Articles Modest Proposals Television USA

David Duchovny vs. Gillian Anderson

Wednesday, June 18, 1997

Discussing The X-Files on the Internet is like being English and talking about the weather – it’s so common as to be stereotypical. However, keeping banality at bay, there are some crucial things to say.

Firstly, the show is deeply manipulative, working on us in a very skilful way. This is done partly by a tight and recurring pattern for many episodes – a precredit sequence gives us an insight into someone we know to be weird, and ends in a death. Then we have a brief piece of investigation, and an autopsy (oh, Scully in her surgical scrubs). By this stage, the viewer is required to have recoiled in horror at least once – uuuuugh! – we say, as someone spontaneously combusts, instantly suppurates or loses a crucial limb.

Scully comes up with a plausible explanation, then looks in increasing disbelief as Mulder starts a speech with, ‘What if . . . ‘, in which his mad explanation is first expounded. The duo split up and Scully rings Fox, saying ‘Mulder, it’s me.’

His suggestion almost invariably proves to be correct, but at the end of the show there’s still a suggestion that this might not really be the end of the matter. Perfect postmodern balance between closure and being left deliberately unsatisfied. The pacing of the series reflects the pacing of individual episodes, as we’re giving hints and suggestions about the big story of abduction and colonisation, but never feel like we really know what’s going on.

The storylines play on our pre-millennial tension – our loss of faith in big government, big religion and big ideas is exemplified in the perfect combination of aliens and conspiracy theories.

However, other shows before and after have tried this – The Twilight Zone and Nightstalker before, Dark Skies and Millennium after. The difference is that in the X-Files, the relationship between the two leads powers the show as much as the weird stuff.

It’s become a given that the show reverses the normal power relations between the male and female leads. Before, the ditsy woman would be convinced there was something odd going on, and the big logical man would get to the bottom of things and reveal the logical explanation.  Now Mulder is the passionate believer and Scully the hard-headed scientist.

This sounds great, but as has been remarked, in the value system of the show, Scully is still the weaker partner, as her explanations are shot down by a credulous but correct Mulder. The X-Files are his baby, and he gets to discover things, shoot things, storm off in huffs, and look troubled.

Scully meanwhile gets cancer, abducted, and her family members killed while she’s chasing around after the big kid Spooky. Unsurprisingly, she’s been branded a saint in some circles.

Then there’s the Moonlighting-style sexual tension element. If ever we were being manipulated it’s over this. All the hints about Chain-Smoking Man and the big colonisation plans pale beside this blatant piece of titillation. Take two attractive leads, and simmer them gently, always threatening to bring them to the boil.

So up until recently I’ve let myself be led, and enjoyed the trip, still knowing that there was something hollow at the heart of the show. The duo have been through so much, but little of it seems to have left a mark. Scully’s hair and suits are better cut, and Mulder is a bit more wisecracking, but that’s been it.

Thankfully, this is changing, with Scully’s attitude to her cancer lending her a certain grace and dignified fragility, and Mulder’s self-obsession leading (possibly) to his downfall.

The show’s always been good, but now it’s shifting from being knowingly manipulative to genuinely moving as it explores the internal lives of the two leads. The truth is in there.

Articles Film Life Modest Proposals

The Empire Strikes Back vs The Bible

Wednesday, June 04, 1997

Your modest proposer is not normally given to self-revelation, but this week we come to a topic that warrants some autobiography. When I was ten years old my older sister and I went to see The Empire Strikes Back.

I enjoyed the film in a ten year-old way and spent the whole summer playing with an imaginary light sabre (not the dodgy plastic ones you could buy in the shops – they were bobbins).

It was not until I saw the film again earlier this year that I was suddenly struck by the scary thought that my moral view of the world might have been shaped by a 3-foot high muppet with a croaky voice.

Of course, it’s not news that the Star Wars trilogy is steeped in mythic grandeur. George Lucas knew Joseph Campbell’s work on the monomyth, and it’s clear that the reason the films are so powerful is due to the ancient archetypes and tropes they invoke as much as the special effects.

Look at even the most obvious literary, mythic and psychological borrowings. Luke’s journey from farmer’s boy to Jedi knight is a classic medieval quest for identity. Then there’s Luke’s Freudian desire to kill his father, his descent into hell to rescue Han from Jabba, and all those suggestions of incest with Leia. Add the Jesus, Hamlet, Odysseus and Gary Cooper parallels, and it’s a very heady brew indeed.

Critics have long been wise to this, from Roland Barthes to my breathless undergraduate essay about Thomas Malory and Star Wars, but this is of more than academic interest, at least to me.

Sitting in the dark watching The Empire Strikes Back again, I began to realise that in some deep way, I agreed with all of Yoda’s exhortations about the Force. Maybe it’s the way it recalls many Eastern belief systems. The mix of physical and spiritual effort required of a Jedi parallels Buddhist monks learning karate, and the Force binding everything together sounds like Shinto animism to (ignorant) me.

When Yoda says, ‘A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack. . . For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is.  Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us.  Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,’ I found myself thinking that, give or take the odd name, that doesn’t sound too weird.

Against all this, The Bible didn’t stand a chance in my house. It didn’t really speak to me in the language a ten year-old would understand. The merchandising was rubbish, for a start. A 3-inch plastic John the Baptist was never going to be as valuable in the playground as a Boba Fett First Edition.

One scary site, ‘The Force is a Tool of Satan’, acknowledges that Jesus might be losing souls to X-wings and Ewoks, but the Church of England didn’t put up much of a fight in early 80s Buckinghamshire.

It could be worse, I could have taken my moral instruction from ET or Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, but I’m still a bit concerned. However, while she mightn’t admit it, my sister has been affected at least as badly. She’s now a yoga teacher (yoga/Yoda, a coincidence?), and when she says, ‘Be calm, at peace. Passive. Now, nothing more will I teach you today. Clear your mind of questions. Mmm. Mmmmmm,’ I wonder if she knows who she sounds like.

(first published as a Modest Proposal newsletter, 4th June 1997)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsFilmLife