Posts Tagged ‘The Lone Gunmen’

Over the last few years I have been lucky enough to be invited to contribute to eight volumes of ATB Publishing’s Outside In series (two on Star Trek, two on that British fantasy show I don’t talk about any more, and two on Buffy and Angel, plus their forthcoming diptych on The X Files and related series). For the second X Files volume I was assigned an episode of one of the spin-offs, The Lone Gunmen. What follows is the piece I initially came up with, which the editor liked – but discussions about it led us to have another go and something radically different and slightly more offbeat resulted, which is what will be appearing in the finished volume. I present the first draft here, mainly because I hate to see a nice bit of writing go to waste.

Outside In Wants To Believe will be out before the end of the year (or so they tell me, anyway). 

The main running gag in Maximum Byers comes from the fact that the Gunmen are essentially recreating an exploit previously done on TV many years earlier: namely, sneaking into prison. That the experience turns out rather differently to their expectations produces many a cry of ‘It wasn’t like this on The A-Team!’

The A-Team episode being referenced here is Pros and Cons, first broadcast on February 8th 1983. Space precludes me going into too much detail regarding the story, but in true A-Team style it concerns an underground prison fight club, someone making his way from Florida to Los Angeles on foot between scenes, Hannibal pretending to be a very camp hairdresser and our heroes escaping over the walls of the prison using a hot air balloon made out of trash bags.

You can sense a sort of sniffiness towards The A-Team from the writers of The Lone Gunmen, with Langley getting dialogue about how sneaking into prison is the kind of tired old plot every bad TV show rolls out four or five seasons in, when the writers start to run out of ideas. This seems to me to be rather unjustified for a number of reasons: firstly, the Lone Gunmen writers haven’t done their research properly (Pros and Cons was broadcast early in the first season of The A-Team); secondly, hanging a lantern on the fact you’re reusing of a corny old plot premise doesn’t actually excuse the fact you’re reusing a corny old plot premise; and thirdly, in this case at least, The A-Team has a much better idea of what kind of TV show it wants to be than The Lone Gunmen, and as a result is much more entertaining.

Oh, let’s be clear: Pros and Cons, like most episodes of The A-Team, is dumb and silly, lacking in any kind of sophistication or subtext. But once you get past that, it is at least fun to watch, with engaging characters and a sense that nobody involved is really taking it too seriously.

The elevator pitch for The Lone Gunmen probably sounded more or less the same: a light-hearted conspiracy-thriller and perhaps semi-spoof of other shows like Mission: Impossible. The best episodes of the series do stick pretty close to this idea and engage with well-known ‘conspiracies’, although taking care to avoid the kind of explicit SF-tinged notions the parent show dealt with.

Maximum Byers, on the other hand, is about characters on Death Row, which establishes a pretty dark overall tone. Things get even bleaker when the midpoint twist of the episode is the reveal that the supposedly innocent man they’re attempting to help is actually guilty as charged, at which point the focus switches to helping an African American man with psychological problems who’s been wrongly sentenced to death. The story ends on a profoundly downbeat note despite their apparent success.

Well, it wouldn’t exactly be to my taste, but I guess you could put together a decent if rather dour episode from this kind of material: there are serious issues to be touched upon here, involving the American judicial system and capital punishment, while on some level even the episode-as-broadcast is a character piece for Byers, as the least ‘street’ of the regular characters is required to go well outside of his comfort zone in the service of his ideals.

Byers with a bedpan. This episode almost reviews itself sometimes.

The problem with Maximum Byers is that someone involved in the production appears to have looked at this bleak, dark, serious story and realised it bears very little resemblance to the show they’re supposed to be making. As a result, it seems various attempts have been made to ensure it is a bit lighter and funnier, although this has taken the form of just inserting comedy bits rather than toning down the original story.

So, in addition to a conspiracy to murder, prison beatings and an execution, we get a sight gag pinched from the Marx brothers, Elvis impersonators, the A-Team running joke, Yves pretending to be married to Jimmy, and the concluding montage featuring the opening of a hospital for sick cockroaches – from which we go straight to the final coda with the execution sequence.

The tonal dissonance at this point is almost enough to give you whiplash, but it’s a consistent feature of the episode. You constantly find yourself wondering just how seriously you’re supposed to take it, and it’s tempting to conclude that even the makers of the episode weren’t entirely sure. There is a real sense of the episode being a bit too desperate to get its laughs – it’s almost impossible to imagine a show like this being commissioned today anyway (the main cast are four straight white dudes and a frequently objectified younger woman), but especially not an episode doing throwaway gags about whiteface make-up, speech impediments and convicts with mental problems.

As noted, the episode suggests that this kind of plot is the kind of thing writers resort to when they’re running out of ideas – well, I doubt that was the case with The A-Team’s take on the premise, but I’m not so sure about The Lone Gunmen. This show doesn’t have the well-defined and flexible format of its parent programme, nor the ability (it would seem) to achieve the same kinds of shift in tone from week-to-week: it’s locked in the same slightly silly, slightly knowing mode all the time, rather like The A-Team itself. The difference is that the writers of The A-Team recognised this and ran with the ball, while The Lone Gunmen team seem to have been slower to accept it. Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom, apparently: which would mean that while The Lone Gunmen is probably the wittier, more imaginative and more sophisticated show, The A-Team is the wiser.

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Every time someone on TV changes their socks these days, it’s billed as a life-changing event, but unless you’re a struggling sock merchant who happens to be endorsed by someone hugely influential it’s almost certainly a lie. Not many people honestly and truly had their existences transformed by the revival of The X Files at the beginning of the year: like many people, I suspect, the main feeling it left me with was of something which was rather better in concept than in execution.

Still, a (very) mixed bag though the new episodes were, it got me back into the habit of watching the show, and when the revival shuffled off I got my hands on a complete boxed set of the original series (well, everything except the second movie) and settled down to relive a particular slice of my youth. As usual, I rather underestimated how long this would take: about eight and a half months, more or less, albeit with a bit of a detour near the end to watch The Lone Gunmen spin-off again.

A big show, then: nine seasons, two-hundred-plus episodes, a couple of spin-offs (does Millennium really count? Hmmm) and movies. I’m pretty sure that even the most dedicated fan of the series would happily admit that it outstayed its welcome, the question is by how much.

Having seen it all again fairly recently, for me The X Files falls reasonably neatly into four or five different phases, some of which are of considerably higher quality than others. The first year of the show, for instance, is quite a different animal from anything that follows: in the absence of a significant on-going metaplot, every episode buzzes with a genuine feeling of untapped possibilities – I remember watching this in 1994 and 95 and finding the sense that almost anything could happen almost addictive. At the time, I recall interviews with Chris Carter where he admitted that he didn’t expect the show to be renewed, and certainly not a big hit, hence the downbeat conclusion to the first season with Mulder and Scully separated and the X Files shut down (the first of many times).

The X Files

Then we roll into what I suppose we must call The X Files’ imperial phase, where it dominated the media landscape and pop culture generally (I have to say I still prefer the first season). I would say this covers seasons two to five (although this a bit of a drop-off in quality towards the end), and is probably the version of The X Files most people remember – the mixture of ongoing meta-plot episodes with the Syndicate and the Smoking Man, with monster-of-the-week stories, including the startling innovation of comedy episodes (the best ones from the pen of Darin Morgan). At this point you can watch the episodes about the Syndicate and still convince yourself that the writers have a clue as to where it’s all going, while the standalones haven’t yet started to repeat themselves too obviously.

One of the interesting factoids I came across in the course of this re-watch was the revelation that the original plan was to conclude the TV show at the end of season five (the name of five’s final episode, The End, is a bit of a clue to this) and switch over to doing a movie every few years. Part of me wonders if this wouldn’t perhaps have been a better idea than what we got, because while there are some good episodes in seasons six and seven – I’m particularly fond of the weirder stories like Rain King, X-Cops, and Hollywood AD – there is a general sense of the show starting to flail about and consume itself. The original Syndicate storyline wraps up in the middle of six, and what follows it is frankly somewhat baffling and lacking in focus or a sense of anyone knowing what it’s leading up to (if anything).

Still, it is at least still recognisably The X Files, which is not necessarily true of seasons eight and nine. It’s hard to see the decision to continue in the absence of David Duchovny as being motivated by anything other than reluctance to conclude a profitable series. You can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Robert Patrick, a very able actor landed with the hospital pass to end all hospital passes as Mulder’s replacement, the dogged Doggett. Doggett’s habitual aura of bafflement and frustration could well be coming from Patrick himself, as any chance of him being able to establish himself in the show is perpetually undercut by episodes and characters banging on about Mulder all the time. Classic elements of the older episodes, such as the Bounty Hunters and the Oil, still crop up, but what’s actually going on is anybody’s guess.


It gets even more baffling with season nine, with the introduction of the bemusing plotline about the Super-Soldiers and Scully’s wonder-baby, not to mention Annabeth Gish as Monica Reyes. Looking at some of the episodes with Doggett and Reyes, you can almost see how the show could have worked and been as vital and interesting as ever with this new duo – although it would obviously have lacked the role-reversal element (intuitive man, rational woman) which was arguably one of the things that made the early seasons so compelling. The thing is, though, that the show is never about this new duo, for Scully and the memory of Mulder are always wafting about the place, and it all feels slightly out-of-whack, looking back over its shoulder.

That said, the decision to axe the show seems to have had the effect of concentrating the minds of everyone involved: the news apparently came during the production of the not-bad standalone episode Scary Monsters, and everything that follows – the series’ equivalent of putting the chairs on the tables and turning off the lights – at least seems to have a point to it. While I would be the first to say that the series does not wrap itself up in the most elegant of manners, there are some genuinely moving moments in these final episodes – the deaths of the Lone Gunmen, Scully giving her child up for adoption. The final standalone, Sunlight Days, is arguably a much more satisfying episode than the actual finale, in the way it plays with the audience’s knowledge that it will very soon be over. ‘The X Files could go on forever,’ smiles Scully, marking the point at which you know the episode will not have the unambiguously happy ending it seems to be heading for, while Doggett’s happy comment that he ‘finally seem[s] to be getting the hang of this job’ also feels knowing and poignant. The fact that the episode is informed by people’s love for classic TV series of years gone by is also surely an acknowledgement that The X Files itself will soon just be a memory.

The finale itself is, I fear to say, hopelessly clunky and contrived, with Mulder on trial in what’s basically a kangaroo court, accused of the impossible murder of a man who was actually an alien (a premise seemingly pinched from an episode of The Invaders), and having to prove the existence of the alien conspiracy within the government in order to save his own skin. It attempts to recap the entirety of the meta-plot from the preceding nine seasons in a matter of minutes, and does so in a manner unlikely to satisfy anyone. One can only assume they were mainly intent on setting up future movies, for nothing is resolved, nothing really concluded: it ends with the X Files shut down (yet again), Mulder and Scully on the run, and Doggett and Reyes zooming off to an undisclosed location with looks of bafflement and frustration on their faces.

Which just leaves one to wonder why the subsequent iterations of the series – the 2008 movie and the revived series this year – haven’t really picked up on the new ideas seeded into the finale. In the final episode, Mulder learns that an alien invasion is scheduled for December 2012, but this never gets mentioned again: unless you count the incipient pandemic from the final episode of the revival.

One consequence of watching the main series again is that it has made me like the revival much less, in the way that it cheerfully attempts to ape the style of the show’s imperial phase while disregarding later developments for both the story and characters (all right, so there was the odd mention of young William, but even so) – I might even get slightly cross about the way they reveal Monica Reyes has been a sell-out for the Cancer Man all these years. Will there be future instalments? The jury is still out, but if they do go for another movie or TV series (and it would wonderful to see a show as smart and subversive as peak-period X Files cast its eye over Trump’s America), they must surely think about giving us some kind of resolution of the main plotline. On the other hand, if the series teaches us anything, it’s that the search for the truth is often a lot more fun than actually finding the truth. That, and that workplace romances aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

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