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The X-Files (Topps) #7 – Trepanning Opera (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

Trepanning Opera is something of a one-shot story, albeit the story where Stefan Petrucha begins to concede that his first year writing The X-Files tie-in comic is really one single long-form story. Initially, Trepanning Opera looks like a standard monster-of-the-week (or perhaps that should be “monster-of-the-month”) story, only to eventually reveal that the connections to the rest of Petrucha’s run are more than simply thematic in nature. “Everything is connected, Mulder,” his contact assures him. “Everything.”

Head's up...

Head’s up…

In some ways, the revelation that this is all one single long-form story feels a little trite. Revealing that Mulder and Scully have been specifically targeted and that the various stand-alone stories are actually smaller pieces of a larger puzzle feels like it undervalues the idea of stand-alone tales. It suggests that these sorts of stories are validated by connection to a larger and more expansive mythology. Perhaps it reflects the fascination with the “mytharc” that was already building in fandom.

It’s interesting to look back at The X-Files, and how the idea of the mythology was such a driving force for a significant portion of the run. At the time, it seemed like fans were more interested in these larger mythology episodes than they were were in the stand-alone monster tales. After all, those mythology episodes were driving a single compelling mystery forward. The assumption was that they were building to a suitably epic conclusion.

Give my head peace...

Give my head peace…

The marketing of the show reflected this. Consider the home media releases, before DVD made it possible to package a whole season in a reasonable amount of space for a reasonable cost. In the UK, there was an aborted attempt to release chronological VHS cassettes collecting the first season of show. However, following that, the decision was made to focus on the show’s dense mythology. Before the advent and popularity of  DVD, the bulk of episodes available in home media in the UK were conspiracy-related.

Indeed, these media releases were taking off in 1995. The first of these themed “Files” releases was “The Unopened File”, collecting a version of the Anasazi, The Blessing Way and Paper Clip three-parter, edited into a feature-length television movie. While also making reference to the dark secrets revealed over the course of the three-pater, the title alludes to the fact that the VHS was released before the last two parts were broadcast in the UK.

You said it, mister...

You said it, mister…

These releases remained a part of marketing for The X-Files even after DVD had become popular, with the three VHS releases of the ninth season consisting of Nothing Important Happened Today, Provenance/Providence and The Truth. The popularity of the mythology endured after the show aired, including four themed DVD boxsets – Abduction, Black Oil, Colonisation and Super Soldiers. These box sets came with their own special features and new commentaries.

The interest in the idea of season-spanning mythology was also visible outside the realm of home media releases. For example, Carter would position the mythology episodes during “sweeps” months, creating an interesting and complex relationship between those episodes and the show’s popularity. During the sixth season, Fox was able to sell Two Fathers and One Son as a big event on the promise of finally offering answers to the show’s biggest mysteries.

Don't go into the light!

Don’t go into the light!

However, in hindsight, there is a sense that the mythology might have been a little over-rated. Quite a few re-watches and re-visits from various fans and critics suggest that the key to The X-Files was the stand-alone monster-of-the-week stories at least as much as the driving conspiracy narrative. Whether this was due to the lacklustre resolution to the conspiracy, or simply perspective through distance and space, the stand-alone stories have undergone something of a re-evaluation in the years since.

Still, in the context of mid-1995, it is hard to fault writer Stefan Petrucha for trying to tie everything in the first year of the tie-in comic to a larger mythology arc. Indeed, the twelfth issue in the run devotes a double-page spread to explaining how everything that took place over the previous year is all connected as part of a larger and more ambitious story. It’s a lofty and ambitious goal, and it’s a nice example of how Petrucha is in step with The X-Files as a television show.

Addressing the issue...

Addressing the issue…

Over the course of those first twelve issues, Petrucha mostly does a good job balancing the need for these stories to stand alone and the need for a larger conspiracy. A Dismembrance of Things Past works both as a cornerstone of the mythology and as an engrossing tale in its own right. In contrast, Trepanning Opera feels like it is undermined by the need to connect it to a much broader saga. There is enough here to sustain an interesting stand alone story, but it is undercut by the revelation this is a small facet of something larger.

Still, Trepanning Opera does connect rather well with the broader themes of Petrucha’s run. As written by Petrucha, The X-Files is a comic very much about philosophical concerns. It is fascinated with the idea of reality, and how reality intersects with both memory and with dreams. The killer seeks to open a third eye to allow a person to perceive reality. Asked how he could infiltrate the FBI, he boasts, “Because life is but a dream.”

Blood work...

Blood work…

Even the closing conversation between Mulder and Scully reflects this idea of reality as something subjective and malleable. In any other circumstance, it might seem a little trite. “It’s all a dream… or is it?” However, it serves as a rather effective thematic hook into the rest of the run around it. The possibility that the comic is simply Scully’s dying dream could feel like a cliché, but it also ties back to ideas at the heart of A Dismembrance of Things Past.

Petrucha even wryly makes reference to the nature of this story’s reality. When a government informant seeks to make contact with Mulder, he does so using a musical note written down and left in Mulder’s hotel room. It seems like a sly reference to the fact that Trepanning Opera is a comic book – it is impossible to convey any sound, let alone music. Perhaps even the title of the issue is a wink at the readers, drawing attention to the unreality of these adventures by stressing the limitations of the medium.

Nothing of note...

Nothing of note…

It is worth noting that Petrucha had a wonderful eye for material that would work well within the framework of The X-Files. This is perhaps more obvious in Silent Cities of the Mind, but Trepanning Opera is stuffed with material that could have made it to screen. Perhaps this is a testament to just how weird the world is, that Petrucha could find such fitting and fascinating material so easily. Perhaps it is proof that Petrucha had a great understanding of the show that he could identify material that could work on the show.

(Indeed, it did – after a fashion. The X-Files was fascinated with the idea of consciousness transcending physicality. Stories like The List or The Walk or even Excelsis Dei all feature characters that have found a way to reach beyond their physical bodies. The show would connect this explicitly to the idea of the third eye in the eighth season with Via Negativa. At the same time, however, trepanning seems like it would be perfect fodder for a spooky monster of the week.)

Into the void...

Into the void…

Petrucha does take pains to structure the issue in the style of a stand-alone episode. He and Adlard have a nice understanding of the show’s language and style. As with quite a few of these comics, there is an atmospheric and mysterious cold open that doesn’t feature our heroes. In keeping with quite a few of the earlier episodes, Mulder finds himself drawn into the case as a criminal profiler. This was a storytelling technique used quite a few times in the first season, in episodes like Ghost in the Machine or Young at Heart.

Petrucha seems to be acknowledging the debt that The X-Files owes to the work of Thomas Harris here. Harris had become something of a sensation in the eighties and into the nineties after writing Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. While Scully quite clearly owes a debt to Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs, Mulder is also heavily influenced by Will Graham from Red Dragon. It is something the show acknowledges a bit less often, most obviously in Paper Hearts or Grotesque.

I need this like I need a hole in the head...

I need this like I need a hole in the head…

(The influence of Red Dragon on Chris Carter would become even more obvious when Carter produced Millennium, a show explicitly about a burnt-out empathic former FBI profiler who hunted serial killers across America. Frank Black is so obvious a stand-in and spiritual successor to Will Graham that the influence of Will Graham on Fox Mulder is overshadowed and often overlooked.)

Trepanning Opera seems to play up this connection between Mulder and Graham by playing out a section of the plot from Red Dragon. Like Thomas Harris’ serial killers, the murderer in Trepanning Opera is obsessed with the idea of transformation and transcendence. More specifically, like Francis Dollarhyde, the killer seems to see himself as an instrument in the transformation and transcendence of his victims. (As opposed to Jame Gumb, who sees his victims as a vehicle for his own transformation.)

Does not compute...

Does not compute…

At one point over the course of Red Dragon, Hannibal Lecter decides to exact a bloody revenge on Will Graham by setting a serial killer on his family. It’s a moment that feels a little out of character in light of Lecter’s subsequent portrayal as a grim anti-hero, reminding the reader that Lecter is very much a vindictive egotist. The climax of the novel has Will Graham defending his family against the serial killer that Lecter sent against him.

Trepanning Opera seems to acknowledge the debt owed by The X-Files to Thomas Harris by playing out a variation of this plot point. Here, the vast sinister conspiracy pursued by Mulder and Scully decides to make them targets for a monster of the week. A serial killer is set against Mulder and Scully as part of a larger chess game, in a rather sinister and fiendish play. It’s a very nice acknowledgement of that plot point in Red Dragon, even if it undercuts the case itself, somewhat.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

Trepanning Opera is not one of the stronger issues of Petrucha’s first year writing The X-Files. It suffers a bit from the fact that Petrucha is very clearly writing the first twelve issues as a single connected story. As he draws attention to that, some of the more interesting elements of this single-issue case tend to get a bit lost in the shuffle.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the second season of The X-Files:

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9 Responses

  1. I remember enjoying this story quite a bit. Unfortunately I missed the next issue so I was out-of-the-loop thereafter, but this one I enjoyed. I think my enjoyment might be due to the examination of memory and its fallibility, which was something I’d never thought about before but that I found both fascinating and terrifying. I kinda wish the series proper had examined this a bit more.

    • I seem to be a bit out of step with the general opinion on Petrucha’s run. The consensus is that it didn’t get great until the third issue, but I think the second is the best of his entire run. I much prefer the two stories either side of The Trepanning Opera to the Trepanning Opera itself.

      That said, I would wholeheartedly recommend the next issue. I think Silent Cities of the Mind may be the second-best story of Petrucha and Adlard’s run.

      • Idea-wise, Trepanning was probably my personal fave (Despite them getting the Lovecraft quote wrong on pg 1, and flipping the order of two of the pages, which no one seems to notices…) – and I think it won a best story of the year in an English mag (SFX?). But hey, I certainly respect your opinion, and appreciate the reviews, Wouldn’t say the stories changed so much after #2, but it was with #3 that I felt I started nailing the voices.

        As for Silent Cities, I remember spending more time on the first page of that script than I did on any other XF script. I also recall that Charlie Adlard loved the scene transition from the burning paper to the airplane.

        And back in those days, we had to walk 15 miles just to get to school!

      • That is a great transition sequence.

        I also love the intro at the militia compound. I’m kinda curious if Home of the Brave kinda grew from that, as in “oooh… I could do a whole issue or two in this setting”, or if you’d wanted to do a militia story anyway and this was a way to slip it in as part of the Aquarius arc and return to it later.

        Congrats on the SFX award win. This is a great run of comics, particularly considering the constraints under which you and Charlie Adlard were operating.

    • Oh, Trepanning was also our first big fight over content (there was a smaller one over Mulder’s sister in #3). Here, 1013 was afraid the audience would think Scully was really dead, and wanted us to change the ending. Best of time, worst of times… 🙂

      • I don’t know too much about the behind-the-scenes stuff on X-Files tie-ins, but I remember being shocked and appalled by the management of Star Trek tie-in comics and books during the nineties. The argument was that the book or comic was always secondary to the show, and had to be seen as a supplemental piece of the franchise. You could only mimic what they could do on television – which was nuts, because you were working in a different medium.

        The result was a line of books and comics that had to fight hard to be anything more than a faded photocopy of what was being delivered into peoples’ homes for free on a weekly basis. It seemed counter-intuitive to me. Without a budget, and without the scrutiny of a television audience or that sort of profile, go wild! The freedom is there to do stuff you could never do on television, whether for budgetary reasons or for fear of getting egg on the face.

        Your audience was buying the comic not to get a knock-off episode of the television series, but to spend more time with the characters in their world – to dig a little deeper. But then, there’s a reason I’m not running any multi-billion-dollar franchises!

      • I heard part of the issue with Star Trek was that you not only had to get approval from Paramount, but from each actor’s agent for each image of the actor – making the process impossible. That’s why, apparently, most issues of Star Trek feature an image of the ship, rather than characters. People do license their material to support the franchise, after all – and few understand or care about, really, the differences in the comic medium. In terms of numbers (100k readers vs millions of viewers) they really were/seen just as sort of an ad. It’s only more recently with people crossing over between comics/tv/movies – that the comics tend to get more respect, with more interesting results.

        With 1013, I think everything was very new to them, and we were working with them just as things were crazy exploding – so they were wildly cautious, didn’t share anything going on the show, likely because it changed week to week. The result was an increasingly tough relationship with increasing restrictions. Working blind, I used to tune into the season premieres with a sense of dread that I’d done something in the comic that’d contradict the show. I’m pleased about all the risks I took, hey, some people are still reading them books! But ultimately, it led to my being fired.

        Yeah, Home of the Brave sort grew out of that group from Silent Cities – the survivalists are really the dark side of Mulder’s conspiracy theories, so it seemed a good way to end my run. It was also an homage to a classic science fiction story – the name of which escapes me right now.

      • For what it’s worth, I think the risks you took were worth it as well – but, then, I’m not the guy who was making a living writing the book and counting on that job to pay the bills or anything like that.

        It would have been great if you’d stayed on (and, hey, it would be great if you and IDW conspired to do another comic now they have the license), but that really is a very solid run of comics. In terms of licensed properties, I struggle to think of a run of equivalent length and quality. Even when there is some stuff I’m not head-over-heels in love with, there’s generally a lot of interesting stuff around it.

        That said, I’m always worried that I could seem flippant or dismissive when I’m critical of writers who do play it safe. I’m a guy who loves writer who do take chances and do swing for the fences, but I can understand that there are behind the scenes realities that make it very hard (and often very risky) to write in that way.

  2. I really appreciate that Darren. No worries on being flippant or dismissive, I haven’t seen that at all. A ways back, IDW was talking about having me write a version of the XF set during the show’s run, but I haven’t heard anything about that lately. I have submitted my short story for the prose anthology, though. If more comes down the pike, great – if not, I’ll be happy to have it be my last word on M&S.

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