17 April 2018

The X-Files: Nothing Lasts Forever (Spoiler Rant Review)

So, we've come to this: the bottom of the barrel. Season ten had "Babylon". Season eleven has "Nothing Lasts Forever". Luckily, neither does this episode.

Written by Karen Nielsen and directed by the show veteran James Wong, this second to last X-file takes us to the Bronx where a series of what looks like ritualistic murders attracts the attention of our heroes. The victims were surgeons who were harvesting organs when they were staked through the heart by a young woman – Juliet, who was quoting from a biblical psalm. The woman then left the harvested organs at the door of a nearby hospital with a note that said, "I will repay". 

Turns out, the surgeons were part of a cult of cannibals who have been prolonging their lives and fixing their physical deformities by consuming human flesh and blood. One of the cult's latest recruits is Juliet’s sister, Olivia, and now we know the cause behind Juliet’s crusade. 

All the mystery is thrown out the window once we know who the bad guys are, and all we can do is wait until Scully and Mulder make the right connections, ask the right questions, and find the cult. In the meantime, we are treated to a series of boring, gory and poorly acted scenes of the cult lead by a discount Goldie Hawn from the movie Death Becomes Her.

I have a hole in my stomach!

Her second in command is Dr. Luvenis. He is the mastermind behind the gruesome beautifying technique and he has surgically conjoined himself to a young woman so that he can feed on her bone marrow to prolong his own life.

Discount Goldie gets mad at him for not providing her with organs, kills his bone marrow donor and eats her, prompting the good doctor to find another donor. He picks Olivia.

Some more stuff happens. Mulder and Scully go to a church, which happens to be the same church that Juliet is a part of. They find Juliet who tells them that she will avenge her sister.

Finally, they locate the cult in a rundown apartment building and as they are questioning the deranged cult leader they are attacked by her disciples. Scully gets thrown into an elevator shaft (I wonder if she dies?), and Mulder faces off with Dr. Luvenis who threatens to kill Olivia. Just then Vigilante Juliet springs out of the shadows killing both the mad scientist and Discount Goldie. Mulder finds Scully who has landed safely into a pile of garbage. Mulder tells her that she stinks. 

Scully, you smell bad!

Juliet then tells the agents that she has accepted her fate and as long as her sister is safe she is okay with spending the rest of her life behind bars.

The episode ends on an optimistic note in the same church with Scully and Mulder discussing their relationship and the possibility of them getting back together. Scully the whispers something into Mulder's ear. We can't hear her words, but that's what the fan theories are for.

I'm in love with Assistant Director Walter Skinner!

In the season two episode, "Our Town", Mulder and Scully's investigation of a missing person's case leads them to a cult of cannibals who prolong their lives by consuming human flesh and brains.

In, "Nothing Lasts Forever" Mulder and Scully's murder investigation leads them to a cult of cannibals who prolong their lives by consuming human flesh and blood. Both episodes are dark and pessimistic, but where "Our Town" downplays the gore and focuses on creating an atmosphere of paranoia that leaves you with a bitter aftertaste long after you finished the episode, "Nothing Lasts Forever" throws all subtlety and atmosphere out the elevator shaft, and doubles down on the gore and the pornographic violence. The result is a cheap and gimmicky episode that easily earns its spot among the worst episodes of the whole series.

I'm not saying that this gore fest is entirely without merit. Unlike "Followers", this episode does have a place in the season arc and it does its fair share in progressing the arc as well. But the main story as well as the writing itself successfully bury all ambition under this steaming pile of brains and intestines.

For instance, there is the age theme that runs throughout the whole season. Our heroes are now middle-aged, meaning that they have to redefine their place on the X-files, but also their own relationship. This has been one of my favourite themes of the season mostly because it makes our characters more relatable and helps to place them in this brave new world.

In this episode, Nielsen takes the theme of ageing to a new extreme. Discount Goldie and her vampire cult take to gruesome means in their attempt to cheat time and be beautiful. And on the other side of the spectrum you have Mulder who has been prescribed progressive lenses, and Scully who has been dealing with her own fears of getting older since "Plus One". But unlike the cult members, our heroes don't let their age define them, and they accept their wrinkles and their progressive lenses as a natural part of life.

In her interview with Den of Geek, Nielsen said that she wanted to explore the topic of beauty and aging specifically within the context of Hollywood. 

"I think being alone in society you just feel the pressures of appearance. We live in such a consumerist society and everything is just about how we look because that's how we can prey on people's insecurities and sell things. I'm susceptible to it just like the majority of people—not just women, but people—are in the world. And if you're a woman and an actress it's like quadruple all of that. If you're over thirty you almost become a write-off, which is horrible."

Discount Goldie is a former TV actress and she becomes the embodiment of this unhealthy obsession Hollywood has with youth and beauty. I get what Nielsen was trying to say. Unfortunately, the gratuitous violence and the cheesy acting make it difficult for me to take the message seriously. Especially considering that there are movies and TV shows that have done a far better job exploring this theme.

The thesis that aging is a natural part of life and that trying to reverse it violates the laws of nature (or God) is painfully on the nose. To add insult to injury, the villains in this one are so evil that there is no way we can sympathize with them or even understand their plight.

Another theme that Nielsen wanted to delve into was that of religion, cults and faith.

[...] when I wanted to touch on Scully's religion in that respect, Glen [Morgan] brought up the angle of cults because they're sort of like a really messed up religion. That's where it started from, where Glen came in with the angle and I came it from character. Then you mix in a little James Wong and some American Horror Story for good measure and you get something special."

So, this episode also tries to explain why Scully - a skeptic and scientist - believes in God. It's an inside joke among fans by now, but a question that is not without value. Scully's dichotomy raises many interesting questions about faith; about the personal experience of faith, and the indoctrination in organized religion. Is Scully's plight that of a person who is trying to reconcile the truths she has been indoctrinated into with the truths she is learning on her own?

To this day we haven't had a story that successfully explained how Scully can be a devout Catholic and a woman of science. I'm not saying that the two are mutually exclusive, but the fact is, I have had some interesting discussions with other fans about this topic that offered far more insight than "Nothing Lasts Forever".

I don't know if this episode was supposed to start a discussion about faith vs. science, but if that is the case, then the story offers no valid arguments and no wisdom one way or the other so the whole thing falls flat on its ass. The whole thing is muddled and there is no real conclusion. No lessons to be learnt. Nothing to take away from this experience. 

The reason this exploration of cults and religion fails is because these questions are explored through the characters, and these characters are not good. Vigilante Juliet is a Catholic girl who is using God to justify her violence, and the ageist cannibals use "science" to prolong their lives. Both sides are murdering other people so any argument you can make in favour of religion or science loses all meaning because these people do terrible things. And the very fact that Juliet is using God to justify murder makes her more dangerous than this cult.

Of course, the questions of faith serve as a set up for something that will have a pay-off in the season finale so I'm going to save those moments for when I'll be talking about the finale.  

This episode doesn’t even feel like an X-File. It’s like American Horror Story meets Arrow, and Mulder and Scully are there for some reason. How's that for a fanfic idea?

Dr. Luvenis, you have failed my sister!

4 April 2018

Mystery and Thriller Week Recommendations

This is week is Mystery and Thriller week. I love me some mysteries and nail-biting thrillers so here are seven books and book series that I'm pretty sure will quench your "whodunnit" thirst. Happy reading!

1. Sherlock Holmes 

And by that I mean all of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. To this day my favourite novel is The Hound of the Baskervilles. Read it a thousand times and it still gives me the chills.


2. The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Alternate history, political intrigue and chess. This books by Michael Chabon is a thought-provocing crime drama with great humanity underneath all the grit and grime.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

3. The Robot Series

How can I not include this book series on my recommendations list? This is Isaac Asimov at his best when he combines exciting murder mystery, futuristic politics and a friendship between human and robot that is better than most romances. 


4. The Man in the High Castle

Another alternate history thriller, this time by the master of both suspense and the uncanny - Philip K. Dick. The Axis powers won WWII, and The US is occupied. We follow a few lost characters who are about to discover that their reality may not be the only one. It also has spies, sex, and good old-fashioned murder.

The Man in the High Castle

5. Death is a Lonely Business

The first in Ray Bradbury's Crumley Mysteries trilogy about a timid Californian writer who finds his inner detective. This book is a very straight-up whodunnit" story, but the characters and Bradbury's sense of place make it a truly special read.


6. The Prestige

How can I describe my feelings for this Christopher Priest masterpiece? Oh, wait, I already it! You can read my review. Long story short, it's better than the movie and it scared the crap out of me.

7. The X-Files: Cold Cases

You can read my review of this audio drama, but I'll just say that Joe Harris created a wholly new universe for Mulder and Scully. One that is just as scary and captivating as their on-screen universe.

3 April 2018

The X-Files: "Familiar" (Spoiler Review)

"Familiar" is the eighth episode of season eleven of The X-Files. It was written by Benjamin Van Allen and directed by Holly Dale.  

After the genre experiment that was "RM9SBG93ZXJZ", "Familiar" takes us back to the world where The X-Files feels the most at home: in a small town plagued by monsters, serial killers and viral paranoia. It's a classic monster of the week that provides us with some good old-fashioned horror and asks interesting questions about human nature.

A little boy named Andrew is brutally killed in the small town of Eastwood, Connecticut. Since Andrew was the son of a local police officer, the case falls in the FBI:s jurisdiction, so agents Scully and Mulder are called in to investigate. The local police conclude that it was an animal attack, but the agents have their own theories. 

Given the town's history of witch trials and legends of an actual witch who spontaneously self-combusted, Mulder suspects the killer to be of a supernatural kind - a hellhound, perhaps. Scully applies Occam's razor and suggests that the culprit is very much human. She creates a criminal profile of an adult male, with possible previous convictions of child molestation, and who has managed to slip under the radar of the local law enforcement. 

The police dismiss Scully's hypothesis at first, but when the boy's father, Officer Eggers, finds the man who fits Scully's profile almost to a T, things escalate beyond the experienced agents' control.

Melvin Peter is a registered sex offender who failed to make himself known to the local 
police when he moved to Eastwood. In his home, the police find all the evidence they need to arrest Peter. But Eggers takes the law in his own hands when he attacks the suspect in broad daylight. 

As he is beating the snot out of the bewildered sex offender, Eggers is soon joined by an angry mob. This is a powerful and unsettling scene as you see how the bottled up pain and frustration of the townspeople finally burst through the civilized facade. This is perhaps the best portrayal of mob mentality on The X-Files since the roach scare in "War of the Coprophages", but while in that season three romp the mob mentality was played for laughs, there is nothing funny about this scene. 

Scully and Mulder make it just in time to stop the mob from tearing the suspect to shreds, but when everybody's guard is down, Eggers takes out his gun and shoots Peter in the head.

The next day, our heroes become witnesses to what Mulder labels "small town justice", where Eggers is let out on bail, and the town is willing to blame the murder on the now dead child molester. But one of the cops, Officer Wentworth has done some investigating of his own and found out that Peter was out of town at the time of the murder. 

I love Officer Wentworth, btw. He's played by actor Roger Cross who makes his fifth appearance on the show. Wentworth is the unsung hero of this grim fairy tale. He throws himself on top of Peter when the crowd is beating him, and I just love that little moment when he jumps to Scully's side when Eggers shoots Peter. He's the individual in the mob who won’t compromise his morals even under pressure. He will do the right thing even if it will hurt him in the long run.

The Mandela Effect in action?

As the tragic events in Eastwood are unfolding, Mulder is pursuing his supernatural lead. At the morgue, as he and Scully are examining the body of little Andrew in a scene that made me more uncomfortable than anything else I've seen on this show they discover a residue on the boy's feet that looks like salt which reinforces Mulder's witch hypothesis. According to the witch lore, salt has been used to make ritual circles. This leads Mulder back to the crime scene and he goes to interview the one witness the police didn't talk to - the five-year-old daughter of police chief Strong who was at the park with her mother when Andrew disappeared.

The little girl's name is Emily (not to be confused with Scully's dead daughter Emily), and she couldn't be bothered with Mulder's questions as her attention is hijacked by a creepy children's show featuring the Bibble Tiggles - characters that were clearly created by injecting Teletubbies with alien DNA. Emily can't tear her eyes off the screen, and the whole thing reminded me of Candle Cove, a popular creepypasta about a creepy children's show. 

Emily's mother, Anna opens up to Mulder sharing her fears with him. "Do you have children?" she asks, to which Mulder replies, "I have a son. He's grown, though.". It's one little line, but Duchovny's delivery as well as the events of "Ghouli" make it such a heartbreaking and human moment that I just wanted to give Mulder a hug.

Mulder also spots a variety of books on witchcraft, including the Grimoire of the Eastwood Witch, and Anna explains that her husband is a local history buff.

As Mulder is studying the books, a new character appears on the TV screen - a delightfully horrifying crossbreed between Pinocchio and the Joker. It's Mr. Chuckle Teeth, and Emily says that he was in the park when Andrew disappeared.

Something clicks for Mulder: Mr. Chuckle Teeth is a familiar, a supernatural being that according to the witch lore were assistants to witches. They would often appear in different shapes, from animal to humanoid. In this case, the familiar took the shape of a beloved TV character to lure the boy to his death. The question is, who was the familiar assisting?

Mulder returns to the scene of the crime, where he is faced with a large black CGI hound. 
Could it be the mythical hellhound that guards the gates of hell? The man and the hound have an awkward stare down, and then the hound disappears.

Just as the town is recovering from the recent events, it's shaken by a new tragedy: little Emily disappears. 

When Emily's body is found in the woods in a circle of salt later that day, her mother accuses Strong for her death. When finally confronted by the agents the stoic cop breaks down and admits to having an affair with Andrew's mother Diane. He blames himself for Andrew's death as he was on the phone with Diane when the boy wandered off. 

This is where the episode takes a turn from horror to Greek family tragedy. Back in Eggers' house, Diane has a fight with her husband, and leaves him. As she's speeding down the country road, she sees the apparition of Andrew and makes a violent turn crashing the car. As she's lying there unconscious, the hellhound reappears.

Enraged, Eggers goes to Strong's house where, after being taunted by the apparition of Mr. Chuckle Teeth in a delightfully creepy scene, he is ultimately shot to death by Strong. Strong goes after Diane, but after seeing her car on the side of the road, he goes into the woods. He hears ominous chanting, and in a sad but pretty predictable twist we see that it was his wife Anna who has been conjuring up dark magic to curse Diane. But Anna overestimated her powers and unleashed magic she couldn't control. In her attempt to break the dark spell, Anna gets her husband killed by the CGI hellhound, and as the agents are trying to talk her down, she spontaneously self-combusts, just like the witch in the town legend.

The only thing that doesn't get incinerated in the hellfire is the Grimoire that Anna was using, and in the aftermath of the attack, Scully hands the book to Wentworth as evidence. Scully and Mulder then bookend the episode with a dialogue that we will get back to in a little bit.

And as the agents are driving out of the cursed town, we see a merry-go-round spinning on its own (the magic is still out there!).

"Dear diary: today my heart leapt when Agent Scully suggested spontaneous human combustion!"  

I read a comment from a mother who hated this episode because of the whole violence against children aspect, and I understand that. Perhaps the episode wouldn't have hit as hard as it did had it not been done so well. The grief, the paranoia, the sickening tension - it's all depicted so well, as we see how the small and seemingly peaceful town is being torn apart by the gruesome deaths of their young. 

What Van Allen wanted was to write a classic monster of the week. And in "Familiar" he and Dale do a fantastic job in creating an episode that both feels like an old-school MOTW and is relevant to the time it's depicting. It's a very familiar (no pun intended) MOTW; you can even say it's “by the numbers”, but Allen uses this familiar plot and setting as a framework for a story that cuts deeper than its black magic plot. 

There are obvious callbacks to Stephen King’s It: Andrew is wearing a yellow jacket, and he’s lured away by a creepy child entertainment character. But the most obvious parallel is how the cynicism of the adult world preying on the innocence of childhood. But here, the evil and the cynicism don't stop with the children. The whole town is infected, and it's no coincidence that a murder investigation turns into a witch hunt. 

The with hunt metaphor is pretty self-explanatory. In his interview with Syfy Wire, Van Allen explained why he wanted to explore the theme of xenophobia and witch hunts:

"I was reading this book where someone was talking about the four or five big witch hunts in history. There was the original witch hunts; then there was McCarthyism; the satanic cult craze in the 1990s [ed note: the "Satanic Panic" was at its most fervent in the 1980s]; then Islamophobia today. But I think with the way social media has gone, everything turns into a witch hunt. Regardless if people are right about who they are hunting, I just think it's a dangerous culture we are in, with social media and all."
The symbolism is everything but subtle, but how much subtlety can there be in a story about an angry mob that almost stones their scapegoat to death? "Familiar" has an important message to get through to its audience. Important messages is something that Hollywood has been trying to communicate more often these days, and this season of The X-Files has been no exception. But as I have said in my review of "RM9SBG93ZXJZ", when the writers put the message first and the characters second, there will be problems. But here, Van Allen does the exact opposite, and focuses on the drama and on the characters first.

"Familiar" is a character study, the character being the paranoid small town itself. And this is where the elements of this episode - the writing, the direction, the acting come together to create an atmosphere of paranoia and distrust that lingers long after you watched the episode. The thesis may be on the nose but it's told through the characters' tragic experiences. It's the paranoia of the townspeople and the denial of their own guilt that drives the story forward, and that's what makes the exploration of this theme so interesting.

"Familiar" is one of the darkest episodes of this season, and maybe of the show as a whole. Not just for the amount of gore and violence but also for the events in this episode and consequences they have for the characters. Two families are killed and a whole town is torn apart in the span of only a few days. There is no coming back from that. Magic or not, darkness is always present.

My only real gripe with this episode is the return to the very old-school skeptic/believer routine between Scully and Mulder. It's been twenty five years since Scully first descended into that basement office. She's is not the same staunch skeptic she was in 1993, and Mulder isn’t the same gullible conspiracy theorist, with a willingness to believe that made him the perfect victim for the Syndicate. They have both been beaten up by life, and had their naïveté stripped away from them. 

As a result, their very different worldviews are more nuanced now. Not only did Scully see things that conventional science could not explain, but she lived them. Mulder has been misled time and again, and had his faith used against him. And yet here they are, in 2018, arguing about the existence of hellhounds and the nature of spontaneous combustion. The sudden reversal to their old - and now sufficiently obsolete roles felt disorienting to me. 

Perhaps it's the way that Scully's conventional wisdom progressed the plot and made things worse that kind of soured her role here for me. Scully chose the scientific approach to solving the mystery as we expect her to do, but in doing so she accidentally triggered a reaction she and Mulder couldn't foresee. Then again, the town was in such desperate need of a scapegoat, that had Eggers overheard Mulder's witch craft theories, this could have just as easily turned into a literal witch hunt.

What I do like is Scully and Mulder's role in this story in that they're not the main heroes. Technically, they are outsiders in this town, and the story centres around the two families - the Strongs and the Eggers. As I said earlier, it's the town that is the main character here, and Mulder and Scully are then the audience characters. In other words, they're us. What's interesting is their reaction to the unfolding drama and what they take away from this case.

You can see the toll this case is taking on them. When Mulder talks about "his son", and then grieves the death of Emily ("I just talked to her"), you know that he won't be able to shake this case off very easily. 

Which brings me to their final exchange before they leave the cursed town. 

Mulder: "What did you tell him?"
Scully: "To consider that book as evidence."
Mulder: "Evidence of what, exactly?"
Scully: "Of a town in a grip of madness. Of the most human fault and frailty."
Mulder: "Or in a grip of a curse unleashed by a modern-day witch."
Scully: "Leave that to the tourist literature, Mulder. I just hope that it's over."
Mulder: "I only hope that it is, too."
Scully: "That woman went up in flames."
Mulder: "Maybe it was the candles."
Scully: "Maybe it was the gates of hell. Let's get out of this town, Mulder!"
Mulder: "There is no getting out of this town, Scully. Not these days."

This may not be the best dialogue between Scully and Mulder (think Conversations on the rock, or their first banter in "Pilot"), but there is so much fun subtext to dissect (or read too much into).

Here, they play with each others' theories, and it's a sweet moment that provides much needed levity to a gruesome story. And even though neither of them ended up in mortal danger this time, this case will leave them with a bitter aftertaste, especially considering everything that they've gone through this season. And their little dialogue seems like a comfort they're willing to provide each other in a dark time.

Mulder's last line pretty much reinforces the thesis of this episode, and informs the political agenda of this season.

But my favourite part is Scully's remark about the tourist literature. It's a reminder that in any event, everybody will have their own version of the truth and that the farther away in time we go, the harder it becomes to discern facts from fiction. But this line also informs the nature of their work on the X-files and, by extension, their lives, 

It's pure joy to see these two in sync, even though they may still disagree on many things. When the cops are questioning Scully's theories, Mulder quickly shuts them down by saying that Scully "is a medical doctor and a damn good one at that". Of course he stands up for Scully, she's his homie.

Other stuff I liked: 

1. The direction and cinematography. Breathtakingly beautiful shots and lighting that make the gruesome nature of the episode that much more poignant. 

2. The creepy children's show. Van Allen said that he was always creeped out by kids' shows and that's what spurred him to create Mr. Chuckle Teeth and the alien-Teletubbies. This episode gets a lot of points for giving me the creeps.  

3. Scully's hair. It looks awesome. I got so used to mermaid Scully in the first half of season eleven, but her new bob is a welcome callback to the good old days, and also the wig itself looks very good, and the whole look gives Scully a certain softness.

4. Spontaneous combustion. What a welcome return of one of my favourite jokes from season six!  

What I didn't like so much: 

1. The whole melodrama with the cheating husbands and wives was a bit too much, but it worked for the story Van Allen wanted to tell.

2. The final shot of the merry-go-round spinning on its own. Way to end such a fantastic episode with such a cheesy cliche! 

All in all, "Familiar" is both a welcome return to the classic X-Files lore and a breath of fresh air. I said in a Youtube comment once that The X-Files' weakest episodes were usually the ones that dealt with magic and the occult. I formerly retract this comment because "Familiar" is freaking amazing. 

Links and sources

Candle Cove - Creepypasta Wiki

See you soon, Bibble Tiggles!

24 March 2018

Blog News: Spring Break and The X-Files Finale

Spring is officially here. Or so I have been told. It's hard to tell with all the snow and the chapped lips. Nevertheless, next week is Easter, which means school is out for a whole week! And boy do I need a break. I just need some time away from the clinic, from my classes, and - shockingly - from my X-Files reviews. 

As you may know, the series finale aired last Wednesday (Thursday here in Sweden), and it was all very emotional for us Philes (a lot of angsty posts on Instagram and tearful thank yous on Twitter).  I've jotted down my initial thoughts about the finale, but the review will have to wait. I've been having so much fun writing these rants for the past ten weeks, but now I feel like I need some time off to clear my head, and to get over the fact that the show is most likely over for good (I need a moment). I still have three episodes left to review, which I am looking forward to greatly.  

Thank you guys for joining me on this spooky journey, and I will see you again soon. Meanwhile. I have some spring cleaning to do!  

PS. You can still take part in the all the fandom angst by following my other account on Instagram, @dr.scullys.files. 

20 March 2018

My Spring TBR (with a twist)

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

This week's topic is books on our spring TBR. And this is where we get to our twist:

I don't have any books on my spring TBR. 

I no longer want my ambitions to put any added pressure on my already busy schedule. I'm currently re-reading The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow and I'm reading it at my own my pace. And honestly, I don't know what book I'm going to pick up next. I do know that I want to start reading books that I already own, as opposed to doing review requests or going to the library (although, you should totally support your local libraries!).

But just for the fun of it (and because I do like making lists) here are ten books on my bookshelf that I'm most excited about this season:

1. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I got a sneak peak at the first few chapters. It promises to be an interesting read.


2. Leviathan Wakes by James A. Corey

Just like with The Bell Jar, I already got a running start on this chunky space opera. With big epics such as this one, it usually takes time for me to really get into the story.

 3. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

It's been a long time since I last read that book, and I feel another re-read coming up. This time, I aim to finish the whole series.


4. Intercept by Gordon Corera

Wiretapping, espionage, and political games. What else do you need? Oh, and did I mention it's non-fiction.

5. Endymion and The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

Parts two and four in the Hyperion Cantos saga. The first two books were a treasure for me to discover, and I hope the last two won't disappoint.

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6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Well, I finally own a copy of this classic.


7. It by Stephen King

Fresh from the fantastic audiobook version narrated by Steven Weber, I now want to give my own inner narrator voice a try.


8. Salem's Lot 

More Stephen King. Always fun.


9. Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Twilight (Season 8 comics) by Brad Meltzer and Georges Jeanty

Got this copy on sale, and I'm looking forward to reading about Buffy and Angel (SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!)


10. The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh

Another re-read that is way overdue.


16 March 2018

The X-Files: "RM9SBG93ZXJZ" (Spoiler Review)

Remember when I said that this season has been very consistent and sure of itself? Well, about that...

"RM9SBG93ZXJZ" is the seventh episode of season eleven of The X-Files. The title translates to "Followers" in Base64 code. It was written by Kristen Cloke and Shannon Hamblin, and directed by Glen Morgan. A tribute to the British Netflix show Black Mirror, "Followers" shows us what may happen when technology runs amok. 

In the tease, a robotic voice tells the real-life story of the Microsoft chatbot that was launched on Twitter in March 2016, and how in just under twenty-four hours, the bot began mimicking toxic and offensive tweets from some of Twitter's more "outspoken" users before the creators deleted the account. 

This story becomes the basis of the episode: AI learns from us, so we must be careful about what we teach it. It's something that Mulder and Scully will have to figure out by themselves when, after refusing to tip the robot staff at the fully automated sushi restaurant, the agents become harassed by their home appliances and their smart devices. As the attacks begin to escalate to the point when Mulder is being chased by tiny drones, and Scully's furnace explodes after a gas leak, the agents throw away all of their portable tech (including Scully's "personal massager") and run away. 

They seek refuge in an empty factory, in a sequence that is way too reminiscent of the last act of Terminator to be a coincidence. But the machines attack them here, too. The agents get cornered by a mean looking robot that "hands" Mulder his smartphone and gives him the last chance to tip the robot sushi chefs. In the weirdest and least motivated ten seconds of the show ever, Mulder makes the last second decision to donate the smallest possible amount. The machines cease their onslaught and let the humans go.

In the final scene, we see Mulder and Scully having a quiet breakfast at a diner with an all-human staff. Mulder tips the waitress, Scully takes his hand, they smile. Fade to black. 

"Followers" is the most unusual X-File of this season so far and is a departure from how the show usually looks, sounds and feels. From the very first scene at the sushi restaurant at which Mulder and Scully are the only guests, you know this episode is going to be different. There is barely any dialogue, and most of the time when the characters speak they are trying to communicate with their smart devices. The episode looks different, too. It feels almost as if our heroes have been transported into a different world, where futuristic technology is the norm and the streets of Washington DC are deserted during nighttime. 

All of the stylistic and storytelling choices in "Followers" exist for the benefit of what the writers want to say about the way technology controls and permeates our lives. In their interview with SyFy Wire, Cloke and Hamblin make some interesting points about what having a smartphone with us at all times may actually mean to us:  

"I think it also adds to that isolated feeling that the obsession with technology and your cell phone and all that stuff [gives you]. You feel like you are engaged all the time, but maybe you're even more alienated by not really engaging." - Hamblin.

"A lot of being on your technology is spent there, filling space. We all want to fill the space, and that's why phones have taken over our lives. They are really great space-fillers." - Cloke.

If you want to take a deeper look at what "Followers" is trying to say about technology, I recommend reading the review by Tony Black of Cultural Conversation, as well as the SyFy Wire interview (links down below). Here, I can only add one thing. 

Movies and shows like Black Mirror do a great job speculating about how technology can become our foe exploring all sorts of nightmarish scenarios. But it wasn't until I saw "Followers" that I realized that none of the Black Mirror episodes depict the simplest and the most trivial ways technology can be frustrating and destructive. As anyone who has punched the CAPTHA code countless times before the system finally realized you weren't a bot or had the pleasure of "talking" to an automated service to book their delivery from IKEA will recognize themselves in "Followers". 

Fearful Symmetry

Is technology our friend or foe? Is AI indeed learning from us, and if it does, do we have a responsibility to be better teachers? Have we gone so far as to let technology take over lives and our minds? These are all incredibly interesting and relevant questions and for the most part, the episode deals with these questions pretty well. Unfortunately, it does that at the expense of the characters and the story itself. 

Take for instance the aesthetics of this episode. "Followers" looks great. I like the pedantic symmetry of shots in Scully’s home, and the contrast between the hyper-futuristic sushi restaurant and the homely mess of Mulder’s house.

The problem here is that this isn't The X-Files. "Followers" is a thinly veiled homage to/rip off of Black Mirror. The reason I find it problematic is that The X-Files is too strong of a show to be borrowing from other shows, and "Followers" relies too much on this borrowed imagery.

Back when the show was still young, and when Scully was still wearing shoulder pads, the writers did make themselves guilty of “paying homages” to iconic sci fi movies. The most notable example of it is the season one episode “Ice” which is basically the TV version of John Carpenter’s The Thing. But as the show got more confident, it developed its own visual style and its own very recognizable iconography, one that many shows that followed in Chris Carter's footsteps have been eager to emulate. 

The X-Files has always had its own trademark look, and the latest season and a half have been very good at keeping the balance between maintaining that look and making the show look new and fresh. Enter then "Followers" which looks nothing like any of the episodes we’ve seen so far. This isn’t a bad thing per se, and I applaud both Morgan and the writers for their desire and courage to experiment, but in this case, it felt like I was watching a different show. 

I may sound like a pedantic fangirl criticizing the stylistic choices of "Followers" but to me the Black Mirror aesthetics is symptomatic of a bigger problem I have with this episode.

In many ways, "Followers" is the outlier of this season. The rebellious kid who just won't fit in. Again, there is no problem with trying something different. The real question here is, how does it affect the characters and the season in general? "Followers" reminds me of the Treehouse of Horror episodes of The Simpsons. These Halloween specials feature the same characters, but they depict a different universe and the events of those episodes are not a part of the Simpsons canon. Finally, almost everybody in these stories acts out of character. 

And just like that episode where Homer Simpson starts the Apocalypse by accidentally making the computers rise against humans, "Followers" finds itself in this uncanny valley where the world is just a little bit off and the characters behave in a way that makes them a little less recognizable. 

For instance, take the no dialogue thing. Mulder and Scully are sitting at an empty sushi bar, taking selfies and not saying a word to each other. When you think about what the writers are trying to say about technology and its role in our lives, the choice to not have any dialogue makes sense. However, it is such an awkward scene because Scully and Mulder would be the last people on Earth to choose social media over having a conversation. This is such an out-of-character moment, especially when you think about all the fantastic lines shared between these characters. 

Conversations on the rock 

If you're going to make your characters do something radical, like not speak for the majority of the episode, there has to be an in-universe explanation for this choice. In the critically acclaimed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Hush", a group of demons called the Gentlemen steal people's voices so that nobody can hear them when they harvest their victims‘ hearts. For two thirds of the episode there is not one line of dialogue spoken by any of the characters. In "Hush" that premise works because there is a legitimate reason for there not being any dialogue.

Take then "Followers" where two of the most eloquent characters on TV barely say two words to each other because the writers wanted to make a statement. It's a good statement to make but not when it comes at the expense of the characters. 

I know, I know... I just spent the last three paragraphs ranting about how Mulder and Scully aren't talking in this one. But this is just one of the choices that the writers make that makes this episode stick out like a sore thumb. Since when does Scully live in a "smart house"? Since when can she afford one? Are we supposed to believe that Washington DC - the twenty first largest city in the United States becomes deserted when the sun goes down? It’s these seemingly small details that take the me out of the story, and frankly make me wish I was watching Black Mirror.    

To me, "Followers" is a confusing episode. I’m not going to lie, after the first viewing I was intrigued. It felt to me like this episode was trying to say something profound, I just didn't know what because I couldn’t look past its glossy surface. As with all the previous episodes, I watched this one twice - once as a fan, and then the second time to prepare for the review. But if in most cases, I found a lot more to enjoy on the second viewing, "Followers" was the first episode which was a chore to get through the second time around. I felt like I had watched a TV episode with an admirable level of ambition, but that was less sure of itself than its predecessors. 

And the whole concept of being attacked by your home appliances just isn't scary anymore. I wonder why? 

"Life's a glitch, then you die"

"Followers" isn't bad, and its weaknesses aren't unique to this one episode. In fact, they're more emblematic of the general quality of the AI/tech episodes of The X-Files. Take the cyberpunk thriller "Kill Switch" from season five. "Kill Switch" is a plot-driven episode, and none of the events there are of any consequence to the characters. The episode puts the tech-heavy plot on the forefront and the characters are just there. "Followers" suffers from a similar affliction. Let’s just say Cyberpunk is not The X-Files' strongest side. 

The exception here is "This", but in that episode the Matrix-like simulation plot is secondary to the story that asks questions about world politics, about Mulder and Scully's place in the world, and the concept of soul. The stakes here are high because they're personal. And all those philosophical questions are discussed by our heroes, which makes the themes of the episode more relevant, and the heroes more relatable. 

I’m not saying that every X-File has to relate to the characters personally. But this is a character-driven show, and when you put your themes before the characters and before the story itself, it almost feels like a betrayal.  

Links and sources 

The X-Files – ‘Rm9sbg93zxjz’ - Cultural Conversation 

Twitter taught a Microsoft's AI chatbot to be a racist asshole in less than a day - The Verge

EXCLUSIVE: X-Files writers Kristen Cloke and Shannon Hamblin explain 'RM9SBG93ZXJZ' - SyFy Wire