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The Lone Gunmen – Like Water For Octane (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

Taken together, Like Water for Octane and Three Men and a Smoking Diaper represent perhaps the creative nadir of the first season of The Lone Gunmen.

They are the episodes that not only engage in the excesses of the show’s early first season, but practically revel in them. In particular, Like Water for Octane is an episode that thinks it is hilarious to have a sequence where Langly sticks his hand up the backside of a bull, while the climax revolves around Jimmy strategically tugging the bull’s “one giant udder” at just the right the moment. The problem is not that the gags are juvenile. The problem is that the gags simply aren’t funny. And there are a lot of unfunny gags across these two episodes.

New patriots...

New patriots…

Again, there is a sense that these are ultimately just teething problems, that The Lone Gunman has not quite figured out what it wants to be. The show improves in later episodes, but not necessarily because the gags get funnier. The gags do get funnier, but there is never really a sense that The Lone Gunmen is funny enough to carry forty-five minutes on cheap laughs. Instead, the show seems to release that it needs more than “dick and ass” jokes to sustain itself. Like Water for Octane and Three Men and Smoking Diaper are devoid of heart.

More than that, though, Like Water for Octane feels like a fundamental betrayal of the show’s core principles. It is a story about the Lone Gunmen struggling to expose the truth, only to decide that the people are too stupid to be trusted with the truth and that the trio should appoint themselves custodians of that truth. The episode seems entirely sincere in this belief, which makes it seem like the production team have somehow completely misunderstood their own characters.

Out of the night...

Out of the night…

It takes a while to find the voice of a show. Very few television series arrive fully formed. The first half of the first season of Millennium was all over the map in terms of quality. The first season of The X-Files had some brilliant episodes, but also had far too many “revenge from beyond the grave” stories. The nine produced episodes of Harsh Realm suggest a show that was still finding its voice rather than a clear statement of purpose. First seasons are largely about figuring out what a show is supposed to be.

Just because the Lone Gunmen began their lives on The X-Files does not mean that their spin-off is spared this awkward process of determining its own identity. Vince Gilligan might have laid some groundwork for the show in Unusual Suspects three years prior, and the three executive producers might have written Three of a Kind as something of a post hoc prototype for the show, but that does not mean that The Lone Gunmen arrived fully-formed.

Plug it...

Plug it…

The Lone Gunmen lasted thirteen episodes, roughly half of a full-season order and just under two-thirds of the length of the eighth season of The X-Files. The show eventually found something resembling a distinctive voice, but it took a little while to reach that point. There are undoubtedly traces of the show’s later identity to be found in scripts like Unusual Suspects, The Pilot or Eine Kleine Frohike. The early stretch of the first season just struggles to identify the most essential elements of The Lone Gunmen.

Like Water for Octane and Three Men and a Smoking Diaper seem to take the wrong sort of inspiration from the earlier Lone Gunmen stories, whether those featured on The X-Files or the scripts written at the start of the first season. Both of these episodes are populated with goofy antics and insane cover-ups, favouring dull schtick over character development or emotional connection. There is none of the quirky melancholy that defines the very best Lone Gunmen scripts.

Yves of battle...

Yves of battle…

Like Water for Octane marks the point at which the show’s patriotism starts to get distracting. The Lone Gunmen is a surprisingly patriotic piece of television, given that it centres around three conspiracy cuts who were introduced in E.B.E. complaining about the government using money to track citizens. The Pilot and All About Yves are the only episodes to feature the government as antagonists, while Bertram Byers goes out of his way to insist that only a small section of the government cannot be trusted.

To be fair, that patriotism makes a certain amount of sense in Three Men and a Smoking Diaper, given the presence of a thinly-veiled Bill Clinton analogue. It feels more surreal in the context of Like Water for Octane, where it is very hard to make a thematic connection between an opening featuring Frohike, Langly and Byers against the red, white and blue. How does a simple journalistic investigation into an electric car tie back to patriotism?

Demolition men.

Demolition men.

After all, one imagines that any episode touching on the issue of oil in relation to the United States government would be skeptical. The “blood for oil” rhetoric of the War on Terror is still several years away at this point, but critics have always argued that oil has been an influential factor in American foreign policy. Aired shortly after Like Water for Octane, the script for Vienen would emphasise the political importance of securing the flow of oil into the United States.

Cynical observers would argue that there is a long and storied history of oil driving American foreign policy. The CIA’s involvement in the 1953 coup in Iran was motivated by Mohammad Mosaddeq’s nationalisation of the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. There were suggestions that United States intervention in Somalia during the nineties might have been driven by oil-related concerns. Public discourse also tied Operation: Desert Storm was to the flow of oil from the Middle East.

Suits you.

Suits you.

As a result, it seems very weird that an episode of The Lone Gunmen focusing on amoral oil companies should offset that cynicism about corporate America with some good old-fashioned flag-waving patriotism. The Lone Gunmen are supposed to be paranoid conspiracy nuts, so it feels strange that the episode lauds their patriotism without bothering to ask what the relationship might be between the sinister oil companies and the government.

This is the sort of connection that The X-Files had made implicitly with the introduction of the black oil in Piper Maru, suggesting that oil was an infectious and corrupting medium through which the very worst impulses might move. That metaphor would be rendered more explicit in Vienen, with Mulder and Doggett discovering that corporate greed (and government hunger) will conspire to allow the black oil to escape out into the wider world. The world’s hunger for oil is dangerous, Vienen suggests.

"This was much cooler when Mulder and Scully did it in Apocrypha."

“This was much cooler when Mulder and Scully did it in Apocrypha.”

Of course, Like Water for Octane ultimately glosses over those foibles. When the Lone Gunmen discover a car that does not need oil, they collectively decide that the world does not need to be freed from its addiction to gasoline. Shelley, the daughter of the car’s inventor, insists that the world is simply not ready. “It would mean more people driving cars, more people building places for people to go in those cars. More people, more consumption, more trees cut down, more roads laid in.”

She continues, “What do you pave roads with, by the way? Oil. The same oil you use to lubricate a water-powered car. The same oil that goes into all the plastics that make the tail-lights, the bumpers, the tires, just about everything else on the planet these days. And we’d have four hundred million cars on the road instead of two hundred million. Doesn’t sound like utopia to me.” It is a nice piece of rhetoric, but it glosses over the fact that three-quarters of the United States’ oil consumption is as fuel.

We salute you, Jimmy.

We salute you, Jimmy.

Inventing an engine that runs on something other than oil would not break the world’s dependency on oil. It would, however, greatly diminish the hunger for oil. Oil would still be used to make plastics or as a lubricant or to pave roads, but in an much smaller quantity. Even if those uses of oil were to double as a result of more cars on the road, the United States would still only need half of the oil that it needs today. That would mean less pollution, in a world that seems to be edging closer and closer to a tipping point.

It would also have effects beyond the borders of the United States. Without the same dependency upon oil, United States foreign policy would change dramatically. The politics of pragmatism would shift, particularly as they relate to the Middle East. While it is very difficult to make an argument based purely upon hypothetical examples, it seems quite likely that the invention posited in Like Water for Octane would have a major influence on politics well beyond the borders of the United States.

Bricking it...

Bricking it…

So there is something quite uncomfortable in the way that the Lone Gunmen decide not to share their discovery with the world. The Lone Gunmen are investigative journalists. The role of an investigative journalist is to tell the people what they need to hear, not to unilaterally decide that the general public “are not ready” for certain scientific advances. For all the faith that The Lone Gunmen puts in American liberal democracy, who elected the Lone Gunmen to make these decisions?

After all, over a million people die in road accidents each and every year. That is a tragedy, but does it suggest that mankind was not ready for the combustion engine in the first place? The internet has been used for all sorts of terrible crimes, from organising terrorist attacks to perpetuating racism to creating networks of sexual offenders. Those are definitely downsides to the information age, but do those any of that mean that the development of the internet was a mistake?

We can go to and Fro(hike) on this...

We can go to and Fro(hike) on this…

While it might be reasonable to argue about the morality of developing something like the atom bomb or biological weapons, it seems facile to suggest that the world’s population is too dumb to survive the introduction of an engine that can run on water. Even in the case of the atom bomb or biological weapons, there are arguably secondary benefits accruing from their development, although there is a debate to be had about the costs.

Like Water for Octane undercuts its three central characters by turning them into agents of the status quo. It is not too hard to imagine an episode of The Lone Gunmen centring around the trio’s investigations of a covert group taking it upon themselves to decide what mankind does or does not have the right to know. Like Water for Octane turns the Lone Gunmen into knock-off versions of the Cigarette-Smoking Man, making many of the same arguments he has used to justify his secrets.

The true enemy of democracy: the low-level bureaucrat!

The true enemy of democracy: the low-level bureaucrat!

In a way, this speaks to a conservatism at the heart of The Lone Gunmen. Offering something of a moral to the story, Jimmy assures the audience, “It changed the world by not changing the world, if you follow me. And sometimes maybe not changing the world is a good thing.” It seems like The Lone Gunmen is suggesting that everything is perfectly fine the way that it is, and that there is no need to press forward or to try to make things better.

This reflects a more general shift that was also taking place in The X-Files around the same time. After spending eight seasons exploring how power corrupts, the eighth season segued neatly into a more conventional alien invasion narrative. Having spent seven years criticising the abuses committed by those in power, the show suggested that United States government was itself subject to infiltration and subversion by a hostile outside force.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

It seems reasonable to connect this tonal shift to larger cultural trends. During 2000, George W. Bush advocated for a “compassionate conservatism”, suggesting that there was a national appetite for sch rhetoric. Joan Didion argues that there was no small amount of self-interest involved in the movement:

The words “compassionate conservatism” sound like and have often been dismissed as political rhetoric, a construction without intrinsic meaning, the Bush campaign’s adroit way of pitching the center, allowing middle-class voters to feel good about themselves while voting their interests. Former Governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee called them “weasel words.” Joe Andrews, the national chairman of the DNC, called them “a contrived copout.” “You can’t have these massive tax cuts and at the same time…be a compassionate conservative,” Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota told The New York Times. To the extent that the words were construed to mean anything at all, then, they were misunderstood to suggest a warmer, more generous, more ameliorative kind of conservative. “I’m a conservative, and proud of it, but I’m a compassionate conservative,” Senator Orrin Hatch told Judith Miller of The New York Times in March of 1981. “I’m not some kind of ultra-right-wing maniac, despite some portrayals in the press.” Former Governor Pete Wilson of California offered a still more centrist reading: compassionate conservatism, he was quoted as saying by The Washington Post, is “old-fashioned budget-balancing with spending for preventive health measures and protection of the environment, and a strong pro-choice position on abortion.”

As such, it feels like The Lone Gunmen and The X-Files are easing their way out of the nineties and into the new millennium by embracing some of the political rhetoric of the George W. Bush era. Of course, Three Men and a Smoking Diaper suggests that Bill Clinton has not been forgotten.

Shedding their dependence...

Shedding their dependence…

Of course, it is also feasible that the reason that the Lone Gunmen decide not to share the water-powered engine with the public is because the writing staff did not want to turn to turn the world of The Lone Gunmen into some alternate-universe science fiction series where every character has a water-driven car. Still, if that were the justification for the decision, there are lots of other ways to achieve the same outcome. The Lone Gunmen could simply not find the car, for whatever reason.

The closing image of Like Water for Octane features the Lone Gunmen reveling in the discovery of magical futuristic technology that they decide to keep entire to themselves. The main characters have a great deal of fun driving a converted tractor around, smiling and laughing at the idea that the idealism of the sixties might live on. There is something undeniably self-serving in all of this; no other person will ever get the opportunity to experience that joy, as a direct result of the decisions made by the characters.

A shred of dignity...

A shred of dignity…

(That said, there is something quite clever in the revelation that the oil company does not want to destroy the car. “I want to give it to the world,” the mysterious assassin insists. “And make billions off of it.” It is a smart twist on the familiar “cover-up” narrative, almost smart enough to forgive the fact that the assassin is named “Henry Fast.” Just in case the audience forgets that this is an episode relating to cars, the character’s name amalgamates the name “Henry Ford” and the word “Fast.”)

All of this is particularly disappointing given how close Like Water from Octane comes to making a definitive statement about its lead characters. When the trio are trapped inside a demolished missile silo, Jimmy works desperately to free them. “It’s reinforced with hardened steel,” Yves explains. “It’s designed to withstand a nuclear blast.” Jimmy won’t listen. “It doesn’t matter,” he offers. “You pound anything long enough, it’ll give.”

Patriot games...

Patriot games…

It seems like that should be the point of the episode. The Lone Gunmen are never going to have the raw power of a nuclear bomb. Even within their own fictional universe, they are not going to single-handedly thwart colonisation. They are not heroes in the same way that Mulder is a hero. Instead, the Lone Gunmen seem most likely to succeed against all odds by chipping away at an impossible situation. They should be able to change the world despite their unimportance, rather than reinforcing the status quo.

Given the focus on renewable energy in the twenty-first century, Like Water for Octane should seem prescient. It is an episode that should seem more compelling in the era of electric cars than it did at the dawn of the twenty-first century. With increased speculation about the sustainability of hydrogen-powered cars, Like Water for Octane should seem more insightful and well-observed than it did on initial broadcast. Unfortunately, it does not.

Base(ment)less accusations...

Base(ment)less accusations…

Of course the decision to have the car run on water contributes to the absurdity of the premise, particularly given that apparently the only major change to allow an internal combustion engine to run on water is a single external pipe. As Sherry Seethalter observes:

In other words, unlike fossil fuels, water requires a constant input of energy to make it burn. No one has yet to publish an analysis that compares how much energy is recovered from burning the water versus how much is used to create the radio frequency field. However, it is impossible to extract net energy. It would violate the laws of thermodynamics and provide the basis for a perpetual-motion machine.

Cars that run on water have been the subject of hoaxes and con schemes since the mid-nineties. The scheme continues to surface periodically, with various hucksters facing prosecution for staging investment hoaxes.

Drawing a blank...

Drawing a blank…

Still, despite all this, Like Water for Octane does connect back to the sixties idealism that drove a lot of The Pilot. If The X-Files is rooted in seventies cynicism and paranoia, it seems like The Lone Gunmen is based around an attempt to recapture the optimism and idealism associated with John F. Kennedy and his “Camelot.” The water-powered engine is presented as a lost relic of counter-culture, an artifact embodying all those lost possibilities that faded with space programme.

It makes sense that Frohike should be the only primary character to enjoy a direct experience with the engine. Frohike is the oldest of the trio, perhaps the only member of the group to remember the sixties. Although the teaser to Like Water for Octane suggests that he was only a child towards the tail end of the decade, he is still noticeably older than Byers or Langly. After all, in Via Negativa, Forhike claimed to have been “on the bus” with Ken Kesey back in 1964.

Rocking the world...

Rocking the world…

Still, this is not enough to salvage Like Water for Octane, which is one of the weakest episodes of the season. It is a shame that it arrived so early, at a point where the show really needed to be putting its best foot forward.

4 Responses

  1. Reading these reviews, it confirms my belief that the American left went down the shitter after the 9/11 attacks. You can see a clear shift away from the traditional hero who robs the rich, to the trickster archetype: the cocky white man who robs the naive and undeserving.

    It’s also depressing to watch the LG go from the underdogs, crusaders of truth, to the wisecracking STEMlords you run across on reddit.

    • That’s a very valid observation. Although the shift in The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen took place a few months prior to 9/11. I’m not suggesting a conspiracy theory or anything, just wondering if there was a wider “new conservative” movement. I’ve read a few 1999/2000 articles speculating on a resurgent conservative aesthetic and can’t help but wonder if the 9/11 attacks just sped up a process already in progress.

      • “new conservative”

        It was all underground. The conservatives would like to take credit, but they’re just riding a wave.

        The establishment can’t torpedo a “people’s candidate” like in the past, not with the internet. For instance, Howard Dean. As we now know, he was edited to sound insane by the news media. That would not work today. The days of “gotcha journalism” is over. Trump can call for internment camps and Bernie can be an unclosested socialist, and you can’t suppress them. This is a breakdown of the silent consensus between the news media and Washington. According to their timetable, Kelly was supposed to bury Trump int he first debate, and Sanders was going to go down in flames at the BLM event. It didn’t work.

        The second part, I’m sorry to say, is the infiltration of social media by organized white supremacist groups. This is a new tactic, one the public isn’t savvy to yet. (The press never talks about that kind of thing.) That’s why the Republican Party was taken over by the alt-right. They literally had no idea what was going on.

        Speech over. 🙂

      • That’s actually a very valid point. I’m hearing now that Trump corals the press into pens at his meetings to keep them separate from the masses (and so they gather less incriminating footage of his supporters).

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