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Non-Review Review: Silence

Faith is a curious thing.

It is a fascinating concept, even (and perhaps especially) for those who lack it or wrestle with it. Pure and untempered faith in the face of a turbulent (and occasionally hostile) world is intriguing. It is something that many long to understand, even if it eludes them. Silence is very much a meditation (or an extended monologue) on the nature of religious belief playing out as a set of conversations and moral dilemmas. Characters wrestle with doubt and uncertainty, and particularly about what their faith means to them.

Easy pray.

Easy pray.

Silence is not a masterpiece or an epic. It is not one of Martin Scorsese’s major works, despite the energy and conviction with which he invests it. It is the weakest film from the director in a very long time, although that sounds very much like praising with faint criticism. Silence is a little too invested in its own dialogue with itself, as delivered through a series of monologues and occasionally through conversation between characters. Silence looks beautiful, but it often feels a little bit like a stunning visual companion to a book on tape.

And yet, in spite of all of this, there is an endearing earnestness to the film. Silence feels like the product of a long and considered reflection on the nature of faith and its place in the world. It never lacks for ambition or vision, playing as a two-and-a-half hour parable about suffering and transcendence. Silence is more interesting than successful, but that is largely because it is so very interesting.

Gotta have faith.

Gotta have faith.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Accession (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

In its third and fourth seasons, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is undergoing something of a transformation; a metamorphosis.

This is only natural. Shows evolve and grow as they go on. The production team discovers what works and what doesn’t, allowing them to play the strengths of the premise and the ensemble. It happens to most shows, if they live long enough. It happened to Star Trek: The Next Generation when Michael Piller came on board in its third season. It will happen to Star Trek: Voyager when Michael Piller departs in its third season. Change and transformation is inevitable, for television shows as much as for people.

That healthy orb-experience glow...

That healthy orb-experience glow…

The third and fourth seasons of Deep Space Nine saw a change taking place. Ira Steven Behr had taken more and more control of the show since the late second season, starting with The Maquis, Part II. Michael Piller had stepped back from the show in its third season, completely ceding control with Life Support. The show was changing in a material sense. The Dominion came to the fore, Bajor faded to the background; Worf joined the cast, Odo found his people, the Klingons were an on-going concern again.

By this point in the fourth season, the transformation is almost complete. Deep Space Nine is very close to its final form, standing on the edge of its biggest departures from the established Star Trek canon. Part of those changes involves a reconfiguring of what Bajor means to the series. Accession begins the process of drawing down the curtain on the Bajor arc as it began with Emissary all those years ago, allowing Sisko to find some peace in his position and a sense of closure in his appointment before the show’s emphasis on Bajor changes dramatically.

Gotta have faith...

Gotta have faith…

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The X-Files – The Truth (Review)

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

It is interesting how the popular memory of a thing can differ from the actual thing itself.

Memory was always a key theme of The X-Files, particularly in the early years of the show. Although the aliens and the conspirators were plucked from the demented imaginations of the most paranoid tinfoil hat enthusiasts, a surprising amount of the show was rooted in real history that had been allowed to slip by under the radar: the genocide of the Native Americans; the resettlement of German and Japanese war criminals after the Second World War; radiation experiments upon prisoners; the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

Daddy's home.

Daddy’s home.

The truth is contained in the gap between memory and history. In a way, then, it feels entirely appropriate that the popular memory of The X-Files should remain quite distinct from the show itself. The popular memory of The X-Files tends to suggest that the mythology makes no sense, that it does not fit together in any tangible form. This is an opinion repeated so often that it has become a critical shorthand when discussing the end of the show; much like the assertion “they were dead all along” tends to come when discussing Lost.

The truth is that the mythology of The X-Files largely made sense. Sure, there were lacunas and contradictions, inconsistencies and illogicalities, but the vast majority of the mythology was fairly linear and straightforward. It had been fairly straightforward for quite some time. The show had been decidedly ambiguous in its first few seasons, only confirming that colonisation was the conspiracy’s end game in Talitha Cumi at the end of the third season. Elements like the black oil and the bees tended to cloud matters, but the internal logic was clear.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

Significant portions of both The X-Files: Fight the Future and Two Fathers and One Son had been dedicated to spelling out the finer details of the mythology in great detail. Mankind were not the original inhabitants of Earth; the former occupants had returned and were making a rightful claim; the conspirators had agreed to help them, selling out mankind for a chance to extend their own lives. Everything else was window dressing. The production team had laid everything out during the fifth and sixth seasons.

Still, the general consensus of The X-Files was that it was a show driven by mysteries that was always more interested in questions than answers. This was certainly true, but it was somewhat exaggerated. When the cancellation was announced, the media immediately demanded answers. A month before The Truth was broadcast, Tim Goodman complained about how the show offered “precious few answers to Carter’s riddles.” Two days before the broadcast, Aaron Kinney wondered of the conspirators, “Who are these people and what is their agenda?”

The Truth on trial...

The Truth on trial…

It does not matter that these answers have mostly been provided and that the truth is mostly know. This was the context of the conversation unfolding around The Truth, and it likely explains a number of the creative decisions taken during the production of the episode. The Truth plays as an extended video essay dedicated to providing answers that were offered three or four seasons earlier in relation to mysteries that are no longer part of the show. The Truth is a passionate and intense argument that the mythology of The X-Files does make sense.

For viewers tuning back into the show for the first time in years, this means long expository monologues and skilfully edited montages that do not tie into the plot of the episode in any significant way. For those who stuck with the show for these past few seasons, it means rehashing everything that the show has taken for granted since the fifth or sixth season. While it feels like The Truth is desperately longing for vindication, to the extent where the show puts itself on trial in the person of Fox Mulder, this does not make for compelling viewing.

Happy ending.

Happy ending.

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The X-Files – Providence (Review)

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

It is frequently argued that 9/11 killed The X-Files.

There are two sides to this argument. The most defensible side suggests that audiences simply lost all appetite for conspiracy and paranoia when confronted with an atrocity on that scale; that viewers wanted to be comforted and reassured about authority in the wake of the attacks. This argument is perhaps supported by the significant drop in viewers between Existence and Nothing Important Happened Today I, suggesting that the audience simply wasn’t interested in finding out what the ninth season had to offer – regardless of quality.

Oh your gods...

Oh your gods…

The other side of the argument suggests that the production team themselves were ill-equipped to deal with post-9/11 reality. The X-Files was a show rooted in the cultural context of the nineties, and had just been asked to adjust to a seismic shift. The world had changed dramatically over the course of a few hours on a morning in Autumn. The eighth season had seen the show drift away from government conspiracies and towards a more conventional alien invasion narrative, one that could play as a reactionary fantasy of the War on Terror.

The ninth season aired in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The season was actually in production when the attacks took place, with the team halting work on Dæmonicus as the reports came in. While the ninth season does not necessarily have a coherent and rational response to those events, it is clear that the production team want to say something. Much of the ninth season mythology seems to struggle with what it wants to say and how best to say it.

Fire and brimstone...

Fire and brimstone…

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The X-Files – Roadrunners (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.

In case there was any doubt, Roadrunners proves that the eighth season of The X-Files means business.

In some ways, it seems remarkable that Roadrunners did not receive a warning about graphic content. The season would wait until Via Negativa before offering a viewer discretion advisory. Roadrunners is one of the most uncomfortable and unsettling episodes in the show’s nine-season run, one that cements the “back to basics” horror aesthetic of the eighth season as a whole. It was clear from the opening three episodes that the eighth season was intended as a return to the darkness of the first five seasons, but Roadrunners commits to the idea.

Off-road...

Off-road…

Roadrunners is a “back to basics” script in a number of ways, even beyond its very graphic horror stylings. It is a very good “small town” story, returning to the motif that populated many of the show’s early episodes. It is a story about an eccentric and isolate space in America, a place with its own unique character and its own rich history and traditions. It is a place that stands quite apart from the modern world, that might have looked the same at the turn of the twentieth century as it does at the start of the twenty-first.

Roadrunners could be seen as Vince Gilligan’s answer to Home, a similarly brutal (and unsettling) small-town tale.

"On to new business. Today's mission is for all of you to go to the brain slug planet." "What are we going to do there?" "Just walk around not wearing a helmet."

“On to new business. Today’s mission is for all of you to go to the brain slug planet.”
“What are we going to do there?”
“Just walk around not wearing a helmet.”

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Harsh Realm – Manus Domini (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Manus Domini continues the influx of assistance from the writing staff on The X-Files, with John Shiban contributing a script to the first season of Harsh Realm.

Manus Domini is a very strange episode. In a way, it feels more keenly aligned with the sensibilities of Chris Carter than those of John Shiban. It is the most overtly religious episode from the short run of Harsh Realm, with characters contemplating faith and spirituality in an otherwise cruel world. It is the logical continuation of themes seeded and developed across the rest of the season, bringing the religious subtext of the show to the fore so that it might be acknowledged and explored.

Florence in the machine...

Florence in the machine…

To be fair, there are elements that fit comfortably within Shiban’s oeuvre. Shiban is very much a fan of classic horror tropes, so it makes sense that his script should feature a monstrous supporting character whose complete moral decay is symbolised through grotesque facial deformities. (The element recurs in Camera Obscura, but is not as pronounced as it in this episode.) There are elements of Manus Domini that feel like they might have been lifted from classic seventies horror.

Nevertheless, Manus Domini is defined by its religious components, making it clear that the show retains the same core moral perspective that runs through Carter’s work; there is a recurring sense that faith and spirituality are essential to survive and endure in an increasingly faithless world.

A literal mine field...

A literal mine field…

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The X-Files – En Ami (Review)

This September, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

The seventh season mythology has a weird hazy feeling to it. It feels almost like a postscript.

It is hard to explain what is happening with the mythology at this point. Two Fathers and One Son had promised an end to the over-arching conspiracy narrative, but it felt like something of a half-measure. The First Elder and the Second Elder were killed off, but most of the other major players remained. Although Scully congratulated Mulder on toppling the conspiracy in Biogenesis, the same episode seemed to off-handedly suggest that the Cigarette-Smoking Man was still working on it. He was still talking hybrids in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.

I'll drink to that...

I’ll drink to that…

At the same time, Two Fathers and One Son marked the end of the mythology as an on-going concern. The particulars of colonisation and the nature of the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s work were confined to limbo, some sort of bizarre twilight realm where they might exist or they might not; they simply drift around the show like ghosts. Whether or not Two Fathers and One Son actually resolved any aspect of the show’s overarching plot is open to debate; however, they very clearly suggested that the mythology was not the show’s central story going forward.

In the seventh season, it frequently feels like the mythology is a hazy backdrop against which character-driven stories might unfold. In The Sixth Extinction, an alien ship becomes a gateway to meditations on the nature of human existence while Krycek blackmails Skinner and Fowley still works with the Cigarette-Smoking Man. In The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, the Cigarette-Smoking Man is making hybrids and murders Fowley, but the heart of the story is Mulder’s flirtation with temptation. Sein und Ziet and Closure have nothing to do with colonisation.

Smokey and the bandit...

Smokey and the bandit…

To be fair, this was arguably always the case with mythology episodes. In hindsight, it can seem like the mythology episodes were less part of an on-going story and more meditations on common themes tied into a shared continuity. Colony and End Game are spectacular pieces of television, but they are hard to reconcile with later revelations. The End arguably has more in common with Biogenesis than it does with the feature film into which it is supposed to tie. However, the mythology always held the promise of revelations and twists to propel it forward.

The principal effect of Two Fathers and One Son seems to have been to take away that sense of purpose and destination. The mythology is no longer building towards something or racing forward. Instead, the mythology stories seem to take place in the wasteland; a world in ruins, with only the fractured semblance of internal logic. En Ami continues the trend of setting character-driven stories amid the hazily defined unreality. Scully and the Cigarette-Smoking Man take a road-trip together through whatever is still standing.

Peering through an open door...

Peering through an open door…

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