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The X-Files: Season 10 (IDW) #19-20 – G-23 (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.

One of the more underrated aspects of The X-Files: Season 10 is the care that writer Joe Harris takes to emulate the structure and tone of a regular season of The X-Files.

There are obvious structural differences, of course. Twenty-five issues cannot possibly correspond to twenty-five episodes of television, and the comic ran for over two years rather than across nine months. Nevertheless, Harris works hard to ensure that the comic book series adopted a structure rather similar to that of the television series. The X-Files: Season 10 has a flow to it that feels vaguely like the structure of those classic nineties seasons, albeit with fewer individual stories due to the nature of the medium.

Ol' green eyes is back...

Ol’ green eyes is back…

Believers was an epic mythology season premiere, akin to The Blessing Way and Paper Clip or Redux I and Redux II. Pilgrims was a big mid-season mythology adventure like Nisei and 731 or Piper Maru and Apocrypha. Elders is an epic game-changing season finale, like The Erlenmeyer Flask or Anasazi or Requiem. Even stand-alone character-centric stories like Being for the Benefit of Mister X or More Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man recall episodes focusing on supporting characters like Zero Sum or En Ami.

With that in mind, G-23 is very much the weird mind-bending off-format episode that tends to appear towards the end of the season. Indeed, Harris boasted on Twitter that the end of the season would “include an… off-beat story.” In that light, G-23 feels very much like an affectionate nod to trippy stories like Demons, Folie à Deux and Field Trip. Indeed, it is something of a precursor to the positioning of Babylon within the revival series.

Poster child...

Poster child…

As veteran X-Files critic and writer Christopher Knowles has noted, the later seasons of the series tended to put an emphasis on the idea of consciousness expansion towards the end of the season right before the big mythology story. Mulder and Scully find themselves literally trapped inside a big hallucinatory mushroom in Field Trip, right before Mulder finds himself driven to madness in Biogenesis and finds himself confronting a number of deeply personal and highly symbolic visions in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.

The pattern holds true even into the revival. Babylon finds Mulder taking (what he at least believes to be) magic mushrooms before embarking on a vision quest and spiritual communion with Shiraz. Towards the end of the episode, with Mulder reaching a state of blissful communion with the universe, our hero is able to hear the sound of trumpets symbolising divine will and judgment. My Struggle II finds Mulder tripped out and sweaty, as the horrors of the conspiracy are finally unleashed upon the world.

Daytrippin'...

Daytrippin’…

With that in mind, G-23 feels very much in keeping with the style and tone of The X-Files, affording Mulder yet another trippy experience right before everything hits the fan. As with a lot of The X-Files: Season 10, it is quite clear that Joe Harris appreciates and understands The X-Files. One of the more intriguing aspects of The X-Files: Season 10 is watching Harris stake out similarly thematic ground to the forthcoming revival in his own way, offering an alternative (and ultimately thwarted) take on reviving The X-Files for the twenty-first century.

There are subtle nuances, of course. In both Field Trip and Babylon, mushrooms are the psychedelic consciousness-expanding vehicle of choice. In G-23, Mulder opts for an experimental form of cannabis. The eponymous strain is clearly modeled on that familiar urban legend about a strain of marijuana that was specifically designed by the government but managed to escape into the wild. The strain from the urban legend is “G-13”, with the “G” standing for “government” and “13” referring to the thirteenth letter, “m.” Of course,“23” is “x.”

If Mulder weren't a little preoccupied right now, he'd have a killer one-liner...

If Mulder weren’t a little preoccupied right now, he’d have a killer one-liner…

G-23 is perfect fodder for an X-Files case on a number of levels. The idea of a government-designed super drug resonates with the origin and development of LSD as part of the MK-ULTRA project. Those horrific government experiments upon uninformed civilians have been well-documented and exposed, but still sound like paranoid conspiracy theories. Given how deeply The X-Files is rooted in paranoid conspiracy culture, and how human experimentation bubbles through episodes like F. Emasculata and Terma, it seems like a sound jumping-off point.

More than that, G-23 hits on one of the big recurring themes of The X-Files. The show returns time and time again to the seventies as a moment of cultural disillusionment; Watergate and Vietnam are arguably the twin tragedies that helped shape the series’ cynical attitude towards authority. Although produced in the nineties, the seventies cast a long shadow over The X-Files. Mulder’s first informant was named Deep Throat. Samantha Mulder was abducted in November 1973. The conspirators sold out mankind early in that decade.

"And take your stinkin' hippie friend too..."

“And take your stinkin’ hippie friend too…”

Part of the narrative is the death of sixties idealism. Utopian thought gave way to a world-weary cynicism. Progress in civil rights was eroded by a global recession. The free love and idealism of the counterculture movement collapsed into a nightmare of urban decay. Some of this taint proved be retroactive. In the wake of the Watergate Scandal and following the resignation of President Richard Nixon, President Gerard Ford created the President’s Commission on CIA Activities within the United States to delve into the Agency’s activities on American soil.

This project uncovered a myriad of secrets kept from the American public, but one of the most interesting was the secret history of LSD. Project MK-ULTRA had been greenlit by CIA director Allen Dulles in April 1953, in response to reports of brainwashed American servicemen who had been captured by the communists during the Korean War. The goal was to create chemical agents that would allow the CIA to manipulate its enemies. Research with such compounds took place in universities, where chemicals like LSD eventually found their way out of the lab.

Lighting the way...

Lighting the way…

These revelations caused something of a crisis of identity for the counterculture movement. At a panel in October 1977, Allen Ginsberg wondered, “Am I, Allen Ginsberg, the product of one of the CIA’s lamentable, ill-advised, or triumphantly successful experiments in mind control? Had they by conscious plan or inadvertent Pandora’s Box, let loose the whole LSD fad on the U.S. and the world?” As John Marks summarised:

CIA officials never meant that the likes of Leary, Kesey, and Ginsberg should be turned on. Yet these men were, and they, along with many of the lesser-known experimental subjects, like Harvard’s Ralph Blum, created the climate whereby LSD escaped the government’s control and became available by the early sixties on the black market. No one at the Agency apparently foresaw that young Americans would voluntarily take the drug—whether for consciousness expansion or recreational purposes. The MKULTRA experts were mainly on a control trip, and they proved incapable of gaining insight from their own LSD experiences of how others less fixated on making people do their bidding would react to the drug.

There is an interesting existential crisis underpinning all of this. Was the entire counterculture movement rooted in conspiracies by the very authorities that it had sought to reject? Was that utopian ideal corrupted by the fact that these drugs had originally been harnessed and cultivated as government tools? Were the romantic dreams of the sixties based on a lie and fueled by the cynical agenda of the powers that be?

Bad trip! Bad trip!

Bad trip! Bad trip!

When Mulder visits the Lone Gunmen, Langly explains, “You know, the way I’ve heard it said, the government was determined to undermine the growing countercultural movement in the 1960s.” The involvement of the Lone Gunmen in this story feels appropriate; the characters have repeatedly been portrayed as the embodiment of lost sixties idealism. This was repeatedly emphasised over the run of The Lone Gunmen, but it is worth noting that their members include a long-haired hippie and a man named in honour of JFK.

The flashback sequences that open G-23 are set in 1966; it is suggested that this was the point at which the government-engineered super drug escaped from the lab into the public consciousness. 1966 is a very important year when it comes to mapping the collapse of sixties idealism and the emergence of seventies cynicism. It was the year when LSD was officially outlawed in California, creating another textual connection between “G-23” and its real-life counterpart. LSD would be outlawed across the country by 1968.

The remains of the day(trippers)...

The remains of the day(trippers)…

More than that, 1966 exists right on the eve of the so-called “Summer of Love.” Representing the moment at which counterculture really entered mainstream attention, the Summer of Love found a variety of hippies and icons descending upon the city of San Francisco in January 1967. However, this cultural moment could not last. By October 1967, most of the movement had drifted away and members of the community staged a symbolic funeral to mark “the death of the hippie.” Whatever ideal of pacifism and hope had brought those people together was extinguished.

This is reflected in G-23 itself. As Mulder discovers the remains of the compound where the drug was designed by the government, “Red” refers to the destroyed lab as “the ruins of Shangri-La.” The description feels appropriate, a nod towards the mythic utopia hidden deep within the Kunlun mountains. It feels appropriate to invoke eastern imagery when discussing the counterculture movement of the sixties, and the observation that the site is in “ruins” suggests the death of that romantic fantasy.

Colour Mulder excited...

Colour Mulder excited…

G-23 positions the origin of the eponymous strain around the point where the optimism of the sixties gave way to the disillusionment of the seventies. That cultural moment seems to hold a powerful fascination for contemporary audiences. X-Men: Days of Future Past had a built a blockbuster around that change. The following year, the final season of Mad Men would explore the end of the sixties. David Duchovny would headline the NBC series Aquarius about that shift, when the Summer of Love gave way to the Manson Murders.

Perhaps this just reflects a shift in contemporary nostalgia. Towards the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, it seemed like the world was caught up in a strong sense of nostalgia for the sixties. President Barrack Obama was likened repeatedly to President John F. Kennedy. JJ Abrams took Star Trek back to its primary colour roots. Matthew Vaughn offer a comic book period piece with X-Men: First Class. Even films like Interstellar looked longingly to the space race excitement and potential of the sixties.

Feeling some alien nation...

Feeling some alien nation…

However, that nostalgia eventually crept forward. By the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, it seemed as though nostalgia was more keenly focused on the seventies rather than the sixties. The summer of 2016 saw the release of a number of high-profile films set during the seventies in rapid succession, including The Nice Guys, The Conjuring 2 and Elvis and Nixon. If one adheres to the view that nostalgia moves in cycles, then nostalgia had simply inched a decade forward.

Perhaps there was more to it than that. Perhaps the shift in contemporary nostalgia away from the sixties and towards the seventies reflects a shift in the cultural mood. After all, sixties optimism seemed entirely appropriate for the early years of the Obama presidency. Young people were engaged with (and excited about) politics following a period of extreme political conservatism. However, that enthusiasm faded over time. “Hope” does not always shine eternal. The bright and optimistic moment must end.

"I just take it for my pain. I did get burnt alive, you remember?"

“I just take it for my pain. I did get burnt alive, you remember?”

After all, the excitement and novelty of Barrack Obama’s engaged and exciting candidacy could not last. Following his two terms in office, it seemed like there was a shift back to the familiar; to business as usual. Bernie Sanders proved too revolutionary for contemporary voters, with Hillary Clinton securing the Democratic Party’s nomination. Although there is a tendency among millennials to downplay Clinton’s accomplishments and successes, there is no denying that she is an establishment figure and a much more conventional choice than Obama or Sanders.

In some ways, it seems like the perfect time for The X-Files to return to public consciousness. Of course, the wave of nineties nostalgia helped in its own way. It could be argued that the revival of The X-Files reflects something of a nested nostalgia; the original show’s fascination with the seventies filtered through the contemporary fascination with the nineties. The same might also be true of The Nice Guys, which is a nineties buddy action comedy throwback set against the backdrop of the seventies.

A vial plan...

A vial plan…

G-23 mines this fertile vein of generational anxiety. The sixties and seventies represented a point of disillusionment for the so-called “Generation X”, a point at which a schism seemed to develop between parents and their children. Of all characters, the Cigarette-Smoking Man becomes a vehicle for this anxiety. “It must be difficult for a father, to watch your children navigate this world we’re leaving them,” he advises Bill Mulder in the opening scene. During his first conversation with Mulder, the two explicitly hash out his complicated relationship with his son.

In the form of “Red”, the Cigarette-Smoking Man warns Mulder of the damage done by counterculture’s influence on young impressionable minds. “One moment you’ve got a good kid on your hands,” he explains. “Straight as an arrow with a commitment to truth and accountability. Then they succumb to temptation and earthly delights. Next thing you know, he never listens anymore.” G-23 touches upon the generational divide that fueled so much of The X-Files, the divide between parents and children in which the latter dared to question the former.

The road to ruination...

The road to ruination…

There is something strangely affecting about Joe Harris’ portrayal of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. Across the run of The X-Files: Season 10, Harris presents the Cigarette-Smoking Man as an almost tragic figure. It is an interpretation of the character that feels heavily indebted to early episodes like One Breath, stories that suggested a perverse integrity to the character instead of treating him as the living embodiment of all-consuming hunger for power. Ever since his reintroduction in Believers, it seems like the Cigarette-Smoking Man might be trying to connect with Mulder.

The Cigarette-Smoking Man is repeatedly shown to be conspiring against Gibson Praise, which allies his interests with those of Mulder and Scully. Gibson is explicitly aware of that fact in Pilgrims. The Cigarette-Smoking Man is even more helpful in Elders, buying Mulder time to escape, destroying the clones of the conspirators and even guiding Scully to Cuba. It is debatable as to how much of that is the Cigarette-Smoking Man acting autonomously, but the story positions the character more akin to an ambiguous ally than a sinister nemesis.

Mulder's on the special sauce(rs)...

Mulder’s on the special sauce(rs)…

There is particular emphasis on the role of the Cigarette-Smoking Man as a father figure. In More Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, it is the Cigarette-Smoking Man who assigns Mulder the nickname of “Spooky”, a detail repeated here. In G-23, the Cigarette-Smoking Man affords Mulder the chance to bring closure to the legacy of Bill Mulder. Even in The X-Files Christmas Special 2014, the Cigarette-Smoking Man reflects on his affection for Mulder. “I’ve looked after him all this time,” he confesses. He is rewarded with a packet of cigarettes.

“I’ve saved this Republic more times over the decades than any medals-chested admiral of pantywaist president ever did,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man protests at one point, trying to justify himself to Mulder. He claims to be genuinely ashamed of the connection between the government and the eponymous narcotic. “Americans might have cause to suspect their government’s activities, but I’ve always believed there at least some things it should never be party to.” Of course, the closing pages suggest the character’s motivations to be less than altruistic.

Doing the hippie shake...

Doing the hippie shake…

Still, there is something quite striking about all of this, particularly in the way that Harris renders the Cigarette-Smoking Man a much more pathetic and pitiable figure than his television counterpart. On top of that, G-23 layers on the Freudian symbolism as the Cigarette-Smoking Man follows Mulder down the proverbial rabbit hole. It is strongly implied that the Cigarette-Smoking Man adopts the personas of Diana Fowley and Dana Scully during Mulder’s hallucinations, which is a decidedly creepy detail.

Even if the Cigarette-Smoking Man is not literally “Red”, Mulder’s subconscious creates an implicit link between Scully and the Cigarette-Smoking Man as “Red” puffs away on a cigarette and talks about paternal responsibilities. It is a delightfully weird and surreal collection of imagery with a wealth of subtext. Indeed, the “trip” sequence in G-23 seems to prefigure Mulder’s experience in Babylon. There is are no shots of the Lone Gunmen wearing cowboy hats, but a conflation of important figures in Mulder’s life suggesting strange connections and parallels.

Where's his head at?

Where’s his head at?

Indeed, the flashback sequences of G-23 find Mulder buying the iconic “I Want to Believe” poster from a Head Shop in Washington D.C. This is a continuity detail that can be traced back to Chinga, but it fits very much with the tone of the story and arguably the series around it. “I Want to Believe” suggests mysteries that are as much existential as they are paranormal. Particularly in its later seasons, The X-Files turned its perspective inwards. The End suggested that everybody was a little alien; Existence suggested “the truth” was in Mulder’s bond to Scully and William.

For all its cynicism about authority, a strange optimism bubbles through the run of the show. The final lines of The Truth suggest that “there’s hope.” Mulder is searching in the hope of finding something. Indeed, as Mulder and Fowley discuss reopening the X-files in G-23, Mulder casts the decision as a rejection of cynicism. “I’m done with profiling and uncovering the worst in people,” Mulder states. The X-files promise something more, an idea which Darin Morgan would explore in Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.

Little monsters...

Little monsters…

(The Head Shop flashback sequence invites some more of the comic book’s suitably meta discussion of continuity. Although Joe Harris is very clearly depicting a scene that was suggested by dialogue from an episode that was broadcast at the height of the show’s popularity, he takes pains to render it ambiguous and to suggest that the version of events presented here might be unreal. “You do realise none of this happened this way, don’t you?” Diana challenges him, perhaps in the persona of the Cigarette-Smoking Man or perhaps as Mulder’s inner voice.)

That said, G-23 doesn’t really work as well as it might. The story is just a little bit too disjointed, even excusing the sorts of logical leaps and gaps that a reader expects from a story about a drug trip. What exactly does the Cigarette-Smoking Man want with the sample? Why does the Cigarette-Smoking Man need Mulder to recover the sample? Surely the first place you would look for the drug would be in the remains of the laboratory where it was cultivated? What is the point of having Langly along for the ride?

Keep it handy...

Keep it handy…

There is also the simple fact that artist Tom Mandrake seems an awkward fit for the sections of the story that are not drug trip hallucinations. Mandrake is a fantastic comic book artist. He is one of the best horror artists working in contemporary comics. His work with writer John Ostrander on The Spectre is one of the most underrated comic book runs of the nineties. He did fantastic work on The X-Files/30 Days of Night, which remains one of the most enjoyable X-Files tie-ins ever produced in no small part due to Mandrake’s contributions.

The X-Files: Season 10 has enjoyed a number of top-notch artistic teams. One of the best things about IDW’s work with the license has been a willingness to move away from the rigid fixation on “likeness” that seemed to fence in so many of the Topps comics. IDW is perfectly willing to embrace heavy stylised artwork when it comes to The X-Files, which is something that suits the source material quite well. The X-Files was a hugely stylised show, it makes sense that the comic would also be hugely stylised.

Bright ideas...

Bright ideas…

Indeed, More Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man might just be the best looking X-Files comic ever published. Artist menton3 offered a more impressionistic and abstract style to journey through the memories of the eponymous nicotine fiend. More Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man looks amazing, its artwork at once beautiful and disconcerting. It makes sense to draft veteran artist Tom Mandrake to provide artwork for a two-issue story. Mandrake’s artwork frequently evokes the style of Gene Colan on Tomb of Dracula. It feels like a horror comic.

Mandrake’s art works very well during the trippy sequences in the second issue, with images blurring into one another as time and space seem to warp and bend. However, G-23 suffers when Mandrake is asked to provide the more conventional scenes; the exposition, the conversations, the set up. There is a very clear attempt to contrast these more mundane sequences with Mulder’s later drug trip, but it doesn’t quite work. Mandrake’s art tends to flow, so rigidly boxing it into clearly delineated panels removes a lot of the appeal.

Putting him is tidy little boxes...

Putting him in tidy little boxes…

Still, even though G-23 doesn’t work as well as it might, it is still an interesting experiment that speaks to Harris’ appreciation for his source material. More than that, the idea of doing a trippy drug-fueled “weird” story right before the epic finale serves as a nice taste of things to come.

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

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for the background search on the 1960s drug culture in particular and the G-13/G-23 naming trivia, one doesn’t always come across these details handily! And odd that Carter didn’t delve into these themes more than the little he did (e.g. Millennium’s Exegesis). There was a lot of potential there, and Harris knew well how to choose his stories.

    • Thanks! I like to think I bring something of interest to the conversation!

      Millennium Season Three is saturated with these sorts of “consciousness expansion” themes, quite literally given the way that the show touches on Buddhism and trepanning and the mind’s eye and remote viewing. I’d always interpreted those themes as coming more from Chip Johannessen than Chris Carter, but there’s a very strong overlap and it definitely fits quite well with the themes of episodes like Demons, Field Trip, Folie a Deux. (One of my followers on Twitter suggested that even the first half of Anasazi fits the pattern.)

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