Skip to main content

Is it too late for a game of Stratego?

The X-Files
2.16: Colony

Suddenly, after all that reticence and innuendo, The X-Files dives headlong into aliens, cloned aliens, cloned hybrids and alien bounty hunters. Yes, we’ve seen the toxic green blood and the spike to the back of the head before, but 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask looks positively conservative next to the series’ first expressly designed two parter. The result, for all its gestures towards sensitivity and reflection, is the show at its pulpiest. That wouldn’t be a problem if it had devised a clear path for its ninety-minute TV movie format, but as End Game proceeds, it becomes clear they’re making this up as they go along.

Colony, though. A Chris Carter teleplay from a story by Carter and David Duchovny. Yes, this was the first time Duchovny’s creative itch was scratched on the show, and he could be found contributing mythology ideas all the way into the final season. Not so sure his first idea was such a doozy, though. I mean, sure, Brian Thompson doing a (decently impassive) Terminator impression – he even appeared in the first one, and has the budget-Arnie look down in a similar way to Jerry Doyle as a B-Bruce Willis in Babylon 5 – complete with taunting synths is an effective way to set out your store. But an alien bounty hunter? Was that really the route you wanted to go down, Chris, upon reflection? Because it suddenly reveals a very different canvas for the show, one from which there’s no retreat, so it will inevitably be required to double down. There isn’t just a shadowy (Grey) alien force bent on colonisation, there’s a shadowy (Grey) opposition force who want to prevent them.

Neither of the “Grey” elements are explicit at this point. I’m not certain it’s ever explicit that the alien bounty hunters are (although it makes sense to infer as much). I definitely have a cognitive dissonance imagining Thompson as a Grey beneath all that shapeshifting, though. I have enough of one making the leap to his being a really good actor whenever he’s inhabiting all those different forms (most particularly in this one as Tom Butler’s CIA Agent Ambrose Chapel, a name cutely nicked from The Man Who Knew Too Much, both versions).

Colony succeeds for the most part because, like many two-parter openers, it is setting up questions and threads, rather than failing to pull them together. Much of the proceedings are powered by a The Terminator meets The Hidden motor, of the Bounty Hunter potentially being anyone and the tension of our knowing this while our heroes are oblivious.

However, many of the criticisms Rob Shearman makes of these two episodes in wanting to believe are absolutely fair, much of it down to the characterisation of our agents and the need for them to be pushed around in their perceptiveness or lack thereof by the demands of the plot. This time, it’s Scully who is making all the sound comments and reaching the correct conclusions while Mulder, having forsaken his getting wise to the ease with which he could be manipulated in 1.17: E.B.E., is blown every which way. Even before he meets his alleged sister.

This kind of thing – our agents, primed to consider far-out options, entirely fail to consider and most importantly give voice to the possibility of the actual explanation for reasons of prolonging suspense that has the counteractive effect of inducing irritation in the viewer – is by no means isolated to this two-parter, but it’s a good example of it repeatedly getting in the way of coherent characterisation and motivation. Scully sees some twins/clones in the opening minutes and later seems surprised at the reveal of twins/clones (the reason is, of course, that she has to be, in order to express admiration for the seamless work the effects team have done).

Mulder will marginally redress the balance in End Game – although that brings with it even more problems – but he appears here remarkably swift not to say anything that might interrogate his sister’s tale. He also leaves Scully nursing suspicion of Ambrose Chapel (“He’s the real thing, Scully”). Now, admittedly, he doesn’t know there’s a shapeshifting bounty hunter in their midst, and his wanting to believe is working overtime, but he frankly comes across as a bit witless. It isn’t as if Chapel’s story is about aliens (it consists of some bafflegab about clones being used as agents to “essentially destroy the country's immune system”; there’ll be more about actual immune systems “next week”). It’s only when Scully waves her corroded shoe under his nose that he gives a little ground.

Along with all this – likely at Duchovny’s behest – there’s considerable opening up of Mulder’s family life. This is the first time we see dad William (Peter Donat) and mum Teena (Rebecca Toolan), and there’s some decent pencil work here in sketching their outlines; he’s the cold, distant father who won’t even hug his son, the guy from whom Fox can never earn approval. She’s the warm, emotionally susceptible mother, for whom the return of her daughter is quite the shock. Both function as they’re intended to, while Megan Leitch is excellent casting as Samantha, inherently sympathetic such that, if you are going to force Mulder to swallow a whopper, at least it’s from someone halfway legitimate.

There’s no doubt some of the implausibles here need to be the case – Colony is structured to pose as many puzzles and questions as possible, so revealing too many suspicions too soon would puncture that bubble – but at the same time, it feels that in order to cut to the chase of the plot, a whole chunk of emotional content is being missed. Generally, I’m not too cut up about this, as the series has a tendency to wallow in the shallow end of that pool circuitously (2.8: One Breath). But this is, as Mulder announces in a typically constipated voiceover, all about how his belief that his sister’s disappearance was ET related sustained his life mission. It’s too big to deal with in terms of efficient plot mechanics (which is largely Samantha’s function here). But more of that with End Game.

In part, Carter manages to integrate some grounding elements amid all this ’80s sci-fi action material. The investigation is instigated by one of the “Gregor” clones (Dana Gladstone) being stabbed at an abortion clinic (not the first time the series has suggested no good can come from abortion clinics, although perhaps with this in mind he throws in Linden Banks’ “militant right-to lifer” priest and then has him avow he wouldn’t take such action). Meanwhile, rather than taking a back seat to all this carnage, Skinner reacts entirely appropriately to the discovery of the body of Agent Weiss (Andrew Johnston, previously seen as a different character in 1.2: Deep Throat) “stuffed in the trunk of a car in front of a house that you sent him to”.

Colony was Northern Exposure veteran Nick Marck’s only gig for the series, and he keeps it moving, although he can’t disguise how it’s all joins structurally. It never feels that Carter’s really ironed this one out, and he’s hoping that, as long as he charges onwards, no one else will notice. The prologue of Mulder at death’s door will be the kind of thing, again, the series uses as a crutch, and eventually getting to that point in the narrative will inevitably be a let-down. The cliffhanger is a good one, though, as it’s always useful to keep the Mulder/Scully doppelgänger trope ready in a drawer. And the payoff is at least not a cop out.










 

Popular posts from this blog

Ziggy smokes a lot of weed.

Moonfall (2022) (SPOILERS) For a while there, it looked as if Moonfall , the latest and least-welcomed – so it seems – piece of apocalyptic programming from Roland Emmerich, might be sending mixed messages. Fortunately, we need not have feared, as it turns out to be the same pedigree of disaster porn we’ve come to expect from the director, one of the Elite’s most dutiful mass-entertainment stooges, even if his lustre has rather dimmed since the glory days of 2012.

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

All I saw was an old man with a funky hand, that’s all I saw.

The Blob (1988) (SPOILERS) The 1980s effects-laden remake of a ’50s B-movie that couldn’t. That is, couldn’t persuade an audience to see it and couldn’t muster critical acclaim. The Fly was a hit. The Thing wasn’t, but its reputation has since soared. Like Invaders from Mars , no such fate awaited The Blob , despite effects that, in many respects, are comparable in quality to the John Carpenter classic – and are certainly indebted to Rob Bottin for bodily grue – and surehanded direction from Chuck Russell. I suspect the reason is simply this: it lacks that extra layer that would ensure longevity.

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

I work for the guys that pay me to watch the guys that pay you. And then there are, I imagine, some guys that are paid to watch me.

The Day of the Dolphin (1973) (SPOILERS) Perhaps the most bizarre thing out of all the bizarre things about The Day of the Dolphin is that one of its posters scrupulously sets out its entire dastardly plot, something the movie itself doesn’t outline until fifteen minutes before the end. Mike Nichols reputedly made this – formerly earmarked for Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson and Sharon Tate, although I’m dubious a specific link can be construed between its conspiracy content and the Manson murders - to fulfil a contract with The Graduate producer Joseph Levine. It would explain the, for him, atypical science-fiction element, something he seems as comfortable with as having a hairy Jack leaping about the place in Wolf .

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.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un