"Chinga" (Season 5, Episode 11)
In Which Scully Does Not Do The Hokey Pokey, As That Is Not What It's All About
This episode seems like one of those ideas that sounds really, really great until someone thinks about for more than a minute. Bringing in Stephen King, a bestselling pop culture juggernaut, the so-called Master of Terror, to write a script for The X-Files, a sci-fi/horror mega-hit in which King's ghouls and ghastly gags would seem perfectly at home? Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Hard to imagine a better fit. Only, well, before this, King had only written a handful of teleplays. Less than a handful, really; he did the script for an episode of Tales From The Darkside ("Sorry, Right Number"), and he wrote the miniseries The Golden Years, about a janitor who gets splashed with experimental chemicals and starts to de-age. That's fairly X-Files-ish right? Except I doubt you've heard of it now, and, judging by the rest of King's cinematic and televisual output, I also doubt that it's some buried treasure waiting to be rediscovered.
See, I like Stephen King. I'd even go so far as to categorize myself a fan. I've read all his novels (except Roadwork), and he's one of the reasons I became a writer, and so on, but even I wouldn't go to bat defending his abilities as a screenwriter. It's not a medium that plays to his strong suits; great screenplays use structure and dialog to tell their stories, and King is too intuitive a writer to be much good with the former, and too much a sucker for dopey catchphrases to be bearable with the latter. He's capable of creating worlds populated by terrifying monsters and sympathetic heroes, but you try and translate those creations out of prose, and you're going to run into some problems. There have been over a hundred adaptations of his work into film and TV, but only a handful are as good as their source material, usually because they were made by strong writers and directors who took King's work as a jumping off point for their own ideas. (I'd say The Mist is probably the only truly successful King film adaptation I know of, at least in the sense of staying true to source and working as a movie. I love The Shining to death, but it's nothing like the novel.)
Even putting that to one side--and we can't put it very far to the side, as we'll be forced to deal with direct evidence of it shortly--it's no easy thing to jump into a long running series like The X-Files and get the feel of the show and the character relationships right. Todd talked about this last week, and if anything, the offenses against Mulder and Scully here are even worse than in "Schizogeny." The writing credit on "Chinga" is for Stephen King and Chris Carter, and the word is, Carter stepped in to rewrite King's work because he wasn't happy with the Mulder/Scully interactions. If that's the case, I shudder to think what those original drafts might've looked like. Because I don't envy anyone who tries to step in and adapt his or her voice to fit the demands of someone else's work, while at the same time staying true to themselves. After all, Carter brought Stephen King in because he was Stephen King, which means King was being asked to marry his voice to Carter's, regardless of whether or not they fit.
The result plays almost like someone (Darin Morgan, only not funny at all) doing a parody for the most familiar King tropes. The very first shot of the episode is a Maine license plate, and the local color comes on strong for the remainder of the hour. Some of it's cute; I dug the license plate, and I won't say I didn't feel a slight tinge of state pride at seeing Scully wearing a "Maine: The Way Life Should Be" T-shirt. But the sheriff that Scully meets and works with says "Ayuh" at least a dozen times, and treats Scully to a lobster roughly twice the size of her head. (Actually, he doesn't treat her to it, he appears to be tackling the entire monstrosity himself.) There's the close-minded townfolk, including a shrewish religious zealot with coke-bottle glasses who could've stepped out of half a dozen King books without much trouble. Look, I don't ask for perfect verisimilitude in the fiction I enjoy. I realize that there are going to be some exaggerations for dramatic effect, especially on an episode of a TV show that has to create a sense of place essentially out of thin air. But this is just too silly for words, and while I suspect the humor was intentional, it's never all that funny.
And the King-parody doesn't stop with the incessant "Maine" nods. The story itself is the worst kind of lazy, as King simply pulls together a few creepy ideas, ladles on the gore, and calls it done. A fisherman finds a doll in a lobster trap and brings it home to his daughter, Polly. (The hell? I'm going to assume the doll as exerting some kind of supernatural influence on him already, because it's hard to imagine a dad who would pull something that most likely reeks of sea water, that could be full of gunk and god knows what else, and think, "Hey, my little girl will love this!") Ever since then, bad things tend to happen to anyone who pisses Polly off, or gets in her way, or happens to be working with machinery that would make for a really cool death. Whenever one of those bad things are about to happen, the doll's eyes open and she says, "Let's have fun!", or something equally ironic, and often, there's a recording of "The Hokey Pokey" playing in the distance.
So, we've got a killer doll, which, as Mulder himself mentions in the episode, is a standard horror fiction trope, so standard I'm surprised the show had never done it before. We've got the autistic kid, as King loves his mentally "different" characters like nobody's business. We've got grotesque deaths, another favorite. We've got the silly catch-phrase. (I dig the novel version of The Shining maybe even more than I dig the movie, but it's remarkable how much tension the book loses when its main threat goes from psychologically undermining the people closest to him, to shouting "Come out and take your medicine!" over and over. It's like turning a monster into a commercial for murder.) We've got a seemingly innocuous children's song juxtaposed against the grotesque deaths. It's all very lurid, which gives this ep a few points on "Schizogeny" in my book, since "Chinga" is very rarely boring. It's just dumb, and kind of dorky, and generally ridiculous.
Then there's Scully and Mulder. "Chinga" seems to be King's attempt to write a love letter to our favorite red-headed heroine, as this ep is so firmly in Dana's corner it might as well be an extension of her narrative in "Bad Blood." Nearly everyone around her is goofy and an perpetual irritant, and her occasional communications with Mulder show him to be the biggest buffoon of the lot. He's at a loss trying to find anything to occupy Scully gone, which is strange, seeing as how his main character trait is his obsession with the X-Files. I don't have trouble believing that Mulder is largely dependent on Scully at this point, but this seems a little too goofy, like something a fanboy who wanted to impress a fictional heroine might conceive of. And it gets especially weird when King (I'm assuming this is King's idea) decides to have our heroes swap places on the Skeptic/Believer sides of the coin, with Scully theorizing that the deaths and violence she's seeing might have a supernatural origin. While it's nice in theory to see the World's Most Unrepentant "But Mulder"er ("But Mulder, I see no proof here that candy cane leprechauns are responsible for this rash of muggings") try on a different perspective, the shift is unmotivated. We never get a sense that she's exhausted other, more rational possibilities first. This whole ep comes across as Scully fan service, which isn't helped by the slow pan up Gillian Anderson in a bubble bath. I'm a big fan of the character, and I'm a big fan of the actress, but this is just too obvious.
Is there anything I liked about "Chinga"? Well, I am a sucker for gore, and if I'm honest, I'll admit that I got a kick out of how unrepentantly fevered this all was. I wouldn't say I enjoyed it in the same way I enjoy a good episode of the show, but I liked mocking it, and seeing what craziness would happen next. Polly's mother, Melissa, who spends her entire screentime on various segments of the panic spectrum, keeps seeing horrible visions of people her daughter's doll is about to murder, and these visions are so cartoonish and silly that there's almost creepy in spite of themselves. The reveal that Mulder's been chucking pencils at the ceiling in Scully's absence was funny, and I may have chuckled when he said, "Marry me," after Scully recited a long description of witchcraft paraphernalia. (It's possible to see that joke coming from the next county, though.) And I can't deny, for all it's faults, that "Chinga" doesn't at least have some sense of the author who imagined it, whoever ill-fitting and clunky that sense is.
But really, though, this is lousy. The most frustrating element may be just how lazy the story is. There's a doll. It kills people. Then Scully gets the doll from Polly through a complicated process which involves saying, "Give me the doll!" over and over. Once she has the doll, Scully throws it in the microwave, and all are saved. At least until the SHOCKING TWIST ENDING, where we find that, for some reason, someone tossed the now well-cooked doll back into the ocean, where another fisherman finds it, and of course THE DOLL IS STILL ALIVE. Fin.
That's it. Beyond some brief comments about "witchcraft," and the tossed aside reference to Polly's autism, there's no plot here. There are just a bunch folks dying horribly, and a climax where a woman bashes her head with a hammer, in what surely must be some sort of ironic commentary on what the viewing audience at home was wishing they could do to themselves. Scully doesn't learn anything, she doesn't discover the doll's history, she doesn't use some secret trick to stop the threat. She just gets the doll, and nukes it. As threats go, this puts Chinga (which is apparently the doll's name, as well as an offensive Spanish slang term--thanks, Wikipedia!) just a little below a gremlin. I mean, when Billy Peltzer's mom forced that gremlin into her microwave, she had to use cooking spray to blind it. Scully just has to be somewhat insistent. "Chinga" has a few freaky shots, and it's silly enough to avoid dullness, but it's also a waste of two things I like, which, it turns out, taste utterly horrid together.
- This could've sort of worked if King had done more with Polly's petulance; at times, like when she's demanding more cherries at an ice cream parlor, I was reminded of that amazing Twilight Zone ep, "The Good Life," with the monstrous Bill Mumy as a kid with the power to do anything, and the immaturity to demand more. But as it is, Polly isn't really character. She's just a way to move the doll around.
- Admittedly, the doll appears perfectly capable of walking on its own two legs. We get some shots of the toy silhouetted against a sheet, or hanging in the background, but we're never told exactly what this means, if anything. One short in particular made it look like the doll was actually some kind of three feet tall monster, but that was quickly dropped.
"The Midnight of the Century" (Season 2, Episode 10)
In Which Frank Finds The Perfect Christmas Present
If you're reading this, that means the world hasn't ended yet, contrary to some predictions. Thanks to the growing prominence of social media, the sort of silly, niche paranoia that would normally only be an after-thought on the local news, has now become a jumping off point for a million lame jokes, snarky asides, and strident commentary. It's fascinating, actually--when Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Arizona, I watched (via the highly unscientific core sample which is my Twitter feed) as the reaction want from "Oh god," to "Who do we blame," to "Now, now, everybody, let's not be quick to blame" in the space of about three hours. If places like Twitter and Facebook allow for constant conversation, it raises the same problem that happens to stuffed gasbags on talk radio--after a while, you run out of the obvious discussion points, so you grab at anything, and whenever there's a new story with actual meat left on the bones, you chew for days.
All of which is a little off topic for a review of an episode of Millennium, I'll admit, but all the jokes we've been seeing this week about the Rapture (including a few, I'm sorry to say, of my own)(I'm weak) got me to thinking--just what is the appeal of all this? Obviously it's fun taking cheap shots at crazy people, and it could be I'm reading too much into it, but... well, I find end-of-days based craziness just a little more compelling than all the other kinds of craziness that pops up on the Internet. Because, well, part of me wonders. I'm writing this on Friday afternoon, and yeah, I realize, of course I'll totally be around tomorrow, and everything will be fine. Hell, odds are I won't even finish this review till Saturday morning, and no Rapture is going to stop me from expressing my opinions on a show hardly anyone watched, in a column hardly anyone reads. And yet, I wonder if maybe. Just maybe. Wouldn't that be a laugh, in the end? If the world did end, and all the crazies were right after all, despite all evidence of science and common sense to the contrary. Maybe all that goofy prophecy means something; maybe demons and angels really will assault the Earth.
Yes, it's silly. But it has a certain appeal. Back when I first wrote about The X-Files for this site, I said one of the reasons I loved the show is that whenever I watched episodes of "Scooby-Do" as a kid, I was always let down when the monsters pulled their masks off. The X-Files offered a chance to show the reverse; throughout the series, we were presented with situations where we'd start with, say, a park owner trying to scare people away to collect insurance money, only to find that the park owner had long sharp teeth and feral eyes, and that a good number of the people he "scared" had disappeared, never to be seen again. "I Want To Believe" means just that; the hope that there is some other world beneath this, and if that other world is more dangerous, then at least it offers more possibilities than the usual random junk that fills most of our lives. The more the inexplicable keeps happening, the more we realize how little we know about anything. And the greater the hope that there might be some purpose to everything, after all.
Millennium takes this idea about as far as it can go, using already existing, free-floating concerns about round numbers (2000 is so big! And it had all those zeros, everyone knows that zeros are scary.), and pulling in lot of Biblical prophesy, unease about perceived increases in sexual deviancy and violent crime, and that sense that's always around somewhere that everything's going to hell, and trying to mash it together into a coherent story. I've yet to be entirely convinced that the show has managed this. The first season fixated too much on serial killers and "Ugh, people who have sex are so weird, y'know?" style plots (I am exaggerating somewhat), and the second season, as big an improvement as it has been in terms of energy and general entertainment, still hasn't quite managed to come together with the kind of narrative momentum I'd hope for in a TV show about the Apocalypse. We know there are demons and angels, we know the Millennium Group is involved, and that Frank is involved due in part to his work with that group, and also because of his special abilities. But I'm not sure we've had one of those all important chess-piece-moving episodes that critics always gripe about. I wonder if giving over forty minutes to just setting up where everybody stands might not have been helpful at this point. As it is, I can't shake the feeling that I'm watching a show where the main plot always takes place during the commercial breaks.
It could be that's for the best, though. Millennium can do wonders in its second season, and "The Midnight of the Century" is one of those wonders, a lovely companion piece to "Curse of Frank Black" that focuses on the Christmas season in much the same way that "Curse" focused on Halloween. This has to be the gentlest episode the show's ever done, by a long chalk; it has no villains, no demons, and no murders. There's death, but it's in the past and the future, not the present, and while I wouldn't go so far as to say this ep should take the place of cheery family fare like Miracle on 34th Street (if there's a Santa in this show's world, it'd have to be Krampus), it definitely qualifies as maybe the only family friendly hour in the series' history. It's melancholic, thoughtful, surprisingly funny, and Darren McGavin guest stars as Frank's estranged father. These are all excellent qualities.
"Midnight" also manages some moderate world-building; it doesn't provide us with much new mythology info, but Frank does go to Peter's Christmas party, and the house is full of guests, including Lara (Kristen Cloke), the angel-spotting lawyer we met back in "Monster." I love the idea of this, that in the middle of all his work trying to stop the end of the world, and various portentous proclamations about what's going on that always sound like they mean something, but can't ever be pinned down, Peter has what looks to be an upper middle-class get together, with lots of quite conversation, glasses of mixed drinks, and seasons greetings. It's not the most gripping television, and it only lasts maybe a minute before Frank and Lara follow Peter into his study, but it helps the show, at least for me, because it reminds us that these are all people with lives outside of hunting for bad guys and unraveling conspiracies. One of Millennium's ongoing weaknesses is that, even with all the doomsaying and the incessant reminders that Frank has a daughter whose innocence could be lost forever!, it's hard to get a sense of the stakes. You need a world worth protecting to make the threat of its loss a potent one, and in general, "Midnight" does this quite nicely.
The writing is great throughout, too. Frank deals with the hassles of the season, most notably trying to find the perfect gift for Jordan (this part is a little sitcommy, but it's so startling to see anyone on this show do anything even remotely resembling normal that Frank getting frustrated that his ex-mother-in-law got Jordan the same gift he did, a Jurassic Park giga-pet (remember those?) didn't seem like a cliche at all. Plus, the store clerks who offer Frank less-than-helpful advice were just odd enough to be exactly in keeping with the series as we know it), and the small joys of it as well, along with memories from his own childhood, and his mother, who believed in angels and saw visions, and died when he was young. If "Midnight" could be said to have a plot, it's that Jordan gets a visit from Frank's mom in spirit form, and Catherine is worried that the little girl's "gift" will eventually lead her down the same path as Frank, estranging her from her loved ones, and leaving her bitter, alone, and lost.
This is the one part of the ep that didn't quite work for me. The concept is fine, and it's much better used later on, when Frank realizes that the reason his father was so hard on him as a child about his "abilities" was that his father was terrified he'd suffer the same fate as his mother, who saw angels, and then went off and died in her room, surrounded by the drawings she'd made. But Catherine has always been a difficult character for the show, and "Midnight" doesn't quite manage to do well by her. While her concerns are legitimate, her accusations that Frank is somehow ruining his life with his work with the Millennium Group still ring false, no matter how many times she raises them. I just don't really get the idea that Frank is becoming as isolated as she claims. He's definitely lonely, sure, and "Curse" did a great job of making him seem almost more like a legend than a human being, but, well, so? It's hard to believe that Frank could ever be entirely "normal, and too much of what Catherine says comes across as telling us, not showing us, which serves the unfortunate effect of making Catherine herself look strident and unpleasant. This happens a lot on male dominated genre shows: the wife or girlfriend character is all too often forced into the "mother" role of constantly nagging at the hero to keep him from doing whatever the hell it is he does that made him the center of the show in the first place. And Catherine suffers far less than some in this regard. But it's frustrating, because her central concern for Jordan's well-being is legitimate, and one that Frank clearly feels himself.
This is a small complaint, though, and, like I said, most of the writing really holds up nicely. Peter has this great monologue at his party about how fast his kids have grown up, and how he wishes it was possible to control the flow of time, to keep his children young forever, and to stretch out autumn and spring as long as possible. It's not the most profound idea ever expressed, but it fits his character, as a father, and as someone whose always been shown to be more of a soldier than a general. Plus, there's a nice turn at the end, when he talks about how he'd make periods of regret last longer, so that it would be easier to resolve them and move on with our lives. It's just a great scene, and O'Quinn gets the most out of it. Not quite as good, but still up there, is Lara's speech to Frank about the first time she saw an angel, and how that changed her life. In fact, a good portion of this episode is Frank listening to other people, which seems like an odd direction for a show to take with its protagonist--but it works. Lance Henriksen is a fine actor, and one of his greatest assets is his face; wonderfully expressive, and lined more deeply with life than any dialog could convey. There aren't a lot of actors who could manage to be interesting just watching other people speak, but Henriksen holds everything together.
"Midnight" builds to Frank going back to the house where he grew up, to try and understand the message his mother is sending him, as well as the words of an angel in a cemetery. It's interesting--the "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" Linda Black quotes to her son, and that he hears throughout the episode, aren't words of hope. They're from Macbeth:
"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
These are not Christmas-y thoughts, and Ms. Black doesn't seem all that happy when she speaks them. From the little we hear about her, Ms. Black doesn't have much reason to be happy. She has a loving husband and son, sure, but her brother died at Normandy, and she sees angels all the time, but the angels don't tell her what anything means. They just let her know when people die. Which is how she learns when she'll die, which can't be the happiest news flash to get.
"Midnight" builds to Frank confronting his estranged father, and learning that the reason his father was so cold to Frank's gifts--in memories which are more than just a little reminiscent of Catherine's fears for Jordan--was because he was scared. He lost his beloved wife to something he couldn't understand, and when Frank showed signs of following in his mother's footsteps, well, Mr. Black wasn't able to handle that. It's a well-acted scene, and McGavin is always a welcome presence; a character best known to most people as the furnace fuming father in A Christmas Story, McGavin also played Carl Kolchak in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a series of TV movies and a TV show that helped inspire Chris Carter to make The X-Files. McGavin will soon make his appearance on The X-Files, as a retired FBI agent, but here, he's just a sad old man who wishes he knew more about his granddaughter.
Arguably the crux of Mr. Black's anger and heartbreak over the loss of his wife is her promise to him that she would send him a sign from beyond the grave, to reassure him that all her visions really were real, and that they'd be together again once he passed on. He never got his sign, and that has to be frustrating; if he believes his wife really was seeing angels like she claimed, why can't they afford him that small bit of comfort? And if he doesn't believe, that means that death could very well be the end, and that all the heartache and suffering he and his family have endured don't mean anything. It goes back to what Frank said in "Curse": there are no ghosts. For all the confusion and terror characters experience in Millennium, battling against forces they never quite grasp, there's no friendly reassurance from above that all of this will come out in the end, that there is a purpose we're all part of, that there is a plan. There are hints and strangers who speak in riddles, but there's nothing concrete enough to bet your life on. And that's what's being asked here.
I can't speak for anyone else, but that's why a part of me always responds to false predictions of the Rapture. Because as awful and stupid and ridiculous as it would be if it actually happened, at least it would mean there was a system to everything, and that there was a hope that death is not the end. But that's silly, and that's not how life works. We don't get heavenly reset buttons, or bright, inarguable signs that there's some god above our heads, pulling the strings and giving us absolute answers to all our silly questions. Mr. Black never gets the exact sign his wife promised, but he he does find his peace; the photo of his granddaughter and the return of his son to his life are enough for him. That's the message I take from "Midnight," and the message Frank seems to take as well: he and his estranged wife can't protect Jordan from her abilities, but they can support her, and teach her that the real people she connects to are more important than the phantoms she sees. And it's a good thing Frank knows this, we're reminded at the end. An angel has explained to him (and us) that at midnight Christmas Eve, the spirits of those who will die in the coming year walk the Earth to meet their future companions. At the end of the episode, Frank sees this parade of spirits (or "fetches"), and he sees his father among them. Enjoy peace on Earth while you can, everyone. Because the Rapture may be a joke, but we're all still dying anyway.
- If you like McGavin, you should check out the original Kolchak TV movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. They're available on a double disc from MGM. (The TV show is fun, too, and also available on DVD, but the quality varies wildly.)
- Roedecker! And he and Frank get into an argument about Silent Night, Deadly Night which demonstrated that both men knew the movie in question quite well. That made me happy. (Also, you should totally watch Black Christmas.) (Also also, VHS tapes!)
- I guess the hints Frank gets that bring him back to his dad--the card he receives in the mail, and his dead mother's visit to Jordan--sort of violate the "no ghost" rule, but I still like how indistinct and ethereal those hints actually are.
- Also nice: Peter's comment that, since nobody knows for sure exactly when Jesus was born, nobody knows when the millennium really begins.
Next week: Todd watches another famous writer muck about with Mulder and Scully in "Kill Switch," and then says, "Goodbye, Charlie."