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.

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Dragon Sidekick Edition

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Horror Lexicon #15: The Organizing Principle

I wrote about this genre convention extensively in my reference book Horror Films of the 1980s (2007; McFarland) but if you seek to create a horror film in the slasher milieu, your first step must be to determine an organizing principle.

The organizing principle is a facet beyond mere setting or location.  It provides a horror film with a series of connected leitmotifs, and therefore a sense of unity.  In other words, the organizing principle is a film's central idea, transmitted or expressed across creative factors such as setting, motive, and even characterization.

I utilized this example in the book, but it illuminates what I mean when I discuss the organizing principle. Imagine that a producer seeks to create a knife-kill film titled The Librarian.

The organizing principle is therefore a character of a certain vocation, as the title indicates. That vocation lands that character in a specific place (a public library), and determines exploitable elements in the story: a card-catalog, a drop-off box, a study room, the long, dark aisles filled with books, and so on.

A decapitated head might be discovered in the drop-off box at a climactic moment, the key to the killer's identity might be discovered in the card catalog, and the last-act chase of the final girl (a grad student) could occur in a labyrinth of book rows.  The crime causing the murders could be a defaced library book, or a book that was returned late.

See how the library provides more than one element of the film's creative gestalt?  It grants you a lead character (a book-smart college student, let's say), a villain (a psycho librarian), and a story (a crime in the past causing a murder spree in the present).  It might even provide specific weapons (like a heavy book, for instance, wielded at a crucial juncture).  

So the organizing principle is the very thing the slasher film hangs its (blood-soaked) hooks upon.  It is the key to motivation, setting, slasher and more.  

Let's consider a real historical example, Terror Train (1980) in terms of the organizing principle.  In this film, the organizing principle is not the train, as one might suspect, but rather magic, or illusion.

Master-magician David Copperfield appears in the film as a red herring (a distraction in terms of determining the identity of the killer), and a magic show occurs on the train at one point.  Finally, the revelation of the killer's identity depends on illusion-versus-reality. Do you trust your eyes, or are they tricking you?

In virtually every slasher production you can name, the organizing principle determines virtually every ingredient the movie will require to succeed; a whole world of connections upon which to hang the narrative.  This is so important, I submit, because the slasher format is episodic by nature.  The narrative in most of these films consists of a series of stitched-together, almost complete-unto-themselves short films in which a victim is stalked and murdered.  When one victim dies, you rinse and repeat...and move to the next set-piece until, finally, the killer is destroyed. The organizing principle unifies all these episodes and gives them consistency of setting, location, motivation and victim.

Below is a chart slightly modified from the one I used in Horror Films of the 1980's.  It illustrates the organizing principle's usefulness in making coherent all the creative elements of a slasher movie.  I added two 1990's examples to the chart to show how, even after the 1980's, the organizing principle was utilized to make the format work.

Movie Title
Organizing Principle
Crime in the Past
Victim Pool
Friday the 13th
Summer camp
Camp, cabins, lake, woods
Camp counselors.

He Knows You’re alone
Dress shop, bride’s home, chapel
Bride jilts fiancé.
The wedding party, dress tailor…

Night School
Classrooms, dean’s home
Students, dean of college, professors.

Prom Night
Prom night
High school
Accident caused by classmates as children
Prom goers who as children participated in accident.

The Dorm that Dripped Blood
College campus
College campus (cafeterias, dorms, basement, etc.)
Unpopularity with fellow students
College students

Final Exam
Exam Week
College campus, et.
College students

Friday the 13th Part II
Summer Camp
Camp, cabins, lake, woods
Murder of Mrs. Voorhees
Camp counselors

Graduation Day
Track Team
Track field, high school, locker room, prom
Death of a young track student
Track coach, track team members

Happy Birthday to Me
Birthday parties
College, birthday party
Family break-up on birthday
Birthday party invitees

The Prowler
Jilted Lover
School dance
Dear John Letter
Young lovers at a dance

The Burning
Summer camp
Camp, cabins, lake, woods, island
An accidental burning
Campers, counselors
Slumber Party Massacre
Slumber party
High school, slumber party location, the house next door
Slumber party attendees
A casting retreat weekend
Losing an important role
Young ingénues; older actress, director
Sleepaway Camp
Summer camp
Camp, cabins, lake, woods
Twisted sex role
Camp employees, campers
The Initiation
Sorority house, campus
Witnessing of burning and infidelity
Pledges, sorority girls, frat boys
Silent Night, Deadly Night
Toy store at Christmas, Christmas eve
Santa Claus kills parents
Naughty teens.
Terror at Tenkiller
Summer vacation at a lake
Cabin, lake, local diner
Horror movies
Video store, high school, movie party
Marital infidelity
Movie-loving teenagers
I Know What You Did Last Summer
Fishing community
Fishing boat, fishery, local store, fishing holiday pageant
Teens of the fishing community trying to make good and leave hometown.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...