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The Lone Gunmen – Planet of the Frohikes (A Short History of My Demeaning Captivity) (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.

Planet of the Frohikes is Vince Gilligan’s only solo script for The Lone Gunmen. It is also a story about a super-intelligent chimpanzee who adopts the voice of veteran British character actor Edward Woodward. This can be a very strange television show.

All captions to be read in the voice of Edward Woodward.

All captions to be read in the voice of Edward Woodward.

The Lone Gunmen has struggled with tone since it launched, trying to work out the right balance of goofy comedy and serious drama to sustain the show. The Pilot suggested that the show might lean more towards “thrilling adventures with a dash of comedy”, but in hindsight turned out to be the most po-faced episode of the show. Starting with Bond, Jimmy Bond, things got a little sillier. As Tom Braidwood explained:

We don’t have a lot of input story-wise or anything. It’s basically up to the five or six writers who are hiding away in the backroom. They’re coming up with the crazy ideas. One of the points we should make is that the show is lending itself very much in the direction of comedy. It’s not dark, it’s not spooky, it’s not eerie. The episodes have a lot more comedy in them than the pilot does. The pilot has a lot of humor, but I think from the pilot they found the direction they wanted to go into even more comedy.

The show began to embrace its comedic sensibilities building entire episodes around jokey premises. In Eine Kleine Frohike, the group’s resident prevent goes undercover with a blonde hair and lederhosen. In Three Men and a Smoking Diaper, the trio find themselves charged with the custody of a cute little baby. In The Lying Game, Jimmy is forced to go undercover impersonating Assistant Director Walter Skinner.

Title drop!

Title drop!

Not all of the comedy was inspired. Over the course of the show’s thirteen episode run, the production team revealed a great fondness for classic comedy staples involving prat falls. It seems like almost every episode featured an obligatory shot of one of the characters falling over. For example, Planet of the Frohikes features Byers and Frohike tipping over a parasol on a hotel balcony. Even The Pilot featured two gags about Frohike falling down, and one genuinely funny gag about a “government contractor.”

Bodily function gags also became a fixture of the show’s humour. Bond, Jimmy Bond had great fun with Langly vomiting, to the point where Dean Hagland explains on the commentary that Broadcast Standards and Practices instructed him to tone it down. Three Men and a Smoking Diaper features an extended shot of a baby peeing on Langly. Like Water for Octane revels in having Langly stick his hand up the backside of a bull while Jimmy contemplates tugging at its “one giant udder.”

Funky poaching...

Funky poaching…

All of this is to say that The Lone Gunmen is a very goofy show that struggles somewhat with its brief. Bond, Jimmy Bond effectively positioned the show as a forty-five minute comedy, a genre that has traditionally been a hard sell. As Chris Kopcow notes:

Really, Freaks And Geeks is one of the few hour-long comedy-dramas I can think of that has wide acceptance as a standard in the comedy community, and that has a lot to do with the careers its cast and crew went on to have. Because while, sure, NBC didn’t give it the chance it should have, it’s also true that it was cancelled in part because Paul Feig and Judd Apatow refused to tidy up its more tragic and troubling elements, so no one watched it. Now, of course, people can’t believe it was ever cancelled.

Although television aficionados can point to quite a few hour-long comedies, few of those lasted particularly long on network television. Perhaps the most successful hour-long comedy to air on American network television was Moonlighting during the eighties, but it was widely considered to be the only show of its kind airing at that time.

Jimmy gets it.

Jimmy gets it.

It could be argued that the hour-long comedy has enjoyed a resurgence in the twenty-first century, as television has changed and evolved. There are still cautionary tales – Bryan Fuller’s Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls or Pushing Daisies all come to mind – but the market seems more receptive to the format. Veronica Mars managed to secure three seasons airing on the WB, with ratings that would have been lucky to earn it a single full season on a major network. Netflix has had great luck with Orange is the New Black, as Amazon has had with Transparent.

Even allowing for more recent success of the genre through smaller networks and alternative platforms, the hour-long comedy remains a controversial and difficult mode of television. In February 2015, the Television Academy ruled that a television show had to be thirty minutes or less in order to qualify for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy Award. The suggestion seems to be that most hour-long comedies segue gently into the grey area that exists between “comedy” and “dramedy.”

On the fence...

On the fence…

One of the biggest problems with the decision to position The Lone Gunmen as an hour-long comedy is the simple fact that it is not consistently funny enough. To be fair to the writers, most of the shows contain a few good gags, but there are very few episodes that can successfully extend the comedy across the entire runtime. All too often, as with Like Water for Octane or Three Men and a Smoking Diaper, it feels like the show is padding out its runtime with familiar comedy setpieces that feel more tired than inspired.

The best episodes of the show embrace comic sensibilities while finding a powerful or insightful core. Madam, I’m Adam is one of the more surreal episodes from the show’s run, but it is also the most affecting. The set-up for Los Tango de los Pistoleros is among the most ridiculous things that the show ever did, but the episode is essentially a story about desperate isolation and longing. The strongest episodes of the first season of The Lone Gunmen seem to suggest that the show would be smart to pitch itself as “weird drama” rather than “yuck-yuck comedy.”

Stop. It's hammer time.

Stop. It’s hammer time.

That said, Planet of the Frohikes is perhaps the most consistently funny episode of the show’s thirteen-episode run. It is perhaps the episode that makes the most compelling case for The Lone Gunmen as an hour-long comedy rather than simply on off-kilter drama. In a way, this is no surprise. Vince Gilligan has been the strongest and most consistent comedy writer working on The X-Files since Darin Morgan left. It feels entirely appropriate that his single solo script for the season should bring the funny.

One of the recurring fixations of the first season of The Lone Gunmen is an attempt to map out a unique niche as compared to The X-Files, to figure out what The Lone Gunmen can do that The X-Files cannot. Madam, I’m Adam offered a very considered and clever response, suggesting that The Lone Gunmen could aspire towards a weird melancholy beyond even that of The X-Files. In contrast, Planet of the Frohikes offers a more direct and candid response. It turns out that The Lone Gunmen can go for the crazy in a way that The X-Files never could.

That's his name.

That’s his name.

It is easy enough to imagine Madam, I’m Adam as an episode of The X-Files, even if the tone would be a little wrong. (Indeed, this might be why Tom Schnauz was perhaps the definitive Lone Gunmen writer while there was always something a little “off” about his X-Files work.) On the other hand, there is no way that Planet of the Frohikes could ever work as an X-Files episode. The X-Files has always enjoyed a somewhat flexible relationship with reality, but Planet of the Frohikes is just delightfully absurd.

Even the opening gag of the episode lands perfectly, unfolding in an animal testing lab where a stern over-seer examines a bunch of monkeys typing away on keyboards as a speaker system blasts out recordings of Edward Woodward reading Hamlet. The monkeys are bashing the computers, generating random strings of text and characters that do not resemble phrases or sentences. However, the scientist pauses at one particular monkey. The monkey is not just writing Shakespeare, he is taking dictation from Woodward.

Monkey business.

Monkey business.

The opening scene is, of course, a riff on a classic thought experiment. As Jorge Luis Borges outlined in The Total Library, the image of a monkey with a typewriter is tied to a particular stream of thought:

Huxley (who is one of these men) does not say that the “golden characters” would finally compose a Latin verse if they were thrown a sufficient number of times; he says that a half­ dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, in a few eternities, pro­ duce all the books in the British Museum. (Strictly speaking, one immortal monkey would be sufficient.) Lewis Carroll (one of the other refuters) observes in the second part of his extraordinary dream novel Sylvie and Bruno – in the year 1893 – that as the number of words in any language is limited, so too is the number of their possible combinations or of their books. “Soon,” he says, “literary men will not ask themselves, ‘What book shall I write?’ but ‘Which book?'”

Of course, beyond the appropriation and reiteration of the image itself, the opening image has little to do with the theories underpinning the so-called “infinite monkeys theorem”, but it is a brilliant and beautiful image.

It has, however, taken us much longer to get the collected works of Danielle Steele.

It has, however, taken us much longer to get the collected works of Danielle Steele.

It also sets the tone for the episode ahead. Planet of the Frohikes is the story of a super-intelligent chimpanzee who rejects the “slave name” of “Peanuts” and adopts the name “Simon White-Thatch Potentloins” while talking through a computer simulator that makes him sound like Edward Woodward. In effect, Planet of the Frohikes is an episode written by Vince Gilligan and guest-starring Edward Woodward as a super-intelligent chimp. It is absurd, but it is so gleefully absurd that it becomes hilarious.

It is a concept that could easily go horribly wrong. Planet of the Frohikes sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. It is the type of story that one expects from a tired sitcom like Family Matters or even Happy Days. Telling that story within the framework of a spin-off from The X-Files feels like it is tempting fate. Of course, this is all offset by the fact that Gilligan is a very good writer. It could be argued that the talking chimpanzee featured in Planet of the Frohikes is no more or less absurd than the genie who appeared in Je Souhaite.

Up on the roof...

Up on the roof…

Indeed, Planet of the Frohikes was originally conceived as a relatively serious episode. As Vince Gilligan explained in The Making of the Lone Gunmen:

I had the idea for intelligent animals created by the CIA or the Department of Defense a long time before this. I was thinking of a straight thriller.

It is not without merit. The United States military has trained dolphins and sea lions to identify mines and find targets. During the Second World War, the Soviet Union trained dogs strapped with explosives to run at tanks.

Shaken, not stirred...

Shaken, not stirred…

More to the point, the animal rights movement of the nineties had increased awareness of experimentation upon animals. The movement was actually approaching its thirtieth anniversary, having first emerged during the early seventies. Writers and philosophers like Peter Singer and Gary Francione pushed the issues into public discourse. PETA grabbed public attention in the early nineties. More recently, the same month The Lone Gunmen launched, the organisation had written a high-profile letter to Timothy McVeigh asking him to go vegan in his final months.

Running parallel to this expansion of the animal rights movement was a fascination with chimpanzees. The Lone Gunmen often feels like a nostalgic paean to a more romantic time, and the sixties and seventies fixations on the intelligence of chimpanzees feels like an appropriate basis for an episode. In its own way, Planet of the Frohikes is surprisingly timely. Nim Chimpsky – the chimpanzee who famously learned to communicate through sign language during the seventiespassed away in March 2000.

Special guest voice...

Special guest voice…

In its own way, Planet of the Frohikes is more relevant now than when it aired. In the early years of the twentieth century, there were a number of horrific high-profile instances of chimpanzee attacks. Discussing a brutal attack in 2009, author Elizabeth Hess observed:

What Travis raises is the whole issue of captive animals and how they live and where they are, and how we see them. The media has seen Travis as a crazed vicious, brutal creature. I see Travis as a prisoner who’s filled with rage and had no idea that what he was doing was so incredibly brutal.

Harrowing accounts from victims like St. James Davis or Charla Nash reinforce the sense that chimpanzees are not animals that can be domesticated. While Simon White-Thatch Potentloins is never aggressive towards the Lone Gunmen, Planet of the Frohikes does touch upon the idea that chimps are not bred for captivity.

Grooming.

Grooming.

The plot of Planet of the Frohikes is actually quite simple, with Vince Gilligan setting up a plot that weaves and turns its way across the forty-five minute runtime. Over the course of the episode, the Lone Gunmen frequently run around in circles and double-back on one another, with the script luxuriating in twists and double-crosses that never cloud out the basic story beats. In its own way, Planet of the Frohikes is just as twisty and turny as Eine Kleine Frohike or Maximum Byers or Diagnosis: Jimmy.

However, Planet of the Frohikes works a lot better than many of the show’s other labyrinthine plots. Indeed, over the course of the season’s thirteen episodes, only All About Yves manages its twists and turns as well. A lot of this is down to the fact that Planet of the Frohikes is a very straightforward plot and all the twists are anchored in very logical and rational character motivations. The twists in the story do not change the nature of the story; if anything, the twists all service the core themes of the story.

Simon may also have been involved in drafting Three Men and a Smoking Diaper.

Simon may also have been involved in drafting Three Men and a Smoking Diaper.

The problem with the twists in Eine Kleine Frohike or Maximum Byers or Diagnosis: Jimmy is that they are primarily plot-driven. The reveal of the real identity of “the Poisoner of Alsace” or the killer doctor are designed to feel like ends in and of themselves, resolving the plot and wrapping up the episode in a neat little bow. As a result, the fact that The Lone Gunmen has a great deal of difficulty properly setting up these twists in a way that is not obvious undercuts the effectiveness of the episode as a whole.

In contrast, all the twists in Planet of the Frohikes are in service of character. Simon skilfully manipulates the Lone Gunmen into a complex web of intrigue that leads to a botched kidnapping and a banana-related mishap. These twists are funny, in the same way that Byers believing a banana could be a secret gun is funny, but they are never the point of the episode itself. The architect of all the confusion is Simon, and his motivations are made quite unambiguously clear.

Aping other films...

Aping other films…

Simon just wants to be with his love. It is a very simple character motivation, but it adds a charming layer of emotional reality to this story of hyper-intelligent chimpanzees and animal assassins. At its core, The Lone Gunmen works best as a wistfully melancholy adventure show. Vince Gilligan set the tone when he wrote Unusual Suspects, positioning John Fitzgerald Byers as a man who yearns silently and desperately to reunited with the woman that he loves. The Lone Gunmen might be a comedy, but there is something tragic about the lives its characters lead.

Tom Schnauz understood that with his script for Madam, I’m Adam. Unsurprisingly, given that he set the tone three years earlier, Vince Gilligan taps into it with Planet of the Frohikes. At its core, there is a tragic romance to The Lone Gunmen. It is a show that optimistically believes in the concept of true love and spiritual fulfilment, even as it understands that those concepts exist just outside the reach of its central characters. The fact that the Lone Gunmen live in a world where such a connection is possible makes their own lack of connection all the more depressing.

Class act...

Class act…

It is something of a cliché to compare Vince Gilligan to Darin Morgan, a comparison that Gilligan eargerly invited by casting Morgan in Small Potatoes and by positioning Tithonus as a sequel to Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. However, at its very best, The Lone Gunmen does manage to capture some of the tone and themes of Morgan’s work. When the show is at its strongest, it feels like the cast are all meditating on the big ideas of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, the idea that perhaps they are alone in more than just the wider universe.

Planet of the Frohikes touches upon this theme, which is all the more remarkable for an episode centred around a hyper-intelligent chimp talking with the voice of Edward Woodward. Simon might be smart enough to code his own vocal synthesiser or to trap the Lone Gunmen in a complicated scheme of his design, but the episode suggests that Simon’s intelligence manifests itself through greater self-awareness than any of the main characters. (With the possible exception of Jimmy.)

Simon says...

Simon says…

The Lone Gunmen initially focus on Simon as an object of curiosity or a novelty. He is a chimpanzee who can communicate, so it is easy to see why the Lone Gunmen would be fascinated. More than that, he is a chimpanzee who might be part of a covert government plot to train a bunch of hyper-intelligent animal assassins that would advance the cause of espionage by decades. With all of that going on, the Lone Gunmen lose sight of the heart of the situation. Simon is not a curiousity, he is an individual.

The group are startled when Simon first speaks. When they ask why he did not attempt to communicate earlier, he explains, “You haven’t shown that you’re any different from my previous captors.” Much like Mulder’s treatment of Clyde Bruckman in Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, the Lone Gunmen are unable (or unwilling) to see Simon as anything but an object. That is why Simon is able to manipulate them so thoroughly, sending them on a wild goose chase tied to their own fixation upon conspiracy theories and government plots.

Yves of battle...

Yves of battle…

Ultimately, Simon has his own needs and wants that differ from those of the Lone Gunmen. “Please,” he states, “I just want to be left alone.” Simon does not want to expose government injustices or to tell his story. Simon just wants the freedom to self-determine. Ultimately, that process of self-determination leads him to seek a life in captivity with Lady Bonkers. It turns out that Simon is motivated by the most relatable of desires. He just wants love. The Lone Gunmen are confused by Simon’s willingness to resign himself to a cage.

“You can’t want to live in a cage?” Byers insists. This is a very rational argument. After all, Madam, I’m Adam found the Lone Gunmen arguing that Charlie Muckle should reject a perfect virtual simulation in favour of messy reality. Given their devotion to publishing and exposing the truth, the Lone Gunmen cannot comprehend why a super-intelligent chimpanzee like Simon would conspire to get himself locked away behind steel bars in captivity at a zoo. From the perspective of the lead characters, this is completely insane.

The matter at hand...

The matter at hand…

However, Simon offers a very convincing response. “The whole world is a cage when you’re trapped in it alone,” he explains. It is a very poetic response to the challenge posed by Byers, one that suggests Simon is infinitely happier inside the cage than any of the Lone Gunmen might be in the outside world. As with Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, it seems that knowledge and reason have their own limitations. Planet of the Frohikes suggests that a willingness to embrace and understand love is the truest expression of intelligence.

In its final two lines, Planet of the Frohikes manages more insight and more resonance than most of the surrounding episodes. There is a poignancy and power to those closing two lines that is only met by the entire scripts of Madam, I’m Adam or Tango de los Pistoleros. More than that, though, Planet of the Frohikes is simply a very funny comedy script. It packs in more laughs than any other episode of the season, taking a great deal of pleasure in the sheer wackiness of the plot.

Getting on board...

Getting on board…

Planet of the Frohikes is perhaps too weird and unusual (and unfocused) to rank as the very best episode of the season. However, it does suggest that – much like Simon with a computer – the show is quickly finding its voice.

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