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The Lone Gunmen – The “Cap’n Toby” Show (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.

In its own way, The “Cap’n Toby” Show feels like an appropriate farewell to The Lone Gunmen.

The “Cap’n Toby” Show was not the last episode of The Lone Gunmen to be produced, but it was the last episode to air. It was broadcast three weeks after All About Yves closed out the first season of the show and more than a fortnight after news of the cancellation first broke. It aired with very little fan fare, avoiding even the modicum of publicity that FX earned as it burnt off the last six episodes of Harsh Realm only a year earlier. Just in case there had been any doubt, or any hope held out, The Lone Gunmen was definitely dead.

No need to get crabby...

No need to get crabby…

There is a melancholy to The “Cap’n Toby” Show that fits quite comfortably with The Lone Gunmen. The episode had clearly been held back in the hops of airing it during a hypothetical second season. Ideally, it would have given the production team a little lee-way at the start of the next season, perhaps even allowing the three title characters to pop over to The X-Files. The ninth season of The X-Files would be launching without Mulder, so some friendly faces would not be amiss. Airing The “Cap’n Toby” Show in mid-June puts paid to that optimism.

However, even allowing for all these issues, there is an endearing pluckiness and romance to The “Cap’n Toby” Show that feels at once entirely in keeping with the show and the characters. What better way to make a cancellation than with a forty-five minute ode to the nostalgic joys of television?

"Bye bye."

“Bye bye.”

Almost inevitably, the people who work in film and television find themselves heavily influenced by film and television. While large-scale film and television are at least as much commercial industries as creative arts, they tend to draw creators who have strong sentiments towards these media. Directors and writers (and even actors) always seem keen to cite their influences, to acknowledge their place in a rich tapestry of multimedia. Perhaps this is an overly romantic interpretation; more cynical options present themselves. “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

The X-Files is built upon homage and reference. The style and tone of the series owes a lot to directors like Alan J. Pakula or Oliver Stone. Some of the show’s more memorable episodes – Ice, Beyond the Sea, The Post-Modern Prometheus – all play out as homage to classic horror cinema. Frank Spotnitz and Vince Gilligan are quick to acknowlege their cinematic influences, to the point that both Our Town and Roadrunners both owe a storytelling debt to the classic Bad Day at Black Rock.

Cap'n of his destiny...

Cap’n of his destiny…

Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz are all very big fans of popular culture. Vince Gilligan engaged with The X-Files as television in a way unlike any other writer on staff; Unusual Suspects, Drive and X-Cops all draw attention to the fact that this is a television show. Gilligan has written episodes inspired by Homicide: Life on the Street and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In fact, Peter Gould even incorporated Gilligan’s own speculative Star Trek story idea in Blood Money during the final season of Breaking Bad.

John Shiban intended Teso dos Bichos as an homage to Val Lewton. The Pine Bluff Variant might be Shiban’s best work on the show, and is very much written in the style of the paranoid seventies thrillers that inspired The X-Files. His solo scripts for The Lone Gunmen both riff on classic films. Eine Kleine Frohike is very much John Shiban channelling Ealing Studios and casting Tom Braidwood as Alec Guinness. Diagnosis: Jimmy is an extended riff upon Rear Window, with a bed-ridden Stephen Snedden filling in for a wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart.

On the ropes...

On the ropes…

Television and film are vitally important in how people perceive and engage with the world around them; how a person remembers a particular time is frequently filtered through pop culture of that time. As Debarchana Baruah argues in Remembering through Retro TV and Cinema:

Cultural memory is “based on material contact between a remembering mind and a reminding object.” This is where television and cinema interpose in the equation as the reminding external object; memories that find continual representation in these popular media become more culturally recognizable. Television theorist Gary R. Edgerton argues in the introduction of Television Histories that “[t]elevision is the principal means by which most people learn about history today.” Television and cinema together function as the cultural institution through which cultural memories are acquired and transferred. Their popular appeal and wide networks of circulation make television and cinema important contributors to memorability of events.

Memory is a key recurring theme of The X-Files. It makes sense that the theme bleeds into The Lone Gunmen. In its own way, The Lone Gunmen is fascinated by memory, albeit by idealised and romanticised memory rather than traumatic or unsettling memory. It makes sense that memory might be filtered through film and television.

Producing great work...

Producing great work…

In many ways, The Lone Gunmen could be read as a love letter to classic film and television. There is a lot of physical comedy on the show, with particular emphasis on characters (particularly Frohike) falling down. There is no shortage of self-awareness, with Maximum Byers acknowledging that it is dusting out a classic plot from The A-Team. The go-to description of The Lone Gunmen was simply “Mission: Impossible with geeks.” Although The Pilot opened with a brazen reference to Brian dePalma’s film adaptation, the show was very much an influence.

Television critic Robert Wilonsky described the show as “a witty, charming amalgam of Mission: Impossible, The Wild, Wild West and Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Although The Lone Gunmen debuted in March 2001, it felt like a relic from an older time. The show had a rigidly episodic structure and a very old-fashioned storytelling style. At a time when the eighth season of The X-Files was pushing towards a serialised model of television, The Lone Gunmen felt like a relic in terms of tone and structure. The show was about five people engaging in wacky capers.

Obligatory fall down joke!

Obligatory fall down joke!

Although The “Cap’n Toby” Show was not the last episode of The Lone Gunmen to be produced, it makes sense for it to be the last episode to air. The “Cap’n Toby” Show opens with Langly reflecting nostalgically on the important role that television played in shaping and defining him. “My best memory is of my family’s old Zenith,” he observes. “Every afternoon, after school and chores, and more chores, I’d watch TV — all three channels of it — and I’d escape.” Even the three channels joke seems pointed; demonstrating how The Lone Gunmen is a show out of time.

There is a sense that Langly might be speaking for the show itself, or for the writers. For all its flaws, The Lone Gunmen is a show that loves television and film. The show’s energy and enthusiasm carries a lot of the more awkward moments in the first season, helping to keep the show moving at a point where it did not necessarily have the strongest sense of its own identity. There is a wide-eyed innocence to all this, but it fits comfortably with the aesthetic of The Lone Gunmen.

Sorry, he has to dart.

Sorry, he has to dart.

The Lone Gunmen is attached to a romantic vision of the past. That is perhaps the most subtle difference between The Lone Gunmen and The X-Files. On The X-Files, Mulder and Scully are constantly unearthing past compromises and indiscretions that have serious consequences for the current generation. On The Lone Gunmen, the leading trio seem to be constantly attempting to recapture some the innocence of times long gone. If The X-Files is informed by the paranoid cynicism of the seventies, The Lone Gunmen aspires to return to the idealism of the sixties.

With all of that in mind, it makes sense for The “Cap’n Toby” Show to focus on Ringo Langly’s nostalgic affection for a show that he used to watch as a child. Langly is very much the obvious choice for this episode, the least defined of the trio. While Byers is the conscience and moral integrity of the group while Frohike is a retired sixties radical who became a father figure, Langly is largely undefined. Bond, Jimmy Bond struggled to figure out exactly who Langly was, outside of being the contrarian; his character has not necessarily been better defined since that point.

Breakfast of champions.

Breakfast of champions.

Then again, that is enough to support The “Cap’n Toby” Show. If Frohike is the unlikely wise old man, then Langly is the self-righteous and angry teenager stuck in his rebellious phase. Dean Haglund plays Langly as indignant and confrontational, prone to bouts of childish self-centredness. This stunted emotional development makes Langly the perfect character to anchor a story like this. Despite his fondness for Gentle Ben, Byers is too high-minded to get upset about a kids’ show. Despite his surprisingly large pool of knowledge, Frohike is too zen to get worked up.

The character beats at the heart of The “Cap’n Toby” Show are relatively universal; they are sentiments that should resonate with anybody who has ever tuned into a “reboot” of a beloved part of their childhood. Indeed, there are elements of The “Cap’n Toby” Show that seem even more relevent in today’s culture of remake and reappropriation. Computer-generated remakes of The Wombles and Thunderbirds seem designed to provoke this sort of possessive backlash and entitlement.

Hot dog!

Hot dog!

Even something as consistent and seemingly innocuous as Sesame Street has experiences this sort of backlash to natural (and logical) evolution. Consider the controversy generated by the Cookie Monster’s changed eating habits:

From California to Australia, from New York to Oregon, fears have arisen about the sanctity of “Sesame Street,” the children’s show that just started its 36th season. The Los Angeles Times editorialized on the crisis, a staffer at the South Australia Sunday Mail declared herself “rocked to my foundations” by Cookie Monster’s transformation, and the Associated Press bemoaned Cookie’s new circumstances in a missive sent across the land. The blue fuzzball even wound up on this week’s “Hit List” in Entertainment Weekly.

It is a perfectly rational change to reflect a different world, but there is a strong emotional attachment to the idea of the Cookie Monster that makes this transition difficult for people who grew up with the show.

Capping it all off...

Capping it all off…

The “Cap’n Toby” Show offers its own preemptive take on these politically correct revisions of classic characters. John Gillnitz objects to Cap’n Toby’s use of a pipe. “An argument could be made that it promotes smoking,” Gillnitz states. It seems that the episode finds this position a bit extreme. “John, it’s a bubble pipe, an argument could be made it promotes blowing bubbles,” Cap’n Toby responds. “Look, Cap’n Toby has a pipe. He’s had a pipe for thirty-one years. The pipe and the magic porthole routine are about the only things left from the early days.”

The script to The “Cap’n Toby” Show adopts a relatively even-handed approach. The script openly mocks John Gillnitz for reimagining Cap’n Toby as “the captain of a nuclear powered submarine.” Gillnitz is portrayed as self-centred and narcissistic. However, the script avoids making Gillnitz the villain of the piece. The fact that this is the most high-profile “John Gillnitz” character to appear in The X-Files or The Lone Gunmen suggests some affectionate self-mockery is at foot on the parts of John Shiban, Vince Gilligan and Frank Spotnitz.

Taking a picture, it'll last longer...

Taking a picture, it’ll last longer…

More to the point, John Gillnitz has a point. He is not an idiot. After all, he is the character who manages to figure out exactly how the secret messages are being sent through the show. While the show (rightly) mocks the excesses of Gillnitz’s approach, there is a sense that Cap’n Toby cannot remain unchanged forever. The end of the episode finds Cap’n Toby turning over the reins of the show (and the mantle of command) to a worthy successor to reinvent the show for a younger generation.

John Gillnitz may have been the wrong person to reinvent the show, but that does not mean the show did not need reinvention. Langly’s position is just as extreme (and just as wrong) as that expressed by Gillnitz. If Gillnitz is wrong for wanting to change the show for the sake of changing the show, Langly is wrong for expecting the show to remain static. “Why don’t I don’t even recognise it?” Langly demands upon visiting the set. “What the hell did they do to it? What?” Langly is unreasonable to expect that nothing will have changed in the intervening years.

No kidding around...

No kidding around…

As much as people might remember children’s entertainment through rose-tinted glasses, the reality is that television shows are constantly changing and evolving to reflect the fact that the audience today is different than the audience five or ten years ago. This is just as true of children’s entertainment, where the turnover is even higher. One suspects that very few of those complaining about the changes to the Cookie Monster were actively watching the show. It is easy to forget that shows like Sesame Street are in a perpetual state of evolution.

Sesame Street was always engaged (and changing) with the times. In 1969, Grover learned about civil disobedience from a bunch of hippies. The Cookie Monster has been described as “child’s first addict.” In the show’s early years, Big Bird grappled with hallucinations of the Snuffleupagus. In 1985, the producers decided to make the Snuffleupagus real because they worried that having the other characters disbelieve Big Bird would discourage abused children from speaking up. Kami, a HIV positive Muppet, was introduced in 2002.

Un-bear-able revelation...

Un-bear-able revelation…

One of the smarter aspects of The “Cap’n Toby” Show is the way that it plays on various controversies around children’s television. After all, subtext can easily be read into the relatively simple set-ups of so many classic children’s shows. Is Thomas: The Tank Engine really an imperialist fantasy? Is Peppa the Pig really a socialist feminist? Are Bert and Ernie really just very close platonic friends? Given the impressionable audience of children’s television, accusations of subliminal ideological manipulation is widespread.

As such, there is something very clever in the suggestion that a children’s show is being used to pass government secrets to “Red China.” This essentially literalises all those crazy accusations about shows “brainwashing” children. Discussing how the show could pass this covert information, Frohike suggests that the series is “a conduit, for information. Whatever secrets are being passed could be broadcast through the show itself encrypted into the music or the video signal.” In other words, the show itself could be a tool of espionage.

A puppeteer who can see the strings...

A puppeteer who can see the strings…

The “Cap’n Toby” Show riffs on this culture of moral panic surrounding children’s television, taking all those paranoid conspiracy theories about how children’s entertainment is subversively undermining traditional and wholesome ideals. Even the use of “Red China” as the generic enemy harks back to the ideological divide of the Cold War, the fear that ideas are inherently dangerous and that children’s television is particularly dangerous as a vehicle for those sorts of ideas.

It is undoubtedly an absurd set-up, but The “Cap’n Toby” Show commits to it quite well. After all, this is an episode that is largely about how adults relate to children’s television; nostalgia and moral panic would seem to be the two default modes of engagement. The “Chinese spy ring” element of the plot offers its own take on these moral panics, while Langly’s anxiety about the changes to his beloved television show allows the show to tackle this sense of nostalgic entitlement for classic entertainment.

Audience figures were way down...

Audience figures were way down…

This protectiveness towards children’s entertainment has become increasing mainstream in the early years of the twentieth century. As Nathan Rabin suggests, this is perhaps a result of the amplifying effect of the internet:

It seems like whenever someone remakes a movie, television show, cartoon, board game, or series of shape-shifting action figures, an outcry erupts on the Internet that the usurper is retroactively ruining (or worse, “raping”) people’s childhoods. Sometimes this criticism is made in jest, with an implicit acknowledgment that it’s ridiculous for grown-ups to get apoplectic over the notion of someone rebooting a series about martial-arts-adept mutant amphibians. But there’s often a real sense of hurt and injury, even betrayal, to these criticisms as well.

The classic material doesn’t need to be good in order to generate this backlash. Even subpar entertainment like The Smurfs or Alvin and the Chipmunks seems to attract this sort of impassioned engagement.

Ringo of truth to it all...

Ringo of truth to it all…

Producer John Nathan Turner took over the running of Doctor Who in its eighteenth season. That is an incredible legacy to assign to a single person; the producer found himself addressing an audience that had grown up with the show. Fans who had spent their teenage years watching William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton were now watching Peter Davison or Colin Bake with their own children. The final years of Doctor Who were burdened by many terrible creative choices, but they were also burdened by the weight of expectation concerning what had come before.

John Nathan Turner described the tendency of fandom to lionise what came before as “the cheating memory.” The suggestion was that the good old days were never actually as good as memories would imply, that audiences were looking back through glasses as rose-tinted as those worn by Agent Blythe. Indeed, future showrunner Steven Moffat would tend to agree with John Nathan Turner; Moffat famously tore strips out of the show in a delightfully informal interview given in a pub.

Dialing it back...

Dialing it back…

Change is frightening, particularly when it occurs to things in which we have an emotional investment. However, change is also inevitable. Perhaps John Gillnitz’s changes to the eponymous children’s television show are a bit radical and forced, but the climax of The “Cap’n Toby” Show does concede that at least some evolution is necessary. As much as people might like the artifacts of their childhood to remain frozen in amber, that is simply not feasible. Sesame Street does not belong to thirty- or forty-something adults; it belongs – and has always belonged – to kids.

Although The “Cap’n Toby” Show explicitly deals with Langly’s emotional reaction to changes made to his favourite childhood show, there is something more universal around the episode. It speaks to a broader aspect of popular culture, acknowledging a conservatism in the way that people approach film and television. Langly might be complaining about a kids’ show, but he could just as easily be berating a new Star Trek spin-off. The choice of a children’s show as the focal point of The “Cap’n Toby” Show seems to emphasise how childishly Langly is behaving.

Following the paper trail...

Following the paper trail…

Science-fiction tends to attract these sorts of fans. After all, The “Cap’n Toby” Show was broadcast roughly two years after the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace had become a gaping wound on the popular consciousness that seemed to reach backwards through time to infect precious childhood memories. Langly’s behaviour in The “Cap’n Toby” Show could be seen as an affectionate riff on the very vocal Star Wars fans who seemed to treat the franchise as something which belonged to them and to them exclusively.

“They’ve destroyed my childhood,” Langly insists at one point, which plays as a parody of an internet culture that was still emerging at the time when The “Cap’n Toby” Show was written. After all, “George Lucas raped my childhood” has become a standard (and incredibly disproportionate and tasteless) refrain in response to the double-whammy of the “special edition” re-releases of the original trilogy and the disappointment of the prequel trilogy. Langly comes surprisingly close to invoking that exact phrase.

Buns of steel...

Buns of steel…

That said, there is arguably also a metaphor closer to home. The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen had attracted considerable criticism from certain sections of fandom, with many suggesting that The X-Files was no longer the show that it once was and that the lead characters in The Lone Gunmen were unrecognisable. These very loud and very aggressive criticisms had to register with the production team; there are some ways in which it feels like The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen engaged with these voices.

The final two seasons of The X-Files grappled with television fandom rather directly. Around the same time as The “Cap’n Toby” Show, Frank Spotnitz wrote and directed Alone which teamed Doggett with a character who was a huge fan of The X-Files. The following season, Tom Schnauz brought back the same character for the rather more pointed (and mean-spirited) Scary Monsters. Vince Gilligan would write the penultimate episode of the show, Sunshine Days, around an obsessive fan of The Brady Bunch. All three writers worked on The Lone Gunmen.

A vision of things to come...

A vision of things to come…

There is a sense, then, that Langly’s anger and frustration at the changing face of his beloved show might serve as a reflection of those extremely vocal X-Files fans who seemed upset at the direction that the show had taken (and had been forced to take) over its final two seasons. In a way, it feels entirely appropriate for The “Cap’n Toby” Show to be the last episode of The Lone Gunmen that made it to air. It is a reflective and emotive closing statement from the writing staff on the nature of television nostalgia and the difficulty that some fans have processing change.

While there is a lot of interesting stuff in The “Cap’n Toby” Show, there is also a sense that The Lone Gunmen was not fully formed yet. There are a lot of clumsy choices and awkward gags populating the episode. As with a lot of the first season of The Lone Gunmen, there is a sense that the production team is not quite at a stage where they could churn out thirteen forty-five minute comedies in a full season. As a result, the gags frequently seem tired or over-extended.

All at sea...

All at sea…

In The “Cap’n Toby” Show, the recurring use of poison darts allows the script to indulge in a number of groan-inducing oral sex gags with the usual homophobic undercurrents. “Jimmy, you’ve got to suck out the poison,” Frohike insists, raising his shirt. “What?” Jimmy responds. “Can’t you reach?” Frohike simply orders, “Do it. Now.” And then Yves arrives. The only thing missing is canned laughter. Similarly, final joke of the hour is very much as stock “Langly has long hair and thus looks like a girl” gag.

Similarly, there is a sense that the production team are still uncertain about what to do with Jimmy and Yves. In keeping with Eine Kleine Frohike or Diagnosis: Jimmy, the two supporting characters are shunted off into their own plot while our heroes engage in their investigation. This leads to an awkward comedy set piece feature Jimmy in a hot dog costume, but also towards the inevitable girl-on-girl martial arts confrontation between Yves and Agent Blythe. It is all rather inelegant.

Signing off...

Signing off…

(Although this could not have been foreseen at the time, there is also something deeply uncomfortable about the scene where Frohike finds a little girl waiting alone in Cap’n Toby’s dressing room. It seems rather odd that a child would have been left alone in a stranger’s dressing room in 2001, but it seems particularly striking over a decade later. Given the recent exposure of widespread child abuse within the British Broadcasting Corporation, the scene is a lot creepier now than it was on broadcast.)

The “Cap’n Toby” Show is not one of the season’s stronger episodes in terms of nuts-and-bolts scripting and gags-per-minute. However, it is a very thoughtful and affectionate meditation on the relationship that can exist between fans and any long-running property. It feels like the perfect episode to air at the end of the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen, and in the gap between the eighth and ninth seasons of The X-Files.

2 Responses

  1. “captain of a nuclear submarine”

    The Hunt For Red October reference, ahoy. 😀

    I can’t really imagine Langley watching this as a kid, can you? Frohike seems more the type. Langley probably watched wrestling and subscribed to Black Belt Magazine.

    This ep reminds me a lot of Angel’s “Smile Time”, which also aired in a tumultuous season.

    • I don’t know. In many ways, Langly is the least defined of the three characters, despite having the most distinctive physical appearance. What little distinguishing character Langly seems to have is predicated in his arrested development (which is arguably true of the other two characters as well – the Lone Gunmen are basically teenagers who never grew up); Langly is a petulant child. I can buy Langly fixating upon a stupid kids show more than Byers being shaped by episodes of Gentle Ben.

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