Wednesday, December 17, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 66: The Lone Gunmen: "Pilot" (2001)

An old proverb reminds us that truth can be stranger than fiction. Where genre television is concerned, however that line is occasionally blurred. The truth…is sometimes – shall we say? - …Out There.

Case in point: the Chris Carter X-Files spin-off, The Lone Gunmen (2001). This series aired on Fox TV for a dozen or so hour-long episodes at the beginning of 2001. Cancellation came quickly, though the series is currently available on DVD.

Interestingly, however, one particular episode of The Lone Gunmen has not only endured...but become the stuff of legend, not to mention notorious conspiracy fodder.

The pilot episode -- written by Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz (and directed by Rob Bowman) -- aired originally on March 4, 2001.

This was mere months after the Supreme Court called the contested presidential election of 2000 for George W. Bush. The United States of America had a new president, but the country was still very much in the Peace and Prosperity Age of Clinton. We had no idea what lay ahead in the twenty-first century.

The inaugural episode of The Lone Gunmen unfolds pretty much as you might expect and hope, given the series' premise and quirky dramatis personae. Our heroes are Fox Mulder’s old buddies: the (relatively hapless…) trio of computer geeks-cum-editors at a Maryland-based conspiracy-theory newspaper called The Lone Gunman (latest headline: Teletubbies = Mind Control!). We first join these unconventional heroes in media res, during a covert op in progress.

Specifically, our triumvirate of protagonists crashes a ritzy party at E-Comm Con (remember the tech bubble of the late 1990s?). Their mission: to steal the new, ultra-fast Octium IV micro-chip, a technological advancement which the Lone Gunmen –- Byers (Bruce Harwood), Frohike (Tom Braidwood) and Langley (Dean Haglund) -- believe is actually designed to invade user privacy and collect personal information. The Lone Gunmen want to examine the chip so they can pen an expose in their newspaper; one featuring cold, hard evidence of their accusations.

But remember, these guys – once the comic relief on the X-Files are not traditional TV heroes, either in appearance or skill set. They are closer in spirit, actually, to the original Kolchak than to the hyper-competent Mulder, Scully, or Frank Black. Their hearts are in the right place but...

...they make mistakes, bungles and foul-ups. However, after a funny riff on Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996) involving the diminutive Frohike on a harness, the pilot episode unexpectedly turns serious. The E Comm Con caper fails and another thief – the enigmatic but beautiful Eve Adele Harlow (her name is an anagram for Lee Harvey Oswald) – steals the chip out from under the Gunmen’s noses.

This mission failure is followed by another bombshell. Conservative, buttoned-up Lone Gunman, John Fitzgerald Byers learns that his father, a high-ranking government official, has been assassinated because of his highly-classified work at the Department of Defense.

Much of the pilot episode involves Byers, Frohike and Langly helping another government official, Mr. Helm (code-named Overlord…) prove that Old Man Byers (George Coe) is actually still alive and in hiding…afraid the government will send a second assassin after him.

What’s Mr. Byers secret? The one that a “small faction” inside the federal government would commit murder to protect? Well, my friends, that’s where the controversy, notoriety – and conspiracy – comes in. Mr. Byers is privy to information about a Department of Defense counter-terrorism war game known as...Scenario D 12.

This particular military scenario involves a “Domestic Airline In-Flight Terrorist Act.”

Unfortunately, Scenario D 12 is no longer a game, as Byers learns directly from his father. No, it is horrifyingly real. A small faction inside the U.S. Government plans to utilize a remote control device to hijack an American airliner in-flight and crash it into a heavily populated urban area. The cover for this false flag operation will be a hijacking, a terrorist take-over of the plane.

Why would anyone want to commit such a horrible act?

Here’s what Mr. Byers tells his son. This is a direct quote from the episode, by the way:

“The Cold War is over, John, but with no clear enemy to stockpile against, the arms business is flat.

But bring down a fully-loaded 727 into the middle of New York City and you’ll find a dozen tin-pot dictators all over the world just clamoring to take responsibility, and begging to be smart bombed

Byers and his father board a jet bound for Boston; the very one that will be used as a flying bomb over New York City. The exact target in Manhattan: The World Trade Center.

The final act of this Lone Gunmen pilot involves Byers aboard the imperiled plane -- and Frohike and Langley on the ground -- trying to avert the collision between plane and skyscraper and in the process rescue the 110 souls aboard the flight. At the last instant, we see the jet-liner veer up and away from the Twin Towers. Disaster -- and tragedy -- averted.

As everybody now knows all too well, a scarce seven months later, on September 11, 2001, two “fully loaded” domestic airliners did strike New York City and the Twin Towers. In the aftermath, at least one “tin-pot” terrorist claimed responsibility (Bin Laden) and another, Saddam Hussein, was – I guess – just “begging to be smart bombed.” We obliged him in 2003.

After that horrific Tuesday in September, arms sales boomed too, just as The Lone Gunmen predicted they would in the event of such a disaster. According to the Center for Defense Information, in 2006 alone, the U.S. was responsible for 16.9 billion dollars in international arms deals, over 41 percent of all arm sales globally.

After 9/11, our government disavowed any advance knowledge of these horrible terrorist attacks. "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center" said national security advisor Condoleezza Rice at a White House Briefing on the afternoon. May 16, 2002.


The Lone Gunmen TV series predicted the exact thing. On national television (with viewers ostensibly in the tens of millions...). And it did so six months before the attack occurred.

And here I thought everyone in the Bush Administration had to keep their TV sets tuned to Fox at all times...

But isn't it strange -- not to mention creepy as hell -- that The Lone Gunmen, a series about crazy conspiracy theories, by-and-large "guessed" the precise nature of the biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history? It accurately guessed about the use of planes as weapons; plus it pointed out the target state, city and actual buildings. The episode even got the aftermath right: war against tin-pot dictators, using our expensive smart bombs as "shock and awe."

More than that, however, this Lone Gunmen episode anticipated the "conspiracy response" to 9/11 that has also arisen in the wake of the attacks. Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. A certain percentage (36%?) of American citizens don't believe the official story (Al Qaeda hijackers) and instead maintain that the government orchestrated the attacks. Indeed, this is Lone Gunmen's pre-event "explanation" of such an attack.

It's eerie and disturbing to contemplate all this. Yet, this isn't the first time that fact and imagination have mingled uncomfortably surrounding a global tragedy. To wit, in 1898, a writer named Morgan Robertson wrote a novel entitled Futility. The plot concerned the maiden voyage of the largest ocean liner ever built. On an April night, this fictitious vessel struck an iceberg. And -- because there were not enough lifeboats aboard -- more than one thousand passengers died in freezing waters. The name of the ship in that novel Futility is...Titan.

So, fourteen years before the Titanic disaster in 1912, author Robertson imagined a disaster at sea that would indeed come to pass. Consider some of the eerie similarities there. Titan was 70,000 tons in Futility; the Titanic 66,000 tons. Titan was 800 feet long; the Titanic 882 feet. The top sailing speed of both fictitious and real ocean liner was 25 knots. And even more bizarrely, both Futility's Titan and the real life Titanic were described with one memorable adjective: unsinkable. Both ships -- real and fictional -- struck icebergs and sank in the month of April.

The paranormal anthology One Step Beyond (1959-1961) dramatized a story based on this Titanic mystery titled "Night of April 14," in 1959, and I researched the story for my book. To my fascination, I found it authentic.

So, are writers such as Morgan Robertson and TV programs such as The Lone Gunmen just lucky (or unlucky...) guessers about terrible things, or is what we have here some strange form of synchronicity: some form of intuitive "knowing" divined subconsciously or unconsciously?

Submitted for your approval, from The Twilight Zone, perhaps. But seriously, rent The Lone Gunmen from Netflix and watch this pilot episode. But prepare yourself. It's a sharp, scary, well-crafted piece of TV fiction; and one that *happens* to have a very disturbing relationship with our "real" history.


  1. Anonymous12:44 AM

    I LOVE The Lone Gunmen! I watched it while it was on the air, and I own the boxset. And the first episode is actually gone into in depth based on what happened six months later.

    I grant that the similarities are fairly shocking, but I think with all the stories that can be told, eventually there will be eerie parallels between fact and fiction...

  2. Anonymous11:05 PM

    I don't believe in coincidence. Either someone involved with the show had ESP, or knew what the Government was planning, or...our leaders were fans of the show.

    Spooky indeed, Muir...


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