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The X-Files: Season 10 (IDW) #6-7 – Hosts (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

Balance was always going to be an issue for The X-Files: Season 10, even in a purely logistical sense.

At its peak, The X-Files was churning out twenty-six episodes in a season. Of those, maybe a third would be mythology episodes and the rest would be standalone monster of the week stories. As a result, the show could find the time to balance earth-shaking mythology episodes like Paper Clip, Nisei, 731 and Talitha Cumi with brilliant episodic television like Clyde Bruckman’s Final ReposeOublietteGrotesquePusher and Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” Part of the appeal of The X-Files was always striking that balance.

No Fluke.

No Fluke.

That is not really possible with a conventional comic book release schedule. Comic books are released once a month, limiting the creative team to twelve issues in a given year. They might also get an annual, if the comic is popular. Given modern comic book narrative conventions and the lower page counts of modern comics, “done-in-one” standalone stories are increasingly uncommon. At best, it seems like a creative team might get away with seven stories in a year, six two-parters and an annual.

This causes issues in structuring a comic book season of The X-Files. Quite cleverly, The X-Files: Season 10 runs for twenty-five issues, evoking the length of a classic television season. However, it tells far fewer stories, with the run dominated by epic sprawling mythology stories like the five-part Believers, the five-part Pilgrims and the five-part Elders. That is three-fifths of the “season” given over to three mythology stories. It is no wonder that the rest of the run feels so compressed.

Worming his way back to you...

Worming his way back to you…

In a broader sense, The X-Files: Season 10 finds itself positioned between the past and the future of the franchise. Believers had positioned itself as the legitimate heir to the mantle of The X-Files, the “real” continuation of a franchise that many considered to be dead in the water. However, that was already changing, even as the opening issues hit the stands. Even as the comic book enters its second story arc, there are already forces at work behind the scenes that render it all redundant. Negotiations were taking place, compromises were being made.

Part of the appeal of The X-Files: Season 10 is that it promises to push the characters forward. It longs to continue the show’s mythology plot and to push it in new directions. Believers hinted at the idea of a family reunion with William, although that thread was quietly nixed once the television revival became a possibility. Nevertheless, there is a clear sense of forward momentum for most of the characters involved, with the addition of new elements like the Acolytes and the sense that alien colonisation was advancing yet again.

Scorched Earth.

Scorched Earth.

However, the comic wanted to push forward while keeping its eye on the past. The Lone Gunmen were revealed to be alive and well, rewriting their death in Jump the Shark to bring back some fan favourite characters. The Cigarette-Smoking Man was resurrected as a clone, and many other iconic characters would soon join him. Doggett and Reyes were consciously sidelined so the series could almost exclusively focus on Mulder and Scully. While Harris’ scripts played with the idea of nostalgia, the past exerted a strong pull on the series.

Nowhere is this more obvious than Hosts, which is effectively the first “monster of the week” story of the season. Past comic book adaptations of The X-Files had  favoured the episodic “monster of the week” stories. When Topps have the license, writers like Stefan Petrucha and John Rozum were actively discouraged from incorporating elements of the mythology. The issues of the Wildstorm miniseries not written by Frank Spotnitz were focused on cases of the week. The X-Files/30 Days of Night tied more into the latter’s mythology than the former’s.

Ewwwwwwwwwww...

Ewwwwwwwwwww…

In contrast, the IDW relaunch is less interested in standalone “monster of the week” stories. The X-Files: Season 10 and The X-Files: Season 11 are consciously driven by the mythology. In some ways, this reflects the contemporary fixation on canon, the insistence that the stories “matter” and that they are not “secondary.” This is perhaps a reductive way to approach storytelling, but it makes sense given the primacy that the mythology was afforded within the original nine-season run of the show.

Still, it is somewhat disappointing that so many of the “monster of the week” stories in The X-Files: Season 10 and The X-Files: Season 11 are tied to preexisting concepts. Even Immaculate serves primarily as a vehicle to reintroduce the character of Frank Black. Given that The X-Files had been off the air for a decade at that point, it is a little disappointing that there was not more interest in crafting standalone narratives. Although the mythology was a massive part of the show’s popularity at the time, the monster of the week stories had arguably aged better.

He's taking a moment to compose himself.

He’s taking a moment to compose himself.

It is worth noting that The X-Files itself tended to stay away from sequel episodes. There were a handful of sequels, of course; Kitsunegari was a sequel to Pusher and Orison was a sequel to Irresistible. There were also occasionally spiritual sequels; Teliko and Badlaa felt quite like Squeeze and Tooms. However, the show generally tended to put an emphasis on new ideas and new approaches. Darin Morgan has talked about the difficulty clearing Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose because Beyond the Sea had already done a psychic episode.

As such, there is something slightly disappointing in returning so frequently and so readily to these classic monsters. Indeed, Hosts seems to pick the most popular classic monster never to have made a second appearance. The Host is one of the show’s most enduring episodes and one of the show’s most iconic monsters, and not just because the monster was played by the writer of episodes like Humbug and Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. Looking like a Universal movie monster, the Fluke Man is an X-Files classic.

Here there be monsters.

Here there be monsters.

Harris has talked about how The Host “was always [his] own friends’ favorite episode from those early days.” It was certainly an episode that meant a great deal to the production team, who would slip in references to Fluke Man in episodes like Pusher and The Field Where I Died. Darin Morgan is still fielding questions about the character in interviews. If The X-Files: Season 10 were to do a sequel to a classic monster episode, there is only one more likely candid. Harris waits until The X-Files: Season 11 to get to that one.

As such, it is a shame that Hosts does very little novel with the idea of the Fluke Man. There is a lot of fertile ground to be explored with the character and the concept, but Hosts adopts a relatively conservative approach to the monster. There is a sense that the story is still stuck in the mid-nineties, that there has been no real thought about how the story might be different in the context of 2013 as opposed to 1994. After all, communities are even less certain about the water they are drinking now than they were back when The Host was first broadcast.

Making its mark.

Making its mark.

In 2012, director Barry Levinson released the horror movie The Bay about the impact of pollution on Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. He would describe the film as “eighty-five percent” true. While obviously highly fictionalised, the film spoke to legitimate concerns about pollution and contamination of the water in the region. In March 2013, the Flint city council would opt to import water from Lake Huron rather than taking it directly from the Flint river; in April 2013, there were allegations of a looming “water war” in Michigan.

Then again, this makes a certain amount of sense. With a licensed property, people are buy a comic because of a recognisable brand. Fans want X-Files stories, and it could be difficult to update an idea like Fluke Man without running of the risk of taking away what characters loved about the character and the concept in the first place. This is a prime example of the comic struggling with what it means to be (temporarily) the primary X-Files narrative. How does the comic balance its desire to strike out on its own with its obligations to what came before?

Keep us postered...

Keep us postered…

In the lead up to the release of The X-Files: Season 11, Harris acknowledged that “fan service” was an issue for the comic, resisting the urge to turn the series into a nostalgic throwback to past glories:

I mean, we don’t want to do fanfic. Nothing wrong with that if it’s your thing, but I’ve got an overarching plan I’m trying to affect. It’s got to fit into the mission statement and direction of the series and ‘Season’ we’ve charted out. With the Flukeman sequel, I was able to justify it as being part of an initiative at the FBI — particularly focusing on The X-Files Division — to get old, unsolved cases out of the way and closed so as to prevent interference and troublesome oversight from other government agencies, score political points and support by increasing efficiency and effectiveness in an age where they’re always in danger of having the budget slashed and so on.

With regard to any upcoming sequels to classic MOTW episodes, they’re going to feed into this idea that Mulder and Scully need to solve, or at least tamp down, the monsters before the compromising forces lording over The X-Files, the FBI and the Federal Government in general can do so, profit from them either monetarily or due to the influence and prestige gained, etc.

I’ve thought, from the beginning, that this was always going to be a matter of balancing the right degree of fan service with the forging of new paths and staking out new ground within the mythology and famous “Mytharc.” I’d like to think we’re doing less of the former, and more of the latter, in this upcoming season… but we’ll still ring the bell and bring back the old favorites where and when appropriate.

It is worth noting that Harris was talking about getting the balance right even going into the second “season” of the comic book, perhaps a tacit acknowledgement of the delicate line that the comic had to walk.

First day back, Morales is high.

First day back, Morales is high.

To be fair to Hosts, the script makes a point to explain why Mulder and Scully have been saddled with a nineteen-year-old case. With Skinner promoted to the role of Deputy Directory, the duo find themselves assigned to Assistant Director Morales. In her first conversation with Mulder and Scully, Morales makes investigating old cases an explicit part of the X-files brief. “I’m particularly interested in old cases that haven’t been closed,” she explains, as if pitching some weird paranormal variation on Cold Case.

It is not an entirely convincing explanation within the context of the comic series. After all, if the FBI only has one unit specifically dedicated to these weird cases, surely it makes more sense for them to work active and on-going investigations? Cold case units are a great idea, but only because they don’t exist at the expense of active homicide divisions. Conveniently, Hosts does not have to tackle this particular issue. It turns out that there is an active case that (coincidentally) happens to involve a thread left dangling for two decades.

Previously on The X-Files...

Previously on The X-Files

However, there is something very generic in how Harris chooses to approach Fluke Man, opting to provide the audience with an “origin story” for the character that is rooted in the Chernobyl disaster. On the one hand, “let’s do an origin story” is the easiest possible path when trying to delve into a popular character. On the other hand, the interest in the Chernobyl disaster makes the comic feel particularly rooted in the nineties. After all, even Millennium offered its own unique take on the disaster in Maranatha.

In Harris’ defense, the writer leans into nostalgia. Hosts is very consciously about taking the basic idea of The Host, adding in an origin story, and grafting it to the basic structure of Jaws. The opening sequence quite heavily evokes Spielberg’s classic, right down to the panel of a beautiful woman glimpsed from below by a predator lurking in the depths. As the season heats up, Mulder complains, “The local beach industry is in full-on summer mode. I suspect the sheriff is protecting every economic concern when he tells me he doesn’t want me scaring the beachgoers.”

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

(In fact, Hosts could even be read as a cheeky homage to the absurd plot of Jaws: The Revenge. In the third sequel to Spielberg’s iconic blockbuster, Ellen Brody becomes convinced that a shark is specifically targeting her family to avenge the death of the shark in Jaws. Harris riffs on that concept, with Fluke Man avenging himself upon the sheriff of a small seaside town in response to memories of a past wrong. In a particularly nice touch, Jaws was distributed by Universal. In its own way, Harris is casting Fluke Man in a Universal monster movie.)

While there are points at which Hosts feels a little safe and familiar, Harris cannily ties it into some of the show’s core themes. After all, The X-Files has always been about memory and trauma. While there is something disappointing in having Mulder and Scully tied to past cases, there is something interesting in having Mulder and Scully digging through their own shared past in the same way that they seemed to investigate the shady corners of twentieth century American history. Hosts doesn’t do a lot with it, but it is there.

Melting... melting! Oh, what a world!

Melting… melting! Oh, what a world!

More than that, if Fluke Man absolutely positively has to have an origin, this is not the worst choice. The X-Files is packed with classic ghost stories about the victims of past wrongs avenging themselves upon those responsible for their demise. The first season is packed with episodes like Lazarus, Young at Heart and Born Again. Within the mythology, Scully talked about how ghosts are ultimately an expression of conscience calling out from history in Piper Maru and Apocrypha. This is not the most inventive origin, but it is the most X-Files origin.

More than that, there is something quite clever in the idea of the Fluke Man passing along its memories. It is implied that all of the Fluke Men share the same memories, which is itself a recurring theme of The X-Files. Informed by Chris Carter’s thoughts on tragedies like the Holocaust, The X-Files repeatedly suggests that the only way to prevent history from repeating is to document and record it. When Mulder is bitten by the Fluke Man, he finds its memories mingling with his own. Memories are viral, passing from person to person.

Remember, remember...

Remember, remember…

All of this allows Harris to position the comic as a commentary on the larger mythology. Some of the best standalones in the entire run of the show work because they so skilfully encapsulate the core themes and resonate with the larger structure of The X-Files. For example, Oubliette might be a simple “monster of the week” story, but it deals with misogynistic victimisation and trauma in a way that foreshadows Nisei and 731. Darin Morgan may never have written a mythology episode, but he fundamentally understands the series.

With Hosts, Harris does something quite similar with Fluke Man. Fluke Man becomes the legacy of a horrific cover-up, a shameful secret and a festering wound. Like the mythology itself, it is a story about the lingering effects of trauma, about how tragedy is not as easily escaped as one might hope. “My name was Mikhail Simonov,” confesses the sheriff to Mulder and Scully. “And I fear I was present for the beginning of this tragedy.” He may perhaps be present for the end of it, as well.

Ghosts of seasons past...

Ghosts of seasons past…

The Chernobyl disaster is presented as a trauma with lasting consequences, one that shaped and defined everybody involved in it much like the tendrils of the conspiracy at the heart of The X-Files have crept into every empty space. When Mikhail confesses his culpability to Mulder and Scully, it plays very much like a scene from a mythology episode, a character like the Cigarette-Smoking Man or Deep Throat or Bill Mulder laying bear their sins so that Mulder and Scully might judge them.

“We all were lied to, you understand,” Mikhail reflects. “We were all victims. Many of us perished that very day. Others died later, suffering cancers and burns and other such failings of health. But those of us who have lived for all this time have always understood the cost.” The choice of words is telling. Burning is one of the more frequent causes of death for those involved in the conspiracy, at least according to Patient X and The Red and the Black. Cancer is a recurring motif of the mythology, whether as “Cancer Man” or “the Black Cancer” or Scully’s cancer.

Boy, these sewers really could use some pest control...

Boy, these sewers really could use some pest control…

Hosts works well as an X-Files story, with Harris demonstrating a keen understanding of the core themes and ideas of the property with which he is working. However, it ultimately feels a little shallow, a little bit too much like retreading old ground without anything particularly novel or insightful. It is not a bad sequel to The Host, and it is not a bad X-Files story. It just lacks its own distinguishing features. Then again, perhaps it is not a surprise. Fluke Man has returned after twenty years, but he has not evolved.

You might be interested in our reviews of IDW’s “season 10” of The X-Files:

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2 Responses

  1. I have to say I really enjoyed this two parter. Probably my favorite part of Season 10. The 2 comics made it feel like it had enough space to tell the story without dragging it out. Also as someone who visits Martha’s Vineyard regularly for summer visits (I also got married there) I can tell you that the creative team nailed the look of the island. The airport, hospital, docks all look exactly like the real thing. Plus as a huge fan of Jaws which also filmed out there I love all the homages to that film as well. I think like you also said the standalones tended to age better then the mythology episodes and this story felt more satisfying then the rest of the season. It also took the concept of flukeman and made it as gross and scary as possible by doing what the TV show couldn’t do at the time. I still need to read season 11 but for me this is the highpoint of Harris’ run so far.

    • It’s good to know the level of care that went into the research of the issue. I hadn’t realised Jaws was filmed there, which makes the homage even more appropriate.

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