Friday, March 24, 2006

Paging Doctor Scully

Prefect SlogBip…Bip…Biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiip. The patient's crashing, the doctors are crowding around, their hands up to all sorts of busy, gruesome things just out of shot. "Charging to 300! Clear!" ZAP! Suddenly they have a rhythm again and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. But it's only a temporary respite and suddenly the patient's in V-fib again, and it's time to call it. Time of death, episode 13. But don't be mistaken: ER's monitor is giving out its steady beep-beep, delivering its customary standard of drama - and babies too, with a surprise pregnancy for Abby (because, let's face it, the woman has not had enough ups and downs in her life yet) and an episode where we're left genuinely wondering which way she will decide. Yes, it's all a little quieter than the plane crash episode, but ER's still good at this sort of thing.
No, the patient in question is INVASION. (Did you see? I even did my best to tilt the S there, because that's what sets it apart from other like shows.) It's been flatlining for far too long already, then along comes an episode where you can almost see the medical teams firing as many volts into it as their rattly old post-hurricane diesel generator can muster and suddenly there's the sense that, maybe, just possibly there might be life in the series yet. The Sheriff's run off with the kids, with something in a big black bag, there are stalkers outside the house, stuff is actually *happening* and it turns out the Sheriff's been shipping arms and equipment to a paramilitary alien boot camp in the Florida Keys. Finally, we're getting the idea that there's a real *invasion* going on. But no, it's not enough. They just don't have a decent power supply and the whole thing's slipped into the same old tachycardia again and we know why the S is tilting on its side. There’s been this huge (protracted) build-up about the locked closet in the Sheriff’’s household and when we finally get to see inside it – it’s empty. Clearly, it was where he was keeping all those guns he was smuggling out to the boot camp, but since we already saw those it was kind of pointless having all those meaningful shots of the locked closet door. Yawn.
There's a lesson in there: if you're going to mix soap with water-based sci-fi, make sure it lathers.
Oh well, I had a quick Google for an episode guide and it turns out there aren't that many more to go. They still have to wheel its corpse all the way to the mortuary.
Meanwhile, ignoring all of INVASION's warnings to 'stay away from the water', we've continued watching SURFACE. This show seemed like a marine counterpart to INVASION, but now that's mostly by virtue of the fact that we started watching them at the same time. SURFACE may not be Emmy award winning material - it's not - and it may be hugely derivative at times - but in contrast with the plodding INVASION, it has managed to keep up a good rate of knots in the pace department, and it's been (well, apparently, as of the last episode we saw) bold in that, while it may have borrowed heavily from the Elliot-ET boy-alien relationship, it went ahead and shot ET. For all I know, for good. (Having said that, of course, the little critter is going to be miraculously resurrected in the next instalment, isn't he? It's all right, don't write in and tell me, I'll watch it - nervously - soon enough.) It still has to deliver when the show reaches full term, but the weekly dosages of action, suspense and mystery are well measured and give the impression it will be worth staying the course. Sorry, just seeing if I can't stretch these medical metaphors as far as INVASION's plotline.
Thankfully, in these days of DVD and digital channels with plenty of airtime to fill, if new telly lets us down, there's always old telly. Avengers, Space:1999, UFO and now I notice ITV4 has even dredged up the old Planet Of The Apes TV series. Well, at least the first three of those are worth an essay in their own right, but I'd best just be brief for now and compare them to wines: a sparkling bottle of bubbly; a surprisingly dark red with something of an acquired taste, but basically a good vintage and a great bottle design; neon pink lambrusco in an orange plastic beaker.
And on DVD, my wife and I have just made our way through THE X FILES: SEASON ONE. Yes, it scares me to think that this too is now 'old telly'.
When I bought the box set, I decided I was going to limit myself to the first series and, while a few scattered episodes after that may yet tempt me to break that resolution, I feel like it was a good decision. My wallet agrees with me and Season One has a sense of completeness about it, there's something nicely circular to it, helped by the repeat of the scene where Cigarette Smoking Man files away the evidence in a Pentagon store room among countless identical boxes, one of which must surely contain the Lost Ark. Size permitting. And the 'cliffhanger' - the closing down of the X Files - works well as a tail end question mark, the sort of open conclusion that might have fit just as nicely if the series had been discontinued right there and then.
Don't get me wrong, I'm glad it didn't, because there were a few scattered gems to follow, but it did eventually outstay its welcome and essentially all you need to know about the conspiracy - and the alien-human hybrids - is all there in the first series, and the imagination can take it on from there at least as well as the actual show managed.
Overall it holds up well and you can see why it was the success it was: it’s slickly produced, glossy and atmospheric, and it’s played with that rare combination of conviction and humour. Admittedly there aren’t a whole lot of comic episodes in the first series and it’s a show that at this point wants to be taken seriously, but the humour’s there in the characters and in its very knowing approach to the paranormal – most of the incidents under investigation are pretty stereotypical UFO or psychic or general paranormal stories, and if you’ve ever read the Fortean Times you’re not going to encounter anything much that’s new. There are even a number of episodes that are homages - or rip-offs, you decide – from movies. But it’s all nicely packaged and presented as new, and for the most part walks the fine line between ‘truth’ and ‘out there’ with a perfectly judged sense of balance.
Grounding it in the FBI gives us a realistic foundation we can easily buy into, opens the doors to mystery/detection and affords a great anchor for when we step out into the realms of the less believable. The lead characters are – interesting. They’re different: she’s unconventionally stunning and intelligent, he’s kind of curious-looking (if you ask me) but more immediately likeable with his quiet wisecracks and geekish passion for his subject, and their chemistry starts to work very quickly. And to cap it off, it opens with one of those instantly memorable themes that is note perfect for the content. Right up there with Doctor Who.
And now, just to prove to the makers of INVASION that it is possible to do things faster, I’ll take a whirlwind tour through the individual episodes…
Pilot: Good. No question, it’s not an amazing story, but it’s a solid intro and there’s an immediate sense of the kind of show we’re in for, plus there’s the real beginnings of the will-they-won’t-they chemistry between Mulder and Scully. Simple and effective, everything a pilot episode should be.
Deep Throat: Good. Cool stealth planes using UFO technology, the conspiracy starts here.
Squeeze: Good. Bizarre idea for a serial killer, and (forgive the pun) stretches the credibility, but effectively creepy.
Conduit: Okay. Somebody has clearly seen Close Encounters, but it’s a reasonable re-telling.
Jersey Devil: Poor. Has its moments, but when Stig of the Dump pops up out of the hole at the end, I groaned the first time and knowing that ending was coming didn’t help this time round.
Shadows: Good. Simple story, but I like the idea of a protective ‘shadow’ and there’s the chance for some nice detective work.
Ghost In The Machine: What were they thinking? HAL9000, I guess, but the story’s so old and doesn’t work here – and the ‘twist’ is a straight and very predictable line.
Ice: Good. Yes, somebody saw The Thing, but this lower budget re-telling has some great tension and its more modest creature works.
Space: Oh dear. It starts with the ‘face’ on Mars and goes downhill, it’s a wonder they didn’t feature the infamous ‘World War II bomber on the Moon’. It also looks cheap and is padded out with a lot of NASA shuttle launch footage. Mulder’s boyish enthusiasm for space is fun.
Fallen Angel: Good. Somebody switched channels and saw Predator, but again it’s an effective little reworking. And the character of Max is fun, a one-man precursor to the Lone Gunmen.
Eve: Good. The little girls are creepy, Harriet Harris is wonderfully insane, nice little mystery with some decent twists.
Fire: Okay. Let down by a wandering Oirish accent and Amanda Pays who manages to be an unconvincing English detective. Mostly I appreciated it for the character touches – including Mulder’s weakness in the face of fire. We like our heroes to be shown to be fallible.
Beyond the Sea: Brilliant. I love this episode. A wonderfully human story, and a completely successful reversal of the Mulder-Scully believer-sceptic dynamic. Top notch performances – Brad Dourif is scary - and beautiful emotional depth from Gillian Anderson. You can even forgive it for including the bald general from Stargate:SG1 - they couldn't have known what he was going to go on to! There’s much more I could say about this episode but I promised to keep it brief.
Gender Bender: Huh? Somebody saw Witness – and possibly Manhunter too - but thought it needed aliens. It’s an okay hunt for a serial killer but what is the deal with that ending?
Lazarus: Quite good. But would have been so much better if it had been left ambiguous: actual soul-swap or just a traumatized cop who’d spent too long over-obsessing about the criminal he’d been after. As it is, the trick with the tattoo rather spoils that.
Young At Heart: Hmm. Does have its moments and the Mulder background material is good, but quite honestly it can’t be very memorable because I’ve already forgotten much of it again.
EBE: Good. More of the conspiracy and the tissue of lies might not be as strong or long as a roll of Andrex, but there’s a nice sense of Mulder coming painfully close to the truth and the carrot’s dangling so close you can almost taste it.
Miracle Man: Good. A decent exploration of an evangelical ministry, with good performances and nice twists. And I liked the personal angle with Scully’s Catholic background. Any sf show straying into the realm of religion is asking for trouble, but I thought this pulled it off surprisingly well.
Shapes: Okay. By this time, we’re well enough into the series to have expectations, and when we realize The X Files is going to do werewolves, we sort of expect more. The Native American angle makes for a good basis, but again you sort of want more.
Darkness Falls: Good. Wonderfully creepy and the idea of these inexorable little green bugs is brilliantly effective. (Especially the scene where Scully wakes and realises these things are all over her.) But they’re too inexorable, and the whole thing’s let down by the fact there’s no actual ending. Mulder and Scully really should die in this one. (Reminds me, in fact, of my very own Drift in its earliest form, where the ice creature was too formidable and I was stuck for a way to defeat thing.)
Tooms: Poor. That’s being a bit unfair, but again expectations come into play and when you know you’re in for a sequel to Squeeze, you really want it to be better than this one.
Born Again: Good. Another creepy little girl, and another chance for some decent detective work. And a chance for us to appreciate just how good Maggie Wheeler is as Janice in Friends, because she’s refreshingly normal here.
Roland: Okay. Not a great story, balanced out by how good Zeljko Ivanek is in the title role – once you can get past the fact that he’s Assistant DA, Ed Danvers in Homicide: Life On The Street. Plus you’ve got to laugh at the chalk lines around the pieces of a shattered victim.
The Erlenmeyer Flask: Good. See earlier where I go on about how the season ‘arc’ is nicely rounded off.
So, yes, there are some clunkers. Mostly, I remember them as being clunkers the first time out, so not much change there; while other stories which fall under the heading of ‘average’ perhaps come off a little better than they deserve because of a certain warm comfortable feeling of familiarity watching them again. In any case, if I felt inclined to be more tolerant it’s only because of the series’ strengths: a good enough show can certainly get away with being average from time to time and as often as not it’s things like character touches, dialogue or just the handling of the story that raise it that crucial few notches – things that tend to score well with me.
It’s only when it dips below that standard that you have to shake your head and pretend the episode didn’t happen.
But take note, INVASION: alien-human hybrids were the meat and potatoes of the X Files. Standard fare all those years ago and not exactly new then. If you’re going to serve up that kind of thing now, you really have to do it with some flair and panache – or something. As it stands, it’s not even getting old very fast.