“It’s not me! It’s the world! The world has gone mad!”
There have been several back and forth opinions regarding the latest season of TheX-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.
CERSEI LANNISTER: “Everyone who isn’t us, is an enemy.”
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.
SCULLY: “This is a mass phenomenon!”
MULDER: “Which is why you and I are gonna jump on I-95 south this morning and get back to our bread & butter…”
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.
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’ (thoughts on which are espoused here in depth), 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.
The main reason this theory interests me is because of the underpinning factors about The X-Files‘ return which is giving the idea significant ballast for some fans; principally how some fans would love nothing more than to see Season 10 essentially erased from canon. There is a growing feeling amongst a fraction of The X-Files fandom that a chance could have arisen to handily ignore some of the missteps considered to have arisen during the six-part revival season, principally the significant changes to established series mythology and problems & inconsistencies about the portrayal of Mulder & Scully. The theory to my mind seems less about having a cogent, satisfying narrative reason for two timelines being in play and rather looking for an excuse to pretend certain original creative choices in 2015 didn’t happen.
JON SNOW: First lesson: stick ’em with the pointy end.
ARYA STARK: I know which end to use.
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 RR 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 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 going into the final season). 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.
Of all the major historical figures of the 20th century, the British have arguably mythologised Sir Winston Churchill above all others. He was the epitome of fighting, British ‘bulldog’ spirit – a powerful, legendary orator whose speeches have cascaded across the last seventy years of history as a nationalist rally against the forces of darkness. Darkest Hour, therefore, marries the mythological Churchill alongside the romantic fantasy of a righteous war.
Joe Wright’s picture focuses on a very tight three-four week period in the early summer of 1940, in which milquetoast appeasement-favouring Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is ousted on the back of the German push into Western Europe and up steps Churchill to fill the void, and take on what is considered by most of Westminster an impossible task. Darkest Hour’s entire raison d’etre is to take Churchill from the bullish, anti-fascist old war horse without the backing of his government and King—if not the people—to the proud war *hero* giving the “we will fight them on the beaches” speech in Parliament, his single most remembered delivery in a career filled with verbose oracy. It’s designed as an inspiring call to arms which makes a man, essentially, into a legend.
What this does, almost immediately, is characterise Darkest Hour as much less a historical movie and far more of a dazzling piece of spin driven by an admittedly magnificent central performance by Gary Oldman, who loses himself in his unrecognisable makeup as Churchill, only occasionally letting his native cockney betray the actor within. Wright uses historical truth to construct a fantasy which, while less theatrical than Anna Karenina or less emotional than Atonement, feels no less in keeping with his cinematic style. Wright’s pictures are often confections of sound, colour and lighting, with elegant production design, and Darkest Hour is no exception. You may just be surprised at the tone it takes, not to mention its relationship with personal and historical truth.
MULDER: “How do you like that? The FBI finally found out what it’s like to be looked on as a little spooky!”
‘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.