Skip to main content

Mulder, I’ve got wrapping to do.

The X-Files
6.6: How the Ghosts Stole Christmas

One of the worst things that happened to X-Files producer Chris Carter, output-wise, was witnessing the often very funny, witty contributions of his more comedically minded peers – Darin Morgan, Vince Gilligan – and deciding he’d have some of that. Because Carter’s best contributions as writer – and even, initially, as director – to the show’s early period, tended to be honed, tightly constructed mythology builders or punchy standalones. He dipped his toe in more frivolous waters with 3.13: Syzygy and failed to garner the plaudits he likely felt were due, such that he didn’t try again until the much better received 5.5: The Post-Modern Prometheus. Which brought us to Season Six, and undisciplined messes like third episode Triangle. And How the Ghosts Stole Christmas.

If you look at his earliest dual (or triple, with producer) duties affair, 2.5: Duane Barry, it’s a disciplined, controlled piece of work. A strong character piece that also contributes to the show’s mythology arc in effective and intriguing ways. Unfortunately, by Season Six, Carter’s mythology contributions were running on fumes, while his standalones were suffused with whimsy and quirk in the least laudable and most aggravating fashion. Occasionally, the planets would still align (9.13: Improbable), but his Season Six offerings are where I tend to go to when thinking of Carter the “auteur”.

How the Ghosts Stole Christmas also evidences the curse-blessing of an ardent fan base. Because makers more usually than not end up in thrall to fan opinion, and more often than not, this ends up a detriment to the show’s quality and direction. Back in Syzgy, Carter sketched the Mulder-Scully relationship on the basis that they would not become a romantic couple. And yet we all know what happened there, despite the abundant warning signs of how it was never a good idea (see Moonlighting for a prime example). Here, he’s also focussing on our FBI agents’ dynamic, and with the characteristic indelicacy of one habitually writing Mulder droning five-minute monologues to see out an episode. They’re both lonely, you see. And because Carter’s not yet at the stage of capitulating to romantic pressures, he manoeuvres them into a stand-in position for a couple of ghosts who want them to re-enact their doomed suicide pact.

But it’s also perky! Peppy! Quirky! Look at the roving camera! And try not to worry too much that it’s all a sprawl of hapless filler. Carter is frequently a tone-deaf stylist, which means he still thinks he can tell a heart-warming Christmas tale while having Mulder and Scully slipping about in their own exsanguination. He has two veteran performers in Ed Asner (interesting that Bob Newhart was asked and demurred) and Lilly Tomlin, but there’s never enough that’s endearing or engaging – or threatening – about them to make their haunted schtick stick. Which isn’t to say Carter doesn’t have some neat ideas – the bodies of our favourite agents under the floorboards, rooms circuitously leading back on themselves, and the bricked-up doorways. But such disorientating conceits only really work in the hands of a sufficiently talented director, and Carter simply isn’t.

Like Triangle, where Mulder and Scully rush around a passenger ship to breathlessly tiresome fancy dress effect – I know it’s a fan favourite, but I never cared for it – Carter thinks he can sustain his slender premise for forty minutes on goodwill alone. But the episode rarely allows Duchovny and Anderson to have the kind of fun their most playful episodes display. He offers some amusing observations at their characters; “Your only joy in life is proving him wrong” Lyda (Tomlin) tells Scully, while Maurice (Asner) quips “You’ve probably convinced yourself you’ve seen aliens”, so picking up on Mulder’s Season Five dark night of the soul.

There’s also potential in the haunted house premise – just ask Netflix – but it’s entirely squandered for a jingly jolly. And not an especially jolly jingle at that. If How the Ghosts Stole Christmas had been more imaginative – think The Fantastic Journey’s Fun House – and less dour, it might have been memorable as other than one of the then-regular funny ones (albeit, as I said, it is less funny than “quirky”). Carter also throws in some Death Becomes Her visuals (a hole in Ed’s head). And if you’re going to riff on Dr Seuss in your title, you’d better be up to snuff.

It can be interesting when revisiting old shows or movies to note now-topical signposts or markers. These may either be laden with intent or entirely innocent and incidental. Some would label any and all such as predictive programming, but I tend to think that only sometimes applies. At others, it’s just a case of the makers living in the same wind tunnel as the rest of us.

For instance, there was no reason Carter wouldn’t buy the official line on the Spanish Flu. Most likely, even or because he’s given to immersing himself in the shallow end of the conspiracy pool, he still does. But Mulder’s scene setting “It was a time of fark, dark despair. American soldiers were dying at an ungodly rate in a war-torn Europe while at home a deadly strain of the flu virus attacked the young and old alike” makes one rather sit up now. Of course, The X-Files was always a show for grasping low-hanging conspiracy fruit. You weren’t going to get at come across any real, paradigm-shaking fundamentals in it, which is why it was such an attractive limited hangout for the masses. An easily digestible and inoffensive dip into the waters of conspiracy that more than serviced the hankering of most. The irony that the show rather floundered with its main arc in Season Five, just as it pointed to Mulder having been scrupulously hoodwinked in his quest – given that it’s likely closer to what is actually going on than anything else in the show’s torturous conspiracy arc – is not lost.

I see Rob Shearman called this one – and Triangle! – playful and clever, “bursting with heart and life”. So, as we saw when I revisited 3.20: Jose Chung’s From Outer Space, we’re fairly far apart on some things X (the preceding two-parter Dreamland is one of my favourites, and he roundly slates it). Indeed, the things Shearman habitually responds to (that nu-Who over-emotional wringing) are ones that consistently turn me off. But I do rather like Mulder and Scully exchanging presents at the end – having vowed not to get each other any – to the sound of Bing singing Merry Little Christmas. And that Mulder is watching the classic version of Scrooge (Alastair Sim). Compared to a Doctor Who Christmas episode, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas is a masterpiece. But let’s face it, that’s the lowest of low bars.




Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the