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Non-Review Review: The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water is a beautiful emerald fairy tale, told from the fringes.

Set in the early sixties, against the backdrop of “the last days of a fair prince’s reign”, The Shape of Water promises to regale audience members with the story of “the princess without a voice” and “the monster who tried to end it all.” However the most striking aspect of The Shape of Water is in how it chooses to focus its magical story. The Shape of Water is a story largely about those who are silenced on the margins, right down to its decision to cast Sally Hawkins as protagonist Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaner working in a secret government lab.

He’s in a glass case of emotion.

The Shape of Water is very much an exploration of the concept of “the other”, of the lives of those who exist outside the confines of “normal” society. The film’s central antagonist is a happily married white American man, who finds himself set against a collection of misfits and outcasts; a mute orphan, a black cleaning lady, a gay designer, an immigrant scientist, and a monstrosity pulled from the depths of the Amazon river. Coasting from the conservative fifties, Colonel Richard Strickland faces the threat that everything he accepts as granted might be washed away.

The Shape of Water suffers from some minor pacing problems in its romantic adventure, but these are minor issues in a haunting and enchanting piece of work.

The Creature from the Black Ops Department.

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The X-Files – Vienen (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.

It feels strange to see the black oil after such a long time.

Technically, the last time that the black oil was brought up was in Two Fathers and One Son, where it was retroactively confirmed to be the “Purity” alluded to in The Erlenmeyer Flask. However, the last time it was an active plot element was really The X-Files: Fight the Future. After that, it lost amid plot developments involving gestating aliens and faceless rebels. So, in a way, putting the black oil at the centre of Vienen feels just a little surreal against the backdrop of “super soldiers” and other more immediate concerns.

Explosive action!

Explosive action!

Vienen feels very old-fashioned. Even the structure of the episode harks back to the first season mythology episodes, when the show was allowed to use aliens and conspiracies without the burden of tying them to a larger narrative. It features the black oil, but Vienen feels closer to Fallen Angel or E.B.E. than Tunguska or Terma. Trying to tie it into the larger plot of the mythology is an exercise in futility, but that is not the point here. Vienen is no more or less a mythology episode than Empedocles, despite its inclusion in the “mythology” DVD collections.

It is an excuse to bring back an iconic baddie for one last run-around with Mulder, continuing the orderly transition of power from the what the show was to what it might be in the future.

You should really use a dipstick for that...

You should really use a dipstick for that…

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The X-Files – Theef (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.

Theef is an underrated seventh season episode, one often forgotten and overlooked as season seven moves firmly into its second half.

The episode represents another conscious attempt to get “back to basics.” Continuing the vein of Hungry or Millennium or Orison or Signs and Wonders, the script for Theef hopes to prove that the show can still produce a genuinely scary hour of television in its seventh season. It certainly succeeds; Theef is a delightfully unsettling story, one that borders on the downright nasty. From the closing shot of the teaser – a body suspended from a chandelier with the word “Theef” scrawled on a wall in his own blood – Theef goes for the jugular.

"I think he's trying to tell you something."

“I think he’s trying to tell you something.”

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The X-Files – Rush (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.

When did The X-Files get so old?

As with a lot of the seventh season, Rush is an episode that seems consciously aware of the series’ advancing age. Whether watching Mulder’s life go by in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati or battling zombies in Millennium, the seventh season is acutely aware of the fact that any prime-time drama that has been on the air for seven years is rapidly approaching obsolescence. What was once young and fresh becomes old and tired. There is a sense that the series really wouldn’t mind the prospect of retirement, now that it’s well past the syndication mark.

"He wore sneakers... for sneaking."

“He wore sneakers… for sneaking.”

Rush emphasises the advancing years of the show, often awkwardly putting its tongue in its cheeky as it suggests that Mulder and Scully are really lumbering dinosaurs trying to navigate the fast-paced world of high school. David Amann’s script is occasionally a little too wry and self-aware for its own good; this is an episode based around a laboured pun about how “speed” is also a drug, after all. Rush often demotes Mulder and Scully to passive observes, quipping and flirting from the sidelines as the plot unfolds around them.

Rush lacks the charm and dynamism that define the show’s (and the season’s) standout hours, but it is a well-constructed and enjoyable standalone adventure on its own terms. As with Hungry, it feels like a conscious effort to get “back to basics” with the series. If the seventh season is going to fixate on the series’ status as a televisual lame duck counting down its last few episodes, this is not such a bad way to do it.

Scully'll take a run at this...

Scully’ll take a run at this…

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The X-Files – The Beginning (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.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The opening shot of The Beginning makes it quite clear that things have changed. The camera opens staring at the sunny cloudless sky of California, doubling for Arizona. It pans down to an open desert. As the production team conceded with Anasazi, the desert was just about the only American environment that Vancouver could not easily mimic – to the point where the team had to paint rocks red in order to convincingly set a scene in New Mexico. California makes for a much more convincing desert.

Bursting on to the scene...

Bursting on to the scene…

The contrast is striking. The sixth season of The X-Files is bright and sunny; it is aware of its new production reality and chooses to embrace them rather than pointlessly resist them. Things had changed, and there was nothing to be gained from pretending otherwise. It is no wonder that the opening sequence of The Beginning features a group of working-stiff conspirators in transit; the perfect opening image for a season still figuring out how Los Angeles works. The Beginning loads all of that into its opening shot, getting it out in the open before it gets down to business.

At the same time, The Beginning is keen to stress that not too much has actually changed. The naming of the fifth season finalé and the sixth season premiere is decidedly symmetrical – The End and The Beginning. In fact, naming the second part of a two-part episode “The Beginning” is a very clear attempt at reassurance. It is a beginning without actually being a beginning; it is a conclusion without actually being a conclusion. The wheel keeps on turning. All that is missing is the ouroboros.

Dude, that's totally not sterile...

Dude, that’s totally not sterile…

The closing shot as much as confirms this, revealing that the bold new alien design revealed in The X-Files: Fight the Future is not so bold and new after all. Instead, the monster obviously inspired by Alien is something of a missing link, a tether connecting the grey aliens seen in episodes like Duane Barry to the black oil introduced in Piper Maru. It is all one big circle in perpetual motion. Everything is connected. Everything fits together. The show might have moved two thousand miles south, but it hasn’t missed a step.

For better or worse, The Beginning is about assuring viewers that – no matter what has changed – everything remains the same. It is up to the viewer to decide whether that is a good or a bad thing.

The truth is in there...

The truth is in there…

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Millennium – A Single Blade of Grass (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.

A Single Blade of Grass is one of those episodes of television that skirts a line. It is very much a companion to “subculture” episodes of The X-Files, shows that would see our white heroes wading into the world of an ethnic minority – be the Haitian refugees in Fresh Bones, Chinatown in Hell Money, African immigrants in Teliko or Mexican-Americans in El Mundo Gira. In the case of A Single Blade of Grass, Frank Black is wandering into the world of Native Americans in New York.

It goes without saying that these sorts of episodes have to be very careful. Both Millennium and The X-Files are very white television shows – they have exclusively white primary casts, and the vast majority of their supporting cast are also white. (Also, most of the writers’ rooms.) As such, telling a story about a subculture can be very tricky – it is easy to seem shallow or condescending, trite or exploitative. It is worth noting that some of the biggest misfires on The X-Files occurred when the production team got this horribly wrong – Excelsis Dei, Teso Dos Bichos, El Mundo Gira, Badlaa.

Burial mask...

Burial mask…

It is very easy to get caught up in mysticising and fetishising the Other, which can become quite problematic when “the Other” corresponds to a real-life minority that have – historically speaking – never been treated particularly well by those in authority. As such, A Single Blade of Grass feels like a very risky and very difficult story, particularly for a show that was already struggling in the ratings and trying to gain some traction with audiences. A Single Blade of Grass has the potential to go spectacularly wrong in places, and it is to the credit of all involved that it (mostly) doesn’t.

Then again, this is a large part of the appeal of the second season of Millennium – what makes even the year’s failures seem compelling in their own eccentric way. There is a sense that the second season of Millennium is completely unfazed by the possibility of failure, and so commits completely to what it wants to do. While A Single Blade of Grass might be a little muddled and unfocused in places, it retains a raw energy that makes for compelling viewing.

Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories about the death of worlds...

Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories about the death of worlds…

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The X-Files (Topps) #25-26 – Be Prepared (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.

What’s interesting about Be Prepared is how much it feels like an episode of The X-Files.

A lot Rozum’s earlier scripts felt like Mulder and Scully had wandered into old E.C. horror stories, cautionary supernatural tales about vengeful ghosts and poetic justice. In contrast, Be Prepared feels very much in tune with the aesthetic of the show itself. Mulder and Scully investigate a uniquely American piece of folklore, finding themselves in an isolated location dealing with human monstrosity at least as much as any paranormal element.

If you go down to the woods today...

If you go down to the woods today…

Indeed, Be Prepared feels very much like an episode from the first two seasons of the show, evoking stories like Ice or Darkness Falls or Firewalker. Indeed, Be Prepared arguably sits comfortably alongside Topps’ range of Season One comics – feeling like a lost episode from the show’s early years. Be Prepared feels like the first time that Rozum is constructing a story specifically from tropes associated with The X-Files, rather than from horror tropes in general.

The result is a fun little adventure that feels more like The X-Files than the comic has in quite a while.

The right to bear arms...

The right to bear arms…

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