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The X-Files – Nothing Important Happened Today II (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

Of course, the ninth season was broadcast in a radically different world than the eighth season.

Nothing Important Happened Today I was broadcast early in November 2001, less than two months after hijackers commandeered control of several airline jets and sent them crashing into various American landmarks. The attacks upon the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon changed the world in a way that very few events can claim. History can be comfortably divided into “before 9/11” and “after 9/11”, a rare marker of cultural significance generally reserved for events like World Wars.

World on fire...

World on fire…

Tom Brokow has argued that 9/11 was “when the twenty-first century truly began.” Anne-Marie Slaughter argued that 9/11 was “the defining event of the new millennium.” Phillip E. Wegner suggested that 9/11 represented the end of “the long nineties” that had begun with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that 9/11 changed absolutely everything. It defined American foreign policy for over a decade after the fact, cemented a culture of anxiety and surveillance, cast an incredibly long shadow over world culture and politics.

Over two-and-a-half thousand people were killed on 9/11. Estimates suggest that up to twenty-one thousand civilians and more than two thousand American troops died during the War in Afghanistan. Studies suggest that up to half a million Iraqis have died of war-related causes and nearly four-and-a-half thousand American troops have died during the Iraq War. These are just the losses that can be tangibly measured; it is to say nothing of the lives caught in ripple effects and unforeseen (or foreseeable) consequences.

Shining a light on what happened...

Shining a light on what happened…

It is very cavalier and insensitive to suggest that The X-Files was a victim of 9/11 in any real sense. With everything else going on in the wake of 9/11, the cancellation of a television show means nothing. The cancellation of a show (even a popular show) is not even a footnote in any account of how the world changed. It is entirely reasonable to argue that The X-Files might have been cancelled even if 9/11 never happened. The show was nine years old, and had just lost one of its two leads. It was entirely possible that the show could never have recovered from that anyway.

Still, The X-Files was a show indelibly and undeniably anchored in the context of the nineties. It was a show that tapped into the zeitgeist in that historical lacuna following the end of the Cold War, when there were no more enemies to fight and where there was room for introspection and reflection about government authority. By the start of the ninth season, the show’s cultural moment had passed.

A Doggett lead...

A Doggett lead…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Anomaly (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Anomaly continues the sense that the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise is essentially a new first season of the show.

That is most obvious in the way that the script works hard to establish the ground rules of the Expanse. There is a sense that the episode is very clearly establishing rules and plot points that will come into play later in the run. Anomaly not only explains why mining for trellium-D is such a profitable enterprise; explaining that ships without it are susceptible to all sorts of strange distortions to the laws of physics. Anomaly also introduces the spheres, strange structures that will become a key part of the third season’s mythology.

A good man goes to war...

A good man goes to war…

The show is also marking out ground for later exploration. Anomaly becomes a lot more potent in hindsight, with various decisions here reversed in later episodes. In Anomaly, Archer is a victim of piracy; in Damage, he is forced to commit piracy. In Anomaly, Archer tortures a prisoner in order to procure information that he needs; in Countdown, Hoshi is tortured by Dolim in order to procure information that he needs. It is not entirely clear whether these plot beats were figured out ahead of time, but – like the destroyed Xindi home world in The Xindi – they lend the third season a nice sense of moral symmetry.

Most interestingly – and, perhaps, most pointedly – Anomaly represents a clear return to two very early episodes of the first season. The script of Anomaly touches quite overtly on plot points from Fight or Flight and Strange New World. In some ways, it could be seen as a belated do-over.

Sparks fly...

Sparks fly…

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Days Like This – 24:Day 8

24 is over. It’s a bit of a shock. Don’t worry, there will be a movie. At least, they promise there will be. Eventually. In fairness, long before the news that the show was going off the air, this season had the feel of a final season. Eight years is a long time for any television show to be on the air, not least of which one founded on such an interesting gimmick (though, admittedly, “real time” had its definition stretched over those eight years) and Day 8 felt like a perfectly dignified send off.

24 has a captive audience...

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24 for 24: The Best Cliffhangers

24 will bow out on UK and Irish television screens next week. I figured I’ll review the final season of the hit show, but I also thought I should do something a bit more special for the occasion. So, I decided I’d count down the top 24 cliffhangers. As those familiar with the show will know, each episode ends with a massive cliffhanger designed to reel the audience back in the following week. A major character is killed, someone is a mole, Jack does something almost unforgivable. Anyway, the best ones leave us hungry for more. So, over the eight years of the show, what are my personal best 24 moments?

The only reason you’re still conscious is because Jack Bauer doesn’t want to carry you…

Note: By its very nature, this article contains spoilers for all eight seasons. Don’t read it if you haven’t watched them yet, but still plan to. Even if you’re a casual fan of the show, some of these may shock you and ruin a good twist or two.

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My Top Ten Shows of the Decade

Yep, it’s retrospective time. I’ve done my top 50 movies of the past ten years, so it’s time for me to reflect on my top 10 television shows of the 00s. Prepare to be awed and mazed, shocked and astounded, angered and enraged, by the inclusions (and omissions) from my list. The good folks over at Television Without Pity included their favourite episode in each choice, so I think I’m going to run with that idea.

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Jack and Tony: Brothers in Arms?

I had the pleasure of rewatching bits and pieces of the seventh season of 24 with my parents (as they are equally avid fans of the show). We recently completed the final double episode and I have to admit that it only really occurred to me how well the writers had constructed Tony as a shadowy counterpart to their lead. I’ve already expressed my thoughts on the season as a whole, but I just thought I’d make a quick note of some of the more interesting parallels and ponder whether Jack is really so much better than Tony.

jacktony

Clothes colour coded for your convenience... white=good, black=bad....

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The Palmers: A Reflection of the Kennedys?

Senator Ted Kennedy passed away last week amid a media frenzy. What interested me most about the Senator’s passing was the revelation of how he spent his final days: watching Bond movies and the entire run of 24. There are worse entertainments to be found, to be sure. I wonder if he watched that hallmark American television show enthralled by the actions of Jack Bauer, or if he saw something more hidden away? He wouldn’t be the first to find parallels between the show’s African-American Presidential family and the illustrious Kennedy dynasty. Did he see a reflection of what might have been, in another life?

I like the flag. Patriotic touch.

I like the flag. Patriotic touch.

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What Kind of Day Has it Been? 24: Day 7 In Review

So, after a technical malfunction last night left us all watching The Mist, we caught a repeat of the 24 season finale last night. I have to say, I quite enjoyed it, as I quite enjoyed the whole day. It’s the first full season my brother has sat through, and my aunt and uncle seemed quite impressed with it too. I’m not sure how the whole season will rank up there in the pantheon of 24 seasons, but it was at least very watchable.

Jack Bauer helped U2 find what they were looking for. Fact.

Jack Bauer helped U2 find what they were looking for.

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Home Entertainment

I just finished the third season of The Wire on DVD. I am impressed. I never caught the show the first time around, so – as with many of today’s fine televisual treats – it seems to be one best sampled on DVD, at your own pace. It’s a fantastic saga that really capitalises on the previous two seasons (which, while very good fell just short of greatness). I may not be entirely convinced that it is, loike, the best TV show in the world… ever, but I can see why George Hook likes the show.

As I was watching the development of themes and character and mood in the twelve-hour set, I began to think about how far television has come within its own context in the past few years. I remember the days when it was the height of praise to describe a show as being like ‘a new movie every week’. The X-Files, Law & Order, Miami Vice and Star Trek: The Next Generation seemed to epitomise the early wave of this view point, as the networks seemed desperate to sell the illusion that viewers shouldn’t go out to the cinema – the can find entertainment of a similar scale on the box.

Not only can they look moody, the cast of The Wire can also act pretty damn awesome as well...

Not only can they look moody, the cast of The Wire can also act pretty damn awesome as well...

Of course, this wasn’t quite the case. No matter the loft heights that the narratives may reach (and the best television can be as compelling as the best movie or novel or play), the shows were always confined by the ceiling of their budget. So Crockett could crash a speedboat and watch it explode, but he couldn’t blow up a building, or Mulder could see an alien spaceship, but only from the distance as a sequence of blurry lights. You can really only fool the audience so often – eventually they’ll realise the champagne you’re serving is simply apple juice mixed with white lemonade. And treating television as literally a ‘home box office’ also confined the plot: each story had to be self-contained, or you couldn’t mess with the status quo too much, nor develop the characters too far beyond their original positions. It goes without saying that – unless you’re planning a franchise – movie makers rarely have to put the pieces back where they found them. Sure, shows might make a token effort – The X-Files mythology comes to mind – but it would plod rather than glide, if it moved at all.

Television isn’t filmmaking. That should go without saying. As such, it came as a bit of a surprise that it wasn’t really until the last fifteen or so years that writers and producers really embraced the idea. Movies have bigger budgets, but smaller canvas. Your plot pretty much has to fit within two hours (or four if you’re really powerful and can overpower the editor). A television show runs on average about one hundred and fifty episodes. It spans several years in the lives of a bunch of characters. Sometimes events don’t simply occur in handy forty-minute blocks.

As ever, science fiction lead the way, really – but didn’t get the credit. Babylon 5 embraced a complex narrative arc-structure that made the show nigh-impossible to casually follow. Many science fiction nuts would accuse one of the Star Trek spinoffs (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) of stealing the gimick with a densely layoured (yet still relatively accessible) two-and-a-half-year war storyline balancing a huge number of individual characters whose lives changed from week-to-week. Then again, it’s quite likely that not many people know either of these shows. The more geek-aware would note season-long arcs (again carefull constructed so as to not alienate casual followers) on Joss Whedon’s shows Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel.

The approach really made its jump to the mainstream with The West Wing. I love the show, but will readily admit that most of the time the plots made little-or-no-sense in-and-of-themselves, but rather played into larger arcs both in terms of narrative and character. Big events were seldom concluded within the same hour that they commenced (the shooting, the impeachment hearings, the re-election campaign, the middle east initiative, the primaries and the general election, for example). The show went down as the prestigious pretentious drama it was intended to be, but it began to signal that maybe a change was coming.

This was taken on Jack's day off...

This was taken on Jack's day off...

About the same time, Home Box Office began producing its own run of series. Oz, though I love it, was a glorified night time soap opera and a respectable first attempt. The Sopranos is generally acknowledged as their masterpiece, though those seeking to be a little contrarian will champion The Wire as the best HBO series. Either way, both unfolded almost as gigantic miniseries, needing to be viewed as a whole to be appreciated in their full beauty. Sure, most episodes of The Sopranos unfold around an issue of the week in Tony’s life, but these generally play as a solo movement in a larger concerto. I know nothing about music, so I don’t know if I messed up that metaphor.

At the same time, regular television shows such as Lost proved that modern audiences could follow an interweaving, no-answers-up-front style of storytelling, with a carefully-constructed six year arc. Well, either that or they’re making it up as they go along, depending on who you ask. Love it or loathe it, it represents a huge step forward in modern storytelling – contestably one story in 150 smaller chapters. A more obvious example is 24, where literally every hour on screen is an hour in Jack Bauer’s really bad day. The advent of the DVD market at around this time undoubtable helped these shows reach people who want a big story, but are afraid of missing an episode on the television.

I love that television seems to have found a unique way of telling a story. That’s how media evolves. Film took a while to find its feet (initially stalling in boring uninspired adaptations of stage plays), emulating an earlier media form much as television aspired to. Sure, you’ll still find a movie-of-the-week style show or two (Law & Order and the CSI franchise spring to mind), but even those shows seemingly following an episodic story format will infulge the odd long game (the CSI franchise like serial killers, unsurprisingly; Life on Mars saw Sam try to get home while solving the crime o’ the week; House is as much about the protagonists many, many, many on-going issues as it is the patient of the week).

I love movies. I also love television. Variety is the spice of life.

I’m ordering the fourth season of The Wire now…