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Posts Tagged ‘Zuleikha Robinson’

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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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 26th 2004:

Les: ‘Other than the Cresta Run, name a dangerous race.’
Contestant: ‘Arabs!’
– Famous but quite probably apocryphal exchange on Family Fortunes

Hi-diddle-di-range, an actor’s life is strange. One minute there you are, plugging profitably along minding your own business as solid character support and the occasional love-interest in chick flicks, and then suddenly Stuart Townsend drops out, your agent phones, and you find yourself on a plane to New Zealand to play one of the lead roles in the greatest achievement in the history of popular cinema. You are suddenly a star – an icon, even. Where do you go from here?

Well, the answer appears to be: Joe Johnston’s Hidalgo, a Middle-East-meets-Wild-West romp which marks Viggo Mortensen’s first attempt at a post-Lord of the Rings career. I have to say that judged solely on the basis of this movie, the omens for Mortenson’s future career shade slightly more towards the likes of Mark Hamill than Harrison Ford.

Supposedly based on a true story (a claim which has already provoked much controversy, and to which I will only respond with: Sh’yeah, course it is!), this is the tale of half-Native American cavalry courier Frank Hopkins (Mortensen) and his horse Hidalgo. Guilt over his role in late-19th century atrocities against the native tribes leads Hopkins to end up a drunken corporate shill and entertainer (he is presumably in the next booth to Tom Cruise’s character from The Last Samurai, who – horse excepted – has a virtually identical back-story).

However, a chance for redemption appears when some Arabs turn up and get snotty: Hopkins’ boss, Buffalo Bill, has billed his horse as the world’s greatest endurance racer, which they take some exception to. He is invited to participate in the Ocean of Fire, a big-money high-stakes race across Arabia. Not entirely surprisingly he says yes, setting the stage for all sorts of rootin’-tootin’, dodgy racial stereotyping, and long shots of sand-dunes.

Nearly all of Hidalgo is quite daft and some bits of it are exceedingly silly indeed, but for all that he makes the least convincing part-Native American in the history of the universe, Mortensen’s legions of fans will probably not find much to complain about. Perhaps intentionally, in this film he inhabits terrain not entirely different to that he covered as Aragorn – hanging around in tents trying to sweet-talk the disapproving father of his latest conquest, looking intense on horseback, giving it a bit in the fight scenes, and so on. He does mumble rather a lot though.

Those less partial to the Scandinavian heart-throb may find Hidalgo slightly harder going. This is rather a long film, mainly because it takes its time getting anywhere. The first pre-race forty-five minutes sets the scene rather agreeably and atmospherically, setting up the characters and story and such like. But rather than exploding into life at this point the race itself turns out to be really rather dull, consisting of endless shots of our man riding rather slowly over sand-dunes in silhouette. The only part of the film with any oomph to it is a spot of bandit-fighting and princess-rescuing that Viggo goes in for during half-time in the race – which it must be said is blatantly only there to perk things up a bit, and has the regrettable consequence of bloating the running-time up even more. Things never quite grind completely to a halt, but this is still the kind of film where you could pop out to the concessions stand at any number of points and come back without having lost the plot in any way.

But it’s colourful and has an odd sort of novelty, and the cast is fairly good: Hollywood Rent-a-Sheikh Omar Sharif pops up as, guess what, a crusty old Bedou with a heart of gold, and Louise Lombard is rather swish as a bloodstock-crazy British aristo. Malcolm McDowell pops up very briefly near the start, but regrettably doesn’t hand around long – clearly double-booked to eat some other scenery in a different film. The cinematography looks nice even if some of the CGI effects are a bit jarring.

Of course, any film about a cowboy heading off to the Middle East and sorting out all the Arabs does not have go out of its way these days to acquire a (probably unlooked-for) topical subtext. To be fair to Hidalgo it doesn’t look to make any sort of serious point at all, but it is interesting that the film’s total reverence for Native Americans is in no way replicated in its attitude towards Arabs, many of whom get a pretty raw deal from the script. I’m not entirely sure as to whether or not the film’s references to the race passing through Iraq are anachronistic or not, but either way they are wont to make even the most casual viewer draw comparisons.

Hidalgo is a rather old-fashioned film struggling to assimilate a very modern sort of message, about how who you are is more important than where you’ve come from. It’s a bit of a mixed bag all told, and outstays its welcome quite considerably. But it’s jolly, unobjectionable fare, even if it could really do with a bit less Viggo and a bit more vigour.

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