basement office in “Patience,” he is depicted laughing outside the door with colleagues…as if mocking the X-Files.  He’s responding to a joke we don’t get to hear, and so the audience response is suspicion…even paranoia.

Later in the episode, one penned by Chris Carter, a police detective, Abbott (Bradford English) proves downright dismissive of and hostile to Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson). Doggett steps in and whispers something to Abbott to back him off.  Notice that we never hear Doggett’s words, nor see his facial expressions as he speaks to Abbott in this particular scene.  Once more, the implication is that Doggett is not entirely trustworthy.  He may be sympathizing with the misogynistic detective…we don’t know for sure.  Again, the primary feeling with Doggett is one of suspicion, or uncertainty.

After these moments and a few others like them, we slowly warm to Doggett, and his sense of emotional unavailability begins to recede. In later episodes we learn that his marriage failed, and that his son died under tragic and mysterious circumstances (in “Invocation”), but more importantly, we begin to see how he and Scully develop a working relationship.  The distance we feel from him diminishes.  But the important thing is that Doggett as a character earns our trust over a period of episodes.  He is not inside “the circle” (like Skinner is, for instance) instantly.

In some ways, this is a touch very respectful of Mulder, and Mulder’s role on the series.  It would have been terrible, not to mention unbelievable, to have a character jump in and pick up where Mulder – after eight years – left off, emotionally vulnerable with Scully and trusted by Skinner.  Instead, the writers gave us a character that had to find his way both on the job, and with the dedicated fans of the show.

In addition to the new and at times ambiguous presence of Doggett, the eighth season of The X-Files is successful because, by and large, the stories feature interesting “monsters of the week” (soul eaters, Siddhi mystics, microscopic flesh-eating ocean life…), ones often based on myth and folklore.  But the stories are good for more than that reason.  In particular, they establish the new dynamic for the characters and their interactions.

The original and admittedly brilliant X-Files dynamic of Scully/Mulder is best expressed as the comparison of two distinctive and competing world views: science vs. faith/skepticism vs. belief.  Virtually every story in the first six years was filtered through this highly entertaining and cerebral double lens.

In Season Eight -- with a mostly absent Mulder to contend with -- that dynamic could no longer function.  So instead, the episodes of this span largely concerned how Scully had to re-train herself to “see” the world, accommodating Mulder’s genius into her own perspective.  This endeavor not only made Scully grow as a person, it kept Mulder as the “absent center” in Carter’s words, of the drama.

Consider for a moment just how often the episodes in Season Eight involve “sight,” or more specifically, “learning to see.” Here are some examples: 

In “Patience” Scully tries to see the world (and a specific case) as Mulder would see it, but admits she has difficulties making the same leaps of faith. 

In the episode titled “Medusa,” Scully assumes control of a command center on an investigation, and must “see” through Doggett’s eyes in the subway below.  Again, she’s re-learning how to interpret the world and its mysteries. She needs Doggett as her “eyes and ears” to do that.  He needs her, oppositely, calling the shots, because of his inexperience on the X-Files.

In “Via Negativa” a cult leader grows a “third eye” by opening his mind to the path of darkness, and Doggett nearly goes the same way, into a new realm of diabolical sight. 

In “The Gift,” Skinner commends Doggett for seeing a case through Mulder’s eyes…by getting inside the missing agent’s head.  

“Badlaa” involves an Indian mystic who can cloud the sight of normal people, including Scully and Doggett, making them see -- or not see -- what he wishes.  Our very reality is up for grabs, and Scully must make a decision based on what she believes, not what she actually sees. 

Even “Three Words” is about sight in some critical sense. It concerns how Mulder comes to see Doggett, and then how Doggett comes to see himself: as being manipulated by an untrustworthy informant. 

“Alone” is about blindness (another aspect of sight), and about how in the absence of clear sight, trust can substitute for vision.  This lesson comes in relation to competitors Doggett and Mulder, who are trapped by a kind of lizard monster in a dark labyrinth.  His eyes sprayed by venom, Doggett can’t see his nemesis well enough to shoot it.  He must place his trust in Mulder, and Mulder’s words to survive.

The leitmotif of “learning to see” appears in more than a handful of episodes, and grants the eight season an umbrella of unity that draws it together.   

Episode Highlights:

Scully (and the audience), on the outside looking in.
1. “Patience.” Written and directed by Chris Carter.  This is a standalone story (or “monster of the week”) involving a  sort of man-bat (who sees quite differently than human beings, by the way…) seeking vengeance against tormentors from the year 1956. 

But this episode – essentially a second pilot for the series – cunningly sets up the fundamentals of the Scully/Doggett relationship as well as the season’s obsession on sight.  Furthermore, it features a great commentary on what it means to live in fear.  On the latter front, consider Ernie Stefaniuk’s moving monologue about what fear did to his marriage…and to his (now deceased) wife.  For forty-four years the couple lived in virtual isolation on a six mile stretch of land and denied themselves modern conveniences, family contact, and more.  In the post-9/11 age, “Patience” takes on a new meaning given the government’s color-coded exploitation of fear during the last decade.

Chris Carter is a gifted director and he proves it again in “Patience” with the carefully constructed and perfectly framed scene I mentioned above wherein Scully is castigated and treated poorly by Detective Abbott, and Doggett steps in to ameliorate the detective’s concerns. 

A less clever director would have included a frontal shot of Doggett’s explanation or provided audio of his words.  Instead, the moment is left intentionally ambiguous because we never learn exactly what it is he said.  

This makes us wonder if Doggett will be there for Scully when she needs him…

“Patience” is the first standalone episode in the series sans Mulder, and it is therefore the template for the two final seasons, diagramming the fresh terrain of the burgeoning Scully/Doggett relationship and the importance that “learning to see” will play in upcoming episodes. 

Also, “Patience” is a coded-title and a message directly to X-Files fans.  Be patient, and you’ll be rewarded with a new character dynamic that, conceivably, could rival the richness of the original format.

Burks or Siddhi Mystic?
2.”Badlaa.”  By John Shiban. This absolutely go-for-broke episode concerns a Siddhi mystic (Deep Roy) who travels to America inside the rectum of a four-hundred pound businessman. 

Yes, you read that synopsis correctly…

When the vengeful mystic evacuates the rectum, the fat man bleeds out, and we are spared no nauseating detail.  One thoroughly terrifying scene finds the mystic hidden inside a corpse, and as Scully begins her autopsy, we see his tiny hands wriggle their way out of a chest incision.

Doggett or Siddhi Mystic?
The sense of escalating terror generated by this episode is not only visual.  The Siddhi mystic – an amputee -- drags himself from one location to another on a scooter with squeaky wheels, and that ubiquitous squeak quickly emerges a fearsome harbinger of terror.  We come to expect it, and fear it.

But the episode works splendidly not because of the nutso (if inspired) premise, but because it fits into the season’s leitmotif about “learning to see.” Specifically, director Tony Wharmy achieves something extraordinary in terms of visualizing certain crucial moments in the play.  It is established early on that the Siddhi mystic can control how people perceive him, and there are at least two instances in the tale when Scully sees people who are already present on the scene – in long establishing shot – standing in the distance, observing her.

One is Charles Burks (Bill Dow), bracketed inside the door frame at the X-Files FBI office.  Another is Doggett himself, standing pool-side, with strange light reflected on his face.  Neither figure gets a traditional entrance when Scully sees them: they’re already present -- motionless– and the implication is that there is something not quite right about them.

If you go back and watch this episode with a careful eye, be certain to ask yourself at all times, who is Scully actually “perceiving” and receiving information from? Those she knows and trusts, or the mystic himself, carefully insinuating his “sight” into her mind?  It’s a brilliant idea and a visual grace note in a highly disturbing and provocative episode.

Learning to see.
3. “Via Negativa.” By Frank Spotnitz.  This is another brilliant standalone episode. In philosophy, the "via negativa" is an approach to understanding God; a strategy that seeks to define God by enumerating those things God is not. God is not mortal, God is not Evil, and so forth. Sometimes, this unusual approach to comprehending the Divine is also called Negative Theory or The Negative Way. 

The episode "Via Negativa" finds stalwart Doggett investigating the brutal murders of two FBI agents who were staking out an apocalyptic cult. Doggett is investigating this particular X-File alone because a pregnant Scully is away at the hospital. Still new to the X-Files unit, Doggett is uncertain and rudderless. He's no Mulder, and boasts no interest in being Mulder. Leaps of faith don't come easily or naturally to him. Without Scully to ease him in, the "dogged," meat-and-potatoes Doggett is, in a very real sense, vulnerable, to what he learns during this investigation.

Doggett discovers that the members of the apocalyptic cult died horribly and that their still-at-large leader, Anthony Tibbett, is an ex-convict who developed a peculiar brand of evangelical Christian/Hindu philosophy. Tibbett suggests that "the body is but hold the twin aspects of the human spirit: the light and the darkness." Furthermore, he believes that if his dedicated followers gaze into the path of darkness ("the Via Negativa" of the title), they will see God there.

To help them reach this dimension of darkness, Tibbett administered experimental hallucinogens that would awaken the cult members’ "Third Eye." It is this "Third Eye" -- the Hindu gyananakashi, or "Eye of Knowledge, positioned between hemispheres of the brain -- that can see into the realm of darkness..

Doggett delves deeper and deeper into Tibbett's strange, dark beliefs until the agent himself takes a walk on the Via Negativa during a horrifying dream sequence. The scene is cast in a suffusing blue light, and intermittent fade-outs and pulsating strobes provide a sense of fractured time and  splintered consciousness. This tense, virtually silent scene witnesses a sweaty, desperate Doggett (depicted in extreme close-up) contemplating murder...and the specter of his own internal darkness.

Another scene, in which a vulnerable, confused Doggett confesses to a baffled Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) that he’s uncertain about his own state of consciousness (dreaming or awake...) also serves as Doggett's authentic indoctrination into The X-Files...the horrifying case from "outside" that changes him "inside."

In "Via Negativa" there's a deep underlying fear at work. Doggett has no support system. His walk on "the dark path" is a walk alone (or so we believe, until the denouement) and there's something incredibly unsettling about the brand of evil he faces here. This episode is absolutely terrifying.
A succession earned, not bestowed.

4. “The Gift.”
  This episode by Frank Spotnitz and directed by Kim Manners is another story that focuses on “sight” and how people see things differently.  Agent Doggett investigates one of Mulder’s old cases, and finds evidence that Mulder may have committed murder.  Through enigmatic flashbacks, we see Mulder’s unorthodox work on the case, and the execution of the crime. 

Only in the end do we come to understand that Mulder’s blood-soaked act of murder is actually one of mercy.  And we uncover this revelation not in straight-forward narrative fashion, but through Doggett’s investigation as he follows literally in Mulder’s footsteps, and comes to make a similar choice regarding mercy and decency.  The result, at episode’s end: Doggett – for the briefest of instants – imagines the specter of Mulder in his office, as if a tacit sign of approval of Doggett’s presence there.  He has, finally, earned the right to sit where Mulder once did.

The monster of the week in “The Gift” is a great one too: a “soul eater” who may be summoned to eat the bodies of the sick.  After eating sick people and absorbing their diseases, the soul eater than regurgitates the digested human beings…and they re-form and are resurrected.  Both Mulder and Doggett go through that horrifying process in this episode (another instance of “parallel” footsteps), and yes, the vomiting scenes are nausea provoking.  But regurgitation isn’t the point of the story.  The point is that the soul eater is a tortured creature who cannot die and who must keep healing others…and absorbing their horrible illnesses.  He’s in pain and wants his life to end.

As the episode commences, you think that “the gift” of the title belongs to the soul eater. He is giving those he digests and regurgitates the gift of health. But at episode's end, we learn that Doggett has actually given the monster the greatest gift of all: death. Release.

This is a poetic and lyrical X-Files episode, and one that asks us to see the soul eater differently at different times.  He’s a monster and a terror at first.  But then – as we look into his eyes – we register that if he is a soul eater, his soul too has been eaten by a lifetime of physical suffering.

The truth we now know, and have "learned to see..."
5: “Existence.” Written by Chris Carter and directed by Kim Manners.  In this season finale, a pregnant Scully gives birth to her unusual child, and we learn – at long last – that Mulder is the father.  Shippers will enjoy the Mulder/Scully kiss, but on a more significant note, the episode provides the punch-line to the season-long exploration of "learning to see."  

Before our eyes – for we don’t know how long – Mulder and Scully have been together…romantically. And, now, we suddenly see and understand it all.  It’s a beautiful end to the season, and to this nearly-season long arc.  We’ve traveled a long road believing one thing, or suspecting one thing, and then – in a single scene, and with a single line of dialogue – we finally see “the truth.”  It’s a perfect capper to Season Eight.  In this final installment of the year, the audience learns to see, thus mimicking the odysseys of Scully and Doggett.  How's that for elegant storytelling?

Season Eight could have been one of jarring change and false starts, but instead, The X-Files triumphed with fine storytelling, great performances, scary monsters and a recurring theme.

Other Season Eight high notes: “Roadrunners,” “Medusa,” “Three Words” and “Alone.”

The X-Files Season Eight Trailer

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Pop Art: Classic Sci-Fi TV Tie-In/Non Star Trek Edition

Collectible of the Week: Flash Gordon Playset (Mego; 1977)

This is another Mego playset from the 1970s for which I harbor deep and abiding love.  In 1977, Mego manufactured a line of toys from Flash Gordon (1936), including four 10-inch action figures (Flash Gordon, Ming the Merciless, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov), and this terrific playset/carrying case.

"The world of Mongo comes alive in this double sided playset" the box informed kids.  "One side is Ming's Throne Room complete with Ming's throne."  

"The other side is Dr. Zarkov's secret laboratory with a simulated computer and (3) computer cards."

The set also "fits all Flash Gordon figures (not included.)"

Like the Star Trek, Planet of the Apes and Wizard of Oz playsets, this Flash Gordon playset is  constructed of hard cardboard, surrounded by laminated vinyl, I believe.  The illustrations on this set are really quite beautiful as I hope you can see, and strongly evocative of Alex Raymond's art work.  

The three computer cards included here are double-sided, and feature images of all the characters, plus a city of Mongo, plus a rocket on approach.  They slip down through the top of the computer, into the viewscreen panel. 

You might think that the timing (the mid-1970s) was weird for a Flash Gordon boomlet but I remember in the mid-1970s -- around the time of Star Wars -- finally getting to see the original serial at my local library.  On Friday afternoons, I think, I went to see it, one chapter at a time over a span of weeks.  Also, if I'm not mistaken, some TV stations had begun to play the original Buster Crabbe serials as well.  It was kind of a mini -Flash Gordon fad.  My grandmother from Texas (now deceased), was thrilled to see the serials again because she had loved them as a kid.  It was pretty awesome, actually, that my grandmother, mother and I could all sit down and discuss together Buster Crabbe and Flash Gordon.

Today, I don't own any of the Flash Gordon action figures, alas, which came equipped with plastic swords and cool helmets.  But I do own this wonderful Mego playset and its box, which remain in excellent shape.