16 June 2018

Summer Reading

Schoolz out for the summer!

For the next two months, I won't have to learn anything new about odontology, medicine, or the physical properties of dental cements. Also, I can finally read for fun again.

I mentioned in one of my previous posts that I have fallen out of love with reading, and at that time it really did feel that way. Now, I feel like I'm getting my bookworm mojo back, and I'm already working on my next book review.

I have also assembled a short and preliminary list of books I want to read this summer. Some of them are new to me, but there are a few re-reads as well. 

27693272Endymion (Hyperion Cantos, #3)

I bought my copy of The House of Binding Thorns on a whim because I loved the cover. Also, I almost never read anything by French authors, and I'd like to change that.

Endymion is, of course, the third book in the Hyperion Cantos series. The first two books completely blew me away. Honestly, not a day goes by that I don't think about those stories. 

Who Goes There?38447

The two re-reads this season will be Who Goes There? and The Handmaid's Tale. I hated Campbell's sci fi horror the first time I read it, and I really want to give it a second chance. As for Margaret Atwood's dystopian classic, I feel like this is a world that needs to be revisited at least once. Maybe I'll even watch the TV version.


And finally, some non-fiction. As anyone who studies full time will know how stressful and exasperating student life can be. Taking care of yourself and making the time to reflect on your own process is important just to stay afloat. So, I came across a book in my school library, titled Bli Klar I Tid Och Må Bra På Vägen, which roughly translates into Finish on Time and Feel Good in the Process, which is a handbook for grad students on how to, well, finish their work on time and feel good in the process. Granted, I am not a grad student, but I still want to check it out.

Surrounded by Idiots is a pop psychology bestseller that tackles the many intricacies of communication at home, in the workplace, and other settings where you just can't escape the company of your fellow man. Being a pop psychology buff myself, I'm curious to give this book a try.

That about does it this time. I'm glad to be back from my little hiatus, and excited to be reading again. 

5 May 2018

The X-Files: My Struggle IV Review (Spoilers)

First, a little announcement. I will be going to the Montreal Comic Con this July. David Duchovny, William B. Davis and Pileggi will be among the guests. As well as James Marsters, a.k.a. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To say that I'm excited is an understatement. This will be my first visit to North America, and my first real Comic Con. I still haven't decided if I'm going to cosplay or just go as myself. 

And now to the review. It's the grand finale, baby! 

Just like the previous three obligatory mythology episodes, "My Struggle IV" opens with a monologue by one of the main characters. It's William's turn to tell his story. In Ghouli, we were introduced to a complicated young man who had trouble controlling his superpowers. And here we learn through flashbacks just how much trouble William's superpowers have caused him and his loved ones.

William is now on the run from the law, wrongfully accused for murdering his adopted parents. He's having visions of an upcoming apocalypse, and of the man who is behind it all. Having been in hiding for months, he now wants to find the Cigarette Smoking man so that he can find out the truth about himself and his role in his biological father's plans.

The episode proper begins at the FBI headquarters, were Kersh is chewing out Skinner for allowing Mulder come out in the media with the statement about the Spartan virus and an upcoming pandemic. Kersh tells Skinner that he closes the X-files, and orders him to take Mulder and Scully's badges. Seriously, the Bureau has shut down the X-files so many times, it has become a running joke.

 I want to like Kersh, but his inconsistency makes it difficult for me to see anything but a straw antagonist. He has shown glimpses of character development on a few occasions, but here his only role is to be a nuisance for our heroes, an obstacle they choose to bypass anyway. Still, I don't completely disagree with his reasoning. As the Deputy Director of the FBI he cannot afford panic on the streets because of some allegations made by Spooky Mulder.

Except that it wasn't Mulder who has come out with this information. It was Scully. Scully, who has maintained that her visions are being sent to her by William, still believes the pandemic to be a real threat. Desperate, she calls Ted O'Malley, the right wing online webcaster we were introduced to in the previous season and tells him to run this story.

Skinner tells Scully about Kersh's decision, but Scully couldn’t care less. She had a vision of Mulder dying at the hands of Cancerman, and she needs Skinner to help find him. Just then, Cancerman gives him a call, threatening to unleash the Spartan virus if Skinner won't deliver him William. 

In a flashback, Mulder and Scully get a call from Monica Reyes who tells them that their son is being held in Mr. Y: s warehouse in Maryland. Scully is skeptical, but Mulder can't miss this opportunity, and off he goes on his silver Mustang.

Mulder sneaks his into the warehouse where he spies what looks like a spacecraft. He is then surrounded by several armed guards and in a shootout that is left conveniently off-screen, kills them all. He then bursts into Mr. Y: s office, demanding to see his son. Mr. Y. doesn't have William, and he scolds Mulder for not being able to kill his father for the good of humanity. He then reaches for his gun, but Mulder draws first and shoots Mr. Y. in the head. So much for the new and exciting Big Bad.

The rest of the episode is a hot mess that consists mostly of car chases as all the concerned parties are trying to find William, and of William doing some impressive parkour to escape Erika Price’s private army. 

William, who up to this point has been good at staying under the radar of both the Syndicate, Cancerman and his parents, has made a few choices that immediately attracted all the parties' attention to him. He used his psychic powers to win a suspicious number of lotteries and then returned to Norfolk to persuade his ex-girlfriends to come with him.

Mulder follows William to Norfolk and begs his ex, Brianna to tell him where his son is. The highlight of this little scene is Brianna's distrusting friend, played by Duchovny's real-life daughter, West Duchovny.

Mulder admits to Brianna that William is his son, prompting her to give up his location. Mulder then finds William in a motel, and this is where we get one of the highlights of the entire season. The father and son reunion is bittersweet to say the least, and I didn't expect this scene to affect me as much as it did.

"I held you when you were a baby." says Mulder as he is drawing his son into a long overdue embrace, taking us back the final shot of season eight, with the happy parents holding their newborn son. This is the moment that the previous three seasons have been leading up to. This is also the first time I realized William's significance in Mulder's own character arc.

Despite Mulder's reassurance, William is keeping him at a distance, understandably so. He knows from his visions and from the events of "Ghouli" that Mulder means well, but he also believes that neither Mulder nor his biological mother can protect him from Cancerman or from himself.

What Mulder doesn't know is that Erika Price and her private army have been following him all this time. They burst into the motel room surrounding Mulder and William. But then in an intense and at the same time hilarious scene, William uses his powers to make the bad guys explode in a firework of blood and guts. Spontaneous human combustion, indeed. He then dashes off again, leaving Mulder alone in the blood-stained room.

Scully and Skinner are still racing to find Mulder before Cancerman does. With Skinner at the wheel, and Scully wearing a beige winter coat, this scene gave me a flashback to when the two of them were searching for Mulder's rogue ass in I Want to Believe. Of course, in that movie Skinner didn't have a bomb to drop on Scully. We see the guilt on the Assistant Director's face as he's about to tell her the hard truth about her son's conception.

Scully takes the news surprisingly well, or maybe she's just focused on finding Mulder alive. Which she does, as by an amazingly convenient coincidence, she spots his silver Mustang on the road.

Scully goes after William, but Mulder pleads with her to let him go, telling her that this is something that he wants, and that he knows that she loves him. "How do you know that?”, Scully asks. Just then, the real Mulder appears, and William in the guise of Mulder runs off again. Another chase ensues, this time through the dark twisted corridors of the factory.

Cancerman and Reyes have made it to factory, too, where they're confronted by Skinner. What follows is a truly WTF-scene that I will never forgive Chris Carter for. Monica, who's at wheel, tries to put the car in reverse to save hers and Skinner's life, but Cancerman takes control of the car, and floors the pedal, in an attempt to run Skinner over. Skinner pulls out his gun and shoots Monica in the head. He should have shot CSM instead (for so many reasons), because in the next instant Cancerman crushes him with his car.

Cancerman then confronts Mulder at the waterfront, and after a charged exchange, shoots his first-born son in the head. Just as Mulder's lifeless body plummets into the water, the real Mulder appears, and in a fit of rage, shoots his father several times before pushing him into the water. It’s an intense and chilling scene that immediately took me back to all those moments when Mulder held his biological father at gun point but never having the balls or the callousness to pull the trigger. I love the rage on Mulder's face, and the dumb surprise on the CSM: s face as the realization hits him.

Scully then catches up to Mulder, and he tells her that Cancerman has killed their son. Mulder is on a verge of a breakdown, but Scully tells him that William was never their son, but an experiment created in a lab.

"What am I if not a father?" Mulder says, to which Scully replies that he is a father. She then takes his hand and places it on her stomach, revealing to all of us that, yes, she's pregnant again. The two then embrace, and as they're standing there, comforting each other, the camera cuts to the dark water, and we see William resurfacing with a bullet hole in his head, but alive.

Where does one begin untangling this ball of abandoned plot lines and tearful embraces? In short, "My Struggle IV" is a hot mess. A whole season arc is destroyed with a few gunshots, key characters are killed off, as the story is pinballing between moments of brilliance and steaming piles of alien poop.

The first time I watched this episode, I did it as a fan. And by the time the end credits rolled, I felt cheated. The reason I felt cheated was because it felt like all of the show – all the fantastic and amazing stories, twenty-five years of them – have been nullified, neutralized by this one episode. All those years, all those arcs, all those theories, all those hopes and questions – it has all led to this?

And had I written this review immediately after watching the episode, my reaction would have been akin to that of Mulder's at the end of "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat".

The biggest problem with this episode in my book is the pacing. The season has been overall well-balanced, and the stories evenly paced, and here we are, in the final episode that has all these questions to answer and all the complicated subplots to resolve, and most of the time is spent on car chases and parkour. It's all very messy, frantic, and incoherent. 

The structural problems of not just this episode but of all the mythology entries in the past two seasons (except for "Ghouli") may have to do with the awkward way that mythology has been shoehorned into this revival. 

In the original show, there were between five and ten mythology episodes per season, which gave the storylines plenty of time to develop at their own pace. The conspiracies unfolded slowly, and the payoffs were usually satisfying. 

In contrast, the new mythology has a total of five episodes, one of which has turned out to be a dream sequence. In hindsight, the last two seasons would have been much more consistent and well-balanced had Carter just dropped the mythology altogether and focused instead on telling new and exciting standalones. I have always felt that the mythology has outlived itself sometime in season six anyway. But this is Carter's show and the alien/government mythology is an essential part of it. 

Well, nuts to that, because the masterminds behind this new conspiracy are killed off like a couple of faceless minions. Is there someone else to continue their work? Who knows! It's the finale. Neither we will know if Cancerman really did have the Spartan virus, and if Scully's visions were in fact precognitive.

If there's a lesson to be learnt here it's that you shouldn't start a huge story arc if you know you won't have the time for the a proper payoff.

How much more coherent the mythology episodes would have been if Carter instead chose to make it entirely about William. Speaking of which, we need to talk about William.   

William's life is a tragedy, and the bitter irony is that Scully had given him up to protect him, but by making that hard choice she basically doomed him. Okay, so he didn't die, but that last shot of him peering out of the water spying on his (sort of) parents doesn't inspire hope. On the contrary, it makes him look like one of the many monsters that Scully and Mulder had come across. What is he going to do now? Who is he going to turn to? Where is Professor X when you need him?

One very observant fan on Facebook noted that this ending has been foreshadowed in "The Post-Modern Prometheus" from season five. Whether or not this was intentional, the parallels between these two episodes are haunting. So haunting that it inspired me to make this cheesy little edit for Instagram.

Regardless of whether you think William’s character was treated poorly, one question at least got answered: yes, William was an experiment, a human-alien hybrid created by the Cancerman. And yes, that seemingly invincible reptiloid is William's biological father.

The revelation is icky, and it just feels wrong, but as I said in my review for "My Struggle III", it's not unwarranted, and the twist fits well within the overarching theme of the mythology, that of the immorally powerful government abusing innocent people - mainly women - for their own gain.

So, I didn't have a problem with this twist, so much as I was grossed out by it. But as I was watching the finale, I realized the inherent mistake of this plot twist, something I had only joked about before. Mulder has always believed himself to be William’s father, and in a way, he built his identity around his fatherhood, but now it turns out that William was not his son, but his half-brother. Though not incestuous per se, this family constellation is still wrong, and I feel like Carter basically wrote himself into a corner with this one. Was shooting William the only way out of that corner?

William's character has been sold short, just like he was in season nine. Carter is notorious for dangling hopeful mysteries like that for years and then giving the audience the middle finger. In season seven it was finally revealed that Samantha - the driving force behind Mulder's work and the reason behind so many heartbreaks had been dead for years, long before Mulder started searching for her. And here, after three seasons of build-up the pay-off gets shot in head and thrown into the cold dark river.

I couldn’t understand why Scully didn't have a shock reaction when William died. She raised him for a whole year and then spent the next sixteen years torturing herself for her choice, and now she's okay with him dying because she has a new baby instead? It felt wrong, and out of character for Dana Scully. But maybe, it was because Scully already had her goodbye in the morgue in "Ghouli". Maybe. Some other fans also suggested that at that particular moment, Scully was just being strong for Mulder. I don't disagree with that, given how hard Mulder took it all.

Throughout the series, I have almost always sided with Scully, and to me personally it was Scully's story that has been more interesting and relatable. This season has done something that none of the previous seasons have - it made me feel for Mulder, and truly empathize with him. Mulder is the vulnerable hero, and he's not ashamed of it. In season ten, he had to be strong for Scully when dealing with loss of William, but we saw that he, too, was suffering. And in this season, Mulder's grief over what could have been and his longing to have a family are open and naked, mostly thanks to Duchovny's performance, but also because of the character's history.

Mulder lost his entire family - his sister, his mother, and his adopted father. Sure, he still has his half-brother Jeffrey, but they don't exactly send each other Christmas cards. Scully is all the family he has left. And when Mulder says, "What am I if not a father?" this question is loaded with seventeen years of regret and hope.

But Mulder is a father, at least according to Scully and Chris Carter. Scully is pregnant. But she also does have alien DNA. What does this mean for the baby? And for the world? I guess we'll never know. At first, this revelation felt an insult to William's head injury. It was as if Scully was saying, "William turned out wrong, but who cares, he has a new, untainted baby on the way!".

The truth is, Scully's pregnancy has been hinted at throughout this whole season, although all those clues have completely gone over my head, like Mulder and Scully staying (and doing it) at St. Rachel's Motel, in "Plus One" or Scully holding her hand over her flat belly in "Followers". It isn't just the visual clues that have foreshadowed this revelation, but the stories themselves. Mulder and Scully's conversation and their two-night stand in "Plus One" as well their intimate moment in the church in "Nothing Lasts Forever" (which is the episode's only redeeming quality).

Chris Carter broke Scully and Mulder up prior to season ten to recapture that chemistry and the sexual tension that has been spicing up the original show. This season has been all about Mulder and Scully trying to find their way back to each other. In the church, Scully admits that it was her fears that drove her away from Mulder. Whatever the reasons for their initial break-up, they never stopped loving each other, and their bond is still strong.

I'm not a shipper. If anything, I was hoping that Carter wouldn’t go for a big Hollywood ending with the two beautiful heroes sharing a passionate kiss as the fireworks go off in the background. And he didn't. Instead of a passionate kiss, our heroes share a comforting embrace, holding on to each other like a lifebuoy, and instead of fireworks, there is only the black night sky. And a tiny fetus in Scully's once barren uterus.

In a way, the recycled miracle pregnancy plot twist is a reward for all the tragedies and heartbreaks our heroes have endured. It's a clunky compromise, not entirely a happy ending, but one that at least gives our battered heroes some hope. Does it make sense? Who cares, it's the finale.

So here we are. No justice for Monica. Skinner may or may not be dead. And William is Deadpool. So many questions left unanswered. But maybe Reggie was right. Maybe its wasn't about finding the answers. Maybe it was about giving these amazing characters a new life and exploring how they have changed since we last saw them.

As far as season finales go, this one was pretty bad. This isn't the "Anasazi" or "Existence". But is it better than "The Truth"? Both the original series finale, and "My Struggle IV" have Mulder and Scully facing an uncertain future. And in both episodes, Cancerman gets what he deserves. This is were the similarities end, but I can't decide if I prefer the lazy exposition of "The Truth" or the frantic car chases and parkour of "My Struggle IV". 

The new series finale is far more ambitious than "The Truth" was, and it at least tries to answer some of the most burning questions. It's also more hopeful than that old finale, what with the new baby and Mulder not facing a death penalty again. On the other hand, "The Truth" felt like a more balanced, self-contained story, and it did a better job and wrapping most of the subplots. 
 In the time when more and more cancelled TV-shows get revived, and nostalgia is the new black, these last two seasons of The X-Files have been more than just about recapturing former glory. Rather, this is the result of years of devoted fans nagging and begging the Fox executives to give us more stories. Not because we wanted to revel in nostalgia, but because we knew that there were more stories to tell. And even though nostalgia has been heavily used in the marketing of the revival, the show itself proved to be fresh and relevant. As Mulder put it, "you still have some scoot in your boot!".

Bildresultat för the x files promo season 1

Well, that's it. Ten episodes. Ten reviews. I loved season eleven. I loved watching it, I loved writing about it. What happens next? I have a long term plan for a complete X-Files episode guide, starting from Pilot, all the way to the season ten, including the movies. But that will take a very long time to make. 

Other than that, I don't have any plans for this blog. Honestly, I don't really know what to do with this blog. I fell out of love with writing book reviews, so we'll just have to wait and see. Anyway, the finals are coming up, and I won't have the time to blog much anyway. Let's just say, this blog is going on a hiatus. 

Thank you for sticking with me, and for allowing me to nerd out on a regular basis. 

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!