Category Archives: The X-Files

Underrated but Great # 2: The X-Files, Season 8 (2000 – 2001)

The Conventional Wisdom:


Many of you are already familiar with the conventional wisdom about The X-Files (1993 – 2002).  This conventional wisdom has been disseminated and repeated across fan hubs and critical review web-sites for many years now.

It goes something like this: After star David Duchovny departed the series as the lead actor, the series went down-hill…fast.  In fact, The X-Files stayed on the air a few years too long, and ended in something resembling disgrace and embarrassment.

Well, the truth is out there…and it’s much more nuanced and intriguing than the conventional wisdom suggests.  First, it’s accurate that during the eighth season of The X-Files, David Duchovny reduced his participation considerably.  He was no longer the star of the program, and he appeared as Mulder in less-than-a-dozen episodes airing that year.  But he wasn’t gone entirely.

His successor in the male lead position was actor Robert Patrick (Terminator 2 [1991], Fire in the Sky [1993]).  On The X-Files, Patrick played John Doggett, an ex-New York police detective who did not boast a familiarity with the paranormal or supernatural, but instead constructed his cases upon the bedrocks of common sense, a finely-tuned moral barometer, and good old-fashioned police work. 

In short, Doggett equaled “dogged.”  He was a superb, tireless agent (as Scully once noted: “above reproach”), and the character and performance provided the series with a welcome injection of fresh blood.  Yes, Doggett was quite different from the beloved Agent Mulder, yet if you speak to many X-Files fans that actively disliked Patrick’s tenure as Doggett, they won’t name either the actor or the character as the source of their upset.


Instead, a series of arguments are raised.  For instance, a few of these critics will suggest that the writing was bad in Season 8, even though episodes were by-and-large penned by the same authors who toiled on earlier seasons of The X-Files and knew their way around the series’ premise and characters.  Their stories in season eight at least deserve a fair hearing.

Some will tell you that the monsters of the week during Season 8 suddenly grew “tasteless,” based on disgusting premises like a vomiting monster (“The Gift”) or a creature that could crawl into the rectum of a grown man (“Badlaa”). 

And yet — again — one must wonder why earlier, highly-praised X-Files stories such as “Home” (featuring an amputee and genetic mutants), “F. Emasculata” (concerning a disease with exploding flesh pustules), “Bad Blood” (with extracted human organs dripping blood from a scale during an autopsy) or “The Host” (with a creature hiding in a port-a-potty) did not encounter the same negative response of “tastelessness.”  Throughout its run, The X-Files was persistently and gory, and that’s a good thing in my estimation, especially in a medium (at the time) that favored homogeneity.

Another oft-voiced complaint is that during Season 8, Scully and Doggett ended up striking off on their own too much, and thus ending up in mortal jeopardy without back-up.  Once more, did those folks complaining about this issue ever actually watch the earlier seasons of The X-Files? 

This sort of situation happened all the timeto Scully and Mulder.

One potential answer underlying the conventional wisdom is that, at some point, many critics of The X-Files decided, a priori, that a Mulder-less version of the show wasn’t going to be something good, or something in which they could fully invest and actively engage with.

So they erected a series of false premises about the series to reinforce their pre-existing beliefs. 

The Affirmative Case:

So, if the conventional wisdom is wrong, why is Season Eight a strong season and one worthy of praise and The X-Files legacy?

First and foremost, there’s Doggett.

He is the third leading “Chris Carter male” we have encountered, following Fox Mulder and Millennium’s Frank Black (Lance Henriksen).  My wife, a therapist, coined the phrase “The Chris Carter male” because she became intrigued by the writer’s male characters, and their common traits.  She describes the Chris Carter males as “chivalrous and heroic, but unavailable emotionally to the women in their lives.” 

When I interviewed Chris Carter in late 2009, he responded to this psychological classification and noted that it was “dramatically-interesting to him” to write for characters when “it’s what’s withheld that counts, or is that important.”

He went on to say:  “If the character is remote or unable to speak about these things – because it’s series television we’re talking about here – it becomes something that needs to be discovered.  So if you discover these things too quickly, if a person is too emotionally available, it actually takes away from interest in the character.

What’s Doggett laughing about with his budz?

With this premise in mind, Carter and the other writers of The X-Files grant Doggett a particularly intriguing arc in Season Eight. He starts out as a dependable but relatively unimaginative by-the-book agent in the premiere “Within/Without.”  In fact, viewers even feel a little suspicious of him starting out because when we first see him  approaching Mulder’s basement office in “Patience,” he is depicted laughing outside the door with colleagues…as if mocking the X-Files.  He’s responding to a joke we don’t get to hear, and so the audience response is suspicion…even paranoia.


Later in the episode, one penned by Chris Carter, a police detective, Abbott (Bradford English) proves downright dismissive of and hostile to Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson). Doggett steps in and whispers something to Abbott to back him off.  Notice that we never hear Doggett’s words, nor see his facial expressions as he speaks to Abbott in this particular scene.  Once more, the implication is that Doggett is not entirely trustworthy.  He may be sympathizing with the misogynistic detective…we don’t know for sure.  Again, the primary feeling with Doggett is one of suspicion, or uncertainty.

After these moments and a few others like them, we slowly warm to Doggett, and his sense of emotional unavailability begins to recede. In later episodes we learn that his marriage failed, and that his son died under tragic and mysterious circumstances (in “Invocation”), but more importantly, we begin to see how he and Scully develop a working relationship.  The distance we feel from him diminishes.  But the important thing is that Doggett as a character earns our trust over a period of episodes.  He is not inside “the circle” (like Skinner is, for instance) instantly.

In some ways, this is a touch very respectful of Mulder, and Mulder’s role on the series.  It would have been terrible, not to mention unbelievable, to have a character jump in and pick up where Mulder – after eight years – left off, emotionally vulnerable with Scully and trusted by Skinner.  Instead, the writers gave us a character that had to find his way both on the job, and with the dedicated fans of the show.

In addition to the new and at times ambiguous presence of Doggett, the eighth season of The X-Files is successful because, by and large, the stories feature interesting “monsters of the week” (soul eaters, Siddhi mystics, microscopic flesh-eating ocean life…), ones often based on myth and folklore.  But the stories are good for more than that reason.  In particular, they establish the new dynamic for the characters and their interactions.

The original and admittedly brilliant X-Files dynamic of Scully/Mulder is best expressed as the comparison of two distinctive and competing world views: science vs. faith/skepticism vs. belief.  Virtually every story in the first six years was filtered through this highly entertaining and cerebral double lens.

In Season Eight — with a mostly absent Mulder to contend with — that dynamic could no longer function.  So instead, the episodes of this span largely concerned how Scully had to re-train herself to “see” the world, accommodating Mulder’s genius into her own perspective.  This endeavor not only made Scully grow as a person, it kept Mulder as the “absent center” in Carter’s words, of the drama.

Consider for a moment just how often the episodes in Season Eight involve “sight,” or more specifically, “learning to see.” Here are some examples: 

In “Patience” Scully tries to see the world (and a specific case) as Mulder would see it, but admits she has difficulties making the same leaps of faith. 

In the episode titled “Medusa,” Scully assumes control of a command center on an investigation, and must “see” through Doggett’s eyes in the subway below.  Again, she’s re-learning how to interpret the world and its mysteries. She needs Doggett as her “eyes and ears” to do that.  He needs her, oppositely, calling the shots, because of his inexperience on the X-Files.

In “Via Negativa” a cult leader grows a “third eye” by opening his mind to the path of darkness, and Doggett nearly goes the same way, into a new realm of diabolical sight. 

In “The Gift,” Skinner commends Doggett for seeing a case through Mulder’s eyes…by getting inside the missing agent’s head.  

“Badlaa” involves an Indian mystic who can cloud the sight of normal people, including Scully and Doggett, making them see — or not see – what he wishes.  Our very reality is up for grabs, and Scully must make a decision based on what she believes, not what she actually sees. 

Even “Three Words” is about sight in some critical sense. It concerns how Mulder comes to see Doggett, and then how Doggett comes to see himself: as being manipulated by an untrustworthy informant. 

“Alone” is about blindness (another aspect of sight), and about how in the absence of clear sight, trust can substitute for vision.  This lesson comes in relation to competitors Doggett and Mulder, who are trapped by a kind of lizard monster in a dark labyrinth.  His eyes sprayed by venom, Doggett can’t see his nemesis well enough to shoot it.  He must place his trust in Mulder, and Mulder’s words to survive.

The leitmotif of “learning to see” appears in more than a handful of episodes, and grants the eight season an umbrella of unity that draws it together.   

Episode Highlights:

Scully (and the audience), on the outside looking in.

1. “Patience.” Written and directed by Chris Carter.  This is a standalone story (or “monster of the week”) involving a  sort of man-bat (who sees quite differently than human beings, by the way…) seeking vengeance against tormentors from the year 1956. 


But this episode – essentially a second pilot for the series – cunningly sets up the fundamentals of the Scully/Doggett relationship as well as the season’s obsession on sight.  Furthermore, it features a great commentary on what it means to live in fear.  On the latter front, consider Ernie Stefaniuk’s moving monologue about what fear did to his marriage…and to his (now deceased) wife.  For forty-four years the couple lived in virtual isolation on a six mile stretch of land and denied themselves modern conveniences, family contact, and more.  In the post-9/11 age, “Patience” takes on a new meaning given the government’s color-coded exploitation of fear during the last decade.

Chris Carter is a gifted director and he proves it again in “Patience” with the carefully constructed and perfectly framed scene I mentioned above wherein Scully is castigated and treated poorly by Detective Abbott, and Doggett steps in to ameliorate the detective’s concerns. 

A less clever director would have included a frontal shot of Doggett’s explanation or provided audio of his words.  Instead, the moment is left intentionally ambiguous because we never learn exactly what it is he said.  


This makes us wonder if Doggett will be there for Scully when she needs him…


“Patience” is the first standalone episode in the series sans Mulder, and it is therefore the template for the two final seasons, diagramming the fresh terrain of the burgeoning Scully/Doggett relationship and the importance that “learning to see” will play in upcoming episodes. 

Also, “Patience” is a coded-title and a message directly to X-Files fans.  Be patient, and you’ll be rewarded with a new character dynamic that, conceivably, could rival the richness of the original format.

Burks or Siddhi Mystic?

2.”Badlaa.”  By John Shiban. This absolutely go-for-broke episode concerns a Siddhi mystic (Deep Roy) who travels to America inside the rectum of a four-hundred pound businessman. 


Yes, you read that synopsis correctly…

When the vengeful mystic evacuates the rectum, the fat man bleeds out, and we are spared no nauseating detail.  One thoroughly terrifying scene finds the mystic hidden inside a corpse, and as Scully begins her autopsy, we see his tiny hands wriggle their way out of a chest incision.

Doggett or Siddhi Mystic?

The sense of escalating terror generated by this episode is not only visual.  The Siddhi mystic – an amputee — drags himself from one location to another on a scooter with squeaky wheels, and that ubiquitous squeak quickly emerges a fearsome harbinger of terror.  We come to expect it, and fear it.


But the episode works splendidly not because of the nutso (if inspired) premise, but because it fits into the season’s leitmotif about “learning to see.” Specifically, director Tony Wharmy achieves something extraordinary in terms of visualizing certain crucial moments in the play.  It is established early on that the Siddhi mystic can control how people perceive him, and there are at least two instances in the tale when Scully sees people who are already present on the scene – in long establishing shot – standing in the distance, observing her.

One is Charles Burks (Bill Dow), bracketed inside the door frame at the X-Files FBI office.  Another is Doggett himself, standing pool-side, with strange light reflected on his face.  Neither figure gets a traditional entrance when Scully sees them: they’re already present – motionless– and the implication is that there is something not quite right about them.

If you go back and watch this episode with a careful eye, be certain to ask yourself at all times, who is Scully actually “perceiving” and receiving information from? Those she knows and trusts, or the mystic himself, carefully insinuating his “sight” into her mind?  It’s a brilliant idea and a visual grace note in a highly disturbing and provocative episode.

Learning to see.

3. “Via Negativa.”By Frank Spotnitz.  This is another brilliant standalone episode. In philosophy, the “via negativa” is an approach to understanding God; a strategy that seeks to define God by enumerating those things God is not. God is not mortal, God is not Evil, and so forth. Sometimes, this unusual approach to comprehending the Divine is also called Negative Theory or The Negative Way. 


The episode “Via Negativa” finds stalwart Doggett investigating the brutal murders of two FBI agents who were staking out an apocalyptic cult. Doggett is investigating this particular X-File alone because a pregnant Scully is away at the hospital. Still new to the X-Files unit, Doggett is uncertain and rudderless. He’s no Mulder, and boasts no interest in being Mulder. Leaps of faith don’t come easily or naturally to him. Without Scully to ease him in, the “dogged,” meat-and-potatoes Doggett is, in a very real sense, vulnerable, to what he learns during this investigation.

Doggett discovers that the members of the apocalyptic cult died horribly and that their still-at-large leader, Anthony Tibbett, is an ex-convict who developed a peculiar brand of evangelical Christian/Hindu philosophy. Tibbett suggests that “the body is but clay…to hold the twin aspects of the human spirit: the light and the darkness.” Furthermore, he believes that if his dedicated followers gaze into the path of darkness (“the Via Negativa” of the title), they will see God there.

To help them reach this dimension of darkness, Tibbett administered experimental hallucinogens that would awaken the cult members’ “Third Eye.” It is this “Third Eye” – the Hindu gyananakashi, or “Eye of Knowledge, positioned between hemispheres of the brain – that can see into the realm of darkness..

Doggett delves deeper and deeper into Tibbett’s strange, dark beliefs until the agent himself takes a walk on the Via Negativa during a horrifying dream sequence. The scene is cast in a suffusing blue light, and intermittent fade-outs and pulsating strobes provide a sense of fractured time and  splintered consciousness. This tense, virtually silent scene witnesses a sweaty, desperate Doggett (depicted in extreme close-up) contemplating murder…and the specter of his own internal darkness.

Another scene, in which a vulnerable, confused Doggett confesses to a baffled Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) that he’s uncertain about his own state of consciousness (dreaming or awake…) also serves as Doggett’s authentic indoctrination into The X-Files…the horrifying case from “outside” that changes him “inside.”

In “Via Negativa” there’s a deep underlying fear at work. Doggett has no support system. His walk on “the dark path” is a walk alone (or so we believe, until the denouement) and there’s something incredibly unsettling about the brand of evil he faces here. This episode is absolutely terrifying.
A succession earned, not bestowed.


4. “The Gift.”
  This episode by Frank Spotnitz and directed by Kim Manners is another story that focuses on “sight” and how people see things differently.  Agent Doggett investigates one of Mulder’s old cases, and finds evidence that Mulder may have committed murder.  Through enigmatic flashbacks, we see Mulder’s unorthodox work on the case, and the execution of the crime. 

Only in the end do we come to understand that Mulder’s blood-soaked act of murder is actually one of mercy.  And we uncover this revelation not in straight-forward narrative fashion, but through Doggett’s investigation as he follows literally in Mulder’s footsteps, and comes to make a similar choice regarding mercy and decency.  The result, at episode’s end: Doggett – for the briefest of instants – imagines the specter of Mulder in his office, as if a tacit sign of approval of Doggett’s presence there.  He has, finally, earned the right to sit where Mulder once did.
The monster of the week in “The Gift” is a great one too: a “soul eater” who may be summoned to eat the bodies of the sick.  After eating sick people and absorbing their diseases, the soul eater than regurgitates the digested human beings…and they re-form and are resurrected.  Both Mulder and Doggett go through that horrifying process in this episode (another instance of “parallel” footsteps), and yes, the vomiting scenes are nausea provoking.  But regurgitation isn’t the point of the story.  The point is that the soul eater is a tortured creature who cannot die and who must keep healing others…and absorbing their horrible illnesses.  He’s in pain and wants his life to end.
As the episode commences, you think that “the gift” of the title belongs to the soul eater. He is giving those he digests and regurgitates the gift of health. But at episode’s end, we learn that Doggett has actually given the monster the greatest gift of all: death. Release.
This is a poetic and lyrical X-Files episode, and one that asks us to see the soul eater differently at different times.  He’s a monster and a terror at first.  But then – as we look into his eyes – we register that if he is a soul eater, his soul too has been eaten by a lifetime of physical suffering.
The truth we now know, and have “learned to see…”

5: “Existence.” Written by Chris Carter and directed by Kim Manners.  In this season finale, a pregnant Scully gives birth to her unusual child, and we learn – at long last – that Mulder is the father.  Shippers will enjoy the Mulder/Scully kiss, but on a more significant note, the episode provides the punch-line to the season-long exploration of “learning to see.”  

Before our eyes – for we don’t know how long – Mulder and Scully have been together…romantically. And, now, we suddenly see and understand it all.  It’s a beautiful end to the season, and to this nearly-season long arc.  We’ve traveled a long road believing one thing, or suspecting one thing, and then – in a single scene, and with a single line of dialogue – we finally see “the truth.”  It’s a perfect capper to Season Eight.  In this final installment of the year, the audience learns to see, thus mimicking the odysseys of Scully and Doggett.  How’s that for elegant storytelling?


Season Eight could have been one of jarring change and false starts, but instead, The X-Files triumphed with fine storytelling, great performances, scary monsters and a recurring theme.

Other Season Eight high notes: “Roadrunners,” “Medusa,” “Three Words” and “Alone.”

The X-Files Season Eight Trailer

Collectible of the Week: The X-Files Action Figures (McFarlane Toys; 1998)

To coincide with the theatrical release of the first X-Files movie, 1998′s Fight the Future, McFarlane Toys manufactured a small line of exquisitely detailed action figures from the film.

Although I have always wished for a more complete and affordable line of X-Files action figures (to include Tooms, the Peacock family, Frank Black, Morris Fletcher, Jose Chung and other high-profile “guest” characters), this movie-based line was certainly a terrific start.

On the back of all the McFarlane Fight the Future figure cards read the following legend: 
For years, the world has seen reality distorted, facts manipulated and truth hidden.  But there’s even more to the story than anyone suspected.  Because no one has been able to see the whole picture until now.  Cherish the past.  Enjoy the present.  Because the truth is coming.”
Underneath this warning were featured biographies for the franchise’s two stars, Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny).

For Mulder: “Oxford-educated, brilliant and driven, Agent Fox Mulder was one of the leading investigators in the Violent Crimes division of the FBI, until he requested a transfer to an obscure area of the Bureau known as the X-Files...”

For Scully: “Recruited out of medical school by the FBI, Agent Dana Scully was originally assigned to the X-Files to debunk Agent Fox Mulder’s work and report on his finding. Idealistic, intelligent and with strong convictions, Scully soon realized the X-Files contained extraordinary secrets that could not be refuted by scientific interpretation…”

In whole, “Series One” of this “ultra action figure” release included an Attack Alien (replete with club) and the long-clawed, green skinned alien who ripped him to shreds, two versions of Agent Mulder, one in suit and tie, and one in his parka for Antarctica, and two variations of Agent Scully along similar lines.  The characters look very accurate to their appearances on the series/in the film.

I’ve long considered The X-Files the Star Trek phenomenon of the 1990s, but to finally reach that apex, we definitely need more toys and play sets from the Chris Carter-verse.  And to get those, we need a new film, or a new TV series.

The truth is out there: I’d be in favor of either.

  

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 111: The X-Files: "Sein Und Zeit"/"Closure"

“You know, I never stop to think that the light is billions of years old by the time we see it. From the beginning of time right past us into the future. Nothing is ancient in the universe. But, maybe they are souls, Scully. Traveling through time as starlight, looking for homes…”
-Fox Mulder contemplates the night sky, and the fate of his sister Samantha, in The X-Files, “Closure.”

In the epic two-part X-File presentation, “Sein Und Zeit”/”Closure,” a television inside Agent Fox Mulder’s motel room in Sacramento plays important imagery from the classic sci-fi film, Planet of the Apes (1968).

In particular, orangutan scientist and Protector of the Faith, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) warns the human astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) not to seek the truth about his people, about humanity.

Don’t look for it, Taylor,” the simian urges. “You may not like what you find.”

When asked by Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) about what Taylor will find on that mysterious shore-line stretching to the horizon, Dr. Zaius replies, cryptically, “his destiny.”

This quotation from a sci-fi, cinematic landmark underlines the thematic through-line of this emotionally-affecting X-File two-parter, which aired originally on Fox TV on February 6th and February 13, 2000. Written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, this seventh season story very explicitly concerns the idea of “seeing.

In particular, the narrative revolves around the way that people — even good people — tend to see only what they desire to see. Even heroes like Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) — who believes he is seeing through conspiracies and secrets — tends to see the world as it conforms to his particular world-view.

This isn’t a critique of Mulder so much as it is an observation about human nature. It’s just how we, as thoughtful, emotional beings, operate. We all boast a personal lens (our viewpoint) through which we see and attempt to interpret the world. The X-Files remains such a memorable and valuable television series because it provides not one, but two distinctive world-views, two perspectives, in the persons of Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny).

But the series also pointedly tasks us, the audience, with seeking the “balance” or “truth” between those perspectives, these two “poles” of human sight and insight. We are encouraged, on one literal level, to contemplate extreme possibilities (like the existence of the paranormal or supernatural), and but then, on a deeper, metaphorical level, to consider what these possibilities mean to the characters, even to the human equation as a whole.

In other words, The X-Files deploys both its stirring and scary supernatural cases and its two very-differently-inclined heroic investigators to gaze meaningfully at the essence of our human nature. In my opinion, this is the critical element that renders the series an artistic masterpiece in the tradition of Star Trek, The Twilight Zone or other genre greats. Although not as widely popular as many other installments of the Carter series, this two-part effort reveals The X-Files at its most meaningful, and indeed, most poetic.

As is also often the case with The X-Files, “Sein Und Zeit”/”Closure” commences with reality, and with a real life event from the 1990s as context, and then beelines into the unexpected, the supernatural.

Here, the action starts in Sacramento when a cute-as-a-button, six-year old girl, Amber Lynn La Pierre, disappears from her bedroom…never to be seen alive again. Oddly, her mother disassociates from reality and pens a cryptic ransom note (through the paranormal auspices of “automatic writing.”) And her father experiences a precognitive vision of the little girl’s bruised corpse.

If you remember the 1990s at all, you will appreciate many of the details of this strange, macabre introduction. Jon Benet Ramsey, a six year old girl, was discovered dead in her family home in Colorado on Christmas Day, 1996. The unsolved case became a media sensation for months and even years. As late as 2006 (and the false confession by John Mark Karr), this murder was still a topic of hot debate.

Importantly, the bizarre ransom note in the Jon Benet Ramsey case, believed to be written by the late Mrs. Ramsey, opens with the same two cautionary words as the note written by Mrs. La Pierre in the X-Files episode: “Listen carefully!”

Furthermore, the victim in both cases is a six-year old girl. And in both real and fictitious cases, the parents are believed to be the perpetrators of a terrible, heinous crime; the murder of a child. There’s even a connection between Amber Lynn and Jon Benet in the Christmas day trappings. At the bottom of Mrs. La Pierre’s ransom note is a mystifying, holiday-themed sentence: “No one shoots at Santa Claus!”

This odd final sentence is the very clue that rouses Mulder’s interest. He remember an earlier X-File in which the same sentence was also scrawled in a ransom note. Another woman, Kathy Lee Tencate (Kim Darby, of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark fame…) wrote the same words on a kidnapper’s note for her “missing” son back in 1987. She is currently in prison, having confessed to his murder. But that is just a legal ploy and Ms. Tencate actually believes — as Mulder comes to believe — that ancient spirits called “Walk-Ins” are responsible for the disappearance of these children. That they are “old souls protecting the children” from terrible violence in this mortal coil, as depicted in the precognitive visions of the parents.

The particulars of the case are resolved at a place called “Santa’s North Pole Village,” a haven for a serial killer who abducts and murders children. One visitor at his tourist trap was…Amber Lynn La Pierre. She was destined to die at his hand, like too many other innocents, and the Walk-Ins spared her this terrible agony, transforming the child from matter into energy…into, poetically-speaking, “starlight.”

Ultimately, however, this paranormal resolution of a murder case related to real-life isn’t the point of Carter and Spotnitz’s intricate and haunting tale. The narrative take a strange and unexpected turn when Mulder learns of his mother’s suicide…and comes to realize that his missing sister, Samantha, may have also been taken by these Old Spirits as well.

For seven years up to this point, one of The X-Files most prominent mysteries involved Samantha and her ultimate disposition. Was Mulder’s sibling abducted by aliens in 1973? Was she taken to another world? Is she still alive on another planet? Will Mulder ever be reunited with her?

This has been Mulder’s continuing obsession, his white whale, and various episodes of the series have charted clues, intimated destines, and suggested possibilities. One episode even revealed the aliens harnessing Samantha clones, if I’m not mistaken.


But “Closure” suggests,Mulder has not seen the truth at all. The investigations, the trappings of the alien abduction and other bells and whistles of the case, have actively prevented him from seeing the truth.

And what is that truth? That his sister…a frightened fourteen year-old girl, for all intents and purposes died in 1979.

All Mulder’s adult life, he has been chasing a ghost rather than dealing with the truth that his sister is gone. The Cigarette Smoking Man even encourages Mulder’s wild goose chase. “Allow him his ignorance,” he tells Scully. “It’s what gives him hope.”

It’s a hard, human truth Mulder finally comes to countenance here, and much of this two-parter deals explicitly with our (understandable) sense of outrage and futility when innocence is corrupted, when innocence (like the innocence of Amber Lynn La Pierre or Jon Benet Ramsey) is destroyed. by human “evil.” Carter and Spotnitz suggest a welcome spiritual remedy to such ugliness: Walk-Ins who take the children and spare them the pain of such destruction. But the writers also offer Mulder a sense of closure, if he will accept it. The quest for Samantha is over. Or as he realizes, he’s reached “the end of the road.”

What makes this sense of closure all the more emotionally affecting is that Mulder is joined in this story by a kindly psychic, Harold Piller (Anthony Heald) who lost a son to the kindly Walk-Ins, just as Mulder lost Samantha. But because Harold refuses to believe his son is dead…he can’t see him. He refuses to see his boy’s spirit, and acknowledge the truth, He cannot grieve, can never on, because his stubbornness won’t let him. And thus he achieves the opposite of his desired goal. He remains eternally separated from the child.

Mulder attempts to sway him. “Harold, you see so much, but you refuse to see him,” he says. “You refuse to let him go. But you have to let him go now, Harold. He’s protected. He’s in a better place. They’re all in a better place. We both have to let go, Harold.”

Our final view of Harold in “Closure” is a haunting one. He runs off, dedicated to finding his “truth”…which is no truth at all. He would rather chase the palatable fantasy than accept the sad reality. This is the object lesson. This could have been Mulder, forever tilting at windmills, never moving on, past the defining traumatic experience of his life.

What remains so remarkable about this X-File story is that Spotnitz and Carter successfully make the audience feel much like stubborn Harold. After seven years and over a hundred episodes, we all invested in Mulder’s quest, and the possibility of a happy reunion, of Samantha’s safe return. That’s what we all hoped for. But this episode precludes such a happy ending, even as it grants Mulder a kind of release.

That sense of release, of catharsis, arrives in one of the most beautiful, lyrical sequences I’ve ever seen on a television program” a kind of perfect expression of magical, spiritual reality. By starlight, Mulder ascends a hill, accompanied by Harold’s son…and sees a field where the “taken” children are at play…still innocent, forever young. There, he is reunited with his fourteen year-old sister. Shot in glowing white light, in slow-motion photography, cut to a haunting but cathartic song from Moby (called “My Weakness,”) the long journey ends, and Mulder finds a degree of peace.

Yet some X-Files fans I know outright rejected this lyrical conclusion, mirroring Harold’s rejection in the storyline itself. It is easier for us, often, to accept fantasy than reality . We don’t have all the answers, and as Scully suggests, “we never truly know why” things happen. But, this tale reminds us, we must attempt to make our peace with the way things are. As as often the case in Chris Carter’s works, he purposefully flouts expectations here in order to foster a deeper understanding of the human race. We had expected a Samantha resolution story to involve alien abduction, not, explicitly, grief, about the process of letting go.

Like Planet of the Ape’s Taylor — Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz tell us — we may not like what we find at the end of the road. The fans are in the same boat as Taylor and Mulder: we don’t want to climb that star-lit plateau and know, finally, that Samantha is gone. But it’s our destiny. Just as it is every human being’s destiny to grieve a loved one, and, in fact, to die.

The popular meme, endlessly repeated in the media about The X-Files, is that it is a brilliant series that stayed on the air a few years too long, and in doing so, somehow damaged its permanent legacy. I would argue, contrarily, that episodes such as “Sein Und Zeit” and “Closure” reveal the opposite is actually true.

It would have been extraordinarily easy of Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz to write a happy ending for Samantha and Fox Mulder. They probably could have done it in their sleep, actually. Mulder gets information from the Lone Gunmen that the Cigarette Smoking Man is holding Samantha for tests somewhere, and Mulder and Scully break her out. Brother and sister are reunited. Cue End Credits.

Instead, these writers pursued a more creative, artistic path and forged a tale about how difficult it is to accept our own mortality, or the mortality of loved ones. This is why human beings have religion…so that we don’t have to openly acknowledge that for all of us, there is an end. Although this episode of The X-Files also promises a kind of moral hierarchy to the universe — one in which innocence is preserved instead of destroyed – it simultaneously acknowledges that death is an irreparable and grievous separation.

Mulder aches to “believe to understand.” And in a beautifully-composed and delivered voice-over, Mulder contemplates the destruction of innocence, and human mortality:

“They said the birds refused to sing and the thermometer fell suddenly… as if God Himself had His breath stolen away. No one there dared speak aloud, as much in shame as in sorrow. They uncovered the bodies one by one. The eyes of the dead were closed as if waiting for permission to open them. Were they still dreaming of ice cream and monkey bars? Of birthday cake and no future but the afternoon? Or had their innocence been taken along with their lives, buried in the cold earth so long ago? These fates seemed too cruel, even for God to allow. Or are the tragic young born again when the world’s not looking?

I want to believe so badly; in a truth beyond our own, hidden and obscured from all but the most sensitive eyes; in the endless procession of souls; in what cannot and will not be destroyed. I want to believe we are unaware of God’s eternal recompense and sadness. That we cannot see His truth; that that which is born still lives and cannot be buried in the cold earth. But only waits to be born again at God’s behest… where in ancient starlight we lay, in repose…”

To me, this soliloquy a perfect summation of human existence, and particularly human doubt. It’s an explicit grappling with the unanswerable “why” of our lives. We want to believe in something greater, something good and kind at the end of the rainbow Why? Because, again like Taylor, we’re all going to be making that trip ourselves, whether we want to or not. “Sein Und Zeit” and “Closure” get at this truth beautifully. The episodes don’t hit you over the head with everything, either. For instance, in a scene featuring ghosts, there’s a young, World War II era couple depicted, and without acknowledging explicitly their identities, we understand that they are Mulder’s (now-reunited) parents…supporting his “quest” and his attempt to learn the truth.

I suppose what “Closure” really comes down to is the idea that we can either accept hard reality, like Mulder, or retreat into “not seeing,” like Harold. Even today, I think that’s particularly relevant message, globally and individually, in our culture.
We sometimes need to understand that — in seeking answers — we may not like what we find. Still, we need the grace to accept the truth for what it is.

Interview with Chris Carter

If you boast any familiarity with my blog, you probably already know that — across the last five years — I have written frequently abut the TV and film productions of Chris Carter and Ten Thirteen Productions.

There are many reasons why I find myself continually drawn back to Carter’s oeuvre. In broad terms, these reasons involve television history, the artistry of the particular programs, philosophy, and of course, personal taste.

Historically speaking, The X-Files and Millennium have grown virtually synonymous with the decade of the 1990s. Carter’s programs captured the Zeitgeist of that epoch in sometimes challenging, sometimes stunning fashion.

By the end of the decade, various Ten Thirteen productions had gazed at the teen culture (“Syzygy,”) pondered the Human Genome Project (“Sense and Anti-Sense,”) skewered nineties tabloid culture (“The Post-Modern Prometheus”), satirized Scientology (“Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense”), peeked behind the closed-door mores of our affluent gated, McMansion communities (“Arcadia,” “Weeds”), considered domestic terrorism (“52266″), dissected the mentality of cults (“The Filed Where I Died”), and much more. This is Who We Were.

In terms of my continued appreciation of these series, I find myself again relying on Roger Ebert’s insightful and useful refrain — that it isn’t what a movie (or TV program) is about that’s important; it’s how that production is about the narrative that truly matters.

And the “how” of Chris Carter’s genre programs — The X-Files, Millennium, Harsh Realm, and The Lone Gunmen — is also the thing that perpetually intrigues and fascinates me. Specifically, I enjoy that these productions invariably deploy symbolism and literary allusion to further their themes. I’ve written about that facet in regards to Millennium, specifically, in my essays: “Enemies Within: Chris Carter’s Millennium and America’s Suburban Apocalypse, and “Snakes in the Grass and Snakes in the Open: Animal Symbolism in Millennium’s Second Season.”

I also admire the unconventional and cinematic visuals forged on these series, which stand apart from the majority of dramatic programs in television history. Television tends be…visual radio.

But not The X-Files, Millennium or Ten Thirteen’s other works. They regularly utilize expressive, unconventional camera-work and always seem to find a way for the image to marry theme. If you have any doubt of this fact, just go back and watch The X-Files episode “Triangle,” a dizzying, audacious balancing of “real space and time” with “fantasy space and time” in the Bermuda Triangle. It’s Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope meets the split-screen climax of De Palma’s Carrie meets The Wizard of Oz. And that’s just one example.

Notably, Carter’s programs were also at the vanguard of the movement in dramatic television towards multi-episode, multi-season story arcs. And gazing across nearly 300 hours of filmed entertainment, I find myself fascinated by the connections between Ten Thirteen’s many works; and the consistency of world view I see across the spectrum of Carter’s universe.

For shorthand, you might call this “the Chris Carter mystique,” or his “brand.” It’s the same thing with Joss Whedon (another artist I deeply admire): the alert viewer will be aware within minutes that he has stepped into Chris Carter’s world.

So, after I received a happy birthday note from Chris Carter last week (!), I decided this was a great opportunity to open a dialogue with him regarding some of these ideas. To my delight, he agreed to a wide-ranging interview, and that’s what you see transcribed below. I re-arranged the interview to group my questions by themes to present, hopefully, a cohesive picture.

The Building Blocks: Symbolism, Story Arcs, and “The Chris Carter Man

JKM: One of the threads I’ve noticed running throughout your work is your use of symbolism.

For example, the Yellow House as paradise and then paradise lost in Millennium. Or the Arthurian Chair in Harsh Realm. I guess my question is simply, why?

CARTER: I don’t set out to throw these symbols in as anything other than what interests me.

It’s done on a case-by-case basis, and then they only become symbols to everyone else. What I can say about everything that I’ve created or worked on is that it’s been about what interests me at the time.

JKM: In terms of Millennium and the yellow house — this perfect place of safety and happiness — where did that idea came from?

CARTER: It came out of the bigger concept of a guy who was trying to paint away the darkness.

I had worked on X-Files for three to four years at that point, and we were dealing with some very dark subject matter. After awhile — after writing about that dark subject matter and realizing how powerful it can really be — you try to come up with remedies, yourself, for the darkness. It’s not always fun to write about the darkness.

JKM: So the yellow house was a place of safety for you, as well as for Frank?

CARTER: It was. And it’s funny, when I look back at Millennium now, I think, in a way, the concept was actually too complex. Especially when I look at shows that have become hits, like CSI, or other procedurals. They don’t deal with ideas like the yellow house. They don’t deal with things like family, necessarily.

JKM: But that’s what made Millennium so great. It had all those elements. I know I wrote once that Millennium must be the most-often imitated show in TV history. But other series have sort of stripped it down to the component parts: the paranormal angle (Medium, Ghost Whisperer); the forensic (CSI) angle, the serial killer (Criminal Minds) angle. Everybody’s taken a page from it, but nobody’s been able to sort of re-assemble the totality of it.

CARTER: It was also a show set on a specific schedule, which was the countdown to the Millennium, and of course nobody can duplicate that in this decade. It had…complexity.

And it’s funny, when it went off the air it did so with ratings that are better than many of the shows that are on the air right now. In a weird way, if you look at Millennium and Harsh Realm, you can say that Harsh Realm kind of booted Millennium off the air, which now — looking back — is very unfortunate.

JKM: It would have been good to have them simultaneously.

CARTER: That would have been my preference as well.

JKM: Another aspect of your work that I see repeated throughout is the depiction of men. My wife is a therapist,and as much as she enjoys the way Joss Whedon writes women, she likes the way you write men. She’s suggested a clinical classification: The Chris Carter male.

In short, the leading men in your programs are chivalrous and heroic, but essentially unavailable emotionally to the women in their lives. Frank Black blocks himself off from Katherine in the act of protecting her. To save his Sophie, Hobbes elects to stay permanently separated from her in Harsh Realm, and so on. Is this representative of your view of men, or just something that you find dramatically interesting?

CARTER: I’d have to say it’s dramatically-interesting to me. It’s what’s withheld that counts, or that is important.

If the character is remote or unable to speak about these things — because it’s series television we’re talking about here — it becomes something that needs to be discovered. So if you discover these things too quickly; if a person is too emotionally available, it actually takes away from the interest in the character. It makes that character less dramatically interesting.

JKM: And less tragic?

CARTER: The characters are tragic. That’s what makes them interesting. Their flaws and their weaknesses. And also their strengths. By not telling his wife about the darkness, Frank is painting it away. By not telling her about the polaroids, he’s painting it away. It’s a strength, but one which could be viewed as a weakness in terms of how men relate to women.

JKM: Not to push a point, but it does seem that your men seem to suffer from this quality, but the women don’t have that level of remoteness.

CARTER: I think that’s the women’s strength. They stay there. They don’t shy away from the entanglement. From the darkness. That says a lot about the women. Look at Scully. She’s a very, very independent person. Her strength is measured against Mulder’s; it’s not measured by Mulder.

JKM: There’s a period of rebellion against Mulder, by Scully. Like she’s rejecting in a sense, his control, his remoteness.

CARTER: In season five you can say that for sure. They really have a falling out. They’re of two different minds. Scully actually pursues Mulder’s path, and Mulder, in a weird way, pursues Scully’s. That was all a plan.

JKM: You don’t see relationships go up and down and back and forth like that on many of the dramatic series today. Take CSI For example.

CARTER: Well, they are murder mysteries and they work very well as that. I think that programs that are character pieces work on an additional level.

JKM: Which brings us to another topic. In terms of genre history – Star Trek, Kolchak, programs like that — they were not able feature a story arc.

CARTER: That arc — which arcs over nine years — has been the subject of a lot of debate.

JKM: Does that mean you long for the days when TV stories were simpler? When you could just say, “next week, we start over.”

CARTER: You look at Law & Order. It’s an amazing television series. It really has what you’re talking about. It starts anew each week, and it doesn’t feature characters’ personal lives over and over again. That is not part of the series. It’s a luxury. I never figured out how to create something that would interest me that would be as simple as that.

JKM: And that may be the very thing that precludes a series like Millennium from running for nine years. Some people can’t take that journey, but the people who do take the journey usually end up feeling very rewarded.

CARTER: We did an X-Files charity day recently, and we had a lot of people there from all over the world. One of the things that someone said to me — and pointed out as a regular watcher of the show — she said: “people say the mytharc of the show is complicated. It’s not complicated. You just have to pay attention to it.”

I think one of the things that happened, certainly — and this is part of it being a nine year show – is people say that it got too complicated. I think that what it did — rather than becoming overly complicated — it became stretched-out. It took on a complexity given there were 202 episodes.

JKM: In some sense, broadcast television in the 1990s — before DVD box sets — worked against you there, I think. It’s very difficult when you have to stop your story momentum for Thanksgiving, or play-off games, week-in and week-out. This was the case with Twin Peaks as well. But when you watch a season on DVD — in a week or two weeks — it’s easier to see how it all makes sense. I don’t know what this fact says about our attention span, but it seems that series like Millennium and X-Files are much preferable to watch on DVD, back-to-back, rather than with weeks of interruption in-between.

CARTER: Of course, when you’re producing the series, it is a week-by-week experience. So you’re not thinking about the DVDs. I never thought about the DVDs. You really are thinking about what it is– week-to-week — that interests you. You do it simply on that basis. So when you hear that people watch it from beginning to end, it’s very satisfying that what you were pondering, and working out carefully, elaborately, and painstakingly plays out on a grander scale.

JKM: It does. Millennium, in my opinion, is one of the most pure works of art I’ve ever seen on television. It holds so many resonances of things half-spoken and suggested. It’s a beautiful puzzle.

CARTER: I appreciate you saying that. That was what it set out to be, and I know that’s what the writers set out for it to be. In the second season — which I had so little involvement in because I was working on The X-Files and The X-Files movie — Glen Morgan and James Wong came in and put their stamp on it. They added layers to it. It was truly a collaboration of points-of-view, and of I guess you would call it an artistic approach to what was I think, an interesting subject matter.

JKM: Taken together, all the seasons lead you to this inevitable conclusion about what is going to occur at the Millennium. You almost have three meditations from three perspectives– in three seasons — on the same subject, about the same man, the same organization, and the same situation.

CARTER: If there is a mystique, it’s truly collaborative. On The X-Files it was also truly collaborative. There were so many good people that came to work on the show: who wrote the show, who directed the show, and who became involved in the show. It’s one of those things where you have to spread out the accolades for what the series became; and what they did

JKM: I think Millennium is the first time I heard on network television the descriptor “the culture of fear” as applied to the United States. In the last decade, we’ve certainly become well-acquainted with the culture of fear in this country. But not many of us were thinking about that in the 1990s. But you were. And your shows were. All of your programs feature this brand of “anticipatory anxiety.” You know, there’s going to be a doomsday. An alien invasion in 2012. Millennium went through many end of the world scenarios. Even Harsh Realm. What were you seeing that other people weren’t seeing? How did you tap into this?

CARTER: I don’t know. That is a sensibility of mine. I just sensed that there was something bad coming. Probably, the combination of Y2K and the Millennium; the Millennial anxiety everyone was feeling. The word “Millennium” wasn’t actually a popular coinage. People didn’t know what Millennium meant, by and large, so while there was nervousness, it was truly an instinctual gut nervousness. There wasn’t a whole lot of intellectual effort being put into the decade, into the turn of the century.

JKM: But you started doing this in 1993, even before people started talking about Y2K or the Millennium. The Cold War was over. We had peace and prosperity. We had no enemy. We had all this technology, and the economy was booming. But you still found this underlying uneasiness. If you look at it today, your programs are even more timely. People wondering about vaccinations, the government, etc…

CARTER: Oh, there’s much more paranoia today.

JKM: In a decade in which a lot of people seem to think nothing happened, your shows were saying a lot’s happening. You even issued a challenge in the opening credits of Millennium when you flashed up the words, “who cares?”

CARTER: Right. “Who cares” came up, and then the question mark came up a moment later. It really was a two-edged sword. Frank Black represented the people who had the weight of that worry on their shoulders. The few people who actually were looking forward; or feeling the anxiety. Who weren’t lost in, as you say, the good times.

JKM: If you look across Millennium, X-Files, Lone Gunmen, and Harsh Realm, you also see that in addition to the anticipatory anxiety, you return again and again to the idea of the unelected privileged — a small group, a cabal — whether it be the Syndicate, the Millennium Group of the military industrial complex in Harsh Realm dominating the many. Is that something really interests you?

CARTER: Yes, it interests me, and it’s continuing to interest me. Sometimes, I don’t even stop to consider these things, but I’ll find something of interest. A conversation with someone, for instance. I’m looking at the Zeitgeist of today and trying to make sense of it in what I’m doing. Sometimes these things are commercial, and sometimes they aren’t.

JKM: That’s the tragedy of Harsh Realm. The show got better and better and better, but only three episodes actually aired. At the end, you’re left mourning what could have been.

CARTER: I feel the same way. I look at a show like Dollhouse, and if we would have been given the opportunity that Dollhouse had…we might have lasted. The same thing happened to Joss Whedon with Firefly. He had a great idea and didn’t get a chance to develop it.

JKM: In creating your shows, you had to research the paranormal, conspiracy theories, Scripture, forensic science. Are these all interests of yours?

CARTER: I always had this question that I would ask myself and I would ask the writers as we went forward. Why this story? And why this story now? Those questions set the bar high, and they were relevant philosophically and dramatically to their times. It’s important, as a television writer, to ask yourself that question. It deepens the work. That’s not to say it’s always a good thing. Sometimes it makes it less accessible or more intellectual than it needs to be.

JKM: Which brings up the end of the X-Files series. I’m sure you’re aware of the conventional wisdom: that the series sort of petered-out in the last two years and was not so good. But I watched Season 8 recently and it is incredibly creative; it can stand up beside any other season of the X-Files.

CARTER: Thank you.

JKM: Was it just that we had gotten so attached to Mulder that we couldn’t make the leap to a new leading man? Or did the culture move beyond The X-Files at that time?

CARTER: It was easier to say, it’s not the X-Files anymore, because it had changed. The characters changed. Mulder became the absent center, which was an interesting approach, I think, and made for an interesting season. It changed, though, and so — like it or not — people who would tune in to see Mulder and Scully wouldn’t see them anymore. But creatively, the show sort of took on a new life. The stories were interesting, and the new characters made the stories interesting.

JKM: Robert Patrick was terrific. And in Doggett you suddenly had a non-veteran set of eyes on these X-Files cases. You saw someone with vulnerability in “Via Negativa,” for instance. We always knew after seven years that Mulder and Scully would be there for each other, but we didn’t know yet about Doggett. He was alone, in a way, and suddenly you had this new uncertainty, which the show got a lot of mileage out of, in my opinion.

CARTER: It was kind of meta-X-Files because it was commenting on itself at the same time, and the show turned inward, in a way. The characters deepened. The concept deepened. And I think for some people that was interesting and for some people it became inaccessible.


Expressing Terror and Mystery: The Visuals of The X-Files and Millennium

JKM: One thing that’s important to me as a viewer and a critic is the visual component of television. Not all TV looks like the X-Files or Millennium. They’re very cinematic. Why is that important to you?

CARTER: First of all, in television people haven’t quite been given the opportunity to produce things that were so visual. It was sort of by demand on our part. We had to tell these really scary thriller stories, and they couldn’t be done from one angle, two-shots. They needed to be done in a multi-faceted, delivery-of-information way. So we got to emulate a lot of what I loved about film, and we got to do it on a television schedule.

It didn’t happen right away, but not long after we started, we were given what I call respectable budgets. We needed to tell these stories in interesting visual ways; we took an artistic approach. We were one of the first shows to give credit to the director of photography and the production designer, and other people up front in a television show. So we had the budget and the desire to push the limits. I always say “we didn’t understand what we didn’t understand” about producing a TV show like this. We tried everything.

I point to something like the conning tower coming out of the ice in season two (“Colony”/”Endgame.”) We refrigerated a sound stage, brought in tons of snow and ice and built this conning tower. I didn’t know you couldn’t do that. So we just started doing things.

JKM: It seemed as if we were watching a movie every week. So much so, that I must hold you responsible for the fact that horror movies in the 1990s didn’t do particularly well. Every Friday night, for many years, you could get a better experience at home watching The X-Files or Millennium instead of going to the theater and being disappointed.

CARTER: I always said that we weren’t doing horror and couldn’t do horror based on the standards-and-practices that were applied to the shows. We did an episode like “Home,” and the day after we did it I was given a very stern lecture about never, ever pushing those limits again.

And you see where horror went after The X-Files. The Saw series for instance. It had to push limits that we couldn’t push on television.

JKM: Given those limitations, would it be possible to do another series like The X-Files today?

CARTER: I don’t think so. I mean, we had 22 days to shoot Kill Switch — that’s including second unit work too — but 22 days. That’s just unheard of. That’s why I don’t think there will ever be another series like The X-Files. People ask me that, and I just don’t think there can be in today’s climate.

JKM
: In general terms, what are some of your film inspirations?

CARTER: For The X-Files, I point to Silence of the Lambs (1991). Another movie that I love — which is horror in a certain kind of way — is the David Lean version of Great Expectations (1946).

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)

JKM: I want to talk to you about I Want to Believe. Although critics including Roger Ebert, The Flick Filosopher, Whitney Pastorek, Stephanie Zacharek, and myself all appreciated the film, by and large it was met with savage, dismissive reviews. I mean, people — including critics — just categorically refused to engage with it.

Do you think this was because it was not at all the typical summer blockbuster — it featured few big special effects and almost no gunfire — or because the subject matter was so dark that people just weren’t willing to engage with it?

CARTER: I think it was about as you say, the summer blockbuster mentality, and what we delivered and what was expected. What we attempted to do; and what the audience expected.

All these things played into how I Want to Believe was received. It’s funny, but on the series, we prided ourselves each week with making a little movie. Then, when it came time to do the second X-Files movie, we were given the money and the opportunity to make, literally, a little movie. That’s what we did. We realized we had no money for big special effects. We had to come up with a story that didn’t rely on those special effects, and hence wasn’t a summer blockbuster kind of movie.

So we came up with a movie that was about faith and forgiveness and redemption. And then you put it up against The Dark Knight in late July, in the heat of the summer, and what happened to us was that we met with some valid criticism, and also what I call lazy criticism.

But we also met with box office results that showed there was a hardcore X-Files audience out there, six years after the series had been off the air. The people who had hoped for another X-Files movie — or were willing to see another X-Files movie — were probably hoping to see something bigger than the first X-Files movie.

JKM: In a way what you gave us was bigger emotionally than what you gave us in the first X-Files movie.

CARTER: That’s a feature of not having a money to do anything else that was bigger than the first X-Files movie.

JKM: Father Joe is a really fascinating character in the film. And how you use him in I Want to Believe really challenges the audience. You tell us this is someone society has judged as irreedemable, and yet on the other hand, as the film points out, we have this little work called the Bible that preaches forgiveness and redemption. And our culture says it believes in those things. And so Father Joe is looking to be redeemed, and is doing positive things, so why can’t people take that extra step and at least try to forgive him?

CARTER: It’s an idea I’ve been holding onto for a long time; the idea that Father Joe lived in this complex with these other men, where they sort of policed each other. I had read about that a long time ago, and I always thought that was so intriguing and relevant to the idea of redemption, the idea of forgiveness, of living life after the point of judgment.

Another thing that wasn’t talked about much in the criticism of the film was the Frankenstein idea. I had run across something on the Internet: a Russian doctor creating two-headed dogs. I mean he was really doing this…creating two-headed monsters. It’s a Frankenstein story, yet nobody really reviewed it as a kind of modern Frankenstein story.

JKM: Some critics also suggested the film was homophobic or anti-gay.

CARTER: It was the opposite.

JKM: That’s how I read it. It was about going to extreme possibilities to save the life of someone you care about. Whether it was the sick boy, Christian, Mulder’s obsession with the case, or the villain’s obsession…he was going to do anything to save his lover’s life….

CARTER: Don’t give up. He wasn’t giving up. I always said that the film was really a multi-layered love story. There was the love between Mulder and Scully. Then there was the Russian character who had been collecting these body parts and his love for his partner. So the love stories reflected each other. But again, I just want to say that some criticism of the film was valid.

More Millennium? More X-Files? The Truth is Out There…

JKM: Bottom line, did I Want to Believe make enough money to ensure production of a third X-Files movie?

CARTER: I wouldn’t use the word ensure. But because of the business the movie did, especially the international business, it is a possibility.

JKM: I know that you’re paying attention to this. There’s been this fantastic movement, and a group, called Bring Back Frank Black, dedicated to the resurrection of Millennium. The show seems more popular now than ever. Is a Millennium feature film something you are interested in pursuing?

CARTER: I would like to do it. But it is going to take interest on the studio side for it to happen. Everyone involved with Millennium has left the studio. The people there now know it ran for three years and that it starred Lance Henriksen, and that’s all. You have to find reasons to interest them.

JKM: Given that the Millennium is passed — and without giving away specifics — what kind of storyline would interest you for a Millennium motion picture?

CARTER: Considering we’re engaged in a War on Terror that is ongoing, I’d like to see Frank and the Millennium Group distill something from that war that is…interesting.

JKM: If you could take one episode from any one of your shows and put it away in a time capsule for 100 years…and say this is who we wre in the 1990s, this is who Chris Carter was, what episode would it be?

CARTER: Well, I think maybe “Post-Modern Prometheus.” In a weird way, it captures so much. And I really like that moment at the end with Mulder and Scully dancing together. It’s just a sweet moment.

JKM: I wouldn’t presume to tell you your answer is wrong, but I also really liked The Millennium pilot.

CARTER: David Nutter did a great job shooting that. I love the final moment with the polaroids, when Frank realizes this isn’t over. That it’s just beginning. …

JKM: Thank you so much for sharing your time with me today.

CARTER
: Thank you.

CULT TV FLASHBACK #86: The X-Files: "Via Negativa" (2000)

In philosophy, the “via negativa” is an approach to understanding God. Somewhat counter intuitively, it’s a strategy that seeks to define God by enumerating those things God is not. God is not mortal. God is not Evil. And so forth.

Sometimes, this unusual approach to comprehending the Divine is also called Negative Theory or The Negative Way.
And in the chilling X-Files episode “Via Negativa,” this approach lives up to that nomenclature. The “Via Negativa” of the title is a lonely, unlit walk to the dark side: a spiritual dead end. More specifically, one possible pathway to “knowing” God turns out only to be a pathway to absolute darkness. The dimension of God’s “absence” is not…a good place to be.

Written by Frank Spotnitz and directed by Tom Wharmby, “Via Negativa” aired during the eighth season of The X-Files, on December 17, 2000. As you may recall, this was the span that introduced the new lead character on the series, Agent John Doggett, played by Saturn Award winning actor Robert Patrick. All you need to understand about Doggett is encapsulated in his very name: he’s literally “dogged:” adamant, firm, indefatigable, persevering, resolute, even pig-headed.
Or put another way, Doggett is your traditional good cop who doesn’t let go of a case until it makes sense to him. In “Via Negativa,” the character’s faith in the rational, in cause-and-effect, in logic, is dramatically put to the test.

“Via Negativa” finds stalwart Doggett investigating the brutal murders of two FBI agents who were staking out an apocalyptic cult. In contravention of long-standing series format, Doggett is investigating this particular X-File alone because a pregnant Scully is away at the hospital. Still new to the X-Files unit, Doggett is uncertain and somewhat rudderless. He’s no Mulder, and has no interest in being Mulder. Leaps of faith don’t come easily, or naturally, to him. Without Scully to ease him in, the “dogged,” meat-and-potatoes Doggett is, in a very real sense, vulnerable, to what he learns during this investigation.

While on the case, Doggett discovers that all the members of the apocalyptic cult also died horribly, and that their still-at-large leader, Anthony Tibbett, is an ex-convict who developed his own peculiar brand of evangelical Christian/Hindu philosophy. “Heaven’s Gate” — the UFO cult led by Marshall Applewhite — is mentioned briefly in the teleplay here, and Doggett wonders if Tibbett’s people were willingly part of a death pact similar to the one that claimed the 39 members of that cult in 1997.

The Heaven’s Gate folks reportedly believed they were headed to the “next level of existence,” one without the need for a physical body. By comparison, Tibbett suggests that “the body is but clay…to hold the twin aspects of the human spirit: the light and the darkness.” Furthermore, he believes that if his dedicated followers gaze into the path of darkness (“the via negativa” of the title), they will see God there.

To help them reach this dimension of darkness, Tibbett administered experimental hallucinogens that would awaken their “Third Eye.” It is this “Third Eye” — the Hindu gyananakashi, or “Eye of Knowledge, positioned between hemispheres of the brain — that could see into the realm of darkness. We have seen the Third Eye in Scripture (the Book of Revelation) and in modern horror films (From Beyond [1986]), and in The X-Files it is the telltale indicator of one’s arrival on the Via Negativa, a dark, lower plane, rather than an enlightened, higher one.
When a now-comatose Tibbett evolved his own “third eye,” the cult leader found he could actually enter into the subconscious minds of all those he encountered. Thus — like nightmare avenger Freddy Krueger himself — Tibbett could enter the dreams of his enemies. And as we all know from A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), if you die in your dreams…you die in real life.

Doggett delves deeper and deeper into Tibbett’s strange, dark beliefs until the agent himself takes an unwitting walk on the via negativa during a horrifying dream sequence. The scene is cast in a suffusing blue light, with intermittent fade-outs and pulsating strobes providing a sense of fractured time and consciousness. This tense, mostly silent scene sees a sweaty, desperate Doggett (depicted in extreme close-up) contemplating murder…and his own internal darkness. Doggett finds himself, he believes, inside Scully’s apartment…holding a ceremonial hatchet…Tibbett’s weapon of choice. Doggett is faced with the choice of becoming Tibbett’s new murderous vessel…or killing himself and ending the nightmare permamently.

Another scene, in which a vulnerable, confused Doggett confesses to a baffled Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) that he is uncertain about his own state of consciousness (dreaming or awake…) also serves as Doggett’s real indoctrination into The X-Files…the horrifying case from “outside” that changes him “inside.” At the same time, this confession allows us to identify with Doggett for one of the first times on the series. He has gone from being “skeptic” to being “open” (if not a believer.) He understands — or at lesat senses — the danger…to his soul.

“Via Negativa’s” climactic moments — with Doggett wrestling with that decision of homicide/suicide — today endure as among the series’ grimmest. Often in The X-Files, the horror is tolerable because we “know” the characters and their central relationship so well; because we know Mulder will rescue Scully or vice-versa. But in “Via Negativa” there’s a deep underlying fear at work. Doggett has no support system. He has no one to hold onto; no one to race to his side when he is faced with death. His walk on “the dark path” is really and truly a walk alone (or so we believe, until the denouement) and there’s something incredibly unsettling about the brand of evil he faces.

As I wrote above, the Via Negativa attempts to describe God by describing what God is not. In essence then, it charts the absence of God. I’m a committed atheist, of course, and yet the final moments of “Via Negativa” make even the non-believer feel that weight of…absence. The absence of Good. The Absence of Light. The absence of conscious control. It’s about existential…aloneness, and it’s pretty terrifying.

I’ve always admired The X-Files. Week in and week out for nine years, the series devised new, cunning ways to terrify the audience, and “Via Negativa” remains one of the most original and most horrifying installments. Here, the horror rests not outside us in some third party. Not in a monster that can come and kill you. But in your own awakened sight. The skillfully-crafted, brilliantly-directed episode also puts truth to the lie that The X-Files somehow grew stale or unsatisfactory during the final seasons.

With episodes such as “Badlaa,” (about a legless Indian peddler who would…climb inside people), “Roadrunners” (a body invasion story set in a weird, isolated town…) and the mystical, existential “Via Negativa” dominating the Season Eight catalogue, The X-Files’ heritage of horror was honored. The writer here (Spotnitz) not only had to deal with the absence of God, he had to deal with the absence of Mulder (and Scully, actually…)!

“Via Negativa” is so stirring, so disturbing, that it brings us to a reckoning about Patrick’s Doggett. Despite our allegiance to Mulder…we like the guy. And thanks to “Via Negativa,” we’re scared as Hell for him.

CULT TV FLASHBACK #83: Harsh Realm (1999-2000)

“A world exists…exactly like ours. Your family and friends. And though you may not know it, I was sent to save you.”

-Opening narration to Chris Carter’s Harsh Realm (1999), voiced by Lt. Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow)

In 1999, Chris Carter and 1013 Productions, producers of The X-Files (1993-2002) and Millennium (1996-1999), created a third genre series for Fox television. It was called Harsh Realm.

The series — about a virtual reality version of America existing after a terrorist attack on New York City — was advertised with the tag-line “It’s Just a Game” and broadcast just three episodes before an abrupt cancellation. In all, nine hour-long installments were made.

The abrupt (and inconclusive…) end to Harsh Realm was intensely disappointing, especially to the dedicated fans who actually followed the series on Friday nights at 9:00 pm (the same slot that Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse now struggles in…). Viewing numbers were low in terms of network TV expectations, and the series had been under promoted (though TV Guide named it one of the best new shows of the year).

Making matters worse, Harsh Realm faced more than its share of controversy during its short life. For instance, the series was widely derided by critics as an uninspired copy of 1999′s The Matrix, even though Harsh Realm was in production concurrently with that blockbuster. More to the point, Harsh Realm was shot in Vancouver on the same budget as your average network medical drama and thus simply could not compete visually with the trail-blazing Keanu Reeves epic.

Perhaps more significantly, the creators of Harris Publishing’s Harsh Realm comic book sued Chris Carter when the TV adaptation failed to acknowledge them or their artistic contributions to the series. [NOTE: Actually, the comic was acknowledged in the end credits in the first episode.] The comic-book creators were victorious in their suit, and beginning with the second episode, Harsh Realm episodes featured during the opening credits a title card which specifically noted that the series was “inspired” by the comic-book work of James D. Hudnall and Andrew Paquette. Finally, some years after the TV series’ cancellation, Harsh Realm star Scott Bairstow apparently had some…uh…legal difficulties, and did some jail time.

In short, any good historian could probably enumerate abundant reasons why Harsh Realm never achieved the large-scale, avid following of Chris Carter’s other video endeavors, but virtually all of them have nothing whatsoever to do with the program’s actual quality.

Because, in point of fact, Harsh Realm is constructed upon the same sturdy pillars of good story-telling, symbolic representation, strong characters and dynamic world view that so ably supported The X-Files or Millennium. Indeed, James D. Hudnall and Andrew Paquette should have been credited for their original work from the beginning and to do otherwise was wrong-headed folly.

Yet by the same token, the TV series Harsh Realm takes relatively little of substance from the comic book beyond the “grunge speak” title. To wit, the TV series features brand-new, original characters and boasts an entirely different narrative thrust (it’s a military/political struggle rather than the comic’s noir-ish detective story…) Of course, the TV series also appropriates the comic’s central concept of a virtual reality world, but the TV “harsh realm” and the comic-book “harsh realm” are completely different in every significant way: both visual and thematic. The comic book virtual world is based on overt fantasy concepts (a world of goblins, elves etc…) whereas the TV show more closely adheres to Chris Carter’s personal view of the 1990s world: one of bureaucracy, conspiracy, geo-political turmoil, and domination of the many by the few.

After a brief preamble involving Lt. Thomas Hobbes (Bairstow) on a peace-keeping mission gone wrong in Sarajevo in 1994, the action in Harsh Realm shifts rapidly to Fort Dix, New Jersey in the year 1999. There, a disenchanted Hobbes plans to leave the Army permanently in just a few short months. He wants to relocate to California with his beautiful fiancee, Sophie (Samantha Mathis). But even as Hobbes plans to start a new life, he is ordered to report to a secretive, white-haired colonel (Lance Henriksen) for a new, classified assignment. Hobbes is escorted to a secret bunker and — after a “final supper” — ordered to “play a game,” a virtual reality game called…Harsh Realm.

This “Harsh Realm” game – a simulated war scenario — was created by the Pentagon in 1995. Utilizing information from satellite cartography and the latest U.S. Census, the war gamers have created a duplicate of America, down to every last location, person and even pet. But there’s an important difference between the worlds. In this virtual version of America, a suitcase nuke was detonated in New York City at noon on October 31, 1995 (“Camera Obscura”). Four million Americans died in 2.5 seconds. “Ground Zero” was located… in Manhattan. The game developers hoped to test American military (and civilian peace-keeping) capabilities after such a catastrophic terrorist attack, but they never could have anticipated what occur ed next.

The hero the Army first sent into the game world — the most decorated veteran in United States Army history, Omar Santiago (Terry O’Quinn) –took over Harsh Realm. Out of the ashes of the apocalypse, this soldier carved out a brutal, military dictatorship for himself. The so-called “United States of Santiago” now encompasses five states…and a great percentage of the Eastern seaboard. Santiago believes “one man can have it all here…” and ruthlessly protects his position of authority.

Hobbes’s mission is to “take out” Santiago by any means necessary. To “remove” Santiago’s virtual avatar from the Harsh Realm simulation and restore freedom to the virtual country.

Unfortunately, Hobbes’ superiors haven’t told him the whole story. He can’t return to “the real world” (and consciousness) until Santiago is dead, but much more troubling…if he dies in the game (or is “digitized”), Hobbes also dies in reality. And, Hobbes’ isn’t even the first man to make this attempt to beat Santiago. Literally hundreds of soldiers have gone to Harsh Realm before him…and none have been successful. None have returned. At the conclusion of Harsh Realm’s pilot, we see a Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque shot of all the games players: a hospital room that seems to stretch to infinity; with slumbering men and women on hospital beds, tended to by inscrutable technicians; their minds wired to a different reality.

Back in the real world, Sophie is informed by the Army that Hobbes’ died on a secret mission, but she is soon approached by a beautiful — and perhaps treacherous — informant, Inga Fossa (Sarah-Jane Redmond), and told about a conspiracy of silence. That if she wishes to be reunited with the love of her life, Sophie must expose the lies of the U.S. Government. This mission becomes even more important to Sophie when she learns that she is pregnant with Tom’s child. Fossa promises to get a message to Tom in Harsh Realm…

Once trapped inside the wild terrains of Harsh Realm, Hobbes joins up with other fugitives who are also on the run from Santiago. Mike Pinocchio (D.B. Sweeney) is a rogue soldier who volunteered for duty in the virtual world and was once Santiago’s top lieutenant. Now, he’s a rogue and scoundrel, a gun for hire. Hobbes’ other associate is the mysterious Florence (Rachel Hayward), a mute warrior with the unusual power to instantaneously heal the wounds of others.

Over the course of nine episodes of Harsh Realm, Hobbes’ attempts to complete his mission and finally get home. In “Leviathan,” he travels to the poverty-stricken Pittsburgh Encampment, where he and Pinocchio are captured by soldiers of fortune and nearly sold to Santiago. This episode meditates on the idea of the human soul, and asks if a Virtual Character can possess one.

In “Inga Fossa,” Hobbes steals into Santiago City and locates Santiago’s secret portal, from which he can travel from Harsh Realm into the real world and back. Hobbes nearly returns home, until he is told by Fossa of Santiago’s “Final Solution.” Santiago is planning “The Ultimate Terrorism,” the destruction of the real world so that only Harsh Realm, and Santiago’s domain will continue to exist. Hobbes decides it is better to stay in Harsh Realm and defeat Santiago there…

In “Reunion,” Hobbes ends up a slave in a work camp with Pinocchio, and encounters a virtual representation of his dying mother. In the real world, Sophie visits Hobbes real mother, who is also dying of cancer. A double death (in Harsh Realm and in reality) spurs a strange miraculous (if brief…) connection.

In “3 Percenters,” the fugitives arrive in the Adirondacks and meet a strange, ostensibly “peaceful” cult hiding a dark secret. “Manus Domini” finds Hobbes, Pinocchio and Florence protecting a tribe of pacifics “Healers” — women like Florence — from Santiago. In “Cincinnati” (one of the best installments), Santiago heads to Ohio to personally assassinate the leader of the Resistance, A Native American whose forces have overrun the city.

Finally, the last episode of Harsh Realm, “Camera Obscura” takes Pinocchio and Hobbes to Ground Zero in Manhattan, where a disfigured, manipulative priest keeps two families in a perpetual state of conflict for strange, personal reasons.

Over the nine episodes of this short-lived series, the virtual reality world of Harsh Realm is developed and expanded upon in fascinating, unexpected ways. “Leviathan” reveals that in Harsh Realm there is no religion…no God, no belief in an afterlife. It’s a world “without Christian values,” according to one character, and that line of thought becomes an existential undercurrent of future segments. In “Manus Domini,” for instance, Hobbes ponders the Healers and their origin. Why do they exist? Why did programmers create them? Or, were they created by a “higher power” after all? One beyond the ostensibly “faithless” world of the game.

In terms of technology, Harsh Realm introduces a number of “game”-oriented concepts. It turns out that “unprogrammed game space” exists, and can form short-cuts from one part of the realm to the other. “Reunion” reveals the existence of “skull bugs,” mechanical control devices implanted in VC (and human) brains that…can burrow through brain matter…bloodily. “3 Percenters” presents the idea of a programming error: of VC characters who can absorb and replicate the personalities of others…much to the detriment of the originals. It’s sort of Harsh Realm meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And “Cincinnati” introduces the useful “digi-wand,” a handheld device by which a digital character can re-shape and re-fashion his features…the equivalent of virtual plastic surgery. Santiago uses it for diabolical, wicked and brilliant strategic ends. Then there’s the Camera Obscura of the final episode, a strange oracle or “seeing” device that appeared at Ground Zero after the nuclear explosion and is believed to foretell (or perhaps manipulate…) the future.

In terms of unique characters, Hobbes, Pinocchio and Florence meet not only the mute, female Healers and the “VC” in Harsh Realm, but steely-eyed Trackers (“Reunion”), deformed Mind Readers (“Manus Domini”) and bounty hunters armed with digitizing devices (“Leviathan”). The series encompasses pastoral settings (“Manus Domini”), urban locations (“Camera Obscura”) and, like all Chris Carter productions, is gorgeously presented. The camera work, in particular, is highly cinematic, despite the relative lack of visual effects.

The big drawback in terms of Harsh Realm, ironically, is the sense of “sameness” that underlines the pilot, “Leviathan” and “Inga Fossa.” In all these episodes, either Hobbes, Pinocchio or Florence are captured and rescued, while in the real world, Sophie puzzles out the mystery of Hobbes’ “death.” Excepting the pilot, the next two episodes are probably the weakest in the series…and these were the only episodes that aired on network television. The shows are good, just a little plodding; a little dull. But beginning with “Reunion,” the quality of Harsh Realm takes a noticeable and dramatic uptick as the stories become more creative, more out there, more involving. The run from “Reunion” through “Camera Obscura” is quite extraordinary, with distinctive, memorable, engaging storylines.

Like his other series, Chris Carter’s Harsh Realm is a deeply-layered work, one rife with symbolism, social commentary and perhaps most importantly, clever literary allusion. The series, for example, is very clearly a deliberate variation on the Greek epic poem, The Odyssey, by Homer. In that tale, Odysseus — a soldier — attempted to return home from Troy but the journey took him a decade. Ten long and miserable years away from his wife, Penelope. The Odyssey, much like a TV show itself, was highly episodic, with Odysseus encountering a variety of nemeses, including sirens, Lotus-Eaters and the Cyclops Polyphemus. Harsh Realm also concerns a heroic soldier’s “long journey home,” his separation from his wife/fiancee, and as mentioned above, Hobbes becomes involved with a number of nemeses who are both more and less than human. The tenth, unproduced episode of Harsh Realm was even called “Circe,” after a character (a witch…) featured in The Odyssey.

In The Odyssey, Penelope had to deal with suitors, who hoped to persuade her that Odysseus was dead. Even this plot point is echoed explicitly in Harsh Realm, as the Army attempts to convince Sophie of the same thing about Tom, though in this case to protect a conspiracy not to inherit wealth.

Harsh Realm also appropriates some core concepts from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1902), which involved a man on assignment to capture a fellow countryman, Kurtz. Kurtz had developed a reputation as a “universal genius” amongst the indigenous people in “The Dark Heart of Africa.” Heart of Darkness was refashioned as a war drama in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and given the military framework of Harsh Realm, perhaps it is more appropriate to reference that production here. Because Santiago — like Brando’s Kurtz — has gone “native,” in essence setting up the “local” world of Harsh Realm as his personal kingdom. This idea is true to Conrad’s story, which warned against the dangers of imperialism. That’s the core idea of Harsh Realm: an interloper (and his military minions…) invade the virtual reality world of Harsh Realm and develop it exclusively for their use. The “VC” are just a resource to be used…not “real” people.

The hero of Harsh Realm, Thomas Hobbes, is not just Odysseus, either. He is named after the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the author who wrote Leviathan in 1651. Leviathan — which also happens to be the title of Harsh Realm’s second episode — concerned autocracy…and its benefits. The philosopher Hobbes believed that government should control religion, the military, the civil apparatus and even the judiciary. He felt that man’s natural state was lawlessness, and it was this “natural state” which caused man such hardship, tragedy and strife. Harsh Realm’s Hobbes appears to be the antithesis of this autocratic philosophy, at least as far as the nine extant episodes go. He is a man who believes in freedom and liberty, and seeks to free Harsh Realm from Santiago’s iron, tyrannical grip. One can never know for sure, but there is an undercurrent in the series that suggests Hobbes may not always feel this way. As he goes along, from episode to episode, he witnesses the lawlessness and inhumanity of Santiago’s world. Had the series lasted several years, and Hobbes succeeded in destroying Santiago, one wonders if he would have imposed a Hobbes-ian peace upon the scattered societies of Harsh Realm, essentially becoming the new figurehead. The last scene of the show might have seen Hobbes displacing one Kurtz to become Kurtz himself.

We never saw that happen, but even Mark Snow’s score — which sampled bits of Mussolini speeches — hinted at some of the autocratic themes and narratives Carter’s show deliberated on. How much government? What kind of government? What’s the right balance? Today, these ideas are more relevant even than they were in 1999.

As for the Han Solo of Harsh Realm, Mike Pinocchio, his name obviously comes from Curt Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883), the story of a puppet who dreamed of becoming a real boy. In the world of Harsh Realm, Pinocchio is a “real” soldier who — for his own secret reasons — decides he wants to live as a “virtual” boy in a fake world. As Pinocchio’s wooden feet were burned off in The Adventures of Pinocchio, so does Pinocchio lose a leg in the series episode “Manus Domini.” In fact, as we learn, Pinocchio was disfigured and (lost a leg) in the real world, and that’s the reason he ultimatelychose a “dream” life rather than to continue in the real world. Thus we might say that, like Hobbes, Harsh Realm’s Pinocchio is the inverse of his literary namesake.

“Florence” the healer seems named after Florence Nightingale, the legendary angel of mercy. And Harsh Realm’s final episode, “Camera Obscura” brilliantly re-stages — at a post-nuclear ground zero — the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (1883). In this tale, two warring families (not the Capulets and Montagues but Stewarts and McKinleys) threaten to annihilate one another over a petty squabble. Meanwhile, young Aethan McKinley (Romeo) and Fallon Stewart (Juliet) have fallen in love in secret and carry on a relationship. They are encouraged to do so by an interfering “man of God,” not Shakespeare’s Friar Lawrence, but the deformed, prophetic priest played by Robert Knepper.

As many others have noted, there are other literary allusions in Harsh Realm too. As Hobbes is about to enter the Harsh Realm virtual world for the first time, he gazes down at his chair, and scrawled (madly…) on the arms of the chair are the words “Siege” and “Perilous.” If you are familiar with Arthurian legend, you may remember that this writing harks back to the so-called Perilous Seat at the Round Table, the Empty Chair reserved for the greatest of knights or heroes (the one who brings back The Holy Grail). That too, is Hobbes’ destiny, perhaps metaphorically. Santiago might be the Holy Grail of Harsh Realm, or Hobbes’ white whale.

Harsh Realm balances these classic references and allusions with Carter’s particular and peculiar (and wonderful…) brand of up-to-the-minute speculative imaginings. You may recall how the first episode of The Lone Gunmen (in March 2001) forecast the 9/11 attack on Manhattan down to the target (the Twin Towers) and the choice of weapon (jet-liners). The same episode also predicted that such an attack would be a tremendous boon to defense contractors…who would suddenly be developing new weapons for our military industrial complex. That too, proved accurate. Harsh Realm also hints rather dramatically at the shape of things to come in the early 21st century and particularly the War on Terror Age. One episode, “Leviathan,” laments Santiago’s “culture of fear,” something we can all relate to after those color-coded DHS Terrorist Attack Warnings. Another episode, “Cincinnati” seizes on the phrase “failure of imagination” as the reason for a battlefield defeat; the self-same phrase employed explicitly by the 9/11 Commission tasked with studying the reasons why the September 11th attacks were successful. Harsh Realm (especially “Camera Obscura”) also obsesses on the “ultimate terrorism,” a suitcase nuke detonated in an American city. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened (and hopefully will never happened), but it is a scenario that, after 9/11, has been widely raised (and feared) by media, security agencies, and the populace.

Also, Harsh Realm undeniably pointed towards the 21st century in terms of technology. In 2003, the virtual platform Second Life arrived, an alternate world where Residents (Virtual Characters based on real life users) had their own currency, clubs, economy, property and spent copious amounts time “in world.” Granted, Harsh Realm’s virtual world is far more immersive and tactile, but Second Life is certainly a step towards the world Harsh Realm imagined.
The history of television isn’t just about numbers; it’s about being in the right place at the right time. Imagine, just for a moment. that a program like Firefly or Harsh Realm had aired on cable, or heck — even the CW. If they had done so, both shows would have likely lasted seven years, been heralded as masterpieces, and would have drawn “blockbuster” level (for cable) ratings that far outstripped those of recent “hits” like Battlestar Galactica (2005-2009) or Supernatural. But because these turn-of-the-century shows aired on Fox, not a smaller channel, they didn’t get the numbers that were predicted…and they disappeared after too short a season. I can’t claim Harsh Realm is as good as Firefly, but I can state, with confidence…it was headed in that direction. The last several episodes of the series showed incredible development and improvement. The world, characters and situations of Harsh Realm had, by episode nine, become intriguing, and truth be told, more-than-a-little addicting.

If you enjoy The X-Files and Millennium, I suggest you visit Harsh Realm…but be patient. Get to the poetic episode “Reunion,” which suggests a kind of emotional/human bridge between the worlds (and the idea that virtual avatars may share our souls with us…), and you’ll be glad you hung on. Get to the brilliant “Cincinnati,” in which Santiago shows us why he is the most fearsome man in Harsh Realm, and you’ll be convinced that you’re watching a genre series of unparalleled genius. Get to “Camera Obscura” and its post-apocalyptic Treasure of the Sierra Madre-esque parable about man’s quest for wealth (especially gold), and you’ll be convinced that Chris Carter caught lightning in a bottle again, for the third time.

Only…those great episodes never even aired in 1999. So the Harsh Realm of the series title doesn’t merely refer to a comic book or a virtual world. It actually references something far more dangerous: the cutthroat, no-second chances world of network television at the beginning of the 21st century, a period of decline. Harsh Realm died as dramatic TV died; as reality TV was born. A smart genre series of paranoid speculation and deep philosophy gave way to Who Wants to be a Millionaire five nights a week, Temptation Island, Survivor, Big Brother and the like. Dramatic TV came out of its slump in 2004 (with the advent of Lost, for instance…) but by then Harsh Realm was “virtually” a memory.

CULT TV FLASHBACK #83: Harsh Realm (1999-2000)

“A world exists…exactly like ours. Your family and friends. And though you may not know it, I was sent to save you.”

-Opening narration to Chris Carter’s Harsh Realm (1999), voiced by Lt. Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow)

In 1999, Chris Carter and 1013 Productions, producers of The X-Files (1993-2002) and Millennium (1996-1999), created a third genre series for Fox television. It was called Harsh Realm.

The series — about a virtual reality version of America existing after a terrorist attack on New York City — was advertised with the tag-line “It’s Just a Game” and broadcast just three episodes before an abrupt cancellation. In all, nine hour-long installments were made.

The abrupt (and inconclusive…) end to Harsh Realm was intensely disappointing, especially to the dedicated fans who actually followed the series on Friday nights at 9:00 pm (the same slot that Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse now struggles in…). Viewing numbers were low in terms of network TV expectations, and the series had been under promoted (though TV Guide named it one of the best new shows of the year).

Making matters worse, Harsh Realm faced more than its share of controversy during its short life. For instance, the series was widely derided by critics as an uninspired copy of 1999′s The Matrix, even though Harsh Realm was in production concurrently with that blockbuster. More to the point, Harsh Realm was shot in Vancouver on the same budget as your average network medical drama and thus simply could not compete visually with the trail-blazing Keanu Reeves epic.

Perhaps more significantly, the creators of Harris Publishing’s Harsh Realm comic book sued Chris Carter when the TV adaptation failed to acknowledge them or their artistic contributions to the series. [NOTE: Actually, the comic was acknowledged in the end credits in the first episode.] The comic-book creators were victorious in their suit, and beginning with the second episode, Harsh Realm episodes featured during the opening credits a title card which specifically noted that the series was “inspired” by the comic-book work of James D. Hudnall and Andrew Paquette. Finally, some years after the TV series’ cancellation, Harsh Realm star Scott Bairstow apparently had some…uh…legal difficulties, and did some jail time.

In short, any good historian could probably enumerate abundant reasons why Harsh Realm never achieved the large-scale, avid following of Chris Carter’s other video endeavors, but virtually all of them have nothing whatsoever to do with the program’s actual quality.

Because, in point of fact, Harsh Realm is constructed upon the same sturdy pillars of good story-telling, symbolic representation, strong characters and dynamic world view that so ably supported The X-Files or Millennium. Indeed, James D. Hudnall and Andrew Paquette should have been credited for their original work from the beginning and to do otherwise was wrong-headed folly.

Yet by the same token, the TV series Harsh Realm takes relatively little of substance from the comic book beyond the “grunge speak” title. To wit, the TV series features brand-new, original characters and boasts an entirely different narrative thrust (it’s a military/political struggle rather than the comic’s noir-ish detective story…) Of course, the TV series also appropriates the comic’s central concept of a virtual reality world, but the TV “harsh realm” and the comic-book “harsh realm” are completely different in every significant way: both visual and thematic. The comic book virtual world is based on overt fantasy concepts (a world of goblins, elves etc…) whereas the TV show more closely adheres to Chris Carter’s personal view of the 1990s world: one of bureaucracy, conspiracy, geo-political turmoil, and domination of the many by the few.

After a brief preamble involving Lt. Thomas Hobbes (Bairstow) on a peace-keeping mission gone wrong in Sarajevo in 1994, the action in Harsh Realm shifts rapidly to Fort Dix, New Jersey in the year 1999. There, a disenchanted Hobbes plans to leave the Army permanently in just a few short months. He wants to relocate to California with his beautiful fiancee, Sophie (Samantha Mathis). But even as Hobbes plans to start a new life, he is ordered to report to a secretive, white-haired colonel (Lance Henriksen) for a new, classified assignment. Hobbes is escorted to a secret bunker and — after a “final supper” — ordered to “play a game,” a virtual reality game called…Harsh Realm.

This “Harsh Realm” game – a simulated war scenario — was created by the Pentagon in 1995. Utilizing information from satellite cartography and the latest U.S. Census, the war gamers have created a duplicate of America, down to every last location, person and even pet. But there’s an important difference between the worlds. In this virtual version of America, a suitcase nuke was detonated in New York City at noon on October 31, 1995 (“Camera Obscura”). Four million Americans died in 2.5 seconds. “Ground Zero” was located… in Manhattan. The game developers hoped to test American military (and civilian peace-keeping) capabilities after such a catastrophic terrorist attack, but they never could have anticipated what occur ed next.

The hero the Army first sent into the game world — the most decorated veteran in United States Army history, Omar Santiago (Terry O’Quinn) –took over Harsh Realm. Out of the ashes of the apocalypse, this soldier carved out a brutal, military dictatorship for himself. The so-called “United States of Santiago” now encompasses five states…and a great percentage of the Eastern seaboard. Santiago believes “one man can have it all here…” and ruthlessly protects his position of authority.

Hobbes’s mission is to “take out” Santiago by any means necessary. To “remove” Santiago’s virtual avatar from the Harsh Realm simulation and restore freedom to the virtual country.

Unfortunately, Hobbes’ superiors haven’t told him the whole story. He can’t return to “the real world” (and consciousness) until Santiago is dead, but much more troubling…if he dies in the game (or is “digitized”), Hobbes also dies in reality. And, Hobbes’ isn’t even the first man to make this attempt to beat Santiago. Literally hundreds of soldiers have gone to Harsh Realm before him…and none have been successful. None have returned. At the conclusion of Harsh Realm’s pilot, we see a Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque shot of all the games players: a hospital room that seems to stretch to infinity; with slumbering men and women on hospital beds, tended to by inscrutable technicians; their minds wired to a different reality.

Back in the real world, Sophie is informed by the Army that Hobbes’ died on a secret mission, but she is soon approached by a beautiful — and perhaps treacherous — informant, Inga Fossa (Sarah-Jane Redmond), and told about a conspiracy of silence. That if she wishes to be reunited with the love of her life, Sophie must expose the lies of the U.S. Government. This mission becomes even more important to Sophie when she learns that she is pregnant with Tom’s child. Fossa promises to get a message to Tom in Harsh Realm…

Once trapped inside the wild terrains of Harsh Realm, Hobbes joins up with other fugitives who are also on the run from Santiago. Mike Pinocchio (D.B. Sweeney) is a rogue soldier who volunteered for duty in the virtual world and was once Santiago’s top lieutenant. Now, he’s a rogue and scoundrel, a gun for hire. Hobbes’ other associate is the mysterious Florence (Rachel Hayward), a mute warrior with the unusual power to instantaneously heal the wounds of others.

Over the course of nine episodes of Harsh Realm, Hobbes’ attempts to complete his mission and finally get home. In “Leviathan,” he travels to the poverty-stricken Pittsburgh Encampment, where he and Pinocchio are captured by soldiers of fortune and nearly sold to Santiago. This episode meditates on the idea of the human soul, and asks if a Virtual Character can possess one.

In “Inga Fossa,” Hobbes steals into Santiago City and locates Santiago’s secret portal, from which he can travel from Harsh Realm into the real world and back. Hobbes nearly returns home, until he is told by Fossa of Santiago’s “Final Solution.” Santiago is planning “The Ultimate Terrorism,” the destruction of the real world so that only Harsh Realm, and Santiago’s domain will continue to exist. Hobbes decides it is better to stay in Harsh Realm and defeat Santiago there…

In “Reunion,” Hobbes ends up a slave in a work camp with Pinocchio, and encounters a virtual representation of his dying mother. In the real world, Sophie visits Hobbes real mother, who is also dying of cancer. A double death (in Harsh Realm and in reality) spurs a strange miraculous (if brief…) connection.

In “3 Percenters,” the fugitives arrive in the Adirondacks and meet a strange, ostensibly “peaceful” cult hiding a dark secret. “Manus Domini” finds Hobbes, Pinocchio and Florence protecting a tribe of pacifics “Healers” — women like Florence — from Santiago. In “Cincinnati” (one of the best installments), Santiago heads to Ohio to personally assassinate the leader of the Resistance, A Native American whose forces have overrun the city.

Finally, the last episode of Harsh Realm, “Camera Obscura” takes Pinocchio and Hobbes to Ground Zero in Manhattan, where a disfigured, manipulative priest keeps two families in a perpetual state of conflict for strange, personal reasons.

Over the nine episodes of this short-lived series, the virtual reality world of Harsh Realm is developed and expanded upon in fascinating, unexpected ways. “Leviathan” reveals that in Harsh Realm there is no religion…no God, no belief in an afterlife. It’s a world “without Christian values,” according to one character, and that line of thought becomes an existential undercurrent of future segments. In “Manus Domini,” for instance, Hobbes ponders the Healers and their origin. Why do they exist? Why did programmers create them? Or, were they created by a “higher power” after all? One beyond the ostensibly “faithless” world of the game.

In terms of technology, Harsh Realm introduces a number of “game”-oriented concepts. It turns out that “unprogrammed game space” exists, and can form short-cuts from one part of the realm to the other. “Reunion” reveals the existence of “skull bugs,” mechanical control devices implanted in VC (and human) brains that…can burrow through brain matter…bloodily. “3 Percenters” presents the idea of a programming error: of VC characters who can absorb and replicate the personalities of others…much to the detriment of the originals. It’s sort of Harsh Realm meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And “Cincinnati” introduces the useful “digi-wand,” a handheld device by which a digital character can re-shape and re-fashion his features…the equivalent of virtual plastic surgery. Santiago uses it for diabolical, wicked and brilliant strategic ends. Then there’s the Camera Obscura of the final episode, a strange oracle or “seeing” device that appeared at Ground Zero after the nuclear explosion and is believed to foretell (or perhaps manipulate…) the future.

In terms of unique characters, Hobbes, Pinocchio and Florence meet not only the mute, female Healers and the “VC” in Harsh Realm, but steely-eyed Trackers (“Reunion”), deformed Mind Readers (“Manus Domini”) and bounty hunters armed with digitizing devices (“Leviathan”). The series encompasses pastoral settings (“Manus Domini”), urban locations (“Camera Obscura”) and, like all Chris Carter productions, is gorgeously presented. The camera work, in particular, is highly cinematic, despite the relative lack of visual effects.

The big drawback in terms of Harsh Realm, ironically, is the sense of “sameness” that underlines the pilot, “Leviathan” and “Inga Fossa.” In all these episodes, either Hobbes, Pinocchio or Florence are captured and rescued, while in the real world, Sophie puzzles out the mystery of Hobbes’ “death.” Excepting the pilot, the next two episodes are probably the weakest in the series…and these were the only episodes that aired on network television. The shows are good, just a little plodding; a little dull. But beginning with “Reunion,” the quality of Harsh Realm takes a noticeable and dramatic uptick as the stories become more creative, more out there, more involving. The run from “Reunion” through “Camera Obscura” is quite extraordinary, with distinctive, memorable, engaging storylines.

Like his other series, Chris Carter’s Harsh Realm is a deeply-layered work, one rife with symbolism, social commentary and perhaps most importantly, clever literary allusion. The series, for example, is very clearly a deliberate variation on the Greek epic poem, The Odyssey, by Homer. In that tale, Odysseus — a soldier — attempted to return home from Troy but the journey took him a decade. Ten long and miserable years away from his wife, Penelope. The Odyssey, much like a TV show itself, was highly episodic, with Odysseus encountering a variety of nemeses, including sirens, Lotus-Eaters and the Cyclops Polyphemus. Harsh Realm also concerns a heroic soldier’s “long journey home,” his separation from his wife/fiancee, and as mentioned above, Hobbes becomes involved with a number of nemeses who are both more and less than human. The tenth, unproduced episode of Harsh Realm was even called “Circe,” after a character (a witch…) featured in The Odyssey.

In The Odyssey, Penelope had to deal with suitors, who hoped to persuade her that Odysseus was dead. Even this plot point is echoed explicitly in Harsh Realm, as the Army attempts to convince Sophie of the same thing about Tom, though in this case to protect a conspiracy not to inherit wealth.

Harsh Realm also appropriates some core concepts from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1902), which involved a man on assignment to capture a fellow countryman, Kurtz. Kurtz had developed a reputation as a “universal genius” amongst the indigenous people in “The Dark Heart of Africa.” Heart of Darkness was refashioned as a war drama in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and given the military framework of Harsh Realm, perhaps it is more appropriate to reference that production here. Because Santiago — like Brando’s Kurtz — has gone “native,” in essence setting up the “local” world of Harsh Realm as his personal kingdom. This idea is true to Conrad’s story, which warned against the dangers of imperialism. That’s the core idea of Harsh Realm: an interloper (and his military minions…) invade the virtual reality world of Harsh Realm and develop it exclusively for their use. The “VC” are just a resource to be used…not “real” people.

The hero of Harsh Realm, Thomas Hobbes, is not just Odysseus, either. He is named after the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the author who wrote Leviathan in 1651. Leviathan — which also happens to be the title of Harsh Realm’s second episode — concerned autocracy…and its benefits. The philosopher Hobbes believed that government should control religion, the military, the civil apparatus and even the judiciary. He felt that man’s natural state was lawlessness, and it was this “natural state” which caused man such hardship, tragedy and strife. Harsh Realm’s Hobbes appears to be the antithesis of this autocratic philosophy, at least as far as the nine extant episodes go. He is a man who believes in freedom and liberty, and seeks to free Harsh Realm from Santiago’s iron, tyrannical grip. One can never know for sure, but there is an undercurrent in the series that suggests Hobbes may not always feel this way. As he goes along, from episode to episode, he witnesses the lawlessness and inhumanity of Santiago’s world. Had the series lasted several years, and Hobbes succeeded in destroying Santiago, one wonders if he would have imposed a Hobbes-ian peace upon the scattered societies of Harsh Realm, essentially becoming the new figurehead. The last scene of the show might have seen Hobbes displacing one Kurtz to become Kurtz himself.

We never saw that happen, but even Mark Snow’s score — which sampled bits of Mussolini speeches — hinted at some of the autocratic themes and narratives Carter’s show deliberated on. How much government? What kind of government? What’s the right balance? Today, these ideas are more relevant even than they were in 1999.

As for the Han Solo of Harsh Realm, Mike Pinocchio, his name obviously comes from Curt Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883), the story of a puppet who dreamed of becoming a real boy. In the world of Harsh Realm, Pinocchio is a “real” soldier who — for his own secret reasons — decides he wants to live as a “virtual” boy in a fake world. As Pinocchio’s wooden feet were burned off in The Adventures of Pinocchio, so does Pinocchio lose a leg in the series episode “Manus Domini.” In fact, as we learn, Pinocchio was disfigured and (lost a leg) in the real world, and that’s the reason he ultimatelychose a “dream” life rather than to continue in the real world. Thus we might say that, like Hobbes, Harsh Realm’s Pinocchio is the inverse of his literary namesake.

“Florence” the healer seems named after Florence Nightingale, the legendary angel of mercy. And Harsh Realm’s final episode, “Camera Obscura” brilliantly re-stages — at a post-nuclear ground zero — the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (1883). In this tale, two warring families (not the Capulets and Montagues but Stewarts and McKinleys) threaten to annihilate one another over a petty squabble. Meanwhile, young Aethan McKinley (Romeo) and Fallon Stewart (Juliet) have fallen in love in secret and carry on a relationship. They are encouraged to do so by an interfering “man of God,” not Shakespeare’s Friar Lawrence, but the deformed, prophetic priest played by Robert Knepper.

As many others have noted, there are other literary allusions in Harsh Realm too. As Hobbes is about to enter the Harsh Realm virtual world for the first time, he gazes down at his chair, and scrawled (madly…) on the arms of the chair are the words “Siege” and “Perilous.” If you are familiar with Arthurian legend, you may remember that this writing harks back to the so-called Perilous Seat at the Round Table, the Empty Chair reserved for the greatest of knights or heroes (the one who brings back The Holy Grail). That too, is Hobbes’ destiny, perhaps metaphorically. Santiago might be the Holy Grail of Harsh Realm, or Hobbes’ white whale.

Harsh Realm balances these classic references and allusions with Carter’s particular and peculiar (and wonderful…) brand of up-to-the-minute speculative imaginings. You may recall how the first episode of The Lone Gunmen (in March 2001) forecast the 9/11 attack on Manhattan down to the target (the Twin Towers) and the choice of weapon (jet-liners). The same episode also predicted that such an attack would be a tremendous boon to defense contractors…who would suddenly be developing new weapons for our military industrial complex. That too, proved accurate. Harsh Realm also hints rather dramatically at the shape of things to come in the early 21st century and particularly the War on Terror Age. One episode, “Leviathan,” laments Santiago’s “culture of fear,” something we can all relate to after those color-coded DHS Terrorist Attack Warnings. Another episode, “Cincinnati” seizes on the phrase “failure of imagination” as the reason for a battlefield defeat; the self-same phrase employed explicitly by the 9/11 Commission tasked with studying the reasons why the September 11th attacks were successful. Harsh Realm (especially “Camera Obscura”) also obsesses on the “ultimate terrorism,” a suitcase nuke detonated in an American city. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened (and hopefully will never happened), but it is a scenario that, after 9/11, has been widely raised (and feared) by media, security agencies, and the populace.

Also, Harsh Realm undeniably pointed towards the 21st century in terms of technology. In 2003, the virtual platform Second Life arrived, an alternate world where Residents (Virtual Characters based on real life users) had their own currency, clubs, economy, property and spent copious amounts time “in world.” Granted, Harsh Realm’s virtual world is far more immersive and tactile, but Second Life is certainly a step towards the world Harsh Realm imagined.
The history of television isn’t just about numbers; it’s about being in the right place at the right time. Imagine, just for a moment. that a program like Firefly or Harsh Realm had aired on cable, or heck — even the CW. If they had done so, both shows would have likely lasted seven years, been heralded as masterpieces, and would have drawn “blockbuster” level (for cable) ratings that far outstripped those of recent “hits” like Battlestar Galactica (2005-2009) or Supernatural. But because these turn-of-the-century shows aired on Fox, not a smaller channel, they didn’t get the numbers that were predicted…and they disappeared after too short a season. I can’t claim Harsh Realm is as good as Firefly, but I can state, with confidence…it was headed in that direction. The last several episodes of the series showed incredible development and improvement. The world, characters and situations of Harsh Realm had, by episode nine, become intriguing, and truth be told, more-than-a-little addicting.

If you enjoy The X-Files and Millennium, I suggest you visit Harsh Realm…but be patient. Get to the poetic episode “Reunion,” which suggests a kind of emotional/human bridge between the worlds (and the idea that virtual avatars may share our souls with us…), and you’ll be glad you hung on. Get to the brilliant “Cincinnati,” in which Santiago shows us why he is the most fearsome man in Harsh Realm, and you’ll be convinced that you’re watching a genre series of unparalleled genius. Get to “Camera Obscura” and its post-apocalyptic Treasure of the Sierra Madre-esque parable about man’s quest for wealth (especially gold), and you’ll be convinced that Chris Carter caught lightning in a bottle again, for the third time.

Only…those great episodes never even aired in 1999. So the Harsh Realm of the series title doesn’t merely refer to a comic book or a virtual world. It actually references something far more dangerous: the cutthroat, no-second chances world of network television at the beginning of the 21st century, a period of decline. Harsh Realm died as dramatic TV died; as reality TV was born. A smart genre series of paranoid speculation and deep philosophy gave way to Who Wants to be a Millionaire five nights a week, Temptation Island, Survivor, Big Brother and the like. Dramatic TV came out of its slump in 2004 (with the advent of Lost, for instance…) but by then Harsh Realm was “virtually” a memory.

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 66: The Lone Gunmen: "Pilot" (2001)

An old proverb reminds us that truth can be stranger than fiction. Where genre television is concerned, however that line is occasionally blurred. The truth…is sometimes – shall we say? – …Out There.

Case in point: the Chris Carter X-Files spin-off, The Lone Gunmen (2001). This series aired on Fox TV for a dozen or so hour-long episodes at the beginning of 2001. Cancellation came quickly, though the series is currently available on DVD.

Interestingly, however, one particular episode of The Lone Gunmen has not only endured…but become the stuff of legend, not to mention notorious conspiracy fodder.

The pilot episode — written by Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz (and directed by Rob Bowman) — aired originally on March 4, 2001.

This was mere months after the Supreme Court called the contested presidential election of 2000 for George W. Bush. The United States of America had a new president, but the country was still very much in the Peace and Prosperity Age of Clinton. We had no idea what lay ahead in the twenty-first century.

The inaugural episode of The Lone Gunmen unfolds pretty much as you might expect and hope, given the series’ premise and quirky dramatis personae. Our heroes are Fox Mulder’s old buddies: the (relatively hapless…) trio of computer geeks-cum-editors at a Maryland-based conspiracy-theory newspaper called The Lone Gunman (latest headline: Teletubbies = Mind Control!). We first join these unconventional heroes in media res, during a covert op in progress.

Specifically, our triumvirate of protagonists crashes a ritzy party at E-Comm Con (remember the tech bubble of the late 1990s?). Their mission: to steal the new, ultra-fast Octium IV micro-chip, a technological advancement which the Lone Gunmen –- Byers (Bruce Harwood), Frohike (Tom Braidwood) and Langley (Dean Haglund) — believe is actually designed to invade user privacy and collect personal information. The Lone Gunmen want to examine the chip so they can pen an expose in their newspaper; one featuring cold, hard evidence of their accusations.

But remember, these guys – once the comic relief on the X-Files are not traditional TV heroes, either in appearance or skill set. They are closer in spirit, actually, to the original Kolchak than to the hyper-competent Mulder, Scully, or Frank Black. Their hearts are in the right place but…

…they make mistakes, bungles and foul-ups. However, after a funny riff on Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996) involving the diminutive Frohike on a harness, the pilot episode unexpectedly turns serious. The E Comm Con caper fails and another thief – the enigmatic but beautiful Eve Adele Harlow (her name is an anagram for Lee Harvey Oswald) – steals the chip out from under the Gunmen’s noses.

This mission failure is followed by another bombshell. Conservative, buttoned-up Lone Gunman, John Fitzgerald Byers learns that his father, a high-ranking government official, has been assassinated because of his highly-classified work at the Department of Defense.

Much of the pilot episode involves Byers, Frohike and Langly helping another government official, Mr. Helm (code-named Overlord…) prove that Old Man Byers (George Coe) is actually still alive and in hiding…afraid the government will send a second assassin after him.

What’s Mr. Byers secret? The one that a “small faction” inside the federal government would commit murder to protect? Well, my friends, that’s where the controversy, notoriety – and conspiracy – comes in. Mr. Byers is privy to information about a Department of Defense counter-terrorism war game known as…Scenario D 12.

This particular military scenario involves a “Domestic Airline In-Flight Terrorist Act.”

Unfortunately, Scenario D 12 is no longer a game, as Byers learns directly from his father. No, it is horrifyingly real. A small faction inside the U.S. Government plans to utilize a remote control device to hijack an American airliner in-flight and crash it into a heavily populated urban area. The cover for this false flag operation will be a hijacking, a terrorist take-over of the plane.

Why would anyone want to commit such a horrible act?

Here’s what Mr. Byers tells his son. This is a direct quote from the episode, by the way:

“The Cold War is over, John, but with no clear enemy to stockpile against, the arms business is flat.

But bring down a fully-loaded 727 into the middle of New York City and you’ll find a dozen tin-pot dictators all over the world just clamoring to take responsibility, and begging to be smart bombed.”

Byers and his father board a just bound for Boston; the very one that will be used as a flying bomb over New York City. The exact target in Manhattan: The World Trade Center.

The final act of this Lone Gunmen pilot involves Byers aboard the imperiled plane — and Frohike and Langley on the ground — trying to avert the collision between plane and skyscraper and in the process rescue the 110 souls aboard the flight. At the last instant, we see the jet-liner veer up and away from the Twin Towers. Disaster — and tragedy — averted.

As everybody now knows all too well, a scarce seven months later, on September 11, 2001, two “fully loaded” domestic airliners did strike New York City and the Twin Towers. In the aftermath, at least one “tin-pot” terrorist claimed responsibility (Bin Laden) and another, Saddam Hussein, was – I guess – just “begging to be smart bombed.” We obliged him in 2003.

After that horrific Tuesday in September, arms sales boomed too, just as The Lone Gunmen predicted they would in the event of such a disaster. According to the Center for Defense Information, in 2006 alone, the U.S. was responsible for 16.9 billion dollars in international arms deals, over 41 percent of all arm sales globally.

After 9/11, our government disavowed any advance knowledge of these horrible terrorist attacks. “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center” said national security advisor Condoleezza Rice at a White House Briefing on the afternoon. May 16, 2002.

Really?

The Lone Gunmen TV series predicted the exact thing. On national television (with viewers ostensibly in the tens of millions…). And it did so six months before the attack occurred.

And here I thought everyone in the Bush Administration had to keep their TV sets tuned to Fox at all times…

But isn’t it strange — not to mention creepy as hell — that The Lone Gunmen, a series about crazy conspiracy theories, by-and-large “guessed” the precise nature of the biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history? It accurately guessed about the use of planes as weapons; plus it pointed out the target state, city and actual buildings. The episode even got the aftermath right: war against tin-pot dictators, using our expensive smart bombs as “shock and awe.”

More than that, however, this Lone Gunmen episode anticipated the “conspiracy response” to 9/11 that has also arisen in the wake of the attacks. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. A certain percentage (36%?) of American citizens don’t believe the official story (Al Qaeda hijackers) and instead maintain that the government orchestrated the attacks. Indeed, this is Lone Gunmen’s pre-event “explanation” of such an attack.

It’s eerie and disturbing to contemplate all this. Yet, this isn’t the first time that fact and imagination have mingled uncomfortably surrounding a global tragedy. To wit, in 1898, a writer named Morgan Robertson wrote a novel entitled Futility. The plot concerned the maiden voyage of the largest ocean liner ever built. On an April night, this fictitious vessel struck an iceberg. And — because there were not enough lifeboats aboard — more than one thousand passengers died in freezing waters. The name of the ship in that novel Futility is…Titan.

So, fourteen years before the Titanic disaster in 1912, author Robertson imagined a disaster at sea that would indeed come to pass. Consider some of the eerie similarities there. Titan was 70,000 tons in Futility; the Titanic 66,000 tons. Titan was 800 feet long; the Titanic 882 feet. The top sailing speed of both fictitious and real ocean liner was 25 knots. And even more bizarrely, both Futility’s Titan and the real life Titanic were described with one memorable adjective: unsinkable. Both ships — real and fictional — struck icebergs and sank in the month of April.

The paranormal anthology One Step Beyond (1959-1961) dramatized a story based on this Titanic mystery titled “Night of April 14,” in 1959, and I researched the story for my book. To my fascination, I found it authentic.

So, are writers such as Morgan Robertson and TV programs such as The Lone Gunmen just lucky (or unlucky…) guessers about terrible things, or is what we have here some strange form of synchronicity: some form of intuitive “knowing” divined subconsciously or unconsciously?

Submitted for your approval, from The Twilight Zone, perhaps. But seriously, rent The Lone Gunmen from Netflix and watch this pilot episode. But prepare yourself. It’s a sharp, scary, well-crafted piece of TV fiction; and one that *happens* to have a very disturbing relationship with our “real” history.

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 66: The Lone Gunmen: "Pilot" (2001)

An old proverb reminds us that truth can be stranger than fiction. Where genre television is concerned, however that line is occasionally blurred. The truth…is sometimes – shall we say? – …Out There.

Case in point: the Chris Carter X-Files spin-off, The Lone Gunmen (2001). This series aired on Fox TV for a dozen or so hour-long episodes at the beginning of 2001. Cancellation came quickly, though the series is currently available on DVD.

Interestingly, however, one particular episode of The Lone Gunmen has not only endured…but become the stuff of legend, not to mention notorious conspiracy fodder.

The pilot episode — written by Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz (and directed by Rob Bowman) — aired originally on March 4, 2001.

This was mere months after the Supreme Court called the contested presidential election of 2000 for George W. Bush. The United States of America had a new president, but the country was still very much in the Peace and Prosperity Age of Clinton. We had no idea what lay ahead in the twenty-first century.

The inaugural episode of The Lone Gunmen unfolds pretty much as you might expect and hope, given the series’ premise and quirky dramatis personae. Our heroes are Fox Mulder’s old buddies: the (relatively hapless…) trio of computer geeks-cum-editors at a Maryland-based conspiracy-theory newspaper called The Lone Gunman (latest headline: Teletubbies = Mind Control!). We first join these unconventional heroes in media res, during a covert op in progress.

Specifically, our triumvirate of protagonists crashes a ritzy party at E-Comm Con (remember the tech bubble of the late 1990s?). Their mission: to steal the new, ultra-fast Octium IV micro-chip, a technological advancement which the Lone Gunmen –- Byers (Bruce Harwood), Frohike (Tom Braidwood) and Langley (Dean Haglund) — believe is actually designed to invade user privacy and collect personal information. The Lone Gunmen want to examine the chip so they can pen an expose in their newspaper; one featuring cold, hard evidence of their accusations.

But remember, these guys – once the comic relief on the X-Files are not traditional TV heroes, either in appearance or skill set. They are closer in spirit, actually, to the original Kolchak than to the hyper-competent Mulder, Scully, or Frank Black. Their hearts are in the right place but…

…they make mistakes, bungles and foul-ups. However, after a funny riff on Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996) involving the diminutive Frohike on a harness, the pilot episode unexpectedly turns serious. The E Comm Con caper fails and another thief – the enigmatic but beautiful Eve Adele Harlow (her name is an anagram for Lee Harvey Oswald) – steals the chip out from under the Gunmen’s noses.

This mission failure is followed by another bombshell. Conservative, buttoned-up Lone Gunman, John Fitzgerald Byers learns that his father, a high-ranking government official, has been assassinated because of his highly-classified work at the Department of Defense.

Much of the pilot episode involves Byers, Frohike and Langly helping another government official, Mr. Helm (code-named Overlord…) prove that Old Man Byers (George Coe) is actually still alive and in hiding…afraid the government will send a second assassin after him.

What’s Mr. Byers secret? The one that a “small faction” inside the federal government would commit murder to protect? Well, my friends, that’s where the controversy, notoriety – and conspiracy – comes in. Mr. Byers is privy to information about a Department of Defense counter-terrorism war game known as…Scenario D 12.

This particular military scenario involves a “Domestic Airline In-Flight Terrorist Act.”

Unfortunately, Scenario D 12 is no longer a game, as Byers learns directly from his father. No, it is horrifyingly real. A small faction inside the U.S. Government plans to utilize a remote control device to hijack an American airliner in-flight and crash it into a heavily populated urban area. The cover for this false flag operation will be a hijacking, a terrorist take-over of the plane.

Why would anyone want to commit such a horrible act?

Here’s what Mr. Byers tells his son. This is a direct quote from the episode, by the way:

“The Cold War is over, John, but with no clear enemy to stockpile against, the arms business is flat.

But bring down a fully-loaded 727 into the middle of New York City and you’ll find a dozen tin-pot dictators all over the world just clamoring to take responsibility, and begging to be smart bombed.”

Byers and his father board a jet bound for Boston; the very one that will be used as a flying bomb over New York City. The exact target in Manhattan: The World Trade Center.

The final act of this Lone Gunmen pilot involves Byers aboard the imperiled plane — and Frohike and Langley on the ground — trying to avert the collision between plane and skyscraper and in the process rescue the 110 souls aboard the flight. At the last instant, we see the jet-liner veer up and away from the Twin Towers. Disaster — and tragedy — averted.

As everybody now knows all too well, a scarce seven months later, on September 11, 2001, two “fully loaded” domestic airliners did strike New York City and the Twin Towers. In the aftermath, at least one “tin-pot” terrorist claimed responsibility (Bin Laden) and another, Saddam Hussein, was – I guess – just “begging to be smart bombed.” We obliged him in 2003.

After that horrific Tuesday in September, arms sales boomed too, just as The Lone Gunmen predicted they would in the event of such a disaster. According to the Center for Defense Information, in 2006 alone, the U.S. was responsible for 16.9 billion dollars in international arms deals, over 41 percent of all arm sales globally.

After 9/11, our government disavowed any advance knowledge of these horrible terrorist attacks. “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center” said national security advisor Condoleezza Rice at a White House Briefing on the afternoon. May 16, 2002.

Really?

The Lone Gunmen TV series predicted the exact thing. On national television (with viewers ostensibly in the tens of millions…). And it did so six months before the attack occurred.

And here I thought everyone in the Bush Administration had to keep their TV sets tuned to Fox at all times…

But isn’t it strange — not to mention creepy as hell — that The Lone Gunmen, a series about crazy conspiracy theories, by-and-large “guessed” the precise nature of the biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history? It accurately guessed about the use of planes as weapons; plus it pointed out the target state, city and actual buildings. The episode even got the aftermath right: war against tin-pot dictators, using our expensive smart bombs as “shock and awe.”

More than that, however, this Lone Gunmen episode anticipated the “conspiracy response” to 9/11 that has also arisen in the wake of the attacks. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. A certain percentage (36%?) of American citizens don’t believe the official story (Al Qaeda hijackers) and instead maintain that the government orchestrated the attacks. Indeed, this is Lone Gunmen’s pre-event “explanation” of such an attack.

It’s eerie and disturbing to contemplate all this. Yet, this isn’t the first time that fact and imagination have mingled uncomfortably surrounding a global tragedy. To wit, in 1898, a writer named Morgan Robertson wrote a novel entitled Futility. The plot concerned the maiden voyage of the largest ocean liner ever built. On an April night, this fictitious vessel struck an iceberg. And — because there were not enough lifeboats aboard — more than one thousand passengers died in freezing waters. The name of the ship in that novel Futility is…Titan.

So, fourteen years before the Titanic disaster in 1912, author Robertson imagined a disaster at sea that would indeed come to pass. Consider some of the eerie similarities there. Titan was 70,000 tons in Futility; the Titanic 66,000 tons. Titan was 800 feet long; the Titanic 882 feet. The top sailing speed of both fictitious and real ocean liner was 25 knots. And even more bizarrely, both Futility’s Titan and the real life Titanic were described with one memorable adjective: unsinkable. Both ships — real and fictional — struck icebergs and sank in the month of April.

The paranormal anthology One Step Beyond (1959-1961) dramatized a story based on this Titanic mystery titled “Night of April 14,” in 1959, and I researched the story for my book. To my fascination, I found it authentic.

So, are writers such as Morgan Robertson and TV programs such as The Lone Gunmen just lucky (or unlucky…) guessers about terrible things, or is what we have here some strange form of synchronicity: some form of intuitive “knowing” divined subconsciously or unconsciously?

Submitted for your approval, from The Twilight Zone, perhaps. But seriously, rent The Lone Gunmen from Netflix and watch this pilot episode. But prepare yourself. It’s a sharp, scary, well-crafted piece of TV fiction; and one that *happens* to have a very disturbing relationship with our “real” history.