The X-Files

I recently re-watched the first two seasons of The X-Files, and was soon wondering why I’d never worked my way through the whole thing, all eleven seasons of it. After all, it produced some neat little bites of weird TV, like its take on The Thing in the first season episode “Ice”, or “Eve”, about a supposedly discontinued eugenics programme that turns out to be still live and in the wild, and which packs a film’s worth of story into 45 minutes. The show came up with some pretty good monsters, too, like Eugene Tooms, who could slip through narrow chimneys and ventilation ducts, as well as build himself a hibernation retreat out of newspapers and bile (Mulder: “Is there any way I can get it off my fingers quickly without betraying my cool exterior?”); or the human-sized parasite Fluke from “The Host”, the episode with my favourite line of the series, as a sewage-processing plant manager says: “Five hundred and sixty thousand people a day call my office on the porcelain telephone.” I particularly enjoyed the more comedic episodes, such as “Humbug”, about a series of murders in a community of circus performers (where Mulder, receiving a dressing-down from a dwarf for judging by appearances, gets judged in turn, and is told he looks like a government employee), or “Die Hand Die Verletzt”, about a school PTA made up entirely of Satanists. That story, as well as poking fun at itself by having Mulder and Scully caught in a shower of frogs, also contains what is perhaps the series’ most harrowing scene, as a distraught teenage girl describes, at some length, her history of ritual Satanic abuse — made no worse when it turns out to be a delusion.

But after reaching the end of season two, I knew exactly why I’d stopped watching it. Far too quickly, The X-Files clogged itself up with its own “mythology”. To my mind, the show was best when it saw itself as a sort of anthology series, like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, though one framed as a detective show, with Mulder the believer and Scully the sceptic turning up to witness the weird and tragic events in other characters’ lives each episode. (Like poor Max Fenig, a UFO-junkie who drives around the country in his camper van chasing saucer-sightings in the story “Fallen Angel”. The pathos goes up a notch when we learn Max has epilepsy and perhaps schizophrenia, and this may be the root of his lonely outsiderism; then it goes up another notch when we learn his health problems are probably a side-effect of his being ruthlessly used by aliens who simply need a living body in certain places at certain times, and don’t give a damn about the effect on Max as a human being.)

Max Fenig considers his likelihood of surviving the episode

But that the show would always have got bogged down in its own mythology, I think, was a foregone conclusion, thanks to its contradictory treatment of two key areas of interest: aliens and conspiracy theories.

Shows like Gerry Anderson’s UFO or the US series The Invaders had focused on the covert invasion of Earth before. But they set up their rules from the start: how the aliens could be told apart from humans (they have no pulse), what they wanted from Earth (to harvest human organs), and so on. In these shows, the aliens were a single species, with a single intent. The X-Files seemed to want to tackle a different aspect of aliens, the whole Fortean spectrum of weirdness surrounding them. In alien episodes in the first two seasons, there’s no consistent picture of what these beings are, what they want, or how they operate. Rather, they’re free to be as bizarre, creepy, mind-blowing and strange as each story needs them to be, making the whole alien phenomena closer to religious visions and mental illness, fairyland and dreams, than the stuff of a science fiction thriller. Aliens, in The X-Files, seemed at first to be just one more unexplained mystery, and their unexplainedness was the point.

As the show went on, though, it became obvious it also wanted aliens to be part of a government conspiracy — in other words, it wanted these weird and incomprehensible beings to have a comprehensible side: a definite plan, and therefore a definite purpose, and so a definite form, a definite technology, and so on. But they could only be so at the expense of their other role as near-supernatural incomprehensibilities. Their “comprehensible” side, then, would need to explain all the deliberately-unexplainable weirdness that made them so X-File-ish, and that was going to take a lot of explaining. Inevitably, it was also going to generate a lot of show-mythology.

The torch, not the gun, is these FBI agents’ most important weapon, but it can only ever shine a little light into the darkness

Ditto conspiracy theories. Although they appear to be explanations of the world, conspiracy theories are really about the frightening strangeness of the world, with their air of clandestine darkness, paranoia, and vast, unseen manipulative forces. The point about conspiracy theories is not that they resolve into one single set of true-but-hidden facts, but that they present a “Big Picture” fuzzy enough to absorb all the weirdness you can throw at them (all the aliens, all the motives, all the alliances and conflicts), leaving you with a sense that it adds up, so long as you don’t actually try to add it up. To do so would destroy all that crucial-but-foggy pseudo-meaningfulness the “Big Picture” provides. Ultimately, conspiracy theories aren’t about facts and final truths, they’re about freedom from facts. They’re about the momentary high of “everything you know is wrong”, and the freedom that brings. (Not freedom from government control or alien invasion, but freedom — and a temporary one, at that — from your own hangups and disappointments, limits and shortfalls, fears and normal human vulnerabilities before the incomprehensible thing that is reality.)

Mulder can’t quite get the point

In The X-Files, the idea is that the government know “the truth”, and Mulder is trying to catch up, find proof, and make them admit everything that’s going on. But when you look at how the government in the show behaves, you realise they aren’t a source of facts and confirmations, but of rumours, contradictions, betrayals, reversals, smokescreens and runarounds. They’re just one more source of weirdness, one more entrance to the labyrinth. The moment Mulder starts trying to get to the root of these hints of government conspiracy, he enters what Robert Anton Wilson called “Chapel Perilous”: the place where there are no single answers, just an endless multiplication of weirdness. And so, conspiracy theories became just another generator of never-to-be-resolved mythology for the show.

I think it would have been better if The X-Files had stuck to the ultimately weird nature of both its alien and conspiracy strands from the start. Sure, to Mulder the world contains individual cases of weirdness that he will investigate, hoping the “facts” he acquires will add up to a grand truth his shady superiors in the government already know, but we, as viewers, would see he’s got it all wrong: “The Truth” is not “out there” — it’s far out.

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Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki

Cover by Araki

Izumi Suzuki was part of what sounds like Japan’s post-60s New Wave of Science Fiction, in which (as in the UK at the same time) the country’s authors made a conscious attempt to move away from the commercial American style. Hers in particular became known as the “SF of manners”, though I’ve a feeling that phrase loses a lot through translation.

Born in 1949 (making her a contemporary of Haruki Murakami, whose world of jazz cafés and disaffected twenty-somethings she shares), she moved to Tokyo after winning recognition for some of her early writing, and there became a stage and film actor, as well as posing for the art-and-bondage photographer Araki. (That’s her, by him, on the cover of Terminal Boredom.) She was apparently introduced to SF in 1970, and began publishing it starting with “Trial Witch” in S-F Magazine in 1975. Her writing career seems to have gone into overdrive after the death of her ex-husband, the experimental jazz saxophonist Kaoru Abe, with whom she had a daughter. (A 1992 novel and 1995 film, Endless Waltz, depicted a fictionalised version of the couple’s stormy relationship.) Her health declined, though, and she eventually took her own life in 1986.

Scenes from Endless Waltz (1995) – much honking of free jazz, but little about Suzuki’s writing

Terminal Boredom, published this year by Verso Books, is her first English-language collection, with seven stories by almost as many translators (Daniel Joseph, David Boyd, Sam Bett, Helen O’Horan, Aiko Masubuchi, and Polly Barton). There’s no indication of when the Japanese originals first appeared, which is a pity, as I like to at least guess at a writer’s development from knowing which are the earlier stories, but perhaps seven stories is too small a selection for that, anyway.

The opening story, “Women and Women”, is set in a future where “Women have been left carefully husbanding the scant resources of a planet stripped bare by men.” The few remaining males — essential for purposes of reproduction — are housed in an area known as the GETO, the Gender Exclusion Terminal Occupancy Zone. Suzuki gets round the traditional SF exposition problem by having her narrator, a teenager in this mostly-manless world, share the sort of wildly speculative myths about adulthood teenagers in any age do. To her, “Men are an offshoot of humanity… but they’re a deviant strain. They’re freaks…”

“Which is exactly why the males have to be kept in the GETO. If they were allowed to roam free, the radiation or whatever it is they emit would make all the women around them pregnant.”

But when she sees what she just knows to be an actual boy, of her own age, passing her home one night, she’s fascinated, and starts leaving messages for him to find.

Suzuki, from the cover of a Japanese collection

Male-female relations — always of a distinctly ambivalent kind, making me think of a less intense version of that from Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains — form the core of the book’s preoccupations, but it soon becomes clear the emotional disconnection that characterises these relationships extends to those between women, too. For instance, in “You May Dream”, the narrator too-casually agrees to the request of a friend, whom she spends most of the time feeling vaguely irritated by, to enter her dreams. This is a future where over-population has resulted in lottery-chosen people being suspended in cryosleep until enough spaceships can be built to take them off-world. Sleepers can bond with one chosen person and take up residence in their dreams. The narrator thinks of her friend as her opposite, even her Jungian shadow, which might make her sound like ideal dream material, but it turns out they’re totally incompatible: “She infused a syrupy wetness into my world.” The narrator soon finds herself reluctant to sleep, because of the burden of her friend’s too-different personality.

Perhaps the best story for capturing Suzuki’s tone is the last one, “Terminal Boredom”, set in a future where mass unemployment has resulted in a habitually bored young populace too unmotivated to remember to even feed themselves regularly. “Everyone,” the narrator says, “lives in a happy-go-lucky depression”, more (but only slightly more) engaged in what they see on TV than in reality:

“Ever since I’ve been old enough to really understand the world (these past two years or so), I’ve never once cried at a scene in real life. Whenever something serious happens, I just convince myself it’s no big deal… I’ve been fooling myself this way for long enough that it’s become a habit, and now nothing affects me.”

When a woman is murdered right next to her and the boyfriend she mostly can’t be bothered to meet, they can’t quite grasp what has happened, until they see it again, on camera. It starts to feel like the sort of world J G Ballard was always predicting — a future of boredom through enforced leisure relieved by explosions of violence — only, it doesn’t have the levels of wealth he assumed would go with it.

Suzuki’s is a world that seems particularly post-counter-cultural. The book flap describes her stories as “punky and pitch-black”, but the punkiness is most definitely of the “pretty vacant” rather than pogo-dancing variety. Characters don’t have friends so much as people they habitually hang out with, and get vaguely irritated by, though not enough to make them seek out other people:

“What are your relationships usually like?”
“Totally throwaway. I anticipate the break-up and hint towards it to prepare for a smooth exit.”

Japanese cover to her 1978 collection, Women and Women

Some of Suzuki’s characters (if not all of them, at some level) are just as dissociated from themselves. In “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, one of the narrators is a woman prematurely aged by a drug she overused, who approaches the still-young man she once had a relationship with, only to find he doesn’t recognise her, or at most thinks she might be his ex-girlfriend’s mother. In “That Old Seaside Club”, the narrator says she’s 19, but is haunted by a failed adult life she surely has not yet lived. “Night Picnic” is about a family who think of themselves as the last surviving human beings on a distant, non-Earth planet, desperately trying to cling to supposedly authentic human ways my mimicking what they see in old movies and read in old books. (As all the cultural references in this story were American, I wondered if this might have been a satire on US culture taking over Japan’s.) In “Forgotten”, the key difference the narrator’s alien boyfriend notes between humans and his own kind is that humans forget while Meelians don’t, which is why “we haven’t had a war on my planet for two millennia”. “Whose life is this? It’s completely empty,” says one narrator, of her own life, and it’s a quote that could fit any of her stories.

I’d like to read some more stories by Suzuki, though perhaps I wouldn’t read them back-to-back, as that malaise of disaffection can be hard to read too much of. A biographical introduction would be nice, too.

(Another story, “The Walker”, translated by Daniel Joseph, is available at Granta, though it’s quite different in feel from all the stories in Terminal Boredom.)

Suzuki’s 1978 collection, Teatime Anytime, in the only scene from Endless Waltz that shows her books

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Mandog

Before The Changes, there was Mandog

(…Or is it Man Dog? The on-screen titles separate the two words, as does the Radio Times/BBC Genome, but the novelisation, and most subsequent reference sources, call it Mandog.)

It started with producer Anna Home (who would eventually become Executive Producer of Children’s Television at the BBC), commissioning Peter Dickinson to come up with an idea for an original TV drama for children. He provided at least three outlines, one of which, initially titled “Clever Dog”, was turned into this six-part series. It was filmed in the summer of 1971 (entirely on location, in Southampton), and broadcast at the start of 1972. (It was on the back of the success of this series that Anna Home decided to adapt Dickinson’s Changes trilogy.)

The story focuses on a group of three teenagers: school-friends Kate Saumarez and Sammy (Samantha) Morris, and Kate’s older brother Dunc (Duncan), who is now one year out of school and about to start work as a TV repairman. Kate and Sammy see a man apparently teleport himself through a garage door near their school, then teleport himself out again. They recruit Dunc to help follow this man and find out what’s going on, and in the best Famous Five tradition bring along Sammy’s dog Radnor (named after the district in Wales where Sammy’s parents spent their honeymoon). Their sleuthing ends at a car dump, and Kate insists they go inside, even though it means climbing through a hole in the surrounding fence. (Kate uses a wheelchair, though can get by for a short while on crutches.) Inside, they’re confronted by a man called Levin, and soon surrounded by his six companions. Kate just comes out with it and tells him they saw one of this group, who turns out to be called Justin, teleporting himself into a garage. Levin, dropping his obviously fake Irish accent for something more stiff and strange, strong-arms the kids into the group’s surprisingly technological headquarters beneath all the wrecked cars and scrap metal, and explains.

Levin, leader of the Group

This group (who call themselves “the Group”) are from the year 2600, a time ruled by a secret police organisation known as the Galas. The Galas were having Levin develop a time machine for their own nefarious ends, but as soon as he succeeded, he and his Group friends used it to escape to the 1970s, so they could build another time-device, return to the future, and free their era of the Galas’ control. They’re only a short while away from completion, after which they’ll leave our present forever. They can’t harm Kate & co., because any one of them might be a distant ancestor, but they do need to ensure the kids’ silence. The scheme they come up with is one that will simultaneously punish Justin for giving them away (which he has done once before, apparently), and hopefully ensure the kids’ silence: they’re going to swap the minds of Justin and Radnor the dog. Radnor will enter Justin’s body (and then be kept asleep, because a dog in a man’s body would be really hard to explain), while Justin will enter Radnor’s body and accompany the kids home. It will be a sort of penance for Justin (they say this is a common punishment in their time) and an exchange of hostages. The two will be swapped back when the Group are ready to return to their future.

Radnor the dog and Justin, becoming Mandog

It all feels like a rather over-elaborate set-up — are we really supposed to believe that in the future, criminals are regularly mind-swapped into dog’s bodies as a punishment? — but it gets the story set up for a mix of lightly comic and adventurous shenanigans. On the one hand, there’s Sammy having to explain away Radnor’s suddenly more intelligent behaviour. (He refuses to eat dog food from a bowl on the floor, instead sitting at the breakfast table wanting cereal or bacon and eggs.) On the other, once Radnor — who Sammy calls “Mister” from here on, because she knows he’s not Radnor, and calling him Justin would be silly — spots one of the far-future Galas in the town, evidently looking for the Group, the kids becoming involved in a series of adventures trying to foil the Galas and help the Group. (Levin explains that the time-machine he left in the future would have had enough power to transport a few more people, so he’s sure not many of the Galas will have made it to the 1970s.)

Kate and Sammy

Mandog feels like a transition point between the kids’ TV of the 1960s — which McGown and Docherty in The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama characterise as mostly “kids in anoraks on bikes, accompanied by a dog or two, roaming the countryside in search of smugglers and bank robbers”, which Kate & co.’s adventures with the Galas certainly feel like — and the more progressive kids’ dramas of the 70s, with their mixing of the science fictional/fantastic with realistic modern settings and social concerns. Throughout their adventures, we see the kids getting on with their normal lives: Dunc starts a new job, attends his long-distance-running club, and buys himself a secondhand moped; the girls do their homework and start to find themselves boyfriends. At one point they discover that the Galas have ensconced themselves (claiming to be Syrians on a trade mission) in the home of Mary Ndola, a black girl in the year below them, who is clearly frightened of these strange men. The kids recruit Mary to get Dunc inside her house (in his new job as a TV repairman) to confirm these are the Galas, and then the Group scare them away — by the distinctly un-science-fictional and un-dramatic method of writing them a threatening letter.

Radnor, a.k.a. Mister

It’s not as experimental as the series that really marked the renaissance in kids’ TV drama two years before, The Owl Service (though, like that serial, it uses actors in their twenties as teenagers, unlike later shows like The Changes, Children of the Stones, and so on, which used child actors). And the science fictional/fantasy element isn’t as weird (or horrific) as those later shows. We know the kids aren’t really threatened — the worst the Galas can do is use their hypnotic powers or pencil-like stun gun, because the Galas can’t afford to disrupt their past any more than the Group can — and it isn’t until the Group have departed that the kids suddenly wake up to the fact they haven’t asked Levin what the future is like, nor have they really thought about whether the Group were actually telling the truth. Perhaps the Group were the baddies and the Galas the goodies? As Dunc says, “All they were bothered about was who was in charge — and it had to be them.” The only confirmation that they backed the right side is that a handful of silver medals arrive from the future (concealed as free gifts in a cereal packet) with “Hero of the Liberation”, “Heroine of the Liberation”, and (for Radnor) “Dog of the Future” written on them. This could well prove the Group’s good nature (after all, Levin could have just forgotten about them). But, at the same time, I can’t help noting how similar “Levin” is to “Lenin”. I’m sure Stalin handed out silver medals, too.

But, though not much is made of it in the story, I feel that Justin, following his time as Radnor the dog, was changed. Before the transference, he said he’d rather die than be punished in such a humiliating way. But perhaps the enforced reconnection with his animal side — the Group do sound slightly future-robotic with their stilted phrasing, implying a sort of imbalance on the intellectual side — has had some humanising effect:

“It is a relief to be able to look at things with my own eyes again — a dog’s vision is so different. But if you only knew how you all smelt!” Justin laughed. “Goodbye, Duncan, and my regards to Sammy and your sister. I have learned much from you all.”

There’s only one episode of Man Dog available to watch that I can find — and that in time-coded fuzzy-VHS quality on YouTube — so I’ve relied on the novelisation for most of the story details. (The novelisation was by Lois Lamplugh, based on Peter Dickinson’s scripts.) The novelisation, though, differs in small ways from the one TV episode I’ve been able to see, so it might not be a totally accurate guide to the TV series.

Cover to the novelisation

I’ve been wanting to find out more about Mandog/Man Dog since reading about it as a precursor to The Changes, as it feels like a crucial transition story into that peculiar style of 1970s kids’ telefantasy that includes Sky, The Changes, Children of the Stones, and so on: rich in ideas, often weirdly horrific stuff that mixes science fiction & the fantastic with an almost kitchen-sink-style realism, exploring themes of environmental precariousness and social change, and big questions about the oppressive influence of the past, as well as the potentially unpleasant possibilities of the future. Mandog isn’t, perhaps, as thematically heavy as those later shows, but it certainly feels like it has one foot firmly planted in (or one leg cocked over?) the new style of the 1970s. It has, after all, music by the Radiophonic Workshop. (On Wikipedia, the music is credited to Delia Derbyshire, but as @phantomcircuit pointed out on Twitter, the theme music is by John Baker. It’s called “Factors” on the 1968 BBC Radiophonic Music album, so it presumably started life as library music.)

It would be nice to see it cleaned up and given a DVD release, though as it hasn’t picked up the same sort of reputation as The Changes and Children of the Stones, it’s unlikely. And, of course, it could even be that not all the episodes survive.

(There’s a “Musty Books” look at Mandog over at The Haunted Generation that’s worth a read.)

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