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The X-Files – Brand X (Review)

This September, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Watching the seventh season of The X-Files only reinforces the sense that the production team got extremely lucky with the casting of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. The chemistry between the two actors has carried more than a few weak scripts across the seventh season. Lighter shows like Rush, The Goldberg Variation and The Amazing Maleeni were all able to coast off the charm of the pair. It doesn’t matter that the plot resolution in an exposition dump from Mulder when you end on Scully attempting a magic trick. However, this works both ways.

It the seventh season coasts of the charisma of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, this means that their inevitable absences are keenly felt. As The X-Files had become more popular, the demand upon Duchovny and Anderson had grown greater; most obviously, the show had dropped its production order from twenty-four to twenty-two episodes. Even allowing for that, the show could no longer make the same demands of Duchovny and Anderson that it had made in the first four seasons. Nor could they simply produce less television.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em...

Smoke ’em if you got ’em…

As a result, there are points in the show’s run when either (or both) David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are unavailable. There are extended periods of the final two seasons that do not feature David Duchovny in any significant capacity. However, even within the seventh season, there are episodes where both leads are unable to fill the narrative space allocated to the lead characters. Gillian Anderson was largely absent from Chimera while working on all things; David Duchovny was largely absent from all things while working on Hollywood A.D.

It is these absences which suggest an uncomfortable truth about The X-Files. The show might have its own chemical dependencies. In a metaphor stretched in an effort to tie it all back to Brand X, the audience might rely on Duchovny and Anderson as surely as a smoker relies on their quick nicotine fix. Any attempt to genetically reengineer the show to ensure a healthier and longer life could easily end up creating a monster.

Talk about a looming legal face-off...

Talk about a looming legal face-off…

Brand X is an episode that was produced with limited availability from David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Anderson had just shot all things, and Duchovny had just shot Hollywood A.D. Both actors were involved in post-production on their episodes. According to The Official Guide, this informed certain storytelling choices:

“Mulder getting sick in Act Two and being in a hospital bed for Acts Three and Four was the direct result o f his limited amount of time,” acknowledges Walker. “It was easier to shoot a bunch of stuff of him in bed than having him have to be in a lot of  different locations.”

It is a very practical decision that speaks to the reality of television production. Compromises have to be made in order to produce forty-five minutes of television on such a tight schedule. It was impossible to have Anderson and Duchovny in Brand X while meeting those obligations.

In defense of Brand X, it can't be all bad. It opens with a cheesy visual pun. ("Smokes like a...")

In defense of Brand X, it can’t be all bad. It opens with a cheesy visual pun. (“Smokes like a…”)

To be fair, this would be less of a problem if The X-Files had a larger ensemble. Indeed, the joy of certain Mulder- and Scully-lite episodes is that they allow the production team to spread the love among the rest of the cast. Zero Sum focused on Walter Skinner because Gillian Anderson had outstanding contractual obligations. Unusual Suspects focused on the Lone Gunmen because Duchovny and Anderson were working on The X-Files: Fight the Future. Christmas Carol focused on Scully and her family because Duchovny was on press for Playing God.

However, all of these episodes feel like conscious departures from the established format. It is very difficult for The X-Files to loose access to one (or both) of its leads for a week and pretend that it is business as usual. Oddly enough, the seventh season seems less willing to consciously take space away from Mulder and Scully so that it might be allocated elsewhere. Instead, there is a very strong sense that the show is trying to cover up absences by ensuring that Mulder and Scully remain important presences even when Duchovny and Anderson have limited availability.

"Don't worry. He's only ghosting me for the first two acts."

“Don’t worry. He’s only ghosting me for the first two acts.”

Chimera features Mulder investigating a murder in a suburban community. However, the episode has the character in constant contact with Scully over the phone, so as to cover up the fact that Anderson was busy doing pre-production on all things. To be fair, all things is quite conspicuous about shipping Mulder off to England for its middle stretch so Duchovny can do pre-production on Hollywood A.D. However, the episode is also careful to ensure that Mulder is heavily featured in both the teaser and the closing act, so as to downplay that absence.

There is a sense that the show can only cover so much of this. A lot of fun of watching The X-Files comes from watching Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny interact. Writing around their absences only reinforces the sense of a vacuum at the heart of the show. Could Mulder and Scully bantering have added a bit more life to Chimera, a perfectly functional episode that missed a certain verve or energy? Could David Duchovny’s chemistry with Gillian Anderson helped the more awkward passages of all things flow just a little easier?

"Okay, you guys are both due in the editing booth in five, so let's make it quick."

“Okay, you guys are both due in the editing booth in five, so let’s make it quick.”

And then there’s Brand X. The episode does not have Gillian Anderson or David Duchovny at its disposal. The obvious thing to do would be to farm the episode out to a supporting character. Skinner seems like the best choice, and the episode seems to acknowledge as much. Skinner is the character who brings the audience (and Mulder and Scully) into the case, and it is Skinner who is under a great deal of pressure to solve the case. Mitch Pileggi has a lot of charisma, and it might be fun to follow Skinner through his investigation with a cameo from Mulder and Sculyl.

Unfortunately, Brand X doesn’t trust Skinner to carry the episode. Mulder and Scully are drawn into the case, and are quickly positioned in typical roles as if they are investigating a typical case. Mulder accompanies Skinner to meet the Morley executives, and gets to deliver the sick burn about “FBI confidentiality” at the end of the sitdown. Mulder interviews Daryl Weaver while Scully conducts her autopsy. Rather than being honest and transparent about the limited availability of Duchovny and Anderson, Brand X tries to be smart.

We mite have a problem here.

We mite have a problem here.

This attempt to be smart backfires horribly when the fact that this physically cannot be a Mulder and Scully episode overwhelms the pretense of this being a Mulder and Scully episode. At the end of the second act, Mulder is infected by the tobacco beetles, and Scully begins working desperately to cure him. The rest of the episode features lots of scenes of Mulder lying in hospital while Scully looks sad and waits for Skinner to save the day. In short, it is all the worst aspects of Memento Mori and Emily, but with Skinner in the place of Scully.

These scenes are particularly frustrating because the show keeps coming back to scenes of Mulder being unconscious and Scully being worried. There is nowhere for this plot to go while Daryl Weaver is loose, so these sequences exist solely to eat time and to sap momentum. They seem to exist solely so the show can assure viewers that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are still working on The X-Files. There is a dullness to these sequences that distorts the rest of the episode around them.

A breath of fresh air...

A breath of fresh air…

Indeed, Brand X seems aware of these issues. At one point, Scully and the physician debate the best course of action in Mulder’s treatment. “I don’t know what our other options are,” the doctor observes. Scully responds, quite simply, “I’d say for the time being, we just wait.” It is reasonable medical advice under the circumstances, but it draws attention to the fact that these scenes contribute little to the overall story. Mulder and Scully are on the sidelines now, so there is no reason to spend as much time with them.

These sequences undermine the rest of the episode. The make Skinner feel like a knock-off or imitation, rather than simply a substitute. Brand X opens with Skinner, but pushes him into the middle-ground to make room for Mulder and Scully. This means that Skinner feels marginalised by the time he has to take over the protagonist role again. He has no real credibility in the eyes of the script; the episode is still treating Mulder and Scully as the centre of the story, even though there is nothing they can do to advance the story of this plot-driven episode.

"Yeah, so I hear the show might have an opening for a Cigarette-Smoking Man comin' up soon?"

“Yeah, so I hear the show might have an opening for a Cigarette-Smoking Man comin’ up soon?”

It is a shame, because there is actually a lot of interesting material in Brand X. The script is credited to Steven Maeda and Greg Walker, two writers who had been working on the staff of Harsh Realm when it was cancelled. Walker recalls of his experience:

I wrote one of the early episodes. I was on the [staff] with Steve Maeda, who is now an X-Files writer also. So we were both on the series until it was inexplicably canceled so early. I was in New York when that happened. It was at a wedding and I caught the first flight back and got here the next morning, and by 10:30am Frank Spotnitz had offered both Steve Maeda and me jobs on The X-Files. Chris and Frank were incredibly generous that way. We were besically untested in the X-Files waters, and this is an immensely difficult show to write. So they gave us a great opportunity. And Steve and I stayed on and wrote Brand X last season.

It does speak to the obligation that Carter and Spotnitz felt towards that production team. After all, not a single episode of Harsh Realm credited to Maeda or Walker had aired before the show was cancelled. Indeed, Brand X would air between the first episode written of Harsh Realm by Maeda and the first episode written by Walker.

"I guess he caught a bug."

“I guess he caught a bug.”

On paper, Brand X has a lot going for it. There is a sense that the episode could have been a lot stronger than it turned out. It feels like the script could have used another draft, and that the production team might have been a little more candid about the limited availability of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. The script would be a lot more interesting if it were simply a Skinner-centric episode, and if the character of Daryl Weaver were fleshed out just a little further.

Daryl Weaver feels very similar to the character of Orell Peattie from Theef. Both are poor white middle aged men who come from an uneducated background. Peattie cannot work a microwave, while Weaver struggles to remember the phrase “e pluribus unum.” However, Theef took a great deal of care to flesh out Orell Peattie into a fully-formed and multi-faceted character. Weaver seems a much broader character. There is never a real sense of where he came from or what he actually wants, beyond the fact that he kills people with cigarettes.

Yeah, Mulder's right. That last screencap was a little TOO graphic.

Yeah, Mulder’s right. That last screencap was a little TOO graphic.

There are other faint echoes of Theef to be found in Brand X. There is a definite sense of class conflict to what is happening here. Orell Peattie was an impoverished man who had wandered down from Appalachia to exact a terrible revenge on the wealthy Bay Area doctor who had allowed his daughter to die. The wealth and prestige of Doctor Robert Wieder was repeatedly contrasted with the meager lifestyle of Orell Peattie; culminating in memorable images like a body hanging from a chandelier or Peattie performing voodoo over a jacuzzi.

Brand X paints Daryl Weaver as an uneducated man who signed up for an experimental drug trial conducted by a multinational company. Weaver’s tiny grotty appartment is contrasted with the veritable mansions in which Jim Scobie and Peter Vos live. Vos is particularly uncomfortable with Weaver coming into his neighbourhood or being on his property. Had Daryl Weaver died, it seems unlikely that anybody would even remember him. The death of the other three participants only comes to light as a direct result of his own criminal actions.

Bloody handiwork.

Bloody handiwork.

None of this is really developed in Brand X itself. There are hints of a larger picture, but nothing that ties it all together. Brand X is never entirely sure whether Daryl Weaver is a sociopathic monster or a tragic figure caught up in something much larger than himself. The conflict between Weaver and Morley never seems as well-developed (or as organic) as the conflict between Orell Peattie and Robert Wieder. Daryl Weaver never quite gets the development to make him one of the show’s more compelling antagonists.

To be fair, Brand X gets very lucky in the casting. Tobin Bell plays Daryl Weaver with a great deal of pathos and tragedy. Although the script only paints the character in broad strokes, Bell finds a character who seems to be searching for importance or meaning in what has happened to him. Bell plays Weaver as a man who is not entirely sure what is happening, but who recognises it as something that conveys meaning on an otherwise empty life. Weaver suddenly has power, and with that power comes purpose.

I can really understand what the casting director Saw in him.

I can really understand what the casting director Saw in him.

When Skinner threatens to shoot him, Weaver responds, “No, you won’t. I’m a regular damn scientific marvel. They… study me, they’re gonna write scientific papers about me. I could be the cure for cancer. Me, Darrel Weaver.”  It is a monologue that could easily come across as posturing or bluffing; after all, there is little else in the episode that suggests Weaver is interested in anything beyond smoking and killing. (Killing while smoking? That’s the sweet spot.) However, Bell plays the moment as entirely sincere. Weaver believes that he has a meaning.

Brand X is another example of The X-Files as a product of the long nineties. It might be too much to describe a story about killer flesh-eating tobacco beetles as “ripped from the headlines”, but the show is very consciously inspired by the larger cultural context of tobacco litigation in the nineties. Quite simply, the attitude towards cigarettes changed dramatically over the course of the decade, as the public became increasingly aware of the danger that cigarettes posed and the lengths to which tobacco companies would go to cover up those dangers.

Boy, those really are crummy rooms.

Boy, those really are crummy rooms.

The tobacco companies had a long history of evasion and denial, as exposed by documentation unearthed during nineties litigation. Nevertheless, the late nineties saw the companies acknowledging the risks and consequences of smoking. Steve Goldstone, the chair of RJR Nabisco, confessed under oath that nicotine is addictive in January 1998. In October 1999, the website of Philip Morris conceded that cigarettes might cause health problems for smokers… problems including cancer.

Of course, these confessions were not offered voluntarily. They came as the result of a number of high-profile lawsuits during the nineties, as many smokers (and families of smokers) attempted to sue the companies for the harm that they caused. During that period, the tobacco companies attempted to settle with individual states to cover the healthcare costs for smokers. In 1999, a Florida jury awarded $145bn in punitive damages against major tobacco companies; although that verdict was subsequently overturned.

Lawyer up.

Lawyer up.

These lawsuits were enabled by a series of high-profile whistle-blowers. Perhaps the most famous is Jeffrey Wigand, who appeared on 60 Minutes in February 1996 to reveal that Brown & Williamson had been consciously manipulating their tobacco blend so as to increase the volume of nicotine. Wigand (and his family) received death threats for exposing this information to the public:

Wigand is tentatively scheduled to testify late this spring. In his deposition, Wigand had talked about the dangers of a number of additives in cigarettes and pipe tobacco, the addictive properties of nicotine, and the alleged attempts at B&W to camouflage such information. The Wall Street Journal rested on the bed, as did a copy of the most recent death threat Wigand had received: “We want you to know that we have not forgotten you or your little brats. If you think we are going to let you ruin our lives, you are in for a big surprise! You cannot keep the bodyguards forever, asshole.”

Wigand’s case came back into the national consciousness in November 1999, forming the basis of the Michael Mann movie The Insider, in which Wigand was played by Russell Crowe. The Insider was nominated for seven Academy Awards and made quite an impression, even allowing for disappointing box office returns. Jurors in an unrelated hearing against Brown & Williamson were instructed by the judge overseeing the trial not to see the film.

In a way, these bugs are the real Insider.

In a way, these bugs are the real Insider.

It is a surprise that The X-Files took so long to tackle the tobacco industry head-on. After all, there was demonstrable proof of a massive and widespread cover-up by powerful corporations acting explicitly against the best interests of the American people. These revelations were bound to be of interest to a show that was informed by Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. This was a bunch of private interests conducting their own Tuskagee or MK ULTRA experiments on an unsuspecting public, although these practices continued into the nineties.

The X-Files always seemed to have a bit of a blind spot when it came to corporate interests, perhaps owing to the show’s status as a piece of nineties popular culture. Although Mulder might make reference to “the military-industrial-entertainment complex” in Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, although the show might allude to private military contractors in Piper Maru and Apocrypha, although the conspiracy is tied to private interests in Redux II, the show was more fascinated by government abuses of power than the private sector.

Coughing up some leads...

Coughing up some leads…

After all, The X-Files was produced in an era before the War on Terror brought public and media scrutiny to the connections that existed between the officials deciding public policy and the corporate interests profiting from them. Similarly, the show had been off the air for half a decade before the financial collapse focused public attention on corporate malfeasance closer to home and brought the phrase “too big to fail” into the popular lexicon. It is interesting to wonder if a modern take on The X-Files would be as interested in corporations as government.

Then again, there are arguably broader social and cultural differences in how corruption is approached in the private sector as opposed to government. Corporations operate under different rules and in different contexts. They exist as part of a more tangled web of shared interests and co-dependencies, and can typically afford larger teams of more expensive lawyers than the government. (Brand X touches on this, with the repeatedly legal threats against Skinner and Mulder seeming true to life, if less exciting than government-sanctioned assassins.)

Packing it in...

Packing it in…

After all, even Wigand’s leak to 60 Minutes unfolded in a very different manner than the leaks to Woodward and Bernstein during Watergate. The media were not so much the clear-cut heroes this time around, as producer Lowell Bergman notes:

The original 60 Minutes story was stopped in mid-stride. It wasn’t done. We were still reporting it. Now, that was extremely important to me in terms of the meaning of what was going on. And it’s not explained in the movie. That’s a little too complicated, I guess, for Hollywood. I tried to keep pushing, but it didn’t get in. From a journalism point of view, it’s extremely important because, in the cases of ABC/Philip Morris or other related matters, it’s usually a question of the story gets on the air and then there’s a lawsuit or something happens and that results in whatever is going on. In this case, it was really pre-censorship. This was self-censorship.  There was no lawsuit pending from Brown and Williamson. As far as we knew, there was no communication from Brown and Williamson to CBS about the matter.

The timeline of events, and the overlapping interests, makes for compelling reading. It is, perhaps, too much to be covered in a forty-five minute episode of The X-Files, but it is a very fascinating (and very appropriate) subject for the show.

"You have become your father." The Well-Manicured Man didn't know how right he was.

“You have become your father.”
The Well-Manicured Man didn’t know how right he was.

The Insider is a very clear influence on Brand X. According to The Official Guide, Greg Walker listened to the film’s soundtrack while working on the script. Certainly, the teaser wears its influences on its sleeve, with Skinner assigned to protect Jim Scobie before he is due to testify as to some improper conduct by his former employers. The idea of the FBI protecting a tobacco industry whistle-blower, and meeting legal resistance to their on-going inquiries, very firmly roots the episode in the cultural context of the turn of the millennium.

Similarly, the revelation that Morley were working on a new blend of less dangerous tobacco is also in keeping with that moment in time. Tobacco companies had originally quashed research and development of less dangerous cigarettes, because they feared that such development would serve as a public admission that smoking was dangerous. The industry was concerned that the “marketing and sale of a safe cigarette could result in infinite liability in civil litigation as it would constitute a direct or implied admission that all other cigarettes were unsafe.”

Second hand smoke kills.

Second hand smoke kills.

However, with public opinion turning and a growing acceptance of the dangers (and addictiveness) of smoking, the industry made a very conscious and deliberate effort to publicise “safer” forms of smoking. There was considerable skepticism about this approach. After all, the industry’s development and marketing of “low tar” cigarettes in the seventies had no appreciable impact on the health of smokers; ironically, studies suggested that smokers compensated from the lower tar by taking longer and deeper puffs.

In mid-nineties, the industry attempted a number of high-profile efforts aimed towards convincing the public that there were safer ways to smoke. The “Premiere” and “Eclipse” models were launched to considerable fanfare in the middle of the decade, but they failed to find anything more than a “small but dedicated” audience among smokers. It seemed that people were not particularly interested in safer smoking. In that context, Doctor Peter Voss’ experiments (and Daryl Weaver’s reaction to it) make a certain amount of sense.

Blood in the water...

Blood in the water…

There is a very dark sense of humour to the basic premise of Brand X. The episode seems to acknowledge the irony of cigarette companies trying to sustain themselves by making an inherently dangerous activity only slightly less dangerous is absurd. The unspoken implication is that even when these companies claim to be acting in the public interest, and even when their researchers and scientists believe that to be true, they are more concerned with their own survival than any greater good.

There is something quite wry in the fact that Daryl Weaver survives by making his body so toxic that even flesh-eating super-bugs cannot survive in it. While Scully’s last-minute realisation feels a little trite, there is a perverse gag in the fact that the very thing that should be killing Weaver is keeping him alive. That is, perhaps, how bizarre and grotesque the situation is. After all, this is an industry that sustains itself by selling products that will almost certainly diminish the quality of life (if not the lifespan) of anybody who uses them.

"We'll table it for later..."

“We’ll table it for later…”

Brand X is an interesting episode, although one that never quite gels. It is a very messy production, one which lacks the sort of focus and energy that are necessary for a show like this to work.

2 Responses

  1. I don’t entirely agree with you here, or at least I don’t see Mulder and Scully being thinly spread as that much of an issue. Nor do I agree that if the actors are wholly or partly unavailable it’s better or fairer or whatever to reflect that in the narrative. I do agree that Skinner isn’t as well used as he could and should be here, and that the hospital scenes do tend to hold things up, but I see this all as an issue of plotting rather than actor availability. Yes, one informs the other, but the bottom line is that another pass on the script might have fixed one while still accommodating the other.

    Mind you, if they were going to remove anyone from the equation it probably ought to have been Mulder, since he really does nothing apart from flagging up the beetles. His role could almost entirely have been taken over by Scully (invited onto the case by Skinner for her medical expertise) without requiring much more input from Gillian Anderson. Hell, she could have been in the hospital bed herself for the second half of the episode and it could have been Skinner who noticed the guy’s nicotine-stained fingers.

    • That’s fair. Like a lot of the seventh season, there’s a sense that Brand X was the result of very tired people getting ready to call it a day.

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