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The X-Files – S.R. 819 (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

And we’re back on familiar ground.

The first half of sixth season of The X-Files is perhaps the weirdest that the show ever really became. It seemed like the series transformed into a goofy workplace romantic comedy, as Mulder and Scully worked at boring desk jobs during the day before investigating paranormal activity together in their spare time. It was utterly unlike anything that the show had done before or anything that it would do after. It is very strange to see so many oddities packed together so tightly.

He survived by the Skin(ner) of his teeth...

He survived by the Skin(ner) of his teeth…

Triangle, Dreamland I, Dreamland II, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas and The Rain King have enough surreal content to sustain two or three seasons of The X-Files. Broadcasting them almost back-to-back left some fans a little shell-shocked. At the time, it must have seemed like The X-Files had become a completely different television show than it had been only five or six months earlier. However, with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clear that those episodes were just a very strange blip in the larger context of the series.

S.R. 819 is the episode that marks the clear return to the classic “tried and tested” model of The X-Files. It has everything from ambiguous conspiracies to body horror to car park confrontations. It is very much business as usual. Which is both the best and worst thing about it.

Do the Mathes, son...

Do the Mathes, son…

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John Rozum and Alex Saviuk/Charles Adlard/Gordon Purcell’s Run on The X-Files (Topps) (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

It is amazing to think that Topps’ licensed comic book tie-in to The X-Files lasted three-and-a-half years, let alone that it was such a success that it spawned a second on-going series, a miniseries and a considerable volume of one-shots and digests and annuals. If anything, Topps enjoyed greater success exploiting the license than even IDW has – despite the fact that Topps was a relatively young company with minimal experience in comic book publishing while IDW has a reputation for (and a lot of experience at) skilfully leveraging these sorts of tie-in properties.

This success would be remarkable in any context, but the comic book succeeded at a time of turmoil for the entire comic book industry. The late nineties were not a good time for comics, with the speculation bubble imploding and Marvel filing for bankruptcy. The success of Topps’ X-Files comic book is in many way a triumph of the brand, yet another reminder of how the series was on top of the world. There were lots of others – the ratings, the film, the tie-in video game – but the success of the comic was part of the narrative of The X-Files at this stage of its life.

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The comics themselves are actually surprisingly good. There is a reason that one of the first things that IDW did upon receiving the license was to publish “classic” collections of these comics. One of the more interesting aspects of the monthly series was the way that it managed to feel like The X-Files while still seeming suited to the medium in question. Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard pitched their run as something akin to a Vertigo comic, feeling like a crossover between The X-Files and the work of Grant Morrison or Neil Gaiman.

The influences on John Rozum’s run are a lot less ambitious. Time and time again, Rozum seems to position his run on The X-Files as a rather strange hybrid between the first season of the television series and pulpy fifties horror comics. There are quite a few stories in Rozum’s run that might easily be read alongside Fantagraphics’ E.C. Comics archives, albeit guest starring Mulder and Scully. (And modern fashions. And phones. And so on.) It is a perfectly reasonable and legitimate way to approach the idea of “X-Files comic books.”

xfiles-beprepared3

Indeed, it seems especially reasonable given the existing tensions between Ten Thirteen and Topps over the comics. The relationship had been fraught since the early days of the comic, with Ten Thirteen objecting to both Petrucha’s dense and ambitious plotting and Adlard’s moody and atmospheric art. Petrucha was fired from the title after sixteen issues, while Adlard was phased out in favour of better likeness artists like Gordon Purcell or Alex Saviuk. Ten Thirteen wanted a safer and more conventional comic book under Rozum’s pen, and they got it.

While it is easy to understand why these creative decisions were made, it does not make them any more palatable. Rozum’s work on The X-Files is generally quite consistent and occasionally even impressive. But it seldom seems ambitious or exciting. Under Petrucha, the tie-in comic carved out its own space that intersected with the parent show. Under Rozum, the comic book seems to do nothing but skirt the margins.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – First Flight (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 April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

First Flight is a prequel to a prequel.

First Flight unfolds before the events of Broken Bow, providing something of a belated origin story for Captain Jonathan Archer. The tail end of the second season feels like an odd place for such a story. The decision to air First Flight and Bounty as a double feature meant that First Flight premiered only a week before The Expanse, an episode that changed everything that fans thought they knew about Star Trek: Enterprise. Then again, perhaps this is the perfect place for an episode like this.

Ground Control to Commander Robinson... Ground Control to Commander Robinson...

Ground Control to Commander Robinson… Ground Control to Commander Robinson…

Much of the final stretch of the second season of Enterprise is introspective and reflective. The show seems aware that a big change is coming, and takes the opportunity of these last few episodes to look back on a classic model of Star Trek. Judgment puts Archer on trial; Cogenitor wonders whether old-fashioned Star Trek morality plays can still work in the twenty-first century; Regeneration finds the Borg lying among the (literal) wreckage of Star Trek: The Next Generation. First Flight opens with the death of Captain A.G. Robinson, a character we never met before.

More to the point, First Flight opens with the death of the man who was almost the captain of the Enterprise. On the cusp of a creative change in direction that effectively kills the show as it existed in the first two seasons, First Flight is pretty heavy on the symbolism.

... Take your protein pill and put your helmet on...

… Take your protein pill and put your helmet on…

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The X-Files – Zero Sum (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

For all that The X-Files exists in a murky shadow world populated by ambiguous figures and a government conspiracy dating back generations, the show has a pretty straightforward sense of morality. No good can stem from evil, the show seems to suggest; the show’s central mythology repeatedly has Mulder and Scully confront the legacy of sins committed by their forefathers. Even the title of Zero Sum alludes to the hollowness of Walter Skinner’s deal with the devil, his moral compromise that has no demonstrable benefit and severe demonstrable harm.

In Memento Mori, Walter Skinner compromised himself. He made a deal with the Cigarette-Smoking Man, in return for Agent Scully’s continued well-being. “What’ll it take?” Skinner asked, desperate for a chance to save Dana Scully. Ever ambiguous, the Cigarette-Smoking Man offered, “Well, I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Unfolding a few months later, Zero Sum is essentially about paying the piper. It is Walter Skinner settling up with the Cigarette-Smoking Man. He rolls up his sleeves and jumps into the dirty work.

Fire and brimstone...

Fire and brimstone…

Zero Sum is a story that you could not tell with Mulder. Although Mulder never faces the same choice as Skinner, the show has been quite consistent in its portrayal of Mulder’s morality. Mulder does not compromise; Mulder does not subscribe to the theory that a deal with the devil could ever pay dividends. In contrast, Skinner is a more ambiguous and pragmatic figure. Skinner spent significant sections of the second season caught between Mulder and the Cigarette-Smoking Man. The show only firmly committed him to Mulder and Scully in Paper Clip.

Zero Sum is a fantastic example of how the world of The X-Files has really grown and expanded around the lead characters. While the show will never quite develop into an ensemble, it is a series with a broad cast. It makes sense that it should begin to use them in a productive manner.

"Walter Skinner, F.B.I."

“Walter Skinner, F.B.I.”

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Search, Part II (Review)

The September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

In a way, The Search feels almost like a parody of the classic Star Trek season-bridging cliffhanger. It is a story told under the same title, but with both halves of the story feeling distinct enough to stand on their own two feet. Written by two different writers and directed by two different directors, it very much feels like two very different stories linked primarily by an efficient cliffhanger.

It’s not radically dissimilar to the two-parters from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Redemption and Descent come to mind, two-part adventures that very much feel like two different stories melded together rather than one single over-arching story. This disjointedness makes a great deal of sense, given the standard operating procedure when it came to Star Trek cliffhangers, as established by Michael Piller with The Best of Both Worlds, Part I. The logic is simple: write part one; go away for a few months; return and try to write part two.

Of course, The Search very clearly isn’t a season-bridging cliffhanger. It’s a season-opening two-parter. And it’s so cleverly and consciously structured as two very different episodes that it can’t help but feel like a sly nod at the inevitable outcome of that approach to writing – playfully self-aware of how disjointed the whole experience feels as a single story.

A whole new Vorta problem...

A whole new Vorta problem…

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