Review: Criminal Minds seasons 1 to 12

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The FBI’s Hoover Building, Washington DC. September 2013.

Ever since I first watched Silence of the Lambs back in 1991 I’ve been fascinated by fictional serial killers, and fascinated and repulsed by real life ones. I can’t remember when Criminal Minds first came across my radar, but I do remember resisting watching it for a while. I have only ever seen it in DVD box sets, rarely catching an episode I’ve already seen on TV. I wrote the entry on it for the 1001 TV Shows You Must Watch Before You Die, and continue to think that what I wrote on it for that book as true. It’s a solid ensemble show that gets more right than wrong, especially when you factor in the requirements of delivering 20 plus weekly episodes where the team have to solve a problem in about 40 minutes.

The strengths of the show are the ensemble cast. The Behavioural Analysis Unit are a team. They have their roles, their specialist capabilities, and because of what they see and do they bond. There is a consistency to the strains on their relationships that we see not just through the women, but the men. How they realise the ways they need to cope with the horrors they witness. The show often takes the tropes of crime fiction – the cop who fails at relationships – and explores variations on that theme. In the last few seasons, Rossi has got to address some of his past failed relationships with new insight from being more mature.

The show is not perfect.

The FBI Academy in Quantico, VA, is nestled within acres of US Marines training grounds. It’s not a place the general public can just wander into, and it’s also a fairly long drive from Washington DC. Yet, too often the characters are visited by members of the general public without prior arrangement, and often the characters zip between DC and their offices as though it’s just downtown. Also, quite a few of the characters seem to be able to afford living in Georgetown. Not entirely convinced their salaries would allow that, but who knows.

The biggest thing that never fails to make me laugh is the idea that in the Criminal Minds universe Interpol is some hot international spying group filled with Jason Bournes and James Bonds. Nope. Nope. Just no. It’s a bureau function. It enables the sharing of information and intelligence (processed information, not all from secretive sources) across international jurisdictions for local police to act upon. London is not their HQ, and it would be really difficult for the UK’s bureau to be headed up by an FBI Special Agent.

But what the show does get right more often than not are the realism of the perpetrators, the unknown subjects (unsubs), the team are called in to identify and stop. A few do exist on the preposterous end of the spectrum in terms of their dastardly abilities and focussing on our team, but most are realistic or even mundane. The team, mostly Dr Spencer Reid, provide details of where these offenders overlap with real life examples, and where they divert. The team doesn’t only advise on serial murder, they couldn’t and maintain credibility as a show. Again, while not perfect, the show manages to mostly not sexualise violence against women – a difficult balance to achieve given the statistical frequency of sexual violence by men against women when compared with men against men, or women offenders. The show is quite good at pointing out that while there can be a sexualised element to serial murder this isn’t a defining characteristic.

The show is also generally good at being sensitive about victim groups. From pretty much the start of the series, the team do not judge victims and victim groups on the grounds of their sexual orientation, skin colour, mental health, class, or profession. They do observe the relative risks evident in the cases they are called in to provide advice, but don’t preach.

One of the show’s other strengths is that it doesn’t shy away from the FBI’s history, nor the breadth and range in professionalism across the USA’s many, many police forces. The show is also pretty good on trends and how they are used and abused by criminals. Selfies on social media to target victims, bitcoin, the dark web, even SWATing have appeared in the show before they become really well-known in the zeitgeist.

I enjoy the show, but it has its faults. The 11th and 12th seasons have both seen some extensive cast changes in the team. I think for the better, in many ways. I just hope it keeps its nerve as a generally good quality FBI procedural show with a cracking ensemble cast.

Review: The Good Wife

A few nights ago I finished watching all seven seasons of the Good Wife, the series that follows the path of Alicia Florrick standing by her husband Peter while scandal after scandal hits. Only it’s an image. She separates from him, and later initiates divorce proceedings. His first scandal involved him having sex with prostitutes, the second scandal was straight out corruption. All throughout other whispers of scandal dog him.

Corruption and sexual infidelity are the two strands that weave through the series. Them and hypocrisy.

There is also a lot about Alicia being a mother of two older children, and her relationships with friends, family and colleagues. Those relationships wax and wane, and part of Alicia’s growth as a character is when she realises those who are true friends or not. And oddly, both her and Peter’s mothers are shown but their fathers are absent. The series is all about the making of Alicia, both her own journey of discovery and her development as a potential politician. Eli Gold, the wonderful political strategist, gives her the image of Saint Alicia, when she’s actually not. It’s he who works out that she would be the better politician than her husband. Now that is a show I would love to see, which does bring me to the weirdness of watching this against the backdrop of real US politics. Season seven forays into a Presidential campaign. Any other year with any other campaign and this would have been safe. There’s an awkward line in one of the episodes about the unlikeliness of Trump’s success in the GOP primaries. Also, some good West Wing jokes, but it’s awkward when you know what happens. Is happening. Instead, it seemed to stick a bit with the obvious allusion to the Clintons.

I enjoyed the Good Wife, but it’s no The West Wing, or The Wire, or even ER. It’s cast – regular, recurring guests, and one-offs – lifted it from the mediocre, and there is some very smart writing to satisfy. But, binge-watching the seven seasons reveals the rhythm in which it gets stuck, and I grew very tired of the way that the same characters misunderstand the same actions by the same characters, season after season. I am sceptical that would actually be the case given how smart they are meant to be, and shown to be.

To be honest, the sex and relationships meant it dragged for me. Good to see women empowered with regard to sex, though, and I loved Kalinda Sharma for her confident bisexuality as much as her research skillz. But, I think it wandered into being a utopia of sexuality; witness how it failed to really grapple with the sexual predators that appear throughout the series. The obvious one is Peter Florrick where the show could have dug deep into this, but it went personal (Alicia’s feeling of betrayal by Kalinda, not Peter’s abuse of power over Kalinda – alluded to, but not really explored). Recurring client Colin Sweeney is creepy, actually dangerous, but Alicia is oddly impervious to the threat and the storylines were strangely humorous.

I thought the Good Wife’s strengths were the legal battles. The dealing with the different judges, and the different other lawyers, and grappling with various conundrums of the day. My disappointments were to do with when they’d raise an issue, and then skirt away from it. I was amazed it looked like they were going to really deal with corruption and abuse by the Chicago police, and it mentioned it, but then swerved away like it would be too risky. A shame. Properly engaging with these issues would have made it a truly great series.

Review: Dexter, the TV series

Ever since I first saw Silence of the Lambs, the 1991 film starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, I have been fascinated by serial killers, both fictional and real. My interest in the real murderers did turn quickly from fascination to disgust. Learning about them was one reason why I ended up pursuing a career in law enforcement, although my personal involvement has remained tangential.

There is a difference between the real and fictional. Even those real serial killers who thwarted law enforcement and criminal justice for years if not decades did so through random chance rather than cunning masterplans. The reality is they are all too human with messy psychological and physical lives – that’s not to suggest that all those with psychological problems are serial killers. Should go without saying, but I did just want to be clear.

Dexter is based on a novel I have not read that plays the game of what if a serial killer was a hero, someone who in their tarnished way actually works for good, but all the while sating their urge to kill.

The premise is as comic book fantasy as the Walking Dead.

The TV series of Dexter is a compelling on in large part because of the cast. Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan, geeky blood splatter expert for Miami Metro Homicide and the heroic serial killer, carries the part beautifully. He’s believable as someone troubled, who battles with his lack of emotion to do the right thing and act morally. His monologues, and dialogues with the image of his dead foster father and moral weathervane are a hallmark of the series. As are Dexter’s near break-downs, the spiralling into chaos. His desire to trust and love other human beings always thwarted.

The Miami Metro Homicide family are also what makes this series. They are not the most professional, do dally with corruption, but most of them want to do a good job. They are a family, complete with squabbles and changing allegiances. It’s just a shame that some of the interesting stuff happens between seasons, and for plot reasons. I’m thinking particularly of the relationships between María LaGuerta and Angel Batista.

Each series attracted some top-notch actors, including Jimmy Smits, John Lithgow, Edward James Olmos, and Charlotte Rampling in key roles in the seasonal story arcs that pits Dexter, the serial killer targeting killers who evade justice against other monsters in human form… often with monumental personal cost to Dexter, his (foster) sister Debra Morgan, and/or other members of his family, work colleagues, and close circle of friends.

And therein lies the problem I have with the series. The first year went with the big one – his unknown big brother being a rival serial killer terrorising Miami, who becomes romantically entangled with Debra, and sets Dexter up for an almighty fall as Miami’s most prolific serial killer. It’s hard, dramatically, to match that. Generally, the series does, but I do wonder about casual viewers, or those who came to it later and didn’t catch up with the box set. I suspect a lot of WTF moments, also known as a high reliance on the ‘previously on Dexter’ summaries.

It is a beautifully shot series, though not as arty as Hannibal. I haven’t looked, but if there isn’t there should be fanfic mixing up the Dexter world with CSI Miami.

There are a lot of people who are fascinated in serial killers, and in a small percentage that fascination is unhealthy. On a quick search of the internet, I wasn’t too surprised to see some individuals who committed crimes who had those crimes and their motivations linked to Dexter. A couple of real-life cases attempted to use methods depicted on the series to disguise their crimes – mostly unsuccessfully, as it turned out. The fact that there will be those viewing who will want to emulate what they see is a thing that creators of what are essentially police procedural dramas do need to take into consideration. More of a risk with documentaries, I would suggest, and while this might seem dismissive, it’s not as though people didn’t do these things before popular culture showed them. Fact is that Dexter Morgan, like Hannibal Lector, is a totally fictional character who obeys the demands of storytelling, which is not the same as reality.

All-in-all, I’d recommend the series as a well-crafted and acted drama, with moments of dark comedy and visceral – often psychological – horror.

Foyle’s War

 

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The Old Town of Hastings

Foyle’s War hits three things I enjoy: detective stories set in the English countryside, World War II, and spies. The series is a guilty pleasure, though. Guilty because while generally good, it’s no Endeavour. Foyle’s War is slow-paced, fairly predictable, and the cast not known for their dynamism.

 

I watched all of it not too long ago. I’d seen all the WWII stories before – some of the stories more than once – but had not seen the Cold War ones before. In fact, they’d somehow passed me by. I only watched them because they were part of a box set I’d picked up on special, and I’m really pleased I did because I hugely enjoyed them. They had a spark missing from the WWII ones. Actually, thinking about it, it shouldn’t be that surprising given Foyle’s desire from the outset to work for the spooks rather than the plod. It’s a tension always there, but underplayed.

Michael Kitchen underplays Foyle, which is a style that doesn’t engage immediately. It’s tempting to think of the show as sleepy. As full of the English stereotypes of reservation. But, clearly Foyle is an introvert. Clear in an unshowy way. Difficult to pull off, and in unskilled hands would be terrible. Kitchen nails it, and when you know what to watch for it makes the show better than first expected.

I have always liked Honeysuckle Weeks as awkward Sam, the driver. The character is a fascinating one. She’s a young woman born into the cosy inter-war years and village vicarage. I imagine a girl who would have been stifled by that, but yet make do. Because you just did. Instead, the war came with opportunities she takes with a chaotic enthusiasm. Duty is her by-word, but there’s something else there. Bubbling under the surface of conformity is an unstructured intelligence. I wonder what she would have been with a mentor able to challenge the chaos. To channel it. Her role as a London Labour politician’s wife and MI5 employee in the last few stories capture all that. The problem is forgetting her husband was in the Special Operations Executive (SOE)…

That is the thing that irks about the series. Big things like the relationships that vanish without trace when they should be mentioned. Sam’s relationship with Foyle’s pilot son Andrew is beautifully done, and then ditched unconvincingly. A shame.

The other character who I didn’t think quite worked was DS Milner, and he started off as a promising idea. An injured soldier from the start of the conflict forced into a job he doesn’t enjoy and back into a marriage with a wife who rejected him. I think the actor couldn’t quite carry it off, but also it’s a difficult storyline to maintain as a secondary tale.

I took great pleasure in the little chats between Anthony Horowitz, the show’s main writer and creator, and historian Terry Charman from the Imperial War Museum after many of the later stories and included in the DVD box set. I really enjoy learning more about SOE, Bletchley Park, and the general flow of WWII in Europe.

The series didn’t baulk from difficult moral quandaries of class, race, gender, even queerness. Also the politics of the time. In the Cold War stories Communism features – both foreign fights and local socialist fights. As does extreme right wing politics. That latter even more pronounced during the WWII years with a stand out episode featuring Charles Dance as a thinly disguised Mosely.

Of course there are a few thinly disguised historical figures brought to the series. My favourite is Hilda Pierce, heavily modelled on the amazing Vera Atkins. She is in the WWII stories as a wonderful foil to Foyle, who comes into her own in the post-war years. It’s a lovely treatment of some interesting questions, paramount of which is the debate about women in distinctly grubby and dangerous war work. Yes, the real failures of SOE are explored, very much with an eye on the human impact. Those co-opted volunteers had families who mostly had no idea what their family members were up to.

One of the delights of the series was how it was able to incorporate newly discovered facts in its fictional world. Its attention to detail lovely, with only a very few errors. The most glaring of which was the cinema in a coastal town lit up at night while the blackout was still very much in force.

Foyle’s War is a cosy crime drama when all is said and done, but the added WWII and Cold War skulduggery and moral ambiguities lift it.

NineWorlds London Geekfest, 4 – 6 August 2017

This was my fifth 9Worlds London Geekfest, and it is a convention firmly in my calendar. It was in its second year at the Hammersmith Novotel, and once again the hotel staff were pretty good. Check in was certainly a much better experience for me this year. I do love the fact that the hotel fielded a team in the Shark game.

This year I had actually submitted two panel ideas, and I was delighted that both were accepted. The convention programme planners assigned me to two other panels: both squee (a word going in the Oxford English Dictionary). One on queer Dax (Star Trek), and one on the transgressive nature (alleged) of Miss Phryne Fisher. That last one proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that 9Worlds is not all about the SF/F/H.

This year is also the second year that I have done the 9Worlds one weekend, then the World SF Convention (WorldCon) the next. This time the second convention is in another country – Finland. More on that later. So, I intended on pacing myself, including in the hotel department. That meant I arrived on Friday morning rather than Thursday. Sad to miss the Cheese and Cheese – from all the reports I saw, people enjoyed it immensely.

Anyway, on arrival I met with several friends, but I sought out a space to get my head into panel space. Especially since I’d been told that based on the pre-con selections on the Grenadine app the first panel I was going on was among the most popular. In Cremant, the huge room, no less. That panel was one I had put forward and proposed to explore the police in the supernatural novel series of Ben Aaronovitch (PC Peter Grant) and Paul Cornell (Shadow Police) from the points of view of three women who work in policing. First thing a disclaimer – none of us were talking from the points of view of our agencies, but from our generic experiences. I’m really pleased that the audience enjoyed it – and the questions were thought-provoking and intelligent. Far from easy, but respectful, particularly about our views on inclusion and diversity in the modern UK police forces. I said it at the panel, I love the fact that both Aaronovitch and Cornell ensured their books are fairly representative of London, which the police do try to bring – following Sir Robert Peel’s ethos the police being of the people to police the people. The police lead in some areas, and do lag behind in others. We spoke about many other things, but that’s an important point for me. To bring home the point, quite a few colleagues of mine took part in Brighton’s LGBT+ Pride march on the Saturday of the convention, led by our Director General flying the rainbow flag that also has our emblem.

I’m a participant at a similar panel at WorldCon, and I’m fascinated to see how it will be different.

The rest of my Friday and all of Saturday I could attend what panels I wanted to, catch up with friends, and spend a bit of time in my hotel room to decompress. Plus admire the imagination of cosplayers – highlights were the 13th Doctor, the TARDIS full of bras, and the lemmings for their choreography. Loads of others, but they stand out.

I attended Marina Berlin’s talk on women writing about war, which skated over a complex topic. As she said, there is a long history of women writing war in SF/F, but she limited herself to three authors writing war in the 21st century – Naomi Novik, Karin Lowacher, and Kameron Hurley. I’ve not read Novik or Lowacher, but devoured Hurley’s Belle Dame Apocrypha. Berlin compared them with tropes identified in men writing war in SF/F, which irked even though I could see where she was coming from. Still, it gave me some pointers for the WorldCon panel I’m moderating on women writing Military SF at WorldCon.

On Saturday I attended the panel on race in SF/F with a wonderfully diverse panel in terms of gender and ethnic backgrounds. The panel’s strength lay in discussing the rich variety of experience through which they both write and read/consume. Pretty much all of them had grown up in one culture, some as part of a diaspora, others not, then all moved elsewhere. I agree with them that SF/F’s gift is the ability to grab tropes and tear them apart, and the issue of SF/F being metaphorical. They discussed the damage caused by people being scared of accusations of cultural appropriation – but that there is of course a responsibility to check and avoid stereotyping and making the alien other exotic. White-washing is damaging, and a panellist noted that other cultures (Han Chinese was singled out) do the same and it doesn’t make it any less damaging. They also discussed complex issues to do with translating from one (mostly English, but not exclusively) flooding out other voices. All in all, a thought-provoking panel.

I attended John J Johnston’s talk about archaeology in Doctor Who, which was great fun.

Sunday was my day of panels. I was on three, and I am so glad for the generous gap between them. My panels also bounced from squee to serious to squee.

The queer Dax panel was a lot of fun, but made some really good points. Neth is a great moderator who took pains to ensure that everyone on the panel had a different queer perspective. I had been a bit nervous that I wouldn’t be able to contribute much and I had to confess that I’m not a Trek fan. I do love the love of the Trek fans, though, especially those on this panel. But, my fears were unfounded, and once my brain busted through the laying Stargate memories over DS9 ones, all was good.

I had also been a bit nervous about the Robots, AI, and the Labour Market panel I had put forward, was moderating, and was in the second biggest room. Back in February 2017 I listened to a BBC World Service programme about robots and AI, and the fear of them taking over work as we know it. It was an excellent panel (available here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04rq0px?ocid=socialflow_twitter)  that I thought ripe for discussion at 9Worlds. Turned out I was correct with an incredibly knowledgeable panel from both a diverse set of writing and other work experience. To open up to the audience meant we could only really talk for about 45 minutes, and we could have spoken for a lot longer. I fear we only scratched the surface of some difficult questions, but I am pleased that the point of ‘AI’ coding being value neutral was totally trashed. It’s actually a really dangerous idea thinking that coding is value neutral. We also brought in a fair bit of real world stuff, and the role that SF can play – again the let’s explore and bust open the tropes point. I think the panel also strongly made the point that definitions matter – most of the robots and AIs cited as doing certain things are neither robots or AI. The audience again didn’t disappoint with some excellent questions, and also some good Twitter conversations.

Final panel for me of the convention and a fabulous one about just how transgressive the Honourable Phryne Fisher is. Wonderfully, one of the panellists cosplayed as Dr Mack and there are some fab pics out there of her with some Miss Fisher cosplayers. While the show does have its problems, the love we all have for it shone through (I adore the fact that Pat Cadigan is now going to give it a go on the strength of our enthusiasm!!). Personally, I am grateful for the audience member who knows far more about Melbourne’s socio-economic history than I do who chose to share that knowledge fully in the spirit of 9Worlds.

Then, all too fast, the inevitable end of another wonderful 9Worlds. My only regret – not being able to go to all the panels I wanted to, and not catching up with all the people I wanted to. Some of them I hope to see in Helsinki, but otherwise, next time.

I tweeted at some point that if there was a motto for 9Worlds it would be to: keep on learning!

Finally…

I could just link to a bunch of articles written by friends and acquaintances about the casting of Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who because pretty much all of them have written what I’ve been thinking since the reveal on Sunday afternoon.

I hadn’t planned to watch it. Watching tennis bores me (sorry), but not as much as the post match guff. I also refused to allow myself to think that I would be that interested. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve liked every single actor and performer who has played Doctor Who over the nearly 55 years the series has been running. Genuinely, whenever people ask me who my favourite Doctor is I say all of them because it’s true. I learned a long time ago when I was researching and writing my Masters thesis on the show and its fans that my appreciation of each actor and era depends mostly on my mood at the time.

My interest in the show has ebbed and flowed, too, and not necessarily because of the quality of the stories. I loved the 2017 series, even though my interest had been ebbing a bit. As I have said often at convention panels when I’m talking about the show and my relationship with it, I am far less of a fan of the post 2005 series than I was from the years 1979 (or so) to 1984, and then 1987 to 1989. My fandom then was intense, by the way – publishing fanzines, rocking up to day events in costume, winning trivia quizzes, and writing to the writers and actors. One reason why my viewing has changed is because I know too many people working on the show – either directly, or on the industry around it. I’ve kept away from secrets – that’s never really appealed anyway – but it’s different.

I still love to show. Have missed very few episodes. Rewatch a fair number. Enjoy writing about it still, and writing in it (if you consider the widest possible definition of what the family of Doctor Who is… like I do).

So, it was with low expectations that I kept an eye on the Wimbledon men’s singles final and on Twitter. I had heard no serious rumours, but japed along with mates, and started to feel a little bit nervous. The people I know who normally know these things (or fairly close to guess correctly) didn’t know.

And then finally the tennis stopped, and the post match guff, and the 60 second clip of a person in a coat and hoodie stepping through a lush green forest… I blinked at the feet shot… then the hand with the key… thought no. A tease… and then the pan around as she pulled down her hood and that little quirky smile as she sees the TARDIS…

I feel little chills still as I re-watch it. As I think about it. I smile.

Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor in those few seconds.

My friends and others have written eloquently and passionately about the hatred of some. I’m not going to add to it. Nick Barlow very cleverly lances the fan sense of ownership and outrage when their thing does something they think it shouldn’t (On the new Doctor, fandom’s reaction and how it all reaches back to a Who story from 1980), and Una McCormack published two excellent pieces about the misogyny of some fans, one written after hearing some people being angry on the radio and the other earlier the same day channelling Ursula LeGuin. All three are brilliant. As is this by Chris Mead, and this excellent piece by Sarah Gailey is sheer perfection.

My piece in the book Queers Dig Time Lords traces how my coming out as gay was inextricably intwined with my love of Doctor Who and its fans. No, it’s not as simple as me having crushes on the companions (though that didn’t not happen in some cases). The theoretical basis of my Masters thesis was queer theory – about otherness. About how those who are ‘othered’ seek out those who are like them… and I found a very few others like me in the amazing world of Doctor Who fans I grew up in as a teenager and young adult. Deep breath here, but I am not exaggerating when I say they saved my life.

Now, as I reach my half century, the wonderful people I have met through this barmy show of many guises (not just the actor who plays the lead role, but the show itself – why it’s possible for so many to love, hate, be indifferent to each offering) are opening up what gender means. I have never felt comfortable being a girl, or even a woman; no. More uncomfortable about the Western cultural pressures of femininity. It’s still not a wholly comfortable fit for me, but I am trying out the label ‘non-binary’, and then trying to grapple what that means in the sense of my homosexuality.

Along comes Missy. Brilliant in her own right, but clearly also an experimental push from Steven Moffat and the rest of the Doctor Who crew.

The production crews over the years have toyed about casting a woman to play the Doctor. Most people think it was a tease – and maybe at times it was – but I think it was just that TV just couldn’t. Unless as a joke (as in the Curse of Fatal Death). Without really thinking about it (I have never played the game of casting anyone in the role, but just having faith in the decisions made and never actually being disappointed) I guess I must have thought that an older woman would play the part as an spinstery geek. Think Amelia Rumford…

For all of how Doctor Who has pushed boundaries, it is also a remarkably small c conservative show. Radical as well as reactionary. The old series as well as the new, and also the books and comics in between and running parallel. Television production has changed over the last fifty years, and Doctor Who has both led the charge with new techniques and resisted others. None of this in an easy progression. It’s always been a few steps forward, a few back or sideways, and a reset here and there. It’s made mistakes, and been absolutely brilliant – in the eyes of different beholders those mistakes and moments of genius have occurred at the same time.

I am gay, a woman interested sexually in women, but more comfortable with the idea of gender being fluid and me being more male than female. I am aromantic (and so, so pleased to know that term now!). I’ve had some fabulous relationships, and one bad one, and now am happily single.

… and one of the things that struck me on Sunday, which surprised me,  was just how cute that little quirky smile is on the Doctor’s face as she sees the TARDIS and the key materialises in her hand.

So, it’s not just about representation and feminism – both powerfully positive things, by the way – but for the first time ever in the 50 years I’ve been watching this show and reading the books I think I have fallen a little bit in love with the Doctor. Like the guys and gals who fell in love with Davison, Tennant, McGann, Smith, Capaldi, McCoy, the Bakers, Troughton… actually, all of them.

It’s a feeling I never thought I would ever feel, and it’s a feeling I’m finding I like.

The X-Files… extreme paranoia

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J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington DC © SJG 2013

I had just re-watched all of this rather odd little but wildly successful US TV series before they announced its brief revival last year. My thoughts on that I have copied below, taken from my previous blog-site. Most of my observations from then still stand, but some have shifted because of how the world has changed, politically. Plus, of course, there now exists six additional episodes with our old friends and tropes.

Overall, I am surprised by how fresh and lively the first few seasons still are. What caught the imagination of the world back in the 1990s still catches. It’s not until principal filming moved from Canada to California that the shine starts to dull. The Doggett and Reyes year suffers from the show drowning in its own heavy mythology. A shame, because those two characters, and Scully, are great and could have done so much. C’est la vie.

I like the second movie more each time I watch it. There’s an odd moment in it when Scully and Mulder are in the Hoover Building, flanking a portrait of then President George W. Bush. The X-Files theme tune echoes, and they give each other a weird little look. Then knowing, now…

I watched the first two episodes of the 2016 season close to its transmission. I enjoyed them, but work got in the way. I bought the DVD, and then decided to watch the whole series again. Glad I did. I do wonder how comprehensible five episodes of the six would be to the more casual viewer, even with the voice-overs and flash-backs.

The exception – ironically given the in-jokes – was Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. Great fun, silly, and caught the essence of the brilliant stand-alone stories of maximum quirk from the first few seasons. It’s also a good tale, imaginatively told, with some fascinating characters.

The first and last episodes of the run top and tail it all, and when watched during the first sixty days of the current presidency of the USA is bizarre. I mentioned in my blog below my thoughts on how the shift in real-world politics also affected the show. My thoughts have sharpened on this.

Most of the X-Files aired during the Bill Clinton administration. There were conspiracies and lies, just as there had been during other presidencies, which is what the show picked up on and ran with. People believed some of what was depicted in the show. I remember smart people at my work who bought into the ‘based on truth’ advertising campaign way back at the start. I talked this over with a friend recently, and they observed that the series caught that comforting type of conspiracy theory where ridiculous things are believed of the government because while presenting a punching-bag to hit at, it simultaneously reassured them that the government was competent.

The 2016 season was made and aired during the end of the Obama presidency; eight years of bonkers conspiracy theories, but not a lot of actual scandal. An interesting shift in the socio-political zeitgeist that the first and last episodes gleefully dive in to play. The role of the internet in airing huge and whacky conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ is poked at, as is the problem of how to work out what is true and what isn’t.

And now we are in a world where during the first days and weeks of a new administration the lines between rumour-mongers, partisan propagandists, and conspiracy theorists and official announcements by the Executive Branch are short. Congress – both main parties, by the way – is also playing these games, but the sound and vision of the White House communications is deafening and blinding those others through sheer volume and boldness. What was obviously planned in an amusing little TV SF show to push boundaries to extreme possibilities mere months ago now looks woefully timid.

I enjoyed my re-watch. I will always have a soft spot for the show, and I am glad they made the 2008 movie and the 2016 episodes. Only one episode truly stood out, though, which makes me ponder just how bankable nostalgia is on a sustainable basis. By the way, by bankable I don’t just mean money; I include the emotional and intellectual investment by viewers and fans.

I’ll end this with a small observation I spotted this time around: the X-Files traces the history of the mobile telephone. At first they are rare, car-bound (pretty much) bricks. The models our heroes use change each season, but most of the show’s run came before cameras became intrinsic to mobile phones. I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone has observed that the number of UFO sightings has decreased as the number of phones with cameras and internet connections increased, with a fairly obvious assumed causality between the two phenomena.

The X-Files, re-watched, re-assessed, & re-analysed

Posted originally on 5th January 2014.

When I was in Washington DC in September 2013 I was lucky enough to visit the FBI’s J Edgar Hoover building (pictured above). As a fan of a fair few fictional depictions of FBI agents (Clarice Starling, Dana Scully) it was a highlight of my visit.

On my return to London I decided to watch the TV series I like set in DC. I had the West Wing and the X-Files to choose from, and I plumped for the X-Files because someone had pointed out it was twenty years old.

Twenty years! Gosh. I remembered watching it when I still lived with my parents in their new house in North Sydney. Friends David and Kyla were about the only other folk I knew who watched those first few episodes on its first run on Aussie TV; they because of the links to Kolchack the Night Stalker me because it was like Project Bluebook and had the FBI in it. People picked up on it on its second run, if my memory serves me correctly, and then Australia went nuts about it. Seriously nuts. Gillian Anderson visited and got mobbed. It rated highly, and it was the first ‘genre show’ that got discussed by people not into sci-fi and all that at work. Well, so far as I was aware, at any rate. Though some work colleagues of mine had believed the line about the stories being based on truth and thought it was a series of dramatised documentaries. Oh, dear.

Anyway, I watched all the episodes and the two movies. I didn’t watch the Lone Gunmen series interspersed with the season of the X-Files that they should be. Not too much of a problem, that, although I did have to look up the plot synopses to make sense of one X-Files episode. I love the Lone Gunmen, by the way, just was one of a few underwhelmed by their short-lived series.

Things that struck me were just how good the first few seasons are. Then it seemed to get a bit lost in its own hype, and while I don’t think the quality dips there is a change and it becomes less enjoyable, somehow. Not bad, just missable. That’s roughly when the filming moves from Canada to California, so way before Doggett and Reyes get assigned. I think it’s because it loses a quirky sense of humour and takes itself and its own mythology way too seriously.

Given that it was mostly filmed in Canada those first few seasons get DC amazingly well. Obviously the production crew had access to interior shots of the Hoover Building, and external shots would have been easy. The geography made sense, and many of the first set of tales took place in the states close by to DC. I was also rather impressed that places that looked like the DC, Maryland or Virginia locales were used, too. I don’t think there are too many series that would bother if they didn’t need to.

And I loved all the little jokes about how much the X-Files unit costs the FBI in travel expenses.

I know there are a few reasons put forward by various, including Chris Carter and the production crew, about why the X-Files suddenly dived in popularity. I think it was partially that they ran out of stories after nine years, without having to recycle the same old. Also the bizarre paranoia thing about the US government and crazy conspiracies got a bit weird with real-life. Without ducking off into a history lesson, the fact is the USA is no different from any other country or political system in that in order to keep the status quo ‘safe’ there are steps that need to be taken that run counter to that system and its beliefs in its own status as ‘right’ or ‘most ideal’. Hoover pioneered many of those techniques with the early days of the FBI, and he and the Bureau weren’t alone. And, yes, of course they run the risk of being hooked up to a political ideology, and running rampant. There are well-documented cases of this, which makes for fertile ground to sow and reap great stories. In the early Bill Clinton years this all made sense. It wasn’t real, well not excessively so, so we could have some fun with the idea of a global conspiracy hiding aliens.

What fascinates me is just how George W. Bush’s presidency made it impossible to have fun with all this. Why? Because it became too believable. And I don’t think Barak Obama’s presidency is one where having a bit of fun with preposterous government conspiracies is viable for a TV series. Too many people believe the nonsensical – ‘birthers’, UN spoiling to attack the USA, ‘Obamacare’ having ‘death panels’ as a medical treatment strategy…

Yeah. The X-Files was a product of its time.

But, the X-Files was a lot more than just the conspiracy arc. The last time I watched the series (just before the second movie came out) I was really struck by how good many of the standalone episodes are. The oddball in particular. The ones where we never know just what it really was that caused the murders, or disappearances, or whatever it was our FBI Special Agents had to investigate. This re-watch confirmed that for me, and I still adore War of the Coprophages, Humbug, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose – just to name a few.

I hadn’t noticed the recurring insect people arc until this time.

One of the things that makes the X-Files enjoyable to re-watch are the characters. Despite neither Duchnovy or Anderson being particularly lively, both bring their characters to life, and their characters are pretty cool. There is character development, particularly with Scully, and by the last few seasons she’s rather weary in her shouldering responsibility for Mulder’s mission in life. Her reaction to loving him is fascinating. Anderson grew, I think, as an actor during the nine years she worked on the series and performs the role an increasingly assured but subtle way. And, hurrah, the writers didn’t screw up her characterisation.

Mulder is the main character, though, and even when he’s off hiding in the last few seasons his mark is indelible.

During the last year or so I’ve been reading up on Jungian theory and Meyers-Briggs. Yeah, that stuff that certain management and HR gurus like to whitter on about. Unfortunately, a lot of that stuff gets it wrong, which leaves it open to a lot of (justified) attack. However, those attacks were so obvious that Myers-Briggs warned against mis-using it… If only people would read original texts. Even read the stuff from those trained in it – some of whom are trained psychologists! (By the way, any critique that starts off with or includes that Myers and Briggs were ‘housewives’ betrays itself as lazy at best and also sexist.)

Anyway, my take on it all is this: it’s a theoretical model through which to try to explore / explain the different ways in which people understand the world, which manifests as personality. It’s based on models and ideas that have existed for millennia (yes, really). It’s being refined all the time as understanding grows, particularly in relation to physiology. But, it’s a difficult area. I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I’ve never had formal training in it. I do know that it doesn’t pretend to be a series of robust experiments, and it is susceptible to confirmation bias… but, it’s a tool that I’ve found useful in terms of understanding why I react the way I do and why it’s different to other people’s reactions. I’ve also found a bunch of folk, amateurs like me, who like exploring this stuff. Key word being ‘exploring’, there, not ‘believing in’. And part of that exploring is playing with it.

So… just doing a quick Google and it seems that there are some folk out there who argue Mulder is an INFP or INTJ, and argue against anyone who ‘types’ Mulder as an INTP. Well I think Mulder is an INTP… and it’s not wishful thinking. It was a continuing series of ‘OMG, that! Wow. He is so INTP’ as I watched the whole series.

I’ve been ‘typed’ professionally by different people – first time in Australia, second and third times in the UK – over the last 20 odd years. I’ve consistently come out as INTP. To spell out the letters to those of you who are probably thinking ‘WTF?’ – I’m an introvert (meaning I need to re-charge in quiet), intuitive (meaning I use my imagination to take in the world rather than my five senses), a thinker (meaning I consider logic over consideration of people) and a perceiver (meaning I keep my options open). That’s my four letter combination out of sixteen possible permutations.

For many, that’s enough. For others there is a slightly more complicated but ultimately more rewarding approach to do with functions and how they appear in the use stack.

Okay, a little diversion. The idea is that these are all preferred ways of taking in and interpreting the world. They are not the be all and end all. The common analogy is handedness – most people are either right or left handed, but if their dominant side was incapacitated in some way can use their other side. Some people are genuinely ambidextrous. So, in the Myers-Briggs world this translates most easily for those who are extroverted / introverted – plenty of introverts can extrovert (and vice versa). If you’re interested, Susan Cain’s book is rather good, as is her TED talk. Easy to search for 🙂

Function theory operates a fairly simple formula which looks at what the sixteen letters represent, asks whether the Sensing/Intuition and Thinking/Feeling pairs are extroverted or introverted and what order they come in – there are four preferred and the remaining four are what becomes dominant when I’m stressed.

For me as an INTP my function stack are, in order: introverted thinking (Ti, meaning I think and analyse obsessively – cannot switch it off, feel better when my brain is working on complex problems); extroverted intuition (Ne, meaning bouncing around from possibility to possibility); introverted sensing (Si, meaning I have a pretty good encyclopaedic memory of things that have happened before); and extroverted feeling (Fe, meaning I care obsessively about what other people think). The below brief explanation summarises it beautifully:

Ti: *masterminding* So, lets find a concise explanation for how this works…
Ne: *extremely excited* IDEAS! FROM MARS! On x and y and z and what about sigma??
Si: *serious and knowledgeable* Well, previous experience tells us that….
Fe: *worried* I do hope nobody minds…
(It’s from some folks on Tumblr – © 2011-14 Red Striped Alibis)

The higher up the stack, so the theory goes, the more developed the process is. The lower down the less developed. They all work together, too, with their varying levels of development. And all that is affected by personal experience, growth, etc, which is why we are none of us clones. But, it is scary when you discover other people who think and feel in ways similar to you, and even scarier when they’ve had similar experiences growing up despite being in different countries – not all English speaking.

Okay, enough about me. What about Mulder?

If he’s INTP then he is Ti, Ne, Si and Fe.
If he’s INFP then he is Fi, Ne, Si and Te.
If he’s INTJ then he is Ni, Te, Fi and Se.

So, what does that mean?

If he’s INFP then he values and considers importance, beliefs and worth first; interprets situations and relationships and picks up meaning and interconnections to other contexts; then reviews and recalls past experiences and seeks detailed data; and then segments and organises for efficiency and systematises his thoughts.

If he’s INTJ then he foresees implications, transformations and likely effects; then segments and organises for efficiency and systematises his thoughts; then values and considers importance, beliefs and worth; and then experiences and acts in the immediate context.

Yeah, I don’t think he’s an INTJ at all. Most of the time he’s in trouble because he hasn’t foreseen the implications of what’s going on. His acting in the immediate context is usually because he’s a trained FBI agent. He’s clearly got Ne in his stack, and fairly high up, too (‘extreme possibilities’ is his thing, after all).

What about INFP? Hm. Maybe. But I’m not sure he puts other people first ahead of his quest for the truth.

Regardless of whether he’s INTP or INFP – two of the stack are the same for both, it’s the primary and last ones that are different – and their placings do have an effect – he’s consistently driven to find out the answer to the mysteries presented, and contrary to an idea that pops up when people summarise the characters from the X-Files, he doesn’t automatically plump for the paranormal. In fact, he spends some of the series actively rejecting the idea of the aliens running everything (against Scully and against the evidence, arguably).

I think it does boil down to whether he’s driven by the need to analyse or the need to consider people’s beliefs.