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.


The Omega Factor

OmegaFactor_titleThe early 1970s was obsessed with black magic and devil worship; by the end of the 1980s, this had somehow given way to the dolphins, rainbows and crystals of the New Age. Somewhere in between (at 8:10p.m. on the 13th June 1979, to be exact), the BBC began a ten-part series about a secret government agency, Department 7, whose task it was to look into ESP and the paranormal — telepathy, telekinesis, past lives, ghosts, séances, brainwashing, the power of sound to evoke the terrors of the past, and out-of-body experiences. It could be seen as a round-up of all the 1970s’ more outré preoccupations, with its best episode (‘Powers of Darkness’) in full occult mode (opening with a ouija board, ending with a blood sacrifice on a church altar), while ‘Visitations’ brings out the full scientific ghost-hunting toolkit last seen in Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), and ‘Child’s Play’ has a super-powerful psychic child just beginning to understand his powers (a sort of private school mix of Stephen King’s Carrie with The Medusa Touch) — all served up with lashings of government/corporate paranoia (as in ‘St Anthony’s Fire’, about a big company testing dodgy new foods on ex-hippies).


The first episode has freelance journalist Tom Crane (played by James Hazeldine — later the dad in ITV’s Chocky) researching some Sunday supplement articles on the paranormal by arm-twisting a bibulous, plummy old satanist called Oliphant into revealing the current whereabouts of ‘the man that Crowley wouldn’t meet’, Edward Drexel. Drexel (played by Cyril Luckham, the White Guardian in Doctor Who the year before) is currently posing as an antiquarian bookseller in Edinburgh, so Crane goes north to try to get him to give a demonstration of psychic power. When Crane picks the case of a missing local woman as a possible subject, Drexel says Crane ought to be able to find her himself. Soon after, Crane wakes from dozing over his reporter’s notepad to find he’s written, in his sleep, a couple of names, which, along with a dream-vision he’s just had, lead him to the woman’s body. Crane, it seems, has mental powers of his own, and Drexel isn’t the only one to have sensed this — it turns out Crane’s wife’s best friend, Dr Anne Reynolds (Louise Jameson, a year out of Leela-leathers) is part of Department 7, and they’ve been trying to awaken Crane to his psychic powers for some time.


At the end of the first episode, Crane is recruited to work for Department 7. By this point, he’s out for revenge on Edward Drexel, who he blames for the death of his wife (at the end of the first episode), after Drexel’s mediumistic young woman companion, Morag, suddenly appeared in the middle of the road in her nightie/wooly dress, making Crane swerve his car into a tree. At this point, I thought I knew how the series was going to play out: Drexel would be the arch-enemy, popping up from behind each week’s supernatural escapade, while the dead wife would never be mentioned again, except to give our hero some motivation and a bit of emotional depth; meanwhile, the coast would be clear for a romance with Dr Anne. But, to my surprise, the show had a bit more depth and character than that. Drexel does pop up again, but is soon dealt with once and for all. And there is a slow-developing romance with Dr Anne, but Tom Crane takes a lot longer to get over his wife’s death than your average TV series hero, and Anne also has undefined feelings for the other main character of the series, Dr Roy Martindale (John Carlisle). Crane and Martindale’s relationship, meanwhile, is almost as interesting as Crane and Anne’s, as Crane is constantly refusing to do what Martindale asks him to do, not to mention questioning Martindale’s methods and morals, which gets the otherwise urbane and assured Martindale into the occasional tizz.


I have to admit, Roy Martindale is my favourite character in the series. All of the main three are well-realised. Tom Crane, perhaps because he’s the hero-figure, is the least three-dimensional. He has his principles and sticks to them, meaning there isn’t really another side to his character (apart from the way his free-spiritedness constantly rubs against the institutionalised nature of Department 7), but I think James Hazeldine’s earnestness and on-the-level portrayal adds a warm dose of humanity to the hero figure, making him constantly likeable. Anne Reynolds, on the other hand, is always able to see both sides of the (many) arguments between Crane and Martindale, and as much as she’s on Crane’s side, she’s also on Department 7’s, and is often telling Martindale when Crane’s gone off on his own — as he does pretty much every episode. (Towards the end of the series, I wondered how he kept his job; he refuses on principle to do what he’s told, often spending half of each episode sulking on Anne’s sofa, before running off to investigate something he’s been warned away from.) Roy Martindale is the most flawed of the leading three, and perhaps that’s what makes him the most interesting. He’s totally focused on the new ground they’re breaking in psychic research, and is always being brought up short whenever Crane reminds him of the moral issues he’s blithely overlooking. Martindale tries to educate Ann Reynolds’s tastes in music towards the more experimental and modern (while Tom Crane can be heard playing Dark Side of the Moon while standing in front of his brother’s Uriah Heep poster), and obviously assumes, for the first half of the series, that she’s more interested in him than in Crane. Even towards the end of the series, when we’re starting to feel Martindale must have a shadow side, he can occasionally be found defending, to his own bosses, the very views he’s just been arguing against with Crane. Plus, I like his rat-like grin.


Throughout the series, there are rumours of an organisation known as Omega who might be looking to use people’s psychic powers for some more nefarious purpose than Department 7’s ‘defence of the realm’ mandate, and the final episode brings them into the open, ending with enough of a hint that a second series might have been in the offing.


But it wasn’t. The Omega Factor had just one series, and one showing of it, and doesn’t seem to be mentioned much in discussions of 70s horror/SF TV. Despite being around at the time it was shown, I only heard of it recently. It is, of course, often compared to The X-Files, but I think it’s more the sort of thing I’d have liked The X-Files to be: a bit more subtle, and with more dramatic development of its characters. Big Finish audio have just started releasing a series of new stories featuring Dr Anne Reynolds, though sadly without Tom Crane, of course, as James Hazeldine died in 2002.


Twin Peaks

Twin_Peaks_BluRayIf you plotted the quality of Twin Peaks, you’d come up with a twin-peaked graph: it started brilliantly, and ended well, but dipped somewhat in between. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t have been a parody soap opera about the town in which Laura Palmer was murdered, it would have been a weird crime series, following the adventures of David Lynch’s FBI, a bunch of borderline-shamanic all-American good boys investigating the dark forces behind the most terrible crimes. (Which sounds like a cue for The X-Files, a couple of years later.) Certainly, what drives the pilot and early episodes is following Special Agent Dale Cooper (who I like to imagine as Kyle McLachlan’s character from Blue Velvet, grown up) as he uses a combination of acute observation, sharp deduction, dream-clues, intuition and sortilege (naming possible suspects then throwing stones at a bottle, seeing which one hits) to solve the mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder. Most of the parallel plots that were unrelated to the murder — the whole tangle of insurance & blackmail surrounding the burning of the Packard Mill, the mostly unfunny comedy of super-strength Nadine’s regression to her teenage-years — I could have done without.

David-Lynch_MJEBut, I’m a David Lynch fan (though a rare one, in that I like Dune but don’t like Eraserhead), and what made me re-watch the show for the first time since it was on TV wasn’t a desire to revisit the characters or world of Twin Peaks, but a desire to revisit David Lynch and his world. For me, creative as the others can be, the episodes Lynch directed stand out. The question is why. There’s a scene in the final episode (directed by Lynch) that’s nothing but a slow advance down an empty corridor, yet somehow it’s full of brooding tension. Or take another scene, this time at the end of the pilot episode, when Laura’s mother has a vision of a hand retrieving a necklace that’s been buried in the woods. Her sudden panicked reaction makes it seem like some sort of horrendous psychic violation is taking place. What Lynch brings to these scenes isn’t just in the scenes themselves, but the world he creates around them, one in which there’s a constant potential for reality to rip open and reveal something behind it, something full of irrational terror. His world is beset by a constant note of anxiety that adds meaning, or the threat of it, to the most mundane moments. It’s one of Twin Peaks’ most notable characteristics that, though it’s mostly played as a quirky comedy, it contains moments of genuine horror. But it isn’t a horror-comedy as, say, Shaun of the Dead is. Rather, the horror is made all the more horrific by being couched in such light comedy. And what’s different in Lynch’s episodes is that, while others might contain the same quirkiness (Dale Cooper coming face to face with a llama) or directorial inventiveness (a long, slow zoom out of a hole in a wall-tile), none of them catch the uppermost peaks of outright terror or downright strangeness that Lynch does.


Throughout Lynch’s work, innocence is always coming face-to-face with horror — and, in his best work, not just coming face-to-face with it, but being corrupted by it, and then, crucially, coming through that corruption to a new, more profound and hard-won innocence, a redemption or a rebirth. This type of story is only ever played out lightly, if at all, in the TV series (whose characters, in line with most comedy, don’t really change), but it’s the core of the 1992 film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. In my view, the TV series is utterly blown away by the film, which is one my favourites, along with Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive. (Having just watched it again, after watching the whole run of the TV show, I found I’d enjoyed it more when I watched it standalone, away from the TV series.)


Lynch’s own view of the relationship between the TV series and the film is perhaps best expressed by the very first shot of Fire Walk With Me, in which a TV set, showing only static, is smashed by a baseball bat. Fire Walk With Me is Twin Peaks freed of its TV fetters. The opening half-hour — a further episode in the adventures of Lynch’s FBI boys, this time Chris Isaak as Special Agent Chester Desmond — is set in an out-of-the-way nowhere-place that’s all the town of Twin Peaks isn’t: its sheriff, unlike donut-noshing Harry S Truman, is utterly unhelpful and actively obstructive to the FBI (a deleted scene shows a fist-fight between him & Chester Desmond), the diner is manned not by former Miss Twin Peaks Norma Jennings, but fag-in-the-mouth cynic Irene, and the main residential area isn’t Twin Peaks’ upper middle-class suburbia but a rundown trailer park. The film still has the TV series’ surrealness and some moments of quirky comedy, but it has darkness in oodles — in nerve-jangling, nail-baiting, razor-laden dollops, until it’s almost too much to take. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is one of the most harrowing films I’ve ever seen, but one that nevertheless keeps me watching, and leaves me, at the end, feeling I’ve been through a genuine catharsis.


In it, Lynch raises Laura Palmer from being the clichéd beautiful murder victim of a serial killer to sort of a scapegoat, a victim of the disconnect between the town of Twin Peaks’ cosy surface and its dark underside. Caught between having to play the homecoming queen and dealing with the horror of abuse by the demonic Bob (whose supernatural nature can be taken as her own refusal to see who’s really abusing her — though this is a position undermined by the less ambiguous TV series), what sense of self she has grows thinner and thinner, till she has to say to her best friend: ‘Your Laura has disappeared. It’s just me now.’ It’s a drama that can only be resolved by switching from the normal reality of Twin Peaks (all cherry pie and damned fine coffee) to the weird, dreamlike otherworld of the Red Room, where the White Lodge and the Black Lodge are battling for her soul. Or are they working together for her redemption? It’s characteristic that Fire Walk With Me has less of the good-versus-evil, White Lodge-versus-Black Lodge feel to it: Red Room, White Lodge, Black Lodge — the alchemical significance of the colours Laura passes through is perhaps the key here, not the sort of duality the TV show was setting up.