Revisiting the X-Files, Part 1: The First Step Into the Shadows

So, we’re dealing with an iconic 1990s TV series here, in the pilot episode of which (Pilot) we have a young woman showing up dead on the outskirts of a small woodland town in the Pacific Northwest of the US. Thanks to parallels with a number of deaths elsewhere, the FBI become involved, represented in part by a handsome agent who reveals slightly eccentric habits and even more eccentric beliefs. The death turns out to be part of a web of local intrigue that belies the bucolic charm of the town, and there’s frequent hints than higher powers are involved in all this.

This is not, despite all of the above, Twin Peaks; instead we’re dealing with the start of The X-Files, lovingly crafted by Chris Carter, though he’s letting his Peaks fan flag fly here. The first episode sets the formula for most of the series’ “mythology” episodes: Mulder and Scully zoot about uncovering evidence of creepy alien activity, Mulder buys into the supernatural interpretation of events, Scully resists it but increasingly finds herself coming around to Mulder’s point of view step by baby step, they discover some incontrovertible evidence that something outright fuckabooie is going on but the sinister government conspiracy as represented by the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) manages to destroy the evidence yet again.

That’s a formula we’ll see repeated over and over during the run of the series, with incremental bits of additional motifs and recurring thingamuffins creeping in here and there to give the impression that we’re getting somewhere, but a quarter-century later and we all know goddamn well that it isn’t really going anywhere impressive – and with Gillian Anderson comprehensively fed up of the whole thing and no longer willing to come back after the mytharc episodes in 2018’s season 11 bombed, it looks like short of a full reboot we’ve had all the X-Files we’re ever going to get. (Conveniently, nice blu-ray sets of the TV episodes are widely available at a reasonable price, and the HD-remastered episodes are available on iTunes and other platforms at that.)

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The Decanonised Clones

Once upon a time, in between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas got Genndy Tartakovsky of Dexter’s Laboratory and Powerpuff Girls fame to produce a fun little cartoon series chronicling the events of the Clone Wars that unfolds between those two movies. The series was well-loved, which meant that Lucas had to jump on the bandwagon with a followup/retelling in horrible CGI (including a tie-in movie that everyone’s been glad to forget exists), and naturally whilst the awesome Tartakovsky Clone Wars animated series has been declared not-canon by Disney, the Lucas-helmed CGI’d The Clone Wars TV series has been endorsed as canon. I guess Disney either are contracturally forbidden from declaring certain things not-canon, or simply lack the spine to say “No, Lucas made a mistake, this thing he made is not canon and this thing he didn’t make is canon”.

Still, Disney can’t make our DVDs of the Clone Wars series disappear; so, how do they hold up over a decade later?

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One Last Bite of the Cherry Pie

Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost’s tie-in novel, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, had the conceit that it was an in-character mass of documents that FBI Agent Tamara Preston was looking over and annotating after their discovery at a crime scene, thus providing a wealth of new information about the history of the town from before its founding right up to the end of the original series, recontextualising material, rehabilitating some of the dross from the limp end of series two, and acting as a delicious appetiser for the weird banquet that was Season 3. Like I said in my review of the Secret History, it was basically a Twin Peaks take on House of Leaves.

If the Secret History was an appetiser, The Final Dossier is a last cup of coffee and an after-dinner mint. Substantially shorter than The Secret History, it takes a similar premise but has a much more straightforward presentation, being a coda to season 3 assembled once again by Tamara Preston, detailing her various discoveries about what’s been going on with the town and its residents since the end of series 2. However, rather than being a lovingly compiled set of deliciously fabricated documents with Tamara’s commentary, it simply provides Agent Preston’s direct summary of her findings. (The sole exception is an autopsy report on a major character from the original series who was conspicuous by his absence from season 3.)

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Disenchanted With Disenchantment

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Bean (Abbi Jacobson) – Princess Tiabeanie to her parents – is the violent, hard-drinking heir to the financially embarrassed fantasy realm of Dreamland. To seal an alliance, her father King Zøg (John DiMaggio) is determined to marry her off to the useless, somewhat Zap Brannigan-like Prince Merkimer (Matt Berry). Elfo (Nat Faxon) is an elf who’s sick to death of living a joy-filled, idyllic existence in a candy forest, and whose blood might be the key to the Elixir of Life. Luci (Eric Andre) is a very diminutive demon who was sent by a sinister duo of sorcerers (voiced by Lucy Montgomery and Berry’s Snuff Box partner Rich Fulcher) in order to act as a sort of anti-conscience for her in order to drag her down the path of evil. Together, they… don’t fight crime. But they do get up to a lot of mischief!

Like fellow Netflix exclusive Bojack Horseman, Matt Groening’s Disenchantment takes a while to hit high gear. The biggest laughs I got in the first seven episodes came from Matt Berry’s character – particularly his delivery of the line “Then let this be a warning to your other allies!” in a particularly ironic context. In general I found it perked up a little after the first couple of episodes, once it becomes clear that the series was going to move past the forced marriage angle rather than stick with it perpetually. (In fact, it’s quite good at shaking up its central premises every few episodes, rather than leaving things in a Simpsons-esque steady state in perpetuity – for instance, in episode 5 Bean gets disowned by the King due to shit she did in episode 4 and she has to go get a job as an apprentice for Noel Fielding’s excellent town executioner.)

Unlike Bojack, however, that high gear isn’t quite good enough to justify sitting through the early material – like I said, it does perk up, but it only perks up a little, and in the process of that perking it makes a number of additional blunders. I confess that I haven’t watched the whole series – I stopped watching after episode 7, and I note from episode guides that the plot develops rapidly from episode 8 to 10. However, I am left with little to no faith that Groening will keep up that pace in season 2, and there’s issues with the foundations of the series which I feel will remain an issue going forwards.

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Bryan Fuller’s Three-Course Meal (Not For Vegetarians)

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is an expert in psychological profiling with a great record in serial killer investigations. This is largely because he has a unique gift for analysing cases by putting himself in the shoes of the killer themselves, because apparently we exist in a world where the idea of constructing a psychological profile and imagining “if I were this sort of person, what would I do and what would my motives be?” is somehow unusual rather than usual routine. This process is startlingly vivid – why, it’s a roleplaying exercise that puts Mazes & Monsters to shame! – and as a result it causes a great psychological strain on Graham, who has tried to get out of the field by settling into a career teaching at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

However, Special Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), head of the Behavioural Science unit, wants Will active as a field investigator, and draws him into the investigation of a killer who becomes known to the media as the Minnesota Shrike. Will seems to be making progress, but is also becoming erratic, so Crawford decides to get him some support – a little aid from an expert psychiatrist who can both give Will the counselling and personal help he needs to digest all this grimness he’s exposed to, and who might also be able to pitch in with his own observations on the investigations from time to time. The man he chooses for the job is Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen)…

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Agent Cooper, You Are Far Away

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The news of a third season of Twin Peaks, coming 25 years or so after we last visited it via the weird hybrid prequel-sequel movie Fire Walk With Me, felt both like a glorious opportunity and an enormous creative risk. Not only had plot elements from the original’s ending suggested that a comeback in 25 years might be possible, but also the spectre of network interference that was widely held to have scuppered the original was banished. Written solely by creative leads Mark Frost and David Lynch, and directed from start to end by David Lynch, the whole prospect gave the series creators far more control than they ever had (or could have dreamed of receiving) during the show’s original run. Early on in the production process there was a risk that Lynch would walk away due to not being given the budget to tell the story he wanted; Showtime buckled, gave him a free hand, and later took pride in promising viewers the “pure heroin David Lynch”. That in itself is testimony of how the original Twin Peaks changed the television landscape. The major question was whether the magic of the original could be recaptured.

I’m not going to get into a spoilerful analysis in this review (and will thank commenters for using spoiler tags liberally in the comments), but in short: no, to a large extent they didn’t recapture the old formula. They did not try to, and in retrospect they would have been fools to attempt it; in the past quarter of a century what was fresh and different about so much of Twin Peaks has become part of the standard toolkit of serial television. That “pure heroin David Lynch” line is apt, because more or less the only aspect of Twin Peaks that hasn’t been successfully imitated is the distinctive aesthetic vision and apt for utter weirdness that Lynch brings to the table. (Wild Palms largely sabotaged itself trying to go faux-Lynchian, and it generally hasn’t been a recipe for success since then either.)

It becomes apparent very early on in this third season (sometimes dubbed Twin Peaks: the Return) that Frost and Lynch know full well that their unique selling point lies in letting David be David; the big question was whether you could do that over 18 episodes of a TV series and not allow it to become frustrating and stale. Incredibly, they more or less manage it, and they do it by once again refusing to be bound by the accepted wisdom of how television works.

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It Is Happening… Again

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

I’ve got good news: that gum you like is going to come back in style. Twin Peaks is returning for a new season after a 25 year gap that seems strangely planned, and I’m tremendously excited about the whole thing. One thing which is particularly gratifying is that show masterminds David Lynch and Mark Frost have remembered that Twin Peaks was an early example of a multimedia event, with tie-in media offering non-essential but sometimes fascinating supplementary material to enrich the experience.

One of the nice things about these items is that they were diegetic to the series, presented as artifacts from its world – sometimes representing significant plot points. Murder victim Laura Palmer’s secret diary, for instance, was a significant clue – and was actually published for us to read. Thus, ahead of the new series, Mark Frost has put out The Secret History of Twin Peaks, representing one supporting character’s idiosyncratic take on the subject that provides a few tantalising hints of what might be coming up, but focuses more on contextualising some of what has come before.

So, how best to catch up with Twin Peaks? The first port of call should probably be the now ironically-named Entire Mystery blu-ray set of the show’s original run, which includes all the episodes of both seasons, extensive extras, the prequel-sequel movie Fire Walk With Me, and – to the great delight of fans – a fat stack of cut scenes from Fire Walk With Me, spliced together by Lynch into what almost qualifies as a supplemental movie.

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