Martyrs For Their Art

Stefano (Lino Capolicchio), an art expert, is summoned to a picturesque little village in the Valli di Comacchio by Mayor Solmi (Bob Tonelli). Solmi wants to inspire tourism to the town, and the thermal baths that formerly did the trick don’t pull in the visitors any more. Inspired by another village’s success in leveraging the reputation of a homegrown artist, the Mayor wants Stefano to do some restoration work on a magnificent fresco in the local church, depicting the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. The fresco had been painted by the mysterious Legnani, a long-dead local figure who Solmi believes might be just the sort of intriguing character to inspire art lovers to visit the town.

As Stefano settles into his work, he starts learning less tourist-friendly stories about Legnani. Stefano’s old friend Antonio Mazza (Giulio Pizzirani) has also been staying in town, and claims to have discovered an astonishing secret about Legnani – but one he is afraid of speaking about openly. The villagers tell him that Legnani and his sisters were a crew of vicious sadists, who in the name of Legnani’s art actually tortured the models they lured in to pose for the pictures, which means that the Saint Sebastian fresco might depict an actual murder. Mere local myth? Perhaps, perhaps not. Certainly, someone seems to be unhappy about Stefano’s work, with first a series of anonymous phone calls and then a string of murders apparently inspired by his work. Could the renewed interest in Legnani have inspired someone who wants to keep certain matters quiet? And Legnani’s old house, with the graffiti of enormous grinning mouths painted over the windows, certainly strikes a foreboding image…

Pupi Avati’s The House With Laughing Windows has not been particularly well-served by home media releases, which feels like an oversight when so many movies in the giallo genre which are much less deserving have received lavish blu-ray treatments. My own copy is the region-free DVD from Shameless, with a visual and audio tidy-up supervised by Avati himself, and that’s about as nice an edition of it as you can get. That’s a real shame for such a visually interesting film, and such a compelling entry in the more arty end of the giallo spectrum.

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The Messianic Muddle of Plantard the Pretender

The Messianic Legacy, at least in the edition I own, boldly declares itself to be “the controversial sequel to the bestselling The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail“, and it is very much a sequel: it makes some fumbling attempts to cobble together some novel thesis and contribution of its own, but all it succeeds in doing is ploughing deeper into the intellectual cul-de-sacs that authors Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln had wander off down in the course of compiling the previous book. Having already become lost in the deep weeds, The Messianic Legacy marks the point where the start floundering.

Although I went over the background already in my review of the previous book, I think it is worth restating here in order to understand the context The Messianic Legacy exists in. In the late 19th and early 20th Century, Bérenger Saunière was the local priest of Rennes-le-Château, a picturesque hilltop village in the Languedoc region of France. It is generally accepted that Saunière was running some sort of Mass-by-mail-order scam which earned him an unusual amount of money, to the point where the Church authorities got wind of it and suspended him from his ecclesiastical duties.

Some time later, in the 1950s, restauranteur Noël Corbu had come into possession of Saunière’s home, the Villa Bethania, and turned it into the hotel. To drum up business, Corbu began circulating a rumour that Saunière’s wealth was in some respect related to mysterious documents he had discovered in the local church. In the early iteration of the story, the concept was that there was great treasure hidden in the vicinity of Rennes-le-Château, perhaps part of the lost horde of Blanche of Castile, which Saunière had discovered a portion of. This snowballed into a treasure-hunting fad centred on the town, and in the 1960s it came to the attention of a group of hoaxers, perhaps the most significant member of which in terms of his commitment to the joke and the way he inserted himself into the story was one Pierre Plantard.

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Before the New Sun Dawned

1980 was a landmark year in Gene Wolfe’s writing career. For one thing, it saw the publication of The Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume in The Book of the New Sun, itself the first part of the Solar Cycle which was Wolfe’s magnum opus. It also saw the publication of The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories – that’s not a typo, one of the stories in it has the title The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories – his debut short story collection, containing the cream of his short story from 1970 to 1978.

In fact, Wolfe had been writing for quite some time prior to this; his first published story was The Dead Man, published in a 1965 issue of Sir! magazine, and the collection Young Wolfe includes early works (a good chunk of which never before published) from as far back as 1951. That said, it’s the 1970s when Wolfe can really be said to have started firing on all cylinders. Those early stories were, by and large, not widely reprinted (indeed, Young Wolfe is the only source of some of them), and Wolfe’s 1970 debut novel Operation ARES was enough of a disappointment to Wolfe retroactively that he gently discouraged reprints of it, the last edition listed on ISFDB being a 1979 German translation.

This was Wolfe being a good judge of his own work; he would admit later that Operation ARES was in part based on “doctrinaire conservative” political convictions – his words – which he no longer agreed with, and which lent a rather polemical aspect to the novel. Admittedly, the state the book ended up in was not entirely Wolfe’s fault: its last three-quarters or so was subjected to a ruthless editing process, not by Wolfe’s own hand, which made it somewhat disjointed, and which delayed its release by 3 or 4 years from the time it was originally written.

Even so, I don’t think anyone denies that there was a massive quantum leap in Wolfe’s quality of writing between penning Operation ARES in the mid-to-late 1960s and the emergence of The Fifth Head of Cerberus in 1972 and Peace in 1975. The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories represents the perfect opportunity to examine that artistic evolution in progress.

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Lock, Stock, and a Horde of Krug Raiders

Uwe Boll got a lot of hate back in the day, and sometimes that was merited – I can’t think of a movie that’s quite as stultifyingly (and thematically inappropriately) dull as his Alone In the Dark, and his business model of blowing money on making bad movies as a tax break was sleazy as hell. On the other hand, I don’t think he was the modern-day Ed Wood that some of the more hyperbolic responses to his material made him out to be. I thought Rampage was better than it had any right to be given the premise, for instance, and there’s a certain cheesy joy to be had in his In the Name of the King.

Theoretically a Dungeon Siege tie-in movie, the film opens with the evil wizard Gallian (Ray Liotta) smooching with Muriella (Leelee Sobieski); between her dialogue and some creepy shots it’s implying that he’s doing some sort of energy-vampire thing stealing her essence. Meanwhile, the good wizard Merick (John Rhys-Davies), Muriella’s dad, is investigating Gallian’s activities, and discovers that he’s rearing an army of orcs krug in a sort of lower-budget version of those lava pits beneath Isengard in Lord of the Rings. Clearly Gallian is up to no good – and soon it will not just be Merick’s problem, but that of the whole Kingdom, ruled over by King Konreid (Burt Reynolds).

Just how big of a problem it is we soon see. Farmer (Jason Statham) works away on his farm and is living the good life; he’s got a loving wife, Solana (Claire Forlani), and a delightful son, Zeph (Colin Ford), and productive land right next door to the plot of his best friend Norick (Ron Perlman). What could go wrong? Well, a massive orc krug invasion could go wrong – an invasion in which Zeph is slain and Solana is taken captive. It’s down to Farmer, Norick, and Solana’s brother Bastian (Will Sanderson) to set off, help bring the fight to the orcs krug, and rescue Solana.

However, things may not be that simple. Seeing through the eyes of the orcs krug, Gallian has taken notice of Farmer – and is perturbed by the fact that Farmer seems shielded from being magically “read”. And Duke Fallow (Matthew Lilliard), Konreid’s dirtbag nephew, is a traitor within the royal camp, working behind the scenes with Gallian in hope of gaining the throne…

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Planetary Peril and Seductive Sorcery

C.L. Moore began her writing career producing a celebrated run of stories for Weird Tales. With skilled use of initials, she kept her gender private in the early phases of her career, primarily to avoid issues in her day job, but soon enough the information began percolating out after she disclosed it to the various other fans and writers she’d corresponded with, having first struck up a correspondence with R.H. Barlow before corresponding with Lovecraft himself.

Though in theory Lovecraft was the more experienced writer and Moore was a fellow padawan alongside Barlow, Lovecraft quickly recognised her merits as an author and, even before he was in contact with her, was talking her up in his correspondence and regarding her as part of the top of Weird Tales authors; for her part, Moore told Lovecraft that his praise did more than anything to make her think her stories had some merit beyond being pulp adventure. Lovecraft was not alone in admiring Moore’s work; Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard were also fans, and when the oft-cited Big Three of Weird Tales all concur that a writer is on their level, isn’t it time to start talking about a Big Four? Not for nothing was Moore chosen to kick off the astonishingly silly round-robin story The Challenge From Beyond, penned by an all-star roster of the Weird Tales authors at the time.

The On an Underwood blog has an excellent post with choice extracts from her correspondence of these years, revealing how she was held in high esteem by her peers, how the Weird Tales letters pages were home to fannish arguments over whether Conan or Northwest Smith was the best hero, how she was held in very great esteem by her peers (Lovecraft, writing grumpily about the slim pickings of a particular issue of Weird Tales, noted that he didn’t really expect to enjoy any of the stories except for the Robert E. Howard and Moore entries), and how during a childhood troubled by illness she found escapism both through crafty reading of material her parents considered unsuitable for and through imaginative worldbuilding of the sort that the Brontë sisters famously indulged in. (Had she been born some 50 years later, the odds of her having been big into tabletop RPGs as a teen are pretty high.)

It also reveals that she kept her gender under wraps for at least her initial foray into publication. The very fact that readers were surprised to learn she was a woman suggests that, had she gone with a more obviously feminine byline to begin with, there may have been a different reception of her stories; as things stood, the readership was largely won around prior to them knowing that much about her. Indeed, she seems to have received critical acclaim almost immediately, with Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith being among the first to applaud her work.

Another good post on this background hails from Deep Cuts In a Lovecraftian Vein, whose author, Bobby Derie has more patience for the volumes of Lovecraft’s letters than I do. Here we see that Moore’s 1930s Weird Tales career coincided with a tumultuous time in her life. Moore was working at the Fletcher Trust Company, and was engaged to a bank teller at the same firm, Herbert Ernest Lewis, who died in 1936 after shooting himself in the head. Reports vary on whether it was accident or suicide – the death certificate said the latter, Moore said he was merely cleaning his gun and hadn’t unloaded it properly. Mere months later, Robert E. Howard, who Moore also corresponded with (and indeed, the two of them were fans of each other) would commit suicide, and it was Moore herself who broke the news to Lovecraft and the rest of the Circle.

Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that after a fairly fruitful 1934-1936, Moore’s output lessened in 1937-1938. Nonetheless, she kept at it. From her 1933 debut to 1940, when her career changed fundamentally, Moore put out a stream of stories, the vast majority of which were in two series. The protagonists of these – Northwest Smith, space smuggler, and the swordswoman and medieval noble Jirel of Joiry – would become influential archetypes in the development of fantasy and science fiction, especially the more sword and sorcery-esque parts of fantasy and the sort of science fiction which, say, takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Northwest of Earth

Northwest debuted in the first story Moore sold – 1933’s Shambleau. This introduces both Northwest himself – the archetypal space smuggler, a clear literary ancestor to Han Solo (and, based on description of his “leather-brown” skin, perhaps another non-white protagonist smuggled into the pulps to match Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark) – and the universe he lives in, both of which being fleshed out further by the subsequent stories. This follows the standard planetary romance parameters at the time – Mars and Venus and the moons of Jupiter are home to cultures of broadly human-like locals, as well as stranger inhabitants – but has an interestingly non-colonialist take on things.

Sure, Earth’s gone out into the wider solar system and established little outposts on other worlds – but these are more like the sort of trading outposts established in China or Japan in the early days of European trade with those places, rather than frontier towns intended to project force into a land intended for annexation as in the American West. Indeed, space-farers are referred to sometimes as sailors in this setting, and there’s little of the “space Western” about Moore’s setting: the ports of call Northwest hangs out at tend to be cosmopolitan places, where people of all worlds can be found, rather than outposts of colonial supremacy.

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Mini-Review: Static Pictures About Moving Pictures

Filmish by Edward Ross describes itself as A Graphic Journey Through Film and that’s probably the best description of it. I’ve seen people referring to it as a “graphic novel”, but whilst it comes in that sort of physical format I wouldn’t call it one for one simple overriding reason: it’s nonfiction, and the “novel” in “graphic novel” implies fiction. Even though “non-fiction graphic novel” seems to be a term in circulation these days, I strongly dislike it – it makes a nonsense not just of the term “novel”, but also of the term “graphic novel”, which was coined to begin with to draw a comparison between long-form comics stories and other forms of long-form storytelling.

It was easier for the small, fanzine-sized issues of Filmish that Ross self-published prior to producing this full-fat version for Self Made Hero – they referred to themselves as “comic book essays” and that’s exactly what they were, little essays on some aspect of film theory in comic book format. Filmish the book feels more substantial than an essay. You could see it as a collection of essays, since it has a chapter structure with each chapter unpacking some particular topic, but I’d argue that there’s enough of a through-line going through these to make it more than that. (It’s also not a direct compilation of the self-published zines, though much material there gets incorporated here in a revised form.) It’s not really a textbook either – it’s not dense or dryly academic enough, and calling a comic presentation of a subject a “textbook” is even sillier than calling this a “graphic novel”.

Call it a “graphical primer”, then, since Filmish is intended as an introductory overview of film theory, not an in-depth discussion of the topic. There’s no chapter which takes a single movie or a single filmmaker’s work and drills down on it; nor is there any particularly technical discussion of specific cinematic techniques. (There’s no page showing different types of lenses and aspect ratios and what they may be used for, for instance, even though the graphical format would make this entirely possible to execute.)

Instead, Ross constructs a thesis of cinema as a medium born from technology (in a pre-technological society it simply could not exist), but with an often anxious relationship with technology, and whose future is shaped by technology – which makes it very much a medium intimately connected to the human condition as it’s existed from the industrial revolution onwards.

Ross is particularly good at picking out a topic and showing how what was initially a merely technical challenge and technical wonder very rapidly ended up being both an avenue for the promotion of social ideology and a means of challenging it. The Eye, for instance, begins with the invention of the moving picture itself and then progresses into discussions of subjects like the male gaze; other chapters explore The Body, Sets and Architecture, Time, Voice and Language, Power and Ideology, and Technology and Technophobia.

Just as a film can’t really exist without the means to capture what we see via a character and project something for us to see on a screen, it also requires a content, and that content almost always involves people (physically present in their bodies), a setting (expressed via sets and architecture), motion through time (otherwise it ain’t a moving picture!), and – once the talkies come in – their voices. Having spent the early chapters noting how all of these things to a certain extend end up conveying ideology (any medium which actually expresses a worldview inherently conveys ideology, after all, because what is ideology other than how we try to rationalise our worldview and present is as being correct or valid?), Ross can then use the penultimate chapter to consider ideology directly, before considering the relationship of cinema to the very technology which makes it possible in the first place.

Ross uses a fairly straightforward and simple style for the book, which is actually the right call. Obviously, to illustrate a lot of the things he’s talking about, he draws appropriate moments from the movies, and by adopting an artistic style which he can nudge in a more serious direction in one panel before skewing more cartoonish in the next without any of it seeming incongruous, he can convey the overall air of a range of different movies adeptly.

In terms of the information he presents, a lot of it is probably going to be quite introductory if you’ve studied the subject very intensely, but for me – someone who likes the movies and likes reading up about their history but hasn’t made a profession out of it – it still managed to present a lot of information I hadn’t been aware of. In that respect I’d compare it to The Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling, in the sense that it’s an introduction to a subject which will smoothly onboard total beginners, but offers sufficient depth that if you are a fan of the topic you may find it teaches you a thing or two you didn’t know previously.

Extensive endnotes at the back direct interested readers to sources of further reading on the subjects raised, and on film theory in general. Some won’t be interested in these, or in Filmish at all, because they dislike overthinking their entertainment – but Ross makes a convincing argument over the course of the book that there is no such thing as apolitical entertainment which does not express some form of ideology. Again: a story which does not express some kind of worldview which makes judgements beyond those of absolutely objective, universally verifiable fact is near-impossible to tell, and movies express worldview not just through the narratives they present but also in the manner of presentation. If you read this blog and enjoy it you probably agree with that premise, which means you’d probably enjoy Filmish.

Supernatural Souvenirs of Simpler Times

As with any blockbuster media success, X-Files tie-ins were thick on the ground (and to an extent remain so to this day), and I don’t intend to cover all of them here. But two books have always stood out to me from the morass of official and unofficial episode guides, interview books, and other paraphernalia. These are the two chunky hardcover volumes of Jane Goldman’s The X-Files Book of the Unexplained, which came out in 1995-1996. The basic concept of these books is that Goldman uses X-Files episodes as jumping-off points for discussions of the real scientific, pseudoscientific, paranormal and esoteric inspirations for the episodes.

Volume One, which came out in 1995, is largely tied to season 1, both in terms of the subject matter of the chapters and the brief episode guide included at the end of the book. This is actually helpful because, what with the first season being fairly scattershot as it tried out a range of ideas, this means a diverse bunch of subjects is available for Goldman to work with, with chapters ranging from well-grounded subject matter like genetic modification and artificial intelligence to more tenuous material like werewolves, reincarnation, faith healing and telepathy. Naturally, there’s a healthy coverage of UFO subjects too.

Though Goldman does mention a few incidents where, if you dig deeper, it turns out there’s really not much of a factual basis to them, by and large she actually does a good job of providing a range of interesting anecdotes and cases, maintaining a suitable level of scepticism where it’s called for whilst avoiding the sort of aggressively dismissive attitude that you often get with this sort of material.

Given her warm words for James Randi, it’s evident that Goldman has a lot of time for the sceptical perspective, but she also has a sound idea of the limits of scientific inquiry, and how phenomena which happen rarely and can’t easily be recaptured under controlled conditions are extremely difficult to study, and where strange events have occurred where a clear explanation genuinely has not been arrived at and so asserting any particular explanation would be arrogant and, in itself, unscientific. At the same time, her capacity to pick out interesting subjects to discuss suggests a genuine interest in and enjoyment of the subject, even if she concludes that a lot of it is probably bunk.

In other words, Goldman has the capacity to act in both a Mulderian and a Scullyesque capacity, which makes her a good choice for writing this book, and she does so very entertainingly. Though she only really addresses the X-Files episodes that inspire the individual chapters briefly, by way of starting her discussion of a subject, she’s got a good way of teasing out what we loved about the early series (and is able to extract a confession from Chris Carter that Space was a terrible episode), and is able to cultivate a similarly enjoyable look at a lot of the subjects in question.

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Shea Delight?

Michael Shea’s biggest success as an author was arguably in the fantasy field – his Nifft the Lean stories won the World Fantasy Award and he even got permission from Jack Vance to pen a sequel to The Eyes of the Overworld, A Quest For Simbilis, though this later became uncanonical when Vance wrote Cugel the Clever. However, he did also have a byline in horror, including the very well-received Cthulhu Mythos story Fat Face, which would ultimately be the most widely-reanthologised of his Mythos tales.

Shea died in 2014; in the decade or so prior to this he had made something of a return to the Mythos. Both his early efforts in this vein and his late-career pieces are collected in Demiurge, edited by S.T. Joshi for Dark Regions Press. Though billed as offering “The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales of Michael Shea”, a caveat is necessary: as Joshi notes in his introduction, Shea wrote a couple of Mythos novels that are not collected here, so this is very much “tales” as in “short stories” rather than “tales” as in “narrative fiction in any format”. (The novels, incidentally, are 1984’s The Color Out of Time – a sequel to The Colour Out of Space, obviously – and Mr. Cannyharme, a novel inspired by Lovecraft’s The Hound which is unpublished, though Joshi reported in 2020 that Hippocampus Press had reached an agreement on getting the book published with Shea’s widow Linda.)

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The Broken Sword, Reforged and Restored

Orm the Strong, having gained wealth and prestige in his viking days, has settled in the Danelaw region of northern England and married a Saxon woman, converting to Christianity (whilst still giving the Æsir their due) in order to win Aelfrida’s hand. To win his plot of land, Orm put to the sword the family who used to live there – but he has left the elderly matriarch alive. This was a mistake, for she is a witch, and intent on revenge.

Her first opportunity comes when Imric, Earl of the elves of Britain, comes riding by one night – a night when, she happens to know, the unchristened firstborn child of Orm and Aelfrida lies dozing in the cot, without Orm’s sword of iron to guard the child. Imric swiftly produces a changeling baby, the offspring of him and Gora, a troll princess he has taken captive and keeps for such dubious purposes, and switches it for the human child.

The human child is raised among elves, and given the name Skafloc, under the name Valgard, his changeling counterpart is reared in Orm’s family, and soon becomes its black sheep. Yet the witch’s work is not yet done, and she makes a pact with the Devil himself – a pact which will lead to Valgard embracing the worst of his inhuman natures, and Skafloc suffering tragedies all too human…

Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword is one of his two most influential forays into fantasy, the other being Three Hearts & Three Lions, and for my money it’s by far the superior of the two. Three Hearts & Three Lions has this pulpy straightforward air to it – it originally came out as a magazine serial, after all – but The Broken Sword is a more literary endeavour, steeped as it very evidently is in the mythic literature it is inspired by. This very obviously includes the Scandinavian sagas and Eddas (there’s even reasonable passes at skaldic verses), but is by no means limited to it.

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 11: Hey, We’re Gone Again!

After coming back from the dead with a hit-and-miss tenth season which managed to eke out some really good episodes despite every episode that Chris Carter wrote stinking to high heaven (a big problem with that accounts for 3 of the 6 episodes in the season), The X-Files shambled back into the grave with its eleventh season. This second revival go-around was green-lit on the basis of season 10 not doing too shabby in the ratings by 2016 standards (the bar for viewership having lowered in the intervening years due to the decline in ratings across TV in general), and to date it is the last we’ve seen of the core narrative of the franchise, though naturally spin-off projects continue to percolate through various stages of rumoured pre-production.

Things did not start out well. When the initial slate of writers for the season were announced in mid-2017, it was noted that all of them were men. This was also the case for the 2016 season, but that was explicitly a get-the-old-band-back-together project, with James Wong, Glen Morgan, and Darin Morgan – all of whom were beloved writers from the early seasons of the show – coming into write the non-Carter episodes (and also direct). Of course, it wasn’t a good thing that so few episodes of the original run were written by women, and no woman was ever really a “regular” on the writing team – but that’s the history they had, so it made sense that it was reflected in a season focused on bringing the old regulars back.

The announced slate of writers for season 11, however, also included men who hadn’t had writers’ credits on the show before – so it was clear that for this new season, still shorter than the 20-odd episode original seasons but substantially longer than the 6-episode season 10, there was a willingness to bring new voices to the table. That not one of those new voices were women was a bit much – it was self-evidently wrong that the writers’ room was so male-dominated even back in the 1990s, for this to still be the case in the late 2010s was outright absurd.

Embarrassingly, Gillian Anderson herself elected to highlight the issue, and also pointed out that barely any episodes of the show had been directed by women. One of those episodes was Anderson’s own all things, back in season 7, the other was season 9‘s John Doe, directed by Michelle MacLaren – that’s it. On the writing side of things, you needed to go all the way back to all things to find a script written by a woman, and all the way back to season 5‘s Schizogeny to find one written by a woman not named “Gillian Anderson”. On the original run of the show the writer’s team had actually become more male-dominated as the show progressed, with more and more episodes turned out by the core writing team, less episodes being contributed by authors new to the series, and more or less none of those new writers being women.

Subsequent to Anderson’s intervention, there was a course correction. (Face-saving comments may have floated around about including more women having always been the plan – but if that were the case, why leave ’em out of the original announcement?) In fact, two episodes of season 11 were written by women, and a different two episodes were directed by women, meaning that some 40% of the entire season involved either a woman’s direction or a woman’s script – a healthier proportion, by that metric, than the show had ever enjoyed.

But did this yield a better season? Yes – in part because some of those women turn out to be damn good at this whole X-Files thing, in part because the man who represents the biggest problem on the X-Files writing team – Chris Carter – wrote less than a third of it, not half…

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