Skip to main content

Remarkably, I did nothing. And, remarkably, it worked.

The X-Files
10.5: Babylon

I run hot and cold on Chris Carter’s quirky contributions to the series. I always get the sense he’s looking to his peers, who do this kind of think more deftly, wittily and are just plain smarter, and assumes he can have some of that pie. Far from proving his all-round auteurship, invariably he instead ends up covered in runny egg. As such, I’m not a huge fan of regularly cited faves like Triangle and Post-Modern Prometheus, although I love Improbable, a highlight of the show’s final season. Babylon is somewhere in between, mostly flying when bringing forward the humorous side but failing to stick the landing with regard to the overbearing political commentary and philosophical inquiry.


Although, one has to admire Carter’s flagrancy in deeming such delicate ground as jihadism and endemic institutional racism suitable for a frequently whacky episode in which Mulder and Scully meet their youthful next gen doppelgangers and Mulder trips his nuts off. In truth, this is closer to the mess of the duo of above cited episodes I don’t care too much for than one Carter has clearly and carefully mapped out, but it’s nevertheless only the second time this season (the first being another whacky episode) that I’ve not felt I’m watching a show going through the motions of approximating what it once was, one lacking the all-important enthusiasm for that thing.


I’m not sure how much enthusiasm Carter had for his terrorism plotline as opposed to the trite moralising that seeks to justify it (of which, as torturous as such scenes are, I can’t help but feel a tad nostalgic when Mulder assumes the surrogate posture of pretentious windbag). After all, while it might be presented under the banner of peace, love and acceptance, he has still furnished us with an episode where rednecks are shown abusing a young man we assume is an innocent Muslim (“Are we in the wrong country now?”) but who turns out to be a bomber on the verge of a change of heart, and which ends with the FBI apprehending a terrorist cell accompanied by Twin Towers news footage proclaiming it would have been the biggest incident since 9/11. There isn’t anything particularly challenging in its basic tenet that couldn’t have featured in more digestible, bite-sized chunks on an episode of that other Fox series with terrorist fascinations, 24. Accordingly, the appearance of the devoted and blameless mother is strictly adherent to all clichés in motion.


But, while Carter turns his examination of religious belief in (the law of) God into a typically verbose meal – like this sentence –  beginning and ending with Mulder discussing/hearing heavenly trumpets playing (so referencing the Book of Revelation (8:2), the sort of thing that was already overdone way back on Millennium) and taking in repeated displays of intolerance and bigotry on its way to that extended discussion between our leads, where they fail to reconcile unconditional love with hate that has no end, his placebo analogy is actually a rather, well, not clever exactly, but fitting one. If only he’d wrapped things up in 30 seconds rather than three or four minutes, then the pay off of Mulder’s triptastic experience with the “message” would have seemed much more inspired. Carter isn’t familiar with subtext though, so Mulder has to spell it out (“These guys, just swallow the pill, that’s the power of suggestion”), and once the writer-director-producer opens the floodgates of rambling, monotonous, pseudo-philosophical verbal diarrhoea, there’s no stopping him.



Carter also, while he has a clear idea of where he wants to send Mulder (it must have been all those Californication box sets that inspired him) rather forgets about Scully. As is common with Carter “funny” scripts, he doesn’t feel much compulsion to ground motivations, so Agents Einstein (Lauren Ambrose) and Miller (Robbie Ammell) arrive in the X-basement with the notion, well Miller’s notion, that there may be a way to non-corporeally contact the comatose terrorist suspect, who may then be willing and able to tell them where his co-terrorists will strike next (this is the slenderest, most tenuous of threads, even by X-Files standards). 


Mulder and Scully are then split up, working with Einstein and Muller respectively, proposing their own separate potential solutions to the problem. Lip service is at least paid to why Mulder and Scully wouldn’t work together, but Scully’s plans for communicating via electro-encephalogram (it worked for Patient 23; of course it did, he’s Patient 23) never gets off the ground thanks to a parade of aggressors intent on bringing harm to the recuperating detainee. What this effectively means is that it’s Mulder’s show.


If Carter wasn’t giving Scully that, he could at least have broadened the activities of the vengeance-filled government employees and turning their murderous intent into whacky hijinks, so providing a degree of balance. I waited for the nurse to go full-on demented De Palma but she remained straightforwardly bigoted. 


It doesn’t help the Scully side of the story that Ammell’s Miller is the embodiment of a square-jawed, forgettable lead, while Ambrose is highly personable and memorable (I note that, in flip to Duchovny and Anderson, she’s about a decade older than him). That they’re both back for My Struggle II may be unfortunate, as Mulder and Scully meeting and being impressed by their younger like-minds is a good one-off conceit but probably has limited shelf life (and let’s not even go there with potential baton-passing).


Mulder: I was under the influence of something powerful.
Einstein: Yes, the power of suggestion.

Carter delivers a series of solid funny lines, even if his more serious ones are buried under the weight of their own self-importance. “He seemed like a bright young man” quips Mulder of Miller, while Scully offers “I believe that you believe” of Miller’s credulousness. “Remarkably, I did nothing. And remarkably, it worked”, Agent Einstein offers Miller of how she extracted vital information from the patient.


Duchonvy’s interaction with Ambrose is a lot of fun (which bodes well, if Anderson has limited availability for any future excursions, as she has intimated may be the case, what with her living in Blighty and all), from his unsuccessful attempts to blind her with pseudo-science (“But first, can we talk about the nature of reality as you perceive it?”), with a winningly absurd theory that, if thoughts have a mass then ergo by taking magic mushrooms he will be able to establish a communicative link with the comatose terrorist, Einstein on hand to administer the illicit schedule 1 substance. All this, and Madame Helena Blavatsky too.


I’d wondered at the artistic licence by which Mulder came up on his ‘shrooms so quicky, so the revelation that he’d only dosed himself with niacin was surprisingly appropriate. As these things go. The experience has its highs (Tom Waits) and lows (Miley’s Achy Breaky Dad) as Fox gets to party with The Dead Gunmen (he should have taken the opportunity to ask what was going on with that premonitory Twin Towers episode) and Skinner, line dance, wear MUSH and ROOM knuckle rings, and encounter a fetish wear Einstein (“You were fifty shades of bad”).


Then it gets serious as Mulder shows his man-paunch on a Charon-esque boat ride while Carter pulls out all the stops for provocative imagery (the young terrorist, in a dying Christ pose, nursed by his mother). Really, the trip sequence alone put the episode ahead of most of this run, as luckily it’s the kind of visual excess Carter can handle quite well (I still get nauseous thinking about his one-take Branagh-on-steroids swirling camera in Triangle) so, along with the preceding playfulness, Babylon safely takes the silver for this season (so far).


Mulder asks “How did that work?” of the placebo, and the same might be said of the episode. It’s certainly a polarising one, with many voices coming forward to deny it. Sure, it’s a bit of a wash if you’re looking to take away anything profound from its topical sweep. But then, that goes back to a sentiment I voiced last week. Einstein asks Miller, “You think anyone takes The X-Files seriously?” And the answer is, “Not since about 1998, no”. Babylon seems to confirm this. So it looks like funny is the only way to go.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…