Uncovering The X-Files Season 1 Ep. 7-9

S1, E7 – “Ghost in the Machine”, dir. Jerrold Freedman, written by Alex Gansa & Howard Gordon, originally aired October 29, 1993
            The CEO of software company ‘Eurisko’ is murdered by a strangely elaborate booby-trap.
The crime itself is not immediately strange enough to be X-filed; Mulder and Scully only get pulled into the investigation when Mulder’s old partner Jerry Lamana (Wayne Duvall) calls him in for a favour. We get an important new perspective on Mulder as a competent agent, as seen through Jerry’s jealousy. When Jerry is killed during the investigation, it’s interesting to see how Mulder, a man who usually acts on instinct, is able to restrain his emotions enough to see behind the ‘obvious evidence’.
Said evidence points towards Brad Wilczek (Rob LaBelle)—a disheveled computer whiz not unlike Steve Wozniak—as he was fired just before the murder of his boss. We, the audience, very quickly realize that it was Brad’s creation, the Control Operating System (COS) that is the true perp, but such a revelation evades everyone for most of the episode. It’s a sci-fi twist that borrows from “2001: A Space Odyssey”’s HAL-9000; an all-powerful artificial intelligence acts proactively for the sake of self-preservation. Besides a few dated hacking scenes, the episode thankfully steers clear of computer jargon. It’s also interesting to note that Deep Throat returns, though not to contribute to the mythology arc strangely enough.
By the time Mulder has realized COS is the killer, Brad has already turned himself in for the sake of protecting his creation… not from being destroyed, but from being weaponized by the government. There’s a funhouse-esque bit of Mulder and Scully making their way through the Eurisko building, but the kicker that really made the episode great for me was COS’ security guard being a double agent for the government. There was so much conflict and tension at every turn; they were able to turn a decades-old twist into something exciting.

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S1 E8 – “Ice”, dir. David Nutter, written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
originally aired November 5, 1993
            A video transmission from a remote research base in Alaska shows that all the scientists have gone insane and killed each other.
By far the most dark and tense episode in the series yet, but it has to be said that it lifts so, so heavily from John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982), which itself is just one of many adaptions of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s “Who Goes There” (1938). Everything from the locale and atmosphere to the infected dog is directly taken. The only prominent difference between it and “The Thing” is that this bottle-episode can’t afford grotesque puppeteering, so those infected by the alien parasite simply become violently aggressive. The parasite itself is a pretty disgusting worm that runs along the nape of its host’s neck, flexing that TV-14 rating that the show so rarely reminds us it has. As just a monster-of-the-week episode, it’s interesting that it contributes to the alien mythology.
Mulder and Scully aren’t at it alone—we need a tight cast of unique characters to kill off in horror movie fashion. We have the uptight man, the innocent man, the nervous woman, the scruffy pilot; in the brief time we’re introduced to them we get pretty strong characterizations of them, making their eventual descent into paranoia that much more rewarding. The climax is deservingly frantic, but for me the tensest scene was Mulder and Scully standing off against each other. It tells a lot about their ability (and inability) to make difficult choices in an episode that otherwise doesn’t focus too much on their development.
It may be shamelessly ripped from a great horror story, but it’s still a great and thoroughly satisfying episode.

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S1 E9 – “Space”, dir. William Graham, written by Chris Carter
originally aired November 12, 1993
            A strange force is sabotaging NASA’s attempts to launch a shuttle.
Mulder and Scully are called in by communications commander Michelle Generoo (Susanna Thompson) to investigate NASA’s Mission Control. It’s already a strange case for the X-Files specialists to take, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. Mulder meets his childhood hero, former astronaut Colonel Marcus Belt (Ed Lauter), who acts very strangely and harshly, disillusioning Mulder. In a series of poorly rendered and non-scary nightmare sequences, we learn that Belt is haunted by some kind of Alien spirit he encountered years ago in his space-faring days. The CGI-heavy ghost bits are pretty terrible, as is the cheap Mission Control set. Mulder and Scully have little-to-no affect on the plot, instead just standing around while Belt and Generoo act out rocket science mumbo jumbo. Even if the production side of the episode would have come together, it’s still the worst episode yet.
There’s a few poignant scenes, particularly between Mulder and Belt. The one that stood out was Belt turning on the agent and criticizing sensationalist media coverage and general disinterest in the space program; “They only know your name if you blow up”, a biting comment no doubt referring to NASA’s shuttle Challenger tragically exploding in 1986. It’s fascinating to see Mulder’s faith turn on him for once, as his admiration for Belt blinds him to the Colonel’s strange actions.
Overall it’s a boring, inconsequential episode that does little to engage the series’ main characters, thus losing the audience’s attention.

You can find my thoughts on Episodes 4-6 here

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Uncovering the X-Files Season 1 Ep. 4-6

S1, E4 – “Conduit”, dir. Daniel Sackheim, written by Alex Gansa & Howard Gordon, originally aired October 1, 1993
            At a campground in Iowa, A teenaged girl vanishes in a flash of light before her little brothers eyes.
When Mulder and Scully show up to investigate, the story quickly branches off into two closely connected plots: the first, in very “Twin Peaks” fashion, is the agents peeling back the supposed innocence of the victim, Ruby, and finding out about her seemingly dark history. She’s ‘not exactly prom queen’, as the local sheriff tells them. The side plot (which ends up taking precedence) has to do with how Ruby’s disappearance affected her little brother, Kevin—a boy Mulder immediately identifies with. When Mulder finds Kevin writing binary messages he’s hearing from TV static, it becomes clear there’s something very wrong with Kevin. But rather than go along with the horror trope of creepy children (think ‘Return of the Repressed’), Kevin is depicted more as a metaphor for innocent belief. One of the scenes that stood out to me was the NSA tearing through Kevin’s bedroom for evidence—symbolic of how Mulder’s own investigations are constantly torn down by authority figures.
The Kevin plot ends with Mulder realizing his own obsessions, followed rather abruptly by Ruby being suddenly returned to her family. There’re gaps in her memory, and her captors apparently forbid her from talking. I took this part as an allegory for sexual abuse, especially with Ruby’s mother encouraging Ruby’s silence, saying she doesn’t want their family shamed.
Though not exactly an episode that contributes to the “Mythology” arc, the episode does remind us about Mulder’s personal quest to find his long-lost sister, Samantha. The episode ends with Scully listening to Mulder’s hypno-therapy sessions about the night his sister vanished, as Mulder sits alone in a church, crying. Suddenly, “I want to believe” carries a little more meaning.

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S1, E5 – “The Jersey Devil”, dir. Joe Napolitano, written by Chris Carter,
originally aired October 8, 1993
            In the outskirts of Atlantic City, a man is brutally murdered by a local urban legend.
Much like Episode 3, “Squeeze”, here we have a ‘Monster-of-the-Week’ episode. Mulder and Scully show up to find Atlantic City—and it’s casino—abuzz with news of the ‘Jersey Devil’. Despite the local law enforcement appearing capable (rare), they seem hesitant to investigate the murders because of the tourists they bring. The week’s mystery was handled pretty offhandedly here, with the episode seeming to focus more on the buds of romance between Mulder and Scully. Here for the first time we see Scully’s personal life: dates, birthday parties, and so on, while Mulder seems too absorbed by his work. There’s something of a milestone developed between the two agents when Scully decides to skip out on her date with a very promising man in favor of helping Mulder dig deeper into a case.
The resolution of the mystery comes pretty anticlimactically: Mulder is jumped by the Jersey Devil who spares him and runs into the woods to be gunned down by the local sheriff. What’s more interesting is the implications the monster brings—she ends up being a beautiful though primitive woman, a missing link of sorts, leading Mulder to philosophize “Maybe we’re just beasts with big brains.” The Jersey Devil was just trying to protect her young the whole time, leaving the viewer with the question of ‘who’s the real monster this week?’

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S1, E6 – “Shadows”, dir. Michael Katleman, written by Glen Morgan & James Wong, originally aired Oct. 22, 1993
            A woman, mourning the suicide of her boss, is protected from assailants by an otherworldly force.
Though pretty predictable from the cold opening alone, the plot of this episode was really interesting. Finally, the monster-of-the-week being the focus of the episode! And yet… parts of the plot are very problematic in relation to the characters and canon the show has thus far established. More on that later.
Lauren, a young secretary, seems aware of the fact that the ghostly presence of her dead boss, Howard Graves, is watching over her like a guardian angel. The evidence of his ghost are there right from the beginning—Mulder and Scully see the autopsy reports of the two men who seemed to be psycho-kinetically shocked and killed from the inside out—yet this pretty undeniable evidence gets swept under the rug. Even Mulder, defender of the faith, goes along with Scully’s idea that Howard Graves is alive and hiding somewhere.
There’s an intense but nonsensical scene where Mulder witnesses Graves’ ghost save Lauren by choking another assailant…while Scully is of course out of the room. It’s just strange for the show to so blatantly admit the existence of ghosts to Mulder—how can you not believe?! It’s clearly not the first thing Mulder and the audience have seen, but at least the moments that came before were packaged with the possibility of doubt, dreams, mental instability and such.
           The focus on the ghost, however, is lost when the investigation shifts from ‘the pursuit of paranormal possibilities’ to a tangible case, namely Graves murder at the hand of his business partner. It’s frustratingly out of character for Mulder to give up on proving the ghost’s existence and instead accept its help in solving the more earthbound case. It was one of the most intriguing episodes so far, but it was resolved so strangely.

You can find my thoughts on Episodes 1-3 here

You can find my thoughts on Episodes 7-9 here

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Uncovering The X-Files Season 1 Ep. 1-3

S1, E1 – “Pilot”,dir. Robert Mandel, written by Chris Carter,
originally aired September 10, 1993
            A small town in Oregon has a series of kids from the same graduating class of ’89 disappear into the forest to be killed in a flash of light.
           As the pilot of the series, the episode focuses less on the weekly mystery and more on establishing the main characters, F.B.I. Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), and their relationship to their superiors. We first see Scully, but before we know much about her we have her describe Mulder’s reputation, notably his being obsessed with the paranormal. Scully’s role as dictated by her commanding officers is to debunk Mulder’s attempted solutions to the X-Files, a series of unsolved cases relating to the unexplainable. When we first see Mulder, he introduces Scully as the scientifically-driven straight arrow, clearly there as his foil. It’s this tug-of-war between the two, Fact versus Gut Feeling, Science versus Faith, that underlies much of the show.
One deceptively minor scene that tells so much about both characters is when their plane to Oregon experiences major turbulence; Scully clutches her armrest in panic while Mulder lays back nonchalantly, accepting his fate.
It’s the first episode to kick off the ‘Mythology’ arc that the whole series falls back upon—are aliens real?—and many other side plots are subtly set into motion throughout the episode, notably Mulder’s missing sister. The main theme of the episode (and the Mythology arc as a whole) is the idea that you can trust no one. It’s a conspiracy-driven show that aired in the perfect time: America wasn’t involved in many major conflicts and the events of 9/11 were still years away. The idea that everyone, from the small-town paraplegic to the U.S. government is working in the shadows—it’s a scary and captivating concept. Most important to the series though, is we as the audience see the scientifically unexplainable, yet the evidence for it always disappears, leaving us caught between Mulder’s insistence and Scully’s skepticism.

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S1, E2 – “Deep Throat”, dir. Daniel Sackheim, written by Christ Carter,
originally aired September 17, 1993
            A military test pilot in Idaho goes missing amidst a series of unexplained phenomena.
The beginning of the episode introduces Mulder to a mysterious ally, the titular Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin), another seeker of the truth. It quickly becomes clear to Mulder and Scully that the Idaho military base is the source of strange goings-on in the town nearby, from mentally crippled pilots to UFO-like lights flying by at night. What’s interesting about this episode is that while it’s inferred the government is suppressing the agents in the first episode, here the military takes on an active, oppressive role against Mulder and Scully’s investigation. There’s even a scene of Mulder’s capture by the military, which plays out eerily similar to what one would think an alien abduction would be like.
In an especially chilling scene, the wife of a former pilot calls the agents to her house, screaming “That man’s not my husband!” The husband, meanwhile, seems confused by the sudden outburst—he shows very little sign of change to those besides his wife. It’s unnerving, and as Mulder says, ‘deliberate and insidious’, while also upping the tension behind the recurring ‘evidence versus word’ debate.
The central idea of the episode is the government possessing advanced alien technology and the ethical question of progression weighed with the human cost. When their investigation leads to an intense reaction from the military, we’re left with the disturbing reality that it’s Mulder and Scully who acted inappropriately; the military were following a cold protocol.
It’s much darker and bolder than the first episode, and the central mystery is fleshed out through a much more creative plot. Also, there’s Seth Green as a stoned, teenaged witness.

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S1, E3 – “Squeeze”, dir. Harry Longstreet, writers Glen Morgan & James Wong
originally aired September 24, 1993
           A series of gruesome murders take place in locations where no physical entry or exit for the murderer seems possible.
Distinct from the story set in the ‘Mythology” episodes, we have our first “monster-of-the week” episode—stand-alone stories similar in style to a show like “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. It’s these episodes where the writers really have to flex their creativity, sometimes to great effect. This is a fine episode, but for me it was the interactions between Mulder and Scully that outshone the actual mystery, which unfolded somewhat weakly.
When Scully is approached by Agent Tom Colton, a friend from her academy-years, she learns she’s become a laughingstock for taking part in Mulder’s paranoid theories. It’s an important episode for her partnership with Mulder, as she’s forced to put aside her own doubts (and workplace politics) to support him. Another interesting aspect of this episode is that while Mulder’s theories are typically the focal point of the plot, Scully’s own medical and scientific investigations seem to win out. The suspected monster, Toom, is played so creepily by Doug Hutchison, it’s a shame more of the episode didn’t focus on him—he goes down in an intense but admittedly lazily written showdown… Using fist-flying action to solve any mystery is usually the least-interesting climax you could think of.
Luckily for us, this isn’t the last we’ll see of Toom, as we leave him in a very “Psycho”-esque shot of him sitting in a jail cell, unperturbed by his defeat.

Read my thoughts on Episodes 4-6 here

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Digging Deeper – Master of None Season 1

Co-created and written by Aziz Ansari, Master of None seems like it should be about as goofy as it’s main character, Dev, but comedy seems to second after the show’s focus on the hurdles of becoming a ‘mature adult’. There’s funny stuff there, for sure—plenty of jokes are casually glossed over in quickfire dialogue—but I found myself grinning happily at the character’s chemistry more often than anything. With just 10 episodes, you think a Netflix-distributed show would worry about viewers ‘binge-watching’ the entire season in one night, yet there’s enough ground covered in each episode to give a satisfying and rewatchable experience—but it makes you wonder what they have left to cover in future seasons.

Each episode focuses on a single, though sometimes broad, topic, and it does so without cramming opinions down the audience’s throat. Instead, Master of None tends to show the truth, as ridiculous as it truly is, and covers Dev’s and his tight circle of friend’s perspectives on each topic. It’d be easy for a comedy show with this diverse of a cast to fall upon racial or sexual stereotypes—as just about every ‘token’ character is present—yet the show rises above that, and focuses on how these characters, not these archetypes, react in each situation, or more often advise Dev about his situation. The only ‘unreal’ character is Dev’s best friend Arnold (played by Tim and Eric’s Eric Wareheim), who acts as a sort of lumbering comedic relief, but the show rarely falls back on silly subplots. Each character stands in as Dev’s primary advisor for each episode’s topic—Arnold shares Dev’s love for food; Denise guides Dev through the complexities of relationships; Brian has trouble with connecting with his parents like Dev does. Ansari plays the master of none, yet his friends groom him to be a sort of jack of all trades.

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It feels like the life of a man going on thirty in New York City has been covered so thoroughly there’s nothing left to watch, but Master of None is the kind of show that could not have existed a decade ago. The cold new state of dating in an age of technology is well-covered in “Hot Ticket”, where Dev, tired of being mistreated over texting, takes on the role of playboy.

There’s overarching topics of dating and generally growing up, but some episodes choose to tackle more serious topics, such as “Indians on TV”, which covers racism in the showbusiness small-time actor Dev (and Aziz, no doubt) experiences. Dev is faced with the opportunity to blackmail a studio exec after he mistakenly includes Dev in a string of racist emails—Dev meets the man and realizes he’s not a cardboard cut-out racist that would be such a tempting antagonist for a show to take on. Many times the show flips the tables and depicts how easy it is for a goodhearted man to become the villain of sorts; Dev doesn’t always do the ‘right’ thing, and he becomes realistically conflicted between personal gain and moral upstanding.

“Ladies in Gentlemen” delicately handles an easily misconstrued topic, showing both the male and female perspectives of sexism and misogyny. Thankfully the show rarely comes off as preachy and self-righteous, opting to simply leave it’s humble opinion on the table for the viewer to take or leave, much like Dev’s friends do. The episode doesn’t have a very defined plot, instead ending in an argument between Dev and his girlfriend, Rachel; the two end with the sort of realization that men will never truly understand a woman’s position, which Rachel takes as a victory.

Rachel is perhaps the most likeable character on the show, and her blooming relationship with Dev gives the show a sort of chronological structure and sense of encompassing growth. On episodes like “Nashville”, where the two take a weekend trip with each other, it’s impossible not to fall in love with their cute interactions, while later episodes like “Mornings” show the delicate balance that can be easily tipped at any moment in a relationship. The beauty of it is that the show doesn’t rely on the ‘stupid man, naggy woman’ framework that has led to so many fictional breakups. By the last episode of the season, “Finale”, you really get the sense that both Dev and Rachel have matured since their embarrassing meeting in the pilot, “Plan B.” In some sense, you feel a part of Dev’s circle—like you’ve come out learning something as well.

It’s not trying to be the funniest show you’ve ever seen, but Master of None is thoughtful towards subjects both mature and silly, and earnest enough in trying to sort life out to make it a charming, memorable, modern comedy.

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Digging Deeper – Black Mirror: Season 1

When did anthology shows become such a rare gem? Looking at the most-watched television shows of the 2014-2015 season, the charts are topped by sitcoms such as “The Big Bang Theory” (21.3 million viewers), sports programs like Sunday Night Football (21 million), and continuous drama series like “The Walking Dead” (19.9 million). Maybe the idea of a new set of characters, story, and production crew for each episode is too demanding for the creators of anthology shows, and the viewer, who lack that underdog hero they can latch onto. For many reasons, anthology shows can be hit-or-miss, with each episode being a gamble—but the British Zeppotron-produced series “Black Mirror” is all hits, at least what it offers from it’s first season (produced in 2011).

Season 1 offers just three episodes, the pilot running about 75 minutes, the other two running 45 minutes. There are underlying themes throughout each episode, such as using dark and often ridiculous science fiction to satirize our current society’s addiction to social media, but each episode is so unique in it’s own right, it’s best just to dive into an episode-by-episode analysis:

“The National Anthem” serves as the pilot, directed by Otto Bathurst and written by Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror. It’s the least outlandish of the episodes, taking place in modern UK, yet it’s also the most twisted reflection of our world. Prime Minister Michael Callow is woken up early one morning to find the fictional darling Princess Susannah has been kidnapped, her only ransom being one, carefully outline request: the Prime Minster is to have sex with a pig on live, national television, by 4 pm that day. The demands are made via Youtube, so despite Callow’s attempts to hide the event, it’s immediately spread across the Internet until #Snoutrage is trending on Twitter by mid-morning. Every conceivable alternative is attempted so as to spare the PM his beastial affair, and it’s handled in such a hopeless, yet realistic way; it’s some of the most mesmerizing and daring television I’ve seen in a long time, all leading up to the inevitable deed.

Slight spoilers for the episode: The Prime Minister is forced to go through with it. The focus of the episode is tastefully not on the pig-sex itself, but more on how the public perceives it. It’s declared illegal to watch the event, yet the streets of London are seen completely empty, every pub filled with eager viewers, ready to watch ‘history in the making.’ We watch the crowd’s faces go from cheering and jeering, to unbelieving, to complete disgust, as they realize the horror they were so excited to watch. It’s Black Mirror holding up a reflection of us, the viewers of the show—not so much in an attempt to shame their audience, but to just force us to come to a harsh reality. Every plotpoint of the episode is driven by social media—this is not a story that could have ever happened in “The Twilight Zone”, or anything before the last decade. It may not even be a story that will always work, but it serves as an important marker for the sick, excitement-starved point we are all at. I won’t go into every spoiler of the episode, as the reason why all of this went down and who was behind it, is just as important as the act itself.

The second episode of the series is “Fifteen Million Merits”, directed by Euros Lyn and written by Charlie Brooker and Kanak Huq. It’s a jarring shift from the realism of the last episode, placing the audience immediately in an Orwellian-like future where people have to pedal on exercise bikes all day while being bombarded with constant screens filled with advertisements and throwaway television. Bored and disgruntled cyclist Bing Madsen is alienated from his complacent fellow cyclists, as he seems to be the only one who craves something “real”. He falls in love with another cyclist, Abi, when he hears her singing, and he insists on spending his massive life savings—fifteen million merits (seemingly thousands of kilometers biked) to land her a spot on a televised talent show. The whole thing mocks the shallow state of current television, while also presenting a clear metaphor to the average man working his whole life without knowing why. The promised land of fame proves to be a distant hope to most, while the power that comes with it changes even the most morally-strong. It seems like a ridiculous exaggeration of how we live now, but Brooker himself notes how each episode of Black Mirror is “about the way we live now—and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”

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The final episode of Season 1 is “The Entire History of You”, directed by Brian Welsh and written by Jesse Armstrong. The view of this near-future world is limited, but what we do know is that the wealthy have a ‘grain’ implanted in them that allows them to ‘rewind’ in their heads to experience past events, while also allowing them to edit out the bad parts. Liam Foxwell becomes jealous when he meets his wife’s ex-boyfriend, leading him to painstakingly overanalyze every interaction the two shared—before he finally confronts his wife and forces her to show her past with the man. The grain becomes the focus of conversation at every, with people projecting their memories on television screens to brag about their past. The whole thing can be seen as a reflection of social media sites like Facebook, where people meticulously craft online identities that only show the greatest hits of their lives. By living in the past—and lying about it—people tend to ruin their lives. What’s interesting is the viewer gets the impression that although grains are optional and seemingly expensive (like say, Facebook and an iPhone), the characters in the episode can’t imagine how empty their lives would be without the grain. While say, “The National Anthem” discusses the infectious nature of social media, “The Entire History of You” reflects on the dangers of becoming addicted to it.

Black Mirror is a modern sci-fi / horror anthology show that manages to shock and challenge an audience that has become jaded and overly reliant on technology. As of writing this, Season 2 and a Christmas special are already out, while a 12-episode Netflix-produced third season is on the way. Hopefully the rest of the series can impress as much as the stellar first season has.