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New Podcast! The X-Cast – Season 3, Episode 17 (“Pusher”)

I’m back on The X-Cast this week, to cover a very special episode. Pusher is host Tony Black’s favourite episode, and we recorded this close to his birthday. So no pressure, then.

Pusher has long been a favourite of mine as well, a crackerjack suspense-filled episode from the powerhouse team of writer Vince Gilligan and director Rob Bowman. It’s an episode that works very well both within the confines of The X-Files itself and beyond. Even more than Soft Light, it is an episode that informs a lot of Gilligan’s core themes and ideas going forward. There is a surprising amount of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul to be found in the episode, for example.

The truth is in here. You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

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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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The X-Files – Agua Mala (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.

Agua Mala means “bad water.” It also makes for a bad episode.

Agua Mala is perhaps the most infamous turkey of the sixth season, beating out Alpha (and – depending on who you ask – Milagro) for that honour. This is the sixth season equivalent of Space or Excelsis Dei or El Mundo Gira or Schizogeny. Conveniently enough, it arrives at around the same point in the season. It is just around the half-way through the year, near the Christmas break. There is a sense of desperation and fatigue to proceedings; it is as if the entire production team just want to get something in front of the cameras to meet the season order.

Choking the life out of him...

Choking the life out of him…

Agua Mala doesn’t really work on any level. The structure is a mess, the plotting is generic. The bulk of the cast are not introduced until half-way through the episode, and climax of the episode takes place off-screen. The monster is ridiculous, and the script decides to compensate by aiming for broad comedy. However, Agua Mala might be the least funny “comedy” episode that the show has produced up to this point in its run. It is an episode that is fundamentally and undeniably flawed.

It feels almost a waste that Agua Mala was broadcast directly after Two Fathers and One Son, representing something of a return to “business as usual” for the show. If this is the new “business as usual”, it is quite unsettling.

Somebody got slimed...

Somebody got slimed…

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Non-Review Review: The X-Files – Fight the Future

The X-Files: Fight the Future is often described as the mythology episode that somehow got released into theatres. In her review, Joyce Millman teased that Fight the Future was little more than “a two-hour episode of the show, except with better production values and a nicer wardrobe for Scully.” It is a fair point. It is not too hard to imagine a slightly cheaper version of Fight the Future split into two parts and replacing The End and The Beginning as the two-parter bridging the fifth and sixth seasons of the show.

Certainly, Fight the Future retains the late-stage mythology’s reluctance to provide any real sense of closure to the long-running plot about alien invasion and colonisation. Writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz increase the stakes by using some of that sweet blockbuster money to pay for a gestating alien fetus, but what do Mulder and Scully actually accomplish? What would a viewer jumping from The End to The Beginning miss, except for the fact that the Well-Manicured Man has left the mortal plane to visit that great Somerset estate in the sky?

What you've all been waiting for, admit it...

What you’ve all been waiting for, admit it…

The answer is nothing, but that is not the point. As much as Fight the Future enjoys playing with the trappings of the mythology (black oil! bees! tanker trucks! space ships! Oklahoma City!), the film is only interested in the idea of alien colonisation as a vehicle to explore the show’s central relationship. Carter and Spotnitz have shrewdly realised that Fight the Future will have the largest possible audience for the show, and has decided to give the general public what they want.

As a two-hour mythology episode, Fight the Future leaves a lot to be desired. As a two-hour Mulder and Scully ship tease, it is right on the money.

Buried secrets...

Buried secrets…

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The X-Files – The Pine Bluff Variant (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.

The Pine Bluff Variant is probably John Shiban’s best solo script for The X-Files.

It is the kind of story that the show does very well, a taut conspiracy thriller packed with sharp twists and turns. Not all of those twists and turns make a great deal of sense, but there is an incredible momentum to the episode that keeps it moving forward. John Shiban’s script is beautifully brought to life by Rob Bowman’s direction, with Bowman demonstrating once again why he was the perfect choice to direct The X-Files: Fight the Future. The Pine Bluff Variant is a well-constructed piece of television.

He who hunts monsters...

He who hunts monsters…

It also fits quite comfortably in the context of where the show is at this point in time. The fourth and fifth seasons of The X-Files saw the show really engaging with the dark underbelly of conspiracy culture just as Mulder when through his own dark midnight of the soul. After three seasons of endorsing paranoia and skepticism, The X-Files was ready to deal with the sorts of organised groups that believed in such conspiracies. The Pine Bluff Variant has Mulder infiltrating a militia a few months before the release of Fight the Future would recreate the Oklahoma City Bombing.

It is a thread with which the show had been playing since The Field Where I Died early in the fourth season. The Pine Bluff Variant is the last time that the series pushes these sorts of militia groups to the fore, with Mulder reaffirming and regaining his faith at the climax of Fight the Future. It is a suitably satisfying farewell to this recurring thematic motif.

Fleshing out the threat...

Fleshing out the threat…

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The X-Files – Kill Switch (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 of it, William Gibson seems a strange fit for The X-Files.

He certainly seems like a more eccentric choice than Stephen King. King was a writer famed for his horror stories, with a fascination for small-town life and an interest in guilt as a legacy of American history. On paper, King should have been the perfect “special guest writer” for the show, able to churn out a script that would resonate perfectly with the larger themes of The X-Files while still sitting comfortably within his own oeuvre. While Chinga is not a bad episode, it is not an exceptional episode by any measure. It feels perfectly adequate.

Well, that's going in the DVD menu.

Well, that’s going in the DVD menu.

As such, Kill Switch seems like a story that could go horribly wrong. Gibson is a writer most famous for his work in defining and popularising “cyberpunk”, a science-fiction subgenre that is far removed from the horror trappings generally associated with The X-Files. Gibson was a writer who tended to explore the possible future development of cyberspace and associated issues, while Carter worked very hard to anchor The X-Files in the now. Gibson’s stories seemed to take place in the not-too-distant future; Carter grounded The X-Files in a very particular now.

However, Kill Switch works. It works phenomenally well. It is an episode that feels markedly different from everything else around it, while still feeling like it belongs to The X-Files. The clash of styles is evident in Kill Switch, as writers William Gibson and Thomas Maddox find themselves adapting their themes and ideas to a completely different aesthetic. That is perhaps part of appeal. While Chinga made it look quite easy to construct a solid Stephen King story that was also a solid episode of The X-Files, Kill Switch is nowhere near as smooth. This is a different beast. And it is glorious.

"Woah, woah, woah. What happened to floppies?"

“Woah, woah, woah. What happened to floppies?”

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The X-Files – Paper Hearts (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.

Paper Hearts is one of the best scripts that Vince Gilligan would write for The X-Files, and one of the best episodes of the fourth season. This is enough to put it in the frontrunners of any possible “best episode ever” ranking.

The episode is spectacular. It works on just about every conceivable level. It has a great script from a great young staff writer. It has a great guest star in Tom Noonan. It features a great performance from David Duchovny. Rob Bowman does a spectacular job directing. Mark Snow is one of the most consistent composers working in nineties television, and his score for Paper Hearts manages to be simple, effective and memorable. It is thoughtful, atmospheric, emotional and compelling. It is the perfect storm.

The truth is buried...

The truth is buried…

However, the real cherry on Paper Hearts is just how easy it would be to mess up an episode like this. On paper, Paper Hearts seems like a disaster waiting to happen. It is an episode that teases the audience with a potentially massive reversal of one of the show’s core truths. It posits an alternative theory for the abduction of Samantha Mulder that would shake the show to its very core. If Paper Hearts followed through on that basic premise, everything would change. Much like Never Again, this is an episode with the potential to poison the show.

Which makes it inevitable that Paper Hearts will back away from its potentially game-changing premise, which brings its own challenges. It is one thing to up-end the apple cart; it is another to pretend to up-end the apple cart only to restore the status quo at the end of the hour. On paper, and from any synopsis, Paper Hearts seems like the biggest cheat imaginable. “Everything is different!” it seems to yell. “And then it’s not!” The real beauty of Paper Hearts is the way that the episode works almost perfectly even with these huge hurdles to clear.

The heart of the matter...

The heart of the matter…

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