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.
And I to him: “Poet, I thee entreat,
By that same God whom thou didst never know,
So that I may escape this woe and worse,
Thou wouldst conduct me there where thou hast said,
That I may see the portal of Saint Peter,
And those thou makest so disconsolate.”
Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.
Chris Carter had been away from television for over a decade when he brought The After to the screen.
The producer’s first television project since the conclusion of The X-Files, his post-apocalyptic survival story generated no shortage of interest. The pilot was snatched up by Amazon, the online retailer who were hoping to break into the changing market of on-line television. Even after spending years in semi-retirement, Carter had considerable cultural cache. It was quite clear that Amazon hoped to capitalise on the producer’s credibility as a way of demonstrating that they were serious about becoming content producers as well as providers.
The After is positioned on the cusp of a digital revolution. It is associated with one of the most prolific and successful television producers of the nineties, but it also exists at the launch of a new model of television production. Even the project’s development lifecycle seemed caught between two different eras. As with classic television production, Amazon instructed a variety of talent to produce pilot episodes before commissioning a series order. However, Amazon democratised that process; the shows would not be greenlit by executives, but by the audience itself.
Much like its characters, The After seems trapped between the old world and the new reality. It is a show that seems remarkably old-fashioned delivered in a novel fashion. It is no wonder that the series had a rather troubled life. It was greenlit by Amazon based on the strength of audience support, but it was subsequently ungreenlit for a variety of reasons that included very strong differences of opinion between Chris Carter and Amazon about how television should be produced. In some ways, The After feels like a misleading title. It feels more trapped in between.
The After is undeniably a Chris Carter production. The pilot is absolutely saturated with the producer’s pet interests and familiar iconography. The episodes retains Carter’s auteurish sensibilities. Indeed, the biggest surprise is that not one character is set on fire or has their eyes and mouth sewn shut. At one point, a character reflects on the symbolic importance of bees as it pertains to the end of the world, recalling Carter’s use of bees in Herrenvolk or The X-Files: Fight the Future.
However, watching The After, there is also a sense that Carter regards Millennium as his magnum opus. This is not a surprise, given the way that Carter has talked about his second series in the past. Millennium is very clearly a series that is close to Chris Carter’s heart, even if it never had the cultural cache of The X-Files. After all, Carter had to manoeuvre The X-Files through network structures and compromise, whereas he was allowed the freedom to develop Millennium as he saw fit. The result was a show with more gravity and less popular appeal than The X-Files.
The After is bookended by two obvious stylistic shout-outs to Millennium. The episode opens with Gigi having a very intense apocalyptic nightmare cut together from scenes later in the episode and broader end-of-the-world imagery. It recalls those intense flashes that would haunt Frank Black, right down to the vague implication that the imagery is as prophetic as symbolic. At the end of the episode, the characters come face to face with a literal demon in the woods. The design of the creature recalls that of the devils glimpsed in Gehenna or Lamentation.
There are countless other references and allusions towards Carter’s work on Millennium. At one point, the prostitute Tammy ruminates on biblical prophecy. “The Book of Revelation, have you ever read it?” she asks McCormack at one point. “I mean really read it?” Carter established biblical prophecy as a cornerstone of Millennium as early as The Pilot, with the Frenchman making allusions to the prophecies of Nostradamus and even quoting liberally from The Second Coming.
The After draws heavily from its own Christian texts and iconography. Carter very famously wanted to structure The After as an extended homage to Dante’s Divine Comedy, writing one episode for each of the poem’s cantos. Indeed, there are points at which The Pilot lines up quite smoothly with the first canto, from the ambiguous nature of the disaster (“I cannot well repeat how there I entered”) through to the climax of the episode (“I found myself within a forest dark”) and beyond. Even the demon recalls Dante’s panther with its “variegated skin.”
Even at the end of the episode, the strange demonic creature is marked in such a way as to evoke Millennium. When the survivors stumble across the beast, the first thing that the camera focuses upon is the image of a snake coiled in a circle. While it is not a literal ouroboros, it is close enough that it seems like a shout out to Millennium. It is also revealed that McCormack has a similar tattoo on his left hand at the joint between his thumb and his index finger. It seems like set-up for the reveal of some sort of secret cult or brotherhood.
Of course, The After resonates with Carter’s work beyond Millennium. In many respects, it feels like the logical conclusion of the producer’s work. Carter was always a writer with an uncanny understanding of the national mood, to the point that The X-Files and Millennium tapped perfectly into the zeitgeist of the nineties. Those shows were seeded with a deep-seated apocalyptic dread, a sense that the end of the world is lurking just over the horizon and that the collapse of civilisation is only a hair’s breadth away.
In The X-Files, this played out through the threat of colonisation. The conspirators and colonists were plotting to eradicated mankind. Talitha Cumi confirmed that global extinction was the conspiracy’s end game, with Mulder bearing witness to the horror out of his bedroom window in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati. The biggest revelation in The Truth was that the date had been firmly set and that the apocalypse would be arriving in December 2012. Given that The After was Carter’s first project after that deadline, the apocalyptic imagery seems appropriate.
Indeed, it could be argued that Carter’s projects have grown increasingly apocalyptic over time. Whereas colonisation provided a lingering and ambiguous threat hanging over the run of The X-Files, the very title of Millennium suggests its own internal countdown or deadline. Watching Frank Black attempting to protect his family, there was a sense that mankind was racing towards the collapse of civilised society. It should be noted that Gigi’s efforts to reunite with her family mirror Frank’s efforts to protect his own.
Although Carter seeded the idea of the looming end of the world during the first season of Millennium, the show’s second season would consciously build to a global apocalypse of untold magnitude. While the second season of Millennium was directly overseen by Glen Morgan and James Wong, Carter still signed off on the big decisions. Although he would consciously back away from the end of the world in The Innocents and Exegesis, Carter did greenlight the viral plague that swept across the world in The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now.
To be fair, Carter was not entirely comfortable with the end of the world as it occurred in The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now. A large number of the problems with the third season of Millennium can be traced to the decision to roll back the apocalypse as it unfolded in the second season finale. However, there is some indication that Carter has grown a little more comfortable with actually exploring the end of the world. Both The After and My Struggle II feel like Carter building upon the collapse of civilisation as witnessed by Frank Black all those years ago.
There is a sense that Carter was always building to something like this. The X-Files and Millennium seemed fascinated by the looming threat of global apocalypse, but Harsh Realm used its unique virtual reality setting to explore an apocalypse in parallel. In his short-lived science-fiction series, Carter explored a virtual copy of the real world that had actually collapsed. Jumping back and forth (and suggesting strange irrational connections) between the real world and the virtual world, Harsh Realm seemed to suggest that the world was in the process of collapsing.
Nevertheless, that was a long time ago. The eight episodes of Harsh Realm were produced in 1999, as the millennium approached. A lot had changed in the intervening years, even as aspects of Carter’s apocalyptic visions seemed increasingly prescient. Camera Obscura, the final episode of Harsh Realm, suggested a period of global upheaval following a brutal terrorist attack on New York City. The Millennium Group’s fixation upon a religious apocalypse feels more resonant in an era where ISIS seems driven by apocalyptic prophecy.
When Chris Carter returned to television after a decade away, it made sense that the producer would embrace the idea of the end of the world that had cast such a shadow over the rest of his work. As its title implies, The After unfolds in the wake of the apocalypse, after society has collapsed and everything has come undone at the seams. The precise nature of the apocalypse is kept vague enough that The After might comfortably fit within Chris Carter’s shared television universe. Did Carter tease the audience with a preview to My Struggle II?
As with his work on Millennium, there is a sense that Carter positions the apocalypse as the result of a social or communication breakdown. Repeatedly over the first season of Millennium, Carter suggested that the family unit was under attack or subject to corruption – the loose suburban trilogy of Wide Open, Weeds and The Well-Worn Lock are perhaps the best example of this statement. In The After, the collapse of society is portrayed as the erosion of basic services and connections; cops and medics stop responding and caring, mobile phones become useless.
When pressed for details, Gigi is informed, “Nobody knows how many are affected, or how widespread this whole mess is.” The breakdown of society is not the result of a single horrific or clearly-defined event, it is presented as the breakdown of basic civic order. Cops and medics don’t care about helping people. A security guard stops caring about his job and only cares about his self-interest, refusing to let Gigi into her hotel room until she bribes in. “Do you know what’s happening?” she asks. “End of the world, for all I know,” he replies.
Even though The After is ambiguous as to the precise cause of its apocalypse, the series suggests a grim inevitability to it. Raiding the fridge for caviar, Wade assures Gigi, “I work with people who have their hands on the hot buttons, who do work at the highest levels. And they all assure me that it’s not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’.” The apocalypse was always coming. It was inescapable and unavoidable. The world was always going to end, even if the timing and form of that end were never entirely certain. Alien invasion; biblical plague; ambiguous pandemic. Everything ends.
To be fair, this fascination with apocalypse is not unique to Carter’s work. Popular culture has also had an apocalyptic bent to it. After all, even the utopian future of Star Trek is built on no less than three cataclysmic and apocalyptic events from the Eugenics Wars to the Third World War to the Post-Atomic Horror. During the nineties, this fixation on the end of the world perhaps tapped into a combination of millennial anxiety and concerns about what it meant to be standing at what Francis Fukuyami described as the end of history.
This was perhaps best reflected in the abundance of films and television towards the end of the decade obsessed with the “reality” of the world as mankind perceives it; The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, eXistenz, The Matrix, The Truman Show, EdTV. This theme seemed to resonate with Carter, given the virtual reality themes of Harsh Realm and X-Files episodes like The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, First Person Shooter and X-Cops. Reality seemed like a fragile construct at the end of the twentieth century.
However, reality seemed to break during the early years of the twenty-first century. This was most obvious in the way that apocalyptic imagery came to dominate blockbuster cinema. The destruction wrought in Independence Day had been so effective because it was so striking and novel. However, it seemed like almost every twenty-first century blockbuster required an apocalyptic conflict couched in 9/11 imagery. Cloverfield, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, Star Trek Into Darkness, Guardians of the Galaxy, Man of Steel.
It is hard to know whether this reflects a true cultural shift. Are apocalyptic ideas any more prevalent now than they were during the nineties? It seems entirely possible that these shifts in apocalyptic storytelling are down to mere technological advances. It is a lot easier to render large-scale destruction with computer-generated imagery than it is using practical effects. Roland Emmerich might have always wanted to make 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow, but that only became possible following advances in special effects technology after the turn of the millennium.
Nevertheless, there was a renewed fascination with apocalyptic destruction and the end of the world in the early years of the twenty-first century. Zombies enjoyed a creative renaissance due to films like 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, [rec] and World War Z, while The Walking Dead became a cross-media franchise. Dystopian young adult novels like The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner and Divergent became breakout Hollywood hits.
Even standard post-apocalyptic films went through a revival, whether prestige fare like The Road or pulpier allegory like Book of Eli or even resurrected franchises like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or Mad Max: Fury Road. On television, those anxieties seemed to become more pronounced. Jericho might not have been a breakout hit, but it resonated with enough of the audience to develop a cult following. Revolution had arrived to considerable hype in September 2012, with many suggesting that it would be the next Lost.
In some ways, it could be argued that Chris Carter missed the apocalypse. By the time that the producer got to finally deliver on the end of the world, pop culture had been saturated with alternative ideas and depictions. The After and My Struggle II feel like the striking culmination of Chris Carter’s themes and ideas that have been bubbling away since the mid-nineties, but they also feel somewhat delayed and somewhat familiar. Carter seemed to predict and foreshadow this trend, but he also seemed to have missed it.
In a way, that is the biggest problem with The After. Arriving as part of Amazon’s pilot season, The After stands at the cusp of a new era of television. It was greenlit alongside shows like Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle and Bosch. However, Carter’s early interviews about the series suggested that it would an old-school distribution model:
Premiering in early 2015, The After will receive a slower rollout than say, Transparent, which debuts its entire 10 episodes at once in late September. Carter says his series will be released in four two-hour installments.
“Amazon is going to show these an episode at a time,” he said, “which I think is really good for this type of show. The audience likes to tease the clues out.”
In the era of online distribution through Netflix and Amazon, the release model had consciously shifted away from the template established by network television. Shows like House of Cards, Bloodline and Daredevil would release their entire seasons at the same moment, for audiences to consume at their leisure rather than weekly.
There is a sense that Carter is consciously sticking to a rather old-school and outdated storytelling and release model. Carter’s proposed model of distribution seems like something akin to broadcast television, where the network and production team stagger the production and release of the show to the audience. While that model is still in place for network television, it is very much at odds with the model of television embraced by online content providers like Netflix and Amazon.
There is a valid debate to be had about whether this approach is better or worse. Producing a show on a weekly basis allows the series to evolve and find its tone with the audience, making room for feedback and engagement. However, producing a show on a weekly basis also allows for panicked network interference or a truncated and hasty cancellation. While producing a block of eight or thirteen episodes outright and releasing them all at once limits how much a show can evolve over the course of a year, it does afford the production team greater artistic freedom.
Although The After was initially greenlit to series on the strength of the pilot, that decision was subsequently reversed by Amazon. It was a rather strange set of circumstances; The After was picked up for a season order, and then unceremoniously dropped. Given the profile of the show and its creator, it seems like a strange decision for a studio like Amazon to make. Appropriately enough, given its subject matter and influences, The After seemed to exist in limbo. It was neither killed outright nor allowed the opportunity to live.
However, this decision makes a certain amount of sense. In terms of style and sensibility, The After feels very much like a slice of nineties television with only a few nods to the new distribution model. Tammy is allowed to swim nude, for example. The episode runs for fifty-four minutes instead of simply forty. The characters can swear, with McCormack being particularly fond of that freedom and Francis voicing her own exhaustion at the gratuity of the language. However, in terms of form and structure, the pilot feels like a throwback to an old style of television.
Discussing the cancellation, Carter seemed to suggest that it was the result of some artistic differences between himself and Amazon studios:
“It was a hard sell from the beginning. It was eight characters in hell, and I really didn’t do a bible for the show because I wanted to discover what that was about. It was a hard sell, and it would have been an investment for them, if they were going to do eight episodes, of $40 million. I can understand their reluctance, and I still think I had eight great episodes.”
From his description, Carter makes it seem like there was a conflict between the type of television that he wanted to deliver and the kind that Amazon wanted to distribute.
This conflict is interesting, because it resurfaces a bit when Carter returns to television with The X-Files. In the modern era of television, it is generally accepted that a writer should plan and plot ahead. Particular emphasis is put on having a strong ending to ensure the longevity of the series in question. In contrast, Carter has always been a writer willing to follow his own instincts and to let the show find its own voice. This is most obvious in the way that the mythology of The X-Files evolved, in bits and pieces over the early years of the show.
In the modern “golden age” of television, there is an expectation that television should be novelistic. The success of shows like The Sopranos and The Wire have put an emphasis on the importance of the season arc and the larger story. In this day and age, there is a sense that a television series should be treated as a singular story rather than a collective of distinct stories. That attitude very much crept into the major networks with series like Lost, which were very much sold as singular stories rather than a premise that might support multiple stories.
Carter’s reluctance to right a series bible suggests an unwillingness to map out his long-term vision in a way that many contemporary audience members expect from a show. This would arguably become an issue with the revival of The X-Files, when many audience members and critics seemed to expect the show to wrap up loose ends and provide a clear sense of closure:
- “You had one job, X-Files! The one thing you needed to nail—the only thing that mattered—was a satisfying conclusion (or extension) of their relationship.”
- “All that the revival finale – and possible series finale – really needed to do was close this chapter satisfactorily, unwrinkle a bit of the mythology, and show our intrepid agents once more ready to take on the world together.”
- “Writing this right now, it’s not hard to imagine Chris Carter sitting in his very nice house, enjoying a relaxing beverage of some sort as he cackles to himself. Watching the finale in a vacuum, we have no shortage of frustration with the fact that, after being given six hours of network television in which to play, Carter chose to tell a story with no ending.”
The fact that Carter acknowledges his reluctance to prep a series bible for The After as a point of contention with Amazon underscores just how awkward Carter fits within the modern age of television. Indeed, one of the principle challenges facing the looming X-Files revival will be the question of how Carter and his writers adapt the story to twenty-first century televisual storytelling aesthetics.
The After foreshadows some of the looming controversy by making it clear that Carter is not going to completely and radically embrace the expectations of contemporary television viewers, for better or for worse. It could legitimately be argued that Carter adopted a very auteur sensibility to his work on The X-Files and Millennium, that – along with the work of producers like David E. Kelley and Aaron Sorkin – paved the way for a future generation of television producers and writers including figures like Vince Gilligan, David Chase and David Milch. But Carter is his own man.
There are points at which The After does feel very much rooted in a nineties aesthetic. There are several production choices that seem curiously outdated. Given the controversy that Carter would generate with Babylon, it is no surprise to see a number of ethnic and racial stereotypes here. McCormack is an insanely specific stereotype of a thuggish Northsider, a Dubliner with an abrasive personality and an affinity for vulgar language and alcohol consumption. At the climax, McCormack almost dies trying to steal booze. It is not particularly nuanced portrayal.
Similarly, the Mexican-American thugs at the climax also feel like crudely-drawn racial stereotypes that wandered out of a Grand Theft Auto videogame. There is something very tonedeaf about these portrayals of characters who are not white Americans. These portrayals would have been problematic in the context nineties, but they feel positively outdated in the context of the twenty-first century. It never feels like Carter is trying to be racist, but it does suggest that his writing has not been attuned since the nineties. This will be a bigger issue when it comes to Babylon.
Still, it should be stressed that Carter is still a veteran and experienced television producer. In many respects, Carter is an underrated director. His scripting and dialogue are frequently criticised, but he has a keen visual style that works very clearly and very effectively. For example, Carter repeatedly frames his characters as if to create the impression that they are trapped; silhouetted against the garage door or blocked off in against the seams in the reflective surface of the skyscraper.
Similarly, Carter repeatedly frames Gigi as if to marginalise her; he uses negative space and positioning to make her seem small and insignificant. There is a palpable sense of dread and anxiety running through the pilot, even before the ambiguous cataclysm occurs. Carter is a director with a very distinctive visual style and aesthetic. Little touches, like the focus on a child’s red balloon help to create a distinctive tone for his apocalyptic television series. After all, The X-Files and Millennium looked like nothing else on television, and a lot of that was down to Carter.
At the same time, The After does brush up against certain limitations. The show looks surprisingly cheap in places. In order to provide a suitably impressive scale to events, it seems like Carter has to effectively save production value. The cast of The After spend the first twenty minutes of the pilot locked in a parking garage, which makes it look almost like a student film. Later, they spend an extended period in a mansion. There is a sense that the show had a very limited budget, and the impressive set pieces forced the production team to make sacrifices elsewhere.
The After is an intriguing piece of television. It feels in many ways like an evolutionary link leading towards the X-Files revival, an indicator of what has changed and what has not changed about Chris Carter’s storytelling in the decade following the broadcast of The Truth.
- #1-5 – Believers
- #6-7 – Hosts
- #8 – Being for the Benefit of Mister X
- X-tra: The After – Pilot
- X-tra: The X-Cast – Episode 80 (Chris Carter’s “The After”)
- #9 – Chitter
- X-tra: Conspiracy (IDW)
- #10 – More Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man
- X-tra: Annual (IDW) 2014
- #11-15 – Pilgrims
- X-tra: The X-Files Files
- #16-17 – Immaculate
- X-tra: Year Zero (IDW) #1-5
- #18 – Monica and John
- X-tra: Christmas Special (IDW) 2014
- #19-20 – G-23
- X-tra: Millennium (IDW) #1-5
- #21-25 – Elders