Sunday, 24 January 2016

The X-Files Awakens

Well, this is shaping up to be a month of resurgences for long-dormant SF franchises. After the new Star Wars, which seems to have swept away a bunch of records, the X-Files has also made its return to TV screens, almost 14 years after it ended. Naturally, I was ready to watch it, even when it looked as if it wouldn't be on until 10pm, though luckily, that turned out to refer to the Eastern time zone, and it actually aired on the West Coast at 7.30pm.

Like The Force Awakens, the new episode of the X-Files attempts to ignore all the crap that came most recently (although Force Awakens had the advantage of being a direct sequel to Return of the Jedi, whereas this doesn't). What it does offer is the main characters (ie, the ones we came to see) picking up where they left off; it also offers a bunch of references and throwbacks to the past, in the shape of supporting characters.

But if I gave The Force Awakens a solid B/B+, and felt the need to watch it a second time, I'd say this new X-Files is a shade less successful. While the X-Files was always heavily associated with its creator, Chris Carter (similar to Babylon 5 with J. Michael Straczynski), the consensus of the last few years seems to be that the very best episodes were written by others: Vince Gilligan, for one, or Glen Morgan and James Wong. The mythology episodes, which ended up dragging the show down to a certain extent, tended to be written by Carter.

And so it proves here. While Carter did a good job in this first episode of not bogging things down too much with the past - we see Mulder, we see Scully, we see Skinner and we see aliens (or do we?) - the episode doesn't quite hit the heights of the first few seasons.

It's hard to say why, save that certain scenes really showed the script - by which I mean, the actors' delivery felt like they were reading lines, rather than living the scene. Carter's scripts/dialogue weren't always top-notch, but David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were always good enough actors that it didn't matter. Maybe here they were just a bit rusty?

On the other hand, while the story here isn't as tense and creepy as, say, the pilot, it's good to see them picking up essentially where it left off, and even addressing the time in between. I always found it odd how the X-Files didn't seem to fit into the post-9/11 world, and some of the exposition delves into why it was absent for, arguably, the time we needed it most. Another positive is how well it takes up the thread of what's current now - drones, the internet, right-wing conspiracy theorists - and weaves it together into something coherent.

In any case, one of the things that's gotten me really excited about this mini-series (or "event", as Fox likes to call it) is that not all of the six episodes will be mythology episodes. The creators (including a returning Morgan and Wong, apparently) have promised a survey of all the stuff that made the X-Files great, from monster-of-the-week stories to the funnier episodes that the show used to do so well.

Also, despite my comments earlier about the most recent crap, I'm genuinely excited that Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) will be making an appearance. She was part of the cast of the final season, when Duchovny left the show, and thought she did a creditable job partnering with Gillian Anderson and with Robert Patrick as John Doggett - I just hope Doggett makes an appearance too.

So... yeah, I'll be watching. Maybe not tomorrow, but I certainly plan on keeping up via Hulu or Comcast on-demand or whatever. Like Star Wars, the X-Files was one of the formative shows of my teen years (and beyond). So, like Star Wars, I'm happy that it's come back in a format that honors what made it great in the first place, while also moving forward.

Now, if the new Star Trek movie, Star Trek Beyond, turns out to be better than that trailer, we'll be set...

Sunday, 17 January 2016

RIP David Bowie and Alan Rickman

Like much of the world, I was hit by the one-two punch this week of the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, both at the age of 69 and both of cancer.

I discovered Bowie relatively late, as these things go - while I knew who he was thanks to covers and samples of his music from when I was growing up (as well as Trainspotting's liberal use of the song "Golden Years"), and I picked up the Changesbowie collection when I was in college, I didn't really get a sense of his 1970s output until well after. It took the discovery of Pitchfork's Top 100 Albums of the 1970s (which put Bowie's 1977 album Low in first place), and then living with a glam/70s-rock fan to get my hands on the entire run of Bowie albums from Space Oddity (1969) to Scary Monsters (1980).

Charting his evolution from singer-songwriter to glam-rock alien to blue-eyed soulster to avant-garde artist and so on, I now see what Renton and Sick Boy and Begbie saw in him. More than that, because of Bowie, I have a better sense of the rock scene of the 1970s, and how the people he worked with - for instance Brian Eno and Iggy Pop - came to be so influential. As Pitchfork noted in their list of 70s albums, Eno was just a few steps off from about a quarter of the list, which obviously applies to Bowie as well.

I'm less familiar with his work after Scary Monsters, and have the sense that the 80s weren't the greatest decade for him, despite the obvious homage to him that many of that decade's artists represented. But I was impressed by his experiments in the 1990s with electronic/dance music, and I'm heartened to hear that Black Star, his last album, has received good reviews. I look forward to exploring more of his latter output.

Alan Rickman, by contrast, is a little less familiar to me, but more for the reason that he strikes me as one of those actors who appear everywhere, and can play anything. I can't really think of him in a leading role, but the more I consider, the more movies I recall where he played a large part (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, to Galaxy Quest; and so on). Perhaps the role I know best is as the bad guy in Die Hard - I think my favorite scene of his is the one where he's cornered by Bruce Willis (who doesn't know he's the mastermind) and fakes an American accent.

I know a lot of the press on him recently has focused on the Harry Potter movies, but I haven't seen that many of them - though I can say that there was probably nobody better to play Severus Snape.

More than anything, however, what I feel is gone with Rickman's death is another of the great British actors of the last few decades - there are so many, going back to the greats like Olivier and continuing with Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen. One of the messages I found most touching was from Daniel Radcliffe, who talks about how much he learned from Rickman, and a glance at his career since Harry Potter seems to bear this out.

Both Bowie and Rickman have been incredibly influential, and while their presence will continue to resonate through all those they've inspired down the decades, it's undeniable that showbiz parties in London will be a little less exciting after this week.