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

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

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.