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The X-Files (Topps) #38 – Cam Rahn Bay (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Cam Rahn Bay returns to one of the recurring themes of John Rozum’s run on Topps’ X-Files tie-in comic book.

It is essentially a cautionary tale amount mankind tampering with nature and the unforeseeable repercussions of such meddling. As such, it feels very much in keeping with scripts like Skybuster or Scum of the Earth. This idea of human hubris is a theme that is very much in keeping with The X-Files as a franchise, perhaps most keenly reflected in Chris Carter’s deep affection for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and for environmental causes. Cam Rahn Bay is very much in keeping with that aesthetic.

All at sea...

All at sea…

However, there are problems with the story. Most obviously, Rozum’s prose seems a little clunky and awkward. Cam Rahn Bay is a heavy-handed and clumsy meditation on mankind’s fixation with imposing its will over the natural world. However, there is also something slightly hypocritical about the story. As much as Cam Rahn Bay criticises the use of animals in a military capacity, it never seems to question the use of animals in captivity. While the training of dolphins to do military work is treated as deplorable, training them to do tricks for entertainment is lauded.

Cam Rahn Bay feels a little tonally ill-judged, with this fairly significant blindspot undermining a lot of Mulder’s impassioned rhetoric about how mankind treats the natural world.

"Sorry, I was just thinking abotu Deep Throat..."

“Sorry, I was just thinking abotu Deep Throat…”

There is something quite odd about Cam Rahn Bay. It is not quite as striking or strange as The Face of Extinction, but the comic does feel like the kind of story that could never have been told on the television show. Part of that sense of difference is purely practical, of course; as Fearful Symmetry demonstrated, it is very difficult to convincingly use exotic animals in a weekly television show. However, there is something rather strange in the way that certain sections of Cam Rahn Bay are narrated from the perspective of the dolphins.

This is an interesting choice, particularly coming off the user of the satyrs in The Face of Extinction. As much as The X-Files could seem sympathetic or understanding towards its monsters, the show seldom invited viewers into their heads. Episodes like Terms of Endearment or Hungry were very much the exception rather than the rule, with characters like Victor Eugene Tooms or Donnie Pfaster remaining quite firmly “othered” by the narrative. Even the show’s central conspiracy plot line was told through the eyes of human conspirators rather than alien colonists.

Eating it up...

Eating it up…

In theory, the idea of telling an issue of The X-Files through the perspective of a killer brainwahsed dolphin is absolutely fascinating. Comic books are a unique medium, allowing more control over the way that the reader perceives and engages with the narrative than even film or television. Since the reader can process (and even re-read) the panels at their own pace, and because the physical dimensions and intersections of the panels are completely controlled by writer and artist, the medium is suited to this sort of bold experiment.

In 2014, for example, writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja took home an Eisner Award for their work on Hawkeye #11. The comic book was essentially told from the perspective of Lucky the “pizza dog.” It followed the canine detective as he attempted to solve a murder. The comic invited the reader to experience the world as seen by Lucky, conveying associations and hearing particular words rather than sentences. The reader was invited to imagine what the human world might look like to a creature like Lucky.

"Hey, this reminds me of the time I autopsied an elephant..."

“Hey, this reminds me of the time I autopsied an elephant…”

The problem with Cam Rahn Bay is that the comic is nowhere near as experimental. It turns out that dolphins seem to experience the world almost exactly like humans do, with the exception of going on a killing spree when they receive a certain extremely low frequency signal. Rozum’s prose feels generic and bland, a stock impression of ominous narration. “In this routine, there’s only one thing to be done with humans like this one,” he reflects. “And that is to kill them.” It is not particularly original.

Then again, a lot of Cam Rahn Bay feels derivative. As with Skybuster, mankind’s decision to meddle with nature has dire consequences. In a relatively rare piece of interlocking continuity among Rozum’s run, Mulder even directly acknowledges the similarities. “It’s just like in Alaska, Scully,” Mulder observes. “When those ravens started killing people.” The similarities run even deeper. In both cases, it turns out that extremely low frequencies are the cause of all this unfortunate violence.

Swimming with dolphins...

Swimming with dolphins…

It does not help matters that the script to Cam Rahn Bay is particularly preachy. John Rozum was clearly inspired by the Navy Marine Mammal Programme that has been established in 1960. The scheme was officially declassified in 1992, with a lot of public debate around the ethics of the programme and the treatment of mammals that had been employed in its service. Understandably, the suggestion that the United States Navy had been covertly recruiting and training dolphins for naval warfare resonated with conspiracy theorists.

The public’s fascination with the programme remains active and on-going. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there were reports that “killer dolphins” had been unleashed from military facilities by the storm. Those claims has been largely dismissed, but it does demonstrate how these ideas and concepts can get lodged in the public imagination. It is not a bad idea to build an X-Files story around the story of these highly-trained dolphins who had been taught to do terrible things.

Fish food...

Fish food…

In a way, it also provides a nice metaphorical exploration of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Cam Rahn Bay suggests that Vietnam was such a traumatic experience for everybody involved that even the dolphins were fundamentally changed by the experience. The difficulty reintegrating those dolphins into their communities could serve as a potent metaphor for the challenges facing veterans attempting to reassimilate into society. Vietnam has always been a cornerstone of The X-Files, and Cam Rahn Bay might have been a nice way of reinforcing that.

The problem with Cam Rahn Bay is that it is so incredibly heavy-handed and awkward – especially during one late-issue car ride between Mulder and Scully. Upon discovering the experiments conducted on dolphins as part of the Vietnam War, Mulder ponders, “Who do these people think they are that they can have the arrogance to think that the rest of the world is theirs to do with as they wish.” On a purely aesthetic level, it is a terrible sentence. However, it also feels a little redundant. It goes without saying that what was done to the dolphins was horrible.

Leaps and bounds...

Leaps and bounds…

More than that, Scully offers the obligatory response that is designed to implicate the reader. “They’re no more arrogant than the rest of the human population… which isn’t to excuse them.” It is a cheap shot, particularly because Cam Rahn Bay is completely disinterested in exploring other issues around how human society treats and exploits dolphins. The comic never takes issue with the treatment of the dolphins at the aquarium, never wondering about the difference between training dolphins to save lives and training dolphins to entertain.

For all its problems, at least Fearful Symmetry was willing ask big questions about the way that society treats animals. It might have addressed those questions very well, but it was at least aware of the ethical implications and issues surrounding keeping animals in captivity. Cam Rahn Bay doesn’t even touch on the idea. We are told that these particular dolphins cannot be reintegrated into the wild, but does that excuse keeping the turtle that Mulder sees or training killer whales for shows?

Chill out...

Chill out…

Then again, Rozum’s script feels pretty shallow. Mulder and Scully feel very generic, more like mouthpieces than characters. At one point, after a dolphin is poisoned, Scully struggles to come up with a rational explanation. “Mulder, I think that some group has been created by one of the victim’s families. That perhaps this group has stooped to a form of mob violence and exterminated these dolphins as an act of vengeance.” It feels like a very clumsy moment that misunderstands Scully as a character, reducing her to the lead who gets to be wrong.

It might make sense for Scully to question just how well dolphins can be trained and controlled, but it seems weird that Scully would discount a conspiracy to poison a bunch of former military dolphins. Scully has not disputed the existence of a government conspiracy since the second season; she disagrees with Mulder as to the purpose of the conspiracy. The fact that Scully has to bend over backwards to explain how the poisoning might not be related to the government feels like a misreading of the character; she’d more likely argue about the motivation for the poisoning.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

Cam Rahn Bay is a disappointing comic. It has a number of clever ideas, but it suffers in the execution of them.

 

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