Thursday, November 15, 2007

Air Ducted


As Agent Dana Scully explores the Eurisko building's ventilation system, as detailed in the X-Files episode "Ghost in the Machine", we witness a special instance of three personal pet peeves coinciding in a single moment.

1. Air Ducts
Have you, valued reader, ever been in an air duct? You have not. Don't get confused by hazy memories based on a pazillion movies and TV shows, but have you ever really seen such an air duct? You've probably never fired two guns at once, been attacked by a killer you presumed was dead, or dangled off a building, either, but at those exciting action/adventure cliches are fun in the moment, and based on recognizable real-world objects and events you have witnessed. But look around the room. Do you see an air duct? Do buildings, even offices, military installations, or abandoned factories converted into cocaine manufacturing plants have air ducts large enough to house a full-grown adult? While we all possess some small degree of latent claustrophobia, is it thrilling to watch people wriggle around in these imaginary silver tubes, which seem to have no correlative in reality?

I hate air duct scenes.

2. Killer Computer Episode
Every fantasy, sf, or horror program will get around to the Killer Computer episode, if left to its own devices long enough. There's nothing inherently wrong with contemplative sf asking tough, original, informed questions about AI... but obviously most Killer Computer episodes fail the basic driving test. As Mr. S.L. Jackson once said, I hate this hacker crap, and worse, I hate hearing fake compu-gobbledygook. "Ghost in the Machine" brings up the important issue of "what if a computer was like a crazy panther and when threatened, started biting people?" The answer is: Scully would have to climb into an air duct.

The X-Files managed to squeeze a Kill-'Puter in by episode seven! At least Buffy the Vampire Slayer was refined enough to hold off till episode eight. "Ghost in the Machine" is fair-to-poor as the show finds its sea legs, and chock-a-block with rips from 2001 and Gremlins 2 (including... AIR DUCTS!), but sadly is only the first of The X-Files half-dozen Killer Computer episodes in nine seasons. Snore-baiting as the surfeit of demonic microprocessors may be, for sheer numbers it runs well behind such X-Files Mad Libs episode templates as Revengy Ghost (easily the winner), Supernatural M.O.'d Serial Killer (also uncountable), Idyllic Small Town Where Something Isn't Right and its frequent twin Occult Murder Club Confidential. This brings us to...

3. Mytharc Vs. Monster of the Week: How to Watch The X-Files
This one's X-F specific. The strong public preference for the scarier, less-convoluted MOTW X-Files is evident once more, as news/discussion/indifference spreads of the impending second feature film spin-off. Conventional wisdom is that either the Mytharc episodes — those detailing a baroque government conspiracy and its connection to various and sundry UFO-stuffs — were either boring to begin with, or eventually became coy with their secrets, jumbled in logic, or petered out due to poor planning. And therefore the stand-aloneish episodes are superior. And nearly every fan-favorite list will be populated by the same two dozen highlights of the scariest, funniest, and most innovative episodes.

But that's just the peeve that I've gotta pet. Conservatively, the Mytharc is a third of the series. Realistically, the continuing mystery of the Consortium, the nature of alien phenomena, and the quest for Samantha Mulder is what fueled the popular frenzy over the program for the first several years, and set it apart from the pack as more than a handsomely photographed Kolchack: The Night Stalker variation. It is the heart and soul of the series narrative. Undeniably botched and confusing as the yarn became as it tangled into unrecognizable knots, the mishandling of the Mytharc is symptomatic of the entire series. Character arcs became illogical, plot points were dropped or revised, storytelling was mud-clear as a matter of course not just over the Mytharc, but during dozens of individual episodes, including Monster of the Week installments. For every beloved "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" and "War of the Coprophages" there are two "Sanguinarium"s. Two "Ghost in the Machine". You say you don't like the Mytharc, and you're denying yourself the operatic heights of "The Red and the Black", and "The Sixth Extinction" and the most intimate character moments of "One Breath", "The Blessing Way", and "Gethsemane" - some of the best writing the series has to offer.

The Myth, see, it isn't just about keeping track of alien factions and wondering what the hell happened to the morphing bounty hunters. That story, as a story is irresponsibly handled. They broke it, if you buy it, try not to cut your fingers on the jagged edges. Instead, focus on the moment-to-moment, the only way The X-Files can hang together, and see the whole nine-season thing is Mytharc. In the end, Mytharc episodes are just as stand-alone as any other; the show is crafted to work scene to scene, act break to act break. It's about how thrilling, suspenseful, intriguing, funny, scary or sweet the moment can be, even if it's to be negated in the next scene. The MOTW episodes reinforce the Arc, because it's about the characters on what passes for a journey, beat to beat. So those romantic moments where Scully and Mulder sit on the rock together in the middle of a lake and talk about Moby-Dick in "Quagmire", a fine Low-Rent Loch Ness Monster of the Week: that's Mytharc in a sense. You don't fully comprehend the importance of the quiet moment with the characters without knowing where they've been, and in turn, it's what makes you care, if you're invested in their bigger Mytharc adventure. The Arc brought them there.

It sure wasn't the air ducts.

4 comments:

Jordan said...

Oh boy! An X-Files post...I was hoping for that one of these days. Quagmire is one of my favorite episodes because the scene with them "stranded" on the log. Enough time passes where the ridiculousness of their situation starts to seep in, and the adrenalin goes away, and they just start talking. I love it.

The Sixth Extinction is one of my favorite arcs too...It pretty much reveals that God=Aliens. WHO KNEW?

What did you think of the 8th and 9th season? I actually really like Doggett...Robert Patrick is just too likable. Scully became exhausted and bored by the 9th season. She's half asleep in every episode and couldn't care less about what's happening. The fun seems to have gone away.

Hovering,

Jordan

Chris Stangl said...

In short, I think the last two or three seasons are extremely underrated. However, since they are subjects of universal loathing, they'd kind of have to be. Doggett and Reyes are great characters for an episodic drama, played by engaging actors, particularly Patrick... and of course they aren't the reason anyone loved and followed the show. THE X-FILES golden years are a story from Mulder's point of view. Like M*A*S*H is Hawkeye's story or I LOVE LUCY is, well, Lucy's. Audiences may like the other characters, may enjoy the stories-as-stories, but my genre storytelling theory is that audiences engage with the story because of the characters. So Chris Carter and Ten Thirteen can't just swap out their leads and expect the same results, without entirely retooling the show.

By season seven it's necessary to have "given up" on the promise that you're being told a coherent nine-year serial story. It wasn't planned or built that way, even that's what Carter promised, and even if it scrambled to create the illusion that if you stick with it, there's a payoff coming. It ain't BUFFY... it ain't even BATTLESTAR. It's a step in the direction of genre serials, but in essence it's still old skool episodic TV. I've been rewatching every episode as if it takes place in a perpetual Now, and finding the show a lot more gratifying. There are a lot of cool stories being told in the last several seasons, if one can just get over losing the central point of view and, er, the reason the show existed - i.e.: Mulder.

Jordan said...

I actually love the 8th season...the "search for Mulder", and him being found dead, then buried for months (!!) then dug up again...This is all very exciting. And Doggett being literally dropped into this TV show is funny and kind of touching, as he slowly starts to care about all the characters and remain skeptical, but devoted to tackling the X-Files.

Reyes kind of annoys me, but dammit Gish is too likable as well. I liked the chemistry between her and Doggett...But exactly, that's not what X-Files is about. Still, I have a lot of favorite episodes...I love the one about the little man with no legs who crawls inside of people. Also the Memento-meets-groundhogs-day-ish episode about the prisoner who's in jail and each time he wakes up it's the day before. Hell, even Doggett is barely in that episode...But it's a damn good one.

I thought as long as Scully is still there, it would be OK...But without Mulder to play off she seemed overwhelmed by too many people who don't know what's going on. She didn't have a playful chemistry with Doggett...It was more like she was sick of everything. And her baby, though I loved some of the episodes revolved around it, made her so dramatic, crying all the time, not interested in the smaller X-Files cases anymore.

I can't express in words how excited I am at the idea of a new X-Files movie. I just hope the characters have fun again.


-Jordan

Noumenon said...

My factory does have one giant air duct up by the ceiling of each room. They are for the swamp cooler because we are not air conditioned. They go from a diameter you could almost stand up in near the outside down to something you could just wriggle through by the end. They're round. I don't know if they could support a person's weight. They're not enough like the Hollywood kind, I guess.