Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The X-Files - S4:E16 "Unrequited"

[ S4:E15 "Kaddish" <<< Season 4 >>> S4:E17 "Tempus Fugit" ]

Unrequited features one of the more compelling openers I've seen in a while. Obviously, all of these episodes try to catch your interest in the first few minutes before the opening credits roll - to get you invested in watching the rest of the episode. But after seeing so many episodes, you tend to familiarize yourself with the general formula. Yet this one is kind of unique, using the "in media res" technique (I swear, critics are as irrationally opposed to this technique as they are to found footage - like as if every time they criticize it they earn a gold star from their un-creative, standards-oriented English Major teachers (I'm looking at you, Dolores Umbridge)) that we've mainly seen in a few mythology episodes (Colony and Tunguska spring to mind), to create suspense. The agents themselves are involved - Skinner included, which is always a treat - in tracking a possible terrorist through a crowd celebrating the re-dedication of the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial. They have a hard enough time finding him in a bustling crowd of people, but then he appears to vanish into thin air!

The would-be assassin (an uncannily memorable Peter LaCroix, who played the truck driver in season 1's E.B.E.), who seems to be taking advantage of a "floating blind spot" in a remarkably literal interpretation of the stealth tactics of guerilla warfare, is seeking retribution against a government that left him for dead behind enemy lines. In this he is supported by the leader of a violent revolutionary group (Larry Musser, whom you'll likely remember as the colorfully-spoken Detective Manners in Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'). But when he starts targeting key members of the U.S. military, Skinner - a Vietnam veteran himself - understandably begins taking it personally.

Also appearing is Marita Covarrubias, whom we've seen very little of since her introduction in the season premiere. She provides an intriguing conspiratorial twist that recalls the mind games of F. Emasculata (also penned, perhaps not surprisingly, by the combination of Howard Gordon and Chris Carter), and that confirms what a smart and subtle series this is (no doubt for some people too subtle). I'm not sure I can speculate why - although maybe it's because military cover-ups and internal government conspiracies are more this show's bread-and-butter than racial tensions and environmentalist creeds - but the social commentary in this episode is more effective than usual. It's more subtle, less forced, and feels less insincere. This is one of those great episodes where you just get lost in the story as it unfolds - an unexpected hit.

Memorable quotes:

Skinner: I've already seen more dead soldiers than I ever wanna see.

Markham: The Right Hand believes in empowering the individual over a corrupt and corrupting federal government. We're prepared for the time when armed resistance will be necessary. Lives will have to be sacrificed. But that day has not yet come.

Scully: This guy's a one-man threat to national security. I'll bet he's got more weapons and ammo than most third world armies.

Mulder: Given the facts of the case, and Private Burkholder's polygraph test, it's the closest thing to an explanation that we've got.
Scully: Or, it's just a clever story being proffered as a cover-up for what is actually an elaborately orchestrated conspiracy.
Mulder: Well, there is that possibility, too.

Scully: That's beyond my capabilities here to make that kind of analysis.
Mulder: I think it's beyond all our capabilities, but somebody's got to explain how a four-star general could be shot and killed in what is symbolically the best-guarded military base in the country.

General Bloch: I am here because people are dying - soldiers, who dedicated their lives to the defense of this country.
Markham: I guess that's one way of looking at it.

General Bloch: I just need to know what he wants.
Markham: You know what he wants. And we both know you can't give it to him. Not without dragging that nice, clean uniform of yours through the mud.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The X-Files - S4:E15 "Kaddish"

[ S4:E14 "Memento Mori" <<< Season 4 >>> S4:E16 "Unrequited" ]

Like El Mundo Gira was "that episode with the chupacabra", this is "that episode with the golem". But it has at least as much to do with the racial tensions among a Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, than any folktale about mudmen. This makes more sense when you realize that writer Howard Gordon's last episode this season was the African-flavored Teliko. Following a racially-motivated murder, the Jewish victim's killers begin turning up dead, and the deceased victim's fingerprints turn up on the scene. Scully's first instinct is to blame it on a hoax, but knowing this series' penchant for stories about "revenge from beyond the grave" (and maybe because we saw a pile of dirt breathing in the opener), the audience can be forgiven for scoffing at that theory.

As usual, the monster is spun in just such a fashion that it spends most of its time in human form, no doubt lightening the work load for the special effects department. I have to admit, it would have been cool to see a mud monster walking around throughout the episode. This now being the latter half of the fourth season, I think I can state with some confidence that there are few true "monsters" on The X-Files. I'm sure that helps keep these stories grounded within the realm of "extreme possibility" - as opposed to pure science-fiction - but let's be honest, it's not as though I didn't enjoy the pure fantasy elements of a show like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, for example. Oh well, I guess The X-Files has always been more about its characters, and its human themes, in spite of the paranormal angle.

The themes presented in this episode are intriguing, but somewhat muddled. Like, it seemed to want to say something about the power of words, but in the end it relied too much on hokey mysticism. And maybe this is just me, but the Nazi flag was perhaps a little too on-the-nose. The setup is perfect for making a sociopolitical statement - which this series loves to do on occasion - but it rarely feels truly organic. Like, though Mulder seems unusually protective of the Jewish community in this episode, it doesn't exactly help that in the scene where the one character is describing her father's escape from the Holocaust, David Duchovny is standing in the background looking bored. I dunno. There's a decent twist at the end, but overall it's a mediocre episode.

Memorable quotes:

Scully: I think that this is a crime of hatred, like the crime that spawned it - a hatred that goes back 4000 years, but masquerading as something else here: a callow attempt at murderous retribution disguised as spectral justice.
Mulder: A resurrection hoax.
Scully: And not a very good one.

Mulder: Anybody delivering justice to a people who've known that kind of persecution and hatred - why wouldn't they protect him?
Scully: Justice or revenge?
Mulder: I'm not saying those kids don't warrant full prosecution under the law, but the hate-mongering goes both ways.
Scully: Yes, but the right to free expression doesn't extend to murder.

(Nice strawman there, Scully. You can do better than that).

Librarian: The power of letters - not just to create, but to kill.

(Okay, then. Apparently this is a theme).

Scully: You think it's some kind of a ghost?
Mulder: A ghost is spirit without form, but I believe what we're looking for, and what we're seeing here, is form without spirit. Something called a golem.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The X-Files - S4:E14 "Memento Mori"

[ S4:E13 "Never Again" <<< Season 4 >>> S4:E15 "Kaddish" ]

Spoiler Warning: This review contains major spoilers.

I daresay this episode represents a turning point in the series. Among other things, it establishes Scully's cancer as a significant hurdle for her to overcome, and a more specific and immediate concern than the vague question of what was done to her when she was abducted in Ascension. It also represents probably the first mythology episode in which Scully's half of the struggle outstrips Mulder's in dramatic weight (in this performance that famously won Gillian Anderson an Emmy). Sure, he's out pursuing answers to this whole conspiracy business, as usual, but Scully's not just holding off a Senate Subcommittee this time, she's fighting for her dear life.

Now, I thought Leonard Betts had a cavalcade of writers, but they've all returned for this episode, and they've added Chris Carter himself to the group, to round out the crowd! The episode opens hauntingly with Scully staring at an X-ray of her inoperable tumor, contemplating her mortality, and narrating what sounds like a death letter to Mulder. It's heartbreaking when Scully describes her condition to Mulder - in particular, the extreme difficulty in treating it - and he absolutely refuses to believe it. Yet what hope can he (we) have? There is no magic pill to cure cancer. Is there? This is what we've been waiting for, ever since Scully was abducted in the second season. Obviously, the diagnosis of her cancer is devastating, but finally we begin to pursue some answers. And it starts with the circle of abductees we met ever so briefly last season in Nisei. Sadly, Betsy Hagopian has passed away, along with the entire rest of the circle, minus one - Penny Northern. Penny points Scully to a Dr. Scanlon, who claims to be making headway on treating their cancer.

Unfortunately, as we eventually find out, it's all a big dead end. Dr. Scanlon is working with the conspiracy - his treatment has actually been hastening the women's demise. So the hope we are given in this episode for a potential cure is dashed against the rocks, and we are left at the end little better than we started, except for a few matters of yet-undetermined consequence. For one thing, Scully's cancer is on the table now, and no big secret (or mere speculation); we can be sure we'll be exploring other avenues of treatment in episodes to come. Also, there is that unsettling scene in which Skinner meets the Smoking Man sitting in the dark at Mulder's desk, and makes a deal with the devil (after admonishing Mulder for being willing to do the same - what a self-sacrificing man he is). The understanding is that the Smoking Man has the means to cure Scully's cancer (and why not, he's probably responsible for it in the first place, and you know he has access to alien technologies), but what will be the cost? Is this the beginning of Skinner's end? Who knows.

Finally, we have the discoveries that Mulder made. Although, you get the feeling in this series that we're only ever touching the tip of the iceberg. Mulder discovers that all of the abductees were infertile, and with help from the Lone Gunmen, he infiltrates a medical facility Mission:Impossible-style. There he finds a bank of bodies in tanks, much like in The Erlenmeyer Flask, along with a series of cloned hybrids (identical to the man who claimed to be a MUFON member and friend of Betsy Hagopian, who was assassinated by a man with one of those retractable ice picks, and died in a bubbling blaze of green fury) willing to divulge information in order to subvert the project that created them. The abductees were the hybrids' birth mothers, made barren by the same high-amplification radiation procedure that caused their cancer, but not before samples of their ova were collected. Scully was not spared this treatment, and Mulder makes off with one of her ova samples. I don't think he tells Scully about any of this, though, as she has more than enough to deal with, as Penny takes a turn for the worse. She decides to shoulder on, however - burden and all. And so we will, of course, get another monster-of-the-week episode next week.

Afterthought: It just occurred to me that this Dr. Scanlon character must be a truly wicked person. Most of the assassins we've seen, when trying to clean up loose ends, simply kill their targets. But Dr. Scanlon actually meets with them, pretends to be all friendly, gives them hope for living, and then proceeds to subject them to the torture that is cancer treatment, until they weaken and die - which isn't an unfortunate outcome, but secretly the goal of the treatment. How does he sleep at night?

Memorable quotes:

Scully: For the first time, I feel time like a heartbeat, the seconds pumping in my breast like a reckoning, the numinous mysteries that once seemed so distant and unreal, threatening clarity, in the presence of a truth entertained not in youth, but only in its passage. I feel these words as if their meaning were weight being lifted from me, knowing that you will read them, and share my burden, as I have come to trust no other. That you should know my heart, look into it, finding there the memory and experience that belonged to you, that are you, is a comfort to me now, as I feel the tethers loose, and the prospects darkened for the continuance of a journey that began not so long ago, and which began again with a faith shaken and strengthened by your convictions, if not for which, I might never have been so strong now, as I cross to face you, and look at you in complete, hoping that you will forgive me, for not making the rest of the journey with you.

Scully: Mulder, whatever you found - or, whatever you might find - I think that we both know that, right now, the truth is in me, and that's where I need to pursue it, as soon as possible.

Scully: In med school, I learned that cancer arrives in the body unannounced - a dark stranger who takes up residence, turning its new home against itself. This is the evil of cancer - that it starts as an invader, but soon becomes one with the invaded, forcing you to destroy it, but only at the risk of destroying yourself. It is science's demon possession; my treatments, science's attempt at exorcism.

Skinner: You can't ask the truth of a man who trades in lies.

Smoking Man: It's funny. I always thought of you as Fox Mulder's patron. You'd think under your aegis that he wouldn't be consigned to a corner of the basement.
Skinner: At least he doesn't take an elevator up to get to work.

Skinner: There's always another way.
Smoking Man: Yes, I believe there is. If you're willing to pay the price.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The X-Files - S4:E13 "Never Again"

[ S4:E12 "Leonard Betts" <<< Season 4 >>> S4:E14 "Memento Mori" ]

In a bout of depression, a reluctant divorcé in Philadelphia gets a tattoo, then starts to hallucinate that it's talking to him, mocking him (featuring Jodie Foster's voice!), making him paranoid to a homicidal extent. It's a bit of a hokey premise - one that you might expect more from the first season. Meanwhile, the bureau is forcing Mulder to take a vacation against his will (since he hasn't taken a day off in four years - it's funny how much he hates the idea of taking a vacation, and yet it's so totally in his character), and Scully is getting sullen and introspective about the course of her life. In Mulder's absence, she reluctantly follows up on some of his leads, but soon bumps into the divorcé and fancies herself a little fling. They have a few drinks at the bar, Scully talks about her daddy issues, and then gets a tattoo.

Yeah, I know. It's a credit to the writers that, when you're watching it, it doesn't seem as out there as it sounds, in the context of the episode - but it's still pretty weird. And if you think this whole romance business is a little flippant after the revelation at the end of the last episode, it's because these episodes were aired out of production order, so that Leonard Betts could be played after the Superbowl, when audiences would be at their peak. On the other hand, Scully's soul-searching may make more sense in light of said revelation, as she is suitably melancholic in this episode.

The quarrelling between Mulder and Scully is uncomfortable to watch, though. I don't want to be unfair - they've worked together for four years, and even between the best of friends (or closest of partners), sometimes the relationship gets strained. But it's still not fun to watch. Especially seeing Scully get disillusioned with her work on the X-Files. It's the kind of attitude you would expect to precede a resignation (or reassignment), and the thought of Scully not being a part of the X-Files is, frankly, depressing. I prefer to see her being at turns frustrated, but at turns fascinated with the work, like she was when she was first brought on to the project.

It's also interesting that even though the show doesn't put Mulder and Scully together in a romantic relationship - and I don't think I'd even want to see them that way - it still never feels quite right when they're split up, and either of them starts to pursue an outside romantic interest. I guess it's not fair to them, but it just doesn't feel right. I wouldn't want to discourage the writers from exploring new ground, and keep them trapped within what they might see as a decaying formula, but all I can say is that the kind of interactions we see in this episode are not very fun to watch. It would seem that despite their pedigree on this show, Morgan & Wong's episodes are either hit or miss - although that's not entirely new to this season, as some of the less esteemed episodes they contributed to include Shadows, Blood, and the much-maligned 3.

Memorable quotes:

Mulder: I made a last ditch effort to get out of it, but the bureau is holding fast to its federal employees vacation policy. I haven't taken a day off in four years, so either I take a week vacation now, or they start not paying me for eight weeks' vacation time. I don't like it, but I gotta do it; I gotta pay the rent; I gotta eat.

Scully: I feel like I've lost sight of myself, Mulder. It's hard to see, let alone find, in the darkness of covert locations. I mean, I wish I could say that we're going in circles, but we're not, we're going in an endless line. Two steps forwards, and three steps back. While my own life is...standing still.

Comrade Svo: I tell him, everyone gets tattoo they deserve. Beautiful, cheap, thought over, impulse. Tattoo reflect on body what lies in person's soul.

Scully: So what makes this place a good place to go when you're feeling down?
Ed Jerse: Ah, it's kinda - everyone here looks like their problems are worse than mine. Makes me feel good about myself.
Scully: Yeah, well, you can't tell what's going on in somebody's head just by looking at them. I mean, they're probably thinking that we're the ones that are screwed up.
Ed Jerse: Are we?
Scully: Who knows.

Mulder: Congratulations for making a personal appearance in the X-Files for the second time. It's a world's record.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010)

I had written this movie off as a horror comedy - which is precisely what it is - since I'm just not usually that interested in comedies, but I read the synopsis recently and it dawned on me that the premise had potential to be an intelligent deconstruction of the slasher formula (perhaps in a similar vein as The Cabin in the Woods). It doesn't quite reach that level, as it's more committed to being fun than smart, but it's still pretty good, at least as far as horror comedies go.

Given how many slashers we've seen over the years, it's surprising how rarely anyone comes up with an inversion of the usual formula. Even the basic idea of telling a slasher from the point of view of the "killer hillbillies" instead of the college kids is pretty novel. That alone would give it more of a morally-ambiguous exploitation-like approach, but Tucker and Dale vs. Evil takes it a step further and posits the hillbillies as innocents merely caught up in an elaborate misunderstanding following a series of tragic, accidental deaths. It's a great device that gives the genre an opportunity to apologize for a lot of the stereotypes it's encouraged (not that that's necessarily a goal of this movie), by indicting the college kids who jump to the conclusion that any creepy hillbilly you meet out in the woods is bound to be some kind of sadistic, cannibal killer (the stereotype of the college kids being idiots you can't wait to see get killed in gruesome ways remains intact, however).

If you like comedies, or especially horror comedies, you might enjoy this movie more than I did, but even so, it had some good moments, even a few funny ones. I really got to like the character Dale (played by Tyler Labine, who - random trivia time - played a stoner on two separate episodes of The X-Files back in 1996 - War of the Coprophages, and Quagmire). The scene where Tucker uses the chainsaw on a bee hive was frankly quite clever. Clearly, it's a parody of Leatherface's maniacal manner of wielding a chainsaw. Now, that last scene in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre - I think it's brilliant, and haunting, and one of the greatest scenes ever in a horror movie. But you do have to admit, once you step back and look at it critically, that it's kind of ridiculous to see somebody waving a chainsaw around like that. This movie recognizes that, and creates a humorous situation in which something like that could actually occur - albeit accidentally.

This is less of a humorous note, but I also really appreciated the scene where Dale and the college kid sit down to a cup of tea to work out their problems. It's a perfect example of bigotry in action. Some maniac does something horrible to a person, and the person latches onto some incidental detail of the maniac's identity in anger, usually one that's rife with stereotypes - in this case, the fact that the maniacs were hillbillies - and then generalizes that to all people who possess that detail - e.g., concluding that all hillbillies are maniacs, as if the hillbilly part is what made those hillbillies maniacs, instead of those particular hillbillies just happening to be maniacs. It happens all the time - with race, gender, sexual orientation - any bigotry you can imagine. And there I go, finding something serious to discuss in a lighthearted movie. I should open a column titled "The Darker Side of..."

The X-Files - S4:E12 "Leonard Betts"

[ S4:E11 "El Mundo Gira" <<< Season 4 >>> S4:E13 "Never Again" ]

A preternaturally gifted paramedic in Pittsburgh, PA with a special talent for diagnosing cancer - the titular Leonard Betts (a likable and understated Paul McCrane) - loses his head one night and crashes an ambulance - no, wait, the ambulance crashes and he loses his head. But that doesn't stop him from getting up and walking out of the morgue later that night. Or is it a coverup for a body-snatching operation? You have to hand it to Agent Scully; some of her explanations are more plausible than others, but you have to admire the way she always - always - has an alternate, grounded explanation for everything weird she comes across. And she prattles them off without ever missing a beat! Mulder and Scully have worked on a lot of cases where they've struggled to prove the existence of paranormal phenomena, but if there's a headless corpse walking around, that would be a pretty slam dunk case. Unfortunately (or fortunately - it really depends on your perspective), Leonard Betts has the miraculous ability to regenerate himself.

This episode has a star cast of writers. I've gotten into the habit, lately, of watching for the "Written by" credit at the beginning of these episodes, and I was surprised to see three names pop up this time. You've got the great Vince Gilligan, who has really been proving himself since last season's Pusher; John Shiban, who, although his first two episodes weren't so great, really improved with last week's El Mundo Gira; and Frank Spotnitz, who has stepped up and mostly been helping Chris Carter with the mythology episodes. And I can really feel each of the writers' footprints in this episode. Vince Gilligan's got the human angle down, and Frank Spotnitz' mythology connection is apparent at the end. And judging from the lighter mood of El Mundo Gira, I would imagine that John Shiban was probably responsible for much of this episode's humor.

And the episode takes full advantage of the absurdity of its premise to wring a good bit of humor out of the episode. But it's a very different sort of humor than the kind Darin Morgan was fond of. It's more straight-faced, relying less on deconstruction and misdirection, and more on the characters' all-too-relatable reactions to the weirdness they encounter - which, in many episodes, they seem all-too-accustomed to. There's also a good bit of grossness in this episode - primarily the scene involving the medical waste container (shudder). I do believe this qualifies as another mutant episode, although for about the first half of the episode, it seems to take a novel approach - the mutant appears not to be a homicidal predator, but someone who actually wants to help people. It would be like if the freak in 2Shy became a cosmetic surgeon and began eating people's fat - not to kill them - but just to make them thinner.

Unfortunately, and I don't know if this is just because he got desperate after the accident, and had to resort to extreme measures to conceal his secret, but he does become more of a menace in the latter part of the episode, because what's an episode of The X-Files without mortal danger, right? I really have to say that this episode's approach to cancer as a regenerative ability is fascinating. I mean, a freak who can regenerate himself is weird enough a plot device to drive an X-Files episode, but the whole cancer angle adds so much more depth to it. But, I have to say - and this is a huge spoiler (highlight to read the rest of this paragraph) - that scene at the end, that's got to be the most twisted way imaginable to find out you have cancer. It's perfect, for a series like The X-Files. I'm glad it happened like that. But damn. Totally heartbreaking. This is a monster-of-the-week episode with a twist that has dire and long-lasting consequences for one of its main characters.

Addendum: This has little personal significance to me, as I watched this season in reruns before I caught up with the new episodes the next year, but this season marks the series' switch from Friday nights to Sunday nights, and Leonard Betts has the distinction of being the episode that aired after the Superbowl that year, leading it, I've read, to have the highest ratings of any episode in the entire series. I don't know that I would go so far as to say that it's the best episode of the season (let alone the series) - which, obviously, isn't the same thing as saying the most accessible - but it is a good one, and a fun one, and it's an excellent pick for an episode to introduce a whole slew of new fans to the series.

Memorable quotes:

Scully: Mulder, what are we doing here?
Mulder: Did I mention that Mr. Betts had no head?
Scully: Yes. So? I mean, you're not suggesting that a headless body kicked its way out of a latched morgue freezer, are you? Are you?

Mulder: We know how he died. I wanna see how he lives.
Scully: Lived.
Mulder: Lived.

Scully: Evolution - it's a process of steps, not leaps.
Mulder: Recent evolutionary theory would disagree. What scientists call punctualism, or punctual equilibrium - it theorizes that evolutionary advances are cataclysmic, not gradual; that evolution occurs not along a straight, graphable line, but in huge fits and starts. And that the unimaginable happens in the gaps.

Mulder: Scully, there's a great possibility that Leonard Betts not only is cancer...
Scully: But that he needs it for survival?

Mulder: Wouldn't it make sense that evolution or natural selection would incorporate cancer - the greatest health threat to our species - as part of our genetic makeup?
Scully: Why do I think that Charles Darwin is rolling in his grave right now?

Elaine Tanner: God put him here for a purpose. God means for him to stay. Even if people don't understand.

Leonard Betts: I'm sorry, but you've got something I need.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Dark Skies (2013)

I guess I've seen too many amateur or found footage alien abduction movies lately (The Device, Alien Abduction, Absence - oh, and that segment from V/H/S/2), because it's so refreshing to watch one that actually has professional production values for a change. Dark Skies does a phenomenal job of setting up an atmosphere of suburban home life. Of course, as with most families, not everything is as perfect as it appears on the surface. The Barrett family (Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton play the heads of the household) are experiencing a money crunch, their eldest son (Dakota Goyo) is entering his rebellious adolescent period, and their youngest son (Kadan Rockett) is having nightmares about "the sandman". But it doesn't really start getting creepy until a series of unexplained late night break-ins accompany some weird, poltergeist-like activity.

In my opinion, a really effective horror movie - not necessarily one that represents the pinnacle of cinematic art, but a really effective horror movie - is one that puts you in that suggestive state, where you're actually scared of what might turn up on the screen in certain scenes, and where you actually begin to question the dark corners of the room you're sitting in, wondering what might be hiding there, in the shadows. Granted, Dark Skies wasn't quite as effective as Paranormal Activity, but I watched it during the middle of the day - albeit in a darkened room - and it still had that effect on me. There's probably a significant element of subjectivity there, as aliens (along with ghosts) are capable of scaring me in a way that no threat of vampires or zombies or...giant gila monsters ever could. Nevertheless, not every movie on this subject is equally effective, so it's worth mentioning.

If you'll forgive me for going off on a tangent, it's very unsettling, this idea that some kind of menace, some malicious entity, can get inside your comfort zone - that's always been one of the scariest things about alien abductions: that they come for you in the safety of your own bed at night. And that, with their technology (or whatever powers they have), they can't be stopped by such mundane obstacles as locked doors or windows, or electronic security systems. I had a sleep paralysis episode once in which it seemed that a malicious entity was standing beside my bed as I came awake, while I simultaneously realized that I couldn't move, or even speak. It was only a hallucination, but I can't imagine - even if it were merely the symptom of a mental disorder, and not invaders from outer space - that if you had to live with the experience of being haunted by such an entity, who - even more so, in lieu of it being a construction of your imagination - could evade any and all attempts to frustrate its access to you - I say, I can't imagine how that would destroy a person's state of mind (I think Communion dealt with that a little bit - the long-term effects of being an abductee). That's probably the scariest thing of all - when your own mind turns against you.

Which is not to say that that is what this movie is about. Rest assured, there really are aliens involved. Now, the movie isn't completely free of clichés - to demonstrate, in one scene, there is a subtle visual scare that's over-emphasized by the crashing score, to the point that when you realize the horror of what you're supposed to be reacting to, you feel a little cheated because it was only the noise that startled you - but it's still better than most. For example, in one scene involving a window, you're fully expecting a cheap scare, but what you get instead is rather unexpected, and turns out to be something unsettling on a whole different scale.

There is a satisfying scene late in the movie where the parents consult an experienced abductee (J.K. Simmons), whose monologue seems to place this movie as an anti-Independence Day. He claims that the invasion has already happened - that it was a quiet one, and that now the aliens are secretly going about their business (very X-Files-ish, come to think of it), making random people's lives a living hell, all for their science experiments. And then the movie's final confrontation occurs in the form of a 4th of July home invasion that has shades of Incident in Lake County. I think I may have possibly enjoyed this movie even more than The Fourth Kind.

The X-Files - S4:E11 "El Mundo Gira"

[ S4:E10 "Paper Hearts" <<< Season 4 >>> S4:E12 "Leonard Betts" ]

This is it! This is the episode that tackles the cryptid known as "el chupacabra" - the Mexican goatsucker! You know, I always thought of the chupacabra as some kind of wild beast, like a freakish Tazmanian devil or something, but I think it was The X-Files' that first introduced me to the idea that it could actually be an alien. Which makes perfect sense, when you think about the cattle mutilation connection.

A young woman turns up dead via strange circumstances in a migrant workers' camp in California, and the superstitious locals blame it on "el chupacabra". Naturally, Mulder shows up to investigate. Both of the agents' explanations in this episode are top notch - Scully's rational approach to what appears to be a highly lethal fungal pathogen, and Mulder's attempt to connect it to extraterrestrials via an unexplained astronomical event. (The combination of which kinda reminds me of a segment from Creepshow - The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill).

This is a pretty gross episode, with the weird, green, fungal stuff going on (shudders). But there's a bit of fun at the end, when we're treated to a couple of variations on the final showdown, depending on different witness' perspectives - a mechanism that recalls (in small part) the difficulty of parsing the truth in Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space', and that we'll see again in a memorable episode to come. (By the way, the actress credited as Simi, who plays Gabrielle, is one hell of a storyteller).

This is definitely one of the series' better "ethnic" episodes, perhaps because it focuses on the human story at its center (two brothers, one woman - trouble), instead of placing too much emphasis on the particulars of whichever superstitions this particular culture subscribes to. It's definitely an improvement over writer John Shiban's previous two episodes, from season 3 - The Walk, and Teso dos Bichos.

Memorable quotes:

Flakita: It was a terrible thing. You are not going to believe me, even when I tell you. Some say it is a story - a fairy tale. But I saw it. I saw it with my own eyes.

Scully: Mulder, you brought me out here under the pretense of investigating an unexplained death. Can you tell me why we're standing out here in the middle of a field looking at a dead goat?

Scully: Admit it, you fell for it. Your Fortean event turned out to be nothing more than the oldest story in the world: two men, one woman - trouble.

Scully: Mulder, I know you don't wanna hear this, but I think the aliens in this story are not the villains, they're the victims.

(Ooh, nice one, Scully. You can see the recognition dawning on Mulder's face as he works out the joke).

INS Agent Lozano: A man cannot live with vengeance in his heart.

Mulder: Scully, I've been thinking - I know that's dangerous, but just bear with me.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

After (2012)

After a horrible bus crash following a cringeworthy meeting between two strangers (who happen to live down the street from each other, and grew up together), Freddy and Ana (that's "Awna", not "Anna") wake up to find themselves alone in a town that appears to be completely abandoned. (Note: I probably would have enjoyed this scene more if it weren't for the fact that it is extremely derivative of 28 Days Later, even down to the music - which, rather than being a welcome homage, ended up just being really distracting). They come across a surreal wall of black smoke that is reminiscent of "The Nothing" from The Neverending Story (great idea!). Unfortunately for them, it's less of an advancing stormfront than it is the eye of a hurricane, and it's closing in around them, little by little.

You kinda get the feeling that this could have been a really cool movie in the hands of professionals. There are some nice touches, like when a character remarks that it's getting dark early, on account of the proximity of the wall of smoke, or when they use a scientific approach in determining how long it will take to absorb the city. But then there are some clichés, too, like when the car won't start once they realize the wall of smoke is moving. Surely, a competent writer could think up some other, more plausible mechanism by which to introduce suspense; or, at the very least, establish that the car is unreliable prior to this scene - indicating that the smoke affects the battery after the fact doesn't really cut it. And are we really supposed to believe that Freddy can build pipe bombs just because he was "kind of a pyro in high school"?

To say more about the movie involves spoiling some of its surprises, so be warned. I really like the idea of fantasy elements from a person's imagination coming to life - and the explanation behind this movie's strange setup certainly makes that a plausible mechanism. I also like the idea of having to confront or overcome traumas that have lain dormant in one's sub- or semi-conscious mind - that's very Silent Hill-esque. Albeit, the whole karma angle is kind of hokey. Madison Lintz (fresh off of The Walking Dead in this role) is adorable as the younger version of Ana, even though you have to wonder how she went from a blonde kid to a raven-haired adult. It's not as though hair dye doesn't exist, but it's a bit of a disconnect when you're trying to establish one character as the younger version of another, and they don't even look superficially similar.

The special effects are a little iffy, but not a complete washout. (Speaking of which, this movie is filmed mostly in desaturated hues, which suits the story and themes, but gets kind of dull after awhile). The wall of black smoke looks great, but once the characters go into it, it looks an awful lot like FMV from a PC game from the '90s. Then you have the monster - little more than a growling chain in its first appearance, although you get to see more of it later - which sounds like it's going to be huge, but then turns out to be just the size of a man. The design is plenty cool enough, but when it moves around, it does tend to look like bad CG. Finally, the movie kind of misses the boat of its cool premise by emphasizing the romance at its center in the end (not really believing it). Ultimately, this is a movie with some really great ideas, but only mediocre execution.

The X-Files - S4:E10 "Paper Hearts"

[ S4:E9 "Terma" <<< Season 4 >>> S4:E11 "El Mundo Gira" ]

Paper Hearts opens with an uncomfortable juxtaposition of whimsy and the macabre (perhaps to reflect the similar juxtaposition of innocence and evil that the particular murders this episode deals with evoke), as Mulder (apparently dreaming) begins to follow a laser pointer - like a cat - to a park where the body of a little girl has been buried. (Thankfully, the rest of the episode sticks mostly to the macabre, as this is a pretty dark subject we're dealing with here). He tracks down the spot after he wakes up, orders an excavation, and finds a child-sized skeleton buried in the ground. By a cloth heart cut out of the girl's clothing, he identifies the M.O. as belonging to a serial killer he helped to put behind bars (as in Young At Heart). This, of course, raises the question of how many other victims the killer claimed that he never confessed to.

This is an unsettling premise to begin with, but when Mulder begins to suspect that one of those unaccounted-for victims may have been his sister (first suggested to him in another dream, in which he relives his sister's abduction, but this time it's the killer that takes her away), it becomes personal. It plays on that fear you get when someone (especially a child) goes missing, and you start to wonder - not knowing for sure - if she might not have been one of the victims of a serial killer. Mulder gets a little extreme in this episode (not that that's unusual - he can be pretty intense at times), but in this case you have to forgive him, because it's his sister we're talking about after all. Not someone like his sister, as we've seen in the past (Conduit, for example), but - if the killer is telling the truth - his actual sister.

I mean, what would you do? What could you do, if you had lost your sister (or your daughter), and you thought you had the man who knew where to find her, and he wouldn't tell you? What could you do, but give in to his demands - anything he asks? Could you just walk away? What kind of strength of character would that require? This episode really does a great job of making the emotions personal, by bringing Mulder's sister into it - in a way that doesn't feel cheap and superficial, like it was in Miracle Man. Really, this has been the most touching an X-Files episode has ever gotten - and it feels natural, given the dark themes, not like The Field Where I Died, which tried too hard. Writer Vince Gilligan really hit it out of the ballpark on this episode.

Other notes: Tom Noonan is thoroughly unsettling as the serial killer John Lee Roche (it's funny how true it is that the best villains on the X-Files are the killers with three names), who manages to be one of the most frightening characters in an episode of the X-Files, despite being totally human, and even while doing nothing but sitting behind bars, completely harmless (aside from his mind games). It speaks to the horrible nature of his crimes, combined with his unaffected attitude.

On the other hand, this episode does play into the easy stereotype that anyone who would be attracted to innocence must necessarily be itching to snuff it out (I have no idea how that logic works). Have you ever noticed that the victims in these crimes are always made out to be as cute as possible? I guess it makes the crime that much uglier - and hell, I don't deny that it's an effective horror premise. But I would appreciate a more realistic depiction of this particular pathology. I had to groan when they found the paper hearts in a copy of Alice in Wonderland.

It was pretty exciting to see Skinner out on a case, working with the agents for once, instead of just sitting behind a desk supervising them (i.e., yelling at them for stepping out of line - although there's some of that, too, heh).

Scully's scientific explanation this time is pretty predictable, and utterly unconvincing. Normally, I don't go in for the concept of prophetic dreams, but this is The X-Files, after all. And I have a hard time believing Mulder's dream mind would be able to figure something out from clues he already had, that his brilliant waking mind couldn't work out. There's ultimately not much explanation as to where the supernatural elements of this episode come from, but I can forgive that, because it suits the emotional impact of the script quite satisfactorily in the end.

I really appreciate the continuity, though, when Scully references something Mulder said about dreams in season 2 - a dream is an answer to a question we haven't yet figured out how to ask.

Honestly, when Mulder asks Scully if she believes his sister was abducted by aliens, she should have said, "Mulder, I was abducted by aliens - except that it wasn't aliens, it was really the government." The non-mythology episodes seem to gloss over that whole incident, although I guess maybe Scully is just willfully repressing it because she's not ready yet - until the proper mythology episode - to embrace that truth.

Memorable quotes:

Frank Sparks: I used to think that missing was worse than dead never knew what happened. But now that I know, I'm glad my wife's not here. She got luckier.

Scully: You're in here for life - you've got nothing to lose.
John Lee Roche: I've got nothing to gain.
Mulder: You can gain one moment of decency in your life.

Mulder: Where were you in 1973?
John Lee Roche: What, the whole year?

(See, this sounds funny - and it is - but it's a joke told wryly in the context of a very unsettling and emotional scene - it does more in setting up the inappropriately glib manner of the killer than it does in adding any levity to the atmosphere).

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The X-Files - S4:E9 "Terma"

[ S4:E8 "Tunguska" <<< Season 4 >>> S4:E10 "Paper Hearts" ]

Spoiler Warning: The following review contains spoilers.

Well, this episode kind of flips everything from the last episode around, taking us from Tunguska, Russia, all the way back to North Dakota - to a town called Terma. You kind of get the feeling that Chris Carter enjoys asking questions more than he does answering them. I must say, putting together these mythology episodes is like trying to work a puzzle. I can't blame people for getting frustrated with them, but I do like working puzzles. The feeling of finally finding a solution - disentangling the knot and creating order from chaos - is thrilling. That is, of course, assuming there is a tidy solution, and you're not just making a futile effort...

The episode opens with what appears to be a non sequitur - an old woman engaging in assisted suicide at a Florida convalescent home - until after her death the Black Oil starts seeping out of her. Its connection to the rest of the events of this and the previous episode will be made a bit later, but has to do with government tests to create an inoculation against the Black Oil. The virologist working on this is in with the Well-Manicured Man (personally, I don't find the scenes with the Syndicate members in these two episodes as compelling as they have been in past episodes), and she's the one the diplomatic pouch containing the meteorite fragment was supposed to be delivered to.

Enter the Russians, who are working on their own inoculation for what they call "the black cancer". Lucky for Mulder, he got one just before they pumped him full of Black Oil, so he came out okay. He also manages to escape the Russian prison camp, and make his way back to the United States, to relieve the pressure on Scully to rat out his location to the Senate Subcommittee (but not before she spends a day in confinement).

But also traveling from Russia to America is a retired KGB assassin tasked with putting a wrench in the works of the Americans' inoculation efforts. (Apparently, the Cold War isn't over). He kills the virologist, the NASA scientist who identified the meteorite, steals said meteorite, and kills all the test subjects at the Florida convalescent home. Then he buries the meteorite just across the Canadian border using an explosive that Krycek allegedly supplied (although I don't know why he didn't just take it back to Russia).

Did I mention that we learn that this whole thing was a setup, and Krycek has been working with the Russians, under the alias Comrade Arntzen, all along? He wasn't actually rescued from the missile silo by the revolutionaries, but by some unknown person, probably in cahoots with the Russians. Krycek, however, after escaping from the prison camp, winds up in the hands of a group of renegades who believe in cutting their left arms off rather than be submitted to the Russians' inoculation trials (which they tend to push until the subject dies). Krycek loses his arm.

I must have gotten my chronology mixed up, because even though I remember Krycek being in these episodes, I had been under the mistaken impression that the last we saw of him on the series was him being trapped in that missile silo at the end of Apocrypha. I guess it just goes to show what a memorable end for him that was. At this point, though, I don't recall for sure when or if he turns up again, although I suspect that he does - and certainly, the ending of this episode seems to suggest that. It will be exciting to find out if he does.

It makes you wonder how long Krycek has been in with the Russians (he seems to speak their language well enough). Has it just been since he was rescued from the missile silo, perhaps as part of some deal for saving his life? Or has he been a Russian spy all along? This Krycek certainly feels different from the green Krycek we saw in season 2, who was originally the Smoking Man's patsy. A major lingering question is who rescued him from that missile silo?

The Black Oil behaves differently, too, than what we saw in Piper Maru/Apocrypha - it's more like a disease (or, in Scully's words, a paralyzing toxin) than a sentient organism this time around. I wonder if that's because, as a sample from a meteorite that crashed almost a hundred years ago, from a rock that could be over 4 billion years old, it's a different, more primitive form of the Black Oil. Or perhaps I'm trying too hard to iron out the inconsistencies of the show's mythology.

For example, Talitha Cumi/Herrenvolk brought back the Alien Bounty Hunter and clones from Colony/End Game, but seemed to change up the rules a little bit. These episodes do the same thing for the Black Oil. Is there some way to resolve these contradictions, or are the writers just taking the bits and pieces they like from previous episodes and rewriting them for the stories they want to tell? Perhaps a more detailed analysis will answer that question, but for the time being, I'll just take things at face value. Suffice to say, the mythology is already becoming convoluted and less satisfying here in season 4.

By the way, this episode features yet another replacement for the phrase "The Truth Is Out There" in the opening credits. This time it's "E Pur Si Muove", which a cursory perusal of Wikipedia leads me to believe is Italian for "And Yet It Moves", which has some connection to Galileo, and is probably a reference to the evidence presented in this episode as to the existence of life on other planets in our solar system, in the face of obstinate disbelief by a governing tribunal (the Senate Subcommittee).

Memorable quotes:

Mulder: I'm not gonna die.
Prisoner: No? Why not?
Mulder: I have to live long enough to kill that man Krycek.

Prisoner: It is wonderful, the persistence of life.

Smoking Man: Wake the Russian bear and it may find we've stolen its honey.

Senator Sorenson: What evidence are you then presenting with us today?
Scully: Documents and interviews in support of a wide-ranging conspiracy to control a lethal biotoxin that is, in fact, extraterrestrial.
Senator Sorenson (incredulous): Are we talking about little green men here?
Scully: No, sir, not at all --
Mulder: Why is this so hard to believe? When the accepted discovery of life off this planet is on the front page of every newspaper around the world? When even the most conservative scientists and science journals are calling for the exploration of Mars and Jupiter? With every reason to believe that life and the persistence of it is thriving outside our own terrestrial sphere? If you cannot get past this, then I suggest that this whole committee be held in contempt, for ignoring evidence that cannot be refuted.

(I dunno, I'm starting to think the mythology was more compelling - and less confounding - when it was little green men we were talking about here).

The X-Files - S4:E8 "Tunguska"

[ S4:E7 "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" <<< Season 4 >>> S4:E9 "Terma" ]

Spoiler Warning: And, we're headed right into a full-on mythology two-parter! So don your tin foil hats, because there be spoilers ahead!

Tunguska opens with a familiar situation - Mulder is AWOL, and the authorities are pressing Scully for his whereabouts - but presents it in an entirely fresh and original context: a Senate Subcommittee, which has all the atmosphere of a big deal. With Scully's refusal to give up Mulder's location risking her being found in contempt of Congress, the situation feels more dire than usual. Not since Colony has a mid-season mythology two-parter opened with such gravitas! This episode is as thrilling as last season's early mythology two-part opener, Nisei, but draws at least as many parallels to Piper Maru/Apocrypha, because it marks the return of Alex Krycek and the Black Oil.

But it's not the same Black Oil. Having been rescued from the abandoned missile silo by terrorist revolutionaries scavenging for military munitions, Krycek reunites with Mulder (granted, there's no love lost between those two) on a fringe hope of bringing the man who tried to kill him - the Smoking Man - to justice. I certainly can't blame Mulder for his hatred of the rat bastard (although Nicholas Lea is fantastic in this episode, and Krycek gets a great conversation with Mulder and Scully), but I'm glad that the only good that's in him - his hatred of the Smoking Man, which was temporarily absent while he was possessed by the Black Oil in Apocrypha - is back, leading to an unlikely (and understandably reluctant on Mulder's part) alliance, for great justice (not that Krycek is half the idealist that Mulder is).

Krycek tips Mulder and Scully off to a Russian diplomat carrying a strange rock into the country. Now, as an aside, you can sort of feel that the show's budget is expanding, because instead of Georgetown University's microbiology department (consulted in The Erlenmeyer Flask), the agents head straight to NASA itself (the Goddard Space Flight Center) to have the rock analyzed. And it is, indeed, a piece of meteorite, allegedly over 4 billion years old, from Mars. Unfortunately for the scientist examining it, though, it contains some of the Black Oil, which escapes when the scientist attempts to take a core sample. He becomes infected (in spite of his containment suit). But unlike in Piper Maru, the Black Oil doesn't so much possess him as put him into some kind of strange coma.

Anyway, while Scully (and Skinner, who got roped into all this, as usual) are dealing with the bureaucratic fallout of their having intercepted a very important diplomatic package, Mulder consults his new informant (albeit one that has the air of a potential Bond-like romance, as opposed to the fatherly figure and bad cop routine we saw from Deep Throat and X, respectively), Marita Covarrubias, and deduces that the meteorite fragment came from Tunguska, in remote Siberia, Russia. (At this point, it would be prudent to mention the real life Tunguska event, which occurred in 1908, and involved an explosion more powerful than the atomic bomb). And off he goes! With Krycek in tow, only because Krycek happens to speak Russian (lucky for Krycek).

With all the international intrigue in this episode, this really feels like The X-Files writ large. And it ends on a particularly frustrating cliffhanger, after Mulder and Krycek are captured by Russian slavers, and thrown in a dungeon - indeed, a Gulag - near the Tunguska impact site, where Mulder is subjected to human experiments involving the Black Oil. No, he can't be infected! What are you doing, Chris Carter (and/or Frank Spotnitz)? We'll have to wait to find out next week.

To be continued...

Memorable quotes:

Scully: What I am saying is that there is a culture of lawlessness that has prevented me from doing my job. That the real target of this committee's investigation should be the men who are beyond prosecution and punishment - the men whose secret policies are behind the crimes that you are investigating.

Krycek: Hey, if you go underground, you gotta learn to live with the rats.

Mulder: You're full of crap, Krycek. You're an invertebrate scumsucker whose moral dipstick's about two drops short of bone dry.

Scully: You want this man brought to justice?
Krycek (incredulous): You can't bring these men to justice. They're protected. The laws of this country protect these men under the name of National Security. They know no law.
Mulder: Then why don't you put a bullet in his head, like you did that man out there?
Krycek: These men, they fear one thing: exposure. You expose him, expose his crimes, you destroy the destroyer's ability to destroy.
Mulder: The only thing that will destroy this man is the truth.
Krycek (mocking): The truth, the truth - there's no truth! These men, they just make it up as they go along.

(Lol, I bet a lot of people would say the same thing about Chris Carter and his co-conspirators behind the scenes of the X-Files' mythology).

Smoking Man: As a friend, I should advise you, Mr. Skinner, that withholding information on matters of National Security is punishable under this country's laws of treason and sedition.
Skinner (terse): Thank you. I'll consider myself advised. As a friend.

Mulder: What is this place?
Prisoner: This place - a Gulag. A place where the guilty rule the innocent.

Senator Sorenson: Are you familiar with the penalties for obstruction of justice?
Scully: Is that a rhetorical question, sir?

Monday, September 21, 2015

The X-Files - S4:E7 "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man

[ S4:E6 "Sanguinarium" <<< Season 4 >>> S4:E8 "Tunguska" ]

Spoiler Warning: As you might imagine, this review is going to be spoilerrific.

The Cigarette Smoking Man - who has been listed in the credits as the Smoking Man, and referred to as both that and Cancer Man (though more often Cancer Man) by characters on the show - has always been a crucial character for The X-Files (arguably the most important one after Mulder and Scully), going all the way back to the pilot episode, even though at that point in time he was little more than an archetype of institutional evil. Unless I am mistaken, he appeared in only a few short scenes in a confirmed three episodes throughout the first season, uttering a grand total of four words (three of which were two letters or less, not to belabor the point). Perhaps because of this relative obscurity, as well as his larger-than-life character, every little bit we saw of him in the second season was a welcome addition to his legacy. Then, I remarked that there was a point in this series when he could be considered to be too exposed, and overly humanized. He appeared quite a bit in the "merchandise trilogy" that wrapped around seasons 2 and 3 (Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip), and his connection with Mulder's parents then, and particularly in the wraparound to seasons 3 and 4 (Talitha Cumi/Herrenvolk), have gone a long way in humanizing him; although I daresay that at this point in the series, he hasn't yet lost his edge. But this episode is certainly a major turning point for the character.

The episode opens with the Smoking Man setting up in an abandoned building with a view of the offices of The Lone Gunmen, armed with a sniper rifle, and highly sophisticated surveillance equipment. He spends the episode eavesdropping on a juicy lead Frohike shares with Mulder and Scully (neither of which who, aside from a short clip of repeated footage from the pilot episode, appear in this episode beyond a few dubbed lines - a rare first for the series), detailing the Smoking Man's classified history. Therein lies the episode's disclaimer, however, as it's not apparent how much of what we see is the Smoking Man reminiscing about his life, and how much is merely a dramatization of the unverified and admittedly sensational leads Frohike thinks he's uncovered.* Nevertheless, it's a very satisfying episode, even inasmuch as it further humanizes the main villain of the show.

The episode is divided into four chapters, three of which center around a critical assassination. The first glosses over the Smoking Man's childhood, during which his father was executed for being a Communist spy, and his mother died of lung cancer before he began to speak. He grew up an orphan, and eventually enlisted in the army, where he was friends with Bill Mulder (the Smoking Man will come to treasure a photo Bill shows him of his wife and son). At that point, we witness his recruitment (though not necessarily his initiation) into life as a political assassin. The episode brazenly suggests that the Smoking Man himself (played in his younger years by Chris Owens), was the man who shot JFK. What's more, in the second chapter, we see him responsible for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well (despite respecting the man - gotta keep the commies out of America). We also see that he's gained considerable power and influence, and connections with the FBI.

The third chapter is more relevant to the themes of this series, as it depicts Deep Throat's assassination of an E.B.E. - mostly consistent with his revelations in the season 1 episode of that title - just months before the start of the series. The fourth and final chapter gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of when Scully was assigned to the X-Files project, as we'd previously seen in the pilot episode. In addition to the Smoking Man's illustrious yet ignoble career, we also get a look into his aspirations - such as his unrequited desire to be a published fiction writer (as an aside, I really liked that the Smoking Man's rejection letter contained the phrase "burn it!", which the Smoking Man notably utters in Anasazi) - and his personal struggles - namely, his addiction to cigarettes. Overall, it paints the portrait of a very important, but very lonely, man, and it depicts his work for the government - as gruesome as it is - in a relatively sympathetic manner.

The episode, written by Glen Morgan and directed by James Wong, is masterfully crafted, in such a way that we feel we've been exposed to much, and have a much better understanding of the character of the Cigarette Smoking Man, while simultaneously not really critically advancing the show's mythology - as this is not a mythology episode per se, so much as a portrait of a critical mythology-centric character. As far as experiments go, it's infinitely more successful than The Field Where I Died was. I consider it an essential episode of the series.

* Credit goes to The A.V. Club, whose review of this episode opened my eyes to a subtle but incredibly important implication made in a nearly throwaway line at the end of the episode. I didn't actually pick up on this on my own, but I believe now that we are meant to conclude that Frohike's lead - which drives the recounted events of this episode - are none other than the story the Smoking Man himself wrote up and submitted to the magazine for publication(!) - which is, presumably, the Smoking Man's dramatized and glorified account of his own life.

Memorable quotes:

Byers: Frohike's close.
Frohike: Don't use my name! What the hell's wrong with you? Now I'll have to kill you!

General Francis: You see, Captain, most people seek to control life's events in order to secure a more positive, productive, and free existence. Often, however, the objectives of others conflict with our objectives. Now, most people - common people, really - can barely manage to control their own self-centered, myopic existence. They command armies of lawyers, armed with paper weapons, attacking with spiteful, vengeful, cowardly litigation. Others operate within elephantine bureaucracies. And then, Captain, there are extraordinary men - those who must identify, comprehend, and ultimately shoulder the responsibility for not only their own existence, but their country's, and the world's as well.

Associate: I'm working on next month's Oscar nominations. Any preference?
Smoking Man: I couldn't care less. What I don't wanna see is the Bills winning the Super Bowl. As long as I'm alive, that doesn't happen.

Smoking Man: How many historic events have only the two of us witnessed together? How often did we make or change history; and our names can never grace any pages of record. No monument will ever bear our image. And yet, once again, tonight, the course of human history will be set by two unknown men, standing in the shadows.

Smoking Man: A living E.B.E. could advance Bill Mulder's project by decades.
Deep Throat: Security council resolution 1013 states any country capturing such an entity is responsible for its immediate extermination.

Deep Throat: I'm the liar. You're the killer.
Smoking Man: Your lies have killed more men in a day than I have in a lifetime. I've never killed anybody.
Deep Throat: Maybe I'm not the liar.

Smoking Man: like a box of chocolates. A cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that nobody ever asks for. Unreturnable, because all you get back is another box of chocolates. So you're stuck with this...undefinable whipped mint crap that you mindlessly wolf down when there's nothing else left to eat. Sure, once in a while there's a peanut butter cup, or a...English toffee, but they're gone too fast, and the taste is fleeting. So you end up with nothing but broken bits filled with hardened jelly and teeth-shattering nuts. If you're desperate enough to eat those, all you've got left is an empty box, filled with useless, brown paper wrappings.

(This was one of my all-time favorite quotes from the series, on my first watch).

Smoking Man: I can kill you whenever I please. But not today.

Myth Tracker (The X-Files, Season 1)

Introduction: Now that I'm into the fourth season of The X-Files, and the mythology is beginning - just beginning - to get fairly complex, I've started to go back in my mind (and, well, the series) and summarize the important findings and events of the mythology episodes of previous seasons, to try and keep everything straight. I'm trying to keep a level head in the hopes of piecing together all the important bits of the mythology during my re-watch. I understand that sometimes contradictory information may be given, not always intentionally, and keeping a coherent storyline going through many years of programming can be tricky, not least of all due to the complicated nature of conspiracies, and the fact that so few characters on this show are entirely trustworthy.

Now, there are fanatics out there who have collated exhaustive reports of the information provided throughout the series in each and every mythology episode, and for that, they deserve admiration. (In my younger days, with enough time at my disposal, I could see myself doing the same thing). But all I feel it is necessary for me to do now is cover the broad strokes, so that the major pieces of the puzzle can be (hopefully) fit together. Any need for more detailed accounts may always be satisfied by simply watching the episodes in question, or else consulting other, more exhaustive reports, as mentioned above. (Edit: in hindsight, I ended up going into much more detail than I had originally intended. Oh well. By all means, feel free to stick to the summaries and takeaways if you don't have a mind to read the whole thing).

Spoiler Warning! Needless to say, the rest of this report will contain major mythology-based spoilers, as each account will essentially spoil many of the best surprises that the best episodes in the series have to offer. This first report will only concern itself with the first season, however, and for the time being, I don't intend to "fore-spoil" anything - that is, include revelations from episodes past the one(s) being accounted for at any given time. Nevertheless, I strongly advise you not to read further unless you have watched each of the following episodes in season 1.

Myth Tracker - Season 1

S1:E1 "Pilot"

-Scully is assigned to the X-Files
-Mulder recounts the story of his sister's abduction
-Mulder & Scully investigate a series of alleged alien abductions
-All evidence of the paranormal is either inconclusive, circumstantial, or destroyed
-An implant is taken by the Smoking Man and stored (with others) in the Pentagon

The long version: Scully is assigned to debunk the X-Files, under supervision of the Smoking Man. Mulder & Scully investigate a series of alleged alien abductions in coastal Oregon. They encounter bright lights and missing time. Abductees have two marks on their lower back. The surrounding tissue contains what appears to be an unidentified synthetic protein. An exhumed body appears to be extraterrestrial, or possibly simian. Mulder suspects a genetic mutation due to alien testing. Scully suspects a hoax. The body also contains a nasal implant composed of an unidentifiable material. Mulder recounts the story of his sister's abduction to Scully. All their case evidence is destroyed in a fire. The detective has a plausible alibi for engaging in a cover-up - he's trying to protect his son who is responsible for the murdered abductees. His son claims to be following orders from the aliens, communicated through his implant, who are now on clean-up duty after their tests have failed. If not for the circumstantial evidence, this would appear to simply be a case of homicidal insanity. Nevertheless, the government (who may or may not be responsible for the abductions) conspicuously buries the case, and the implant - the only surviving evidence - is taken by the Smoking Man and stored in a secure evidence room in the Pentagon.

Takeaway: The government is covering up evidence of extraterrestrial contact.

S1:E2 "Deep Throat"

-Mulder is contacted by a government informant, Deep Throat
-Mulder & Scully investigate a military cover-up involving experimental aircraft
-Mulder & Scully witness UFOs flying over an Air Force base
-Mulder sees one of these UFOs up close, but has his memory erased
-Deep Throat confirms the existence of extraterrestrial life on Earth

The long version: Mulder & Scully investigate what appears to be a military cover-up involving experimental aircraft at an Air Force base in Idaho - which is not coincidentally a UFO hotspot - after a rogue pilot is apprehended, and then disappears. When his wife calls in the FBI, the pilot mysteriously reappears, but with strange lapses in his memory. Mulder is confronted by a government informant - whom he will come to know as Deep Throat - who warns him of the dangers of pursuing this case, which he proceeds to ignore. Mulder & Scully witness UFOs performing seemingly impossible aerial feats over the Air Force base. Scully thinks they're classified spy planes. Mulder thinks they've been built using technology recovered from the Roswell crash. Mulder sees one of these UFOs up close, but has his memory erased. In an uncorroborated claim, Deep Throat confirms the existence of extraterrestrial life on Earth.

Takeaway: The U.S. military has built aircraft using recovered UFO technology.

S1:E4 "Conduit"

-Mulder & Scully investigate a missing persons case attributed to alien abduction
-Evidence is suggestive, but ultimately inconclusive, of paranormal activity
-Mulder remembers, via hypnosis, his sister Samantha's abduction

The long version: A girl goes missing in Lake Okobogee, Iowa - a UFO hotspot - leaving behind a brother and a mother who once experienced a UFO sighting of her own when she was a child. Mulder takes a personal interest in the case. Scully gets a look at the X-File on Mulder's sister, Samantha. Scully suspects that the girl was kidnapped, or ran away, but Mulder finds evidence of a UFO encounter - the blistered roof of a camper, singed tree tops, and sand on the beach heated into glass. Scully suggests an electrical storm. The girl's brother is somehow able to receive binary signals through the TV, containing fragments of scientific data and artistic media, including a classified satellite transmission. The girl is eventually returned, experiencing symptoms of prolonged weightlessness, but her testimony is suppressed by her overprotective mother. Scully reviews an audio recording of Mulder's hypnotic regression therapy detailing his sister's abduction.

Takeaway: Mulder's search for the truth is driven by the loss of his sister.

S1:E10 "Fallen Angel"

-Mulder investigates a crashed UFO
-The military send in a clean-up crew, hunt for the pilot
-The pilot appears to be invisible, can kill with a 'radiation flare'
-Max Fenig, a suspected serial abductee, vanishes with the pilot
-The media is given an innocuous cover story
-Deep Throat wields his influence to keep the X-Files open

The long version: Deep Throat gives Mulder a head's up when a UFO crash lands in Wisconsin. He investigates the site and is apprehended by an Air Force crash retrieval unit. His pictures of the crash are destroyed. In custody, he meets Max Fenig, a member of NICAP (the National Investigative Committee of Aerial Phenomenon), which has been following Mulder's career ever since he began work on the X-Files. Max has suffered from epileptic seizures since childhood, and is used to waking up in strange places, not knowing how he got there. He has a strange scar behind his ear that Mulder connects to two known cases of alleged abductees. Mulder thinks Max is a serial abductee. Scully thinks he's a delusional schizophrenic, judging from the anti-psychotic medications he's taking.

Cover stories for the UFO crash, which requires evacuation of the local area, run the gamut from a meteor (though it was shown on the radar to move like no meteor), a train wreck involving toxic chemicals (although there are no train tracks near the site), and the classified story: a downed Libyan jet with a nuclear warhead. The reclamations team is on a hunt for the pilot, armed with live rounds. The pilot is occasionally viewed in first person via a POV cam that is suspiciously low to the ground. In other shots, it appears to be using a cloaking device that renders it invisible. It has the ability to attack people with a bright flash of light, causing 5th and 6th degree burns over 90% of the victims' bodies. The doctor who treats these patients is threatened into silence. Mulder believes it's the result of intense ionizing radiation, a feature of close encounter mortalities backed up by a stack of X-Files.

The suspected alien pilot tracks Max down in his trailer (at which point his ear begins to bleed), and either possesses him, or otherwise accompanies him as he seems mindlessly drawn to a dockside warehouse. A couple of soldiers get fried when they confront him. There, a much larger craft (off screen) is poised to abduct Max and recover the pilot. Mulder witnesses Max vanishing in a beam of light. X-rays taken while he was institutionalized indicate that an object had been lodged in his cerebellum. Official, unconfirmed reports state that Max was found two hours later in a cargo container. Section Chief McGrath of the FBI attempts to have the X-Files shut down, but Deep Throat wields his influence to keep the project afloat.

Takeaway: The military is trained to recover crashed UFOs; some people are repeatedly abducted by aliens throughout their lives.

S1:E17 "E.B.E."

-A UFO is shot down, and its wreckage/occupants are transported across the U.S.
-Mulder & Scully chase the cargo, believing it to contain a living E.B.E.
-Unprecedented levels of UFO activity follow the cargo's journey
-The Lone Gunmen are introduced
-The government gets to the cargo before Mulder can
-Deep Throat describes an international conspiracy to exterminate E.B.E.s
-Deep Throat reveals that he is helping Mulder in order to assuage his guilt
-Deep Throat also admits to lying and fabricating evidence

The long version: A UFO is shot down over Iraq. The wreckage (weighing in at about 2000 pounds), and any occupants (hereafter referred to collectively as the "cargo"), are recovered by the army, and escorted in the back of a truck across the United States. Unprecedented levels of UFO activity follow the truck across the country. In Tennessee, the truck driver fires on one such UFO, which he alternately describes as "cigar-shaped and black", and "round, like a saucer" with "green and orange lights". He appears to have a cough, fever, and rash, which Scully suspects is the result of Gulf War syndrome (except he wasn't in the Gulf War), but Mulder thinks may be due to exposure to the exhaust or fuel of a secret military aircraft or weapon (although he's been treated in the hospital for it three times in the last year). The truck driver is released shortly after Mulder & Scully begin questioning him, before they are able to examine the truck. Scully later finds out he was using a fake name, and was really a black beret who had recently been stationed in northern Iraq. Mulder and Scully are both targeted for surveillance after this incident.

Mulder consults an extreme government watchdog group which publishes a magazine called The Lone Gunman. He also contacts Deep Throat, who gives him a transcript of the Iraqi transmission. Deep Throat later visits Mulder in his apartment, and gives him a photo of UFO activity. From it, Mulder deduces the alleged location of the cargo, believing the truck to have been a decoy. However, Scully presses Mulder to examine the photo, and they determine that it is a fake. After confronting Deep Throat - who admits to lying and fabricating the UFO photo - and shaking off their pursuers, Mulder & Scully track the truck to Washington state, where another close encounter occurs. The truck driver goes missing, along with the contents of the truck, leaving behind a suspiciously small, empty stretcher. However, examining the evidence, Mulder determines this encounter to be inauthentic (unlike the last time). Scully deduces that it was a hoax perpetrated to throw Mulder off the trail, by leading him to believe the alien had been rescued by its peers.

By following the UFO activity, Mulder & Scully locate the cargo's true final destination - a nearby power plant. The Lone Gunmen hack them some IDs, and they infiltrate the facility. But they are too late. The E.B.E. is nowhere to be seen. Deep Throat claims that it is dead. He describes a secret, international conference convened after Roswell, during the Cold War, in which all nations agreed to exterminate any E.B.E.s upon recovery. He reveals that he is one of three people who have exterminated an E.B.E. - while he was with the CIA in Vietnam - and that the memory haunts him to this day. He explains that he is aiding Mulder's quest to uncover the truth in order to assuage his guilt. But his trustworthiness is now in question. All of the evidence in this episode is highly suggestive, but ultimately inconclusive of anything truly extraterrestrial.

Takeaway: If Deep Throat is to be believed, there is an international conspiracy to exterminate E.B.E.s upon recovery, and at least three such E.B.E.s have been so exterminated.

S1:E21 "Tooms"

Note: this is not an actual mythology episode, and only contains minor mythology content.

-Skinner is introduced, under the auspices of the Smoking Man
-Scully is subjected to bureaucratic pressure regarding Mulder's unorthodox methods

Takeaway: Mulder & Scully are getting too close to the truth.

S1:E24 "The Erlenmeyer Flask"

-Mulder finds evidence of secret government testing to create human-alien hybrids
-Scully identifies a virus that can only be extraterrestrial in origin
-Hybrids have toxic, green blood, and can breathe underwater
-ET gene therapy can cure terminal illnesses, including cancer
-Scully handles an E.B.E. in government custody
-Deep Throat is assassinated after saving Mulder's life
-All evidence is confiscated or destroyed
-The X-Files are shut down
-Smoking Man stores the E.B.E. in the Pentagon, with others like it

The long version: Deep Throat tips Mulder off to a news report about a fugitive who evaded capture by diving into a harbor after being shot, following a high speed car chase in Maryland. Mulder identifies the fugitive's car as belonging to a Dr. Berube, but when questioned, the doctor is uncooperative. That night, he is visited by an assassin searching for the fugitive, who kills the doctor (framing it as a suicide) and trashes the lab. During their investigation, Mulder finds an Erlenmeyer flask labeled "purity control", and has Scully take the contents for analysis. Results indicate that Dr. Berube was cloning a bacteria containing a virus - to be injected into living tissues as a form of gene therapy - but the DNA sequence contains an extra nucleotide pair that is not found anywhere in nature. It can only be extraterrestrial in origin.

Mulder searches Dr. Berube's home and finds a phone number which he traces to a storage facility. There, he finds a series of tanks containing living human beings submerged in solution. He is chased away by suspicious men, and when he comes back the next morning with Scully, the storage room is empty. Deep Throat provides an explanation. Dr. Berube was conducting human experiments with extraterrestrial viruses. The tissue had been available since 1947 (from a half a dozen better salvage operations than Roswell), but only recently has technology enabled a successful DNA transplant. Six volunteers suffering from terminal illnesses underwent ET gene therapy and were cured. One of them was the fugitive - Dr. Secare. These human-alien hybrids possess inhuman strength, and the ability to breathe underwater. Also, their green blood is toxic to humans.

Interested only in the technology, the government is determined not to have a hybrid wandering the streets, creating a liability. The microbiologist that identified the extraterrestrial virus for Scully is killed in a car accident, and Dr. Secare is assassinated before Mulder can get to him. Mulder is captured in the process. All the evidence having been destroyed, Deep Throat offers Scully an opportunity to infiltrate a high containment facility in order to steal the original alien tissue - what appears to be a cryogenically frozen alien fetus. She does so, and Deep Throat exchanges it for Mulder's life, but is shot and killed in the process. Without his protection, the order comes down from the top to shut down the X-Files. The recovered alien fetus is stored (along with others like it) by the Smoking Man in the same Pentagon storage room we saw in the pilot episode.

Takeaway: The government has succeeded in creating human-alien hybrids using tissues from an E.B.E. ET gene therapy can cure terminal illnesses, but with considerable side effects.

Note: While neither related to the government conspiracy nor extraterrestrial life, S1:E13 "Beyond The Sea" contains material pertinent to the development of Scully's character - namely, the first major emotional hurdle she must overcome. As such, I consider it part of Scully's personal mythology, that will later intersect with the main mythology of the show.

Stay tuned for Season 2!