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The Lone Gunmen – The Lying Game (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

The Lying Game is perhaps most well known for its central guest star.

The Lying Game is the episode in which the Lone Gunmen find themselves crossing paths with Assistant Director Walter Skinner. It was a pretty big deal, to the point that Skinner’s appearance towards the end of the season was being hyped in the media immediately following the broadcast of The Pilot, almost two months before the episode actually aired. It wasn’t the first crossover between two Ten Thirteen shows, but it was still a pretty big deal. It makes sense that discussion of The Lying Game would focus on its visiting supporting player.

Some hot Skinner-on-Skinner action...

Some hot Skinner-on-Skinner action…

However, The Lying Game is also notable for featuring a significant transgender guest character. Carol Strode is most significant transgender character to appear in a Ten Thirteen production. As one might expect given the production company’s awkward history with the portrayal of homosexual characters, the results are mixed. There is no question that the episode is well-intentioned, but it is also clumsy and occasionally ill-judged. Even the title would suggest as much, albeit more through absent-minded insensitivity than outright malice.

The Lying Game has its heart in the right place, but doesn’t necessarily have its head in gear.

Surviving by the Skin of his teeth...

Surviving by the Skin of his teeth…

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The X-Files – The Gift (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

Sweeps have arrived. And so has David Duchovny.

David Duchovny appeared in three of the four episodes of The X-Files broadcast in February 2001. (The fourth, Medusa, is very much the “blockbuster” episode of this stretch of the season, with a large budget and impressive scale.) This was very much a conscious choice on the part of the production team. Although Duchovny’s shooting schedule meant that the episodes were filmed across the season, the show made a choice to broadcast them all as part the February Sweeps.

He's back...

He’s back…

Indeed, even the order of the episodes in question has been jumbled around. The Gift is the third broadcast episode of the eighth season to feature an appearance by David Duchovny; it was filmed before Badlaa, but broadcast after it so as to open the Sweeps season. However, Per Manum would be the fourth broadcast episode of the eighth season to feature an appearance by David Duchovny; not only was it filmed before The Gift, it was actually filmed between Via Negativa and Surekill.

There is a sense, looking at the differences between the production and broadcast orders of the eighth season, that the production team were well aware of just how big a deal the return of David Duchovny would be. In fact, the decision to broadcast The Gift before Per Manum seems like a very canny attempt to tease those viewers excited about the return of Mulder. The character is much more prominent in Per Manum, so it feels like the decision to air his smaller supporting role in The Gift earlier is an effort in building suspense and excitement.

"The name's Doggett, John Doggett."

“The name’s Doggett, John Doggett.”

The Gift doesn’t offer much in the way of advancement for the season’s on-going story arcs. Although the teaser is smart enough to build to the reveal of David Duchovny, the character only appears in quick flashes throughout the episode. Mulder has less than half-a-dozen lines over the course of the show’s forty-five minutes. He does not directly encounter (or engage with) Doggett or Scully, only appearing for a brief moment as a vision in the basement at the end of the episode. Fans eagerly anticipating Mulder’s return would undoubtedly be frustrated.

However, there is something almost endearing in the show’s playful teasing of its fanbase. It feels almost like the show getting comfortable with itself once again. Indeed, the structure of the episode – paralleling Mulder’s investigation with that of Doggett rather than intersecting them – seems to suggest that perhaps the show might be in good hands without the need to have Mulder literally validate his successor.

Now that's branding...

Now that’s branding…

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The X-Files – Unusual Suspects (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.

On the surface, Unusual Suspects looks like quite a clean little episode.

It is an obvious production save – a story thrown together when it became clear that David Duchnovny and Gillian Anderson’s commitments to The X-Files: Fight the Future meant that they would not be available to film even the shortened order of twenty episodes in the fifth season. Although Unusual Suspects aired as the third episode of the season, it was actually the first produced. With limited availability to David Duchovny, Unusual Suspects was constructed as an episode that could be built around a member (or members) of the supporting cast.

Hero shot!

Hero shot!

Five seasons in, this is not a radical concept. While Mulder and Scully are still very much the heart of the show, the supporting cast has been developed to the point where the show can turn over an episode to somebody who isn’t Mulder or Scully. The fourth season offered a glimpse of the (possible) secret history of the Cigarette-Smoking Man in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man and allowed Walter Skinner to act out his own morality play in Zero Sum. After these two characters, the Lone Gunmen were likely candidates for their own episode.

As such, Unusual Suspects also works quite well as “ground zero” for the eventual development of The Lone Gunmen during the eighth season of The X-Files. It is the episode that demonstrated that the trio could carry their own story with their eccentric little dynamic, while still being engaging and exciting. Given how The Lone Gunmen turned out, a particularly cynical commentator might suggest that Unusual Suspects very much over-sold the appeal. Nevertheless, Unusual Suspects is a logical and clear step forward in the evolution of the Lone Gunman.

Peering through the curtain...

Peering through the curtain…

And yet, for all that these are the aspects of Unusual Suspects that generate discussion and debate, they are not the heart of the episode. What is most interesting about Unusual Suspects is the way that it allows writer Vince Gilligan to brush up against the show’s central mythology, albeit only fleetingly. Gilligan is fond of arguing that Memento Mori was his only credit on a mythology episode, but that sells Unusual Suspects rather short. Although it does not dabble directly with “black oil” or “alien bounty hunters”, it does allow Gilligan to play with the show’s big central story thread.

Unusual Suspects is not just positioned by Gilligan as the “secret origin” of the Lone Gunmen. The episode is decidedly more ambitious than all that. Without directly acknowledging it, and without explicitly coming out and saying it, Unusual Suspects presents itself as the roots of the show itself. Although nowhere near as boldly and triumphantly subversive as Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” or Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, the episode allows Gilligan to offer his own sly (and slightly stinging) commentary on the show’s central mythology.

Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1989.

Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1989.

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The Simpsons – The Springfield Files (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.

A young network hungry to find its place in the American television market, Fox managed to produce two of the television shows that defined the nineties. Both The X-Files and The Simpsons were bold and innovative television shows that captured the zietgeist perfectly. Both shows offered an insightful, innovative and occasionally subversive look at American pop culture in the last decade of the twentieth century. Both have endured quite well, speaking to a generation that came of age in the nineties.

While The X-Files wound itself up in 2002, The Simpsons endures. The show has been running for almost a quarter-of-a-century at this point, and there is no sense that it will ever let up. While there are stock criticisms to be made about how The Simpsons is not as funny as it once was, the series has continually and perpetually reinvented itself. The success of these various iterations has varied. The Simpsons was a different show in 1989 than it was in 1992 or 1996 or 2000.

"Mulder and Scully. FBI."

“Agents Mulder and Scully. FBI.”

However, the show was in the middle of an incredible hot streak in January 1997. The show was in its eighth season, and on the cusp of overtaking The Flintstones as the longest-running prime-time animated series in the United States. This was a phenomenal accomplishment, and there was no indication that the show was in decline. Although fans will argue about exactly how long the so-called “golden age” of the Simpsons actually lasted, the series was still in the middle of it by January 1997.

So The Springfield Files makes a lot of sense as an obvious overlap between the two most important weekly shows airing on Fox at this moment in time. The Springfield Files was treated as a big deal at the time. It aired two weeks before Superbowl XXI, which would help give The X-Files its highest-ever ratings with Leonard Betts. It was sent to the press for review before it aired, to help generate word of mouth. The result is a delightfully satisfying intersection of two massively successful and influential shows.

Reading the scene...

Reading the scene…

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Star Trek (IDW, 2009) #15-16 – Mirrored (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

The mirror universe is a fun concept.

Over the run of the franchise, quite divorced from the context of Mirror, Mirror, the mirror universe itself is an excuse to go big; to indulge in hammy and silly behaviour. There’s no need to worry about putting the toys back in the box, or even the general philosophy of the franchise as a whole. Appropriately enough, it becomes a place where you can do almost anything you might imagine with no real consequences. Writers get to do big space opera stuff, actors get to munch on the scenery.

All hail the empire...

All hail the empire…

There is a reason that the most giddy and indulgent fan service from the already giddy and fan-service-filled fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise was the two-parter set in the mirror universe. Indeed, Mirrored arguably borrows more from In a Mirror, Darkly than it does from Mirror, Mirror. The entire two-part story is launched from a casual conjectural conversation between Scotty and McCoy – suggesting that this might just be some flight of fancy. Indeed, the story cuts to the mirror universe as Scotty asks McCoy about “the worst timeline [he] can imagine.”

Mirrored is a very silly, very disposable story. It combines the weird fascination with alternate universes that runs through IDW’s monthly Star Trek series with the fixation on the events of JJ Abrams’ franchise-launching reboot. The result does not rank with the best mirror universe stories ever told, feeling too indulgent for its own good.

A cutting retort...

A cutting retort…

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Star Trek – Mirror, Mirror (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

Mirror, Mirror is rightfully iconic.

It is a Star Trek episode that spawned sequels on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and a prequel on Star Trek: Enterprise. It codified the whole idea of a “mirror universe” in popular culture, to the point where audiences readily accept the idea of an entire world populated with evil (and possibly sexy) counterparts to our characters. Shows as diverse as Doctor Who and South Park have played with the concept. Indeed, “evil alternate universe doppelganger has a goatee” is a recognisable trope.

... And that was the last time Koenig tried to upstage Shatner...

… And that was the last time Koenig tried to upstage Shatner…

There is a strange irony to all this. The mirror universe is an absurd concept for a number of reasons, and that absurdity is only heightened when it becomes more and more iconic. Turning the idea into a recognisable television cliché inevitably simplifies it. Although Mirror, Mirror is very camp – in the same way that a lot of classic Star Trek is camp – it is a story that has a lot of interesting and clever things to say. These tend to get sanded off through imitation and repetition. (For example, despite wearing the “evil goatee”, mirror!Spock is “a man of integrity.”)

And yet, behind the striking iconic production design and the admittedly absurd premise, Mirror, Mirror ranks as one of the best and most insightful scripts of classic Star Trek. It represents a cautionary tale and critical examination of some of the show’s core tendencies.

Bringing the pain...

Bringing the pain…

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The X-Files (Topps) #1 – Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

If you needed proof that The X-Files had made it, then the forty-issue Topps comic book series from the mid-nineties seems a place to start. Of course, this has less to do with the stories published in the comics themselves – though some are very interesting – and more to do with the comic book market in the nineties and the business model employed by Topps. The comic book industry was perhaps at its peak in the nineties – at least when it came to exposure and public profile.

Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 became the biggest-selling comic book of all time in 1991, selling over eight million copies. A year later, DC Comics published The Death of Superman, a sprawling highly-publicised comic book event that killed off (and then revived) the Man of Steel. The year after that, Batman got in on the action with the Knightfall trilogy, a suitably spectacular event that featured the crippling of Bruce Wayne, his replacement as Batman, and the eventual return of the Caped Crusader.

The truth is in here?

The truth is in here?

It is important to put those figures in perspective. While this was a financial peak for the comic book industry, it was still something of a fringe economy. In the mid-nineties, a television show attracting only eight million viewers would find itself on the bubble line when it came to renewal. However, that figure was the largest readership of any comic book ever. (Audience diversification means that both television audiences and comic book readers have dwindled in the years since, but the latter much more than the former.)

However, the business model for comic books in the nineties made them highly profitable, despite their smaller audience. Price gouging was not uncommon, with some retailers charging as much as $30 for Superman #75 in 1992. Poly bags, gimmick covers, variant artwork, celebrity authors – comics were largely driven by gimmicks in the nineties. More than that, the emphasis on comic books as an investment in the mainstream media helped to suggest the industry was more for collectors than for readers.

Holy conspiracy, Mulder!

Holy conspiracy, Mulder!

It is telling that the company to land the license for The X-Files was Topps, a company famous for producing sports memorabilia. The company had branched into comics in 1993, as the industry was growing and growing, hoping to license various characters and properties. The implication was that The X-Files comic had been designed more as an accessory than as a story. The cover to Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas ever features a handy “first collectors item issue” tag below the “1” at the top left-hand corner.

Licensed comic books have something of a chequered history. In the context of the mid-nineties, it would be easy to write off the forty-one issues (and change) of The X-Files as a cynical cash-in. However, the series has moments of brilliance and insight that mark it as a worth extension of the brand name.

Up in the sky!

Up in the sky!

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Picket Fences – Away in the Manger (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

The crossover that almost was.

Red Museum is a mess of an episode. There are a lot of reasons for that, but perhaps the most obvious is the fact that it was originally intended as a very different story. In fact, Chris Carter had planned to cross The X-Files over with Picket Fences. While The X-Files was airing on Fox, Picket Fences was broadcast on CBS. Perhaps predicting the long-running feud that would evolve between those two networks in the twenty-first century, CBS decided it had better things to do on Friday nights than promote The X-Files.

We can talk about it till the cows come home...

We can talk about it till the cows come home…

The result is that Chris Carter and David E. Kelley had to hastily re-work their episodes, averting the crossover rather late in the cycle. Carter shifted the location of the story, and had to write a new ending. Kelley seems to have been a bit more casual, with Away in the Manger feeling like an episode that takes place perpendicular (if not quite overlapping) to Red Museum. The result is curious, two episodes that speak to their own shows – but also the differences and similarities between Picket Fences and The X-Files.

In some ways, Away in the Manger feels almost like an episode of The X-Files shot from a different perspective.

Agent Morrell, FBI...

Agent Morrell, FBI…

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The X-Files – Red Museum (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

While Firewalker is a solid episode ill-served by its position in the schedule and its similarity to an early episode of the show, Red Museum is just a mess.

The production issues with Red Museum are infamous. It was intended as the first part of a crossover between The X-Files and Picket Fences, both airing on Friday nights. The idea was that fans could tune into The X-Files on Fox for the first part of the story, and then move over to CBS after the credits rolled to pick up the case on Picket Fences. It was an ambitious effort – too ambitious. Although showrunners Chris Carter and David E. Kelley agreed on the idea, CBS vetoed it. It resulted in two orphaned hours of television, Red Museum and Away in the Manger.

Well, not quite. The result is something of a malformed two-parter composed of two individual malformed episodes.

He likes to watch...

He likes to watch…

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Spider-Men (Review/Retrospective)

This April, to celebrate the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we are taking a look at some classic and modern comics featuring Spider-Man (and friends). Check back daily for the latest review.

Spider-Men feels very light. It is the first official crossover between the mainstream Marvel Universe and the Ultimate Universe, something that readers had been promised would never happen. However, despite the fact that this is a big event that has been more than a decade in the making – something rumoured since the earliest days of Ultimate Spider-Man – Spider-Men feels decidedly low-key.

It’s pretty much a collection of vignettes rather than a compelling story in its own right, allowing Bendis to run through a checklist of material to smooth the transition between ultimate!Peter Parker and his successor, Miles Morales.

"Well, this is awkward..."

“Well, this is awkward…”

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